The Vick factor: risk versus reward

There's something Shakespearean about Michael Vick.

He may not be the Chosen One (and heavy hangs the head who wears that crown, eh, LeBron?), but for a long time in the late 1990s and early 2000s Vick certainly seemed like a Chosen One. He was raised in hardscrabble Newport News, Va., in a crime-riddled public housing project, and dreamed of athletics as a way out. He threw for more than 400 yards in one game as a high school freshman, and later had a nine-TD high school game. In his first game as a redshirt frosh at Virginia Tech, Vick ran for three TDs in slightly more than a single quarter, and later led the Hokies to an 11-0 record and the national title game. Two years later, he was the first pick in the NFL draft, and by '03, he'd led the Falcons to the NFC title game.

Then came an almost unbelievable fall from grace. He spent 21 months in prison on dogfighting charges, the most serious of a long list of alleged legal issues. For years, Vick became a pariah and a punch line.

Now, apparently, he's back. His '10 season was a rousing success and the stuff of fantasy legend. He set career highs in passing yards, passing TDs, completion percentage, yards per attempt and rushing TDs. He wasn't even the Eagles' starting QB when the season began, but he wound up leading all QBs in fantasy points despite playing only 12 games. One glorious Monday night against the Redskins, Vick scored an unbelievable 49 fantasy points. This rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches storyline would make "Twelfth Night" blush.

But is the story over, here among the riches? Can Michael Vick stand success?

I have to admit I'm skeptical, and perhaps substantially more skeptical than my ESPN fantasy football brethren. As a group, we ranked Vick as the No. 2 fantasy QB for 2011, and as the No. 10 player overall. My own instinct is to rate him nowhere near that high. There's no question Vick has incredible athletic ability. But there are reasons to worry that he won't repeat his '10 production. It isn't enough to broadly proclaim, "He did it before, and he'll do it again!" or "The Eagles' offense is so much better than that Falcons', and that explains the difference!" If you're considering drafting Vick instead of a stud running back or wide receiver, you need nuanced reasons for doing so.

I must say that I don't totally dismiss the possibility Vick could recapture his '10 magic and validate anyone who drafts him super-early. I enter this analysis with an open mind, and will try to give Vick and his fantasy supporters their due when the numbers look positive. I'll also try to acknowledge where my opinion shades my conclusions. Overall, though, I think you'll wind up agreeing that if Michael Vick is to justify a first-round fantasy selection in '11, he has much history to overcome.

Vick As A Rushing Machine: The Play's The Thing

Vick brings "escapability" to new levels. It's not hard to argue he's the most dangerous running QB in NFL history, and he makes defensive coordinators' lives miserable. In terms of rushing yards by a QB, Vick owns four of the top six seasons in league history, including his 676 yards last year, which came in at No. 6. He's the only QB to ever run for 1,000-plus yards in a season.

Compare Vick's '10 season to those of other top fantasy QBs, and it's obvious how much Vick's legs matter to his fantasy value. Even in a year when he posted the best passing numbers of his NFL life, a vastly higher percentage of his fantasy points came from running than the other usual-suspect QBs:

2010 Fantasy QB top scorers

Vick's rush-points output was and is, simply put, his primary advantage. Remove those 113 fantasy points that came from rushing, and he'd have finished 13th in fantasy points among QBs.

Of course, we have no desire to remove those rushing points. They're why you draft Vick. And this very high percentage of QB fantasy points gained from rushing is repeatable for him. Look at his entire NFL career:

Michael Vick: Career fantasy points by season

Amazingly, last year saw Vick accrue the smallest percentage of his fantasy points from rushing in his entire career! So clearly, this dude can repeat such a high ratio. But let's break down how Vick accrues those fantasy points from rushing. He's averaged 47.2 rush yards per game over his career, and that number was 56.3 in '10. So right off the top, it's fair to assume that in '11, you're getting between four and five extra fantasy points per game out of Vick's legs, which is nice, indeed. But it's still not enough to make him elite. Even if we add five extra fantasy points per game to Vick's passing-only fantasy totals in '10, he winds up fantasy's No. 7 QB last year.

No, the true difference last season was rushing touchdowns: Vick had nine in his breakout season (in only 12 games!), which contributed another 54 fantasy points and vaulted him above the rest of the pack. But how repeatable is that? Even in his run-heavy heyday in Atlanta, you couldn't count on a consistent season-to-season number of rushing TDs from Vick:

Season: Rush TDs
2010: 9
2009: 2
2006: 2
2005: 6
2004: 3
2003: 1
2002: 8
2001: 1

Let's throw out '09, '03 and '01, when Vick wasn't a full-time starter, and we still get an average of "only" 5.6 rush TDs per year. Give Vick six rushing TDs instead of nine last season, and he's fantasy's No. 3 QB. Give him five rushing TDs, and he's No. 4. But is that fair? After all, Vick is with a new offense in Philly, with lots of juicy weapons to distract defenses. Maybe Vick can set new consistent standards for rushing TDs by a quarterback?

Maybe. But I wouldn't bet the farm on it. Since the 16-game schedule came into effect in 1978, there have been only two seasons (other than Vick's '10 campaign) when a QB ran for nine TDs or more: Kordell Stewart ran for 11 in '97, and Daunte Culpepper ran for 10 in '02. In their respective follow-up seasons, they ran for two and four TDs, respectively. Let's cast a wider net. Before '10, there had been 22 seasons (since '78) when a QB rushed for six TDs or more. Here's how those TD-heavy seasons were followed up:

Most single-season rushing TDs by QBs, Since 1978

Source: Stats, Inc.

No matter how you slice this data, it's alarming for Vick. Those QBs who had six TDs or more averaged 2.2 TDs in their follow-up campaigns. Those QBs who had seven TDs or more averaged 2.7. Those who had eight TDs or more averaged 2.3. Perhaps most damning of all: No QB who rushed for six TDs or more has ever followed up with more than five. If Vick rushes for "only" five TDs in '11, there's a strong chance he won't be the top QB in fantasy.

Vick As An Improved Passer: A Palpable Hit

Vick's obvious difference in '10 was his passing performance. As I mentioned earlier, in a season when he scored a (probably unrepeatable) nine TDs on the ground, he still set a personal best for percentage of fantasy points gained via the passing game. A 21-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio is excellent, as is an 8.1 yards-per-attempt average, the fourth-highest such mark in the NFL last year. Heck, Vick completed 62.6 percent of his throws; while that's not an elite number in general, Vick had never been better than 56.4 percent accurate in any single season of his career.

To what can we attribute these improvements? First and most obviously, in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, Vick has better athletes supporting him with the Eagles than he ever had with the Falcons. That's reflected in the yards after the catch (YAC) numbers for Vick's receivers last year:

Source: Stats, Inc.

In his entire Atlanta career, Vick never averaged higher than 5.5 YAC/Rec in a single season. But lest you think this was a case of a dink-and-dunk Philly attack that artificially boosted Vick's completion percentage by having him throw mostly short stuff, check out the NFL leaders in yards at the catch (Y@C) last year:

Source: Stats, Inc.

No, on average Vick didn't fling it as far down the field in '10 as he did with the Falcons (his Y@C/Rec in Atlanta was routinely 7.5 or higher), but it would be a mistake to say all he did last year was dump off short passes. The truth is that when you look at the Eagles' passing offense compared to the league-average passing offense over the past several seasons, the Eagles usually come out significantly ahead. Since Vick is therefore ensconced in a dynamic passing system, it doesn't seem wise to automatically predict a drop-off for his passing efficiency.

But let's look closer at last year. It was a tale of two seasons for Vick. (That's Dickens, not Shakespeare, but you get the point.) His first five-plus games -- he was injured in the first quarter of Week 4 and didn't return until Week 9 -- were utterly spectacular. His final six games? Less so:

Michael Vick, 2010 season

The good news is that Vick's completion percentage didn't change. The bad news is his turnovers skyrocketed, and he was significantly less efficient on a per-play basis. What happened? Well, as they became believers in the Vick resurgence, opposing defenses changed their approach against the Eagles. Specifically, they started stacking the line of scrimmage with more defenders, and they blitzed more frequently:

Opposing Defenses, 2010

Source: Stats, Inc.

Anecdotally, one need only look at the snow-postponed, Tuesday-night game Philly hosted against the Vikings in Week 16, a meaningless game for Minnesota, but one which could've secured a playoff bye for the Eagles. In that contest, the Vikings blitzed on 18 of Vick's 43 attempts, sacked him six times and forced him to commit three turnovers. That Vick amassed 20 fantasy points that night is to his credit, and his boosters will claim if the man can submit his worst performance of the year and still get you 20-plus points, he's a no-brainer. But again, take away his rushing TD that night (and I submit that's going to happen a bunch in '11), and suddenly his fantasy output looks below average.

The fact of the matter is that when defenses blitzed Vick on plays when he threw the ball, his completion rate was 55.1 percent, 27th-best among qualifying QBs last year. When blitzed, he threw for only seven TDs and three INTs, though he did run it 30 times for 300 yards and four scores. This is my opinion creeping in, but I look at this data and think to myself: How in the world could any observer believe Vick's passing efficiency is going to be better this year? Defenses will have gone to school on Vick all summer. They're going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him. I see a passing downturn here.

Vick As An Injury Risk: There's The Rub

To some extent, many of my earlier statistical arguments about Vick were a bit disingenuous. Sure, take away four or five rushing scores from his '10 stats and you're looking at the No. 4 fantasy QB, a player absolutely not worth selecting in the first round of fantasy drafts. But that presupposed Vick playing in only 12 games. If he'd played the full 16, and kept up his per-attempt averages, Vick would've crushed the QB field even without benefit of his fluky number of rushing TDs

Ah, but there's the rub. Vick has made it through a full season once in his eight pro seasons. In the six seasons during which he was mostly his team's starter (discounting '01 and '09), he averaged 13 games. Yes, that number is weighed down by a five-game season he had in '03 because of a broken leg, but I'd argue a scrambler is a better bet for the kind of open-field hits that lead to things like broken legs. He's a 6-foot, 31-year-old running QB who, according to ProFootballReference.com, has never once in his NFL career been sacked at a rate below the league average. And last season, he was among the most-sacked QBs in the league, in terms of sacks per pass attempt:

Highest sack pct., 2010 season
Jay Cutler 10.7%
Jimmy Clausen: 9.9%
Jason Campbell 9.1%
Michael Vick 8.4%
David Garrard: 8.3%
Ben Roethlisberger 7.6%
Joe Flacco: 7.6%
Donovan McNabb 7.3%
Derek Anderson 7.1%
Alex Smith 6.8%

And it isn't just sacks. According to NFL.com, the Eagles allowed 95 QB hits last season, tied with the 49ers for third-most in the NFL (the Jaguars had 111 and the Redskins had 110); by my calculations, Vick and David Garrard were easily the NFL's "most-hit" signal-callers last year, getting drilled on about one of every 4.5 pass plays. (By comparison, the average QB was hit on roughly one of 7.3 pass plays.) Add the bone-jarring tackles on many of Vick's 100 rush attempts, and you're talking about a massive number of hits. The fact that he was able to finish 23rd in pass attempts getting hit this much in a season when he wasn't the Week 1 starter speaks volumes about Vick's toughness. But the fact that he missed three full games early in the year because of a rib injury -- then was hobbled late with a bad quad and an injured ankle -- isn't a bit surprising.

Yes, Philly's O-line was banged up last season. The Eagles should get C Jamaal Jackson back from his triceps injury, and the line's left side, T Jason Peters and G Todd Herremans, are solid. But remember, Vick is left-handed, so his blind side is actually on the right side. And that's where it looks like Philly could have continued problems. RT Winston Justice battled a knee issue last year, and maybe he'll improve, but that's a big question mark. And the right guard spot is a mess, though if first-round draft pick Danny Watkins could slide in as a rookie, it would help a lot. But even during a subpar '10 season, this line was able to keep Kevin Kolb far cleaner than Vick (Kolb was hit at a rate of one every 9.1 pass attempts). The bottom line is simply that it's hard to keep a mobile guy like Vick completely clean.

Conclusions: To Be Or Not To Be?

Could everything work out again for Vick in '11? Yes. His talent is undeniable, and his weapons are elite. It's absolutely possible that we could all wake up on Jan. 2, 2012, and discover that Vick has once again led all QBs in fantasy points. But that feels more like a wish than a likelihood. Three major things can go wrong in Vick's quest for a repeat:

• If history is any indication, while Vick's rushing yards are likely to remain stable, his rushing TDs will go down, and go down dramatically.

• Opposing defenses will pore over the game film from Weeks 11 through 16 last year (Vick sat out Week 17) and bring extreme heat on Vick, forcing him to turn the ball over and take smaller chunks of yards per play.

• Vick will continue to get hit at an alarming rate, potentially leading to the kind of missed time that can derail a first-round fantasy pick.

I have every expectation that owning Vick will be spectacular fun some weeks. He's a big play waiting to happen, and he can win you fantasy games by himself. And listen, I'm not saying Vick will suddenly find himself in Matt Hasselbeck territory. I think he'll be a top-five fantasy QB. But to be worthy of a first-round fantasy pick -- and to be worthy of the first overall fantasy pick, a notion I've heard floated by some this summer -- a player must boast an elite combination of steadiness, upside and safety. I don't think Vick is there.

Not only that, but drafting any QB so early is an extremely dicey strategy. If the principles of value-based drafting (VBD) tell us anything, it's that the close-together bunching of QB fantasy points make signal-callers relatively indistinguishable from one another, meaning you don't have to reach in your draft to get one. Even after his spectacular '10 season, Vick finished only 13th in my VBD rankings among players at all positions. Granted, that happened with Vick playing in only 12 games; if he'd played the full year, he'd have wound up much higher. Still, I add all this up, and I'm led to one conclusion: Let someone else in your league reach for Michael Vick.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.