Free agency is cooling off and the 2014 season is well underway. Teams have already spent a ton of time looking back at 2013, figuring out what worked and what didn't work. Or, should I say, who worked and who didn't work. Those who worked out will stay in prominent roles; those who did not will be on another roster.
There were a ton of players who we all had a hard time figuring out last year. Many of them were great talents who finished in the Top 12 at their respective positions but were still a headache to deal with week after week. Others weren't as successful in terms of year-to-date finish but still had moments in the season when they frustrated Fantasy owners. Both classifications make up the group of players from which I felt deserved a second look to determine whether or not they belong on my Fantasy rosters in 2014.
I found 10 players who drove me crazy and picked a handful of games that represented both their successes and failures. I specifically re-watched games where a player had a favorable matchup but posted poor stats or an unfavorable matchup that netted a big result. I felt a lot better about these unpredictable players after digging into the games a second time and getting an idea of what makes them tick and what makes them great (or not so great) for Fantasy.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
What we thought would happen: More of the same dominance we saw in 2011 and 2012: Lots of rushing, lots of touchdowns.
What did happen: Newton's passing average dropped from 7.98 yards per attempt and 241.8 yards per game to 7.14 yards per attempt and 211.2 yards per game. His rushing touchdown total dipped for the second consecutive season and his rushing attempts and average went down as well. As a passer and rusher there were far fewer explosive plays. And yet, the Panthers earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC, so it's not like the team will try to transition him back to what he was as a rookie.
Scouting report (Week 3 vs. N.Y. Giants, Week 5 at Arizona, Week 10 at San Francisco, Week 11 vs. New England): Newton is a superb athlete and a good passer but there are still some issues that keep him from being considered a superb quarterback. He still needs work on consistently putting touch on his longer passes, a problem that should be long solved after three years in the league. There were at least two very bad pass decisions in each game I saw and, like pretty much every passer, he was mediocre when the pass rush beared down on him. It's not all on him -- his offensive line wasn't great and shapes up to be worse in 2014, and the same is true of his receiving corps, which is a major issue. Newton is willing to make plays with his legs but something tells me the Panthers want to use his arm more and his feet less moving forward, especially following significant ankle surgery that will cost him the entire offseason. Depending on how the Panthers choose to improve their personnel, we could see Cam take another step back in 2014, even if his schedule isn't littered with tons of pass-rush dominant teams.
Early 2014 projection: 3,100 pass yards, 27 total touchdowns, 400 rush yards, 16 total turnovers
Early 2014 ranking: No. 15 among QBs
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
What we thought would happen: Wilson would be good enough to get Fantasy owners by as a starter, but the loss of Percy Harvin and the unlikelihood of him running a lot would drag his stats down.
What did happen: Wilson still found himself finishing as a Top 10 Fantasy quarterback for the second season in a row, despite a drop in rushing touchdowns and basically the same numbers passing. He had three fewer Fantasy points in 2013 than he had in 2012.
Scouting report (Week 7 at Arizona, Week 8 at St. Louis, Week 15 at N.Y. Giants): I feel pretty comfortable calling Wilson a very good Fantasy quarterback. His awareness and playmaking ability is well documented, but I feel like he still needs a strong offensive line and receivers regularly making plays after the catch for him to have a shot at being a great Fantasy quarterback. I noticed a handful of drops from his receivers. Having Harvin healthy is a big step toward Wilson bumping up his career 202.3 pass yards per game average, but until there's even more stability, he'll potentially deliver some bad stat lines (like he did against the Rams and Giants in the games I watched) despite favorable matchups. He still needs a little more help around him along with more opportunities to throw before the matchups can really be relied upon. Until then he's going to remain hit-or-miss.
Early 2014 projection: 3,500 pass yards, 27 total touchdowns, 400 rush yards, 14 total turnovers
Early 2014 ranking: No. 14 among QBs
Montee Ball, RB, Broncos
What we thought would happen: It was assumed Ball would leapfrog Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno in a training camp competition and land a big role in the Broncos offense as the primary ball carrier.
What did happen: Those plans were put on hold when Moreno finished camp as the most reliable pass protector and parlayed it into a career year. Ball had a few moments, posting six regular-season games with at least 10 carries and a rushing average of at least 5.0 yards per carry in four of them, but he turned out to be a bust Fantasy pick for 2013. It appears 2014 is already shaping up to be much better for him with Hillman fading and Moreno leaving Denver for Miami. C.J. Anderson might be the biggest threat to Ball's workload.
Scouting report (Week 2 at N.Y. Giants, Week 3 vs. Oakland, Week 13 at Kansas City): Ball's statistical successes will come from playing next to Peyton Manning, not because of his own talent. He's good, he's not great. Over the games I broke down, I saw a back who didn't pass block much and couldn't use his speed to out-run defenders. That doesn't mean he's slow, it just means he's not a burner, though he is nimble in small space. I saw a back who didn't run with as much power as a typical 215-pound back should have. I thought his field vision lacked -- he often ran into his own linemen and stumbled his way for a gain. But 2013 was his first go-round and he should get every opportunity to improve in 2014. That's the only thing holding up his Fantasy value right now -- and it's more than enough. If he were faster I'd love him even more, but as it stands he'll be in a position to run the ball 275-plus times against defenses fearing the pass with some receptions (he had 20 last year) and goal-line work. We'll see if he retains his first-round Fantasy value after the NFL draft.
Early 2014 projection: 1,400 total yards, 10 touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 7 among RBs
Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
What we thought would happen: Bernard would cut into and eventually overtake BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the lead back in Cincinnati and finish with top-of-the-line numbers for a rookie running back.
What did happen: It took Bernard a while to even get more carries, even if by one or two, than Green-Ellis. Despite some outstanding moments, it wasn't until the last three weeks of the season and the Bengals' postseason game before Bernard finally got more work than Green-Ellis (while still seeing his playing time vary). That only happened twice in the first 13 games of the year. It was that lack of opportunity that stunted what was otherwise a very nice first year for Bernard: over 1,200 total yards and eight total scores. By the way, Marvin Lewis said this offseason that he was the one holding Bernard back -- other coaches wanted to use him more. Keep reading for the rest of that story ...
Scouting report (Week 6 at Buffalo, Week 14 vs. Indianapolis, Week 16 vs. Minnesota): Besides his durability (current offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said Bernard played hurt last season), Bernard's quickness, elusiveness and hands are his best traits. There were several memorable plays he made last year that should have had the coaching staff believing in him much sooner than they actually did. Bernard had just three games with over 70 percent of the snaps, two in that final four-game stretch. Knowing the running backs that Jackson typically likes, signs point to Gio getting more work. But a lack of size and -- this is a nitpick -- a lack of elite speed could keep him from being an every-down guy. Pass protection isn't an issue. The offensive line might not be quite as strong this season as well. But, if Bernard is routinely getting 70 percent of the snaps then we're probably looking at several weeks with 20-plus touches. Plus, Lewis said he's hoping for Bernard to have a second-year improvement like Ray Rice had. It all equates to a stronger second season for Bernard.
Early 2014 projection: 1,350 total yards, nine total touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 9 among RBs
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers
What we thought would happen: Labeled as a "medium-risk, high-reward Fantasy option," the feeling was that Mathews still had the chance to be somewhat productive despite the addition of Danny Woodhead, but he also had plenty of flop potential because of his injury history and a gross 2012. To his credit, a strong preseason helped owners develop a little bit of confidence in him, enough to call him a No. 2 running back during Fantasy draft.
What did happen: It might have taken about five weeks, but Mathews really elevated his game and was a huge factor in the Chargers' playoff run. Building off his preseason, Mathews ran harder than he did in 2012 and also picked up a ton of work, managing a career-best 285 carries -- and that's while splitting work with Woodhead and even Ronnie Brown -- totaling just under 1,450 total yards and seven scores.
Scouting report (2012 Week 6 vs. Denver, 2013 Week 11 at Miami, 2013 Week 15 at Denver): I decided to check out Mathews' weak 2012 before reviewing 2013 to really get a sense of his improvement. Two things happened: His offensive line got way better and his own technique improved. The O-line change is noticeable thanks in large part to D.J. Fluker and relative good health -- some of Mathews' best runs came because of the big guys up front. As for technique, in 2012 Mathews seemed to often stumble soon after the handoff, sometimes just before the point of contact. It might have been because he was scared to get hurt (remember the fractured clavicle during that preseason?). That was out the window in 2013 as he ran with more physicality. He also seemed a bit faster. Entering a contract year and having the support of the coaching staff, the biggest concern facing Mathews is fending off Donald Brown from taking too much work away from him. So long as he's handcuffed, Mathews has earned the right to remain in good standing.
Early 2014 projection: 1,250 total yards, seven touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 15 among RBs
C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills
What we thought would happen: Spiller would ditch Fred Jackson's shadow and be force-fed touches en route to a 1,500-yard (2,000-yard?!), 10-plus touchdown campaign with the Bills.
What did happen: Jackson stayed healthy and Spiller didn't. In Week 4 he sprained his ankle which hampered him for much of the season. Between that and Jackson's reliable play -- even Doug Marrone said he was surprised with Jackson's year -- the Bills didn't see a need to press Spiller into major work. Not that it would have mattered because he wasn't close to 100 percent healthy until late in the year.
Scouting report (Week 1 vs. New England, Week 16 vs. Miami): The book on Spiller has already been written. Is he speedy with nimble feet and outstanding quickness? You betcha. But he's not a physical back and thus not exactly the kind of guy you can give 20 handoffs to per game. In the games I saw, Jackson ran with better field vision and made the most of his blocking with little to no hesitation after the handoff. Spiller looked for big plays rather than smaller gains and it resulted in some low or negative yardage plays. Spiller also needs a big, long run to lock in triple-digit rushing yards: Spiller had eight 100-yard games over the last two seasons. He needed a gain of at least 35 yards in six of them and a gain of over 20 yards in seven of them. This is the kind of characteristic you'll normally find in a boom-or-bust player. There's no doubt the Bills love to run the ball, but there won't be a point where Spiller lands a ton of work week in and week out, at least so long as Jackson is healthy and on the roster. With his coaches fully realizing that Spiller's frame is not conducive to a physical brand of football we could see a potential reduction in his workload compared to what was expected in 2013, not what he actually had. He'll get more than that. Where things get iffy is that if we're nervous about Spiller, does it mean we're excited about Jackson? Fred-Ex still has under 2,000 total touches over his career (that includes his time playing indoor football) but turned 33 this year. Hard to get pumped for a guy like that. Tack on a schedule that looks tough in early April and there might not be many games where the Bills will run all over people. Spiller will be improved but remain inconsistent.
Early 2014 projection: 1,200 total yards, seven touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 18 among RBs -- and it's a must to handcuff Jackson to him four rounds later
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos (Jets)
What we thought would happen: Continued success from 2012 thanks to the offense he was in, even with Wes Welker joining the Broncos.
What did happen: Decker was a dynamo statistically but he delivered in a most frustrating way. He finished as a Top 10 wideout but was the only one in that group with 10-plus Fantasy points in less than half of his games. He had five games with 15-plus points, 10 with eight or less. Now, that's not all bad considering his situation -- he not only shared the field with Welker but also Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas -- but it still made him a headache for owners who basically wedged him into their lineups regardless of his matchup.
Scouting report (Week 1 vs. Baltimore, Week 6 vs. Jacksonville, Week 13 at Kansas City): Decker's a good player who spent the last two seasons with a great quarterback. His size, not his speed, is his most valuable asset, but even so he shied away from contact plenty and wasn't always a fluid route runner. The Broncos asked him to run a lot of deep routes in the games I saw -- a lot of 12-plus yard assignments that rarely went across the middle. Decker seemed to be open a lot but Peyton Manning was locked in elsewhere. He had chances in the first game and botched a couple of them (dropped a touchdown), didn't have nearly as many in the matchup vs. the Jaguars and simply got the looks and passes from Manning at Kansas City in what was his best game ever. That kind of inconsistency should continue to plague him now that he's with the Jets, and this time he won't have an All-World quarterback throwing at him. Whether it's Geno Smith or Michael Vick, the lack of an elite player will absolutely slow down Decker's numbers. He'll also be much easier to account for defensively because he won't be on the field with at least three other playmakers. Decker topped 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons with Manning -- those numbers will look a lot different in New York.
Early 2014 projection: 75 catches, 900 yards, six touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 26 among WRs
Josh Gordon, WR, Browns
What we thought would happen: With the Browns adding Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner to their offensive kitchen there was plenty of potential for Gordon to greatly improve on his woefully inconsistent rookie year. But the lack of a quarterback would limit him to only a good Fantasy option, not a great one.
What did happen: Gordon wasn't unpredictable as much as a surprising mega-breakout. It turned out that it didn't matter who Gordon's quarterback was -- the guy was a monster. He led all receivers in Fantasy points and had 10-plus Fantasy points in 71.4 pct. of his games, a number no one in the Top 24 could touch. Gordon finished the season as the top point producer at the position and a likely Top 15 pick in 2014 drafts.
Scouting report (Week 7 at Green Bay, Week 8 at Kansas City, Week 9 vs. Baltimore): This is no news flash, but the Browns need a quarterback. As good as Gordon was, he could have been even better had the Browns had an accurate, consistent passer. Any highly touted rookie quarterback in this upcoming draft is an upgrade. As for Gordon himself, he's not flawless but the obvious leap he took in Year 2 suggests he can further refine his game and remain an elite receiver in his third. His size, agility and short-area quickness are big positives. It also remains to be seen how often he can beat double teams as the Packers and Ravens used a bunch of schemes to bottle him up, especially near the goal line. But for now he has to be considered among the top playmakers at the position -- one who should be more appealing to Fantasy owners once the quarterback's name changes from Weeden/Hoyer/Campbell to Bortles/Manziel/Bridgewater. He's going to stick.
Early 2014 projection: 90 catches, 1,400 yards, 11 touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 2 among WRs
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts
What we thought would happen: Hilton would take the next step alongside Reggie Wayne after an 861-yard, seven-score season. He even had an impactful 2013 preseason.
What did happen: How's this for a summary: He scored in only two regular season games (two in one, three in another) and clawed his way over 1,000 yards thanks to a big Week 17 vs. Jacksonville. He averaged fewer targets per game with Wayne (7.5) than without (9.6) but still struggled even with the bump in action when he was the De facto No. 1 receiver. Hilton had 10 games with under 60 yards receiving and five with over 120. So while he did take steps forward in 2012, he was still a weekly Fantasy nightmare.
Scouting report (Week 5 vs. Seattle, Week 15 vs. Houston): I took a look at one game with Wayne and one without. It seems to me that his role changed dramatically once Wayne got hurt -- he was assigned far more short routes in the second half of the season. Coach Chuck Pagano admitted this in late March, saying they had to do a ton of things to get him open. That contributed to his lack of big plays and ultimately hid the fact that Hilton is a very fast and potent wide receiver. His speed is an obvious asset and he tries his best to play physically even though he's 5-foot-9 and under 190 pounds. Against Seattle he whipped Richard Sherman a number of times and had a big catch against Sherman and Earl Thomas on one play. Hilton is willing to go over the middle and shows exceptional quickness when doing so -- between that and his deep speed he doesn't have a hard time getting open. The addition of Hakeem Nicks suggests that Hilton's playing time could be capped, but he'll probably pick up more work as a long-ball receiver and a defense stretcher. Hilton will remain inconsistent because the abundance of targets won't be there, but we should see more from him in his third NFL season. I love the talent, but I am nervous about the opportunities.
Early 2014 projection: 65 catches, 850 yards, seven touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 31 among WRs
Jordan Cameron, TE, Browns
What we thought would happen: Tabbed as a sleeper heading into the year, the assumption was that Cameron would take a step forward in productivity based on his own talent as well as those imparting their wisdom upon him (Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner).
What did happen: Cameron took that step forward with career highs across the board, but it didn't come with much consistency. Cameron got off to a hot start, averaging 16.0 Fantasy points per game through his first four before finishing with a 5.7 Fantasy point average with two games over 10-plus points in his final 11.
Scouting report (Week 4 vs. Cincinnati, Week 9 vs. Baltimore, Week 15 vs. Chicago): Like Gordon, Cameron would be better off with an improved quarterback (who wouldn't?!). But unlike Gordon, Cameron was slow to separate and seemed to struggle more often against zone coverage rather than man (he was fast enough to get past linebackers). He could change direction quick enough but he wasn't as explosive as I would have hoped. He's your typical pass-catching tight end with above-average running and blocking skills. The 80 catches tells you he played a ton last year (and he did), but there were times in these games where Cameron was open but overlooked. New Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has a good track record with tight ends and Cameron's an easy choice to get the next quarterback off to a good start in Cleveland.
Early 2014 projection: 70 catches, 800 yards, seven touchdowns
Early 2014 ranking: No. 6 among TEs