They’re baaaaaack. Or, at least, NFL players will be very soon. Training camps get underway over the next few days; in some cases, rookies have already reported, and by the end of the week everyone will be on hand (barring players such as the 49ers’ Vernon Davis, who may stage a holdout). In a couple of weeks, we’ll even have games! Okay, preseason games, but still — football!
So finally, after months of free agency-based speculation, then draft-based speculation, then pretty much just Johnny Manziel-based speculation, we’ll have some actual, concrete, NFL training camp developments about which to talk. And some of these developments will, we can only hope, tie up a few of the loose ends that have been bedeviling the fantasy community. Such as:
Ravens No. 1 RB
Everyone expects that Ray Rice will be suspended for an assault charge stemming from the February incident that occurred between him and his then-fiancee in Las Vegas. We don’t know how long that presumed suspension will be, but assuming it encompasses at least the first few games of the season, that will give another Ravens back a chance to take the job and, you know, run with it. Bernard Pierce appears to be first in line for a crack at the gig, but some think highly of rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, and veteran Justin Forsett offers experience in the zone-blocking system of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Even without the suspension, Rice’s mileage and lackluster 2013 season would have rendered him at best a lower-tier RB2 prospect; younger and fresher legs in the same role could reward owners with much more upside.
Dolphins No. 1 RB
Knowshon Moreno hasn’t gotten off to the greatest start with the Dolphins. Since signing a team-friendly, one-year contract, the ex-Bronco reportedly showed up in poor shape, then had a procedure done on his knee that will sideline him for much of training camp. So the job appears to be in Lamar Miller’s hands, and Moreno might even get cut. If he does, then look for Miller’s average draft position (ADP*) to jump up quite a bit from where it currently sits at 105. However, the Dolphins have had a couple of years to evaluate Miller and they brought in Moreno for a reason, so if they keep him around, that could be an indication that the team would eventually like Moreno to take some, if not most, of Miller’s workload.
(* — All ADP numbers courtesy of Fantasy Pros.)
Chargers No. 1 TE
Is this the year San Diego unleashes Ladarius Green? If so, Green first has to unseat Antonio Gates as the Chargers’ primary tight end. In 2013, according to Football Outsiders, Green played on only 32.8 percent of San Diego’s offensive snaps, compared to 87.2 percent for Gates. However, Green averaged a gaudy 22.1 yards, nearly double Gates’s figure, on 17 catches. If the Chargers decide to flip those snap counts, or at least give Green the majority of receiving targets, we could have a strong TE1 on our hands.
Eagles No. 1 WR
We know that the Eagles, under Coach Chip Kelly, have a devastatingly efficient offense. We know that they got rid of DeSean Jackson in the offseason. What we don’t know is which wide receiver will be the primary beneficiary. Jeremy Maclin missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he has had plenty of time to recover and is ticketed to be Jackson’s main replacement. How Maclin holds up in camp and during preseason games will be well worth monitoring, as will the development of rookie Jordan Matthews, who has wowed Eagles coaches thus far. Then there is Riley Cooper, who seemed to forge a good connection with quarterback Nick Foles last season.
Browns No. 1 QB
I know what you’re thinking: How did I go this far before mentioning Johnny Football again? Well, for one thing, even if Mr. Manziel grabs Cleveland’s quarterback job with the same gusto with which he grabs champagne bottles, the team’s overall talent limitations will keep him in the mid-QB2 zone. As it stands, reports out of Browns camp put Brian Hoyer squarely in the lead of this race. Hoyer himself did some promising things last season before getting injured, but he offers nowhere near the upside that Manziel would.
Browns No. 1 WR
While we’re at it, who will be Cleveland’s top wide receiver? Assuming Josh Gordon gets that seemingly inevitable year-long suspension, of course. The team picked ex-Cowboy Miles Austin off the scrap heap, and, incredibly, he and his sketchy hamstrings appear to be the cream of a crop of outside receivers that includes Nate Burleson and Anthony Armstrong. Keep an eye on slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who could turn into Manziel/Hoyer’s second-favorite target (behind tight end Jordan Cameron, of course).
Panthers No. 1 WR
Much like Cleveland, Carolina appears set to hold a least-lousy competition at wide receiver. However, if first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin acclimates to the NFL quicker than expected, he could be a legitimate fantasy asset right off the bat. As it is, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound specimen should grab his share of touchdowns. But Benjamin is a project, and Jason Avant is, well, Jason Avant, leaving Jerricho Cotchery (ADP: 223) as a potentially underrated commodity. Cotchery did grab 10 touchdown passes last season in Pittsburgh, albeit on only 46 receptions.
Vikings No. 1 QB
Matt Cassel and (for no apparent reason) Christian Ponder are still around, and Minnesota traded into the last pick of the first round to draft Teddy Bridgewater. Whoever wins this job will have a not-bad group of receivers to whom to throw, including explosive Cordarelle Patterson, steady Greg Jennings and talented tight end Kyle Rudolph. Fantasy owners of those three should be rooting for Cassel, who can wing it downfield, to win the job, but the Vikings will likely give Bridgewater as long a look as possible.
Broncos No. 2 RB
Denver looks ready to roll with Montee Ball, which makes him a first-round pick, or close to it, in most fantasy drafts. Owners looking to protect their investment will want to know who his handcuff is, and that’s a bit of an open question at the moment. C.J. Anderson could be Ball’s backup, with Ronnie Hillman in more of a third-down role. Or Anderson could get cut, leaving unheralded rookies Brennan Clay and Juwan Thompson an opening.
Rams No. 1 WR
At 5-foot-8, 176 pounds, Tavon Austin seems destined to pick his spots in a gadget-play/kick returner role, despite being the eighth overall pick in 2013’s draft. That leaves the top receiver spot up for grabs among (in no particular order) Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey. Oh, and St. Louis took a flier on Kenny Britt, who is the only player on the roster who has ever actually looked like a No. 1 receiver and who (amazingly) is still only 25 years old.
Jets No. 1 QB
If all goes according to plan, Geno Smith will cement his grip on the starting job, relegating Michael Vick to backup/mentor duties. But how often do things go according to plan for the Jets? Either way, fantasy owners brave enough to play the wait-on-QB-then-wait-some-more draft strategy could find sneaky value in the winner of this battle, because quarterbacks who use their legs always provide sneaky value. Given that Vick’s ADP is 187, and Smith is essentially going undrafted, taking both at the end of a draft could provide steady production at minimal cost.
Jets No. 2 WR
This is an interesting situation only to the extent that Stephen Hill shows he has some clue how to play football. Hill has size (6-4, 215) and speed (4.33 in the 40) galore, and if he could just, you know, figure out how to play, he could be a big-play machine as defenses focus their coverage on Eric Decker. Or Hill could continue to be a huge bust, probably get cut, and Jeremy Kerley could win the job by default, leaving him an option only in deep PPR leagues.