It's getting real as the big dress rehearsal of Week 3 of the preseason and the heaviest volume draft weekends of the summer quickly approach. Many things are the same as what we thought coming into the preseason, but others are changing. Here's what's on my mind about AFC teams.
LeSean McCoy was an avoid player for me all offseason, and his hamstring injury only enhances that stance, even at a lower ADP. Fred Jackson (and maybe Karlos Williams) soon are better fits for this running game. Jackson should be a late target in drafts, and he’ll have a lot closer value to McCoy in fantasy leagues this year than ADP indicates… The Bills pretty much have no choice but to roll into the season with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. While this is not good news for any piece of the passing game, the very low investment in Taylor means the team can go “all-in” on a read option running game. The bar is very low for fantasy quarterbacks to be relevant, so be open to the Taylor having at least upside backup value in fantasy leagues, starting Week 1 against the porous Colts run defense… Dan Carpenter is healthy and should be a top kicker target with the likelihood of low-scoring defensive battles and red zone futility in Buffalo.
This offense is a potential juggernaut on paper, as long as Branden Albert is and stays healthy. Ryan Tannehill has a very high ceiling as the pilot of a fast-paced weapon-laden offense that also calls for him to run the ball at times. He is an ideal 1A in a QBBC… It’s hard to say which of those weapons will benefit the most, but every single Dolphins pass catcher on your board has the ability to outproduce ADP. Jarvis Landry could (should?) catch 100 balls as the only incumbent target. Jordan Cameron is a big play tight end who should have a lot of room to operate in the middle of the field. Kenny Stills is a deep threat who could show that it wasn’t all Tannehill holding Mike Wallace back. DeVante Parker is a sizzling talent at the catch point and after the catch and could be an immediate impact player without much seasoning. Greg Jennings is a technician who could be a high volume target in a rhythm uptempo offense. Expect a hot start on the road at Washington for this passing game… Lamar Miller is a damned good running back and he’ll benefit from the increased level of danger for opposing defenses against this passing game. Fantasy RB1 numbers are within reach for the speedy back who is also an underrated pass catcher. Damien Williams was replacing him at the goal line in the second preseason game, but he promptly fumbled through the end zone. In an ironic twist, the play was ruled down before scoring, but then clarified to a touchback after Miami head coach Joe Philbin challenged the spot.
I remain firmly convinced that Jonas Gray is at least as good as LeGarrette Blount as an inside runner, and he certainly offers more speed and initial burst. With one game to get his foot in the door against the weak Steelers run defense, Gray is an ideal late/last round pick that you can plug in as a flex in Week 1… Brandon LaFell hasn’t practiced all offseason and now Reggie Wayne can take the edge off of his upside once he does return. With no information on the nature of his absence and the size of role potentially changing, LaFell can’t be taken until the 12th-13th round at the earliest... Danny Amendola (yes that Danny Amendola) has been the healthiest Patriots wide receiver and he has momentum coming out of the 2014 season. Julian Edelman is battling a foot/ankle injury, so there are multiple paths to value for Amendola in PPR leagues. Give him some consideration in the very late rounds... Tom Brady might miss some games this year for his role in DeflateGate, but I highly doubt it will be four. He’s a fine QB1 to take and pair up with Sam Bradford or Carson Palmer if you like waiting at the position.
New York Jets
Ryan Fitzpatrick is certainly not a downgrade from Geno Smith considering that he has played the best football of his career under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. His dunk and dunk style might limit big plays, but it should also give Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker even more weekly PPR upside. Jace Amaro looking like a wash for 2015 because of his shoulder and lack of momentum only helps Marshall and Decker… Chris Ivory is basically Marshawn Lynch, but human, which is a good thing. Stevan Ridley won’t figure into this backfield early in the season, and Bilal Powell will get touches, but not perform nearly to Ivory’s level. If you can get Ivory in the 7th/8th as your RB3 or leadoff in an RB2BC, you did very well. Consider taking him in the sixth if you’re going upside down/do the opposite/zero RB.
Brian Hoyer being named the starter is not good news for DeAndre Hopkins. Hoyer is more of a nickel and dime quarterback who can operate well within structure but also can kill drives single-handedly when he is asked to do more… Cecil Shorts is generating buzz as a slot receiver, and if he stays healthy and produces, it will help Hopkins and the offense a ton. He’s not quite worth a pick himself, but he is material to the value of this offense as a whole… What little news we’ve gotten about Arian Foster is positive. There’s a real chance he’ll be playing by Week 4 or 5, albeit in a limited fashion at first. The price is going up, but he’s still easily worth a 5th or 6th round, especially if you neglect running back early. Foster is an automatic fantasy RB1 once he’s back on the field, and he has returned to that level after back surgery last year. Perhaps this is the straw that broke the camel’s back injury-wise, but Foster is the type of player that knows his body well. If he feels good enough to re-take the field, he’ll good enough to help your fantasy team.
Without much fanfare, Frank Gore hasn’t missed a practice and continues to impress all observers around the Colts. If you were confident enough to spend a third round pick on him going into the summer (I was), you should be even more confident now… The Colts have an unhealthy fascination with Coby Fleener and they may use Dwayne Allen as a blocker to a frustrating extent, but he still has a chance to make a big splash for fantasy this year. He was the team’s most efficient red zone receiver by a large margin, he’s lighter and healthier this year, and if rational heads prevail, he’ll be the tight end on the field when the team goes three wide. He’s my favorite upside tight end to take in the 10th or later whether you’ve taken a top option earlier or not… TY Hilton got a big contract and is still the #1 receiver in one of the best pass offenses in the league. He’s a “safe” third round pick with upside to spare.
The news that the team will start out the season with a split backfield and aim to get TJ Yeldon more work as the year goes on has him at the bottom of my RB2 upside tier. Denard Robinson is a very good running back with more home run ability than Yeldon and Toby Gerhart is better passing down back. Yeldon is good, but not the kind of talent that will blow very solid NFL players like Robinson and Gerhart off of the field… Allen Robinson hype has died down after a loud offseason. If the Jaguars have a terrible season he could benefit from more pass-heavy game scripts, but if they are competitive he might struggle to be more than a high floor PPR WR3. Julius Thomas was the subject of much more optimism before breaking a bone in his hand, and if he stays healthy, he could really help owners who are getting him at an injury discount right now… Blake Bortles might be showing some improvement in mechanics and mindset, but he was a preseason all-star last year. The team is looking to take things off of his plate offensively, which should tell you all you need to know about his fantasy value this year, and his ability to elevate the value of his targets.
Marcus Mariota is going to be functional, but he will keep defenses compressed close to the line of scrimmage. The Titans haven’t shown much will to use him as a runner, which limits his fantasy upside. This pass offense is very unlikely to produce a breakout player this year… It was great to see Bishop Sankey run with some conviction on a well-blocked play, and the reshuffled offensive line could give him more of those this year. The Titans are still going to be one of the worst teams and offenses in the league, and the team will use three, if not four running backs. Sankey still seems like a player that will be tough to trust in any given week this year.
Lorenzo Taliaferro is a little banged up, which could open the door for Buck Allen to have the upper hand in the backup/change of pace competition, but look for the team to use both if Justin Forsett goes down. Speaking of Forsett, I see little reason to expect him to drop off from last year’s low RB1 production level. It can be scary to trust players with limited track records, but Forsett’s increased PPR potential justifies it… This passing game has Steve Smith and, uh, hmm. Well Kamar Aiken and Crockett Gillmore could be interesting deep league or emergency plays. Our excitement about Breshad Perriman in the Torrey Smith role has been dampened greatly by his missed camp and preseason. He was raw for a first-round pick and needed that preparation. There are better rookie and young wideouts to take a flyer on late in your draft.
Andy Dalton reminded everyone why we can’t buy completely into the Bengals offense no matter how many weapons they have. Dalton is a critical point of failure in the chain, and that should make it more difficult to buy into the Bengals becoming one of the better offenses in the league this year. Dalton’s late round ADP is on point despite his top five finish in 2013… Tyler Eifert has the skills to pay the bills as a fantasy tight end, but if he’s a consistent part of this offense, someone else is going to suffer (unless you believe Dalton will actually iron out the problems in his game). Passing on talents like Eifert in the second half of your draft is tough, but there are a lot of mouths to feed from this Dalton-sized spoon, and we know he’ll lean on AJ Green when the bullets are flying… I just can’t put Jeremy Hill in my top 15-18 players. He’s a badass and Giovani Bernard could be relegated to a Darren Sproles/Shane Vereen role, eliminating some game script worries, but I see Bernard as better than that, and Weeks 13-14 + the wild card game last year are scary templates for how things will go if the Bengals struggle in any given week. Hill was a monster against the likes of Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Cleveland with a not ready for primetime Johnny Manziel. How many games like that will they enjoy this year?
Johnny Manziel is getting his confidence back, and Josh McCown is showing that he should be benched as soon as the team has even a little bit of trust in Manziel. Manziel’s running ability and playmaking ability will make him a viable QBBC/streamer as soon as he takes the field, and with a good performance in the third preseason game, that day could be coming early in the season… The Browns have one of the best offensive lines in the league and they should make the running game viable no matter who is lining up in the backfield. At this point Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell seem to have missed their chance to seize control of this situation. If Duke Johnson Jr can pop a la Ameer Abdullah and stay healthy for the next few weeks, he’ll have Abdullah’s upside at a fraction of the cost... Don’t look for any sleepers in this passing game, but know that Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin have come on to give the team two speed threats to stress defenses that might be crowding the line to defend the run. A good offensive line can mask quarterback deficiencies as well as a bad offensive line can create them.
Maurkice Pouncey’s injury is a major bummer, and it reduces the high end of the projections for the Steelers offense this year. Any time he plays this year will be a bonus. It still shouldn’t scare you off of Le'Veon Bell early in your draft (even #1) or otherwise make you materially move any Steelers down in your rankings. Before the Pouncey injury, everything was ideal in this situation. It’s still very good, and Roethlisberger/Bell can handle offensive line adversity well with their playing styles… Martavis Bryant wasn’t in on two-wide sets in the second preseason game, but he was in on over 70 percent of Roethlisberger’s 22 snaps. Markus Wheaton’s value is on the upswing, and if he holds off Bryant, it means Bryant could be a disappointment at ADP to the tune of being a 7th-9th round boom/bust WR3/Flex instead of a 3rd-5th round upside WR2. Wheaton seems to be more in tune with Roethlisberger this year, but Bryant’s deep speed and long frame will be tough keep off of the field unless Wheaton continues to excel. Taking both Bryant and Wheaton at ADP feels like an excellent angle to get part of this passing game and potentially profit twice.
There has been some hang-wringing about CJ Anderson, and with only a half-season track record under his belt, I get it. Still, the Kubiak offense (assuming the offensive line is functional) gives Anderson #1 overall running back upside, and he has gotten over some conditioning issues that kept him in wait in 2013 and 2014. Ronnie Hillman is a nice complement. He is not going to threaten Anderson’s role as a lead back. The risk discount with Anderson is already priced in when you can get him at the end of the first round… Emmanuel Sanders hamstring issue has ended up being more than minor and we should remember that he had foot problems during his tenure with Pittsburgh. Cody Latimer has gotten on the same page with Peyton Manning, and he could be a season-changer if Sanders’ hammy issue is a harbinger of health problems this year… Was Peyton Manning’s quad injury an excuse for his decline last year or the decline manifesting itself? Between that question and the Kubiak offense taking the foot off of the gas, Manning isn’t worth a pick as a top four quarterback this year. Unlike the other older quarterbacks, we’ve already seen Manning show signs of nearing the end, and he took a pay cut this offseason to boot. It’s not a hard call for me to take Ben Roethlisberger or Russell Wilson over Manning.
With Jeremy Maclin and a full-go Travis Kelce, there’s a narrative of a more vibrant, productive Kansas City offense developing, but that still requires betting on Alex Smith. Smith is uninspiring and as long as Dontari Poe can anchor this defense effectively coming off of back surgery (and soon), the Chiefs will probably disappoint from a fantasy standpoint… I do still like Travis Kelce because we have no idea what kind of numbers he can put up with no limitations. He was only cleared to run one month before camp last year, which explains the Chiefs’ reluctance to completely take the reins off of him last year. Smith’s meek nature when challenging defenses actually plays into Kelce’s hands, and Maclin’s vertical threat will give him more room to operate in the middle of the field… Despite offensive line injuries, some worries about nagging injuries last year, and murmurs about limiting workload, I can’t quit Jamaal Charles. If 2014 was Charles when he’s not quite right, that tells me he is still playing at a Hall of Fame level. Once Bell, Peterson, and Gronk are gone, I’m going with Charles. That being said, the running back depth is good enough around the 2-3 turn that going to the shelter of a top wide receiver instead of Charles can work.
With some nice offensive line pieces, a real #1 receiver, and a better collection of talent at running back, this offense could be coming up from the depths. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will try to work some of the same magic that Bill Lazor did down in Miami after working with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. I’m not drafting any Raiders with the expectation that this offense will respectable, but I’ll adjust my expectations quickly if they perform against the tough opening trio of Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Cleveland… If you have a feeling about Latavius Murray and Amari Cooper, I won’t talk you out of targeting them for that reason. Still, Derek Carr has to show some growth in year two for it to matter. Murray wasn’t nearly as impressive after the Kansas City game last year. Cooper could be a high volume PPR wonder, but big plays and touchdowns will be hard to come by unless the offense takes that next step.
Philip Rivers can’t get any respect in fantasy circles. He was basically an elite fantasy quarterback in the first half of last year, including vs. the likes of Buffalo and Seattle. Keenan Allen is going to be a lot better than he was during that stretch last year, Danny Woodhead is back, and even with Antonio Gates for the first four games, Rivers has more than enough weapons to get back there this year. You can get him as one of the last starters off of the board in a 12-team league… Speaking of Allen, he sounds ready to fulfill the promise many had for him in fantasy circles going into last year. He’s a nice fifth-rounder in PPR leagues… Speaking of Woodhead, he was a fantasy RB1 in PPR leagues for an eight-game stretch in 2013 and Melvin Gordon III doesn’t look like a big threat to take over this backfield any time soon. Woodhead is terrific value in PPR drafts right now… Speaking of Gordon, it’s hard to have confidence in him anywhere near a 3rd/4th round ADP right now. Branden Oliver looks like a better player and Woodhead will still have his big role in the pass and hurry-up offenses… Ladarius Green is a good late-round target if you are going with a streaming tight end approach this year. It is entirely possible that he makes good on his enormous potential as a big athletic pass catcher to rip the seam and present red zone mismatches while Gates is out, and forces the team to rethink their plans at tight end.