NFL Barometer: Early Risers, Fallers
Our first NFL Barometer of the offseason has a lot of topics to cover, so there are 25 players to sift through. Within the “Rising” or “Falling” categories, players are sorted first by position and then by the magnitude of their rise or fall relative to their value at the end of last season.
Robert Griffin, QB, WAS
Griffin would have been a fine bargain target this year after his improbably disappointing 2013 season, but the Redskins also strengthened his supporting cast this offseason, making it likely that he provides a strong return on investment. The surprising release of DeSean Jackson from the division-rival Eagles allowed the Redskins to reel in what might be the league’s best deep threat at receiver, pairing him with one of the league’s most acurrate deep-ball quarterbacks. The Redskins also added wideout Andre Roberts, who should provide a noticeable upgrade in the slot. In addition to the improved surrounding talent, Griffin’s fantasy value got another fantasy boost this offseason when Jay Gruden replaced Mike Shanahan as Washington’s head coach. Gruden called a Cincinnati offense that somehow turned Andy Dalton into a 35-touchdown quarterback in 2013 – scoring 33 times as a passer and twice as a runner.
Andrew Luck, QB, IND
Luck improved his completion percentage from 54.1 as a rookie to 60.2 last season and cut his interceptions from 18 to nine. He also matched his 23 passing touchdowns from 2012 despite attempting 57 fewer passes. Just like in his rookie season, though, Luck was held back by the players around him, as a mediocre running game, a weak interior line and a poor group of receivers conspired to limit Luck’s fantasy ceiling despite his obvious talents. The running game will probably be a problem again this year – the Colts lost Donald Brown in free agency and made no effort to replace him – but the team did a decent job of addressing the other two issues. The selection of second-round guard Jack Mewhort should help stabilize the interior pocket for Luck, and the Indianapolis passing game should benefit noticeably from the return of Reggie Wayne (ACL) and the additions of Hakeem Nicks (free agency) and Donte Moncrief (draft, third round) at wide receiver.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, SF
For a player generally considered a fringe starting QB in 12-team leagues, Kaepernick seems to quietly have good upside heading into 2014. Despite entering 2013 with just seven career starts under his belt and playing through a foot injury in the first half of the year, Kaepernick threw for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions while adding 524 rushing yards and four touchdowns. And he did that without No. 1 WR Michael Crabtree (Achilles) for the first 11 weeks. In San Francisco’s three playoff games, Kaepernick threw for 1,736 yards (7.8 YPA), 10 touchdowns and four interceptions while running for 412 yards and two scores. The passing touchdown total might appear low, but keep in mind those eight games included a road game against Carolina and two games against Seattle, including one on the road. Kaepernick stands to build on his strong 2013 finish not only because he should improve with the experience, but also because San Francisco traded for wideout Steve Johnson and added a strong slot wideout prospect in rookie Bruce Ellington with one of their fourth-round picks.
Montee Ball, RB, DEN
The Broncos might have had their minds made up all along that Ball would be their feature back in 2014, but they made it overtly obvious when they allowed 2013 lead back Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. With just C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman remaining on the roster, the Broncos have little in-house competition for Ball. As a three-down back in a Peyton Manning-led offense, fantasy riches likely await Ball in 2014, as Moreno totaled 1,586 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage last year despite mediocre talent. Ball will need to avoid fumbles this year after losing the ball three times on 140 touches last year, but it will be disappointing if he doesn’t come close to matching Moreno’s production. PPR-league owners should note Ball’s major PPR upside – he’s always shown standout receiving ability and reeled in 20 catches last year even as Moreno caught 60 passes.
Toby Gerhart, RB, JAC
Although he was generally regarded as an underwhelming free-agency addition for a Jacksonville squad desperate for explosiveness on offense, Gerhart will have a chance to prove he’s worthy of a feature-back role this year. Gerhart is a career backup who is commonly, and disparagingly, referred to as a fullback tweener, but his career production is actually quite encouraging – he has 1,305 yards (4.7 YPC) and five touchdowns rushing with 77 receptions for 600 yards and three scores, and his college production was off the charts. The three-down potential is obvious with Gerhart, and he should get a chance to put it on full display this year now that he’s out of Adrian Peterson‘s shadow. It’s worth noting that, in a three-start span in 2011, Gerhart ran for 225 yards (4.0 YPC) and a touchdown while catching 13 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Andre Ellington, RB, ARZ
Ellington’s big-play ability was muted as a rookie due to a limited workload and the presence of Rashard Mendenhall. But Mendenhall exited the desert this offseason, and the Cardinals chose not to replace him, unless you count Jonathan Dwyer. Injury worries aside, the former Clemson star looked like a second-round talent heading into last year’s draft, and he could be a big fantasy hit if he secures a starter’s workload this year. He appears ready to build on a rookie season that saw him total 1,023 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage while playing just 37.4 percent of Arizona’s offensive snaps.
Stevan Ridley, RB, NE
Few players were as disappointing in fantasy football last year as Ridley. He followed a 1,263-yard, 12-touchdown rushing season in 2012 with just 773 yards and seven touchdowns last year, losing huge chunks of playing time because of fumbles – Ridley fumbled four times on 188 touches last year after losing four on 296 touches in 2012. While the fumbles remain a concern, but the Patriots are shorter on alternative this year since LeGarrette Blount (153 carries in 2013) left for Pittsburgh in free agency, so Ridley should have a longer leash. As long as his ball security doesn’t go completely off the rails, Ridley has a good shot to return to relevance in most leagues this year.
Ben Tate, RB, CLE
Injuries likely will always make Tate a risky fantasy investment – he missed eight games the last three years and played hobbled through numerous others – but his change of scenery from Houston to Cleveland clearly provides a major upgrade to his fantasy stock. At 5-foot-11, 217, with 4.4 wheels, Tate has the size/speed dimensions you want in an impact runner, and for the first time in his career he’ll have a shot to earn a workhorse role. The Cleveland offense figures to be one of the three most run-heavy offenses in the league, and, paired with a formidable offensive line, Tate could breeze past his career high of 942 yards and four touchdowns rushing. Even if third-round pick Terrance West steals carries, Cleveland should run enough for both players to make a fantasy impact.
Lance Dunbar, RB, DAL
Despite his lack of pedigree and NFL production, it appears that Dunbar is set to take up a surprisingly significant role in the Dallas offense this year. The former North Texas star has already beaten the odds several times on his way to establishing himself as DeMarco Murray‘s top backup, so it wouldn’t be wise to write him off in a Scott Linehan offense that made fellow backup Joique Bell a 248-carry, 105-catch player the last two years. Dunbar is nowhere near as powerful of a runner as Bell, but he’s faster, quicker and at least a comparable receiver after catching 85 passes in his final 36 college games.
Khiry Robinson, RB, NO
With the trade of Darren Sproles to Philadelphia and the disappointing Mark Ingram on a one-year deal, there’s a major looming opportunity for Robinson as he heads into his second year. His rookie season was a promising one, as Robinson showed the ability to excel as a bruising runner in a backfield most made up of elusive pass-catching threats. Counting New Orleans’ two playoff games, Robinson finished last year by running for 152 yards (4.6 YPC) and a touchdown in the final three contests, and that was with Sproles lining up for 77 snaps over that span.
Percy Harvin, WR, SEA
Golden Tate is off to Detroit, and with him goes 64 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns. Harvin will have his sights set higher than that as he heads into his first year as Seattle’s lead wideout, and he should be healthly after a hip injury limited him to one regular season game last year. Playing with the efficient passing of Russell Wilson, Harvin should at least match his career highs of 87 catches for 967 yards and six receiving touchdowns (2011).
Golden Tate, WR, DET
Although there’s almost no chance that Tate sustains his exceptional efficiency from the last two years, a span in which he averaged 9.6 yards per target while piling up 109 catches for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns, his arrival in Detroit still could mean a career year in 2014. The drop in efficiency from Russell Wilson to Matt Stafford is offset by the drastically bigger target count Tate should receive with Detroit, a team whose starting quarterback threw 1,361 passes the last two years – an enormous contrast to Wilson’s 800 over the same span. Other than Calvin Johnson, the Lions have no reliable receivers.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, PHI
It’s rare for a player’s fantasy value to rise as he recovers from a torn ACL, but the release of DeSean Jackson granted Maclin an opportunity big enough to outweigh any concerns resulting from the injury. Maclin is heir to a role in which Jackson received 126 targets last year, turning them into 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. Even Riley Cooper, who for three years was buried far below Maclin on the depth chart, finished 2013 with 835 yards and eight touchdowns. Considering Maclin caught 70 passes for 964 yards and 10 scores as a 22-year-old second-year player in 2010, he clearly has breakout potential this year, so long as his durability doesn’t betray him again.
Rueben Randle, WR, NYG
Randle’s inclusion on this list might seem a bit counterintuitive since the Giants just selected wideout Odell Beckham with the 12th overall pick in the draft, but the offseason departure of free-agent receiver Hakeem Nicks is the most relevant development for Randle’s fantasy potential. Randle (6-2, 208) will fill Nicks’ role as the team’s primary big, outside receiver, a distinction that generally lends itself to red-zone scores in most offenses, while Beckham (5-11, 198) has a frame and skill set that will probably make most of its impact between the 20s. Although he’s been plagued by unreliability in his first two years, Randle should build steadily on last year’s 611-yard, six-touchdown season now that Nicks is gone and his 101 targets are up for grabs.
Terrance Williams, WR, DAL
Williams was a quietly promising player during his rookie season last year. The third-round pick averaged 9.96 yards per target while reeling in 44 catches for 736 yards (16.7 YPC) and five touchdowns despite playing as no more than the third (and often the fourth) player in Dallas’ target rotation behind Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin. The Cowboys cut Austin this offseason, though, giving Williams a clear promotion as he heads into his second season. At 6-2, 200, with surprising speed for his size, Williams has the disposition to make an impact both in the red zone and as an over-the-top deep threat. Austin wasted 524 snaps and 49 targets in the Dallas offense last year, and Williams just might lay claim to all of them.
Harry Douglas, WR, ATL
Although the retirement of Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is not ideal for the Falcons, it’s great news for Douglas’ chances of maintaining fantasy relevance for the second year in a row. The absence of Julio Jones allowed Douglas to get his foot in the door last year, and Gonzalez’s exit ensures that Jones’ return from a foot injury won’t push Douglas to the margins in 2014. Gonzalez’s replacement, Levine Toilolo, is mostly a red-zone and blocking specialist, so Douglas should remain busy between the 20s at the least after posting 85 catches for 1,067 yards and two scores last year, though with six touchdowns on 207 career receptions, Douglas is close to a non-factor near the end zone.
Zach Ertz, TE, PHI
It’s not smart to draft a backup tight end in the second round unless you intend to make that player a fixture in your passing game. Under Chip Kelly’s watch, Ertz showed considerable potential as a receiving specialist during his rookie year. Blocking was an issue for Ertz, so that might remain a slight obstacle to consistent playing time, but the Eagles have an interest in feeding him more as a receiver after he finished last year with 28 catches for 290 yards and five touchdowns in the final 10 games, including the playoffs. After scoring five touchdowns in the final 10 games, Ertz likely has the potential to score at least eight touchdowns this season, particularly given that he played just 40.8 percent of Philadelphia’s snaps last year.
Jordan Cameron, TE, CLE
Considering Cameron totaled just 26 catches for 259 yards and one touchdown in the two years prior to last, it might seem a bit dubious to expect him to be a “Riser” after an unexpected 80-catch, 917-yard, seven-touchdown breakout 2013 season. He has room for growth this season, though, because elite wideout Josh Gordon likely will be suspended for at least half the season after another failed drug test. Gordon saw 159 targets in 14 games last year, and with only the unimpressive trio of Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson and Miles Austin added to Cleveland’s pass-catching rotation, Cameron should be the favorite to lead the Browns in receiving this year.
Andy Dalton, QB, CIN
For those expecting Dalton to be the 30-touchdown quarterback he was each of the last two years, sore disappointment awaits. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden – who called 586 passes and 61 rush attempts for Dalton last year – is off to Washington. His replacement, Hue Jackson, oversaw Oakland offenses in 2010 and 2011 that averaged just 507.5 pass attempts – a difference of about 573 yards and five touchdowns, based on Dalton’s 2013 YPA and touchdown percentage. Unless Dalton blows away his previous per-attempt yardage and touchdown averages from the last three years, Jackson’s more run-heavy offense threatens to sink Dalton far below top-12 consideration at quarterback.
Cam Newton, QB, CAR
Carolina’s inability and/or refusal to arm its star quarterback with a talented supporting cast is one of the NFL’s most frustrating mysteries from the last three years. And the Panthers mostly let things get worse this offseason. Carolina cut lead wideout Steve Smith, and left tackle Jordan Gross retired, making a bad situation worse, for the sake of salary cap space that was allocated to the likes of Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. The Panthers added first-round wideout Kelvin Benjamin, but he’s mostly a red-zone specialist.
Knowshon Moreno, RB, MIA
Moreno was never as talented as his 2013 output suggests, and the 1,586 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage he posted were clearly inflated by the presence Peyton Manning. It was easily foreseeable, then, that Moreno would need to either stay in Denver or land in another high-scoring offense during free agency if he were to maintain his fantasy stock this year. The Miami Dolphins don’t qualify as such. That’s bad enough in itself, but throw in Moreno’s June knee scope and his out-of-shape arrival to Miami, and you’ve got the makings of a fantasy afterthought.
Eric Decker, WR, NYJ
Decker’s inclusion on this list is so obvious it might be redundant, but his situation is worth one last glance before we move on. He left the Broncos in free agency to join the Jets, switching Peyton Manning with Geno Smith at quarterback. Smith threw 12 touchdown passes last year, which is 43 fewer than Peyton Manning‘s 55 touchdowns, and Manning’s yardage output (5,477) towered over Smith’s (3,046), as well. The good news is that Decker will serve as the clear No. 1 wideout with the Jets, and there’s a strong chance that he’ll earn the majority of however many touchdown passes the Jets throw this year. Still, the drastically decreased passing production with the Jets means Decker’s days of posting 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns are probably gone, at least for now.
Steve Johnson, WR, SF
Johnson’s 597-yard, three-touchdown season last year obviously didn’t carry much fantasy value, and if there was any hope of a bounce-back season for Johnson, it went out the window when the Bills traded Johnson to San Francisco. The 49ers are loaded with receivers, and Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis will rank ahead of him in the rotation this year. Johnson’s 2013 production may be the new norm.
Riley Cooper, WR, PHI
After 835 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season as starter last year, Cooper, still just 26, might be tagged by some as a top-35 fantasy receiver this season. It’s much more likely he’ll come crashing back to earth, however, and 2013 could go down as a career year. Cooper played 88.9 percent of Philadelphia’s snaps last year, but that was due to lack of depth more than anything. Jason Avant was the third wideout, logging 71.5 percent of the snaps, and the figures are too high in both instances. Jeremy Maclin should log something near DeSean Jackson‘s 89.4 percent of snaps, and second-year tight end Zach Ertz will see his snap count rise significantly after playing just 40.8 percent last year. Second-round pick Jordan Matthews and third-round pick Josh Huff, meanwhile, give Philadelphia the depth necessary to cut Cooper’s snap percentage even further.
Jarrett Boykin, WR, GB
Boykin did quite well for himself in 2013, earning a major role in the Green Bay offense and picking up the slack while Jordy Nelson or/and Randall Cobb dealt with injuries, all this in just his second year as an undrafted free agent while playing seven games without Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Boykin might have his day as a starting receiver in the NFL, but it looks like it won’t be in Green Bay, as the Packers spent a second-round pick on Davante Adams and two more draft picks at receiver in Jared Abbrederis (fifth round) and Jeff Janis (seventh round). Although Boykin should enter this year as Green Bay’s third wideout, Adams likely will close ground quickly.