August 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
by Kevin Harrington
The 2012 NFL season is FINALLY right around the corner and fantasy leagues across the nation anxiously wait to see who drafted the dominant team this year. If you are among the fantasy football participants who have not drafted your team yet, this article is for you. Below are some undervalued players that I believe will take your team to the next level this season.
I will start off with the player that I have been continuously hyping all offseason, and a player that I have on almost all of my fantasy teams this year. I will live or die by Darren McFadden in the fantasy world this year. He may very well be an injury risk like he has been every single year of his career, but has the highest upside of any running back this season now that he’s completely healthy. Run DMC consistently shows flashes of greatness year in and year out, and is a well-known commodity in the fantasy community due to his outstanding career at Arkansas, his top-10 draft selection in 2008, and his sole 1,000 yard season on the ground in 2010. After an unproductive and injury-riddled first two years in the league, McFadden rebounded to average a robust five-plus yards per carry the two following seasons. Yes, he was limited to only seven games last year with an ankle injury, but that leads me to my next point. The other top running backs that are going around the same position in fantasy drafts have significant question marks as well. Some even, such as Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, are recovering from serious injuries of their own. And if there ever was a time when an injury could have helped long term, it is McFadden’s. This is not a devastating ACL injury he is recovering from. His was a nagging ankle injury that was rested for the last 9 weeks of the season, and appears to be fully healed. On top of that, he has shown excellent burst throughout his limited preseason appearances and is one of the few backs to receive the unquestioned majority of his teams rushing attempts. More importantly, the hulking Michael Bush is off to Chicago to steal away Matt Forte’s goal-line touchdowns now. My bold prediction is that McFadden stays healthy all season and will finish as the top fantasy running back by year’s end. If you’re in a keeper league, I think that means he will be a top-3 pick in 2013 fantasy drafts as well.
Percy Harvin was one of the NFL’s most exciting players last season, yet continually gets drafted no earlier than the third round of fantasy drafts this year. I have one statement to make about the speedy Harvin before I go any further in my endorsement. If you simply combine Harvin’s 2011 receiving and rushing yards along with his total amount of touchdowns, you wind up with 1,312 yards and nine touchdowns. If this hasn’t sold you yet on your should-be third round pick already, this hopefully will…that total was accomplished in only 56% of the team’s offensive plays for the season. And if THAT hasn’t convinced your stubborn mind, Harvin received more touches than ANY other receiver in the NFL from the point that Christian Ponder took over as starter. Alright, one more point. Adrian Peterson is on the mend from a torn ACL, which could reasonably lead to even more plays where Harvin lines up in the backfield for rushing attempts or screen passes. Screen passes are amazing for points per reception leagues, and Harvin capitalizes on each opportunity, as he’s a threat to score all over the field. If you throw in another return touchdown this year like he had last year, that’s just an added bonus. In conclusion, most people fail to realize how often Harvin lined up at running back for the Vikings last year, as fantasy draft lobbies do not show a wide receiver’s rushing total. Take advantage of this information.
My final fantasy endorsement goes to an extremely obvious name, but again, a player that is a great value for the point where he is getting drafted in most leagues. Antonio Gates redefined the tight end position this decade, yet is being treated like he is an afterthought at the position this year. I’ve seen players such as Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, and even backup tight end (although I’ll admit it’s more like tight end 1B in New England) Aaron Hernandez go before the proven, yet injury-plagued veteran. Despite rumors of a potential early retirement after the 2011 season, Gates has come back stronger and more importantly, completely healthy, for the 2012 season. And if you haven’t noticed, San Diego’s receiving corps has been severely depleted following the departure of red zone monster Vincent Jackson, as well as the injury to second-year receiver Vincent Brown. As great as Robert Meachem (a former Next Sports Star subject himself) may end up being for the Chargers this year and beyond, his size is not comparable to Jackson. Gates should see the bulk of the red zone targets that would go to Jackson, and despite seeing double coverage often, he should predominantly prevail in those instances. Also, while Meachem continues to get acclimated to receiving passes from Philip Rivers instead of Drew Brees, Rivers will look early and often to his dependable safety valve. Instead of choosing Gronk (no way to repeat last year’s performance) or Jimmy Graham (very well could repeat, but is he worth a 1st rounder?) with a top draft pick and crippling yourself at another position, go with the now healthy and undervalued Gates in the fourth or fifth round and receive similar upside…but a top flight running back, receiver, or quarterback to team him up with. I think it is conceivable to think that Gates may end up being the third-best fantasy tight end in 2012, but rostered on more championship teams than either Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham.
August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
by Kevin Harrington
You’ve probably heard the expression “history often repeats itself.” In the world of sports, this can be true more often than not. Today I’m going to examine when this directly applies to the beginning of an unheralded athlete’s career. This isn’t the usual alignment of a college-to-pro career of some 5-star quarterback recruit turned #1 overall draft pick like Matthew Stafford. This is a bit more unique and full of challenges and rare obstacles. It’s about a future sports star who has never had the odds in his favor, but persevered anyway. If anyone is equipped to overcome adversity and come out on the winning end, it’s Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. This is because Russell Wilson has absolutely the strangest college backstory of any quarterback playing in the NFL today.
Coming out of high school, Russell Wilson was an undersized 2-star quarterback recruit that barely registered a blip on any university’s radar. He was only offered scholarships from Duke and North Carolina State, the latter being his eventual college of choice. The Wolfpack was still searching for their next star quarterback after they lost Philip Rivers to the NFL, and no one was expecting the 5’11”, 180 pound Wilson to be their long-term solution. Wilson began his career by splitting time as a backup, but soon saw more action early after injuries and poor play by upperclassmen Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck. By Week 5, Wilson was the undisputed starter as only a redshirt freshman. He finished his debut season with 22 touchdowns (including four rushing TD’s), and incredibly only threw one interception all year. He became the first freshman quarterback ever to be honored to the first team All-ACC squad.
The drama began when highly acclaimed quarterback recruit Mike Glennon committed to N.C. State the following year. The pro-style Glennon (6’6”, 195 pounds) was rated the 3rd best quarterback in his class and considered to be the future at N.C. State. It seemed that the undersized Russell Wilson just had to keep the seat warm for him until Glennon was ready to take the reins. However, while Glennon redshirted his first year, Wilson broke the record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception (389) and finished the year with 35 total touchdowns. This only added to the difficult decision that the coaching staff was presented with.
As Mike Glennon lost another season of his eligibility by backing up Wilson, the incumbent had a career year by throwing for over 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns while running for a career high 435 yards and nine touchdowns. It was one of the most proficient seasons by a quarterback in school history…yet after the school year, questions began to swirl if their quarterback would even return to play his senior season. Normally, this would be a very fair question after a quarterback had a junior year performance like Wilson’s. He would simply leave school early to declare for the NFL Draft. If Wilson was three inches taller, this would most likely be the case for him as well. However, due to his small stature, he needed to play his senior year to prove his detractors wrong that he can become a more accurate passer (career 57.4% completion rate at the time) and succeed at the most prominent position in the NFL.
The questions regarding Wilson’s return began when the quarterback was drafted in 2010 by the MLB’s Colorado Rockies. Seeing an opportunity to finally name top prospect Mike Glennon the starter, coach Tom O’Brien released Wilson (then practicing with the Rockies’ minor league affiliate rather than reporting to spring training at N.C. State) from scholarship due to his “apparent lack of commitment to the program.” Because Wilson had already
graduated from N.C. State with a year of eligibility left, he was free to transfer to any school without sitting out a year. Wilson settled on Wisconsin, the favorites to win the Big 10 in 2011. One reason why this worked out so well for the undersized quarterback was that the team ran an offense much more similar to NFL offenses than N.C. State did. The quarterback was under center frequently with the team employing a two-running back formation more often than the popular college-style spread offense. It also didn’t hurt that Wilson proved he could be extremely accurate by throwing for over 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns compared to only 4 interceptions. He also improved from a career 57.4% passer at N.C. State to setting the NCAA record for passing efficiency (191.8) by completing 72.8% of his passes at Wisconsin. This, combined with a career-high 10-win Rose Bowl season, all led to him being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
This was an interesting pick by the Seahawks, as they already had 2011 starting quarterback Tavaris Jackson and the incoming, seemingly 2012 starter in Matt Flynn on their roster. They won the rights of the coveted Aaron Rodgers backup when they gave him a three year contract worth $19.5 million ($10 million guaranteed). And there was still that whole “vertically challenged” thing. So now Russell Wilson finds himself in a similar situation that he faced in college. He is on yet another team which management has reasons to push for another quarterback to start. To be more specific, reasons unrelated to talent level. Normally, when a team commits millions of dollars to a quarterback, that quarterback has the automatic “in” for the starting position, even if they are outplayed by younger, less experienced players in training camp and preseason. When a team makes a large investment, especially in a position as polarizing as quarterback, sometimes the management specifically wants to see that player succeed rather than give every player a fair chance.
Luckily for Wilson, Seattle is going through a renovation of sorts, and they are not the conventional organization. Pete Carroll, of USC lore, is not your conventional head coach. After going the unconventional route by using a top 75 pick on a quarterback the same offseason the team signed a presumed starting quarterback, Seattle continued their unconventional style by actually giving every quarterback on their roster a fighting chance. It was first assumed this was just a formality before naming Flynn the starter until the battle became slightly murkier when Wilson clearly played his way into the picture during training camp. When Carroll made it clear that it had become a
two-man race, the team benched 2011 starter Tavaris Jackson and made him available to teams seeking a backup quarterback. Then Wilson started dominating defenses in the preseason.
In his two preseason performances, Wilson has completed 22 of 33 passes for 279 yards with three touchdowns to one interception. He also has tacked on an impressive 92 rushing yards (10thin the league) including a designed 32-yard bootleg for a touchdown against the Titans. Wilson has distinguished himself through his impressive escapability by avoiding pressure in the pocket and breaking off some nice runs while under duress. His progress will finally be rewarded Friday. After Pete Carroll and co. witnessed Wilson shred backup defenses (albeit with reserve offensive weapons) in the second half of his two wins, the coach anointed the sub-six-footer the starter for Friday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Although this is far from telling the tale of who will be starting opening day on September 9th against the Cardinals, this will be crucial in the decision-making process. What Russell Wilson can do with Seattle’s starting unit against the likes of Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson on Friday will paint a much clearer picture of how he can handle the pressure of an NFL starting quarterback. Rumor has it that it may have become Wilson’s job to lose, but that’s never been an option for the quarterback who seems to never get the respect he deserves.
August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
by Kevin Harrington
180 seconds. That’s the amount of time that stood between the MLB’s newest young star and his current team two years ago. When the Baltimore Orioles selected the top high school prospect in the 2010 MLB draft, they managed to agree on a $5.2 million contract bonus just three minutes before the midnight rookie signing deadline. If they had failed to agree to terms, the Scott Boras client would have been forced to re-enter the draft in 2011. This would have proven difficult for Manny Machado, as he had already missed the fall deadline to register for classes at Florida International University, his school of choice. However, the Orioles bit the bullet and agreed to give their new shortstop prospect the second-largest rookie signing bonus in team history with just moments to spare. After witnessing his debut week in the majors, I can only imagine the team was ecstatic with their decision as baseball’s premier infield prospect belted three home runs in his first four major league games
It was largely a surprise to see the 20 year-old Machado called up before he had even sniffed his first action in AAA, but he hasn’t disappointed. Due to the success of Orioles’ shortstop J.J. Hardy this season, Machado has seen all of his major league action so far at third base. Through his first seven games, he has three home runs, seven RBI’s, and has a hit in every game but one. If he can maintain the plate discipline and consistency that he is demonstrating in his debut, he should help Baltimore significantly during their pursuit of the Wild Card playoff spot in the AL. He has already shown that even if isn’t consistently hitting home runs, he is at the very least capable of periodical power surges in a short period of time.
While he is making plenty of Baltimore fans very happy, Machado isn’t the only elite prospect in Baltimore that could be making an impact during the team’s attempt to make the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy may see his first major league action this September. Like Machado in 2010, Bundy was the first high school prospect drafted in the 2011 draft when the Orioles selected him fourth overall. As only a 19 year-old, Bundy simply dominated single A ball, throwing essentially a no-hitter over his first 13 innings pitched. He just won his first game in AA with the Bowie Baysox on August 14th and figures to continue pitching for them until MLB rosters expand from 25 to 40 players on September 1st. If he can maintain his stellar strikeout to walk ratio and Baltimore remains in contention, the Orioles management has already shown with Machado that they don’t mind calling up young talent earlier than expected. Bundy projects as an eventual top of the rotation starter, so it is safe to assume that he has the potential to make a David Price-like rookie impression during a playoff pursuit and even the playoffs if the Orioles manage to clinch a spot.
Regardless of what happens this season, Baltimore’s two blue-chip prospects are rapidly making a name for themselves while letting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper know that they won’t be the only dynamic duo in town for years to come.
August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
This week marks the beginning of the unofficial 20-week NFL season, and players across the league are hoping to break out in a salsa-dancing, Victor Cruz-like fashion. Who are the next players that will make the leap from obscurity to NFL stardom? That will be the subject of discussion in this edition of the Next Sports Star.
The first of my three breakout candidates is a backup running back who suffered a serious knee injury in 2011, but has all the tools to earn ample playing time as a third down back at the very least this season. However, when considering other factors dealing with the team, coaching staff, and the running back ahead of my candidate on the depth chart, I believe this former second round draft pick could duplicate his college success story in the NFL. After redshirting his first year at Virginia Tech, Ryan Williams became the starter when the incumbent, Darren Evans, suffered a torn ACL in summer practice. Everyone should remember what happened next; Williams set single season school records for rushing yards and total touchdowns. I believe Williams now has the opportunity to make a similar splash for the Arizona Cardinals, thanks to a certain running back allegedly made of glass (Beanie Wells) ahead of him on the depth chart. Beanie Wells has never had a completely healthy season and now, for the first time in his career, has a backup capable of stealing his job should he go down for any period of time. The Cardinals remain a passing team first, and would love to be able to employ the screen pass more than they did last season with a poor receiver like Wells. Williams is an improving blocker and an excellent receiver out of the backfield which will serve him well behind a subpar offensive line that will result in many dump-off passes from Kevin Kolb or John Skelton. These factors will result in Williams receiving many chances to prove his worth, especially if Wells gives his backup a one or two game showcase at some point early this season.
The next candidate for a breakout year comes from the team who defeated Williams’ current team in Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite losing their starting running back (Rashard Mendenhall) with a torn ACL and possessing two of the league’s premier big-play receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the Steelers do not want to lose their identity as a power running team. Yes, Isaac Redman will initially hold down the fort while Mendenhall rehabs his knee, but as evidenced from last year at Kansas City, new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley gives every running back in his stable a chance to prove himself equally. After Jamaal Charles went down with a torn ACL in week 2 of 2011, Haley shuffled Thomas Jones, Dexter McCluster, and the unheralded Jackie Battle in and out of the lineup throughout the rest of the season. If Haley maintains his inability to make a decision on a primary running back, he will assuredly give Jonathan Dwyer at least one chance to repeat his 107-yard performance from October 9th of last year. Considering that impressive game against the Titans is the only game of Dwyer’s career where he received double digit carries, it is fair to say that the former 6th round draft pick from Georgia Tech has not fully revealed his potential to the Steelers coaching staff and management.
I am most confident about the success that my last breakout NFL star will have in 2012. While Robert Meachem had a spectacular career at the University of Tennessee from 2003-2006, he initially failed to live up to expectations after being drafted in the first round by the New Orleans Saints. He was inactive his entire rookie season due to preseason knee surgery, and failed to make a significant impact for the team until his third season. Meachem has been good but not great for the past three seasons in New Orleans (at least 600 yards and 5 touchdowns each year), but failed to progress enough to receive an extension this offseason to stay with the Saints. The San Diego Chargers, yet another pass-happy team, eagerly snatched him up after losing starter Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay. Although Meachem doesn’t possess Jackson’s huge 6’5” frame, he still has the size/speed combo to excel as a primary receiver for Phillip Rivers. What is even more important should be the fact that Meachem hasn’t missed a game in three years. While their returning primary target is the aging and injury-riddled Antonio Gates, this should be a major source of comfort. If Meachem can remain healthy for the fourth straight season, I see every sign pointing to a 2012 season featuring at least 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns from the 27 year-old wide receiver.
So there you have it. Three unheralded backups from 2011 who I believe have a very legitimate chance to break out and become the Next Sports Stars of 2012. The upcoming preseason will inevitably shut the door for many hopeful young athletes, but in the process will present a select few with the rare opportunity to prove what they are truly made of in the unforgiving business that is the National Football League.
August 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
by Kevin Harrington
Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham may be known as “DGB” for now, but considering the mass overflow of today’s athletes referred to solely by their initials, I think it’s time for a higher standard. What happened to creativity? Athlete nicknames have taken a sharp turn for the worse over the years. Even the mass public (I blame you, ESPN) converted Adrian “All Day” Peterson’s identity to the simple “AP” due to the fact that nobody could comprehend that he was being referred to as “AD,” not his initials. Furthermore, may I remind DGB that he is only one letter away from sharing the “DHB” moniker of current Oakland Raider and NFL draft bust Darrius Heyward-Bey, so allow me to suggest a different route. I would like to be on record as the first person to claim two things – the first being that his new nickname from this point forth should be Optimus Prime. Anyone with any football knowledge whatsoever knows exactly what I am implying through this statement.
After breaking the national career record for receiving yards and touchdowns at Hillcrest High School, Dorial Green-Beckham announced that he would play for his home state Missouri Tigers as the team makes the transition from Big-12 to SEC. I believe that the number one overall recruit of this year’s freshman class is capable of making an immediate impact in the conference, similar to the likes of Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Alshon Jeffrey. Yet while he stands at an imposing 6’6” and 225 pounds, the nineteen year-old Green-Beckham is already taller and weighs more than each of the three current NFL receivers. On top of his physical presence, only the aforementioned Julio Jones rivals Green-Beckham’s elite 4.4 speed.
I’m about to take a page from Mel Kiper Jr.’s book when he correctly predicted that quarterback Matthew Stafford, before playing a down of college football at Georgia, would eventually be an NFL first overall draft pick. However, Kiper had the security blanket of Stafford being a quarterback. I’m going out on a limb by predicting a wide receiver. Dorial Green-Beckham will be the number one overall draft pick in the 2015 draft, should he decide to forego his senior season at Missouri like most elite wide receivers in college. Yes, 1996 was the last time a wide receiver was drafted with the top pick in the NFL draft. Yes, teams have almost unanimously hoped to find their future under center with the top slot every April since the Jets took Keshawn Johnson. Let me tell you why Dorial Green-Beckham will buck that trend while becoming the next legendary college wide out.
The number one thing that grabbed my attention from seeing Green-Beckham play is his flat-out refusal to go out of bounds. I have never in my life seen a wide receiver less afraid of contact than Green- Beckham. While he doesn’t possess A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson’s otherworldly ability to twist his body in mid-air and catch anything thrown near him, Green-Beckham shows a wild determination to keep plays alive after the catch. In the video posted below this article, watch how many times he appears headed out of bounds, then either stiff arms or lowers his shoulder and bulldozes his way through defenders for as many extra yards as possible. When he isn’t trucking through people for extra yards, he is using his stellar cutback ability to bring the play back towards the open field where he can unleash other evasive tactics in the hopes of scoring….every…single…time.
The next thing I noticed was Green-Beckham’s uncanny ability to locate the ball in midair and use his body as a shield from defenders while catching it over his shoulder or snagging the football at its highest point. I observed his high school quarterback seemingly struggle to put a zip on even the shortest passes to receivers, which led to plenty of underthrown deep routes where you see Green-Beckham stop running, catch the ball at its highest point, maintain his balance, then fight his way through would-be tacklers for extra yardage. One specific facet of his tackle-breaking ability also caught my eye. When a receiver is as big and strong as Optimus Prime, defenders have to go for the legs to bring him down. However, Green-Beckham has shown a hurdling ability that is sure to make waves throughout SportsCenter highlights during his first season in the SEC.
With the season opener looming, fans in the new Columbia of the SEC are excited to see whether their home-grown star will fulfill his unlimited potential. If he does, it will surely help ease the growing pains of a team newly experiencing the behemoth that is the Southeastern Conference. Heck, he may even back up my insanely premature prediction while transforming into the next sports star. If all that happens? Well, a made-for-TV rivalry with the almighty Megatron will be waiting for him.