The Value of Opportunity

Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is all about opportunity.  At the highest level the separation between stars and scrubs is often not a measure of talent but rather the chance players are given to put that talent on display.  For every Peyton Manning that was drafted into stardom there is a Tom Brady that toiled in obscurity until they got their shot (thank you, Drew Bledsoe).  As an avid fantasy footballer, part of what I try to do in building winning teams is to assess players not only on what they have done (given their opportunity), but what they could do if given the chance.  Historically sleepers are identified from one season to the next by determining which players’ values will take a spike due to either an increased role, a change of scenery, or an improved surrounding cast.  This logic seems sound in a lot of ways but it also leaves a lot to chance.  If I’m taking a shot on a guy in the mid-to-late rounds of my draft, I want to know that given the opportunity he will put points on the board.  Perhaps the best predictor of what a player is capable of with the ball in their hands is FPT or Fantasy Points per Touch.  Depending on the scoring of your league, you should have an idea which guys do the most with what they are given and then look for individuals in that group who may take advantage of an improved situation in the upcoming season.  The following lists of FPT all-stars compared to their top-tier peers are based on a standard PPR league for the 2009 season.  Call them sleepers if you want, but these are the guys you can trust to make the most of their opportunities when given the chance.


Top-Tier Peers:

Philip Rivers – .66 FPT
Drew Brees – .55 FPT
Peyton Manning – .52 FPT
Kurt Warner – .51 FPT
Jay Cutler – .46 FPT

Opportunity Darlings:

Shaun Hill – .50 FPT – I know he’s not sexy, but Shaun Hill wins football games and I have to think that when the chips are down Mike Singletary would rather have him behind center than an aging vet or an unproven rookie if the Niners go that route in April.  Young wideout Josh Morgan keeps getting better and I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Francisco go WR early when the draft rolls around or make a play on Torry Holt or Anquan Boldin if and when they come available.  If he wins the gig (and I think he will) and plays a full season, you’ll look like a genius for nabbing Hill with one of the last picks in the draft while others reached for a big name QB early.

Trent Edwards – .40 FPT – The career path of quarterbacks that have played with TO can’t be ignored.  Yes, he’s a pain in the ass … yes, he does topless crunches in his driveway while fielding questions from reporters … yes, he has the emotional maturity of a jock strap … but … Jeff Garcia went to three Pro Bowls throwing him the rock, Donovan McNabb had the best season of his career when TO was flying like an Eagle, and Tony Romo bacame a household name (and landed some hotties) during Owens’ time in big D.  Edwards is already a very accurate passer and has displayed good intangibles with only a couple seasons under his belt.  I anticipate a BIG step forward for the Stanford alum in the upcoming season.

Tarvaris Jackson – .56 FPT – The only thing standing between T-Jack and fantasy production is one Bradford Childress.  There aren’t many men I detest more than the software engineer currently running the show in Minnesota.  When given the opportunity Jackson has made strides toward becoming a viable NFL starting quarterback (see his 95.4 QB rating and 9-2 TD-INT ratio in limited action last season).  For reasons beyond my comprehension the Viking’s brass wants to hand the reigns to the walking turnover that is Sage Rosenfels.  When that fails miserably and the Vikes stumble out of the gates, make sure Jackson isn’t floating out on your league’s free agent list and he will reward you with above average production.

Running Backs

Top-Tier Peers:

Maurice Jones-Drew – 1.02 FPT
Brian Westbrook – .92 FPT
LaDainian Tomlinson – .77 FPT
Michael Turner – .71 FPT
Adrian Peterson – .66 FPT

Opportunity Darlings:

Pierre Thomas – 1.12 FPT – When Thomas took over the reigns for the injured (again) Reggie Bush and aging Deuce McAllister, the Saints offense didn’t miss a beat.  In fact, the guy that played in front of Rashard Mendenhall at Illinois took full advantage of his opportunity down the stretch last season and carried many fantasy owners to their respective championships.  Thomas proved to be a dynamic all-around threat as he displayed a nose for the goaline as well as above-average receiving skills out of the backfield.  Rumors have been swirling as they always do this time of year, but barring a reunion between Drew Brees and LT in the Big Easy, Thomas looks to be the guy to own in the Saint’s backfield heading forward.

Felix Jones – 1.41 FPT – How did Arkansas not win a national championship with Jones and Darren McFadden in their backfield?  I’m pretty sure I could have coached that team to 11 wins using a Tecmo Bowl playbook.  This silky smooth sophomore was putting up HUGE numbers with his limited chances early in the season before suffering a hamstring injury that translated into what was essentially a lost season.  Never fear, reports out of Dallas are that Jerry Jones wants to hand a bigger portion of the workload to Jones to help keep sledgehammer Marion Barber fresh.  The loss of the Tuman Oeadache also means the Cowboys will rely more on the ground game this season.  Don’t expect Jones to keep averaging nearly a point and a half per touch, but 950 yards and 8 touchdowns with contributions in the passing game and special teams is well within his reach.

Ahmad Bradshaw – .67 FPT – This one may be a stretch for some of you, but when I look around the league at muddy backfield situations in Denver, New England and Baltimore, you could do a lot worse than nabbing this diminutive fireball in the mid-to-late rounds of your league’s draft.  Bradshaw will be 23 at the start of the season, and he has averaged 6.1 YPC for his career in a limited role with the G-Men.  Derrick Ward’s breakout season stunted his growth last year, but word out of Giants camp is that the coaching staff is excited to see what Bradshaw can do with an increased role this year.  Translation: this guy could reward savvy owners with 800-900 yards and handful of touchdowns.  Brandon Jacobs is a bruiser but he doesn’t catch passes and he doesn’t stay healthy for full seasons … look for Bradshaw to open some eyes this year.

Wide Receivers

Top-Tier Peers:

Calvin Johnson – 3.38 FPT
Greg Jennings – 3.23 FPT
Larry Fitzgerald – 3.19 FPT
Roddy White – 2.89 FPT
Andre Johnson – 2.71 FPT

Opportunity Darlings:

Vincent Jackson – 3.30 FPT – Jackson’s size and speed combo served as a frustration to his owners in his first three seasons in the NFL.  Surely a guy with his physical gifts would dominate the league … it was just a matter of time.  Well, fantasy owners are not known for their patience but dynasty leaguers that held on to Jackson during his steady upward trends early in his career reaped the rewards of a very quietly productive season in 2008.  A physical freak at 6’5″ 230 lbs with a lightning quick explosion off the line and tremendous leaping ability, Jackson is a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses.  Another year in the saddle for Philip Rivers and the emergence of Jackson as a legitimate red zone threat could result in a top-5 WR next season for those that call his number on draft day.

Steve Breaston – 2.40 FPT – This is me saying I don’t think Boldin is coming back to the Cards.  Nobody (including the Cardinal’s front office as evidenced by the selection of Early Doucet last April) saw this second year man from Michigan ascending to the ranks of fantasy relevance before last season.  When Boldin exits stage east (hello Philly?), Breaston will step into his vacated spot opposite Larry Fitzgerald.  With the attention the braided one will command on the other side, Kurt Warner and Breaston will be free to carve up opposing defenses between the 20s.  Double-digit touchdowns may be a bit optimistic with the variety of weapons at Warner’s disposal, but 90 catches and 1,200 yards is well within reach for this dynamic speedster.  Invest.

Lee Evans – 2.80 FPT – Uncertainty at the quarterback position and a lack of talent around him have hurt Evans’ production throughout his NFL career.  Despite these limiting factors, the supremely talented former Badger has never missed a game and has never averaged less than 15 yards per catch in any of his five seasons.  Enter TO … with the flamboyant prima donna drawing the attention of defenses and media outlets alike, Evans will be freed up to work over the top without facing the double and triple teams that have held his stats in check thus far.  Another point to consider … Lee’s numbers have never been about quantity but QUALITY of his catches (averaging less than 60 catches per season) … TO commanding 80-90 balls will not cut into his value as some have speculated.  I anticipate a HUGE season for Evans in the 75-80 catch neighborhood with 1,400 yards and double digit touchdowns for the first time in his career.

first published on March 10, 2009

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