Monday, July 26, 2010

Random Thoughts From a Cluttered Mind

:: We've all seen the spike in his traditional statistics, but here's something for you sabermetric seamheads. Delmon Young's .895 OPS (On-Base% + Slugging%) is now 218 points higher than it was through 93 games last year (.677). He's putting together a memorable season, even if he still looks like a lost Boy Scout chasing butterflies in left field. ::

:: If anyone is actually buying the talk that Brett Favre is still considering retirement, shoot me an email. I've got some oceanfront property in Eagan I'll give you a great deal on. ::

:: Is J.J. Hardy Rob McElhenney's celebrity doppleganger, or is Rob McElhenney J.J. Hardy's celebrity doppleganger? Would you rather work at Target Field, or Paddy's Pub? Is Philadelphia really any sunnier than Minneapolis? These are just some of the things I ponder in the minutes between J.J. Hardy swinging and J.J. Hardy reaching first base. ::

:: Did anyone else squirm when Adrian Peterson made a cameo last week on Entourage, in the exact same episode that Ari Gold made a pitch to get an NFL team in Los Angeles? ::

:: It's been three whole paragraphs since I talked about Delmon Young. On a night where Matt Garza throws a no-hitter, all Delmon does is rack up another four hits, move into 6th in AL batting average, and 4th in AL RBI's. Call me crazy, but I'm not backing off my opinion that I still would not reverse that trade today. ::

:: The Timberwolves just traded for Delonte West. I guess that's the closest they were going to get to LeBron James. ::

:: David Kahn continues to provide refreshing comic relief for the train wreck at 600 1st Avenue. In a recent interview with NBA TV's Chris Webber, the Timberwolves VP of Basketball Operations came with his best stuff yet. When Webber asked Kahn about Darko Milicic, Kahn dropped back-to-back-to-back punchlines. Without ever coming up for air, he compared the colossal bust to "manna from heaven," compared his passing skills to Vlade Divac's, and compared his early career to Webber's. The former 5-time All Star and NBA Rookie of the Year was able to laugh off the first two, but he clearly did not appreciate being the butt of the third joke. In a subsequent interview on KSTP radio, Kahn responded to Webber's justified irritation by calling him a "schmuck." For an encore, the pretentious Kahn began the next sentence with "Methinks." As a child, I often wondered what it would be like if Mr. Rogers were to slick back his hair and ingest massive amounts of peyote. Methinks I've found my answer. ::

:: Playing in a lot of fantasy football leagues is one thing. But right now, I'm on the hook to be the commissioner of three. I need to reevaluate that decision. It's all fun and games until Robert Meachem puts you in the witness protection program (controversial scoring incident below). ::

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Minnesota Vikings Fantasy Preview

Now that the vuvuzela has been silenced for another four years, a new buzz has invaded the sports world. Yes, fantasy football preseason is in full swing, and it's music to our bleeding ears. One of the more difficult tasks in our preseason preparation is assigning fair value to the hometown players we're exposed to all year. In this post, I am of course referring to the Minnesota Vikings. There are two common traps fantasy owners fall into. The most common mistake is overvaluing Vikings. We all know the owners in our league who will overspend on anyone wearing purple and gold, in an attempt to double dip on Sunday Funday. They're an easy mark, and the consequences should be obvious. Homers never win, because they draft with their hearts and not with their heads. The second, and more painful trap, is being fully aware of one's own fanhood, and overcorrecting for fear of becoming the aforementioned homer. I've fallen victim to this in the past, and trust me, there's nothing worse than watching the Vikings explode on a Sunday when you chose not to grab a piece of the purple pie. It's that same feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when you weren't invited to the coed margarita hot tub party. But enough about me, let's attempt to take an objective look at your 2010 fantasy Minnesota Vikings.

There's no other place to start than Adrian Peterson. Peterson entered 2009 as the prince of fantasy football, but by the end of the season, Chris Johnson had dethroned him. Entering 2010, the two are locked in a national battle for the #1 overall spot. This is an instance where, being closer to the situation, I think local owners should be downgrading a Viking. Here, we put Peterson's flaws under the microscope year round, and justifiably so. National experts are looking at the bottom line stats and the superhuman highlights, and from 10,000 feet, Peterson does look like a surefire top two pick. But he's not. Take a deep breath, homers.

I have some real concerns. Peterson's YPC dropped for the second straight season, to 4.4, as the offensive line struggled to open holes with any kind of consistency. Adrian was dropped in the backfield more than any back in the league, and the Vikings did nothing to improve their pathetic run blocking this offseason. A more glaring issue for Vikings fans is Adrian's slippery mitts. He's fumbled 17 times in the last two seasons. Even if your league doesn't subtract points for fumbles, it's costing him scoring opportunities, and it will undoubtedly cost him carries. Which, naturally, leads me to Toby Gerhart. The second rounder accumulated nearly 700 carries in his four years at Stanford, and fumbled only once every 67.1 carries (a big upgrade to Adrian's rate of 1/42.3 over the last two seasons). Furthermore, he racked up 27 touchdowns last season. It would make a lot of sense for the Vikings to work the young bruiser into the mix near the goal line. Not only is he more sure-handed, but it would be wise to start prolonging Peterson's career by protecting him from violent goal line collisions. Chester Taylor stole just one rushing touchdown from Peterson last season. Gerhart could easily steal 8-10. Finally, with Brett Favre under center, the Vikings are a passing team. Peterson lost 49 carries from 2008 to 2009, and there's no chance of him approaching the 363 carry mark he set in 2008 with Favre chucking again. With slight trepidation, I have Peterson ranked 4th overall.

Chris Johnson was on another planet last season. He enters 2010 without any major questions. The loss of aging center Kevin Mawae and the toll of 408 touches are worth noting, but not enough to unseat him as the clear #1. Keep in mind, that even a 25% reduction in last year's output would still net 1,880 total yards and 12 TD. And with nobody to share the touches with, there's no reason to expect a significant drop off for CJ. Maurice Jones-Drew feels like a much safer #2 than Peterson. He's missed just one game in the last four years, he's a 3-down back with superb hands, and he's possibly the best goal-line back in the league. Ray Rice is on the fast-track to fantasy superstardom. I expect him to grace the covers of many a fantasy magazine next season. He's a MoJo clone, with the only major difference being that he still has to deal with pesky vultures Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain.

To me, ranking Peterson 4th seems like the perfect balance between homerism and overcorrection. Despite all his negatives, he's still probably the most talented back in the NFL. Shockingly, he hasn't missed a game in two straight seasons, and he's the only back in the league to rank in the top 5 in fantasy points in 2007, 2008, and 2009. His talent alone should keep that streak alive. I can't in good conscience rank him lower than Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, or Michael Turner. Gore hasn't played a full season since 2006, and was just good (not great) from 2007-2009. When are people going to stop buying the hype? He's inconsistent, injury prone, and a vastly inferior talent to Peterson; his ceiling is Peterson's basement. Steven Jackson is a beast, but like Gore, he's also failed to play a full season since 2006, and his scoring opportunities are severely limited in St. Louis. Michael Turner is coming off a badly injured ankle, and with Jerious Norwood healthy and Jason Snelling in the mix, it seems that he's in line for a workload reduction of closer to 300 carries. He also doesn't play on 3rd downs, and is invisible in the passing game. He has 22 catches for 147 yards in his 6-year career (Peterson contributed 43 for 436 last season alone). So while I still think Adrian will still be a top 5 running back, the former prince will not be worth the king's ransom required to land him in Minnesota fantasy leagues.

My fondness for Gerhart has been well chronicled on this site. He's a first round NFL talent, who had no business falling to the 51st overall pick in April's draft. As far as his fantasy value, I see a direct correlation between the overvaluing of Adrian Peterson and the undervaluing of Gerhart. Of the top seven running backs who I discussed in the previous paragraphs, Gerhart is easily the most talented respective backup. In recent years, running back-by-committees have muddied the definition of "handcuff." Where is the line drawn between a handcuff and a committee back? That was rhetorical, but the point I'm trying to make is that for the price of a handcuff, you may be buying into a more valuable low-level committee situation. Gerhart is a guy who can protect the ball at the stripe, protect the lead late in games, and protect the lifespan of Adrian Peterson (especially in blowout situations). So even if Adrian Peterson, a man who actively pursues punishment, can somehow stay healthy for a third straight season, Gerhart could still have value as a bye week/injury filler when the schedule is right. He's the unquestioned #2 on the Viking's roster, yet he's currently being drafted #140 overall in ESPN mocks, in the same vicinity as scraps like Tashard Choice, Larry Johnson, Arian Foster, Mike Bell, and Derrick Ward. The guy just can't get any respect, and if you land him in this portion of the draft, it's highway robbery.

You may have noticed that I'm operating under the assumption that Brett's coming back. Well, I'm 99% sure, only because "100%" and "Brett Favre" can never be accurately used in the same sentence. Favre was the third best fantasy quarterback last season, trumping guys like Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, and Tom Brady. Yet he's fallen well behind all of them in mocks (as well as Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers). He's currently being drafted as the 8th quarterback, just ahead of the underwhelming Joe Flacco and the overhyped Jay Cutler. It begs the question: What's changed from 2009? Favre is coming off his best statistical season at the age of 40, has all of his weapons back, and has shown no signs of slowing down. Logic simply doesn't apply to this man, so we should stop trying to apply it. Is standard cleanup surgery on his ankle really going to derail him, when last season's bicep surgery on his throwing arm caused no ill effect? Sure, a good case could be made for each of the younger signal callers being drafted ahead of him, but the fact that he's being drafted a full two rounds later than guys like Romo and Rivers is baffling. Especially when experts continue to warn us about injury concerns surrounding the NFL's Ironman, and in the next sentence, endorse quarterbacks who've missed more time in the last few years than Favre has missed in his entire life. As of right now, Brett Favre is easily the best value of any quarterback in Fantasyland. Draft or bid accordingly, grab yourself a margarita, and enjoy the view.

Nobody benefited more from Brett Favre than Sidney Rice. His 83 catches for 1,312 yards and 8 TD's vaulted him to the #8 WR ranking, and certified him as an up-and-coming star. His 15.8 YPC was outstanding, as he became Favre's favorite downfield target. He lacks elite top end speed, but he more than makes up for it in size, body control, hand-eye coordination, and sticky fingers. In short, he's the polar opposite of former South Carolina teammate Troy Williamson. That's incredibly high praise. He's currently being drafted 11th among WR's, in the neighborhood of Greg Jennings, Marques Colston, Steve Smith (Car), and Anquan Boldin. This seems a touch low to me. I expect the Pro Bowler to once again finish in the back end of the top 10 WR's. His lingering hip injury is a bit of a concern, and will certainly be something to monitor in the preseason. However, with other top receivers catching balls from unproven QB's like Chad Henne, Matt Leinart, Kevin Kolb, Matt Moore, and Matt Stafford, Sidney's bromance with Favre feels like a pretty safe situation to buy into.

Electric. There's no better word to describe the 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's a threat to score on every play, whether he's split out, in the slot, in the backfield, or returning kicks. That being said, I think he's being overvalued on the basis of style points. I'm still not sold that the coaching staff has defined a consistent role for him, and what's more, I'm not sure they have the creative chops to get the most out of his diverse skill set. What we're left with is a boom-or-bust teaser who cracked 100 yards receiving just once last season. More troubling to me, is that there's been no news of any progress towards solving Harvin's chronic migraines (pun intended). He missed just one game last season with the ailment, but he was nonexistent in several others, after missing weeks of practice and leaving fantasy owners with headaches of their own. I love Percy Harvin as an NFL player, but I'm skeptical of him as a consistent fantasy contributor. Right now he's being drafted just inside the top 20 WR's, a spot ahead of the reliable but boring Hines Ward. Are you ordering the dependable cheeseburger, or the hit-or-miss fish tacos? Pass the Heinz.

Coming off a nice 2008 as the Vikings go-to receiver, the sky was supposed to be the limit for Berrian in 2009. But before Favre had even traded denim for spandex, Berrian's season was hamstrung. Injured in the first preseason game, his gimpy hamstring never had a chance to fully recover. He tried to fight through it all year, but missed out on any real opportunities to gel with Favre. I imagine that the pain in his leg paled in comparison to the pain of watching Favre turn Percy Harvin into the Rookie of the Year, and Sidney Rice into a Pro Bowler. In the last game of the season, Berrian finally showed a spark. After never topping 75 yards once during the regular season, he grabbed 9 balls for 102 yards in the NFC Championship game. On replay, we all saw Berrian lurking wide open down the right sideline, as Favre forced the infamous interception in the direction of his more trusted target, Rice. Be right back, I need a drink.

As we come into the 2010 season, Berrian finds himself in a weird spot. He seems to have been passed by both Harvin and Rice on the depth chart. Harvin's a more natural fit for the slot in three receiver sets. Who will line up opposite of Rice in two-wide sets has yet to be determined. Berrian is still very capable of helping your fantasy squad if the opportunity presents itself. He's currently being drafted as the 45th receiver. At that spot, I see him as a great value. He's the same guy who was talented enough to rack up 964 yards and 7 TD's with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson taking snaps in 2008. The depth chart is still in flux, Rice's hip is healing slower than expected, and Harvin may be on the injury report every week of his career. The chips fell all wrong for Bernard in 2009, but if they fall right in 2010, you could be looking at a top 25 receiver who you scored for pennies on the dollar. Take a flier.

Shiancoe was a red zone beast last season. His 11 touchdowns were second among tight ends, and he finished 6th in fantasy scoring at his position. Ignored between the 20's, his value was dependent on touchdowns, and he delivered. However, in fantasy football, yardage is a more dependable measurable than touchdowns when formulating predictions. Touchdowns can be fluky, and the human tripod would be hard pressed to exceed what he did in 2009. Did I really just write that?

Longwell has a strong, accurate leg, and he kicks indoors for a high powered offense. These are the kinds of things we look for in a fantasy kicker, and Longwell should have no problem finding himself in the top 5 again this season (he finished 3rd in 2009). If he's able to turn a handful of his league-leading 54 PAT's into field goals, he could rise even higher.

The Vikings are currently being drafted as the 6th D/ST. They led the league in sacks and forced fumbles last season, and if Ray Edwards can put aside his contractual quandaries, he appears poised to join Jared Allen as part of a premiere pass rushing tandem. The Vikings will be stout against the run once again, even with middle linebacker E.J. Henderson most likely sidelined early in the season. However, the Vikings already lackluster secondary took a major hit with the loss of Cedric Griffin, who's ACL injury will keep him in street clothes with Henderson for a chunk of 2010. Improving on their putrid 11 interceptions will be a tall task, and the pass defense will thwart the overall potential of the Vikings D/ST. Percy Harvin's return skills will be the wild card, and should keep the unit in top 5 contention.

When you remove the fan from the fantasy, you end up with something closer to reality. Can you handle the truth? If not, be sure to err on the side of hot tub.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Up to the Challenge?

Your Minnesota Vikings, arguably the most talented team in the NFL, led the league with eight Pro Bowl selections last season. Yet their 2010 hopes could hinge on an unheralded trio of former draft day leftovers. In a typical NFL draft, coma-inducing amounts of buffalo wings and Budweisers leave fans floored by the end of round one (Insert your favorite JaMarcus Russell joke here). But while visions of Adrian and Percy dance in our heads, Vikings architect Rick Spielman is going back for seconds in NYC. It's there, sifting through the remnants of the blue chip buffet line, that he's recently uncovered the likes of Jasper Brinkley, John Sullivan, and Jamarca Sanford. This season, Spielman's draft day scraps will be heavily relied upon, as the aging Vikings scramble for a Super Bowl before their window of opportunity closes.

Mission: Fill the shoes of defensive captain, emotional leader, and mentor, E.J. Henderson. Henderson continues to rehab the gruesome leg injury that ended his 2009 season, and is not expected to be ready for the start of the 2010 season.
Profile: When the burly Brinkley continued to slide in the 2009 draft, the Vikings traded up eight spots to pluck the South Carolina Gamecock. A special teams standout in his rookie year, Brinkley was thrust into the starting lineup when Henderson's leg turned to jello in a Week 13 loss at Arizona (click here at your own risk). Instead of adding a veteran free agent, such as Derrick Brooks, the Vikings rolled with Brinkley for the final six games of the season. Initially, Brinkley played like a rookie 5th-rounder, as his positioning and pass defense were suspect. But he was stout against the run, and the Vikings were able to hide him in many passing situations by leaving Ben Leber on the field to cover the deep middle. The hard-hitting rookie steadily improved with each start, and had a very solid postseason. In retrospect, the team's defensive Yds/Game and Pts/Game were actually slightly better in Brinkley's six starts (276, 18.8) than Henderson's twelve (311.5, 19.4). His overall 2009 performance was admirable, considering the difficulty of the situation and the speed at which he adapted. Brinkley apparently made a strong impression with the coaching staff as well, and continued to garner positive buzz throughout OTA's this May. By not making any significant moves to address the position in the draft or free agency, Spielman & Co. appear content in letting Brinkley hold down the fort until Henderson returns. It's not unrealistic to think that he could be the long term replacement for the aging vet, who's coming off his second consecutive season-ending injury. To get a hammer like Brinkley in the 5th round was a steal, and the Vikings will be counting on his continued improvement in the early stages of 2010.

Mission: Be the most improved player on the team next season.
Profile: Matt Birk's departure cost the Vikings a Super Bowl ring. There, I said it. If nothing else, the Ivy Leaguer could have counted to eleven (Damn you, Tahi). When Birk left for Baltimore before last season, Sullivan, a second-year pro, was elevated to the top of the depth chart. He experienced the hand of Favre for all 18 games in 2009. The former 6th-rounder was just O.K. in his impossible assignment of filling Birk's shoes. Outside of a few infamous (late) hits on Favre, the pass protection was very solid last season. However, the run-blocking took a noticeable step backwards without Birk. The line was out of sync, constantly beat at the point of attack, and Adrian Peterson was often hit before he even had the opportunity to fumble. Sullivan's brightest moment came in the Divisional Playoff Game against Dallas, where he neutralized dominant Nose Tackle Jay Ratliff. The coaching staff has been in Sullivan's corner every step of the way. They made no known attempt to trade up and draft standout Florida Center, Maurkice Pouncey, in April's draft. Veteran Kevin Mawae is still a free agent, but his name can't even crack Charley Walter's column. The Vikings seem confident that the line will gel with Sullivan in the middle again in 2010. They also hope that, like Birk, they've found a franchise Center in the 6th round.

Mission: Push Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams for a starting Safety spot.
Profile: The Vikings couldn't be more pleased with their 2009 7th-rounder out of Ole Miss. The hard-hitting rookie immediately established himself as a special teams stud, and the primary backup to SS Tyrell Johnson and FS Madieu Williams. By the end of the season, he was stealing reps from the former second rounder, Johnson. After being spotted for the first time in the NFC title game, many seem to think Johnson is on the verge of a big season. There's still no word on Madieu Williams, who's been missing since February of 2008. Needless to say, both Safety positions are wide open, and Sanford's tenacity is a breath of fresh air. He's a bit undersized at 5'10", but he plays much bigger than either Johnson or Williams. Again, in what's become a recurring theme of this article, the Vikings ignored one of their supposed weaknesses this offseason. They passed on USC super-freak Taylor Mays in the draft, and then on established veteran O.J. Atogwe in free agency. Keep an eye out for Sanford in the preseason; I have a feeling he's going to make some noise.

In the coming weeks, the Brett Favre circus will take center stage. It will be easy to forget about guys like Brinkley, Sullivan, and Sanford. And that's fine; they're used to it. Just remember that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Are they up to the challenge?