Evan Silva

Offseason Low Down

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Top 16 Skill-Player Groups

Friday, April 19, 2013

6. Denver Broncos

QB: Peyton Manning > Brock Osweiler
RB: Willis McGahee > Ronnie Hillman > Knowshon Moreno > Lance Ball
WR: Demaryius Thomas > Eric Decker > Wes Welker > Andre Caldwell
TE: Joel Dreessen > Jacob Tamme > Virgil Green > Julius Thomas

Skill Player Overview: The Broncos rank a conservative sixth on this list, but you could make a case for them anywhere in the top five. They're loaded. Peyton gets away with diminished arm strength via pinpoint accuracy and pre-snap decision making. While I don't think there is any question Manning's physical tools aren't what they used to be, there also is no doubt he's still a top-ten passer. Thomas is Julio Jones with better hands. Decker is a third-down and red-zone machine. He scored 13 touchdowns last season, ranking second in the NFL among receivers. Welker gives Denver an embarrassment of riches as a dynamic run-after-catch slot presence.

Ultimately, I placed Denver sixth because of question marks at two positions. McGahee is going on age 32 while coming off of a torn knee ligament and broken leg. His base salary is $2.5 million. I don't think he'll be on the Week 1 roster. Struggling to run inside the tackles and pick up the blitz, Hillman gave no indication as a rookie that he'll be more than an NFL change-of-pace back. He clearly has some juice, but averaged only 3.89 yards per carry. Moreno put up decent stretch-run fantasy stats on huge workloads, but remains a replacement-level runner at best. The second question mark is tight end, where Tamme was a 2012 disappointment. Dreessen is a solid blocker, but can Green replace Tamme in the "move" role?

2013 Breakout Candidate: Green. A 2011 seventh-round pick who fell in the draft due to medical concerns, Green possesses an athletic skill set not dissimilar from Vernon Davis'. While Welker's addition will mean fewer two-tight end sets and more three wides in Denver's offense -- putting a bit of a lid on Green's statistical upside -- he should have every opportunity to unseat Tamme as the primary pass-catching tight end. Green is a prospect to monitor this preseason.

7. San Francisco 49ers

QB: Colin Kaepernick > Colt McCoy > Scott Tolzien
RB: Frank Gore > Kendall Hunter > LaMichael James > Anthony Dixon
WR: Michael Crabtree > Anquan Boldin > A.J. Jenkins > Kyle Williams
TE: Vernon Davis > Garrett Celek > Cameron Morrah

Skill Player Overview: Kaepernick was lights out after replacing Alex Smith in November, leading San Francisco to a 7-3 record, including the playoffs. Across his ten starts, Kaepernick accounted for 19 touchdowns while completing 169-of-272 throws (62.1 percent) for 2,406 yards (8.84 YPA) and a 14:4 TD-to-INT ratio. Kaepernick's explosive arm talent and precision downfield passing helped spring Crabtree for the best ten-game stretch of his career. Underutilized in the receiving game all regular season, Davis also caught fire with 12 catches, 254 yards, and a touchdown in three postseason contests. Although Boldin is strictly a possession receiver going on age 33, he gives Kaepernick another sure-handed weapon who wins contested throws inside the numbers. Boldin is also a terrific blocker at slot and Z receiver, which will increase San Francisco's running-game efficiency at the second and third levels.

The 49ers are annually deep at running back. They will likely look to scale back Gore's early-season carries this year in an effort to keep his legs fresher for the stretch run. San Francisco is still missing one critical element: Jim Harbaugh's offense lacks a receiver capable of taking the top off of defenses in the deep passing game. In order to maximize Kaepernick's bazooka arm, the 49ers must either develop Jenkins into that vertical stretcher or find a solution in the draft.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Davis. The tight end is San Francisco's best deep threat. If 2012 first-rounder Jenkins continues to flop or GM Trent Baalke fails to upgrade, Davis will be leaned on when Harbaugh dials up downfield shot plays. The light appeared to flip on for Davis and Kaepernick's chemistry in the postseason. Kap now enters his first full year as the starter.

8. Washington Redskins

QB: Robert Griffin III > Kirk Cousins > Rex Grossman > Pat White
RB: Alfred Morris > Evan Royster > Roy Helu > Keiland Williams
WR: Pierre Garcon > Josh Morgan > Santana Moss > Leonard Hankerson
TE: Fred Davis > Logan Paulsen > Niles Paul > Deangelo Peterson

Skill Player Overview: This ranking assumes Griffin's knee recovery will continue on schedule. It isn't too bold to suggest a healthy Griffin can surpass Aaron Rodgers as the most dynamic quarterback in football. He is an accurate, rocket-armed passer with game-breaking feet. Morris is a system back in that he might struggle outside of a zone-run offense, but he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Marshawn Lynch in terms of sheer tackle-breaking ability. He's physical as all get out. Helu's return adds speed to the backfield, and he figures to overtake Royster as the third-down back. The Skins did not have a viable change-of-pace runner last year.

Garcon is a much better receiver than people gave him credit for when he left Indy. He outplayed Reggie Wayne in 2011 and racked up 33 catches for 475 yards and three touchdowns over last year's final six regular season contests. The Redskins went 9-1 in his ten 2012 appearances. Garcon's stretch-run numbers extrapolate to 88/1,267/14.4/8 if expanded to a 16-game season. Garcon is terrific after the catch and can win vertically. Still only 26, he is a complete receiver and should keep getting better. It's easy to forget Washington fielded a top-five offense in 2012 despite 16 combined missed games from Garcon, Davis, and RG3. Davis may lose burst in his first year back from an Achilles' tear, but should offer reliability underneath and has developed into a formidable run blocker. The Redskins could really use a playmaking No. 2 wide receiver. Hankerson disappointed in the role last year, Morgan is just a guy, and Moss is 34 years old.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Garcon. The Redskins' $42.5 million wideout suffered a toe injury in Week 1 last season. He missed six of the ensuing eight games, but eventually learned to play through the pain and turned in a highly productive stretch run. The Shanahan scheme funnels offense to the X receiver, which is Garcon's position. If fully recovered, he will be a target monster.

9. Dallas Cowboys

QB: Tony Romo > Kyle Orton > Nick Stephens
RB: DeMarco Murray > Lance Dunbar > Phillip Tanner
WR: Dez Bryant > Miles Austin > Dwayne Harris > Cole Beasley
TE: Jason Witten > James Hanna > Andre Smith > Colin Cochart

Skill Player Overview: The Cowboys are not a top-ten football team -- their offensive line and in-transition defense are major question marks -- but their skill-position talent is on par with the NFL's elite. Romo will probably have to start winning playoff games to earn national respect, but he is a playmaking gunslinger who carried Dallas on his back in 2012 to within one game of an NFC East title. His aggressiveness, lightning-quick release, strong arm, and mobility in tight quarters mask the weaknesses of players around him. Learning to beat double coverage, Bryant ripped the cover off the league from Week 10 on, racking up 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 scores over the final eight games. The numbers work out to 100/1,758/20 if expanded across 16.

Witten, 31, doesn't run downfield as well as he used to, but his 110 receptions last season led all NFL tight ends. Also a plus blocker, Witten is the consummate all-around tight end. Lower-leg injuries have robbed 29-year-old Austin of some explosiveness, but he still works the seams and is among the NFL's premier route runners. Harris and Beasley look like ascending young sub-package receivers. Harris is more of a Z -- like Austin -- while sure-handed Beasley has some Welkerian traits in the slot. So far in his career, Murray has spent nearly as much time on the trainer's table as on the field. While talented and versatile, Murray is stiff and straight-linish as a runner, requiring effective blocking to break productive runs. Dallas badly needs a better No. 2 back.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Harris. The Cowboys need this to be Murray, but I don't think he can stay healthy or perform at a consistent level because of his athletic limitations behind a porous offensive line. In all likelihood, Dallas will have to continue to lean on Romo to carry the offense. With Kevin Ogletree gone to Tampa, Harris is penciled in as the Cowboys' No. 3 wideout.

10. Chicago Bears

QB: Jay Cutler > Josh McCown > Matt Blanchard
RB: Matt Forte > Michael Bush > Armando Allen > Harvey Unga
WR: Brandon Marshall > Alshon Jeffery > Earl Bennett > Devin Hester
TE: Martellus Bennett > Evan Rodriguez > Steve Maneri > Brody Eldridge

Skill Player Overview: Cutler will have an opportunity to rack up the best statistical line of his career. New coach Marc Trestman brings a pass-happy offense from the CFL that is founded on quick-hitting three-step drops and gets the ball out quickly. It's a completion-friendly scheme not dissimilar from what Tom Brady has done the past few years in Foxboro. Cutler is a great talent and can be a fantastic fit, but it's telling that the Bears won't extend his contract before the season as he enters a walk year. This may be his make-or-break season in Chicago. Cutler will have to operate with more anticipation under Trestman. He's long been a see-it, throw-it passer.

I think Bennett was the best signing of free agency. A multi-purpose tight end, Bennett is an outstanding run and pass blocker at only 26 years old. In the receiving game, Bennett has soft hands and athletic movement skills. He can be a big-time short to intermediate weapon out in the open and difference maker in the red zone. An early-career headcase, Marshall appears to have gotten his act together and is coming off career highs in receptions (118), yards (1,508), and touchdowns (11). He is a top-five NFL wideout. If Bennett is Chicago's top breakout candidate in the skill-position group, Jeffery isn't far behind. He has a Boldinian ability to win contested throws and offers buildup speed to challenge vertically. In terms purely of vision, Forte might be the NFL's premier tailback. His plus versatility will also come in awfully handy under pass-first Trestman.

2013 Breakout Candidate: Martellus. I recently spoke to a CFL executive about Trestman's offense, and he described it as aggressive in the passing game with a tendency to go 15-18 straight plays without a rushing attempt. Assuming Trestman stays true to his CFL principles in the NFL -- and all indications are he will -- passing volume is going to be at an all-time high in the Windy City. For the Bears' offense to work at peak efficiency, one fundamental change Trestman must make is in Cutler's propensity for locking onto Marshall. Expect Bennett to be the primary beneficiary as Cutler spreads the ball around more. Bennett is likely to emerge as Chicago's No. 2 pass catcher.

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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva

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