The Gut Check No.300: Gut Checks Part I

Matt reveals the first half of his emerging thoughts from his initial round of fantasy projections. 

In the scope of the off-the-wall adventure that has been my life since August 1999, I've been slammed with a convergence of projects since January and it has been impossible for me to post rankings here at Footballguys by the normal deadline of May. But fear not my my friends, readers, benefactors, and even you trolls who dwell under the URL bridges of the interwebs. I will be posting rankings this month and writing two articles featuring my tiers for PPR and non-PPR formats. 

This week, I'm sharing thoughts from my projection process. I considered naming this column From The Head, but the title sounds like I create my projections in the bathroom and the only equipment I bring with me to that part of the house is what is permanently attached. Of course, this isn't From The Gut, either. This column has been around before that title came to someone's mind around here (a quality title notwithstanding). 

Who cares what to call it: Here's the first part of a team-by-team tour of what players, situations, and thoughts (both converging a diverging) that emerged from crunching the numbers last week. Part Two will be out later this week. We'll see how these questions, issues, and stances evolve as we enter the preseason. 

Arizona's Ground Game

You can say that I've bought into Andre Ellington as a fantasy starter. After my first round of projections, Andre Ellington is my No.11 running back in PPR and No.12 option in non-PPR. It's higher than I imagined before I crunched the numbers. 

Yet, I still believe Ellington's low-RB1 projection is a shaky one in non-PPR leagues. I'm projecting 10 total touchowns--7 on the ground, 3 through the air--for the second-year runner. The difference between Ellington and my No.21 runner in non-PPR is about four touchdowns. That gap of four touchdowns is smaller (No.16 runner) in PPR formats.

Like those who collectively generated Ellington's ADP of RB14 in PPR and RB17 in non-PPR, I'm more comfortable with the Cardinals runner this high in PPR formats. Even so, I'm concerned that Ellington's ADP is a closer reflection of his upside more than his fantasy midpoint or floor. 

The reason is touches. I'm projecting Ellington for 220 carries and 50 receptions. Despite the fact that Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry, he did it on 118 attempt. I'm skeptical he'll reach 4.5 yards per carry as the lead back earning a projected average of 13.75 attempts per game. Some of my colleagues are projecting 5 yards per carry for Ellington, and a ypc that strong is a high bar as workload increases. 

What this means is that I'm optmistic about Ellington reaching his upside, but it's not much better than his average draft position. He's available at the end of the third round, which I find a worthwhile risk-reward for a back when I'm not using the Upside Down Draft strategy. However, I find it difficult to believe in the possibility of Ellington earning more than 240 carries during his career. 

Ellington is built a lot like Brian Westbrook. He's a decent runner between the tackles, but he's not a back built for wearing out the opposition. Westbrook only passed the 240-carry threshold once during his 9-year career. At the same time, Westbrook was a top-20 fantasy runner for 6 consecutive seasons and 4 of thos years he was a top-10 RB.

Ellington has the potential to offer similar fantasy support, but you'll need to feel confident that his passing game totals will put him over the top. While 50 receptions is a nice sum, Westbrook had four seasons between 70 and 90 catches and 6 years with at least 60 grabs.

This information leaves me concerned that we could be a year early on Ellington's true emergence.

How Will Atlanta Distribute Gonzalez's Receiving Totals?

The future Hall of Fame tight end accounted for 850-930 yards and 8 touchdowns in the Falcons' passing game for the past three years. Levine Toilolo isn't capable of picking up the slack on his own (I have him at 390 yards receiving) and there isn't a third wide receiver with the ability to match Julio Jones and Roddy White's production. It means the production gap the passing game will need to make up to 400-460 yards to  cover Gonzalez's absence if Matt Ryan is to meet or exceed 4500 yards in 2014.

And this is presuming that Roddy White and Julio Jones will return to form. One view I've seen is Harry Douglas earning a second consecutive 1000-yard season. From the stand point of target distribution that Douglas had before the White/Jones combo got hurt and during Gonzalez's reign, it's possible to combine the Gonzalez's leftovers with Douglas' pre-2013 targets to approach the sum needed for Atlanta's slot receiver to earn 1000 yards. 

However, I also think it will require a tight end or runner to do enough damage in the middle of the field that defenses can't focus on removing Douglas from the equation on a lot of targets he'll need in order to reach that 1000-yard mark. Because I believe Toilolo isn't the caliber of receiver to approach Gonzalez's upside, the burden of work will be on the backfield. 

Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, and/or Devonta Freeman will have to get a lot of work as receivers to make up the difference. How many teams in the NFL have a combined 100-120 receptions from its backfield? Well, Atlanta was one of them last year with Jason Snelling in the fold.

It's why my QB14 ranking of Ryan feels 4-6 spots too low, but I'm not ready to make an adjustment just yet.

Can Steven Jackson Be A Double-Digit TD Threat? 

I'm buying it. I realize there's a contigent of analysts and fans buying "the future is now" with Devonta Freeman, but Jackson played some of 12 games behind a makeshift offensive line and teams daring Atlanta to throw because White and Jones were out of the picture for much of the year. Jackson was hurt all year, too. 

The real Steven Jackson was available for the first quarter of one game last year--the opener versus the Saints when he showed the burst, strength, and agility in a 16-touch, 122-yard performance that I expect to see more of this year. Sure, the terrifying running back cliff is looming fast on Jackson's career, but his ADP is RB30-31 (non-PPR/PPR) and I'll take my chances there if White and Jones are healthy enough that opposing defenses can't crowd the box. 

Lots of Gum-Flapping About Steve Smith Appearing a Step Slower And Dropping Passes Last Year

The Ravens' new receiver is tearing up camp in Baltimore. The naysayers tell us it's just camp.They explain that Smith is slower and he dropped passes last year.

Smith may no longer have the speed to consistently beat the top corners in the league on nine routes, but if you think that's all that makes his game valuable to an NFL team, you're not watching close enough. Or, you're judging Smith on his past standard as a one-man wrecking crew of defenses in Carolina--a team that hasn't found a quality receiver to work opposite Smith since Mushin Muhammad (and I'm talking the first go-round with Panthers that ended in 2004). 

Even when Muhammad was a top-producer, the Panthers never had a quality receiver that could rival Smith's speed. Although Smith may have lost a step, so did Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin when they worked opposite Torrey Smith in Baltimore and posted top-20 fantasy production.  

Steve Smith still has enough athleticism to earn separation as a quality starter and he possesses the technique and understanding of defenses to find openings--especially paired with a vertical threat like Torrey Smith. As for the drops, Steve Smith's percentage (5.31) last year was consistent with seasons where he was more productive. 

In other words, people are grasping for reasons to eliminate Smith as a vaiable fantasy starter rather than downgrade him from a fantasy WR1 to a WR2 or WR3. If there is a reason to drop Smith from consideration as a fantasy starter it has to do with his role in the Ravens' offense and new quarterback Joe Flacco

But I wouldn't go there if I were you. Flacco is more willing to throw open a receiver than Cam Newton. He does it with Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, and he did it with Mason and Boldin. Steve Smith may no longer fit the Carolina offense, but I'm buying him in Baltimore.

He's a 12th-round pick according to ADP data for 12-team leagues. I'm projecting 65 catches, 900 yards, and 5 touchdowns for Smith, making him WR39 on my current list off PPR threats. Give or take 5 catches or a few touchdowns and Smith could easily be WR25-WR30.  

Why I Can't Step to The Altar of C.J. Spiller

I feel like I write about this monthly. I love his talent and if you can get value at QB, your second WR or TE then I get why Spiller is worth a third-round pick. Even so, I find it a riskier third round pick than I like because he has never exceeded 207 carries in the NFL. He's played all but three games in four years, but his 207-carry workload in 2012 is his largest workload to date.

Fred Jackson maybe another year past venerable and Bryce Brown might be one of the five most talented underacheivers at his position in the league, but between them I still find it difficult to imagine Spiller earning more than 225 carries this year.

How many backs in the past five years posted top-24 production with 225 carries or fewer? How many of them were considered third-round picks according to ADP (in bold)?

Only seven players on this list of 27 had at least a third-round ADP the year that they earned top-24 production at their position with fewer than 225 carries. Three of them were within seven touches of the 225 mark and at least three of them were on track for significantly more than 225 before an injury sidelined them. 

The exceptions were Ahmad Bradshaw and Darren Sproles who appeared on this list mutiple times. They are two players that fit a similar prototype as Spiller (and Reggie Bush), who also earned top-24 fantasy production with only 207 carries in 2012.

However, only five players over the past three seasons have been top-12 fantasy RBs with fewer than 225 touches. While Spiller was one of them, do you view the season as the exception or Spiller as exceptional?

Spiller's potential is exceptional, but is his situation exceptional enough to believe he's worth that third round pick as a player with upside? I'm hesitant, because the matching prototype of players that fit Spiller's style were all in high octane offenses and/or the only receiving back to compete for touches.

Sproles had Pierre Thomas, but the Saints have a quarterback that is great at distributing the ball and excellent supporting talent that keeps defenses off balance. This dynamic keeps Sproles and Thomas from competing for touches as much as complementing each other to create further opportunities. 

I'm afraid this hasn't been the case in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick and E.J. Manuel. The surrounding talent isn't as strong or experienced, and it makes Jackson more of a direct competitor for Spiller's opportunities. This could change with Jackson's age, but Bryce Brown is also an excellent receiver. 

Spiller might be that RB2 in the third round that could help you win your league if he performs like a second RB1, but the risk seems higher than I'd like when looking at recent history, the Bills offense, and Spiller's nagging injuries that don't sideline him, but limit him. 

Is Kelvin Benjamin A Better Fantasy Value Than Jerricho Cotchery? And Is Either Option Really a Good One?

Benjamin is WR51 and Cotchery is WR75. That's two full rounds of ADP value to chew on. While the rookie's upside is much higher on paper, I prefer the veteran and the list of reasons are enough to generate pause for any open-minded reader: 

  • Benjamin is slow for a primary option: Give Benjamin a few steps without opposition and he can break tackles and maintain enough of a pace to generate extra yards. Give 95 percent of the starting receivers in the NFL the same advantage and the results will be similar. In other words, the first statement is that uttered from a Benjamin apologist. 
  • Benjamin has difficulty getting off the line of scrimmage: Not only is he slow but as I've mentioned in the 2014 RSP, Florida State protected Benjamin at the line of scrimmage to prevent defenders a chance to jam him. There are only so many routes a team can fashion for Benjamin in this protected spot in twin and trips sets and within 4-6 games, defenses will grow wise to what the Panthers do. If Benjamin was a great 50-50 ball receiver it might not matter if the opposition gets hip to the scheme. However, this is not the case. 
  • Benjamin has highly inconsistent body control in jump-ball situations: When Benjamin puts it all together it's beautiful, but it wasn't not nearly as common as it should have been. He lacked control with his turns and positioning to win the ball and he rarely got both hands on the ball at the same time. It's only going to be tougher to win these targets against NFL defenders. 
  • Cam Newton's jump-ball is not his strength: Newton did a fine job with back-shoulder throws at Auburn, but there's a difference between this timing route and throwing a fade into tight coverage. Steve Smith had the skill to win these targets despite his diminutive stature. One might argue that Benjamin provides a larger target so Newton will have an easier time. I'm not convinced this is true. Winning jump balls is less about size and more about timing, positioning, focus, and excellent hands. Benjamin has the size to earn and maintain position, but the rest of his skills need a lot of work. In contrast, Derrick Mason and Brandon Lloyd were two examples of smaller receivers capable of winning the ball in tight coverage. Unless Benjamin gets a lot better fast, I'm skeptical how many of these plays Newton and Benjamin will connect on this year. 

 Jerricho Cotchery may lack the size, but he's faster than Benjamin, he understands defenses, has reliable hands, and he knows how to run NFL-caliber routes. Even if Benjamin scores twice the number of touchdowns as Cotchery--and I nearly expect him to do it--I think it's unrealistic to expect Benjamin to improve his routes so much that he'll come within 20 receptions of Cotchery if both stay healthy. 

Where I expect to see Benjamin thrive is the red zone and if he does I agree with Sigmund Bloom's rationale the Panthers will have to make it a target-rich envrionment for the rookie to produce. I have Benjamin at 40-485-7 and Cotchery at 65-812-4.

Last year, Cotchery was 46-602-10 as the No.3 receiver in Pittsburgh. The three seasons before Santonio Holmes arrived in New York, Cotchery had two years with 82 receptions and a third with 71 catches. Unless two of Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King, and Marvin McNutt turn into much better receivers overnight, I doubt Cotchery will be riding the bench in Carolina. 

If my projects are close to accurate, Cotchery is at least 3.5 fantasy points per game better than Benjamin and available two rounds later. The question is then does it matter to fantasy owners? In PPR leagues, Cotchery is a low-end WR4--a high-end bye-week option. Benjamin is a low-end WR6--a low-end bye-week option. 

If Benjamin earns 12-14 touchdowns, he could break into the top-40 if his receptions total breaks the 60-catch mark. For context, Jimmy Graham caught 5 touchdowns with Drew Brees targeting him as a rookie. Benjamin isn't even as quick or agile as Graham and as much as I like Newton, he's no Drew Brees as a passer. 

As for Cotchery, I can see defenses giving up enough underneath routes that the vetern could earn up to 75-85 catches and become a top-25 fantasy receiver this year. Consdiering that Cotchery's ADP is 221, I'll take the veteran who has a lot less to learn over the big guy who had to be protected in Tallahassee. 

Should We Be Rooting Against Jonathan Stewart

The "right" answer is no, but if winning games in fantasy leagues is wrong then I don't want to be right. Stewart has discovered yoga and the early reports in camp is that he's healthy and the burst is back. 

I know we've all heard how great Stewart's potential is, but let me add a layer I mentioned years ago about him that may have more relevance to the football public now. The Seahawks have recently made the news for their use of SPARQ scores when scouting football players. The score is based on a variety of atheltic events pieced together and Seattle claims it has helped them find quality late-round picks and undrafted free agents. 

Jonathan Stewart's SPARQ score was 97.54. To give you some context, Reggie Bush's SPARQ score was 93.38 and he was in the 100th percentile of athletes at his position. Entering 2010, Stewart had two years as a top-24 fantasy runner--including an 1100-yard, 5.1 ypc, 10-TD effort in 2009 on 221 carries. 

Stewart has been limited or missed extensive amounts of seasons due to injury since 2009, playing only 15 games the past two years. But can Stewart perform like the player he was in his early 20s? 

The player Stewart reminds me of as an athlete is Ricky Williams. If Williams could post 1100 yards, 10 touchdowns, and do it with a 4.7 ypc at 32 after embracing yoga and starting only 6 games in 3 years, it's possible that Stewart could do the same. 

But possible and probable have a healthy gap in the meaning department. Another reason against probable is the Panthers. I doubt they stick DeAngelo Williams on the bench and limit Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton's red zone touches to the benefit of Stewart's statline.

At the same time, a healthy Stewart only hurts Williams' chances as a low-end RB2 unless the Panthers perform like the run unit of 2009 when both backs were RB1s. I'd like to see Back to the Future in Carolina, but don't count on it. Stewart is a 12th round pick and Williams is a 10th round pick on a team that should run the ball enough that at least one of them--barring a Kenjon Barner or Tyler Gaffney miracle--could be a tremendous value as an RB2. 

They're both low-end RB3s with my current projections, but the upside is high enough for both players that they're worth taking late. I really don't want to root against either player. Maybe we can hope for a mutiny in Charlotte and they run the wishbone. 

Jay Cutler is The Ultimate Tease Worth Getting Suckered Into 

Yes, Josh McCown outplayed Cutler last year, but the Bears' incumbent starter was still on track for a top-10 fantasy season at his position prior to injury. I know there's enough ranting and raving from sportswriters who say that Cutler isn't a winner and he'll never be one.

Whatever. In this space, I care more about him as a producer than if he's a winner. With Forte, Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett working down field with this young, talented offensive line providing time makes Cutler worth the risk as ADP's QB14 (my QB13). He could easily out produce the second and third tier of QB1s this year.

The top-15 at quarterback seems loaded this year. While there are some first-tier passers I'd rather not take because I like the value of the second and third tier better, there are only two passers I have in the top 15 that truly scare me and neither of them are Cutler. 

Jeremy Hill Is A Tool (For Giovani Bernard Owners)

Bernard is one of those potential pass-catching Spiller fantasy exceptions capable of earning top-24 production without earning 225 carries, because his potential reception totals could exceed 60 catches. I have Bernard at 200-840-5 on the ground and 60-565-3 through the air, but I'm regarding Hill as a rookie with more potential to earn BenJarvus Green-Ellis' carries without putting a great dent in Benard's production.

Green-Ellis had 220 carries and 4 receptions last year. I currently have Hill at 160-630-5 on the ground and 9-65-0 through the air. It's enough leeway to add another 60 carries (another 4 per game) and still not cut deeply into Bernard's opportunities.

This summer, I'm keeping a close eye on Hill--not so much as a player I want to draft (not yet) as much as a gauge for Bernard's upside. If Hill struggles in the passing game or looks inconsistent in short yardage, Bernard could have more Ray Rice-like upside. If Hill looks good, think of HIll has Correl Buckhalter to Bernard's Brian Westbrook.

Who Is Ben Tate's Backup? And Are The Browns Receivers Worse Than Carolina's? 

Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine believes rookie Terrance West has special qualities as a prospect. I believe if Isaiah Crowell can stay off that special white school bus with the cage mesh on the windows, he's the guy that could force some tough choices for Pettine.  

However, I'm not counting on Crowell in any way, shape, or form until there's some tangible evidence that he has gotten his act together. Still, I'm not a believer in West until I see him look good against a team that has 300-pound linemen and 250-pound linebackers. 

The best option behind Tate might be recently forgotten Dion Lewis. If Lewis is healthy enough to compete, we'll see soon enough if Pettine and his staff aren't suckers for height/weight prototypes. If they aren't, I expect Lewis to earn the No.2 or No.3 spot on the depth chart. 

The only way it doesn't happen for an open-minded staff is if Crowell plays and behaves to his potential. But after Josh Gordon's troubles, Cleveland will be super sensitive about hints of trouble from any other massive talent with off-field issues teetering on the brink of disaster. 

Speaking of Gordon, the Browns' receiver appears one step closer to "what could have been" while his supporting cast could be little more than a list of has-beens and never-weres. If Miles Austin can stay healthy he's capable of an 80-catch, 1000-yard season, but I'd bet Jerricho will play more games with consistent production than Austin even if Austin has more upside. ADP (WR81 Austin, WR75 Cotchery) tells me I'm not alone. 

There's some love for Andrew Hawkins in the neighborhood. He could be high-end PPR producer in the slot, but look around the depth chart after Austin and so could Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett, and Travis Benjamin. Tori Gurley is big and slow like Panthers' rookie Kelvin Benjamin and Charles Johnson is an athletic wunderkind from a small school returning from an ACL tear.  

If Austin can't be a consistent presence on the perimeter then the Browns better be inventive in the middle of the field with Hawkins and Jordan Cameron. The Saints have been successful with Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Lance Moore, and Darren Sproles muddying the waters between inside receiver and outside receiver so maybe Cleveland can do the same. 

If Gordon blew his last shot at staying in the NFL last weekend, the Browns will give the Panthers stiff competition for the worst--or at least--least proven unit of receivers in the league. Fortunately, the entire depth chart is a late-round/free agent grab. 

Are We Overrating Jason Witten and Underrating Terrance Williams?

Witten is the consensus TE6 and Williams is WR37. I have both in similar spots (Witten TE6 and Williams WR38), but Williams potential for the big play in the vertical game vs. Witten's red zone upside is a close call.

At age 33, can Witten deliver another top-5 season at his position? If so, it's likely to come at the expense of Williams' reception and yardage totals. If not, Williams could earn an 80-catch, 1000-yard season with 8-10 scores. 

Heading into training camp, I have Witten at 70-815-5 and Williams at 60-900-6. Witten is the better value on my list, but the changing of the guard could happen at any point. Watch closely. 

Are We Too Cautious about Emmanuel Sanders This Year? 

The former Steeler is unproven in the sense that he has never delivered a 1000-yard season or earned primary receiver targets in an NFL offense. However, Sanders may well be this year's reminder that we're projecting the future and not living in the past. There's a reason both the Patriots and Broncos showed interest in Sanders as quality contributor. Here's my quick take on Sanders from the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio: 

Sanders ia  tough football player for a smaller receiver. He is fearless as a punt returner and he is skillful at gaining yards after contact because he will lower his pads into a defender in the open field. he will also hold onto the football after taking a hit during the act of making the catch. SAnders is excellent at adjusting to the football in the air and making clean catches with his hands away from his body. he tracks the deep ball well and he has the speed to stretch the field. he should have no problem developing into a slot receiver with potential to become a starter if he can develop good route skills and releases against press coverage. He tends to take a lot of risks in the open field as a runner, but he's a lot like Mardy Gilyard with better pad technique to finish runs and more natural hands.

Reports from Denver indicate that Sanders looks great and stands to become a significant component of the offense. The Broncos have had no worse than three, top-20 fantasy wide receivers since Peyton Manning arrived out West. 

Sanders has never been better than WR35 in fantasy football and current ADP has him as WR39. This is living-in-the-past thinking rather than projecting the future. The Steelers offense is not an aerial juggernaut and its unlikely to match the Broncos this year even if Antonio Brown's stablemates rise to the occasion.

I have Sanders as WR22 with a line of 75-1080-7 and I believe the ranking could be too low. Wes Welker's age and concussion history plus Julius Thomas' tendency to leave his game on the turf when jostled around makes Sanders a good bet as second banana to Demaryius Thomas

Decker and Sanders were not that far apart in my rating of their potential when they entered the NFL in 2010. If I'm right about underrating Sanders,the Broncos' new addition will pick up in Denver where Decker left off and out perform the WR3 moniker from fantasy owners and even my WR2 label. Not bad for a seventh-round acquisition. 

Are We Underselling Golden Tate's Yards Per Catch Potential? 

I think so. Tate has a YPC of no less than 14 yards for the past two seasons and my colleagues at Footballguys are projecting a sensible 14 YPC for Tate in Detroit.

Calvin Johnson's YPC has been at least 16 yards for the past three seasons. He was the No.13 receiver in the NFL with 14 percent of his receptions earning least 20 yards. 

Tate is No.21 on the list with 12 percent of his catches earning 20 yards or more. Interestingly, former teammate Doug Baldwin was No.3 last year with 19 percent--tied with Josh Gordon

Tate has the speed and the rebounding ability to win the ball in tight coverage. Matt Stafford has the kind of reckless confidence to deliver these targets to receivers who demonstrate this prowess. Don't be surprised if Tate, ADP's WR34, out-performs that figure.

I have Tate as WR27 with 70-982-8. Considering the egregious drops I saw from Kris Durham and the rest of the Lions receivers spending more time at the large animal hospital than the field, I think Tate will thrive in a way Detroit hasn't seen from its No.2 receiver since Johnson joined the team. 

Is It Finally Randle Cobb's Year? 

Was Cobb's WR17 season in 2012 his fantasy zenith or is there better yet to come? Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, and James Jones all figured itno Green Bay's attack two years ago. This year, it's the Cobb-Nelson show with a supporting cast that's too inexperienced or lacking in upper echelon talent to rob the spotlight from Cobb. 

Davante Adams is dropping passes in camp and despite the love in the draft, he was a bit of a one-note wonder at Fresno State. Then again so were Lee Evans and Chris Chambers and they had some strong seasons between them in the NFL. Jarrett Boykin could have a higher ceiling than I expect, but I suspect Ted Thompson didn't take Adams, Jared Abbrederis, and Jeff Janis because he was satisfied with Boykin as the future primary option on the perimeter. 

I expect Cobb to approach 80 receptions and surpass 1000 yards this year. If he can earn double-digit touchdowns, you're looking at a top-10 fantasy receiver. If he comes close enough, the top-15 is reasonable.

Cobb is my WR15 and if you expect top-5 fantasy QB play from Aaron Rodgers, this is at least where Cobb figures into the equation. 

Has Ryan Fitzpatrick Ever Had Receivers This Good? Will It Matter? 

Steve Johnson is a fave around these parts because the inimitable Sigmund Bloom and Cecil Lammey met him at Travelle Gaines' facility. That's not entirely true, although sometimes it feels like it. Johnson has been a decent NFL starter four of the past five years. 

But who else did Fitzpatrick have in the Bills receiving corps remotely as good as Johnson--a middle of the road producer at his position compared to the rest of the league? No one. 

Fitzpatrick had a 3800-yard season in 2011 with Johnson, David Nelson, and Scott Chandler. The Bills QB was a fantasy QB1 without a receiver or tight end that was better than a WR/TE2. 

Now in Houston, Fitzpatrick will be targeting Andre Johnson (in theory), DeAndre Hopkins, and Garrett Graham. Hopkins has a chance to become a better player than Steve Johnson and Graham is a better receiving tight end than Chandler. If Johnson doesn't protest his way out of town, Fitpatrick will have the best supporting cast he's had in the NFL. 

Talk all you want about Fitzpatrick starting well and finishing poorly year after year. It may be true, but doesn't the entire team have to adjust to defenses as well? Was there enough of a quality supporting cast to help? 

The answer was no. If Houston can stay healthy, a Fitzpatrick-Johnson connection has similar upside as Schaub-Johnson and Hopkins-Graham could elevate Fitzpatrick into the 4000-yard range if it all comes together in Houston. 

I know, I'm dreaming. I'm projecting Fitzpatrick as my QB22 because the expectation of the new offense is lots of running. But if the former Harvard Lawn Gnome develops a red zone rapport with Hopkins and/or Graham in addition to keeping Johnson happy, he could surprise fantasy owners yet again.

Remember, the Seahawks and 49ers run a lot and play good defense. It leads to opportunities to be aggressive in the passing game or at least easier chances to move the ball through the air when playing with a lead and the opposition doesn't want your offense to bleed the clock dry. 

Andrew Luck Should Take The Next Step, But Who Will Accompany Him There? 

On paper, it's Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, and Hakeem Nicks as the base receivers with some rotation between one of those three and Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. We always hear about the great progress that a player is making as he rehabilitates an ACL. Only a couple of times has that progress met the hype.

Fantasy owners seem scared of Nicks' injury history, but none of his dings have seemed career-threatening. The fact that Tom Coughlin told the media that Nicks needed a change tells me that there was something happening in the locker room or off the field that was weighing down Nicks as much as his collection of limiting injuries.

Truth be told, Nicks and Hilton are the in the best position to turn in 1000-yard seasons and Nicks has the skills to earn double-digit touchdowns. If the reasons Nicks needed a change of teams are minor (which we'll probably never learn about before the season begins),  I'm counting on a 75-1030-8 year from Nicks at a 55-893-6 year from Hilton--possibly more if Reggie Wayne's return doesn't merit my projection of 60-720-4. 

The Colts have the talent to move forward, but between this receiving corps, the teetering on the bring nature of the running backs, and the poor offensive line play in recent years, Indianapolis could also be the most disappointing fantasy team related to its overall talent. 

Still, Nicks at WR42 and player 105 overall is worth the risk.

Don't Get Too Excited About Blake Bortles' First-Team Reps In OTAs

I could be wrong, but I believe the Jaguars drafted Bortles with the intention to sit him this year. Chad Henne may lack Bortles' upside, but the Jaguars' offensive line is not ready for prime time and it could be ruinous to a rookie who has to much to learn about reading complex defensive coverage schemes.

The last thing you want is to create a quarterback that becomes mentally tentative or beat the aggression from his game. This is what could easily happen in Jacksonville when pairnig a rookie with this line and two rookie receivers.

Henne has a veteran presence, an understanding of the offense, the confidence to get his team aligned in the right spots, and the skill to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Fans may scream for Bortles by midseason, because of his athleticism and the belief athleticism to make playground-caliber plays will be an improvement over Henne's concrete feet, but it will only be a good idea if Bortles truly has a mastery over the offense. 

Those first-team reps Bortles received last week? He "received" them, he didn't "earn" them. The Jaguars wanted to give the rookie exposure to first-team defense and the tempo. In other words, it was a soft introduction. 

If Henne gets hurt early in the year, I wouldn't be surprised if the Jaguars acquired a veteran to keep Bortles off the field. None of this makes Henne a great fantasy starter, but in the long run Henne's work in 2014 might be the best protection for Bortles' dynasty future.

Later this week, Part II of Gut Checks.