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By Michael Nazarek
Has it been two years since I last wrote a free agency article? Yup. Due to the lockout last year, I had no time to offer my First Thoughts. Instead, we produced our Pre-Season Draft Guide while free agency was underway along with training camps. Frankly, I'm pleased to have this extra time to take a relaxed scan of the NFL halfway through the off-season. In case you missed it, The Fantasy Football Mastermind Edge podcast returned in the past few weeks with two free agency shows. Staff writer and Colts scout Chris Rito and I discussed free agency. I urge you to listen to the shows, but we didn't have much time for each team, so you'll find more details of my personal first thoughts in this series of articles. Thankfully, free agency is over for the most part, and the NFL Draft recently took place, so teams will be making mostly small moves to tweak their rosters before training camps begin later this summer. We are less than three months away from the start of those camps. As in years past, this series of articles will begin in the East and I'll work my way West. Let's get right to it, there's a lot to discuss (at a most leisurely pace)...
Buffalo Bills: The Bills once again surprised early, but struggled late and missed the playoffs. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick played well early and was rewarded with a big contract. He played through an injury later in the season and struggled. He returns as the starter, but need to show more consistency if he's to be considered anything more than a quality fantasy backup. QB Tyler Thigpen was slotted in as the primary backup to Fitzpatrick, that is until the signing of QB Vince Young today. Young will push Thigpen for that job, and could eventually push to start if Fitzpatrick continues his late-season struggles into 2012. RB Fred Jackson was my favorite sleeper entering last season. I drafted him in a few leagues as my #3 RB and it paid off in a big way, until he got hurt. Jackson recently was rewarded with a nice extension and returns as the starter, but could yield more touches to an improved RB C.J. Spiller. Let's just say that Jackson's notoriety and Spiller's presence make him less attractive in 2012. The big offensive move by the Bills this off-season was the re-signing of WR Stevie Johnson. He returns as the #1 WR, and showed he can produce big numbers for his fantasy owners most of the time. WR Donald Jones is the other starter with WR David Nelson playing the slot. Both of these receivers are inconsistent producers. I don't see that changing much in 2012. Other veteran receivers for depth include: WR Ruvell Martin, WR Naaman Roosevelt and WR Marcus Easley. TE Scott Chandler had a big start last year, then faded. However, the team liked him enough to re-sign him as their starter. Most of his fantasy value comes in basic scoring leagues. Relative unknown TE Lee Smith is the backup. Veteran PK Rian Lindell returns and remains a decent kicker, but if the offense doesn't become more consistent, fantasy owners won't be starting him very often. Quick Draft Summary: The Bills drafted 3rd-rounder WR T.J. Graham to boost depth at the wideout postion, but he's not seen as a difference-maker. The also drafted PK John Potter in the final round, just in case Lindell struggles early.
Miami Dolphins: No key free agents signed with the struggling Dolphins. They took a big step back last year, again, and big questions remain whether they can be competitive in 2012. The QB position was nearly wiped clean, as the team failed to sign veteran QB Peyton Manning and settled on drafting rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. Oh, they did manage to sign QB David Garrard off the injury scrap heap to go along with inconsistent QB Matt Moore. At least Moore had WR Brandon Marshall in 2011. That is no more, as the team traded him to Chicago at the start of free agency. As a result, fantasy owners would be smart to avoid all Miami QBs, at least owners in redrafter leagues. At running back, RB Reggie Bush is likely to share time again with second-year RB Daniel Thomas. Thomas struggled with injuries last year, but could overtake Bush, whom is coming off a surprisingly productive season. When I think of these two players I think decent #3 fantasy RBs at best. At wideout, nothing is a certainty with Marshall gone. WR Devon Bess and WR Brian Hartline are the likely starters, but neither instill fear into the opponent. Veteran WR Legedu Naanee was signed, as the likely #3 WR, while rookies WR B.J. Cunningham and WR Rishard Matthews were drafted for depth. When unknown WR Clyde Gates is listed as the #4 WR, you know you need help at the position. At tight end, TE Anthony Fasano does return as a veteran presence, but he's also an inconsistent threat. Rookie TE Michael Egnew was drafted to back up Fasano. PK Rob Carpenter could be the most talented player on the team, but he's unlikely to see enough scoring chances in 2012 to make a big fantasy impact. Quick Draft Summary: With the exception of 4th-round draft pick RB Lamar Miller, the rest of the Dolphins' draft picks in April were offensive linemen or defensive players. Miller is not seen as a breakout player in 2012.
New England Patriots: The Patriots lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl back in February. QB Tom Brady returns as an elite fantasy producer. With a beefed up wideout corps and two elite TEs, there's no doubting that Brady remains one of the top 5 QBs in the league. In the running game, RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis left via free agency, leaving second-year RB Stevan Ridley and RB Shane Vereen to cover the early down work with veteran RB Danny Woodhead to fill the #3 RB duties. Veteran RB Joseph Addai has just been signed, but is not guaranteed of making the final roster. RB Kevin Faulk is still waiting for the team to re-sign him, but he could end up retired by season's start. The Patriots love to mix and match their RBs, making none of them high impact players for fantasy owners. In the passing game, WR Wes Welker is an unsigned franchised free agent. He's talking like he may hold out later this summer. If a deal gets done, or he signs his tender, he remains a top 10 fantasy WR, especially in PPR scoring leagues. The team has signed veteran WR Brandon LLoyd, WR Jabar Gaffney, and WR Anthony Gonzalez. They also re-signed WR Deion Branch and kept WR Donte Stallworth and WR Chad Ochocinco. Needless to say, they are stacked, and I expect the last two names on this list to not make the final roster. LLoyd has the potential to be an impact player, but nothing is guaranteed, especially since Ochocinco came to the team as a big playmaker and has done nothing of note. There is no question that the tight end position here is the best in the league with elite TE Rob Gronkowski and TE Aaron Hernandez on the roster. Both are top 5 fantasy TEs. PK Stephen Gostkowski returns as a great fantasy kicker once again in 2012 due to the numerous scoring chances he’ll see. Quick Draft Summary: The Patriots chose WR Jeremy Ebert in the 7th round for depth at wideout. Their other picks were defensive players to boost an aging unit.
New York Jets: The Jets surprised in an ugly way later last year, falling out of the playoff chase in December. Third-year QB Mark Sanchez was inconsistent most of the season, leading to question about whether he can lead the team into the future. The Jets traded to acquire QB Tim Tebow to push Sanchez, but I don't believe he'll actually take the job, as he's a more inaccurate QB than Sanchez actually is at this time. Let's just say there is no solid fantasy starting QB on the Jets roster right now. At tailback, RB Shonn Greene didn't do much for the team or his fantasy owners last year, yet returns as the starter. Veteran RB LaDainian Tomlinson was not re-signed and is starting at retirement. RB Joe McKnight is the backup, but the Jets need more help at the position. They drafted RB Terrance Ganaway in the 6th round, but he needs some work to make an impact. In the passing game, WR Santonio Holmes returns as the lead receiver, but WR Plaxico Burress was not re-signed. The Jets drafted WR Stephen Hill in the second round, and hope he'll immediately start. He's a big guy and has good hands, but until he proves himself, it's a risky situation for the team. Second-year WR Jeremy Kerley returns in the slot, while the Jets signed oft-injured veteran WR Chaz Schilens for depth. Youngsters WR Patrick Turner and WR Scotty McKnight are also on the roster. Frankly, I'm not impressed with the direction this corps is heading. TE Dustin Keller returns as the pass-catching tight end. He was re-signed, and appears to be a big part of the game plan moving forward for the team. TE Jeff Cumberland is expected to back up Keller. PK Nick Folk gets some serious competition from veteran PK Josh Brown this summer. I expect Brown to win the job and be a solid fantasy producer, provided the Jets get their offense back on track. Let's just say you shouldn't overpay for the Jets kicker in your draft this summer. Quick Draft Summary: The rest of the Jets draft picks were defensive players and one offensive linemen with the exception of 7th-round draft pick WR Jordan White, a developmental player.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys lost their final regular season game to the Giants and missed the playoffs in 2011. That said, not much has changed this off-season. QB Tony Romo remains the leader of this flashy team. Romo also remains a solid fantasy starter, one with big-game abilities, as long as he stays healthy. The backup QB has changed from QB Jon Kitna to QB Kyle Orton. That means if Romo goes down, the team should remain competitive. In the running game, RB Felix Jones has lost the starting job to second-year RB DeMarco Murray. Murray is coming off a broken ankle, but he's healthy and ready to carry most of the workload. Rumors persisted that Jones could be traded, but that yet to happen. He should be used as a change of pace back, giving him little fantasy value. Second-year RB Phillip Tanner returns as the #3 RB. In the passing game, WR Miles Austin disappointed last year, mostly due to injuries to his hamstring. He admits he wasn't prepared due to the lockout, but vows this season will be different. He could be a bargain in fantasy drafts this summer, provided his health holds up. WR Dez Bryant didn't quite have the breakout season last year that many predicted. He returns as the other starter, and still has big play potential, but I wouldn't draft him too early. Beyond those two, there's not much fantasy potential with inconsistent WR Kevin Ogletree returning and 5th-round draft pick WR Danny Coale added to the roster. With WR Laurent Robinson leaving via free agency, the Cowboys best hope that Austin stays healthy in 2012. At tight end, TE Jason Witten returns and remains a top 10 fantasy TE, but he is getting older. TE John Phillips replaces TE Marcellus Bennett, whom signed with the Giants in free agency, as Witten's backup. The team did draft TE James Hanna in the 6th round, but I wouldn't expect too much from him this year. PK Dan Bailey emerged as a solid fantasy producer last year, and returns as the only kicker on the team. One thing to remember, though. PK Nick Folk began has career with a strong season in Dallas, then struggled. Bailey needs another good season to solidify his role as an elite fantasy kicker. Quick Draft Summary: Beyond Coale and Hanna, the Cowboys drafted five defensive players.
New York Giants: My favorite team won in all again, for the 4th time! Yes, I'm a happy man. But what about their fantasy prospects for 2012? Well, QB Eli Manning established himself as a solid top 10 fantasy QB, as he inched his way towards the top 5 in 2011 finishing 6th in most leagues. You can easily wait until the other elite QBs go in your draft and "settle" on Manning without worries. QB David Carr returns to the team as the backup. Ho-hum. In the running game, RB Brandon Jacobs was not retained after refusing a paycut and is now a 49er. That makes RB Ahmad Bradshaw the new full-time starter, although the drafting of first-rounder RB David Wilson will take some of the pressure off Bradshaw. I like Bradshaw as a top 20 fantasy RB, if not top 15, provided his feet stay healthy. RB D.J. Ware, RB Da'Rel Scott and RB Andre Brown return to provide depth at the position. In the passing game, WR Hakeem Nicks ceded most of the #1 WR production to surprise WR Victor Cruz in 2011, before taking it back during the playoffs. WR Mario Manningham left via free agency to join Jacobs in San Francisco, meaning Nicks and Cruz should produce most of the numbers for this corps. Of course, WR Domenik Hixon, WR Ramses Barden and WR Jerrel Jerrnigan will battle for the #3 WR position, along with 2nd-round draft pick WR Rueben Randle. At tight end, the Giants suffered serious losses with the knee injuries to TE Jake Ballard and TE Travis Beckum during the playoffs last season. As a result, free agent TE Marcellus Bennett was signed and the team drafted TE Adrien Robinson in the 4th round. Ballard and Beckum appear likely to begin the season on the PUP list, meaning Bennett and Robinson will battle it out for the starting job. The winner of this battle could be a nice fantasy sleeper in 2012. PK Lawrence Tynes returns as the kicker, coming off a poor season due to lack of FGAs. Making just 19 of 24 FGAs won't cut it as a fantasy kicker. There are better options out there. Quick Draft Summary: Beyond the three rookies already mentioned, the Giants drafted two defensive players and two offensive linemen.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Dream Team went belly-up in 2011. As a result, HC Andy Reid nearly left the team, but does return as head coach. The Eagles still hitch their wagon to fragile, yet explosive, QB Michael Vick. It's the same story here, as he'll produce big numbers most weeks as long as he's healthy. QB Vince Young wasn't retained, so QB Michael Kafka will battle newly signed QB Trent Edwards to back up Vick. In the running game, RB LeSean McCoy showed he's an elite fantasy producer last year, and that shouldn't change in 2012. He'll start, while youngster RB Dion Lewis and rookie RB Bryce Bown battle to back him up. In the passing game, WR DeSean Jackson got the long term deal he wanted and returns as the starter, alongside WR Jeremy Maclin. I still believe Maclin is most consistent as a better bet for fantasy owners to draft in 2012. Veteran WR Jason Avant returns as the #3 WR, but he's too inconsistent for fantasy owners to rely upon. Others in the corps for depth include WR Riley Cooper and WR Chad Hall. 6th-round draft pick WR Marvin McNutt will find it tough to break into a major role with the Eagles. TE Brent Celek rebounded nicely after a poor season in 2010. He returns as the starter with youngster TE Clay Harbor filling the backup role. Celek remain a solid fantasy producer, one that won't come too expensive in fantasy drafts this summer. Second-year PK Alex Henery had a solid rookie season, but didn't show enough to warrant drafting as a fantasy starter. Keep an eye on him, though. He still has potential, and deserves consideration if you prefer to wait very late to draft a kicker (or a backup). Quick Draft Summary: The Eagles drafted six defensive players/offensive linemen in April to go along with Brown, McNutt, and 3rd-round draft pick QB Nick Foles. Foles is a developmental pick for the team.
Washington Redskins: The Redskins floundered again last season, so this off-season, they traded up in the first round to draft QB Robert Griffin III. He's already been named the starter, while veteran QB Rex Grossman is the likely backup while 3rd-round draft pick QB Kirk Cousins could be used as trade bait after he develops. Normally I avoid rookie starting QBs in fantasy drafts, but after QB Cam Newton lit it up last season, drafting Griffin late as your #3 QB is far from a bad idea. In the running game, RB Tim Hightower wasn't re-signed after suffering a torn ACL. That leaves second-year RB Roy Helu as the starter with RB Evan Royster providing a chance of pace. I like Helu's talent, but the presence of HC Mike Shanahan (aka Skeletor) is a huge red flag when it comes to starting tailbacks. On more than one occasion, Shanahan refused to reveal who would start at RB in 2011. That means fantasy owners are taking a bigger risk than normal if they draft Helu in 2012. In the passing game, WR Santana Moss returns, but might not start, as the team signed veteran WR Pierre Garcon and WR Josh Morgan in free agency. WR Jabar Gaffney has already been cut and signed with the Patriots. The team is high on second-year WR Leonard Hankerson, who is scheduled to start opposite Garcon right now. Moss had an off year last season, so he's motivated to work harder to rebound. The only question here is will the team give him a realistic chance to do so? Meanwhile, WR Anthony Armstrong and WR Niles Paul are now depth players at best, with Morgan the likely #4 WR at worst. At tight end, franchised TE Fred Davis returns to start. He broke out in a big way last year, as veteran TE Chris Cooley limped through an injury-shortened season. Davis is a top 5 fantasy TE, while Cooley might not make the final roster. PK Gano Graham is still on the roster, but the team signed free-agent PK Neil Rackers a short time ago, so expect Rackers to be the starting kicker in 2012. Too bad that a lack of scoring chances could ruin Rackers' fantasy value. Quick Draft Summary: The Redskins drafted RB Alfred Morris in the 6th round for depth. Their other picks were offensive linemen and defensive players.
That's a wrap for the two Eastern divisions. Be sure to join me over the coming weeks as I offer my First Thoughts on the other six divisions. All comments, complimentary or otherwise, are always welcome via our contact page. Let's talk fantasy football!