It’s almost over ladies and gentlemen! The NFL dead zone is inching towards its conclusion. No longer will we aimlessly roam the streets and fields like walkers from The Walking Dead, looking for any football related tidbit to feast our starved appetites for the good stuff. With training camps less than two weeks away, I’m going to give you the 2013 A-to-Z guide for what to watch for.
Get excited people.
Arian Foster’s “declining YPC”
The award for the Most Blown Out of Proportion Statistic goes to… Arian Foster and his declining yards per carry! I don’t know who decided to plant this hate seed in the Twitterverse, but it grew legs and picked up followers faster than Katherine Webb during the BCS National Title game. Since taking over full time as the Texans feature back, he has never finished lower than third in PPR scoring. Even with his declining yards per carry. Now all of a sudden we’re supposed to jump ship? No thanks, I’ll gladly take another year of top three production while the bandwagon gets a little more leg room.
Bruce Arians’ Impact on the Cardinals Passing Attack
Bruce Arians was brought in to replace Ken Whisenhunt and his stagnant offense. After hitching his wagon to the failed Kevin Kolb experiment, Whiz and Company were shown the door and now Arians and newly signed Carson Palmer are in town to utilize Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd the way fantasy owners have hoped. If this coaching staff can just get “good enough” out of this offensive line, they have the chance to get back to the Kurt Warner era Cardinals.
Chip Kelly in Philadelphia
There hasn’t been a more exciting offense in college football than Chip Kelly’s Oregon attack over the last few years. He ran a high octane, relentless offense to keep defenses on their heels and to physically and mentally drain them. Will he try to bring this to the NFL? He has the perfect roster to try it. With speed to burn, the Eagles have Mike Vick, LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. If Vick can grasp this offense and lead this team, it could look very much like the Oregon Ducks. If Nick Foles wins the quarterback competition, what happens then? He’s definitely not known for his wheels.
David Wilson’s Ball Security
I’m not talking about his jock strap, either. Perhaps nobody has the potential to break out as big as Wilson. He’s ungodly quick with the ball in his hands and has good vision. He also can’t hold on to the ball and will get your quarterback broken in half. With Tom Coughlin running the show, those are the two biggest no-no’s a running back can have. Above all else you have to protect two things, the quarterback and the ball. If Wilson has shown enough improvement in these areas, the sky is the limit. With mixed reports coming out on Wilson’s progress, the door remains open for Andre Brown to carve out significant carries at the goal line and on passing downs.
Eric Decker’s Involvement
The Broncos will field one of, if not the, most prolific passing attacks in the entire league this season. With Peyton Manning throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and the newly signed Wes Welker, there are a lot of very important mouths to feed. Decker finished 2012 with 85 catches, 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns. Those numbers may take a hit with Welker stealing targets, but Decker should remain the team’s top red zone target. It’s difficult to predict touchdown totals from year to year, but with Peyton throwing the ball and Decker entering a contract year he remains a nice WR2.
Frank Gore’s Health
There isn’t anything wrong with Frank Gore right now and I hope it stays that way. People talk about the 49ers having a loaded backfield, and it’s true, when they’re all healthy – right now, they’re not. Kendall Hunter is eight months removed from tearing his Achilles, rookie Marcus Lattimore won’t see a single carry if everything goes to plan, and LaMichael James is not built to carry the load. This team is built to run, but if something happens to Gore early, things could get real dicey.
Greg Jennings in Minnesota
It’s going to be really interesting to see how Greg Jennings does without a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre throwing him the ball. With a FAR less explosive passing game in Minnesota led by Christian Ponder, he shouldn’t have to fight for targets like he did in Green Bay. With absolutely no other proven wide receiver on this team he is going to be counted on heavily until super raw rookie Cordarrelle Patterson can learn the pro game. If Jennings and Ponder can form chemistry, he has the opportunity to put up really strong PPR numbers. People only remember Adrian Peterson being great and Christian Ponder being “awful” last year, but Percy Harvin was a legitimate MVP candidate through the first half of the season with Ponder at the helm.
Hakeem Nicks and the Never Ending Injuries
The Giants stepped up and paid Victor Cruz big money this offseason. Now the Giants want to see Nicks stay healthy and earn his. Nicks and Eli Manning have great chemistry when he is on the field, but the problem is Nicks has been constantly banged up with knee and foot injuries. If he gets through training camp healthy, look out! He’s one of the league’s biggest bounce back candidates.
Insane Tebow Coverage for No Good Reason
It’s going to happen. The NFL Network will probably send Albert Breer or poor Michelle Biesner to sit and report every time Tim Tebow ties his shoes.
Jacksonville’s Offensive Everything
Outside of Cecil Shorts and Marcedes Lewis, the entire Jaguars offensive depth chart is open to competition. With Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne competing to be the team’s quarterback, Maurice Jones-Drew returning from a dreaded Lisfranc injury, and Justin Blackmon serving a four game suspension for substance abuse, this offense is completely unpredictable at this time. Shorts is the only one I would be comfortable counting on this early this season.
Kaepernick Without His Security Blanket
As impressive and exciting as Colin Kaepernick was when he took over the 49ers’ starting quarterback position last year, he was very dependent on Michael Crabtree. Now he will be forced to incorporate more players into the passing game, which might be a hidden blessing. The passing offense now features newly acquired Anquan Boldin and unproven youngsters A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton to go with hot and cold tight end Vernon Davis. As a Niners fan, I look forward to seeing how this group does.
Lamar Miller’s Ascension to Feature Back
This is one I have to see with my own eyes. I cannot recall a second year running back having such a pedestrian rookie year pick up so much steam in one offseason. Now, Lamar Miller finds himself alone atop the Dolphins’ depth chart unopposed. The only other running backs on the roster to speak of are rookie Mike Gillislee and plodder Daniel Thomas. If Miller face plants, this Dolphin team’s potential breakout campaign will fail before it ever launches.
Mathews vs. Woodhead in San Diego
I’m really eager to see how training camp carries are split up in San Diego. Historically, ex-Patriots players fail to hold value after moving on from Foxboro. Ryan Mathews has become public enemy #1 over the last 12 months. At this point last year, Mathews was in the conversation as the RB3 in start-ups and redraft leagues. Mike Tolbert was gone, he was going to be the three down work horse, and fantasy’s beloved Norv Turner was the coach. Fail proof, right? Wrong. Two broken clavicles later and he’s considered an afterthought. Now Danny Woodhead is there to steal third down work from him and maybe more. I don’t believe Woodhead has the ability to carry the load, but we’ll soon see.
New England Patriots Offense
In the past I wanted to see the Patriots offense to see how many points this unstoppable juggernaut was going to put up. Now, I just want to see how they’re going to do it. Tom Brady has the potential to open up the season without his top five pass catchers from last season. His best case scenario is getting Rob Gronkowski back for opening day, but Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are gone. Can the young wide receivers step up and fill the void? Will they become more balanced by running the ball more?
Opening Day Starters
There are a lot of training camp battles to be won this summer, specifically at quarterback. Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith in New York, Kevin Kolb and E.J. Manuel in Buffalo, Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne in Jacksonville, Matt Flynn and Tyler Wilson in Oakland. All these battles will have a trickle down effect on many fantasy players’ values.
Packers’ Running Game
The Packers haven’t had a running game since Ryan Grant left. They’ve tried veterans like Cedric Benson, young players like James Starks and Alex Green and even the occasional fullback (John Kuhn), but none of that has worked. Realizing they need a complement to the lethal passing attack of Aaron Rodgers, they drafted not one, but two, running backs in this year’s draft in the form of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Now I want to see how they will be used. If one ends up being the featured back, they could have a ton of fantasy value.
The NFL is a fast paced business and rookies are expected to come in day one and produce. Players who can’t pick up the play book or struggle with basic pro concepts get left behind and a lot of times they never live up to expectations. In years past, rookies would sit a year or more before ever being asked to contribute. In San Francisco, for example, A.J. Jenkins “redshirted” his rookie year after being a first round draft pick and there are already people calling him a bust. Pounce on the slow starters if their owners start to panic.
Just Russell Wilson. The guy closed out 2012 in electric fashion, finishing as the QB2 over the last half of the season, behind only Cam Newton. Now he has a year under his belt, the trust of the coaching staff, and a new toy in Percy Harvin. Expectations are high in Seattle and it’s going to be fun to watch this group.
Second Year Running Backs
This year’s fantasy rosters are going to be littered with second year players, but the running backs are going to be a hot commodity. Behind the studs like Trent Richardson and Doug Martin are some players looking to make a name for themselves, including David Wilson, Lamar Miller, Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, and LaMichael James. All of these players will be drafted onto our dynasty rosters with varying levels of success. None of them are bulletproof, the two studs included.
Training Camp Injuries
Nothing deflates hope quicker than an injury to a player, especially a star. Like we’ve already seen in San Francisco with Michael Crabtree, injuries can happen at anytime with or without contact. These training camps and preseason games provide awesome news for fantasy players and fans, but we need to all join hands, bow our heads and pray our fantasy players make it through the next six months healthy.
Understudies in the Spotlight
Every year players leave teams in free agency and we either get excited or cry into our hands about where they will continue their careers. Percy Harvin going to Seattle should be viewed as a positive. Greg Jennings going from Green Bay to Minnesota should not. Their departure leaves a job opening behind and the next man up is now in the spotlight. In Pittsburgh, Emmanuel Sanders tries to fill the void of Mike Wallace, a group of players will try to replace Anquan Boldin in Baltimore, the Vikings will try to replace Harvin with a raw rookie in Cordarrelle Patterson and the Rams replace their long time face of the franchise (Steven Jackson) with a young three headed stable of running backs.
Very Boring Preseason Games
Kind of a cop out, right? Just wait. The Hall of Fame weekend is nearly upon us and with that brings the Hall of Fame game. It’s the kickoff to the preseason and the launch pad of butterflies in our stomachs. Its also one of the biggest let downs. Outside of week three, the preseason stinks. You get to see the studs a series or two each game and then a bunch of scrubs destined for the practice squad or Canada. Even the young talented guys are playing with young “not talented” guys so it often ends in a low scoring snooze fest. But hey, its football, right?!?!
Wes Welker in Denver
There hasn’t been a safer, more reliable fantasy receiver in PPR leagues over the last five years than Wes Welker in New England. The problem is he’s now in Denver. The good news is, so is Peyton Manning. Welker leaving Brady to join Peyton is like when Anakin Skywalker turned on Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi brethren to join Darth Sidious on the dark side. I can practically see Tom Brady standing there crying and screaming to Welker, “You were the chosen one! Don’t you get it?” after he signed his own extension for less money so the Patriots could re-sign key free agents like Welker. Back to reality, Welker’s stats are sure to decline, but he should remain a very solid starter in PPR leagues.
Buckle up kids, its gonna be a bumpy ride. Undoubtedly at some point over the next seven weeks we are going to see a news blurb pop up on Sportscenter or Rotoworld about a player who rolled his ankle or took a vicious hit and was sent for X-rays. We will then be forced to hold our breath (sometimes for days), while we wait for the results to be made public. I think Coach Belichick still denies Tom Brady tore knee ligaments in 2008. He still claims he was “Questionable: Foot.”
Your Fantasy Draft
The end of July and beginning of August not only bring us preseason football, it also brings most of our fantasy drafts. The pinnacle of fantasy football hope and excitement, the night before a fantasy football gives every person the belief this is going to be their year. Cheat sheets are printed, mini war rooms are set up, the beer is cold and the pizzas are hot, the draft is finally here! Optimism is running rampant. Sit back and enjoy the ride because it’s probably all downhill from here!
Like Rich Eisen says, punters are people too!
Hey, you try to think of something starting with the letter “Z!”
Eric is on Twitter @OlingerIDP.