The Lull Before the Storm – The AFC South
By Leo Paciga - @FFHoudini
As I mentioned last week, I consider the middle of June to be the proverbial lull before the NFL storm; a storm that starts up at the end of July with the official commencement of NFL training camps across the country. This current lack of NFL activity, however, provides us with the perfect opportunity to set the fantasy football table for dynasty owners by identifying which players to watch, what training camp battles to focus on, and what coaching changes will impact fantasy production. In the next few articles, I’ll be trying to offer some coordinates for your fantasy football GPS from a dynasty perspective in order to help you navigate straight through to the next destination…..NFL Training Camp. I’ll be doing these breakdowns division by division and while last week’s article took a closer look at the AFC West; this week’s write up will tackle the AFC South.
Houston Texans - What to Keep an Eye On:
Running Backs - “All Everything” running back Arian Foster spent this spring on the sidelines battling a strained right calf and while he should be fine for the start of training camp later this summer, this is still one situation you’ll want to monitor fairly closely. Foster is coming off a 2012 season that included 391 touches and Houston’s star attraction has averaged 371 touches per season over the last 3 years. So while Foster has proven to be a very durable point producing monster so far in his 4 year career, he does turn 27 later this summer and he’s logged a league leading 1,115 touches over the past three years. There is always a point where age and mileage intersect, causing a downward trend in dynasty value – especially for RBs – and while Foster owners certainly don’t need to panic, they do need to start paying closer attention for any potential warning signs that may foretell a drop in production. Dynasty darling Ben Tate is second on the depth chart behind Arian Foster and OTAs proved to be very productive for the talented, but often injured back up. HC Gary Kubiak gave multiple positive reports concerning Ben Tate’s off season and it will be interesting to see how much the Texans plan to use Ben Tate this training camp.
Wide Receivers - We all know Andre Johnson is the center of QB Matt Schaub’s passing universe, but rookie wide out DeAndre Hopkins is someone to watch closely during training camp. The former Clemson WR brings a well-rounded skill set and a ton of upside to a WR group that was extremely lacking in 2012 once you looked past Andre Johnson. Yes, expectations for Hopkins should be tempered in 2013 as the youngster gets acclimated to the NFL and tries to find his comfort zone in an offense that is trademarked by a prominent rushing attack, but the future is bright for Hopkins and training camp could reveal how quickly he’ll make some fantasy football noise.
Tennessee Titans - What to Keep an Eye On:
Offensive Line Improvements - Tennessee struggled with generating any type of solid production or consistency from their offensive line in 2012. Fast forward to 2013 and the Tennessee offensive line has a plethora of new faces and it’s those same new additions that have caused expectations to rise for the upcoming season. Left Guard Andy Levitre signed a six -year, 46.8 million dollar deal with Tennessee and the Titans also signed G/C Rob Turner and Guard Chris Spencer this past off season for additional depth and competition. Factor in the first round selection of rookie Guard Chance Warmack (the 10th overall pick from Alabama) and the 4th round choice of G/C Brian Schwenke, and the Titans have some new parts that HC Mike Munchak and Offensive Line Coach Bruce Matthews (both Hall of Fame linemen, mind you) can mold and shape into a cohesive force. Just how quickly this new unit meshes will go a long way in telling how productive RB Chris Johnson and the Tennessee offense will be in 2013.
Wide Receivers - If you want to discuss a crowded, talented and somewhat confusing position on the Titans then Wide Receiver is the one to breakdown. Kenny Britt has battled injuries and he’s behaved like an immature knucklehead, but it appears by all accounts the often troubled WR has gotten healthy, matured and stayed immensely focused this off season….and that can only mean one thing - it’s a contract year! Kendall Wright had a relatively quiet, but extremely productive rookie season in 2012, hauling in 64 passes for 626 yards and 4 TDs. Wright also dropped 15 lbs. this off season from his 2012 playing weight of 201 lbs. and according to OTA reports, Wright looked much faster/quicker and caught everything thrown his way. At age 30 Nate Washington has been the forgotten Tennessee wide out in many dynasty circles, but the off season reports on Washington have also been exceedingly positive. Nate Washington led the Titans in receiving yardage the past two seasons, so he’s more than just an afterthought in the Tennessee passing attack. Rookie Justin Hunter battled a nagging hamstring injury during OTAs and WR Coach Shawn Jefferson went so far as to question Hunter’s toughness publically. Even with a poor spring, the youngster from the University of Tennessee is a long strider with 4.4 speed, good athleticism and a bright future; he will certainly carve out a role during training camp. Bottom line, there’s a lot of potential at WR, but only one football and a young quarterback with an erratic arm in charge of distribution – so things should get notably interesting rather quickly during training camp.
Quarterback - The quarterback job is Jake Locker’s to lose and unfortunately that actually could happen during 2013. Why is that a possibility? Well, Mike Munchak is entering his 3rd season as the Head Coach of the Titans and although he’s compiled a 15-17 record through two seasons, the Titans have shown little progress on either side of the ball during his tenure. Mike Munchak and his coaching staff will be under a microscope this season and that means a potentially short leash for the athletic, but often sporadic Jake Locker. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed this off season to be Locker’s backup, mentor and possibly even a calming influence. Ryan Fitzpatrick, however, could offer stability to the offense should Jake Locker struggle again with his pre-snap reads, his decision making and his accuracy. Jake Locker is the poster child for inconsistency – a special athlete who looks like a bonafide superstar during one play and a journeyman QB on the very next snap from center. The Titans believe Jake Locker has taken major strides this off season toward becoming their franchise QB, eliminating the inconsistencies in his game and becoming the team’s unquestioned leader. Jake Locker will certainly get the first quarter of the season to prove himself, but how he commands the offense early on in training camp will go a long toward showing if the 3rd year quarterback is ready to take the next step.
Indianapolis Colts - What to Keep an Eye On:
Running Backs - The Colts recently signed former Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw and when that happened, Vick Ballard owners everywhere let out a collective moan signaling their displeasure. Ballard, a 5th round draft pick last season out of Mississippi State, proved to be a pleasant surprise by amassing 814 yards on the ground for the Colts last season. The problem, however, is that while Ballard runs hard; he is still rather pedestrian with very little elusiveness or breakaway ability. Enter Ahmad Bradshaw, a talented running back who brings enough of his own baggage that the Colts should charge him a carry-on luggage fee each time he reports to practice. Bradshaw has missed six games over the past two seasons and he’s undergone several foot and ankle surgeries during his NFL career, but Bradshaw does bring certain elements to the Indianapolis ground attack that were missing in 2012. When healthy, Bradshaw possesses a solid burst, great vision, deft balance and just enough elusiveness to still be dangerous anywhere on the field. Bradshaw is also skilled in pass protection, a factor that I’m sure Colts’ management focused on when contemplating how to keep their franchise quarterback Andrew Luck upright this season. Training camp will certainly shed some light on Ahmad Bradshaw’s health and the potential workload distribution between Vick Ballard and Bradshaw for 2013.
Wide Receiver - Keep an eye on Darrius Hayward-Bey and his role during training camp. I’m very interested to see how the former Oakland speedster transitions to the stability of the Indianapolis organization and how he responds to a franchise quarterback with the skill set of Andrew Luck.
Tight End - Last season rookie TE Dwayne Allen outplayed fellow rookie Coby Fleener from day one and Fleener spent 2012 battling multiple injuries (most notably shoulder and ankle injuries) all while looking uncomfortable and rigid on the playing field. It was Dwayne Allen’s impressive blocking and pass catching ability that caught everyone’s attention in training camp. Coby Fleener simply fell behind Allen early and never quite lived up to the hype that followed the rookie from Stanford. I fully expect the pendulum to swing 180 degrees in 2013 and this training camp will provide a fresh opportunity for Mr. Fleener. New Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton will also play a key role in Coby Fleener’s future success. Hamilton was the offensive architect at Stanford in 2011 when Fleener and quarterback Andrew Luck were teammates and spent every Saturday afternoon carving up opposing college defenses. The news from OTAs was very positive concerning Coby Fleener and it should be evident very early on in training camp if he will take the next step as a major weapon in the Indianapolis passing attack.
Jacksonville Jaguars - What (or Who in this Case) to Keep an Eye on:
Maurice Jones-Drew - Talk about a mess for a player who has been a fantasy football favorite for many years. The 28 year old running back is entering a contract year while trying to simultaneously rehab from Lisfranc surgery and navigate through the distractions associated with his alleged involvement in a May 26 fight at a Florida restaurant. Maurice Jones-Drew will most likely find himself on a new team in 2014, but for now, you’ll need to monitor training camp closely to see if Jones-Drew will be healthy enough to be a solid contributor for your 2013 fantasy football squads.
Cecil Shorts, WR - With 2nd year wide out Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games of the 2013 campaign, someone has to step up at wide receiver for Jacksonville. The most obvious choice is Cecil Shorts, a player some would argue is already a better wide receiver than Justin Blackmon. The intriguing thing to monitor in training camp is the news that Cecil Shorts added 7 lbs. of muscle in an attempt to improve his strength off the line of scrimmage and his effectiveness against press coverage. Shorts is also training at Larry Fitzgerald’s off-season camp later this summer so it will be very interesting to see Shorts’ progress and continued development when training camp opens.
Denard Robinson, WR/RB??? - The Jaguars lack play-makers and this former Michigan quarterback is certainly electric with the football in his hands. A fifth round pick, Denard Robinson lined up at tailback and wide receiver during rookie mini-camp and even spent some time under center on a few plays. GM Dave Caldwell went so far as to say that he envisions Robinson receiving 10-15 snaps per game as both a rusher and a receiver. NFL off seasons are saturated with “coach speak”, misdirection and hyperbole, but with so few offensive threats on the Jacksonville roster, Denard Robinson is someone to keep an eye on later this summer.
Well, that will do it for the AFC South and some players and situations to focus on once training camp opens up later this summer. You may or may not agree with my analysis on the players and situations mentioned above, but hopefully you’ve at least enjoyed the article. I encourage everyone out there to take the time to research players, watch some film and continue to actively improve your dynasty rosters. The tools and opinions provided here at DFW can certainly help take your teams to the next level. Feel free to contact me on Twitter @FFHoudini with any questions or comments.
Read more DFW articles by: Leo Paciga