It’s nearly impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff when you’re dealing with news from NFL Organized Team Activities and minicamps. Not only is the biggest sports media machine in North America salivating for every nugget of news, but the league’s coaches and GMs have a vested interest in making sure the right soundbytes end up in the right microphones, agents are often still angling for contract renegotiations and nobody wants to admit that the rookie they just drafted couldn’t find his way to the water table without tripping on the sideline.
But there are nuggets buried in there for fantasy junkies, especially if you’re willing to dig beyond tidbits on the top-of-the-media-guide players — Peyton Manning looks like a great QB so far! And Tim Tebow does not! For real! — and go hunting for the players that might not sell a single jersey prior to the season but end up being on everybody’s radar, and fantasy roster, by week four.
With training camps officially opening at the end of July, these are some of the off-the-radar stories we’ll be following in earnest, because some of these players will be difference makers, and none of them will enter training camp with any significant hype.
1. The battle for the Carolina Panthers second WR job:
Brandon LaFell seemed to have a stranglehold on the job opposite Steve Smith, especially as David Gettis works himself back into game shape following ACL surgery that cost him the entire 2011 season. LaFell is competent, but doesn’t offer much beyond that and would probably be most effective as a possession receiver. Gettis though has already shown flashes of the blazing speed and quick feet that allowed him to rack up 508 yards on just 37 receptions as a rookie. Cam Newton has what scientific observers have termed “one hell of a cannon” and the possibility of the six-foot-three Gettis bombing down the sideline while Steve Smith draws coverage and LaFell works into the space left underneath has to excite Panthers fans, and those who keep an eye out for breakout deep threats in the latter rounds of their drafts.
2. Things will get tight in Cleveland:
What happens when two extremely inexperienced quarterbacks, neither of them with a deep arm, compete for the right to line up under centre with a second-year receiver as their best downfield target, a rookie running back next to them and a West Coast offence designed with lots of short routes in mind? Usually what happens is simple — the tight end becomes a big contributor and the Cleveland Browns have two solid candidates. On one hand, the reliable and safe option, Ben Watson, is recovered from last season’s concussions and could become the beloved security blanket of likely starter Brandon Weeden as the 29-year-old rookie adjusts to life under the pressure of NFL defensive lines. On the other hand is Evan Moore, who is less of a traditional tight end and more of a third receiver and an intriguing, 6-foot-6, 250-pound red zone target — he scored on more than 11 per cent of his 34 catches last season, a number that will play very well indeed if he sees more work. Moore will show flashes of Aaron Hernandez-esque skills downfield. He will also miss blocking assignments and occasionally get his quarterback annihilated. Whoever mans the position, though, could see in excess of 100 targets and plenty of opportunity, without much preseason fanfare to speak of.
3. Cedric Benson will find a way:
He’s washed up. He’s never been more than a grinder. He has nothing left and will be lucky to get a job somewhere, anywhere. You’ll hear all of these things. They might all be true and yet somehow, someway, Cedric Benson will survive. He’s not flashy. There’s no high ceiling here. He doesn’t have a contract right now and you could make a case he doesn’t deserve one. But he’ll get one. He’s a veteran ball carrier who offers no breakaway speed whatsoever, but knows how to hit holes and can run well between the tackles and into the secondary if the blocks are there for him. He should be available at a bargain price and has shown a remarkable — in the most mediocre definition of the word — ability to carry the load and pick up some touchdowns along the way. He’ll be a backup heading into training camp and somewhere along the line someone will get hurt and there, in the corner of the locker room, shining like the sun, will be Cedric Benson, ready to lumber onto the field, churn out between 3.4 and 4.2 yards per carry as he has done every single year of his career, standing as a living monument to both the term “replacement-level talent” and the old fantasy sports adage, often accompanied with a shrug, “you could do worse.”
4. A change of pace in San Francisco:
If there’s one thing you can count on in the NFL, it’s that coaches will copy what works for other teams. So yes, you’ll see an awful lot of two-TE sets on the field this fall. What you’ll also see is the rise of the smaller, more versatile back in places where you’d typically expect to see a punishing bruiser. The San Francisco 49ers could showcase the most extreme example, going from the physical Frank Gore and the churning legs of free agent acquisition Brandon Jacobs to rookie LaMichael James. James is small and skinny and here’s what an NFL combine scouting report had to say about him: “At only 5-feet-9, 195 pounds, (he) lacks the size scouts are looking for in a franchise back.” Oh wait, sorry-that was actually what they said about Ray Rice in 2008 — the same Ray Rice who led the league in yards from scrimmage last season. James is the same size and weight as Rice on his draft day, ran a nearly identical 40 time and actually measured better than Rice in several combine categories. Gore is aging, Jacobs was brought in for goal-line carries and the 49ers have paid attention to the success of Darren Sproles in New Orleans, Rice in Baltimore and others. James is an excellent receiver, and will likely start the season as a third-down back, until the second or third time he takes a dump off in space all the way to the end zone. Then he’ll start splitting carries with Gore and if last season’s stretch run was any indication, Gore’s legs will be grateful for the rest.