Is Kevin Kolb the next Aaron Rodgers or merely another Alex Smith?
It's a question that has echoed throughout the Delaware Valley and in fantasy drafts: What can we expect from Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb?
Is he a star in the making as Aaron Rodgers has proved to be, a high draft pick who has been successfully groomed to lead a franchise capably while simultaneously replacing a long-tenured team legend? Or he is just another bust behind center?
The fantasy consiglieri seem to be polarized when it comes to the perception of Kolb. For proof of the gap, we can look to our recent sleepers and busts breakdown, in which Eric Karabell tabbed Kolb a sleeper while AJ Mass and Nate Ravitz deemed him a potential bust. Mass even said that Kolb is "not nearly the talent Donovan McNabb was. The Eagles' offense will become a lot more predictable." Meanwhile, during the new "Double Trouble" segment of the Fantasy Focus Football podcast on Wednesday, Matthew Berry promoted Kolb as a worthy sleeper, proclaiming that "from a fantasy perspective, he's going to have a huge year."
To determine a reasonably accurate scope for what to expect from Kolb, let's break down just what we do and don't know about this coach's son.
With Kolb, we have a tiny statistical sample size to appraise. There's the good; in place of the injured McNabb early last season, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two starts when he posted 391 in a loss to the New Orleans Saints and 327 in a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The latter showing earned him NFC offensive player of the week honors.
Some pundits discount his profound production during that short stretch based on the respective context of each contest: airing it out down big to the Saints and dominating the hapless Chiefs. However, I view these performances as positive indicators considering that he excelled in regular-season NFL competition. Even so, I must admit that there's limited takeaway given the insufficient sample size.
There's also the bad. Before his productive '09 work, Kolb struggled mightily in limited reps, posting a 21.8 rating in 34 pass attempts in 2008. For his career, he has five total touchdowns and nine total turnovers. It's fair to have reservations about his ability to ably endure the physical toll of the position while leading a complicated, demanding offense in a demanding media and fan climate throughout a full season. It's simply something he's never done before.
To defuse some of the static uncertainty surrounding Kolb, let's delve into what do know about him as a player and the gig he's about to take over in Philly.
One thing is for certain: This guy has enjoyed unparalleled continuity during his football career. Dating back to high school, Kolb has had just a handful of coaches in the past 12 years. Incredibly, Art Briles was his coach during his freshman year in high school, then later coached him at the University of Houston, where the quarterback started all four seasons. For his entire professional career, he's been under the stewardship of Andy Reid, the second-longest-tenured head coach in the league.
In taking over Reid's variation of Bill Walsh's West Coast scheme, Kolb is entering the most enduring offensive system in football. If in fantasy we are seeking statistical certainty in the players we invest in and thus the scenarios and settings they are entrenched in, there are few offenses that are more stable than Reid's version of the West Coast scheme. From 2007 through last season, Philadelphia went to the air on 58 to 59 percent of its offensive plays; we've witnessed a comparable ratio so far this preseason.
The Reid era offense does not look at the "man in the mirror" as Michael Jackson once suggested, as the Eagles are not about to change their ways just because McNabb, Reid's partner in crime for the past decade, is no longer welcome in the NovaCare Complex. If some were to suggest that Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg intend to run the ball more in the Kolb era as they did in the stints when quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Jeff Garcia had played in years prior, they would be incorrect. In two preseason games so far this summer, the Eagles passed on 63 percent of the snaps when Kolb was behind center. As The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Tamari observed, "The Eagles still prefer the scalpel to the hammer."
If anything, we should expect a "purer" West Coast look going forward versus the more vertical hybrid that emerged in McNabb's final campaigns, especially given that it's been widely reported that Kolb has proved to be a disciplined student of Reid's verbose playbook and distinct philosophy. His physical skill set purportedly translates seamlessly to the system. "The best qualities that Kevin has -- there's many of them -- but some of the better ones are his quick decision-making and his accuracy and his timing," Mornhinweg recently told the Delaware New Journal. The West Coast offense, particularly in Reid's offshoot, aims to use a short, horizontal passing attack as a means to stretch out the defense and is predicated on accuracy and precise timing, two elements with which McNabb famously struggled.
We haven't even mentioned the weapons to which he'll be throwing all these attempts. In DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and Jeremy Maclin, Kolb has arguably one of the NFL's best young trios of targets at his disposal. Throw in the capable hands of second-year halfback LeSean McCoy, an ideal West Coast fullback in Pro Bowler Leonard Weaver and the reliable Jason Avant, and there's considerable talent for Kolb to lean on as he adapts to the helm of the offense. It's of note that two of his four career passing touchdowns have gone to Jackson for huge plays (71 and 64 yards), with Avant and Brent Celek nabbing the others. Some legitimate looming questions remain with respect to the interior offensive line, but the talent at the tackle position is among the best in the conference.
So if we can somewhat safely assume that the pass-heavy tendencies of the Philadelphia offense will continue, what kind of numbers can we expect from a Kolb-led offense? Our current projections have Kolb amassing 3,510 yards with 20 passing scores to go with 10 interceptions. In a nod to the fact that he's a competent athlete, we also have him accumulating in the neighborhood of 170 yards on the ground to go with two rushing touchdowns.
Simply put, I think these estimates are on the low side, given the potential and pedigree of the Eagles' passing game, and possibly very low. For starters, we are projecting 471 passing attempts from Kolb in 2010 when McNabb put the ball up 571 times in his last full season (2008) as a starter in this system. Even if you were to overaccount for backup QB Michael Vick's presence in the passing offense and triple his workload from last season while backing up McNabb, you should still see Kolb drop back more than 520 times in this offense. For those who contend I'm underplaying the presence of Vick, I actually believe that he'll have more of an effect on the backfield's touchdown production than Kolb's, given the deployment of the Wildcat formation.
Given that Kolb's completion percentage in his regular-season and preseason starts is well better than 60 percent, we can assume that with this volume of passing attempts, some nice passing metrics should emerge. Mind you, I also believe that his interception numbers will swell into the midteens given his penchant for putting the ball in play versus tucking and sidelining it as McNabb often did. From directly extrapolating his numbers into a more realistic 520-attempt clip, we're more likely to see nearly 3,900 yards from Kolb with somewhere in the vicinity of 23 to 25 total scores and 15 or so interceptions. Although not of note, he also won a bass fishing tournament in the 2009 offseason with his wife as his teammate.
Kolb is currently being drafted as the 12th overall quarterback in ESPN.com live drafts, going 91.3 overall on average in the early 10th round in standard leagues. His notable draft peers at the position are Jay Cutler (83.2), Eli Manning (83.5), McNabb (92.9) and Matt Ryan (94.8). A benefit of where you can land Kolb is that you should be able to get a quality backup or even a matchup peer in Rounds 10-12.
The fantasy takeaway of this analysis is that with Kolb, there is some definitive risk/reward in where you likely have to draft him. He's a near-complete unknown as a weekly NFL starter. Yet he boasts rare potential that arguably isn't as present in the comparable talents going in his average draft position range.
If you are willing to risk swapping out what could be a steady and safe veteran for Kolb's pronounced potential, much as the Philadelphia Eagles did, it might just pay off.
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as a regular contributor to The Washington Post's "The League" and Sirius XM's Fantasy Sports Channel.