This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
The aging Texans return most of their 2012 starters as Houston looks to prolong the closing Super Bowl window. If the team can remain healthy, the division should be easy for the veteran team. But, if one or two key players miss extended action, the door might open for Indianapolis to capture the division.
Quarterback: Matt Schaub returns to lead Houston. He has played well, but not well enough to keep opposing defenses honest. This is a big season for Schaub, who salary jumps to $10 million in 2014, and escalates further the following two seasons. T.J. Yates has backed up Schaub the past two seasons. He could be pushed for the job by local boy, Case Keenum. Historically, Houston only keeps two quarterbacks on the active roster, so this could be a major turn if Keenum overtakes Yates. Expect the Texans to draft a quarterback relatively high in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Running Back: Arian Foster is back, and remains the focal point of the offense. Last year, he saw his rushing attempts climb to 351. His fantasy numbers were still much less than in 2010. The reason? Well, in 2010, Foster averaged 5.0 yards per carry (as opposed to career-low 4.0 in 2012) and his receptions declined from 66 to 40. Another point of note was Foster's meager 5.4 yards per reception average, less than half of his 2011 number. There is a growing concern that Foster is wearing down and has lost a step. This is definitely something to watch. Ben Tate enters a contract year, looking to rebound from an injury-plagued 2012. He still only has 240 career carries and could put up big numbers if Foster missed multiple games. Keep in mind that the starter already suffered a calf injury this offseason and is expected back by training camp. While he should be ready in time, it is a stark reminder that Foster has carried the ball 955 times, plus 159 receptions, in just the last three seasons. Competing for the third running back spot will be rookies Ray Graham, Dennis Johnson, and Cierre Wood, along with Deji Karim. If something were to happen to Foster early on, a free agent signing would be expected.
Wide Receiver: Andre Johnson is poised for another strong campaign. He has been Schaub's favorite target for years and finally gets a play maker on the other side. After letting Kevin Walter walk, Houston selected DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of April's draft. Hopkins is a future star. Keshawn Martin will line up in the slot. DeVier Posey (who is returning from a foot injury) and Lestar Jean will add young depth to the position. Of this group, Johnson is the only one with even two years of professional experience. Alan Bonner and Jeff Maehl will compete to make the team. The addition of Hopkins should greatly improve the passing game, and even help keep defenses from keying as much on Johnson.
Tight End: Owen Daniels is coming off a big fantasy season. There is some concern, however, about Daniels' ability to make a fantasy impact again in 2012. His injury history is well chronicled. Also worrisome is the fact that Daniels caught just 62 of his 130 pass targets. Add in Daniels' lowest yards per reception average since his rookie season, and it is easy to see why many doubt his ability to reproduce the TE8 finish of a year ago. With James Casey now in Philadelphia, Garrett Graham is a player to watch. Graham is a strong blocker and solid receiver who could put up fantasy numbers if Daniels misses games.
Few would have predicted a playoff berth for the Colts before the 2012 season. But, last year's strong season has only heightened expectations for the young team. Much of the success (or lack thereof) in 2013 will be tied to quarterback Andrew Luck, whether deserved or not.
Quarterback: Luck could actually improve with a full offseason to hone his skills. The youngster struggled down the stretch last year and will work on his passing efficiency – something which proved difficult late in the 2012 campaign. Hopes are high that the bright and talented former first overall pick will lead Indianapolis to the Super Bowl, sooner than later. In a shrewd move, the Colts signed Matt Hasselbeck to hold the clipboard behind the youngster. Many forget that Hasselbeck started his career buried behind Brett Favre in Green Bay. He is an experienced veteran who should provide great feedback and guidance for the second-year pro. The loss of Bruce Arians as offensive coordinator (and acting head coach while Chuck Pagano was undergoing cancer treatment) could hurt more than many expect.
Running Back: Now that Ahmad Bradshaw is signed, he instantly becomes the Colts starting tailback. This was be a great move to address a weak position. Bradshaw's ability in pass protection should not be forgotten. Vick Ballard is an average back, able to amass yardage only when given holes to run through and enough carries. Donald Brown and Delone Carter are merely depth at the position. Brown is a former first round pick who has disappointed greatly, with fumbles and injuries only making the situation worse. With Bradshaw signed, expect one of these two ball carriers to be released. Indianapolis did draft Kerwynn Williams to develop into a potential scatback.
Wide Receiver: Reggie Wayne is coming off a great season, one that saw him total 1,355 receiving yards. It was an incredible year by the soon-to-be 35 year old. Given his age, it is difficult to predict a repeat performance. As a rookie in 2012, T.Y. Hilton flashed immense potential. While small in stature (5'10", 183 pounds), Hilton possesses blazing speed and could have a huge sophomore season. He played college ball at Florida International, so it should not be a surprise that a full offseason could provide maximum results. Darrius Heyward-Bey was signed after his release by the Oakland Raiders. Heyward-Bey replaces Donnie Avery in the Colts offense. He could provide fantasy WR3 numbers many weeks. Another player we had on the watch list was LaVon Brazil. Brazil was a sixth round pick out of Ohio in the 2012 draft. He has big upside if either Wayne or Heyward-Bey falter. But, his suspension to begin the season may stunt any momentum Brazil had coming into his sophomore season.
Tight End: Indianapolis drafted two tight ends in the 2012 NFL Draft, Coby Fleener (Luck's college teammate) and Dwayne Allen. Even though Fleener was more highly regarded coming into the NFL, it was Allen who had the impressive rookie season. The pair of young tight ends will give the Colts offense flexibility in formations and alignment. The question will soon become whether the offense can support two fantasy tight ends. If not, Allen is the better bet to be a fantasy starter.
The Jaguars have been a mess the past few years. While the defense is underrated, the offense has been amiss since the drafting of quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the first round three years ago, and subsequently cutting David Garrard. This should continue until the quarterback position is sorted out. Until then, expect five to seven wins tops per year.
Quarterback: As mentioned above, Gabbert has disappointed since his selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. The former Missouri Tiger has struggled making reads and finding the open receiver. While he was out with an injury in 2012, Chad Henne came in and played well … well enough to give many the thought that the 2013 job was his to lose. This still remains to be seen. Henne does possess the moxie of a professional quarterback, one who is not afraid to throw the ball down the field. We expect the ex-Dolphin to start as many as – or more – games than the third-year pro. Rookie Matt Scott and Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's little brother) will compete for the third quarterback job.
Running Back: Maurice Jones-Drew is on schedule to be back on the field for training game after missing most of the 2012 season with a serious foot injury. His presence in the backfield should immediately help the quarterback situation as the opposing defenses will focus more on stopping the run. Rashad Jennings was not brought back after an injury-filled 2012 season. The Jaguars signed Justin Forsett to add a pass-receiving threat to the offense. Jacksonville is thought to be incorporating some zone blocking into the offense, which is a great fit for Forsett's skills. This could be a great marriage, especially if Jones-Drew is not healthy by the first of August. Former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was drafted to add a play-making element to the offense. It might take a year or two for him to fully transition to the running back position, but Robinson does make plays. Jordan Todman and Keith Toston will provide depth and battle for a roster spot. Keep an eye on any free agent signings at the position. If a player like Chris (Beanie) Wells or Cedric Benson sign in Jacksonville, it could be a negative signal on Jones-Drew's comeback attempt.
Wide Receiver: The Jaguars have a talented duo of last year's first round pick Justin Blackmon and the up-and-coming Cecil Shorts. Both put up impressive numbers throughout stretches of last season. Blackmon will miss the first four games of the season due to a league-mandated suspension. In the last four games of his rookie year, Blackmon caught 25 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns. Hopes are high for Blackmon if he can mature off the field. Shorts had a stretch of six great games – averaging almost 100 yards per contest – before sitting out the final two games with a concussion. His concussion history could be a concern going forward so pay attention if he suffers another head injury. Mohamed Massaquoi was signed from Cleveland to provide depth at the position. He is likely to start while Blackmon is out for the suspension. Ace Sanders was drafted in April to be a big-play, slot receiver. While undersized, Sanders could make a sizable impact on the passing game of Jacksonville. Jordan Shipley will also be in the mix for playing time. Outside of Blackmon and Shorts, this is a shallow group of receivers, unable to take the pressure off the lackluster quarterback situation.
Tight End: Marcedes Lewis has suffered through the first two years of Gabbert's career. Improvement by Gabbert or having Henne under center could vault Lewis back into the Top 10 of fantasy tight ends. Many forget that Lewis actually finished as TE4 the year before Gabbert's arrival. So, a rebound is possible with better quarterback play. Behind him on the depth chart are Allen Reisner, Brett Brackett, and Ryan Otten. Otten is an intriguing rookie if he gets an opportunity.
Tennessee is still leap years behind the top two teams in the division. The Titans need strong play and stability from the quarterback position and the defensive front seven just to break the .500 mark. Both appear to be a long shot at this time.
Quarterback: Jake Locker is back under center for the Titans. While his athleticism gives fans hope for the future, the young passer lacks consistency, especially in his passing completion percentage. The former eighth overall pick has struggled completing passes through his collegiate and professional career. His team needs him to settle down and complete the routine throws. Yes, Locker has a big arm and the ability to escape the pocket and run, but that is meaningless when the completion percentage is merely 56% … as was Locker's in 2012. Add in the fact that he threw more interceptions than passing touchdowns, and it is easy to see why the Titans brass is concerned. Gone is Matt Hasselbeck (as noted above) to back up the youngster. He was replaced by Buffalo castoff Ryan Fitzpatrick. With Locker's injury history, Fitzpatrick might play a few games this season. Fitzpatrick is the more efficient passer, so the offense might actually benefit from such an event. Rusty Smith will compete with Nate Enderle for the third quarterback job.
Running Back: It is hard to believe Chris Johnson will be 28 years of age this coming September. He has been durable, playing in 79 of a possible 80 games over the five-year career. Some worry about Johnson's workload possibly wearing him down. The good news is that the speedy runner's yards per carry average actually jumped from 4.0 in 2011 to 4.5 in 2012. Johnson has incredibly topped 300 touches in each of the five years, and even touched the ball 408 times in 2009. He has 1693 career combined rushes and receptions over the five seasons as a professional. Sensing the need to complement Johnson, Tennessee added Shonn Greene from the New York Jets. Greene is expected to get most of the short-yardage and goal line carries. Johnson only has ten total touchdowns the past two seasons so this should not impact his fantasy value much, if any. The Titans also added Jalen Parmele, a talented journeyman back who brings value on special teams. Darius Reynaud and Stephon Jefferson will compete to be active on game days, with Reynaud's return ability giving him a distinct advantage.
Wide Receiver: The wide receiver position is talented and deep for Tennessee. Kenny Britt finally looks to be healthy, and has stayed off the police blotter for a while. Could the 24-year old be turning the corner to fantasy viability? It sure looks like it. If the knees hold up, and his checkered past stays in the past, Britt will make a big impact this season. This is a contract year for the former Rutgers star. The Titans need his big play ability on the field. Last year's rookie sensation Kendall Wright should take a big step forward in year two of his transition to the NFL. He could approach 1,000 yards if the quarterback play is just average. The team also added Justin Hunter in April's NFL Draft. While still more raw than many would like to believe, Hunter has the potential to be a long-term starter in Nashville. This young trio of receivers should put up big numbers, as the Tennessee defense will allow plenty of garbage-time passing attempts. After Hunter was selected by the Titans, many wondered how long veteran Nate Washington would remain on the team. His roster spot may be tied to Hunter's development in training camp. Tennessee also brought in Kevin Walter to add depth to the receiver corps. Walter is nothing more than low-level depth so do not read much into his signing with the Titans. The team also has Damian Williams, Marc Mariani, Diondre Borel, and Roberto Wallace competing for roster spots. Mariani is a very good returner and should make the team. This is a talented group and will put up big fantasy numbers, depending on the quarterback play.
Tight End: The athletic Jared Cook signed as a free agent in St. Louis, following former coach Jeff Fisher to the Rams. After the Titans figured out they could not re-sign the big tight end, Tennessee pursued Delanie Walker and signed him to a four-year contract. Walker was a tease while in San Francisco so many Tennessee fans are anxious to see if he can develop into a viable option in the passing game. Walker is a very good blocker, and should aid the running game. Taylor Thompson is still a player to watch. He is more of a threat as a receiver than blocker, but could mature into a NFL starter at the position. Craig Stevens returns in primarily a blocking tight end role.
The division is still the Texans to lose, but the Colts definitely have a chance. The Jaguars and Titans will each be lucky to win seven games. If Houston can escape the injury bug, the Texans have a solid chance at the AFC Conference title. But, with veteran leadership comes age. Indianapolis is poised to strike if Gary Kubiak's team falters.