In April 2011, prior to the NFL draft I sat down (digitally) with Matt Waldman for a Q & A about this year’s rookie class. What you are about to read is a follow up to that interview. In it, we discussed the creation of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, the most talented class he’s ever scouted, and our shared love of German cuisine. Ok, I made that last one up to make it look like I had some culture in my life. Anyway, having reached the halfway point to this NFL season, I thought we’d take a look back as well as a look to the future.
Matt is a staff writer at Footballguys.com as well as the creator/author of the comprehensive Rookie Scouting Portfolio, a must-have for dynasty owners. Plus, it’s been said to make you 14.7 percent smarter. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t need that? You can check out the RSP here.
DLF: Matt, thanks so much for agreeing to another Q & A in the middle of a busy season (pun intended) for you. Seems like a lot has transpired since we talked in April, huh? One of the topics we discussed was the most talented draft classes you’ve scouted – would you change of any of your answers based on the first half of 2011?
Matt: Hey Eric, thanks for asking. I don’t think I’d make any changes. I’ve learned that one or even two years doesn’t make or break an individual player’s career so I’m reticent to formulate any conclusions at this point. I would reaffirm that the 2008 class of running backs continues to look like a bunch of great talents – even with Chris Johnson’s decline and the ACL tear to Jamaal Charles – Ray Rice, Matt Forte, and Jonathan Stewart are look great. Certainly Jimmy Graham, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski make the 2010 class of tight ends quite spectacular even with Tony Moeaki out for the year. So yeah, no changes.
DLF: From the limited action we’ve seen so far this season, what rookie has surprised you the most in their transition from college to the NFL?
Matt: It has to be Cam Newton, but we’ll talk about him later. Andy Dalton has been a surprise because he’s been able to keep the Bengals competitive and he deserves a lot of the credit. Certainly the Bengals have a good defense, but if Dalton were a “three-and-out” machine, this Cincinnati defensive unit would be worn out both physical and morale-wise. Dalton has been aggressive and he maintains his poise even after he makes mistakes.
DLF: Before we go on, I need to say a big “thank you” for your evaluation of Christian Ponder. I originally didn’t have him that highly ranked, but based on your evaluation in the RSP I took a closer look. He’s going to be alright in this league, isn’t he?
Matt: Hey thank you, and yeah, I think Ponder has a nice chance to develop into a quality starter. He’s already performing much better than Donovan McNabb because he makes more accurate throws on the move. He’s a better athlete than McNabb at this stage of the veteran’s career and he’s able to lead his receivers in ways where they can run after the catch. The fact Ponder can move the chains and at least keep Minnesota’s offense in shorter yardage situations with greater frequency than McNabb helps Adrian Peterson and the running game. Just wait until Ponder develops more rapport with his receivers (and gets another quality player to complement Percy Harvin) and becomes more comfortable with the NFL game. I think he has a chance to help the Vikings very soon. You know, the NFC North might have the best collection of young quarterback talent in the league right now.
DLF: Cam Newton. Not sure I even need to ask a question here. Tell me your thoughts on his first 8 games of his pro career.
Matt: I think most people thought Newton had the chance to be good – even really good – in a few years. But to watch Newton demonstrate at this level the poise, accuracy, and aggressiveness mixed with good judgment is astounding for any rookie quarterback, much less one who was lambasted by most of the football media for being unable to call a play from his Auburn playbook’s simplified offense on national TV. It goes to show you that the media frequently only sees the tip of the iceberg no matter how “in-depth” they claim their coverage to be in their marketing plan. Newton has to possess not only a tremendous work ethic, but he has a have a great mind for the position to develop this quickly. Certainly Newton will encounter some obstacles at some point. Just last week, the Steelers confused Tom Brady enough that he looked merely “above average.” However, his transition has been the most surprising development in many years. He looks like the player Daunte Culpepper should have been or what Steve McNair could have if his health and passing prowess could have met at the same time for a longer period. Newton reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger, but more decisive than Roethlisberger was early in his career. More disciplined than Roethlisberger was for quite awhile as well.
DLF: We previously touched on a couple of guys you really liked coming out of college: Bilal Powell & Chad Spann. When are we going to get a chance to see these guys in action and what should we expect?
Matt: Chad is on the Buccaneers practice squad and I think they kept him there after the Earnest Graham injury because he’s coming off a grade-three hamstring tear and he’s new to the team whereas Mosis (sp?) Madu has more familiarity with the team.That said, Chad did tell me that he chose Tampa because the system is very similar to what he ran at NIU and is a great fit for him as a runner. I would have to think that Spann will flash some of his skills if he earns an opportunity, but you have to think he’s not in football shape after rehabbing a leg injury for 6-8 weeks. I expect a strong camp from him next year if Tampa keeps him. He’s a really good receiver and smart pass protector and his quickness and slippery power could make Kregg Lumpkin expendable and even place Graham on notice.
As for Powell, I think Shonn Greene saved his job a few weeks ago and this means Powell likely remains on the practice squad for the year. If he continues to work at his game, I think he has the talent to leapfrog both Joe McKnight and an aging Ladainian Tomlinson in 2012. This is all speculative, but think about the fact that Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum where high-fiving over the selection of Powell in the fourth round and as much as Ryan likes McKnight, he actually told the media last month that McKnight could become a future cornerback. Why would Ryan even consider that publicly that unless he felt like he had enough depth at RB to switch McKnight? Especially when Tomlinson might have another year left. I think the answer is Powell. He didn’t get a lot of time in the preseason but when he did, he flashed those skills. Barring an injury to the RB depth chart of the Jets this year, we’ll have to be patient for 2012.
DLF: AJ Green versus Julio Jones. Has anything you’ve seen so far from these two surprised you?
Matt: Not a lot. Green is making the plays in tight coverage on vertical routes and in the red zone that he demonstrated at Georgia and Jones is an athlete with solid hands who will develop into a fine player. I think Green has been integrated into the Bengals offense more effectively while the Falcons tried to create packages for Jones that took the offense away from what it does best – pound the rock. The one thing I’m surprised about is that Jones hasn’t been used in the red zone on fade routes with his terrific leaping ability. You have to think that Atlanta would try to target Jones when they get between the opponent’s 15 and 25.
DLF: I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen out of Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph. When you evaluated him for the RSP, what were the biggest issues he needed to improve? Have you seen any progress from him?
Matt: Eric, I haven’t had a lot of time to evaluate Rudolph’s pro performance. I have seen him make some timely plays and he appears just as reliable and versatile as he did at Notre Dame. My greatest concern with Rudolph in college was his ability to catch the ball after contact on a consistent basis. I haven’t specifically been looking to see if Rudolph has made progress in that area though so I can’t speak to his progress. Just from a surface impression, I think the fact he’s seeing the field and taking occasional targets away from Visanthe Shiancoe should tell you that Rudolph is making progress.
DLF: Give me a short take on a couple of RB’s that have earned some early playing time as rookies: Delone Carter? Kendall Hunter?
Matt: Carter’s power and balance are evident and it appears that’s going to translate well to the NFL. His burst is pretty good, but I wouldn’t say he’s a big-play threat. He’s a chain-mover. However, that might be something that people won’t agree with if Peyton Manning returns and the Colts runner starts seeing some bigger creases and fewer stacked fronts. At that point, Carter will break enough runs that fans will likely argue that he has breakaway skill. Ray Rice isn’t a breakaway runner, but he has big runs. Think of Carter’s speed in that respect.
Hunter has looked good in spurts but if he’s wise, he’ll study Frank Gore as much as he can and learn from one the best in the business. The pre-injury Frank Gore that arrived at the University of Miami would make Hunter look like that paunchy, middle aged Philly fan in the movie “Invincible,” who comes to the open Eagles try out in a green sweat suit and cape and tells the TV reporter that he can make the team because he played two years of varsity football. But seriously, Hunter is a player to hold onto for dynasty leagues. The question is whether he’ll convince Jim Harbaugh that he’s a good fit as a lead back in a power offense that wears teams down. The secondary question is whether Hunter can convince any team that he’s a good fit as a lead back. I think the potential is there, but I’m not convinced this 49ers system suits his style.
DLF: On the other side of the coin, tell us a little bit about the pair of rookie RB’s in New England who haven’t seen the field much. Shane Vereen got off to a slow start in training camp, which may explain the lack of use for him. Stevan Ridley, on the other hand, had a great preseason but seems to be taking a back seat to the veterans on the team. What should we take away from the situation?
Matt: Vereen is a “wait ‘til next year,” player because of the preseason injury. I still think he’s the most talented back with the greatest upside on the Patriots roster. However, it’s not the physical side of the game that the Patriots value as much as players that understand how to recognize and react to situational football. Wes Welker wouldn’t be in the top 100 physical talents at the receiver position in the NFL, but he’s one of the top 15 receivers in the game because he understands the offense, works well with his quarterback, and plays with great technique and execution. Chad Ochocinco is an instant starter and recipient of 10-12 targets per game by name, but by game he’s a tiny sideshow in the corner for this offense until he stops making mistakes on the field.
Cedric Cobbs and Laurence Maroney were great physical talents at the RB position, but neither of these Patriots draft picks played great situational football. Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Kevin Faulk are completely opposite stories. Bill Belichick inserted Faulk into the Patriots lineup and gave the runner 11 touches in perhaps their biggest game of the season despite the fact this was Faulk’s first game back from an ACL tear. Why? Faulk knows the offense, he’s reliable, and he’s smart on the field.
Unfortunately what this tells us about Vereen and Ridley is nothing. We will have to wait to see if these guys play smart enough to earn time.
DLF: If you’re drafting tomorrow in a startup dynasty league, who is the first WR you’re picking out of this group? Torrey Smith, Leonard Hankerson, Doug Baldwin, Titus Young. Are those four all in the same tier for you or do you see some separation? (And can you believe that Baldwin can even be in that conversation?)
Matt: I’d go with Smith, Young, Baldwin, and Hankerson in that order if you believe the Ravens will finally wise up and replace Joe Flacco. If you don’t then I think an argument can be made for the order being Young, Smith, Baldwin, and Hankerson. Smith is a talent. I love how he’s consistently getting separation on vertical routes and making plays after contact downfield. He has to work on diversifying his skill with all the routes on the route tree and more importantly, he needs a new quarterback.
Joe Flacco can throw the deep ball with anticipation, but I think it only happens when he knows before the snap that this is the throw he’s going to make come hell or high water. Even then he can hesitate and that forces receivers to work harder for the ball. If you watch Peyton Manning clips you’ll see that his passing style epitomizes the statement, “he who hesitates is lost.” To be fair to Flacco, he and Smith still need to get more familiar with one another, too. What I like is that the chemistry is developing. He’s just not a multidimensional guy, yet.
Young is a similar player to Smith in regard to his talent and progress. He has a quarterback I’m more excited about, but I don’t like his upside as much as Smith in terms of individual skills and talents. I think Smith has more potential to become a receiver than can make plays in the middle of the field. But if Flacco remains the long-term starter Young gets the edge.
Baldwin is interesting. I really didn’t expect him to flash the same kind of “my-ball mentality” that he showed at Stanford. He seems comfortable with he rigors of the pro game and he’s actually more versatile a receiver than Smith and Young at this point. However, I think Baldwin will always be locked into a No.3 role in the NFL and that limits his upside unless the Seahawks add a great QB prospect and run an offense like Indianapolis, New England, and Pittsburgh where the No.3 receiver can be Austin Collie or Antonio Brown. It’s very possible this happens, but I don’t feel comfortable predicting that happening and then predicting Baldwin to have more success than the other two receivers. Though I’ll leave you with this though: if you value smart, savvy receivers Baldwin has the least downside of the four you mentioned.
Leonard Hankerson is proof positive that All-Star game hype is often just that…hype. Hankerson has the talent to become a good starting NFL receiver. However, he’s always been inconsistent and it doesn’t surprise me that Hankerson might flash goodness in a practice, scrimmage, or game, but not build on it. Again to be fair, the Redskins offense is a failure due to injuries and Hankerson is only a rookie. However you have to think that if Hankerson was the prospect he was made out to be that he’d has pushed Jabar Gaffney in camp. He’s worth a roster spot, you might have a Dwayne Jarrett type of player more than you have a Reggie Wayne.
DLF: Is there any reason a Mark Ingram dynasty owner should be concerned? Has your long-term view of him changed any?
Matt: Not much. I still think he’s a fine prospect and worth one of the top three picks in a 2011 dynasty rookie draft. The Saints have three fine runners in a rotation that has generally worked for the team – much to the dismay of us fantasy owners. We’ll hear people bemoan that the Saints don’t give Ingram a chance to get into a rhythm and that Sean Payton hates the running game. Both might be facts, but the Saints still are the favorite to win the NFC South so something is going right in the Big Easy. I think that Pierre Thomas’ days are numbered in the role he has right now and I believe Ingram will at least earn that share of the opportunities as well as more goal line looks. His ceiling might be a little lower for fantasy owners due to the offensive system and the presence of Sproles, but things change quickly in the NFL. One thing I like to rely on is talent and Ingram has that. He’ll eventually see his carries increase.
DLF: Hypothetical: If you had one spot on your deep dynasty roster to stash a RB, who would you choose between the injured Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams? Please tell us there’s hope…
Matt: I’m going with Williams and it’s completely an irrational hunch that I’ll make a vain attempt to rationalize. Based on their running styles and what little I know about them personally, I think Williams is the more driven athlete and his injury is less likely to rob him of his top-drawer athleticism. As for telling you there’s hope? There’s hope. Feel better? Yeah? Not me, but I wish I did! Seriously, if I were to take a flier it would be on Williams although Leshoure has more of an opening to contribute in Detroit with Best and his concussions. But if I were to predict which team drafts a runner in 2012 it would be Detroit.
DLF: In our original Q & A you had some high praise for WR Greg Salas. After a rocky start, he’s had a few solid games in a row. What do you see as his long term upside in that Rams offense?
Matt: I’m still convinced he can be that 1-B possession receiver in time. He’s physical, good after the catch, and versatile enough for the Rams to eventually move him around the field and use him inside or outside with reliability. The receiver position often takes time and I wasn’t thinking his career was over because he fumbled a punt and dropped some footballs. Jerry Rice dropped a lot of footballs as a rookie. However, I tend to be more patient with players than a lot of people do – sometimes to my benefit, sometimes to a fault.
DLF: Let’s play a quick game of “buy or sell”. If I’m a dynasty owner with some rookies stashed on my bench, should I be looking to move them or hang onto them as they develop? DeMarco Murray? Denarious Moore? Jacquizz Rodgers? Roy Helu? Lance Kendricks? Jonathan Baldwin?
Matt: I’d buy Murray, Moore, and Rodgers. Murray can do it all. He might not ever be an elite runner in the NFL but if he can stay healthy over stretch of 3-4 years as a lead back or starter, I think he could develop into a player that reminds people of a more athletic Joseph Addai that approaches Matt Forte’s upside. Denarius Moore’s effort in Buffalo might have been a fluke for the season, but not for his career. He needs a quarterback with that Manning “he who hesitates is lost” mentality with the deep ball. If Carson Palmer is that player, watch out. Rodgers does something in nearly every game that makes the statement that he’s capable of becoming more than a sub-package runner. The Falcons drafted him as a situational player based on his draft position, but I think he’s going to gradually convince them that he can at least develop into a lead back like Ahmad Bradshaw and then they can use a bigger back like Jason Snelling to complement him.
I’d pass on Helu. There are moments that I think I see a worthwhile back, but they aren’t often enough that I believe in him over the long haul. I’d buy Kendricks, but not as enthusiastically as the three players I first mentioned. His own team overhyped him in the summer when in fact he’s really a player that needs time to develop. I think he could have a Brent Celek-like value for the Rams, but I don’t think he’s the next Graham, Gates, Gronkowski type of player. I also have a similar take with Baldwin. I think he’s overvalued, but capable of developing into a polished 1-B receiver. I thought Ron Jaworski went overboard on his call of Baldwin’s touchdown reception. It was a decent adjustment to the ball, but not a great one. A great one would have been the target along the right sideline that he dropped later in the half. That’s the kind of catch a future primary receiver makes. That’s the kind of grab Brandon Lloyd made when fantasy owners were making fun of him rather than paying out the nose for him 5 years later.
Overall the most enthusiastic “buys” are Murray, Moore, and Rodgers. The rest I wouldn’t be as motivated to grab unless they were part of a package deal or I had the luxury.
DLF: What TE from this class will be talked about still 10 years from now that isn’t currently getting any publicity?
Matt: Julius Thomas, if you’re not counting my colleague Cecil Lammey, who hypes Thomas all the time. Once he’s healthy and the Broncos fix their quarterback situation (Tebow improves or they find someone else), he could blossom quickly. I think Jermichael Finley could wind up elsewhere or he eventually underperforms to his salary expectations at some point and the Packers feel okay with letting him go. That would give D.J. Williams a good shot. He’s a former receiver that Arkansas converted to tight end and Williams has some after the catch skills. I think he could grow into a larger role.
DLF: The further we get into the NFL season the more impressed I am as I glance back through the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Tell us where we can find it, along with the rest of your work.
Matt: Please pardon me while I don my pitchman outfit (apologies in advance)…
You can learn more about the Rookie Scouting Portfolio at my blog www.mattwaldmanrsp.com. Subscribe and get email updates of the content I write almost daily. The 2011 publication is still for sale at this link for a “lockout price” of $9.95 at Footballguys.com. You can email me at [email protected] for past issues (2006-2010) which I’m selling at a “back issue, lockout price” of $5.95. Next year I will resume selling the current issues of the RSP for $19.95 and back issues at $9.95.
You can find my Gut Check Columns at Footballguys.com and I have a new fantasy football game with my business partner, colleague, and friend Mike MacGregor called FantasyThrowdown.com. It’s a one-on-one, weekly fantasy football game. Drafts take as little as 10-15 minutes and the strategy involves creating your draft pool from three match ups. You can play PPR, Non-PPR, team defense or with 3 IDPs. It’s addictive, convenient, and really intuitive to learn. It’s also free as we beta test it for the rest of the year all the way through the playoffs. Yes, playoff fantasy football. If you don’t know Mike MacGregor, he is one of the more underrated and innovative minds in the fantasy football industry. I could spend this entire interview talking with about the things he was the first to create that many websites have adopted. He’s also the reason I became a fantasy football writer. If there were a Bill Walsh in the fantasy football industry, Mike might be that guy. I’m lucky to be working with him.
DLF: Thanks again for allowing us to pick your brain. Speaking for dynasty owners everywhere, I can tell you that it’s much appreciated.
Matt: Eric, the pleasure is mine and thanks to those of you who read my work and supply me with great ideas to execute.
(Editor’s note: You can also find Matt on twitter under the creative handle of @MattWaldman)