Ten key faces in new places
Change dominated the headlines this offseason.
That is, change of a specific player's address: Peyton Manning's.
You couldn't turn on a TV or radio, pick up a newspaper or browse a sports website anytime during the month of March without hearing or reading a discussion of Manning's whereabouts for 2012. The surefire Hall of Famer was the most hotly contested name on the free-agent market -- his name landed on that list following his release by the Indianapolis Colts the first week of March -- so the landing spot for such a prominent name, naturally, matters.
It matters in the NFL, and it matters in fantasy football.
And when we look at Manning's signing with the Denver Broncos, we can't help but proclaim his the most important fantasy-related address change of the 2012 offseason. Yes, that's even though he's now 36 years old and coming off four surgical procedures on his neck since March 2010. Let's face it: It's not often that the owner of four MVP awards, the third-most passing touchdowns in NFL history (399) and annual averages of 4,218 yards and 31 TDs passing changes uniforms.
The questions surrounding Manning are mostly health-related: Offseason reports on his throwing were positive, but until we see him in game action and he begins taking hits, we simply won't know how substantial the risk of him missing further time really is. Adapting to new surroundings, including a new set of receivers, presents another question, but few doubt that if any quarterback can quickly adapt, it's (a healthy) Manning. As such, he's the ultimate risk/reward player in fantasy; the probabilities of either another 4,000-yard, 30-TD season or a Week 1 sack that ends his career are both nonzero (and by a decent margin for either).
But it's not only the impact upon Manning that matters. His arrival in the Mile High City instantly makes both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker breakout candidates -- the difficulty for fantasy owners is deciding which one they like better -- and it makes running back Willis McGahee a potential value pick in the middle rounds. Remember, during Manning's 13 healthy seasons in Indianapolis, nine times the Colts' starting running back managed a 1,000-yard campaign (2002, 2008, 2009 and 2010 were the only times they fell short), and in 2009, they got an 828-yard, 10-TD season out of Joseph Addai. If anything, that Manning, and not Tim Tebow, is the Broncos' quarterback is a plus for McGahee; it restores his status as the team's most likely candidate for goal-line carries.
Manning's team change was the No. 1 story in terms of player movement this offseason. Now, let's take a look at Nos. 2-10:
2. Chicago Bears trade for WR Brandon Marshall
This one drummed up much excitement among fantasy owners and Bears fans alike; Marshall is now reunited with Jay Cutler, his quarterback from 2006-08 when the two were with the Denver Broncos. Marshall managed his two best single-season numbers in terms of receptions and receiving yards working with Cutler, and Cutler's best single season (2008), as well as his two best years in terms of completion percentage, came with Marshall as his No. 1 receiver. There's no doubt reuniting them is a boon to both their fantasy values -- runs at top-10 status at their positions for each is possible -- but questions remain: Can Marshall keep his head on straight for long enough to remain focused and on the field for 16 games, can the Bears' O-line provide the necessary protection for Cutler and will coach Lovie Smith finally drop his infatuation with Devin Hester?
3. New England Patriots sign WR Brandon Lloyd
This just in: Lloyd really likes playing for Josh McDaniels. Lloyd's breakout fantasy season of 2009 -- that one his seventh in the NFL -- came with McDaniels as his coach, then he managed four touchdowns in his first six games following a midseason trade to the St. Louis Rams, whose offensive coordinator was da-da-da-DAAAA! McDaniels. Now Lloyd joins the Patriots, again following McDaniels, who agreed to become their O-coordinator late last season. Lloyd's stats speak volumes: In 27 career games for a "McDaniels team," he has averaged 4.7 receptions, 78.9 receiving yards and 0.59 receiving touchdowns. In 85 games played for anyone else, his averages in those categories are 2.2, 31.2 and 0.18. Oh, and Lloyd now has the advantage of having Tom Brady throwing him the football. Granted, the Patriots have other pass-catchers on the roster who aren't about to cede targets -- Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- but even if Lloyd's volume of targets decreases, might their quality increase? Perhaps, which is why he's one of the more intriguing top-25 wideouts.
4. Kansas City Chiefs sign RB Peyton Hillis
Here's a move that's a no-brainer from a pure football perspective, but represents a dilly of a pickle for fantasy owners. Signing Hillis to help pick up the load that Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster could not in the wake of Jamaal Charles' season-ending ACL injury makes complete sense from an insurance-policy perspective; it creates a potential nightmare to Charles' fantasy owners because of the prospect of lost carries, especially at the goal line. This assumes, of course, that Charles' ACL has completely healed, meaning fantasy owners with early drafts need to make the practically mandatory Hillis handcuff. But if it has and Charles is a "go" for Week 1, here's what the Chiefs see: At 5-foot-11, 199 pounds, Charles isn't nearly the natural bruiser that the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Hillis is. Hillis, too, is at least as good a pass-catcher, meaning third-down snaps are also up for grabs. The result: A critical backfield to track this preseason and a high-risk, high-reward tandem.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign WR Vincent Jackson
The closest thing to a genuine No. 1 wideout on the free-agent market this offseason, Jackson might have landed in one of the very few places likely to mute his fantasy value. Besides the considerable downgrade in his quarterback, going from Philip Rivers to Josh Freeman, new Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano's run-heavy offensive philosophy, stemming from his days at Rutgers, hints that Jackson might have a difficult time exceeding any of his past categorical bests: 68 receptions, 1,167 receiving yards or 9 receiving touchdowns, all of those set in 2009 (the TDs matched in 2011). Jackson's arrival is a plus for Freeman, who might have a shot at approaching the 25 TDs he threw for in 2010 if he's allowed to throw often enough, but it's a minus for fellow Buccaneers wideouts Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, ruining Williams' bounce-back and Benn's sleeper potential.
6. San Diego Chargers sign WR Robert Meachem
Although the aforementioned Vincent Jackson's departure adversely impacted the Chargers, by adding Meachem, it's not like they're substantially worse in the passing game. Granted, per 16 games played the past three seasons, Meachem managed 20 fewer receptions (63-43), 470 fewer receiving yards (1,120-660) and two fewer receiving touchdowns (9-7) than Jackson, but remember, Meachem's numbers arguably suffered because of Drew Brees' spread-it-around approach. That's not to say Meachem is Jackson's equal; it's saying that he could develop into a similarly productive No. 1 wideout, because his skills are underrated and he now has the opportunity. It's a matter of "what we know" versus "what we might learn"; Meachem's arrival prevents Philip Rivers' fantasy stock from plummeting, and it puts himself on the list of mid-round sleepers.
7. Seattle Seahawks sign QB Matt Flynn
For all the buzz surrounding Flynn's arrival in Seattle and the comparisons made to another ex-Green Bay Packers quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck making the trip northwest, let's remember two key facts: Flynn has all of two career NFL starts, and he has attempted but 132 career regular-season passes. Throw in the considerable downgrade in receivers between what Flynn was throwing to with the Packers last Week 17 and what the Seahawks will roll out in 2012, and you'll need temper your expectations. Flynn does have the advantage of four years' tutelage under Aaron Rodgers, as well as a reputation for good decision-making; in those two starts, he did throw for at least three touchdowns in each. But he's fantasy-backup material with his new team, a speculative option you stash, not pick to lead your squad.
8. Cincinnati Bengals sign RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
The Law Firm's arrival in Cincinnati is an interesting one; while he's a more recently successful short-yardage option who possesses better hands than the man he replaced, Cedric Benson, Green-Ellis' "starter's" upside really isn't any greater than that of his predecessor. Although Green-Ellis' yards per carry mark the past two seasons combined (4.1) exceeded Benson's (3.7), he's not much more than your average two-down back with the additional advantage of goal-line work. There's an opportunity here for backup Bernard Scott that wasn't quite present during Benson's days, and it's worth pointing out that the Bengals, unlike the Patriots, might not provide Green-Ellis with nearly as many scoring chances. To that end, Patriots running backs totaled 32 plays -- carries or targets -- within the opponent's five-yard line last season. The Bengals? They totaled 18.
9. New York Jets trade for QB Tim Tebow
Tebow, Tebow, Tebow. Surely you've heard of this guy, right? Let the three-ring circus begin in the Meadowlands, as "Tebowmania" was the perfect tonic for the headaches of Mark Sanchez, a quarterback who, through three NFL seasons, has fallen short of expectations. (Previous sentence reeking of sarcasm.) Tebow begins 2012 as a novelty for the Jets, his most fantasy-relevant impact the likelihood that he'll vulture rushing touchdowns from Shonn Greene, but you can be sure that the catcalls for Tebow to start will quickly commence perhaps as soon as Week 1. Look at that Jets September schedule: versus Buffalo Bills (added Mario Williams), at Pittsburgh Steelers, at Miami Dolphins, versus San Francisco 49ers. It's as if Tebow starting by October was destined, but what's maddening about that is that if it takes that long, he'll be draft-irrelevant, and once he emerges regularly under center, he'll drain almost all of the value out of every Jets receiver.
10. Chicago Bears sign RB Michael Bush
You might think that a running back's arrival on a team that already has Matt Forte, who averaged 13.1 ESPN standard fantasy points per game before spraining his knee in Week 13 last season, wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but remember that Forte and the Bears have squabbled over his contract for more than a year now, not to mention that process has brought to light the team's questions about his durability. A Forte holdout is a distinct possibility, but Bush also provides valuable insurance for the Bears in the case their concerns for Forte's health turn out to be valid. Bush, at the very least, is a 6-foot-1, 245-pound bowling ball who makes scads of sense for a Bears team that got an 0-for-7 performance from Forte on plays within the opponent's 5-yard line last season. Bush's basement fantasy value is that of a goal-line back and handcuff; but if he's pressed into starter's duty, he showed over short spurts that he can be a handy No. 2 option.
The chart below lists a few other notable offseason moves, albeit ones that failed to crack the top 10:
|Fantasy quick take|
|RB Joseph Addai||Don't leap to declare him The Law Firm's goal-line replacement. Addai is here as an insurance policy, and he's not even a lock to make the team.|
|TE Martellus Bennett||Eli Manning does throw to his tight ends; remember Jake Ballard last season? Bennett could be a sneaky late-round pick for those who wait on the position.|
|TE Kevin Boss||He'll team with Tony Moeaki as the Chiefs seek to duplicate the Patriots' two-headed tight end monster. Um, except for one problem: Boss is no Rob Gronkowski, nor Moeaki Aaron Hernandez.|
|QB Jason Campbell||The Bears, with their O-line issues, are smart to bring in a brand-name backup for Jay Cutler. But even if Campbell is called upon to start, he's league-average at best.|
|TE John Carlson||That groan you just heard came from Kyle Rudolph's "sleeper" supporters in fantasy; Carlson's arrival means many two-tight end sets and minimal fantasy returns for either.|
|TE Dallas Clark||Kellen Winslow's replacement in Tampa comes to a team shifting its focus to the run. Hopes of a complete rebound are a stretch.|
|TE Joel Dreessen||A handy fill-in and a solid blocker, Dreessen bears watching because of the Peyton Manning factor. But he's no draft-day material, not yet.|
|WR Pierre Garcon||His contract makes it clear he's the Redskins' new No. 1 wideout, but can "Cam Newton-esque" rookie magic strike in back-to-back years? Robert Griffin III's learning curve might keep Garcon in the No. 3 fantasy wide receiver class.|
|QB David Garrard||Some consolation prize. Garrard will battle Matt Moore and rookie Ryan Tannehill for a roster spot, let alone the starting gig. That mountain to climb might not sound steep, but it is.|
|RB Mike Goodson||He'll be in the mix for the backup job to Darren McFadden, a relevant one considering "DMC's" injury history. Fumbleitis is a chronic problem, though.|
|QB Chad Henne||Laurent Robinson's fantasy owners might root for Henne, a projected backup, to take over as starter. Hey, at least Brandon Marshall was decent working with Henne.|
|RB Brandon Jacobs||On reputation, he'll be a threat to Frank Gore's goal-line carries, but Jacobs is NFL backup material at this stage of his career and more a headache to Gore/Kendall Hunter owners than anything.|
|WR Mario Manningham||The questions are his health and Vernon Davis' and Michael Crabtree's status as preferred weapons up close, but Manningham could be depth help in terms of yards/catches.|
|RB Le'Ron McClain||Mike Tolbert's probable replacement could factor in goal-line packages, but the net result is a plus for starter Ryan Mathews. McClain won't nearly cut into Mathews' carries as much as Tolbert did.|
|WR Josh Morgan||It's a bit of a stretch to proclaim him No. 2 NFL wideout material, but he's got the potential to get there. If he stays healthy. And you can capitalize that "IF."|
|WR Randy Moss||He's 35, sat out 2011 and was a headache to three different teams in 2010. Oh, and he's a deep threat now with a quarterback who rarely throws deep.|
|WR Legedu Naanee||At best, he'll open camp third on the depth chart to Davone Bess and Brian Hartline. Speaks volumes about his fantasy appeal, doesn't it?|
|QB Kyle Orton||Hey, he's an upgrade on Jon Kitna, at least. But Orton will be fantasy-irrelevant except in case of catastrophic injury to Tony Romo.|
|WR Roscoe Parrish||He'll provide depth for the Chargers at wide receiver, perhaps settling as a punt returner in the best-case scenario.|
|K Neil Rackers||Who doesn't love a good ol' fashioned kicker training camp battle? Rackers versus Graham Gano. We're on the edge of our seats.|
|WR Laurent Robinson||He's now a No. 1 on a team with no competition for the role, but the downgrade at quarterback from Tony Romo to Blaine Gabbert is massive.|
|WR Eddie Royal||Opportunity knocks for Royal who could slide in at the slot in addition to returning punts. Yes, his career has been full of disappointment, but a strong preseason could sneak him onto the sleepers list.|
|WR Jerome Simpson||He'll be a starter for the Vikings and perhaps an undervalued one at that. But off-the-field issues hold him back, including a three-game suspension to begin 2012.|
|WR Steve Smith||His 2010 microfracture surgery has seemingly derailed his career, but he'll have a chance at a roster spot -- think fourth/fifth receiver -- if he can wow the Rams this preseason.|
|QB Drew Stanton||Introducing rookie Andrew Luck's insurance policy. Yup, it sure looks like Luck's leash will be looooooooong. As it should be.|
|TE Jacob Tamme||Of all ex-Colts to follow Peyton Manning to Denver Tamme should be the Broncos' No. 1 tight end, a frequent read for Manning, and that makes him sleeper material.|
|RB Mike Tolbert||What a rushing attack the Panthers have built up the past year. Tolbert could signal the approaching end of Jonathan Stewart's tenure with the team. But, for this year, couldn't it be just as likely that he'll be a fullback who tallies minimal touches?|
|TE Kellen Winslow||The Bucs effectively gave him away, and Winslow now rates behind Zach Miller on the depth chart. His fantasy value appears to have evaporated as quickly as his playmaking skills.|
|QB Vince Young||Ryan Fitzpatrick's new backup represents an insurance policy and a possible Wildcat option, but little else. Need we remind you Young's awful 2011 stats when he started?|
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