Fantasy football may be over for the season, but it’s never too early to evaluate the takeaways from the NFL playoffs as we prepare for 2013. Here are 12 lessons learned through the championship games – and why we shouldn’t overrate any of them.
1. Bernard Pierce Is Here to Stay: Anyone who thought Pierce would fade into the sunset during the Ravens’ pursuit of the Lombardi trophy was dead wrong. Pierce had 27 carries to Ray Rice’s 64, and finished with a more impressive postseason yards per carry of 6.3 to Rice’s 3.9. Pierce clearly will continue to be part of this offense going forward (sorry to those who hoped the departure of Willis McGahee would mean Rice would get 20+ carries per game for the next five years), but don’t overrate his involvement. He’s an explosive runner who will be used to spell Rice and keep defenses honest by adding another dimension to the running game. He may eat into Rice’s touches a smidge, but Ray is the guy for the long haul. Pierce isn’t worth drafting as anything more than a handcuff.
2. Seattle Is for Real: Russell Wilsonsurprised many in the NFL and Fantasy realms; first by how fast he took the helm, then with his poise, ability through the air and on the ground and how he played in the postseason. Fantasy writers often talk about the sophomore slump, but I foresee great things again for Wilson – even better than this year. He played like a veteran when his team was down 20 points in the playoff game and it’s not like he has a ton of real threats in the air (Sidney Rice? Meh). Marshawn Lynch is the anchor of that offense and will no doubt be a first round pick next season after some people passed him up for huge disappointments like Darren McFadden (never drafted him, never will) and chances are owners aren’t going to draft Wilson as a QB1. He’ll likely put up those kinds of numbers, but you may want to grab another viable starter just in case. As far as the defense goes, Seattle gave up huge chunks of yardage on the ground (even Michael Turner took big bites out of them), but rookies Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner were great and should only get better next year. In IDP leagues, Wagner will be a stud.
3. Owen Daniels Has PPR Value: With Tony Gonzalez allegedly set to retire, the tight end Fantasy pool dries up just a little bit more. Could Daniels become a viable trustworthy every week start next season? He certainly was in the postseason, beating out all TEs in receptions (18) and yards per game (86.0). But don’t overrate his playoff PPR output. Both games came against secondaries that give up a lot of points to the position. Daniels only finished 10th overall during the regular Fantasy season, behind guys like Dennis Pitta, Jermaine Gresham and even Brandon Myers. The offense runs through Arian Foster and you can expect rookies Keyshawn Martin and even Devier Posey, assuming he heals well from the Achilles injury suffered late in the game against the Patriots, to be more involved in the offense during their sophomore season. Plus, TE2 Garrett Graham got his fair share of looks all season, including in the end zone, and it’s not like Daniels is a paragon of health.
4. The Patriots Defense Is Great for Guys Playing Against Them: The New England Patriots gave up the most 20-plus yard plays to opposing teams in the NFL during the regular season, and the trend continued in the postseason. Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub threw five TDs between them against the Pats and playmakers on both the Ravens and Texans offenses made huge plays down the field. This bodes well for high-scoring games next season, which means you want to keep starting QBs, WRs and pass-catching RBs (they’re a bit better against the run) against them in Fantasy 2013. Now, the Patriots LB corps is quite young, and you can bet Bill Belichick will make an effort to get those guys to prevent plays from even making it into the secondary. The team had a couple of young guys in the secondary, too, including rookie CB Alfonzo Dennard, and we should expect some improvement there from this team. Belichick sees the same stats we do; so don’t give too much long-term credibility to that 20-plus yard play stat. But it’s definitely something to consider on a weekly basis – unless of course, they make a play for Darrelle Revis.
5. Julio Jones Is Who Falcons Thought He Was: The Falcons moved up to get Jones in the 2011 draft and though he was limited by injury issues his first season he came on big this year – even moreso in the postseason. Jones led all postseason wide receivers with 120 yards per game and 17 receptions and the way Matt Ryan used him to torch the vaunted 49ers defense is indicative of even better things to come for the young speedster. But Jones’ emergence doesn’t mean Roddy White is going anywhere. Jones will probably be drafted higher than him in 2013 Fantasy leagues, but White still has skills – and if Gonzalez really does retire, Ryan, who also had a bit of a coming out party during the postseason (plus the highest completion percentage of any postseason QB at 70.1 percent), will continue to rely on his most trusted possession guy. White and Jones are the best WR tandem in football and I’d be quite happy letting someone else reach for Julio early and grabbing White a bit later in 2013 drafts. He’s got another 1,000+ yard year in him.
6. Danny Woodhead Could Be Out in New England: The emergence of second-year guy Stevan Ridley and, as Tom Brady put it, the “growing up” of Ridley’s fellow 2011 draftee Shane Vereen doesn’t bode well for the free agent Woodhead. The lead back job still belongs to Ridley, but Vereen showed some pass protection and pass catching skills that could work well in the same schemes where the Patriots have used Woodhead in the past. Keep in mind the Patriots drafted Vereen a pick before Ridley, with their second-round pick, so they obviously had high hopes for him. Of course, one can never trust the Patriots when it comes to running backs, and they do horde veterans so they may very well keep Woodhead, but the point is Vereen is clearly the RB2 you want in that offense Fantasy-wise next season – and he could turn out to be a very deep sleeper if Ridley gets hurt or doesn’t get it done.
7. Colts Rookies Are Playmakers: The rookie trio of Andrew Luck, Vick Ballard and TY Hilton were impressive all regular season and enough so in their one postseason showing to suggest they’re due for a sophomore bump in 2013. Luck didn’t throw for a TD against the Ravens, but Hilton hauled in eight receptions and, Ballard carried the ball more than 20 times, which is markedly different from the Peyton Manning-run Colts offense and a sign of things to come. Donald Brown is always hurt and the Delone Carter and Mewelder Moore experiments didn’t exactly work out, so Ballard will be an intriguing later round pick – say RB3 — next Fantasy season. New offensive coordinator (Luck’s old Stanford coordinator) Pep Hamilton has vowed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers, which clearly include these three guys. And the team seems committed to run. But will Hamilton’s college offense translate well to the NFL? Obviously, Luck made the transition fine on his own and there’s almost a concern having his college OC run his NFL offense causes him to regress just a bit. But I wouldn’t worry too much. These guys will all be value picks in next season’s Fantasy drafts, so you can’t really go too wrong with any of them. Just contain your expectations as far as Ballard and Hilton go. They’re nice “in case they go off” options.
8. Flacco is Clutch in Real Football, Just Not in Fantasy: There’s no doubt Joe Flacco was clutch during the postseason, throwing 8 TDs through four playoff games, giving life to Anquan Boldin, abusing opposing defenses with the long ball to Torrey Smith and leading his team to the first Super Bowl of his young career. But as much as Flacco thinks he’s a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, (and yes, he beat both of them – so did Mark Sanchez in 2010, mind you) he’s just not. While he may have helped a few playoff Fantasy teams this year, his Fantasy draft stock next season should and will not be impacted by his postseason success. Some guys are just better in the playoffs. And because I expect Flacco to return to his regular season form by September, Boldin’s value takes a dive as well. Boldin shouldn’t be drafted as anything more than a WR3, at best (I’d prefer a guy like TY Hilton), and there will be better options even at QB2 for your Fantasy squad than Joe Flacco.
9. Frank Gore Is Not Dead: Gore had huge postseason, running for 104.5 yards per game through his two games with 44 totes averaging 4.8 YPC. He had more than 20 carries in each postseason game to follow up the seventh 200-plus carry regular season of his career and showed no signs of tiring out or losing time to injuries as he had in the past. Gore may very well have a nice Fantasy year in 2013, but he’ll be 30 years old by the time the next season gets underway and Fantasy owners can’t expect 15-20 points per game from him on a consistent basis anymore. Also, LaMichael James clearly emerged in the postseason in the absence of perennial malcontent Brandon Jacobs and showed explosiveness, notching the first TD of his career in the NFC Championsip Game against the Falcons. He’s the future, and expect him to get his fair share of touches next season. That said, Gore can be drafted as an RB2 in most Fantasy leagues. James would be a must own for Gore owners, though. If Gore were to go down, the young speedster could take over the job permanently.
10. Jacquizz Rodgers Won’t Be “The Guy” for Falcons: When Michael Turner went down in the championship game the Falcons abandoned the run – completely. Atlanta was down by a few points but there was ample time left at that point to not only get down the field, but run out the clock with a game-winning drive. All the Falcons did was throw. For all the hate against Turner, he’s still a bulldozer and a necessary component of that rushing game. Rodgers did show bursts of strength (including carrying a 49er defender three times his size on his back for an additional five yards on one play) and will continue to eat into Turner’s time, but he’ll never be the goal line guy. Fantasy owners shouldn’t want any part of this backfield next season unless you’re talking about an RB4 in PPR leagues with Rodgers or an RB3 in standard leagues with Turner. The carries were ultimately split pretty evenly through the Falcons two playoff games (22 for Turner, 20 for Rodgers) but it’s hard to see that team’s rushing game as anything more than a timeshare with low Fantasy production.
11. The Law Firm Can Still Run, But His QB Needs an Eye Opener – Benjarvus Green-Ellis only got to play in one playoff game this year, but he continued to move the ball well as he had done since Week 9 of the regular season, carrying the ball 11 times at nearly 6.0 YPC. BGE averaged 4.3 YPC after his team’s bye while ripping off a bunch of 40-plus yard runs and the dearth of healthy RBs on the Cincinnati roster made it easy to continue relying on him. But don’t expect another 1,000-plus yard season next year. The Bengals have said that they’re looking for a complimentary back in the draft, and if that particularly back turns out to be any good, BGE could lose his job before long. He’s more of a stopgap than a guy you really want to invest in. One other note from the playoff loss: Andy Dalton needs to at least try to spread the field if he wants to win more of those games. No one can blame him for honing in constantly on AJ Green, but when you’ve got a tight end with the size and speed of Jermaine Gresham, and Green is being covered by Johnathan Joseph, you’ve got to be able to utilize your other weapons in order to win the game. Gresham caught just two passes for seven yards against the Texans, Dalton tossed a pick and Joseph was on the receiving end of that pick. Gresham probably has more life in him than a guy like Owen Daniels, but you can’t confidently draft a guy whose quarterback seems to think there’s only one receiver on the field when he’s not that receiver.
12. Green Bay Needs an Offensive Line: With all the talk about longtime Packer Greg Jennings potentially leaving for other pastures – and then the talk he might stay following a good postseason – and the demand for commitment at the running back position (though DuJuan Harris did stitch together a few good games), it’s still impossible to overlook Green Bay’s biggest impediment to a championship – the offensive line. Lack of a true threat at RB means Aaron Rodgers sees a lot of blitzes; lack of an offensive line means Rodgers hits the ground a ton and his playmakers miss out on some Fantasy opportunities as a result. (Though, of course, guys like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb still get plenty of looks to keep their Fantasy owners happy.) Now, if Green Bay can put together an effective offensive line and acquire Steven Jackson, who voided the last year of his contract with the Rams, they’d be in business. And Jackson would go from a guy you aren’t excited about drafting next year, assuming he even stays in the league, to a guy who would be viable as an RB2 most weeks. The Packers aren’t known to run, but they would with him.