Of course, free agency also created a lot of holes. There are still some decent scraps left on the open market (Stevan Ridley, Rob Housler, Michael Crabtree), but these holes are most likely going to be filled in-house or through the draft. Here are important fantasy opportunities worth monitoring:
1. Dallas No. 1 Running Back
In-house candidates: Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden, Ryan Williams, Lance Dunbar
In the wake of DeMarco Murray’s defection, coach Jason Garrett said the run-first philosophy that was so successful last season will stay intact. “It was a good style of football for us to play. We will continue to try to do that,” he said. The Cowboys’ road-grating offensive line remains in place, but the horse in the backfield does not. Darren McFadden was signed to be a “home-run hitting backup,” underwear thief Joseph Randle is not likely to be the true answer and Ryan Williams has appeared in five NFL games since 2011. Perhaps Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon or another draft pick will become a Cowboy and take hold of the No. 1 rookie for re-draft spot.
2. Eagles outside Wide Receiver
In-house candidates: Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper, Josh Huff
The Eagles had a price they wanted to spend on Jeremy Maclin and refused to go over it. So now they’re left with a big hole on the outside, where league-worst starter Riley Cooper and very unproven Josh Huff are penciled in as starters. It’s certainly worth noting that Chip Kelly left open the possibility for rising star Jordan Matthews to play outside some — Matthews ran a league-high 92.4 percent his routes from the slot last year. If he goes outside in “12” formations,” he’ll see both an increase in volume (he only played on 65 percent of the snaps last year) and depth of target. Matthews has WR1 upside in 2015 – even if the Eagles spend a priority draft pick on an outside receiver as they almost certainly will. Regardless of who ends up starting, there’s a lot of opportunity in this fastbreak offense that I believe will get a boost from Sam Bradford’s accuracy.
3. Saints Tight End
In-house candidates: Josh Hill, Ben Watson
Jimmy Graham has averaged 88.7 catches for 1,099 yards and 11.5 touchdowns per season over the last four years. As you can see, the trade that shocked the world left a ton of production behind. Low-upside veteran Ben Watson remains, but the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now is athletic 6-5/229 24-year-old Josh Hill. Those tongues include Sean Payton himself: “He’s exactly what we’re looking for. Each week you know exactly what you’re gonna get. He’s talented, he can run, he’s young, he’s consistent. Those are things that allow you to win.” More Payton: “This Josh Hill is another player that I love. I love. When you look at his runs, jumps, height, weight speed, you looking at his measureables… and he didn’t go to the Combine, thank God.” Graham’s role will be filled by a committee that includes C.J. Spiller, Watson, Brandin Cooks, Nick Toon, maybe even Brandon Coleman. But the one Payton is highest on right now is Hill.
4. Falcons No. 1 Running Back
In-house candidates: Devonta Freeman
Steven Jackson slogged his way through two seasons as a Falcon, averaging a pathetic 3.60 YPC. He’s gone and Kyle Shanahan is in as coordinator, creating a really exciting opportunity as Shanny offenses will run the ball successfully. Devonta Freeman doesn’t profile as a typical one-cut back because he doesn’t break tackles physically inside. It showed up in last year’s disappointing 3.81 YPC and failure to ice S-Jax. However, Freeman can pass protect, can catch passes and could improve his running as an NFL sophomore. We’ll find out how confident the Falcons are based on how high they select a running back in the draft.
5. Ravens No. 1 Wide Receiver
In-house candidates: Steve Smith, Marlon Brown, Kamar Aiken
As a Torrey Smith Dynasty owner, I was licking my chops when Marc Trestman was hired as the Ravens offensive coordinator. My chops then went dry when Torrey bolted for San Francisco, leaving behind only 35-year-old Steve Smith, Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken. That’s simply not going to cut it for Trestman, whose offenses have ranked in the top-half of the league in pass attempts in all 13 of his seasons. This spot must be addressed via a wideout draft class that is deep and rich with talent once again.
6. Raiders No. 1 Wide Receiver
In-house candidates: James Jones
The Raiders have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2005 with Randy Moss. This pathetic streak must end, especially if the franchise is serious about developing promising quarterback prospect David Carr. With no realistic in-house options, the obvious assumption is that they’ll take either West Virginia’s Kevin White or Alabama’s Amari Cooper at No. 4 overall. Oakland would be a decent landing spot for them as Carr ranked seventh in the NFL in pass attempts last year – playing from behind every week yields volume.
7. Chiefs No. 2 Wide Receiver
In-house candidates: Albert Wilson, Jason Avant, Da’Rick Rogers
Between Weeks 14-16 of last season, 5-foot-9 UDFA Albert Wilson shined with 12 catches for 209 yards. He airballed in Week 17, but backup Chase Daniel started. It was enough to create some serious buzz around Wilson, a slot receiver the team genuinely seems excited about. Now, is he good enough to truly complement new No. 1 Jeremy Maclin? That’s another story. We do know he provides more upside than Andy Reid favorite Jason Avant, arguably the slowest receiver in the NFL. Whoever wins this job will be No. 3 on the target totem pole behind Maclin and Zeus himself (Travis Kelce).
8. Cardinals power Running Back
In-house candidates: Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor
The Cardinals tried to saddle up Andre Ellington as a feature back last season and it backfired. The 199-pounder melted down under the pressure of 20.5 touches per game, losing his trademark explosion en route to a horrific 3.3 YPC. A preseason foot injury and facing the brutal defenses of the NFC West certainly didn’t help, but the Cardinals are now in the market for a big back. If they don’t land Adrian Peterson, power back figures to be a place they’ll look in the draft. Ellington’s fantasy stock is on track to take a major hit in 2015.
9. Chargers No. 1 Running Back
In-house candidates: Branden Oliver, Donald Brown, Danny Woodhead
At this week’s annual spring meeting, the Chargers’ brass expressed confidence they can win with their three in-house backs. It’s not that far-fetched, as Branden Oliver flashed in relief of Ryan Mathews last year, Donald Brown is a reasonable backup and Danny Woodhead is one of the game’s premier passing backs. There have been worse committees trotted out. Still, the Union-Tribune pointed out this week the Chargers need a “game wrecker” on offense. Adrian Peterson was dismissed as too expensive, but a draft pick seems likely. If not, expect a full-blown three-headed monster.
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