This is the third of eight division previews full of fun statistical nuggets and factoids to help you in your talent evaluations as you prepare for your upcoming drafts. Time to look at a rebuilding AFC South as we get ready for 2012.
Offensive Coordinator: Rick Dennison returns
Training Camp stories to watch: Are Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson healthy enough to bring the Houston passing game back to prominence? Is there a second receiver in Houston worth drafting? Is Ben Tate truly a backup?
Matt Schaub: In 2009, Matt Schaub led the NFL with 298.1 yards passing and was second with 36.4 pass attempts per game as the Texans' were considered to be among the league's most high flying aerial attacks. A lot has changed in the last couple of years and before he was hurt in 2011, Schaub was averaging 29.2 pass attempts per game (26th) and throwing for 247.9 yards per game (13th). Schaub actually ranked third among all quarterbacks with an 8.5 yards per attempt average last year, but it is going to be very hard to be a Fantasy stud if you don't throw it more than 30 times per game, no matter how efficient you are. Add in the fact that Schaub has topped 24 touchdowns only once in his career and has been right at the 1.5 touchdown per game pace over his last 26 games, it is clear that he will need big yardage games for big Fantasy production.
With the Texans leaning on their awesome ground game and suddenly stout defense, Schaub was held under 231 yards in six of his 10 starts last year and if you take out his two big games of 373 yards against the New Orleans and his 416 yards against the Oakland Raiders, he averaged just 211.25 yards passing in his other eight starts. Schaub is incredibly efficient and his 8.03 yards per attempt as a member of the Texans is fourth best in the NFL over the last four years, trailing only Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady during that span. Efficiency is great, but Schaub will need his attempts per game to get back into the 33 per game range to return to his days as a Fantasy star and have top five potential.
There is cause for optimism however. Despite having Andre Johnson for only his first three and a half games last year, Schaub was a top 10 Fantasy quarterback before his injury and had a solid 60 percent consistency rate as a starter. In fact, if you extrapolated his 10 game totals over 16 games, Schaub would have finished 2011 with 299 points and a 10th place finish at quarterback. Not too bad when you consider the Texans really had no one at receiver once Johnson went down.
With Johnson back, Owen Daniels back, a great pass catching runner in Arian Foster, a solid slot option in Kevin Walter and the chance to finally have a threatening second receiver in the form of DeVier Posey, Lestar Jean or Keshawn Martin, Schaub will have his best group of pass catchers to date. Johnson had at least 90 yards in each of his three full games last year, so his impact on the passing game can not be understated. With defenses selling out to try and slow Foster, Schaub should continue to exploit favorable matchups off of play action.
I think Schaub will get back over the 30 attempt-per-game mark in 2012 with Johnson back in the fold (he averaged 31 per game over the first three weeks) making Schaub one of the best backup quarterbacks (based on his average draft position) to target on Draft Day. Quarterback is now so deep that a guy who could realistically throw for 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in his sleep is not even a top 12 option anymore. As a top backup, Schaub has no downside and the upside to finish somewhere between eighth and 12th at quarterback.
Arian Foster: Despite missing basically four full games in 2011, no running back has more Fantasy points than Arian Foster's 579 over the last two years. He is the most dominant non-quarterback in all of Fantasy, leading his position in just about every category imaginable: total yards (4,048), touchdowns (30), 100-yard rushing games (15), 100-yard receiving games (three), games with 100 or more total yards (22), consistency rate (82 percent) and big game rate (61 percent).
Even with his quarter season hiatus last year, Foster still finished as the fourth ranked Fantasy back and was tops on a point-per-game basis, averaging 20.75 points per week. He was the only non-quarterback to top the 20 point-per-game mark and it was actually an improvement on his amazing 2010 season in which he averaged 19.3 points per game. No one is more consistent than Foster. No one is more explosive than Foster. No one should be the top overall pick other than Foster in 2012. Just be sure to grab his backup and arguably the best handcuff in the NFL, Ben Tate, in the middle rounds to protect your investment should you get a shot at Foster this year.
Ben Tate: Despite his starter only missing basically four full games, "backup" running back Ben Tate managed to run for 942 yards last year at 5.4 yards per carry (second best in the NFL) and score four touchdowns en route to a 28th place finish at running back.
In the four games that Foster missed, Tate showed what he could do as a full time featured back. In those games, he ran for 398 yards and two touchdowns to go with nine catches for 64 yards. His 462 total yards and two scores produced the equivalent of 16 points per game, which would have translated to a 256-point season over 16 games. That would have ranked Tate as the fourth highest scoring running back in the league in 2011, so he is must have insurance for Foster owners on Draft Day.
Tate is also worthy of a middle round pick as speculative third runner for your teams or as the ideal fourth running back with unlimited upside, but don't expect much week to week (averaged 44 yards per game with Foster in the lineup) unless Foster misses time.
Andre Johnson: When healthy, Andre Johnson is in the discussion as the second best receiver in the game today behind Calvin Johnson. The problem is you just don't know how long he will stay healthy because at 31 years of age and having missed 12 games over the last two years, Johnson is becoming a serious injury concern. Johnson missed nine games last year to snap his streak of three straight years with at least 1,216 yards (he topped 1,500 yards twice) and eight touchdowns. To be fair, Johnson had 21 catches for 316 yards (an elite 10 yards per target) and two scores in his three games with Matt Schaub at quarterback before getting hurt.
Johnson returned to look very good in the playoffs, catching 13 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown in the team's two games. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that T.J. Yates was the Texans' quarterback and they faced two excellent defenses in the Bengals and the Ravens. They are even crazier when you consider the rest of the Texans' team combined for 142 yards receiving total in those two games.
It is also pretty amazing to learn that even with defenses having to be so concerned with Foster, I fully expect Johnson to find himself in more favorable situations than any other elite receiver in the NFL again in 2012. He averages an NFL best 90-plus yards per game receiving with Schaub under center over the last four years. If you take Johnson as your top receiver, I'd go ahead and grab another top receiver to be your second option because while I believe Johnson will finish in the top three at his position if he plays 16 games, that is far from a guarantee. If you get 14 games, he will be a top five option which is what I am expecting from Johnson, who will turn out to be a big time Draft Day value or suffer another injury that could start to put the nail in his Fantasy coffin as an elite receiver.
Kevin Walter: Since his fluky eight-touchdown (never been above five in any other season) campaign in 2008 when he finished as the 18th ranked Fantasy receiver, Walter has not sniffed the top 45 and has been outside of the top 60 in two of the three years. With at least three new receivers in the mix that won't change. I expect Walter to only have value in real football -- not Fantasy -- and should go undrafted.
DeVier Posey: I had the opportunity to watch Posey while at Ohio State and he was always open, but inaccurate quarterbacks limited his upside. He has a good combination of size and I think he will finally be the missing piece the Texans have been searching for to compliment Andre Johnson and ease defensive pressure.
If he wins the starting job, give Posey a look as a late flier in your drafts and even if he doesn't, keep him on your deep sleeper radar for later in the year. I believe he will be able to beat single coverage at this level and could turn into a good weapon for the Texans. Obviously they agree, since they took Posey in the third round of this year's NFL Draft.
Lestar Jean: He has the word star in his name, but so far Jean has only excelled when it doesn't matter -- in OTAs. As with any receiver not named Kevin Walter in Houston, give Jean (who is 6'3" and has solid speed) a look at the end of your drafts if he wins the starting job.
Owen Daniels: In his last full season with Andre Johnson (2008), Daniels was the sixth ranked Fantasy tight end, catching 70 passes for 862 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately injury limited Daniels to 19 games in 2009 and 2010, and he failed to finish in the top 12 at the position in either season. Last year, Daniels played 15 games and caught 54 passes for 677 yards (solid 8.1 yards per target) and three scores. Daniels was eighth among all tight ends with six games of at least 60 yards receiving, posted a 44 percent consistency rate (tied for 11th) and had three big games, which was tied for seventh. All in all, it was not too shabby considering that Johnson and quarterback Schaub both missed significant time during the season.
Daniels was the 16th-ranked tight end in 2011 and should improve upon that this year with both back in the mix. Another reason to hope for a jump in Daniels' production, especially in the touchdown department, is the offseason departure of fellow tight end Joel Dreessen. In 2011, Daniels had three scores to Dreessen's six, so getting some of Dreessen's scoring chances should help Daniels at a minimum get back to the five score range this year. Daniels had 12 red zone targets last year, which led to three touchdowns, but a 25 percent scoring rate was tied for fifth worst among the 21 tight ends who saw at least 10 targets.
It should also be noted that after seeing nine red zone targets in the four games that both Johnson and Schaub played last year, Daniels saw just three red zone looks in the final 12 games. Meanwhile, Dreessen converted five of his eight red zone looks (which all came after Week 4) into scores, which was an excellent 62.5 percent scoring rate, tops among the 42 tight ends who saw at least five targets. With Dreessen gone, Daniels' targets should increase and if he becomes any more efficient for the full season, he will see a nice bump in his touchdown totals.
Keep in mind that with both a healthy Johnson and Schaub on the field last year, Daniels posted a 75 percent consistency rate, caught all three of his touchdowns and was the seventh-ranked Fantasy tight end through the first four weeks. In those four games, his red zone scoring rate was a solid 33 percent and Daniels looked like he was going to be a weekly Fantasy starter. I love Daniels as either a late starter or an early backup for your teams if you miss out on a stud at the position and go with a two tight end committee approach. I think he has no downside on last year's numbers and has plenty of upside to jump back into the top eight.
Offensive Coordinator: Bruce Arians replaces Clyde Christensen
Training Camp stories to watch: Will Donald Brown emerge as the full time starting running back for the Colts? Will the Colts go with two tight ends in the base package like the Patriots? How will Andrew Luck mesh with Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie?
Andrew Luck: Luck is supposedly the most pro-ready quarterback to enter the league in years and thanks to a great draft, he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal right out of the gate in Indianapolis. In his last two years at Stanford, Luck had a ridiculous 69:19 touchdown ratio, which compares pretty favorably to the 56:23 ratio in Peyton Manning's final two seasons at Tennessee.
Look for the Colts to emulate the Patriots and feature many two tight end sets with rookies Coby Fleener (who was Luck's top target at Stanford) and Dwayne Allen. Add those promising rookies to wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie and Luck will have four excellent options every time he drops back. Keep in mind that Luck is not just a pocket passer either. He showed excellent 4.55 speed at the combine and averaged 319 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground during his college career. With the longer NFL season, it would not surprise me to see Luck rush for 400 yards, which is worth 1,000 passing yards for Fantasy purposes. He will have to throw it a ton on a rebuilding Colts team and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had no problem throwing the ball over 34 times per game last year in Pittsburgh.
The addition of Fleener cannot be overstated, as it will certainly ease Luck's transition into the league and provide a feeling of comfort and familiarity that most rookies do not have. Luck is a great upside backup quarterback for you on Draft Day who could sneak into the top 12 if all goes perfectly. He should be a legit top 15 to top 20 performer week in and week out.
Donald Brown: Brown is the early camp favorite to be the team's starting runner after rushing for career and team highs of 645 yards and five touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry in 2011. His 4.8 yards per carry figure was more than a yard better than fellow backfield mates Joseph Addai and Delone Carter last year, which is pretty telling. Brown ran for 492 yards in the second half of the 2011 season and was a solid pickup and play towards the end of the season. In his final six games (Week 12 through Week 17), Brown was actually the 23rd-ranked Fantasy back, averaging just over 10 points per game and posting a 50 percent consistency rate.
The Colts have not ranked in the top 25 in rushing for four straight seasons, but this is a new era under Bruce Arians and Brown will have the chance to rush for 1,000 yards if he can stay healthy. After all, Brown has never totaled fewer than seven Fantasy points in a game where he has received at least 16 carries and he averages nearly 15 points per game in those contests. To be a big Fantasy factor, however, Brown will need to get more involved in the passing game. Last year, he caught only 16 passes for 84 yards and his 5.4 yards per catch average was the worst of his career. I expect those numbers to improve with Luck under center since Brown averaged 8.9 yards per target out of the backfield with Peyton Manning at quarterback.
I am not convinced that Brown can stay healthy for a full season, since he is somewhat undersized and has dealt with injuries every year in the NFL, nor am I convinced that he will get the chance to score at the goal line despite scoring on two of his four goal line carries. Even so, Brown will get the chance to be a solid yardage producer week in and week out and has some upside as your third running back or flex option on Draft Day. Just to throw it out there, I'd much rather have James Starks as my third back than Brown to add some context.
Delone Carter: Carter seems to be an average talent after notching just 3.7 yards per carry as a rookie for the Colts and has fallen behind Brown on the early depth charts. He fumbled on three of his 101 carries last year and needs to improve his ball security if he wants to be the team's goal line back, which is the role that his violent straight ahead style is best suited for. He scored on two of his three goal line carries as rookie, which is a great 67 percent scoring rate, albeit on a very small sample. Carter could lead the team in rushing touchdowns -- although I am not expecting many for the Colts in 2012 -- and has value in touchdown-heavy formats should he win the goal line job in training camp.
Vick Ballard: Put the rookie -- who ran for 1,189 yards and 10 scores at Mississippi State last year -- on your deep sleeper radar screens, because I think he could beat out Carter to be the main man should Brown suffer an injury at some point this season.
Reggie Wayne: Of all of Wayne's numerous NFL accomplishments, none may be more impressive than his 2011 season in which he caught 75 passes for 960 yards and four scores. Yes, the yards were his fewest since 2003 and the touchdowns were the lowest since 2002, but to find a way to be a top 28 Fantasy receiver with the likes of Curits "Finger"Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins throwing the ball was mighty impressive. When you factor in that those quarterbacks combined to average 6 yards per attempt last year and Wayne still brought in 7.3 yards per attempt (a 20 percent improvement over average) you know he can still play the game.
With improved quarterback play thanks to Luck, look for Wayne to get back to the 1,000 yard mark with at least five touchdowns, which are two thresholds he had hit in seven straight years before 2011. It should also be noted that Wayne showed great pride at the end of the miserable year, trying to single handedly will his team to some wins. In the last six games of the year, Wayne was the 17th-ranked Fantasy receiver with 430 yards receiving and three of his four touchdowns. In other words, he did just about half of his Fantasy point scoring in those six games, posted two games of 100 yards receiving and had a healthy 50 percent consistency rate.
He may not have many years left, but I think Wayne will be good again in 2012 and is offering a very good value as a third receiver for your teams, especially in PPR leagues. He is being drafted as the 30th receiver off of the board and I think we can all agree he is in a better spot to succeed than he was last year when he was 28th overall.
Austin Collie: No one suffered more from the loss of Peyton Manning than Austin Collie in 2011. In 2010, Collie led the NFL with an 80.6 percent target conversion rate, averaged nine yards per target and dominated in the red zone with a 55.6 percent scoring rate (best among the 66 wide receivers with at least nine targets inside the 20). In other words, there was no more efficient receiver in the NFL than Collie, who totaled 58 catches for 649 yards and eight scores in only nine games. Collie was a top three Fantasy scorer on a per game basis that year and if it weren't for the concussion issues that ended his season, he would have been top 10 for sure at the end of the year. In 2011, Collie had no more Peyton and no more production. He caught 54 passes, down just four from the prior year, but that's where the similarities end.
Collie only caught one touchdown last year and his 6.7 percent red zone scoring rate was the fourth worst among the 62 receivers with at least nine red zone targets. Even more astounding is that after being among the most efficient scorers in the entire league, Collie's overall one percent touchdown rate in 2011 was the worst in the entire NFL among the 91 receivers who saw at least 50 targets. His yardage efficiency saw a similar nosedive as Collie fell from nine yards per target in 2010 to 9.5 yards per catch in 2011 and only 5.4 yards per target. Things should get better with Luck under center in 2012, but Collie is unlikely to ever get back to his 2010 levels. I am somewhat concerned about how Collie will handle the transition from the slot with Manning to the outside with Luck should the Colts employ many two tight end sets under Bruce Arians.
It will be a different offense, a different position and a different quarterback for Collie in 2012. If he becomes a trusted target for Luck early, go ahead and snag him on the wire because the Colts will throw it a lot, but I don't see any way he grades out as anything better than a fifth receiver on Draft Day right now.
Coby Fleener: Fleener is reunited with his college quarterback in the NFL after being taken with the first pick of the second round by the Colts. In this tight end crazy NFL, Fleener has the chance to become a dominant Fantasy player for years and years to come. Last year at Stanford, the fleet Fleener averaged a ridiculous 19.6 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns on his 34 receptions. He scored 17 times over his final two years at Stanford and you have to think Luck will continue to find his trusted ally in scoring situations at the next level.
It should be noted that Fleener was never a safety valve in college and did not top 34 catches in any season, but I think he will be utilized in that role more in the NFL due to the defenses being just a hair better than what he saw in the Pac-12. I think Fleener is a great dynasty league prospect who has the chance to be a top five tight end in time. I like him this year as an upside backup on Draft Day and would not at all be shocked if he finished in the top 12. No risk and plenty of potential reward make Fleener a very attractive late-round option.
Dwayne Allen: Allen is considered to be more of a traditional tight end than Fleener, but he can still make plenty of plays in the passing game as 50 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns at Clemson in 2011 clearly illustrate. The Colts snagged the top two tight ends on many draft boards to give their young quarterback plenty of weapons. Like Fleener,
Allen has the chance to be a stud for years to come at the tight end position and both could be top 12 options every year like the Patriots duo, if they and Luck progress as expected. I would think that Luck will give Fleener more targets early on, but keep Allen on your deep sleeper list as a potential bye week broski in his first NFL season.
Offensive Coordinator: Bob Bratkowski replaces Dirk Koetter
Training Camp stories to watch: How long with the MJD holdout continue? Is Blaine Gabbert ready to lead a potent NFL offense? Will Justin Blackmon or Laurent Robinson emerge as legit Fantasy options?
Blaine Gabbert: The Jags are hoping Mike Mularkey can mold Blaine Gabbert like he did Matt Ryan after Gabbert's awful rookie year that saw him complete just 51 percent of his passes, post a 64.5 quarterback rating, average a league worst 5.4 yards per attempt and look generally petrified in the face of a pass rush. He was Charles Barkley "terrible" last year, but he had no receivers to work with. It should also be noted that Gabbert completed 55 percent of his passes in the second half of the year, so he did show improvement, which is key.
The team addressed his complete lack of legit NFL receivers this offseason by signing Laurent Robinson and using their first round pick on Justin Blackmon. With Blackmon, LoRo and tight end Marcedes Lewis, Gabbert will now have a nice trio of targets to work with, so he must show improvement this year. If he doesn't, Gabbert could be benched for Chad Henne (who could actually be a solid second quarterback for your teams if he ever starts), so the pressure is on right now. Gabbert is easily one of the least appealing Fantasy quarterbacks heading into 2012 and can be targeted on the waiver wire, should he show miraculous improvement in his sophomore campaign.
Maurice Jones-Drew: You have to tip your cap to MJD for leading the league in rushing for the first time in his career in 2011, as he racked up 1,606 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground for one of the worst offenses in the entire league. For the year, MJD touched the ball a league-high 386 times and picked up 1,978 total yards with 11 touchdowns en route to a career high 261 Fantasy points and his second third place finish at running back in the last three years. MJD led all rushers with 11 games of at least 100 total yards and was third with a 75 percent consistency rate. Due to the lack of overall scoring in Jacksonville, it is not too surprising that his 25 percent big game rate was the lowest among the six rushers who had 100 yards or a touchdown in at least 10 games. Still, what he did without any semblance of a passing game last year is nothing short of remarkable.
MJD has never finished worse than 13th at his position in his six-year NFL career and has been a top 10 Fantasy back four times. Those streaks could be in trouble for a couple of reasons headed into 2012, and you won't see him in my top five at running back in the preseason. First off, MJD is a physical runner and at some point he could break down from being overworked. Over the last three seasons, no running back has more carries (953) or more total touches (1,083 -- tied with Chris Johnson) than Jones-Drew. Yes, it's also true that he has the third most Fantasy points at the position and has been a model of consistency, but at some point that has to come to an end. Compounding the workload issue is that Jones-Drew is currently in a contract dispute with the Jags that does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon.
Missed camp time is tough on any player, but history shows that runners who hold out are much more likely to get hurt or not produce at the level they are accustomed to (see Johnson, Chris for 2010). Provided that MJD is back in the mix before the season, I do still see him as a top eight runner for 2012, but he has just as much risk to me as Ryan Mathews, Darren McFadden and Marshawn Lynch after the big three and I would not be surprised at all to see an injury occur that keeps MJD out of the top 12 this year. On a per game basis I still think he will produce, but we will see more from Rashad Jennings in 2012 and MJD is far from the sure thing his 2011 stat line makes him look.
Rashad Jennings: Jennings missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury, but the injury did not require surgery and he's good to go for 2012. Don't forget that back in 2010, Jennings set career highs in carries (84), rush yards (459), yards per carry (5.5), rushing TDs (4), receptions (26), receiving yards (226) and obviously, total yards (685). In his lone start that year in Week 17 against the Texans, Jennings racked up 142 total yards (108 rush) and a score. In the last three weeks of 2010, Jennings caught 15 passes for 132 yards, so you know he has good hands.
If MJD goes down, I think Jennings has top 12 potential as the only show in town for the Jags and he is a must grab if you draft Jones-Drew early. Even if MJD is not on your roster, I think Jennings is one of the great late round picks this year as a bench running back for your teams simply because he is one play away from being a weekly starter.
Justin Blackmon: Blackmon was the first receiver taken in the NFL Draft this year and should be the first rookie receiver taken in Fantasy drafts this year, but don't expect an A.J. Green or Julio Jones level performance. Despite catching 232 passes for 3,304 yards and 38 touchdowns in his last two seasons at Oklahoma State, Blackmon is considered to be a tier below Green and Jones by NFL talent evaluators due to his less than ideal size/speed combo. You cannot deny the fact that he has been extremely productive. Another positive is that his unbelievable wingspan will allow him to play much bigger than the 6'1" he is listed at.
The biggest issue facing Blackmon as he makes the transition to the NFL (other than his off-the-field issues) is that Blaine Gabbert has yet to look like a solid NFL quarterback. As long as you have realistic expectations for Blackmon and are not expecting a top 20 breakout season, he makes for a fine fourth receiver on Draft Day, but if I was drafting I'd rather have the upside of Titus Young or Greg Little in that spot. Do not reach for Blackmon because I don't think he will produce consistently on a weekly basis.
Laurent Robinson: Robinson had one of the all-time great seasons for a receiver in the history of the NFL in terms of efficiency a year ago, as he posted career numbers across the board as a member of the Cowboys. Robinson finished the 2011 season with 54 catches for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns -- all career highs -- and ended up the year as the 15th-ranked Fantasy receiver, despite seeing just 80 targets (53rd among all receivers). In terms of efficiency, Robinson was off the charts, especially when it came to scoring.
Overall, Robinson ranked second to only Jordy Nelson with a 13.8 percent touchdown rate, and his 1.9 points-per-target average was third in the league behind only Nelson and James Jones among the receivers who saw 50 targets last year. In the red zone, however, Robinson was in a class all to himself. Last year, LoRo converted a record (at least for as long as I have been charting this) 72.7 percent of his red zone targets into touchdowns (eight scores on 11 looks). To put that into perspective, in 2011, 87 receivers saw at least six targets in the red zone and only LoRo had a touchdown rate greater than 50 percent. So that was the good news, but the bad news is that Robinson has been separated from the extremely accurate Tony Romo and the great supporting cast of the Cowboys for the richer, less productive pastures of the Jaguars. There is no chance, I mean no chance, that Robinson comes close to his production from last year and he will not be a top 30 Fantasy receiver at the end of the year. After all, Dallas threw for 120 more yards per game than the Jags last year and tossed 21 more touchdowns. Plus, Robinson will be at the forefront of opposing defensive schemes in Jacksonville as opposed to the fourth player teams would worry about in Dallas behind Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten.
Now, the Jags will be better with LoRo and Blackmon in town, but I see Robinson as a backup receiver on Draft Day with limited upside. I will add that I wouldn't be shocked if he out-produces Blackmon is 2012, but I have Robinson just behind Blackmon in my early rankings. Keep in mind that outside of 2011, Robinson has never reached 440 yards or three scores in an NFL season, so temper your lofty expectations if you have them.
Lee Evans: Evans' receptions and receiving yards have declined in three straight seasons, culminating in an injury-riddled 2011 campaign with the Ravens that saw him catch a career-low four passes for 74 yards. He has not reached 615 yards since 2008 and that is not likely to change in Jacksonville this year. Evans was once one of the best deep threats in the league, but his skills are waning and his 41.4 percent catch rate over the last three seasons does not inspire any confidence.
Mike Thomas: Thomas will return to the slot this year, where he should thrive, after being overmatched as the team's top target a year ago. Back in 2009 and 2010, Thomas worked the middle of the field, caught 70 percent of his targets and grabbed 114 passes for 1,273 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, on the outside, Thomas converted just 48 of his 91 targets (44 percent) for 415 yards and one score. With LoRo and Blackmon in town, Thomas will have more value to the Jags than he will to Fantasy owners since he will not get enough consistent chances to produce. You can pass on Thomas on Draft Day, but if he sees six targets per game early and is back to a 70 percent catch rate, he will likely be a solid bye week broski in point-per-reception formats.
Marcedes Lewis: Lewis enjoyed a career year back in 2010, as the former first-round pick finally became the dominant tight end he was drafted to be. Lewis set career highs in catches (54), yards (for the fourth straight year with 700) and more importantly in touchdowns (10). Entering 2010, he finished the season as the fourth-ranked Fantasy tight end and was tied for second with a 56 percent consistency rate and tied for third with a 25 percent big game rate. I was skeptical that he could repeat those numbers in 2011 for a couple of reasons.
First of all, he saw more red zone targets in 2010 than he had seen in the three previous years combined and Lewis also scored seven red zone touchdowns, which was as many as he had total in four years entering the season. Clearly, he and David Garrard were in a good rhythm that season as Lewis had an excellent 47 percent red zone scoring rate in 2010, and Garrard was on the way out in 2011. To say that a lot can change in a year is a humongous understatement as it relates to Lewis. He followed up his 10-score campaign by failing to score a single touchdown and catching only 39 passes for 460 yards. He had a pathetic 13 percent consistency rate (tied for 39th at tight end) and did not register a single big game. He led the NFL in three very dubious categories last year and I am sure he hopes to not repeat the feat in 2012. No player saw more targets (85), red zone targets (15) or goal line targets (eight) than Lewis without scoring a single touchdown.
Lewis will hopefully find things a little easier going into 2012 as defenses have to pay attention to the Jags' receivers and he should improve on his atrocious 45.9 percent catch rate of 2011, which was the worst for any tight end. Still, Lewis has been a top 20 Fantasy tight end only once in his career and has only eclipsed two touchdowns once, in his 2010 season that was clearly an outlier.
Offensive Coordinator: Chris Palmer returns
Training Camp story to watch: Who will win the quarterback battle between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker? Is Chris Johnson going to bounce back to pre-2011 form? Can Kenny Britt be trusted and how does he look on his surgically repaired ACL? Is Jared Cook ready to break out?
Jake Locker: In what was a very limited sample set, I loved what I saw from Jake Locker in 2011 and think he can be a big-time breakout candidate in 2012 if named the starter for the Titans. Locker played only a handful of quarters but threw 66 passes on the year, completing 34 of them for 542 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran eight times for 56 yards and another score on the ground. Given that the Titans averaged throwing the ball 36.5 times per game last year (eighth most), we can say that Locker's totals represent about two games worth of action. As two game totals, it would show that Locker averaged 28.6 points per game, which is the third best mark for any quarterback last year, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
Locker averaged an excellent 8.2 yards per attempt despite completing only half of his passes as a rookie and scored a touchdown. Even more impressive is that he posted these numbers without Kenny Britt in the mix, as he was already out with an injury. I love his ability to make big plays with his arm and with his feet (was on pace for 400 yards rushing and four rushing scores) and think he has top 12 potential if he starts the full year given his awesome supporting cast. With Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Chris Johnson and tight end Jared Cook, Tennessee now has the weapons to be a dynamic offense on a weekly basis, and Fantasy owners should hope it is Locker pulling the trigger. Locker also posted a solid 27.3 percent red zone touchdown rate as a rookie, which is on par with Tom Brady (27.6) and ranked ninth best among the 45 busiest quarterbacks inside the 20. His accuracy will improve with a full offseason and I think Locker is an absolute goldmine as a sleeper or breakout candidate this year.
If you are in a keeper league, snag him late because he will for sure be the starter by 2013. In a yearly league, Locker will be a top 18 quarterback on my board if he is the opening day starter and is a great later round value as your second quarterback. If he doesn't win the starting job, he could end up as a bigger bargain. With the Titans tough opening schedule, look for Locker to take over in Week 5 in that scenario, making him the ultimate waiver wire add a couple of weeks into the season.
Matt Hasselbeck: I like Hasselbeck but hope he does not get in the way of the Locker Fantasy point express in Tennessee. Hasselbeck was solid last year, throwing for 3,571 yards and 18 touchdowns, both his best marks since the 2007 season, but he lacks the upside of Locker. Hasselbeck averaged 6.9 yards per target to 8.2 for Locker, despite completing more than 10 percent more of his passes than the rookie. He had a solid 44 percent consistency rate but posted only five games with multiple touchdowns, tied for the fewest among the 22 quarterbacks who had a consistency rate of 38 percent or better.
After a quick start, Hasselbeck really slowed down over the second half of the year, throwing just five touchdowns from Week 10 on while tossing eight picks. To be fair, Hasselbeck did average 311 yards and 1.67 touchdowns per game with Britt on the field, which translates to nearly 23 points per week. I clearly prefer the upside of Locker to Hasselbeck, who has not been a top 12 quarterback since 2007, but he is worth a look as a late backup or early bye week fill-in if he is starting for the Titans given his excellent supporting cast.
Chris Johnson: Last season was the worst year of Johnson's career and I am expecting a big rebound season in 2012. Last year, Johnson held out and missed valuable time with a new coaching staff. The holdout and lack of conditioning really contributed to a down season for Johnson, who set career lows in rushing yards (1,047), rushing touchdowns (four), yards per carry (4.0), consistency rate (31.3 percent), big game rate (18.8 percent), games with 100 yards rushing (four), games with 100-total yards (six), Fantasy points (167) and Fantasy rank (16th at running back). The good news is that those numbers are about as bad as CJ2K can be and he is motivated to turn things around this year.
Even more noteworthy is that Johnson really seemed to improve as the year went on. In the first half of the season, Johnson was the 32nd ranked running back, scoring just one total touchdown and picking up an average of 46 yards per game on the ground on just 3.0 yards per carry. Thanks to good receiving numbers, he still averaged just over 71 total yards per game and was just under eight points per week. However, it should be noted that he averaged only 6.6 yards per catch on his 31 grabs. In the second half of the year (Week 10 on), Johnson started to find his groove. In those eight games, Johnson was much more like the CJ2K of old, ranking eighth at the running back position. He rushed for 681 yards (85.1 per game) and three touchdowns on an excellent 4.8 yards per carry. He added 26 catches for 212 yards (a much improved 8.2 yards per catch) and averaged 111 total yards and more importantly a solid 13.4 points per game. If you take Johnson's second half over 16 games, he would have picked up 1,786 total yards and six touchdowns, which translates to 215 points or a tie with Marshawn Lynch for fifth at the position in 2011. To be fair, the bulk of that production came in his three monster games of 100 yards rushing and he failed to top 65 in any of the other five, so there is still plenty of work to do in terms of being consistently elite.
That being said, the signs of improvement were there and there's a lot to like about Johnson heading into 2012. An improved offense with Britt back in the mix and game changer Kendall Wright added via the draft will give defenses plenty of headaches, which should allow Johnson to maintain his second half efficiency numbers. I also like that Mike Mularkey clearly wants the ball in Johnson's hands as a receiver. Last year he caught a career-high 57 passes (third among all running backs), which should help him maintain consistency on a weekly basis. A better overall offense should also provide Johnson with increased scoring chances, which will help him get back to double digit scores. After all, it's hard to score when you rank tied for 25th with 25 red zone chances and tied for 26th with seven goal line chances. Johnson scored on three of those goal line carries, good for a 42.9 percent scoring rate, so with elite chances (a La McCoy, Turner, Rice and MJD at 20-plus goal line chances) we will see big touchdown numbers once again. I don't think he will get to 20 goal line chances, but even if he can get to 15 or so, he will produce the numbers we all know and love.
Keep in mind, he only scored three touchdowns in the second half of 2011 and was still the eighth-ranked runner over the final eight games. I love Johnson to bounce back in 2012. He is the fifth running back on my board worthy of a pick in the middle of the first round in all formats.
Javon Ringer: Like all of the runners in Tennessee, Ringer struggled in 2011, averaging a career low 3.1 yards per carry despite seeing a career best 59 rushes. He is the handcuff to Johnson on Draft Day and posted 102 total yards in his only career game with more than 13 touches.
Kenny Britt: If Britt could stay healthy for 16 games, we would have a top 10 Fantasy receiver on our hands. After all, in his last 15 games, Britt has caught 59 passes for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns, good for 177 Fantasy points. That would have made Britt the ninth-ranked receiver in 2011, which is fine except for the fact that Britt's last 15 games have come out of a possible 32 over the last two seasons. In those 15 games, however, Britt has been incredibly impressive and stacks up very favorably with the elite at his position. He has a 60 consistency rate and a 27 percent big game rate in those games, which would have ranked eighth and fifth respectively in 2011.
Over the last two years Britt has scored on 12.1 percent of his targets (and one out of every 4.9 receptions), best in the NFL. During that span, Britt is second to only Calvin Johnson averaging 0.8 receiving touchdowns per game and his 10.7 yards-per-target average is fourth best. In other words, if Britt can stay healthy and see elite level targets, the sky is the limit. Keep in mind that Britt is trying to return from ACL surgery and how he looks in camp and the preseason will give a good indication if he can return to his form of 2010 and 2011. If so, you could end up with a top 10 receiver with a current price tag as the 24th receiver taken in drafts. He is a risk, reward type pick for sure and I like Britt as a later second receiver or the ultimate third receiver on Draft Day if you take your wideouts early.
Nate Washington: If you are Washington, you are begging for Locker to start the 2012 season under center, and when you see how much of Washington's career year can be tied to Locker you will be blown away. In basically five quarters with Locker under center, Washington saw 17 targets and caught 12 of them for 212 yards. All four of Locker's passing scores went to Washington, who caught 70.6 percent of his targets from Locker, averaged 12.5 yards per target and had an absurd 24 percent touchdown rate. No way is that sustainable over a full year, but clearly Washington and Locker have a certain chemistry that will benefit Nate again in 2012 if Locker gets the nod at quarterback.
As great as he was with Locker, Washington was still decent with Hasselbeck under center. On 104 targets from Hasselbeck, Washington converted 62 of them into catches for 811 yards and three scores. He caught 59.6 percent of his targets from Hasselbeck, averaged 7.8 yards per target and had a 2.9 percent scoring rate. Given that Hasselbeck was his quarterback for just about 15 games in 2011, its hard to get too excited about the 56 yards and 0.2 touchdowns per game the two produced last year when you see the Locker effect. Still, it was a career year for Washington with 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns receiving as he posted a career best 16th best finish at receiver. It was Washington's first finish in the top 36 at receiver in standard leagues.
It should also be noted that Washington has at least six receiving scores in each of the last three seasons and his 19 scores during that span ranks 14th among all receivers. With Britt back and Kendall Wright in the mix, I don't think Washington will play nearly as a big a role as he did in 2011, but he is good value as a top fifth receiver for your teams on Draft Day, with even more upside should Locker be his quarterback.
Kendall Wright: Many considered the speedy Wright to be the most dynamic open-field receiver in the draft and he is a great addition to a suddenly loaded Tennessee attack. Last year with RG3 at Baylor, Wright caught 108 passes for 1,663 yards and 14 touchdowns and some in the NFL think he can become a dominant smaller receiver in the mold of Steve Smith. His 108 receptions in his last collegiate year are the third most for a first round pick in 20 years.
I don't think he will get the chance to be a Fantasy stud right out of the gate, but look for Wright to make plenty of big plays for the Titans as a rookie. He is absolutely worth a pick in keeper leagues, but in yearly formats I would put Wright on my potential waiver list should he be more involved than the 35 receptions I am predicting for the rookie. He is a human highlight film, so in leagues that reward extra long touchdowns, be sure to give Wright a little boost on your draft board.
Damian Williams: Williams was very solid in 2011, setting career highs with 45 receptions for 592 yards and five scores while filling in for the injured Kenny Britt. If Britt is healthy, Williams won't see the field much, but give him a look as a spot starter again in 2012 if injuries force him back into the starting lineup.
Jared Cook: Cook had a career year in 2011, posting personal bests in receptions (49), yards (759), yards per catch (15.5), yards per target (9.4), touchdowns (three), Fantasy points (89) and Fantasy rank (15th). Cook's 15.5 yards per catch ranked second among all tight ends and his 9.4 yards per target ranked third in 2011, which is mighty impressive. Cook finished the year with a bang, posting two games of 100 yards receiving and totaling 22 catches for 335 yards and a score over the last three games of the season. Most impressive is that he posted those numbers on only 26 targets. He also made history by being the first tight end in 14 years to have two touchdown catches of 50 plus yards (Shannon Sharpe did it in 1997), with an 80-yarder against Cleveland and a 55-yard score against the Jaguars.
Considering that Cook had 361 yards receiving in 2010, you can tell that this is a young player on the rise. He is a rare combination of size (6'6" and 243 pounds) and speed (his 4.49 40 yard time at the combine is the second fastest ever for a tight end), who can create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. The Titans added another weapon in Kendall Wright, who should open things up even more for Cook in 2012. However, adding in Wright makes it tough to envision Cook seeing a big enough bump in targets (he was 19th with 81 last year) to become a definite top 10 tight end.
I think he will remain one of the great big-play tight ends in the NFL, but he will need to be a better red zone scorer. Cook converted only one of his six red zone targets into a touchdown, but to be fair his six targets ranked tied for 35th at the position. If he can see the eight targets and one red zone target per game that he saw in his last three games of 2011, Cook will be a top 10 tight end. Unfortunately, that's highly unlikely. I have Cook penciled in as an one of the better upside backup tight ends on Draft Day, ranked just outside the top 12. Should his targets jump to 100 this year, I would guarantee a top 12 finish for Cook.
Rob Bironas: Bironas has been a top 12 Fantasy kicker in four of the last five seasons and his only miss was a 13th place finish in 2010. He has made a league-best 89 percent of his kicks over the last four seasons and has converted an astounding 18 of his last 22 field goal attempts from 50-plus yards. I think Tennessee is an offense on the rise and Bironas is a solid starting option in the last round of your draft.