10. Josh McCown to Tampa Bay
Following the great McCown explosion of 2013, some might be surprised at his #10 rank on this list. His starter statistics with Chicago last season were absolutely phenomenal; McCown’s 13 touchdowns to his single interception show enough about his accuracy and decision making ability to warrant him a solid paycheck with a new team. However, looking back at McCown’s career, it’s obvious that things may not go as smoothly when he’s tossed into a featured role. Across the rest of his veteran backup career, he’s posted 37 touchdowns to a whopping 44 interceptions. To say McCown was thrust into playing on terrible offenses in his early career is a bold understatement. He’ll now have the apt hands of Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson to target in a very QB-friendly scheme.
The main point to note here is that McCown’s numbers with Chicago will likely severely inflate his value in the 2014 fantasy draft. Don’t buy in. He’ll be a solid by-week fill and will likely post very consistent numbers week-to-week (think 2013 Alex Smith), but will not post the franchise-like numbers he managed last season. Also, his acquisition by Tampa was very questionable due to the stellar rookie stats posted by Mike Glennon last season. The rookie finished the season with an 83.9 passer rating, managing 19 touchdowns on only 9 interceptions. Not to say McCown’s starting role is in danger – but should he underperform, Tampa has an excellent replacement.
9. James Jones to Oakland
James Jones was an interesting addition to the Raiders’ rebuilding offense. Jones exploded two seasons ago in Green Bay by becoming Rogers’ favorite red zone target. He managed to haul in 14 touchdowns through a regular season. Last season he only managed 3; he did, however, still manage nearly 900 receiving yards in an offense that loves to spread the ball around. He was also noted as being a very reliable receiver. He will now be joining Oakland and will be targeted by their other acquisition: quarterback Matt Schaub. The latter is nowhere near the caliber of an elite passer, but his lengthy starting career in Houston has proven him to be a qualified starter.
The largest upside for Jones’ 2014 fantasy campaign comes from the fact that he has little competition in Oakland for receptions. Contrary to his role in Green Bay, Jones will be coming in as the most experience and most reliable receiver. Under Schaub, he could easily hit stats falling somewhere between those of his 2012 and 2013 seasons. The only downside to Jones this season is that he lacks the speed and raw talent to overcome the attention gathered by a #1 receiver role. Only time will tell how he performs against the top corners of opposing defenses.
8. Steve Smith to Baltimore
Steve Smith’s release from Carolina was one of the biggest stories of the offseason. The veteran receiver had played with the Panthers since he was drafted in 2001. In that time, he’s accomplished hauling in 800 receptions for 69 touchdowns and 11,785 receiving yards. His slowed productions due to his age and lengthy career finally saw Smith leave his receiver-less team. He has now been snatched up by Baltimore who has a history of bringing in veteran receivers (see Anquan Boldin). With receiver Torrey Smith and Tight End Dennis Pitta at his side, Steve Smith could help Baltimore’s offensive passing game improve over last season.
Despite Smith’s career averages and pro-bowl play, his age was shown in his tampered stats from last season. He put up his second lowest stats in 9 seasons with 745 yards and 4 touchdowns. Those stats, however, were posted as the featured receiver in Carolina. With less direct attention on Baltimore’s offense, Steve Smith could easily sneak those statistics upward. At 35 years old, he likely isn’t due for an explosive comeback season. However, he could be worth stashing as a late 2nd, early 3rd receiver in the 2014 draft.
7. Hakeem Nicks to Indianapolis
Nicks’ football career coaxes some of the greatest confusion imaginable. The former Giants receiver is often confused for an old veteran because of the way his last few season have progressed. Between 2010 and 2011, Nicks managed a combined 18 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards. In the last two seasons, he’s managed roughly 1,600 yards and only 3 touchdowns. Nicks has been plagued by injuries and seems to be playing without any heart. It’s incredibly hard to tell that he is only 26 years old. The “veteran” receiver signed a one-year contract with Indianapolis to try to prove he still has pro-level play left in him.
As former coach Tom Coughlin has alluded, (http://mmqb.si.com/2014/03/28/indianapolis-colts-offseason-hakeem-nicks/) this contract may be exactly the push Nicks needs to get out of his slump. His size, huge hands, raw talent, and young age all set him up to be a dominant NFL receiver; if he manages to shake whatever’s plagued him the last couple of seasons, he may return to fantasy relevance. Nicks has been set up for success with fellow-receivers Hilton and Wayne stealing coverage, and elite quarterback Andrew Luck at the helm. Also, with Wayne’s constant injury scares, it isn’t impossible to think Nicks could be pushed into a more featured role. Stats can’t even be predicted, as his potential is incredible. However, don’t jump the gun too hard in the fantasy draft. After all, this is still Nicks we’re talking about. Make sure if you do snag him, you have a lot of depth.
6. Ben Tate to Cleveland
Tate’s often referred to as one of the most exciting players and one of the top running backs of the 2014 free agency pool. His move to the Browns made a lot of sense since the team traded away their prized running back, Trent Richardson, to Indianapolis early last season. Despite Tate’s 4-season professional career as a backup, he has pounded away in the backfield for a total of nearly 2,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s done all of this while maintaining a 4.7 average YPC.
Cleveland made it very public that they were searching for an every-down back. Tate fits the bill perfectly and will likely be featured as the team’s sole running back. With fullback Ogbonnaya as Tate’s only backfield competition, he should be running every game until his feet fall off. That remains his only downside. As a three-down back, Tate will be receiving some serious punishment. His history of broken bones leaves him as a tangible injury concern. Otherwise, he may emerge as one of 2014’s top backs. If he plays the entire season, expect upwards of 1,400 yards and 8 touchdowns; this makes him draftable as a low No. 1, high No. 2 back.
5. Emmanuel Sanders to Denver
In most circumstances, a player coming on to a team as the #3 receiver would not be particularly exciting – especially in a scheme that utilizes tight ends so heavily. However, Denver is not just any team. Manning’s historical offense last season proved that 4 targets on a single team (Thomas, Thomas, Welker and Decker) could all be statistically amazing. With Decker gone, Denver brought in Sanders to recomplete their epic receiver trifecta. With Sanders proven abilities from last season (740 yds, 6 TDs), he should be able to slide right in where the newly-released Decker left off.
Sanders’ elusive running patterns and ability to break tackles will make him a hot target for Manning in the screen game. As one of Manning’s favorite plays, this should land Sanders some healthy production throughout the season. As the Decker replacement, expect Sanders to be able to finish the season with similar numbers. Decker finished last season with 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. Draft Sanders in a way that assumes he’ll duplicate those numbers.
4. Michael Vick to New York Jets
Due to Vick’s incredible history as a fantasy flop and his uncanny ability to lose his starting position, it may be a surprise to see him so far up on this list. However, it should be noted that for the first few games each season, while Vick is actually healthy, he is among the top fantasy players in any position. Emphasis on “while Vick is actually healthy.” Take, for example, is very healthy 2010 season. Vick managed over 3,000 passing yards and a total of 30 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. Unfortunately, he hasn’t started an entire season since 2006.
So why the faith in Vick? The fact of the matter is that his former team, Philadelphia, punished him. A lot. After watching their prized quarterback get severely injured the previous season, they would toss him straight back out to the wolves. Should he Jets use Vick a little more sparingly, and only run him on the occasional sneak play, they might be able to squeeze a healthier season out of him – hopefully one close to his 2010 performance. Unfortunately, Vick may not even get the start in New York above Geno Smith. Keep your eyes peeled to the headlines before draft day and make sure to grab a solid backup quarterback.
3. Eric Decker to New York Jets
Speaking of new Jets acquisitions, Eric Decker is a new addition to the squad. Rex Ryan’s prized team had a non-existent receiver core last season led by rookie Jeremy Kerley. The addition of a “real” receiver to this group of fresh players should be incredibly welcomed. Decker will especially be a nice addition as his trusted hands last season netted him 87 catches for nearly 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, questions about Decker’s past successes have arisen. Decker’s spent his entire career so far surrounded by incredible talents. He was passed to by (arguably) the NFL’s greatest quarterback of all time. Not only that, he was in a pass-happy scheme with coverage being drawn away by two other fantastic receiving threats. Will the arms of Vick and Smith yield the same stats? Only time will tell. On the plus side, Decker has absolutely no competition for receptions. This should allow him to have stats somewhat near those of his previous season. Draft him as a mid-to-low #1 receiver.
2. Rashad Jennings to New York Giants
Rashad Jennings emerged last season as a rushing superstar out of Oakland. As the backup to the glass-cannon, Darren McFadden, Jennings managed to total over 1,000 yards (rushing and receiving), 6 touchdowns, and an average of roughly 4.5 ypc. The Giants, who suffered through a clown car of running backs last season, are likely ecstatic to bring in a consistent talent. Due to injuries and incompetence, the team started 7 different running backs through the 2013 season. Their offensive line also suffered significant casualties and left them with a virtually non-existent run game.
The newly-signed guard Geoff Schwartz has made a career of opening holes for his team’s running backs. He played in front of Adrian Peterson in his epic 2012 campaign, and just recently headed Jamaal Charles’ dominant 2013 season. Schwartz’s size paired with Jennings ability could create an explosive duo in the 2014 season. The only caution to be had here comes in the form of running back David Wilson. This Giants’ rookie was scouted as one of the most talented running backs to ever play the game. Unfortunately, fumble issues and injuries have held him back. Anyone who drafts Jennings as a #1 back will need to handcuff Wilson on the off-chance he gets the nod to start.
1. Golden Tate to Detroit
The golden boy slides in at #1 on this list of 2014 fantasy prospects due to the circumstances that will surround him in Detroit. Due to injuries, Tate lead the Super Bowl winning Seahawks last season with 64 catches for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns. Though those stats don’t compare to the aforementioned Decker, Tate managed those statistics on a team that prioritized defense; he also wasn’t blessed with presence of Peyton Manning. What makes him a perfect fit for Detroit is that he led the entire league last season in percentage of caught passes. The Lions managed to lead the league in dropped passes.
This recipe for success comes courtesy of Calvin Johnson, the greatest player to have ever touched a football. This league-leading superstar has been the dread of every secondary in the league. Luckily for those teams, the Lions have never had a capable and sure-handed second receiver. With a great tandem in the backfield, and the almighty Megatron drawing the secondary, Tate will have the field to himself. Quarterback Stafford has proven to be a top-tier performer and shouldn’t have any trouble getting Tate the ball. It isn’t wild to think that Tate could become Stafford’s more accessible and favorite target next season. Expect he and Calvin to finish the season with similar stats: around 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns.
photo: CBS sports
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