NFC West Fantasy Preview
The NFC West represents as contrasting a set of fantasy scenarios as any division in the league. Here you can find two of the best QB situations and two of the worst. The division is home to arguably the best WR corps and a couple of teams just hoping their guys can catch. Well-defined RB roles exist, alongside muddled backfields. If it is consistency you prefer, look no further than TE, where I see little to no value across the board. The NFC West is best known for defense in recent years and not much offensive firepower. I will not be looking at the NFC West for fantasy value in 2016. That is, with a few very spectacular exceptions.
Coach/Staff: Not many offenses provided more excitement in 2015 than the Cardinals. Head coach, Bruce Arians, coupled with assistant head coach, Tom Moore, and offensive coordinator, Harold Goodwin threatened the speed and discipline of defensive backfields, all year. Arians is well known for creating favorable matchups and putting his players in position to succeed. As much as the Cardinals are viewed as a deep threat offense, you won’t see them running four “go” routes very often. The deep shots are a result of creative route concepts. Arians is very clever with his use of hash marks, spacing, and personnel. He doesn’t need the best OL in order to create wide gaps in the running game. He may be the ultimate “take what the defensive gives you” play caller in the league.
QB: Arizona may be as dependent on the health and quality play of their QB, as any team in the league. If you select Carson Palmer in your fantasy draft, your team will be very dependent on him as well. Palmer had an extremely productive 2015 fantasy season and did not post many clunkers, managing multiple TD performances in 11 of 16 games. The concern is age and injury history. Palmer is 36 and has suffered 2 torn ACLs on his left knee, tore a ligament in his elbow in 2008 and fought through a litany of other ailments common to NFL QBs. Palmer is currently ranked as the 6th QB. If he finishes the season healthy, I have no reason to believe he won’t produce at least the 6th best fantasy ranking. Knowing the inherent risk, I suggest selecting your backup QB a touch earlier than normal if Palmer is to be your starter.
RB: David Johnson (DJ) burst onto the fantasy scene in 2015. He complied 3 TDs, all in a different fashion (kickoff return, receiving, and rushing) in his first two NFL games. He would go on to score 13 TDs during his fantastic his rookie year. Many fantasy players are banking on a full season performance to replicate the final 5 games of 2015 for DJ, as reflected by his astronomical ADP of #7 overall. It is his performance in Week 17 that has me feeling just a bit more cautious. Granted, Seattle is a great defense, but the way they were able to shut him down was alarming. Green Bay followed that performance up by bottling him inside, not allowing him to bounce outside effectively and essentially shut him down in the playoffs. This fact is overlooked by the game itself, which was an incredible piece of art in many ways. DJ managed 2.3 yards per carry in those games. Although DJ is viewed as a potential bell-cow in 2016, sources close to the team feel that Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson will play important roles in the Arizona offense. All told, I feel that DJ may be hyped up just a bit too much, a sentiment that is not shared by The Fantasy Footballers.
WR: This may be the strongest WR group in the NFL. Having three quality fantasy WRs on one team is not an easy feat to accomplish, but GM Steve Keim and the Cardinals have pulled it off. Here is how Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd stacked up in 2015:
[lptw_table id=”22047″ style=”default”]
With so much talent on the field, none of these players are individually regarded as fantasy elite. They are all ranked similarly and selecting one of them may come down to personal preference. Floyd represents prototype elite traits. The elite production, however, has yet to materialize. Brown is electric and rising quickly. Fitzgerald is the grizzled veteran with an incredible track record of success. My target is Brown. Fitzgerald will be 33 by the start of the season and a regression is inevitable. Although Floyd is viewed as the #2 target, Brown actually saw more snaps, had 12 more targets, while converting on 64.4% of them against Floyd’s 58.4%, and clearly outproduced Floyd as displayed in the table above. I feel that Brown will be viewed as a top 7 WR by this time next year. J.J. Nelson and Jaron Brown are nice players but remain buried on the depth chart, preventing significant fantasy value at this time.
TE: At first glance, TE may look like a fantasy dead end for the Cardinals. After further review, I do see a glimmer of hope from Darren Fells. After a brief stint in professional basketball, Fells (younger brother of journeyman TE, Daniel) decided to try his hand in the NFL. Teams immediately liked what they saw, and Arizona gave him a shot in 2014. The stat line from his first two seasons will not blow you away, but if his trajectory increases in 2016 the way it did in 2015, Fells could surprise as a deep sleeper, worthy of decent fill in weeks.
Los Angeles Rams
Coach/Staff: Jeff Fisher hired Rob Boras to be the Rams offensive coordinator in 2016. Boras took over play-calling duties prior to Week 14 in 2015. The passing game failed miserably all season, so Fisher beefed up the offensive coaching staff with Mike Groh as well. Groh was groomed under the tutelage of renowned offensive minds Adam Gase and Marc Trestman. The Rams will obviously lean on the running attack of Todd Gurley, but the passing game must improve and additions to the coaching staff may be a step in the right direction.
QB: 2016 #1 draft overall selection, Jared Goff, represents hope for the Rams and the city of Los Angeles. Befitting of a Hollywood script, the Rams used their valuable draft capital to move up in the draft and select the QB they believe can hoist the Lombardi Trophy in the City of Angels. As for 2016, he will need to beat out Case Keenum for the starting gig before any fantasy players should even contemplate drafting him. Keenum appeared in 6 forgettable games in 2015, looking like no more than a mediocre backup. With Nick Foles seemingly fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, I believe the job is Goff’s to lose. After all, it would be unprecedented for the first overall selection to not start on day 1. I can’t fathom selecting Goff this year, as rookie QBs rarely have successful statistical seasons, and the Rams passing weapons are not very impressive.
RB: Todd Gurley is primed to explode in 2016. Performing as well as he did during his rookie year, coming off a devastating knee injury while at the University of Georgia in 2014, I feel he actually deserves more hype than he is getting. His ADP is reflective of the respect that he has earned, but for my list, Gurley would be #1 overall. I know selecting a RB #1 is not a popular strategy at this time and other owners would thank me for leaving one of the elite WRs for them, but I remain steadfast. Using tier drafting, I see the gap from Gurley to other RBs as being wider than any of the elite WRs to each other. Other than Benny Cunningham poaching a handful of passing targets, Gurley has little competition in his own backfield. Tre Mason‘s well-documented legal troubles erased all doubt of even an 80/20 split coming out of the Rams backfield. The Rams invested heavily in their OL in 2015 and the frustration of their youth was clear. With a year of experience under their belt, it is safe to assume an uptick in performance is coming. Here is a picture of what Gurley accomplished in 2015 (in 13 games), what it translates to over 16 games, and how I project his 2016 stats with improved OL play, better health and an increase in touches.[lptw_table id=”22051″ style=”default”]
WR: Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin are former 1st Round NFL draft picks. Britt has always represented the dreaded “potential” label, and Austin’s quickness and short area burst seemed like they would translate to the NFL seamlessly. Needless to say, neither player has consistently lived up to their hype. Brian Quick flashed in 2014 before a devastating shoulder injury derailed his season, and perhaps career. The Rams spent two 2015 draft picks on Pharoh Cooper and Michael Thomas (So. Miss) this year, but neither represent much more than hope at this point. With a rookie QB potentially lining up under center and the ground game a clear emphasis, I will not be targeting any Rams WRs at or below their projected ADP.
TE: Lance Kendricks is a solid NFL TE. He does what is asked of him on the field, but as a fantasy option, he brings very little to the table. The more talented, Jared Cook, had outshined him in years past. Now that Cook has moved on to Green Bay, it may have looked as if Kendricks would be getting the opportunity to show why he was a 2nd Round draft pick in 2011. He still may, but the Rams did use a 4th round pick on intriguing talent, Tyler Higbee out of Western Kentucky. The former NCAA WR flashes all the tools necessary to be a field stretching TE. If Higbee’s legal issues do not affect his NFL career, keep an eye out for him, in deep leagues especially.
San Francisco 49ers
Coach/Staff: One would be hard-pressed to locate an NFL team whose coaching staff has undergone a larger juxtaposition since the end of the 2015 season, than the 49ers. Jim Tomsula was a fantastic defensive line coach, and his players loved him, but he was not built to be an NFL head coach, and I will never understand why 49ers brass put him in that position. Just as surprising as the Tomsula hiring, Chip Kelly was handed the reins following a tumultuous ending in Philadelphia. The Chip Kelly story is well documented at this point so I won’t say much, other than to point out that I am intrigued. Questionable personnel decisions and sub-par play derailed the Kelly experiment in Philadelphia, but the Eagles had more success over the last three years under Kelly than many may realize. They finished the last 3 years ranked 13th, 3rd, and 4th in scoring. With poor QB competency and the departure of many explosive offensive players in Philadelphia, those results are quite fascinating. New offensive coordinator, Curtis Modkins, brings with him emphasis and expertise in the running game, which we all know by now, is the true staple of the Chip Kelly up-tempo offense.
QB: The glimmer of hope at the QB position in the Kelly offense, provided by the incredible statistical 2013 run by Nick Foles, will not be soon forgotten. Indications currently lean towards Blaine Gabbert winning the starting nod for the 49ers. Gabbert is a terrific athlete who some have touted as a perfect fit in Kelly’s offense. Early in his career, he was known as a t-shirt and shorts all-star, who could not adjust to pocket pressure in the heat of the battle. However, he played decently well towards the end of 2015, throwing for 2,031 yards with 10 passing TD and 1 TD on the ground. Granted, he was operating an entirely different offense than what Kelly will employ. What we learned, though, is that Gabbert may be ready to deliver on the promise that comes along with being the 10th overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft. Your best option may be to sit back and watch this situation unfold, but if you get desperate for a backup QB in the late rounds of your draft, Gabbert does provide some potential. If Colin Kaepernick somehow wins the starting job, all bets are off, in my opinion.
RB: Carlos Hyde was supposed to pick up in the 49ers backfield right where Frank Gore left off. Unfortunately, his first two years have done anything but resemble Gore. Hyde has not been explosive, elusive or a threat to catch many passes. Hope, albeit fleeting, does remain for a breakout by Hyde. This year, fantasy owners can point to 3 positive points when deciding whether or not to draft Hyde:
- His pedigree out of Ohio State may be outdated by now, but he was an amazing college player and that can’t be ignored entirely.
- His Week 1 performance against Minnesota in 2015. It was an amazing fantasy achievement, proving that he is at the very least, capable.
- Workload. In the Kelly offense, Hyde can expect a major uptick in carries and pass catching opportunities.
Hyde has not impressed thus far, hence being ranked 16th despite being the favorite to carry the load for the 49ers. Shaun Draughn has garnered a decent amount of buzz as of late. The 5th year journeyman could produce well above his ADP if Hyde fails to impress or gets injured again. Draughn represents an interesting handcuff.
WR: Torrey Smith is in an interesting position. He is the most proven WR on the team, by a wide margin. I noted him as a possible candidate to jump up a tier this year based on his past success and position as the team’s #1 target. Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Eric Rogers and DeAndre Smelter are not household names. By the end of this season, though, one of them could be well known in fantasy circles. Patton, already in his 4th year, did not produce much but did show signs of rapport with Gabbert towards the tail end of 2015. He received 12% of Gabbert’s targets, a number that should drastically increase with the departure of target monster, Anquan Boldin. Ellington is a quick slot receiver who could rack up 40-50 catches this season. Rogers, a former CFL star, has received attention in the off season, however, CFL stars do not have a fantastic track record of NFL success. Smelter represents the unknown. After missing his rookie season recovering from an ACL tear while in college, Smelter is back on the field this offseason. Concerns remain about his knee, but when healthy, he has been compared to Boldin. Let’s hope he can replace Boldin in San Francisco better than Hyde has replaced Gore thus far. Smith is the only target of this bunch for me, but I will monitor training camp buzz to see if someone else begins to impress.
TE: Now that the Vernon Davis era has been mercifully put out to pasture in San Francisco, we can finally see for ourselves if the Vance McDonald hype has been worth the wait. McDonald is a known talent, a former 2nd Round pick in 2013, who must improve upon his team-high 6 dropped passes in 2015. With Chip Kelly’s propensity to utilize TE’s and the wide open opportunity we have discussed for McDonald, one could argue that he will be the #3 or even #2 target in San Francisco. McDonald clearly provides value at his current ADP and is a player fantasy owners should be targeting.
Coach/Staff: Head coach Pete Carroll and OC Darrell Bevell are entering their 7th and 6th seasons respectively in those capacities with the Seahawks. Their track record speaks for itself. If we know anything about Carroll, it is that he is a huge proponent of internal competition, never beholden to any one philosophy or game plan. Seattle has slowly transitioned from a run first offense into the multi-faceted passing attack now led by QB, Russell Wilson. They have thrown the ball more each season since Wilson entered the league in 2012.
QB: Wilson is the heart and soul of the Seahawks roster and has entered the discussion as one of the league’s best QBs. Wilson has proven himself a valuable fantasy asset, finishing 3rd and 5th in fantasy points over the last 2 seasons. With the departure of superstar RB, Marshawn Lynch, Wilson is now the unquestioned focal point of the offense. Wilson’s fantasy performance in 2015, while overshadowed by Cam Newton, was incredibly productive.[lptw_table id=”22055″ style=”default”]
Assuming the offensive trajectory continues, Wilson should be attempting 460-500 passes this season. His pass catching weapons may not be All-Pros, but they are a fine group and should provide Wilson the stability he needs to produce a top 5 fantasy season in 2016.
RB: Marshawn Lynch’s statistical run from 2011-2014 was that of infinite fantasy lore. His hard running style and attitude set the standard for what we as fans want our RBs to look like. With his retirement this offseason, the Seattle backfield will take on a whole new look and feel. We got a glimpse of it while Lynch was out with injury in 2015 as undrafted free agent; Thomas Rawls, took control of the backfield and played extremely well before succumbing to injury of his own in Week 14. Rawls’ 5.64 YPC should make him an unquestioned stud coming into 2016, but concerns over his lingering recovery from ligament surgery following his fractured ankle, have some concerned. As noted earlier, Carroll loves competition amongst his players. GM John Schneider has provided more than enough competition at the RB position, drafting 3 RBs this season. C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins and Zac Brooks all provide potential to become the lead back in Seattle. The Seahawks have proven that draft status does not determine playing time, so at this point, it is anyone’s guess as to who will be the lead back in 2016 for Seattle. The uncertainty surrounding his injury will force me to stay away from Rawls, even though his potential is sky high, and his ADP does feel low. Prosise, a former WR at Notre Dame, is the player I will target late in drafts. He possesses elite traits and could take the fantasy world by storm in 2015. Keep your eyes peeled for Rawls’ preseason information and pounce on Prosise if the news is bad.
WR: Doug Baldwin is what one may refer to as, an enigma. His 2015 season is like nothing I recall ever seeing before. Sure, players improve their stats within a season all the time, but what Baldwin did, defies logic. Here are his splits through the first and last 8 games of the season:[lptw_table id=”22058″ style=”default”]
Which version of Baldwin will we see in 2016? He is currently ranked as the 28th WR despite finishing 2015 as #7. This sentiment coupled with the fact that he had never finished a season with more than 5 TDs before last season’s explosion, will cause me to avoid Baldwin at or near his current ADP. Tyler Lockett had a very nice rookie season and has fantasy pundits champing at the bit to get as many shares of him as they can. I agree with the hype, but fear that it will continue to grow, pricing him out of the appropriate market. He is currently ranked just behind Baldwin at 31, but I could see him surpassing his veteran teammate before the end of August. Jermaine Kearse is a nice player but represents no more than a bye-week replacement in deep leagues.
TE: When Seattle traded for Jimmy Graham prior to the 2015 season, many fantasy experts saw a perfect pairing of talent and opportunity and were on the verge or ranking Graham above fantasy beast, Rob Gronkowski, at the TE position. Graham did not provide the fantasy spark that many anticipated. His numbers were serviceable at best before suffering a ruptured patellar tendon in Week 12. This is a very serious injury and has been known to end careers. Reports have shed some hope that Graham may be recovering well and could be ready for the start of the season. That is a lot of risk and as a result, Graham will be entirely removed from my draft board, regardless of his availability. Luke Wilson and Cooper Helfet do not provide much upside as fantasy weapons. 3rd Round draft pick, Nick Vannett, was not utilized heavily in the passing attack while in college and rookie TEs rarely produce relevant fantasy stats. As a whole, I will not focus on Seattle TEs in any league.