In the Box With Jerry Hairston Jr., Climbing Out of the Early Hole
It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that MLB players love fantasy football. In my eight years working in the Dodger organization, fantasy football — and the NFL in general — were the subjects of some of the most in-depth conversations I had with players. They study and play just as hard as any of us who grind away at this pastime.
One Dodger player with whom I had more than a few conversations, covering many subjects, is Jerry Hairston Jr. He finished up his 16-year career with the Dodgers in 2012-13, and was one of those players that every good team wishes it had. He was versatile – having played seven different positions on the field – and was a tough out at the plate. He even had some speed, stealing a career-high 29 bases in 2001 as a member of the Orioles. He also had a great presence in the clubhouse, being a leader who could counsel a young player and call out a superstar, if necessary.
For me personally, since I had to interview ballplayers who often wanted to talk about anything other than baseball, Hairston was one of my go-to players for quotes on teammates or the team’s performance in general. It’s no surprise that he went into broadcasting after his playing days were over, and is a part of the Emmy-winning crew that provides pregame and postgame analysis on the Dodgers. Considering the team just finished a 111-win season, let’s just say he had a few good things to say about them the past six months.
Hairston’s a native Chicagoan and an avid fan of teams in the Windy City, especially the Bears and Bulls. And he loves fantasy football, so I caught up with him on the Familia FFB podcast, which is part of the Fantasy Points Media Group. We talked about hits and misses from the early part of the season, tough injuries, rough starts, and how to climb out of the hole. We talked extensively about the state of his beloved Chicago Bears.
Hairston is currently in a 10-team league, after having been in as many as five leagues a few years back. His three kids being active in sports brought him to cut down on the number of teams, but not his passion for fantasy football. And he plays with a few well-known people like former Laker player and coach Luke Walton, retired NBA player Richard Jefferson, broadcaster and former pro volleyball player Chris McGee and Josh Kroenke, son of LA Rams and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke.
Hairston drew the 8th pick in the draft. “In a 10-team league, 8th is probably the worst place to pick,” Hairston said. “We had to get a running back, but all the stud running backs were gone.”
He chose the Steelers’ Najee Harris with that 1.08 pick, and followed it four picks later with CeeDee Lamb in the 2nd round. Lamb was a target hog with 42 through the first 4 games, though he had yet to eclipse 100 yards in a game, which left Hairston wishing for more. The start by Harris has been tough following a foot injury that took the 2nd-year RB out of much of training camp. Harris has a high of 74 rushing yards through six games, and has yet to eclipse 5 receptions in any game. Hairston sees the more conservative passing game with Mitch Trubisky as having been a bit to blame for the slow start for Harris.
“When you don’t have a QB that can give you that deep threat… they were stacking the box,” Hairston said. “Ask any running back, when they’re stacking the box it’s kind of hard to break through the line and pick up some yards.”
Hairston is optimistic that bringing in rookie Kenny Pickett will lead to more shots down the field, balancing out the Steeler attack. “He’s supposed to have a great arm. That will open things up.” The former utility guy pointed out that there’s an added incentive for him wanting Harris to excel: “Roll Tide. I’m a Bama fan. Hopefully he gets hot.”
Lamb, however, would not be long for this team, as the 3rd pick would have a big impact on how the team would approach the remainder of the season. Like so many fantasy managers, Javonte Williams’ torn ACL in Week 4 caused Hairston to have to change direction on how the team would approach the rest of the season. On top of it, Tua Tagovailoa was his QB. With just four games in the books, it was too early to throw in the towel on the season. Though an 0-4 is still tough to swallow for an extreme competitor.
“When you pick 8th you have to make sure that the picks you have, they have to play well,” Hairston said. “They have to exceed expectations. But not only that, they have to stay healthy. A lot of our guys have not stayed healthy.”
So Hairston hit the trade market and went for a quantity haul. Targeting a trade partner who really liked Lamb, Hairston sent off the Cowboys’ leading receiver for a package that included Aaron Rodgers, Ezekiel Elliott, and IR stash Brian Robinson, the training camp sensation for the Commanders. Having Robinson to pair with Harris would be a nice Alabama reunion in the backfield. To prove that he’s not solely an SEC fan, he also picked up Trevor Lawrence off the waiver wire.
“We had to make a move,” Hairston said. “CeeDee obviously is a very talented receiver, but I needed a quarterback just in case Trevor Lawrence falters. I needed another running back, and Brian Robinson, hopefully he takes over in the next few weeks. Zeke’s not the Zeke Elliott of 3 or 4 years ago, but he can get in the end zone every once in a while. So I’m relying on him.”
Trading for Aaron Rodgers crossed a line that Hairston does not often cross because of where his NFL fan loyalties lie.
“Aaron Rodgers is starting to get more familiar with his receivers,” Hairston said. “He’s starting to trust his receivers. Hopefully he takes off. I want him to throw 5, 6, 7 touchdowns, but I want the Packers to lose. I’m a Bears fan.”
The grin on Hairston’s shone through the screen, but he was plenty serious. Being a kid from Chicago – his father Jerry Sr. played 14 years in the big leagues, most of them with the White Sox – the NFC North rivalries cut deep. Exceptions are made for fantasy football, but even that feels weird.
Hairston spent some time talking about his beloved Bears. He grew up and became aware of the team right around the 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle days of Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, William “the Refrigerator” Perry and Mike Singletary. Stout defense with a ground game that eats up yardage as the temperatures get frigid is quite familiar to him and “Da Bears” faithful. Quarterback play like what has been enjoyed in Green Bay for the past 30 years is not what they’re used to.
That’s why he’s still holding out hope that Justin Fields can build on the talent coming out of Ohio State that had so many draft experts high on him. Hairston’s seen the big arm and the blazing speed for a QB. He’s looking somewhat to the east in hopes that the map to greatness has been laid out.
“I love Justin Fields. I think he has the IT factor,” Hairston said. “He’s similar to Jalen Hurts, in my opinion. Whatever Philadelphia’s doing with Jalen Hurts, that’s the blueprint of what the Bears should be doing with Justin Fields. I think Justin Fields has a better arm than Jalen Hurts. I know he’s a year further along, Jalen is. This is a new system for Justin. What I heard from some of my buddies who are familiar with the Bears is, they don’t trust the offensive line. They don’t want him to have the David Carr effect where he’s constantly getting hit and he’s going to be gun shy.”
(Fields is on pace to be sacked 68 times, which is just behind the 76 that Carr was sacked in 2002.)
Beyond the Philly blueprint that saw the Eagles become the leading rushing team in 2021, Hairston offers the perspective of someone who watched his chosen sport along with the manager and brings that vision to watching football.
“I’m hoping they start getting the ball out of his hands quicker, not having to sit in the pocket,” he said. “Maybe those quick, short throws. Then occasionally have him roll out, so he can have the option to run. That way, if he’s going to get hit, at least he’s not a sitting duck in the pocket. You have to be able to mix and match it until he is comfortable and he trusts the offensive line. If you don’t trust the offensive line, and I’m talking about the coaching staff, then get him out of the pocket until we have guys – I’m saying we – that we trust on that offensive line to protect Justin Fields.
“I just played golf this morning with Mark Malone, former quarterback for ASU and the Steelers. He was talking about the most important thing is to have an offensive line. You have to have an offensive line to run the ball, to protect the quarterback. When you know as a quarterback that you’re being protected, you’re more confident that they have my back. All I have to worry about is read, read, ‘OK, that guy is open, I’m going to hit him.’ If you’re saying hike and you’re running for your life every play, you’re not even thinking about the receiver, ‘Is he open or not?’ Again, you have to have an offensive line.”
Back to his fantasy football team, Hairston is looking toward the positives on the team to help him dig out of a hole. For Week 7, both Rodgers (@ Washington) and Lawrence (vs. Giants) have good matchups coming up. D.K. Metcalf was a draft-day bargain that many had passed over not thinking that Geno Smith would be the QB7 and the receiver would be averaging 13.1 FPG. Terry McLaurin’s slow start may be coming to an end amid a thinning WR corps in Washington.
Drake London gives the 2009 world champ (with the Yankees) reason for optimism, as the rookie is WR23 in a Marcus Mariota passing offense that has not exactly reminded anyone of Dan Marino circa 1984.
Yes, it may be early, but we’re just past what used to be the quarter mark on the season. The depth on Hairston’s roster is better, so now is a matter of playing the correct matchups every weekend.
“Things haven’t gone well for our team, but, hey, I’ve actually won a league, years ago, starting 0-4,” he said.
“It’s just one of those things, we’re not out of it yet, so hopefully we run the table. A lot has gone wrong. It’s early, so that means a lot is going to go right from here on out.”
Photo credit: Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers