NFL Football Column: Offseason Low Down
Offseason Stock Report
“There is no offseason” has become one of the NFL’s most well-worn clichés. And what makes a cliché a cliché? They may be tiresome, but they’re truer than true. So commonplace there’s no point in being reminded of their existence.
We’re the better part of seven months away from the next real, tangible football game, but the Combine has the NFL’s perpetual motion machine revved back up less three weeks after the Super Bowl. Time of year, “real games” and — shudder — baseball be damned.
The NFL’s OINO — offseason in name only — is littered with one commodifiable, streamlined and inexplicably popular event after the other. After the Combine comes free agency. After free agency comes the draft. After the draft comes OTAs, minicamp, training camp, preseason....you get the idea.
Players getting on scales and GMs tendering restricted free agents contracts shouldn’t create so much excitement, but so is the colossus that the NFL has become. They taught us to like the offseason, now we can’t live without it.
None of that changes the fact that very little of consequence has happened since Tony Romo closed out Week 17 with his 19th and final interception of 2012, but we’ve still been gifted enough new information to make some early informed guesses about 2013. So, without further ado, here are four players who have seen their fantasy value go up this offseason, and four who have seen it go down.
Gained: Michael Vick
“Kept” may be a more apt term in this instance, as though Vick’s value certainly isn’t on the upswing, it’s no longer in the downward — perhaps death — spiral it was last season.
Chip Kelly’s arrival won’t fix the fact that Vick is a soon-to-be 33-year-old man who is no longer the athletic oracle he once was. But it will put Vick in a better position to succeed, and make his legs part of the plan, as opposed to the back-up plan one coach after another has bafflingly made them.
Vick has run plenty in his career, but rarely by design. It’s a cruel twist of fate that he’s only now — “now” being 33 with his best years long behind him — uniting with a man who should have a coherent plan as to how to marry his running prowess to his throwing ability, but as they say, “better late than never.”
Kelly has been coy on his plans for the Eagles offense. Speaking at the Combine Thursday, he claimed thusly: "I really, truly do not care what it looks like as long as it scores points." But we know better. He’s going to run — a lot — but the threat of the pass will be ever present. It will be lightning paced, and though it’s unlikely to directly mimic Kelly’s Two Minutes or Less Oregon juggernaut, it should be a more fully-realized version of the spread-option attack teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Redskins toyed with last season.
Even though he’s lost a step — or three — that’s still an offense tailor made for Vick’s skill-set, and one that should stabilize his fantasy value after injuries and turnovers nearly destroyed it.
As for the “open competition” Dennis Dixon believes he’s walking into and Kelly has hinted Nick Foles will be a part of? There are $3.5 million reasons Vick is going to come out on top without much of a fight.
Lost: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick’s “open competition” with Tarvaris Jackson may never come to pass — just ask T-Jax’s guaranteed salary — but Fitzpatrick’s days of being the centerpiece of the Bills offense are long gone.
Out is coddling co-conspirator Chan Gailey, and in is hard-nosed rookie coach Doug Marrone. Like Marrone, Gailey actually favored a balanced approach during his time in Buffalo, but fell in love with his weak-armed, erratic quarterback for season-killing stretches at a time. Gailey ignored the run game at all the wrong junctures, dialing up torrents of Fitzpatrick passes that would inevitably produce an interception.
Marrone will almost certainly look for Fitzpatrick’s long-term replacement in the draft, and could settle on a player he knows well: Syracuse's Ryan Nassib. Marrone, of course, coached Nassib his entire college career. Who do you think Marrone will trust more? A 30-year-old turnover machine with a history of falling apart down the stretch? Or a quarterback he’s been grooming for the job for four years?
Fitz might get one last opportunity to start fast in 2013, but the offense will not be on his back, while his annual fade will not be tolerated.
Gained: Jay Cutler
You might not think of Chicago — America’s second city — as the wilderness, but for Jay Cutler, that’s exactly what it’s been for much of his four seasons since moving on from Mike Shanahan. That’s because the Chicago Bears focused on one thing and one thing only during the Lovie Smith era: Defense.
Offensive niceties such as “two good wide receivers” and “an offensive line that keeps you from getting knocked on your butt every other play” were never very high on the to-do list. All you need to know about Cutler’s Chicago offensive coordinators is that the first was Norval Turner’s younger brother, the second (Mike Martz) called plays like Cutler was being protected by five Walter Joneses and the third (Mike Tice) was so overmatched he wasn’t even allowed to oversee the passing game.
Now Cutler finally has a head coach who’s offensively minded, and one with an impressive track record to boot. That means Cutler won’t be adjusting to a new boss or system every other season, and that the head man might be a little more sympathetic to his most important player’s needs. Personnel — not play-callers — is what brings home the offensive bacon at the end of the day, and Chicago’s still isn’t talented enough. But no longer an afterthought, you can bet it’s spruced up a bit in 2013, and that means a player with a QB1 skill-set might finally find his way out of the QB2 forest.
Lost: Cecil Shorts
Cecil Shorts is the real deal. Deposed GM Gene Smith’s last great small-school find, Shorts is quick off the line, explosive after the catch and a big play waiting to happen. But he has two very serious things working against him.
The first is his head. Not his smarts — Shorts proved to be an intelligent route runner during his breakout 2012 — but his literal brain. His year was cut short after he suffered his second concussion in three games in Week 16. That’s a scary development for a player who checks in at 6-foot-0, 193 pounds if he stands on his tippy toes and soaks himself in water.
The other is who will supposedly be throwing him the ball in 2013. Shorts did damage with Blaine Gabbert under center last season, but he did much more of it with Chad Henne. With Jacksonville’s new braintrust committed to giving Gabbert — a player who’s completed just 53.8 of his 691 career passes, posted a 21:17 TD:INT ratio and averaged an impossibly bad 5.6 yards per pass attempt — another chance, Shorts’ upside will be capped. He’ll still be a WR3 with room to grow, but with the right quarterback, Shorts could be an every-week WR2 with WR1 upside. Shorts is a gifted, intriguing young player, but he needs to get his mind and quarterback right before he can be trusted for the long haul.
Gained: Larry Fitzgerald
Bruce Arians won’t be the one throwing Larry Fitzgerald the ball. But he’ll decide who does, and whoeever it is, you can bet they’ll do it more often and more competently than Larry, Moe and Curly did in 2012.
An avowed pass master, Arians had this to say at his introductory press conference: "We have six home runs on the play sheet every week, and we're not leaving any bullets unused.” The man loves to throw, specifically to his No. 1 receiver. Santonio Holmes and Mike Wallace both blossomed under his charge in Pittsburgh, while Reggie Wayne came back from the dead to post a 106/1,355/5 line under a rookie quarterback during his age-34 season.
Arians knows what it takes to get the most out of his top wideouts, and has already vowed to move Fitzgerald all over the formation until he finds what makes him tick. "As a receiver, you can’t hand it to them, you have to throw it to them," Arians said of Fitz. "When I first met with (Wayne, he) had been on the left side for 10 years. The first day of spring I put him over there on the right, and he looked like he had palsy. I said, ‘It’ll come. You have to retrain your body here. Wait until I put you in the slot.’ There was buy-in.”
Who’s at quarterback will matter most, but the Cardinals finally have a coach capable of identifying the right one. The QB talent may still be lacking in 2013, but the wherewithal — and deep balls — won’t be. Throw in line play that has nowhere to go but up and some on-the-rise pass-catching talent (Rob Housler and Michael Floyd) to help deflect defensive attention, and things are back on the upswing for one of the league’s most gifted players.
Lost: Ahmad Bradshaw
Ahmad Bradshaw is still only 27 years old (in March). In the “real world,” he’d be an infant in the job market, perhaps settling into his first long-term gig. In the NFL? He’s 1,053 years old.
That’s how many times he’s touched the ball since coming into the league in 2007. Throw in a pair of bad feet and an operation to “replace a smaller screw with a larger one,” and you have a back who’s out on the street even though he posted his 1,000-yard campaign in three years last season, and has averaged 4.6 yards per carry for his career.
Bradshaw will play in 2013 — at least he thinks so — but his days of being the chair in a committee backfield are over. Maybe he’ll end up a goal-line back, giving himself some RB3 value. But his feet will be an ever present worry, while his upside will be capped by role, health and however many “NFL years” his new coach decides to add to his 1,053-year-old body.
Gained: David Wilson
Benefitting from Bradshaw’s downfall will be Wilson, a first-round pick who was anything but coddled last season. After an opening night fumble — and subsequent tears — landed him in the doghouse, Wilson touched the ball just 17 more times before the Giants’ Week 11 bye.
But he was phased into the offense thereafter, and responded by averaging 5.1 yards per carry over his final 53 totes. That doesn’t take into account his special teams fireworks, as he averaged 26.9 yards on a league-high 57 kick returns.
Wilson was in over his head in pass protection, and that will be a concern heading into 2013. But the Giants didn’t use the No. 31 pick in last year’s draft with the intention of letting Wilson gather cobwebs, and they certainly wouldn’t have released Bradshaw if they weren’t comfortable with him having a major role.
Wilson may well find himself in a committee where Andre Brown monopolizes goal-line carries, but there’s no question he’s going to lead the G-Men in touches. We already know Wilson has the talent to make a major impact in fantasy leagues, now he should have the role.
Lost: Titus Young
Let’s be clear: Young’s fantasy value was next to nil even before the offseason. Now? It’s a smoking crater. That’s because at just 22 years of age and less than two years removed from being the No. 44 pick of the 2011 draft, it’s possible Young has played his final down.
Second chances are common bordering on perfunctory in the NFL. Thirds? Ask Chad Ochocinco. Young has youth and talent working in his favor, but the fact that he couldn’t remain on Jeff Fisher’s roster for more than 10 days is an extremely bad sign for his NFL future. Fisher, after all, is the one who claimed Randy Moss after he was sent packing twice in the same season.
A player who has just 81 career catches yet thinks he’s better than Calvin Johnson has serious issues, and it’s quite possible no team will be willing to deal with them from here on out, seam-stretching speed or not.
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