Lost: Tom Brady
Before we go too far down this road: No one is saying Tom Brady is no longer a QB1, and an elite one at that. But facts are facts. Gone are Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd and in are two rookies (Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce) and a new No. 1 receiver who’s missed 20 games with injury the past two seasons. Rob Gronkowski could be sidelined for (at least) the first six games of the season. Even one of the greatest players in league history can’t be expected to stare down that kind of roster turnover with another 4,800-yard, 35-touchdown campaign.
It’s true Brady has survived and advanced without high-end weapons at receiver before — just check out Reche Caldwell’s 2006 stats — but that was before he’d emerged as the fantasy colossus we know today. Brady surpassed 4,000 yards just one time in six years before Welker and Randy Moss came to town in 2007. He’s a quarterback who’s won under many different circumstances, and nearly all signs suggest the Pats will have to tone down the freakazoid, almost Air-Raid offense they’ve featured over the past two seasons. That doesn’t mean Brady is not the QB1 for you, but it does mean he might only steal you three weeks instead of five, and might not be the roto savant you’ve come to know and love.
Gained: Ryan Broyles
At first blush, it might seem odd to suggest that a player who tore his ACL on his final play of 2012 has gained value during a time where not so much as a down of football has been played, but look closer, and you’ll see why.
For starters there’s what the Lions didn’t do. That’s aggressively address receiver in free agency and the draft. Although it’s true that prolific pass-catching running back Reggie Bush is now in the fold, not a single other notable name has been added to a stable of pass-catchers that badly hurt for depth behind Calvin Johnson last season.
Then there’s what Broyles has done between January and July: Make remarkable progress with his torn-up knee. Broyles is just seven months removed from going down against the Colts in Week 13, but has already resumed practicing in full. Going “full blast” in the weight room, Broyles was reportedly “making plays across the middle of the field” in OTAs, and is well on track for Week 1. Where he was once a question mark for the beginning of the regular season, Broyles is now in the driver’s seat for No. 2 duties, if not by Week 1, then soon after. The NCAA’s all-time receptions leader, Broyles is in position to build on his promising rookie season much faster than anyone anticipated.
Lost: Justin Hunter
It was a bit curious when the Titans traded up to No. 34 to get Hunter. By most accounts, they’re planning to feature a more run-heavy offense in 2013, and already had Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Damian Williams under contract. Hunter is an extremely talented player — perhaps the most physically gifted wideout in this year’s draft class, according to NFL Films’ Greg Cosell — but receiver simply wasn’t a position of need for a team that’s flirting with disaster with its roster construction. But Tennessee is where Hunter landed.
What’s ensued is a questioning of his toughness by WRs coach Shawn Jefferson, and an offseason program where Hunted missed all but one practice with a hamstring injury. "Justin needs to get his (butt) going," Jefferson said early last month. "Sometimes we have to fight through things. That’s how I was taught with Bill Parcells. If it ain’t broke, then I’m not hurt. This is a very crucial time. This is where we see the growth in the kid, where he gets used to going through some adversity."
Ultimately, missed time in pad-less practices isn’t a major concern for a player of Hunter’s pedigree. But the direction of the Titans offense? The uncertainty surrounding erratic third-year QB Jake Locker? Those are concerns, and combined with a work ethic that might not yet be up to NFL standards, make Hunter a rookie to avoid in the WR3 conversation.
Gained: Jordan Cameron/Vance McDonald
We liked Cameron before free agency and the draft. We liked him even more once the Browns issued a vote of confidence by adding no new talent at the position. Considered a “perfect fit” for Norval Turner’s offense by former scout Daniel Jeremiah, Cameron was reportedly peppered with deep balls in Browns OTAs. Cameron himself believes Turner’s scheme is designed to clear space underneath for the tight end. "They’re making an opening for the tight end," Cameron said last month. "They’re running deep routes, and it makes it easier for tight ends to work the middle a little bit, and we stretch the field as well, so there’s a lot of guys running deep, vertical routes." Cameron is one of this year’s more compelling fantasy sleepers.
As for McDonald, he’s unlikely to be more than a TE2 as a rookie, but he turned heads in 49ers OTAs. Both CSN Bay Area and the Sacramento Bee called him “the most impressive rookie” in Niners OTAs, and hinted he could see a decent amount of time as a pass-catching tight end, particularly if Vernon Davis plays a lot of snaps at receiver. McDonald is more of a Dynasty-league prospect than redraft-league must have, but could prove to be a worthy streamer.
Lost: Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley
Hill and Kerley were dubbed two of the “duds” of Jets minicamp by ESPN New York, but the truth is, their fate was sealed much earlier — when the Jets selected Geno Smith with the No. 39 overall pick. Smith could easily develop into a better NFL quarterback than Mark Sanchez, but the Jets are now committed to another year of uncertainty at the most important position in sports, leaving their young receivers in limbo as they adjust to their third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
Things are looking particularly bleak for Hill, who struggled with drops this offseason, and is still having trouble with his surgically-repaired right knee. Coach Rex Ryan put it succinctly when he said after minicamp that it “has to get better” for his wideouts. With both a new quarterback and play-caller being broken in, things could get worse before they get better.