A week from today, one real, meaningful NFL game for the 2014 season will be in the books, and we will be just 48 hours away from our first Sunday of the season. It’s a great time of year, my fantasy friends. With draft season all but in the books, there isn’t much left to do but make some bold predictions. Remember, any of these I get right prove I’m a genius, but any I get wrong were just shots in the dark.
SI's 2014 fantasy football draft preview: Rankings, projections and more
Jordy Nelson will be the No. 1 fantasy receiver
Nelson seems to inhabit an island in the wide receiver rankings. He isn’t quite in the class with Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, et al., but he was ahead of the Alshon Jeffery/Antonio Brown/Randall Cobb trio. He’ll be on a different island at the end of the season when he outpaces everyone at the position and finishes on top of the receiver rankings.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but this will probably be my last opportunity to make this point before the season starts. Nelson is a truly elite wide receiver. Aaron Rodgers started and finished eight games last season. In those games, Nelson had 49 receptions for 810 yards and seven touchdowns. Double those numbers for a full 16-game season, and Nelson finishes with 98 catches, 1,620 yards and 14 scores. That would have made him the No. 1 receiver in standard-scoring and PPR leagues. He remains the top option for the best quarterback and player in the game. If you think Nelson’s per-game production is going to fall off this year, you’re crazy.
Nelson doesn’t get credit for being a physical specimen, but he’s 6-foot-3, 217 pounds. Demaryius Thomas is 6-foot-3, 229. Julio Jones is 6-foot-3, 220. A.J. Green is 6-foot-4, 207. Nelson is every bit the imposing force the big-name receivers are. He’s a force for Rodgers in the red zone, and was also seventh in the league with 19 catches for at least 20 yards last year. He does everything you want out of a No. 1 receiver, and will be pushed over the top thanks to the potent Green Bay offense.
Zac Stacy will finish outside the top-20 running backs
I’ve been selling Stacy all summer, and he has only slid further down my rankings as the preseason has progressed. Let’s first take a look at what has always been true here.
Stacy is not an explosive runner, as he got just 3.9 yards per carry last year, and had only five runs of at least 20 yards on 250 totes. Stacy is a non-factor in the passing game; he caught 26 balls last year for a paltry 141 yards, or 5.4 yards per catch. There’s little reason to expect much red-zone growth this year. Stacy had 39 carries inside the 20 last year, nearly 60 percent of the Rams’ total and more than Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy. He converted 15.4 percent of those into touchdowns, which is just a touch less than league average for someone with at least 30 red-zone carries. In other words, he pretty much maxed out what he can do in the red zone last year.
What’s new (kind of) is that Sam Bradford is out for the year after tearing the same ACL he tore last season. Even worse, Benny Cunningham has impressed St. Louis coaches in training camp, and could be in line for more touches this year. Jeff Fisher said there’s nothing to read into Cunningham starting the Rams’ third preseason game, but he did run for 32 yards on five carries against what is expected to be a strong Cleveland defense. Volume is Stacy’s best friend, and any draining of that volume will seriously hurt his fantasy value. I don’t want any part of him this year.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Jay Cutler will be a top-five fantasy quarterback
Everyone in the fantasy world apparently has Matt Forte as a top-five overall player, and Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery as top-10 receivers. It only makes sense, then, that Cutler is going to have the best season of his career.
All the pieces are finally in place for Cutler to achieve his full potential. In Marshall and Jeffery, he has the league’s best wide receiver duo at his disposal. With Forte behind him, he has a great runner who doubles as one of the very best pass-catching backs. The offensive line finally held up last year, as Cutler was eighth in true sack rate according to Football Outsiders. He finally found a coach and offensive coordinator with whom he can thrive, and he should only be better in year two under Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer. In fact, the entire Bears offense, which was second in scoring a year ago, should improve. That’s a scary thought for the 15 other NFC teams.
Of course, Cutler is at the center of it all. Everyone’s favorite quarterback to hate will quiet all the doubters this year as he makes a run at the MVP, helps his fantasy owners hoist championship trophies, and carries the Bears back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season.
Shane Vereen is an RB1 in PPR leagues
The Patriots recast Vereen as a pass-catching back last year, and they appeared to have a star on their hands right from the start of the season. He had seven receptions for 58 yards, and also ran the ball 14 times for 101 yards. He also broke his wrist Week 1, costing him eight games.
When he came back, he was an absolute stud in PPR leagues. He caught eight passes for 65 yards in his first game back, and he caught eight for 60 yards the following week. By time the season ended, Vereen had 47 receptions on 69 targets for 427 yards and three touchdowns. He played only half the season, but he had the 11th-most points among running backs in PPR leagues. That hints at what he will do this year.
Vereen will once again be in a key role in the New England offense. Assuming he stays healthy for 16 games, he should easily get more than 100 targets. He may have only played in eight games last year, but he was tied for fourth among running backs with 11 red-zone targets. Fantasy owners can easily expect him to double that this year. He may not make a huge impact on the ground, but Vereen is going to be one of the primary targets for Tom Brady. He’ll convert that into monster numbers in PPR leagues.
Cam Newton will not be a top-10 quarterback
Pretty much nothing has gone right for Newton beginning with the Panthers’ playoff loss to the Seahawks last January. The Panthers lost what little weapons they had in the passing game, though they supplemented it by drafting Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers chose to run back the depressing DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart duo for the millionth year. To top it all off, he fractured his ribs in the preseason.
Add it all up, and it’s just too much to have much confidence in Newton heading into the season. He needs Benjamin to pop and to once again be a dominant runner to be in the top 10 this year. Kicking off the year with a couple fractured ribs isn’t a good way to start. Newton is done in both by his environment, his injury and his fellow quarterbacks.
The position goes so deep this year, and with all the red flags surrounding Newton, it’s very hard to trust him over the similarly rated quarterbacks. I’d rather have Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III. That’ll push Newton outside the top 10.
Ahmad Bradshaw will outscore Trent Richardson
My favorite Trent Richardson fact is that in his big rookie year with the Browns, he got just 3.6 yards per carry. So sure, it was a strong statistical season. but that was basically by default.
My second favorite Trent Richardson fact is that he has a grand total of three carries for at least 20 yards in his career. Richardson has carried the ball 455 times since entering the league in 2012, which means he rips off a 20-yard run 0.7 percent of the time. Some guys who had three 20-yard carries just last year were Mark Ingram, Antone Smith, Bobby Rainey and Bilal Powell.
My third favorite Trent Richardson fact is that somehow there are fantasy owners that still believe in him. Meanwhile, his backup, Ahmad Bradshaw, always gets it done when his feet allow him to play. Two years ago, he had 1,015 rushing yards (4.6 yards per carry), 245 receiving yards and six total touchdowns. Yes, it’s pretty much a lock that Bradshaw will miss some time this year. Does that really matter, though, when you’re getting him late in the 11th round in a 12-team draft? Bradshaw will prove to be a huge bargain at that spot and will outproduce Richardson.
The Broncos and Patriots are joined by the Steelers and Titans as AFC division winners
Those first two, or perhaps three, aren’t exactly bold. That last one, though, likely isn’t very popular. Everyone is handing the division to the Colts again, and it’s understandable why that’s the case. Basically, it starts and ends with Andrew Luck.
However, the Titans have one of the best offensive lines in the league. With that line protecting Jake Locker, the Titans offense has some real potential to break out this year. Locker was playing well before hurting his hip last year, and he has an under-the-radar receiver duo in Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. There’s always a surprise division winner or two every year, and the Titans will be that team this season.
Joining those division winners in the playoffs on the AFC side of the bracket will be the Bengals and Colts.
San Francisco misses the playoffs, but Arizona doesn’t
The 49ers offense has looked like a mess this entire preseason. Colin Kaepernick can’t seem to get on the same page with his receivers, and one of these days Frank Gore is going to have a substandard season.
The defense has been the heartbeat of this team under Jim Harbaugh, but there is reason to be concerned on that side of the ball, too. NaVorro Bowman will be out until at least Week 7, and Aldon Smith is likely facing a suspension. Their start to the season is rough (at Dallas, vs. Chicago, at Arizona, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Kansas City, at St. Louis and at Denver), and it doesn’t even include their two games with the Seahawks. The 49ers will fall out of the playoffs this year, with the division rival Cardinals taking their place.
Seattle, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago will win the NFC divisions, and Green Bay will join Arizona as the other wild card.
Green Bay will beat New England in Super Bowl XLIX
This is all about the quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL, and Tom Brady, now that he has a fully healthy cadre of weapons, will show that he is still one of the very best in the league. Rodgers, however, will win the MVP, lead the Packers to three straight road wins in the playoffs, then upend Brady and the Patriots for the team’s second Super Bowl title in the last five seasons.
2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers Vol. 2
Jeremy Hill - RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Hill is the new power back to compliment Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati. The second-round rookie should play a role similar to BenJarvus Green-Ellis last season but with significantly more upside.
LeGarrette Blount - RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Blount averaged five yards per carry last season in New England and his style translates perfectly to Pittsburgh’s smash-mouth style. He’s one Le’Veon Bell injury away from being a fantasy asset.
Storm Johnson - RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Toby Gerhart is a true three-down back but he had better perform in his first season as a starter, because Johnson will be waiting for his chance. The talented rookie from UCF has the tools to emerge as a capable fantasy option.
Latavius Murray - RB, Oakland Raiders
Murray is only draftable in extremely deep leagues, but he’s a talented runner who is backing up two injury-prone veterans on the depth chart. Keep an eye on him if Maurice Jones-Drew or Darren McFadden goes down with an injury.
Darren Sproles - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Sproles has caught at least 70 balls in each of the last three seasons and moved to Chip Kelly’s pass-happy offense in Philadelphia. He’s a big-play threat who should outperform his average draft position, especially in PPR formats.
Mark Ingram - RB, New Orleans Saints
Will this be the year that the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner breaks out? It could be, with Darren Sproles out of town and Pierre Thomas falling down the depth chart. Ingram is still only 24 years old and has the tools to be a fantasy star.
Jonathan Grimes - RB, Houston Texans
Grimes is emerging as the primary backup to Arian Foster with a nice training camp. Fantasy owners know all about Foster’s injury history and his backups tend to make an impact at some point during the season.
James Starks - RB, Green Bay Packers
Starks averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and is a must-own handcuff for all Eddie Lacy owners. Starks instantly becomes a high-end RB2 in all leagues if Lacy goes down at any point.
Andre Williams - RB, New York Giants
The rookie out of Boston College will take a backseat to Rashad Jennings early in the season but is talented enough to eventually steal the job. Either way, Williams is expected to be the goal-line back and fantasy owners should keep an eye on him.
Emmanuel Sanders - WR, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning has a new toy and that's great news for fantasy owners. Sanders has the skillset to make a significant impact as the Broncos’ third receiver.
Cole Beasley - WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys should have a dominant passing game and Beasley should be a capable slot receiver. He could emerge as one of Tony Romo’s favorite targets.
Odell Beckham - WR, New York Giants
The rookie from LSU is expected to stretch the field for Eli Manning and could be a nice fantasy asset immediately. His average draft position should creep up as he proves healthy in camp.
Golden Tate - WR, Detroit Lions
Tate moves to an up-tempo offense in Detroit and gets to play opposite Calvin Johnson, which is very good news for his fantasy appeal. He should be a nice WR3 facing single coverage on a weekly basis.
Mike Evans - WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The No. 7 overall pick has lofty expectations and is in a great situation to succeed. The 6’5 Evans will find plenty of single coverage playing opposite Vincent Jackson and could be the league’s top rookie for fantasy purposes.
Charles Johnson - WR, Cleveland Browns
The Grand Valley State product has been a training camp standout and could emerge as a starter in Cleveland. The Browns will be desperate for a play-making WR once Josh Gordon starts serving his suspension.
Kyle Rudolph - TE, Minnesota Vikings
Rudolph isn’t necessarily a “sleeper,” but he could easily outperform his ADP. Norv Turner turns tight ends into fantasy stars and Rudolph is primed for a career-best season.
Jordan Reed - TE, Washington Redskins
Reed showed glimpses of his potential last season, when he caught 45 balls in only nine games. The sky is the limit if Reed can stay healthy in 2014. He’s simply too talented to be overlooked.
Eli Manning - QB, New York Giants
The younger Manning gets a fresh start with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and he should improve upon his miserable 18/27 TD/INT ratio from 2013. You can draft him as a backup for fantasy purposes but he has the ability to sneak into the Top 12 QBs when the season concludes.
Andy Dalton - QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton was quietly a fantasy monster last season, finishing with 4,293 passing yards and 33 TDs. Doubters will say Dalton is streaky, just signed a huge deal and has a new offensive coordinator, but, regardless, he is an absolute steal at his current ADP.
Josh McCown - QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
McCown was an elite fantasy QB during a three-game stretch last season and parlayed the success into a starting gig in Tampa Bay. His new weapons (Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans) resemble his old weapons (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery) in both size and ability. McCown is a sneaky option if you need a QB late in your draft.