Can Vince Young take the next step forward?
It's hard to believe there are too many other quarterbacks in the NFL who elicit such strong opinions in the fantasy world as Vince Young. Sure, enigmatic Eli Manning might not be fully trusted despite his Super Bowl win. Brett Favre (and Aaron Rodgers, for that matter) will either save fantasy teams or kill them. And as for Matt Leinart, he's running out of friends in fantasy football.
Then there is Vince Young, an ultra-exciting performer at quarterback who did not improve upon his solid rookie season in the NFL. In fact, Young went in the wrong direction, managing to finish a 15-game season with fewer than double-digit touchdown passes and dropping more than 150 yards off his rushing total. Blame pressure, injuries or the Madden jinx if you like, but no matter how you cut it, Young's sophomore season was a disappointment, and fantasy owners got burned, considering he was a top-10 pick at the position in many leagues. He didn't come close to ending up in the top 10.
I'm not the biggest Young fan out there by any means, yet we can't ignore the ability he has, and the fact he showed it better his first season. Shouldn't Young be given somewhat of a pass for what he wasn't able to accomplish in 2007? Of course he should. Young might have been held back by since-departed offensive coordinator Norm Chow, and it remains to be seen if Mike Heimerdinger will open the offense up and let Young improvise more. That would seem to be the wise move and would cater to the young man's talents, as passing accuracy is not likely to suddenly become a strength.
Pocket passers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning seem to be winning the Super Bowls, while Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and other runners of that ilk have generally been shut out of the postseason or suffered early exits. Young might eventually be doomed to a similar on-field fate, but it's a bit too early to assume he can't win with his style. Young just isn't a pocket passer; he lacks the consistency and tools to pass for 4,000 yards. He can run unlike any other quarterback not in prison, however, and one would think the Titans will want to take advantage of this, as they did in 2006.
As a rookie, Young was hardly a fantasy stalwart, but he did have touchdown passes in nine of the 15 games he played, and rushing touchdowns in seven different weeks. The rushing success masked a generally poor passing season. In 2007, Young topped 200 yards in passing four times, and he had multi-touchdown games twice in the final five weeks. It seems to me, however, that unsuspecting fantasy owners didn't really look closely at Young's rookie stats before the 2007 drafts, and they overrated him. They just assumed he was really good, and convinced themselves improvement was coming. It should have, but the Titans offense went in the wrong direction.
The Titans have themselves a big-play performer, and I think we're going to see plenty of big plays in 2008. The running game can only be helped by the drafting of Chris Johnson, who showed his big-play ability with a 66-yard touchdown in the first preseason game. He'll complement LenDale White and Chris Henry. The wide receiving corps doesn't seem to have been strengthened much this offseason, but Justin Gage could be ready for a relative breakout, and Roydell Williams had some moments in 2007.
If you can compare Young to anyone this decade, it would probably be Michael Vick. A runner and improviser first, Vick rarely had standout weapons at wide receiver, but he often depended on tight end Alge Crumpler, his security blanket over the middle of the field. Crumpler struggled in 2007, as Roddy White became the big-play receiver for the Falcons sans Vick, but now Crumpler is reunited with a running quarterback, and he's been impressive in camp. Crumpler might not bounce back to his levels of past performance at age 30 and is coming off knee problems that cost him a few games in 2007, but he should instantly become Young's top target.
I do expect Young to take a step forward, but let's temper expectations to a reasonable level. He's going to make big plays, but with that comes mistakes and turnovers, and fantasy owners should be prepared for this as well. If you're looking for 25 touchdown passes, that's not Young's game. At the same time, don't expect him to rush for 1,000 yards or contribute more than a few rushing touchdowns. Young should only improve when it comes to reading defenses and making quick decisions, and this should contribute to better stats as well. We project Young as the No. 24 quarterback in fantasy, on his way to around 2,400 yards and 10 touchdown passes. Personally, I would take him over a few of the guys listed in the top 23, like Alex Smith, Jeff Garcia and probably Kurt Warner.
The question for fantasy owners is not only whether Young will take the next step forward, but how much he'd need to improve to become a fantasy starter. Frankly, I don't think he's going to get there this season, but I would take a chance on the guy at some point in all drafts. I've seen a few drafts in which Young wasn't taken at all. If your starting quarterback is a healthy, top-five option, then I see little risk in selecting Young and seeing what he can do. He's likely to throw more interceptions than touchdowns, and fall short of 500 rushing yards to boot, but I still think he's worth the risk just outside the top 20 signal-callers.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.