Now that the 2015 NFL season is officially over, it's time to start looking ahead to '16. While plenty of things are sure to change due to the draft and offseason movement, it may be too early to look at who to draft in your fantasy football league next season, but it's certainly not too early to create a "watch list."
These are guys that either missed time in 2015 because of injury (or gained time because of an injury to someone else), are free agents that might improve their numbers on a new team, or simply may not return in 2016. The arguments can be made for plenty of other guys to be on this list, and we will watch all of them, but for now, here are the top 10 players to keep an eye on.
Brock Osweiler, QB, free agent
In 2015, Osweiler got the opportunity to make nine starts. In those nine games, he threw for 1,967 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. If those numbers were extrapolated over 16 games, he would have nearly 3,500 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs. That's in the same ballpark as Alex Smith (2015 numbers: 3,486 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs). Not exactly who you want as your fantasy quarterback. The Denver offense needs to step up to be on par with the defense if the Broncos want to repeat as champions. While Peyton Manning will likely retire, the quarterback market is bleak, leaving Osweiler as Denver's best option. Keep an eye out to see if he returns as the starting QB.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks
With every sign pointing to Marshawn Lynch retiring, Rawls appears to have the Seattle backfield all to himself. While his 2015 season was cut short because of a broken ankle, he should be fine for training camp. In 2015, he had flashes of looking amazing (four games with more than 100 rushing yards) and he had weeks of being a complete dud. He had four rushing touchdowns on the year and didn’t really factor into the passing game. However, the Seahawks don’t usually utilize running backs in the passing game. In 2013 and '14, Lynch only had 36 and 37 receptions, respectively. Rawls has the potential to be a top-tier running back... or he could just as easily be a bust. Watch to see what Seattle does with its offense in the offseason.
Lamar Miller, RB, free agent
The running back market is the biggest for free agents this year, with Miller leading the pack. It's unclear if he will return to the Dolphins, as it will likely come down to (what else?) money. He had a very frustrating season in 2015, where the Dolphins would lean on the run just to turn around and forget about it. He had three games with more than 100 rushing yards and a total of eight games with either a touchdown or at least 100 total yards. He also had nine games with fewer than 50 rushing yards (a touchdown saved his fantasy day in four of those outings). He didn't break the 1,000-yard mark on the season, but he did score the most touchdowns of his career (10, which is one more than his previous best of nine). His eventual landing spot will have a big say regarding his fantasy value for 2016, so keep an eye on him.
Doug Martin, RB, free agent
Martin is a free agent, but is expected to re-sign with Tampa Bay. He has said he wants to stay with the Buccaneers and the team has said it wants the 2012 first-round pick back. Assuming that happens, Martin is a risky RB1 for 2016. He played well this past year, but certainly struggled in 2014. He has two seasons with more than 1,400 yards rushing and two with fewer than 500. Obviously, injuries play a part in that, but as fantasy owners know, injuries can be brutal, especially if they happen to one of your high draft picks. The touchdowns dipped in 2015 as well, as he only found the end zone seven times. Charles Sims will still be in the picture and will likely steal some carries and goal-line work. However, Tampa Bay seems to be a comfortable place for Martin, and fantasy owners will be willing to take the risk on him.
Matt Forte, RB, free agent
It seems unlikely that Forte will be back in Chicago, so he and Lamar Miller will be the two backs to really watch this offseason. Rumors have been circulating that the Patriots may have interest in Forte, but as of right now, that's just speculation. There are plenty of teams that could benefit from a dual-threat running back. Forte has been great in the passing game, the running game and at the goal line. He is 30 years old, which doesn't help his cause, but he's had at least 898 rushing yards and 44 receptions in all eight seasons he's played in the NFL. He's only missed eight games in eight seasons, although in 2015 he did struggle with both his numbers and injuries. Whether it was a case of the Bears just being beat up overall, or Forte aging is hard to say. Keep an eye on him to see where he lands.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, free agent
While Forte likely won't return to Chicago, Jeffery probably will. The Bears need to take a long, hard look at their offense, and losing both of their stars isn't the way to go. Jeffery had an injury-plagued 2015 season, which fantasy owners will likely remember come draft day. He will only be 26 for the start of the 2016 season and has plenty of good years left in him. His numbers for 2015 are all over the place, as he played through injuries and aggravated those injuries during games. He had four games with more than 100 yards receiving, but only four touchdowns on the year. It's hard to read into the rest of his numbers, because Jeffery is better than his 2015 season showed. He's a clear WR1 for 2016, even with Jay Cutler throwing to him.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Johnson will turn 31 during the 2016 season, but the rumors are that he may retire. While the rumors seemed outlandish at first, as the offseason begins, it seems there might be some merit. Teammate Golden Tate has come out and made comments that seem that Johnson may be on the road to retirement. This is a story to watch because it not only affects Johnson, obviously, but also the rest of the Lions. Not only is it important to watch Johnson, but what other moves the Lions may make on offense. It could be a whole different unit in 2016, for better or worse.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton was the MVP this season without his star wide receiver. What happens when the pair are together again? Fantasy owners should be excited to find out. In his rookie year, Benjamin had more than 1,000 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He may end up being a sleeper during the offseason, but fantasy owners should just keep an eye out to see how he is recovering from ACL surgery. He did tear his ACL in the preseason, so he should be good to go for 2016, but beware of any kind of setbacks or other issues that might keep him from being a top-tier WR.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
Nelson is in the same boat as Benjamin; he tore his ACL in the preseason and should be good to go for the regular season. However, Nelson will be 31 by the time next season starts, and is on an offense with other solid weapons. He has proven himself and his rapport with Aaron Rodgers in the past, though, so he is still a top WR option, assuming health. The reports already are that he has been running at full speed, so he should be fine for the season, but keep an eye on his progress. His 2014 season was his best season of his career, with 1,519 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He should return and provide similar production in 2016, but he also comes with a fair amount of risk coming back from a serious knee injury.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks
Jimmy Graham will probably (sadly) never be the Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans years. Between the Seahawks failing to utilize him as the Saints did and the brutal injury that ended his 2015 season, it's going to be tough for Graham. He will likely try to return with the Seahawks in 2016, but his ability to play at the All-Pro level he is accustomed to is in question. Victor Cruz was unable to play a snap after coming back from the same injury. That's not to say no one can come back from a torn patellar tendon, but it's a tough recovery. Graham only had two touchdowns in 2015, and was a disappointment for fantasy owners. Watch him this offseason, especially in the preseason, to see if he will be able to be out there for Seattle, and to get a sense of what his role will be in a slightly revamped offense.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.