We've been making mountains out of molehills (in the words of ESPN's Matt Williamson) all offseason, so it's almost a relief to know that new data is coming from camp reports and preseason games to correct some of our entrenched assumptions build up while we whittled away the time between football seasons. Which situations and changes should bear the most fruit in terms of honing our understandings of just what we have to work with entering our 2015 fantasy drafts? Let's start with the AFC East, a division that features three strong defenses, one strong offense, one offense on the rise, and two just struggling to find their identity (and quarterback).
1. Tyrod Taylor? Really, Tyrod Taylor? - The prevailing winds out of OTAs seem to be filling the sails of Tyrod Taylor, but that could just be the stinky play of Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel. Taylor is a life preserver for this offense. If it sounds like he is even barely adequate as a passer, that would be a win for this whole offense.
2. Stand By Your Man - Fred Jackson has been the bedrock of this team for ages now, but his 2.35 million dollar price tag from last summer’s one-year extension could seem unnecessary with LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams added to the team in the offseason. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman knows Boobie Dixon from their time together in San Francisco, so Jackson (or Bryce Brown) as the odd man out is certainly in play. If the Bills did part ways with Jackson, his fantasy value could actually gain a good bit if he landed in New England, a widely speculated match once the specter of Jackson getting released was raised.
3. Too Many Mouths to Feed - For a team with possibly the worst QB situation in the league, the Bills actually invested a good amount in the passing game this offseason. Charles Clay is a quality pass-catching tight end and Percy Harvin was allowed to be more of a conventional wide receiver in New York with Rex Ryan last year. Add them to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, and you have excellent depth to divvy up a small passing game production pie. Watkins is the obvious top of the pecking order, but the spread may not be large. We’ll be watching to see who Taylor or whoever the Bills start at QB will favor in the passing game.
Going Up: Tyrod Taylor
Going Down: Fred Jackson
Biggest Wildcard: Percy Harvin
1. 96 Million Dollar Man - Ryan Tannehill’s big extension is really only a small raise over the next two years and then four years of options for the Dolphins to pay him like a top quarterback, so it’s up to him to earn those numbers. Branden Albert is coming back from injury to anchor the rebuilt offensive line, but the passcatching group Tannehill will target has had turnover at more than half of the roster spots, so early reports on chemistry and timing in this uptempo offense will be a good early indicator of the direction Tannehill is headed. This offense could take a big step forward in year two under Bill Lazor
2. Casting the Passing Offense - Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings, DeVante Parker and Jordan Cameron are going to be four of Ryan Tannehill’s top six or seven targets this year, and none were on the team in 2014. Jennings has been the subject of positive reports and Parker has had to go under the knife again since they joined the team. Who will grab the early momentum to be prominent in Tannehill’s vision? Or will no one really click, making Jarvis Landry even more central as the only incumbent target in Miami? The fortunes of the offense as a whole and the individuals involved will be implicated by how this group settles in, but don’t forget Parker if he is sidelined for the whole summer and gets a late start a la Odell Beckham. He was impactful in Louisville last year after an absence caused by the original break in the foot he had operated on again earlier this summer.
3. No Cartilage No Cry? - Jay Ajayi apparently has a knee issue that made teams question his long-term outlook to the extent that a 2nd/3rd round rate back fell to the fifth round. We’ve seen other players maintain the high level of play Ajayi has already established, but the leaguewide reception of Ajayi can’t be overlooked. Of course, this concern is more of year three or four of his rookie contract issue than year one. The Dolphins already seemed inclined limit Lamar Miller’s weekly workload. Ajayi could make that call even easier for them with a strong summer. Miller has bulked up and his reports could fall anywhere from “asserting himself as a feature back” to “seems less effective at his new weight”.
Going Up: Ryan Tannehill
Biggest Wildcard: Jay Ajayi
New York Jets
1. Chan Can? - Our Chase Stuart broke down the reality behind the narrative of new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey improving QB play and the numbers do bear out Gailey making subpar QBs viable in actual NFL games. Can he do that with Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick (whom he did it with in Buffalo at the pinnacle of Fitzpatrick’s career) this year? And even if he does, is “viable” good enough to make us care about this offense in fantasy leagues? What we see on offense for Jets this preseason will look a lot different than what we saw at the end of 2014.
2. Who’s #1? - Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall just missed each other by one year in Denver, but destiny has united them on this enigmatic Jets team. Gailey will breathe life into this pass offense and both Smith and Fitzpatrick are aggressive throwers who can create more fantasy production than their reputations would lead to you to believe. Marshall is going multiple rounds before Decker, but there is a real possibility that Decker (who battled hamstring injuries for the first half of 2014) outproduces Marshall, acquired essentially for a meaningless bump from a seventh to fifth round pick. 2014 second-round tight end Jace Amaro theoretically has a chance to matter in an offense that seems tailored to harness his skillset, but buzz has been lukewarm at best.
3. Ridley Me This - Even though he was known for his sometimes residency in Bill Belichick’s doghouse due to ball security lapses, Ridley was actually an efficient, balanced back who seemed well-suited to produce when given volume. He’s recovering from an ACL tear, but the Jets were willing to sign him away from their rival without assurance of Ridley getting back to who he was before the injury. We’ll learn a lot more about the progress of Ridley and how the Jets envision him fitting it (if he does at all) in the next month and a half. Chris Ivory is capable if he can stay healthy, but that has been a big if during his career. Whether Ridley or Rams cast-off Zac Stacy (or even hyperaverage Bilal Powell) is set to gain from any Ivory injury is an unanswered question entering camp.
Going Up: Eric Decker
Going Down: Jace Amaro
Biggest Wildcard: Stevan Ridley
New England Patriots
1. The Jimmy - We still can’t be sure how many games the Patriots will need Jimmy Garoppolo to start, or if they even will. Greg Hardy’s suspension being reduced to four games has led to nearly unanimous speculation that Tom Brady’s suspension will come down from four, but in the meantime, let’s go forward as if Garoppolo will start four games. Matt Cassel did well enough to merit a second-round pick in a deal after not playing a meaningful game since he was in high school after Brady went down in 2008, but his first four games weren’t pretty. The Patriots leaned more on the running game during their three wins, and Cassel was a disaster in the loss. Cassel completed 70 of 104 passes in that stretch, mostly because at least six completions went to Wes Welker on short passes (take note Julian Edelman owners). He only compiled 707 passing yards and three touchdowns in those games, but Rob Gronkowski owners should be pleased to know that Randy Moss still had two games with over 100 yards and a score despite the anemic numbers. We’ll be gathering whatever clues we can to piece together who Garoppolo will favor when he starts. Sigmund trusts Jimmy will make Gronk and Edelman startable no matter what.
2. Clean Slate for Gray? - Jonas Gray rumbled for four scores against the Colts last year, just like LeGarrette Blount did in the 2013 playoffs. Gray happened to miss a meeting the week Blount became a Patriots (on a two-year deal) basically for free after the Steelers washed their hands of him. Gray can provide a similar power element to Blount with better burst and fresher legs. Gray will get the week 1 start vs. the sometimes suspect Steelers run defense, and if he looks like he did against the Colts, then Belichick could reconsider the power back role, that is if Gray has a strong summer to restore his standing with the team. We’ll also monitor the performance of injured reserve waiver steal Tyler Gaffney.
3. Passing Back Auditions - 2014 fourth-round pick James White, one-time Browns buzz back Dion Lewis, and former Saints speedster Travaris Cadet will compete in camp to replace Shane Vereen in the passing-down back role best filled by Kevin Faulk back in the day. Vereen didn’t exactly make the role into a fantasy mainstay, and none of this trio will likely approach his level of effectiveness, so there isn’t much here for fantasy leagues. The more interesting angle is the possibility that Julian Edelman or even Danny Amendola get more high percentage targets if none of the candidates rise to the occasion, or the chance that a grizzled vet like Ahmad Bradshaw, Pierre Thomas, or the aformentioned Fred Jackson get added to fill the hole in a concession to the lack of quality and experience in the current group.
Going Up: Jonas Gray
Going Down: A lot of running backs
Biggest Wildcard: Jimmy Garoppolo