Training camp openings are coming, so it's time to focus our attention on the changes, injury recoveries, and position battles that will inform our last tweaks to our draft boards before we draft. It's also good to record our thoughts on the direction of the offense as it affects fantasy bottom lines before camp and preseason twists and turns make us doubt what we have spent months mulling over waiting for football to come back. I'll try to give insight into where I think the puck is going with these teams, because like Wayne Gretzky said, we should skate there instead of where the puck has been, i.e. last year's results.
Offensive Change(s) to Watch: This is basically status quo from the 2015 offense at the end of the season. Second-year back David Johnson has become the lead back after a strong end to the season. On the offensive line, we’ll watch 2015 first-rounder DJ Humphries try to hold down the right tackle spot. No news is good news overall for a very potent offense.
Injury Situation(s) to Watch: John Brown is already sidelined with a concussion. The team will take it slow, but we would hope to see him ready to play by the first or second preseason game to quell worries, and we’ll certainly be concerned if he suffers another injury in-season. Andre Ellington is slated for a smaller role this year, but we still want to see him get through the summer healthy to secure that and create some confidence in his ability to hold up if he is pressed into a larger role.
Position Battle(s) to Watch: The pecking order at running back will be David Johnson, Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, but Chris could push his way into as much as half of the bread and butter running game work because of the high regard the team holds him in, and Ellington’s explosiveness should secure some sort of role. These are key points to knowing the weekly floor for David Johnson. Darren Fells appears to be the #1 tight end, but with a strong summer, he could wrest targets away from the very talented wide receiver trio, because tight end is an afterthought for opposing defenses.
Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: The offense that put the second-most points and most yards on the boards last year will continue to lift all ships. Michael Floyd broke out with a string of five 100-yard games in seven contests after Week 8 last year, and he is the Cardinals wideout to target in the 4th-5th round. David Johnson could be huge in PPR leagues even if he only gets 50-60% of the carries in the backfield because he’ll have more opportunities in the passing game. As long as Carson Palmer stays healthy, this offense can be even better than last year and become the kind of ultra-fertile soil that grows fantasy success across the board.
Offensive Change(s) to Watch: Remove the term “interim” from offensive coordinator Rob Boras’s name, but also add “passing game coordinator” Mike Groh - who worked under Marc Trestman and Adam Gase - to the cooks of this stew. The offense improved under Boras to the tune of a touchdown a game over the last four games of the season, and really there is nowhere to go but up for this morose offense. Case Keenum was the quarterback for those four games. He or #1 overall pick Jared Goff will take the helm to start the season. Rookies WR Pharoh Cooper and TE Tyler Higbee were drafted in the fourth round and already appear to be seizing roles in the offense. Tre Mason is AWOL and we hope he seeks help for his problems, but in the meantime, the Rams will need to fill in his spot on the depth chart.
Injury Situation(s) to Watch: Cooper hurt his leg early in camp, but it doesn’t appear to be serious. Tavon Austin also got dinged, but has already returned to action. So far, so good with no key players returning from serious injuries or otherwise slowing down their ramp-up into the 2016 season.
Position Battle(s) to Watch: Rookie receivers including Cooper, sixth-round Mike Thomas and UDFA Duke Williams could win snaps very early in their careers. 2015 preseason stud and UDFA back Malcolm Brown will try to show the team that he can be the between the tackles backup to Todd Gurley. Lance Kendricks is poised to take a larger role with Jared Cook gone to Green Bay, but Higbee has started hot and could carve out a role of his own right away.
Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: The Rams offense can’t be worse than last year, and even subpar would increase the size of this pie significantly from the league cellar dweller status the offense had in 2015. A full offseason for Todd Gurley and the new offensive coordinator(s) can’t hurt, and the team brought in a bevy of rookies to help fill in gaps. If the offensive line can get more from Greg Robinson and have better health from Rodger Saffold, the Rams offense could even be mediocre, but let’s not get too excited yet.
Offensive Change(s) to Watch: Enter Chip Kelly. The offense will be faster and more productive, although it would be hard for it be less productive than last season. Outside of Torrey Smith as the #1 receiver and Carlos Hyde as the #1 running back, little is settled on the depth chart. It’s going to be a bumpy transition, although there will be dynasty prospects to follow long-term, and hopefully the excitement of the Chip Kelly offense inflation of fantasy stats… eventually. It’s hard to picture that happening until the team settles on a quarterback, #2 receiver, starting tight end...
Injury Situation(s) to Watch: Colin Kaepernick was finally cleared after shoulder, thumb, and knee surgeries in the offseason so he could attempt to win back his starting quarterback job. Deep threat DeAndre Smelter lost all of 2015 to an ACL suffered in college, and a nagging injury robbed him of most of this offseason. He is full speed at camp and beginning to make an impression. CFL import Eric Rogers was making a bid for a spot high on the wide receiver depth chart, but went down with a torn ACL.
Position Battle(s) to Watch: Where to begin? Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick are neck and neck for the starting quarterback job. Shaun Draughn, Mike Davis, and DuJuan Harris are trying to get snaps behind Hyde, with sixth-round pick Kelvin Taylor lurking. Smelter, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, and Jerome Simpson are the main candidates to fill the wide receiver depth chart spots after Smith, but 2015 UDFAs Dres Anderson and DeAndrew White, along with sixth-rounder Aaron Burbridge could have something to say about the competition. Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, and Bruce Miller are jockeying for snaps at tight end, with no clear leader a week into camp.
Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: Hyde’s talent is tantalizing in a run-heavy scheme that puts the defense on their heels, but the same game script worries that sunk him last year have not changed. An offense that made Nick Foles a stud fantasy quarterback should make us interested in their pass catchers, but that changes if Colin Kaepernick is the starting quarterback. We want to look at a Chip Kelly offense at just the right angle to see fantasy potential, but the reality is that this will likely be the worst team in the league, and fantasy player will subsist on garbage time points - which we are not above doing, but it is not a good idea to draft with garbage time points in mind.
Offensive Change(s) to Watch: Thomas Rawls is back as the lead in the backfield, although he’s not truly back on the field as of this writing, still on the PUP recovering from ankle surgery. The team drafted three running backs to help stock the next wave of runners. An already suspect offensive line looks to have a rookie starter at guard in first-rounder Germain Ifedi. A lot of the 2015 personnel is back, but the team philosophy could lean more towards putting the onus on Russell Wilson to pass and run more if the youth at running back or unproven line undermines confidence in the running game.
Injury Situation(s) to Watch: Rawls and tight end Jimmy Graham are both still on PUP at this moment. Once they get activated, we’ll want to see how they move in the preseason games and parse practice reports closely. Graham is following a long list of players who had patellar tendon tears that were not able to get everything back. He was already falling well below fantasy expectations before his injury. Rookie third-round pick RB CJ Prosise has been sidelined with a hamstring strain he suffered early in camp, giving seventh-round pick Zac Brooks a chance to show his stuff as a receiving back.
Position Battle(s) to Watch: The three rookies and Christine Michael are trying to settle a depth chart where Michael could be anywhere from primary backup to on the roster bubble. Tyler Lockett should be entrenched as the #2 receiver, but his impressive offseason and camp to date is likely to move him closer to Doug Baldwin in target share. Luke Willson and third-round pick Nick Vannett are trying to instill confidence at tight end in the role to spell and supplement a slowed down Jimmy Graham. UDFA Trevone Boykin doesn’t really have competition at backup quarterback. Instead, he is trying to convince the Seahawks not to bring in Tarvaris Jackson or another veteran.
Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: Rawls was a revelation as an undrafted rookie, and he should still be set up for weekly RB1 upside and RB2 expectations as long as he is ready to go. If he’s not, this will become a full blown Russell Wilson offense, and give Wilson the chance to rival Cam Newton for QB1 overall status. Doug Baldwin’s touchdowns will regress a bit, but if the offense runs through Wilson, he should provide ADP value, and Lockett should be a profitable pick a round or two later. The Steelers eventually grew into embracing Ben Roethlisberger as a passer after starting him out as a game manager to balance a strong running game. Seattle appears to be moving in the same direction.