One of the thrills about being involved with fantasy football for over 30 years is the people you meet along the way. A few years ago, I first spoke with Leigh Steinberg appearing on a football podcast. I learned what a fascinating, complicated man he is.
He is known as being the inspiration for “the” super-agent depicted in the popular movie Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise played the lead character. Contrasting the flamboyant agent perception is the very serious man who has played a big role in concussion research and prevention.
As happens to many people in the spotlight 24/7, he was overwhelmed by alcoholism several years ago and lost virtually everything. He is now in his sixth year of sobriety (on the sunny side of the street as he so aptly puts it), with five sober birthdays. He is slowly but surely rebuilding his business and life in general and I have no doubt that he will succeed.
When I was thinking about who to talk to regarding making sense out of the upcoming 2015 season, Steinberg came to mind. Nobody else I know has been the agent for eight first overall picks in the NFL draft. His clients have included Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger. Overall, he has had 60 first-round draft picks among clients that he has represented.
I recently asked him a few questions about the upcoming season and here is what he had to say…
Mike Nease (MN) – With most players in the draft, the good ones are selected within the seven rounds and the remainder fall into an undrafted free agent pool and get signed after the draft. This year an offensive lineman, La’el Collins from LSU, was a projected first rounder who was not drafted because of unresolved legal issues. Now that he has signed with the Dallas Cowboys, it appears that he came out of this situation in great shape. He got to pick the team he wanted to play for and received a substantial rookie contract.
Does this sort of precedent give a player an incentive to manipulate a negative situation to create an unfair advantage for him and the team that he ultimately signs with?
Leigh Steinberg (LS) – Collins lost the opportunity to receive an upfront signing bonus that first-round picks receive. This year, Jameis Winston signed with Tampa Bay with a $16 million dollar bonus. Players at the bottom of the round will still receive $4 million to sign. NFL teams are allocated a maximum of $80,000 in bonus dollars to sign their entire slate of undrafted free agents. The one clear advantage for an undrafted free agent is that they sign three-year contracts as opposed to four for drafted players. The second contract for a talented three-year player can end up including more money for Years 4 and 5 than drafted players receive.
MN – Over the last few seasons we have seen a statistical explosion that has seen quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends increase in value as offensive weapons, while running backs have seen their roles reduced. In recent years, 37 quarterbacks were drafted between 2012 and 2014. This year only seven quarterbacks were drafted.
From a historical standpoint, that is the smallest number since 1955 when the NFL only had 12 teams. Is the low number this year a result of simply too many young quarterbacks in place on rosters already, or just a shortage in this year’s draft pool? It seems like there are still several teams that have poor starting quarterbacks, or woefully inadequate backups that did not address their needs.
LS – There continues to be a consistent need for young quarterbacks. It is almost impossible for a team to get to the Super Bowl without an outstanding quarterback. The critical position to solidify is quarterback. Quarterbacks picked in the first round are forced to be instant starters. Since they are learning on the job, they should be given time to develop. Viral media and press often judge them to be “busts” after only a few starts. This stultifies their development and can result in them never fulfilling their destiny. This creates a need for even more quarterbacks. The 2015 quarterback draft class was judged by personnel evaluators as lacking the depth or quality of some past drafts. Almost half of the teams kept only two quarterbacks on their roster. That eliminated 15 quarterback slots on rosters.
Quarterbacks who play in a spread offense can often be viewed as needing developmental time to adjust to a pro-set. Some of the potential draftees were downgraded for that reason. Every year prolific college quarterbacks are not drafted because of height and arm strength. This year saw a number of quarterbacks in the above two categories.
The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl using two quarterbacks. This is a dangerous strategy. If the starting quarterback goes down, the backup becomes the starter. Who backs him up, and is one snap away from starting? It may be a player who is picked up during the season who has not gone through training camp with the team and is unfamiliar with the playbook
MN – For the last few months we have seen the relative pros and cons of whether drafting Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota first overall was the right way to go for Tampa Bay. Little was said of any of the other young quarterbacks. What do you think of the short and long range prospects of St. Louis’ pick Sean Mannion and the New York Jets’ selection Bryce Petty? Can they threaten either Nick Foles or Geno Smith’s jobs?
LS – Smith has still failed to lock down the franchise quarterback role for the Jets. This may be the season he does so. Petty is obviously not at the level of Smith’s experience, but should Smith falter, Petty has a golden opportunity.
Foles was the starter for Philadelphia, but did not fit coach Chip Kelly’s offense. He will be given every opportunity to start for St. Louis. Absent injury, he should hold down the starting job.
This is a longer term opportunity for Mannion. Remember that backup quarterbacks who show starting potential and are stuck behind talented starters are attractive trade possibilities for a team that is looking for a quarterback.
MN – As an expert on the NFL generally, and one of the all-time best at evaluating telent, who do you see as the cream of the crop in the 2015 draft?
LS – The best position player in the draft in my estimation is defensive tackle Leonard Williams. The New York Jets should see immediate results because he can dominate.
Amari Cooper and Kevin White will be instant stars. They both are difference makers at the receiver position.
Winston and Mariota will be instant starters. This will be a learning year. Warren Moon once told me that until a young quarterback has enough experience to read defenses correctly, they are surviving on athletic ability. Both young quarterback are definite enhancements at the position and their teams will improve.
Both first-round running backs (Todd Gurley, St. Louis, and Melvin Gordon, San Diego) will be instant starters and should have great rookie seasons.
MN – Last year running back Bishop Sankey was limited to about 10 touches for 50-60 yards per game and was not in the end zone very often. David Cobb was chosen by Tennessee in the fifth round. Running back Andre Ellington was a top-15 running back going into the 2014 season and played hurt until he could not play any longer. The Arizona Cardinals grabbed David Johnson in the third round. What is the likelihood of either Sankey or Ellington losing their No. 1 running back status?
LS – This was the draft that reestablished the importance of the running back position. Two running backs were picked in the first round. Sankey immediately started for Tennessee after having been the first running back picked last year, although it was in the third round. Tennessee was looking for a little more productivity. Cobb has the potential to push Sankey. Ellington valiantly attempted to play last year but was hampered by injury. Unless he is completely healthy, Johnson has a chance to make a splash.
MN – Once again there is a rich crop of young wide receivers. How do you feel about the prospects of Jaelen Strong (Houston) and Justin Hardy (Atlanta)?
LS – Strong was a standout last year for Arizona State. I was surprised he did not get picked in the first round. He has breakout potential and can be a devastating deep threat.
Hardy (from East Carolina) is highly productive and seems to be able to catch anything thrown in his direction. He will likely take the third receiver spot vacated by Harry Douglas.
MN – In fantasy football we are all wary of picking a guy early and then having him fail. Who on your overall draft board are the top “cannot miss” players for 2015?
LS – The most likely “cannot miss” players in fantasy this year are: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, quarterback Andrew Luck quarterback Tom Brady (for the games he plays in), running back DeMarco Murray, running back Le’Veon Bell, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver Dez Bryant, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, tight end Rob Gronkowski, tight end Jimmy Graham and the Buffalo Bills defense/special teams.
MN – What highly touted players are most likely to be busts?
LS – I am choosing to take the obligatory agent’s Fifth Amendment on this one as I would like to continue to represent players.
MN – Over the last 30-plus years the game of fantasy football has grown to unbelievable heights. Do you play the game?
LS – Whoever developed fantasy football should be in the NFL Hall of Fame. Nothing has created as many dedicated fans and enhanced the NFL’s popularity like fantasy football. It is now embedded in America’s culture. Draft nights have become like prom nights – a ritual to be anticipated and celebrated.
Forty million people played fantasy football last year. There are estimates that as many as 20 percent of the computers in use in businesses during the 2014 season were being used to play fantasy football. I don’t play because my clients are a real life fantasy team whose results I follow. A friend once asked me for advice on who to pick first. Peyton Manning was my obvious response. That happened to be the year in which Manning ended up sidelined by a neck injury. My consulting career was quickly snuffed.
Having spent more than 40 years involved with the NFL and getting insider information each week would make it unfair for me to have a fantasy team. For example, I knew before critical games that Troy Aikman or Steve Young were impaired and would not play. The public did not have that information.
Thank you, Leigh Steinberg, for taking the time today to share with our Fantasy Sharks family your thoughts and opinions on the 2015 NFL Draft. As you were at our old haunt, Fantasy Insights, we now consider you to be a Shark like all of us here.