Most of the news coming out of OTAs and minicamps is meaningless. Some of it is very meaningful. The idea here is to parse through what we've seen and heard over the last month in terms of depth charts, player progress and potential usage. I'll be back with the AFC notes in an upcoming column.
Long prone to hyperbole (see previous Levi Brown, Justin Bethel statements), Bruce Arians sent a ripple through the fantasy community by claiming he’d like Andre Ellington to get 25-30 touches per game this season. That’s not going to happen of course, but I still took the statement as a very positive sign for Ellington’s outlook. His head coach has recognized unique talent and wants to build the running game around him, only rostering pass-pro/short-yardage specialist Jonathan Dwyer and replacement-level Stepfan Taylor as backups. Much like Jamaal Charles (5’11/199), Chris Johnson (5’11/203) and Tiki Barber (5’10/205), the 5’9/199 Ellington will be “too small” until he isn’t. Consistently durable at Clemson, he piled up 707 total touches while playing in 49 of 54 possible games. I’d feel confident projecting 220 carries and 55 catches for Ellington this season, which comes out to 17.1 touches per game. PPR owners should take note of this quote from Arians: “It’s easy to hand it to him, but throwing it to him is where he’s really dynamic.”
The star of the Cardinals’ offseason was physical specimen Michael Floyd, who went toe-to-toe with Patrick Peterson often and came out ahead. “The way Mike Floyd is playing just jumped out at me,” said Carson Palmer. As the 24-year-old Floyd continues to ascend and the 30-year-old Larry Fitzgerald declines to an underneath role, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the two cross paths in terms of statistical value as soon as this season. Top beat writer Kent Somers literally sounded the fantasy alarm in an Arizona Republic article last week. … Second-round TE Troy Niklas broke his hand during OTAs, giving Rob Housler some leash. Regardless, we should know by now that tight ends are usually hands-off in Arians’ vertical passing scheme.
Julio Jones (foot) did not participate in any football activities during OTAs or minicamp and confirmed that the fracture that ended his 2013 season was indeed a re-break of the same bone he broke in 2011. He also got bone marrow taken out of his hip and injected into the foot to help healing. That’s enough for me to currently rank Jones as my No. 7 receiver, behind Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson. If Jones is a full-go from Day 1 of camp, I’ll move him to the No. 4 spot. ... There are two major reasons for optimism on Jones. First, the Falcons are shifting to a three-wide base, yet didn’t bring in anything behind Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Second, Jones was spotted cutting and pushing off his left foot while on the field in early June, nearly seven weeks before camp. I’d be a little surprised if the injury became an issue this season.
The Falcons aren’t going to try to replace Tony Gonzalez, instead simply eliminating the “F” position from the offense. That means mountainous 6’8/265 Levine Toilolo will be playing a ton of snaps as an in-line blocker and goal-line option. But only 2.7 percent of Matt Ryan’s 2013 throws targeted an in-line tight end, highlighting OC Dirk Koetter’s lack of interest in the position. The bigger beneficiary of the schematic change is Douglas, who will be on the field plenty as the clear-cut No. 3 target. He won’t be seeing anything close to 133 targets again, but he’ll have a shot at WR4 value with the Falcons projecting to be in plenty of shootouts. ... Coach Mike Smith said rookie RB Davonta Freeman needs to show well in pass protection, which shouldn’t be an issue. He was arguably the top blocker among the backs in his class. With Steven Jackson turning 31 in June, Freeman will be an ideal flier/handcuff pick as long as he beats out Jacquizz Rodgers in August. ... We’ll get an up-close look at all this as the Falcons will be on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this season (One of my favorite current shows, right there with Californication, Vice and Silicon Valley).
Although missing OTAs and team work during minicamp is never good, I actually look at Cam Newton’s left ankle surgery as a positive. The procedure was designed to tighten the ligaments that have bothered him since Auburn, therefore giving him even more strength and burst. We know Newton is going to need it while running for his life behind an offensive line that might be the NFL’s worst. … Speaking of NFL-worst, the top-three receivers during practice have been raw rookie Kelvin Benjamin, 32-year-old Jerricho Cotchery and lead-footed Jason Avant. Newton is going to find a way to put some fantasy points on the board, but this passing game is going to struggle. I’d take quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan before Cam.
The good news for the offense is that Jonathan Stewart has enjoyed a fully healthy offseason for the first time in memory. Still just 27 years old, he has a chance to resurrect a once-promising career while sharing carries with DeAngelo Williams. The last time Stewart was fully healthy (2011), he ripped off an impressive 5.35 YPC on 142 rushes. … The offense ran a lot of two-tight end sets during OTAs, which makes a ton of sense. They’re going to have to run the ball, target Greg Olsen heavily and play elite defense if they want to get back to the playoffs. Olsen was fantasy’s No. 8 tight end last year, and will be seeing even more consistent volume this year.
Continuity has been the story of the Bears offseason. They retained all 11 starters from an offense that ranked 8th in yards and 2nd in points per game last season. … Jay Cutler reportedly looked bigger and stronger during the spring, good news for a player that has missed 12 games over the last three seasons. With Marc Trestman, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, a 16-game season out of Cutler will almost certainly yield top-10 fantasy quarterback status. … A buzz name during practices has been Marquess Wilson, who essentially redshirted as a rookie last season due to strength concerns at 184 pounds. Now he’s up to 207 and the Bears released Earl Bennett, handing the No. 3 wideout job to Wilson. He’ll be a handcuff pick for owners spending an early selection on Marshall or Jeffery.
Scott Linehan’s arrival in Big D should have fantasy owners salivating. This is a guy that guided Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson off double-teams, and he’s going to do the same for Dez Bryant. At OTAs, Bryant has been learning “Z” and slot in addition to his usual “X” duties. I wouldn’t call anyone crazy for considering Dez over Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas in fantasy drafts. … Having already lost DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos and Jason Hatcher to the Redskins, the season-ending ACL tear to Sean Lee in a “non-contact” workout put the nail in the defense’s coffin. They’re going to be spectacularly bad, leaving Tony Romo and the offense in a lot of shootouts and comeback situations – ideal fantasy spots.
Coaches have been extremely pleased with Terrance Williams, who is running as an unquestioned starter opposite Bryant. Perhaps elite talent isn’t here, but Williams is a big-play guy who will be seeing tons of single coverage in a pass-happy scheme. I’m buying in a big way. … Lance Dunbar has been buzzing throughout OTAs and minicamp, with reports that the Cowboys have “big plans” for him. I don’t think DeMarco Murray will be coming off the field very much, but the 5’8/188 Dunbar could carve out a homeless man’s Darren Sproles role. He’s a deep-league PPR flier. … Another youngster to watch is second-year tight end Gavin Escobar. His role has been expanded at OTAs, which is not a surprise considering the lack of receiving talent behind Bryant, Williams and Jason Witten. If the 32-year-old Witten were to go down this season, Escobar will border on TE1 viability.
Calvin Johnson put up another top-three fantasy season last year, but the knee and finger injuries he battled were serious enough that he needed postseason surgery on both. No matter. Johnson was looking like his normal self during OTAs, “crushing” the Lions defense backs while running crisp routes. Still just 28 years old, Megatron has at least 2-3 truly elite years left. … The hiring of former Saints assistant Joe Lombardi as the Lions new offensive coordinator continues to breed excitement. He’s giving Matthew Stafford more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage a la Drew Brees, and is preaching an up-tempo style. With the addition of Golden Tate, whose elite skills were suffocated in Seattle, anything less than a top-five fantasy finish for Stafford would be disappointing. ... Eric Ebron did not impress during spring practices and battled drops. I wasn’t going to be on a rookie as my TE1 anyway, and would gamble on Jace Amaro ahead of Ebron as a TE2. Far less competition for targets. … Every year the Detroit media talks up Mikel Leshoure, and this year they’ve added Theo Riddick to the mix. I’m ignoring. Once Joique Bell’s minor knee injury clears up, it’s obvious that he’s the Pierre Thomas to Reggie Bush’s Darren Sproles. There’s not much room for other backs here right now.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The status of free agent Jermichael Finley (neck surgery) hangs over the offense. There’s still a chance he gains medical clearance and returns to the Packers, therefore giving up a $10 million insurance policy. Otherwise the tight end spot will be a fantasy black hole for me. Andrew Quarless is Pettigrew-esque, and youngsters Brandon Bostick/Richard Rodgers/Colt Lyerla are mere Dynasty stashes. … Everyone else is healthy here. Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone is fully healed and Randall Cobb’s leg is fine. Add in Eddie Lacy, and we have a no-brainer top-4 offense. … James Starks, who got a two-year deal from the Packers in March, continues to run as the handcuff for Lacy. Johnathan Franklin (neck) is not practicing and his career could be in doubt.
Matt Cassel has taken the majority of first-team reps during OTAs and it’s been rumored that he’ll enter training camp as the starter. I think he’ll hold the job through at least the first month of the regular season. The Vikes seem determined not to rush Teddy Bridgewater, and Cassel also went 3-3 as a starter last year (earning the 2014 endorsement of Adrian Peterson). Furthermore, new OC Norv Turner is a Cassel guy: “I gave my evaluation (to the Browns last year). I thought he would have fit.”
Turner’s scheme consistently highlights the tight end spot. Since 2006, he’s worked with Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron. And while in Cleveland last year, he utilized “12” personnel on 36.9 percent of the offensive snaps – second most in the league. That kind of usage will free up contract-year tight end Kyle Rudolph, whose shown significant red-zone ability already. I like Rudolph as a back-end TE1. … Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings are running as the starting wideouts. Jerome Simpson will be a situational deep threat and clear-out guy. … The Vikings are talking up third-round RB Jerick McKinnon as a third-down back. If Adrian Peterson were to go down, look for a committee approach that will also feature Matt Asiata. It’s not a very good handcuff situation, which is why a guy like Jamaal Charles is a better first-round pick for me. We can be protected very well with Knile Davis. Peterson may be from Mars, but he’s still 29 years old with more than 2,000 carries and three surgeries in the last three years (ACL, sports hernia, groin).