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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Early Observations: NFC
Preseason Matchup Analysis

ARI | ATL | CAR | CHI | DAL | DET | GB | MIN | NO | NYG | PHI | STL | SF | SEA | TB | WAS | AFC

Beat writers as well as national columnists must provide content on a regular (usually daily) basis, so it is a fairly difficult chore to monitor the activities of 32 teams and get a grasp on what it all means. Making matters more challenging is the fact that every team – and thus every writer covering the team – tend to view a half-filled glass as three-quarters full (if not running completely over). As a result, many teams have running backs that will touch the ball 20 times a game as well as a no-name receiver capable of scoring 8-10 times. It’s far from an ideal system, but there is little doubt that having the information – some of which will come to fruition – is better than having no information at all.

As I often say in one form or another at this time of year, now is not the time to be making final judgments on players. The early summer months are for collecting information and researching trends so that we can make informed decisions down the road. Any bit of knowledge that can be gathered or opinions that can be researched and strengthened at this point of the offseason should be considered gaining an edge on your competition.

Last week, we took a long look into the offseason happenings of all 16 AFC teams. This week, we’ll do the same with the NFC:

Cardinals HC Bruce Arians has seen enough: he’d “like” to get RB Andre Ellington 25 to 30 touches a game. (Fantasy community: please note the man said “like” and not that the team “will” give him that much work.) writer Darren Urban listed other four other expectations the team had going last season – one of which included a limited role for Ellington into 2013 – and let’s just say QB Drew Stanton and LB Kevin Minter didn’t start, OT Levi Brown was traded before the end of the year and Ellington had a fairly big impact. Consider LeSean McCoy led the league with 22.9 touches last year and Matt Forte was second at 22.7; not even Adrian Peterson eclipsed 25 touches per game in his 2,000-yard rushing season in 2012. Ellington averaged 13.6 touches over his last eight games and had a season-high 17 touches twice. In other words, the Clemson product may be Arizona’s No. 1 back and break 20 touches on a few occasions this fall, but he’s not going to push 400-480 touches.

After missing rookie minicamp with a hamstring injury, rookie WR John Brown took about as much time to leave a good first impression as it does for him to run a 40 (4.34). “He’s way ahead of most rookies, and coming from a small school, that’s unusual,” Arians told the team’s official website in early June. “It doesn’t overwhelm him at all. He learns fast and he can apply it fast.” Although it may seem like typical offseason hyperbole, it is not a stretch to suggest that the former Pittsburgh State Gorilla is comparable to two former Arians protégés – T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown. And just to be clear, the head coach made those comparisons himself.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Arians has wondered aloud on more than one occasion about Ellington’s ability to handle a big workload, so take the 25-30 touch statement for what it is: the coach really likes his player. Much like Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati, Ellington should see a healthy increase in touches from 157 to the 250-275 range. Additionally, it wouldn’t be a shocker if he flirts with 60 or more catches because that really seems to be where Arians and his staff love him the most – in the passing game. Even with more “realistic” projections I have laid out, Ellington is a steal at his current 3.6 ADP – expect that number to rise at least a full round over the summer because he should be a rock-solid fantasy RB2 that will play like a RB1 some weeks. As for Brown, the original plan was probably to take it slow and let him contribute on special teams while free-agent signee Ted Ginn Jr. took the snaps in the slot. There’s no question that, just like Ginn last year, Brown’s speed and quickness jumps off the tape. While the dynasty upside outweighs the redraft upside at the moment (and Carson Palmer as his quarterback as opposed to Andrew Luck or Ben Roethlisberger), Brown is going to make an impact this season. Consider him a “priority” free agent in redraft leagues and a player with a relatively high dynasty ceiling.

One year after finding out what happens when a talent-poor offensive line lacking nastiness gets combined with two of the best receivers in the league spending the majority of the year either hurt (Roddy White) or on injured reserve (Julio Jones), the Falcons plan on making the ground game a bit more of a priority in 2014. However, let’s be real: Atlanta will only go as far offensively as QB Matt Ryan, White and Jones takes them. Following his first injury-marred professional season (hamstring), White has been extended the courtesy of rest sometimes afforded to proven veterans – especially in light of the murder of his half-brother in May. As for Jones, the team decided before the draft that he would be withheld from football activities before training camp. He has been cleared to run and cut on the same broken right foot that affected him during the pre-draft process in 2011 and caused him to miss all but five games last season, but was not being allowed to jump as of mid-June. The season opener is a realistic goal, however.

TE Levine Toilolo generated a fair amount of buzz late last season and into this offseason as a player that would not only replace the retiring Tony Gonzalez, but help to fill the production left behind by the 14-time Pro Bowler. While it is true that he will almost certainly replace Gonzalez as the starter, the 6-8, 265-pound Toilolo is an in-line tight end that is nowhere near as nimble or capable of thriving out of the slot as his predecessor. Moreover, Ryan didn’t exactly target the in-line tight end all that much last year, nor did the team make it a priority in the draft. Last but not least, HC Mike Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “we’ll have a ‘Y’ tight end, where he’ll be an in-line player. They won’t be moving around nearly as much as what we call a ‘F.’ Tony Gonzalez was more of an ‘F’ than a ‘Y’.”

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Despite the Falcons’ plans to get “meaner”, the aerial attack is what fantasy owners care about in Atlanta. White is a player very likely to be a value pick (current ADP is in the middle of the fourth round as the 19th receiver off the board) as a receiver capable of another 80-90 catches if he returns to being the durable receiver we have all come to know and love. Jones’ situation is obviously a bit more up in the air and his status may not be fully known until right before the season opener. Of course, it is hard to forget he was the top receiver in a number of fantasy leagues before his injury, so owners may not be able to pass up his upside in the early-to-middle second round. Owners need to move on from Toilolo, as his most significant contribution in fantasy will be stealing a rare touchdown catch away from White, Jones, RB Steven Jackson or a host of others. The main beneficiaries of Gonzalez’s departure in fantasy figure to be WR Harry Douglas and rookie RB Devonta Freeman, although the former cannot be expected to post 80-plus catches again (barring an injury to White or Jones) and the latter will have to beat out Jacquizz Rodgers in order to profit. Toilolo can be avoided in fantasy drafts, Douglas is probably a WR5 at best and Freeman is a strong handcuff for Jackson that has a shot to be a decent RB4.

We’ve been down this road before. (Boy, have we ever.) RB Jonathan Stewart’s injury status is newsworthy in the offseason. This time, though, it is the good type of news. The injury-prone six-year veteran has dealt with everything from big toe surgery that kept him out of OTAs in 2008 to ankle surgery that sidelined him throughout the entire 2013 offseason in his pro career. (Here is a list of the reasons he has been inactive for games since 2010.) It now appears he has a clean bill of health and he is the healthiest he has been before the start of a season since 2011. If that year rings a bell with diehard fans, it should; the 2011 season was the last time Stewart played in all 16 games and averaged a career-high 5.4 YPC. Among the reasons to believe the former Oregon Duck may be able to stay healthy in his age-27 year is the fact that he has taken up yoga three times a week and is allowing himself to be treated like a baby. (Seriously, click on the link.)

While QB Cam Newton is continuing his recovery from offseason ankle surgery and on pace to be ready for training camp, there doesn’t appear to be much incentive for him to get back. Why? Along with the Cleveland Browns, Carolina may have the worst receiving corps in the league (or the least accomplished, to be kind). Rookie Kelvin Benjamin made a quick positive impression on his new team in late May and the Panthers are going to keep it simple for the 6-5, 240-pounder in his first year, basically allowing him to run the same patterns he ran at Florida State. Benjamin isn’t the concern here, though, at least not from a talent perspective anyway. The problem is the rest of potential starters at receiver, with Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant seeing the most time with the first team thus far.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Fantasy owners have a tendency to dismiss perpetually-injured players and for good reason. I’m not exactly sure it makes a ton of sense in Stewart’s case, however, since he hasn’t incurred many “soft tissue” injuries in his career. The Panthers probably would like nothing more than to commit to him and, at his current ADP of 13.12, it is hard to argue with the price it will cost to acquire a player with his talent and the ability to rush for 1,000 yards. His offensive line could be a problem, yet the front five wasn’t all that bad metrically last year. With another stellar season from the defense along with the likelihood that Carolina will want to run the ball even more this year with its receiver situation the way it is, volume may not be an issue. As for the passing game, it is going to be hard to buy into any player besides TE Greg Olsen (current ADP of 7.10) and perhaps Benjamin (10.8) as a WR4. Newton is too good to drop out of the QB1 discussion, but there are easily 12 other quarterbacks that have the ability to produce better numbers if they all stay healthy. Newton is currently the 10th quarterback off the board and I don’t see any reason why he should move up from that spot over the summer. Cotchery is a capable but unspectacular receiver that is stretched as a team’s WR2; however, he is crafty enough to match Brandon LaFell’s production from last year, making him a decent fantasy WR5.

Much to the dismay of some Bears fans, QB Josh McCown is no longer in Chicago. So unless Jordan Palmer, rookie David Fales or Jimmy Clausen makes a huge lead forward, it appears as if Chicago is stuck with Jay Cutler. But is that such a bad thing? Let’s look at the bad first: Cutler has missed at least one game in four of his five seasons with the Bears (the last four) and been unable to play in 12 games over the last three years combined. He throws too many interceptions and, heaven forbid, people don’t like his body language. Now for the good. Cutler has: 1) HC Marc Trestman is calling the shots, 2) as good of a supporting cast as any quarterback in the league and 3) he appears to be bigger and stronger this year.

The days of Cutler throwing to former Vanderbilt teammate Earl Bennett, who was cut loose by the receiver-needy Cleveland Browns in mid-June, are now over. Instead, Chicago can get used to seeing a lot more of second-year WR Marquess Wilson – a 2013 seventh-round pick out of Washington State that is expected to fill the third receiver role in this potentially explosive offense. Skeptics will point out that since starters Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, RB Matt Forte and TE Martellus Bennett command the ball and Bennett could muster only 32 catches a season ago, there aren’t going to be a lot of chances for Wilson to make an impact. At the very least, it is a good sign he is running with the first team in offseason practices and Trestman expects him to make a second-year leap, suggesting the coach may end up using more three-wide sets this season.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Cutler is going to have his critics simply because he has yet to lift his team to where most people think a player with his talent should be able to take a team. His groin injury last season was more of a fluke occurrence than anything, but it would make perfect sense if he saw the next 1-3 years as his opportunity to do something special offensively with an enviable supporting cast led by Marshall and Jeffery. Sure, he will aggravate fans and fantasy owners with his decision-making from time to time, but the argument could also be made he really hasn’t had much in the way of respectable play-callers (until now) during his stay in Chicago. As long as owners are willing to tempt fate one more time and draft Cutler in the middle rounds (current ADP is in the 10th round), they may very well have a top-five signal-caller. Wilson is up to 6-4 and 207 pounds (as opposed to 184 as a rookie) and is expected to work outside with Jeffery while Marshall moves inside when the Bears use three receivers. Maybe he ends up being nothing more than a clear-out receiver this season that strikes big one week and goes quiet for the next 3-4 games (in the Devery Henderson mold), which would make him waiver-wire worthy in a lot of leagues. However, it should be noted that Wilson was not considered a seventh-round talent and that it was character issues that sunk his draft stock (namely quitting during the college season after claiming abuse by Cougars HC Mike Leach), so the upside is there. Unlike Earl Bennett, Wilson could step up in the event of an injury to Marshall or Jeffery and become a viable every-week starter in this offense.

Listening to Jerry Jones has become somewhat tiresome, since he often talks his team up to the point they cannot realistically expect to meet their owner’s public expectations. With that said, Jones made a very good point in late January about how disappointed he was that TE Gavin Escobar did not receive more opportunities as a rookie. “If we look back on our ‘should have done’ list, having him more involved in the offense would have been one of them,” Jones told the team’s official website. Escobar obviously will not challenge Jason Witten for the starting job, but Jones is right in the sense that it was a waste of a second-round draft pick to select a player for his ability to create mismatches in the passing game and not use him. Escobar’s usage (or the lack thereof) may have played a small role in Jones’ decision to bring new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan aboard. There doesn’t seem to be much debate about whether the second-year San Diego State product will see his snaps increase significantly this season.

One of the major talking points in Dallas this offseason has been the backup situation behind DeMarco Murray. Interestingly, the discussion hasn’t been nearly as much about who will step in for him when he gets injured. Instead, the popular opinion seems to be that Linehan will utilize Lance Dunbar in a Joique Bell-like role – minus the power runs – in large part because of how the former Lions play-caller split up the work in the backfield as his time in Detroit came to an end. One thing appears clear: Linehan seems to relish having the option of working with the 5-8, 205-pounder out of North Texas. It is also interesting that former Arizona Cardinal Ryan Williams apparently looks truly healthy for the first time in years and has done “nothing to disappoint” the Cowboys thus far. His addition is notable not only because is a talented player sitting behind two other injury-prone backs, but because it could also mean bad things for Joseph Randle, who just one year ago was drafted because he reminded Jones of Murray.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Escobar may not be the same kind of talent as, say the San Diego Chargers’ Ladarius Green, but his complete lack of involvement in 2013 was even more appalling when one considers that Miles Austin contributed very little opposite Dez Bryant and no other receiver or tight end besides Witten really made much of a consistent impact. Even in an increased role, Escobar is probably a low-end fantasy TE2 at best, although he would have significant scoring upside if Witten was to get hurt. Murray will continue to play at a RB1 level – at least in PPR leagues – when he can stay on the field, but owners need to remember that just because he was healthy for most of the season doesn’t mean he is now durable. He’s an upright runner with a significant injury history dating back to his college days, so he needs to be treated as a RB2. Dunbar figures to have decent to very good standalone value in his own right as long as he can stay on the field and needs to be on the fantasy radar as a player that might be able to secure 90-100 touches. Given that he will probably Linehan’s first option in the event of an injury to Murray, he needs to be considered a fairly strong fantasy RB4. A healthy Williams is significantly more talented than Randle, so it should come as no surprise if he wins that battle and runs into some value if both Murray and Dunbar go down, which is a significant possibility.

New play-callers – even “recycled” ones – are basically typecast (sometimes wrongly) into roles all too often, with the assumption being they will use whatever schemes their former boss did. In the case of new OC Joe Lombardi, however, it appears he fully plans to embrace the way Saints HC Sean Payton handled his business in New Orleans – if only because former Saint Reggie Bush said so. One of those areas might include the use of three backs, assuming Joique Bell (knee) can get right before training camp. Even if he does return to the Joique of 2013, there are some that believe that 2013 sixth-rounder Theo Riddick is in line for a major bump in playing time this season. It is notable not only because the previous Jim Schwartz-Scott Linehan regime grew to like Riddick, but also because head-of-the-backfield-committee Bush himself said it would happen. Among the many pleasantries Bush handed the second-year back is that the former Norte Dame standout is “far more advanced now compared to where I was when I was a rookie...I wasn’t as good as a natural runner”.

Another offshoot of Lombardi’s arrival is the effect his hire will have on newcomer WR Golden Tate, who said in mid-April that he could see himself “being a Lance Moore type of player, but just more explosive and able to do a few more things”. It should be noted that he admitted he hadn’t talked to his new boss much at that point, but there’s really little reason to think he wasn’t accurate in his assessment. Lombardi has already made it clear he sees rookie TE Eric Ebron becoming his Jimmy Graham (eventually) and, with the pass-catching backs the Lions have on their roster already, they should be able to fill the roles of Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas just fine. So with Calvin Johnson inheriting the Marques Colston-plus role, Tate probably didn’t exercise much in the way of brainpower to figure out his new role.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Riddick is intriguing long-term from the standpoint that Bush doesn’t have the best durability track record and entering his age-29 season. At last check, Bell is still being dogged by the same knee injury that he suffered last season. At 5-9 and 200 pounds, Riddick is more Bush than Bell, but using the New Orleans model, Riddick is either the Sproles or Thomas part of the tri-headed backfield attack with Bell being the more well-rounded Mark Ingram or Khiry Robinson. The Lions are going to throw a lot, so it should not come as a surprise if Riddick is more than worthy of a roster spot in fantasy this season. Owners of Moore over the last several years may frown on another player taking on that role because there is some inconsistency involved with it, but Tate is a more dynamic player, pure and simple. Throw out the one year in which Moore averaged an unthinkable 16.0 YPC (2013) and his per-catch average was 11.5. On the other hand, Tate averaged 15.3 and 14.0 over his final two seasons in Seattle despite being somewhat miscast. In short, if Tate does nothing more than match Moore’s best single-season reception totals, he should be a 1,000-yard receiver. And with more ability after the catch, Tate has a realistic shot of at least matching Moore’s average of six touchdowns over the final six seasons with the Saints. Therefore, Tate should be considered nothing less than a strong fantasy WR3.

Green Bay
For a team that saw its star quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) miss nearly half the season and has lost its third receiver (James Jones, free agency) as well as its possible long-term change-of-pace back (Johnathan Franklin, career-ending neck injury), there’s very little going on of note in Wisconsin at the moment. The one area to keep an eye on – outside of whether or not the team adds a free-agent tight end – is at receiver, where Jarrett Boykin is expected to be the first option behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. HC Mike McCarthy raved about Virginia Tech’s all-time leading receiver back in March at the NFL Annual Meeting back in March – the product of Boykin stepping up like he did with 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns when injuries hit the position hard last season. However, that was before the Packers went out and drafted three receivers, including second-rounder Davante Adams. McCarthy has also praised waiver pickup Chris Harper – the Seahawks’ fourth-round selection from a season ago – as well. However, if Boykin is to get challenged by any player of the bunch, it figures to be Adams. Boykin isn’t giving the job away anytime soon, but it figures that the Fresno State rookie will eventually nudge him out of the third receiver spot at some point because Adams brings the same size to the position than Jones did, if not more skill.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: The question that needs to be asked – and answered – is when, not if, Adams overtakes Boykin. Barring injury, I’m not sure it happens this year. Adams has a lot of work to do to get down the Packers’ playbook and grasp their route-running concepts simply because he wasn’t asked to do much of that in college. Additionally, Boykin is naturally going to have a leg up because of how he performed in such dire circumstances in 2013. In the end, however, it really shouldn’t matter all that much which player wins the competition for No. 3 because Rodgers has shown the ability to make four receivers relevant in fantasy. Adams should be a red-zone threat regardless of how the competition plays out, so he warrants consideration as a high-upside WR5. Boykin is more of a low-upside WR4, capable of around 50-plus catches, but with relatively few box-score explosions.

As a coach, the mention of Norv Turner probably causes some fans to feel a bit nauseated. As a play-caller, most people seem to agree he does at least two things pretty well (assuming the talent is there): 1) produce a solid – if not great – ground game and 2) make his tight end a critical part of the passing game. It is that second item that needs to be discussed because, quite frankly, RB Adrian Peterson in an offensive system led by Turner should be a match made in heaven. On the other hand, TE Kyle Rudolph was an incredibly underused asset under former OC Bill Musgrave. Even with below-average play-calling and quarterbacking, the fourth-year veteran out of Notre Dame has still amassed 15 touchdowns in 39 career games. Where he has been horribly neglected (and misused) is on intermediate and deep throws – as evidenced by his career 9.7 YPC. All of that should come to an end under Turner, who used Cleveland Browns TE Jordan Cameron out of the slot 60.3 percent of the time last season per Pro Football Focus (second-highest mark from qualifying tight ends behind Tony Gonzalez). Conversely, Rudolph ran 40.2 percent of his routes out of the slot in 2013 and 37.1 percent in 2012.

With RB Toby Gerhart gone, Peterson has no clear-cut backup. There is Matt Asiata, he of the 30 carries for 51 yards and three touchdowns in a bizarre Week 15 effort when both Peterson and Gerhart were injured. In the other corner, there is versatile all-purpose weapon Jerick McKinnon, who announced his presence (assuming Georgia Southern’s win over Florida didn’t do it first) at the NFL Combine with a 4.41-40, a 40 1/2-inch vertical and 11-foot broad jump. Asiata isn’t a bad player by any stretch, but about the only areas in which he has the upper hand on McKinnon are power and experience at the position. (McKinnon spent most of his time playing option quarterback in college.) The Vikings believe the fourth-round rookie slots in as a potential third-down back, but teams – like fans – like flash over power more times than not. To his credit, McKinnon appears to be adjusting quickly to his new role, which bodes well for his chances to overtake Asiata at some point this season.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: There’s no reason to waste any more space here extolling the virtues of Rudolph. Turner has made stops along the NFL trail where he didn’t have wildly productive tight ends (Washington, Oakland and Miami), but usually when he’s had the opportunity to work with a talented tight end, he has been very productive. In terms of play-calling prowess, the upgrade from Musgrave to Turner is exponential; that fact alone should have owners salivating at the thought of acquiring Rudolph a full round or two earlier than his current late-eighth round ADP. For redraft purposes, it is hard seeing the winner between Asiata and McKinnon enjoying much fantasy value barring an injury to Peterson. (After all, Gerhart was often available on waivers in most leagues the past few years and Jacksonville thought enough of him to make him a feature back.) And in the event of a Peterson injury, Asiata and McKinnon would likely work in a committee, with Asiata handling most of the inside and power running while McKinnon would get just about everything else. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, owners should probably target McKinnon if they want to handcuff Peterson.

New Orleans
When one approach has worked for so long, it is typically hard for those of us on the outside to understand that a different way can be utilized and still be every bit as effective. Change is unavoidable and it figures to be the case with the Saints, who must replace RB Darren Sproles. First, there is the issue of what running back will join the three-headed attack that has been a staple of HC Sean Payton’s offense for a few years. Mark Ingram didn’t become an all-purpose threat in the offseason in all likelihood, so while his role might expand, he’s not going to fill the void left behind by Sproles. There is also Pierre Thomas, who would be the most likely candidate to become the new Sproles if he hadn’t already taken on that role somewhat last season (77 catches to Sproles’ 71). And there is also playoff standout Khiry Robinson, who saw his playing time spike coincidentally (or not) about the same time Bill Parcells suggested to his former protégé (Payton) that the West Texas A&M standout had some Curtis Martin in him. The conventional wisdom is that the Saints will further attempt to be a more balanced offense. ESPN’s Mike Triplett is among those that believe Robinson will benefit the most.

The other half of the Sproles’ dilemma is that QB Drew Brees and Payton both still want that explosive element in the offense. Enter 2014 first-round WR Brandin Cooks, who will probably have the dual role of replacing Sproles’ contributions in the passing game as well as those left behind by new Pittsburgh Steelers WR Lance Moore. Of course, that is not to suggest the 189-pound Cooks will be running toss plays 5-6 times per game in addition to catching 70 passes, but rather change the job description of the Sproles’ role. Cooks is a pro-ready route-runner as well as a deep threat, meaning his presence on the field could tax a defense just like Sproles did – just in a different way.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Ingram has created more stress than relief for fantasy owners in his three seasons, giving owners a glimpse from time to time of the power running New Orleans thought it was getting when it traded a future first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft to secure his services. His workload may approach a career high this season, but he’s really given no indication that he is ever going to be a lead back in the NFL. There’s little reason to believe Thomas’ role will change much as the Saints continue to use him mostly as a bit-of-everything runner and feature him whenever they pull out one of their endless supply of screen passes. Robinson is the great mystery, but he’s also the man that should probably be the leading rusher on this team too. There isn’t much evidence – from his limited production as a pro or time in college – to suggest Robinson is a threat to catch more than 20 passes, but there is little question he has proven to be a more natural rusher in his short NFL career than Ingram. In PPR leagues, Thomas makes a strong flex play, Robinson should be a low-end RB4 and Ingram will probably be viewed mostly as a RB5. Cooks isn’t going to approach Sproles’ 53 rushing attempts from last season, but he’s certainly a legitimate threat to absorb most of his 71 receptions if the Saints max out his versatility. Cooks should be a safe low-end WR3 pick, with the only negatives being that Brees tends to ride TE Jimmy Graham or WR Marques Colston when they get rolling. Cooks also doesn’t figure to be one of the top targets in the red zone anytime soon.

New York Giants
Perhaps no player has experienced the rollercoaster of player perception this offseason – at least as far as the Giants are concerned – as WR Rueben Randle. In January, the Newark Star-Ledger stated that Randle was likely to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of new OC Ben McAdoo’s offense. In March, the New York Daily News reported that GM Jerry Reese said “the jury is still out” on Randle. Fellow teammate Victor Cruz essentially followed the lead of Reese and former OC Kevin Gilbride – perhaps unwillingly – when he told NFL Network in April that New York should pursue a receiver early in the upcoming NFL Draft, full well knowing that Randle was pretty much guaranteed to start opposite him following the departure of Hakeem Nicks. In early June, the third-year wideout was back on the upswing with a strong offseason, “running sharper routes and displaying consistently strong hands”. Just last week, the New York Daily News got back into the game, reporting that the new offensive staff has approached Randle about playing the slot in part so they can move Cruz around, suggesting his strong offseason is no joke. While it should come as no surprise that McAdoo would like all of his receivers to line up in more than one spot, the coaching staff probably wouldn’t be asking Randle to try other spots if they felt he was struggling with the role they had envisioned for him in the first place.

Like Randle, albeit to a lesser degree, is TE Adrien Robinson. The Giants apparently felt confident enough about the position to not address it in the draft, suggesting they were clearing the way for Robinson to thrive in an offense that should be tailor-made for his skills. In early June, HC Tom Coughlin singled out Robinson and fellow tight end Larry Donnell for their mental approach to offseason practices. Two weeks later, new TE coach Kevin M. Gilbride (the former play-caller’s son) suggested that Robinson has yet to “develop his consistency” and that “his body control needs to improve”. So which is it?

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Randle’s career to this point has been puzzling. Called one of the most pro-ready receivers to come out of the 2012 draft, the LSU product displayed very little ability to operate consistently in the elder Gilbride’s option route-heavy passing attack. However, he appeared to be far and away the team’s best red-zone threat last season. So is he one of the many receivers that doesn’t react well in split-second situations but dominates when it is all about his physical ability? Also, using the current Packers’ model – since that is where McAdoo learned the new offense from – is Randle the new James Jones…or can he be the new Jordy Nelson? Randle’s current ADP is the late 10th round as the first WR5 in 12-team leagues – a rather cheap price for a player capable of scoring 10 touchdowns. Preseason will mean a lot for his fantasy stock, but it says here the change in offense is exactly what he needed and that he will be a good WR4 at the very least. Robinson has yet to collect a reception in two seasons in the league, but tight end is an important position in this offense and New York really has very little talent behind him. Perhaps he is destined for production that matches the practice habits detailed above. He’s yet another player with TE1 ability, but he’s only a name to monitor at this point; he is extremely unlikely to get drafted in all but the deepest leagues.

It is rare that a team can lose its top receiver and make a realistic claim that it has more weapons the following year than it did the previous season. One of the ways the Eagles feel they will be able to replace DeSean Jackson’s rare ability to stretch the field is TE Zach Ertz, who earned his place in the hyperbole Hall of Fame when his position coach (Ted Williams) told the Wilmington News Journal that he has the potential to be in the same category as some of the best tight ends to ever play in the NFL, mentioning Hall of Famers Shannon Sharpe and Ozzie Newsome. However, Williams was only the latest in a line of key Philadelphia decision-makers to echo similar thoughts as GM Howie Roseman said his second-year tight end was “primed for (a) bigger role in (the) passing game” while HC Chip Kelly told the Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily News that he thought Ertz could have “a huge role”.

Considering the tempo Kelly likes his offenses to play with and the relatively short supply of proven and/or durable talent the Eagles had at receiver going into the draft, it came as no surprise that Philadelphia grabbed two in the first three rounds. While third-rounder Josh Huff has “lined up almost everywhere and worked with all three teams (first through third)” and the Eagles seem to love his physicality, the player that is going to generate more interest is second-rounder Jordan Matthews. The Southeastern Conference’s all-time leading receiver is the heavy favorite to secure slot-receiver duties – assuming he hasn’t already – but there is also a very strong possibility he ends the season as Philadelphia’s best receiver period. (For what it is worth, there are already some that suggest that is the case.) He is already seeing snaps with the first team, maintaining his reputation as a sticky-fingered receiver in the process.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: The Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily News laid out a nice statistical take as to why big things should be expected from Ertz this season and it should be noted that the Stanford grad had more receptions than “starter” Brent Celek in 2013 despite playing only 41 percent of the snaps and catching only 14 balls halfway through the season. If Kelly has any interest in keeping the deep ball in his offense – and he probably does when one considers his time in college as well as last year – then it will probably be Ertz and WR Riley Cooper leading the way. Considering Ertz will have the size and matchup advantage over his defender about 98 percent of the time, it is a pretty good best that he will see a significant increase in playing time and production. He is currently the 12th tight end coming off the board, although the case could easily be made he has top-eight potential. He’s very likely to see his ADP rise from the late-10th round over the course of the summer. Huff can be ignored in redraft leagues, but Matthews is slotted as the No. 52 receiver at the moment. Perhaps that assessment is right if everyone in Philadelphia stays healthy, but I’d frankly be surprised if he doesn’t finish among the top 40 receiver at his position.

The hype on backup RB Christine Michael seems to be spiraling out of control, although it not completely unwarranted. The latest fuel to the fire comes from former Texas A&M strength coach Larry Jackson, who told former personnel executive (and current ESPN employee) Louis Riddick that Michael’s explosiveness is on par with Adrian Peterson’s. But that was only the tip of the iceberg regarding Michael, who is “a million miles ahead of where he was last season” according to HC Pete Carroll. GM John Schneider referred to the former Aggie as one of the team’s “two of our most explosive offensive players” (along with WR Percy Harvin). The Tacoma News Tribune suggested that Michael could be the feature back in Seattle as soon as 2015 if the Seahawks don’t want to swallow RB Marshawn Lynch’s cap hit, but the nugget that probably legitimized it on a larger scale was Seahawks OC Darrell Bevell remark in early June that his team would utilize a committee approach in 2014. Of course, the backlash from that comment was strong enough that Bevell had to issue a clarification the next day, stating that he only meant Michael had improved at the details of his position.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Anyone that has seen Michael play understands he is most likely going to be a very good player once Lynch moves on. And after being active in only four of 16 games last year, he should have no issue seeing the field in every game this season if his attention to detail has improved as much as has been suggested. However, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Michael gets enough touches to enjoy much standalone value without an injury to Lynch. Surprisingly, Michael’s ADP stands at 10.02 at the moment as the 44th running back off the board – making his price palatable for Lynch owners seeking a handcuff as well as his non-owners wanting a high-upside RB4. It is extremely unlikely he remains that affordable when the majority of fantasy drafts occur in August, but the fact that he is perhaps the highest-upside RB4 in the game isn’t going to change.

San Francisco
Sometimes, an offseason is all about improving a team’s talent base. Other times, however, it can be a sign of a slight shift in philosophy. The 49ers were highly aggressive in making additions to the receiver position, trading for ex-Buffalo Bill Steve Johnson, signing journeyman (and former Niner) Brandon Lloyd and drafting Bruce Ellington. Perhaps some people would read that kind of activity as overcompensating one season after they were forced to hope players like Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Mario Manningham would either stay healthy and/or produce. A more likely situation, especially in light of QB Colin Kaepernick’s new contract, is that San Francisco will begin a subtle shift from a heavy power-rushing offense to a more balanced offense that will still take pride in running the ball, but have more ability to strike quickly through the air. Michael Crabtree now appears to be fully recovered from his 2013 Achilles’ injury, Johnson is certainly more determined than last year, Lloyd is establishing a strong bond with Kaepernick and Kaepernick has been very pleased with Ellington as well.

Even if the Niners decide they are going to embrace the passing game more than they have in HC Jim Harbaugh’s first three seasons, it remains a pretty good bet that he won’t let it stray too far from his roots. For years in San Francisco, that has meant RB Frank Gore getting 250-280 carries while everyone else falls in line after that. It seems unlikely the status quo will remain in place in 2014 given that Gore is in his age-31 season and how ineffective he was down the stretch. The backfield is going to be handed over to either rookie RB Carlos Hyde or second-year player Marcus Lattimore at some point simply because it will become obvious they have more juice in their legs. Popular opinion suggests that Hyde will have more carries than Lattimore this season, if only because the team wants to continue exercising caution with Lattimore.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: The influx of receiving talent in San Francisco has been dramatic. It also makes sense that Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman would consider using more spread formations given the presence of four quality receivers (as well as possibly TE Vernon Davis) to open up running lanes for Kaepernick. Regardless, it is not hard to imagine Kaepernick finishing among the top 6-8 fantasy quarterbacks with so many quality receivers available to him now. Crabtree should move back up to the top of the pecking order and be a fine fantasy WR2 while Boldin is probably a safe yet low-upside WR4. Johnson could easily fill in seamlessly for either Crabtree or Boldin if either was to get hurt and needs to be on owners’ radar as a result while Lloyd and Ellington seem very unlikely to have redraft value. Hyde is probably the safe and sound choice for Gore owners who want to handcuff him, although it would not be wise to dismiss Lattimore, who looked “noticeably better and more explosive” in mid-June than he did earlier in the offseason. It is quite likely the Niners want both young backs available to them should Gore falter; GM Trent Baalke has often talked about wanting to get away from a back who carries the entire load.

St. Louis
Eyebrows were raised ever so slightly when the Rams spent a third-round pick on RB Tre Mason (and not just because he has the same number of letters in his first and last name as Zac Stacy). The nation’s fifth-leading rusher from a season ago reminds some a bit of a young Marion Barber III in that he is a pretty powerful runner for a smaller back (5-8, 207) and has more burst to his game than Stacy. Then came the announcement from OC Brian Schottenheimer that Stacy wasn’t guaranteed the starting job, throwing further chaos into what appeared to be a relatively tame situation only a few months earlier. Let’s remember that while Stacy averaged 3.9 YPC as a rookie, he did so for an offense that lacked any other viable offensive threat. Schottenheimer later clarified that he was only trying to emphasize that he is promoting competition at every spot and invoked starting QB Sam Bradford as one of those players that must compete for his job. (Is Shaun Hill stealing his job?) He went on to say that he expects “to see multiple guys carry the football”. Mason has substantial holes in the passing game, perhaps due to a lack of experience in it as much as anything. As most fantasy enthusiasts have learned over the years, if a back can’t hold up his end in the passing game (as a receiver, blocker or both), he isn’t going to see a lot of playing time.

If memory serves, the last receiver to receive the nickname of “The Incredible Hulk” was David Boston. Hopefully, new Rams WR Kenny Britt can rewrite a different ending to his career than the one Boston lived or the one that played out for Britt himself during his time in Tennessee. It might be a stretch to say the ex-Rutgers star has been the standout of OTAs, but HC Jeff Fisher is plenty happy with how one of his former first-round draft picks has performed thus far. Fellow WR Tavon Austin’s head was spinning for the better part of last season due to the playbook and the speed of the game, something he said was a “pretty big adjustment” before he “eventually caught on and the game settled down”. Still, his 40 catches were the most by any St. Louis receiver. Fisher, who claimed to be “not disappointed in his production at all”, also said that “we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing”.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: In theory, it is possible Mason overtakes Stacy as the early-down back, but the Rams would have to weigh the upside of using the more explosive Mason versus the predictability (in terms of what St. Louis can do offensively) that his place in the lineup would bring. Offenses that are predictable typically aren’t dynamic unless they have elite talent; it is fair to say the Rams are not oozing with elite talent yet. The reality of the situation is that about the only thing we can take from Schottenheimer is that he is probably correct in suggesting Stacy will not hitting the 20.7-carry average he sported over the final 12 games of last season. Stacy is the overwhelming favorite, however, to hover around 15-18 touches per game while Mason steals a series here and there in addition to providing relief when necessary. Stacy appears to be a volume runner, however, so any reduction in touches will make it very hard for him to live up to his current 3.03 ADP. Given Mason’s deficiencies in the passing game, it is hard to believe he possesses a great deal of upside at his current 11.03 ADP. It hardly seems as if Britt deserves another chance, although Fisher seems convinced his team has “nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving him an opportunity”. At his current late-13th round ADP, fantasy owners should feel the same since he is still very much a high-upside player. Austin may not have been overly comfortable with the pro game, but Schottenheimer deserves as much of the blame for that as Austin. I’m not sure I could recommend Austin in the late-ninth round in PPR in part because Britt should end up being the top receiver on this team IF he can stay healthy. It also doesn’t help matters that Schottenheimer didn’t exactly help him feel comfortable last year either. As a result, consider Austin a high-upside WR5 in all leagues.

Tampa Bay
It’s been fun, Doug Martin. As a rookie, he entered a situation in which he was playing for a new coach who demonstrated a desire to pound the ball and needed only to beat out fellow RB LeGarrette Blount in order for the chance to run behind a very talented offensive line. Two years later, Blount is on his third different team, but a new coaching staff and front office have arrived, the offensive line is nothing like it used to be and the running back position is well-fortified. Worse yet, the new coach (Lovie Smith) has already demonstrated the ability to keep an elite talent at running back somewhat bottled up (Matt Forte). Last but not least, new OC Jeff Tedford – in his college days – has not been afraid to spread the wealth at running back and apparently doesn’t plan on changing his ways now, stating his belief that the running back position is “just too physical” for one player to carry the full load. And in the opinion of Smith, third-round rookie RB Charles Sims “gives us a little more in the passing game than what we've had” while Tedford basically suggested he was a complete back in so many words.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Almost comically, the Smith-Tedford regime has seemingly issued a public “Martin is our workhorse/Martin will remain an integral part of our offense” statement for every time one or the other has stated the Bucs will be using a rotation of backs this season. The Bucs also apparently plan on being a run-heavy offense despite assembling a virtual basketball team at the skill positions, which suggests they will reduce their dependence on their workhorse running back while also deemphasizing the matchup advantages they will have in the passing game. (If that doesn’t sound like winning football, what does?) Martin is going to lead this backfield in touches, barring injury, but it is highly unlikely he is going to come anywhere close to his 368-touch rookie year of 2012. He’s also a poor bet to live up to his current 2.12 ADP and probably belongs in the late-third or early-fourth round mix given Smith’s history with Forte and Tedford’s history in general. Sims almost becomes a mandatory handcuff as this administration’s handpicked choice to relief/push Martin. In PPR leagues, he should easily live up to his 13.10 ADP.

TE Jordan Reed did a fine job of generating interest with his midseason emergence as a rookie under then-HC Mike Shanahan and former OC Kyle Shanahan before a concussion ended his season in mid-December. After some initial concern about the longer-than-expected recovery time, Reed has reportedly picked right back up where he left off. New OC (and former TE coach) Sean McVay is quite fond of him while new HC Jay Gruden believes he will be critical to the passing game if defenses plan on “clouding” DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. At the very least, the Redskins’ brass believes the addition of Jackson has to open up the middle of the field. The bad news: Reed has four documented concussions dating back to his college days.

For a player coming off a down year in which he got benched at the end, there hasn’t been a great deal of attention paid to QB Robert Griffin III, who appears to be loving life without “the brace”. What we do know is that he worked with the same quarterback “guru” (Terry Shea) he did prior to the 2012 NFL Combine and has drawn rave reviews about how healthy he looks. It should be noted that in his two years under the Shanahans, RG3 ran read-option on just over 20 percent of the team’s running plays, probably not something fans should expect to see going forward. Gruden does not plan to make the read-option a staple play of the new offense, but he doesn’t want to do away with it either.

Mid-June Fantasy Reaction: Reed might as well be the new-and-improved Aaron Hernandez minus the off-the-field concerns and plus the risky concussion history. He was difficult enough to contain when it became clear he was becoming a serious receiving threat in 2013, but Washington is going to have enough weapons this season that opponents will need to pick and choose their battles. All too often, they’ll probably try to take away Jackson deep and make things as difficult for Garcon while hoping they can bump Reed off his path as often as possible. The good thing for Reed is that he can also get deep, so he will not be confined to the short and intermediate throws that most tight ends are. Reed could easily finish among the top five fantasy players at his position or he could miss significant time with yet another concussion. That risk has to outweigh the obvious reward, making him one of the lower-end TE1s available. Under a play-caller in Gruden that made Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton an every-week starter in some leagues, great things are expected from Griffin now. The supporting cast has been upgraded and the zone-blocking scheme has been kept around to help the running game, so RG3’s climb back into fantasy stardom is essentially going to boil down to whether or not the offensive line holes that were such a problem last year have been corrected and if Griffin’s holding onto the ball was a matter of Garcon being the only receiver capable consistently gaining separation. As we saw in his rookie season, he is capable of being the top quarterback in fantasy football. With an enviable group of receivers and tight ends as well as a play-caller that will throw the ball, expect similar results in 2014.

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