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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 – tends 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 touchdowns. 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:

The hype surrounding WR Michael Floyd and his potential breakout season last year was palpable. This time around, it appears WR John Brown will be the darling of Cardinals’ camp (even more so than he was last year). Brown’s 2015 hype train got started in mid-April when The Arizona Republic's Bob McManaman said called him “the real deal” and said he expected "big things" from the second-year wideout, continued after it was confirmed he added 10 pounds of upper-body muscle after playing at 173 as a rookie in an effort to prevent wearing down and carried on after QB Carson Palmer said he expected “huge things” from him. The team’s official site followed suit, saying “Smokey” is “being primed to be a star”.

With Palmer “ahead of schedule” in his recovery from a second ACL surgery, the other major storyline fantasy owners will keep an eye on this preseason is the Cardinals’ backfield. RB Andre Ellington remains “the linchpin” at the position, although third-round rookie David Johnson has impressed with his ability in the passing game, which does not come as a surprise to anyone that watched him play at Northern Iowa. “Johnson catches the ball so naturally, he looks like he belongs with the receiver's group,” Arizona Republic beat writer Kent Somers wrote in mid-June. The other things that were fairly obvious from Johnson’s college tape were his unwillingness to run inside and finish runs consistently, which means Arizona’s front office and/or HC Bruce Arians decided before or during the draft that if they could not land a Todd Gurley- or Melvin Gordon-type in the first round, then they would prefer to choose a player that shared many of the same qualities Ellington has in order to avoid changing the game plan in case the injury-prone veteran gets hurt.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: It has been well-documented that HC Bruce Arians has turned small and fast receivers like T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown into stars. Given Arians’ track record, it would seem it is only a matter of when, not if, Brown becomes the next big thing. As the four links above suggest, many teammates, beat writers and coaches think the passing of the torch from Larry Fitzgerald to Brown could begin as early as this year. As a result, the Pittsburg State (Kan.) product is easily worth a 10th-round pick in redraft formats. Ellington’s stock appears to still be strong post-NFL Draft, but his injury history suggests Johnson is going to get his shot to be the featured back for at least a few games. How long will it take before the staff decides to give more work to the bigger back in Johnson (6-1, 224), who does many of the same things Ellington (5-9, 199) does but with less proneness to injury? I’m not going to suggest a midseason depth-chart change will happen, but I believe this (the likelihood that Ellington will be a 15-18 touch-per-game back all season) is a less stable situation than I think most casual observers realize.

Over the years, “Shanahan” has been a name that has become synonymous with productive running games but, more often than not, unpredictability in regards to the consistency of a weekly starter. New OC Kyle Shanahan may be his father’s son, but his track record of sticking with one back is much better than Mike’s. Some may not say that after watching the 2014 Browns, but it is looking more and more like the blame for the running back mess than occurred in Cleveland last year should go to HC Mike Pettine. Be that as it may, there is a possibility the running game of the 2015 Falcons may remind veteran owners of some of the backfields that made some people swear off any running back that used to play for Kyle’s dad. New HC Dan Quinn told the team’s official site at the end of May that second-year veteran Devonta Freeman and third-round rookie Tevin Coleman are “absolutely battling for it (the starting job)”. Most of the early returns have been mixed, as Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter projected Coleman as 1A and Devonta Freeman as 1B in early May while ESPN’s Vaughn McClure predicted “a two-back system with equal reps” in late May.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: As much as owners despise depth chart uncertainty – especially in potential fantasy goldmines – some position battles actually need to be settled in training camp and the preseason. That is going to be the case in Atlanta. Coleman probably enters as the slight favorite due to the fact Shanahan had to sign off on his selection, but Quinn has been very complimentary of the work habits Freeman has shown thus far. Coleman (5-11, 206) was one the best big-play artists in a draft full of quality runners and is a plus-blocker, which would seem to give him the necessary edge. However, the rookie is a bit straight-linish whereas Freeman (5-8, 206) has a bit more shake-and-bake to him. Given the fact that both players are very similar in terms of size and weight, Shanahan could easily go in any number of directions with his decision. Coleman does run with the most power, however, so he would seem to be the odds-on favorite for short-yardage/goal-line work. If/when one of the two players emerges as the lead or featured back, there is significant fantasy RB2 upside in Shanahan’s system. If neither runs with the full-time job, then both will probably be inconsistent RB3 or flex options.

QB Cam Newton signed to an extension and healthy. Check and check. Jonathan Stewart is the unquestioned starter at running back and healthy. Surprising check and check. TE Greg Olsen is still Greg Olsen. Check. With so much certainty in Carolina, the only position left to talk about on the offensive side of the ball – outside of the questionable decision to start Michael Oher at left tackle and either Mike Remmers or Daryl Williams at right tackle – is receiver. Kelvin Benjamin is off to an uninspiring start as he attempts to follow up a 73-catch, nine-TD rookie campaign. The Panthers’ top receiver missed a large chunk of OTAs and minicamp with hamstring pulls in both legs. While his absence gave rookie second-round Devin Funchess a chance to work at all three receiver positions and ex-Jet Stephen Hill a chance to receive the all-important “standout player of OTAs” award from HC Ron Rivera, Carolina GM Dave Gettleman indirectly confirmed that Benjamin was about 8-9 pounds overweight upon arriving to offseason workouts when he said the reports of his receiver’s weight gain were “much ado about nothing”.

The early reports on Funchess are encouraging. Some teams are hesitant to allow a rookie to learn all three receiver positions, so the Panthers must be happy with his overall aptitude for the game. “He’s a good route runner, he really is. And he’s shown the ability to go up and get the ball. His catch radius is really good, and with Cam it helps,” Rivera told the Charlotte Observer in early June. The process of letting Funchess learn all three spots began in rookie minicamp, where he looked particularly “smooth” out of the slot. That’s a role many likely assumed Jerricho Cotchery would fill, although the team probably isn’t nearly as concerned about the veteran’s best fit so much as it cares that it creates the biggest mismatch possible for the rookie.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: On one hand, Gettleman is right – people want to create news when there often is none and there is no crime in a receiver adding a few pounds during the offseason. Still, Benjamin has battled weight issues before – he took a redshirt season at Florida State after arriving on campus 20 pounds overweight – and it is disappointing that a player with his considerable gifts isn’t taking a more aggressive approach in maximizing his talent. Regardless, he’s going to be the top receiver in Carolina for a while. Benjamin should remain in the WR2 discussion in all fantasy leagues, but his overall numbers could take a hit following the addition of Funchess. The Panthers could be eyeing a Marques Colston-like path for their rookie out of Michigan by using him all over the formation, so Funchess is definitely worth a later-round pick in all drafts should he beat out Cotchery for the starting job as most expect he will do. With that said, Funchess will be no better than the third option in the passing game most weeks for a team that likes to run the ball, so consider him a WR5 with upside.

This will probably be the last time anyone can say the following: Kevin White is the fourth-best receiver in the Windy City. At the moment, it appears that is a true statement, even if it isn’t an accurate one. White missed time during minicamp due to an undisclosed injury, which is a bit of a setback considering the No. 7 overall pick has a steep learning curve (in regards to learning the playbook and improving his route-running) coming out of West Virginia’s pure spread attack. New HC John Fox has usually taken a hard line with rookies to boot, so it may have been telling QB Jay Cutler indicated to the Chicago Tribune in mid-June that White was competing for the No. 4 job behind Alshon Jeffery, Marquess Wilson and Eddie Royal.

Speaking of Royal, the mere mention of his name probably causes some owners that have been beaten or burned by him over the last two years to scream “FLUKE!” uncontrollably. The ex-Bronco and Charger has recorded top-40 finishes among receivers in virtually all formats over the last two years in large part because he has scored 10 (of his 15) touchdowns over that time inside the 20 – a red-zone mark that is tied for ninth in the league among wide receivers (and rather impressive considering his 5-10 and 185-pound frame). The 29-year-old rejoins former Bronco Cutler and new OC Adam Gase, who was his position coach in Denver from 2009-10. That time together may have been a boon for Royal as “his early grasp of the Bears' new offense has him in great position to play a prominent role right away” according to ESPN’s Mike Sando.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: If there is any high-profile, first-year receiver that is in danger of disappointing in redraft leagues (at least when it comes to comparing him to last year’s rookie success at the position), it is probably White. Fox has a reputation for making rookies earn their stripes, so it should come as no surprise if the combination of White’s raw route-running and Gase’s familiarity with Royal wins out early in the season. In that scenario, the rookie should salvage some value as a prime red-zone target since he attacks the ball in the air as well as any receiver in April’s draft. However, his late-sixth (standard) and early-seventh (PPR) ADP is far too high at this point for a player as raw as he is. As for Royal, it may not seem like a big deal that he is quickly learning Gase’s system. But consider this: Royal signed a three-year, $15 M contract with Chicago (hardly chump change) and caught 91 balls in the only year he worked with Cutler in Denver. It may end up being something or nothing, but Royal is another player that I believe is worth taking a late-round flyer on this year. He could be particularly useful in best-ball formats.

Perhaps no offseason fantasy debate has sparked more conversation than the Cowboys’ backfield and what player(s) will fill the void left behind by DeMarco Murray’s exodus to Philadelphia. The backs vying for Murray’s old job are known: Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar. (It should be stated here that Dunbar isn’t so much in the running for the starting job as much as he is squarely in the mix for a decent workload.) For what it is worth, Dallas is “very comfortable” (in the words of owner Jerry Jones) with its trio of running backs and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram speculated in mid-June, like team president Stephen Jones suggested in early May, that the team would utilize a committee approach in the backfield. But that doesn’t really come as a surprise, does it? ESPN Dallas’ Todd Archer was bolder, predicting Randle will receive “the bulk” of the carries and rush for 1,200 yards, but acknowledged that he didn’t see “one guy coming close to 300 carries”. The Dallas Morning News’ Jon Machota skipped the prediction, but suggested that he believes the starting job is Randle’s “as long as he’s available, meaning he’s staying out of trouble”. But wait, there’s more. The Cowboys, who talked up the role Dunbar was going to play last year, are doing it again in 2015. “I envision (Dunbar getting more opportunities). … We’ve got to try and get him more involved and I think (OC Scott Linehan) is going to do a great job doing that,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. ESPN Dallas concurred.

With Dez Bryant sitting out offseason work to angle for a new contract, WR Terrance Williams has been an “opportunist”, to use his own words. The third-year wideout has drawn rave reviews for his offseason workouts, with HC Jason Garrett contending he has become the pacesetter for the offense “in so many ways”. QB Tony Romo has been similarly impressed. “Terrance has had one of the best off-seasons I’ve seen in a while. So I’m very excited about his approach, the way that he’s played up to this point in the offseason. He’s just improved and I’m excited about that development,” Romo told The Star-Telegram.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Of all the NFL backfields that have starting jobs yet to be handed out, the Cowboys’ is perhaps the most intriguing because there doesn’t appear to be a clear frontrunner for the job and the ADPs for all three players are all very low considering the potential return on investment they can provide. Dallas has one of the best – if not the best – offensive line in football and one that helped Randle rush for 10 or more yards on 22 percent of his 51 carries – the highest percentage in the league and double the league average - and average 6.7 YPC overall. Of course, Randle did plenty of good work himself as 214 of his 343 rushing yards came after contact. Even if he just leads a committee and see his touches capped at about 15 per game, the 6-0, 210-pound Oklahoma product could be a high-upside RB2. If he somehow leaves McFadden in the dust, his ceiling is that of a top 5-10 fantasy back. Then again, the same probably goes for McFadden if he leads a committee or becomes the featured back at some point. Dunbar should be on pretty much every fantasy roster, especially in PPR formats. With no clear-cut back hogging all the touches, this seems like the right time for a satellite back like Dunbar to post 40-50 carries and 30-40 catches. Williams has established himself as a big-play threat over his first two seasons (13 TDs on 81 career receptions), so if he is truly rounding out his game, it can only help him in terms of becoming a more consistent fantasy receiver. With that said, Bryant will be back at some point and TE Jason Witten remains a Romo favorite, so Williams will be hard-pressed to be anything more than the third-most targeted player in the Cowboys’ passing game. With WR Cole Beasley also in the mix, the odds seem rather long that Williams will be able to become an every-week starting option in three-receiver leagues.

If rookie RB Ameer Abdullah can perform on the field at anywhere near the level he has dominated the spring headlines, then it really might not matter if Joique Bell (Achilles, knee) is able to recover from a pair of offseason surgeries in time for the start of training camp. The initial plan was to use the No. 54 overall pick as the primary kick returner and big-play threat out of the backfield. That may still be the case, but you wouldn’t know it based on comments made by QB Matthew Stafford and OC Joe Lombardi. Stafford (on the team’s official website): “I think as a runner he has great balance. … He seems to hide pretty well behind there and he’s got good vision. Out of the backfield, catching the ball, he’s great. He’s got great hands. He has a good feel for route running.” Lombardi (on the team’s official website): “I like Abdullah more every day. Every day you can see him do things that really excite you. He didn’t get a chance maybe to show everything he can do as a receiver at Nebraska, but he’s even better in that phase of the game than I thought when we drafted him, so it was kind of a bonus when you see how well he catches the ball and how well he runs routes.”

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: At the moment, Bell is supposed to be ready for the start of the camp. Whether or not he will be in shape for it is another story. Undrafted free agent Zach Zenner is probably the best inside runner after Bell on the depth chart and is obviously not guaranteed a spot of the final roster. What it all means is that Abdullah is in prime position to see significant offensive touches right away. The fact that he has been so impressive in the passing game suggests RB Theo Riddick will be a smaller part of the Lions’ committee than expected, that is, unless Bell is unable to stay healthy and Detroit wants to avoid overloading Abdullah. Regardless of whether Bell is able to make it through the season, Nebraska’s second all-time leading rusher should be a lock for the 10.5 touches Reggie Bush averaged in 11 games with Detroit last year. That’s his floor. Abdullah’s ceiling should be in the 16-18 touch range, which is significant in Detroit because he is a big-play back in an offense that has big-time playmakers in the passing game. It is also realistic because of Bell’s injury woes. There’s plenty of reason to believe the rookie will lead the committee no later than midseason and, if that happens, he could give owners RB2 value at that point.

Green Bay
If any player in the NFC North can give Abdullah a run for his money in terms of offseason hype this spring, that person is probably WR Davante Adams. QB Aaron Rodgers got the train going after an early June practice, proclaiming that his second-year wideout has “humongous upside – and he’s starting to reach that upside”. Rodgers went on to say,” I think the opportunities are going to come for him. … His attention to detail is very impressive and his approach. Look at the two guys in this room (Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) who had phenomenal seasons last year. They both have a great approach to their job and you’re seeing Davante really do that.” Rodgers wasn’t done, bragging about Adams to ESPN Milwaukee about a week later. “Davante is a very polished player and he has an excellent demeanor for a guy who’s going to be a star. I mean, he carries himself like a star, which is a very high compliment. … He has supreme confidence and it’s contagious. And I’m really proud of his approach and his attitude. It makes you want to get him the ball more. It makes you watch the film and have regrets about not giving him more opportunities. And that’s again, another compliment for him.” To top it off, HC Mike McCarthy called Adams “tremendous throughout the OTAs” and said, “if you wanted me to pick an MVP or an all-star (of OTAs), he would definitely be atop the list."

Adams wasn't the only potential pass-catcher that stood out to Rodgers, as he credited TE Andrew Quarless with a great offseason as well. “I think … something clicked in for him at the end of last year and he’s been taking the jump,” Rodgers told ESPN Milwaukee. Last but not least, McCarthy spoke up for No. 4 WR Jeff Janis. “Janis is really moving forward. (He) came on at the end of last year and was ready to play,” McCarthy told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky in early June.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: The best quarterbacks in the league are typically among the hardest to impress, so it speaks volumes that Rodgers is speaking in such glowing terms about Adams. His OTA performance was surely helped by the fact that Nelson sat out with a hip injury, but Adams’ time is coming, possibly as soon as this year. James Jones, who Adams was compared to coming out of college, led the league in receiving touchdowns with 14 as the Packers’ third receiver in 2012, so it isn’t out of the question that the Fresno State product is a threat for 60-plus catches, 800-900 yards and 7-8 scores in 2015. As such, Adams is a value at his current ninth-round ADP. While Quarless may be on the verge of taking snaps away from Richard Rodgers at his position, it seems unlikely he will be the first Packers’ tight end since Jermichael Finley to be fantasy-relevant, especially with three receivers and RB Eddie Lacy all serving as more appealing targets. Quarless will probably be a serviceable fantasy TE2 because Rodgers will look for him near the goal line, but expecting a huge jump from his 29-323-2 line in 2014 would probably be a mistake. Aaron Rodgers has shown the capacity to make four receivers worthy of fantasy consideration, although it would almost certainly take a multi-week injury to Nelson, Cobb or Adams in order for Janis to be a decent stash in most normal-sized leagues. He is a worthwhile stash in dynasty leagues, however.

Time (and no extra money, or the possibility of some more of it) was enough to bring back RB Adrian Peterson to the field near the end of OTAs. Peterson, of course, has not played since Week 1 of last season and was the subject of trade speculation for months leading up to the draft after he indicated the Vikings committed an unforgivable sin by siding too closely with the NFL as his child-abuse scandal unfolded last fall. It didn’t take much time for Minnesota to reacquaint itself with its 30-year-old back and vice versa, as Peterson showed no signs of rust upon his return. HC Mike Zimmer also suggested that he “probably” did not see Peterson taking snaps during the preseason.

Prior to the acquisition of Mike Wallace from Miami, Vikings OC Norv Turner told ESPN Cleveland in February that Charles Johnson was “far and away our best receiver”. Fast forward to June, when Turner suggested that the disappointing Cordarrelle Patterson was in the mix to start, presumably at the same “X” receiver spot he lost to Johnson late last season. It all makes a bit more sense after a number of reports from the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune claimed Patterson stepped up his fitness and focused on his route-running in the offseason, areas of improvement Zimmer confirmed in May. “Cordarrelle is doing a good job in this offseason. He has been in better shape coming in, and he is doing a better job of running routes (and) competing each and every down. … I’m a big fan of his.”

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: The question about how Peterson will handle a year away from football has been asked countless times since the end of last season. I’m going to put my money on the guy who basically set the standard when it comes to returning from ACL surgery; it would not shock me if he can play at an elite level for 2-3 more years and at a relatively high level for 2-3 more years after that, assuming he wants to go that long. He’s in the running for the top overall pick in fantasy drafts and it would not surprise me if I arrive at the same conclusion when my Big Boards come out in a little over a month. A different dynamic this season will be the presence of Jerick McKinnon – a player RB coach Kirby Wilson is thrilled about and someone who will take snaps (but not necessarily significant touches) from “All Day” this season. Patterson is slated to be the primary kickoff returner – special teams coordinator Mike Priefer called him the best in the league – and could carve out a spot for himself in the slot over Jarius Wright by Week 1 if he can prove his offseason work paid off. Wallace should be entrenched as the “Z”, so if Patterson wants to reclaim his starting job, he will have to do so by beating out Johnson. It could happen considering what the 24-year-old Tennessee product can do in the open field, but it should be noted that Johnson (6-2, 225) put on 10 pounds of muscle over the winter and spring and is an incredible athlete himself – part of the reason Green Bay drafted him in 2013. Johnson’s current 8.1 ADP in both standard and PPR formats sounds about right in terms of balancing out his immense upside with the possibility that Patterson ends up being a bit of drain on the level of production he enjoyed near the end of last season.

New Orleans
The king of the offseason has been none other than TE Josh Hill, who saw his NFL life change the same day Jimmy Graham was traded to Seattle. The hype surrounding the former undrafted free agent was relatively minor until late March, when HC Sean Payton said the following: “This Josh Hill is another player that I love. I love. When you look at his runs, jumps, height, weight, speed, you look at his measurables -- and he didn’t go to the combine, thank God. … He’s not on anyone’s fantasy first three rounds, I promise you. But he’s a real good tight end, he’s versatile in the running game, in the receiving game (and) as a special-teams player.” The support for the third-year grew even more after the Saints did not draft a tight end and probably plateaued about the same time Payton basically confirmed Hill would play the Graham role in his offense.

Virtually unthinkable at this time a year ago, Mark Ingram is the only running back that remains from the backfield that lost Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet this offseason after trading away Darren Sproles last offseason. Enter C.J. Spiller, who unexpectedly became a priority in free agency when the ex-Bill prioritized fit first and foremost and took his time before agreeing to terms with the Saints. “His (film) is unbelievable. And I’m not talking about last season because I think it became challenging, but you go back a couple of years and start looking at his screen reel, a sweep reel, a return reel. So when you watch his film you think of a lot of things he can do,” Payton told ESPN in late March. The coach’s tone hadn’t changed by early June, telling the team’s official site, “He'll provide versatility. He can do a handful of things pretty well. It's up to us to find ways to get him the ball in space."

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Hill is not just a candidate to get overdrafted in yearly leagues; it is a virtual certainty that he will. ESPN’s Mike Triplett seems to agree. Picking apart some of Payton’s other comments about Hill, it becomes fairly clear he doesn’t anticipate a Graham-like explosion (“It just depends on how much two tight end sets we’re in. I couldn’t say specifically that he is going to have 25 percent more playing time but certainly his playing time will increase. … A lot of it will be by game plan and what we are trying to do.”) Payton also referenced Hill’s prowess on special teams in the same article he professed his love for the young tight end, so given the fact that New Orleans has a capable “F” tight end in Benjamin Watson it trusts, it seems unlikely the coach will take a player he said was quite possible his team’s special teams MVP last year off of those units. Hill could be a low-end fantasy TE1 given the relative lack of quality options at the position when all is said and done, but he probably shouldn’t be going in the ninth round of fantasy drafts ahead of such players like Antonio Gates and Delanie Walker. While caution should be exercised regarding Hill, I will be buying Spiller stock wherever and whenever I can. It’s not hard to imagine Spiller totaling 100-plus carries and 80-plus catches in a backfield that averaged 189 targets and 150.5 receptions per year since Sproles joined the Saints in 2011. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson can each catch the ball, but I highly doubt they combine for 50 receptions. Even if the Saints become more a balanced offense this year, Payton loves creating mismatches and Spiller does that. I expect a top-15 finish at worst for him in PPR leagues.

New York Giants
It’s not often a 34-year-old football player can generate offseason buzz, but QB Eli Manning is doing all the things necessary to make sure he guarantees himself one more big payday after his current contract expires at the end of the season. In late April, he expressed his desire to post a single-digit interception total in 2015 after throwing 14 last year – his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter in 10 years ago. By June, the narrative had become “the interceptions have almost completely disappeared” during OTAs one season after it had become the norm for him to throw three or four per practice. Last but not least, Manning’s arm strength has improved. OC Ben McAdoo in particular raved about his offseason dedication, telling the team’s official website: “Eli has put a lot of time and effort into his footwork and his training there (as well as) to his upper body and his strengthening and maintenance in those types of things. I like the look in his eye right now. His offseason has been encouraging.”

Aside from the obvious (WR Odell Beckham Jr. continuing to improve after his brilliant rookie campaign) and the ahead-of-schedule return of Victor Cruz (patellar tear), part of the reason for optimism surrounding Manning has to do with his “secondary” targets in WR Rueben Randle and RB Shane Vereen. Randle, like Manning, is entering the final year of his contract. The fourth-year wideout attributed a couple of first-quarter benchings last season to a “personal issue” that is “over with now” and left a positive impression heading into the offseason by catching 12 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown in Weeks 16 and 17. “I think Rueben can be a great receiver, a dominant receiver. … You’ve definitely seen him from Day 1 to Day Now, just the maturity level is definitely improved, he’s all in … he’s been here off days, and so been impressed with his commitment, and I know he’s excited for a big year, wants to have a big year, and I think he can do that,” Manning said.

Most believed Vereen was brought into the fold to serve just as a third-down back, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The Giants had three or more wide receivers on the field for 65 percent of their first-and-10 plays last year and sought the former Patriot in free agency because none of their backs had a reception over 27 yards or scored a receiving touchdown (Vereen had three of each). "I see him in that regard as a pass receiver coming out of the backfield, a pass protector, a guy who runs the ball in the three-wide offense in the run game, if you will, which is very prevalent today in our sport," HC Tom Coughlin told in late March. Vereen did not disappoint in offseason practices, “catching pass after pass, in particular in the red zone”.’s Jordan Raanan came away impressed on at least two occasions, claiming the 26-year-old Cal alum is “not just going to be a third-down back” and “going to be a big part of the offense”.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Manning has long not been a favorite of mine, but McAdoo’s offense (plus the addition of a dynamic receiver like Beckham) appears to have revitalized him. It would be stunning at this point if Manning, who has never missed a start since taking over for Kurt Warner midway through the 2004 season, doesn’t finish among the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks with the weapons he now has in his arsenal. Randle can’t be expected to pick up where he left off at the end of 2014, but he should be the clear No. 2 option in the passing game if Cruz struggles to find his old form, as I expect he will this season. It is always a good sign when the quarterback, not the receiver himself, is sold on him being “locked in”. Randle has an excellent chance to outperform his 12th-round ADP. For most of his pro career, Vereen’s biggest hurdle has been staying on the field. If he can do that like he did last year, I like him to be the most productive PPR back in the Giants’ backfield.

In 2014, Jordan Matthews was in the slot 92 percent of his snaps, Jeremy Maclin 21 percent and Riley Cooper 11 percent. In 2013, Jason Avant was there 78 percent of his time, DeSean Jackson 26 percent and Cooper 18 percent. Why does this matter? It would seem that of the reasons why the Eagles selected USC WR Nelson Agholor at No. 20 in April’s draft was due to his ability to play both outside and in the slot. Based on CSN Philly Geoff Mosher’s observations during the spring, Agholor shouldn’t expect to see more than a quarter of his snaps inside this season. Mosher suggested Matthews’ size and lack of elite outside speed make him an ideal slot receiver and that he has been in that role in most three-wide formations the Eagles have run in the offseason. Agholor has been “as advertised” this spring, that is, a “shifty athlete with good hands who plays hard” (in the words of Philly Mag: Birds 24/7).

Tight end is not a position where players typically dominate in Year 1 or even Year 2. Still, the offseason hype surrounding Zach Ertz – especially last year – was substantial enough to make the fact he has caught 94 passes for 1,171 yards and seven touchdowns seem like he has somehow been a disappointment thus far. Among active tight ends, only Rob Gronkowski (1,873), Jimmy Graham (1,866), Antonio Gates (1,353) and Jason Witten (1,327) had as many yards receiving as Ertz in their first two seasons, which only proves the bar has been set a bit too high for him thus far. There have been several reasons for his delayed breakout, such as the need to develop his blocking skills, the team’s love for fellow TE Brent Celek and relative lack of playing time (50.3 of the team’s offensive snaps last year), mostly due to the first two factors. Agholor cannot be expected to replace Maclin’s 2014 production by himself as a rookie and it seems unreasonable to expect players like Josh Huff and Miles Austin to get the leftover production. Ertz is taking care of his end of the deal as well. The third-year pro worked with legendary retired offensive line coach Hudson Houck for two weeks in the offseason. He picked the brain of future Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez on the importance of preparation and tenacity. Ertz also spent a month focusing on strength training, another on circuit training and additional time on mixed martial arts training. His hands don’t appear to be any worse for wear either.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Very few rookie receivers are handed starting jobs, but there are some that believe Agholor will be an exception. When asked to compare and contrast Maclin and the rookie, HC Chip Kelly called Kansas City’s new top receiver an "outside, down-the-line receiver" and Agholor an "inside, outside guy”, so perhaps the ex-Trojan will see a bit more time in the slot after all. Be that as it may, Agholor’s versatility is almost certain to keep him on the field and, in Kelly’s offense, that is a very good thing. He should be at worst a WR3 in all scoring formats. Here are some more notable facts about Ertz: 1) Eagles’ quarterbacks overthrew Ertz 18 percent of the last year and 24.7 percent of his targets were uncatchable, 2) he had a drop rate of 2.2 percent, fifth-lowest among tight ends and 3) he finished 12th in receptions and 11th in yards despite playing more than 300 fewer snaps than the average of the league's top 12 tight ends. Assuming QB Sam Bradford can stay healthy (first and foremost) and display the same accuracy that once made him such a sought-after quarterback, Ertz ‘s floor should be roughly 70 catches with the potential for much more. Sad as it may seem, the reason his offseason commitment to working out with Houck and Gonzalez is so notable is because not enough young players do it. There may be some disappointing weeks again with Ertz this season (especially in the games in which the running game is really working), but I expect him to fulfill the hype this season and become a top-five fantasy player at his position.

There is no shortage of storylines coming out of the Pacific Northwest as QB Russell Wilson waits for a contract extension, the Legion of Boom races against the clock in order to get to 100 percent before the start of the season and TE Jimmy Graham adapts to his new role as a blocker. (All kidding aside on the Graham bit, Pro Football Focus ranked him 15th among tight ends in run-blocking last year.) However, none of those issues directly affects the majority of fantasy players outside of IDP leagues, so we’ll instead focus our attention on an undrafted free agent who caught the eye of HC Pete Carroll during the spring at a position that doesn’t appear to have room for another player. RB Thomas Rawls hasn’t been an angel off the field to say the least, but got a lot of field time during the offseason program because Marshawn Lynch skipped voluntary workouts, Robert Turbin continued his rehab from hip surgery and Christine Michael nursed a hamstring injury. "(Rawls) was a real bright spot. … I thought he really jumped out at us and he was very consistent, worked throughout the whole thing knowing that his best, maybe most exciting dimension, hasn’t even been seen yet. He had a great camp for us. It’ll be really fun to see him when we start playing ball," Carroll told the team’s official site at the end of camp.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction:Despite missing four games in 2014 (two due to suspension after getting charged with three felonies, one for academic issues and one with a knee injury), Rawls (5-9, 215) ran for 1,103 yards in his only season at Central Michigan, putting together one impressive three-week stretch during the middle of the season in which he turned 112 attempts into 666 yards and five TDs. Carroll called him a “real head-knocker” whose college film showed “play after play of (him) just smacking people and running and breaking tackles”. Obviously, Rawls is a consideration for the dynasty crowd only and still has to make the 53-man roster, but it is hard not to get optimistic about his chances after Carroll spoke about him in such glowing terms. It may not happen for him in Seattle with its horde of running backs, but keep his name in mind as a dynasty stash should he resurface on a team with a bigger need at the position. Rawls needs to clean up his life off the field (most likely the reason he didn’t get drafted in the fifth or sixth round), but he loves to take the fight to the opponent and is the type of powerful runner that is always in demand in the NFL.

San Francisco
The 49ers entered the offseason with an eye on stretching the field more often in 2015. They reinforced that desire in free agency (WRs Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson) and in the draft (WR DeAndre Smelter). The change in philosophy may have the greatest effect on TE Vernon Davis, who became a virtual afterthought in the offense last year after scoring twice in Week 1. Davis’ 26 catches were his worst since his rookie year in 2006 and his two receiving scores matched the worst of his career while his 245 receiving yards and 9.4 YPC were career lows. “It was just game planning. And nothing really ever opened up. But I wasn’t really ever a factor in the offense last year. ... The first game, yeah. But the second game, the tight ends (weren’t) really involved as a whole,” Davis told the Sacramento Bee. To that end, San Francisco hired Tony Sparano to coach the position. The team has also put a focus on running the ball and involving the tight ends this spring after tinkering with multiple wide receiver sets last offseason. New HC Jim Tomsula has liked what he has seen from Davis thus far. "Vernon is stretching the field. Vernon looks extremely fast (and is) catching the ball really well," Tomsula told the Bee in early June.

Going deep more often is great in theory, but a team needs a quarterback with a strong (and accurate) enough arm to make it a sustainable approach. Colin Kaepernick spent 10 weeks at the beginning of the offseason in Arizona working on his mechanics with private quarterback coach Dennis Gile. (For some video and a detailed explanation of what Gile changed in regards to Kaepernick’s delivery, click here. Believe me, it is noticeable.) The only quarterback in FBS history for over 10,000 yards and rushed for over 4,000 yards also spent about one day a week on the mental aspect of the game with two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. However, if we are to believe Tomsula’s words from February, the biggest change for Kaepernick will be an emphasis on utilizing his “total package”. “He’s got to be able to make plays with his arm and our quarterback can. Colin can make plays with his arm. … We want to utilize the total package. Does that mean he is going to be the leading rusher every week? No. … Let’s use everything we have – like we have done. Let’s not act like that hasn’t happened, either,” Tomsula told CSN Bay Area.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Former HC Jim Harbaugh didn’t do much wrong in four years as the man in charge, but it could be argued that one of his biggest failings was an inability to make Davis – one of the game’s fastest and most athletic tight ends – a dominant force year in and year out. The additions of Smith in particular should lead to several more big plays for Davis since one would have to assume new OC Geep Chryst will be smart enough to put him and Smith on the same side of the field and force the safety to make a choice. While a repeat of his 13 TDs from 2013 seems unlikely, Davis is still more than capable of meeting or exceeding the 52 receptions and 850 yards he had that season. Owners should not be surprised if he returns to top-10 status at his position this fall. It will be interesting to see if the mechanical tweaks Kaepernick made to his delivery will stick in live action, but the best way to describe the change is to say he’s went from an over-the-top motion to more of a push throw reminiscent of Philip Rivers. As is the case with the San Diego signal-caller, a wider stance, shorter stride and more compact throwing motion should allow for greater accuracy. If the changes talk hold and the new staff is successful in getting Kaepernick to run when the situation dictates it, there is huge fantasy upside with him. The former Nevada standout is available in the 12th round – a pretty small price for a player with the potential to finish among the top five fantasy players at his position.

St. Louis
Lost somewhere between a possible move to Los Angeles in the next year or so and the questionable return date of No. 10 overall pick RB Todd Gurley is the degree to which QB Nick Foles has made himself a part of the Rams’ locker room. “He’s everything that you want in a quarterback – everything that you’ve always wanted. It just feels like he belongs here and it feels like he’s been here for a while, which is a good piece. It’s what we need,” TE Jared Cook told the team’s official website in early June. WR Kenny Britt has been impressed as well. “Our chemistry has been great since Day 1. … He has a touch, he has a sense of when to put a little bit of touch on it and when to throw it in there with his fastball. But he can throw it all,” Britt told the team’s official website in early June. HC Jeff Fisher has not been disappointed either, praising the leadership and take-charge attitude Foles has shown since arriving from Philadelphia in the Bradford trade.

St. Louis is going to incorporate more zone-blocking into its offense than it ever has under Fisher and will focus more than ever on the short passing game, perhaps in part to accentuate Gurley’s big-play ability with the former and keep Foles upright with the latter. One player who could potentially help both Gurley and Foles do their jobs more efficiently is WR Tavon Austin, who was horribly misused (and underutilized) by former OC Brian Schottenheimer. New OC Frank Cignetti has compared what he is doing to Schottenheimer’s offense as “remodeling a couple of rooms” after Schottenheimer essentially “bought the house”. Austin probably shouldn’t have been expected to do great things considering he played his college football in West Virginia’s pure spread offense and never had a full season to gel with Bradford, but one has to wonder how a receiver who is in some ways similar to the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton ends up with more rushing attempts (36) than receptions (31) like he did last year. To his credit, Austin has impressed Cignetti this spring. “Tavon Austin’s had a great offseason. … He’s learning. He’s paying attention. He’s bringing it to the practice field. You just see it from his route-running. What a difference. His effort, his attention to details. Every day out there, the guy’s made plays,” Cignetti said.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Outside of RB Tre Mason early in the season (assuming Gurley starts out the season on the PUP list) and Gurley after he returns (same assumption), it is hard to imagine many owners moving mountains in order to start Rams’ players in fantasy. The Year 1 goal for Foles will almost certainly be to let the running game and defense do their jobs and limit mistakes – not a recipe for fantasy glory. As such, it is hard to imagine he’ll be anything more than a bye-week filler in most leagues. If Schottenheimer’s greatest success was turning Mark Sanchez into a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2011 with the Jets, then it is quite possible his greatest failure was his inability to utilize the playmaking ability of Austin, who drew some comparisons to a lighter and less physical Percy Harvin coming out of college. This is not to say Austin will ever completely justify the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 draft, but he has enough speed and open-field ability to be much more than the gadget player, which is pretty much the role he served under Schottenheimer. Austin will and should go undrafted in all but the deepest leagues, but keep him on your watch list this year. WR Brian Quick hinted at a more creative offense in 2015, which is par for the course in regards to offseason talk. Of course, Schottenheimer’s offense was often so vanilla, it isn’t hard to believe “major” changes will be made. Any such changes will almost certainly involve a heavier dose of Austin, who can line up outside, in the slot and out of the backfield on occasion.

Tampa Bay
Once upon a time, RB Doug Martin was the toast of the town and among the most valuable commodities in fantasy football. Unfortunately for him, the last two years happened. Coaches often say competition brings out the best in their players and that appears to be the case with the beleaguered fourth-year pro, who has rushed for a total of 950 yards and three scores over the last two seasons after exploding for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs as a rookie. Martin told the team’s official website he dropped his body fat percentage down about five percent and regained the weight in muscle, thus maintaining his regular playing weight. The Tampa Tribune came away impressed, stating he is enjoying his best offseason in three years. Martin is fighting for his NFL life in a sense (at least in Tampa) as he enters a contract year and can’t be expected to cash in if he turns in another injury-plagued and/or ineffective season. “He’s on the first team like he has always been. He’s one of our guys, he’s our running back. He’s showing up and getting good work. I think it is just as simple as that,” HC Lovie Smith told Pewter Report in early June.

In case owners needed another reason to like WR Mike Evans to repeat or improve upon 2014, he worked out with Randy Moss for a week at the end of March. The reason working out with Moss is notable is because Patriots HC Bill Belichick was among several that considered him among the smartest players in the NFL during his playing days, so any nuances that Evans can pick up from another big receiver and use moving forward should allow him to build on a spectacular rookie campaign. After playing last season as the “Z” receiver in what was supposed to be Jeff Tedford’s system (and ended up becoming Marcus Arroyo’s offense), Evans will switch roles with Vincent Jackson. The ex-Charger will take over at Evans at “Z” and is expected to see more time in the slot this year (142 of his 582 routes he ran last year were in the slot, per Pro Football Focus). New OC Dirk Koetter had somewhat similar personnel over the last few years in Atlanta, getting per-game averages of 6.2 catches, 93.6 yards and 0.5 touchdowns from Julio Jones at the “X” and 5.3/67.8/0.39 from Roddy White at the slot/Z.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: It is understandable when owners pretty much choose to ignore a player that has burned them in consecutive years. With that said, Martin (ADP of 8.1 in standard and 9.3 in PPR) is still a lead back in an offense that should be getting better offensive line play as well as an upgrade at quarterback and offensive coordinator. Combine that with a player who is in contract year and properly motivated by competition on his own roster (most notably Charles Sims) and it would seem there is potential for a huge bounce-back season. Bear in mind that Sims will probably steal significant passing-down snaps. Still, it isn’t often when owners can secure a potential 200-plus carry back as a RB4, so his current ADP makes him something of a low-risk, high-reward option for the first time in his career. Evans should be a lock to go among the first 10 receivers in just about every draft and, given his size (6-5, 231) and ball skills, a pretty good bet to post another double-digit touchdown season. Jackson’s numbers dropped across the board last year, but how much of that was due to the instability at quarterback in an Arroyo-run offense? His two receiving touchdowns were well off his career norm, but he still finished with 70 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in as many years as a Buc. Using Jackson more often in the slot should allow him to benefit from a number of mismatches and bring his numbers back up to about where they were in 2012 and 2013. Evans will be the clear No. 1 option, but I tend to believe Jackson will be a very good WR3 and a solid value, especially at his current ADP (6.10 in standard, 6.6 in PPR).

It is hard to recall a recent third-round rookie RB – especially one that was generally overlooked when discussing other backs in his class – generating more buzz in the first 2-3 weeks after the draft than Matt Jones did in May. New GM Scot McCloughan, who was the Seahawks’ senior personnel executive when they traded for Marshawn Lynch in 2010, got the hype train started in the right direction when he compared Jones to the media darling of the past two Super Bowls. Days later, second-year HC Jay Gruden offered a “We’ll see” when asked if Jones could potentially cut into the workload of Alfred Morris. While Gruden did follow with an “Alfred is a darn good halfback”, coaches usually are more reluctant when discussing a rookie’s chances of threatening an established veteran’s workload. A week later, CSN Washington’s Tarik El-Bashir speculated the Florida product would have "a bigger role in 2015 than some are anticipating" while Washington Post beat writer Mike Jones said Gruden told him the No. 95 overall selection has shown “more versatility than they expected when they drafted him”.

Most people expected a slight regression from WR Pierre Garcon last summer once DeSean Jackson fell into the Redskins’ lap, but very few could have imagined his production would fall by 45 catches and 594 yards. Although Gruden told CSN Washington in March the decline in production “just comes with playing (wide receiver) with three quarterbacks” and the quarterback turnover “hurt all the receivers”, he intends to get Garcon’s “numbers back up a little bit” in 2015. It appears part of Gruden’s plan to accomplish this feat includes flip-flopping the roles of Garcon and Jackson in his offense, with the former taking over at “Z” (Jackson’s spot last year and usually the featured receiver in Gruden’s offense) and the latter moving over to the “X” (Garcon’s position last year). In late June, the Redskins reiterated their desire to make Garcon a priority. “Can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a pro’s pro — a guy you model your game after if you’re a young pro. … You watch him work; you process the game — or try to process the game the way he does. The consummate pro,” WR coach Ike Hilliard told the Washington Post.

TE Jordan Reed flashed a ton of potential in nine games under former HC Mike Shanahan in 2013, but has seen his two-year NFL career marred by concussions and hamstring pulls, which have led to 12 missed games. He’s supposedly on track for camp this summer after undergoing a knee procedure in the spring. In his stead, backup Niles Paul showed up “noticeably bigger” and pushed himself over 250 pounds in an effort to become a better blocker without “losing any of his speed”. ESPN’s John Keim went so far as to say that Paul is “a different player” and “when you talk to coaches, it’s clear that he’s been one of the most impressive players this spring”. While accounting for the possibility that Paul’s emergence was a spring mirage, Keim went on to say that he’s taken little steps in each of the past three years on a weakness and seen improvement each time.

Late-June Fantasy Reaction: Jones will have difficulty stealing much early-down work from Morris, who has yet to miss a game and rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his three NFL seasons. McCloughan’s comparisons to Lynch notwithstanding, Jones figures to fill the role left behind by Roy Helu Jr. – he should far exceed Helu’s 40 carries from a season ago – and serve as the primary passing-down back since Morris is average at best as a receiver out of the backfield. Jones should be considered the primary handcuff to Morris and stands to be a valuable one at that for a team that should run the ball well behind a front five coached by one of the best offensive line coaches in the game in Bill Callahan. Given Morris’ durability, the Gator alum is a later-round option. However, he is a much better investment in dynasty leagues since Morris’ contract is up at the end of the season. In 2013, Washington was a team that had little choice but to force-feed Garcon the ball. In 2014, the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction as the team probably felt somewhat compelled to keep Jackson happy and played musical chairs at quarterback. Expect Garcon to find the happy between his 113-catch 2013 and his 68-catch 2014 this season. He’s a dynamic after-the-catch player who should finish around 80 receptions assuming good health and reasonable stability under center. He’s a steal at his current ADP (late-ninth round in PPR, mid-10th in standard) and should be a consistent WR3 option in all leagues. Paul isn’t even on the board in 15-round drafts (according to Fantasy Football Calculator), but expect that to change as we roll into August. Between Reed’s injury history and Paul’s likely improvement as a blocker, he’s going to see the field more often this season (585 of the team’s 1,095 offensive snaps a season ago) and may just end up taking Reed’s job outright. He stands a very good chance at being fantasy-relevant at some point this season and should at least be a viable TE2.

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