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 NFC. You can find my AFC write up here: http://bit.ly/2uo18Cn
Can John Brown fulfill his destiny?
John Brown’s breakout season was a major disappointment after suffering a preseason concussion, a battle with sickle cell anemia and also developing a cyst on his spine. He admitted his body was hurting and it showed on the field. This season, he appears to have his sickle cell under control, the cyst has been removed and all signs point to major bounce back after getting healthy. He’s been living with Carson Palmer and so far reports have been glowing. The top-end talent is still there and he should be the team's lead receiver on the outside with Michael Floyd now off the team. Going into last year, his Reception Perception scores were excellent: Success Rate vs Man (72%), vs Zone (77%) vs Press (75%), which are very solid WR2 numbers. At his best, he has T.Y. Hilton upside, but it’s all about getting through the pre-season healthy and not having any setbacks. It doesn’t help that dehydration is a major symptom of sickle cell, which leads to leg cramps, and he lives and plays in one of the hottest areas of the country, with temperatures regularly above 100 degrees.
How will this team handle the transition to new offensive coach Steve Sarkisian?
The Falcons offense performed at a historical pace last season. Under departed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, their offense scored 30 points or more in 11 of 16 games, the 5th highest mark in NFL history, Matt Ryan’s passer rating was 117.1, which is also the fifth highest mark in NFL history. Per ESPN Stats & Information since 2001, the only team to score more frequently on its drives is the 2007 Patriots, and all this as the Falcons played the toughest schedule of opposing defenses in football.
With all of their offensive pieces still in place, the biggest thing to watch in camp is how well the team adjusts to Steve Sarkisian’s offense. Sarkisian's only NFL coaching experience was in 2004 as the quarterback coach in Oakland, so there is no guarantee he will be successful at this level after spending most of his career coaching in college. He has pledged to keep most of the offensive system the same, but each coordinator has their own identity and there will be some tinkering at the very least, and creativity on play calls during game action will be different without a doubt. While he runs similar concepts of outside zone running and play-action passing as Shanahan, the pace of play may be the biggest change. After running one of the leagues slower paced offenses last season, averaging 28.29 seconds between plays (23rd in the league) and just 62 plays per game (26th), Sarkisian is going to allow Matt Ryan to check between three or four different plays at the line of scrimmage. This could certainly lead to a more up-tempo offense, but also potential trouble, and is it enough to make up for their other worldly efficiency from last year? Another factor to keep in mind is that the Falcons defense should be much improved after being a sieve most of the 2016 season, which led to big time shootouts and high scoring affairs. If the defense lives up to their hype, expect less scoring and more running.
One more thing to watch for is the development of second-year tight end Austin Hooper. He’s a talented tight end who played great as a rookie, which is rare. With Jacob Tamme gone, Hooper is the unquestioned starting tight end on a team that doesn’t have a dominant receiving option after Julio Jones. Last year he posted a 70.4% catch rate and averaged 14.3 yards per reception, both numbers better than Hunter Henry. Hooper also had 3 touchdowns on only 19 catches last year.
What will the great Cam Newton makeover really look like?
The additions of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey and running back/wide receiver hybrid Curtis Samuel should help give the Panthers some speed and weapons near the line of scrimmage, which will help since Cam Newton was pretty erratic throwing the ball down the field, although he was also the worst passer in the league on throws 5 yards or less as well. While the Panthers want to make Cam more of a pocket passer, he will not be able to change the way he has played his whole life in one off-season, especially since he is still coming off of shoulder surgery and is just starting to throw now. How his shoulder looks and how quickly he takes to this new style of play will go a long way to determining his value and of those around him. I’m betting his transformation is a process that will probably take 2 or 3 years, much to the chagrin of McCaffrey owners. When the heat is on, Cam will run.
Is Cameron Meredith a leading man?
With the signing of Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton to handle the slot, the question becomes, can Cameron Meredith play as well on the outside as he did in the slot last year. Meredith stands 6’3” 207 pounds with impressive 4.49 forty speed, a 30 inch vertical and 10’7” broad jump, finishing with a 130 SPRAQ score as an 89th percentile athlete, just below Kevin White. According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception metric, Meredith’s success rate versus coverage in the slot last year were as follows: Man-70%, Zone-91%, and Press-70%. His success rate versus coverage on the outside was slightly lower, but still pretty good, and better than the average rating of the top 50 receivers in the league: Man-69%, Zone-78%, Press-66%. Mike Glennon is at least not a downgrade at the quarterback position from Matt Barkley and the Bears have 152 vacated targets up for grabs. If Meredith continues to progress and shine in the pre-season, he will end up being a draft day steal.
Will Dak slump or shine in his sophomore season?
Ezekiel Elliott’s looming suspension aside (he’s looking at 2-10 games at the moment, which I broke down here), It’s going to be interesting to see how much they open up the offense this year for Dak Prescott. In his rookie year, Prescott had a very solid 67.8% completion percentage, throwing for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He also added 282 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns on the ground; finishing as a Top 10 fantasy quarterback and posting 10, top 12 weeks. Unfortunately, outside of Elliot and Dez Bryant, the team doesn’t have any truly dynamic weapons and they lost a few pieces on their vaunted offensive line, making them more of a top ten unit as opposed to the far and away best unit in the league. Opening up the offense will be a good thing for Dak’s growth, but that can also lead to more erratic play and possibly a sophomore slump, especially since teams have had more time to prepare for him with a full season of tape. The Cowboys also go from having one of the easiest schedules in the league last year to one of the toughest this season, opening with a tough slate of games against the Giants and then at the Broncos and at the Cardinals. We are going to find out quickly how well Prescott can handle the added responsibility.
Will the Lions finally have their first capable running back since Barry Sanders?
Even though Ameer Abdullah is a smaller back (5’9” 200 pounds) he has the potential to be a true feature back as he runs low to the ground, with exceptional balance, power and burst and is also a great receiver. At his combine, Abdullah finished with a 145, 97th percentile SPARQ score, better than even David Johnson that year and better than any running back in this year’s crop. He started last season on fire, finishing with 18/101/0 rushing (5.6 YPC) and 5/57/1 receiving in just over a game played before going down for the rest of the year with a foot injury. Lion’s general manager Bob Quinn even mentioned that they had planned on giving him over 200 carries last season, not to mention passing down work. His only knock is that he has relatively small hands, coughing up the ball 13 times in college, and 5 times his rookie year. If he can clean up his ball security issues and show that he can take a pounding in the NFL, he has the potential to be drafted as an RB1 by this time next year.
With stud left tackle Taylor Decker getting injured and scheduled to miss the first part of the season, it also bears watching how well the Lions offensive line comes together and if either newly signed left tackles Greg Robinson or Cyrus Kouandjio, can step up in his place. Robinson is a former second overall pick by the Rams in 2014 who has been a massive bust so far in his career, albeit playing on a horrible Rams team, while Kouandjio graded out decently by PFF, but was cut by the Giants after a strange off field incident where he was found running naked through a field.
One final note, with Anquan Boldin’s 95 targets abandoned, the battle for number three duties will come down to two intriguing players: rookie Kenny Golladay and former Packer, Jared Abbrederis. Golladay stands 6'4 218lbs with 4.5 forty speed and has great hands, with only 5 drops in two years at college. Packers GM Ted Thompson, who has a great history of drafting quality receivers late in drafts, drafted Abbrederis, which says a lot. It would not surprise me if the winner of this battle made an impact this year in that Boldin role.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Is Ty Montgomery’s transition to running back complete?
After this years draft, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy declared that Ty Montgomery is his starting running back, but the Packers also drafted three running backs, so actions sometimes speak louder than words. Montgomery has a lot going for him though, gone is any semblance of a veteran back, which means no back on the team is likely better than him in pass protection and at understanding their blocking assignments, at least yet. He also has a full year under his belt and a full off-season to dedicate himself to the running back position after entering the league as a wide receiver. He’s also been training with Adrian Peterson during the off-season, which can never hurt. Montgomery finished the year with 77 carries for 457 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns (5.9 yards per carry) while adding 44 catches and 348 yards receiving on 56 targets. At worst Montgomery will be the team’s passing down back, but he looks to be entering the season as its bell cow unless Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones can take the job from him. Aaron Jones may be the naturally best all around back, and Williams is more of a bruiser and can potentially provide the team with a sustaining element they had when Eddie Lacy was healthy. That said, if you are buying into Christian McCaffery as a fantasy stud this year, there is no reason you shouldn’t be buying into Montgomery as well. It’s going to be a battle worth watching closely.
Is Laquon Treadwell a bust?
I’d be shocked if rookie running back Dalvin Cook isn’t the team’s lead back. Cook produced big time in college, although slid to the second round of the draft due to a horrible SPARQ score (bottom 15 percent), fumbling issues and off-field concerns. I don’t think Latavius Murray will present much competition for Cook as the team’s bell cow, especially since he has missed all of OTA’s with injury, however, I could see Murray stealing red zone touches, which is a worry, but not something we will gain clarity on until the actual season starts.
What will be fascinating to see is how receivers Laquon Treadwell and Michael Floyd look in camp. I have no clue what happened with Treadwell last season. There have been murky reports that he was injured all of last year and never fully got healthy or up to speed with the offense. Treadwell was regarded by many as the best receiver coming out of college last year and stands 6’2” 221 pounds. He tested poorly at the combine, posting a lowly 21st percent athletic SPARQ score. However, once again, that was supposedly due to injury. What we do know is that in college, while he was not explosive, he was a very smooth runner that played with great physicality and had great hands. Battling him for outside duties is Michael Floyd who many thought could be a WR1 in this league, but he has battled alcoholic addiction and starts the season with a four game suspension. Treadwell is basically a free pick in drafts right now, so he has a chance to be a steal for those taking a shot on him.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
What does Adrian Peterson have left in the tank?
The Saints have a major running back by committee at the moment and it all comes down to how well Adrian Peterson plays in the pre-season. We know what Mark Ingram II is- a player in his prime who finished third in the league in yards after contact and in forced missed tackles per attempt. Additionally, Ingram averaged 5.1 yards per carry last year and has caught more than 45 passes each of the past two seasons, but it all comes down to usage, and for some unknown reason, the Saints have never fully embraced him as their workhorse back.
For his part, Adrian Peterson didn’t look like he had much left in the tank last year, but apparently, that was last year according to Saints players on the field with him at OTA's who have been hyping him up big time. He will be running behind a better offensive line and playing with a hall of fame quarterback. In fact, per football outsiders, the Saints had the number one run blocking offensive line in the league last season, while the Vikings were near the bottom. For what it's worth, Brees recently said that he "doesn't see a better all-purpose guy in the league right now" than Ingram while head coach Sean Payton mentioned that Peterson "will have a clear and defined role" during the season and will "complement" Ingram in the rotation. Still, there is only one ball to go around and these guys value will rise or fall depending on how well Peterson looks.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Let me just get this out of the way, Brandon Marshall is going to be a great fantasy asset this year. People are writing him off because he didn't put up numbers playing in a horrible offense last year with the NFL's worst rated quarterback. Use that to your advantage when you steal Marshall in your drafts and watch him return solid WR2 numbers, with legit double-digit touchdown upside. He’s known to be one of the hardest training players in the off-season, and by the looks of his Instagram account and per beat writers during OTA's, that is no different this year. The simple case for Marshall: Last season over 30% of his targets were deemed off-target; the Giants do not want to force feed Odell Beckham Jr Jr. like they did last year; Marshall won't be game planned for like Beckham will be; he will be playing against teams #2 corners and/or facing single coverage for the majority of games for the first time in his career; he stands 6'4” while Beckham and Shepard are both under 6'; he's a dominant red-zone threat up there with Rob Gronkowski and Dez Bryant; Giants will probably use a short passing attack to hide their offensive line and running back deficiencies, a game plan that suits Marshall well; and the team lacks a dominant tight end.
The real story to watch is at running back. Paul Perkins stands 5’10” 208 pounds with 4.54 forty speed. At the combine last year he finished as the 67th rated running back in SPARQ score, which is a metric developed by Nike that measures a player’s athleticism. He was just a lowly 27% percentile athlete according to that index. The bottom line is that he just isn't a gifted athlete for someone his size. Opportunity is key in fantasy football though and Giant’s running back coach Craig Johnson mentioned that he thought Perkins could be a three-down back, while head coach Ben McAdoo stated that he is their starting running back. Perkins is a bit of a lower case Frank Gore at his best, in that he has good balance and body control, in order to get out of tight situations, and good vision to find the right hole. However, he is not very big or fast, which makes it tough in the pros to run over people or out run them to get into the open field. There are also questions of whether or not he can withstand the pounding of an every down workload, especially given the holes of the teams offensive line, which is ranked 28th in the league and has glaring weaknesses at both tackle positions and at right guard.
This is a team that is also built on spreading things out and throwing the ball, passing on around 63% of their downs last year. Perkins is a decent pass catcher, despite having small hands (only 9”), but Shane Vereen is a great pass catching back and is fully healthy coming off of a lost season due to an arm injury that sidelined him most of last year. Vereen is also a 96th percentile SPARQ athlete and has spent time playing under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, which never hurts.
Also in the mix is Wayne Gallman, an intriguing rookie from 2016 NCAA championship Clemson team. He stands 6’0” 215lbs with 4.60 speed. While top end speed is not mind blowing, he did have a 4.28 20-yard shuttle time, which was just a hair slower than Christian McCaffery, and in the NFL it’s all about short area burst for banging running backs like Gallaman. He’s a capable receiver and he isn’t afraid of contact, runs hard and has a nose for the end-zone, scoring 28 touchdowns his last two years in college. If Perkins falters, Gallman could easily form a 1-2 punch with Shane Vereen, handling early downs and a lot of the goal-line work. I have a feeling Perkins just might just be this year's Matt Jones.
If Carson Wentz better than he showed his rookie season?
Coming from a small school, Carson Wentz went 5-1 with right tackle Lane Johnson in the lineup, completing 65% of his passes with a 1.7 touchdown-to-0.3 interception ratio. When Johnson was out due to suspension, Wentz went 2-8 while completing only 61% of his passes and throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns during that span. Statistics aside, his mechanics completely broke down and he looked every bit the small college transplant being overwhelmed by the big leagues. It didn’t help matters that he had the two worst starting outside receivers in the league.
This year, the Eagles have surrounded Wentz with legitimate weapons in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to compliment Jordan Matthews in the slot and Zach Ertz at tight end. Nelson Agholor also takes his rightful spot as the team’s fourth receiver, a place he can probably thrive with no pressure on him. As a rookie Wentz threw the ball a ridiculously 38 times a game, and without a true foundation running back, that can certainly be the case again this year, and volume is king in fantasy football. The key is his development though, and with PFF’s number one rated offensive line, he has all the talent around him to take a step forward. If he does, this offense could be lethal.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Carlos Hyde is one big man, standing 6 foot tall and 230 pounds. Unfortunately being big hasn’t prevented him from getting injured, missing 14 games in three seasons. When he is healthy, he runs with power, quick feet and has some decent wiggle to him, in that Eddie Lacy/Marshawn Lynch vein. He’s a very talented back, but new head coach Kyle Shanahan has questioned his fit in his offense, which is a concern and a bit curious since Hyde is a good zone runner, although he ran mostly inside zone last year and Shanahan mixes between inside and a lot of outside zone runs. Last season he was 4th in yards after contact and 7th in missed tackles forced per attempt, rushing for 988 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 6 touchdowns on the ground, adding 27 catches for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air.
Nonetheless, the 49ers drafted intriguing rookie Joe Williams, who they traded up to get. The downside with Williams is that he was not a productive pass catcher or pass protector in college, the Shanahan system is tough to learn and the team signed free agents Tim Hightower, and everybody’s favorite fullback, Kyle Juszczyk.
Is Hyde really on his way out in San Francisco? Or is this just like Jay Ajayi in Miami last season, where new head coach Adam Gase wasn’t a believer until Ajayi proved him wrong on the field of play? Hopefully, we don’t have to wait until week 6 of the season to find out, like we did with Jay Ajayi in Miami.
How will this running back core shake out?
The Seahawks ask too much of offensive line coach Tom Cable. Instead of building a great offensive line and relying on their talents, they neglect their offensive line severely and rely on the talents of their coach to whip them into shape. He does work the impossible, but even so, there is no way to make the consensus ranked worst offensive line in the league (yet again) better than maybe a few teams at most. The leader of this unit is center Justin Britt, who was the 12th ranked center per PFF, although with just an average 79 grade himself. Meanwhile, their only big free agent addition was former first round bust Luke Joeckel to man the blind side, although he is coming off of season ending knee surgery. While Joeckel finally started showing some signs of life this past season (still just the 38th ranked tackle per PFF out of roughly 64 starters), it is tough to have much hope for him, and yet, he is their bright spot. Standing next to him at left guard is second round rookie pick Ethan Pocic, out of LSU, then on the right side of the line, they are counting on their first round pick from last year, right guard Germain Ifedi, to step up his game after ranking as the leagues second worst guard last season, and at right tackle is PFF’s lowest rated tackle, George Fant. Last year the Seattle offensive line finished last in snap-adjusted run blocking and snap-adjusted pass-blocking grade. The off-season moves do not give us much hope for a major jump, but if you plan on drafting any Seahawk running back, you better pay attention to how this line looks in the pre-season.
As for the running backs, it’s a crowded backfield of very talented backs playing on a team that loves to run the ball, finishing 17th in terms of run percentage. From early beat writer reports, it appears that the team wants Eddie Lacy to be the teams lead back, with Thomas Rawls spelling him for a series here and there and C.J. Prosise taking over passing down duties. When he is healthy and in shape, in terms of talent, Lacy is an unquestioned top 12 running back. In his first two seasons, he went for over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns in each season, while in just four full weeks of action last year, Lacy ran for 360 yards (5.1 yards per carry), and while he isn’t David Johnson, he’s also a very good and underrated pass catcher.
Thomas Rawls, on the other hand, is a hard runner who is almost a zero in the passing game. The problem with Rawls is that he runs so hard, and invites so much contact, that he is bound for injury. This is one reason they brought in Lacy and one reason they aren’t going to let Rawls carry the load. Rawls historical run in 2015 also came against a slew of soft run defenses, so the jury is still out on him.
The biggest mystery is C.J. Prosise, another running back that has had a problem staying healthy. He’s big (6'1” 220 pounds), fast (4.48 forty) and showed very well in his limited action last season. A converted running back, he is still learning the finer points of the position, but he looks to be the real deal. If Lacy plays well and stays healthy, Prosise is going to be used as just their passing down back, a role occupied by Robert Turbin and Fred Jackson before him, so not a position of much fantasy value. If Lacy gets injured or struggles with his weight, Prosise could very well take the reigns and never let them go.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Can Jared Goff actually play quarterback in the NFL?
Everybody in the fantasy community hates Jared Goff and has written him off as a total bust, but I’m not one of those people. He came from playing in a juvenile offense in college, but that doesn’t mean he’s not talented; it just means he needs time. Although I will concede that I’m not sure if one year is enough time and quarterback Sean Mannion was a third round pick in 2015, so he is viable as well. The Rams did upgrade their offensive line, signing PFF's second best graded left tackle, Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals. The bigger concern this year is his receiving core, which is a great unknown. Robert Woods and Tavon Austin have both shown flashes but have yet to live up to their draft hype, while rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds might just end up being the better options. The Rams do have intriguing second-year tight end Tyler Higbee and the other Mike Thomas, to go along with stud rookie tight end Gerald Everett, so there are weapons here, it just might take another season or two to all come together. The pre-season will be telling.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Are the Buccaneers going to trust running this offense through Jameis Winston?
Winston has weapons galore, along with Mike Evans, the team added DeSean Jackson and drafted top-notch rookies tight end O.J. Howard and underrated receiver Chris Godwin, in addition to Cameron Brate and a slew of capable pass catching backs. In terms of surrounding talent, Winston's only issues are the few holes on the offensive line, particularly left tackle Devon Smith and left guard, Kevin Pamphile, both two of the lowest rated players at their positions in the league. The protection, or lack thereof, on his blindside should not be underestimated.
As for Winston, he was PFF's 20th ranked quarterback last season and had a middle of the pack 64.9 QBR rating from ESPN, finishing as a top 10 fantasy quarterback in 4 out of 16 games last year, despite having good season end numbers. While a talented passer with a gunslinger mentality, coming into his third season, there is hope he becomes more consistent. When faced with pressure, Wintson does stand strong in the pocket, but his footwork and decision making both suffer and he even re-cocks his arm at times once he sets his feet to throw. These mechanical flaws led to an increased number of interceptions last season, ending the year with 24. Entering his third season, if his offensive line can help him out, Winston could finally put it all together, especially since, according to Warren Sharp, he will be facing the 7th easiest schedule of pass defenses this year.
Can Perine run away with the starting job?
Running back Rob Kelley did an admirable job taking over lead duties from Matt Jones last year, but let’s be honest, he’s a replaceable and pedestrian talent, best suited for spot play or reserve duty. Redskins rookie Samaje Perine, on the other hand, is a legit talent and a down right nasty and physical runner, standing 5’11” and 233 pounds. Perine has drawn some Michael Turner comps, although not as athletic and fast. He should take the starting job from Rob Kelley, but he actually has to do it, and right now he is behind him on the depth chart. Also keep in mind that no matter who wins that early down role, according to dialed in Redskins beat writer Mark Bullock, Chris Thompson is 100 percent the teams pass catching back and they have full confidence in him, so Perine's PPR value is capped.
One another player to watch carefully is NFL redshirt rookie receiver, Josh Doctson. He was my favorite wide receiver in last year's class and should be a starter on the outside. While he profiles as a potential future WR1, currently there are lots of mouths to feed and this is essentially his rookie season. He also has to prove he is over his Achilles injury. The innate talent is there though.
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