This is our fifth 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 kicking off coverage of the National Football Conference today with the West. They draw the NFC North and the AFC West this year.
2017 DVOA – 30th; Passing DVOA – 27th; Running DVOA – 32nd; Offensive Line – 31st
The Cardinals turned in one of the most incredibly fun seasons in recent memory in 2015, highlighted by a divisional playoff win over the Packers. If you haven’t watched the first season of the Amazon show “All or Nothing”, I’d encourage you to do so. They followed that campaign up with a bad-luck 2016, but sure seemed poised for a big 2017 as a last push through that Super Bowl window. While the defense held up its end of the bargain, the offense came crashing down to earth and finished 8-8. Losing David Johnson in week 1 last year didn’t help but Carson Palmer’s swan song was a mix of injuries and shaky play. Palmer has since retired but like a bad penny, Sam Bradford just keep getting jobs and cashing checks, this time in Arizona. Bradford’s injury history notwithstanding, I’ll be surprised if he holds onto the job long as the Cardinals invested in Josh Rosen with a top 10 pick in this year’s draft. I love this guy. He was my favorite QB in the rookie draft and I think he landed in a great spot. While he’s not likely to be a fantasy difference maker in 2018, I expect him to win the starting job at some point this year and be an interesting name in 2019.
The receiving corps is once again led by the first-ballot Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. I’m not sure anyone works harder than Fitz so even though he’s in his age 35 season, I believe he can still be effective. He topped 100 catches for the 3rd straight year and made his 11th Pro Bowl last season. He needs 92 catches to pass Tony Gonzalez for 2nd most all-time and a mere 390 yards to pass Terrell Owens for 2nd most all-time. All of this playing for one team with a multitude of quarterbacks and by all accounts, he’s an outstanding individual. He’s being drafted in the 5th round as WR22. Sign me up for that action. The only other interesting name in the passing game is Christian Kirk, rookie second rounder out of Texas A&M. The best thing for the Cardinals will be if Kirk and Fitzgerald connect and the all-time great can help set the rookie on the right path. Kirk can be had at the back end of your drafts but I love him as a dynasty pick. If Fitzgerald decides 2018 is his last year, Kirk has a clear path to being the go-to guy in 2019.
Finally, let’s talk about David Johnson. Currently the 4th overall pick in drafts on average, Johnson is on the short list of players that could be considered #1 overall. He’s a dynamic runner and a weapon in the passing game. I have a huge bias as Johnson went to my alma mater, he’s a humble guy, great in the community, and his success in 2016 absolutely earns him his place as a first rounder. However, I don’t like him at the top of the first round for the simple reason that the offensive line was garbage last year and QB play is a complete mystery. I’m not worried about him coming back strong from injury but I do worry about how many points this offense can put up. It sure seems like this team’s best path to victory will be strong defense and playing ball control – but do they have the offensive line to do that? I think Johnson is set up for a disappointing return this year.
2017 DVOA – 19th; Passing DVOA – 16th; Running DVOA – 13th; Offensive Line – 20th
I was, admittedly, one of those Bears fans who wanted to send draft picks to New England to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo when the price was high. So imagine my shock when the Patriots shipped Jimmy G off to San Francisco for a 2nd round draft pick. Jimmy G walked into his new team sitting near the bottom of the league standings, learned a new offense, and rattled off five straight victories to finish the year. It’s an incredibly impressive feat and with investments in the offensive line (1st round Tackle Mike McGlinchey, FA Center Weston Richburg) and a couple new weapons (2nd round WR Dante Pettis, FA Running Back Jerrick McKinnon), the excitement level in SF is turned up to 11. Remember, Kyle Shanahan’s system took time to implement in Atlanta before it took off in Matt Ryan’s MVP season. With a full offseason under his belt, Jimmy G is currently being drafted as the QB9 so there’s no discount at the draft table. I don’t think he has the weapons to finish in the top 5 and he plays a ton of really good defenses this year – Rams and Cardinals twice, Vikings, Bears, Broncos, and Chargers. This is one of the most interesting stories but when the dust settles, I think he’ll disappoint as a fantasy QB this season.
Part of that disappointment will be because of his WR corps. Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garcon, and the aforementioned Pettis are the names to know. Goodwin and Garcon are going in the middle rounds while Pettis isn’t on redraft boards. Usually a QB that commands a top 10 QB price will have a weapon that ranks fairly high on positional ranks. This tells me the fantasy community loves the Jimmy G story but not the supporting cast – one of those things will probably be wrong. So, if you do believe in Garoppolo, kick the tires on one of the WRs. George Kittle is the other name worth mentioning in this passing game. The former Iowa Hawkeye is being drafted as the TE12 currently and seems to be the one guy being lifted into relevance by the Jimmy G hype. You’re counting on a leap from Kittle and the rising tide of the Shanahan-Garoppolo offense in year 2 in order for him to earn that preseason draft slot, but count me in.
Finally, let’s chat about the interesting decisions this team make at running back this offseason. Out is Carlos Hyde, who moves on after trying to fit into very different offenses over his first 4 years in the league. Into his slot comes the high priced free agent, Jerick McKinnon. You’ll remember McKinnon as the somewhat useful backup in Minnesota, more of a weapon in the passing game than as a runner. It was a curious signing, in my opinion, and I’m going to take a hard pass on McKinnon as a second round pick. Second year back Matt Breida needs to be on your radar though as he had some success in 2017 and is basically free at the draft table. He’s a sneaky play into this offense as a late round lottery ticket. Something about all of these 49ers ADPs just isn’t sitting right with me. If I had to pick between those options at current ADP, I want Garcon who has a history of steady play and might be a little undervalued right now due to his season ending injury in 2017.
2017 DVOA – 14th; Passing DVOA – 12th; Running DVOA – 23rd; Offensive Line – 27th
Maybe it’s a little too fashionable to bury the Seahawks this year, but I’ve already got the shovel in my hand so here goes. That offensive line in Seattle has been a problem for a couple years now and they didn’t do anything to address it. Instead, they spent a first round pick on a running back, Rashaad Penny. While the rookie didn’t show much in the passing game in college, he’ll be counted on to take the full brunt of the 3 down back role for Seattle. That’s certainly good news for his supporters as the volume will be there. The bad news is that he has no history of success catching passes in college and the Seahawks defense projects to be a problem, leading to more passing and less running game. I can’t buy into the Penny hype.
The passing game is led by the amazing Russell Wilson. I get it if Wilson’s public face seems a little too robotic, but he’s an artist behind the line of scrimmage. Part of that is his offensive line, which again hasn’t improved, but Wilson has some of the best scrambling-to-throw ability I’ve ever seen. He’ll chip in significant rushing yards, as long as he’s healthy, and given what the game flow should be, he’s in line for a lot of opportunities with the ball in his hands. Wilson is appropriately the QB4 off the boards right now and he’s got a chance to reach the #1 spot with his dual threat ability.
It appears that Doug Baldwin is finally getting his due as he’s currently the tenth WR off the board. I have no arguments on that ranking as he’s produced at that level the last 3 seasons. The roster moves in the offseason – letting Paul Richardson walk, signing Brandon Marshall – seem to reinforce Baldwin’s #1 status on this tree. The other name to know is Tyler Lockett. Entering his 4th year, Locket has been remarkably consistent for Seattle. He’ll flash speed and big play ability is worth at least considering in the bye weeks as a fill in. Plus, if you agree with my assessment of this team’s impending defensive collapse, Lockett may see an increase in targets as the Seahawks play from behind. Garbage time can be our friend.
Los Angeles Rams
2017 DVOA – 6th; Passing DVOA – 7th; Running DVOA – 10th; Offensive Line – 6th
What a difference a year makes. Last year in this space, we were talking about Jared Goff the monumental bust as he put up some historically bad numbers in his starts. But, let’s be honest – that was a Jeff Fisher-led team and reigning NFL Coach of the Year Sean McVay put Goff in a position to succeed from the word go. He led the league in Yards Per Completion and Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt. Goff finished 2017 as a borderline starting fantasy QB so if you’re into year 3 progression of QBs, his current draft position of QB15 is a steal. Goff falls into the “take 2” category for me and play matchups. I’d be completely happy with a Goff / Rivers or Goff / Mariota pairing to take advantage of matchups and protect against a regression from this Rams offense.
The Rams have three wide receivers that are drafted by the end of the 10th round in standard drafts. Brandin Cooks comes over from New England in a trade and will step in as the presumptive alpha in the passing game. Cooks had an under-the-radar solid year last season for the Patriots, backing up an equally good year for the Saints in 2016. Playing in his third offense in three years, Cooks has a chance to easily outperform his current draft position of WR20. Drafters might be discounting Cooks due to the presence of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Woods “came home” last year (he’s a USC grad) and produced his best year as a pro in just 12 games. Kupp put up similar stats as he impressed as a rookie. So, what to do with this passing tree? I think Cooks is still clearly the guy to own, but I’m going to do what I can to find a share or two of Kupp, particularly in PPR leagues. However, this may be a case where the targets are shared equitably – good for real football, bad for fantasy. The other thing to consider is that this Rams defense might just be so dominant that the Rams find themselves sitting on leads late in the second half. They’re a talented group and one of my few full-throated defensive endorsements.
Let’s end this column with a paragraph that no one should need to read –the Todd Gurley is awesome part. This offensive line is pretty dang good and Gurley is the back we all wanted him to be when he came out of Georgia in 2015. The reigning AP Offensive Play of the Year had an incredible run all year, but really dominated in the fantasy playoffs. If you had Gurley and didn’t win your league, I desperately want to know how. In every league I played in last year, the champion had Gurley on their roster, leading the way with his 2,000+ yards from scrimmage and 19 TDs. There is no reason to think he can’t have another great year and he is my #1 with a bullet on draft boards. This Rams team is built to win a championship now so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
The All NFC West Squad
QB – Russell Wilson, Seahawks
RB – Todd Gurley, Rams
RB – David Johnson, Cardinals
WR – Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
WR – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
WR – Brandin Cooks, Rams
TE – George Kittle, 49ers
D – Rams