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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 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, it seems as though every team is optimistic about at least one change it made and/or 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 play out 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.

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 X’s 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, 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 buzz-worthy in the AFC:

Wide receiver is going to be a hot topic in “Charm City” (or any other one of your favorite nicknames for Baltimore, including the “Crab Cake Capital of the World”). By now, most of the NFL world is familiar with the breathtaking speed (sub-4.3) and drop rate (13.7 percent) of first-rounder Breshad Perriman in his final year at Central Florida. So far, he has accentuated the former (while also showing off impressive ball skills) and eliminated the latter, well, at least he did for a short while. But that’s not it. The No. 26 overall pick has impressed the coaches in other ways as well; new OC Marc Trestman told the Baltimore Sun in early June “What we saw on tape is what we are getting. We really liked what we saw on tape, obviously. And what we’re getting is a guy who is continually improving. He has a good understanding of the game. He’s not just a fast guy, he’s a smart guy. So, that’s really awesome to see that he’s a quick learner, and he’s catching the ball and making plays just like we saw him do on tape.”

Perriman isn’t the only rookie receiver turning heads and making a good first impression in Ravens’ camp. Undrafted free agent WR DeAndre Carter (5-8, 185) didn’t arrive in Baltimore with the same fanfare as the team’s top pick, but he’s already earned drawn a quite impressive comparison from another receiver that knows what is life is like in the NFL for smurf-sized receivers in Steve Smith. “I like [that] he’s hungry. I just love his attitude. I see a young Randall Cobb in him,” Smith told the team’s official website in late May. Carter will likely have to make the team as a returner at first, standing out in that area already as well. Like Smith and Cobb before him, the Sacramento State product could turn his special teams prowess into regular offensive snaps down the road if continues to excel in the kicking game.

Trestman has been able to do a few things in his long and multi-layered NFL coaching career, two of which have been overseeing productive passing offenses and boosting the catch totals of his running backs. There have been seven instances where a running back has caught at least 69 passes in a season under Trestman: San Francisco's Derek Loville, Arizona's Larry Centers and Michael Pittman, Oakland's Charlie Garner (twice) and Chicago's Matt Forte (twice). RB Justin Forsett is a very good bet to make that eight. "That will be a (big) part of what we're doing," HC John Harbaugh said in regards to his running backs being involved in the passing game.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Like most teams, veterans get the early nod in OTAs and minicamps. As a result, Kamar Aiken has ahead of Perriman thus far. Aiken has a bit of a rapport with Joe Flacco (24 catches and three touchdowns a season ago) and enough natural athleticism to make the rookie work, but Perriman is probably going to have to fall on his face in camp or during the preseason in order to not start Week 1. As a more complete receiver than his predecessor (Torrey Smith), it is conceivable the UCF product becomes the top target for Flacco before the end of the year. He warrants low-end WR3 in standard leagues and high-end WR4 consideration in PPR formats given the likelihood that he will settle into a Torrey Smith-like role for at least half of his first professional season. Carter gets a mention here for the dynasty folks looking for a deep sleeper in their rookie drafts, especially those that reward return yards. Steve Smith isn’t the type of player that hands out compliments frequently, so it is notable he is speaking in glowing terms about the former FCS standout. Forsett could really have the best of both worlds this season. Baltimore is keeping former OC Gary Kubiak’s zone-running scheme, the one that allowed Forsett to record his first 1,000-yard season at the age of 29. Trestman’s offense is a great fit for the same player who spent most of the early part of his career as a third-down back, so the only question that remains is how much of the workload fourth-rookie Javorius “Buck” Allen will take from him. In Trestman’s offense, Forsett easily has RB1 upside in PPR formats and high-end RB2 appeal in standard leagues.

WR Sammy Watkins’ first NFL season did not go as planned in some ways, although one could argue that in any “normal” rookie receiver year, his 65-982-6 line would have been the talk of the fantasy offseason. Be that as it may, his “average” numbers had to do with two other factors that were mostly out of his control: 1) the quarterback situation and 2) injuries. It should be noted, however, the former two-time All-American still became only one of nine wide receivers in the past decade to record at least 65 catches and 980 yards in their rookie season. Everybody already knew the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft had to deal with EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton. What they may not have been aware of is that Watkins was probably never anywhere close to 100 percent last year. He reportedly played the first several weeks of the season with broken ribs, suffered in the preseason. Then, just as the ribs began to heal, he showed up on the injury report for five straight games with a groin injury. Just as he seemed to be getting over that, he hurt his hip against the Cleveland Browns in late-November, playing through that injury the remainder of the season (before undergoing offseason surgery).

Since the idea of RB LeSean McCoy topping 300 carries in 2015 should not be a shock to any veteran fantasy owner, perhaps we should focus our attention on the player(s) who will be responsible for getting Watkins the ball. Most have assumed the job will go to Matt Cassel or EJ Manuel, but very few are giving unrestricted free-agent signing Tyrod Taylor much of a chance and that could be a mistake. The fourth-year veteran has a few in the organization convinced he could be the Week 1 starter and it should be noted that when new HC Rex Ryan was with the Jets, he tried to trade for the former Raven backup. "We looked at him hard when I was with Rex with the Jets. He's got that uncommon speed at our position. … He's in this competition as much as anybody to get the starting job,” quarterback coach David Lee told reporters in late May.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Perhaps no team upgraded their offensive skill positions more this offseason than the Bills, who added McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay. While this is good news in a general sense, Watkins’ owners need to be prepared for the possibility that he may only match what he did last season since Buffalo has more weapons this year, a great defense and a coaching staff that wants to hide (or believes in hiding) the quarterback as much as possible. Watkins’ limitless talent should keep him in the WR2 discussion, but he should be a considered a low-end option in that regard since he is in line for fewer targets than the 128 he had a season ago. The one thing that could change that is if Taylor is able to beat out Cassel and Manuel for the starting job. Taylor only has 35 regular-season pass attempts to his name, so keep in mind he might as well be an old rookie. His 54.3 career completion percentage on those attempts also doesn’t inspire much confidence, but he flashed on occasion in the preseason while with Baltimore and his above-average ability as a runner makes him a good fit for new OC Greg Roman, who made great use of the read-option in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick in recent years. Taylor should be considered an extreme longshot to contribute in fantasy this year, but I tend to believe he is the only one of three signal-callers in the running for the starting job that has a realistic shot to be a fantasy factor in 2015.

Assuming A.J. Green’s injury-plagued 2014 season turns out to be the exception and not the rule, the most important fantasy football discussion in Cincinnati is at running back. Jeremy Hill led the league in rushing over the last nine games of the year while Giovani Bernard became mostly an afterthought as a runner. To give owners some indication on how the backfield changed last year, consider these facts and figures: Bernard averaged 15.6 carries and 42.3 snaps per game before Week 9 while Hill averaged 7.1 carries and 19.3 snaps. After that, Bernard averaged 9.8 carries and 30.8 snaps in six games after he returned from a hip injury while Hill nearly tripled the number of times per game he carried the football and doubled his average snap counts. Hill, not Bernard, is under the impression the backfield distribution will be more balanced this season. "I don't think (OC Hue Jackson needs) to wear either one of us out, so that way we can make it through all 16 games for a playoff push," Hill said.

Since there has been very few updates regarding the return of WR Marvin Jones (other than he has been cleared from last season’s foot injury and suffered a minor hamstring tweak before OTAs), the obvious other talking point is the health of TE Tyler Eifert. The Bengals let former first-rounder Jermaine Gresham leave in the offseason, cementing the former Golden Domer’s spot atop the depth chart. Eifert was limited to one game last season thanks to a dislocated elbow, which was one of two injuries/surgeries he is recovering from this offseason (shoulder). Cincinnati is counting on the third-year pro to stay healthy this season and not only deliver on the promise of being a rare first-round tight end, but also be the player that hauled in a pass on each of the first three series of the Bengals’ season before suffering the elbow injury.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: There has been hardly a peep about Green’s toe, thigh or the concussion that kept him out of the team’s Wild-Card Round loss to the Colts, so he’s on track to return to high-end WR1 status. Hill is the clear leader for early-down work in Cincinnati and should do enough in the passing game to be considered a fantasy RB1 in all leagues, but he is not without flaws – he had five fumbles last season while Bernard had none. Jackson’s devotion to the running game will allow for enough volume to keep Bernard productive as well. He figures to remain the electric change-of-pace back for Hill and should be considered a strong RB3/flex in PPR formats and a lower-end RB3/flex in standard. Jones should overtake Mohamed Sanu, who will probably operate more out of the slot, and operate as a field-stretcher while Green and Eifert hog most of the targets. Eifert could easily find himself in the low-end TE1 discussion in all leagues; staying healthy enough to do that figures to be his biggest obstacle now that Gresham is gone.

Running back is about the only position owners should spend any real time with in regards to the 2015 Browns. Andrew Hawkins is a nice slot receiver, but it is hard to imagine many fantasy titles will be won due to the season-long contributions of WR Dwayne Bowe, WR Brian Hartline, TE Rob Housler or QB Josh McCown. The same cannot be said about RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. The 2015 third-round rookie wasted little time making his mark in Cleveland’s offseason practices, showing off the kind of explosiveness and versatility that convinced GM Ray Farmer he is a younger version of Giovani Bernard and Brian Westbrook. In fact, RB coach Wilbert Montgomery used Bernard as a model of how he expects Johnson to be utilized and even offered a comparison to Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas recently. ESPN’s Adam Caplan has gone so far as to say he could see the Miami (Fla.) product becoming a three-down back. Others believe Crowell is the odds-on favorite for early-down and (most likely) short-yardage/goal-line work.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: With new OC John DeFilippo keeping former play-caller Kyle Shanahan’s zone-running scheme intact, there are plenty of reason owners should be hopeful that a Browns’ runner can be a useful weekly option. However, there are plenty of questions, most notably: 1) Will the team mix-and-match at the position like it did on a weekly basis at different points of last season and 2) Is there any reason to believe Johnson will be a three-down back in 2015? I tend to think the answers to those questions are “yes” and “no”, respectfully. Crowell and Johnson are simply too talented to keep off the field for long stretches, so they might as well be used to complement each other. Terrance West is also in the mix and has reportedly performed nicely so far under the new offensive leadership, although he is the most likely to be on the outside looking in when all is said and done. The bigger problem is around midseason last year, the Browns were anything but predictable in terms of how they handed out touches each week to their running backs. Based on the OTA reports from the team, they appear committed to that approach. The good news is that Cleveland should have enough volume to make two backs useful. Whether it will be the same two backs each week is the bigger question. Based on how giddy the Browns appear to be with Johnson, expect him to be a serviceable RB3 in all formats as the only game-changing threat the offense has in the passing game. Crowell’s likely lack of work in the passing game should keep him in the same neighborhood, although he stands to be more valuable in the standard leagues than in PPR leagues.

Some players know when it is their time. It also helps when a former boss – in this case ex-OC Adam Gase – reminds them of the importance of staying on top of their game. Gase told the Denver Post in early May: “He would hate me for saying this — but he got tired and was a little chubby sometimes. I mean, he got worn down quick and then we had to rotate backs in last year.” Those comments weren’t entirely unwarranted as C.J. Anderson weighed 243 pounds about this time last year. As of June 1, 2015, the former undrafted free agent is 221 pounds – two pounds lighter than he was during the final few weeks of last year’s breakout season. "I am taking this to the next level. ... Even this summer, I am going to lose even a little more weight and get a little leaner,” Anderson told the Denver Post. As great as Anderson was during the second half of the regular season – he rushed for 767 yards and eight touchdowns over the final eight games – the third-year back understands the opportunity he has under new HC Gary Kubiak’s zone-running scheme. "That's what I am playing to do, be that guy. That's what (Kubiak) wants me to do. … I am going to go out here every day and continue to show the coaches they are right." Perhaps QB Peyton Manning gave him the biggest endorsement of the offseason, telling ESPN: “If you talk to him you think he's about a 12-year veteran starter and he's only started (seven) games. I'm getting a ton of reps with him and the sky is the limit for him, I will say that."

It is one thing for owners to predict a receiver’s inability to match his career-best numbers from a season ago, but it is a whole other thing when the player himself suggests himself that a drop in production is likely coming. “Of course obviously it’s not going to be one of those offenses – well I’m praying that it is – but obviously it’s not going to be one of those offenses where you catch it and you’re going to have two receivers catching over 100 passes,” Emanuel Sanders told the team’s official website in late May. Sanders’ comments were the result of seeing Kubiak’s offense up close for the first time, which will probably feature a significant drop in snaps from the slot, where Sanders did a lot of damage last season. Kubiak tends to feature two-tight sets and Denver has already stated its desire to get more work for second-year WR Cody Latimer, which could mean a few less snaps for both Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Fantasy owners are reluctant to buy into Anderson as the long-term starter in Denver in large part because of the turnover atop the Bronco’s depth chart in recent years. This year should be different; the Cal product generated 455 of his 849 rushing yards after contact last season and carried the offense over the second half of the season. (I’m not sure there is a more underrated stat among the fantasy community as a whole when it comes to running backs than yards after contact.) To put that number in some context, it is the same number of yards after contact Jonathan Stewart generated in Carolina on four fewer carries. His 2.54 yards after contact per attempt tied DeMarco Murray for 12th among rushers that had at least 25 percent of their teams’ carries a season ago. On Anderson’s frame (5-8), he can still be plenty powerful at 220 pounds, while his reduced weight should enable to break more big runs. While owners would be wise to handcuff Anderson to Montee Ball, the former has the potential to be the rushing yardage champion in Kubiak’s offense and could easily be a steal early in the second round of drafts. Thomas and Sanders became the first teammates since 2005 (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin) to amass over 1,400 receiving yards in the same season. Both could struggle to hit that mark in 2015, but particularly Sanders. In Kubiak’s seven-plus seasons as the Texans’ head coach, no No. 2 receiver finished with more than 899 receiving yards. While the case can be made that Manning is much better than Matt Schaub and Sanders is no Kevin Walter, it should provide some insight about the challenge Sanders will have topping 1,000 receiving yards this season. As a result, he’ll likely be little more than a WR3 in fantasy this season.

The Texans are going to be on HBO’s Hard Knocks. For the first time in what seems like years, RB Arian Foster is healthy and has been available to practice every day and HC Bill O’Brien even assured fantasy owners that “as long as he’s healthy and he’s out there, we will run the ball. I can tell you that. That’s one thing we will do." O’Brien also told ESPN in early June that “(WR) DeAndre Hopkins, we think, is one of the best in the league.” With so much certaintythese days in Houston, there are really only two spots worth discussing (seeing as how Texans’ tight ends ranked 31st in PPR and standard league scoring last year): quarterback and the receiver who will start opposite Hopkins. O’Brien insisted last week he has no plans to name a starting quarterback (Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett) before the team has joint practices with Washington or even after the preseason opener against San Francisco.

So, we are left with the competition (if we can even call it that) between former Jaguar Cecil Shorts, ex-Titan Nate Washington and third-rounder Jaelen Strong at receiver after the Texans moved on from Andre Johnson in the offseason. O’Brien has already stated that he intends on Strong playing as an outside receiver only in his rookie season while Shorts will play both inside and outside. Given that the second-year coach understands his offense’s strength is the running game, it seems extremely unlikely that Houston will utilize many three-wide sets (relatively speaking to the rest of the league, of course). Using last year as an example, third receiver Damaris Johnson logged 586 snaps while second tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz had 485. Admittedly, the circumstances are different – Damaris Johnson was not going to steal snaps from Hopkins or Andre Johnson unless one of them needed a rest – but one would have to think that Shorts is going to start and absorb most of Andre Johnson’s 946 snaps from a season ago in the unlikely event he can stay healthy enough to do so. And that is where it gets tricky: Shorts has yet to play a full season in four years and missed at least three games three times. Strong is limited to outside duties and enters the league needing to improve on his route-running. Will he even be able to replace Shorts on the outside if/when the veteran is sidelined or will Washington be asked to fill that role?

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: The story has been the same on Foster for a few years now – RB1 when healthy and a good bet to miss a few games. Perhaps the combination of former Eagle Chris Polk (along with Alfred Blue) can help the team overcome a short-term injury to Foster. Hopkins is on the doorstep of being a fantasy WR1 and should probably be able to kick down that door this season. The quarterback situation in Houston isn’t great to say the least, but one of the league’s best running games and a potentially great defense should allow the Texans to get away with league-average play at the position more often than not. Outside of Hopkins, there isn’t a receiver worth considering for redraft purposes in most normal-sized leagues. If O’Brien could tell Andre Johnson that he would catch about 40 passes in his new role in 2015, the odds are very strong that Shorts isn’t going to exceed that mark. I do expect the combination of Shorts, Washington and Strong to come pretty close to matching Andre Johnson’s 85 catches from a season ago, but two or three receivers splitting about 80 receptions isn’t going to help many fantasy owners.

Pretty much all the buzz about the Colts this offseason centers around one position: wide receiver. Andre Johnson pretty much ditched his Volvo for a Lamborghini when he left Houston’s quarterback situation to join forces with Andrew Luck. While Texans HC Bill O’Brien suggested to Johnson that he would catch about 40 passes in Houston in 2015 before his release, the Colts have no such reservations about the 33-year-old (34 in July). In Indianapolis, Johnson will be asked to fill the possession receiver void left behind by fellow Miami (Fla.) alum Reggie Wayne, who caught 106 passes in 2012 before tearing his ACL the following year and looking every bit of 36 years of age in 2014.

The Colts stunned the NFL world on draft night, selecting yet another Hurricane receiver in Phillip Dorsett, ignoring their offensive line and run defense woes in the process. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for him initially, but don’t tell that to his new team. ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells stated in late May the team's No. 3 receiver job is “an open competition” between Donte Moncrief, Dorsett, Duron Carter and Vincent Brown and that Dorsett is "too talented not find a way to get snaps for him”.

There is no doubt Frank Gore will open the season as the starting running back. However, counting on a 32-year-old to be a workhorse is always a dicey proposition, even more so for a physical inside runner like Gore. Dan Herron stepped up after Trent Richardson disappointed and Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season last year, but the fact the team pursued Gore sent a pretty clear message the Colts wanted Herron strictly as a reserve. Enter sixth-round selection Josh Robinson, who was probably the closest thing the draft offered to Gore in terms of running style. “The running style, he fits what we do. … He’s a bowling ball and that’s what they call him. To put up the yards he did in the SEC with a 6.3-yard average, that speaks for itself in that conference,” GM Ryan Grigson said upon drafting the Mississippi State product. In 2014, Robinson averaged 3.5 yards after contact (per attempt) and led the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns, serving as further evidence Indy is getting its physical runner for the future.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Johnson has famously never had a 10-touchdown season despite surpassing 100 catches five times in his career. As crazy as it sounds for a soon-to-be 34-year-old, he could do it this season and will undoubtedly be a key part of the passing attack. He should be a rock-solid WR2 in all leagues. The Colts’ passing game figures to support as many as five fantasy-relevant receivers and/or tight ends, but the uncertain nature of the No. 3 receiving spot casts some doubt on that possibility. Moncrief (6-2, 221) should have the advantage over Dorsett (5-10, 185) given his advantages in size, experience and overall athleticism, but the Colts might also choose to mix in Dorsett more often than we expect just to be sure they know what they have should T.Y. Hilton ask for too much money as a free agent next offseason. For now, Moncrief and Dorsett should both be considered high-upside WR5 candidates until the situation is resolved. Robinson is an intriguing end-of-draft option in yearly leagues and a fascinating stash in dynasty formats. Gore could easily be one-and-done as a Colt and Robinson is good enough in the passing game that he could become a featured back should Gore begin to feel his age or get injured. We already know the team loves his physical running style.

The majority of talk coming out of Jaguars’ camp this offseason has to do with their commitment to the running game or the player they expect to be the centerpiece of it – second-round pick RB T.J. Yeldon. The rookie got the all-important endorsement from a veteran linebacker early in OTAs as Paul Posluszny told the team’s official website in early June: “He looks really good in short-area change of direction. He looks really, really good there. It’s, ‘How does a guy move in space? How athletic is he?’ That’s what stands out. With him, he definitely has it.” New OC Greg Olsen did not dismiss the possibility of the rookie becoming the featured back, telling the Florida Times Union: “(Playing every down) would be asking a lot of any player. I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s another real self-starter and hard worker.” Thanks in part to the addition of TE Julius Thomas, Jacksonville is also considering a “steady diet” of three-tight end looks with Clay Harbor or Nic Jacobs – another clear indication the team will depend heavily on the running game.

In a change that probably happened one year too late for both player and team, RB Toby Gerhart seems to be adapting quite well to Olsen’s offense, which features more inside zone runs than Jedd Fisch’s did last year. The ex-Viking was the most pleasant surprise of OTAs, according to ESPN’s Mike DiRocco, who reported the big back is “finally healthy again” and stated “it’s evident that he's rejuvenated by Olson's offense”. In other running back news, the Florida Times Union reported there was “an unmistakable buzz” surrounding rookie free agent Corey Grant, who went undrafted despite posting 4.24 and 4.26 times at his pro day. “The initial returns are really good. … There are players who are stopwatch fast, and it doesn’t transition (into games). That’s where scouting comes in. Corey is a guy that clocks fast and, right now, is playing fast,” GM Dave Caldwell said. The former part-timer at Auburn doesn’t shy away from contact, which might help his cause as he attempts to secure kick-returning duties before hopefully making noise as a running back down the road.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Redraft owners only need to concern themselves with Yeldon, who has been favorably compared to Le’Veon Bell and Arian Foster. Efficiency may end up being a problem for the rookie runner as the Jags face a number of difficult run defenses over the first half of the season. Volume should not be an issue, however, as Jacksonville appears committed to lightening the load on second-year QB Blake Bortles after rushing him into the lineup last season. Yeldon’s presumptive workload should allow him to post low-end RB2 numbers in all formats, although Gerhart and Denard Robinson could each be a bit of a drain on his overall numbers if they steal some third-down work. The thing is, though, Yeldon isn’t just an early-down banger that needs to come off the field on third down. The Jags would be wise to let Yeldon show he cannot withstand the punishment of being a three-down NFL back first. Gerhart is Yeldon’s most likely handcuff and warrants a late-round pick as a result. Grant gets a mention here for owners in leagues that reward players for return yardage as well as dynasty leaguers that love uncovering that one player on nobody else’s radar.

Kansas City
Barring a monumental shift in philosophy or a rash of injuries, there are two reasons owners need to care about the Chiefs despite the addition of WR Jeremy Maclin: TE Travis Kelce and the running back position. When Kansas City released “starter” Anthony Fasano in the offseason, it became clear the Kelce was ready to take the bull by the horns. He identified three areas he wanted to change/improve upon after his breakout 2014 campaign: 1) add 10 pounds in order to help him improve as an inline blocker (he’s at 255 at last check), 2) get a better grasp of HC Andy Reid’s playbook (to which Reid signed off in early June) and 3) improve his ball security (three lost fumbles). Most Kelce owners remember that he was criminally underutilized for a good part of last season, but it turns out it was part of a predetermined plan in order to keep him healthy for the long term after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee in 2013.

RB Jamaal Charles will turn 29 in December, but don’t tell him that. “I feel like I’m young all over again. I feel like I am 20, 21. I feel good, I feel healthy, I eat right, I take vitamins, I do yoga. I am doing everything I am supposed to do to keep my body up at age,” Charles told the Kansas City Star in mid-June. “I want to play another six years, so my form is to keep on taking my diet.” Charles is down to 204 pounds – he has stated he typically starts at 207 – and has told backup Knile Davis he wants to play for six more years. Speaking of Davis, he doesn’t believe there is a much of a gap – if any at all – between him and the Chiefs’ four-time Pro Bowler. “Be available and stay healthy and when Jamaal needs a blow, I’ll go,’’ Davis told ESPN when asked what he expected his role to be. “When it’s my turn, I’ll turn it on. (Charles) is the starter. It’s his time. I’m waiting (until) my time.’’

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Kelce had the sixth-most catches at his position last year despite ranking 23rd in snaps at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. Given the release of Fasano and the trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle, it is entirely possible Kelce is the only tight end in the NFL that gives New England’s Rob Gronkowski a run for his money as the top fantasy option at the position. Fasano accounted for 25 catches, 226 yards and four scores last year – most of which will probably go to either Kelce or Maclin this year. Kansas City tight ends finished with 96 grabs for 1,111 yards and nine TDs a year ago, so Kelce is a very good bet to improve up on his 67-862-5 line from 2014. Charles is healthy again after battling injuries last season and seems excited about the improvements the team made along its offensive line, most notably the trade for LG Ben Grubbs. He’s in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy and should go inside the top five in just about any draft. ESPN’s Adam Teicher pointed out where Davis falls short of Charles – mostly as a receiver or pass-blocker – but his time is coming. His rookie contract expires after the 2016 season and the 23-year-old will not struggle to find work as he is one of the best backup running backs in the league. Dynasty leaguers should try to buy low now.

There has been precious little talk about fifth-round RB Jay Ajayi this spring, so the majority of fantasy discussion belongs to the receiver position. No. 14 overall pick DeVante Parker underwent foot surgery on June 5 to replace a screw from a previous surgery and will be out 8-12 weeks, putting him in danger of missing most of training camp and/or the preseason. As a result of that surgery and QB Ryan Tannehill’s well-documented troubles throwing the deep ball, Jarvis Landry figures to be the go-to guy in the passing game, particularly in the early part of the season. To help that cause, OC Bill Lazor plans on leaving defenses “scrambling and confused” by moving receivers to different positions, which includes giving Landry some snaps on the boundary – something Landry covets.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Until we get some kind of feedback on how Ajayi is progressing in offseason practices, we’ll have to assume he’ll be Lamar Miller’s “breather back”. Ajayi has a feature-back skill-set, however, so perhaps we’ll get a better read of his prospects in August. As for Landry, he’s going to spend a lot of time in the slot regardless of how much the Dolphins want to move receivers around – Miami’s long-term future figures to have Kenny Stills and Parker on the outside and Landry in the slot. Assuming Tannehill remains a poor deep-ball thrower, it is good news for his redraft- and dynasty-league value in PPR formats. Landry figures to remain a high-end WR3 in PPR leagues and a low-end one in standard formats.

New England
Since it is unclear how long QB Tom Brady will be suspended at the moment due to his appeal of NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent’s four-game sentence, discussing backup Jimmy Garoppolo’s offseason exploits seems rather pointless. A discussion about WR Brandon LaFell this time last year might have been almost as inane, except for the fact he nearly became a top-20 fantasy receiver in his first as a Patriot after four disappointing seasons with Carolina. The 28-year-old USC product was in the news last week after he showed up to a charity function with his left foot in a walking boot, which apparently was the reason he did not participate in OTAs. In his absence, third-year WR Aaron Dobson is “taking advantage of his opportunities” during offseason workouts. The former second-round pick has been hampered by foot and hip injuries ever since flashing as a rookie over the first nine games of the 2013 season.

Third-down RB Shane Vereen left New England for the Giants after capping his four-year Patriots’ career with 11 catches in the Super Bowl, leaving a somewhat underrated but important role open for a bunch of challengers. The leading candidates to replace him are 2014 fourth-rounder James White, former Saint Travaris Cadet and the oft-injured Dion Lewis. White is reportedly “in the driver’s seat” and Brady “clearly (had) more of a comfort level” with him and veteran Brandon Bolden than the others during OTAs. Whatever hold he may have is tenuous at best, in part because he fell off the map after being the talk of training camp last year. The biggest threat to White’s grasp on the job figures to come from Cadet, who is slightly bigger (6-1, 210) than White (5-10, 205) and has the experience of learning from one of the best passing-down backs in recent memory in Darren Sproles. The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin speculated Cadet has “a leg up” in the competition last week before the Boston Herald stated White “looks like a carbon copy of Vereen”, which sounds like a pretty strong endorsement for the second-year pro.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: It’s obviously too early to worry about LaFell’s redraft value falling as a result of this injury (one you can be sure the Patriots will not expand upon), but assuming he is a full-go by training camp, he has a good chance to outperform his 8.10 ADP in PPR and 9.08 in standard leagues. Dobson isn’t even getting drafted (according to Fantasy Football Calculator), but he could easily become fantasy-relevant early in the season if he can merely stay healthy. He’s one of the best bets among undrafted fantasy players to be an every-week starter at some point in 2015. If Bolden wasn’t considered such a valuable special-teams contributor, he could end up with Vereen’s old job. That doesn’t appear to be an option, so let the games begin between White, Cadet and Lewis. The odds are extremely high the battle comes down to the first two players, with no clear leader likely to emerge before the start of the preseason – no matter what the two Boston papers lead us to believe. If I’m a betting man, I’d roll the dice on White winning the job with Cadet possibly returning kicks and getting sprinkled in on occasion as a slot receiver. The winner of the competition has a chance to be a low-end RB2 in PPR and a decent flex in standard leagues.

New York Jets
Owners looking for some kind of certainty going into the summer aren’t going to find it on the Jets, who had new OC Chan Gailey imply that QB Geno Smith “could not lose the job in camp to Ryan Fitzpatrick”, only to be somewhat refuted by new HC Todd Bowles a week later. At running back, injury-prone Chris Ivory (coming off his first 16-game season in five years in the league) sits atop the depth chart. Behind him, Stevan Ridley (ACL) doesn’t know if he’ll be ready for camp, leaving ex-Ram Zac Stacy as the only one of the three likely contenders for the early-down back role without a worrisome injury history. Bilal Powell was second on Bowles’ list when he was asked for a depth chart by ESPN’s Rich Cimini on June 11, although one has to wonder if that is because the coach sees him as the No. 1 option on passing downs and Ivory as the top option on early downs.

With so much uncertainty at running back, the best fantasy value could actually come from the tight ends and wide receivers. Second-year TE Jace Amaro was always going to be a poor fit in Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense because he is a receiver in a tight end’s body and doesn’t offer much in the way of blocking. Gailey is more of a proponent of the spread offense, which should give Amaro many more opportunities to use his 6-5, 265-pound frame in mismatch situations that he was so adept at creating at Texas Tech. Eric Decker returns, but should be the clear second option in this offense after the team acquired fellow WR Brandon Marshall from Chicago. The New York Post reported in late May that Marshall and Smith got together in south Florida shortly together after his trade from the Bears in March to work out and further the bonding process that began a few years ago. “I was just blown away by his maturity and how much (Smith) knows; this kid is really smart. The sky is the limit for him,” Marshall said.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Smith is a prime example of a player that is on his way to being considered a bust despite the fact he hasn’t been given much of a chance to succeed. While the run-heavy attack made sense to ease Smith into the pro game, Mornhinweg's inability to adapt his offense to the second-year signal caller and the Jets’ inability to give him anything more than Decker over his first two seasons set him up to fail. Gailey’s offense has seen average talents like Fitzpatrick and Tyler Thigpen go crazy, so I will be eyeing Smith as a low-end QB2 option that will almost certainly be available in the last round of about every draft – now that he has an offense that he has proven he can operate in and a capable supporting cast. Most “Y” tight end-types like Amaro scare me because they are like third-down backs in that they are part-time players that see about a third of the team’s snaps. While I do expect Amaro to improve on his 38-345-2 rookie line, I’d be stunned if he emerges as anything more than a mid-level TE2 this year. Decker had a strong close to his first year as a Jet, which allowed him to finish with a respectable 74 catches and 962 yards. Given the likelihood that New York will pass more under Gailey in 2015, the ex-Bronco is probably a good bet to come relatively close to those numbers again. Marshall is probably going to be viewed as the biggest wild-card, but should he be? Last year, he missed games for the first time in four seasons. The five-time Pro Bowler has caught at least 81 passes in all but two of his nine years in the league, which is quite the achievement for a receiver playing for his fourth team and whose best quarterback over that time was Jay Cutler. Marshall may not be a popular WR2 selection in many leagues due to the public perception of the Jets’ quarterback situation, but the odds are he’ll deliver that kind of production.

Not even the knowledge that new OC Bill Musgrave is running the Raiders’ offense can stop the hype train coming out of Oakland this summer. RB Latavius Murray was a spectator for the better part of his first 1 ˝ years as a pro, but one Thursday night performance last season left owners drooling (four carries, 112 yards and two touchdowns in Week 12 before suffering a concussion). According to ESPN’s Adam Caplan, the previous regime thought the 6-3, 225-pound physical freak improved as a pass blocker over the course of last year, but the team’s unwillingness to trust him any earlier than it did stemmed from inconsistent practice performance. Caplan’s source went on to say, “(Murray) has a chance at a huge year in this system. Because he is smart, physically a freak."  New HC Jack Del Rio wants to play power football and has not hesitated in giving Murray the opportunity to run with the starting job.

Oakland hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005, but that dry spell could be coming to an end after the team selected WR Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick. Musgrave’s conservative play-calling and injury appear to be about the only things that could stop that from happening. The former Alabama standout is about as pro-ready as they come and has been generating positive buzz seemingly every time he steps on the field. One team source told ESPN’s Adam Caplan that Cooper is the “real deal” and that he has committed “almost no mental errors, runs great routes (and is a) consistent route runner”, which is pretty much the same script we heard throughout the draft process. ESPN’s Bill Williamson went one step further, suggesting the first-year wideout is “ready to breakout immediately”.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Oakland has protected itself at running back, but hasn’t exactly stacked the deck against Murray by bringing in Roy Helu and Trent Richardson. Helu should get plenty of work as the main passing-down and occasional breather back for Murray, who has proven to be much more explosive than T-Rich. The Raiders are starting to put some pieces in place up front to build the power-running team Del Rio wants, so Murray should be able to live up to the fantasy RB2 expectation many fantasy owners will have for him in 2015. Perhaps I’m a bit too hard on Musgrave, who has stated he wants his offense to play with the same kind of pace the Eagles do (after seeing it firsthand as the QB coach in Philadelphia last year). The problem is that he has a very poor track record when it comes to leading an offense, particularly the passing game. Musgrave’s presence is about the only thing that could keep me from believing Cooper will be an every-week fantasy WR2 as a rookie.

The talk of the Steelers’ offseason has been WR Martavis Bryant, who apparently approached his offseason quite seriously. The 6-4 (and now-225 pounder, up from the 200 pounds he was when he left college) second-year Clemson product worked out as often as three times a day in Hollywood since last season ended, doing his best to build on the success he enjoyed over the final 10 games of his rookie campaign (26 receptions, 549 yards and eight TDs). Bryant even earned a congratulatory “big person with little person skills” yell from HC Mike Tomlin during a catch in practice in early June, serving as a bit of proof that all that work he did on his craft – including running routes in sand to improve his mobility – will benefit him in a few months. While the starting job opposite Antonio Brown is not set in stone yet, the fact that Bryant was “a beast” in OTAs and is the big receiver (in the Plaxico Burress mold) that QB Ben Roethlisberger loves obviously bodes well for his Week 1 prospects.

With much of the focus on RB Le’Veon Bell’s season-opening three-game suspension, very little has been made of the knee injury that knocked him out of the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Ravens – most likely because many expected it to be a non-issue now since the press didn’t know the seriousness of it back in January. The first-team All-Pro selection told ESPN in late May that his knee is now close to 100 percent and estimated that is was “barely 50 percent in January”.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Bryant is coming off the board in the middle (standard) to late (PPR) part of the fifth round, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, which sounds about right for a player that may exceed 60 catches and 10-plus scores in 2015. Brown is obviously the alpha male in the Pittsburgh passing attack, but Roethlisberger is easily capable of making at least two receivers quite viable in fantasy. Bryant is a high-end WR3 with WR2 upside. Bell’s knee figures to be a thing of the past by training camp, but two of several reasons I included it were to: 1) inform readers his health isn’t guaranteed heading into the season and 2) serve as a reminder that owners always need to be leery of “estimates”. Despite the fact he’ll be sidelined the first three games of the season (pending appeal), Bell still warrants a pick in the top half of the first round.

San Diego
Count QB Philip Rivers among those that would like to see the Chargers release the beast that could be TE Ladarius Green. "He looks really good. ... He needs to be a bigger part of it,” the contract-year signal-caller told San Diego Union-Tribune beat writer Michael Gehlken. If this sounds like yesterday’s news, it is because it is. You see, the soon-to-be fourth-year tight end has been the subject of countless offseason puff pieces for most of his entire NFL career, but the team’s use of three-wide (as opposed to two-tight) packages and the continued solid play of TE Antonio Gates has essentially kept Green in fantasy purgatory. Just as it appeared the 6-6, 240-pounder was going to get a break following the departure of WR Eddie Royal, the Chargers added a better receiver in ex-Bill Steve Johnson that can win out of the slot or on the outside – potentially stealing a slot role from Green in the process.

By all accounts, WR Keenan Allen had a decent season for a second-year player (77 receptions, 783 yards and four TDs). The problem was that he fell back significantly from his sensational rookie year (263 fewer receiving yards despite six more catches, a drop of 4.5 yards per catch and half as many scores). Neither Gehlken nor Rivers have said or implied that Allen loafed last year, but the latter told the former that he sees “more focus and determination this offseason” from the wideout and that Allen “now knows (how difficult it is) to sustain (his) rookie production”.

Owners hoping to build their fantasy title run around rookie RB Melvin Gordon may need to dial back their expectations a bit, especially if RB Danny Woodhead carries over what he did this offseason into the regular season. ESPN’s Eric D. Williams stated in mid-June that “Woodhead (was) one of the pleasant surprises for the Chargers during offseason work. He has flashed the quickness and elusiveness that makes him one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league in his return from a serious ankle injury”. It should make for an interesting discussion in San Diego because hours after GM Tom Telesco drafted Gordon, he called the No. 15 overall pick “the best pass-protecting back in the draft”.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Green will likely need Gates, Johnson or WR Malcom Floyd to get injured to become fantasy-relevant. Gates just turned 35 and has been locked in as Rivers’ favorite target for years. Johnson got a fairly nice contract (three years, $10.5 M) and is an upgrade on Royal, so he’s probably also pretty secure in his position. Floyd is set to retire after the season and is probably the most replaceable of the three, but reducing his role without a sharp decline of his skills could anger players like Rivers and S Eric Weddle, who – like Floyd – are career Chargers. Rivers and Weddle are already at odds with management with their contract situations, so they don’t need to see a player like Floyd (who has been on the team since 2004) treated disrespectfully. Allen is a great bet to rebound from his disappointing 2014 in part because he was able to bounce back near the end of last season. Allen wouldn’t be the first player to lose his edge a bit as a second-year pro after a smashing debut. He should be a solid WR2 going forward. Woodhead is a poor bet for another 182-touch, eight-score season like he had in his first season with the Chargers, but he should still be the primary passing-down back for San Diego and solid RB3 in PPR even if Gordon takes a few third-down snaps from him. As for the rookie, he should be a solid bet for 225 or more carries – more than enough to make him a top-end RB2 in all leagues.

For a player that was supposed to take some time to get pro-ready, No. 2 overall pick QB Marcus Mariota sure appears to be adapting quickly. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner earned praise from The Tennessean beat writer Jim Wyatt during OTAs in early June and got a rousing endorsement from WR coach Shawn Jefferson, who was also the same assistant that famously called out WR Justin Hunter as a rookie in 2013 – citing a lack of toughness, inconsistent hands, mental mistakes and lack of intensity. That has not been the case with Mariota. "He is deadly accurate. ... He's the real deal. A couple years ago I was back in Detroit and when Matthew Stafford stepped into the huddle the first time, once I heard his voice and the way he called a play, I said, 'OK, that's a real one right there.' Same way with Mariota. He's real. He's got the goods. No. 1, it's his accuracy. No. 2, he's come in and grasped the offense. And No. 3 is the way the guys respond to him, the way he's able to go in that huddle and take control," Jefferson told ESPN on June 10. TE Delanie Walker is also a fan: "The thing that he does well is he throws the ball right when you come out of your breaks. For receivers, that's what you want.”

If choosing Mariota was a no-brainer for Tennessee, then selecting WR Dorial Green-Beckham was the gamble they had to take and RB David Cobb was the investment they apparently made to cover for the “mistake” they made in Green-Beckham’s spot (the second round) last year. DGB was reportedly “completely lost” when asked to go over plays during a pre-draft visit, strained a hamstring in rookie minicamp and missed the majority of the team’s offseason practices. The Titans praised Cobb as a “potential three-down back” in the days following the draft and then promptly asked him to drop seven pounds a couple of weeks later. Coincidentally, that is seven pounds the team wants last year’s second-round pick, RB Bishop Sankey, to add. And while he is at it, Tennessee would like Sankey to “have a better grasp of the offense this year”.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: It is common for a player’s position coach or the head coach to talk up a certain young player, but relatively rare for another position coach (who is also a former NFL receiver) to do the back-patting. It is particularly notable here because Mariota’s “goods” have a direct impact on Jefferson’s position group. To the surprise of many (including myself somewhat), Tennessee started the process of molding its offense around Mariota’s strengths and are planning to work out of shotgun “probably 50 or 60" percent of the time in 2015”, which would actually be a lower figure than last year (although that number is misleading because the Titans trailed a lot in 2014 and had the immobile Zach Mettenberger starting for nearly half the season). As a result, Mariota could enjoy success sooner than most think. The 2015 Rose Bowl Offensive MVP is already on the QB2 map because of his rare ability as a runner, but he could emerge as a serviceable matchup-based starter in fantasy if he carries over his OTA success to the preseason and regular season. Green-Beckham is about as raw as can be, so owners should expect next to nothing from him – outside of the occasional red-zone touchdown – during his rookie season. He was already a longshot to see major snaps in 2015, so missing all the work he did in May and June will be next to impossible to make up. Sankey’s blocking and footwork came under fire last year, although the Titans’ likely plan to utilize more spread concepts should help him in theory nearly as much as it should Mariota. Cobb is considered a power back because of his size (5-11, 232 at rookie camp), but he has drawn a fair amount of criticism as an east-west runner. In all likelihood, Sankey will probably begin the season as the lead back while Cobb assumes the role left behind by Shonn Greene. Whether things stay that way will largely depend on how much better Sankey is with a year of experience under his belt. Both players will have to hold off 2014 undrafted free agent Antonio Andrews, who believes he has as good of a chance as anybody to be named the starter.

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.