Josh Gordon is a tragedy. There’s no real other way to put it. At 22, he led the NFL in receiving. His 1,646 yards were 10th most all time. But the only thing he’ll be leading the league in this season is missed games.
Not that this should really come as a surprise to anyone. Gordon has always been a riddle — long on talent, but short on judgment. He is volatile, a supercell in summer. Even as fantasy owners celebrated Gordon’s 2013, they knew he was only one strike away from a year-long suspension.
That volatility had to be accounted for in Dynasty leagues. If it wasn’t, you’ll be feeling the effects long beyond 2014. But if Gordon was this year’s most volatile Dynasty-league option, he’s far from the only volatile Dynasty-league option. In a sport where injury is so prevalent, it’s foolish to count on any player for more than 2-3 years, but that is not to ignore the fact that some investments are riskier than others.
None of these players are Gordon. Few have anything even approaching his talent, while none have his risk. But they come with questions all the same, ones you must ask if you’re planning on production beyond 2014.
Note: Although none of these choices could be construed as shocking, I’ve excluded players whose risk is so plain as to be self-evident. This means no Justin Blackmon, David Wilson, Jermichael Finley, etc. This also isn’t necessarily “the most volatile players in the NFL, ranked 1-10,” but 10 big-name players who could either dominate or flame out over the next 2-3 seasons.
RGIII creates enough electricity to be a power source. He is “big play” personified, a home run waiting to be hit. He’s also 24 years old with a pair of knees that have required extensive surgical reconstruction. Griffin’s rookie season was revelatory, but his sophomore campaign was cautionary. For all the all-world athleticism, Griffin returned from his ACL tear like a human instead of Adrian Peterson. His knee brace is gone for 2014, but so is coach Mike Shanahan. Despite Shanny’s faults, it was he who expertly unleashed Griffin on the football world as a rookie. We’ve seen Griffin’s upside. It’s game-changing, franchise-altering talent. But we’ve seen the downside, as well. The former is worth moving mountains for in Dynasty leagues. The latter is why Griffin can’t be considered a 2-3 year linchpin.
Rob Gronkowski is not a football player. He’s The Mountain in a football uniform. Gronk is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound wall of concrete, one who skies over safeties for touchdowns and destroys linebackers for blocks. If only he could ever stay healthy. Gronk is still just 25 — two and a half years younger than Jimmy Graham — but has undergone eight known surgeries, the latest of which repaired his ACL in January. The last time Gronk played a football game, he blew out his knee and suffered a concussion. Of the Patriots’ past 32 contests, Gronk has appeared in 18 of them. Gronk has era-defining talent at his position, but his battered bones have eroded his long-term upside. We wouldn’t doubt that Gronk has more dominant football left. The problem is knowing when he’s going to display it between the visits to the injury report.
You could say Harvin plays like he’s been “shot out of a cannon,” but that doesn’t really do it justice. Harvin is an energy pulse from a futuristic gun, one only our grandkids’ grandkids will know how to use. He is kinetic, he is explosive. For the first three years of his career, Harvin harnessed that talent while remaining on the field. He toed the line between “injury prone” and “durable,” but toed it nonetheless. Then he crossed it in 2012. Now Harvin has appeared in just 10 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons. Although he suited up for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl demolition of the Broncos, he missed the NFC Championship Game after a thundering hit laid him low with a concussion in the Divisional Round. So going into Harvin’s sixth year, the question is, what was the outlier? His relatively healthy first three seasons, or his injury-marred past two? If you think you know the answer, you’re probably kidding yourself. Anyone who’s seen Harvin’s game knows he’s a talent worth gambling on. But like even the best gambles, there’s a chance he comes up snake eyes.
When healthy, Murray is one of the game’s most dangerous offensive players. But there’s that troublesome phrase: “when healthy.” Murray’s stiff, upright running style has led to 11 missed games in three years, and made him a frustrating own for players looking for week-to-week consistency. The risk is magnified in Dynasty formats, where you don’t just need Murray to be healthy two weeks from now, but two years from now. Throw in the fact that Murray is headed into the final year of his contract, and he becomes a back with more question marks than his career 4.94 YPC would indicate. In reality, every running back is “injury prone.” That’s the nature of a position where a linebacker's helmet is always an inch away from your knee. But Murray has earned his “brittle” tag going back to his days at Oklahoma. The upside is through the roof, but the downside is well established.
It’s impossible to overstate Foles’ 2013. It was a jaw-dropping display of ruthless efficiency, one that came out of nowhere. However you want to frame it, Foles was dominant. But is this really the man Chip Kelly wants to hitch his NFL revolution to? Kelly has more at stake than the average NFL coach. Like Billy Beane in baseball, Kelly’s tenure is about more than wins and losses. It’s a grand experiment, one aimed at upending The Way Things Have Always Been Done. Is Foles, a statue-esque pocket passer with average arm strength, really the best way to go about that? Part of Kelly’s philosophy is adaptability. If he was as much of a “system” coach as his detractors suggest, he would have never put himself in a position to play Foles in the first place. But it’s inarguable that, at its heart, Kelly’s offense is one designed to be run by a mobile quarterback. It’s also inarguable that Foles’ 2013 efficiency won’t be repeated, by him or anyone else. It would be insane to suggest there’s not a real chance Foles ends up as Kelly’s guy. 27:2 doesn’t just happen. But it would be equally insane to suggest Foles has upended all Kelly knows about quarterbacking after only 317 pass attempts. Foles has given himself a huge head start on “franchise” status, but this is a tortoise who could still be caught by the hare.
Of all of last year’s sophomore slumps, Martin’s was probably the hardest to see coming. It wasn’t realistic to expect Martin to top or equal the 1,926 yards from scrimmage he managed as a rookie, but it was even more unrealistic to see things going south the way they did. Even before his season-ending shoulder injury, Martin was managing only 3.59 yards per carry, and looking little like the perpetual-motion hamster wheel he was in 2012. Now the brain trust that drafted him is gone, while the new one invested a third-round pick in Charles Sims. A player who once appeared destined to be a Dynasty rock for at least a half decade could end up little more than a mid-range RB2.
In the modern NFL, No. 34 overall picks usually play right away. Hunter was the exception. A coaching staff punching bag through camp and the preseason, Hunter was a healthy scratch for Week 1, and managed all of 85 snaps through the Titans’ first eight games. He has slowly turned things around. Hunter eclipsed 100 yards in two of his final five games, while WRs coach Shawn Jefferson has gone from deriding his pupil to calling him "the receiver that puts us in the playoffs." A rocked up 6-foot-4, 208 pounds with 4.44 wheels, Hunter has the physical tools to dominate. It’s just a matter of if he has the football smarts. For Dynasty leaguers, Hunter could be anything from your next No. 1 to your next Stephen Hill.
Johnny Football spent his college career breaking records — both on and off the field. In an era where football’s top prospects have been taught to sand their personalities down to the bone, Manziel has been a Jim McMahon throwback, alternating winning with partying. It didn’t affect his play at Texas A&M, but then again, 25 percent of the Aggies’ schedule isn’t the Steelers and Ravens. We live in an era of “first to arrive, last to leave” quarterbacks. Is that a mentality Manziel is prepared to adopt? Even if it is, there’s one thing Manziel can’t change: His size. 6-foot-0 on his tippy toes, Manziel survived countless big hits in the SEC, but it takes a different kind of durability to walk off pops from Terrell Suggs and Geno Atkins. Manziel has superstar potential, but there are many reasons he may not realize it.
Patterson is upside defined. The house is never far away when the ball is in his hands. It’s just a matter of getting it there. It’s hardly a secret that for all of Patterson’s game-breaking ability, he’s still rather raw as a pass catcher. Of Patterson’s 45 rookie receptions, 35 occurred within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s assembly-line football, one manufacturing job gained in a country that’s otherwise losing them. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but is it something you’re willing to bet the house on in Dynasty leagues? Patterson can be molded, but the same was true of Darrius Heyward-Bey. The sky is the limit for Patterson, but his floor is lower than you’re probably willing to admit.
Morris is not a threat to disappear. He’s too talented, and too durable. But it’s quite possible he’s already had his two best NFL seasons. Gone is zone-blocking maven Mike Shanahan, a man who hand-picked Morris for a system he’s run to perfection for two decades. In is Jay Gruden, a pass-obsessed rookie coach trying to unleash Robert Griffin III. That’s really bad news for an early-down back who simply doesn’t catch passes (20 in two years). Barring injury, Morris is going to lead the Redskins in rushing in 2014, and it’s not going to be close. The same will probably remain true for 2015. But as Yogi Berra once said, the future ain’t what it used to be for a back who came out of nowhere to rush for 1,613 yards in 2012.