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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.
The Cardinals made a big splash bringing in Bruce Arians to run the team. He has experienced success in Pittsburgh and last year in Indianapolis. Fantasy owners should not underestimate Arians' ability to have an high-powered offense.
Quarterback: The other big big move for Arizona was to trade for quarterback Carson Palmer. While Palmer is in the twilight of his career, he represents a big upgrade over Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley. The veteran passer will stabilize the offense. The Cardinals also brought in Drew Stanton. The athletic Stanton is another upgrade at the position. Lindley is still in the fold, serving as the third quarterback. 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.
Running Back: Arians signed his running back from Pittsburgh, Rashard Mendenhall to lead the ground attack. Mendenhall is a hard-running, all purpose player. He instantly became the starter of the group. Ryan Williams is now healthy (for now) and will look to garner playing time. He has plenty of ability; needing to stay healthy long enough to showcase his talent. Arizona will have two rookies, Stephan Taylor and Andre Ellington, vying for playing time. Each has strengths and could stick on the main roster. William Powell and Alfonso Smith will battle for the remaining roster spot. Beanie Wells was sent on his way, and has not yet signed elsewhere. Many teams are afraid of his knees.
Wide Receiver: Larry Fitzgerald is anxious to have a legitimate professional quarterback under center for the first time since Kurt Warner. He will see plenty of pass targets, enough to once gain be considered an elite fantasy player. The Cardinals are expecting second-year pro Michael Floyd to take another step in his development. He flashed potential as a rookie, but needs to show more consistency. Andre Roberts will play in three-receiver sets. Behind him on the depth chart are a slew of unknowns and journeymen: LaRon Byrd, Ryan Swope, Jaron Brown, Jarrett Dillard, and a few more players off the radar. Byrd has a big chance for playing time if he can further hone the finer aspects of the position. Swope was drafted this past April. However, he suffers from concussions and could not participate in offseason activities. This is an ideal situation for a veteran receiver to come in and add depth.
Tight End: Hopes are high for Rob Housler to emerge as a fantasy option. Palmer helped Brandon Myers go from relative unknown to a top fantasy producer, and he will do the same for Housler. Jeff King will back up Housler.
St. Louis Rams
Jeff Fisher has quietly built the Rams into a viable team. The defense is strong and underrated while the offense is still young. The success of the 2013 season will hinge on the play at the quarterback position.
Quarterback: This may be a make or break year for quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford has shown glimpses of greatness packaged in with too many BAD plays where he either gets antsy in the pocket or is afraid to throw the ball down the field. The young receiving corps is solid and will make plays after the catch. Bradford is backed up by Austin Davis and Kellen Clemens. Davis is a developmental passer who has support within the organization.
Running Back: St. Louis allowed superstar running back Seven Jackson leave (and sign with Atlanta) this offseason. He had been the mainstay in the offense for a long time. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff addresses this void in the offense. Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead return. Richardson is a speedy player who struggles running between the tackles. Pead is a fantasy favorite who never has put it all together. In addition, Zac Stacy was drafted to provide a strong inside running threat. These three tailbacks should share carries this season, providing nothing more than a tease to fantasy owners. Terrance Ganaway is still on the squad as a depth back.
Wide Receiver: Tavon Austin was selected in the first round to provide a spark to the St. Louis offense. He is a big-play player who adds value as a returner and receiver, and can even line up in the backfield. Expect the Rams to find ways to utilize Austin's tremendous speed and quickness in the open field. Chris Givens, and his world-class speed, return for year two, as does Brian Quick. This is a young receiver group. All three players are fast and athletic. It will be up to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to find the best ways to get these play makers the ball. Brandon Gibson is now in Miami, so there is opportunity for Austin Pettis to finally play. Tavon Austin's West Virginia teammate, Stedman Bailey, was selected late in the draft, and will provide depth. Overall, this will be a strong receiving corps. The issue is that the receivers will need time to develop and mature, while Bradford needs a big season in 2013.
Tight End: One of the biggest free agent signings for St. Louis was tight end Jared Cook. Cook was underutilized in Tennessee, and the poor quarterback play by Jake Locker made consistency impossible. Expectations are sky high now for the young tight end. While he is athletically gifted, consistency will be elusive once again. Lance Kendricks and Mike McNeil will play behind Cook.
San Francisco 49ers
Coach Jim Harbaugh has done an impressive job of transforming the underachieving 49ers into a perennial power. The amazing part is that – for the most part – Harbaugh is using players left from the Mike Singletary era.
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick exploded onto the scene to lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl. His blend of speed and passing accuracy make the 49ers offense impossible to defend. Fantasy owners should look for signs of development in preseason. This will be Kaepernick's first offseason getting all of the first-team practice reps and he should improve, possibly in a big way. With the emergence of Kaepernick, Alex Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. In shrewd San Francisco manner, the team traded peanuts for Colt McCoy so the former Cleveland Brown could serve as the back up. Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels will see time in training camp and preseason games.
Running Back: Every year, fantasy owners expect Frank Gore to slow down or get injured, and every year he proves the doubters wrong. Gore is a true "workhorse" back. The 49ers have been diligent adding depth behind the veteran, drafting talented tailbacks in each of the past three seasons. Kendall Hunter is recovering from Achilles injury and should be back on the field for the first preseason game. He is a solid runner between the tackles. LaMichael James was drafted last year to add another dimension to the running attack. James is a speedy player who will push for carries. In April, San Francisco selected the injured Marcus Lattimore, who was severely injured (again) late in the 2012 season. Lattimore will basically get a redshirt year. However, this was a solid gamble for the team. Lattimore has immense upside and could be the 2014 starting tailback. Anthony Dixon will play if the others get injured. Kaepernick's ability to run the football will allow this group of runners to put up big yardage.
Wide Receiver: The Achilles injury of Michael Crabtree will sideline the young receiver for the 2013 season. It was a sad injury after the strong rapport he had with Kaepernick. Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco (from one Harbaugh brother to the other) and will be the focal point of the passing offense. His run blocking will be a great fit for the 49ers. With Crabtree out of action, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, and Ricardo Lockette will vie for the vacant starting job. Mario Manningham will play when he gets healthy. Manningham is trying to come back from both ACL and PCL injuries. He cannot be considered a lock to be on the field, fully healthy, for week one. A player to monitor in preseason is rookie Quinton Patton. Patton is more quick than fast, and runs tight routes. He could easily vault to the top of the depth chart given the inexperience and lack of talent ahead of him.
Tight End: Many are expecting Vernon Davis to once again be a fantasy star. This might be asking too much, even though he is very athletic. Delanie Walker was allowed to sign in Tennessee, leaving a void at the second tight end position. Vance McDonald was drafted in the second round of April's NFL Draft. McDonald is very athletic – like Davis – and will see the field often. His presence will allow the 49ers to utilize two-tight end sets frequently.
Pete Carroll seems to have the magic touch in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks are a balanced team who will be a contender once again.
Quarterback: One of Carroll's biggest assets is the ability to not be defined by draft status or player salary. The coach just lets the competition dictate the outcome. This is how Russell Wilson gained the starting gig from the high-priced Matt Flynn last year. In hindsight, it was a brilliant move few other head coaches would be bold enough to make. Wilson, thought too small to be a NFL starter, is a heady player and an efficient passer. Flynn is now in Oakland. Brady Quinn was brought in to hold the clipboard. He has been horrible in recent years so fans have to hope Wilson proves durable. Tarvaris Jackson signed back in Seattle to provide Quinn some competition. There is no winner, just losers, in this duel.
Running Back: Marshawn Lynch is back as the primary ball carrier. He has been solid and steady throughout the years. Second-year pro Robert Turbin and rookie Christine Michael are both very talented and will play often, even with Lynch healthy. This trio of ball carriers will enable the Seahawks to run the ball often with fresh legs all game – and season – long. Carroll will want to run the ball often.
Wide Receiver: In March, Seattle made a huge trade to acquire Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings. Harvin was subsequently given a six-year contract, with $25.5 million guaranteed. The play-making Harvin will add a new element to the Seahawks offense. While he may not get as many pass targets as in Minnesota, Harvin will benefit from better quarterback play and more creative play calling. Sidney Rice will man the other starting job. Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin will battle for the third receiver job. With Harvin now in Seattle, this group of receivers is now considered toward the top of the league. The issue for fantasy owners will be that the Seahawks are, and will continue to be under Carroll, a running team. There may not be enough passes to keep everyone (especially fantasy owners) happy.
Tight End: Zach Miller has been the starting tight end for several years. He is not a fantasy option in this offense. Keep an eye on rookie Luke Wilson, who might be starting by 2014 if his blocking improves. Wilson is a good receiver, though his blocking will dictate playing time given the focus on running the football.
This division will be a two-horse race between Seattle and San Francisco once again. Each of these teams is considered a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The other two teams will each be lucky to win seven games, but have enough talent to knock off any team on any given day.