Friday, June 13, 2008

The world in the palms of their hands

From time to time here at TiT, we like to dig through the crates and figure out exactly who we (and, by proxy, our readers) should be watching. With the season approaching faster than we all realize (if we say it enough we'll will it to reality), we thought we'd take the opportunity to point out five players that deserve your attention this season at a position that has always played to the diva egomaniacal side of TiT: Wide Receiver. The following is a list of our five favorite receivers in terms of what this season means for them, both narratively and in terms of pure football realities. At the very least, these guys will make your fantasy team that much cooler...

Roddy White (Falcons)

If one follows the old school football logic that says the third year is a make or break one for receivers, you would have had to bet against Roddy White last year. After all, he’d spent two years shouldering much of the blame for Michael Vick’s failure to emerge as a credible passer (criticism which was fair, we might add), only to have Vick, his starting quarterback, ripped from the team thanks to last season’s dogfighting scandal. Furthermore, the coaching staff had been changed in the offseason, and perennial backup Joey Harrington was calling the plays under center. All in all, not a good setup for the crucial third year of Roddy White.

Which is what makes what White did last year that much more remarkable. After having battled his shaky hands for his first two seasons, White finally seemed to be finding the ball easier, racking up receptions in each game. More importantly, White’s speed was finally a factor downfield, as he averaged 14.5 yards a catch, with six games where he averaged over 18 yards per reception. In other words, with a less talented QB, a less organized coaching staff, and a general sense of disappointment about his career, White managed to perform significantly better than expectations. Whether that’s because he was always ready to do so, or because the overwhelming pressures against him sparked a rebellious streak that reared its head early on in the year (fines be damned, that shirt incident was awesome), watching White this season, particularly the way he interacts with QB of the future Matt Ryan (who has the best physical skill-set for passing of any of White’s quarterbacks up to this point), is going to be an unanticipated point of interest in the coming year.

Demetrius Williams (Ravens)

As for receivers who are actually entering their third year, there are several that deserve at least some of your attention (Greg Jennings, Santonio Holmes, and Marques Colston deserve mentioning). That said, each of those names has, to some extent, drawn their identity to some degree, even if in sand. Jennings is a precise route runner who finds holes as well as anyone; Holmes is the speedster; watching shorter corners cover Colston reminds me of the planes that flew around King Kong’s head. Demetrius Williams, on the other hand, remains a mystery. Perhaps that’s partly due to his team; after all, watching Steve McNair and Kyle Boller find new and exciting ways to miss receivers isn’t exactly must-see NFL television. Still, at least some of the fog has to be attributed to Williams himself, both as a player and as a physical specimen. Tall (6’2”), fast, and possessing all the athleticism to be considered an elite prospect, Williams has shown the necessary flashes of brilliance to raise eyebrows, but has consistently blended them with stretches of invisibility (injuries helped with this last year, but it happened before then too).

So of all of these third year receivers, Williams is the one we’ll be watching the most, if only to see what he becomes. And he WILL become something; there’s no question about that. Whether it’s via Troy Smith (what we think) or via Joe Flacco (what everyone and their brother thinks), Williams is finally going to have the kind of athletic passer that moves an offense vertically, and Williams is the only wide receiver on the team built to do the same (he’s bigger, he’s faster, and he’s younger; sorry Derrick Mason fans, go play shuffleboard or something). The other third year receivers will put the finishing touches on the prologue to their careers this season; Williams is writing the whole thing in one year.

Calvin Johnson (Lions)

It’s passé to say that Calvin Johnson is going to be a stud. We all saw the highlights last season (that reverse for a TD stands out, but there were others), and Johnson put up solid numbers as a rookie in a system designed to spread the ball around. Furthermore, Johnson strikes us as something of a Lebron James in the NFL in that his physical gifts aren’t just special; they’re almost the next step in human evolution. 6’5” and FAST, Johnson, in capable hands, is going to be a star at some point in this league.

None of this would be particularly interesting this year in and of itself were it not for what’s happening in Detroit across the field from Johnson, specifically the questions surrounding Roy Williams’s future with the team. Williams, very much a similar player to Johnson except with less physical talent, is likely going to be gone next season. That, combined with a new offensive system that is designed to keep the passing game focused on the top two targets (Martz is a great offensive mind, but he’d have wasted Johnson), hints that this season the team is going to lean significantly more on Johnson to perform, both out of need and to see exactly what they can expect from him as a number one receiving option. For anyone who wants to see Johnson become what he’s been destined to be since last year's combine, this is a scary thought; if he falters, questions that shouldn’t have come up for another year will plague him moving forward. Still, if he can succeed in year two, with so much upside in front of him, next year could be incredible for fans of Johnson’s ability (and pretty much a year long offensive orgasm for Lions fans). Basically, it’s chips to the middle in Detroit; Calvin Johnson is being called out early.

Donnie Avery (Rams)

We’re really wrestling here at TiT with what we like about Donnie Avery so much. Obviously there’s the fact that everyone and their brother sees him as a mistake for the Rams, given the high pick they spent on him, despite the fact that he averaged 15 yards a catch in college and put up 112 yards a game. It could also be the fact that Avery represents the kind of idealism we like from NFL teams, drafting on what a player could do rather than what he did do (within the realm of reason, of course). After all, Avery, who posted an impressive-not-spectacular 4.43 40 at the combine, clocked almost a full second faster at his pro day, and had been timed as even faster than that before (4.29 would blow away the fastest WR time…and 4.34 already beats it…).

Mostly, though, we like his acceleration, and we love what receivers with that kind of acceleration and a little bit of a chip on their shoulder can do. We’ve made the comparison already, and while Steve Smith is a lofty goal for anyone to aspire to, the fact of the matter is that that’s the comparison for Avery, who has the rare burst that can turn top end speed into an immediate threat every play, and is joining an offense where he’s likely to catch favorable matchups early and often. Oh, and he’s also taller than Smith…we’re just saying…

Chad Johnson (Bengals)

Lost amidst all the talk about whether or not the Bengals should get rid of Chad Johnson because he’s unhappy is the simple fact that THE BENGALS WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY FUCKING RETARDED TO GET RID OF CHAD JOHNSON BECAUSE HE’S UNHAPPY. Two receivers in the entire league finished with more yards than Chad last season, and they were catching passes from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (Carson is very, very good…he’s also very, very not those two yet). Oh, and neither one of them averages as many yards per catch as Ocho Cinco. Despite all the talk of how he’s a team cancer, everyone who watches the Bengals knows he makes the rest of the team better. Carson Palmer wouldn’t have an elite target without him, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh should send him a handwritten Christmas card for the rest of his life after he gets his next contract. Oh, and you don’t trade away the face of your franchise when he’s still got gas in the tank, because it just never works out well. The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing to suggest that, despite all of his unhappiness, Chad Johnson won’t show up ready to play this season. He’s already reported for camp, and if he wants to get traded, then his best option is to show other teams that he’s still an elite target, seeing as the Bengals have (smartly) decided they’re not budging.

The best part about all of this is the show that Johnson is going to put on this season, because for whatever reason, he’s so much more fun to watch when he’s angry. The fun loving, camera friendly package gets a little tinge of malice that goes a long way toward making Johnson the kind of anti-hero that someone of his ego and temperament was meant to be. Think back on what he did to Deangelo Hall when Hall ran his mouth (for the record, after Steve Smith and Chad Johnson, we hope Hall never, ever stops talking), and you’ll understand what we mean. The possibility of a season full of that kind of insult upon injury showmanship could be something we talk about as long as we watch football, and it’s worth hoping for this for that very reason.


cian said...

free megatron! great post...

Judz said...

Appreciate the shout-out to Avery. I have watched him perform for the Coogs for the past few years and he is both fast and quick. He needs to work on his hands especially when catching the ball over the shoulder, but Kiper and the other "experts" who probably have never watched him play would know that Briles' offense didn't really ask for him to run precise routes or go over the middle, nor mention that he put up those states with a true freshman qb (known mostly for his scrambling ability) throwing to him last season.