Jan 23, 2009
The regular season’s been history for about four weeks now, and things have obviously been quiet around here. We’re still producing playoff content, but to be honest I have taken the last few weeks to recharge the batteries a little. One of our full-time employees left the company mid-season, right before Thanksgiving, and I basically had to pick up his slack. I literally worked 95 hours a week the final six weeks of the season. I think I almost died. I hope there wasn’t a serious drop-off in our content and if you didn’t notice, that means I rule because I took on about 75% of this full-time employee’s workload – and I was working about 70 hours a week to begin with. I don’t think anyone noticed, so I believe I do, in fact, rule.
Of course, I really haven’t been able to rest too much, since I’ve been addressing all the things I’ve been ignoring from August-December, and as usual I have a ton of things going on. Some personal, and some business. For one, we’re looking to hire two new full-time employees, and it’s an extremely tedious process. For every 100 people who truly believe they have what it takes to excel in this field and job, roughly 90 of them cannot. There are a lot of bright people who can, but the problem is they already have good jobs, so in a sense all of the good ones are taken. Better to do this search in January and February than June, at least. Full timers need to be in the office, here in Southern New Jersey, which can be a little limiting in the search. But I believe it’s very necessary.
As for the NFL, the 2008 season isn’t over yet, but the off-season’s begun. We’ve seen a lot of coaching changes, and there’s a lot to digest. The rookie information is starting to come in from the Senior Bowl as well, so there’s some work to get started on. I’m not exactly ready to just yet, but we’re getting close. This is the time of year when our own Adam Caplan and Greg Cosell are breaking down these rookies. Adam and Greg attend events like the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, and pretty soon we’ll get some of their great insight on this year’s rookie class. Free agency will be kicking off in about five weeks, and that’s always very eventful, obviously.
In short, things are already heating up, but it’s not exactly a time yet to draw too many conclusions about the upcoming NFL season. So I thought for my first official post of the 2009 season, I’ll deal with some players I think proved to be the real deal in 2008. I’m starting to work on my annual “Lessons Learned” article, and as usual that will be released the day after the Super Bowl. One of the things I’ll cover is how I think 2009 will be a tricky year because there were a lot of players who excelled, but who aren’t exactly proven commodities. Some of these guys will fail to live up to expectations in 2009, so I’ll be doing everything I can to find who who’s poised to fall short this year.
On the other hand, I’m already sold on a lot of these young players, so here’s my list of young players I think are the real deal, and who I like for 2009.
Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Jac) – I took some flack for pushing him a little too hard this year, and I know he was a little maddening early in the season, and at times all year. But I believe we ranked him 12th at his position this summer and he did, in fact, finish 12th for the season, despite running behind a decimated OL. Had I known the line was going to be in disrepair, I wouldn’t have pushed him quite as much, but he still came through. The only reason I bring him up here is 2009 will likely be the first year he truly carries the load. If he does, I will insist he needs to be a top-5 fantasy pick. Maybe that’s too high, and maybe he’ll wear down, but I’ve seen more than enough from this guy to get behind him that strongly. He’s beyond special.
DeAngelo Williams (RB, Car) – Wow. What do we do with this guy now? I’ll admit I didn’t think he had too much of a chance when the team drafted Jonathan Stewart – a stud in his own right – in the 1st round. But I was a big Williams fan before they took Stewart. I figured his chances of securing the lead role were over, but what’s amazing is that, while I liked and even at one time loved Williams, he completely blew my most optimistic evaluation of him out of the water in 2008. He ran very hard, incredibly decisively, and with great balance, plus he really seemed to have an incredible feel for his blocking scheme and his linemen. He was obviously very explosive, and productive. Stewart is a problem, no doubt, but Williams was too impressive to ignore. Maybe he has only 2-3 great years in the NFL, but he was too great in 2008 to ignore in 2009.
Chris Johnson (RB, Ten) – He was obviously very good, but so was Julius Jones in Dallas in his rookie season in 2004. Thing is, Johnson is 100% for real and if healthy will continue to perform at an elite level. We did a great job scouting Johnson in 2008, but more impressive was how Johnson totally displayed what was evident to us on tape in his first foray in the NFL, and he did so consistently. He’s dynamic, and explosive, yet physical and willing to absorb contact. He’s incredible. I actually think he’s a very safe #1 pick in fantasy. Granted, he probably won’t ever have the type of monster season we’ve seen in the recent past from guys like LT, LJ, and Steven Jackson, but I don’t see any downside. None.
Matt Forte (RB, Chi) – He’s not Adrian Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson, but who really is? Maybe 10 guys in the history of the league? Bottom line, while Forte won’t bust off too many long TDs in his career, he is totally the real deal. He’s physical enough to excel between the tackles, but I love his run instincts and vision, and mot of all his ability to make people miss, even unblocked people. He’s smooth as hell, and he’ll get better. Love him.
Aaron Rodgers (QB, GB) – One of the most underreported stories in the NFL in 2008 was the play of Rodgers, who people seemed to forget was a first-year starter for the Packers. I couldn’t care less what Packer fans think of him due to their love affair with (the annoying) Brett Favre, and while I do understand he struggled to lead his team to victory in some winnable games, I thought Rodgers was sensational. I don’t think you can ask for more than what he did in ’08. In fact, I know you can’t. His line needs some tweaking, but I cannot envision him failing in 2009, so I think he’s a terrific fantasy option. It’ll be very interesting to see where he’s being drafted in a few months.
Steve Slaton (RB, Hou) – I got on his guy’s bandwagon fairly early last summer, after I saw his preseason debut, but it didn’t take a Fantasy Guru to figure he had a chance in Houston with guys like Ahman Green and Chris Brown on the roster last summer. I personally like the Brian Westbrook comparison we’ve made, but when I ran that by Slaton on the radio, he said he feels he’s more like Marshall Faulk. Either way, you can’t go wrong. Now, I do have some concerns with him holding up still, but as long as the team is smart with how they use him, he should continue to impress. But overall, he’s the real deal, there is no doubt.
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco (QBs, Atl and Bal) – They’re both the real deal, no question. I personally like Flacco better, but while both are in run-heavy offenses, I do give the fantasy nod to Ryan, at least for now. Ryan has a legit #1 NFL wideout, and Flacco really does not. Ryan does not have nearly as strong of an arm, but I basically think he’s the next Drew Brees. He’s more athletic than Brees, too. As for Flacco, he reminds me of Carson Palmer; a big pocket passer with a rocket for an arm and a willingness to stare down the gun barrel. He’s also more athletic than Palmer. Problem is, when Palmer was putting up big numbers, he did so throwing to a terrific trio of receivers. Flacco needs a stud. But I am totally “Whacko for Flacco.”
Eddie Royal (WR, Den) – Totally the real deal. He runs sharp and crisp routes, is elusive as hell, and his hands and concentration are solid. He’s a very smart football player. He’s not a burner, but he can accelerate and get deep. He’ll be a staple as the #2 alongside Brandon Marshall for years to come, and he’ll be a 70+ catch guy every year.
Dustin Keller (TE, NYJ) – Although he faded down the stretch, I saw enough from Keller in 2008 to believe he’s probably the real deal. I do say “probably” because I’d like to see him excel in a role as a #1 TE in terms of blocking, etc. But when you have a TE who can move like Keller, you have to believe in him. When I asked him this past year who he compares himself to, he told me Dallas Clark, and I see the comparison. I actually think, if Keller had the luxury of playing with Peyton Manning for a few years, he might even have more upside than Clark.
Devin Hester (WR, Chi) – Caplan was all over him this summer as an emerging player, and I thought he was going to need another year. I was right, but so was he. Granted, he didn’t do too much, but I saw flashes for sure. He’s not as physical as Steve Smith, but he reminds me a little of Smith early in his career. I love the route-running improvement and if he continues to master the nuances of the position, I think he has a chance to be special. He needs a new QB, however, because Kyle Orton will never be even an above average passer.
John Carlson (Sea) – You have to say he is the real deal, after he basically carried the Seahawk passing game on his back down the stretch. I do not think he’ll be special, however, since he’s not a freak athlete or anything. But you have to be impressed with how he stepped up and produced in five of his last six games of the season. He looks like a viable starter this year, but I do have to say I’m not 100% sold on him. Still, all he needs is consistent looks in the red zone and he’ll be more than fine.
Zach Miller (TE, Oak) – We created a lot of Miller hype this year, and he disappointed overall. But did he? In just his second year, and in a train wreck of an offense with a raw QB, Miller finished 8th in the league at TE in catches, and 6th in yardage. With any luck at all, he could have actually been a borderline stud at the position. He’s not a elite talent and athlete, but he moves better than a guy like Chris Cooley (whose bandwagon I am officially off). Miller projects as a guy who can be a legit go-to receiver at the TE position, as opposed to more of a secondary receiver for his team. He just needs his offense to have a plan, more balance, and he needs improved and more consistent play from JaMarcus Russell, who still has a chance to be a stud.
Mark Clayton (WR, Bal) – He’s not a freak talent, but I like him a lot. He projects best as an NFL #2, but I think he’s a terrific #2. He can get deep and make big plays, but he’s more of a run-after-the-catch guy. I obviously love the QB, which helps. In fact, I’ve said for two months that Joe Flacco has saved Clayton’s career.
Jordy Nelson (WR, GB) – We didn’t see a lot of this guy, but trust me on this one: if you want a breakout receiver top stash on your roster, Nelson’s the guy. He will, however, likely need another two years, but this guy’s got some serious game. I like his size, speed, and run-after-the-catch ability. He’s Ed McCaffrey. Love him.
Notable on the fence selection:
Kevin Smith (RB, Det) – I think I finally nailed a Lion RB. I said over and over again last summer how this guy was far from special, but that he had an uncanny ability to sustain offense by running the ball despite his limited lateral agility and movement skills. We saw both points come into play in 2008. Production is production is production, and Smith found a way to produce in a horrendous situation. That bodes well, but I do tend to gravitate toward players with a little more juice, and Smith doesn’t have too much. Ultimately, I probably won’t give him a ton of love, but if the situation in Detroit somehow improves greatly, and it can only get better, I’m definitely going to give this guy the respect he deserves. He can grind it out, but I would also like to see him do it over the course of a full season. As you likely recall, the moronic Lion coaching staff felt the need to feature Rudi Johnson for a decent spell. Jeez, even I knew he was done when they handed the “starting” job to him over Smith.
On the Cusp:
Tyler Thigpen (QB, KC), Donnie Avery (WR, Stl), Pierre Thomas (RB, NO), Tim Hightower (RB, Ari), Derrick Ward (RB, NYG/FA), Rashard Mendenhall (RB, Pit),
Steve Breaston (WR, Ari), Tashard Choice (RB, Dal), Darren Sproles (RB, SD/FA), Kevin Boss (TE, NYG).