Pondering Christian – Fantasy Frustration

| 3 years ago

Pondering Christian – Fantasy Frustration


Making heads or tails of what the Minnesota Vikings offense has in store for us in 2013 is a frustrating task. There are precious few knowns, other than they have a pretty good running back. To say that starting quarterback Christian Ponder is not trustworthy would be an understatement, especially when most evidence from 2012 points to the fact that his own coaches did not have a whole lot of faith in him. Throw an overhauled receiving corps on top of one of the more conservative offenses we’ve seen in recent seasons, and you have a recipe for projection dejection. Let’s wade into the great purple morass anyway – recognizing the distinct possibility that you might come out the other side even more confused than you began.

While his respectable 16th place ranking in completion percentage (62.1%) can be logically explained by a paltry yards per attempt average, Ponder pulled off a neat trick as the 2012 season progressed and his game deteriorated. He completed a lower percentage of passes during each successive month, while at the same time his yards per attempt fell – from an already weak 6.7 during the season’s first half, to a laughable 5.4 over the second. Even fantasy fan favorite John Skelton, 2012’s 38th (and last) ranked quarterback in yards per attempt, posted a 5.6 yards per attempt figure. And Ponder’s completion percentage did not merely dip just a little. It plunged more than 10 percentage points from September to December (68.3% down to 58.1%).

Part of Ponder’s performance inconsistencies can be attributed to strength of schedule. Among fellow passers, he saw the ninth largest improvement in his fantasy points per game output (+5.8 PPG) when playing defenses that were in the bottom half of the league when defending quarterbacks. He also faced just one top-half fantasy quarterback defense during the Vikings’ first six games, as compared to finishing the season with six consecutive tough matchups against similarly ranked opponents. Along with only enjoying the services of Percy Harvin for the first nine games, Ponder’s inability to perform against better opposing defenses caused a dramatic decomposition of his game.

The most worrisome issue, however, is that his game really did not have very far to fall in the first place. Even during September, his best overall stretch of games, he was still only the 15th ranked quarterback in fantasy points per drop back (0.43). His average depth of target was 6.0 yards, “good” for last place among all passers and a full yard behind Blaine Gabbert’s second-to-last-place figure. If Ponder’s game began the year as merely ‘dink and dunk’, it steadily sank into ‘stink and stunk’. The question is, since Ponder himself is a far cry from intriguing to nearly all fantasy owners, if he does not elevate his performance in 2013 will Minnesota’s other weapons become muted by his mediocrity?

To get a sense of how Ponder’s play will influence his teammates’ output, we turn to the incredibly handy Similarity Scores app from RotoViz. By eliminating the games in which Ponder did not have the services of Harvin, since his influence on their offense should be reasonably approximated by the addition of reliable Greg Jennings and raw but talented rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, we sought out examples of comparable quarterbacks to study how they effected their teammates’ production.

After dropping comparables who missed a significant number of games due to injury, we moved on to the N+1 seasons to get a sense of how Ponder will project for 2013. Out of the 10 most similar full seasons, four were dropped because the quarterback was in his 30’s, since Ponder was just 24 years old in 2012. That left us with six comparable projections, and they included Jason Campbell (2008 Redskins and 2010 Raiders), Matt Hasselbeck (2003 Seahawks), Jake Plummer (2002 Cardinals), Matt Cassel (2010 Chiefs), and Jay Cutler (2008 Broncos).

The tables below show how some key 2012 Vikings offensive starters performed, and underneath them is the statistical average of the six comparable N+1 seasons, for each corresponding position. This should begin to give us an idea about how Ponder’s projected 2013 season, based on a handful of his closest comparables, will facilitate his offensive teammates‘ performance levels.

Player

Completions

Passing Yards

Yards/Attempt

TD/INT

Rush Att/Yds

Ponder (’12)

300/483 (62%)

2935 yds

6.1 YPA

18/12

60/253

QB N+1 Avgs.

292/491 (59%)

3348 yds

6.8 YPA

20/12

44/203

His comps showed a propensity to throw downfield a bit more than Ponder did in 2012, but it is not much of a stretch to say that he can match that slight uptick. It would be nearly impossible to be any more timid, and in his third year some moderate growth can be expected. However, he will operate under the same offensive coordinator, the well-regarded but conservative Bill Musgrave, and there will be an adjustment period to his two new starting wideouts.

That brings us to another huge factor that has suppressed Ponder’s passing statistics, the Vikings’ starting running back Adrian Peterson. Their offense is rightly built around the best back in the league. Although there was very little chance that the N+1 comparables would properly account for Peterson, there were some pretty good running back seasons that factored into the average – including standout seasons from Shaun Alexander and Clinton Portis, not to mention Darren McFadden’s career year.

Player

Rush Att.

Rush Yards

Yards/Attempt

TDs

Receptions

Rec. Yards

Peterson ‘12

348

2097

6.0

12

40

217

RB N+1 Avg

324

1500

4.6

10

45

417

While you doubt Peterson at your own risk, it is quite possible that his 2013 statistics will be closer to the N+1 average projection than to his incredible 2012 totals. For one thing, a slight reduction in carries is not a stretch even though he is just 28 years old – no matter what his stated goals are. The 6.0 yards per carry average is the best figure he has ever posted, is well above his 5.0 career number, and will likely see some regression.

Also, if Peterson can get back close to his pre-2012 career yards per reception average of 9.6, it would roughly equate to the projected passing game production of the comparables (9.3 ypr). However, the most notable point here is that, in standard leagues, the N+1 average projection would still have yielded the most fantasy points of any other running back in 2012. His place as 2013’s top drafted player is safe, no matter what angle you look at it from.

We already know that the quality of Ponder’s play, or lack thereof, can support an otherworldly season from his running back. What he can do for his receivers is the far trickier proposition – especially since his number one target put in an abbreviated 2012, and they have imported two new players that project to be their starting wideouts. First, let’s take a look at Harvin’s 2012, what his nine game pace would have totaled over a full season, and the N+1 average projections for number one wideouts from our sample of comps.

Player

Receptions

Yards

Yards/Reception

Touchdowns

Harvin (’12)

62

677

10.9

3

Harvin (16 gms)

110

1204

10.9

5.3

WR1 N+1 Avg

66

955

14.5

6.5

Clearly Ponder has it in him to get the ball to a dynamic playmaker well enough to outstrip the N+1 average of his comparables’ top wideouts. Considering that tally includes excellent seasons from Brandon Marshall, Santana Moss, and Dwayne Bowe’s career year, it is a fact that should not be overlooked. Those top pass catchers were targeted an average of 122 times during the N+1 season, and Harvin’s 85 targets in 2012 would easily top that number over 16 games (151).

The question then becomes, who among the 2013 Vikings will claim the lion’s share of those available targets, and will that player be as efficient as Harvin was in turning them into solid production?

The obvious candidate is free agent import Greg Jennings, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Yet as the table below shows they are different players, with Jennings contributing nothing in the running game – though he comes out as the more efficient producer on a per-look basis (“looks” = targets + carries) during his career. It must be kept in mind that he was in a different offense, taking passes from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, when he compiled that average.

Player

Rec/Yards

Carry/Yards

Rec TDs/Ru TDs

FF Pts

Trgts + Car

FFPoint/Look

Harvin

280/3302

107/683

20 / 4

542.5

404 + 107

1.06

Jennings

425/6537

1/-1

53 / 0

971.6

732 + 1

1.33

While Jennings will not help to replicate Harvin’s contributions by taking handoffs and figuring prominently in Musgrave’s various gadget plays, he will be a big help to Ponder on short and intermediate routes. Known more for downfield work early in his career, Jennings has been operating closer to the line of scrimmage in recent seasons. In 2010, arguably his best year, more than three quarters of Jennings’ targets were less than 20 yards downfield. That will be especially comforting to a passer like Ponder, who only looked deeper than that on eight percent of his attempts last season.

A relatively quick and dirty projection based on the N+1 averages, Jennings’ adjusted (down) career FFPoint/Look average, and Harvin’s usage – minus the handoffs – comes in at 122 targets, 70 receptions, 850 yards, and 7 touchdowns. That would have been good for roughly 24th among fantasy wideouts in 2012 and is slightly higher than his current 2013 ADP of 28th, according to My Fantasy League. Basically there is value there, but on a decidedly non-sexy level.

But what about Cordarrelle Patterson, you ask? Oh, he will certainly factor into the Vikings offense in the short term and will, likely, be the one to pick up most of the slack on gadget plays that used to be Harvin’s province. He is also a rookie, and will take a while – longer than Jennings – to become acclimated to his new surroundings. His place in Minnesota’s conservative, run-based, short-passing offense will grow at a pace that is too glacial and jagged to yield the consistency that fantasy owners crave.

Patterson is sublimely talented and no doubt will perform many eye-popping feats of athleticism when Musgrave designs plays to get him the ball in space. The problem for those in redraft fantasy leagues is that it will be hard to predict when those big plays will occur. He will be well suited for ‘Best Ball’ leagues during his rookie season, and at the very least will be more of a quality midseason trade target than a player to reach for in (re)drafts.

That brings us to a player who actually finished 2012 ranked ninth at his position standard fantasy leagues, and is entering just his third year in the league. He is being taken as the seventh tight end so far in 2013 drafts and could fall just outside the top five. There is little to quibble with when it comes to Kyle Rudolph’s game, and he is doing all the right things to improve upon his breakout 2012. The offense in which he operates is, once again, the main concern.

His 2012 yards per reception of 9.3 ranked him 48th among fellow tight ends (minimum of 25 percent of snaps), despite the fact that he tied for 16th in yards after catch per reception – a testament to his underrated athleticism. That 5.4 YAC/rec. number bests 2013 preseason fantasy darlings Jordan Cameron (19th), Denis Pitta (26th), Aaron Hernandez (30th), and Jared Cook (40th). He also ranked near the very bottom of the league in average depth of target, with a meager 6.1 yards – a common denominator when it comes to the seemingly tethered pass catching targets in Minnesota.

By now we know that Rudolph earned his ninth place tight end ranking in fantasy because of the nine touchdowns he was able to score – something that is almost surely due for regression if nothing changes with the rest of his (and the Vikings’) attack. Let’s take a quick look at the N+1 tight end averages from the Ponder comps we discussed earlier and see if there is some cause for hope.

Player

Targets

Receptions

Yards

Yards/Reception

Touchdowns

Rudolph (’12)

93

53

493

9.3

9

TE N+1 Avgs.

80

53

598

11.3

3

The N+1 average totals would have placed in the range of the 15th best fantasy tight end in 2012, and the obvious difference between that and Rudolph’s ninth place finish is the touchdowns. Rudolph was second on the team in targets inside the 20 yard line last year (17), and there is little chance that the Vikings will begin to go away from him in the redzone. However some regression must be factored in, and all of it will not be made up by the inevitable improvement he will show in his yards per reception average.

In points per reception leagues, Rudolph is a much more worthy target – as the upward trajectory of his career will no doubt continue, and his catch totals will rise along with it. Yet at his current ADP, he presents a risky value when one considers that there are plenty of similar options available well down draft boards – including perfectly ‘streamable’ tight end candidates that can be had late.

Minnesota actually led their games for the second-highest percentage of the time in 2012 (58.7%), and that obviously affected the aggressiveness of the playcalling. While they would love to duplicate that statistic, some regression should be expected. This, along with talk of running more plays at a faster pace (who isn’t saying that this preseason?), will help Ponder’s volume passing numbers, at least on the margins. Should these be factored into the Vikings’ 2013 projections? They are hopeful tidbits to keep in mind, especially when trying to shake the negative recency bias that stains this Ponder-led offense – but  they would be next to impossible to meaningfully quantify.

Other than Adrian Peterson, fantasy owners seem to be taking a “let someone else draft him” approach to the Vikings. This approach has merit, especially since most drafters seek out upside in the middle rounds at the expense of safety. However, the ugliness of their 2012 passing game might be playing a bit too large a role in some projections. As the N+1 average comparable numbers helped to illustrate, there is a modicum of hope for some of Minnesota’s key offensive pieces.

While Rudolph, and especially Patterson, are overpriced in redraft leagues – they are certainly not without value. Jennings lacks the upside he has possessed for most of his career, but retains a good deal more safety than he is being given credit for. His floor is fairly high, as is Ponder’s when one factors in the draft capital needed to roster him. Just try to be sure that roster starts two quarterbacks …and he is their backup.

Follow Pat on Twitter: @Pat_Thorman … and our main feed: @PFF_Fantasy



Pat Thorman is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

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