And we’re back for the 3rd of four sets of divisions in our 2016 preview. Good times will be had by some. I spent some time in California when I wrote the initial draft, so you’ll forgive me if I default to the Western divisions in honor of my geography. I’ll finish things up on the East Coast shortly.
Oakland Raiders (9-7):
The Raiders have played a high-risk, high-reward brand of fantasy football since the inauguration. It’s their style. And while it hasn’t yet put them over the top, it’s come very close – the unluckiest team of 2015 could have been West division champion EASILY if just a couple of points had swung the other way. If I recall correctly, they lost something like 3 games in 2015 by margins of less than a couple points. It was nuts. At some point that luck has to turn. And it might be this year.
But man this squad is risky. Carson Palmer’s solid. But after that? Arian Foster could be a total bust or he could be a top 5 RB again after a veritable year off. Oakland will also trot out Jay Ajayi – but he’s also quite unproven. This could be a hell of a tandem – or it could timeshare itself into oblivion. Eddie Lacy was one of the most disappointing players in the league… but he’s also a contender for top pick if he gets back to form. Josh Gordon has finally gotten away from the devastating influence of Johnny Manziel and looks to put his extensive suspension experience to work in actual football. But will his suspension experience transfer to the field? Possible top 10 WR… possible total bust. Davante Adams? Jordan Matthews out of Chip’s offense? Brandon Coleman? When DOES Tyler Eifert actually return. How does he play when he does? If the offense plays out, Oakland could have two top-5 RBs, 2 top 10 WRs and a top 5 TE. If it doesn’t, they could literally have Carson Palmer and a squad of ineffective backups and timeshares. Oakland has wisely handcuffed RB investments, but still. The range of possible outcomes here is insane.
The defense is really good, but there are still a lot of high-potential low-floor guys here. Jordan Hicks was spectacular at LB as a rookie before going out for the year. Can he stay healthy AND avoid a sophomore slump? Is he for reelz? Preston Brown has a huge role due to a Reggie Ragland injury… but he needed a rookie to get injured to get that role. Can he take advantage? TJ Carrie is a nice young player, but can he translate that to points? Is Karl Joseph ready to produce from day #1?
I will say this – on defense, I think the probability of “yes” answers are very high to most of these questions. This is a team with a good Carson Palmer and a good defense. Whether or not this is the AFC West division champs is going to depend on the wide range of outcomes with the skill players. As it always is, the Oakland Raiders should be an funsquad to follow – and a not very fun squad to play.
San Diego Chargers (9-7):
As I sit here typing on Ventura Blvd, looking out at the Palm Trees and the Poke-mon-ers, contemplating that noblest and manliest of pursuits that is fantasy football, I think it is possible (even likely) that I am sun-poisoned. The San Diego Chargers? Where the HECK did they come from? This team has been bad since day 1, and did not seem to have a real credible path to excellence as early as last year. But as I review this division, lest my eyes deceive me, the Chargers have somehow become good. And not just good, but potentially fantastic – on both sides of the ball.
Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates are back for one more campaign in the sun. With DeMarco Murray gone and Darren Sproles elderly, Ryan Matthews is all of a sudden the bell-cow back for a new look Eagles team. Doug Baldwin somehow turned from a mediocre at best WR on a run-first offense into a star. Travis Benjamin emerged from the Cleveland purgatory of high-potential Wide Receivers come to naught (looking at you Greg Little – which is more than can be said for any of your quarterbacks!) to also become a star. Jermaine Kearse is not half bad either. This offense is suddenly, solidly excellent.
On the flip side, the defense strikes me as sneaky-good. Poor man’s Carolina Panthers sneaky-good. Beyond DeMarcus Ware, the star-power isn’t there, and Rolando McClain’s “purple drank” hurts pretty significantly. But the thing that really is compelling about this squad is that everybody is solid. There’s no real drop off. They can field a team 11 deep and expect to see starter level outputs from all of them – even if the name recognition isn’t quite star caliber.
Here’s the issue for this team – DEPTH. This is a starting 20 that can compete for the division and a playoff spot. The issue, though, is that there is literally NOTHING after it. Jacob Tamme is literally the only piece of value outside of the starting lineup, and that depth is already going to be tested. There’s no good replacement for DeAngelo Williams if Le’Veon can stay off the ganja, and Stevie Johnson’s season ending injury (rumor has it that he picked a fight with Batman. The conclusion is unsurprising) means that there’s no backup at either of the other skill positions either. But it’s worst on defense, where the Chargers are absolutely reeling at Linebacker. Donald Butler, a past star, was surprisingly cut, Rolando McClain is suspended for the entire regular season, and Pernell McPhee will start the season on the PUP list and miss at least 6 games (9 in real deal land). That leaves the San Diego with only two starting linebackers – pending any additional injuries.
The 2016 iteration of the San Diego Chargers should be the best one yet. But every player should live in one of those plastic bubbles that are all the rage in youtube videos (where they roll down the hill and crush stampeding college students), because this team is susceptible to injuries, benchings, and suspensions in a way that very few others are. Below is what I see as the optimal scenario for your 2016 San Diego Chargers.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-7):
The Kansas City Chiefs are in the market for both a good trainer and the fountain of youth. Possibly both. Season-ending injuries to starting Linebackers Justin Houston and Reggie Ragland coupled with uncertainties about Jordy Nelson’s return, Jordan Reed’s status (will he get banged up sleep testing posture-pedic mattresses? Touching feathers? Blowing up balloons? Cuddling kittens or baby chicks? Absolutely everything is perilous when you are Jordan Reed), and the capacity of young linemen Caraun Reid and Dante Fowler to start games and make tackles place some question marks around this year’s Chiefs squad. It’s not just health that’s uncertain for this team, but also roles – where does Giovani Bernard fit in Cincinnati’s backfield tandem with Jeremy Hill? Will Tavon Austin still get touches in a Jared Goff system – and if he does, can he maintain the # of big plays he made last year?
Also, can someone please explain to me why Tavon Ausin is NOT returning kickoffs? Please?!? I can just picture the conversation.
Coach A: So, we have this guy who goes from 0 to 60 faster than the Flash. He’s absolutely deadly in open spaces. Every time he touches it with some room, he is a real threat to take it to the house. He’s also a super tiny for a receiver, which means he’s not going to win a lot of 50-50 balls. Hmm. How can we possibly get him the ball?
Coach B: I have it! Let’s take our rookie quarterback and have him try to throw passes to him while he’s covered by a guy who is 7 inches taller than he is. He’ll probably be able to see him. Or, we can throw telegraphed check passes or hand it off to him and ask him to break tackles with his 73 pound frame.
Coach A: I love it! It’s foolproof.
Coach C: What about returning kickoffs? That way, he would catch the ball in space and could get acceleration…
Coach A: That’s absurd. Go sit in the corner. You’re such a damn fool you probably think zebras are real animals and not just what line judges look like when you get concussed!
The Chiefs should be a good team – Alex Smith is a serviceable scrambler, and the pass-catching group of Nelson, Austin, Reed, Randall Cobb and Pierre Garcon should put up some points. There are starting caliber defenders at every position and even in the absence of Houston and Ragland, the linebacking core of D’Qwell Jackson, KJ Wright, and Derrick Johnson should be strong for one more year. Everson Griffen and Fowler should form a strong pass rush, and newcomers Corey Graham and Malcolm Butler should bolster what was a flagging secondary. The trick isn’t whether the Chiefs will contend – they will – it’s whether they will win. And while the chances are there, Oakland has a higher ceiling and San Diego’s starting twenty may have a lower floor. Only time will tell if the Chiefs can get back to the playoffs for the 4th consecutive season.
Denver Broncos (6-10):
The post-Peyton era is alive and well for the Denver Broncos, who are faced with a bit of a “reload and see what we have” year. Paxton Lynch is safely ensconced as the Franchise QB of the future, and Demaryius Thomas is going to be a stud no matter who is throwing him the ball. And frankly, the defense the Broncos can trot out this year is going to be surprisingly good for a team that’s gotten a “focus on the offense” rap. Guys like Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, George Johnson, Duke Ihenacho, VInce Wilfork, Chris Harris Jr. and Rahim Moore are going to keep this year’s Broncos competitive in a lot of games. And there are young players coming up for this team, with Javon Hargraves, DeAndre Washington and Paxton Lynch portending a promising future.
But the 2016 edition of the Flying Elways is going to feature one prominent question every game they play. Can they score? Demaryius can. Dion Lewis cannot. The reason being that he’s injured. It makes it hard. And after that? Anquan Boldin just celebrated his 93rd birthday, and while he can still make some grabs as a possession receiver, particularly in a Lions lineup seeking to fill the Calvin Johnson void, there’s a real question of just how many catches he can still make. Jeff Janis is fighting with what seems like about 62 other promising young receivers to be a tertiary option for Aaron Rodgers. DeAndre Washington should catch some passes, but isn’t likely to have a starting role as a rookie, and there’s no real TE to speak of. It’s a very real possibility that the Broncos could run out a team with a zero from QB, Nick Vannett, Cole Beasley and Jeff Janis on a regular basis. That would make it very hard to get it done in what is shaping up to be a surprisingly competitive AFC West.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5): “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” That should be Arizona’s motto this year. But actually, there’s no bear. There’s more like a chubby little chimpanzee with a stick. Basically, it’s like that old “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” program where you are driving a car and you have to win by typing a certain number of words per minute. The super-fast typers would set it to like 70 to train for careers in clerical work. The slackers would set it to about 20 wpm so they could hunt and peck and not have to learn. That’s sort of what it’s like for Arizona this year. The pace car is set to about 12 wpm. So Arizona could field a football team consisting of nothing but pygmy otters and lepers and still win the division by about 5 games. Below is a video detailing what I expect the NFC West division race to look like. The dude is Arizona. Unfortunately, I can’t embed this one, but watch it anyway.
This year, Arizona runs away with the division largely by virtue of not having a serious of massive, gaping holes big enough you could drive a tractor-trailer through at major skill positions. Matt Ryan and Shady McCoy give some solid star power on the offensive front, and the defense is good, bordering on excellent, particularly up front. The combination of Calais Campbell and JJ Watt are set to average nearly 30ppg from the Defensive End position alone – which is a very nice built in competitive advantage. An extremely strong secondary (Barry Church, TJ McDonald and Rashad Johnson at Safety, with Josh Norman and DRC doing the covering) should also put up a lot of points. It’s an interesting defensive strategy by Arizona, which has built up a surplus of strength at positions of scarcity (DE and S) throughout the league. Where most teams are scraping by for capable starters, Arizona has loaded up at these positions to bolster a good but not great, linebacking corps.
The offense is sketchier, but actually has a lot of potential. The jury is still out on whether or not Kamar Aiken, is, in fact, good at football. Signs seem to be pointing up for him, though, and he may well be the most productive Ravens receiver this year. The jury does, however, seem to have returned a verdict on Reuben Randle (not good enough for football. Let’s hope he can type!). Michael Floyd continues to be “on the edge of a breakout year” (for the record, I think he gets it) and both Brandon LaFell and Richard Rodgers have solid opportunities on their respective teams.
End of the day, I’m probably being too hard on the poor Cardinals. They are going to win this division by six games again – not just because they are the best of a bunch of bad teams – but because they are a legitimately good team. Lock this one up, it is in the bag.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9):
Being the second best team in the NFC West is a little bit like being the second best quarterback the Browns have had in the last 25 years. It’s not exactly much of an honor. That said, let’s take a second to stop and appreciate what the Seahawks have accomplished in terms of a quick rebuild. One year after selling literally everything, the Hawks are already rebuilding to the point where I expect them to finish SECOND in their division. Now, keep in mind that doesn’t mean a lot. But it is a nice step forward for the rebuilding Hawks.
It’s going to be a show me year for a lot of the young and promising players, starting with #1 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, who joins Sterling Shepard as high class weapons for Russell Wilson, who literally had NO weapons last year. He had so few weapons that not even Ryan Lochte could have claimed to feel threatened by meeting him in a dark alley (he could, however, have seriously injured Jordan Reed).
This year, Shepard and Elliott alone should provide some rejuvenation for the offense – and for many years to come. With the notable exception of Tight End (where MyCole Pruitt really shouldn’t be anybody’s Cole Pruitt, he’s just not good enough to want), the Seahawks offense is actually filled with some promising young players – Paul Richardson is an absolutely gunner (runs like Usain bolt – though it is unclear how that will work for him to catch passes, as he tops out at 4’3” wearing wooden dutch platform shoes). Pharoh Cooper may find a role in the highly unsettled group of Goff-targets. Alex Collins is pushing for a role in a suddenly Beast-less Seattle backfield, though the re-emergence of pre-season hero Christine Michael puts a little doubt on that. Long and short, there’s young talent on the offensive side of the ball, though most of it will take some time to really develop.
There’s young talent on the other side of the ball too, though not quite to the same extent. Most notably, rookie Kamali Correa (not Kai’oahu’injured’guy, though the names are confusing) joins Denzel Perryman and Bobby Wagner to form a powerhouse linebacking corner. Other young guns with promise include Kenneth Acker, Deon Bush, and Jihad Ward, who join other young guns without promise (looking at you, Cassius Marsh) and stabilizing veterans in Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor. The Legion of Boom this is not, but good enough to be second in this division? Absolutely. Just as exciting for the Seahawks are another trifecta of first round picks (all coming potentially in the top half of the first round) to help complete the rebuild. This team still needs another year to get really good – but its on the right trajectory
San Francisco 49ers (6-10):
So I will say this for the 9ers – this is a team that could surprise. It’s an intriguing plan that’s been put into place, and it could certainly pay off – just like Oakland, this team seems to have captured the bay area penchant for high risk, high reward players. Unlike Oakland though, I have more concerns about these risks – and I’m not sure there are enough sure things to warrant quite as much optimism.
For one, it all starts with the dynamic QB to WR1 duo that every team covets to score major points. RGIII to Corey Coleman. How the heck do you evaluate this pairing? By all accounts, RGIII has looked pretty excellent in camp (dude even SLID the other night – Dayumm! Times, they are a-changin’) and pretty mediocre in the preseason. And also by all accounts (this is actually probably an overstatement, as there are a LOT of accounts. The internet causes accounts to proliferate and everybody has a different one. It’s kind of like Olympians filing police reports. Ooh. Lochte-burn), Corey Coleman is the real deal. But man. Coleman is a rookie. RGIII is a multi-bust. It’s Cleveland. This could be a 20/20ppg pairing and the foundation of a better than expected offense. But the bust chances seem high too. Just hard to evaluate.
It’s like that all the way down the roster. Michael Thomas could catch a lot of Drew Brees passes (there are usually lots of them), or he could be confused for various other Mike Thomas’ and disappear. Austin Seafaring-Jenkins could be the stud we’ve been expecting for years, or he could lose his job to his landlubbing counterpart, Cameron the Brate. Similar story for Matt Jones. Hunter Henry is a very promising TE for the long-term of this team, but he’s also a rookie TE – who traditionally don’t do very much. D-liners Benson Mayowa and Erik Armstead may or may not be all the way back from injury. Slick Willie Young and Duron Harmon’s roles are up in the air in the secondary (or were, before the trade), and it remains to be seen how much the SF IDPers will see statistical bounces due to the preposterous number of snaps Chip Kelly (and his minions Blaine and Colin) will make them play on the field.
The trick for me is that none of these risks feel great for 2016. I like Corey Coleman, and to a real degree RGIII. I like Armstead. But I like Brate over Jenkins, Mike Thomas as a role-player, not a starter, Matt Jones to time share, and Hunter Henry to be a rookie. I don’t like Slick Willie Young. And even if all these risks were to pan out, I think a second place divisional finish is the ceiling for this squad. I don’t doubt that this team can play way ahead of where I expect them to be – and the pieces are there for a nice dynasty squad (oh, and Sheldon Richardson is a vengeful Aztec deity), but my prediction is a 3rd place finish for this team.
Los Angeles Rams (5-11):
The only thing with less dignity than the acronym LARM is potentially going to be the LARM offense this year. Unfortunately, that is going to undercut what could actually be a surprisingly decent defense to keep this team at the bottom of the NFC West pecking order.
In many ways, the Rams seem to be in the same place that the Seahawks were last year, but with a better defense and fewer draft picks. There’s promising young quarterback Marcus Mariota – and not a whole lot else. Interestingly, the Rams second best player on offense is another quarterback – Slammin’ Sammy Bradford. After that? Well, Chris Sims could be ok with the Muscle Hamster’s sloppy seconds. But man. Cordarelle Patterson and Bishop Sankey are two high-profile rookies who have busted HARD looking to resurrect their careers away from the Detroit spotlight. It’s hard to see either one doing it. Sankey has already been cut, along with starting WR Chris Givens. Jared Cook has been a breakout threat forever, but he’ll be about the 11th option on the Packers. Darrius Heyward Bay is another high-profile bust who has shown occasional flashes, but looks stuck behind Sammie Coates and Markus Wheaton in Martavis Bryant’s absence. Moritz Boehringer should bring in six or seven German fans, but not nearly as many footballs. And Jeff Cumberland, always a favorite of this author, is both injured and not actually very good at scoring fantasy points, despite his sheer awesomeness. That offense is going to STRUGGLE, a la Seattle 2015.
It’s a shame, because the offense is going to undercut what should be a very nice defense. The Rams have some real riches in the secondary, with Senquez Golson, Rodney McCleod, Janoris Jenkins, Darian Stewart, Marcus Cooper, and EJ Gaines all looking starting caliber. Bob Ayers Jr. and Cedric Thornton provide some nice power up front, and James Laurinitis and Nick Perry are no slouches in the middle, though the Linebacking corps is weaker than either the front-line or the outfield.
End of the day, it’s possible that the defense is enough to put this team up to a third or even a second place finish if things break right. But that offense is going to hamstring this team’s ceiling and keep them in contention for a top five pick throughout the year. The tough part for the Rams is that that pick will be their only real draft asset of value for next year unless a QB can be flipped or they can turn some of that secondary depth into draft capital. It’s a rebuild in SoCal, but it’s not looking like a fast one.