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 look at the AFC South, a division that features one great offense, one great defense and three very questionable quarterbacks.
1. In Search Of… a QB - Ryan Mallett or Brian Hoyer? And should it even matter? Hoyer seems to have the better deep accuracy and can put it on the screws at times within play structure. Mallett seems better outside of play structure and has a vastly superior arm. Neither one is going to even be among the Top 20 quarterbacks in the NFL, but some positive reports would make it easier to buy into DeAndre Hopkins at his third-round ADP. Mallett did not have the benefit of Arian Foster in either of his starts last year and we know Hoyer too well from his play last year, so look for Mallett to win this one. If it appears either quarterback is “backing into” the job, it could be a red flag for this whole offense.
2. Fostering a handcuff - If we felt reasonably confident Arian Foster was going to play 16 games this year, we’d have him in the mix with Jamaal Charles to be the third running back off of the board. Instead, he’s a late first to mid-second round pick because we feel reasonably confident he’ll miss time, the only question is how much. The Texans have a strong defense and their running game is the core of their offense (Alfred Blue got 36 carries in one game in place of Foster last year), so there’s a strong chance that another Texans back will be a startable fantasy commodity this season. The problem is we don’t know which one. Alfred Blue was barely adequate last year, but he has experience in the system over Chris Polk, who is the better natural talent and receiver out of the backfield. I expect Polk to win this job and see him as the back with a better shot a real fantasy value if a Foster injury pushes him into the lineup, but will monitor this one closely in the preseason.
3. A Strong Start - Cecil Shorts is slated to be the #2 wide receiver in Houston after he was signed in the offseason, but his durability record suggests that he won’t be the only player to start at that spot this year. Jaelen Strong fell to the third round despite having first-round measureables (and projections from some in the draft community). If he can have a strong summer, Strong can situate himself to be first in line behind Shorts, in addition to possible snaps as a “big slot” to get his foot in the door. Nate Washington made a habit of getting in the way of developing young wide receivers in Tennessee, and he looms to do that to Strong if he starts slow.
1. Battle to be WR3 - A pass offense that had Hakeem Nicks in a central role last year gained Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett in the offseason. Donte Moncrief should be ready for prime time after promising moments in his rookie year, which means the Colts have four receivers for three spots - and that’s only if they scale back the two-tight end sets as offseason reports have indicated they will. Who will be the primary third receiver? Will the team rotate Dorsett and Moncrief? Will the two-tight end sets be reduced as expected? Johnson and Hilton’s roles should be stable, but the next in line will have high ceiling weekly play value, and fantastic injury upside.
2. Robocop Redux - Dwayne Allen had trouble staying healthy again last year, and that might just be his destiny in the NFL. He did change his offseason regimen to help maintain health and admitted he wasn’t healthy for most of last season, not just the time he missed. If that’s the case, Allen at 100% could greatly exceed expectations - that is if the Colts make him the tight end that is on the field most often when they go three-wide. It only makes sense with his blocking ability, but the Colts have been known to make decisions about playing time that don’t make sense. The most important thing here is that if the reports say Allen looks like a new robo… err, man, it is possible that there is a good reason for that, and it’s not just summertime fluff.
3. Fountain of Youth/ReUnion - Head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coach Rob Chudzinski have ties with free agents Andre Johnson and Frank Gore that go all the way back to their time together at University of Miami (Florida). Johnson will play with by far the best quarterback of his career and Gore will play in by far the best offense of his career. Both could be big parts of winning fantasy teams riding the wave created by Andrew Luck, or they could show their age, much to the dismay of the Colts and their fantasy owners. So far all signs point to the former, but there’s more data to gather from reports this summer.
1. Bullyball Install - The Jaguars offense was the lowest scoring in the league last year, so the team let offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch go and brought Greg Olson in to get back to basics. By signing tackle Jeremy Parnell away from the Cowboys and drafting mauler A.J. Cann and big back T.J. Yeldon, the team has signaled a move towards a “bullyball” mentality on offense that will also help get more off of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles’ plate. This is not the place to look for big passing numbers, but if the running game is clicking and the mindset is a good fit this personnel group, Yeldon could be the biggest first-year hit of the deep 2015 rookie RB class.
2. Strengthening the Weak Link - Making Blake Bortles’ job simpler is the first step, but there’s still a lot of work left towards helping him get more feel and calm on the field than he displayed in 2014. Certainly getting Allen Robinson back and adding Julius Thomas in free agency helps, but the real task is getting Bortles game in line regardless of who he is targeting. Better targets should help create more confidence, but the Jaguars risked fouling their #3 overall pick by rushing him on the field last year, and now need to undo what was done when Bortles looked confused and imprinted bad habits in year one.
3. Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson - Allen Robinson came out of the gate as a precocious 21-year old who quickly became Blake Bortles’ security blanket. Now, he’s garnering rave reviews in OTAs, and he might present roughly the same upside and risk as DeAndre Hopkins and Kelvin Benjamin at a fraction of a cost. If the unanimous kudos continue, Robinson will have to move up draft boards from his sixth-round ADP.
1. Married to Mariota - After speculation about a trade down with Philadelphia (among other teams) ran rampant for months, the Titans ended up taking Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the subject of all of those trade up rumors. The team has basically said Mariota will start no matter what, so this summer will be our window into how they are going to meet him halfway. Oregon’s system is unlike any in the NFL outside of Chip Kelly’s, so Mariota will have a lot to learn, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt and company will have a lot to alter in the offense in year one if they want Mariota to succeed. We’ll watch for the prevalence of quarterback running plays, any changes in tempo, and plays with the kinds of reads and progressions that were featured in the Oregon passing game to see Mariota could be a rookie quarterback we care about in fantasy or an anchor the keeps this offense at the bottom of the ocean.
2. Backfield in Motion - Bishop Sankey was a resounding disappointment of a second-round pick that was supposed to revitalize the running game. It’s possible that the introduction of a running quarterback and a potential upgrade from Zach Mettenberger as a passer will help Sankey get over the hump this year, but the team drafted David Cobb from Minnesota, a hypercompetent back who can get some of the tougher yards Sankey left on the field last year. Chances are it is best to avoid this backfield even at a discount because hey, it’s the Titans, but we should still gain some clarity in the direction it will take this summer.
3. Nix Nicks - Justin Hunter got arrested just in time to help clarify the Titans wide receiver situation a bit. Hunter was already in a "make or break" year, so now the door is open for rookie Dorial Green-Beckham to walk through it, but the Titans also signed Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks in free agency. Forcing the veteran Nicks (or even worse miscasting the slot receiver Douglas outside) feels like the Whisenhunt move here. Also keep tabs on rookie seventh-rounder Tre McBride, who showed the talent of a 3rd/4th rounder on tape at William and Mary. It's possible he could be ahead of Green-Beckham this summer as the more polished prospect who hasn't been off for a year and nursing a hamstring injury this spring. No matter who wins, it's still the Titans, so the answer probably won't move the needle in fantasy drafts.