Everyone likes to purchase new things, even those of the male species who bemoan a Saturday afternoon spent nodding outside of change rooms when asked a question, any question at all. It’s the small joys, really, because a new shirt just feels so smooth, and sometimes even shiny. It’s cool, and you’re cool.
But then the new thing is worn, and it sits in your closet for a while. Gradually, the new thing becomes the old thing, and it’s just another shirt. You still like it, but the feeling is gone.
The cycle of fantasy football existence in many ways mirrors this behavior. We have someone new and young (like, say, Randall Cobb), and expecting a glorious output from them just feels so right. But then we have the old guard, and the established creaky guy who may or may not be grizzled. He’s often aging, he’s sometimes slowing, and he’s had his share of breaks and tears. But for all of his flaws, there’s still a history we can look back on while nodding our heads. There’s still some degree of a comfort level.
This year, the old guy vs. new guy battle in fake football could be fought between T.Y. Hilton and Greg Jennings.
Mid-August ADPs indicate there will be many sweaty and chip-crumb covered fingers having to make a decision between those two. The separation varies a little, but they’re generally pretty close. In Yahoo leagues Jennings is being selected at 90.3, while Hilton is about 15 spots behind at 105.4. But the gap is closer in ESPN leagues (Jennings: 80.5, Hilton: 89.6), and they’re reversed in CBS leagues (Hilton: 84.6, Jennings: 93.2), and at Fantasy Football Calculator (Hilton: 71.9, Jennings: 83.0).
Hilton is entering his second year, and although he’s facing competition on the Colts’ wide receiver depth chart from Darrius Heyward-Bey, if there’s any logic in the world he’ll be rewarded the No. 2 starting job opposite Reggie Wayne. Meanwhile, Jennings starts anew in Minnesota, and when he’s not busy tearing into his old team and talking about brainwashing, he’ll be Christian Ponder’s top (see: only) target.
Exploring we will go.
We have to assume/hope that Chuck Pagano was just giving Heyward-Bey an extended look during the early part of training camp and the Colts’ first preseason game against Buffalo last weekend when the former Raider started, and Hilton was only seen in three-wide receiver sets. And if so, fair enough, as meaningless games (on the scoreboard, at least) are the time to conduct your Frankenstein experiments, and in this case, see exactly what you have with Heyward-Bey.
But Hilton should be the starter, or at least receiver far more targets than Heyward-Bey. In that preseason opener, Hilton had 61 yards on just three catches, highlighted by a 45-yard touchdown catch on a diving catch to reel in a ball that traveled 36 yards downfield. He was split out wide too, a place where he was sparsely used last year with Donnie Avery blocking his way. As Evan Silva noted earlier this week, in Pep Hamilton’s new offense the third wideout is minimized in favor of dual tight end sets, which means pushing aside Heyward-Bey has even more significance if Hilton is to have a breakout year, or rather continue is breakout season that started halfway through last year.
And about last year: what Hilton did despite being behind Wayne and Avery quickly made you wonder how 11 receivers were drafted ahead of him last spring. He led all rookies in touchdowns (seven), and average yards per catch (17.2), with his breakaway speed after the catch especially impressive. Of his 861 total yards, 388 of them came after the catch. That’s 45 percent, which doesn’t put him too far behind Wes Welker, last year’s league leader in YAC who had 51 percent of his total yardage come after catching a ball.
Looking further at Hilton’s minimalist approach and doing a lot with little, he had five +100 yard games, despite only 50 receptions. That was, again, largely the product of his long runs after catches, as Hilton had three catches of 60 yards or more (60, 61, and 70). That brings up a few other fun comparisons, like Andre Johnson catching 62 more passes, yet having only one more 100-yard game than Hilton, or Brandon Marshall beating Hilton by two 100-yarders on 68 more catches.
Hilton’s long running also led to three games in which he averaged over 25 yards per catch. He can run fast, and he comes complete with versatility as a proven slot receiver.
Greg Jennings is often broken. This is a fact, and one that’s well known. Most recently, he struggled with a groin injury last year that resulted in a lost season, limiting him to just eight games. Even when he was healthy, he was only partly healthy, and almost entirely ineffective. Even if we count the post-season, he finished 2012 with only 481 total yards, 120 of which came in one game.
As much as I often find the “injury prone” label generic and repulsive, Jennings’ frequent combusting is a concern here, along with his lack of youth. In just over a month he’ll turn 30, and by the standards of mere mortals that’s quite young. But by the standards of wide receivers, he can secretly remember a time when you could fill up your gas tank for 10 cents.
Jennings still has at least a few years of prime production left, though, before he begins to flirt with the possibility of an abrupt drop off as he inches closer to 35. And in his current environment, a poor deep ball thrower may actually help a healthy Jennings, and improve his production.
You can argue that Christian Ponder didn’t have many (or you know, any) deep options not named Percy Harvin during his first full season as a starter. Harvin also missed half a season, and he doesn’t meet the classic definition of a deep, vertical burner anyway. Fair enough, but with that disclaimer out of the way, Ponder sucked in 2012 when he chucked it a great distance.
He averaged only 6.1 yards per pass attempt, while logging seven games when that number fell below 5.5, including a staggeringly horrible Week 9 (2.9 YPA…hahaha). Pro Football Focus charts yards gained through the air (meaning completions with all the yards after the catch removed), and Ponder only had 1,298 yards using that metric, placing him 27th out of all qualifying quarterbacks.
Usually, all of that would be awful, horrible news. This isn’t usually.
At his increasingly elderly status, Jennings has lost a step or four. But like any wise old man, he’s adjusted his game, and as ESPN’s Matt Bowen noted after a film analysis, Jennings had most of his limited success last year on intermediate routes that broke after 12-15 yards.
That’s right in Ponder’s quite compact wheelhouse. Jennings remains a great route runner too, and he’s frequently able to find separation while manipulating defenders.
Verdict: I really, truly, honestly think we’ll see a rejuvenated Jennings this year, since he fits so well with Ponder. But if we assume sanity prevails and Hilton beats out Heyward-Bey (that seems like a pretty safe assumption, though not certain), give me youth and the shiny new thing. Hilton’s speed is far superior, and will provide him with the opportunity to accumulate yards after the catch, and trusting Andrew Luck — who threw 68 passes of 20 yards or more to Ponder’s 28 last year — is much easier. There’s also the presence of Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings’ obvious alignment as a run-oriented team.
Once Hilton ascends the depth chart, his ADP should rise above Jennings’ quickly. That should happen, oh, Sunday, if it hasn’t happened already. DHB has been dropping passes like it’s his job, and unfortunately, it’s still his job to catch them…
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey struggled during Tuesday afternoon’s practicing. He had approximately five drops.
— Tom James (@TribStarTJames) August 13, 2013