Most of the news coming out of OTAs and minicamps is meaningless. Some of it is very meaningful. The idea here is to parse through what we've seen and heard over the last month in terms of depth charts, player progress and potential usage. I'll be back with the AFC notes in an upcoming column.
Long prone to hyperbole (see previous Levi Brown, Justin Bethel statements), Bruce Arians sent a ripple through the fantasy community by claiming he’d like Andre Ellington to get 25-30 touches per game this season. That’s not going to happen of course, but I still took the statement as a very positive sign for Ellington’s outlook. His head coach has recognized unique talent and wants to build the running game around him, only rostering pass-pro/short-yardage specialist Jonathan Dwyer and replacement-level Stepfan Taylor as backups. Much like Jamaal Charles (5’11/199), Chris Johnson (5’11/203) and Tiki Barber (5’10/205), the 5’9/199 Ellington will be “too small” until he isn’t. Consistently durable at Clemson, he piled up 707 total touches while playing in 49 of 54 possible games. I’d feel confident projecting 220 carries and 55 catches for Ellington this season, which comes out to 17.1 touches per game. PPR owners should take note of this quote from Arians: “It’s easy to hand it to him, but throwing it to him is where he’s really dynamic.”
The star of the Cardinals’ offseason was physical specimen Michael Floyd, who went toe-to-toe with Patrick Peterson often and came out ahead. “The way Mike Floyd is playing just jumped out at me,” said Carson Palmer. As the 24-year-old Floyd continues to ascend and the 30-year-old Larry Fitzgerald declines to an underneath role, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the two cross paths in terms of statistical value as soon as this season. Top beat writer Kent Somers literally sounded the fantasy alarm in an Arizona Republic article last week. … Second-round TE Troy Niklas broke his hand during OTAs, giving Rob Housler some leash. Regardless, we should know by now that tight ends are usually hands-off in Arians’ vertical passing scheme.
Julio Jones (foot) did not participate in any football activities during OTAs or minicamp and confirmed that the fracture that ended his 2013 season was indeed a re-break of the same bone he broke in 2011. He also got bone marrow taken out of his hip and injected into the foot to help healing. That’s enough for me to currently rank Jones as my No. 7 receiver, behind Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson. If Jones is a full-go from Day 1 of camp, I’ll move him to the No. 4 spot. ... There are two major reasons for optimism on Jones. First, the Falcons are shifting to a three-wide base, yet didn’t bring in anything behind Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Second, Jones was spotted cutting and pushing off his left foot while on the field in early June, nearly seven weeks before camp. I’d be a little surprised if the injury became an issue this season.
The Falcons aren’t going to try to replace Tony Gonzalez, instead simply eliminating the “F” position from the offense. That means mountainous 6’8/265 Levine Toilolo will be playing a ton of snaps as an in-line blocker and goal-line option. But only 2.7 percent of Matt Ryan’s 2013 throws targeted an in-line tight end, highlighting OC Dirk Koetter’s lack of interest in the position. The bigger beneficiary of the schematic change is Douglas, who will be on the field plenty as the clear-cut No. 3 target. He won’t be seeing anything close to 133 targets again, but he’ll have a shot at WR4 value with the Falcons projecting to be in plenty of shootouts. ... Coach Mike Smith said rookie RB Davonta Freeman needs to show well in pass protection, which shouldn’t be an issue. He was arguably the top blocker among the backs in his class. With Steven Jackson turning 31 in June, Freeman will be an ideal flier/handcuff pick as long as he beats out Jacquizz Rodgers in August. ... We’ll get an up-close look at all this as the Falcons will be on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this season (One of my favorite current shows, right there with Californication, Vice and Silicon Valley).
Although missing OTAs and team work during minicamp is never good, I actually look at Cam Newton’s left ankle surgery as a positive. The procedure was designed to tighten the ligaments that have bothered him since Auburn, therefore giving him even more strength and burst. We know Newton is going to need it while running for his life behind an offensive line that might be the NFL’s worst. … Speaking of NFL-worst, the top-three receivers during practice have been raw rookie Kelvin Benjamin, 32-year-old Jerricho Cotchery and lead-footed Jason Avant. Newton is going to find a way to put some fantasy points on the board, but this passing game is going to struggle. I’d take quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan before Cam.
The good news for the offense is that Jonathan Stewart has enjoyed a fully healthy offseason for the first time in memory. Still just 27 years old, he has a chance to resurrect a once-promising career while sharing carries with DeAngelo Williams. The last time Stewart was fully healthy (2011), he ripped off an impressive 5.35 YPC on 142 rushes. … The offense ran a lot of two-tight end sets during OTAs, which makes a ton of sense. They’re going to have to run the ball, target Greg Olsen heavily and play elite defense if they want to get back to the playoffs. Olsen was fantasy’s No. 8 tight end last year, and will be seeing even more consistent volume this year.
Continuity has been the story of the Bears offseason. They retained all 11 starters from an offense that ranked 8th in yards and 2nd in points per game last season. … Jay Cutler reportedly looked bigger and stronger during the spring, good news for a player that has missed 12 games over the last three seasons. With Marc Trestman, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, a 16-game season out of Cutler will almost certainly yield top-10 fantasy quarterback status. … A buzz name during practices has been Marquess Wilson, who essentially redshirted as a rookie last season due to strength concerns at 184 pounds. Now he’s up to 207 and the Bears released Earl Bennett, handing the No. 3 wideout job to Wilson. He’ll be a handcuff pick for owners spending an early selection on Marshall or Jeffery.
Scott Linehan’s arrival in Big D should have fantasy owners salivating. This is a guy that guided Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson off double-teams, and he’s going to do the same for Dez Bryant. At OTAs, Bryant has been learning “Z” and slot in addition to his usual “X” duties. I wouldn’t call anyone crazy for considering Dez over Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas in fantasy drafts. … Having already lost DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos and Jason Hatcher to the Redskins, the season-ending ACL tear to Sean Lee in a “non-contact” workout put the nail in the defense’s coffin. They’re going to be spectacularly bad, leaving Tony Romo and the offense in a lot of shootouts and comeback situations – ideal fantasy spots.
Coaches have been extremely pleased with Terrance Williams, who is running as an unquestioned starter opposite Bryant. Perhaps elite talent isn’t here, but Williams is a big-play guy who will be seeing tons of single coverage in a pass-happy scheme. I’m buying in a big way. … Lance Dunbar has been buzzing throughout OTAs and minicamp, with reports that the Cowboys have “big plans” for him. I don’t think DeMarco Murray will be coming off the field very much, but the 5’8/188 Dunbar could carve out a homeless man’s Darren Sproles role. He’s a deep-league PPR flier. … Another youngster to watch is second-year tight end Gavin Escobar. His role has been expanded at OTAs, which is not a surprise considering the lack of receiving talent behind Bryant, Williams and Jason Witten. If the 32-year-old Witten were to go down this season, Escobar will border on TE1 viability.
Calvin Johnson put up another top-three fantasy season last year, but the knee and finger injuries he battled were serious enough that he needed postseason surgery on both. No matter. Johnson was looking like his normal self during OTAs, “crushing” the Lions defense backs while running crisp routes. Still just 28 years old, Megatron has at least 2-3 truly elite years left. … The hiring of former Saints assistant Joe Lombardi as the Lions new offensive coordinator continues to breed excitement. He’s giving Matthew Stafford more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage a la Drew Brees, and is preaching an up-tempo style. With the addition of Golden Tate, whose elite skills were suffocated in Seattle, anything less than a top-five fantasy finish for Stafford would be disappointing. ... Eric Ebron did not impress during spring practices and battled drops. I wasn’t going to be on a rookie as my TE1 anyway, and would gamble on Jace Amaro ahead of Ebron as a TE2. Far less competition for targets. … Every year the Detroit media talks up Mikel Leshoure, and this year they’ve added Theo Riddick to the mix. I’m ignoring. Once Joique Bell’s minor knee injury clears up, it’s obvious that he’s the Pierre Thomas to Reggie Bush’s Darren Sproles. There’s not much room for other backs here right now.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The status of free agent Jermichael Finley (neck surgery) hangs over the offense. There’s still a chance he gains medical clearance and returns to the Packers, therefore giving up a $10 million insurance policy. Otherwise the tight end spot will be a fantasy black hole for me. Andrew Quarless is Pettigrew-esque, and youngsters Brandon Bostick/Richard Rodgers/Colt Lyerla are mere Dynasty stashes. … Everyone else is healthy here. Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone is fully healed and Randall Cobb’s leg is fine. Add in Eddie Lacy, and we have a no-brainer top-4 offense. … James Starks, who got a two-year deal from the Packers in March, continues to run as the handcuff for Lacy. Johnathan Franklin (neck) is not practicing and his career could be in doubt.
Matt Cassel has taken the majority of first-team reps during OTAs and it’s been rumored that he’ll enter training camp as the starter. I think he’ll hold the job through at least the first month of the regular season. The Vikes seem determined not to rush Teddy Bridgewater, and Cassel also went 3-3 as a starter last year (earning the 2014 endorsement of Adrian Peterson). Furthermore, new OC Norv Turner is a Cassel guy: “I gave my evaluation (to the Browns last year). I thought he would have fit.”
Turner’s scheme consistently highlights the tight end spot. Since 2006, he’s worked with Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron. And while in Cleveland last year, he utilized “12” personnel on 36.9 percent of the offensive snaps – second most in the league. That kind of usage will free up contract-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, whose shown significant red-zone ability already. I like Rudolph as a back-end TE1. … Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings are running as the starting wideouts. Jerome Simpson will be a situational deep threat and clear-out guy. … The Vikings are talking up third-round RB Jerick McKinnon as a third-down back. If Adrian Peterson were to go down, look for a committee approach that will also feature Matt Asiata. It’s not a very good handcuff situation, which is why a guy like Jamaal Charles is a better first-round pick for me. We can be protected very well with Knile Davis. Peterson may be from Mars, but he’s still 29 years old with more than 2,000 carries and three surgeries in the last three years (ACL, sports hernia, groin).
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
We know the Saints are going to be a fantasy juggernaut. An ability to project how all their new pieces will fit in is going to be a key to the fantasy season. … First up is Brandin Cooks, who the Saints traded up to get in the first round. Due to an NFL rule that needs to be changed, Cooks missed OTAs because Oregon State is on the quarter system. He was forced to study the playbook online. It’s not ideal, but it shouldn’t prevent Sean Payton from cooking up ways to get this speedster the ball a ton. A recent beat writer prediction of 800 yards, 5-6 receiving touchdowns and a punt return score sounds realistic. … Cooks’ selection put a damper on Kenny Stills’ potential Year 2 breakout. He’s still a rare, highly efficient deep threat, but volume is a question mark. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson were never reliable fantasy players in this scheme. ... 32-year-old Marques Colston says the plantar fasciitis that has plagued him over the last couple years is completely healed. If you believe him, he’ll be a value pick in the middle rounds. I’ll be passing on him in favor of more ascending talents without the injury question.
Over the last three seasons, Darren Sproles averaged 77.3 catches, 660.3 receiving yards and scored 16 receiving touchdowns. Replacing him is going to be a committee effort. … Pierre Thomas has been getting a lot of snaps in packages previously occupied by Sproles. I like the PT Cruiser to get 75-plus catches again as a low-upside PPR option. Cooks is also going to do a lot of Sprolesian things, as mentioned above … The other way to compensate for Sproles' absence is by using more of the power running we saw out of the Saints late in 2013 and against the Eagles in the Wild Card win. I think Mark Ingram is a volume back that won’t get it in New Orleans, but Khiry Robinson is a unique player as described by Chris Wesseling here. There’s some late-round flier appeal in Khiry. … Shayne Graham is ahead of Derek Dimke in the kicking battle. Dome kicker in an explosive offense equals fantasy consistency.
I grew sick and tired of these Jimmy Graham franchise tag stories months ago. He’s going to be playing for the Saints this season, the only question is if it’ll be for $7 million or $12 million. Graham is a no-brainer first-round fantasy pick.
NEW YORK GIANTS
There’s reason to believe the Giants’ broken offense will be fixed this season. New OC Ben McAdoo has been busy installing his Green Bay west coast style offense, which will feature a much faster pace, a three-wide base and less of the option routes that were so problematic. … Rueben Randle took a lot of heat from the front office and teammates during the winter and early spring. I’m beginning to think that was a motivational tactic for a player they’re counting on to rise up and help replace Hakeem Nicks. Randle was singled out as a standout player during both OTAs and minicamp, showing improved crispness with routes and an understanding of the offense. If he can free up his mind and just let his physical traits take over, Randle is going to be a stud. He’s consistently made “wow” plays on the limited opportunities he’s been given. … Meanwhile, Odell Beckham missed the majority of practices with a hamstring injury and is falling behind a little. I’d take Randle in the fifth or sixth round, and probably pass on Beckham all together. … Jerrel Jernigan is buried again, running as a backup to Victor Cruz in the slot and a backup to Beckham’s “X” spot.
Eli Manning’s ankle procedure quickly became a non-issue. He’s back participating at minicamp and will be a back-end QB2. … Rashad Jennings has been working as the first-string tailback, as expected. But he’s going to be pushed by rookie Andre Williams, a Boston College guy who could quickly endear himself to former BC head coach Tom Coughlin. We also can’t rule out David Wilson (neck surgery) gaining clearance ahead of camp and contributing as an early-down change-of-pace player. It’s a backfield I’ll be avoiding. … The Giants have been lightly linked to free agent Jermichael Finley, but they’ve done nothing at the tight end spot. Adrien Robinson has been getting the first-team reps and is someone to monitor closely at camp as a potential sleeper. He’s 6’4/265 and has 4.56 speed with a 11-foot-3 broad jump.
Can Nick Foles do it again, this time without DeSean Jackson? Regression is obviously going to come when a second-year player throws 27 touchdowns against two interceptions en route to a 119.2 passer rating. He does have things working in his favor: A full offseason as the starter, an elite offensive mind in Chip Kelly and the game’s best o-line. I’m still hedging my bets some, placing Foles ninth among fantasy quarterbacks. … The Eagles are trying to be even faster this season, with observers likening practice to a “drag race.” More plays mean more yardage and more points. … In terms of replacing Jackson, it’s going to be a committee effort. Jeremy Maclin (ACL) has looked healthy and participated in every OTA and minicamp, often lining up at the “Z” spot where Jackson did most of his work last season. If you are OK taking guys one year removed from a knee reconstruction, there are few WR3s with more upside.
Another part of the committee will be Zach Ertz, who is working on his blocking so he can be on the field more. Kelly loves to throw out of run sets and run out of pass sets, forcing defenses to cover every inch of the field. That requires his players to be well-rounded, so Ertz’s progress as a blocker is big. He’s one of my favorite tight ends to target in the middle/late rounds. … I’m not on Darren Sproles. He’ll be 31 in June, isn’t fast enough to the edge in the run game anymore and won’t see the kind of volume he got in New Orleans. A 6-8 touch per game projection feels right. … I’m also not on Riley Cooper, a jump-ball guy and blocker who fluked his way to 835 yards and eight touchdowns last year thanks to Jackson’s ability to draw safety coverage. … Rookie slot man Jordan Matthews is a fine late-round stash. He’s starred at OTAs/minicamp, drawing comparisons to Terrell Owens. I’d bet on him passing up Cooper for reps in two-wide sets before the season is over, and we can't count on Maclin to sustain health.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Since 2011, the 49ers have not ranked higher than 31st in pass attempts. They are practicing as if they’ll come off that ground-n-pound style some this season. It makes plenty of sense as Colin Kaepernick is in his second full season as a starter, the offensive weaponry has been upgraded massively and the defense is not as formidable. Kaepernick’s box score was often hurt by the blowouts last season (and the lack of passing plays), yet he still finished as fantasy’s No. 12 QB. No borderline QB1s have more upside. … Vernon Davis’ holdout from mandatory minicamp does not concern me. He has very little leverage as the third-highest paid tight end in the league, and loves headlines. Davis is a good bet to report at some point during training camp. … That said, Davis’ role in the pass game is going to be mitigated with Michael Crabtree back healthy, Anquan Boldin still reliable underneath and Stevie Johnson entering the fray. … Marcus Lattimore (knee, hamstring) is looking better at this week’s minicamp than he did at OTAs, but lower-leg complications are going to hang over his head. I’m taking Carlos Hyde as Frank Gore’s backup.
Marshawn Lynch may think he deserves a raise, but he has no leg to stand on. He's 28 years old, has 901 carries the last three seasons and Christine Michael is ready to pop. Lynch's rumored "retirement" threats were obviously unfounded as he'd be leaving $7 million in 2014 compensation on the table -- not a realistic move for someone who wants money. Lynch showed up for mandatory minicamp this week, confirming this was an overblown story. ... What's not overblown is Michael's ability. Former NFL personnel man Louis Riddick said Michael is the most gifted running back drafted in the last five years, and added that a Texas A&M strength coach who has worked with both Adrian Peterson and Michael said their athletic explosiveness is on even ground. Lynch is still the workhorse and starter here, but Michael is going to get 6-8 early-down carries per game because he's too good to keep off the field again. I'd drop Lynch, a two-down back losing volume, into the mid/late second round of fantasy drafts. ... Newly extended Doug Baldwin is moving into the "X" spot this season after spending most of his previous time inside. Percy Harvin will be at "Z" and Sidney Rice will be a backup on the outside if he can get his knee right. I like Baldwin as a nice role player for the Seahawks, but he's not a fantasy option for me. Golden Tate, a better athlete and playmaker, never topped 70 catches or 900 yards in Seattle. They just don't throw enough and when they do, it's by committee.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Zac Stacy is a 2013 fifth-round pick who averaged 3.89 YPC last season, and the Rams added Tre Mason in the third round of this year’s draft. So I wasn’t that surprised when OC Brian Schottenheimer said Stacy is “not guaranteed” the starting running back job. But when the chips are down, a 70 percent share of the carries for Stacy and all of the passing-down reps sounds about right. It’s a big job on a team with a potentially road-grating offensive line that wants to run the rock and play defense to win. … I’m not buying Tavon Austin “gets it” now puff pieces. He’s always going to look good in non-contact practices – his issue is making plays in the small spaces he’ll find on Sundays. … Back with old friend Jeff Fisher, Kenny Britt is healthy and impressing. Always long on talent, he’s a guy I’d gamble on ahead of Brian Quick, Chris Givens or Austin Pettis.
TAMPA BAY BUCS
One offseason story line I am buying is a decline in usage for Doug Martin. Remember that this is a guy who was drafted by the old regime and then averaged just 3.59 YPC in six games last year before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. The Lovie Smith regime then comes in and surprisingly takes Charles Sims at No. 69 overall, immediately pegging him as a passing-down back. OC Jeff Tedford used the term alternate. “Everywhere I’ve ever been, if you look at my history, our history, we’ve played more than one running back. … One running back just can’t make it through the season,” Smith said. With offensive line concerns on top of these new volume concerns, I won’t be on Martin in the first three rounds.
The quarterback situation is intriguing in two-QB formats because of the touchdown-scoring talent. Assembling a basketball team on grass, there are a lot of jump balls to be had between Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Josh McCown has been running as the starter throughout practices and will almost certainly stay there through the beginning of the regular season. I’m not buying organizational claims that the Bucs suddenly had a change of heart on Mike Glennon after trying to trade him at the draft. They just couldn’t get the compensation that they wanted.
The star of Redskins workouts has been Jordan Reed, who is over his latest concussion and practicing in full. If this Aaron Hernandezesque on-field talent can sustain health, he’s going to be a top-five fantasy tight end. DeSean Jackson will run vertical routes and Pierre Garcon will gobble up defensive attention, leaving Reed to own the middle of the field. “Reed is going to be such a big part of this offense,” ESPN 980 said Wednesday. … Top beat writer John Keim wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson ends up third in catches, and I agree. He’s going to run a lot of clear-out routes because Garcon is a better at breaking tackles on the short screens and hitches. … I’ve talked about this plenty already, but Robert Griffin III is my favorite bounce-back candidate. Now 18 months removed from his knee tear, RG3 has ditched the brace that bothered him so much last year and reportedly “looks like a different QB” while moving effortlessly. Jay Gruden turned Andy Dalton into fantasy’s No. 5 quarterback last year. ... The Redskins are sticking with the zone-blocking running scheme even though Mike Shanahan is gone, but I’m still very skeptical on Alfred Morris. He’s been great, but guys like Mike Anderson, Rueben Droughns and Tatum Bell were also great while playing in the Shanahan and Son scheme.