2015 Free Agency & Draft: 18 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 a few of the more perplexing fantasy situations around the league. Here are 18 questions currently keeping me up at night. (Not really – I’m actually sleeping really well right now. It's the offseason.)
1. How will the Seahawks use Jimmy Graham?
While it’s true that Graham is going from a pass-heavy offense in New Orleans to a run-heavy attack in Seattle, the Seahawks increased their pass attempts 3.7% in 2013 and another 8.1% last season. They know what they have in Russell Wilson and now that they have a bona fide weapon in Graham, I’m convinced they intend to use him heavily. Golden Tate saw 24% of the targets in ’13, while Doug Baldwin saw 22% last season. I would assume Graham would see a typical WR1 share (~26%), and when we project a modest 5% increase in team pass attempts, he’s looking at 7.75 T/G. (He saw 7.81 T/G in 2014.) I’m always a bit leery of receivers changing teams, but since he is slated to be the top target, those concerns are severely diminished.
2. Is Martavis Bryant going to see starter’s snaps for the Steelers?
Bryant averaged 2.8 catches for 56 yards and 0.82 TD in the final 11 games of the season (including a 5-61-1 outing against Baltimore in the playoffs). Thanks to the incredible touchdown rate, those are high-end WR2 numbers in standard formats and solid WR2 numbers in PPR. What's more, he didn't play 60 percent of the snaps until the postseason, so there's upside here from a playing time standpoint. If he earns a starting role this offseason – and it looks like he will – he’ll have a solid chance to outplay his current 5th round ADP.
3. Who will be the primary runner for the Jets – Chris Ivory or Stevan Ridley?
With Chris Johnson out of the way, Ivory was shaping up to be a nice late-round value as the primary running back for the Jets, but the Ridley signing has thrown a wrench in those plans. Ridley is coming off a torn ACL (in October), so there’s no guarantee he’ll be 100 percent by the time the season starts, but the signing itself indicates the franchise isn’t sold on the very capable Ivory.
4. How will the roles in the Patriots’ backfield shake out?
In Week 11, Jonas Gray rushed 38 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts. The following week, he showed up late to a Friday practice and was subsequently benched in favor of the just-acquired LeGarrette Blount. Blount had a history of running well in his previous stint with the Pats, and he picked up where he left off, rumbling for 470 yards and six scores on 107 carries (4.39 YPC) over the final eight games, including the postseason. (He had 30 carries for 148 yards and three touchdowns against Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, so the Colts must have had nightmares about Patriot running backs for the entire month of February.) Meanwhile, Gray was limited to just 84 yards on 24 carries (3.50 YPC) in the same span.
Blount would normally be the clear favorite for RB1 duties, but these are the Patriots we’re talking about. Complicating matters, Blount will be suspended for the first game of the season, which means Gray will have the first chance to impress. Moreover, he gets a favorable matchup against the Steelers, who yielded the 8th-most YPC to opposing rushers last season. Our money is on Blount to have more fantasy value, but it's a tight race.
There is also uncertainty in the passing RB role as the Patriots let Shane Vereen walk in free agency. They signed Travaris Cadet, who is a solid pass-catcher in his own right, but James White and Brandon Bolden will have something to say on the matter. Given the 6.1 T/G that Vereen saw over the past two seasons, whoever wins the job should post at least RB3 numbers in PPR formats if he fully assumes Vereen’s role.
5. Who will start opposite A.J. Green – Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu?
Heading into 2014 fantasy drafts, Jones was a late-round favorite at 4for4 HQ before he broke a bone in his foot in August. Upon his return, he had an issue with his ankle and the team ultimately shut him down in mid-October. He’s is reportedly fully recovered, so most of what I liked about him is still true. The only issue is that Sanu had a chance to play starter’s snaps, and he looked pretty good at times. He was the #11 WR through Week 9, but benefited from A.J. Green’s four-game absence. Sanu averaged 5.5-96-.50 with Green sidelined and just 2.9-34-.25 with a healthy Green in the lineup. Sanu was actually out-targeted by Jermaine Gresham (5.4 vs. 4.0 T/G) from Week 10 on with Green playing starter’s snaps, so this position battle may not even matter. Still, given Sanu’s late-season swoon, I’ll be making a small investment in Jones in the waning rounds to see if he can recapture the magic of his 2013 season. (He’s currently the #63 WR off the board in the 14th round.)
6. Will the Falcons lean on Devonta Freeman?
Freeman’s ADP is currently sitting in the 7th round, but if the Falcons don’t add a running back early in the draft, I’d expect it to rise into the 5th or 6th round. There are questions about his ability to handle starter’s snaps, but GM Thomas Dimitroff said there was “no question” Freeman is ready to be the feature back. Looking at the running back position in Atlanta, new OC Kyle Shanahan presided over three stellar fantasy seasons in his seven years as an offensive coordinator. In 2008, while Shanny was the OC of the Texans, Steve Slaton turned 327 touches (50 receptions) into 1,659 yards and 10 touchdowns. (Slaton averaged 77.6 total yards on 15.9 touches in 2009.) In 2012, rookie Alfred Morris racked up 1,690 total yards and 13 touchdowns. He followed it up with 1,353 total yards and seven scores in 2013. Shanahan even coaxed 86.7 total yards (on 18.2 touches) from Ryan Torain in 2010 and 67.9 yards on 13.3 touches from Roy Helu in 2011. Freeman wasn't terribly impressive in his rookie season (248 yards rushing, 3.8 YPC), but he was active and effective in the passing game (30 catches for 225 yards), so a Slaton-esque season isn't out of the realm of possibility if the Falcons entrust Freeman with the starting gig.
7. Is Isaiah Crowell the clear RB1 in Cleveland?
Crowell is currently the #25 RB off the board in the 5th round, so the fantasy community seems to think he is. (For what it’s worth, Terrance West is currently going in the 10th.) Once the Browns were done with Ben Tate (Week 11), Crowell out-touched West 90 to 68 over the final seven games, but West had the last laugh, turning 20 touches into 106 yards and a TD against the Ravens in Week 17. (A seemingly healthy Crowell touched the ball five times for 22 yards.) This situation may become clearer as the offseason wears on, but for now I wouldn’t want to invest a middle round pick on a player standing on shaky ground. HC Mike Pettine was handing out carries based on how each player performed in practice that week, so relying on a Cleveland running back isn’t for the fainthearted.
8. Will Cody Latimer play a significant role for the Broncos?
Wes Welker is moving on and Julius Thomas is now a Jaguar, so there are snaps and targets available for Latimer if he can make a leap in his sophomore season. New HC Gary Kubiak favors a two-TE system, but assuming Latimer can beat out Andre Caldwell, he should be on the field when the team goes to three-WR sets. For reference, Marlon Brown was Kubiak’s third receiver in Baltimore and played 40% of the snaps. I’m expecting more playing time for Latimer, but barring a fantastic offseason, he’s not likely to be a full-time contributor.
9. How early will the Ravens draft a running back?
Ravens beat writer Jamison Hensley recently said that it’s only a “matter of when” the team will draft a running back, so Justin Forsett could face some serious competition for touches if the team invests an early round pick in the position. If the Ravens wait until the later rounds to add a back, then Forsett should see his PPR upside increase due to new OC Marc Trestman's tendency to use his running backs in the passing game. Under Trestman, Matt Forte caught 176 passes in the last two seasons, including 102 catches in 2014. Forsett caught 44 passes last season, and could potentially see that number double if he's the RB1 for the Ravens in 2015. However, the loss of OC Gary Kubiak is likely to hurt the Ravens’ running game. As the #8 RB in both standard and PPR formats in 2014, he'll likely hold RB2-type draft value if he continues as the lead back in Baltimore.
10. What will the Chargers do at running back?
When asked about the state of his running back corps, GM Tom Telesco said, "I'm not saying we wouldn't add somebody, but we don't need to." This is a situation to watch during the draft -- if the Chargers don't add a runner during the first two days, it's very possible that Branden Oliver will go into the season as the starter with Donald Brown as his primary backup and Danny Woodhead as the passing down back. In that scenario, Oliver’s ADP would rise from its current level (12th round) and Woodhead would be a nice value in PPR formats.
11. Is Oakland sold on Latavius Murray?
Because it seems like they aren’t. They signed Roy Helu to be a passing down specialist (even though they already have a good one in Marcel Reece) and added Trent Richardson as competition for Murray. They were involved in the DeMarco Murray sweepstakes and have been linked to Adrian Peterson as well. This is not particularly encouraging for Latavius Murray owners who are expecting him to be locked in as the team’s RB1 after a tantalizing sophomore season that saw him average 5.2 YPC on 82 carries.
12. What more will the Eagles do at receiver?
Philadelphia has lost its top receiver – first DeSean Jackson and then Jeremy Maclin – in each of the last two offseasons. It sounds as if Jordan Matthews is going to move outside (at least part-time) and get starter’s snaps, but is the team really content with Riley Cooper, Josh Huff and Miles Austin rounding out the receiving corps? At this point, we’d only want to draft Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz.
13. Will the Cowboys draft a running back?
They let DeMarco Murray walk and signed Darren McFadden, though the team reportedly views McFadden as a backup/change-of-pace type. Joseph Randle (6.7 YPC on 51 attempts, and several off-the-field issues) and Lance Dunbar are back, so the Cowboys could be planning to use a committee behind their talented offensive line. But given the depth of the running back position in this year’s draft (and the still-lingering possibility they’ll make a play for Adrian Peterson), it’s entirely feasible that the team’s leading rusher in 2015 isn’t yet on the roster.
14. Will the Vikings trade Adrian Peterson?
Speaking of Peterson, he’ll probably be a first round pick no matter where he lands. Any team willing to trade for him will want to get their money’s worth, so it’s doubtful he’ll end up playing in a committee. Given his immense salary and the Vikings’ trade demands, it seems most likely Peterson will return to Minnesota, though if he’s willing to rework his contract to facilitate a trade, things could loosen up quickly.
15. Are the Lions done at running back?
If they are, then both Joique Bell and Theo Riddick should offer good value. Bell was the #14 RB in standard formats last season (#13 in PPR), while racking up 257 touches in 15 games. That works out to a 17.1-touch average. While he certainly benefited from Reggie Bush's injury-plagued season, Bell dominated the touches even when Bush was active and playing. Bell should continue to see RB1-type touches in 2015 with Bush out of the way. Look for Riddick to take over Bush’s pass-catching role in the offense. He averaged 5.0 catches for 53 yards for 13.2 fantasy points in PPR formats in the five games Bush missed last season. That's about what Fred Jackson averaged as the #17 running back in 2014.
16. Are the Bucs content at running back? 17. Does it matter?
Based on early ADP, it may not. Doug Martin (3.7 YPC) is going in the 8th round while Charles Sims (2.8 YPC) is being drafted in the 12th. The best running back in Tampa last season was actually Bobby Rainey, who posted 4.3 YPC behind a bad offensive line and managed to lead the RB corps with 33 catches for 315 yards and a TD. The Bucs haven’t addressed the O-line, so unless they invest in the draft, this running game may have trouble getting off the ground in 2015.
18. Will the Cardinals make a move at running back?
Andre Ellington put up an admirable 1,055 total yards in 12 games despite battling foot and sports hernia injuries last season. The team has made it fairly clear that they’d like to lighten his load and the franchise has even been linked to Adrian Peterson. Kerwynn Williams was fairly impressive (53 carries, 246 yards, 4.6 YPC) once Ellington went down, so it’s possible (if unlikely) the team moves forward with an Ellington/Williams combo. If they draft a running back early, it may submarine Ellington’s draft value, which seems to be hanging by a thread in the 5th round.