Juggernaut Index, No. 5: The Seattle Seahawks

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Seattle is great in every phase heading into 2016. The burning question is whether the Baldwin breakout was real. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Seattle looks great in every phase heading into 2016. The burning questions are whether the Baldwin and Rawls breakouts were real. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here we concern ourselves with a franchise’s likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we’re focused on yards and points. As always, we’re beginning with the league’s least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

[Join a Yahoo Fantasy Football league for free and make 2016 your season!]

Within the fantasy expert community, few subjects have received more attention and analysis than Doug Baldwin’s second-half surge in 2015. Baldwin was available for free in a majority of fantasy leagues last November following Seattle’s bye, and there were no obvious signs that a breakout was imminent. Over the first eight weeks, he’d caught just 31 passes for 345 yards and two scores. For fantasy purposes, he was basically Kendall Wright (28-343-3). Or Jamison Crowder (38-342-0). Or Jermaine Kearse (21-338-1).

And then, with no warning, Baldwin went supernova.

It started with a 7-134-1 performance against Arizona, and it didn’t end until every remaining defense on Seattle’s schedule had been roasted. He found the end-zone three times against Pittsburgh, twice at Minnesota, three times at Baltimore, and twice versus Cleveland. In Week 16, Baldwin caught eight balls for 118 yards and one TD against the Rams; it was one of his worst fantasy outputs of the season’s second-half.

When all the numbers were in the books, Baldwin ranked as the seventh highest scoring wide receiver in standard fantasy leagues. He finished the year with 1069 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, delivering 724 of those yards and a dozen spikes after the mid-season bye. Plenty of analysts have suggested that Jimmy Graham’s season-ending knee injury was the event that enabled Baldwin’s breakout, but in fact No. 89 was already rolling when the Seahawks lost Graham in Week 12.

Too often, fantasy touts begin and end their Baldwin forecasts for 2016 by telling you his second-half touchdown binge is not sustainable. It’s a position that no reasonable person would dispute, unless you happen to believe that Baldwin is the ’87 version of Jerry Rice. To me, the important questions are these: Can Russell Wilson continue to perform near the level he reached in the second-half of 2015, and will Seattle adhere to the same offensive principles that guided the team from November through January?

If your answer to each of those questions is yes, then I don’t know how you can possibly dislike Baldwin as a fantasy option in the year ahead. He doesn’t need to cross the goal-line another 14 times in order to produce a useful season. Remember, Baldwin closed with 724 receiving yards over his final eight games, catching 47 passes on 63 targets. Even if he hadn’t scored a single touchdown, he would have averaged 14.9 fantasy points per week in full-PPR.

Wilson and Baldwin, back for more. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Wilson and Baldwin, back for more. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

When the Seahawks came out of their Week 9 bye last season, Wilson had thrown only nine TD passes and he’d been sacked 31 times, an appalling total. The team began to emphasize the quick-hit passing game, targeting Seattle’s small and shifty receivers — not just Baldwin, but also first-year receiver Tyler Lockett. After returning from the break, Wilson significantly reduced his average time-to-throw, which of course kept him clean — he was sacked just 14 times in the second-half. A greater percentage of his passing yards came after the catch, as Baldwin in particular consistently torched defenders after snagging well-delivered throws. Here’s a prime example. And here’s another. Wilson’s pass attempts increased only modestly in the second-half (234 to 249), but his efficiency was absolutely ridiculous. Over his final eight games, he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt while tossing 25 touchdown passes and only two picks. Two. His passer rating during that stretch was 124.3.

I’m a big believer in Wilson specifically and in Seattle’s offense generally, so I can’t help but feel bullish about Baldwin in the year ahead. Bottom line, I’m with Pianowski on this issue. Baldwin’s reception and yardage numbers from last season are perfectly reasonable projections for 2016, if not a bit light. He’s not an entirely touchdown-dependent fantasy commodity. If you’re avoiding him in drafts, you’re doing it all wrong. If he slides to the fifth round of your draft, it’s a gift. Don’t blow it.

Wilson overcame both a sketchy O-line and the loss of Graham last year, ultimately finishing with career highs in every passing stat that matters: yards (4024), touchdowns (34), rating (110.1), completion percentage (68.1) and Y/A (8.3). His exceptional rushing ability gives him a higher week-to-week fantasy floor than most quarterbacks; he’s averaged 5.9 YPC for his career, a silly rate. If Wilson doesn’t project as a top-five quarterback in your fantasy league, then your scoring system is probably terrible.

Kearse will likely start opposite Baldwin in two-receiver sets, thanks in part to his ability as a run-blocker. He doesn’t have the big-play talent of Baldwin nor the speed and elusiveness of Lockett, but he’s a capable real-life (if not fantasy) wideout. Last year’s production was probably close to Kearse’s ceiling (49-685-5). He shouldn’t interest you unless you play in something larger than a 12-team league. Lockett is a live-wire of a player, a terrific deep-strike option as a receiver and an elite kick returner. Kearse may very well out-snap Lockett this year, but Tyler is the guy you want on your fantasy roster. (You don’t play in a point-per-snap format, right? Of course not.)

Baldwin’s incredible second-half performance last year overshadowed the fact that Lockett also became a much larger piece of Seattle’s passing game. In the season’s first eight games, Lockett averaged just 3.5 targets per week; over the final eight it was 5.1, and he delivered five of his six receiving TDs. He’s a rare talent, even by NFL standards. Lockett will have a boom/bust element to his fantasy game, but that’s usually acceptable in a WR3. His price tag is plenty appealing in Yahoo drafts (ADP 86.6), considering the weekly upside.

Both the timing and nature of Graham’s injury — a torn patellar tendon, suffered in late-November — make him a dicey fantasy option for 2016. Let’s just hope Graham can recover fully, because, when he’s right, that guy is phenomenal. His availability for opening week is very much in doubt, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. He’s coming off an injury that can change the trajectory of a career, so his presence at practice is great news. Graham is still draftable in fantasy, but he forces you to add a placeholder TE, which isn’t ideal. We should note that he wasn’t exactly a dominant fantasy weapon when healthy last season, largely due to the slow start by the Seahawks’ passing game. Still, he was on pace for an 880-yard campaign when he went down. Graham has no realistic shot to produce Saints-era stats in 2016, but he remains on the fantasy radar as a late-round flier, requiring patience. It’s tough to imagine him leapfrogging Baldwin in this team’s receiving hierarchy.

Thomas Rawls is fully rehabbed, ready for an early-down role. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Thomas Rawls is fully rehabbed, ready for an early-down role. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

During the Pete Carroll/Russell Wilson years, Seattle’s relentless running game has clearly been foundation of the offense. The team has ranked among the league’s top-three in rush attempts in each of the past four seasons. Beast Mode is out of the mix, but the Seahawks’ ground game survived without him last year — first with Thomas Rawls, later with Christine Michael.

Without the health complications, Rawls might have entered 2016 as a consensus first round back. He was a terrific story last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and delivering excellent stat lines against quality defenses (169 yards at Cincinnati, 101 at Minnesota). Rawls only has six games as a featured runner on his NFL resume, but those games include highlights like this. No question, the kid was great. Unfortunately, his season ended with a brutal ankle injury in mid-December, and his recovery continued into August. He finally made an appearance in Seattle’s fourth preseason game (two carries, seven yards), so we can assume he’ll be good to go in the team’s opener against Miami.

It would be a significant surprise if Rawls returned to a full workload immediately, however. Michael, a longtime fantasy tease, has enjoyed another monster preseason (not his first). He carried 26 times for 157 yards and one score in exhibition play, working with the starters. When the season opens, he’s gonna play. So too will Notre Dame rookie C.J. Prosise, who was drafted to be an impact back on third-down. Prosise is a converted receiver and dynamic runner, a natural for passing situations. He’s a reasonable late pick in PPR. If you want Rawls, you’ll probably need to get him in Round 3. To this point, I’ve avoided him. Instead, I’ve been drafting Michael in the lottery ticket rounds (for the fourth straight year, like a sickness).

Hopefully you don’t need an expert to tell you that Seattle’s defense is terrifying, in a good way. The Seahawks were the league’s stingiest D in terms of scoring last season (17.3 PPG) and they allowed the second fewest total yards (291.8). The front seven is ferocious, and the secondary is so good it has a nickname. And they open at home against Ryan Tannehill, then face Case Keenum, Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Draft and enjoy.

2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 26.4 (4)
Pass YPG – 236.9 (20)
Rush YPG – 141.8 (3)
Yards per play – 5.8 (5)
Plays per game – 64.2 (17)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland, 31) San Francisco, 30) Philadelphia, 29) Baltimore, 28) Tennessee, 27) Los Angeles, 26) Miami, 25) Detroit, 24) Chicago, 23) San Diego, 22) Minnesota, 21) Tampa Bay, 20) Atlanta, 19) Washington, 18) Buffalo, 17) Kansas City, 16) Oakland, 15) NY Giants, 14) Indianapolis, 13) Jacksonville, 12) Houston, 11) Denver, 10) NY Jets, 9) Dallas, 8) Cincinnati, 7) New England 6) New Orleans, 5) Seattle