Even though it remains quiet on the NFL front with the lockout still in full force, the chatter is beginning to pick up in fantasy circles. What follows are a few early fantasy rumblings for every AFC team:
DOLPHINS new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll brings a pound-the-rock philosophy to Miami, and rookie Daniel Thomas could be quite the fantasy sleeper and a candidate for more than 200 carries, but wait to see what Miami does in free agency before pouncing. If the team makes a splash with a guy like DeAngelo Williams, Reggie Bush or Ahmad Bradshaw, that will significantly decrease Thomas' value. But if it adds a complement like Darren Sproles or Jason Snelling, Thomas would be primed for a solid fantasy season behind what should be an improved O-line. … All signs are pointing to this being Shonn Greene's breakout season with the JETS. He runs behind a strong offensive line, head coach Rex Ryan has said Greene will be the bellcow and veteran LaDainian Tomlinson is resigned to being the third-down back. We said this last year, but no one predicted LT's impact. This season should be different, and the Jets love to run the football. Greene is a solid No. 2 RB option in fantasy and it isn't a stretch to draft him as your top back. … PATRIOTS TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski epitomize how difficult it is to draft players from New England in fantasy leagues who aren't named Tom Brady. The way the offense spreads the ball around, it's anyone's guess as to who will score the points each week. But Hernandez and Gronkowski proved in 2010 that they both can be productive, and Brady was not shy about throwing them the rock, especially in the red zone. Don't worry about the handcuff — both tight ends are worthy of starting in fantasy. … BILLS QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has a few viable options at wide receiver should teams begin to bottle up 2010 breakout star Stevie Johnson. Fitzpatrick said he wants to get veteran Lee Evans more involved, slot WR Roscoe Parrish had career-high numbers in '10 before getting hurt and the team likes what it has in youngsters David Nelson and Marcus Easley. Keep an eye on how defenses play the Bills early and how Fitzpatrick distributes the ball. One of the wideouts behind Johnson could be a very serviceable No. 3 in fantasy.
After throwing four interceptions in a loss at Cincinnati in Week Two of the 2010 season, RAVENS QB Joe Flacco played very well, tossing 24 touchdown passes and five interceptions in the final 14 starts of the season. Other young quarterbacks might create more buzz in drafts, but Flacco is a fine reserve option in all formats and a decent platoon QB in big leagues. … Keep an eye on who emerges as the top backup to Ray Rice in Baltimore, as that back could get some goal-line and short-yardage opportunities. Reserve Willis McGahee, who scored 17 rushing TDs the plast two seasons, could be a salary-cap cut. … The uncertainty surrounding the futures of WR Chad Ochocinco and QB Carson Palmer in Cincinnati clouds their draft status. Palmer clearly does not want to play for the BENGALS anymore, and there has been speculation that Ochocinco, who is entering the final year of his contract, could be released. It's hard to consider either player as anything more than a backup until their situations are resolved. Owners strongly considering taking Palmer in leagues drafting earlier in the summer might want to take three quarterbacks just to be safe. … Those looking for late-round sleeper wide receivers will want to keep an eye on Cleveland. The BROWNS are expected to incorporate their wideouts more this season, and QB Colt McCoy showed promise as a rookie. Third-year WRs Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie and rookie Greg Little are the receivers who appear to have the best shot at making a major impact. Keep an eye on who's playing well in camp and who has an edge on the starting jobs before slotting your draft boards. Massaquoi and Robiskie were the starters last season, but the Browns drafted Little in Round Two, and he's expected to challenge for playing time. … Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported in June that former Giants RB Tiki Barber might sign with Pittsburgh after the lockout, with King calling it his "educated guess, and maybe a little more than that." Should Barber sign with the STEELERS, he could merit a late-round look if he has a good preseason and earns the top reserve role. That said, his addition to the Steelers' backfield wouldn't figure to hurt Rashard Mendenhall's fantasy stock much, if at all. Mendenhall, who scored 13 rushing touchdowns in the regular season and added four more TDs in three postseason games, would figure to continue to get the majority of the goal-line touches this season.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Tennessean that the league plans to discipline players who violated the personal-conduct policy during the lockout. That's not good news for owners who are contemplating drafting TITANS WR Kenny Britt, who was arrested multiple times this offseason. With a Britt suspension a near certainty, other receivers will have to pick up the slack for the Titans early in the season. One name to keep an eye on is second-year WR Damian Williams. Like Britt, Williams can stretch the field vertically and could be worth a look with Britt on the shelf early. … It will be hard for TEXANS RB Arian Foster, the 2010 NFL rushing champion, to eclipse last season's ridiculous fantasy production. Working in his advantage, however, are his health — Foster is expected to be 100 percent when the season begins after playing all of last season with a sore knee — and his incentive for wanting a new deal [Foster is scheduled to receive $480,000 in 2011]. One potential obstacle for Foster, however, will be the contract status of All-Pro FB Vonta Leach. If Leach signs elsewhere, it could take time for Foster to get acclimated with a new lead blocker. … RB Javarris James provided an unexpected boon for his fantasy owners last season as an undrafted rookie, leading the COLTS in rushing TDs with six. RB Delone Carter, the club's fourth-round pick in April, will have an even greater opportunity to tote the rock down by the goal line this season. As often as the Peyton Manning-led Colts should be in the red zone, Carter could be a fantasy sleeper to have on the radar in the late rounds. … After his breakthrough 2010 campaign, it is unlikely JAGUARS TE Marcedes Lewis will be a late-round diamond in the rough like he was last season. But if you're planning on making Lewis your No. 1 tight end, be sure and monitor his contract situation once the lockout is lifted. The Jaguars slapped Lewis with the franchise tag before the lockout began, but Lewis has not signed the tender, and a holdout is a possibility. Behind Lewis on the depth chart is Zach Miller, who has the speed and athleticism to create mismatch opportunities downfield, but injuries have slowed his development his first two seasons.
Because of RAIDERS RB Darren McFadden's history of injuries and inconsistency, it could be wise to trade him while his value is sky high. And his stock might never be higher than after the first two weeks when Oakland faces the Broncos and Bills, the teams with the two worst run defenses in the NFL last season. Opponents gained nearly five yards per carry against both squads in 2010, and Denver and Buffalo allowed 44 rushing touchdowns combined. In Weeks Three and Four, Oakland plays the Jets and Patriots, two teams that are near the top of the PFW fantasy defense rankings, so it might be a good idea to try to get a great return for Run-DMC if he starts the season with a bang. … Although he's unlikely to unseat Dwayne Bowe as the CHIEFS' No. 1 wide receiver, first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin should be a major factor in K.C.'s passing attack. Built in the same mold as Bowe — both are physical receivers who can make plays down the field — Baldwin should be quite comfortable with QB Matt Cassel when the season begins. The receiver lived with the quarterback for part of the offseason in Kansas City, and the two hit the practice field every day to improve familiarity with each other. When the season finally kicks off, expect Bowe to be Cassel's first option, but Baldwin to be not far behind. … One item worth watching in the preseason will be how the CHARGERS split up the carries of their running backs. Last season's first-round pick, Ryan Mathews, is atop the depth chart and should get the majority of work. But in 2010, because of Mathews' ineffectiveness and injuries, backup Mike Tolbert wound up getting more carries, yards and touchdowns. Mathews came on strong late in the season, and it will be his job to lose. Tolbert still could get a good amount of red-zone touches. Meanwhile, rookie Jordan Todman should replace Darren Sproles as the change-of-pace back. … Keep an eye on the BRONCOS whenever free agency starts. They will be in the market to add a running back who can pound the ball and complement incumbent starter Knowshon Moreno. In fact, reports from Denver intimate that the team's free-agent acquisition could even become the starter, depending on who it is and how much he gets paid.