No division in the NFL has more questions than the AFC East when talking about fantasy football. These four teams feature two second year quarterbacks, a ton of free agency acquisitions, a crowded running back by committee and of course the always frustrating New England Patriots. Bill Belichick and his rotation of running backs and more recently wide receivers makes it extremely difficult to get a grasp on where fantasy owners should target starters. This NFL Divisional preview tries to sort out the mystery that is the AFC East.
Second-year QB EJ Manuel has not looked like the type of signal-caller that is ready to take a leap forward. Throughout the preseason, Manuel has been heavily-pressured due to a porous offensive line. In three warm-up tilts, Manuel has completed 62.7% of his passes, with a single score against Tampa’s second and third-team defense, two interceptions and a pedestrian QB-rating of 73.2. At this point, there’s little reason to draft Manuel at all, unless you’re in a 2QB league or dynasty format. We expect the Bills to be in the market for another signal-caller in next year’s draft, but that poses another problem as the club traded its 2015 first rounder to move up for Watkins.
RB CJ Spiller has also been fairly quiet so far this season, accumulating 76 rushing yards (4.0 ypc) and another 26 yards on four grabs. Spiller is being drafted as an RB2, but holds more value in PPR formats. He’ll still break off the occasional big plays and rack up 35+ receptions, but there’s not much reason to think that he will suddenly command a bigger workload. Look for the Bills to continue to utilize multiple backs. Forgotten veteran Fred Jackson looks like he’ll play his usual role as a change-of-pace runner and short-yardage banger behind Spiller. Jackson has excelled in that role in the past and could be a very valuable fantasy contributor yet again this season, and one that comes with an ADP currently into the 8th round. The team traded for RB Bryce Brown and have given him plenty of work in the preseason, but it’s always been with the reserves. Since Fred Jackson has struggled to stay healthy, Brown has some value as a late-round flier in deeper fantasy leagues.
Super prospect Sammy Watkins sat out Buffalo’s dress rehearsal with banged up ribs. Through three preseason games played, Watkins has managed a mere three catches for 21 yards. Coupled with EJ Manuel’s mediocre showing, Watkins ADP is starting to slip. As talented as the rookie wideout is, he won’t be a breakout star or fantasy starter until the Bills’ offense can find a way to consistently get the ball in his hands and find creative ways to utilize his abundant talent. New acquisition Mike Williams has sewn up the starting spot opposite of Watkins and looks like he’ll be Buffalo’s main redzone receiving threat. Third receiver Robert Woods has had as solid showing in August, starting in place of the injured Watkins versus the Bucs and hauling in multiple receptions in each game. Woods’ 13 preseason catches is the third most in the NFL. Woods has locked down the third receiver role for Buffalo and can be considered as a late-round flier in fantasy leagues. Chris Hogan has made a strong showing in August and looks to be ahead of Marquise Goodwin as Buffalo’s fourth receiver.
TE Scott Chandler won’t make many headlines, but remains a viable late-round fantasy option for owners who miss out on stars at the position or are looking for a back-up late in their drafts. Given EJ Manuel’s penchant for checking down, Chandler can be a decent streaming option to consider as well.
After free-agent RB Knowshon Moreno showed up out of shape and promptly was shelved due to a knee injury, everyone assumed that second-year teammate Lamar Miller would run away with the starting job and live up to his draft billing. Complicating that plan was the fact that Moreno finally debuted in Miami’s third preseason contest and outplayed Miller. Moreno broke off some nice runs and produced 64 rushing yards on 10 carries while reportedly looking outstanding all week in practice. We firmly expect this to be a full timeshare committee with Miller playing mostly on first and second downs, while Moreno will play a change-of-pace role and play on passing downs due to his prowess as a pass-blocker and receiver. Miller’s ADP slates him in the early 8th round, while Moreno’s, though climbing, is all the way down in round 10.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary from Bill Lazor’s arrival will be WR Mike Wallace, the prized free-agent acquisition who had a disappointing debut in Miami and ultimately proved to be a poor fit in former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. Smart fantasy owners last year avoided Wallace, but should take note that the team has revamped their entire offense and Wallace will be utilized as Miami’s “X” receiver, with a better emphasis given to getting the speedy receiver downfield where he thrived at making big plays for Pittsburgh, and in much the same role that DeSean Jackson played for Lazor in Philadelphia in 2013. We like Wallace quite a bit as a high-upside WR2/3. PPR owners take note of Brian Hartline as an outstanding value late in fantasy drafts. In that format, Hartline has been a top-30 wide receiver in each of the past two seasons, but is strangely being totally ignored in many fantasy drafts. He won’t offer many touchdowns, but Hartline should be a good bet for 60+ grabs and should challenge for a third straight 1000 yard season. Second-round WR Jarvis Landry has rotated with veteran Brandon Gibson as Miami’s third receiver. That rotation is expected to carry over into the regular season, hampering both players from offering much fantasy value until one emerges. Either way, there’s not a ton of upside here, as the slot receiver is expected to be fourth in the pass-catching pecking order, behind Wallace, Hartline and tight end Charles Clay. It should be noted that Landry could return both punts and kicks for the Dolphins, giving him value for leagues that offer up return yardage.
New England Patriots
Long the centerpiece for the club, Tom Brady is now 37 years old and has started to show signs of slowing down. Injuries really hurt the club’s offense last season, and Brady’s numbers fell off considerably. With that said, TE Rob Gronkowski is expected to be ready to go for Week 1 and Brady has been a totally different QB with him in the lineup. Brady’s ADP has seen him slip well beyond normal levels and it’s not uncommon for him to be available beyond the 10th round. We love Brady as a prime bounce-back candidate this season and think he has an excellent shot at returning to elite status as a top-5 fantasy signal-caller. Brady is one of the best values on the board.
The Patriots’ backfield is one of the most important situations to monitor, as New England is annually at or near the top of the league’s rushing touchdowns leaders. Shane Vereen is expected to be the club’s starter and should remain a superb pass-catching threat out of the backfield and split-0ut wide. Belichick will utilize Vereen and other backs in a variety of ways and as long as Vereen can stay on the field, he is a real threat to catch 80+ balls and be an elite PPR player. Stevan Ridley is the team’s best inside runner and has looked excellent in the preseason, but continues to fumble the ball and land himself in Belichick’s doghouse. An alarming article from ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss projects Ridley to be released due to his fumbling issues. Should that play out, rookie RB James White is slated to be one of the top sleepers in all of fantasy football. White has continually been praised by Belichick, but has been outplayed by all of the other New England backs on the field. Other candidates to make the team and be potential fantasy factors include veteran Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray and fullback James Develin.
Although New England’s backfield picture is cloudy, the receiving corps is no less defined. The safest bet remains PPR-gem Julian Edelman, who signed a new deal and should lead the club in targets and receptions. Oft-injured Danny Amendola, is was expected to thrive in the position currently manned by Edelman, will make the club due to his contract and should occupy the slot in three-receiver sets. The real mystery for the Pats has been who will start as the club’s X-receiver. Favorite Aaron Dobson has yet to play in the preseason due to a troublesome foot injury. Dobson offers the most upside and is worth a gamble in the middle part of fantasy drafts. Free-agent acquisition Brandon LaFell has spent a lot of time with the first-team offense and is the most proven NFL player amongst New England’s potential outside starters. Kenbrell Thompkins has also secured a roster spot and has started as the X-receiver throughout camp. Veterans Josh Boyce and Matthew Slater will compete for the team’s sixth receiver and special teams ace role.
We haven’t seen Rob Gronkowski do much more than line-up for seven-on-seven drills in a red no-contact jersey, but Gronk remains one of the most watched fantasy options in the league. Gronkowski, who has 42 touchdowns in 50 career games, is one of the biggest mismatches in all of the NFL and when healthy deserving of a third round fantasy pick as the second tight end. As of now, there are mixed opinions on if and when he’ll be ready to play, but when he is, Gronkowski offers his fantasy owners a huge advantage. If you can nab him in the 4th or 5th round, the upside is worth the gamble. New England’s trading of OL Logan Makins to Tampa brings an interesting fantasy option back in return. TE Tim Wright flashed some decent receiving chops last season, snagging 54 for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns in a relatively limited amount of playing time. The thought is that Wright will occupy the “move” tight end spot when the Pats employ a two tight end set. It may take a fair bit of time for Wright to learn New England’s complex offense and terminology, but he’s an interesting player to keep an eye on during September. Hopefully, fantasy fanatics have learned the painful lesson of not over-hyping players just because they are thrust into roles that once produced good fantasy statistics. (See: Sudfeld, Zac)
New York Jets
New York looks like they’ll be firmly committed to a two-back approach to their rushing attack this season, with Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory splitting carries somewhat evenly in camp and during the preseason. Johnson will probably start games and break off the occasional big play while remaining on the field for most passing downs. Ivory is the inside runner who is more likely to lineup behind Smith when the Jets are in short-yardage situations. Neither back has huge upside as long as both are healthy. Johnson should catch 30+ passes, giving him decent RB2/flex value in PPR leagues. Ivory is worth a late-round flier. Veteran Bilal Powell is likely the third back, but won’t get much playing time in this crowded backfield.
WR Eric Decker has looked very solid as New York’s go-t0 receiver and has been targeted often by Geno Smith, especially around the goal line. Decker has the adequate size and speed to be a team’s number-one receiver, but could struggle if another teammate doesn’t emerge as a consistent threat and he faces constant double teams. Right now, Decker has an ADP into the sixth round, as the 31st wide receiver. David Nelson will start opposite of Decker and play in two-receiver sets. Nelson has only caught 38 balls since 2012 and won’t make much of a fantasy impact here. Jeremy Kerley will play in the slot on passing downs.
It looks like rookie TE Jace Amaro has emerged as the Jets’ starting tight end after struggling with drops early in camp. Amaro has racked up a team-high eight catches for 79 yards and a score in the preseason and could have some fantasy value as a safety net for his young quarterback.Draft Amaro as a late TE2 in deeper fantasy leagues. Jeff Cumberland and Zach Sudfeld will battle for playing time behind Amaro. Cumberland is an in-line blocker, while Sudfeld is more of a “move” tight end. It should be noted that Sudfeld received several endzone looks in the preseason.