Fantasy Football Today - fantasy football rankings, cheatsheets, and information
A Fantasy Football Community!

Create An Account  |  Advertise  |  Contact      


Doug Orth | Archive | Email | Twitter
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

After being subjected to courtroom football for the majority of last summer, there might not be anything better at this time of the year than buzz that OTAs and minicamps produce. Seemingly every team unearthed at least one gem in the draft or free agency and nothing seems to get a fan base more energized in June and July than hearing or reading about what their team’s draft class has “under the hood” or what third-string veteran is ready to make his move up the depth chart.

In my typical detailed fashion, I wanted to give each of you the information that beat writers and, in some cases, national columnists are providing us while also taking a way-too-early “fantasy look” at all 32 teams. Because this time of year is all about optimism (and since I haven’t even attempted to begin projecting the season), most of my analysis will reflect that glass-half-full thinking. Keep in mind, however, the purpose of this two-part series isn’t so much to give you my final fantasy analysis; rather, it is my hope that some of this information will allow each of you to get a slight head start on your own forecasts.

With this being a fantasy-focused column, I will devote my attention over the next two weeks to the skill-position players for each team making waves – good or bad – in their team’s offseason workouts and provide some insight as to what it could mean this season.

This week, we’ll take a look at the happenings in the AFC:

For a team coming off an AFC Conference Championship loss in a game it could have easily won, the last thing the Ravens want is a few of the offensive playmakers feeling underappreciated. Unfortunately, that is the case right now as QB Joe Flacco enters the final year of his contract believing he is the best quarterback in the league and RB Ray Rice willing to hold out for Adrian Peterson-like money. Flacco is supposedly enjoying the best offseason of his career to this point while the team is not at all concerned that Rice will be ready for the season given his history with the team and strong work ethic. Despite the claims of Flacco and his agent, fantasy owners do not need to concern themselves with the possibility of Flacco emerging as a QB1 anytime soon. Baltimore has more offensive talent than any time in recent memory, but it seems unlikely that OC Cam Cameron will once again open himself to the harsh criticism he receives from the team and fans alike when the Ravens forget about Rice. On the other hand, Rice – assuming he reports to camp at some point early in the preseason – should be a lock for top-three status in just about every fantasy draft.

Sometimes a team will make a free-agent move with the idea of making life easier on a player already on the roster as opposed to hoping it landed a superstar. While Baltimore undoubtedly signed Jacoby Jones in part for his return ability in the kicking and punting game, the team was also thinking about what it could do to make Anquan Boldin’s life a bit easier, too. Jones will need to hold off a raw but supremely talented rookie prospect in Tommy Streeter, but the Ravens hope that the speedy duo of Jones and Torrey Smith on the outside will allow Boldin to operate out of the slot full-time in three-WR packages. Given his size and the physical nature in which he plays the game, it’s a solid plan that may coax another fantasy WR2-caliber season or two out of the declining Boldin.

One of the teams expected to make a move in the AFC next season are the Bills, who should be exponentially better on defense with a top 10 pick likely to start at CB (Stephon Gilmore) and a front four that rivals some of the best defensive lines in the league. Some analysts suggested Buffalo would have been wise to use that first-round pick on a receiver like Michael Floyd, who may have come in handy if Stevie Johnson’s return from groin surgery takes long than expected. HC Chan Gailey suggested Johnson may be ready for training camp, but any more delays would be devastating to the team’s top wideout. Fortunately, Johnson is reporting that while he is dealing with some residual soreness, it is not in his groin area, but more in his hamstrings. Since exploding onto the scene during the 2010 season, Johnson has yet to miss a game and has performed well when he’s had to play through pain. After seeing so many players affected by hamstring injuries last year, it is worth keeping an eye on Johnson for that reason alone. As of mid-June, he has started to participate in some individual drills, so considering his track record, he should once again be a solid fantasy WR2 as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s favorite target in Gailey’s spread attack. And Buffalo needs him healthy since it doesn’t have another player capable of carrying the passing game if he were to miss substantial time.

Although the Bills have the utmost confidence in their other skill-position starters (Fitzpatrick and RB Fred Jackson), it is nonetheless very interesting that both players have high-profile reserves waiting in the wings. For Fitzpatrick, his likely backup is Vince Young, who was signed strictly to serve as depth for Fitzpatrick. However, Gailey could easily be tempted to promote him should Fitzpatrick suffer a second-half swoon for the third straight season. As for Jackson, his starting spot should be pretty secure despite C.J. Spiller’s exceptional second-half showing at the end of 2011. While the 31-year-old Jackson doesn’t have the wear and tear of most backs his age, the three-year deal he signed this offseason is team-friendly since only the $3 M signing bonus was guaranteed. The team isn’t in any rush right now to show Jackson the door, but Buffalo probably wouldn’t mind it if Spiller forced its hand to make him the feature back no later than the 2013 season. To that end, Fitzpatrick believes Spiller “is a changed man” and ready to “make a big jump” this season. Therefore, if Jackson enjoys anything significantly less than the incredible start he had to last season, the Bills might decide to move Spiller’s timetable up and gamble that Jackson would accept a reduced role. It’s a situation that redraft and dynasty league owners need to consider when drafting Jackson this summer and should be enough of a concern to keep him from being drafted like a true fantasy RB1.

Perhaps the only player who has fielded more questions about his arm strength this spring than Andrew Luck is Andy Dalton. So far, his offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden) and top receiver (A.J. Green) have each predictably supported the notion the second-year QB has the goods to get the job done and be a long-term starter in the NFL. After the first half of his rookie season in which some observers questioned whether or not he was the next Drew Brees. Dalton suffered a second-half fade. The truth of the matter is that in Gruden’s West Coast offense, arm strength is not really that big of a deal. And until further notice, Dalton doesn’t figure to be the center of the offense anyway – just an important piece of it – since Gruden and HC Marvin Lewis want the Bengals to remain a smashmouth running team in a defense-oriented division. The major differences between Dalton and Brees – besides age – are: 1) Brees’ willingness to take chances downfield and 2) HC Sean Payton’s aggressive play-calling mentality. Dalton wasn’t exactly asked to take a lot of “trust me” shots down the field at TCU or during his rookie season and Gruden has exactly one year of experience as an offensive coordinator. In fantasy, success often happens when scheme and aggressiveness find a comfortable middle ground. While Brees’ offense is perfectly suited for big passing numbers, Dalton’s relies more on offensive balance. Neither approach is more right or wrong than the other in the actual game, but the former obviously lends itself to greater fantasy success. There will be some owners who view Dalton as a darkhorse fantasy QB1 based on his overall solid first-year numbers, but don’t be one of those owners. Dalton’s numbers should improve in 2012, but only slightly. After all, it’s hard to imagine the Bengals will be that much more explosive considering they really didn’t add dynamic playmakers in the offseason.

Green has been busy this offseason. In addition to talking up Dalton, he is “cleaning up” his route running in order to build upon his impressive rookie season. But while we have a pretty good idea that Green will operate at an elite WR1 level for the foreseeable future, it was what he said about rookie Mohamed Sanu that raised eyebrows. Apparently, Green is either very comfortable in his position as the featured player in this offense or very impressed by the third-round rookie. Here’s a clip of what he said about Sanu following a late May practice: “Man, that guy is smooth. He works the middle really well. A lot of people have questioned his speed, but the guy has ‘football speed.’…He catches everything with his hands, and he attacks the ball. He’s going to be a special one…A lot of the older guys here compare him to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He can stretch the field and I think he’s really going to help us out this year.” Now we know not to trust everything that come out of practices without pads at this point of the year, but it is telling that an athlete like Green would be impressed by the “football speed” of a player that rarely ever showed it – or the ability to separate – at Rutgers. While the team is also talking up Armon Binns and – to a lesser degree – Brandon Tate, the team would not have selected both Sanu and Jones with the idea that neither rookie would be a significant player or starter at some point in 2012. Right now, that player looks to be Sanu. So, given his well-earned reputation for working the middle of the field, it wouldn’t come as a shock to see Sanu eclipse the 50-catch mark as a rookie.

Whereas most running backs enter the league now destined for committee work initially, rookie Trent Richardson has no such concerns. The question becomes whether or not he’ll take on a Michael Turner-like feature-back role (where he is replaced by a third-down specialist of sorts) or command over 70-80% of the backfield touches in the same way a Arian Foster or Ray Rice probably will. The consensus seems to be that Richardson will fall in the latter category, but it is much too early to say that for sure. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot suggests the Browns will attempt to keep Richardson healthy in part by featuring 2011 free-agent pickup Brandon Jackson on third down. Jackson is reportedly looking “fast and explosive” in spring practices following the turf toe injury that ruined last season. While Richardson has enough receiving skills to be a threat in the passing game, expect Cleveland to make sure it doesn’t run him into the ground either. Look no further than the example set in Minnesota during the early part of Adrian Peterson’s career (ironically, when new OC Brad Childress was the Vikings’ head coach); Peterson – who Richardson has been repeatedly compared to – regularly ceded backfield touches to Chester Taylor for the three years they played together for the Vikings. Now while there is a significant difference between an in-his-prime Taylor and Jackson (now), the fact of the matter is that Jackson is a very skilled receiver. As such, look for Cleveland to stop short of “featuring” Jackson on third down, instead using Richardson in a number of short (less than three yards to go) and medium (4-6 yards) conversion attempts. The rookie won’t set the fantasy world on fire with his receiving totals, but he will contribute in that area.

Not since Braylon Edwards’ fourth-place finish during the 2007 season has any Cleveland receiver finished higher than 34th in a PPR format. In fact, the team has only had one other receiver land in the top 20 since 2000 (Kevin Johnson – 13th; 2001). While much of the blame can be directed at the woeful quarterback play that Cleveland has endured for the last decade or so, there hasn’t exactly been an assembly line of receiving talent for the team to develop either. Perhaps that one of several reasons why there is cautious optimism that Greg Little will soon end the recent string of ineptitude at the position. Little had a surprising 61-709-2 line as a rookie last season despite not becoming a regular starter until Week 6. To his credit, he had done what he can on his end to improve in the offseason, dropping 11 pounds and doing whatever he can to add quickness. However, one area of concern remains his 12 drops from a season ago. Still, he’s the closest thing the team has to a dynamic playmaker in the passing game, so with a more talented passer (rookie Brandon Weeden) under center, Richardson in the backfield and a full offseason to correct his flaws, Little has a shot at high-end WR3 fantasy status this season simply because he could be the latest reincarnation of Brandon Marshall – a big receiver whose fantasy production will remain somewhat consistent because he is a target monster but suffer in terms of big numbers because he lacks enough quality threats around him to get defenses to back off.

Difference of opinion can be a good thing. However, when there is a stark contrast of opinion exists between members of the media assigned to cover the team– particularly as it relates to a player recovering from injury – there is a small problem. Obviously, the reference here is to Peyton Manning, who got the thumbs-down from USA Today’s Nate Davis when he stated “it was clear…that Manning’s velocity hasn’t quite returned”. On the very same day, CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco pretty much suggested Manning “can still make all the throws” despite “maybe a tweak here and a tweak there in the pocket”. (If this is in any way indicative of the reporting we can sometimes get from a team’s cap, it is little wonder we end up missing on a can’t-miss stud from time to time in our drafts.) For those of us who use information from writers and national columnists to give us a slight early advantage in our leagues, it is a bit troubling that “experts” who watched the very same practice could have such a difference of opinion. Thankfully,’s Bill Williamson sided with Prisco a day later and longtime Colts OC Tom Moore provided a similar opinion of Manning later in the week. It would be wise not to underestimate Manning in Denver this summer. While he may no longer have the skills necessary to match the elite fantasy QBs in the league, Manning is certainly capable of another year of prolific QB1 numbers – especially with his young and talented receiving corps.

There has been a healthy amount of debate about the 2012 role of third-round rookie RB Ronnie Hillman. And it is a more than fair question considering that HC John Fox has long favored the committee backfield approach and has stubbornly deferred to veterans over rookies for most of his coaching career. Under the Fox regime in Carolina, the Panthers drafted three notable running backs (DeShaun Foster, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart). The good news – for Hillman supporters – is that Foster secured 139 offensive touches, Williams 154 and Stewart 192. The bad news is that Hillman is not the same kind of back as those three and more like Mike Goodson, who saw a grand total of 24 offensive touches as a rookie in 2009. Granted, this analysis is a bit lacking in that each situation is inherently different and Hillman won’t be stuck behind Williams and Stewart, but there is the small issue of beating out Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball. Hillman is starting out fourth on the depth chart but will almost certainly move up a spot as soon as the team decides to move on from Moreno. On the other hand, Ball is probably the odds-on favorite to begin the season as the third-down back since he will almost certainly be trusted more initially by Fox and Manning, even if he lacks the big-play ability of Hillman. Therefore, it is rather difficult to envision a role at this point in which he sees more touches than Foster did since he should essentially be splitting the majority of snaps Willis McGahee doesn’t get with Ball. On the other hand, he’s also not going to be resigned to special teams like Goodson was either. As a result, owners should probably be happy if he manages to reach Foster’s workload in 2012.

Ever since he joined the Texans in 2003 – the year after they joined the league – Andre Johnson has been the one constant on offense, when healthy. Although Houston transformed itself into a run-heavy offense willing to lean on its impressive young defense, it would no doubt like to give Johnson a tag-team partner to make defenses think twice about smothering Johnson. While Kevin Walter has proven to be a reliable receiver, he is hardly the kind of player that alters gameplans. Despite spending a third-round and fourth-round pick (DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, respectively) on the receiver position, it could be a relative unknown who makes this offense nearly impossible to defend. An undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, Lestar Jean was the talk of the early part of the preseason last year before a shoulder injury ended his year. However, his injury may have merely delayed his breakout and given him an opportunity to absorb the playbook. At the very least, Jean appears to have a great shot at matching – if not exceeding – the 31-512-2 line Jacoby Jones posted last season as the team’s WR3. But, in reality, it would be a small disappointment if the receiver the team now calls “Big Play” didn’t exceed that production since the team has him learning all three receiver positions. Walter is an average possession receiver at best, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the 6-3, 215-pound Jean is starting over the similarly sized but less explosive Walter, who will turn 31 in training camp. No one should expect Jean to enjoy a Victor Cruz-like breakout in such a case, but be aware that a top 40 WR finish isn’t out of the question for Jean.

Because the Texans figure to keep the rushing split between Arian Foster and Ben Tate roughly the same (72% Foster, 28% Tate once Foster returned for good from his hamstring injury) in 2012, let’s focus our attention on the recovery of QB Matt Schaub, who missed the final eight games of last season – including the two playoff games – after suffering a Lisfranc injury. As far as Houston is concerned, there is no question he’ll be ready for training camp and the season. With little changing in terms of offensive philosophy and receiving talent (the rookies aren’t expected to contribute all that much and Jean may only end up doing slightly better than Jones) relatively unchanged, there shouldn’t be that great of a disparity between the pace Schaub set last year (248 yards and 1.5 passing touchdowns/game) and this year. And let’s not forget that he did that without the benefit of a healthy Johnson for roughly half of those games. Those kinds of numbers – even in today’s NFL – should be more than enough to allow Schaub to serve as a high-end QB2/matchup play. As he proved last season, he can still perform at a low-end QB1 level when the running game is stalled or the team gets behind.

While Andrew Luck’s starting job appears to be safe for, say, the next 10-12 years, the same cannot be said for any of the other skill-position players. Let’s begin at tight end, where second-rounder Coby Fleener (Luck’s college teammate at Stanford) could very well be vying for playing time against third-round selection Dwayne Allen, considered by many as the draft’s best all-around player at his position. But rather than focus on two players who will almost certainly play a lot, let’s instead address the running back situation. New RB coach David Walker has already said Donald Brown is the starter right now, but that the situation will sort itself out in training camp. However, given new HC Chuck Pagano’s edict that the Colts will be a physical, defensive-oriented team, it doesn’t make much sense that Brown will keep his spot all season long. Delone Carter probably fits the new offensive thinking the best with his size, but he was largely ineffective last season and struggled with ball security. His issues likely contributed to the drafting of Vick Ballard, who I suspect will be given every chance to lead what will almost certainly be a committee attack. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Colts were one of several NFL teams who fail to push one runner rush over 600 yards, making it very difficult to recommend any of them as anything more than bench material in fantasy leagues.

By virtue of reputation and the size of his new contract, Reggie Wayne is almost certainly locked into one starting WR spot. After that, it is anyone’s guess. Donnie Avery has always possessed the speed to be one of the better deep threats in the league and has the talent to fill the shoes of the departed Pierre Garcon, but is so injury-prone that it would be a mistake for a team to count on him being anything more than a role player. Rookie LaVon Brazill possesses a healthier alternative to Avery and has a Garcon-like resume (small-school deep threat), but it may be a bit much to ask him to contribute right away coming out of the University of Ohio. There’s also rookie T.Y. Hilton, who probably doesn’t possess the size to hold up as an outside receiver but has the ability to dominate in the slot.

Last but not least, there is Austin Collie – the likely starter opposite Wayne whose best fit is as a slot receiver. After a wonderful rookie season with Peyton Manning that rivaled anything Brandon Stokley did in the slot in his heyday, Collie was well on his way to a 100-catch season in 2010 before multiple concussions ended his season. In 2011, he stayed on the field but Manning obviously did not, so when the Colts opted to become more of a running team, his opportunities in three-WR sets dropped off dramatically. With Fleener’s role as the likely “move” TE, Collie will be forced to prove he is also an outside receiver since Indy figures to run a lot of two-TE sets, despite what Avery says about what new OC Bruce Arians likes to do. Certainly, Arians showed during his Steeler days that he is a pass-oriented coach, but he also had the benefit of a dominant defense during his Pittsburgh days, so three- to five-receiver sets are not going to be nearly as prominent for the Colts in 2012 as they were for the Steelers in recent years. Indianapolis’ main focus right away should be ball-control football and picking up first downs while taking deep shots off play-action when the running game is working. As a result, the consistency Wayne and Collie offer should win out over the speed Avery and Brazill bring to the table. Wayne will still worth starting in fantasy, but just about every other receiver needs to be considered a wait-and-see option for now.

First-round pick Justin Blackmon’s early June DUI arrest was unfortunate to say the least, but it seems to have taken the focus off what was the team’s biggest problem prior to the rookie’s misstep – Maurice Jones-Drew’s potential holdout. MJD is one of the few players in the league that doesn’t seem to be the “holdout type” nor does he seem to be the kind of player that would let himself slide physically if he chose to skip mandatory workouts and/or the early part of training camp. What is less certain, however, is to what degree Rashad Jennings will eat into the workload of Jones-Drew this year after sitting out all of 2011 with a knee injury. Jennings has averaged nearly 5.4 YPC with his 123 career rushing attempts and will receive the bulk of first-team reps for the new coaching staff while MJD is away from the team. Jones-Drew was already a poor bet to repeat his huge workload from last year (career-high 386 touches), but if Jennings can regain his old form this summer, he could very well push MJD from a sure-fire fantasy RB1 to a low-end RB1. New HC Mike Mularkey will run the ball enough that Jones-Drew doesn’t completely fall from the ranks of the fantasy elite, but be aware that a healthy Jennings will be a drain on his overall value – like it was in 2010.

Very few fantasy owners looked to the Jags last season for huge production in the passing game, but it would be a severe understatement to say Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis just had an “off year”. Lewis admitted to the Florida Times Union in late May that legal issues with his infant daughter’s mother took away from his focus and on-field production in 2011, a season that saw him fail to reach the end zone after posting 10 TDs just one year earlier. As for Thomas, he was supposed to be a serviceable fantasy WR3 in PPR leagues, especially considering a slot receiver like him should have benefitted from a rookie signal-caller. Nevertheless, Mularkey has liked what he has seen so far from Thomas at all three receiver positions, meaning he could get a short-term statistical boost if Blackmon happens to miss games. From a fantasy perspective, it’s hard to like either player nearly as much as we did this time last year simply because we now know how unprepared Blaine Gabbert was last season. For Lewis, he should be considered a mid-level TE2 who is unlikely to ever repeat any part of his Pro Bowl season in 2010. As one of the league’s best blocking TEs, he will stay on the field a great deal, but Mularkey’s offense has not typically supported a fantasy stud at TE (Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez aside). As for Thomas, he should fill the slot role better than Harry Douglas ever did for Mularkey in Atlanta, but we must remember that Thomas will likely be the third or fourth option in a run-based offense most of the time. Combined with his lack of big-play ability, Thomas will probably not be worth drafting in normal-sized redraft leagues this summer.

Kansas City
Since most fantasy leagues don’t offer a position labeled as “offensive weapon”, it will be interesting to see if Dexter McCluster can manage enough statistical consistency to serve as a fantasy reserve at RB or WR in his third season. The Chiefs got almost exactly what they wanted out of him as a rookie for about five weeks, but an ankle injury in Week 6 dogged him for the rest of the season. Kansas City then asked him to work full-time at RB last season, but that generated inconsistent results for a team devastated by injury. This season, the coaching staff has went back to the original thinking, hoping that he can be mainly a matchup nightmare – a role that will ask him to contribute in the slot as well as chip in at running back when necessary. From a fantasy perspective, McCluster faces a much different challenge than he did in 2010, namely the fact the Chiefs have quickly assembled a wealth at talent at WR and RB. In other words, while he will likely produce explosive plays on a fairly regular basis, it is hard to imagine he’ll contribute enough – barring injury – to be a weekly fantasy factor assuming players like Jamaal Charles and Steve Breaston stay healthy.

Because the Chiefs do not plan on letting Charles participate in any pre-training camp activities, the hype training cannot realistically start for him until late July. It should be noted – as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported in late May – that the team has “no concerns whatsoever” about Charles’ recovery from ACL surgery and is “excited about him”. As a result, let’s move onto another supremely talented athlete in second-year WR Jonathan Baldwin, a player Kansas City hopes to use much more extensively than it did in 2011. While much of his ineffectiveness can be blamed on being a rookie and a questionable work ethic, it didn’t help matters when weak-armed Tyler Palko was running the show either. To Baldwin’s credit, he may have gotten the message about what he needs to do to be a professional as has impressed the team with his commitment this offseason. His main competition for a starting spot right now appears to be Breaston, but with any kind of dedication from the 6-4, 230-pound Baldwin, he should be able to at least split snaps with the ex-Cardinal at some point this season before taking the starting job from him in 2013. At the very least, he has a great shot at being a “splash” player who gives the Chiefs a much-needed downfield and red-zone presence. Given the wealthy of talent in KC nowadays, it is hard to imagine Baldwin will be that much of a consistent factor until he is receiving the same number of snaps that a starter typically does. However, if/when that happens, he could easily emerge as a fantasy force and is worth considering as a late-round selection this summer for that very reason.

Although the new coaching staff talked up TE Anthony Fasano shortly upon their arrival on South Beach, they are certainly emphasizing players with run-after-catch ability – a skill that Fasano does not possess. While Fasano will still likely see more snaps than any other tight end on the roster, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the Dolphins’ best fantasy option at the position this season turns out to be Charles Clay. Matt Moore, who has as good of shot as any Miami quarterback to open the season as the starter, made considerable use of Clay during OTAs. It’s easy to understand why skeptics would quickly suggest Clay is just the latest “unknown” to get hyped during meaningless May practices. However, on a team lacking playmakers, it really isn’t that hard to believe a versatile 6-3, 240-pound H-back wouldn’t be able to create the occasional mismatch. It’s easy to forget that a player like Chris Cooley, who was also an H-back coming out of Utah State, was roughly the same size and entered the league in a similar fashion – albeit on a slightly more talented team – before exploding with 71 catches in his second season. That kind of production shouldn’t be expected from Clay in 2012, but a dramatic increase from the 16-233-3 line he posted last year shouldn’t come as a total shock. On this team and in this offense, a 40-50 catch season is well within reach for a tight end. Even though the Dolphins drafted an athletic size-speed specimen in rookie Michael Egnew, he may never become a good enough blocker to contribute on a regular basis. Thus, look for Clay to be more than worthy of fantasy consideration in 2012.

While it may be trendy to discuss Chad Ochocinco here, there is also no guarantee he will start or even make this team. Therefore, let’s turn our attention to the running game where GM Jeff Ireland wants to see “development” from at least one of his 2011 draft picks and is asking HC Joe Philbin to make sure it happens. Perhaps no rookie runner hit the ground running as quickly as Daniel Thomas did last season, only then to see to his production nosedive as quickly as it had been achieved. After missing Week 1 with a hamstring injury, Thomas pounded the Texans for 107 rushing yards and the Browns for 95 more the very next week before injury sidelined him for Week 4. From that point on, Thomas was mostly ineffective while Reggie Bush exploded. Although it may sound like an excuse to blame injuries as Thomas is, the fact he showed well so early and so poorly after his second injury setback makes it very possible that was, in fact, the problem. The Kansas State product is now up to 235 pounds in hopes that he will rediscover his leg drive and power through first contact – two areas he was disappointed with as a rookie. He is convinced he is better now – in terms of both his health and ability to contribute in 2012. Part of the reason for his optimism also has to do with the zone-blocking scheme that Philbin and OC Mike Sherman are installing, something Thomas is quite familiar with from his college days. Based on last year’s performances, Bush will go much high in fantasy drafts, but Thomas is a better fit in the new scheme changes than perhaps any other runner on the roster. Thomas has the size to hold up physically all season long and better vision than Bush, so it would be far from shocking if he led the team in rushing this season. With an ADP of 10.11, he’s shaping up to be an extreme value pick this summer.

New England
Get on the Brandon Lloyd bandwagon now. The obvious conclusion almost everyone will jump to immediately is that Lloyd’s production is a given in 2012 since he seems to be joined at the hip with OC Josh McDaniels. But rare is the time when a single factor is the only thing that separates good from great. Lloyd credits McDaniels for his breakout in Denver because the coach was one of the first to believe in him, but it was Lloyd and his wonderful body control that really helped him put together a season to remember in 2010. His production dropped off last season on a team going through a quarterback transition in Denver and four different signal-callers following his trade to St. Louis. Instability at quarterback should no longer be a problem now that he is a Patriot. I spoke to the huge upside Lloyd has for this year and beyond during my dynasty ranking series and the Boston Globe suggested that “the sky is the limit” for him in this offense. There’s no reason to believe Lloyd will be able to replace the kind of production Randy Moss had in his short stay with the Patriots, but owners need to recognize that in this pass-happy attack, Lloyd has a great chance at approaching the fantasy production he managed in 2010 with Tom Brady under center and no threat of a double team in this future.

Fantasy owners have been waiting for some time for the Patriots to commit to one running back, but it is highly unlikely we will ever see a Bill Belichick team do that anytime soon. While McDaniels will almost certainly make sure the Patriots use the run a bit more than Bill O’Brien did last season, there once again figures to be too many mouths to feed for the 25-30 touches New England RBs will probably see during a normal game. The obvious replacement for the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis is Stevan Ridley, who is bigger and more athletic than his predecessor even if he lacks the same ball-security skills as the “Law Firm”. As a result, expect Ridley to be the leading rusher of the bunch as well as the goal-line back. With that said, the team has three potential all-purpose backs to complement him and any of them could be the team’s best fantasy RB in a given week. Shane Vereen is probably the best of the bunch when healthy and should expect to be used in the same fashion as a younger Kevin Faulk. Durability is also a concern for free-agent signee Joseph Addai, who may serve only as insurance to Vereen or be the primary third-down back given his experience edge over Vereen and size advantage over Danny Woodhead. And, of course, Woodhead figures to get his quarter-slice of the backfield pie as well, lining up all over the field and serving as a sparkplug for this explosive offense. For fantasy purposes, Ridley is the most desirable option – followed by Vereen – but no back is worth more than a RB3 investment, as usual.

New York Jets
In an offense that is directed by new OC Tony Sparano and executed by the quarterback duo of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, will this passing game even have a realistic option some weeks? No one will seems to question this offense will be as run-heavy as any team in the league, but even the most ground-and-pound teams managed to throw about 30 times. And when they do, who will catch it? Santonio Holmes is hardly dependable and could meltdown at any time, but has the best mix of ability and experience on the roster at the moment. Rookie Stephen Hill certainly has big-time talent, but how much can we really expect out of such a raw prospect in his first season? TE Dustin Keller seems like a natural answer, but his typical disappearing act after September hardly inspires confidence in fantasy owners. One final alternative: second-year WR Jeremy Kerley. While it is anyone’s guess which one receiver Tebow will lock onto, Sanchez has enough skill as a passer to find the open player with some regularity. As it turns out, Kerley was actually used a lot when he got a chance to play. One has to believe he will see more than 241 snaps on passing downs this season with the lack of dependable short and intermediate options in New York nowadays (remember that a checkdown to LaDainian Tomlinson is no longer an option either). It’s pretty obvious if Kerley averaged a reception once every 8.3 pass plays (second-highest mark on the team), Sanchez was subtly hinting that he needs to be a more regular part of the offense. Also don’t forget that Kerley was the player the Jets had in mind to replace Brad Smith, so it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see the team work him into the “Wildcat” packages, along with Tebow. The fantasy upside here isn’t all that great, but owners would be wise to keep him in the back of their minds.

New York has a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Shonn Greene. For owners who play playoff fantasy football, he’s been very good. Owning him during the regular season, however, has been a lot more miss than hit. To his credit, Greene is no longer a complete liability as a pass-catcher, nearly doubling his career reception total last season with 30 catches. He also set a career high in rushing attempts and has been led to believe by Sparano that he will do so again this season. It is also worth noting that while former OC Bryan Schottenheimer didn’t try to make him into something he wasn’t (such as using him on outside runs a lot), there may not have been a better coach to pair Greene up with than Sparano, a former offensive line coach who loves power football. On the other hand, a philosophy is often only as good as the people executing it. In other words, this is not the same run-blocking line the Jets had when Greene was a rookie either – something that may be best illustrated by the dramatic drop from his 5.0 YPC in 2009. With that being said, there are so few 300-touch backs in the league anymore. So, even if they lack the difference-making talent we’d like all of them to have, we have to consider any back with the potential for that kind of workload as a middle-of-the-pack RB2 option in fantasy at the very least.

The Raiders’ backfield promises to be full of excitement again this season – and not just for the most obvious reason(s): Darren McFadden, when he is healthy and what happens after he gets hurt. Let’s begin with his new handcuff, Mike Goodson – the former Carolina Panther who came over in a trade in late March. Goodson missed the majority of last season with a severe hamstring injury after he performed admirably in relief of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in 2010, even establishing himself as the third-down back when the first two were both healthy. As any former McFadden owner knows, locking up his handcuff is just part of doing business with D-Mac and while it would be foolish to expect new OC Greg Knapp to match former HC Hue Jackson in terms of offensive creativity, the fact is that Knapp loves to run the ball. Goodson can’t be expected to fill Michael Bush’s shoes – meaning McFadden should see all the goal-line carries when healthy – but he offers more of a big-play element than Bush did. This alone makes him a must-have handcuff for McFadden owners and a savvy stash for every other owner hoping they have a second-half stud on their hands if D-Mac’s injury history once again knocks him out for any length of time.

But what happens if the Raiders already have another Michael Bush on their roster? At 6-3 and 240 pounds, FB Marcel Reese presents an interesting dilemma. To this point of his career, he has really only been used as a “matchup nightmare” in certain offensive packages. But as Knapp returns to Oakland (he also served as the OC in 2007-08), he’ll find that Reese – an undrafted free agent college receiver making the transition the backfield back in 2008 – is more than happy to see one of his biggest supporters coming back to the fold. Considering his receiver background, it would be difficult to place too much trust in him as a Bush clone, but there’s no doubt that his time as a fullback should have served him well in that regard. It is his presence – and not that of second-year speedster Taiwan Jones – which makes the McFadden handcuff situation a bit more unpredictable than in recent years.

Last but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the emergence of second-year Denarius Moore after hyping him during my dynasty series. There is reason he is generating so much buzz and we’ve already seen why with our own eyes on the field last season. ESPN’s Matt Williamson believes he compares very favorably to Greg Jennings and that he will be the best receiver in the AFC West in three years. New HC Dennis Allen suggests he is a “rich man’s Lance Moore” who is an “exceptional route runner” with more speed than the Saints’ receiver. Knapp’s somewhat conservative offensive attacks caps his fantasy upside somewhat, but Denarius Moore should have no problem performing at a fantasy WR3 level with top-end WR2 upside.

Typically, the offseason is all about optimism and what late-round pick/undrafted free agent is tearing up OTAs or minicamp. So it is a noteworthy occurrence when a new play-caller joins one of the league’s most successful franchises and quickly identifies the players he wants to make the center of his offense. So far, OC Todd Haley is singling out TE Heath Miller as one of his “favorite players”. Since Tony Gonzalez was dealt before Haley had a chance to coach him in Kansas City, Miller represents the most established tight end he’s had since he was in charge of the passing game in Dallas and had a chance to work with a young Jason Witten. Obviously, no one is expecting Miller to roll off a series of 80-catch seasons like Witten, but Haley wants to put more emphasis on protecting Ben Roethlisberger and allow him to throw more high-percentage passes. While it seems unfathomable that Haley could eschew the deep passing game with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown that former OC Bruce Arians embraced and focus his new offense around a running game that may not have a healthy Rashard Mendenhall this season, the Steelers’ draft suggests HC Mike Tomlin is on board with the new plan. As a result, it may be difficult to count on Wallace as a top-flight fantasy WR1, Brown as a potential WR2 or Big Ben as anything more than a good matchup play in 2012. On the other hand, Miller may be ready to challenge for low-end TE1 status in 12-team leagues, especially if the Wallace contract situation does not get rectified soon.

As we know from last season, Isaac Redman is a more than capable reserve and spot starter, but will he be overexposed if Mendenhall is forced to spend almost the entire first half of the season on the PUP list? Mendenhall is reportedly still dealing with soreness and swelling in the knee he hurt (torn ACL) on January 1 and GM Kevin Colbert has certainly braced for the possibility of not having him early in the season. Redman has just two career starts to his credit, so despite the fact the team has no proven alternative behind him, the Steelers are eager to see if Redman is ready to handle an increased workload. If Mendenhall is forced to miss game action, look for Redman to be featured in his absence with Jonathan Dwyer likely to fill Redman’s old role. But the most intriguing option may be a player Haley wants to be his new Dexter McCluster – fifth-rounder Chris Rainey. And with all due respect to McCluster, Rainey is a better fit for the “hybrid” role Haley wants him to fill. Whether or not the initial 5-8 touches he will likely see each week will be enough to make him fantasy relevant is another question, but with his speed and elusiveness, he should be on the fantasy radar in all but the shallowest of leagues. There’s still too much mystery regarding Mendenhall’s knee to be sure how this backfield will shake out, but until he is given a clean bill of health, consider Redman a solid fantasy RB2 and Dwyer a handcuff with minimal upside for the non-Redman owners.

San Diego
In this new fantasy world we live in, we are often left with little morsels of information in regards to a team’s plan at the running back position. In fact, it’s uncommon we even get to consider the possibility that a former committee RB could become a feature back anymore. After two years of appearing as if HC Norv Turner had decided to go with the flow and use a committee rushing attack, he may as well be putting on a publicity campaign for Ryan Mathews, who reminds the coach of Ricky Williams – a Turner pupil nearly 10 years ago. And it appears Mathews’ physical and psychological maturity – questioned by his lack of conditioning last summer following the lockout – has taken a turn for the better. Turner now believes Mathews can lead the league in rushing and has basically gone all in on his third-year RB by only adding Ronnie Brown to the mix. In short, this is going to be Mathews’ show for the foreseeable future and his newfound commitment to his body should go a long way to helping him stay healthier during the season than he in his first two years as a pro. Thus, the case can be made now to put Mathews in the same tier as the other three top fantasy backs – Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice. The likelihood that he’ll see the most touches of the group is pretty high and the talent has been there all along, so durability appears to be the only hurdle between an average fantasy RB1 season and a top-place finish at his position.

The reports coming out of Chargers’ camp about every skill-position player have been incredible positive. TE Antonio Gates is apparently back to his pre-injury form, second-year WR Vincent Brown has impressed and free-agent signee Robert Meachem is a more complete receiver than San Diego could have imagined. Heck, even Dante Rosario (yes, that one) has opened some eyes. While that last bit is a small reminder that everyone is a draft-day or free-agent steal during OTAs, it doesn’t mean there isn’t some value to what teammates and coaches have to say about a potential breakout candidate. Case in point: one of the more interesting nuggets Turner has provided so far has to do with Eddie Royal, who became a forgotten man in Denver. Turner told recently that he thinks a lot of the passes that ended up going to running backs last season – Chargers’ RBs had 123 catches last season – will end up in Royal’s hands this season since he has excelled with “some higher percentage stuff” like option, seam and post routes. As for Meachem, owners need to start thinking about him the same way they did about Vincent Jackson because the team loves what they see so far, so a top 20 finish at his position would not come as a shock. It seems difficult to believe Gates is now completely healthy – and will stay that way, most importantly – but until we see evidence to the contrary, he is still an elite TE. He should go off the board about a round after Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Brown is an intriguing fantasy WR5 pick to take in the later rounds that should be starting in fantasy when Malcom Floyd suffers yet another injury. Last but not least, it would come as little surprise if Royal carved out a Lance Moore-like role in this offense. He’ll probably go undrafted in most fantasy drafts, but he is arguably in a better situation now than at any point since his 91-catch season as a rookie in 2008.

HC Mike Munchak may not specifically know why Chris Johnson had a down year in 2011, but most of us have a pretty general idea why he didn’t look like the best running back in the league anymore: he held out until September 1, underestimated the importance of being in “football shape”, thought too highly of his own talent and didn’t give himself enough time to build any kind of timing with his offensive line in a new offensive scheme. Certainly, the fact the offensive line didn’t come close to blocking the way it did for him in 2010 didn’t help matters, but in Munchak’s mind, Johnson spent too much time panicking on one play and overcompensating for it the next. The line has improved with the addition of new LG Steve Hutchinson and Johnson has impressed his coach with his commitment to the offseason program. While that probably sounds like the same old rhetoric, most of what Munchak is saying about the 2011 version of Johnson can easily be attributed to overcompensation (be it trying to justify his huge contract or getting upset with his inability to pop the big play as often as had in the past). Johnson is one of the few feature backs in the league. In fantasy, it’s often advantageous to load up on extremely talented players who have something to prove that year and Johnson certainly meets both criteria. Despite his “down” season, Johnson should still be considered a top-five RB at worst this summer.

There used to be a time where Kenny Britt was a bigger concern for the Titans off the field than defenses on it. Now that his maturity is less in question, his inability to stay health is. Fortunately, as with everything player-related in early June, his knee (the one in which he tore the ACL in Week 3 last season) is “doing good” and “everything’s going to plan”. His status is important for a number of reasons, including the fact that he has elite WR1 talent. Beyond that, however, is the playing time of rookie Kendall Wright. While it isn’t uncommon for a first-round receiver to learn multiple receiver positions in his team’s offense, Tennessee cannot assume Britt will be completely ready to go in Week 1 nor can the team believe it will have him all season long. As such, the difference between Wright’s potential fantasy floor and ceiling is about as wide as it is for any rookie, as I discussed in my Rookie Impact article in late May. Sixteen games each from Britt and Nate Washington probably equal a lot of time in the slot and the chance for Wright to be an inconsistent fantasy property that will post the occasional huge game. But if either veteran should get hurt, Wright has a good enough situation that he could easily be the best rookie receiver. In short, Britt’s injury makes him a WR2 candidate with the potential for a top-five finish at his position. Meanwhile, Britt’s uncertain status makes Wright a fantasy WR4 option with WR2 upside should either one of his teammates succumb to injury.

Suggestions, comments, musings about the article or fantasy football in general? E-mail me or follow me on Twitter.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006, appeared in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine in each of the last two seasons and served as a weekly fantasy football analyst for 106.7 The Fan (WJFK – Washington, D.C). He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.