There are many fantasy questions that we are seeking clarity on as training camp sets to begin; in this article, I tackle the most pressing fantasy question for every team in the AFC. You can find my NFC write up here: http://bit.ly/2unXGrD
Can Perriman become the man?
Breshad Perriman is one of this season's biggest breakout candidates as he enters his third year in the league. A 95% SPARQ freak of an athlete, he stands 6’2 212 pounds and ran a 4.26 forty. Reports during the preseason have been glowing from teammates and coaches alike. Dennis Pitta stated “nobody is having a better camp than him so far,” while Mike Wallace said that "Perriman will be a top wide receiver (in the league) this year." While the Ravens only went three wide on 56% of their snaps, Dennis Pitta was essentially used as a wide receiver and he is now gone, so expect that number to spike. The addition of Jeremy Maclin is a major buzz kill, but Maclin is an injury risk, Mike Wallace will be 31 this season and Ben Watson is 37 years old. The NFL’s Gil Brandt, who was the head of Cowboys player personnel from 1960 to 1988, recently mentioned that he thinks Perriman has “the ability to become an outstanding receiver … and an explosive talent, something special -- perhaps the best receiver Joe Flacco has ever played with.” That’s some high praise considering he played with Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin. If Perriman continues his march to dominance this pre-season, he’s going to end up being a major steal in drafts.
How healthy is Sammy Watkins' left foot?
The state of Sammy Watkins foot during camp will determine if he will be a sure fire WR1, capable of dominating any defense, or the putrid player that is horrible at playing hurt, finishing last season with a pathetic 28/430/2 receiving line, and as fantasy’s 91st receiver. The team has been taking it easy with him so far in OTAs but how the foot looks once camp opens is key. The Bills lack any proven receiving talent behind Watkins and have 207 targets (second most in the league) vacated from last season. If he is healthy, Watkins is a lock for WR1 production, if not, rookie Zay Jones, who stands 6'2” 201lbs with 4.45 jets could be in for an 85+ catch season. Although, Jones sprained his knee in rookie camp and is already on the shelf, so there is that. Another wild card is free agent Andre Holmes, who is going overlooked but is in line to be starting on the outside, and ol' man Anquan Boldin who will be working out for the team next week.
Can the Bengals skill players finally stay healthy?
For the Bengals it all comes down to health. Tyler Eifert is coming off yet another surgery, this time for his back, and he has stated that he may not be ready for camp. Possibly the leagues slowest healer, this offense takes a big step back without him on the field. We are going to also keep close attention to the health of the Bengals first round draft pick, John Ross. Ross has had a meniscus injury to both knees, a torn ACL, micro fracture surgery and even surgery to repair a torn labrum after the combine. Despite all of those injuries he still set a 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.
Lastly, Giovani Bernard tore his ACL in week 11 last season and he may not be ready for the start of this season, and could possibly find himself on the PUP list, missing the first 6 games of the year. However, by the time he returns, he may not find a job to come back to, as rookie Joe Mixon could easily command a workhorse role. Despite off field issues, the Bengals still used a second round pick on Mixon who stands 6’1” 228 pounds with 4.45 speed. He is by far the most complete running back in this year's class who creates yards on the ground by running tough inside and also by easily getting to the edge, all with Le'Veon Bell type patience. He’s also a very good receiver in the David Johnson mold. It’s high praise, but Mixon’s talents deserve it. Gio’s recovery and Mixon’s ascension will be tracked closely.
Can Corey Coleman live up to his draft position?
At this point, we know what Kenny Britt is, but the real question is how much of a leap does Corey Coleman make in this offense. Last year was up and down for Coleman, after flashing in Week 2, he broke his hand, missed the next six games and then never got things going between poor quarterback play and the emergence of Terrelle Pryor. Coleman ran a limited route tree in college, so some speed bumps were to be expected. Standing 5’11” 194 pounds with a huge 40.5-inch vertical and 4.39 forty speed, Coleman has the athletic ability to emerge in that Odell Beckham Jr. mold. Head coach Hue Jackson has declared that Coleman is the leading man for them at receiver and with 134 targets (23%) abandoned from last season; there is room for Coleman to make his mark.
Two other receivers we will be monitoring closely are rookie tight end David Njoku, who is a future star in the league, and second-year receiver Ricardo Louis, who has supposedly had a great off-season and who has drawn rave reviews from coaches. It remains to be seen how quickly Njoku can adjust to the NFL game, something that often takes tight ends a few years, and if Louis, who stands 6’2” 215 pounds with 4.43 speed, can become a more refined route runner and improve his catching ability. With mediocre quarterback options, I’m not sure any of this matters, but there is a lot of raw talent on this roster, including second year tight end Seth DeValve.
How healthy is Jamaal Charles’ knee?
All eyes at Broncos camp are going to be on this run game and on Jamaal Charles’ knee. He is almost two years removed from his ACL tear and has yet to practice at full speed for any length of time. Unlike other backs his age, there have been absolutely no signs of his legs giving out on him, especially since he hasn’t even played in two years, but will that knee swell when tested? If he is fully healthy, he will relegate C.J. Anderson to a flex play. If Charles is not healthy, Anderson is a high upside RB2.
However, the Broncos do have one of the toughest schedules in the league this year against the run and another major concern is the Broncos offensive line. While the center and guard spots are solid, left tackle Donald Stephenson is easily one of the worst in the league and they are counting on rookie first round pick Garett Bolles to beat him out. Right tackle Menelik Watson is also a major concern, so the hope is that new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's gap blocking, power run scheme, where Anderson will follow his lead blockers, the fullback (fan favorite Andy Janovich) and the pulling guard, should help minimize the line deficiencies. So beyond the knee, we also need to see how well Anderson adjusts to the new run scheme. There is certainly a chance that Devontae Booker or even rookie running back, De'Angelo Henderson, ends up being the better option when all is said and done.
Can the Texans improve their quarterback play?
DeAndre Hopkins averaged just 59.6 yards a game last season after averaging 75.6 and 95 yards per game in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Additionally, per PFF, only 59% of Hopkins’ targets were deemed to be catchable, the 5th worst rate in the league. It wasn’t entirely the quarterbacks’ fault either; route running, effort, precision and technique all regressed last year. For a big receiver, he also fared poorly against man coverage, finishing 20th out of the 50 players Matt Harmon tracked in his Reception Perception metric.
At least the quarterback play cannot be any worse, as Brock Osweiler was PFF’s and Football Outsiders second worst rated passer. The key here is Deshaun Watson and his ability to win the starting job outright, which would be huge for this whole offense and especiialy for Hopkins value. Watson is a leader and a winner, guiding Clemson to a National Championship last year, finishing his college career throwing for over 10,000 yards, 90 touchdowns, and 32 interceptions, adding 1,934 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground. While he can run, Watson is not a running quarterback per se, playing from the pocket often and showing good movement and pocket recognition. He will have to clean up his turnovers and he doesn’t have a huge arm, but head coach Bill O’Brien will hopefully be able to turn him into this year’s Dak Prescott, with short, quick and precise throws. If not, it could be another long year for Hopkins owners. And, oh yeah, per PFF, the Texans also boast the 29th-worst offensive line, and literally only have one good player, left tackle Duane Brown. So there is that too.
How injured is Andrew Luck’s shoulder?
All eyes are on Andrew Luck’s shoulder. He’s coming off of a shoulder surgery and it doesn’t appear that he will be ready for training camp and may not even be 100% by the start of the season. Playing at less than 100 percent could also prove to be dangerous for him, playing behind one of the leagues worst ranked offensive lines. His blind side should at least be fine, anchored by left tackle Anthony Castonzo, but the team’s right guard and right tackle both have negative grades per PFF. They are at least young and all returning, so there is hope they can make a big leap, as consistency on the line is often times more important than individual grades. Luck’s shoulder aside, if everyone can stay healthy, there is no reason he can’t finish the year as a top 5 quarterback. The addition of Kamar Aiken gives them a legitimate third receiver and Donte Moncrief (still just 23 years old) is finally going to break out; despite putting up tight end type numbers last year and playing hurt the whole season himself. Matt Harmon’s reception perception methodology still loves Moncrief and I do too. Lack of a difference making running back, Luck’s shoulder injury and the right side of this offensive line are concerns though. If Luck’s shoulder isn’t healed, it could be a long season for everyone on this team and T.Y. Hilton is going to be a major let down as an early second round fantasy pick. Between 2014 and 2016 Hilton averages nearly 17 fantasy points per game (fpg) with Luck and only 11 fpg without him, that's a line of 5.4/88.84/0.43 with Luck per game and 4.1/63/0.2 without.
Will this defense ever live up to its hype and potential?
The Jaguars should be all about playing good defense to keep games close, and running the ball to chew up clock and keep games close. The team added a number of talented defensive weapons this off season in defensive lineman Calais Campbell (#2 rated by PFF), corner A.J. Bouye (#2 rated by PFF) and safety Barry Church (#11 rated by PFF), to bolster an already strong core of players in second year corner Jalen Ramsey (#23 ranked by PFF), defensive lineman Malik Jackson (#7 rated by PFF), in addition to potential breakout second season players Dante Fowler Jr. (just arrested for a road rage incident) and Myles Jack. Can this group finally come together and live up to their potential, as potential eventually has an expiration date, as fired head coach Gus Bradley just found out.
On the offensive side of the ball, the goal is to keep the ball out of Blake Bortles hands and put it in Leonard Fournette’s belly. Offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, took over mid season and is back with the team again. Under him, the Jaguars improved their rankings in several categories including time of possession (30th to 13th), goal-to-go efficiency (15th to fourth) and red-zone efficiency (16th to fifth). The Jaguars rushing attack also improved under Hackett from 30th in yards (72.6) to fifth (124.8) in rushing yards per game, 26th (3.79) to 13th (4.35) in yards per rush and from 32nd (38) to first (112) in rushes of four-plus yards. In his previous stint with the Bills in 2013, they ranked second in the NFL in rushing. So you get the picture - if all goes well this receiving core and Blake Bortles are going to be a tough weekly fantasy plays. If everything falls apart, it will be catch-up and garbage fourth quarters again.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Chief’s head coach Andy Reid indicated that Tyreek Hill is going to be taking over Jeremy Maclin's role as the teams Z receiver, which is the featured receiver spot in Reid's offense. Does Hill have the talent to be T.Y. Hilton? We shall see, and he is going to be one of the more heavily debated fantasy prospects this year. According to Matt Harmon's Reception Perception methodology, he received very positive grades in his success rate against man coverage (72%), press coverage (80%) and zone coverage (86%). However, that was mostly against teams #3 corner backs, and he will have a much harder time facing off against teams top corners, especially when teams will have had a full season to game plan for his antics. In fact, he never even faced double coverage last year, something that should change now that he is the team’s top wide receiver. Per PFF, the Chiefs also have the toughest schedule in the league this year for outside receivers. With a year of film on him, can “Tyfreak” make the leap? Early drafters certainly think so.
The biggest camp battle may not actually be a battle at all. Reid has stated that he likes to ride one main back and he heaped high praise Ware earlier this year. Additionally, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher believes Ware is the likely starter and suggested that he could get "the majority of work as the featured back.” Other reports have mentioned something similar, including the Chiefs own website. Spencer Ware averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry on the year, although before his Week 8 concussion, he averaged 5 yards per carry and 18.4 yards per catch, after the concussion, this fell to 3.7 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per catch. He's a true three down back and even finished second in the league in forced missed tackles on his 33 receptions last season, and 5th in the league in percent of runs with positive yards after contact. 4-for-4’s Joe Holka also stated in his Rushing Expectation series that after charting 60 running backs, he has seen very few running backs come close to the dominance that Ware has shown in his methodology. He stated that among his 60 player sample, Ware finished in the 94th percentile in terms of Expectation Score on the ground and 99th percentile through the air.
While there is a lot to like watching rookie Kareem Hunt’s tape, as he runs tough and never stops moving, he is a rookie with limited pass catching experience and graded out as a bottom 27 percent SPARQ athlete, finishing 64th amongst this years running back crop. He’s also making the jump from the much smaller MAC conference to the pros. Hunt can certainly push Ware in camp, but unless Ware suffers another concussion or injury, the job appears to be Ware’s.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Can this team stay healthy, especially Keenan Allen?
This team is locked and loaded with weapons on both sides of the ball. In fact, ESPN/PFF recently ranked them as having the 8th-best roster in all of football. The only obstacle standing in this teams way of achieving greatness is health, something that has eluded them the past two years. Last year alone they lost Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson, Danny Woodhead and a slew of offensive lineman to injuries, not to mention all their key defensive injuries as well. The injury bug has already hit again, as they may have lost their first round pick Mike Williams for the season. Fortunately, they have depth at the position now.
The true breakout player on this team though is fifth year receiver Keenan Allen who was on pace for a 134/1,450/8 line before he went down in Week 8 in 2015 with a lacerated kidney and then schooled PFF’s 11th graded shutdown corner, Marcus Peters, for 6 catches and 63 yards in one half of football before tearing his ACL last season. I’ve preached for two years now that he has Antonio Brown upside and he was proving me right. The only reason he isn't considered amongst the top tier yet, and the only reason he was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft, is because he ran a 4.71 forty at his pro day after not being able to run the forty at the combine due to a broken ankle. Trust me when I tell you he plays much faster than that and only ran such a poor forty due to his ankle. He has a shot to finish as a Top 5 wide receiver this year if he can stay healthy, especially with Williams looking like a non-factor.
Can Julius Thomas return to dominance under Adam Gase?
The Dolphins are one of the more settled teams, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. We know Jay Ajayi is the man, we know Jarvis Landry is a great and reliable posession receiver and we know we will hear countless puff pieces on how great Ryan Tannehill and DeVante Parker are doing, but they are who they are. My biggest question mark on this team is newly-acquired tight end, Julius Thomas. After being called "nearly unstoppable" in OTA’s by the Jacksonville press last year, Thomas battled his usual injuries, playing in just nine games and then had to deal with the horrible quarterback play of Blake Bortles. Change can be a good thing though, and Thomas is back playing with head coach Adam Gase, where he caught 24 touchdowns in just 27 games in Denver under this very offensive system. Dolphins beat reporter Armando Salguero recently stated that he believes Thomas is "going to be a thing" this year, and that the Dolphins have "multiple plays" designed just for him. Other reports have mentioned him and Tannehill are not getting on the same page. The talent is there, and hopefully, Gase can rekindle the magic. One particular play Gase loved to run is having three receivers wide right, with Thomas alone on the left side, where he can dominate in a one-on-one situation. It all comes down to chemistry and health for Thomas.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Mike Gillislee has produced every time he has had the ball in his hands, and while he enters a crowded Patriots backfield, he looks to be clearly the teams lead runner on early downs and near the goal line. Blount scored 18 touchdowns in this role last year, and while I don’t think anyone should go into the season thinking he will score that many, 10+ touchdowns are certainly in range, especially since the Patriots were second in the league last year in red zone run percentage. On the Bills last season, Gillislee had 101 rushes for 577 yards (a league leading 5.7 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns, adding 9 catches for 50 yards and another touchdown through the air. He finished 1st in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metrics and 4th in FO’s season-cumulative efficiency metrics. Additionally, per PFF, of running backs with at least 100 carries, Gillislee ranked 2nd in yards after contact (3.34), 3rd in average yards before contact and 1st in PFF’s rushing grade per attempt. He also forced 16 missed tackles on just 101 carries, and his 10 carries of 15 or more yards were only behind McCoy and Isaiah Crowell in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage metric.
Gillislee’s PPR upside will be capped no matter what by a slew of capable pass catching backs, including James White, who just received an extension. All around backs Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis are also capable of handling the load, and if Gillislee comes out the gate slow, or falters in camp, either one can take over lead duties. In fact, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a week-to-week guy and the Patriots will often switch out their running backs on a seeming whim depending on the weeks game plan, so it’s likely we will see all four of these backs put up numbers at some point in the season.
Another player to watch is receiver Malcolm Mitchell. He stands 6' 198 pounds with 4.45 forty jets, runs great routes, has very good hands and toughness. Coming out of college, noted talent scout Greg Cosell mentioned that Mitchell is a “potential game changing wide receiver.” He’s being severely overlooked after showing serious mojo with Tom Brady and earning his trust. He should easily push Danny Amendola to the bench, and make Chris Hogan a rotational player, as he assumes the starting receiver role opposite Brandin Cooks in three receiver sets. Per PFF, the Patriots also have the 3rd easiest schedule for outside receivers, while one of the toughest for slot receivers. He just needs to stay healthy, something he has struggled with, as they even limited his participation in OTAs.
NEW YORK JETS
Will the Jets draft Sam Darnold (USC), Luke Falk (Washington State), Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Josh Rosen (UCLA) or Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) with the first pick in the 2018 draft?
This whole team is one big question mark and I’m staying away from all Jets this season, even their running backs. I would bet the Jets could possibly break the record for the most three and outs and the fewest red zone trips in a season. They are that bad. If you do want to track the Jets: since they will be very bad, when will Christian Hackenberg start at quarterback; does Austin Seferian Jenkins turn his career around; does Bilal Powell, who is 29 years old himself, replace Matt Forte as the teams main running back for this season only before they get a new running back next year; can any of these young receivers (Quincy Enunwa, ArDarius Stewart, Robby Anderson, Chad Hansen) look okay trying to catch passes thrown 10 feet over their heads. When asked about tanking in a full rebuild mode to get the first pick in next years draft, Enunwa stated that it is "hard to argue [with] that when everybody else sees all the stuff that’s going on." Point taken, and the tank for USC quarterback Sam Darnold (or one of the other highly touted college quarterbacks) has begun.
Can Marshawn Lynch still shift into Beast Mode?
Beast Mode is back, and Marshawn Lynch didn’t return to sit on the bench. Running behind a top 3 offensive line and playing on a team with great weapons on the outside to keep teams honest, only age can hold him back. Unfortunately, age looked like a killer last time we saw Lynch on the field in 2015, where he played in just 7 games and averaged only 3.8 yards a carry. If he can stay healthy through camp and look good doing it, he’s a lock to return high-end RB2 value, with an RB1 ceiling. If not, the Raiders have two talented second-year players in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard to fill the gap.
Washington is most likely the team’s pass catching back and the higher drafted player, but Richard is probably the true handcuff to Lynch, leading the league in yards after contact last season. While Lynch is a more than capable pass catcher, like was the case in Seattle, the Raiders will probably keep him fresh by using Washington in that Robert Turbin type role. Last year Washington averaged a very solid 5.4 yards per carry and caught 74% of his targets. Per PFF, Washington also led all rookies with breakaway run percentage, at 37%. One other player to watch for is rookie Elijah Hood, who is a beast of a man himself, standing 5’11” and 233 pounds. While he was productive in college, he has very little lateral agility and elusiveness to create much beyond grinding on the ground. He did draw some positive review during OTAs though.
Can two great young talents overcome diversity?
Martavis Bryant is big (6’4”, 211lbs) and fast (4.4 forty). The Steelers really missed him last year as he served a one-year suspension for his 6th violation of the league’s drug policy. Bryant is a truly dominant player when on the field, and he has caught a touchdown or gone over 100-yards in 15 out of his 24 career games. Hopefully, he stays on the straight and narrow, because if he does, he will make for a weekly high-end WR2.
We are also going to be paying close attention to rookie running back James Conner. D’Angelo Williams is gone, and it looks like Conner is in line to backup Le'Veon Bell, who may hold out deep into camp after not securing a long-term contract. Conner is a big guy, standing 6’2’ 229 pounds. After having a monster 2014 college season, albeit running behind college’s best offensive line, Conner tore his MCL and then was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After beating cancer, he returned in 2016 and performed fairly well, averaging 5 yards per carry. Can he return to his 2014 form? We certainly hope so and will be rooting for him, if not D’Angelo Williams is probably on speed dial.
How will this talented receiving core shake out?
The Titans have PFF and ESPN’s 3rd best-rated roster in the league. There is legitimately no weaknesses on either side of the ball, so besides staying healthy, we are going to be most interested in how all these talented wide receivers look.
Tight end Delanie Walker is the man, and receiver Rishard Matthews is an underrated talent as a top 25 graded receiver per PFF and a top 15 graded receiver per Football Outsiders. Added to the mix this year is probably the team’s most talented receiver at the moment, Eric Decker, who is coming off an injury-riddled season. Decker is one of the leagues best red-zone receivers and Marcus Mariota has thrown 33 touchdowns in the red-zone without a single interception, so this could be a match made in heaven.
To go along with those studs, the Titans used first and third round picks to drafted highly touted rookies Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. Davis stands 6’3” 209 pounds with 4.48 forty speed. He is a great athlete and a precise route runner and it would not be crazy to think he has Julio Jones type upside. That said, it's tough to get a full gauge of his talents due to playing against subpar competition in college, so the transition to the pros could take some time. Early reports from OTAs have been glowing at least.
Taylor, on the other, hand stands 5’11” 203 pounds with 4.50 forty speed and reminds me a bit of Emmanuel Sanders. He caught 253 passes for 4,234 yards and 41 touchdowns throughout his college career, and as a senior, he caught 98 passes for 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was the more talented rookie at camp, although Davis was coming off of injury, and without pads, it’s not surprising his precise route running stood out. How this receiving core ends up shaking out is going to be fascinating to watch. The biggest winner is clearly Marcus Mariota.