NFC West: Shuffled Cards

Mike Harmon

Previews: AFC West | NFC West

My tour through each NFL division continues with a look at the teams of the NFC West, home to an always plentiful supply of fantasy talent in St. Louis. Seattle and, even, Arizona should also put forth healthy offerings this season, while San Francisco faces the inevitable pains of a rebuilding process.

Let's take a closer look:

The Seahawks won the watered-down NFC West with a record of 9-7. One of the biggest offseason moves involved the outright release of troubled No. 2 receiver Koren Robinson. The team hopes free agents Jerome Pathon and Joe Jurevicius can replace his contributions to the offense.

Running Game
Shaun Alexander remains unsigned, causing panic attacks in Seattle and throughout fantasyland. Walter Jones was re-signed and will attend his first training camp since 2001. His presence certainly will help the offensive line become more cohesive and will aid in getting Floyd Womack ready to dominate on the right side. If/when Alexander reports, his line will be ready to blow open holes for him.

Passing Game
It all begins with the line, and as mentioned above, it stands to be its most prepared in years. Matt Hasselbeck is ready to build off a great finish to '04, but there are questions as to how the receiving corps will round out. Darrell Jackson is the lone steady performer and will be backed by a combination of Bobby Engram, Jurevicius and Pathon. The Seahawks will need this trio to step up to make Hasselbeck a fantasy stud.

Fantasy Power List

  • Shaun Alexander (Early First Round): Alexander is throwing a monkey wrench into early drafts by remaining unsigned, skipping minicamp and threatening an extended holdout. However, his four straight seasons of 16 or more touchdowns cannot be denied, and he still is one of the first players off of the board.
  • Darrell Jackson (Fifth Round): He continues to frustrate owners with the number of passes he drops. Even with those issues, he caught a career-high 87 passes in 2004 and topped the 1,000-yard mark for the third time in four years. And to put it in perspective, he played all of 2004 without a reliable No. 2 receiver.
  • Matt Hasselbeck (Eighth Round): Hasselbeck was one of the first quarterbacks off the board in 2004 drafts on the strength of his 26 TD passes in '03. He was mediocre, at best, for much of the campaign before exploding for 10 touchdowns in his final four starts. Hasselbeck is currently the 13th QB selected on average in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS drafts.
  • Maurice Morris (12th Round): Morris' stock is rising as Alexander's holdout continues. While these situations normally get resolved, Morris will see extensive work with the first unit in the interim. He does own an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average in limited work. If you draft Alexander, you must handcuff Morris to his selection.

Wild Card
Jerramy Stevens: He ended 2004 on a positive note, scoring touchdowns in two of the final three games of the season. Stevens finished the season with 31 catches and, from all reports, has looked good in spring workouts. With much uncertainty in the receiving corps behind Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, Mike Holmgren and company need Stevens to step up his game.

The Rams certainly will pour on the points, but they'll need their defense to improve tremendously to run toward the top of the NFC West. The defensive unit added Dexter Coakley, Chris Claiborne and welcome back a healthy Leonard Little to the mix. The Rams should be able to improve on their woeful total of 15 takeaways. The improvement of the defense will be key, as a few more short fields could propel Marc Bulger to the fantasy elite.

Running Game
Orlando Pace finally got his long-term deal, and like Jones for Seattle, he will make his first training camp appearance in years. If first-round pick Alex Barron quickly can adapt to the NFL game, then the tandem of Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk should find ample room to run. They combined to rush for 1,437 yards in 2004 – but scored only seven touchdowns.

Passing Game
The ability to practice with the full line will be huge for the continued development of Marc Bulger. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are among the top receivers in the game, and they have several other capable receivers (Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis and a healthy Dane Looker). I look for Bulger to increase his TD total and further cut down his turnovers.

Fantasy Power List

  • Steven Jackson (Mid-Second Round): The era of Marshall Faulk as the dominant force in fantasy football has passed. Jackson has been named the starter and has shown a propensity for running over opposing defenders. Unfortunately, that also means that he will get dinged up, as evidenced by his ankle issues in '04.
  • Torry Holt (Late Third Round): Holt is just a notch below Randy Moss and Terrell Owens on most draft boards. And he should be, with five straight seasons of more than 1,300 receiving yards and two straight seasons of double-digit touchdowns. To put Holt's production into one word: consistency.
  • Marc Bulger (Sixth Round): Bulger improved tremendously in 2004, cutting down his interceptions from 22 to 14 and nearly reaching the 4,000-yard mark despite missing two starts. He raised his completion percentage and finished the year with two solid playoff performances. All the pieces are back in place for another run at the top tier of fantasy quarterbacks, and the Rams upgraded their offensive line to cut down on the 50 sacks absorbed last year.
  • Marshall Faulk (Sixth Round): Just because Jackson has been named the starter, don't think that Faulk has been put out to pasture. On the contrary, Mike Martz is looking for a way to get both backs on the field and take advantage of Faulk's pass-catching ability. Additionally, in order to keep Jackson on the field and off the trainer's table, expect Faulk to pilfer 10 touches per game. You guessed it. If you draft Jackson, you better look to handcuff Faulk early, because there's still some tread on the tires.
  • Isaac Bruce (Sixth Round): After his huge 2004 season (89 catches, 1,292 yards and six touchdowns), Bruce's draft stock is mitigated somewhat by the irregular EKG results of last month. He's back on the practice field and doctors are confident that he'll be just fine for opening weekend. However, the uncertainty has owners looking in other directions for their No. 2 receiver in the interim. Bruce has gone over 980 receiving yards in each of the last six seasons, and last year he posted his highest receptions total since 1995.

Wild Card
Kevin Curtis: Curtis has the inside track on winning the No. 3 receiver role over Shaun McDonald. Both made their share of big plays for the Rams in '04 and made the most of the opportunities afforded them. Curtis hauled in 32 catches in '04 and averaged 13 yards per reception, numbers that will go up in '05.

The Cardinals have retooled their offense, bringing in new starters at quarterback and running back. Those moves were predicated on the problems that plagued them in 2004, when they scored 14 or fewer points in nine games. Out is Josh McCown, replaced to start the season by Kurt Warner. Emmitt Smith retired and in steps rookie J.J. Arrington. The defense ranked 12th in points allowed at 20.1 per game and upgraded the secondary with the selection of Antrel Rolle in the draft. Even a small up-tick in offense will improve that 6-10 record of 2004.

Running Game
Emmitt Smith donned the uniform one last time in December to close the book on his storied career. He ultimately didn't get the tests from Marcel Shipp and Troy Hambrick that were expected and almost reached the 1,000-yard mark. Tackles Leonard Davis and Oliver Ross are solid, but the rest of the line is inexperienced and may make life a tad difficult for Arrington.

Passing Game
The Cardinals are looking to find some magic in the right arm of Kurt Warner. With two talented wideouts on the wings, Dennis Green will look to recapture the success Warner had with similar targets in St. Louis. Bryant Johnson offers Warner a deep threat and may find himself in mismatches with smallish defensive backs. Keep an eye on how he's used at the outset of the season. As mentioned above, the big question will be whether the line can withstand pressure and keep defenders off Warner, something the Giants line failed to do in his brief stint there in '04.

Fantasy Power List

  • J.J. Arrington (Mid-Third Round): Dennis Green is positively enamored with his rookie running back and gushed about him to The Arizona Republic – "I think it's going to work out real well. When you get on the field with him, he's just so quick and explosive." There's talk that Troy Hambrick, who was expected to pilfer Arrington's goal-line chances, might be released before camps open next month. And, lest we forget, Smith scored nine touchdowns for the Cardinals in his 2004 swan song, so there will be opportunities.
  • Anquan Boldin (Fifth Round): He missed almost half the season and still piled up 56 catches and 623 yards. He's the perfect target for the precision passing game that Warner brings to the table, as he is one of the best route runners in the game. The 2003 Offensive Rookie of the Year has averaged six catches per game to start his career.
  • Larry Fitzgerald (Sixth Round): Running opposite Boldin will allow Fitzgerald to exploit teams' second cornerbacks. He racked up 58 catches and eight touchdowns last season, five of which came after Boldin's return to the lineup.
  • Kurt Warner (11th Round): Despite emerging skill players surrounding him, I don't envision Warner going back to the dizzying heights of his days in St. Louis, but we won't see the same conservative, ball-control offense that was employed in New York. If he can stay healthy, a run toward 3,000 passing yards and 20-22 passing touchdowns is not out of the question.

Wild Card
Marcel Shipp: Shipp hasn't been a fantasy factor since 2002, but he'll open camp as the No. 2 back behind Arrington. Some question whether Arrington will be able to take the punishment of a 16-game schedule. Others believe there is a possibility that he'll lose time to Shipp based on an inability to pick up blitzes and protect Warner.

The proud 49ers franchise would just as soon forget that the 2004 season ever happened. The team ranked last in points allowed (28.3) and 30th in points scored (16.2). That was enough to give both Dennis Erickson and Terry Donahue their walking papers. Mike Nolan is on board as the new coach and is convinced that the 49ers will be competitive from Day 1 of his regime.

Running Game
After a miserable 2004 season, the 49ers are banking on continuity on the offensive line and more consistent play from the QB position and Kevan Barlow. Barlow showed the spark necessary to capture the No. 1 job and a big contract before the 2004 season and then flopped. The selection of Frank Gore in the draft should spark some healthy competition and make for some positive headlines coming out of camp.

Passing Game
The 49ers hope to have a healthy offensive line for the start of the 2005 season. Most notably, the anchor of the line, Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry, missed virtually the entire season. The jury is still out as to whether receivers Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle, Rashaun Woods and rookie Rasheed Marshall will be able to step up, and for that matter, who will be throwing them the ball? The only sure thing in the 49ers passing game is TE Eric Johnson, who seemingly has hands equipped with Velcro.

Fantasy Power List

  • Kevan Barlow (Late Third or Early Fourth Round): After last season's disaster in San Francisco, Barlow stands as perhaps the last starting back to come off the draft board. The problems on the offensive line forced his YPC average to drop by more than 1.5 yards. He still managed seven touchdowns but had 10 games with 61 or fewer rushing yards.
  • Eric Johnson (10th Round): Had it not been for the rib injury that slowed him down, Johnson might have reached a new record for TE receptions. He was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal 49ers season, hauling in 82 receptions for 825 yards. Unfortunately, that didn't translate into any touchdowns. Whoever stands under center for the 49ers will look for Johnson early and often.
  • Frank Gore (10th Round): The third-round pick in this year's draft, Gore may push Barlow for playing time in camp. San Francisco fans and fantasy owners are hoping for a competition that stokes the competitive fires in Barlow. But they are realistic about the possibility that Gore will supplant him as the starter and are buying insurance in the later rounds.
  • Brandon Lloyd (12th Round): Lloyd has the knack for making the brilliant catch but got caught up in the problems that emanated from the inconsistency of line play in '04. He missed three games last year and had six games with two or fewer catches. As he technically is the team's No. 1 wide receiver, he's a 12th-round selection with great upside.

Wild Card
QB: Will it be Tim Rattay or rookie Alex Smith? Or will Ken Dorsey figure into the plans? The No. 1 overall selection of Smith gives him an edge, but there is a possibility that Rattay gets dealt or that Ken Dorsey's increased arm strength will put him into contention for playing time. We'll watch this position battle intently as it plays out, as those leagues that start two quarterbacks may need to use the winner of the battle. After all, for all of the pain witnessed by 49ers fans and fantasy owners from afar in 2004, Rattay did turn in four games with multiple TD passes.