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 am bringing you 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.
Next we move onto Ronde Barber. Barber has been a mainstay atop the cornerback position, both in fantasy and real life terms. Over the last three seasons, Barber has twice finished inside the top five at his position and has been a CB1 each year. Why should anything change now?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expected to move Barber to safety, which only makes sense at this point in his career. The fact he hasn’t been moved there already speaks volumes about his abilities and skill throughout his career. That being said, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the Buccaneers defensive backfield, and rumors of Barber’s usage as a corner range anywhere from being used exclusively as a safety, to covering the slot in nickel packages, to being used as a permanent cornerback for at least one more season. To say it’s a situation to monitor is an understatement. The latest has him at safety, and that’s what I fully expect myself. If that’s how it works out for Barber, that can only mean good things for Barber’s fantasy value, and should at least work in Barbers favor of not completely falling off a cliff in terms of production.
The concerning trend we see with Barber has been his decreasing snap rate. It has fallen each of the last two seasons, and last year it was down to 85.6%. There are certainly conflicting factors in terms of snap rate with his move to safety. Working in his favor is that he won’t be relied as much in coverage, which is his biggest liability as the fourth worst CB in terms of coverage last year with a -20.3 rating. Working against him is the physically more demanding position of safety forcing him to see his snaps decrease further to keep him fresh. Despite his decreasing snaps, Barber’s seen his tackle frequency rise each of the last two years. While his coverage is terrible, he’s still smart enough to be in the right place to be able to make plays. His tackle frequency should hover around last year’s 8.6%, which is solid for a CB, but below average for a safety. Of more concern is his atrocious missed tackle frequency. He finished last year with a 21.8% missed tackle frequency, marking the second time in three years that it’s been above 15%, and the third year in a row that it’s been above 13.0%. That’s certainly unacceptable for a safety, and coupled with his poor coverage skills, really doesn’t bode well for him. Aside from last year’s outlier of a 5.0% QBI frequency, Barber hasn’t had an issue getting to the quarterback with solid 18.9% and 26.0% QBI frequencies in 2009 and 2010. Overall, Barber has preformed extremely well over the last three seasons, posting near identical seasons each year. But the signs of decline are certainly there, most notably with the all decrease in the all important playing time.
Age isn’t always a bad thing for a defensive back’s fantasy value. Last year three of the top five cornerbacks and two of the top five safeties were all on the wrong side of 30. It’s not too hard to draw some connections as to why this might be. The experience is obviously an asset that only comes with age. Being on defense, you can sometimes get away with substituting smarts for ability. This is especially the case with Barber, who is routinely near the play on every single down, thanks to his amazing awareness. There’s also the fact that some of the older defensive backs may get picked on a little more due to their declining speed. Fantasy owners sure don’t have much of a problem with this. But what’s concerning about Barber in terms of age is the fact that he’s 37 years old, an age where the majority of football players have been out of the league for over a decade. If that doesn’t send some bells and whistles going off, I don’t know what possibly could. There have been very few players to ever play in the league who are like Ronde Barber, and he certainly keeps himself in top notch shape. But there comes a time when a player just falls off, and this could be the year that we see Ronde Barber break down. At the very least, I’m will to bet on his snaps falling below the 80% range, which is never a good thing for any defensive back.
Jeff Ratcliffe projects Barber as the 43rd safety in PFF scoring and 48th in a tackle heavy format, which leaves him as the 75th defensive back in both PFF and tackle heavy scoring. While it seems a little harsh, it’s clear that Jeff certainly agrees that Barber is in store for a significant decrease in production. The DB position is so deep that Barber currently isn’t getting drafted in any of Jeff’s IDP mock drafts, so it seems like the public doesn’t think highly of Barber, either. But for those who think they’ve stumbled upon an overlooked veteran, just remember that he’s a 37 year old defensive back with terrible coverage skills, has trouble making tackles, and is seeing his snaps decline. If you still feel like drafting him, make sure you don’t waste more than your last pick on him.