Gordon Fought the Law…and the Law Won

- The NFL upheld its one-year suspension of the Browns receiver for his latest violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Gordon will now have to wait until after the 2014 season to apply with Commissioner Roger Goodell for reinstatement. While it isn’t the result many of us were hoping for, at least we finally have a resolution to the saga that has been ongoing since the story broke during the second day of the NFL draft in May. Head coach Mike Pettine described the Browns as “impatiently waiting” for news earlier this week. Clearly Cleveland, like the fantasy community, had hoped to know Gordon’s status much earlier in the preseason. Gordon was able to participate in training camp and preseason games while his case was pending. At times he appeared visibly distracted and unfocused (understandably so) during game action this preseason with the situation weighing heavily on his mind. The third-year pro was drafted in the second round of the supplemental draft in 2012 despite several red flags coming out of college. There have been numerous drug-related transgressions since 2011, almost too many to list or remember. Those offenses have been well-documented and highly-publicized, and it appears they finally caught up to the wideout.

Josh Gordon issued a statement following the announcement: “I’d like to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Cleveland Browns organization and our fans. I am very disappointed that the NFL and its hearing office didn’t exercise better discretion and judgment in my case. I would like to sincerely thank the people who have been incredibly supportive of me during this challenging time, including my family, my agent, my union, my legal team, and the Cleveland Browns staff”. There had been optimism that the suspension would be reduced to half the season or less. Pettine mentioned earlier that there was “a level of frustration” with how long the process was dragging on, which negatively impacted the Browns’ ability to properly prepare for the 2014 season. While the result itself is unfortunate, perhaps the timing of it all is the worst aspect of this dilemma. Because it took so long for the ruling to be handed down, Gordon will not be allowed to rejoin the team until this time next year. If the 23-year old is unable to attend training camp or play in the preseason in 2015, his odds of picking up anywhere near where he left off are significantly slimmer…assuming he can stay out of trouble in the next 12 months.

One thing that is uncertain at this time is if Josh Gordon and his legal team will pursue a lawsuit against the league, which would delay the suspension. If you did draft Josh Gordon, I wouldn’t be dropping the young man just yet. Games won’t be played for another week; there is no rush to make any roster move at this point. The former Baylor Bear was nothing short of spectacular last season, pacing the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards with nine touchdowns on 87 receptions in spite of missing the first two games of 2013 due to his first suspension. He accumulated 117.6 yards per game with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell throwing the ball to him for the vast majority of the year. Numbers like 10.4 YPT and 18.9 YPC are something you don’t often see from high-volume receivers (159 targets). Gordon averaged 16.2 fantasy points/game in standard leagues and 22.5 PPG in PPR formats, carrying many a fantasy team on his back throughout the season. Who could forget the back-to-back 200-yard games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville? His two-game total of 498 yards is an NFL record. Expanding on that, the All-Pro set the standard for the best three-game (649 yards in weeks 12 through 14) and four-game stretches (774 yards from weeks 11-14) in NFL history as well. His 2,451 receiving yards are third most all-time through two seasons, behind only Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. Good company to be in, right?

Not to get too sappy here, but this news really saddens me on a personal level as well. I absolutely love watching Josh Gordon-without a doubt one of my favorite receivers in the game. Standing 6-3 and weighing 225 pounds with speed to burn, he can literally take any touch the distance (league-leading nine different receptions of 40 yards or more support that). And he can do so in a variety of different ways. By now we’ve all seen the 2013 highlights including, but not limited to, the 95-yard TD vs the Jags on a hitch, the score on a go route from 74 yards out against Cincy, the 80-yard catch-and-run on a slant vs New England, the 47-yard grab for a score on a stop-n-go pattern in Minnesota on his 2013 debut, and the 39-yard grab for six off a flea flicker at Arrowhead playing the Chiefs. This guy is flat out ridiculous. My fantasy teams were fortunate enough to include the two-year veteran in each of the past two seasons. Gordon is one of the primary reasons my squad was the overall points leader despite not using the two allotted IDP slots in my home league last year. The Josh Gordon story is starting to remind me of a couple other “what if” cases as well: Lawrence Phillips and R. Jay Soward, particularly the latter. Two guys that just couldn’t stay out of trouble for one reason or another, and it ended up costing them very promising careers. Both were thrilling to watch and infuriating to follow. At least it would appear Josh Gordon has quite a bit of time to get the necessary help he needs (for either addiction or stupidity, not quite sure which). Let’s just hope he does, and avoids joining that list of talented players that threw it all away.

 

– Staying with the wide receiver position, Julio Jones had one of the most jaw-dropping highlights of the preseason with a sensational 52-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against Tennessee this past week. Jones caught a slant from QB Matt Ryan, broke out of the corner’s grasp, spun to avoid another tackler, then outraced two more Titans defenders on his way to the endzone. I was at a loss for words as I watched the play. Absolutely unbelievable; that’s all I’ve got folks. Of course, it’s almost become old hat for the young Falcon wideout as he makes spectacular plays like this seemingly every time he steps on the field. His three receptions of 40+ yards and nine of 20+ through just five games in 2013 support that. Extrapolated out over 16 games, Jones would’ve finished with 10 different 40-plus yard catches and 29 separate receptions of 20 yards or more (Josh Gordon led the league in each category with nine and 30, respectively).

Last week Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com reported that Atlanta would increase Julio Jones’ workload. The Falcons have brought him along slowly, holding him out of minicamp and resting him every other day throughout training camp. After playing 19 snaps and recording two receptions for 20 yards against Houston in the team’s second preseason game, he was finally taken off the day-on, day-off practice schedule. Following that first game back, the former first round pick admitted to reporters he was having some reservations, “You’re still trying to protect your foot. But the doctors said that everything is 100 percent…I just have to believe them and get my confidence back”. Well, Jones had the look of a guy that had full trust in his body as he exploded off that foot against Tennessee. Admittedly “a bit rusty” playing the Texans, it would appear the rust has been knocked off at this point.

Julio Jones has some lofty goals for the upcoming season, saying recently “1,500-2,000 (yards)…you never know what we could do out there”. The ‘we’ in that sentence was in reference to himself and running mate Roddy White. While it’s highly unlikely White reaches those heights in 2014, Jones certainly has the potential do so. Obviously it will require playing in a full 16-game season to reach those numbers, and he will be wearing a new custom-made shoe to ensure that happens. To better protect that surgically repaired foot, Under Armour specifically designed and built a cleat from the ground up for the fourth-year pro. After suffering a second fracture to the area, a second and bigger screw was inserted into the fifth metatarsal by Dr. Robert Anderson last October, the same doctor who performed Jones’ first surgery in 2011. Given the circumstances, you can’t blame the Atlanta brass for being cautious with their biggest asset up to this point. After all, they did give up five draft picks to move up to sixth overall so they could draft the young man out of Alabama just a few years ago.

Jones has been nothing short of remarkable when on the field. Unfortunately, staying healthy has been somewhat of an issue for him with 14 total games missed in just three years. For a guy that is in the same class of freakish athlete as Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, and Patrick Peterson, you would love to see what the 25-year old could do in a full season. Last season, Julio Jones was leading the league with 580 yards (116 yards/game) and on pace for a ridiculous total of 1,856 at the time of the injury. That was good for an average of 14.1 points per game in standard leagues, but the point per reception numbers were even more staggering-22.3 ppg in PPR formats thanks to 41 receptions in just those five games. He clearly broke out of Roddy White’s shadow, becoming Matt Ryan’s top target in that high-powered Falcons offense. That first month was more than just a hot start for the budding superstar, it was a snapshot of what the young man is capable of. The three-year veteran is in a battle with Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon, and AJ Green to be the heir to Calvin Johnson’s crown as the best receiver in the game.

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The Alabama product will likely be on quite a few of my fantasy teams this fall, mainly because he truly has the upside to be the top scorer at his position in 2014. In a health-neutral ranking (see Chris Liss’ recent article here for more on that), he would be the second WR on my board behind Calvin Johnson. There aren’t many 6-3 220-pound receivers who run 4.38 and broad jump 11-3, and Julio Jones has a history of proven production with a career 80.5 YPG and 20 touchdowns in just 34 games. When it comes down to choosing between Jones, Thomas, Bryant, Green, and Brandon Marshall, you almost can’t go wrong. It really is just about personal preference-and I prefer the best athlete with the highest ceiling. All six of the elite wideouts are height/weight/speed specimens, but the others just aren’t quite on the same level as Julio Jones and Megatron. Illustrating that point are his elite yards after catch numbers: 7.7, 6.2, 6.4 YAC/reception in his first three seasons, respectively (career 6.8 YAC/rec is higher than other elite after-the catch receivers Percy Harvin, Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Randall Cobb). Jones’ yards/target numbers make him one of the most efficient wide receivers in the NFL as well-between 9.3 and 10.1 YPT every year. If Jones is on the field for 16 games, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t exceed his career highs of 79/1198/10 established in 2012.

 

– Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does not anticipate the Steelers suspending their pair of running backs after Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were allegedly caught with marijuana and Bell was arrested for DUI last week. In fact, Bouchette went so far as to call the notion “a fantasy”. This came after coach Mike Tomlin said recently “they will be dealt with swiftly” and “everything’s on the table”. Bouchette pointed out that deactivating Bell or Blount for one or more games before the legal process plays out could potentially put Pittsburgh in violation of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Should Bell be convicted of a crime (it would be a misdemeanor offense), the expectation is a maximum punishment of a one-game suspension similar to the one Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was just handed. Of course, a suspension wouldn’t likely be levied until next season.

However you felt about the fantasy value of Bell and Blount prior to last week’s incident should still hold true today. My concern over Le’Veon Bell has nothing to do with this event and everything to do with his uninspiring play on the field last season. To his credit, he was useful for fantasy purposes regardless of my opinion about his rookie campaign. The 3.5 yards per carry weren’t thrilling, but he was effective with 1,259 total yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games played. The 22-year old currently has an ADP of 19.28, so you will be spending a second round pick more often than not if you are to get him in drafts. Bell himself even admitted he will probably cede goal-line carries to LeGarrette Blount in 2014, so don’t expect much improvement on those eight scores. You also have to wonder if rookie speedster Dri Archer (4.26 official 40 time at the combine) will steal some of those receiving looks out of the backfield, as he has been targeted often in the passing game so far this preseason. Bell is more than adequate as a pass-catcher, but Archer has an ideal skill set for getting the ball in space and has flashed that dynamic ability on more than one occasion in exhibition play so far. Rotowire currently has the Le’Veon Bell ranked 11th at the RB position and 34th overall, more in line with where the runner should be targeted. Although unspectacular, Pittsburgh’s second round pick in 2013 NFL Draft will be serviceable for fantasy squads all year long. The former Michigan State Spartan is a running back I view as more of an RB2 and prefer to target in the third round of drafts, meaning he will often be snatched up before I’m ready to take him.

 

– At what point do we finally start to give Russell Wilson his due? The Super Bowl-winning quarterback has been outstanding thus far in the preseason. Against Chicago, Wilson went 15/20 for 202 yards (75% completion, 10.1 yards/attempt) and two touchdowns through the air and tacked on 23 rushing yards and a score on the ground. This comes eight days after he lit up the Chargers in the second week of the preseason, going 11/13 with 121 yards passing (84.6% and 9.3 YPA) and 31 rushing yards with two of his four carries going for touchdowns. Oh, and not a single interception thrown. That’s 24 and 19 fantasy points respectively in approximately one half of game action in each contest-not bad for a “game manager”. Against Chicago, he led the team to five scoring drives in as many offensive series’ during that first half. So why is Wilson’s average draft position just a shade under 100?

Admittedly, I am a diehard Seahawks fan. I’m from Seattle, have lived in the state of Washington my entire life, and have been going to ‘Hawks games since they were a doormat that played in the Kingdome. Maybe I’m not the most impartial judge on this topic, but I will be making the case for the 25-year old signal caller regardless. Russell Wilson has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons as a pro. With 24 regular season victories (28 including postseason), he broke the NFL record for wins in a quarterback’s first two seasons. The third-year pro has guided the Seahawks to the playoffs and at least 11 regular-season wins each year. By virtue of the 43-8 drubbing of Denver in SB XLVIII, Wilson became the third-youngest starting quarterback to win the Super Bowl. He is a career 63.6% passer who averages 8.1 YPA and has had a passer rating over 100 in each year. Because of his height and style of play, many have compared Wilson to Vikings great Fran Tarkenton. But teammate Percy Harvin related him to a different former Minnesota quarterback, “I told him he reminds me of Brett [Favre]…just keeping the team calm no matter what. He’s always got an even keel”. Harvin added “Me and coach [Darrell] Bevell talk all the time because we played with Brett, we talk all the time about their similarities”. Now, we all know he is a great real-life quarterback and one of the greatest team leaders in the NFL, but what about fantasy?

Surprisingly, considering Seattle has ranked 32nd and 31st in pass attempts the past two seasons, Russell Wilson has thrown for 26 touchdowns in each (his 26 as a rookie are an NFL record). Those 52 passing TDs are tied with Peyton Manning for the second-most through a quarterback’s first two years in the league, behind only Dan Marino’s 68. Not bad for a third round pick that had to beat out presumed starter Matt Flynn during training camp as a rookie. The two-year veteran has actually finished eighth in 2013 and ninth in 2012 at the position in fantasy points. Actually, with a few extra rushing touchdowns (only one rush TD in 2013), Wilson would’ve been third among quarterbacks last year. He’s averaged just under 19 fantasy points per game in each campaign. This has all been accomplished with a career average of just 25 attempts per game. Part of that is due to the rushing numbers-1,028 yards on the ground since 2012. But the biggest reason: the Seahawk signal caller is just incredibly efficient and makes the most of his limited opportunities. Russell Wilson (6.5% TD percentage) throws touchdowns more often than Aaron Rodgers (6.4%), Peyton Manning (5.8%), Tom Brady (5.5%), and Drew Brees (5.3%)!

Now, I realize that efficiency doesn’t necessarily correlate to fantasy points. If Matthew Stafford has taught us anything, it’s that sheer volume alone can lead to fake football success. But Russell Wilson doesn’t need to attempt 600+ passes to be a top-five option at his position. There is a good chance the pass attempts will increase slightly, but he won’t be going from roughly 400 passes/year to anywhere near that number. The reason being Seattle’s formula is to play a ball-control offense and avoid turnovers because they have such an elite defense in the Legion of Boom. And why would they stray from that style of play? They just won a championship adhering to it. My contention is that Russell Wilson will be even more efficient in 2014 than in years past as the team leans ever-so-slightly more on the face of the franchise.

For one, he gets Percy Harvin back, the type of player that changes games whether he is touching the ball or not. The way defenses are forced to account for the game-breaker opens up everything else in a way Wilson hasn’t seen yet. Secondly, Wilson is going to score more than once with his legs this season; honestly, he’s done so three times so far in the preseason. Third, his offensive line is dramatically improved over the 2013 version. Last year was a mess up front due to injuries and lack of continuity. Between signing Eric Winston, getting James Carpenter back, and having their Pro Bowlers Max Unger and Russell Okung healthy again, the unit figures to be significantly better. Lastly, the franchise quarterback has a more dynamic receiving corps. Jermaine Kearse has grown leaps and bounds, Doug Baldwin is one of the more underrated targets in the game, and rookie second-round pick Paul Richardson can take the top off a defense in a hurry. Currently ranked 84th overall and 12th among quarterbacks, there is almost no chance Russell Wilson fails to meet expectations (and has a realistic shot at a top-five finish). Reason being not only his consistency, but there isn’t the same injury risk you typically inherit with a mobile QB.

 

– In an unexpected move, the Patriots traded away All-Pro guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers in exchange for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth round draft pick in 2015. Not only do we rarely see trades at this point in the NFL season, Mankins has been an integral part of that Pats front for almost a decade-starting all 16 games up front in each of the last five years and six times in his nine seasons with the organization. In addition, he’s played well in recent years, being selected to an All-Pro team and the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons. Mankins is just the fourth player in the last 20 years to be traded after making five consecutive Pro Bowls. The 32-year old guard is a five-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time team captain for New England. He was originally drafted in the first round with the 32nd overall pick in 2005. Tim Wright recorded 571 yards and five touchdowns on 54 receptions for Tampa Bay in 2013 as a rookie. The 24-year old went undrafted out of Rutgers in the 2013 draft, but really came on strong for the Buccaneers and fantasy owners late last season.

Clearly the move makes sense for the Bucs, as they desperately needed help on the offensive line (especially the interior). So much so, in fact, the infamous Richie Incognito was brought in for a visit on Monday. There have been numerous changes all along the line this offseason with the team parting ways with Davin Joseph, Donald Penn, and Carl Nicks. Tampa signed tackle Anthony Collins away from the Bengals and former Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith this past March. Unfortunately, the group has struggled mightily thus far in the preseason, particularly in the running game. As a team, Tampa Bay has totaled just 272 yards on 91 carries (a paltry 2.99 ypc) through three exhibition games against Jacksonville, Miami, and Buffalo. It’s been ugly to say the least, not gaining 100 yards rushing or exceeding 3.3 yards per rush in any of those games. Signing Incognito for additional help should not yet be ruled out, but Logan Mankins is a significant upgrade in that department even if Tampa makes no other moves.

At first glance, the trade was little more confusing from the Patriots side. Now, it’s pretty hard to question any move Bill Belichick makes at this point, given the sustained excellence since 2001. On top of three championships, they have won the AFC East in 11 of the past 13 seasons. But giving up Logan Mankins-a key cog in not only that O-line, but the offense/team as a whole-was perplexing. However, the more thought you give to the swap, the more sense it makes. After the well-documented durability issues of their superstar tight end RoboCop Rob Gronkowski (knee, back, forearm surgeries; 14 games missed over last two seasons), adding Tim Wright for depth purposes hardly seems like a bad idea. And they did receive a fourth round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft as well. Not to mention what we have seen that offense accomplish with two receiving threats at tight end. When the news originally came out, it seemed like one or all of three things was taking place: a) Gronkowski unlikely to be ready to play in the season opener, b) Patriots having little to no faith in Gronk staying healthy for a full season, or c) uninspiring play by the receiver group. But maybe this was really about finding an insurance policy at the tight end position. Or the Pats may see 6-4, 230-pound Tim Wright as the guy to fill that Aaron Hernandez role in the offense. No one is going to confuse Wright for Hernandez athletically or otherwise, but his athleticism is underrated (4.65 speed, 36-inch vertical).

What initially seemed like a surprising move really isn’t much of a shock at all. We have seen the Patriots make business decisions similar to this many times over the years. Releasing Lawyer Milloy in 2003, trading Richard Seymour to the Raiders, shipping off Randy Moss in-season, letting Wes Welker walk in free agency; the list goes on. That front office is ruthless, and ruthlessly effective. Coach/GM Bill Belichick had glowing things to say about his former guard in a statement released yesterday, “Logan Mankins is everything we would ever want in a football player”, even calling him “one of the all-time great Patriots and the best guard I’ve ever coached”. Well, actions speak louder than words. And it would appear Belichick didn’t feel Pro Football Focus’ 18th rated guard last year was worth $6.25 million this year and $7 million in 2015. The trade cleared up an additional $5.755 million in cap space for 2014.

In terms of the fantasy effects of this trade, there are several. Obviously, Tim Wright’s value increases dramatically. Rotowire expert Chris Liss tweeted that he will be moving Wright up to TE16 in his rankings following the move. He will be one of the biggest ADP risers in the coming days. Even if Rob Gronkowski is ready to start the season and avoids the injury bug in 2014, the Pats and QB Tom Brady have demonstrated they can produce two fantasy relevant tight ends in their double-tight offense. In 2010 and 2012, NE ran the most plays out of two-TE formations (ranking first in the NFL in yards per play in those sets). Buccaneers rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins will also move up boards, considering the UW product is now the unquestioned starter in Tampa Bay. First-year tight ends have not typically produced big numbers, but ASJ has the talent to do so. In fact, his measurables (6-6, 262 pounds, 4.56-speed) are very comparable to one Rob Gronkowski. The former Husky figures to be a terrific red zone option for QB Josh McCown. Finally, Doug Martin should see a slight uptick in his draft stock as well considering TB just added a Pro Bowl-caliber guard to block for him. More on that next…

 

– Speaking of Doug Martin, there’s a guy that could be flying up draft boards going forward. Coach Lovie Smith told reporters recently, “Doug is our bell cow. He likes that role. He’s had a good camp, hasn’t missed a beat.” That has to be music to fantasy owners’ ears. Isn’t it funny how one quote from the right person can change a player’s fantasy value? Between the vote of confidence from his head coach, the ankle injury to first-year man Charles Sims, and adding stud guard Logan Mankins via trade yesterday, Martin needs to be moving up your rankings this week. The 5-9, 223-pound running back may have been overdrafted last summer coming off his stellar rookie year, but he represents terrific value in fantasy drafts right now.

Doug Martin was ranked second overall behind only Adrian Peterson on many fantasy football sites entering 2013. Hard to blame the experts for that one; Martin tallied 1,926 total yards and 12 touchdowns en route to finishing second at the position as a rookie in 2012. The former Boise State Bronco exceeded everyone’s expectations with those 1,454 rushing yards on 4.6 yards per carry and 472 receiving yards on 49 receptions. Even though he was a first round pick (31st overall) in the 2012 draft, nobody saw that coming. Naturally, fantasy owners wanted all that 2012 production and more in 2013. However, even before the shoulder injury ended his season after just six games, Martin was on his way to disappointing fantasy owners. The yardage totals weren’t all that bad (456 rushing and 522 scrimmage yards), but 3.6 yards/rush and just one total touchdown were less than impressive.

The 25-year old running back said that he is suffering no residual effects from the torn labrum in his shoulder suffered week 7 of 2013. Given that the injury was a freak occurrence and Martin hasn’t had any setbacks (alleviating the concern of durability issues going forward), why is he going in the third round of fantasy drafts? In my opinion, the biggest reason Doug Martin was ranked so low (13th among RBs/37th overall) entering this season was due to concern about his role in that Tampa Bay offense for 2014. In his first two seasons, he was a three-down back. Not only was he the clear-cut “guy” in that backfield, he was the focal point of the offense. Then there was a coaching change. Gone was Greg Schiano and the staff that drafted him, in came Lovie Smith and new General Manager Jason Licht. Not helping matters for a coaching staff with no allegiance to the incumbent, both Bobby Rainey and Mike James played well his absence after the season-ending shoulder surgery. And, oh by the way, the Buccaneers drafted Charles Sims out of West Virginia in the third round of the draft. Doubts about Martin being the primary ballcarrier/bell cow going forward were understandable, and nobody wants to spend an early pick on a running back in a timeshare (all CJ Spiller owners from last year nod in agreement).

Recently, things started to turn around in favor of Doug Martin. Rookie Charles Sims, the biggest threat to steal touches in the backfield, underwent ankle surgery and will miss 12-14 weeks. Mike James hurt his right shoulder against Miami in the second preseason game. Martin started running better in preseason action against the Dolphins and Bills. Now, Smith names him the bell cow and the Bucs trade for a terrific run blocker up front in Logan Mankins. The third-year veteran’s stock is rising and should continue to do so. Keep in mind, Josh Freeman was the quarterback last year. Josh McCown, while not an elite option by any means, is a definite upgrade at QB. In addition, the surrounding skill positions have improved with the drafting of WR Mike Evans and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the first and second rounds, respectively. Those new weapons and Vincent Jackson should take pressure off of Doug Martin by forcing opposing defenses to respect the pass, avoiding the eight or nine-man boxes he saw a lot of early on in 2013. For a guy that was a consensus top-five pick in fantasy drafts last year, getting Martin at his current ADP of 28.19 seems like a steal. I, for one, am willing to gamble on the number two RB from 2012 at that price tag.