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Predictions in Review: NFC West

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Last week was the AFC West; this week, the NFC West.

Let’s begin in Arizona, where I actually got one right.

Questioning the Narrative on Larry Fitzgerald, June 20, 2013

The conventional wisdom was that Larry Fitzgerald was going to have a bounce-back year in 2013. That view was widely-held: in fact, I caged a lot of my negative Fitzgerald comments with caveats, as it felt like criticizing Fitzgerald was just something football writers didn’t do. Fitzgerald was one of the game’s best wide receivers when Kurt Warner was under center, and it felt wrong to argue with folks who wanted to give him a pass for the mediocre numbers he produced with John Skelton/Ryan Lindley/Kevin Kolb. With Carson Palmer in Arizona in 2013, the expectation was a big year for Fitzgerald. Instead, he produced 82 passes for only 954 yards, although he did score 10 touchdowns.

For the second year in a row, Fitzgerald failed to lead his team in receiving yards per game, with Andre Roberts (2012) and Michael Floyd (2013) instead earning those honors. So what’s happened with Fitzgerald? I have no idea, but he’s certainly not the same player he was during the Warner/Anquan Boldin days. And while the touchdowns made sure he wasn’t a complete fantasy bust, he gained just 22.2% of all Cardinals receiving yards in 2013, somehow falling short of his 23.6% mark in his miserable 2012 season.

What can we learn: As noted in the original article, 2011 was a very misleading season. Excluding that year, Fitzgerald has averaged just 11.7 yards per catch over the last five years, but he averaged 17.6 yards per catch in 2011. That high number was the result of a fluky number of long completions, which has turned out not to be repeatable.

The tell-tale sign for me was Fitzgerald’s declining share of the pie in Arizona. Sure, the quarterback play was bad, but he had “only” 80 catches when the quarterback play was pretty decent in 2012. And it wasn’t just his share of the receiving yards pie that was declining: he was seeing fewer targets, too. I’m still not comfortable betting against Fitzgerald, but it seems like he’s now just settled into his role as an 80-catch, 1000-yard receiver, and little more.

Vernon Davis as Art Monk, June 26, 2013

In mini-camp, Vernon Davis practiced exclusively with the San Francisco wide receivers. In light of the Michael Crabtree injury, reports began to emerge that the team was considering moving him to wide receiver. That inspired me compare Davis to Art Monk, who Sean Lahman argued was in some ways a tight end with a wide receiver position label. Could Davis be the opposite?

Because of Davis’ speed and his success as a deep threat in the 2012 postseason, I argued that he would probably be a pretty successful wide receiver. And I wrote:

A “position switch” need not be as binary as it sounds. Davis doesn’t have to go from 100% tight end to 100% wide receiver, because in fact, few players meet that definition. And in fact, it probably makes more sense to break things into three groups: tight ends, slot receivers, and outside wide receivers.

As it turns out, the “Davis at wide receiver” idea was much ado about nothing. Of course, if this caused you to draft Davis in your fantasy league, you were probably very happy, as he caught 13 touchdowns and gained 850 yards. Davis averaged 16.3 yards per catch — which sure sounds like wide receiver numbers — but he spent most of his time at a tight end. According to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, Davis spent 63.6% of his snaps at tight end, 24.1% as a slot receiver, 9.7% out wide as a wide receiver, and 2.6% of the time as either a fullback or extra offensive lineman.

What can we learn: Don’t believe in summer hype? Position categorization doesn’t matter much, except when arguing about the franchise tag? Davis is a freak of nature? Well, we knew all three of those things already.

Is Sam Bradford poised to to have a breakout season?, August 8, 2013

In an unusual twist, I played the role of Sam Bradford apologist. The argument was not difficult to construct: his leading receiver and his offensive coordinator changed every year, arguably making it unfair to be too critical of his mediocre numbers. No Rams receiver had gained even 700 yards, and his leading receiver accounted for just 19.7% of the team receiving yards in his first three years. In other words, he needed new weapons.

Then, by adding Jared Cook and drafting Tavon Austin, along with the presumed development of young receivers like Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, and Brian Quick, I thought Bradford might finally have the weapons he needed to succeed. I did get one thing correct: I said that because there were so many intriguing weapons now on the team, his leading receiver might only get about 20% of the team’s receiving yards in 2013, too. As it turned out, Cook finished the year with 19.97% of Rams receiving yards.

The problem, of course, was that Cook only had 671 yards. Bradford did post career highs in ANY/A, AY/A, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and interception rate (in a good way), so he did have a good season. Or good half-season, I should say, as a torn ACL limited him to just 7 games. More importantly — and incredibly — The Streak continued. And since the Rams didn’t have a 700-yard receiver in 2009 (the year the team bottomed out and were positioned with the number one pick to select Bradford), that leaves us with two mind-boggling facts.

#1) The last St. Louis Ram to gain 700 receiving yards in a season was Torry Holt. That’s SEVEN HUNDRED YARDS. And TORRY FREAKIN HOLT was the last to do it. How is this possible?

#2) The 2009-2013 Rams are the first team to go five straight years without a 700-yard receiver since the 1981-1986 Saints. That stretch includes the 9-game strike season of 1982, but since there are five 16-game seasons in there, I’ll allow it. In any event, matching the early ’80s Saints in passing productivity — without even having to account for era — is too sad for words.

What can we learn: Don’t put your eggs in a basket coordinated by Brian Schottenheimer? I could give myself a pass because of the injury or even argue that Bradford succeeded before the injury, but I don’t think this offense was going to reach the heights I envisioned even if Bradford stayed healthy. Sadly, the main lesson here is a predictable one: don’t get too excited about the instant impact from rookie receivers and free agent tight ends. Now in 2014…..

Is Russell Wilson the next Ben Roethlisberger?, August 27, 2013

After a great rookie season for a defensive-oriented team, it made sense (to me, at least) to compare Russell Wilson to Ben Roethlisberger. Both players had excellent efficiency numbers but were near the bottom of the league in pass attempts, thanks to great rushing offenses and great defenses.

The post wasn’t so much a prediction for the future as much as it was an observation: it’s hard to find many situational comps for a player like Wilson, and Roethlisberger fit the mold. And like Big Ben, Wilson wound up winning the Super Bowl in his second season in the NFL. So on that level, I suppose the article looks even better a year later.

Of course, I also said that at some point, Seattle would start passing more and would base the offense around Wilson the way the Steelers have with Roethlisberger. And I said “I don’t think the Seahawks will come close to finishing last in pass attempts [again] in 2013, and I suspect Seattle will be in the top half either this year or next.” Well, the Seahawks finished 31st in pass attempts. So I’ve got only one season to get that prediction right.

Obviously the Seahawks have found a script that works for them. But I still feel the same way about him that I did a year ago: he’s a young quarterback, but he will eventually switch from “game manager” to center of the offense. It’s unrealistic to expect Seattle to have a dominant rushing attack/defense year after year.

What can we learn: In today’s NFL, great quarterbacks pass a lot, which has not always been the case in football history. But Seattle and San Francisco do appear to be the exceptions, at least as long as the Game Script cooperates. The question, as always, is how long will the Seahawks continue to enjoy that luxury.

  • Bob

    Your team preview articles are something that I look forward to each offseason. Consistently interesting and excellent reads.

    Incidentally, Vernon Davis’ 16.3 yards per catch ranks among the all-time high marks for tight ends.

    TE single-season YPC (min. 50 receptions)

    1. Jackie Smith, 1967 — 21.52
    2. Mike Ditka, 1961 — 19.21
    3. Pete Retzlaff, 1965 — 18.03
    4. Aaron Thomas, 1967 — 17.20
    5. Pete Retzlaff, 1964 — 16.76
    6. Henry Childs, 1979 — 16.59
    7. John Mackey, 1966 — 16.58
    8. Henry Childs, 1978 — 16.40
    9. Vernon Davis, 2013 — 16.35
    10. Vernon Davis, 2010 — 16.32


    • Chase Stuart

      Thanks, Bob. Glad you are enjoying.

  • I have to point out this error because it made me laugh: “I also said that at some people” instead of “some point.” For some reason, I found that sentence quite funny with “people” there.

    The Rams’ inability to get a 700-yard receiver is pretty amazing. I just keep thinking Jeff Fisher + Schottenheimer (no matter which one) + Bradford = running the ball a lot, so I’m not sure that streak is ending soon.

    • Chase Stuart

      Heh, thanks. And fixed!

      Yeah, this Rams streak is pretty nuts.

    • Richie

      In my memory, I thought Tavon Austin showed some signs of life last year. But I just looked at his PFR. Ouch. I think I was just thinking about that 2-TD game in week 2. He had 2 more receiving TD in week 10. He had only one game over 50 yards (but it was for 138).

      His 418 receiving yards as a rookie ranks right between Ted Ginn and David Terrell amongst rookie WR drafted in the top-10. (31st out of 53)

  • Ian

    Well, is Wilson is really to be the next Roethlisberger, I don’t see how his season this year doesn’t match him up even more. Roethlisberger didn’t pass that many times in his second year either. Really, I expect him to pass more only when he gets a new contract, because that’ll force the team to jettison some key players, which is when a more pass-oriented offense will be needed.