Fantasy Preview: NFC West

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One of the more active divisions in free agency this year was the NFC South, led primarily by the revamped Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks offenses. But were the offseason modifications as beneficial as we thought?

Arizona Cardinals

When Kurt Warner hung up his cleats prior to the 2010 season, the Cardinals’ potent offense fell from among the tops in the league to the 26th in the National Football League. The quarterback position: a mess; the running god: non-existent.

This preseason, however, the addition of Kevin Kolb from the Philadelphia Eagles has bolstered the Cards’ offense to one of the more prolific offensive teams, ranked third in yards per game (392) and 11th in points per game (22).

Kolb, who last year was drafted ninth among quarterbacks and was expected to be the Eagles’ starter, of course lost his job to Michael Vick. In his four starts, he averaged more than 250 yards and threw six total touchdowns. And, not to disrespect DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin, but throwing to Larry Fitzgerald is an upgrade.

With Larry Fitzgerald at wideout, Kevin Kolb could be a fantasy sleeper at quarterback in 2011.

Kolb should not be drafted as your primary QB1 – this year – but draft as your back up with the upside of a potential top-eight performer by year’s end or next season.

It’s a big year for Kolb, and the same goes for Beanie Wells. Gone is Tim Hightower, who was traded to the Washington Redskins, and out for the year is first-round draft pick Ryan Williams out of Virginia Tech. With that being said, it’s Beanie’s time to shine and the team’s featured runner.

In his first season, Wells ran for nearly 800 yards and seven touchdowns, but hit a sophomore slump, missing games due to injury. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is going to utilize that old Pittsburgh Steelers’ run-first mentality, so Wells is going to get the rock and should have the opportunity to succeed.

He’s being in the seventh round, behind the likes of Ryan Mathews, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mark Ingram and Knowshon Moreno, all of who are stuck in dual-back systems. If you can snare Wells later in your draft, consider him a high-upside RB2.

Quick Hit: Aside from Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ wide receivers are a bit of a mystery. Second-year player Andre Roberts is being given the first shot at the No. 2 receiver job. He has 24 career catches, and his inexperience could result in the “impressive” Early Doucet or veteran Chansi Stuckey taking his job.

Want a safe bet? Go for Todd Heap, the former Baltimore Ravens tight end. When healthy, the seasoned vet can be a vital weapon in the passing game from anywhere on the field. The past two seasons Heap has had nearly 600 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns.

St. Louis Rams

Quarterback Sam Bradford, entering year No. 2, is a serious breakout candidate at his position. As a rookie, he completed 354 passes, (more than Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers), for over 3,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. And, to his credit, whom is he even throwing to?

Danny Amendola leads the Rams’ wide receiving corps, entrenched with the No. 1 role after an 85-catch, 689-yard, three-touchdown sophomore season. Behind him: Brandon Gibson, who’s seen action with the first team all preseason, and free agent addition Mike Sims-Walker, who worked as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ top wideout the past two seasons.

With new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels joining the Rams, expect an increase in pass attempts for Bradford. Like with Brady, Matt Cassell and Kyle Orton, McDaniels had turned quarterbacks and receivers, both mediocre and elite, into top fantasy performers. Just ask Brandon Lloyd.

Amendola is being drafted in 11th round behind Roy Williams, who is not guaranteed a roster spot on the Chicago Bears, and Braylon Edwards, who still has Alex Smith throwing passes to him. A late-round selection of Amendonla will have a great impact, and it doesn’t hurt to get Bradford as your back up either. And, despite being the No. 3 wideout now, Sims-Walker brings a veteran presence, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him climb the depth chart.

Another year for Steven Jackson, one of the more consistent backs in fantasy football the past seven seasons. Jackson has six straight 1,000-plus-yard seasons, though he’s never a candidate to rack up the touchdowns.

That is, he’s always been on lethargic St. Louis offenses. Now, with Bradford leading a legitimate passing attack, defenses can’t crowd the box against Jackson, which should open some alleyways for him. And, also a benefit of McDaniels’ offense, running backs are more involved in the passing game.

Jackson, on average, is being drafted 12th among running games. It’s a pretty fait position, given Frank Gore and Michael Turner are the first two ahead of him and usually find the end zone more frequently. However, both are injury concerns, and given the change of schemes it might be beneficial to let Jackson slip into your hands.

Seattle Seahawks

For the first time in a decade, Matt Hasselbeck won’t line up behind center for the Seahawks this season. Instead, Pete Carroll invested in former Viking Tarvaris Jackson to lead his offense.

T-Jax has 20 career starts with a .500 record in Minnesota. This preseason, though, Jackson has failed to complete 60 percent of his passes, throw a touchdown and has just 14 completions in two games. He’s being outshined by back-up Charlie Whitehurt, who’s leading the league in completion percentage (71.8 percent).

Carroll remains adamant that Jackson is the starter, which is terrible news for new Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice and the rest of the offense.

Rice is being drafted ahead of Malcolm Floyd, Hines Ward and Lance Moore, all of which have much more upside. Jackson must prove he can be a legitimate NFL passer, and until he does so, don’t risk taking Rice or Big Mike Williams, although new tight end Zach Miller is worth a late-round flier.

Despite his beast mode performance in the postseason last year, Marshawn Lynch still has not proven he’s back to where he was a few years ago when he was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills. Lynch, who last season had 200 carries for 737 yards and six touchdowns, not only displayed difficulties holding onto the ball (four fumbles), but proved to be quite the inconsistent performer.

From Week 6 on, (when Lynch was traded to the Seahawks), he had three games with less than 10 carries, two single-digit rushing totals and never surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark. He had six touchdowns, though three came in one game against the Carolina Panthers. Don’t let one trip into beast mode ruin your draft this year.

San Francicsco 49ers

One of the more futile offenses over the past two seasons, the 49ers, now with Jim Harbaugh at the helm, are undergoing a renovation … and fortunately the first-year NFL head coach has some weapons to work with.

…That is except a quarterback.

Over the past six years, San Francisco fans have been consistently disappointed by the ineffectiveness of their former first-round pick. Alex Smith has never passed for more than 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns in a season, and actually has more career picks than touchdown passes.

Enter Colin Kaepernick, the second-round selection out of Nevada in this year’s draft, who could perhaps be the future quarterback of the 49ers. In a small and inexact sample size, this preseason, the rookie has outperformed Smith, completing more passes (55.6 percent), though neither has thrown for a score and their passer ratings are both laughable.

Whether it’s a first-year player or a flat-out bust under center this season, the 49ers offense is going to be horrific and should not be counted on to perform. Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards, both of whom would normally be WR2s, are worth considering as WR4s, if that.

Though the receivers aren’t much to rave about, it’s worth noting that Vernon Davis is still a top-tier tight end. It has yet to be seen how Davis will fit in with Harbaugh’s offense, but over the past two seasons, he’s racked up 20 touchdowns and over 900 receiving yards per year. After finishing fifth among tight ends in receiving yardage in his breakout 2009 campaign, he finished second last season.

The other option to consider is, of course, Frank Gore. The talented but oft-injured running back is expected to have a dynamic 2011 season, though we’ll have to see if his contract dispute will weigh on him. He held out earlier this training camp.

The team added insurance during the draft, snaring Kendall Hunter as a possible third-down option, though Gore is currently penciled in to take those snaps still.

Gore is a threat not only on the ground but also out of the backfield. Since 2006, his breakout season, Gore has averaged about 250 rushing attempts and 50 catches per year, which equals out to about 1,600 total yards and nine scores per year. And in this style of offense Gore could see an even heavier load in the passing game.

The main problem, though, is health. Gore has played in just one full season this entering the league. Coming off a hip injury, Gore’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, declared him healthy. Owners must realize the possibility of Gore going down; Anthony Dixon is the sure handcuff.

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