As the first full weekend of preseason approaches, this is a good opportunity to spin around the league with news and notes from the first two weeks of training camp. In addition to passing along nuggets and analyzing their fantasy impact in this column, I will focus on previewing what each AFC club's 2013 offense might look like. Offensive strategy can be almost as meaningful for fantasy production as talent, and early-camp reports have shined some light on how each team plans to go about things.
For Adam Levitan's NFC Notes column, bang it here.
Nate Washington. Jon Baldwin. Jerricho Cotchery. Jason Avant. Austin Pettis. Those are a few trade/cut possibilities to keep in mind as the Ravens seek to replace Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta's 2012 combined receiving line of 126/1,590/11, without a single offseason addition of note. The Boldin trade and Pitta injury leave Baltimore without an established "sustainer" pass-game weapon capable of reliable chain movement. In Torrey Smith, Deonte Thompson, and Jacoby Jones, the Ravens are flush with fast-forty but low-percentage receivers. GM Ozzie Newsome needs to get creative, because his passing attack has major short-to-intermediate voids. ... If Baltimore stands pat, it could lean more heavily on a deep backfield to provide that sustaining element. Ray Rice is Ray Rice, and ascending second-year back Bernard Pierce is a composed if violent power back who could start for most NFL teams. It's entirely possible OC Jim Caldwell installs a run-heavy, shot-play offense, matching his scheme to personnel. Due to the likely reduction in pass attempts, it just wouldn't be a great development for Joe Flacco's fantasy value.
Early-camp signals point strongly to E.J. Manuel starting the September 8 opener versus New England. Coaches were thrilled with Manuel's play in Monday's intrasquad scrimmage, and Buffalo's offensive intentions are clear: They want to play faster. Dual-threat Manuel, movable receivers Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson, burner wideouts Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham, and halfback C.J. Spiller form a potentially explosive nucleus where read-option is sure to be utilized in what rookie OC Nathaniel Hackett promises will be one of football's fastest-moving offenses. The Bills want more up tempo, and they want more big plays. I'm not saying that'll be the result, but that's the plan. ... Handwringing over Spiller receiving goal-line carries -- coach Doug Marrone has yet to publicly commit to a goal-line back -- is a waste of fantasy owners' time. I do think Spiller will ultimately get the job, primarily because the Bills would be fools to bench their best playmaker in scoring position. But it isn't as if Spiller needs goal-line carries to score. He's reached pay dirt 16 times in his NFL career, and only three have come from inside opposing five-yard lines. ... I found this funny, via the Buffalo News: A radio guy recently asked playcaller Hackett if Spiller would be the "focal point" of Buffalo's offense. Hackett "laughed incredulously and wondered why anyone would think otherwise."
Aware of Andy Dalton's talent limitations, the Bengals invested heavily in his supporting cast this offseason. First- and second-round picks Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard are buzzing loudly in camp, and second-year wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones have benefited from extra reps with A.J. Green nursing a minor knee injury. Despite sub-average arm talent and athleticism, Dalton offers intrigue as a QB2. Cincinnati is rich with playmakers, and its strong offensive line returns all five starters. ... "We didn't draft him to sit the bench," OC Jay Gruden said of Bernard on Tuesday night's debut of Hard Knocks. "We drafted him to play, a lot." The Bengals will keep early-down hammer BenJarvus Green-Ellis involved in the early-season running game, but Bernard is going to make himself impossible for Gruden to keep off the field. He is cat-quick with explosive lateral moves and outstanding versatility, like a younger Brian Westbrook. In fantasy drafts, think of Bernard as an ideal flex with upside to be a steady RB2, especially in PPR.
Resident O-Line guru Lance Zierlein made a great point about Trent Richardson's 2013 fantasy outlook in Monday's Smash Mouth column, noting the significance of Cleveland's improvement on defense. Free agency brought stud DE Desmond Bryant and OLB Paul Kruger, and the draft explosive edge rusher Barkevious Mingo. Jabaal Sheard was retained amid trade rumors, and has been the early star of camp. NT Phil Taylor is 100 percent after missing half of last season. Cleveland's front-seven talent rivals any in the league and will keep this team in games, allowing Richardson to rack up rushing attempts. I don't mind at all that Richardson has missed a few practices after getting kicked in the shin. Fewer reps will keep his powerful legs fresher. ... I'm excited about ex-basketball player Jordan Cameron's breakout potential in Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner's unfailingly tight end-friendly offense, but wish Cameron was generating more early-August buzz. He is a player to watch closely this preseason. Cameron first jumped out at me last preseason on a leaping, highlight-reel catch over the top of coverage for a 42-yard gain in the exhibition opener against the Lions. Cameron gained another 16 yards on swing pass. His athleticism is for real, but Cameron must demonstrate durability and play with more physicality.
Second-year back Ronnie Hillman opened camp atop the depth chart and has been turning heads since the spring after adding weight and improving in pass protection. But the camp battle is far from decided. Rookie Montee Ball outplayed Hillman and Knowshon Moreno in Denver's intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday, and offers the best pure running ability on the roster. Preseason games will provide a clearer picture for the Broncos' run-game distribution. Denver opens the exhibition season Thursday in San Francisco. ... Broncos TE Julius Thomas' basketball background and ascension onto the first string provide some surface-level fantasy appeal, but a full understanding of Denver's 2013 offensive approach should dampen enthusiasm. With Wes Welker added to Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos will be a three-wideout team as opposed to a "12 personnel" offense with two tight ends. There'll be one tight end in the game on the majority of snaps -- either Thomas or now-injured Joel Dreessen -- and his role will be to block. I will keep close tabs on Thomas throughout August, but he's just a dynasty league prospect for now.
I've been asked repeatedly why Arian Foster is so "low" in my Top 150 rankings. I don't think he's low. I have him as a first-round fantasy pick. But I would draft Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and Trent Richardson ahead of Foster because I think their production all projects as relatively similar, and Foster has more red flags than the lot. This is a player who leads the NFL in touches over the past three seasons, and led the league in 2012 rushing attempts. He's obviously been overworked. His yards-per-carry average has sunk sharply in back-to-back years, and Foster set a career-low in yards per catch last season. Foster suffered a calf strain at late-May OTAs, is now battling back problems, and hasn't practiced in over two months. Draft Foster at your own risk. ... Rookie DeAndre Hopkins has starred since the spring and opened camp with a flurry. He's locked into a starting job. Just be careful about projecting him as a fantasy starter, because Hopkins won't get there without an Andre Johnson injury. The first-round pick will "compete" for targets with Owen Daniels at the first and second levels in a run-heavy offense behind a target monster No. 1 receiver. I think 60 receptions is Hopkins' absolute ceiling, assuming Johnson and Daniels stay healthy. He's a low-upside WR4.
The 2013 Colts are poised for takeoff, and you don't want to be late to the dance. Virtually every skill player looks like a fantasy value pick. Andrew Luck's Average Draft Position is the early- to mid-seventh round. T.Y. Hilton can be had in the late seventh. Coby Fleener is going in the late-13th round, and Dwayne Allen isn't even getting drafted. In new playcaller Pep Hamilton's higher-percentage scheme behind a much-improved line, Luck is capable of engineering a top-five NFL offense. His turnovers will diminish as his efficiency soars. ... Darrius Heyward-Bey's knee scare proved relatively insignificant, but Hilton has outplayed the veteran in camp and is likely to play more snaps. Indianapolis can't afford to leave Hilton's big-play ability and versatility on the bench. I'm going to bump him up a round or two in my next fantasy Top 150. Hilton is an excellent WR3 with WR2 scoring potential. ... In Hamilton's two-tight end offense, the 2013 Colts have a sort of Patriots feel to them, with Fleener in the Gronkowski role and Allen as the Hernandezian flex-mover. Reggie Wayne can be the Welker, and Hilton a speed-slot weapon a la Victor Cruz. Of those tight ends, I prefer Allen as a fantasy prospect because he plays with better short-area quickness than Fleener and will catch more passes. Fleener can stretch the field running the vertical seam. He should average more yards per reception, but Allen could flirt with 75 grabs.
Fantasy talent is limited in Jacksonville, where shoddy QBs and below-average line play will hurt the consistency of skill players. The likeliest skill guy to be consistent is Cecil Shorts, an early-August darling after spending his second straight offseason at Larry Fitzgerald's summer camp. Shorts has a mid-seventh round ADP, which won't get much higher than that because fickle fantasy owners so sweat the quarterbacks. Shorts' savvy route running and run-after-catch skills, combined with large helpings of inevitable catch-up mode can compensate for inefficient passing. Shorts is capable of finishing inside the top-ten NFL receivers in targets. Justin Blackmon is suspended the first four games, and Shorts has already proven the superior wideout. Shorts drafters should hope Chad Henne wins the starting job. ... Maurice Jones-Drew appears to be all systems go at Jaguars camp, following last year's Lisfranc fracture. I hope the Jags give him 30 or so preseason carries because I want to see how much MJD has left. He's 28 1/2 years old now, and has over 1,500 NFL rushing attempts worth of wear on his tires. Jones-Drew plays on a bad team that won't be in position to run a lot. His current second-round ADP is too rich for my taste.
Kansas City Chiefs
Long a stubbornly pass-obsessed coach, Andy Reid is bringing the same approach that led to his Philly demise to Kansas City, with Alex Smith as the point man. I'm not sure how this will end, but my gut tells me badly. A below-average talent whose arm strength limitations regularly result in a maddening unwillingness to pull the trigger on throws most NFL passers routinely make, Smith's lone pro success has come in run-dominated offenses with elite defenses that create favorable down and distance while "hiding" the quarterback by keeping him out of shootouts. Under Reid, shootouts will be the goal. Smith was a role player in San Francisco, but in Kansas City Reid will try turning him into a gunslinger. ... The fantasy beneficiary ought to be Jamaal Charles, whose probable inconsistent run-game usage can be buoyed by a career high in receptions. Smith is a checkdown machine, and dynamic Charles projects as a target magnet. ... The effect on Dwayne Bowe is debatable. While team pass attempts will rise, keep in mind Smith had a terribly limiting effect on Michael Crabtree before Colin Kaepernick took over. Under Reid, will Smith develop the guts to take tight-window chances throwing to Bowe? I'm hopeful, but this is a time-will-tell thing.
In Sunday's Hall of Fame Game, Miami's first-team offense played about ten snaps without either of its starting receivers. To criticize Ryan Tannehill's 2-for-5 passing performance would be silly. But after his first-drive fumble, I was impressed by Lamar Miller's explosive, downhill running and creative movement through traffic, where I previously noticed he stuck out on 2012 tape. Miller finished with two carries, one for 11 yards and the second for 10. Daniel Thomas touched the ball five times, with yardage results of 3, 1, 5, 3, and -6. Miller has the feature back job on lock. The fumble seemed fluky and caused by first-game jitters; Miller didn't fumble once on 94 combined preseason and regular season touches during his rookie year, and was ball secure throughout his college career. ... Offensively, the 2013 Dolphins are built somewhat like the Texans. Tannehill is an outstanding play-action quarterback (read: Matt Schaub), and Miami is a zone-run team just like Houston. Playcaller Mike Sherman has coached with Gary Kubiak before. The pieces are in place for a run-first, play-action offense that would bode well for Miller's fantasy outlook. Perhaps Miami's biggest strength is defense, providing an ideal makeup for a run-heavy, ball-control team.
New England Patriots
Regarding 2013 breakout candidate Shane Vereen, the question is no longer whether his usage will expand. It's to what extent. Vereen's baseline role will be passing-down back, manned by Danny Woodhead last year en route to 116 all-purpose touches, including 40 catches. In addition, Vereen has practiced at slot receiver and outside wideout in camp, suggesting he's being counted on to atone for at least some of Aaron Hernandez's vacated production. Vereen can be a movable-chess piece because he runs sharp pass patterns and offers big-play perimeter run skills. I'd love to draft Vereen as a flex and watch him become a Sprolesian player in New England's annually high-powered attack. ... UDFAs Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld have outplayed more ballyhooed teammates Aaron Dobson and Jake Ballard, respectively, through two weeks of camp. Let's see if it carries over into preseason games. Thompkins and Sudfeld have both seen heavy doses of first-team reps and are likely to play extensively when the Pats visit the Eagles this Friday night. ... Despite Vereen's expanding role, Stevan Ridley's fantasy value is unaffected. And I think he's still being undersold in fantasy drafts. Ridley's ADP is in the middle of the second round. A locked-in focal point of New England's underrated and oft-dominant rushing offense, I believe Ridley should be generating serious consideration at the end of the first round.
New York Jets
Chris Ivory's durability is an issue again as he's been sidelined since the opening of Jets camp with a hamstring injury, already enduring one setback. I'm not worried about this, yet. The fact Ivory will play less in the preseason is probably a good thing considering his violent running style, and the Jets still lack serious depth-chart competition. Current first-team back Bilal Powell is a sluggish runner and no real threat for more than a fistful of carries per game, when Ivory needs a breather. Ivory promises to practice next week. Troubled third-down back Mike Goodson remains away from camp for undisclosed reasons and appears to be a non-factor at this point. ... Beyond Ivory, the only other Jets skill-position player with fantasy draft consideration is slot receiver Jeremy Kerley. Kerley is a quick short-area mover with a knack for finding soft spots in zones, and will be a safety valve for whomever the Jets elect to place under center. Currently, that looks likely to be Geno Smith, although the quarterback decision will be based on preseason performance.
All Oakland beat writers are in agreement Darren McFadden is enjoying a standout camp, which is the norm. The concerns involve putrid offensive line play, McFadden's utter lack of durability, and easily the NFL's least talented roster. This team will be playing from behind a lot this year. McFadden does stay in on passing downs and in comeback mode, but it's difficult to be bullish on him this year. He's a third-round fantasy pick with upside but plenty of room to disappoint. ... For pass-catching sleepers, keep an eye on Rod Streater and David Ausberry this preseason. Matt Flynn lacks the arm talent to deliver footballs downfield to vertical receiver Denarius Moore, which makes possession threat Streater and tight end Ausberry superior bets for receptions. Camp reports suggest Streater has been outplaying Moore in practices, anyway.
Whereas Montee Ball is competing in Denver and Giovani Bernard is allegedly ticketed for a timeshare in Cincinnati, the Steelers have already placed Le'Veon Bell on the first-team offense. It makes sense. Pittsburgh's intent this year is to run the football more, decreasing the stress on Ben Roethlisberger's body and prolonging the 31-year-old quarterback's career. Bell is the favorite -- arguably by a wide margin -- to lead all running backs in all-purpose touches. He is not a big-play runner, but could conceivably flirt with 300 carries and score double-digit touchdowns. And Bell needs those reps because the Steelers want him to be an every-down back who stays on the field in all passing situations. Bell's Michigan State tape showed he can pass protect and has outstanding hands. ... The receiver spots in Pittsburgh are pretty locked in. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are the starters. Rookie Markus Wheaton is playing catch-up after missing all of spring practices due to Oregon State's late graduation. Brown is a sneaky 100-catch candidate. Sanders has an Average Draft Position late in the ninth round, where he could be a bargain.
San Diego Chargers
The fallout from Danario Alexander's ACL tear looms smaller in fantasy leagues than real life. The injury strips San Diego's offense of its lone big-play threat, allowing opponents to tighten their defensive focus near the line of scrimmage and all but eliminate a Chargers run game already inevitably bound to struggle behind one of the NFL's poorest offensive lines. This offense is going to be an absolute mess. ... The primary beneficiaries of Alexander's loss, at least theoretically, are Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown. Floyd is now locked into the first-team X receiver job, where the declining 32-year-old can expect consistent No. 1 cornerback coverage. If Brown could stay healthy -- I'm still hopeful he might -- he'll be a prime candidate to lead San Diego in pass targets. Under Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt, the 2013 Chargers are installing a quick-hitting passing game designed to get the football out of Philip Rivers' hands quickly, which makes sense because their quarterback's performance has dipped in recent years due in large part to an accumulation of hits. Whisenhunt had success with a similarly designed offense in Arizona (Kurt Warner), and McCoy in Denver (Peyton Manning). Rivers will pepper his underneath pass catchers with targets, and a healthy Brown is every bit capable of emerging as San Diego's best underneath receiver.
Fantasy drafters can't be thrilled with Tennessee passing-game members on what has the look of a run-first team with low-percentage quarterback play. Jake Locker will never be an accurate passer, and a deep "competition" for targets may prevent any Titans receiver from clearing 60 receptions. Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter, Delanie Walker, and Damian Williams form a talented corps, but tricky fantasy picture. Britt is the highest-ceiling pick, but isn't worth considering before round seven in standard drafts and is destined to struggle for consistency. Camp buzz has been quiet at quarterback and receiver through two weeks of Titans practice. ... Tennessee's offseason offensive line upgrades should theoretically make Chris Johnson more of a "boom" than "bust" runner, with Shonn Greene taking on Johnson's old between-the-tackles grinding. Greene will also siphon red-zone chances. Johnson will definitely have his fair share of long runs this year, but he's not going to rediscover 2009 or even 2010 form. Johnson is 28 years old now, and Greene's presence will lead to a reduction in overall carries.