First Down: Sizing up Stafford, Gronk’s soap opera and ‘Felony and Ivory’

In every corner of the sports universe hard-to-explain anomalies push the boundaries of flukiness, crazy events that leave eyewitnesses with jaws dropped.

Fantasy football is no exception.

From Jerome Harrison’s trampling of Kansas City Week 14 2009 to Billy Volek’s unforgettable two-game stretch with the Titans in 2004 to an entire offseason week where neither Kenny Britt or Titus Young are incarcerated, unforeseen occurrences happen all the time, changing previously conceived notions about a particular player or team.

Take Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.

Last year, the former No. 1 pick was the definition of 'gunslinger.' Blessed with the game's finest target (Calvin Johnson), immersed in a pass-first offense and placed in numerous come-from-behind situations, the passer shattered Drew Bledsoe's single-season attempts record, firing an unreal 727 passes. Strangely, despite the high pitch-count, he found the end-zone a mere 20 times, the lowest number for a quarterback with at least 640 attempts in NFL history.


Inefficiency partially explains Stafford’s stunning underachievement. At times, he resembled Tim Tebow, overthrowing open receivers on simple 15-yard posts. Overall, he shaved nearly 3.7 points off his completion percentage from 2011 (63.5 to 59.8), a sophomore slump two years late. His red-zone production was equally underwhelming, evidenced in his three percentage point decline from the previous year (50.0 to 47.0).

But Stafford isn’t entirely to blame. During his bizarre voyage, several uncontrollable events also denoted why his TD total lagged. On numerous occasions an invisible sinkhole swallowed Johnson whole near the goal-line. At least a handful of times, Megatron was stopped inside the five, maddening outcomes which padded the stats of Mikel Leshoure and not Stafford. Johnson and Brandon "Butterfingers" Pettigrew also combined for 24 dropped passes.

Due to the dip in production – his 22.8 points per game mark ranked 10th among QBs – those who’ve accepted last year’s stats as the gospel view Stafford as nothing more than a middle QB1 in early drafts. To nonbelievers, he pales in comparison to the likes of Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck.

Oh how quickly people forget.

Just two seasons ago, Stafford, overshadowed by the tilt-altering campaigns of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, was a statistical monstrosity. His 5,038-yard, 41-TD effort was the sixth-most productive season by a quarterback in NFL history. Among fantasy starters he ranked fifth in per game average, raking a 26.5 fppg. Projecting similar numbers in 2013 isn’t a drug-induced dream.

Little has changed since then. Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz are still calling the shots, Megatron continues to terrorize secondaries and the Lions’ defense remains sketchy. Detroit's offensive line, though reconfigured, is also a plus. Last year it ranked No. 3 in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus. If this year's unit emulates last year's, the QB will have ample time. With Reggie Bush in the mix and assuming the status quo prevails, Stafford could again finish among the position’s elites. The volume potential alone is sexy. At his current 70.1 ADP (QB9), he’s precisely the reason why you can wait on a quarterback until the middle rounds.

After an inexplicable 2012, a return to normalcy is in the cards for Stafford.

In this week’s episode of fantasy’s ongoing soap opera “As the Gronk Turns,” Rob Gronkowski guided his dynasty owners on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. On Friday, reported the Patriots expressed confidence about the target’s imminent fourth procedure on his forearm, saying he would likely be available when training camp opens in late July. The infection, which raised concern roughly a month ago, is no longer believed to be an issue, though its eradication will only be confirmed once he goes under the knife. Good news ...

Then Gronk supporters felt a sudden kick to the crotch.

Merely hours later USA Today noted the tight end could be forced to undergo a different surgery after tests revealed a disc issue in his lower back. That operation is tentatively slated 3-4 weeks after his latest forearm repair. And that’s assuming a fifth cleanup procedure on his forearm, which is still in play, isn’t needed. Though the back tune-up is considered ‘minor,’ it again clouds his availability not only for training camp but potentially the start of the season. It also isn’t a bulletproof prevention for future flare-ups, a worry when weighing his long history of back problems.

Very quickly it seems Gronk is becoming fantasy football’s version of Mark Prior, a highly talented commodity who simply can’t stave off the injury imp. Still, despite the risks involved, many within the expert community are not swayed by the recent developments. In a mag mock conducted Thursday, the Patriot went No. 11 overall, the second time this month his name was called in Round 1 of a 12-team pundit draft.

Again, knowing the crippling downsides involved, I would rather scale Everest sans oxygen than invest a high pick in Gronk. After all, the early rounds are all about minimizing risk, not chasing it. Yes, he was the third-best producer on a per game basis among all TEs and WRs a season ago, but there are no guarantees you’ll get 12 or even 10 games out of him in 2013. Be smart, gamers. Unless he falls to Round 6 or 7 of a 12-team draft, Gronk should be avoided.

As for this week’s NFL police report, shockingly not involving Young, Mike Goodson was found severely inebriated in his SUV on a busy New Jersey highway in possession of marijuana and, get this, a gun loaded with hollow-point bullets. We can only assume he was out for a late-night werewolf hunt.

This may seem like irrelevant news, but for Chris Ivory enthusiasts, Goodson’s incarceration elevates the worth of the ex-Saint. If the veteran is suspended by the league, which seems likely, Ivory would enter the season as the Jets’ unrivaled starter, though Bilal Powell would likely dominate third-down touches. Still with a robust wall of blockers in front of him and with Rex Ryan committed to getting back to his ground-and-pound ways, he should tally borderline top-20 numbers, even against stacked fronts. Remember, he runs with Lynch-like fervor. In a cameo role with the Saints last season, 87.1 percent of yards he gained came after contact. Extraordinary. His appetite for destruction makes him more vulnerable to injury, but he's a strong candidate for 1,100 total yards and 7-9 TDs over 16 starts.

In initial drafts, Ivory has been drafted over a wide range in 12-teamers. The earliest: Round 3 (Pick 34). The latest: Round 6 (Pick 69). He loses wallop in PPR settings, but in standard formats he's in the Rashard Mendenhall/Ryan Mathews class, starting RBs with considerable upside. Pray Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy, Matt Simms, Vinny Testaverde, Ken O'Brien or A.C. Slater can at least prove semi-competent.

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