Posts by Zach Martin

2015 Division Preview Series: NFC West

This is part eight of our eight-part division preview series. We will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. 

San Francisco 49ers

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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

How will the defense

This is part eight of our eight-part division preview series. We will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. 

San Francisco 49ers

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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

How will the defense react to the team’s tumultuous offseason?

No NFL franchise is more thankful for the 2015 season to start than San Francisco (well, perhaps the Patriots, but that’s an entirely different article). Following a free agency period that cost the team such stalwart, long-time starters as Frank Gore, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati on offense, the team was almost eviscerated on defense.

Linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retired unexpectedly (Borland citing health concerns), but Justin Smith’s departure to retirement wasn’t necessarily surprising. If you’re counting, that’s about a third of their starting defense gone within the space of a few weeks earlier this spring.

Former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s calling card has long been a punishing defensive scheme and power running game, but what kind of team will his replacement, Jim Tomsula, put on the field? Can this defense not only recover from its personnel losses, but rebound to championship form?

Navarro Bowman, finally recovered from his devastating knee injury, will certainly have something to say about the production of the Niners’ defensive unit, especially if his performance in the team’s third preseason game against Denver is any example. While this group played admirably last year, that’s an awful lot of bodies to replace in a single offseason.

Can Colin Kaepernick recapture his magic?

The Niners signal-caller was sacked a whopping 52 times in 2014, second only to the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles. Kaepernick also managed just a single rushing touchdown, and teams no longer respected or feared his ability to run the read-option offense. He managed to complete just over 60 percent of his throws, completely ignored his Pro Bowl-caliber tight end (Vernon Davis, who I hear was actually employed by the team the entire season, which surprised me to no end: Davis had just 26 catches in 14 games) and posted an overall QBR of 55.8, just hovering around average.

Of course, his 10 interceptions and eight fumbles didn’t help matters, as he was also graded by Pro Football Focus at a -10.1, good for just 20th place among QBs who took at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps in 2014. That 20th place put Kaepernick behind Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Teddy Bridgewater and pretty much everybody except Jay Cutler and Geno Smith. To compare, Aaron Rodgers was tops, graded at a 40.4.

So what’s the problem? Kaepernick wasn’t hurt, that we know of. Harbaugh had used him with success in previous seasons, could it really be as simple as a porous offensive line? If Kaep can find his 2012 mojo, this could be a 10-or-12 win team.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case.

Prediction: 6-10, fourth place

St. Louis Rams

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

What can we expect from the offense?

The Rams, well, they haven’t been good. They have the NFL’s worst winning percentage over the last decade. They haven’t had a winning season since 2005, and haven’t made the postseason since the year before that. They’ve gone through head coaches and coordinators on both sides of the football seemingly every year, but the results remain the same. Head coach Jeff Fisher, in his third year in St. Louis, seems to be facing a “win or you’re fired” season in 2015, competing not only against the rest of the NFL, but also with fan apathy created by owner Stan Kroenke’s quest to move the team to Los Angeles.

The Rams made some splashy moves in the offseason in an attempt to bring the offensive unit up to the level of the defense, drafting running back Todd Gurley 10th overall and trading the tragically oft-injured Sam Bradford to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles, upon whose right arm the season may well rest.

Fisher’s offense is a power run scheme, which shouldn’t require much highlight-reel playmaking from Foles, but the problem is the offensive line and Fisher’s inability to stick with a running back. Tre Mason, who came on midway through last season after Zac Stacy stalled, is injured and doubtful for the opener against Seattle. Gurley remains out, according to Fisher, but this is also the same coach who said Bradford was “his guy,” and Austin Davis was “his guy” last season, immediately before benching Davis. I don’t entirely trust him, is what I’m saying. The line could start as many as two rookies, and position switching up and down the line has forced players out of their comfort zone and hasn’t provided much to hope for in the team’s preseason action.

The wide receivers are talented, but not consistent; Brian Quick remains the most talented of the group, with Kenny Britt a semi-reliable counterpart. The Rams still haven’t been able to figure out how to use speedster Tavon Austin after two years, and Stedman Bailey can’t find enough touches to showcase his abilities in the slot. Jared Cook hasn’t earned his money at the tight end position, but I expect the team’s new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti may have some tricks up his sleeve to showcase the talent hiding on this roster. Can Gurley make an impact when he eventually takes the field? Can this team realistically get away with winning games 10-7 or 13-10? 

Is the defense really as good as advertised?

The defensive line certainly can be, last year’s Twilight Zone start notwithstanding. Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and newcomer Nick Fairley have both the pass-rushing and run-stuffing ability to make offensive lines lie awake sweaty in the nights, and their depth is impressive. The issue is the secondary and linebackers. Defensive leader James Laurinitis is a warrior, to be sure, but the secondary can’t seem to cover anyone, as evidenced by a total breakdown in the team’s preseason game against the Colts.

Coordinator Gregg Williams’ second year at the helm of this defense could help with coverage breakdowns, but the loss of starting cornerback E.J. Gaines for the season is a blow the team couldn’t afford; thankfully, the best passing offense in the division is the Cardinals, but games against the Steelers and Packers will be the measuring stick for how this defense can perform.

Prediction: 10-6, third place, Wild Card berth (sixth seed)

Arizona Cardinals

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Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

How explosive can the offense be with a full season of Carson Palmer?

After their scintillating 9-0 start to 2014, the wheels came off this organization after losing their starting quarterback; the team finished 11-5 and lost their playoff opener on the road to the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers. The offense managed just 12.4 points per contest in the games following Palmer’s injury, with two of those losses coming against the eventual division champion Seahawks (a combined score of 54-9, by the way). However, Palmer running this offense at peak efficiency can be scary for opposing defenses.

Larry Fitzgerald seems to be in the twilight of his career, but I still believe in him. Michael Floyd won the award for most grotesque preseason injury, but can be a competent contributor when healthy.

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You don’t want to know what it looked like before surgery, trust me. 

All that said, the guy I’m man-crushing on is John Brown. He is fast, has great ball skills and provides the Cardinals with a talented deep threat and screen guy who can produce matchup nightmares. With Palmer healthy last season, the offense scored 25 per game, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case this year. Better usage of the running backs (Beanie Wells’ 2011 season is the only 1,000-yard rushing season since 2008), and some semblance of a ground game could help this offense push to even higher production, scoring 30 or more per week, and that’s reason for Arizona fans to rejoice. 

Remember though, that’s all predicated on the health of a 35-year-old quarterback with reconstructed knees. Ask Rams fans how fun that experience is.

Can they figure out how to beat the Seahawks?

As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals lost both of their games to Seattle by a combined 54-9 score; obviously, the combination of terrible backup quarterbacks and the Seahawks defense was a recipe for disaster, but the Cardinals’ issues with their northern foes go even deeper. Let’s take a look at the results since 2012, when the current “dynasty” in Seattle began:

Week 1 2012: W, 20-16 @ AZ

Week 14 2012: L, 58-0 @ SEA

Week 7 2013: L, 34-22 @ AZ

Week 10 2013: W, 17-10 @ SEA

Week 12 2014: L, 19-3 @ SEA

Week 16 2014: L, 35-6 @ AZ

Break that down any way you want, it’s not impressive. Each loss was by at least 12 points, and there was only one win at home, which all helps to explain why the Cardinals can’t seem to clinch this division. In 2015, the Cardinals head to CenturyLink Field in Week 10 (following their Week 9 bye), and host the Seahawks in Phoenix to close out the season, which could be a game that determines the division champ.

Depending on how factors out of their control work out, like Kam Chancellor’s holdout, Marshawn Lynch’s health and the integration of Jimmy Graham, this could be the Cardinals’ year to finally become kings of the West.

However, with a murderer’s row of games leading up to that Week 17 tilt (home against Minnesota, at Philadelphia, home against Green Bay), it could also very well be meaningless.

Prediction: 10-6, second place, Wild Card berth (fifth seed)

Seattle Seahawks

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Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Is Jimmy Graham the answer?

The Seahawks gave up their starting center, Max Unger, to acquire Graham from the New Orleans Saints; this move was quickly classified by many as a direct result of the final play of Super Bowl 49.

The Seahawks have not been good in the red zone during the Russell Wilson era, so the addition of Graham makes sense. He’s accrued more than 20 pass targets inside the red zone in three of the past four seasons, and I don’t expect that number to drop precipitously in Pete Carroll’s “run, then run, then run again, then have Wilson run a little, then maybe pass” offense. I don’t see Carroll making a huge change to his scheme, instead incorporating Graham’s freakish talents into what’s already made the team two-time defending conference champions. 

Looking at Graham’s career splits against NFC West teams provides a look at how he’ll fare, perhaps:

Cardinals: 2 GP, 9 receptions, 134 yards, 2 TD

Rams: 3 GP, 7 receptions, 85 yards, 0 TD

49ers: 4 GP, 20 receptions, 150 yards, 2 TD

Granted, these numbers stretch back five seasons, and that much time’s worth of defensive turnover and such for each team, but the data is there: Graham has not been otherwordly against NFC West defenses. Division games are still the most important ones a team will play during a season, and for Graham to justify his presence he needs to come up big in those contests.

While Graham may not record 140-plus targets, he provides Seattle with a great safety valve and could push them back to the Super Bowl, if only…

Just how bad is the offensive line?

In limited preseason action, Wilson was sacked three times on 40 dropbacks. The foundation of this offense has always been a power running game, but questions among the starters remain:

Drew Nowak, the team’s ostensible starter at center to replace Max Unger, has this featured as his career highlights on his official Seahawks profile:

Signed with Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft, switching from defense to offensive guard. Spent 2012 on injured reserve (foot) and signed to the Jaguars active roster in December 2013 and appeared in two games on special teams. Released by Jacksonville on August 29, 2014 after training camp. (Source)

Nowak played defensive line for his entire college career at Western Michigan. He spent all of last year on the practice squad. In his 103 preseason snaps, he graded out at a -1.2 overall, and a -1.9 on run blocking.

Starting right tackle Garry Gilliam is perhaps best known for this play:

In his 151 preseason snaps this season, Gilliam was graded at -1.6 overall, and a whopping -4.7 as a run blocker.

“But Zach,” you might ask. “What about Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy and Justin Britt? They’re quality returning starters!”

2015 Preseason:

Okung: 41 snaps, -3.3 overall, -1.8 run blocking

Sweezy: 75 snaps, -2.8 overall, -2.6 run blocking

Britt: 85 snaps, -5.4 overall, -3.0 run blocking

In fact, the only offensive lineman currently on Seattle’s roster to post a positive PFF grade was center Patrick Lewis (3.3 overall, 5.2 run blocking), currently listed as Nowak’s backup.

(Caveat: Lynch only had two carries during the preseason, as most of the carries went to Christine Michael, who’s no longer on the team.)

If the Seahawks have a weakness, it’s the offensive line. Wilson may be talented, and recently filthy rich, but the Seahawks may not be the power-running steamroller we’re used to seeing, and it may cost the team against quality defensive lines.

Prediction: 11-5, first place, first-round bye

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Fantasy: Four Backfields To Avoid Like, Well, You Know

Unless you play in some sort of circus league with three tight ends, two kickers, and three quarterbacks, the backbone of any reasonably successful fantasy football operation is the running back. In today's NFL, with pass-wacky chuckleheads seeming to run all 32 of the league's offenses, and quarterbacks throwing three dozen or more deep post routes

Unless you play in some sort of circus league with three tight ends, two kickers, and three quarterbacks, the backbone of any reasonably successful fantasy football operation is the running back. In today’s NFL, with pass-wacky chuckleheads seeming to run all 32 of the league’s offenses, and quarterbacks throwing three dozen or more deep post routes per league, it’s even harder to ensure you have a true foundation player at your running back position.

Le’Veon Bell is suspended. Jamaal Charles is an “injury risk.” Eddie Lacy has suffered a concussion, which is always worrisome, no matter what the league may tell you. (Hint, Washington franchise: there’s no such thing as a “mild” concussion; you either are concussed or you’re not, much like pregnancy. It’s not horseshoes, folks. You’re welcome, Stephania Bell!

Adrian Peterson is…well, we know how I feel about him. Marshawn Lynch is playing essentially behind a wall of empty metal trash cans at this point. Did you know the Seahawks have two converted defensive linemen slated to start on the offensive side of the ball? I did, and it’s freaking terrifying.

Basically, what I’m saying is there isn’t a clear-cut, worry-free 100% stud running back, but we all know this. If you’re yet to draft this season (and if you’re smart, you are), more important than knowing the varying mild weaknesses of the big names is realizing which teams to avoid entirely; the teams with just enough hype to seem intriguing. Those dark horses who may lure you in with preseason flashes, unknown rookie potential, or even “well, they can’t possibly be as bad as they were last season”-ness, you know what I’m talking about.

Fear not, my friend, and allow me to guide you around these pitfalls.

To answer your question: yes, they certainly can be as bad as they were last season.

Cleveland Browns

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to keep piling on the poor Browns, but I mean, what other choice do I have? Even just taking the rushing into account, let’s look at how the team’s fantasy-relevant running backs have fared individually so far this preseason (assuming no starters will play in the final preseason game, which I think is safe to do), according to both statistics and Pro Football Focus’ grading system:

Isaiah Crowell (presumptive starter): 17 carries, 47 yards (2.8 YPC), 0 TD

Grade: -1.9

Terrance West: 22 carries, 78 yards (3.5 YPC), 0 TD

Grade: 0.0

Duke Johnson: 1 carry, 4 yards, 0 TD. 

Grade: 0.0

Just for fun, would you like to guess who the team’s highest-graded rusher is in the 2015 season? I’ll give you a few seconds.

Nope!

It’s not Johnny Manziel, sadly (five carries, 31 yards, one TD, grade of 0.3).

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise! It’s Josh McCown! Yes, you read that correctly. Josh McCown, with three carries for 20 yards, is the highest-graded rusher the Browns have managed to drag onto a football field so far in 2015, at a whopping 1.1. To put that into a bit of focus, the highest-graded runner in the league in the preseason (with at least 10 carries) is undrafted rookie sensation Zach Zenner of the Detroit Lions; Zenner has rushed 17 times for 77 yards but has yet to find the end zone, good for a 3.2 grade.

And so, I project the Cleveland backfield as such: Crowell will be fine, until he fumbles. Or gets hurt. Or drops head coach Mike Pettine’s coffee on the way to a Monday team meeting. Crowell and West essentially split the backfield duties 50-50 in 2014, making starting either man an entirely suspect decision, not to mention their final season grades (-4.4 for West, -5.6 for Crowell). Neither back topped 700 yards, and while Crowell did score eight times, even the return of All-World center Alex Mack to health can’t rescue this semi-three-headed dumpster fire.

Atlanta Falcons

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It may not surprise you, but that’s the only real in-game photo of a Falcons running back of any fantasy relevance so far in 2015. So take a good look at Tevin Coleman, making one of his four carries (for two yards, mind you). His only real competition for the starting position, Devonta Freeman, hasn’t even taken a preseason snap. Both he and Coleman have nursed various injuries this offseason, true, but this offensive line hasn’t provided much evidence of fixing its 2014 woes, where Freeman only mustered 65 carries for 257 yards behind an aging Steven Jackson.

Coleman was a stunner while a student-athlete at Indiana, absolutely, but…Indiana isn’t even really the Big Ten, let alone the NFL. Between the injury concerns, lack of depth and poor offensive line play, I’m staying as far away from the red and black as I can.

#RiseUp to a better pick here, is all I’m saying.

Tennessee Titans

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Side note: I’m loving the USA Today photographers getting these perfectly-timed photos, by the way.

Anywho, back to business. Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and his campaign as the main back for the Titans didn’t exactly pan out how they had hoped:  152 carries, 575 yards (3.8 YPC), two TDs and an overall PFF grade of -0.5. He was pretty much a wasteland every single week he played, never topping 61 yards, and he failed to score after Week 11.

The Titans realized this, however, not being a complete disaster of a franchise. They chose David Cobb in the fifth round of this year’s draft, under I assume the “nobody could be worse than the guy we already have” concept used to such success by their 2015 Week 1 opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with their first overall pick.

Jameis Winston is just awful, you guys. Seriously. 

But I digress. In the preseason so far, Sankey has accrued 20 carries for 80 yards, while Cobb has 19 totes for 79 yards.

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Curious. Sankey has the advantage in missed tackles (five to one), yards after contact (45 to 37) and longest run (19 to 10), but has also fumbled once while Cobb has yet to mishandle the rock.

In a close race between two clear losers, can there even truly be a winner? You, if you #TitanUp and avoid them entirely. Note to the Titans social media team: you couldn’t think of a better, less derivative hashtag? Come on, guys.

Dallas Cowboys

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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Calm down! Put the pitchforks down, good lord. I know what I’m doing here, trust me.

Repeat after me:

The sky is blue.

The sun rises in the east.

Water is wet.

Darren McFadden is terrible.

These are all things humanity has known since the dawn of recorded history (or, in McFadden’s case, the dawn of his career), and are in no danger of changing any time soon.

Removing McFadden’s outlier season of 2010 (13 games, 223 carries, 1,157 yards and seven scores), he’s, well, not good. He’s never topped 707 yards, 216 carries or five scores in any other season; oh yeah, he’s never played more than those 13 games in a single campaign either, with seven or fewer games started in four of his six non-outlier years.

He stinks, and it’s unfair, I get it. I feel for him, I truly do. The combination of injuries, and being stuck in Oakland is unduly draining on a player’s soul, but even a change of venue can’t change this Razorback’s, uh, spines? Is that what a wild hog has?

Then there’s Joseph Randle, the “man who wins the job by default,” because Jerry Jones is stubborn and didn’t draft a running back this year. Sure, if Randle were the only guy in Dallas, he might be a solid RB2 for you. That is, if he’s more of the 2014, 6.7 YPC guy than the 2013, 3.0 YPC guy, but he’s not.

“But you idiot!” you’re exclaiming. “Dallas has the best offensive line in football! You said yourself that Jason Witten was a solid tight end because of the Cowboys going back to a more bala…oh, right.”

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That’s right, weirdly-on-point reader. I did say that. The reason Witten’s 2013 campaign is more predictive (I feel) of 2015 than last year is that ’13 saw less of a workload for DeMarco Murray (only 217 carries), out of fear for his health. Obviously, last season was a total script-flip for the Cowboys, but I truly think they’ll want to limit both of these backs to around 200 carries (should everything go as last season did), but game flow may not allow that. The defense may likely not be as dominant, allowing the ‘Boys to focus on pounding with that impressive offensive line. Either way, if you must draft one of these two running backs, you’re kind of signing up to roster both; and much like handcuffing, I don’t ascribe to that kind of thinking.

As always, never drink and draft!

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In Defense Of Ryan Tannehill

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks had some disparaging comments to make Wednesday morning about the state of some of the NFL's starting quarterbacks, and he pulled no punches (oops, sorry Dez Bryant. Unintentional, I swear):

"Quarterback is the only position in the NFL where you

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks had some disparaging comments to make Wednesday morning about the state of some of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks, and he pulled no punches (oops, sorry Dez Bryant. Unintentional, I swear):

“Quarterback is the only position in the NFL where you could be mediocre and get paid. At every other position, you can’t be mediocre,” Bennett said. “If I was Ryan Tannehill and the most games I ever won was seven, how could you get a $100 million for that? I guess that’s the value of the position.”

First, a few notes: I believe jealousy is a terribly destructive emotion, and for Bennett to be upset he doesn’t make the kind of money quarterbacks do is both understandable and completely rediculous. According to Over the Cap, Bennett is scheduled to make $6 million in guaranteed base salary this season, and his current contract (signed in March 2014) is worth $28.5 million over four years.

Secondly, for Bennett to be unclear about the value of the quarterback position is unarguably absurd; simply ask the Browns, Bengals or Bills about their playoff success since returning to the league in 1999.

Maybe it’s just teams that start with “B.” I digress.

Lastly, for Bennett to single out Tannehill as a player who has only won seven games in a season as somehow undeserving of his six-year, $95 million-dollar extension is not only nonsensical but shortsighted as well.

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Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Had he mentioned Jay Cutler? Sure, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. We all know how I feel about Smokin’ Jay. However, Tannehill and Cutler are not only not the same quarterback, they’re different players at different positions in their careers.

As you all come to me for sage advice in the world of fantasy, I’ll stick to evaluating Tannehill in that role, rather than in the broader sense of “football player.” Won’t you join me?

First of all, did you know Tannehill was the ninth-ranked quarterback in standard ESPN scoring in 2014 (for those of you who judge a player’s talent by whether or not they win you a fantasy championship)? That he completed a career-high 66.4 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,045 yards and 27 touchdowns, to only 12 interceptions?

That his yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, yards per game, quarterback rating, attempts and completions were all career-best?

Oh, and he rushed for 311 yards, too.

Pro Football Focus graded Tannehill at a 9.8 overall for the season, good for 11th-best in the league, ahead of Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco. He was way ahead of Andy Dalton, as well, but…you know.

Really, Andy. I'm sorry, bro.

Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, he’s not a great deep-ball passer (ratings of 56.7, 44.3 and 99.7 from left to right, more than 10 yards downfield), but his downfield throws are steadily improving.

The Dolphins traded linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to the Saints in exchange for deep burner Kenny Stills, a receiver who put up 931 yards on only 63 receptions (83 targets) in 2014; Stills replaces Mike Wallace, who somehow managed to convert from straight deep route-runner to red zone threat. Miami retains the services of Jarvis Landry, a PPR target vacuum who caught 84 passes on 112 targets last season. Jordan Cameron is now the Dolphins’ starting tight end, a semi-superstar who has flashed Jimmy Graham-like talent in between injuries, and who is now free of the dumpster fire of northeast Ohio. Oh, and another stellar season from running back Lamar Miller (216 carries for 1,099 yards, 38 catches for 275 yards) provides Tannehill with a well-balanced offensive attack (and I apologize for this terrible cliche) to keep defenses guessing.

Tannehill has more weapons, more talent, and now more money than he’s had in his entire career. Not only will he be a solid every-week starter in any league, I believe he has the capability to crack the top five.

Oh, and Mr. Bennett? Tannehill’s Dolphins have won eight games each of the past two seasons, so get your facts straight.

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Jeremy Maclin: The Steal Of Your Draft?

Every fantasy football season, folks around our community put out columns about rookies who might make an impact, veterans who may be forgotten and even sleepers and busts (which some, myself included, believe are pointless in this era of super-saturated coverage and social media).

This is not

Every fantasy football season, folks around our community put out columns about rookies who might make an impact, veterans who may be forgotten and even sleepers and busts (which some, myself included, believe are pointless in this era of super-saturated coverage and social media).

This is not one of those pieces.

Last season, I spent the entire summer joining and trumpeting the Jay Cutler bandwagon. “Marc Trestman’s system is quarterback-proof,” I said. “He’s gotta bounce back from the injury,” I said. “He was only sacked 19 times last season [in 2013],” I said. You get the idea. So, come draft day, I built my team, waited on picking a quarterback and finally took Cutler with the 109th overall pick, a knowing and superior smile on my face as I basked in my own hubris.

Behold, the face of my nightmares.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Behold, the face of my nightmares.

Cutler lasted as my starter until late October, when I finally got sick of his turnovers and general Cutler-ness and was forced to stream for the remainder of the season, which kept me out of the playoffs. I’m not proud of this story, obviously. I’m also not proud of the fact that I picked up Odell Beckham, Jr. on Oct. 15, and promptly dropped him two weeks later after he was unimpressive; three days later, he started his string of nine straight 90-yard games and entered the record books. However, that is just another sobering reminder that what we do in this business is an inexact science; we use the data we have available plus our own training and experience to make the best possible guess of what we think will happen. 

In that vein, I wanted to highlight a player left in the cold simply because of his new team, a player who could potentially leave you with a bitter Cutler-esque taste in your mouth, but could also be the steal of your draft. And, I don’t want the former for you all. I really don’t.

Unless you’re in my league, in which case, suck it.

So with that being said, let’s take a quick look at Jeremy Maclin‘s 2014 season: 85 catches on 143 targets (59.4 percent) for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns, good for 192 points in standard leagues. Clearly, Maclin’s talent and fit as the number one receiver in Chip Kelly’s high-tempo Eagles offense were a match made in heaven, right? 

Maclin is an incredibly athletically gifted player who ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at his combine in 2008, and at 6’0 and 200 pounds, he’s not the most physically dominant receiver, but he does have the innate ability to catch the football. He recorded only one drop in 2014, tied for best among NFL receivers (who played at least half of his team’s snaps) with Malcom Floyd of the Chargers, Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals and Kendall Wright of the Titans.

Not only that, Maclin received an overall 9.1 score from Pro Football Focus, good for 14th in the league behind only top tier receivers like Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, et al.

All that put Maclin as a clear WR1 in fantasy, an almost guaranteed every-week starter, albeit on the low end. This year, however, without any sort of lingering injury concerns, Maclin has fallen all the way to a consensus ADP of WR26 (65th overall), which is essentially a fifth- or sixth-round choice depending on the size of the league. Why the cliff?

To be perfectly honest? Alex Smith. He of the career 6.3 adjusted yards per attempt. He of the “King of the Game Managers,” who has never once had a receiver eclipse 1,000 yards in a season in which he has started for an entire season. Michael Crabtree topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2012, but it took three 100-plus-yard game totals with Colin Kaepernick under center to do it.

"Man, I wish I hadn't done anything I've done as a professional football player."

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So, Smith is not exactly Peyton Manning when it comes to making receivers he plays with better, I’ll grant you that. This issue seems to transcend coaches and playstyles as well, so blaming Andy Reid‘s system for Smith’s lack of passing pizzazz seems misguided at best; Reid had a 1,000-yard receiver four times in his 14 years coaching in Philadelphia: Terrell Owens in 2004, Kevin Curtis in 2007 and DeSean Jackson in 2009 and 2010. Apart from Curtis, I believe that’s sufficient evidence to support the idea that Reid isn’t necessarily averse to a high-target, high-yardage number one receiver, he just needs a certain level of talent to make it happen.

I believe Maclin has that talent level. Not only that, let’s look at the wasteland of receivers Smith had to work with in 2014, by snap count: 

  • Dwayne Bowe: the only receiver to play at least 25 percent of the team’s snaps in 2014, seven dropped passes, a -2.3 pass rating from PFF, a 66.7 catch percentage, and, remember, zero touchdowns.

  • Junior Hemingway: only 260 total snaps, a -5.3 PFF rating, three drops, zero touchdowns.

  • Frankie Hammond: 257 snaps, a -6.3 rating, made a whopping 40 percent of available catches, two drops, zero touchdowns.

  • A.J. Jenkins: 253 snaps, a -3.5 rating, no drops(!), zero touchdowns.

So on and so forth. In fact, Chiefs receivers recorded TWENTY dropped passes in 2014, and their 29 dropped passes overall was fifth in the league; their drop percentage of 6.0 was second behind only the Colts, who threw more than 150 more passes . 

Ultimately, Maclin (who has great hands) could be the best thing that’s ever happened to Alex Smith (whose receivers apparently don’t have hands at all), and he could be a very sneaky value pick at his current ADP who you could easily use as a high-end WR2. Plus, he might actually catch a touchdown!

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Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, this is the last wide receiver to score a touchdown for the Chiefs in the regular season. Bowe, in the first quarter against Washington, in Week 14 of 2013.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if Maclin is worth the risk of his ADP, but I for one believe that he take a step up. At the very least, adding Maclin is a step up from the complete garbage fire that was the Kansas City Chiefs receiving corps.

As always, never drink and draft!

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Five Unsexy Players Who’ll Win Your Fantasy League For You

Everyone's in love with Odell Beckham, Jr., Le'Veon Bell and the rest of the top picks everyone plans on making in this year's season-long fantasy drafts. I get that. They put up big numbers, make flashy plays and are the guys you watch when you're out at the local watering hole.

My personal man-crush on

Everyone’s in love with Odell Beckham, Jr., Le’Veon Bell and the rest of the top picks everyone plans on making in this year’s season-long fantasy drafts. I get that. They put up big numbers, make flashy plays and are the guys you watch when you’re out at the local watering hole.

My personal man-crush on Beckham, Jr. aside (did you know he has his own blog?), chances are unless you have some sort of crazy, circus-like league in which you can make multiple first-round draft picks, you’re only going to land one of these headliners, or what I’ll call for this article “the sexy ones.” You pick one, and watch the rest fall to your league-mates as you sit there, seething in your jealousy.

But, as a guy who’s made hay in life by being smart, rather than sexy, I feel I must stand up for the other guys. The ones who show up, day after day, game after game, and just do work. These players won’t light up the box score, or make the next morning’s “Top 10,” but they will absolutely be reliable and successful members of your team; chances are, they’re thought so little of that you might be able to snag more than one, if not all of them, and laugh at your league all the way to the championship.

These are the unsexy ones.

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Alfred Morris, RB, Washington

Quick, name me the most underrated running back in the NFL since 2012. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Correct, it’s Alfred Morris! 

Just look at these solid numbers he’s put up since entering the league in 2012, and try to pretend you don’t want this type of production on your fantasy team.

2012: 351 carries, 1,693 yards, 13 TD

2013: 276 carries, 1,275 yards, 7 TD

2014: 265 carries, 1,078 yards, 8 TD

Over that three-year span, he was second, fourth and ninth in the league in rushing yards; granted, a lot of the decline was due to the performance of his quarterback, Robert Griffin III, but that’s neither here nor there. Dude just puts in work. He’s as close to a lock for 1,000 yards and eight scores as you can find in this year’s drafts, was one of only 15 backs to see at least 60 percent of his team’s snaps, and no longer has Roy Helu to deal with coming in on obvious passing downs.

Don’t get me wrong, odds are no one is particularly excited to draft Morris. But when it comes time in the fourth or fifth round to fill out your RB2 slot, who do you honestly feel more comfortable with, Morris or someone like C.J. Spiller? Melvin Gordon? Sure, their upsides may be higher, but their floors are a lot (like, a lot) lower. Morris has never missed a game in three seasons, and new offensive coordinator Sean McVay might be able to use Morris’ talents more effectively than zone-blocking maniac Kyle Shanahan.

You won’t receive any jealous stares from your league when you pick Morris in the middle rounds, but you can take his production to the bank.

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Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

2. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals

Just look at that face, folks. That is the face of a man who is mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore.

What is “it”, you ask?

Why, abysmally embarrassing quarterback play, of course. With not-as-bad-as-everyone-thinks Carson Palmer under center, Fitzgerald caught 80 percent of the passes thrown his way and was on pace for another Hall of Fame-worthy season, as befits a receiver of his talent. With the dumpster fire that was Ryan Lindley, Drew Stanton, and Logan Thomas handling the passing duties, that catch percentage fell to half.

HALF.

Assuming Palmer is healthy for at least 14 or so games (he is old, after all), how could Fitzgerald’s numbers not go up? He’s being drafted as late as pick 105 overall in almost every league, which I think is absolutely insane. Sure, he only scored two touchdowns last season. That’s a fact. Will he score more than that, and make a solidly reliable WR2 or flex option with great upside? Put it on the board. Apart from, you know, the fact he’s only missed two games in the past four seasons. Four. Seasons. Where Fitz is being drafted, you can choose between him, Torrey Smith, Eric Decker, Ryan Mathews, Shane Vereen…and you’re telling me you’re not taking a future HoFer with a chip on his shoulder?

If you are telling me that, let me know what the owner in your league who drafted Steve Smith, Sr. in the late rounds said to you when he crushed you over the first six weeks of last season.

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

3. Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys

Sensing a pattern here? Folks who picked up Witten last season hoping for his same steady production were surely disappointed, as he only recorded 64 receptions for 703 yards and five scores.

However, let’s look at Dallas’ pass and run splits from 2013 (when Witten had a very respectable 73-851-8 line) and last season:

Of Witten’s 1,071 snaps in 2014, 524 were for run blocking, and 61 were pass blocking, for a pass-eligible percentage of 51.1 percent. He dropped only four passes, but was targeted no more than eight times in any game (and that only happened twice, against the Swiss-cheese Washington, and Philadelphia pass defenses). Long story short, as we all know, the Cowboys were a run-first, pass-to-Dez-later team last season.

However, in 2013, the numbers tell a very different story. Witten played 1,012 snaps, more than any other non-lineman (including Tony Romo). Of those, only 351 were on running plays, leaving Witten free to catch passes on almost 65.4 percent of his time on the field. Those numbers, therefore, led to games where Witten was targeted more than 10 times on four occasions, leading to his TE1-eligible final numbers.

What I’m getting at is this: look at the Cowboys’ backfield right now. Yes, Dallas will want to run, but doesn’t it feel like they’re moving back toward a more balanced, if not pass-heavy, type of game?

If you agree, you can pick up Witten around the 80th overall pick (assuming you don’t have Rob Gronkowski) and have him play and produce for you without fail the entire season. Oh, and did I mention he hasn’t missed a start since 2006? Reliable, baby.

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Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

4. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Speaking of players who haven’t missed a start, check out Flacco. Since entering the league in 2008, Cool Joe has started every one of his team’s games. That’s 112 in a row, for those of you following along at home.

Flacco also hasn’t passed for fewer than 2,971 yards (which occurred during his rookie season), and has actually increased his yardage totals over the past three seasons. Also not coincidentally, he set a career-high for touchdown passes last season with 29. 

After a season in which he almost hit 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, why is Flacco being drafted as QB16? So they lost the deep threat of Torrey Smith. Last year’s team-leading receiver Steve Smith Sr. is another year older, and heading into his final NFL season. And his favorite tight end, Dennis Pitta, will begin the season on the PUP list. All of these things are bad.

However — and this is a big however — Gary Kubiak and his run-first scheme are out of Baltimore (which, yes, produced good numbers for Flacco), and the guy who made Matt Forte a pass vacuum is in: Marc Trestman. Know who benefited from Trestman’s system to the point of almost fantasy-reliability? Smokin’ Jay Cutler, that’s who. 

Flacco is head and shoulders above Cutler in talent, has a better offensive line and now has a coach who isn’t adverse to opening up the passing attack. Flacco could be a steal at the end of your draft, if you’re patient and pass up the next guy on the list:

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Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

5. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Remember up top where I freely admitted I have a man crush on Odell Beckham, Jr.? Can you imagine being the guy who gets to throw him passes?

Following the trend, care to guess how many games Manning has missed since he became the Giants’ starter??

Correct again! Zero. Zero starts missed. In 10 seasons. 

Behind both good and terrible offensive lines, those Manning boys are built from something special. Apart from that, Manning topped 4,400 yards last season, hit 30 touchdowns and his 2.3 percent interception rate was the second-lowest of his career. Add a full season of Beckham to an emerging number two receiver in Ruben Randle, a maybe-maybe not Victor Cruz coming off a torn patellar tendon, Larry Donnell and another year in coordinator Ben McAdoo’s quick-release offense?

I’m literally salivating, and Manning is going 83rd overall.

The Giants’ running game should pick up, and with the addition of Shane Vereen as a valid dump-off option, I think Manning could flirt with 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns with a full season of this very exciting passing attack. All that for that late of a pick? 

They might not catch your eye, but I’m buying the unsexy guys every time.

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Five Most Watchable Offenses In The NFL

Traditional NFL wisdom goes something like this:

Offenses win games; defenses win championships.

While that may be true to a certain extent, let's take a look at a great example of a defensive struggle from last season's NCAA football "defensive" game of the year.

Six. To. Three. In

Traditional NFL wisdom goes something like this:

Offenses win games; defenses win championships.

While that may be true to a certain extent, let’s take a look at a great example of a defensive struggle from last season’s NCAA football “defensive” game of the year.

Six. To. Three. In double overtime.

Woo? Remember the league’s less-than-stellar offensive units? It’s like that.

In any case, the point I’m making here is that offenses may not win championships in the real NFL. But that said, they certainly win fantasy ones and most definitely win television viewership.

Again, I feel I should explain the difference between “good” and “watchable.” While a successful offense may be helpful for the team, it may not necessarily be a fun offense to watch. Think the 2000 Ravens, our generation’s quintessential “three yards and a cloud of dust,” or the current Kansas City unit, which I would have included on my previous list, had I extended past five teams.

So, without further ado:

5. Indianapolis Colts

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Luck has talent, we all realize that; the former No. 1 overall draft pick has certainly lived up to his superstar potential, and has been asked to shoulder the entire load of an offense that seemed stacked against him.

“What do you mean, Zach?!” you may be asking.

Trent Richardson. That’s what I mean. It’s like the Colts actively decided they were going to pay as much attention to the success of their running game as a true martini connoisseur pays to vermouth. However, starting in 2015, this may have changed with the free-agent signing of stalwart “he’s totally not too old for 300 carries” Frank Gore, who could give this offense a much-needed spark on the ground.

But what makes them watchable, rather than simply good?

Their horrible, horrible defense. One of the greatest playoff games in recent memory involved the Colts coming back from a 28-point deficit to beat the Chiefs, 45-44, in January 2014. They were in that hole, of course, because of their inability to stop Alex Smith from throwing long touchdown passes. Let that fact sink in for a moment.

In the 2014-15 regular season, the defense wasn’t much better: 19th in points allowed and 18th in rushing yards allowed, as a start. While their passing offense was more middle-of-the-pack, the offseason failed to produce any real blockbuster impact to make their defense less porous.

With that, expect Luck to be slinging to new receivers Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett, the ageless cyborg Gore handling 20 carries per game, and just enough “I can’t believe he did that!” plays from this offense to land them at fifth on my list.

4. Green Bay Packers 

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Eddie Lacy is a monster. He managed 74 yards on 21 carries against the Seahawks in Seattle during the playoffs last season, which against a league-average defense is close to 200. Also, the Packers’ quarterback is a guy you may have heard of:

Aaron Rodgers threw for over 4,300 yards and 38 touchdowns last season; his shiftiness in the pocket and ability to throw receivers open is the stuff of legend. He’s got two of the league’s best receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb (who went to Kentucky; that’s like working your first four years as a McDonald‘s janitor then finding a job as a Victoria’s Secret bikini waxer, for those of you who don’t follow the SEC), and the aforementioned Lacy to keep defenses honest.

Again, though; why are they “watchable” instead of merely “good”? For one, because sometimes Lacy gets stuffed and forgets how to run the football, leading Rodgers to take over more of the production. Second, because Nelson is more shifty and fast than he has any right to be, and defenses continually fail to remember that.

Thirdly, though, and most importantly?

Lambeau.

Watching any offense in extreme weather adds a satisfying level of excitement, but watching players slip and fall is mere schaudenfreude; watching the Packers execute in snow and ice like Olympians while mere mortals struggle to find their emotional and physical footing is witnessing nothing short of ethereal perfection.

3. Cleveland Browns

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Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

If you recall, the Browns made my “least watchable” list, at the top spot no less.

Cleveland’s top-billed ranking on this list is assuming Josh McCown takes over the starting duties for the entire season. If Johnny Rehab gets under center, good or ill, this team immediately becomes appointment television.

So, their No. 3 spot on the current list obviously assumes Johnny Manziel gets the call for Week 1.

The Browns are not a good offense, don’t get me wrong. Apart from Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and the running game, there’s not a whole lot to root for. 

Dwayne Bowe? Only in the league for fantasy football team name puns.

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Brian Hartline? The scrappiest of gym rats.

Color me asleep. Nevertheless, Manziel’s ability to either be incredibly, unbelievably amazing (which has yet to manifest itself at the professional level) or the same level of terrible makes the Browns, in my book, a must-watch offense.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Tebow Time®.

Assuming The Holy One, Tim Tebow, makes the 53-man roster to start the season, any team with Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and Tebow is must-see. Pair up that trio of semi-talented-yet-wonderfully-bad quarterbacks with the light-speed Chip Kelly attack?

How could you look away?

I had the good fortune to meet Coach Kelly in 2010 when he was still at Oregon, as he visited the aircraft carrier on which I was stationed. After his two-day stay, he took what he’d learned and turned the Ducks into the nation’s top-ranked team after installing his “everyone just do your job” hyper-offense. I like to think the U.S. Navy is directly responsible for his promotion to the NFL, and expect a thank you card in the mail any day now. 

In any case, the Eagles will run more plays than anyone in the league by a huge margin, allowing their defense to get gassed against even a semi-competent opposing offense, allowing for more ridiculous games like this one:

  

My apologies for the poor quality, but you get the point; the Eagles will score a lot of points with whomever they put under center. Or, conversely, they’ll be a constant media circus and be terrible.

Either way, watchable!

1. Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of his generation. Feel free to debate that in the comments, but it’s certainly my opinion. The idea that either the Colts or Broncos ever paid anyone as an “offensive coordinator” is beyond me, as everyone on the planet knows Manning does exactly whatever the hell he wants once he surveys the defense.

The Broncos hired Gary Kubiak to play their offensive coordinator this season, and everyone I’ve seen is wondering what “The Kubiak System” (emphasis on running the ball, throwing to his lost-puppy tight end Owen Daniels) will do to Manning’s production.

Here’s how that conversation went, folks:

Manning: Good afternoon, coach.

Kubiak: Good afternoon, Mr. Manning, sir.

Manning: Tight ends, eh? Ever hear of Julius Thomas?

Kubiak: Yes, Mr. Manning, sir. He’s suffering in Florida now. I brought you Owen Daniels, though! He’s been so good in my offense he’s literally never played for any other coordinator!

Manning: I suppose that will suffice for my needs. Now leave my chambers.

Kubiak: *kneels*

Manning will check, audible, change hot routes and do more football processing than an Xbox One in the time it takes for the rest of us to crack open a craft beer. He’s an artist, a genius, and when he does make mistakes, they’re pretty epically bad.

This is all discounting the level of talent around Manning, of course; Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the outside, C.J. Anderson in the backfield and Cody Latimore in the slot should provide plenty of highlight plays.

However, the ultimate football artist, much like the world’s greatest performers in other media, need to be watched live to appreciate their true talent. Wouldn’t you have given anything to watch Picasso storm around after a mis-stroke on one of his paintings? We’re lucky enough to see at least one Manning Face per week, and for that, I say “God Bless America.”

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Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

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