We've been making mountains out of molehills (in the words of ESPN's Matt Williamson) all offseason, so it's almost a relief to know that new data is coming from camp reports and preseason games to correct some of our entrenched assumptions build up while we whittled away the time between football seasons. Which situations and changes should bear the most fruit in terms of honing our understandings of just what we have to work with entering our 2015 fantasy drafts? Let's look at the NFC West, a division known for defense that could show us more on the passing side of the game this year.
1. Which WR to Target? - An early camp injury to Michael Floyd that required surgery to repair three dislocated fingers might give us early clarity here, but we can’t be sure until ADP adjusts. The Cardinals have a vertical passing game with a bold quarterback and an ever-improving offensive line. Floyd, second-year sensation John Brown, and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald have been going around the same point in drafts, but that is sure to change with Floyd’s injury. The buzz around Brown will build to a fever pitch, and while he could make good on his promise, Floyd will still play a large part in the offense when he returns, possibly making him the shark move if his ADP falls to the double-digit rounds.
2. Carson Knows The Drill - Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has been there, done that when it comes to rehabbing an ACL tear. He was almost ten years younger the first time around, but if the Cardinals offensive line gels, he could have just as much statistical success. Palmer had one of the two or three best years of his career after suffering an ACL tear in the 2005-2006 playoffs, so as long as we don’t hear any bad news out of camp and the preseason, assume that Palmer and the Cardinals passing game will pick up where they left off last year.
3. Take Two For Ellington - 2014 may be a key exhibit in the case that Andre Ellington is an average running back when he’s hurt, but don’t assume that the workload he was under caused his efficiency numbers to dip. He was hurt before the season began and actually reinvented himself to be a between the tackles back when asked to - even producing to the tune of an RB1 in PPR leagues. Ellington eventually broke down running on one good wheel, but he is back to full speed now, and Bruce Arians is going to give him another shot to lead this backfield. Perhaps 2015 is another chapter in a story that ends up with Ellington being limited to a Darren Sproles-esque role for most of his career, but if 2014 was the aberration and not the norm, you’ll wish you had drafted him this year. If he can get through camp and the preseason injury-free, that’s a great sign in his favor.
1. Post-Chip Foles - We often cite the fact that every quarterback that has played under Chip Kelly has been a low QB1, which includes Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez, and current Rams starter Nick Foles. Vick went onto backup obscurity and Sanchez is still in Philadelphia. What happens to Foles after joining one of the most dysfunctional offenses in the league? Whether any (yes any) Rams passcatcher is worth drafting, and for that matter whether the Rams offense will improve at all under Foles and new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti’s leadership is a big if. At the very least we want to see evidence this summer that Cignetti will be more imaginative than his predecessor, who will not be named for fear of causing the reader to vomit.
2. Hurly Gurley - #10 overall pick Todd Gurley already avoided the PUP list to open camp, which is a terrific sign that the team expects contributions from him in the first six games of the season. How big and how early is yet to be seen. If Gurley can even make it on the field for a preseason game, it will be a big win in his fantasy outlook. On the other hand, if the Rams are showing signs of being extremely cautious when Gurley when it comes to contact and live game action, it will bolster Tre Mason’s early-season projections and make it harder to believe that they will unleash Gurley at any time in year one. Interpreting the Rams’ actions from outside will be key to decipher which direction to go (if any) in your draft when mulling over a Rams running back.
3. Not So Quick - As the offseason went on, we learned more about Brian Quick’s breakout-interrupting shoulder injury, culminating with a recent revelation that the team feared the injury was career-threatening. Quick is back and if he can regain pre-injury form combined with even a slight improvement in the passing game via Nick Foles, then he’ll be a good back half of your draft pick. Alternatively, if Quick is slow to get back to old form, Kenny Britt’s redemption tour and Stedman Bailey’s holding pattern could take flight.
1. State of the Franchise - The 49ers parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, Vic Fangio, and Greg Roman in the offseason - the triad that led the team within a play of winning the Super Bowl and another play from being in a second Super Bowl the following year. To replace this group, the team promoted Jim Tomsula to head coach, Geep Chryst to offensive coordinator and Eric Mangini to defensive coordinator. The 49ers also endured a storm of early retirements on defense, leaving them a husk of the unit that led the team to so much success in the Harbaugh era. What will they do to pull out of the tailspin?
2. Backfield in Motion - Frank Gore is gone to Indianapolis, leaving Carlos Hyde to inherit the lead back role. Not satisfied to put a lot on Hyde’s shoulders, the team drafted talented South Carolina back Mike Davis and signed Reggie Bush in free agency. How the workload ends up shaking up between those three and holdover Kendall Hunter is yet to be seen, but a split backfield on a team that appears to be in decline is no recipe for fantasy success. Hyde will have to generate quite a buzz entering his second season to convince us to take him at his current 4th/5th round ADP.
3. Kaepping Upside - There has been talk of Colin Kaepernick running more often under the new regime, but if the whole team takes a step back, will that be good or bad for his fantasy numbers. The whole situation reeks of more unpredictability from week to week against a tough schedule, and the potential for an offensive meltdown. New addition Torrey Smith and old vets Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin need Kaepernick to be a functional and consistent passer to harness any of their potential value. What, if any, changes to the offense and Kaepernick’s presence and command as a passer we see in the summer will guide us on this question.
1. Golden Graham - The saga of Jimmy Graham’s fantasy value continues to unfold. Seeing him being shipped to one of the lowest volume passing games in the league in Seattle was a depth charge to his value, and his exaggeration that 75% of the offense involves a player in his role blocking (they ran 53.6% of time last year) was seized upon as more evidence that his fantasy value is deflating quickly. The reality is that Graham is the best target the Seahawks have had during the Russell Wilson era, and he will be the most prominently featured target in the passing game, so it’s hard to know exactly how much his role and numbers will shrink from the high volume passing game in New Orleans.
2. Spreading Russell’s Wings - Speaking of the Seahawks run/pass split, since they finally have a #1 target befitting of a passer on the rise like Russell Wilson, could that split start to tilt more towards 50/50 (which is still run-heavy in today’s NFL)? Matt Waldman has pointed out on numerous occasions that Ben Roethlisberger was kept on a leash as a passer early in his career on a running/defense-oriented team, but that didn’t mean that he was going to be held back forever. Assuming static run/pass splits and offensive philosophies when personnel changes can be hazardous to our fantasy teams. Let’s see what the Seahawks show us this summer before assuming that they will keep the same mix as they have in years past.
3. Super Bowl Encore - Chris Matthews soared over defenders to catch well-placed downfield passes from Russell Wilson in the Super Bowl, giving the Seahawks’ pass offense an element it lacked except for an occasional deep catch by Jermaine Kearse. Early signs point to an increased role with the first-team offense for Matthews, who could elevate to being an emergency waiver wire and cheap DFS play, in addition to helping Russell Wilson’s bottom line as a fantasy quarterback.