If there is one thing you can say about the AFC East, they know how to make headlines. Whether it’s bullying and abuse by teammates in Miami, Bon Jovi and Donald Trump vying for ownership in Buffalo, Rex Ryan saying something stupid in New York (but really New Jersey), or Tom Brady…being Tom Brady…it’s a division that gets people talking.
On the football field though, it’s been all Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, they have won the division 11 times (in 13 years). The rest of the division will try to prevent New England from winning their sixth straight division title in 2014, but we’re more concerned with who will make your fantasy team better.
The Bills haven’t had a winning season since 2004 and they have finished 6-10 each of the last 3 seasons. Second year head coach Doug Marrone’s squad ranked 2nd in rushing last season, 2nd in defensive interceptions, and 4th against passing, but struggled mightily to put points on the board. The Bills hope to change that with their new receiver additions and keeping EJ Manuel healthy. Good luck, Buffalo.
QB EJ Manuel
11 TD/9 INT, 1,972 pass yards, 186 rush yards 2 rush TD in 2013 (10 games)
Many were surprised when the Bills chose EJ Manuel before any quarterback in the 2013 NFL Draft. Going 16th overall, the Florida State quarterback was the ONLY one at his position selected in the first round. Those who followed Manuel in college weren’t surprised based on his combination of size, speed, and arm strength, but knee injuries and accuracy issues still plagued him in his rookie season. The Bills run a no-huddle offense (much like Philadelphia’s) that is dependent on the running game and quick hitting passes downfield. Manuel has two new talented receivers in rookie Sammy Watkins and former Buccaneer Mike Williams to make it work. Watkins and Williams have bigger catch radiuses that should help Manuel execute, as long as he stays healthy.
Recommendation: You hope a full offseason gave Manuel time to work on his accuracy but I’m more concerned with his knee injuries. He’ll have a chance to dispel that concern, but let him do that on the waiver wire. If you have a deep bench, MAYBE pick him in the last round.
RB CJ Spiller
933 rush yards, 2 TD / 33 rec, 185 rec yards, 0 TD in 2013
CJ Spiller led the league’s 2nd best running team in yardage but struggled to find the end zone. That has been the story for the 9th overall pick from 2010 in his Buffalo tenure. Being great between the 20’s doesn’t necessarily translate to points for a player, but sometimes does for someone else in the backfield (see Fred Jackson next down). Spiller, while still playing 15 games, also dealt with an ankle injury that could have been a cause for his drop in production from 2012 (1,244 rush yards, 6 TDs, 43 rec, 459 rec yards). He only had 5 less carries but averaged 4.6 yards per as opposed to 6.0. On top of the motivation for 2014 being a contract year, Spiller can benefit from the addition of Watkins to stretch the field and take pressure off the front for him to run on. Spiller also likes the Bills’ added running back depth of Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon to ease his workload.
Recommendation: Have you learned your lesson yet, sports fans? Every year, Spiller’s potential gets him over-drafted in most leagues. DON’T DRAFT ON POTENTIAL. Spiller’s ceiling has always been high but how often has he reached that in 4 seasons? He is a solid RB2 for his value and should go in middle rounds.
RB Fred Jackson
890 rush yards, 9 TD / 47 rec, 387 rec yards 1 TD
The veteran running back out of Coe College goes into his 8th season with a new contract extension, which he signed right before training camp. Despite dealing with a knee injury, Jackson played in all 16 games and gained 1,277 yards from scrimmage, his 3rd best total of his career. Jackson’s 10 touchdowns made him Buffalo’s only real scoring threat in 2013. He’ll still split carries with Spiller but the extension shows that the Bills are committed to the 33-year old back and expect Jackson to be just as reliable.
Recommendation: Jackson is traditionally a solid waiver wire pickup for Fantasy owners. While his total production was better than Spiller’s last year, Spiller is still the #1 back. The potentially improved passing game is also more beneficial to Splitter. Jackson is better served to round out your draft.
WR Sammy Watkins
101 rec, 1,464 rec yards, 12 TD at Clemson in 2013*
The Bills went all in trading for Sammy Watkins. To select him 4th overall, Buffalo dealt their 9th overall pick in 2014 and their 1st and 4th round picks in 2015. Will Watkins be the difference that makes Marrone’s offense work? Since the NFL merger (the beginning of the Super Bowl era), just 12 rookie receivers have gained over 1,000 yards and only 5 scored 10+ touchdowns. If Manuel can lead him consistently, if defenses are zeroed in on Spiller, and if Mike Williams can draw coverage, Watkins can do it…That’s only 3 of the Ifs right there.
Recommendation: Watkins has the potential to be a very special player in the NFL. But again, DON’T DRAFT ON POTENTIAL. A lot of his success is going to depend on what his quarterback can do. If you have your heart set on Watkins, take him late. (Note: I drafted Alshon Jeffery with my last pick and we saw how that worked out, right?)
RB Bryce Brown
WR Mike Williams
WR Robert Woods
TE Scott Chandler
Is there a seat hotter in the NFL than head coach Joe Philbin’s? Rex Ryan, maybe, but he has too much “cushion” to feel it. We’ve exhausted the bullying narrative enough and how irresponsible Philbin was handling it, so let’s focus on football. The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season and then replaced offensive coordinator Mike Sherman with Eagles QB coach Bill Lazor to improve the 7th worst scoring team in 2013. In order for the Dolphins to get better, they’ll probably want to keep their starting quarterback off his butt.
QB Ryan Tannehill
24 TD/17 INT, 3,913 pass yards, 238 rush yards 1 TD in 2013.
The 2012 draft is always talked about as the one that produced Andrew Luck, Robert Griffen III, and Russell Wilson. Often overlooked is Ryan Tannehill, who was selected 8th overall out of Texas A&M. Tannehill also threw for more yards than any of the quarterbacks mentioned previously in 2013, and more touchdowns than both Luck and Griffen. Tannehill doubled his touchdown pass total from his rookie year, but was sacked more than anyone in the league (58) and by a lot. His new OC, Lazor, has brought the Chip Kelly system to Miami. That means faster tempo, quicker passes, and more athletic linemen to keep Tannehill protected. But it will really depend on the rest of his teammates buying into the new system.
Recommendation: Tannehill is a solid QB2 for your roster. He’s going very under the radar so you should be able to get him late.
RBs Knowshon Moreno & Lamar Miller
Moreno: 1,038 rush yards, 10 TD / 60 rec, 548 rec yards, 3 TD in 2013
Miller: 709 rush yards, 2 TD/ 26 rec, 170 rec yards
Knowshon Moreno BROKE OUT in 2013. In his 5th season, Moreno ranked 4th among running backs in rushing touchdowns (tied with Adrian Peterson) and accumulated 1,586 total yards from scrimmage. How much of that success, though, was thanks to Peyton Manning? The Broncos were the highest scoring team in the NFL, got in the end zone early and often, forced defenses into pass coverage, and then would hand it off to the running back for the rest of the way. Regardless, the Dolphins thought highly enough of Moreno to sign him in hopes he would improve a running game that ranked near the bottom in 2013. Many assumed Moreno was already penciled in as the starting running back. Not Lamar Miller.
Miller took the signing as a challenge and has proven so in offseason workouts and camp. Moreno has been dealing with a hamstring injury and Miller has seized the opportunity. The former Miami Hurricane rushed for 709 yards in his sophomore season last year, but sees himself putting up LeSean McCoy-like numbers in the new system…or is trying to shape his game that way. While Miller ran for more than 60 yards 8 times last season, he was held under 10 yards 4 times. McCoy never rushed for less than 38 in 2013.
Recommendation: People will overdraft for Moreno. Don’t be one of them. Competition at a position is great for a team, but not necessarily for Fantasy. Since Moreno has proven it, he can be an RB2 but keep an eye out for Miller for that “McCoy potential”. Draft him late.
WR Mike Wallace
73 rec, 930 rec yards, 5 TD in 2013
Mike Wallace was supposed to be the big free agent addition for the Dolphins last year. He may be poised to be better utilized in 2014. Wallace seems to have bought into Lazor’s system and is being moved all over the field to put him and the team in the best position to succeed, much like how DeSean Jackson was used by the Eagles in 2013. It will be interesting to see how that game planning will effect fellow receiver Brian Hartline, who had much of the same production as Wallace a year ago.
Recommendation: Will Wallace be Lazor’s D-Jax? He could, but don’t draft him high without knowing for sure. Pick Wallace in the mid-late rounds. He could at least be a strong flex.
TE Charles Clay
69 rec, 759 rec yards, 6 TD
The converted fullback emerged as a Top 10 tight end in 2013. Charles Clay was listed 2nd on the Dolphins depth chart before Dustin Keller’s preseason knee injury. Then he caught 10 passes for 163 yards in the first two weeks of the regular season and never looked back. Clay ranked 7th among TEs in receptions, 9th in yards, and 8th in touchdowns. Unfortunately Clay has missed most of the preseason due to a knee injury, but says he’ll be ready to go by the season opener.
Recommendation: After the top end scoring tight ends come off the board, there’s a significant drop off in fantasy scoring. You can wait till mid-late rounds to draft Clay.
WR Brian Hartline
RB/WR/KR Marcus Thigpen
TE Dion Simms
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is looking for his 12th divisional championship in his Patriots tenure. Belichick has also NEVER cared about your fantasy stats. If you’ve ever had a Patriots running back on your team, you know this. The Patriots ranked 3rd in scoring last year, 7th in offensive yardage, and 8th in turnover ratio (+9). The production is there, but the question will be where it comes from.
QB Tom Brady
25 TD/11 INT, 4,343 pass yards in 2013
Tom Brady saw a decline in his numbers last season after throwing 34+ touchdowns each of the previous 3. The 37 year-old 9-time pro bowl quarterback was inconsistent week-to-week when it came to scoring for fantasy owners. Brady could go blank in the TD category against the Jets one week, and then throw 4 against the Steelers. Some blame Brady’s age and arm strength. Others blame the lack of talent and experience supporting him. Belichick’s commitment to the running game had a lot to do with it as well. In the final two weeks (your post season), fantasy owners had to look elsewhere for quarterbacks because all Brady was doing was handing off to his running backs. Brady could bounce back having a full year with his young receivers, and if Gronk and Amendola stay healthy…which is no sure thing. But one thing is; Brady still wins games. He had 5 comeback wins in the 4th quarter in 2014, 3 of which came in row weeks 11-13 (7 TD/2 INT, avg. 101.3 QB rating)
Recommendation: Brady is still a winner and a franchise quarterback, but he isn’t a top 5 Fantasy QB. Because there are so many questions of where the production will come from for New England this season, don’t take him until the Top 5 QBs come off the board.
RB Stevan Ridley
773 rush yards, 7 TD / 10 rec, 62 rec yards 0 TD
Stevan Ridley seemed to break out in 2012, running for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also stood out as THE guy in the backfield getting 290 carries, nearly 100 more than Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden combined. After issues securing the ball arose, Ridley saw his playing time, carries, and yardage split with LeGarrette Blount. Blount is now backing up Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, but Ridley isn’t in the clear at all when it comes to the Patriots depth chart. He caught a case of the fumbles in the recent preseason game against the Eagles, and 4th round pick James White out of Wisconsin is showing potential of being an all-around starting back. That is the other knock on Ridley’s game. He isn’t a dependable pass catcher like White can be and like Vereen has been in the Patriots system. In limited action, Vereen caught 47 passes for 427 yards last season.
Recommendation: Whoever is in the backfield for Tom Brady in the red zone has a great chance of scoring. The theme though may be Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” If you intend to draft Ridley, make him your flex with RB2 potential. White may be someone worth looking at to close out your draft.
WR Julian Edelman
105 rec 1,056 rec yards, 6 TD, 374 return yards in 2013
If one thing is clear going into the 2014 season, I think it’s that Julian Edelman is Tom Brady’s guy. With the departure of Wes Welker, Edelman reaped all the benefits playing in all 16 games and ranking 4th in receptions among receivers. With rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson unable to catch the ball early on and Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski injured, Edelman HAD to be the guy. His returning skills also add a dynamic that set him apart as a Fantasy option. With the addition of former Panthers WR Brandon LaFell and the returns of Gronk and Amendola, Edelman may see less targets, but can you depend on the latter two to stay healthy?
Recommendation: While I don’t think Edelman is as polished a receiver or as dependable as Welker, I do think he is Brady’s security blanket…especially in quick hitting no-huddle drives. Edelman may not be the big time scoring threat, but he will get the catches in between the 20’s. He’s graduated from a waiver wire watch to a WR2 for your roster.
TE Rob Gronkowski
39 rec, 4 TD, 592 yards in 2013 (7 games played)
Rob Gronkowski started playing in full team drills for the first time this week after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL January 9th. Gronkowski had been held out of contact drills until now, but plans to play in all 16 games this season. The last time Gronk played a full season (2011,) he led the league in touchdown receptions with 17. Before 2013, he recorded at least 10 touchdowns in each season of his career. Even when Gronk was limited to 11 games in 2012, he scored 11 touchdowns. When right, Gronk is one of the best red zone options in the game. That, plus his injury history, should make anyone cautiously optimistic in 2014.
Recommendation: The injury history does scare me with Gronkowski but then I look at those 2011 numbers. I don’t think he’s going to go for 1,300 yards again but Gronk is a viable option after Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, and Julius Thomas. Just be sure you draft a solid backup for him.
RB James White
RB Shane Vereen
WR Danny Amendola
WR Brandon LaFell
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
TE Michael Hoomanwanui
New York Jets
Before the two tenants of MetLife Stadium meet for their annual preseason game, rookie running back Andre Williams told New York writers, “I think the Giants are the real New York team.” You wouldn’t think a head coach going into his 6th season would take the comments of another team’s newly drafted 4th round pick to heart, but of course Ryan did. “Last time I saw him he was getting smoked by Clemson,” Ryan responded. “I have a funny feeling he’s going to get some Riddells [helmets] on him.” Almost as thin as Ryan’s skin was the Jets offense last season that ranked nearly last in scoring.
QB Geno Smith
12 TD/21 INT, 3,046 pass yards, 366 rush yards, 6 rush TDs in 2013
Geno Smith didn’t have the smoothest rookie season starting all 16 games in 2013. He did, however, win the final 3 to get the Jets to .500 for the season. Smith did so by utilizing his mobility, averaging 6 yards per carry and scoring 3 touchdowns on the ground in the last quarter of the season. Smith looks to improve his passing game still after throwing multiple interceptions in 7 games last season. Michael Vick was brought in for competition and for having history with Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg (formerly of Philadelphia), but Smith seems to have locked down the starting role for New York.
Recommendation: I don’t expect Geno Smith to be drafted in most leagues, but keep an eye on his progress during his sophomore season. If QBs starting going down, Smith could be in demand.
RB Chris Johnson
1,077 rush yards, 6 TD / 42 rec, 345 rec yards, 4 TD in 2013
After 6 seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Chris Johnson needed a change in scenery. The 3-time pro bowler and one time 2,000 yard rusher joins a running back group that ranked 6th on the ground last season. He blames the decline in his production on the way he was handled the last two seasons saying the Titans offense was “too predictable.” Johnson, who has home run ability, won’t be doing all the heavy lifting in New York as they do plan to use a running back-by-committee strategy. The hot back out of Johnson, Chris Ivory, and Bilal Powell will be the one who plays more in Mornhinweg’s system.
Recommendation: The committee strategy is an annoying one for fantasy owners. Johnson is the back with some hardware and game changing ability, so he should be the first of the Jets RBs to go…but not until late.
WR Eric Decker
87 rec, 1,288 yards, 11 TD in 2013
There is no doubt Eric Decker’s best seasons had something to do with Peyton Manning being his quarterback. His production nearly doubled when he started hearing “Omaha!” at the line of scrimmage, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a talented receiver. The Jets signed Decker to be their #1 option for Geno Smith to throw to, but he has dealt with injuries during camp that have kept him out of practice. Decker is confident he’ll be fine for the season health-wise, but two questions linger. Will his new young quarterback be able to get him the ball? And will the other receivers draw double coverage away from him like his teammates in Denver did?
Recommendation: I really don’t have a lot of faith in the Jets’ passing game. And as mentioned prior, there was a much more talented corps in Denver that helped Decker get open. He is still the best option downfield for Smith, and is more valuable to be drafted in later rounds, low end WR2/Flex option.
QB Michael Vick
RB Chris Ivory
RB Bilal Powell
WR David Nelson
TE Jeff Cumberland