The days of summer are methodically passing by. NFL training camps are essentially one month away. And long-awaited fantasy drafts have begun taking place in earnest. What better time to provide you with five predictions to help you plan for your next drafts? Here are my forecasts concerning players from the AFC. If you are looking for NFC predictions, they can be found right here.
1. Jamaal Charles Will Nearly Double His Career High In Receptions
Charles has been misused throughout the majority of his five seasons in Kansas City, yet has managed to generate 5,818 total yards during that time. That includes 2011, which was essentially wiped out when a torn ACL abruptly concluded his season in Week 2. He made an impressive return from that injury to rush for a career best 1,509 yards in 2012, which was the third year in which he amassed 1,100+ yards on the ground. He also continued his streak of averaging at least 5.3 YPC. It may be difficult to replicate last season's yardage total in Andy Reid's version of the west coast offense. But Charles is going to flourish in Reid's system, particularly through his expanded role as a receiver. During the four seasons that Charles performed in at least 15 contests, he has averaged under 37 catches, while never exceeding 45. That career high occurred in 2012, when he accrued 468 yards collecting those throws. Conversely, LeSean McCoy garnered a whopping 78 receptions in 2010 alone, after being targeted 90 times. He also averaged 55 receptions in Reid's system, and that number was negatively impacted by McCoy's absence from the lineup in four contests last season. And when Brian Westbrook was performing in his prime (2004-2007), he averaged 75 catches and 697 yards for Reid. Which included an amazing 90 receptions for 771 yards in 2007. Charles could conceivably attain that same result, although a reception total that resides somewhere in the 80s is more likely. Still, that would nearly double his current season high. He will deliver exceptional numbers, and fantasy owners who secure him with a top five pick will not be disappointed in their investment. Especially in PPR leagues.
2. Stevan Ridley And Shane Vereen Will Become A Two-Headed Fantasy Monster
In my recent article on the arrest and subsequent release of Aaron Hernandez, I provided details regarding how I believe that the Patriots will move forward strategically. A central theme in that discussion was that both Ridley and Vereen will now be provided with massive opportunites to excel. The Patriots could enter the season without their five most productive targets from 2012, if Rob Gronkowski is sidelined. And even when he does return, the team will not have the strength at WR and at TE that they experienced in recent years. Even with Tom Brady under center, New England's current assortment of receiving weapons will not instantly take the field and generate yardage and scoring in the same manner as the receivers that they are being asked to replace. This is not to suggest that the Patriot offense will decline significantly. But Bill Belichick and his staff are likely to utilize their current roster differently. Starting with Ridley, who carried 290 times last season. That was the NFL's sixth highest total, and it unlikely that his rushing attempts will be increased significantly. But it is conceivable that he will be utilized more frequently as a receiver. 11 teammates caught more passes than the six that Ridley amassed 2012. Those occurred on just 14 targets, and that is a total that should ultimately rise. Even if that does not occur, Ridley's value as a rusher is immense, and he will remain very active in that role. Plus, he did generate 12 TDs last season, and that number should also be enhanced this year. These factors should enable Ridley to become a highly proficient RB2 for fantasy owners. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this season's offensive approach will be Vereen. His touches were inconsistent last season, but his best performance took place during the postseason. He exploded for 124 yards and three TDs against Houston, including 83 yards and two scores as a receiver. That was the second time in which he had exceeded 80 receiving yards last season. Now, he should be provided with a substantial number of opportunities as a backfield target for Brady, who will need to rely upon his third-year back. Last season, Woodhead rushed 76 times, caught 40 passes, and was targeted 55 times. Vereen should succeed in a similar role, and should exceed Woodhead's reception total. Belichick might decide to line Vereen up wide on some occasions, and could employ him in formations with Ridley. Regardless of the specifics, Vereen is destined to be an outstanding third down back. Which will allow him to join Ridley as highly coveted RBs, who perform exceptionally for their owners through the regular season.
3. The Colt Offense Will Supply Owners With Fantasy Gold
Andrew Luck generated the NFL's fifth most passing attempts (627) in 2012, which established a record for rookie QBs. He did not have the benefit of a strong rushing attack, and was sacked 41 times. Yet, Luck somehow guided the Colts to an average of 362 YPG, as the team ranked 10th in total offense. As I mentioned my recent piece on last year's first overall pick, Luck should be more comfortable in his second season. His protection will also be improved, after G.M. Ryan Grigson's diligent offseason effort to bolster the offensive line. Plus, the running game should be vastly improved with Ahmad Bradshaw. He represents a sizable upgrade over Vick Ballard, who led the Colts in rushing with 814 yards last year. Bradshaw is a draft day steal at his current ADP of 110. Even though his chronic foot issues present a concern, he has traditionally managed to perform effectively while fighting through his lingering injuries. Bradshaw can also help Luck in several ways, as he is a very capable receiver, and a solid pass blocker. The offense will be further enhanced by Indy's pair of dynamic receivers, Reggie Wayne and T. J. Hilton. The ageless Wayne collected 106 receptions for 1,355 yards last season. While Hilton demonstrated his big play capabilities, by amassing five receptions of 40+ yards as a rookie. He will no longer be losing targets to the less talented and massively unreliable Donnie Avery this season, which should fortify his numbers even further. He joins Luck, Bradshaw, and Wayne as appealing fantasy options, who will reward your faith on draft day.
4. Cecil Shorts Will Produce WR1 Numbers
Shorts began the 2012 season as Jacksonville's WR3, but ended it by leading the team in yardage (979) and TDs (seven). Plus, he established himself as an explosive playmaker, who consistently amassed sizable yardage. Shorts tied for fifth among all WRs by producing five receptions in excess of 40 yards, and tied for ninth with 17 catches of 20+ yards. He also averaged 17.8 YPC, and generated at least 100 yards in four different contests. And he managed to accumulate those numbers despite not even receiving his first start until Week 7. Shorts proved to be a difference maker while performing in only 14 games, and finishing a mere 33rd among all WRs with 105 targets. He still managed to finish 22nd in fantasy points, 21st in yardage (979), and tied for 17th with seven TDs. It is reasonable to forecast a significant statistical rise in several major categories, simply because he now enters the 2013 regular season as the team's top receiver. Not only has Shorts earned that distinction after exhibiting his immense talent, but he will not encounter the same degree of competition for targets at the WR position. Former free agent bust Laurent Robinson has been jettisoned, and 2012 first round draft pick Justin Blackmon will be suspended for the team's initial four contests. The expected enhancement in targets should create the most sizable increase in his yardage total, as a result of Shorts being provided with more opportunities to generate big plays. If he simply increases his TDs by two, he could easily edge into the top 10 in that category. While Shorts must overcome the various shortcomings of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at QB, his success in 2012 was attained in spite of those same deficiencies. His game breaking ability is undeniable, and it provides you with sufficient reason to draft him as a WR2. With full knowledge that his mammoth upside could result in low end WR1 results. I believe that he will deliver exactly that, and finish just beyond the periphery of the top 10 among WRs, in the range of 11th or 12th. Although the statistical jump start that he should experience from Blackmon’s absence during September could propel him into the 10th overall slot.
5. Le'Veon Bell Will Lead All Rookie In Rushing Yards
A cluster of rookie RBs will be presented with an opportunity to accumulate yardage for their new teams, but no first-year back appears to have inherited a better situation than Bell. Montee Ball could easily find himself sharing touches with Ronnie Hillman, and conceivably Knowshon Moreno. And even if he captures a role as the primary back, Denver will not consistently espouse a "pound the rock" approach with Peyton Manning and his arsenal of dangerous receiving weapons. The precise wording also applies to Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in Green Bay. Giovani Bernard could carve out decent numbers, but he appears destined to backup BenJarvus Green-Ellis, within an offense that will be largely dependent upon Andy Dalton connecting with A. J. Green and Cincinnati's secondary targets. But Bell merely needs to prove to Mike Tomlin and the Steeler staff that he is a superior option to the incumbent backs that currently reside on Pittsburgh's roster. Neither Jonathan Dwyer or Issac Redman performed well enough to capture an ongoing feature back role with the team in 2012, and it is highly unlikely that either veteran will prohibit Bell from claiming that slot when the regular season commences. The Steelers were 20th in rushing attempts last season, yet ranked just 27th in rushing yardage, averaging only 96 YPG. A primary culprit was their anemic 3.7 YPC, as only three teams manufactured a worse average. Bell appears to possess enough elusiveness to enhance that number, and definitely has the size to handle the punishment that would result from an expansive workload. He also should have enough skill as a receiver to secure a role catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger. If Bell can demonstrate that he is capable of executing pass protection responsibilities, that would enable him to remain on the field for critical third down snaps. Fantasy owners should also be enticed by Bell's potential to be allotted numerous opportunities near the goal line. Just be prepared to select him before the fifth round has concluded, otherwise he will not be available for you to even consider.