The beginning of training camp brings an official end to the NFL “offseason” and a start to the most important month for fantasy football prognostication. While plenty was learned during free agency, the draft, and offseason workouts, the next month should finally offer answers to most of the pressing questions facing fantasy players. With that in mind, here is a look at some of the most important fantasy storylines to follow from the AFC. Be sure to check out the AFC storylines as well.
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Arian Foster vs. Jay Ajayi
Only two weeks ago this headline could have been about Ajayi’s ability to consolidate the starting job, but he is now faced with the prospect of beating out a former First Team All-Pro. Early reports suggest that will take a herculean task, but even if he does outplay Foster in camp, the veteran is still going to be involved in some capacity. Luckily, identifying where Foster will contribute might not be that difficult.
Coach Adam Gase has been incredibly on message when talking about Foster since the signing, praising his ability as a pass catcher at every opportunity. That suggests Foster’s main role will be in the passing game, which makes a lot of sense considering the less than flattering reviews Ajayi garnered as a receiver during the offseason program. A glorified third-down role for Foster would still afford Ajayi plenty of work on early downs, but it would also make him much more game-script dependent.
With Gase calling the shots, however, it is unlikely either player has a defined role. The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson said Gase does not like to substitute backs during a series, which means the back who begins the drive will be the back who gets the work in passing situations. That might not hold if Ajayi cannot be trusted to run the correct routes, but it is another facet of this situation to monitor.
In the end, this entire competition might end up being for naught. Foster will turn 30 in August, has a long injury history, and is coming off an Achilles’ tear. Ajayi tore his ACL in college, missed much of his first training camp with a hamstring injury, spent time on injured reserve as a rookie with an injury to his ribs, and has a knee condition which could require microfracture surgery in the future. The probability of both players staying healthy all season is slim, making the injury report the most important one to watch during camp.
The Sammy Watkins Conundrum
After a barnstorming finish to 2015 which saw him put up the fourth-most fantasy points among receivers over the final nine weeks, Watkins looked poised to enter the season as a sure-fire WR1. Offseason foot surgery ended that dream and put his status for Week 1 in serious question. Fortunately, Watkins seems to be progressing well and suggested he is nearing 100 percent heading into camp.
While that may be true, it is likely the Bills will be extremely cautious with their star receiver and only real weapon in the passing game. It is possible he misses most of training camp and all of the preseason, which would make him a somewhat risky proposition at his current WR13 draft cost especially considering the likely regression he will face both in efficiency and touchdowns. However, a healthy return early in camp would certainly send his ADP soaring, perhaps to a point where he becomes nearly undraftable.
Ultimately, this situation could end up being lose-lose for Watkins truthers, who will either have to go out on an injury limb or pay a premium to land their guy. With every report suggesting that injury limb is actually quite stable, right now looks like the best time to buy.
O Fitzpatrick, Where Art Thou?
The story which dominated the offseason refuses to die despite the impending start of training camp. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets have yet to make amends, and it does not sound like a resolution will be reached early in camp. That creates a tough situation for the entire offense, but the real fantasy effects will be felt in the passing game if Fitzpatrick does not re-sign.
Brandon Marshall has been about as reliable as receivers come over the last four years, scoring double-digit touchdowns three times and averaging 11.25 scores a season. However, it would certainly be reasonable to question his touchdown upside with Geno Smith running the show. Geno has managed only 27 touchdowns on 852 career attempts. To put that in perspective, Fitzpatrick threw 31 on just 562 attempts last season, an almost 2.5-percent higher touchdown rate. To add even more concern, Eric Decker, who has scored at least 11 touchdowns in each of his last three non-Geno seasons, managed just four in 13 games with Smith in 2014.
Almost all of those numbers came in a much different offense, however. Geno has attempted just 42 passes with Chan Gailey at the helm, and he completed 27 of those attempts for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. There will certainly be some regression with Geno under center, but there will likely be regression even if Fitzpatrick re-signs. The magnitude of the falloff will be important to monitor regardless of how this situation plays out.
The Crow and The Duke
The Cleveland backfield was going to be an interesting battle to watch even before Isaiah Crowell planted his foot firmly in his mouth, and it now has the makings of a situation which could yield a league-winning player.
Even before Crowell’s Instagram post, Duke Johnson was the back earning all of the praise in Cleveland. While Crowell was being called out for a lack of consistency, Johnson was being called “an ultimate weapon” who “does so many different things that gives your offense a boost.” The coaching staff had some nice things to say about Crowell as well, but they were clearly more excited about Johnson.
The question now for Johnson will be role. He is not a prototypical lead back at 5-foot-9, 206 pounds, but he was a three-down runner in college who new coach Hue Jackson reportedly sees “as an every-down back.” Crowell will enter camp with the early-down role, but it would not be surprising if Johnson steals most of that work, especially considering how much Jackson talked about character over the offseason. Johnson’s ADP is certain to climb, but he is still a nice, high-upside pick at RB30.
An Ankle To Remember
With no clear timetable on an ankle injury which threatens his availability for Week 1 and a 2015 stat line primed for regression, Tyler Eifert enters camp as one of the most difficult fantasy players to value. Unfortunately, there might not be many answers on the way in the next month.
Since it was announced Eifert underwent a “minimal procedure” on his ankle in May, the most concrete report suggests he is “on schedule.” The details of that schedule remain in question, but Director of Personnel Duke Tobin, along with several reporters, suggested Eifert is likely to miss at least a couple games.
Streaming tight ends is easy enough to take most of the pain out of any absence – although that line of thought raises questions about why one would invest a single-digit round pick in a tight end in the first place – but missing even two games puts a dent in his value. With the reserve/PUP still an option even if not likely, it is possible he could be sidelined even longer.
The ankle injury would be concerning enough, but there is cause to question Eifert’s ability to recreate his success from a season ago. Eifert relied on red-zone targets as much as any player in the league last year, and he converted those looks at an unsustainable rate. There is almost zero chance he will convert 73.3 percent of his red-zone targets into touchdowns again, and he will be hard pressed to match the six touchdowns he scored from inside the 10 last season. Considering 47 percent of his total fantasy production came via red-zone touchdowns, there are real reasons to expect some regression even if Eifert is able to get healthy by the end of camp.
What’s Happening in Baltimore?
The most confusing fantasy situation in the entire league lives in Baltimore. There is zero clarity at every major fantasy position except quarterback, and even Joe Flacco is returning from a knee injury. All of that uncertainty makes Ravens camp perhaps the most important to watch this year.
The trouble begins at receiver, with two of what would have likely been the top three on the depth chart opening camp on the active/PUP. Steve Smith Sr. is still trying to recover from the Achilles’ injury which ended his 2015, and Breshad Perriman is on the shelf after suffering yet another knee injury during the offseason program. Their absences open up starting spots for Kamar Aiken and Mike Wallace early in camp, but it is anyone’s guess who occupies those spots this time next month.
The running back position is not any less murky, with expected starter Justin Forsett facing plenty of competition in camp. Buck Allen, who took over after Forsett went down last season, and fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon will put up strong challenges for Forsett’s spot, and Terrance West or Lorenzo Taliaferro could make some noise as well. Even if Forsett escapes camp with the starting job in hand, it is not difficult to see him ceding plenty of work to Allen and Dixon throughout the season.
Finally, the tight end position is more confusing than the M.C. Escher mousepad I gazed through to avoid work during middle school computer class. Ben Watson will likely be the starter, but Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and even Dennis Pitta are lingering, making this a situation to avoid if nothing changes in camp.
The receiver position is much more confounding, especially with the news Andre Johnson’s quest through the AFC South might make a stop in Tennessee, but the backfield is the spot to watch in Titans camp. With an #ExoticSmashmouth offense as the goal, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry look poised to see plenty of work, but the way those touches are doled out will be important to monitor.
For now, Murray looks like the clear lead back. He was given $12.5 million guaranteed after being acquired from the Eagles including a guaranteed $6.25 million base salary in 2017. That means the Titans are stuck with him for at least the next two seasons, making it likely they do everything in their power to make it work. He also has the edge both in experience and ability in the passing game, giving him a usage floor even if his struggles from last season persist.
Those struggles, however, are the real storyline to follow. Murray was bad in Philadelphia, averaging just 3.6 yards on 193 carries. It is reasonable to think a return to a north-south attack will help Murray rediscover his 2014 form, but the system does not deserve all of the blame. Murray looked sluggish last season, and if that continues into camp, it is likely Henry earns a bigger role than expected. That possibility makes Murray extremely overvalued as the RB18.
The Ballad of Latavius Murray
No team expressed more contempt for their starting running back this offseason than the Raiders, and yet Latavius Murray enters camp poised to retain his role atop the depth chart. That is as long as he can beat out fifth-rounder DeAndre Washington. If that name is new, prepare to hear a lot of it over the next month.
A slasher and third-down type out of Texas Tech, Washington won the hearts of the fantasy community when GM Reggie McKenzie called him a “complete back” immediately after the draft, and he sealed the deal by seeing snaps with the first-team offense during minicamp. With Murray incredibly inefficient as a receiver last season – he gained just 232 yards on 53 targets (4.38 YPT) – it stands to reason Washington will be a big part of the passing game if he can master pass protection.
That if is one that trips up plenty of rookie backs, however, and it is somewhat foolhardy to expect a fifth-round pick to come in and immediately unseat a semi-established runner. Washington should have a role as a receiver, but Murray should be viewed as the early-down runner until proven otherwise. With the Raiders potentially poised to win more games and with one of the best on-paper lines in front of him, Murray has a good chance to better the 266 carries he saw last season if he can hold onto the job, making this competition an important one to watch in camp.