2014 Free Agency & Draft: 11 Burning Questions
Free agency is winding down and the NFL Draft is looming, so it’s a good time to take a breath and assess the current state of a few of the more perplexing fantasy situations around the league. Here are 11 questions that are currently keeping me up at night.
1. Is Shonn Greene really the Titans’ RB1?
The Titans released Chris Johnson after signing Dexter McCluster to fill the Danny Woodhead role in HC Ken Whisenhunt’s offense. That leaves Shonn Greene in the Ryan Mathews role. GM Ruston Webster indicated that he will “definitely look at that position in the draft,” but it remains to be seen if he’s talking about a starter-caliber RB or someone to back up Greene. He also said that “moving forward,” he’s looking for a RB with “some all-around ability” who could “stay on the field all three downs,” so it sounds like the former. Given the dearth of talent in Tennessee, this is probably the best situation in the league for a rookie to come in and win the starting gig right away.
2. Who’s going to start for the Jets?
New York signed Michael Vick to back up and/or compete with Geno Smith, and they would reportedly like to see Smith win the job. From a fantasy standpoint, Vick looks like the better option for all parties involved. He averaged 0.594 FP per touch in 2013 — FP / (pass attempts + rush attempts) — compared to just 0.389 for Geno Smith. Granted, Vick played in a much better offense, but he’s always been a pretty trustworthy fantasy starter when he’s healthy.
3. Are the Ravens done at running back?
It doesn’t look like Ray Rice’s troubles in Atlantic City are going away anytime soon. His arraignment is set for Thursday, and while he’s not expected to serve jail time, he will face suspension from the league if he’s convicted. This may or may not happen in time for the 2014 season; it depends on how long it takes for the case to go to trial. If he is suspended for a portion of this season, Bernard Pierce will get a bump, but he was largely unimpressive (2.9 YPC) last year after a good rookie season (4.9 YPC). The Ravens have already signed Justin Forsett, but they may decide to add a running back via the draft to offset the potential loss of Rice. If the Ravens don’t draft a running back, it’s an indication that they feel like Rice has plenty of tread left on his tires and/or they’re very comfortable with Pierce in a starting role.
Given the way these two played last season (Hilton: 83-1,086-5, WR19; Nicks: 56-896-0, WR51), this seems like a no-brainer. They’ll start Hilton, right? Let’s hope so. But remember that this is the same team that played Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of Hilton for a good portion of the 2013 season. It had something to do with run blocking, I think. Whatever the reason, Hilton didn’t crack the 72%-snap mark until after Reggie Wayne tore his ACL. With Wayne back and Nicks in town, Hilton’s snaps may be under pressure.
5. Who will start at running back for the Raiders?
Will it be Darren McFadden or Maurice Jones-Drew? Back in 2010, these two combined to gain 3,305 yards from scrimmage for their respective teams, but that was a long time ago, especially in running back years. I give MJD the edge in this competition since he has been better more recently — he racked up a league-leading 1,606 yards in 2011, and a very respectable 4.8 YPC in 2012 — while McFadden has failed to crack 3.3 YPC in back-to-back seasons (and has missed 10 games in the process). Even if DMC wins (or is given) the job, there’s a good chance he goes down and MJD gets his chance to carry the load. The dark horse in Oakland is second-year back Latavius Murray, who is physically similar to DeMarco Murray, Adrian Peterson, Ryan Mathews and Toby Gerhart, per MockDraftable.
6. Who will play the slot for the Eagles?
Zach Ertz averaged 2.8-32-.56 over the final nine games of the season (including the Eagles' sole playoff game) and that included two goose eggs in Week 10 and Week 14. That equates to 6.6 fantasy points per game, which is what Martellus Bennett averaged as the #10 TE in fantasy football. Both Jason Avant (the Eagles’ slot receiver) and DeSean Jackson (who also played some slot) are gone, and if Ertz can take over that role, he should build on the 41% snap percentage he saw in his rookie season. The Eagles have not signed a receiver to replace Jackson or Avant, but they’ll be getting Jeremy Maclin back from a torn ACL, and they traded for Darren Sproles, who can also play in the slot. According to NJ.com, half of Ertz’s routes came from the slot and he finished with 20 catches, two TDs and nearly 200 yards from that position in the offense. If Ertz can get his snap percentage up into the 70%-80% range, he’ll make a big leap in his second season.
7. Are the Giants done at receiver?
The G-Men hired Ben McAdoo away from the Packers, and they’ll be going with a quick-hitting West Coast offense. This could bode well for the receiving corps, provided Eli Manning and Co. can pick it up quickly. Victor Cruz seems a sure bet to finish better than last season (WR28) as he potentially fills the Randall Cobb role in McAdoo’s offense. Rueben Randle is physically similar to Jordy Nelson, but struggled last season reading the defense, which is something that won’t be required under McAdoo. Jerrel Jernigan is small and slight (5’9”, 185 lbs), but racked up 19 catches for 237 yards and two TDs in the final three games, making him the #2 WR in fantasy in that span. There is room for all three receivers if Eli bounces back, but it sounds as if the team may add another wideout early in the draft. If this happens, the only sure thing in 2014 will be Cruz. For more on the Giants, check out C.D. Carter’s recent articles on the new offense [Part I, Part II].
8. Who will start at tight end for the Packers?
Jermichael Finley (neck) is still waiting to get clearance from the doctors and remains a free agent. It’s hard to imagine that the Packers would go into the season with Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick as their top two tight ends, but GM Ted Thompson has made bold moves before — remember his decision to go with Aaron Rodgers over Brett Favre? — and may do so again. Quarless is capable, but showed a better rapport with Matt Flynn than with Aaron Rodgers. Bostick showed flashes of playmaking ability, but was unable to stay healthy and is largely unproven. Thompson could plan to draft a TE, eventually re-sign Finley, or even go with a combination of Quarless/Bostick. One thing is for sure — whoever is starting for the Packers will have some upside.
9. Will Greg Olsen be double teamed on every passing down?
The Panthers lost their top four wideouts in free agency. While they’re expected to shore up the position in the draft, the newly-signed Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant currently sit atop the depth chart. Cotchery and Avant are capable vets and Underwood has the deep speed necessary to fill Ted Ginn’s role in the offense, but is there enough here to draw attention away from Olsen, who led the Panthers in catches in 2013? I love his potential for increased targets, but I’m not sure he’s good enough to beat double coverage consistently. A great running game will certainly help, as would an NFL-ready draft pick at receiver. Regardless, Olsen will be a great value as the #12 TE off the board in early drafts.
10. How will touches be distributed in the Saints backfield?
Darren Sproles is gone and his 8.3 touches per game are up for grabs. He averaged 4.7 catches, and the obvious choice for that work would be Pierre Thomas since he’s a much better receiver than both Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But Thomas actually caught more passes (77) than Sproles did (71) in 2013, so it’s tough to expect him to get all (or even most) of Sproles’ receptions. Travaris Cadet could be promoted to that role, as the Saints typically have four RBs active on game day. Thomas’s touches rose from an average of 9.8 per game in 2011-2012 to 14.0 in 2013. Will that continue or will the Saints give some of his carries to Ingram and Robinson since they were both superior on a per carry basis last season? (Keep in mind that he has a better career YPC than both backs, however.) My feeling is that Thomas is still the primary back, but his touches fall somewhere in the 11-13 range per game, with another catch or two (good for PPR formats) and a few less carries. Ingram and Robinson will pick up some totes while Cadet will potentially get spot duty in the Sproles role. Thomas should remain a screaming value in the later rounds; early drafts have him going as the #44 RB off the board in the 13th round. I’m not a big believer in Ingram despite improved play in 2013, especially with Robinson nipping at his heels.
11. Who will start at receiver for the Seahawks?
We know the now-healthy Percy Harvin will play starter’s snaps for the defending champs, but who else will play in two-WR sets? Doug Baldwin (50-778-5) has earned that right, but the team re-signed Sidney Rice, who is six inches taller and better fits the physical profile of a starting receiver. Before the Rice signing, Baldwin was shaping up to be a nice late-round value — I was thinking somewhere in the 10th-12th range — but if we’re still believers (and I am), the Rice signing will only deflate his ADP and make him an even better value on draft day. After Rice went down, Baldwin averaged 3.6 catches for 55 yards and 0.45 TD in his final 11 games, including the postseason. Those are solid fantasy WR3 numbers.