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NFL Barometer: Final Scene?

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

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Steven Jackson, RB, STL - Draft position can often dictate the initial phases of roster construction. If it's QB-WR, WR-WR, WR-TE, or QB-TE in the first two rounds, the leftovers to fill the RB1 spot are largely uninspiring. Jackson has been falling to the third round of many drafts (expertADP: 32.2), making him in option for those who miss out on more desirable backs in first 25 selections. Every year, the preseason “Busts” lists around the industry will cherry pick the active running backs with the heaviest career workloads. Jackson and Frank Gore seem to be the early-round backs most owners are avoiding this summer, and while the latter has a lot of competition for touches in a rebuilt backfield, Jackson only has rookie Isaiah Pead to contend with. Pead is a nice handcuff simply because he's available in the late rounds and he's next in line behind a veteran at a very grueling position, but Jackson took 74.3% of the touches and targets in the St. Louis backfield last season, the second-highest mark in the NFL behind Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew (83.2%). Even with a modicum of overall improvement in the Rams offense, the opportunity to take more touches in the red zone could exist and an increased TD count should follow. Jackson is one of a very limited number of running backs in the league with the opportunity to rack up 300-plus touches this season.

Rashad Jennings, RB, JAC - The dialogue between Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jags appears to be non-existent as MJD is a training camp holdout seeking a new long-term contract. Jennings would almost certainly be deployed as the starter in Week 1 if Jones-Drew remains sidelined when the regular season begins. In limited opportunities in the past, Jennings has proven to be a competent pass-catching option out of the backfield while averaging an impressive 5.4 YPC over 123 attempts. That average would likely fall if he's thrust into a feature role, but considering the Jags' heavy reliance on Jones-Drew last season and the ongoing development of young quarterback Blaine Gabbert, Jennings could be in line for a big step forward this season.

Evan Royster, RB, WAS - The truth is, I don't trust ice cream truck drivers or Mike Shanahan. Royster has been spotted working with the Redskins' first-team offense during training camp. That tidbit could be as meaningful as the message inside of the stale fortune cookie you shamelessly choked down during your lunch hour, but when opportunity knocks for a running back in the Shanahan system, there is usually a nice payoff. Like Jennings, Royster has been effective with limited NFL opportunities to this point (5.9 YPC, 56 carries) including a pair of 100-yard efforts in Week 16 and 17 last season. The gap in average draft position between Royster and Roy Helu is a sizable one, so take the low-cost investment in Lucifer's (h/t Brad Evans) backfield with the former Penn State product.

Jon Baldwin, WR, KAN - Dwayne Bowe has not reported to Chiefs camp and Baldwin is impressing in his absence. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Baldwin provides quarterback Matt Cassell with a big target and it seems as though many fantasy owners have already forgotten about the 2011 first-round pick after a training camp fight with Thomas Jones led to a thumb injury and subsequently, a five-game absence and overall disappointing rookie season. Reports from offseason workouts have pointed to a more focused player in Year 2, as Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel cited improved conditioning as part of his improvement. Even if Bowe ultimately ends his holdout and is on the field in Week 1, Baldwin could overtake Steve Breaston (typically deployed from the slot) for a larger share of the targets in the Kansas City passing game

Kyle Rudolph, TE, MIN - The departure of Visanthe Shiancoe in free agency opened the door for Rudolph to have a more prominent role in the Vikings' offense in his second season. The addition of John Carlson looked like a potential hindrance in Rudolph's path to becoming a viable weekly option, but the veteran suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and may be slowed throughout the preseason as a result. Rudolph hauled in three touchdown passes during the final six games last season and seems to have developed a good rapport with quarterback Christan Ponder. Further, the Vikings are light on weapons at receiver and may have to rely on heavily on two tight-end sets and their larger targets in the red zone.

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Andre Johnson, WR, HOU - Johnson has been slowed during the early days of training camp by a mild groin strain, but the concern grows since he's missed 12 games over the last two seasons and is dealing with a leg injury in August - after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in early May no less. Fortunately, Johnson still looks like the only game in town at receiver for the Texans, as Kevin Walter once again lines up as the potential starter on the opposite side of the field. There doesn't appear to be much of a consensus yet as far as a price goes, Johnson has carried an expertADP of 16.8, but a standard ADP of 31.5. The latter slot should be considered a bargain, and splitting the difference is a reasonable place to target him as he'll still receive heavy attention from quarterback Matt Schaub. It's hardly a case where he's become a player to avoid, but the persistent injury issues for Johnson have put his days as a receiver to consider in Round 1 on hold despite an impressive 9.6 YPT last season.

Michael Crabtree, WR, SF - The crowded situation at wide receiver in San Francisco, not to mention the presence of a top-10 tight end in Vernon Davis, is more problematic for fantasy owners than the supply of capable running backs on the depth chart. As a team that ranked 31st in pass attempts last season (451) and one that boasts a suffocating defense, there aren't nearly enough balls to go around in the Niners' offense. To make matters worse, Crabtree has already been missing time during camp with a calf injury. Even if he's a more effective receiver after the catch in his fourth season, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Crabtree significantly increases his target volume from last season (114), and the aforementioned bevy of options in the backfield will likely limit his looks in the red zone in the Niners' run-heavy offense. As a part-time WR3, Crabtree might not disappoint, but he's being treated like a low-end WR2 in many drafts.

Santonio Holmes, WR, NYJ - Is there a more overrated receiver in the NFL? Holmes bottomed out with a 6.5 YPT last season and he was rarely given targets in the red zone (9). Perhaps the change in offensive coordinator will lead to a step forward for quarterback Mark Sanchez and the Jets' offense will be a bit more aggressive through the air in general, but that's hardly a guarantee and there's still some question as to how Tim Tebow will factor into the quarterback picture. As talented as Holmes may be, putting all of the pieces back together as a disgruntled wideout in a struggling offense seems unlikely. Holmes has recently garnered attention for sitting out at training camp with general leg soreness and tightness, while it's uncertain as to when he'll be fully participating in practice again.

Vincent Brown, WR, SD - Brown played his way onto the fantasy radar in Weeks 9 and 10 last season with a four-catch, 79-yard performance against the Packers before a five-catch, 97-yard effort along with his first NFL touchdown against the Raiders. Entering camp, Brown looked to be in competition with free-agent pickup Eddie Royal for slot receiver duty to begin the season, but the early indications are that Royal is going to come away with the job for Week 1. Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem have had their share of durability issues in the past, however, so Brown is still an injury away from getting a more prominent role in the Chargers' offense. Unfortunately, being the fourth receiver on a team that also boasts a Hall of Fame tight end and a capable pass-catching running back doesn't lead to much short-term fantasy value.

Justin Blackmon, WR, JAC - Thursday marked the eighth day of Blackmon's training camp holdout, as the Jags are reportedly hung up on language that would allow them to recover base salary in the event of further off-field incidents. Missing reps during camp certainly won't help the rookie acclimate to the NFL, and the concern here pre-holdout was that Blackmon would have Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne throwing passes his way this season. On most other teams, Blackmon might offer considerable upside in Year 1, but the holdout and poor quarterback situation provide major obstacles to overcome.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper.