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Should You Trust J.T.O’Sullivan?

When the San Francisco 49ers signed free-agent quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan to a one-year contract in February of this year, virtually everyone in the fantasy football world ignored the move. New 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz – he is the offensive guru who perfected the pass-heavy “Greatest Show on Turf” offense – knew O’Sullivan from their 2007 season together with the Detroit Lions, and many speculated that Martz had just wanted somebody in the fold who was acquainted with his complex scheme. Since San Francisco already had a ton of money invested in quarterback Alex D. Smith (the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft) and quarterback Shaun Hill had showed flashes of promise at the close of 2007, it looked like O’Sullivan was going to be just a backup.

 

Martz and the 49ers had other ideas – they were apparently grooming O’Sullivan to take over as the team’s new No. 1 signal-caller. Fantasy owners really started to take notice of O’Sullivan following his third preseason start. Facing the Chicago Bears first-team defense at Soldier Field, he played like Joe Montana, completing eight of his nine throws for 126 yards and one touchdown against what looked like Chicago’s regular-season pass rush. O’Sullivan confidently led the offense, displaying good arm strength and accuracy, pocket presence, field vision and some surprising scrambling ability. Following his strong showing against Chicago, the 49ers handed the No. 1 quarterback job to O’Sullivan, and he will make his first ever NFL regular-season start in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals.

 

Why are some intrigued with the seemingly competent, yet virtually unknown O’Sullivan? Any quarterback that has played in Martz’s system has been extremely productive. Are we going to witness the emergence of another star quarterback? Is O’Sullivan a viable option for your fantasy team, or is he too much of a risk?

 

J.T. O’Who?

 

John Thomas O’Sullivan played his college football at the University of California-Davis. O’Sullivan holds a Division II record (tie) for throwing six touchdown passes in a playoff game, which he set on November 25, 2000 against Mesa State.

 

Before his latest gig with the 49ers, O’Sullivan was the epitome of a journeyman player. The New Orleans Saints drafted him in the sixth round in 2002 and traded him to the Green Bay Packers after the 2003 season. O’Sullivan made one regular-season mop-up duty appearance with the Packers during 2004 but did not attempt any passes. Enamored with their 2005 first-round draft pick (quarterback Aaron Rodgers), the Packers released O’Sullivan in September 2005. Within days of his release, O’Sullivan signed with the Chicago Bears, who placed him on their practice squad. Two months later, the Minnesota Vikings signed O’Sullivan off Chicago’s practice squad and added him to their active roster. After the 2005 season, Minnesota had a new coaching staff come in, and O’Sullivan was waived. He spent time on the practice squads of both the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers in 2006. In February 2007, O’Sullivan re-signed with Chicago but was released in July just days before the start of training camp. Within a week of his release, O’Sullivan signed with the Detroit Lions. He received some spotty playing time during a full season in the Motor City.

 

J.T. O’Sullivan NFL Regular Season Career Statistics

YEAR

TEAM

GAMES

STARTS

COMP

ATT

COM%

YARDS

TD

INT

2004

G. Bay

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

2007

Detroit

4

0

13

26

50

148

1

2

CAREER

 

5

0

13

26

50

148

1

2

 

Martz thinks O’Sullivan has what it takes to run his offense. According to an article published in the August 24 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Martz said the 6-foot-2, 227-pound, strong-armed O’Sullivan can do everything well. “He’s very accurate,” said Martz. “He has a presence to him. He sees everything well, and he reads and reacts quickly. He understands what he’s looking at. He doesn’t have to think about it. He knows what to do.” Martz also said O’Sullivan has [St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc] Bulger’s release and [Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt] Warner’s vision.

 

Looking at O’Sullivan’s perceived negatives, Martz said, “He needs to learn to manage the game.” In the same article, some unnamed front office executives from the teams for which O’Sullivan had played offered some criticisms:

 

1. “In a game, it goes a little fast for him. He gets a little frenetic.”

2. “He was inaccurate at times.”

3. “He could be a little too bold, daring and reckless. He had too much swagger.”

 

Most of the executives had agreed that O’Sullivan’s biggest problem in many of his stints was that he had never received an opportunity to show off his skills.

 

The Martz Offensive Magic

 

Martz was brought to San Francisco by a head coach on the hot seat, Mike Nolan, to inject some life into a passing attack that had finished dead last in the NFL last season. A collection of three 49ers quarterbacks had combined to throw for just 2,320 yards and 15 touchdowns, which averages out to 145 passing yards and 0.94 touchdown tosses per game.

Martz built his reputation as an offensive guru while leading the original “Greatest Show on Turf” with the Rams as the offensive coordinator during 1999 and as the head coach from 2000 to 2005. The complex offense relies on spreading the field with three, four or even five wideouts with just a quarterback and a single halfback usually in the backfield. All five offensive linemen handle the blocking with help from the tight end.

 

When Martz was the offensive coordinator for the Lions between 2006 and 2007, his system made a household name out of quarterback Jon Kitna. Prior to coming to the Lions, Kitna had enjoyed just occasional, moderate success in the league, but he was rock-solid for fantasy owners while playing in Martz’s scheme:

 

 

Jon Kitna NFL Regular Season Statistics

YEAR

TEAM

GAMES

STARTS

COMP

ATT

COM%

YARDS

TD

INT

2006

Det

16

16

372

596

62.4

4,208

21

22

2007

Det

16

16

355

561

63.3

4,068

18

20

 

The Fantasy Forecast For O’Sullivan

 

The negatives for O’Sullivan outweigh the positives by a huge margin. Kitna had nine years of NFL playing experience, as a backup and as a starter, prior to playing in Martz’s system. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, has never started an NFL contest and has logged very little meaningful regular-season playing time. Kitna’s supporting cast – especially the wide receivers – was arguably better than the group that will play with O’Sullivan. Who is the 49ers’ No. 1 wide receiver right now? It’s hard to tell. Wide receiver Bryant Johnson was supposed to be the guy, but a hamstring injury has hampered him during the preseason. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce knows Martz’s offense from their days together in St. Louis, but Bruce is 36 years old. Wide receiver Arnaz Battle is a career backup. Rookie wide receiver Josh Morgan has looked good overall in preseason, but first-year wideouts can be unpredictable. Tight end Vernon Davis still hasn’t lived up to his lofty potential, and Martz’s system historically has not relied heavily on the tight end position. San Francisco’s offensive line surrendered a league-high (tie) 55 sacks in 2007. The group of starting linemen assembled for this season – minus guard Larry Allen (retired) – looks below-average.

 

Despite O’Sullivan’s inexperience, he seems to possess most of the necessary physical and mental tools to play the position – if we go by what Martz said. Then again, if Martz did not believe in O’Sullivan’s upside, he probably would not have pressed the 49ers to sign the journeyman quarterback. O’Sullivan has a huge margin for error here – in other words, O’Sullivan won’t get the hook quickly if he struggles – because he is currently far and away the best-qualified quarterback on the San Francisco roster to run the offense. O’Sullivan is obviously learning on the job, which means you should expect interceptions and lost fumbles. If history is an indication, Martz doesn’t care about turnovers. The goal of his offense is to score as many points as possible, as quickly as possible. San Francisco’s 2008 schedule also looks like a huge positive for O’Sullivan. He will face 10 pass defenses that were rated No. 18 or worse last season and just two top-10 pass defenses. The 49ers defense struggled in 2007, mainly on the road, which means the team will be some shootouts. Expect O’Sullivan to throw, throw and throw.

 

Can O’Sullivan help your fantasy team? Describing O’Sullivan as a high risk/high reward player just doesn’t do him justice here. There is a ton of risk with him but also the potential for a ton of reward. Will he start 16 games? Will he produce each week? Will he turn the ball over a lot? It’s hard to say. His lack of experience makes statistical predictions next to impossible. If you’re still drafting and have an available roster spot, you can roll the dice with O’Sullivan and get him in the final rounds. If you’re done drafting and O’Sullivan is available in the free-agent pool in your league, think long and hard about whether you want to take a chance on him. Can you make a roster spot for O’Sullivan without cutting a valued, proven running back or wide receiver? Are you unhappy with the quarterbacks on your roster? Are you a major riverboat gambler and want to roll the dice on him just for the heck of it? My advice: Take a chance on him only if you are desperate for quarterback help, and if you can easily free up a roster spot. Best case scenario: O’Sullivan posts Kitna numbers. What should you do if O’Sullivan disappoints? Just cut him. It’s that simple.

 

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