This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I perused Week 17's potential injury situations and discussed what to do about your Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, three playoff teams that have nothing to gain on this final weekend of the regular season. We also started taking a good long look at 2013, from a discussion of the top possible rookies to a mock draft first round (with our producer Drew Brooks). Give it a listen. For this final Hard Count of '12, I'll be taking some looks back and some looks forward:
Five In Depth
1. 2012 Was Mixed Bag for Flag Players. Every summer, I write a column trying to suss out 10 high-value fantasy players: Guys on whom I think the market is too low. Some years, I do very well. This year was more of a mixed bag.
I'll give myself credit for three terrific calls. Percy Harvin was rated 20th among WRs by ESPN writ large back in August, but I ranked him 14th and suggested he should be drafted at least a couple of rounds earlier than his average draft position. Harvin was on his way to an elite season before succumbing to a severe ankle injury. Stevan Ridley made my list because I viewed him as a double-digit touchdown-maker in the New England Patriots offense, and that's just what he's been. And C.J. Spiller has taken advantage of Fred Jackson's continued injury troubles to become one of the more exciting RBs in the game. If you took any of these three players ahead of his ADP, you feel pretty smart, as do I.
And I don't regret picking Maurice Jones-Drew for the flag list because, at the time, folks were worried about his contract holdout lasting well into the regular season. As I projected, MJD eventually slunk back into Jacksonville Jaguars camp and played Week 1, seeing 22 touches. Jones-Drew averaged more than 11 fantasy points per game in his five healthy weeks (while never sinking lower than five points), was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and was looking like an incredibly smart draft pick. Then Philip Wheeler and Lamarr Houston of the Oakland Raiders landed awkwardly on MJD's left foot and all was lost. I don't buy for one second that the injury was related to his holdout. It was bad luck. I'll also say that picking Daniel Thomas as a late-round sleeper looked OK when he took over the Miami Dolphins' short-yardage role and produced three TDs from inside an opponent's 3 in a four-game span. But he also battled concussion and knee problems and was a shell of himself by December.
But the other five flaggers? Oy.
Titus Young had all the opportunity in the world to inherit a valuable spot in the Detroit Lions offense, then decided it would be fun to commit mutiny by intentionally lining up in the wrong place. Brandon LaFell had a terrific start to the season and a two-game renaissance late, but he was bothered but a turf toe injury all year and was never consistent enough for fantasy owners to use. Darrius Heyward-Bey just turned out to be not nearly consistent enough and hopefully was on most waiver wires in September. Peyton Hillis looked impossibly slow running for the Kansas City Chiefs, making everyone wonder how in the world he was such a fantasy darling just two scant years ago for the Cleveland Browns. But all these guys were supposed to be later-round value plays. Not so, Philip Rivers, my worst call of '12. I believed Rivers would bounce back from his maddening '11, which had been hallmarked by decent production masked by awful plays in big moments. But he was so much worse this year! After posting four straight seasons in which he had at least five 300-yard passing days, Rivers has produced only two entering Week 17. His yards-per-attempt (6.8) hadn't been this low for seven seasons. And he won't sniff 4,000 yards passing. I viewed Rivers as a viable starting QB in 10-team leagues. I was so bloody wrong.
2. 2012 Was a Good Year for Super-Deep Sleepers. Every year, I also write a much deeper column in which I try to locate players who aren't worth drafting right away but who have talent and/or potentially valuable situations that could lead to their being waiver additions. It so happens that '12 was a much better year for this list.
Not that I necessarily unearthed a superstar who singlehandedly won you your league. But when you're working on a list so deep that even Bilal Powell is too big a name for it, the bar is significantly lower than it is for the flag list. Jordan Cameron, Kellen Davis, Lestar Jean and Michael Smith belonged to this year's population of super-deep sleepers who just stayed asleep.
But when you "hit" on six names who become at least fantasy-relevant, you're doing pretty well. Mohamed Sanu had a stretch there when he became the Bengals' red zone weapon of choice, and he scored 32 fantasy points (and four TDs) in the three-week stretch from Week 10 to Week 12. Unfortunately, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot thereafter and went on IR. Rod Streater became the Raiders' top-producing WR in December while DHB and Denarius Moore scuffled. Jeremy Kerley had a nice little run for PPR-league owners and never relinquished a starting role after Santonio Holmes got hurt; his tally of 53 catches is 40th in the league among wideouts. Had the New York Jets gotten even decent quarterback play, his production might not have plateaued. Alex Green is by no means great and hasn't found the end zone once this season, but he's been in the mix for the Green Bay Packers and could be a desperation play for your Week 17 title game. Chris Givens proved his mettle as a straight-ahead deep threat beginning in Week 4 of his rookie season and even had an 11-catch game against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13. He's going to be on a whole bunch of more "traditional" sleeper lists beginning next year.
And then there was Bryce Brown, who rose from No. 4 on the Philadelphia Eagles' depth chart to become a cause celebre in fantasy circles, with two mammoth performances in national TV games: 23 touches for 189 yards and two TDs in Week 12 against the Carolina Panthers and 28 touches for 183 yards and two TDs in Week 13 against the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately, Brown's ball security and his ability to mix up his running style were lacking, as he cratered hard in his subsequent two contests, then lost his starting job to a returning LeSean McCoy. Still, you can't teach the raw tools this kid has, and there's little doubt he'll be in the mix for playing time as Shady's backup (or even platoon-mate?) in '13.
3. Five Veteran Sleepers for '13. This is far from a thorough, flag-player type of analysis; it's basically impossible to locate value for next season eight months in advance. After all, we have NFL free agency ahead of us as well as April's draft. But, as I discussed on the Fantasy Underground a few weeks ago, here are five guys whose situations have the potential to be valuable as things stand today:
• Andre Brown, RB, New York Giants: Did you know Brown is only nine months younger than Ahmad Bradshaw? We saw what it looks like when Brown is right: He tore up the Panthers as a feature back early in the year, and he was tremendous as a goal-line back before he broke his leg. Brown has always been a favorite of mine, going back to his NC State days, and has the power/speed combo I always prefer. He'll be a fantasy factor in Gotham next year, even as David Wilson grows more trusted by the Giants' coaching staff.
• Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Brown underperformed in '12 compared with last year, maybe because of Todd Haley's new system, or maybe because he just wasn't as great as his numbers claimed. Then he got hurt and missed time. But remember Mike Wallace's contract dispute this fall? It's possible the Steelers will slap the franchise tag on him, but that doesn't tend to be their style, and Brown already received a pretty big contract extension. He's not nearly the deep threat Wallace is, but Brown is a very good player, and, as Big Ben's No. 1, he would be borderline top-20.
• Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego Chargers: Brown was setting the world on fire in the preseason, then he broke his ankle and basically lost the entire season. He's a smaller player, so he needs someone such as Danario Alexander or Malcom Floyd to draw the fear of defenses. Plus, we have no idea what the Chargers' offense will be like if Norv Turner is gone, and honestly it's hard to be excited about any receiver Rivers throws to these days. Still, everyone has variables right now, and Brown has loads of polish and ball skills.
• Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins: The variable for Miller is whether Reggie Bush will return to South Beach. I'm tempted to say he won't, in which case the RB job might come down to Miller and Daniel Thomas. I'm interested to see what the Dolphins' coaches say about Thomas this offseason; perhaps they're frustrated with him after two relatively ineffective years. Miller's speed is intriguing.
• Sidney Rice, WR, Seattle Seahawks: Rice stayed healthier this year and showed signs of turning back into the No. 1 wideout he was with the Minnesota Vikings. The way Russell Wilson has evolved, you'd have to say Rice has a chance to jump into the top 20 WRs if everything goes perfectly for him. However, I do view Seattle as a candidate to make a big WR splash via free agency.
4. Five Overvalued Veterans for '13. Once again, this analysis is preliminary and very subject to change depending on player movement this winter. But, as I discussed on the Underground a couple of weeks ago, here are five veterans I think will be overhyped and/or over-drafted come spring:
• Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis Rams: Amendola is an impending free agent, and he could get some hype as a possible replacement should Wes Welker leave the Patriots. But unless he lands there, don't believe the hype. He has played just 11 of a possible 31 games the past two seasons combined, and someone is going to get overly excited about him this summer. As a value pick, I'd like him fine. As a player I have to rely on as a starter, I'm not there. It takes a special system to make a player like this statistically great.
• Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants: Bradshaw is the oldest 26-year-old in the NFL. He's tough as hell, and I respect him for playing hurt as often as he does, plus I think he'll nominally start the season as the Giants' starter. But I think a rotation will start early and often with David Wilson and Andre Brown and you'll get driven crazy by it. Plus, we all know how unfortunate Bradshaw's injury history is, from ankles to feet to knees. Bradshaw is someone I won't own in any leagues next year.
• Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins: As I mentioned earlier, Bush is another impending free agent who has two scenarios ahead of him: Either he re-signs in Miami and continues the downward spiral he's been on there since September, with Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller nipping at his heels, or he goes somewhere else as a high-dollar savior, and crashes and burns. Bush didn't make people miss from November forward, and although he did just submit a three-TD game in Week 16, I'm staying with him as a candidate to be severely overpaid by someone this winter.
• Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins: I love this guy. I love him. He has all the weekly upside in the world. He's Michael Vick with more throwing accuracy, and he probably will only get better once his offense starts requiring him to throw it farther down the field. He'll be on the fringe of my top-five QBs this winter. But someone in your draft is going to be tempted to take RG III in the first five overall picks. Heck, someone will be tempted to take him as the first QB overall. And that will work out great -- as long as he's healthy. But I'm concerned he won't stay healthy. The runner in RG III is what makes him such a fantasy god-in-waiting. But it's also what will make him the riskiest player in fantasy. I'd love to have him on my team, and if I can get him in the second round, I'm in. Thinking about it right now, though, I'm betting he'll be drafted earlier than that in many leagues, and I can't go there.
• DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Murray belongs to the triumvirate of M&M boys, which also includes Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews. But I think Murray will be the highest-regarded of these injury-prone players for two reasons: (1) He's younger, so he hasn't disappointed quite as many people for as long a time; (2) He actually missed more games this year than McFadden or Mathews, and thus didn't give us as much time to dislike his play. Bottom line: Murray is too injury-prone to be a No. 1 RB next year. But I'm betting someone will draft him to be just that.
5. Four Fantasy-Impact Free Agents for '13. There are a few interesting QBs who could be available this winter (Vick and Alex Smith come to mind) and a couple of RBs who'll test the waters (I've already discussed Reggie Bush, and Steven Jackson might void his contract and look around), but the big dollars figure to be spent on wideouts. We won't know which WRs might be candidates for their NFL teams' franchise tags for a couple of months, but, at the moment, it figures to be a big offseason of movement for some really big pass-catching names:
• Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: You almost hope, for his sake, that Bowe gets to go someplace with a good QB so he can reclaim his position among the best fantasy receivers in the game. Who knows who'll be under center for the Chiefs next year: maybe Geno Smith as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But I doubt Bowe will be in K.C. He'll want a big contract, and there isn't much reason for the soon-to-be-rebuilding Chiefs to give it to him. If Bowe went somewhere such as Seattle, which should have a whole mess of cap room, that would be interesting. Jon Baldwin would be in the in-house candidate to replace Bowe, but that's not going so well at this point.
• Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay Packers: This has basically been a lost year with Jennings' groin surgery, and Randall Cobb has emerged in Green Bay. Jennings is another WR who could completely change someone else's NFL offense if he winds up with a competent QB, but his departure from Green Bay would clarify things there. Then we'd be looking at Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, for as long as Nelson could stay healthy. It would be tough to keep all three guys out of the top 30 wideouts next year catching passes from Aaron Rodgers.
• Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Wallace has had a decent-but-unspectacular season after his summerlong holdout, plus, as I mentioned earlier, Antonio Brown is already signed to his second contract. Wallace could be a candidate for the franchise tag, but he might hold out again as a result. If he leaves, not only does he immediately become somebody's No. 1 deep threat but he also creates space for Brown and maybe Emmanuel Sanders to take flight. Or maybe Pittsburgh goes and gets another speed guy.
• Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots: The Pats might just franchise Welker again, figuring giving him one more year at a 20 percent bump from his $9.5 million '12 salary is more cost-effective than giving a soon-to-be-32-year-old slot receiver a mega-contract. But it's unknown whether Welker would be a good soldier again under a second straight franchise tag. Should Welker wind up elsewhere, away from Tom Brady, he won't be anywhere close to as valuable for fantasy owners. And if he does leave New England, he would leave behind one of the most valuable potential spots in the fantasy world.
Five In Brief
6. One Definition of "Fantasy MVP." If we're simply looking for the player who meant the most to his fantasy teams this season, we're clearly looking at Adrian Peterson, and it isn't close. Coming off a torn ACL he suffered on Christmas Eve of '11, All Day seemed a safe bet to be over-drafted in the second round this past summer, yet he produced 18 touches in Week 1 and never looked back. Heading into Week 17, he's easily atop my value-based drafting rolls. (For the record, as of this moment, the first nine spots in the current VBD ranks are held by running backs; the first QB doesn't appear until Tom Brady at No. 14.) It wouldn't matter if Peterson had been drafted No. 1 overall: By this definition, he'd still be fantasy football's most valuable player. Anyone thinking of not taking him with the top pick of '13 is outthinking himself or herself. The guy is more than 400 rushing yards ahead of his closest competitor, has hit double-digit TDs in every one of his six NFL seasons, is averaging a career-best 6.0 yards per carry, could wind up catching the most passes in a single season in his career (he's four grabs off the mark), and has lost three fumbles in his past three years combined after losing 10 in '08 and '09 put together. He's my favorite player in the NFL and has been for half a decade. Say it with me: "MVP! MVP! MVP!" (Alas, the only way Peterson is likely to win the NFL MVP he so richly deserves would be to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record by accumulating 208 rushing yards against the Packers on Sunday and to see his Vikings win the game and thus make the playoffs.)
7. Another Definition of "Fantasy MVP." If we want to think of MVP in terms of pure "value," i.e., "most bang for your buck," the answer for '12 isn't quite as obvious. I'll break it down by position. At quarterback, it's probably a two-man race: Russell Wilson (11th in fantasy points among QBs after an ADP this summer of 151st) and Andrew Luck (ninth and 130th). I'll give Luck a slight nod for consistency's sake; although Wilson has had a phenomenal second half, he was pretty hard to trust early on. At running back, Mikel Leshoure (19th and 159th) gets consideration, but his production has been so TD-dependent that he's a white-knuckler of a fantasy starter. So again, for me, this position would boil down to a two-rookie race: Alfred Morris (sixth and 96th) and Doug Martin (third and 65th). Each guy has been a no-brainer starter since early on, and I'd consider each a finalist for this definition of MVP. At wideout, I have four candidates: Randall Cobb (13th and 140th), James Jones (16th and 183rd), Mike Williams (17th and 169th) and Cecil Shorts (18th and undrafted). My winner? I think it has to be Martin. He's been just slightly more consistent than Morris and has been more essential to fantasy championships than any other of the candidates I've mentioned. Has he slowed down a little bit here at the end of December? Yes, especially in a dreadful 12-touch, 35-yard effort in Week 15. But, overall, I think Martin is the man who has made more of a difference from a low pre-draft ranking than any other player in football.
8. The Best All-Around RB in the 2013 NFL Draft. It looks like a relatively down year for rushers in April's draft. At this moment, nobody projects as a first-rounder, and we certainly have no Trent Richardson type tempting franchises who'll be picking in the top 10. At this point, it's basically impossible to predict immediate fantasy value for this class of RBs because nobody looks dominant enough to take over whatever NFL offense he lands with right away; that means draft landing spot, free agency, injury recuperation and general depth-chart shenanigans will truly determine '13 potential. But the best all-around prospect in this draft class appears to be Giovani Bernard of North Carolina. Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell are giant thumpers who could work their way into goal-line work early on; Montee Ball has tons of collegiate production (and workload); Mike Gillislee is an intriguing blend of speed and power; Joseph Randle has terrific acceleration if questionable thickness; Stepfan Taylor is burly but not explosive; Johnathan Franklin is dynamic but maybe more of a third-down back; and Andre Ellington is a sprinter with size limitations. But Bernard has everything you want except elite size: He's 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, has tremendous quicks and acceleration, isn't quite a sprinter but isn't far off, delivers decisive power when he has to, and shows toughness and vision. Watching him in college, I found Bernard's best moments reminded me of LeSean McCoy, which is obviously high praise. Toolswise, though, the overlap is there. We'll have to see who drafts him. But he's my far-too-early bet for the '13 rookie who produces the most fantasy value.
9. Ten Coaching Changes to Rescue Fantasy. I don't really believe 10 NFL coaches will be fired on Black Monday. I just believe they should be. We already know Andy Reid, Norv Turner and Romeo Crennel are most likely gone. I hope the Eagles hold on to the core of their skill-position talent (probably sans Michael Vick) and hand it to a competent playcaller, which Reid has not been for some time. The Chargers need to blow it all up, and the Chiefs almost certainly will go mega-young with only Jamaal Charles standing apart from the mess. In the next category -- which I'll term "Hanging by a Thread" -- let's put Pat Shurmur, Chan Gailey, Mike Munchak and Mike Mularkey. The Browns finally have hope at RB and WR, but I'm not a Brandon Weeden believer, and until the team adopts an offensive system born after 1960, Cleveland will continue to be a wasteland. The Buffalo Bills have a budding superstar RB and an adequate No. 1 WR, but everything else needs to go. And although the Tennessee Titans' and the Jaguars' respective halfbacks and young WR weapons are fine, both these managerial administrations doomed themselves by reaching for QBs in the '11 draft. Finally comes the last group, your hangers-on: Rex Ryan, Ron Rivera and Ken Whisenhunt. (I'm giving Dennis Allen a pass, barely, because he's attached at the hip to freshman Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie.) Ryan has allowed the Jets' offense to descend to punch line level, the Panthers already canned their GM and give off the whiff of inmates running an asylum, and although Whisenhunt might be an innocent bystander as GM Rod Graves screws up every personnel decision imaginable, you'd have to believe a new Arizona Cardinals GM would like to choose his own head coach.
10. Another Season of the Hard Count Is in the Books. Thanks to everyone who made this weekly exercise in film watching and box score subverting possible, particularly Keith Lipscomb, James Quintong and Pierre Becquey, who are faced with the task of editing a 4,000-word beast every Friday morning. My longtime readers might remember that, for a few seasons, I wrote a column called "The Breakdown" in which I did a full preview of every upcoming game based on film watching I would do of every recent game. That was a useful exercise, for sure, but it was also masochistic and painful and -- as my TV, radio and podcast opportunities have expanded at ESPN -- I simply don't have the time to watch film of every single game anymore. But the Hard Count has been (in my opinion) a nice blend of what's possible and what's reasonable; I now watch probably 75 percent of all games and try my best to give you a sense of what I've seen, here and in the Fantasy Underground podcast. I hope it has helped. Most of all, I do want to thank you, the readers, who've continued to encourage nontraditional football analysis and continued to demand commentary beyond the obvious. I'll "see" you all in 2013. Thanks again.