The Statistical Peak

What do milk, leftovers and fantasy studs all have in common? There’s a point at which they all go bad. Milk comes with an expiration date, and leftovers start to smell if kept too long, but the warning signs for fantasy studs aren’t quite as obvious. Even so, I can share which fantasy studs will leave a sour taste in your mouth.

I begged owners not to draft Shaun Alexander in 2006 — a year after his 1,880-yard, 28-TD, MVP season. I also said owners would be crazy to take LaDainian Tomlinson prior to Round 3 of last year’s seasonal drafts. Same thing with Clinton Portis and Brian Westbrook.

Why was I so confident? Following Alexander’s phenomenal 2005 campaign, I realized he had rushed for more than 1,100 yards and at least 14 touchdowns in five straight seasons. He was turning 29 heading into 2006. How much longer could owners realistically expect Alexander to perform at that level? In my mind, the answer was simple: not very. He had reached his statistical peak. Sure enough, he rushed for 896 yards and seven TDs in 2006, and two years later he was out of the league.

A player’s statistical peak comes at a point when his demanded draft spot exceeds his value. Typically, players who have performed at a high level five or more straight seasons are candidates. While many running backs have recently hit their statistical peaks, this looms as the year of the wide receiver drop-off. Several highly productive receivers will see their numbers tail off this year.

There’s a fine line between being safe and being foolish with a pick, so let’s look at the top receivers who have peaked, why they have peaked, and what it means with regard to draft strategy.

Randy Moss, Patriots

All signs point to Moss, 33, being this year’s poster child for the statistical peak. Considering his absolutely sick numbers throughout his 12-year career, most readers might think I’m crazy. With the exception of “The Oakland Years,” Moss has hauled in 10 or more scores in all but one season. He has averaged 77 catches for 1,205 yards and 12 touchdowns per season throughout his career and 83 catches for 1,255 yards and almost 16 TDs over the last three seasons, meaning he has actually been more productive as a 30-something member of the Patriots than he was toward the end of his stint in Minnesota. He has been automatic — a safe pick in the second round or late in the first. But here’s the deal: Moss can produce like this for only so long before he slips, whether it’s due to injury, attitude or age. I’m not saying he can’t still have a reasonably productive season, but he’s not worthy of an early-second-round price. Wes Welker’s status is up in the air, and opposing defenses figured out how to shut Moss down last year (seven games with no more than four catches and six games with no more than 50 receiving yards).

Recommendation: Let someone else grab Moss at his usual spot while you focus on adding high-ceiling talent. Players who will produce similar or better stats and will be taken after Moss: Miles Austin (Rounds 2-3), Sidney Rice (Rounds 2-3) and Mike Sims-Walker (Rounds 5-6).

Reggie Wayne, Colts

Like Moss, Wayne has been automatic, hauling in 77 or more balls for 1,000 or more yards in each of the last six seasons. He has crept up draft boards to the point where he now demands selection late in the first round or early in the second. But for a 31-year-old receiver who caught five or fewer balls in each of his last six regular-season games in 2009 and contributed only eight catches for 101 yards in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl combined, that’s too much. With Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie emerging, Dallas Clark becoming a featured element of the offense and Anthony Gonzalez set to return from injury, there’s a solid chance Wayne has already posted the best stats of his career.

Recommendation: If you can snag Wayne late in the second round or early in the third, do it. But let someone else pay top dollar for him. Better alternatives include Michael Crabtree (Rounds 4-5) and Hakeem Nicks (Rounds 5-7).

Donald Driver, Packers

Driver, who has hauled in 70-plus balls for 1,000-plus yards in seven of his last eight seasons while averaging nearly six scores per year over that span, is always considered a safe pick. The problem is that his consistent production translates to selection in Round 6 or 7. Sorry, but even in Green Bay’s passing attack, his digits have nowhere to go but down.

Recommendation: In the crucial Rounds 5-7, it makes more sense to invest in players who have some upside. You can find better value for 2010 by snagging guys such as Kenny Britt in Rounds 9-11 or Nate Burleson in Rounds 13-15.

Steve Smith, Panthers

Fantasy owners have counted on Smith to give them 75-85 catches for 1,000-plus yards and seven or eight touchdowns for most of the last seven seasons, but after a down year in 2009 (65 catches, 982 yards, seven TDs), his price tag is way too high (late second round/early third). With both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2009, the run game is king in Carolina.

Recommendation: As the second round concludes, I’d be praying that another owner snags him. You can get a guy who hasn’t come close to reaching his potential such as Jeremy Maclin, whose production could be comparable to Smith’s, as late as Rounds 7-9.

Derrick Mason, Ravens

If I said you could get a player who has caught at least 73 passes for 1,000 yards and five scores in each of the last three years in Round 10, you’d do it, right? Well, hopefully not if the same guy also was going into his 14th NFL season and had performed at roughly this statistical level for the last decade. Be smart about this. Players can perform at such high levels for only so long before they come crashing down. Mason, 36, is fast approaching the fine line between “safe” and “foolish.”

Recommendation: Let your opponents take supposedly safe players while you let value players fall to you. Steve Breaston (Rounds 8-11), Johnny Knox (Rounds 12-14) and Earl Bennett (Rounds 15-17) will provide more value than Mason in 2010.

Hines Ward, Steelers

Ward has typically been a great value in Rounds 5-7. Since 2001 he has had only one season with less than 975 yards receiving and one with fewer than 70 catches and has averaged just under eight touchdowns per season. His last two seasons have been superb, but 2010 is when it will all come to a halt. In his 13th season, Ward, 35, will not only continue to battle nagging injuries due to his physical style, but he also will shift into more of a mentoring role as Mike Wallace becomes a bigger part of the Steelers’ offense. Ben Roethlisberger’s absence at the beginning of the season won’t help his numbers, either.

Recommendation: Ward is as tough as they come and won’t fade quietly, but the bottom line is that it’s not advisable to take him before Round 11. He has “statistical peak” written all over him. Go after Wallace in Rounds 7-9 or Collie in Rounds 10-11 rather than spending an earlier pick on Ward.

 

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Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

After throwing for more than 4,000 yards in three of his last four full seasons (not including 2008) and connecting on 128 total touchdowns over that span, Brady enters 2010 with two major concerns: the health status of top target Wes Welker and a struggling offensive line. Welker’s rehab is coming along nicely, but even so, this is the year Brady could burn his owners.

Thomas Jones, RB, Chiefs

A sixth straight 1,000-yard rushing season is out of the question. Jones turns 32 in August, now plays behind a Chiefs line that is not nearly as formidable as the Jets’ was and will share time with Jamaal Charles.

Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons

Gonzo’s reception total declined from 96 in 2008 to 83 in 2009. Expect this downward trend to continue. While Gonzalez, 34, was the featured receiver in most of his seasons in Kansas City, he’s in his second year in an offense in which Roddy White is top dog and the running game rules.

This article originally appeared in the Athlon Sports 2010 Fantasy Football magazine. Buy your copy now at newsstands and bookstores or by clicking here.

Paul Hickey is the lead contributor for Athlon Fantasy Football and operates the website NoOffseason.com, a 365-day resource for obsessive fantasy owners who eat, breathe and sleep fantasy football. While the site appeals to all fantasy heads, there is a special emphasis on dynasty formats and individual defensive player leagues.

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