2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: NFC West
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QB: For a few NFL teams, the season didn’t exactly go as planned, and the 2012 off-season is going to be a crossroads of sorts. Throw the Cardinals onto that list, because they have a mess at the QB position on their hands. Obviously, we know how this starts. In 2010, the Cardinals rotated Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton at the position, so they needed an upgrade. They thought they had it in Kevin Kolb, for whom they traded CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2nd-round pick in 2012 to Philadelphia. Immediately upon completing the deal, the Cardinals signed their young QB to a five-year, $63 million contract that included $22 million guaranteed. Unfortunately for Kolb, it’s impossible to argue that his club got a return on its investment in year one. Plagued by injuries (concussion, toe), a poor offensive line (Levi Brown might be the worst LT in football), and shaky weapons outside of Larry Fitzgerald, Kolb was average to miserable in his nine starts, not all of them completed. Kolb went 146/253 (57.7%) for 1955 yards with 9 TDs and 8 INTs, good enough for only 15.6 FPG, ranking him 31st at the QB position on the full year. Of course, he threw for only 2 yards in his final start in Week Fourteen before getting injured, and removing that game makes his numbers look a bit better – a 21st-most 17.5 FPG, leaping ahead of Joe Flacco. But even with that, it’s impossible to say Kolb played well. The biggest issue with his game was the same as it was in Philly: his tendency to overreact to the pressure in his face, or worse, to perceive pressure that isn’t there. Their problems are amplified because of how bad the Cardinal line is, and it might be a position where Kolb just can’t succeed. He moves in the pocket for no reason, which is not a good sign at all. He also has bad mechanics and bad footwork, which is why he misses open guys, plus he doesn’t seem to see the field very well. He falls away from way too many throws, which is bad news because his arm strength isn’t very good in the first place. With Kolb due a roster bonus early this year, the Cardinals might have a tough decision to make, a decision made tougher because Skelton, in Kolb’s stead, asserted himself really well. You might recall that we liked Skelton coming out of Fordham in 2010, believing him to be a very gifted passer who just needed a lot of work. As a rookie last season, that was evident, but as he played more this year we saw a lot of potential in him. Skelton played in eight games, including seven starts. He completed 151/275 passes (54.9%) for 1913 yards, with 11 TDs and 14 INTs. While he might have made more “mistakes” than Kolb, he also took more risks that paid off. As a result, he averaged 19.1 FPG, 17th at the QB position, making him a decent backup when he was in the lineup. Twice, Skelton threw for 300 or more yards (Kolb did it once), and twice, he threw 3 TDs in a single game (Kolb didn’t do that at all). Skelton is very erratic, but he hangs firm in the pocket and he makes some really good throws. He’s rough around the edges still and needs to learn to read coverages better, but he was pretty impressive at times and he’s shown poise. He has an odd delivery that occasionally negates his size advantage, and he has poor footwork (remember, we said he needed work), but he can make some big time throws. He does play too fast still, but he can also extend plays well with his legs. Based on everything we saw this year, the Cardinals would have been better finding a stopgap solution and continuing to develop Skelton because Kolb may already be what he’s been, which isn’t very good. Hey, even Kolb himself admitted he'll have to beat out Skelton in training camp this coming summer. The Cardinals actually managed a solid season overall, but there's no denying that Skelton, for all his faults, outplayed Kolb. Kolb could really benefit from a full off-season in Arizona – if there’s any defense for Kolb’s 2011 season it’s the lockout and his short preparation time – but will he get the chance?
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Kolb is due a $7 million roster bonus in March. Do the Cardinals really believe in him for the future, or will they cut bait now, given that Skelton has shown he has a chance to play in the league? Is Peyton Manning in the mix here in 2012?
RBs: The Cardinals understood that with Kevin Kolb at QB, they’d need a reliable run game behind him to take some pressure off. And just like the QB position, the RB situation didn’t go exactly as planned for Arizona. The Cardinals, rightfully worried about the ability of Beanie Wells to stay healthy, used an early 2nd-round pick on Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams last April. But Williams tore his patellar tendon in the preseason and missed the entire year. So the bell-cow role in the Cardinals’ backfield was left to Wells, who acquitted himself well enough, we’d say. In 14 games, Wells ran for 245/1047/10 and, despite offering no value as a receiver (10/52), he managed to finish 16th at the RB position with 12.1 FPG. But it’s hard to argue the Cardinals got the consistency they would have liked to see from Wells. After scoring double-digit fantasy points in each of his first four games of the year, he did it only four more times the rest of the year (10 games), a stretch over which he scored fewer than 5.0 FP four times as well. In fact, from Week Six through the end of the season, Wells scored a total of 94.6 FP, with 28.8 coming in a single game (he ran for 228 yards in Week Twelve against the Rams, his only 100-yard rushing performance after Week Four). By definition, he was up-and-down, and he missed two games as well, with hamstring problems and later a knee issue that will require off-season surgery. Plus, he fumbled four times, another one of the major concerns about his game. Wells clearly struggled with his right knee all year, but to his credit, he ran as hard as he could with the injury issues, and did not shy away from contact. And occasionally, he busted off some big runs. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to stay healthy the entire year, so while he had his best overall season, we’ll probably enter the 2012 season with the same questions as we entered the 2011 season, namely will the extremely talented Williams be ready to contribute and will he take some significant carries from Wells? The Cardinals need him to, because they didn’t really have a whole lot behind Beanie this year. They picked up Chester Taylor when the Bears cut him, but Taylor didn’t contribute much, with 20/77/1 rushing and 10/91/0 receiving, and youngster Alfonso Smith wasn’t much better, with 30/102/1 rushing and an insignificant 3/21/0 receiving. The guy here who has a chance to stick, even in a backfield with a healthy Wells and Williams, is LaRod Stephens-Howling, a good return man and sort of a lowercase Darren Sproles offensively. LSH didn’t get many touches, with 43/167/0 rushing and 13/234/2 receiving, but he has the kind of ability to carve out a nice role in the future, if not with the Cardinals then somewhere else.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can Wells build off a solid season, despite some injuries, to post a career year in 2012? Will Williams be ready to contribute on a significant basis in what will essentially amount to his rookie season?
WRs/TEs: If you’re talking Cardinals, everything begins and ends with WR Larry Fitzgerald, who constantly reminds us that he’s one of the finest players in the NFL. And he does it under some of the toughest of circumstances. The Cardinals were supposed to have fixed their QB position with Kevin Kolb coming over from Philadelphia in a trade, but Kolb was injured most of the year and ineffective when he did play, and second-year man John Skelton was a little better but still erratic. That’s no matter for Fitzgerald, who still managed to put together an incredible 80/1411/8 on 152 targets, ranking him 6th at the WR position with 11.8 FPG. And remember, he did all this despite catching only 52.6% of his targets (the exact same percentage as in 2010), including only 48.4% of the second half of the season. Really, all those numbers indicate to us is that the Cardinal QBs either did have anyone else open or they didn’t trust anyone else, at least as much as they trusted a physical freak like Fitzgerald (which, of course, is understandable). Fitzgerald owners, especially in keeper leagues, can probably take solace in the fact that he still caught 80 balls in what was perceived as a “down” year, and he put up three 100-yard performances over the final four weeks of the season (each game with Skelton playing QB), equaling his century-mark numbers from the first 13 games combined. The QB situation is still going to limit Fitz’s upside, but it’s clear once again that even mediocre play (like 2011) or horrendously bad play (like 2010) won’t hold his numbers completely down. This year, the Cardinals had a couple other fantasy receivers who were relevant for a hot minute, but not much else. Early Doucet “graduated” to the Steve Breaston slot role in 2011, and he parlayed his increased opportunities into 54/685/5 on 97 targets (55.7%), enough to rank him 52nd at the WR position with 6.2 FPG, and he played a full 16-game slate for the first time in his career. Doucet isn’t a special player, but he’s reliable enough from the slot to put up some decent PPR numbers in that role, and for the most part, that’s exactly what he did. Doucet got off to a hot start early, catching 5 or more passes in five of his first 10 games, but he didn’t catch more than 3 over any of his last six. That might be because Andre Roberts actually was the official “starter” opposite Fitzgerald on the flanks. And Roberts didn’t start the year strongly, but he finished it making a decent impact. Overall, Roberts had 51/586/2 receiving on 98 targets (52.0%). But through Week Eight, he might as well have not even been on the roster – he had just 13/133/0 on 31 targets over that span. But from Week Nine on, he had 38/453/2 on 67 targets, and ranked a respectable 47th at the WR position with 6.7 FPG. Really, he got hot when Doucet got cold, with Roberts catching at least 4 passes six times over the last nine games of the season. Roberts is a small guy at 5’11”, but he is a better athlete than Doucet, and it was nice to see him realize some of that potential late in the year. They needed him to, because the Cardinals didn’t get the reliable production from the TE position as they had hoped. Todd Heap, a somewhat high-profile free-agent acquisition, dealt with hamstring issues all year and had just 24/283/1 on 36 targets (66.7%) in nine games. Jeff King, as we know, is just a guy, and he was little more than serviceable with 27/271/3 on 34 targets (79.4%) in 15 games. The true guy to watch for the future here is the gifted youngster Rob Housler. Housler had only 12/133/0 on 26 targets (46.2%), and he missed time with a groin injury, but he has a really nice skill set that has led to some comparisons to Owen Daniels. Housler’s raw, but if he takes a big leap from year one to year two he could be a sleeper in 2012.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will the Cardinals have a reliable #2 option alongside Fitzgerald for the first time since Anquan Boldin left town? Will they re-sign Doucet, a free agent? Will Housler realize his potential with a full off-season ahead of him?
Key Free Agents: WR Early Doucet, RT Brandon Keith, OG Deuce Lutui, RB Chester Taylor, DE Calais Campbell, LB Clark Haggans, LB Joey Porter, CB Richard Marshall, S Hamza Abdullah, K Jay Feely, P Dave Zastudil
St. Louis Rams
QB: While the results were shaky in his rookie season, second-year QB and former top overall pick Sam Bradford appeared poised to take a step forward in 2011. He looked the part in 2010, playing with poise and confidence, and while he had to switch offenses in a lockout-shortened off-season, there was still hope that this Ram offense would come together nicely under OC Josh McDaniels. Well, that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. In fact, outside of a weird upset win over the Saints, the Rams’ season was a total debacle. A lot was made of their injuries in the secondary and inability to stop the run, but the defense improved over the season. The offense really did not, even with the addition of stud WR Brandon Lloyd. Bradford didn’t play well, for the most part, but he was also put in a bad situation and was banged up most of the season. In addition to adapting to a new offense, he was stuck with an unreliable receiving corps and one of the league’s worst offensive lines. The offensive line in particular hindered the Ram offense, as the unit was expected to be much more effective with its early draft picks (Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith) and expensive free agents (Harvey Dahl). But the Rams allowed a league-worst 55 sacks, constantly putting Bradford at risk. In fact, he ended up playing in only 10 games because of a nagging ankle problem – and, really, he shouldn’t have even played that many games. Bradford was drafted as a possible low-end starter in August, but that certainly didn’t come to fruition. Instead, he completed just 53.4% of his passes for 2157 yards and a miserable 6 TDs with just 6 INTs, ranking 38th at QB with an average of 13.4 FPG. Among QBs who started double-digit games, only Blaine Gabbert was worse for fantasy, so the season was a total lost cause in every way. Bradford was erratic with his accuracy for most of the season, and while he would hang in the pocket behind that bad line, he also missed throws that he needed to make. The lackluster receiving corps didn’t help him, and the loss of reliable slot receiver Danny Amendola, the foundation of the passing game, at the beginning of the season was a killer. No one else was really trustworthy, whether it was because of injuries or simply a lack of adequate talent, until Lloyd arrived, but even he could only do so much in this offense. Bradford obviously isn’t a total lost cause, as he’s played only two seasons, and one would think the Rams have to take a step forward next year. But his erratic accuracy was a concern, although the receivers didn’t help with their dropped passes. Bradford threw for 300 yards twice, but he failed to throw for more than 1 TD in any game, so his fantasy value was limited all season. Behind him, the Rams were stuck with A.J. Feeley, who threw only 1 TD in three starts before a thumb injury sidelined him. That left the Rams to start former Jet Kellen Clemens, who averaged 15 FPG over the last three weeks of the season. Everything that could possibly go wrong for the Rams seemed to go wrong in 2011, and it became essentially a wasted season for Bradford. Now, he’ll have to adapt to his third system in three seasons.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will new HC Jeff Fisher and OC Brian Schottenheimer be able to turn Bradford back in the right direction? We still like Bradford a lot and think he has the tools to develop into a very good NFL QB, but when is he going to actually have fantasy value?
RBs: While, as a whole, the Rams were a train wreck in 2011, RB Steven Jackson still managed to put together an impressive season. He didn’t match the numbers of Maurice Jones-Drew in a somewhat similar situation in Jacksonville, but the 28-year-old Jackson looked good, for the most part, and was a very solid #2 RB for fantasy. He’s been consistently good throughout his career, and this season he put up his seventh straight 1000-yard season. He had 260 carries – down 70 from 2010 – for 1145 yards, bumping his average up from a career-worst 3.8 YPC in 2010 to 4.4 YPC. Unfortunately, he scored only 5 TDs on the ground, but his solid production as a receiver with 42/333/1 on 58 targets (72.4%) helped him finish 15th at RB with an average of 12.3 FPG. Yes, the average was his lowest since his rookie season, but he’s 28 years old and was still viable despite being the only dependable player in a bad situation. Plus, Jackson put up those numbers despite doing almost nothing early in the season (aside from a long TD against the Eagles), as he carried the ball a total of 6 times in the first three weeks because of a quad injury. He had four 100-yard rushing games, although three of those came in a three-week span in the middle of the season, and while he came up small a few times, he generally did something of note to come through for you as a #2 back. Given the circumstances of the 2011 season for the Rams, that’s pretty impressive. Jackson is still a versatile player who is a solid receiver, and he always runs really hard despite playing on a bad team behind a bad offensive line with no passing game. Despite his age and physical running style, Jackson hasn’t really worn down too much. He may not be a dynamic threat from the RB position, but he ran for 100 yards as recently as Week Sixteen against the always-stingy Steeler defense. Heading into the season, we thought that the Rams needed a change-of-pace back to take some of the pressure off Jackson, and the Rams ended up signing veterans Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood. While Williams had a role, this backfield was still all about Jackson, who had at least 15 carries in 12 games. Williams had very little fantasy value, carrying 88 times for 368 yards and a TD with only 13 catches for 86 yards on 22 targets (59.1%). Williams has been a decent receiver in the past, but he’s a mediocre player at this point in his career, and he didn’t bring a lot to the table for the Rams. He did have nice games early, including 91 rushing yards and 5/49 receiving in Week One after Jackson got hurt, but he rarely did much of note the rest of the year. In fact, he didn’t have more than 50 rushing yards in a game after Week Three. As for Norwood, he was totally irrelevant, as he carried just 24 times for 61 yards all year. This backfield is still Jackson’s show, but it may be time to get some youth in the mix.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: To his credit, Jackson continued to run hard and didn’t really slow down much in 2011 despite huge workloads in previous seasons. He should be the guy again, but don’t be surprised if the Rams add a younger back to complement him, although new HC Jeff Fisher will surely like to roll with Jackson and a physical run game.
WRs/TEs: The Ram receiving corps was confusing entering the 2011 season, as there were a lot of bodies with no real certainties. The only certainty appeared to be slot receiver Danny Amendola, who had a breakout campaign in 2010 with 85 catches (although they went for only 689 yards). While he wasn’t a dynamic player, Amendola was a reliable sustaining receiver and security blanket for young QB Sam Bradford. Well, unfortunately, Amendola’s 2011 season lasted one game, as he had 5/45 against the Eagles before a nasty dislocated elbow sidelined him the rest of the way. That left the Rams with a bunch of pieces but no real go-to threat: Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson; rookies Greg Salas, Austin Pettis, and Lance Kendricks; and possibly Mark Clayton, who had a good rapport with Bradford in limited action in 2010 but tore his ACL. The mediocre Gibson ended up starting most of the year by default, but he did nothing special with a total of 36/431/1 on 71 targets (50.7%) for an average of 3.4 FPG. Sims-Walker was a total bust with the Rams, putting up 11/139 on 27 targets before he was cut and ended up (briefly) back in Jacksonville. Alexander has potential as a big-play receiver, but his major durability issues have really hindered him, and he finished with 26/431/2 on 59 targets (44.1%). So, that brings us to the only WR worth anything for fantasy in St. Louis. He didn’t start the season in a Ram uniform, but Brandon Lloyd came over from Denver in an October trade and immediately fit well into the offense, as he previously played under OC Josh McDaniels and had a breakout season in 2010. With the Rams, Lloyd led the team in receiving, putting up 51/683/5 on 117 targets (43.6%) in just 11 games. The catch rate was very poor, but that was to be expected considering the sorry state of the Rams’ passing game, and they forced the ball to him way too much because they had no choice. They also had horrendous pass protection, and Lloyd had to play with an injured and shaky Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, and Kellen Clemens. Despite the issues, he still caught 5+ passes eight times with the Rams, including 6/100/1 in the season finale against the 49ers with Clemens at QB. Lloyd is a very good deep threat, and he’s also a pretty complete receiver with good route-running ability. Lloyd wasn’t a fantasy stud, but the fact that he had any fantasy value at all in St. Louis was pretty impressive, as he ranked 24th at WR in his time with the Rams, averaging 8.9 FPG. Other than Lloyd, the Rams were lost. Salas and Pettis both have potential as slot receivers, but neither did much of note. Salas had 27/264 on 37 targets (73%) with an average of 4.5 FPG, but he broke his leg in November and played in only six games. Pettis had similar numbers with 27/256 on 47 targets (57.4%) with an average of just 2.1 FPG, but he had knee issues and finished his season on a sour note by getting suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances . That means he’ll have to sit out the first two games of 2012. Then there’s Clayton, who made brief appearances in Weeks 10-11 after the ACL injury, but he underwent surgery again and was placed on IR. The problems were never-ending, and while promising TE Kendricks played in 15 games, he failed to become a consistent playmaker and finished with 28/352 on 58 targets (48.3%). He also had some big drops, but he did flash at times, too. The Ram receiving corps was a total debacle in 2011, with injuries, dropped passes, poor accuracy at QB, and horrendous offensive line play combining to make the season a failure. For all the confusion at the start of the season as to who would get the most targets, no one actually stepped up until Lloyd was acquired. Clearly, this offense needs a healthy Amendola back, but with Lloyd possibly leaving now that McDaniels is gone, the Rams need a lot more help.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Well, this is simple yet complicated: Who is even going to play WR for the Rams? Kendricks has definite potential at TE, still, but otherwise the Rams are totally lost on the outside. Lloyd is likely gone, Amendola should return but is coming off a bad injury, Alexander is talented but unreliable, and nobody else is a go-to target. To say Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon would be a great get for the Rams in the draft is a massive understatement.
Key Free Agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Mark Clayton, WR Danny Amendola (RFA), WR Brandon Gibson (RFA), QB A.J. Feeley, QB Kellen Clemens, RB Cadillac Williams, Jerious Norwood, TE Billy Bajema, TE Stephen Spach, G Jacob Bell, C Tony Wragge, OLB Brady Poppinga, OLB Chris Chamberlain, CB Justin King, P Donnie Jones
San Francisco 49ers
QBs: Alex Smith was never a lock to start for the Niners in 2011, and in fact, there was a chance he wouldn’t even return to the team. However, he may have been one of the few to actually benefit in a way from the lockout. With the unusual off-season, Smith led the team’s workouts away from the coaching staff, and, with rookie Colin Kaepernick not ready, the Niners decided to bring Smith back on a one-year deal. We couldn’t have predicted him leading the team to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship, but sometimes things fall the right way. We say that because it wasn’t like he was very productive. The team ranked 27th in passing yards and 30th in RZ TDs, as Smith went 274/446 (61.4%) for 3150 yards, 17 TDs, and 5 INT, while adding 179 rushing yards and a pair of scores on the ground to rank 28th among QBs with 16 FPG. These are hardly exciting numbers, but they were enough on a team built to win by defense and a rushing offense. Smith played very well in the team’s run-based offense, which is what he needed, but they wisely threw a lot of shorter passes, and Smith was very consistent in getting the ball to his WRs. In addition, he showed an ability to throw the ball with bodies around him. Things went extremely well for him because they ran the ball effectively and played good defense. That allowed them to stay on schedule and ahead of the down, and with the running game was going they could design some big plays to take calculated shots. We’d compare Smith’s performance in this offense to what the Jets tried to do with Mark Sanchez in his first two seasons. Like Sanchez, the Niners were in trouble if Smith had to put the offense on his back and throw it a lot, but if they avoided that and stayed on schedule with their offense, he was fine. If they were able to create and dictate matchups for Smith to make plays, he made them, like the throws he made to Vernon Davis in the Divisional Round against the Saints. Smith made some good throws when he actually stepped into them, but typically he was asked to throw shorter passes to get the ball out of his hands quickly. That’s part of the reason Davis didn’t see as many chances to make plays down the seam. For fantasy purposes, you could have used Smith if the matchup looked beatable and he was somewhat safe in terms of the low-end options because he didn’t turn the ball over. While he worked out well for the 49ers, that’s about as good of an endorsement we could give for Smith’s fantasy value. Smith would like to return to the team and the Niners have expressed interest in bringing him back, but there may not be a rush to make a deal just yet.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will Smith return and if so, will it be on a short-term deal or will he get multiple years? What happens to Kaepernick?
RBs: The 49ers dealt with a training camp holdout by Frank Gore, but the two sides eventually agreed to a three-year extension at the end of August that ensured that Gore would be on the field in Week One. He got off to a slow start, failing to hit the 100-yard mark in his first three games before ripping of a streak of five straight games with at least 100 yards. Then came a Week Ten matchup with the Giants that saw Gore get 6 carries and pick up 0 yards before being replaced by rookie Kendall Hunter. Neither Gore nor the team never fully admitted it, but he was dealing with both knee and ankle injuries that appeared to limit him for the rest of the season and might explain why he never topped 89 yards the rest of the way, including the playoffs. For the most part, Gore was getting things done and busted off long runs, which is typical when he gets carries. Hunter did a good job helping out in a complementary role. He has better speed to the outside than Gore, and his ability to create made us believe he’d play a bigger role down the stretch, which is something HC Jim Harbaugh indicated, especially since he could help keep Gore fresh. Hunter isn’t a big man, but he’s powerful for his size. He was decisive and explosive, and he had great acceleration. Even though Gore was supposedly going to get some rest down the stretch, he still ended the season 5th in carries, whereas Hunter didn’t get significant touches until the last two games of the season when he ran in 28 times for 149 yards. Hunter appeared in every game, running for 473 yards and 2 TDs on 112 carries (4.2 YPC) while adding 16/195 on 26 targets to finish with 4.9 FPG. While it wasn’t necessarily surprising to see Hunter be an afterthought in the passing game, it was surprising to see Gore put up just 17/114 on 31 targets, after playing a much bigger role in previous seasons. He would wind up with 282 carries for 1211 yards and 8 TDs and was 20th among RBs with 11.3 FPG. The Niners got almost nothing from Anthony Dixon, although he did score a pair of TDs, but it’s tough to imagine him playing a big role going forward.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Was Gore wearing down at the end of the season the sign of things to come? Will we see more of Hunter in an effort to keep Gore healthy and fresh for the entire season?
WRs/TEs: Chronic foot problems have been a problem for Michael Crabtree since he came into the league and those issues looked like they might spill into the regular season, but luckily for the Niners and those lucky fantasy owners that drafted him, they didn’t last too long. Crabtree would miss the team’s second game as part of his slow start, but that would be the only time he was out all season. Chemistry started to develop with Alex Smith and Crabtree began to turn a corner right before the team’s Week Six bye. He had only three games the rest of the season without at least 5 receptions and became a reliable fantasy option for the first time in his career. We wouldn’t call him an ideal #1 WR in the tradition sense like Calvin Johnson, for example, but he fit in that role on this team, which relied more on their ground game and a very safe passing attack. Crabtree reminded us that he’s clearly talented, and his ability to get open was a result of his good route-running, which allowed him to get separation. He’ll probably never put up huge numbers as long as he’s at the mercy of someone limited like Smith, but he settled into a role as the team’s top pass-catcher. He was clearly the best option the 49ers had on the outside since they lost Josh Morgan to a broken ankle and cut the ineffective Braylon Edwards, and neither Ted Ginn nor Kyle Williams really fits the mold of a starting outside WR. With Vernon Davis used more as a blocker, Crabtree led the team with 73/880/4 (12.1 YPC) on 115 targets (63.5% caught) and was tied for 39th among WRs with 7.5 FPG. Williams flashed potential in his 13 games (20/241/3, 31 targets), but he’s probably better suited to play in the slot at just 5’10”, 186 pounds. Ginn (19/220/0, 33 targets) was forced into action as a receiver more than the team probably wanted, and he ended up missing the NFC Championship with a bad knee. Davis was an important part of their rushing offense as a blocker, which he admitted was frustrating since he wanted to be the one with the ball in his hands. For most of the regular season, Davis was effective as NFL TE, but as a fantasy TE, he was somewhat disappointing. A strong finish to the season allowed him to finish with 67/792/6 (11.8 YPC) on 95 targets (70.5% caught), putting him 9th among TEs with 7.2 FPG. He was the 49ers’ leading receiver in the playoffs with 10/292/4, and hopefully those big numbers showed the staff that he needs to be involved more as a receiver next season if they want to contend with the better offenses in the NFC. Delanie Walker, the team’s #2 TE, was not only used as a blocker, but he also lined up inside and outside as a receiver, and even did some work as a returner. A broken jaw cost him a couple of games at the end of the regular season, but he was able to return for the NFC Championship. Walker had his best game of the Giants in Week Ten, when he caught 6/69, but he didn’t catch another pass until meeting the Giants again in the playoffs. In 14 games, he ended up with 19/193/3 on 34 targets and averaged just 2.7 FPG.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Did Davis’ outstanding playoff performance do enough to convince the team he should be used more as a receiver than a blocker? Will Crabtree be able to build on his first solid season in the league? With Morgan and Ginn hitting free agency, will either be brought back or will the team look to upgrade at WR?
QB: It’s hard to believe that an NFL team actually went into the 2011 season with the idea of using Tarvaris Jackson as its QB, and it might be even more ridiculous that the Seahawks weren’t pushovers in the least. Sure, their defense had a lot to do with that, but for all Jackson’s struggles, he did occasionally show why he was a 2nd-round pick of the Vikings some years back. On the first year of a two-year contract, Jackson was decent enough to keep the Seahawks afloat, no more and no less. For fantasy, he wasn’t even worth owning. He completed 271/450 passes (60.2%) for 3091 yards with 14 TDs and 13 INTs, and perhaps most disappointing was his pedestrian 41/110/1 performance on the ground. Of QBs who started 13 or more games, Jackson’s 15.2 FPG ranked him ahead of only Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert. Jackson topped 300 yards passing twice (once, incidentally, in a game he didn’t even start), but he threw for fewer than 200 yards on eight separate occasions. Only three times all year did he throw multiple TD passes, so his most important role on this team was to avoid turning the ball over and to hand it to Marshawn Lynch. To Jackson’s credit, he pulled that off pretty well, throwing only a single INT in five of his 14 starts, with no picks in six of them. Jackson has always had a strong arm, but the biggest problems with him have always been his complete lack of knowledge and feel for playing the position. In comparison to what Charlie Whitehurst gave the team in his three appearances, however, the Seahawks have to be at least somewhat pleased with Jackson. Occasionally, he looked really poised and efficient, and on those occasions he threw the ball with confidence (see his games against the Cardinals and Ravens for example). That guy, with the ability to make plays with his legs and his big arm, is the guy backers have supported in the past, and we guess still do support. Also remember that he played much of the year with a torn pectoral muscle and a really bad offensive line, and you gain a bit of respect for what Jackson pulled off in 2011. In assessing Jackson’s 2011 fairly, we have to note that he didn’t do much of anything for fantasy, and his future as a starting QB in the league is still very much in question. But for now, he’s the best guy they have, and coach Pete Carroll has said he’ll enter 2012 as the starter. They’d love to get an upgrade at QB, but that’s easier said than done.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Did Jackson seriously show enough to be named the starter heading into 2012? It seems doubtful that Whitehurst, a free agent, will be back in town. Will the Seahawks add a veteran, a rookie, or roll with project Josh Portis as the backup QB?
RBs: The Seahawks were a competitive team for much of the 2011 season, and were certainly not the “pseudo bye week” many might have been anticipating when seeing them on the schedule. As much as coach Pete Carroll’s defense had to do with that, the offense was still able to move the ball pretty effectively. All that credit goes to RB Marshawn Lynch, who had a fantastic season in his second year with the Seahawks, after coming over in a midseason trade in 2010. Lynch finished with 285/1204/12 rushing and 28/212/1 receiving, averaging an 8th-most 14.6 FPG on the season. Given how he finished, it’s hard to remember how he started. Through Week Four, Lynch looked like the Lynch from 2010, with only 46/141/1 rushing (3.1 YPC). But then he turned the jets on, and he entered a streak in which he scored in 11 consecutive games (in six of which he topped 100 yards rushing). Lynch’s performance from that point forward ranked him 4th among all RBs, and has put him in a position to be a 1st- or 2nd-round fantasy pick next season. We criticized Lynch the last few seasons by calling him the “Hermit Crab,” meaning he waddled side-to-side far too often, negating his biggest strength, which is his natural power. That wasn’t the case at all in 2011, in which he turned on “Beast Mode” on more than one occasion. A lot of credit should go to OL coach Tom Cable’s blocking scheme, and after that slow start Lynch clearly became comfortable with it and benefited from him. The OL even managed to perform at a high level despite some serious injury issues. One of Lynch’s TD runs against the Eagles in Week Thirteen, although much shorter, was reminiscent of his unreal scamper against the Saints last postseason, and is worth a YouTube view. Lynch might be the last guy defenders want to see in a one-on-one situation because he has no qualms about running straight through a tackle. In addition to a great commitment to him, Lynch completely stopped trying to bounce too many runs to the outside, good news because his skillset doesn’t fit that kind of play. This was much more reminiscent of the impressive Lynch we saw in his rookie season, the guy we ended up putting on our magazine cover the year after (We TOLD you he was good!). Lynch is a free agent, but there’s a mutual fit here and Lynch has expressed his desire to return to Seattle. That’s good news, because there’s not much else here. Justin Forsett, who is also an impending free agent, might as well have disappeared from the earth. In 16 games, Forsett had only 46/145/1 rushing and 23/128/0 receiving. We’ve liked him, but he might have to go elsewhere to maximize his potential. The Seahawks also still have Leon Washington under contract, but he didn’t do much in 2011 either, with 53/248/1 rushing and only 10/48/0 receiving. However, he’s a key return man, and if Forsett leaves town, his role might increase offensively. But overall, the point here is that this backfield is all about Lynch.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Lynch is a free agent, but it seems a near certainty that he’ll be back in 2012. But who will back him up? Forsett is a free agent, so will the Seahawks go with Washington in an expanded role, or will they sign or draft another back to pick up the slack?
WRs/TEs: The Seahawks understood that they needed to upgrade their weapons on the perimeter if they were going to have a viable passing attack, and to their credit, they went out and spent money to improve them. But the end-of-season leaderboards probably didn’t look much like the Seahawks had intended. Remember they signed WR Sidney Rice and TE Zach Miller each to big free-agent deals, while locking up WR Michael Williams on a long-term contract. Of these players, only Rice finished in the top five on the roster in receptions. In nine games, the gifted but oft-injured Rice posted 32/484/2 on 56 targets (57.1%), and he ranked just 47th at the WR position with 6.7 FPG. Rice did what he was supposed to… kind of, as he was the Seahawks’ top-ranked WR in a standard-scoring league. But foot and concussion issues kept him out for nearly half the year, and the Vikings look smart for not doling out big money to keep him around town, talented though he may be. If Rice can’t stay on the field, he can’t live up to his #1 potential. As for Miller, he was a huge disappointment. He played a ton of snaps in the 15 games he actually played in, but he caught only 25/233/0 on 40 targets (62.5%), and he didn’t even see a target in two games. In the 13 games he actually saw a target, he averaged 1.8 FPG, which ranked him 45th at the TE position, behind guys like Charles Clay, Lance Kendricks, and Leonard Pope. Yeesh. Miller is really gifted, but he was hurt by a poor QB situation and perhaps his new location/scheme, but he’s never had problems with a poor QB situation in Oakland before. He’s a strong candidate for a rebound in 2012, if only because there’s nowhere to go but up. Big Mike Williams might also be on the “nowhere but up” list, as he caught just 18/236/1 on 37 targets (48.6%) in 12 games, before an ankle injury ended his season. The injuries to the Seahawks’ veteran WRs at least helped get some promising youngsters on the field. Ben Obomanu (37/436/2 on 61 targets; 60.7%) looks like just a guy, but at least he stayed healthy and has some decent size (6’1”, 204). He can play a role moving forward, although it likely won’t be a particularly significant one, at least for fantasy. Toward the end of the year, the Seahawks started to get Golden Tate a little bit more involved. Through Week Twelve, Tate caught only 16 passes in 11 games, but finished the year with 19 receptions in his last five. Tate had only 35/382/3 on 58 targets overall (60.3%), but at least he finished strong. Unfortunately, his size (5’10”, 202) seems to suggest he’d fit better in the slot, but he isn’t as sudden an athlete as you might expect. Given the assembly line of mediocrity at the WR and TE positions for the Seahawks, it is at least nice they had a true breakout performer. Rookie WR Doug Baldwin wasn’t drafted, but he became QB Tarvaris Jackson’s most reliable receiver in 2011. Baldwin played in all 16 games, catching 51/788/4 on 84 targets (60.7%). He ranked only 50th at the WR position with 6.4 FPG, but we can cut that a little slack considering how unreliable everyone else here was. Among rookies, Baldwin was fourth in catches and receiving yards (behind only A.J. Green, Greg Little, and Julio Jones), not bad considering he wasn’t among the 28 WRs taken in last April’s draft. Baldwin makes a living closer to the line of scrimmage, and he’s got some juice to him. He’s a quicker athlete than the two big guys on the outside (Rice and Williams), so he could continue to get a lot of targets going forward. He does a nice job coming back to (or “attacks”) the ball when running a pattern, meaning he doesn’t just stand and wait for the ball to get to him. He looks like he could be a really nice slot receiver moving forward, despite his size limitations (5’10”, 189).
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will anyone separate himself from this messy pack of WRs? Can Baldwin parlay his surprising rookie season into a better 2012, even if Rice, Williams, and company get healthier? Will Miller rebound from a disastrous season?
Key Free Agents: RB Marshawn Lynch, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, FB Michael Robinson, TE John Carlson, OG Mike Gibson, OT Breno Giacomini, DE Red Bryant, DE Raheem Brock, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, LB Leroy Hill, LB David Hawthorne, S Atari Bigby
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