This week we discuss the following:
- Broncos offense
- 49ers offense
- Aaron Rodgers for Derek Carr (or Drew Brees)?
- DeAngelo Williams and Jeremy Langford
- Devonta Freeman or Todd Gurley?
- Chargers without Keenan Allen
- AFC South
Can Peyton Manning stay hot down the stretch, or was Week 8 an aberration?
Ryan Hester: When given eight data points from which to choose, I tend to lean toward the thing that happened multiple times more than toward the thing that happened once or twice. Manning had a week of rest for his arm and body heading into Week 8, and it showed. I still wouldn't trust him as my only fantasy quarterback when the weather turns colder and gets windier later in the season. He's still capable of QB1 numbers in any given week, but he's no longer a "set it and forget it" starter. He's a matchup play.
Chad Parsons: I am skeptical that Manning will maintain his Week 8 uptick over the final two months. Even last week Manning did not have a touchdown—just once this season has he hit at least 300 yards with multiple touchdowns. The Broncos have a promising schedule over the next month, but things cool off significantly over the final four weeks of the fantasy season.
Chris Feery: While I don't think we can expect 300+ passing yards each week, the efficiency and reduction in turnovers could be here to stay. Manning completed 72.4% of his passes this week, his second highest total of the season behind Week 3's 73.8% and only threw one pick after a streak of three games with at least two. The week off apparently did wonders for Manning; perhaps he's finally comfortable in the offense and ready to ride the potent defense and running game to success in the second half—similar to a certain Broncos executive.
Jeff Haseley: I have a feeling that Peyton and the Broncos offense may be turning the corner. It has taken them several weeks to gel and finally be comfortable, but my gut says we will see an improvement going forward. Their offensive line is still a liability and it could lead to challenges, especially once the weather gets worse. They are not out of the woods yet but they are improving.
Justin Howe: I'm back in on Manning to some degree, mainly due to natural progression toward the mean. After several seasons atop the NFL in terms of red zone touchdown production, he's suddenly near the very bottom thus far in 2015. Some of that is likely due to his declining throwing ability, but this has been absurd. It's just such an abrupt, drastic drop-off that it strongly suggests some degree of turnaround is coming. Armed with elite red zone weapons at WR and the newly acquired Vernon Davis, I'd be shocked if Manning didn't throw 15+ TDs down the stretch. Altogether, the risk involved probably lands him around QB6-QB8 going forward. I don't consider him a noticeably lower option than the likes of Drew Brees.
After losing his starting job, C.J. Anderson finally looked like the explosive running back we were expecting this season. Is he someone fantasy owners should be targeting in trades, or will he and Ronnie Hillman be mired in an RBBC the rest of the way (with too little production for each to be counted on)?
Ryan Hester: Generally, it's not very definitive to say "both" as an answer to an either/or question, but it works here. The Denver situation should stay a committee. It's best for the team, and it's best for the players. They'll stay fresh and continue to give opponents multiple styles to defend.
But Anderson is still a good trade target even considering he'll be in a committee. With all things Denver, I defer to our man Cecil Lammey for his Insider opinion. On Tuesday's Waiver Wire show on The Audible Podcast, Cecil said he'd rather have Anderson than Hillman for the rest of the season. His reasoning was that Hillman is the more likely of the two to get injured and that Anderson without Hillman is more valuable than Hillman without Anderson.
The fact that Anderson is still in a committee means that his trade value is still low. If he's still owned by the person that drafted him, they're likely still so frustrated by the first seven weeks and the current 50-50 committee that they won't request much in return. Sure, Anderson only has Flex value now, but if Hillman were to be hurt, he would return to RB2 territory and perhaps be an RB1 once again in the right matchup. It's also worth noting that Hillman left Sunday's game with a thigh injury. He only missed one series, but in his very first game as the starter, he was dinged up.
Chad Parsons: The committee is in effect and both have a capped projection ceiling outside of an injury to the other. I like Anderson more as the capable interior runner with more goal line acumen. Hillman has more burst to the edge and ability to turn 10 yards into 25 or more with better long speed. I would hold either one if I owned him, but seeking either out in a trade is not a strong play in the backfield's current state.
Chris Feery: It looks like we staying in RBBC land and I would not make either back a trade target. Anderson's production was encouraging after a disappointing start to the season, but I believe we're looking at the dreaded 'hot-hand' approach. That could be a formula for success on the field but lead to frustration for fantasy owners.
Jeff Haseley: I agree that we are still going to see a committee approach the rest of the way. It's possible that one or the other will have a strong performance any given week, but I don't see them changing to a one-back approach at this time. If by chance this does turn into a one-back offense, Anderson would be the one I'd covet. He's the best all-around back on the team. This coaching staff wasn't in place when Anderson had his break out last year, but usually talent rises to the top and in my opinion, Anderson is the most talented back on the roster.
Justin Howe: I've never been a fan of Hillman, a smallish back who offers very little power and has struggled with a myriad of mental miscues over the years. He's also a mess in the passing game, which dooms the long-term outlook of a Peyton Manning RB. To me, Anderson is clearly the superior back in both facets of the game, and I'm willing to chalk up a lot of his early-season invisibility to the injuries he says have nagged him since camp. I'd consider him a fantastic buy-low target, but the slow start and Hillman's explosiveness seem to have him locked in a timeshare.
Still he makes for a very intriguing trade piece. As Ryan pointed out, frustrated owners who spent 1st- and 2nd-rounders on Anderson will be more likely to ship him off cheaply. He could probably be a throw-in to balance another, bigger deal. Imagine sending Aaron Rodgers for Philip Rivers and Anderson, for instance.
Vernon Davis is still a top-level athlete, but he's never played with a top-level quarterback before. What are his fantasy prospects in Denver, and how does his presence affect the rest of the offense?
Ryan Hester: Davis opens up the offense a bit and probably puts Denver in more "12" personnel (which means one running back and two tight ends with two wide receivers). Denver has struggled to find a reliable third receiver with Cody Latimer's failures. Andre Caldwell and Jordan Norwood are just guys, and Bennie Fowler—while promising—is still young and raw.
Davis' athleticism will allow Denver to use him both as an in-line tight end and off the line in the slot or even out wide. Davis, Virgil Green, and Owen Daniels can all play two ways, but Davis is the most athletic with Green probably being the best blocker. That's likely how they'll be used most.
Davis should have some top-12 TE weeks in him before season's end. It's probably a wait-and-see approach until we get a data point or two, but Davis should have streaming/matchup play appeal soon. I don't think he'll be a set-it-and-forget-it guy.
Chad Parsons: The combination of Davis' still-present athleticism with his best quarterback to date is promising. My biggest concern is available targets. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are (and should be) higher in the pecking order. Averaging even five targets per game can get Davis into the fringe-matchup TE1 discussion for the rest of the season. My expectation is a shade lower and, like most of Davis' career, to view him as an upside dart going forward more than emerging difference-maker.
Chris Feery: Davis will immediately help to upgrade the pass protection side of things while he gets acclimated to the offense. He seems genuinely thrilled to be both on a legitimate contender and to be playing with the best quarterback of his career. He may not be thrust into a huge role in the offense right away, but as the season moves along we should see the Broncos make full use of his talents.
Jeff Haseley: I will be watching this situation carefully. I doubt Denver brought Davis in to be a blocker, which leads me to believe he'll be used more as a receiving threat and mismatch against opposing safeties and linebackers. Before I get too excited about his prospects as a fantasy threat I want to see how many snaps he'll have and how he'll be used. Instincts tell me that he could be eased into the offense, but once he feels comfortable with the playbook and the offense in general, he'll be used a weapon, making him a fantasy tight end to consider on a weekly basis. I don't see that much of a decline in Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. The biggest loss of production is probably going to be Owen Daniels, who will likely be relegated to blocking or part-time duty.
Justin Howe: Davis has always been a favorite of mine. He's absurdly gifted, of course, and can test the slot and the seams in Julius Thomas fashion. It'll take time to acclimate to the offense, of course, but Davis is talented enough to transcend a low snap count with big chunk plays in the meantime. He was not brought on board to block; he's capable, but the team re-upped Virgil Green this offseason to serve as the full-time inline guy. And I agree with Jeff that the only real downgrade to come from the deal is on Owen Daniels. He looks done as it is. Sanders could see a slight decrease in slot looks, but he's entrenched in the offense beyond his role.
Ryan Hester: Thomas would still be a middling WR1 behind the elite tier of Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffrey, and A.J. Green. I would probably rank him ahead of Brandon Marshall (currently dealing with injuries) and Larry Fitzgerald (also slightly injured and age-related "cool down" concerns) despite those two having produced more than Thomas thus far.
Chad Parsons: Thomas would be in the top 10 with Sanders outside the top 20. Thomas is a significant touchdown-regression candidate for the rest of the season with one touchdown in his last 56 receptions. For a high touchdown-rate producer over his career, his current seasonal pace is highly likely to shift up, including three choice matchups in Weeks 9-11 on the forefront.
Chris Feery: I would pick Thomas outside of the top-five wide receivers and consider Sanders between WR15 and WR20. Thomas can still produce like a top-five receiver, but a changing offense and an aging Manning make it hard to pinpoint when it will happen or to expect it on a weekly basis. Sanders still receives plenty of targets but is well behind the pace needed to match his nine touchdowns in 2014 with only three so far this season. As with Thomas, the big game for Sanders can come at any moment; we just can't expect it to be a weekly occurrence.
Jeff Haseley: Demaryius Thomas is still getting opportunities that generate receptions and yards, but his touchdown numbers have suffered. He would be a late second- or early third-round pick for me. As for Emmanuel Sanders, I would place him a round later in the early fourth, maybe late third.
Justin Howe: Thomas remains a near-elite WR1; like the others, I tend to think of him just a half-tier behind the likes of Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. He's still seeing very healthy volume, which will always bring WR1 opportunity for such a versatile talent as Thomas. And as with Peyton Manning, progression is likely coming. Thomas has long been an elite red-zone threat, so his absurdly low TD opportunities thus far are all but certain to increase. He's got as much second-half upside as just about anyone.
Sanders is a bit harder to pin down, as he's not the mismatch dominator Thomas is. But he's developed into a fine intermediate threat for a legendary QB unable to push the ball beyond that level. He's a clear weekly WR2, albeit with a lower ceiling than Thomas; he probably fits between WR15 and WR20 for me as well.
Is there anyone on the 49ers offense worth starting at any point during the rest of this season?
Ryan Hester: The short answer is no. Expanding on that, not really, unless you're desperate and play in a 16-team league; and as long as Blaine Gabbert is starting, I still wouldn't pull that trigger.
Chris Feery: There will be better options for most weeks, but if you're stuck with some 49ers on your roster, you might have a few opportunities to plug them in and actually see some kind of return: Week 13 at Chicago, Week 14 at Cleveland and Week 16 at Detroit. The remaining matchups on the schedule will likely result in very long days for the 49ers.
Justin Howe: No, there's not. I won't start a pass catcher alongside Blaine Gabbert, ever. (Vernon Davis had been building some sneaky, cheap appeal but those days are obviously over.) And Carlos Hyde, as talented as he may be, doesn't stand much of a chance for big projections facing stacked fronts behind a crumbling line.
Jeff Haseley: Anquan Boldin is a possibility, but the 49ers offense is in shambles right now and I doubt Blaine Gabbert is the answer. I would strongly advise staying away from any San Francisco players for the foreseeable future.
Ryan Hester: I would not give up Rodgers for either of those players. Carr, while on fire right now, is still just a matchup play and not a no-doubt every-week starter. The schedules also need to be considered. Green Bay is struggling, of course, but after a Week 9 date at Carolina, their schedule eases up. Compared to that of Oakland and New Orleans, it's the preferred option. Rodgers is also still the most talented player by far of this trio. Look at the schedules from Week 10 through Week 16:
GB: DET, at MIN, CHI, at DET, DAL, at OAK, at ARI
NO: at WAS, bye, at HOU, CAR, at TB, DET, JAX
OAK: MIN, at DET, TEN, KC, at DEN, GB, SD
According to our Custom Strength of Schedule feature at Footballguys, Green Bay and New Orleans have markedly easier paths than Oakland. Brees loses some credit for still having a bye week as well.
Green Bay still has two dates with a Detroit team that has given up on its coach, one with a Chicago foe who they almost always scorch, and another with the Kleenex-soft Oakland secondary. If you have Carr and make the playoffs, his Week 14 date with Denver is enough to get you eliminated.
Dan Hindery: I would trade Rodgers for Brees. Notwithstanding the tough outing against the Broncos, the Packers defense has been very good this season. Plus the Packers always tend to lean on the run more when the weather turns cold in late November and December. There are just not many likely game scripts in which the Packers are going to need a big game from Rodgers and the conservative game plans will probably lead to solid but unspectacular fantasy production. Brees on the other hand will be playing in a dome. His defense is ranked dead last according to the advanced stats. He is going to be in shootouts on a regular basis down the stretch and he is going to put up some big passing numbers.
Carr versus Rodgers is a tougher call, but I'd lean towards sticking with Rodgers simply due to track record. Carr has looked very good in recent weeks and the Raiders offense was incredible in Weeks 7 and 8. But there is more risk involved when talking about a player with only a handful of top fantasy performances to this point in his career versus a player like Rodgers who has notched dozens of big fantasy games throughout his excellent career.
Chris Feery: I would decline both trade offers and stick with Rodgers for the rest of the season. While both Carr and Brees have played very well lately, this would feel too much like their owners being able to sell high on their assets. Rodgers and the Packers offense have not looked good for a few weeks now. They may have another rough outing this week against the Panthers, but I'm fully confident that they will be able to turn things around as we head into the stretch run.
Justin Howe: I'd be open to dealing Rodgers for the right package, sure. I've grown to hate rostering Packers to some degree. As Ryan points out, Rodgers' schedule will indeed ease up. But that's not necessarily great news for Rodgers owners. The Packers are so capable of running up huge leads and stifling opponents with a big-play defense that Rodgers isn't always needed for four quarters. They've traditionally thrown quite a bit in garbage time, but that hasn't been the case this year, and Rodgers has seen solid fantasy starts all but end in the third quarter. Rodgers is still a top-tier QB1, of course, but he's far less predictably dominant for fantasy purposes at the moment than we're used to seeing.
There's no way whatsoever I'd prefer Carr. Chasing early-season explosions from unexpected sources is a fool's game when you're thinking of dealing Rodgers. The Raiders' curve is bound to flatten to some degree.
Brees is an interesting option, but he doesn't project much better than Rodgers (if at all) down the stretch and, as Ryan mentions, still has a bye ahead. All told, I'd sit on Rodgers over either option.
Jeff Haseley: I would consider Drew Brees, but not Carr. As good as Carr has been, I see a regression coming with a more challenging schedule on the horizon. Brees on the other hand has the best quarterback schedule in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 (at TB, DET, JAC). If the Saints can continue to play well and win games, their fortunes will turn around making Brees a quarterback to take advantage of for the championship run.
Ryan Hester: DeAngelo Williams is an elite RB1 for the rest of the season. I have him ranked as RB5 going forward behind Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson, and Mark Ingram. Williams is just ahead of Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, and Latavius Murray on that list.
Langford is a low-RB2 in any given week that Forte is out. He gets a matchup bump this week as San Diego has been one of the worst teams in the NFL against the run, but even that matchup puts him the RB14-18 range for me this week.
Chad Parsons: I would have Williams in the mid-RB1 range with no competition for touches and Ben Roethlisberger back under center. Langford is a one-trick pony with burst, but no wiggle or ability to beat defenders in 1-on-one situations. Langford is a mid-RB2 based on volume with Matt Forte on the mend.
Dan Hindery: Williams has looked surprisingly good this season and has a real burst still at the age of 32. The Steelers offense with its full complement of receiving weapons and with Roethlisberger at the controls should be one of the league's best. Teams will have to keep safeties deep to deal with the speed and big-play ability of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, which should make life easier for Williams. Another factor that bodes well for Williams is the lack of roster depth at the position behind him. The pick of Dri Archer looks to have been a major mistake. Both Jordan Todman and Isaiah Pead are journeyman types. Williams should handle at least 80% of the backfield touches. The one concern for Williams going forward is how the wear and tear of such a heavy workload impacts him as the season progresses. One of the major disadvantages for older players is that their bodies just don't recover as quickly as they once did and the cumulative effect of hits over the course of the season adds up more quickly. Overall, expect Williams to be a solid RB1 (top eight RB) throughout the middle of the season. But don't be surprised if he fades down the stretch or ends up missing some games.
I'll probably end up being higher on Langford than most. At Michigan State, he always impressed me. Despite not being the biggest guy, he just got stronger and stronger as the game went on. He might not stand out in any one area, but he always seemed to make the play when needed and grew stronger in the fourth quarter. He doesn't have the same shake and big-play ability that Matt Forte does, but his workmanlike approach and ability to fall forward should help to keep the offense in manageable down and distances. He can be a true workhorse back despite his lack of size. I like him as a low-end RB1 as long as Forte is out.
Chris Feery: I fully agree with Chad: Williams is in the mid-RB1 range and Langford falls into the mid-RB2 range. For this week, Langford has some nice upside against a Chargers team that struggles against the run.
Justin Howe: Williams looks like he's nearly done, but he succeeded through the first two weeks behind a vastly underrated Steelers run-blocking unit. Still, I'd invest more in the bottom falling out than a full-on resurgence at age 32. LeVeon Bell isn't just a guy; he's the league's best back, one of the few franchise-caliber RBs and the one that affords his offense the most dynamic versatility. There will be games in which game flow gives Williams 18+ touches, and he'll likely turn one or more of those games into great value. But I'm skeptical that he remains usable when the Steelers go pass-heavy. He won't see the 6+ catches Bell does in those matchups.
The Bears seem to trust Langford heavily. He routinely steps in for one or two full series a game and takes a chunk of Matt Forte's work in short yardage. This week, I give him almost Forte's entire rushing workload—my numbers say 18 carries—though of course nowhere near the receiving role. Ultimately, he comes out at 18-69 rushing, with anywhere from one-to-four catches and a healthy shot at a touchdown. He's not an RB2 lock or anything, but he has a sturdy floor in terms of usage and the ceiling to step into Forte's role entirely. That'd be 20-25 touches off the bat with plenty of third down and goal line work.
Jeff Haseley: I don't know what to expect from Langford as the starter in Chicago. He could have good games here and there, but ultimately if you're interested in Langford you also must have some degree of interest in the Bears offense and I'm not quite ready to go there. Is he a RB1 against the Chargers this week? He may wind up having RB1 numbers, but my gut says not to count on him. DeAngelo Williams on the other hand has shown that he can be more than adequate as a replacement for LeVeon Bell. The Steelers have the offensive structure for Williams to blossom as a back that can and should be started on a weekly basis. I rank Williams as the third best fantasy back for the rest of the season behind Todd Gurley and Devonta Freeman.
Speaking of Todd Gurley and Devona Freeman, which one of them will score more fantasy points the rest of this season?
Ryan Hester: I think the answer here is Gurley in either format, PPR or non-PPR. Freeman has been fantastic and is still getting great volume, but his inevitable touchdown regression has already begun. He also doesn't have the otherworldly talent that Gurley possesses. And while Gurley is coming off the ACL surgery from last year, Freeman still is on the low side of the injury risk equation. He's still just 5'8" and a bit over 200 pounds, which is less than ideal for a 25-plus touch workhorse to maintain full health all season long.
Dan Hindery: Both Freeman and Gurley are great, but the tie-breaker for me is Freeman's heavy usage in the passing game. He is currently on pace for 80 receptions and over 700 receiving yards. He has also rushed for over 100 yards in four of the six games since he took over the lead role for the Falcons. With his elite production on the ground combined with his weekly projection of ~5 catches and 45 yards through the air, he should be the top scoring running back going forward in all formats.
Chris Feery: Todd Gurley will score more points for the rest of the season. While Freeman had an epic run for a few weeks, both he and the Falcons have come back down to Earth. Gurley is a special talent who we may not have even seen at 100% yet and seems to get better and better each week. It will be fun to see how long that trend continues.
Justin Howe: I'll say Freeman in PPR, Gurley otherwise. We've obviously seen Freeman peak, to some degree—he won't be a 20-point lock every week going forward
But his monumental floor—he's been among the most productive backs in the passing game—will make him a top-five play in any matchup or script expectation. Gurley has a remarkable floor of his own, of course. He's an earth-shattering talent capable of transcending shaky matchups on the strength of a few long runs. But two factors work against him (somewhat) in comparison to Freeman: his relative lack of usage in the pass game, and the mediocrity of his offense in general. Gurley will spend a handful of games in a very negative script and struggling to reach the red zone, while Freeman will often be a solid Vegas favorite.
Jeff Haseley: Give me Gurley over Freeman for the rest of the season, but barely, especially in PPR format. Teams will start to put more emphasis on defending both backs which should lower their overall value to some degree, but it's hard to stop players who are heavily involved in their team's offense. I don't think we've seen the best of what Todd Gurley brings to the table and the Rams are just starting to realize this. Freeman on the other hand may have peaked, but there is still plenty of opportunity available to him for the remainder of the season.
With Keenan Allen out for the season, how will the Chargers' offense adjust?
Ryan Hester: Unless they can magically begin run-blocking more effectively, San Diego will continue to be pass-heavy. The adjustment will be to use Steve Johnson as the most-targeted player on the team as he's capable of running screens, crosses, and the other intermediate routes that were boosting Allen's catch total and allowing Philip Rivers to get rid of the ball quickly behind his suspect line. They may also use more two-tight end sets with Ladarius Green (assuming he and Antonio Gates can both be fully healthy at the same time). Danny Woodhead should also resume the larger role he had before his Week 8 anomaly.
Dan Hindery: Despite how talented Keenan Allen is, I don't think the Chargers offense will miss much of a beat. With Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green, Stevie Johnson, Malcom Floyd, Danny Woodhead and others, Rivers still has plenty of targets to throw to. Plus, at some point, they absolutely have to get the ground game going with Melvin Gordon. While a 50-50 run-pass split is not going to happen, passing 65% of the time is too much. It allows opposing defenses to pin their ears back and attack the beat up Chargers offensive line. If the Chargers can't get Gordon rolling at least a little bit, it will be hard for them to win many games.
Chris Feery: Although the targets may change, the Chargers will still employ a pass-heavy attack. I'll concur with Ryan's point about two-tight end sets. The Chargers would be wise to implement that with Green and Gates. In the interim, Stevie Johnson and Dany Woodhead should be the biggest beneficiaries while Malcolm Floyd should continue his upward trajectory as a deep threat.
Justin Howe: They'll adjust on the shoulders of Stevie Johnson and the tight ends, that's how. There's still no evidence whatsoever that the run game will get on track, so I expect the Chargers to stay all-in on Philip Rivers' 45-attempt days. And Johnson fits into Allen's short-to-intermediate role like a glove; he and Rivers were an inseparable duo this offseason, and he saw plenty of usage for a No. two behind Allen once the games began to count. Rivers likes him in the screen game as well as the horizontal one, and he's enough of a red zone weapon that he could easily out-touchdown Allen. PPR owners need to scramble for Johnson, who's a weekly WR2-WR3 from this point on.
The tight ends will remain firmly woven into the game plan, of course, and both look like elite value options going forward. Gates remains among the league's best options for week-to-week dominance as Rivers' longest-tenured target hog and a red zone stud. He's a no-brainer TE1 when on the field in this pass-happy offense. And Green has finally found himself worked into the scheme even when Gates is healthy. One of the NFL's premier size/athleticism mismatches, Green has asserted himself down the seams and in the red zone, and he's been unavoidable by Rivers regardless of situation. He'd make for a nice trade target after Gates' next huge performance; as a "backup" NFL TE, he's a great throw-in.
With Ken Whisenhunt out and Mike Mularkey is in as the Titans head coach, at least for the time being. How might this change affect the offense? What are the short-term and long-term prospects for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee?
Ryan Hester: Mularkey has already said he would change some things offensively to suit Mariota, but whether or not we should take him at word is one thing; whether or not those things actually have an impact if implemented is another. The team's offensive line and significant lack of weapons are huge issues and obviously aren't going away with the coaching change. Mularkey is auditioning for the full-time head coaching job, which means he isn't likely to coach with the "nothing to lose" mentality of some interim coaches that see their teams play loose and inspired after a change.
Mariota can still be a franchise quarterback, but to do so, he needs a coach who will honestly evaluate his strengths and weaknesses and challenge him to perform well while not bringing the weaknesses into play. Because of Mariota's unique skill set, this coach would have to think outside the box. I don't view Mularkey (or any "old school" NFL lifer) as that coach. Time will tell as to whether or not Mariota can fulfill his potential, but at this point, it doesn't seem likely he can do it with Tennessee unless they get a new font office and start hitting on draft picks around him.
Justin Howe: I do wonder if Bishop Sankey will climb out of the doghouse. Whisenhunt was just not a fan—he kept him on the bench as a rookie behind the likes of Shonn Greene and Leon Washington, citing issues like footwork. Sankey doesn't look much like a feature back, but he was an absurdly accomplished receiving back at Washington with near-elite measureables. The talent gap between him and Antonio Andrews is gulf-like, so I could see Sankey stealing a boatload of single-back snaps as the offense shifts.
But it's Mariota who should benefit the most, of course. I'm expecting a ton of multi-WR sets, with the underneath guys (Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker) seeing the biggest theoretical bump. And obviously, an unleashed Mariota brings a Robert Griffin-like upside to his ultimate fantasy outlook. Mularkey will almost certainly allow Mariota's natural instincts to form the offense as a whole. I'm optimistic about it, for the most part—I love Mariota's talent in both phases and think he's fully capable of shaping into an upper-tier NFL and fantasy QB. We've seen him hit a pretty noticeable wall in terms of passing production, but even at this low point he's scoring enough that an additional 3-nine weekly points on the ground would make him an easy QB1.
Chris Feery: As Ryan mentioned, Mularkey is essentially auditioning for the full-time gig. The Titans have a dearth of weapons, so major changes on the fly will be tough to pull off. Look for Delanie Walker to be the top target in the passing game, but we could finally see Dorial Green-Beckham unleashed as well. Mularkey has indicated he will see a bump in playing time, it will be interesting to see what the uber-talented receiver does with the opportunity. Long-term, Mariota will be a top-level quarterback with the right coach and system in place. Whether that will be Mularkey or a candidate from the offseason search remains to be seen, but the next coaching hire is crucial to his long-term development.
Jeff Haseley: Put me on record that I don't like the chances of interim head coach Mike Mularkey making a big impact as the Titans interim head coach. He hasn't been a successful head coach in the past with a 16-32 overall record, including a 2-14 record with Jacksonville in his last stint as head coach. As for Mariota, I still like the skill set that he brings to the table, but it may take a season or two of learning and adjusting to a new staff before he has the blueprints in place to be a successful quarterback in the league.
Ryan Hester: How fantastic would it be to see Chip Kelly coaching Mariota after all...in Tennessee? It's a huge longshot of course, but if Philadelphia falters down the stretch with Sam Bradford continuing to look miserable and Kelly simply refusing to bench him, things could get ugly there. Tennessee isn't likely to hand over the keys to Mularkey full time. The guy was 2-14 in his one year in Jacksonville. NFL coaching re-treads should be guys who took a step back from head coaching jobs and coordinated excellent offensive or defensive units. Mularkey doesn't fit the bill.
That raises the issue of some other possible coaching changes. Sticking with the AFC South, are other teams in this woeful division likely to follow suit in making changes to their front offices or coaching staffs?
Ryan Hester: Indianapolis is a train wreck. In fact, they just fired their offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. This is the first in will be a number of changes if the Colts don't turn this season around. General Manager Ryan Grigson has been among the worst in the league. If Andrew Luck doesn't fall into his lap, he probably would have been fired long ago. Anytime a team performs below expectations, the spotlight is shined on the head coach as well, putting Chuck Pagano in jeopardy as well.
Houston probably won't turn their back on Bill O'Brien quite yet, but he needs to stop believing that he can turn water into wine at the quarterback position and select one high in the draft with top-level skills and pedigree. He may have made a journeyman former walk-on into the a solid Big Ten quarterback at Penn State with Matt McGloin, but that trick is harder to pull off in the NFL.
Jacksonville could move on from Gus Bradley, but they could just as easily end this season with six or seven wins (or more with an upset or two mixed in) and consider that an improvement enough to retain him. With so much coaching turnover every year, the pool of candidates can be so watered down that it's hard to consider every candidate an improvement. The team lacks talent; that's their problem. It's not as if they have stopped playing for Bradley.
Justin Howe: Chuck Pagano is as good as gone, it seems. Drafting Andrew Luck isn't enough of a resume; this is a team that's just failed mightily and visibly at fortifying key areas, or remaining competitive with top teams outside of a chaotic game script. Rob Chudzinski would likely be installed as interim coach, and he's a fine candidate to keep the job long-term. Chudzinski is a downfield-oriented offensive mind with the aggressiveness to maximize Luck and his ridiculously gifted bevy of receivers.
I would imagine that Bill O'Brien will at least get the opportunity to handpick a quarterback (Tom Savage won't be held against him). He's a QB-scheme guy, after all. With such a dumpster fire under center at the moment, the Texans are as likely as anyone to bottom out in 2015 and seek a franchise passer early next year, putting O'Brien in an enviable 2016 position. Whomever he selects will learn from a respected offensive guru and throw to a dynamic No. one wideout.
Gus Bradley was brought to Jacksonville to construct a Seahawks-like defense, and the jury remains out. Injuries have sapped all of his pass-rushing talent, rookie Dante Fowler and the emerging Sen'derrick Marks, and the secondary has yet to develop a truly intriguing prospect. Blake Bortles and the offense may be improving bit by bit, but it's not likely to be enough thunder if the season ends at 4-12.
Chris Feery: It's beginning to look like a foregone conclusion that Chuck Pagano's tenure in Indianapolis will be coming to a close, whether it's sometime this season or immediately after the close of the season. The firing of pep Hamilton was the first step. If we don't see some improvement from the offense soon, or if the Colts fall out of the playoff picture, Pagano could be next. The Texans are another one to watch, but probably not until after the regular season. I would have to believe that the decision to roll with Ryan Mallett as the team's starting quarterback to open the season and his subsequent release does not reflect positively on the coaching staff. If the Texans struggle to put some more wins on the board, we could be looking at some changes both on the sidelines and in the front office.
Jeff Haseley: I can definitely see Indianapolis making some changes in the offseason. Chuck Pagano would need a major turnaround to save his job. We've already seen the Colts make a change at offensive coordinator. That may be the temporary fix they are looking for because they didn't want to make a head coaching change at this time. Time will tell with the Texans and Bill O'Brien, but if I had to guess, he'll keep his job. In my opinion, it's the front office that has failed this team by not going after a big name quarterback in the draft or free agency. The defense also needs to be bolstered, which is primarily the responsibility of the general manager. At some point the blame has to be put on the shoulders of GM Rick Smith. Bill O'Brien can only do what he can with the players he has. The Texans need players to step up, but they also need to bring in more talented players. That's the responsibility of the GM and he's not doing a good enough job.
Chris Feery: We could be looking at several coaching changes in the offseason. Of the four coaches in place, I would say Bradley returns, O'Brien is better than 50% to return, Pagano is gone either in-season or after the season and we'll have to see what Mularkey produces with the interim tag. One name to throw into the mix as a possible head coaching candidate is Hue Jackson. He did some nice things in his short stint with the Raiders and has brought the best out of Andy Dalton in his stint as Bengals offensive coordinator. Look for Jackson to receive plenty of interest this offseason, especially if the Bengals make a deep playoff run.
Which team from this division appears to have the best outlook over the next 3-five years?
Ryan Hester: Only because the quarterback position is so important will I say that Indianapolis is the answer here. Luck has already cured a lot of ills and covered up plenty of shortcomings for the Colts. A healthy luck in 2016 and beyond without Grigson and with a new GM capable of making solid picks and acquisitions can turn from playoffs-by-default into a Super Bowl contender. Jacksonville has the next-best outlook with its young core and Blake Bortles making strides.
Chad Parsons: My favorites over the long haul reside with the quarterbacks of preference: Andrew Luck and Blake Bortles. It is the most difficult position to hide in the NFL and I think back to a random horrible season by Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Both rebounded and I view Luck's 2015 in progress in a similar way. The growing pains are still there with Blake Bortles, but the weapons boost and high moments are much improved from his rookie season.
Justin Howe: I'd have to say the Colts, based entirely on their advantage at the most important position in sports. Andrew Luck is the most appealing QB in the division by far, giving any future coaching staff/front office the best pivot point to build around. That's a passing game capable of such strong pace and downfield dominance that, unlike their divisional counterparts, they have the makings of a flat-out bully with some complementary pieces put into place.
Chris Feery: I would have to say the Colts first due to the presence of a franchise quarterback, but they need to take steps to improve the team around him. Whether that will result from any anticipated changes to the staff and front office remains to be seen. The Jaguars are next in line and I would expect Gus Bradley to receive some more time to bear the fruits of his labor with the young squad.
Jeff Haseley: I think this has to be Indianapolis. The presence of Andrew Luck is the deciding factor for me. We've seen Luck take a two-win team to the playoffs in his rookie year. There's a reason why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His problems can be fixed and eventually will be worked out in due time. We may see an improvement in Luck's stats and team's outcome with the change to Rob Chudzinski as the new offensive coordinator, or it could take more changes to take effect. Either way, Luck is still the most talented quarterback in the division. I don't see this lull lasting long. They'll figure it out and we'll all be talking about this being a bump in the road, not a major obstacle.
Dan Hindery: The AFC South is still the Colts' division. They have won 16 straight within the division and all three of the team's wins in 2015 are against AFC South opponents. I also still believe in Andrew Luck as a generational talent at the quarterback position. In terms of building blocks, it doesn't get any better than having a guy like Luck. The Colts have certainly been mismanaged from a personnel perspective, however. On the one hand, their belief that they were only a few veterans away from a championship was supported by the fact that they won 11 games in 2014 and made the AFC Championship game. But the advanced statistics showed that the Colts were in actuality a league average team that took advantage of an incredibly weak divisional schedule to make the playoffs. They were only 5-5 outside the division in 2014 and ranked in the middle of the pack in Football Outsiders' team DVOA ratings. There were some very clear deficiencies in the trenches on both sides of the ball and in the secondary. But instead of addressing those, they made luxury signings of aging veterans like Andre Johnson and Frank Gore. The Colts need to take a good luck in the mirror and reassess where they stand. They should jettison expensive veterans and invest heavily in young offensive linemen who can grow along with Luck and the young skill position talent.
The one team that looks poised to challenge the Colts is Jacksonville. The Jaguars have taken a very patient, big picture view of the rebuilding process and are starting to see some results. While it's too early to say if Blake Bortles is a true franchise quarterback, he looks to be at least a solid starter. He still makes too many mistakes but the trend line is certainly positive. They have also done well to surround him with good young skill position talent. Allen Robinson, Allan Hurns, Julius Thomas and T.J. Yeldon give the Jaguars a bright future offensively. On the other side of the ball, there are still issues. But the return of Dante Fowler Jr. from an ACL injury should provide a huge boost. With another top 10 pick likely this coming spring, the Jaguars should be adding two top notch talents to the roster for next season. With continued growth from the young guys on offense, this could easily be a playoff team in 2016.
Let's use this just as a stream-of-consciousness thread to gossip about anything in the AFC South we feel like. In the edited version, I'll make my questions fit your discussion. Who are some decent coaching candidates out there, etc.?
What do we make of Arian Foster's future fantasy prospects, assuming he returns next year from his ruptured Achilles?
Ryan Hester: Arian Foster's future is interesting. Let's assume that Houston releases him due to his big cap number next season. Let's also assume that he can rehab his Achilles injury to come back and be 80% of the Foster we know. So often, we see players change teams within their own division. You could make a case that Foster would look good and be a compelling story in any AFC South uniform other than his current one.
With Indianapolis, he would offer Luck a versatile pass-catching weapon that could be part of a committee with an also-aging Frank Gore or a running-back-to-be-drafted-later (or both). In Jacksonville, he would add to a bevy of talented offensive weapons and mentor young players like T.J. Yeldon and Blake Bortles. In Tennessee, 80% of Foster is immediately their best running back, and if the Titans were to look for an exciting offensive coach, some read-option looks with Mariota and Foster would be pretty tough to defend as both are "gliders" with smooth strides and the ability to run away from defenders. This is mostly "pipe-dream" stuff, but I'm intrigued by the notion that a player would be more compelling on every other division rival than he is on his current team.
Without Foster in Houston, who are some other running backs to watch in this division?
Chad Parsons: T.J. Yeldon continues to impress me with three-down acumen on a rising offense in Jacksonville. No post-Arian Foster Houston back strikes me as fantasy-viable. Alfred Blue is the definition of a JAG (just a guy). Jonathan Grimes is the most intriguing metric prospect of the bunch, but likely limited to pass duties. I continue to be perplexed by the banishment of Bishop Sankey to minimal playing time this season. I have liked Sankey on tape considering the lack of blocking or overt holes, making his status 18 months after being the top running back drafted in 2014 a mystery. Why continue to roster a back clearly not in the team plans with every running back seeing more playing time than him? I view Sankey differently than Cordarrelle Patterson, where Sankey has shown more traditional running back skills through the downslide in playing time.
That will do it for this edition of the Footballguys Roundtable. Please join us again next week.