The beauty of Fantasy Football is that it forces you to pay attention to the rest of the league, no matter how casual a fan you may be. You could be wearing a Bears jersey at a bar somewhere, but deep down you want them to put on the Patriots game to see who Tom Brady is throwing to on his next 80 yard drive. Very likely, there are plenty of others in the same vicinity with the same concerns. Fantasy Football brings people together like that.
It is that time of year again. Most sports news publications and outlets are releasing their NFL season previews before kickoff, September 4th between the Green Bay Packers and defending champion Seattle Seahawks. What’s more pressing than that? Your league’s Fantasy Draft! Who do you take when Drew Brees and Peyton Manning come off the board? Can Jamaal Charles repeat last year’s performance? Do you really need a second kicker on your Week 1 roster?
With a series of posts over the next week, I hope to help you answer those questions and many more. We’ll take a look, division by division, at the players you may be targeting on each NFL squad. Coast to coast, we’ll evaluate players by past performances and their current situations with various factors: coaching and personnel changes, health, team philosophies, etc.
We’ll begin with the NFC East (ESPN’s FAVORITE!)
The division was about as unpredictable as Tony Romo in the 4th quarter in 2013. While the Dallas Cowboys were 8-8 again, the division’s top two teams in 2012 (Redskins and Giants) became the bottom two in 2013. Rising past the mediocrity were the Philadelphia Eagles and first year NFL coach Chip Kelly going from 4th to 1st in the East.
Throw out the records, we’re talking about Fantasy! The NFC East is a fun mix of sure-thing top end picks, players to be weary of, and some you’ll want to take a flyer on. Lets go!
For 3 seasons under coach Jason Garrett, the Cowboys have just been…meh. Finishing 8-8 each of those seasons doesn’t give those faithful to “America’s Ex-Team” more than cautious confidence for 2014. The Cowboys did rank 6th in scoring last year while having to play catch up with a defense that allowed 27.4 points per game, and for Fantasy owners (who don’t have Dallas’ defense) that’s not a bad thing.
QB Tony Romo
31 Touchdowns/10 Interceptions, 3,828 passing yards in 2013
Tony Romo had a bounce back year by the numbers last season. He reprised his same 2011 TD/INT ratio and cut the turnovers down significantly from 2012. However, the fear is that his second back surgery may effect the deep ball which became the bread and butter with home run threat Dez Bryant. Romo showed he can keep up with the best (when right), throwing 5 TDs in a shootout with Detroit. He also never threw more than 2 INTs in a game and only did that twice. Former Lions OC Scott Linehan is now the “passing coordinator” in Dallas and that could mean more throwing for Romo. Matthew Stafford averaged 42 passes per game coached by Linehan while Romo threw just 36 per during those 3 years.
Recommendation: Romo is a reliable QB1, a pick you would make late 2nd round or 3rd if you are targeting RBs or skilled players first.
RB DeMarco Murray
1,121 rush yards, 9 TD rushing / 53 receptions, 350 rec yards, 1 TD in 2013
The former heir to Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma is looking to make another big stride in 2014. DeMarco Murray ranked 5th among running backs last season averaging 80.1 ypg and 5.2 per carry. Fighting a knee injury in the middle of the season, Murray played 14 games and the Cowboys want to know if he can go the full 16 before extending him. Linehan’s play-calling may help that, as well as Fantasy owners in PPR leagues. With the potential increase in passing for Romo, Murray will be a key target much like Reggie Bush was last season for Detroit. If Bryant is getting the respect he deserves down field, Murray should find opportunities in underneath routes…and softer fronts to run on.
Recommendations: Murray CAN be a strong RB1 but his injury history worries me just as much as it does the Cowboys front office. Take him in the middle rounds unless RBs are flying off the board early and you’re desperate.
WR Dez Bryant
93 rec, 1,233 yards, 13 TD in 2013
Dez…Bryant…The #1 weapon for Tony Romo last season had as much TV time on the sideline as he did on the field (thanks to FOX Producers). Expect that to continue, as the emotional receiver is now being applauded by his owner for fighting with teammates during training camp. But that’s not why you called…Bryant is coming off back-to-back seasons of 90 receptions, 1,200 yards, and 12 touchdowns. He also scored multiple TDs on 3 different occasions (vs. SD, DEN and DET). Granted they were losses but with the Cowboys defense giving up points, Romo trusts Bryant to score in a hurry. This is also a contract year for Bryant, and you know how pro athletes get when they are looking for that next pay bump…
Recommendation: Bryant is a WR1 and should be one of the first 5 WRs off the board. Early round pick.
TE Jason Witten
73 rec, 851 yards, 8 TDs in 2013
There is a reason Jason Witten is 9 time Pro Bowl tight end. He will likely surpass 900 receptions for his career this season and he was Romo’s most reliable target 7 of the past 8 seasons (110 catches in 2012). The Cowboys saw a drop in his production last season. 3 times, he caught over 100 yards but those games seemed to come randomly. 9 out of his 16 starts, Witten didn’t break 60 yards and only 6 times did he make 5 catches or more. Much like the running backs, the Linehan offense is designed to improve those numbers for tight ends too, especially in the red zone. Lions TEs caught 9 touchdowns last season, and Witten should bounce back with the other options demanding coverage.
Recommendation: Witten is definitely a starting Fantasy TE, but you can get him mid-late rounds. The position has evolved to where there are increasing options ahead of him.
K Dan Bailey
Yes, kickers are people too. But don’t expect me to spend too much time on them. Dan Bailey is effective when he plays in a dome regularly, his offense was 6th in scoring last year, and he converted 93% of his FGs. He ranked 12th in FGs made but 4th in extra points kicked. Take the points where you can get them.
Recommendation: You know when to take your kicker. He’ll be there for you after your fellow league-mates start taking them too early.
Waiver Watch: (Players to keep an eye out for on the wire)
RB Lance Dunbar
WR Terrance Williams
WR Cole Beasley
New York Giants
Starting 0-6 last season didn’t help the Giants. Neither did 23 turnovers during that span. The Giants would win their next 4 and finish the season 7-9, but they’ll have their work cut out for them in 2014. Coach Tom Coughlin brought on former Packers QB coach Ben McAdoo to run his offense and hopes that will help right the ship…and Eli Manning
QB Eli Manning
18 TD/27 INT, 3,818 passing yards in 2013
There isn’t a nice way to put it. Eli Manning was bad last year. Really bad. The last time he threw nearly as many INTs (25 in 2010), he at least threw 31 TDs and led the Giants to 10 wins. Manning led the league in INTs by 5 (Flacco with 22). In McAdoo’s system, Manning will be expected to get the ball out quicker and lead an up tempo offense that will keep defenses on their heels, much like San Diego and New England to an extent. Manning will be without TE Brandon Meyers and his 47 catches last season, now in Tampa Bay. The total number of receptions in 2013 by the current group of TEs on the roster (Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Adrian Robinson, Daniel Fells and Xavier Gimble) is 7.
Recommendation: If you take Eli Manning, take him late. Would be worth taking the flyer on the 3-time Pro Bowler if he can get back to that form.
RB Rashad Jennings
733 rush yards, 6 TDs / 36 receptions, 292 receiving yards 0 TDs in 2013
The Giants look to Rashad Jennings to handle the top of their depth chart at running back. The team’s leading rusher, Andre Brown (492 yards), is now in Houston. David Wilson has unfortunately retired due to neck problems after 2 seasons in the league. And Jennings has never been a full-time feature back for an entire season. In 8 starts though last season, Jennings took over for the oft-injured Darren McFadden and gained over 1,000 yards of total offense from scrimmage.
Recommendation: Since he is the projected starting running back, Jennings is an RB2 that you can take late in your draft.
WR Victor Cruz
73 rec, 998 yds, 4 TDs in 2013
A concussion and a knee injury cut Victor Cruz’s season short last year after 14 games. Going into his 5th season with the Giants, the hope is that Cruz can still take it to the house from anywhere on the field. He will be depended on like Jordy Nelson is in the Packers offense. Quick slants, screens, and the likely handful of bombs downfield that put Cruz and his cha-cha dance on the map will be in the game plan to stretch the field. The plays are designed to utilize Cruz’s burning run after-the-catch ability.
Recommendation: Pair Cruz with one of the Top 15 receivers on the board and you could be sitting pretty. He would be a strong value pick in the middle rounds.
RB Peyton Hillis (Note: Dealing with injured foot but listed as 2nd RB)
RB Andre Williams
WR Reuben Randle
WR Odell Beckham Jr.
One of the most improved teams last season will look to stay a step ahead of opposing defenses in year 2 of the Chip Kelly regime. Kelly’s hurry-up offense had the Eagles 2nd in yards per game (417.2), 4th in points (27.6) and winning a division title after finishing last the year before. While the Eagles released a scoring weapon in DeSeasn Jackson, they add two more playmakers in Darren Sproles via trade and Jeremy Maclin returning from injury.
QB Nick Foles
27 TD/2 INT, 2,891 passing yards / 221 rush yards, 3 TD in 2013 (13 games)
In 2 seasons, Nick Foles has 16 starts under his belt. He went 1-5 his rookie year and 8-2 in 2013. Foles also led the league in quarterback rating (119.2). The difference? Maybe Chip Kelly. 2014 will really be the judge of that as defensive coordinators across the league try to slow down Foles and his Eagles targets. Both the running backs are dangerous in the passing game, especially after the catch. And the deep threat tandem of Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin will make safeties nervous. However, an emphasis has been made on better protection of the quarterback which seemed to be an issue that plagued Foles’ predecessor, Michael Vick.
Recommendation: Yes, Foles had incredible numbers last season but it was still a limited sample size. Some believe he deserves the next big contract but I’m not sold yet. Draft your running back and maybe an elite pass catcher before drafting Foles.
RB LeSean McCoy
1,607 rush yards, 9 TD / 52 rec. 539 rec yards, 2 TD in 2013
2,000 Yards. Rushing…That’s the bar LeSean McCoy has set for himself this season by tweeting Thursday morning, “This is THE YEAR!!!! My potential is #2000yards. Will I reach it? Stepping up my training and signs point to yes.” He broke the 2,000 yard mark combining his rushing and receiving. Why not do it ALL on the ground? Only 6 other running backs have done it before him: Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Chris Johnson, and OJ Simpson. The only concern is staying healthy. Last season was the first time McCoy played all 16 games and he led the league in carries (314).
Recommendation: The argument is between McCoy and Jamaal Charles for top running back, but McCoy should be the first to come off the board. I trust the Eagles offense to move the chains and stay on the field more than Kansas City.
RB Darren Sproles
220 rush yards, 2 TD / 71 rec. 604 rec yards / 449 return yards in 2013
Darren Sproles joins the Eagles not just as a complimentary back to McCoy, but also a versatile option at Kelly’s disposal. He’ll catch passes out of the backfield, split wide, and take some handoffs as well. Don’t be surprised to see Sproles get significant time on the field with McCoy when the Eagles are in rhythm…or when Kelly is feeling frisky. 2013 was a down year for Sproles and he fell out of favor with Saints head coach Sean Payton. Keep in mind Sproles set the NFL record for all-purpose yards in a season (2,696) in 2011. He has also caught at least 70 passes in each of the last three seasons.
Recommendation: Sproles has described his role with the Eagles as “dangerous” and I believe it. When RB2’s start going, pick him up to at least be your flex, especially if you’re in a PPR league. Should be counted on for return yards too.
WRs Riley Cooper & Jeremy Maclin
Cooper: 47 rec, 835 yards, 8 TD / Maclin: DNP in 2013
Riley Cooper started 15 of the 16 games he played last year and saw his production more than triple from the year before. For that, the Eagles rewarded him with a 5-year $25 million contract. Despite his racist remarks before the 2013 season, the Eagles committed to him and not DeSean Jackson. The majority of Cooper’s production came after Foles was named starter, and during the stretch of weeks 6-10. Some expect Cooper to be counted on to make up for Jackson’s 82 receptions and 1,332 yards from 2013, but I would look to Jeremy Maclin first.
Maclin missed 2013 after tearing his ACL. Before then, he was averaging 863.25 yards per season and played in at least 15 games 3 of those 4 seasons. The 6-foot speedster from Mizzou will look to bounce back and has a more proven track record than Cooper to be a #1 receiver for this Eagles squad.
Recommendation: I wouldn’t look to draft either receiver until later rounds. You can’t depend on potential for something more than a WR2 or Flex player. I also trust Maclin for production ahead of Cooper, recognizing the injury history.
TE Zach Ertz
TE Brent Celek
K Alex Henery
While the Eagles went from 4th to 1st in the division, the Washington Redskins did the complete opposite. Redskins were near the bottom in scoring last year and gave up the second most points in the league. Not a recipe for success. Jay Gruden took over the helm in Washington for Mike Shanahan. The Bengals ranked 6th in total offense last season with Gruden’s play calling and 8th in passing.
QB Robert Griffin III
16 TD/12 INT, 3,203 passing yards, 489 rush yards in 2013
2013 was messy for RGIII. He was rusty and a lot less mobile following his knee surgery in the offseason before. After constant clashes with Shanahan, Griffin found himself on the bench for the final 3. Gruden has worked on communication with his quarterback in hopes to replicate the offense he had in Cincinnati along with Griffin’s running ability. Griffin will likely see less zone-read called but will be even better in play-action with a healthy knee and his new toy, DeSean Jackson.
Recommendation: I have a hard time deciding how much of 2013 was on RGIII or Shanahan. Griffin came off very immature off the field, which makes me weary of him on the field and with a first time head coach. Not top tier, but the healthy knee gives him value in the middle rounds.
RB Alfred Morris
1,275 rush yards, 7 TD in 2013
Alfred Morris has totaled 2,888 rushing yards in his first two seasons and quietly. In his rookie year, his 1,613 yards were overshadowed by the success of his quarterback, yet ranked 2nd in the league. Morris doesn’t catch passes out of the backfield, but he does run hard. Look for Gruden to depend heavily on Morris at the start of the season while the rest of the offense adjusts to his new playbook.
Recommendation: Alfred Morris is a Top 10 running back right now. No Shanahan also means no platooning either. You can take him by round 3.
WR Pierre Garçon
113 receptions, 1,346 yards, 5 TDs
While 2013 wasn’t a good year for Washington, it was a great one for Pierre Garçon. He led the league in receptions and targets, and ranked Top 10 in total yards. That’s a heck of an accomplishment considering the direction the NFL is going in, being a passing league. However, that success didn’t translate into points and part of that blame can be put on Griffin. The addition of another 1,300 yard receiver should open things up nicely for Garçon in 2014 though.
Recommendation: The reception numbers should drop a little with Jackson commanding a chunk of the targets. Still a solid WR2 with WR1 potential.
WR DeSean Jackson
82 rec, 1,332 rec. yards 9 TD
Jackson had easily his best statistical season receiving last year, yet the Eagles felt it necessary to release him. The backfire may be letting him sign in the division with a chip on his shoulder. Washington couldn’t be happier. Jackson provides speed that they haven’t had in a long time, and a healthy Griffin is going to have downfield choices between him and Garçon.
Recommendation: Much like Garçon, Jackson is a solid WR2 with WR1 upside. The difference will be his returner capabilities, if Gruden chooses to use them.
RB Roy Helu
WR Santana Moss
WR Aldrick Robinson
TE Jordan Reed
K Kai Forbath
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