The Lull Before the Storm – The AFC West
By Leo Paciga - @FFHoudini
So here we are in the middle of June with the official beginning of summer only a few days away. In addition to the start of summer, I also 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 to help you navigate straight through to the next destination…..NFL Training Camp. I’ll be doing these breakdowns division by division and this week I’ll kick things off with AFC West.
Denver Broncos - What to Keep an Eye On:
Running Backs - The crystal ball remains cloudy even after the release of Willis McGahee. The best way to describe the Denver running back situation is by saying there is a ton of potential for fantasy points, but those points are convoluted and buried knee deep in RBBC mud. From a fantasy football perspective, this positional battle is the one to focus on in late July and early August. Here’s what we know from OTAs:
- Ronnie Hillman - Ronnie Hillman is entering his second NFL season and according to reports, Hillman looked quick and explosive throughout OTAs and worked primarily with the first team. Hillman has also added some additional weight this off season (15 lbs) to help offset the grind of a long NFL schedule. It’s been reported that Ronnie Hillman finished his rookie campaign south of 180 pounds, so the additional muscle should help him in the long term. Just what role Hillman will play in the Denver offense in 2013 will come to light once training camp is under way.
- Montee Ball - Many fantasy football pundits expect this rookie and former Wisconsin Badger to take over as the lead back in Denver during training camp. Montee Ball certainly has the mental and physical make up to be a “bell cow” RB at the NFL level and the news from OTAs was primarily positive. Ball took some first team reps behind Hillman and looked solid, but there are still many questions to answer. A few of those questions include just how quickly can Montee Ball adjust to the complex signal calling of Peyton Manning and will HC John Fox trust a rookie to protect his Hall of Fame quarterback in pass protection? Again, this is a situation to monitor closely throughout training camp.
- Knowshon Moreno - Knowshon Moreno appears to be the forgotten man once again in his NFL career. Still relatively young (26 in July), Moreno finished 2012 in strong fashion averaging 22 carries and 86 yards on the ground over the final 6 games of the regular season. Moreno is rehabbing from a knee injury sustained during the 2012 playoffs and part of his recovery even included a stem cell procedure. The Broncos will likely bring Knowshon Moreno along slowly, but if healthy, he’s a player you’ll need to be aware of if either Hillman or Ball struggle.
Wide Receivers - The addition of Wes Welker introduces a whole new dynamic to the potent Denver passing attack. It will be important to monitor just how well (and quickly) Welker acclimates himself to his new home and the impact that could have on Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.
Diamond in the Rough - He’s struggled with health issues and taken some time to develop, but third year Tight End Julius Thomas appears to be ready to take the next step. Reports out of OTAs claim that Thomas finally looks healthy and explosive and his athleticism was evident early and often. At 6’5″ and 245 lbs, Julius Thomas is an imposing target and with so many options for opposing defenses to worry about, Thomas could be an afterthought in cover packages. Even though he’s currently third on the Tight End depth chart, a solid training could open the door for this former Portland State basketball star.
San Diego Chargers - What to Keep an Eye On:
Health - Sure, new Head Coach Mike McCoy and new OC Ken Whisenhunt create an interesting dynamic for the Chargers in 2013, but my main focus will be on the heath of a few key players – specifically Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates. After two straight seasons filled with injuries and poor production, Ryan Mathews once again finds himself with a prime opportunity to anchor a San Diego rushing attack in 2013. Antonio Gates has also spent the last few seasons battling lingering foot issues and it’s evident that this once prolific TE is slowing down with age. The interesting thing with Antonio Gates, however, was his frustration level last month over being named a mere number 73 on NFL Network’s Top 100 players. Even at the age of 33, I’m intrigued by an angry Antonio Gates with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove in 2013. Simply stated, a refocused and healthy Antonio Gates could represent a prefect opportunity for dynasty owners in need of a relatively inexpensive option at TE for the upcoming season.
Wide Receivers - Keep an eye on Danario Alexander, Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen as all three will play key roles in the San Diego passing attack. I’ve stated many times on DFW that I love Danario Alexander’s skill set and athleticism, but let’s face it; the poster child for repetitive knee surgeries does not instill confidence in his owners when talking about durability. Vincent Brown had dynasty owners everywhere salivating last summer before breaking his ankle in a preseason game and recent reports say Brown appeared to be healthy and close to full strength during OTAs. Eight months since tearing his PCL, there are still some question marks surrounding rookie Keenan Allen’s health although the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Allen, “ran faster” and “cut more sharply” than he did at last month’s rookie mini-camp. There’s a lot to like about this trio of San Diego WRs if they’re healthy and training camp should revel who is ready to provide points for your fantasy squad right out of the gate.
Oakland Raiders - What to Keep an Eye On:
Darren McFadden - Is Darren McFadden healthy? It’s a question we seem to ask every season, but when he’s healthy, McFadden is a fantasy football force to be reckoned with on a weekly basis. It’s that huge upside that keeps us coming back for more…at least for the dynasty owners (myself included) that love sleepless nights and gnawing off our fingernails. The news from OTAs was positive concerning Darren McFadden who suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his right foot during week 7 of last season. The Oakland RB was said to be running, catching, cutting and doing every drill on the practice field all while showcasing that trademark McFadden burst.
New Blocking Scheme - We saw the impact former OC Greg Knapp had on the Raiders offense last season when he implemented his zone blocking scheme. Yes, Darren McFadden is always battling some type of injury, but last season McFadden’s biggest stumbling block was running behind a blocking scheme that fought against his very instincts as a running back. Patience as a runner is a prime ingredient for a successful zone blocking scheme and McFadden prefers to make quick decisions while creating angles and fearlessly blazing past defenders (when healthy). Last season McFadden had issues identifying the correct holes and as a result he bounced too many runs outside hoping to find a shred of daylight and that led to an abundance of plays for no gain. Enter new OC Greg Olson, new Offensive Line Coach Tony Sparano and a return to the “gap and power” blocking scheme that was so successful for the Raiders in the past. Tony Sparano may have missed the mark in his previous positions, but he is rock solid as an Offensive Line Coach. Watch for the early signs of a vastly improved Raider rushing attack once Oakland’s training camp gets underway.
Latavius Murray - Any running back backing up Darren McFadden on a depth chart should be on every owner’s fantasy football radar. Murray, a 6’2″, 223 lb. rookie turned in an impressive 4.38 forty and 1.48 ten-yard split at Central Florida’s Pro Day and impressed HC Dennis Allen during OTAs. Latavius Murray has terrific straight-line speed and he has the size and ability to be a tough inside runner, a perfect combination for new OC Greg Olson’s gap-blocking scheme. Latavius Murray did miss the most recent mini-camp with a sore foot, but he is a “must watch” once training camp officially begins.
Quarterback Play - OTAs were not kind to any of the Oakland quarterbacks as newly acquired Matt Flynn, rookie Tyler Wilson and Terrelle Pryor all struggled with accuracy and getting the ball down-field. Of the three QBs, rookie Tyler Wilson reportedly looked the best, but this is certainly a situation to monitor from the start of training camp.
Diamond in the Rough - Another TE to keep an eye on during training camp is Oakland’s David Ausberry. A former WR at USC, Ausberry seems to have come into 2013 ready to step up and be a key contributor in the Raider passing game. In fact, Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times reported that, “Ausberry has been seeing “a ton of action” in the early going of OTAs.” Ausberry has the genuine potential to create yardage after the catch and he brings a nice combination of size and athleticism to the TE position. With his WR experience, Ausberry could create some serious mismatches for the Oakland passing attack and could easily become a reliable target for an inexperienced quarterback should Tyler Wilson win the starting QB job. David Ausberry is definitely a player that dynasty owners should track during training camp.
Kansas City Chiefs - What to Keep an Eye on:
The New Head Coach - Andy Reid brings a proven track record and some interesting offensive tendencies to Kansas City. In the last 15 seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs have had 6 different Head Coaches (including Andy Reid), the last two being the “quirky” and somewhat difficult Todd Haley and the defensive minded Romeo Crennel. It’s my belief that Andy Reid is exactly what the doctor ordered to breathe some life back into the Kansas City offense and that should become even more evident once the reports start flowing from training camp.
Jamaal Charles - We’ve all seen what Andy Reid was able to do for the offensive production of LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook while he was with the Eagles. With that in mind, Jamaal Charles could be in line for the biggest fantasy production of his career and my guess is that early reports from training camp will support that hypothesis.
Alex Smith/Dwayne Bowe - Alex Smith may not be a world beater at quarterback, but he’s far better than the collection of noodle armed “gun-slingers” Dwayne Bowe has had to deal with during his career. Since coming into the league in 2007, these are the quarterbacks Dwyane Bowe has watched line up under center in Kansas City – Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn…….excuse me for a second while I throw up a little in my mouth. Alex Smith, even with all his shortcomings, should rejuvenate the Kansas City aerial attack and Dwayne Bowe will most likely be the happiest man in Kansas City. Keep a watchful eye on the chemistry that develops between Alex Smith and Dwayne Bowe during training camp later next month.
Well, that will do it for the AFC West 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