This final installment in the series of articles examining the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft for each team.
It has now been two years since the Cardinals made a big splash bringing in Bruce Arians to run the team. The move proved to be a good one as Arians transformed Arizona into a Super Bowl contender. Losing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the New York Jets will be a huge loss.
Carson Palmer has played at a high level since arriving in the desert. While Palmer is in the twilight of his career, he represented a big upgrade over the team's previous quarterbacks: Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley. The veteran passer stabilizes the offense. If he can remain healthy, Palmer has a chance to be a Top 10 quarterback in this offense. He is often overlooked, but has the receivers to put up solid numbers. A year ago, Drew Stanton was acquired to be the backup. When Palmer has missed games due to injury, Stanton has not been able to win games. Many had high expectations for rookie Logan Thomas last year, but he failed to make enough strides to start during Palmer's absence. The offense rests with Palmer … and his health.
Andre Ellington shouldered the load a year ago but seemed to be out of place. While speedy and able to make big plays, Ellington might be best suited for a change of pace role. For this reason David Johnson was drafted in May. He is a bigger back who should offer a decent complement to Ellington, even though both excel in the passing game. We expect Ellington and Johnson to split touches enough to make it difficult for either to be fantasy RB1. Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams will offer depth at the running back position.
Larry Fitzgerald is an aging superstar receiver who will still be valued more on his accomplishments by some than his expected production. He will see plenty of pass targets once again, enough to be considered a borderline fantasy starter. Fourth-year pro Michael Floyd failed last year when given an expanded role. He still is talented and could emerge this season. John Brown played very well as a rookie in 2014. His strong play limited Floyd's targets. This is a strong trio for Palmer. The pass catchers just need the veteran passer to remain healthy. Their respective fantasy numbers tanked after Palmer went down to injury a year ago. Jaron Brown will serve as the fourth receiver.
After scarcely catching a pass during his rookie contract, Rob Housler bolted for a starting gig in Cleveland. Last year, the Cardinals drafted Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame to possibly become the tight end of the future. He was injured for most of his rookie season. There is little upside for Niklas – or any Cardinals tight end – given how little Arians' offense targets the tight end position. Darren Fells will back up Niklas.
St. Louis Rams
Jeff Fisher has quietly rebuilt the Rams into his type of team. The defense is strong – especially up front - and underrated while the offense is still young and strong in the running game. The success of the 2015 season will hinge on the play at the quarterback position once again.
After several injury-plagued seasons with Sam Bradford, the Rams traded him to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles and a second round draft pick. This trade will give Foles the opportunity to prove that his strong showing in 2013 was due to his talent and not the Chip Kelly scheme. Austin Davis and Case Keenam will vie for the opportunity to hold the clipboard on game day. The loser of the competition will likely be looking for another teams as Sean Mannion was drafted to groom. If Foles falls flat, St. Louis is likely to draft his replacement in 2016.
The Rams shocked the football world by selecting Todd Gurley in the first round of May's NFL Draft. Gurley is a huge talent who is coming back from a knee injury. He is pushing to come back for the season opener. Tre Mason will play until Gurley gets back to full strength. Mason is coming off a promising rookie season. After Gurley was selected, the Rams traded Zac Stacy to the New York Jets. Benny Cunningham will return as a change of pace back and is a solid receiver. Given Mason's weakness in pass protection, Cunningham could see snaps early in the season if Gurley is slow to heal. The improvements to the offensive line indicate an emphasis on the running game. St. Louis may run the ball close to 500 times this season.
Tavon Austin was selected in the first round in the 2013 NFL Draft to provide a spark for the St. Louis offense. He never developed into the player the team had hoped. A year ago, veteran Kenny Britt joined the Rams from the Titans, where he was coached by Jeff Fisher. Britt is still only 26 years of age and has matured since his string of off the field offenses a few years ago. He is a player to watch as the team is missing a legitimate WR1 lining up on the outside. Brian Quick is finally healthy and looks to be finally putting it all together. He was drafted with all the potential in the world, but has needed time to develop. Britt and Quick will need to play well in order to give Foles a fighting chance. Austin's college teammate, Stedman Bailey, was selected late in the 2013 draft, and should be the third receiver. Bailey is a good route runner and could become Foles' security blanket.
Since joining the Rams, Jared Cook has been one of the bigger disappointments. He is another player who followed Fisher from Tennessee. While he is athletically gifted, consistency as a receiver will be difficult to grasp once again. Lance Kendricks will play behind Cook.
San Francisco 49ers
After a very impressive run with San Francisco, coach Jim Harbaugh has departed for the University of Michigan. The team will rue letting Harbaugh leave. He was replaced by in-house candidate Jim Tomsula. The task may be too much for Tomsula. He has big shoes to fill as coach of the 49ers. Add in the retirement of several key defensive players and the odds might be stacked against Tomsula.
In 2013, Colin Kaepernick exploded onto the scene to lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick is a great athlete playing the quarterback position. There are questions whether he can become a good quarterback; making good reads and passing the ball accurately. The coaching change will not help Kaepernick's development as a passer. In 2014, the 49ers traded for Blaine Gabbert to be his backup. Gabbert is not a threat to Kaepernick, no matter how poorly he plays.
Frank Gore was not brought back and could be missed. He will now represent a huge upgrade to the Indianapolis Colts running game. Last year, San Francisco drafted Carlos Hyde to be the heir apparent for Gore. His time is now. Hyde is a very good running back and will get an opportunity to be the workhorse ball carrier. Kaepernick's ability to run the football will open holes for Hyde to gain big yardage. Reggie Bush was brought in to provide a spark to the offense. He has definitely lost a step or two, but will add value in the passing game. In addition, the team selected Mike Davis in the draft. Davis is powerful runner who played better in 2013 than 2014. This led to him slipping some on draft day. This is a strong group of ball carriers. Kendall Hunter is now healthy and will add depth to the corps of ball carriers.
Michael Crabtree departed and signed across the Bay in Oakland. Anquan Boldin will again have a large role in the passing offense. His run blocking and general toughness makes him a great fit for the 49ers. Speedster Torrey Smith signed to offer big-play ability to the San Francisco passing game. It is interesting that both 49ers starting receivers came from Baltimore. A player to monitor in preseason is Quinton Patton. He is coming back from an injury-riddled 2014 campaign. Patton is more quick than fast, and runs tight routes. Second-year Bruce Ellington is a play-making receiver. Ellington is explosive but will not be able to find the field much. The team selected rookie DeAndre Smelter to possibly be Boldin's replacement one day. Smelter is a big, athletic receiver who played in a run-oriented Georgia Tech college offense. Boldin will be a great mentor for him. This is a deep receiving corps for Kaepernick.
Many are expecting Vernon Davis to once again be a fantasy star. This might be asking too much, even though he is very athletic and talented. His best playing days are behind him. Vance McDonald was drafted in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. McDonald has not been consistent as a professional and is not a threat to Davis. The targets have not been there for either tight end to emerge as a viable fantasy option.
Pete Carroll seems to have the magic touch in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks are a balanced team who will be a Super Bowl contender once again. Making it to the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons through a tough NFC Conference is quite the feat. Seattle is shooting for three straight years.
Russell Wilson does not get his due from the fantasy community even though he is a high-percentage passer and a great athlete. Wilson, thought too small to be a NFL starter, is a heady player and an efficient quarterback. The strong running attack results in fewer pass attempts for Wilson than his peers. He makes the most of those attempts, exploiting defenses keyed on stopping the run. Behind him on the depth chart is Tarvaris Jackson. The additions to the Seahawks offense will add to Wilson's fantasy appeal.
Marshawn Lynch is back as the primary ball carrier. He has been solid and steady throughout the years. This could be his last season in the Pacific Northwest so the team could run him hard and see if the wheels fall off. Third-year pro Robert Turbin will play often, even with Lynch healthy. Christine Michael is uber talented but still makes too many mistakes. Michael could be a future starter in the NFL but still needs to mature as a practice player. Rookie Thomas Rawls is talented and offers depth to a deep group of running backs. The ball carriers will enable the Seahawks to run the ball often with fresh legs all game – and season – long. Carroll will want to use the running game to control the game and set up the pass.
Last year, Golden Tate took the money and ran to Detroit. This left Doug Baldwin as the team's top receiver. Seattle has plenty of receivers for different situations. Jermaine Kearse plays plenty. Chris Matthews burst onto the scene in the postseason. Rookie Tyler Lockett, Ricardo Lockette, and second-year players Paul Richardson Jr and Kevin Norwood are all quality players. They each offer different qualities for Carroll and company to utilize. Lockett is a player we will be closely watching. Even though he is undersized, Lockett was a star in college at Kansas State. The speedy Richardson is returning from injury. The emphasis on the ground game and the plethora of receiving options could make it difficult for fantasy owners. This unheralded group of receivers is talented.
When Seattle traded for Jimmy Graham, it shocked the NFL …. and the fantasy community. Will there be enough pass targets for Graham to be a fantasy star? Well, going from the pass-happy Saints to the run-heavy Seahawks will be a change. However, there could be more red zone opportunities for the athletic tight end. Luke Willson will back up Graham. Graham's presence is another reason for fantasy owners not to have high expectations for the wide receivers.
This division will be a two-horse race between Seattle and Arizona once again. Many forget Arizona was undefeated (6-0) until Palmer went down a year ago. Each of these teams is considered a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The other two teams in the division will each be lucky to win eight games, but have enough talent to knock off any team on any given day. If Foles plays well, there is a chance that the Rams sneak into the playoffs. We do not have faith in the 49ers after the loss of Harbaugh and several key defenders.
Please feel free to email me (Tefertiller@Footballguys.com) with any questions or comments. Also, I am on Twitter (www.Twitter.com/JeffTefertiller), LinkedIN, and Google+ so feel free to connect where most convenient.