Decisions are hard. Choosing which pants to wear in the morning is difficult enough, but clicking the right name once the cold sweats kick in and you’re stuck between two similar players at the same position is undoubtedly the hardest decision of your life. We’re here to help, or maybe make this worse and more confusing.
To some, the subjects in our weekly celebration of arguing in which we dive deep into the nerve center of fantasy sports (comparing two players of similar value) and I debate something with no one but myself as the opposition (a daily occurrence) represent the most vexing question in this NFL offseason. To others, the answer is easy, and from my observation through conversations on the Twitters and elsewhere, there’s likely a 50/50 split between those two warring camps.
Randall Cobb and Percy Harvin are in many ways the same player. They may even be the same person, though we’ll have to run tests because that defies all space and time laws.
They’re both highly versatile, and can be lined up and used from multiple areas around the formation, though they excel from the slot. They’re both capable options out of the backfield, and combined they were given 32 carries in 2012 (22 for Harvin, and 10 for Cobb). They’re both highly dangerous in space, and especially after the catch, with each finishing among the top 15 in YAC. Remarkably, Harvin had 509 yards after the catch last year despite a severely shortened season due to an ankle injury (he appeared in only nine games), and Cobb wasn’t far behind with 479. And since they’re both all of those things, they’re also the sort of receivers who will get targeted in glorious abundance. Harvin was on pace for 110 targets before his injury, and Cobb finished with 104.
Predictably then, they’ve both received similar valuations from the fantasy community at large throughout early-ish drafts, and on the common interweb avenues to used measure such things, there’s very little separation in their ADPs. At Fantasy Football Calculator, Cobb leads at 30.5 while Harvin is at 31.8, at ESPN it’s Harvin leading at 29.5 and Cobb at 36.5, and FantasyPros has Cobb at 31st and Harvin valued at 33rd.
Grab your compass and telescope, let’s go exploring.
I mentioned Harvin’s high target volume, but since he’s simply been around longer than Cobb, we have a greater sample size to draw from. That doesn’t necessarily make this any easier, though, as in 2011 he averaged 8.1 yards per target, and in 2010 that number fell ever-so slightly to 7.9. With the limited sample size he’s given us over two seasons and 30 games, Cobb has averaged 9.8 yards per target.
To find the separation in Harvin’s favor we go to one primary area: his change of scenery. There’s also the bonus gravy you’re getting from his production in the return game for leagues that count such things (from my experience, most leagues count touchdowns, and some count yardage).
Let’s look at his friendlier Seattle confines. The run support he’ll be provided remains among the league’s elite, as the step down from Adrian Peterson to Marshawn Lynch is generally of the baby step variety, assuming Lynch can stay healthy. That’s crucial, because Harvin is someone who thrives in space, and now through the use of the read-option, the threat of a run from either Lynch or quarterback Russell Wilson will create plenty of it.
This benefits the Seahawks, of course, with multiple athletic options available through the deceptive looks provided by the read-option and pistol. But more importantly for us, it benefits Harvin, especially Harvin the running back.
Harvin’s a year removed from rather incredibly running for 345 yards on only 52 carries, an average of 6.6 yards per carry. That’s some next level stuff, and early in OTAs Harvin said his usage as a running back will continue, and he could/should see even greater success with defenses now forced to account for more than just an elite running back, but also Wilson’s elusiveness. So there’s some significant fantasy profits to be found for Harvin on the ground in addition to the 75.2 receiving yards per game he averaged last year. His chunk yardage came in large, er, chunks, as Harvin accumulated six weeks with 85 yards or more over just nine games, with eight +20 yard receptions.
As our Alen Dumonjic wrote at some other site he writes for (shakes fist of fury), the Seahawks’ offense will lead to Harvin being used in a very familiar manner. Even when he’s catching the ball, those catches are often essentially long handoffs on bubble screens. There once again we’ve found one of the many (so very many) Cobb-Harvin similarities. But in this new Seahawks setup, Greg Cosell explained that good ol’ blazing athleticism in abundance is still the dividing factor:
It’s a fascinating dynamic. Even though Harvin is motioning tight to the formation, he is really stretching the field horizontally because of the speed with which he is crossing the field. That kind of velocity motion forces the defense to widen. Why? What if Wilson takes the snap, and immediately hands the ball to Harvin racing to the perimeter? That attacks the edge, and puts the defense in a tough predicament.
And about his kick return skills: turns out that Harvin is just generally fast in the open field. Unbelievably, he’s had four +100 yard returns in his career, and five kickoff return touchdowns (at least one per year). But Cobb makes things difficult, because he’s sort of good at kick returns too.
Among other things.
Harvin had two games with 100 or more kick return yards this past season. There are no more words to describe how absurd that is, other than to remind you how much we were robbed of a truly mind-blowing season due to his injury, and how illegal it should be that he did all the things that he did in just nine games.
But despite our fascination with Harvin’s 2012 season, we can’t even use his kick return ability as a dividing factor here. Why? Well, Harvin may have an edge in leagues where return yardage matters, but it’s not significant. Over just two seasons, Cobb has logged games with 135, 128, and 156 return yards.
OK then, where to next in our clawing search for separation? Depth. I should probably explain that.
Cobb and Harvin will always be high-volume receivers, but in Green Bay there are more established targets, especially near the goal-line. Cobb’s targets in 2012 were inflated by Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings rarely being healthy together. And while Jennings has now departed for Minnesota, James Jones and his red-zone efficiency rises up the depth chart to likely subtract from some of Cobb’s slot looks near the goal-line. Of Cobb’s eight touchdown catches last year, four of them came in the red zone.
Jones led all receivers with 14 touchdowns while being targeted 98 times. And even though he missed essentially six games (he left early in two games), Nelson was still targeted 73 times. If we assume (no, hope) for a season in which they’re both healthy, can we also safely assume that Cobb’s targets continue on a steep upward plane (31 in his rookie year, and 104 last year)? No, I’m not sure that we can, especially with Rodgers’ tendency to spread the ball around.
Winner: We’re splitting the thinnest hairs here, of course, which is a known part of this exercise. Rodgers thinks Cobb could catch 100 passes, and he’s not wrong. But in Golden Tate and the oft-injured Sidney Rice, those target threats don’t quite exist for Harvin in his new place of employment. Tate and Rice combined for 149 targets last year during a rare season of fine health for Rice.
Between the presence of Nelson and Jones, there’s an opportunity for regression in both Cobb’s targets and his touchdowns, and therefore also his fantasy value (191.5 fantasy points last year, while Harvin had 122.5 in only half a season). It’s slight, and ultimately Cobb’s ceiling remains high along with his production potential. But by the end of 2013 we’ll likely see that putting Cobb in the same tier as Harvin was at best unwise, and at worst a significant early-round misstep.
Give me Harvin.