Norv Turner brings to Minnesota the template of a vertical passing attack complemented by a foundation power run game. The pieces are obviously in place for the latter with Adrian Peterson parked behind a Vikings offensive line that returns all five starters and finished in the top ten of Football Outsiders' 2013 run-block ratings. Peterson will be leaned on particularly heavily due to Minnesota's quarterback situation, which will either be engineered by Matt Cassel or a rookie.
When pursuing value in 2014 re-drafts, however, Kyle Rudolph should be the first Vikings name that pops into people's minds. Including Jordan Cameron and Antonio Gates, Norv's offenses have produced a top-seven fantasy tight end in six of the last seven years. Norv coaxed a top-15 season out of far-inferior talent Eric Johnson of San Francisco in 2006, and two top-nine finishes from Randy McMichael in Miami. The tight end is a huge part of Turner's scheme. Still only 24, Rudolph is someone to target in Dynasty leagues and as a potential re-draft breakout candidate.
Currently, Cordarrelle Patterson is a hotter name after finishing his rookie year on a wicked tear, scoring six touchdowns in the final five games. I've loved Patterson's physical tools since studying his college tape, but can envision scenarios where his re-draft stock grows too rich for my taste. Patterson is still in the process of learning how to run intermediate and deep routes confidently, and I wonder if the Vikings will be willing to pull him off kick returns considering the home-run dimension he offers on special teams. Throw in what's likely to be a run-dominated offense with shaky quarterback play, and there are obstacles in Patterson's breakout path. I don't think Norv will suddenly turn him into Josh Gordon. I can envision another year of folks complaining that Patterson is being "underutilized" in his team's passing game.
New Orleans Saints
Many -- if not most -- of the NFL's best teams and offensive minds are trending toward more rushing volume and less passing, or are already there. I expect that trend to continue throughout the league in 2014. Among them will be Sean Payton, whose stretch-run playcalling combined with New Orleans' trade of Darren Sproles indicates a shift in the team's thinking. Payton, in fact, has been loudly discussing a more "balanced" offense since returning from his BountyGate suspension. He finally found a back capable of sustaining drives last season in impressive UDFA Khiry Robinson, who played a major role in the Saints' final three games. As legend has it, Payton mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin in a private conversation between the two. Mark Ingram's late-season improvement also can't be ignored. Ingram gained 386 yards on his final 78 carries (4.95 YPC), thriving as the Saints made an increased run-game commitment.
The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 when they finished seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts and had a foundation run game headed by Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas, and Reggie Bush. Thomas is still around, while Robinson and Ingram are both superior runners to Bell. I'm not saying Drew Brees is going to stop slinging it around the yard, but I do think Payton would like Brees to do that a little bit less, and for New Orleans to funnel more offense through the run while relying on Rob Ryan's much improved defense. The Saints have designs on becoming a complete team in 2014. This won’t be an air show any longer.
New York Giants
The G-Men jumpstarted the post-Kevin Gilbride era by aggressively addressing their backfield and offensive line, while in Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Myers, Louis Murphy, and Andre Brown, letting 40% of their 2013 receptions walk. The Giants landed all-purpose back Rashad Jennings (four years, $10 million), re-upped power complement Peyton Hillis (two years, $1.8 million), and kept lane-paving lead blocker Henry Hynoski (one year, $1 million). Up front, GM Jerry Reese bought 6-foot-6, 340-pound left guard mauler Geoff Schwartz (four years, $16.8 million) and old Broncos center J.D. Walton (two years, $5 million). RG Chris Snee was lured back on a $5 million pay cut to face competition from ex-Dolphins 335-pound underachiever John Jerry (one year, $770,000). 2013 first-round right tackle Justin Pugh returns from a promising rookie campaign. The Giants will cross their fingers that left tackle Will Beatty rediscovers 2012 form after a brutal '13 season.
Their lone wide receiver pickup was old pal Mario Manningham (one year, $765,000), who has bad knees and looked washed up in San Francisco last season.
The offseason strategy leads me to believe the G-Men intend to resume playing old-fashioned Coughlinball in 2014. Gilbride had seemingly become obsessed with the passing game in recent seasons. When the Giants couldn't pass protect last year due to myriad O-Line injuries, their team fell apart. Eli Manning threw a league-high 27 interceptions and his total sacks taken (39) more than doubled. New York turned the ball over relentlessly. They couldn't sustain offensive drives, making DC Perry Fewell's defense look worse than it really was. It was a nightmare season.
We'll have to wait to see what Reese has up his sleeve in May's draft, but as it stands Jennings looks like a good bet for 200-plus carries and around 40 catches. He's the quintessential Tom Coughlin back, with pass-blocking chops and quality vision as a runner. Jennings has lost one fumble across 387 career carries. Although he's flown under the radar behind Toby Gerhart and Ben Tate among free agent running backs, Jennings landed in a very nice spot.
If the Eagles use a first-round pick on someone like Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, this could all easily prove a moot point. But let's examine how Philadelphia might replace DeSean Jackson's role this season, in the event GM Howie Roseman dedicates his early-round picks to defense. D-Jax ranked in the top 25 in the NFL in targets last year, setting or tying career highs in catches (82), yards (1,332), and receiving scores (9). And I don't anticipate some huge second-year drop off in Chip Kelly's team offensive efficiency. There’s a lot of production to replace.
The obvious candidate is Jeremy Maclin, although I'm skeptical for a few reasons. Maclin's game isn't like Jackson's. In addition to being a deep threat, Jackson is a shifty, elusive in-space movement receiver, while Maclin is more straight-linish and better suited on the perimeter. Kelly used Jackson in a variety of ways. Coming off a torn ACL, I'm not sure he'll do the same with Maclin. I do like Maclin as fantasy WR3 with WR2 upside, but I doubt he'll come close to duplicating Jackson's stats.
LeSean McCoy handled career mosts in carries (314) and all-purpose touches (366) last season, and I tend to doubt Kelly puts much more on his plate. The Eagles traded for Darren Sproles, who could definitely handle some of Jackson's vacated touches around the line of scrimmage. Fresh off signing a five-year, $25 million deal, Riley Cooper's outlook doesn't change much. He's even less of a Jackson-like wideout than Maclin, and played 89 percent of Philly's offensive snaps in 2013. Cooper could conceivably improve on the field in his second year as a starter. I just don't see him "replacing" DeSean Jackson.
Zach Ertz is really interesting. Eagles beat writers and players were predicting a sophomore leap for last year's 35th overall pick even before Jackson's release. "There are three players that I told that they would be great players in this league," Michael Vick stated last season. "I always told Alge Crumpler that he was going to be great, I always told Shady McCoy that he was going to be a great player in this league, and I always told Roddy White. And now I'm saying Zach Ertz." Ertz's pass-game role expanded down the stretch, posting a 25-290-5 receiving line across Philly's final nine games. And he only played 41% of the snaps. Ertz is a "movement" tight end who can run pass patterns at all three levels of the field. Here's a link to my college tape study on Ertz as he came out of Stanford last winter.
I think the Eagles will wind up compensating for Jackson's production in a committee manner. I like Maclin as a 2014 re-draft pick assuming his price tag doesn't get too high. I could see Sproles having an outside chance at weekly flex-play reliability in PPR leagues. But at this moment, I see Ertz as the biggest box-score beneficiary of D-Jax's departure.
San Francisco 49ers
49ers GM Trent Baalke will enter May's draft with 11 draft picks, including a borderline-unfair six in the top 100. San Francisco is a lock to add young talent, but I think their primary means of offensive improvement will come from within.
26-year-old quarterback Colin Kaepernick enters his second full season as a starter, while top wideout Michael Crabtree returns at full strength after last year's Achilles' tendon tear. Anquan Boldin is back on a two-year, $12 million deal. Vernon Davis made noticeable strides as a route runner in 2013, and is signed for two more years. Sophomore wideout Quinton Patton flashed promise in limited doses, but figures to face competition at No. 3 receiver from a rookie.
San Francisco's backfield is a little more interesting. Frank Gore isn't going away, but he turns 31 in May and is entering the last year of his contract. Gore had one 100-yard rushing performance over the 49ers' final 13 games, and averaged 3.65 YPC across the last ten. Gore remains the NFL's premier pass-blocking tailback and a vital cog in Jim Harbaugh's offense, but the Niners have to be considering significantly downsizing his workload. With Marcus Lattimore's knees expected to be healthy and Kendall Hunter offering a Ray Rice-like skill set, San Francisco has horses to do just that. This backfield has three-headed-monster potential for 2014.
The Seahawks play straightforward offense. They're going to run the ball relentlessly, and their wide receivers' stats won't overwhelm. Losing Golden Tate can be offset by Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse's improvement, while Percy Harvin's return to health will make Russell Wilson's passing game more dynamic over the middle. The ceiling on Harvin's volume may be capped by Seattle's run-heavy commitment -- Seattle has finished 32nd and 31st in pass attempts through two seasons with Wilson as its starter -- but Percy will offer plenty of WR2/3 fantasy appeal. And keep an eye on second-year TE Luke Willson, a quietly integral part of this passing offense. At 6-foot-5 3/8, 251, Willson is a freak athletically. His 4.51 forty-yard dash, 38-inch vertical, 10-foot-2 broad jump, and 4.29 short shuttle would've ranked second, second, third, and third among tight ends at this year's Combine.
Seattle's running game is a much more reliable source of fantasy scoring, though, and I think there are some reasons for concern with Marshawn Lynch. Including playoffs, Lynch will enter the 2014 season at age 28 with 1,002 carries over his last three years, an average of 334 per season. Re-drafters will have to closely monitor the position battle between third-down back Robert Turbin and 2013 second-round pick Christine Michael. Lynch has absorbed an unruly amount of punishment due to his running style. Pro Football Focus has placed Lynch in the top four of its yards-after-contact metric in each of the past three seasons. Turbin is no slouch, but Michael displayed truly special running ability at Texas A&M and during his first NFL preseason. Coach Pete Carroll propped him up as a "breakout" candidate in February.
“He’s really talented and he’s a really exciting guy in our program," Carroll said of Michael. "Probably has the most breakout potential out of anybody because you haven’t seen much of him yet. We’ve seen him, we know that he can do really special stuff. We all know in our program that he’s going to be very explosive and a really exciting guy. He showed that in his chances.”
St. Louis Rams
The Rams structured their 2013 offseason around installing an Oklahomian spread offense where Sam Bradford could feel "comfortable," almost as if he were back in college. Bradford's final stats look good on paper pre-ACL tear, but closer inspection reveals little difference in Bradford's on-field performance, with Bradford racking up numbers in comeback mode and netting nine of his 14 touchdowns against Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Houston. Those teams all draft in the top six in May. Just from watching the 2013 Rams, I think you could make a strong argument that the offense ran smoother and with more purpose with Kellen Clemens at the controls. They had a defined identity. St. Louis finished 4-5 with Clemens after Bradford's 3-4 start.
Small-sample-sized won-loss records are unreliable indicators of individual on-field performance -- and particularly future fantasy production -- but they may mean something to St. Louis' decision makers. More importantly during Clemens' time under center, the Rams discovered a foundation back in Zac Stacy. They have a lot of talent on defense. And, historically, this is the way Jeff Fisher prefers to play. For many years in Houston and Tennessee, part of the definition of "Fisher Ball" was a decidedly run-first attack.
And we can continue to collectively wonder whether Sam Bradford is indeed a "franchise quarterback," and whether him, or the people around him are more to blame for Bradford's slow NFL development. But the fantasy stock of Stacy would be solidified by implementation of Fisher Ball. It was Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio who first compared Stacy's running style coming out of Vanderbilt to Travis Henry. Across 14 games with the Titans in 2006, Henry rushed 270 times and averaged a career-best 4.5 YPC. Fisher was Henry's head coach.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I'm not worried about Doug Martin bouncing back from last year's shoulder injury. I'm not too worried about "other backs" Bobby Rainey and Mike James. I'm not overly concerned with Tampa Bay's rebuilt offensive line, either. I am a bit cautious about the history of backfield usage and fantasy performance under Tampa Bay's new coaching staff. The No. 3 overall running back scorer in his first year under Marc Trestman, Matt Forte only finished inside the top-ten fantasy backs once in five previous seasons under Lovie Smith. Rookie OC Jeff Tedford spent a decade as the head coach at Cal. He had three excellent receiving backs in Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen, and Justin Forsett, yet none of those three ever exceeded 27 receptions in a college season. I do believe Martin has a chance to flirt with 300 carries. I consider Martin's pass-catching skills a strength, however. And I'm not sure Lovie and Tedford are the right guys to maximize it.
Due to Mike Williams' off-field woes, I think the Bucs are a sleeper to draft a receiver at No. 7 overall. I don't think they'd hesitate if Sammy Watkins slipped there. And although Mike Evans' skill set is similar to Vincent Jackson's, V-Jax has experience at both X and Z from his San Diego days opposite Malcom Floyd. Jackson worked in the slot frequently last year. There is next to no receiver depth in Tampa, and Williams doesn't exactly profile as one of "Lovie's guys." From a roster standpoint, the Bucs are in a place where they don't necessarily have to draft for specific needs. They can stay true to their board.
Based on what I know about Jeff Tedford and Lovie Smith, I expect the Buccaneers to be a team whose foundation is defense, that runs the football with heavy volume and asks its quarterback to manage games. Josh McCown's role will be caretaker, avoiding turnovers and keeping the chains moving on third down. Passing-game fireworks will be few and far between.
I've been mildly critical of Dan Snyder's latest head-coaching hire because I'm not sure Jay Gruden's body of work in Cincinnati warranted it. I do believe Gruden deserves credit for a vice-grip handle on Andy Dalton's strengths and weaknesses, getting the ball out of Dalton's hands quickly and to Cincinnati's deep cast of playmakers. Coaxing 60 touchdowns across two seasons out of such a limited passer deserves kudos. I was more concerned with Gruden's play-time distribution amongst Dalton's supporting cast, and suspect ability to evaluate in-house talent. Gruden regularly played BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Mohamed Sanu at Giovani Bernard and Marvin Jones' expense. He couldn't carve out a consistent role for Andrew Hawkins, or even 2013 first-round pick Tyler Eifert. He leaned on Jermaine Gresham too much. Digging deeper, pass-protection extraordinaire Anthony Collins couldn't crack Cincinnati's first-team lineup until injuries forced him in.
But Gruden the head coach will serve in a different capacity than Gruden the offensive coordinator, so I'm not saying his arrival in Washington is necessarily bad news for all Redskins skill players. I expect Pierre Garcon to continue to be a target monster in the A.J. Green role. New OC Sean McVay was Jordan Reed's position coach last year, and figures to insist on featuring Reed. Gruden's leadership could be a necessary step for Robert Griffin III's development, as RG3 morphs from a run-heavy quarterback into a pocket passer who can run when needed. And Griffin's opportunity will rise in Gruden's higher-volume passing attack. Under Mike Shanahan, RG3 ranked 26th and 18th in the NFL in pass attempts. Under Gruden, Dalton came in 15th and eighth.
The Redskins' skill guy I am worried about is Alfred Morris. Morris' passing-game shortcomings could make him a tough fit for Gruden's pass-centric offense, while Gruden's past committee-backfield leanings are another potential hint at decreased usage. Gruden has talked up second-year scatback Chris Thompson. Roy Helu returns as far-and-away Washington's top pass protector and receiver. Morris is a true foundation runner and was a beyond-fantastic fit for the old Shanahan zone-run offense, but there will be tweaks to the scheme and he's not necessarily a Gruden-style back. Morris has fantasy disappointment potential for 2014.
We can delve deeper into DeSean Jackson's "fit" in Washington when/if the Redskins indeed land him. They appear to be competing with the Raiders, Bills, and two unidentified teams. I think Jackson's catch total could be nearly halved going from Chip Kelly to Gruden's offense, but he would add obvious big-play ability to the perimeter, and could have a major tactical impact, improving the outlooks of Garcon and Reed.