These are the dog days for fantasy football, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to reflect on. Although it’s true OTAs and minicamp are essentially a glorified gym class — with less hitting — they can still provide clues for the upcoming season. Who’s ahead of schedule in their rehab, which rookies are making a good impression, so on and so forth. Throw in suspensions, and there are more players with changing values than you might think. Let’s take a look at 10 of them.
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Lost: Josh Gordon
You know the player. The one whose offseason hype gets so out of control it’s sometimes unclear if the Twitter mob is talking about a second-year pro or future Hall-of-Famer. There was Julio Jones in 2012, Ryan Mathews in 2011, Arian Foster in 2010 and many, many more before them. Gordon was that player for 2013...until he went and spoiled the party by earning a two-game ban for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Now he’s left the Browns in a lurch for Weeks 1 and 2, and subjected fantasy owners to nonstop drivel about Jake Ballard, Zach Sudfeld and the like.
Here’s the thing about Gordon’s pre-suspension hype: It was warranted. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound monster with 4.52 speed, Gordon posted a 50/805/5 line as a rookie despite being just 21 and having not played competitive football in two years. He was the third youngest player in the league. Gordon averaged 16.1 yards per catch, which was tied with Calvin freaking Johnson and Steve Smith for eighth in the NFL. He moves like Andre Johnson, and might soon produce like him. But even before Gordon’s suspension, there were worries and rumors about his off-the-field behavior. This was, after all, a player who left Baylor after he was indefinitely suspended for failing a drug test, transferred to Utah, promptly failed another drug test for the Utes and didn’t suit up in 2011. Gordon has admitted his NFL suspension was the result of a failed codeine test. In other words, his partying hasn’t been of the Rob Gronkowski “bonging beers shirtless with Phi Kappa Theta” variety.
Which brings us back to this season. There’s no question Gordon has hurt his fantasy value. The question is, by how much. Yes, a two-game suspension is not a season-killer, and much preferable to a four-game ban. But let’s say you play a 13-game schedule, and drafted Gordon as your WR2. You already know you won’t have him for 15.4 percent of the regular season. How often is one game the difference in a fantasy season? Gordon is also just one strike away from a one-year ban. Is it unlikely he’d be so dumb as to make like Josh Brent and fail another test after being put on blast? Yes. Is he, to put it mildly, an unpredictable talent? Absolutely.
A physically imposing seam stretcher, Gordon is a dream fit for OC Norval Turner’s vertically-obsessed offense. But it’s not character assassination to say Gordon has failed at least one drug test three years running. It’s simple fact. To assume Gordon has finally learned his lesson would not be the safest assumption. Gordon’s upside is immense, but to call him a safe pick would be to ignore reality. Of course, those who make the safest picks rarely take home the trophy. We’re still in Gordon’s corner. His play as a rookie demands that. Just don’t delude yourself about the risks when drafting him over Stevie Johnson and Torrey Smith this August.
Gained: Shane Vereen
Here’s the one thing we know about the Patriots’ post Aaron Hernandez/Wes Welker/Brandon Lloyd/Danny Woodhead/Sort Of Rob Gronkowski offense: We don’t know what it’s going to look like. Bill Belichick has been prone to reinvention even when it didn’t seem necessary, making it hard to predict which way the post-Hernandez wind might blow in Foxboro. But it’s fairly safe to assume Vereen will be one player with a much bigger role.
The No. 56 pick of the 2011 draft, Vereen spent the majority of his first two NFL campaigns mothballed, struggling to master the Patriots’ complex offense as he fought his way through a litany of leg injuries. Vereen didn’t notch the first 10-touch performance of his career until Week 11 last season, and got the rock just 32 more times over the Patriots’ final six games. It was only after a thumb injury knocked Woodhead out of New England’s Divisional Round demolition of the Texans that Vereen got a chance to shine — and ran with it. His 12-touch, 124-yard, three-touchdown performance stole the show as the Pats decked the Texans 41-28 to advance to their seventh AFC Championship Game appearance of the Belichick Era.
Now Woodhead is gone, and Vereen is primed to seize passing-down/hurry-up duties. ESPN Boston believes he could even be called on to split out wide at receiver against linebackers. What shape Vereen’s role will ultimately take is unclear, while No. 2 runners are never the safest of fantasy propositions. But at the very least, Vereen should be a PPR flex option in an offense that has no choice but to funnel more touches to its running backs, and is a high-upside, late-round flier in standard leagues.
Lost: Justin Blackmon
Blackmon entered Week 11 with all of 26 catches for 250 yards and one touchdown. So it was a bit of a surprise when he torched the Texans for a 7/236/1 line, essentially equaling nine games of production in four quarters. Blackmon’s rise coincided with Chad Henne’s insertion into the starting lineup, and he ended up with 64 catches for 865 yards and five touchdowns. Numbers not quite befitting of the No. 5 overall pick, but certainly promising enough for someone who was hamstrung by Blaine Gabbert for over half the season.
It’s why, Gabbert or not, Blackmon’s stock was back on the rise this offseason — until April 30. That’s when Blackmon — who was busted twice for drunk driving in college — was handed a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The suspension is not related to Blackmon’s college indiscretions, meaning it was triggered by a new violation...meaning questions about his off-the-field maturity are now just as valid as ones about his on-the-field production. Even before his suspension, the Jags were reportedly worried Blackmon was "too easily distracted,” leading to mental errors. With vice-like hands and 4.47 speed, Blackmon has talent to spare, but he has serious questions marks. One — the Jags’ pathetic QB situation — made him a risky WR2 option even before his ban. Now guaranteed to miss 30.8 percent of the fantasy season, he’s nothing more than a WR4/5 stash, albeit one who could produce like a WR2/3 for the stretch run.
Gained: Ryan Tannehill
The Dolphins went all-in on Tannehill’s 2013 in free agency, beefing up a previously woeful receiver corps by signing Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson. According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, Tannehill has responded by generating the most buzz of any quarterback in the league this offseason. This, after OC Mike Sherman guaranteed in May that Tannehill would make a quantum leap his second year on the job.
Per Mort, Tannehill has impressed with improved downfield accuracy and his play-speed, getting rid of the ball much quicker than he did as a rookie. Of course, we’d expect Tannehill — a gifted, heady athlete — to look sharper in pad-less practices. The real test will be how he fares behind the Dolphins’ nebulous offensive line. Nevertheless, there would have been reason to be excited about Tannehill’s QB2 potential even before Mort and Sherman weighed in with their two cents. Now there’s even more.
Stayed the Same: Jake Ballard
A lot of things have changed in New England over the past four months. One thing that hasn’t? Ballard’s physical limitations. This is a player who ran a lineman-like 40 before he tore his left ACL and required microfracture surgery. (Reportedly a 4.99 coming out of high school.) Yes, Ballard caught a lot of passes for Eli Manning, but name the last tight end who hasn’t.
Ballard is not replacing Aaron Hernandez in two tight-end sets — if those are still even a thing in New England — and isn’t going to get the 7.5 targets per game Rob Gronkowski has averaged over the past two seasons if he replaces Gronk in the starting lineup for Weeks 1-6. It’s not even a guarantee he makes the roster. Ask Steve Smith what it’s like to recover from microfracture surgery. This may seem like piling on, and there is a non-zero percent chance that Ballard comes into some fantasy value while Gronk is on the shelf. But the truth is, it’s simply too early to know, and drafting Ballard as anything other than a flier TE2 at this stage of the game would be irresponsible bordering on farcical.