Bruce Arians' ability to manufacture and scheme production out of Arizona's 2013 offense despite abysmal offensive line talent -- No. 7 overall pick LG Jonathan Cooper was supposed to be the Cardinals' best one and he didn't play a single down -- cements, in my mind, Arians as an elite NFL offensive coach. And let's not forget the defenses Arizona faced, playing everyone else in the NFC West twice. The Cardinals' offensive line is going to be a lot better this year.
Back is Cooper. Signed is 27-year-old (in June) stud Jared Veldheer to man Carson Palmer's blind side. Back is quality starting center Lyle Sendlein. The right side still needs fixing, but couldn't be worse than last year, when RG Paul Fanaika finished as Pro Football Focus' No. 76 guard out of 81 qualifiers, and current free agent RT Eric Winston ranked 70th among 76 tackles.
And that's good news for the entirety of Arizona's offense, which will feature Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd almost exclusively in the passing game with Andre Roberts out of the picture. Although Arians continues to downplay the possibility of Andre Ellington as a true workhorse, he's clearly being counted on for an increased sophomore-year role. A slightly poor man's Giovani Bernard, Ellington led all 2013 rushers in yards per carry (5.53) among players with at least 100 attempts. Also dynamic in the passing game, Ellington would become a high-ceiling fantasy commodity on a workload similar to C.J. Spiller's in 2012 (207 carries, 40-plus receptions).
With its offensive line patched back together, Tony Gonzalez's 83 receptions removed from the equation, and Julio Jones and Roddy White both due back healthy, Atlanta's passing offense should be a hotspot for fantasy bounce-back years. White is 32 now, but racked up 43 catches for 502 yards and two touchdowns over Atlanta's final five games of last season, good for a beastly 138-1,607-7 extrapolation. Some of those pace stats obviously aren't sustainable, but White can still ball. I'm going to love him as a 2014 re-draft value pick, and believe he's worth targeting in Dynasty leagues, as well. One of the game's premier route runners, White's playing style should keep him effective deep into his 30s. Franchise quarterback Matt Ryan is signed through 2018.
I also love Ryan's chances of rebounding. Last year's No. 15 fantasy quarterback finish was Ryan's worst since his injury-plagued 2009 sophomore season, and caused mainly by the injuries to Julio and White, as well as disastrous line play. This may sound like lazy analysis, but the fact is Atlanta's front five couldn't be worse than last season. Combine OC Dirk Koetter's pass-first leanings with the Falcons' underwhelming run game and a healthy White and Jones, and Ryan should be a shoo-in to rediscover top-eight quarterback numbers.
As for Atlanta's backfield, I'm holding off on projections until May's draft. I think there's a good chance GM Thomas Dimitroff uses an early- to mid-round pick on a toolsy power back. Steven Jackson remains on the roster, though he turns 31 in July and leads all active NFL running backs in career carries -- by 365 over Frank Gore. There's not much juice left in that tank. The Falcons' backfield was dealt another offseason blow when Jason Snelling announced his retirement.
What's happening in Carolina saddens me. Second-year GM Dave Gettleman's financial flexibility is nonexistent due to old GM Marty Hurney's contract blunders and Greg Hardy's $13.116 million franchise tag. The Panthers' offensive line and wide receiver corps are in absolute shambles, and there's next to nothing Gettleman can do about it. He badly needs another home-run draft.
The Panthers have seven picks in May, though only two in the top 90. Gettleman showed in his first year that he can be a highly effective drafter, but he's really going to need to work magic this time. In an otherwise fast-improving NFC South, Carolina is a legitimate first-to-worst candidate. Cam Newton and the front seven can keep the Panthers in games, but beyond Cam their current offensive makeup lacks any semblance of playmaking ability. The O-Line is truly in tatters, and the defense was lucky to stay healthy last year.
None of that "analysis" may help you in your fantasy league, but I think it's worth filing away. 31-year-old DeAngelo Williams is the Panthers' lead running back. 32-year-old Jerricho Cotchery is their top wide receiver. Turnstile RT Byron Bell is penciled in on Newton's blind side.
The Bears' embarrassment of offensive riches could expand this season with sophomore wideout Marquess Wilson moving into a prominent role. Gone is longtime slot man Earl Bennett, clearing a path for Wilson to play in three-receiver sets. Wilson stands 6-foot-3, 194 and ran a 4.51 forty at the 2013 Combine, before flashing playmaking ability last preseason. He's 21 years old. Wilson's 2014 re-draft value is likely tied to Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall missing time, but there's an arrow pointing skyward on his Dynasty stock. Marshall's contract expires after this season, and coach Marc Trestman runs one of the NFL's most receiver-friendly offenses.
Under then-rookie coach Trestman, a.k.a. "QB Whisperer," Jay Cutler stayed healthy enough to attempt 24-plus passes in 10 games last season. These are his numbers in those ten: 221-of-347 (63.7%) for 2,593 yards (7.47 YPA) with a 19:11 TD-to-INT ratio. Over 16 games, those numbers work out to career bests in completion rate and touchdown passes (30.4). Cutler's passing yards (4,148) would've been the second most of his career. Cutler's non-believers will hold against him his injury-prone label and reputed lack of "clutch" factor, while open-minded fantasy-value seekers will note Cutler is likely to improve on his 2013 pace stats in his second year under Trestman. Chicago is absurdly loaded on offense, with Forte in the backfield, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall out wide, Martellus Bennett at tight end, and Wilson offering big upside on expanded playing time. If you're not already seriously considering value-plucking Cutler with a 2014 re-draft pick, perhaps you've been watching too much late-season NBA.
With Wilson and Jeffery outside, Marshall will be able to create more mismatches at slot receiver, where opponents typically play small corners and backup safeties. A draft-day scenario to monitor is Chicago drafting a running back. 2013 UDFA Michael Ford is the lone worthwhile tailback prospect on the current depth chart behind Forte. Trestman prefers flexible, multi-dimensional backs.
Want to get excited about Dez Bryant? I mean really, really excited. Read this column by Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus.
New Cowboys "passing-game coordinator" (read: playcaller) Scott Linehan spent 2009-2013 as Jim Schwartz's offensive coordinator in Detroit. On Linehan's watch, the Lions ranked sixth, third, first, first, and fifth in the NFL in pass attempts. The Cowboys ranked 13th, ninth, 12th, third, and 14th over that same stretch. Jason Garrett does like to pass. He just doesn't like to pass as much as Linehan. Not many people do.
As much of the rest of the league tones down their passing games in favor of increased balance, the Cowboys are dialing up the volume. Give Linehan a pass for Detroit's lack of high-end No. 2 receiver production; injuries forced him to play Kris Durham opposite Calvin Johnson the past two seasons. Titus Young, Ryan Broyles, and even Nate Burleson all had productive runs when healthy. I like Terrance Williams as a breakout candidate and potential every-week WR3.
And don't expect DeMarco Murray to get lost, either. Linehan's usage of Reggie Bush -- a player I compared Murray to coming out of college -- was creative and very successful in Detroit last year. Joique Bell caught 50-plus passes in consecutive seasons under Linehan after almost falling out of the league. In 2006, Steven Jackson hauled in a career-high 90 receptions with Linehan calling St. Louis' plays. Reduced carries and increased catches could actually bode well for Murray's chances of staying healthy. He'll be in space rather than grinding between the tackles. I'm not sure the Linehan hire improves Dallas' slim Super Bowl chances, but I like it for fantasy value.
Speaking of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, I think there's going to be a new lead running back in Detroit this year. And it'll be the guy with a new contract. Targeting a more under-center rushing attack and moving away from outgoing OC Scott Linehan's spread, the Lions locked up Bell for three years and $9.3 million, with $4.3 million guaranteed. The Lions could've retained Bell on a one-year, $2.187 million restricted tender. Instead, they gave him a raise and will increase his workload. As ex-Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi is now Detroit's offensive coordinator, I expect to see Bush in a Sprolesian role with Bell as the Lions' new carries leader.
I believe the Lions are very much in play for early-round pass catchers -- particularly "movement" tight ends -- so I plan to wait until after the draft to make substantive predictions regarding Detroit's pass-game distribution. I do believe it's worth exploring just how big an upgrade Golden Tate is on incumbent No. 2 receiver Kris Durham. And that upgrade bodes extremely well for Matthew Stafford.
One of the most inefficient receivers in the game, Durham dropped 10-of-82 targets last season per Pro Football Focus' game charts. His 46.3% "catch rate" ranked 104th among 111 qualifying wide receivers. This was despite playing opposite Calvin Johnson, who makes life easy on complementary players by commanding triple teams and bracket coverage. To be as frank as possible, Durham was downright terrible.
Conversely, Tate has dropped just five of his 149 catchable targets over the last three seasons, the lowest "drop rate" of any wide receiver in the pros. Tate's 50 "missed tackles" forced the past three years are nine more than any wideout in the game, per PFF’s Pete Damilatis. Tate lacks prototypical size (5-foot-10 1/4, 199) and was always a dicey WR3 play in Seattle's run-first offense, but he has breakout potential in Detroit and is going to be a big boon to his quarterback's cause.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb all project as top 2014 fantasy re-draft picks with minimal reasons for concern.
There are moving parts behind Green Bay's headline skill-position players, however. Jarrett Boykin will inherit the James Jones role, playing X and Z receiver opposite Nelson with Cobb in the slot. Boykin isn't quite an explosive playmaker, but can handle steady volume, runs crisp routes, and plays with a lot of physicality at 6-foot-2, 218. Still only 24, the arrow is pointing up on Boykin. He could make a major statistical surge if Nelson or Cobb miss time.
Green Bay is an intriguing possible landing spot for an early-round tight end. The Packers envision in-line plodder Andrew Quarless as a No. 2 type, and ex-basketball player Brandon Bostick remains a work in progress. GM Ted Thompson will stay true to his board on draft day -- he always does -- but tight ends could definitely intrigue him as the Packers look to replace Jermichael Finley.
I don't think the Packers have thrown in the towel on 2013 fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin by any means. But the fact that they re-signed James Starks (two years, $3.166 million) suggests Thompson believes Franklin isn't ready, or at least that Starks remains a significantly superior supporting option. Based on Thompson's history of contract dealings, I don't think he would've retained Starks at even the league minimum were the Packers sold on Franklin as a No. 2 back. Franklin struggled for playing time as a rookie, and as of late March was still recovering from last November's concussion and neck injuries. Physical reliability is a critical running back attribute.