Mike Clay examines the fantasy relevance of 15 yet-to-be-addressed roster voids.
Free agency is all but over, but several teams failed to upgrade at an offensive position that is sure to impact fantasy leagues in 2015. Of course, the offseason isn’t over just yet, with the NFL Draft just over two weeks away.
Listed below are 15 “unfilled voids” likely to be addressed later this month, including the potential fantasy implications of said moves.
Cardinals Lead Back – Plain and simple, Andre Ellington was not very good last season. Operating as Arizona’s lead back, he averaged 3.3 yards per carry, which trailed only Andre Williams for worst at the position. Ellington was much better in a situational role as a rookie, and is a good receiver, which is a role he figures to return to once Arizona adds an impact, early-down back on draft day. Arizona’s new lead back will be a candidate for 12 to 15 carries a game and will be the favorite for goal line work. This figures to allow back-end RB2 production, but don’t expect many targets.
Falcons Lead Back – Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers are out, which leaves Atlanta with a void atop its tailback depth chart. A fourth-round pick last season, Devonta Freeman is a candidate for an expanded role, but is best served in a complementary role. Last season, he averaged 4.0 yards per carry and hauled in 30 of 34 targets for 225 yards. Currently, Freeman’s only competition for the team’s lead back gig is 29-year-old Antone Smith, so it’s a near guarantee that Atlanta will add a running back via the draft. It’s very likely that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will utilize a committee at the position, which means there may not be an Atlanta back worth RB2 consideration this season.
Ravens No. 2 Wide Receiver – Torrey Smith signed with San Francisco during the offseason, which leaves Baltimore with a glaring void behind Steve Smith on its wide receiver depth chart. Standing 6’5”/214, Marlon Brown is an intriguing candidate for the job. Brown handled 80 percent of the team’s offense of snaps and caught seven touchdowns as a rookie, but Steve Smith’s arrival knocked those marks to 39 percent and zero, respectively, in 2014. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey sit one-two in end zone targets over the past two years. That’s notable because they were coached by new Baltimore offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Brown makes for an intriguing sleeper if he hangs on to the No. 2 job. Of course, his only competition is journeyman Kamar Aiken and slot man Michael Campanaro. This means there’s an excellent chance Baltimore addresses the position on Day 1 or 2 of the draft.
Ravens No. 1 Tight End – Hip injuries have left 29-year-old Dennis Pitta’s career in jeopardy and Baltimore simply does not have much depth behind him on the roster. Assuming Pitta does not play, the team’s options are 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore and H-Back Kyle Juszczyk. The duo combined for eight percent of Baltimore’s targets last season. Pitta, meanwhile, is averaging 18 percent over his past 27 full games with the team. Considering the team’s aforementioned underwhelming wide receiver situation, it’s possible that a rookie replacement will end up on the fantasy radar this season. Of course, it’s dangerous to expect production from any rookie tight end, so it’s very likely this will be a situation to avoid 2015.
Bears No. 2 Wide Receiver – Considering that new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase had his third wide receiver on the field on 80 percent of passing plays each of the past two seasons, it was somewhat of a surprise to see the team trade away Brandon Marshall. The trade leaves the team with a void after standout Alshon Jeffrey. Marquess Wilson (6’4/204) is intriguing, but wasn’t overly impressive as injured Marshall’s replacement down the stretch last season. Chicago did add Eddie Royal during the offseason, but he profiles as the No. 3 and slot receiver. If Chicago adds an impact wide receiver on Day 1 or 2 of the draft, it’s conceivable that player will start Week 1 and make an immediate fantasy impact.
Browns Quarterback – After flirting with a trade for Sam Bradford, Cleveland replaced underwhelming veteran Brian Hoyer with equally-underwhelming 35-year-old Josh McCown. McCown’s only true competition for the team’s Week 1 starting job is Johnny Manziel, and he was nothing short of awful during a brief rookie-season stint. Cleveland is going to lean heavily on its defense and running game, so although they’re absolutely in the market for quarterback, it’s unlikely that a rookie will make a fantasy impact this season, not unlike Derek Carr and Blake Bortles last season.
Cowboys Lead Back – 450. That’s how many times DeMarco Murray touched the ball during the 2014 regular season. There won’t be a Dallas running back who comes close to that mark this season, but whoever lands the team’s lead back job will be in position to make a significant fantasy impact. Currently, Darren McFadden is penciled in atop the depth chart, but he turns 28 in August, has severe durability issues and hasn’t been productive since 2011. The team’s other options are inexperienced and/or underwhelming Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams. After successful 2014 season, Dallas wants to continue leaning heavily on its running game and it figures to look to the draft for a back who can handle majority of that workload. A player selected in the first few rounds would immediately be on the RB2 radar. A player with big-time ability would have RB1 upside.
Jaguars Lead Back – Denard Robinson showed flashes last season, but Jacksonville reportedly offered DeMarco Murray a contract during the offseason, which suggests there looking to improve at the position. A back selected in the early rounds would slot in ahead of Robinson, Toby Gerhart, Storm Johnson and Bernard Pierce. All four backs are best suited in complementary roles. Of course, the Jaguars finished dead last in offensive touchdowns last season. Unless Blake Bortles takes a giant step forward this season, the Jacksonville backfield won’t offer a ton of upside.
Dolphins No. 3 Wide Receiver – Miami overhauled its wide receiver corps during the offseason, dumping Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, and adding Kenny Stills. Some simple math tells us that Miami a short some depth. This is problematic when you consider that Miami had its third wide receiver on the field on 82 percent of its pass plays last season, which was the league’s fourth-highest rate. Rishard Mathews currently slots in as the No. 3 receiver and his only competition is Matt Hazel, Tyler McDonald and Michael Preston. With standout Jarvis Landry likely ticketed for slot duties, Miami will be in the market for a player who can work opposite Stills in three-wide sets. Miami currently does not have wide receiver taller than 6-foot-1, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if they had someone with size.
Saints No. 1 Tight End – The big shocker of the offseason was New Orleans’ trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Graham had been responsible for at least 85 catches, 885 yards and nine touchdowns each of the past four seasons. This is obviously a void the Saints need to fill and that’s especially the case after they released Pierre Thomas and traded Kenny Stills. A few veterans remain on the market (Jermaine Gresham, Zach Miller) and they could address the position early in the draft (Maxx Williams?), but it’s starting to look like 2013 undrafted free-agent Josh Hill will be on the fantasy radar this season. Hill played 273 snaps last season, but was mostly used as a blocker. He scored a touchdown on five of his 14 receptions. Hill isn’t nearly as good as Graham and, unlike his predecessor, he has primarily lined up as an in-line tight end. Of course, with Drew Brees under center, the sky’s the limit. With only 34-year-old Ben Watson currently on his coattail for snaps, Hill is a good bet to be busy on passing downs this season. That will certainly put him on the TE1 radar.
Jets Passing-down Back – With Chris Ivory and Stevan Ridley, the Jets are all set on early downs and at the goal line. Neither are very good receivers, however, which leaves only Bilal Powell as an option on passing downs. Stevie Johnson aside, Buffalo wasn’t particularly good at wide receiver during Chan Gailey’s tenure with the team. That may help explain the team’s heavy reliance on C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson as receivers, but it makes sense that Gailey will want a more versatile running back in his spread offense. Not unlike Shane Vereen in New England or Roy Helu in Washington, it’s possible that the Jets will draft a scat back who will quickly land on the flex radar in PPR formats. It’s a situation to monitor.
Eagles No. 2 Wide Receiver – The Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin during the offseason, but that certainly was not the plan. Second-year receiver Jordan Mathews vaults to the top of the depth chart, leaving Riley Cooper, Josh Huff and Miles Austin to compete for the team’s No. 2 and 3 jobs. Cooper has the size (6’4”/230), Austin has the resume (two 1,000-yard seasons) and Huff has the fresh legs (2014 third-round pick), but none are ideal options for an NFL starting lineup. Especially after the club flirted with a Vincent Jackson trade last offseason, expect Chip Kelly to add a wideout via the draft. Considering the Eagles high-scoring offense, a Day 1 or 2 pick will immediately become an intriguing flier in fantasy drafts.
Chargers Lead Back – With Ryan Mathews in Philadelphia, the Chargers are left with Danny Woodhead, Branden Oliver and Donald Brown at tailback. All three profile as change-of-pace/situational backs. Woodhead is a terrific receiver (he caught 76 passes in 2013), but is 30 and missed all but three games with a fractured fibula and ankle last season. Oliver is often compared to Darren Sproles, but isn’t quite as dynamic and averaged only 3.7 yards per carry as a rookie. Brown was a big letdown for San Diego last season, averaging a miserable 2.6 YPC on 85 tries. San Diego is badly in need of an early-down thumper and goal line back. The Chargers don’t struggle for touchdowns, which would allow an impact rookie to immediately enter fantasy relevance.
Buccaneers Quarterback – The worst-kept secret in draft silly season is the Buccaneers impending selection of a quarterback – likely Jameis Winston – with the first overall pick. With only Mike Glennon and Seth Lobato on the roster, it makes perfect sense. Winston will be a heavy favorite to start Week 1 and, with Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at his disposal, he’ll immediately be in the QB2 conversation. The Buccaneers underwhelming tailback situation will allow plenty of passing opportunities.
Titans Quarterback – The chatter in Tennessee suggests the Titans are content with 2014 sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger as their starter. Although it’s risky, that means they plan to pass on Winston or Marcus Mariota with the second-overall pick. Mettenberger was terrific during his first preseason, but was pedestrian on 198 regular season drop backs. He threw eight touchdowns, but was intercepted seven times. Mettenberger is a worthwhile speculative stash in deep dynasty leagues, but it’s unlikely that the Titans offense will take a giant step forward in 2015. This is a situation to avoid.
Others: Falcons WR, Ravens RB, Panthers RB, Cowboys WR, Lions RB, Chiefs WR, Saints WR, Jets QB, Raiders WR, Steelers RB, Buccaneers WR, Titans WR, Redskins RB
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL