We continue our flawless predictions series this year out West, where it is possible that some changes of the guard may be in the offing.
Arizona Cardinals (10-6): The interesting part is that last year, the division was much worse comparatively and Arizona should have been a lot more dominant than it was. But they had some bad luck and inexplicably rough weeks and it ended up being a lot closer than expected. This year, it’s very possible that the rest of the division could be a lot better and yet the Cardinals still have an almost identical result. The weirdness of life in RDFL.
It’s fitting to start on offense for most teams, because that’s where the biggest vicissitudes occur, but any analysis of the Cardinals has to start with their defense, specifically JJ Watt. Partnered with Calais Campbell at Defensive End and Jerrell Freeman, Gerald Hodges, Clay Matthews, and Craig Robertson at LB, this team is going to get after the QB. Get AFTER the QB. Sack after sack. The defensive backfield isn’t quite as strong, but DRC and Barry Church are strong pieces, and while Jalen Mills isn’t very good, he should get a ton of opportunities to make tackles in a questionable Eagles secondary.
Matt Ryan and Shady McCoy headline the offense, and while the rest of the squad isn’t dynamite, it’s passable. Richard Rodgers should catch both passes and TDs from the TE1 role, and nobody was happier about the Zeke Elliott suspension than Darren McFadden, who should get first look behind Dallas’ mighty line for most of the RDFL season. Devontae Booker will catch passes, Delanie Walker is a strong off-season addition who should be good for double digit points a game, Kamar Aiken is a capable substitute, and Torrey Smith might have another shot to rebound.
All told, this Arizona squad gets JJ Watt back, is better than it was last year, got some nice breaks in the offseason, made its own breaks with some aggressive trades, and is quietly poised to get back to the playoffs and contend for a bye week with Detroit, New York, and the Titans of the South. Good offseason, quietly good squad, and damn hard to write a story about.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7): The Seahawks were one of last season’s feel good stories, ascending from the depths of an absolute crater to jump out ahead of Arizona early on and remain within striking distance of the division title into the second half of the season. Emerging from the year into an offseason full of promise, some pundits thought the Seahawks would have a chance to catch Arizona this year and make a return to the playoffs in 2017.
Can they do it this year? Well, we’ll see. At their potential, the answer is clearly yes. This team went from Russell Wilson and literally nothing else two years ago to a collection of kluged together players with opportunities in new places. If all of those players and opportunities pan out, this team could be very, very good. Now Russell Wilson is joined by (or will be joined by, eventually) Ezekiel Elliott, Travis Kelce, Allen Hurns and Sterling Shephard. Martavis Bryant returns from suspension to join the team, and Bilal Powell looks like a magnificent free agent acquisition with the Jets’ lack of a passing game and Elliott’s suspension. Charone Peake should see some throws as well, and guys like C.J. Prosise, Mychal Rivera, and even Adam Shaheen have potential.
Seattle is also back at “starting level” on defense, meaning that every player in the defensive lineup is a legitimate fantasy contributor. The real question for the Hawks is whether or not the defense will rise to the level of “good”, or simply be passable. Guys like Bobby Wagner, Janoris Jenkins, Kam Chancellor, Josh Norman, and Mario Edwards suggest good. Injury question marks around guys like Denzel Perryman, Jimmie Ward, and Markus Golden raise concerns. But even more than the concerns, this defense seems more “real good” than fantasy good. Despite their name appeal and excellence on the actual field, some of these guys just don’t put up as many fantasy points as you would expect given name recognition.
At the end of the day, whether or not the Seahawks make the jump to playoff team seems to me to come down to adaptability on offense. How does Bilal Powell do in a pass free Jets offense? Does Charone Peake take advantage to win playing time? Does Martavis Bryant return to form as the Steelers #2 after his suspension issues, or is he not the same player he was? Can CJ Prosise win the starting job in Seattle? And can a guy like Sterling Shephard make the jump? If the answer is yes, I think this team has the horses to challenge Arizona. But I give Arizona the edge because I think they are a surer thing – and because I like that defense a bit better from a fantasy perspective.
San Francisco 49ers (7-9):
Reviewing the 49ers roster feels a bit like riding a carnival roller coaster, ululating between young stars and spectacular players and black holes of nothing-ness. My brain kept saying “OMG, they have THAT guy? This team could be awesome!” and then following that up with “oh, but they have no quarterback” or “Sheldon Richardson is a boss-man!” but then “the rest of the defensive line isn’t very good” or “Robert Alford is a fantasy stud” followed by “but the rest of that secondary is pretty bad.”
While most teams rebuild by drafting a broad array of players and watching them grow up together, the 49ers are rebuilding by peaks and valleys. It’s not so much a matter of letting the young kids grow together as it is plugging in pieces to the weak spots. It’s snakes and leaders to a tee.
So what are the snakes and what are the ladders? I’m so glad you asked. Because we’re positive here in these parts, let’s start with them ladders!
- The starting WRs (Corey Coleman and Michael Thomas) are studs. It’s very possible that SF could have two starting WRs on two strong passing offenses.
- Tight End – Potentially resurgent Austin Sea-Faring Jenkins teams with Hunter “Land-lubbing” Henry to form one of the best TE groups in the league, and definitely the best young TE duo in the league
- Sheldon Richardson – He’s a beastman. He turns at full moons. He might be slightly real-life better than fantasy good, but he’s still a beastman.
- The Linebacking Corps – Hau’oli Kikaha, Manti Te’o, and Ram’ik Wil’s’on (apostrophes intentional. Ramik’s earned those apostrophes, dammit!) are all fantastic linebackers. Aaron Lynch, Lorenzo Mauldin, and Sio Moore come off the bench, making this a powerful and overstocked Linebacking group.
- The Injured Reserve – Quincy Enunwa, Derek Rivers, Malcolm Smith, and Aaron Colvin. All starters. All with boss potential. All done for the year.
- Quarterback – this is what comes of being a Jets fan. Scott Tolzien, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg. Yeeouch. That’s the big nasty snake that brings you all the way back to square 2.
- Running Back – Shane Vereen has been a fantastically underrated PPR RB stud for a long time in this league. Basically since I was born. Every year, people get surprised by him. But this year, without a clear role, he’s not exactly who you want as your #1. Matt Jones is down to third string, and even having a fullback ain’t going to quite get it done…
- Most of the secondary – The recently extended Robert Alford is a bulwark, but the rest of the group is going to struggle a bit. TJ Green is a reserve. Vontae Davis is meh from a fantasy perspective.
- Injuries – We listed the IR as a strength, but of course it’s also a weakness, bringing down key players from the receiving corps, the secondary, and D-line. Four IR visits in training camp is high, and it will handicap everyone.
Sum – sum, this team has some excellent building blocks – but I think the holes and the injuries keep them out for another year.
Los Angeles Rams (6-10): If there’s one thing the NFC has been able to brag about since Real Deal’s inception (beyond being the better conference by FAR), it has been consistency at the bottom. Each and every division has had a dynasty squad with an unrelenting grip on ineptitude. Washington in the East, Minnesota in the North, Tampa Bay to a lesser extent in the South, and the LA Rams in the West. In the AFC, only the Jets have had a similar monopoly on last place. It’s a hard, hard place to be in, and a hard, hard place to get out of.
That said, these LA Rams are showing real signs of life, stockpiling youth and talent on the offensive side of the ball and less talent but more depth on defense. It’s not quite ready to pay off, but all the signs are there of a team ready to rise. Marcus Mariota is a franchise QB , and a young receiving corps of Tyrell Williams, Zay Jones, Kenny Stills, and Marqise Goodwin should put real, actual points on the board. Can you IMAGINE what would happen if Marqise Goodwin ever get a “u”? Samaje Perrine isn’t necessarily ready to take over the starting job today, but the smart money is on him having it next year. Jared Cook and Xavier Grimble are passable at Tight End, and if Charles Sims can take the Muscle Hamster’s job, this squad could be legitimately productive.
The defense is a little less young and a little more meh, but it does have some real potential bright spots of its own (T.J. Watt, please stand up). The rest of the defense is littered with a plethora of high end mediocrity – guys who aren’t going to startle or amaze, but who are absolutely legitimate, decent players who can start on NFL football teams. Guys like Bob Ayers, Michael Brockers and Cedric Thornton on the line, Nick Perry and Derrick Morgan in the middle, and Marcus Cooper, EJ Gaines, Rodney McCleod and Darian Stewart in the secondary. There’s not a name on that list that fills anyone with legitimate terror – but every one of those players is qualified to play football.
This team needs to learn how to win. I still think they pick up a 4th place finish, but I think it’s a lot closer than a lot of people think, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Rams finish second. Things are looking up in Lala land.
Here’s the thing for the West – it’s Arizona’s division this year, but this place is going to be a bloodbath in 2018-2020. Arizona isn’t collapsing any time soon, but all three of the other teams have trajectories pointed solidly up. There’s not a Miami level rocketship or an obvious dominant team in the lot, but all have the misfortune to be moving in the right direction at the same time. The NFC West is going to be boring for one more year, but starting next year, this becomes AFC North level carnage!
Oakland Raiders (10-6): Another year, another dogfight. It’s starpower central out in the Bay Area, as Aaron Rodgers finds Dez Bryant, Jordan Matthews (freed to once again be the only receiver who matters on a team that will need to throw a fair bit), and Tyler Eifert (healthy… for now), with Jonathan Stew Beef coming out of the backfield. Add to this Karl Joseph taking the heads off of receivers, TJ Ward taking the football off of receivers, and Preston Brown and Jordan Hicks tackling literally everything that moves.
Like its Bay Area brother, San Francisco, though, the Raiders have their own fair share of question marks. The last two offensive starters are badly unsettled, with third stringer Jalen Richard battling third stringer Donnel Pumphrey, unproven wideout Brandon Coleman, Hall of Fame Game darling Brice Butler, and blocking tight end Benji Watson for the slots. Of the Raider’s five defensive ends, not one is currently starting for its team.
Oakland is a Jekyll and Hyde team. The top 5 on offense are fantastic. After that? The roster falls off a cliff. The Linebacking group of Brown, Hicks, Paul Worrilow, Hassan Reddick, and Korey Toomer is one of the best in the league, and the secondary of Joseph, Ward, Sean Smith, and TJ Carrie is likewise excellent. But the defensive line is in shambles and there’s not much depth at all to back up some injury prone starters.
The Raiders literally do this every year. They bring a boom and bust group of high end stars with limitless potential and a handful of question marks to the table and ride them right to the border of greatness, without ever quite crossing the line and entering in to the promised land. Something always keeps them out – the continuing meltdown of Josh Gordon, injures to guys like Eifert and Bryant, underperforming draft picks, or just the absolutely horrific luck of losing three games in a single year by under a point. Oakland has dealt with it all. Like Moses actually hitting the rock instead of talking to it, something always seems to go wrong.
It’s a hard roster to predict. But I never bet against Aaron Rodgers and a great secondary all at the same time. And to be honest, the Raiders are more than due for a little luck.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): The Chiefs have been the model of consistency as the only RDFL team to make the playoffs in every year of RDFL’s existence. But they’ve never been great, never making a Super Bowl and only once truly threatening a berth. It seems relatively likely that both streaks will continue this year, as Kansas City is once again a solid squad, but once again seems very likely to fall short of excellence – and, if things break the wrong way, could fall very far short.
Alex Smith, whose play is a microcosm of this team, heads a squad of platoon running backs (Wendell Smallwood, Giovani Bernard, Derrick Henry, Rob Kelley), injury prone tight ends (Jordan Reed and AJ Derby), Jordy Nelson (AWESOME!), and questionable receivers (Pierre Garcon, Tavon Austin, Chris Conley, and Randall Cobb). The defense is likewise strong but vulnerable, with Dante Fowler under arrest, Darron Lee in trouble, Kyle Williams old, and most of the entire Linebacking core (Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Reggie Ragland) having sustained season ending injuries within the last two years.
If things go well, one of the RBs will end up feature, Pierre Garcon and Chris Conley become target hogs, Randall Cobb regains his form, Jordan Reed stays healthy, Jordy Nelson stays healthy, the linebackers stay healthy, and the defensive line plays up to expectations, the Chiefs could get over the hump. But there’s enough question marks here, particularly on the health front, that this team could also fail to make the playoffs for the first time in RDFL’s history. Split the difference, and we have a war with the Raiders for the AFC West crown and/or a wildcard berth. Same as it ever was.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-10): LA Chargers. Yeah, I’m not getting used to that. It’s going to be a rough year for the Chargers as they get used to their new digs. It’s going to be a relatively rough year for the Chargers in fantasy as well. This team is led, as always, by their eternal lord and god, Philip Rivers, who has helmed their team since the words “groovy” and “swell” were invented. And he has a nice defense to help him along this year.
The Chargers are a stingy unit that should absolutely get after people. Taco Charlton is a great pick and joins an absolutely vicious defensive line which already had Cameron Wake, Corey Liuget, and Margus Hunt, as well as the great “nope, I’m not even going to try to spell it”. The secondary is excellent as well, with Eric Weddle, Calvin Pryor, Prince Amukamura (angling to murder his father and become King), Robert McClain, and Budda Baker all angling for key roles and putting up the points – and that’s not even counting Deone Bucannon, who should be back with a vengeance. Things fall down a bit at LB (Spencer Paysinger and Benardrick McKinney ain’t quite all that and a bag o’ chips – no chips to be seen, not even pringles), but its still an excellent defense overall.
The offense, though… less so much. After Rivers, there is Travis Benjamin… and then a whole lot of the opposite of serene tacos. More like stressed out tofu salads. Ryan Matthews is in a better position than usual because he’s not an injury risk… but that’s because he doesn’t have a job. The running back with the closest thing to an opportunity is Troymaine Pope. Antonio Gates is still alive and back for more, but has certainly lost a step and Gavin Escobar hasn’t picked one up. The lackluster receiving group of Stevie Johnson, Jermaine Kearse, and Justin Hunter isn’t saving anyone.
It’s not a bad Chargers team – it has a decent defense. But the 2017 edition of LA reminds me of the last few editions of Indy – a quarterback, a solid defense, and an offense that could average 30 a week. It’s enough to be competitive and annoying many weeks – but not enough to contend for a division championship.
Denver Broncos (6-10): Joining the Chargers in the “teams that are solid enough to be competitive, but not strong enough to win a division” division are the Denver Broncos. The Broncos do have some really promising puzzle pieces, but their hopes took a major hit when Paxton Lynch lost the starting job. it’s hard to compete in this league without a starting QB.
Essentially, the Broncos are the anti-chargers (I guess this makes them the run-away-at-a-fast-pacers? The routers? The brave, brave, brave, sir robins? You tell me.). If you combined the two teams, you’d have an unstoppable team. The Chargers have a great QB, the Broncos have a benchwarmer. The Broncos have solid offensive playmakers like Demaryius Thomas, Jack Doyle, Marshawn Lynch, and DeSean Jackson… the Chargers don’t. The Chargers have a fantastic defensive line and an excellent secondary but struggle at linebacker… the Broncos have a fantastic linebacking trio of Ahmad Brooks, Danny Trevathan, and Kyle Van Noy, with Preston Smith at backup, but struggle on the line and have Chris Harris Jr and not a whole lot else in the secondary. I sincerely hope these teams don’t join forces.
Which team do I think is going to play better? Well, the name appeal gives the edge to the Broncos – it’s hard to bet against Demaryius, DeSean, Beast Mode, and Jack Doyle, particularly when guys like Cole Beasley, DeAndre Washington, and Jeff Janis are providing a modicum of production behind them. So that’s my temptation.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years in this league, it is that the better defense usually wins. Indy is competitive every year with Luck and a defense. Teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, the Giants, the Chiefs, and even the Lions have won their divisions with defense. There’s just more players and more consistency over a 12 week, 16 game season. Combined with that Paxton Lynch shaped zero at Quarterback, I think Denver faces at least one more year in the cellar – not a pleasant prospect for a team that doesn’t own either its first or second round picks in 2018.