These are the dog days for fantasy football, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to reflect on. Although it’s true OTAs and minicamp are essentially a glorified gym class — with less hitting — they can still provide clues for the upcoming season. Who’s ahead of schedule in their rehab, which rookies are making a good impression, so on and so forth. Throw in suspensions, and there are more players with changing values than you might think. Let’s take a look at 10 of them.
Lost: Josh Gordon
You know the player. The one whose offseason hype gets so out of control it’s sometimes unclear if the Twitter mob is talking about a second-year pro or future Hall-of-Famer. There was Julio Jones in 2012, Ryan Mathews in 2011, Arian Foster in 2010 and many, many more before them. Gordon was that player for 2013...until he went and spoiled the party by earning a two-game ban for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Now he’s left the Browns in a lurch for Weeks 1 and 2, and subjected fantasy owners to nonstop drivel about Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld and the like.
Here’s the thing about Gordon’s pre-suspension hype: It was warranted. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound monster with 4.52 speed, Gordon posted a 50/805/5 line as a rookie despite being just 21 and having not played competitive football in two years. He was the third youngest player in the league. Gordon averaged 16.1 yards per catch, which was tied with Calvin freaking Johnson and Steve Smith for eighth in the NFL. He moves like Andre Johnson, and might soon produce like him. But even before Gordon’s suspension, there were worries and rumors about his off-the-field behavior. This was, after all, a player who left Baylor after he was indefinitely suspended for failing a drug test, transferred to Utah, promptly failed another drug test for the Utes and didn’t suit up in 2011. Gordon has admitted his NFL suspension was the result of a failed codeine test. In other words, his partying hasn’t been of the Rob Gronkowski “bonging beers shirtless with Phi Kappa Theta” variety.
Which brings us back to this season. There’s no question Gordon has hurt his fantasy value. The question is, by how much. Yes, a two-game suspension is not a season-killer, and much preferable to a four-game ban. But let’s say you play a 13-game schedule, and drafted Gordon as your WR2. You already know you won’t have him for 15.4 percent of the regular season. How often is one game the difference in a fantasy season? Gordon is also just one strike away from a one-year ban. Is it unlikely he’d be so dumb as to make like Josh Brent and fail another test after being put on blast? Yes. Is he, to put it mildly, an unpredictable talent? Absolutely.
A physically imposing seam stretcher, Gordon is a dream fit for OC Norval Turner’s vertically-obsessed offense. But it’s not character assassination to say Gordon has failed at least one drug test three years running. It’s simple fact. To assume Gordon has finally learned his lesson would not be the safest assumption. Gordon’s upside is immense, but to call him a safe pick would be to ignore reality. Of course, those who make the safest picks rarely take home the trophy. We’re still in Gordon’s corner. His play as a rookie demands that. Just don’t delude yourself about the risks when drafting him over Stevie Johnson and Torrey Smith this August.
Gained: Shane Vereen
Here’s the one thing we know about the Patriots’ post Aaron Hernandez/Wes Welker/Brandon Lloyd/Danny Woodhead/Sort Of Rob Gronkowski offense: We don’t know what it’s going to look like. Bill Belichick has been prone to reinvention even when it didn’t seem necessary, making it hard to predict which way the post-Hernandez wind might blow in Foxboro. But it’s fairly safe to assume Vereen will be one player with a much bigger role.
The No. 56 pick of the 2011 draft, Vereen spent the majority of his first two NFL campaigns mothballed, struggling to master the Patriots’ complex offense as he fought his way through a litany of leg injuries. Vereen didn’t notch the first 10-touch performance of his career until Week 11 last season, and got the rock just 32 more times over the Patriots’ final six games. It was only after a thumb injury knocked Woodhead out of New England’s Divisional Round demolition of the Texans that Vereen got a chance to shine — and ran with it. His 12-touch, 124-yard, three-touchdown performance stole the show as the Pats decked the Texans 41-28 to advance to their seventh AFC Championship Game appearance of the Belichick Era.
Now Woodhead is gone, and Vereen is primed to seize passing-down/hurry-up duties. ESPN Boston believes he could even be called on to split out wide at receiver against linebackers. What shape Vereen’s role will ultimately take is unclear, while No. 2 runners are never the safest of fantasy propositions. But at the very least, Vereen should be a PPR flex option in an offense that has no choice but to funnel more touches to its running backs, and is a high-upside, late-round flier in standard leagues.
Lost: Justin Blackmon
Blackmon entered Week 11 with all of 26 catches for 250 yards and one touchdown. So it was a bit of a surprise when he torched the Texans for a 7/236/1 line, essentially equaling nine games of production in four quarters. Blackmon’s rise coincided with Chad Henne’s insertion into the starting lineup, and he ended up with 64 catches for 865 yards and five touchdowns. Numbers not quite befitting of the No. 5 overall pick, but certainly promising enough for someone who was hamstrung by Blaine Gabbert for over half the season.
It’s why, Gabbert or not, Blackmon’s stock was back on the rise this offseason — until April 30. That’s when Blackmon — who was busted twice for drunk driving in college — was handed a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The suspension is not related to Blackmon’s college indiscretions, meaning it was triggered by a new violation...meaning questions about his off-the-field maturity are now just as valid as ones about his on-the-field production. Even before his suspension, the Jags were reportedly worried Blackmon was "too easily distracted,” leading to mental errors. With vice-like hands and 4.47 speed, Blackmon has talent to spare, but he has serious questions marks. One — the Jags’ pathetic QB situation — made him a risky WR2 option even before his ban. Now guaranteed to miss 30.8 percent of the fantasy season, he’s nothing more than a WR4/5 stash, albeit one who could produce like a WR2/3 for the stretch run.
Gained: Ryan Tannehill
The Dolphins went all-in on Tannehill’s 2013 in free agency, beefing up a previously woeful receiver corps by signing Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson. According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, Tannehill has responded by generating the most buzz of any quarterback in the league this offseason. This, after OC Mike Sherman guaranteed in May that Tannehill would make a quantum leap his second year on the job.
Per Mort, Tannehill has impressed with improved downfield accuracy and his play-speed, getting rid of the ball much quicker than he did as a rookie. Of course, we’d expect Tannehill — a gifted, heady athlete — to look sharper in pad-less practices. The real test will be how he fares behind the Dolphins’ nebulous offensive line. Nevertheless, there would have been reason to be excited about Tannehill’s QB2 potential even before Mort and Sherman weighed in with their two cents. Now there’s even more.
Stayed the Same: Jake Ballard
A lot of things have changed in New England over the past four months. One thing that hasn’t? Ballard’s physical limitations. This is a player who ran a lineman-like 40 before he tore his left ACL and required microfracture surgery. (Reportedly a 4.99 coming out of high school.) Yes, Ballard caught a lot of passes for Eli Manning, but name the last tight end who hasn’t.
Ballard is not replacing Aaron Hernandez in two tight-end sets — if those are still even a thing in New England — and isn’t going to get the 7.5 targets per game Rob Gronkowski has averaged over the past two seasons if he replaces Gronk in the starting lineup for Weeks 1-6. It’s not even a guarantee he makes the roster. Ask Steve Smith what it’s like to recover from microfracture surgery. This may seem like piling on, and there is a non-zero percent chance that Ballard comes into some fantasy value while Gronk is on the shelf. But the truth is, it’s simply too early to know, and drafting Ballard as anything other than a flier TE2 at this stage of the game would be irresponsible bordering on farcical.
Lost: Tom Brady
Before we go too far down this road: No one is saying Tom Brady is no longer a QB1, and an elite one at that. But facts are facts. Gone are Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd and in are two rookies (Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce) and a new No. 1 receiver who’s missed 20 games with injury the past two seasons. Rob Gronkowski could be sidelined for (at least) the first six games of the season. Even one of the greatest players in league history can’t be expected to stare down that kind of roster turnover with another 4,800-yard, 35-touchdown campaign.
It’s true Brady has survived and advanced without high-end weapons at receiver before — just check out Reche Caldwell’s 2006 stats — but that was before he’d emerged as the fantasy colossus we know today. Brady surpassed 4,000 yards just one time in six years before Welker and Randy Moss came to town in 2007. He’s a quarterback who’s won under many different circumstances, and nearly all signs suggest the Pats will have to tone down the freakazoid, almost Air-Raid offense they’ve featured over the past two seasons. That doesn’t mean Brady is not the QB1 for you, but it does mean he might only steal you three weeks instead of five, and might not be the roto savant you’ve come to know and love.
Gained: Ryan Broyles
At first blush, it might seem odd to suggest that a player who tore his ACL on his final play of 2012 has gained value during a time where not so much as a down of football has been played, but look closer, and you’ll see why.
For starters there’s what the Lions didn’t do. That’s aggressively address receiver in free agency and the draft. Although it’s true that prolific pass-catching running back Reggie Bush is now in the fold, not a single other notable name has been added to a stable of pass-catchers that badly hurt for depth behind Calvin Johnson last season.
Then there’s what Broyles has done between January and July: Make remarkable progress with his torn-up knee. Broyles is just seven months removed from going down against the Colts in Week 13, but has already resumed practicing in full. Going “full blast” in the weight room, Broyles was reportedly “making plays across the middle of the field” in OTAs, and is well on track for Week 1. Where he was once a question mark for the beginning of the regular season, Broyles is now in the driver’s seat for No. 2 duties, if not by Week 1, then soon after. The NCAA’s all-time receptions leader, Broyles is in position to build on his promising rookie season much faster than anyone anticipated.
Lost: Justin Hunter
It was a bit curious when the Titans traded up to No. 34 to get Hunter. By most accounts, they’re planning to feature a more run-heavy offense in 2013, and already had Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Damian Williams under contract. Hunter is an extremely talented player — perhaps the most physically gifted wideout in this year’s draft class, according to NFL Films’ Greg Cosell — but receiver simply wasn’t a position of need for a team that’s flirting with disaster with its roster construction. But Tennessee is where Hunter landed.
What’s ensued is a questioning of his toughness by WRs coach Shawn Jefferson, and an offseason program where Hunted missed all but one practice with a hamstring injury. "Justin needs to get his (butt) going," Jefferson said early last month. "Sometimes we have to fight through things. That’s how I was taught with Bill Parcells. If it ain’t broke, then I’m not hurt. This is a very crucial time. This is where we see the growth in the kid, where he gets used to going through some adversity."
Ultimately, missed time in pad-less practices isn’t a major concern for a player of Hunter’s pedigree. But the direction of the Titans offense? The uncertainty surrounding erratic third-year QB Jake Locker? Those are concerns, and combined with a work ethic that might not yet be up to NFL standards, make Hunter a rookie to avoid in the WR3 conversation.
Gained: Jordan Cameron/Vance McDonald
We liked Cameron before free agency and the draft. We liked him even more once the Browns issued a vote of confidence by adding no new talent at the position. Considered a “perfect fit” for Norval Turner’s offense by former scout Daniel Jeremiah, Cameron was reportedly peppered with deep balls in Browns OTAs. Cameron himself believes Turner’s scheme is designed to clear space underneath for the tight end. "They’re making an opening for the tight end," Cameron said last month. "They’re running deep routes, and it makes it easier for tight ends to work the middle a little bit, and we stretch the field as well, so there’s a lot of guys running deep, vertical routes." Cameron is one of this year’s more compelling fantasy sleepers.
As for McDonald, he’s unlikely to be more than a TE2 as a rookie, but he turned heads in 49ers OTAs. Both CSN Bay Area and the Sacramento Bee called him “the most impressive rookie” in Niners OTAs, and hinted he could see a decent amount of time as a pass-catching tight end, particularly if Vernon Davis plays a lot of snaps at receiver. McDonald is more of a Dynasty-league prospect than redraft-league must have, but could prove to be a worthy streamer.
Lost: Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley
Hill and Kerley were dubbed two of the “duds” of Jets minicamp by ESPN New York, but the truth is, their fate was sealed much earlier — when the Jets selected Geno Smith with the No. 39 overall pick. Smith could easily develop into a better NFL quarterback than Mark Sanchez, but the Jets are now committed to another year of uncertainty at the most important position in sports, leaving their young receivers in limbo as they adjust to their third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
Things are looking particularly bleak for Hill, who struggled with drops this offseason, and is still having trouble with his surgically-repaired right knee. Coach Rex Ryan put it succinctly when he said after minicamp that it “has to get better” for his wideouts. With both a new quarterback and play-caller being broken in, things could get worse before they get better.