We’re going division by division answering each team’s biggest fantasy questions and it’s NFC West time. Check out the columns on the NFC East, NFC North, and NFC South if you missed them. Also, see my column from last year to see how my 2020 NFC West fantasy football predictions fared.
Los Angeles Rams
Question: Can Matthew Stafford get back to his QB1 days?
Trying to project Matt Stafford’s upcoming season may be one of the most difficult offseason exercises. Trapped in Detroit for the first 12 years of his career, Stafford finally broke free and found an excellent opportunity with the Rams. For the last three years, Stafford has been stuck playing for HC Matt Patricia who, let’s face it, is better equipped calling defensive plays for Bill Belichick than he is leading his own team. The other HCs in Detroit during Stafford’s tenure include Jim Caldwell, Jim Schwartz, and Rod Marinelli. It certainly seems like the old veteran QB will enjoy his remaining time in the league under a coach like Sean McVay.
For all of those McVay doubters, look at what he did with Jared Goff. Over the last three seasons, Goff finished in the top half of the league in passing yards each season. In terms of fantasy production, Goff was a top 10 QB a couple of seasons ago. With Matt Stafford being an upgrade over Goff, it’ll be interesting to watch the Rams passing attack this season. Can Stafford get back to his former QB1 fantasy football days after arriving in the NFC West?
The Answer: YES!
Last year, for the Lions, Stafford threw for 4,084 yards (12th highest) and 26 TDs (13th highest) to just 10 INTs. In most fantasy scoring formats, that put the old veteran around 13th or 14th best QB. While that doesn’t sound too shabby, it could be considered a down year for a guy who finished in the top 10 from 2015-2017 (the era before Matt Patricia took over).
Another positive in Stafford’s favor is the fact that the guy is an absolute rock. Over the last 10 seasons, Stafford has started all 16 games nine times (he only played in eight games in 2019 due to injuries). He’s basically Phillip Rivers minus all the interceptions. For the upcoming season, I compare Matt Stafford with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Old crafty veterans on solid teams who will take advantage of their opportunities. I guarantee you I’ll have Stafford as my backup in at least a couple of my leagues and there’s a good chance his final numbers will place him right outside the top 10.
San Francisco 49ers
Question: Will the Rookies Be Fantasy Relevant?
It was just two seasons ago when the 49ers represented the NFC and NFC West in the Super Bowl. Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t set the world on fire that year, but he played solid enough football to let an outstanding ground game and strong D lead the way to a 13-3 season. Things were looking promising in the Bay Area before 2020 happened.
Perhaps losing to Arizona at home in the opener was a harbinger of things to come. Jimmy G was hurt in a Week 2 win over the Jets and missed the next couple of games. He returned in week 5 but was benched for poor play before getting injured again in Week 6. Between the injuries and the shoddy performance, it was a forgetful year for the veteran QB. To make matters worse for the 49ers, George Kittle missed most of the season with a broken bone in his left foot and Raheem Mostert could never stay healthy for a decent amount of time. As you might expect, an offense that finished 2nd in 2019 dropped all the way down to 21st last year.
Furthermore, the defense was also riddled with injuries. A unit that finished 8th in total defense in 2019, slipped to 17th in 2020. Add all that up and you have a 13 win team from 2019 only going 6-10 a season ago. With such a precipitous fall in performance, it should come as no surprise that changes were on the way.
These changes started with the 3rd overall pick in the NFL draft, where San Francisco snagged QB of the future, Trey Lance, and in the 3rd round with the selection of RB Trey Sermon. While the future is bright for both rookies, they probably won’t start Week One which begs the question of how fantasy-relevant they will be this year.
The Answer: Fade Lance
Let’s first tackle the new QB, Trey Lance. According to HC Kyle Shanahan, Lance could be the Week 1 starter. Well, I’m not buying that. Lance sat out the spring FCS season which means he’s played in just one football game over the last 18 months. In that game against Central Arkansas, he ran for 143 yards and two TDs but only completed 15 of 30 passes for 143 yards with two TDs and an INT. Lance was terrific in 2019, but let’s remember that North Dakota State is basically Alabama of the FCS and the level of competition was poor. I realize the 49ers traded up for him but they won’t throw him to the wolves Week 1.
Chances are Garoppolo starts for at least the majority of the season if not its entirety. Of all the first-round QB’s this year, I like Lance the least in redraft leagues. In this format, he should probably go undrafted unless the league is extremely deep. Obviously, he has value in keeper formats but this guy is a project and it’ll take some time.
The Answer: Buy Sermon
Now, Trey Sermon is a different story. I expect the 49ers’ offense to be improved from a season ago and someone has to carry the rock. I like Raheem Mostert, and although he has shown flashes of brilliance, I’m starting to think he’ll never be the go-to guy over the course of an entire season. He had the opportunity last year and could never stay healthy. Plus, the 49ers will most likely use at least a couple of backs.
When, not if Mostert goes out with an injury, Sermon will get a chance to step in and shine. Running Back is the easiest position for a rookie to make an immediate impact and just look at what this guy was able to do at Ohio State.
Monitor his progress in the preseason, especially how he performs in pass protection, but Trey Sermon could be a difference-maker. Currently with an ADP in the 12th round, Sermon is a steal. If you draft Raheem Mostert earlier in the draft, it would be very wise to lock up Sermon as well. There are lots of fantasy football-relevant backs in the NFC West, but Sermon has the best upside. The sky is the limit with this kid. I plan on targeting him in all formats.
Question: How will the Chase Edmonds/James Conner timeshare work out?
Arizona may have finished with the 7th highest amount of rushing yards and the 4th highest amount of rushing TDs last year, but it wasn’t necessarily because of the running backs. We all know the most prolific runner on the Cardinals is QB Kyler Murray who scrambled for over 800 yards and 11 TDs a year ago. As far as the backfield, Kenyan Drake was solid (955 yards and 10 TDs) and Chase Edmonds contributed nicely in spot duty (445 yards and 1 TD). For the most part, Drake was the guy on first and second down while Edmonds received the 3rd down duties.
Drake is now an Oakland Raider while the former Steeler, James Conner, has come west to the Grand Canyon State. After an impressive second season in 2018, Conner looked like he was ascending up the list of top running backs in the league. However, two injury-plagued seasons followed his breakout campaign and the Steelers decided to go another direction. His career stats below paint a picture of an injury-prone running back who can’t be relied upon to shoulder the load for an entire season. Conner has had fantasy football relevance in the past but I’m not so sure about a resurgence in the NFC West.
On the other hand, Chase Edmonds has always played second fiddle to other running backs (Kenyan Drake, David Johnson). He’s looked good in bursts but has never been given the opportunity to be the primary ball carrier. Perhaps more telling is the fact that Arizona keeps bringing in other guys rather than handing the keys to Edmonds. After deciding to move on from David Johnson, they brought in Kenyan Drake. When Drake departed, they brought in Conner. Do you get the point?
The Answer: Edmonds has more upside but this could be an even split.
I never want to be the one who doubts James Conner. After all, he did beat cancer while in college. Also, while at Pitt, Conner tore his MCL during his junior season. As a professional, quad, shoulder, and toe injuries have plagued his first four seasons in the league. Even the Sports Injury Predictor gives Conner an 88% chance of getting hurt this year. Some guys are just snake bit and James Conner appears to be a prime example.
In June, I’m seeing most ADP’s have Conner in the 7th round and Edmonds in the 6th round. I’m concerned that Arizona has never trusted Edmonds to be the lead man. Why will that change this year? Contrarily, I don’t trust Conner to be the workhorse either. I predict this split to be one of the most even in the league. Edmonds will have a couple of big games (especially if Conner is out) but the presence of Conner will frustrate fantasy owners all year long. This may be a split backfield, but is one of the clearer for fantasy football purposes in the NFC West. At their current ADPs, I’m passing on both and I recommend you do the same.
Question: What should we expect for the Seattle backfield?
We all know what Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and company are capable of through the air. However, there’s a bit more uncertainty when it comes to the ground game. Chris Carson is the lead back but he’s never been able to stay healthy and play a full NFL season. I love his hard-nosed running style but the downside of how he carries the rock is how often he opens himself up to injury.
Looking at the depth chart behind Carson and it’s riddled with players who bring more questions than answers to the table. Therefore, there isn’t a surefire #2 that you can handcuff regardless of what Chris Carson has to say on the matter. I don’t trust Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, or Travis Homer, do you?
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) April 16, 2021
On a positive note, Seattle racked up the 12th most rushing yards in the NFL a season ago, (running for over 123 yards per game) and their O-Line is at least respectable (ranks towards the middle of the pack in the league). You would think a running back could really flourish in this system but as a Carson owner in a couple of leagues last year, I thought he underperformed.
The Answer: More Questions than Answers
The Seahawks are also welcoming a new offensive coordinator to the Pacific Northwest. Shane Waldron, formerly the passing game coordinator for the Rams, will replace the departed Brian Schottenheimer. This will be Waldron’s first crack at offensive coordinator so it’s difficult to project how balanced the offense will be. Last year, the Seahawks threw the ball 59.59% of the time which ranked 14th highest in the NFL. I can envision a young coach getting enthralled with Russ and those wideouts while neglecting the ground game. The pass to run percentage may increase this year.
Back to Carson, at this point, we have a pretty good idea of what his performance will look like. He’s solid but not sexy. In 2020, Carson recorded zero games over 100 rushing yards with only two multi-TD outings. Coupled with his past injury issues, and you have a guy who is being drafted too high. The current mid-third round ADP for Carson is too rich for my blood. I’m fine with him in the 4th, not the 3rd. As far as the other backs on the roster, good luck figuring that out.