It’s training camp time, which means we get to see all 32 teams doing something at least relatively meaningful. It also means there are only a couple weeks left until the rosters and depth charts are set for the start of the season. We are going to take a little trip around the league and take a look at all 32 teams and address one of the biggest questions about each team that you need to be thinking about.
After all, in terms of dynasty leagues if you aren’t thinking about these things you’re already behind!
It wasn’t more than a few years back when the NFC West was little more than an afterthought. Their division champ was often 9-7 or in the case of 2010, below .500 at 7-9 and annually made its playoff exit on the first weekend of the playoffs. There were some great teams from time-to-time, but the division as a whole was always pretty terrible. Those days are definitely behind us now as the NFC West is one of the best divisions top to bottom in the NFL, led by some of the most fearsome defenses in the league. However, that doesn’t mean these teams are without questions, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Who will be the quarterback and top two receivers when the 2015 season rolls around?
The starters for the 2014 season are pretty much locked in for the Cardinals with Carson Palmer at quarterback with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd as the clear top two targets. There is a pretty big chance this is the last season all three of those players are in those roles. After the 2014 season, the Cardinals are going to need to make some major choices about their future and which direction they want to move in.
Palmer is going to turn 35 near the end of the 2014 campaign and while he was serviceable in 2013, he no longer has the skill set to take a team to the next level and make an offense much more than average. He is under contract through the 2015 season, but the year is fully voidable should the Cardinals choose to move on from him. Given the cap issues they are going to have starting in 2015, I think there is a pretty good chance this is his last year in Arizona.
Who is going to step up and take over?
The player who seems to be in the drivers seat, though it is extremely early, is the strong armed and extremely athletic Logan Thomas. The rookie was a playmaker during his time at Virginia Tech and has a rocket arm, but he struggled with accuracy and touch issues. If he can learn to control his arm, he could be the quarterback of the future for the Cardinals. He did manage to go 11-of-12 for 113 yards during the first pre-season game, which is a step in the right direction, though it was against an end of the bench defense. If Thomas can’t step up, the Cardinals might be forced to keep Palmer for one more year, which would have ramifications elsewhere on the roster.
One of the most likely spots for those ramifications is at the wide receiver position. Even if Palmer moves on, the Cardinals will likely need to make a choice between their two top wideouts. In 2015, Floyd will be entering the last year of his rookie deal and he’s earned a pretty big raise. Fitzgerald is also set to earn a massive $16 million in 2015 with a cap number of nearly $24 million. While I think Fitzgerald is a surefire Hall of Famer and likely to be a higher productive receiver well into his middle and late thirties thanks to his work ethic and training regiment, he isn’t worth that kind of money. The Cardinals will either need to get Fitz to take a pay cut, cut him or trade him. Failing to do so likely means they can’t afford to sign Floyd long term. Given the six and a half year age gap, I think they will stick with Floyd if he proves he can handle the job this year.
If 2014 is in fact Fitz’s last year in Arizona, someone else is going to need to step up in a big way. While there is always the possibility of a free agent or a new rookie coming in, I think the future number two receiver might already be on roster. John Brown could very easily be that guy long term if you can trust what has happened so far. Given what Bruce Arians was able to do with the similarly sized and talented TY Hilton, Brown could be in for a major uptick in opportunity in 2015. I know our own Jaron Foster definitely thinks so. There is always a chance this is just another edition of off-season hype, but it’s worth seeing what the asking price is on him in your league and trying to stash him for the year.
San Francisco 49ers
Frank Gore continues to defy father time, but that is a battle everyone loses eventually. What will happen to the 49ers run offense when that happens?
Who would have ever expected back in 2005, when Gore was drafted in the third round after a very injury plagued college career, he would still be the feature back for the 49ers entering his age 31 season. Not only that, but he has had three straight seasons where he played all 16 games, logging at least 1,250 combined yards and eight scores in all of them. He has been the focal point of one of the most run heavy offenses in the entire league for much of his career, but that will eventually come to an end. It could be as soon as this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Gore hangs on for yet another year.
While a lot of people tend to think of players like Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice when they think about the 49ers, but those aren’t the same 49ers of the present day. The current 49ers are a bad passing team, sometimes really bad. In fact, they have more seasons in the bottom five teams by passing yardage (four) than they do even being in the top half of the league (only once) during Gore’s nine seasons. You would actually have a pretty good argument if you claimed they have been the worst passing team in the league for the last nine seasons. They have been just that bad. While I’m expecting an improvement over their bottom three finish in 2013, running the ball is still going to be the major focal point and everyone knows it.
[inlinead]The run first mentality might help to explain why the 49ers have spent a fourth round or higher draft pick on a running back each of the last four seasons. For the record, they have taken a running back in the draft in eight of the last nine seasons. Maybe they just want a lot of depth or they are just as shocked Gore is still going as everyone else is. Either way, they have been stocking up for the changing of the guard in hopes they won’t miss a beat.
Unfortunately for them, all three of the players selected prior to this season have had major injury issues. Kendall Hunter, the 2011 fourth round pick, has torn his Achilles and his ACL since being drafted. While I’m a big fan of the talent he possesses and really liked him as the top free agent running back in the 2015 class prior to the ACL injury, it is fair to wonder if he can ever be what he was after two major injuries. I expect the 49ers to try and keep him at a very discounted rate, but he is unlikely to ever be more than a change of pace back for them.
The 2012 selection was LaMichael James in the second round. Unlike Hunter, I’ve never been a fan of James. I felt his skill set didn’t translate to an NFL running game and it definitely doesn’t fit in the hard nosed running game of the 49ers. He has struggled to stay healthy during his time with the team and he has seen very limited action as a running back with only 39 carries over the years. He isn’t going to factor into any kind of situation when it comes to replacing Gore unless it is an emergency.
In 2013, the winner of the annual selection of a running back by the 49ers was Marcus Lattimore. Taken in the fourth round, it was a roll of the dice in hopes one of the more talented college running backs in recent memory could recover from what might be the most gruesome knee injury ever. Still only 22 years old, there is time, but the fact he is likely to start 2014 on the PUP list when he is almost two full years removed from the injury isn’t a good sign. I think he is very unlikely to ever play a snap in the NFL, but even if he does, I don’t think he will be the same player
The 49ers need to hope for a little more luck with their annual selection in 2014 if they hope to have someone to take over for Gore. I think they might have found their guy with the second round selection of Carlos Hyde. At 235 pounds, Hyde has the physicality to not only carry the load but to live up to the punishing style of running the 49ers want.While he isn’t blazing fast and isn’t going to run away from people, he has the acceleration and burst to hit the hole as well as get to the corner when needed. He didn’t play much in the passing game in college due to Ohio State’s scheme, but he is capable in that regard. While Gore is going to be leaving some pretty big shoes, I think Hyde has the talent and skill set to step in and be the every down back in the not too distant future. 49ers fans should be very happy to have him around.
Will there ever be a truly fantasy relevant receiver in Seattle with Pete Carroll’s offense in place and Russell Wilson at quarterback?
Seattle is one team which might be able to give San Francisco a run for their money not just in terms of dominating defense and great running games but also with the ineptitude of their passing game over the last few years. Part of it might be the lack of the right players at the position. Seattle has had a different player lead the team in receiving yards in each of the last eight seasons. Though I think it might be unfair to go back that far and blame it on the current regime. Carroll has only been there for the last four seasons and Wilson for the last two, but it just goes to show there is quite the history of issues in the passing game.
If we limit the sample to the time since Carroll’s arrival, here is what we see from the leading receivers each season by fantasy points:
As you can see, there isn’t a whole lot to be excited about. The best finish was Tate last season and he was only a middle level WR3. While that isn’t terrible (after all, we need WR3s on our roster), it isn’t exactly fantasy relevant especially if that has been the best case since Carroll’s arrival. Half of the seasons the best on the team was a middle level WR4.
I know a few of you are saying those players aren’t the most talented receivers in the world, but almost every receiver of note who has also played for another team did better elsewhere. Rice had nearly double the fantasy points the season he played a full 16 games in Minnesota. Tate will almost certainly out produce his 2013 this season. Deion Branch was also a part of some of these teams and performed much better as a Patriot both before and after his time in Seattle.
It might be time to realize Pete Carroll’s run first, run second and run third offense combined with his preference to specialize roles and spread the ball around have created a virtual fantasy vacuum at the wide receiver position. The 2013 Seahawks passed the ball only 420 times – just three more than the last place 49ers. The third lowest team was Carolina with 473, while the top four teams were passing the ball over 650 times. The 2012 Seahawks only threw it 405 times. The worst part of it for fantasy football is that it is working. The defending Super Bowl champs aren’t going to suddenly change what they do.
This is bad news for anyone expecting big things out of the receiver group in Seattle. I’ll admit Percy Harvin is more talented than anyone else Carroll has had, but if you’re expecting WR1 numbers, I think you’re going to be disappointed. Making the major assumption Harvin can stay healthy, I think middle level WR2 is the absolute upside for him with low end WR2 or upper end WR3 being much more likely. If Harvin does stay healthy, that doesn’t leave much hope for people who are counting on Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Kevin Norwood or Paul Richardson. There just aren’t enough passes flying through the air in Seattle to make them worth a fantasy start.
St. Louis Rams
Can Sam Bradford turn into the quarterback he was supposed to be coming out of college and take the Rams offense to the next level?
A part of me feels like no matter what Sam Bradford becomes during his career short of becoming a perennial top five player at the position, he is going to be looked upon as a failure. This is because he was the very last of the massive rookie contracts given to quarterbacks due to the CBA being changed the following year. As such, Bradford has been making an average of $13 million a year as opposed to the much cheaper salaries for players like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. None of that is his fault, so let’s try to ignore the contract side of things and look at the player.
So far in his four year career as well as in college, Bradford has had some issues staying healthy. He had a concussion as well as some shoulder injuries in college. In the NFL, he missed six games in 2011 with an ankle injury and the subsequent re-injuring of it when he came back too soon. He also missed nine games in 2013 with an ACL tear. These injuries have likely slowed his progress a little bit, but they are a part of the game. If he’s going to be the future at the position for the Rams, he needs to stay on the field.
Speaking of on the field, he has shown some progress over the years. Ignoring the injury plagued 2011 season, Bradford has improved each and every year.
Things are clearly trending in the right direction. If we extrapolate his 2013 stats over a full season, we end up with 3,856 yards, 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. That would be very comparable to what Tony Romo did last year and put Bradford in the middle to late QB1 discussion. Considering he’s only played the equivalent of three full seasons, there is lots of room to grow.
When it comes to talent, Bradford definitely has it. If you watched the week two preseason game against Green Bay, which was Bradfords first game action since the ACL injury, you likely saw what I’m talking about. He started a little jittery and made some mistakes such as missing a wide open Kenny Britt down the sideline. Once he settled down he made some really good choices and some great throws into tight windows. His touchdown pass to Lance Kendricks is the perfect example as he thread the needle between a total of four defenders to hit his man. He played roughly a third of the game and ended with a 75 percent completion rate, 101 yards and a score.
With the weapons the Rams are putting around Bradford, I think his arrow is definitely pointing up. The 2010 first overall pick has the talent, he has the options in the passing game and he finally has a running game to go with it. Toss in one of the best front sevens on the defensive side of the ball and they could be in for a great year. Of course this all hinges on Bradford staying health. If he does, he could be as good as a low end QB1 in fantasy leagues and finally live up to the salary he’s being paid. I’m buying him where I can.
That’s it for the NFC West. It is time to transition to the AFC and start with a look at the division which seems to have commanded more media attention than any other this offseason, and it isn’t for the right reasons. AFC North, you’re up!