Looking Ahead to 2013: Pierce, Finley, DEN RBBC, SF Rookies
In our final Thursday show of the season (broadcast on Jan. 10), the FootballDiehards were joined on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio by guests who cover the four teams playing in Saturday's Divisional Playoff games. Co-host Mike Dempsey and I managed to mix in some fantasy-relevant questions about each team going forward with our playoff queries. We got some very interesting responses.
How much will Bernard Pierce Impact Rice's 2013 Fantasy Value?
During our previous week's show, Mike and I talked to Baltimore Sun beat writer Edward Lee, who discussed Joe Flacco's contract situation. So this week, with WNST's Glenn Clark coming on to preview the team's game against Broncos, the focus shifted to the running back situation going forward.
According to Clark, team officials agree. In fact, at least one Ravens front office source has told Clark the team believes Pierce could have done the same thing Alfred Morris did in Washington this year had Pierce found himself in a similar situation.
(Morris ran for more than 1,600 yards for the Skins.)
Given that, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Pierce led the offense in rushing with 103 yards on 13 carries in last week's win over the Colts. That included the team's longest runs of 43 and 18 yards. Rice rushed 15 times for 70 yards.
Oh, and he fumbled twice.
Okay... to his credit, Rice also did that thing he does, turning a short catch into a 47-yard gain that led to the Ravens' first touchdown of the game -- a 2-yard run by fullback Vonta Leach. Still, considering the high-end pick required to secure Rice's services the last two years, Fantasy owners head into the offseason with questions. Is it time to turn the controls on the "Wayback" to the 2008 and 2009 seasons, when Rice shared carries with Willis McGahee?
Let's face it, Pierce has shown he needs to be in the mix.
The rookie has led the team in rushing in each of the last three games, compiling 123 yards against the Giants, and 89 yards against the Bengals when Rice was pulled in the first quarter, and last Sunday's output against the Colts -- which was the fifth 100-yard game in the franchise's postseason history. Pierce finished the win against Indianapolis with three straight runs that earned a first down and allowed the offense to run time off the clock.
Rice fared well enough against the Colts, posting his third career playoff game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage.
But those fumbles.
While he was willing to "take it on the chin" when asked about his failure to secure the pigskin immediately after the win over Indy, Rice wasn't as keen on rehashing them with reporters on Tuesday. Asked about the fumbles, Rice said he didn't understand why one game was being held against him after he played 16 games in the regular season without fumbling a single time.
"I didn't fumble all year. So I don't really get that question," Rice said.
It's true, of course, that Rice has been quite reliable in the regular season. As ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley pointed out, Rice has just seven career fumbles on a total of 1,527 touches -- one per 218 touches -- in regular-season play. But he does have five fumbles on 152 career touches in postseason play.
This just in: A 30:1 post-season touch-to-fumble ratio is not good.
Will that be the determining factor when coaches consider their running-back rotation over the offseason? No. But it will be a factor. So will Pierce's late-season and post-season performances.
Asked if Rice would have a problem sharing again, this time with Pierce instead of McGahee, Clark didn't think that would be the case.
"Being smart and savvy," Clark explained, "Ray realizes that sharing can mean less wear... And wanting another big payday..."
There's the rub. Rice, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal with the Ravens last July, is young enough that he could indeed cash in again if he holds up physically. But if that's the case, Rice's days of being a top-three Fantasy running back might be a thing of the past.
That doesn't mean Rice can't continue to produce at a top-three level; but it's going to be harder to invest that much draft-day wherewithal if Pierce is going to play a bigger role. And that's something we should all be watching for over the course of the offseason and through training camp this summer.
Status Quo For Denver RBs In 2013?
Willis McGahee has returned to practice this week and was on track to return for the AFC Championship game. But what about the future at the position? Clearly, Knowshon Moreno has earned a chair on any backfield committee going forward (assuming the knee injury sustained Saturday is not serious). But at whose expense will Moreno's more prominent role come? Remember, he was inactive for eight games before McGahee's knee injury opened the door to his return and rise in Fantasy relevance.
Could it be Ronnie Hillman?
According to MaxDenver.com's Andrew Mason, the team's Week 17 win over the Chiefs was an indication of what could be coming next season.
Mason went on to remind us that protection of the football is a huge area of concern for Denver. Indeed, only six teams have lost more fumbles than the Broncos. Fumbles are such a concern for the Broncos that when Hillman lost a fumble in the first quarter against Kansas City, he never carried the football again the rest of the game, even though a 38-3 final score meant the Broncos were in run-first mode most of the game.
With Hillman in the doghouse, when head coach John Fox wanted to rest starter Knowshon Moreno, he turned to Lance Ball and Jacob Hester, who combined for 121 yards on 22 carries. Hester, in particular, was a revelation; after being limited mostly to goal-line work in his first two games in a Broncos uniform, he gained 55 yards on just seven carries against the Chiefs.
Moreno's season track record is evidence of where fumbling can land a Broncos running back; his eight-week stint on the inactive list began after a Week 2 fumble at Atlanta.
So what does it all mean for next season?
Mason expects the status quo, with McGahee, who is under contract for another season, Moreno, also under contract for another year, Hillman and the emerging Hester all playing roles.
Pressed further, Mason basically confirmed what we've all seen when watching the rookie.
"He's good at making plays in space," Mason explained. "But Hillman hasn't delivered between the tackles as they hoped he would."
And with capable -- and in the case of both pre-injury McGahee and post-exile Moreno, downright high-end -- veterans ahead of him, Hillman is going to be relegated to a change-of-pace role at best next season. And Hester, who has proven to be effective in short-yardage and goal-line situations (with two touchdowns among his 10 carries as a Bronco), is going to figure into the mix as well.
And after 2013? What does Mason's crystal ball tell him?
The contracts of both McGahee and Moreno will have expired. McGahee's career will likely be over. Moreno's future is a huge question mark. So if Hillman isn't the answer, who is?
Mason suggested drafting a player like Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, who missed most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL in his left knee, then sustained a horrific injury to his right knee this year might provide great draft value. Lattimore announced his intentions to enter the 2013 NFL Draft last month, immediately making him one of the most intriguing prospects teams will have to consider.
Mason believes, if a player like Lattimore -- a dynamic runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield who would merit first-round consideration if healthy -- were available in the third round come April, he would be a great investment for a team with a wealth of talent at the position in 2013, but with major questions beyond.
(For the record, SI.com reports that Lattimore claims that his rehabilitation is on schedule.)
Finley Playing His Way Back Into The Hearts Of Packers (But Not Their Wallet)?
Back in December, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel beat writer Bob McGinn advised his readers that barring a shocking turn of events in the next month or so, tight end Jermichael Finley was playing his fifth and final season for the Packers.
Sources familiar with the Packers' thinking told McGinn at the time, the club not only wanted to get rid of Finley but had decided to do exactly that in the offseason.
Then came the shocking turn of events.
Well... it might not qualify as shocking, but Finley certainly turned things around down the stretch.
In the wake of McGinn's report, Finley put together a three-game run in which he pulled in 18 passes (on 22 targets) for 203 yards. He didn't score, but he was certainly more effective than he had been for a vast majority of the season -- a season in which his agent questioned Aaron Rodgers' leadership skills, a season in which Finley regularly bemoaned his lack of chemistry with Rodgers and a season in which team officials got good and fed up with the mercurial tight end.
How bad was it? According to McGinn, it was bad enough the second week of December that if Packers couldn't find an off-season trade partner, they were prepared to release Finley because of "financial, competitive and behavioral reasons."
But ESPNMilwaukee's Mitch Nelles told our listeners Thursday night that Finley changed that dynamic down the stretch.
Nelles, who was convinced at mid-season that Finley's run with the Pack was all but over, now believes Finley will be back -- just not at his current contract level.
The Packers are on the hook for the second half of a two-year, $14 million contract they gave Finley late last February.
According to Nelles, "If they can renegotiate, they might be more willing to bring Finley back."
The question then becomes whether Finley, who has at times suggested he should be paid more like a wideout than a tight end, will be amenable to reworking that deal. The deadline on that would be the 15th day of the league year, or mid-March. If he's on their roster at that time, the Packers must pay him a $3 million roster bonus.
So the door is open to a return, but a return is far from certain.
What if Finley isn't back?
Andrew Quarless, the team's best blocking tight end in 2011, will return. So will D.J. Williams, who at 238 pounds is already a more effective and willing blocker than the 248-pound Finley, a scout recently told McGinn. The Packers also will return Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor and have more than enough draft choices to add another tight end if he's the best player available.
All factors that Finley should take into account when the Packers come calling to discuss renegotiation.
Because his 2012 totals (53 catches, 595 yards, two touchdowns) and tendency to drop more catchable balls than he should will be as much negotiating points for other teams as it will be with the Packers.
The 49ers selected Jenkins No. 30 overall at the end of the first round in April’s NFL Draft, a day before they picked James near the end of the second round. But Jenkins, a speedy wideout from Illinois, and James, an even speedier running back from Oregon, spent the vast majority of the season on the inactive list.
James had the better opportunities down the stretch, seeing action in the final four games. But he failed to garner more than nine touches in any given week. Jenkins was active in four of the final five games (in addition to the Sept. 9 opener in Green Bay, where he never made it onto the field) yet failed to catch a single pass, let alone show signs he's even close to making an impact.
With CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco visiting to talk about the 49ers, I brought up the topic of rookies in the hopes we'd get some clarity on their ability to establish themselves as more viable contributors next season.
But Maiocco wasn't ready to go there.
Despite the fact that James appears to present an especially intriguing weapon when paired up with athletic quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the zone-read option, Maiocco wasn't biting. In fact, because he considers Hunter to be one of the best No. 2 running backs in the NFL, Maiocco doesn't have much in the way of expectations for James.
How low do those expectations go?
According to Maiocco, assuming both starter Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter open next season in good health (and the assumption here is Hunter's torn Achilles tendon should be fully healed in advance of the regular-season opener), James is likely to be relegated to a return role almost exclusively.
As for Jenkins? Maiocco pointed to the young wideout's extended time on the inactive list as an indication of how far Jenkins has to go before we even discuss the notion of consistent weekly production.
That’s not to say he can't make strides over the offseason. But it is to say he hasn't made much progress to date. And that has to be a concern.
Please note: About that whole “final Thursday show of the season” thing to start the article; no worries kids. The FootballDiehards will be rolling every Saturday night at our new time, 8-11 p.m. eastern, throughout the entire offseason.