The NFL's offseason is officially in the books. Now that OTAs and minicamp are wrapped, we can sit back and sift through the news while beginning to draw some conclusions. As you get set for fantasy drafts coming in two short months, be sure to check out my NFC Team-by-Team Notes to get caught up. Also, follow me and Rotoworld Football on Twitter.
As far as we know, Ray Rice has been a model NFL citizen throughout his six-year career. And Roger Goodell typically gives first-time offenders of the personal conduct policy a little bit of a leash. But since Rice was caught red-handed by the cameras in Atlantic City’s Revel casino and of course by TMZ, the situation is different: He publicly tarnished the shield in an ugly way. Whispers during minicamp suggested that Rice will be slapped with at least a 4-6 game ban – and given what he did versus what weed-obsessed Josh Gordon has done (and done again and again) to get a likely 16-game ban, I think that makes sense. … That brings us to Bernard Pierce, who participated in individual work during OTAs and minicamp as he comes off shoulder surgery. Pierce is expected to be a full-go from Day 1 of training camp, and will have an excellent chance to run with this starting job in the regular season. Despite a really bad Year 2 regression, his stiff arm and power were really impressive as a rookie in 2012. Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro can’t touch him. I wouldn’t draft Rice at all, and would be happy to use a mid-round pick on Pierce. He could very well take this job by the horns and run ahead of Rice all season.
New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has been installing his trademark scheme throughout the offseason. We know what we’re going to get – consistent production out of the “X” receiver spot, the pass-catching tight end and the running game. … In 141 games as Kubiak’s primary “X” (1997-2005), Rod Smith averaged 5.5 catches for 74.3 yards and scored 62 touchdowns. In 109 games as Kubiak’s primary “X” (2006-2013), Andre Johnson averaged 6.6 catches for 90.4 yards and scored 49 touchdowns. Kubiak’s new “X” is Torrey Smith, an ascending playmaker that’s in a contract year and ready to take off at age 25. I’d love to have him as my WR2 even if he’s not a volume guy a la Rod or Andre. … I won’t be on Steve Smith, who has lost a step or three and has already accepted that he’ll play the Kevin Walter role for Kubiak. … I will be on Dennis Pitta, who I think would have led the Ravens in receptions last season if not for his hip injury. Now healthy, Pitta can do far more while working at the Owen Daniels/Shannon Sharpe spot in this scheme.
Signs from offseason practice suggest that the Bills coaches realize they badly bungled C.J. Spiller last year. Not only did they keep sending him out there on a high-ankle sprain, but they also slammed him between the tackles over and over again. That’s not his game. During OTAs, the offensive coaches seemed “eager” to expand the way in which Spiller is used. That should mean getting him in the open field via standard screens, bubble screens, hitches, pitches – whatever it takes to be creative. I don’t think Spiller is the “till he pukes” kind of volume back this regime originally thought, but he’ll do a ton of damage on 13-15 touches per game. I like him in the third- or fourth-round if he’s there. … Fred Jackson has been defying Father Time, but I don’t want to be holding him when the music stops. If the 33-year-old runs out of gas this year, that Spiller pick will look even better.
There have predictably been positive vibes coming out of Buffalo on second-year QB E.J. Manuel, with coach Doug Marrone saying it’s “like a light going off” in terms of the playbook. It’s not the kind of coach speak worth buying into. Third-party reports say Manuel’s offseason performance has been decidedly mixed, citing accuracy issues. First-round WR Sammy Watkins is a strong candidate to be overdrafted and No. 2 WR/slot man Robert Woods isn’t on my sheet. There are whispers Mike Williams might not even make the team.
There are so many notable scheme changes for fantasy football this season. One of the most obvious ones to me is in Cincy, where new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will be switching to a run-based scheme that sets up the pass. It’s a no-brainer move due to Andy Dalton’s talent limitations, and it means A.J. Green is my WR7 right now – behind Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Julio Jones. It also means Dalton has been downgraded to low-end QB2 status despite finishing as fantasy’s No. 5 quarterback last year. He’ll act as a caretaker of the offense more than a playmaker now, pushing closer to Russell Wilson’s 407 attempts than his own 586 from last year.
The clear beneficiaries of that scheme change will be starter Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill. Hill has run ahead of incumbent “big back” BenJarvus Green-Ellis ever since he stepped foot in Cincy, highlighting Jackson’s tendency not to mess around – he identifies talent and puts it in a position to succeed. I think there’s enough room for Gio to get 16-20 touches and Hill to get 7-9 plus goal-line work. “We’re just going to smash your face in – basically,” said Bernard of the new offense. Green-Ellis, now a third-stringer, may not be active on Sundays even if he sticks on the 53-man roster. … Another winner of the Jay Gruden for Hue swap is Marvin Jones. Inexplicably forced to rotate with Mohamed Sanu last season, Jones will now be an every-down player opposite Green while Sanu is going to be a role player and slot man. Simply a good football player that has shown a knack for making incredibly difficult catches, Jones is on my green highlighter list. Former Rotoworld boss Gregg Rosenthal has a good writeup on Marvin here.
The Browns stuck to their guns throughout offseason practices, giving Brian Hoyer (ACL tear) the first-team reps in the drills he could participate in. He’ll enter training camp as the starter, meaning Johnny Manziel will actually have to earn the job. But let’s be honest. If Johnny Football can’t beat out a journeyman quarterback coming off a knee reconstruction, the Browns will have bigger problems than the fan/media crush that will besiege them. I’d bet on Manziel under center in Week 1, and am fine with him as a QB2 thanks to his rushing upside (see Robert Griffin’s rookie year in the Shanahan & Son scheme). … I’m also not ready to give up on Ben Tate even though the oft-injured ex-Texan was nicked up and didn’t take very many reps at OTAs or minicamp. He’s a one-cut runner in a Kyle Shanahan scheme that makes fantasy superstars out of these kind of backs. I’ll believe Terrance West is more talented than Tate when I see the I-AA product do it against NFL competition.
We still don’t have official word on Josh Gordon’s suspension, but anything less than a 16-game ban would be a shock. He was in Stage 3 of the substance abuse policy when he had another positive test. Then he rubbed it in Roger Goodell’s face by getting pulled over for speeding and allowing the cops to bust his “passenger” for weed. I don’t see the league showing any leniency even though they seem to be realizing their stance on marijuana is silly. … That leaves Miles Austin as the theoretical No. 1 receiver, but he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver since 2010 and didn’t even participate in offseason workouts. The real targets here will be Jordan Cameron and Andrew Hawkins. Baby Hawk was playing both inside and outside during practices, a wise move because this talent-deficient receiving corps needs him on the field at all times – not just in the slot in three-wide sets. I know Hawkins is undersized at 5’7/180, but he has those jitterbug quicks a la Wes Welker and knows how to get open. I’ll gladly take a flier. Hawkins was reportedly the Browns’ best wideout at OTAs “by far” even though Gordon participated. … Deep sleeper Charles Johnson (ACL) is hopeful to be ready for training camp.
The Broncos offseason has spoken volumes about their faith in Montee Ball. They let Knowshon Moreno walk for pennies, added no running backs in free agency, used no draft picks on running backs and named him their starter before OTAs even opened. For tons more on Ball, read my column on him here. … Three new things on Ball from OTAs/minicamp are noticeable steps forward as a long-yardage receiver, improved footwork/positioning as a pass protector and offensive line improvement. LT Ryan Clady’s return from a Lisfranc fracture allows Chris Clark to kick back to right tackle and powerful Orlando Franklin to move inside to left guard. The Broncos are going to run the rock between tackles with Ball even better than they did last year. I confidently have Ball as my RB6 and project C.J. Anderson as the handcuff.
Emmanuel Sanders is working both inside and outside at OTAs and minicamp, showing off the versatility that made him appealing in the first place. He’ll start off outside in Week 1, but it’s worth noting that Wes Welker is one headshot away from an extended absence. In that scenario, Sanders would move into the slot and second-round rookie Cody Latimer would slide in outside. … Latimer’s participating in offseason work has been limited as he comes off Jan. 19 foot surgery, so he’s not pushing Sanders just yet. We’ll be watching closely to see if it happens at training camp.
Andre Johnson is a rare holdout in that he’s not in search of money – he’s simply in search of a new team. Fed up as the Texans undertake another rebuilding project with Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 32-year-old Johnson wants to be traded to a contender. The problem is a $62.7 million contract that includes cap numbers of $15.6 million in 2014 and $16.1 million in 2015. Even if a team with Super Bowl aspirations and a need (like the Eagles) could stomach that for one year, cutting Johnson in 2015 would result in $7.3 million of dead money. The bottom line is that Johnson is either going to be playing for the Texans or no one this season. … In a testament to how empty the quarterback cupboard is, new coach Bill O’Brien named Fitzpatrick his Week 1 starter during minicamp. There’s no one to even compete with him.
In order to hide Fitzpatrick, the Texans are going to try to win games with the run and a very talented defensive front seven. That means lots of Arian Foster, who is over his 2013 back injury and says he’s “healthy and raring to go.” During OTAs, O’Brien said that Foster will fill the passing-back role filled by Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead when O’Brien was in New England. I think Foster is a legit threat for 330 total touches, with 65 of them coming through the air. Backup Andre Brown is a low-upside early-down back only. … DeAndre Hopkins is learning his third system in three years and the tight ends are going to be targeted a lot behind Johnson. I’m off Hopkins for now.
One of the most disappointing storylines coming out of OTAs involved the coaching situation in Indy. Stubborn offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton hasn’t even picked the brain of newly hired special assistant Rob Chudzinski, which is a bad thing if you watched this offense last year. Hamilton tried to cram a square peg into a round hole, riding an inept running game until the Colts fell behind big and then telling Andrew Luck to pick up the pieces. You have a once-in-a-generation quarterback – use him. Right now, I’m not confident there will be parts of Chud’s creative and typically vertical style in this year’s offense.
It’s (allegedly) all peaches and cream for Reggie Wayne. If you ask him or anyone around the Colts, coming back from an ACL tear in 10 months at age 35 is no big thing. We’ll see. Wayne didn’t participate at all in the offseason program, meaning the first look we’ll get at him is training camp. If the Colts can get him to be an effective situational possession receiver this season, I’d consider it a win. … Which brings me to T.Y. Hilton, an elite playmaker who has 12 touchdowns and 14 100-yard games in his two NFL seasons (including playoffs). Hilton is practicing at all four receiver spots during OTAs and minicamp, giving him scheme versatility. I’d be surprised if Wayne’s or Hakeem Nicks’ lower legs hold up productively for the whole year. Hilton is the best player in this receiving corps. … 21-year-old rookie Donte Moncrief is getting some first-team looks, but he’s just a Dynasty hold. Note that Wayne and Nicks are on one-year deals.
Trent Richardson got the bulk of the OTA/minicamp first-team offensive work, ahead of a healed Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and Vick Ballard (knee) watched. I know no one wants to touch T-Rich this year, but the Colts will be desperate to make it work after giving up a first-round pick for him. Note that another powerful back with a similar top-tier pedigree, Marshawn Lynch, didn’t clear 100 yards until his 19th game with Seattle after getting traded out of Buffalo. I’ll gladly take a shot on Richardson, who is back down to 225 pounds and hopefully slimming more weight, in the middle rounds.
In a league in which timeshares at running back are all the rage, the Jaguars are taking a different approach. They’ve loudly told anyone who will listen that newly signed Toby Gerhart will be their battering ram, taking the “bulk of the carries” and handling the third-down duties he used to handle in Minnesota as well. That alone should pique fantasy owner’s interest, but there’s plenty more. First, Gerhart is an underrated athlete at 6’0/231 with 4.53 wheels, a 9-foot-10 broad jump and 38-inch vertical. He runs faster, jumps higher, jumper further and is quicker than Eddie Lacy (5’11/231, 4.57 forty, 9-foot-7 broad jump, 32.5-inch vertical). Second, backups Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson and Storm Johnson are not real threats. Third, the white running back stigma and Jaguars stigma* are keeping Gerhart’s ADP depressed. And finally, ex-Seattle assistant Gus Bradley knows how to ride a workhorse (Marshawn Lynch) and a defense to wins. Gerhart is one of the biggest values in fantasy drafts right now.
* Perhaps my favorite preseason bet is Jaguars over 5 wins. Last year’s non-division schedule included Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego, Kansas City and Arizona. This year’s non-division schedule includes the mediocre NFC East and AFC North. Plus, the AFC South is the worst division in football and the Jags will be better in Year 2 of the Bradley era. Don’t fall for the stigma when thinking about Gerhart.
Chad Henne and Blake Bortles shared first-team reps throughout OTAs and minicamp, but the Jags are adamant that Henne will start come Week 1. They say they want Henne to start all year. That will turn into lip service once Bortles proves just how wide the talent gap is here. Look for the No. 3 overall pick to start before Halloween. … As our Evan Silva has mentioned, ex-Falcons exec David Caldwell likely hopes the progression of Bortles and the entire offense mirrors Atlanta’s recent history. Bortles as Matt Ryan, Gerhart as the Michael Turner, and a trio of exciting receivers (Cecil Shorts, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee). But for this year, I see more Seahawks – and we know how their receivers have fared from a fantasy perspective. I love Robinson and think he’ll be a really good pro, but none of these pass-catchers are in play for me. … If you do want to dive into this passing game, note that Lee was practicing at “Z” during OTAs while Robinson was at “X.” That’s vital because Z is the vacant Justin Blackmon spot, while Shorts resides at X. … Blackmon remains suspended indefinitely and no one around the Jags seems to really know what he’s up to. I’d be shocked if he sees an NFL field before 2015.