Fantasy Notebook: AFC East Preview; Jets Upgrade; Dolphins Going Deep & More
After touring the NFC South, AFC South, AFC West and NFC East in recent weeks, the Fantasy Notebook continues its division-by-division look at the NFL offseason with a run through the AFC East, where there's no shortage of fantasy football related fodder to preview.
We'll get the ball rolling this week in New York, where the Jets started their off-season workouts on Monday with fantasy owners eager to find out how newly-signed running back Chris Johnson will be used now in his new home. Of course, we all know it's not going to be that easy. If we didn't, head coach Rex Ryan made it clear enough.
According to Ryan, it's going to take some time before get a feel for Johnson's role. The coach didn't commit to a "Ground and Pound Redux" and stressed that no promises were made to Johnson when he signed about how much he'll play.
"Nothing was ever promised [like] 'You're going to get X amount of carries.' No role determined for really anyone," Ryan told reporters.
"We're excited to add Chris," Ryan said. "When you look at our stable of backs, it's pretty good. It kind of reminds me of my first year here."
NFL.com's Ryan Maquinana reminded readers that offensive success of Ryan's 2009 Jets was based on a punishing ground attack, with fullback Tony Richardson opening up holes for Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene and Leon Washington en route to a combined 2,273 rushing yards. Danny Woodhead even got to carry the ball 15 times during that campaign.
So the most likely plan this season?
A timeshare led by Johnson and Ivory seems to be the consensus among observers. That includes some teammates.
"I'm excited," another new signee, Eric Decker, said of teaming with Johnson. "Everyone knows he's very explosive. He's had 1,000-yard seasons over the last I think six years, or however long it has been. Just reading his comments in the press -- he's hungry. He's got a chip on his shoulder. I think he adds a dynamic piece to our offense."
Decker believes a lightning-and-thunder combo will serve the team well.
"Chris Ivory is kind of the tough guy that gets in there and gets the yard," Decker said, "Chris Johnson is the guy that can break a 6-yard run into a 60-yard touchdown. It's big for us to get some speed on the offense to complement the defense."
From a fantasy perspective, I'll note that Johnson's contract suggests he gets first shot at chairman of the running back committee.
It's been widely reported the former Titans' two-year contract has a base value of $8 million. Another $1 million is available in incentives based on yardage. It's safe to assume the Jets aren't giving Johnson that kind of money to cool his heels on the sidelines while Ivory and Powell carry the load.
As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio suggested, given Johnson's late entry to the market and the ongoing devaluation of the tailback position, it's a very good deal for Johnson. It's also a good deal for the Jets, who seemed to be most likely to land Johnson from the start. If nothing else, they're getting a previously productive player with something to prove.
"I have a fresh start. Now I am going to go out there with a chip on my shoulder," Johnson told the Nashville Tennessean's Jim Wyatt after the signing. "I know a lot of people are doubting me. I want to prove everybody wrong who has doubts in me."
Regular readers of the Fantasy Notebook this offseason -- or those who have followed my work for any length of time -- already know I love me a previously-productive player with something to prove. Especially one getting a new opportunity.
As the Sports Xchange understated, "Johnson might not be the same player he was in 2009, when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards, but he carried the ball 279 times in 2013 and could flourish as part of a rotation.”
Johnson is also a solid short-range receiver with an average of 45 catches in Tennessee. Being a reliable outlet makes him the ideal check-down read for second-year quarterback Geno Smith -- or with Michael Vick, who will compete with Smith for the starting spot this summer.
PFT's Josh Alper believes Johnson's ability to break big plays and make things happen as a receiver are two places he's clearly superior to the other backs and that should buy him every opportunity to be the lead dog in the backfield even if he isn't playing as much as he did in Tennessee.
But as Maquinana contends, what makes Johnson an even more valuable commodity to Ryan is his durability.
Johnson has completed a full 16-game season in four of his last five campaigns and played the entire 2013 season despite a torn meniscus.
While Adam Schefter of ESPN has reported that the Jets have "some concerns" about the knee, and that it contains arthritis. Johnson has said there's no arthritis. And a source close to the situation told Florio that Johnson's knee is normal for a player who has six years in the NFL at running back.
It's called "wear and tear," people.
Johnson has 2,014 regular-season offensive touches, an average of 335.6 per year. And as Florio added, "If the Jets had concerns, why would they have signed him? G.M. John Idzik is conservative, thoughtful, and deliberate. He's not going to roll the dice with $3 million of owner Woody Johnson's money."
"It flies in the face of common sense," Florio's source said.
Indeed, it might behoove us to contrast Johnson's track record for staying on the field with Ivory, whose 15 games last year were a career high. This after the former Saint spent most of his first training camp in New York nursing a tender hamstring. Prior to last season, Ivory played a total of 24 games combined in three seasons with New Orleans (including a pair of six-game seasons).
For what it's worth, Maquinana believes Powell and Green are slated to spell the Johnson-Ivory duo, with Goodson unable to do anything "in the near future" as he continues to recover from knee surgery. According to New York Daily News staffer Manish Mehta, Goodson could be the odd man out.
Meanwhile, Decker comes on board as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver by default.
We can debate the merits of asking a guy who played more of a complimentary role in Denver to handle the top spot, but it would be impossible to argue Decker isn't currently the most dangerous wide receiver on the roster. Granted, that's not saying much with considering Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill, David Nelson, Clyde Gates and Greg Salas are the top returnees at the position. Santonio Holmes was released by the Jets last month and the team added Jacoby Ford.
Despite missing four games, Kerley still led all Jets wideouts with 43 catches for 523 yards last season.
At the very least, Decker, who flourished with Peyton Manning in the Broncos' high-octane offense last season, will be a welcome addition. The 6-3, 214-pounder had 87 catches for 1,288 yards, 11 touchdowns and averaged 14.8 yards per catch last year. Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Decker has also scored 33 touchdowns in his four-year career.
Of course, the success of Decker and the rest of the receiving corps will depend greatly on the play at quarterback.
In a meeting with reporters earlier this week, Smith spoke with confidence about his place with the Jets. He said he's watched game tape of his 25-turnover rookie season "over and over and over. ... As painful as it is." Asked if he feels like he's still the Jets' starter, he answered, "Yes."
"With the experience I've gained," Smith told the Daily News, "I feel like I'm more than capable of being the starter."
It's safe to assume that Vick will have something to say about that.
Still, Smith continues to say the right things about Vick's presence in the building. "I look forward to working with him," Smith said. "I look forward to competing with him as well.”
As NFL.com's Dan Hanzus suggests, Smith came out of Idzik's first draft with the team, so it will be a surprise if the second-year man isn't given every opportunity to retain the starting job entering the season. The bigger question is how much patience Smith has earned?
As for Vick?
He has years of experience in current Jets coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's offense. The 33-year old Vicks started 36 games in four years under the former Eagles coordinator. Vick has 109 career starts since joining the NFL in 2001.
One could easily argue that Vick also gives Ryan a better chance to win now. But it all hinges on Vick being the same guy who beat out Nick Foles last summer (before injuries allowed Folk to take over during the regular season).
During an April 12 appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Radio, Associated Press Jets beat writer Dennis Waszak offered up his thoughts on the situation.
"At first, I thought if you really want Smith to be the guy," Waszak said, "you can't bring in Vick. When he's healthy, he's still one of the most dynamic players in the league. But he's also a good teammate. Ask guys in Philadelphia, and they'll tell you Vick was very helpful to Foles. And that's what the Jets needed with Smith coming off an up and down rookie season.
"If Smith can beat out Michael Vick, it further verifies that Smith can be the QB of the future. If Vick happens to win the job in training camp, it doesn't really set Smith back."
Pressed further as to his expectations on the outcome of the competition, Waszak leaned to the younger man.
"The team wants to see Smith take the next step," he said. "They think they have something in him. So I believe if the competition is close this summer, Smith will get the nod.
"Vick will have to be head and shoulders better than Smith to earn the job."
Vick has certainly shown an ability to work his way up from the bottom when it's been necessary. All things being equal, a healthy Vick as the starter would be of much greater interest to me as a fantasy owner than Smith. I'd suggest the same would hold true for Decker, too.
In Miami, fantasy owners disappointed by the recent work of Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas can take heart. Or at least hope for a change atop the depth chart. This after Knowshon Moreno signed a one-year deal with the team the last week of March.
Despite coming off a season in which he rushed for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns in Denver, the Dolphins were the only team in free agency to express significant interest in Moreno. It's safe to assume Miller and Thomas are a big reason why.
Yes, head coach Joe Philbin praised Miller several times during his time with the media at the NFL owners meetings just days before signing Moreno, saying Miller has the three things needed in a back: He can run, catch and he's solid in pass protection. According to Palm Beach Post staffer Andrew Abramson, Philbin said he may have over-coached Miller a bit by continuously harping on ball security.
But Philbin went on to note that at some point Miller needs to break tackles.
Now Moreno is in the mix. Philbin said before the fact that he would consider Miller the team's starting running back -- even if somebody was added. Safe to assume that's changed. Moreno is a much more well-rounded back than either Miller or Thomas. Given that, I'll co-sign on Hanzus' contention that Moreno might not be the Dolphins' every-down back, but he'll likely see the most touches at the position.
Even if Moreno isn't the "starter," his consistent approach will help a backfield that was held under 25 rushing yards on four different occasions last season. So fantasy football owners should look for a timeshare with Miller and Moreno on the field depending on game situations. That would make Thomas the odd man out -- if he makes the final cut.
The Dolphins currently have a full group of tailbacks that includes Moreno, Miller, Thomas, Mike Gillislee and Marcus Thigpen. Not all five are going to make the 53-man roster. According to ESPN.com's James Walker, Miami will most likely wind up choosing between Thomas and Gillislee for the final spot.
Moreno and Miller are locks. Thigpen has versatility as Miami's primary kick returner and also experimented a little at wide receiver. Walker notes that positional flexibility is important to Philbin, which should help Thigpen stick. So it's down to Thomas versus Gillislee. Gillislee didn't get to show much his rookie year in 2013 but Thomas has had ample opportunity to live up to his potential and fallen well short of the mark.
Also in Miami: With new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor taking over for the fired Mike Sherman, Ryan Tannehill said this week that he's been specifically focusing on improving his deep ball. "We have a guy in Mike Wallace who can really stretch the field vertically, as well as some other guys, too," Tannehill told the South Florida Sun Sentinel, "but I think everyone when you think deep ball you think Mike Wallace right now."
When the Dolphins signed Wallace last offseason, they imagined him consistently hauling in deep bombs from Tannehill. As NFL.com suggested, "Those images turned out to be mirages" as the Wallace-Tannehill combo didn't offer many explosive plays during a disappointing 2013 season.
"So that's one that I've really been working on is being more consistent on my deep throws and I think it'll match up with our passing game we put in going forward," Tannehill said.
That would be a nice change.
According to Pro Football Focus' deep-passing statistics, Tannehill completed just 16 of 64 attempts targeted 20 or more yards downfield in 2013; he also had five passes dropped. He compiled just 560 yards on those 16 completions for three touchdowns and was picked off six times. According to PFF, Tannehill threw deep on 10.9 percent of his drop backs, with a 32.8 percent accuracy rate.
Wallace is looking forward to the change. Asked to assess the new offense upon arrival for the off-season program, the speedy wideout said: "My style: Big-play offense. I see Ryan's excited about it. He's called me about eight, nine times.
"I just want to make some plays for my team. Go out and make some plays for my team and have a much better year than last year. We can't have the kind of year we had last year. We need to be on the same page."
Wallace had a career-high 73 catches last year, his first in Miami, but believes he left 15 to 20 touchdowns on the field because he and Tannehill could never figure out the deep ball.
During his appearance with the FootballDiehards, Greg Likens, host of 940WINZ Radio's Finsiders show, made it clear that Wallace's disappointing 2013 campaign wasn't all on the receiver.
"Wallace got open frequently," Likens said. "He did his job. He had some drops, but he was doing what he was signed to do."
The question, however, is this: Is Wallace a complete receiver or one-trick pony? Is he a true No. 1?
"Nobody is going to confuse him for a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald," Likens conceded. "He's not going to go up and use his body to fight for contested balls, but Wallace is the best at what he does: Taking the top off defenses with his speed and opening things up for other weapons."
One key for the deep-passing game will be the pass blocking. It's an area all involved are fully aware needs improvement.
"Offensive line is the preeminent focus going forward," Likens said. "Tannehill can't do anything without time."
Likens went on to point out that Tannehill has proven to be very capable of throwing on the move. It's something Lazor will look to take advantage of going forward.
A few final notes here: Both Brandon Gibson, who tore a patella tendon, and Brian Hartline, who tore a PCL in the regular-season finale, are expected to be working in advance of training camp. Assuming both are healthy they'll round out the top three (along with Wallace) at wideout.
In Buffalo, the Bills acquired Mike Williams in a trade from the Buccaneers earlier this month. Multiple reports indicate Buffalo will give up a sixth-round draft pick to secure his services. "Mike Williams is a competitive, tough wide receiver who has the size and athleticism to add competition to our receiver position group," said head coach Doug Marrone. "We feel Mike is a player who has the ability to help our team improve."
Worth noting, off-field issues led to Williams leaving Syracuse, then coached by Marrone, prior to the 2009 season. Soon after his college career was over Williams declared for the 2010 NFL draft where the Buccaneers made him a fourth-round pick.
"With regard to our time at Syracuse, I feel that is in the past for both of us," said Marrone. "Mike has an opportunity to get a fresh start to his career here in his hometown and regain his form as a productive player in the National Football League. We look forward to getting Mike into the facility and start our work preparing for the 2014 season once the players are free to report on April 22."
As BuffaloBills.com's Chris Brown notes, though he is not a burner (4.5 speed), Williams is adept at getting behind defenses with his sharp and effective route running. He's also exceptional at high pointing the ball, which has made him an effective red zone target in the passing game.
Whether the acquisition of Williams reduces Buffalo's need to add a dynamic receiving threat outside remains to be seen. Adding size at receiver this offseason was seen as a priority. Though Williams stands just 6-1, he does play much bigger than his listed height.
The Bills already have Steve Johnson, T.J. Graham, Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods at receiver before making a move for Williams and they were reportedly interested in DeSean Jackson before Jackson signed with Washington. In light of all that, there's been some question about whether Johnson remains in the team's plans after a rough 2013 season, although the Bills have said that they are excited about his future in Buffalo.
After the season, Brown told a local radio station that the coaching staff was unable to convince Johnson to buy into the team concept. Marrone subsequently told reporters he contacted Johnson to clear the air in February.
"We had a great conversation," Marrone said. "I told Stevie, 'Hey, listen. I'm excited about getting started with you. I'm excited about you coming in and getting healthy and get this team going. And whatever else you're hearing, it's not coming from me."
The fact that Brown works for the team notwithstanding, his comments fell in line with what Buffalo News staffer Tim Graham and other reporters had heard about Johnson's act wearing thin among his teammates before Johnson missed the last two games because of his mother's death.
Johnson was among the Bills reporting for the start of the off-season conditioning program this week. According to News columnist Bucky Gleason, Johnson said all the right things. He praised E.J. Manuel after seeing him assume more command during workouts in Florida. He supported the addition of Williams and talked about team aspirations when asked about individual objectives.
Even though he didn't say as much this week, Gleason believes Johnson must be wondering how long he'll remain in Buffalo. After the team drafted Woods and Goodwin last year, Johnson was moved to the slot, where he could better utilize his physical assets, but he was mostly a nonfactor. In the wake of all that -- and acknowledging the questions about Johnson's future, Gleason wrote: "If the Bills were willing to add a potential problem child in Williams, what did that say about Stevie?"
Probably nothing good.
In addition to the time missed after his mother's death, Johnson was slowed by back, groin and hamstring injuries. This after admitting he didn't work out in the previous offseason. He said Tuesday that he recovered from the injuries and felt good. Despite his claims of making a stronger commitment to conditioning this year, there's reason for skepticism.
Whatever the case, Gleason is correct in his assertion that if Manuel is going to become the franchise quarterback, he'll need to find chemistry with his receivers. He seemed to make a connection with Woods and (to a lesser degree) Goodwin last season. Johnson, who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, had 52 catches for only 597 yards and three touchdowns.
That's a trajectory fantasy owners shouldn't overlook.
Meanwhile, Manuel this week declared both knees to be fine, and his mind refreshed.
The next step is showing how capable Manuel is in shedding the injuries and inconsistencies that limited the first-round draft pick's development during his rookie season last year. According to AP sports writer John Wawrow, with a season behind him, Manuel has a new perspective for the job and feels better prepared to work on what he needs to improve upon.
"I'm eager about it. I'm excited," he said. "I know there is a lot of area for me to grow. That's why I took these last four months to allow that growth."
The first step was getting healthy after being sidelined three times because of knee issues.
"I feel fine. I feel normal," Manuel said, adding there were no limitations placed on him during Tuesday's workout. "I'm very eager to play a full 16-game regular season."
Manuel had been working out with C.J. Spiller in California prior to reporting for the off-season program. Appearing on WGR Sports Radio 550 late last month, Spiller made it clear he's fully recovered from last season's troublesome ankle injury.
"I feel good. I'm actually out here in California getting some throws in with EJ just trying to get some timing down," Spiller said before explaining his ankle has come around since the end of the 2013 season. "The ankle has been responding pretty well since the offseason started being able to plant and cut so I definitely feel that explosion coming back to how I was in 2012," he said.
The speedy halfback dealt with a high ankle sprain for most of last season and lacked his trademark burst and elusiveness. A healthy Spiller could provide great value this summer coming off last year's disappointing campaign.
As for Manuel, the Bills are placing an unmistakable emphasis on doing a better job preparing him for the 2014 season than they did last year. Part of that has been tripling up on the QB's coaches. As a rookie, Manuel worked with one coach, whose plate was too full. According to Graham, this was one of Marrone's biggest miscalculations. Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett also served as quarterbacks coach and, making in-game instruction even tougher, called plays from the press box for much of the season. The Bills added former Lions QBs coach Todd Downing in that same capacity and hired former San Francisco 49ers coordinator and Ravens receivers coach Jim Hostler to be a senior offensive assistant.
Now, as Graham summed up, "Nobody can criticize the Bills anymore for not giving Manuel enough support."
Not surprisingly, Marrone maintains his trust in Manuel's potential, and expects him to continue developing.
Fantasy football owners should focus on that last bit -- the continuing development. Until he's more fully developed, there are better options out there.
In New England, the good news for the Patriots would be that Rob Gronkowski remains on track in his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. NFL Network's Albert Breer reported on April 11 that the star tight end visited with famed orthopedist Dr. James Andrews and is "right where he should be." Gronkowski, who tore both the ACL and MCL in Week 14 last season, will start jogging soon.
That's all well and good, but a source close to Gronkowski told Bleacher Report columnist Mike Freeman that the player will "take his time and then take more time" with his recovery.
Freeman went on to remind readers that when he Gronkowski took his sweet time coming back from injury last year he was assailed by teammates in a series of anonymous quotes questioning his heart.
Now, Freeman is told Gronk might even take more time, and be more patient, than ever before.
"I'm not exactly sure when we'll see Gronkowski," Freeman wrote. "I do know he'll be back when he's good and ready, and I'm not sure how anyone can fault that. But I'm sure someone will."
Some of those might be fantasy football owners, who already suffered through last year's lengthy recovery. They should be prepared to do the same again this year as Gronkowski is a strong candidate to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list. The decision for most isn't how productive Gronk can be once he returns; it's a matter of wanting to deal with the kind of week-to-week uncertainty owners had to deal with last year.
During his turn with the FootballDiehards, Andy Hart from Patriots Football Weekly was asked if Gronkowski's return to his previous high-end form was a real expectation or just hope.
"I think it's hope," Hart said. "He's dealt with injuries the last three years. ... People are hoping he's just snake bit and he'll get back to form and avoid injuries. But coming back from an ACL, there are two phases: First is getting back on the field; second is getting back to what you were as a playmaker."
Hart also reminded us that while the offense ranked third in the league in scoring, "a lot of their points came in the middle of the year when Gronk was healthy. Before and after that, they struggled in the red zone and on third downs."
Given the questions surrounding Gronk's timetable (and perhaps even his ability to be the Gronk of old), you also have to wonder about Tom Brady's fantasy prospects heading into this season.
The 6-2, 208-pound LaFell caught 49 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns in Carolina last season. He had a solid game against the Patriots, catching a season-high seven passes in the Panthers win over the Patriots. He had 44 catches for 677 yards and four scores in 2012.
As CSNNE.com's Tom Curran noted, LaFell can work inside in the slot or outside the numbers. He will be a complement to Edelman and Danny Amendola. Edelman's 105 receptions, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns in 2013 exceeded his total production from his first four seasons, and he played 16 games for the first time in his career.
Amendola battled injuries throughout his first season with the Patriots. He finished with 54 catches for 633 yards with Brady throwing to him. He had two better seasons when he played in St. Louis with Sam Bradford throwing to him.
Whatever the case, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal believes LaFell could emerge as a red-zone target for Brady.
I suspect any receiver who's able to gain Brady's trust can pull that off. And that will be the key for LaFell the same as it's been for every receiver who's played with Brady. The requirements are simple: Run the routes; be where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be there. And do it every time.
LaFell's ability (or inability) to meet those requirements will be something we watching closely as OTAs and mini-camps progress.
Hart advised listeners the team is still looking for a player to step up on the outside to complement Edelman or Amendola as a true No. 1 receiver. Hart added that Dobson could be that guy.
Pointing to the fact that Dobson's rookie numbers weren't all that far off those Alshon Jeffery posted as a rookie as in Chicago, Hart believes the Patriots best hope -- "in an ideal world" -- is Dobson can make the same jump in his second season that Jeffery did and emerge as a legitimate playmaker on the outside.
For the record, Jeffery caught 24 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns (appearing in 10 games) as a rookie. Those totals skyrocketed to 87 grabs for 1,421 yards with seven scoring catches last season. Dobson pulled in 37 balls for 519 yards and four scores in 12 appearances last year.
Whatever the case, Hart believes one guy catching 100 passes out of the slot won't get it done.
"It's hard to get by just on a slot receiver like Edelman," he explained. "They need somebody to stretch the field -- not just down the field, but from sideline to sideline. So the true keys to the passing attack will be Dobson's recovery from foot surgery and continued development -- and Gronkowski's recovery."
One last note here: LeGarrette Blount's departure from New England (Blount signed with Pittsburgh) leaves the Patriots with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as their top three backs. Fantasy owners were all over Vereen last summer and probably should be again this year. But Hart believes the Patriots will be looking to draft a running back in two weeks.
"Their two top backs Ridley, a former 1,000-yard rusher, and Vereen, a third-down back, will be free agents after this season," Hart said. "I can easily see Ridley as a guy they aren't going to re-sign. The Patriots just don't value that position. They aren't going to overpay."
Hart stressed that Ridley is their most talented back -- when he holds onto the ball. But as fantasy owners know, when he's struggled with that issue in the past, head coach Bill Belichick hasn't hesitated to leave Ridley on the inactive list for a week to think about ball security. On the other hand, Hart noted that Vereen needs to stay healthy, but "if he does that, he's a guy who can make a lot of plays."
Vereen still seems like the best play for PPR owners, but the committee approach in New England isn't changing any time soon. And it seems likely to have an additional member post draft.