After years of being a punchline for the NFL, the NFC West finally has something to get excited about – especially for fantasy football owners.
That’s because there is a slew of solid fantasy value throughout the division.
St. Louis Rams: The long-dismal Rams will win the division. Mark it down and send it to the bank. The reason they’ll do so is the upstart young Sam Bradford, who showed last season that he can breathe life into a franchise that can easily compete in a division devoid of powerhouses.
The key here is the addition of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who made Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd fantasy staples last season and has a history of enlivening the offenses he takes over.
Bradford is one of several QBs that I endorse in a draft-day strategy that allows you to bypass the elite QBs in favor of loading up on high-end RB and WR options. More on that here.
The receiver situation has been a must-watch situation all preseason for fantasy owners, as whichever pass catchers emerge as the top options in this offense will have definite fantasy impact.
Recent reports suggest that Brandon Gibson has held off a slew of other talented options to land a starting gig. Danny Amendola figures to be a possession-type receiver and boosts him in PPR formats. Denario Alexander is a dark horse candidate with plenty of upside but an injury situation that can hamper him at any moment. Import Mike Sims-Walker is also expected to gain a part of the pie at some point this season. For the time being, snatch up the Gibsons in your leagues – it is likely he is still available and has just as much a chance to strike gold.
The real receiver to watch here, however, is rookie tight end Lance Kendricks. While it is non-traditional for a rookie receiver, and especially a rookie tight end, to break out quickly in the NFL, Kendricks could be the exception to the rule. The Rams brass love him and are creating new ways to get him involved in the offense.
At running back, tried-and-true Steven Jackson has plodded along for years, producing quality seasons for fantasy owners while seeing himself mired in the division basement. This year, he’ll have a passing game that should keep defenses more honest, and may open a few more holes for him.
Arizona Cardinals: The big offseason news here was the acquisition of Kevin Kolb. Arizona thinks he is the answer for the franchise both this season and down the road. He has to be better than the misfit toys the Cardinals platooned at signal caller last year, and his presence means that Larry Fitzgerald has an outside shot to being the best fantasy receiver in the game once again.
The secondary receiver at the moment is Andre Roberts, but that could change at a moment’s notice. Early Doucet will be pushing for targets, too.
The running back situation became a lot more clear when rookie Ryan Williams was lost for the season. Prior to that tragic stroke, the Cardinals were shaping up to be a true running back by committee situation after Beanie Wells failed to impress in previous seasons. Now, Wells is the unquestioned starter and could make some noise based on sheer volume of work alone.
Seattle Seahawks: The talent level drops off considerably from the top two teams to the bottom pair. The Seahawks have a big question mark at QB, with Minnesota failed project Tavaris Jackson now leading the squad and Charlie Whitehurst waiting in the wings.
Another Vikings castoff, Sidney Rice, is also with the Seahawks for 2011, although he is starting the season dinged up. Check his availability before Week 1 action. Tavaris struggled to get the ball consistently to Rice (or any other WR for that matter) in Minnesota and it is hard to expect great things this season – although the team will be playing from behind quite a lot.
Zach Miller, who made some fantasy noise in 2010 with Oakland, now will be catching passes in Seattle. The QB mystery doesn’t help his situation, although Jason Campbell wasn’t exactly a great signal caller when Miller fared well last season in Black and Silver.
Mike Williams failed to break out as many expected with Seattle last season. Perhaps with less pressure, running now as the team’s No. 2 option, he’ll do better. Again, he’ll only go as far as Tavaris takes him, which is scary in itself.
The running game is headed by Marshawn Lynch, who is a big, between-the-tackles back. The team is looking to add some finesse, though, and Leon Washington is the sleeper candidate to watch, especially in PPR formats.
San Francisco 49ers: The team continues to be built around Frank Gore, and despite his injury concerns, he projects to be a top 12 fantasy RB again in 2011. Aiding him will be upstart rookie Kendall Hunter, who should be owned in most league formats. Hunter will likely take over the featured role if Gore goes down, which is a distinct possibility. I also think Hunter will see a decent amount of carries as the team attempts to keep Gore on the field all year.
The QB situation is a mess as usual. Alex Smith is back again, although the staff isn’t fully behind him. They tried out Daunte Culpepper, but fortunately didn’t drink that Kool-Aid. Rookie Colin Kaepernick could become an option as the season progresses, but he doesn’t seem as NFL ready as other rookie options.
The receiver situation is murky, too. Michael Crabtree is dinged up and not certain for Week 1. Braylon Edwards drops balls with wreckless abandon. Vernon Davis, the tight end, is the team’s most reliable option at the moment.
Fantasy MVP: Sam Bradford, STL. (Crazy, I know, but considering how late you can get him and how much upside he has, he could easily be the most valuable fantasy option in the division.)
Rookie of the year: Lance Kendricks, STL. (Close run with Kendall Hunter here, but the Rams are trying everything allegedly to get Kendricks the ball. Time will tell.)
Sleepers: Kendricks, Bradford, Brandon Gibson, STL (available on most waiver wires and could be a top target for the Rams), Beanie Wells, ARI (will get all the carries and still going fairly late in most drafts), Leon Washington, SEA (could become a big part of the Seahawks running game), Kendall Hunter, SF (could break out if Gore goes down).
Bust: Sidney Rice, SEA.
Comeback player of the year: Frank Gore, SF (Kendall Hunter will keep him healthy)