NFC WEST - Fantasy PreviewAFC South, I’m continuing my division-by-division breakdown by rating the players of the NFC West on the three B’s scale (Best, Bust, Buy-Low). Not to be ignored are the IDP’s and schedule analysis. Fire away with any thoughts.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR (AZ) – In 2011 Fitz actually set a career mark for yards-per-catch with 17.6—up more than 2.5 yards from his previous high. He’s the type of elite talent that is not even remotely dependent on his quarterback play. With Michael Floyd now in town to help take coverage away from him and John Skelton developing into a quality starter, the game’s most complete receiver could still reach a new ceiling this year if he combines the yards with more scores.
Steven Jackson, RB (STL) – Check off a minimum of 1,250 total yards and about 6-8 scores for Jackson. He’s been a testament to consistency for the past seven years in which he’s hit that total yards mark every time and even managed it twice in just 12-game seasons. And although he’s 29, you can still bet on him seeing in the neighborhood of 300 carries. Jackson is as freakish an athlete as the league has seen at running back in quite some time and new coach Jeff Fisher road another workhorse in Eddie George into the ground, giving him 343 carries in the season he turned 29.
Marshawn Lynch, RB (SEA) – Beast Mode will not repeat the ridiculous 11-game scoring streak that made him one of the darlings of 2011, but he remains one of the game’s best goal line backs and a candidate to lead the league in yards after contact. Last year may have been his ceiling, but Lynch is still a safe bet for 250+ carries and at least close to double-digit scores.
Ryan Williams, RB (AZ) – Williams wants badly to be Walter Payton. And though he could never possibly live up to the standards set by his childhood idol, Williams will do everything within his power to honor Sweetness with his own performance. By all accounts, no Cardinals player has shown more dedication in the offseason than Williams who is attempting to return from a torn patella tendon by Week 1. Whether he achieves that goal or not, he will take over as the feature back in the desert at some point this year and when he does the dynamic young runner will live up to the billing of the 38th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Vernon Davis, TE (SF) – Davis won’t be able to be the focus of the passing game the way he was in a brilliant playoff run, but he may have a much easier time of putting up good numbers with the likes of Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham taking coverage away from him. Davis easily has the upside of a top-5 tight end and because of his crowded situation, he likely won’t cost the price of one.
San Francisco Defense/Special Teams – By rule of thumb, I don’t do defenses before the second to last round. But the 49ers unit is so dominant they warrant exception-to-the-rule status. Feel free to pull the trigger on them as early as the 10th round if they’re still up for grabs.
Beanie Wells, RB (AZ) – Wells ran like a truck for his first three games last year before being derailed by a balky knee that just wouldn’t cooperate. Entering this season after an offseason knee surgery that he’s still yet to recover from, it’s hard to imagine him holding off an incredibly eager Williams who is on a faster road to full health.
Frank Gore, RB (SF) – Gore can still play, that much is for sure. He proved it with an impressive 2011 season, even if he did most of his major damage in a five-game stretch during the year’s first half. But this is a new season and team and with it come many obstacles to a repeat. He’s a year older and closer to an eventual breakdown, he’s welcomed two new gifted backs to add competition for him and his heir apparent, Kendall Hunter, and he’s watched as the pass game added significant weapons to transition away from a run-heavy offense. Gore is good, but not good enough to overcome all of those hurdles. Expect the decline to rapidly progress.
Sidney Rice, WR (SEA) – Two concussions in 2011 and two offseason shoulder surgeries (one for each arm) plus one full season in five years equals the right ingredients for another disappointing campaign from Rice.
Mario Manningham, WR (SF) – Though the Niners will become a more balanced offense and air it out more than they did in 2011, there are simply too many mouths to feed for them all to have fantasy impact. With Davis, Crabtree and Moss dominating targets, Manningham will get left out in the cold.
Kevin Kolb, QB (AZ) – After a miserable performance in the team’s first preseason game that ended with his chest nearly being caved in, Kolb is looking more and more doubtful to win the starting job in the desert. Plain and simple, Skelton gives the Cardinals a better chance to win games. Kolb may still get a shot out of the gate because he wasn’t paid to hold a clipboard, but sooner or later he’s going to watch his job get snatched out from under him.
Early Doucet, WR (AZ) – Doucet posted nine games of at least five points and seven of at least seven in a solid 2011 campaign, but the addition of Floyd and the rise of Andre Roberts will relegate him completely unrosterable this year.
Doug Baldwin, WR (SEA) – Nearly 40% of Baldwin’s 51 catches as a rookie went for over 20 yards. As more of a slot receiver, that’s an incredible statistic. Heading into his second season and locked into the starting slot role, he’s a legit candidate to top 1,000 yards receiving and looks like a potential PPR stud.
Matt Flynn, QB (SEA) – Flynn certainly does not have the weapons that surrounded him in Lambeau, but the receivers in Seattle are not as weak as they may appear on paper. Terrell Owens adds another big-play dimension to the wideout corps and there is significant potential in the younger weapons like Baldwin and Golden Tate that could develop further. With Flynn’s accuracy and timing as a passer, he should be able to help those players reach another level while putting up big numbers himself.
Randy Moss, WR (SF) – He may be 35, but the future Hall-Of-Famer will not show it when he stretches the field for San Francisco this season. After taking a year off, Moss is motivated to prove that he can still play this game at an exceptional level and though the offense has many weapons, he will be one of the most lethal. If he slips past the 8th round of any league, consider him a steal.
Michael Floyd, WR (AZ) – Floyd could be the perfect complement to Fitzgerald in his rookie season. He has all the size to post up defenders as a possession target and enough speed to beat corners over the top and open the underneath for Fitz. With his All-Pro mentor grabbing the attention of d-backs, Floyd should carve out a big chunk of the Cardinals’ passing attack and 800+ yards and 6+ scores is very realistic for this pro-ready talent.
Terrell Owens, WR (SEA) – Should T.O. make it through the entire preseason without getting cut, there’s a very real chance he’s starting in place of Tate when the Seahawks travel to the Cardinals in Week 1. If he’s a starting receiver in the NFL again, he has to be considered with a late-round pick. A physical freak with the single-greatest motivator pushing him—the almighty dollar—Owens will lead the Seahawks in receiving if he’s on the regular season roster.
Michael Crabtree, WR (SF) – Crabtree has already participated in more offseason activities than in his previous three years combined. If he can get over a tweaked calf muscle to see some preseason action, that’s just gravy. In his first year under Jim Harbaugh he posted 72 catches for 874 yards despite missing training camp and the preseason with a foot injury. With the Niners transitioning to a more open aerial attack and with the extra weapons in Moss and Manningham to draw coverage off Crabtree, the former top-10 draft pick could be in line for a career year.
Steven Smith, WR (STL) – Before tearing up his knee in 2010, Smith had a major breakout year in 2009 with over 100 catches and 1,200 yards. Though he was a ghost of himself last year in Philly, he should be poised for a big bounce-back season now that he’s nearly two years removed from arthroscopic surgery. If camp chatter is any indication, Smith will be the No. 1 target of Sam Bradford in St. Louis.
Alex Smith, QB (SF) – With the additions of Moss, Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James to bolster the weapons that already surrounded him, Smith’s low 2011 numbers will be a thing of the past. Even as San Fran continues to run the ball plenty, Smith should easily top 500 attempts and 20 scores this year, with few games in which he’s held out of the end zone.
Golden Tate, WR (SEA) – Tate has all the physical tools to excel in a quick-hitting West Coast attack with Flynn pulling an accurate trigger. A former high school running back, he has the potential to be among the best receivers at racking up yards after the catch, and while he may not post big scoring numbers, he has the upside to top 800 yards if he can find his way onto the field enough. A lot will depend on the health of Rice and performance of Owens though, so Tate could just as well be a wasted flier pick.
Isaiah Pead, RB (STL) – Though Jackson will be a workhorse in coach Fisher’s offense, Pead will still get plenty of opportunities to create big plays in space as the team looks to take advantage of his homerun speed. He is exceptionally elusive in the open field and can accelerate to top gear in a flash. Though he may only see about 8-10 touches per game, that could be enough to make him a worthy flex, and if Jackson were to break down, Pead could become a star in a similar mold to C.J. Spiller.
Brian Quick, WR (STL) – Quick is raw as a route runner and technician, but what he lacks in polish he more than makes up for in physical ability. There is a real chance he could emerge as Sam Bradford’s go-to target this year and at worst he could be the top target the Rams have in the red zone.
Robert Turbin, RB (SEA) – Turbin, who teammates have dubbed the “SeaHulk” because of his huge biceps, will easily claim the handcuff role to Lynch. If an injury opened the door for the rookie, this bruising runner with better long speed and softer hands than Mr. Beast Mode could turn into a star and be one of the big surprises of the fantasy season. Turbin has upside about as big as his chiseled arms.
Kellen Winslow, TE (SEA) – Winslow averaged about 72 catches a season for his three years in Tampa, and though the Seahawks were one of the league’s worst in 2011 at featuring the tight end, Winslow gives them the athletic, polished route-runner to turn that around. With Flynn working more short and intermediate timing routes, expect Winslow to finish about second on the team in receptions with 700+ yards and a handful of scores..
Sam Bradford, QB (STL) – Bradford has reportedly beefed up and prepared his body to survive in an extremely physical division. Although the Rams figure to be a more run-heavy team under Fisher, that may just serve to take the pressure off Bradford’s shoulders and present more opportunities for play-action. With the best set of weapons he’s had in his three seasons, a career-year is within reach for this solid reserve passer.
Kendall Hunter, RB (SF) – As a rookie Hunter was an effective change-of-pace complement to Gore and displayed the type of quick burst and elusiveness to become a major big-play threat out of the backfield. He only saw 128 total touches, but with that number likely to rise in his second season backing up the elder statesman, he offers legit flex value in deeper leagues. Moreover, Hunter is a good bet for a spot start or two given that Gore managed 16 games last season for just the first time in the past five years.
John Skelton, QB (AZ) – Over the final four games of 2011, against four of the league’s better pass defenses, Skelton totaled 1,163 yards and seven scores through the air, including 282 yards and three touchdowns in a comeback win over the 49ers’ intimidating defense. A virtual Joe Flacco clone physically, Skelton has the type of poise that doesn’t rattle and the big arm to make every throw. Once he takes the starting job from Kolb, he’ll even have the weapons to produce as a respectable No. 2 fantasy passer.
Patrick Willis, LB (SF) – Even if you’ve never played with IDP’s before, you have to know Willis is the most complete linebacker in the NFL. He’s as safe an IDP as there is. Simple as that.
James Laurinaitis, LB (STL) – Laurinaitis has been a remarkably reliable IDP in his first three seasons, topping 100 total tackles each year while averaging 125 per campaign. He’s also started every game and notched eight sacks in that stretch, making him a can’t-miss at linebacker.
Navorro Bowman, LB (SF) – For as good as his teammate is, Bowman still had a huge impact in a breakthrough season playing next to Willis. If his fellow inside backer plays in all 16 games though (Willis missed three in 2011), Bowman’s tackle total will likely dip from the 150 range down to around 120.
Daryl Washington, LB (AZ) – In a breakout year Washington posted the seventh-most solo tackles in the league and finished with over 100 total stops, an impressive five sacks and two picks. He is one of the more versatile backers in the league and could be poised for a monster third season.
Earl Thomas, DB (SEA) – Though his interceptions dropped from five in his rookie year to just two last season Thomas’ tackles rose from 76 to 98 in his sophomore campaign. A superstar in the making, look for Thomas to put together a more complete stat line in 2012 and ascend to an elite IDP level.
Kam Chancellor, DB (SEA) – A linebacker-sized strong safety, Chancellor put together a big-time second season with 97 total tackles and four picks. His versatility makes him a top-notch defensive back IDP and he’s a strong candidate to lead the Seahawks in tackles with middle linebacker David Hawthorne having skipped town for New Orleans.
Aldon Smith, LB (SF) – Smith’s 14 sacks tied the rookie record and he didn’t even get started until Week 4. He’s never going to be a high-volume tackle guy, but in leagues that reward heavily for sacks, he could be a beast.
Patrick Peterson, DB (AZ) – The sky is the limit for “Prime Time Lite.” An amazing athlete, Peterson is a bit of a boom or bust IDP because of his playmaking abilities. He’s not likely to net enough tackles to warrant regular use, but he’s a sure bet to get in the end zone either off a punt or a pick, and likely multiple times on the year. If his tackles do go up though, he’ll be a superstar.
Calais Campbell, DE (AZ) – Campbell proved last year to be one of the top defensive line IDP’s as a consistent producer of both tackles and sacks. The gigantic athlete (6-foot-8, 300 lbs.) finished third among all d-lineman in total tackles while also posting eight sacks, and the 25-year-old has yet to reach his full potential.
Chris Long, DE (STL) – Long is your prototypical boom-or-bust defensive line IDP. In four years he hasn’t topped 43 tackles once, but after breaking out with 13 sacks last year, he’s arrived as a pass-rusher and is a guarantee for a handful of big games in 2012.
K.J. Wright, LB (SEA) – Wright is a lock to start at one of the outside linebacker spots and is Chancellor’s and Thomas’ top competition to lead the team in tackles. A big, rangy backer with speed, length and strength, he posted 65 tackles as a rookie and is likely to boost that total significantly in Year 2.
Chris Clemons, DE (SEA) – The top pass rusher for Seattle, Clemons has been the model of consistency in his two years as a Seahawk, posting back-to-back seasons with about 50 total tackles and 11 sacks. He may not be a stud, but he represents good value at a cheap price for d-line IDP’s.
Justin Smith, DE (SF) – Plain and simple, Smith is an absolute animal. His ceiling is not that of an elite IDP, but with his strong combination of tackles and sacks, he’s about as safe a middle tier defensive lineman as you can find.
Robert Quinn, DE (STL) – Quinn only notched five sacks as a rookie after being the Rams’ first pick in the 2011 Draft, but he brings a remarkably quick first step and great flexibility as a blitzer. He will start posting big sack numbers sooner rather than later.
Paris Lenon, LB (AZ) – Lenon has been a force in his two seasons in the desert, posting 218 total tackles and five sacks over that span. While he will continue to lose tackles to the younger, more athletic Washington, he should remain a quality reserve linebacker for another year.
Sam Acho, LB (AZ) – The top pass rusher for the Cardinals, Acho posted seven sacks and 39 tackles as a rookie after finally getting regular action in Week 7. A powerful outside backer with good quickness and a high motor, Acho is a good bet for double-digit sacks in his sophomore season.
Quintin Mikell, DB (STL) – One of the most consistent defensive back IDP’s over the past four years, Mikell has averaged about 90 total tackles and 2.5 picks per season during that stretch.
Kerry Rhodes, DB (AZ) – Rhodes has been a major jack-of-all-trades in his year and a half as a Cardinal, totaling 124 tackles, six recovered fumbles, four INT’s, three sacks and two touchdowns in just 23 games. Coming back from a foot injury that cut his 2011 short he could be a great late-round value given his upside.
Darian Stewart, DB (STL) – In his second season Stewart made 13 starts and made them count with 84 total tackles, three sacks and a pick six. If he remains a starter entering his third season, he’s got terrific upside as a defensive back IDP.
Donte Whitner, DB (SF) – Whitner is never going to provide many big plays, but he was an absolute tackle machine his final year in Buffalo prior to coming to San Fran. With Willis and Bowman he’s going to have a difficult time coming anywhere close to that 100+ tackle range but he could have big upside if either backer gets hurt.
The NFC West squares off with the NFC North & AFC East in 2012.
San Francisco 49ers
Bye Week: 9
Week 14 vs. Miami
Week 15 @ New England
Week 16 @ Seattle
Week 17 vs. Arizona
Overall: The defensive slate facing the Niners is by no means an intimidating one. The Seahawks, Bills and Jets look to be strong overall units and the pass rushes of the Giants and Rams will disrupt a lot of air attacks, but it’s an otherwise inviting schedule for fantasy production. Moreover, trips to Green Bay, New Orleans and New England could end in shootouts.
Bye Week: 10
Week 14 @ Seattle
Week 15 vs. Detroit
Week 16 vs. Chicago
Week 17 @ San Francisco
Overall: The Cardinals walk into the ugliest schedule in the division. They share the plight with Seattle and St. Louis of facing San Fran twice, but they also have to deal with the Seahawks and a Rams group poised to make big strides defensively. Heap the Eagles, Bills and Jets onto the pile and Arizona’s looking at more than half their schedule being comprised of hard-hitting, playmaking defenses.
Bye Week: 11
Week 14 vs. Arizona
Week 15 @ Buffalo
Week 16 vs. San Francisco
Week 17 vs. St. Louis
Overall: Getting the Niners in what will be the Super Bowl week for many leagues is a sad proposition for all Seahawks players, and adds insult to injury as they'll be coming off a December trip to a tough Buffalo squad the week prior. Besides that brutal playoff scenario though, only the Cowboys and Jets pose particularly concerning threats.
St. Louis Rams
Bye Week: 9
Week 14 @ Buffalo
Week 15 vs. Minnesota
Week 16 @ Tampa Bay
Week 17 @ Seattle
Overall: We all know the brutal part of the Rams’ schedule—two games facing the Niners’ dominant defense—but the Seahawks and Cardinals could also present tough matchups in the division. Visits to Chicago and Buffalo will hurts as well, and the pass game is likely to struggle when the Jets and Redskins come to town. When all is said and done, Fisher and his new team will face more strong defenses than not, leaving Jackson as the only every-week start.