Championship week has come and gone in a season that seemed to fly by. Hopefully you are one of the many who are basking in the spotlight of a title. If you are one of those owners, enjoy it for a while but keep in mind that it is never too early to start working on a repeat.
As is the tradition with the EOTG column, week seventeen is dedicated to taking that first step toward 2014. There are a ton of players both young and veteran, who will be in different situations, healthy or simply ready to step up next season. Here are some of those players/situations I will be keeping a close eye on this offseason.
There are a couple of things to watch with this team. The injury recovery of Tyrann Mathieu is an important one. Way back in the preseason I was comparing him to Bob Sanders because of their stature and the tenacity in which both players approach the game. Hopefully 2014 will not find us drawing a comparison between the two based on an inability to stay healthy. Mathieu's injury was a nasty one. Hopefully it will not linger but it would be no surprise at all to see him affected by it next season.
The other situation to watch is at inside linebacker where Kevin Minter is waiting in the wings. Minter was seen by many as one of the more promising prospects in the 2013 draft. He could have a bright future as a starter opposite Daryl Washington. On the other hand, the combination of Washington and Karlos Dansby has helped to make the Cardinals one of the leagues better defenses. Dansby signed a one year deal with the club last offseason. He more than proved himself in 2013 and is in line for a significant payday. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals make a serious effort to bring him back. The only certain thing here is that Dansby is going to land a starting job somewhere and continue to be a productive player for us. Thus Minter's potential value hinges completely on the Dansby decision.
On offense the Falcons just need to get healthy. Defensively they have a ton of questions to answer. Paul Worrilow was a box score hero for much of the season but he was not always as good on the field as the numbers would suggest. While he is clearly a better option for the team than Akeem Dent, I am not sold on him as the long term answer at middle backer. There is no one on the current roster to challenge him for the job but I will be surprised if the organization does not add a veteran or use a significant draft pick on the position.
The coaching staff may have expected too much of Sean Weatherspoon. Even before the injury he was not the dominating presence the Falcons thought he would be. With an offseason to fully recover he should be back to full speed by training camp but he is clearly not the second coming of Derrick Brooks.
The one Atlanta linebacker that I really like for his on field performance is Joplo Bartu. Unfortunately the strong side position in the Falcons scheme is not the most box score friendly and Bartu will be hard pressed to earn the sub package snaps on a regular basis.
This team will once again go into the offseason in dire need of help at defensive end. Osi Umenyiora was their best pass rusher in 2013 but he was highly inconsistent. Of his 7.5 sacks, 7 came in four contests. As a result he was demoted to a sub package role late in the season. There are two questions to be answered here; if they add someone at the other end that can generate some pass rush and keep offenses honest, can Umenyiora regain the every down role, and is Jonathan Massaquoi an optin to step up and fill that role? Only time will answer the first part of that question. To the second part I have to say maybe. After a slow start Massaquoi has gone 8-5-3 over the last three games. He could be the answer but to count on him as such would be a serious gamble for a team that really can not afford to be wrong again at that important position.
When the Ravens drafted Arthur Brown in the second round, most people expected him to be the replacement for Ray Lewis. Brown was recovering from a sports hernia and fell behind early on. With the unexpectedly strong play of free agent addition Daryl Smith, Brown never really challenged for the starting job. Brown's rookie season was far from a complete wash however. Once healthy he became a situational player gaining much needed experience as a nickel linebacker. The tell tale for Brown's 2014 value will be if the team resigns Smith who is on a one year deal in 2013. I expect they will at least make him an offer. Whoever starts at this position is going to have a good deal of value for us. dynasty owners who used early picks on Brown this year will be watching this situation intently.
The Bills have already made the decision to go with the better coverage man in Aaron Williams as their starting strong safety, leaving Da'Norris Searcy as the odd man out when everyone is healthy. Searcy was rumored to be on the roster bubble heading into this season with the injury to Jairus Byrd believed to be his saving grace. Searcy is somewhat of a liability in coverage but is an excellent run defender and a big play threat. If the Bills cut ties and he lands in a scheme that fits his strengths, this veteran has the potential to be a top ten safety in 2014. If he remains in Buffalo it will be as their third safety lining up mostly as a hybrid linebacker in nickel packages. That role would effectively kill any box score potential he might have.
This team is loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball. Defensive end Margus Hunt is a developmental guy who played sparingly as a rookie but has the physical skills to be something special down the road. At the moment he is mired behind three very strong players in Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry. The important note here being that Johnson is in the final year of his contract. I have to believe the team will make an effort to keep him and they may even use a tag. If Johnson moves on both Hunt and Gilberry would move up in the pecking order. I love what Gilberry brings to the table as a pass rusher but am not sure that he would be successful as an every down player. That could open the door for Hunt.
I have been talking about Vincent Rey for weeks now. The guy blew up again in week sixteen when he reinforced his case for being the starting middle linebacker of the future by recording a sack, forced fumble and an interception for a score. I just cannot see how the coaching staff could justify starting anyone ahead of him in 2014.
Even the secondary in Cincinnati gives us future potential. Rookie third round pick Shawn Williams saw very limited action this year but he will likely be in the mix for a starting job in his second season. George Iloka played fairly well at strong safety for the most part but was clearly nothing special. Williams was highly productive at Georgia and that could carry over to the NFL if he gets an opportunity. Expect this position to be up for grabs over the offseason.
Facing the Bears was a running back's dream this season. Injuries up front were a significant contributor but the linebackers were a major factor as well. The injured linemen will all be back but the line backing corps is likely to look much different in 2014. Both James Anderson and D.J. Williams signed one year deals with the team. Williams played well before landing on IR and is likely to land a starting job somewhere. He could even be back with the Bears. Rookie Jon Bostic finished out the season at middle linebacker. His play in several games as a starter drew mixed reviews. At times he looked good, particularly in coverage. At other times he seemed a little lost or at least reluctant. The latest word is that Bostic could move to outside linebacker next season, where he would likely compete with Khaseem Greene for a starting job opposite Lance Briggs. Having had an extensive look at Bostic, I am less than optimistic that he will become an impact IDP in 2014. I do however, want to keep an eye on where Williams lands as I believe he still has plenty left in the tank.
If the current coaching staff remains in place it is a safe bet that Bruce Carter will not. The success of Monte Kiffin's defense requires a weak side backer who fits the scheme. It was painfully obvious this season that Carter is not that guy. It will be interesting to see if DeVonte Holloman gets a shot at the job over the offseason. He lacks experience but I believe he could have the skill set Kiffin is looking for.
Duke Ihenacho started like gangbusters but was never the same after aggravating the ankle injury in week eight. Most dynasty owners have thrown him back in the pool by now. That is a move they may regret next fall. It will be interesting to see if he enters the offseason program as the starting strong safety. If he does, we can safely assume that his lacking production over the second half of the season was due to playing through the injury.
Ezekial Ansah was the big name guy in the Lions rookie class but fourth round pick Devin Taylor could be their diamond in the rough. Taylor flashed quality play and recorded 2.5 sacks in very limited action this season. He could push Willie Young for a starting job this summer.
Green Bay Packers
Brad Jones was an every down player early in the season but never regained that status after missing time with an injury. While he was out Jamari Lattimore took over an impressed. We know that A.J. Hawk is a liability in coverage and now we know that the Packers coaching staff sees Jones as one also. That leaves the team in need of someone to step up at the position. I am not sure that Lattimore is that guy, but if they elect not to significantly address the position, he could be in the mix for a starting job.
The Pat Angerer situation this season was a real head scratcher. After a slow start attributed to nagging injuries, he looked good and posted strong numbers in a handful of games. Then late in the season he was phased out of the lineup then assumed to be a healthy scratch for a game before landing on IR with a mysterious neck injury. Little has been said about the neck issue but Angerer is going to have a minor knee surgery to clean up a nagging problem. He may not be in the Colts plans going forward but if he can get healthy, this guy will be starting for someone.
We saw Jelani Jenkins take about a third of the defensive snaps in week fifteen. That created a bit of a buzz in that it seemed the coaching staff was looking to get him on the field with a more significant role. In week sixteen Jenkins faded back to obscurity. We may not have seen the last of him though. Phillip Wheeler has struggled in coverage at times, which is likely why we saw the coaching staff take a look at Jenkins. Keeping in mind that Wheeler has spent a good portion of his career playing on the strong side, it would not be a huge surprise to see him move if Jenkins performs well this offseason.
Chance are that Audie Cole will enter camp as the starting middle linebacker, and we know that Chad Greenway will man one of the outside spots.
The third starting spot remains in question. There are two young players that could be a factor in Minnesota. Gerald Hodges will likely compete for the outside spot opposite Greenway, and Michael Mauti may put pressure on Cole. Both players have the potential to be solid NFL starters. Hodges brings range and coverage skills while Mauti is a bigger and more physical presence. Mauti is particularly interesting because he was an early round talent who fell in the drft due to injury concerns. knowing that the Vikings middle backer has a great deal of box score potential makes this a situation to keep an eye on this offseason.
New England Patriots
The Patriots organization has a long history of getting production from their mid round draft picks. In 2013 they selected both safety Duron Harmon and corner Logan Ryan in the third. Both players saw action as injury replacements and both made a good impression. Improving the secondary has been a point of emphasis for Bill Belichick over the past couple of years. Chances are the youngsters are part of that plan. At the least they will get a goo long look this offseason.
New Orleans Saints
Roman Harper's day in New Orleans are thought to be numbered. Rex Ryan has done a good job of fitting Harper's strength as a run support safety and a playmaker into the scheme. The reality is that Harper can be a liability in coverage which limits what Ryan can call when he is on the field. Harper also has a big cap number. Thus all signs point toward a parting of ways after the season. In what has become a passing league, in the box safeties are quickly becoming obsolete. Harper has been a fantasy staple over the past several years. He will need to land in the right place continue being relevant.
New York Giants
Lacking pass rush was a major problem for the Giants this season. Justin Tuck ran off a string of big games then vanished again, Jason Pierre-Paul has not been healthy and Mathias Kiwanuka has not been able to fill the void. Damontre Moore was the team's third round pick in 2013 and is a player they are looking toward as a significant contributor in the near future. He was considered by many to be one of the draft's better pass rushers. There are also speculations that Tuck may not be with the club in 2014.
New York Jets
Antonio Allen had a role in the Jets defense all season but he arrived on the fantasy scene in week seven when he was matched up with Rob Gronkowski. In that game Allen finished at 5-4 with 3 passes defended and an interception for a score. He put up respectable numbers over the following two game before the team signed Ed Reed. Rex Ryan was a little slow to realize that Reed is out of gas but he finally got the hint. Allen returned to the starting lineup in week sixteen. He played roughly 60% of the defensive snaps and finished at 4-1 with a pass defended. I though Allen looked pretty good as the starter. The current regime may or may not see the second year pro as the future of the position, but then the current regime may not be around.
The Raiders signed Nick Roach to a four year deal and Kevin Burnett for two years but do not be surprised if they find a way to get Miles Burris into the lineup in 2014. Burris missed most of 2013 while recovering from off season knee surgery, but when healthy he will likely compete for a starting job as he was expected to in 2013. The fact that Burnett is set to collect $3.6 million in the final year of his deal, could be an advantage for Burris who finished at 62-34-1.5 with a pick and 4 passes defended in 2012 despite playing on the bad knee much of the season. Head coach Dennis Allen is reported to be on the hot seat which could add even more intrigue to this situation.
Sio Moore had a part time role for much of 2013. His athleticism and particularly his pass rush ability may well mean a much bigger slice of the playing time next season. As a strong side linebacker Moore's tackle opportunities may be somewhat limited but his big play potential could be enough of a boost to give him some fantasy significance.
Brandon Graham is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is set to count nearly $3.8 million against the salary cap. Graham is currently stuck in football purgatory as a backup 3-4 outside linebacker in Philadelphia, but if he can somehow escape from the Eagles, he has the potential to become a top ten 4-3 defensive end. At worst Graham has one more year on his sentence. Hopefully his cap number will for the organization's hand here.
With both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark possibly at the end of their Steelers careers, Shamarko Thomas is set to take over one of the starting safety positions in 2014. In limited action as the team's third safety for most of this season, Thomas showed glimpses big things to come. He is physical as a tackler, has excellent cover skills and is a big play threat as well. Thomas is among my favorite young players to stash.
A much deeper sleeper in Pittsburg is linebacker Sean Spence. This young man came to the team in 2012 with expectations that he would quickly ascend to a starting role alongside Lawrence Timmons on the inside. Spence's progress was derailed by a knee injury before it ever got started. He landed on IR again this year but will be two full years removed from the injury heading into the off season. Larry Foote is unlikely to return and none of the Steelers other backup inside linebackers made much of an impression. If Spence can overcome the injury and be the player the team expected, he could be a three down ILB next season.
With London Fletcher all but certain to retire, Washington has a hole to fill at what has been a box score friendly position over the past several years. 2012 fourth round pick Keenan Robinson spent last offseason preparing to be the top backup at both inside linebacker positions. The thought being that would be groomed for a starting job after this season. A torn pectoral muscle ended his 2013 season in July but he is still the favorite to take Fletcher's spot in the lineup. He will be healthy for this year's offseason program and could have a considerable box score impact in 2014.
Washington's struggles at safety this season are well documented. They began when rookie Phillip Thomas suffered a lisfranc injury in the preseason. Thomas was thought to be the leading candidate for the strong safety job at the time of the injury and had been impressive in training camp. Lisfranc injuries tend to linger and can be tought to make it back from, but if Thomas is healthy he has the potential to become a top flight safety in fantasy terms.
That is going to put a wrap on the 2013 season. It has been a fun, exciting and often frustrating campaign, but that is what makes us tick. Have a great offseason but keep yourself up to date on NFL happenings. This has become a 12 month league as there is always something going on. It is much easier to keep up than catch up. The Eyes of the Guru will return for season number twenty in 2014.