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First Down: Gronk, RGIII, Eagles are fantasy’s biggest pre-camp curiosities

Brad Evans
Roto Arcade

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It's almost impossible to predict if/when Gronk will return to active duty. (USAT)

Next to coming up with clever team names involving Isaiah Pead and deriving new ways to insult leaguemates on draft day, fanatics will soon agonize over hard-to-answer questions in an attempt to pinpoint exactly where or for how much a virtual commodity will go.

Last season, Adrian Peterson’s reconstructed knee was at the forefront of owner thoughts. Prior to the opening of training camp, signs trended positively, but no man, machine or manchine, not even numbers cruncher extraordinaire Nate Silver, could’ve accurately projected his 2012 season. Off a gruesome leg-mangling that would’ve threatened careers just two decades ago, the RB mesmerizingly trampled opponents en route to 2,097 rushing yards, the second-highest output by a rusher in NFL history. For steel-balled gamblers who stared risk in the eye and rolled the dice, the Purple Hey-Zeus was absolutely divine.

Peterson, the consensus No. 1 overall pick, is far from a concern this year, but several others are. With the official opening of training camps roughly three weeks away, curious fantasy minds demand answers to several pressing questions. In Part I of a two-part series, the Noise pops the top, shotguns and spews his thoughts on a six-pack of sticklers:

Question 1: How far in 12-team drafts does Rob Gronkowski need to slide to be considered a value?

In June drafts from coast-to-coast, how 'experts' approached Gronk varied widely. Aggressive owners, seduced by his top-three per game output among tight ends and wide receivers last year, gladly extended the go-go-Gadget arm, sinking a second or third-round pick into the target. Meanwhile, passive pickers allowed him to drop as far as Round 6 or 7 in a couple exercises.

Essentially, there's no right or wrong answer here. It's all relative to how an investor views value. However, because of his chronic back problems stretching back to his days at Arizona, PUP possibility and Bill Belichick's annoying vagueness when it comes to injuries, the Noise wouldn't touch him with a million-foot pole anytime prior to Round 5 (44.1 current ADP). Critics would vehemently disagree, but ask yourself, would it be wise to pass up on a Cam Newton (46.9 ADP, QB4), Jordy Nelson (44.2, WR15) or Le'Veon Bell (40.7, RB24) in Round 4 for a migraine headache who might play 10 games? Worse yet, one that could be slapped with perpetual questionable tags even when 'healthy?'

Yes, the end reward could be rich, especially with Aaron Hernandez unemployed and in the clink, but in a 13-game fantasy regular season, every week is precious. Gronk is a better in-season trade target than draftable asset.

Question 2: Is Robert Griffin III’s DNA identical to Peterson’s? Should he be trusted as a QB1 in 12-team leagues?

It's conceivable RGIII was birthed from the same alien mother as Peterson. His freakish recovery is eerily reminiscent. Observers from Yahoo!'s own Les Carpenter to Kirk Cousins have marveled at his bubbling confidence and current physical state. Cutting without restriction a week ago, he appears to be on track to trot out with the first-team when training camp opens in Richmond at the end of the month. That happens, and his draft stock (76.0 ADP, QB10) will surely shoot through the roof, possibly surpassing Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford who are going some 15-25 picks ahead of him on average.

Trepidatious owners, understandably, would rather stare at Vince Wilfork prance around in a banana hammock than invest even a mid-round pick in a surgically rebuilt QB poised for a rushing decline. After all, Mike Shanahan and the passer himself have openly expressed their desire to limit reckless runs. Still, even if his ground production dips substantially, RGIII should finish well-inside the QB top-10. Don't overlook his vertical abilities. Yes, outside Pierre Garcon, the Redskins arsenal is stockpiled with water guns, but the reigning Rookie of the Year has a Tom Brady-like mystique about him. Because of his supreme intelligence, remarkable accuracy (65.6 completion percentage in '12) and bazooka arm (8.1 YPA), he is more than capable of maximizing the talent around him.

It's highly unlikely he'll exceed 100 ground attempts, but he should finish with at least 450 rushing yards and a handful of TD scampers. Combine that with a stronger emphasis on the pass game, and a 4,000 total yard, 30-TD campaign is in my fearless forecast. Doubt him and you'll sorely regret it.

Question 3: Given the incredible depth at QB, is exercising patience at the position the sagest strategy?

Similar to high school, the fantasy 'expert' community is extremely cliquey – tight-jeaned hipster freaks excluded. When it comes to drafting, most adhere to the same, close-minded strategies. Last year pundits preached diversity in the early rounds, even suggesting going QB in Round 1. This time around, however, most have changed their tune.

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Due to the bottomless pit of passer values and last year's small tier-to-tier disparity at QB compared to other positions (see right), aficionados are telling the masses to play the waiting game. As a result, top-flight signal callers, including consistency kings Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are free-falling in drafts, going as late as Round 5 in standard (4 pts/pass TD) 12-team exercises. Several gamers would classify passing up a proven, high-floor commodity to chase upside textbook buffoonery. Admittedly, Average Joe Drafter is 100-percent correct. There is no guarantee 2012's trends will resurface in 2013. No person should draft on last year alone. Floor trumps ceiling.

Obviously, scoring system dictates quarterback value. In two-QB leagues and others that idiotically weigh passing touchdowns the same as rushing/receiving scores, gunslinger worth is greatly skewed, prompting owners to grab a chucker or two in the early rounds. But even in levelheaded traditional formats many follow a similar line of thinking, which this year is a savvy strategy.

If gifted a top-five overall pick, the thought of pairing Arian Foster (Round 1) with Drew Brees (Round 2), for example, is very, very attractive. With the Saint, reliability reigns supreme. What you see is what you get. Too often fanatics shoot for the stars instead of going after the sure thing (Guilty as charged!). However, if presented an opportunity to grab an A-Rod or Brees in the latter half of Round 2 or initial frame of Round 3, I would pounce without hesitation. There are a number of fantastic RB sleepers available in the middle rounds (e.g. Lamar Miller, Rashard Mendenhall, Le'Veon Bell, Chris Ivory, etc.). The same could be said for WRs. In a violent game where one injury can derail a title run, safety must be coveted.

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Until they see him in action, owners will unwisely continue to stiff arm MJD. (USAT)

Question 4: Can Maurice Jones-Drew rediscover his MoJo?

It's been an interesting offseason to say the least for the Oompah Loompah. He went all Little Mac on a nightclub bouncer in May – fortunately, no assault charges were filed – did backstrokes in a pool filled with melted butter and declared his surgically repaired foot 'healed' roughly a month ago. Now focused on restrengthening his ankle and getting in football shape, he's expected to be ready for the start of training camp later this month.

Because of his slow recovery, lackluster offensive environment and new coaching regime, most owners have remained very apprehensive about the former top-five RB, evident in his 19.7 ADP (RB15). Still, defensive-minded head coach Gus Bradley wants to emphasize ball control, which should benefit MJD. Equally important, top draft-pick Luke Joeckel should bolster an offensive line that ranked No. 21 in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus. Yes, Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne are about as exciting as seeing 'Smurfs 2' (Really, NPH?), but the rusher thrived previously in more dire conditions (e.g. 2011). And in a contract year, he'll be plenty motivated.

With Justin Blackmon suspended the first four weeks of the regular season, the Jag should come roaring out of the gates. Jacksonville opens versus Kansas City and Oakland, a pair of defenses that ranked No. 7 and No. 9, respectively, in fantasy points allowed to RBs last year.

There are several unanswered questions about MJD's overall health, but without much competition for touches, he's a discount item worth plucking off virtual shelves in Round 2 of 12-team drafts. If he operates at full-strength beginning Week 1, 1300-1500 total yards with 8-12 TDs is an attainable final tally.

Question 5: The fascination with Chip Kelly has several Eagles high on owner wishlists. Will a heavy investment in the Philly offense cash in?

The NFL's newest mad scientist brings ample intrigue. His unique system is a no-huddle, hurry-up spread designed to keep defenses tied to an oxygen tank. It also emphasizes quick slants, the screen game and read-option, a scheme that flourished in Carolina, Washington, Seattle and San Francisco a season ago. Speed kills. And Kelly is out to prove it. He's worked his players like draft animals this offseason pressing cardiovascular endurance. His goal: run 80-100 offensive plays per game (Most teams are in the 60s per game) with roughly seven seconds between snaps, a never-before-seen pace at the pro level.

Several current coaches, scouts and analysts, including Ron Jaworski, are extremely skeptical Kelly will strike-it-rich in the NFL, but the league has always doubted fresh ideas and reinvention. Many spoke negatively about the Run-n-Shoot back in the 80s and the read-option last year, but both schemes proved doubters wrong. Kelly will likely do the same.

Outside LeSean McCoy, most Eagles are sliding into sleeper territory in average 12-team drafts. Michael Vick, who is no lock for the starting QB job, has gone well-after pick No. 100 in most leagues (114.3 ADP, QB14). Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Bryce Brown are being scratched off cheat sheets usually between picks No. 85-95 overall. If the Eagles' revamped offensive line and inclusion of multiple tight-end sets can protect the pocket, each has enormous profit potential. Philly's first preseason game (August 9 vs. New England) can't come soon enough.

Question 6: Will the arrival of Carson Palmer resuscitate Larry Fitzgerald’s flatlined production?

Many talking heads will tell you, Palmer lived a double-life last year. On the surface, his 4,018-passing yard, 22-TD campaign was quite respectable. However, a closer inspection reveals most of his numbers were tallied when games were far out of reach. Fourteen of his TD connections occurred in the second-half, seven of those with two-minutes remaining. Garbage. Time. All-Star.

Still, Palmer's arrival to the desert is an oasis for Fitz. Last season, the four-time All-Pro had arguably the most humiliating season of any high-priced fantasy commodity. Thanks to the Cardinals' spinning wheel of suck at quarterback (Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer), his value suffered greatly. Though he was targeted 156 times, the wideout grabbed a mere 71 receptions, good for a ghastly 45.5 catch percentage. His 7.7 catch rate on passes beyond 20 yards ranked dead last by a wide margin. And, worst of all, his 6.5 fantasy points per game checked in at No. 56 among wide receivers, nestled between 'future HOFers' Brandon Gibson and Davone Bess. Puke.

But going from (Insert passing dolt) to Palmer is akin to upgrading from Keystone Light to Audible Ale. Fitzgerald told Cardinals.com last month "there isn't a throw [Palmer] can't make." Mix in Bruce Arians, who is known for attacking defenses vertically, and it seems very likely Fitz will regain his elite WR1 form. The offensive line, though enhanced, remains a work in progress, but the maturation of Michael Floyd and addition of Rashard Mendenhall should ease pressure on the wideout. If it all comes together, it would be no surprise he finishes in range of 90 receptions, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. Sporting a 27.6 ADP (WR7) in early drafts, he's a steal of a deal.

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