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Fitzgerald shines in Arizona
The NFC West has already been handed to the San Francisco 49ers by many fans and pundits. The first year of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in San Francisco was a charmed one, and some 49ers fans (maybe a few front office folks) are already trying to determine where the banners will hang in the new facility. Stop down for a minute, please. Call me crazy, but I’m not ready to discount the Cardinals or Seahawks entirely. Let’s put the division on the whiteboard and break out the highlighters. There’s value to be found here in fantasyland, though many will be distracted by the bells and whistles elsewhere.
San Francisco 49ers
Overview: It’s safe to say that Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers outperformed expectations in 2011. The 49ers made a run deep into the NFC Playoffs and brought back the core of the unit while making a few key additions. Can Harbaugh get Randy Moss back to some semblance of the Moss from years past?
Quarterback: In his seventh NFL season, Alex Smith produced a career-high 3,144 passing yards and established a new career mark in terms of completion percentage (61.3%). He was efficient last season, generating 19 total touchdowns (17 passing) against seven turnovers (five interceptions). The 49ers brought Mario Manningham and reclamation project Moss into the fold to further Smith’s development. Make no mistake about it: Harbaugh wants to run first.
Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick has emerged as the No. 2 option in camp. Kaepernick attempted just five pass attempts as a rookie.
Running Back: Frank Gore might be the most dismissed player on fantasy draft boards this season. He amassed 1,211 rushing yards with eight touchdowns last season, but his disappearance from the passing game (17 receptions) is concerning. Additionally, the 49ers added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to a backfield that already included Kendall Hunter (over 650 total yards). Gore’s still a mid-RB2 option in drafts, but his workload is certainly in question.
Wide Receiver: You’re excited about Moss and all the glowing reports out of training camp. You can admit it. Owners may line message boards with the wishes, hopes and memories of Moss’ greatness past, but he’s still being drafted as a WR4 this summer. He may outperform that level, but Smith isn’t Tom Brady.
Michael Crabtree shows us flashes of No. 1 ability and great athleticism. Will he put it together with the aforementioned Moss and Manningham working alongside Vernon Davis in 2012? Crabtree caught 72 passes for 874 yards in his third NFL season, but yielded only four touchdown receptions. Like Moss, he’s coming off the board as a WR4. Will he outperform?
Tight End: He may never reclaim the red zone dominance of 2009 when he scored 13 touchdowns, but Davis rates as a top-6 tight end option. Davis has averaged 67 receptions (his 2011 total) and 890 receiving yards in the past three years with 26 touchdown receptions (13, 7 and 6). Obviously, he was the star of the 49ers’ playoff run (291 yards and four touchdowns) and has developed a fantastic rapport with Smith.
Kicker: David Akers registered a ridiculous number of field goal attempts in 2011. The veteran kicker converted 44-of-52 attempts, including 7-of-9 attempts from distances of at least 50 yards. He added 34 PATs. Akers rates as a top-3 selection in kicker free-for-all at the end of drafts.
Defense: The vaunted San Francisco defense returns all 11 starters for 2012. This unit surrendered 14.3 points per game (second in the NFL) while generating 42 sacks and 41 turnovers. With Patrick Willis leading the way and the division still in flux, expectations are huge for this unit.
Overview: Pete Carroll cranks up the music during practices and runs things differently. The Seahawks have an aggressive and potentially potent defense on tap for 2012, but the offense is still coming into focus. Yes, Marshawn Lynch can run the ball. Who’s going to throw it? The “Win Forever” philosophy is being tested in Seattle.
Quarterback: The Seahawks spent a ton of money to sign Matt Flynn in free agency following his extended stay as a backup behind Aaron Rodgers. Flynn threw 132 pass attempts (82 completions) as a member of the Packers. He played well in the Seahawks’ first preseason game and will presumably get the nod for the opener against the Cardinals.
Flynn’s arrival and the early development of Russell Wilson (he’s starting to generate some buzz) likely means that Tarvaris Jackson will be jettisoned from Seattle. Wilson, the rookie from Wisconsin, made several highlight-worthy plays and has closed the gap on Flynn quickly. Flynn’s a back-end QB2 to start draft season. Wilson remains on the wire until he gets the call.
Running Back: Fans and fantasy owners still await word of whether Lynch will be subject to a four-game suspension. However, the proliferation of workload splits and early injury issues elevates Lynch to a top-10 slot.
Robert Turbin, a rookie out of Utah State, has been impressive in camp and has the same attitude and push between the tackles exhibited by Lynch. Turbin’s a fantastic handcuff option given Lynch’s “Beast Mode” running style, even if the veteran tailback avoids suspension.
Wide Receiver: Everybody will be anxious to see how much production remains in the legs of veteran receiver Terrell Owens in his return to the field. I don’t doubt his physicality and want. I’m just not sure that he returns as a major force and ranked him as a WR5 accordingly. I’m more interested in Doug Baldwin, who caught 51 passes for nearly 800 receiving yards as an undrafted rookie. He’s the lone “sure” thing, as much as there could be one, in this receiving corps.
We love the physical presence and red zone prowess of Sidney Rice, but questions about his health remain. Golden Tate has flashed great athleticism and the skills we witnessed at Notre Dame, but has yet to put it all together. It’s an intriguing receiving corps. It’s just unsettled as we work to the middle of the preseason.
Tight End: The wide receiver position is still being sorted out. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have invested heavily in the tight end position with Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow. Miller caught 25 passes last season, his first with the Seahawks, a steep drop-off from his 60 receptions as a member of the Raiders in 2010. Miller sustained a concussion in the Seahawks’ preseason opener. Winslow has distanced himself from the serious injury concerns that plagued the early portion of his career. In his final three seasons with the Buccaneers, Winslow averaged 72 receptions and 792 receiving yards. The lone knock on his game is that Winslow rarely celebrates in the painted grass, having corralled just 12 touchdown receptions in the past three years.
Kicker: Following partial seasons in Baltimore and Denver, Stephen Hauschka took the reins for the Seahawks in 2011. He converted 25-of-30 field goal attempts, including 2-of-4 from distances of at least 50 yards. The Seattle defense has drawn rave reviews, and there’s potential for a more balanced and consistent offensive attack. Hauschka rates as a Bye week spot starter at best coming into the regular season.
Defense: The Seahawks ranked seventh in the NFL at 19.7 points allowed per game in 2011. The secondary was particularly strong, as Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner stepped in to combine for 10 interceptions. Bruce Irvin’s selection in the first round of this year’s draft adds another pass rusher to the mix to terrorize the spotty quarterbacks of the NFC West.
Overview: Jeff Fisher returns to the sidelines at the helm of a team in a long rebuilding process. He immediately had to deal with the loss of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to the bounty scandal. Fisher inherits a potential franchise quarterback, workhorse tailback and a ton of questions.
Quarterback: Sam Bradford has been affected by an ankle injury in camp, an issue that has pundits in St. Louis pondering whether he’ll eventually need surgery. Regardless, the Rams have built a solid receiving corps for Bradford in his third season, and tried-and-true tailback Steven Jackson returns for another run. Bradford averaged 216.4 yards per game in 10 starts last season, producing six touchdowns against six interceptions. He’s no better than a late-QB2 option out of the gate and will most likely sit on waiver wires to open the 2012 campaign. There’s no place to go but up. The Rams averaged a league-worst 12.1 points per game in 2011.
Running Back: Jackson has logged seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Rams, virtually serving as a one-man gang in recent years. Owners continue to ponder when the breaking point occurs for Jackson (2,138 career carries and going strong). The lone knock on Jackson is the fact that he’s generated more than eight rushing touchdowns only once in his career.
Isaiah Pead, a rookie tailback from Cincinnati, has turned heads in camp. Pead is a speed complement to Jackson’s power between the tackles and may make an immediate impact. He’s a solid insurance play late in drafts.
Wide Receiver: The Rams addressed the receiving corps in the past two years with a flurry of signings and draft choices. Veteran PPR machine Danny Amendola leads a receiving corps that is still being sorted out. Brandon Gibson (36 receptions in 2011) is slated to start opposite Amendola, while rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens carve out their spots alongside Greg Salas and Austin Pettis.
The player being watched most closely in camp is Steve Smith, himself a former PPR monster as a member of the Giants. Smith caught 11 passes in nine games last season for the Rams. He’d caught 48 passes in nine games as a member of the Giants in 2010. He’d be a welcome security blanket for Sam Bradford as a premier route-runner.
Tight End: I remain optimistic that we’ll be talking about Lance Kendricks as a spot-starter and Bye week fill-in as some juncture in the 2012 season. The second-year tight end out of Wisconsin caught 28 passes for 352 yards in his rookie season. Michael Hoomanawanui returns as the second-string tight end. Hoomanawanui compiled 20 receptions in 16 games during his first two years with the Rams.
Kicker: Greg Zuerlein was drafted in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft, thus displacing longtime Rams kicker Josh Brown. As a member of the Missouri Western State Griffons (I need a shirt), Zuerlein converted all nine of his field goal attempts from distances of at least 50 yards. The bonus potential is immense if Bradford takes a step forward under coordinator Schottenheimer.
Defense: The Rams generated solid pressure up front last year with 39 sacks (Robert Quinn and Chris Long), but the unit was on the field for long stretches and broke down late. As a result, St. Louis ranked 26th in total defense at 25.4 points allowed per game while generating 26 turnovers (12 interceptions). The arrival of Cortland Finnegan brings an attitude to the secondary and elevates the play of the back-seven.
Overview: Ken Whisenhunt has an interesting squad for 2012. While everyone concedes the division to the 49ers, Whisenhunt is coaching a squad with a good receiving corps, two solid (although injury-prone) running backs and a strong defense. Unfortunately, the Cardinals have the most puzzling quarterback situation in the game.
Quarterback: The Cardinals have a full-on quarterback battle in camp. High-priced option Kevin Kolb is working to fend off the challenge of a Fordham man, John Skelton. Skelton averaged 239 passing yards and threw 11 touchdowns against 14 interceptions in eight games last season. Conventional wisdom is that Kolb will receive every opportunity to win the job before Ken Whisenhunt is forced to commit.
Running Back: Chris “Beanie” Wells ran for 1,047 yards and scored 10 touchdowns in 2011. Still, fantasy owners have been reticent to embrace the fourth-year pro, relegating him to RB3 status as health issues linger. Owners are starting to gravitate toward second-year option Ryan Williams, who missed the entire 2011 season. Williams expects to make his preseason debut in the Cardinals’ next game. There’s a workload split in the offing.
Wide Receiver: We know that Larry Fitzgerald can catch the ball regardless of the quarterback lining up under center. Behind him, the Cardinals have amassed some fantastic talent. Early Doucet broke through in 2011 with 54 receptions and nearly 700 receiving yards with five touchdowns.
Andre Roberts added 51 receptions for nearly 600 yards. Add Stephen Williams and rookie Michael Floyd to the mix and you have a rich, deep receiving corps. Of course, you still need a quarterback to efficiently distribute the ball.
Tight End: Veteran Todd Heap missed extensive time in 2011, his first year with the Cardinals. He was brought back at a reduced salary and will split time with second-year player Rob Housler. Heap appears to be taking more of a back seat in the passing game and will be counted on to contribute as a blocker, thereby affording the 6-foot-5 Housler a more prominent role. Housler caught three passes for 51 yards in the Cardinals’ first preseason game. Hot route!
Kicker: Offensive struggles in Arizona limited the chances afforded Jay Feely last season. Feely converted 19-of-24 field goal opportunities and 33 PATs. In two years with the Cardinals, he’s averaged 25.5 field goal attempts. The quarterback position is still in question and, as a result, Feely remains just a Bye week consideration.
Defense: The Cardinals possess a fast, aggressive defense, a unit that compiled 42 sacks in 2011 (tied for seventh). Patrick Peterson is on his way toward becoming a Pro Bowl cornerback and should grow markedly in his second season working alongside Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Will they get support from the offense?