2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: NFC East
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In this report, we’ll go division-by-division and offer up a quick wrap of the 2011 season, with a brief preview of what to expect in 2012 and beyond.
QB: A bruised hand could have really ruined the Cowboys’ season, but it’s kind of hard to blame their failure to make the playoffs on the quarterback. QB Tony Romo, playing in what ended up being a meaningless game, banged his throwing hand against the helmet of Eagle DE Jason Babin in Week Sixteen, and he had to play through the swelling and pain to start in Week Seventeen (by default, the “NFC East Championship Game” against the Giants). Romo actually played really well in Week Seventeen (29/37, 289 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but the Cowboys couldn’t stop the Giants, and Jerry Jones’ boys got sent packing. It was a solid wrap on a solid fantasy season for Romo, who also proved that we can’t question his toughness, considering he played through not only the hand injury but a painful rib ailment as well. Romo played in all 16 games (he did take a zero in Week Sixteen), and he finished 10th at the QB position with 21.5 FPG after chucking 31 TDs against only 10 INTs, with 4184 yards passing. Not counting his Week Sixteen goose egg, Romo went over 20 points in 10 of 15 games, over 30 in two of those, and under 15.0 just once. Moreover, Romo has been incredibly consistent for fantasy purposes. Over the last four seasons, he’s had no fewer than 21.3 FPG and no more than 21.6 FPG. You know what you’re going to get from the guy, and that has a lot of value. But what shows up on the stat page isn’t always what shows up on the field, and Romo’s tendency to transform between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde certainly frustrated head coach Jason Garrett at times this year. In fact, at times, it looked as if Garrett was losing trust in his QB, because for every huge play Romo makes, it seems he makes a boneheaded one to offset it. It seemed that early in the year, when coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense wasn’t porous, Garrett was willing to win games with the run (especially when DeMarco Murray emerged), but late in the year the defense collapsed and Romo had to bail the Cowboys out yet again. It is worth pointing out, however, that Garrett may simply have been protecting Romo when he appeared to be pulling back from him because Romo for a good portion of the season wasn’t healthy. There’s always a playground approach with him, and he always plays very loose – at times too loose. He doesn't set his feet often when he throws, which leads to mistakes. But the same playground mentality that hurts him at times also makes him great for fantasy, so while he may drive Cowboy fans crazy, fantasy fans should have no qualms with him unless they are losing points for his picks (and he only threw 10 all season). Even if the team loses wideout Laurent Robinson to free agency, Romo’s still loaded at receiver, he played through pain, and his numbers have been consistent year-to-year. Plus, his young offensive line (especially RT Tyron Smith) started to come together.Just as we said this past summer, Romo is a great option at the QB position if the truly elite options are of the board.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will the aging Romo have to play through pain for yet another season? With Jon Kitna retiring, will the Cowboys stick with Stephen McGee as their backup QB or will they bring in a veteran?
RBs: Once again, we fell victim to the tantalizing preseason of RB Felix Jones, and once again Jones proved that he can’t be trusted to be a consistent contributor for a fantasy team. Jones battled ankle and hamstring injuries and played in parts of 12 games, carrying 128 times for 577 yards and a TD, with 33/221/0 as a receiver. Obviously, scoring only once absolutely crippled Jones owners, and he ranked just 42nd among RBs with 7.2 FPG. And the injuries Jones suffered opened up the door for one of the biggest fantasy breakout players of the 2011 season. It might have been only a brief time, but when could the Cowboys last rely on a tailback the way they could with rookie DeMarco Murray? Murray wasn’t as flashy as Jones, but he was a fantastic sustainer with natural power, and when running behind FB Tony Fiammetta, he gave the Cowboys a legitimate 20-carry guy for the first time in years. In 13 games of action, Murray carried for 163/895/2 (5.5 YPC), adding 26/183 as a receiver. He exploded onto the scene with 25/253/1 in his first career start against the Rams in Week Seven, and he finished 29th at the RB position with 9.2 FPG – not bad for only starting part of the year – and remember that his numbers dipped when Fiammetta missed time with an injury. A severe broken ankle ended his year early, which was a bummer, but his emergence allowed the Cowboys to cut Tashard Choice and actually use the run game as a sustaining element of their offense. There’s no doubt that Murray looked like “just” a straight-line runner with few extra elements to his game, and he needs a lead blocker, but he produced (almost like a significantly less talented Darren McFadden). On the flip side,Jones continues to frustrate us, because skill-wise he does look like a better back than Murray, and he has been a serious contributor at times. He can bust off a big run against a good defense in a given week and finish with strong digits, or he can fail to do so against an inferior defense and come up small. It’s impossible to predict. He’s a quicker and more dynamic back than Murray. He’s not exactly laterally explosive in terms of making people miss, but he definitely moves better than Murray, and he’s faster than most backs in the league. He’s run hard this year, but the durability and consistency questions remain. As for Murray, we now have injury concerns as well. But his power continues to stand out, and he can obviously bust off the long run. He’s a good example of how a back doesn’t necessarily have to make guys consistently miss to be very good, and credit must be given to the offensive line in that regard. He’s also extremely comfortable and smooth catching passes out of the backfield, although he wasn’t nearly as much a contributor in that facet as we had hoped. Next year, we could see a balance between these two guys, and once again we could have a fantasy headache scenario. But there’s hope for the future for the Cowboys here with Murray clearly leading the way in this backfield.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: How quickly will Murray recover from the broken ankle that ended his year? If Murray is 100%, how will the two backs split carries next year? Can Murray become a more productive receiver like he was in college?
WRs/TEs: The Cowboys finished just a game shy of the postseason because of contributions from unexpected places. At the RB position, DeMarco Murray was fantastic until a broken ankle ended his year. And at the WR position, the Cowboys were able to withstand an injury-plagued season for Miles Austin and inconsistency from Dez Bryant because of a scrapheap pickup in Laurent Robinson. If you’ve been a FantasyGuru.com subscriber for a few years, you know how much we’ve loved Robinson’s skillset for several years, and he was finally able to stay healthy in 2011 and landed in the right situation. Robinson became QB Tony Romo’s most reliable option midway through the year, and in 14 games of action he ended up finishing tied for 13th among all WRs with 10.8 FPG on 54/858/11 receiving on 79 targets (a great 68.3% conversion rate), with all 11 TDs coming in the final 10 games of the year (he scored 2 TDs on three separate occasions). Robinson has the long speed to get down the field and also the size to make an impact in the red zone, and most important for Romo, he was on the field. Coach Jason Garrett also had high praise for Robinson’s improved route running, and “reliable” really became the right word to describe him. When Austin and Bryant both got healthy and all three receivers had to coexist, Robinson was playing mostly in three-WR sets and was still putting up big numbers, which must be commended and speaks to the trust level Romo had with him. He’s an impending free agent, but he has expressed his desire to return, which doesn’t surprise us, and we’d guess the Cowboys want him back. Now, that doesn’t mean Austin and Bryant had bad seasons, but they were disappointing compared to where they were usually drafted preseason. Austin’s hamstrings were bothersome all year, and he was limited to 10 games of action with 43/579/7 and 10.0 FPG, which ranked him 18th among WRs. Also note that Austin’s year took a nosedive after Week Two, when he was first injured. He caught 9/143/3 on 15 targets in that game against the 49ers, and he never topped 5 catches or 63 yards receiving for the rest of the season. Austin caught only 58.9% of his targets – his second consecutive year under 60% after a huge 2009 season – and he has to be more reliable if he’s going to play in the slot, which is where the Cowboys put him when they went into three-WR sets to help them exploit mismatches. Austin is obviously the Cowboys’ big-money guy and he’s still a major threat down the field and in the red zone, but the injuries were a concern this year and he (somewhat) fell out of favor with Romo, who preferred throwing to Robinson late in the year. Then, we get to Bryant. When it comes to pure talent, Bryant might be top-three in the entire NFL, but as close as he might be at times, he’s still far from an elite receiver. In 15 games, Bryant went for 65/928/9 receiving on 102 targets (63.7%), which certainly aren’t poor numbers. But his 9.8 FPG ranked him 20th at the WR position, about 6-8 spots lower than he was actually being drafted. Bryant is a very physical player, which leads to nagging ailments, and perhaps the biggest concern was his odd tendency to disappear for long stretches of action. We’ve come to expect unreal flashes, and they always get us excited. But the key for him will be continuing to play at a high level moving forward. This year, Bryant had big games in which he's disappeared down the stretch (reaching its head in October). He's had big games followed by games in which he never showed up in the first place. He's had notable gaffes, like his fumble at the goal line against Seattle. It’s all a part of the learning process, but the fact remains that he’s gone over 100 yards just once in his two-year career (27 games), which can only be considered a disappointment. He’s in the right offense for success, and he hasn’t been a bust, but we’re just hoping he can keep his head on straight and progress to an 80-catch/1200-yard type of season in 2012. Right now, he’s more of a player who makes individual plays, as opposed to a feature receiver who consistently makes plays. The Cowboys might need all three of these receivers to stay on at least this high 2011 level moving forward, because there are concerns about the forgotten man in this passing offense, TE Jason Witten, moving forward. It’s not that Witten is unproductive, as he went for 79/942/5 on a team-high 117 targets (67.5%) and finished 7th among TEs with 7.8 FPG. But on more than one occasion we noted how sluggish he looked. Witten has never been the Jimmy Graham freak-athletic type, but eventually, the inability to stretch the field even a bit will really hurt a guy’s fantasy production (see: Chris Cooley and Kellen Winslow), and Witten’s TD production has been notoriously fickle in the first place.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Can Bryant finally break the mold and turn in an elite fantasy season? Will Robinson be back? Will Austin stay healthy, and can he get back above the 60% catch rate threshold? Will Witten’s movement and production continue to drop off, or will he at least stabilize?
New York Giants
QB: It seems the perception with Eli Manning has long been that he’s overrated and entitled because he’s the son of Archie and the brother of Peyton. But it’s been our contention for years that he’s underrated for the same reasons. Manning might never have the full resume as big brother, but he’s a pretty damn impressive QB in his own right, and a second trip to the Super Bowl should confirm that for everyone. Fantasy players, too, have come to respect what Manning can do, and once again he was a very good starting QB who came at a pretty good price, if you drafted him. For the third consecutive year, Manning’s fantasy production reached a new career high. In 2011, he threw for 4910 yards on 358/588 passing (60.9%), with 29 TDs against 16 INTs. The biggest improvement for Manning was that there were noticeably fewer “Eli games,” in which he’d make boneheaded decisions or ill-advised throws, turning the ball over in the process. A year after leading the NFL with 25 INTs, Manning cut 9 off his total and led the Giants to Indianapolis on yet another improbable postseason run. Only three times in his 16 starts did Manning fail to throw a TD pass, which was the same as in 2010, but additionally only three times did he throw multiple INTs in a single game, compared to seven times in 2010. We like to say Manning has “amnesia” when he plays the position, and in the past, this has been about as equally bad as it has been good for his game. When Manning makes a poor decision or takes a bad sack, he tends to forget about it, and he won’t get hesitant about pulling the trigger again. In the past, that’s led to ugly multi-turnover games, but as his game has become more refined and his accuracy has gotten better, his tendency to forget about a mistake or ignore a drop by one of his WRs has become a huge positive, and it’s allowed the Giants to climb out of deficits and emerge victorious late in games. Manning also in 2011 improved greatly in terms of stepping up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush while keeping his downfield focus, which helped him make more plays. Also helping, of course, was a top-notch receiving corps, led by Hakeem Nicks and bolstered by the most surprising breakout player in a long time, Victor Cruz. The Giants utilize Cruz as a wildcard out of the slot, using concepts of the old run-and-shoot offense, and Manning came to trust him as both a reliable chain-mover and deadly downfield threat. No elite QB is complete without a set of weapons to trust, and Manning certainly had them this year. His receivers helped offset a down year for the Giants’ run game, and an offensive line that was slightly above-average at its best this year. As we’ve learned from Manning’s brother and guys like Ben Roethlisberger in recent years, strong QB play can negate a lot of weaknesses, and Manning has reached that tier.There’s a movement amongst the New York faithful to laud Manning as an “elite” QB, and obviously heaping that kind of praise on him requires a definition of the word in the first place. No, he might not be Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or his brother. But he’s obviously close, and he’s getting better every season.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Manning is obviously entrenched here, but can he continue to improve his fantasy production? Will he still be underrated on draft day? With David Carr a free agent, who will back him up?
RBs: Since Eli Manning started chucking the ball all around the field in 2009, the Giants have been more of a passing team than a running team, and never was that more true than it was in 2011, when the Giants finished last in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt. Sure, a lot of that has to do with the offensive line struggling to create a push on the ground, but both Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs had a disappointing 2011 season after both were legitimate fantasy options in 2010. Bradshaw is the better back, and the Giants’ starter, but injuries and ineffectiveness plagued most of his 2011 season. That said, he managed to average a solid score when he was actually on the field. In 12 games, Bradshaw carried for 171/659/9 (3.9 YPC) and added 34/267/2 as a receiver, giving him 13.2 FPG, ranking him 14th among all RBs, so he was someone absolutely worth putting in your lineup when he was actually healthy. But as with many “disappointing” fantasy players, some big games and timely TDs helped overshadow a really inconsistent season. Although he finished the season with multiple TDs in each of the last two weeks of the year, Bradshaw didn’t run for more than 58 yards after Week Six, as he battled injuries (his feet have been bothersome for his entire career) and ineffectiveness. Also remember that Bradshaw had a 130-yard-from-scrimmage, 3-TD day against the Bills in Week Six sandwiched in the midst of a miserable five-game stretch, in which he totaled 239 yards from scrimmage and no TDs in the other four games combined. Yes, he finished the year strong, and he made some big plays in both the regular season and in the playoffs, but we would have liked to see a more consistent season from a guy who has looked like a legitimate full-time RB as recently as last season. Bradshaw isn’t a big guy, so he takes a beating, but he still runs harder between the tackles than Jacobs, who might have played out his final year in a Giants’ uniform in most unspectacular fashion. In fact, Jacobs’ production looked a lot like Bradshaw’s for a portion of the season, in that he was incredibly inconsistent. As a whole Jacobs finished with 142/571/7 rushing (3.8 YPC) and 15/128/1 receiving, giving him a 36th-most 8.4 FPG. Like Bradshaw, streaks and trends told the story of Jacobs’ season. Jacobs had a three-game stretch from Weeks Twelve through Fourteen during which he scored a total of 4 TDs and ran for 40/206, but we couldn’t expect him to keep that up, could we? With Bradshaw returning from injury to usurp a more significant role in the offense, Jacobs finished the last three weeks of the season with just 22/91 over that stretch, including a terrible 7/16 in Week Seventeen against the Cowboys (a team he crushed in Week Fourteen). In each game of that three-week stretch, Jacobs scored double-digit fantasy points, a feat he accomplished in only three of the other 11 games he played in all season. He missed two games with a knee injury, and five more times he finished with fewer than 3.5 FP in a game, so he was essentially useless for half the season. While he’s a big guy who is really light on his feet, he isn’t always an assertive runner, and that’s why Bradshaw is a better short-yardage back. With Jacobs’ contract expiring after 2012, we wouldn’t be shocked to see the Giants let him move on this offseason and giving more looks to D.J. Ware (46/163/0, 27/170/0) in the process. By the end of the year, Ware was playing a lot in shotgun sets, and with the Giants having evolved into a passing team, those skills could become more important moving forward. They could also bring in a promising rookie or give youngster Da'Rel Scott a look. Scott has some breakaway speed and impressed at times this offseason.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: With Jacobs’ contract expiring, who will rotate with Bradshaw? Will the Giants stick with Ware, or will they bring in a veteran?
WRs: The Giants, who had the worst yards per carry average in the entire NFL in 2011, have transitioned to being a very strong passing team over the last three years, and they needed it this year to reach the Super Bowl. Although QB Eli Manning has obviously been a huge part of that, his gifted group of young receivers deserves a lot of the credit, as well. As expected, third-year WR Hakeem Nicks played a very important role in the Giants’ season. He battled through nagging injuries all year, posting 75/1183/7 on 129 targets (a somewhat low 58.1% conversion rate), and he ranked 15th at the WR position with 10.7 FPG. Nicks had three 100-yard games, but before the postseason, he had only one multi-TD game, and seven times in 15 games he caught fewer than 5 passes, which meant he was a little bit more of a boom-or-bust type than some might have hoped if they selected him in the second round to be a #1 fantasy WR. Nicks is clearly a physical specimen, but he battled hamstring and ankle injuries this year, among other dings and dents. So his overall durability is still a question and reason for pause when considering him very early in drafts going forward. He also had occasional problems with dropped passes, which frankly shouldn’t be an issue for a player whose hands are the size of his. But Nicks stepped up in a big way in the postseason, and overall, only a downtick in TDs (11 to 7) really hurt his totals from 2010 (when he finished #1 in FPG with 13.1). Still, a 14-spot drop did hurt the club, and the unexpected emergence of young Victor Cruz, in his second season, helped to make up for Nicks’ occasional disappearances. If you want to know just how unpredictable the NFL is, realize that Cruz, an undrafted player out of UMass, in his first year on an active roster in the league, set the Giants’ single-season receiving yardage record and became Eli’s most reliable target in front of a superstar talent in Nicks. And it took an injury to Domenik Hixon for him to even get a true shot. When Hixon went down in Week Two, Cruz emerged and didn’t look back. He caught 83 of 130 targets (63.8%) for an incredible 1545 yards and 9 TDs, making the Giants forget easily that Steven Smith skipped town to Philadelphia. Cruz’s 13.0 FPG ranked him 5th at the WR position, making his breakout perhaps even more shocking than that of Miles Austin in 2009. Cruz did pad his numbers on a couple of long and fluky plays, but he also had seven 100-yard games, and 11 games with 5 or more receptions. In fact, from Week Four through the end of the season, only three times did he have fewer than 6 catches. He was a PPR beast with big-play ability, which made him the perfect fantasy receiver.While Cruz became a dangerous receiver on the outside in his own right, he was most deadly in the slot, where he could exploit mismatches and made most of his big plays. Cruz doesn’t have elite deep speed, but he’s fast enough, and he has such a good feel for the position that all it takes is creative playcalling to get him open (the Giants used a lot of “switch” and run-and-shoot techniques). He was able to play in the slot when Mario Manningham, who battled knee problems this season, was active. Statistically, Manningham had a disappointing season, especially for owners who expected him to put up decent #2 fantasy numbers in the absence of Smith. But knee problems limited Manningham to 11 games, and he went for 39/523/4 on 76 targets (a low 51.3%). Outside of a three-game stretch between Weeks Eight and Ten when Manningham scored in each game, he was generally ineffective for fantasy purposes. Manningham never topped more than 77 yards receiving on the season, and he never had more than 6 catches – none of those instances outside of that three-game stretch. And his injuries made him useless down the stretch. From November 20th through the end of the season, Manningham converted just 6 of 15 targets into receptions. He’s a free agent, and if he returns, he’ll have to accept that he’s a distant #3 in this passing game. Another nice addition for the Giants was that of TE Jake Ballard, who did nothing special but adequately replaced the production of Kevin Boss, who bailed for Oakland. In 14 games, Ballard went for 38/604/4 on 61 targets (62.3%), 14 of which came in the red zone. His 6.0 FPG ranked him 14th at the TE position, about where we came to expect Boss to finish up in his time with the Giants. Ballard wasn’t extremely productive, but he didn’t need to be anything but a reliable chain-mover for Manning, and someone who could exploit a mismatch in the red zone. At 6’6”, he can do that, and he’s also a capable blocker. Given that Travis Beckum(5/93/1 in 11 games) has been a bust, it’s hard to argue about what Ballard did.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Can Cruz come anywhere close to repeating his magical 2011? Will Manningham, a free agent, be back? If not, can a youngster like Jerrel Jernigan or Ramses Barden emerge?
Key Free Agents: WR Mario Manningham, WR Devin Thomas, QB David Carr, RT Kareem McKenzie, DE Dave Tollefson, DT Rocky Bernard, DT Jimmy Kennedy, LB Chase Blackburn, LB Jonathan Goff, CB Aaron Ross, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Will Blackmon, S Deon Grant, P Steve Weatherford
QB: In 2011, Michael Vick got his monster extension, based largely on his stellar 2010 campaign, but perhaps that season overall was a lot of fool’s gold. That’s not to say Vick is a bad player, but simply that Vick is still Vick, no matter how much coaching Andy Reid has tried. Perhaps hurt by the lockout destroying his first full off-season as the Eagles’ QB, Vick ended up playing inconsistently all year, and as predicted he missed multiple games (ribs) because he still takes too many hits. Of course, even in a “down year” Vick still averaged a 6th-most 23.2 FPG. That’s disappointing considering where he was going in most drafts, but it’s a good enough number to make him a high-end starting QB when he was on the field. In 2011, Vick completed 253/423 passes (59.8%) for 3303 yards and 18 TDs, with a disappointing 14 INTs. But the number that killed his fantasy production the most were his sub-par rushing TD numbers – Vick carried 74 times for 590 yards, an average of 8.0 YPC, but he didn’t break the plane until Week Seventeen, and he finished with just 1 rushing TD on the season (that’s where the biggest drop-off in his play occurred). The good news for fantasy players is that we’d expect Vick to rebound a bit in the rushing TD department, but the bad news is that, overall, Vick looked like the Vick he was in Atlanta, namely an exceptionally gifted athlete who shows flashes of being unstoppable, but is ultimately an inaccurate passer who makes poor decisions and doesn’t “value” the football. Based on playcalling, Reid still views Vick as his best offensive player (although that honor really belongs to LeSean McCoy), and while that can win the Eagles a lot of games, it’s also one of the reasons they were so maddeningly inconsistent. The biggest issue is that Vick has become a turnover machine, and the Eagles had some season-crippling giveaways in the red zone. Last season, Vick threw only 6 INTs, but he didn’t chuck a single one until Week Twelve. He then proceeded to throw at least 1 INT in each of the Eagles’ final five games. This past year, Vick made 13 starts, and he turned the ball over in all but two of them (both games, coincidentally, against the Cowboys). He also committed double-digit turnovers in four games, including a 4-INT day against the Bills, and those types of performances just aren’t going to cut it. The turnovers are maddening, as well, because Vick will often make ill-advised throws when there’s a wide-open receiver he missed, or he will look to take off and run and get stripped from behind or take a big hit. For the most part, he played controlled football in 2010, but he took a step back in 2011. In short, Vick continues to look more and more like the guy in Atlanta – the guy who is too willing to take off and run. The difference now is probably the fact that he has a great offensive coaching staff designing plays and incredible speed at receiver, but Vick’s play is disconcerting for the long term because he needs to be more patient in the pocket and look to run only as a last resort. Everyone loves the running, but it’s going to greatly increase his chance of injury (and starts from guys like Vince Young and Mike Kafka). The good news is the Eagles are all-in on Vick for at least the near future, and hopefully a full off-season helps him settle down and play the way he played in 2010. But the tough thing with Vick, even when he’s playing well, is that it’s hard to bet on him playing in more than 12 or 13 games. If that’s the case, the Eagles must be able to count on Vick playing well in 75% of those games, or they just aren’t going to see a return on their investment. Reid and Vick some work to do this off-season.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will the full off-season get Vick back on the right path for fantasy success? With Vince Young a free agent, who will be Vick’s backup?
RBs: One of the defining moments of the Eagles’ disappointing season was the ill-advised lateral/fumble from RB Ronnie Brown on a run/pass option play at the goal line against the 49ers, but it should say something about the season LeSean McCoy had that Brown’s gaffe is really the only notable play by an Eagle RB outside of McCoy. In 15 games of action, McCoy put up 273/1309/17 rushing and 48/315/3 receiving to average 18.8 FPG, ranking him behind only Arian Foster in the entire league. McCoy’s 20 TDs scored were a new Eagle franchise record, and remember he did this despite head coach Andy Reid still shying away from the run more than he should with an elite back like McCoy. In each of his first nine games this year, McCoy scored a TD, and he scored in 13 of 15, with multiple TDs in six different games, and one of his best games of the season came against the Seahawks in Week Thirteen, when he posted 133 yards from scrimmage a 2 TDs despite playing on a sore toe. The great thing about this Eagle offense, if you’re a McCoy owner, is how the Eagles use interesting formations to get McCoy in space. In other words, a lot of McCoy’s runs come out of passing formations. He’s incredibly explosive with great short-area burst, and he’s one of the best in the business right now in terms of making defenders miss, and formations designed to get him freed up in space only amplify those elite skills. Remember that McCoy also became a serious threat in the red zone this year, taking looks away from QB Michael Vick, which hurt Vick’s fantasy production but only boosted McCoy’s. In 2011, McCoy ran the ball 53 times inside the 20, including 22 times inside the five. Compare that to 2010, when he carried only 38 times in the red zone, with only 6 inside the five. Is it any wonder he blasted off to 17 rushing TDs from only 7 in 2010? And despite his targets falling from 89 to 69 and receptions falling from 78 to 48, he actually scored one more receiving TD in 2011 – no doubt because he only lost 1 red-zone target (14 to 13) and actually gained 2 targets inside the 5 (up to 5 from 3). In tight, the Eagles like to run shovel passes and different plays to get McCoy the ball, not a bad idea considering they’ve struggled in the red zone for years. We’d expect these plays to remain in Reid’s rotation, and hopefully McCoy is north of 300 touches again next year. Obviously, we can’t expect Reid to change his stripes, and he’ll always be a pass-first coach, but McCoy is his best player, and when the Eagles got inside the red zone, he realized that. When betting on a player scoring 20 TDs, it’s always prudent to take the under, but there’s no reason McCoy can’t put up around 15 TDs next year, with some serious upside. He’s a stud.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will McCoy get as many scoring opportunities in 2012 as he had in 2011? Will the Eagles commit to him even more next season? Will the Eagles trust youngster Dion Lewis with the backup job, or will they bring in a veteran?
WRs/TEs: The Eagles’ passing game got off to a bad start before the season even began, when WR Jeremy Maclin had a health scare that resembled cancer for a good part of the summer. Maclin was able to work himself into playing shape by the time the season rolled around, but he started slow in Week One and then had to battle hamstring problems later in the year. It’s not surprising, given the inconsistent play of QB Michael Vick and the various health issues, that Maclin had a down year. In 13 games, Maclin caught 63 passes for 856 yards and 5 TDs on 96 targets (65.6%, actually up from 62.5% last year). In general, he was productive (he had three 100-yard games, more than last year), but his 25th-ranked 8.9 FPG was a disappointment, mostly because he was so inconsistent. Maclin remained Vick’s most reliable receiver, but he had some crippling late-game errors, including a terrible fourth-down drop in Week Two against Atlanta, and a fumble that cost the Eagles a chance to beat the 49ers in Week Five. Maclin is the Eagles’ best overall receiver, with a good combination of size, speed, and route-running ability, but even he couldn’t overcome an off-season plagued by a lockout and health scares. Hopefully, a normal off-season gets Maclin back on the path of being an elite #2 fantasy WR. The Eagles “other” WR, and perhaps the more famous one, had his own issues. Embroiled in a contract issue since last year, DeSean Jackson had problems being motivated early in 2011, and he was benched for a costly game against the Cardinals because he missed a team meeting. But Jackson had a heart-to-heart with coach Andy Reid at that point, and he actually finished the season strong. Jackson’s 58/961/4 on 101 targets (57.4%) gave him only 8.3 FPG, which ranked him 30th at the WR position. So Maclin was the more productive of the two Eagle WRs in 2011, but neither produced in the way we would have hoped, in large part because the passing game in general struggled. Now, Jackson is a free agent, but he seems to have changed to a more positive tune of late. He said he’d be willing to accept a franchise tag, and we don’t think there is a better fit on the market for him than Philadelphia, so there’s a good chance he’s back. At his best, he could be the most vertically explosive WR in all of football, and Vick might have the best arm strength in the league, so it’s just a matter of keeping the two of them on the field. We’ve heard that Jackson has lost some confidence or “mojo” since suffering a big hit against Dunta Robinson and the Falcons in 2010, and it makes sense given how his production has fallen off. But it was at least nice to see him make a final contract push late in the year. Maclin and Jackson are the prizes here, but the Eagles also have very reliable slot receiver Jason Avant (52/679/1, 4.6 FPG). Avant is known for his great hands and his willingness to pick up key first downs across the middle, but he doesn’t catch enough balls or score enough TDs to be more than a bye-week or injury fill-in in a PPR league. Avant’s best year was a welcome sight for the Eagles, because Steven Smith, signed away from the Giants, was a total bust (11/124/1, 3.1 FPG). Along with Avant, the Eagles’ most reliable chain-mover (finally) was TE Brent Celek, who began to (once again) look like a total beast late in the 2011 season. Celek had a monster year in 2009 with Donovan McNabb, and he had a good rapport with Kevin Kolb, but he didn’t really get on the same page as Vick until this season. On the year, Celek put up 62/811/5 receiving on 97 targets (63.9), good enough for 6.9 FPG, which ranked him 11th among all TEs. But it’s worth noting that Celek was a monster after the Eagles’ Week Seven bye. Through the bye, Celek had caught 2 or fewer passes in four of six games. After it, he had fewer than 3 catches only once in 10 games. From Week Eight on, Celek ranked 4th at the TE position with 9.4 FPG, and he did all this with a sports hernia and a hip injury that required surgery after the season. He’s big, he can move, and finally, he’s on the same page as Vick, which is fantastic news for his future. Despite his big numbers late, he flew under the radar, and he seems primed for a more consistent 2012.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: If Jackson isn’t back in 2012, how will the Eagles replace him? Can Celek put together a full productive season with Vick for the first time? Will a full off-season get Maclin back on track?
QB: No doubt about it, once the Redskins released Donovan McNabb, coach Mike Shanahan took some heat in April when he opted to roll with two underwhelming veterans at the QB position in Rex Grossman and John Beck instead of drafting a youngster like Blaine Gabbert, but it’s hard to argue with Shanahan’s decision right now. No, the Redskins didn’t have a good year, and when Grossman got benched midseason Beck was a disaster, but they’re also not committed to a “QB of the future” that they clearly weren’t sold on, and that’s a positive. Let’s start with Grossman. As can be expected, Rex had himself an up-and-down year, playing in 14 games and starting 13, and although he got benched after a horrendous showing against the Eagles in Week Six, he rebounded to be a fantasy QB who was actually worth owning as a backup and even a decent starter on occasion. Grossman finished with 3148 yards passing with 16 TDs and 20 INTs, and he averaged a 26th-most 16.3 FPG. But remember that he took a zero in one of the games in which he relieved Beck, so he was valuable as a spot starter against some defenses. In 10 of his 13 starts, he topped 200 yards, and twice he topped 300, so he wasn’t a fantasy black hole. The issue with Grossman has always been his decision-making, especially with his tendency to launch ill-advised throws deep down the field, because his arm strength is no better than average. He also has problems with his mechanics and balance, which will often amplify his already poor decision-making and average arm. But when Grossman is setting his feet, going through his progressions, and making the right throws, he can be successful, as he showed at times this year. He’s a decent NFL QB who seems destined for a backup role because he’s so up-and-down, but he’s not a total bum. And that leads us to Beck, who made three starts in the middle of the season after Grossman got benched in Week Six. Beck threw for 858 yards and 2 TDs with 4 INTs in four games of action (three starts), but actually averaged 16.8 FPG, more than Grossman (his two rushing TDs helped him in that department). Otherwise, Beck showed a total unwillingness to actually throw the ball down the field. He’s a better decision-maker than Grossman, and he’s more mobile, but his arm strength isn’t even as good as Grossman’s, and a lot of Beck’s yardage came from checking down. In fact, where Grossman was way too willing to make throws that weren’t there for the taking, Beck was way too gun shy, leaving potential big plays on the field. And given his lack of arm strength, he wasn’t nearly accurate enough to be a legitimate NFL starting QB. At his best, Beck worked off the play action and got comfortable in the gameplan presented to him, and at his worst he didn’t pull the trigger on designed shot plays that had a chance to be successful. Neither he nor Grossman was the answer, especially behind a rebuilding offensive line, but Grossman simply gave the Redskins a better chance to win football games.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Quite simply, who will be the Redskins’ QB in 2012? Grossman is a free agent, will he return, even if it’s in a backup role? The Redskins could draft a QB if Shanahan likes one who is available, or they could make a big-money play for Matt Flynn.
RBs: It’s impossible to think of the Washington Redskins’ 2011 season without “Shanahanigans” coming to mind. Coach Mike Shanahan’s constant juggling at the RB position really hurt a lot of fantasy players this year, and by the time Roy Helu actually emerged as the go-to back late in the season, it was too late for Shanahan to build up good will. To no one’s surprise, veteran RB Tim Hightower opened the year as the Redskins’ starter after he was acquired in a trade from Arizona. Hightower is a powerful one-cut runner who fits really well in Shanahan’s scheme, and until Week Seven, Hightower (who missed two games with a shoulder injury) carried 84 times for 321 yards and a TD, adding 10/78/1 receiving and averaging 10.4 FPG. Of course, it wasn’t simple with Hightower missing two games with a shoulder injury – and that’s when the Shanahanigans started. Hightower initially got hurt in Week Four, and he was relieved by Ryan Torain, who was spectacular with 19/135/1 in relief. So with Hightower banged up (he later tore his ACL in Week Seven, opening the door for a new volume back to take over), Torain would become the guy, right? Not so fast. Torain suited up in eight games for Washington this past year, totaling 59/200/1 rushing. That’s right. Outside of his huge Week Four, when he didn’t even start, Torain carried a whopping 40 times for 65 yards before getting cut late in the year. Torain’s disappearing act screwed a lot of players, as did Shanahan’s unwillingness to commit to the rookie Helu until the second half of the year (there was even a Tashard Choice experiment mixed in there). Helu led the Redskins in yards from scrimmage, with 151/640/2 and a very solid 49/379/1 in 15 games of action, but his lack of scoring meant he averaged just 8.0 FPG, 39th at the RB position. Helu clearly needs space to run and is more of a perimeter runner, but those things are not necessarily hindrances in Shanahan’s offense. When there is a crease, he can get downhill well and pick up big yardage – he’s a stiff runner, but he does have vertical burst and some natural power. Of course, he didn’t top 20 carries until Week Thirteen, when he did it in four consecutive games before toe and knee injuries kept him out in Week Sixteen and limited in Week Seventeen. And in those final two games of the season, yet another rookie showed what he was capable of doing. Evan Royster spent the first 11 weeks of the season on Washington’s practice squad, but he got touches in each of the Redskins’ final six games, culminating in big games in Weeks Sixteen (19/132 and 2/15 receiving) and Seventeen (20/113 and 5/52 receiving). Royster showed that he’s more than capable of filling in when there’s an injury in this offense, and he might actually be a more complete player than Helu. Helu is more physical and more explosive than Royster, but Royster has good short-area quickness and is a good fit for the offense as an inside slasher – the type of runner who can be successful under Shanahan. In all, five different Redskin RBs carried the ball in 2011. Two of them ended up getting cut before the season was over, one suffered a season-ending injury, and the other two were rookies, one of whom spent more than half the year on the practice squad. “Shanahanigans,” everyone.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Who will be the Redskins’ starting RB in 2012? Will Hightower, a free agent, be back, or will the Redskins let Helu and Royster duke it out?
WRs/TEs: The Redskins didn’t have a QB they could really trust this year, but they did at least have a dynamic weapon emerge in TE Fred Davis. We’ve said for two years now that Davis is a lot more exciting and dangerous than the banged-up and declining Chris Cooley, who played in only five games this year and caught only 8 passes thanks to knee and hand injuries. Cooley’s injury gave Davis the freedom to break out. In 12 games of action before losing the last four with a banned substance suspension, he did just that. Davis caught 59 passes for 793 yards and 3 TDs, averaging 8.1 FPG, which tied him with Tony Gonzalez for the 5th-most in the NFL. In fact, Davis was pretty much the glue that held the passing game together. He moves well, and the coaches love extending him from the formation. Plus, with his fantastic vertical speed from the TE position, he becomes a really difficult matchup for LBs and safeties across the middle. Like Cooley, he can be a fantastic safety valve, but he also offers dynamic play that Cooley hasn’t been able to give them for years. Davis was able to serve out his entire suspension at the end of the 2011 season, so he’ll be ready to go for 2012, and he’ll be a critical option for whoever is playing QB. That’s good news, because while Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney are still productive receivers, both are getting up there and age and neither can be relied on for more than solid possession-type numbers. A broken hand limited Moss to 12 games, and in those 12 games he wasn’t particularly special, catching 46 passes for 584 yards and 4 TDs, ranking tied for 43rd at the WR position with 6.9 FPG. For the third consecutive season, Moss finished with less than 13.0 YPC, so he’s essentially had to reinvent himself as a possession option, and he might be the type of player who needs strong QB play and good health moving forward to make much of a fantasy impact. Gaffney, on the other hand, had his best season as a pro. Gaffney’s 68 catches topped his 2010 career-high by 3, and his 947 yards topped his 2010 career-high by 72. However, he scored only 5 TDs, limiting him to 7.8 FPG. That was still a career-high, but it was good enough to rank him only 36th at the WR position, meaning he was the definition of a low-end #3 fantasy receiver. But Gaffney’s a smart receiver who gets open, and QB Rex Grossman admitted his comfort level with his former college teammate was very high. Both Moss and Gaffney will be back next year, assuming neither gets cut, and they’ll have plenty of competition from young receivers looking to make an impact. Rookies Leonard Hankerson (13/163/0) and Niles Paul (2/25/0) were each given a chance to play but ended up succumbing to injuries (on tape, we actually liked Paul better than Hankerson, who looked like a plodding possession type of receiver), while journeyman Donte’ Stallworth (22/309/2) was actually the third-most productive WR, and second-year player Terrence Austin (12/137/0) was behind him. Stallworth is a free agent here, but this is a logjam scenario moving forward, and the Redskins’ coaching staff will have decisions to make in training camp.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will free agents Davis and Stallworth return to the fold? Has Cooley played his last down as a Redskin? Will the Redskins try to make a play for a legitimate top option at WR, or will they stick with the young guys they have and let them duke it out?
Key Free Agents: QB Rex Grossman, RB Tim Hightower, TE Fred Davis, WR Donte’ Stallworth, WR David Anderson, C Will Montgomery, DE Adam Carriker, DE Kedric Golston, LB London Fletcher, LB Rocky McIntosh, LB Keyaron Fox, S LaRon Landry, CB Phillip Buchanon
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