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The New Reality No.3 - AFC Burning Questions

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of dynasty fantasy football.

After last week’s burning dynasty questions regarding the NFC teams, it is time for the AFC edition. While dynasty is a long-term fantasy format, there are still the short-term oscillations in player value, situations, and injuries that create windows to buy, sell, and trade players much like stocks. Some players are blue-chip investments that will be centerpieces for years to come; others will rely on a hot stretch to maximize their value in the marketplace. For both groups, the next game could be something that inflates or deflates their future value, one of the things that makes dynasty so fascinating. On to the key dynasty topic for the AFC teams:


Will Torrey Smith be a real WR1?

Even before Dennis Pitta was lost for at least the entire 2013 season, the path was being cleared for Torrey Smith to be unquestioned leading producer in the Ravens passing game. After failing to improve upon a promising rookie season, Smith was once again primarily a deep threat having more NFL value than fantasy appeal. Now, with Dennis Pitta out, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice are the only Baltimore players returning that had more than 55 targets last season. The now-absent part of Pitta and Boldin accounted for 37% of the team’s targets and 50% of the passing touchdowns. Smith is one of the few receivers in recent history to have a touchdown rate of greater than 14% in each of his first two seasons. Also, Smith expanded his prowess to the red zone in his second season, boasting a 50% conversion rate on his targets inside the 20-yard-line. Without Pitta and Boldin, Smith should see an uptick on his 10 red zone looks from last season. At a bare minimum, Smith will see more than the 90 and 104 targets he saw in his first two seasons as Baltimore looks for a new identity on offense. On the August 5, 2013 episode of Under the Helmet I discussed Torrey Smith’s potential breakout in-depth. The stars are aligning for dynasty owners invested in Smith to be in a position to profit nicely during and after the 2013 season.


Can EJ Manuel be Cam Newton-lite?

Manuel has similar physical traits to Cam Newton coming out of college. The Bills are creating an offense with C.J. Spiller in the backfield that could run the read-option and be the Panthers of the northeast. For fantasy, rushing production early in a quarterback’s career can make them viable starters long before they are established NFL pocket passers. Even 200-300 yards a season with a few touchdowns makes a big difference compared to the non-rushers like the Manning brothers or Drew Brees. I am one of the firm backers of Manuel because of his potential immediate impact as a rusher, which can be bolstered with passing improvement down the line. Manuel an ideal low-cost, high-reward QB2, whose startup ADP in the summer of his rookie season is four rounds lower than Cam Newton two years ago.


How swift will the youth movement be on offense?

The Bengals have wasted little time revamping their entire offense. The days of Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson seem like a decade ago. A.J. Green was the big addition in 2011, and Cincinnati added Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard in first two rounds of the NFL draft this offseason. The key questions with the two rookies are: what is their physical upside and how quickly will the ho-hum veterans in front of them get out of the way? For Bernard, I have mixed feelings. Athletically, I am concerned as he is an average athlete in many respects. His cost is a third or fourth-round startup pick and has been the 1.01 rookie selection in many leagues. Based on his strength as a prospect, those asking prices would be lower in other years. The lack of quality youth at the running back position makes a strong case for Bernard to be in the top-15 mix immediately as a 21-year-old playing behind Benjarvus Green-Ellis, one of the least impressive ‘starting’ running backs in the league. Bernard’s game is more spread-based, making his potential role on offense independent of Green-Ellis’ goal line and early-down volume. Bernard can easily be a RB2-type performer in PPR formats later in his rookie season. Tyler Eifert is a different situation. Jermaine Gresham still has two years on his contract in Cincinnati and has been adequate, though underperforming his physical upside, in fantasy terms. The good news for Eifert is he played split out wide quite a bit at Notre Dame. The Bengals will get him on the field along with Gresham early and often I would imagine, especially with their lack of an established WR2 on the roster at this time. Tight end prospects with a similar projection score in my model have had a TE1-level performance within their first three NFL seasons 44% of the time. Eifert is a safe bet to be in the top-15 or so mix by the end of year two by my estimation. The best comparable players as a prospect were Martellus Bennett and Dennis Pitta. While not a rule by any means, the lack of similarities to a top NFL performer over the past decade and few that were highly drafted, lead me to think that expectations for Eifert will be higher than the ultimate reward for dynasty owners down the road.


Will Josh Gordon take the next step?

Gordon flashed top-shelf potential in his short time in the NFL, but will that translate to monster production in the next season or two? There are reasons to be pessimistic like the stacked odds against a receiver being a top-12 performer without a top quarterback and the recent news that Gordon has not worked with Brandon Weeden after practice or taken parts of practice seriously. There are also obvious reasons to be drooling over what could be, like these highlights from 2012. With Greg Little on the right track and Davone Bess no slouch in the slot, I feel Gordon is still a year away from the production matching the hype.


How will the backfield trio sort itself out?

The short answer is I would not be heavily invested in any of the options currently on the roster. Montee Ball is being anointed as a hot rookie commodity. His athletic profile should temper expectations, or at least his potential ceiling, quite a bit. The argument of Peyton Manning elevating running backs in his offense is a valid one, but how much should that count? At some point a running back will be forced to carry his own value. I have my doubts that Ball, when faced with that, can elevate beyond his situation. Considering Ball costs a fifth or sixth round startup selection or a mid-first round rookie pick, that is a dicey investment. Ronnie Hillman has been spending time with the first-team offense, but profiles as more of a change-of-pace option more than legit lead option. His price tag, likely a second round rookie pick type cost, is palatable, but what is the real reward and upside? Knowshon Moreno is the unspectacular veteran option that does the little things well, but rarely anything more than that. The peak time to cash out on Moreno was back in January when trading opened up in dynasty leagues. That window has closed and is now in complete flyer range with Ball and a developing Hillman as better options.


Is the offense shifting back to the pass?

In short, I think so. Arian Foster has been less efficient the past two seasons and Ben Tate will likely move on from Houston after this season. Andre Johnson is still worthy of plenty of targets even though he has been fading to average-level efficiency for two seasons now. DeAndre Hopkins is the lynchpin. Before Hopkins, the last time the Texans used even a second round draft pick on a wide receiver was, yes, Andre Johnson. It has been a while. Hopkins looks primed to be the starter opposite Johnson from Week 1, a position sorely in need of an upgrade for years. The official changing of the guard is still a year or two away at the receiver position, but the volume will increase now. Matt Schaub has averaged more than 34 passes a game in three of the past four seasons with high accuracy to boot. His efficiency fell to the NFL average level in 2012, but Hopkins should aid a rebound effort. The Texans were the most run-heavy team in the NFL last year with a 67% run rate in the red zone, another mark ripe for a reversal.


What will life after Reggie Wayne look like?

I documented the case across the board in this Footballguys article this offseason from a redraft angle. Looking farther down the road, I am a buyer of the two second-year tight ends, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at their current prices. T.Y. Hilton is more of a deep threat, where he could pop a la Mike Wallace, but is unlikely to be a sustaining force for years to come from looking at the career arcs of speed-based receivers. In addition, watch for the Colts to take a receiver in the first couple of rounds in the draft in 2014 or 2015 as a legitimate replacement to Wayne. Stud quarterbacks are what make viable receivers and tight ends high-end fantasy commodities and Andrew Luck is certainly on the path to being just that in Indianapolis.


Was Cecil Shorts a sell high this offseason?

In my opinion, he was. As a sixth- or seventh-round startup pick this summer, Shorts is in the range of Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, not far after some of the top rookie receivers. Shorts had a good stretch in 2012, but Justin Blackmon will get every shot to be the lead in Jacksonville, at least for another year or two. I see Shorts’ upside as a mid-level WR2 with that ceiling not sustaining itself for more than another year if everything falls in line. This is definitely a more pessimistic view than the consensus out there, but color me skeptical with Shorts’ high drop rate, unsustainable touchdown rate, and fluky yards-after-catch figures from a season ago.


How much will Andy Reid and Alex Smith affect the passing production?

Not as much as folks think. Alex Smith has been a decent manager of a passing game at times in his NFL career, most notably his 30 touchdowns against 10 interceptions between 2011 and 2012, but nothing to elevate the play of his weapons. Smith has some of the lowest average depth of target figures over his career, which aids greatly his ability to avoid turnovers. Finally, the 49ers were very run-heavy during Smith’s time there, making his role secondary on offense outside of a sporadic few games. Like Arizona, the Chiefs quarterback situation was horrific last season, so Smith should help the causes of Dwayne Bowe and company. That said, the 49ers teams of Alex Smith’s past were not exactly smooth running efficiency machines. Expect a bounce back from Dwayne Bowe to solid WR2 status and monitor young stashes like Jonathan Baldwin and Travis Kelce for their potential development.


Is Lamar Miller the lead back?

Miller was the first fantasy-viable running back to get a carry this preseason and he promptly fumbled. Good thing we do not overreact to every shred of information in August, right? It is worth noting that Miller proceeded to rip off a couple of nice runs later in his limited snap count against Dallas. The fact of the matter is there is very little behind Miller on the depth chart. Daniel Thomas has underwhelmed through two seasons and Mike Gillislie, like most fifth round running backs, will be lucky to see more than a handful of snaps as a rookie. Miller will get every opportunity to be the lead back on an improved offense in Miami. The vertical presence of Mike Wallace should keep safeties back more often than not giving favorable looks for the run game. Injuries or lack of performance will be the only things preventing Miller from the majority of backfield touches this season.


What exactly does life after Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez look like?

The smart money in dynasty circles is on Rob Gronkowski this offseason. He has been a beast efficiency-wise and owners can finally get a discount because of the concerns about his forearm and back. Missing a handful of games to start 2013 is a drop in the bucket for a 24-year-old difference maker that has outperformed Jimmy Graham handily on a per-game basis. Danny Amendola has WR1 upside in PPR scoring, like the man he is attempting to replace in Wes Welker, but remaining healthy has eluded him for basically his entire career. For that, Amendola is firmly outside my top-20 dynasty receivers. I have Aaron Dobson a tad higher in the rankings than Josh Boyce, but based on their relative cost, give me the faster and thicker Boyce on the backend of dynasty rosters. Stevan Ridley is a tenuous dynasty asset with his volume and goal line dependency and the week-to-week fluctuations of the New England offensive game plans. Ridley is a functional low-end RB2, but one with plenty of downside to his market value in the next year or two. The offseason hype for the team has been the apparent Sproles-like role for Shane Vereen. First off, I am skeptical that Vereen sees the consistent work like Darren Sproles, a true moveable chess piece in New Orleans. Secondly, the historical examples of a second or third round running back elevating to fantasy starter status after two ho-hum seasons is rather slim. Vereen has been on-and-off injured, but his points-per-game output has been insignificant. Of the ten prior cases of Round 2-3 backs with similar per-game output to Vereen in year one and two, just one, Shonn Greene, had more than five points-per-game his third season. Lamont Jordan also had a span of production, but that was far later in his career. Player comparisons like that are not the end-all be-all for future predictions, but I like to use them as a rough guideline to the most likely outcome. What this tells me is that Vereen has an uphill climb to actual top-24 running back value in dynasty especially considering he does not have an athletic profile that gives good reason to buck the historical trend.


Is there any value to be mined on this offense?

 Chris Ivory has been a puzzling player to track this offseason. I understand that a starting running backup has at least some value, but Ivory has not even been on the field for 400 snaps in three seasons. He has not been able to stay healthy and has three career receptions. Three. Expectations need to be held in check from an upside perspective, especially in PPR scoring. Owners of Ivory have a golden opportunity to profit nicely from whatever their investment was prior to 2013. I advise taking the gain now. Geno Smith is going cheap enough in rookie drafts to be a worthwhile flyer as a QB3. I am not a fan of Smith developing into a top-15 option at a future point, but the price point here is dirt cheap. Santonio Holmes looks totally done. Jeremy Kerley was the lone bright spot on offense last season, but outside of landing in a luxurious location and taking on a Wes Welker-light role, his upside is about WR30-35 in PPR scoring. Stephen Hill still has some intrigue with his burst, straight-line speed, and ideal size. The entire organization needs a healthy revamping, including Geno Smith or a future drafted quarterback to pan out, but Hill is a name to remember in the Round 11-13 range of startups or as an add-on piece to acquire in a bigger trade.


Who is Latavius Murray and why should you care?

Murray has been one of my ‘pound on the table’ targets in the third round of rookie drafts this offseason. He was easy to acquire in that range of drafts in May, but the general dynasty population is catching on now. In fact, I saw Murray drafted in the mid-second round just last week. Murray has some physical similarities to Adrian Peterson. The key word is similarities, not in the same world as a runner, but honestly who is? But when Peterson pops up in a comparison search for a player, my ears perk up like a dog to a siren. In addition to his physical attributes, Murray sits in an enviable position for any young running back with upside: behind the walking injury report known as Darren McFadden. The depth chart is conducive to Murray getting early playing time with just hybrid player Marcel Reece and over-the-hill Rashad Jennings as his apparent competition. Murray is the ideal stash down the depth chart because he has the long-term potential as Oakland’s starter in 2014 as well as the short-term value pop if (read: when) McFadden misses a few games this season.


What does the future hold for LeVeon Bell?

The passing game plain does not excite me. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have been largely hovering around replacement-level efficiency since entering the league despite Ben Roethlisberger being above-average. Neither of them are ideal red zone threats, giving little reason for me to expect more than a random low WR2 season or two from them, if any, in the coming seasons. Heath Miller had a career year in 2012 after sub-par efficiency in 2010-11. On to the real question which is LeVeon Bell. Of all the rookie running backs, Bell had the least competition to an immediate windfall of work. That is a double-edged sword because many dynasty owners folk to the land of instant running back starter-hood and brush some of the research into the player himself under the rug. That can lead to a poor long-term investment as they chase short-term running back points. Bell actually graded out as the top running back in this class according to my projection model. He was productive in college, active in the passing game, and has good enough speed for his Larry Johnson-type size. His three-cone drill was a surprising mark at sub-6.80 and his 10-yard split essentially equaled Giovani Bernard and Johnathan Franklin’s in this year’s class despite being nearly 30 pounds heavier. In terms of comparable players as a prospect, Bell has a decent list of names including Larry Johnson on the high end and Mikel LeShoure, Marion Barber, and Tim Hightower as other productive NFL backs. Bell’s comparable players list backs up my thoughts as a future dynasty commodity: likely RB2 for a few seasons with steady, but unspectacular, production. As a result, Bell sits as a mid-to-late RB2. Being just 21 years old as a rookie helps his case as a fifth or sixth round startup pick.


Should this offense be avoided all together?

Vincent Jackson is long gone, Antonio Gates is on the downside of his formerly glorious career, and former first round pick Ryan Mathews has been anything but a sustaining element to the offense. Danario Alexander, one of the lone viable stretches by any San Diego player in fantasy terms in 2012, recently torn the ACL in his good knee to boot. Now to assess the remaining pieces in an offense that was once one of the most efficient in the entire league. Danny Woodhead is one of the most talked about fantasy values on the team. That’s really all you need to know when assessing the dynasty landscape here. Danny Woodhead. He is a nice niche player, but what is his real ceiling? Moving on. Malcom Floyd has been a decent WR3 at times, but the injuries are cropping up and at 32 years old, he is a dynasty afterthought. Eddie Royal has been disappointing since 2008. Yes, 2008. The support of Vincent Brown is a complete mystery to me. Small, slow, and injured is not the combination I look for down my wide receiver depth chart searching for upside to beat the odds. Brown has some ball skills, but I refuse to overvalue players that seem propped up by a perceived lack of competition around them. The more talented competition will eventually come. Keenan Allen falls into a similar group as Brown. Allen may seem like low-hanging fruit for those nabbing him with late first-round rookie picks this year with his chance for early playing time. Allen has been slow to recover from his ankle surgery and was he really all that athletic prior to it? Allen may develop into a decent possession receiver in the NFL, but I doubt that will prove worthy of a first round rookie pick fast-forwarding ahead a few years.


Will this be the year for Kenny Britt?

It has been four years of flashes, what ifs, and more off-the-field storylines than huge games for the former first round pick. The 15-game stretch Britt put together between 2010 and the start of 2011 prior to his injury was one of the most efficient receiver stretches per target in recent memory. That includes Calvin Johnson. In short, Kenny Britt has ‘it’, that ability to beat anyone in one-on-one coverage, come down with any jump ball, and put up 200 yards and multiple touchdowns any game. Stringing together that ability into meaningful fantasy production is the thing that has eluded Britt. Dynasty owners have been patient and his startup ADP has remained in the top-80 every step of the way. A player oozing Britt’s upside can only fall so far with age on his side. All the reports have been glowing this offseason as Britt approaches a contract season. The Titans drafted Kendall Wright in the first round last season and Justin Hunter in the second this year. Neither of those young receivers poses a big threat to Britt if he plays to even 80% of his upside. The Titans quarterback situation has been woeful for two straight seasons, which Britt has performed well above. Britt’s best case may come in 2014 with a change in scenery and more importantly at quarterback, but his 2013 upside is still high enough to warrant a priority spot as a WR4. Few possess Britt’s ability to win fantasy matchups by himself at the receiver position and with his most-affordable price tag since his rookie season; it is too early to throw in the towel now.