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 West, a division full of offenses that saw some big changes this offseason.
1. How Slow Can You Go? - We’ve been treated to an uptempo high-scoring Denver offense under Adam Gase, who re-joined former Broncos head coach John Fox in Chicago after both were part of the post-playoff collapse purging. New head coach Gary Kubiak’s offense is more deliberate, and there have been multiple indications that the size of the offensive pie in Denver will get smaller under Kubiak. The running game production and performance should be a point of emphasis, so it’s possible that Peyton Manning and the passing game will take a double hit. The offense observed in camp practices and on the preseason field will be a good indication to just how much we should walk back projections for players like Emmanuel Sanders.
2. Catching Up To Your Class - The historic wide receiver class of 2014 left a few members lagging behind, including second-round pick Cody Latimer, who never got on the same page with Peyton Manning in addition to an offseason admission that he wasn’t as dedicated as he could have been. Latimer worked with Manning this offseason, and the departure of Julius Thomas could open up a red zone role for him. While Latimer is unlikely to be fantasy relevant this year unless Sanders or Demaryius Thomas go down, his level of play in a limited role will be very important for dynasty observers to watch.
3. A Tale of a Coach and a Tight End - For Owen Daniels’ entire NFL career, Gary Kubiak has been either his head coach or his offensive coordinator. Daniels followed Kubiak to a new destination for the second straight year and signed a relatively rich (for a 32-year old TE with multiple ACL tears in his past) three million dollars guaranteed on a three-year 12.25 million dollar deal. Daniels will share tight end snaps with Virgil Green and James Casey, but there have been enough scores vacated by Julius Thomas for Daniels to remain fantasy relevant if the Kubiak offense install highlights the tight end as it has in the past.
1. Big Mac - Jeremy Maclin returned to the state where he played his college ball to sign a five year deal that included 22.5 million guaranteed dollars. We know he’ll provide tactical value to the Chiefs, giving them the best deep threat they’ve had in a long time after struggling through a season with zero passing scores to wide receivers last year. Maclin’s numbers are in for a big drop from Philadelphia levels, but that fantasy community might be overestimating the size of that fall. The chemistry Maclin and Alex Smith establish this summer and the overall prominence of a vertical passing element in an offense that has been meek without one will be important to note as we decide whether to target Maclin.
2. Unleash The Beast - It ends up that Travis Kelce was only cleared to run a month before training camp last year after microfracture surgery during his rookie year. Now the curiously limited usage of the player who clearly looked like the best downfield target in the Chiefs offense makes more sense. This year, there will be no limitations of Kelce’s snaps, and that could translate to the newest elite fantasy tight end being born. Jeremy Maclin and Jamaal Charles are setting up a “pick your poison” choice for opposing defenses, and Kelce could be the antidote to matching teams with Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham without spending a pick in the first three rounds. Expect unanimous reports about how good Kelce looks this summer.
3. Loosen Up a Little? - Between the Maclin and Kelce stories, and the newest development of immovable object and underrated (for a man mountain) interior pass rusher being shelved with back surgery, the Chiefs are set up to push Alex Smith to limits of what his conservative nature as a passer can handle. If Andy Reid can recast this offense more in the mold of his Eagles teams, the entire offense might be underrated from a fantasy standpoint. The general approach of the team in practice and preseason could be a peek into a more aggressive Chiefs offense that will rise all the fantasy ships sailing their waters.
1. Hangin With Mr. Cooper - A passing game that hung its hat on James Jones, Andre Holmes, and Mychal Rivera last year got a huge upgrade when they drafted Amari Cooper at the #4 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Cooper is an ultra-polished route runner who could garner as many as 90 or more receptions if the new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave installs more uptempo looks after his time under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia last year. If Derek Carr gets locked in on Cooper in the preseason, it could be our biggest hint that the rookie will be a high volume target hog right away. albeit in a scoring-challenged offense.
2. Murray West - For a moment last year, Latavius Murray looked like one of the breakout running backs of the second half of the 2015 season. He scored twice against a Chiefs run defense that hadn’t given up a rushing score all season, including a 90-yarder to the house. He promptly got hurt and never looked quite as impressive upon his return. The size/speed specimen will now be competing with offseason additions Roy Helu and Trent Richardson for touches. He should be able to establish himself at the top of the heap if he plays and practices up to his tools this summer. Be sure to note the tone and tenor of any comments about Murray from Musgrave or new head coach Jack Del RIo.
3. Any Fruit on the Crabtree? - Michael Crabtree came into the league with an uberproductive college career and #10 pick pedigree that pointed towards big catch totals in the NFL. His time in San Francisco was marred by an extended rookie holdout, torn achilles, and being mired in a pass offense that was in the bottom half of the league. Going across the bay to Oakland might not enhance the pass offense prospect much, but Crabtree will get a new start on a one-year “prove it” deal. If there’s anything left there to see, we should start to hear some rave reviews out of camp and preseason games.
1. Allen Arrives a Year Late? - At this time last year, Keenan Allen was approaching third-round ADP after a smashing rookie campaign placed expectations on the second-year receiver to approach WR1 fantasy status. Allen battled nagging injuries early in the season and was only healthy for a short period before eventually falling prey to a broken collarbone and landing on injured reserve. Allen did produce and look like a WR1/high WR2 at his peak, but he’ll need to stay healthy to get back to that level this year. With Antonio Gates out for the first four games, Allen could rule the middle of the field and get off to a hot start to live up to expectations a year, and at two-round discount. He should be generating glowing reports from camp, so if he doesn’t it probably means to look elsewhere at wide receiver in the fourth/fifth round.
2. What Can Green Do for You? - Gates being out for the first four games also opens the door for Ladarius Green, who now his foot firmly placed in the frame. Green is a size/speed freak who has already made splash plays on limited targets in the first three years of his career. Green will be a free agent next year, so this is his audition for the whole NFL, and maybe a chance to force the Chargers to re-think their allotment of snaps and targets at tight end when Gates returns. The connection between Green and Rivers and the size of his role in practices and preseason games should be put under the microscope.
3. Reverse the Curse - Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, and Brian Calhoun all went in the top 75 picks of the NFL draft and all amounted to nothing in fantasy leagues after coming out of Wisconsin. Perhaps unfairly, the Wisconsin offensive line and running game has gotten a reputation for inflating the NFL profile of Badger backs. Melvin Gordon III seems to have the right stuff to bust that myth (?) and the Chargers even traded up to the 15th pick for him to have the chance to prove it in their uniform. Danny Woodhead is back and will get a lot of passing down and hurry up work, but the massive Chargers line and efficient passing game should set him up to make good on his third-round ADP if he can hit the ground running this summer.