The Franchise will be giving you a fantasy football preview for all of the teams from the NFC and AFC divisions week by week counting down to the first week of the 2016 NFL regular season!
The first division we will cover this week is the NFC West.
This division is very “Jekyll and Hyde” as you have two teams, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, that were in the top five of total offense in the league last season and two teams, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis now Los Angeles Rams, who were in the bottom five of total offense. Same thing can be said if you’re looking at fantasy defense/special teams for these teams as Arizona and Seattle are in top five and San Francisco and St. Louis now Los Angeles are in bottom half of the league. The NFC West has been a staple the past couple years as defensive teams, but there are certainly some offensive threats you want to have in your fantasy lineup.
Let’s get things started in our preview with the defending NFC West division champs, the Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona is coming off of last season as the best total offense in the NFL. Bruce Arians is an offensive mastermind with his ability to set his players up for winning matchups. Arians has many different tools to use in his offensive toolbox and he uses them effectively. The Cardinals put up 51 touchdowns last season, which was 2nd in the league, along with averaging 408 yards and 30 points a game. Arizona hasn’t lost any key weapons this offseason so they have a great chance of leading the NFL in scoring once again. Let’s take a look at the positions.
When you think of the modern NFL quarterback, you might think of someone who is able to stretch the defense by getting out of pocket to create opportunities to run or throw on the run. Well that isn’t the case for 36 year old Carson Palmer. Palmer is your prototypical pocket passer. And with multiple knee injuries and other ailments, you might look elsewhere if you want a QB who can get some run production. Aside from any run production, Palmer is coming off his best season ever as an NFL quarterback. He was in the top 5 scoring of fantasy QBs beating out the likes of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Palmer lead the league in average yards per completion at 13.7. Bruce Arians knows how to set his QB up for success with the wide receiver corp around him. Palmer has an above average offensive line who can protect him pretty well. Palmer is looking to be another top 5 quarterback this season if he can stay healthy. If you are looking for a handcuff to Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton will get the second team nod. But his production so far as an NFL backup doesn’t give him any value.
David Johnson rocked the fantasy world last season after both Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington sustained injuries during their game against the San Francisco 49ers. David Johnson got the nod for the final five games in Bruce Arians dynamic offense and he flourished. Johnson averaged 4.7 yds a carry with 13 total touchdowns which included a kickoff return. He had over a 1,000 yds from scrimmage in only seven games as a starter. Johnson finished last season as the 7th best RB in fantasy scoring with only seven starts. Johnson will be the bell cow of this offense and they will utilize his his talents as a runner and pass catcher. Johnson is a top 5 running back this season in any format you find whether it be standard or PPR. Johnson’s value is great in PPR especially with his ability to catch the ball. Johnson is also the goal line back that will get those tough yards and get into the endzone for touchdowns. Johnson has a stable offensive line this season with the acquisition of Evan Mathis to go with their other all-pro guard, Mike Iupati. The Cardinals did draft a fourth-round center, Evan Boehm, who could get starting nod after camp over A.Q. Shipley. Some caution with David Johnson is his experience with only seven starts and fumble issues at times. Injuries happen fairly often with running backs in the NFL so keep a close eye on the veterans Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. Both have production as starters in the NFL but are not very reliable. Ellington would be viable option in PPR formats if Johnson were to be out.
The Cardinals have a case to be the top wide receiver corp in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd are all great targets for Carson Palmer in this offense. All three of these wide receivers have the ability to go for 1,000 yds each this season. The wily veteran, Larry Fitzgerald, will still be Palmer’s main target. Fitzgerald’s role in Arizona’s offense has been in the slot. Larry doesn’t have the speed that he used to but still has great hands and size to make him the main threat for touchdowns inside the red zone. Fitzgerald finished in the top 10 fantasy scoring of wide receivers last season. Projections for Fitzgerald have him as solid WR2 in both standard and PPR formats. He would be a great pick in the mid-rounds (5th-7th) of your draft. John Brown was a 1,000 yd receiver last year and had good fantasy production. Brown is a small speedster who can both burn defenses deep or make them miss on small catches as well. When healthy, he can be as productive as Larry Fitzgerald. Brown is also a viable pick in the mid-rounds (5th-7th) of your draft with potential to be a high WR2. Michael Floyd was a good fantasy pickup during the second half of last season. Floyd is the biggest deep threat with his size and speed, averaging 16.3 a catch in 2015. Some might consider taking Michael Floyd above John Brown in their drafts, although Brown had 12 more targets last season and is better PPR option. Floyd will go in the mid-rounds (5th-7th) as well. Deeper in the depth chart you have J.J. Nelson with lightning fast speed and Jaron Brown. Both will be deeper league (12 team) pickups.
The Cardinals do not utilize the tight end in their offense very often. Arians’ offense primarily uses the tight ends mostly for run blocking or pass protection. Fells did have 21 catches last season for 311 yds which averaged to a 14.8 yds per catch. Fells does not excite any fantasy owners for drafts and will just be at most a bye week fill-in. OU fans might remember Jeremaine Gresham, who is now on the Cardinals as their 2nd tight end. Gresham has lost his athleticism due to different injuries and doesn’t look to be much of a factor in the Cardinals offense.
The Cardinals D/ST last season was 3rd in fantasy scoring among all D/STs. Arizona’s defense has a knack for producing turnovers. Not just turnovers, but turnovers for touchdowns. Cardinals lead the league last season with 7 touchdowns on D/ST. The Cardinals defense is loaded again this season with talent. Patrick Peterson is their main ballhawk who will get interceptions as well as return punts. Tyrann Mathieu will be coming off surgery for his ACL so we’ll see how he bounces back. Tyvon Branch is another pickup that will help the secondary. The Cardinals traded for Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots. Jones will certainly help the Cardinals pass rush which has been slightly below average. Arizona drafted Robert Nkemdiche in the first round of the draft to help with their interior defensive line. Cardinals are projected to be in the top 5 of D/STs again this season.
The Seahawks have been one of the most consistent and stable teams for the past couple of years through Pete Carroll’s direction. Seattle is known to many as a defensive team with their “Legion of Boom” label they’ve been given. Offensively, over the past couple seasons, Seattle’s rushing attack hasn’t been as dependable because of their offensive line woes. Therefore, Russell Wilson’s role throwing the ball has increased. With all the offensive line issues, Seattle still finished 4th in total offense last season.
Russell Wilson is becoming one of the best NFL quarterbacks in the league. And Seattle is giving Wilson more opportunities to throw and run the ball. Every season in Seattle, he’s increased his production as a passer. Wilson finished as the 3rd best fantasy scoring quarterback last season. Here were his stats: 329PC/483PA, 4024 yds, 68% comp, 34 TDs/8 INT, 103 rush/553yds, 1 TD. Most fantasy projections have Wilson right around the same pass attempts for this season, if not more. Wilson doesn’t have a top tier wide receiver corp to throw to, but they are still good enough to get the job done. Wilson should be a top 5 quarterback this season with his ability to run and throw. Russell’s backup might be undrafted free agent, Trevone Boykin out of TCU. Boykin was recently charged with assault of a police officer back on New Year’s Eve so we’ll see what Pete Carroll decides with him on the roster.
Gone are the days of “Beast Mode” in Seattle and for fantasy owners. Marshawn Lynch provided fantasy owners from 2011 to 2014 a chance to win their league every week with him in their lineup. During the 2015 season when Marshawn Lynch got injured, Thomas Rawls was the next person in line for Darrell Bevell’s offense. Rawls stepped in with great fantasy value and was one of the hottest waiver wire pickups at the end of the season. Rawls fractured his ankle in Week 14 and didn’t see the field the rest of the season. The upside for those looking to draft Thomas Rawls is his 5.6 YPC last season. The downside is that Rawls isn’t much of a pass catcher, which makes him tougher to pick in a PPR format. The unknown is whether Rawls will recover well from his surgery. I would keep a close eye on Rawls recovery over these next couple weeks getting into shape for the season. Rawls is very young and not exactly a proven running back in the NFL just yet. Factoring that Seattle’s offensive line is one of the worst in the league, Rawls will tinker on the edge of being a top 10 fantasy running back. Pete Carroll has always liked competition. The Seahawks drafted three running backs in the draft- C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins, and Zac Brooks. Christine Michael is also looking to get some work in the mix as well. I could see C.J. Prosise as a good handcuff to Rawls and someone to pick up late in drafts, especially in a PPR format. Prosise was a former wide receiver at Notre Dame with good hands. Prosise will most likely be the third-down back who can catch the ball and move the chains. Alex Collins should be the next in line as a possible goal-line back who can get the tough yards for touchdowns.
The main wide receiver for Seattle is Doug Baldwin. Who would have ever saw this coming last year? The first half of last season, Baldwin has absolutely no impact on the fantasy world. Then the second half happens, and he’s the hottest fantasy wide receiver next to Antonio Brown in the league. Here is Baldwin’s stats for the first 8 games: 31 rec, 345 yds, and 2 TDs. Here is Baldwin’s stats for the last 8 games: 47 rec, 724 yds, and 12 TDs. Baldwin finished the season as the #7 fantasy scoring wide receiver with 184 points. Most projections have Baldwin lower in value at a WR2 this season. Most fantasy owners just don’t know if they can trust Baldwin and which version of him will happen. Tyler Lockett made a big rookie impact last season not only as a wide receiver but punt and kickoff returner. Something for fantasy owners to remember with Seattle’s D/ST. Lockett is projected as WR3 with upside. I could see Lockett possibly surpassing Baldwin by the time the season is over. Jermaine Kearse is useful in the Seattle offense. He’s a bigger target than Baldwin or Lockett but not as fast. Kearse’s value will mostly come from red zone targets resulting in touchdowns. No more value than a deep league, bye week replacement.
Jimmy Graham looks to return from his torn patellar tendon he suffered last season. Many thought the trade with the New Orleans Saints was going to be a match made in heaven with Russell Wilson. This was not the case last season. Graham was average at best when healthy last season before he had his season ending injury. Graham was not targeted in the red zone very much at all and there didn’t seem to be a good connection with Russell Wilson. Graham is a big risk on draft boards that I am not willing to take. If you’re looking for the old Jimmy Graham to come back, I would temper expectations. Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet are next in line at tight end. Both pose no fantasy value. Someone to take a look at during training camp is the Seahawks third round pick, Nick Vannett. He could move his way up on the depth chart.
The Seattle D/ST is projected in the top 10 again this season. The Legion of Boom always has a knack for creating turnovers. Their secondary is great but their biggest improvement needed is pass rush. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are very talented but the defense has been outside of the top 15 in sacks the last two years. Chris Clemons is back with Seattle after a few years with Jacksonville. Clemons should provide some depth and need pass rush. The Seahawks are hoping their 2nd round pick, Jarran Reed, will provide some added rush on the interior. As I mentioned earlier, Tyler Lockett is a serious threat as both a kick returner and punt returner.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are in need of an offensive overhaul as they were the worst total offense in the NFL last season. Jeff Fisher has been doing some maneuvering of his offensive coaching staff to possibly help this issue. In comes offensive coordinator, Rob Boras, along with Mike Groh to help with the issues in now Los Angeles. The Rams only have Todd Gurley and a hodge podge of different players. That’s it. Gurley is the main focal point of the Rams offense. The Rams are desperate to get some type of help in the offensive line and passing game to balance everything out.
In comes the 2016 #1 overall draft selection, Jared Goff. Goff has some potential but there very many unknowns as a rookie. Goff is not considered a mobile quarterback and doesn’t have the biggest arm. He has quite a bit of development to do as an NFL quarterback. The best thing to do for new quarterback is to put emphasis on the run game to relieve the pressure. Goff shows no threat being in the top 25 passing. Case Keenum will most likely see some playing time during the season with Goff’s development. Keenum will compete for the starting job come Week 1 of the season. But I would be hard pressed to see the #1 overall draft pick not start in week 1. The job is Goff’s to lose.
The only fantasy player you want to have on your team from Rams is Todd Gurley. He is a young, dynamic threat at running back. Gurley finished 5th in fantasy scoring for running backs last season. Gurley will be getting tons of carries this season to help take pressure off Goff in the passing game. He is projected to get 300 carries, 1,500 yds, and 12 touchdowns on the ground with around 35 receptions, 350 yds, and 2 touchdowns catching the ball. The workload will be there for Gurley to have a great fantasy season. The only thing that is a concern is Gurley’s offensive line. Will they be able to open up holes for Gurley and also protect their rookie QB, Jared Goff. Gurley’s numbers did drop off during the second half of the season as defenses focused all their attention on him with no passing threat to keep defenses honest. Tre Mason is Gurley’s backup but Mason’s off-the-field issues have put a damper on his security as backup. Running backs like Trey Watts (Tulsa) or Malcolm Brown could move up the depth chart if Mason can’t do the job. Bennie Cunningham will grab some passes as a third-down back but lacks speed to be the backup. The talent drops significantly after Gurley and there is no reliable handcuff available to grab on draft boards.
The worst wide receiver corps in the NFL this past season. The Rams have two former 1st round draft picks in Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin. Both have drastically underachieved in the NFL. Although Tavon Austin finished 22nd in fantasy scoring for wide receivers last season, his fantasy value is only as a deeper PPR league, bye-week replacement. Austin’s value also comes from carries as a runner on fly sweeps, reverses, and end-arounds. Kenny Britt is also a deeper league pickup who’s value is better in standard formats. The Rams drafted two wide receivers this year in Pharoh Cooper and Michael Thomas. With a rookie QB, it’s hard to see much value for either of these receivers as they work to slide up the depth chart. Needless to say, I don’t suggest targeting any Rams wide receivers on your draft boards.
Lance Kendricks is the starting tight end but has no fantasy value. The Rams drafted Tyler Higbee in the fourth round of the draft to provide some depth. Higbee has great skills but some legal issues have come up with him. He is very tall and can stretch the field with his speed. If he can fix his issues, Higbee could be a deeper league add down the road.
The Rams defense will be tinkering as a top 10 D/ST this season. They have a solid front four to to go along with their linebackers Akeem Ayers, Alec Ogletree, and Mark Barron. The pass rush is there with more than 40 sacks over the last four years, but the run defense has been bad. The secondary is suspect to giving up big amounts of yards. Los Angeles lost Janoris Jenkins to free agency signing a 5-year, 62.5 million contract with the New York Giants and Rodney McLeod signing a 5-year, 37 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Rams defense will be dependent on taking pressure off their new quarterback, Jared Goff, by creating turnovers and giving Goff a short field to work with. Tavon Austin will make a fantasy impact as a punt returner scoring at least once the past three years. I see the Los Angeles Rams D/ST taking a step back this season in fantasy scoring.
San Francisco 49ers
My, how the 49ers have fallen. Last season, the Niners got Jim Tomsula to take over as head coach but his inexperience as a head coach showed. So the 49ers decided to bring in former Philadelphia Eagles coach, Chip Kelly. The Chip Kelly Experiment in Philadelphia just didn’t work out well. Kelly’s offense was better than you’d think over past three years going 13th, 4th, and 3rd in scoring offense. But they’ve also had a league-high 67 turnovers in the last two years. Now Kelly moves into an offense with less talent, the league’s hardest schedule, and the worst scoring offense from last season with 238 points. Kelly will instill his hurry-up offense with offensive coordinator, Curtis Modkins, knowledge of the running game.
Blaine Gabbert finished last season as the Niners starting quarterback. Gabbert ended the season with over 2,000 yds and 11 total touchdowns. He is projected to be the starter for the Niners when the season starts. Chip Kelly loves to utilize a quarterback’s mobility in his uptempo offense so expect to see Gabbert use his athleticism to his advantage. Look for Gabbert to get some rushing touchdowns in the red zone. I think Gabbert will fit well with Chip Kelly’s offense but I don’t see him being a must have in your fantasy lineup. Gabbert will only look to be a deep league, bye-week add this season. Colin Kaepernick will be looking to get the starting role back in San Francisco. He is still one of the better running quarterbacks in the league next to Cam Newton. Over time, his inaccuracy and bad decision making have cost him his spot at the starter. I don’t see Kaepernick fitting well with Chip Kelly’s offense.
Most people were expecting Carlos Hyde to fill the role of Frank Gore when Gore left. That just hasn’t been the case. Hyde has been unimpressive with the Niners so far. But the Chip Kelly offense might be just the thing that Carlos Hyde needs. Chip Kelly’s offense likes to get the running back lots of carries. If Carlos Hyde is used effectively, he could be a solid RB1 for the whole season. The issue with Hyde is his pass catching ability. He is not a great receiver and just a better option in standard fantasy leagues. Another problem with Hyde is his offensive line being ranked as one of the worst in the NFL. The Niners are banking on their first round pick, Joshua Garnett, to be a road-grater at guard but he was one of most questionable first round picks of the draft. Hyde will get a good bulk of touches this season because there isn’t much quality depth behind him. Shaun Draughn is most likely to be the #2 back out of training camp. Draughn is not very elusive or speedy and could get some pressure on the depth chart from the Niners sixth round draft pick, Kelvin Taylor. The second year running back, Mike Davis, will be competing for the backup job as well. I don’t see any good handcuff options to Carlos Hyde.
There isn’t much talent coming out of the Niners wide receivers. The Niners have parted ways with Anquan Boldin, who is still an unsigned free agent. Torey Smith is now the #1 target for Blaine Gabbert. He still has some speed on the outside to get some long catches. Smith is one of the top wide receivers in yards per catch over the past couple years in the league. He will be the only fantasy wide receiver option I look at as a possible flex play on certain weeks. As far as drafts, Smith is a late round pickup. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington will be fighting for the #2 WR spot on the roster. Patton only had 30 catches for 394 yds and 1 TD last season. Ellington is a quick, slot receiver who could be a deep league PPR play. Eric Rogers is someone to keep an eye on throughout the season as a possible waiver wire pickup. Rogers was a former CFL player and has some good size to target. DeAndre Smelter is another name thrown in on the depth chart. Smelter was out last season with a torn ACL. We’ll have to see how his recovery goes during training camp and into the season. He’s a big target at 6’2, 227lbs with some comparisons to the former Niner, Anquan Boldin. I do see the Niners wide receivers having some improvement this season with Chip Kelly calling the plays.
Chip Kelly loves to use his tight ends. Now that the Vernon Davis era in San Francisco has come and gone, Vance McDonald will be the household name to watch. McDonald had 30 catches for 326 yds and 3 TDs last season. He could end being the #2 or #3 target for Blaine Gabbert this season. McDonald does have some issues with dropped passes though. He will be a very late round pickup in drafts and will only be used as a bye week option in your tight end spot. Garrett Celek is #2 tight end in this offense and a more reliable pass catcher. For OU fans, Blake Bell will be in the mix this season but no fantasy value.
The days of an intimidating Niners defense with Patrick Willis have come and gone. San Francisco was the worst fantasy scoring D/ST last season with only 32 points. NaVorro Bowman is still an all-pro linebacker and leader of this Niners defense. The Niners got their first round pick, DeForest Buckner, to bring some much needed pass rush on the interior. Ian Williams could be out of the lineup to start season after recovering from ankle surgery. The Niners weakness is in their secondary as they gave up 4,172 yds passing last season. They made this emphasis in the draft by picking up a few cornerbacks in the third and fourth rounds in Will Redmond and Rashard Robinson. We’ll see if they can make an impact to help improve the secondary. San Francisco doesn’t pose any impact in special teams with their punt and kick returner, Bruce Ellington. Undrafted free agent, Bryce Treggs, looks to get the starting role as punt and kick returner this season with his 4.34 speed.
Next week will cover the NFC South. Keep checking back with The Franchise for all the fantasy insight you need in your upcoming drafts for the 2016 NFL season!