25 “Buy-Low” Keeper Prospects

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by John Hansen, Publisher

Published, 2/26/14

Every year in late February, hundreds of NFL media types descend on Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine. In the two Combine days leading up to the actual workouts, media attendees are able to pose questions to scores of NFL head coaches and GMs, along with a ton of the year’s incoming rookies. In many cases, this is the first time since right after the 2013 season was wrapped up that reporters were able to ask questions to the league’s head coaches and GMs, so some new information always comes out of the Combine, and a lot of it is not even related to the pending crop of rookies.  
Those are the two days that I attend, and I then return home and watched the workouts on TV like everyone else. Most of the media attendees are there to file stories, so what you basically have in the Combine media area is a bunch of reporters typing furiously on their laptops. I’m a little different in that I really don’t have any work to do there, per se (although I do one radio show each year for SiriusXM). I just seek out as much information as I can with NFL coaches, future players, and insiders in the room. There’s a lot of dialogue between reporters and coaches/GMs and the incoming rookies that I couldn’t care less about because it really has nothing to do with fantasy. So I’m the annoying guy in the room – and usually the only person in the room strictly in the fantasy business – who’s asking fantasy-related questions.
It’s tough because there are three different podiums in the room, plus there are multiple players sitting down at tables with reporters, so I can’t get to everyone. For example, while I was waiting for Johnny Manziel to hit the podium this past Friday, I missed new Viking head coach Mike Zimmer. But as is the case each year, I was able to get a good number of questions in to some of the league’s coaches, and I did get a good number of tidbits from those questions, as well as my interaction with scores of NFL reporters that I know.
This year, I was actually approached by a guy who works for one of the teams and is also a subscriber. After talking to him for a few minutes, I asked if he had any ideas on how we can improve our coverage. His No. 1 piece of advice is to give more keeper and dynasty tips during the off-season. It can be difficult to make proper evaluations before things like free agency and the draft play out. But then again, once those two major off-season milestones take place, the hype machine on some players can get rolling, if not steamrolling. And that can kill any possible value in a trade for someone in a keeper or dynasty league.
So since I’ve been armed with some nice tidbits from the Combine, and since things are still very quiet in the league, I thought it was a good time to isolate 25 “buy-low” options for those who are thinking about their current fantasy teams 365 days a year. In many cases, these guys are “buy-low” guys for a reason – like if they’ve done nothing thus far in their NFL career – but the bottom line is this list is comprised of mostly young players whose perceived and actual values are on the rise, so they are players to pounce on now, if at all possible.
  1. Montee Ball (RB, Den) – The Broncos last year passed on Eddie Lacy for Ball, and I guessed that one of the deciding factors in that decision was durability, since they know their window with Peyton Manning is small. We all should have recognized last summer that Knowshon Moreno was a bigger threat to the rookie Ball in 2013, but things should be dramatically different in 2014. Obviously, Ball is no longer a rookie and was used in some extremely key spots late in 2013 with positive results. In fact, I saw John Fox comment on Ball at the Combine, and he said that the organization thinks very highly of him and that he “had tremendous growth as a rookie” and “got better with every week.” Fox looks for a big improvement next year. That’s good to hear, but the bigger point here is that Moreno seems unlikely to return unless he decides that returning to Denver for a very affordable price is his best option (which, I guess, is possible). Assuming that’s not the case, we already know how they felt last year about Ronnie Hillman, who’s merely a change-of-pace back anyway, so it should be Ball as the lead back here come this summer. As we know, this is an excellent situation, one in which Ball should be afforded many carries against defenses lining up to play the pass. If you take away a 3-carry -1-yard performance in Week Fifteen, Ball averaged 7.0 yards a carry the final month and a half of the season on 49 carries, which certainly bodes well.
  1. Cordarrelle Patterson (WR, Min) – Patterson is another guy who is certainly on the radar, so his value isn’t exactly low. But it’s very possible that the hype machine on him is intense come this summer, and his value will only rise in the coming months. One of the reasons I like to attend the Combine (and some people make fun of me for this) is because I like to get a sense of things like a person’s body language, inflection, etc. when a question is being answered. For example, last year I asked Chief head coach Andy Reid about Jamaal Charles in his offense, and Reid smiled and gave me a look that clearly to me said something like “Don’t worry, we got this,” and they did, in fact, “have that.” So it did pique my interest when Viking GM Rick Spielman was kind of laughing when asked about Patterson and he said that new OC Norv Turner had already put in 10 plays for Patterson. The look on Spielman’s face reminded me of Reid’s in 2013. In fact, Spielman said that putting in plays for Patterson was “the first thing Norv was doing” when he was putting the X’s and O’s part of it together after accepting the job. Spielman called Patterson a unique talent, and said that he should thrive under Norv. Obviously, they need to acquire a QB who can get Patterson the ball, but I assume that will eventually happen, especially with the QB guru Turner in the fold.
  1. Andre Ellington (RB, Ari) – You may have heard or seen some news on Ellington this past week after head coach Bruce Arians talked about him at the Combine. Arians talked about Ellington because I asked him about the young back, and Arians told me that he’s already gained 10 pounds and that he’s been in the weight room every day. Arians added that he’s “never been around a running back who stepped on the field and tried to do things he's never done before and played wide receiver as good as he does.” Arians said that Ellington plays that position as well as most of their starting wide receivers. He then said that he has “a unique talent” and that they “want to look at and continue to build their offense around this year.” Those are pretty strong words from the head coach. Yes, Arians was pretty vocal all season about not going overboard in terms of overexposing Ellington, but the added weight can only help him, and you have to love the versatility angle. Ellington is certainly on everyone’s radar, but the point here is very simple: His value will likely start rising in the coming weeks and could be soaring by August, so it’s a good time to get him now before that happens.
  1. Markus Wheaton (WR, Pit) – As I wrote at the top, most keeper and dynasty league owners need to know about the breakout players before others are on their case, which can be tough because it’s not easy to pinpoint a young player’s role until after free agency and the draft. But in Wheaton’s case, it should be a pretty easy call. Although he caught only 6 passes as a rookie in 2013, there’s a very good chance that Wheaton is starting opposite Antonio Brown in 2014. Granted, there is a chance they use a high pick on a bigger wideout, and this is a very deep and talented WR group coming in. And it’s not a lock that Emmanuel Sanders departs vie free agency (it looks likely at this point). But the Steelers tend to get their wideouts in the later rounds, and most importantly they might be hard-pressed to find a better option, for 2014 at least, than Wheaton (unless, again, they use a high pick on a wideout). Although he’s undersized (5’11”, 189 pounds) and could get stronger, Wheaton can fly like the wind. Wheaton’s hands are considered good, and since he played in a pro-style offense in college, his route running is considered solid. He projects as a more complete receiver than Mike Wallace if he can put things together in his second season and show an ability to track down the deep ball.
  1. Zac Stacy (RB, Stl) – I tried to ask Jeff Fisher about the Ram offense and if they changed course from more of a spread approach to a power-running offense over the course of 2013, but he kind of dodged the question. That certainly doesn’t change my opinion that they did just that, and it was the right thing to do considering the injury to QB Sam Bradford and also due to Stacy, who was consistently productive as a downhill bell-cow for the Rams. In addition to being a tough, interior runner with outstanding vision and instincts, I thought he did a fine job catching the ball out of the backfield and making himself an available receiver for his QB. He’s certainly not under the radar, so I can’t list him higher because he doesn’t have much value, unless his owner in your league doubts he can play at that level again. Buf if what Fisher told me about Stacy, and how GM Les Snead was talking at the Combine are indications, it sounds like Stacy’s workload is only going up. They feel like last year they at least got some players like Stacy meaningful playing time in a lost ’13 season, and it sounds like they want to expand that further with Stacy.
  1. Justin Hunter (WR, Ten) – Hunter’s hands are still in question, and he’s had some “Baby Mama Drama” in his life recently, but this guy looks like a handful for opposing secondaries. Hunter can fly, and he can seriously challenge defenses down the field and make big plays. I was around him at the 2013 Combine and I felt that he came across well and showed some charisma. He also flashed some big-time ability in the second half of the year, showing a flair for the big play. He drew some comparisons to Cincy’s A.J. Green out of college because of his elite size/speed combination, but he’s battled drops and his own antics the last couple of years. The Titans did deactivate him for a game in Week Fifteen, but as long as he can keep on the straight and narrow, he should carve out a significant role next season. In 13 games, Hunter posted 18 catches for 254 yards and 4 TDs, averaging a whopping 19.7 YPC.  Kenny Britt will be gone, and while there won’t likely be a lot of catches available for Hunter here, there could still be some big plays if Ken Whisenhunt can get Jake Locker to play well and take advantage of his cannon for a right arm. Hunter may not be ready for prime time for another season, but if you wait too much longer on acquiring him, you’ll likely pay. Heck, the hype machine could be rolling in 4-5 months. When I spoke with a Titan insider at the Combine about Hunter, he didn’t seem too concerned with any off-the-field issues.   
  1. Dennis Pitta (TE, Bal) – Pitta is another obvious entry, but when I’m creating a list of players whose value will likely rise in the coming months, I have to include him if for no other reason than the fact that he’s coming off such a disappointing season. Remember that two different Raven beat writers last summer agreed with my assessment that he was a lock to haul in 80 balls if healthy in 2013 (only three other TEs did this past season). Pitta is an UFA in March, and he’s another TE (like Jimmy Graham) who is hoping to get treated like a WR if he’s franchised. Although Pitta actually lined up in the slot on 80% of his routes in 2013, I would expect him to either sign a new deal in the near future or to get franchised as a TE. Either way, he should be back in a Raven uniform, and he should once again be a major go-to guy for his friend Joe Flacco. There’s a pretty good chance that he’ll cost much less in a trade right now compared to a few months from now, so Pitta makes my list. The Ravens are looking for a move-the-chains receiver, and they should draft one at wideout, but they do have a move-the-sticks guy in Pitta already.  
  1. Terrence Williams (WR, Dal) – I tried but was unable to ask Jason Garrett about Williams. However, my own observations are that he clearly made some big plays for them, but he wasn’t exactly assimilated as a consistent player in their offense. Williams had a hot stretch with double-digit FP performances from Weeks Four through Eight, but he did that just one time for the rest of the season. In 16 games (8 starts), Williams had 44/736/5 (16.7 YPC) on 74 targets (59.5% catch rate) and was tied for 63rd among WRs at 9.3 FPG. He’s very talented, but he should still be considered a bit raw, yet his playing time in 2013 will help speed up his development. Most important, veteran Miles Austin is all but gone, thus opening up the clear #2 WR spot for Williams. New OC Scott Linehan likes to push the ball down the field in the passing game, so Williams has intriguing potential, considering the attention stud Dez Bryant commands.
  1. Jordan Reed (TE, Was) – I’d list Reed higher on this list, but he’s not exactly a tremendous value, given what he showed as a rookie, and he also has some pretty serious durability issues dating back to college. The Redskins haven’t totally outlined what their offense will look like this year, but I wouldn’t expect many huge changes, and it’s expected to be TE-friendly. Other than his questionable availability, everything else about Reed was extremely impressive as a rookie in 2013. His work ethic is excellent, and he showed an uncanny ability to create separation from defenders last year. When you factor in his athleticism, work ethic, and overall savvy, he’s a can’t-miss guy if he’s getting solid QB play and is on the field. He’s completely recovered from his concussion (finally), so if I didn’t have a young TE of note in a dynasty league, I’d be looking into acquiring Reed at a discount right now. It doesn’t hurt that veteran Fred Davis is a goner, so it’s all Reed here.
  1. Zach Ertz (TE, Phi) – The Eagles used both Brent Celek and Ertz pretty often in 2013, and since he’s a superior blocker, Celek often played the lion’s share of snaps. But while he was particularly effective on TE screens, he only occasionally made his impact as a receiver. If Celek didn’t score a TD he was doing nothing for you – all six of his double-digit PPR performances came in a game with a TD. Ertz did struggle to get going early and had some issues with drops, but he came on late in his rookie season. He finished with 36/469/4 receiving on 56 targets (13.0 YPC, 64.3%). Ertz became a dangerous player late when his route running got some polish, and his rookie season was more impressive than most rookie TE seasons in recent memory. He’s a potential difference-maker as early as 2014, but the Eagles could certainly split their TE targets basically right down the middle again. That means Ertz isn’t exactly someone you can count on for this coming season. But he’s an ascending player who should eventually emerge as a key cog in their offense and a matchup problem for defenses. If you’re a little long in the tooth at the position or lacking upside, Ertz is a good player to target in a trade now because his value could easily be significantly higher by mid-season 2014, and especially heading into 2015.
  1. Ladarius Green (TE, SD) – We’ve been hot on this guy’s trail since day one when he was drafted in 2012, and in 2013 he placed himself firmly on the radar with some big plays. With a couple of athletic TEs breaking out in 2013, Green looks like the next breakout star waiting in the wings at the position. I’m all about his upside, and he fits this article because his value should only go up in the near future. However, it’s not yet a foregone conclusion that he’s destined for studliness. It’s a great sign that he’s a sponge for information hanging around veteran Antonio Gates, but Gates will be on the roster in 2014. In addition, Green acknowledged in ’13 that he needs to be more physical on the line and get sounder on the technique on his routes, and he needs to show he can make contested catches in traffic and be more of a complete TE and not just a matchup nightmare who makes big plays down the seam. But he’s an athletic target who can run, and he’s in a good spot in San Diego, where the offense is TE-friendly. If he continues to progress, he should be a top-10 guy by 2015.
  1. Shonn Greene (RB, Ten) – In speaking to a Titan insider at the Combine, it was made clear to me that Chris Johnson has likely played his last game as a Titan. That would certainly leave the Titans thin at RB. They did re-signed veteran Jackie Battle to a one-year deal this week (2/25), and they could select a back “of note” in the draft. But they could just as easily enter 2014 with Greene as their clear starter.  Greene wasn’t healthy nearly enough to make an impact in 2013, and he’s already going to be 29 in August. But with an even 900 carries on his NFL resume, he doesn’t have a ton of tread on his tires. He looked great in the preseason last year, but he played in only 11 games because of a knee issue, carrying 77 times for 295 yards and 4 TDs (3.8 YPC) and catching 6 passes for 39 yards. Before the season, the Titans probably would’ve liked to have given Greene about 125-150 carries behind their revamped offensive line, but that wasn’t to be. Greene did perform well down near the goal line, as he scored 4 TDs on 7 goal-line and 13 red-zone carries. His stats are underwhelming, and we know he’s “just a guy,” but if he’s getting volume running behind a strong OL in 2014, he looks like a solid stop-gap option for those looking for RB help this coming season.
  1. Tyler Eifert (TE, Cin) – Sometimes, you just have a take a leap of faith in a talented player coming off a disappointing rookie season. In Eifert’s case, you might not actually have to make much of a leap. In 15 games before missing time late with a shoulder injury, Eifert had only 39/445/2 receiving on 60 targets (a decent 65% catch rate), so it might be a bit of a stretch to acquiring him right now and expecting big things. However, in addition to seeing his perceived keeper value flatten after his underwhelming rookie season, making him more affordable now than he was 7-8 months ago, there’s a slight chance that fellow TE Jermaine Gresham is let go by the team this spring. My guess is that probably won’t happen, but it’s a possibility because Gresham is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Eifert flashed a few times, but he never topped the 66 yards he had in his second career game, and didn’t top the 5 catches he had in his first career game. They need to do a better job of utilizing his downfield and red-zone ability, but we did see some flashes of potential in both areas in 2013. Eifert also needs to improve his blocking if he wants to see more snaps next year, yet he played in the slot more often than Gresham (27% of his routes compared to only 20 for Gresham), and I would imagine his percentage of plays extended from formation will only increase, since Eifert plays more like a wideout than a TE, which overall is good news for fantasy. Considering his high-end receiving ability and upside, as well as how his perceived value took a hit in 2013, he makes a lot of sense.
  1. Tim Wright (TE, TB) – A former college WR at Rutgers, Wright took his conversion to TE very well in 2013. In 16 games, he posted 54/571/5 receiving on 75 targets (10.6 FPG, 72%). Wright wasn’t particularly a consistent option for fantasy, but in his defense, he was working with a rookie QB in Mike Glennon, who presumably will only get better. In 16 games, he had only seven games of 10 or more fantasy points. But after WR Mike Williams went down, he was certainly the #2 target in this passing game, unimpressive as that may be. He always had a shot at being targeted 6 or so times and producing. And over the final month of the season, he had 3 goal-line targets, which he converted into 2 TDs (he also had a longer score over this span). Wright looks like a sleeper backup fantasy TE in 2014 he continues his development, and there’s some upside from there considering his athleticism and what looked like a solid relationship on the field with Glennon. The Bucs would like to see him put on more weight this off-season, which is something to watch. But he stands out as a TE who could continue to ascend.

  2. Ace Sanders (WR, Jac) – We’ve been pumping him up as a sleeper since before the 2013 NFL draft, when our guy Greg Cosell compared him to Ram WR Tavon Austin, because of both his size (5’7”, 178 pounds) and his elusiveness in the open field. A 4th-round pick, Sanders actually finished second on the team in receiving, with 51/484/1 (9.5 YPC) on 85 targets (60% catch rate). While fellow 2013 draft pick Denard Robinson was listed as an “offensive weapon,” that classification better describes what the versatile Sanders was and can be for the Jags. Sanders is predominantly a slot receiver, but he can play outside if need be, and he’s a guy they’d like to get the ball to in the backfield, on reverses and the like (3 carries in 2013). From Week Eleven on, Sanders was the 32nd best WR in PPR, which was better than players like Dwayne Bowe, Steve Smith, and Torrey Smith. That’s not exactly a studly group, at least last year it wasn’t, but it was still a strong showing for the rookie. They need to find a QB, but they’ll likely get on in the first round this year, and with Justin Blackmon’s future in doubt Sanders looks quite handy for those in deeper leagues.
  1. Jarrett Boykin (WR, GB) – The biggest buzz I heard at the Combine surrounding the Packers had to do with Boykin. Head coach Mike McCarthy heaped some serious praise on him, and in addition, those I spoke to don’t expect the team to re-sign veteran James Jones, who gave the team a hometown discount on his last contract a few years ago. It’s entirely possible that Boykin then opens the 2014 season as the third receiver in Green Bay, and since Jordy Nelson and (obviously) Randall Cobb can play the slot, that means that Boykin is a good bet to get a lot of snaps. Boykin isn’t a burner by any stretch, but he’s competitive and he finds a way to produce because he’s excellent off the line and is really tough to jam, and he uses his size and wide catching radius well, plus he’s a very good route-runner. He played well in the first major playing time of his career once he stepped into the lineup in Week Six, catching 49 passes for 681 yards (13.9 YPC) and 3 TDs on 82 targets (59.8% catch rate). But keep in mind he did a lot of that without starting QB Aaron Rodgers.
  1. Christine Michael (RB, Sea) – I was really hoping to ask Pete Carroll about Michael, and I was able to do just that last week. Carroll called him "really talented and a really exciting guy in [their] program.” According to Carroll, Michael “probably has the most breakout potential of anybody because we haven't seen much of him yet.” They’ve at least seen him for a full year, and they “know that he can do really special stuff.” Carroll explained it was hard for him to get on the field with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin there, but that he’ll “give those guys a real run when we come back to work.” Carroll also talked about how he'll grow a lot from year one to year two and that they all know he's going to be very explosive and a really exciting guy and that he showed that in his chances that he got." And for what it’s worth, Carroll seemed pretty darn enthusiastic about what he was saying when he answered my question. Keep in mind Micheal has never truly carried the load in a backfield, and he’s almost certainly not going to bust out until 2015 at the earliest. But based on his impressive blend of size, power, and movement, his upside is absolutely sickening on this team. His value will only rise as we go forward, barring a negative development in his career on or off the field. I won my first dynasty league I ever played in back in 2012, so I had the last pick (12th) in 2013. I took Michael. He was literally worthless this past year, but I’m still glad I made the pick.
  1. Marcus Lattimore (RB, SF) – Lattimore is still difficult to evaluate after suffering devastating knee injuries in each of his last two seasons (2011 and 2012), since he may never be truly be at the level he was before the two injuries again. But it’s worth noting that he was probably the best back in the 2013 draft if he were 100%, and his comeback has gone well. Lattimore this week said that he’s close to 100%, and that he’s close to feeling as if neither knee was ever injured. The Niners begin their off-season workouts on April 21, and that’s about when Lattimore’s value could start creeping upward. Veteran Frank Gore is set to be lead this backfield again in 2014, but by 2015, it’s entirely possible that they hand the reigns over to Lattimore, and this is obviously a great situation. He’s a great fit for their inside power running scheme.
  1. Kenny Stills (WR, NO) – When the Saints drafted Stills last year, I thought he was the type of player who would do most of his damage underneath, much like veteran Lance Moore. As it turned out, he emerged as one of their main deep threats. So Stills may just be scratching the surface on what he can do in this offense. Stills, who posted 32/641/5 on 50 targets (20.0 YPC, 64%) was a boom-or-bust fantasy play, yet this is a player who will be only 22 in Week One this coming season. Most impressive was the confidence that QB Drew Brees showed in Stills, even from very early on, and Stills showed clear signs that the confidence was warranted. Speaking of Moore, he’s 30 now and is owed a lot of money in 2014. If the two sides can’t agree on a cheaper salary this year, Moore could be gone this spring. Even if he’s not it looks like Stills is already penciled in as the #2 (which he was last year with Moore the #3). I don’t sense a lot of buzz with Stills right now, but that could change quickly.
  1. Aaron Dobson (WR, NE) – Head coach Bill Belichick spoke at the combine for the first time in years, and I was really tempted to ask him a fantasy-related question about Dobson. I came to my senses because I figured, even if I asked him about Dobson’s progress and role next year, a legit question, Belichick would have given me nothing. So this entry is more of a guess based on talent than anything else. Since none of the three rookie wideouts truly stood out in 2013, the Pats could certainly use a higher pick on a wide receiver this year, so Dobson’s role is way up in the air this coming season. But compared to fellow 2013 rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, Dobson played slightly better, registering 37 catches for 519 yards (14.0 YPC) and 4 TDs on 71 targets (52.1% catch rate), averaging 9.4 FPG. He dealt with a foot injury at the end of the season and missed four games, so durability is an issue for now. But I did get the sense around midseason that they were trying to put Dobson on the fast track. And while his hands are still shaky, he did flash to me. For now, Dobson looks like the best bet among the trio, and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he emerged in 2014. If so, he’ll be a tremendous value if acquired now, while his value and true potential is still quite murky.
  1. Marquise Goodwin (WR, Buf) – I understand that he’s not a #1 in the NFL and might not even be an ideal #2, and that there isn’t a ton of production to go around in an offense led by the shaky EJ Manuel. But I cannot help myself but push Goodwin, who showed some incredible game-breaking ability in his limited chances this past season. Blessed with world-class speed, Goodwin isn’t just track guy playing football. He finished with 17/283/3 (16.6 YPC) on 31 targets (54.8% catch rate). That’s a poor catch rate, but Goodwin was just a rookie playing with some weak QBs, and he was used mainly as a deep threat once he emerged. Goodwin may never total more than 50 catches in a season, but he’s capable of putting up 45 catches at 19-20 yards per catch, and if he’s making big plays then he’ll find the endzone enough to be very relevant for fantasy. For what it’s worth, the team is down on another speedy guy in T.J. Graham.
  1. Stedman Bailey (WR, Stl) – Bailey has average size and average speed, but he’s extremely smart and productive. Simply put, he can play. He’s not explosive, but he’s smooth and has some good short-area quickness, some elusiveness after the catch, and great body control. Bailey has very good and soft hands, and he’s a reliable volume receiver, as evidenced by his 114 catches for West Virginia in 2012. The Rams are certainly invested in 2012 #1 pick Tavon Austin, but they’re still searching otherwise at wide receiver. And when I asked head coach Jeff Fisher at the Combine about the state of their offense, he mentioned Bailey by name saying that he was pleased to get some production – and as he said “real production” – out of Bailey late in the season. In deeper dynasty leagues, he looks like a savvy grab now on the chance that he can surprise with 60+ catches in 2014.
  1. Khiry Robinson (RB, NO) – As you might have heard 100 times during the playoffs, former head coach Bill Parcells likens Robinson’s skillset to that of Curtis Martin. Robinson was very productive when he touched the ball and the Saints do seem to be very high on him. They have had an uncanny knack for plucking impact players at this position off the scrap heap (Robinson was an undrafted free agent rookie out of West Texas A&M). Robinson is their latest example, and he could push another UDFA success story off the roster this year in Pierre Thomas. Granted, even if Thomas is gone this is a crowded backfield, and the Saints rarely commit to the run. But Robinson totally looked like he belonged as an inside/outside runner in the NFL after rushing for 224 yards with 1 TD in the regular season. Robinson was then impressive in the playoffs, rushing 21 times for 102 yards (4.9 YPC) with a TD and a 13-yard catch. If he can improve his hands, he could be a guy consistently getting 15 touches per game in 1-2 years. If Thomas is released, Robinson’s value will go up, so the time to get him is now.
  1. Latavius Murray (RB, Oak) – Murray is a big (6’3” and 220 pounds) straight-line runner who improved significantly in college. Murray – who averaged 5.4 yards per carry during his college career – has good vision and a nice burst through the hole and gains a lot of momentum going up the field. He’s a decisive downhill runner who eats up a lot of ground because of a long stride. He breaks tackles well while moving the pile, and he strives to keep runs alive. Although he loses a lot of momentum when he has to quickly change direction, he does display some short-area quickness, and he’s a solid receiver out of the backfield. Murray actually ran a sub-4.4 40 at his pro day, and speed is hard to teach for a guy that size. That’s why I’ve been very interested in his progress. His rookie season was completely derailed by a lingering foot/ankle problem, which is pretty disconcerting because he’s had some durability issues. With Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings set to become UFAs in March, I felt the need to ask Raider head coach Dennis Allen about Murray at the Combine. Allen seemed intrigued, and he’s anxious to see him healthy and be able to get out there and play. Allen called him a “big back that’s got excellence speed, excellent size and who runs tough.” Allen said they’ll find out a lot more about Murray as they go through the off-season program and into training camp, but he did add that there were a couple of plays where he got a run over on the sideline and was able to lower his shoulder and really finish off the run really well. According to Allen, there were “some plays that are exciting and encouraging” to him. Allen did stress that Murray has very limited experience and limited exposure, but if things go well he’s definitely a player who could become a late-round darling in drafts this summer. Most likely, he’ll be the backup to Jennings, and while they could/should add a changeup runner, Murray could be a Jennings injury away from starting for the Raiders.
  1. Andre Holmes (WR, Oak) – Holmes’ value could certainly take a hit if the Raiders use an earlier pick on one of the many fine wideouts in the 2014 draft class. But if they don’t, then he kind of stands out on a team that doesn’t have a legit #1, and a team that should finally enjoy a legit QB upgrade in 2014, thanks to their high draft position. Holmes came out of nowhere with a huge game on Thanksgiving Day against the Cowboys, racking up 7/136 on a national stage. He appeared in 10 games and made catches in the final 7 weeks, finishing with 25 catches for 431 yards (17.2 YPC) and 1 TD on 49 targets (51% catch rate). Holmes is a raw player that failed to catch on with the Cowboys, but he showed some intriguing size (6’4”), speed, and leaping ability with the Raiders this past season. I like Rod Streater, but Holmes is more talented, and while Denarius Moore had a pretty good ’13 season, I still don’t trust him after an ugly 2012, plus he’s had some injury issues. I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire Holmes, but there is a solid chance that his perceived value rises based on his strong showing last year and if things work out well for him in terms of what the Raiders do at his position this off-season.
Other possible options:
  • Dwayne Allen (TE, Ind) – Allen is coming off a 2013 season completely destroyed by injuries, and he’s on a team that has a player at his position in Coby Fleener who arguably broke out in 2013. I did like Fleener over Allen early last summer, before a foot injury slowed Allen in the preseason and a hip injury ended his season after Week One. And Fleener did have a pretty nice season. But seeing Fleener’s up-and-down season unfold this past year, it’s clear that Allen can be a more consistent player if healthy. According to the team all their injured players are on track for 2014, and that includes Allen.
  • Travis Kelce (TE, KC) – His rookie 2013 was a completely lost campaign, but he has what it takes to be a #1 TE, and this offense can be extremely TE-friendly.
  • Jerrel Jernigan (WR, NYG) – He’s a slot receiver, so I don’t know about his role with Victor Cruz on the team (although Cruz can certainly play on the outside). But Hakeem Nicks is gone and GM Jerry Reese didn’t seem very impressed with Reuben Randle when I talked to Reese at the combine. Jernigan has been lying in the weeds here, but he finally got his chance late in 2013 and was very productive.
  • Jordan Todman (RB, Jac) – If MJD walks and they don’t acquire anyone of note at this position, or if they acquire a clear 1st and 2nd back only, Todman should have a healthy role in 2014.
  • Stepfan Taylor (RB, Ari) – He doesn’t move well, but he’s a good football player who could possibly take over the Rashard Mendenhall role in 2014.
  • Luke Willson (TE, Sea) – They seem to be matchup-specific in terms of when they use the TE, but Wilson got meaningful playing time as a rookie and flashed at times, and veteran Zach Miller could be a cap casualty this spring.
  • Da'Rick Rogers (WR, Ind) – I don’t trust him and doubt the Colts do fully, but he’s very talented and he did a few good things for them late in 2014.

  • Chris Polk (RB, Phi) – The Eagles are very unhappy with Bryce Brown, and they like Polk’s running style as a complement to LeSean McCoy, so Polk’s usage could be on the rise.


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