There are many fantasy questions that we are seeking clarity on as training camp sets to begin; in this article, it's time to tackle the most pressing fantasy question for every team in the AFC. You can check out my NFC write-up HERE:
Can Kenneth Dixon finally emerge?
As things stand now, Alex Collins is set to be the team's feature back with Buck Allen as the passing down, change of pace back. That can all be turned on its head depending on how well Dixon looks this preseason. He's the X-factor.
Standing 5'10", 215 pounds, Dixon was my number three rated running back coming out of college in 2016 ahead of guys like Kenyan Drake, Jordan Howard and … Alex Collins. He's a superior athlete to Collins, and despite the perceived size difference between the two, they are essentially the exact same size and weight.
In college Dixon had 87 all-purpose touchdowns, which ranks second all-time in college football history, with a rock solid 5.59 career yards per carry average and on tape athleticism. All of that, of course, means nothing now in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league.
In his 2016 rookie season, Dixon battled through injuries, but in just 12 games, he rushed 88 times for 382 yards and two touchdowns, at a 4.3 yards per carry clip. He added to that, 30 receptions for another score. That's not bad for an injured and time-share rookie who missed most of training camp.
Dixon was primed to emerge in 2017 and spent most of the off-season training with Danny Woodhead, working out at 6:30 a.m. every day and then reviewing plays and tape in the afternoon. Unfortunately, his season was derailed by a PED suspension and then a torn meniscus, causing him to miss the whole year.
Fully healthy, and with an upgraded (and healthy) offensive line, it is likely that Dixon will push Allen back to the bench and even possibly turn this backfield into a full-blown committee. Alex Collins looked great last year, but Dixon is lurking in the background. We should get a clear picture of where this backfield stands by mid-August. Right now, I'm still aboard the Collins train but taking a late stab at Dixon as well.
Two more things to watch for:
Receiver John Brown is a special player who has been unable to stay healthy due to his battle with sickle cell. Dry and extreme heat is supposedly awful for people suffering from the diseases, which makes a move from Arizona to Baltimore a good one for Smokey. He's a great late round grab and has been lightening it up in camp so far.
Finally, while Joe Flacco will most likely remain the Ravens starting quarterback this season and supposedly looks great, if rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson performs well during camp, it would not be a shock to see Flacco traded if a team loses its starter like we saw last year in Miami. The future of this team lies with Jackson, and Robert Griffin III is the perfect backup. Give the running backs a good fantasy boost if this ends up happening.
Is this offense going to have any reliable fantasy relevance?
This is an offense with a ton of question marks and no sure things. With LeSean McCoy looking like he may find himself on the Commissioner's Exempt List for the season, who will step up in his place? Chris Ivory is currently the next man in line, but perhaps they trade for a player like Ameer Abdullah or Jalen Richard. There will be some value in whoever assumes the role of lead back, but keep in mind, this team has a bottom of the barrel offensive line.
In any event, all eyes will be on rookie first-round quarterback Josh Allen. He looks like Carson Wentz, but his play in college was atrocious. He completed just 56% of his passes with a 7.8 yards per attempt average for only 44 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. He's inaccurate and makes bad decisions consistently. Can he surprise and show that it was his college supporting casts fault? It's doubtful, and his supporting cast on the Bills is one of the worst in the league. Without McCoy and behind this offensive line, things will likely be ugly in Buffalo.
Can the team's two top draft picks from 2017 live up to the hype?
Receiver John Ross has dealt with a slew of injuries since college. He had a meniscus injury to both knees, a torn ACL, microfracture surgery and even surgery to repair a torn labrum after the Combine last year, never getting healthy during the season. Yet, despite all of those injuries, he still set an NFL Combine record by running a 4.22 forty and put up a monster 11'1" broad jump.
But don't just dismiss Ross as some mere deep threat, while he may seem to be built more in the DeSean Jackson mold, at his best, he could possibly be as dynamic a player as T.Y. Hilton. He just has to stay healthy and prove that he was worth the 9th overall pick in last year's draft.
The Bengal's second-round pick from last year was running back Joe Mixon who stands 6'1", 228 pounds with 4.45 jets. I viewed him as the second-best running back in last year's dynamic class behind only Leonard Fournette. Over the past three seasons of college draft prospects, he holds the top spot in Graham Barfield's yards-created metric. Unfortunately, in his rookie season, Mixon mostly disappointed as he was stymied by splitting reps with Jeremy Hill, dealing with inept coaching and running behind one of the leagues worst offensive lines. Despite all of that, Mixon finished the season tied for the 10th best Pro Football Focus (PFF) running grade (82) on the season. Additionally, this year the Bengals have dumped Hill, have committed to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (a Chip Kelly disciple), upgraded their line significantly and Mixon has shed ten pounds, coming into camp at 218 pounds. There is a lot of upside with Mixon.
Lastly, Tyler Eifert is coming off yet another surgery, although he stated that he should be ready for camp. Possibly the leagues slowest healer, he is a dominant red-zone threat when healthy. Will he ever be healthy?
Who will be the Browns lead running back?
After signing an extension this off-season, Duke Johnson Jr is set to resume his role as the team’s primary passing-down back, so the battle for early down duties will be waged between Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb.
Many like to dismiss Hyde, but he’s a quality running back and a capable receiver. Working behind a horrendous offensive line last season on the 49ers, Hyde ran for 938 yards and 8 touchdowns, adding 59 catches for an average of around 15 fantasy points per game. He averaged 2.8 yards after contact, which was above the league average of 2.5, and since entering the league in 2014, he ranks 8th of 41 running backs (minimum 350 carries) in yards after contact. Almost more importantly, he finally stayed healthy for all 16 games last season and this year he gets to run behind one of the leagues best offensive lines.
Meanwhile, rookie Nick Chubb is Matt Waldman’s top running back in this year’s class in terms of pure running ability, which is very notable. He stands 5’10", 227 pounds (Hyde is 6’0”, 230 pounds) with solid 4.52 forty speed. Chubb is a no-nonsense runner with good quick area burst and an ability to get tough yards. Now fully healed from a knee injury that he sustained his junior year of college, he will push for playing time right out of the gate. Unfortunately, he was essentially a zero in the passing game in college so his path to significant snaps may be limited this season unless he can prove he can outperform Hyde, who offers some duel threat versatility. Does Chubb need volume to be successful? His early fantasy prospects depend on it. Long term though, Hyde is an eventual goner.
One more thing to watch for is the play of rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway. He stands 5’11”, 200 pounds and ran a 4.41 forty. Callaway would have been considered one of the top 3 or 4 receivers in this year’s class if it weren't for his off-field transgressions. He was charged with sexual assault (which he was eventually cleared of), a misdemeanor marijuana citation, involvement in a credit-card scam that resulted in a season-long suspension, and was caught smoking marijuana just prior to the 2018 NFL Combine. In terms of talent, think this year’s Tyreek Hill, who had similar issues coming out of college. If Callaway stays out of trouble, he’s pushing Corey Coleman to the bench or trade block.
Who will lead this team in carries?
Despite spending a third-round pick on Freeman, the team has seemed to indicate that Booker will head into camp as the team's primary starter. As a runner, Booker has shown very little, averaging just 3.8 yards a carry last season. However, he could carve out a very viable fantasy role as the team's primary receiving back, gaining positive grades in both pass protection and pass catching from PFF. In PPR leagues, he seems like a decent flex play with upside for more.
Freeman was drafted in the third round and is a capable back, but not a great back. He stands 5'11", 229 pounds with 4.54 forty speed, so he looks the part. He was productive in college running for 5,621 yards with 60 touchdowns, adding 79/814/3 as a receiver. However his vision is not great, he's still raw as a pass protector, and he just doesn't really pop on tape. He's a fine back and he's big. If Booker struggles as a runner, Freeman could easily get the bulk of early down and at the goal-line work, while ceding most passing down work to Booker.
Henderson, on the other hand, popped as a runner in preseason last year and is the most intriguing option of the three. Unfortunately when you are a 6th round pick, you are really going to have to earn your carries and an oblique injury has kept him out of all preseason activities. Can he make up ground?
On the receiving end, pay attention to tight end Jake Butt. He stands 6'5", 248 pounds and fell in the draft last year after tearing his ACL at the end of the season. After a redshirt year, he is fully healed and was moving well in OTAs. He has strong hands, runs good routes and makes tough catches. In his final two seasons as a starter for Michigan, he was a first-team All-American twice, catching 97 passes in 2015 and 2016.
One last thing to watch for is the ascent of rookie wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Both are great players and they performed well in OTAs. That said, neither is going to supplant Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup this season, but as their near clones, they should both ascended to lead roles next year. Sutton should at least be on the field in all three-wide sets.
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