Contract Year Players
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Fantasy owners looking for an edge have always looked to players in the final years of their contracts, hoping to find some fantasy options who might be a little more motivated than usual.
But quite frankly, upon review of last year’s contract year player article, the results weren’t very good. We’re confident that most NFL players are highly motivated each year, regardless of their contract status, and in some cases being in a contract year can be a distraction and actually a negative (see: Cruz, Victor).
But despite a lack of great examples of a contract-year player putting up big numbers in 2012, we do think examining the list of players in the final year of their contracts is a worthy endeavor. That’s because, over the long haul, you’re still going to find that added competition and motivation can be a positive for players looking to cash in once the season is complete. At the very least, if you’re completely torn between two players of seemingly equal value, it does make sense to lean toward the option who will be gunning for a free agency payday.
Below you’ll find a comprehensive list of 2013’s contract-year players, along with some analysis and insight as to why they may be a little more motivated than usual.
Jay Cutler (Chi) – This is an interesting year for Cutler, who’ll have to play in a contract year in yet another new offense this season. Fortunately, the team has brought in an innovative HC in Mark Trestman. Trestman has had his most recent success as the HC of the Montreal Alouettes, but he has also had success at the NFL level with some high-end QBs. Trestman wants to take advantage of Cutler’s athleticism, specifically mentioning his use of the pistol, shotgun, and zone-read schemes while in Montreal. He also made a point to say his 2002 offense in Oakland under Rich Gannon was a no-huddle team. We’re friends with Gannon – who’s now an NFL analyst – and he loves the fit of Cutler and Trestman, for what it’s worth. We’re expecting Trestman to take what was a very boring offense last year to the next level, since we know Cutler is a talented player with a great arm, who should be putting up better numbers with talent around him. The new system will be a challenge for Cutler, but while it would be an upset to see him sign elsewhere, it’s still a big season for him to prove he’s worth the big bucks. He has to finally prove he can play at a consistent level, and with a solid supporting cast around him, including Trestman, this is a great time for Cutler to do just that.
Josh Freeman (TB) – The 2013 season is absolutely huge for Freeman. His head coach has backed off the QB competition talk that dominated the spring, so as we wrote shortly after the draft, there is no real QB controversy in Tampa. But if Freeman doesn’t take a noticeable step forward this season, and especially if he regresses again and continues his erratic play, then the Buccaneers could turn the page on him and allow him to sign elsewhere in 2014. The Glennon pick was made to give them a viable alternative if that happens. It’s worth noting that the Bucs had a new system under OC Mike Sullivan last year, and it’s considered a complex scheme since both the QB and receivers make their adjustments based on how they read the defense. Freeman seems more comfortable in the system this off-season, so he’s fortunate to have a year in the scheme under his belt before his critical 2013 contract season. If his consistency and accuracy improve and the offense is successful, then the Bucs would be happy to lock him up for the long-term. If not, and he has another disturbingly uneven season, he could be gone. It’s obviously a big year for him, but we know he’s a good fit for the scheme on paper and is going to do whatever it takes to excel.
Michael Vick (Phi) – What’s interesting about Vick is that the Eagles may prefer for him to not be their starter this year. Since he’s an UFA after 2013, Philly would have to consider paying him for at least another two years – at a hefty price – if Vick won the job and surprised with a great season. Meanwhile second-year man Nick Foles, who may actually be better than Vick because of a superior clock in his head and ability to get rid of the ball quickly, will cost next to nothing the next few years. That could be why Foles is likely dead even with Vick in their position battle as camp kicks off this year. Or it could be that Foles is legitimately being considered over Vick for football reasons. Regardless, this upcoming season is a big one for Vick, and he has every reason to succeed. This coming season could be his last chance to earn a significant multi-year deal, so motivation will certainly not be an issue for the veteran. For now, the arrow is pointing downward on Vick, and he has to change that.
Chad Henne (Jac) – While Henne doesn’t really jump off the page as a potential long-term starting QB in the NFL, he does have good size and a strong arm, and he’s still only 28 years old. So it’s not inconceivable that a team would consider him as a potential answer at QB. He’ll have a position battle this summer with former #1 pick Blaine Gabbert, and while Gabbert may have the edge heading into training camp because of his high draft status and contract, Gabbert has shown few signs of being the future in his first two seasons. When he took over the starting job last year, Henne was told he’d be auditioning for the starting job in 2013. He got off to a great start in Week Eleven, putting up 354 yards and 4 TDs, but was mostly up-and-down the rest of the way. Still, he was clearly better than Gabbert, and from Week Eleven on, when he was their starter, he was actually the 14th best fantasy QB, with 20.8 PPG (he did throw 10 INTs to 10 TDs). Motivation won’t be an issue for Henne in 2013, since he’ll have to impress the new coaching staff and since he has an outside chance to emerge from the ’13 season as the guy for the Jags. We don’t exactly see him as being a great fit for the new offense, which will be more up-tempo and fast-paced. But if he performs well this year, the Jags may consider offering him a solid contract offer next spring, when he’ll be free to sign with any team.
Shaun Hill (Det) – After battling injuries throughout his first two seasons, Lion starter Matthew Stafford has managed to play every game over the last two years, so Hill hasn’t exactly been on the radar for fantasy. But back in 2010, when he played significant snaps in nine games, Hill attempted 40+ passes in six of those. The ultimate “volume QB,” Hill showed he can produce if he’s throwing the ball a ton, so even if Stafford doesn’t have another injury problem, the Lions should be inclined to keep Hill around. But at 33 years old and with a mediocre at best arm and very limited athleticism, it’s hard to envision another team pining for his services as anything more than a veteran backup.
Colt McCoy (SF) – At this point, it’s already clear that McCoy doesn’t have the necessities to start in the NFL. Not only does he lack the arm strength necessary to drive the ball downfield, but he’s also missed on too many short and intermediate throws. A weak-armed quarterback can compensate by being an effective timing-and-rhythm passer in a West Coast scheme, but McCoy has been unable to deliver the ball with consistent accuracy. McCoy is mobile, at least, and he’s competitive, but he looks like a career backup going forward. He’ll have the 2013 season to show the 49ers that he’s worth hanging on to as a backup to Colin Kaepernick. Otherwise, he’ll have to find a new backup gig elsewhere.
Rex Grossman (Was) – Give Grossman credit for sticking here and earning a roster spot with the Redskins in 2012. But he didn’t take a single snap as the #3 last year, and he’ll need a lot of help if he’s to get on the field this year. Even if he does, there won’t be much of a market for a 33-year old who’s been a turnover machine in the past.
Brady Quinn (Sea) – Quinn doesn’t have a great arm, so he needs to be a precise, quick-tempo QB. But he’s simply not that player. Unfortunately for him, it’s clear now that he will never be good enough to even merit starting consideration. Seattle brought him in this past spring to be the new backup for Russell Wilson, but then they re-acquired veteran Tarvaris Jackson, who not only played in Seattle recently, but he also a much better backup option. Sadly for Quinn, he’ll probably be an UFA each year for the rest of his NFL career.
Derek Anderson (Car) – If it seems like a lifetime ago that Anderson accounted for 32 TDs as the starter for the Browns, that’s because it was. While this phenomenon occurred is only 2007, the league has changed since then and statue-like QBs with erratic arms aren’t exactly in demand. Anderson’s 30 now, and with Rob Chudzinski – who ran the Brown offense back in ’07 – back in Cleveland, but the Panthers will likely look to find a younger backup after Anderson’s contract is up heading into the 2014 campaign. Even if they decide to keep him around, he still has zero value.
David Carr (NYG) – Carr has 61 pass attempts his last five seasons, and that’s exactly how it should be because he isn’t very good at NFL football. He’s 31 now, so he’s not exactly a fossil, but he’s a backup all the way. His days with the Giants are numbered because Big Blue used a 4th-round pick on Ryan Nassib, who actually has a future in the NFL.
Dan Orlovsky (TB) – Orlovsky should be a free agent every year, so you’re not going to find much optimism here. He could certainly be beaten out this summer by the rookie Mike Glennon who is, at worst, the #2 QB going forward for the Bucs. It just remains to be seen if Glennon can move past the veteran Orlovsky on the depth chart this year. Regardless, there’s no reason to care about Orlovsky.
Kellen Clemens (Stl) – A former 2nd-round pick of the Jets, Clemens was signed by the Rams late in 2011 and was actually forced to start for them with less than two weeks to prepare. He had a good showing the final two games of that season and earned a two-year contract, which is up after this year. He looks like a valuable backup here, so he should return as long as he’s not asking for too much money.
Josh McCown (Chi) – The veteran McCown is already 34 years old, so his career is winding down. In fact, before getting picked up by the Bears in 2011 due to a Jay Cutler injury, he didn’t have an NFL career, as McCown was out of the league. If he’s called upon again this year and does well, the Bears may be inclined to keep him around, since they don’t really have a strong developmental QB on the roster.
Luke McCown (NO) – McCown was signed and then cut by the Saints in 2012, but he’s back for 2013. The Saints lost long-time veteran Chase Daniel as their backup, so McCown should be the #2 behind Drew Brees. But at 31 years old and with only 9 TDs versus 14 INTs on his NFL resume, it’s safe to say he’ll be a journeyman type the rest of his career.
Charlie Whitehurst (SD) – Whitehurst was acquired by the Seahawks in March of 2010, and Seattle gave up a 3rd-round pick to get him from San Diego and then signed him to a two-year, $8 million contract, despite the fact that he had no starting experience. Whitehurst's short stint in Seattle was unsuccessful, and he signed back with the Chargers in 2012 with a two-year deal. That contract will end after the 2013 season, but it’s a new system in San Diego and the new regime has no ties to him. Clearly, Whitehurst’s chances of starting in the NFL at this point are slim-to-none.
Seneca Wallace (NO) – Wallace was out of the league last year and is already 33 years old, so he’s not exactly someone on the radar. He was brought in after the team lost backup Chase Daniel to free agency, but Wallace is only the #3.
Caleb Hanie (Bal) – Remember that time Hanie entered into the NFC title game for an injured Jay Cutler and actually played well? Neither do we. Hanie’s not a legitimate backup QB in the NFL, and he plays behind one of the most durable QBs in the league in Joe Flacco, so there’s nothing to see here.
Curtis Painter (NYG) – For a second there, we actually thought Painter had a chance when he was starting for the Colts in 2011. But he may not even make the team, since the veteran David Carr will be the #2 and they drafted Ryan Nassib.
Jimmy Clausen (Car) – Yes, he’s still in the league. But no one cares.
Maurice Jones-Drew (Jac) – This is a huge year for MJD. Mired in a dreadful situation in Jacksonville for years and basically losing a contract dispute last year, he’ll be free to get the hell out of town next year. Not that Jones-Drew needs motivation because he’s an incredibly motivated guy, but it helps. Jones-Drew’s foot issue was still prevalent as camp was ready to kick off, and his slow return this off-season caused him to report to the team’s off-season conditioning out of shape. The new offense is expected to be a lot more fast-paced this year, and MJD is hoping to play this year at 205 pounds, which is 10-12 pounds lighter than he played last year. The offense should certainly emphasize the run, and new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has been creative with his RBs in the passing game in the past. Jones-Drew playing at a lighter weight could be a positive, since he already has natural power and could use an infusion of juice at this point in his career. You’d have to think that MJD is ready to move on to a new team, and the hope is that he can find a great opportunity the way Steven Jackson did this year. But first and foremost, he has to prove he can stay on the field and play at a high level this year.
Darren McFadden (Oak) – We liked McFadden last year and he fell way short of expectations. Frankly, it wasn’t all about McFadden himself in 2012; we really liked the idea of going RB-RB early in drafts, and as you can see, that is the trend in 2013. We were mainly trying to stay ahead of the curve, and we saw the depth at QB and determined that going RB-heavy early was a good play. It was, but even though McFadden himself told us he was very comfortable in a zone-blocking scheme last August, he flopped. Since we advocated him, we watched him closely all year – and he did run extremely hard. It’s frustrating when you put some faith in an organization’s decision-making, even if it seems questionable, and it backfires. In retrospect, changing their blocking scheme to suit their new OC Greg Knapp was dumb, but they’re back to running power in 2013, so McFadden has a chance. In his last four years he’s run mostly power two times and mostly zone two times. In the two power years, he averaged 5.2 and 5.4 yards per carry. In the two zone years, he averaged 3.4 and 3.3 yards per carry, so the evidence is clear. The offense isn’t going to be as good as it was last year, and the OL is a question, but we’re at least confident that McFadden will do whatever it takes to excel, and he will surely have all the motivation in the world to in the final year of his rookie deal. The best way to help their shaky QB is by making a major commitment to getting McFadden the ball as a runner and a receiver, and the best way for McFadden to get paid in 2014 is to come through and stay on the field.
Ahmad Bradshaw (Ind) – While he’s never missed many games before 2011, Bradshaw’s had troublesome feet and ankles throughout his career, and the Giants simply weren’t comfortable paying him with the promising David Wilson on the roster. Bradshaw missed four games in 2011 with a foot injury, and then neck issues and foot/knee problems cost Bradshaw two games in 2012. Although his toughness will never be questioned, he’s been injured for seemingly his entire career. The Colts certainly didn’t go “all in” on him by signing him to a one-year contract, so his long-term future is still up in the air. But Bradshaw’s still only 27, and the Colts offense is in good hands with QB Andrew Luck and some other talent at the skill positions. So if Bradshaw – who will give them upgrades in terms of blocking, receiving, and short-yardage work – can somehow avoid missing time, Indy could certainly be inclined to lock him up for another couple of seasons. On the flipside, if Bradshaw continues to deal with lingering injury problems and misses time, the organization could go in another direction.
Rashard Mendenhall (Ari) – Mendenhall is a player whose devotion to football has been questioned in the past, so it’s worth discussing how important the 2013 campaign is for him and how being in a contract year could be a factor that helps with his motivation. While it’s a good sign that his old Steeler offensive coach Bruce Arians brought him in, he signed only a one-year deal, so it’s essentially a “prove it” deal in Arizona. In addition to a questionable devotion to the game, injuries are a legit concern for Mendenhall. Mendenhall had played 47 consecutive games heading into 2011, but he tore his ACL in Week Seventeen of 2011, and it prevented him from returning until midway through the 2012 season. Mendenhall then lost time to an Achilles strain, so the last year was really a lost season for the veteran. Arians has said that he liked that Mendenhall is “a big back who never has to come out of the game,” ostensibly an endorsement of Mendenhall’s receiving skills and pass protection. He’ll clearly get the first crack at the lead job, but there will be competition from others, and if Mendenhall struggles behind a poor OL or has further physical ailment, then the Cards could conceivably turn to someone like Ryan Williams or possibly even rookie Stepfan Taylor. Taylor doesn’t move very well, but he was extremely productive in college, and he’s a versatile and reliable back. Overall we don’t have a ton of confidence in Mendenhall at this point, but the fact that he has to prove a lot to his new team in a contract year does certainly help.
Ben Tate (Hou) – It’s not easy to envision another team opening up its wallet for Tate, who’s had more than his share of injury issues and has missed six games and has been limited in others in just two seasons. But if he comes up big in 2013, that could change. With starter Arian Foster’s yards-per-touch numbers progressively getting worse the last two years, it’s very clear the Texans need to pull back from their usage of their workhorse and actively work Tate into the mix, as they did in 2011. Foster’s 4.0 yards-per-carry average was weak for him, and his yards-per-catch average of only 5.4 was downright pathetic. So we see an expansive role for Tate this year if he can stay healthy. If he has no injury problems and performs as he did in 2011, when he nearly hit 1000 yards rushing in a backup role and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, then he could be viewed as a possible lead back by another team in 2014. Tate will be free to sign anywhere after this season, so the 2013 campaign is a huge one for him.
Andre Brown (NYG) – Brown isn’t a stud, but he’s a strong, downhill runner with natural power who can excel in short-yardage and goal-line situations. In fact, he turned his 12 runs inside the five into 8 TDs and emerged as the goal-line back of choice last year over Ahmad Bradshaw. Brown carried for 73/385/8 and added 12/86 receiving, ranking 26th among all RBs with 9.5 FPG, which was not bad for a part-time player. Brown can be very efficient and productive in a rotational role, but he probably doesn’t have the lateral agility and quickness to be an ideal full-time player. And clearly, durability has been a major problem. He missed all of 2009 with an Achilles tear, and then he bounced around the league for a few years, dealing with toe injuries and other miscellaneous ailments. In 2012, he finally got his opportunity to handle a sizeable role, but he missed one game with a concussion, and five more with a broken leg. This is a guy who has played a total of 11 games in four NFL seasons, so he has a long way to go to prove he can be anything resembling durable. His value to the team in 2014 will be decided by a few things. For one, he has to remain available for the Giants. He also has to show he can play at the high level he played at in 2012. And finally, Brown’s value next year as a free agent could depend on how well David Wilson plays. If Wilson doesn’t have a breakout season and Brown doesn’t miss much time and is effective, his free agency outlook next year will look good. At the very least, Brown should be the goal line back and he’ll probably be the 3rd down back, since Wilson’s pass pro is still questionable. So even if Wilson has a breakout season, Brown could still prove to be a worthy investment for the Giants or another team.
Jonathan Dwyer (Pit) – A pure downhill runner with very limited lateral agility, Dwyer is hardly dynamic, but he has enough skill and short-area burst to be successful in a “power” offense. He has pretty good feet and speed for his size, and his ability to run through tackles should mean that he’s a solid role player for as long as he can stay healthy. But he isn’t much of a blocker or receiver, so he isn’t an ideal three-down guy. He’s also had some injury problems. Given his limitations and negatives, the Steelers felt the need to invest a 2nd round pick on RB Le’Veon Bell, who is expected to be the lead back in 2012. Keep in mind that in today’s NFL, a 2nd-round pick on a back is almost like a 1st-round pick on a RB 5-10 years ago. Even though he’s just a rookie, Bell should represent an upgrade over Dwyer in just about every area – running, receiving, pass protection, etc. – so while Dwyer was hanging in as the top back for most of their off-season workouts, the veteran may not have a lot of chances to prove he’s worth a new contract in 2014. But whatever opportunity Dwyer does get this year, he should be plenty motivated to show the Steelers and any possible suitor that he’s worth signing.
Donald Brown (Ind) – Brown isn’t a complete stiff, but it’s blatantly obvious now that he’ll never live up to the talent that made him a 1st-round pick in 2009. He’s a stiff and choppy runner with little power and lateral agility, and he doesn’t have breakaway speed. He’s also a little too small to be a full-time starter, and Brown has now missed extended time in three of his four professional seasons, as 2011 was the only year in which he played all 16 games. Brown has also now failed to reach 4.0 yards or more in three of his four seasons, so for all intents and purposes he’s “just a guy.” He may not have much of a chance to prove to another team that he’s worth looking into as a 2014 free agent, but if Ahmad Bradshaw misses more time with an injury, Brown would at least have a chance to get 10+ touches per game behind Vick Ballard. Overall there isn’t much reason for confidence, but Brown will at least have the extra motivation of being in a contract year in 2013.
Toby Gerhart (Min) – Gerhart has no shot to produce unless he’s getting mad volume, and he has no shot to get heavy volume unless there’s injury, so it will be interesting to see what happens here. The Vikings clearly overpaid for Gerhart in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, but in their defense, it was a terrible RB draft class and there hasn’t really been an impactful player drafted after him, other than maybe Ben Tate. As lame as he’s been, Gerhart is a valuable backup and can help the team in short-yardage and on 3rd down, so he does have value here playing behind Adrian Peterson.
LeGarrette Blount (NE) – The issues the Patriots have right now with their receiving corps could actually help Blount, since the Patriot running game should be more important to their offense than it’s been in years. That’s worth bringing up because, due to his fumbling issues, his lack of versatility, and the truth that he’s just not a very skilled runner, we weren’t even sure Blount would make the team (we’re actually still not sure he will). Even though he’s a big and bruising back, he’s actually a mediocre short-yardage option, due in large part to his propensity to dance behind the line and not press the hole and “hit it up in there” consistently. Blount simply doesn’t play to his size regularly enough. We’d guess that he’s the fourth option in this backfield behind backups Shane Vereen and Brandon Boldin, but while Boldin was very solid in 2012, he’s not a lock and did get suspended last year for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances and also missed time due to injury. But if Boldin is in the mix as expected, he has to get the edge over Blount because he’s a special team’s contributor. Regardless, Blount’s career has been in the toilet since the Bucs drafted Doug Martin, and he has every reason to excel this year to prove to another potential suitor that he’s worth a roster spot.
Felix Jones (Phi) – Jones has been frustrating because he has talent and he “looks the part,” but his inconsistencies and durability issues have derailed his career and prompted the Cowboys to let him go as a free agent this year. He signed on with the Eagles, but for only the 2013 season. Jones was clearly behind Bryce Brown as the team finished their mandatory minicamp, their final workout before training camp. He could face some competition for the final RB spot from second-year back Chris Polk. If Jones makes the team, he’ll likely handle a change-of-pace role and compete for a role as a KR. Obviously, it would behoove him to produce in whatever role he can get this year to prove to the Eagles or another team that he’s worth a look as a free again in 2014. Although he’s only the #3 at best, the Eagles will run the ball a ton this year, and Jones could get lucky with an injury or two to the backs ahead of him on the depth chart.
James Starks (GB) – Starks is a physical runner and a decent receiver, but he’ll always have injury problems because he runs too upright and takes a lot of hits. He’s not very sudden and is choppy when he makes lateral moves, plus he lacks breakaway speed. Listing him here could be a moot point by August’s end, since we think he’ll fail to make the team coming out of training camp. Needless to say, Starks will have motivation this preseason to show any potential suitors that he’s worth a shot if he’s released by the Packers this summer, as expected.
Montario Hardesty (Cle) – Hardesty projected well as a lead back coming out of Tennessee three years ago, but injuries have robbed him of some of his ability and he hasn’t looked as dynamic (for a bigger back) in the pros as he did in college. At his best, Hardesty is a power guy all the way, but he has shown an ability to make would-be tacklers miss. He’s also not a bad receiver, but it is certainly worth asking if Hardesty’s laundry list of injuries has sapped him of whatever upside he once had. He’s also been a little indecisive in the pros, which hasn’t helped. He’s missed 25 of his first 48 NFL games, so he won’t likely be a hot commodity in the free agent market in 2014. However, if starter Trent Richardson has more injury problems and Hardesty gets a chance, he could increase his free agency value next season with a good showing. Although he didn’t look as good during the regular season as he did in the preseason, when he looked trimmer and quicker, he did look better in 2012.
La'Rod Stephens-Howling (Pit) – The diminutive Stephens-Howling was actually the Cardinals’ leading rusher in 2012, playing 14 games and posting 111/357/4 rushing (3.2 YPC) and 17/106/0 receiving while playing 32.1% of the team’s offensive snaps. LSH had two 100-yard performances (Weeks Seven and Eleven), but he topped 25 yards rushing only once more the entire season, which isn’t surprising, considering he should be a rotational player at best. He’s very small at 5’7” and 185 pounds, but he’s very quick and has a good burst through the hole, much like Darren Sproles, so he could carve a niche as a changeup and 3rd-down back who gets 3-5 carries a game as well as some pass targets. The man they call “Hyphen” is also an extremely gifted and dangerous return man. While Steeler OC Todd Haley has ties to the Cardinals, he missed LSH by a season in Arizona, so he hasn’t coached him. But the organization did sign Stephens-Howling for Haley’s offense, so we would assume the team will actually utilize him. They signed him to only a one-year deal, so LSH should have plenty of motivation to prove he’s worth a new contract in 2014.
Isaac Redman (Pit) – Redman isn’t overly talented, but he’s a big back who uses his size and natural power well, and he can produce if he’s given volume. But in 2012, he developed a fumbling problem and that issue coupled with the fact that he’ll be 29 already in the fall prompted the team to invest a high 2nd-round pick on Le’Veon Bell, which doesn’t bode well for Redman. The team also signed free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling, who offers more potential as a 3rd-down back and special team player. Redman believes there’s room for 2-3 RBs to have an active role in the offense, and he’s shed about 10 pounds this year in order to help him move a little better, so he at least is fighting hard for a roster spot and to remain in the team’s plans.
Ronnie Brown (SD) – Brown has carved out a niche in the latter stages of his career as a changeup back who will avoid mistakes on third downs and catch the ball effectively. He has great hands and takes care of the football, plus he excels in pass protection, which has earned him a roster spot the last couple of seasons. We thought he might be done going into 2012, but he looked surprisingly solid as a receiver and even also as a runner. Brown re-signed for one season back in March, which was a good sign considering the new coaching staff was on board then, but that new staff also signed former Patriot Danny Woodhead, so Brown may not be a major part of their backfield this year. Regardless, at this late stage of his career, Brown will likely play every remaining season as a pending free agent.
Rashad Jennings (Oak) – Jennings did a fine job as the Jags’ #2 behind Maurice Jones-Drew in 2010, but he missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury and was a huge disappointment in 2012. With MJD injured early in the season, Jennings stepped into the starting role, but he was sluggish and appeared to have trouble handling the heavier workload. He battled concussion issues and a shoulder injury that eventually landed him on the injured reserve after Week Thirteen. The Raiders are hoping he rebounds to becoming the guy who averaged 5.2 YPC in 2009, but that seems like a pipe dream based on his recent play. Jennings will try to secure the #2 job in Oakland, but he’ll face stiff competition from the rookie Latavius Murray, who is simply more talented. If Murray can handle everything thrown at him from a mental perspective, he should be the handcuff to Darren McFadden. The Raiders also still have FB Marcel Reece, who can play RB if need be. But at least motivation shouldn’t be a problem for Jennings, who should be fighting for a roster spot every year until he retires.
Leon Washington (NE) – Washington and the Patriots agreed to a one-year deal this past spring, so he will be an UFA next winter. Washington has been one of the best return men in football, and he was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler last season, returned 27 kickoffs for 784 yards (29.0 average) and 1 TD, and he added 41 punt returns for 356 yards (8.7 average). He finished second in the league in kickoff return average. Washington is really no longer viewed as an offensive threat, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots threw a couple wrinkles in to get Washington a few touches in their offense, especially with Danny Woodhead gone. Obviously, the team has fairly large plans for third-year back Shane Vereen, who finally started to come on late in the 2012 season. But if Vereen is hurt or is ineffective, Washington could get a look. Of course, he had just 23 carries for 83 yards and 1 TD and 4 catches for 31 yards last season in Seattle, and he hasn’t been a fantasy force since 2008.
Joe McKnight (NYJ) – McKnight is a versatile and quick player who can catch the ball out of the backfield and make defenders miss in the open field. Those are usually valuable assets for an NFL team, but McKnight’s 31 touches in 2012 were a career low, so he’s not exactly an ascending player. If McKnight makes the final roster, however, he could have a chance to actually do something. New OC Marty Mornhinweg has utilized smaller, quicker, and versatile backs in his offense in the past, and McKnight has seen some time working the slot in their off-season workouts. Clearly, McKnight has to take advantage of any opportunity presented to him in 2013, since he will be shown the door if he has another underwhelming season. So his conditioning better not be an issue this summer and he’d better be ready to show us the best he has to offer this coming season.
Da'Rel Scott (NYG) – There’s probably a reason Scott hasn’t done a thing in the pros, but he has flashed in the preseason before with his breakaway speed and solid size. He’s entering the final year of his rookie deal, and he’ll battle veteran Ryan Torain and possibly undrafted rookie Michael Cox, who impressed the team in the spring. We’d have to give him the edge over both players, since he has experience in the system and has intriguing homerun speed. If David Wilson proves himself to be not exactly ready for prime time, it’s possible the Giants start working Scott into the mix. That would be wonderful timing for the former Maryland Terrapin.
Bernard Scott (Cin) – Scott tore his ACL just five games into the 2012 season, so with Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead added in the draft and solid veteran Cedric Peerman re-signed with a two-year contract, he has an uphill climb to make the team in 2013. The Bengals had hoped Scott would emerge as a nice #2 complementary back, but that was never the case, thus the drafting of Bernard as the first RB taken in the 2013 draft. Scott’s biggest workload came in 2011, when he ran 112 times for 380 yards and 3 TDs with 13/38 in the passing game. His role in the passing game has always been extremely limited, so we can’t call him versatile. There is a chance he can open the season on PUP, as he wouldn’t take up a precious roster space. That could actually be his best chance to stick in 2013.
Tashard Choice (Buf) – After showing so much promised off the bench in Dallas his first two seasons in 2008-2009 Choice has been merely “a guy” the last three years. He was traded to Bills midway through the 2011 season to play for his old college coach in Chan Gailey, but he never really made an impact. He’ll be the #3 if he’s lucky this year, so he’ll obviously need to take full advantage of any opportunity he gets in 2013. The only chance he has is if C.J. Spiller and/or Fred Jackson get hurt, but at 29 this fall, Choice’s chances are running out.
Anthony Dixon (SF) – Dixon was a late-round pick back in 2010, but he’s never really stood out. He adds no value in the passing game, and his slow feet and propensity to dance behind the line have essentially neutralized his best attribute, which is his strength. He’s scored 2 TDs in each of his three seasons, but he’s also averaged a terrible 3.4, 3.0, and finally 3.7 yards per carry his last three seasons. He’s been lucky to make the roster before, as the ugly situation with Brandon Jacobs helped him stick in 2012. This year, the status of rookie Marcus Lattimore – likely landing on PUP or even IR – along with the return if Kendall Hunter coming back from an Achilles might help Dixon squeeze another pro season out of the 49ers. But he’s not really in their long-term plans, nor will he be in the long-term plans of any team.
Restricted Free Agents
Joique Bell (Det) – Bell has kicked around the league a little while now, finally earning an official roster spot with the Lions last year at 26 years old. A big back with soft hands, Bell has surprising straight-line speed for a guy his size (220 pounds). He’s best when he gets out into space and can turn the jets on, as he isn’t as effective in a confined area. That’s why he was effective running out of shotgun and spread formations, and he also projects as a player who can contribute as a return man. Bell was a real revelation for the Lions last year, with 899 yards from scrimmage on 31.9% of their offensive snaps. He was a better big-play threat and receiver than Mikel Leshoure, and we think he could be in line for playing time again this year, despite the addition of veteran Reggie Bush, because he was that good last year. He’ll need to keep proving his worth, but in the final year of 2-year deal signed last year, he should be plenty motivated to show he can help this offense.
Deji Karim (Hou) – Karim showed some promise very early in his career with the Jags, but he’s ultimately never really panned out. He’ll face serious competition from rookies Dennis Johnson, Ray Graham and Cierre Wood. Wood is considered the favorite, since he projects best as a lead back in their system and could possible settle as the backup in 2014 if Ben Tate departs as a free agent. Regardless of how this backfield shakes out, there’s not much to see here with Karim.
Phillip Tanner (Dal) – Tanner is a local player who made the Dallas roster in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, and for a moment there that season he was a factor. But he was getting phased out in the second half of 2012, as speedy changeup Lance Dunbar emerged. Even worse for Tanner, the Cowboys Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle, and signed another undrafted back this spring (Kendial Lawrence). Tanner is doing what he can to make the roster, though. He’s lost some weight this off-season and worked on his quickness and explosiveness, so he’s already fighting hard for a place on his roster.
Barron Batch (Pit) – With veterans Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman under contract, LaRod-Stephens Howling brought in as a free agent, and Le’Veon Bell brought in via the draft, Batch is facing an uphill climb if he’s to make the final roster.
Marcel Reese (Oak) – While the league’s evolution has made FBs less relevant the last 5-6 years, especially in terms of offensive production, you can’t pigeonhole Reece into being just a FB. One of the more versatile and athletic players no one knows about, Reece can play FB, RB, TE, and even some WR (where he played in college). His skill set occasionally makes him one of the more intriguing flex options in deeper fantasy leagues. Reece has the speed and route-running skills to get open downfield, and he has enough wiggle to make defenders miss in the open field, plus he’s done well enough as a runner when called upon. He’s the type of player who is much more valuable to an NFL team than to a fantasy teams, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute when given a shot – as he did in 2012. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this backfield with Darren McFadden signed only through 2013 as well, but the Raiders would be wise to keep this versatile player around. If Reece gets another large opportunity this year due to another McFadden injury, he could parlay that into a larger free agent payday than anyone would have expected a year or two ago.
Brian Leonard (TB) – Leonard will provide some off-season depth for the Bucs, as he’s a versatile back who can swing between tailback and fullback. Just don’t expect much for fantasy. With the Bengals in 2012, his numbers included rushing 33 times for 106 yards and adding 11/67 on 15 pass targets in 15 games. He’ll compete for snaps and provide the Bucs some added cushion behind Doug Martin, and he should help them in a 3rd-down role at times. If he proves worthy of playing time over their other younger backs and excels, Leonard could stick here a couple of seasons.
John Kuhn (GB) – After scoring 4 TDs in his previous two seasons, the man we used to call “The Vulture” crossed the stripe only one time in 2013. His number of carries has gone from 84 to 30 to only 23 last year, and his roster spot is in jeopardy. The Packers are very deep at RB and will have to cut at least one of their “name” players, plus they have a lot of young prospects at TE that could pinch Kuhn out. Regardless, fantasy owners shouldn’t really lose much sleep over Kuhn.
Hakeem Nicks (NYG, 25) – The Giants and Nicks don’t appear to be close to making a deal, especially since the Giants locked up fellow WR Victor Cruz to a long-term contract in early July. Preliminary talks stalled quickly between the two sides, and it now appears that they are highly unlikely to strike a deal before the season. This is setting up to be a pivotal season for Nicks, who certainly has a lot to play for in 2013. If he can put up some big numbers this season, Nicks has a chance to earn some serious money. After all, he’s more of a prototypical “#1” WR than Cruz, and he’s more physically gifted. But there is a reason the Giants chose to lock Cruz up first. Of course, Nicks’ biggest problems since he came into the league in 2009 are his constant nagging injuries, which sapped his play last season. The Giants already have his potential replacement waiting in the wings in second-year WR Rueben Randle, so Nicks’ health and Randle’s play this season will go a long way in deciding where Nicks signs next season. It’s a monster year for Nicks, and he’s perhaps the best example of a true “contract year” guy in this article.
Eric Decker (Den, 26) – If Decker has another season like his 2012 campaign he could be due for a lucrative contract from the Broncos in 2014. Decker is in the final year of his rookie, entry-level contract as a 3rd-round pick in 2010. It could be a big season for the Broncos’ WR corps, then. Fellow WR Demaryius Thomas isn’t due to become a free agent until 2015, but the Broncos could look to lock him up to a long-term deal next summer as well. The Broncos are expected to keep both players in the fold for the long haul, so Decker just needs to keep up his high level of play to secure another deal. But Decker could be due for a bit of drop-off this season, after posting 85/1064/13 last season. After all, WR Wes Welker is also in the mix now, and he’s expected to take away some targets from Decker. Still, as long as Decker keeps up his level play without a significant regression (and there’s no reason to think he can’t with Peyton Manning at QB), he should be able to lock up a second contract with the Broncos. It’s also not unreasonable to believe if he blows up further in 2013 that he could be priced out of Denver’s market, since the Broncos have two studs at WR signed through 2014.
Jeremy Maclin (Phi, 25) – Maclin and the Eagles have had preliminary contract talks this off-season, but no deal appears imminent before training camp. Maclin doesn’t believe the two sides will reach a deal before next off-season, and he knows that this season is critical if he is to stay in Philadelphia. Maclin even told ESPN.com in June that his next contract will be based on how he plays in 2013. That’s because he’s been a pretty consistent outside wide receiver, yet he probably hasn’t delivered on his near-elite ability. In addition, his role in Chip Kelly’s new offense has really yet to be seen. If he can establish himself n the Eagles’ new offense, he should be a player the Eagles won’t want to let go as they try to transition quickly back to contention. For his part, Maclin has said this summer that he doesn’t want to leave the Eagle organization, so he just needs to prove that he’s still valuable to keep around. Kelly has said since being hired that playing time will be based on merit, so Maclin has to earn his snaps and his salary.
Mike Williams (TB, 26) – Williams described his contract extension talks with the Buccaneers in early June as being “very close” to complete. The negotiations are still ongoing as of early July, but the Tampa Bay Times described the deal as “still within striking distance.” He’s reportedly seeking something in the five-year, $36 million range. While he might not have enough pull to get over $7 million per year, the Bucs have categorized the Williams’ deal as a priority because they believe they can retain him at a better rate than they would if he hit the open market next off-season. Of course, Williams is the team’s #2 WR behind Vincent Jackson, who is already locked into a five-year, $55 million deal. But the addition of Jackson helped free up Williams, and he rebounded with a really strong 2012. Coming off a 63/996/9 campaign, he’s a valuable asset the Bucs can’t afford to let walk, especially since they have nothing behind him in terms of a legit prospect.
Emmanuel Sanders (Pit, 26) – Sanders nearly walked this off-season as a restricted free agent, but the Steelers matched the $2.5 million, one-year offer from the Patriots. Sanders and the Steeler engaged in some contract talks this off-season, but the Steelers lacked cap size and, understandably, want to see if Sanders can handle the #2 WR job behind Antonio Brown with Mike Wallace moved on to Miami. The Steelers are obviously reluctant to pony up big money for a third-year WR with career numbers of just 96/1290/5. On the flip side of that equation, they clearly saw enough out of him the last three years as a backup that they wanted to give him a shot as the #2 WR. The veteran Sanders has a legit chance of becoming a coveted asset next off-season if he can breakout in his suddenly expanded role. He has the talent, so he just has to polish his game with the expected increase in role. At the least, the Patriots sure could use him right now.
James Jones (GB, 29) – The Packers let veteran WR Greg Jennings walk this off-season, so they’re clearly comfortable with giving Jones more responsibility next season in Jennings’ place. He already had a significant role last season with Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and Jones will play a pivotal role in the offense this season. The loss of Jennings also left the Packers extremely thin at WR, with the unproven Jarrett Boykin as the top backup, so it was a bit strange not to see any reported contract talks between Jones and the Packers, tight-lipped as Ted Thompson and company may be. Jones has never put up huge catch or yardage totals, but he proved to be a dangerous threat in the red zone, including 14 TDs last season. Jones isn’t loaded with talent, at least as much as Nelson or Randall Cobb, and he’ll be 30 years old next off-season, so his best bet is to put up solid numbers once again this season to prove his value to QB Aaron Rodgers. Keep in mind Jones was a FA just a couple of years ago, and he surprisingly signed back with the Packers at a very affordable price.
Anquan Boldin (SF, 32) – Boldin probably isn’t headed for another huge payday like the one he received from Baltimore three seasons ago (four-year, $25 million), but he could see some nice offers as a #2 WR if he can even come close to producing like he did during the Ravens’ postseason run. The 49ers traded for Boldin to come in to be the #2 WR for a season while their young talented WRs continued to develop, but that plan got thrown out the door after WR Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles injury this spring. Crabtree’s injury thrust Boldin into the #1 WR job for likely most of the season, so he’s got a prime chance to show what he’s worth to the 49ers and to the rest of the league. Boldin’s days of being a legit #1 WR are probably over, but he could have time left as a #2 WR if he can build on his postseason success. The opportunity is going to be there, for sure, and QB Colin Kaepernick needs a new safety blanket. If Boldin comes through in 2013 and their younger prospects do not, that would give the Niners – ready to compete for a championship right now – more reason to pony up and pay for a guy who will be 33 this October.
Kenny Britt (Ten, 24) – At one time, Britt looked primed to be a legit #1 WR and top-20 WR in the league, but knee injuries and off-the-field issues derailed him in recent years. Well, Britt has stayed out of trouble and experienced no knee issues this off-season, so 2013 is Britt’s chance to show that he’s worth big money. The Titans obviously and understandably were reluctant to extend Britt this off-season because of all his troubles, so he has a lot riding on the line this season. The Titans spent another high pick on a WR for the second consecutive year (Kendall Wright 1st-round in 2012, Justin Hunter 2nd-round in 2013), so they obviously have some options to turn to if Britt isn’t in their long-term plans. We can’t totally give up on someone this young with as much ability as Britt has, and he’ll also have the challenge of playing with inconsistent QB Jake Locker, but he could be someone to get for dirt cheap right now in a keeper league. Given the additions of Hunter and Wright, along with his checkered past, we’d have to think it will take a monster season from Britt to convince the team to lock him up.
Danario Alexander (SD, 25) – Alexander has always been ridiculously gifted, and he showed what he is capable of when he is healthy enough to stay on the field, with 37/658/7 in the 10 games after the Chargers signed him off the street. Alexander now needs to stay healthy enough for another season and continue to produce like a #1 WR in order to earn a nice payday (kind of like Laurent Robinson was able to do). Alexander’s faulty knees have been his downfall in the past, and it’s the reason why he drew almost no interest this off-season as a restricted free agent and re-signed to a one-year, $1.3 million deal in San Diego. The Chargers are prepared to move on without Alexander should he have any knee troubles, as they have young WRs Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen waiting in the wings. If Alexander can put together another healthy, productive season, he’ll definitely have a nice market for his services next off-season, but staying healthy has been a major if for Alexander in the past.
Darrius Heyward-Bey (Ind, 26) – DHB signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal this off-season that essentially works as a tryout for the upcoming season. He showed some of his potential in 2011 (64/975/4), but he came crashing down in 2012 (41/606/5), not surprising in the Raiders’ anemic offense (Carson Palmer was the only thing keeping them afloat). DHB landed on his feet this off-season, though, and he has a golden opportunity to get his career back on track in a potentially prolific passing offense. As the replacement for the departed Donnie Avery, he’ll get to catch passes from rising young star Andrew Luck and play alongside veteran WR Reggie Wayne in Indy. DHB will compete for targets and playing time with second-year WR T.Y. Hilton, who had a fantastic rookie campaign last season. Even if Hilton continues to progress, DHB will likely get the chance to carve out a pretty nice role, and DHB just has to show he can be a viable part of this Colt offense, or he’ll be looking for another one-year deal next off-season.
Jacoby Ford (Oak, 26) – Ford surely has the talent, and we loved what we saw a few years ago, but his inability to stay on the field has put his career on hold. He finally appears to be close to 100% heading into the preseason after two Lisfranc injuries ended his last two seasons. Still, Rod Streater has the upper hand on winning the #2 WR job behind the mercurial Denarius Moore, so Ford will likely see most of his time out of the slot, which is a good spot for him. The Raiders could also see a significant drop-off in QB play this season, but Ford’s biggest concern is actually just staying on the field. If Ford suffers yet another major injury this year, he could be fighting for an NFL career, but otherwise he could prove to be valuable as an NFL slot receiver this season. He has explosive talent, and he should get the opportunity to use it.
Jacoby Jones (Bal, 29) – Jones is basically the #2 WR in the Raven offense by default after they traded veteran WR Anquan Boldin, so he’s got a chance to be productive for fantasy. He’ll have to beat out some young WRs (Deonte Thompson, Tandon Doss, Tommy Streeter, even rookie Aaron Mellette) in training camp to win the job, which isn’t exactly a daunting task. Still, while he was among the Ravens’ key stars in last season’s playoffs, Jones has never shown the consistency to be a #2 WR, so he could very well lose the spot at some point this season. Jones, with his expanded role, will have one last crack this season to show he can an effective starting WR in the NFL, or else he’ll be left looking for another job. He’s a guy who has flashed because of his immense talent, but he has yet to put everything together consistently.
Andre Roberts (Ari, 25) – Roberts put together a strong third season as the #2 WR in the Cardinal offense, actually out-producing Larry Fitzgerald in the process. The Cardinals used Roberts all over the field, and he showed he’s capable of being an NFL starter, or at the least a really strong #3 (he’s best in the slot). Roberts is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and he’ll battle second-year WR Michael Floyd for the #2 job this preseason. But even if the Cardinals decide to give Floyd his opportunity to start, Roberts could do well for himself in his natural spot in the slot. New coach Bruce Arians loves 3-WR sets, as he proved with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Donnie Avery in Indianapolis last season. Arians also values versatility, and Roberts certainly has that. Roberts might not see the field nearly as much as he did last season, but he did well setting himself up for an extension with his performance last season.
Golden Tate (Sea, 25) – Tate had a bit of a surprising emergence last season, but his prospects aren’t looking nearly as good this season because of the addition of Percy Harvin. Tate played well last year (45/688/7), and he isn’t a bad player, but Harvin is clearly the better option. The Seahawks haven’t started any contract talks with him, and the organization is likely waiting to see if Tate can maintain his performance in a lesser role. He’s still one of the better receivers after the catch in the league, so the Seahawks would do well to get him the ball close to the line of scrimmage. Tate could be pressed into additional playing time if Harvin and Rice, who are both injury-prone, miss any time this season. Tate has said he wants to stay in Seattle after this season, and the team is very high on him. But the Seahawks have a ton of money tied up in Sidney Rice and Harvin. Yet, the Seahawks could decide next off-season that Tate is a better option than Rice and cut him to free up cap space. Tate won’t have quite the role he had last season, but he should get on the field enough to prove his value to the Seahawks or build a market for next season. Coach Pete Carroll loves his incumbents to feel a little uncomfortable to push them to competition, and Tate will have to stay motivated if he wants to get paid.
Doug Baldwin (Sea, 24) – Baldwin showed he could play in 2011 as a rookie, but the last two years he’s been pushed further and further down the depth chart. Baldwin could probably start in the slot for a number of times right now, but he’s currently behind Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Golden Tate on a team that loves to run the ball. Baldwin will need Harvin or Rice to miss time this season if he’s going to get any kind of significant playing time this year. Ergo, he has supreme motivation to stand out in camp and the preseason, or with any chance he gets in 2013. At the least, he’s going to showcase himself. Baldwin might not make much of an impact on the Seahawks this season, but he could have a small market based on his rookie year and be a sneaky pickup next off-season.
Julian Edelman (NE, 27) – Edelman could be anything from a roster casualty because of his lingering foot issues to the starting #2 WR in the Patriot offense to start the season. Edelman re-aggravated a foot injury this off-season, but he should be ready to go this preseason. Edelman is more ideally suited to be the backup to Danny Amendola, but the Patriots have a ton of WRs that are inexperienced in the Patriot offense, a position that’s been notoriously difficult to pick up in New England. And they also have serious questions at TE after the release of Aaron Hernandez. The snaps played by Hernandez might be best suited for a versatile inside receiver, like Edelman. Edelman has the chance to put up nice numbers if he starts, but he’s never proven to be a special player in limited opportunities. He’s more of a product of a great system, but he’ll have a full season to prove he can produce with possibly a larger role in that great system. Ultimately, Edelman’s future will be decided by his performance in a potentially bigger role this year, and the progression of rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.
Dexter McCluster (KC, 25) – McCluster has always been an intriguing prospect as a satellite player, but his former offensive coaches (Todd Haley and Brian Daboll) never could quite use McCluster effectively enough. New HC Andy Reid has been very high on McCluster this off-season, so we’ll see if Reid can use him a little better. McCluster has never been a reliable and consistent option, and he’ll get his final chance to do so in Kansas City. Even if he can’t develop into a consistent producer with the Chiefs, McCluster has such a unique skillset that other teams around the league will be interested in his services. In other words, if Reid can’t use him correctly, another coach will think he can. Guys with McCluster’s ability don’t come around every year.
Mario Manningham (SF, 27) – Manningham has struggled to stay on the field the last two seasons, after he put together two nice seasons with the Giants from 2009-10. Manningham’s late-season knee injury is opening the door for young WRs A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton to vie for the #2 WR job to start the season. But if Manningham can show that he’s clearly healthy, he could make his way back into the #2 WR role at some point this season. He clearly has more of a track record than Jenkins and Patton, so he could be the downfield threat they need. Manningham could play himself into another contract if he can stay healthy, but his chances of sticking in San Fran could depend on how well Jenkins and Patton play. He’s not expected to be ready until late in the preseason at the earliest, so Manningham has an uphill climb for a significant role with the Niners this season.
Damian Williams (Ten, 25) – Williams has been an interesting prospect, but he’s never really gotten much of a chance to play outside of some increased snaps in 2011 when Kenny Britt was injured. Williams is now buried even further the depth chart this season after the Titans drafted Justin Hunter in the 2nd round. He’s now a #4/5 WR at best in this talented but unproven Titan offense under new coordinator Dowell Loggains, so he doesn’t have a great chance to contribute much this season. Williams’ best chance to establish NFL career is to get out of Tennessee, which looks likely to happen next off-season. He’s probably a #3 in the NFL, and it doesn’t appear he’ll get that shot in Tennessee barring a huge camp.
Santana Moss (Was, 34) – Moss looked to be on his final legs in 2011, but dynamic rookie QB Robert Griffin III revitalized his career last season in a much more limited role. Moss played on only 43% of the Redskins’ offensive snaps, but he still managed to put up 41/573/8. He figures to remain as strictly a third-down package player this season, so he doesn’t have much upside heading into the year, and he could regress. Moss will be 35 years old next season, so he won’t be seeing much more than one-year deals until he retires. Right now, it’s about confirming his value to the Redskins.
Jerome Simpson (Min, 27) – Simpson is just a stopgap at WR right now until 1st-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson is ready to start over him, which shouldn’t take too long if Patterson is able to pick up the Vikings’ playbook. Simpson has never put it together in his first five seasons, despite his great athletic talent, but he’s battled off-the-field issues and nagging injuries. The Vikings brought Simpson back on only a one-year deal because of how desperate they were for any kind of wide receiver depth, as the team appeared ready to move on without him after the 2012 season. Simpson isn’t likely to stick around Minnesota for much longer, unless he can suddenly harness his physical ability on the field. He’s clearly behind Greg Jennings, and the Vikings would love Patterson and youngster Jarius Wright to make major strides this summer as well.
Devery Henderson (Was, 31) –Henderson is no lock to even make the Redskins’ roster out of training camp, as he’ll be competing with Donte Stallworth for the final roster spot. Henderson never was a consistent fantasy threat in New Orleans, even in his 2008-09 seasons, and he’s nothing more than situational deep threat at this stage of his career. He has a chance to make a couple big plays if he gets on the field with strong-armed Robert Griffin (remember Aldrick Robinson last season), but it’s not like Henderson will have anyone knocking down his door if he happens to score a few long TDs.
David Nelson (Cle, 26) – Nelson expects to be at full strength for training camp coming off his ACL injury last season, and he’ll need to be ready to go to earn a roster spot in Cleveland. Nelson is a huge weapon in the red zone because of his size (6’5”, 215 pounds), but Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin could be better options in the slot this season because they simply have more speed. And remember, new OC Norv Turner loves to throw it deep. Nelson likely won’t match his 2011 production (61/658/5) with the Bills, but he has a chance to reestablish his career after a serious injury, which could help him next off-season. He’s not a spectacular talent, but you can’t teach his size.
Riley Cooper (Phi, 26) – Cooper looks to be an expendable piece this preseason in Philadelphia, with the emergence of Damaris Johnson and the addition of Arrelious Benn. Johnson could have a nice role in the offense, and Benn could be the #5 WR because of his versatility, so Cooper needs to have an impressive camp to stick around. Cooper is a good blocker, which could be a big plus in Chip Kelly’s offense, and he’s a good red-zone threat, so he has a chance to stick around, or at least catch on somewhere else. He’s not a burner, but he does the little things well and has good size, and there will always be a place for guys like that in the NFL.
David Gettis (Car, 26) – Gettis played in just two games last season after starting the season on the PUP list and being a healthy scratch for much of the second half of last season. He missed the entire 2011 season because of an ACL injury. Gettis is very much on the roster bubble this season, as he’ll have to beat out Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares, and Joe Adams for the #5 WR roster spot. Gettis needs to be at full strength this preseason to have a chance to make the Panther roster because he hasn’t played a significant NFL snap in two seasons. But as a rookie, he used his size and long stride to make some plays. At the least, the Panthers don’t have great depth at WR.
Ramses Barden (NYG, 27) – The massive Barden generated absolutely no interest in the open market this past off-season, so he settled for a one-year deal at the league minimum to come back to the Giants. Barden will compete for the #4 WR job with Louis Murphy and Jerrel Jernigan. Barden has only 29 career catches in four seasons, but he did perform decently in increased time last season, recording 14/220/1. He needs to continue to show he has to open some eyes to keep collecting paychecks after this season, as no teams were interested in him this past off-season.
Domenik Hixon (Car, 28) – The Panthers outbid the Browns to land Hixon’s services for a year this past off-season, and he’s expected to win the #3 WR job in Carolina. Hixon put up impressive numbers in limited action with the Giants in 2012, recording 39/567/2 and averaged 14.5 YPC in 13 games. While he has had some injury issues in the past (including an ACL tear), he could be an interesting downfield threat in the Panther offense. The Panthers certainly don’t throw it a ton, but #2 WR Brandon LaFell isn’t a stud, so Hixon could make an impact. Hixon could earn himself more than a one-year deal if he can stay healthy this season and produce as a #3 WR.
Devin Hester (Chi, 30) – HC Marc Trestman has removed Hester from the Bear offense, so his only hope to make the team as a return specialist (this is something that should have happened years ago, frankly). If all goes to plan for Trestman, Hester won’t catch a single pass. His remaining $1.8 million contract could put him in danger of being cut if he’s no longer a game-breaker as a returner. Hester, though, would likely latch on somewhere as a returner, but he’s definitely closer to the end of his career.
Kevin Walter (Ten, 32) – Walter went from being the #2 WR in Houston to a #5/6 WR competing for a roster spot in Tennessee. Walter played well below average last season, despite seeing major time, catching 41/518/2 in 16 games. The Titans could keep six wide receivers on their roster, and Walter will compete with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston for that final spot. Walter certainly isn’t a prolific pass catcher at this point, but he is a terrific blocker, which is why he played so much in the Texan offense. The Titans want to run the ball a ton this year, so Walter could see a little bit of time this season if he makes the roster. That’s probably the best shot he has at earning his keep beyond this year.
Michael Jenkins (NE, 31) – Jenkins could be the #2 WR to start the season in New England, or he could be on the streets after training camp. He lined up as a starter during off-season workouts, but the Patriots drafted two rookies, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, with Julian Edelman and Donald Jones also in the mix. Jenkins’ career is on its final legs, especially if Dobson and Boyce prove capable of playing right away. Jenkins has caught at least 36 passes for at 436 yards in each of the last eight seasons, but he’s never caught more than 54 passes or gone over 778 yards. Jenkins is just a mediocre WR, perhaps the definition of it, but he does bring just enough to the table to keep finding work.
Plaxico Burress (Pit, 36) – Burress needs to keep collecting paychecks, and the Steelers gave him another opportunity with a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal. He likely won’t see a ton of playing time, and he’s no lock to even make the team, but he does give the Steelers a dangerous threat in the red zone with his 6’5” and 232-pound frame. As long as Burress can continue to make his hay near the end zone, he’ll find part time work as a specialist. But he’s now 36, and he won’t command the defensive attention he once did, despite the fact that he’s claimed this off-season that he can still be a very meaningful contributor.
Jerricho Cotchery (Pit, 31) – Cotchery will battle it out with rookie WR Markus Wheaton for playing time in the Steelers’ 3-WR sets. Cotchery certainly has experience in his favor, but he’s been pretty irrelevant in his two seasons with the Steelers. Then again, he was buried on the team’s depth chart, which got a little thinner when Mike Wallace left for Miami. The Steelers will likely give Wheaton plenty of opportunities to win the job, and he’ll be used as a deep threat, while Plaxico Burress could be used as red-zone receiver. Cotchery should have at least a small role in the Steeler offense and could show he’s still got some football left, especially if Emmanuel Sanders can’t handle the increased role the Steelers are looking to give him.
Josh Cribbs (Oak, 30) – Cribbs hopes to be ready for the start of training camp after meniscus surgery in the off-season. He did little on offense last season as a WR (7/63), and he’ll most likely be merely a return specialist in Oakland this season, unless the Raider young WRs struggle. Cribbs has taken a number of big hits over his eight seasons, so he needs to stay healthy to have a chance at a spot as a top returner in the league. He might no longer be an elite return guy, but Cribbs will keep finding work as a potential game-changer, as long as he continues to show the flashes that made him a star in the past.
Ben Obomanu (NYJ, 29) – The signing of Obomanu brought some much needed depth to a shaky group of Jet wide receivers. Still, it isn’t like Obomanu will be much of a difference-maker this season as the likely #4 WR here. He’ll compete with the gifted but ridiculously inconsistent Clyde Gates for the #4 job, but it isn’t like the Jets are a prolific passing team, so his opportunities will be limited. Obomanu does have some value as a special teams contributor, but he’s never been a major offensive/fantasy contributor and has limited value on the open market.
Louis Murphy (NYG, 26) – The Giants brought Murphy in on a one-year deal to add WR depth and some deep speed for QB Eli Manning. He’ll be a situational deep threat to stretch defenses in this offense (in ways, he might be replacing Domenik Hixon), but he’s no better than the fifth passing option. Murphy managed just 25/336/1 during his only season in Carolina, and he did have some off-the-field issues during his time in Oakland. Still, as long as Murphy can still show off his deep speed every once in a while, he’ll likely find work as a rotational player. And the Giant offense has a long history of turning “scrubs into stars.”
Kyle Williams (SF, 25) – It looks like Williams will be ready to go for the start of training camp, despite coming of a torn ACL suffered on Thanksgiving. Williams needs to be healthy for training camp because he’s all of a sudden in the mix for the #2 job after Michael Crabtree’s Achilles injury. Young WRs A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton likely have a leg up on Williams, who has been a much better special teams player than receiver in his career. Then again, Williams has never really had much of a chance as a receiver, so he could show something as a possible #3 WR to start the season. Williams could surprise and be an effective receiver in a larger role, but he’ll need to continue to show his value on special teams to earn another contract for 2013.
Ted Ginn (Car, 28) – Ginn has essentially left offense behind since he went to San Francisco in 2010, totaling just 33 catches in the last three years and only 2 catches for 1 yard last season. Ginn told the Associated Press this June that he wants to show that he can still be a contributing receiver with the Panthers, but he’ll likely be a #4 WR at best behind Domenik Hixon. It’s not like the Panthers are loaded at wide receiver, but Ginn doesn’t figure to factor much into the Panther passing game. He’s the favorite to win the return jobs, but he’ll still have to beat out Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards. Ginn still has value as a return man, but his days of getting more than a one-year contract are likely done because he brings little to an offense.
Devin Aromashodu (Chi, 29) – The Bears signed Aromashodu in the middle of June, so the former Bear and Viking had absolutely no market this off-season. He’s probably a long shot to even make this Chicago team, which isn’t exactly loaded at WR outside of Brandon Marshall. Aromashodu played in 15 games with the Vikings last season, but he recorded just 11/182 on a team with even less depth at WR. Aromashodu has some vertical ability because of his long stride, but he’s never been a reliable weapon, so he likely doesn’t have much time left in the league. He’s familiar with the Bears from his time there in the past, but it’s an entirely new staff under Marc Trestman.
Andre Caldwell (Den, 28) – Caldwell took to Twitter in April to voice his displeasure that QB Peyton Manning didn’t invite him to catch passes at Duke in April with the rest of the Broncos top WRs. Well, it’s hard to blame Peyton. We’re guessing Manning didn’t realize that Caldwell was still on the Bronco roster after catching just 1 pass last season in the eight games in which he dressed. Caldwell is totally off the map in Denver right now, and he could be vulnerable to being cut after the addition of WR Wes Welker. Caldwell might be better off in a new setting where he could actually make some contributions to an offense.
Taylor Price (Jac, 25) – Price has appeared in just six games and caught just 5 passes during his three years in the NFL, so he needs to show something in training camp or his NFL career will be over. At least he’s in the right spot for it. The Jags waived him early in camp last season after he dealt with a stress fracture in his foot, and he didn’t play a single down. Price has a chance to make this dismal roster, especially with Justin Blackmon’s suspension looming to start the year, but his athleticism and hands need to finally shine through.
Anthony Armstrong (Dal, 30) – Armstrong will be on his third team in three seasons after the Cowboys scooped him up this off-season. He’ll battle Cole Beasley and Danny Coale for the final roster spot at WR. Armstrong appeared in just five games last season with the Dolphins, recording just 3/12 receiving. He did flash as a rookie with the Redskins in 2010, exploding for 44/871/3 and an incredible 19.8 YPC in 15 games, but he hasn’t matched that level of success since. Armstrong is an older player, as he bounced arena leagues out of college in 2005 before he got his shot in the NFL, but he’ll continue to get chances in the league as a situational vertical threat.
Brandon Tate (Cin, 25) – Tate returned to the Bengals this off-season after serving as primarily a return specialist a season ago. He did step into the starting lineup three times last season because of injuries, recording 13/211/1 in 16 games. Tate is a capable fill-in, but he’s better suited as a depth guy behind A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, and Andrew Hawkins. Tate needs to hold off the likes of Cobi Hamilton, Ryan Whalen, and Dane Sanzenbacher, but he should be able to do so because of special teams work.
Donte Stallworth (Was, 32) – Stallworth is essentially a spare part or camp competition at this point in his career. This year he’ll likely be competing with Devery Henderson for the final receiver spot in the Redskin offense. He’s caught just 25 passes the last three seasons, including just 1 catch in one game last season (to be fair, it was a 67-yard TD). An ankle injury ended his 2012, and Stallworth was severely burned in a hot-air balloon accident this off-season, but he’s been cleared to play. Stallworth keeps getting cracks at making rosters because of his deep speed, but he’s a “one year at a time” guy at this stage of his career, and he’s just playing for the chance to keep that run going.
Joe Webb (Min, 26) – Webb switched from QB to full-time WR this off-season, and the team is looking for ways to get him on the field this season. He’s even getting looks as a punt returner, and the Vikings will try to use him in some gimmick plays on offense. But Webb obviously has a lot of work to do to make the transition from QB to WR, and he has lot to catch up on to get up to speed with the rest of the Viking WRs. Webb might not make a complete transition to his new position this season, but we’re guessing the Vikings or another team would take a chance on a raw athlete like Webb next off-season. He’s a unique, if raw, player, so he should be able to keep finding work.
Derek Hagan (TB, 28) – The veteran Hagan has been a serviceable stopgap option at certain times the last few years, but he’s now on his now on his fourth team in six years, so he’s not exactly a must-have for any team. He’s still fairly young, and he did play for Buc OC Mike Sullivan with the Giants, who was Hagan’s WRs coach in 2009 and the team’s QB coach in 2010. But he’s nothing more than a decent backup with no chance of starting for the Bucs unless there’s an injury to either Vincent Jackson or Mike Williams.
Tiquan Underwood (TB, 26) – The Buccaneers are the third team Underwood has played with during his first four years in the league. After a career-year with them in 2012 (28/425/2), he’s looking to carve out a role as the #3 WR behind Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Underwood is expected to face competition from Kevin Ogletree for the spot, but got a little help with the retirement of Steven Smith, who was also expected to be in the mix for the job. Considering Underwood played for HC Greg Schiano at Rutgers, he might have a chance to stick and earn a new deal, which wouldn’t necessarily be a shock, since he’s only 26 years old.
Devin Thomas (Det, 26) – Thomas saw the writing on the wall last year when he announced his retirement after four forgettable seasons with the Redskins and Giants. However, he apparently had a change of heart, since he signed a futures contract with the Lions in January. A serious bust, Thomas is nothing more than a special teams player and topped out at 25/325/3 with the Redskins in 2009.
Matthew Willis (Det, 29) – Willis began his career with the Ravens in 2007, but he spent the last four years buried on the depth chart in Denver. His best season was in 2011, but yielded just 18/267/1. He never got much of a chance to play with Peyton Manning last year, catching just 10/90. After working out for the Patriots in May, Willis ended up signing with the Lions and will try to earn a regular role on a team with a lack of depth at WR.
Courtney Roby (NO, 30) – Although you may not have heard his name much, Roby has been bouncing around the league since 2005, which was his best season from a numbers standpoint, as he caught 21/289/1 with the Titans. He’s been with the Saints since then and re-signed for the 2013 season. He’s had a grand total of 2 receptions in his five seasons with the Saints, including 1 catch for 9 yards last season. Roby is nothing more than a special teams player, but he doesn’t act as a return man.
Armanti Edwards (Car, 25) – We haven’t heard much from Edwards in his three years with the Panthers, but after two seasons without a catch, he made a small blip with 5/121 last season while playing every game. According to the Charlotte Observer, Edwards has shown great improvement his off-season and looks like he should make the team, but that doesn’t mean we expect him to excel all of a sudden. He hasn’t been able to step up in previous seasons with the team desperately needing help at receiver, so this is a “we’ll believe it when we see it” situation.
Deon Butler (SD, 27) – After spending the last four years with the Seahawks, Butler signed with the Chargers back in April. He looked to have a chance as a speedster, but after putting up 36/385/4 in 2010, he was limited to just five games in 2011 because of a serious leg injury and was part of final cuts last year before re-signing in December to play in just one game. He’ll try to catch on in San Diego, but it probably a long shot to make the roster, with better, younger options in front of him on the depth chart. The serious leg injury has really hampered his career.
Restricted Free Agents
Andrew Hawkins (Cin, 27) – Hawkins re-signed his exclusive right tender in March, which gives him another year with the Bengals. Hopefully, the team decides to get him involved more because, from the little we saw, he looked like he was shot out of a cannon working from the slot. Unfortunately, his role wasn’t a consistent one, but he still finished with 51/533/4 in his second season. The team did add TE Tyler Eifert and will be getting WR Mohamed Sanu back from the foot injury that ended his season prematurely in 2012, but Hawkins looks like a great fit for this West Coast scheme and has already proven to be a nice underneath option for Andy Dalton who can turn any play into a big gain. At 27, he’ll be looking to cash in, but he’ll need to have a more consistent role in the offense instead of disappearing in the second half like he did last year. At the least, he could impress another team that might be willing to give him an offer sheet.
Trindon Holliday (Den, 27) – Holliday was cut by the Texans in October of last season, but he was quickly snapped up by the Broncos. After leaving the undefeated Texans, he stayed with the Broncos for the rest of the season and ended up being 16-0 with Denver not losing a game for the rest of the regular season. He’s been nothing more than a return man in his short career, which you might expect from a player who’s 5’5”, 169. With no real room for him on offense, Holliday is expected to be one of the primary returners in Denver once again. If he keeps up his strong finish to the season, he’ll be among the best return men in the game.
Stephen Burton (Min, 23) – Burton enters his third season with a grand total of 7/73/1 to his name over the first two years of his career. As a 7th-round pick, the expectations for Burton weren’t high, but the thought was that a weak receiving corps could allow him to earn opportunities. He hasn’t done that yet and isn’t a lock to make the team in 2013, especially buried on a depth chart that includes Greg Jennings, Jairus Wright, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jerome Simpson. While the group lacks established, reliable talent, it doesn’t make us feel any better about Burton’s chances.
Carlton Mitchell (TB, 25) – Mitchell has been a complete non-factor since being drafted by the Browns in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft. He has 3 catches in his career and after being cut by the Browns last August, his only other appearance on an NFL roster was a three-day stint with the Jaguars last November. At this point, Mitchell is just battling to have a career playing football in the NFL.
Preston Parker (NO, 26) – Parker wasn’t able to catch on after getting cut by the Buccaneers just two games into last season, but he signed a futures contract with the Saints and will try to make the team in training camp. Parker apparently fell out of favor with the new coaching staff in Tampa Bay last season after putting up 40/554/3 as a Buccaneer in 2011. He’s mostly a slot receiver and will need some help to make the Saints.
Jordan Norwood (Cle, 26) – Norwood’s 2012 season was limited to just two games, mostly because of a foot injury he suffered early in the season, which would explain why he had just 13/137 a year after putting up 23/268/1 in 14 games. Unfortunately, Norwood doesn’t have any ties to the new regime in Cleveland and isn’t a lock to make the team. Norwood has flashed as a slot receiver and appeared to be on his way to a larger role last season before the injury. He’s got a shot to latch on.
Dezmon Briscoe (Was, 24) – The Redskins snatched Briscoe off waivers last June when he was cut by the Buccaneers for skipping off-season workouts and struggling with his conditioning. Briscoe didn’t have any impact for the Redskins, catching just 2/22 in six games. He’s buried on the depth chart, which is saying something, considering the team’s lack of depth at receiver, but since he’ll be only 24 in August, maybe there’s some hope the light will click on for Briscoe before it’s too late.
Jimmy Graham (NO, 26) – Barring something completely unforeseen, Graham is going to get serious money, and really soon. He’s arguably the best TE in football (given Rob Gronkowski’s injuries), and he’s the key to the Saints’ passing game. He’s also a tough guy, playing through wrist and ankle problems last year. So it’s understandable that Graham could be seeking around $12 million a year over his next contract, as Yahoo! reported a few months ago. It might be more likely that he gets something like the six-year, $53 million contract Gronkowski signed with the Pats last June, with $16.5 million guaranteed. But if Graham stays relatively healthy for another year, he’ll have a heck of an argument for getting paid more than Gronk. Graham will be only 27 in November, so he’s just now entering his prime. And it appears unlikely that the Saints will want to get into an ugly franchise tag battle with Graham, considering he splits out wide enough that he could argue he’s a WR, which would mean more money.
Dennis Pitta (Bal, 28) – Pitta is playing 2012 on a one-year RFA tender, and if things go as we expect, he could be among the big earners at his position come next spring. The Ravens traded away veteran WR Anquan Boldin and didn’t bring in another WR of significance to replace him, so that production has to go somewhere. Joe Flacco’s best friend Pitta is the logical target. Pitta wasn’t consistent last season, but he still put up pretty good numbers at the end of the season (61/669/7), and he emerged as a stud in the playoffs. Pitta is an excellent route runner, and he’ll be working the same areas that Boldin used to occupy, so we expect Pitta to be a little more consistent and for his numbers to tick upward in 2013. He also put up huge numbers (25/346/5) in the five games after OC Jim Caldwell took over the offense. Given that Torrey Smith still has a lot of work to do to become a true “#1” receiver, it’s entirely possible that Pitta, not Smith, is the key to this passing game. If so, show him the money. It would be smart of Pitta to take advantage of this opportunity now – as he took a two-year Mormon mission during his BYU college career, so he’s older than many of his peers at 28.
Jermichael Finley (GB, 26) – The hype for Finley’s 2013 season is already starting. Coach Mike McCarthy has talked him up, Finley is losing weight, and the assumption is that the departure of Greg Jennings is going to open up more targets out wide and in the slot, where Finley has been working (he certainly has the ability). But have we – and the Packers – been burned too many times by Finley? Remember, there was speculation this off-season that the Packers would cut him loose a year early, although it didn’t last for long after some discussions with GM Ted Thompson. But Finley has to prove himself worthy of being back for 2014 with some increased opportunities this season. He’s talented enough that he’ll be getting paid in some way next season, even if 2013 doesn’t go as he hopes. But he’s also someone who could end up with serious bucks if he catches a lot of balls and makes a major impact. He’s a freak talent, and he’s still young (only 26). And sadly, it does look like Finley is the type of player who can be more motivated than usual in a contract year.
Dustin Keller (Mia, 28) – Keller is among the most obvious “contract year” guys in this entire article. Why’s that? Well, he willingly entered into another one after losing most of his 2012 contract year to injury. Heck, he turned down more years from the Dolphins to take a “prove-it” one-year contract, under the impression that he’s going to earn more money next season as a free agent again. “I took a gamble on myself,” Keller said. Keller is under the assumption that he’s going to have a big role in Miami with a better QB in Ryan Tannehill, and he can parlay that into a long-term contract next season. Last year, Dolphin TE Anthony Fasano accounted for 27% of the team red-zone targets and 53% of their targets inside the 10. That’s a good sign for Keller, and his wallet, if he can stay healthy. But considering he’ll turn 29 in September, it’s also a risk. This could be his last chance at a long-term deal.
Brandon Pettigrew (Det, 28) – If Pettigrew is a competitive person, he should have plenty of motivation to perform in 2013. Not only is he coming up on his last potential big payday (he’s 28), but he’s coming off easily the worst season of his four-year career. Pettigrew had an absolutely miserable 2012 season, plagued by drops, an ankle injury, and overall sluggish play. While we’ll believe he’s improved his hands when we see it, Pettigrew has told the Lions’ official website that he lost 10 pounds to improve his movement skills and try to rebound from his 59/567/3 season. While it’s fair to be down on Pettigrew after his poor ‘12, this is a guy who caught 154 balls over the 2010 and 2011 seasons. For his financial future, Pettigrew is hoping he plays more like the latter.
Fred Davis (Was, 27) – Davis was just starting to make a strong connection with Robert Griffin III when he tore his Achilles in the Redskins’ seventh game of 2013 (he actually led the team with 24 catches when he went down). The athletic Davis was struggling to find his comfort zone in Mike Shanahan’s run-based offense, as the blocking duties the TE often had served the likes of Logan Paulsen well. So Davis now has Paulsen to compete with, and also intriguing rookie Jordan Reed, a converted QB out of the University of Florida. The Redskins have been very cautious with Davis this off-season, holding him out of spring workouts to make sure he’s as close to 100% for their competition in training camp. Davis clearly feels confident in his ability to put up big numbers and make an impact – he signed a one-year deal to stay with the Redskins this off-season to try to establish some value. We don’t blame him because he’s a player who hasn’t consistently lived up to his considerable talent. He’s got a shot to earn some big bucks with a nice season, but since he’s one strike away from a lengthy suspension in the league’s substance-abuse program, Davis may have to dazzle to earn a big payday elsewhere.
Scott Chandler (Buf, 28) – Just six months ago, Chandler had to be sweating his upcoming contract year, as he tore his ACL in Week Sixteen last season, and he’s not exactly a Jimmy Graham type of talent. But Chandler has worked relentlessly on his rehab and is almost certain to be ready for training camp, according to the Bills’ official website. His progress back from the injury will be a fascinating one to watch because the Bills added an intriguing young TE, Chris Gragg, in the draft. Remember, the Bills are employing a new offense this year under coach Doug Marrone, and Chandler isn’t so special that Marrone would plug him in, no questions asked. He’s got to earn his keep, and it looks like he’s on his way to doing so.
Tony Moeaki (KC, 26) – Moeaki started to show signs of getting back to full strength from his 2011 knee injury at the end of last season, but he had a setback with a knee scope this off-season. The Chiefs didn’t wait around to see if Moeaki would be 100% for this season by signing free agent Anthony Fasano and drafting Travis Kelce. Moeaki is certainly no guarantee to be the starting TE this season, as he’ll battle Fasano and Kelce for playing time in training camp. Fasano and Kelce are both under contract for four seasons, so Moeaki could very well be using 2013 as an audition for his next contract outside of Kansas City.
Ed Dickson (Bal, 26) – Dickson has mostly been a disappointment in Baltimore, entering his fourth season. However, Dickson had plenty of good vibes coming out of off-season workouts, as the Ravens look ready to expand the roles of their tight ends in the passing game. The Ravens traded #2 WR Anquan Boldin this off-season, and the team didn’t really address his loss by bringing in another WR through free agency or with a high draft pick. Fellow TE Dennis Pitta is clearly the better option entering the season, but Dickson could see significant playing time, as the Ravens could use more 2-TE sets this season. Dickson blamed his down 2012 (2/225/0) on a bad shoulder, but he’ll have no excuses if he fails to show significant improvement in 2013 because of his bigger role.
Jeff Cumberland (NYJ, 26) – Unless veteran Kellen Winslow – who was out of the league in 2012 – surprises, Cumberland is the presumed starter at TE for the Jets this season with the departure of Dustin Keller. He posted 29/359/3 last season on 52 targets, while filling in as the top dog with Keller injured for a good portion of the year. He’s a decent athlete and blocker, but he’s not a head-turning type of mover at the position. With the Jets’ lack of depth at the WR position, Cumberland could be a guy who has an outside shot at 50 catches or so, given his experience, which would make him both a semi-interesting fantasy piece and a guy the Jets would be more likely to pay. Either way, he’s got his first real shot at a starting job, and it’s coming at an ideal time for his financial future.
Michael Hoomanawanui (NE, 25) – According to ESPN Boston, Hoomanawanui could be the biggest beneficiary of the release of Aaron Hernandez, as the Patriots value his “movability” more than anything else in his game. But let’s not take that too far, as there was a reason the Patriots were willing to take a risk on Hernandez’s troubled past in the first place. Hoomanawanui’s snaps could increase, but it would be a major surprise if he could become anything more than a weekly fill-in for fantasy, given he has 25 catches in three NFL seasons. He still has to beat out Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells for the #2 (and #3) TE jobs in New England. But if he does, the Patriots could be willing to pay him come next off-season.
Tony Scheffler (Det, 30) – Scheffler didn’t step up at the end of the last season when he played for the injured Brandon Pettigrew, and the cap-strapped Lions seriously considered cutting Scheffler this past off-season. However, the Lions were extremely thin after Scheffler on the depth chart, so he’ll get the chance to play out the final season of his four-year deal. Scheffler has the size (6’5”, 255 pounds) and athleticism to create mismatches, but he’s never put up anything more than pedestrian numbers as strictly a receiving tight end. Scheffler is a decent complement to the well-rounded Pettigrew, but at this point in his career, he’s almost strictly a complementary TE, so he’s unlikely to get #1 TE money next off-season.
Garrett Graham (Hou, 27) – Graham finally got his shot last season as Owen Daniels’ primary backup with Joel Dreessen gone, catching 28 passes for 263 yards and 3 TDs, showing a lot of promise as both a receiver and a blocker. The Texans run a lot of two-TE sets, and Graham should see even more time in them now that TE/FB/H-back James Casey has moved on to Philadelphia. Remember also that Daniels has had significant injury problems in his career, and Graham is another occurrence away from the starting lineup. A balanced TE who is a little better athlete than we’ve given him credit for, Graham is going to be an important part of what the Texans do this season. If he keeps improving, he’ll be in line for an extension or potentially a starting gig with another club.
Kellen Davis (Cle, 27) – Davis could muster only 37 catches as a starter in Chicago the last two seasons, so he’s probably in a better situation in Cleveland, where he can come in and do what he does best as an above-average blocker and leave the pass catching to Jordan Cameron. The one-dimensional TE surprisingly drew a lot of interest this past off-season, which shows just how good of a blocker he is. Davis’ hands might be terrible, but at least he showed he could be an effective red-zone target, with 7 of his 37 catches the last two years going for TDs. If Davis can continue to be strong blocker and a red-zone threat, he should draw some more interest next off-season.
Clay Harbor (Phi, 26) – Under the new Philadelphia coaching staff, Harbor may be looking for a new deal sooner rather than later. The Eagles already have Brent Celek, James Casey, and rookie Zach Ertz in play at TE, and Harbor doesn’t have the versatility to open more eyes than any of them. Barring an injury or a disaster, Harbor looks to be the odd man out in Philly. He has a balanced, if unspectacular, skillset, so he could latch on somewhere else.
Dante Rosario (Dal, 28) – Rosario has been a one-week king three times in his career. In Week One in both 2008 and 2009, he had big games. And in 2012, he scored 3 TDs in Week Two with Antonio Gates injured. The problem is he’s never made much of an impact at any other time in his NFL career. He has enough talent to keep drawing interest, but he has an uphill climb to even make the Cowboys’ roster this season, as he’s behind Jason Witten, James Hanna, and rookie Gavin Escobar.
Zachary Miller (TB, 28) – We’ve loved Miller (a converted QB) since he entered the league in 2009, and as a reserve in Jacksonville, he made 41 catches in his first two seasons, but the fact of the matter is that he’s lost 28 of his last 32 games because of injury. He landed on IR before last season with a calf injury, and only four games into 2011 because of a shoulder injury. If he wants a chance at a career revival, he’s in the right spot because the Bucs have only Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree ahead of him at his position. We’ve seen crazier things in the NFL than a talented guy like Miller thriving when he finally gets his shot. He’s just got be able to stay on the field to get that chance.
Andrew Quarless (GB, 24) – Quarless missed the entirety of the 2012 season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in December 2011. A talented player who took time to emerge as a receiver in college at Penn State, Quarless has only 24 career receptions, but the Packers value his blocking ability. Coach Mike McCarthy has talked him up this off-season, and Quarless should have an equal shot with D.J. Williams, Matthew Mulligan, and Ryan Taylor to back up the mercurial Jermichael Finley. Remember, Finley is also a free agent after this season, and there’s nowhere close to a guarantee that he’ll be back. At the least, Quarless can look to stand out and land somewhere else where the TE depth chart isn’t so clogged. At 24, he’s still really young.
Anthony McCoy (Sea, 25) – McCoy’s contract year was over before it started. He tore his Achilles in May camps and was placed on injured reserve. The Seahawks already have Zach Miller and an intriguing youngster in Luke Willson, so McCoy has an uphill climb to land another NFL contract. A talented receiver, McCoy came out of USC raw and has only 31 receptions in three seasons.
Restricted Free Agents
Jake Ballard (NE, 25) – Ballard’s motivation and opportunity are obvious: He’s recovering from a torn ACL and micro-fracture surgery, and he’s with the Patriots, who have some major questions at the TE position. No, Ballard wouldn’t be able to replicate what Aaron Hernandez could do, even at his best. But he could certainly prove to be a half-decent mimic of Rob Gronkowski if the Patriots need him to be. Ballard reportedly looked less than 100% at OTAs, and he’s going to have to prove himself healthy in training camp or the Patriots likely won’t have much problem cutting him, especially if they anticipate Gronkowski being ready sooner rather than later. But if Ballard is healthy, he’s a rock-solid #2 and should be able to beat out Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells as the top backup. It’s a backup TE battle, but it’s actually a fascinating one to watch, given how far the Patriot TE depth has fallen. And Ballard, believe it or not, is still only 25.
FantasyGuru.com’s John Hansen, Joe Dolan, Matt Camp, and Tom Brolley contributed to this report
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