The summer is a slow time for the NFL, but the money-making machine never truly shuts off. From OTAs to minicamps, all the way up to training camp at the end of July, reporters are always trying to keep the general public interested.
But you aren’t a member of the general public. You spend the summer searching for any ounce of information you can dig up so you aren’t going into your fantasy draft blind. (Hence why you’re reading this.)
It can be a frustrating endeavor because media coverage tends to be exclusively sunny during camp: no teams have had their hopes completely crushed yet. However useless the reports, though, here are a few fantasy players you absolutely need to include in your Google Alerts this offseason, and who you can replace them with if the prognosis is negative.
Sammy Watkins, WR; Bills:
The former first-rounder has been a testament to will-power through his first two seasons in the league. He battled through broken ribs and a groin injury to play all 16 games of his rookie year, and he missed just three games last year despite more leg injuries. So it’s not a shock to hear that the receiver underwent another surgery this offseason, this time for a broken bone in his foot.
There’s no firm timeline on Watkins’ return, but he seems to think he’ll be back for the preseason. While that should be good news for Bills fans, foot injuries aren’t something you want to rush. Dez Bryant missed seven weeks after foot surgery last season and was not the same player when he came back. Granted, he had high school quarterbacks throwing to him, but there was definitely a lack of explosiveness from the All-Pro receiver, who caught just 31 of 74 targets.
This summer, keep an eye on when Watkins resumes running and working out. The closer that date is to the regular season, the bigger the red flag. Ultimately, Watkins is a great receiver, but if you can’t trust that he’ll be fully healthy this season, you’re better off taking an Allen Robinson.
Replacement option: Allen Robinson; Jaguars
Martellus Bennett, TE; Patriots:
“The Patriots are going to resurrect their famed two-tight end system!” everyone proclaimed after New England traded for Bennett.
First off, it’s not like they haven’t been trying to bring that look back for a while now. Since Aaron Hernandez took his “leave of absence,” they traded Logan Mankins for breakout rookie Tim Wright (and a fourth-round pick) in 2014; then they brought in Scott Chandler last season to little success.
Is Bennett a better athlete than both of them? Definitely. But will he be able to play for Bill Belichick? That remains to be seen.
Bennett’s in a different headspace than most athletes, and has been known to check out for stretches. After two years of getting away with whatever he wanted in Marc Trestman’s hippie commune, Bennett regressed under John Fox’s crack-the-whip style of coaching. Belichick’s style is a lot closer to the latter than the former.
Keep an eye on Patriots camp and how the tight end is responding to his new environment. If anyone is going to be brutally honest, it’s the Boston media.
Finally, remember that Bennett is a notoriously quick starter: 11 of his 23 career touchdowns have come in the month of September. Even if he looks good early, that doesn’t mean it will last.
Replacement option: Jared Cook; Packers
Matt Jones RB; Washington:
Mike Shanahan may be long gone from D.C., but that doesn’t mean the team has started a running back loyalty program. Jones is the de facto starter heading into camp, but there are a number of obstacles he’ll need to overcome to keep it that way.
For “starters,” Jones is coming off a surgery for a hip-pointer that kept him out of three games to end last season. Recovering from his operation should be the most important thing for Jones, but his grasp on the job isn’t so strong that he can afford to miss too many workouts. Washington took Georgia running back Keith Marshall in the seventh round this year, and he could turn some heads this summer.
If Jones (who averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and fumbled five times in his rookie season) doesn’t show an improvement in camp, Washington may look elsewhere for help. There’s still decent talent available on the free agent market, and more names will join them as training camp cuts begin.
Replacement option: Jay Ajayi; Dolphins
Steve Smith, WR; Ravens:
When Smith declared that he wouldn’t be retiring and, instead, would return from his devastating Achilles tear, we all just nodded okay: nobody questions Steve Smith. But just because we all believe the 37-year-old receiver can battle back from the speed- and agility-threatening injury, it doesn’t mean you have to show that support in a fantasy draft.
Smith should be back for training camp. But doing what? If he’s not ready to recapture his chemistry with Joe Flacco, he could lose targets to younger, faster players like Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace, and Kamar Aiken this year.
Replacement option: Vincent Jackson; Buccaneers