Fantasy Notebook: AFC South Preview Featuring Nicks, Gerhart & More
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. Really. It's called the NFL and I'll kindly remind fantasy football owners who haven't been paying attention (coma? lost at sea?) that the fun doesn't end with the Super Bowl. In fact, the fun doesn't end. Ever.
Because there is no offseason.
The Super Bowl rolls into the NFL Scouting Combine, which rolls into the free agent signing period. The signing period rolls into the pre-draft hype (something we get almost two extra weeks this year with the NFL Draft moving to the second weekend of May) followed by the draft itself (covered in full over the course of three days by two television networks). Once we get past the draft, we get into more serious daily coverage of OTAs and mini-camps, coverage that will run well into the month of June.
Yes. There is a brief quiet period early in July (assuming nobody gets arrested or otherwise acts out), but training camps are earlier every year with the last week of July now fair game for that.
So there will be no shortage of information for us to peruse, digest, analyze and factor into our draft strategies. And I'll be here to offer you insights into all of them on a regular basis. So let's get busy, eh? We'll get the ball rolling this week with AFC South.
As NFL.com suggested, the addition of Nicks provides the team with another "potentially talented" receiver to join forces Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Nicks got a one-year deal worth $3.5 million with upside for more.
At this point, skeptical fantasy owners might stress that "previously productive" is a better description than "potentially talented."
All that said, it's hard to argue that Nicks doesn't provide the Colts and Andrew Luck with a player capable of giving them what last year's free agent addition at the position, Darrius Heyward-Bey, failed to provide: A serious enough threat to make life easier for Wayne, Hilton, Luck and the rest of the passing attack.
Positives? Nicks is just 26 and two seasons removed from being considered one of the top wideouts in the league.
After battling foot and knee injuries in 2012, though, Nicks' playmaking ability vanished. Of all players with 100 targets in 2013, Nicks was the only one without a touchdown at the end of the season. And the truth is, trying to guess which Nicks the Colts will get is just that: Speculation.
Still, with Wayne coming off reconstructive knee surgery and Hilton being less than consistent, Nicks gives the Colts attack another dimension.
“It looks like a three-headed monster to me,” Nicks said of the signing.
We'll see about that, but for fantasy owners like me, who like to take chances on "potentially talented" and "previously productive" players, Nicks is clearly in a good spot. Owners able to land him as a third (or better yet fourth) wideout this coming season wouldn't be risking much.
That's assuming the newcomer chisels out a viable role. At least one local observer, Indianapolis Star beat man Stephen Holder, Nicks will do that.
Could he become more than just a role player? During an appearance on the March 15 edition of the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, Holder advised readers that "Wayne's role was likely to diminish even without Nicks, but Nicks won't keep the veteran off the field."
Reason for optimism? It appears Nicks gets "it." And by "it," I mean he seems to understand the opportunity available to him in Indy.
According to Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio, Nicks immediately headed for the IMG Academy after signing his deal to begin training with players preparing for the draft. The goal is getting into peak physical shape for offseason workouts in order to make an immediate impression on Luck. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it's a good sign.
In a related note, Wayne's recovery from last year's ACL tear is on schedule. In fact, Wayne, who usually spends his offseasons working out at his home in Miami, has been doing the bulk of his rehab work in Indianapolis.
"Thanks to all the snow and bad weather we've had, he's been spending more time in Indianapolis than usual," head coach Chuck Pagano joked the last week of February. "He's back in Florida now. But he's working hard to get back." Indeed, ESPN.com's Mike Wells reports that Wayne is determined to prove doubters wrong in returning from a torn ACL at the age of 35.
Also, DaRick Rogers is expected to battle for the No. 4 spot, but Holder believes the talented youngster could push for a larger role -- especially if Nicks comes up short (or Wayne's return doesn't go as well as hoped).
As for Bradshaw's return, it might say more about the team's real level of confidence in Trent Richardson than anything else. But Bradshaw himself should not be dismissed out of hand.
Remember, the Colts' best rushing game of 2013 came in the only game in which Richardson and Bradshaw played together. On September 22, at San Francisco, Indy rushed for 184 yards in a surprising 27-7 blowout out of the 49ers.
With Vick Ballard returning from a torn ACL, there will be plenty of depth on hand even with Donald Brown moving on to San Diego. But Pagano is a fan of experienced veterans. Bradshaw is that. Richardson is not -- which isn't exactly breaking news to fantasy owners with Richardson on their rosters last season.
The problems were obvious. Richardson lacked confidence when he had the ball in his hands. He was often hit behind the line of scrimmage. He ended up losing his starting job to Brown on Dec. 1. Worse yet, Richardson rarely showed even flashes of play-making ability. His longest run was only 22 yards, as he finished the season with 458 yards (a 2.9-yard average) and just three touchdowns.
Holder, however, believes there were legitimate reasons for Richardson's struggles. In fact, the reporter believes three things hurt the former Brown the most.
First, Holder explained, "Not being in training camp to learn the new offense. Richardson never got on track. In addition the offensive line did him no favors."
Most surprising? "My observation watching all 13 games," Holder said, "is that Richardson was trying too hard. I know it sounds ridiculous. But he was trying to score touchdowns every time he touched the ball."
I won't go so far as to say ridiculous, but that 2.9-yard per carry average and that three-TD total are indicative of just how far short Richardson fell with his efforts.
So who is the back of choice in Indianapolis, from a fantasy perspective?
According to Holder, the three backs currently on the roster are similar, but there are differences. "Ballard isn't special," Holder said. "Richardson runs hard. Bradshaw will beat you up. He's relentless as a runner."
That last point on Bradshaw shouldn't be overlooked. It's reflective of what Pagano wants in a back.
Given all that, I'm not going to be in a hurry to burn a pick on T-Rich. But I'll be willing to go after Bradshaw (assuming health isn't at issue when I'm drafting) in the later rounds. It's the same approach I used with guys like Knowshon Moreno and Zac Stacy last season; tossing a last-round pick on a player with potential upside in an uncertain situation with guys I don't trust ahead of him.
One last note here: Asked which tight end is the fantasy prospect of choice for the Colts, Holder didn't hesitate: Dwayne Allen is it, assuming he's healthy (and Allen told the team's official web site this past week that he's at 100 percent).
In Jacksonville, change is coming at halfback in the form of Toby Gerhart, who signed a $10.5 million, three-year deal with the Jags earlier this month. The former Viking gets $4.5 million guaranteed. Gerhart turns 27 later this month and has spent his entire four-year career as the backup to Adrian Peterson. He has 276 carries for 1,305 yards and five touchdowns and is expected to be part of a running back group that currently includes Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson.
But look for the newcomer to be the chairman of the committee after head coach Gus Bradley told reporters that Gerhart could regularly see between 15-20 touches a game.
"He seems like a guy that the more he handles the ball the stronger he gets," Bradley told the Florida Times-Union. The coach went on to say he likes Gerhart's toughness and that it was great Gerhart is an experienced pro with limited career carries.
"He'll pop one," Bradley added. "He can make people miss. He has a toughness you can count on, can catch the ball and he's great on third downs. He's going to have a great opportunity."
And that's because the coach views him as the Jags lead back this coming season. And that pretty much ensures the expected: Maurice Jones-Drew's run in Jacksonville is over.
During his visit with the FootballDiehards, Associated Press Jaguars beat writer Mark Long laid it out pretty succinctly: "Gerhart is 27. MJD 29. Gerhart has fewer than 300 carries. MJD has 1800-plus. The mileage between the two is night and day."
Long added the Jaguars feel like they upgraded at the position, but it remains to be seen if Gerhart can be the 15- to 20-touch per game guy Bradley says because he never has been. That doesn't mean he can't be; it just means there's some mystery. For fantasy owners, that kind of uncertainty often equates to value.
A few other notes in J-Ville: Asked about the trade sending Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco, Long didn't mince words. "Good riddance," he said. "Gabbert didn't have a ton of support in the locker room. [Jaguars general manager Dave] Caldwell ought to get GM of the year for getting a sixth round pick in return."
The team re-signed Chad Henne in advance of the Gabbert trade. Bradley said Henne will be the starter entering the start of OTAs this spring. The coach added that Henne would likely be the Week 1 starter even if the Jaguars draft a quarterback No. 3 overall, which Times-Union staffer Hays Carlyon believes is unlikely.
Long agreed with that assessment, telling the FootballDiehards, "They won't go QB at No. 3. It will be Jadeveon Clowney or Sammy Watkins. [Improved pass rushing and an improved receiving corps] are dire needs."
Part of the need at wideout would be due to Justin Blackmon's ongoing issues. The former first-round pick continues to serve an indefinite suspension. He's likely to be reinstated at some point, but the Jaguars aren't counting on him. They'll welcome him back, but the expectations will be low. Although productive when he's on the field, Blackmon's history of off-field issues makes this a wise approach.
Given that, the plan at wideout is this: Cecil Shorts is going into a contract year. Long believes the Jaguars are hoping Shorts proves to be a solid No. 2 and whoever they draft is a true No. 1. And if Blackmon can return to the form it will be a bonus.
In Tennessee, as Florio reported it last week: "The Titans want to trade Chris Johnson. Johnson is willing to take less money (but not much less money) to make it happen. For now, it could be working. Per a league source, a trade market is emerging for Johnson. The market arises from real interest in Johnson from multiple teams."
Eh. We'll see. As TitanInsider.com's Terry McCormick reminded us during his visit with the FootballDiehards, there are currently eight million reasons nobody is going to deal for CJ2K.
He was referring, of course, to the $8 million in salary due Johnson in 2014.
Fortunately for the Titans, they don't have to pay Johnson any roster bonuses this offseason, which means they could hold onto him for the next five months and wait until the end of the preseason to cut him. At that point, there wouldn't be much time left for Johnson to find a new team before the regular season starts, and so he might be better off doing what he needs to do to get a trade done soon.
So who would be interested?
The Rams are usually the first team linked to Johnson because of head coach Jeff Fisher. But the Rams have second-year man to be Stacy, who just missed the 1,000-yard mark in his rookie season after earning the starting job in Week 5 of the 2013 season and ESPN's Ed Werder says that's enough to keep them from going after Johnson.
The Cardinals were mentioned as another possible destination, but Arizona Republic staffer Kent Somers quickly reported they aren't interested.
Whatever the case, McCormick expects Shonn Greene to move into the featured role under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt with newly-signed Dexter McCluster working out of the backfield regularly. It'll be interesting to see how fantasy owners gauge Greene's value heading into the season. Much will depend on how he looks during training camp and in preseason play, but the guy has the ability to fare well under the right circumstances.
One other note from McCormick: Second-year receiver Justin Hunter is a player to watch. "He's a big downfield threat," McCormick reminded listeners while conceding Hunter needs to add a little weight. Hunter did flash that big-play ability last year. It will be interesting to see how he progresses as OTAs, mini-camps and eventually training camp play out. Put him on your radar if he's not already there.
In Houston, until the Texans sort out their quarterback situation, it's one of the handful of mysteries surrounding the club with new head coach Bill O'Brien taking over and so far, demonstrating the same approach to doling out information as his last NFL boss, Bill Belichick, usually does.
One thing seems certain. The addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick this past week was just one more piece in the growing mountain of evidence that Matt Schaub was on his way out. The base of that mountain was built on the fact Schaub is slated to count more than $14 million against the salary cap.
And it didn't take long to sort things out -- to the degree possible. Schaub was traded to Oakland on March 21, reportedly for a late-round draft pick.
Schaub's departure makes plenty of sense for a team looking to start over at the position. Case Keenum has a shot to stick around, costing just $495,000 in 2014 and described by O'Brien as "athletic, competitive, smart" and a "good team guy" while conceding it's still not clear if Keenum is a capable starter.
During his turn with the FootballDiehards, Sports Radio 610 in Houston's Paul Gallant stated his believe that the only good free-agent quarterback available is Michael Vick, "and I'm not sure he's going to go with a team that might draft a quarterback."
(Vick subsequently signed with the Jets shortly after Schaub was traded to Oakland.)
For what it's worth, Johnson said he’s recovered from a late-season wrist injury that forced him to miss the Pro Bowl and was fully healthy three months before the annual draft. “I had played for a few weeks (with the wrist) and it was pretty sore and I didn’t want to go back out there and bang it up anymore,” Johnson recently told the Houston Chronicle.
The veteran wide receiver has only briefly met with O’Brien. Johnson said limitations set by the new collective bargaining agreement have initially prevented the two from speaking at length. The first impression was positive, though. “He seems like a great guy,” said Johnson, who started all 16 games in 2013, recording 109 receptions for 1,407 yards and five touchdowns.
As for thoughts on his future, Johnson was vague but upbeat.
“Right now I don’t know when it might end. I’m feeling fine. I’m feeling healthy. So I’m going to continue to play as long as I can. Everybody knows that day when it’s over. When that day comes, I’ll have no problem stepping away. But right now I feel fine. I feel like I still have a few more years left in me.”
For what it's worth, Gallant is of the opinion Johnson has plenty left in the tank -- perhaps even the "few more years" Johnson claims is there.
While the team's issues under center are a concern, Johnson has been fairly quarterback proof to date. We'll see if he can continue to overcome that.
The same goes for Graham, who will be the team's primary tight end with Owen Daniels being released earlier this month.
Graham took on an expanded role after Daniels broke his leg last season and finished the year with 49 catches for 545 yards and five touchdowns. He should be a reliable option for whoever winds up quarterbacking the Texans next season and, at the moment, he’ll be complemented by Ryan Griffin at the position.
As for the player of most fantasy interest in Houston?
Arian Foster fired up his Twitter account on March 15 with the revelation that he's been medically cleared following November's season-ending back surgery.
What Foster left out is whether he's been cleared simply to resume running or if he's been given the green light to go full steam ahead with football activities, including physical contact. Still, it's a good sign, especially when taken in context with the fact general manager Rick Smith expressed confidence at last month's NFL Scouting Combine that Foster's troublesome back will be fine going forward.
Now that Ben Tate, who was a great insurance policy behind Foster, will be playing his trade in Cleveland, it's more important than ever that Foster stays healthy. That said, I’ll be a Foster skeptic for a second-straight season.