Fantasy Notebook: AFC East; The Jets Should Scare You & More
As part of the ongoing effort to help you build a baseline of information as we head into the free-agent signing period, the draft, the preseason and ultimately the 2013 regular season, here's the second installment of my division-by-division review/preview of the NFL. This week's edition: The AFC East.
I'll get the ball rolling in New York, where Rex Ryan's decision to hire Marty Mornhinweg as his third offensive coordinator in three years officially puts an end to the "Ground and Pound Era" in New York. But as ill suited as the offensive personnel appeared to be when it came to running Tony Sparano's offense, does anybody think they'll be better suited to Mornhinweg's West Coast scheme?
Make no mistake: Mornhinweg loves to throw the ball.
But as New York Daily News columnist Gary Myers suggested last month, if he asks Mark Sanchez to throw it 38 times a game, as he did with rookie Nick Foles over the last seven games of the 2012 season, "then everybody is getting fired after the season."
Which kind of seems like the most likely (and perhaps from new general manager John Idzik's point of view, the best possible) outcome, anyhow. But I digress…
As for the personnel, there will be no shortage of change. But it's not going to be at quarterback, where Sanchez remains the de facto starter despite his ongoing regression. The former USC standout led the NFL with 26 turnovers and was, by most statistical measurements, the NFL's worst starting quarterback.
Nonetheless, Sanchez's contract (which guarantees him $8.25 million this year) means he'll get first shot at the starting job again.
According to the Sports Xchange, that means Sanchez will need to undergo a complete transformation -- physically as well as mentally -- to have any hope of re-emerging as the Jets' franchise quarterback. And to his credit, Sanchez reached out to Jeff Garcia, a four-time Pro Bowler, to get a head start on learning the offense.
Mornhinweg was Garcia’s offensive coordinator with the 49ers and Eagles. In 2000, Garcia threw for a career-high 4,278 yards and 31 touchdowns under Mornhinweg. Sanchez can’t speak to Mornhinweg about football-related matters at the team facility until the start of the offseason program in April, per terms of the CBA.
So, it was Garcia who gave Sanchez some initial intel on Mornhinweg.
“It’s great,” Sanchez told the Daily News. “Jeff sounds like one of those guys that keeps his old playbook and is still really into it. He really speaks the language of that West Coast offense. It’s nice to hear the schematic side, but also to hear what people think about [Mornhinweg].”
Accuracy on short and intermediate throws and the ability to make quick reads are essential skills for quarterbacks playing in the West Coast offense. Mobility is also a plus. Sanchez has shown an ability to hit those patterns and has also been productive on rollouts. But that was pre-regression. Whether he can turn things around remains a major question mark -- as does his supporting cast.
The issues at wideout are obvious and ongoing.
Jeremy Kerley led the Jets with 56 catches last season -- more than any two other receivers combined. He also had a hand in every Jets pass play of 40 yards or more (he was the Wildcat quarterback on one of those plays), but other than that, it was a miserable year for Jets pass catchers.
Santonio Holmes was having a decent season (20 catches for 272 yards) before he was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury on Sept. 30. Stephen Hill was even rawer than anticipated and did little, after a historic debut against the Bills, before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Jaguars on Dec. 9.
As the Xchange pointed out, the Jets were so desperate for receivers that they claimed ex-Jet Braylon Edwards off waivers from the Seahawks less than a week after Edwards called the Jets idiots for benching Sanchez. The saddest thing: A rusty Edwards, with a bad shoulder and a bad hamstring, was easily one of the Jets' two best receivers over the final three games.
While Holmes' return will obviously help, it's not clear what we can expect from Hill.
During a Feb. 16 appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, long-time Jets observer (and former CBSSports.com rapid reporter) Lisa Zimmerman was less-than-optimistic about Hill's chances of suddenly emerging as the big-time threat the team expected when they drafted him in the first round of last year's draft.
"Hill was a disappointment," Zimmerman told us. "Even when you factor in coming from a run-oriented Georgia Tech offense, the transition was taking longer than they wanted it to."
That's probably a bit of an understatement. Just like it would be a bit of an understatement to suggest learning another (more complicated) scheme is going to be a continuing challenge for Hill.
"He's big and fast," Zimmerman said before stressing that's only half the battle. “Going into another offense will slow his progress."
At tight end, it seems unlikely that Dustin Keller, an unrestricted free agent will return. Or, as Zimmerman put it: "He's gone."
While noting he's a great locker-room guy and an ardent Sanchez supporter, the Jets simply don't have the money to retain him. Jeff Cumberland was a solid but unspectacular fill-in as Keller missed eight games (four each to hamstring and ankle injuries). As the Xchange put it: "Cumberland catches what is thrown to him, but it's worth noting he had one more catch and 42 more receiving yards than Keller in eight more games."
The change will continue at running back, where Shonn Greene also seems to be all but certain to leave. In fact, as Yardbarker.com's Joe Caporoso recently suggested, "Greene’s chances of returning went from 5 percent to 0 percent with the Mornhinweg hiring."
Yes, Greene gained 1,000 yards for the second straight season and teamed up with Bilal Powell to form a solid running back by committee. The duo produced 1,500 yards and was the driving force in wins over the Cardinals and Jaguars.
Those who follow the team closely aren't convinced Powell is a true RB1, but for a big man he moves well and Zimmerman advised us the coaching staff was impressed with his 2012 performance.
At 5-10, 204 pounds, Powell is big enough to handle the workload, but he's more of a finesse runner than Green. As Zimmerman suggested, Powell has "a little scatback in him."
So can he be a lead back?
Despite the doubters, some still believe Powell will be the "1" in a 1-2 punch next year with McKnight, who remained underutilized even though he gained at least 20 yards on six of his 30 carries.
The Falcons reportedly will release Michael Turner ($6.9 million salary), and they will need a younger (but equally plodding?) back like Greene to pair with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Broncos don't have a clear-cut No. 1 back with the futures of both Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno still up in the air.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo... The team's official web site recently reported that Fred Jackson, who expected medical clearance in advance of off-season workouts, is eager to work with the team's new coaching staff, a group that has already suggested a scheme that will utilize both Jackson and C.J. Spiller in tandem again.
Can we believe them, though?
Jackson, who turns 32, averaged 3.8 yards a carry and became fumble-prone last season while Spiller, enjoyed breakout season despite limited use by former coach Chan Gailey.
Spiller carried the ball just 207 times (12.9 per game) but still gained 1,244 yards for a 6.0 average that tied Adrian Peterson for best in the NFL. He also added 43 catches for 459 yards, giving him 1,703 scrimmage yards, good for sixth overall in the league.
Given that breakout, it seems all but certain that Jackson will play second-fiddle to the more dynamic Spiller going forward. That said, Jackson still has his supporters -- chief among them would be former Bills safety Mark Kelso, now an analyst for the Buffalo Bills Radio Network.
"You have to put Spiller among the top guys in the NFL," Kelso conceded during his visit with the FootballDiehards. But Kelso also made of point of reminding us not to underestimate Jackson’s skills.
"There's not a better contact runner or a guy with better vision than Fred Jackson," Kelso said before adding: "He needs a role going forward."
Pressed as to Jackson's ability to create big plays in open space -- at least in comparison to Spiller, Kelso responded: "I've never seen [Jackson] caught in the open field."
I'm not a betting man. But if I were? Pretty sure I'd put the ranch down on Spiller running circles around F-Jax. I'll also go way out on a limb here and suggest new head coach Doug Marrone and his staff aren't going to be answering the same questions about underutilization of Spiller that Gailey found himself answering in post-game press conferences on what seemed to be a weekly basis.
A few other Bills-related notes… If you're not sure the promised quarterback competition between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson is legit, it's safe to assume the team's former tight ends coach (and former star tight end) Pete Metzelaars thinks it should be.
In fact, asked by Buffalo News staffer Tim Graham how he would improve the team, Metzelaars said he would begin by replacing Fitzpatrick.
"I don't want to throw Fitz under the bus, but you've got to get an answer at quarterback," Metzelaars told Graham. "That's got to be the No. 1 priority."
Fitzpatrick completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. His 83.3 passer rating ranked 20th among the league’s starters. He fumbled eight times, losing six. Of course, Jackson's career completion percentage (59.4 percent) doesn't lend great confidence in his ability to beat Fitzpatrick out.
Adding to the intrigue, the Bills are moving on from wideout Donald Jones and David Nelson, both of whom will be allowed to leave via free agency. With Scott Chandler coming off a torn ACL, the only sure thing in Buffalo's receiving corps is Stevie Johnson. Now if only his hands were as certain. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson's 11 drops left him tied for seventh-most in the NFL last season.
In Miami… There are two areas of interest for fantasy owners: Running back and wideout.
Will Reggie Bush, an unrestricted free agent, return for another year?
Alessandro Miglio, featured columnist at Bleacher Report as well as Pro Football Focus and Huddle.com contributor, is among the many who feel that won't be the case.
“I'd give it a 30 percent chance at this point," Miglio told us when asked about the chances Bush is back in Miami. "He'd need to get zero interest on the open market."
And Bush is going to draw interest with Detroit and San Diego being mentioned as possible destinations. Given the team's apparent willingness to let Bush move on, their confidence in Lamar Miller is equally apparent.
Indeed, Palm Beach Post beat writer Ben Volin recently advised readers the Dolphins expect big things out of Miller in his second year. So much so that Volin added it's possible that even if Bush does return, he would have a limited role in the offense.
Miglio is on board the Miller bandwagon.
"I love Lamar Miller, was thrilled when they drafted him last year," Miglio said. "He is a home run hitter, he just needs the reps. Having Bush gone is excellent; I've taken Miller at the end of the third round in a couple of Draftmaster drafts already."
As for the situation at wide receiver, owner Stephen Ross got the ball rolling last September when he told team employees that acquiring a No. 1 wide receiver would be the “top offseason priority” and that they would do “whatever it takes” to land such a player because it would help quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
That, of course, doesn't mean they’ll hit it.
"The big chatter is that they will target Mike Wallace," Miglio said. "I think that's probable, though whether they land him or not is a horse of a different color (see: Manning, Peyton or Harbaugh, Jim). I don't love the idea of Wallace at his asking price, but he'd certainly be an upgrade.
"If Jennings doesn't get tagged (latest rumor is he might), then they'll be after him I'm sure. Possibly Bowe (my favorite of the three) if he doesn't get tagged too."
The notion of Bowe winding up in Miami also appeals to Matt Williamson, an NFL scout for ESPN.com and Scouts, Inc., who joined us on the Feb. 23 edition of FootballDiehards.
Despite the attitude issues widely attributed to Wallace and Bowe, add me to the list of those who think they'd be better investments than Jennings at this point.
As I said; opinions vary and mine is that Welker's chances of returning don't look good.
As for the situation at running back, where Danny Woodhead is another unrestricted free agent -- and where Shane Vereen seemed to emerge as a viable change-of-pace to Stevan Ridley, Price believes letting Woodhead escape would be a mistake.
"Vereen is good," Price said. "But you don't throw Woodhead out."