We can't put a Fantasy spotlight on the AFC South without evaluating Arian Foster's value for Draft Day.
First, fourth (when he missed three games) and second are the finishes for Foster among Fantasy running backs over the last three seasons. Despite missing three games in 2011, Foster has outscored the next closest running back (Adrian Peterson) by more than 100 points over the last three years and his 47 combined scores during that span are eight more than Peterson, who again comes in second. In other words, Foster has been the best Fantasy back since 2010 and has been worthy of the top pick every single year. Given that he is only going to turn 27 years old this season, he should have another few years of dominance, right?
I am not as scared of Foster as others, but there is plenty to be concerned about with him heading into 2013.
For starters, Foster is coming off of a ridiculous workload in 2012 that saw him touch the ball 460 times (no that is not a misprint) in 18 games last year including the playoffs. His 405 carries were the most in the NFL and you have to wonder if the wear and tear is starting to impact him, since 400 touches has been a magic number for running back injuries and drop-offs -- historically speaking. Foster has missed all of training camp to this point and is now dealing with a creaky back.
Foster has touched the ball a league high 1,111 times during the last three regular seasons and it has started to impact his efficiency. In 2012, Foster averaged a career worst 4.0 yards per carry (down from 5.0 in 2010 and 4.4 in 2011) and was also at a career low 5.4 yards per catch (down from 9.2 in 2010 and 11.7 in 2011). Some of the decline can be attributed to deteriorating offensive line play, but the fact that he went from 14.2 yards per carry plus catch in 2010 to just 9.4 last year is alarming. However, I must point out that despite the decrease in efficiency, Foster was first among all runners with 15 appearances in the Top 24, 12 in the Top 12, 14 games of 10-plus points and 13 games with a touchdown. In his least efficient season, Foster was still the most consistently productive Fantasy back in the league.
I will not call Foster a bust for 2013, but he is a cautious eighth in my rankings instead of second behind Adrian Peterson due to the injury, efficiency and workload concerns. When healthy, Foster will still be on a run-heavy team that will force feed him the ball in scoring situations (he leads the NFL with 28 goal line rushing scores the last three years), so another season of 1,600 total yards and 10-plus scores is certainly within reach if his body holds up. It just seems like a much riskier proposition this year compared to some of the young studs at running back that have not been worked into the ground like Jamaal Charles, Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller.
Foster will produce at a very high level when healthy, which is why he remains eighth on my board, but if you take Foster early, you must grab Ben Tate, which will likely cost you a seventh or eighth round pick.
Love the value on Maurice Jones-Drew right now
I know MJD had a dreadful 2012 season that was over before it really got started due to injury following a lengthy offseason holdout, but let's have a good enough memory to remember that he was the NFL's leading rusher in 2011. That year, he racked up 1,606 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground for one of the worst offenses in the entire league. It also marked the fourth time in his career that he was a Top 10 Fantasy running back and prior to his injury-shortened 2012 season, MJD had never finished worse than 13th. In fact, from 2009-2011, MJD had scored the third most Fantasy points of all running backs and while I don't think he gets back to the Top 3, there are certainly a few reasons to believe he gets back to the Top 12 when it is all said and done.
I had the opportunity to speak with MJD this offseason and he will be playing with a massive chip on his shoulder. He feels disrespected by all of the people writing him off and is extremely motivated to not only prove the naysayers wrong, but to also get one last big pay day. With the additions of Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars offense is much better now than it was back in 2011, which should only help. Also, don't forget that Jones-Drew is not only an effective runner, but can catch the ball out of the backfield and has averaged 43 receptions for 354 yards and two scores in his last three full seasons.
Going back to his injury-shortened 2012 season, despite his holdout, MJD still played very well pre-injury. In his five full games, MJD ran for 404 yards and a score while averaging 4.8 yards per carry (his best since 2006). He also caught 14 passes for 86 yards and a score as well. That adds up to 490 total yards (98 per game) and two scores in the five games. In fact, MJD was tied with Adrian Peterson as the 14th-ranked Fantasy back after the first five weeks, and that's about his floor to me. Remember, MJD was eased back into action early due to his lengthy holdout, so his carries were well below normal levels. In his only game with 20-plus carries, MJD ran for 177 yards and a score against the Steelers. In 2011, MJD saw 20 or more carries in 10 of his 16 games, so when healthy he will get the rock.
Speaking of his health, it seems like MJD is ready to go. He told the Florida Times-Union he feels "no pain" in his left foot. "I'm cutting great, no swelling," said Jones-Drew, who had Lisfranc surgery in December. "It's like back to normal again." With his current ADP as the 15th running back taken, I think MJD (my 12th ranked runner) is a great value for those picking towards the beginning of the draft. Pairing MJD with one of the Top 5 backs as your No. 2 runner is a winning formula this season, because it would not surprise me in the least if the well rested and very hungry runner from Jacksonville finds his way back into the Top 10 one more time.
O-Line improvements will lead to stat improvements for Chris Johnson
I know it was only the preseason, but seeing Chris Johnson run behind a good blocking line and scoot 58 yards for a touchdown in brief action sure took me back to the good ol' days of CJ2K. Now, I am not expecting that kind of production for Johnson, but I am very excited about his upside with Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack in town.
In 2012, Johnson still finished as the 13th ranked Fantasy running back (shocking considering the Fantasy hate he gets), but struggled to be a consistent runner week in and week out. That should change with his new road grading guards in Levitre and Warmack. According to Pro Football Focus, C.J. Spiller averaged 9.0 yards per carry running behind Levitre last year and teammate Fred Jackson averaged 8.3 yards per carry behind him as well. Levitre paved the way for the highest yards per carry for both Spiller and Jackson last year and the Jackson number is even more impressive since he didn't even average more than 4.1 yards per carry running anywhere else for the Bills last year. It should also be pointed out that the Titans also added tight end Delanie Walker, who was the second best run blocking tight end in 2012 according to PFF. The addition of these two guards and Walker even has our resident running back hater, Pete Prisco, predicting a season of 1,600 yards for Johnson. If Johnson can get back to the five yards per carry mark like he did in his first two seasons, a 1,600-yard season is definitely feasible this year.
Johnson showed flashes last year, but was not consistent enough to really break out and deliver elite Fantasy totals. He was Top 24 only nine times (tied for 16th), but he was Top 12 seven times, which was tied for 12th-best in the league. If Johnson can improve his bad weeks and still have those explosive plays that lead to top level production, he could easily climb back into the Top 12 overall for the first time since 2010. He will lose some goal line work to Shonn Greene (who continues to torment Fantasy owners), but the early talk is that Johnson's receiving totals will be up from the career low 36 catches for 226 yards he had last year.
Johnson is available as a No. 2 running back if you pick towards the back half of the first round, where he offers great upside and little downside. The Titans have made massive improvements to their run blocking and Johnson will be running wild as a result. If Greene was not in the mix at the stripe, CJ would be back in my Top 10 this year. With his current ADP as the 14th running back taken (17th overall), owners will look back at Johnson as a great Draft Day value.
Cecil Shorts is tall on talent
Cecil Shorts was phenomenal for the Jags and I expect a big season in 2013 from the quick-footed wide receiver. In 2012, Shorts was fantastic for Fantasy owners from Week 7 on when he finally became a starter for the Jags.
Over the last 11 games, he was the No. 12 ranked Fantasy receiver despite missing two games due to injury. Shorts made nine starts and produced 10 or more Fantasy points seven times while totaling 47 catches for 774 yards and five touchdowns. I not only loved his production on the field, but his efficiency at 9.3 yards and 1.33 points per target (12th best in the NFL among the 60 most targeted receivers) were superb as well. What makes his 9.3 yards per target all the more impressive is that the Jaguars averaged 6.4 yards per attempt in 2012. His 2.9 yards per target differential was the best in the NFL last year, so this kid can flat out take a lemon and make lemonade!
According to Pro Football Focus, Shorts was 10th with an average of 6.7 yards after the catch per reception, so he definitely has the wiggle to take a short (no pun intended) pass and turn it into a big play. Cecil has the makings of a solid No. 2 Fantasy receiver as long as he can stay healthy (there are some concussion issues) and get adequate quarterback play.
With Justin Blackmon out for the first four games, Shorts will likely see 10 targets per game, so I expect a very fast start. His ADP as the 29th receiver taken more than has the potential health risk built in and he is one of the best values in Fantasy drafts this year.
Shorts has legit Top 12 potential -- as he showed last year -- thanks to consistent production and playmaking ability. I love him as a No. 2 receiver and the fact that he can be stolen as a No. 3 in the seventh round is almost too good to be true.
Ready to become a household name: T.Y. Hilton
T.Y Hilton is a star in the making and has everything I look for in a breakout receiver. In his rookie year, he led the team with a 9.6 yards per target average (sixth best among the 60 most targeted receivers) and was dominant with a 1.42 points per target average (seventh best). Hilton also ranked sixth with a 2.6 yards per target differential and was the only rookie in the Top 12 in YPTD, which put him in very elite company.
He will play a ton in two-receiver sets this year and will be featured when the team goes with three receivers alongside Darrius Heyward-Bey and Reggie Wayne. Hilton has proven that all he needs are some steady targets and he will blow up.
As a rookie, Hilton saw six or more targets in nine games and in those nine games he produced 45 catches for 742 yards and six touchdowns. If you take those numbers over 16 games, that would be a season of 80 catches, 1,319 yards and 11 touchdowns, which would be Top 10 finish. I would be shocked if that happens, but Hilton does possess that kind of talent and upside. I also think he will become more consistent in the less vertically-based passing attack favored by new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Getting the ball to Hilton in space on shorter passes may make him an even bigger Fantasy factor, because he can turn small passes into big gains. Last year, Hilton was fourth in the NFL averaging 7.7 yards after the catch per reception, so he has plenty of wiggle.
Andrew Luck (who is a great starting option this year) will be regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after the 2013 season and with Wayne's window closing, I think Hilton will be a major reason Luck thrives. Believe it or not, Hilton was the 25th-ranked Fantasy receiver last year and could easily improve upon that in 2013. With an ADP as the 32nd receiver taken, snag Hilton as your third receiver and thank me later.
Can he stay healthy and be a Top 20 receiver? Kenny Britt
Kenny Britt has long been a tantalizing talent, but off-the-field issues and on-the-field injuries have really held him back. The good news is that Britt is finally healthy heading into 2013 and has not had any off the field incidents to speak of.
Britt closed out the 2012 season with 100 yards or a touchdown in four of his last six games and was a solid No. 3 receiver from Week 12 on, despite not being all the way back to 100 percent. Britt says he is back healthy for the first time since 2011, when he started the year off with 17 catches for 289 yards and three scores in just over two games before tearing his ACL. Full health will help Britt get close to his career averages of nine yards and 1.32 Fantasy points per target (he was at 6.6 and 0.93 in 2012), which gives him solid No. 2 Fantasy receiver potential.
Britt has never finished in the Top 20 at his position, but the potential to do so looms large. He is being taken in the middle of the eighth round and is the 34th receiver snagged on average, so Britt can easily be grabbed as a fourth receiver. He has nothing but upside in that spot because you are getting him as a backup, making him definitely worth a look on Draft Day.
I am still buying Andre Johnson as a stud
Andre Johnson has not lost a step and the numbers prove it, so I am not as worried about him, despite the fact that he is getting a little long in the tooth.
Among the 70 most targeted receivers in 2012, Johnson ranked seventh in yards per target (9.9), tied for fifth in yards per target differential (2.6) and was fourth in catch rate (69.1 percent). Scoring the football was the only area that Johnson was not elite in 2012. Despite catching 112 passes (fourth) for 1,598 yards (second), he had only four touchdowns.
In fact, Johnson has never had a 10-touchdown season in his career and has just six touchdowns in his last 23 regular season games. The addition of DeAndre Hopkins should ease some defensive pressure on Johnson, especially in the red zone. I am expecting a 2013 bump up from the pathetic seven red zone targets Johnson saw in 2012. Given that he has maintained his efficiency despite having no help at the No. 2 receiver position and his tenure in the league, I think Johnson remains a safe investment as a late No. 1 receiver in all formats with enhanced PPR value.
I'm not nearly as optimistic about Reggie Wayne
For a guy who caught 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five scores, Reggie Wayne was actually pretty mediocre in 2012.
He caught just 54.4 percent of his targets and averaged 6.9 yards and 0.85 points per target, which ranked 50th, 55th and 61st respectively amongt the 70 most targeted receivers. Wayne was actually well below average in every available metric last year and his Fantasy production can be traced to his 192 targets, which were second most in the NFL, more than anything else. Wayne only had five touchdowns on those 192 targets last year and has just 15 touchdowns in his last 48 regular season games, so he is not much of a scorer either.
I expect that his targets will drop in the new offense and I wouldn't touch Wayne as anything more than a low-end No. 2 receiver in standard leagues. After all, had he seen 141 targets last season (12th most in NFL), Wayne would have had season totals of 76 receptions, 973 yards and four touchdowns, which would have placed Wayne 25th at the position. That is a more likely landing spot than 15th this year, which is why I have Wayne ranked 22nd overall and am not excited about grabbing him for my teams.
Hopkins has already been named the starter opposite Andre Johnson and will be the No. 2 receiver the Texans have desperately needed in the AJ era. Hopkins is a big, physical target who will be able to win the one-on-one battles he can expect given the respect defenses will pay to Johnson. He is a great bench receiver to target on Draft Day and has No. 3 receiver upside in a best-case scenario.
Wright led the Titans with 104 targets and 64 catches, but was second on the team with 626 yards. He averaged only 9.8 yards per catch and 6.0 yards per target, both of which were bottom three among the 60 most targeted receivers in the NFL. He will be a full time starter this season and should again challenge for the team lead in targets and receptions. The team is devising ways to utilize Wright more effectively and I expect his yards per catch and yards per target to increase radically in his second NFL season. Adding to the optimism about Wright is that he is one of seven receivers since 2003 to be drafted in the first round and have 60 catches in his rookie season. Of that group -- which includes Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, Dwayne Bowe and Percy Harvin to name a few -- only Michael Clayton never progressed after his rookie year. Wright is a legit Top 36 candidate this year and is a steal as your fifth receiver given his current as the 55th receiver taken.
Fleener struggled in his rookie season, catching just 26 passes for 281 yards, but I expect a massive leap in his second year. Fleener will be reunited with his college play caller Pep Hamilton in 2013 and the early reports from camp have Fleener dominating. Don't forget, Fleener averaged a ridiculous 19.6 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns on his 34 receptions at Stanford back in 2011. With Indianapolis expected to utilize two tight ends a ton, look for Fleener to finally live up to the hype that surrounded him in 2012. He is a good waiver wire target or upside No. 2 tight end on Draft Day (if you take feel compelled to take two).