Post-Free Agency Stock Watch
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By far the toughest part of my job covering the National Football League for fantasy is the fact that the NFL environment changes so frequently. Sometimes, it feels like I’m starting completely from scratch every year after witnessing a multitude of coaching changes, rampant free agency movement, and the reshuffling of the fantasy football deck known as the NFL Draft.
The good news is that, due to the ever-changing NFL rosters, coaching staffs, and front office structures, it’s impossible to become complacent, which I see in plenty of other industries where things stay exactly the same year after year.
With only a handful of viable players still on the street, free agency is just about over for all intents and purposes, so it’s time to break down the ramifications of the movement we’ve seen this year.
Note: Roughly two weeks from the initial publishing of this article, there were about 15 players who needed to be added or updated. All updates from 4/23 are marked in red.
Robert Griffin III (QB, Was) – Things were setting up well for a return to prominence for RGIII at the start of free agency. He was getting a fresh start with a new coaching staff, was shedding his knee brace a full season removed from his ACL injury, and the team added a solid complementary receiver in Andre Roberts, who gives them a versatility and some big-play potential. But then they acquired DeSean Jackson, which was a game-changer for RGIII. It means things are now setting up very well for the QB. They still have OL issues that cannot be ignored – especially since they are transitioning from a zone scheme to a power scheme – but I would think Griffin III will be healthier and more comfortable in 2014, and that should help. They still have a very productive back in Alfred Morris, and if things go well with RGIII’s knee and his talent at receiver, he could easily finish as a top-5 fantasy producer. He was awful in 2013, with 0 rushing TDs, yet he still finished in the top-12 in a point-per-game basis. Jackson’s skills mesh perfectly with Griffin III’s, since throwing an accurate deep ball is one of the QB’s best attributes. Jackson will be teamed with a legit #1 NFL receiver in Pierre Garcon, so both players’ targets will be going down. But Jackson’s presence should create more RAC opportunities for Garcon, and we know they will take deep shots to Jackson and also try to get him the ball in space near the line of scrimmage. Add in a smart and athletic TE in Jordan Reed and the versatile Roberts, and the Redskin passing game looks very potent on paper. If we can project RGIII for 2014 based a little more on his 2012 numbers than his weak 2013 numbers, things look promising. RGIII in ’12 led the NFL with an 8.14 YPA, and he completed 65% of his passes, and those two stats together clearly show a player performing at a high level. If we give him just 500 attempts at 7.5 YPA, that’s 3750 yards passing. After rushing for 7 TDs as a rookie, RGIII failed to run one in this past season, but with the knee presumably healthier, we have to give him at least 3 rushing TDs and probably 80-90 rushing attempts. At only 6.0 YPC, he should be good for 500 rushing yards. So his numbers conservatively project to 3750/25 passing and 500/3 rushing, which would have placed him in the top-7 in 2013 QB scoring. RGIII does still need to adapt to the new scheme and regain his confidence and mechanics, but if things go well, Griffin III appears to be a lock to finish in the 5-10 range at QB. If things go very well, a top-5 finish seems inevitable.
Andrew Luck (QB, Ind) – I’m a Luck apologist, but it’s hard not to get excited about his prospects in 2014 when you consider what he was working with at receiver for half the season last year, and what he’ll be working with this year. With Hakeem Nicks added, they have one of the best WR trios in the league on paper. I say “on paper” because Nicks has been a disaster the last two seasons, and veteran Reggie Wayne is 36 in November and coming back from an ACL injury. Wayne’s really getting up there, but he was cleared for football activities in early April, and closing in on 35 last year he was still a top-25 producer before he got hurt. That was a drop from his 2012 finish, but he’s not a player who excels due to great speed or movement, so he could still be a very effective player for Luck if the knee cooperates. TE Dwayne Allen is returning from his hip injury (but he’s been fully cleared for everything as of late-April and is 100%), and Allen and Coby Fleener look like one of the best TE tandems in the league. That is some serious weaponry for Luck if things go well, so I’m quickly right back right where I was with Luck last summer: I’d rather have him in the 4th than a tier one guy in the 2nd because Luck could be a tier 1 guy himself. Updated: 4/23
Carson Palmer (QB, Ari) – I’m certainly not doing handstands over the Cardinals off-season, but I’m very happy to see Palmer finally get a legit LT in Jared Veldheer. Couple this with the return of stud G Jonathan Cooper, and Palmer’s line might actually be strong this year. If so, you know what that means? They’re throwing it. That’s what Bruce Arians loves to do, and he firmly believes that Palmer can still sling it just fine. A growing role for Andre Ellington in the passing game, as Arians indicated is coming to me at the combine, is a sign that Arians will be more aggressive with the pass this year. New RB Jonathan Dwyer is a big and sturdy back who can pass-protect, and Arians loves Michael Floyd like a son, so if Larry Fitzgerald can finagle one more big year out of his 31-year old body, then the durable Palmer will be a pleasant surprise in 2014. They’re still without a difference-maker at TE, but the addition of John Carlson does improve their situation there. The biggest concern right now is the right side of their line, but they did manage to hold that together well in 2013.
Joe Flacco (QB, Bal) – We’ve been intrigued by Flacco’s potential before, only to be underwhelmed, but there’s no question things have fallen pretty well for him this year. They re-signed LT Eugene Monroe, traded for upgrade C Jeremy Zuttah, re-signed TE Dennis Pitta, acquired veteran wideout Steve Smith, and retained deep/return threat Jacoby Jones. I thought that was a very good off-season for Flacco even before they signed veteran Owen Daniels. Daniels has seen better days, but he checked out physically and they have “big plans” for him as he’s reunited with Gary Kubiak, who now runs the Raven offense. I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting a big fantasy season for Flacco, but Gary Kubiak loves throwing the ball downfield, so if the Raven OL and running game improves, Torrey Smith should make more big plays. Couple that with the fact that the team has afforded him three move-the-chains receivers in Pitta, Daniels, Smith, which was sorely needed for most of 2013, and that they also have a promising player well in the mix in WR Marlon Brown, and Flacco’s looking better than usual this year. The key to a rebound at this point is clear: they need to quickly turn that OL around because it was brutal in 2013. But these line additions definitely help, and I’ve been told that changes will be made to avoid another poor showing.
Montee Ball (Den) – The RB position is a young man’s game, yet when you play with a QB like Peyton Manning, a back needs to be savvy in terms of defensive recognition, adjusting to play changes at the line of scrimmage, and of course, pass protection. It was foolish to think the rookie Ball could seriously challenge Knowshon Moreno for the lead role last year, but he did dip into Moreno’s playing time in the second half of the season. After playing a decent percentage of their snaps the first month of the season, Ball’s snaps were in the single digits for several weeks. But in his last nine games, Ball played 32% of their snaps on average, and Denver was using him in critical times, including the playoffs. 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.” Denver will likely bring in another veteran back, and Fox has utilized a 2-man backfield at times, but the lead role here is all Ball’s. He’s not a stud talent by any stretch, and he has average size (5’10”, 214 pounds), average speed, and only above-average power. So to produce big numbers for fantasy, he needs volume touches and it’s fair to say he needs support from the players around him. In Denver, he should get both. This is an excellent situation, one in which Ball should be afforded many carries against defenses lining up to defend the pass, and Manning will certainly check to a run play if defenses dare him to run it. And Ball performed well enough as a rookie to be encouraged by his great opportunity this year. 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. In his final 8 games, Ball averaged a healthy 5.9 YPC on 65 carries (Moreno was at 4.4), and he actually had more GL carries inside the 5 than Moreno (5 vs. 3). In the passing game, while it’s a small sample with only 27 targets, Ball doubled his catch rate percentage in the second half of the season (from 40% to 81.8), and he impressively caught 18 of his 22 targets from Week Eleven through Week Seventeen. Ball is considered a good pass protector, so it’s fair to expect him to keep up that 3.1 targets/game pace from those final seven weeks with Moreno gone, and if he can pick up even 20 more targets with Moreno out of the mix, Ball has a chance to hit 50 catches if he can maintain a solid 75% catch rate, which was his season average. Moreno and Ball totaled 361 carries in 2013, and I think Ball has an excellent chance to collect 75% of that rushing work. That’s 270 carries, and if he’s at only 4.0 yards a carry, that’s about 1100 yards rushing. If we conservatively give him 40 catches at 6.5 YPC (he was at 7.3 as a rookie), that’s 260 yards. A good goal-line back with an eye for the endzone, Ball should get at least 10 TDs on a team that scored 71 times last year. Add it all up, and Ball in a PPR projects conservatively to 236 fantasy points, which would have been good for 12th at RB in 2013 in a PPR (10th in a non-PPR). He’s a durable back, so barring something unforeseen he has an excellent chance to exceed those numbers. I’m not yet sure he’s worth a #1 pick, but I doubt people who take him late in the first round will be disappointed.
Ben Tate (RB, Cle) – Obviously, his stock is rising now that he’s found a new home atop the Browns’ depth chart. Tate once told me on the radio that he “don’t care about your fantasy team,” but he’s highly motivated to prove in Cleveland that the RB position is still extremely important in today’s NFL, and since he didn’t get a particularly big deal (a contract worth "up to” $7 million" over the next two years), he clearly cares about the same things we care about in fantasy, which is producing on the field and putting up numbers. I do think Tate is better off in a dual backfield with another back getting significant work so he can stay fresh and (hopefully) on the field. But we’ll have to see if that’s the case later this year. If not, Tate’s volume will be considerable in 2014 and he could run for 1400 yards if he plays all 16 games. Of course, that much work would greatly increase his risk of being slowed down or completely stopped due to injury. But I will say this: With a dynamic slot guy in Andrew Hawkins being teamed with studs Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, and with the Browns a good bet to get 2-3 key skill players in the first 3-4 rounds, their offense under Kyle Shanahan could be very, very, interesting. They did also add veteran Nate Burleson, who could certainly help the offense. Tate regardless will be a very key player for Shanahan, who understands the need for a running game more than most coaches. Shanahan coaxed a huge fantasy season out of Steve Slaton back in 2008, and he helped 6th-round pick Alfred Morris rush for 2,888 yards over the last two seasons, so there will be solid production to be had in this backfield. It’s a little too early to get a firm handle on Tate’s value, but we’ll know all we need to know after the draft. Updated: 4/23
Toby Gerhart (Jac) – Gerhart’s 3-year deal worth $10.5 million with $4.5 million guaranteed isn’t a huge contract, but it’s still a significant investment for the Jags, especially with other RBs like Ben Tate getting underwhelming deals in the marketplace. I’ve never been a big fan because Gerhart doesn’t move well, but I have also continually pointed out that he can and will produce if he’s receiving volume as a runner and a pass-catcher. And we have to assume for now that the Jags know this and plan to afford him plenty of touches. In fact, the day after the signing Jaguar head coach Gus Bradley said he believes Gerhart could receive 15-20 touches per game this season. Bradley is trying to build the Jags like his former team the Seahawks, and even though they could invest a higher pick on a speedier back in the draft, Gerhart is the Marshawn Lynch in this big picture. Gerhart has topped 100 carries in a season just once in 2012, and he did average a strong 4.9 yards per carry along with a decent 8.3 yards per catch. Basically, whenever he’s been given a healthy number of touches, he’s delivered (mostly in that 2011 season). Here in Jacksonville, he could be the lead back, the goal-line back, and also the third-down back, so he should have a lot of value. His lack of anything resembling explosiveness does concern me, so I won’t be “all in” on Gerhart this year. But there’s no denying the fact that Gerhart’s standing in the fantasy world has improved considerably, and there’s a lot to be said about volume with a big and versatile back like Gerhart. I also thought G Zane Beadles was a good add in free agency, and he should help their weak OL improve with 2012 #1 pick Luke Joeckel back this year.
Pierre Thomas (NO) – It was speculated late in the 2013 season that Thomas might actually be pushed off the roster due to the emergence of Khiry Robinson, but it ended up being Darren Sproles who was sent packing. So in Thomas you have a player still only 28 years old who was absolutely brilliant in this offense as a runner and a receiver last year. Amazingly, Thomas led all RBs, with 77 receptions last year, and he’s now the primary pass-catching back on a team that just lost a player who was fourth with 71 grabs in Darren Sproles. Thomas seems to be moving as well as ever, and he ran with impressive physicality this past season. His durability issues seemingly behind him, he’s been re-signed to a new 2-year deal, and he’s poised to have a huge role in their offense in 2014. He might even be worth a top-40 pick unless they surprisingly use a higher pick on a back of note.
Andre Ellington (RB, Ari) – The Cardinals have essentially replaced Rashard Mendenhall with Jonathan Dwyer, but it’s hard to say they have effectively replaced Mendenhall. Even with his various injury issues, Mendenhall was still more explosive and laterally agile than Dwyer, so Ellington’s role in the running game should be increasing, if only slightly. And we already know his role in the passing game is increasing. An undersized but explosive player capable of making a big play every time he touched the ball, Ellington carried for 117/652/3 (5.6 YPC) and hauled in 39/371/1 as a receiver on 57 targets (9.5 YPC, 68.4%) in 15 games. The problem for him as a fantasy back, though, was his role. Throughout the year, Arians was insistent that Ellington was better suited to handle 12-15 touches per game than a true “feature back” role. Overall, Arians’ usage of Ellington backed up his words. We’ll have to see their plans for Ellington the runner, but we already know that his role is increasing in the passing game, as Arians told me at the Combine he wants to build his offense around Ellington’s versatility. Considering he averaged a ridiculous 6.56 yards-per-touch in 2013, that looks like a wise move.
Khiry Robinson/Mark Ingram (RBs, NO) – Thomas’ value is going up, but the Saints can’t overexpose him too much, so there will be work for these two in this backfield. Robinson is clearly more intriguing at this point, but I can’t discount Ingram, who ran extremely hard this past season (4.9 YPC). I’ve given up the notion that Ingram will have a considerable role here as a ball-carrier, and it’s probably not happening. Still, if there are injuries in this backfield, one of these two should be a meaningful fantasy contributor. They both look like solid late-round picks. Robinson is the more appealing choice because he has more untapped potential. Also, it’s worth noting that the Saints aren’t likely to exercise their fifth-year option on Ingram in 2015. That would cost the club around $5 million, so that’s another reason to believe Robinson is the better option in 2014, since he looks like a better bet to be in their long-term plans than Ingram. Updated: 4/23
Jeremy Maclin (Phi) – Lost in all the DeSean Jackson hoopla of the last couple of weeks is that fact that Maclin’s potential in Chip Kelly’s offense soars in 2014. He’s clearly had durability issues, and he is coming off an ACL. But he’ll have a full year to recover, and his comeback so far has been fine. Kelly quickly coaxed a career-year for Jackson last season, and it’s entirely possible that the more sizable and well-rounded Maclin does even better in this offense in 2014. He’s obviously not quite the vertical threat, but Maclin when right is both quick and fast, and he since he’s a very good route-runner, he could do exceptionally well against the frequent man coverages the Eagles see. He does a lot of damage near the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field, which also sets up well in this offense. The Eagles may be looking to get bigger at WR, so a top receiver in this draft will likely be acquired in the first 2-3 rounds. But given his experience and how pleased the Birds were with Maclin before he got hurt last year, he’ll be the top receiver here, and he’ll make a very good #2 fantasy WR if the knee is right this summer.
Jordy Nelson (GB) – We couldn’t possibly be higher on Nelson right now. Two years in a row now the Packers have lost an impactful receiver, with James Jones following Greg Jennings out the door, and let’s not forget Nelson was able to rank 2nd at WR back in 2011 with those guys around and commanding plenty of targets. Granted, Nelson’s big season that year was due mainly to 15 TDs, and he caught only 68 balls. But with Jones gone and TE Jermichael Finley (likely) gone, Nelson should be more of a volume receiver than ever. That’s a very important point because Nelson has for years been excellent in terms of his catch rate and his yards per target. His chemistry with his QB is as good as you’ll see in the league, and in 2013 Nelson’s catch rate and yards-per-target numbers in the first half of the season, when he played almost entirely with Rodgers, were absurd: 72.2%/12.02. Even if we use full-season numbers (67.5%/10.43), which were still stellar and nearly identical to his 2012 numbers, therefore showcasing his consistency, we’re looking at massive digits for Nelson if he can stay healthy in the final year of his contract. Although his 126 targets in 2013 were by far the most in his career, that figure should still be climbing with Jones and Finley out of the mix, especially since Nelson can play any role in this offense. If we give him just 20 more targets, his 2013 numbers project to 98 catches for 1522 yards. If we used his numbers in the first half of 2013, when he played almost entirely with Rodgers, his numbers project to 105/1754. Nelson probably won’t get drafted as a top-12 WR in most leagues, yet we think a top-5 finish is forthcoming if he doesn’t miss a lot of time.
Golden Tate (Det) – Tate goes from a Seahawk team that has been worse than 30th in the league in pass attempts two years in a row to a team in Detroit that has been in the top-5 the last two seasons. It’s a new offense and regime in Detroit, but this should still be a passing team a la the New Orleans Saints. Tate’s numbers have improved in each of his four seasons in Seattle, and playing with Calvin Johnson and with a high-end talent like Matthew Stafford throwing the ball is an excellent situation. Still only 26, Tate is a tough and versatile player who will play in the slot and outside here, and he projects very well as a complement to Calvin. He’s certainly not a burner, but he gets open deep, makes plays after the catch, and plays with an edge. Unless they draft one of the many marquee receivers in this draft, which is definitely possibly, Tate should be looking at about 120 targets this year, and based on his catch rates the last two years, it should result in 75+ catches. It’s incredibly early, but with the Lions breaking in a new head coach this year in Jim Caldwell, they have been afforded an extra minicamp, and Tate is off to a quick start working with Stafford. Updated: 4/23
Emmanuel Sanders (Den) – The Broncos didn’t think they’d be able to afford him, and it looks like they got a bit of a discount from Sanders, who proclaimed playing with QB Peyton Manning as being “WR heaven.” While Sanders is a nice player with versatility, quickness, and explosiveness, he need system help if he’s to put up big numbers, and this is the best situation in the league. Sanders had a solid season (67/732/6 (10.9 YPC) on 111 targets) stepping into the #2 role with Pittsburgh in 2013, but he did have a number of key drops, and he’s averaged a pedestrian 60% catch rate in each of the last two season in Pittsburgh (as well as a poor 6.6 yards-per-target average), where he certainly wasn’t hurt by the play of his QB. Sanders just turned 26, so he’s in his prime, and after some injury issues earlier in his career, he’s started all 16 games the last two years. He’s a great fit here because he’s able to play outside and in the slot, and while the Bronco receiving corps has lost some size with Eric Decker gone, it gained speed with Sanders, who is very good at breaking tackles and making people miss after the catch. That skill should be utilized in Denver, where they like to run a lot of screen passes to their receivers. There’s only one ball here, but there’s also a ton of production to go around, so Sanders’ numbers are on the rise. He looks like a top-30 guy and really nice #3 fantasy wideout in 2014.
Kenny Stills (NO) – The team did re-sign deep threat Joe Morgan, but he’s coming back from an ACL and doesn’t figure to be a major factor here. They also lost veteran Lance Moore and haven’t acquired or re-signed another wideout, so they’re pretty thin at the position right now. That is one of the main reasons I love Stills this year as a middle-round pick. Stills had only 50 targets, but he had a fantastic catch rate and the highest yard-per-target average of any receiver with 20 or more targets in the entire league, which is a great sign. With Moore and Darren Sproles gone, there should be more opportunities for Stills in his sophomore campaign. I loved the trust QB Drew Brees showed in Stills, who clearly showed he should be trusted, especially on deep passes. He wasn’t really known as a deep threat coming out of college, so imagine his potential if he’s thrust into a very prominent role and starts piling up catches underneath? He’s a serious breakout candidate in 2014.
Terrence Williams (Dal) – With veteran Miles Austin gone, Williams should be a pretty hot WR target in the middle rounds this year – and rightfully so. He was thrown into the fire quickly as a rookie, and the results were mostly positive. A very talented player, 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. He took defenses by surprise at times, and he thrived on big plays, as evidenced by his strong 16.7 YPC average. But his playing time in 2013 will help speed up his development, and he’s reportedly been working hard this off-season on improving his craft and has been in great shape. Playing opposite Dez Brant, who dictates coverages, and with a solid gunslinger in Tony Romo, Williams is a borderline #3/#4 fantasy WR with upside.
Markus Wheaton (Pit) – Although he caught only 6 passes as a rookie in 2013, with Emmanuel Sanders gone, and despite the fact that they brought in veteran Darius Heyward-Bey, there’s a very good chance that Wheaton is starting opposite Antonio Brown in 2014. Granted, they could use a high pick on a bigger wideout, and this is a very deep and talented WR group coming in. But the Steelers tend to get their wideouts in the later rounds, and most important, they might be hard-pressed to find a better option, for 2014 at least, than Wheaton (unless, again, they use a very 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. He’s a good bet to emerge as a sexy late-round sleeper this year, and I’ve been on board with a major ascension from Wheaton this year that since last year.
Kenny Britt (Stl) – We should all know that a healthy Britt is certainly capable of putting up big numbers if he’s healthy and motivated. Yes, it’s been a while since we’ve seen it, but Ram HC Jeff Fisher has been a “Britt whisperer” in the past, so if Britt manages to stay healthy, he should be a sleeper here. The guy’s still only 25 years old (but 26 in September) and he’s eager to prove that he’s still a top receiver in this league. He immediately projects as their prototypical #1 WR if all goes well, and while Sam Bradford isn’t a stud, neither is Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck is the best QB Britt’s ever played with, and back in 2011, when Britt was right physically, he dominated the first two games of that season and put up 14/271/2. No one is ever going to confuse Britt with a reliable fantasy option, but the talent is there to be a real difference-maker, and this is a good opportunity if he’s up to it. In what should be a power-running offense, lining Britt up at X should result in some single coverage and downfield shots, so he’ll be a player to watch closely this summer. Updated: 4/23
Andrew Hawkins (Cle) – Hawkins wasn’t a big priority for the Bengals, who offered him the lowest RFA tender and let him walk to the Browns, so the fact that Hawkins is no longer in Cincy can only be a good thing for his value. He’s a player who would be more valuable on another team, since the Bengals are pretty loaded at receiver without him. But he was clearly wanted in Cleveland, where he’ll also play alongside two offensive studs in Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. That’s a very good situation for OC Kyle Shanahan, who is a good offensive coach and can adapt to his personnel. So pending their others moves this year – and of course, that small detail on who the QB will be - Hawkins looks to finally be in a situation that might actually utilize his skill set as a dynamic slot receiver with excellent lateral agility and quickness. Speaking of other moves, they did add Nate Burleson after picking up Hawkins. Burleson is nearing the end of his career, so he isn’t someone to rely on or worry about too much, but he can play inside if needed, so he could take targets from Hawkins. Updated: 4/23
Brandon Lloyd (SF) – Lloyd was out of the league last year, and he’ll be 33 in July, so the mercurial veteran isn’t even a lock to make the final roster. But the Niners are clearly looking for a field-stretching aspect to their offense, which explained their rumored interest in DeSean Jackson. And at his best, Lloyd can be that. He’s not a burner, but he’s a savvy player whose route-running and double-moves help him get open down the field. Back in 2010, he led the NFL, with 1448 receiving yards and an excellent 18.8 YPC. Lloyd had two decent but ultimately disappointing seasons after that big season and posted 74/911/4 with the Patriots in 2012 in a mostly up-and-down year. The 49ers have struck out in their WR reclamation projects recently (Braylon Edwards and Randy Moss), so Lloyd won’t likely be worth drafting this year – especially if they draft a wideout of note – but he’s at least on the radar now, and his presence could certainly help this receiving corps and offense. Updated: 4/23
Greg Olsen (Car) – A lot has been made of Carolina’s inability to properly replace their two departed WR starters in Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, and while they were hardly a dynamic duo, the club has gone very cheap at the position by signing a bunch of No. 3 types in Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, and Jason Avant. Carolina will likely take advantage of the phenomenal depth at WR in this draft, but it won’t be easy to land a player who can be a foundation player from Day One, especially with QB Cam Newton set to miss the entire off-season as he recovers from ankle surgery. Newton is expected to be limited right up until the start of training camp, so he’s going to miss a lot of valuable time working with all his new targets, and teams typically install their passing game in the spring minicamps and OTAs. This all begs the question: Who is their No. 1 receiver this year? The answer should be clear; it’s Olsen. He actually led them in targets last year, and over the last two seasons, he’s been a top-6 TE in terms of targets, and he’s had a steady catch rate of 67 and 66% the last two years, so he’s been consistent catching passes from Newton. Olsen has never been one of my favorites, mainly due to some underwhelming seasons in Chicago, but he’s scored at least 5 TDs now six years in a row and is a good bet to finish in the top-7 in TE targets again this year, given the state of their receiving corps. He’ll likely see a boost in fantasy production for the fourth consecutive season and be a solid value later in drafts, so he’s a good starter to roll with if you decide to hold off on the position. The stability he brings to the table should also allow those who draft Olsen to take a flyer on a high-upside backup like LaDarius Green. And by the way, I’m obviously not worried too much about the edition of bust Ed Dickson from the Ravens.
Kyle Rudolph (Min) – This entry isn’t all about free agency, but the Vikings did let veteran John Carlson leave (Ari), which can’t hurt. While his YPT was below average in 2013, remember that he ended his season early with a foot injury, and before he got to work with the Vikings’ most consistent QB, Matt Cassel, on a regular basis. And he still caught an above-average percentage of his targets. Rudolph did noticeably improve his catch rate and YPT in 2013. He was up to 68% from 57% in catch rate, and his YPT increased from a miserable 5.3, so there was the improvement that he seemed to be poised for in the preseason. With TE-friendly Norv Turner in Minnesota as the OC, Rudolph’s got a shot to produce a nice return on a late-round investment in 2014. Remember, Turner got great numbers out of Jordan Cameron last season, despite the Browns’ QB mess, and he has a great history with TEs.
Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin (Hou) – With Owen Daniels released, these two players are set to account for a large majority of Houston’s TE production, so both of their values are on the rise. Although Griffin is the sexier choice, the Texans gave Graham good money to return as an UFA this year (three-year, $11.25 contract, with $4.5 million guaranteed), so I’m not ready to anoint Griffin as anything more than a sleeper in a dynasty league. New HC Bill O’Brien has been a big part of the “Tight End Revolution” from his days in New England with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and that’s something he continued in his two years at Penn State, so there is potential here for both. Graham played in 13 games last season and posted decent numbers, going for 49/545/5 on 88 targets (55.7%), before missing the final three games of the year with a hamstring injury. That’s when Griffin got his shot, and he performed surprisingly well, putting up 19/244/1 receiving on 28 targets, good for an impressive 67.9% catch rate. Griffin is more athletic, but Graham is expected to be the “move” TE here, which would be the Hernandez role in this offense. They could be interchangeable, and both should see the field plenty in 2-TE sets, so we’ll get a better feel for their values and upside later this summer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Defense (TB) – In Lovie Smith’s first year in Chicago, the Bear defense was #6 in fantasy and scored 7 D/ST TDs, and while that was a talented defense back in ’04 with a few players still in the league, this Tampa defense is also talented. They lost Darrelle Revis, but he wasn’t a fit for Lovie’s Tampa-2 defense, and they added a nice player and fit in CB Alterraun Verner. The pass rush has been an issue here, but they added a very good DE in Michael Johnson. I count eight very-good-to-great players on this defense right now, so they are loaded and will have mass sleeper appeal this summer.
Arizona Cardinal Defense – This is another one of those possible too-good-to-be-true situations, but even if this secondary fails to reach high expectations, we know the Cardinal defense will be good. But if S/slot CB Tyrann Mathieu's rehabilitation from two torn knee ligaments goes well (so far he’s on track), and if Antonio Cromartie bounces back and plays up to his talent, they could have the best secondary in football. That secondary should help the pass rush, which will help us in the fantasy world. There are some “what-ifs” involved here, but it’s indisputable that this is a top-5 NFL defense, and given their upside potential, this unit should be targeted and ranked as a top-5 fantasy defense this preseason.
Cam Newton (Car) – Obviously, things aren’t going well in Carolina. It’s as if they’ve already punted on the 2014 season, given their lack of moves, and now Newton is going to be down four months due to surgery on his ankle to repair some ligaments. Newton’s in a tough spot no matter what while working with three new top wideouts, but now he’s going to miss an entire off-season working with these new weapons, whoever they are. That’s certainly disconcerting to say the least, so Newton’s fantasy stock will fall for the second year in a row. He might not even make the top-10 in preseason consensus rankings at this point. But hey, with a new and/or shabby wide receiving corps, at least he’ll run, right? He is not going to change his playing style despite this injury, which he doesn’t even know when he suffered but has bothered him for a number of years. His rehab overall has been going well, but he was still in a walking boot a month after the surgery. Newton plans to spend the rest of the off-season working on the mental aspects of the game, and they still hope he’ll be ready for training camp, but it’s disconcerting how he’s not going to be able to work with new WRs Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood, who represent a drop-off from Newton’s top-3 wideouts in 2013. Updated: 4/23
Mike Glennon (TB) – When I asked Lovie Smith about Glennon at the Combine, he didn’t seem particularly high on him and focused on how well he did for a being a rookie. I can understand Lovie and the organization wanting to take a more proactive approach and looking to win now, which explains the pickup of veteran Josh McCown. Glennon will now have to wait his turn, and while I think he can start in this league and play well, it’s still no guarantee he’ll ever emerges as anything more than a decent backup QB for fantasy. I thought Glennon acquitted himself very well last year, but to be fair that’s not exactly a large sample. McCown will be the starter, and the state of their receiving corps is in flux due to the trade of Mike Williams.
Chris Ivory (NYJ) – With veteran Chris Johnson now on the Jets, it’s obviously be a problem for Ivory, who isn’t exactly an appealing to begin with. Ivory did show more durability than I expected last year, missing only one game (hamstring). And while he was a fantasy zero early in the season, he averaged 8.1 FPG over the final 12 games and had five double-digit PPR performances from Week Seven on. At times, he was the violent volume runner his supporters expected him to be. Veteran Bilal Powell is still on the roster, so with Johnson is added, this will be a serious RBBC. Johnson can be their perimeter runner and space player, while Ivory and Powell do work inside. Johnson can also give them much more upside in the passing game, where Ivory is DOA, anyway. Johnson won’t likely be a major foundation player for them, but you’d have to think he will still wind up leading them in both carries and receptions. That’s a killer for Ivory, who is more of a volume back than anything else. He won’t likely get much volume with the durable Johnson added, and let’s not forget that Ivory does still have injury issues. Updated: 4/23
Lamar Miller (Mia) – The party’s basically over for Miller. He’ll likely get on the field and could average even 10 carries a game for Miami, but I highly doubt he’ll see much goal-line work, and while he does have upside in the passing game, there’s no sense in playing him over Knowshon Moreno on passing downs, since Moreno is by far a more accomplished receiver and pass protector. In today’s NFL, it’s becoming more and more about what a RB does without the ball in his hands (mainly pass-pro) than what he does with the ball, and Miller wasn’t very good in either scenario last year. Miller didn’t get a particularly great opportunity last year, but he still failed to take advantage of the one he got, and he’s probably best-cast being what he’ll be on the Dolphins this year, which is a complementary back.
Bilal Powell (NYJ) – I did like Powell as a late pick last year, and we ranked him 43rd at RB in a PPR, with 130 projected fantasy points. He was actually 43rd in PPG with 140 fantasy points in a PPR, so we were really close on his projection. Powell was very good the first month of the season and otherwise did about as well as possible with his minimal touches and inconsistent role. Powell’s run was early in the season, as the Jets’ predominant passing-down RB. Through the first four weeks of the season, Powell averaged 14.3 FPG, with a double-digit performance in each game. That ranked him #15 among RBs over that span, which led us to believe he’d be a nice flex for the entire year. But after Week Four, Powell had only one double-digit PPR performance in 12 games, and ranked #56 among all RBs, with 7.0 FPG. Overall, Powell had a decent season, with 176/697/1 rushing (4.0 YPC), and 36/272/0 receiving on 57 targets (63.2%), but he was hurt by his lack of TDs and the eventual rotation he had with Ivory. That situation is going to get worse now with Chris Johnson added. Ivory is worthless in the passing game, and Powell can catch the ball and pass-protect, but I’m sure OC Marty Mornhinweg will look to get the ball a lot to Johnson in the passing game, so Powell is off the radar for fantasy unless there’s an injury in this backfield. Updated: 4/23
Eric Decker (NYJ) – Decker goes from literally the best passing offense in NFL history, and from working with possibly the best execution QB of all time to playing with one of the worst passing games in the NFL in 2014. It’s not entirely a tragedy because Decker will be more of a featured receiver, but while I’ve liked Decker a lot the last two years in Denver, I am concerned about Decker’s ability to produce if he’s consistently matched up against an opposing team’s top corner, which should be the case frequently. Heck, we can already assume that he’s going to be contained two games against the Patriots, who can smother him with CB Darrelle Revis. As much as I’ve been high on Decker the last two seasons in Denver, he is a player who can be slowed, if not shut down, by high-end man-to-man coverage. He’s also had plenty of key drops for the Broncos the last two seasons. And obviously, we have to see who the QB will be in 2014. Second-year man Geno Smith can throw the ball very well at times, but he appears to be a player who will continue to struggle with consistency, and the same can be said for Michael Vick. Decker is a very good red zone threat, so it’s possible that he produces as a #2 WR level due to TDs. But this is a Jet team that threw only 13 TD passes total in 2013, so Decker looks like a #3 WR only, and he might not even produce well for fantasy owners in that downgraded role. Updated: 4/23
Steve Smith (Bal) – Smith ranked only 30th in targets as the #1 wideout in Carolina, so it’s not horrible news that he’s left this conservative offense. In 15 games, Smith had 64/745/4 (11.6 YPC) on 106 targets (60.4% catch rate) to give him 10.8 FPG (t-46th). Smith never had more than 69 yards in a game and topped out at 6 catches, which he did just three times. He had just three games with more than 15 FPG in a PPR. He’s just not the downfield threat that he used to be, and Smith has made it clear that he’s coming to Baltimore to be a complementary piece. He’ll essentially take over the old Anquan Boldin role, but the team isn’t nearly as thin at receiver now as it was when Boldin last played there in 2012, when he led the team with 111 targets. This could be a better opportunity for Smith to make a difference, but at 35 years old and no longer a good deep threat, he’s more of a volume receiver at this point, and the volume won’t be anything special, which hurts for fantasy.
Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin (Buf) – I’ve filed top target Stevie Johnson under the “We’ll See” category below because, while his value has taken a hit, he should be the top receiver if he’s on the roster, no matter what. As for Woods and Goodwin, they’re a good bet to be moved down a notch on the pecking order due to the addition of veteran Mike Williams, who played for HC Doug Marrone at Syracuse. Woods likely projects as the #3 and should be active in rotation, and Goodwin should still get on the field due to his rare speed. But both players should see a drop in potential value because of Williams. This is a better receiving corps now due to the Williams add, but there’s just not going to be a lot of production to go around on the Bills, who ranked only 28th last year in passing yards and 30th in TD passes. Sadly, projecting anything better than mediocrity from a passing attack led by EJ Manuel is a major leap of faith.
Dennis Pitta (Bal) – My inclination is to not read too, too, much into the Owen Daniels signing, but you’d be a fool not to worry a little about all the new mouths to feed in this Raven offense this year. Last year, a great deal of our interest in Pitta stemmed from his role as a major go-to guy for Joe Flacco, and new OC Gary Kubiak has said that he has “big plans” for Daniels, who played for him his entire career in Houston. Daniels will certainly get opportunity in Kubiak’s offense, which frequently utilized 2-TE sets. I still like Pitta, and he’s still a top-10 fantasy TE this year, but in 2013, he looked poised to haul in 80 balls before he got hurt, and it’s impossible to predict that many grabs this year. I still view Pitta as a top-10 guy at his position, but I won’t be aggressively targeting him. Updated: 4/23
Rob Housler (Ari) – Housler still has a chance to make a name for himself this year, but at this point, my guess is that it won’t happen. HC Bruce Arians loves TEs who can block, and Housler is not a good blocker. He’s also failed to live up to his potential, and he had some ugly moments in 2013, including a terrible drop in the endzone on a pass from his new veteran QB in the preseason. The addition of John Carlson may not be a killer for Housler, but with veteran Jake Ballard re-signing this off-season, that should mean Carlson will actually get targets. Carlson is good enough to take looks and production away from Housler, whose minimal flashes in 2014 do little to hide the fact that he failed to step up with a solid QB in Carson Palmer on the field. Carlson was essentially a featured player for the Vikings for five games last year, and he actually was the 9th-best fantasy TE in a PPR during that stretch, hauling in 23-of-31 targets (excellent 70% catch rate) for 287 yards and a TD. Carlson is a role player at this point, and he’s had major durability issues, but Housler is still a much less appealing “upside backup” now.
Matthew Stafford (QB, Det) – Stafford had a very good 2013 season, ranking 4th among all QBs in our site-default scoring system, with 23.0 FPG. However, come fantasy playoff time, Stafford totally collapsed. Over the last four games of the year, all Detroit losses, Stafford was a fantasy zero. He threw only 2 TDs to 5 INTs in December, totaled 822 yards in four games, and averaged a miserable 12.5 FPG (34th among QBs with at least two appearances in December). He continued to showcase some serious flaws in terms of his mechanics and decision-making, and his poor 58.5 completion rate coupled with only a decent YPA of 7.3 are all signs that he’ll be over-drafted in 2014 (but probably not by those he killed last December). However, there are some positives to focus on. The team’s OL is completely intact from last year, when they were very good in pass protection. They’ve also brought in two coaches in Jim Caldwell and new OC Joe Lombardi who have good track records with QBs. Most important, they added a really nice fit and #2 WR in Golden Tate. For what it’s worth, they also retained underwhelming TE Brandon Pettigrew, which is probably still a positive. When I add this all up, I still can’t envision us pushing Stafford hard this summer, but that could change in the draft. If they use an early pick on one of the many high-end WRs in this draft, which seems likely, then Stafford would certainly look a lot better. If they surprisingly land a top stud like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, then that would be a game-changer and Stafford’s stock would soar.
Colin Kaepernick (QB, SF) – Kaepernick is another player whose stock is hardly soaring, but things are set up for him to have a significantly better receiving corps this year, and that’s above and beyond having a full season from Michael Crabtree. Their main move of note relating to Kaepernick was the re-signing of veteran Anquan Boldin to team with Crabtree. That’s great, but it also now opens up the very interesting possibility that the Niners grab a speed receiver early in the draft (first 2-3 rounds). It’s a deep draft, so there’s a good chance they grab a nifty slot receiver or a wideout with speed who can play anyway. Speed is really the missing ingredient to this passing game – which explains their strong interest in DeSean Jackson – and if they add some quality speed in the draft, Kaepernick will be looking fantastic entering the 2014. Even if they shockingly fail to haul in one of the many strong WR prospects in the draft (at least 40 players), they did add a veteran in Brandon Lloyd, who can be a viable deep threat, despite the fact that he doesn’t have great speed. Kaepernick has dealt with some off-field distractions this off-season, but there is no real concern that anything serious will be coming to the surface. Updated: 4/23
Jay Cutler (QB, Chi) – The Bears have had a very productive off-season, and while it hasn’t been a bonanza for the offense in terms of the free agent moves, things are looking good for Cutler heading into 2014. They re-signed veteran lineman Matt Slauson (LG) and Roberto Garza (C), so they will return all five starters up front, which should help with one of Marc Trestman’s top goal with Cutler this year, which is to keep him on the field (Chicago guaranteed Cutler $54 million over three years as part of the seven-year extension). Trestman would like to see Cutler protect the football better and improve his fundamentals and mechanics, but he saw progress with Cutler last year. Obviously, the big news for Cutler is the departure of Josh McCown, who took to Trestman’s offense better than Cutler and was better in all key categories (TD-INT ratio, YPA, completion percentage). McCown might have been a threat if Cutler struggled even for a few games, but there will be no QB controversy here in 2014. That means all that is standing in the way between Cutler and a top-12 season is availability. Cutler has missed at least one game due to injury four years in a row, so I won’t be counting on 16 games from him. But his potential in this great offense that put up 4400+ passing yards and 32 passing TDs last year is very clear. They also added a solid depth player in Josh Morgan, who could settle into a helpful role as their #3. Updated: 4/23
Russell Wilson (QB, Sea) – Although we ranked him 10th in 2013 and he finished 10th, and we came really close on all his projections except rushing TDs, we overrated Wilson for fantasy last year. Wilson threw only 14 more passes last year than he did as a rookie in 2012, so they didn’t exactly open things up for him. In fact, even though he helped lead the team to a championship, he actually struggled down the stretch, failing to throw for more than 206 and totaled only 4 TDs in his final four games. Wilson’s obviously a good NFL player, but we know what he is at this point, and it’s nothing special for fantasy unless he somehow runs 4-5 in for scores (he dropped from 5 rushing TDs as a rookie to 1 in 2013). While Wilson will get a full season from Percy Harvin (or at least he could), Seattle did lose its leading receiver in Golden Tate. It does help that they brought veteran Sidney Rice back on a 1-year contract, though. Rice (knee) was cleared for football activities in early April, and at his best, he projects as a solid X receiver in this offense with good size and downfield ability. Rice is a walking injury report, so he can’t be trusted, but his presence does help Wilson’s chances. Also, since it’s pretty clear now that Wilson needs to seriously augment his fantasy value with his legs (scoring TDs), the addition of former Raider Terrelle Pryor isn’t great news. I’m not holding my breath expecting an impact from Pryor, but the team may have designs on utilizing Pryor as a gadget player, which could take some chances away from Wilson to score rushing TDs. Updated: 4/23
EJ Manuel (QB, Buf) – Assuming Buffalo doesn’t part ways with veteran Stevie Johnson, which seems unlikely, Manuel has a really nice group of wideouts. They don’t have an ideal “No. 1” receiver, but Johnson and newly acquired Mike Williams are excellent No. 2s, and second-year receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin look like meaningful contributors, with Goodwin also offering up rare speed. The Bills also addressed the biggest need on their OL with the signing of veteran and former #1 pick Chris Williams. We’ll see if they use an early draft pick on a promising TE, but for now, veteran Scott Chandler is back. With a very good RB tandem also in the mix, the Bills have enough talent around him to challenge defenses and move the ball, but it’s all on Manuel. Manuel was seen as lacking polish coming out of college, and that was entirely accurate. He needs to improve his pocket presence and his deep ball, as well as his mechanics from the waist down. He’s not a “natural thrower” and might never be, and he needs to show he can process information and that the team doesn’t have to spoon-feed him the offense. Still, Manuel is certainly athletic and has plenty of tools and great intangibles, and the Bills have at least helped him by putting some solid weapons at his disposal. If they do take TE Eric Ebron with the 9th overall pick it will be a clear sign that the team already understands that Manuel needs all the help he can get.
Matt Schaub (QB, Oak) – The Raiders have traded QB Terrelle Pryor, so unless the team makes a big splash in the draft at QB, which is certainly possible, Schaub’s value for 2014 is at least present. Schaub last year ended up benched, booed, and reviled in Houston, so a change of scenery is probably for the best. He appeared in 10 games, starting eight of them, and completed 219/358 passes (61.2%) for 2310 yards, with 10 TDs and 14 INTs. In Week Five, Schaub set an NFL record by tossing a pick-six for the fourth consecutive game, and it was just about all she wrote from that point on. He’s a player who has already declined, but they do have some hope at WR with James Jones added and a few interesting young receivers. Still, his value is still in limbo, and we need to see if the Raiders draft a QB in May. Updated: 4/23
LeSean McCoy (RB, Phi) – We all get greedy with our fantasy players and want them to own the ball, but more often than not, we have to accept that our stud RB will give way to someone else here and there. The fact is McCoy’s nearly 370 touches in 2013 were too many. It’s for the best that they pull back from their usage of him in 2014 and beyond, so I’m not exactly inclined to downgrade McCoy much at all due to the addition of Darren Sproles. McCoy’s still young, durable, and in an excellent situation, so I still see him as a top-5 pick overall, if not a top-3 pick.
Stevan Ridley (RB, NE) – I was wrong to believe LeGarrette Blount wouldn’t be a serious threat to Ridley last year, but in my defense, Blount never looked better than he did on the Patriots in 2013, and I didn’t exactly assume Ridley would continue to put the ball on the ground his third season. Blount was actually a non-factor for fantasy in 11 of his 16 games, but his role was healthy enough, thanks in large part to Ridley’s fumbling issues, to seriously disrupt Ridley’s fantasy worth. But if the Patriots thought that highly of Blount – that he was more than a replaceable rotational player – they might have paid him to stay, but he’s gone. That certainly helps Ridley. They’ll no doubt have another rotation, but with the free agent marketplace dried up, it appears as if Ridley’s margin for error has increased. At this point, other than Brandin Bolden, Ridley’s main competition for playing time will likely come from a rookie, so things are looking up for Ridley in the final year of his rookie contract.
Le’Veon Bell (RB, Pit) – Speaking of Blount, I don’t want to make the same mistake again by believing that he’s not going to be a serious threat to the incumbent starter on his new team, but I do (basically) believe that to be the case. Blount is on his third team in three years, so he’s more of a role player than anything else. He also benefitted from playing with the Patriots, who frequently see teams play against them with more DBs on the field than in base personnel. Also, the Steelers were painfully thin at RB behind Bell, so something had to be done, and Blount signed a cap-friendly deal for the Steelers. Blount’s obviously a strong interior power runner with some game-breaking ability, but he remains worthless in the passing game, which is a huge advantage Bell has over New England’s Stevan Ridley, and Blount. Bell didn’t exactly excel in goal-line situations as a rookie, so Blount could vulture more than a handful of short TDs from Bell, and that is a small concern. But overall, watching Bell develop and get better each week as he and the OL improved was very encouraging. And finally, this might be the best reason of all not to panic with Bell due to the addition of Blount: The Steelers absolutely love their second-year back. The only adjustment I’ll probably make with Bell is move him from the bottom of the first round overall to the top of the second round, but that’s it.
Rashad Jennings (RB, NYG) – Jennings goes from the Raiders to the Giants, which to the casual fan is an upgrade. The reality is that the Giants were 30th in yards per rushing attempt last year, and the Raiders were surprisingly 6th. Still, Oakland can thank Jennings and his solid 4.5 YPC for that high ranking (and Terrelle Pryor, who averaged 7.1). Jennings looked significantly healthier this past season, carrying 164 times for 733 yards and 6 TDs. Jennings added 36 catches for 292 yards (8.1 YPC) on 47 targets (a nice 76.6 catch rate), averaging 11.6 FPG. The Giant OL is probably one of the 7-8 worst in the league right now, with injury concerns aplenty, but we do know what Tom Coughlin wants to do: The running game is what propels this offense. As GM Jerry Reese told me at the combine, they are not going to put all their eggs in David Wilson’s basket, so if Wilson has issues, then Jennings’ value rises even higher and he becomes a very solid #2 RB. Wilson could emerge and limit Jennings’ value, but the former Raider will have value, no matter what. He’s likely their goal-line and 3rd-down back right now, although they did bring Peyton Hillis back, and he’s decent in both roles. However, before you think I’m spinning Jennings too positively, let’s not forget that he’s not exactly been a picture of health, and his upright style invites a lot of contact. Wilson (neck) also said in late-April that he’s still waiting for a clear MRI to be medically cleared, but that he’s currently ahead of schedule in his return.
Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Oak) – In MJD and Darren McFadden, the Raiders now have a pair of RBs who’ve been among the best in the league when healthy, but they haven’t been healthy the last two years and have both seen better days. The Raiders are in rebuilding mode, but the current regime knows it needs to win now to save their jobs, which is likely the thinking behind bringing the veteran MJD into the fold. While he’s been able to overcome that extra attention in previous seasons, Jones-Drew is slowing down, as evidenced by a career-worst 3.4 YPC. MJD just turned 29, and with eight seasons and 1800+ carries on his resume, he’s probably best fit for a tandem backfield along with McFadden, who he’ll technically battle in camp for the “starting” job. In theory, the Raiders can use both backs at the same time, since McFadden can be used effectively as a receiver flexed from the formation. Playing in a timeshare is obviously a hit to Jones-Drew’s fantasy value, but considering McFadden’s injury history, MJD could still get plenty of touches if his body can hold up (which is definitely a serious question). As things stand, Jones-Drew is probably just a #3 fantasy RB, but there’s no question he has a chance to sneak in another productive season if McFadden misses a lot of time again (he’s missed multiple games every one of his NFL seasons). If not, a reduced role is probably for the best for MJD, who can still produce flex-worthy numbers with fewer touches because of his versatility and ability to pound the ball into the endzone from short range. He’s also going to play at a lighter weight this year, which I think can help him.
Shonn Greene (RB, Ten) – As expected, the Titans parted ways with veteran Chris Johnson, whichmakes Greene their #1 back (for now). 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. But obviously, Greene’s value this year comes down to the NFL draft. The Titans are almost certain to draft a back who can handle a lead role, perhaps as soon as this year. Updated: 4/23
Steven Jackson (RB, Atl) – Jackson is clearly on the downside and fantasy owners aren’t likely thinking about him much this off-season, but it’s worth noting that the Falcons didn’t have a strong interest in FA Chris Johnson and have done absolutely nothing at RB in free agency, so Jackson’s 2014 value will come down to what they do in the draft. The Falcons had the most imbalanced offense in the NFL last season, as they ran the ball on just 31.3% of their offensive plays. The Falcons also finished last in rushing, averaging just 77.9 yards per game, as the running game was simply ineffective, and the Falcons found themselves trailing in far too many games to stick with the ground game. The addition of Jackson never really panned out, as an early season hamstring injury derailed him out of the gates and forced him to miss four games. Jackson finished with 156 carries for 542 yards (3.5 YPC) and 6 TDs in 12 games. He added 33 catches for 191 yards (5.8 YPC) and 1 TD on 49 targets (49% catch rate), ranking 22nd among RBs, with 12.4 FPG. Jackson played slightly better in the final six games as his hamstring got healthier, rushing 98/350/6 for 15.8 FPG. He was a top-20 back from Week Eight on, thanks to 26 receptions and 6 TDs, but he never rushed for 100 yards and he wasn’t easy to trust. Jackson turns 31 in July, and his skills have deteriorated, but unless they take a top back in the first 2-3 rounds, he should at least have a large role once again. The Falcons have added to their OL in free agency, and they could easily use their #1 pick on a lineman, which would help. Updated: 4/23
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (RBs, Car) – I asked both players back in 2008 if they felt their timeshare would extend both careers, but I can’t say I assumed back then that it would actually happen. Well it has, and they can also thank former GM Marty Hurney for signing both to rookie contract extensions (while also signing free agent Mike Tolbert). This wasn’t their plan – unless they’re insane – but with their top four wideouts from 2013 off the roster, it’s pretty clear that the Panthers are going to run the ball as much or more than ever this coming season. That helps both players’ chances, but last year Williams once again underwhelmed (4.2 YPC, 4 TDs), and Stewart remained an injury train wreck. I really want no parts of this backfield in 2014, but again, these guys are going to be busy if healthy.
Andre Brown (RB, Hou) – On the surface, Brown is a downgrade compared to where he was down the stretch for the Giants last year, when he was the lead back. He’s obviously behind Arian Foster, but unless the Texans find a great option later in the draft (which is possible, and they should use at least one pick on a back), Brown has a chance to be relevant, and he’s certainly a solid handcuff to the increasingly brittle Foster. Back in 2011, the Texans gave Ben Tate about 10 carries a game behind Foster, and the results were very positive, as the duo averaged a strong 4.9 yards per carry. Brown typically gets the yards that are blocked for him, and he’s a better receiver out of the backfield than Tate, so I would think he has a chance to get 7-10 touches per game. He’s an injury risk himself, but unless they snag a strong option at the position in the later rounds, this is a very good spot for Brown in 2014.
James Starks (RB, GB) – The Packers found the right formula for Starks in 2013, and they ponied up pretty good money (a two-year deal that was worth $3,165,626) to retain him as a backup, so his value is stabilized and sustained from last year. Starks has always been a very physical runner, but he quickly settled into a complementary role behind Eddie Lacy last year, and he looked downright explosive on his 89 carries (5.5 YPC). In Week Two, Lacy suffered a concussion on his first carry, and Starks proceeded to roll over Washington with 20/132/1 rushing and 4/36 in the passing game, good for a robust 26.8 fantasy points in a PPR. His role may not be solidified enough to start him when Lacy is healthy, but while DuJuan Harris and Jonathan Franklin are present, they’re best-cast as complementary backs. Starks picked up 54% of his yards after contact, so he can be a bruising runner like Lacy, so Starks remains one of the best pure handcuffs out there.
Julian Edelman (WR, NE) – There are two things that are safe to say about Edelman re-signing with the team this off-season. One, he couldn’t possibly have more value anywhere else in the league than on the Patriots and with Tom Brady. And two, because of his chemistry with the QB, he’s the #1 WR in this offense. Edelman in 2013 destroyed his previous career marks, recording 105 catches for 1056 yards (10.1 YPC) and 6 TDs on 149 targets (70.1% catch rate), ranking 15thamong WRs with 15.5 FPG. Edelman closed out the year on fire, ranking 2nd behind Brown WR Josh Gordon in the final six weeks of the season, hauling in 53/556/4 for 22.1 FPG. Edelman played above and beyond even the wildest expectations for him this season, as he clearly had more chemistry out of the slot with Brady than Danny Amendola ever had. The team’s WR corps should be better off this year, and Amendola did improve later in the season so he could chip away at Edelman’s production, plus Edelman remains a serious injury risk (but not as serious as Amendola). But Edelman’s production last year was compelling, and with TE Rob Gronkowski’s status in question yet again, Edelman is a lock to deliver quality digits – especially for PPR owners – again this year.
Reuben Randle (WR, NYG) – I fully expected the Giants to close the book on Hakeem Nicks after the 2013 season, as I wrote many times last summer. What I didn’t fully expect, though, was Randle taking a (small) step back in his second season. Usually playing a healthy percentage of their snaps and over 50% of them on average, Randle posted 41/611/6 receiving in 16 games on 77 targets (14.9 YPC, 53.2%). Randle had a six-game stretch from Weeks 5-11 in which he scored 6 TDs and ranked 26th among WRs with 14.0 FPG. However, he dealt with a knee injury late in the season and didn’t score double-digit fantasy points in a single game after Week Eleven. His season did have some promising moments, but overall he left me a little underwhelmed. The Giants have talked him up this off-season, and he’s expected to slide into Nicks’ spot at X, or split end. Although he’s very talented, Randle needs to establish more chemistry with QB Eli Manning in new coordinator Ben McAdoo’s three-WR-heavy offense to get that low catch rate up, but that goal might have already taken a hit due to the ankle surgery that will put Manning’s availability for the spring OTAs and minicamps in doubt. The good news for Randle is that the club not only let Nicks walk without a contract offer, but they also signed only veteran Mario Manningham, who can’t be counted on. I doubt emerging receiver Jerrell Jernigan will push Randle for his job, but Jernigan clearly proved he could play late last season, so while both should be on the field plenty in 3-WR sets, there is some competition for snaps and targets for Randle. I still think Randle is a nice prospect, and I don’t think anyone is overly encouraged about the Giant passing game, so Randle has a chance to fly under the radar a little this summer and be a desirable target in the mid-to-later rounds.
James Jones (WR, Oak) – Jones had two 100-yard games in the first four weeks for the Packers last year, but he was never quite the same after a knee injury in Week Five (PCL injuries can be nasty for WRs even if they’re able to play on them). He missed nearly three games to the injury and never hit 100 yards in a game again. We all knew it would be difficult for him to even come close to his 14 TD catches from 2012, but he managed only 3 TDs this past season. Jones turned 30 this March, so he’s already probably on the downside of his career. But while he leaves a tremendous situation in Green Bay where there is plenty of production to go around, he could certainly do a little better in a less-than-ideal spot, but one where he’ll be more of a foundation player and with a viable QB in Matt Schaub. Jones has decent long speed and is a physical receiver who can make plays after the catch, which would almost certainly make him the #1 option here.
Jarrett Boykin (WR, GB) – Boykin is a player who needs system help to put up big numbers, and while he won’t likely put up massive digits here, he definitely gets helped by his system and by playing with an elite QB in Aaron Rodgers. As expected, veteran UFA James Jones moved on, so Boykin will open the 2014 season as the third receiver in Green Bay. Boykin isn’t a burner, 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 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). Keep in mind he did a lot of that without Rodgers. Knowing there’s plenty of production to go around here, especially with TE Jermichael Finley’s future still in serious doubt, Boykin looks like a savvy depth WR add this summer. However, they are a little thin at WR, so I wouldn’t rule out them drafting an impactful player in this deep WR class in the second or third round. If so, Boykin’s upside as depth fantasy WR in deeper leagues would take a hit.
Sidney Rice (WR, Sea) – Rice turns just 28 in September, but it feels like he’s been around forever. Mostly, he’s been a tiring player to cover for fantasy because he’s essentially never available. After playing all 16 games in 2012 and forcing us to believe maybe he was over his chronic issues, Rice was back to playing only eight games in 2013. That means he’s played fewer than 10 games in three of his last four seasons. When healthy, he gives the Seahawks a sizeable option at X, something they lacked on their roster without him. So this makes absolute sense as a depth option. But “counting on” Rice to do much for fantasy in an offense that doesn’t throw it all that much anyway is pretty futile. But Rice is now at least back on the radar and back in a familiar environment. Updated: 4/23
Jeff Cumberland (TE, NYJ) – It looked like Cumberland would get a chance to take over the starting job last season, but the team decided to add veteran Kellen Winslow to the mix. Cumberland ended up starting 12 of 15 games, posting26/398/4 receiving on 40 targets (65%), and ranked 38th among TEs with 6.0 FPG. He’s probably more of a rotational player or #2 TE, but the Jets are “bullish” on his development, and a closer look at the numbers reveals why. Simply put, his 9.95 yards-per-target is an elite number, and that was on a team with a rookie QB and no legitimate perimeter weapons. And check out Cumberland’s first half of the season, when he had a solid 68.2% catch rate and an impressive 11.27 YPT. The team is reportedly also high on the development of TE Zach Sudfeld, but Cumberland has a real shot to become a solid fantasy contributor with Michael Vick in there or an improved Geno Smith – if the team doesn’t add a TE of note in the draft. There are 4-5 TEs who could seriously disrupt Cumberland’s value, so we’ll have to see what they do at the position in May’s draft. Updated: 4/23
Brandon Pettigrew (TE, Det) – Pettigrew drew some interest earlier this year as an UFA, but he somewhat surprisingly came back to the Lions with a four-year, $16-million contract, including $8 million in guaranteed money. Most likely, he was viewed as a priority due to his experience and versatility as a viable receiver and a solid blocker. He's got the size and ability to be a really good player, and he has been in the past, but he still drops way too many passes. While he’s still raw and has marginal blocking strength, the team views second-year man Joseph Fauria as a possible long-term replacement, so they might not use an early pick on a TE, which has been discussed. If so, Pettigrew will have a chance to be relevant for fantasy, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has brought the Saint playbook to Detroit, and that’s a TE-friendly playbook. Of course, a breakout from Fauria can’t be discounted. He’s no Jimmy Graham, but there are some similarities in terms of size, athleticism, and red-zone prowess.
Andrew Quarless (TE, GB) – Quarless isn’t particularly athletic, so he’s not someone to get too excited about. He was little more than a check-down option in the passing game in 2013, but he played a much bigger role than anticipated, due to Jermichael Finley’s season-ending injury. Quarless hauled in 32 passes for 312 yards (9.8 YPC) and 2 TDs on 52 targets (61.5% catch rate). They can certainly do better than he, but right now he’s the guy. Youngster Brandon Bostick is an intriguing former WR who can really run, but he struggles in run blocking and is raw, and he’s probably not their guy of the future. Quarless knows the system well and was re-signed earlier this year to a 2-year deal, so pending the draft, he has a chance to be relevant this year.
Nick Foles (QB, Phi) – It’s amazing how quickly things can change in the NFL. A couple of weeks into free agency, with wideouts Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper re-signed and RB Darren Sproles added, Foles appeared to be a can’t-miss fantasy prospect due to his great situation and his absurd 2013 numbers, namely his league-leading 9.12 YPA. But then he lost DeSean Jackson, an elite vertical threat who accounted for roughly 35% of Foles’ passing yardage, which at the very least, gives you pause when considering Foles to be a high-end fantasy starter in 2014. It’s unlikely that NFL defenses will “catch up” to Chip Kelly’s offense for a variety of reasons, but an underwhelming showing by Foles is still possible. The Eagles are in the market for one of the top wideouts in this excellent draft class, but we just never know how quickly a rookie can make an impact in his first year transitioning to the pros. That means they could be relying heavily on Maclin, who isn’t exactly an iron man. Furthermore, we are a little concerned with how Foles held on to the ball at times late last year and failed to pull the trigger on throws that were there. I’m probably nit-picking more than anything, but Foles’ body of work is minimal, and this is a team that actually finished 27th in passing attempts in ’13. He was very efficient and consistent last year, but we did see a glimpse of ugliness Week Seven against Dallas, when Foles was only 11-for-29 for only 80 yards. That poor performance was clearly the exception to the norm, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say Foles is still a little unproven, so the loss of Jackson is significant. They’re going to get a strong WR prospect in the draft, but the loss of one of the NFL’s top playmakers likely places Foles in the 6-8 range at QB, as opposed to the top-5.
Josh McCown (QB, TB) – I wasn’t very high on McCown as a fantasy backup two weeks ago, but believe it or not, the release of WR Mike Williams leaves me more intrigued with him. That’s completely due to the high likelihood now of Tampa using its 7th overall pick on a stud wideout like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans. If so, McCown’s supporting cast could actually be comparable to the one he left in Chicago (clearly not as good, of course). McCown in Chicago was one of only four QBs to complete more than 65% of his passes while also averaging more than 8.0 yards per pass attempt (Rivers, Manning, Rodgers were the other three). Those are elite numbers, so if Tampa gets a stud talent to team with Vincent Jackson on the outside, McCown becomes a lot more appealing as a fantasy backup.
Michael Vick (QB, NYJ) – The Jets signed Vick to only a one-year, $5 million deal, reuniting him with his former offensive coordinator with the Eagles in Marty Mornhinweg, so he’ll have to win the starting job to have any fantasy hope. But at least he has a chance to win a starting job, something that wasn’t going to be the case in Philly. The Jets were encouraged by rookie Geno Smith’s progress late in season, but not encouraged enough to be sold on him as their QB of the future, and they obviously haven’t forgotten about his miserable run in the middle of the season. Vick is still a threat to produce on the ground, so it’s certainly possible that he strings together a solid run of productivity, especially if gang green gets more help at receiver in addition to Eric Decker. The addition of RB Chris Johnson could help Vick, since they team likes to run a lot of read-option, which can work with the speedy Johnson, and Vick is more mobile than Smith. Vick’s turning 34 in June, and given the fact that he still has the same flaws that he had as an inexperienced player, and how he can’t be trusted to stay healthy, he’s a fantasy backup only, and that’s only if he’s clearly the starter. Updated: 4/23
Alex Smith (QB, KC) – Smith is a good NFL player, but I’m still not sold on him for fantasy. He ranked 6th among QBs in rushing with 76 carries for 431 yards (5.7 YPC) and 1 TD, which really helped his fantasy standing last year. For the season, he ranked 15th among QBs, with 20.4, but Smith was exceptional from Week Eleven on, ranking 5th among QBs, with 23.7 FPG on 1394/14/4 passing and 23/166 rushing. Smith set new career-highs in passing yards, passing TDs, and rushing yards in his eighth season, so the new marriage with Andy Reid certainly helped him for fantasy. That’s great and all, but free agency hasn’t exactly been kind to KC. They lost three key players on their line in T Branden Albert and Gs Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, which is a problem because 2013 #1 pick Eric Fisher did not have a good rookie season and he’ll now have to move to LT. They flirted with some veteran free agent WRs like DeSean Jackson and Emmanuel Sanders, but came up empty in their efforts to upgrade Smith’s lame receiving corps. In fact, their third most-targeted receiver last year, Dexter McCluster, is gone. KC will clearly have to address WR in the draft, but it’s hard to count on a rookie. Unless they draft a TE of note, I think TE Travis Kelce is a big key to their offense this year, but he’s hard to count on until proven otherwise (knee, microfracture surgery). And right now, Smith’s receiving corps stinks.
Eli Manning (QB, NYG) – It’s pretty hard right now to feel good about Eli for fantasy. Playing in all 16 games before a high ankle sprain ended his season finale early, Eli completed 317/551 passes (57.5%) for 3818 yards, with 18 TDs and a league-high 27 INTs. Among QBs who played in at least 10 games, Eli ranked 25th, with 16.7 FPG (and remember, our site-default scoring system doesn’t punish for INTs). His 27 picks were the most thrown by any player since Brett Favre chucked 29 in 2005 (Eli finished second that year with 17), and his 18 TDs were the fewest in a season since he became the Giants’ full-time starter in 2005. For fantasy, Eli could have spent most of the year on your Waiver Wire. The Giants have tried to address their OL this year, but it’s going to be hard to quickly turn things around from 2013, when this was old, slow, and injured. They are also breaking in a new offense this year, and it’s a departure from their previous system, which was in place for Eli’s entire career. Manning says he has no concerns about the new playbook, but he’s going to miss most (if not all) of their OTAs and minicamps, which is a concern. Things can’t get much worse for Manning than they were in 2013, but I can’t say I feel much better about him than I did when that ugly campaign ended about four months ago. Updated: 4/23
Chad Henne (QB, Jac) – Henne has been the primary starter for the Jaguars ahead of (the since-traded) Blaine Gabbert for the past two seasons and will be in the mix to keep the job to open 2014, as he should be a great bridge for the team to a potential new franchise QB drafted this May. He’s started in 19 of 25 appearances with the Jaguars, but has never had any real fantasy value, although the lack of weapons around him hasn’t helped, especially with WR Justin Blackmon serving multiple suspensions and WR Cecil Shorts battling a sports hernia. Henne turns 29 in July and would be entering his seventh season after spending his first four with the Dolphins. The return of Henne gives the team a reliable veteran option to roll with no matter what happens in the draft, but Henne’s value is clearly tied to the draft. Because they appear to be building the team like Seattle’s, and since this is an organization that needs more juice and excitement, I personally think they will take Johnny Manziel as high as 3rd overall (where they are currently picking). But we’ll see. Updated: 4/23
Chris Johnson (RB, NYJ) – Johnson’s put together 1000-yard seasons in each of his first six years, but he hasn’t been an elite back since his 2009-2010 seasons. He continues to shy away from contact and leave a lot of yards on the field, and he didn’t have a run longer than 30 yards this past season (career-low 3.9 YPC). CJ2K managed to finish 12th among RBs, with 15.3 FPG, greatly helped by a couple of long TD catches. He finished with 279/1077/6 rushing and 42/345/4 (8.2 YPC) receiving on 51 targets (82.4% catch rate). He’s unlikely to get that level of volume in New York, where he’ll be in a true dual backfield with Chris Ivory. Ivory will do a lot of the work inside with the hope that Johnson’s big-play ability can be utilized in space on the outside, and between the influence of OC Marty Mornhinweg, who schemes up the running game well, and their mobile QBs and affinity for the read-option, they should have success using Johnson. Bilal Powell will be the #3 RB and could certainly see snaps as their third-down back. Despite being afforded a lot of volume with the Titans, Johnson has been an unpredictable fantasy option the last few years, but he was pretty consistent in a PPR in 2013 due in large part to those surprising 4 receiving TDs (he had 4 receiving TDs total heading into 2013). His high ranking was also a function of availability, and he also played hurt last year with a meniscus tear suffered in Week Three. His touch totals will be going down in this backfield, but it’s worth mentioning that Ivory’s had a pretty lengthy injury history, and that Johnson’s an Ivory injury away from once again getting a lot of work. His role on 3rd down and in passing situations will be a huge key to his value because a healthy Ivory will likely get double-digit carries most weeks, but Ivory remains literally worthless in the passing game. Also, Johnson should be rooting for Michael Vick to win the QB battle, since the threat of Vick’s speed should help open up space for Johnson. Johnson’s value in theory has to drop due to a lighter workload, but this is an intriguing spot for him. Updated: 4/23
Ryan Mathews (RB, SD) – When Mathews got banged up down the stretch last year, the Chargers didn’t really have a running game, which explains the addition of Donald Brown. But Brown is also talented and reliable enough to take touches away from Mathews on all three downs. While the Chargers still view Mathews as their lead back, they do like to use more than just one back, and with Danny Woodhead still a member of this backfield, the Chargers have a very interesting backfield. In Brown, they have a back who’s a little like Mathews, and a little like Woodhead, so this is a pretty intriguing backfield heading into 2014. Mathews is still the most talented of the bunch by far, but with him, even if he’s healthy, you’re always worried about role, touches, 3rd-down work, etc. And since the Charger GM knows and likes Brown from his days in Indy, now you worry a little more.
Trent Richardson (RB, Ind) – Richardson in 2013 was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, so earlier this year, I figured I’d pull a Colt beat writer aside at the Combine to get his thoughts and possibly gain some clarity on Richardson – and he literally had nothing to offer. No one really knew what was/is going through Richardson’s head, but he did admit in late-April that he was too often looking for the big play. That was fairly evident on film, as he missed a lot of rushing lanes and creases once he joined the Colts. He simply looked washed up physically and completely out of sync mentally. The team brought the free agent Ahmad Bradshaw back for another try, and Vick Ballard’s comeback from his knee injury has gone well. Staving off Bradshaw and Ballard doesn’t seem too hard in theory, but it’s really tough to shrug off Richardson’s ugly season and 2.9 YPC in 2013. I feel like Bradshaw could average 4.0 YPC behind this mediocre OL blindfolded. There were some glimmers of hope with Richardson in the passing game, at least. After posting a terrible 50.0% catch rate and 3.89 YPT in the first half of the season, Richardson jumped to 76.5% and 7.24 YPT in the second half, the latter number being well-above league average. That helps, but Bradshaw and Ballard are both excellent in pass-protection, so they’re threats. Bradshaw is obviously a major injury risk, but this much is pretty clear: A healthy Bradshaw could easily be a better performer and producer than T-Rich if the team bails on an ineffective T-Rich. Updated: 4/23
David Wilson (RB, NYG) – Wilson’s at least among the living still. While Wilson (neck) said he is still waiting for a clear MRI to be medically cleared, he revealed in late-April that he’s currently ahead of schedule. The Giants won’t count too much on Wilson with Rashad Jennings added, but a healthy Wilson will certainly be a factor in this backfield, and it’s worth mentioning that Jennings does have a pretty lengthy injury history. It’s too early to make any stat projections for Wilson, but at least things seem to be progressing well. Updated: 4/23
Stepfan Taylor (RB, Ari) – Not that there was much to cling to, but Taylor’s chances of taking over the “plodder” role in this backfield took a hit with the signing of Jonathan Dwyer. And now even Ryan Williams might be getting a chance to reclaim the #3 job. He’s entering only his second season, and he’s still in the mix for this role even over Dwyer if he has a great training camp. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that Taylor’s lack of speed and quickness are going to severely limit his chances in the NFL.
Stevie Johnson (WR, Buf) – Johnson was incredibly consistent for three years from 2010-2012, going over 1000 yards receiving each season, but that streak ended in 2013. Although he played all 16 games those previous three seasons, he was on the injury report a lot, and in 2013 those injury issues finally caught up to him. Johnson battled groin, hip, and back issues basically all season long, and it didn’t help that he had to break in new quarterback this season in EJ Manuel, who wasn’t very good. Still, the Bills kicked the tires of a few free agent wideouts like DeSean Jackson and Kenny Britt and were thought to be interested in a WR with the 9th overall pick of May’s draft. And then they traded for troubled Buc wideout Mike Williams, who played for HC Doug Marrone at Syracuse. That begs the question of whether or not Johnson is on his way out in Buffalo. He just signed a 5-year deal in 2012, and he represents an $8.5 million cap hit this season, so he’s not likely going anywhere, at least not this year. But one of the reasons Johnson has been so consistently productive in Buffalo has been a lack of quality receivers around him and his role as the unquestioned go-to guy. Yet with Williams in the mix and second-year receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin showing promise last year, there are more quality mouths to feed. Even worse, Manuel showed little progress as a rookie and had serious injury issues. If Johnson’s on the roster come September, he’ll still be the No. 1 wideout here, but he’s less appealing than he’s been for several years.
Dexter McCluster (WR/RB, Ten) – I understand he could fill the Danny Woodhead role for Ken Whisenhunt, but McCluster has been much more of a fantasy nuisance than he’s been a fantasy factor. Last year, in McCluster’s best season to date, he caught 53 passes for 512 yards (9.7 YPC) and 2 TDs on 82 targets (64.6% catch rate) for 7.8 FPG. That was good for only 68th in the league at WR in a PPR. We’ll know a lot more about his role in the summer, but he’s a “we’ll see” more so because we have to see what they do in the draft. Clearly, RB is one of their top needs, and they could easily get two solid prospects in rounds 2-5, so in my opinion, McCluster’s value is still hanging in limbo.
Aaron Dobson (WR, NE) – I believe Dobson is the best long-term WR prospect on the team right now, but it’s disconcerting how his availability for the OTAs and minicamps are in question as he recovers from March foot surgery to repair a stress fracture. There’s no negative information on him just yet other than the surgery itself, but it does look like Dobson will miss some key preparation time in the off-season, which won’t help his development. Updated: 4/23
Jerricho Cotchery (WR, Car) – You may not believe it, but Cotchery was actually in the league and on the Steelers in 2011-2012, not that you’d know it from his production. Cotchery played 25 games during that span, but he totaled only 33/442/2 those two seasons. But as we know, he really made the most of his targets last season, and he became a favorite of Big Ben’s in the red zone. He scored a whopping 10 TDs on 22 red-zone targets, finishing the year with 46/607/10 (13.2 YPC) on 76 targets (60.5% catch rate). He’s clearly better off playing exclusively in the slot, but Cotchery essentially looks like their Steve Smith replacement, but they may not have a typical “No. 1” receiver this year. This is a running team that ranked 30th in pass attempts last year, and they view the WR position as one that will divvy up only 10 catches per game. To put that into perspective, the Bronco WRs split up 17 receptions per game. Cotchery is a savvy veteran who will help their young players grow, but there won’t be a lot of production to go around in 2014 in what looks like a WRBC with 3-4 WRs involved. That includes Jason Avant, who is a similar player to Cotchery and also mostly plays the slot. Updated: 4/23
Marquess Wilson (Chi) – Wilson is a dynasty league guy only at this point, but with Earl Bennett released, he looked like he was going to get the first crack at replacing him. Bennett played roughly 50% of their snaps last year, so he was on the field a lot. Wilson is a nice-sized receiver at 6’4” with consistent pass-catching skills, and the club was pleased with his football IQ and consistency. He’s not a vertical threat, so he’s more of a possession guy, but they feel he can be elusive in the open field and avoid being jammed at the line with solid route-running. Wilson played only 75 snaps in 2014, but he opened some eyes with his 4 catches for 82 yards in their preseason opener, including a long 58-yard catch and run. Wilson had some character questions coming out of college but he has talent. The Bears would love to see him better Bennett’s 2013 production of 32/243/4, but they did recently add veteran Josh Morgan. Morgan is a veteran who excels as a blocker and can be a solid #3. If Morgan has a good summer, I’d have to think he will be their #3, so Wilson may have to wait a little longer to get an opportunity. Updated: 4/23
Travis Kelce (TE, KC) – Kelce was officially “medically cleared” this week, and head coach Andy Reid initially said that he’s “progressing well and doing everything,” but Reid didn’t give a reporter friend of mine a definitive answer about where Kelce is returning from microfracture surgery on his knee. Reid essentially said that Kelce can do “what they’re doing now,” which isn’t much in April. It’s a good sign, but we’re not going to know about Kelce’s 2014 value until the draft (they could certainly draft one of the top 4-5 TEs available this year) and until training camp. There’s definite potential in this TE-friendly offense, and with QB Alex Smith seemingly unwilling to throw the ball much down the field and outside the numbers. But while the latest news is encouraging, Kelce’s value is still more in limbo than anything else. Updated: 4/23
Scott Chandler (TE, Buf) – The Bills have been a hard team to predict when it comes to the draft recently, but even though they re-signed the UFA Chandler to a 2-year deal this off-season, an athletic upgrade at the position is still in play – as early as their 7th overall pick, which would be North Carolina’s Eric Ebron. The reliable and consistent Chandler was coming off an ACL injury suffered in 2012, but he actually led the team in receiving last season, with 53 catches for 655 yards (12.4 YPC) and 2 TDs on 81 targets (65.4% catch rate). HC Doug Marrone threw his support behind Chandler early in the off-season, and the team backed up that up by giving him a new contract. But it’s clear that they are trying to bring as many difference-makers as possible in to help their shaky QB. If they pull the trigger on a TE in the first 2-3 rounds, it would definitely hurt Chandler.
Levine Toilolo (TE, Atl) – Toilolo was the only other Falcon TE to catch a pass in 2013, finishing with 11/55/2 on 14 targets (78.6% catch rate). I’ve been waiting on free agency and the NFL draft before commenting on Toilolo in the post-Tony Gonzalez era, but it doesn’t sound as if the Falcons are going to draft an impact TE this May, and they’ve already let free agency pass without a notable addition at the position. QB Matt Ryan has been complimentary of Toilolo, and he’s put on some weight this off-season, which was needed. Toilolo is extremely raw, but he’s a big guy (6’8”, 260 pounds) who could become an effective red-zone target and run blocker. He’s considered a project, but it seems as if he’s making progress, and he’s definitely putting in the work this off-season. The general consensus on Toilolo is that he’s probably not a #1 TE in the NFL, but he could be for the Falcons this year, so we’ll see what the draft has in store. Updated: 4/23
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