The Ravens are transitioning out of Jim Caldwell's pass-centric offense and into new OC Gary Kubiak's run-first scheme, an offshoot of Mike Shanahan's highly successful zone-run attacks in Denver, where Kubiak spent a decade as coordinator. Baltimore upgraded on liability C Gino Gradkowski by trading for Jeremy Zuttah, and will count on internal improvement from LT Eugene Monroe, LG Kelechi Osemele, and RG Marshal Yanda. Ray Rice has shed 15 pounds in an effort to regain lateral quickness. Rice, however, has carried the rock an otherworldly 2,531 times over his last nine football seasons, including NFL playoffs and college. That's 198 more combined college and pro carries than Maurice Jones-Drew, who is two years older than Rice and currently on the street. I'm not sure Rice is a great bet for a rebound year, and his aggravated assault indictment serves as yet another roadblock. With Bernard Pierce rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder following a down sophomore season, the Ravens are a sleeper team to draft a running back on day two.
Kubiak teaches a play-action offense that will define reads and throws for quarterback Joe Flacco, but passing volume will be scaled back. I think Flacco could be headed for his most efficient NFL season -- Kubiak's offense is among the most quarterback-friendly in football -- but don't expect monster box-score stats.
Shortly after signing with Baltimore, Steve Smith made one of the humblest remarks you'll ever hear from a five-time Pro Bowl player nearing the end of his career. “I don’t see myself in coach Kubiak’s system like Andre Johnson,” Smitty acknowledged. “I see the complementary dude of Kevin Walter." Steve Smith, comparing himself to Kevin Walter. Walter spent five years as blocking-possession receiver under Kubiak in Houston, never topping 60 receptions or reaching 900 yards. The focus of Kubiak's passing game will be Torrey Smith in the Johnson role and Dennis Pitta as his new Owen Daniels.
The Bills were relatively quiet in free agency for the second straight offseason, notably landing only left guard Chris Williams (four years, $13.5 million), middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (one year, $3 million), versatile defensive back Corey Graham (four years, $16 million), and strong-side 'backer Keith Rivers (two years, $4.05 million). GM Doug Whaley, who hails from Pittsburgh's front office, has treated free agency as a means of patching holes rather than building a roster.
This may surprise you, it may not. I definitely believe it: The Bills' roster is ready to win right now, with the exception of sophomore quarterback E.J. Manuel, who struggled mightily on the field last season. Manuel is a plus-sized athlete with outstanding character and work ethic, but coach Doug Marrone and OC Nathaniel Hackett tacitly acknowledged he wasn't ready to play as a rookie by running the football a league-high 546 times despite a 6-10 record. The only other NFL teams to top 500 rushing attempts were Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. And they all had double-digit wins. Had Kevin Kolb not suffered a preseason concussion, I think Manuel would have spent most or all of 2013 on the bench.
Put simply, Buffalo's offense will remain a question mark until Manuel makes noticeable strides on the field. I'm personally not optimistic about his future. Manuel is a highly erratic, almost unnatural thrower with shaky pocket command. Marrone stated shortly after last season that he hopes to expand the Bills' passing game. He'll need major improvements from Manuel to pull it off.
All signs point toward a potentially exponential increase in 2014 touches for second-year halfback Giovani Bernard, who scored eight touchdowns and totaled 1,209 yards with 56 catches as a rookie. "I witnessed in Ray Rice since his rookie year in Baltimore and then from (2008 to 2009) and the difference in him," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL meetings. "We're hoping that Gio can take those same steps." Rice's sophomore workload ballooned to 332 touches, finishing as the No. 4 overall fantasy back. As new OC Hue Jackson installs a more balanced offense, that caliber of statistical finish is within reach for Gio.
Meantime, expect Jackson to scale back Andy Dalton's passing-game volume. Dalton finished 2013 eighth in the NFL in attempts (586) but fifth in interceptions (20). Due to talent limitations, Dalton has held back Cincinnati's offense for three years. He'll be more of a game manager under Jackson, with a prioritized running attack complemented by what should still be a strong defense.
I'm also betting on an increased role for high-scoring Marvin Jones, as Jackson is a superior talent evaluator to outgoing OC Jay Gruden, who head-scratchingly insisted on rotating Jones with plodding Mohamed Sanu. Jones is a better route runner, with more playmaking ability, and even a stronger blocker than Sanu. With Andrew Hawkins gone to Cleveland, Jones' 50.0% snap rate should soar. Even if he doesn't replicate last year's ten touchdowns, Jones should experience hikes in catches and yards.
Quietly but steadily, the Browns are building. New feature back Ben Tate (two years, $6.2 million) adds credibility to a backfield that forgettably committed significant 2013 snaps to Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, and Edwin Baker. Andrew Hawkins (four years, $13.6 million) will be the Welker to Josh Gordon's Moss. Hawkins is the elder statesman of the offense at 28 years old. Gordon will be 23 when the season starts, Tate and Jordan Cameron 26. I don't think they'll invest the No. 4 overall draft pick on a quarterback. Would the Browns consider Sammy Watkins?
Kyle Shanahan was previously an offensive coordinator in Houston and Washington, and a common theme of his units is a run-based attack heavy on zone-blocking concepts with a tendency to pepper "No. 1" receivers like Andre Johnson, Pierre Garcon, and now Gordon with targets. Owen Daniels, and last year Jordan Reed, were fed the football at tight end. I still think the biggest candidate for a statistical surge is Tate, a perfect fit for the younger Shanahan's one-cut, downhill run game. Can Tate's body hold up for 16 games? Probably not. Do I think he has a chance to deliver low-end RB1 stats in the weeks he's active? Yes. Across 421 career carries, Tate has rushed for 1,992 yards (4.73 YPC) and ten touchdowns with 58 receptions. I don't think Tate is a special running talent, but I also don't think you need to be a special talent to excel in Shanahan's scheme.
I believe the Browns will soon sign longtime Shanahan pal Rex Grossman to help install the offense, with Brian Hoyer as the markered-in favorite to start Week 1. Cleveland will draft a rookie with either its second first-round pick (No. 26) or second-rounder (No. 35), and he will be groomed for the future. Shanahan will attempt to manage and manipulate Hoyer, surrounding him with a foundation rushing attack, explosive weapons, and a formidable defense. And barring faster-than-expected development, I think the rookie signal caller will be honed for 2015. That's just my take.
"Splash" defensive signings DeMarcus Ware (three years, $30 million), Aqib Talib (six years, $57 million), and T.J. Ward (four years, $22.5 million) generated more headlines in Denver, but the Broncos' most fantasy-relevant addition was new No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders, landed on a three-year, $15 million deal. Sanders stands 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, so asking him to match predecessor Eric Decker's touchdown production would be too bold. I do think Sanders has a chance to be a great fit for Denver's offense.
A twitchy 4.4-flat speedster, Sanders has experience playing both slot receiver and out wide. He'll be a dynamite crossing-route runner in the Broncos' quick-hitting, timing-based attack, combining with slot man Wes Welker to give safeties and linebackers fits. At age 27, Sanders is a shoo-in for career-best stats across the board. He won't put up Decker-type low-end WR1 numbers, but WR2 production is within reach. On the other hand, removing 6-foot-3, 217-pound Decker from the Broncos' red-zone packages could buoy and even bolster the TD totals of Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas.
With Knowshon Moreno removed from the equation, Montee Ball's fantasy arrow is pointing skyward in Denver. The Broncos were unwilling to meet Moreno's free agent asking price in large part due to their confidence in last year's second-round pick. Ball is fantasy's top breakout running back candidate, but continue to keep an eye on second-year UDFA C.J. Anderson. Anderson shined during 2013 camp and preseason, forcing GM John Elway to keep him on the active 53 despite a 4-6 week MCL injury suffered last August that sidelined the rookie deep into the season. The Broncos are very clearly high on Anderson's potential. Still only 22, third-stringer Ronnie Hillman will get another look, but has a steep hill to climb after last year losing virtually all of Peyton Manning's trust.
We're in a holding pattern when attempting to forecast the design of Houston's 2014 offense because Bill O'Brien is a first-time head coach and has yet to choose his franchise quarterback. I do think the signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick provides a clue for O'Brien's plans. Fitzpatrick obviously isn't a starting-caliber NFL passer, but has flirted with effectiveness in spread-style offenses under Chan Gailey and in 2013 under Dowell Loggains. In all likelihood, O'Brien's offense will be wide open. Gone is Gary Kubiak's tight-formation, run-personnel attack. The Patriots played lots of spread with O'Brien as offensive coordinator (2007-2011), and he didn't shy from it at Penn State.
Although the spread offense generally carries pass-first connotations, I expect O'Brien to make heavy use of Arian Foster, particularly as the Texans break in a young signal caller or work to mask stopgap Fitzpatrick's weaknesses. Foster's all-purpose skill set is very much a fit for what O'Brien has historically done. I think O'Brien will scheme Foster into space, utilizing him frequently in the passing game. I was very wary of Foster entering the 2013 fantasy season. I intend to support him as a bounce-back target in 2014.
I'll also be keeping close tabs on the Texans' draft-day decision making. O'Brien's offense in his final year with New England featured two-tight end "12 personnel" as Rob Gronkowski (90-1,327-17) and Aaron Hernandez (79-910-7) both registered career-best stats. Although neither is as talented as those Patriots tight ends, it's conceivable O'Brien will fancy Garrett Graham in the Hernandez "move" role while impressive sophomore Ryan Griffin functions as a poor man's Gronk.
The Colts' offense was mind-numbing in Pep Hamilton's debut year as playcaller. Hamilton insisted on emphasizing a theoretical power run game. Indianapolis' line play and tailbacks performed at a significantly sub-optimal level, which combined with a below-average defense resulted in routine early-game deficits. Games would fall entirely on the shoulders of Andrew Luck, who more often than not brought Indianapolis back. But Luck was never the true centerpiece of Pep the Playcaller's plan of attack entering games. There are indications that may change in 2014.
The Colts first hired Rob Chudzinski, who coaxed a Pro Bowl berth out of Derek Anderson in Cleveland and oversaw Cam Newton's record-setting rookie year in Carolina. Indy flirted with Eric Decker before signing Hakeem Nicks. Running back Donald Brown walked in free agency. Tight end Dwayne Allen got healthy. The stars seem to be aligning for a more pass-oriented Indianapolis offense. That, of course, would be outstanding news for Luck's fantasy value.
As for whether Trent Richardson is capable of a bounce-back year, I'm holding off on substantive predictions until OTAs at soonest. I have no doubt Richardson lost his confidence following last year's in-season trade from the Browns to Colts. I also think he played overweight. I think he didn't know the offense. A full offseason in the Hamilton/Chud system should help T-Rich, but I think his career path is mostly up to him. He needs to shed pounds and regain his quick-twitch explosion. Richardson will turn 24 this offseason. He's been a big disappointment, but he's not yet a bust.