NFL training camps around the league begin this week. With that comes intrigue based on position battles, projected in-season usage, rookie breakout candidates, injuries, and player contract issues. All of these are important to monitor whether you're a hardcore fantasy football player, a fan of a particular team, or just an NFL fan in general.
So without further ado, let's take a look at the most interesting training camp stories that you should be paying attention to.
1. Cleveland Browns Starting Quarterback Battle
With the exception of Jordan Cameron, no skilled offensive player on the Browns has his position as a starter locked up heading to training camp. That includes the starting quarterback role. Browns Coach Mike Pettine and team owner Jimmy Haslam have said that Brian Hoyer is the starter right now, and are very quick to echo LeBron James' sentiments in his essay, that "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have."
With this in mind, Johnny Manziel would have to wow the Browns brass in training camp to be named the opening day starter, or Hoyer would have to cede the job to Manziel with uninspired play in camp. Given that the team figures to lean heavily on the running game in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system, having a game manager at quarterback who doesn't do anything flashy may work best for team success. Hoyer's 2013 Passing Net Expected Point (NEP) total of 2.91 and middling per drop back Passing NEP of .03 certainly didn''t cement him as 2014 starter - he played like a below-average starter according to our metrics. If Hoyer isn't successful, the Browns have an early Week 4 bye, and could be starting the Manziel era after that.
2. The Emergence of Christine Michael and the Seahawks Passing Game
How could someone with 18 carries thus far in the NFL generate offseason buzz? Well, that's exactly what happened when Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell started talking about a running back committee for the Seahawks in OTAs.
Head coach Pete Carroll piled on as well, talking up Christine Michael as "the Seahawks biggest breakout candidate" at the NFL combine. With that in mind and with Marshawn Lynch rapidly approaching 2,000 career carries, Bevell's words threw gasoline on the off-season hype train that will extend into training camp.
Lynch's 1,002 carries over the last three years are the highest in the NFL in that time span. His Rushing NEP decreased from 19.92 and a number three overall ranking in 2012 to a 4.81 and a 15th overall ranking in 2013. While Michael is ranked as our RB96 and Lynch is ranked as RB5, the thought is that Michael will be on the field significantly more in 2014, potentially taking over the reins if Lynch gets injured (he missed mini-camp with an ankle injury).
To that end, the Seahawks might also balance the run and the pass a little more in 2014. Seattle led the NFL in carries with 509 a season ago, and their pass-to-run ratio was second-lowest in the NFL. While Wilson's Passing NEP was still fantastic (finished eighth and seventh in Passing NEP in 2012 and 2013, respectively among relevant quarterbacks), expect the Seahawks to be more balanced in 2014 too to keep defenses on their toes.
3. The Neck Injuries of Jermichael Finley and David Wilson
While they play different positions, both Jermichael Finley and David Wilson will be big stories in the next week as to whether they can play effectively in 2014.
In his career, Finley has shown flashes of star potential, but statistically has disappointed while never having more than 92 targets in a single season. His best season was 2011, where he played all 16 games and posted a Reception NEP of 80.30 and a Reception NEP per target of 0.87, ranking him 5th and 3rd, respectively, among tight ends with 50 or more targets. His 2012 season was pedestrian at best, with a Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target ranking 19th and 24th.
With the glut of less risky fantasy tight ends out there, you'd be wise to wait until Finley's situation is resolved to invest in him.
The Giants are viewing Wilson's ability to play as a "nice to have". They brought in and expect Rashad Jennings to be the bell-cow, and for good reason: he doesn't fumble the ball, he pass-protects, he catches the ball well and he succeeds at the goal line.
Prior to getting injured, Wilson was in Coughlin's doghouse for fumbling and pass-protection issues. To that end, his Rushing NEP in 2013 was an abysmal -18.03 on 44 carries, which was close to the worst in the league despite it being a cumulative statistic. Wilson's is ranked as the 66th-best running back according to our projections, which reflects beliefs that, at best, he's a handcuff or backup option. Pay close attention to actual preseason game results versus any coach speak on Wilson's progress, especially if you want to protect your Jennings investment.
4. Which Guys Will Fill the Roles for Suspended Players?
The impending year-long suspension of Josh Gordon significantly downgrades a Browns receiving corps that he basically rescued almost single-handedly in 2013. To best try to fill Gordon's "X" wide receiver role that's featured in Shanahan's offense, the team took a chance on oft-injured Miles Austin, who just turned 30 years old.
Austin hopes to put recent lingering hamstring injuries behind him, and is currently listed as the 66th-best wideout in our fantasy rankings, which leaves him room to outperform those projections if healthy. When healthy and before Dez Bryant became dominant in Dallas, Austin was a top receiver in the game, posting a Reception NEP of 115.72 (fourth-best) in 2009, and 95.14 (13th) in 2010. While those days appear behind him, his 2012 Reception NEP of 85.51 (23rd) could be possible as a ceiling if he sees the 119 targets he had then.
No one has any insight into how long Ray Rice will be suspended for his domestic violence indictment this off-season. The ruling should, in theory, come down before the Ravens kick off training camp, and it's expected to be for at least four games.
Bernard Pierce is first up on the depth chart to replace Rice. Using numberFire metrics, Rice and Pierce finished last and second-to-last in Rushing NEP in 2013 out of 167 running backs, finishing with Rushing NEP's of -38.5 and -31.9, respectively. Temper your excitement and expectations for Baltimore's running game, even under running offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
5. The Health of Rob Gronkowski
We know three things about Rob Gronkowski. First, we know he likes to party. Second, when he's on the field, we know he's dominant. Third, we know that he's had a significant amount of season-ending injuries in his career.
It seems like Gronk expects to be ready to play in Week 1 this year, per ESPN. That's a far cry from how he started the 2013 after forearm and back surgeries, missing six games to start the season. We currently have Gronk ranked as our third-best tight end, which reflects his risk. However, we do recognize his upside.
6. How Does the Falcons Offense Bounce Back?
Last season's loss of Julio Jones combined with a horrid defense turned a 13-3 NFC Championship team into a 4-12 one.
How do the Falcons bounce back on offense? It starts in the trenches, and the team selecting Jake Matthews early in the draft should help both the run and pass game immensely. Getting Jones, Roddy White, and Steven Jackson back healthy is the first way the offense bounces back, especially quarterback Matt Ryan, who went from being ranked third in 2012 with a Passing NEP of 159.84 to being the 14th-ranked quarterback in 2013 with a Passing NEP of 53.16.
With these players back in the fold, we currently have Ryan ranked as the ninth-best quarterback in our 2014 quarterback projections. One high-upside player to watch as both a handcuff and a third-down option, too, is rookie running back Devonta Freeman.
7. Will Andre Johnson Holdout and Force a Trade?
Andre Johnson is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and has been for a long time. It makes sense that he retires a Texan, but Johnson and the team are battling about a $1 million workout bonus, and Johnson is unhappy with the rebuilding going on in Houston.
We've written about the best potential fits for Johnson already. He's finished in the top 15 in Reception NEP in five of the last six seasons, and we have him projected as the 12th-best wideout this year. Stay tuned for where Johnson lands, which is a huge story for both real and fantasy football.
8. Which Rookie Quarterback Gets Their Chance First?
Our quarterback rankings have the top three quarterbacks drafted all close together in ranking, starting with Manziel as QB31, Blake Bortles at QB34 and Teddy Bridgewater at QB35. All three rookies are also in immediate proximity to the veteran signal-callers they're backing up, as the projections aren't assuming who the starter will be.
Bridgewater may be the most NFL ready of the three options, as Jim Sannes alluded to in this piece, and he, Bridgewater, has the best offense around him. We've noted that Cassel probably deserves a look, but Bridgewater still has a great shot.
Bortles was profiled by our own Joe Redemann after the draft, and Joe highlighted significant concerns about decision-making and arm strength. Jacksonville seems to be building things up systematically, so look for Bortles to sit behind Chad Henne unless there's a significant reason for Bortles to step in. The dark-horse candidate to get immediate playing time may be the Raiders' Derek Carr, especially if new Raiders starter Matt Schaub continues his pick-six ways from 2013.
9. Which Back Will Get Carries in Buffalo?
Last season in training camp, we heard that the Bills were going to run C.J. Spiller until he "throws up". In hindsight, maybe that was a comment reserved for a two-a-day practice, as Spiller could never stay fully healthy and never exceeded 25 total touches in a game all season. Spiller's 2012 season, where he finished second in Rushing NEP and ninth in Reception NEP, was nearly forgotten.
The timeless Fred Jackson finished with a Rushing NEP of 13.9 last season, good for seventh out of the 61 relevant running backs, while Spiller finished 47th. Our fantasy point projections for 2014 for Jackson and Spiller are almost identical, figuring a true running back-by-committee approach is ahead for the Bills.
To further complicate matters, both Spiller and Jackson are free agents following the 2014 season, so the team traded for Bryce Brown during the off-season. Brown figures to get around 50 touches this season per ESPN, but could be the last man standing in 2014 if the brittle Spiller goes down or if Jackson finally shows signs of being a geriatric.
10. Will a Rookie Wide Receiver Become Relevant in Fantasy Football?
Five wide receivers went in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, headlined by Buffalo's Sammy Watkins and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who were picked fourth and seventh overall, respectively.
Watkins plays with a mean streak, and has rare after the catch acceleration. He figures to be involved in many aspects of the Bills passing game, and is the favorite to be the top rookie wideout this year.
But Evans may have something to say about that. He joins the basketball-sized receiving corps of the Buccaneers. Evans excels with jump balls, where he can use his height and jumping ability to win physical matchups in the air and in the end zone. A good NFL wide receiver comparison would be Alshon Jeffery. That comparison would suit Evans just fine, as he worked in the off-season with Jeffery's teammate Brandon Marshall, and will be playing with quarterback Josh McCown, who Jeffery had his more productive games in 2013 with. Scoring 8 to 10 times is certainly not out of the question for Evans.
Other rookie wideouts who figure to make an immediate impact include Philadelphia Eagles wideout Jordan Matthews, who already has been called the best wide receiver on the team, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, who has questionable hands but is a physical matchup nightmare in the red-zone, and New Orleans slot wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who "only" caught 128 balls in 13 games last season. As a result, there's no shortage of intrigue or options among the rookie wide receivers, and it will be interesting to see who gets going first when preseason games get underway. Remember though, most rookie wide receivers don't pan out in fantasy football.