When Aaron Hernandez was immediately axed by the Patriots because he maybe, probably killed someone, we were all quite rightly consumed with matters far removed from a football field. A man died, and he’s been allegedly killed by another man who was a premier player at his position, and he helped to pioneer an era in which using tight ends as wide receivers was more than just an idea. Hernandez was a 23-year-old who seemingly had everything, and now he’s about to have nothing.
There’s a football element, though, because losing a player of Hernandez’s caliber and also maybe playing without Rob Gronkowski for the first six weeks of next season won’t be enjoyable for Tom Brady. Taking that further, losing his top five receivers from last year could be about as fun as celebrating July 4 by placing a firecracker on a part of the body that’s especially sensitive to life-altering explosions.
But oh, there’s some pleasant, uplifting news for fantasy purposes. Its name is Shane Vereen.
We touched on the potential for sweet Vereen magic as part of a general rundown of the fantasy implications of Hernandez now being a model inmate, and Gronk still sideline by a backiotomy. Among the observations there was the encouraging fact that in an admittedly limited sample size (only 72 touches), Vereen was moved around consistently, and was sometimes about as true to the job title of running back as Hernandez was to his of tight end.
Vereen spent 19 percent of his snaps lined up out wide, and he turned those snaps into five targets, 80 receiving yards, and a touchdown. That means 53 percent of his overall receiving yardage came when was used as a wide receiver, and of his 13 catches, five of them were for 10 yards or more.
That’s not the usage of your standard, blah pass-catching running back who flashes out into the flats, and waits for the ball to be inserted into his hands. No, that’s the usage of a space player, and one who isn’t defined by a positional label. It’s a player whose speed and lateral ability is at such a level that he’s relied upon to find separation from multiple areas around the formation.
Think Darren Sporles or Reggie Bush, who combined for 959 receiving yards in 2012. Or better yet, as ESPN’s Field Yates suggested yesterday, think James Casey or Randall Cobb:
He might leapfrog from the backfield to a flexed out alignment to a wide receiver alignment in three successive plays. He was successfully used as a split wide receiver on occasion in 2012, taking advantage of man coverage against linebackers (a Thanksgiving night performance against the Jets was the pinnacle of his season). The Patriots have long excelled at dictating matchups, something they can explore further with Vereen this season.
A versatile player in that mold stresses a defense by forcing it into pre-snap adjustments. The Texans used James Casey in this way, as did the Vikings with Percy Harvin (and the Packers do with Randall Cobb), among a handful of other players with such a skill set.
Yeah, maybe those Harvin and Cobb comparisons are a bit lofty. Maybe they’re a lot lofty. But you get the idea: Vereen’s ceiling is high.
Let’s also consider the history of running backs and their receiving ways under Josh McDaniels. First, there’s Steven Jackson, who can catch a ball but he ain’t no Sproles. In 2011 during McDaniels’ lone year as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, Jackson had 42 receptions for 333 yards and a touchdown. Prior to that during his first year as the head coach in Denver, Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter combined for 453 yards, and in 2010 that number went up to 612.
All of this is gloriously wonderful news for everything and everyone, except Vereen’s ADP. There was a time when you could get him in drafts at a sweet little discount, and that time is slowly ending. He’ll be a stud in PPR leagues, but Fantasy Football Calculator already has his ADP in that pass-catching loving format at 62.1. That means shortly, you could be paying a fifth round price in 10-team leagues for a running back who will be targeted frequently, but he’s still mired in a platoon with Steven Ridley.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly how far Vereen’s value rises, or how far we’re collectively willing to let it rise. If there’s a belief that he truly can be a poor man’s Sproles, then it’ll escalate fast, as the Saints running back is often a top 25 pick in PPR formats. I’m not sure Vereen quite gets there, and we can only hope that Armageddon doesn’t come.
He’ll produce and be targeted and generally make you happy, but that elation won’t nearly equal the joy which comes from Sproles or Bush ownership. The fifth round, and leading the tier of faders like Ryan Mathews and Ahmad Bradshaw, is just fine for now, thanks.
Anything more could lead to Sundays in dark living rooms.