Training Camp Preview: 7 Burning Questions in the NFC South and NFC West
What’s the receiver pecking order in Carolina?
Kelvin Benjamin is returning from a torn ACL that knocked him out for the entire 2015 season. He was a fantasy producer as a rookie, finishing #15 in PPR formats, but that wasn’t due to efficiency -- he saw the sixth-most targets (145) in the league. To put this volume in perspective, Greg Olsen led the Panthers with 124 targets last year, and Ted Ginn (97) was the top-targeted receiver.
Neither Benjamin nor sophomore Devin Funchess have much speed, so the team is likely to keep both Ginn and Corey Brown in the rotation to take the top off of the defense. I’m envisioning a scenario where Benjamin and Funchess start, but Ginn/Brown come in regularly to serve as the WR3. But Benjamin is highly unlikely to see the 9.1 T/G that he saw as a rookie, which is why I have him ranked in the mid-20s instead of the mid-teens.
In early drafts, I’m not ending up with much Funchess either, since he’s likely the third receiving option on a run-heavy team. He could conceivably pass Benjamin in targets if he makes the leap in his second year, but I’m guessing that Benjamin’s rookie season puts him at the forefront of the team’s plans in the passing game.
Greg Olsen is a steady option at tight end, but he may have a tough time repeating his recent production with Funchess emerging and Benjamin back in the fold.
Will Mohamed Sanu see legitimate WR2 targets in Atlanta?
Kyle Shanahan has a long history of ignoring his WR2, but the team made Sanu the second-highest paid receiver in free agency, paying him an average of $6.5 million per season. Why would the Falcons give him that kind of money only to marginalize him in the passing game? I think the signing indicates that the intent to utilize him is there, which is why Sanu is one of the more attractive picks at his position once the rounds hit double digits.
Will Willie Snead win the WR2 job? Is Tim Hightower the RB2?
Despite missing a game, Snead finished #34 in PPR formats, and his playing time grew as the season wore on. He caught 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns, and there’s room for more touchdowns in this offense. There are also targets up for grabs with the departure of Ben Watson and Marques Colston, but Coby Fleener and Michael Thomas are expected to eat a good portion of those up. Snead saw 101 targets last season and that's probably a good estimate for 2016, though he has some upside provided he can hold off Thomas.
Snead fared well in Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception analysis; Harmon called him a “tremendously real sleeper” due to his superior route-running. As the 42nd receiver off the board, I have Snead ranked as a low-end WR3, which is about where he finished last year. As such, he’s a good target as a WR4, or even as the WR3 on a team built around the running back position.
In the backfield, I recommend Hightower as the handcuff to Mark Ingram given the way the veteran finished the season in 2015. Hightower averaged 24.0 touches for 114 yards and 1.0 TD over the final four games last year with Ingram sidelined. C.J. Spiller played in two of those games and touched the ball 10 times (total). Hightower is one of my favorite attrition plays since he’s playing behind the injury-prone Ingram and recently proved that he can still be productive.
Who’s going to start at tight end for the Bucs?
Austin Seferian-Jenkins came into the offseason as one of the more appealing late-round picks at his position, but his stock has dropped after a few curious mishaps at OTAs. He was kicked out of practice and started arguing with Bucs fans on Twitter. Meanwhile, HC Dirk Koetter has been talking about Cameron Brate’s “uncanny ability” to get open in the red zone.
Given the draft capital (2nd-rounder) that the Bucs used to get him, ASJ will likely win the starting job, provided he can keep his head on straight in training camp. He caught four touchdowns in seven games last season, and profiles as a midrange TE2 with upside. His ADP has dipped into the 14th round, which is reasonable, though I’d prefer him in non-best ball leagues where I can dump him if he loses the starting job or gets cut altogether.
Will Jimmy Graham/Thomas Rawls be ready Week 1?
In the six games in which Rawls played and Marshawn Lynch did not, the rookie averaged 20.5 touches for 120 yards and 0.84 touchdowns (on a stellar 5.6 YPC). That doesn't even include Week 3, when he turned 16 carries into 104 yards while Lynch was limited to five carries. There’s been some speculation that Rawls’ recovery wasn’t going that well, but he told ESPN that it has been “phenomenal,” and that he’ll “most definitely” be ready for training camp. I’m expecting they’ll ease him into practice to ensure that he’s healthy for Week 1, so right now, he’s looking like a good upside pick in the 4th or 5th round. He would probably be going near the 2/3 turn if he were completely healthy.
As for Graham, I don’t have high expectations in 2016. Although HC Pete Carroll says that he “absolutely” expects the tight end to play Week 1, it’s tough to come back from a patellar tendon tear, and he wasn’t all that productive before the injury. He’s going in the 12th round, which seems fair given the other tight ends going in that range. It’s conceivable that he returns to post top 10 numbers since he was the #9 TE at the time of his injury last year.
Does Jared Goff raise the level of the Rams’ passing game?
From a fantasy standpoint, the Rams had the least efficient passing game last year. If the #1 overall pick can push the team into even “decent” or “mediocre” territory, he could drag players like Kenny Britt and Lance Kendricks into fantasy relevancy.
Will Carlos Hyde be a three-down back? Will Bruce Ellington start in the slot?
There has been a lot of talk about Hyde’s receiving skills in recent weeks, and it appears that he’ll be an every-down back under Chip Kelly. This is crucial for his draft stock, since the 49ers are unlikely to be able to stay in favorable, run-heavy game scripts in 2016. If Hyde is on the field in passing downs, he’ll be able to generate fantasy points in the receiving game.
Meanwhile, Ellington has been starting in the slot in spring workouts and has drawn praise from QB Blaine Gabbert, who said he was “balling out” and “catching a ton of balls.” He’s a terrific athlete and Kelly said that he was “intrigued” by Ellington’s skillset. If he continues to start, don’t be surprised if he sees 100 targets this season.
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