State of the Franchises – NFC West
Fantasy Outlook By Division
If there is a phrase that seems to fit the NFC West it’s “feast or famine”. The teams that make up the West seem to rise and fall in unison – it’s either hyper competitive or filled with bottom feeders. Next season it looks like it’s going to be the former.
After their loss in Super Bowl 54 the San Fransisco 49ers will open the season as favourites but will face competition from the Seattle Seahawks and LA Rams and may even see a significant improvement from the Arizona Cardinals.
San Fransisco 49ers
Despite doubts around Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the team are doubling down on the offense that took them to final game of last season. The running game will continue to be the ultimate committee backfield, much more dependent on the scheming of their Head Coach than on their personnel. The passing game will continue to run through star tight end George Kittle though they’ll be hoping for increasing production from their wide receiver core. With a strong defense and a quality coaching staff there is no reason to believe that the Niners won’t be there or thereabouts again.
Fantasy Star: George Kittle. The team’s main offensive weapon enters his fourth season on the back of two incredible 1000 yard seasons. Despite missing two games in 2019 he still saw 107 targets and 85 catches. His yards per game dropped off slightly from his breakout 2018 season but still clocked an impressive 75 yards.
If anything his touchdowns numbers are depressed by Shanahan’s tendency to run the ball at the goal line (Jeff Wilson had 4 touchdowns last year, Kittle had 5), if that moves closer to the mean Kittle will be a top 10 fantasy asset.
Regression Possible: Deebo Samuel. There’s a lot of excitement around Samuel going into his second season but I’m actually concerned that he may struggle to better his near 1000 yard rookie outing. The team traded up to pick up Brandon Aiyuk in April’s draft. He has a similar skill set to Deebo and I think there is every chance that Aiyuk’s speed will make him the team’s number one target by mid season.
Rookie to Watch: Brandon Aiyuk. There are doubts about the team’s ability to establish a core of receivers but I’m a firm believer that their patchy performance and spread of production is mainly due to the quality of their receiving core rather than a preference to involve a multitude of players.
Aiyuk received rave reviews for his final year in Arizona and went into the draft as a favourite of the dynasty community. Landing in San Fransisco has dampened his value, personally I think he’s the bargain of most rookie drafts right now – going largely in the mid second round.
If Aiyuk can consolidate the production that Richie James, Emmanuel Sanders and Marquise Goodwin have left he’ll be on course for a 700 yard rookie season and could quickly establish himself as the team’s number one receiver.
Could Surprise: Jerick McKinnon. Many of you will remember the summer of Jerick McKinnon. In the months after he was signed by the 49ers in free agency he rocketed up draft boards, it was even suggested that he might be an RB1 by the crazier fantasy owners out there.
Unfortunately, injuries have curtailed his 49ers career. Now though, there is a chink of light for the former Minnesota Vikings. With Matt Breida traded to Miami and the team keen on maintaining their multiple back approach, McKinnon will get a chance to compete for a role. If he sees the field and he can stay healthy he could be a solid contributor on a team who love to run the ball.
Deep Sleeper: JaMycal Hasty. No team in the league has shown more willingness to blood running backs with limited pedigree than the 49ers. Breida went from UDFA to 1000 yards from scrimmage in 2018 and Raheem Mostert looks set to lead the backfield next season despite also going undrafted and bouncing around a number of teams. They even got production out of Jeff Wilson at points over the last couple of seasons. Thus it should be no surprise that a couple of exciting free agents chose the Bay Area to attempt to make a roster.
Baylor’s JaMycal Hasty looks like the most interesting candidate. He played a variety of roles in college, showing off skills as a runner and receiver. He lacks the blistering speed of Mostert but could offer an interesting compliment as a pass catcher early on.
The Seahawks continue to be an intriguing fantasy proposition. They remain committed to their running game, even past the point that it’s useful to them. They had an almost 50/50 split between run and pass – a ratio that looks increasingly archaic in the today’s game.
Despite their somewhat unorthodox approach they continue to be perennial playoff contenders and there is little evidence that with Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson at the helm that that’ll change anytime soon. They continue to struggle to recreate the strangling defensive success of the Legion of Boom, but if they can take a step forward on that side of the ball they’ll have every chance of winning the division.
Fantasy Star: Tyler Lockett. One of fantasy’s most underrated receivers, Lockett never seems to get the respect his play deserves. On 82 catches last year he racked up 1057 yards and 8 touchdowns – imagine what he’d do on a team that prioritised the passing game. He may also be helped by the emergence of DK Metcalf giving teams another receiver to worry about may free the former Kansas State receiver up further still.
He’s remarkably cheap for last year’s WR15, his ADP is somewhere in the mid 20s. He’s well worth targeting in that range and well worth picking up before the likes of DJ Chark who go in a similar space.
Regression Candidate: Chris Carson. I’m a huge fan of Carson. He’s a great runner and last season even seen his passing game contribution increase significantly, but two problems continue to loom large. Injuries and fumbles. He fought off both last year to deliver 1230 yards rushing, 266 receiving and 9 touchdowns – good enough to finish as RB9. How long he can continue to do that though is questionable.
Carson enters a contract year and will need to show he’s healthy after a significant hip injury and that he’s moved past his fumbling issues – he had more than any other running back last year. Pete Carroll has shown a willingness to forgive but with free agent addition Carlos Hyde in town that leash may suddenly be shorter.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy should remain a key part of the Seahawks attack but can’t see him repeating his impressive production of last year.
Rookie To Watch: The team did little in the draft in adding skill players to an their offense and look likely to rely on a very similar group to last year. It’s possible that DeeJay Dallas gets some work during the season, and the team are never shy to promote players who show something in practice. Late round wider receiver Freddie Swain and tight ends Stephen Sullivan and Colby Parkinson may not see the field at all, at least not in year 1.
Could Surprise: Philip Dorsett. After a fairly pedestrian three years in New England former first round pick Dorsett lands in a nice spot in Seattle. He’s largely a one trick pony, he’s fast and he can get deep and if there is one place that that could make him relevant it’s Seattle. His chances probably rest on underperformance or injury to Metcalf or Lockett but if he gets the chance Russell Wilson could make his deep speed a useful weapon.
Deep Sleeper: Travis Homer. The backfield in Seattle is certainly crowded. Chris Carson, Carlos Hyde, Rashad Penny and rookie DeeJay Dallas will all compete for carries but Homer looks like have the slight leg up when it comes to third down work. Homer showed up nicely when he seen the field post week 15 last season and if he sticks on the roster could be a useable flex piece in PPR.
Los Angeles Rams
It’s worth remembering that the Rams are only 16 months removed from a Superbowl appearance. The defeat to the Patriots in Superbowl 53 seems to have sparked a rapid decline in the eyes of most analysts. You don’t often hear about Sean McVay’s genius anymore.
The Rams however, haven’t become terrible overnight and you can’t rule out a bounce back from last years disappointments. It’s worth remembering that for all the negative vibes the teams still finished above 500 and but for a monumental collapse in Dallas may have sneaked into the playoffs.
Jared Goff’s regression and a big step backwards for their offensive line will need to be corrected and the defense will need to play up to the sum of their parts. With Wade Philips out of town it’s a new era for the Rams D.
The first season in SoFi stadium may increase the pressure on the team to perform but there are pieces in place that mean it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if they were to find themselves atop the division in December.
Fantasy Star: Cooper Kupp. 26 year old Kupp enters his contract season very clearly established as the team’s number one receiver. With Brandin Cooks out of town the team will lean even more heavily on the former East Carolina man. In fantasy terms Kupp is a high end contributor but last season he was dangerously up and down. A 7 catch 220 yard game against the Bengals was critical to his full season stats. He only had 4 other games over 100 yards. He is a consistent scorer however with 10 touchdowns spread across 9 games.
The distribution is something to watch but don’t overreact to it. Kupp will be heavily involved from the moment the Rams arrive in their new stadium.
Regression Possible: There’s little doubt that this would have been Todd Gurley had he not been cut loose after last season. The much pilloried Gurley sneaked over 1000 yards from scrimmage but had clearly lost the burst that made him a superstar pre-Superbowl 53. Whether he can revive himself in Atlanta is yet to be seen.
One man to worry about is Robert Woods. The former Buffalo Bill is a very talented receiver. His fantasy stats in 2019 were depressed only by his lack of touchdowns. Like Cooper Kupp he seen an enormous number of targets (139) and I suspect that McVay will want to reduce the reliance on Woods. Van Jefferson offers a similar skill set to both Woods and Kupp and it seems likely that the 270+ targets may be distributed 3, instead of 2 ways – unless his scoring returns to the mean, Woods may well suffer.
Rookie to Watch: Cam Akers. With Gurley now in the Atlanta the Rams run game will look significantly different than at any time since Sean McVay arrived in town. The team have spent top 75 picks on two backs in the past two drafts and logic suggests that McVay is keen for a more committee based approach at the position. Florida State’s Akers was drafted at 52 overall and seems likely to feature heavily in his rookie season. Even if the work load is split, Akers looks best placed for a heavy workload and will likely dominate 1st and 2nd down carries.
There is doubt in the air after the Rams running game took a significant step back last year, but the odds seem better than even that McVay will find ways to open it up and Akers will be a big beneficiary.
Could Surprise: Darrell Henderson. When the team drafted Akers most people gave former Memphis back Henderson up for dead. With a much more split backfield Henderson may end up being an extreme value pickup this offseason. He has explosive speed – something the Rams are short of on offense and has year’s head start on Akers. I think you may well see a 60/40 split between the two an that Henderson may well end up as most likely to deliver game changing plays both for fantasy and in the real world.
Deep Sleeper: Brycen Hopkins. On the surface Hopkins has a tough climb to relevant after Tyler Higbee appeared to break out at the end of last season and the team still has Gerald Everett on the roster. Despite that the Mackey Award semi-finalist may find himself more relevant than many think.
Unless Van Jefferson is a smash hit out of the blocks the team seem likely to employ more two tight end sets and since Everett has never managed to establish himself as consistent offensive weapon it’s not inconceivable that the 4th round pick could beat him out for that number 2 spot by Thanksgiving.
The Cardinals enter the season as one of the leagues more intriguing teams. Both the offense and Kyler Murray grew as last season went on and many are expecting a nice second year bounce for both. The addition of Deandre Hopkins has only heightened excitement for an offense that on paper looks set to make a significant leap.
Fantasy Star: DeAndre Hopkins. Now that the dust has settled on one of the more shocking trades of the NFL offseason, the Cardinals will be looking to their new wide receiver to help both their offense and their second year QB to take a significant step forward.
Hopkins enters his 8th season in the league and will be aiming for his sixth thousand yard season. His big challenge will be to replicate the vast target share he had in Houston; over 150 targets in each of the last five seasons. In Arizona he may face more competition for those targets. Larry Fitzgerald is back for another year, Christian Kirk had over 100 targets himself last season and the team spent multiple picks on wide receivers last season.
If Kyler Murray continues the progress he showed in the second half of last season then Hopkins will be well placed for another big year.
Regression Possible: DeAndre Hopkins. He’ll likely be the teams number one target but there are some reasons for concern around Hopkins going into next year. Murray needs to continue his improvement for the offense to function well and he needs to lock onto Hopkins early and often. It’s possible in multiple receiver sets that Murray spreads the ball around.
The team also found some running rhythm last year once Kenyan Drake arrived and it may be they take more advantage of the running lanes that both Murray and Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury create.
Hopkins could still be a major contributor but not find quite the volume that he’s used to in the Arizona attack.
Rookie To Watch: Skill players were thin on the ground but the addition of offensive tackle Josh Jones may help to solidify and offensive line that’s been Swiss cheese like in it’s make up. If the line improves it’ll be a big help to Murray, to Drake and to the offense as a whole.
Could Surprise: Hakeem Butler. In pre-NFL draft rookie rankings last year Butler was a consistent top 3 player. In a lot of places he was going 1 overall. The precipitous fall there after remains one of the big mysteries of last year’s draft process. Butler’s size and speed combination looked made for the NFL but as day 2 ended in last years draft he remained undrafted.
He finally landed in Arizona in the 4th round but a finger injury meant he didn’t see the field in 2019. Is there hope for him in 2020?
The team gravitated away from 4 receiver sets as the season went on but interestingly Kyler Murray found a lot of success throwing to 6’ 6” Dan Arnold as the season reached it’s end – if Butler stays healthy he can offer both Murray and Kingsbury something they sorely lack. Height. Murray had some significant red zone woes in his rookie year and Butler may be at least part of the answer to solving that in year two.
Deep Sleeper: Eno Benjamin. The Cardinals running game really came to life when they acquired Kenyan Drake from Miami last October. He delivered 800 yards from scrimmage in just 8 games and 8 touchdowns. Drake is likely to see a lot of work next season but who picks up the slack behind him is an interesting question.
Chase Edmonds showed some flashes last year but his inability to grab the job led to the team trading for Drake. That opens a door for 7th round pick Benjamin. At Arizona State, Benjamin produced some huge numbers a both a runner and receiver. A near 1900 yard, 18 touchdown sophomore season was followed by 1500 yards and 12 touchdowns junior campaign. When the NFL Draft process started some had him pegged as an early day 3 selection.
A disappointing combine put paid to the optimism and Benjamin very nearly went undrafted, however, he landed a decent spot. With a bit of luck he may end up as a productive flex option.