In the world of fantasy football, and especially dynasty football, there is nothing quite as powerful as having better information than the rest of your league. Look no further than the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, assembled by Matt Waldman of the FootballGuys. It is a comprehensive look at hopeful NFL prospects (skill positions only), as evidenced by its 859 pages. For dynasty owners, it is a must-have handbook that can be the difference between making the playoffs and becoming a true dynasty.
DLF: Can you give us a brief introduction?
Matt: Eric, as you mentioned, I’m a staff writer at Footballguys.com and I have been writing about fantasy football on a regular basis since 2004. The column that earned me regular work and I brought over to Footballguys.com is The Weekly Gut Check. I like to explore and experiment with a variety of statistical and observational concepts to help fantasy owners develop sound fantasy football strategies. I like to explore concepts that frequently operate outside the conventions of the hobby. I’m a big fan of dynasty leagues and I play in a variety of dynasty formats that include IDP, auction, and contract leagues.
DLF: How did the idea of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio first come about and what are the basic principles involved?
Matt: It’s a long story even when I try to keep it brief. The idea came from the combination of two things: my desire to get an edge in dynasty drafts and my previous career as an operations manager and quality assurance director for a company with 50 call centers nationwide.
Although call centers are the butt of jokes (and deservedly so), quality performance is an important piece of the business. During my career I was certified in an operations process for call centers that borrowed statistical quality methods from other industries (Deming, ISO, etc.). My job was to use these principles to create a grading system and database for monitoring the performance of employees interacting with customers.
In my free time, I decided to apply the same quality concepts to evaluating football players. As I developed the database and scoring tool I thought it might have potential to become a resource for others. It didn’t take long to see that the process of studying film – if you’re going to do it thoroughly – is insanely work-intensive. However, I learned so much more about the game – even though I have been a football junkie my entire life – I had to keep doing it.
The basic principle of the RSP is the use of two grading methods. One is a quantitative grading tool, which is the position-specific checklist. It’s a long report card of skills and attributes that are defined in writing to develop a clear set of guidelines for evaluation. Each evaluation question is scored Yes/No and I weight each question with a point value.
The checklist is designed to determine how many of the basic skills and fundamentals a player has at this stage of his game. I read my share of coaching manuals, and take note of what former and current NFL players and scouts say on television, radio, or in print about techniques involved with each of the positions I study. I continue to seek this knowledge to develop and refine my written guidelines.
The second grading method is qualitative in nature. I take detailed play-by-play notes in the database that explains why the player earned each score on the checklist. This information not only shows whether a player performed each skill to the baseline expectation, but it also reveals HOW skilled the player is. For instance, Frank Gore has breakaway speed, but it’s not on the same level as Chris Johnson.
The note taking of the play-by-play examples gives me information to evaluate these players on several levels. And the great thing about this method is that its architecture is designed to improve the performance of the evaluator. The more you strive to sharpen your scoring criteria and guidelines, the more incisive the evaluations become. It helps me continuously refine my skills.
DLF: How many years have you been compiling the RSP? What is the most talented class you’ve scouted?
Matt: This is my sixth year publishing the RSP and because I focus my attention to just four offensive positions I tend to view each class by position. I think the 2009 WR class of Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, and Percy Harvin edges the 2007 class of Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Smith, and Mike Sims-Walker. It’s still a little early to tell, but in addition to the players that came out of the gate strong, ’09 has Michael Crabtree, who could be terrific if he gets solid quarterback play, and Austin Collie, Kenny Britt, and Mike Thomas are solid contributors capable of evaluating their games to another level.
I also think the 2009 quarterback class had depth of talent. Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman may be headliners, but Brian Hoyer has long-term potential. Despite the fact that he wasn’t willing to put in the work, watch any of Nate Davis’ preseason work when he was with the 49ers and it’s obvious he is a highly talented passer. He might have earned a ticket out of the NFL due to his lack of work ethic, but he might have had the most natural skills of all the quarterbacks I mentioned.
Last year’s tight end class was terrific and by far the best group I’ve seen since I began the RSP. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, and Tony Moeaki have potential to be great players at the position for a long time. Jermaine Gresham could join that list, and Ed Dickson, Anthony Quarless, Garrett Graham, Jim Dray, Dennis Pitta, and even undrafted free agent Dedrick Epps have potential to develop into decent starters. I didn’t even mention Michael Hoomanawanui or Fendi Onobun.
The 2008 RB class was loaded with talent: Ray Rice, Jonathan Stewart, Reshard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte are all excellent starters I really liked back then. Felix Jones, Kevin Smith, and Ryan Torain haven’t been able to stay healthy, but they can play. Tashard Choice and Jalen Parmalee are Chester Taylor-like in the respect that they can produce when called upon. That’s 10 players I mentioned and didn’t even invoke the names Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, and Steve Slaton. As much as I liked 2006’s group of backs – 2008 is clearly the best.
DLF: Let’s jump right into this year’s rookie crop. Is there a franchise QB in this year’s class? If so, will he be chosen in the 1st round of the NFL draft? Should he be?
Matt: We’ve been pretty fortunate to have some clear-cut, franchise-caliber prospects from 2008-2010. I believe Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford and Sam Bradford were top-five talents and they are a cut above any of the quarterbacks we have in 2011. However, I think Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder compare favorably to quarterbacks selected in the mid-to-late first round, and Cam Newton has awesome physical potential.
Gabbert, Newton, and maybe even Ponder will be taken in the first round this year. I think the question “should they be taken in the first round” doesn’t give credence to the demand for the position. Nor do I think teams factor previous or future draft classes as heavily as draft analysts do.
So when I look at Gabbert, I see player with enough talent and skill in this class to deserve a high first-round pick. I would have drafted him around the same place I would have drafted Josh Freeman a couple of years ago and definitely ahead of Jimmy Clausen. As with Christian Ponder, I think Gabbert’s 2009 tape reveals more about his potential than what we saw this year – and it has nothing to do with stats.
DLF: Speaking of QB’s, you have a couple in particular that are ranked differently than most of the so-called “experts”…For example, you have Christian Ponder as your #2 QB, ahead of Cam Newton, Jake Locker, & Ryan Mallet among others. Why are you so high on Ponder?
Matt: I’m a Ponder fan because aside from the fact that he’s a good athlete with an NFL-caliber arm, what really stands out is his skill as a pocket passer. He shows the ability to read the entire field, make solid calls at the line of scrimmage, and most importantly he has the poise in the pocket to maneuver away from pressure and still throw an accurate football. What makes him a question mark among other draft analysts and talent evaluators is the arm injury that hampered Ponder as a senior. He didn’t build on his 2009 performance. However, Brett Favre is one of several quarterbacks to become successful NFL starters after a senior year that didn’t build on a strong junior year.
I think what differentiates my work from some is that I don’t care that much about stats. I gave very high marks to Matt Forte and Joseph Addai in games where their offenses were so overmatched that they couldn’t even average two yards per carry. The reason is that my evaluation system isn’t based on stats; it’s based on physical attributes and execution of position-specific techniques. It’s the same reason why I didn’t like Matt Leinart despite the fact he was winning games and posting nice stats. In fact, my system helped me appreciate Steve Smith, because he bailed out Leinart a lot at USC and his technique was excellent – something Jerry Rice later mentioned in the media. Ponder has shown enough that as long as he’s healthy, he has the quantity and quality of skills to emerge as a starter – and potentially a high-end starter in an offense that features his mobility and quick decision-making.
DLF: I found another QB ranking interesting – Andy Froman of Louisville. You have him ranked somewhat higher than most. Why?
Matt: I tend to have picks different from the norm and it has nothing to do with trying to make a splash to get attention. If that were the case, I probably would have stopped publishing the RSP three years ago. Froman earned this high of a ranking for several reasons: 1) He was better than all but Gabbert and Ponder in terms of his mechanics at setting his feet and delivering the football, 2) He demonstrated the ability to avoid pressure, keep his eyes downfield, and maintain good throwing mechanics, which Locker, Mallett, and Newton weren’t consistently as smooth at doing. And 3) Froman is every bit as quick and fast as any quarterback in this class (compare his Pro Day times to Newton’s in the RSP and you’ll be surprised).
I doubt Froman gets drafted until late in the process, but my rankings are based on talent that’s demonstrated on the field. Remember, the draft is a mechanism used to dictate player salaries and that means talent isn’t the only factor used to select a player. Teams are looking for “resume” points to justify a salary: reputation of the program (USC vs. Villanova); injury history; prototype baselines with height, weight, and workout times; and character. Otherwise, Tex Schramm wouldn’t have said in his rankings prior to a draft many years ago on NFL.com that Brian Westbrook would be a top-five pick if he were just an inch or two taller and 5-10 pounds heavier. That statement should tell you that Westbrook was a top-five talent, but his injuries, height/weight, and small school background didn’t make him a top-five risk.
My work is mostly about talent and potential and in my eyes Froman has the talent and potential to become a good NFL starter. He’ll be drafted much later than my ranking but as a dynasty owner or draftnik, my ranking should tell you that he’s a player to watch and take as a potential value play.
DLF: Reading through your RB rankings, a couple of names jump off the page for different reasons. Bilal Powell seems to be a guy that you’re a big fan of. What makes his game translate so well to the NFL?
Matt: There are a lot or reasons, but what stands out about Powell is that he’s a decisive runner and understands that you can’t outrun everyone to the corner or dance away from every defensive lineman in the backfield. It’s a concept that some of the better prospects each year (Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and C.J. Spiller) don’t grasp until they get a rude awakening in the NFL.
You have to learn to run plays as designed and get the tough yards to set up the home run plays. Powell has this maturity that the other backs I mentioned either initially struggled learning or never grasped and he has the physical style and burst to develop into an NFL starter. The fact that he ran like a 220 lbs-back, weighed 205, and has the frame to actually grow into a 220-lbs-runner is also promising.
DLF: You also have Mikel Leshoure ranked quite a bit lower than most. What are some of the things that keep him from being in the top 3 or 4 RB’s on your list?
Matt: Keep in mind I like Leshoure and believe he’ll probably have a better opportunity to prove his worth before at least 3-4 of the backs I have ranked ahead of him. However, I think Leshoure doesn’t show the patience you want to see from certain slower-developing plays that he’ll have to run in the NFL. Larry Johnson had a similar problem with outside runs where he lacked that kind of patience. LeShoure also runs with a tiptoe style that is reminiscent of a Herschel Walker and Keith Byars and I believe that it might limit the effectiveness of his lateral agility in the NFL. I don’t believe it will limit his skills to the point that he won’t be productive – Walker and Steven Jackson are backs that exhibit this style. However if it does, Keith Byars began his career as a big-time RB prospect that had to transition his game to a complementary player.
Again, I think Leshoure won’t have much of a problem, but I think he could require a little more initial work than some expect before they bust out. It’s the same reason I had C.J. Spiller and Darren McFadden in similar spots in previous years.
DLF: It seems every draft there is a player or 2 that come from a smaller school or aren’t as well known that end up making a huge impact. Would it be safe to say that Chad Spann, RB from NIU is your pick for that role this year?
Matt: Spann is definitely one of those players. He’s build and instincts as a between the tackles runner remind me a lot of Priest Holmes. I actually told him this on Twitter last month and he told me that Bears WR Johnny Knox said the same of him the day before when they were working out together. Spann is a shifty runner with excellent pad level to finish plays and get that extra yard. He has enough speed and burst to get into the open field. I like his patience and skill at setting up defenders with moves that always keep him moving downhill. This is something that differentiated an Ahmad Bradshaw from a Reggie Bush – both are smaller runners with great quickness, but Bradshaw moves with greater economy and understanding that he needs to continuing getting downhill.
DLF: Taiwan Jones, RB from Eastern Washington, seems to be getting more and more press as we get closer to the draft. What are your thoughts on Jones from a dynasty perspective?
Matt: Jones is a definite late-round pick – maybe even a high-risk, mid-round pick depending where he goes. His speed and balance is fantastic and he’s a great open-field runner. What I haven’t seen is how effective Jones will be as an I-back.
There are several questions I don’t believe his college highlights have answered. Does he keep his pads low? Will he forsake the cutback to get downhill and earn the tough three yards? Does he show patience to press a hole and cutback as designed on a play? Can he pass protect?
His role in the offense didn’t reveal these traits as clearly as you’d like to see. I have him ranked pretty low but as I’ve mentioned in the RSP, he’s a player whose value could rise fast if in training camp he demonstrates the skills that I questions about. If he shows between the tackles skills he has the athleticism of a Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles type of back. If he doesn’t then we’re looking at Jerious Norwood type of player.
DLF: Matt, please settle the ongoing debate between dynasty owners everywhere…Who is the best WR prospect in this year’s draft and why?
Matt: A.J. Green over Julio Jones. While I believe there is no debate, to me it’s like saying Jerry Rice was better than Terrell Owens. In fantasy football you’d be happy with either one over a 10-year period. Green catches the ball in traffic better than Jones. The Alabama receiver definitely can make catches after contact, but he tends to drop passes where a defender flashes across his face or he knows the defender is coming at him. Green demonstrates better concentration here.
Green may not have Jones’ timed speed, but he plays at his top speed better than any receiver in this draft. Green is a fluid player who integrates his physical skills seamlessly with the demands of the position. I always liked Brandon Lloyd for the same reasons. Although I don’t think he’s as skilled as Green, Lloyd ran a slow 40-time as a rookie, but he has always been a fluid player. Once a player has a baseline level of speed to perform in the NFL, it’s not about how fast he can run as much at what speed can he still play under control – functional speed. Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, and several great players had great functional speed. Randy Moss was a freak because he not only had great timed speed, but his functional speed was terrific.
DLF: WR Greg Salas is in your top 10 and has been compared to Austin Collie. What are you thoughts on that comparison and what do you expect from Salas in the NFL?
Matt: I honestly don’t like the Collie comparison. I was very high on Collie as a rookie, but I see Collie as more of a Wes Welker 2.0 type of player with more slightly more upside as a vertical threat than Welker. Salas is a bigger, more physical player as a route runner and ball carrier. I believe he belongs on a continuum of player like a Michael Irvin at the high end and Riley Cooper (at this point) on the lower end. I think Salas can develop into a possession receiver with some downfield skill in a timing passing game that uses play action to set up vertical routes. Think Irvin or Keenan McCardell: players capable of making plays all over the field in an offense where there’s a strong deep threat and a good running game.
DLF: Two wide receivers that you have at #13 & #14 respectively are Jonathan Baldwin and Jerrel Jernigan. What did you see out of them that causes you to rank them lower than most?
Matt: Baldwin can catch the ball with his hands, but he’s still not consistent with his technique to reel the ball in with his hands and this can create some early issues with consistency as a pass catcher if he doesn’t shore this up right away. Because he’s a bigger receiver with build-up speed, he’s not extremely quick or agile in tight spaces and this limits his skills as route runner to set up breaks and get separation in tight spaces.
He also demonstrated a repeated problem getting the right depth on routes, which will impact timing with a quarterback and the outcome of critical plays. Baldwin’s deep plays tend to come off play action where he sets up breaks with head and shoulder fakes. I think he has promise, but there’s more missing from his game than I think people discuss.
Jernigan has elusiveness, burst, balance, and open field vision to become a strong return specialist and offensive player in specialized packages. He ran mostly slants, screens, an crossing routes at Troy and if a team uses him in these situations he could produce – especially if the team is loaded with talent and can’t account for Jernigan consistently. However, Jernigan has issues hanging onto the football after contact. He doesn’t secure the ball quickly after the initial catch and this causes drops after contact or fumbles early in his run after the catch.
Although I’m optimistic he’ll correct this tendency, it could limit his opportunity to produce early in his career. Combine that with his limited experience as a route runner and I just don’t think he’s polished enough to warrant such a high ranking right away. Of course, I felt the same about Mike Wallace, who admitted he had next to zero coaching at the wide receiver position at Ole Miss and his growth at the position was amazing. The same could happen for Jernigan.
DLF: I have seen mock drafts with Tandon Doss anywhere from the late 2nd round to the 6th round. Where would he be most successful in the NFL and what kind of role do you see him playing?
Matt: I think anyone who evaluates players on film will have a player that they just don’t feel like they have a great bead on. Doss might be that player for me because I don’t see the speed. Even against Michigan in 2009 when he was healthy and he catches a couple of deeper passes I didn’t see speed that projected to the NFL. I think if anything, his QB Ben Chappell was more impressive with his timing and accuracy to Doss and I wouldn’t draft Chappell in any fantasy league unless it was a very deep dynasty roster with a deep practice squad. I think if Doss demonstrates more speed and quickness than I saw, he has the hands to become a reserve with some upside as a slot receiver. He’s probably the one player that after I’ve done my analysis and I have him so much lower than others that I think uh-oh, but I have to stick with my take in order to learn for the future.
DLF: What surprise receiver in this draft could you see as a future WR1, both in the NFL and for dynasty owners?
Matt: I think it’s another receiver from a college in Indiana, Purdue WR Keith Smith. He tore his ACL this fall, which makes him a player you won’t likely draft in a dynasty league, but I think in a couple of years people will see the kind of promise from him that many saw in Mike Sims-Walker. Smith has the size (6-2, 214), catch radius, flexibility, and power after the catch to become a primary receiver in the NFL if he can return from the knee injury. Hopefully he can stay healthier than Sims-Walker has thus far.
DLF: This year’s TE class has been labeled “weak” and “shallow”, especially compared to last year’s class. That being said, everyone has Kyle Rudolph as the 1st TE off the board…That is, everyone but you. Who is your number one TE for dynasty purposes and why?
Matt: My pick is Virgil Green from Nevada because his skills remind me more of a Shannon Sharpe/Jermichael Finley while Rudolph – a player I recognize as the safest fantasy pick at the position – is a slower, less dynamic Jason Witten. Green has downfield speed and wide receiver-like agility both fighting for the ball and as a runner after the catch. He won’t get on the field this year as an every down TE, but he flashes enough physicality and potential as a blocker to develop at a rate that he should see the field by 2012.
After last year’s great TE class, this is really not the year to target a TE very high and if I’m going to pick one, I’m going for the upside play among Green, Rudolph, and Williams. The last two are safe, early-round dynasty selections after round one but I’d rather stock my shelves with RBs and WRs and take Green later.
DLF: What do you know about TE Luke Stocker out of Tennessee, that most don’t? From most accounts, he’s a prototypical two-way tight end prospect and should be able to start from day one. What are some weaknesses in his game that may keep him from being elite?
Matt: While Stocker has decent hands, a tall frame, and some skill catching the ball in traffic, he’s far from prototypical in my eyes. First of all, he has that high-waist type of build that Chase Coffman and Leonard Pope both had – two players I ranked higher than I should have in the past, but learned that this type of build really makes it difficult for these players to produce as blockers and productive receivers in the NFL. Stocker has difficulty maintaining a good anchor against linemen as a blocker and it’s difficult for him to run quality routes or break tackles after the catch.
Remember, college football has a greater disparity of physical skill among teams than in the NFL so college offenses are successful exploiting physical mismatches in ways that rarely happens in pro football. Stocker is not an elite athlete by NFL definitions. In addition to this relative awkwardness, he drops as many passes after contact as he catches. I think he’ll hang around the league, but I don’t see him as a long-term starter.
DLF: Who is the best former lacrosse player in this year’s draft? No seriously, tell us a little more about TE Will Yeatman and why we should remember his name?
Matt: Maryland TE Will Yeatman is one of those practice squad stashes or free agents to watch. He’s a former All-American in lacrosse who is 6-7 and in the 270-pound range, but is far more agile than his size leads you to believe. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and when he was at Notre Dame as a freshman and sophomore he was considered the best run blocking TE on the team. He transferred from Notre Dame because he had a DUI and another alcohol-related charge in the same year. Then he broke a finger entering his senior year at Maryland and never got a full season to prove himself to scouts. From what I saw of Yeatman, I think he can develop into a very good tight end, especially as a red zone threat. He’s a boom-bust play, but with little risk because you don’t have to invest in him right away.
DLF: Thanks so much for giving us some of your valuable time! We appreciate the effort in both the interview and in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. We hope to hear more from you in the future.
Matt: My pleasure Eric, thanks for talking with me.