This is our fourth in a series of eight divisional previews. We will review all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the summer. Reviewing the league this way helps for a couple obvious reasons. Teams in the same division play essentially the same schedule and teams will many times be built in a way to try and win that division. Also, it’s easier to think of the league in 8 parts instead of 32. We’ll review each team, the players to consider, and finish it up with a best of divisional team. I use a variety of sources to build my analysis including DVOA from Football Outsiders, average draft position from Fantasy Football Calculator, and offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus. As always, civil discourse is welcome. We’re going to finish up the American Football Conference today with the West. They draw the NFC West and the AFC North this year.
2017 DVOA – 31st; Passing DVOA – 31st; Running DVOA – 22nd; Offensive Line – 23rd
I know the Broncos last Super Bowl seems like ancient history at this point but it was only three years ago. Seriously, I had to look it up to make sure I didn’t have it wrong. The acquisition of Peyton Manning was a resounding success for John Elway. The elder Manning guided the Broncos to a 50-12 regular season record over 4 seasons for four division titles, two Super Bowl appearances, and one title. Yes, the defense led the way in Super Bowl 50 and Von Miller is a force, but Manning was still able to coax out enough offense to get it done. Manning was a shell of his former self at the end…but it was better than what Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler were able to do over the past two years. The Broncos shipped Siemian off to the Vikings in the offseason and signed Case Keenum to a pretty sizable deal of $25M guaranteed over two years. I like Keenum and I thought he did a terrific job in Minnesota last year, helping the purple crew to the NFC Championship game. He lands in a pretty decent spot, with no real competition for his job and good weapons at his disposal. Keenum is currently drafted in the back end of the draft after Alex Smith and before Eli Manning. That’s not a bad spot for a guy who took a big step developmentally last year.
Keenum will throw to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, two viable fantasy wide receivers. They’re currently going in rounds 4 and 7 respectively and I can’t help but think that those prices are depressed because of the ineptitude of the QB situation the last two seasons. I believe Keenum is an upgrade from Siemian so getting a guy like Thomas in the 4th could be an absolute gift on draft day. The Broncos also added Courtland Sutton in the 2nd round and Desean Hamilton in the 4th to add to an already good crew. I really liked Sutton coming out and he’s earned some early offseason chatter (which is useless). I think the dip in productivity from Thomas last year was due more to QB play than personal ability, but if you’re thinking about fading Thomas, invest in Sutton. Hamilton and Sutton represent the future, but sometimes that future forces its way onto the field.
I had a keeper share of Devontae Booker that i thought grew in value this offseason. The third year back appeared to have a clear path to the starting role after the Broncos passed up some free agents and let CJ Anderson go. So of course, the Broncos take a running back in the third round. Royce Freeman out of Oregon has quickly earned the eye of the fantasy community as most people believe he’ll earn the lead role in this Broncos offense. Freeman is RB26 while Booker checks in at RB51 in current ADP. This will be a camp battle to monitor in the preseason.
Oakland / Las Vegas Raiders
2017 DVOA – 13th; Passing DVOA – 13th; Running DVOA – 14th; Offensive Line – 8th
The Raiders moved on from Jack Del Rio this offseason and signed one of the
craziest most interesting coaching contracts the league has ever seen. Jon Gruden steps down from the booth and back onto the sidelines where he will be paid $100M over the next 10 years. Good work if you can get it. The typical reaction of the Gruden move was cynicism but I love it. Gruden is an interesting character and in the world of bland coaches, I like to be entertained. Whether or not Gruden can restore the Raiders to glory will largely be dependent on how Derek Carr responds to the Gruden offense. Carr looked like a rising star in 2016 before a broken leg ended him campaign. 2017 did not deliver the goods as Carr saw his Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A) go down by a full yard. His interceptions spiked back to 13 and he seemingly got rid of the ball too quickly, not trusting the route to develop or his line to protect him. Currently the 17th QB off the board, Carr is one of my favorite targets in my early prep this offseason. He has top 5 potential working with one of the better QB minds the game has to offer. If the game has passed Gruden by and Carr repeats 2017, you’re stuck with an average QB you drafted in the double digit rounds – the downside is minimal.
Part of Carr’s problem last year may have been Amari Cooper. Maybe this is chicken and egg, but when I watched Raiders games last year, it felt like Cooper had the bigger issues. After making the Pro Bowl his first two seasons, Cooper saw an increase in drops, missed some time due to injury, and saw his catch percentage fall to 50%. Yikes. Cooper is currently WR16 after the Vikings tandem and before Alshon Jeffery. I’ve got to assume that injuries were bothering Cooper more than we understand and he’s in line for a big bounce back. Gone is Michael Crabtree, replaced by Jordy Nelson. The former Packer comes in with a videogame-like stat sheet, but that was with the benefit of playing with Aaron Rodgers. Nelson is two years removed from the ACL tear and in his age 33 season, could be a sneaky play. With Cooper commanding CB1 type attention, Nelson should get more single coverage enjoy the numbers Michael Crabtree achieved the previous 3 seasons. Jordy in the 7th round as the WR31 is a good value proposition as he could return WR2 numbers with a return to form from Carr.
The Raiders added a couple of high draft picks to their offensive line room, Kolton Miller in the 1st and Brandon Parker in the 3rd. That could help Carr’s comfort level in the pocket but should also help improve the running game. Marshawn Lynch is probably entering his last year as the Oakland native figures to retire before the team moves to Vegas. Lynch was actually pretty effective on a per carry basis last year but the volume wasn’t nearly enough to make him a big player on fantasy rosters. I’m not sure we can expect 300 carries from Lynch this year and Doug Martin’s signing makes a split committee all the more likely. Martin hasn’t been very healthy the last two years in Tampa Bay. If you like to bet on patterns, he is due for a big year as he is good every third year so far in the league. Currently the RB46, he won’t cost you much at the draft table. If you’re looking to fade the aging vets, the Raiders have a pair of 3rd year backs who are very effective in the passing game. Jalen Richard and Deandre Washington both have some potential flex value in PPR leagues and the best thing that could happen to this tandem is if one gets cut or traded. Combining their stats from 2017 gives you a useful 60 catches and over 800 yards from scrimmage.
2017 DVOA – 7th; Passing DVOA – 2nd; Running DVOA – 27th; Offensive Line – 24th
The legendary QB class of 2004 might produce 3 Hall of Fame signal callers. The first is probably Ben Roethlisberger, who has two championships (and a SB loss), working on a third for a popular franchise. Ben has the requisite stats to go along with the trophies and won’t have too much of a problem getting enshrined. The second is probably Eli Manning with a pretty similar argument to Big Ben – two trophies, stats that are better than you might think, and a big market. He suffers from the big brother problem, but those rings should get him in eventually. The third is Philip Rivers – zero trophies, zero super bowl appearances, in a small market for most of his career – how does that stack up? Despite giving Big Ben and Eli a two year head start on accumulating stats, Rivers has surpassed both in career TDs and has a shot at moving past both of them in yards by year’s end. In fact, with three more productive seasons, Rivers could pass Dan Marino for 5th all-time in both big passing statistics. A true gunslinger, Rivers has consistently made Chargers games interesting and with real talent surrounding him and an absolutely terrifying defense to back him up, the Chargers might be the most interesting AFC team this year. Going in the late 9th round, Rivers has a history of beating his draft position in fantasy.
The secret is out on Keenan Allen. An elite route runner, Allen was able to come back from consecutive seasons ended by injury. I don’t think Allen is injury prone – bruising an internal organ is pretty random and tearing an ACL is commonplace. He doesn’t have a history of soft tissue injuries and he’s coming off a Pro Bowl season with over 100 catches. While Allen isn’t a TD machine, he’s a consistent producer with elite PPR production. He gets my stamp of approval as a 2nd rounder. Last year’s first round draft pick, Mike Williams, didn’t do much as a rookie. It will be interesting to see how he progresses because Tyrell Williams was a useful weapon for Rivers last year. Tyrell topped 1,000 yards in 2016, serving as the de facto WR1 with Keenan Allen hurt. He followed that up with 700 yards and 4 scores in Allen’s shadow last year. My assumption is that the Chargers do everything they can to get Mike Williams involved in the offense, but as a late round pick, either guy is worth a shot on the back end of your roster. One of my favorite tight ends heading into this season was Hunter Henry. Unfortunately, he suffered an ACL tear on the first day of OTAs. There were rumors that the Chargers would bring back Antonio Gates immediately after the Henry injury, which seemed like such an obvious move that I was surprised to find it hasn’t happened yet. Virgil Green was an off-season signing that might now be thrust into a starting role, but he was never much of a weapon in Denver.
The Chargers signed Mike Pouncey in the off-season to help improve an offensive line that was one of the lower ranked units in the league last year. If the line can improve just a little, Melvin Gordon might be able to ascend into the elite tier of running backs this season. Gordon was a Pro Bowler in 2016 but put up an even better statistical season last year in his first fully healthy campaign. Gordon is going at the end of the first round in most drafts. He’s the perfect pick there as he’s got a super high floor – volume on an elite offense – and he has the potential to finish the year in the top 3.
Finally, let me put in a plug for this Chargers defense. There aren’t a lot of defenses that get me excited from a fantasy football perspective, but the Chargers are near the top of my list. Drafting Derwin James in the first round this season was an absolute gift. He was the best player at a position of need and may put this defense and this team over the top. That doesn’t always translate to great fantasy asset, but I have a good feeling about this Chargers squad this year.
2017 DVOA – 4th; Passing DVOA – 8th; Running DVOA – 5th; Offensive Line – 16th
The other outstanding team in this division is the Kansas City Chiefs, but they’re a much more difficult evaluation. Alex Smith was shipped to Washington to replace Kirk Cousins and to make way for Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. The second year Mahomes was the second QB off the board in last year’s rookie draft, ahead of Deshaun Watson. The expectations for Mahomes to come in and improve on what Alex Smith was able to accomplish seems to be overly optimistic. Smith was incredibly efficient in Andy Reid’s system and made three Pro Bowls in his time in Kansas City. But, living in a market that shows every Chiefs game, I understand the frustration that Chiefs fans felt in watching Smith trying to lead comebacks. Mahomes has a live arm and plenty of athletic ability with that “gunslinger” word being thrown around. I’m going to assume that Reid will put him in a position to succeed, but count on plenty of rookie-type mistakes in Mahomes’ first year as a starter and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he has highlight plays next to boneheaded throws. He’s an intriguing talent currently being drafted as the QB14. I love the idea of taking a guy like Matt Ryan in the 9th round and Mahomes in the 10th round – take a floor player and a ceiling player and see what happens.
Mahomes’ elite set up includes the earth-scorching-fast Tyreek Hill and newly signed Sammy Watkins. The Watkins move was a bit of a shock to me but it’s hard to not get excited imagining what he could be in this offense. Watkins has been a guy hampered by injuries in his career, but has elite talent. In this offense, he should provide a great counterbalance to Hill, opening up opportunities for both. Add Travis Kelce, my favorite tight end in the game, and you can start to see why the buzz around this team is so deafening. For my money, I want Kelce on as many squads as I can get him, but he costs a late 3rd rounder at the draft table. That’s a pretty penny for a tight end and you’ll have to hit on your later RB and WR picks to make it work. Tyreek Hill is going around the same pick and just from a ceiling value standpoint, he’s the safer selection. If you’re buying into Hill, you’re buying into Mahomes and probably fading Watkins a bit. Watkins is going off the board as the WR27 in the 6th round. If you made me pick just one, I’d want Kelce.
Finally, let’s talk about the running game. Kareem Hunt shot out of the gates last year en route to a rushing title. He propelled many fantasy squads to the playoffs and finished the season as the #3 overall player. Fun story – I drafted for a friend’s team last year and took Hunt for him. He ended up knocking me out of the playoffs in the semi-finals. Lesson learned. He’s currently the 9th running back off the board and that’s sort of hard to fathom. I think as we get closer to draft day, he’ll be in the top 5. He’s a first rounder and there’s no reason to think he can’t build off his impressive rookie campaign.
The All AFC West Squad
QB – Philip Rivers, Chargers
RB – Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
RB – Melvin Gordon, Chargers
WR – Keenan Allen, Chargers
WR – Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
WR – Amari Cooper, Raiders
TE – Travis Kelce, Chiefs
D – Chargers