Fantasy Notebook: AFC South; Burning Questions Start With CJ2K
Hey kids! Now that I'm back from a brief hiatus (well, if you can call covering the madness that was the initial month of free agency a break) it's time to resume the important work of helping you build the initial baseline of information that will become the foundation for your 2013 fantasy success. So let's get busy with the latest edition my division-by-division review/preview of the NFL. This week's edition: The AFC South.
We'll get the ball rolling in Tennessee, where Chris Johnson campaigned for the Titans to be aggressive in free agency -- and for the most part, he was pleased with their efforts. “It looks like we’re getting some good players," he said. "I see they are trying to get the offensive line right. I am pretty happy.”
The addition of offensive linemen Andy Levitre, Robert Turner and Kasey Studdard provide at least one high-end starter (in Levitre) and some quality depth.
But not surprisingly, there’s one move Johnson said he doesn’t completely understand: The signing of veteran running back Shonn Greene to a three-year, $10 million contract.
“I have never been a big fan of the two-back system, so I don’t know how we plan on using him,” Johnson said.
According to Nashville Tennessean staffer Jim Wyatt, Johnson said he would make the best of the situation as he heads into his sixth season, when he’s scheduled to make $10 million himself.
“I’ll just roll with it. Of course I don’t want to carry the ball 30 or 40 times a game,” said Johnson, who averaged 17.25 carries per game last season. “And I don’t mind a guy getting a carry or two. But if I am the main guy and it is supposed to be my team. ... It shouldn’t be an issue.”
We'll see about that.
Head coach Mike Munchak told reporters at the recent NFL owners meeting in Arizona that he envisioned Greene having a sizeable role in the team’s offense as an accompaniment to Johnson. “We’re not going to have him as a short-yardage back, a goal-line back and four-minute back and that’s all he does," Munchak said of Greene. "We feel he can play all three downs. He may get a series where he gets going and we’re taking over the line of scrimmage and you want that runner in there and we leave him in there.”
So how is that going to play with CJ2K, who ran for 1,243 yards on 276 carries last season and who's gained at least 1,000 yards in all five of his NFL seasons, including a 2,006-yard effort in 2009?
I asked TitanInsider.com's Terry McCormick that very question during an appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio last Saturday night and the answer was simple: "Johnson has no choice but to deal with it."
McCormick went on to explain we'll see a return to the one-two punch we saw with Johnson and LenDale White.
"Everybody knows they need to get on track," McCormick said noting the front office, coaching staff and pretty much all involved are on notice from owner Bud Adams. "They need Chris Johnson to be as effective as he was early in his career and they believe the best way to do that is to spell him."
McCormick went on to suggest that Johnson will still have the ball in his hands 20 times a game -- but that's total touches as opposed to carries alone.
Remember; the last time Johnson truly shared the rushing workload was his rookie season in 2008, when he gained 1,228 yards on 251 carries (still his career low) and the huskier White had 773 yards on 200 carries. No other Titans running back has had more than 64 carries in a season since then (and that was White in 2009).
Sounds like that is going to change.
Munchak wanted the same type of big-bodied backup that White previously provide after Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper failed to fill the role the past two years. And they think they have that in Greene. McCormick is convinced they'll use the former Jet extensively, including in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
As for Johnson, I pressed McCormick as to whether the veteran running back was still CJ2K material or just another Johnson.
"He's not losing burst," McCormick replied. "He was slow to the hole last season, but a lot of that was due to the offensive line. The new additions should provide upgrades. I don't think he's still the 4.42 guy he was but he's still dangerous."
The question for fantasy owners, however, isn't hard to figure out; does Greene's arrival push Johnson out of the realm of RB1s?
Based on the expectation that Greene will at the very least handle a short-yardage and goal-line role (with the possibility could emerge as a true complementary back), I expect Johnson's days as a solid lock for top-10 status to end. That doesn't mean somebody in your league won't overpay for him. That doesn't mean you might not be willing to continue paying that premium. But barring any unforeseen developments, I don't think I will.
In Houston… After getting off to a slow start when the free agent signing period opened -- and by slow start, I mean when they quickly lost fullback/tight end James Casey and outside linebacker Connor Barwin to Philadelphia, third-down back Justin Forsett to Jacksonville and free safety Glover Quin to Detroit, it was starting to look the like the Texans were going to come up small.
While they managed to turn things around with the additions of free safety Ed Reed, punter Shane Lechler and fullback Greg Jones (in addition to re-signing nickel cornerback Brice McCain), from a fantasy perspective, at least one position of potential interest remains unfilled: The Texans still haven't addressed their need for a playmaker who can stretch the field opposite Andre Johnson.
Remember, Houston waived Kevin Walter, who started the last six seasons opposite Johnson, in a money-saving move. The prevailing theory has the Texans filling this need in the draft rather than via free agency because they're still limited under the salary cap.
Nick Wright, of Sports Radio 610 in Houston, is among those who believe that will be the approach. He's just not confident it will work.
"They will draft that second wideout this year," Wright said during his visit with us last Saturday. "But if you're relying on the No. 2 being a rookie, you're setting yourself up for disappointment."
But the need is there.
DeVier Posey was on his way to earning that role, but a ruptured Achilles tendon is going to delay the start of his 2013 season.
“I think what we’re looking at in DeVier is a middle-of-the-season possible player next year,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said last month. “I think that’s probably a fair assessment right now, but he’s doing very well and has a bright future with our football team.”
Wright added to that by telling our listeners, "I don't expect [Posey] to have an impact at all this season."
That being the case, there will be some opportunity for Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean. But even with Kubiak suggesting both men are capable of handling that No. 2 spot, Wright is skeptical -- especially with all involved of the opinion that Martin's best chance of contributing is as a slot receiver.
In fact, Wright considers Martin the "definition of a slot guy."
So the draft will be of great interest -- not that Johnson seems to have a great need for a potent threat working the other side of the field to be successful.
After a slow start to the 2012 season, Johnson rebounded for a career-high 1,598 yards to go with 112 catches.
But he only scored four touchdowns. Perhaps a more dangerous -- or even semi-dangerous -- complement working in tandem would help in that regard.
In Indianapolis… While this week's addition of Darrius Heyward-Bey is certainly of interest to fantasy owners, after all, a dangerous speed threat to work opposite Reggie Wayne will make Wayne harder to deal with while allowing T.Y. Hilton to do what he does best (work out of the slot and provide a dynamic weapon in the return game), the focus during our visit with 1070 The Fan In Indy's John Michael Vincent last Saturday was the running back position.
Vick Ballard split duty early in the season and then took command midway through the year. As the Sports Xchange recently reminded readers, injuries at the position helped Ballard see more playing time as the season progressed but he earned the job.
According to Vincent, we can expect "a little bit of a timeshare, but Ballard is going to be the focal point.
"The team still sees value in Donald Brown."
From a fantasy perspective, the question that immediately pops to mind is "why?"
Ballard’s rookie success was one of last season’s biggest stories. In addition to leading the team in rushing, he had 17 receptions and scored three touchdowns overall. He started from Week 5 through the end of the year.
Three times he carried the ball more than 20 times, and as the team's official web site pointed out, the last Colts back to do it once in a season was Joseph Addai in 2010. Ballard ended the season with 11 straight games with a rush exceeding 10 yards, and his rushing yards ranked fourth among NFL rookies.
Brown, on the other hand, suffered a knee injury on a two-point rush in the club’s Week 5 comeback win over Green Bay and only appeared in five games the rest of the season (before spending the last four games on injured reserve).
Last year, a thumb injury that required surgery left Carter behind the curve in terms of learning the team's new offense during OTAs. In training camp, he suffered an ankle injury that cost him the first three games. He also missed the final three outings with another ankle injury.
So the answer is simple.
“Delone needs to stay healthy,” head coach Chuck Pagano said last month. “If he can take care of the football and stay healthy, we can find a role for him."
The "if" says it all.
One last note here… Asked about what kind of impact the departure of former offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians might have, Michael told us: "Arians too valuable to say he's not going to be missed. But bringing in [former Stanford coordinator Pep] Hamilton (to run the offense) and a focus on running the football will help."
Seems to me that focus on running the ball could make Ballard of moderate fantasy interest -- if he's getting the bulk of the work.
Again, the "if" says it all.
And finally, in Jacksonville… According to the Jaguars official web site, as the offseason opens, Blaine Gabbert understands his situation entering Year 3. First-year general manager David Caldwell has said while Gabbert will get every chance to win the starting job, there are no excuses for the former tenth overall selection in the draft, and that the competition will be real – and could possibly include not only veteran Chad Henne, but a rookie draft selection and a veteran free agent.
Gabbert said he welcomes the competition, and said regardless of what Caldwell, head coach Gus Bradley or anyone says publicly, this is a critical year.
“The third year is an important year for any quarterback,” Gabbert said. “It’s where you make the jump. You start playing at a high level. There are still going to be ups and downs. Some guys have off seasons and they’ve been playing 10 years in the NFL. You have to eliminate the peaks and valleys. You have to play at a high level consistently. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
Speaking of critical… Yahoo! Sports' columnist Michael Silver reported last month that a former Jaguars assistant told him that Gabbert has accountability issues.
"Nothing's ever his fault," the unnamed coach said.
How bad was it? According to Silver's sources the young quarterback is known by the name "Blame Gabbert" inside the Jaguars building.
Needless to say, that when Associated Press Jaguars' beat reporter Mark Long joined us on the show, we wondered about the veracity of Silver's report.
Long pulled no punches.
"He's gotten two coaches and a GM fired," he said of the former first-round pick's career highlights to date.
As for the current regime?
"They know Gabbert is not a long-term solution at the position," Long asserted.
And why not?
"The anonymous coach who talked about Gabbert was dead on," the reporter explained. "Players know it. Coaches know it. The front office knows it."
Well now… That certainly jibes with what Silver's reporting. "Don't be surprised at anything we may or may not do," one current "high-ranking" Jaguars source told Silver. "There are no options off the table.”
Again, why not?
Henne ended the season as the starter because Gabbert was lost for the season in the 10th game. But neither one was impressive. Henne's passer rating was 72.2 and Gabbert's was 77.4. Or as Long put it: "Gabbert and Henne are just guys."
Worth noting, respected draft analyst Russell Lande, a former scout for the Browns and Rams who now serves Scouting Director for Montreal Alouettes in addition to writing for the National Football Post, also appeared on Saturday night's show. And he told the FootballDiehards listeners that he's among those hearing the Jaguars are very seriously considering drafting a quarterback with the second pick overall.
We shall see.
In the meantime, what should fantasy owners make of a receiving corps that could be reliant on a couple of "guys?"
"And teams that fall behind have to throw."
No matter who their quarterback is.
One last note here… Gabbert, after finishing the 2012 season on injured reserve, said he was entering the off-season program 100 percent healthy. The torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder healed quickly after late-season surgery, he said, and while the forearm injury that ended his season was more complex, he said he has been recovered from that and throwing full for the last month.