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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer


First Quarter Projections - AFC & NFC West
Preseason Matchup Analysis
8/9/16
East | North | South | West

A d v e r t i s e m e n t

Recently, I wrote a piece for USA Today Sports Weekly entitled, "Be sure to have WRs in their proper tiers on draft day".

Writing such a piece (supporting the notion that receivers are wise early investments) even a few years ago might have been blasphemy for me, but today's fantasy football is not the same game most of us played 20, 10 or even five years ago. While I have yet to begin work on the Big Board for this season, I can say with about 99.5 percent certainty a receiver (and probably more than one) will sit atop my rankings for the first time. The zero-WR strategy has received a lot of pub in recent years - especially this year - but I still believe it is as fundamentally unsound now as I always have (outside of the FFPC and TFC high-stakes leagues, in which it is often the right approach given the format and rules). However, I am willing to acknowledge receivers - the right ones - are more stable fantasy properties than running backs, so it is about time that shift in thinking is reflected in my rankings going forward. With that said, it is important to understand just how unusual the 2015 season was at the running back position. Let's take a quick look:

2015: RB1s (RB1-RB12) averaged 262 touches for 1,336 total yards and 9.3 touchdowns (229.6 PPR fantasy points)
2010-14: RB1s averaged 310 touches for 1,620 total yards and 10.6 TDs (270.6)

2015: RB2s (RB13-RB24) averaged 217.2 touches for 1,084 total yards and 5.1 touchdowns (176.2)
2010-14: RB2s averaged 241.6 touches for 1,139 total yards and 7.1 touchdowns (189.4)

RB1s averaged 218.4 carries last season and RB2s checked in at 176. Meanwhile, the worst single-season marks in the previous five seasons were 249.9 and 183.7, respectively. The drop for the RB1s was so dramatic that it is hard to believe running backs won't experience a significant rebound this year, especially in light of all the information I collected for this little study going back to 2002. Three of the top 12 finishers (total PPR points) last year played 13 or fewer games and three of the top 12 totaled 165 or fewer rush attempts, which should be an indication as to how low the bar was set in 2015. Injuries to proven 300-touch fantasy stalwarts like Le'Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles contributed to the declines across the board, but what stuck out to me last year is the complete lack of job security about 75-85 percent of starting running backs have nowadays.

Lesson learned.

Fantasy owners don't get to choose how the intended and unintended consequences of coaching-philosophy or rules changes affect our game, but it is our job to react quickly and intelligently to them if we want to win consistently. Running backs aren’t less important in fantasy than they used to be (the right ones are arguably worth more now), there just aren't near enough with the job security or requisite workload to build our teams with anymore, so it is pointless to force it when receivers seemingly have incredible job security and are seeing as many targets as ever at a less physically demanding position. When you consider receivers like Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are seeing nearly as many opportunities as some low-end RB1s are getting carries and remember the former is usually getting the ball in their hands at least 10 yards down the field, it is no wonder wideouts are taking over the fantasy landscape. Add to that the fact receivers suffer far less punishment, and it is no wonder they have emerged as the safer investments.

Class is dismissed for this week.

Below you will see my initial first-quarter projections for each of the eight total teams in the AFC and NFC West. I have color-coded the matchups for the full season. I think it is essential for owners to know what they are signing up for in the second half of the season (and especially the fantasy playoffs) when they select a certain player. The stat projections and schedule analysis will still factor into the overall ranking of a player on my Big Boards, but will be one of about six or seven position-specific attributes that will be weighted, graded and scored. Those attributes, their explanations and the overall grades will make their first appearance on the Big Boards in mid-August. It's not as complex as it sounds and, after working out the kinks last year, I think it will lead to the best set of Big Boards yet.

Here’s a quick refresher of what each of the colors mean in each team’s projection chart below:

Red – A very difficult matchup. For lower-level players, a red matchup means they should not be used in fantasy that week. For a second- or third-tier player, drop your expectations for them at least one grade that week (i.e. from WR2 to WR3). For elite players, expect them to perform one level lower than their usual status (i.e. RB1 performs like a RB2).

Yellow – Keep expectations reasonable in this matchup. For lower-level players, a yellow matchup is a borderline start at best. For a second- or third-tier player, they can probably overcome the matchup if things fall right. For the elite players, expect slightly better than league-average production.

White – Basically, this is a neutral matchup. In some cases, I just don’t feel like I have a good feel yet for the defense. Generally speaking, these matchups are winnable matchups for all levels of players.

Green – It doesn’t get much better than this. For non-elite players, the stage is basically set for said player to exploit the matchup. For the elite player, this matchup could produce special numbers.

Other important notes:

- The gray highlight in each team’s schedule reflects a road game and the numbers above them correspond to the weeks of the season. Black boxes represent bye weeks. The age you see by each player will be that player’s age as of September 1, 2016.

- These are my initial projections and therefore subject to change. In a few cases, the changes will be dramatic. In other words, don’t be alarmed if the projections on the Big Boards are different from the ones you see here.

Key to the table below:

PAvg - Points per game in full-point PPR leagues where all touchdowns are worth six points.
NAvg - Points per game in non-PPR leagues where all touchdowns are worth six points.
PPR - Total points scored in PPR
Non - Total points scored in non-PPR.


AFC West

 Denver Broncos
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
CAR IND CIN TB ATL SD HOU SD OAK NO bye KC JAC TEN NE KC
QB Trevor Siemian 24 19.9 19.9 79.7 79.7 1030 220 295 270 245
TD 7 2 1 1 3
INT 4 1 1 2 0
Ru Yards 45 20 10 15 0
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
RB C.J. Anderson 25 15.4 12.6 61.5 50.5 315 80 65 115 55
Ru TD 2 0 1 1 0
Re Yards 70 15 25 10 20
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 11 3 4 1 3
RB Devontae Booker 24 8.8 6.8 35 27 160 25 70 35 30
Ru TD 1 0 1 0 0
Re Yards 50 15 20 5 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 8 2 3 1 2
WR Demaryius Thomas 28 16.4 10.6 65.5 42.5 305 75 50 70 110
Re TD 2 1 0 0 1
Rec 23 7 3 5 8
WR Emmanuel Sanders 29 15.3 10 61 40 280 65 90 60 65
Re TD 2 1 0 1 0
Rec 21 5 7 4 5
WR Bennie Fowler 25 6.4 3.9 25.5 15.5 95 30 35 20 10
Re TD 1 0 0 0 1
Rec 10 3 4 2 1
WR Jordan Norwood 29 4.9 3.4 19.5 13.5 75 10 25 40 0
Re TD 1 0 0 0 1
Rec 6 1 2 3 0
TE Jeff Heuerman 23 8.1 4.9 32.5 19.5 135 10 40 55 30
Re TD 1 0 1 0 0
Rec 13 1 3 5 4

Here we go again? Last year, I seem to recall Anderson losing weight in the offseason and entering training camp as the likely bell-cow back behind a reshuffled offensive line. Meanwhile, Hillman drew praise for his work in practice. Most of us remember how that worked out. This year, Anderson again dropped weight in the offseason and enters camp as the likely bell-cow behind a reshuffled offensive line. Meanwhile, Booker is excelling as a blocker (same thing was said about Hillman) and a receiver out of the backfield. The one big difference this time around is Denver matched a four-year, $18 M offer sheet from Miami, so the team has a bit more invested in him this year than last. HC Gary Kubiak even suggested Anderson is "ready to be an every-down back", but is he going to be one? Thankfully, his current fourth-round ADP (as opposed to the first round last year) makes it much palatable for owners to take the risk. While he has occasionally used 1A/1B runners like he did in 2015, Kubiak has never been one to assign specialty roles to his backs, so at least history is on Anderson's side. With that said, I am finding it hard to get behind the former undrafted free agent this year. Denver's defense probably isn't going to be quite as good as it was a season ago, opponents figure to make Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian earn their respect and Booker seems to be coming on awfully strong for a player that will handle the ball five times a game. Furthermore, I'm not crazy about the schedule either. I'm not particularly optimistic about any of the Broncos' first four opponents or four of their five foes after the bye, which leaves the Anderson's sweet spot between Weeks 5-10. Denver's vow to run the ball more often should help him be more consistent, but owners need to remember Broncos' backs carried the ball average of 23.6 times last year, so it wasn't as if volume was the issue. The front five is, at best, only marginally better than it was in 2015 as well. My projection assumes Anderson will have 70 carries through four games, so I feel confident what you see above will be his ceiling after four games. With so much unsettled around him and uncertainty at quarterback, he's a RB2 at best in my opinion.

By just about every meaningful passing-game stat or metric available, Denver rated near the bottom or at the bottom of the league last year. And let's be honest about something else, Kubiak has rarely ever had a "franchise quarterback" (or at least a signal-caller play like one). In spite of this, he coaxed several great seasons out of Andre Johnson in Houston and a 100-catch season from Thomas last year, not to mention another 1,100-yard season out of Sanders. Is Sanchez and/or Siemian going to commit their fair share of unforgivable interceptions? Yes, I'm sure they will. But for all of the mistakes they are going to make, it is hard to believe either one will do worse than Peyton Manning did in the first half of 2015. In no way am I stumping for Siemian or Sanchez as anything more than a bye-week fill-in this season, but Kubiak's history of getting solid production out of his "X" receiver (Thomas) is pretty compelling. For a receiver who finished as WR11 during a season in which he was admittedly not focused and received poor quarterback play, I find it hard to believe Thomas is the 17th receiver coming off the board, per Fantasy Football Calculator. The case for Sanders is even stronger than Thomas'. Sanders was a more efficient receiver than Thomas almost across the board last season and has actually been a better red-zone receiver than DT over the last two seasons. Sanders has finished fifth and 19th in PPR scoring during his two years in Denver while playing with a declining Manning, so now he's going to fall all the way down to 31st? While I acknowledge most of the yellow on both players' schedules reflects the below-average quarterbacking I think they will receive, a Kubiak-led offense has not ranked lower than 18th in passing yards since the David Carr-led Texans finished 27th in 2006. I would fully expect both players' overall numbers to fall from their previous lofty totals given how much I'm sure Denver wants to protect its quarterback, but 225 passing yards/game - which would be about a 10 percent drop from last year - isn't really a big ask in this day and age with the target shares Thomas and Sanders are likely to have or against this kind of schedule. It also wouldn't surprise me at all if Sanders outperforms Thomas after the bye. The Broncos expect big things from Heuerman and, once again, Kubiak's offenses tend to get production out of that position. Last year, the less-than-impressive trio of Owen Daniels, Vernon Davis and Virgil Green combined for 78 catches and 891 yards, so it's not unthinkable Heuerman could be a TE2 in 12-team leagues. Daniels was the TE21 last year, so a top-15 finish isn't unrealistic for the Ohio State product.

 Kansas City Chiefs
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
SD HOU NYJ PIT bye OAK NO IND JAC CAR TB DEN ATL OAK TEN DEN
QB Alex Smith 32 20.5 20.5 81.9 81.9 960 230 285 210 235
TD 5 1 1 1 2
INT 1 0 1 0 0
Ru Yards 95 20 35 15 25
Ru TD 1 0 1 0 0
RB Jamaal Charles 29 19.6 14.9 78.5 59.5 335 105 50 60 120
Ru TD 2 1 0 0 1
Re Yards 140 40 60 25 15
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 19 5 7 4 3
RB Spencer Ware 24 4.9 4.6 19.5 18.5 60 20 5 25 10
Ru TD 2 1 0 1 0
Re Yards 5 0 0 5 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 1 0 0 1 0
RB Charcandrick West 25 2.4 1.6 9.5 6.5 40 10 10 5 15
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 25 10 5 0 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 3 1 1 0 1
WR Jeremy Maclin 28 14.9 9.9 59.5 39.5 275 40 65 55 115
Re TD 2 0 0 0 2
Rec 20 3 5 4 8
WR Chris Conley 23 7.5 5 30 20 140 25 35 50 30
Re TD 1 0 0 1 0
Rec 10 2 3 3 2
WR Albert Wilson 24 3.9 1.9 15.5 7.5 75 25 35 15 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 8 3 3 2 0
WR De'Anthony Thomas 23 2 1 8 4 40 10 0 20 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 4 1 0 2 1
TE Travis Kelce 26 12.9 8.6 51.5 34.5 225 70 85 25 45
Re TD 2 1 1 0 0
Rec 17 5 6 2 4
TE Demetrius Harris 25 1.9 0.9 7.5 3.5 35 10 0 15 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 4 1 0 2 1

There are so many directions an owner can go with Charles this summer: Hate him because he will turn 30 late in the season? Like him because he's going in the second round of fantasy drafts for what seems like only the second time since his breakout 2009 campaign? Hate him because he is coming off his second ACL tear? Like him because he's already proven he can bounce the following season from such an injury? Hate him because the Chiefs have proven depth behind him now? Like him because all he does is produce and is a model of efficiency while doing so? The good news is that his fantasy stock is highly unlikely to change over the next month as he likely will see minimal work in the preseason, which just also happens to be the bad news because we won't have a chance to see him with our own eyes. However, I find myself wanting to trust him this year and think he will represent incredible value in the middle of the second round, even if he loses out on goal-line work to Ware as expected. Even if we give all 15 of Charles' touchdowns from the 2- or 1-yard line over the last two-plus seasons to Ware, it leaves him with 23 in that time. Assuming we carry that same percentage (39.4) over to this season, it isn't unthinkable he could still hit double figures (all but one of his scores last year came outside the 5). With backs like Charles who generate so many of their fantasy points in the passing game, I often tend to treat the yellows on my chart more like white matchups. Thus, my only fear if I own Charles this year will be injury; I'm not going to sweat what is otherwise a difficult first quarter and second half of the season (look at Ware and West's line for proof of that). Losing goal-line touches and playing a pair of (projected) difficult run defenses in the final two weeks of the season is a bit of a bummer, but all we have to do is look back to how much actual production Knile Davis "stole" from him in 2013 and 2014 - and I think those seasons turned out just fine for JC.

Let's not spend too much time on Smith, who attempted only 153 passes when Kansas City was trailing last year and was a much better quarterback on the road than at home. His rushing totals (498 yards, two scores) accounted for roughly 20 percent of his fantasy value and his 84 rushing attempts was a career high. I guess the best thing most owners can say about Smith is that he often presents a safe weekly floor, and the worst thing is that his ceiling isn't much higher than the aforementioned floor, almost regardless of matchup. As per usual, he is probably a serviceable bye-week fill-in, but someone most owners will want to drop the following week. Last year, business really picked up for Maclin as the team's primary scoring threat after Charles went down. This year, it is conceivable he has another big year, but for an entirely different reason: How good can the defense really be minus sack-master OLB Justin Houston (a candidate for short-term IR) and CB Sean Smith (free agent departed for Oakland)? A slow start will be almost impossible for Maclin to avoid with strong odds he'll be drawing regular coverage from the likes of Jason Verrett, Johnathan Joseph and Darrelle Revis in Weeks 1-3 as well as Smith and Vontae Davis in Weeks 6 and 8, respectively. The big key for him will be the same as it is with most receivers - will he regularly see eight or more targets on a regular basis regardless of the matchup? Smith's well-documented unwillingness to go downfield - and the Chiefs' reliance on other options (Charles and Maclin) as the primary receivers are among the several factors keeping Kelce from seriously challenging Rob Gronkowski for top honors at tight end. While the schedule doesn't lay out particularly well for Maclin, it does more so for Charles, so another year of mid-TE1 production is probably in the cards for "Zeus". As somewhat referenced earlier, the Chiefs rarely trailed during their winning streak last year, so Kansas City almost always had a positive game script last year. Without Houston and Smith, that could change in 2016, so Kelce owners can potentially cling to that if they hope 2016 can be Kelce takes the next step. I would also not characterize his slate as overly daunting; if Kansas City really tries to make him more of a priority this season, he's got a chance to be something special in the second half of the season.

 Oakland Raiders
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
NO ATL TEN BAL SD KC JAC TB DEN bye HOU CAR BUF KC SD IND
QB Derek Carr 25 22.8 22.8 91.3 91.3 1145 310 270 245 320
TD 8 1 2 3 2
INT 2 1 0 1 0
Ru Yards 15 5 5 5 0
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
RB Latavius Murray 26 14.4 12.6 57.5 50.5 270 70 75 80 45
Ru TD 3 1 1 0 1
Re Yards 55 15 10 5 25
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 7 2 1 1 3
RB DeAndre Washington 23 8 5.3 32 21 120 25 50 30 15
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 90 30 20 5 35
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 11 4 2 1 4
RB Marcel Reece 31 0 0 0 0 0 SUS SUS SUS SUS
Ru TD 0 SUS SUS SUS SUS
Re Yards 0 SUS SUS SUS SUS
Re TD 0 SUS SUS SUS SUS
Rec 0 SUS SUS SUS SUS
WR Amari Cooper 22 18.8 12.5 75 50 380 105 65 125 85
Re TD 2 1 0 1 0
Rec 25 7 5 7 6
WR Michael Crabtree 28 15.9 9.9 63.5 39.5 275 70 90 40 75
Re TD 2 0 1 0 1
Rec 24 6 8 4 6
WR Seth Roberts 25 8.8 6 35 24 120 30 10 30 50
Re TD 2 0 0 1 1
Rec 11 3 1 3 4
TE Clive Walford 24 11.6 7.9 46.5 31.5 195 50 75 40 30
Re TD 2 0 1 1 0
Rec 15 4 6 3 2
TE Mychal Rivera 25 1.5 0.8 6 3 30 10 0 0 20
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 3 1 0 0 2

There has been some talk about the Raiders boasting one of the most formidable offensive lines in the NFL this season. (Are they ever going to need it.) With only an injured, ineffective (or both) Roy Helu Jr. in reserve last year, Murray eclipsed 300 touches and finished as the RB10 in PPR formats. The workload continued right through the end of December as well, even though he averaged over four yards per carry in only two of the team's final seven games. Enter Washington, who GM Reggie McKenzie seems to love just a little more than most general managers usually love their fifth-round picks. In other words, it seems highly unlikely volume is going to be working in Murray's favor again this season, and Oakland could be employ something closer to a split backfield than most of his owners are willing to admit. So even with an offensive line that could very well be among the league's best, weekly consistency figures to be an issue for Murray and Washington. The key reasons Murray emerged as a top-10 back last year were due to the 64.2 points he scored in the passing game (41 catches, 232 yards) and the fact he was one of four players with 300-plus touches in 2015. Look for Murray's reception numbers to get cut nearly in half by Washington, who probably only needs to prove he is an average blocker to steal a significant chunk of third-down work. There's a good chance not all nine yellows on Murray and Washington's lines will actually turn out to be borderline-bad matchups, but I have a hard time believing I'll be wrong about more than two of them. Playing against New Orleans (Week 1) and San Diego (Week 5) early should help owners feel good about themselves early on, but unless Oakland just runs roughshod through Tennessee and Baltimore in Weeks 3 and 4, I would have a hard time not selling Murray after the first Chargers' game. He accounted for 71.8 percent of the backfield touches last year; short of an injury to Washington in 2016, I'm not sure he tops 60 percent this time around. If we take the simplistic measure of reducing Murray's PPR fantasy total of 204.8 last year by the same 11.8 percent, he would drop from RB10 to RB16. While I have yet to do any Big Board work, I would say that ranking sounds about right for 2016.

Carr sported a 104.3 QB rating in the first half of last season (including a 19:4 TD-to-INT ratio), then bottomed out with a 79.2 rating the rest of the way (13:9 TD-to-INT). The schedule got a bit tougher, the running game failed to carry its weight and Carr suffered nearly three times as many sacks in Week 9-17 (23) as he did in Weeks 1-8 (eight). As much as I hate to say it, 2016 looks like it could play out the same way. The first-half schedule features three of the Raiders' four NFC South foes, a Baltimore secondary that may or may not have Jimmy Smith and a Kansas City defense that could be without Justin Houston. With the weapons he has at his disposal, Carr should tear up the first half of the season. Oakland pays for it, however, by facing four straight opponents in Weeks 9-13 who should be among the best pass defenses in the league. And while it would seem to be a good thing all of those games are at home, Carr was much better on the road last season. If I didn't feel Cooper was going to become the focal point of the offense this season, his schedule would be enough to scare me away from him. I expect most of the teams that have a corner capable of being an effective shadow (New Orleans, Atlanta, San Diego x 2, Denver, Houston, Buffalo and Indianapolis) to do so against Cooper since he is the Raiders' only proven big-play threat at the moment. (I expect Walford to change that, however.) As luck would have it, very few of those teams I just mentioned have a solid pair of corners, meaning Crabtree could be a high-volume target in at least half of his yellow matchups. Much like Carr and Crabtree, I expect Walford to excel at the beginning and end of this season. The true test of whether or not he's ready to become a low-end TE1 this season will take place between their contests with the Chiefs in Weeks 6 and 14. I don't expect him to be of much use in fantasy in either one of those two weeks, but it will be what he does in between that will ultimately define his growth.

 San Diego Chargers
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
KC JAC IND NO OAK DEN ATL DEN TEN MIA bye HOU TB CAR OAK CLE
QB Philip Rivers 34 23.5 23.5 93.9 93.9 1235 250 355 335 295
TD 8 1 2 3 2
INT 2 1 0 1 0
Ru Yards 5 0 5 0 0
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
RB Melvin Gordon 23 13.3 10.8 53 43 290 80 45 100 65
Ru TD 1 0 0 1 0
Re Yards 80 15 30 15 20
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 10 2 4 2 2
RB Danny Woodhead 31 17 11.8 68 47 100 30 20 15 35
Ru TD 2 0 1 0 1
Re Yards 190 15 55 70 50
Re TD 1 0 0 1 0
Rec 21 3 6 7 5
RB Branden Oliver 25 1.3 1 5 4 35 5 10 10 10
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 5 0 0 0 5
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 1 0 0 0 1
WR Keenan Allen 24 18.4 11.4 73.5 45.5 335 85 125 50 75
Re TD 2 0 1 0 1
Rec 28 7 11 4 6
WR Travis Benjamin 26 13.4 9.6 53.5 38.5 265 70 35 105 55
Re TD 2 1 0 1 0
Rec 15 4 2 6 3
WR Dontrelle Inman 27 3.5 1.8 14 7 70 15 30 25 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 7 2 3 2 0
WR James Jones 32 2.3 1.3 9 5 50 10 20 0 20
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 4 1 1 0 2
WR Steve Johnson 30 0 0 0 0 0 INJ INJ INJ INJ
Re TD 0 INJ INJ INJ INJ
Rec 0 INJ INJ INJ INJ
TE Antonio Gates 36 15.4 10.1 61.5 40.5 225 40 60 70 55
Re TD 3 0 1 1 1
Rec 21 4 6 6 5

There's not a lot of love for Gordon out there and it is understandable why. He had a poor rookie season and spends just about every passing down or red-zone play on the sideline. Furthermore, he had microfracture surgery in the offseason. Now, let's make a case as to why he struggled last season. After running out of shotgun 31 times and out of two-back sets 200 times in his final college season (343 carries), 147 of his 184 carries last year came as the lone setback. The Chargers used 24 different offensive combinations last year and defense wasn't particularly good either, leading to a lot of negative game-script scenarios. Yet, Gordon still touched the ball 215 times. San Diego welcomed back OC Ken Whisenhunt this offseason to replace former play-caller Frank Reich. All "Whiz" did in his first and only year as the Chargers' OC in 2013 was help Ryan Mathews set a career high with 1,255 yards in an offense that ran 486 times, 285 of which went to the one-time Pro Bowler. (In case you were wondering, Woodhead also set career highs with 106 carries and 182 total touches that year.) The Chargers did not have a fullback per se last year; this spring, they have two in camp, including sixth-round pick Derek Watt. The team added third-round C Max Tuerk and has to believe it will have better luck on the injury front this season, so it seems unlikely Gordon can do any worse than his RB47 finish last season (14 games). Woodhead is still the fantasy property to own in this backfield, and the Chargers probably aren't going to be much better on defense in 2016 than they were last year, so he is in line for another big fantasy season if he maintains the same high-leverage (and fantasy-friendly) roles he owned last year. Game script (such as San Diego trailing or repeatedly getting forced into third-and-long situations) means a whole lot more to Woodhead than matchups, so an investment in him means you believe/hope the Chargers will be in a number of shootouts or two-minute drill situations. Gordon's matchups obviously mean much more to him and facing the AFC/NFC South should be a boost to his fantasy bottom line after dealing with the AFC/NFC North a season ago. Unlike many of the teams we've covered to this point, San Diego has the firepower to engage in shootouts, so total abandonment of the running game doesn't seem likely all that often. Gordon probably isn't going to be much more than a flex option very often from Weeks 6-14, but he should be of some use - perhaps low-end RB2 - over the first five weeks of the season and late in the fantasy playoffs. With that said, I wouldn't mind selling high on him if he starts out fast in September.

What's not to love about Rivers? He hasn't missed a start since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006 and has consistently finished with well over 4,000 yards and right around 30 touchdowns over the last three years. (Imagine if he actually had a decent o-line and healthy receivers over that same time.) Outside of Week 6 and 8 matchups versus Denver, I don't see a matchup this season that I would necessarily avoid Rivers as long as he has his current supporting cast. I'm not crazy about a Week 16 game in Cleveland, but I'm not going to ignore a great matchup just because he might face brutal weather in that game. Allen could see his production dip in October - most notably Weeks 5-8 - but WR1 production in eight of the other 11 contests seems perfectly reasonable. And given how many high-scoring affairs the Chargers could find themselves in this season, I'm confident a sure-handed target like Allen is going to regularly see 10 targets. People seem to want to put Benjamin into the same deep-threat only box that Malcom Floyd lived in most of his career, but I think that is completely underselling his upside. In an offense that will probably throw for around 4,500 yards, I don't know why Benjamin can't be a cheaper fantasy version of DeSean Jackson. Like Rivers, I don't see a matchup outside of the two against the Broncos in which the ex-Brown can't have a big day. Gates might be the only 36-year-old non-quarterback for whom matchups probably don't matter. Rivers trusts him implicitly in the red zone and Gates' footwork appears so second-nature to him at this point that he doesn't struggle to get open even when it looks like he's lumbering. Given his age, I would strongly consider selling him after the first four games of the season, however. Maybe he has another strong season or two in him, but I wouldn't want to bet on him lasting a full season again at this point of his career.

NFC West

 Arizona Cardinals
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
NE TB BUF LA SF NYJ SEA CAR bye SF MIN ATL WAS MIA NO SEA
QB Carson Palmer 36 26.1 26.1 104.2 104.2 1180 300 360 260 260
TD 10 2 5 1 2
INT 2 1 0 1 0
Ru Yards 10 0 0 5 5
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
RB David Johnson 24 19.3 15.5 77 62 320 70 55 85 110
Ru TD 2 1 0 1 0
Re Yards 120 25 35 20 40
Re TD 1 0 1 0 0
Rec 15 3 5 2 5
RB Chris Johnson 30 5.4 5.1 21.5 20.5 140 35 20 30 55
Ru TD 1 0 0 0 1
Re Yards 5 5 0 0 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 1 1 0 0 0
RB Andre Ellington 27 3 2 12 8 25 10 0 5 10
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 55 10 40 0 5
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 4 1 2 0 1
WR Larry Fitzgerald 33 14 8.8 56 35 230 50 75 40 65
Re TD 2 0 1 0 1
Rec 21 5 7 4 5
WR Michael Floyd 26 14.6 10.4 58.5 41.5 295 70 105 85 35
Re TD 2 1 1 0 0
Rec 17 4 6 5 2
WR John Brown 26 16.9 12.6 67.5 50.5 325 105 55 75 90
Re TD 3 1 0 1 1
Rec 17 6 3 4 4
WR Jaron Brown 26 1.5 0.8 6 3 30 20 0 10 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 3 2 0 1 0
WR J.J. Nelson 24 3.6 3.1 14.5 12.5 65 0 45 20 0
Re TD 1 0 1 0 0
Rec 2 0 1 1 0
TE Jermaine Gresham 28 3 2.3 12 9 30 10 5 0 15
Re TD 1 0 1 0 0
Rec 3 1 1 0 1
TE Darren Fells 30 1.4 0.6 5.5 2.5 25 5 0 10 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 3 1 0 1 1

Now we arrive at the team that wants everyone to think it has a committee situation when it probably really doesn't. Let's think about this rationally. Despite managing only 54 offensive touches through 11 games last season, David Johnson scored seven touchdowns. Over that same time, Chris Johnson totaled three touchdowns on 202 touches. Obviously, touchdowns per touch doesn't singlehandedly make one player automatically better than another, but I think it begin to show how much more playmaking ability the younger Johnson has. HC Bruce Arians has virtually no track record of splitting carries between backs (most of his resume speaks to giving one back about two-thirds of the carries while giving the second back just less than a third) and one could easily question whether or not Arians has had a back who could do it all like David Johnson. Yes, Chris Johnson will be involved and I think he will have standalone value in about 5-6 games, but only because Arizona is going to hold a two-or three-score lead in the fourth quarter of some of their games, making it rather pointless to open the second-year back up to more punishment when Chris Johnson - a player OC Harold Goodwin suggests is "even" with David as a runner - could finish out the game. I have David Johnson projected to receive about 65 percent of the backfield touches and can't imagine him handling less than 60 percent. Even with his aforementioned playmaking ability, David Johnson is going to need all those touches to play like a top-five back against a schedule that could have as many as four reds if he were an average back (good luck getting him to perform like a RB1 against the Jets, Seahawks and Panthers, respectively, in the weeks leading up to the bye). Assuming Arians does a good job of monitoring his touches prior to Week 9, the second-year back could perform like a fantasy MVP over the second half of the season. The one downside: no owner wants their players in Seattle in Week 16.

Palmer had roughly the same statistics Tom Brady did last season despite attempting 86 fewer passes, so someone needs to explain to me why his ADP is nearly a full round below Brady's despite the fact Tom Terrific will miss 25 percent of the season. Palmer will trade in the AFC/NFC North for the AFC/NFC East this year and figures to have it a bit easier inside the division as San Francisco will embrace pace (likely leading to one of the league's worst defenses statistically) and Los Angeles, which should take a step back on defense after losing key contributors on every level of the defense this offseason. Each of Palmer's yellow matchups are legit, but this is far from an intimidating slate overall when you consider his trio of receivers and Arians' aggressive mentality. Much like Hines Ward in his later years (in the slot as well with Arians, no less), Fitzgerald figures to keep producing well past the age he probably should. All of his yellows are what I consider "scheme yellows" (defenses I feel owners should be concerned about due to a coordinator or scheme advantage and/or enough quality corners to effectively defend just about any formation the offense uses), so his biggest issue may be whether or not David Johnson steals his short and intermediate looks like he did at the end of last season. I expect Floyd to draw the most defensive attention of the two outside receivers and draw shadow coverage against the few teams on the schedule that could use it. He's more than capable of posting WR3 numbers - even against the likes of Richard Sherman (Weeks 7 and 16) - although I wonder if Palmer simply looks Brown's way more often in those contests. With Fitz going off in the first half and Floyd dominating over most of the second half, it's easy to forget Brown was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2015. Arians told reporters in June that Brown "should have 1,400 (yards) easy" and was a bad game away from probably having 1,200. I think he hits the latter number this year and begins to assert himself as the best receiver of this group. He's arguably the best "third receiver" in the league already and opponents must treat him as such with Floyd and Fitzgerald around. I don't expect him to maintain the touchdown pace I have him projected for through four games, but I anticipate I'm on target with his catch and yardage totals. The only thing I see stopping Brown is injury or a dramatic reduction of targets - the latter of which I doubt happens. "Smokey" is a steal as the 34th receiver off the board in the late sixth round.

 Los Angeles Rams
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
SF SEA TB ARI BUF DET NYG bye CAR NYJ MIA NO NE ATL SEA SF
QB Jared Goff 21 12.9 12.9 51.6 51.6 840 190 175 255 220
TD 3 1 0 2 0
INT 6 1 2 0 3
Ru Yards 60 10 20 15 15
Ru TD 1 0 0 0 1
RB Todd Gurley 22 20.4 17.9 81.5 71.5 385 130 80 110 65
Ru TD 4 2 1 1 0
Re Yards 90 10 25 20 35
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 10 1 3 2 4
RB Benny Cunningham 26 4 2.8 16 11 70 30 15 15 10
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 40 5 15 0 20
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 5 1 2 0 2
WR Tavon Austin 25 10.1 7.1 40.5 28.5 80 20 10 35 15
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 145 65 20 45 15
Re TD 1 1 0 0 0
Rec 12 5 2 4 1
WR Kenny Britt 27 9 5.8 36 23 170 35 40 65 30
Re TD 1 0 0 1 0
Rec 13 2 3 5 3
WR Brian Quick 27 6.6 4.4 26.5 17.5 115 35 10 50 20
Re TD 1 0 0 1 0
Rec 9 2 1 4 2
WR Pharoh Cooper 21 5 2.5 20 10 100 15 20 25 40
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 10 2 3 2 3
WR Mike Thomas 21 3.6 1.9 14.5 7.5 75 5 15 20 35
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 7 1 1 2 3
TE Lance Kendricks 28 4.6 2.4 18.5 9.5 95 20 30 30 15
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 9 2 3 2 2

The fantasy gods were kind enough last year to provide us a running back who doesn't have to look over his shoulder every other down. From Weeks 4-16, Gurley handled 80 percent of the team's carries, rushed for 86.8 percent of the yards generated by Rams' running backs and accounted for 41.7 percent of the position's catches. With Tre Mason a complete unknown at this point and only Cunningham in reserve, those numbers probably aren't going to go down much - if at all - barring injury in 2016. At this point, I think it safe to treat Gurley like we have Adrian Peterson for most of his career, he's going to find a way to be special despite what appears to be an unforgiving schedule (look at Cunningham's line for proof of that). Given the likelihood the St. Louis defense falls down a few pegs as most expect, I would even suggest Gurley might be a candidate for 50-plus catches given the Rams' lack of proven playmakers at receiver and the odds Goff will be instructed to play conservatively. Chances are he's going to need it if owners want him to be a top-five back this year. If Gurley and his owners can manage through the first 10 weeks, the reward should be waiting for them on the other side. Trips to New England (Week 13) and Seattle (Week 15) are far from ideal, but his other four contests from Week 11 on may allow owners to ride him to a fantasy championship.

Where do we even start with this passing game? With a No. 1 overall pick (Goff) who was arguably the second-best player at his position in the draft? (One who may not start Week 1 if we are to believe Case Keenum is the frontrunner.) With a receiver (Austin) that had as many carries last year as receptions (52)? With another receiver (Quick) who can't stay healthy and essentially rode the bench in 2015 for a team that had a screaming need at the position? It's virtually impossible to give Goff or Keenum a green matchup in what will be a low-volume passing game with league-average-or-worse pass protection. HC Jeff Fisher suggested Austin could double his catch total from a season ago in late May, but the only way that happens is if the Rams made him a full-time slot and used him like the Patriots have used Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. The problem with that is the slot figures to be Cooper's best position as well, and the rookie could end up being the team's second-best receiver this season. Austin's consistent rushing contributions make him as matchup-proof as a fantasy WR3 can be (an impressive feat on such a poor offense), but the quarterback situation and conservative offensive philosophy makes it extremely unlikely he rises above that. As one might expect, I'm not seeing much room for even a WR5 candidate to emerge from the outside receiver group of Britt, Quick or Mike Thomas. Kendricks will likely be asked to fill the void left behind by Jared Cook and has typically been a sneaky bet for a red-zone touchdown a handful of times for most of his career. Cook struggled for fantasy relevancy throughout his Rams and I'm not sure Hendricks has a realistic shot at reaching those same levels. I like the red-zone potential and overall upside of fourth-round pick Tyler Higbee, but he has enough obstacles (the passing game as a whole, rookie tight ends rarely produce meaningful stats, off-field history, etc.) to keep him from being a factor anytime soon.

 San Francisco 49ers
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
LA CAR SEA DAL ARI BUF TB bye NO ARI NE MIA CHI NYJ ATL LA
QB Blaine Gabbert 26 16.1 16.1 64.2 64.2 930 265 240 205 220
TD 4 1 1 0 2
INT 3 1 1 1 0
Ru Yards 90 25 15 30 20
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
RB Carlos Hyde 24 17.4 15.1 69.5 60.5 355 110 65 40 140
Ru TD 3 1 0 0 2
Re Yards 70 10 25 35 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 9 1 3 5 0
RB Shaun Draughn 28 6.3 4 25 16 90 25 20 10 35
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 70 30 15 15 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 9 4 2 2 1
WR Bruce Ellington 25 11.5 7.8 46 31 55 10 5 15 25
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 195 55 65 25 50
Re TD 1 0 0 0 1
Rec 15 4 5 2 4
WR Torrey Smith 27 13.8 10 55 40 280 80 70 15 115
Re TD 2 0 1 0 1
Rec 15 5 3 1 6
WR Quinton Patton 26 4.8 2.5 19 10 100 25 20 30 25
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 9 2 2 3 2
TE Vance McDonald 26 6.4 4.1 25.5 16.5 105 40 20 45 0
Re TD 1 1 0 0 0
Rec 9 3 2 4 0
TE Garrett Celek 28 2.8 1.3 11 5 50 10 15 15 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 6 1 2 2 1

Chip Kelly, offensive genius. If he hopes to reclaim that title, though, he'll have to do so against perhaps the most difficult first-half run schedule in the league and perhaps the most difficult run schedule overall. With that said, I'll buy Hyde all day as a RB2 in the late fourth round. Why? 1) He is the clear early-down workhorse in this backfield, 2) His durability issues have already been accounted for in his ADP and 2) I think when he hits in a given week, he's REALLY going to hit. Now the major questions are: When will Hyde actually be able to "hit" against this schedule and will Draughn steal too much of the passing-game work in the 10 or so games San Francisco figures to be trailing in this season? I'm not he's going to be in a position to "hit" more than once or twice over the first half of the season. Assuming he is still healthy going into the bye and his owners make it out of the meat grinder that is the pre-bye slate, I really like his chances of being a stud down the stretch. As far as I am concerned, his fourth-round ADP is spot-on because it takes into account his talent and the potential for 300-plus carries in a Kelly offense with the likelihood he'll miss games against a brutal schedule.

Let's take Chip at his word (it's more important for a quarterback to be accurate in his system than mobile) and go with Gabbert over Colin Kaepernick. Assuming this, it's not crazy to think Gabbert could be a matchup-based fantasy starter this season (I know, I can't believe I'm typing it either). The former No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft is actually more athletic than he is given credit for, although owners need to be very careful with "In Chip We Trust"; pace isn't always the answer and there really isn't a stretch of games in which the matchups work out well for him. The best time to trust Gabbert - if you can find it in your heart to do so - will probably be Weeks 7-12 since he has three green matchups, while Arizona and New England figure to make San Francisco play catch-up most of the game. If the "Chip Kelly Effect" works as planned and the Niners find themselves forced into throwing 40-50 times on a regular basis, it only makes sense they'll probably have at least two fantasy-relevant receivers. With Eric Rogers (ACL) done for the year and Patton not impressing anyone, Smith and Ellington have to be considered the most likely to benefit. DeSean Jackson - mostly known as a deep threat - was remarkably consistent in his one year as Kelly's top receiver in 2013 and Jordan Matthews - primarily a slot receiver for Kelly - each fared quite well in this offense. Moreover, Kelly loves utilizing jet-sweep action with a big-play threat who is part undersized running back and part receiver, which sounds a lot like Ellington. It would not surprise me at all - and my color-coding reflects this - if Ellington ends up being a better version (in fantasy) of 2015 Tavon Austin if he can simply stay healthy. If I have him pegged right, he could be a monster in the fantasy postseason. I can't imagine a realistic scenario in which Smith doesn't average at least 10 targets. With his deep speed and that much opportunity, I'm willing to ignore most of the yellows and bet he'll be worth a fantasy start in at least 10 games. I'm not crazy about trusting him against Darrelle Revis and Desmond Trufant during the fantasy playoffs, but I'm willing to bet Kelly manufactures some touches for him in the cases when the matchup is far from ideal. McDonald seems the most likely candidate to play the role of Zach Ertz in this offense, although I admit I have him getting off to a slow start. The rest of the schedule doesn't appear to favor him either, but keep in mind the run-action in this offense tends to create huge openings down the middle of the field. As a result, McDonald is a strong candidate to surprise a lot of folks and push for 60 catches.

 Seattle Seahawks
Pos Player Age PAvg NAvg PPR Non Totals 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
MIA LA SF NYJ bye ATL ARI NO BUF NE PHI TB CAR GB LA ARI
QB Russell Wilson 27 26.8 26.8 107.2 107.2 1080 265 275 225 315
TD 8 3 2 1 2
INT 2 0 1 0 1
Ru Yards 140 25 40 25 50
Ru TD 1 0 1 0 0
RB Thomas Rawls 23 15.3 14 61 56 340 115 55 100 70
Ru TD 3 1 0 2 0
Re Yards 40 0 10 15 15
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 5 0 2 1 2
RB C.J. Prosise 22 7.3 4.3 29 17 75 15 25 30 5
Ru TD 0 0 0 0 0
Re Yards 95 20 30 15 30
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 12 2 4 2 4
RB Christine Michael 25 2.9 2.9 11.5 11.5 55 20 5 25 5
Ru TD 1 0 0 1 0
Re Yards 0 0 0 0 0
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 0 0 0 0 0
WR Doug Baldwin 27 18.4 12.6 73.5 50.5 325 70 80 55 120
Re TD 3 1 1 0 1
Rec 23 5 6 4 8
WR Tyler Lockett 23 13.9 9.6 55.5 38.5 265 85 60 80 40
Re TD 2 1 0 1 0
Rec 17 5 4 5 3
WR Jermaine Kearse 26 10.1 7.4 40.5 29.5 175 45 30 35 65
Re TD 2 1 0 0 1
Rec 11 3 2 2 4
TE Jimmy Graham 29 8.4 5.1 33.5 20.5 145 35 50 25 35
Re TD 1 0 1 0 0
Rec 13 3 5 2 3
TE Luke Willson 26 1.9 0.9 7.5 3.5 35 10 15 0 10
Re TD 0 0 0 0 0
Rec 4 1 2 0 1

Garry Gilliam, Jahri Evans, Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and J'Marcus Webb. If you don't know more than two of these guys, you're not alone. From left to right, they are the projected starters on the offensive line for the Seahawks and the latest challenge to OL coach Tom Cable's ability to mold any group of players into a league-average front five or better. As what has seemingly become an annual rite in the Pacific Northwest, not a single member of the offensive line returns to the same position he played last year. It's also the same group that will be charged with giving Rawls a few holes to run through. Prosise is also a real threat to steal some early-down work eventually. We haven't even touched upon Rawls' returning from a serious ankle injury. All of this uncertainty makes what appears to be a somewhat favorable run slate (at least when compared to the rest of the division) difficult to predict. Fortunately, Rawls & Co. has a solid opportunity to start out strong with four (mostly) favorable matchups over the team's first five games. If the line is able to gel earlier than it did last year, then Rawls has a shot to live up to his 4.01 ADP. Game script should almost always be in his favor as well since Seattle's defense should be very good once again. I think it may be too tall of an order to expect Rawls to become a top-10 fantasy back, however. Prosise is going to get most of the love in the passing game, there are too many question marks on the offensive line and most of the yellows on Rawls' schedule are borderline-red matchups (especially for a player that will generate so much of his fantasy production as a runner), so owners need to cap their expectations at a high-end RB2 level.

Some years ago, there was a running joke that went something like this: Who is the only person who can stop Michael Jordan from scoring 20 points/game? (Legendary North Carolina basketball coach) Dean Smith, his college coach. I mention this because about the only thing that had kept Wilson from becoming a superstar fantasy quarterback prior to last season has been the Seahawks' devotion to the running game. We got a taste of what a Wilson-centric offense can do last year and it appears we might get more exposure to it in 2016. While his schedule isn't exactly littered with cupcakes, I can fully understand why some folks are ready to make him the first quarterback off the board in fantasy drafts. Only Arizona (Weeks 7 and 16) strikes me as a matchup that owners might want to avoid, although Wilson fans can feel good about the latter matchup being played in Seattle. While I'll be happy to invest in Lockett as a high-upside WR3, his matchup line suggests he better be every bit as good as the Seahawks' coaches are making him sound. As an outside receiver who is likely to attract a better corner more often than Kearse, Lockett and his owners could be in for a long middle of the season if opposing coaches decide to shadow him, which would include matchups with Darrelle Revis, Desmond Trufant, Patrick Peterson, Delvin Breaux and Stephon Gilmore. Baldwin is a much safer option and Wilson's more trusted target. I can't imagine he'll come anywhere close to 14 touchdowns again, but I think 7-8 is reasonable. I also expect him to fall short of his ridiculous 75.7 catch rate from 2015, but I can easily see him repeating or surpassing last year's catch and yardage totals if Seattle chooses to stay with its quick-hitting offense. Owners should expect a slow start - if not a slow season - for Graham, and it should be noted I am treating him as a league-average tight end above due to his injury (torn patellar tendon). Like Victor Cruz before him, if that injury doesn't slow him down in 2016, he'll likely be sidelined with another injury due to overcompensating for it. As the schedule analysis suggests, a good year for Graham will be getting through it without a setback. And even if he somehow rewrites the book in his recovery from such a devastating injury before the start of the fantasy playoffs, the second half of his slate is riddled with proven cover linebackers, top-notch safeties or both.


Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.