The AFC West is sort of the ghost town of the NFL – not much to look at right now but shadows remain from previous greatness.
San Diego Chargers: Few tight ends have changed the game and more positively affected fantasy football circles as Antonio Gates, and while he finally showed a mortal side last season with some lingering injuries, he still was dominant every time he hit the field. Expect more of the same this season, even if he is slowed at times with nagging aches and pains from his plantar fasciitis.
Throwing Gates the ball is Philip Rivers, a potential championship-style value on draft day. While he doesn’t fall as far as Matt Ryan or some of the other QBs I’ve mentioned previously, Rivers falls far enough in drafts to allow you to build a solid RB/WR nucleus. Rivers was great last season despite having less than stellar weapons at his disposal (see Seyi Ajirotutu and others). With Vincent Jackson on the field all season, combined with Gates and some young talent behind them, Rivers could have a career year this season.
Speaking of Jackson, he is another value that will give you WR1 upside at a WR2 price in many drafts. Rookie Vincent Brown will need some time to mature, but could come on strong as the season progresses.
The running game is a little more cryptic. Ryan Mathews is listed as the RB1, but found himself in the dog house repeatedly this preseason after showing up to the team facility well out of shape and lacking a true work ethic. While he is young and has time to fix the errors of his ways, one has to wonder if he’s one of those talents that will never get it.
This is one of many reasons I like Mike Tolbert this season. He was stellar in place of Mathews last season in stretches and will be the ultimate TD machine.
Denver Broncos: Another team that can’t seem to capture past greatness, the Broncos were the center of media frenzy this offseason as the anointed Tim Tebow slowly fell into oblivion within the team. Kyle Orton returns as the starter, and as much as you’d like to knock Orton this season with John Fox as coach, Fox did have plenty of aerial success in the past with guys like Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme.
In that same vein, I am not as downcast on Brandon Lloyd this season, either. His 2010 breakout screams a followup that is less than stellar. However, the return of Orton gives him a chance to shine again – there is little doubt that Orton feels comfortable with Lloyd in tight situations.
The secondary WR situation is less clear. While Eddie Royal is penciled in as the No. 2 guy at the moment and young yet oft-injured Demaryius Thomas attempts to make a run at doing something this season, I personally am drawn most to Eric Decker. A big receiver with surprisingly good hands, I wouldn’t be surprised if Decker climbs the organizational ladder quicker than some think this season.
In the backfield, similar to the Chargers, is somewhat of a mess. Knowshon Moreno is the current starter, but I have many doubts about Knowshon this year. Read about them in more detail here. Any faltering by Moreno will lead to a value spike by aged yet effective red zone option Willis McGahee and you could do worse as a late-round or waiver wire addition.
The Broncos tight end situation is one to avoid in fantasy circles unless your league starts two TEs. And even then I may avoid any and all Denver tight ends.
Kansas City: Unlike the two previous teams, the Chiefs don’t have questions marks at running back. Jamaal Charles emerged as a true fantasy force in 2010 and should continue to do well in 2011 as long as he can find the end zone a little more liberally. Backup and TD vulture Thomas Jones isn’t a bad speculative pick, especially in TD-heavy scoring formats.
The receiving game is more a mystery here. Matt Cassell was quietly effective in 2010, but is starting this season injured with cracked ribs. While he may play Week 1, having cracked ribs is not good for a quarterback who needs to heave a football with any velocity.
Dwayne Bowe is the best pass-catching option here, and had a breakthrough 2010, especially in the TD department. I have a feeling he’ll backpedal a little in the TD department, but still could be a solid WR2 in most formats. Then again, if Cassell is subpar in any way this season, Bowe could really struggle at times.
Secondary WR options are pretty bleak overall, although rookie Jonathan Baldwin could be an interesting option at some point down the road if he can keep himself out of fisticuffs with his own teammates. Not a way to endear yourself to the veterans on your squad.
Tony Moeaki was a guy I was rooting for at tight end in KC this year, but he was recently deactivated for the season due to injury. No one else on the roster is appealing here.
Oakland: The Silver and Black is a fantasy wasteland for many positions, but don’t sleep on Darren McFadden. He easily has top-5 running back ability and goes in the mid to late second round (and even third in some leagues). The skepticism involves Run DMC’s injury history and has definite merit. But at the price you’re paying, every player has their red flags and not as many have the upside McFadden possesses.
Keep an eye on backup RBs in the offense, too. Michael Bush could be a starter on other teams according to some scouts and could produce some savory stats if given the opportunity. Rookie Taiwan Jones has plenty of speed (something the Raiders brass love) and overall ability. While he’ll have a learning curve, he also could possess some value later in the season.
The receiving situation is much murkier. Jason Campbell isn’t exactly a studly fantasy option. In certain situations against horrific pass defenses, he may be startable as a fill-in, but you don’t want to rely on a regular basis.
The receiving situation is also tricky to gauge. Darius Heyward-Bey is not an elite NFL receiver, no matter how high the Raiders took him in the draft a few years back. Jacoby Ford has a unique skillset and could be a sneaky add in the right situation. Denarius Moore has been the talk of Raiders camp and allegedly is going to be featured in various sets this season. Watch closely.
Kevin Boss takes over for Zach Miller and while Campbell has shown a proficiency in throwing to the tight end in the past (Miller in Oakland and Chris Cooley in Washington), I’m not ready to hitch my wagon to Boss outside of a situational filler.
Fantasy MVP: Philip Rivers, SD. (So, so tempting to put Darren McFadden’s name here since I see him as a similar “value” option, but I do think Rivers has a career season this year and those who build a solid core before drafting him will be very happy with their teams.)
Fantasy rookie of the year: Denarius Moore, OAK. (the early news seems to point towards a nice opportunity for Moore, moreso than the currently roadblocked Taiwan Jones and talented yet internally volatile Jonathan Baldwin)
Fantasy sleepers: Moore, Rivers, McFadden (neither Rivers nor McFadden are true “sleepers” since they’re taken in the first half of most drafts, but both will have value), Thomas Jones, Mike Tolbert, Willis McGahee
Fantasy busts: Ryan Mathews, SD. (Tolbert will be the better fantasy back in 2011); Knowshon Moreno, DEN. (more on that here)
Comeback player of the year: Vincent Jackson, SD. (Missed a large portion of last season, he will be on the field the entire 2011 outside of some unforeseen event and will be a major cog in the Chargers high-octane passing attack.)