Fantasy Football Questions That Must Be Answered in Training Camps
Fall and winter may be when football season takes place, but for many fantasy football enthusiasts, there's no better time of year than summer.
That's because it's draft season. Every owner (in redraft leagues, at least) has a clean slate. Hope springs eternal and all that good stuff.
Of course, it would be a lot easier for fantasy owners to identify potential value picks in their leagues if there weren't so many questions still unanswered.
All over the NFL, the training camps that open next month will feature position battles, players vying for starting spots. For some, it's a first-year youngster battling a grizzled veteran. Others feature a free-agent acquisition trying to unseat one of his new teammates.
On top of that, there's the matter of banged-up players returning to action. Are they ready to rock and roll, or is spending a fantasy draft pick on those players just a waste of time?
The situations, circumstances and players may be different, but one things holds true for all of these competitions and conundrums.
Each could have a significant impact on the fantasy football landscape in 2014.
Who Will Start at Running Back for the Oakland Raiders?
Entering training camp, there's nothing but questions surrounding the Oakland Raiders offense.
Can new starting quarterback Matt Schaub recapture the form that saw him lead the Houston Texans to back-to-back AFC South titles in 2011 and 2012, or will his first year with the Raiders be the pick-six-fueled nightmare that his last season in Houston was?
Is James Jones' season with double-digit touchdown catches demonstrative of a player who can function as the team's No. 1 wide receiver, or does the fact that he's never topped 1,000 yards in a season indicate he can't?
However, it's the running back battle between a pair of former fantasy studs that's of most interest to fantasy owners.
Of course, it's been a while since Darren McFadden's fantasy heyday. In fact, it lasted all of one season, when McFadden gained over 1,100 yards on the ground in 2010. Since then the 26-year-old hasn't been able to stay on the field, missing 19 games over three disappointing seasons.
This year, McFadden faces a challenge from Maurice Jones-Drew, who joined the Raiders in free agency after eight seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jones-Drew was the NFL's leading rusher back in 2011 with 1,606 yards, but the 29-year-old looked nothing like that player as he plodded his way to a career-low 3.4 yards per carry in 2013.
Jones-Drew insists he still has something in the tank, according to Sam Farmer of The Los Angeles Times:
It doesn't bother me that people have written me off, but it's just how they've done it. I understand if I had played bad the year before, then played the way I did [in 2013]. Then, I could understand people saying, 'Oh, he's done.' But I was leading the league in rushing before I broke my foot. It was tough hearing people say, 'Aw, you don't have it anymore.' I'm in the best shape of my life now, running fast, running hills, pulling sleds, cutting, jumping. I've rededicated myself to my craft again.
However, Jones-Drew also told the Associated Press (via The Boston Herald) that he's warming to the idea in Oakland of a situation that chills the hearts of fantasy owners.
A backfield committee:
When these pads get on you're going to start to see what we're about, and that is running back by committee. (That) is going to help us because we're going to be fighting every day to get the ball. I know Darren wants the ball just like I do. That drive is what's going to help us become a better backfield.
McFadden isn't just handing the starting job to Jones-Drew though, telling John Lund of the team's website that “I have a whole lot to give. Now I just want to go out there and show everybody, prove to everybody that I can.”
Frankly, who "starts" for the Raiders is the least of several factors that need clarified here.
How the touches are divided, who plays in what situations and how successfully Oakland runs the ball both individually and as a team could all have more weight in determining which back to own in Oaktown than whether Jones-Drew or McFadden carries the ball first in a given game.
Unfortunately, we may not know the answers to those questions until well into the preseason, and that's not taking each back's rather extensive recent injury history into account.
Can Reggie Wayne Bounce Back from Last Year's ACL Tear?
In 2012, in Andrew Luck's first NFL season, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne turned back the clock, setting career highs in receptions and yardage while posting top-10 fantasy numbers in leagues that award a point for receptions.
Wayne's numbers tailed off slightly to start 2013, but the 35-year-old was still a top-15 fantasy option at his position over the first six weeks of the season.
Then Wayne tore his ACL in a Sunday night showdown against the Denver Broncos, and just like that his season was over.
That injury, combined with the robust number of birthday candles on Wayne's last cake, has caused a great deal of reservation about Wayne in fantasy circles. In fact, Wayne has fallen all the way to WR4 territory in early drafts at My Fantasy League.
Bob Kravitz of USA Today shares their concern, writing:
If anybody can hold back the hands of time, it's Wayne.
But this is no sure deal.
Didn't we say the same thing about Marvin Harrison before a knee injury at roughly the same time in his career left him in a dramatically diminished state? Isn't 35 a little bit old, in football years, to be fighting back from major knee surgery?
With that said, though, Wayne insists that he's all systems go for Week 1. Wayne even told Mike Wells of ESPN the only thing that can keep him off the field when the Colts open training camp is the coaching staff:
No problems. I'm chomping at the bit to get out there. Like I told our receiving coach (Charlie Williams), I'm the Chevy that's in the garage. As soon as you open the garage, I'm out, I'm gone. I'm just waiting until they tell me I can suit up and be a normal football player.
The Colts will undoubtedly take it slow with Wayne during the early part of camp, but if he looks like anything close to the player we last saw, then Reggie Wayne is ridiculously undervalued in fantasy drafts right now.
Will Knowshon Moreno Get It in Gear?
After ranking 26th in the NFL in rushing last year, the Miami Dolphins made improving the ground game a priority in the offseason.
In addition to big changes on the offensive line, the Dolphins also added a tailback in free agency, signing Knowshon Moreno to a one-year contract.
Moreno is coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career with the Denver Broncos in 2013, but since arriving in South Florida it's been nothing but bad news.
First, much was made of the fact that Moreno was running behind Lamar Miller in OTAs after showing up to workouts in less than optimal shape. Moreno himself admitted to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald a few weeks ago that his conditioning wasn't ideal:
I’m definitely not there. This is just the beginning. It’s just the beginning, getting your feet wet, and when you have time off, working at those little things, getting back to where you need to be, and once camp comes, it’ll be good.
However, it isn't going to be any easier for Moreno to get into shape now, as a knee injury and subsequent surgery will sideline the 26-year-old for 4-6 weeks.
Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports passed along even more ominous news regarding Moreno's knee:
Talked to a source who has seen Knowshon Moreno's knee. Said it's "bad." Prob will play, but the issue is how long.
— Jason Cole (@JasonPhilCole) June 20, 2014
Add the news together, and it's sent Moreno's fantasy stock on a downward spiral that likely won't end until we see him back on the practice field. Yes, Moreno was a top-five fantasy back in 2013, but one big year in five is a tough enough sell without adding the injury.
The opposite holds true, of course, for Miller, as the longer he's sidelined, the more Miller's fantasy draft stock will climb. Bear in mind though that whoever wins the starting job at running back will be running behind arguably the NFL's worst offensive line in 2013.
A line that will now be without center Mike Pouncey for the beginning of the regular season thanks to a hip injury.
Is Arian Foster Back? Will Andre Johnson Ever Show Up?
Things didn't go quite according to plan for the Houston Texans in 2013.
After winning the AFC South two years in a row, the Texans cratered to the tune of two wins last year. That implosion was the impetus for big changes in Houston. Gary Kubiak is gone as head coach, replaced by Bill O'Brien. Same for Matt Schaub at quarterback, with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick taking the reins under center.
What fantasy owners want to know is how these changes will affect the Texans' resident stars.
Running back Arian Foster was part of the problem last year. Foster entered the 2013 season hurt and ended it the same way, posting his worst numbers in years. That led some to speculate that Foster's ridiculous workload (956 carries from 2010-2012) was catching up to him.
However, left tackle Duane Brown saw the old Foster on the field in OTAs, according to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle:
He’s a very special talent. He has a lot of tools that you can’t coach. His elusiveness, his vision, his ability to catch out of the backfield. He has everything. And when he’s healthy, I think he’s definitely the best back in this league. And I think he’s on track to show that this year.
Of course, just the fact that Foster's on the field puts him one up on wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Johnson actually had a great individual season in 2013, catching 109 passes and topping 1,400 receiving yards. However, the team's failures left a sour taste in Johnson's mouth, and to this point the 32-year-old has yet to report.
O'Brien has maintained a positive stance on the situation all along, but after Johnson's absence stretched into mandatory minicamps, Johnson's adviser didn't sound so upbeat while speaking with Smith. “Right now, that’s all that he can do,” adviser Andre Melton said. “We’ve done what we can do, so we’re just sitting there waiting.”
Still, given Johnson's age and salary, it's hard to imagine a situation where he isn't in Houston this season. Sooner or later, as the fines start adding up, Johnson is going to report.
Seeing that, as well as a healthy and spry Foster in action, would go a long way toward alleviating doubts about spending an early fantasy pick on the veterans.
Who Will Step Up to Replace Emmanuel Sanders in Pittsburgh?
The Pittsburgh Steelers were a tale of two teams in 2014. The first story was a tragedy, as the Steelers lost their first four games and six of their first eight. In the season's second half the action picked up as the Steelers flipped the script, going 6-2 down the stretch and narrowly missing the playoffs.
Now, however, as the Steelers try to get back to the postseason, the departure of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency has left a hole opposite Antonio Brown at wide receiver and uncertainty about who will fill it.
The leading contender to start opposite Brown is second-year pro Markus Wheaton, and Dan Hanzus of NFL.com thinks big things could be in store for the former third-round pick:
Wheaton should win a starting job out of camp this time around. Bryant will be in a developmental stage and free-agent signing Darrius Heyward-Bey is, well, Darrius Heyward-Bey. Barring injury, count on Wheaton to keep his gig and become a mainstay in Pittsburgh's attack. Asking for a Pro Bowl-level season is pushing it, but we expect Wheaton to earn Roethlisberger's trust as the season progresses and make the progression the team hoped for in 2013.
There are, however, other contenders. Veteran Lance Moore was brought in ostensibly to replace slot man Jerricho Cotchery, who caught double-digit scores last year before leaving for Carolina.
However, as Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, Moore saw snaps with the first-team offense outside in OTAs, and the 30-year-old thinks he's more than capable of filling that role:
Over the years, I played more outside, but the last couple of years I was pretty close, 50-50, playing inside and outside. I'm comfortable with both spots, and it doesn't matter to me. ... (But) we haven't talked about specifics or game plan-type things or how we're going to go into a game with certain personnel groupings yet.
Throw in fourth-round rookie (and long-shot candidate) Martavis Bryant, and you have the sort of three-man race that drives fantasy owners nuts.
Mind you, at first glance this might not seem a battle worth monitoring all that closely. After all, Sanders finished outside the top 30 in PPR fantasy football leagues last year.
Still, all three of these Steelers wideouts are currently available for the draft-day equivalent of a four-year-old package of ramen noodles.
Whoever emerges as the victor in this battle will have value. It's just a matter of picking the right horse, preferably as early as possible.
Can Jordan Matthews Win a Starting Job with the Eagles as a Rookie?
The Philadelphia Eagles went from the outhouse to the penthouse in 2013, propelled to an unlikely NFC East title by the conference's top offense.
That offense experienced a big upheaval in the offseason. Despite leading the Eagles with 1,332 receiving yards in 2013, DeSean Jackson was surprisingly released by the team. He later signed with the division-rival Redskins.
Granted the team is hopeful that the return of Jeremy Maclin will help soften the blow, but the Eagles also addressed the wide receiver position in the second round of May's NFL draft, selecting Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews.
It looks like it may be a pick that pays big dividends sooner than many thought.
Since arriving in Philadelphia, Matthews has done nothing but turn heads, whether it's Jimmy Kempski of the Philadelphia Inquirer saying Matthews has looked lights-out:
In limited media access to OTAs so far, Jordan Matthews has looked like the best WR on the team, in my opinion, and it hasn't been close.
— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) June 10, 2014
Like Owens, Matthew stands 6-foot-3. Also like Owens, Matthews is known for being a hard worker and a workout nut. Throw in the fact that they both wear No. 81, and it is hard not to think it is Owens out there catching passes during Eagles practices.
Now, as Shorr-Parks reported, even the kid's plans for his last time off in for a while are drawing backslaps and golf claps.
"I'm going out to Atlanta for a while to go train," said Matthews. "I'm going to try to train around guys like A.J. [Green] and Calvin [Johnson] down with Tom Bender and them. So try and get some tutelage from some of those guys, some legends in the league right now."
With all due respect to Maclin, the sixth-year pro missed all of last season and has yet to post a 1,000-yard season in his NFL career. Neither has Riley Cooper, who gained more yardage last year than in his first three NFL seasons combined.
Bleacher Report NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon recently wrote that it wouldn't be shocking to see Matthews bump one of those players from the starting lineup during training camp:
After setting new SEC records with 242 catches and 3,759 yards in four years at Vanderbilt, he comes polished. So while conventional wisdom indicates Matthews will remain the No. 3 guy this year, with the experienced Maclin returning to his regular spot from what is now an expired era, consider that this franchise rarely adheres to convention.
Given that Matthews isn't even the first (or second) rookie wide receiver being drafted in 2014, were that to happen it could make Matthews a huge value in fantasy drafts this year.
Who Is the Running Back to Target in New Orleans
The New Orleans Saints aren't exactly a "ground and pound" offense. The Saints ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing last year at a touch over 92 yards a game.
However, any starting running back in the NFL is going to be of interest to fantasy owners, and the fact remains that anemic though it may have been last year, the New Orleans running game produced a pair of top-25 fantasy backs in PPR leagues in Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
This year, however, Sproles is in Philadelphia, leaving a hole in the Saints rotation.
Thomas, who actually posted more fantasy points than Sproles last year, would appear to be in line to see a bump in passing-down work, at least according to Mike Triplett of ESPN:
Thomas played in exactly 50 percent of the Saints' regular-season snaps. And he could potentially play a similar role this year, even with younger backs Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet clamoring for more snaps. Now that Sproles is gone, Thomas should be featured heavily in the Saints' passing formations since he's their best receiver out of the backfield and their most reliable pass protector. He may lose some rushing yards but gain receiving yards as his role shifts slightly.
That leaves Ingram, Robinson and Cadet to fight for the between-the-tackles and early-down work.
Ingram, he of the Heisman Trophy and first-round draft pick, is widely viewed as a "bust" after three lackluster seasons. For his part, Ingram told Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that isn't how he or the New Orleans coaching staff view his NFL career to this point:
Every single year I've become a better player and a better person. People's expectations. that's their opinions. What goes on this this locker room, my coaches and teammates, they know I work my butt off. I go to war every single Sunday. At the end of the day, that's all that matters to me.
However, the fantasy community isn't buying it. It's Robinson who is the trendy pick among many fantasy pundits to emerge in his second NFL season after coming on strong in the playoffs last year.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com passed along an interesting tidbit about Robinson's rookie season:
Robinson enters his second season as Exhibit A in the argument against paying big money for running backs. He forced more missed tackles on 76 regular-season snaps than Ray Rice did on 730, per Pro Football Focus' metrics.
This is a demonstrated skill. Robinson also led the league in forced missed tackles during the preseason and averaged more postseason yards after contact per attempt than Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount, the latter of whom became the first player in NFL history with at least 150 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game.
Will Robinson prove his supporters right and claim the role of big dog in the Saints backfield? Will Thomas once again make fantasy owners who annually undervalue him pay the price? Will Ingram finally start playing like his draft slot?
Only time (and training camp, and the preseason) will tell.
Will Johnny Football Straighten Up and Win the Starting Job in Cleveland?
Two years ago, rookie quarterbacks laid siege to the National Football League. Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson all captured the imagination of football fans and fantasy owners alike.
Last year's rookie class under center didn't make nearly the same first-year impact, and if early reports are any indication, the redraft fantasy impact of this year's rookie quarterbacks will be fairly quiet as well.
That isn't to say that players such as Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings and Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars aren't talented young players. However, the school of thought around the league this year with rookie quarterbacks appears to be patience.
And if there's one thing fantasy owners aren't, it's patient.
Based on early average draft position data at My Fantasy League, the consensus among fantasy drafters is that Johnny Manziel of the Cleveland Browns has the best odds of this year's class of making a fantasy impact.
That's a pretty dicey bet, given that, to this point, there's been zero indication that Brian Hoyer won't be the Browns starting quarterback in Week 1.
When the Browns wrapped OTAs, head coach Mike Pettine made it clear to Lindsay Jones of USA Today that Hoyer will open training camp as the starter:
Brian is securely ahead of him right now. But we will compete, and we'll decide. The issue for us as a staff will be finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then no one is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, was it a true competition?
Meanwhile, while Hoyer has looked good in limited action as he rehabs a torn ACL, Manziel continues to make more news for what he's doing off the field than on it.
And he made it clear to Pat McManamon of ESPN that he isn't about to apologize for it:
I don't think I'm doing anything wrong. Everybody on the weekends goes out and enjoys their life. Just for them, they don't have people that, when they walk into a place, pull out their phone and all they want to do is follow me around and record everything.
Nothing that I'm doing on the weekends is affecting my job. Nothing that I'm doing on the weekends is hopefully hurting any of my teammates in the locker room.
Manziel made it clear that he wants to be the starter ("To say that I don't want to be the starter would be ridiculous," he said), but he also concedes he's playing catch-up at this point.
"Brian obviously is ahead," Manziel said. "He's been doing this a lot longer than I have. I'm a rookie, and I have a lot of ground to catch up."
If Manziel plays well in the preseason there could be a groundswell of pressure for him to start, but in all honesty, the best bets players such as tight end Jordan Cameron and running back Ben Tate have at early-season fantasy success likely lie with Hoyer maintaining his lead.
Who Will Start Under Center for the Minnesota Vikings?
With Johnny Manziel seemingly more interested in having a good time than unseating Brian Hoyer at quarterback in Cleveland, the title of rookie passer most likely to start in Week 1 would appear to belong to Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Louisville star entering the NFL centered around his arm strength, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner told Brian Hall of Fox Sports that hasn't been an issue in camp:
One of the things that has been the most impressive to me is, I knew he'd be very accurate, I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he's been outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue. I think in the six or eight weeks we've had him on the field, I think he's been put in a position where he's had to make most of the throws he would have to make and I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.
Meanwhile, as Ben Goessling of ESPN reports, Bridgewater has turned to a novel way of familiarizing himself with Minnesota's playbook:
Bridgewater said last week he's imported the Vikings' playbook into his Madden NFL football game, which allows him to take "virtual reps" by practicing with the Vikings' offense against defenses he'd see in an actual game. He did the same thing in college, adding the Louisville Cardinals' playbook to a NCAA football video game for his Xbox, and he'll continue the practice in the NFL.
'It helps because you get one more rep than you had in practice, actual practice,' he said. 'Any chance you get to take an extra rep or go the extra step, extra mile, it's going to be very beneficial transferring it to the field.
However, for all the early progress Bridgewater has made, veteran Matt Cassel isn't giving up the starting job without a fight.
In fact, as Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press reported, Cassel has a supporter in Turner, who wanted to bring the 32-year-old to Cleveland last year:
I think that would have been at the time a good move for us. I gave my evaluation (for the Browns to sign Cassel). I thought he would have fit. ... Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't.''
With that said, head coach Mike Zimmer made it clear while speaking with Goessling that Cassel is no more the presumptive starter than Bridgewater, and that Bridgewater, Cassel and Christian Ponder will all be given an opportunity to win the job in training camp:
I've never said that (about Cassel starting). I know I've heard other people say it, but I've never said it. From the day I walked in here, I said I want tough, intelligent, smart football players and I want competition at every position. To me, we're still competing; everybody's still competing for jobs. I'm competing to be a good head coach; assistants are competing to be good assistant head coaches. Again, I don't want to rush into anything.
Granted, it's unlikely that whoever wins the starting job for the Vikings will make a big fantasy impact themselves.
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