Mike Clay

Football Daily Dose

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Rise of the Youth

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Last season, Victor Cruz began the year behind Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon. Jordy Nelson was looking up at Donald Driver. Donald Brown was buried beneath Joseph Addai, while Laurent Robinson was behind Kevin Ogletree and Jesse Holley.

Jermichael Finley was once stuck behind Donald Lee. Jacob Tamme was overshadowed by Dallas Clark. Jamaal Charles had to push Larry Johnson aside…and later Thomas Jones. Arian Foster was on the practice squad to open the 2009 season…

You get the point.

Veterans who are either on the decline or simply underwhelming talents can sometimes hinder a young athlete’s playing time, capping his fantasy ceiling in a given season. As shown in the examples above, however, these “buried” players cannot be overlooked on draft day.

Today, I’ll be taking a look at six current depth chart battles. In all six cases, a veteran is currently holding down a prominent position on his team’s depth chart; a position a young player needs to grab hold of in order to enjoy a breakout 2012 campaign.

Also included are two possible outcomes to each competition: a ‘likely outcome’ and a ‘bold possibility’. Keep an eye on these six battles throughout training camp and you may find yourself with a gem on draft day.

Snap data provided by ProFootballFocus.com

Lions Wide Receiver

The Past: Nate Burleson
The Future: Titus Young

The Detroit coaches like Burleson quite a bit, but he’s due $4 million this season and under contract at an even higher cap hit each of the next two seasons. With Titus Young emerging as a competent outside threat opposite Calvin Johnson, the 30-year-old Burleson figures to be relied on less going forward.

The key difference from 2011 to 2012 will be the duo’s share of snaps in two-wide sets. Last year, Burleson played 964 snaps to Young’s 711. The reason Burleson held such a sizable edge (about 15 snaps-per-game) was because he was in the game opposite Johnson when the team went with only two wide receivers. Assuming he doesn’t take a step back in the next six weeks, it’s fair to expect Young to step into, at least, some of those snaps. It’s worth noting that Detroit did go with three-plus wideouts on the field 58 percent of the time (fourth highest in the league), so it’s not like Burleson won’t find the field. Of course, he’ll also have to deal with rookie Ryan Broyles, who, like Burleson, works primarily out of the slot.

Likely Outcome: It won’t take long for Young to seize No. 2 wide receiver duties this season, making him worth WR3 consideration. Burleson will be the primary slot man for a while, but Broyles will inevitably take over. Due $4.5 million in 2013, the Lions will look to trade Burleson before eventually cutting him next offseason.

Bold Possibility: Young and a healthy Broyles blow by Burleson during the preseason, allowing Detroit to make a move prior to Week 1. With Mikel Leshoure suspended and Jahvid Best’s health in question, they ship him to Denver for Knowshon Moreno. Burleson settles in as a capable slot man for Peyton Manning. Deon Butler is claimed off waivers from Seattle and slides in as Detroit’s No. 4 receiver.

Packers Wide Receiver

The Past: Donald Driver
The Future: Randall Cobb

The Packers renegotiated Driver’s contract this season to keep him around on a one-year, $2.3 million deal. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee him a roster spot, however, and he certainly can’t be counted on to reach the 500-snap mark again. With Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson locked into the top two spots, sophomore Randall Cobb figures to eventually step into the No. 3 job this season. He, of course, has to deal with Driver and James Jones, but is clearly the superior talent of the trio.

64 percent of Driver’s pass routes came when he was lined up in the slot. The result was a 12.0 YPR and a 74 percent catch rate on 43 targets. In what should not be considered a coincidence, 63 percent of Cobb’s pass routes came from the slot. His results? A 14.9 YPR and 87 percent catch rate on 23 targets. With Greg Jennings dabbling in the slot a bit, there are snaps to be had on the outside, but Cobb and Driver figure to do most of their damage from the inside. One more note: Driver scored all seven of his touchdowns from the slot (and Cobb added one). There are scoring opportunities to be had here, as well.

Likely Outcome: Driver will make the team and steal snaps from superior players early on in the season. It won’t be long before Cobb emerges, however, putting himself on the WR3/4 radar. Driver will step into a part-time role, seeing most of his reps in the rare four-wide set. The 2012 season will be Driver’s last with Green Bay.

Bold Possibility: Driver simply isn’t up to the task of contributing to the Packers’ offense this season and is cut loose in favor of Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley. Wanting to make one last push for another Superbowl ring, Driver signs with the Steelers, who need veteran depth at the position with Mike Wallace still in holdout mode.

Chiefs Wide Receiver

The Past: Steve Breaston
The Future: Jonathan Baldwin

After signing a five-year deal with the Chiefs last offseason, Breaston was heavily-utilized in his first year with the team. Among the Chiefs’ offensive skill position players, he finished second in snaps to only Dwayne Bowe. Baldwin, meanwhile, saw his rookie season get off to a slow start after he hurt his thumb in an August fight with Thomas Jones. The injury cost him the first five games of the season, but he averaged 4.6 targets-per-game the rest of the way. That was well below Breaston’s seven-per-game during that same span. Both Breaston and Bowe project as outside receivers, but Breaston did move to the slot 38 percent of the time last year – his highest mark in four years. Baldwin moved inside only 28 percent of the time.

With Dwayne Bowe holding out, both players have been working as starters this offseason, but one will need to move inside in three-wide sets during the season. The key, as was the case with Young vs. Burleson, will be who is on the field in two-wide sets. This is even more relevant in Kansas City because the team is built around a run-first offense and figures to use more two-tight end sets. Baldwin, a first-round pick, struggled to a 41 percent catch rate as a rookie, but easily surpasses Breaston in upside.

Despite being owed $3.35 million (including a $1.3 million roster bonus), Breaston does not figure to be cut or traded for several reasons; one being Baldwin’s inexperience, another being Bowe’s holdout status and eventual departure, and third being the cap hit the Chiefs would take if he was cut loose.

Likely Outcome: Bowe has yet to sign his franchise tag, but is no longer eligible for an extension and doesn’t figure to miss any regular season action. Assuming that’s the case, Breaston will be the favorite to start opposite him in the early-season. A few weeks in, however, Baldwin will emerge as the superior receiving threat. He’ll take over as a starter. With Bowe unlikely to return in 2013, the team will give Baldwin every chance to prove he’s a capable No. 1 receiver.

Bold Possibility: Bowe continues his holdout into the regular season and Baldwin overtakes Breaston, essentially making him the team’s go-to receiver from the get-go. Baldwin catches 60 balls and scores six times, proving to be a capable WR2 going forward. Bowe signs with the Dolphins in the offseason and the Chiefs enter 2013 with Baldwin and Breaston on the outside and Devon Wylie in the slot.

Cardinals Tight End

The Past: Todd Heap
The Future: Rob Housler

The 32-year-old Heap was Arizona’s primary tight end when healthy last season, but he missed six games and saw his snaps tail off in January. Housler, meanwhile, was the team’s third-round pick a season ago and played sparingly in his rookie season, eclipsing 25 snaps only once. He struggled with drops (six on 24 targets), but clearly has the speed and athleticism to produce as a pass-catcher. It’s clear that the Cardinals’ coaching staff agrees, as Housler lined up in-line on only 48 percent of his snaps. Heap (59 percent in-line) dabbled in the slot as well, and quietly did a nice job as a run blocker. Jeff King is also in the mix, but is primarily a blocker and is currently dealing with a quadriceps injury. With youth on his side and the Cardinals badly in need of playmakers on offense, Housler will get a long look for a regular role in the Arizona offense.

Likely Outcome: Heap will get the early edge on the No. 1 job heading into the season, but he and Housler are essentially competing for the same role. It won’t be long before Housler takes over as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end. Heap and King will share reps as the team’s primary blocking tight end the rest of the way.

Bold Possibility: The team decides Housler is ready-to-roll as an every-down tight end and decides to cut Heap and save $2.15 million in salary in the process. Heap, in turn, heads back east to Philadelphia, where he signs on cheap to back-up Brent Celek.

Redskins Wide Receiver

The Past: Santana Moss
The Future: Leonard Hankerson

The Redskins made a big free agency splash at wide receiver this past offseason by signing both Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. The moves leaves Moss’ status as a starter up in the air and potentially stunts 2011 third-round pick Leonard Hankerson’s path to regular snaps. Moss lined up in the slot on just under 40 percent of his snaps last season, which is the most he’s been there in at least four years. He didn’t fare very well, either, hauling in only 44 percent of the 48 targets, compared to 60 percent of the 42 targets he saw out wide.

Garcon, Morgan, and Hankerson play primarily on the outside, however, which means Moss likely will have to handle a good percentage of his snaps from the slot this season. Hankerson, of course, is still recovering from hip surgery and could easily end up fourth on the depth chart by Week 1. Morgan has some experience in the slot and will help in that area, but it figures to be Moss’ primary role when the team goes without a second tight end or fullback. Garcon is all but locked in as the starting split end.

Likely Outcome: Garcon and Moss enter the season as starters with the latter moving to the slot in three-wide sets. Hankerson takes a few weeks to get going, but he eventually moves his way past 33-year-old Moss and solidifies his role as the team’s starting flanker. Moss and Morgan will rotate slot duties, while also spelling Hankerson as needed.

Bold Possibility: Moss proves that he’s no longer the player he once was and is cut prior to Week 1. Proven to be healthy by the team’s decision to dump Moss, Hankerson steps into the starting lineup opposite Garcon. Morgan is called on to handle slot duties. Moss, meanwhile, returns to the team that drafted him back in 2001, signing a one-year deal with the Jets.

Browns Tight End

The Past: Ben Watson
The Future: Jordan Cameron

An important part of the Browns’ underwhelming offense over the last two seasons, Watson is set to turn 32 this season and suffered three concussions last year. He saw 16 percent of the team’s targets when on the field and only Greg Little played more snaps among the squad’s backs, wideouts, and tight ends. Still, he was ineffective as a run blocker and missed the last three games of the season. With Evan Moore currently out of commission due to an undisclosed offseason injury, Cameron is making a strong push for the No. 2 job behind Watson. A fourth-round pick a year ago, Cameron played sparingly as a rookie, but the team is expecting him to take a big step forward in 2012. Moore, a receiving specialist, showed in 2011 that he can hold down his own when called on to play in-line, and could also stand in Cameron’s path to regular snaps. Alex Smith is also in the mix, but figures to work solely as a blocking specialist.

Likely Outcome: Entering a contract year, Watson will begin his final season in Cleveland as a starter. As the team begins to fall out of the playoff mix, however, Cameron and, to a lesser extent, Moore will take over a bulk portion of the reps. Coach Pat Shurmur will want to know if Cameron can hold down 60-plus snaps-per-game and he’ll get a long look. Cameron won’t be on the fantasy radar just yet.

Bold Possibility: Cameron and Moore prove to be superior options to Watson, allowing Cleveland to cut bait on his $2.88 million salary. Despite Cleveland’s improvements at wide receiver, Cameron still averages about six targets-per-game, leading to a 60-catch season and TE2 status. Watson, meanwhile, latches on in New York, where he forms a committee attack with Martellus Bennett.

Mike Clay is a football writer for Rotoworld.com and the Founder/Managing Editor of Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He can be found on Twitter @MikeClayNFL.
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