Updates on the NFL Offseason

The 2015 fantasy football season is right around the corner. As July turns to August, people are starting to log on to their local league’s sites. Commissioners start trying to juggle weekend schedules in late-August to plan a FF draft. Wives grumble at the imposition of it all, while their husbands start reading fantasy football magazines, spending a little too much time on online training camp news notes, and watching as much of the preseason games as they can stand.

For those needing a primer on the 2015 NFL offseason, I’ve included 16 news items any fantasy football owner here in 2015 needs to know before they draft. You don’t want to be the dolt who forgets about the big knee injury or thinks a player is still the starter in a high-powered offense (but retired or went to the Jets). This should give you a crash course on most of the big news in free agency, the NFL draft, and OTAs. I choose the number 16 because it’s a special number to NFL fans: it represents the precious few times every year (game day) when the NFL shows its full glory.

So in no particular order, there are the biggest player news updates you need to know heading into your 2015 fantasy football draft.

Demarco Murray to the Eagles

Demarco Murray Signed a 5-Year, $42 Million Contract with the Philadelphia Eagles

1. Demarco Murray Is the Eagles Running Back

Demarco Murray signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Everything points to Murray having a bad year, most of all the Curse of 370. Long ago, it was noticed that running backs who had 370 carries or more in a year cannot recover by the next football season. A human body simply cannot take that kind of wear and tear. Only a mere handful of physical freaks (Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Ladainian Tomlinson) have followed up with big years after hitting the 370 mark. Most others, the merely mortal runners, face big injuries, nagging injuries, sluggish running, or some other malaise.

Add to that several other facts. (1) The Eagles 2015 offensive line is nowhere near as good as the Cowboys 2014 O-line. (2) Sam Bradford and Jordan Mathews do not represent as much of a passing threat as Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, so defenses will be able to key on Murray. (3) The Eagles also have Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews to split carries in the backfield, while the Cowboys had no one. Everything points to a collapse for Demarco Murray, who was considered injury-prone coming into his contract year.

2. Peyton Manning Lost Clady, J Thomas, and Welker

Team owners who depended on Peyton Manning to lead them to a fantasy championship were sorely disappointed in 2014. Over the last 6 weeks of the fantasy season (including playoffs), Peyton Manning was bad. Even though the Broncos had the #2 seed in the AFC Playoffs, I knew they would not advance. Something happened, and it appears Peyton Manning’s arm simply no longer had NFL strength. That was never his forte, but it suddely was well-under-strength.

With that in mind, remember that All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady is out for the year. Then remember Julius Thomas is playing in Jacksonville. Then remember that Wes Welker has suffered 3 concussions in the past year-plus, and he didn’t look so good when he was healthy. Peyton Manning looked old the last time he played, and the cast arond him is not as good as last time.

This might finally be the year Peyton Manning’s production falls off. While he’ll have his moments throwing to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, he is not likely to be worth the pick you give up to add him in fantasy drafts.

3. Tom Brady Is (Likely) Suspended for Four Games

Team owners should remember Tom Brady is suspended for the first four games of the NFL season. Those in redraft leagues need to know you’ll have to stash him until Week 6 (four games and a bye week).

4. The Champs Are Angry!

Remember the 2008 season when Bill Belichick was mad about the Spygate punishment? The team went 16-0 in the regular season and Belichick made a point to run the score up on his opponents. Well, the 2008 season has nothing on the anger Deflate-Gate has caused among the New England Patriots, especially Tom Brady and Robert Kraft. People tend to worry about the World Champs having motivation, but the Patriots have excellent motivation this season. Fantasy owners and sports bettors should take note.

Put aside your opinions on who is right or wrong in the Deflate-Gate Scandal. Whether you believe Tom Brady was trying to cheat or Roger Goodell was trying to scapegoat Brady to draw attention away from the Ray Rice scandal, that is not the point. Instead, put yourself inside the head of Tom Brady, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots squad. Rightly or wrongly, they believe they have been picked on. They think the NFL singled them out for a minor infraction (at best) and made them the villains, ultimately taking away a 1st and 4th round pick and 4 games in the twilight of Brady’s career.

Robert Kraft, who put his reputation on the line to save Roger Goodell and his $44 million a year salary as recently as September 2014, says he was wrong to trust the NFL. Tom Brady believes Goodell tried to destroy his legacy and lied about him destroying his cellphone for the sake of a smear campaign. Both men are pissed.

The Patriots are going to want to make a statement in 2015. They’ll be motivated by the classic “Us against the World” mentality in weeks 1 through 4. When Tom Brady returns, they’ll want to punish whoever the NFL puts before them. They are the world champs, and they are a heckuva lot angrier than any other world champions in recent memory. Watch out.

5. Julius Thomas Went to the Jaguars

Two years ago, Julius Thomas was a little-known tight end starting for the first time in the NFL. Thomas had had 1 catch in his first 2 NFL seasons, but he was the starter on the Denver Broncos. He was obscure enough that I remember him being undrafted or drafted very late in several 12-team, 20-round drafts. Then week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, he came out with a 5-catch, 110-yard, 2 touchdown game in a 49-27 rout of the world champion Baltimore Ravens.

Julius Thomas eventually played in 14 games in 2013, collecting 65 receptions for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up in 2014 with a 12-game season in which he caught 43 balls for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns.

On the strength of that record, Julius Thomas signed a five-year, $46 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason. The Jags hope he is the dependable veteran presence Blake Bortles can rely on as a safety valve on third downs and in red zone situations.

When you look at Julius Thomas’s 26-game elite NFL history, though, you have to wonder how effective he’ll be. He missed multiple games each year, after dealing with major injuries his first two years. Julius Thomas is an injury risk. Also, he regressed significantly in his second year, with 22 less receptions and 299 fewer yards. That is a serious regression, even considering he played 2 fewer games.

What masked the regression was the fact he scored 12 touchdowns each season. But without Peyton Manning and that high-powered Denver Broncos offense, who thinks Julius Thomas is going to get anywhere near 12 touchdowns in 2015? And if he doesn’t get double-digit TD totals, then what is he worth?

Don’t spend a high round pick on Julius Thomas.

6. John Fox Coaches Matt Forte Now

More than any other coach in the NFL, John Fox loves veteran players. When Deshaun Foster was the heir apparent to Stephen Davis, Deshaun Foster sat on the bench for years. When Deangelo Williams was the young upstart challenging Foster (who finally got his chance), Deangelo Williams sat on the bench for years. When Jonathan Stewart was supposed to supplant Williams, Coach Fox (and injuries) kept Stewart in a perpetual second-back status.

When he moved to Denver, John Fox did the same. The Broncos drafted Montee Ball in the 2nd round and everyone predicted he would be the man. Like everyone who followed John Fox knew, the coach complained about Ball’s blitz pickups and instead started veteran Knowshon Moreno. A long, long record shows that John Fox loves to lean on his veterans.

Coaches have been leaning on Matt Forte for years, but never like John Fox. Get ready for a massive year of production from Matt Forte. Those in dynasty leagues should ride Forte in 2015, then trade him before 2016. Matt Forte is getting near the drop-off point anyway, but John Fox is going to speed up that process.

Jimmy Graham and Bruce Irvin Clown Around

Seahawks Teammates Jimmy Graham and Bruce Irvin Pretend to Fight after Sparring in the Sports Media as 2014 Opponents.

7. Jimmy Graham Got Traded to the Seahawks

Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seahawks. He’ll still be great in Seattle, but I don’t think he’ll be what he was in New Orleans. He couldn’t be, frankly. The Seahawks run the ball and shorten the game. Jimmy Graham won’t have as many opportunities, because the team won’t have as many pass plays.

Jimmy Graham is still going to be one of the best tight ends. Downgrade him a little bit, to account for the fact he won’t have a chance to be a fantasy juggernaut like in years past.

8. The Bills Added LeSean McCoy

The Buffalo Bills had one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2014. Then they signed Rex Ryan to be their head coach this season. I’m not sure signing a defensive guru (and offensive gimp) for a team which had a strong defense and weak offense is a good idea, but that is what happened.

To help Rex Ryan turn around the Bills offense, they traded for LeSean McCoy. McCoy has been one of the most consistent and productive running backs in fantasy football these past 5 seasons. He is 27, but that means he should have another season or two of elite play. And the Bills should rely on him, both in the running game and as a safety valve for their young quarterback.

I feel like Rex Ryan would have done best on a team with a proven QB and weak defense he could coach-up, such as the Atlanta Falcons. The fit in Buffalo is only going to work if LeSean McCoy is great in 2015. I predict he’ll get every chance to be great–lots of touches.

9. The Saints Added C.J. Spiller

The New Orleans Saints added CJ Spiller to the roster. They expect him to fill the Darren Sproles role, which they sorely missed last year (and the year before, when Sproles was injured). The Saints should have a lot of touches to spread around. They lost Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills. Marques Colston is a year older and has a history of injuries. For that matter, Drew Brees is a year older.

A lot points to CJ Spiller becoming a key cog in the Saints newly-retooled offense. Brandin Cooks might blossom, but he’s still only in his second year and that isn’t assured. Mark Ingram can be relied on to carry more of the load, but the Saints under Sean Payton and Drew Brees are never going to be run-first. They’ll get the ball to a running back, but they want that out in space. CJ Spiller is the player best suited for that role.

You’ll be able to draft CJ Spiller relatively late for a starting RB. Draft him in the 6th-7th-8th rounds where it won’t destroy your team if he flops, hope for luck on the health front, and understand you have a potential starter with huge upside.

Tip: Draft Brandin Cooks as the first Saints WR off the board. Cooks had 53 catches and 500+ yards in 10 games last year. His 4 touchdowns were what kept him under-the-radar, but touchdown numbers fluctuate. It’s the yards you look at, when you want to see consistency. A thumb injury cost him the last 6 games of the year, but he was a solid rookie. He’ll be better in his 2nd year.

10. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant Will Be Leaned-on More

Conversely, the Cowboys won’t have Demarco Murray to lean on anymore. They have an injury-prone, older, slower Darren McFadden. They have Joseph Randall, who is one more domestic abuse incident or shoplifting arrest away from the street. They have Lance Dunbar, who is smallish, yet productive. Unless Randall stays clean and gets his head on straight, they have no one to naturally take over this role.

On the other hand, Tony Romo is coming off his best year. Dez Bryant is in the prime of his career. Expect to see these two hook up for their best year together. All the factors are there.

Tip: If you’re going to draft a Cowboys runner, draft Joseph Randall, but make it low enough your whole season doesn’t ride on him. He has shown himself a fool in the past year, but a talented fool.

In the past calendar year, Joseph Randall has (1) gotten arrested for shoplifting, (2) signed a deal as a spokesperson based on that arrest, (3) suggested the Cowboys overlooked Dez Bryant’s troubles with the law, so they should overlook his, (4) nearly gotten fired for the Dez Bryant comments, as it caused locker room trouble, (4) got arrested for beating up his live-in girlfriend AFTER the Ray Rice scandal was huge, and (5) suggested Demarco Murray “left a lot on the bone” in terms of yardage last year–Murray had an 1800+ yard year.

11. Frank Gore Went to the Colts

The Indianapolis Colts are an interesting case in 2015. Last year, Andrew Luck stepped into the ranks of the truly elite fantasy football QBs. In fact, he was #1 in most systems. I’ll get to him in a moment, but let’s discuss Frank Gore for the time being.

Frank Gore is ancient by NFL standards. He has lost a few steps, as anyone who saw Carlos Hyde spell him last year can attest (Hyde was noticeably quicker and more powerful). But Frank Gore is in the perfect situation for him. He’s on a high-powered offense with a quarterback every defense has to prepare for. I’m not saying Colin Kaepernick is bad, but he is no Andrew Luck. Andrew Luck is ready to be an Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady kind of fantasy quarterback.

So Frank Gore should be in an offense with a lot of TD opportunities. The Colts were one game from the Super Bowl last year and still look to improve. Chuck Pagano came over from the Ravens hoping to improve the Colts’ toughness. That still hasn’t happened, but Frank Gore can help.

Don’t draft him too high, because Gore is 31+ and has a lot of wear and tear. But when the studs are off the board, take a shot at complimentary (fantasy) RB on one of the league’s best offenses.

Andre Johnson and Frank Gore to the Colts

The Colts Added Two Veteran Skill Position Players to Get Them Over the AFC Championship Hump

12. Andre Johnson Went to the Colts

Speaking of Andrew Luck, he is the key. He’s good enough to make any receivers better. Be prepared to draft Andre Johnson, T.Y. Hilton, and Donte Moncrief. Andre Johnson is going to have his best quarterback ever. He’s old and oft-injured, but he could be a #1 wide receiver for a year. If you don’t believe in Johnson, then draft TY Hilton, because he’ll be gold if Andre Johnson doesn’t perform.

And if you want to take a flier on a third option, draft Donte Moncrief several rounds lower. He is listed as a starter alongside Hilton and Johnson. Yes, the Colts are going to start three wide receivers, or at least that’s how they have it set up on their depth chart. TY Hilton is listed as the slot receiver, with Moncrief on the outside. When Reggie Wayne went out injured last year, Moncrief put up elite numbers. He could be a mid-round sleeper, depending on training camp news about playing time.

13. The Broncos TE: Owen Daniels or Virgil Green

By the way, if you think I’m insane about the Fall of Peyton Manning, then I suggest you draft Owen Daniels. Daniels showed a little bit of life with the Baltimore Ravens last year, after he became the default starting TE when Dennis Pitta had had sad no-contact injury. Daniels is the new #1 tight end with the Denver Broncos, replacing Julius Thomas.

Or is he?

The depth chart shows Virgil Green as the starting tight end at the moment. Virgil Green was a 7th round pick of the Broncos in the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s been on the team for several years and might have chemistry with teammates. I’ve seen stories that he is ready to step up and be productive, though he is unproven. Maybe he’ll be the next Julius Thomas, or maybe he’ll be the next in a long line of no-names who fail to live up to the hype. If you want to draft a Broncos tight end and you don’t know who the starter is by draft day, I suggest you wait for someone to draft either Daniels or Green, laud them on their pick, and then draft the other guy 5 rounds later.

Hint: By the way, Maxx Williams is the Ravens’ new starting TE. Dennis Pitta starts the season on the PUP and may never play football again.

14. Carlos Hyde Is the Man

Carlos Hyde is the new #1 running back with the San Francisco 49ers. That’s less solid of a position than it was a couple of years ago, when the Niners were ahead most games and trying to pound opposing defenses into the mud. But the Niners have a new defensive-minded coach who I expect to see running the ball a lot to protect that defense. Carlos Hyde should get the rock…a lot.

Also, Carlos Hyde is the man. If you saw him in 2015, Carlos Hyde was a very good runner. He was quick and big and punished tacklers. Some of the more subtle things a running back is supposed to do were not so good, but those are things which improve for RBs between their rookie season and their second, breakout year. This is the time for Carlos Hyde. He’ll be awesome.

15. Jason Pierre-Paul Lost a Finger

On the Fourth of July, Jason Pierre-Paul lost his index finger while firing off fireworks. His hand was so damaged that the doctors told JPP that the quickest way to get back on the football field was to amputate his index finger. The amputation wound would heal in 3 weeks time, as opposed to a much longer time table if he wanted to nurse the finger back to health (one estimate was he would miss the 2015 season). Now, Jason Pierre-Paul faces a long recuperation and then attempts to build up the strength in his hand and arm again. Then, we’ll get to see how a man plays defensive end with 9 fingers.

Owners should not over-estimate the damage done. JPP is not a ball carrier or skill position player. This would end the career of quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs. Defensive ends don’t need their right index finger as much as those who handle the ball. At the same time, he is going to be dealing with a great deal less strength in the one hand and a long recovery time. Defensive ends have to wrestle and hand check with left tackles, so he WILL miss the index finger.

This is not a pinkie finger, either. Losing a pinkie finger would be more manageable, though an index finger is better than the loss of a thumb. Still, remember that Yakuza members who shame themselves cut off a pinkie finger, because it weakens their grip. Any loss is bad, which is why the New York Giants pulled off a $60 million contract offer in lieu of the franchise tag (worth $15 million), which they had to keep on the table. If Jason Pierre-Paul learns he cannot play football at an NFL level, it’s a $45 million firecracker. Please remind your kids next year JPP was one of two NFL players who lost a finger popping firecrackers.

In IDP leagues (especially redraft leagues), I would not draft until very late. JPP is not practicing with the Giants, but is working out on his own. That’s always a sign that he’s far away from taking the field. If everything were normal, Pierre-Paul would be practicing with the Giants. I expect this injury to linger into the regular season, and perhaps deep into the season. I would not be surprised to see Pierre-Paul on the PUP list eventually.

For those drafting Team Defenses, I would lower the Giants Defense on my draft list. They are going to be without their best pass rusher a significant part of the time this year, and possibly without a fully functional JPP ever again.

16. And Other NFL Injury News: Gurley, Hopkins, Nelson

Todd Gurley was drafted high by the St. Louis Rams to be their running back of the future. That might have seemed odd, since Tre Mason came on last year and Zac Stacy had shown promise in the past. But the star QBs were already drafted and the Rams think Gurley is going to be that good. Some rated Todd Gurley as the best running back talent since Adrian Peterson. The problem is, he’s coming off a major injury.

If you are in a redraft league, I would stay away from Todd Gurley. He’s said to be frustrated with his recovery from a late-season knee injury. He’s a rookie with talented runners on the roster. Draft Gurley high if you’re in a dynasty league, but stay away from him in a redraft.

Also, Jordy Nelson is recovering from an offseason hip surgery. He should be good to go by opening kickoff, but keep an eye on it. Deandre Hopkins should be fully recovered from ligament surgery on his wrist. With Andre Johnson gone to Indianapolis and Hopkins coming into his third season (and off a breakout year), play up that injury in pre-draft talk and then draft Hopkins (hopefully) as a second receiver.

Finally, Devante Parker of the Dolphins had offeseason foot surgery on the same foot he injured in college. Keep an eye on Parker’s training camp progress. He was one of the breakout players in 2014, but injuries have derailed the careers of better players than Devante Parker.

2015 Fantasy Football Player Rankings

I have not included a full list of player rankings. Unless you’re drafting off those lists like it’s a cheat sheet, it’s my belief people scan over the player rankings. For the hard core player, having a few player news notes and reminders helps you modify your existing cheatsheet, so that’s what I published here.

Read through and take notes. Don’t stop there, though, because the NFL’s story evolves very quickly at this time of the year. Training Camp holds many surprises, including a few catastrophic injury updates. Cross your fingers and good luck avoiding those on your team.