Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
Challenge Quarterbacks, Tier By Tier
Posted Jul. 29 at 10:00 AM
And the world's first use of the phrase "princess of passing"
in reference to one Mike Martz.
It's still early, but it's also the end of July. Plenty of time yet for piecing together the perfect challenge roster, but Plenty of Time Yet becomes Cutting It Close if you don't watch yourself. Starting this week I'll run down the challenge positions one at a time (QB, then RB, then WR, then TE & K together), focusing almost exclusively on players I have already deemed challenge-worthy. If your favorite player happens to be Matt Hasselbeck, you won't be thrilled with what follows. I'm sure he's a good guy, tucks his kids into bed every night, gives generously to the local YMCA -- but I've decided he's not worth considering or discussing further.
For additional winnowing-down and ease-of-reference, here: I've attempted to split the quarterbacks into peer groups, or tiers, both by salary and by the substance of the analysis required. It's not the worst strategy in the world to pick one player from each tier, six in all, and call those your QBs. I thought about giving the tiers cutesy names, then remembered I'm not remotely clever.
Tom Brady ($4150)
Peyton Manning ($3900)
The Plexiglass Principle would ordinarily make Peyton the play here -- and the best illustration of why that's so is Peyton's own career. 2004: 4,557 yards passing over 16 games, 49 TDs. 2005: 3,747 yards passing over 16 games, 28 TDs. Brady cannot possibly throw another 50 TD passes in '08, and Peyton arguably outplayed him down the stretch in '07.
I'm owning Brady, though. For two reasons.
One, Peyton has the bum knee. Surgery is never good, and even as little as Peyton runs, he relies on his legs both to evade rushers and to generate downfield power. His body works much the same way that Ken Griffey's seems to; the power's coming from every part of him, shoulders down to feet.
Two, as I wrote last week, I want to see (and own) what Brady does to erase the lingering Super Bowl memories. The over-under on TD passes in Week 1 (vs. KC) is 3.5 and maybe heading for 4. That's preposterous, of course, but the fact that it's preposterous doesn't make it untrue.
Ben Roethlisberger ($3330)
Tony Romo ($3250)
Drew Brees ($3180)
I skipped Carson Palmer ($3540), as I'm every bit as low on him now as I was high on him a year ago. Take away his 401 yards and 6 TDs in the 51-45 loss at CLE in Week 2 and Palmer's 2007 was profoundly ordinary. He was clearly worse than Romo, probably worse than Roethlisberger (who threw for 1,000 fewer yards but 6 more TDs, and at 7.8 yards per attempt to Palmer's 7.2), pretty comparable to Brees.
That's Brees, whose team took forever to get going (which should not repeat) and just added a major weapon in Jeremy Shockey. It helps that Brees is meaningfully cheaper than Palmer, of course, but even ignoring their salaries I think Brees has the better year in 2008. I don't think it'll be particularly close. I will almost certainly own Brady and Brees and no other player from these top tiers to start the season, but combining the six players atop the salary list into one ranking, all factors considered, I'd have them like this:
- Flip a coin between Palmer and Roethlisberger, which means I pick Roethlisberger.
My coins tend to land on cheaper.
Donovan McNabb ($2860)
Jay Cutler ($2730)
Derek Anderson ($2570)
Now I'm starting to dismiss players more readily. As always, there's kind of a no man's land between about $3000 and about $2000 on the Football Challenge salary list. I'm not even really considering one of the players I just named.
Start there: Anderson caught lightning in a bottle last year, when he was least likely to do so - the same year the Browns made their big move on Brady Quinn - and a good kind of lightning at that. His whole game is getting the ball downfield, far downfield, and when he hits a pass that means he's doing good work in two (sometimes three) categories. Piling up yards, boosting your average, producing his share of TDs. He'd be an ideal challenge player at a 62.5% completion percentage. Wherein, you might guess, lies the problem. He's more a shotgun QB than a rifleman; he sprays tiny pieces of lead over a general vicinity instead of firing killshot after killshot into the belly of target after target. There's an excellent way to cash in on Anderson's heave-ho game: Own Braylon Edwards instead.
The other names here make up the Potential portion of the tier. Potential Squandered, maybe, in Donovan McNabb, who became a supereffective challenge passer four years ago -- smart, accurate, much like what we'd rather see from Anderson -- only to lose some of his new effectiveness to the ravages of injury and now age. I've listed him because the Donovan McNabb I owned at the start of the season three years ago, if he managed to maintain his health through a full 16 games in 2008, could be one of the four or five best passers in the league. Unlikely, but there it is.
Potential Yet Unfulfilled in Jay Cutler, who was effective a year ago and now knows exactly why he felt so crappy all the time. Watching the sideline film accompanying ESPN's feature coverage of his diabetes diagnosis has done much to convince me; when you see this fellow, pale, sallow, losing weight, then check his numbers ...
297-of-467 (63.6%) for 3,497 yards (7.5 per attempt), 20 TDs;
44 rushes for a useful 205 yards (4.7 per), 1 TD
... how can you not be curious about his first healthy season as a full-timer?
I'll go farther, even: How can you not plan on carrying him, at least on the taxi squad, just in case he's the next big thing?
Vince Young ($2020)
Eli Manning ($1870)
I said there was a no man's land between $3000 and $2000, but this year it reaches all the way down to $1200, probably.
What I'm saying most explicitly: I won't really consider V.Y. or Eli.
What I'm saying more implicitly: QBs in the middle of the salary range are generally a losing proposition. The reasons for this relate both to the particular quarterbacks who wind up in the middle and the particular quarterbacks who don't.
Young and Eli are perfectly typical of middle-salaried QBs. Young essentially duplicates my Mike Vick experience of seasons past. When Vick was a free man, and was running, I convinced myself at least twice that his numbers could be skimmed. Own him, stash him on the taxi, activate him when you don't like your better passers' matchups and you do like his. I looked for home games against teams with a particular defensive scheme that seemed to play into his hands (or feet): stout lane-cloggers up front, guys who could push through and pressure the pass up the middle but had zero lateral mobility. The Jaguars have been like that in recent years; get through the line quickly, force Vick to scramble but leave the edges open. He'd turn a corner and ...
Whatever, this worked best in my brain on Friday afternoon. Not so well on the field on Sunday. Inevitably I'd start Vick the week he was bottled up and some scrubby passer I'd sat down instead would go 16-of-21 for 279 and a TD -- and another one on the ground.
Point is, I couldn't skim Vick no matter how much thinking I did. It never worked. And Young doesn't run like Vick anyway - not as often, not as well. He's a sucker's bet. I am no longer that sucker.
Eli is typical in another sense. Bigger name than game. You scan the salary list and your eyes naturally settle on MANNING at $1870. Lot of Q rating for the buck -- the guy won the Super Bowl; he went to Disney World -- but less quality than even the modest salary would demand. Eli, you may have noticed, is not very good.
David Tyree can make the biggest play in the history of televised sports, fine. Eli can escape ridiculous pressure on that play, can randallcunningham his way into new life (to coin a verb). But when the ball's in the air, pretty much the whole way from hand to helmet, it looks like a pick. The Catch wasn't the only interception Eli tried to throw on that drive.
And it ain't like he set the world on fire all regular season, either. He has his ups and he has his downs, and skimming him looks just as hard as skimming Young and Vick before him. I owned Eli on a last-minute hunch a year ago, was momentarily thrilled when he posted big numbers Week 1, then fast descended into fit after fit of frustration. The Carson Palmer / Eli Manning exacta in 2007 may be the most vexing play I've ever made in fantasy sports - all year it was ecstasy and agony, up but always down, in the money and then mostly out.
More than saying anything specific about two quarterbacks, though, I want to share what I've finally decided about this whole part of the salary range. There's just no reason to fool around here. The few quarterbacks in the league who have no fatal flaws - really I mean Brady and Peyton and that's it, but add Brees and Romo if you must - get the biggest salaries. There is indeed that much difference between those QBs and Eli. You're best off owning as many guys like that as you can afford, which means (for cap purposes) skipping the middle tier(s) altogether, mucking farther down the salary list, plucking the handsomest frogs from the scumpools, closing your eyes and kissing away. Next year the best of those cheapos will be middle salary guys. This year they'll play like them.
When big brother costs $3900, $1870 is not cheap enough for little brother.
Jason Campbell ($1680)
Alex Smith ($1200)
These two are the likeliest players to follow the usual frog-to-prince progression in 2008. Middling quarterback (Jon Kitna), kissed by princess of passing (er, Mike Martz), throws a lot more and plays ... somewhat ... better.
With Martz taking over in San Francisco, we know absolutely that some 49ers quarterback will throw enough to be worth considering. The keys are spotting that quarterback, first - Smith seems likeliest but may simply stink - and spotting the right matchups, second. I'm looking for secondaries that play off the ball and give up the highest completion percentages, and I'm more inclined to go against those secondaries in mild weather on the road, where SF is likely to trail big in the second half (and so throw even more than usual). Please note that you can lose -- big -- with a Martz QB. No one in the league is more likely to put up a random 400-yard day. But no one's more likely to complete 28-of-53, either, and destroy your passing average in the process.
Campbell is strictly wait-and-see at the moment. I've said for several years now that he's a heady, capable player with real potential to help both his team and yours. Now I think Jim Zorn might be the perfect voice on the other end of the headset. Get a smart guy with tools into the West Coast offense, get him going to the right spots consistently, and maybe you're looking at a new star. Maybe. But the starting quarterback in D.C. down the stretch -- and in the playoffs -- a year ago was Todd Collins, not Campbell. And $1680 is hardly free. Make him show you first.
Aaron Rodgers ($940)
JaMarcus Russell ($920)
Shaun Hill ($750)
Owning handsome frogs really means carrying one or more of these guys, NFL starting quarterbacks (in the case of Hill, maybe) with salaries under $1M.
Rodgers is automatic inheriting the system and talent that Brett Favre leaves behind in Green Bay. Ask yourself how much worse than Eli he could possibly be, with this offense working for him, these receivers, Ryan Grant apparently a better Dorsey Levens. And now remember that Rodgers costs almost exactly half of Eli's $1870.
JaMarcus Russell is hardly automatic - he's not even stick. But if I were really thinking of owning Vince Young ...
Right, I'd cross him off and not carry any player of the sort. If Russell seems to have a clue come Week 6 or so, and Rodgers is hurt, and Mike Martz is shuffling his QBs in SF, and I could not live without Brady, say, and with Cutler instead, and I felt lucky, and I were related to Russell within three degrees of consanguinity (or I'd attended LSU), sure, I'd think about him.
Hill cannot be owned until he becomes the anointed starter in SF. If it happens, though, given how useful Jon Kitna would have been at $750 over the past couple of years, and given how (reasonably) well Hill himself played in spurts in 2007, he becomes automatic in his own right.
My likely mix of QBs to start: Brady, Brees, Cutler, Smith, Rodgers. I will try to open with Brady and Brees active, which means Rodgers active as well, carrying an extra cheapo at WR to beat the salary cap.
Or something like that. Again, at least for a couple of weeks yet, it's early.
Add a Comment
Already a registered user? Please sign in to add comments.
To add comments, you must become a registered user of our site. To register, please click here.