Fantasy Notebook: AFC West Preview -- Ball Up; MJD vs. DMC; Charles' O-Line a Concern?
The Fantasy Notebook has already rolled through the south -- as in the NFC South and AFC South. This week, it's time to go west. As in the AFC West. While there's been no shortage of interesting fantasy football fodder across the league, the AFC West has been especially busy. And the fantasy pickings have been especially interesting.
So what do you say we get after it?
Let's get the ball (or Ball even) rolling this week in Denver. Despite the fact he was coming off a season in which he rushed for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns -- and despite his willingness to remain a Bronco, Knowshon Moreno was never part of the team's plan going forward. There were two reasons for this.
We'll start with the first reason. During a recent appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, ESPN Denver's Cecil Lammey discussed Moreno's future. Lammey essentially framed the issue like this: It's not so much why Moreno isn't back with Denver; it's more like why would he be back?
"Let's be honest. Moreno deserves praise for his 500 receiving yards and 60 catches," Lammey said. "But that's more praiseworthy than rushing for just over 1,000 yards. And he only had one 100-yard rushing game (against New England) and the Broncos lost that game.
"So why would you pay him essentially what Reggie Bush got from Detroit last year -- which about what Moreno was looking for, about $25 million over five years -- when you've spent plenty of picks over the last two years to assemble running backs?"
Of course, given the downturn the free-agent running back market has taken in the last couple weeks, nobody is/was getting Reggie Bush money (Moreno wound up signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the only team interested, the Dolphins).
Which brings us to the second reason. With Moreno out of the picture, Lammey expects a competition -- at least in name -- with Montee Ball going up against "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Fantasy owners shouldn't let "the competition" throw them. The path is now clear for Ball to become the team's primary back, something that's been in the works since the season ended.
As Denver Post staffer Mike Klis reported the first week of March, "The Broncos believe it's time to take the training wheels off their kid running backs, Ball and Anderson" -- with Ball first in line for the featured role.
Ball improved during his rookie campaign and began making his feelings about his desire for a greater role known shortly after the Super Bowl.
"Of course, obviously I have no idea what's going to happen with him and this organization, but I do want to be a starter, and yeah, I want the football every time," Ball said in February. "I think I'm going to have a great offseason, and I'm going to have a better season next year for sure."
Ball, who fumbled only twice in 924 carries at Wisconsin, fumbled twice in his first 31 carries in the NFL. Once past his slow start, however, it was evident that he became the team's most decisive runner as the season progressed.
Ball averaged 0.4 more yards per carry than Moreno and became an effective relief option late in the season, although he struggled in the Super Bowl, gaining just one yard on six carries. He also blocked better on the whole as the season progressed, despite Peyton Manning screaming after a play in the team's stunning loss to Seattle: "Montee, you got to stay with him!"
Still, Ball is a guy you'll want to have high on your fantasy radar this summer.
While Ball is first in line, I'll go ahead and note that Lammey is high on Anderson, "who could be a starter -- he's that talented." Hillman, a third-year back who was a third-round draft pick in 2012, will get a chance to re-establish himself as a change-of-pace backup, but re-draft players shouldn't get their hopes up.
Change is also coming at wideout, where Eric Decker signed with the Jets and Emmanuel Sanders comes on board to help fill the void. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Sanders signed a three-year deal worth $15 million.
With Andre Caldwell also re-signing, Denver's top four receivers are set with Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Sanders and Caldwell. Sanders can play on the inside and out, although NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal likes Sanders best out of the slot.
Unfortunately for fantasy owners looking for a degree of certainty when making their projections, that's a crowded spot in Denver with Welker and Thomas usually playing between the hash marks.
Also, as Klis kindly suggested this morning, "Statistically, Sanders is no Decker."
The past two seasons, Decker's 172 catches, 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns were greater Sanders' four-year career numbers (161 catches, 2,030 yards, 11 touchdowns).
Sanders caught a career-high 67 passes for 740 yards last season. According to Rosenthal, Sanders is "not a game-changer, but his arrival helps ensure that Decker's departure doesn't sting much. Sanders fits best somewhere between a No. 2 and No. 3 receiver, although Peyton Manning has a way of making any receiver look better."
Remember: Sanders' health had been an issue at times in Pittsburgh, but the 5-11, 180-pounder played in every game last season. He returned a week after spraining his knee to play in the Steelers' regular-season finale. He also has a screw in each foot, stemming from injuries he sustained in the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. He missed some practice time last year to rest the feet when sore, but he never missed a game because of them.
A few final notes here: Making Sanders' signing more interesting is a behind the scenes look at how the deal got done. The former Steeler visited the Jaguars, Buccaneers and Chiefs. The Chiefs contend Sanders reached a verbal agreement with them a day before he signed with Denver.
Sanders' agent Steve Weinberg subsequently negotiated with the Buccaneers, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Weinberg never told the Bucs he had accepted the Chiefs' offer. This all happened before he went to the Broncos. Sanders and Weinberg also irritated the San Francisco 49ers by agreeing to visit, then failing to follow through.
The Broncos maintain they had no knowledge of any prior agreements before they agreed to terms with Sanders.
Not that it matters. As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio explained, Sanders had the right to pull the plug on the Chiefs. Regardless of what the Chiefs think of Weinberg’s alleged tactics, a deal isn’t done until it’s signed and filed and approved by the league office.
Denver exercised its 2014 option on Welker, who will make $8 million this season. As NFL.com suggested, there were a few questions about Welker's future because of his concussions in his first season in Denver, but head coach John Fox indicated back at the NFL Scouting Combine that he wasn't going anywhere and he's not.
Welker wound up playing 16 games last season. He finished with 91 catches for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns, although he didn't have a single 100-yard game.
And finally, in case the 60 touchdown passes he tossed last season weren't sufficient proof, the Broncos received further assurance there is nothing wrong with Manning's neck as he passed his physical examination the first week of March.
There is a provision in the five-year, $96 million contract Manning signed with the Broncos in March 2012 that requires his surgically repaired neck to pass medical inspection each year before the team guarantees his salary. Now that Manning's fused neck checked out fine, the Broncos and his agent Tom Condon can begin going through the paperwork formality of guaranteeing his $20 million salary for 2014.
Manning has thrown exactly 100 touchdown passes in his two seasons with the Broncos, counting five playoff games. He set an NFL regular-season record this past season with 55 touchdown passes and added five more in three postseason games. And now there will be more. Manning is on the very short list of QBs I'm willing to draft early this season. I went as early as the fourth round on him last year; that's probably not going to get it done this time around.
Coming off a season plagued by injury, Jones-Drew will look to replace Rashad Jennings, who signed with the New York Giants in free agency, as he joins oft-injured Darren McFadden in the Raiders' backfield -- one that's likely to meet with considerable skepticism from fantasy football owners.
According to CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair, the Raiders felt they needed a strong, consistent rushing presence to headline the unreliable backs currently on the roster. McFadden is talented yet injury prone. As long-suffering owners of the former first-round draft pick will tell you, McFadden has yet to make it through a full 16-game season since he joined the league in 2008.
Jones-Drew wanted a chance to be a major contributor and rebound after averaging a career-low 3.4 yards per carry last season as he worked through an ankle injury suffered against the Raiders in Week 2. He missed most of 2012 with a foot injury that eventually required surgery. Prior to that, Jones-Drew had been productive and durable.
All told, he has 8,071 rushing yards and 68 touchdowns in his career. Before 2013, Jones-Drew never averaged less than 4.2 yards per carry during a professional career spent entirely with the Jaguars. He's also demonstrated excellent ball security, losing just 15 fumbles in eight years.
Of some interest would be the fact that both Jones-Drew and McFadden, who re-signed with the Raiders in a bit of a surprise earlier last month, claim to have taken less money from Oakland than others were offering.
Jones-Drew certainly isn’t going to be making nearly as much money as a Raider as he was when he was with the Jaguars, but apparently the chance to start was a clincher here.
“On the field, they’re going to give me a chance to compete,” Jones-Drew said. “A lot of teams had already kinda conceded that I didn’t have anything left and all these different questions they may have had. Oakland’s going to give me a chance. And they gave me a deal that shows that with incentives.”
Jones-Drew said he narrowed that list of teams down to the Raiders, Patriots and Steelers and that he made his ultimate choice because of the opportunity to battle for carries with McFadden. Safe to say we can all understand Jones-Drew's thinking on this one.
For the record, Jones-Drew, who wasn’t happy with a Jaguars contract that paid him $4.45 million in 2012 and $4.95 million in 2013, will average just $2.5 million annually in Oakland (with only $1.2 million in 2014 guaranteed). McFadden, meanwhile, signed a one-year deal worth $1.75 million with another $2.25 million in incentives and $100,000 guaranteed, and his agent Ian Greengross said that his client turned down bigger offers elsewhere.
“We did have real interest from four or five other teams -- one offered more money,” Greengross said. “Darren wanted to stay a Raider. He felt like he still had something to prove in silver and black.”
That seems a bit odd.
As Florio suggested at the time, it’s hard to imagine that there was a vast difference in offers if McFadden went back to Oakland and other situations might not offer the same chance to cash in on incentives.
Is he still capable?
McFadden has struggled the last two seasons, missing 10 out of a possible 32 games. He averaged a meager 3.3 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons, slightly worse than Jones-Drew's 2013 average.
I'm going ahead and penciling MJD in as the early favorite to start for Oakland, but the Raiders rushing attack isn't one I'll be banking on this season.
And the passing attack?
Well, it can't get any worse, can it? The addition of former Texan Matt Schaub and former Packer James Jones to the top of the QB and wide receiver depth charts, respectively, have to be viewed as positives. Which tells you something about how bad it was last year.
For fantasy football owners with high hopes for guys like Jones, Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes, the news at QB could be worse. The Raiders could have tried to roll through the season with holdovers Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin and/or a quarterback selected early in this year's draft.
Instead they'll go with a previously productive player coming off a lousy season.
"We brought Matt Schaub in to be our starting quarterback," head coach Dennis Allen said.
The Raiders sent a late-round pick to Houston in exchange for Schaub -- which seems like reasonable enough compensation. And Oakland still could draft a quarterback with the No. 5 overall selection, but there won't be as big a rush to play the rookie with Schaub on board. Unless they get the 2013 version.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Schaub has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards three times in his career and spent the past seven seasons as the Texans' starting quarterback.
After leading the Texans to back-to-back AFC South Division titles in 2011 and 2012, Schaub struggled early last season before being benched in favor of rookie Case Keenum in October. The 10-year veteran regained the starting job in late December but could not help the Texans avoid finishing the season with a 14-game losing streak, the longest skid in franchise history.
Allen doubled down, telling reporters that Schaub isn't seen as a stopgap, but a long-term answer at the position who "absolutely" can play another three or four seasons. "He's 32 years old and will be 33 when the season starts. You look at Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, all these guys are beginning to get up there in age so I think that this guy can play for a while," Allen said.
Of course, it Schaub doesn't play well and the Raiders come up short in the win-loss column, Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie are unlikely to be around beyond 2014.
The same goes for Schaub.
Originally scheduled to earn $11 million in 2014, the newcomer restructured that deal and will now collect a $4.5 million fully guaranteed salary and a $3.5 million signing bonus that was paid on March 31. The deal also calls for $3 million in unlikely to be earned incentives. The key take away from the new agreement, though, is Schaub's $5.5 million non-guaranteed salary for 2015.
If the 32-year-old doesn't bounce back from his disappointing 2013 season, the Raiders can release him without penalty.
Bottom line? As Rosenthal summed up, "Schaub is no longer a Pro Bowl pick, but he's a veteran with a chance to be, say, the 20th best starting quarterback in the league. For the Raiders, that would qualify as a big improvement. McKenzie is selling out this offseason in a quest to win seven games."
I'll buy that.
The addition of Jones gives the receiving corps another player who will get a chance to emerge as a front-line weapon. He caught 59 passes for 817 yards last season for the Packers. Jones, 29, played seven seasons for Green Bay, catching 310 passes for 4,305 yards and 37 touchdowns as a target for both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
Jones was selected in the third round of the 2007 draft by the Packers when McKenzie worked in Green Bay's personnel department.
Two seasons ago, James had a career-best 14 touchdown receptions. Twenty-nine of Jones’ 46 career starts have come in the last two seasons.
He joins a group of wide receivers with little experience.
Streater led the Raiders in receptions (60) and yards (888) last year and according to the Sports Xchange, is a favorite of the coaching staff for his work ethic and commitment to improving. Holmes (25 receptions, 401 yards) emerged as a big-body target who could blossom under the right quarterback and passing system. Moore (46 catches, 695 yards, 5 TDs) remains a playmaker but has been plagued by consistency issues for three seasons and missed three games with an AC joint injury.
Jones' experience should serve him well, but Streater is still a guy I'll be looking for later in my drafts.
A few final notes here: With Schaub already anointed the starting quarterback -- and with Matt McGloin apparently viewed by team officials as a capable backup, Pryor's future is unclear. McKenzie told the San Jose Mercury News that Pryor could be traded or released soon. Alex Marvez of FOXSports has reported that Pryor has asked for a trade and that there's been some interest.
Pryor started nine games last season and showed flashes of promise as a passer while running for 576 yards, second only to Cam Newton among NFL quarterbacks. But as PFT's Michael David Smith noted, if Pryor wants to be a starter, there probably aren’t any opportunities available to him right now. A better option would be catching on as a backup on a team that has an offense suited to mobile quarterbacks.
Pryor may never be a great pocket passer, but he has the talent to be a good playmaker in the right offense. Oakland's apparently won't be it.
In San Diego, the Chargers signed Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.5 million deal -- a deal which includes $4 million guaranteed in money and almost certainly drives MJD, McFadden and Moreno (among others) out of their minds.
The question is why?
Brown, 26, finished with 537 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry for the Colts in 2013. Even with Indianapolis making a midseason trade with Cleveland for Trent Richardson, Brown was the more effective back.
According to ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams, Brown is a good fit for San Diego's zone running scheme, with his one-cut, downhill running style. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has some familiarity with the Connecticut product, having worked in the personnel department for the Colts when Indianapolis selected him in the first round of the 2009 draft.
But the Chargers have both Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead under contract for another season. Together, they combined for nearly 2,500 yards from scrimmage last season, with Mathews playing a full 16-game schedule for the first time in his career. However, the run game hit the wall in the playoffs as Mathews dealt with a high-ankle sprain.
According to SI.com's Chris Burke, that struggle may have been enough to convince the Chargers to add another body in the backfield, as Woodhead is a better fit as a change-of-pace back (76 receptions last season) than an every-down force.
Brown has never accumulated more than 134 rushing attempts in any of his five NFL seasons to date, but he should be able to step in alongside Woodhead should Mathews revert to his injury-plagued ways.
The good news? Even with the recent acquisition of Brown, the Chargers have no plans to lighten Mathews' load in 2014.
"We know Ryan is our bell cow," Telesco said late last month.
The GM went on to stress that Mathews is "our No. 1 back. He had an excellent year last year. And we all know what Danny Woodhead can do in his role. … And we think Donald can come in and add to that, too, and give us some different options. And a different style, too."
As the San Diego Union-Tribune noted earlier this month, "Ball control was part of the Chargers' identity in 2013. Moving forward, the Chargers want to add more speed on offense. Their focus is not sustaining long drives. They want touchdowns, however they come, and it's expected they'll continue to work to find more explosiveness in the passing game over the coming weeks and months."
That said, free agency thus far has strengthened last year's recipe.
San Diego has made two key signings on offense. Brown is one. David Johnson, a former Steelers blocking tight end and fullback, is the other. The entire starting offensive line from 2013 remains on the roster. So even with Brown's arrival, Mathews is in good position to build on his impressive 2013 season and fantasy football owners should draft accordingly.
Other notes of interest: Malcom Floyd continues to make small steps in his recovery from a neck injury suffered last September. The 32-year-old resumed running in February and he was cleared to begin light weightlifting in March.
Still, as SDUT's Michael Gehlken stressed, it's unclear whether Floyd's NFL career can continue with the possibility it cannot appearing very real. It remains to be seen to what extent he recovers from his spinal disc issue, and even then, the risk of re-injury must be assessed before the decision to play is made.
"It's not quite there yet, but it's getting there," Floyd said. "There's really no timetable. It's pretty much just basing it on how I am and how well I feel. … There's still a little discomfort in there, but it's a lot better. ... I'm getting there. It just felt good to start running again and becoming more active. I'm feeling a lot better as far as that goes."
Meanwhile, Danario Alexander has required "multiple" surgeries on his right knee because of infection after undergoing a second reconstruction of his ACL in January. This setback has cast doubt upon whether Alexander will be able to play in 2014. Even if he is, it won't be with the Chargers.
That means Keenan Allen better be ready to pick up where he left off.
Allen was sensational as he set team records for rookie receivers in catches and receiving yards; he led the NFL among rookies in those categories as well. Vincent Brown seemed to take a step back, as he and Philip Rivers seldom got on the same page. Eddie Royal had a career-high eight touchdowns, despite battling a chronic toe injury.
Can Allen carry the receiving corps?
According to ESPN.com's Matt Williamson, that might be asking too much. "As much as I like Allen, to ask him to improve dramatically in one season may be asking too much," Williamson, a former NFL scout said in a piece published on ESPN.com. "He's a really good receiver, but he does not have the athletic ability of an A.J. Green or a Julio Jones. He could be close to his ceiling already.
"He uses his body really well. He's an advanced route runner, has good hands and is physical. But he's not fast. Teams will have another year to study him, and they're not afraid of the deep ball against him."
Williamson added the development of speedy tight end Ladarius Green helps to mask some of the San Diego's deficiencies at receiver. But Williamson believes they need to upgrade in the draft.
Seems to me, even if Allen stays at his 2013 level, we'll all be pretty pleased. I can think of worse things than drafting him at a spot commiserate with last season's production and hoping for more.
In Kansas City, Jamaal Charles capped the most productive year of his career with yet another award last month when he received the 2013 Derrick Thomas Award given to the team’s most valuable player, as voted by teammates.
As Kansas City Star beat writer Terez A. Paylor understated, the award came as no surprise. It was even less of a surprise in Fantasy Nation.
Charles led the Chiefs in rushing yards (1,287), receiving yards (693), yards from scrimmage (1,980) and total touchdowns (19) last season. It marked the fourth time in five years that Charles was chosen the team’s MVP, and he credited first-year head coach Andy Reid for helping him get the most out of his abilities.
“Having a coach like Andy Reid helping my career and invest in my career as a player and putting me in great position (helps),” said Charles. “I led the league in touchdowns. I never thought I could score as many touchdowns as I did last year.”
Charles wasn’t sure how he could top what he did last year, but he insisted he’d try — and that there was plenty more where that came from. In fact, he believes he might have five more years left.
“I’ll know when my time is up. I’m 27 years old. Probably when I’m 32, I’ll want to just look back and see what I’ve done so far," he said. “As long as I can continue to do those things in my five years, it would be amazing. I’d just look back and just call it quits.”
Five more seasons as productive as he's been in recent years might be a reach, but to think he can't continue his roll through 2014 is not -- even with the off-season attrition that's hit the team's offensive line.
The Chiefs took immediate hits in free agency when they lost left tackle Branden Albert, as well as guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz. Albert landed in Miami, Asamoah with Atlanta and McCluster moving to Tennessee. Schwartz signed with the Giants.
The trio of Albert/Schwartz/Asamoah started 28 games during the 2013 season at left tackle and right guard. According to the Xchange, Albert and Schwartz were the two best blockers the Chiefs had during the season, and Albert earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
That removes three of the team's top seven blockers and leaves question marks about left and right tackle, along with right guard.
Smith has one year left on a three-year deal he signed in 2012. The final year is worth $7.5 million, all of that in base salary, making Smith vastly underpaid compared to other quarterbacks of his experience and ability. This after he finished the season a quarterback rating of 89.1, the third best of his nine-year career.
With Kansas City's attack surging down the stretch, the quarterback averaged 237 yards per game through the air and tossed 18 touchdowns to just three picks over his final eight outings of the season, including the wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Smith's 220.9 passing yards per game were the highest of his eight-year career, as were his 23 touchdowns. He remains challenged as a vertical passing threat -- averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt -- but Smith counters with dangerous legs. He's one of the NFL's more underrated quarterbacks on the ground after churning out 431 rushing yards in 2013 -- sixth-best among passers.
Remember: Smith has helped the Chiefs and San Francisco to a 30-9-1 record in his regular-season starts over the past three years.
But he'll need some help -- specifically at wideout, where the Chiefs lacked consistent, high-end production all season. Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster and Donnie Avery combined to catch 150 passes for 1,780 yards and nine touchdown catches. That's only a touchdown every 17 catches. Now, McCluster is gone, signed as a free agent by Tennessee.
Given that need, many were surprised when Kansas City bowed out of the pursuit for DeSean Jackson early on. Given his ties to Reid, the man responsible for drafting him in Philly, it seemed like a natural fit. But as Williamson pointed out during an appearance with the FootballDiehards prior to Jackson's signing with the Redskins, Smith doesn't really have the deep ball necessary to maximize D-Jax's speed.
Williamson also made it clear he's not a fan of Bowe.
That's understandable. Bowe's numbers were unimpressive at best until the Indianapolis game in the playoffs when he finished with 150 receiving yards. It was the only time on the season where he went over 100 yards.
But the Star recently reported there’s a belief that Bowe, who is listed at 6-2 and 221 pounds, could take a major step toward being a bigger factor in the offense by having a strong offseason of conditioning, something that Bowe himself acknowledged during a recent radio interview. “One thing I want to work on -- my endurance,” Bowe said. “I was really, really tired that last game.”
To that end, Bowe said he plans on changing the way he eats, though he didn’t provide details. He said he played last year between 212 and 214 pounds but hopes to report to camp a little lighter to better fit the offense.
“I probably want to play at 208 and try to be as quick and swift as possible, because that’s the kind of receivers that Andy had when he was in Philly,” Bowe said. “I’d like to be more explosive and faster than I was this season. I just want to work on my work ethic a little more and become quicker and faster so I can be like DeSean Jackson and those speedy, quick guys.”
There’s little doubt the Chiefs need more than the 57 catches, 673 yards and five touchdowns he finished the 2013 season with -- especially given his status as one of the league’s highest-paid receivers.
The question is whether he'll follow through with the work and effort necessary to achieve his objectives. We'll be watching for more. In the meantime, I'll go ahead and suggest the veteran wideout lay off the weed as much as possible.