If you’re not watching the first halves of preseason games, your fantasy obsessive card should be revoked.
Preseason match-ups devolve into sloppy, turnover-ridden glorified scrimmages after the first-team guys make way for the second stringers, so feel free to resume reading your subscription to The New Yorker or watching reruns of Two and a Half Men after the second-half kickoff. But for your own fantasy good, watch the starters play.
Even for those of us who DVR preseason contests and dissect them like the frigging Zapruder film, the on-field action means very little outside of pure numbers posted by skill position players and the opportunities (runs, targets, pass attempts) they receive in limited action.
I asked Gur Samuel, a game film aficionado who writes for The Pulling Linemen, a site that, among other things, dissects players and games, to help the layperson (me) better understand what his or her eyeballs are seeing.
I asked Samuel – who wrote an in-depth breakdown of LeGarrette Blount’s successes and struggles in 2011 – to look at film for second year Redskins wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and Broncos wideout Eric Decker, who has rocketed up draft boards this summer.
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Redskins
Let’s begin with Hankerson, the former Miami Hurricane who only played four games in 2011, making his only noteworthy contribution against the Dolphins in Week 11, when he caught eight passes for 106 yards before tearing his hip labrum. Hankerson, who had 13 grabs in 2011, started for Washington in last week’s preseason tilt against the Bears.
As a specimen, Hankerson has good measurables, but I’m surprised that there is much discussion around his size, looking at the bigger picture – yes, he’s the tallest receiver in the Redskins corps (together with waiver-wire pickup Dezmon Briscoe), but his height of 6’2″ is tall but not extraordinary for a receiver, especially as there appears to be a fast-growing trend of taller receivers over the past few years, a trend that I believe is only going to become even more prominent over the next couple of drafts. He has good speed to go with the height, of course, but I believe that Josh Morgan, who has a similar size and speed, will be able to better utilize that combination once he’s fully healthy again.
The reason I say this is because I am very conscious of one the biggest knocks on Hankerson coming out of Miami – that he was a dropper. Whether his hands have improved in the NFL, it’s hard to say confidently with so little on tape, but it is very much a concern for me. Of course, if he were dropping passes too frequently in camp, then he wouldn’t be as high in the eyes of the Shanahans as he clearly is, but nonetheless, with the reputation from his college days, it is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Again, with limited tape, it’s hard to give a fair evaluation of Hankerson in the context of other receivers around the league, but going mostly off of his college tape, he reminds me to a certain extent of Mike Williams (of the Buccaneers, not the first round bust) – they have comparable size and speed, and both are able to make good yards after the catch when running quick slants and hitches; Williams also suffers from a significant case of the drops, but Williams has been able to overcome his dropping issue by (at least in 2010) making good things happen with the balls he catches.
Hankerson’s challenge will be to similarly overcome dropping issues by having to take full advantage of his opportunities. If he scores double-digit touchdowns, I promise you people forget all about the drops.
Even as a backup, he will be seeing plenty of game time, as Kyle Shanahan loves using the “32″ personnel package – 3 wide receivers, 2 in the backfield (typically a fullback and tailback in I-form). The advantages of that personnel grouping is obvious – it allows for both a power-run game and an open passing game, giving the QB the power to switch from one to the other at the line of scrimmage without any player needing to motion or shift into a different formation, making it much harder to defend against.
Samuel sees Hankerson as fantasy league waiver wire fodder more than a late-round flier in 2012.
Hankerson’s talents lend themselves better to routes that cater more to pocket passers – something RG3 will become better at over time, even during his rookie season; but for at least the majority of this season, Hankerson should not be a priority for fantasy players in my eyes.
Click here for several thousand words and game highlights from Hankerson’s lone standout performance of 2011.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos
Now let’s move to Decker, who is being drafted at the end of the fifth round in fantasy drafts, marking a giant leap from the eighth and ninth round ADP he had four short weeks ago. Decker showed chemistry with Peyton Manning in offseason workouts and training camp, and is widely expected – by beat writers and fantasy analysts alike – to lead the team in targets and be a PPR hero in 2012.
Decker had 44 catches for 612 yards and eight scores last season, under the reign of Tim Tebow’s faulty mechanics.
Samuel took issue with the popular perception of Decker as a purely possession receiver expert only at underneath routes.
Personally I wouldn’t categorize him as a possession receiver only, no. By all means he can do everything that is asked of a possession receiver – he runs crossing routes without fear of being hit (arguably the most important attribute of the possession WR, aside from good hands); he is physical in his style of play, fighting with (and through) DBs in order to take the ball; and he has good change-of-direction speed, which allows him to make good yards after the catch when he cuts downfield with the ball in his hands.
But while he’s more than capable of that role, he brings more to the field than just that skill set. While he’s not a burner, he has the ability to get into position on medium-to-deep balls, especially when there’s play-action to give him that extra second to get downfield. I suppose the reason why some people categorize him as being possession-only is that he doesn’t really get that much separation from defensive backs when he runs deeper routes. He brings that possession skill set to the more vertical part of his game too, so even if he’s not gotten separation on, say, a deep post, he still will use that physicality to wrest the ball away from defensive backs.
If there is one area that he could improve on it would be on getting that separation from DBs – but you first have to consider why he doesn’t get that separation. I don’t believe that it can be fully pinned on speed. If anything, he has a burst to him that only seems to come after the catch. I have no doubt that he could use that speed to get separation on the route, pre-catch, but often doesn’t.
To me, that suggests one of two issues – either it speaks to a lack of crispness to his route running, or a lack of accuracy in the quarterbacks he has played with. If it’s the latter, it explains a lot why he doesn’t use speed to separate more from defensive players – if he’s gotten a few yards of separation from the DB but the pass is underthrown, then it’s an easy pick for the DB. If Decker and the DB are pretty much running hip to hip, however, Decker uses every inch of his 6’3″ height as well as his strength to come away with the ball; that way, if the quarterback does throw it short, at least the ball will fall short of the DB as well.
I can’t help but hedge on Decker – or any Bronco receiver – after reports from ESPN’s John Clayton and Matt Williamson detailing Manning’s continuing struggles with throwing to his right more than 10 yards. Yes, 10 yards. Manning isn’t having a tough time with 30-yard out routes falling off his back foot. He can’t throw the ball 10 damn yards to his right, thanks to his multitude of neck surgeries.
That, however, is the only reason I’m not selling out to snatch Decker in every fantasy draft in the next two weeks. Here’s more from Samuel…
Manning has already warned that his arm is not what it used to be, so I think early in drives, and in general throughout the earlier parts of the game, Manning will be looking more to Decker in that possession-type role in the middle of the field, using the no huddle to get the ball quickly down the field seven yards at a time and wearing out defenses. Decker will be the key receiver in that part of the game plan.
A full offseason working with Manning should be the best education Decker could possibly get in refining and sharpening his route running – even if it was a case of accurate routes but inaccurate passers, I don’t think there’s a receiver in the league who wouldn’t improve their route-running ability working with Manning, so I believe he should be fine.