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Today I bring you the eighth and final installment of our divisional fantasy previews, finishing up with the wild NFC West.
For the last few seasons, it’s been the Arizona Cardinals who have had a strangle hold on the top spot in this division, two years ago advancing to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Before the Cards held all the cards, it was Seattle who had a nice run of it for a couple of years, while Matt Hasselbeck was in his prime and Shaun Alexander was putting up MVP-caliber seasons. And way back, and I’m talking like new millennium way back, it was the high flying Rams who owned the throne, during their “Greatest Show on Turf” days.
Now the question is, are you on a new bandwagon this season? The bandwagon that seems to be busting at the seams? The bandwagon of the new sheriff in town? I speak of course, of the team that hasn’t been mentioned yet in this article… this year’s sexiest playoff pick… the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners made some impressive strides in the ’09 season, led by the emergence of QB Alex Smith, their #1 overall draft pick from back in ’05. If Frank Gore can remain healthy and Michael Crabtree can break out as a top receiver, there’s no reason why San Fran can’t live up to their preseason hype.
Let’s now dive in and take a closer look at the Niners and their NFC West neighbors.
After years with Kurt Warner at the helm, the Cardinals will turn the keys to the offense back to former USC standout Matt Leinart for 2010. Leinart last acted as the team’s starter back in 2006, when he was 4-7 in 11 starts. Leinart wasn’t done any favors this past off-season, as the Cards’ front office sent one of the team’s top receivers, Anquan Boldin, to the other side of the country in Baltimore. But that doesn’t mean all of Leinart’s fantasy value is lost. He still has one of the league’s top talents at WR, with Larry Fitzgerald poised to haul in another 100+ balls this season, along with super sleeper pick Steve Breaston and late round flier pick Early Doucet. Fitzy will be gone by the end of the second round of your draft, and Leinart isn’t a bad option for your backup QB spot, especially with the weak schedule he’ll face.
The ground game for ‘Zona will feature a balanced attack this season, with sophomore rusher Beanie Wells likely getting the majority of carries over Tim Hightower, but Hightower still will get a lot of touches as a receiver out of the backfield. Wells is considered by most as a top 20 running back, with Hightower a very solid middle round selection. The addition of guard Alan Faneca will surely help open some holes for this pair of guys as well.
Maybe I’m just easy to fool, but call me a believer in the 49ers hype machine. I’m big on RB Frank Gore this year, despite his wavering health year after year. With Glen Coffee’s sudden retirement after just a year in the league, San Fran turned to veteran Brian Westbrook, bringing him into camp a few weeks ago to back up their stud rusher. If Westbrook poses the only challenge to Gore’s workload, look for Gore to get at least 325-350 touches this season, barring any injuries.
The aerial attack is much improved as well, with the Niners finally featuring an entrenched starter in Alex Smith. Smith will enter a contract year this season, giving him even more incentive to shine for San Fran. This may sound crazy, but if you opt against the top tier of QBs (Rodgers, Brees, P. Manning, & Brady), and you don’t act quick enough on the second tier guys (Rivers, Schaub, Romo, Favre, Flacco, Cutler), I have no problem rolling the dice and taking my chances with Alex Smith as a low-end fantasy starting QB this year. If you do go this route, just be sure to have a solid second option, like a Roethlisberger, Palmer, or Henne. You probably won’t find any other fantasy geek on the web that’s higher on Smith than I am.
Smith has a few solid weapons to target in the Niners passing game, led by breakout candidate Michael Crabtree. Crabtree was a holdout during last year’s preseason, which made his rookie year a little disjointed as he struggled to get into the flow of the offense until mid-season. But with a full year of NFL experience under his belt now, Crabtree is poised to deliver a huge sophomore campaign. The other San Fran starting receiver ain’t half bad either, with Josh Morgan entering his third NFL season, which is generally when receivers tend to hit their stride. The Niners also brought in ex-Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. for added depth at the position. Adding to this trio, tight end Vernon Davis is coming off a year where he led all NFL tight ends with 13 TDs. Crabtree can be drafted anywhere between the fourth and sixth round, with Morgan acting as a great middle-round depth pick. Davis is considered an elite option at the TE spot, in the same class as Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates. I’m not entirely sure I’m that high on Davis, but he’s definitely a fantasy starter at the position.
Former USC head honcho Pete Carroll heads back to the NFL this season to A) coach the Seahawks, and B) avoid the firestorm of trouble surrounding the USC athletic program. The team he inherits doesn’t exactly light the world on fire, but there are some talents here worth highlighting.
The first of which is running back Justin Forsett. Forsett is easily the most talented Seahawk at the skill positions, even if his workload really hasn’t ramped up yet. He only had 114 carries last season, but his 5.4 yards per carry, along with 41 catches in the passing game, are what impresses fantasyheads most. Julius Jones provides Forsett the only real competition at the position, with new addition Leon Washington and depth back Quinton Ganther both not really providing much in fantasy value. Jones could be considered draft worthy in the later rounds.
Veteran Matt Hasselbeck remains under center for another year in Seattle, but young backup Charlie Whitehurst could push Hasselbeck for that starting job if the vet falters. Neither guy has real fantasy value, either way. They’ll throw to a batch of underwhelming receivers, with T.J. Houshmanzadeh headlining the crop. “Housh” is aiming to come back from a year that saw him put up lows in catches (79), yardage (911), and TDs (3) since his 2004 season. Behind T.J. on the depth chart is young rookie Golden Tate, who has a ton of upside, especially for you folks in keeper leagues, and former Patriot Deion Branch, who has seen better days, to put it mildly. Tight end John Carlson will play a part on the passing game as well, but I have to believe the Seahawks will look to throw down the field more often than dumping it off to Carlson, especially with how much I’m expecting them to play from behind most weeks.
The story of the St. Louis Rams starts and ends with just one name: Stephen Jackson. Beyond Jackson, your fantasy league seriously may not see any other Rams be drafted.
Jackson, who is considered a top 10 RB by every expert under the sun, will shoulder a heavy workload this upcoming season, helping the offense through the growing pains of working in a rookie QB. Sam Bradford, the team’s top overall pick this past spring, will be under center from the opening snap, ready to learn on the job and take his lumps as the St. Louis starter. He’ll have Jackson to dump the ball off to in short yardage situations, but otherwise the Rams’ receivers are a rag-tag group of no-names. Laurent Robinson is likely considered the most talented option at WR with Donnie Avery out for the entire 2010 season and rookie Mardy Gilyard will get his share of looks. I can see some of you taking a late-round chance on Robinson, but really, you’re better off going after a #3 receiver on a more talented team instead.
Tags: Alex Smith, Arizona Cardinals, Beanie Wells, Brian Westbrook, Donnie Avery, Fantasy, Frank Gore, Golden Tate, John Carlson, Josh Morgan, Julius Jones, Justin Forsett, Larry Fitzgerald, Laurent Robinson, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Leinart, Michael Crabtree, NFL, Sam Bradford, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Stephen Jackson, Steve Breaston, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Tim Hightower, Vernon Davis