The ratings success of the ESPN show “First Take” suggests that among a large segment of fans there exists a thirst for strong, unwavering opinions in the realm of sports punditry. Plant your flag at the North Pole or the South Pole, not in Switzerland, world capital of neutrality. “Have a take and don’t suck,” as TV/radio host Jim Rome says.
As a so-called fantasy football expert, I’m compelled to have strong opinions on a lot of players, and I do. Oh lord, I most certainly do. And yet I don’t see every player as either a truffle or a dog biscuit. Often I have leanings on certain players but can’t fully commit to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Not every player inspires me to take an absolute, Skip Bayless-style, dig-in-my-heels position. In some instances, I’m just plain flummoxed. A handful of players are so perplexing to me that I have little choice but to plant my flag in Switzerland.
The following players have me throwing my hands into the air. I’ve no idea what to make of these cats as fantasy prospects for 2013. Perhaps you have strong opinions about them. I’m finding them nearly inscrutable. Their places in my preseason rankings are little more than vague estimations of the general neighborhoods in which they belong.
Let’s examine these baffling blokes:
Sam Bradford — Bradford is far and away the toughest quarterback to peg this year, in my humble estimation. During his rookie season I became convinced that he was ticketed for stardom. Based on his last two seasons, I’m no longer sure that’s the case.
The key variable is Bradford’s supporting cast. It’s been pretty putrid during his first three years with the Rams. But Bradford probably won’t be able to fall back on that excuse any longer. Young WR Chris Givens is emerging as a dangerous playmaker. Top draft pick Tavon Austin has the potential to be a multidimensional weapon right from the start. Fellow rookie Stedman Bailey looks as if he might have been a steal late in the third round. TE Jared Cook, acquired in free agency, is a toolsy threat (more on him later). And perhaps most important, ex-Dolphin Jake Long gives Bradford a proven blind-side protector and upgrades what has been a ragged offensive line.
Bradford’s preseason debut was encouraging He hit Givens with a perfectly thrown bomb and then found Givens again for a touchdown a few plays later. This is a crossroads year for Bradford, and the range of possibilities is vast. If the St. Louis offense clicks as hoped, Bradford could conceivably finish as a top-10 quarterback. If the Rams’ offense isn’t ready for prime time, Bradford might not even be worth a roster spot in most 12-team leagues.
Montee Ball — Ball is an especially vexing player for me personally since I’m a University of Wisconsin alumnus who’s seen about 98 percent of Ball’s college carries. I’ve long thought that Ball’s style might translate well to the NFL and that he could make a nice, beneath-the-radar fantasy selection as a rookie. Trouble is, Ball isn’t beneath anyone’s radar. His average draft position is RB22, according to FantasyPros.com, which means he’ll be drafted as a starter or a flex candidate in most leagues.
Let’s backtrack to Ball’s college career for a moment. In his second season at Wisconsin, Ball found himself stuck as a third-stringer behind bowling ball John Clay, who had a cup of coffee with the Steelers before washing out of the league, and freshman speedster James White, who’s still at Wisconsin. In a midseason game at Iowa, Clay and White got hurt, so Ball came out of mothballs and had a couple of key catches and scored the game-winning touchdown in a 31-30 Wisconsin victory. Ball then proceeded to score 14 TDs over the Badgers’ final five games, then 61 more TDs over his final two collegiate seasons. The moral of the story is that at one point, even Ball’s own coaches failed to recognize what he was capable of.
Ball’s charms are subtle. He has neither exceptional size nor speed. But Ball is extremely good at reading blocks, calculating angles and picking the right holes. And tacklers had better square up and wrap up, because arm tackles will not bring down Ball. He’s a terrific goal-line runner — don’t make the mistake of thinking that his proficiency as a TD scorer was mostly attributable to Wisconsin’s offensive line — and as his ex-teammate Russell Wilson, would attest, Ball is a better pass catcher than he’s given credit for. He’s a north-south runner almost to a fault. I can recall several instances last season when it appeared that Ball should have bounced runs to the outside and instead tried to pick his way through inside traffic.
But will the lack of game-breaking speed and pile-moving power prevent Ball from succeeding at the pro level? That’s the question I’ve wrestled with, and I still haven’t settled on an answer. I don’t think Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno are starting-caliber NFL running backs, yet they’re both competent enough to eat into Ball’s workload if the rookie fails to establish himself early.
T.Y. Hilton — Colts GM Ryan Grigson spent the offseason killing it in free agency. And by “it,” I mean his team. Grigson threw money around like a drunken billionaire at a Brookstone store. To plug a hole at right tackle, he gave underachieving behemoth Gosder Cherilus a five-year, $35 million contract that includes $16 million in guaranteed money. Linebacker Erik Walden, a borderline starter last seen being repeatedly depantsed by Colin Kaepernick in the 49ers’ playoff win over the Packers, was gifted $16 million over four years, $8 million of it guaranteed. Oft-injured safety LaRon Landry got $24 million over four years, $14 million guaranteed.
In relation to those salary-cap busters, the one-year, $3 million deal (half of it guaranteed) inked by WR Darrius Heyward-Bey looks trifling. Except that the Colts seem hell-bent on letting DHB block the ascent of Hilton, an exciting young talent playing on a cheap rookie contract.
Heyward-Bey started along with Reggie Wayne in the Colts’ preseason opener. Hilton played in three-receiver sets and had a spectacular diving 45-yard TD catch. The matter of who starts opposite Wayne wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, since NFL teams use three-receiver sets so often. The Colts, however, figure to use a lot of two-TE sets with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, which means Indy will probably use fewer three-WR sets than most teams.
The hope is that the Colts’ brass will do the right thing, acknowledge Hilton to be the superior talent and make him a starter. But often, the easiest way to figure out an NFL team’s depth chart is to follow the money. Grigson has given Chuck Pagano his first chance to be a head coach, and maybe Pagano will feel obligated to justify Grigson’s expenditure by starting Heyward-Bey.
Hilton might just be good enough to cut through any B.S. and turn in a 1,000-yard season regardless. But the presence of DHB creates enough uncertainty to make Hilton a somewhat risky play at his current ADP of WR33.
Denarius Moore — I really want to love this guy. (Well, truth be told, I already do — he had a 101-yard performance for me in a championship game two seasons ago, and his 17-yard reception in the final moments put me over the top.) Moore is one fast, athletic dude, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s a one-trick pony. To this point in his career he’s been a deep-ball specialist, and Carson Palmer had no compunction about throwing deep downfield to Moore and letting the young receiver try to make a play.
With Palmer having left for Arizona, Matt Flynn is expected to take the reins at quarterback for the Raiders, and Flynn’s arm strength is questionable. Moore probably isn’t going to be able to produce useful fantasy numbers on go routes alone. If he can fashion himself into a more complete receiver, he could dramatically outperform his current ADP of WR40. If not, he’s destined to disappoint.
Jared Cook — This guy is the Godot of fantasy football, and his past owners have been the Vladimirs and Estragons, waiting impatiently (and ultimately, in vain) for him to arrive.
Cook has left Tennessee for St. Louis, and the Rams are counting on him to use his appealing combination of size and speed to finally give Sam Bradford a seam-threatening tight end. Cook has had flashes of brilliance, and his 759-yard season in 2011 suggested that he was on the verge of stardom, but he faded into the woodwork last season. Despite the past letdowns, a lot of fantasy owners seem willing to pick themselves up, brush themselves off and jump right back on the Cook bandwagon. Is Cook on the verge of one of the top tight ends in the game, or will he reveal himself to be one of the bigger teases in recent memory?
It won’t be long before we find out.