AFC West Fantasy Preview
The AFC West is a surprisingly open division given the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015 with the NFL’s most dominant defense. Oakland’s young offense showed plenty of promise and their defense is looking to make a leap forward this year. Kansas City closed out the 2015 season with 10 consecutive wins. San Diego struggled, but finished the year with the ninth best offense in total yards. Aside from San Diego, winning the division is a three-way race. Here are the fantasy relevant players from each team.
Coach/Staff: HC Gary Kubiak, OC Rick Dennison, and DC Wade Phillips enter their second year as the architects of Denver’s Super Bowl team. Denver will continue to rely on the formula that led to a championship team (dominant defense combined with a balanced offense), but will need to find a way to win despite the loss of several key players on both the offense and defense.
QB: Peyton Manning’s ability to execute the offense suffered a steep decline in 2014 and 2015, but he still commanded the game like few QBs ever have. Manning announced his retirement following the Super Bowl win and ended one of the most storied careers in NFL history. Although Manning’s retirement was no surprise, the heir-apparent, Brock Osweiler, also left Denver, lured by a four-year $72 million contract with Houston. The Broncos have turned to the uninspiring trio of Mark (butt-fumble) Sanchez, a developmental project in rookie Paxton Lynch, and 7th-round rookie Trevor Siemian to replace the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback and Brock (Lobster) Osweiler.
RB: One of the most peculiar developments in free agency surrounded returning RB C.J. Anderson. Denver offered a low-ball deal for 2016, but Anderson was offered a 4 year-$18 million offer from the Dolphins. Denver responded by matching the Miami offer, ending the drama. Despite an injury-riddled 2015, Anderson still managed 152/720/5 with a 4.7 yards per carry mark that matched his 2014 breakout performance. With only Ronnie Hillman and rookie Devontae Booker as competition, a healthy Anderson should garner the lion’s share of RB touches, and may be a steal if he can string a whole season together at his 4.02 ADP.
WR: Whichever QB emerges from the preseason with the starting job will enjoy one of the most dominant WR combos in the NFL with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. DT managed to disappoint 2015 fantasy owners despite posting a 105-1304-6 season. His 2015 season snapped a three-year streak of 10 or more TDs, but he could easily return to an elite level again, with any sort of stability at the QB position. Sanders also suffered from shoddy QB play, but also cracked 1,000 yards with a 76/1135/6 stat line. Given Thomas’ 3.12 and Sanders’ 5.12 ADPs, both of these WRs may not be exciting, but are safe bets to return value to fantasy owners.
TE: We are going to have to wait and see how this position shakes out through the preseason. The name to follow is Jeff Heuerman, the Ohio State product drafted in the 3rd round this year. Rookie TEs are notorious underachievers, but Heuerman appears to have very little competition behind him. Virgil Green has been with the Broncos since the 2011 season but has only 35 career receptions to show for it. Green is an athletic specimen, but has not been able to carve out a significant role in the offense yet and drafting Heuerman may signal the Broncos intent to move on. Garrett Graham may push for targets, but he was used sparingly in Houston under Gary Kubiak and slid down the depth chart once Bill O’Brien arrived. There is a reasonable possibility no single TE emerges from the pack and becomes ‘the guy’ in Denver. This will be one of the more interesting position battles, but you are going to have far better TE options come draft time.
Coach/Staff: Like Denver, Oakland returns HC Jack Del Rio, OC Bill Musgrave, and DC Ken Norton Jr. for their second year with the team. Oakland favors a run-first offense and has built an aggressive defense designed to apply constant pressure on opposing QBs.
QB: Derek Carr improved in nearly every statistical measure during his sophomore season. Carr’s most notable improvement was his TD/INT ratio going from 21/12 in 2014 to 32/13 in 2015. His fantasy value for 2016 is one of the bigger debates in the fantasy community, but Carr is surrounded by young-gun receiving threats and one of the NFL’s top offensive lines.
RB: Speaking of fantasy controversy, we have Latavius Murray. Murray was one of the few RBs to last all 16 games on the way to amassing just over 300 total touches, but his inefficiency has raised alarms. Murray managed a 266/1066/6 stat line rushing and added 41 receptions for 232 yards. Despite six games with 20 or more touches, Murray managed to eclipse 100 yards from scrimmage in only three games during the season. In four of the final seven games, Murray was especially inefficient, averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry. The additions of rookie pass-catching specialist, DeAndre Washington, and bruiser, Kelechi Osemele, may signal more of a committee approach for Oakland in 2016. Murray will almost certainly lose touches, but an increase in efficiency could negate lost touches. Murray is being drafted towards the end of the 3rd Round in standard leagues but drops a full round in PPR formats. None of the other RBs should push for the primary role, but Washington may be relevant in PPR leagues sooner-than-later and could play a prominent role as a rookie if Murray misses any time.
WR: Oakland took Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick in 2015. Cooper lived up to his draft stock and showed some elite chops during 2015 with five 100+ yard games including a 6/120/2 game in week 15 that may have propelled some teams to a #FootclanTitle matchup, like yours truly. Cooper battled injuries during the second half of the season but still finished with 72/1070/6 receiving. Entering his sophomore season, Cooper has a legitimate shot at 100+ receptions and double-digit TDs. Oakland also supported a comeback year from Michael Crabtree who left a fledgling passing attack in San Francisco to join Oakland and posted 85/922/9 receiving. Cooper should lead the team in receptions this year and make a statistical jump across the board, but his production comes with a 2.10 ADP. Crabtree is in line for WR3 production and is an absolute steal with an 8.04 ADP.
TE: 2015 rookie Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera ended the year with nearly identical, albeit mediocre, stat lines. Rivera is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and has appeared to lose the primary TE role to Walford. Walford is a trendy TE sleeper pick, but he is recovering from a lacerated knee injury suffered during a non-football related incident. Walford is on track to be ready for training camp and should be on waiver wire speed dial if he sees significant targets during the first few weeks of the season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Coach/Staff – Andy Reid returns for his fourth season in Kansas City, with DC Bob Sutton and co-offensive coordinators Brad Childress and Matt Nagy. We often overlook coaching stats, but Reid only has three seasons with losing records compared to 10 double-digit win seasons. The Chiefs will rely on an aggressive and dominant defense with an ultra-conservative, run-friendly offense.
QB: Alex Smith has never thrown for more than 23 TDs with Kansas City, but he has rushed for greater than 400 yards in two of his three seasons with the Chiefs. There is no reason to grab him in redraft leagues, but if you’re looking for a safe spot start or need a late QB in two-QB leagues, Smith can fill that role.
RB: Jamaal Charles was well on his way to his third consecutive season with 14 or more TDs until a torn ACL ended his season after five games. Charles is trying to return to form in 2016 after his second knee surgery in four years. Charles is a huge risk, but he has surpassed 1,300 yards from scrimmage every year he played 15 or more games, outside of his rookie year. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware both signed contract extensions last year after admirably filling in, and will likely steal some touches to keep Charles healthy. Charles is a huge risk/reward pick at his 2.03 ADP.
WR: Jeremy Maclin is in the prime of his career and managed 82/1077/8 despite being on a new team tied with the third-fewest passing attempts in the league at 473. Maclin has plenty of upside and is a great third or fourth fantasy WR coming in at an ADP of 5.02. Albert Wilson is starting to gain steam as a sleeper WR, but I’m not buying the third or fourth receiving option on a team that will be among the bottom of the league in pass attempts.
TE: Travis Kelce was a favorite TE for fantasy drafters last year and followed it up with a 6/106/2 Week 1 performance. Kelce continued to have a steady year, just like the rest of the offense, but largely disappointed fantasy owners for the rest of the season. I am a Kelce believer this year and his 6.08 ADP is reasonable. Game scripts where Kansas City was grinding out wins on the ground, limited the Chiefs’ passing attack, but even a marginal increase in pass attempts could propel Kelce into top three fantasy TE territory.
San Diego Chargers
Coach/Staff: Mike McCoy returns for his fourth year as San Diego’s HC along with John Pagano in his fifth year as the DC, but Ken Whisenhunt is déjà vu all over again as he comes back to fill the OC role he held in 2013. The San Diego defense was terrible in 2015 and maybe slightly improved, but the offense will need to produce at a high clip to give the Chargers a chance to win.
QB: Philip Rivers has thrown the ball 500 or more times in six straight seasons and set a career high with 662 passing attempts in 2015. The return of Keenan Allen along with stalwarts Antonio Gates, Danny Woodhead and Stevie Johnson give Rivers familiar targets to work with. The Chargers also went out and grabbed Travis Benjamin in free agency to replace deep-threat Malcom Floyd who retired. This is a team equipped to air it out.
RB: 2015 1st round draft choice Melvin Gordon never got his legs under him as a rookie, and never once crossed the goal line despite carrying the ball 184 times to go with 33 receptions. Gordon’s struggles in 2015 and microfracture surgery on his knee in the offseason has suppressed his ADP to 6.06, but the Chargers will give every opportunity for their 1st Rounder to get touches. Gordon is a bounce-back candidate, but could easily become completely irrelevant if he struggles early and/or San Diego continues to throw the ball at a high rate. Danny Woodhead is being drafted just one round after Gordon, and is one of the preferred mid-round RBs in PPR leagues. Where Gordon is an unknown heading into 2016, Woodhead should be valuable even if Gordon turns it around. If Gordon continues to struggle, Woodhead has RB1 potential.
WR: Keenan Allen may be this year’s DeAndre Hopkins. Allen should be an absolute target monster on a team that will have to throw the ball a ton to stay in games. This is what Allen has done with San Diego so far:
Travis Benjamin comes to the Chargers through free agency after having a breakout year in 2015 with Cleveland. Benjamin may struggle with target share, but his big-play potential may produce some huge weeks. Stevie Johnson is a forgotten man in fantasy circles, but he was having a decent season in 2015 before injuries knocked him out. Johnson had three consecutive games with 7 receptions and was on pace for 80/883/5 before being injured against Denver. Where Benjamin will cost you a 9th Round pick, Johnson is not even being drafted. Keep an eye on how the receiving corps in San Diego shakes out.
TE: The ageless one, Antonio Gates, returns for his 14th season. Injuries and a four-game suspension to open up the 2015 season limited Gates’ overall stats last year, but he was productive when in the lineup. Clearly past his prime, Gates still offers plenty of value at his 11th Round ADP, but probably won’t clear 900 yards or 10 TDs. Rookie Hunter Henry appears to be the second heir-apparent, now that Ladarius Green left for Pittsburgh, but he holds limited fantasy value as long as Gates is on the field. Henry is a great dynasty stash where Gates should retire within the next season or two. Then again, Gates may very well be waving his arms open in the end zone when the only other living things on Earth are cockroaches.
Here are the Divisional Breakdowns for the AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, NFC East, NFC West and NFC South, with one more to come.
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