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Extended Pre-Draft Rookie Q&A with Matt Waldman

I had the opportunity last April to sit down with Matt Waldman, author and creator of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio and pick his brain about rookie prospects (you can find our 2011 Q & A here.) He graciously agreed to join us again in 2012 to talk about this year’s group. If you aren’t familiar with the Rookie Scouting Portfolio is or how it’s put together, this should help.

As you likely know, quality scouting information from a fantasy football perspective is difficult to find. Matt takes a comprehensive look at the skill positions and publishes his thoughts on each player, as well as giving individual grades. As I mentioned last year, this is a must-have for dynasty owners and can be the difference between being competitive and building a dynasty.

DLF: Can you give us a brief introduction and tell us a little more about where we can find your work outside of just the RSP?

Matt: Sure, Eric. I’m a writer by trade. My football writing covers fantasy football and the evaluation of NFL Draft prospects. I’ve been a staff writer at Footballguys.com since 2009. During the season, I write the weekly waiver wire report and the player upgrades-downgrades features. I also pen The Weekly Gut Check, which I’ve writing since 2004 (beginning at FFToday.com).

I recently accepted a gig with FootballOutsiders.com to perform game analysis of NFL prospects in a column I call Futures. This will be an analysis of players at just about every position on the field that I do in a similar vein at my blog, The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. And if you’ve never read it, it’s a highly active blog that I encourage you to check out.  I also contribute NFL Draft content to the New York Times Fifth Down – including coverage of the Senior Bowl.

While all of these things that I do help my wife and I pay for our daughter’s college education, what keeps the roof over my head, food in the fridge, gas in the car, and the chain oiled on my bicycle is my work as a features writer and associate editor for a business school magazine at a university.

DLF: This year’s RSP is an impressive 975 pages compared to last year’s 859 (as if that wasn’t enough). What are the major differences and did you introduce anything new this year?

Matt:  I try to add new things to the RSP every year and in 2012 I introduced more historical draft data to my positional analysis to provide a better overview of the positions before I delve into the individual players. I have also introduced what I call a “Ceiling Score.” To explain it, I’ll have to give you a bit of background.

I use a customized checklist to grade players when I watch games. The checklist contains specifically defined criterion that is based on what I see from a player’s performance. The player either fulfills that expectation or he doesn’t. If he performs to expectation he earns a certain number of points depending on the value of that skill in my overall checklist. Everything is summed and I have a final grade for that player’s performance in a game.

This grade is factored into my overall positional rankings, but it is not the only criteria I use to rank them. One of the factors that has been inherent in my analysis but not as transparent as I strive to be, is how many of these skills and techniques I believe a player can develop based on what I saw in his performance. In other words, there are some skills that I should expect players to improve upon and what would their score be if they make those strides in short order? For instance, I should have a reasonable expectation that a player like Cowboys running back Phillip Tanner can improve his ball security and pass protection even if he was deficient at those things when I watched him.

It’s also possible that I might not see a player like Tanner perform certain skills in games. Maybe he was rarely featured in the passing game. In my system, I’m going to mark him down even if I’ve never seen him have to use the skill. My philosophy for scoring a player is that he needs to prove he can perform the skill to earn the points. Otherwise reports become falsely inflated. I’d rather take the stance of “prove it to me,” than assume he can do it until proved otherwise.

However, I believe it is important to have the perspective to recognize potential. My ceiling score is the level of performance I believe a player can attain where I think improvement is possible. This score gives my readers an idea of what I think the best possible outcome for a player’s career is if he maximizes his effort to improve. The greater the spread in points between his Checklist Score and his Ceiling Score, the more things he has to learn. This gives my readers a shorthand visual of why I view a player as a boom-bust prospect or a guy who has maximized his potential.

Next year, I have big plans to improve 2013 RSP from a graphic design standpoint. We’ll see if that works out.

DLF: When we look back at the 2011 rookie class, which position group will it be known for? When comparing this year’s class, do you see a position where there is considerably more talent?

Matt: I have to think quarterback has a fighting chance to become the trademark position for 2011’s class. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton made big splashes and Christian Ponder and Jake Locker did enough to solidify the perception that this quarterback class was stronger than some believed. However, I’m not sure 2011 will be known for a position group as much as its headliners at several positions.

A.J. Green, Julio Jones, DeMarco Murray and Torrey Smith were strong performers out the gate and Mark Ingram, Randall Cobb, Vincent Brown, Leonard Hankerson and Greg Little flashed their promise, too. This is a fun question to entertain, but my perspective is like a lot of folks who study prospects – you can’t judge a class or player after just a year or two.

DLF: Last year we talked about whether or not the class had a true franchise QB in it. This year there appears to be at least two, and possibly more. What are your thoughts on the top of the QB class?

Matt: It’s difficult not to love the top of this quarterback class as a dynasty league owner. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin represent the type of prospect where the expectation is 10-15 years of starter production with 8-12 of those seasons constituting peak production that is commensurate with good-to-great, fantasy output. Because Griffin is more of a breakaway threat as a runner than Luck, there is the thought that his career life span has a higher risk to be shorter than Luck’s.

I think there’s credence to the thought of Griffin placing himself in harm’s way more often, but not for the reason I just stated. I think most quarterbacks actually get hurt in the pocket. However, I do believe that some of the more mobile quarterbacks tend to hang in the pocket longer because of the confidence that they have in their athleticism to wait until the last moment to make a decision to release the ball or tuck and run – Steve McNair, Ben Roethlisberger and  Cam Newton are notable examples.

Griffin displayed this tendency at Baylor and I think it could become a problem for him in the NFL if he doesn’t learn to refine his pocket tendencies from what I would characterize as “reckless” to “aggressive.” It’s a fine line, but one I think will spell the difference between a decade-long career as a starter and one that has a ton of flash maybe even 4-5 strong years, but fizzles due to injury. That said, I wouldn’t fault anyone for taking Griffin No.1 overall in a dynasty league draft. I’m just a bit more conservative with my quarterbacks.

And yes, I believe there are four quarterbacks capable of becoming quality starters in short order and possibly another two capable of developing into future NFL starters. Ryan Tannehill is worthy of a first-round pick if you base that assessment on his technique, athleticism, and behaviors as a player rather than the statistical results in a box score. Perhaps the most underrated player in this draft is Russell Wilson. The link to the Futures column at the top of this interview is to my assessment of Wilson at FootballOutsiders.com. I think Wilson can be an NFL starter – and would be mentioned in the same tier as the other three quarterbacks. The problem is old NFL attitudes about height that are ignorant – Wilson just had a fantastic year behind a line that is bigger than all but four units in the NFL and he had no problem as a passer.

DLF: Let’s move on to the RB class. It appears to be very deep this year and you mention that it’s also very straight-forward compared to last year. Can you expound on what you mean by that?

Matt: I believed the last year’s running back class had a lot of players that didn’t have the dimensions within that “sweet spot,” we like to see from a prospect: a height between 5’9” and 6’1” and a weight between 210-230 pounds. That’s the range where teams seem to feel comfortable tabbing a guy as a starter rather than a contributor. I like the talents of Chad Spann, Dion Lewis, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Johnny White and they made it a little more difficult to rank the class with guys like Mario Fannin, Da’Rel Scott, Brandon Saine, and Stevan Ridley, who had the prototypical dimensions, but not necessarily the same developed skill as some of the players in the first group of four I mentioned above. The second group of four is all capable of having better NFL careers than college careers and this made it more difficult.

This year, I think there are fewer backs like Fannin, Scott, Saine, and Ridley who hit that dimensional sweet spot, but only flashed a smaller number of plays that reveal a potential to become much better than what they were in college. I think my top five backs in 2012 have fewer “ifs” than last year’s class. In contrast, a back like Mikel Leshoure was a player I felt had a greater range to display great success or failure based on his physical skill, but inconsistencies with his style as a runner.

DLF: Trent Richardson has been slotted in the 1.01 spot in dynasty rookie drafts for several months now (if not longer).  Is there any reason why he shouldn’t be? What are the deficiencies in his game and are they cause for concern?

Matt: If you’re in a league with me, then you should just take Trent Richardson off your board now – he’s not worth a pick. His entire production was predicated by his offensive line. Nick Saban has a special power to hide his skill players’ deficiencies and make them look a lot better than they are. In fact, if you were from the South (sorry Eric, everything south of the Florida Panhandle isn’t really a part of the region) the state of Alabama has this special elixir that deludes opposing players, media, and football fans into thinking its skill players are awesome. It’s kind of like an ingestible Oxiclean that can also be poured on football fields, television cameras, and streaming video.

For the rest of you, the only reason Richardson shouldn’t be slotted 1.01 in dynasty drafts is if you’re in a two-QB league with scoring rules weighted in heavily towards that position or you have a team that is in desperate need for a QB. Even so, I’d still consider drafting Richardson and trading other players on my roster for a starting caliber quarterback.

You can nitpick that he’s not as sophisticated a runner setting up blocks two levels ahead as some recent prospects, but he’s as solid of a load-carrying RB as we’ve seen in a while with no discernible weaknesses as a runner. I don’t think he’s as dynamic as Adrian Peterson, but he comes into the league a better all-around player. If your league values RBs highly and you manage your team in windows of 2-3 years then Richardson is likely to have a strong impact.

DLF: It seems the consensus among draftniks for the 2nd tier of RB’s are Lamar Miller, David Wilson, and Doug Martin, but not always in that order.  What are your thoughts on that group and what order would you draft them in during dynasty rookie drafts?

Matt: Doug Martin is the safest of the three based purely on skill and not where they land after the NFL Draft. He’s the best interior runner, possesses the most NFL-ready physique, and he’s a sound pass protector. David Wilson has the greatest risk-reward of the three. He has displays of balance that are reminiscent of Walter Payton and both were similar-sized runners. However, Wilson makes foolish choices based on his athleticism that he’ll need to curb if he wants to maximize his potential. I think Lamar Miller is the best blend of risk-reward in terms of ability. He’s a smart runner with good strength, great speed, and strong skill as a receiver. There’s word that Miller failed more than one chalkboard session with a team, but I’m not placing too much stock in that at this point. Personally, I’d take Martin above the other two and place Miller and Wilson in a tier with a player like Chris Polk.

DLF: You describe a RB as having “shades of Warrick Dunn, Brian Westbrook, and Marshall Faulk.”  I’m not trying to take that out of context, but it sounds like high praise for sure. Tell me a little more about the prospect and why we should pay attention to him.

Matt: I describe a lot of players every year as having those types of influences – and that’s what they are, stylistic influences. Justin Timberlake has stylistic influences of Stevie Wonder, but he’s not Stevie Wonder by any stretch of the imagination. On Timberlake’s best days, he has performed at a level – whether you like him or not – that has earned him a lot of critical and financial praise in the pop music community. Still, he’s not great on the level that Wonder truly is. I think this is a suitable analogy to explain player comparisons – especially today’s prospects with players from yesteryear.

So when say a player like San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman has shades of Warrick Dunn, Brian Westbrook, and Marshall Faulk, I’m talking about stylistic behaviors as a runner: light-footed, versatile, patient, quick, and dynamic in the open field. However, I’m not saying his level of proficiency is at that level. I think Hillman has potential to become a productive NFL running back, but I would equate his likely career trajectory with that of Tiki Barber. I think certain NFL teams are more open to using smaller backs as featured runners so there is a chance his emergence could take less time. However, the boom-bust factor of his size places him in a lower tier just outside that group after Trent Richardson and Doug Martin. If he works out, a lot of fantasy owners are going to be feeling smart.

DLF: LaMichael James has been on many dynasty owners’ radar for a long time now.  What are reasonable expectations for the diminutive RB and how should he be used in the NFL to maximize his effectiveness?

Matt: The projected role for LaMichael James that we hear all the time is the one Darren Sproles has as a Saint. I think that’s the upside projection if a team uses him in that role. Let’s keep it realistic, there’s only one team with Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and (at least before the bounty scandal) Sean Payton.

I think James’ best use is in a system similar to that of Oregon or what we’ve seen from Sproles in New Orleans: draws, delays, pitch plays, sweeps, counters to the outside, screen plays, and swing passes.  He’ll have to prove that he can withstand the pounding that Warrick Dunn did to become that exception.  If you’re drafting James before we find out his NFL team, I think the conservative view is to project him as a career flex-player.

DLF: Last year we talked about Pittsburgh RB Chad Spann as a smaller school guy that could surprise.  Who is your ‘Chad Spann’ of this year’s RB class?

Matt: I know what you’re asking me, but the answer is no one. I like Bobby Rainey of Western Kentucky and I think he has a chance to become a contributor in the NFL, but I think Chad Spann has potential to become a lead back in the NFL. The Steelers are slated to draft a running back and Spann could wind up a camp casualty, but until enough things happen in the next two years to change my mind, I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people in the league.

I admit this could have to do with the fact that I’ve gotten to know him and I’m no longer as impartial as I was when I first saw him play. However, when I first studied Spann’s game and hadn’t gotten to know him, I was impressed enough to rank him ninth among my 2011 class – and I still think I probably gave him short shrift.  It’s much harder to work your way up from the bottom.

Although people often discuss Terrell Davis as an example of bootstrapping his way to NFL stardom, he was a sixth-round pick in a Broncos draft where they lacked top-round picks. This gave Davis a greater opportunity to impress in camp than most sixth-round guys. I love TD and I got to watch him make some impressive plays at Georgia in limited time, but he was also working his way up from the bottom as a college player transferring from Long Beach State after the great coach George Allen died and the football program ended.

DLF: Owners debated between AJ Green and Julio Jones last year at the top of the WR ranks. Do you see the battle between Blackmon and Floyd as similar? Will a third receiver sneak in that conversation?

Matt: I don’t think the potential for a Blackmon-Floyd debate has enough juice as the Green-Jones throw-down last year. Green and Jones were both great athletes with a strong aerial game and a ton of hype since their freshman years in what is regarded as the best conference in college football today. I think Blackmon is more of a flanker (Z) and Floyd is better suited as a split-end (X). It depends on the offense, but I think Floyd is more likely to find a match with a team that features him as a big-play threat and Blackmon will be the underneath-red zone option with Anquan Boldin upside – maybe Brandon Marshall.

Both have potential to be top-15 receivers in fantasy leagues. There’s a lot of depth at this position in 2012, so I wouldn’t get hung up on just two players and be more flexible about considering a runner or quarterback in the early rounds.

DLF: You call Marvin Jones the “safest receiver in this draft.”  What exactly do you mean by that and does that limit his potential?

Matt: I think this post on my blog does a good job towards explaining what I mean by that statement.

DLF: Stephen Hill opened some eyes at the NFL combine in February and he’s being mentioned as a possible late first round pick in the NFL Draft.  You have him ranked as your #12 WR. What do you see holding him back?

Matt: Because I’ve already written so much about Jones and Hill, I’m going to refer you to my blog once again. Here are a series of posts about the skills of Marvin Jones and Stephen Hill.

I like both players. Hill has more upside if you believe that he can learn the techniques to become the technician that Jones already is and will likely become. Jones has more upside if you believe Hill has too much to learn and by the time he does, Jones will have had 3-5 years of solid, if not strong, starter production.

DLF: Can you compare and contrast Fresno State’s Devon Wylie and Arkansas’ Joe Adams?  What current NFL players do they best compare to?

Matt: I think Devon Wylie is more confined to a slot receiver role while Joe Adams has potential to develop into an outside threat. Although this is the case, I think Wylie is a more skilled player who uses his speed with greater wisdom than Adams. I think the Wes Welker comparisons are excellent – far more accurate that the times I’ve heard them about Danny Amendola. If Wylie is matched with an offensive that features him as a slot player, he could have a more productive career than many prospects with potential as starters on the outside.  Adams has a chance to develop into a player along the lines of Santana Moss, but I think he has a lot to learn about getting separation against press coverage.

DLF: Here’s a question from last year that I liked so much, I had to ask it again…What surprise receiver in this draft could you see as a future WR1, both in the NFL and for dynasty owners?

Matt: I’ll name a couple. I think Virginia Tech wide receiver Danny Coale is a helluva a player. When I saw evidence of him getting down field it became evident to me that he could be a lot more than the slot guy that he seemed to be in the Hokies offense. I think in the right system he could flash stylistic similarities to Greg Jennings. He’s tough, faster than you think, and possesses excellent concentration.

LaVon Brazill is probably my favorite surprise player. Brazill was a preseason All-American his junior year, but suffered an injury and lost that momentum that would have made him a better known prospect. He also missed a shot to play in the college all-star games because he had surgery on a meniscus tear in his knee. It was an injury he played through in Ohio’s 24-23 bowl game victory over Utah State where Brazill had over 100 yards – most of them in the second half – and set up the game-winning score.

Brazill has soft hands, good speed, and excellent skill at adjusting to the football. He’ll be a late-round pick at best, but I think he makes a roster within the next year or two and if he has the work ethic– climbs it fast.

DLF: I really like the way you broke down the TE position in this year’s RSP.  Can you explain how you did it and what importance that has for dynasty owners?

Matt: I stole the idea from Josh Norris a draftnik/writer/analyst who I met at the Senior Bowl this year, who worked with the St. Louis Rams as an intern and does his own rankings on Twitter (@JoshNorris) – and is in my opinion, underused as a draft analyst at Rotoworld. If you contact him with a question make sure you refer to him as “Captain.” He’ll know I sent you.

Anyhow, Captain Norris ranks his tight ends and receivers by roles on the field: slot and outside receivers; traditional in-line tight ends and hybrid/h-back/move tight ends. I decided to adopt the same structure for the tight end position because was we’ve learned, the hybrid tight end is more likely to see high-end fantasy production. Certainly there are good fantasy players that almost exclusively work as traditional tight ends (Brandon Pettigrew) in offenses, but their upside tends to be capped.

(Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for a post-draft Q&A with Josh Norris on the situational impact on this year’s top dynasty rookies, as well as his personal skill position rankings.)

 DLF: I think most agree that some combination of Fleener, Allen, and Charles will top the list for fantasy TE’s this year.  If you’re a dynasty owner needing a TE, are any of them worthy of using a late 1st/early 2nd round rookie pick on?    

Matt: I don’t think so. The only exception might be if draftniks are right and Coby Fleener is paired in the 49ers offense with Vernon Davis, but we do need to remember that it is probably a stretch that Alex Smith – as good as he looked at times last year – will become the Tom Brady of the west. With the likes of Moss, Crabtree, Manningham, Davis, and Fleener, it’s possible. I’m just not sure I’m drafting Fleener to be Aaron Hernandez to Vernon Davis’ Rob Gronkowski in the late first-early second unless it’s a league with 14-16 teams. Mid-to-late second seems more reasonable to me, but there are times you have to be “unreasonable” to win fantasy leagues.

DLF: One of the reasons I look forward to the RSP so much is to find the guys that hardly anyone is talking about, but has the chance to be a big contributor.  It sounds like Evan Rodriguez is one of those guys to you. What do we need to know about him?

Matt: Evan Rodriguez is a fluid runner after the catch and a physical football player with a high motor. If a team opts to use him as an H-back rather than fullback, he has the speed to be a mismatch as a receiver. He’s a guy I have ranked higher than where his NFL stats will dictate, but I like his talent and potential to develop.

DLF: I think I have a man-crush on Ladarius Green from Louisiana Lafayette.  Do I need to temper my expectations or could he become an Aaron Hernandez-like TE in the NFL?

Matt:  Yes, I think some cold water might be good for you, my friend. Ladarius Green could develop into a move tight end that starts in the league, but Aaron Hernandez is far more fluid as a receiver and runner after the catch. Green looks the part standing still, but when he’s playing the game he’s far stiffer as a player in tight single coverage and the open field. I would not overdraft Green, but as long as you have reasonable expectations you should get value out of him.

DLF: Matt, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your time and willingness to answer these questions and help out our owners.  I think anyone that has purchased the RSP before can attest to the value, especially for dynasty fantasy football owners. Thanks!

Matt: Always a pleasure!

You can purchase Matt Waldman’s 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio here.

Make sure to check out all the initial premium content:

Pre-Draft Rookie Rankings with Extended Commentary
Pre-Draft Rookie Tiers
Free Agency Winners
Free Agency Losers
Third Year Wide Receiver Breakdown

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kc1919
10 years ago

So if you were drafting around 12, 14, 16, and 21….what RB(s) and a WR would you target?

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