NFC West Help Wanted is the third in an eight-part series throughout the offseason where Fantasy Football Trader columnist Ernie Estrella will be touring the NFL by division and identifying key positional battles with Fantasy Football implications up for grabs.
Arizona Cardinals No. 1 QB
Candidates: Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson
Life will be tough for whoever attempts to step out of Kurt Warner's shadow. He's going to have to do it without one of the better receivers in the game and another one who knew the system.
Leinart probably figured after Warner announced his retirement that he'd finally get a reason to take his jersey to the laundromat each week...until the Cardinals signed Anderson.
As for Anderson, it seems like he just has that magical 2007 season to hang his helmet on, which enabled him to find a home in Arizona so quickly after two seasons of regression in Cleveland. He's not an expensive experiment and at least "name" insurance if Leinart gets hurt.
Let's remember that Leinart had more pass attempts and completions in his rookie season than he has in the last three seasons combined. We really don't know what we're getting with the former USC product.
Prediction: Matt Leinart
Fantasy Implication: 7/10
Arizona will not be the same team fantasy owners have come to love in the past. They're a sure bet to run a more balanced offense until they can fill the holes of Anquan Boldin and Kurt Warner. What the Cardinals do have is the best receiver in football, solid running backs, and a plan to implement the tight ends more in the passing game.
How quickly Leinart develops into a confident starter affects owners of Larry Fitzgerald and lets others know if Steve Breaston, Early Doucet, or even Tim Hightower has value as well.
There's going to be hesitation on draft day for owners to pull the trigger on Leinart and his complements because he doesn't carry the body of work of more accomplished QBs in his class. I'd take the gamble on him if he is in fact the starter deep into preseason as long as I've already drafted a very stable starting QB. Leinart has put in five years for this moment, and it's time for him to own it.
Arizona Cardinals No. 2 WR
Candidates: Steve Breaston, Early Doucet
No one took a bigger hit in free agency than the Arizona Cardinals, especially at wide receiver. Not only did they lose longtime No. 2 Anquan Boldin, but they also saw Jerheme Urban pack his bags for Kansas City.
We need to look only as far back as this past season's two playoff games to get a glimpse into what Warner saw without Boldin available. Taking Fitzgerald out of the equation for the moment, Breaston caught 11 passes for 177 yards and one touchdown to Doucet's 14 catches for 145 and two touchdowns. Pretty even if you ask me.
If the Cardinals go to a more balanced offense with Leinart or Anderson, I see both players seeing a fair number of targets with the slightest edge to Breaston because of what he does to move the chains. Breaston does have a dual role as a kick returner as well, and I don't see the Cardinals changing that, but Breaston out of the slot could be potent if used like Wes Welker is in New England.
Prediction: Steve Breaston
Fantasy Implication: 6/10
The winner of this battle will greatly impact three other players and help determine the Cardinals' direction post-Kurt Warner. They must be able to take pressure off Fitzgerald and whoever it is at quarterback in giving him another viable weapon.
I still think Doucet's got the long-term upside, in a dynasty league especially or scoring-only leagues. But because so many of his receptions are for first downs, Breaston's value will be in PPR and yardage leagues as a solid No. 3 receiver or flex option.
San Francisco 49ers No. 2 WR
Candidates: Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
There's a lot of pressure in the Bay Area of San Francisco. It's probably because the 49ers are the sexy pick to win the NFC West; well, they're at least my pick to win it because out of four teams, they seem to have the fewest number of question marks heading into 2010.
Offensively they've got all of the major positions figured out: Alex Smith at QB, Frank Gore at RB, and Vernon Davis at TE. I'm going to pencil in Michael Crabtree as the top receiver because he did more in the final 11 games than what the rest of the receivers did combined.
He can't do it himself though—and this offseason Arnaz Battle bolted for Pittsburgh, Isaac Bruce retired, and with no signs of San Francisco bringing in another diva wideout, that leaves Josh Morgan and Jason Hill.
After a year to build upon in 2008, Hill took a big step back last season, catching just nine passes. Moving in the opposite direction is Morgan, who jumped from 20 receptions his rookie season to 52 last year and benefitted from having Bruce as a mentor. Without any major competition, Morgan should be given every opportunity to develop into one of the team's best options.
Prediction: Josh Morgan
Fantasy Implication: 3/10
For a number of years, when the Chiefs had Tony Gonzalez and Priest Holmes and the Chargers had Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, they showed it can be done on offense without a blue-chipper at wide receiver.
I don't believe that Mike Singletary would ideally want to be that simplified on offense, but the receiver is greatly de-emphasized in San Francisco because Gore and Davis are such big playmakers.
If this team wants to take the next step, guys like Morgan will have to step up. Right now, he's the fourth option, and if he can make good whenever the ball is thrown to him, that opens up the field even further for the Niners' primary weapons. Morgan himself, though, is looking more and more like a free agent pickup if he shows he can consistently put up numbers you can count on.
Seattle Seahawks No. 1 RB
Candidates: Justin Forsett, Julius Jones
Scrap everything you think you know about the Seahawks because Pete Carroll is coming to town, and it didn't take him long to stir the pot by bringing over Charlie Whitehurst from the Chargers—not to back up Matt Hasselbeck, but challenge him for the starting role!
So imagine being either Forsett or Jones right about now, knowing that the Seahawks will have two early first round draft picks.
I don't think the Seahawks (or you) should sell Forsett short though, because he's the versatile back that Carroll likes to deploy on a defense. He catches great out of the backfield, and his 5.4 yards per carry crushed Jones' 3.7 average. Forsett also went to California, which plays in USC's conference, so Carroll has to know what he's all about, right?
Sure, but Hasselbeck guided the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in 2005 too. Jones has never been starting NFL material, whether it was in Dallas or in Seattle. What is it with Notre Dame backs and Seattle that leaves them so sleepless? Ricky Watters was another Hawk that was more squawk than walk.
If I had to choose between these two backs, I'd pick Forsett in a landslide. His upside and nose for the end zone don't go unnoticed by me; I like the way he changes direction on a dime and his speed.
The fact is, I don't have to choose between these guys because in my heart, I think it will be hard for Carroll to resist C.J. Spiller, who may very well be there at picks No. 9 or 14 and is like—Justin Forsett times 10. The combination of both Forsett and Spiller poses a deadlier threat than Forsett and Jones, don't you think?
Prediction: Forsett to start, with potential for a RBBC
Fantasy Implication: 5/10
Big Balls Pete will bring his own guy in the draft, and while I think Forsett will be the back the Seahawks turn to early on in the season, I can't help but think that Carroll is targeting C.J. Spiller at pick No. 14.
He wants his team fast first, fast second, and fast third, and even though there's another pressing need at wide receiver, I think the Seahawks can't pass up Spiller's talent or the need for an impact running back.
If the Seahawks do land Spiller, he'll be one of the few skills players in the draft who should be able to cross the bridge to the NFL quickly, creating an instantaneous running back committee.
Seattle Seahawks No. 1 QB
Candidates: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst
As I said above, the new regime is not exactly confident in Matt Hasselbeck. Losing Seneca Wallace left them vulnerable at quarterback given the Hass' proclivity for getting hurt. I wish I knew more about Charlie Whitehurst, but the smartest guy in the room right now is Pete Carroll. He knows more than anyone given what they gave San Diego to get him.
The loss of Nate Burleson will hurt the offense, but Carroll may still have more wheeling and dealing up his sleeve. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, John Carlson, and, as mentioned above, Justin Forsett can catch too. So the cupboards will be heavily stocked for whoever is able, and right now, as long as he stays upright, I am confident that Hasselbeck will be very capable.
Prediction: Matt Hasselbeck
Fantasy Implication: 6/10
Hasselbeck's injuries relegated him to being a non-factor in fantasy. He was not thought of highly in pre-draft rankings, and his fragile body may do him in by season's end. But all things equal, I have to believe Hasselbeck will see to it that Whitehurst doesn't throw his first NFL pass in the first game of the season.
Does that make him a fantasy starter? The truth? No. He didn't mix well with Housh, and the injuries are hard to dismiss, as well as the potentially short leash Carroll could have on him.
St. Louis Rams No. 2 WR
Candidates: Danny Amendola, Keenan Burton, Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson
If you're really desperate on draft day or just want to win friends and influence people by your vast knowledge of NFL depth charts, try the Rams receivers. 2009 was a nightmare for too many reasons to list, but one position where the Rams were brutally hit was wide receiver. No longer “The Greatest Show on Turf,” this hodgepodge crew of unknowns took the field with most fantasy owners scratching their heads.
I mean, really, who were these guys? Despite his lack of maturity, Donnie Avery is on the radar and surprisingly played in all 16 games last season after he suffered an ankle injury in preseason. He'll undoubtedly return as the No. 1 receiver.
One of the better wideouts, though, is Laurent Robinson, who went on injured reserve after sustaining an MCL injury. He was the starter going into last season and is the favorite to retain that position.
His main competitor will be Brandon Gibson, who emerged in the second half once everyone got hurt. Keenan Burton is another player who had his season cut short due to injury and has a ways to go still in making it through the roster cuts. Amendola gave an admirable effort but really only got playing time because they were so thin at the position and is at best a third down slot option.
I like Robinson because of his size, route running, and experience. What I like the most about him, though, is that he's the Rams' best deep flier with the potential for big yards. With Sam Bradford under center, the Rams' best fantasy option will likely be the guy who does the most damage after the catch.
Prediction: Laurent Robinson
Fantasy Implication: 1/10
Assuming the Rams will be much healthier this season, they will teeter on being a wealth of untapped points or be the void that sucks the life out of your fantasy roster. With the release of quarterback Marc Bulger, it appears certain that the Rams will be selecting Sam Bradford in this month's NFL Draft.
The fact is, they have to—they can't skip on that position again with the kind of talent that's sitting for them in the first two rounds. Depending on who they pick and how quickly they start planning for 2011 (when this offense could really be something to watch), will these players show from where the points will come?
Robinson, returning from injury, has the potential to usurp Avery at the No. 1 spot as well. But any Rams receiver—Avery included—is a deep sleeper in fantasy. Do not reach for any of these receivers in the first 10 rounds of your draft; trust me, they'll still be available.
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