The Weekly Gut Check No. 188 - Fantasy Dumpster Diving
By Matt Waldman
May 17th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Fantasy trash or hidden treasure?

These players are worth closer inspection…

Spring is the best season for yard sailing, both around the neighborhood and online. It's the time of year for serious re-drafters to get familiar with late-round prospects. As for dynasty leagues, I don't need to tell you this is primetime for low-risk/high-reward scavenging on the waiver wire, the tail end of rookie drafts, and the dust-ridden depths of your opponents' rosters.

Playing with a bunch of Footballguys in a dynasty league, I can't tell you how many times this offseason that I have been low-balled for Devin Aromashodu. Not that Aromashodu is a stud (not yet), but those great whites circling my roster thought I was the diver in this picture. But see that bigger fish dominating the white space? That's the Megalodon, and I already got to that value catch way before those sharp-toothed minnows got the scent of blood in the water.

I like to look for players that have done so little on the field (and some times too much off it) that fantasy owners write them off prematurely. Then (like everyone else) I try to grab them just before they make some noise. And within every pile of annual castoffs, there will at least be one player that comes out of nowhere in the right circumstance. It's only May, but a little legwork now can help you make better use of the late rounds in August while your opposition is picking players with the expertise of drawing straws..

There are three types of finds you'll spot during your offseason Fantasy Dumpster Diving:

  • Reclamation Projects: Players that haven't lived up to their immense potential due to self-imposed limitations. Their careers require a complete overhaul, but the raw materials are there to be a quality product.
  • Just Needs A Little Paint: These players are like that old table in the corner of a garage collecting dust. It might look ugly, but it just needs someone to put a little work into it and it will look good.
  • Hidden Surprises: These are players biding their time on depth charts like a rare first edition book sitting undiscovered in the drawer of a $5 desk.

Reclamation Projects

WR Matt Jones, Bengals: Thanks to the duo of Lammey and Bloom, Jones moniker around Footballguys is Dr. Rockzo, although most of the credit goes to Jones himself for devoting more time to street chemistry than his Jacksonville playbook. At 6'6", 235 lbs., deep speed, and flashes of skill that prompted praise from Bill Belichick after a 2007 playoff loss to the Patriots, Jones could have been the precursor to Megatron on the evolutionary scale of freakish, play making receivers. Instead, he's the missing link.

However, the converted college quarterback didn't do the work to fulfill that potential. John Madden told a national TV audience that, according to quarterback David Garrard, Jones didn't study the playbook. What Jones could do despite his lack of a work ethic and no experience as a receiver until he turned pro is the ultimate backwards compliment considering that a college receiver's transition to the NFL has a higher degree of difficulty than most positions in football.

Jones now gets another chance to prove himself and I think there are several things I like about this opportunity. The fit with Cincinnati is a good one. Although the Bengals have become known as the Raiders East, they have shown stronger leadership than Oakland at head coach and quarterback to steer through Chad Ochocinco's worst antics and persevere with the late, Chris Henry, an equally talented and immature athlete as Matt Jones.

The Bengals also acquired Antonio Bryant this winter, another former bad-boy receiver that got passed around the NFL due to his initial, childish behavior. Bryant is no longer a potential issue and his talented is only limited by his health. He's two years removed from a 1200-yard season, and he should be closer to a four-digit, yardage total with Carson Palmer throwing him the football and Ochocinco on the other side.

Enter Matt Jones.

Jones' size and naturally good hands makes him a quality red zone option and he's fast enough to give opposing defenses fits with downfield coverage, especially with Ochocinco and Bryant on the outside. Jones's ability to burn safeties from the slot should also spread the field and open more lanes for Cedric Benson.

The key is whether Jones is putting in the work. Based on reports that he burned up-and-coming, CB Leon Hall twice in spring practice and observers say he is in the best shape of his career it looks like Jones is making better decisions on and off the field.

If Palmer can regain his Pro Bowl form physically and the Bengals can give him time to deliver the football, this offense could be as dangerous as any in the AFC. I consider Jones a late-round, bye-week option with 800-yard upside. If he fulfills his immense potential and wins a starting job (not likely this year), add another 300-400 yards to that total.

The moment I heard the Bengals took him, I added Jones to my dynasty roster. If he's still a free agent, grab him if you have room. If Jones is already on a roster, his asking price might be too high to consider because of the positive buzz.

WR Mike Williams, Seahawks: Here is another promising receiver whose immaturity derailed his initial shot. The former USC star and 10th overall pick ate his way out of the league after stops in Detroit, Oakland, and Tennessee. Even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Williams' former college coach and poster boy for optimism, hasn't minced words, describing the receiver's career as, "poor."

It's worth remembering that Mike Williams was a 20-year-old college superstar on the best college football team in the nation when he tried to piggyback his way to the NFL on the initial Maurice Clarett ruling. But when the U.S. courts overturned the initial decision, it cost Williams not only his draft eligibility, but also his college football career. In hindsight, a year out of competitive football probably did more to hurt Williams than anything. The receiver clearly lacked the discipline to stay in peak physical condition and it was an uphill climb for him the moment he arrived in Detroit.

[Note: This is the point I get to write the over-used, but always amusing phrase, "I don't know what you were doing when you were 20, but I was…" Since I've waited so long to use this worn-out convention in a sports column, I'm going to give you multiple choices.]

I don't know what you were doing when you were 20, but I was…

  • a) Switching the corporate training video at my restaurant job with movies that, let's just say, the average hotel makes the most money supplying, but its customers spend the least amount of time watching. (I'm pretty sure customers at the front of the house wondered if Meg Ryan was reprising her famous "Sleepless in Seattle" scene in the back).
  • b) Taking my three squares a day at Waffle House, IHOP, and Pizza joints.
  • c) Watching classmates do late-night stunt driving with a golf cart they "appropriated" from University of Miami campus security. That lake in the middle of campus holds a lot of secrets.

What I did most at age 20 was play my saxophone 8 hours per day, take 7-10 classes a semester, and rehearse and gig with a Meringue band in the greater Miami area. It was during that time I decided that I might benefit more from leaving music school and take the old-school route to learning. However, I soon discovered that finding a place to practice, finding like-minded musicians to perform with, and contributing to my daily survival at the same time was a lot tougher than I imagined.

A month out of school, my new instruments were a chopping knife and a Hobart for food prep and washing dishes at the 60-hour per week gig at a fondue restaurant. Meanwhile, my old axe lay in its case, unopened. As someone that once aspired to make a living in a competitive field with limited opportunities, I can attest that when I left a supportive, disciplined environment for my passion, my motivation eroded quickly, and my skills acquired a lot of rust.

It could be argued I didn't have the passion for my aspirations after all, but I believe desire is only part of a successful equation that has to include discipline and maturity. Just like Williams, there is no one to blame other than the guy in the mirror. However, I understand how Williams screwed up his first shot in the NFL, because a supportive environment makes a big difference. Having empathy for a player's situation doesn't change the fact that he's a long shot, but it will help you spot potential exceptions to the rule when it comes to decisions on these types of players.

Antonio Bryant, Ricky Williams, and Vince Young are three examples of talented players written off too early for similar reasons. It's easy for the media, filled with talking heads that have had 20-30 years to forget what it's like to be this young.
Fantasy writers spend a lot of time writing about "the rules," but in any avenue of life, you learn "the rules" so you can better recognize when its best to break them. The more a fantasy owner recognizes the good opportunities to capitalize on the exceptions to the rules, the greater his chances of success.

On a side note, Williams' situation makes you admire Titans rookie safety Myron Rolle even more. To return from a stint in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and to look more athletic a year away from Florida State's football program is a testament to Rolle's discipline that few people his age have.

I'm not sold on Williams at this point. All he has done is have a good mini camp in Seattle. However, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Golden Tate, and a bunch of slot guys don't constitute a great NFL receiving corps. If Williams can remain fit and show consistent maturity, he has the skills to be the best big, USC receiver in the pros since Keyshawn Johnson.

If he makes the time, I think Williams could be a late-round, bye-week option in re-draft leagues. He is a luxury free agent addition for dynasty leaguers and I you'll be able to pry him loose from another team at lower cost than Matt Jones. Williams' floor is probably lower than Jones', but his situation makes his ceiling a little higher.

Just needs a little paint

WR Troy Williamson, Jaguars: Williamson was possibly the highlight of the Jaguars 2009 preseason, winning the starting job opposite Mike Sims-Walker before he missed the season with a shoulder injury. Like Mike Williams, Williamson was a former top-10 pick in the draft. In contrast to Williams, who has excellent hands, what earned Williamson was the great athlete the Vikings thought they could develop into a great receiver. The former South Carolina star struggled with his hands techniques, and Brad Childress' patience wore thin.

I'm generally wary of receivers with issues catching the football. However, I have been coming around on the idea that a prospect can improve his skill with dedicated attention to his craft. Williamson looked poised to turn a corner in his fifth season – a little late for what is expected from receivers in our hobby, but for a player available at the end of drafts, he was a no-brainer investment.

In 2010, Williamson's main competition for the No. 2 job is second-year pros Mike Thomas, a player with some similarities to the Panthers' Steve Smith, and Jarrett Dillard, a quick, glue-fingered receiver with excellent leaping ability out of Rice who was on injured reserve for most of his rookie year. Although I believe Thomas has the talent to start and thrive with the right quarterback, I'm not sure Jacksonville is currently that situation.

Dillard has the great hands that Williamson lacks and enough quickness to get on top of defenders early. The question mark with Dillard is whether he is currently strong enough to handle the physicality of the NFL to be an effective starter (I think he does), and does he have a second gear to get deep. If Williamson can relegate Thomas to the slot and hold off Dillard, he will be a value pick, which makes him worth monitoring. Because the Jags No. 1 receiver Mike Sims-Walker has dealt with his share of injuries, Williamson isn't a bad add for a dynasty roster that already has Sims-Walker, Dillard, or Thomas. He is probably a free agent in many dynasty leagues.

WR Earl Bennett, Bears: Bennett did nothing his first year as a highly regarded rookie out of Vanderbilt. Last year, he was overshadowed by Johnnie Knox at the beginning and Devin Aromashodu at the end. However, Bennett managed 51 catches, 690 yards, and 2 TDs, which is a pretty hefty jump in production after his first season on the bench.

Yet Bennett is an afterthought for fantasy owners. No one is excited about Bennett's prospects because he lacks Knox, Aromashodu, and Hester's speed. Yet, as hard it as it may be to believe, Bennett led the Bears in yards per catch average last year. His 13.28 yards per catch was more than other first-year contributors Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree, more than veterans Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, Hines Ward, and Anquan Boldin.

Granted, Devin Hester played with a bad shoulder, it was Johnny Knox's rookie year, and Aromashodu didn't get a shot early in the year due to a bad quad. However, I don't hear anyone making excuses for Bennett, who needed minor knee surgery in the offseason and it was his first year on the field. The expectation that Earl Bennett was going to have a great connection with Jay Cutler because they played together for one year at Vanderbilt was overblown. I'll be the first to admit that I expected more. However, if you compared Bennett's production to other first-year contributors you find that he was one of the more productive receivers in this context:

Wide Receiver
Year
Team
G
GS
Rec
RecYds
YPC
Hakeem Nicks
2009
NYG
14
6
47
790
16.81
Percy Harvin
2009
Min
15
8
60
790
13.17
Jeremy Maclin
2009
Phi
15
13
55
762
13.85
Mike Wallace
2009
Pit
16
4
39
756
19.38
Earl Bennett
2009
Chi
16
15
54
717
13.28
Kenny Britt
2009
Ten
16
6
42
701
16.69
Austin Collie
2009
Ind
16
5
60
676
11.27
Michael Crabtree
2009
SF
11
11
48
625
13.02
Mohamed Massaquoi
2009
Cle
16
11
34
624
18.35
Johnny Knox
2009
Chi
15
0
45
527
11.71
Louis Murphy
2009
Oak
16
9
34
521
15.32
Brian Hartline
2009
Mia
16
2
31
506
16.32
Mike Thomas
2009
Jac
14
4
48
453
9.44
Julian Edelman
2009
NE
11
7
37
359
9.70
Devin Aromashodu
2009
Chi
10
2
24
298
12.42
Deon Butler
2009
Sea
16
0
15
175
11.67
Darrius Heyward-Bey
2009
Oak
11
11
9
124
13.78
Jarett Dillard
2009
Jac
7
0
6
106
17.67
Brian Robiskie
2009
Cle
11
1
7
106
15.14
Kevin Ogletree
2009
Dal
11
0
7
96
13.71
Quan Cosby
2009
Cin
16
0
4
55
13.75
Marko Mitchell
2009
Was
10
0
4
32
8.00
Ramses Barden
2009
NYG
3
0
1
16
16.00

Only Harvin, Maclin, and Collie had more receptions and they were playing with three of the most experienced passers in football. Bennett was also sixth in yardage and the five ahead of him had strong primary or even strong secondary receivers surrounding them. In comparison, the Bears receiving corps production was in greater flux from week to week with a new quarterback and three of its four receivers as first-year contributors.

Devin Hester made it known in a February interview with ESPN that he believes what he does best is return kicks and he would have no problem having a smaller role as a receiver if it meant helping his production on special teams. Since Mike Martz envisions Hester as a slot receiver, it dovetails nicely with Hester's self-assessment.

Bennett's main competition will likely be Johnny Knox, and Knox symbolizes the crux of the issue with a player like Bennett. Knox is a speedster who flashed big-play potential. In the first two games of the year, the Steelers and Packers underestimated Knox last year and rightfully dared Cutler to give the rookie a chance to make the big play, and it worked for the Bears.

In many respects, Knox was no more impressive than Bennett for the rest of the year. However, there is a bias to how the public reacts to the media. If a subject is in the media a lot, we develop biases based on how we read in the information. A great example is the oft-used example that most people believe that far more people die from car crashes each year than from stomach cancer when in fact, it is exactly the opposite. The reason public knowledge of something like this is so far off is that the media covers car crashes far more often than they do stories on stomach cancer.

Knox was the popular story for the Bears early in the year and Devin Aromashodu late in the year. It's kind of like the story of the tortoise and the hare. Fantasy owners are currently enamored with the media-generated celebrity that comes from making a big splash of higher production in a few games (Aromashodu and Knox) versus lower, but consistent production of a player (Bennett) whose reputation could grow if it continues along this track.

Bennett becomes a nice late round option that pans out. What makes him an undervalued commodity is his consistent hands, good recognition of openings in zone, and skill to turn small gains into bigger ones after the catch. Despite lacking top-end speed, it sounds a lot like Martz receiver, doesn't it?

Bennett will at worst serve as a Bobby Engram/Troy Brown type of role player this year, but I do think his upside is as a poor man's Hines Ward. For a late-round flier, he is worth making the initial investment. He is probably an easy player to acquire in a dynasty league, because some owners sour on receivers after a couple of seasons where the production is consistent, but not flashy. It's the power of celebrity over reputation at work.

Didn't know that was in there! Hidden surprises

Reserve RBs for the Jaguars, Cowboys, and 49ers: Maurice Jones-Drew has been a workhorse for the best few years and consistently one of the elite fantasy runners. Odds are that his reign of consistent production will come to an end sooner than later. I'm not predicting injury, just stating that three years of consistently strong production is not common; four is rare. The same can be said about Frank Gore and to some extent, Marion Barber III.

Here is a list of runners in the past decade with the most consecutive years of starter-worthy fantasy production.

Consecutive Years As Fantasy Starters (2000-2009)

Running Back
'00
'01
'02
'03
'04
'05
'06
'07
'08
'09
Top12
Top24
Tiki Barber
13
15
7
15
2
3
7
3
7
Edgerrin James
2
24
10
6
5
20
10
3
6
Brian Westbrook
20
10
18
6
2
10
3
6
Thomas Jones
18
9
21
22
5
6
2
6
Ahman Green
5
3
13
2
15
15
2
5
Curtis Martin
10
5
18
18
4
2
5
Shaun Alexander
4
5
6
1
1
5
5
Steve Jackson
11
3
15
13
9
2
5
Marshall Faulk
1
1
14
16
2
4
Ricky Williams
18
8
2
9
7
3
4
Eddie George
3
19
10
22
1
4
Priest Holmes
2
1
1
11
4
4
Clinton Portis
4
5
12
6
5
8
4
4
Rudi Johnson
19
8
7
9
3
4
Frank Gore
4
9
14
5
2
4
Maurice Jones-Drew
8
13
9
3
2
4
Marion Barber III
14
7
16
21
1
4
Fred Taylor
6
11
8
20
18
18
2
3
Charlie Garner
9
17
9
1
3
Warrick Dunn
15
22
19
15
12
24
0
3
Corey Dillon
17
6
16
7
16
19
1
3
Michael Pittman
22
21
16
0
3
Deuce McAllister
6
6
17
13
2
3
Domanick Williams
14
5
17
1
3
Willie Parker
15
5
16
1
3
Adrian Peterson
3
3
2
3
3
Ryan Grant
17
22
8
1
3

I have a more extensive version of this list that I will be using in a forthcoming article to aid readers with a drafting strategy about running backs, but what you see above is a list of players with at least three straight years of starter-worth production from 2000-2009.

Before I tie this back to the runners mentioned earlier, look at the top players on this list. I have always been a big Edgerrin James fan and this data supports my thoughts that he was among the most consistently good runners of the decade. I don't know if he's underrated, but he has more detractors than he should. I would say Tiki Barber and Thomas Jones are probably two of the more underrated backs of the decade. Jones, like Barber, had such a slow start in the face of great expectations that its almost shocking to see what he's done versus most backs that make a big splash early and flame out as quickly.

Steven Jackson also deserves a mention as a great, but star-crossed player due to injuries and poor surrounding talent. Pair him with an offensive line like the Titans or the Jets, and defensive coordinators in the AFC's North and South would be crying in press conferences more than Kate Gosselin at a press junket.

Back to topic, there are only eight players in this decade that have produced as starting fantasy backs for more than four consecutive years in two-RB leagues. Only Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, and Marion Barber III have the opportunity this year to join Steven Jackson (who is shooting for six straight years) to make that total 11 runners. Odds are against all four of the backs in the last sentence to repeat.

I believe the Jaguars and Cowboys have enough offensive continuity to support good RB production. The 49ers are getting a lot of post-draft love for their potential ground game taking shape quickly, despite that fact that they sat near the bottom of the stat sheet for their production last year.

If all three teams fulfill the hype then the prime backs to acquire in the mid-to-late rounds will be Barber, Tashard Choice, Anthony Dixon, and Rashard Jennings.

If I were looking for a late-round gem at RB, second-year back Rashad Jennings will be at the top of my list. Jennings had only 39 carries for 202 yards and a score on the ground, but he also had 16 catches for 101 yards as a receiver out of the backfield. At 6'1", 231 lbs., Jennings has the blend of speed and power to produce when called upon.

The Jaguars' No. 2 RB is a player most dynasty leaguers have on lock if he somehow finds his way off a roster, but he's a lesser known commodity in re-draft leagues. It makes him the perfect late-round investment. Southern Illinois rookie Deji Karim deserves a mention, because of physical and stylistic similarities to Jones-Drew, but until I we hear more about him in training camp, I believe Jennings currently has the best chance to see the majority of carries.

After Jennings, I would take Dixon. I'm not the only "tapehead" that liked the rookie from Mississippi State. National Football Post's Wes Bunting rated him as highly as I, and another experienced scout at the Senior Bowl said he was the best runner at the event (although he severely downgraded him due to character issues). Coffee is a far less instinctive, creative, or punishing runner than Dixon, and I believe the rookie will earn the No. 2 role quickly, barring injury or a relapse of immaturity.

I think a lot of people believe Gore is primed for a great year, but the expectations feel similar to the summer preceding Clinton Portis' expected dominance of 2006 that never materialized. There is generally a lag among established media coverage and fans when it comes to appreciating a player. And with the rate of turnover for fantasy starters at the RB position, it's probably why it's so easy to miss the mark. As much as I hate to say it, odds are Gore will be one of those misses this year.

The Dallas backfield is more complicated. Choice and Barber would likely vulture enough carries from each other and depress their individual fantasy value. However, if one of them gets hurt in addition to Jones, the other could be one of the more valuable backs down the stretch of the '10 season.

WR Chaz Schilens, Raiders: Schilens was poised to be the starter in 2009 before he fractured his foot in training camp and missed eight games. He also missed the latest mini camp due to a follow up procedure on the same foot, but coach Tom Cable is confident that Schilens will ready for training camp.

He isn't much of a surprise to astute fantasy owners, but he might easily be a forgotten man. After all, Oakland got better than expected production from Louis Murphy and there is the possibility that Al Davis could force Darrius Heyward-Bey into the lineup.
However I believe Schilens will see more quality targets coming his way now that the Raiders freed Willy.

No small fish himself at 6'4", 225 lbs., Schilens is a different kind of receiver than his competition on the Raiders depth chart, which is filled with shorter, thinner, speedsters or tall athletes with inconsistent hands. If I had my way, Schilens and Louis Murphy would be the outside receivers and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Johnnie Lee Higgins, and Jacoby Ford would duke it out for the slot position. With the way Schilens performed at the end of 2009 – 17 catches, 200 yards, and 1 TD – I think he's a cinch for 800 yards and 6 scores in 2010.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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