Mason leads list of underrated players
It’s hard to be an underrated sports entity in 2011. Ever player, personality, activity and association seemingly have someone preaching their preeminence thanks to 24-hour sports coverage, social networks, Twitter and countless blogs. It’s an age where the trifling exploits of benchwarmers are exalted and stars are glorified like gods. Not that I’m the one to cast judgment: the first Facebook group I joined was aptly named “Jay Buhner Played Some Damn Good Baseball.” The one they called “Bone” was certainly memorable, but not sure if a man with a career .254 average warrants his own fan club.
Be that as it may, one has fallen through the cracks of this reverence. For whatever reason, Derrick Mason can’t seem to get the proper deference usually bestowed upon a player of his magnitude.
Confined to special teams his first three seasons in the NFL, Mason became a starter for the Tennessee Titans in 2000. Since that juncture, Mason has averaged 1,026 yards, 80 receptions and six touchdowns the past eleven seasons with the Titans and Baltimore Ravens. Only Terrell Owens, Randy Moss and Tony Gonzalez, all surefire Hall of Famers, have more active yards than Mason. According to pro-football-reference.com, Mason’s player comparisons also echo Canton enshrinement, with associations to Cris Carter, Lance Alworth, Charley Taylor and John Stallworth.
Yet “Hall of Fame” and “Derrick Mason” have never been uttered in the same sentence, and few would mention Mason as one of the top performers of the past decade. I’m not claiming he merits these honors, but the indifference towards Mason is deafening.
Wide Receiver Comparison
So what’s the catalyst for the lack of love? The theory of playing in the obscurity of a small market like Nashville isn’t a valid excuse, as fellow Titans Steve McNair and Eddie George secured national acclaim while competing in Tennessee. Football, more than any other sport, values winning over individual statistics, but Mason has been to a Super Bowl with Tennessee and has constantly been on championship-caliber teams in Baltimore.
Rather, the lack of ostentatious behavior from Mason has served as a detriment towards his widespread fame. Known for its facilitation of divas, the wide receiver role is one filled with flamboyance, cupidity and self-indulgence. During the NFL season, it’s almost a weekly ritual that someone will be complaining about a perceived privation of passes their way, or tweeting about their premeditated partying once they enter the end zone. This was never Mason’s cup of tea, as he’d prefer keep his mouth shut and hand the ball to the referee. Honorable actions indeed, but not the type of conduct that earns one time on highlight shows.
By his standards, Mason had down year in 2010, failing to reach 1,000 yards for just the second time in the past 10 seasons. Even so, his 61 receptions, 802 yards and seven touchdowns were good enough to place Mason in the top 25 for fantasy wide receivers at season’s end, quite the accomplishment for a 36-year-old. Then again, maybe it wasn’t, as Mason’s discreet domination has been rewarding astute fantasy owners since the Clinton Administration.
To no surprise, Mason has again been overlooked heading into the 2011 season, with unaccomplished and unpolished athletes like Jacoby Ford, James Jones and Anthony Armstrong placed ahead of the respected Raven in preseason fantasy prognostications. Now at 37, many doubt Mason can survive the rigors of another season. Yet the absence of organized offseason activities thanks to the lockout could benefit a sagacious player like Mason this season, increasing his value and making Mason one of the more underrated players on the fantasy market.
Which begs the question: which other players with little fanfare could be a fantasy force in 2011? A quick synopsis of players likely to exceed their expectation:
Thanks to the dexterity of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, the Kansas City offensive attack is more known for their ground game. However, Cassel quietly submitted one of the more efficient seasons in the NFL in 2010, holding a QB rating of 97.86 heading into a Week 17 matchup against the Raiders. A poor outing against Oakland (11-for-33, 115 yards, two interceptions) followed by a pitiful playoff performance versus Baltimore (70 yards through the air with three picks) marred an otherwise solid season for the Kansas City QB, who finished the year with 27 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and 3,116 yards. Yet Cassel remains in the bottom half at his position in most fantasy rankings. With the addition of rookie wideout Jonathan Baldwin and continued growth of tight end Tony Moeaki, Cassel should improve on his 2010 numbers. He may not fall in the top 10 of fantasy quarterbacks, but Cassel is an ample backup in most formats and even considered a potential starter in deeper leagues.
Overshadowed by the boisterous and bumptious Ray Lewis and the multitalented Ray Rice, Flacco is inaudibly evolving into one of the rising stars at the quarterback position. Entering his fourth season in the league, Flacco has improved every season in yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and QB rating. Now with an arsenal of Rice, Anquan Boldin, Todd Heap and Ed Dickson at tight end, two rookie wideouts in Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss, and of course the venerable Mason, Flacco could be ready to take the next step into the upper echelon of quarterback talent.
Contrary to the rambling nonsense out of James Harrison’s pie hole, Mendenhall was one of the more dependable backs in the league in 2010. Despite working behind a porous and patched-together offensive line, Mendenhall accumulated 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns, tied for second-most scores in the league. It’s also worth noting that Mendenhall kept the offense afloat in the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, rushing for 411 yards and four scores, guiding the Steelers to a 3-1 record in Big Ben’s league-mandated sabbatical. In spite of this success, Mendenhall hasn’t been getting much love in preseason fantasy rankings, usually on the outside looking in at the top 10. Granted, the Steelers don’t utilize Mendenhall much in the passing game, which could account for the standing. But with a healthier front, as well as a full season of Roethlisberger behind center, Mendenhall could easily surpass 2010’s figures. Just as important is the lack of competition in the Pittsburgh backfield for playing time, as Mendenhall was one of seven runners in the league that totaled over 300 carries last season.
With rookie quarterback Sam Bradford expected to experience growing pains, Jackson’s 2010 forecast (and to a larger extent, the Rams’ team outlook) wasn’t bright. While Jackson did see his numbers slightly dip, the Oregon State product still submitted a 1,200-yard season with six touchdowns in 2011. Jackson also added 46 receptions and 383 yards in the St. Louis aerial assault. Hoping for a rejuvenation of his 2006 season (1,528 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns; 90 receptions, 806 receiving yards) is probably a pipedream. However, if the Rams receiving corps can stay healthy and lessen the opposition’s focus on St. Louis’ ground game, Jackson can post elite fantasy numbers once more.
Confession: I have somewhat of a man crush on Colston stemming from the Hofstra product’s rookie season, when Colston was so undistinguished that my fantasy league had him listed as a tight end. As Colston was the only player at the “position” to post over 1,000 yards, I rode that erroneous eligibility to a championship crown. Colston posted 1,023 yards in 15 games last season, and his 84 receptions were tied for ninth-best by a wide receiver in the league. In 72 career games, Colston has totaled 5,097 yards (nearly 71 yards per game) with 40 touchdowns. Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Jimmy Graham have made names for themselves in recent years, yet Colston remains Drew Brees’ favorite target in a pass-happy scheme. Colston may not have a big ceiling, but not many wide receivers ranked in the late teens and early 20s (the range where Colston lies in most fantasy forecasts) can guarantee 70-plus receptions and a 1,000-yard campaign.
The Washington wideout had a career-best 93 receptions, good for fourth-best in the league, in 2011 to go along with 1,115 yards and six scores. The ambiguity concerning the quarterback spot in D.C. unquestionably has hurt Moss’ projection, as well as the current innocuous options (seriously, John Beck?) at the position. Chris Cooley is certainly a target at tight end, but Moss is the only viable receiver on the Redskins’ roster. Moss has never delivered two straight 1,000 yard seasons, yet I’m sure this historical precedent is not the catalyst for Moss’ grade in the late 20s/early 30s for wide receivers. Moss is unlikely to repeat 93 receptions in 2011; nevertheless, he has three straight seasons of 70 or more catches and is a safer pick than players like Kenny Britt, Mike Thomas, and Austin Collie, all of which ranked around or above Moss in preseason predictions.
Although he dealt with the inconvenience of three separate quarterbacks in Detroit last season, Pettigrew posted 71 receptions (third most among tight ends), 722 yards and four touchdowns. A former first-round pick, Pettigrew has been unable to build a rapport with 2009 Draft classmate Matthew Stafford, as the Lions gunslinger has only played 13 games in the past two seasons. If Stafford can stay healthy and provide some continuity to the Detroit offense, Pettigrew has a chance to complement Calvin Johnson in the passing game, giving the Lions a presence over the middle. Currently slated behind Owen Daniels, Jimmy Graham and Zach Miller, Pettigrew has the pedigree to be an elite fantasy contributor and should exceed the output of the three aforementioned tight ends. Consider yourself lucky if Pettigrew falls this far in your draft.