Waiver Wire Wonder: Philip Rivers May Not Suck Too Much in 2013
I like players who most qualify as “deep sleepers.” I realize that most of my articles are deep sleeper profiles, and they’re the players who really get me excited about fantasy football. I like to scout guys and anticipate breakouts—find undervalued assets, acquire them, and wait for their market values to appreciate as I just sit there and collect the dividends.
At least at the beginning of the season, most of these deep sleepers are available on the waiver wire, and so I plan to do a series devoted to these Waiver Wire Wonders. They may not be the players who lead your team to a championship, but they can be part of a winning team.
You can think of these guys a couple of ways: 1) Reasonable substitutes for players you’d rather have, or 2) the guys you actually want partially because they remind of other players.
In the first scenario, you should feel free to keep the players you want—but if you can swing a big trade in which you give up more players in order to get a true stud who will improve your starting lineup, you should feel comfortable doing it because you know that sitting on waivers are some capable replacements for the players you’re giving up. The existence of these waiver wire wonders should embolden you to seek or accept daring trades in which you pay up for the stud players you want.
In the second scenario, you should be throwing out as many trade requests as possible, just hoping that something reasonably equitable sticks so that you can clear roster space in order to pick up the guys you think are going to breakout. Last year, this is what I did in the preseason and first few weeks to land Alfred Morris, T.Y. Hilton, and Josh Gordon—all before their breakouts. I also rostered some guys who did nothing (Stephen Hill, take a bow), but it turned out alright. In the end, these transactions will look fairly similar to those suggested in the previous situation (you give up lots of players and get a few better players), but the approach is totally different. It’s not that you’re desperate to make trades; it’s just that you’re not as attached to the players on your roster and so you’re a little more willing to part with them in order 1) to improve your starting lineup through the acquisition of stud starters and 2) to add from waivers a few players you consider to be deeply undervalued and likely to contribute as breakout and/or rebound candidates.
With all this in mind, I want to (re)introduce you to the QB and captain of the 2013 Waiver Wire Wonders, Philip Rivers, who may currently be the ultimate late-round QB. He’s so unwanted that not even the people who draft unwanted QBs want him, and that means he very well could be if not fantasy gold at least something akin to fantasy silver or bronze.
Remember, I’m not saying that he’ll be great. I’m just saying that his existence on waivers should make you feel secure enough to include your high-end QB2 in a trade that brings you a stud WR1 to use as your WR2.
Is this River Really Wild?—Considering Rivers’ 7 Years as a Starter
RotoViz’s Charles Kleinheksel thinks that Philip Rivers is toast—that Rivers is worse than Sam Bradford and Alex Smith—and Charles is a smart and often convincing guy: His research on Marc Trestman is why I believe Matt Forte will be a stud in 2013. And his research on Rivers is extensive, and I agree with all of it. It’s first-rate stuff. He makes a solid case for why you should ignore what I’m about to say.
But I’m still going to say it: Rivers’ upside and chances of being serviceable in 2013 are both probably higher than generally assumed by fantasy players, and the market’s underestimation of Rivers’ upside equation makes him a great player to grab off of waivers.
First of all, from the time that Rivers became a starter in 2006 he hasn’t missed one game, and over the subsequent 7-year timespan he’s averaged a positional rank of 9.57. In other words, despite how horrible he was last year, he’s still been a top-10 QB over the course of his starting career.
How does that compare to other guys who spent a year or two on the bench before becoming starters? In Tom Brady’s first 7 years of starting, he averaged a positional rank of 7.71. Drew Brees, 9.42. How about Carson Palmer, if one graciously removes his partial 2008 season?—11.33. Phillip Rivers is right in the middle of that range. In the seasons after their first 7 starting years, on average Brady has been a top-4 QB and Brees a top-3 QB. And after his partial 2011, Palmer was the #18 QB in 2012. In general, I think that these three QBs provide the general range for Rivers’ 2013 potential: He could (somehow) storm back and become that QB he was in 2008-2010 (a solid QB1), he could become a serviceable version of what he was in 2012 (a QB2), or he could transition into something in between. But if all he does is match Palmer’s 2012 and become a mid-tier QB2, then he’ll still be undervalued, because sitting on waivers he’s being valued as a guy who’s not even rosterable.
People talk about how horrible Rivers was in 2012, how prone he was to throw interceptions and fumble. Here’s a table comparing Rivers 7-year turnover performance to those of Brady and Brees during their first 7 years as starters:
Highest Fumble Season
Highest Interception Season
I hope this table puts Rivers’ “Sanchezness” into perspective. Viewed as a turnover machine, he’s basically done what Brady and Brees did in their first 7 years. For as bad as he was in 2011 and 2012 (and he was still a top-10 QB in 2011, so how bad could he have really been?), he hasn’t been much worse than other premier QBs were at similar points in their careers. And when one considers that Rivers has been most prone to turnovers in the two most recent seasons, behind a horrid offensive line, then one will also probably realize this: In his first 5 years as a starter, Rivers was better at protecting the ball than Brady and Brees were:
I hear your possible objection: “But Brady and Brees probably threw for more yards and TDs!—so they were better!” True enough, both Brady and Brees led the league in passing yardage in their 5th seasons, and they both led the league in passing yards and passing TDs in their 7th seasons. They had some truly exceptional production.—but so did Rivers. In fact, in his 5th season, he led the league in passing yards, only to have his next two seasons thwarted by a bad case of TCS (“Turner Coaching Syndrome”). Yet even with those last two seasons he was every bit the equal of Brady and Brees. Here’s a table breaking down the first 7 starting seasons for all three QBs:
Assuming that all of these QBs lose half their fumbles in a 6-pt/PaTD league, Rivers has been about half a point better than Brees and half a point worse than Brady on a per-game basis in his first 7 years—and he’s played every game. And, remember, Rivers is being compared to Brady and Brees near their best: Brady threw 50 TDs in his 7th season, and Brees achieved the first of his 5000-yard campaigns in his 7th season. For Rivers to be comparable to those two guys despite his two-season swoon, he had to be truly fantastic in his first five seasons—and he was. Here’s the table breaking down only the first 5 starting seasons for all three QBs:
In his first 5 years as a starter, Philip Rivers simply outperformed what Brady and Brees did as 5-year starters. In his next 2 years, he did worse, and yet his 7-year average is in line with theirs. When we allow Philip Rivers to go undrafted and sit on waivers, are we engaging in recency bias???
“I Repeat, Lightning Has Struck”: Mike McCoy, the QB-Maker
Charles Kleinheksel thinks that Rivers’ 2011 and 2012 seasons show substantial regression. He could be right, but perhaps Rivers was also merely the victim of brutal circumstances, and if all you have to do is get him off of waivers you really don’t have much to lose. Perhaps Charles would even concede that Rivers is not entirely to blame for his statistical deterioration but would assert that not enough has changed in Rivers’ circumstances to warrant the belief that he may revert to his previous top-10 self. I, however, believe that enough has changed.
Norv Turner is gone, and Mike McCoy is the new head coach for the Chargers. Given that McCoy installed three different systems in Denver as the offensive coordinator to maximize the talents of Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and late-career Peyton Manning (and all of those guys were usable starting QBs in almost all leagues), I think he can create a system that makes Rivers look like something approaching a low-end QB1.
In 2009, Orton was the #16 QB. In 2010, Orton was again the #16 QB, even with Tebow vulturing some scores and starting the final 3 games of the season. And in 2011, Tebow was the #18 QB, despite starting only 11 games. Basically, regardless of whoever started for the Broncos in 2010 and 2011, Orton or Tebow, that guy was a low-end QB1. And if one combines their total 2010-11 production, that composite QB actually outdoes Rivers’ 7-year starting points/game average.
Who’s actually the better QB? Philip Rivers?—or some amalgamation of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow? If Mike McCoy can make a backup-caliber QB like Kym Ortow into a low-end fantasy starter, what could he possibly do with a guy who’s averaged a top-10 QB finish for the last 7 years?
In 2012, when Mike McCoy finally got a starting-caliber QB in Denver, he implemented a system that suited the limited Peyton Manning, who threw only 11 interceptions and fumbled only twice all season. Manning finished as the #6 QB. McCoy helped Manning become his former productive self. Could he do the same for Philip Rivers?
What’s the biggest knock on Rivers lately?—that he’s lost arm strength and struggled fundamentally? Isn’t that exactly what people said about Manning after his surgery?! That his arm was limited? That he was struggling to regain his fundamental throwing motion?
I’m not saying that Rivers is Manning v. 2.0 or that he’ll submit the #6 QB performance this year. I’m just saying that if anyone can fix Rivers that guy is Mike McCoy. Rivers was reportedly more accurate in camp this year than he was in 2012, and McCoy has implemented a system designed to get the ball out of Rivers’ hand faster. At his disposal Rivers has the underrated Danny Woodhead, the Graham-in-the-making Ladarius Green, the reliable (even if old) Antonio Gates, and the (apparently) precise route-running Vincent Brown to pair with the big-bodied deep threat, Malcom Floyd. These guys aren’t the best receivers in the world, but they might be good enough in McCoy’s system to make Rivers at least a fringe fantasy starter.
The San Diego QB probably won’t be a top-10 passer this year, but his chances of being one are better than people think. And given his 7-year history and Mike McCoy’s record with QBs, don’t you think his chances of being at least a QB2 are fairly strong?
Rivers is sitting on waivers in lots of leagues, and he shouldn’t be. Exploit this fact by engineering a trade to upgrade your starting lineup and create roster space. Add Rivers as your QB2, and then just wait and see. 1) If he becomes a low-end QB1, then trade or stash him. 2) If he becomes a QB2, then do whatever you normally do with your QB2 and enjoy your improved lineup. 3) If he totally sucks, put him back on waivers and pick up someone else. Yes, option 3 isn’t ideal, but it’s not really even much worse than option 2, because you’ll still have an improved lineup and will likely be able to find a solid QB2 to add.
Adding Rivers off of waivers strikes me as the kind of low-risk, high-upside, decent-probability transaction that can create the depth necessary to sustain a championship run. The only question is this: Are you a champion (of the world)?