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This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
New England Patriots
The more things change everywhere else, the more they stay the same in Foxboro. Even the changes made help the Patriots look the same in many ways. This is a balanced offense with a very strong defense.
Tom Brady returns to anchor the New England offense. Brady will once again be a strong bet to be an elite fantasy passer. He is backed up by the big arm Ryan Mallett. While there were rumors about a possible Mallett trade, it had very little chance of happening. Jimmy Garoppolo was drafted as a quarterback to groom in case Brady retires in the coming years. Garoppolo is an athletic player with a good arm. He has enjoyed a very strong training camp, only swirling the trade winds.
Stevan Ridley is back as the lead runner in the Patriots committee. He could see somewhere around 250 touches this season and warrant consideration as a fantasy RB1. The big concern with Ridley is the fumbles. Coach Belichick has benched Ridley after fumbles in the past. After Ridley, New England has a talented group of ball carriers. Shane Vereen flashed big-time potential the past two seasons and could excel in a third-down role. James White was drafted to compete with these two ball carriers and could push each for playing time. Brandon Bolden is back and could emerge into a larger role if he continues to improve and stays out of trouble. These four backs give New England a varied skill set, able to take games over in a variety of ways.
Last year, the Patriots receivers were unable to make big plays. There is hope that will change in 2014. Back is leading receiver Julian Edelman. He burst onto the scene after Danny Amendola went down to injury. These two pass catchers have a similar profile and are much the same player. With neither able to make big plays after the catch, it will be difficult for New England to play both at the same time often. Aaron Dobson is still trying to get past his foot injuries. It is conceivable that Dobson either leads the team in receiving yards or barely plays a down of football. He is both that talented and his foot injury could reoccur. If Dobson misses action, look for Kenbrell Thompkins to start. He is a good prospect, with sizable upside. Brandon LaFell was signed from Carolina to provide depth. Josh Boyce and rookie Jeremy Gallon will need strong play to make the team.
Rob Gronkowski is now almost healthy and will be ready to start week one. He is the cornerstone of the passing game. There is little talent behind him on the depth chart. Neither Michael Hoomanawanui nor D.J. Williams are fantasy viable.
Miami has been a team in turmoil for the past several months. Even the additions in free agency have been mired by issues.
Many expect a large improvement from Ryan Tannehill, just like many last year. The trouble is that improvement never came. Tannehill flashed well as a rookie and is struggling to turn the potential into production. The young quarterback has a poor pocket presence and costs his team sacks, even though Tannehill is one of the best athletes on the squad. He will be backed up by Matt Moore. Moore is a capable veteran, able to lead the offense if thrust into duty. Brady Quinn was just signed to provide a camp arm for the Dolphins.
Even after signing Knowshon Moreno from Denver, the Miami backfield looks to be a committee, with Lamar Miller the lead back. Miller is talented, but needs to prove he can stay healthy given a bigger load and also show improvement in the passing game. Moreno is coming off a career season. He has struggled with knee issues in training camp, giving Miller a chance to be in the spotlight. At the time of this writing, Moreno is back at practice, trying to make up lost ground. Daniel Thomas is a slow, plodding fumbler … and the Dolphins must know it by now. This is why Mike Gillislee was drafted last year from the University of Florida. Miller is the lone play-maker of the group. We will soon realize that Moreno's Denver success was due to defenses more afraid of Peyton Manning than the running game.
Mike Wallace has failed to live up to his billing, and big contract. He has been unable to get in synch with Tannehill for the deep throws. As usual, expect a few big plays every few games just to tease fantasy owners. Possession receiver Brian Hartline is back and could lead the Dolphins in receiving once again. He might be best in the slot long-term. Jarvis Landry was drafted out of LSU. Landry is a very solid, all-around pass catcher. Lacking deep speed, Landry might profile to some as a tough, inside receiver in the mold of Anquan Boldin or Hines Ward. He possesses dependable hands and runs routes well. Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews are back as depth players.
Dustin Keller signed to a one-year deal a year ago, then proceeded to suffer a major knee injury. This allowed Charles Clay an opportunity to flourish. Clay will continue to start at tight end and H-back. He was able to be a fantasy starter in 2013 and there have been contract extension discussions this offseason. Clay could be a fantasy star if the quarterback play improves. That is a huge “if”. Dion Sims was drafted last year for his blocking prowess and could become the starter is something happens to Clay. For now, Clay is the receiver and Sims the blocker.
Fantasy owners should not underestimate the impact for all positions when a team struggles as badly as we are expecting from Buffalo in 2014. This is a team which has struggled on both sides of the ball, and desperately needs improved quarterback play. Coach Marrone could be sent packing with another poor season.
A year ago, Buffalo traded down in the NFL Draft, then selected EJ Manuel in the first round. While he has a high ceiling, and is coachable, there will be a learning curve if Manuel is under center. This curve could last several years. The NFL is a tough place to transition from an athletic quarterback who passes well enough to a threat to beat teams through the air. Even though Marrone is known for his offensive genius, expect a thin playbook once again for Manuel. Missing so many games with injury a year ago only made things worse for Manuel. He needs game action to work on his deficiencies. The Bills have Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel behind Manuel. Lewis is athletic and serviceable. Tuel is a heady player, lacking the arm strength to be a threat.
This is the year (just like the past few) that many pundits expect C.J. Spiller to take off and become a top tailback in the league. The only issue is that he will continue to share time with Fred Jackson. While aging and oft-injured of late, Jackson is still very capable. Given the uncertain quarterback situation, fantasy owners should expect both Bills backs to be viable fantasy alternatives most weeks. The Bills traded for Bryce Brown in the offseason and he will be added to the mix. Brown is very talented and possibly will be groomed to be the 2015 starter. In addition, Anthony Dixon was signed from San Francisco. Dixon is a bruiser who picks up tough yards between the tackles and has good vision for spotting the cut back lane. The running game could be relied upon heavily to carry the Bills offense.
Steve Johnson was traded to San Francisco for a draft pick. Buffalo had enough young talent to allow him to depart. The Bills traded up for Sammy Watkins and have high hopes that the former Clemson star can be a difference-maker in the NFL. The issue is that Buffalo gave next year's first round pick to do so. This means that the quarterback upgrade, which may be needed after the season, will need to wait a year. Robert Woods returns for his sophomore season. Woods is a talented, young player, who will be overshadowed by Watkins. Mike Williams was acquired via trade from Tampa Bay. Williams gives the receiving group a physical presence. He played college ball at Syracuse, so Williams has local ties. At this time, Williams is starting over Woods and this is a situation to monitor. Speedsters T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin will compete to make the roster. Also, Marcus Easley finally looks healthy will contend to make the 53-man roster. With the quarterback situation as it is, this season could be ugly for the passing attack.
Scott Chandler should start when healthy. He has battled injuries most of the past few years. Tony Moeaki was signed to add depth to the position. Moeaki was once thought to be talented in Kansas City, yet has found it difficult to stay on the field. Buffalo has undersized NFL Combine darling Chris Gragg buried on the depth chart. Unless the quarterback play vastly improves, none of these players should be on a dynasty roster unless in a very deep league.
New York Jets
Rex Ryan's hot seat is as warm as ever. While the front office has made some good moves, the talent level on offense is as poor as any team in the NFL. Ryan will rely on a tough defense and conservative offense once again.
Geno Smith was drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft to be the long-term starter. While much maligned, Smith is still a decent prospect and is easily the best fantasy option of the group. Last year was a growing season for him. Michael Vick was brought in to push Smith but is well past his prime and is more of a fixture than competition. Smith will start as long as he is healthy. Rookie Tajh Boyd may not even make the team. If Boyd had a stronger training camp, Vick might be looking for work.
New York brought in the much-maligned Chris Johnson to boost the running game. Johnson has not seemed to have the same burst after receiving his huge contract a few years ago. He should be viewed as a committee back, sharing time with Chris Ivory. Ivory is a tough runner, bulling his way through defenses. The speed of Johnson and power of Ivory make a solid combination. Bilal Powell is back and will provide depth. He is serviceable but not a playmaker. Daryl Richardson was signed after St. Louis let him walk. Richardson is another speedy player. The Jets will benefit from the added speed of Johnson and Richardson.
Santonio Holmes was allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of this writing, he is still searching for a new team. Eric Decker was signed to be the top receiver in New York. Decker is a good blocker and solid pass catcher. He will be a much-needed reliable target for Smith. Many are still awaiting the break out for Stephen Hill. Hill is big and fast, yet has not been able to put it together as a professional receiver. Even his consistency is inconsistent. Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson are back as possession receivers. Kerley is underrated and could push Decker for the team lead of receptions. New York drafted Shaq Evans and Quincy Enunwa in May. While Evans is hurt and may be placed on injured reserve soon, Enunwa has quietly enjoyed a strong training camp. It would not take much for him to start over Hill.
After Dustin Keller signed in Miami last year, Jeff Cumberland became the defacto starter. His play was not up to par so the Jets drafted Jace Amaro. Amaro is a great receiver and able to make plays after the catch. He often lined up as a slot receiver at Texas Tech and is a better pass catcher than run blocker. Once Amaro is able to get up to speed, Cumberland will play behind the rookie. Second year professional Zach Sudfeld could push Cumberland. Sudfeld flashed in training camp for the Patriots last year … before getting released.
This division looks like a cakewalk for the Patriots as the other three teams struggle to win eight games. Buffalo might be lucky to win four or five contests. Miami and New York have the look of teams who will win between six and eight games this season. This might be just enough to keep their respective coaches employed but not enough to reduce the pressure on either.
Please feel free to email me (Tefertiller@Footballguys.com) with any questions or comments. Also, I am on Twitter (www.Twitter.com/JeffTefertiller), LinkedIN, and Google+ so feel free to connect where most convenient.