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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer


Early Observations: AFC
Preseason Matchup Analysis
Posted: 6/21/16
AFC | NFC

BAL | BUF | CIN | CLE | DEN | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | MIA | NE | NYJ | OAK | PIT | SD | TEN | NFC

Hype.

If ever there was a time to ignore what the media says or reports about the NFL, it may be the six weeks between the end of minicamps and the start of training camp. At this point of the offseason, information from OTAs or minicamps is on the verge of being outdated or a bold prediction meant to attract readers during the slowest time of the year. So, in an effort to scratch our football itch, we check out some of our favorite go-to fantasy news sites and we start to cement our feelings about players.

Did you like C.J. Anderson in 2015? Well, he trimmed down last spring, checking in at a svelte 221 pounds. Even Peyton Manning got on the CJA bandwagon, suggesting Anderson sounded like a "12-year veteran" based on how much he had learned about the pro game. The result? Another slow start.

In New England, James White and Travaris Cadet were battling it out for the right to replace Shane Vereen last summer. In fact, the two major Boston newspapers seemed to almost take turns siding with their guy with new information despite the fact no one was practicing. A couple of games into the preseason, however, it became pretty clear an oft-injured journeyman named Dion Lewis was easily the best player in the backfield. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss suggested that Lewis "should not be overlooked" in the backfield competition, but his June tweet was the strongest commitment any reporter made about his chances to win the job. If three different sources close to the team - each of whom get to see a fair amount of practices during the spring and summer - miss the obvious, perhaps putting our faith in them isn't always the greatest idea. Then again, they aren't scouts; maybe their boss' orders are not to look for the next big thing but rather focus on the leaders in the clubhouse. The point is: We don't know.

For owners in dynasty leagues, this time of the year often presents a window to deal away a player on your roster whose value you are certain has hit its zenith (or deal for a player whose value is supposedly spiraling). Offseason reports are the only piece of information most owners have at their disposal, so verification that Player Xs role is about to expand or decrease can sometimes be all the push an owner needs to submit/approve a trade they have been stalling on for days or weeks.

As a result, over the next two weeks, Im going to try to provide a respectable opinion on how the offseason buzz from all 32 teams translates to fantasy owners. This week, well take a look at what is buzz-worthy in the AFC:

Note: All ADPs are for 12-team PPR leagues courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator

Baltimore
The offseason free-agent signing of WR Mike Wallace went from a bit of a luxury to a necessity last week when WR Breshad Perriman reportedly suffered a partially torn ACL at OTAs and WR Steve Smith declined to put a timetable on his return from an Achilles' injury. Considering the alternative, Perriman received the best possible news on June 14 when it was revealed he would not need a knee reconstruction but rather a knee scope and stem cell injection. On the other hand, it is very possible Smith really has no idea when he will be ready to go for what he hopes is his final season. Bear in mind that in addition to Smith's age - he will be the oldest receiver in the NFL at 37 this season - Achilles' injuries typically require close to two full years for an athlete to get back to full health. (Smith suffered his injury on Nov. 1 and has yet to participate in any offseason workouts.)

To this point of the offseason, the talk about Baltimore running backs has primarily been focused on back end of the roster and not the front end. Part of the reason for that is former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson is among the three backs (along with Lorenzo Taliaferro and Terrance West) likely being considered for the last of the (likely) four spots that will be handed out at the position. The case could be made the order of the first three spots is every bit as interesting, not to mention more important to fantasy owners. Justin Forsett, Javorius Allen and rookie fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon are pretty much locks to be active for Week 1, but what are the odds Forsett keeps his starting job or Allen remains his handcuff all season?

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: I could have focused on any of the four fantasy positions on this team - the amount of injuries the Ravens suffered last season was ridiculous to say the least. (Check out the top storyline in this article for a partial list of what the team is dealing with injury-wise coming off last season.) I chose wide receiver and running back in part because I have sincere doubts that QB Joe Flacco or TE Ben Watson are going to emerge as every-week starts in 2016. It should come as no surprise if Kamar Aiken and Wallace end up being Baltimore's top receivers this year, if only because Smith faces long odds of regaining the explosion that has made him special throughout the entirety of his career and Perriman cannot be counted on given his injury woes from last year. If that is how this situation plays out, Aiken would be a semi-reasonable bet to approach the 75 catches and 944 yards receiving he managed last year. However, Wallace would figure to be the slightly better play, in part because as a WR3 (which is what I would expect Aiken to be as well), Wallace could deliver several week-changing fantasy performances. As you may have guessed from my Rookie Impact article, I fully expect Dixon to eventually beat out Forsett and Allen and become the Ravens' top back. In an effort to not repeat my rationale from two weeks ago, Dixon simply brings more to the table than Allen and has more juice in his legs than Forsett, who is nearly nine years older. For the increasing number of owners who are willing to go receiver-heavy early and wait on the running back position in their drafts, Dixon has the feel of one of those later-round options that could make that strategy pay off.

Buffalo
For the second time in as many years, an injury to WR Sammy Watkins (Jones' fracture) is dominating the headlines in Bills' country. Details have been sketchy at best up to this point regarding the timetable and progress of his recovery from offseason foot surgery sometime in late April or early May, with one source saying 6-8 weeks, while others are predicting the start of training camp and still others suggesting he'll miss camp but be back in time for the regular-season opener. Despite reportedly playing with stress fractures last season, Watkins averaged 8.9 targets, 5.4 catches, 100 yards, and a touchdown per game after his infamous call for 10 targets per game before Week 9.

TE Charles Clay nearly broke the bank as a free agent last year and told The Buffalo News a week later the Bills "don't want him coming off the field". To some degree, they followed through on that plan during the early part of 2015 season, as the ex-Dolphin saw 13 targets in a game twice through the end of Week 6. Of course, his relative involvement from that point on could have had as much to do with Watkins working his way back from a hip ailment - not to mention early calf and ankle injuries - as anything. Watkins made his 10-target plea a few weeks later and Clay was eventually lost for the season with a back injury. Proving that coaches do their fair share of introspection during the offseason (something that doesn't always seem to happen), OC Greg Roman and QB coach David Lee have vowed to make Clay more productive this year after some film analysis revealed a number of times in which the tight end was open or in single coverage and QB Tyrod Taylor simply did not look in his direction.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: The receiver position is the only one in which there is any immediate uncertainty in Buffalo. Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Clay each have a firm grasp on quarterback, running back and tight end, respectively. The same can be said for Watkins, but the growing list of his injuries makes him something of a fantasy wild-card entering this season. Considering Watkins is all Buffalo really has at wideout, it is imperative for Taylor's fantasy value that Watkins can play the majority of games. When injuries aren't a concern for the third-year wideout, the second-half numbers posted above should be a realistic expectation for him moving forward. As he proved toward the end of last season (and especially against New York Jets CB Darrell Revis in Week 17), most NFL cornerbacks a healthy Watkins. Durability is easily his biggest obstacle, and it will depend solely on the risk tolerance of owners whether or not he is worth a second-round pick in fantasy or eventually slips into the fourth to fifth round. For as much of a disappointment as Clay might have been last season, he was pretty much on the same pace he established during his final year in Miami in 2014. He has settled in as a high-end TE2 for fantasy purposes and probably will remain that way, although a multi-week injury to Watkins would probably make him the de facto top option in the passing game and bump him up to low-end TE1 status. It is promising to see Roman and Lee publicly address the fact Clay was overlooked a lot of times in his first year as a Bill, and it is not as if Roman's offense can't make use out of the tight end position (he was the play-caller for two of Vernon Davis' three most productive seasons in San Francisco in 2011 and 2013). Watkins' health and the degree to which Roman makes Clay a priority this season will ultimately determine whether or not he pushes his career highs of 69 receptions, 759 yards and six touchdowns or finishes in the low-to-mid 50-catch range he has over the past two seasons.

Cincinnati
Without a doubt, TE Tyler Eifert's 3-4 month recovery timetable to repair a loose ligament in his ankle is the biggest concern for the Bengals heading into the season. Eifert suffered the injury in the 2015 Pro Bowl and initially chose rest to heal what was thought to be "just a sprained ankle". When he was still having problems with it four months later, he opted for a late May surgery that might keep him for out the first couple of games this season. Unlike Sammy Watkins earlier, there does not appear to be much hope for Eifert to make an appearance in training camp and/or see any preseason action. To that end, Cincinnati has been encouraged by second-year TEs Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah thus far.

WR Brandon LaFell made his name in New England last year by doing the one thing pass-catchers can't do: drop the ball. The Bengals don't seem concerned by his past or present, which has featured more of the same. At the moment, the belief seems to be he's the clear frontrunner over rookie second-round pick Tyler Boyd for a starting job opposite A.J. Green, with the team hoping the more time the veteran has to feel comfortable within the scheme, the more consistent he will be. Meanwhile, Boyd is expected to start the season as the main slot receiver. The rookie was charged with a drop on only 2.3 percent of the 128 targets he received at the University of Pittsburgh last year and was one of the better route-runners in the draft. When one receiver has established that he has good hands and will be where the quarterback expects him to be, it seems as if it will only take a matter of time before he forces his way into the lineup.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Along with perhaps Jordan Reed, there aren't a lot of tight ends like Eifert who can give Rob Gronkowski much of a run in fantasy, so any missed time takes him out of second-round consideration and probably drops his stock by at least two rounds (and probably more if word comes out later in the summer that he must miss more than one or two games). With more tight ends in new situations likely to make an impact in fantasy - such as Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green - there should be even less rush to reach on an injury risk such as Eifert. About the only thing LaFell has going for him is potential opportunity; the departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu contributed greatly to his arrival in Cincinnati. Without going into deep analysis about the matter, Boyd will almost certainly prove to be the better and more trustworthy receiver, so it is hard to make a case for LaFell essentially sliding into Jones' role as the unquestioned No. 2 receiver in this offense. Furthermore, the Bengals like fifth-round rookie WR Cody Core, and it wouldn't be terribly surprising if he also bumped LaFell down the depth chart before the end of the season. LaFell and Boyd are both currently going undrafted in 12-team PPR leagues, however, which doesn't make a lot of sense. Even if WR A.J. Green digs sees 10-15 percent of the 152 targets Jones and Sanu combined for last year, there are a ton of targets still available, especially if Eifert's absence extends past the first two weeks of the regular season. I'd be stunned if LaFell or (most likely) Boyd doesn't end up this season as a top-50 receiver, which means at least one of the two should be a serviceable WR4.

Cleveland
There is going to be plenty of time to talk about rookie WR Corey Coleman, who reported to minicamp out of shape in the eyes of new HC Hue Jackson before turning it around less than a month later. Additionally, if WR Terrelle Pryor continues to garner the same positive publicity he has from the new coaching staff during training camp and shows well in the preseason, you have my word I will address it. However, if Cleveland is going to go anywhere this season (and fantasy owners are going to profit from any player(s) on the team), look no further than the running back position. Jackson has favored a punishing ground game in each of his last two stops and it should come as no surprise if he does so again with the Browns given how unsettled the quarterback position is and unproven the prospects at receiver are. Jackson managed to get a great deal of production from Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati, and it is not a stretch to say that RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson can be a similar tandem. There is a belief the Browns are showing "immense confidence" in Isaiah Crowell and that he will get a "great opportunity" considering the fact they did not draft a running back or sign a veteran free agent. Jackson has been effusive in his praise of Johnson and reportedly sees him as a three-down back. "Duke has suddenness and quickness and he can go catch the ball with anybody. He does so many different things that gives your offense a boost," Jackson said. Run-game coordinator Kirby Wilson, who's coached two of the NFL's top-four all-time reception leaders (Larry Centers and Keith Byers), echoed similar thoughts: "He's very comfortable in space, he's got natural ability to catch the football and he knows how to run routes. He is what you would call an ultimate weapon for us. He is a running threat, obviously, and he is a pass-receiving threat."

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: When a coordinator moves from play-caller in one city to a NFL head coach in another, there is a natural inclination that he will take Player X and have him do exactly what the similar player from his former team did. It rarely plays out that way but in this case, there is plenty of reason to believe Johnson will fill the Bernard role in this offense and then some. After all, it's not as if Cleveland has a target monster like A.J. Green to strike fear into safeties and keep the defense honest. As a result, the Browns are going to need to rely on their running backs more than the Bengals ever did under Jackson. As perhaps the second-most trusted weapon in the passing game to start the 2016 season behind TE Gary Barnidge, Johnson seems like a good bet to eclipse the 154 carries and 49 receptions Bernard tallied a season ago. He should be firmly in the RB2 conversation in PPR leagues, if not standard as well. Remember, Johnson was being talked up as a potential three-down back last summer as well before a preseason hamstring injury and concussion slowed those plans down. As for Crowell, the inside-pounder role Hill played under Jackson seems perfectly reasonable for him. It seems highly unlikely Crowell will achieve the same level of success - 1124 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in 2014, 794 yards rushing and 12 total touchdowns in 2015 - simply because Cleveland isn't going to spend nearly as much time down by the goal line as Cincinnati has, but volume should be on his side even if Johnson eclipses 250 touches. Consider Crowell a mid-range RB3 for now.

Denver
Wide receiver is pretty much settled and running back should be, so let's focus in on Peyton Manning's successor under center. Heading into training camp, rookie first-rounder Paxton Lynch appears to be a distant third while Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian are "looking at each other in the eye for No. 1". Sanchez has the clear advantage in terms of overall experience, Siemian is the only quarterback that knew what HC Gary Kubiak's playbook looked like before this spring and Lynch is attempting to transition from a spread offense at the University of Memphis. The problem is Lynch most resembles the kind of quarterback Kubiak wants in his offensive system (able to serve as a running threat on bootleg throws with an arm to strike fear into a defense).

The tight end in a Kubiak offense is almost always a place to look for sneaky good fantasy production. Typically, that honor has fallen into the lap of Owen Daniels, but the longtime Kubiak pupil was released in the offseason, presumably because the team felt strongly that 2015 third-round pick Jeff Heuerman would be ready to take over the role. Heuerman never got a chance to show what he could do last year, however, as he suffered an ACL injury at rookie minicamp and missed the season. GM John Elway has said publicly he expects the Ohio State product be "step in and be a force" while Kubiak has stated, "We're counting on him big time." Considering Virgil Green wasn't able to carve out more playing time even as Daniels or Vernon Davis were mostly unproductive last year makes him seem like a longshot in this competition. Free-agent pickup Garrett Graham is a former Kubiak pupil as well, but he's mostly a catch-only tight end (and not a great blocker).

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: As much as casual observers want to diminish Siemian's chances at the starting quarterback job based on the fact he was a seventh-rounder or that he only took one snap last year (a kneel-down), the reality is he fell in the 2015 draft by at least a couple rounds because he tore his ACL in late November 2014 during his final year at Northwestern. Although he doesn't have the natural arm talent or athleticism of Lynch, Siemian has a big edge in terms of knowing what Kubiak wants. That's a big deal and helps explain how such a "poor" prospect could be tied with a former No. 5 overall pick and is well ahead of a hot-shot rookie first-rounder before camp. Siemian has a great chance of winning the job out of camp but faces long odds of keeping it for any length of time. If there is so much uncertainty about this job, why does it even matter who wins it? Because WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders make it matter. Even if neither receiver catches more than 80 balls this season, when is the last time when a quarterback had two top-20 receivers and wasn't at least a high-end fantasy QB2 option or strong matchup play? If pressed, I'd say Sanchez has about a 55 percent chance of winning the job out of camp, followed by Siemian at 35 percent and Lynch at 10. I'd completely reverse the order of those players for how I see it stacking up at the end of the season. I am willing to bet, however, that the "winner" is going to be somewhat relevant in fantasy.

Heuerman drew Heath Miller comparisons out of Ohio State, so combined with Kubiak's tight end-friendly offense and the fact whichever quarterback wins the starting job will probably be looking over his shoulder a bit, he'll probably want to make the high-percentage throw more often than not. Much like Miller, Heuerman is unlikely to break into the fantasy TE1 conversation, but he is going to be involved and can be had for a song - he is going undrafted even in 14-team leagues. I'm willing to bet, barring injury, he makes a strong bid to finish 2016 as a top-15 fantasy tight end.

Houston
The arrow is pointing up on QB Brock Osweiler and he has been "exactly what we've expected" in the words of HC Bill O'Brien. Nevertheless, the running game will remain the foundation of what the Texans do, according to OC George Godsey. Still, that focus doesn't take away from the fact that someone besides WR DeAndre Hopkins is going to need to be the person on the receiving end of Osweiler's passes. So while Houston felt the need to improve the talent it had at the position in the draft by spending a first-round pick on Will Fuller and a third-round selection on Braxton Miller, there is no guarantee either one will be starting Week 1. Obviously, Fuller is the heavy favorite due to his draft status and blazing speed, which makes him a good complement for Hopkins, but 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong may be ready to put an up-but-mostly-down rookie season behind him, one in which he was listed at 217 pounds but soared to 230 before dropping around 200 near the end of the year. He's reportedly at 197 now and O'Brien has taken notice, telling the Houston Chronicle, "He had a really good offseason. He's in really good shape. He's playing well. Hopefully, it continues. He's a guy that we're definitely counting on."

If finding a second receiver last year could have been considered a small inconvenience, then finding a Texans' tight end who could occasionally make defenses think twice about loading up to stop Hopkins became a major headache. Only once did a Houston tight end finish with at least four catches in a game (Ryan Griffin, Week 12), leading to the second-worst fantasy total by a team last year. Enter University of California alum Stephen Anderson, who could be the rare rookie tight end to make an impact but do so as an undrafted free agent. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, Anderson runs a 4.58, has a 38-inch vertical leap and 9' 11" broad jump, so this isn't a situation in which a tight end will draw a ton of off-season praise only to spend 80 percent of his snaps blocking in Year 1. "He has done a really good job of learning the plays and going out there in a non-padded practice; hes shown us some good things." O'Brien told the Chronicle.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: What are the chances that a Texans' receiver besides Hopkins is going to set the fantasy world on fire? Admittedly not good. Fuller was a drop-prone receiver at Notre Dame and Miller is still transitioning from college quarterback to pro receiver, although he did get a head start on the position switch in his final year of college at Ohio State. Strong cannot and should not be dismissed from the conversation, however, because while Fuller was considered a reach by some and Miller is a project, the second-year wideout started to come on at the end of last season and was thought to be a first-round talent by some last spring. Strong is never going to be a speed receiver - even at his new weight - but his ability to block and win 50/50 balls makes him a deep threat even if he doesn't have smoke coming out of his shoes like Fuller. Perhaps 2016 ends up being a repeat in that Hopkins is the only Houston receiver worth caring about for fantasy purposes, but if he gets injured, I suspect Strong or Cecil Shorts III (in that order) will be the Texans that step up the most to fill the void.

Anderson gets a mention here because if a young tight end is going to step up and appear on the fantasy radar, it will be in the "F" tight end role. It's the position Aaron Hernandez occupied during his career year for O'Brien when he was the play-caller in New England in 2011. Given the lack of production at tight end last year and no Rob Gronkowski to speak of in Houston, it isn't crazy to believe another undersized tight end with great athleticism can't be a 40-50 catch player in the same offense. Anderson needs to be on the radar of dynasty owners for sure. In redraft leagues, however, the All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection will probably do well just to be a low-end TE2 consideration this season.

Indianapolis
Quick name a Colts' running back besides Frank Gore. Congratulations if you said Robert Turbin, Jordan Todman, Tyler Varga or Josh Ferguson. Considering Turbin and Todman have established themselves as journeymen, it seems reasonable to believe they will be kept around only if Indianapolis has no better options. Varga generated a little bit of buzz last year, but he wrestled with retirement after feeling the effects of a concussion (that put him on IR) for about four months after it happened, so his long-term playing future appears to be much doubt. By process of elimination, Ferguson is the only one that remains. That is not to suggest the undrafted rookie free agent is one injury away from being the featured back in Indy this year, but perhaps he will be the next best thing - the unquestioned best back in passing-down situations the team has beyond Gore. The Colts obviously did not draft Ferguson, but reportedly were intrigued enough by him they asked his agent to name his price in order to get the college free agent to sign. One team source went so far as to say he was a strong consideration as early as the fourth round. Ferguson obviously has his own shortcomings - namely durability issues while at the University of Illinois - but brings a certain "space-back" element to the team that it didnt have before.

Speaking of an injury history, TE Dwayne Allen was once known as Andrew Luck's favorite red-zone weapon. In large part because Allen has missed 21 games over the past three seasons, it was something of a surprise when the Colts decided to keep him over Coby Fleener in free agency. One of the main reasons the Colts decided to so was because the former third-round pick is considered a complete tight end whereas Fleener is primarily an oversized receiver. With the tight end position no longer a shared position in Indy, Allen is anxious to disprove the notion he is injury-prone. As a result, he took up yoga twice a week in the offseason in hopes to maintain or improve his flexibility.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Indianapolis entered last season with a plethora of question marks at running back behind Gore last year and got a bit lucky the ex-49er continued to hold off Father Time. Gore is set up for another 250-carry (if not more) season in all likelihood again this season at age 33, but injury and age-related ineffectiveness have to be concerns for the Colts at this point. Despite Gore's prowess at picking up the blitz, Ferguson should probably be considered the favorite to handle passing-down work if he is able to stay healthy and learn the protections quick enough because he would bring a certain amount of explosiveness to a backfield that otherwise lacks it. Expecting the UDFA to carry the load should Gore miss significant time is another question entirely, but I suspect he'll end up being the best handcuff out of this backfield. Through four seasons, Allen has yet to play in all 16 games, but we only need to go back to 2014 (eight touchdowns in 12 games) to see why Allen is a potential TE1 if he could ever stay healthy. While his time in the league suggests he is unlikely to be a high-volume player - especially in an offense with so many weapons at receiver - the departure of Fleener may result in a drastic increase in targets. Allen is a longshot to finish as a top-10 fantasy tight end in PPR formats for the simple fact he is unlikely to crack the 70-catch mark (nine of the top 10 did so last year), but the 58-510-8 receiving line Richard Rodgers posted last year with Green Bay - to finish as the 11th-best fantasy tight end - seems entirely within reach. Allen could very well be a steal for owners who are able to select him as a TE2.

Jacksonville
It's not a NFL offseason if TE Julius Thomas isn't impressing somebody in non-padded practices. It's also not a NFL season unless he either enters it injured or gets hurt at some point. The ex-Bronco is going to try for a sixth time to put together a full campaign for the first time in his career. To his credit, there is no question he's trying to rebuild what was a strong connection last summer before a broken bone in his hand during the first preseason game cost him the first four games of the regular season. Thomas and QB Blake Bortles have met multiple times this spring in an effort to rekindle the chemistry they felt during 2015 training camp, and it appears that is exactly what is happening. Hes had really good OTAs. Its not only the things that were seeing on the field, its off the field the extra meeting time that he and Blake are spending, HC Gus Bradley told The Florida Times-Union. "Hes been unbelievable. Hes obviously a freak athlete and hes continued to prove that and make plays. He never drops a ball. Hes got unbelievable hands. Hes continued to work on routes and were fine-tuning the stuff he does that he really likes, Bortles told The Times-Union," Bortles told ESPN.

RB T.J. Yeldon is saying all the right things about the team's addition of free agent Chris Ivory this offseason, telling the Times-Union, I felt like it was a good signing to help us out and get a 1-2 punch going on. It will help us stay fresh just like at Alabama with me and Eddie (Lacy)." The actions of the second-year back suggests he's going to treat this as a competition rather than sharing a job, however. Yeldon spent the offseason working with strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran at his alma mater of Alabama to turn the 225 pounds he was carrying last year into a "better 225", with a goal of dropping five more pounds before camp. While the financial investment Jacksonville made in Ivory can be questioned, the Jags needed to look no further than the following numbers to know bringing in another solid runner was a priority: In the 12 games Yeldon played last year, Jacksonville averaged 100.6 rushing yards and went 5-7. In the four contests he missed, they averaged 66.3 rushing yards to go along with a 0-4 record.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: There is a good chance I could do a preseason piece similar to this one every season for Thomas and just remove the year and maybe a few choice words. (I'm only somewhat kidding.) The former Portland State basketball player's upside makes him a bargain at his current 9.01 ADP, but the injury risk he brings to the table means owners need to spend another pick on the position shortly after nabbing Thomas in order to protect themselves. I already discussed how much I disapprove of Jacksonville's signing of Ivory (7.08 ADP) for various reasons last week despite the fact their styles complement each other. Given Yeldon (8.03) and his familiarity with the offense, I find it hard to believe he won't see more overall touches. Given Ivory's injury history and Yeldon's proficiency in the passing game, I find it equally hard to believe the latter won't eventually end up as the better fantasy property, something that is not being reflected in their current ADPs. Yes, the fact Ivory should be the goal-line back should count for something and the Jags should be a much-improved team this season, but let's not forget their running backs accounted for four total touchdowns last season. Do you want to bet on Jacksonville tripling that production this season? I don't.

Kansas City
There is very little drama surrounding the Chiefs this offseason on the offensive side of the ball. The one area that warrants some kind of mention is the rushing attack, not only because of HC Andy Reid's propensity to squeeze elite-level fantasy production out of his running backs, but also because Jamaal Charles is trying to make it back from his second career ACL surgery. Reid mentioned Charles could participate in OTAs, but that did not happen. Charles recently said he won't take part in football activities until training camp "at the earliest", but he has already taken part in some individual drills. Stories about rehabbing running backs are typically a dime a dozen, but what makes this one different is this two-time All-Pro will turn 30 this season and his game is built on his unique speed and lateral agility - not exactly the two qualities that return quickly for most players coming off an ACL injury. Further complicating matters was the emergence of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware last season, both of whom signed nearly identical three-year contract extensions this spring. Is Reid willing to put the genie back in the bottle and let Charles become the focal point of the offense again or is it time for him to go from a featured back to a leader of a committee?

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Reid has presided over successful RBBCs in Philadelphia, yet been unafraid to lean on a Brian Westbrook or a Charles-type player to carry the load, so I don't we can necessarily his history as our guide. The Eagles brought in LeSean McCoy prior to Westbrook's final season in Philly (his age-30 season) and greatly scaled back his workload that year (2009), although his concussion issues appeared to be the root cause for that. Charles' ADP is 2.03 at the moment, which has to be based on the belief he'll not only return to feature-back status (thereby leaving scraps for West and Ware) but make an Adrian Peterson-like recovery from his injury by Week 1 after sustaining the injury 11 months earlier. Perhaps owners are using his 2012 season as their proof; after all, JC ran for 1,509 yards one season after his first torn ACL. The case against that argument is that he was 26 years old then. A reasonable assumption would be that Reid will use West as Charles' breather back and Ware as a second breather back and the short-yardage/goal-line hammer. As much as it pains me, I cannot wrap my mind around the Texas native recapturing his former elite fantasy back status with such significant hurdles to overcome. I'll predict Charles to push for a top-10 finish at his position again, but I'm skeptical he'll return second-round value.

Miami
It's probably going to take a few years for WR Jarvis Landry to shed the "possession receiver" tag. After all, that is a title one receives when he averages 9.8 YPC on 195 career receptions through two seasons. Maybe he really is nothing more than a possession receiver, but 2016 should be the first time he gets a chance to shed that label as new HC Adam Gase plans to move him and WR DeVante Parker around. While most of Parker's rookie season was spent recovering from injuries, Landry is set to get his first real taste of being an outside receiver after operating out of the slot 65.8 percent of the time last year and 79.5 percent as a rookie in 2014. With Parker eliciting praise from QB Ryan Tannehill and rookie third-round pick WR Leonte Carroo drawing comparisons to Anquan Boldin from teammates and generally impressing at OTAs, there doesn't figure to be a great need for Landry to catch 111 passes again this season. The focus for Landry, at least as far as Gase is concerned, is to create more big plays with the opportunities he does have. Landry's answer: perfecting his footwork by learning from players such as Antonio Brown.

Playing with tempo figures to be a big catchphrase with the Dolphins under Gase, just as it was in Denver with Peyton Manning running the show. (Injuries played a role in Gase running a league-average number of plays in 2015 in his only season with Chicago.) This news obviously bodes well for the Dolphins' suddenly deep receiver corps and increases the likelihood that Tannehill surpasses his career high of 590 pass attempts. Of course, having a balanced offense with versatile backs helps a team to play fast. So far, RB Jay Ajayi isn't helping his cause to be the team's featured back, as some reports suggest he is "not a natural pass catcher despite his success doing that at Boise State" while others say route-running is a bit of an issue.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: The increase in tempo typically helps the majority of players' overall fantasy numbers and this situation should be no different. Landry may not go for 111 receptions he did last season, but it seems like a pretty good bet he's going to be the top option for Tannehill and finish with 80-90. Parker is expected to take on the Demaryius Thomas role (X receiver) in Gase's offense and, while he can't be expected to produce like DT in 2016, I think his run from Week 12-17 is only the tip of the iceberg of what he can do. After seeing what Gase has done with an aging Manning and enigmatic Jay Cutler in recent years, I don't think there's any question he can make Tannehill a top-10 fantasy quarterback, especially given Miami's receiving talent. Ajayi is almost certainly going to be a question mark all summer, but I suspect Gase isn't going to give him that long of a leash to be the team's featured back. Rookie RB Kenyan Drake brings too much explosiveness to the passing game out of the backfield to merely stand on the sideline. If Ajayi doesn't master route-running or show he is a "natural receiver" by the end of camp, expect the Dolphins to employ a committee backfield, relegating Ajayi to RB3 status.

New England
The Patriots' cautious approach with TE Rob Gronkowski this offseason (no, he's not being mothballed until Week 1 as previously thought) has created an opportunity for TE Martellus Bennett to bond with QB Tom Brady. In an era in which it is difficult to find one tight end that can both block and catch at a high level, New England has two of the best "dual-threat" players at the position in the game today. It's fairly obvious Gronk will remain Brady's favorite option, especially in the red zone, but for the first time since the days of Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have the same yet different two-headed monster at tight end that drove defenses crazy a few years ago. Given Bennett's ability to block and catch, one could easily argue this pairing has the potential to be even more devastating than Gronkowski-Hernandez was. Even if that prediction falls a bit short, there is plenty of reason to believe Bennett will play a major role in this offense in 2016. As such, it also isn't hard to imagine New England choosing to use two tight ends as its base package this year.

Last year at this time, one of the most pressing questions Patriots' camp was: How are they going to replace RB Shane Vereen? One year later, we are left to wonder why Dion Lewis couldn't have graced New England with his presence just a little bit earlier and how three teams let him go before the Pats made him a star. The second question part of that statement is easier to answer than the first - he couldn't stay healthy, which was the case again in 2015. Lewis is working without a brace and is practicing (and reportedly cutting) despite only being 7 1/2 months removed from his knee surgery, which obviously bodes well for his availability for the regular-season opener.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Gronk is going to be Gronk; assuming good health, owners should be able to pencil him in for at least 70 catches, 1,100 yards and 10-plus touchdowns. The "Black Unicorn" is obviously a different story; since he should see the field more often - due to his blocking ability - than Hernandez ever did, there is a very good chance he could push for 60-70 receptions himself and score at a clip just off the pace that Gronkowski does. Although I'm not going to predict it at the moment, it would be far from a surprise if the Patriots had two tight ends finish within the top 10 of their position. Owners would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach with Lewis; if the lateral agility and speed matches what we saw early last year, then treat him as a low-end RB1 in PPR. If he appears hesitant in any way, then I'd be leery of treating him as anything more than high-upside RB3 (knowing he could build trust in his knee and regain his explosiveness at any point during the season). His current 4.03 ADP is a bit rich for my blood until I actually get to see him play, but he would be a huge bargain at that spot if he looks every bit like the player he did pre-injury.

New York Jets
Note to all owners, coaches and front office personnel: if your team (perhaps one that has struggled to find a quality quarterback) has a player who is either a fan favorite, team favorite or both, that is unsigned due to a contract dispute, it may not be the greatest idea to hold a Town Hall meeting - even if it is an annual tradition - until that situation is settled. There are plenty of ways to look at the current standoff between the Jets and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. On one hand, the market determines your worth in contract talks, so when only one team is offering a contract, that offer is probably your current worth on said market. Conversely, if said team has suffered through mostly substandard quarterback for what seems like several generations, playing hardball with one that gives said team a temporary reprieve might be worth overpaying for in the short term. On another hand, has Geno Smith really ever been given a real chance to succeed? While Fitzpatrick had his former coach in Buffalo calling plays for him last year (OC Chan Gailey) and got to work with Eric Decker AND Brandon Marshall, Smith had one year of Decker and zero time with Marshall. Never mind the fact he was working with West Coast advocate Marty Mornhinweg over his first two pro seasons after coming out of a pure spread college offense. Without referencing Smith, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski may have provided the real reason the Jets feel good about their negotiations with Fitz. "I went through every throw he made last year ... If you look at the numbers, you say only 15 interceptions. Well, it should have been 30. There were 15 that doinked off a linebacker's hand or safety's hand that should've been intercepted. So you have to look at that. So he was a little bit lucky," Jaworski told NJ.com.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Jaws may be prone to exaggeration (what highly paid analyst isn't nowadays?), but he's more right than wrong here. (As a Fitzpatrick owner in one of my title-winning teams last year, I saw about half of the potential picks he is talking about.) Fitzpatrick has always been more of a gunslinger than sound decision-maker, but quite often the most readily available stats don't always tell the true story. Perhaps I'm one of the last few Smith believers out there (granted, I don't believe in him that much and think his natural talent far exceeds his on-field decision-making ability), but it seems clear to me he needs to get a real chance to prove himself with a real supporting cast and not with the talent the team fielded on offense in 2013 and 2014. Look, if Smith can't complete at least 60 percent of his passes and post something close to a 2:1 TD-to-INT ratio in a Gailey-led offense after a full training camp with Marshall, Decker and Matt Forte doing the heavy lifting, then the Jets will be doing the league a favor by proving he isn't a NFL starting quarterback when his contract expires at the end of this season. When in doubt about selecting a backup fantasy quarterback, give me one that has above-average athleticism, a dynamic supporting cast and a great play-caller. In the off-chance Fitz and the team don't reach a deal before camp and the Jets don't add any real competition in the form of a free agent, I'd feel comfortable predicting top-20 quarterback fantasy numbers, which is pretty much what I would say about Fitzpatrick. In the end, I'm just like about everybody else - I expect Fitzpatrick back. Just don't be surprised if his totals are more like 30 TDs and 20 INTs next year, which is about what I would predict for Smith. Got it? Good.

Oakland
The possible move to Las Vegas notwithstanding, it's hard to remember the last time the Raiders entered a season with so few distractions and such a good vibe. Among the fantasy positions, the only "established" veterans that enter camp with something to play for are RB Latavius Murray and TE Mychal Rivera, and the latter of those two is debatable. Rivera enters the final year of his contract almost certain to back up 2015 third-round pick TE Clive Walford. As for Murray, GM Reggie McKenzie either really loves the idea of having a good backup runner - something Oakland lacked last year - or really dislikes Murray more than we know. After the Raiders' brass spent most of the spring telling the media how much they needed to get Murray some help and talked about cutting back his workload, McKenzie quickly praised his selection of fifth-round pick RB DeAndre Washington, calling him a "complete back" less than a week after drafting him.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Walford obviously did himself no favors this offseason by sustaining a "big gash" as a result getting into an ATV accident, which caused him to miss OTAs, but he is expected to be fine for camp. After coming on late as a rookie and finishing with 28 catches, don't be surprised if he hauls in 40 or 50 balls as a sophomore and emerges as a top-20 player at his position. Washington is unlikely to overtake Murray on the depth chart, but his owners probably shouldn't expect the latter to rush for 1,000-plus yards or catch 41 passes again, so he'll need more than the six touchdowns he scored last year (which is a distinct possibility) in order to be anything more than a low-end RB2. Washington is intriguing for multiple reasons: On one hand, it sounds like Oakland wants to scale back Murray's workload. On the other hand, there really is no telling how much of a priority OC Bill Musgrave will make getting him involved in the passing game. Musgrave is about as unimaginative of a play-caller as the NFL has and the Raiders have plenty of receiving talent at wideout and tight end, so how often will the Raiders manufacture touches for their rookie? With his supposed involvement in the passing game, Washington should be a decent standalone option for owners in bye-week crunches and needs to be considered one of the higher-upside fantasy handcuffs in the league.

Pittsburgh
With TE Ladarius Green - Mr. Offseason Buzz himself - not doing anything noteworthy because of offseason ankle surgery and QB Ben Roethlisberger doing little more this spring besides advocating for Steelers to go for two after every touchdown and dropping 15 pounds, we'll shift the focus to one other key important player in the offense, RB Le'Veon Bell. Limited to six games last year after suffering MCL and PCL tears, Bell understandably wants to make a "full recovery" before thinking about a new contract as he enters his walk year. Multiple sources seem to agree a Week 1 return is a near-lock for Bell, who used a treatment called blood flow restriction to aid his recovery from the injury. The fourth-year back has already done individual drills and something seemingly every recovering star football player does after a serious injury - shoot for the stars and set their sights on breaking a record. In this case, Bell is aiming for 2,097 rushing yards - the same number Adrian Peterson hit in 2012 less than a year after tearing his ACL.

The great thing about the offseason is that even receivers with one career regular-season catch can generate a ton of hype. Most of the time, that player crawls right back into the same second- or third-string role he had the previous season. Don't expect that to be the case, however, for Sammie Coates, who had a "tremendous offseason" and "earned the coaches' trust" after intensifying his training and dropping some weight. His awakening is good news for the Steelers as they face a full year without the suspended Martavis Bryant. It seems a foregone conclusion that Coates will be at worst the No. 3 receiver in this offense, and possibly the No. 2 depending on how Markus Wheaton responds to his big opportunity. After all, Wheaton's run from Weeks 12-17 (28 catches, 476 yards and four touchdowns) makes him the slight favorite over the immensely talented Coates heading into training camp. Wheaton attributes his second-half emergence to getting "on the same page" with Roethlisberger and "learning how to just be who I need to be when it comes to what Ben wants me to be".

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: There's not much I can say that hasn't already been said for Bell, who is the best all-purpose back in the league when healthy. Reaching 2,100 rushing yards individually in an offense that possesses the league's best receiver is a pipe dream, so Bell should be happy with just making it through a full season first. He is a near-lock for 100-plus total yards every time he hits the field, but it is not unthinkable for him to average 100 yards rushing this season with Antonio Brown, Green, Coates and Wheaton all capable of going deep. If he is cleared for Week 1 action early enough, there's no reason to let him slide past the first five picks in any fantasy draft. While he has suffered major knee injuries each the last two seasons, it is not as if he is injury-prone or anything of the like - almost every running back would have been injured on those same plays. Coates is going to be a popular breakout candidate this season and for good reason. While he doesn't possess the same 6-5 frame Bryant does, Coates is another big freaky athlete with the ability to make plays downfield. Some have blamed Wheaton's disappointing first 2 1/2 seasons on the fact he was "forced" to play in the slot as opposed to the outside due to the presence of Bryant. The numbers don't exactly bear that out, however, as he ran 186 of his 265 routes inside the hashes from Weeks 12-17. It should come as no surprise if Wheaton and Coates end up canceling each other out a bit on a weekly basis, but both should be no worse than WR4 options in most 12-team leagues.

San Diego
At this time last year, fantasy owners would have probably bet good money that RB Melvin Gordon would either lead all rookies in rushing or, at the very least, finish second. Short of that, the No. 15 overall pick would turn his impressive acceleration and 4.52 speed into one big play after another. Well, 641 rushing yards, a 3.5 YPC, zero touchdowns and one microfracture knee surgery later, Gordon is already facing questions about whether or not he is just another disappointing back from the University of Wisconsin. Why did Gordon struggle so much while draft classmate Todd Gurley thrived behind a similar lackluster offensive line and with no threat to speak of in the passing game? Some have blamed former OC Frank Reich's shotgun-heavy approach, but Gordon averaged 4.2 YPC on 79 carries out of the formation. How about one-back groupings? 3.45 PC on 177 carries. Two-back? Seven carries. Seven. Let that sink in for a second. Gordon ran out of shotgun 31 times and out of two-back sets 200 times in his final college season (343 carries). While formation can't be the only explanation for his forgettable rookie campaign, one need only look at the carnage San Diego experienced on the offensive line to figure out another reason why he was doomed to fail. The Chargers appear committed to more two-back sets after selecting Gordon's college teammate, FB Derek Watt, in the sixth round and bringing back former OC Ken Whisenhunt to run the offense again. The 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up has also impressed HC Mike McCoy with his commitment to the offseason program and rehab; McCoy has said publicly that he is "very pleased with where (Gordon) is at".

After four years of "preserving" Ladarius Green, the Chargers had little choice but to let him go as a free agent. In his place, San Diego selected Arkansas TE Hunter Henry in the second round in April. Perhaps in a quest not waste some of the best years of another fine young talent while waiting for TE Antonio Gates to retire, McCoy has already said "for going to push certain guys along a little faster than others" and that "(Henry) will be one of those guys". While cautioning that Henry has a ways to go before he's "ready", Whisenhunt has made it known he believes his new toy is one of the few tight ends who has come out of the draft over the past few years that can catch and block. So, does it mean the kid will play more right away more than Green ever did? Well, it should be noted San Diego had at least three receivers on the field in 711 of 1,100 offensive plays last season, so it might be a stretch to say Henry is going to see a lot of action unless Whisenhunt chooses to ignore the fact his top three receivers (Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and Steve Johnson) gives Philip Rivers his best trio of wideouts since he became the full-time starter in 2006. San Diego isn't going to sit RB Danny Woodhead or Gates on passing downs either, meaning Henry will probably spend most of his rookie season playing on early downs until one of the aforementioned five Chargers is forced to miss time.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: While Woodhead is a serious drain on Gordon's fantasy ceiling, there is no back on the roster that should push the second-year back for playing time on early downs. It is also noteworthy that Gordon wasn't exactly a stiff in the passing game last year despite his otherwise disappointing season with 33 receptions, although his 5.8 YPC is poor for a back with his big-play ability. The 23-year-old's current ADP is 6.11, which seems about right considering he might lose out to Woodhead at the goal line again. Rookie tight ends usually don't matter much in fantasy, and I doubt Henry is going to buck that trend. Like Green, he should play a valuable role within the offense should Gates get hurt, but serving as a handcuff to a future Hall of Famer isn't the most desirable road for a player to take in order to achieve some degree of consistency in fantasy. It wouldn't be surprising if Henry finishes somewhere in the 30-catch range, thereby leaving him off the radar in most leagues.

Tennessee
Very little is likely to get figured out in the backfield before training camp, so the intrigue that can get dissected surrounding the Titans figures to center on the wide receivers. (And there seems to be plenty of that.) Rookie fifth-rounder Tajae Sharpe is likely to open camp as a starter opposite free-agent addition Rishard Matthews, meaning Dorial Green-Beckham and, to a lesser extent, Justin Hunter have some work to do. Sharpe led FBS with 111 catches last season while attending UMass but enters the league at 6-2 and 194 pounds - a full three inches shorter and 43 pounds lighter than DGB. Shortly after proclaiming Sharpe was "the most consistent out of all of our wide receivers", HC Mike Mularkey strongly hinted he hopes Green-Beckham and Hunter "take it personally" that Sharpe has passed them on the depth chart "for now". New WR coach Bob Bratkowski has noted DGB is trending in the right direction and started to show some consistency but pointed to his "gap year" (the season after Green-Beckham was thrown out of school at Missouri and practiced - but did not play - with Oklahoma) as a major reason why DGB remains a project.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: It's been busy on the news front regarding Titans' receivers, as new OC Terry Robiskie reportedly told Kendall Wright was also told he will no longer be allowed to "freelance" on routes. (It's hard to put the "exotic" into "exotic smashmouth" if you can't freelance, right?) For what it is worth, I get the sense the current regime has very little desire to utilize Wright, so I imagine he'll play the role of a good soldier again this year and be happy to leave Tennessee as quickly as possible at the end of the season when his contract expires. It would be an upset of near-epic proportions if this coaching staff doesn't eventually turn to DGB over Sharpe at some point during the preseason. The sad part is that Mularkey and Robiskie feel the need to send a message to Green-Beckham in the first place. Given the current state of affairs, Matthews probably should be considered to be the favorite to lead all Titans' receivers, although TE Delanie Walker figures to remain QB Marcus Mariota's go-to guy. Regardless of how the depth chart shakes out in Tennessee, it is going to be difficult for any one player to break away from the crowd and establish himself as an every-week fantasy WR3 due to lack of volume and the number of quality (and apparently, flawed) receivers on this team.



Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.