Very Deep Sleepers: Blaine Gabbert (49ers)
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Congratulations, to all of you who are actually reading this first sentence. I suspect many fantasy GMs saw the title of this piece, along with the name associated, and just rolled their eyes and moved on to some other fantasy article to pass the time. Until a couple of weeks ago, I would’ve done the same thing.
I know the math we’re all doing in our heads when anyone proclaims Blaine Gabbert a ‘sleeper’ for fantasy football 2016…
Gabbert was a ‘hot thing’ coming out of the 2011 NFL Draft, a speculative No. 1 overall draft pick at various points in the pre-draft process, but he ultimately went No. 10 overall to Jacksonville. Cam Newton ultimately went No. 1 overall that year. Once in the NFL, Newton became the belle of the ball, destined for Greek yogurt commercials. Gabbert was so awful in his first three seasons that his team basically gave him away for nothing just to get rid of him. Gabbert became an NFL and fantasy punch line.
With everyone’s minds made up that Gabbert is a dreadful player/empty fantasy vessel, fantasy GMs were all somewhat shocked when he took over the 49ers’ starting QB position at the halfway point of the 2015 season. It was easy to dismiss the Gabbert reboot in San Francisco. You could blame it on the 49ers’ deranged decision-making, proof positive of which came when they hired Jim Tomsula after inexplicably dismissing Jim Harbaugh. You could also get distracted by Colin Kaepernick’s fall from grace and his ever nuttier reactions to it. Whatever the angle, no one took Gabbert seriously last year. When he did not absolutely face-plant, the fantasy world could only muster a backhanded compliment of: “I thought he’d suck more than he did.”
Gabbert is still seen as a joke. The 49ers’ quarterback discussion revolves around the question of whether Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick get along. Will Kaepernick demand a trade? Will the 49ers cut Kaepernick? Is rookie Jeff Driskel the answer? How many days until the 49ers are able to draft Deshaun Watson? Gabbert running as the current first-team quarterback is seen as a ploy to motivate Kaepernick or evidence that the 49ers want to tank this season for a No. 1 draft pick next year. No one thinks the 49ers are serious about Gabbert because all of us have written off Gabbert like a bad real estate investment. The damage is already done, and he’s off the books.
What if Blaine Gabbert is the Marcus Mariota Chip Kelly is looking for? Perhaps not an exact replica, but close enough?
Before I explain why I believe that’s possible, allow me to try to open your mind to this by doing a quick side-by-side comparison of Gabbert-Mariota-Kaepernick. The speed-agility comparisons may knock you off your seat…
- 6′4″/234, 4.66 (40-time), 1.62 (10-yard), 6.84 (three-cone), 42 on the Wonderlic = Gabbert
- 6′5″/233, 4.63 (40-time), 1.63 (10-yard), 6.85 (three-cone), 38 on the Wonderlic = Kaepernick
- 6′3″/222, 4.52 (40-time), 1.57 (10-yard), 6.87 (three-cone), 33 on the Wonderlic = Mariota
In terms of physical tools, you could argue that Gabbert is very similar to Mariota and slightly better than Kaepernick. I don’t think anybody would actually believe that without looking at the numbers. No one thinks of Gabbert as the athlete that Mariota and Kaepernick seem to be. Guess what? You’re wrong, and you have to go through the 12 steps and rewire your brain to allow yourself to feel actual positive human/football emotions about Gabbert.
By ‘you’re wrong’, I meant ‘I’m wrong’ on Gabbert’s athleticism as well. I’ve been anti-Gabbert before it was cool. One of the more notable anti-establishment scouting calls I made early in my career was presenting the statistical case against Gabbert in early 2011. I celebrated (often) my big scouting win when Gabbert imploded in Jacksonville. I’ve already declared victory. I’ve used my original Gabbert predictions as advertisements for my scouting services. I led the charge of mocking Gabbert when he entered the NFL and then laughed with delight as the world followed.
So, why do I waste time giving you my anti-Gabbert credentials? Because I cannot believe what I’m about to do. I’m about to tell you why Gabbert may succeed in the NFL; why he may not only win the starting job for San Francisco this year but could possibly make a push as a QB1 for fantasy football 2016.
Your first thought might be, “Oh, great here’s another ‘Chip Kelly as a magical QB whisperer’ guy.” That’s actually a lesser part of my theory – it’s not the core. I think we all learned from watching Sam Bradford last year and/or because none of us knows for sure whether Matt Barkley is still in the NFL – we know Chip Kelly is not a ‘maker of QBs.’
Once it sunk in for me that Gabbert is as athletically gifted as Mariota-Kaepernick, I went back and watched every throw he made in 2015. I have to tell you that I was very impressed. I did not recognize this new Blaine Gabbert. In 2015, he was composed, active, and made quick, mostly accurate decisions. My memory of Gabbert in Jacksonville was a guy who was literally afraid to be on the field. He was getting sacked all over the place. He held the ball too long. He threw passes after hardly looking/reading the defense. In his final stint with the Jags in 2013, Gabbert threw one TD pass along with seven interceptions for the season. From 2012–13, Gabbert posted a record of 1–12 as a starter. It was a mess.
What has now changed?
The biggest thing…the NFL game has changed/is changing rapidly. The spread offense, the quick-pass attack, is infiltrating the NFL. I think every college football team runs the spread now, by federal mandate. The NFL is a little slower in its conversion. NFL teams don’t necessarily run the prototypical college spread, but they have embraced a ‘spread ’em out,’ fast decision/shorter passing game…some more than others. The 49ers built a spread attack for Kaepernick via Jim Harbaugh, and some of his tenets remained after coach was booted. Gabbert took over for Kaepernick in 2015 and ran the offense better – more accurately, more precisely, more decisively.
Lest we forget…Gabbert was launched into the NFL via the spread offense at Missouri. He ran the spread, wide-open pass-game system when it was still considered a gimmick; when it was considered ‘too simplistic’ for the NFL. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel took over a forgotten, downtrodden Missouri Tigers program in 2001, and he launched it into a top 10 powerhouse from 2007–2010 with this ‘gimmick.’ He even had them ranked No. 1 in the nation for a moment in 2007 (No. 4 to end the season). Gabbert was Pinkel’s star quarterback from 2009 to 2010. Gabbert is comfortable in the quick-pass, spread offense. He finally found an NFL team, in the 49ers, that worked with his gifts – not trying to make him a pure pocket passer.
Now, Gabbert joins forces with one of the masters of the spread, up-tempo offense in this current decade. Chip Kelly doesn’t ‘make’ quarterbacks. He needs the right one to run his system. He tried to trade every good player he had in Philadelphia to obtain Marcus Mariota. Kelly wants/needs a taller, athletic, accurate, quick-decision passer. If he can’t have Mariota…Gabbert is a viable, discounted version. I thought Kelly + Kaepernick would be the magical pairing for what Kelly wanted in a mobile, spread QB. The more I look at it, the more I think he may have found his guy in Gabbert.
The thing I was most impressed with in watching Gabbert’s 2015 back play by play was his athleticism on the field, not ‘on paper.’ Gabbert can move, just like the measurables indicate. Any time Gabbert avoided pocket trouble in 2015 and took off running, he picked up yards (23.1 rush yards per game). Last season, he sent a Week 13 game against Chicago into OT with minutes remaining by slipping out of the pocket and running for a 44-yard TD right up the gut of the defense…leaving defenders in the dust. If Gabbert is going to start in 2016, he’s going to run – and he’s going to be encouraged to do so in Kelly’s offense. We all know rushing yards from a QB are fantasy gold!
Gabbert may not lead the league in passing yards or TDs in 2016, but he might be plausible. He won’t lead all quarterbacks in rushing, but he has the tools to be among the leaders. Gabbert might not be as talented as Mariota, but Mariota has Mike Mularkey…and Gabbert has Chip Kelly. This pairing might just be crazy enough to work for Fantasy 2016.