- By the time this is published, we will be almost exactly 24 hours away from the official start of the 2014 football season. Tomorrow when we wake up there will be a whole different feeling in the air, a level of excitement that's been missing since last February. Green Bay and Seattle kick off the regular season Thursday night. We get to set fantasy lineups, read box scores, and predict meaningful games. I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't wait. Without further ado, let's get to it:
- Well, it looks like we no longer have to worry about that concussion after all. Denver wide receiver Wes Welker has been suspended four games for violation of the league's PED policy (amphetamines). We learned later that it was reportedly the result of taking MDMA, which is also known as Ecstasy or "Molly", at the Kentucky Derby earlier this year. It would appear he's been spending too much time with teammate Von Miller…too soon? Maybe I'm jaded; but after reading his denial here, I'm not buying what Welker is selling. He was a little over the top on the "play dumb" defense in my opinion.
These last couple weeks have not been kind to Wes Welker and his fantasy value. Before this breaking news, Welker suffered a concussion in the team's third preseason game against the Texans. That concussion was his third in the last 10 months, leaving some doubt as to whether he would be ready to play in the season opener Sunday night against Indianapolis. Welker returned to individual drills this week and was making his way through the necessary steps of the concussion protocol. All of that is now moot as the former Patriot will no longer be allowed in the Broncos practice facility for the next four weeks during the suspension. Part of you still has to wonder if, even when he comes back in October, he can finish any game he plays in. Any time you start him, it's a risk he leaves you with a doughnut by virtue of getting knocked out of the game with a head injury.
In his first season in Denver, Wes Welker scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career as a key cog in last year's record-breaking offense. The 33-year old has now been a member of the two highest-scoring offenses in NFL history. His play really tapered off after scoring nine touchdowns in the first eight games of 2013, failing to exceed 72 yards and scoring just once in his final five games. Welker has 802 receptions in the last eight seasons, by far the most in the league (Andre Johnson is second with 719). He has epitomized the slot receiver during that time with five 100-catch seasons in a six-year span from 2007-2012. The guy has been a PPR machine for fantasy owners for the better part of a decade.
Emmanuel Sanders will likely slide inside and play out of the slot position most of the time during Wes Welker's absence. Andre Caldwell certainly could see significant snaps during this period, but rookie Cody Latimer would be the player to target in light of this news. Latimer absolutely needs to be added, there is just too much upside in that offense not to. If the second-round draft pick ends up playing outside in Eric Decker's old spot, the returns could be huge. At 6-3, 215 pounds with 4.39 speed and a 39" vertical leap, the natural ability is there. And that Peyton Manning guy has a way of maximizing the potential of players around him.
- While Rob Gronkowski told reporters he is in line to play this Sunday against the Dolphins, Bill Belichick noted that the team has yet to make a final determination on his availability. This certainly could be classic Belichick games regarding the injury report, but there is also a possibility Gronkowski doesn't suit up. We all know the player isn't exactly the most reliable source considering their health. His head coach said Tuesday, "I'm glad Rob is optimistic about his situation. We will go through a week of practice, look at everything and everybody…try to do what's best for the team". Even if the All-Pro TE is in the lineup, it's highly unlikely he plays every snap. Thankfully, Gronkowski doesn't need to in order to deliver huge fantasy numbers due to his ability to score touchdowns. He's the best red zone target in football. Period. Over his career, he scores a TD 47.8% of the time he's targeted at the goal line. Dez Bryant is second, 6.4% less than Gronk. In case you were wondering, the league average is 28.9%.
Over the past two years, we have seen how different that Patriots offense is without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup. Tom Brady's numbers drop significantly when he doesn't have his security blanket and red zone target to throw to. In the first six games of 2013 (without Gronk), the team was held to 20.8 ppg, 348.8 ypg, and 40.9% red zone TD percentage. In the next six (with their stud tight end), those numbers improved across the board to 32.8 ppg, 406.7 ypg, and 67.9% RZ scoring. Brady himself went from a 79.5 passer rating and 56.9% completion percentage to 96.5 rating and completed 64.7% of his passes. To say Gronkowski impacts the game would be an understatement. Should the All-Pro tight end miss the Miami game this Sunday, recent trade acquisition Tim Wright would need to be elevated in fantasy rankings. Wright could be a sneaky play if that ends up being the case.
- Staying with the tight end position, Green Bay listed rookie Richard Rodgers as the team's starting tight end on their first depth chart for the season. The former Cal Bear was a third round pick in the draft this past May. At 6-4, 245 pounds, Rodgers is almost identical in size to Jermichael Finley. While the 22-year old is not nearly the athlete Finley was, he provides upside given the offense he is playing in. If for no other reason than Aaron Rodgers is the Packer quarterback, Richard Rodgers has fantasy potential. Full disclosure, there are many mouths to feed in that offense and elite quarterbacks like Rodgers tend to spread the ball around. Because the Pack have Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin, you have to earn your targets in that passing game. However, Green Bay is one of the elite offenses in the game and there will be no shortage of scoring opportunities. If you're looking for a bye-week fill-in, you could do worse than a tight end that has a chance to post a touchdown or two any given Sunday.
- Seahawks running back Christine Michael (hamstring) has been ruled out for the regular season opener against the Packers, Liz Matthews of 710 ESPN Seattle reports. One of the determining factors was Michael's inability to participate in practice again on Tuesday. The 23-year old missed the 'Hawks final preseason game against Oakland last Thursday after injuring the hammy in practice earlier that week. The severity of the pull has not been revealed, but obviously there is real discomfort if it's forcing the second-year back to miss this contest. With just over 24 hours left until game time, time effectively ran out on that hamstring. In light of this, Robert Turbin will now be the only backup to Marshawn Lynch when Green Bay comes to town Thursday night, as the team only kept three running backs on the 53-man roster. Fortunately, the dynamic Percy Harvin can step in and run the ball in case of emergency.
There is no guarantee Christine Michael would've seen much action anyway with Robert Turbin outplaying him during the preseason (almost a full yard per carry better) and winning the second-team running back competition. But it certainly would be nice to have Michael available, if for no other reason than depth. Pete Carroll has raved about the sophomore's play multiple times since minicamp, wanting to get the explosive runner touches any way the team can. Seattle's coaching staff has also expressed an interest in lightening the load for Beast Mode in hopes of keeping him fresh for a potential playoff run, so look for both reserves to play an expanded role this season compared to year's past. Despite Robert Turbin being listed ahead of him on the first depth chart, the consensus is that Michael would receive the majority of carries in the event Lynch goes down with an injury because he is more dynamic than Turbin.
- Bills WR Sammy Watkins (ribs) participated fully in practice Wednesday, per WGR's Joe Buscaglia. Watkins injured the ribs initially when he got hit while reaching for an EJ Manuel pass against the Steelers in the team's third preseason game, then aggravated the injury in Buffalo's final exhibition contest vs Detroit. Being able to practice in advance of Sunday's regular season opener in Chicago is a great sign for the rookie. As a fantasy owner, there still has to be some concern about his ability to finish a game even though Watkins has declared himself "ready to play" for week 1. Personally, I would have a hard time trusting him in my lineup until he proves going the full four quarters is not an issue. Taking a zero loses fantasy matchups quicker than just about anything else, and really any hit could knock Watkins out right now. But if the 21-year old can deal with the pain, he can be productive. Buffalo believes Sammy Watkins is the true No. 1 receiver the team hasn't had since Andre Reed. After giving up a significant package in order to move up in the draft to take him fourth overall, they better be right.
- In running back news, Bernard Pierce (concussion) and Steven Jackson (hamstring) are also on track to start Sunday for the Ravens and Falcons, respectively. Bernard Pierce left Baltimore's third preseason contest against Washington, but has now passed all NFL-mandated concussion protocols. Pierce will likely see the majority of carries against the Bengals in the opener, but the team figures to use some sort of rotation involving Lorenzo Taliaferro and Justin Forsett as well. If the 24-year old plays well, he very well could remain the primary ballcarrier when Ray Rice returns from his suspension in week 3. Hard to believe, but the third-year back was actually worse (2.9 ypc) than Rice (3.1 ypc) last season. If the Ravens are to return to the playoffs, they will need much more out of the running game in 2014.
Steven Jackson suffered that hamstring injury on the first day of August and missed the next 27 days of practice because of it. Jackson did not play in any of Atlanta's preseason games. There were reports that he was ready to give it a go in the final week of exhibition play, but the coaching staff wisely held him out. The 31-year old missed four games and chunks of two others last season with the same injury as he failed to reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in the past seven years. After joining the Falcons as a free agent in March of 2013, much more was expected from the veteran. Fantasy owners drafted him in the second round last summer anticipating RB1 returns. Although the per-carry numbers weren't great (3.5), Jackson did produce nearly 10 ppg in standard leagues when he did play. If he can stay healthy, the scoring potential is there. Being the goal-line back in an explosive offense has its perks, i.e. six touchdowns in the final six games.
In addition to those two, Arian Foster and Ronnie Hillman should be out there in their regular openers as well. Foster and the Texans host Washington Sunday while Hillman's Broncos will face off against the Colts in Denver. Arian Foster missed all of preseason for the second consecutive year, but said he's feeling "wonderful, physically" and ready to go. The 28-year old missed the last half of the 2013 season after undergoing back surgery. Foster will be out there and receive plenty of touches against the Redskins. Although it remains to be seen how he fits into Bill O'Brien's offensive system, you can start the veteran with confidence. Ronnie Hillman's status is much less certain. The 22-year old participated in individual drills Wednesday after being hospitalized before the team's final preseason game last week with an undisclosed illness. Hillman won the backup tailback job behind during training camp. The third-year pro out of San Diego State serves as a nice change of pace to Montee Ball and is the most explosive of the Denver running backs. Hillman saw little action last year in a crowded backfield, but will be relied on more this season with Knowshon Moreno no longer in the fold.
- Cleveland wideout Josh Gordon will make a decision on whether he and his legal team will challenge his one-year ban in "the next day or two". If you drafted Gordon, don't cut him until this news is announced. Reason being if a suit is filed, the expectation is that it will include a motion for preliminary injunction. Essentially, they would be asking a judge to prevent the NFL from implementing the suspension until the case ends-allowing 2013's leading receiver to play for the Browns in the meantime. There have been many articles and columns written about this topic debating whether Gordon should go this route or not, or if he would have a chance at winning such a case. That is for better legal minds than mine to discuss. But what I do know is, if a lawsuit is filed and Gordon is able to play this season, you would feel like a fool for dropping last year's fantasy points leader at the position (in only 14 games, mind you) because you were too impatient.
- In Eagles news, both Riley Cooper (ankle) and Chris Polk (hamstring) practiced fully Wednesday, and Lesean McCoy (thumb) wasn't even listed on the injury report. All three are on track to play Sunday against Jacksonville. Receiver Riley Cooper has been dealing with the minor foot injury since the start of training camp. Backup tailback Chris Polk returned to practice on Aug. 23, so the hamstring should be in the rearview mirror. Lesean McCoy, the straw that stirs the drink in Philly, hurt his thumb against Pittsburgh in the "dress rehearsal" game. It appears to no longer be an issue.
- Touching on a couple quick injury updates, Cam Newton (ribs) did not practice for the Panthers, Kenny Stills (quad) was a limited participant in Saints practice, Reggie Wayne (knee) was held out of Colts practice, and Tyler Eifert (shoulder) practiced fully for the Bengals Wednesday. Eifert, who missed the final three preseason games with the bum shoulder, told reporters he is feeling good and one hundred percent healthy. The second-year tight end figures to play a big role in the game against Baltimore with Marvin Jones out (foot). This appears to be more of a rest situation for Reggie Wayne. Recovering from the torn ACL, Indianapolis is likely just trying to keep his workload to a minimum in order to avoid any potential swelling in that knee; nothing to worry about at this time. Indy has Denver on Sunday. Kenny Stills is less of a sure thing despite ramping up his activity level in recent days. More so than the quadriceps injury, timing with Drew Brees and guaranteed targets are a real concern. Between Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Brandin Cooks, the Saints receiving corps is crowded. Even in an offense that throws a ton, it's almost impossible to count on Stills consistently. Circling back to Cam Newton, the hairline fracture suffered during preseason play could either keep him out of Sunday's game against Tampa Bay or severely limit him in the contest. Newton's fantasy prospects are nowhere near what they've been in recent years due to the turnover on that offense. Carolina will be breaking in three new offensive lineman and all new receivers in 2014. On top of the rib issue, Super Cam is still recovering from ankle surgery this spring.
- Lastly, Calvin Johnson doesn't anticipate missing regular practice time this fall like he did for the vast majority of last season. Johnson barely practiced throughout 2013 as he was dealing with knee and finger ailments. Former head coach Jim Schwartz often limited him to just one session, sometimes holding him out of practice for the entire week in order to preserve the wideout for game days. The 28-year old had his knee drained multiple times last year as well. Megatron had arthroscopic knee and finger surgeries in the offseason, and is one hundred percent healthy entering 2014. This is reassuring news if you own Calvin Johnson. After seeing what he accomplished in 2013 (1,492 yards and 12 TD in just 14 games), when he was struggling with those health issues, you have to be excited about the prospects for this season. The Lions will play host to the Giants in the first of two games on Monday night. Giants free agent acquisition Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Prince Amukamara will be Johnson's first victim(s) of the season.
Calvin Johnson is without a doubt the best wide receiver in the game, averaging 1,712 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last three seasons. Johnson has consistently dominated since 2011 in a way we haven't seen since Randy Moss or Jerry Rice, averaging over 22 fantasy points per game in PPR formats over that span. His 5,137 yards during that time are good for the best three-year stretch in league history, almost 300 yards more than Rice's 4,850 from 1993-1995. He is probably the most talented receiver in NFL history, a combination of size and speed like we've never seen before. The single-season record holder for receiving yards has been a first round pick in fantasy drafts each of the past two years. Deservedly so, as the eighth year pro has the highest ceiling and the highest floor of any receiver in football-a rarity in fantasy. I'm not sure we will ever see anyone top his non-overtime record 329 yards in a single game (Dallas is still having nightmares about that one), but I wouldn't be shocked if Johnson eclipsed the 300-yard mark again. With Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and AJ Green all trying to knock him off his perch as best wideout in the league, complacency will not be an issue for Calvin Johnson.