It's tough what to make of Chris Johnson. He was considered a bust last year, and while that may seem harsh after totaling 1,463 yards, he scored just four touchdowns and finished below 4.0 YPC, easily a career low. In fact, Johnson's 2.1 YPC after contact tied for 58th in the NFL, and he saw just six goal-line carries, while 25 other backs were given more. Part of the problem was Tennessee's continuing decline in run blocking, but there's no doubt Johnson showed up after his holdout a different player, noticeably lacking explosiveness and unable to make defenders miss on his own. Still, the low TD total was what really killed his value, something that was largely out of his control, and with Jake Locker, Jared Cook, Kendall Wright, (possibly) Kenny Britt and the addition of Steve Hutchinson, this offense could be sneaky productive. Johnson, who has totaled more yards from scrimmage over the first four years of his career than any back in the history of the NFL, is still just 26 years old and participated in the team's offseason program for the first time since his 2,006-yard season.
While all reports so far have been glowing, Johnson certainly didn't prove it during the team's first preseason game, when he gained just eight yards on five carries with two egregious drops (a growing problem). Still, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer plans to install a version of the run-and-shoot system this year, which has historically been a big boost to running backs' YPC. With high upside guys like Ryan Mathews and Trent Richardson going down, and with so many other backs having question marks, it's tough not to consider Johnson the No. 4 fantasy RB right now despite him disappointing owners so badly last season.
The Jimmy Graham vs. Rob Gronkowski debate is a pretty good one. The mere thought of not ranking a tight end who just put up a season in which he caught 90 balls for 1,327 yards while scoring 18 touchdowns during his second year in the league No. 1 is ridiculous, but Graham has a strong argument as well, as he actually saw 25 more targets than Gronk despite seeing more than 300 fewer snaps. Graham's 28 red-zone targets led all tight ends, and while he's an inferior blocker to Gronkowski, that might actually help fantasy owners, as he lines up out wide more often. Gronkowski is two and a half years younger, but it's probably safer to bet on volume than record-setting TD production repeating. Both are in terrific passing offenses, but New England's alternative options in Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker trump New Orleans'. And for what it's worth (probably nothing), OC Josh McDaniels has never utilized the tight end in his offense in the past. Still, Gronkowski's YPT (10.7) easily beat Graham's (8.8), and over the final eight games last season, Gronk's 46 receptions, 731 yards and 12 touchdowns would have been the No. 1 fantasy TE in (full) seasons past. It's a tough call, so who ya got?
It's probably crazy, but I'm starting to talk myself into Kevin Smith. At this point, the over/under on Jahvid Best touches this season should probably be 0.5, and Mikel LeShoure is suspended, coming off a serious Achilles injury (coaches have already admitted he may never be the same) and currently hurt. Smith didn't see a single touch from Week 10 in 2010 to Week 10 in 2011, but he impressed in his return. After getting his feet wet in his debut, Smith broke out in Week 11, totaling 201 yards with three touchdowns on just 20 touches in one of the best performances in the NFL last season. He followed that up by totaling 57 yards in one quarter of action on Thanksgiving against the Packers until an ankle injury ended his day. Of course, injuries have been the biggest plague on Smith throughout his career. Ultimately, he finished with a 4.9 YPC mark and seven touchdowns over seven games, proving to be plenty dangerous as a receiver as well. With a full offseason of preparation unlike last year, Smith claims he feels stronger than ever, and in an offense that scored the fourth-most points per game with a young corps that should only get better in 2012, he's in a terrific situation. And for a team that ran the greatest percentage of shotguns last season, his strong blocking is a huge plus. Smith had a remarkable 450 carriers (over 14 games!) during his final year in college, but I'm not sure if that's a point in his favor proving he has it in him to be durable, or if it's the reason he's broken down since entering the NFL and something from which he'll never be able to fully recover.
Austin Collie is creeping up my cheat sheet. He's one year removed from scoring eight touchdowns over nine games (and scored 15 TDs over the first 25 games of his career), and it's safe to throw last season's performance away thanks to absolutely abysmal quarterback play. Collie is being asked to play more on the outside this year, but either way he should see more targets with Pierre Garcon gone and Reggie Wayne soon turning 34 years old. Indy's defense is likely to remain a major problem leading to plenty of pass attempts, and Andrew Luck will be a huge upgrade at the quarterback position even if he experiences some rookie ups and downs. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen will also be in the mix for looks, and Collie has a history of concussions that needs to be taken seriously, but he's proven to be a strong red-zone threat and has an ADP around 150, making him a nice flier later in drafts.
In most leagues, the fantasy numbers Cam Newton put up last season were equivalent to 5,571 passing yards with 42 touchdown passes. Pretty much everyone is predicting regression in his rushing production, particularly his 14 scores, citing the recent example of Michael Vick going from nine to one over the past two years. While I fully agree repeating 14 rushing scores is highly unlikely, I'd also argue another run at double-digits will happen. Vick is 6-0, 215. Newton is 6-5, 245. Newton had 12 rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line last year, which is the same amount as Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch and twice as many as Steven Jackson. Newton converted eight of those carries for touchdowns, making him the league's best goal-line runner. Put differently, nine of his rushing TDs came from six yards or fewer and 13 came from 16 yards or fewer. In fairness, eight of Vick's nine TD rushes in 2010 came from 10 yards or fewer, so this may not be predictive, and it's always possible the Panthers change philosophies and certainly have the backfield to compensate (seriously, what is Carolina thinking? I love both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart but talk about a misuse of resources).
After averaging 299.1 passing yards over the first eight games, Newton got just 207.3 over the second half of the year. It's possible defenses figured him out, but I'd say it's more likely the raw rookie (who got an impressive 7.8 YPA) coming from a very un-pro system in college with a short training camp thanks to the lockout improves greatly as a passer during his second year in the league. Carolina's receiving weapons look bleak after Steve Smith, who is 33, but Brandon LaFell has been praised this offseason, and TE Greg Olsen has talent. Plus, I'm very much the believer in quarterbacks make the wide receiver, not vice versa, at least in the vast majority of cases. Coming out of college, I expected Newton to be a bust in the NFL, but I admit I was dead wrong and now view him as a special talent. It's tough not to rank Aaron Rodgers as the No. 1 fantasy QB, but Newton is right there with Tom Brady and Drew Brees afterward. I'm firmly in the "wait on QBs" camp, but because of his rushing ability and so many question marks in the second tier of running backs (and a bunch of similar WRs after Calvin Johnson), Newton's upside becomes quite enticing at some point.
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