Like a weekly lunch buffet special, the NFL preseason will give you plenty to chew on. To whet our appetites, here is a brief outline of what to watch for in the coming weeks. Reason? Well there’s value in paying attention to the preseason and training camp battles. If not, you may become last year’s fantasy owner who drafted Donald Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey and overlooked Ray Rice and Miles Austin.
Today let’s discuss the NFC West’s Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams: Jay-Mo’s other preseason previews:
- Trojan horse As Pete Carroll fathered the recent USC dynasty, Matt Leinart ended up being his favorite son. Now Leinart is on his own with plenty of support to show pops he’s finally all grown up. Carroll may be understandably patient, but the Arizona brass isn’t. At least Leinart wasn’t a total disaster in his first attempt at starting four years ago (214-2,547-11-12) and has a better supporting cast this time. Again, it’s the looming accuracy question. Let’s see if Leinart has discovered an answer.
- Easy on the clutch There is no question the retirement of Kurt Warner will slow the Cardinals’ offensive pace, as will the departure of Anquan Boldin. The offense will surely have to shift gears, but how far down? Indications are Ken Wisenhunt wants to literally run the offense through Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells, which could help Leinart’s development. But how many losses will it take for that plan to switch gears of its own? We obviously won’t know until the regular season, but this preseason will shed light on how well the offensive line is capable of handling a more committed running attack.
- Larry the legend The loss of Boldin won’t overshadow the void of Warner, mostly because of the plethora of receiving talent that plays along side Larry Fitzgerald. We saw firsthand how effective they can be in the postseason. Will that translate into this year? We’ll begin to see in the coming weeks. Keep a close eye on Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.
San Francisco 49ers
- From shotgun to pro-set Alex Smith is certainly making every effort to avoid the dreaded “draft bust” label. Will a second year in an offense he made some strides in be fruitful? Remember, Smith is making the transition from a shotgun spread offense just like Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy will start making this preseason. A key sign will be how well Smith can work the edge with Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan, because we know Smith can find Vernon Davis over the middle.
- So easy a caveman can do it Frank Gore is about as automatic a running back a back can be, when he’s on the field. We know what we’re going to get. Do the 49ers have an insurance policy? It’s certainly one of the main problems the coaching staff will be trying to solve in the coming weeks. Glen Coffee turned a solid preseason last year into a top backup role and position on some owners’ sleeper lists. Anthony Dixon, of Mississippi State, will be trying the same thing this year.
- Climbing the Crabtree It definitely wasn’t a conventional approach to a rookie season, but Crabtree isn’t a conventional player. It’s going to be fun to watch how good Crabtree can be with a full offseason to work with. Remember, Crabtree is also transitioning from a spread offense, so his route running skills will be a true testament of how much of a jump we can expect early this regular season.
- Riding the Carroll sell Preseason is always the time for fantasy owners to get their glimpse of a new offense, no matter how vanilla they end up being. Seattle is no exception, and we can expect a Denver-like look with Jeremy Bates (Jay Cutler’s former quarterbacks coach) in tow as offensive coordinator. How quickly the offense can click will have direct impact on Matt Hasselbeck and T.J. Houshmanzadeh’s fantasy value.
- Building blocks With this new offense comes a new zone-blocking scheme, which we’ve seen do wonders in Denver with the likes of Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson, etc. Will Justin Forsett, or dare we say Quinton Ganther, be added to that list? The coming weeks should give us some clue.
- Walking the Golden trail Dynamic Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate fell into Seattle’s lap in the second round of the NFL Draft. It will be fascinating, and important for fantasy drafts, to see how Tate will be used this preseason. It may be a frustrating watch, but if Tate is at least getting touches and an effort is made to involve him in the offense, we’ll at least feel better that the same will happen in the regular season.
St. Louis Rams
- Sooner Schooner Sam Bradford will have plenty of pressure to play with, especially with the money he landed in his contract. However, it’s the amount of defensive pressure that will be most important to us. He didn’t see much in college and when he did, Bradford looked horrible (reference: Colorado ’07, Florida ’09). He’ll get his first taste of both types of pressure in the coming weeks.
- Greatest show on nerf These Rams aren’t going to fool anyone and try to lay claim of being the next generation of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim. How well Donnie Avery, Laurent Robinson and rookie Mardy Gilyard can work with Bradford in the preseason should translate into the regular season.
- The Jackson 5 There probably isn’t another running back in the league in need of rest and some assistance from his mates than Steven Jackson. He proved last season he can produce great fantasy stats on even the weakest offensive team. It seems as though the Rams have improved their talent, at least on paper, with Bradford, Gilyard and Robinson back from injury. However, the backfield still appears baron. Kenneth Darby just isn’t doing it for me, so who will rise to fill the No. 2 roll behind Jackson? With the offensive line the Rams are working with and a rookie quarterback under center, it’s a good bet Jackson will face a hard time staying healthy. I know I’ll be giving Keith Toston a closer look this preseason and betting the Rams do too.