30 Fantasy Questions Heading into NFL Training Camps
This week training camps kick off (full schedule), and we’ll shift from the offseason to the preseason. (Whoopee!) Below are the most important position battles and the most perplexing questions that I’m pondering as we head into camp. The results will shape the fantasy landscape in 2014. I've been watching the news closely all spring and summer, so I've offered my take where appropriate.
Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel
I was asked the other day why I’m not more bullish on Johnny Football. First, I’m not sure that he’s going to beat out Brian Hoyer, and I generally like to draft starting quarterbacks instead of backups. If he does win the job, he’ll score some points with his legs, but he might also get himself killed if he continues to leave the pocket at the same rate that he did in college. Without Josh Gordon, the receiving corps is a mess. Jordan Cameron is good and Andrew Hawkins should be solid, but I’m skeptical that the rest of the group will be up to the task of making Maziel look good.
Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater
Cassel is reportedly ahead in this competition, but Bridgewater has looked good and the team would like him to win the job. I think he will, but if Cassel is under center in Week 1, he’ll be a solid streaming option as long as he has the job. He was pretty good for the Vikings in 2013, and showed an especially good rapport with Greg Jennings, who averaged 5.9 catches for 70 yards and 0.57 TD with Cassel under center.
Josh McCown vs. Mike Glennon
McCown has been impressive in OTAs and it looks like he’ll get the first crack at the starting job. He’ll have Vincent Jackson and (rookies) Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to throw to. If the young guys pick things up quickly, there’s some upside here.
Zac Stacy vs. Tre Mason
The Rams have one of the best offensive lines in the league, so if Stacy can hold onto the starting job (which reportedly isn't a sure thing) he should once again flirt with fantasy RB1 numbers. Stacy’s ADP has taken a small hit with Mason’s arrival, so this is definitely a camp battle to monitor.
Will Bishop Sankey start for the Titans?
I would answer with a resounding “yes,” but there are scouts/film guys that have concerns about Sankey’s ability to be an every-down back. What really matters is that the Titans believe he does, so even if he doesn’t set the world on fire from a skill standpoint, he should see the volume necessary to become a fantasy starter in his rookie season. History has been very kind to the first running backs selected in the draft, especially when they're joining a backfield with a lackluster incumbent, which is the case here.
Ben Tate vs. Terrance West
Even though he’s very likely to start, Tate’s ADP has taken a hit since West’s arrival in Cleveland. But he’s injury-prone and West could potentially take the job and run with it – pun intended – if Tate misses any time. In best ball, this probably isn't a bad duo to grab in the middle rounds.
Trent Richardson vs. Ahmad Bradshaw
Would anyone be shocked if Bradshaw is starting by midseason? Yes, he’s injury-prone, but all evidence points to Bradshaw being the better running back. Maybe Richardson’s 2013 struggles were due to his inability to pick up the Colts’ offense, or maybe his career 3.3 YPC is a true indicator of his ability. (Bradshaw has a career 4.6 YPC, for what it’s worth.)
Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Darren McFadden
I give the edge to MJD since he has been better more recently (4.8 YPC in 2012), while the current Raiders regime have proven they don’t know what to do with McFadden. Jones-Drew is an interesting pick in the 8th-10th range since his former backup (Rashad Jennings) had a nice run down the stretch for Raiders in 2013. Latavius Murray is waiting in the wings.
Jeremy Hill vs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Hill was playing ahead of The Law Firm in OTAs, which indicates that he’ll take over as Giovani Bernard’s partner in the Cincy backfield, but I’m interested to see if that continues in camp. Maybe the Bengals just wanted to get Hill extra reps, already knowing what they have in Green-Ellis. Whoever plays second fiddle to Bernard should be a RB3/flex type in 2014. I'm betting it's Hill.
Lamar Miller vs. Knowshon Moreno
I would normally lean towards the free agent acquired to replace the (disappointing) returning player, but Moreno showed up to camp out of shape and is now recovering from knee surgery. It's hard to lose weight when you are laid up, recovering from surgery. There’s a new offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) in town, so Miller may get a second chance to prove his worth. I think Miller starts Week 1, but he's a risky pick given the Moreno acquisition.
C.J. Anderson vs. Ronnie Hillman
Who will be Montee Ball’s primary backup? Whoever wins the job will have value as a handcuff and as a potential fantasy RB2 if Ball were to go down. A recent beat writer prediction put Hillman at #2 and Anderson squarely on the bubble. Time will tell.
Will Andre Johnson report to camp?
The two sides are at a standoff after Johnson was reportedly angered that the team wouldn’t allow him to earn back his offseason workout bonuses after he skipped offseason activities. Now he has told the team that he’d like to be traded, but that doesn’t look likely. Johnson’s stock is taking a hit and rightly so. I think I would look elsewhere until at least the 4th/5th round. There’s just too much risk here (trade request, age, new system, new quarterback, etc.) for me to burn an early round pick.
How will the Colts’ WR depth chart shake out?
T.Y. Hilton is a fantasy favorite, but Reggie Wayne (ACL) is back and the team acquired Hakeem Nicks via free agency. Remember, this is the same team that sat Hilton behind Darrius Heyward-Bey for the first half of the 2013 season. There is a small chance that Hilton is squeezed out of snaps with Wayne, Nicks, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener seeing more time, but given Wayne’s age and injury, I feel pretty confident that Hilton is going to play a lot this season, one way or another. He's the best receiver on the roster.
Jarrett Boykin vs. Davante Adams
I love Boykin this year and think he’ll hold off Adams (and everyone else) to be the Packers’ WR3. This will make him a fringe fantasy starter with upside if either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb go down with an injury. In games where he played at least 59% of the snaps, he averaged 4.3-61-.27, which equates to 124 fantasy points over a full season. That’s about what Marques Colston scored as the #27 WR in 2013. Remember, the Packers run a lot of three-WR sets, which is why James Jones was fantasy relevant all of those years. Adams is a concern, but it’s hard for a rookie to crack the Packers’ lineup. Both Nelson and Cobb played limited snaps when they were rookies, and I’m expecting the same for Adams. He’s more of a dynasty play.
Rueben Randle vs. Odell Beckham
I’m not sure this camp battle matters too much since the Giants are likely to play a lot of three-WR sets since new OC Ben McAdoo has been cutting his teeth with the Packers since 2006. There should be room for both Randle (who had a good spring) and Beckham to play and be productive.
Doug Baldwin vs. Sidney Rice vs. Jermaine Kearse
Anyone who follows my work with any kind of consistency knows that I’m a big fan of Baldwin. Once Rice went down, he emerged as a productive starter, averaging 3.6 catches for 55 yards and 0.45 TD in his final 11 games (including three postseason games where he caught 13 passes for 202 yards and a TD). Those are solid fantasy WR3 numbers, driven by his #11 FP/T (1.48). The Seahawks recently locked him up to a lucrative long-term contract, which indicates that they view him as a starter. If that’s the case, he should continue to post WR3 numbers in that role, and he has upside playing with the injury-prone Percy Harvin. Baldwin only played 74% of his team’s snaps in 2013. I think he plays at least that much in 2014.
Will Markus Wheaton start?
Lance Moore is expected to fill the slot role, so will Wheaton beat out Darrius Heyward-Bey and Martavis Bryant? It looks like he will. He was the starter at the “X” receiver in OTAs, so if he has a strong camp, he should start and could post Emmanuel Sanders-type numbers in that role.
Will Kelvin Benjamin see starter’s snaps?
Benjamin has been very impressive in camp and given the opportunity available in the Panther passing game, he’s very likely to see starter’s snaps. He’s as big as a tight end, so at the very least he should be good for 700 (or so) yards and six touchdowns. I think Jerricho Cotchery has deep sleeper value as the other starter.
Who will start for the Raiders?
It’s looking like Rod Streater and James Jones have a leg up on Denarius Moore. Moore may lose the WR3 job to Andre Holmes, who impressed in limited opportunities last season. The undrafted Streater has improved in each of his first two seasons and had a good spring. He’s one of my late-round favorites. Jones is capable as well.
Marqise Lee vs. Allen Robinson
Both rookies missed OTAs with injuries, but Lee was running as the “Z” receiver opposite starter Cecil Shorts prior to turning his ankle, so I think he has the inside track to start. The Jaguars don’t have a great passing game, but I’m betting Lee (or Robinson, if he wins the job) will be fantasy relevant (top 60) in 2014.
Nate Washington vs. Justin Hunter
Washington has finished in the top 50 in seven of his eight seasons (#36 in 2013) and continues to "lead" the Titans receiving corps, though Kendall Wright has more value and Hunter has breakout potential. Washington isn’t going away, and the team has been hesitant to hand over the starting job to Hunter. The second-year wideout has more upside, but I believe Washington will hold onto the job and finish with more fantasy points again in 2014. Nate Washington is something of a fantasy cockroach -- he won't go away.
Who will be the Patriots' WR2?
Aaron Dobson would likely be leading this race if not for an injured foot that has kept him out of OTAs. Brandon LaFell, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce are in the mix as well. I think Dobson will eventually see the most snaps of this group, but he still may be behind Danny Amendola in that category if the slot receiver can stay healthy. It’s hard to trust any Patriots receiver not named Julian Edelman, and even he has his skeptics.
Who will start for the Rams?
Tavon Austin figures to have the most value of the group as the team has said that they have a better idea how to use the speedy but diminutive receiver. But Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Austin Pettis are all in the mix. For what it’s worth, OC Brian Schottenheimer said that Quick was the “most improved player” at OTAs.
Rob Gronkowski vs. His Health
Gronkowski has been hugely productive when healthy, but his knee is a major concern heading into 2014. He had surgery on Jan. 9 to reconstruct a torn ACL. It typically takes a full year to recover, though Adrian Peterson and Robert Griffin III have made quicker returns (with varying success). Gronkowski is tentatively expected to be ready for the start of the season, but the Patriots are always tight-lipped about injuries, so don’t be surprised we don’t know his Week 1 status until deep into August or even early September. This makes him a major risk in 2014 fantasy drafts. The ACL surgery was the eighth (known) surgery of his career.
Will Zach Ertz see starter’s snaps?
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. With Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson gone, Ertz could play a lot in the slot, though the arrival of WR Jordan Matthews may limit Ertz’s snaps there. If he can take a step forward in the blocking department, it will help his overall fantasy outlook, though I think this is more about Ertz vs. Matthews than it is Ertz vs. Brent Celek. If either Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper were injured, Ertz would be a lock for big snaps as Matthews would very likely move outside.
Antonio Gates vs. Ladarius Green
We all know Green has the talent to be a fantasy TE1, but he’s still backing up one of the all-time greats in Gates, who continues to play 85%+ of his team’s snaps. So will the Chargers play more two-TE sets? Because Green needs to play more than 33% of his team’s snaps (his 2013 total) if he’s going to live up to his current draft position as the #13 TE off the board. With Malcom Floyd back, and Keenan Allen emerging, an uptick in Green’s snaps would likely come at the expense of slot receiver Eddie Royal. If Gates misses any time with injury, the sky is the limit for Green.
Will Eric Ebron play Jimmy Graham-type snaps?
Rookie tight ends rarely make much of a fantasy impact, but the hype surrounding the Lions’ #10 overall pick has been loud and clear – he’s expected to play the Jimmy Graham role in new OC Mike Lombardi’s offense. So is he going to play ahead of Brandon Pettigrew whom the Lions re-signed for $16 million over four years (starter’s money) or will the Lions play more “12” (two-TE) formations with Ebron joining Pettigrew, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate in the lineup? The team can’t be predictable and throw the ball every time Ebron comes on the field, so they’ll have to throw and run out of the “12” formation. Then there’s the matter of 6’7” Joseph Fauria’s ability in the red zone – is he going to eat into Ebron’s scoring chances? There are more questions here than answers at this point.
Andrew Quarless vs. Richard Rodgers vs. Brandon Bostick (vs. Jermichael Finley?)
Someone has to start at tight end for the Packers and whoever it is will likely be fantasy relevant. Rodgers had a great spring while Quarless and Bostick worked their way back from injury, so the rookie may have the inside track at this point. I didn’t even list the talented (yet troubled?) Colt Lyerla, whom the Packers signed as an undrafted free agent. And then there’s Finley, who recently said that he’s working his way back towards rejoining the team. Anything could happen here.
Tyler Eifert vs. Jermaine Gresham
As I mentioned before, rookie tight ends usually don’t make much of a fantasy impact, and that was true of 2013 first round pick Tyler Eifert, who played behind Jermaine Gresham en route to a 39-445-2 line in his first season with the Bengals. Gresham is still around, and he’s still standing between Eifert and fantasy relevancy. Unless, of course, new run-happy OC Hue Jackson decides to run more two-TE sets, and it sounds like he might. Will Eifert get on the field at the expense of WR3 Mohamed Sanu? I would hope so, but the team seems to like Sanu as well.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins vs. Brandon Myers
Seferian-Jenkins missed all of the Bucs’ OTAs and minicamp because of late graduation at the University of Washington, so he’s a bit behind the eight-ball as he tries to work his way into the lineup. The team signed Myers as a stopgap, and he’s likely to start until ASJ is ready to contribute. As I said, I’m generally pessimistic about rookie tight ends.
Will Jace Amaro play alongside Jeff Cumberland?
He better, or he’s not going to be fantasy relevant this year. The Jets have a problem in their receiving corps, and if they think Amaro is more capable of making plays than either Stephen Hill or David Nelson, then they could play “12” formation and get Amaro on the field with Cumberland, Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley. That may be the team’s best run and pass formation heading into 2014.
John Carlson vs. Rob Housler vs. Jake Ballard
Who’s going to be the TE1 in Arizona this year? Does it even matter? I’d like to think so, though the tight ends in Bruce Arians’ offense aren’t usually fantasy stars. My money is on Carlson, since he played well for the Vikings last season (TE9 numbers from Week 9 to Week 13) after Kyle Rudolph went down. Carlson has reportedly “impressed the most” this spring.