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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Early Observations: AFC
Preseason Matchup Analysis

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

Gaining an edge is important in any competitive endeavor. Think about it: how often has a media outlet ever received credit for being the second to report a news story? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you beat 10 other owners in your 12-team league to the punch on a hot-shot player if the 11th owner got to him first. In short, fantasy football is a bottom-line business and the only thing that matters at the end of the day is whether or not our players contribute enough to our teams to beat our opponents. But part of reaching that point is getting a jump on the competition by figuring out which players are standing out in the offseason (and just as importantly, which ones are not) so we can narrow our focus ever so slightly on the players that really matter to us.

Each year, every team is optimistic about a change it made and at least one player that dominated offseason workouts. While much of the hype never comes to fruition on the football field, the fact that some of it will means fantasy owners need to pay attention. Beat writers and, in some cases, national columnists often serve as our only windows into what happens on the practice field in May and June, making it important to monitor what they say – even if most of it is coach-speak and exaggeration.

As a result, over the next two weeks, I’ll be doing what I can to eliminate the fluff and give readers a decent (some may even say respectable) opinion on how the offseason buzz from all 32 teams translates to fantasy owners. This week, we’ll take a look at what is being reported in the AFC:

Ray Rice is eyeing a multiple-game suspension for the now-infamous Atlantic City video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancé (and now-wife) out of an elevator, Bernard Pierce is recovering from major shoulder surgery (rotator cuff) and fourth-round rookie RB Lorenzo Taliaferro was charged for two misdemeanors following a post-draft incident in his hometown where he broke a window of a taxicab. But not all the news is bad regarding the Ravens’ likely top three backs this season. Rice entered OTAs like a man on a mission, dropping roughly 20 pounds from last season when he dealt with hip and quadriceps injuries. Pierce was expected to be out at least 4-5 months and miss all pre-training camp workouts, but was doing individual work during OTAs. And from the sounds of it, Baltimore hasn’t lowered its expectations for Taliaferro, who fulfills the big-back role the Ravens have sought for a few years.

If new OC Gary Kubiak proved two things during his time in Houston, it was that he could consistently field a strong running game and his tight ends were going to receive a lot of work. Dennis Pitta doesn’t need a lot of help in that area, but it appears as if he thinks he’s going to get it. Owen Daniels apparently likes what Kubiak’s offense did for him as well since he followed his old coach to Baltimore, where he’ll theoretically back up Pitta but still see plenty of playing time as the Ravens should use plenty of two-tight sets. As confident as Pitta seems to be about enjoying the new offense, HC John Harbaugh sounds every bit as confident that Daniels’ role will be “plenty big”.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Kubiak hinted in an interview with the Ravens’ team website in February that he plans on using two backs going forward. In the same piece, he also stated that, “I think as (Rice) goes, we’ll go,” and made a loose comparison between Pierce and Arian Foster. Of course, the use of two backs shouldn’t come as a shock since Kubiak employed a similar strategy with Foster and Ben Tate over the last few years. As long as the early reports about Rice’s fitness are true, he’s probably not going to have much of a problem playing the Foster role in the new run-heavy offense. The difference between the two situations (Houston and Baltimore) is Taliaferro, who was chosen in part due to his size (6-0, 230) and ability to run with power – making him a short-yardage and goal-line candidate. He was also reportedly quite impressive picking up pass-protection concepts in rookie minicamp. A strong start by Pierce out of the gate with Rice sidelined and early success in a third-down role from Taliaferro could throw this potentially productive backfield into a complete mess from a fantasy perspective. A more likely scenario, though, involves a rejuvenated Rice making his 2013 struggles a distant memory while keeping Pierce and Taliaferro in a relief role. As for Pitta, no offense targeted tight ends more over the past three years than Kubiak’s did in Houston. It’s not realistic to think that Pitta will overtake Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas or a healthy Rob Gronkowski for the top spot at their position in fantasy, but if he can stay healthy in Kubiak’s offense, Pitta stands a great chance at finishing right behind them. Daniels has a shot to somewhat relevant in fantasy as well, but probably more as a low-end TE2.

The degree to which the Bills improve over last season will depend on the improvements they made in the passing game. The new variable in the equation is WR Sammy Watkins, who is immediately expected to put some bite into the modernized version of the “K-gun”. Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, has already provided his share of excitement to a team desperate for his ability to collect yards after the catch, prompting OC Nathaniel Hackett to say, “He’s a guy we’ve got to get the ball to a whole bunch.” Hackett went on to say, “to this point as a pro, he’s been amazing, just the way he’s attacked this whole thing.” While Watkins focuses on a new offense and improving his skills as a route-runner, Buffalo is anticipating the healthy return of Robert Woods (ankle), who will assume Steve Johnson’s old role (the second-year receiver will likely start opposite Watkins and move into the slot in three-wide packages). While Watkins’ arrival coincided with Johnson’s departure, the wheels of the Johnson trade started late last season when more than one assistant suggested Woods was already the best receiver on the roster.

Of course, it isn’t going to mean much if Watkins and Woods are getting open on every play if QB E.J. Manuel can’t stay healthy, get the ball to them or both. Hackett appears to be pleased with the progress of his second-year quarterback and suggested that it was “beautiful” when he called a play last season that Manuel really knew well, but somewhat aggravating to predict what was going to happen when he didn’t. This year, Manuel says that Manuel is correcting his own mistakes and can verbalize what/when he saw when he makes an error. Further working in Manuel’s favor was his choice to work out in the offseason with San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick – an experience the Bills’ signal-caller said helped him “improving on situational football and being smarter”.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Hackett also famously said last year that he would run RB C.J. Spiller “until he throws up”, so fantasy owners can either take the Watkins’ comment with a grain of salt and congratulate the second-year play-caller for toning it down just a bit. At any rate, it is not hard to imagine that an up-tempo spread offense with a healthy Manuel and Spiller in the backfield and Watkins and Woods out wide could be very productive. It is also worth noting that Buffalo’s 69.75 plays per game ranked behind only Denver (72.2) and New England (71.1) last season and that was with a lot of shuffling at quarterback. Manuel isn’t being given much of a chance to succeed in 2014 thanks in part to his 58.8 completion percentage as a rookie as well as three knee surgeries, but the addition of a dynamic talent like Watkins cannot be overstated, especially when Watkins can do so much damage on quick-hitting plays like screens. Fantasy owners probably don’t need to draft Manuel in most regular-sized leagues, but the Bills’ offense may allow him to become a sneaky QB2 this season. Watkins should be considered a low-end, high-upside WR3 while Woods can probably be drafted as a strong WR4 in fantasy.

Coming off a spectacular rookie season, there was never going to be any question as to whether RB Giovani Bernard would get the ball in 2014. The bigger mystery early in this offseason was how much new OC Hue Jackson would deviate from what former play-caller Jay Gruden did and feature the second-year back, especially after the team added powerful second-rounder Jeremy Hill. The early returns from offseason practices involve Bernard moving around all over the field, including in the slot. (He only lined up in the slot 14 times and 28 times on the edge as a wide receiver last season, according to Pro Football Focus.) While it sounds like typical offseason hyperbole, it appears as if the Bengals really want to focus on being physical and play with much more tempo, which should give Bernard an outside shot at 300 total touches after finishing with 226 last year.

The upshot at playing with more tempo is the possibility of running more plays, but the downside of doing so when the team plans on “smashing your face in” (as Bernard told ESPN in late May) is that the passing game figures to take a back seat. Jackson is saying all the right things about QB Andy Dalton, but the majority of mistakes the Bengals’ new play-caller is harping on his team about correcting came as a result of poor decisions from Dalton last season. For his part, Dalton has generated positive remarks about increased arm strength from his receivers.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Given that Jackson craved – and had success with – a power running game when he coached the Oakland Raiders, there was some initial concern that Bernard would not see his role grow much for fear of overexposing the 5-10, 205-pound back. Thankfully, the opposite appears to be true; HC Marvin Lewis stated in late March that he envisioned Bernard to take the same kind of second-year leap that Ray Rice did years ago for the Baltimore Ravens. That doesn’t happen without significant commitment to Bernard or the running game in general. It’s likely Hill was drafted more to get more effectiveness out of the power-back role that was occupied by BenJarvus Green-Ellis last season, so it is safe to figure that whatever contribution Hill makes, it will come at the expense of the “Law Firm”. Bernard should probably be treated as a RB1 in all leagues, while Hill has a decent shot at maintaining RB3/flex value. As for the passing game, it seems unlikely the change in offensive philosophy will have much effect on WR A.J. Green’s final numbers, but an offensive coordinator’s desire to rely on the ground game more tends to come as a result of trying to make things easier for his quarterback. If Jackson continues to believe less is more when it comes to reducing turnovers in the passing game, then it figures to have a fairly significant impact on Dalton, TE Tyler Eifert and possibly even WR Marvin Jones. Dalton was already a top-end QB2 thanks in large part to volume under Gruden, so feel free to move him down to the mid-QB2 range in fantasy drafts this season.

With the off-the-field woes of WR Josh Gordon and the Browns’ unimpressive collection of receivers after him, there are really only two things to talk about with Cleveland: rookie QB Johnny Manziel and the running game. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner reportedly looked “rugged” in during rookie camp, but that didn’t stop new OC Kyle Shanahan from saying pretty much what some fans expected when Cleveland traded up to get him, telling USA Today, “Johnny and Robert (Griffin III) are very similar. They're both talented guys who can make plays with their legs. … I’ve been very impressed (with his work ethic and willingness to attack each day).” For his part, new HC Mike Pettine promises a “fair” competition between Manziel and Brian Hoyer, who has been limited all offseason due to ACL surgery but will head into training camp as the starter.

One of the reasons why it is pertinent to discuss Manziel is because of the impact he can have on the rushing attack. It has been well-established that a mobile quarterback can have a pretty profound impact on the ground game and it especially tends to be true in zone-based blocking schemes since the outside zone run stretches the defense both east and west when the quarterback is a running threat. The player first in line to benefit the most is Ben Tate, although small-school rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell should be highly involved as well. Tate will begin the season as the starter, but the team already loves West and Crowell was the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year who has drawn some comparisons to Fred Taylor. What does it all mean? Some people seem to think that one year after ranking 30th in rushing attempts, the Browns will finish in the top three in 2014.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Of course, Shanahan was the one of the two men responsible – along with father Mike – for creating a run-heavy offense for RG3 in Washington that allowed him to thrive as a rookie. Manziel is not the same kind of prospect that Griffin was, but that doesn’t make what Shanahan said about his new quarterback any less true – he is a lot like RG3 in the sense that the fun starts when he gets outside of the pocket. Hoyer should have the advantage at this point of the offseason, but it will be hard for the Browns to stick with him since the masses will almost certainly be calling for Manziel if the Browns are unable to start off 2-1 or 3-0 before their Week 4 bye. If he cracks the starting lineup at some point after the bye, Manziel’s ability as a runner puts him into the fantasy QB2 discussion and could even make him a darkhorse low-end QB1 possibility, but that would be only if Gordon can make it back at some point – something that appears unlikely as we sit here in mid-June. If Tate can stay healthy for 16 games for the first time in his career, he has the potential to be a top 10 fantasy back. Additionally, there may be enough volume in the run game that West or Crowell join him in the top 25-30 fantasy backs behind what is a talented offensive line.

With RB Montee Ball now considered the likely starter in the backfield for the Broncos, about the only pressing question Denver has about its offense is the identity of the player that will back him up. The favorite should be Ronnie Hillman based on the hype he has generated over the last year or so, but it should come as no surprise if the job eventually belongs to 2013 undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson, who is being called a “serious threat” for the role. It is important to remember that Hillman was drafted was drafted in 2012 in hopes that he can become a Darren Sproles-like threat for QB Peyton Manning, but has failed to even secure that role through two seasons and blew a prime opportunity last year when he literally fumbled away a chance to emerge as the team’s lead back.

The Broncos didn’t have much reason to touch their offense in free agency, but the one impact signing they did make was Emmanuel Sanders. (Just think, Eric Decker’s replacement could very well have been Brandon LaFell had contract negotiations not hit a snag.) Denver GM and executive VP John Elway wanted Sanders all along, but balked at the ex-Steelers’ request for Decker-like money (assumed to be $8-9 M; he agreed with the Jets for $7.5 M). Once the LaFell negotiations slowed down, Elway checked back in with Sanders and was pleased to learn his price had dropped considerably. "He can play anywhere," Elway told the Denver Post. "He can play inside, he can be outside. He's explosive. Great separation skills. He can do it all."

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Ball is one of the more obvious breakout candidates in 2014, if only because most running backs in a Manning-led offense are almost always very productive and the 2013 second-rounder has no legitimate competition for his job. The Wisconsin grad has more ability than Knowshon Moreno, so he should be expected to produce at a higher clip against the six-man boxes he will see than his predecessor. In short, Ball has legitimate top-five fantasy RB upside. Sanders’ stock may have taken a bit of hit when the Broncos drafted Indiana WR Cody Latimer in the second round, but the team is being cautious with the rookie after he underwent foot surgery in January that kept him from competing at the NFL Combine. Latimer hinted he doesn’t anticipate much playing time as a rookie, so the fact he isn’t expected to see the field until training camp should pretty well lock Sanders in to a starting role all season long before he (presumably) moves inside to replace Wes Welker in 2015. Although he shouldn’t be expected to replicate Decker’s incredible numbers over the past two seasons, Sanders should be able to secure low-end WR2/high-end WR3 value in redraft leagues this year.

Although the Texans may have pulled a draft steal in the fourth round when they selected University of Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage, the prevailing wisdom suggests that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be running HC Bill O’Brien’s offense come Week 1. However, the more notable statement the first-year coach made in the same article is that one of the reasons the Texans pursued the Harvard grad in free agency is because “he played in a similar system, relative to Chan Gailey’s system in Buffalo”. For those folks who indulge themselves in college football – Big 10 football in particular over the last two years – the notion that O’Brien wants to read a Gailey-like spread offense may come as a shock since Penn State was more of a ground-and-pound team under his watch. It should be noted that O’Brien’s one season as an NFL offensive coordinator spurred BenJarvus Green-Ellis to 11 rushing touchdowns on just 181 carries, saw Wes Welker secure 122 catches and Aaron Hernandez 79 while also allowing Rob Gronkowski to haul in 17 touchdown passes.

One area in which O’Brien and predecessor Gary Kubiak share a similarity is their love for the tight end position. The position wasn’t exactly a weakness – even with Owen Daniels leaving town – with Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin producing in somewhat limited action, but the Texans saw fit to use a third-round pick on C.J. Fiedorowicz, who drew a poor man’s Gronkowski comparison from noted NFL Films guru Greg Cosell. The rookie from Iowa is spending the majority of his time at the “Y” tight end spot – the same position Gronkowski occupied under O’Brien and still plays to this day. The addition of Fiedorowicz to a somewhat crowded position group not only signals that blocking will be important at the tight end position in O’Brien’s offense, but also that the new coach probably is employ a heavy dose of two-tight formations.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Here’s a notable stat: in O’Brien’s one year as offensive coordinator in New England, tight ends and backs caught 60% of Tom Brady’s passes. One way Houston has decided to try to mask Fitzpatrick’s arm-strength shortcomings is to bring in one of the best guards in the draft (Xavier Su'a-Filo) to solidify what should be a very good line as well as add one of the draft’s best two-way tight ends in Fiedorowicz, play smash-mouth football and throw the ball often to running backs and tight ends. Savage is the only other real possibility for the starting quarterback job and his chances of winning any competition with Fitzpatrick are probably better than they may initially appear. Fitzpatrick has a solid supporting cast in Houston, so he needs to be included in the fantasy QB2 discussion. Fiedorowicz probably isn’t ever going to come close to emulating Gronkowski, but it seems more than reasonable that he could lead the team in touchdown catches more than once in his career under O’Brien. Even though Fiedorowicz is more of a dynasty-league option at the moment than redraft, he still needs to be on the radar of almost every owner in yearly leagues.

Perhaps the general consensus was that WR T.Y. Hilton may not see his snaps dialed back a little since Reggie Wayne is a bit of a freak in terms of his recovery from an ACL tear and Hakeem Nicks was added in free agency. Not so fast. Hilton has spent time at all four receiver spots this offseason in part because the Colts believe his ability to stay on the move is key to helping him counteract the defense’s desire to take away the Colts’ most explosive offensive weapon. Of course, playing all four receiver spots is a bit of old news since his versatility in that regard contributed somewhat to the way he finished 2013 with a bang. However, with the good must come the bad. Even as Hilton was closing last season on a roll, he was collecting injuries at a fairly rapid rate (shoulder, knee) and dealt with a foot injury during OTAs, although none of those aches and pains is expected to be an issue at the start of this season. Although none of those injuries came because of his size (5-9, 178), the team still must do its best to make sure not to overexpose him.

Second-year OC Pep Hamilton was stubborn to a fault last season, consistently opting to stick to his run-first roots despite lacking the personnel (porous offensive line) and relying on RB Trent Richardson, who never really appeared to get comfortable in his surroundings following his trade from Cleveland. This year, Hamilton is adopting a “score-first” approach, which is to say that while he won’t go away from the run, he also recognizes what he has in QB Andrew Luck. Regarding Richardson, he is getting the bulk of first-team reps with Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (knee) sitting out. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft saw his weight increase to 240 pounds in the offseason as a result of “eating good” following postseason shoulder surgery, but is back in the 225-pound range now.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: The degree to which Hilton will be able to repeat last season will be in somewhat direct correlation to how effective Nicks is in his new digs. If Nicks can recapture the form that made him one of the most feared young receivers just a few seasons ago, then Hilton will probably go back to the part-time role he had as a rookie, although Indianapolis would be foolish to limit him to the 682 snaps he saw in 2012. The better bet is that even with Wayne returning from injury and Nicks in town, Hilton remains the player the Colts will feed the ball to in the most critical situations. Hilton is coming off the board as the 24th receiver according to Fantasy Football Calculator – a price just about any owner should be willing to pay for a solid WR2 with WR1 upside. Another factor that might limit Hilton’s snaps is if Richardson delivers on the promise the Colts saw when they traded a 2014 first-round pick for him early last season. A more effective Richardson would likely lead to more two-back sets, which in turn would lead to more two-receiver sets and force the undersized Hilton off the field. Indianapolis didn’t make significant upgrades up front, but the signing of G Donald Thomas and drafting of G/C Jack Mewhort may be all Richardson really needs since much of the Colts’ problem running the ball last year came as a result of not being able to block inside. Richardson 5.12 ADP makes him a solid value pick in 2014; he was a low-end fantasy RB1 on a poor Browns’ team just two seasons ago.

Many folks didn’t expect RB Toby Gerhart to be an impact free-agent signing back in March. However, it’s not hard to see why while the Jaguars essentially chose him over every other back in the free-agent class: his ability to gain yards after contact and thrive on third down. “He’s a horse. He’s a big guy, and I talked to one of his former (position) coaches, and he was saying Toby had the strongest legs he’s been around in terms of his leg drive and leg power,” Jacksonville RB coach Terry Richardson told the Florida Times-Union in late May. And while there are significant differences between Gerhart, Michael Turner and Marshawn Lynch, it is interesting to note that all three are clearly running backs that have an abundance of leg power and the ability to gain yards after contact.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of clarity at wideout in Jacksonville and injuries certainly aren’t helping the Jaguars sort through those mysteries in the offseason. It got so bad at one point during OTAs that the team was down to Chad Bumphis, Kerry Taylor, Allen Hurns and Damian Copeland because seven receivers spent time on the sideline with various aches and pains: rookies Marqise Lee (right ankle) and Allen Robinson (right hamstring), Cecil Shorts III (calf), Ace Sanders (thigh), Tandon Doss (calf), Mike Brown (groin) and Lamaar Thomas (knee). Be that as it may, the Jaguars are moving on from Justin Blackmon (indefinite suspension) and will ask Shorts to play more snaps out of the slot, where he has proven to be effective over the last two seasons. It appears Jacksonville is grooming Robinson to take over Shorts’ old spot at “X” (split end) – Shorts is eligible to become a free agent after the season – while Lee operates as the “Z” (flanker), meaning Lee has a pretty clear path to a starting job.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: There may not have been a single veteran player that saw his fantasy stock increase as much as Gerhart’s did this offseason. The former Heisman Trophy finalist certainly paid his dues by sitting behind Adrian Peterson for the better part of four years – only seeing significant action in the passing game or when “All Day” was injured. There are few things better in fantasy football than when opportunity strikes for a talented player and that is exactly what Gerhart has in front of him with very little competition for touches, making him one of the few backs in the league that has a very good shot at exceeding 300 touches in 2014. There is no question the 27-year-old has a chance to finish among the top 15, if not the top 10, fantasy backs this season as a result. The Jaguars would like to get an extension done with Shorts soon, but were smart to prepare for a future without him by spending a pair of second-rounders on Lee and Robinson. Since Lee has virtually no competition for his spot, he’s probably going to be the better pick of the two rookies in redraft leagues, although neither one figures to be much more than a WR4. Shorts, who gained 42.9 percent of his receiving yards in the fourth quarter last season, makes for a strong WR3 given his strong connection with QB Chad Henne and lead-receiver status in this offense.

Kansas City
With the Chiefs making no dramatic improvements at quarterback, running back or wide receiver (surprisingly) in the offseason, the focus moves to the tight end position. TE Travis Kelce is expected to be a big part of the passing game and stretch the field, although it appears he hasn’t done anything more than participate in the offseason program thus far. HC Andy Reid expects to get “a little bit more out of Kelce” before Kansas City takes a short break prior to training camp however; the 2013 third-round pick is making his way back from microfracture knee surgery, which sidelined him for his entire rookie season. While Kelce continues down the road of recovery, former college basketball player Demetrius Harris caught the eye of the coaching staff during rookie camp. Not only did the 6-7 Harris add 32 pounds of good weight to his 225-pound frame over the last year, but he also possesses 4.52 speed as well. It should be noted that, in 2013, Reid was pleased with the strides Harris made in his conversion from the hardwood to the gridiron.

Perhaps no player – at least at receiver – fell short of expectations quite as much as Dwayne Bowe did last year. Although he came on a bit later in the season as QB Alex Smith began to open up things a bit and Kansas City featured him more often in the slot, Bowe was outperformed by RB Jamaal Charles in just about every meaningful receiving category. The seven-year veteran, who will turn 30 during the season, worked with both a nutritionist and personal trainer in the offseason for the first time in his career. Wide receiver, specifically the slot, is where fans of the Chiefs should expect to find fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas. The former Oregon running back was chosen most likely with an eye to replace the special teams and short passing game impact left behind by the free-agent departure of Dexter McCluster, who bolted for the Tennessee Titans in free agency.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Although it can be questioned whether or not Smith will take enough shots downfield to fully utilize his skill set, Kelce has more than enough ability to evolve into a fantasy TE1 someday. More information is needed before the hype train can get started for the second-year tight end out of Cincinnati, however, since he is coming off a serious knee procedure. Reid compared Kelce to Jeremy Shockey shortly after the Chiefs drafted him last April, so it should be obvious the coaches want to get him involved. Given the lack of other quality receiving weapons in Kansas City outside of Charles and maybe Bowe, Kelce should be in the fantasy TE2 conversation. Harris is a sleeper in deep dynasty leagues only, while Thomas will probably contribute more as a returner as a rookie than he will to fantasy box scores. As noted earlier, Bowe came on during the stretch when he was used out of the slot. His offseason regimen is admirable, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be anything more than a middling WR3 going forward in this offense as it is currently constructed.

WR Mike Wallace starred in his very own version of “Groundhog Day” last season. Week after week, former OC Mike Sherman lined him up on the right side and basically asked him to be a glorified deep threat (except for when the receiver complained about his lack of catches after Week 1 and promptly responded with a 9-115-1 line). Wallace became more of a target down the stretch, but the fact that Sherman was so predictable with his usage drove many – including the receiver – crazy. Enter new OC Bill Lazor, who has made it a point to move the ex-Steeler all over the formationincluding the backfield this offseason. Lazor seems to have absorbed a lot of concepts he learned in his one year as the QB coach with the Philadelphia Eagles under HC Chip Kelly since he is installing an up-tempo offense with a heavy emphasis on spread formations. While Lazor has been given much credit for the emergence of Nick Foles, the reason he is important to Wallace is because Kelly understood that DeSean Jackson was a movable chess piece in his offense and exploited it. Jackson saw roughly 30 percent of his snaps in the slot last year and it isn’t a stretch to say Wallace is every bit capable as Jackson.

While Wallace appears to be all smiles in Miami now, another version of déjà vu all over again is occurring at the running back position where, lo and behold, Lamar Miller is having a fine camp. Free-agent signee Knowshon Moreno is apparently using the offseason to work off his offseason – so to speak – giving the third-year back an opportunity to shine once again. Of course, many will remember Miller was “dominating” the backfield competition last season as well, but ended up in a committee with Daniel Thomas since he wasn’t as physical as the coaching staff wanted him to be.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Should we expect Wallace to see more than a handful of snaps out of the backfield? Probably not. Then again, that’s not really the point. Consistently creating opportunities for and taking advantage of potential mismatches is often what separates great coaches/coordinators from average ones and it is fair to say the Dolphins have two matchup nightmares (Wallace and TE Charles Clay) and potentially three (Miller) players capable of scaring defenses on a regular basis. Wallace finished with 73 catches for 930 yards and five scores last season; it would be stunning if didn’t come close to or exceed 80 catches for 1,200-plus yards and eight touchdowns in this offense. As a result, Wallace should be a fine fantasy WR2 in 2014. Most people understood that Moreno’s signing with Miami wasn’t going to be significant – in the sense that he would have a chance to match last year’s numbers with Denver - other than to keep the more explosive Miller grounded. Expect Moreno to show better when the pads come on in July and he is able to display his best qualities (picking up the blitz and catching the ball out of the backfield), but the fact the ex-Bronco has even cracked the door open for Miller might speak to why he hasn’t lived up to being the No. 12 overall pick in the 2009 draft. If Miller can hold off Moreno in camp and be the clear-cut lead back in this new offense, he has definite fantasy RB2 appeal. Moreno, on the other hand, needs to be treated as a low-upside RB3.

New England
By all accounts, 2013 was pretty much a lost season for WR Danny Amendola. Not only could he not avoid injury long enough to become the next Wes Welker, but he essentially lost that role to Julian Edelman when the former Kent State quarterback was finally able to stay healthy for a full season. ESPN Boston reported in early June that Amendola “once again looks like the player who caught the eye in these (OTA) practices last year”. Amendola’s injury woes are well-documented and served as probably the only obstacle between him and the 100-catch season that Edelman produced. Since New England has the ability to get out of his contract at a reasonable cost in 2015 and just handed Edelman a four-year contract in the offseason, speculation is building that Amendola needs a pretty big year to return to New England after this season.

If it is the offseason, it must be time to talk about TE Rob Gronkowski coming back from an injury, surgery or both. (He rehabbed an ankle in 2012, his forearm and back in 2013, and now his right knee after tearing an ACL and MCL in December. Early reports are “The Gronk” is progressing well from surgery but, while optimism is building that he will be back in time for Week 1, no official timetable has been set as of yet. With that said, the Boston Globe reported that Gronkowski was “bursting, planting, and cutting during the early portions of Thursday’s practice (June 5) open to the media, and doesn’t look like he (has) any limitations”.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: It should come as no surprise if the roles get reversed this year (as in Edelman gets hurt again and Amendola stays healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his career) that Amendola becomes the 100-catch receiver the Patriots hoped they were getting a season ago. Ideally, both receivers will stay healthy and switch up roles from down to down and game to game. Edelman is currently the 23rd receiver coming off the board (according to Fantasy Football Calculator) in the fifth round, which is way too high for a player with his injury history. Conversely, Amendola is the 44th receiver being drafted in the early 10th round, which is much too low for a player with 100-catch potential (or 70-80 in a shared slot role with Edelman). Until one of the two get injured, Edelman and Amendola need to be drafted as high-upside fantasy WR3s that can play as WR2s if one of them can manage to get the majority of slot duties (like Edelman did last season). The tight end position in fantasy appears to have a few more potential worthy TE1s this season, with the likes of Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas, Kyle Rudolph and Dennis Pitta likely joining the fray that consisted mainly of Jimmy Graham and Gronkowski (and maybe Vernon Davis) last season. As such, Gronk probably needs to be selected after that group. Despite his immense upside, he is incurring injuries at a significant rate, so the fact he is coming off the board as the third tight end in the early fourth round (according to Fantasy Football Calculator) makes him a bit pricey to recommend.

New York Jets
Jets HC Rex Ryan says there is “no doubt” competition for the starting quarterback job, OC Marty Mornhinweg says it is not a true 50-50 competition and Michael Vick has apparently all but conceded that Geno Smith will be the starting quarterback for New York. So what exactly is going on? Ryan has to maintain the illusion of competition to ensure he gets the best out of both Smith and Vick in camp – that is his job as the head coach. Mornhinweg is vested in Smith, so he certainly has a personal interest in giving the second-year quarterback every opportunity to win the job. As for Vick, it does him no good to rock the boat in New York – a place sometimes known for making a story out of something that might not actually be a story. What every party knows (Ryan, Mornhinweg, Vick and Smith), however, is that if Smith wins the job out of camp but doesn’t continue his late-season improvement, then New York will have a veteran quarterback capable of picking up the slack. The underlying message from Ryan and Mornhinweg to Smith is this: make our decision easy so there is no controversy.

It seems pretty clear that WR Eric Decker will be the centerpiece of the Jets’ passing game and rookie TE Jace Amaro will be the clear second option in short order. Assuming those two pieces of information are true, then who will fill the starting receiver spot opposite Decker? The logical pick should be Jeremy Kerley, based on nothing more than the way he has been able to produce despite rather shaky quarterbacking for most of his pro career. However, Kerley’s ideal spot would be as a slot receiver, so the Jets are probably hoping another candidate steps up. David Nelson didn’t fare all that badly in limited action last season, but one candidate for the second receiver job could be Jacoby Ford. Not only does Ford complement Decker’s short and intermediate game well, but the ex-Raider’s blazing speed gives New York a deep threat it has not had in a while.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Thanks to the acquisition of RBs Chris Johnson (this offseason) and Chris Ivory (last year), the Jets have the a pair of runners capable of making life a bit easier on Smith. Adding Decker in free agency and Amaro in the draft are obviously another steps in the right direction, so Ryan and Mornhinweg could be tempted to pass the ball more (which Mornhinweg likes to do) if one of the two quarterbacks really steps up. However, with the gaping hole the Jets still have opposite Decker at receiver, they still don’t have the weapons necessary to consider any of their quarterbacks as rock-solid fantasy QB2 options. The Jets attacked their receiver issue with quantity as opposed to quality in the draft. Shaq Evans and Quincy Enunwa both have the ability to stick in the league, although both players would be stretched as anything more than real-life WR3s anytime soon, while Jalen Saunders’ long-term outlook appears to be as a returner. Stephen Hill will probably be given another shot as well, but the Jets probably have no interest in counting on him again anytime soon and may just turn back to Nelson. If Ford could ever stay healthy long enough, he could eventually warrant a spot as the last receiver reserve on a fantasy bench in a deep league. Outside of that, Decker is the only Jets’ wideout that should be on an owner’s roster this fall.

The Raiders attacked free agency the way one would expect a team to approach it when they finally escaped the salary-cap distress they had put themselves in over the last several seasons. One of the team’s March investments was ex-Green Bay Packer WR James Jones, who will get every chance to be the leader of a deep receiving corps that hasn’t established itself yet. Behind Jones, there is Denarius Moore, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, all of whom have the ability to be a good second receiver – or more – with Oakland. Beyond that foursome of players are two more talented players that deserve to be on a roster at the very least in Brice Butler and Juron Criner, who was reportedly “far and away” the best receiver on the field in OTAs. Those with long memories will remember that Criner was Nick Foles’ favorite target at Arizona back in college and starred in early offseason work as a rookie in 2012 before succumbing to injuries and ineffectiveness when the lights got a bit brighter.

While it would be pertinent to discuss Oakland’s interesting backfield battle between Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, the most important developments there have been the former fielding kickoffs in OTAs while the latter is apparently in the discussion for punt returns. So we turn our attention to the quarterback situation, where second-rounder Derek Carr has apparently already flashed enough talent and intelligence to convince the brass that he will be ready to play sooner than later. Unsurprisingly, the Raiders were convinced earlier in the offseason that soon-to-be 33-year-old Matt Schaub is a “long-term solution” and “a potential top 10 quarterback” after trading for him.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: It may seem laughable to the general fan, but Oakland has a wealth of talent at receiver. All six receivers mentioned above deserve to be on a NFL roster, although Moore’s inconsistency drives the team crazy and could lead to a trade down the road. Streater began to emerge as a quality option about the same time Matt McGloin took over as the starting quarterback and is considered the frontrunner to start opposite Jones. Holmes used the Raiders’ Thanksgiving Day loss to the Dallas Cowboys (his former team) to announce his coming-out party. However, it is anyone’s guess which receiver will become Schaub (and ultimately Carr’s) favorite receiver and that is where Criner comes in. Strong early impressions tend to stick with a quarterback, so if Criner is really recapturing the form that made him the talk of camp two years ago, he needs to be taken seriously. There’s no redraft value at the moment with Raiders receivers after Jones, but Holmes and Criner probably have the most upside of any receiver on this roster not named Moore. Despite the utter optimism at quarterback, Oakland will have either the least accomplished or the least effective player under center in the AFC West in 2014. As a result, fantasy owners can probably avoid whichever Raiders quarterback wins the job and keep their focus on McFadden, Jones-Drew and Jones as the only Oakland players worth drafting.

Despite what may be the popular opinion, second-year WR Markus Wheaton and rookie Martavis Bryant figured to be locked into a training-camp duel to determine which youngster will start opposite “Z” receiver Antonio Brown and replace Emmanuel Sanders. Brown is obviously locked into his spot and free-agent signee Lance Moore appears to be the unquestioned slot receiver, so much will come down to whether the Steelers like the game-breaking speed and quickness of Wheaton or the raw speed-size mismatch that is Bryant. Let’s first consider Wheaton, who is a slightly more well-rounded but younger version of Mike Wallace – the receiver who Wheaton was supposed to replace last year before having his rookie season washed out due to injury. Conversely, Bryant gives the Steelers the big receiver (6-4, 211) that QB Ben Roethlisberger has sought since Plaxico Burress departed. Last year, that role belonged to 6-1, 200-pound Jerricho Cotchery, who turned 46 catches into 10 touchdowns.

The Steelers don’t have any other fantasy-relevant position battles of note, but they are planning on making another change on offense in 2014: running more no-huddle. Thanks to the research of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers ran at least 15 no-huddle plays in each of the final nine games of the season, going 6-3 over that span and averaging more than 10 points more per game compared to the first seven games. Furthermore, Pittsburgh ran 239 no-huddle plays last year (23 percent of their plays); Roethlisberger went 102-of-163 for 1,221 yards and threw 10 of his 28 touchdowns in those situations.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Tempo is getting to be a key buzzword in the NFL and Pittsburgh is no different. While both Wheaton and Bryant are capable of stretching defenses with their 4.4 speed, the former is much more refined as a route-runner than the latter and plays every bit to his timed speed. That makes a difference to a team that wants to embrace tempo and create big plays, which is why Wheaton should maintain his edge over Bryant for the starting job despite his modesty in late May. It should come as no surprise if he is able to produce at or above the level of Sanders last season (67-740-6) and be a solid WR3 in fantasy. Bryant will take some time to develop, but he found a pretty good fit in Pittsburgh and could easily slide into Cotchery red-zone role, although it will be almost impossible for him or Moore to expect the same level of success. While it is notable Roethlisberger had most of his fantasy success against the weaker defenses his team faced in the second half of last season, he was one of the league’s best fantasy quarterbacks over that time. Although some of the credit must go to RB Le’Veon Bell for his ability to bring balance to the offense, Big Ben did enjoy one of his finest fantasy seasons nonetheless. With the quarterback position as deep as it is in fantasy, Roethlisberger should be easy enough to acquire as a high-end QB2 and fill that role nicely.

San Diego
Speed was the reason given by many for the plummeting draft stock of Keenan Allen in 2013, so it might as well be the trait he works on this offseason in order to continue the unlikely story that transpired last year. Last summer, Vincent Brown was on pace to become QB Philip Rivers’ best friend and Malcom Floyd was the veteran deep threat that only injuries could knock out of the lineup. This year, Allen is faster and needs only a repeat of last season in order to become a household name while his teammates are the ones that have obstacles in their way. Floyd is the team’s best deep threat at the moment and is on his way back from the neck injury (and subsequent surgery) that threatened his playing career, but has looked good in OTAs. Brown stayed healthy for the first time in his career, but finds himself fourth on the depth chart (behind Eddie Royal) now after failing miserably in his one shot at becoming the go-to guy.

In San Diego, the elephant in the closet is third-year TE Ladarius Green. The Union-Tribune’s Michael Gehlken was one of the latest to pronounce Antonio Gates’ eventual successor as the team’s breakout player this season. The 6-6, 240-pound Green with 4.5 speed is obviously a bit of a freaky athlete, but the Chargers surprising had him block on 59.5 percent of his 450 snaps last season (per Pro Football Focus). Perhaps it was a message that he needed to toughen up in preparation for a bigger role in 2014 or just a tool San Diego used to throw off the defense last season, but Green spent the offseason adding 10 pounds, picked up mixed martial arts to focus on his hand usage and leverage and drew praise from his trainer for making improvements in and out of breaks.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Even if he was slow to recover from a PCL injury in his last season at Cal, it is hard to believe now that Allen was still available in the third round in the 2013 NFL Draft. ESPN’s Matt Williamson suggested in early April that Allen may be at his ceiling already because he lacks the talent of A.J. Green or Julio Jones, but I’m not sure that doesn’t actually bode well for his future since he is already using his route-running and hands to win on a weekly basis. The second-year wideout is probably actually a candidate to slide back a bit after posting a 76-1175-10 line last season as the Chargers emphasize the run more and defenses cater their coverages to Allen, but any increase in speed is probably going to negate that somewhat. He should be a fine low-end WR1 or great WR2 in just about every league. Floyd will probably go undrafted – barring a stellar preseason – and had a reputation for getting hurt a lot even before last year’s setback, but could be a solid end-of-roster fantasy option. The fantasy world began to learn about Green late last season and the hype surrounding him is no joke; he is going to be really good…it is just a matter of when. Green is currently the 15th tight end coming off the board in PPR leagues (according to Fantasy Football Calculator), although it is not unreasonable to think he can finish in the top eight at his position. While much will be determined in training camp, any owner that can snag him at 12.11 (his current ADP) as the first TE2 off the board should be thrilled with their investment.

The offseason is the time of year that coaches have seemingly have nothing but praise for their players, although Justin Hunter wasn’t feeling much love last year from WR coach Shawn Jefferson. This year, he is. “He can be the receiver that puts us in the playoffs and helps us win our division. With the growth he is going to go through, if he can keep progressing he can be the receiver that puts us over the edge. … He is coming on. … I like the course he is on," Jefferson told The Tennessean in early June. Hunter added 15 (much-needed) pounds in the offseason and is up to 208 pounds after spending much of last season around 193. Jefferson famously questioned Hunter’s toughness when the 2013 second-rounder sat out of OTAs last year with a hamstring issue and the coaching staff continued to tee off on him for inconsistent hands, mental mistakes and lack of intensity. Hunter finally began to overtake the completely ineffective Kenny Britt around midseason and flashed the freakish potential he displayed at the 2013 NFL Combine by posting two 100-yard games in three contests before missing the final three games for violating team rules. The humbling experience – as well as a change in coaches and philosophy – seems to have agreed with Hunter, who is embracing the Titans’ approach to go downfield a bit more this season.

There’s little doubt rookie RB Bishop Sankey will grab the starting role in the backfield sooner than later, with only three power backs (Shonn Greene , Jackie Battle and undrafted free agent Antonio Andrews) around to give him much competition for the lead- or feature-back role. While Sankey should be expected to thrive due to a run-heavy approach behind a talented offensive line, Dexter McCluster probably stands a pretty good shot at being the second-most productive member of Tennessee’s backfield. The ex-Chief was signed to a three-year deal worth $9 million, which serves as a pretty good indication the Titans will use him. (The deal is nearly twice as rich as the one Danny Woodhead signed when new HC Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator in San Diego last season.) The comparison to Woodhead is an appropriate one as well since that is the role Tennessee likely expects McCluster to play.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Whether or not QB Jake Locker can stay healthy will play a large role in whether Hunter and/or McCluster thrive, although both should be expected to enjoy much more productive seasons than they had in 2013. Hunter is much like San Diego’s Ladarius Green from the perspective that both players are such incredible talents; it is only a matter of time before they succeed. (Work ethic is a bit more of a question with Hunter, however.) Still, the University of Tennessee alum is a solid fantasy WR4 option in redraft leagues and has as good of a chance as any young receiver in the league to be this year’s Josh Gordon since both Locker and rookie Zach Mettenberger each have the arm strength to chuck the ball down the field in an offense that will take more deep shots. As for McCluster, it is entirely possible he produces at a higher rate than Woodhead did in 2013 simply because Locker isn’t the quarterback that Philip Rivers is and may need to settle for the short throw more often. He stands a great chance to outperform his mid-14th round ADP and could be a worthy flex option this season, especially in PPR leagues.

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Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He has hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday over the past two seasons and appears as a guest analyst before and during the season on Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive” as well as 106.7 The Fan (WJFK – Washington, D.C). Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.