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2016 Fantasy Football Outlooks: NFC West Edition

First up for my Divisional Outlook Series is the NFC West. Here's how I feel about some of the notable fantasy weapons on the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, & Seahawks heading into 2016.

Russell Wilson & Carson Palmer head into 2016 as the top Quarterbacks in the NFC West
Russell Wilson & Carson Palmer head into 2016 as the top Quarterbacks in the NFC West
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In 2015, the NFC West was a division that fielded two of the league's top-flight offenses in the Seahawks and Cardinals.  However, thanks to the 49ers and Rams, this was also a division that consisted of two absolutely miserable offenses.  In fact, the 49ers and Rams finished last season 31st and 32nd, respectively, in total yards on offense, while the Cardinals and Seahawks finished 1st and 4th overall.  Last year's statistical differences aside, every team in this division has playmakers to target in your fake football drafts this summer.  So, without further do, let's take a look at some of the NFC West's offensive fantasy factors as we rapidly approach the 2016 NFL season.

*This particular series of articles is intended to break down every NFL team's 2016 offensive playmakers and discuss what impact they'll have on the wonderful world of Fantasy Football.  In each divisional write-up, I predict player outlooks for the upcoming season by separating each team's offense into two parts:  Passing Game + Running Game.  I'll update each divisional article as news and reports surface, so don't forget to check back regularly.*

Arizona Cardinals

Passing game:

Behind their prolific vertical offense, the Cardinals flexed their way to the second-best record in the NFL last season, finishing at 13-3.  Averaging a stellar 408.3 yards and 30.6 points per game, Carson Palmer commanded the league's best total offense in 2015, allowing him to finish as a top 5 QB in fantasy football and NFL MVP runner-up.  With a trio of talented receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown, the Cardinals passing offense once again has the looks of a fantasy gold mine in 2016.  Palmer, going into his 14th season in the pros, has all the tools to perform like a back-end QB1 in 2016.

As for his pass-catchers, the only fantasy-relevant ones are going to be wideouts, as Bruce Arians' underutilized tight ends corps was modestly led by Darren Fells in 2015 (311 yards + 3 TDs).  Larry Fitzgeraldfresh off last year's resurgence, will look to provide at least one more year of quality production this season, but don't expect a repeat of his 109 receptions, 1200+ yards, or 9 TDs.  Fitzgerald is a player who I could see starting strong, but then going into somewhat of an average stretch later in the season in order to rest up for another dominant postseason, which he seemingly does every season the Cards make the playoffs.  I expect a slight drop-off in every category, but the legendary Pitt product can still be useful in fantasy if drafted with WR3 expectations.

Someone with similar draft stock but more potential than Fitz is Michael Floyd, who posted a 52-849-6 receiving line in a season full of injuries.  A talented wideout who has been relatively underwhelming in his four professional seasons, Floyd should have a great chance surpass veteran Larry Fitzgerald in the pecking order this season if he can stay healthy.  As he regained his health, Floyd was able to catch fire late in the season, evidenced by his 100+ receiving yards in five of his final eight games.  He's a WR3 with solid upside.

The speedy WR out of Pittsburg State, John Brown, had an impressive sophomore campaign in 2015, racking up 1003 yards to go with 7 TDs in 15 games.  He finished as the No. 22 fantasy WR in standard leagues last season, and with Fitz surely set to regress this year, the arrow is pointing up for Brown, whose role should grow once again this season.  I'm tentatively expecting him to lead the Cardinals in receiving, and I'm fine with picking him as a low-end WR2 option who will have plenty of big plays in 2016.

Running game:

Just like the passing game, Arizona's backfield has a lot of names to talk about heading into this season., with three capable runners.  Unlike most teams with three notable backs, Bruce Arians has made it clear heading into 2016 that the "bell cow" will be second-year stud David Johnson.  An all-purpose touchdown machine in 2015, David averaged a score on every 13.4 offensive touches, a truly incredible feat.  He finished with 1000+ yards from scrimmage and 12 scores (plus a return TD) in a rookie season where he didn't receive double-digit carries until Week 13.  In Arizona's high-flying offensive attack, I classify DJ as a top-tier RB1 in 2016.  He should be Zona's focal point.

Another Johnson in Arizona is the man formerly known as "CJ2K".  Chris Johnson had an impressive year with the Cards in 2015 before breaking his leg in Week 12.  After David's late-season explosion, Chris re-signed with Arizona on a one-year, but he'll likely settle into a change-of-pace, backup role in 2016 behind DJ.  Still, if you're looking to spend a late-round draft pick to handcuff David, then Chris is your guy.

Andre Ellington came into 2015 with the potential of having a serious role in the Cardinals offense, but once again, his durability became an issue.  Although an electric player when healthy, in a crowded backfield led by "Johnson & Johnson", Ellington is nothing more than a late-round flier next season.  If either DJ or CJ go down to injury, Andre could be an intriguing flex play.

Los Angeles Rams

Passing game:

Undoubtedly the NFL's most cringe-worthy passing "attack" in 2015, the Rams were dead-last in total offensive yards as well as passing yards.  They went ahead and selected Cal product Jared Goff first overall in this year's NFL draft, but that doesn't mean much for the fantasy world.  Goff might be the long-term solution, but partly due to the massive price Los Angeles paid for the first pick, he'll have little-to-no difference makers to throw to in 2016.  Jeff Fisher's Rams won't be airing it out on many occasions, but when they need to, only a few pass-catchers come into mind.

Tavon Austin came in second with 473 yards and 5 TDs, but was a dual-threat with 434 rushing yards and 4 TDs.  It'll be interesting to see how the utility player pans out with a fresh signal-caller at the helm, but he hasn't lived up to being a top-10 draft selection in 2013.  Still, with little to no competition behind him, it isn't out of the question for Austin to be the obvious focal point of LA's passing game.  For someone with an ADP of WR51 wideout this summer, Austin is being severely undervalued and could easily offer WR3 numbers by season's end.

The Rams' leading WR in 2015 was Kenny Britt, who hauled in a measly 36 balls for 681 yards and 3 TDs.  With a slew of younger and more explosive receivers on the roster, I can't see Britt matching those stats in 2016.  He's off the fantasy radar in almost every format.  Heading into his fifth season without a 400-yard campaign on his record, Brian Quick has been all hype thus far.  It wouldn't shock me to see him beat out Britt across from Austin, but it also wouldn't shock me if he disappoints again, making him nothing more than a roll of the dice deep into drafts.

On a razor-thin WR depth chart, two late-round rookies to keep an eye on are Mike Thomas from Southern Miss and Pharoh Cooper out of South Carolina.  Thomas could be a real-life draft steal who gets early playing time, but you aren't picking him in a re-draft league.  Same goes with Cooper, an all-purpose dynamo at South Carolina who won't see much playing time as a rookie.

Running game:

A bold pick at the time, the Rams selected Todd Gurley out of Georgia with the 10th pick of the 2015 draft.  Recovering from ACL surgery, nobody was quite sure when the college phenom would hear his name called.  The Rams wisely took it very slow with Gurley, easing him into action after missing the first two weeks of the season.  His debut was in Week 3, but he finally got his first heavy workload the following week.  In just 12 starts, Gurley ran for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns, good for 4.8 yards per carry.  He also added 21 receptions for 188 yards through the air.  These accolades propelled Gurley to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and he will undeniably remain the centerpiece of the Rams offense in 2016.  With a young talented QB in Jared Goff handing him the ball, hopefully rushing lanes will open up as the season progresses.  My only worry is that he wears down with his heavy workload, as defenses will be stacking the box and keying in on Los Angeles' focal point every week.  If an injury were to arise, the Rams depth behind Gurley is pretty uninspiring.  Still, he's a locked-in as a mega-talented RB1 in every scoring format.

San Fransisco 49ers

Passing game:

Although Blaine Gabbert currently sits atop the 49ers depth chart, I'm going to keep it short with him.  Gabbert started 8 games last season, tossing 10 TDs and 7 INTs, averaging 253.9 yards per contest.  In other words, he was anything but spectacular in his west coast audition.  If he wins the job, I'll have to eat my words, but I'm banking on Colin Kaepernick returning from his off-season surgeries and taking the job.  With Chip Kelly in town, I believe Kaep has intriguing upside in fantasy football.  Whoever starts for the 49ers will have a relatively deprived set of pass-catchers around them, but unlike Gabbert, I think Kaepernick has a chance to make up for this aerial limitation with his legs.  His running ability in Chip's creative offensive system could turn out to be valuable for fantasy purposes, but he's just a low-end QB2 until (if) he seizes the starting job.

As I mentioned, there aren't many receiving options in San Fransisco.  Ex-Raven Torrey Smith turned in a brutally underwhelming 33-663-4 stat line in his 2015 49ers debut, but at least there is room for improvement.  In Chip Kelly's run-heavy offense, there's hope that Smith can return to his effective deep threat role that he occupied in Baltimore.  He's the only wideout on the 49ers worth drafting in most fantasy leagues, but still shouldn't be viewed as more than a WR3/4.

Behind Smith, youngsters Bruce Ellington, DeAndre Smelter, and Quinton Patton lead a list of unexciting WRs in San Fran.   Ellington should be able to take the No. 2 wideout spot for the 49ers, but he's a long-shot to provide fantasy value in re-draft leagus.  Smelter and Patton are likely battling for the third WR position, but neither are feasible options.

TE Vance McDonald was playing the best football of his young career down the stretch in 2015 with Gabbert at quarterback.  Regardless of who is throwing him the ball, I could see Vance becoming a low-volume TE2 this season in a 49ers offense that lacks skill players.  If Gabbert wins the job, he could see a slight uptick in value.  Garrett Celek has been splitting reps with McDonald this summer, but I prefer McDonald if you're banking on one of San Fran's tight ends (you shouldn't be).

Running game:

The lone fantasy impact player on the 49ers will come out of the backfield.  Carlos Hyde showed glimpses of potential last season, but was then forced to miss the majority of the year with a stress fracture in his foot.  Reportedly cleared for all activity, Hyde hopes that his foot issue will be in the rearview mirror in 2016.  If that's the case, Hyde could thrive in Chip Kelly's high-paced rushing attack.  He has been cutting weight this off-season to prepare for an upcoming workhorse role, in hopes of both reducing his injury likelihood and increasing stamina.  If he stays on the field, Hyde carries a ton of upside this season.  With little to no depth behind him, the 49ers will probably be feeding the ball to the ex-Buckeye around 20 times per game, making him a very tempting borderline RB1 in fantasy football.  Similar to Gurley but on a smaller scale, Hyde has great potential this season due to the lack of a legitimate passing game and RB depth around him.  But his team's offensive struggles could make things tougher, and he needs to stay healthy.  He'll be a high-risk, high-reward option in the third, fourth, or fifth round of 2016 fantasy drafts, depending on your expectations.  I'd be fine taking a stab on Hyde in the fourth round of a standard league.

Seattle Seahawks

Passing game:

Trailing only the aforementioned Cardinals, Saints, and Steelers, the Seattle Seahawks finished 4th in total offense last season.  In a year that Russell Wilson set career highs across the board, the Hawks' offense certainly wasn't lacking useful fantasy football weapons.  Wilson, who came in as a top 3 fantasy QB in 2015, chucked the ball for 4000+ yards and 34 TDs, tacking on a mere 8 interceptions.  Clearly a dual-threat QB, Russell Wilson also rushed 103 times for 553 yards and another score.  This is exactly the kind of safety and consistency fantasy owners look for in their signal-callers on a weekly basis.  With the running game in question after Marshawn Lynch hung up the cleats, Wilson will once again be thrown into a vertical game plan on more occasions than not.  He has the looks of an elite QB1 in 2016.

From Week 10 on, Doug Baldwin was possibly the best WR in the world of fantasy football.  He finished with a ludicrous 14 touchdowns, 10 of which he snagged in a 4-game span.  These numbers allowed Baldwin to get a big payday from Seattle this offseason, so he'll be eager to prove himself as a primary wideout.  While I'd be willing to bet a hefty sum that he doesn't reach his 14 scores in 2016, the targets and opportunity are there for Baldwin to seize, making him a low-end, yet sturdy WR2.

The wideout that interests me most from Seattle is second-year slot menace Tyler Lockett.  He's a crisp route runner with solid hands, and he should improve upon his 61-664-6 stat line from last season.  The Seahawks have already said that the explosive Lockett has a starting job heading into 2016, setting him up for a nice leap in production.  I would classify Lockett as a playmaking WR4 that is absolutely worth taking a mid-round stab at in fantasy drafts.  He could easily be a WR3 within the first few weeks of the season.

Jimmy Graham, who was recently placed on the PUP list for training camp, won't be a much of factor at the start of the season after rupturing his patellar tendon last year.  This injury that can deplete an athlete of their typical burst and it is often hard for players to ever return to their top form.  However, Pete Carroll claims he is on track for Week 1, indicating that no setbacks have occurred this offseason.  If he can get back on the field without limitations, he could be a borderline TE1 down the stretch, but I'm probably not drafting Graham in many (or any) leagues this year.

Running game:

The Seahawks have fielded a fantasy-friendly running game for several years in the past, but this season is a bit different.  Without Marshawn Lynch as the de facto number one RB, Seattle has some things to sort out before this season begins.  Thomas Rawls, a promising young player who flashed brilliance last season, suffered a broken ankle in Week 14.  The break also involved ligament damage, but Rawls is another Seahawk that Pete Carroll claims will be ready for the start of 2016.  While he might be slowly incorporated if his ankle isn't 100% ready to go, Rawls should be the Seahawks' primary ball carrier by a wide margin.  His recovery is key for fantasy owners who enjoy utilizing tough-nosed Seattle RBs, as a fully healthy Rawls would be a borderline RB1 to start the season.

Pete Carroll isn't just handing him the starting job on a silver platter, however, as Seattle brought back the inconsistent Christine Michael and drafted a pair of rookies this off-season in C.J. Prosise (Notre Dame) and Alex Collins (Arkansas).  Prosise should immediately jump into action as a receiving threat, and Collins could definitely surpass "C-Mike" at some point before the season begins.  I'm not so sure about Collins or Michael at this point in time, but the pass-catching Prosise is worth a late-round gamble.  He's a handcuff for Rawls that could carry standalone value in 2016.

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Like what you read?  Drop any comments or questions below, and be sure to check out my positional rankings plus other divisional outlooks for the upcoming fantasy football season!

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