Any good detective not only has to work hard, but he has to work smart. The rubber doesn’t always meet the road at the scene of a crime while taking photos of the body and the surrounding fixed point measurements. Some of the most critical work is done behind the scenes. Whether the arduous night is accompanied by cheap cigar ashes overflowing onto the solid oak desktop threatening to create its own travesty or a defeated desk drawer due to the repetitious opening and closing in order to sneak a pull of Pappy Van Winkle, the only investigative certainty triggering any case resolution is simple – evidence.
Any good detective knows that hard evidence is difficult to come by. Often times the deciding factors that lead to a case being solved are anything but certain, yet, there is enough forensic and circumstantial evidence apparent to win over a jury. Fantasy football owners often times find themselves lighting that cigar and getting down to brass tacks performing their own investigative duties in order to assess the best long-term player blue for their teams. Real-life detectives know that some cases can be solved with enough forensics to seal the deal and others can be closed when enough circumstantial evidence connects all the dots. This is where a detective earns his living, and this is how fantasy owners win leagues for years to come. The off season is a critical time for dynasty owners to turn the pages between each team in the NFL. This is my first installment in a dynasty detective mini-series broken out by divisions in the NFL. Below is a key to keep in mind as you follow-along and find the missing pieces for your dynasty teams:
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These are players that have already been filed away within the solved cases cabinet. You don’t need to be reminded how good these assets are for your teams, but I’d like to take the opportunity to address the jury with some players that potentially warrant a different value assessment than which your league mates are making. After all, the savvy officer isn’t going to catch the criminal by outrunning him. The savvy fantasy owner needs to strategically position himself where he anticipates his league mates to be.
Q-Tips, blood samples, and hair strands are often times the most impactful tools to take the littlest clues and turn them into the biggest difference makers in the most high-profile cases. This attention to detail is pertinent to the fantasy owner looking to gain an edge. Sometimes one has to roll-up his sleeves and delve into the physicality of the game and make sound judgments about a player’s level of talent. The most skilled player in the NFL isn’t always starting, or there are some seriously gifted players that still need to refine their game from different aspects that can catapult their game to the next level.
From fingerprint factoids and witness testimony to paper-trails of collected details, a gumshoe can create a trier of supporting incidents to create a certain level of inference. This inference is the absolute greatest component of the best dynasty owners and is the difference between good and great. With a combination of risk-taking, patience, and a dash of gut the savvy owner can identify the situations that could provide an avenue for success to players that can all of a sudden find themselves as contributors for their respective teams. These are long-shots to say the least, but the long-shots can change your destiny.
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Every so often a detective gets that case that is easier to solve than a murder that is supported with a weapon, a fingerprint, and an alibi that doesn’t pan out. There’s even a witness that ties it all together in addition to a crystal clear motive. Yet for some reason unbeknownst to anyone, the case doesn’t’ get solved, and it ends up in the open cases file every year. Cam Newton is a player that for some reason or the other has had to jump through blazing hoops while the moon is full on the third Tuesday of the month in order to get people bought into the fact that he’s a fantasy stud. A few different points have been brought to the fore-front: Cam Newton isn’t a traditional quarterback and can’t make the winning plays, he doesn’t act like a leader on the field and that’s not what quarterbacking is all about, and he isn’t on the right team with the right system in place in order for him to be successful. Newton isn’t a traditional quarterback by any definition of the term. He can certainly grow as a leader by becoming more confident in his ability to be a leader of men, and he is in a situation which has proven to be more conservative than not and does not provide him with the necessary tools any elite quarterback would want to have around him. In spite of all these things, Cam Newton has finished as the top 3 or 4 quarterback in terms of total fantasy points per www.profootballfocus.com for the last three years. He’s also finished 2nd, 3rd, and 6th when looking at total fantasy points per drop back. I don’t know what more people need to see to realize that Cam Newton is here to stay. Now that the core of the defense is in-tact with the only hole to fill being in the secondary, The Panthers will be able to lend more focus to the ailing offense and either look to land a wide receiver via free agency or in the trade. They might not be able to make a splash given their ridiculous contracts that need to be honored next year, but it’s as bad as it gets right now – there’s only up from here.
It would appear that the ship has unfortunately sailed for Darren Sproles as his year-over-year fantasy production continues to take a precipitous decline. I was the biggest backer of Sproles heading into this year citing that while he’s certainly aging, it isn’t a concern of mine. Many owners steered clear if they didn’t already own him as he was already a running back approaching 30 years old. My stance was that Darren Sproles was in a different mold of NFL talent that doesn’t really age the same way. It’s not like he takes big hits trying to gain the tough yards between the tackles and he never really had the muscle or joint type injuries that lead one to believe that he’s a candidate to lose a step. I would continue to bring up Warrick Dunn as the type of player Darren Sproles resembles, and that should allow him to be highly productive despite his age. Take a quick look at the (YoY) Year-over-Year fantasy point production for Sproles per Pro Football Focus as it relates to total points, points per snap, and points per opportunity:
As you can see, Sproles certainly had a performance drop when it comes to total fantasy points. What’s interesting is that his points per snap and points per opportunity actually remained consistent while his points per snap had a slight increase from 2012-2013. While 2011 is certainly shaping up to be an outlier type season, we seem to be seeing a regression to the mean in terms of pts/snap and pts/ opportunity. In fact, Sproles had the best pts/ snap out of all running backs in 2013. He was third to only Donald Brown and Jamaal Charles in terms of pts/ opportunity. What capped his productivity this year was appears schematic, and he missed some time due to injury but not much. For whatever reason, Sean Payton chose not to depend on Sproles in key situations like he had in years past. My hypothesis still remains an accurate one, as he clearly still possesses the talent to get the job done. I can’t begin to speculate whether or not he earns the opportunity to get back into the RB 2 tier. Things may shape up if Pierre Thomas isn’t a Saint next year, but the team seems more than content to keep giving the nod to the like of Marc Ingram and Khiry Robinson. At this point your trade ceiling is likely a 2nd round rookie pick. Most people would take the pick and run, but I think I would still hang on to Sproles as he’s likely to be worth more to you than that pick if you’re looking within a 2-3 year window. We just experienced his floor as a flex option, but if he earns the opportunity again, the data clearly shows that he’s still capable to be a RB2.
The next name I’m including in this category is an unconventional one. In fact, he’s not even a player at all, but I feel he’s going to have a fairly significant impact to fantasy production that comes out of the NFC South. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made an unsurprising move when they hired Chicago Bears ex-head coach Lovie Smith. The Buccaneers are looking to embrace the once revolutionary Tampa-2 defense with Lovie coming back on staff bringing Leslie Frazier along for the ride. The Bucs had a difficult time stopping the run, (Ranked 15th with 110.1 yards/ game per ESPN.com) and I’m sure that Lovie is going to change that with his scheme as well as his staff’s ability to coach up players. In his last 3 years with the Chicago Bears, Lovie’s defenses always ended up in the top 10. Under Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers finished middle-of-the-road against the pass. Any team that boasts the talent of Gerald McCoy on the line, LaVonte David at Linebacker, and Darrelle Revis at corner should be above average in every defensive category. This team was simply mismanaged, and Stephen White agrees. Stephen White, columnist for SBNation.com and ex-NFL player, has experience under his belt playing for a Lovie-lead team. Stephen wrote a great piece on the recent Lovie Smith hire, and he’s nothing short of ecstatic about the hire. You can find (and you should) read the article here: https://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/1/8/5287860/lovie-smith-tampa-bay-buccaneers-head-coach
“…the main reason I’m positively giddy over the hire is of course because of the defense. I screamed from the mountaintops since last year that the Bucs had plenty of talent on defense and that defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and (now former) head coach Greg Schiano weren’t using it correctly… The Bucs didn’t seem to know how to line up right on an eight-man box defense against the Rams for crying out loud. Now, not only will guys know their alignments and assignments like the back of their hand (or else), they will also be put in positions to do well on almost every single play. If you think Gerald McCoy had a great season this year, just wait until Lovie lets him rush the B gap almost every play with minimal stunting. Same for Lamont David, same for Mark Barron, same for Adrian Clayborn, same for Revis.”
It will be interesting to see what Lovie does with Revis, but I can’t imagine Lovie doesn’t leave Revis to do what he does best and create a Tampa-2 hybrid so he can still leverage the strengths of his best shut-down corner. It goes without saying that I will draft the Buccaneers in a lot of leagues next year as a potential break-out team defense that should become opportunistic in nature like many previous Lovie teams. While the Bucs certainly need to add a capable outside pass-rusher on the line, PFF premium stats prove that LaVonte David and company are the most effective pass-rushers in the league from the linebacker position, coming in with a (PRP) Pass Rush Productivity score of 18.43 – over 250 basis points above the second place Patriots. I would expect to see the likes of the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons take an incremental dip in overall fantasy production the weeks they meet the Buccaneers, and Lovie’s presence alone is enough for me to want to build a compelling case for this defense in 2014 and forward.
Sometimes the best supporting evidence in a case is a blood-type sample – it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but it is steady, dependable, and can be leveraged time and time again. Greg Olsen is a really nice talent at a Tight End position which continues to be difficult to gage. We can truly only depend on consistent fantasy production from Graham and Gronkowski (when he’s healthy) and the likes of Witten, Gonzalez, and Davis. One of them looks retired, the other is quickly on his way to retirement, and that leaves Davis. Valued way below them sits Greg Olsen. He isn’t going to wow anyone with over-the-top talent, but he’s a more than able TE that can stretch the seam and line out wide. Without having a duo of dependable wide receivers, the Panthers had to target Olsen often in order to move the chains. Per PFF, he was top 5 in total targets and top 5 in (aDOT) average depth of target among those with 75% plus total snap time. Olsen could also be depended on to catch the ball with a 72% catch rate. Hopefully the Panthers will be able to land another outside presence to take some of the attention away from Olsen. While this will take away from his total targets, this would also allow him to roam more freely and get higher percentage throws. Olsen is what he is, but sometimes this is the type of player that can be an asset for your team. He’s typically worth a late 2nd rounder or a 3rd round pick and another piece, but sometimes rostering Olsen is the best strategy. It allows you to net low-end TE 1 production for your team while you develop higher-upside type guys like Jordan Reed, Ladarius Green, and Luke Wilson. Sometimes the best evidence isn’t the type that calls for immediate press conferences, but it flies below the radar and helps you win championships.
Sticking with the TE position, I’ll bring to your attention the Atlanta Falcons. With Gonzo retiring, the Falcons will need to fill that void, and the next man up is Levine Toilolo. This is an interesting player for me to throw into this category because (as of right now) he stands to benefit from the retirement, but I am in no way sold on him from a talent perspective. He sure is a beast of a man standing at 6’8” 260 lbs, but I feel like his frame should actually be built more for that height. Toilolo still has much development to make as a blocker and is probably a liability to the Falcons as an in-line tight end at this point. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Falcons role with many more 3 and 4 wide receiver sets going forward, but they also can’t ignore the fact that they have a skyscraper available whenever they need one. Toilolo did prove that he can pull down the jump balls in the end zone – it’s just a matter of how often they put him in a position to succeed. I certainly would not want to depend on him from week to week, but I definitely wouldn’t mind having him rostered to see what transpires through the off-season and into the regular season. The opportunity is there for the taking – this is a case of how bad he wants it and whether or not he’s willing to put in the extra work to get on the same page with Matt Ryan and go through the routes. At the end of the day, if you’re not a natural pass catching/ route running tight end in this league, you’re going to earn your keep behind the pylon. He could easily become a trusted commodity in the end zone much like previously mentioned Joseph Fauria in the NFC North addition.
I’m going to go in another direction for this next one as well. The Tampa Bay Buccaneer backfield is going to be a very interesting situation to watch play out this off-season. Many people are going to be all over the map about this backfield and Lovie’s run-game strategy going forward. Queue the summer-long debate and Cruel Summer plug here…Let me preface this section by stating very clearly first and foremost – Doug Martin is the clear as crystal best overall talent on this team – there’s no question in my mind about that. I could have easily included Martin in the Hard Evidence section above, and it would of course be warranted as he’s no doubt a good bet to return to form as a RB1 for your fantasy teams. Now having said that, there have been new-found developments this year that cannot be overlooked. After Martin went down with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Mike James stepped in and performed admirably. Just when the Bucs realized they were more than capable of surviving in spite of the Martin injury, James went down with a fractured ankle. At that point, their run-game destiny depended on newly acquired Bobby Rainey, Prior to joining the team, Rainey was released by the Browns after he was let go from the Ravens. Unbelievably, Bobby Rainey was able to not only surprise the Bucs coaching staff with his performance, he was also able to prove 2 specific organizations wrong for releasing him. 29 other organizations were wrong for not drafting him or picking him up off waivers for next to nothing. Both James and Rainey were able to come in and prove that they were able to keep trotting out an effective run game, and both players were RB2 level guys on fantasy teams throughout this short stint for owners. Rainey ran into a few brick walls when he faced the Lions, Panthers, and 49ers, but for the most part nobody was able to be trusted against these rush defenses anyhow as the year progressed. I wanted to look at these three running backs against one another, so I got back to data-mining via – you guessed it – Pro Football Focus. If you’re by chance unfamiliar with their data please familiarize yourself, but I imagine if you’re reading this article you have already had experience with PFF. Nevertheless, I honed in on their overall running back premium stat ratings as well as their determining factors. I also wanted to pull out the snap data and yards after contact per attempt data, which I believe weeds out a lot of situational anomalies. I would like to see this measurement both behind and in front of the line of scrimmage, but this should be good enough for this simple exercise. Please look at the chart below – the colors should speak for themselves:
I was shocked by what I found here. Take a wild guess as to which letter represents which player… Martin =X, Rainey = Y, and James = Z. Martin was surprisingly the total snap leader out of the bunch, yet his overall performance was abysmal when put next to the performance of the other two. While his snap count was the highest of the three, his overall, pass, and block ratings were well below the results of both James and Rainey. One could certainly make the argument that this was during the beginning of the season while Josh Freeman was busy playing catch with opposing team defenders and the team was auditioning for a bad reality television/ drama series. This is why I included the yards after contact data, as this is usually a really good bet to take a look at a metric the running back really owns. In any event, you can see above that Martin was outperformed by both his successor and his successor’s successor in all of the metrics above. I’m not exactly sure what this was all about. One could certainly attribute a lot of this to the notorious sophomore slump (just ask Trent Richardson.) Lovie Smith isn’t afraid to use his running backs in situational fashion, circa Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, for example. I would guess that Martin gets the lion-share and the first opportunity to carry the ball majority of the time in spite of the numbers above. The team didn’t invest heavily in Martin to have him ride the pine. In my opinion, however, The Bucs would also be foolish not to preserve their feature runner’s health given the fact that the other two guys proved they are more than capable. Quite frankly, my guess is Lovie cares not about our fantasy teams. Martin should be the lead guy, but it would not surprise me to see the Bucs embrace a 3-back system like their foes in New Orleans. They certainly have the talent on the depth chart to achieve this, and because of this I’m keeping major tabs on this depth chart in the off-season.
While taking a deep dive into an open case, one has to find elements to build a case by looking in every nick and cranny along the way. When you take a look into the Carolina Panthers backfield, you see nothing short of a complete cluster. I couldn’t even imagine how awkward that hallway encounter might be between Panthers GM Dave Gettleman and either Deangelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart as they pass each other in the hallway. Would Gettleman give the ‘ol head-nod, or would he stop and talk to ask how their days are going or how the injury is coming along? Whatever that encounter truly is, it would be hard to deny that there may be a level of resentment that simply can’t be controlled. Stewart’s 2014 salary AND his 2015 salary are guaranteed. Williams’ contract isn’t voidable until 2016, so he’s going to receive another 2 years of salary plus option and workout bonuses. As if that’s enough, let’s throw fuel on the fire and add Mike Tolbert to long-term deal! It’s a complete and utter cap catastrophe. We’re going to have to wait at least a year for the Panthers backfield situation to begin to change course. While Williams, Stewart, and Tolbert should somehow figure into the workload (in that order barring injury) beneath all this turmoil awaits Kenjon Barner. This is when you call a spade a spade – Barner is a dart throw patience play in deep leagues if you have the room to take that wait and see approach. Barner is a super-fast, shifty, and agile back that could be a great asset to this team if he can develop into a Sproles type role. He doesn’t actually get to top speed right away, but after 10 yards or so of space and forget about it. Barner will never be the type of player that can be depended on to block – ever. But with Newton under center, Barner would be a really great change of pace for this team that would add another dynamic to this predictable offense. One thing we learned in the playoffs is that Deangelo Williams having lost a step is not the right fit for the pistol offense. Williams would be better suited as the runner in more traditional formations, with Barner coming in on pistol sets and some passing situations. Barner is an extremely talented back that has shown he can catch the ball on the fly and get to pay dirt when he finds space. If you have the roster room, he’s a nice wait and see player for the future.
Trying to pin-point the right running back to own in certain backfields is much like trying to decipher which wide receiver not names Marques Colston you want to invest in long-term from the New Orleans Saints depth chart. I’d be willing to stash one of these guys in order to find out whether or not I chose the right door, but it’s anyone’s guess which one is going to stand out the most at the end of the day. Nick Toon has the build and the tools to be the next Colston type player on the team. He has a frame that supports him being a great possession receiver in the league, and he’s shown he has the ability to catch in traffic and get just enough separation to get the ball thrown his way. His problem, however, is a recurring injury theme, and he hasn’t been able to stay on the field since being drafted. Hope fully these injury woes can be put behind him because he’s the best bet to be a possession WR for the Saints. Another forgotten name that came on strong late in 2012 with his speed is Joe Morgan. Morgan isn’t as tall as Toon and is much lankier in nature, but he plays to his physique with his long game. He has the talent to be better than Devery Henderson ever was in that role. After spending the year rehabbing his torn ACL, he’s going to have to work his way back up the depth chart and onto the field. Kenny Stills has been quite a refreshing talent for the Saints this year and has stepped in where needed as a player that allows the Saints to stretch the field with his speed. I believe that Stills has the ability to grow as a possession receiver. While he’s shorter than both Toon and Morgan, he’s a more solid build than Morgan and probably a nice combination of talent between both Toon and Morgan. In addition to proving he’s a viable deep threat that can easily sneak his way behind the safety, he’s shifty enough to get open between the linebackers and corners on intermediate routes. If I’m putting any money on any of these guys as the player that emerges out of the bunch with the most fantasy relevance, it’s Stills. While Jimmy Graham is unquestionably the top TE in redraft and dynasty formats for years to come, Josh Hill is a name to keep in your crosshairs. The Saints are so good at introducing new packages in order to keep defenses guessing every step of the way. With Graham earning his living working as the primary slot receiver for the Saints, they have another developing talent behind him on the depth chart in Hill. As an undrafted free agent, Hill had the opportunity to get acclimated to the game by watching one of the greats, learning to add value on special teams, and beginning to take reps on offense. It’s a shame how it all worked out for Zach Sudfeld…Hill can eventually line up in-line and start to add value in 2 tight end packages. He’s a Graham handcuff for now, but he has the talent to motivate the Saints coaching staff to roll out more packages to get him on the field. While the defense has to watch for Graham, Colston, and the deep game, Hill showed that he’s yet another target that goes unguarded after throwing a block and dropping into a screen. Mark Ingram is approaching the last year of this rookie contract, and it will be interesting to see if the Saints resign him or not, as his price tag should remain affordable as they haven’t given him much opportunity to showcase his talent. He could have been a focal point in the forensics report, but I would rather call attention to Khiry Robinson. From the moment I first started watching tape of him, I immediately fell in love. He doesn’t have that one aspect of his game that is just miles above the rest, but he possesses a sheer will to get the ball forward no matter what it takes. His feet are always moving, and his body seems to build momentum with each step he takes. He was constantly compared to Curtis Martin during the playoffs, and I didn’t think that was an overstatement at all. My fault was that I let situation cloud my judgment of him as a dynasty prospect. There is not a more daunting backfield than that of New Orleans for a RB prospect, but most of the time talent will eventually trump situation. I passed on Khiry in a few leagues, and now I’m kicking myself because I saw everything I needed to see for him to be that high-upside late-round player that can change a team’s dynamic. Robinson has IT. He’s not overly fast, but he’s punishing while shifty, and he’s even more powerful. He simply does not want to go down, and he seems to make something out of nothing. Running backs do not need to be drafted early in today’s NFL to creep up toward fantasy relevance. Khiry Robinson shows why Pierre Thomas won’t be a Saint for long, and why trading up for Ingram was a mistake. This is where you slap on the rubber gloves and start collecting evidence to get bagged up and sent back to the lab.
Thanks for reading the second installment of the “Dynasty Detective Dashboard” Series. Be sure to look for my next installment…