Each NFL team is its own fantasy football organism. Will they thrive or die in 2018? This series outlines the critical questions for each team across their skill position depth charts. In this edition: NFC West
Who is the backup running back to own in Arizona?
David Johnson returns from injury as the offensive centerpiece for the Cardinals, but without Adrian Peterson, Andre Ellington, and other previous bigger names at the position, the rest of the depth chart is barren in 2018 by comparison. D.J. Foster has the most incumbent experience on the roster, but he offers like potential beyond being a slightly above-average receiver. T.J. Logan returns from a rookie season injury. Logan is sub-sized at less than 200 pounds but ran a 4.37 40-yard-dash and elite 3-cone time. Logan offers an explosive quality to the backfield not seen in a few years. Arizona also drafted Chase Edmonds early on Day 3 this offseason. Edmonds is a poor man's version of Danny Woodhead, a small school elite producer with a long track record as a lead back despite lacking prototypical size.
Verdict: Edmonds lacks better than mid-4.5s speed and is an average athlete otherwise. Logan offers more upside in an ancillary role, but Edmonds has the much better profile to be used as a spot starter in David Johnson misses time.
Is Sam Bradford impossible to trust?
First, everything comes down to cost. In early July myfantasyleague.com drafts, Bradford is averaging the No.33 quarterback off the board. There are only 32 starting jobs in the NFL and Bradford will have one to start the season outside of an injury. While Bradford has missed one entire season during his career and more than half of two others, most gloss over the fact he played 14 and 15 games respectively in 2014-15. Also, Bradford has completed more than 68% of his passes over the past three seasons. Only Drew Brees has a higher completion rate over the span of quarterbacks with more than 500 attempts.
Verdict: Measured expectations are the norm for Bradford drafters and owners and with the bargain basement price point, Bradford is one of the preferred later quarterbacks in deeper leagues (and especially in premium formats like superflex). Footballguys.com projects Bradford to play 11 games this season at the cost of a primary backup.
Who wins the WR2 job in Arizona?
Larry Fitzgerald is in ink on the depth chart as the top target collector for 2018. The biggest question in the Arizona passing game is who is the WR2 to own for fantasy. The ceiling is limited to the WR3/4 range outside of Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen performing at a near-elite level, but 100+ targets are in play for the secondary option considering the lackluster tight end depth chart. Christian Kirk is the shiny addition of the offseason, a second-round pick with elite metrics and profile. One concern commonly mentioned with Kirk is his played mostly in the slot at Texas A&M, a spot now dominated by Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona the last few seasons. Brice Butler was a free agent addition. With strong athletic traits but minimal college production, the boom-bust Butler flamed out with the Raiders early in his career, but quietly developed with Dallas in recent seasons at his previous stop. Chad Williams was a surprising late Day 2 pick in 2017 who sparsely played as a rookie. J.J. Nelson is the most established of the group of WR2 contenders, sporting an 18.5 yards-per-catch career average and nearly 1,400 yards through three seasons.
Nelson's most glaring concern is his diminutive frame and subsequent fear of overuse. Nelson has been a strong performer within his scope as the WR3/4 in Arizona, using his elite speed down the field to separate. Butler is much more of a contested ball and vertical receiver outside the numbers on his best Dallas plays. While Kirk has a thick frame and after-the-catch acumen ideal for the slot, he has shown skills to play outside as well.
Where is the upside for the Rams outside of Todd Gurley?
The Rams offense was productive last year as Sean McVay transformed the stagnant attack into one of the best in the NFL. However, no pass catcher saw more than Cooper Kupp's modest 94 targets. Sammy Watkins and his 70 targets are gone with Brandin Cooks as the notable addition. The tight end position was rather barren with 88 targets split amongst three non-viable fantasy options.
Verdict: The Rams have a strong enough wide receiver group (Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp) where Brandin Cooks will have a tough time matching the usual 110+ targets he has seen each of the last three seasons. Woods and Kupp were already limited fantasy options with only 10 combined touchdowns and neither surpassing 65 receptions. A mid-WR2 finish is about the max for a receiver in the 100-120 target zone, making Brandin Cooks more of a low-WR2 with higher-WR2 upside and Woods and Kupp in the WR3/4 depth zone for fantasy.
Does the starting tight end for the Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks matter outside of deep leagues?
The 49ers (George Kittle) have been left out as clearly the best option of the division at tight end. The candidates to emerge among the other three teams include Ricky Seals-Jones, Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Ed Dickson, and Nick Vannett.
Verdict: The track record of the above names highlights Ed Dickson as the glaring NFL proven name, which speaks to the group's collective weakness. The Cardinals and Seahawks are not overly strong at wide receiver, leaving some situational upside where the targets need to go somewhere. However, Seal-Jones had to shift to tight end due to being an inferior wide receiver prospect. Tyler Higbee is the de facto starter and profiles as a career TE2/3 at the NFL level. Everett has the most interest for dynasty purposes, but with Higbee involved in the rotation at a minimum (even if Everett emerges as the starter), the target potential is low with three strong wide receivers. Nick Vannett is a poor athlete who has averaged barely 10 yards-per-catch over two seasons and only 15 catches in his middling career start. Ed Dickson has a high-water mark of 30 catches (2017) dating back to his career year of 528 yards in 2011. Dickson benefitted last season with a few busted coverage long gains, rare for a lumbering athlete at his advancing age.
Paul Richardson Jr and Jimmy Graham were second and third on the team in targets last season. Both have moved on in free agency. Potential challengers to Lockett for the No.2 role include second-year option Amara Darboh, free agent acquisition Brandon Marshall, and fellow free agent Jaron Brown.
Verdict: Brandon Marshall is the big name of the challenger group, but the erosion has been swift for the now 34-year-old receiver off his 1,500-yard and 14-touchdown season in 2015. The Jets bailed after 2016 saw his production cut in nearly half despite 129 targets and the Giants saw a shell of Marshall's former self last year. Marshall profiles closer to a hybrid of a receiver and tight end at this point in his career. Jaron Brown has been the classic solid WR4/5 on NFL depth charts over his career. Amara Darboh is more name than substance with a boom-bust profile, lacking college production. Lockett has been stuck in the 70-target zone each of his three seasons, passed by a healthy Paul Richardson Jr in 2017 and Jermaine Kearse in 2016. The limited ceiling mantra certainly applies to Lockett with a middling record to-date on modest usage, but Seattle lacks quality options to challenge the former third-round pick in 2018.
Is the market too high on Jerick McKinnon?
Jerick McKinnon was one of the flagship free agent signings this offseason. With a wide-open depth chart and the blessing of Kyle Shanahan, the fantasy marketplace has flocked to McKinnon as the next great PPR running back for 2018.
Verdict: There are three issues with the breakout certainty for Jerick McKinnon. First, McKinnon is priced aggressively at RB14 according to July myfantasyleague.com average draft position. To hit this valuation McKinnon would need around 15 PPR PPG. Second, McKinnon was a lackluster producer with his opportunities in Minnesota during his rookie contract. He was passed over for true lead-back work in favor of prototypically-sized options like Matt Asiata and Latavius even when the starter was out of the lineup. McKinnon with his chances was a lackluster rusher at his tweener size with an abysmal success rate and efficiency numbers. Third, many of the qualities supporters of McKinnon tout are actually characteristics of Matt Breida, a second-year back for the 49ers. Breida has 4.3x wheels and was an efficient option last season in secondary duty. McKinnon has not shown the same explosiveness as Breida on tape since McKinnon's volume has started to rise the last two seasons. Also, a final note is to remember last offseason when Joe Williams was the 2017 version of Jerick McKinnon as the anointed upcoming stud for Kyle Shanahan and boosted up draft boards as a result.
Where is the value in the 49ers passing game?
Jimmy Garoppolo joins Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes as the buzz-worthy quarterback trio for 2018. Garoppolo has the biggest sample size of the group with 272 career attempts and winning each of his five starts with the 49ers last season despite a lackluster supporting cast. While Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon are highly projected at their respective fantasy positions, the wide receivers are specifically affordable across the board.
Verdict: Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin are both in WR4 zone of early July ADP. Cost is key as if Jimmy Garoppolo is a top-half fantasy quarterback, the average WR1 finish for those quarterbacks historically is around WR15. The upside here is huge for both Garcon and Goodwin. Garcon has the more durable profile as he averaged more than eight targets per game over the first half of 2017 before his season ended with an injury. Goodwin's usage grew once Garcon was out of the lineup, by increasing his targets by almost two per game. Even with the benefit of Garcon out for half the season, Goodwin finished at WR45 in PPG last season. Garcon is the more likely option to emerge as a steady WR2 as he was a top-36 option last season, without Jimmy Garoppolo as the quarterback upgrade, and Garcon quizzically did not score a touchdown on 40 receptions, marking him as a strong regression candidate.