When trying to identify a bust player, you look for several things. The first is situation. Will the player be in a different situation than he was last season that will result in him seeing less playing time and/or a lower level of production? The second is last seasons numbers compared to career norms. Did a player see an uncharacteristically high spike in production that can’t be sustained? The third is age, which can sometimes play a big role and at other times be completely irrelevant.
So with that in mind, I will begin a series where I try to identify players who you should avoid, or at the very least discount on your draft boards. The one mistake I see fantasy owners make regarding players with the bust tag is to completely avoid them. Don’t. Just make sure that you’re getting value from every pick, and you should be atop the league standings all year.
The first player to get slapped with the bust label is Curtis Lofton. Let’s see how he stacks up against the three bust tests.
A solid fantasy option the last three seasons, the Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker moves to New Orleans where he will look to continue his strong tackling ways. It’s this move that is expected to affect Lofton the most. Lofton is viewed as a two down linebacker, and rightly so. Over his career, he has never finished with a positive pass coverage rating (-12.1 career pass coverage rating), and has a negative net pass rush rating for his career (-2.3 career pass rush rating). Expected to play the strong side, which would have further hurt his value as a tackler, Lofton was given a blessing when incumbent middle linebacker, Jonathan Vilma, was handed a season long suspension for his role in the Saints bounty scandal. With Vilma out, Lofton is slated to slide over into the middle linebacker role for New Orleans. Unfortunately, there’s a great possibility that he doesn’t play on nickel or dime packages even if he is in the middle. After playing on all but 10 snaps for the Falcons last season, it’s easy to see Lofton playing at least 100 less snaps than last year. His situation has gotten worse, and his numbers should inevitably suffer as a result.
Lofton has seen his value rise each of the last two years. In 2009, Lofton finished as the 35th best fantasy linebacker, then worked his way up to the 27th best in 2010, and finally jumped to 9th in 2011. Much of this has to do with his snap frequency also rising each season. But his big jump last season came as a result of better numbers across the board. He saw his tackle frequency rise from 11.5% in 2010 to 14.8% last year while his missed tackle frequency dropped from 9.5% to a low 6.8%. His QBI frequency shot up from 7.1% in 2010 to 16.5%, which resulted in a sack factor of 12.9 after it was 7.0 in 2010. He was even targeted more frequently at a 15.7% clip, after being targeted 9.8% of the time in 2010, which resulted in a 9.0% PDI frequency after posting a 7.8% PDI frequency in 2010. In whole, he saw an uncharacteristically high level of improvement across the board, and it’s not going to be able to be sustained.
In terms of age, Lofton is only 25, and will be 26 years old when the season starts. He’s just entering his prime, and should continue his strong tackling ways. This is really the only thing working in his favor, and a true reason why he shouldn’t be completely written off and ignored on draft day.
Jeff Ratcliffe projects Lofton as the LB28 in both tackle-heavy and PFF formats. After finishing as the LB35 in 2008 and LB27 in 2009, I think it’s a fair projection to target him as your team’s third linebacker. He is a tackling machine, and should have lots of opportunities to continue to make plays this season. Tackles are the easiest stat to project, and Lofton should continue to post a strong tackle frequency. But as a player who is currently being taken as the 18th linebacker off the board, there is certainly better value available around that point. Don’t be the one believing a repeat of last year can happen. But make sure if your whole room is full of doubters, and he falls far enough in the draft, that you snatch him up as a LB3/4.
Questions and comments are always welcome via Twitter – @Eric_Yeomans