With four-plus months remaining until the season begins, the 2014 NFL schedule release is but a blip on the fantasy football radar for most prospective owners. But there are a few gems to be gleaned from this year's announcement, beginning with those all important bye weeks.
The ones that will have the biggest impact on roster management in 2014 are Weeks 4, 9 and 10, when six teams will be idle each of those weeks.
The Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams in Week 4.
The Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
And the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins in Week 10.
As with previous years, the last byes are in Week 12, when only Carolina and Pittsburgh are off.
Tucked within that breakdown is that while it might be nice to have Andrew Luck on your team with Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning with Marshawn Lynch, know going into your draft that those pairings share the same bye week. The same goes for an Aaron Rodgers-Calvin Johnson combo or Tom Brady-Alfred Morris grouping.
One other thing we can project with some certainty are the games that will likely provide fireworks. Most of the best offenses from last year enter 2014 intact, and some have taken strides, be it through acquisitions or better health, toward being even better this season. That said, here are five matchups all owners will want to have an ownership stake in this season.
Packers @ Bears (Week 4)/Bears @ Packers (Week 10)
The NFL's most storied rivalry could produce two of its most offensively charged games in 2014. The Bears and Packers both feature potential top-five running backs in Matt Forte and Eddie Lacy. Plus, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery of the Bears, and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of the Packers, all have top-10 potential, and it's likely at least two of those four will finish the season in that stratosphere.
Aaron Rodgers will rightfully be seen as a consensus top-three quarterback come fantasy draft season, and Jay Cutler, thanks in large part to all the firepower around him, will once again be on many a sleeper list this season. It might surprise you to learn that, despite missing both Rodgers and Cobb for significant chunks of the season, the Packers were still eighth in the league in scoring. You might be surprised even further to learn that the Bears scored the second-most points in the league, trailing only the historically potent Broncos. These two offenses figure to be among the best in the NFL again this year, and that this is a legendary rivalry makes it that much better.
The outcomes of their clashes in Week 4 and Week 10 could decide the NFC North, and will certainly weigh heavily in fantasy leagues.
Redskins @ Cowboys (Week 8)
Both of these teams missed the playoffs last year, with the former suffering through one of the most disappointing seasons in the league, and the latter again narrowly missing out on the postseason with a Week 17 loss to a division rival. However, Washington and Dallas should both strike fear in the hearts of defenses this season.
It was a lost year for Robert Griffin III in 2013. He likely came back too soon from his gruesome knee injury, which stunted his entire season. He couldn't run the way he did in his superlative rookie season, and that significantly curbed his fantasy output. It didn't help that he clashed with former coach Mike Shanahan to the point of affecting the team's overall performance. Still, he's one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, and I'm willing to bet the real Griffin is more of the 2012 version, and less of the 2013.
All the tumult in Washington distracted from Alfred Morris' 1,275 rushing yards, good for fourth in the NFL. He led the league with 10 runs of 20 yards or more, and found the end zone seven times. The team made a huge splash in free agency, signing DeSean Jackson after he was cut by the Eagles. Pairing him with Pierre Garcon gives the Redskins one of the most formidable, explosive receiver duos in the league.
On the other side, Dallas returns all the important pieces from an offense that was fifth in the NFL with 439 points last year. Dez Bryant developed into an elite receiver, and DeMarco Murray managed to stay healthy, showing what he can do when he plays an entire season. Tony Romo will probably never quiet the doubters, but he put up another quietly effective fantasy season. He got 7.2 yards per attempt last year with 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. His haters always find a way to talk louder than his stats, but year after year, he's a productive fantasy quarterback.
These two teams meet twice, of course, but the second game is in Week 17. The Week 8 matchup is the one the fantasy community will be watching.
Broncos @ Patriots (Week 9)
Another year, another installment of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. You don't need me to recap what the Broncos and Manning did last year. The five-time MVP and new single-season record holder for passing yards and touchdowns will lead the Broncos into Foxboro in Week 9 for what will likely be another clash to remember. Don't think for one second that losing Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno will somehow short-circuit the Broncos' offense.
Manning is obviously the maestro here, and the loss of Decker and Moreno will simply mean more for Demaryius Thomas, Montee Ball, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. The Broncos also added Emmanuel Sanders, who could be ticketed for a breakout season because, well, he's catching passes from Manning. Ball, meanwhile, could be the ultimate breakout player of the 2014 season. This offense won't skip a beat, thanks to the man at the helm.
Speaking of the man at the helm, Brady got off to an uncharacteristically poor start in 2013, but it was likely due to the fact that a Patriots skill player couldn't take a breath without getting injured last year. That the team still managed to score the third-most points in the league, just one point behind the Bears, is yet another testament to Brady and Bill Belichick. So long as Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen remain healthy this year, the Patriots should be more dangerous than they were a season ago.
Expecting Danny Amendola to stay on the field is foolish, but Julian Edelman was a revelation last year, and the team added Brandon LaFell, too. They could pluck another receiver in the draft, but as long as Brady is under center, the Patriots will put up points with efficiency.
Eagles @ Packers (Week 11)
We've already touched on the Packers in this column, but it's nearly impossible to overstate how good this offense could be in 2014. Remember, Rodgers missed seven games last year (including the one against Chicago in which he was injured on the opening drive), and the Packers still put up 26.1 points and 400.3 yards per game. With him and Cobb healthy, and Lacy looking like one of the best young running backs in the league, my money is on the Packers, and not the Broncos, to lead the league in scoring this year.
While the Eagles let Jackson, their most dangerous receiving threat, go this offseason, they should remain one of the scarier offenses in the NFL. Chip Kelly's passing attack made Riley Cooper of all people a worthwhile fantasy receiver. Jeremy Maclin will no doubt find a way to thrive in this offense. Kelly, however, has to be absolutely salivating over the 1-2 punch of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
McCoy had the best year of his career in his first season in Kelly's offense, and it's unlikely that Sproles will eat into his production too much. This offense is predicated on big plays, and there should be plenty to go around to keep McCoy in the top-five among running backs and get Sproles back to where he was a few seasons ago with the Saints. It's all up to Nick Foles to prove last year wasn't a fluke.
Bengals @ Saints (Week 11)
You may not have a ton of confidence in Andy Dalton, and you'd be justified for feeling that way. But did you know the Bengals scored the sixth-most points in the NFL last year? Their 430 points trailed only the Broncos, Bears, Patriots, Eagles and Cowboys last year. A.J. Green is an elite talent at wide receiver, but the player who will put this offense over the top this season is Giovani Bernard. He ran for 695 yards on 170 carries and caught 56 passes for 514 yards as a rookie, and is the prototypical pass-catching running back for the NFL in 2014. As he takes over more of the snaps and BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to recede from the spotlight, the Bengals offense will become only more explosive, even if the up-and-down Dalton is leading it. Running backs as a whole may not carry the fantasy punch they once did, but Bernard, Lacy, Ball and Le'Veon Bell are at the front of the new guard.
The Saints, of course, are the Saints. Much like Brady and Bill Belichick in New England, as long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton are in New Orleans, expect this offense to keep on chugging. They lost Sproles to Philadelphia, but he didn't do much while the team still scored the 10th-most points in the league last year.
Jimmy Graham is flat-out unguardable, and should be a consensus first-round pick in fantasy leagues. The receivers have consistently gotten the job done with Marques Colston and a rotating cast of secondary players, and there isn't any reason to expect that to slow down this year. The Manning-Rodgers-Brees triumvirate still rules in fantasy circles, and those three essentially guarantee their offenses will finish the season toward the top of the overall rankings. No fantasy owner has ever gone bankrupt having a Saint on his team during the Brees Era.