NFL training camps open in just over five weeks. Since free agency and the draft, the only real "action" of the offseason has consisted of no-contact, pad-less practices called Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and minicamps. To get you up to speed on the studs and duds of t-shirt-and-shorts workouts, I'll pinpoint notable fantasy-related happenings around the AFC in this column, and around the NFC in a column soon to follow.
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The defending champs have retooled and gotten younger on defense. They'll play faster in 2013. With Elvis Dumervil bookending a healthy, slimmed-down Terrell Suggs on the edges of an improved line, Baltimore's defense is primed for resurgence into the NFL’s top ten. They ranked 17th in total defense last season, and tied for 15th in sacks. New LE Chris Canty reportedly looked "dominant" throughout OTAs. Top CB Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) took part in individual drills and is another huge addition. ... Following the Anquan Boldin trade, the Ravens' lack of a reliable No. 2 wide receiver gives TE Dennis Pitta a great chance to lead the team in catches. The returning No. 7 overall fantasy tight end, Pitta quietly finished only four receptions behind Boldin's team-high 65 last year. ... Baltimore's need to talk up spring flash players like WR Deonte Thompson, and No. 2 TE Ed Dickson as a candidate for an expanded receiving role, speaks to one of two things: they're going to lean on Pitta and Torrey Smith more, or GM Ozzie Newsome still needs to make a move for a starting receiver. Expect Newsome to closely monitor other teams' training camp cuts.
Stevie Johnson was limited in OTAs with a "slightly" fractured L-5 vertebra. While Johnson will be a full participant on the first day of training camp, it's worth wondering just how much his numbers will dip under run-first coach Doug Marrone. Johnson was the featured player in Chan Gailey's five-wide spread offense for the last three years. C.J. Spiller will be Marrone's new No. 1 offensive option, and Buffalo has strengthened its receiver corps. I have a feeling we've seen the best of Johnson in fantasy. ... Whereas Gailey often removed Spiller from red-zone situations, Marrone intends to increase his usage both in scoring position and the passing game. Spiller will get goal-line carries. An offensive line coach at his core, Marrone spent four years as the head coach at Syracuse (2009-2012). In all four, Marrone's offenses finished with more rushing attempts than passes. Spiller is ticketed for a hefty workload. ... Camp battles to watch: Kevin Kolb versus E.J. Manuel at quarterback. Robert Woods, Da'Rick Rogers, T.J. Graham, and Marquise Goodwin at outside receiver. Both outside spots are up for grabs with Johnson expected to focus on the slot.
We’re all searching for breakout candidates this time of year, and sophomore WR Mohamed Sanu has gotten love in fantasy land. Tread lightly. While Sanu is the tentative favorite to start opposite A.J. Green, he'll be fighting for scraps with Jermaine Gresham, first-round TE Tyler Eifert, dynamic slot weapon Andrew Hawkins, and rookie "space" RB Giovani Bernard behind Cincy's target monster No. 1 receiver in an Andy Dalton-led offense. Barring a Green injury, Sanu will struggle for WR4 value, let alone emerge as a viable WR3. ... Bernard is slated for heavy work in the passing game, but admitted publicly he expects to be a "complementary" back as a rookie, rotating with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Bernard is far more talented than Lawfirm and his role should grow as the year progresses, but the Cincy backfield could be an early-season headache for fantasy owners. ... Tight end sets up as another fantasy quagmire. Early indications are Gresham will be the in-line tight end, with Eifert as the "move," receiving-oriented option. It's conceivable that Gresham and Eifert cut into each other's production, leaving neither as even a low-end TE1.
Emerging star WR Josh Gordon's two-week suspension for a positive codeine test will cost him games against the Dolphins and Ravens. He'll return in Week 3 at Minnesota. Davone Bess, Greg Little, Travis Benjamin, and David Nelson figure to form a receiver committee in the meantime. The biggest fantasy beneficiary may be athletic phenom TE Jordan Cameron, a college basketball player Cleveland's new tight end-friendly coaching staff has penciled in as a starter. Cameron, though, suffered two muscle pulls across the Browns' 16 spring practices and must demonstrate durability to earn Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski's trust in a featured pass-game role. ... Trent Richardson's injury situation -- he sat out OTAs with a strained right shin -- generated ESPN headlines because Richardson is a big name and there wasn't a whole lot else to talk about. So something like that quickly becomes overblown. The coaching and medical staffs are simply exercising caution on Richardson, and may continue to into the preseason. Remember: Turner almost never gave LaDainian Tomlinson carries in exhibition games. Seems that worked okay.
Do you believe in OTA depth charts? That is the question. A debate has developed within the fantasy community as to the worth of second-year tailback Ronnie Hillman's spring placement atop Denver's depth chart. Hillman took roughly 75 percent of Denver's first-team running back reps, while Montee Ball handled the rest. As a rookie, Hillman showed essentially nothing that would lead any unbiased observer to believe he's ready for a feature back role. Hillman ran small, struggled mightily inside the tackles, averaged 3.88 yards per carry, and was unceremoniously usurped by weekly healthy scratch Knowshon Moreno following Willis McGahee's injury. At the beginning of the offseason, VP of Football Operations John Elway referred to Hillman as a "change-of-pace type guy." Rotoworld will throw all of its support behind Ball as the superior fantasy pick, but it's a camp battle to closely monitor. Under new coordinator Adam Gase, the Broncos are going to rip off plays in an up-tempo offense, and rack up yardage and points.
Arian Foster's inability to practice all spring due to a right calf strain opened opportunities for other backs to shine. Talented but injury-prone No. 2 man Ben Tate didn't miss a workout and enjoyed a "really good offseason," according to coach Gary Kubiak. UDFAs Ray Graham, Cierre Wood, and Dennis Johnson are competing with underwhelming veteran Deji Karim for the No. 3 job -- a fantasy-relevant position because of Tate's historical durability woes and Foster's numerous workload-related red flags. Johnson stood out from the pack. ... Second-year WR DeVier Posey flashed late in his rookie season before tearing his Achilles' in Houston's Divisional Round playoff loss. Posey's recovery is said to be ahead of schedule, but he's now comfortably blocked by first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. ... By all accounts, Hopkins had a nice spring and looks like the real deal, but year-one fantasy expectations should be governed. Kubiak promises Andre Johnson will remain a high-volume target monster, and the Owen Daniels-Hopkins tandem could end up canceling itself out on a decidedly run-first team. Hopkins is a WR3/4. Daniels' value is dropping.
The signing of Ahmad Bradshaw tells you precisely how GM Ryan Grigson felt about his running back situation: It wasn't good enough. Vick Ballard is a workmanlike, try-hard runner with backup-caliber talent. Kerwynn Williams is a kick-returning seventh-round rookie, and Delone Carter and Donald Brown are competing for one roster spot. Bradshaw (foot) sat out OTAs and minicamp, but he will be the starter on Opening Day. ... It's no secret the Colts will play more two-tight end offense under new playcaller Pep Hamilton, keeping Dwayne Allen on the field and increasing Coby Fleener's snaps. The fallout of increased "12" personnel will be limited usage of "11," the three-receiver base formation preferred by old coach Bruce Arians. From a fantasy perspective, it makes Indianapolis' second receiver battle that much more critical, because the third receiver isn't going to play as much. Darrius Heyward-Bey will open camp atop the depth chart opposite Reggie Wayne, but he'll face stiff competition from explosive (and more versatile) sophomore T.Y. Hilton.
Literally speaking, Cecil Shorts' fantasy breakout occurred in 2012. He finished as the No. 22 wideout scorer, and accounted for at least 100 yards and/or a touchdown in seven of eight games from Weeks 7-15. But Shorts is getting better. Multiple media outlets praised Shorts' spring, and he's now headed to Larry Fitzgerald's legendary summer workouts for a training camp headstart. With Justin Blackmon suspended the first four games, Shorts will soak up targets and could flirt with WR1 value even if Blaine Gabbert is quarterbacking the Jags. There is still room for growth. ... Rookie SS Johnathan Cyprien is poised for a monster IDP season. The Jaguars will use him near the line of scrimmage behind a leaky front seven on a team that will be playing defense often. The Florida Times Union deemed Cyprien the Jags' spring MVP "in a landslide." ... In an interview with reporters last week, Maurice Jones-Drew (Lisfranc surgery) was noncommittal on his status for the start of training camp. Others may disagree, but MJD is going to be tough for me to get behind as a fantasy pick due to his debilitating injury, wear and tear, advancing age, and what looks -- other than Shorts -- like an abominable Jacksonville offense. I'm staying far away.
Kansas City Chiefs
Much of the talk out of Chiefs OTAs concerned Jamaal Charles' role in new coach Andy Reid's offense. He'll be a PPR doozy. "I’m like Westbrook and McCoy as far as how I fit into (Reid’s) offense," Charles said. "This offense will get me open. They’re going to throw me the ball more. I think I’ll continue to stack Pro Bowls on Pro Bowls." Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy were good, but Charles is the most talented back Reid has ever coached. ... Free-agent pickup Donnie Avery missed the spring with a high ankle sprain, allowing Jon Baldwin to soak up first-team reps. At a mid-May practice, however, Reid lit into Baldwin for "being lackadaisical getting to the line of scrimmage." Talented but enigmatic, Baldwin figures to take a backseat to Avery and Dexter McCluster when training camp convenes. ... I think it's fair to wonder if Alex Smith will be a square peg in a round hole under pass-happy Reid. Far more so than most West Coast offensive minds, Reid emphasizes a vertical passing game. Except when protected by play-action, Smith has always thrown the ball poorly downfield. And his only career success has come on run-first teams.
I'm always skeptical of teams that binge-spend in free agency, essentially building large portions of their roster with other clubs' castoffs. The 2013 Dolphins fall into that category, paying eight free agents a combined $146 million in max deals -- easily a league high. The 2011 Eagles imploded with a similar strategy; Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin were all fantasy disappointments. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but I think it's something to keep in mind when entertaining 2013 Dolphins. ... The most notable exception to the 2011 Eagles' "Dream Team" collapse was tailback LeSean McCoy, who totaled 1,624 yards from scrimmage and led the NFL in all-purpose touchdowns (20). It's obviously not fair to compare Lamar Miller to McCoy based on their teams' similar offseason strategies, but there are a lot of reasons to expect a big year out of Miller. He comfortably handled all first-team OTA reps -- ahead of plodding fumbler Daniel Thomas -- and made major improvements in pass protection, according to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miller is a bit straight-linish and lacks tackle-breaking physicality, but he's long on big-play ability and a sensational fit for the Dolphins' one-cut-and-go zone-blocking scheme.
New England Patriots
Guys like Zach Sudfeld, Michael Jenkins, and Kenbrell Thompkins were the talk of Patriots OTAs, primarily because so many first-team Pats are on the mend. Rob Gronkowski will undergo back surgery Tuesday, sidelining him an expected 12 weeks. (The Patriots' opener is in just over 11 weeks.) Aaron Hernandez will be fine, but didn't practice much due to shoulder surgery. Julian Edelman had a setback following right foot surgery, and third-string running back Brandon Bolden missed the spring with a foot injury. Good thing the season doesn't start today. ... If Gronk indeed misses Week 1 -- and at this point I think there's a good chance he will -- Danny Amendola and Hernandez will be the focal points of the Patriots' passing offense. And don't be surprised if New England leans on its dynamic backfield more. The 2012 Pats quietly ranked second in the NFL in rushing attempts, and new passing-down back Shane Vereen has earned a bigger role after averaging 6.4 yards per touch and scoring seven touchdowns last season, including the playoffs. Vereen is a sneaky bet to finish among the top-20 fantasy backs in 2013. Danny Woodhead was 24th in 2012.
New York Jets
No news would be better news than what came out of Jets spring workouts. Second-year WR Stephen Hill experienced recurring knee problems, and ESPN New York described his on-field performance as "drop-filled." Santonio Holmes still can't run or make cuts on his surgically repaired foot and is noncommittal on his Week 1 availability. Neither Mark Sanchez nor Geno Smith separated himself in the quarterback derby. $7 million free-agent addition Mike Goodson was popped on felony gun and drug charges. Entering a hot-seat season, this surely isn't the start Rex Ryan had in mind. ... The Jets signed TE Kellen Winslow after a respectable minicamp showing, but don't expect fantasy impact from New York's tight ends. With Hill struggling and Holmes a candidate for PUP, Jeremy Kerley is currently the favorite to lead the Jets in receptions. ... Chris Ivory remains locked in as the Jets' feature back, though he didn't make a ton of noise in the spring. A violent tackle breaker, Ivory will generate more buzz when contact is permitted.
It's telling that fourth-rounder Tyler Wilson and UDFA Matt McGloin earned more media plaudits than Matt Flynn during the spring. Flynn will probably start Week 1, but he's a weak bet to last a half-season, let alone 16 games. A poor deep-ball thrower, Flynn will inevitably struggle to get the ball downfield to Denarius Moore. ... Terrelle Pryor, by all accounts, was unimpressive in OTAs. He lacks velocity on intermediate passes and possesses erratic accuracy. Pryor simply isn't an NFL-caliber thrower. He may have to change positions to forge a lengthy NFL career. ... Coach Dennis Allen singled out sixth-round pick Latavius Murray as a rookie who stood out in the spring. Compared by NFL Films guru Greg Cosell to DeMarco Murray in terms of playing style, the Central Florida product will push Rashad Jennings hard for Oakland's No. 2 back job in camp. Through five NFL seasons, starter Darren McFadden is averaging five missed games per year.
In a late-week column, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote there's a "strong possibility" Heath Miller won't be ready for the Steelers' opener following Week 16 tears of his ACL, PCL, and MCL. Much less concerning than Ben Roethlisberger's knee scope is his loss of weaponry. Mike Wallace is gone, and Miller is out "indefinitely," leaving the receiving load to Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, and perhaps third-round rookie Markus Wheaton. Big Ben was on pace for career-best stats in Todd Haley's offense before his own 2012 injury, but he'll be hard pressed to duplicate those numbers without significant elements of his support cast. ... The Steelers aren't handing second-round pick Le'Veon Bell their every-down back job, but he remains the heavy favorite to earn it ahead of Week 1. Jonathan Dwyer is competing for a roster spot. Isaac Redman is a plodding blitz-pickup specialist. La'Rod Stephens-Howling is a special teamer.
San Diego Chargers
$3.5 million free-agent addition Danny Woodhead generated more spring buzz than starter Ryan Mathews, which probably says more about Mathews than San Diego's new passing-down back. While Mathews will be viewed in many circles as a rebound candidate and value pick, Rotoworld won't share that opinion. Mathews offers plenty of talent, but his offensive line does not, and the Chargers are a talent-starved team that projects to play from behind frequently in 2013. In other words, they'll likely be passing a lot. And Mathews won't play on passing downs. ... San Diego would make a sensible landing spot for free agent Willis McGahee, if his knee is right. Unlike Mathews, McGahee can pass protect. ... The sorting out of San Diego's receiver corps will be a training camp situation to monitor. Vincent Brown and Malcom Floyd rotated first-team reps at Z receiver during OTAs. Danario Alexander is the X. Eddie Royal will man the slot. Third-round pick Keenan Allen has yet to make a move, but probably will in August if his own health issues resolve.
Kenny Britt. Kendall Wright. Nate Washington. Justin Hunter. Damian Williams. Kevin Walter. Delanie Walker. That's a lot of mouths to feed in a low-percentage, potentially low-volume pass offense if OC Dowell Loggains' run-first plan is to be believed. Only one receiver may emerge as a consistent producer. Despite his $4.2 million salary, the Titans promise Washington's roster spot is safe. ... Hunter caught the ire of WRs coach Shawn Jefferson this spring for missing every OTA due to a tweaked hamstring. Hunter oozes talent, but his role is likely to be very limited barring a major August turnaround. ... The Nashville Tennessean reported that Chris Johnson "looks to be in great shape" at OTAs and "has been explosive." We've heard that before. Johnson will play behind the most talented offensive line of his career in 2013, but a return to stardom is up to him. To put it kindly, Johnson's effort has been inconsistent the past two seasons.