It’s hard to win a starting spot during mini-camp, but it’s really easy to lose one. Training camp is where you really make your case for the last 53 and, more importantly, the starting 11. The most buzz tends to center around players who have switched teams, and the rookies, second and third-year guys who have moved up the depth chart, inherited a starting spot, and are expected to make a “leap.”
As training camps begin at the end of July, there are a handful of these players that I want to keep a close eye on. Who is taking the most first team reps? Who knows the playbook? Who was lauded or derided during the press conference at the end of the day? These are the tea leaves that beat writers so tirelessly gather for us to read. They are also vital pieces of information when it comes to ranking players and drafting your fantasy team. It’s the difference between overdrafting and getting a great value in a later round.
Johnny Manziel QB – Cleveland Browns
If there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about with Johnny Football, it’s a lack of information. He is probably the most monitored player in the NFL, and he’s yet to have even taken a snap.
For me, the big question is whether he can surpass Brian Hoyer in one summer. Before you laugh, keep this in mind: prior to going down with an injury last year, Brian Hoyer played pretty well. Well enough to keep Brandon Weeden on the bench even after he recovered from his own thumb injury. I know Weeden is a low bar to clear, but it’s proof that he’s already usurped one first round pick turned prematurely anointed starter.
We know Johnny is talented, but this is the NFL. Talent got you here, it’s not what keeps you here. He still must beat Hoyer on the field and in the film room. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself on the weekend, as he is prone to do, but if you combine that with a bad showing at training camp, it’s a script that ends with holding a clipboard this fall.
However, if he plays well, shows that he knows the playbook, and gets named the starter, you have to give serious thought to drafting him. Love him or hate him, he knows how to get the ball into the endzone.
Eric Decker WR – New York Jets
One of the biggest things to watch with Decker is not his play, but the play of whomever ends up being Jets quarterback. So far that decision appears to be highly influenced by off-the-field, front-office politics. It looks like Geno Smith will get the nod.
Everything about Decker’s situation screams bust. He’s transitioning from a prolific offense under Peyton, where he had great numbers, to a much more conservative offense; he just landed a huge payout; and the front of his jersey says “Jets.” None of those, historically, have been good indicators of future success. Besides, Geno Smith is not a good quarterback, and I’m all but certain Decker is not a real No. 1 wide receiver.
When it comes to evaluating a receiver like Decker from the fantasy perspective, I tend to ask myself the question: Would I rather have the best wideout on a bad team or the second best wideout on a good team? It will be interesting to see if he can manage to develop a good chemistry with Geno this summer – the kind that gets him 10-12 targets a game, whether open or not.
Nick Foles QB – Philadelphia Eagles
“It’s his second year in the system.” It’s a phrase that’s been optimistically muttered by coaches, writers, and eager fans for years. Nick Foles (and the Eagles offense, for that matter) had a great first year under Chip Kelly’s fast-paced, stat-producing system. It’s hard to imagine a the third-year player doing much better than a 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio, but that’s exactly what will be expected of him. Personally, I think he can make the leap and land on the edge of, if not inside, the top 5 fantasy quarterbacks. It will be interesting to see if he starts to show any regression in training camp.
Knowshon Moreno RB – Miami Dolphins
Reports from mini-camp had Lamar Miller taking the majority of first team snaps and Knowshon looking very sluggish. He had a great year as Peyton’s check down back when teams only put five or six guys in the box, but those days are gone.
It’s always best to be wary of a player who has a great season in the last year of his contract. And, judging by the relatively paltry one-year, $3 million deal Moreno received, I’d say most front offices weren’t buying his breakout performance.
Moreno is a relatively young 26, but he also just had knee surgery and will miss the next month. That timeline gets him back on the field for training camp, so it will be interesting to see if he can beat Lamar Miller for the job like he should. In terms of talent, Knowshon is way ahead of Miller. The fact that the starting job is even in question does not speak highly of his play in Miami so far.
Doug Martin RB – Tampa Bay Buccanneers
Doug Martin is a great example of how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL. In 2012, he finished as the No. 3 RB in fantasy football and was the clear-cut, every-down back on the Bucs. Since then, he has been injured, missed most of last season, seen a new head coach and offense coordinator hired, and watched as Tampa drafted a superb pass-catching RB in Charles Sims.
All of this points to a diminished role for Martin in 2014. He will likely be replaced by Sims as the third down back, and will probably have carries on first and second down poached by Mike James and Bobby Rainey – both of whom did the most with their opportunities when Martin was sidelined last season.
He has talent, no question about it, but it seems like the new coaching staff wants to distribute snaps in a way that no longer makes Martin a top 5 RB – and might even place him outside of the top 10. Keep an eye on this situation as the summer progresses, as a lot of this is speculation. Anything is possible with the Tampa backfield. One thing is for sure: you don’t want to be the patsy unknowingly picking a washed-up talent in the first round.