Matt Waldman and Sigmund Bloom are once again running the RSP Football Writers Project this off-season. Last year, a salary cap value was assigned to each player and we were asked to assemble our team within the confines of a salary cap. You can see my team here, but my basic philosophy was to invest heavily in building an elite passing offense. One of the questions we had to answer was who were our stars and why did we pick them? I wrote:
Peyton Manning is the key. With an elite quarterback and competent weapons, you can just about pencil your team in for the playoffs. With Jimmy Graham and Victor Cruz, I’ve got one player who ranked in the top three in receptions and one in the top three in receiving yards in 2011. Those three can form the cornerstone of the offense for the next three-to-five years.
This year, the RSP Football Writers Project (you can see the draft recap here or follow the picks on twitter here) is being run as a 32-team start-up draft with fantasy football style serpentine order that includes a third-round reversal. Trades are not allowed and the player pool will consist of veterans only (i.e., no players available in the 2013 draft).
We were told the draft order was random, although I choose to believe that I was assigned pick #32 because of my performance in last year’s project. Having the 32nd and 33rd picks in the draft placed me in a unique position, and I figured I’d explain my team-building methods here.
Let’s start with a look at who was taken with the first 31 picks; you can click on each writer’s name to see his explanation for his pick:
- Dane Brugler – Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback
- Sam Monson – Peyton Manning, Quarterback
- Josh Katzowitz – Tom Brady, Quarterback
- Matt Miller – Andrew Luck, Quarterback
- NFLosophy – Drew Brees, Quarterback
- Sigmund Bloom – Robert Griffin, Quarterback
- Lance Zierlein – J.J. Watt, Defensive End
- Ben Muth – Cam Newton, Quarterback
- Cian Fahey – Calais Campbell, Defensive End
- Will Brinson – Russell Wilson, Quarterback
- Chris Burke – Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
- Matt Williamson – Ben Roethlisberger, Quarterback
- Rumford Johnny – Von Miller, Outside Linebacker
- Alex Miglio – Matthew Stafford, Quarterback
- Russ Lande – Matt Ryan, Quarterback
- Joe Goodberry – Eli Manning, Quarterback
- Josh Norris – Joe Flacco, Quarterback
- Aaron Schatz – Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver
- Michael Schottey – Ryan Tannehill, Quarterback
- Josh Liskiewitz – Richard Sherman, Cornerback
- Jene Bramel – Aldon Smith, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
- Field Yates – Adrian Peterson, Running Back
- Scott Kacsmar – Tony Romo, Quarterback
- Simon Clancy – Sam Bradford, Quarterback
- Ian Kenyon – A.J. Green, Wide Receiver
- Marc Lillibridge – Duane Brown, Left Tackle
- Matt Waldman – Geno Atkins, Defensive Tackle
- Ryan Riddle – Rob Gronkowski, Tight End
- Mike Tanier – Clay Matthews, Outside Linebacker
- Dave Richard – Joe Thomas, Left Tackle
- Danny Kelly – Philip Rivers, Quarterback
Picking last in the first round should put you far behind most of the teams at quarterback. The big question everyone at the end of the draft had to answer was how do you use your assets (a high pick in the second round) to overcome your liability (a huge hole at quarterback)?
There is no right answer: in this case, your liabilities exceed your assets, and you’re going to be on an unlevel playing field. Some owners simply chose to go best player available. Others focused on the passing game, but took the players catching those passes rather than the ones throwing it. I had several ideas, but I scrapped those plans once Josh Freeman fell to my pick. That’s because he was the last option to potentially field a franchise quarterback.It’s easy to think of the tag ‘elite’ as both binary and immutable, but it is in fact neither of those things. During his age 24 season, Aaron Rodgers threw 28 passes. At that age, Drew Brees was 2-9 with 11 TDs and 15 INTs. Eli Manning completed just 52.8% of his passes when he was twenty-four, while 24-year-old Joe Flacco was three full years (and many gigabytes of criticism) away from becoming Joe Flacco™. Sam Bradford went 1-9 with 6 TDs and 6 INTs in 2011, which was when he was 24 years of age. A twenty-four year old Ben Roethlisberger led the league in interceptions; so did Brett Favre. Matt Ryan suffered a sophomore slump at age 24, back in 2009. Tony Romo was two full years away from throwing his first NFL pass at age 24, while Philip Rivers had thrown one career touchdown at that point.
It’s easy to forget how young Josh Freeman was last year, but by now you can guess that he was only twenty four years old. Freeman is two months younger than Colin Kaepernick. Read that again. He’s only six months older than Ryan Tannehill and ten months older than Russell Wilson. All of this is a way of reminding you that Freeman is more prospect than finished product. He’s five years younger than Jay Cutler, which made this choice a slam dunk.
Freeman’s three years at Kansas State were during the Ron Prince era, who was singularly capable of making Raheem Morris look like Vince Lombardi. As for Morris, the man in charge during Freeman’s first three years in the NFL, I would hesitate to trust him to run a garage sale, much less a football team. In 2012, Freeman was finally given something resembling professional coaching, thanks not necessarily to the hiring of Greg Schiano but that of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Under the right tutelage, Freeman can make the jump and become a franchise player.
The Bucs weren’t on the national radar last year, so you might not have noticed that Freeman had a strong season. For the third straight year he lowered his sack rate, the sign of a maturing quarterback. He ranked second in the league in yards per completion, which helps explain his otherwise unimpressive completion percentage. Freeman has the size and arm strength you look for in a franchise quarterback. Last year, he ranked 10th in Net Yards per Attempt, my favorite predictive measure of quarterback play. He helped the Bucs finish 13th in points scored.
He has some of that ‘it’ factor, on full display in 2010 when he led the Bucs on five fourth-quarter comebacks, the most in the NFL. Freeman is a high-ceiling player that simply needs to mature into a consistent player, but we saw his potential in a shootout with Drew Brees and the Saints last last year. Freeman threw for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns but saved his best work for the final frame. Trailing by 14 in the 4th quarter, Freeman led Tampa Bay on an 81-yard touchdown drive. Trailing by 7 with 1:50 to go, Freeman took the team 70 yards in 105 seconds. Facing 4th and goal from the 9 with five seconds remaining, Freeman was flushed out of the pocket but kept his cool and delivered the game-tying strike to Mike Williams in the back of the end zone. Unfortunately, a flag was thrown as Williams had been pushed out of bounds, nullifying the play, but Freeman’s ability was on full display in that game.
He may not be a top-ten quarterback right now, but at 24 years old, he’s not the quarterback he’ll be in 2015 or 2016. He needs to be an elite quarterback from 2013 to 2017, and I’ve seen enough of him to think he can be just that. Picking at the end of round 1 means I am behind the eight-ball for the 2013 season, but my goal is to build a young team around Freeman and have them mature together. Freeman is on the far left of the age curve, and if he’s 20% better in three years, he’ll be a franchise quarterback. The only quarterbacks to throw for 4000 yards and 25 touchdowns during their age 24 season were Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning and Freeman. I was forced to watch 31 players go off the board before my first pick, but I was fortunate to land a player capable of being a difference maker for a dozen years at the most important position.
So, how do I help Freeman reach his massive potential? By giving him the best young wide receiver I can find, which happens to be Atlanta’s Julio Jones. Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson are better receivers, but both are a little too old for my plan to peak over the next five years. Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant are great and young, but Julio Jones is even younger and has an even higher ceiling. Pairing a deep threat like Jones with a gunslinger like Freeman leaves me in good shape for my championship window. Jones was a little raw coming out of college, but we saw him capitalize on his potential with an 11-catch, 182-yard, two-touchdown performance against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
Jones is three-and-a-half years younger than Megatron, too. In the last 20 years, only Jones, Rob Gronkowski, Larry Fitzgerald, and Randy Moss have pulled off the trifecta of 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection at 23 or younger. With Jones you get all the upside of a young player with none of the risk, as he has already established himself as one of the game’s top players. If Freeman isn’t a great quarterback now, Jones will help turn him into one.
The 32nd spot presented some challenges. Not only was I going to be behind the curve at quarterback, but I felt the need to take one because by my next pick (#65), all the remaining quality quarterbacks will be gone. I can’t win go toe-to-toe with the owners with Manning, Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, who are going to be in a better position to win in 2013. But I can forge a battle on my terms, and prepare for the long haul. With Freeman and Jones, I know I’m well prepared to excel in a passing league for the next ten years.