The Denver Broncos, fresh off a Super Bowl victory over the Panthers, have been crowned king of the AFC West for five straight years. As Denver's runner-up for the past three seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs ended 2015 on a 10-game winning streak to close out the regular season, but ultimately stalled out after one playoff win. Now, heading into this season, the young and on-the-rise Oakland Raiders seem poised to make a leap in 2016. And who knows, maybe a healthy cast of weapons could catapult the Chargers into playoff contention this year - much crazier things have happened. Regardless of overall team success, there are plenty of impact fantasy football players in the AFC West. So, as fantasy season rapidly approaches, here's how I feel about each team's top playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.
*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.*
Last season, Peyton Manning's throwing talent was all but gone, forcing him to win with his mental traits instead of his long-lost physical ones. Brock Osweiler filled in for Peyton during the second half of the season, providing a much fresher arm than Denver was accustomed to in the first eight games. Fast-forward to the 2016 season, and neither of these QBs are currently repping a Broncos jersey, as Brock headed to Houston and Peyton rode off into the sunset. Instead, fantasy owners can "look forward" to a three-headed QB competition with little-to-no relevance outside of leagues using multiple signal callers. Mark Sanchez figures to get the benefit of the doubt over rookie Paxton Lynch and sophomore Trevor Siemian to begin the season, but it wouldn't be surprising to see one of the two youngsters get a start at some point in 2016. Mark's deficiencies will undoubtedly be masked by an elite defense and a run game, removing him from the fantasy radar.
His receiving weapons aren't too shabby, however, as Demaryius Thomas leads a talented duo of pass catchers. DT was a bit TD shy last season (6), but the yardage was there (105 catches for 1304 yards). This allowed him to finish as a top-15 fantasy WR, which is right around where his ADP hovers this offseason - a spot that I don't have a problem with. Going into the '16 season with turnover-prone Mark Sanchez at the helm, I believe the Thomas' fantasy ceiling is lower than recent years, but he should be able to maintain WR2 value while providing a few WR1-caliber performances. For what it's worth, "The Sanchize" never even had a 1000-yard receiver in his four years as a Jet.
An excellent second WR in Denver, Emmanuel Sanders had himself another solid campaign in 2015, racking up 1135 yards and 6 TDs, finishing just four spots below DT on the fantasy WR leaderboard. Dealing with a myriad of minor injuries, Sanders was still able to record a higher YPR (14.9) than Thomas (12.4). Still, I believe the downgrade at the QB position will favor the bigger-bodied athlete in Demaryius more than it will Sanders, and I expect DT's drop issues to dissipate in '16. Sanders is currently being somewhat overlooked in mock drafts this summer, but I can't see him reproducing last year's high-end WR2 numbers this season. He's more of a middling WR3 in 2016.
Tight end is a barren position in Denver after releasing Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis. An above-average athlete and reliable blocker in college, Jeff Heuerman was a third round pick for Denver in last year's draft. He tore his ACL before the season began, but this is a kid who sits on a razor-thin TE depth chart and was receiving Heath Miller comparisons before last season. He's someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses, but he'll be hard-pressed to put up steady TE2 numbers in 2016.
After being selected in the top 2 rounds of most fantasy drafts last season, C.J. Anderson proceeded to bust in a big way. Finishing as the 30th-best fantasy RB in standard leagues, CJA wasn't even the best fantasy runner on the Broncos. He only had four double-digit fantasy performances all season in standard formats, and couldn't get a steady dose of carries for the majority of the year. Still, Anderson was much more effective down the stretch of the Broncos' SB-winning run, earning him workhorse carries in the postseason. With no threatening aerial attack in sight, it seems obvious that Denver would like to establish a high-volume rushing approach and win games with their defense in 2016. This could mean a bounce-back season is in store for Anderson, but do fantasy owners have the guts to pull the trigger on CJA with an early draft day selection? I have my doubts, but if I'm in need of a sturdy RB2 in the third or fourth round, I'm certainly taking a look at Anderson.
His thoroughly mediocre backup, Ronnie Hillman, forced CJA into a committee for much of the year. Denver decided to bring him back on a one-year deal, but he's not going to be on any of my fantasy squads in the upcoming campaign. For me, rookie Devontae Booker is a slight favorite for the more productive '16 season. A bigger back who can pass block and catch the ball out of the backfield, Booker should be able to seize the Broncos' second RB job and entrench himself as CJA's handcuff.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City offense has allowed Alex Smith to nestle into a role he is quite familiar with: Game manager. Averaging 3355 yards and 20 touchdowns per season across his past three years as a Chief, Smith has settled in as a relatively safe QB2 for fantasy purposes. He protects the ball well and his above-average running ability is something that oftentimes seems unappreciated. However, even with his 498 rushing yards and a pair of TDs on the ground, Smith barely managed to finish as a top-15 fantasy QB in 2015. He should produce similar numbers this season unless a productive option behind Maclin/Kelce can unexpectedly emerge.
Speaking of Jeremy Maclin, he had an impressive first season in KC, hauling in 87 balls for 1088 yards + 8 TDs. His 87 receptions were a career-high and his yardage was the second-best on his professional resumé. He served his fantasy owners as a quality WR2 in 2015, and since he'll once again open the season as Alex Smith's only proven wideout in a run-heavy offense, he should be in line for another strong WR2 campaign in 2016.
Of noteworthy candidates, small-framed Albert Wilson, ex-Raider Rod Streater, and intriguing second-year size/speed freak Chris Conley (who lived with Maclin during the offseason) are the only WR options in KC behind Maclin. If I had to pick, I would most likely take a late-round gamble on Conley, a 6'3" deep threat with blazing 4.35 40-yard dash speed. He could become a very appealing option if Maclin were to miss time for any reason.
The other focal point of the Chiefs' passing attack is an athletic tight end by the name of Travis Kelce. Deemed "Baby Gronk" by some, Kelce has the frame and talent to become a dominant pass-catching TE in the NFL. He has hovered just below 900 yards in both '14 and '15, already performing like a viable TE1 in fantasy football. With a QB who has targeted him 190 times through two seasons, I look for Kelce to improve on last season's statistics - even if its just by a small margin. It also doesn't hurt that he's probably just one of the few TEs that could break out for a top-2 fantasy finish.
Through four weeks in 2015, Jamaal Charles was on pace to finish as the top fantasy running back by a wide margin. Instead, JC tore an ACL for the second time in his NFL career, sending him to the IR after the injury occurred in Week 5. Before the knee injury, Charles was on pace for a massive fantasy campaign that would have placed him as the RB1 overall... As we head into this season, Charles is 29 years of age and rehabbing from his second ACL tear in five seasons. While returning to RB1 form in 2016 certainly isn't out of the question, one has to wonder if the Chiefs will scale back his workload, seeming that they have a talented pair of RBs that emerged during Charles' absence. But on the bright side, after his injury in 2011, JC returned in 2012 to rack up 1509 rushing yards - a career high to this date. In 2016, I see Charles as a borderline RB1, but a player I'll be steering clear of in the first round.
After Jamaal went down, Charcandrick West tallied 791 yards from scrimmage and Spencer Ware rushed for 403 yards with a healthy 5.6 YPC mark, forming a surprisingly effective one-two punch. While neither one of the KC backups have much standalone fantasy value, if JC were to succumb to injury once again in 2016, they would both be hot waiver-wire commodities. Ware probably has the leg-up in terms of predictable fantasy value, but they're both just late-round handcuffs for Charles owners as long as he remains healthy.
Quarterback Derek Carr is coming off a very strong sophomore campaign where he threw for 3987 yards and 32 TDs en route to a top-15 spot on the fantasy leaderboard. Carr is equipped with a quality set of pass catchers in a young Oakland offense that has plenty of room for improvement. I see him as a low-end QB1 heading into the 2016 fantasy season and someone who you can draft at a very reasonable price.
Forming a duo known as "ACDC", Carr's favorite weapon for the foreseeable future will likely be Amari Cooper, who is coming off a 1070-yard rookie year. The Raiders' #4 overall selection in last year's draft has the talent to emerge as a premier receiver in the NFL as early as this season. He struggled with drops during his first year, but the elite potential was seen on many occasions, and he finished as a top-25 fantasy option at his position. Currently being drafted as the 11th-best WR in standard leagues this summer, I think Cooper has a decent chance to return value as a high-end WR2 or perhaps a low-end WR1.
After sparking his career in a new uniform, Michael Crabtree posted a refreshing 85-922-9 stat line in 2015, showing that he can be a trustworthy wideout in the right situation. Lining up across from Amari certainly helped him return to fantasy relevancy, as he was never able to establish himself as the elite receiver some thought he would be for the 49ers. Recently signing a five-year contract with Oakland, "King Crab" should be viewed as a secure WR3 this season.
Standing at 6'4", 250 lbs, second-year TE Clive Walford could be in for a much improved second campaign. Seeing 76% of his targets from Week 10 on, it was clear that he gained traction as the season progressed. The ex-Miami Hurricane could sneak into TE2 territory relatively early on in the 2016 season.
Although there has been plenty of criticism of Latavius Murray's 2015 numbers, I think concerns are being blown out of proportion. Sure, after a 2014 season where he averaged 5.2 YPC and 8.4 YPR, Murray's stats dipped to 4.0 YPC and 5.7 YPR the following year. However, this was a big, fast, but raw sixth round pick in 2013 that went from 99 touches in '14 to 307 in '15. Not to mention, he was still able to register low-end RB1 stats, finishing as the 10th-best back in standard fantasy leagues. I think Murray still has time to develop into a stud running back for the Raiders, but he won't have all the time in the world to prove it, especially in today's intensely performance-based NFL. Working in his favor, Oakland's top-notch offensive line is another reason to give Latavius another chance this season. Currently being drafted as the 16th-best RB, I can get on board with him being a sure-fire, mid-range RB2, and it wouldn't be all too shocking for him to finish as a borderline RB1 once again.
The Raiders' fifth round selection in this year's draft, DeAndre Washington has already been dubbed a "complete back" by Oakland's GM. After mentioning that they would like to reduce Latavius' workload and bring in some competition, the Raiders did just that by drafting Washington. With sub-4.5 wheels and a notable receiving history at Texas Tech, he could immediately step in and contribute for the Raiders at the expense of Murray. He's a very appetizing handcuff for Latavius owners and I wouldn't have a problem snagging him as a late-round flier even if I didn't have Murray on my roster.
San Diego Chargers
Although Philip Rivers racked up the most passing yards in his career (4793) and was able to finish as a top-12 fantasy QB in 2015, his career-high 662 attempts were somewhat astronomical. It was easy to see that an ineffective Chargers offense forced Rivers into a heavy dose of passing. In his defense, Rivers dealt with a cornucopia of roadblocks on offensive side of the ball, including a deteriorated O-Line, an underwhelming rushing attack, and injuries to most of his preferred playmakers. With a full slate of healthy pass-catchers and a hopefully-improved run game, Rivers should return value as a high-end backup QB for fantasy purposes, hovering just behind the QB1 borderline in my books.
His top receiving option for the 2016 season will undoubtedly be Keenan Allen, who is coming off a short-but-imposing sophomore campaign. He was on pace for a superb stat line of 134-1450-8 before lacerating his kidney in Week 8, showing that he has the chops to develop into a dynamic wideout in real life and fake football alike. On a San Diego team that will likely be throwing the ball early and often, Allen has the looks of a low-end WR1 for the '16 season. He's a great selection in the third or fourth round of standard leagues and should probably be taken a whole round higher in PPR formats.
Recently transitioning from Cleveland to SD is deep threat wideout Travis Benjamin. Playing with a slew of miserable quarterbacks during his time as a Brown, Benjamin signed with the Chargers in order to "play with a better QB". In Rivers' voluminous passing game that lacked a reliable deep threat in 2015, he could put up WR3 numbers if things break right in 2015. Likely to be surpassed by a younger Travis Benjamin, veteran Stevie Johnson was limited to ten games last year. Even if he stays healthy in SD's pass-happy offense, I can't see Johnson doing much better than last season's 45-497-3 stat line in '16, taking him off the fantasy map in most leagues.
With the departure of Ladarius Green to Pittsburgh this offseason, the old reliable Antonio Gates once again heads into a new season as the clear-cut top TE in San Diego. Eventually, 2016 second round pick Hunter Henry will step into this role, but even at age 36, the chemistry between Gates and Rivers is undeniable. The Chargers' franchise leader in receiving yards, scores, and receptions should be able to squeeze out at least one more season of borderline TE1 production in a shallow fantasy position, especially with Rivers trying his hardest to provide Gates with the most tight end touchdowns in the history of the league.
After taking Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon at the 15th spot in last year's NFL draft, the Chargers were surely disappointed in the production they received from the rookie running back. With 833 yards from scrimmage and a 3.5 YPC mark, Gordon will look to improve upon his statistics across the board in his second season. After undergoing a minor microfracture surgery on his knee during the early stages of the offseason, he is expected to be all systems go in time for training camp, but there are obviously some red flags after a mediocre rookie campaign. Nonetheless, MGIII can enter this season without any setbacks, there is certainly bounce-back appeal in terms of fantasy football value. After being drafted as an immediate RB2 in many leagues last draft season, Gordon is now being picked in the low-end RB3 range in summer '16. I'd be willing to select him as an upside RB3 in the middle rounds of my draft.
His backfield mate, Danny Woodhead, stepped in and had himself a much more productive '15 season than Gordon. Woodhead's YPC was the same as Gordon's (3.5), but he reeled in 81 balls for 756 yards through the air, displaying his versatility as well as great chemistry with Rivers. Already a major PPR factor, Woodhead should have another effective season in 2016 even if Melvin returns to form, and would be heavily relied upon once again if Gordon were to go down for any reason.