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 NFC East, a division with a coach-driven offense, an offensive line-driven offense, a passing game-driven offense, and an offense searching for a driver.
1. The best Randle in the division? - The Dallas backfield has been watched more closely by the fantasy community than any in football, and we still don’t have clarity in August. Or maybe we do and we just can’t accept it. Joseph Randle is slated to be the top back, with Darren McFadden mixing in and Lance Dunbar getting a lot of passing down work. Randle is in line for maybe 15 carries a game, with McFadden and Dunbar doing their parts to replace Demarco Murray’s touches with more than one player. The team could still bring in another running back, but it is doubtful that they would usurp Randle’s spot. What does that make Randle worth? Every week the price seems to go up a round, and it might settle in the third round by the time the season rolls around.
2. A Re-Balancing Coming? - Believe it or not, Tony Romo threw fewer passes than Russell Wilson last year. The Cowboys were one of the run-heaviest offenses in the league last year, with the third most rush attempts and second-most rushing yards. This helped Romo have Aaron Rodgers-level efficiency. If the overall quality of the running game goes down in the wake of Demarco Murray’s departure, Romo and his targets could experience a leap in pass attempts and overall production as long as the efficiency doesn’t go off of a cliff with more attempts. The Cowboys will likely show their aspirations to keep the run-heavy split intact, but paying attention to who Romo leans on in the passing game will help us react if the team does have to be more balanced by necessity this year.
3. Third Year’s the Charm? - Ascendent talents at wide receiver are a cornerstone of every draft plan, but one name rarely mentioned is Terrance Williams. Williams has already shown that he can be a viable deep threat in an offense that has a do-everything WR1 and a few short/intermediate targets. It seems like ancient history fantasy football history to revisit when we expected wide receivers to break out in year three. Well, Williams is there, and he has the size and speed to be more than a one-trick pony - or at least very good at that trick. He’s on the list of players to listen for the drumbeat of “he’s getting it” at this crucial juncture of his career.
New York Giants
1. Cruz Control Working Again? - Early reports on Victor Cruz are positive. He avoided the PUP list to open camp, and while his usual explosion and speed aren’t back yet, he is still well ahead of expectations after his horrific patellar tendon injury last year. If Cruz is ready to be a big part of the pass offense, that could shave a little off of the upside of Odell Beckham, Rueben Randle, and Larry Donnell, while helping Eli Manning and the entire Giants offense. Cruz’s ADP has been steadily dropping during the offseason, but it could pendulum back up if we see shades of the NFL’s most famous salsa dancer in the preseason.
2. Vereen role? - The Giants clearly had a desire to add Shane Vereen in free agency, and they did, to the tune of 4.75 million guaranteed over three years with 12 million plus over the life of the deal. Like Ryan Mathews’ contract, that’s not starter money, but it’s not really backup money either. Will Vereen be a matchup special like he was in New England, with a wildly varying weekly value in PPR leagues? Or will offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo more liberally sprinkle Vereen in between the tackles? Second-year back Andre Williams failed in his big audition last year, and starter Rashad Jennings has been known to have trouble staying healthy. Vereen hasn’t exactly been a picture of durability during his career, so this could be a backfield that sees a lot of change as the season progresses.
3. Reunited and It Feels So Good - With Victor Cruz recovering from a catastrophic injury and Rueben Randle still treading the line between promise and disappointment, the Giants signed James Jones, who was an important piece of the Packers pass offense for many years before signing in Oakland last year. Jones should have little trouble finding his way in this offense, and he could provide more consistency than Randle on the outside at the price of less explosive athleticism. Randle has two forces to overcome to realize his ceiling in Jones and Cruz. While it decreases his chances of hitting, it gives Randle the push to hit bigger if he does unlock his considerable potential.
1. Replacing Maclin - In two years of the Chip Kelly offense, the #1 outside receiver has been a low WR1, despite three quarterbacks and somewhat spotty support from Riley Cooper on the other side. Maclin is gone to Kansas City, and the team will likely use free agent Miles Austin, first-round pick Nelson Agholor and 2014 third-round pick Josh Huff to fill the void. If one of the three can seize the role, they will have most, if not all of that WR1 ceiling. Alternatively, if no one is clicking, Jordan Matthews could get some looks outside, and the passing game is more likely to run through him and tight end Zach Ertz. The how and what of the replacement of Maclin in the offense is a very important story to follow this summer.
2. So many snaps it Ertz - Tight end Zach Ertz was supposed to arrive for fantasy football last year, but save one late season outburst against Washington, Ertz was a disappointment. He has been working on his blocking so he doesn’t have to be replaced during drives, which could give him more snaps, which in turn would lead to more targets, and most importantly, more consistent fantasy production. We need Ertz as a receiver in our lineups, but his blocking in camp and the preseason could be the key to opening up a higher ceiling for the receiving ability that got him drafted in the second round in 2013.
3. Slicing Up The Rushing Pie - The Eagles brought in two running backs in free agency, Demarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, and no one is questioning who will get more touches. Murray got lead back money and Mathews got committee back (five million guaranteed on a 3 year, 11 million dollar deal) money. That is more guaranteed money than the Giants gave Shane Vereen. The Eagles have been around 400-425 carries for running backs in the first two Chip Kelly years. If Murray gets about two-thirds of that and Mathews gets one-third, that puts Murray in the 270-280 range, which is a far cry from the near 400 he got last year. It is enough to be an RB1, but not a high RB1 or first-round pick, at least not if Darren Sproles continues to dominate RB receptions in Philadelphia. The team could tip their hand that they are favoring Murray more or trying to go more run-heavy in 2015 to change this equation.
1. RG3 strikes you’re out? - 2012 seems like so long ago. Robert Griffin III was making the NFL look like his playground, even without Pierre Garcon for half of the season and no real viable targets to speak of in his absence. Injuries led to lost confidence, which led to Griffin looking like a quarterback in the mental fetal position last year - when he wasn’t hurt. Washington might be the most reluctant team to embrace their 2015 starting quarterback, but so far reports have been positive this offseason. Griffin (and the whole Washington offense) could end up being excellent values if he really is back, but even if all reports and action from the preseason agree that seems to be the case, we won’t know until the live bullets are flying in the regular season.
2. Me and Mr. Jones - Alfred Morris has been an early down feature back since the first game he suited up for Washington, but could there be another man in town to cut into his workload? The team needed a third-round/receiving back to replace Roy Helu, who went to Oakland in free agency, and they took a super-sized one in Matt Jones in the third round this year. The tenor and tone of news coming out of Washington on Jones has indicated some major optimism and projection as a feature back. While that doesn’t match most scouting reports on Jones, it is important to note when teams are irrationally exuberant about a player, because they can be forced onto the field. Jones is currently a little banged up, which could slow down his ascent in the pecking order.
3. Garcon rebound? - Going from 113 catches and 1346 yards in an age 27 season to 68 catches and 752 yards in an age 28 season seems like the precursor to a wide receiver dropping off of the face of the fantasy football earth, but Washington is making noise about getting Pierre Garcon more involved this year. DeSean Jackson was not similarly affected by Washington’s quarterback woes, so we really don’t have a good explanation for why Garcon was so ineffective last year. He comes at a big ADP discount from 2014, but unless we see affirmative signs of a return to pre-2014 form in the preseason, it will be hard to bite.