Fantasy Football by the Numbers: Controversial figures

Expecting a crash landing for Decker with the Jets? Think again. (Getty)
Expecting a crash landing for Decker with the Jets? Think again. (Getty)

What do the numbers say about the some of this year’s more controversial players:

Eric Decker, WR, Jets: Probably fantasy football’s most underrated player. The idea that he’s some kind of parasite that just benefitted from Peyton Manning is laughable. Note that Decker had a higher percentage of touchdowns on targets than Demaryius Thomas had. The compounding mistake that people are making is figuring that Decker is so easily replaceable that there will be no need for Thomas to pick up slack in Denver. (There will be; and Thomas will pick it up.) A healthy Decker sees 130 targets this year and he will be productive with them as he always has been, even with Tebow and now even with Geno Smith (or Michael Vick): 80-1,200-10.

Gio Bernard, RB, Bengals: He’s a consensus second-round pick that people routinely praise as being rock solid. However, he averaged a sub-par 4.1 yards per carry last year. And the Bengals were so impressed with his ability to be a bell cow that they went and drafted another back, Jeremy Hill, in the second round. And to be clear, drafting a running back in today’s game in the second round is high praise. Hill’s athleticism is knocked due to a poor Combine 40 time (4.66). Yet he ran a lot better on his pro-day (4.52). That’s a tick faster than Bernard’s Combine time, but Hill is 30 pounds heavier. It’s pretty much a mortal lock that Bernard will lose goal-line duty. And note that Hill has reportedly blocked and caught the ball well in camp. Give me Hill at his price over Bernard at his eight days a week.

Montee Ball, RB, Broncos: Loved him last spring after he was drafted because I loved the Broncos running environment. The fact that he could not supplant Knowshon Moreno is very alarming. Ball has poor measurables but there is no denying that he will be elite in fantasy if he is the Broncos main ball carrier. Can he distinguish himself with these limited skills? I’m dubious. I’d pass on Ball and take the essentially free Ronnie Hillman, who is a far more explosive athlete and nine months younger than Ball. Hillman is not small. He’s short.

Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals: Fantasy football’s fastest riser, or at least one of them, made his bones last year courtesy of big runs (10-plus yards). Those accounted for over 20 percent of his attempts, more than double the average of all backs with at least 50 carries. So is that a good thing? It would appear to be, I know. But I do not like my backs to be too high or too low in big runs. Ellington’s yards-per-carry average (5.5) is built entirely upon that and if that big-run rate regresses as I suspect, we’ll be looking at a steep efficiency decline. I understand this is counter-intuitive, but I like my backs average or slightly above in this big-run stat, showing me that they can do it but that they don’t HAVE to do it to be productive. Of course, if Ellington is Barry Sanders, who cares whether he can grind out yards? But I confidently predict he is not.

Victor Cruz, WR, Giants: I respect the talent but the Giants want to work on shorter throws and when Cruz broke out in 2011, he was the rare explosive receiver from the slot (11.6 air-yards per completion, 16th among all receivers that year). Can Eli Manning, who was fourth-worst on short (10 yards or less) throws last year in completion percentage and second-worst in rating  get him the ball with the timing and accuracy he’ll need to generate yards after catch in tight spaces? I think Rueben Randle out-earns Cruz this year and even if I’m wrong, Randle is way cheaper. Forget about Odell Beckham, a rookie already entrenched in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse because he has a track mentality (needs to be 100 percent to play).

Rashad Jennings, RB, Giants: This one is a layup. Jennings, if he breaks 200 carries this year, would do so for the first time. At nearly 30 when this season ends, he’d be the fifth-oldest back since the merger to crack 200 carries for the first time and the oldest since Lamar Smith in 2000 (Dolphins). Smith averaged a whopping 3.7 yards per carry. I can guarantee you that Jennings will need to be closer to 4.5 a pop to keep rookie Andre Williams at bay. Williams is a freak size-speed athlete who had about as many carries for Tom Coughlin’s coaching alma matter (Boston College) last year as Jennings has compiled in his entire pro career.

Bishop Sankey, RB, Titans: I don’t understand the hesitancy here. I’m all in. Sankey is as good a bet as all but five guys to return solid RB value and he’s one of the cheapest in the lot. He’s cheaper than Jennings in many leagues I’ve played in and monitored, which is crazy. Who is Sankey’s competition? Shonn Greene? No worries there. Sankey is the complete package and the rare runner who is a triple threat (feature back, goal-line, short-yardage). Here are his measureables from Are you kidding me? This is a once-in-a-generation athlete at the position with a more than serviceable body-mass index and 89th percentile strength for any back regardless of size.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: Let’s not play doctor. He was projected to be ready to start the year and is still on course. He is a power player who does not rely on cutting and quickness to be productive, so the transition off of ACL surgery should be relatively smooth, I am told. If you think his broken arm and ACL make him injury prone, the doctors disagree. He’s had bad luck. On the field, here are Tom Brady’s results on Gronk targets: 223 for 323 with 42 TDs and six picks. Here’s more from me this summer on the best and worst QB-receiver combos, courtesy of Wall Street Journal sports.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns: We know that running QBs are the most efficient scorers on a per-play basis. Manziel can do that for sure. But he has no weapons, right? By the time you read this, the Josh Gordon situation may be resolved or still pending further review. Either way, lawyers I’ve consulted believe it’s highly dubious that Gordon misses any games this year no matter what is decided by the NFL in his appeal. Read Cedric Hopkins of I fully expect Manziel to easily be a top 12 QB if these reports are right about Gordon not having to serve any suspension at least this year. And this isn’t Tim Tebow. Manziel is a great runner who can sling it, too. He’ll make mistakes but he’ll pile up big plays with his arm and legs, guaranteed. Brian Hoyer won’t even be on the team come opening day.

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