Ugly Ducklings September 1, 2016  |  Scott Cedar


Everyone knows the story of the ugly duckling. The poor, little guy was mocked, ridiculed, and left alone in the cold winter just because he wasn’t much of a looker. Of course, the ugly duckling had his day… by spring he’d grown into a beautiful swan, becoming the envy of the pond.

Ryan Mathews was at one point in time a very ugly duckling. After an injury-riddled 2012, Mathews had finished as RB30 twice in three years and was the subject of countless “he had more broken collarbones than touchdowns!” jokes. Heading into 2013 the consensus was that Mathews was a bust. For some reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling Mathews was being unfairly dismissed. His 2012 was an unmitigated disaster, but so what? He was hurt in the preseason and never got healthy. It didn’t feel good at the time, and my brain was screaming “No, you idiot!”, but by draft time I had grown to love Mathews. He rewarded my faith with 1,255 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a monster playoff run (19.50, 18.80, and 17.90 points), finishing as RB12 overall.

Last year Doug Martin took the ugly duckling mantle, having finished as RB56 and RB47 while missing 15 games the two prior seasons. Maybe his rookie year, bolstered by a few big games, was a mirage? I saw Martin as another Ryan Mathews, and he too paid off, finishing as RB3.

Drafting studs is easy. Drafting rookies with no track record of disappointment is easy. Drafting guys like Mathews and Martin coming off terrible years… that never feels good. However, the “terrible” is often overstated, with our judgment clouded by recency bias (emphasizing what happened last year) and negativity bias (causing the bad memories to stick more than the good). Sometimes it pays to draft ugly, taking guys no one else wants—that deep down, you don’t even want.

Here’s my list of ugly for 2016, the “bad” players I think can have good years.

 

Matt Ryan

Why he’s ugly:
A 21-16 TD/INT ratio, 23rd in AY/A, and QB19 finish (28th in points per game) in 2015.

 

But beautiful on the inside:

Ryan’s biggest problem last year was his receiving corps. Ryan’s had the luxury of playing with two top receivers for most of his career, but the death of Roddy White not only brought that gravy train to an end, it sent the train careening off the tracks into a fiery mess like in every Bruce Willis movie ever:

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 10.28.00 AM

 

Leonard Hankerson was a viable 2nd option when he played, but he amassed only 46 targets over 7 games before getting hurt. Without Hankerson, Ryan’s options were Julio, Julio, and… let’s throw it to Julio again. Hankerson has been replaced by Mohamed Sanu, who’s not an elite player by any stretch but has generated similar efficiency as a receiver (8.5 AY/A from Andy Dalton the past two years) and hasn’t missed a game since 2012.

Ryan is also due for some serious touchdown regression. His 3.4% TD rate last year was the lowest of his career and well below his 4.5% career average. TD rates tend to regress to the mean, so expect Ryan to be closer to his normal 26-29 range next year. Ryan always gets yards (over 4,500 each of the past 4 seasons); add in an improved offensive line and Ryan’s 2nd year in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and things are looking up.

 

Melvin Gordon

Why he’s ugly:
One of last year’s biggest busts, Gordon ran for 3.48 YPC and 0 TDs en route to an RB fifty-three finish, which is so bad I had to type out the number so you didn’t think “53” was a typo.

Oh yeah, he’s also coming off microfracture surgery.

 

But beautiful on the inside:

My interest in Gordon this offseason started off the same as John Blutarsky’s GPA: 0.0. After taking a closer look, he’s become one of my favorite mid-round targets.

The primary reason for optimism is the Chargers’ offensive line, which can’t be any worse than last year… literally, they were graded dead last by Pro Football Focus after being decimated by injuries (four of their five starters missed time, and 12 different linemen received snaps). I thought Gordon actually looked pretty good last year, often eluding the first tackler and getting more than what was blocked. The only problem was that first tackler met him in the backfield, and getting more than what was blocked (i.e., nothing) still led to some pretty bad numbers. It wasn’t just Gordon who struggled; Danny Woodhead’s 3.4 YPC was by far the lowest of his career. Purely by better injury luck, the line should improve significantly and Gordon will have more room to run.

It’s tempting to write off Gordon as a bust after his disastrous rookie year, but I already made that mistake with Le’Veon Bell (3.5 YPC his rookie year) and Devonta Freeman (3.8 YPC). Sure, some bad rookies stay bad (oh, hi Trent Richardson), but there’s a reason Gordon was a 1st round pick in an era where running backs aren’t 1st rounders (one of those reasons is the Chargers have a bad front office, but still). Gordon figures to get the bulk of the carries on an offense that should be pretty good, and the Chargers don’t face a top-10 run defense until Week 6.

Gordon is this year’s Mathews/Martin for me… a “bad” player I’ve talked myself into loving.

 

Isaiah Crowell

Why he’s ugly:

An undrafted free agent with a career 3.9 YPC, Crowell finished 42nd in points per game among running backs in 2015.

 

But beautiful on the inside:

Hue Jackson has a Forrest Gump-level love of running; his last four offenses have finished 4th, 7th, 5th and 7th in rushing attempts. Crowell is set to play the Jeremy Hill role in this offense, receiving the majority of the carries and goal line work. So why can’t Crowell emulate Hill and pound out 4.0 yards per carry over 225 carries with seven to eight touchdowns? That would put him around 130 points, making him a passable RB2. Crowell will also have the benefit (benefit?) of playing with Robert Griffin III. RGIII is not the quarterback he once was (also, the sun will rise tomorrow), but he can still threaten a defense with his legs. RGIII’s presence was a huge benefit to Alfred Morris, a plodder whose per game stats were much better with a RGIII under center:

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 10.29.05 AM

 

Yes, the Browns are going to be bad (the sun will also rise the day after tomorrow), so game script could be a concern, but the Browns at least have big-play receivers who can generate red zone opportunities. Crowell’s been an efficient runner near the end zone, converting nearly 30% of his carries from inside the 10 into touchdowns.

 

I also think Crowell may be more skilled than given credit for. He was the #1 running back in his high school class and had a good freshman year at Georgia before transferring to Alabama State due to off-field issues. Draft guru Matt Waldman also called him the most talented back in his class. Only 23, in a run-friendly system with a coach who knows how to utilize a power runner, Crowell is poised for his best year yet.

 

Mike Wallace

Why he’s ugly:

Wallace finished as the WR75 with only 60 points last year, putting up career lows in yards (473), yards per reception (12.1), and touchdowns (2).

 

But beautiful on the inside:

Your friends are going to make fun of you when you draft Wallace. On a list of ugly players, Wallace is the ugliest. He’s the Khloe Kardashian of this group.

He’s also a year removed from a WR18 finish. He was WR26 and WR25 the two years before that. He did that while stuck with quarterbacks who didn’t throw deep often (Teddy Bridgewater) or accurately (Ryan Tannehill), wasting his biggest strength as a receiver. In Wallace’s four years with Ben Roethlisberger, a prolific deep-ball passer, he finished with two top-10 WR finishes and never ranked lower than WR28 (his rookie year). Wallace is only 30 and still has the speed to beat defenders down the field. Now paired with one of the best deep-ball throwers in Joe Flacco and a coordinator who’s not afraid to air it out, Wallace is primed for a bounce back year.

Wallace has also been a surprisingly viable receiver in the red zone. Over the past three years Wallace has 13 touchdowns on 37 red zone targets (35%; the 3-year average for players with at least 12 targets is 28.5%). Wallace only received seven red zone targets last year as the Vikings went run-heavy when close, but that number should come up as the Ravens threw it on 60% of their red zone plays compared to only 40.8% for the Vikings.

Kamar Aiken is still my favorite Ravens receiver, but Wallace is the clear number two ahead of Steve Smith (a 37-year-old receiver coming off an ACL injury, already eyeing retirement) or Breshad Perriman (2nd-half impact possible, but injuries have him way behind for now).

 

Emmanual Sanders:

Why he’s ugly:

The #2 receiver on a run-first team led by Trevor Siemian.

 

But beautiful on the inside:

Last year, Sanders turned 136 targets into 76 catches for 1,135 yards and 6 touchdowns. It was a drop-off from 2014, and he wasn’t the model of consistency (only six top-24 WR weeks), but it was also his second straight year with over 1,000 yards, 75 catches and a top-24 overall finish.

The Broncos do figure to run more this year, but Kubiak’s teams have finished top 10 in rushing attempts only twice in the past 10 years. Even in a run-heavy scheme, Sanders will get more than enough targets. There’s little in the way of pass-catchers beyond Sanders and Demaryius Thomas—tight end Virgil Green, with 35 receptions in 5 years, figures to be the #3 option—so the Broncos should have one of the narrowest distribution of targets in the league. And while Siemian will be bad (his senior season he finished as the 13th best quarterback … in the Big 10), Sanders was productive last year despite horrible seasons from Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. Some have even called Siemian’s arm a gift from the gods, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Oh, and about Sanders being the #2 option? He was actually far more efficient than Thomas last year, scoring 1.08 fantasy points per touch compared to Thomas’s 0.92 points per touch. Manning and Osweiler also had significantly better AY/A throwing to Sanders (7.4 and 8.8, respectively) than to Thomas (6.2 and 5.8).

Sanders is boring—if you were dating wide receivers, he’d be friendzoned—but he’s a solid player who’s somehow undervalued in a year where it seems every receiver is overvalued.

 

Jared Cook:

Why he’s ugly:

Cook turned 75 targets into only 39 receptions (52% catch percentage, 42nd among tight ends), 481 yards, and no touchdowns, finishing as TE34 despite playing all 16 games. He’s never topped 800 yards or 5 touchdowns in a season, and in 7 years has finished as a top-12 tight end once (TE10 in 2013; 18th in points per game).

 

But beautiful on the inside:

Cook is a groundhog: he shows up once a year to remind you he exists, then jumps back into a hole for the rest of the year. After 7 years of inconsistency, why will Year 8 be different?

Start with the obvious… here’s a list of Cook’s quarterbacks. Sure, their numbers might look a little better if Cook wasn’t running the wrong routes and dropping passes, but this is a ghastly group. Cook now gets to play with Aaron Rodgers. That’s like going from the original Nintendo to a PS4 (actually, the Nintendo was better… but you get the idea). Cook has looked great playing with Rodgers this preseason (catching 8 of 9 targets for 80 yards) and is set for a heavy workload as Green Bay’s starting tight end.

The other reason I’m intrigued by Cook is straight off of narrative street. I don’t generally buy into the “they went out and signed him in free agency, so they’re going to use him” argument. Teams do stupid stuff in free agency all the time (almost exclusively, in fact).  I do, however, pay attention when smart front offices like the Packers, who rarely dive into free agency, make a move like this.  When Jordy Nelson went down last year, the Packers’ deep threat was gone and its offense crumbled.  Cook is a superb athlete with field-stretching ability (5th in YPR among tight ends over the past 5 years). That’s valuable in its own right, but it may become an even larger role if Nelson’s recovery from a torn ACL bleeds into the regular season.

 

Other Ugly Ducklings:
I’ve already touched on Teddy Bridgewater’s sleeper potential – he’s an Adrian Peterson injury away from being a top-12 quarterback; I’m done waiting for Ryan Tannehill (it’s Year 5, if you lost count), but wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Joe Philbin was just that bad; Robert Griffin III has a stable of big-play receivers and can still run—there will be weeks…; I don’t see Blaine Gabbert having swan potential—I spent far too long investing in guys because they played in a “Mike Martz offense,” like that was a good thing, and I’m beginning to feel the same about Chip Kelly.

If T.J. Yeldon doesn’t break out this year, he’ll definitely be on this list in 2017; Arian Foster’s injury history is being overblown, I could see a fringe RB1 season; I’ll always talk myself into C.J. Spiller, getting first-team reps in a situation we all loved for him last year; I won’t own DeMarco Murray this year, but his preseason performance has me wondering if he’s not dead yet.

Michael Crabtree is a great example of an ugly player who blossomed, but his ADP has never adjusted to account for 2015; I’m part of the problem, but Jordan Matthews is pretty hated for a guy who’s caught 8 TDs each of his first two seasons; nothing about Ted Ginn’s 2015 was a mirage, it’s just a question of whether he gets the same volume to counteract his inefficiency; Kenny Stills was hyper-efficient with New Orleans and appears to be the Dolphins’ #2, maybe last year was the outlier?

If Jace Amaro isn’t cut, he’s a nice buy low on a team that will throw; Charles Clay is the #2 receiving option for an underrated quarterback, and has always been solid when healthy; Crockett Gillmore was serviceable last year and is back in the starting role by default.

One Response

  1. Collin says:

    Great article. Thanks for the read. Glad I’m not the only one on Gordon this year.

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