What we learned from June minicamps and OTAs

Jun 18, 2012
What we learned from June minicamps and OTAs

Only six of the 32 teams -- the Falcons, Bills, Chargers, Dolphins, Vikings and Titans -- did not complete their offseason organized team activities (OTAs) or minicamps last week. As usual, the news and opinion ramped up as beat writers got a chance to watch practice and ask questions of the coaches. Here are several situations to note as the summer wears on and we get closer to the start of training camps, which usually start in late July or early August, depending on the team.


Franchise player Drew Brees has until July 16 to work out a long-term deal with the Saints. At that point, he has the option to play on a one-year tender or not play at all. The two sides don't sound that far apart, but it's surprising that a deal hasn't already been reached. Brees is our #4 QB, and is very likely to play in 2012 even if a long-term contract isn't finalized. Sean Payton is suspended for the season, and the Saints' prolific passing attack might take a step back efficiency-wise as a result, but it is still a formidable unit capable of posting more record-breaking numbers. There is also the likelihood that the defense struggles, which may mean even more pass attempts for Brees. Given the craziness of the Saints' offseason, we'd definitely take Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady ahead of Brees at this point, and it's not outlandish to consider taking Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford ahead of Brees either.
There have been mixed reviews of Peyton Manning. CBS's Pete Prisco saw "very little difference" in Manning's ability to throw the ball, while USA Today's Nate Davis said that "it was clear" that his velocity on deep passes wasn't the same. For his part, Manning says he's still in the rehab phase, so improvement in this area is expected. Given his injury history, it would be hard to take Peyton ahead of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers or Matt Ryan.
The early reviews of rookie QBs Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck have been entirely positive. Redskins OC Kyle Shanahan says that Griffin has picked up the offense more quickly than expected and his arm strength has earned the nickname "The Arm." Luck's football IQ is "off the charts" according to Colts HC Chuck Pagano and has earned nothing but praise from his teammates and the team's beat writers. Fantasy-wise, the big difference between the two rookies is that Griffin is much more of a rushing threat, which is why he is currently #14 in our rankings. Luck is sitting at #20.
The other rookie QB with a clear path to start Week 1 is the Browns' Brandon Weeden. The team's president, Mike Holmgren, said that Weeden is "as prepared to come in and start" as any rookie QB he's been around. The beat writers aren't as convinced that Weeden has outplayed Colt McCoy in offseason workouts, but the team is apparently ready to move on from the former third-round pick, and is looking to trade him away.
We're somewhat bullish on 49ers QB Alex Smith, who has "separated himself" from his backups by making "dramatic improvements" per HC Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers are looking to become more balanced by adding several weapons in the passing game, including Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie RB LaMichael James.
Now, a look at several quarterback battles that are going on:
- From a fantasy perspective, the Tennessee QB competition is probably the most important. Whoever starts for the Titans should be a solid QB2, and if the second-year Jake Locker gets the not, he has fringe QB1 upside. There have been reports that the Titans may elect to go with veteran Matt Hasselbeck due to the team's difficult opening schedule -- they face the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Texans during the first four weeks.
- Cardinals QBs Kevin Kolb and John Skelton continue to battle for the starting gig and HC Ken Whisenhunted said recently that he may not name a starter until late in the preseason.
- Pro Football Weekly reported that Matt Flynn was "by far" the best QB in the Seahawks' first OTA, but WR Doug Baldwin said that the competition is not clear-cut. ESPN's Ron Jaworski studied tape on Flynn and reported that he was "decisive" and "consistently accurate," but that he has "arm strength limitation" and that his long passes "had a tendency to die." HC Pete Carroll loves his players to earn playing time, so this competition could go on for a while.
- Dolphins HC Joe Philbin plans on naming a starter by Week 3 of the preseason, but owner Stephen Ross expects Moore to start Week 1. Ryan Tannehill is more prepared as a rookie due to his experience in OC Mike Sherman's offense from their days together at Texas A&M. David Garrard is the wild card.


Maurice Jones-Drew wants a new contract despite signing a five-year deal worth $31 million in 2009. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million this season and nearly $5 million in 2013. Adam Schefter says the holdout isn't "going to end anytime soon." MJD is 27 and has seen players like DeAngelo Williams get more money on a per year basis. Jones-Drew is currently our #5 RB, but he obviously carries a lot of risk at this point. Any owners who roll the dice on MJD in the first round at this point in the offseason need to be sure they get Rashad Jennings as a handcuff.
Matt Forte is also holding out for a new deal, but he's a franchise player so he has to work out a long-term contract by July 16 or play under the one-year tender. The third option is to sit out the season, but he'd be costing himself $7.7 million in that scenario. Forte is likely to play this year, and while Jay Cutler raved about his physique after a recent meeting, the RB may not be in great football shape. Injuries for players that hold out are a big concern and the presence of the more than capable Michael Bush complicates matters even further. Ray Rice is also a franchise player that has been sitting out in the hopes of getting a new deal. Talks between Rice and the Ravens have been "constructive." We fully expect a deal to get done soon. If not, Rice is likely to play under the franchise tag.
The Falcons once again want to limit Michael Turner's workload, though the threats carry a little extra weight this year since the team has changed offensive coordinators. Former OC Mike Mularkey is now the head coach of the Jaguars, while new OC Dirk Koetter ran the Jags' offense for the last five seasons. Jacksonville was run-oriented under Koetter, but he never had the weapons that the Falcons have in the passing game. I asked our Falcons scout, Anthony Stalter, what he makes of the shift in offensive philosophy and he said, "If Mularkey was still the OC then I wouldn't buy that the Falcons are limiting Turner's carries. But with Koetter, I think Smith knows he has to open things up and be more aggressive through the air." Stalter feels comfortable with our 10% decrease in carries for Turner (from 301 to 270), which currently makes him our #13 RB. Don't sleep on Turner in the late 3rd or 4th round. He's still going to be the man for the Falcons around the goal line.
There are three big name RBs trying to return from torn ACLs: Adrian Peterson, Rashard Mendenhall and Jamaal Charles. Peterson is focusing on a Week 1 return and has been beating teammates in hill sprints, but he's still trying to return to form within a year of ACL surgery -- and that's unprecedented. He is probably the biggest boom or bust player of 2012. Owners who are willing to take on Peterson's risk should make it a point to grab Toby Gerhart as a backup. Meanwhile, Mendenhall appears to be heading for PUP, which means he'll miss the first six games of the season. This is not written in stone, but for the time being Isaac Redman is the team's RB1. Mendenhall was not that much better than Redman when both players were healthy, so there's no guarantee that he'll earn starter's carries when he's back to 100%. Lastly, Charles is the one RB in this group that appears to be on track for a Week 1 return and that's because he was injured early in the 2011 season. He is scheduled to be examined today to see if he'll be cleared for training camp.
Bills RB Fred Jackson was outstanding before he got injured in Week 11, and is currently on average the 17th RB off the board. We have him ranked #21 due to the presence of C.J. Spiller, who racked up an average of 106 total yards and 0.8 TDs per game over the final six weeks. Both HC Chan Gailey and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick have been complimentary of Spiller's work in workouts. We're currently projecting a 55/45 split between Jackson and Spiller, but we'll continue to monitor the reports out of Buffalo and adjust if necessary.
Despite the Buccaneers' decision to draft Doug Martin in the first round, LeGarrette Blount has been taking most of the first-team reps in practice. Beat writer Stephen Holder predicts that the team will use Blount on first downs to kill the clock in the 4th quarter. Don't forget that Blount rushed for 977 yards and five TDs in the final 11 games of the 2010 season, and at that point he looked like one of the most promising young RBs in the league. He didn't suddenly forget how to run. He's not good in pass protection, but if Martin falters and Blount runs like it's 2010, he'll hold onto the starting job. The scouts love Martin, but his college production (namely his 4.9 YPC against inferior competition in the Mountain West Conference) isn't terribly encouraging.
The conventional wisdom was that Stevan Ridley had the inside track to become the Patriots' RB1, but Shane Vereen has also been taking snaps with the first team and was drafted ahead of Ridley last summer, so there's a decent chance that the duo split carries. We've been slowly moving Ridley down in our rankings, so the better value at this point may be Vereen, who has been going in the 12th round this summer. However, if Ridley earns all (or most) of the goal line carries, he could hold BenJarvus Green-Ellis type value in 2012. We're not expecting the Patriots to depart from their usual RBBC strategy -- Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead are also in the mix.
The Colts intend to hold a competition for the starting job in training camp, but RB coach David Walker says that Donald Brown is "the No. 1 right now." Delone Carter, Darren Evans and rookie Vick Ballard are in the mix, but Brown did show some potential in 2011 rushing for 645 yards on a 4.8 YPC average, though 161 yards came in Week 15 against the Titans. Brown will have the benefit of running against defenses that will have to account for a much better passing game under Andrew Luck.


Wes Welker and Dwayne Bowe are both franchise players and are fully expected to play in 2012. Welker has already signed his tender and attended all offseason workouts. Bowe is expected to sign his tender by July 16, the deadline for a long-term deal. It does not appear that the Chiefs are going to give him the type of contract that he is looking for. Meanwhile, Mike Wallace is holding out as well, but he's a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), not unlike Vincent Jackson in 2010. If you remember, Jackson held out for most of the season only to return in the second half so that he wouldn't lose a year of accrued service. We could be looking at a similar situation with Wallace since the two sides are reportedly far apart.
Hakeem Nicks doesn't have "any doubt" that he'll be ready to play in Week 1, even though the team is expecting him to be out until at least mid-August. Nicks is a stud, but he's cutting it close for Week 1 and players that hold out or sit for much of training camp have a tendency to get injured upon their return.
Kenny Britt began cutting last Thursday, and assuming his knee responds well, it's a great sign for his availability for the start of training camp. The recent scope has apparently helped the knee; Britt says it's no longer "clicking." Britt is a top 5 talent and if he's a full participant in camp, he'll move up our rankings.
Denarius Moore injured his hamstring but is expected to be ready for camp, so the injury doesn't sound too serious. Still, he missed three games in 2011 due to an ankle injury, so owners may begin to get gun-shy since it looks like he may be injury-prone. Those owners who do draft Moore in the middle rounds should also target Darrius Heyward-Bey a few rounds later. Both players may emerge as fantasy starters and will provide built-in insurance in case of injury.
Brandon Lloyd has been impressive in offseason workouts, which is really no surprise given the way he excelled under Patriots OC Josh McDaniels while with the Broncos (77-1448-11) and with the Rams (51-683-5 in 11 games) despite limited time getting acclimated to QB Sam Bradford. Lloyd is still in his prime and is simply better than recent additions Joey Galloway and Chad Ochocinco were when they joined the Patriots. Lloyd's presence is going to impact the other Patriot receivers -- namely Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- one way or another. Last year, Deion Branch saw the 4th-most targets on the team (90) and finished with 51-702-5. We currently have Lloyd as our #29 WR, projected for 71-1010-7.1. Will there be enough balls to go around to keep all four receivers happy? Branch and Jabar Gaffney are two more mouths that will need to be fed as well.
It appears that Titus Young's non-suspension suspension (for fighting with a teammate) is behind him. Lions HC Jim Schwartz says that he's been "outstanding" in practice and beat writer Anwar Richardson said that he looked "amazing." It appears that he's on the verge of beating out Nate Burleson for the Lions' WR2 role. Young saw 86 targets on the season (for a 5.4 per game average), but saw 7.5 targets per game over the last four. We have him ranked as our #40 WR, seven spots ahead of the general consensus.
Steven Jackson told the press that the team would "lean heavily" on Brian Quick and NFL.com's Ian Rapoport said that the team is "insanely excited" about the rookie receiver. Someone has to catch the ball in St. Louis and right now Quick appears to be the team's most significant threat in the passing game. We have him projected for 66 catches for 821 yards and 5.2 TDs, which would meet or exceed what Percy Harvin and Jeremy Maclin did in their rookie seasons.
Finally, he's baaaaaaaaaaack. Randy Moss has been impressive in 49ers camp and it appears that the 35-year-old has the inside track to start over Mario Manningham opposite Michael Crabtree. It's hard to get excited about Moss, who is well past his prime and flamed out of the league two seasons ago after failing to produce with three different teams. However, the situation seems to be about as good as it can be for a successful Moss comeback. He's playing for a contender and a quality coach that would seemingly know how to manage his ego. We currently have him ranked #56, but if the good vibes continue through training camp, he'll probably settle into the mid-40s.


The Bengals want Jermaine Gresham to be "more involved downfield" per OC Jay Gruden and the third-year TE has the talent to have a breakout season in 2012 with last year's #2 target (Jerome Simpson) no longer with the team. His 105 targets will be distributed elsewhere, and it's unlikely that whoever wins the WR2 job will get them all. That means Gresham has the opportunity to become the team's most-targeted receiver after A.J. Green.
After hip and hernia surgeries, Brent Celek hasn't missed a single offseason practice. He's primed for a big season after finishing 2011 strong, posting 53-738-5 in the final 11 games on a healthy 7.0 targets per game.
The Vikings are reportedly planning to use Kyle Rudolph as the centerpiece of their two-TE attack and the second-year player should benefit from his first full offseason of working with QB Christian Ponder. For what it's worth, Ponder has been raving about Rudolph and it appears that the duo have developed solid chemistry. Given the lack of receiving options in Minnesota, it wouldn't be a shocker if Rudolph finished with the second-most targets (to Percy Harvin) in 2012. Our one concern: The Vikings gave John Carlson a fat contract, which means he's likely to play quite a bit. We're betting that it in two-TE formations and not at the expense of Rudolph.
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