As a Fantasy guy, I'm always a little nervous about trusting a player who changes teams during the offseason. If they're such a good player, how come they're changing teams? Is it really because their old team couldn't afford them anymore, or is there more to it?
Every year there are exceptions to the rule -- Peyton Manning turned out just fine for the Broncos in 2012 (and 2013), and Reggie Bush found success in Motown last year. Vincent Jackson is another guy who found a new home and posted better-than-ever numbers there. But for every positive result, there are many negative. Sorting out who has a chance to beat the odds from those who are up against a stacked deck is an important element of Fantasy draft preparation.
I got the chance to break down 15 players familiar to Fantasy owners who changed teams this offseason, be it in free agency or trades. For every player I watched at least three games and delivered a report on what they did, and what to expect from them in their new environments.
Josh McCown, Buccaneers
The breakdown: If you wanted to define "good, capable quarterback" McCown would suffice. He showed flashes of excellence with smart plays (throwing the ball away when there's nothing there, checking down to an open receiver, etc.) and doesn't have that bad of an arm. Like most passers, when his feet are set right his accuracy is great; on the run he's worse. But he had very good pocket awareness in the games I saw and was willing to take a hit after chucking the ball. He's got a quick release and is a bit of a gunslinger too. Willing to make tough throws. Make no mistake, he was helped by the excellent receivers he had in Chicago, but if surrounded by similar-type wideouts in Tampa and a good O-line, he could put up some numbers. The only question left is why it took so long for McCown to play this well?
The outlook: No one will trust McCown in Fantasy save for those in two-quarterback leagues -- he's most definitely a mid-round bargain in those formats. But maybe he should be trusted. If we assume that the Buccaneers upgrade their receiving corps via the draft, then McCown will have a shot to be as effective as he was in his spot starts last year. I might be nervous starting him versus strong pass rushes -- those first two weeks are bad news for the Bucs -- but if we're talking about him as a bye-week replacement and possible trade chip in deeper, 14-plus-team leagues, then he's a good pick.
Early projection: 3,000 passing yards, 100 rushing yards, 25 total touchdowns, 14 total turnovers
Early ADP: Late-round pick
Michael Vick, Jets
The breakdown: For a second, forget about Vick's inability to stay healthy and forget about Geno Smith. We'll get back to all that. From his games last season, it's evident Vick still hasn't become a refined passer. His footwork was frequently lousy and when it was he was way off the mark. It's too bad because when he did use good form his arm was excellent. Maybe that will be accentuated when he goes to Jets camp, but it'll take some major discipline from Vick to not revert to his old ways when a play breaks down. That might happen more often in New York than it did in Philadelphia because of the offense around him. I will say that he still was one of the fastest players on the field when he did take off and run.
The outlook: You could say there's potential with Vick, but that's been said for years. You could say he's worth a late pick in a standard league or a mid-round pick in a two-quarterback league, but the reality is that no one expects him to last a long time. Two scenarios: He'll get hurt because, well, he gets hurt every season, or he'll watch Smith play. Word out of New York is that Vick will have to beat Smith for the starting job in training camp. Vick won't help Fantasy owners if he's a backup.
Early projection: 1,300 passing yards, 250 rushing yards, eight total touchdowns
Early ADP: Late-round flier if it looks like he has a shot at starting
Toby Gerhart, Jaguars
The breakdown: I can see why the Jaguars fell for Gerhart in free agency -- he's an absolute bulldozer. He was among the strongest, most physical runners in the NFL, able to plow through tackles and finish runs while also flashing good hands. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that he'd be among the best backs in the league if he had speed. But he doesn't -- he's rather slow. Maybe not BenJarvus Green-Ellis slow, but close. That doesn't keep him from picking up nice gains, as he racked up carries of 10-plus yards versus pretty much every team he carried the ball 10 or more times against in 2013. He also didn't turn the ball over -- the fumble he was credited with last season shouldn't have been called a fumble because his knee was down and the refs blew the replay. I don't know how long Gerhart can last with the hard-hat style of running, but if you aim for him while he's fresh then it's not a real issue.
The outlook: The Jaguars seem prepared to give Gerhart every chance to win the starting job. Coach Gus Bradley has even speculated that Gerhart could land in the neighborhood of 18 carries per game. Granted, that's in a perfect world where the Jaguars run the ball at least 45 percent of the time. That's the ceiling -- if the Jaguars add another back who provides more sizzle we could see Gerhart lose work and end up in, say, a strong third down/goal line role. He'd need plenty of opportunities to be helpful for Fantasy owners in that job. As an example, the Jaguars ran just 35 total plays inside the 5-yard line last year -- 21 of them pass plays to non-running backs, 12 of them handoffs to backs. That could change with Gerhart back there since he'd give them a strong goal-line weapon. Also, six of the Jags' combined seven scores from running backs came from inside the 5 (the one that didn't was a six-yard run by MJD). I'm really intrigued by Gerhart if he is indeed "the guy" for Jacksonville.
Early projection: Over 1,200 total yards with seven total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 45th and 55th overall
Rashad Jennings, Giants
The breakdown: I used to doubt Jennings, but it's easy to come away fairly impressed after watching him closely. He's not a speedy back but offers pretty much everything else: Versatility, good size, good hands, quick feet in small space, very good field vision and strong in following his blocks. He's very physical -- not only is he a willing pass blocker who is not only not shy to take on contact, but when he takes a handoff he can bust through arm tackles and grind out a couple of extra yards when the offensive line can't make a lane for him. Classifying him as a healthier, slightly faster version of Andre Brown is on point.
The outlook: It's a win for Big Blue in that Jennings provides plenty of options: They can use him as their lead back and put someone else like David Wilson or Peyton Hillis into a third-down role, or Jennings fills that third-down role if Wilson somehow gets healthy and finally breaks out, or they could be just as comfortable giving Jennings three-down work. The only role I doubt he gets is the short-yardage/goal-line so long as Hillis is around. But if the Giants are done putting together their running back corps, then Jennings is in a great spot for 2014.
Early projection: Over 1,150 total yards with six total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 55th and 65th overall
Chris Johnson, Jets
The breakdown: The absolute biggest problem I saw with Johnson was an inconsistent effort. Sometimes he'd work hard, even in games where his stats stunk, and sometimes he'd loaf. The second biggest problem was this constant decision to stop running and then try to start again. Whether it's making a cut or getting to the point of attack only to find the lineman out of position, Johnson did the stop-and-start routine far too often. Combine that with how well he seemed to run when asked to hit the edges and you can get an idea of where he might best fit at this point -- as an outside rusher who doesn't have to wait for holes to open up. There were plenty of plays where his O-line was blocked into bad spots, blowing up the play -- I counted 16 such times over four games of his I saw (93 touches), but the line might be third on the list of Johnson's excuses for underwhelming production. He still has speed -- twice last season he caught the ball in space and accelerated through a defense for long touchdowns. But when Johnson says he was trying too hard and thinking too much, I buy it. When a play developed properly, Johnson was super. When any element of the play faltered, be it by his line or the defense or Johnson himself, he faltered.
The outlook: Johnson's role is undefined with the Jets but what is defined is offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's desire to throw the ball, saying previously that he's fine with an offense that passes over 60 percent of the time. That might put Johnson on the field more often since he's theoretically the Jets' best passing downs back, but it might mean fewer carries. That's bad -- when he's had under 15 carries in a game over the last two seasons he's produced nine Fantasy points or more just four out of 11 times. When he's been over 15 carries he's had nine-plus Fantasy points 15 of 21 times. Obvious statement, right? More work equals more stats. Where it might be a real problem is if he starts slowly -- like he has in each of his past three seasons -- and the Jets don't give him the chance to recover, shelving him into a smaller role. Making the outlook worse is a Jets O-line that isn't even as good as Tennessee's was last season. I wouldn't expect Johnson to rebound past the 1,400-total-yard mark that he's somehow hit over the last three seasons. In fact, I bet he comes in under it.
Early projection: Over 1,150 total yards, six total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 60th and 70th overall
Maurice Jones-Drew, Raiders
The breakdown: The perception of Jones-Drew is that he's old and slow, but that's not entirely true. While I didn't find MJD to be the thunderbolt he once was, the reality is that he still showed signs of being a productive, versatile running back. His biggest fault wasn't his speed last year -- it was running behind a terrible offensive line. Over the three games and 51 carries I tracked, Jones-Drew was stuck in neutral or reverse 20 times because his line either whiffed or got pushed backward. It's hard for any running back to overcome that. Jones-Drew did a nice job of playing tough, fighting for extra yardage and bowling over defenders. His hands are still an asset, balance is still phenomenal and he can still make good cuts. Jones-Drew doesn't have breakaway speed anymore, which is typical for a guy who previously broke his foot and turned 29 in March. But he did show signs of having decent speed, quickness and acceleration, which means he's still serviceable.
The outlook: It's not a good thing to go from a team that had no legitimate quarterback threat and O-line problems to another that looks as if it has no legitimate quarterback threat and more O-line problems. It's also never good to be in a situation where you'll split carries -- even if the guy you're splitting with is the injury prone Darren McFadden. But MoJo should be in a spot to pick up anywhere from 10 to 15 carries and a couple of catches per week. What he does with them, though, isn't promised to be pretty. I'd trust him as a Flex in a good matchup and a No. 2 rusher in deeper leagues, though the Raiders take on the NFC West, AFC East, Texans and Browns this year, so there won't be a lot of favorable matchups.
Early projection: Over 1,050 total yards, five total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 75th and 85th overall
Knowshon Moreno, Dolphins
The breakdown: There is no doubt that Moreno's monster 2013 season was helped by playing with Peyton Manning. In the three games I reviewed -- Weeks 11 through 13 -- he saw only six defenders in the box on 61 of 79 carries. Most running backs will take advantage of that kind of attention and Moreno was no different. He isn't an elite talent -- he works hard and fights for yardage but lacks top-end speed and quickness. Moreno's a willing blocker, runs intelligently and patiently, has excellent hands and really excellent balance, which helped him get a slew of 4- and 5-yard carries when the Broncos line failed him. But he's made that transformation from speed back to grinder, playing with more physicality than I would have expected. That's what backs who lose half-a-step tend to do.
The outlook: The Dolphins are expected to run a more up-tempo offense which should fit Moreno well, since he's been doing that for two years with Manning. But it's a different team with far fewer offensive threats, so more defenders could be focused on slowing down the run. That's bad -- in the three games I reviewed, Moreno averaged 1.8 yards per carry over 18 runs versus stacked boxes, including many in goal-to-go situations. It's imperative that the Dolphins offensive line rebounds or else Moreno will get buried. Tack on the speedier Lamar Miller potentially snaring some work and there's a lot to be nervous about. Any rational thinking person would agree there's no way Moreno will repeat the 1,500-yard, 13 touchdown feat from last season, but if things don't quite work out in Miami, those numbers could be shredded by 30 or 40 percent. So while Moreno is a good back who can get the job done, he's not primed to be a real difference-maker for Miami. Frankly, studying Moreno made me feel better about Montee Ball's prospects than Moreno's.
Early projection: 1,150 total yards, six total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 60th and 70th overall
Darren Sproles, Eagles
The breakdown: For the most part Sproles is exactly what you think he is -- a short, shifty, speedy runner and pass catcher. He does seem to be in the process of losing a step as his rushing average has tumbled by at least 0.9 yards per carry over his last three years and his 20-plus-yard chunk plays have dwindled from 14 in 2012 to 17 total over the last two seasons. He can still work the edges, which is an important part of the Eagles run game, but it'll take very good blocking for him to notch gains longer than, say, eight yards. He's been more steady as a receiver, making that element of his game his best asset. Sproles mostly ran out routes from the backfield but had his moments on wheel routes down the sideline. That's something you'll see for sure in Philadelphia.
The outlook: It remains to be seen just how much of him you'll see. He played just 364 snaps for the Saints last season, 457 the year before and 501 in 2011. There's no question that LeSean McCoy is the top banana in the Eagles run game. And as long as Bryce Brown is on the roster, there's no promise that Sproles will be their top backup in case McCoy misses time. Paying a fifth-round pick to a player who can come up with 125 touches isn't much, so that's what you should expect from Sproles. Translation: More of the same from last year with no guarantee of big games. Sproles had fewer Fantasy points than Trent Richardson in 2013 and had 10-plus points in 20 percent of his games. I'm backing away in standard leagues.
Early projection: About 875 total yards, five total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 100th and 110th overall
Ben Tate, Browns
The breakdown: I know we're supposed to fall for Tate now that he's the Browns' primary rusher, but he's not exactly dynamic. A lot of people compare Tate to Michael Turner because he's going from a backup to a starter role, just like Turner did. But that's not the only comparison to Turner he has: Tate's a big guy with a good motor with good enough burst and quickness, but it's a lack of speed that keeps him from being considered great. I also noticed him not tucking the ball on his carries -- an invitation for defenders to knock the ball out (he's lost six of 10 fumbles over his three-year career). Finally, he really needs very good blocking in front of him -- some backs can work around that but I don't think Tate can, not on a regular basis anyway. The Browns ranked 21st in run blocking last season according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The outlook: For Tate to be excellent for Fantasy he'll need that blocking to come through and he'll need volume. Just like Turner in Atlanta, Tate will have to get near 300 touches to have the kind of big stats we want. As of now, the Browns' depth behind Tate is littered with mediocrity. That's great if it holds up but the Browns could easily draft another back to clutter Tate's touches. He'll also have to stay healthy, as he's missed time with nagging injuries every year of his career, including an ankle that cost him all of 2010 and a hamstring strain that took four games from him in 2012. He also played through broken ribs last year. Initially I liked Tate's arrival in Cleveland, but after some review and concern about another back taking some work off his plate, I stepped back to putting him in middle-of-the-pack No. 2 Fantasy running back territory.
Early projection: Over 1,150 total yards, seven total touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 40th and 50th overall
Eric Decker, Jets
The breakdown: Decker's best attribute is his size, not his speed, and he's surprisingly not as physical as you might expect from a typical 6-foot-4 receiver. He'll shy away from blocking, which is worse for his teammates than it is for him. He also has had some issues with drops over his career, though it never really meant a loss of playing time and it's not going to cost him with the Jets unless it gets out of control. At the very least he'll give that offense some stability -- he's a big target who runs good routes, though he wasn't asked to cross the field a whole lot with the Broncos. It's also worth noting that Decker often had single coverage or worked against zone defenses thanks to the Broncos' plethora of offensive weapons. That's not going to be the case as often with the Jets.
The outlook: I am always leery of receivers changing teams and getting a fat bonus in the process. Too many times we've seen wideouts move to new squads, get rich and slack off. Decker doesn't exactly give off the vibe that he'll be any different. Not that he'll have a choice to be any better of a Fantasy stud -- he's going from Peyton Manning to the duo of Smith and Vick. I might have confidence in Decker when Vick is in there but it's not like either quarterback will help Decker accrue major numbers. It doesn't help that Decker won't be surrounded by quality receivers, making it easy for opponents to lock in on him. The track record for receivers in New York have been brutal: No one on the Jets had more than 523 yards last season and a Jet hasn't had even 900 yards receiving since Braylon Edwards in 2010 (Jerricho Cotchery was the last with 1,000 yards in 2007). Worse yet, Marty Mornhinweg-coached offenses haven't produced a 1,000-yard receiver since 2010 (DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia). It's an uphill climb for Decker.
Early projection: 75 catches, 925 yards, six touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 70th and 80th overall
DeSean Jackson, Redskins
The breakdown: Everything you think you know about Jackson's game is right. He's got elite speed and quickness to go with very good hands. He lacks size but plays tough most of the time. More importantly, he can get off the jam and into his route more often than not. Against non-press coverage Jackson gets off the snap quickly, moves laterally effortlessly and can make killer cuts. He was credited with three drops last year on 126 targets for a very good 2.4 drop rate. His presence definitely worries defenses as safeties have to play back when he's on the field, and that should help everybody in Washington.
The outlook: Jackson had a career-year with the Eagles in 2013, but that might have been more of a by-product of the offense than his own doing. He had set a career-high in targets in an offense that would often utilize the no-huddle. The Redskins use an offense closer to what Jackson was in before last season when Andy Reid was in charge. That's not to say it's a bad offense, but it might give him numbers closer to what he had prior to this season. On the plus side, he has a quarterback who can avoid the pass rush and chuck the ball deep, and that should occasionally lead to some outrageous stat lines. It's likely that Jackson will remain as inconsistent as he's been -- he's posted 17 games with at 10-plus Fantasy points in the last three seasons (42 games) with only six instances of back-to-back big games (four last year) and never three straight with double digits. It's also likely he'll lose out on targets to Pierre Garcon along with Jordan Reed taking some action from Jackson. I wouldn't expect his numbers to come close to what he did last year.
Early projection: 60 catches, 925 yards, seven touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 60th and 70th overall
Hakeem Nicks, Colts
The breakdown: You might be surprised to know that Nicks had a 16.0 yard receiving average last year and saw 25 percent of his 56 receptions go for 20-plus yards. But don't mistake that for him being an elite talent, because he quite simply is not. What stood out above all was a lack of consistent, quality speed. Sometimes he'd run as fast as he could (which isn't blazing to say the least), sometimes he loafed it. Hands were another issue with him, forcing his coaches to question his reliability during the year. And finally, Nicks wasn't able to shed single coverage on a consistent basis, but would get open enough in timing routes like slants and crossers that helped him put up numbers. His willingness and ability to run those inside routes is sure to show up with the Colts and it will help him pad his stats.
The outlook: Colts coach Chuck Pagano said in late March that he expects teams to begin playing more physical man coverage and that Nicks is built to overcome it. To a degree he's right, but it won't be because of his fleet feet. I think Nicks can win one-on-one battles when he has leverage to do so, and he'll see a lot of single coverage with the Colts considering all of their other receiving threats. I like the fit for Nicks, but for him to be wholly effective for Fantasy he has to make the most of his targets. He probably won't average much more than the 4.9 targets per game Darrius Heyward-Bey had before he fell out of favor with Indy last year. I think it puts Nicks strictly in Fantasy backup territory.
Early projection: 65 catches, 850 yards, six touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 90th and 100th overall
Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos
The breakdown: What the Broncos lost in size with Decker they'll get back with speed and quickness in Sanders. We're talking about a receiver with very good speed and quickness as well as route-running skills and a willingness to block. There isn't much to Sanders physically (which makes his willingness to look for defenders to block even more impressive) and he's only 5-foot-10. But he plays a little bit taller than that and can jump to get the ball. The best play that shows all of this came in Week 13 against the Ravens, where he was hammered by two defenders off the snap but still got open and leaped for a 15-yard catch. I expect him to play on the outside almost exclusively like he did in Pittsburgh. Most importantly, Sanders can beat man and zone coverage.
The outlook: Because of his traits, and because it's assumed he'll see a lot of single coverage in that Broncos offense, the opportunities will be plentiful. It's a little hard to trust him considering that he's never had more than 740 yards or six touchdowns in a season (career-highs he posted in 2013) but it might have been that trepidation that cost people from taking Decker in drafts two years ago, or Julius Thomas last year. Denver's offense is more efficient than Pittsburgh's and Sanders is in prime position to improve on everything from his receptions to his receiving average. It will be his touchdowns that could remain steady or even potentially dip since there are other appealing options for the Broncos to lean on in the red zone.
Early projection: 70 catches, 900 yards, six touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 70th and 80th overall
Steve Smith, Ravens
The breakdown: Smith was a hard player to get a read on. In Week 1 he looked sharp, showing some consistent speed and really nice quickness in his routes. He was getting open regularly against the Seahawks' secondary. Then in Week 2 he went up to Buffalo and looked slower in pretty much every way. Only occasionally did he flash that same speed and quickness, though he was still good enough at his craft to find ways to get open. And that's kind of the story from his season -- sometimes there would be flashes, sometimes he'd struggle to finally get open. Some untimely drops and errant passes from Cam Newton didn't help his production, but even with him seeing some decent deep targets, Smith played 15 games and 779 snaps this season and finished with a career-low four plays for 20-plus yards. In 2012 he had 17, in 2011 he had 29! That should tell you everything you need to know about his speed.
The outlook: In a West Coast system like Kubiak's, getting open within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage isn't a bad thing. Smith can do that and probably play in a No. 2 receiver role. That could mean around 60 catches, maybe more, but big stats and scores to come off of those receptions might be too optimistic. I'd prefer him as a reserve in my deep PPR league than anything else.
Early projection: 65 catches, 800 yards, five touchdowns
Early ADP: Late-round pick
Golden Tate, Lions
The breakdown: Tate is at his best when he's in space and can make a play after the catch. His speed varied from game to game last season. Sometimes he blew past defensive backs, sometimes they were in his hip pocket. He seemed to struggle a bit separating from man coverage, though it never stopped Russell Wilson from throwing his way when he was one-on-one (and he can jump for those despite being 5-foot-10). You could really see his speed when he wasn't pressed at the line and/or his route was basically a straight line to the end zone. He also seemed to display top speed and quickness indoors -- four of his five touchdowns and two of his three longest plays on the year were indoors. Mind you, the Seahawks play their home games on turf, so in reality the last time he had a big game on grass was at Chicago in 2012. Tate can run pretty much any route but did a lot of screens, crossers and mid-range stuff for Seattle. His hands are very good -- ProFootballFocus.com says Tate dropped just five out of 149 catchable passes over the last three seasons. His blocking skills are so-so -- sometimes he lays the wood, sometimes he backs off. But overall he makes for a very good No. 2 receiver.
The outlook: I like Tate, but here's another receiver changing teams and getting paid ($13.5 million) in the process. However, he's going from arguably being the best receiving threat in a run-oriented offense in Seattle to a regular contributor opposite Calvin Johnson in a pass-oriented Lions offense. Detroit receivers not named Calvin have averaged 201.0 targets over the last two seasons. Tate has averaged catching 66.8 pct. of his targets in that span. If we fudged in 100 targets for him as the No. 2 receiver then it stands to reason he'd catch around 65 passes. If he can continue to post a strong receiving average like he has in the past two seasons while reaping the benefits of never having more than single coverage, then we're looking at a player with very good skills in a very good position to succeed, new contract or not. We've waited a long time for the Lions to add a quality receiver opposite Johnson. Tate seems poised to be that guy.
Early projection: 65 catches, 925 yards, seven touchdowns
Early ADP: Between 65th and 75th overall