1. Deandre Thompkins
- Ever since Brandon Lloyd was cut in March, the outside or “X” position in the Patriots’ offense has been vacant. It’s always been a position battle worth monitoring because Lloyd produced a 74/911/4 line on 130 targets last year despite muddled chemistry with Tom Brady. Well, we finally have a firm leader in the clubhouse. Thompkins has been one of the stars of training camp, earning the first-team reps ahead of second-round rookie Aaron Dobson. When the Patriots went two-wide in their second preseason game, it was Danny Amendola and Thompkins. So get the thought that “he went undrafted, so he can’t be that good” out of your head. If Thompkins is good enough for Brady and Bill Belichick, he’s good enough for us.
2. Jordan Cameron
- I was legitimately sad that Cameron busted out for two touchdowns in the Browns’ second preseason game. We’ve been on this guy for five months now because of two things: Scheme and athletic ability. Unfortunately, now the cat is out of the bag to some extent. New Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is a former tight end himself that always designs plays to feature the position in the passing game. He’s coaxed career years out of Antonio Gates (89/1101/10 in 2005), Kellen Winslow Jr. (82/1106/5 in 2007) and Greg Olsen (69/843/5 in 2012). Cameron has struggled through muscle strains during his two NFL seasons, but goes 6’5/254, ran a 4.59 at his Combine in 2011 and played basketball for BYU. He’s up next for Chud.
3. Michael Floyd
- New Cardinals coach Bruce Arians doesn’t throw to running backs or tight ends. He doesn’t run quick-hitting outs or comebacks. Arians implores his quarterbacks to push the ball vertically down the field to the wide receivers, and schemes as well as anyone to make that happen. He did it with the “Young Money” crew in Pittsburgh, turned around Reggie Wayne’s career arc in Indy and made T.Y. Hilton into a budding star. Next on Arians’ hit list is Floyd, a 2012 first-round pick who struggled early in his rookie year and never truly got past Andre Roberts. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Floyd is a 6’3/220 physical beast who is more than capable of doing what Arians needs. Perhaps more importantly, the Cardinals have ditched their three-headed monster of Kevin Kolb/John Skelton/Ryan Lindley in favor of Carson Palmer. Although Palmer is a shell of his former self, he isn’t afraid to throw a ball up for grabs downfield. With Floyd now running ahead of Roberts all spring and summer, it’s an ideal situation.
4. Michael Vick
- Owners have a really bad taste in their mouth about Vick and I understand it. He’s missed 13 games over the last three years due to injury and has underperformed in countless others. So what’s different now? First of all, the Eagles’ offensive line is finally healthy and is arguably the most talented unit in the entire league. Second, a pass-happy Andy Reid offense that opened Vick up to unpredictable hits has been jettisoned in favor a run-heavy Chip Kelly scheme. And finally, Vick has been exceptionally sharp in practices and the preseason (13-of-15 for 199 yards with one touchdown and one Hail Mary interception). Note that over the last six years, Oregon quarterbacks have averaged 568 rushing yards and 7.5 rushing touchdowns per season. Vick, who was on pace for 531 rushing yards last year before going down, could push for 700. His athleticism remains elite.
5. Golden Tate
- How’s this for a perfect storm: Unique talent, in a contract year, playing every down at split end with a rising young star at quarterback. Tate checks all the boxes on that list. And to top it off, he’s been the unquestioned star of Seahawks camp. Although Tate’s 45/688/7 line last year was somewhat disappointing, coach Pete Carroll has suggested that a full comprehension of the scheme wasn’t there. This year, Carroll says Tate has been the team’s “highest tester in terms of assignments.” Percy Harvin (hip surgery) likely won’t play until after Thanksgiving, giving Tate plenty of time to rack up career-best numbers.
6. Roy Helu
- You remember Helu. Just two years ago as a fourth-round rookie, he caught 49 balls and averaged 4.23 YPC. He also ripped off this memorable Edwin Moses style run, highlighting his ability in the open field. Helu’s stock proceeded to plummet thanks to severe toe and Achilles’ issues, but he’s back to full health now and it’s shown as he’s ran circles around his competition for the backup job. Through two preseason games (36 snaps), he’s rushed 14 times for 87 yards (6.21 YPC) and caught one pass for 14 yards. Helu is going to be the Redskins’ third-down and two-minute back, giving him some deep standalone value in PPR. If Alfred Morris were to get hurt, Helu would explode in the Shanahan and Son zone-blocking scheme.
7. Zach Sudfeld
- Two undrafted rookie Patriots on one list seems excessive. It’s not. Sudfeld (6’7/255) was essentially an oversized slot receiver at Nevada, recording a 45/598/8 line as a senior. Well, it just so happens that the Patriots are in desperate need of both pass-catchers and tight ends. Sudfeld has been drawing rave reviews as the first-team “move” tight end throughout camp, which is essentially Aaron Hernandez’s old position. Through two preseason games (66 snaps), he has three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. If Rob Gronkowski (back surgery) misses the first few weeks as expected, Sudfeld will be a featured player on offense. If he plays well in that role, the Patriots will be more inclined to run two-tight end sets even when Gronk gets back
8. Rueben Randle
- The Giants’ offense does not typically support three wide receivers. Last year, No. 3 man Domenik Hixon caught just 39 balls and in 2011, Mario Manningham also had 39 grabs. Will Randle, who has been lighting up practices ever since he humiliated Nnamdi Asomugha in Week 17 last year, buck the trend? Probably not. But his white-hot offseason coupled with constant nagging injuries to Hakeem Nicks (as well as Victor Cruz’s new heel scare) should have owners on notice. Anytime Randle starts for the Giants, he’s going to be on the WR2 radar. A surefire sign that he’s a special player is that he’s consistently beaten double coverage in camp.
9. Christine Michael
- Sitting around and waiting for an injury is not fun. It also ties up a roster spot. But when one injury means you have a legit top-20 overall option, it can be worth it. Michael has zoomed past Robert Turbin during training camp, ripping off 89 yards on 16 carries (5.56 YPC) in the preseason opener. Turbin had nine carries for 35 yards in the second exhibition game as Michael sat out with a minor injury. The Seahawks live by the mantra that the best man will play, and it seems obvious that Michael is the best man for the job should Marshawn Lynch go down.
10. Cordarelle Patterson
- One way to look at fliers is to just take the freakishly talented guys – regardless of situation – and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what happened last year with Randall Cobb. We knew we had a difference-maker in an elite offense, we just didn’t know how the Packers would get him on the field. It turned out that the Pack couldn’t keep him off the field. Perhaps things will go similarly this year for Patterson, who is currently behind Jerome Simpson at the “X” receiver spot. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave recently lauded the No. 29 overall pick for his dependability in the scheme, which is notable because of the raw label. If Patterson can get the mental part of the game and route-running down, he’s going to be a fantasy asset. The dude ran a 4.42 at 6’2/216 and recorded a 37-inch vertical leap at the combine.
11. Jay Cutler
- Under defensive-minded Lovie Smith, the Bears went 81-63 and went to the Super Bowl once. Over the last three years, they went 29-19. But Smith was still fired after the season because GM Phil Emery wanted a coach that would work closely with Cutler. Enter Marc Trestman, an offensive guru of sorts that has been lighting up the CFL for the last eight seasons. Before that, Trestman was a highly respected coordinator for the Browns, 49ers and Raiders. He quickly instilled a priority on protecting Cutler, as the Bears spent $35 million on left tackle Jermon Bushrod and used the No. 20 overall pick on impressive RG Kyle Long. New tight end Martellus Bennett also excels as a blocker. Add it all up and we finally have everything teed up for Cutler to realize his special ability in Chicago. Trestman won’t let the passing game fail.
12. Ryan Broyles
- This one was looking better about two weeks ago. When training camp first opened up, Broyles was practicing in full every day and impressing despite sustaining an ACL tear last December (the second one of his career). Now, however, he’s sitting out every third day of practice and having good days mixed with bad. Still, the situation couldn’t be much better for Broyles if he can sustain health. He’s a pure slot/possession receiver on a team that throws more than anyone in the league. No. 2 man Nate Burleson is declining and Broyles is excellent and finding holes underneath. Despite playing more than 36 snaps just once last season, he averaged 3.5 catches for 51.1 yards and scored two touchdowns in a six-game stretch between Weeks 7 and 12