This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
The Broncos are making one more push for the AFC title. The change in coaching staffs – and philosophy – should be interesting to watch play out. Gone is Adam Gase calling plays and Gary Kubiak returns to Mike High to take over the reins. We are expecting Kubiak to run a balanced offense.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning returns for another season, possibly his last. Last year, the injuries limited his arm strength enough that opposing defenses were able to dictate the wide receivers' routes. Given his age and slow ending to the 2014 season, many fantasy owners have given up on the superstar quarterback. He should be able to put up solid QB1 numbers once again at a relatively cheap price. If you are concerned about Manning's neck, try to acquire Brock Osweiler on the cheap. He has big upside and could put up solid numbers in Manning's stead if the veteran misses time. This is Osweiler's last year under contract with the Broncos so the team will need to extend his contract to limit the downside of a Manning retirement next offseason. There is little chance that Denver will be in a position to select a top quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Running Back: Montee Ball was drafted to be the starting tailback in Denver. He missed time last year as he was trying to play after a preseason appendectomy. Ball was not effective. This gave an opportunity to C.J. Anderson who took advantage. The Broncos ran the ball well and often down the stretch, and found success. We expect the Anderson/Ball duo to continue that success and have plenty of touches between them. Third-year Ronnie Hillman looks to take another step forward if he can improve his pass protection. Juwan Thompson will play a reserve role. He is a player who could play if one of the top two ball carriers is injured. The return of Kubiak's Zone Blocking scheme will positively impact the running attack. This fits Anderson the most, but Ball and Thompson could adapt and excel if given an opportunity to carry the load.
Wide Receiver: The Broncos boast one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders make plenty of plays. Sanders was able to make defenses pay for giving Thomas too much attention. Manning is great at finding the weak spot in the coverage. Wes Welker was not brought back after his two-year contract expired after the season. He has not been able to find a new home as of yet. Second-year pro Cody Latimer will battler low-upside Andre Caldwell for the WR3 role. Latimer is a savvy youngster who benefited from the veteran tutelage last season. Ideally, Latimer will emerge to start, but it might take a little while. From a dynasty perspective, Thomas should not lose production or value when Manning retires. He is playing on a Franchise Tag this season but the expectation is that both sides will be able to work out a contract amiable to each side. We worry more about Sanders' production with Osweiler – or any other Manning replacement. Even if the numbers drop 10%, that alone is enough to drop him from WR5 in 2014 to WR10. What if the impact is larger than 10% as many expect? Just running the ball more might be enough to account for the 10% drop even with Manning still under center.
Tight End: Julius Thomas had a couple of huge seasons in Denver. He was a coveted free agent, signing a big deal in Jacksonville. Kubiak brought Owen Daniels with him from Baltimore. Daniels has played for Kubiak every year of his career. Daniels is a good receiver and solid fantasy option. Virgil Green returns and will continue his role as a blocking tight end primarily. Rookie Jeff Heuerman was drafted to add to the blocking, but he injured his knee in rookie camp. He should be good to go for the 2016 season. With the renewed emphasis on the running game, Denver is expected to employ two tight end formations frequently.
Kansas City Chiefs
In 2013, the Chiefs brought in Andy Reid to run the show. Since his arrival, the Chiefs have used a fairly conservative offense, rarely stretching the field vertically. To this point, Kansas City threw ZERO touchdowns to wide receivers in 2014. The offense revolves around Jamaal Charles and the running game. This is likely not enough to push the Chiefs ahead of the Broncos and the Chargers.
Quarterback: Alex Smith is entrenched as the starter and there is no competition on the roster. While fantasy owners moan about Smith's conservative play, he is fulfilling the role Reid has laid out. The intelligent veteran will continue to protect the ball, even if it means only throwing for 3,300 yards like each of the past two seasons. Chase Daniel will continues to back up Smith. Daniel has a big arm and could surprise if given the chance, but we have our doubts. Second-year pro Aaron Murray will continue to develop on the end of the bench.
Running Back: Reid has limited the touches of Jamaal Charles the past couple of season, much to the dismay of fantasy owners. Charles will be 29 years of age later in the year, so there is a possibility that his coach is trying to extend the tailback's career. However, Charles only averaged 16 touches per game. Many fans and fantasy owners complained about the previous regime limiting Charles' touches, but Reid has continued the practice. He is easily the best player on the offensive side of the ball for the team. If the speedy Charles can remain healthy, he will have a shot to be an elite fantasy option again in 2015. Knile Davis was drafted in 2013 to complement Charles. Davis has run very well in stretches. He could be the heir apparent to Charles. Entering his third year in the NFL, Davis is just 23 years of age and finished the 2014 season as a borderline RB3 in PPR leagues.
Wide Receiver: Dwayne Bowe was allowed to depart in free agency. He landed in Cleveland. Replacing Bowe will be Jeremy Maclin. Maclin played for Reid in Philadelphia early in his career and attended Missouri. The local product will be an upgrade over Bowe. But, do not expect similar numbers to 2014 when Maclin finished as WR9 in PPR leagues while playing for the Eagles. Remember, this is the same offense that could not toss a scoring pass to a wide receiver a year ago. Beyond Maclin, Kansas City has plenty of question marks. Several players will compete to start opposite Maclin. Albert Wilson flashed a year ago, but was never able to assert his role as the defacto starter. This led to the Chiefs drafting NFL Combine star Chris Conley. Conley has big upside and is a physical freak. He played on a Georgia team that ran the football (with Gurley and Chubb) way more than it passed. These two are the leaders with Junior Hemingway, Reid favorite Jason Avant, and De'Anthony Thomas looking to fill roles. Considering Smith only completed a little over 300 passes each of the past two seasons, there is little upside for fantasy receivers. He is not a quarterback who thrives in a pass-heavy offense. Further, the last two years are the only seasons in Smith's career where he completed at least 300 passes, and those were just 308 and 303, respectively. The running backs will total more than 50 receptions. This leaves just 250 (or less) receptions for the wide receivers and tight ends.
Tight End: Kansas City has a budding superstar in Travis Kelce. He is physically gifted and has shown progress the past two seasons. Many are expecting Kelce to emerge into a Top 3 fantasy option after catching 67 passes a year ago. He could grab 75 – or more – passes this season. A Kelce emergence will only hamper the fantasy appeal of the wide receivers even more. Demetrius Harris returns as an upside reserve. Harris is athletic as well, but may need a new situation in order to show off his wares.
Oakland is still in rebuilding mode, after a coaching change to Jack Del Rio. The good news is that the Raiders have increased talent on both sides of the ball for the veteran coach. The team is still a couple of years away from competing. Much will depend on the play of quarterback Derek Carr.
Quarterback: The quarterback situation has been unsettled for many years. Second-year pro Derek Carr seems to have a solid hold on the job now, but a poor season could land Oakland back in the Top 5 of the NFL Draft, and in a prime spot to select a quarterback. Carr is athletic but is erratic as a passer, especially under pressure. He will be backed up by Matt McGloin and Christian Ponder. Neither will push Carr for the starting gig. After investing heavily in the receiving corps, Carr has high expectations to meet.
Running Back: Latavius Murray is the starter after Darren McFadden bolted for Dallas. Murray is a size/speed wonder who is still developing as a professional back. He will get every opportunity to claim the starting job. Backing up Murray will be Trent Richardson. Richardson gets a new start after flopping in Indianapolis. Also in the mix is Roy Helu. Do not discount the role Helu may play, leaving Washington for the west coast. Helu excels in the passing game. There could potentially be several game scripts slanted toward the pass as the Raiders trail early in the contest. A couple of youngsters to watch are Gus Johnson and Michael Dyer. Marcel Reece will return as the fullback, and have a role in the offense. Reece will have a bigger impact if Murray and Richardson fail to impress or are injured. Murray only carried the ball 82 times last season so it is uncertain whether he can carry the full load as the primary tailback.
Wide Receiver: Denarius Moore and James Jones were jettisoned this offseason. Michael Crabtree was signed from across the bay. He will add a veteran presence to the group. In addition, Amari Cooper was drafted early in the first round to give the Oakland offense a play maker at the receiver position. He is a star. Landing in Oakland limited the publicity, but Cooper could be a perennial Top 10 fantasy receiver. This pair of pass catchers are a big upgrade over last year's starters. Back are Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, and Brice Butler to vie for the WR3-WR5 spots. Streater is a solid possession receiver while the other two stretch the field. Overall, this is a strong group of receivers for Carr to target.
Tight End: Mychal Rivera played well last season. He went relatively unnoticed in Oakland, but is better than many NFL starting tight ends. Oakland drafted Clive Walford to add to the mix at the position. He could surpass Rivera by midseason and not look back. Together, these are two solid pass catchers, but not great fantasy options.
San Diego Chargers
Mike McCoy enters year three as head coach after coming over from Denver. He has helped the Chargers become viable threat to the Broncos and Chiefs within the division. Fans have high hopes for a playoff run this season.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers looks to rebound from a lackluster second half of the 2014 season. Rivers started the season on fire, putting up Top 4 fantasy numbers through week eight. He battled an injury the rest of the way, finishing as QB11. During the last eight games of the season, Rivers only had two good fantasy games. Now healthy, he is primed for a strong season. San Diego has brought in talent to help the quarterback, and expectations are rising. The Chargers have poor options behind their star. Kellen Clemens and Brad Sorensen do little to inspire confidence. McCoy has a reputation for getting the most out of his quarterbacks, but the team would be in trouble if Rivers misses games.
Running Back: Ryan Mathews left in free agency and signed in Philadelphia. This allowed the team to draft Melvin Gordon III in the first round of the NFL Draft. Mathews' injuries have held the offense back over the years. There is hope Gordon can be the bell cow the San Diego offense needs. The Chargers have Danny Woodhead coming back from an injury-plagued 2014 year to play the change-of-pace role. Branden Oliver and Donald Brown will provide depth at the position. Oliver is likely the player who would most benefit if Gordon misses action. This is a talented and deep group of backs for McCoy and Rivers to utilize.
Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen slid in the draft a couple of years and has been the team's WR1 from day one. His numbers took a trip downward in 2014. We are expecting a rebound with a healthy Rivers. Malcom Floyd and Steve Johnson will start in the WR2 and WR3 roles. This is likely Floyd's last season before retiring. He has suffered a couple of scary neck injuries and is entering the last year of his contract. Johnson was the Bills top pass catcher for several seasons before leaving for San Francisco a year ago. We have not seen any evidence that the veteran is slowing down. Johnson will turn 29 years old next month and has a trio of 1,000-yard seasons in his career. He will be a great addition for Rivers and the passing game. Eddie Royal left in free agency and signed with the Chicago Bears. He will be replaced in the return game by Jacoby Jones. One youngster to monitor in training camp is Dontrelle Inman entering year two of his professional career.
Tight End: Antonio Gates will look to duplicate his TE3 finish of 2014. He will turn 35 years old in July but still looked good last season. He might have another strong campaign left. The high finish in 2014 was not a fluke. Gates is talented and Rivers relies on the sure-handed tight end. Ladarius Green is a player dynasty owners have been expecting to break out for the last couple of season, while Gates finished TE9 and TE3, respectively. Green is a talented youngster, drafted in the fourth round from Louisiana-Lafayette by the previous regime.
This division should be close between Denver and San Diego with Kansas City a game or two behind. Oakland has a chance to win six or seven games if Carr plays well … or two if he fails to impress.
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