Fantasy Football 2014: Early Predictions for the Upcoming Season
You might not sense it, but Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of the fantasy football season for its wide world of analysts. That's because it is the rough deadline for countless draft magazines that litter your newsstands and coffee tables in the summer.
Those tend to be reading selections of choice during summer vacations, and the information contained in them are finalized by the end of May, which you may or may not know. Thank goodness for the Web and always-updating websites like Bleacher Report.
In that vein, we take the time here to sketch out 10 top early fantasy football predictions for 2014. We start with a bold prediction at each of the positions—quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker and defense/special teams—and finish up with some sweeping statements about the recently tapped rookie class.
To give you a final-slide tease, don't waste too much time reading up on the rookie quarterbacks this summer. Their value is going to be low come fantasy draft day, because of what we predict here.
Andrew Luck Will Enter Exclusive Quarterback MVP Club
A lot of quarterbacks can average around the 20.45 fantasy points per game that Luck has posted through two years by averaging 4,098 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 316 yards rushing and four rushing TDs. Fourteen quarterbacks cracked the 20-point plateau on average in 2013, per FFToday.com. Only future NFL Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady surpassed the 25-point mark either of the past two seasons.
Luck is going to join that exclusive club in his third season.
An improved cast of weapons, not to mention a questionable running game and defense, will force Luck to shoulder the production. He is poised to surpass 4,500 yards, 35 touchdowns and another five-plus rushing scores—the latter total an underrated aspect of his fantasy production.
Not only will the expected return of Reggie Wayne (knee surgery) give Luck a veteran possession guy, but Hakeem Nicks should be healthier on his one-year "prove-it deal," while T.Y. Hilton is a burgeoning receiving star coming off his first 1,000-yard season. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen can break out in their third year as well, especially in the red zone.
Those are five very good targets, while emerging young options LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers and second-round pick Donte Moncrief make Luck's receiving corps strong and deep.
Sure, Trent Richardson doesn't force any defense to stack the box against the run, but that is only good news for Luck's numbers. Vick Ballard (knee surgery) and Ahmad Bradshaw are going to pick up T-Rich's slack as pass receivers out of the backfield.
The Indianapolis Colts are going to score a lot of points, and most of them will be at Luck's hand/right shoulder. Topping off all of this fantasy amazingness is the fact that Indanapolis will play the easiest schedule in the NFL next season, according to ESPN.com's strength-of-schedule numbers. The Colts' opponents won a league-low 43 percent of their games last season.
LeSean McCoy Will Be the Highest-Scoring Running Back
Jamaal Charles has earned the best case to be the No. 1 overall pick for 2014 coming off his breakthrough season as the feature back in Andy Reid's running back-friendly system, but it should be reminded that fantasy football hasn't had a back repeat as the highest scorer since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007.
The Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy has been the runner-up twice, including last season, helping pace Chip Kelly's uptempo attack. He is the reigning NFL rushing champion with 1,607 yards, adding another 52 receptions and 539 yards receiving.
You might follow the understandable belief that Darren Sproles can cut into McCoy's receiving totals, and a few less touches will keep him from 1,600-plus rushing yards again, but really what he does is help replace the production of DeSean Jackson's loss. The return of Jeremy Maclin (knee surgery) will do that, too.
McCoy told Chris McPherson of the Eagles' official website that he will be fresher and more explosive, coming off a season in which he broke franchise records:
I think 366 touches is a lot. Being in the prime of my career and bringing in a guy like Sproles who can do so much, we'll work well together. I think having me fresh in the fourth quarter with fewer carries can be even more dangerous.
As a defense, you have so much to prepare for with this offense. And now, you bring in a guy like that. We can run the ball. We can throw the ball. We have so many different movements to watch out for. I'm excited. When he got here, the first thing I told him was I'm happy that he's here. There's so much in this offense from motions to different looks, I mean, the guy's a genius. One thing I can say about Chip is that he's a genius. He knows offense.
Kelly's system is lauded for its quick-strike potential, but most of what it does is punish teams on the ground. The Eagles boast the No. 1 rushing offense from a year ago, and it might only get better with another year to adapt to Kelly's high-octane approach.
So, don't be bummed if you draw the No. 2 overall pick in drafts this August and Charles' name is the first one called. McCoy's 1,400 yards rushing, 60 catches, 550 receiving yards and 15-plus combined TDs are going to make up quite the consolation prize.
A.J. Green Will Become the No. 1 Fantasy Wideout
Before you laugh about this one because of a lack of confidence in Andy Dalton and consistent excellence of Calvin Johnson atop the fantasy receiving charts, remember this: "Megatron" wasn't the No. 1 fantasy wideout in 2013. Josh Gordon was, per FFToday.com.
Green is going to carry that torch in 2014.
Sure, the Cincinnati Bengals are going to a power running game—"We're just going to smash your face in—basically" Giovani Bernard said, per Coley Harvey of ESPN.com—but a wide receiver's best friend is a potent running game.
Safeties come up to attack the box, and a sleek 6'4" receiver like Green blows the top off your defense.
Green has progressed steadily in his three seasons, improving his numbers every year, but this could be an epic campaign for him to the tune of 105 catches, 1,575 yards and 15 touchdowns.
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is promising to incorporate the uptempo attack in Cincy's game plan, too. That should make the Bengals offense more explosive.
Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth had this to say, per Harvey:
You're just trying to get as many snaps as you can in. It's not so much that you're no-huddling, but you're really trying to play at a fast pace.
You make it to where [the opposing defense] have to work and operate quicker and don't have as much time to line up and dissect and all those types of things. [Offensively], when you get hot a lot of time in that kind of situation, you get real hot.
The best part about Green's statistical potential compared to Megatron and other elite receivers is that Green is far and away his team's best weapon.
The Lions have added complementary pieces around Johnson this winter for Matthew Stafford to use. Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert are emerging threats, but Green is the dagger.
You are going to be well-equipped with Green as your No. 1 receiver when he slips into the middle of Round 2 on draft day.
Tight End Rob Gronkowski Will Play...Let's See...12 Games
Before you dismiss this 12-game prediction for Rob Gronkowski as an arbitrary number, rest assured the New England Patriots tight end will not play 16 games. He hasn't done that in either of his past two seasons, and he struggled to stay healthy in college too.
Gronk is a physical freak. He is also a bit clumsy in his 6'6", 265-pound body. Even if he's healthy enough coming off major knee reconstruction to play Week 1 at Miami, he is going to miss some games along the way. Bank on that.
But those should be some 12 games for his fantasy owners. He has 42 career receiving touchdowns (plus one rushing) in 50 games (44 starts). He has averaged 12 games, 56 receptions, 814 yards and 11 touchdowns through his four seasons.
Those numbers represent reasonable projections for Gronk's 2014 totals. He is still a top-three tight end with those, behind just Jimmy Graham and perhaps Julius Thomas.
Just be prepared to replace Gronk with a backup tight end for five games: four missed due to injury and one bye week.
Baltimore Ravens Kicker Justin Tucker Will Make More Than 40 Field Goals
Justin Tucker stole fantasy football hearts with his six field-goal performance in Week 15 last year, beating the Detroit Lions and countless fantasy opponents with a 61-yard, game-winning field goal.
He then became a fantasy icon with his on-field interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters moments after: "My fantasy team is benefiting from it as well, so I'm happy about that. Fantasy owners around the world, I hope you guys appreciate the points as well."
You have to love some fantasy perspective right after winning an important football game.
Justin Tucker won't be the first kicker off the board this summer, but he will be the most important. Stephen Gostkowski has rightfully earned No. 1 status with his consistency, but Tucker's team is going to play more field-goal battles like that Week 15 one in Detroit.
The Baltimore Ravens don't have finishers in the red zone like most of the other top kickers' teams. Tucker is their finisher...to the tune of the first 40-plus field-goal kicker since David Akers of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, per FFToday.com.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense Is Going to Be Late-Round Bargain
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have lost Darrelle Revis this winter for nothing more than salary relief, but they will truly be a better defense without him.
Often in this NFL, a turnaround isn't just predicated on your personnel. Coaches can be a big factor too. The hiring of defensive guru Lovie Smith is going to take a talented defense to a whole new level.
We are talking the elite class of defense on the level of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers. In fantasy terms, the Bucs are going to be on the board rounds later as well.
Lavonte David is arguably the best linebacker in football, and Gerald McCoy might be the best defensive tackle. Add in defensive end Michael Johnson as a pass-rusher, Clinton McDonald as part of the line rotation and Alterraun Verner as the very capable replacement for Revis, and you have the makings of a great group for Smith to work his defensive magic with.
Smith's fantasy defenses were always potent in Chicago, especially in the realm of turnovers and the unpredictable defensive touchdown category. Those will make the Bucs a bargain if you don't pop the top on the position in your draft.
Tennessee Titans' Bishop Sankey Will Be the First Rookie Picked in Fantasy
The Tennessee Titans might have a huge question mark at quarterback still with Jake Locker, but they drafted an answer at feature back in Washington's Bishop Sankey.
When you draft run-game mauler Chance Warmack and tackle Taylor Lewan in Round 1 in back-to-back years, you have a nice trailer for an explosive young back like Sankey to hitch the wagon to on the right side of the offensive line.
When you consider that Shonn Greene is a slug coming off an offseason knee procedure, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, there shouldn't be much standing in Sankey's way in training camp. Yahoo Sports' Brad Evans supports that notion and expects Sankey to get plenty of touches this season.
He is ranked just 83rd in the FantasyPros.com analyst consensus right now, but expect that ranking to steadily rise. Sankey is going to be a top-20 fantasy running back and at least a third-round pick by the time your draft rolls around.
St. Louis Rams' Tre Mason Will Be Most Surprising Fantasy Rookie
Fantasy owners wound up in a love affair with the St. Louis Rams' Zac Stacy down the stretch last year. Now, they might be ready to change partners.
Stacy became the Rams' feature back in a run-heavy attack—in a run-oriented NFC West division—but the drafting of a more explosive back like Auburn's Tre Mason damages Stacy's first-round fantasy status. The prediction here is that Mason becomes the Rams' No. 1 back by midseason—be it by injury or just being a more dynamic offensive threat than Stacy, who averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.
Mason has the makings of a fantasy steal as Stacy's handcuff in the middle rounds in fantasy drafts. Kiss Stacy's 1,000-yard hopes goodbye.
Sammy Watkins Will Not Be Fantasy's Best Rookie Wideout
Sammy Watkins was the first skill-position player to come off the board in the NFL draft, as the Buffalo Bills mortgaged part of their future to move up to get him at No. 4 overall. But he won't be the first fantasy rookie picked, and we predict that he won't be the best one...even if you consider just wide receivers.
Watkins is a lights-out NFL talent, but he will be working in a sketchy offense with second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, who is technically still a rookie in terms of games, playing only 10 a year ago. Also, this was a strong and deep wide receivers rookie draft class.
Any one of the following can outproduce Watkins for fantasy owners in Year 1:
- Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
- Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
- Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles
- Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
- Cody Latimer, Denver Broncos
- Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
When you consider the large number of talented young receivers in arguably more productive offensive systems and playing with more experienced quarterbacks, it is a pretty safe bet that Watkins won't be the most productive wideout right away.
None of the Rookie Quarterbacks Will Be Starting in Week 1
The Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles and Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel both went off the board before the Minnesota Vikings swooped in to pick Teddy Bridgewater at the end of Day 1 of the draft. All three first-round picks don't have much competition for immediate starts, but none of them will be the Day 1 starter for their team.
That makes each nothing more than a late-round pick in fantasy.
The Jags have already publicly stated they would like to see Bortles serve a one-year apprenticeship, as head coach Gus Bradley said on the NFL Network's NFL Total Access this week, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus:
We really felt comfortable with (Chad Henne) coming back with another year in the system. I think it gave us flexibility. When Blake was there available for us, we really wanted to capture that opportunity. And we do feel good about where Blake's at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good in the end result.
In Cleveland, Brian Hoyer has already gone on record, telling Cleveland.com that "he intends to win the job and keep it for a long time," according to the The Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot. New head coach Mike Pettine likes the competition he has, telling Cabot:
That's the way you want it. He's an ultra-competitive guy, and he knew that more than likely we were going to bring in a quarterback, and he reacted the way we want him to react, which was, 'Bring it on, let's go.' ...
I don't know if they're going to be sending each other Christmas cards anytime soon. But they know they're both in it together, and they're going to compete, and I think they both feel comfortable that as a staff we're going to put the best quarterback (out there) that puts us in position to win games.
Bridgewater had his detractors in the draft process, which is why he tumbled from the No. 1 overall selection to the last pick in the first round. These quarterbacks are by no means polished prospects, so not starting right away might be the best thing for them.
It will also help them fall to the very depths of fantasy drafts.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.