By Joe Kilroy
The NFL landscape consists of thirty-two franchises. Certain teams are clearly regarded as being the cream of the crop. Others are questioned as to whether or not they can take the next step and achieve that elite status. Some dwell in the realm of mediocrity while others roam amongst the bottom feeders.
Regardless of where each team ranks as a whole, however, for the players every squad presents them with the opportunity to make their mark in the NFL. Some have already established themselves amongst the best. They’ve staked their claim as not only one of the prime players on their team, but as one of the elite at their position throughout the entire league.
Those are the guys who made the most of their opportunity when it was presented to them. For countless others though, their chance is still yet to come.
With that in mind here is a look at some of the voids that need filling throughout the league and the players which may be given the opportunity to fill them. We’ll go through the league in alphabetical order starting with the first sixteen. Next week we’ll take a look at the other remaining half.
Remember, some players enter the NFL with the “future star” label already slapped upon them. For others, however – for those diamonds in the rough – it’s that unexpected opening that catapults them into fantasy relevance. And, perhaps even, stardom.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (QB, RB)
The Cardinals are one of seven teams that fired their head coach following the end of the 2012 regular season. They are yet to hire Ken Whisenhunt’s replacement, but a new coach usually comes with significant overhauls to any NFL roster.
Once the Cardinals make their next hiring we’ll have better insight into how to evaluate their roster from a fantasy perspective, but at the moment it’s safe to assume the quarterback position will be one of the first addressed by the new regime.
Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer are the current signal callers on the Cardinals roster, but it’s doubtful any of them will emerge (or given another chance to be) the team’s franchise quarterback.
Someone will be signed, traded for, or drafted to take over that role, however, and for that reason it’s a situation fantasy owners should keep an eye on.
At running back the Cardinals may look to go another direction as well. Again, once they hire a new head coach we’ll have a better idea as to how to view the situation, but even if there is no change made a new coach can sometimes take what is on the roster and make it produce in a manner it hadn’t done so before.
With that in mind Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams may be worth holding onto (or acquiring on the cheap) on the off-chance that a new head coach will get one or the other on track. I wouldn’t bank on it, but a new opportunity can sometimes turn a career around.
Any offseason acquisitions by Arizona at the running back position should also draw the attention of fantasy owners.
ATLANTA FALCONS (RB, TE)
The Atlanta Falcons offense is clearly established at quite a few positions. Matt Ryan is set at quarterback for a long time to come. Julio Jones is amongst the best players at his position in just his second season. And Roddy White, although aging, is likely to still have quite a few more seasons left in the tank as one of the better receivers in the league.
The Falcons also have themselves a future Hall of Famer at tight end in Tony Gonzalez, but it appears as though 2012 may be his last in the NFL. If Gonzalez sticks around then the Falcons tight end position is already a known quantity, but if he moves on then whoever replaces him may become fantasy relevant.
I wouldn’t get overly excited at the potential a new starting tight end for the Falcons may possess in 2013 just yet, but Gonzalez’s 93 receptions, 930 yards, and 8 touchdowns would have to be distributed elsewhere. The question is how much of those statistics would end up in the hands of a new tight end versus the other capable receivers on the roster.
And in that regard, Jacquizz Rodgers becomes a player of note. He didn’t make his stamp in the NFL this season in the manner some had hoped to see, but he did catch 53 passes for 402 yards while carrying the ball 94 times for an additional 362. If Gonzalez departs it is possible that Rodgers would become even more involved as a receiving threat out of the backfield in 2013.
More intriguing, however, is the possibility that Rodgers becomes the Falcons primary back in the year ahead. Michael Turner was able to hold him off this season, but his age is clearly becoming a factor. He turns 31 this February and his 3.6 yards per carry in 2012 was the lowest of his career – almost a full yard less than what he averaged in 2011.
Some have already written off Rodgers as becoming any more valuable than he was this season, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the notion he becomes the Falcons lead back next year. Head coach Mike Smith was adamant about Rodgers being a capable three-down NFL back last offseason and it’s likely he still holds that belief.
The contract extension given to first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also bodes well for Rodgers chances of remaining – and possibly becoming more – involved in the Falcons offense in the year ahead.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (Bernard Pierce, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta)
When it comes to the Ravens the opportunities available within their offense are already being given to certain players. Ray Rice is clearly established as the Ravens lead running back, but Bernard Pierce has done enough as a rookie to make fantasy owners take notice.
While playing behind Rice, Pierce still managed to carry the ball 108 times for 532 yards (4.9 ypc) and 1 touchdown. He’s also coming off a 13-carry, 103 yard performance in the playoffs last week.
As long as Rice is in town Pierce will have his upside capped, but he may possess some long term potential and is also a worthy handcuff to any Ray Rice owners.
At wide receiver Torrey Smith still remains an intriguing prospect. He’s gone over 800-yards receiving and 7 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons and remains entrenched as the starter opposite Anquan Boldin. Entering his third-year in the NFL in 2013 he is sure to be viewed as a receiver ready to take the next step in his career and record his first thousand-yard campaign.
Dennis Pitta established himself as the Ravens starting tight end this season making the most of his opportunity. But I wouldn’t be so sure that he will exceed or even match this year’s production in the year ahead.
BUFFALO BILLS (QB, C.J. Spiller, WR2)
Amongst the seven teams that fired their head coach this offseason, the Bills announced on Monday the hiring of Doug Marrone to replace predecessor Chan Gailey.
Even prior to the firing of Gailey, Bills general manager Buddy Nix had spoken of his desire to draft a franchise quarterback this offseason. With that being the case, and with a new coaching staff being put in place, it stands to reason the Bills will do exactly that.
And with Marrone having spent the 2006-2008 seasons in the NFL as the New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator (under Sean Payton – one of the most prolific offensive minds in the league) there is good reason to take interest in whomever the Bills select at the position in this year’s draft.
Another void to take notice of upon the Bills roster is their need for a capable starting wide receiver opposite Stevie Johnson. Fantasy owners should keep a close eye on any players added at the position in hopes someone will emerge there over the next 1-3 years.
The other big opportunity here belongs to C.J. Spiller. He will go into 2013 as the unquestioned starter amongst the Bills backfield. If he stays healthy chances are he will be amongst the most highly regarded fantasy backs throughout the upcoming season (and beyond).
CAROLINA PANTHERS (Jonathan Stewart, WR)
When it comes to opportunities available within the Panthers offense things are pretty cut and dry. In their backfield Jonathan Stewart stands to be given what may be his best – and final – chance to establish himself as the franchise’s primary back.
He’s had issues staying healthy, however, and has given fantasy owners fair reason to question whether he can produce as hoped in that role. Nonetheless, he’s worth taking a flier on due to the fact he is still young and talented enough to become a consistent fantasy performer if he manages to capitalize on his opportunity in 2013.
At wide receiver Steve Smith may still be productive, but at 34-years of age come this May the Panthers need to search for his heir apparent. Owners should keep an eye on any new wide receivers the Panthers add to their roster this year – and those to come – as the opportunity will soon arrive for one of them to emerge once Smith is no longer reliable.
CHICAGO BEARS (Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffrey)
Like the Cardinals and Bills, mentioned above, the Chicago Bears are another franchise that fired their coach following their Week 17 finale. Lovie Smith led the Bears to a 10-6 mark, but his failure to make the playoffs ultimately resulted in his dismissal.
Jay Cutler and Matt Forte are already established players within the league, but a new head coach may prove capable of providing a boost in value to both players.
Cutler hasn’t been all that fantasy relevant since 2010, but a new offensive system could raise his yardage total back up to respectability. As for Forte, he’s a pretty strong option at running back as is, but he’d become all the better if a new head coach were willing to keep him in at the goal line and maybe afford him a few more carries per game.
At wide receiver Brandon Marshall has solved the Bears desperate need for an elite option at the position, but they still need someone to emerge as a relevant option across from him. With that in mind Alshon Jeffrey could be amongst the second-year players taking a big leap in production in 2013 compared to how they produced as a rookie.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones)
The Bengals are in good shape on both sides of the ball, but on offense they could better themselves by having a clearly defined starter emerge at wide receiver opposite A.J. Green. It’s possible they’ll address this issue in the draft, but if not Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will be given the chance to fill that void.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (QB, WR, TE)
Another franchise that fired their coach following the regular season finale, Cleveland is yet to name Pat Shurmer’s replacement. On offense everything but the running back position is open to change.
Brandon Weeden had his moments as a rookie, but at the age of 30 come next October it’s hard to say how committed a new head coach will be to the 2012 first round pick.
At wide receiver things are a little more settled with Josh Gordon having shown promise as a number one option in the passing game, but nothing there is written in stone. Greg Little remains loaded with potential as well, but a new head coach likely won’t have the patience to deal with his issues of dropping passes.
Jordan Cameron – a 2012 “sleeper” at the tight end position – never emerged, but he may fare better with the new coaching regime.
DALLAS COWBOYS (None)
The Cowboys offensive positions appear to be pretty well established across the board as they look ahead to their 2013 quest for a Super Bowl title. If they fail to make the playoffs, however, its possible big changes will come about in Dallas.
Tony Romo is aging and in the last year of his contract, so that is a situation to be mindful of. The Cowboys make use one of their higher selections to select his successor in this year’s draft.
Outside of that the only other thing that may be worth taking note of is any additions they make at running back. DeMarco Murray is a talented player and will remain the starter when healthy. The issue, however, is that Murray hasn’t proven to be the most durable of players throughout his young career.
If he goes down again for any significant period of time it will open the door for someone else to emerge as a more reliable option in the backfield.
DENVER BRONCOS (Knowshon Moreno)
The Broncos are in win now mode and have their offensive skill players pretty much all set in place. Heading into 2013 the only player on that side of the ball presented with a major opportunity will be former first round pick Knowshon Moreno.
Moreno was an after thought for much of this season, but since filling in for an injured Willis McGahee in Week 12 he has performed quite well. And at just 25 years of age, his best days may still be ahead of him.
Its possible Denver will add a running back this offseason, or that Ronnie Hillman will become more involved in the offense next year, but chances are Moreno will be the Broncos primary back in 2013. Provided he stays healthy he’ll likely be a starter worthy fantasy option more weeks than not next year.
Aside from Moreno, Brock Osweiler is noteworthy simply because he may get first crack at replacing Peyton Manning once the future Hall of Famer retires.
DETROIT LIONS (RB, Ryan Broyles)
I have “RB” listed here as opposed to Mikel Leshoure simply because for as solid as some of Leshoure’s outings were, he didn’t exactly prove himself as a premier starter in the league at his position. He managed to find the end zone nine times, but he did so while averaging just 3.7 yards per carry in what should be a pretty prolific offense.
He’ll likely be given the chance to build upon this year’s production in 2013, but I think he’ll have to do better if he plans to stick around as the Lions starter long term. Joique Bell performed well in his role, but don’t be fooled into thinking he’ll become the Lions primary running back.
At wide receiver Titus Young managed to do everything but run himself off the team (although he may be released in the offseason). As such Ryan Broyles is now the favorite to emerge as a notable threat opposite Calvin Johnson. Nate Burleson has had moderate amounts of success in that role during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, so there is fair reason to believe someone else could step in and do so as well.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (RB)
When it comes to potential opportunities to be had the Packers tend to mirror the Atlanta Falcons. Like the Falcons the Packers are set for the foreseeable future at the quarterback position and have a wealth of talent at wide receiver. Randall Cobb has already made good on his big chance when Greg Jennings missed a large amount of time this year. He will look to build upon that in 2013.
James Jones has also taken advantage of the extra playing time he received in both Jennings absence and Jordy Nelson’s. With Jennings set for free agency this offseason it may leave the door open for Jones to remain as involved in the Packers offense in 2013 just as much as he has been this season.
And then there is the tight end position. While Jermichael Finley isn’t a threat to retire, he isn’t a lock to return with the Packers next year. That being the case, and given the production Finley has provided in the past, Green Bay’s next starting tight end will likely be a valued commodity. As things stand right now D.J. Williams appears to be the guy to grab, but Green Bay may venture into free agency or use the draft to select their tight end of the future should they choose to cut ties with Finley.
That brings us to running back. The Packers have gone through a myriad of options at the position this year due to injuries and lack of production. Cedric Benson performed well early on, but a Lisfranc injury landed him on the IR after five games. And having signed only a 1-year deal with Green Bay in the offseason he may not be back next year.
Dujuan Harris is currently working as the team’s lead back, but it’s doubtful he’ll retain that status heading into the upcoming season. Alex Green, Ryan Grant, and James Starks have all failed to perform when given the chance this year themselves, so it’s unlikely Green Bay will go into 2013 relying on any of them to lead their backfield.
Of the players currently on the roster Brandon Saine (on IR with an ACL injury) could be the best guy to take a flier on. That said, however, there are some free agents at the position Green Bay may show interest in that will become their next starting running back. They may also look to the draft to fill that void.
HOUSTON TEXANS (WR2)
The Texans are pretty well set at every skill position on offense. The only void they really have to fill is a threat at wide receiver to start opposite Andre Johnson. This has been the case for a few years with the Texans, however, and given the other offensive talents they possess they may not find it all that necessary to make a big play for another productive starter at the position.
From within Devier Posey and Keshawn Martin may become factors in the Texans offense over the next year or two. As long as Andre Johnson continues to perform like he did over the second half of the year, though, chances are the wide receiver opposite him won’t have much value to fantasy owners.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (RB, WR, TE, Vick Ballard, TY Hilton)
Reggie Wayne had an outstanding season, but at 34-years of age one has to wonder how much longer he can thrive as the primary receiving target in Indianapolis. One thing we know for certain is that he won’t last forever. He isn’t likely to be the wide receiver Andrew Luck spends most of his time working with throughout his NFL career either. Someone will eventually become Luck’s new favorite target. With that being the case any young receivers the Colts bring to town should immediately draw the attention of fantasy owners.
TY Hilton had a strong rookie campaign working with Luck and is currently the best option to own at the position aside from Reggie Wayne. The only question with him is will he someday be able to function as Luck’s primary target once Wayne is either out of the picture entirely or his skills begin to erode.
The Colts also have two young and talented tight ends that could eventually become relevant amongst fantasy owners. Coby Fleener didn’t perform up to expectations in his first year in the league, but chances are his production will be on the rise. Dwayne Allen, meanwhile, performed better than expected as he recorded 45 receptions for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns during his rookie campaign. At this point it’s hard to say which of the two is the better dynasty option, but both players are worth tracking.
At running back we have another notable rookie. Vick Ballard was a fifth round selection in last year’s draft and eventually took over as the starter in Indianapolis’ backfield. He finished the regular season with 211 carries for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also contributed 17 receptions for an additional 152 yards and another score.
If he heads into 2013 as the Colts starter it would seem within reason he could crack the 1000-yard plateau and post 5-8 total touchdowns. I wouldn’t get too excited about him just yet because the Colts may bring in someone else to challenge him either through the draft or free agency, but as things stand now he’s a pretty decent player to own.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (QB, RB)
Nothing about the Jaguars is all that enticing. They are coming off a 2-14 season and their 2011 first round pick (Blaine Gabbert) appears to be a bust. In addition to that, the best offensive player they have (Maurice Jones-Drew) will enter the 2013 campaign on the last year of his contract after having had recent foot surgery for an injury the team hasn’t stated the exact nature of.
Gabbert’s play has been so uninspiring that Jacksonville may be willing to use their first round pick this year on a new franchise quarterback. If that’s the case, then needless to say whoever they select will clearly be given the opportunity.
More keen fantasy owners, however, may want to pay attention to what Jacksonville does with their running back position. Jones-Drew is on shaky grounds as it is after holding out this past summer for a new deal. He never got it and will now be entering his 2013 campaign in a less than stellar predicament.
Don’t be surprised if the Jaguars plan ahead for his potential departure by selecting a running back within the first 3-4 rounds of this year’s draft.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (QB, WR, TE, Tony Moeaki)
The Kansas City Chiefs wasted little time in hiring Andy Reid as their new head coach after parting ways with Romeo Crennel. Reid comes to town having a long list of credentials following his 14-years as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. One thing he’s proven is that he is capable of getting the most out of his quarterback and running back positions.
Jamaal Charles is already in place as the Chiefs primary tailback and recognized as one of the best talents in the league at his position. Under Reid fantasy owners can expect Charles to become a more consistent performer from week-to-week and see a significant rise in his number of receptions (he had 36 this year); and, perhaps, touchdowns. After rushing for more than 1500-yards this season it’s hard to think Charles could be undervalued, but in PPR leagues he may be just that as the hiring of Reid should only stand to increase his overall production.
At quarterback Reid has had a fair level of success with the position as well. In Kansas City he currently has only Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn, and Ricky Stanzi to work with, but chances are he’ll be bringing in one of “his” guys (unless he has an unknown liking for one of the three QBs already on his roster).
Reid may decide to address the quarterback position in the draft, but don’t be surprised if he were to swing a deal for either Kevin Kolb or Nick Foles. There’s an outside chance he could have interest in Seattle’s Matt Flynn as well. Whatever his decision, however, fantasy owners would be wise to add Reid’s next quarterback to their fantasy roster.
Another position of note is at tight end. Players such as Chad Lewis and Brent Celek have emerged as relevant options at the position under Reid in the past and it’s likely someone will do so again. Tony Moeaki, if he can stay healthy, possesses the talent to perform well within Reid’s system.
At wide receiver, aside from Terrell Owens, Reid’s teams haven’t had any true stars at the position, but Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have been notable options over the past few years. Dwayne Bowe is expected to depart via free agency, so the doors will be wide open for a player to emerge as a fantasy threat at wide receiver in Kansas City moving forward.
At the moment Jonathan Baldwin and Dexter McCluster should be drawing the attention of fantasy owners, but don’t get too excited about their prospects until we see who else Reid will roster at the position.
***The remaining 16 teams will be covered next week***