2013 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2014 Preview: NFC West

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Arizona Cardinals
QB: Fixing the awful QB situation in Arizona was the top priority of new coach Bruce Arians in 2013, even more so than fixing the terrible offensive line. At the least, he gave them a fighting chance of making the playoffs with the addition of Carson Palmer to the fold. Maligned after a hopeless tenure in Oakland, Palmer revitalized his career somewhat in 2013. He led the Cards to a 10-6 record (still not good enough to make the playoffs in a nasty NFC) and posted 362/572 passing (63.3%) for 4274 yards with 24 TDs and 22 INTs. Palmer’s 19.4 FPG ranked him #23 among all fantasy QBs. Now, obviously, he had some growing pains in the new offense. Behind a still shaky offensive line that lost rookie G Jonathan Cooper in the preseason, Palmer threw 15 INTs through his first nine starts of the season, when he posted a very low 17.4 FPG, with only 239.3 YPG. However, the line started to settle down around midseason, and Palmer closed the year with some solid performances. Over the final seven games of the year, Palmer ranked #10 among QBs with 21.9 FPG. He threw “only” 7 INTs over that span, 4 of them coming in a single game against the Seahawks (a game the Cardinals actually won). And he averaged 302.9 YPG passing. Overall, Palmer’s 63.3% completion percentage was his best since 2007, and his 7.5 YPA were his second-best since 2006. It certainly helped Palmer that he had elite receiving options in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, plus intriguing youngsters TE Rob Housler and RB Andre Ellington. Palmer is expected to remain the Cardinals’ starting QB in 2014, the Arizona Republic confirmed after the 2013 season ended. At the least, he’s shown that he’s still capable of putting up numbers and battling through injuries (ankle and elbow late in the year). And at least he’ll have Fitzgerald back in 2014. If the line takes another step forward in 2014, and gets Cooper back, Palmer could be a stable if unexciting fantasy backup.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Palmer and the offense stabilize and can the offensive line put together a consistent performance throughout the year? Will Drew Stanton remain Palmer’s backup? With Palmer entering his age-34 season, will the Cards draft a QB early?
RB: With Beanie Wells gone and Ryan Williams a healthy scratch for every Cardinal game this year, the Arizona backfield was almost completely new. Among Arizona backs who touched the ball in 2012, only Alfonso Smith (28 total touches in 2013) had any semblance of a role this year. New coach Bruce Arians started his tenure in Arizona by bringing in Rashard Mendenhall, his former back in Pittsburgh, on a one-year deal. For the most part this season, Mendenhall was Arizona’s lead back. Overall, though, his numbers were underwhelming. In 15 games, he carried for 218/687/8 on the ground (3.2 YPC) and added 18/134/0 receiving on 21 targets (85.7%). He ranked 38th among RBs, with 9.9 FPG in a PPR league. If you had to use Mendenhall as a flex play, you at least knew he was going to be involved each and every week. He touched the ball at least 10 times in all 15 games he appeared in this season, and in 14 of the 15 he had 10 or more carries. But the problem with Mendenhall is he had about zero tangible upside. His season high in yards from scrimmage came all the way back in Week Two, when he had 94 yards on 17 touches. And despite averaging nearly 10.0 FPG, Mendenhall had only 6 double-digit PPR performances in his 15 games. Each of those performances came in his six games in which he scored at least 1 TD. In other words, if Mendenhall didn’t score, you weren’t getting value on your flex play. Where Mendenhall excelled, however, was in short yardage. Of his 11 carries inside the five-yard line, he turned 8 into TDs. That 72.7% conversion rate was better than any of the 21 RBs with 10 or more goal-line opportunities. Of course, that means Mendenhall didn’t score a single TD from outside a goal-line situation, and his overall numbers reflect that lack of upside. An impending free agent, Mendenhall shouldn’t be a big priority for the Cardinals unless he comes on the cheap. That said, while Arians wasn’t thrilled with his health and ability to practice, he did do what Arizona asked of him, and he provided a decent enough complement to rookie Andre Ellington. An undersized but explosive player capable of making a big play every time he touched the ball, Ellington carried for 117/652/3 (5.6 YPC) and hauled in 39/371/1 as a receiver on 57 targets (9.5 YPC, 68.4%) in 15 games. He averaged 11.0 FPG in a PPR, ranking him 34th among RBs. He was the exact opposite of Mendenhall, in that all 4 of his TDs came outside the five, and 2 of the 4 came on big plays. The problem for him as a fantasy back, though? His role. Throughout the year, Arians was insistent that Ellington was better suited to handle 12-15 touches per game than a true “feature back” role. Overall, Arians’ usage of Ellington backed up his words. But despite the lower number of touches than Mendenhall (he had 10 or more touches in 10 of 15 games), he was simply far more productive on a per-touch basis – a ridiculous 6.56 YPT in comparison to Mendenhall’s 3.48 – and he provided more upside for fantasy players. Ellington has said he wants to put more weight on this off-season in preparation to handle a larger role, and his arrow is pointing up. Should Mendenhall not return, we could see rising second-year player Stepfan Taylor take his “plodder” role. Drafted ahead of Ellington, Taylor never really got a big role, with 36/115/0 rushing and 8/71/0 receiving, while playing in all 16 games. But if the Cardinals truly want to rotate their backs in 2014, Taylor is probably a better option to do that than the more expensive Mendenhall. Then again, since Taylor doesn’t move well they may be better off with yet another option if they let Mendenhall depart.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Mendenhall, an impending free agent, be back? Can Ellington add weight and become the “lead” back here? If Mendenhall leaves, can Taylor step up or will the Cardinals add someone else?
WR/TE: Despite exceptional talent, the Cardinals had one of the least productive receiving corps in the NFL in 2012, due to how absolutely abominable their QB situation was. But while it’s hard to call Carson Palmer an elite passer and the “savior” of their air attack, his stability certainly helped the Cardinals harbor some fantasy relevance on the perimeter. It was a rebound year for WR Larry Fitzgerald, although it wasn’t the dominant performance we’ve come to expect from him. Playing through concussion and hamstring issues to appear in all 16 games in 2013, Fitz posted 82/954/10 receiving on 134 targets (11.6 YPC, 61.2%). He ranked tied for 21st among all WRs, with 14.9 FPG, rebounding from his brutal 2012 in every area. However, Fitzgerald’s 11.6 YPC still was a low number, and he wasn’t consistently dominant at any time this season. Fitz had five games of fewer than 10 FP in a PPR, and he never posted back-to-back 20-point outings. His season-high in receiving yards was 117, and he topped 100 yards only twice. Fitz was still among the most active receivers in the NFL inside the 20, with a 3rd-most 24 red-zone targets, and 6 TDs. But he was more of a possession guy this year than he ever was in the past. After the season, Fitz agreed to restructure his contract in 2014 to help the Cardinals free up some cap room, and he must know that he could be cut or traded after 2014 if his production doesn’t prove to be irreplaceable. Placing that pressure on Fitz is Michael Floyd, who had a fantastic season in his second year in the league. Playing in all 16 games, Floyd posted 66/1054/5 receiving on 108 targets (16.0 YPC, 61.1%). His 12.6 FPG ranked him tied for 29th, only eight spots behind Fitzgerald. Between Weeks Four and Thirteen, Floyd posted eight double-digit fantasy performances in nine games – the only time he didn’t was in Week Ten against Houston, when he left early with a shoulder injury. Over that span, he was a reliable #2 PPR receiver, with 15.6 FPG. He hauled in 44 of his 65 targets (67.7%) over that span, catching more balls and at a higher percentage than Fitzgerald (40/72, 55.6%), despite averaging 16.4 YPC to Fitz’s 12.5. However, Floyd ended the season on a sputter, playing hurt through a foot injury suffered in Week Thirteen. Still, he led the team in receiving (the first time anyone but Fitz has done that since 2006), and earned a major boost in keeper/dynasty rankings. With a few more TD opportunities, he may overtake Fitz in fantasy points, as well. Speaking of that, Andre Roberts actually led the Cards in FPG in 2012, but fell way off in 2013. In 16 games, he posted only 43/471/2 receiving on 76 targets (11.0 YPC, 56.6%). His 6.4 FPG ranked him 88th at the position. A slot receiver who lost snaps because of the Cards’ tendency to go 2-TE to help out the offensive line, Roberts had only three games of more than 10 FP in a PPR and was Waiver Wire fodder all year. He’s an impending free agent and the Cards have some money problems. The Cards’ typical #3 target in the passing game this year was the talented TE Rob Housler. In 13 games, Housler posted 39/454/1 receiving on 57 targets (11.6 YPC, 68/4%). But his lack of red-zone targets (7) hurt his TD opportunities, and he ranked only 30th among TEs, with 7.0 FPG. Housler struggled with drops, but we occasionally saw the upside that intrigued us a couple years ago when he came out of Florida Atlantic. He needs to polish his game and improve his blocking to be a full-time player, however. Because he struggled in-line, guys like Jim Dray (26/215/2) and Jake Ballard (7/75/2) got a lot of work.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Fitz reestablish his dominance, or is Floyd primed to become a superstar next year? Can they coexist as high-end fantasy options, like the pair in Chicago? Can Housler take the next step? Will Roberts be back?
Key Free Agents: RB Rashard Mendenhall, LB Karlos Dansby, WR Andre Roberts, LB Matt Shaughnessy CB Antoine Cason, DT Frostee Rucker, CB Javier Arenas, CB Bryan McCann, NT Alameda Ta’amu (ERFA), T Eric Winston, TE Jeff King, TE Jake Ballard (RFA), S Yeremiah Bell, DE Ronald Talley (RFA), RB Alfonso Smith (RFA), LB Marcus Benard (RFA), K Jay Feely.
San Francisco 49ers
QB: After taking over the starting job for the second half of 2012 and leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl where they were just one play away from winning a Lombardi Trophy, it was certainly fair to be excited about QB Colin Kaepernick’s prospects in 2013. The one caveat was Kaepernick had to start the season without his favorite target, WR Michael Crabtree, as he was recovering from a torn Achilles’. Kaepernick raised expectations significantly after he threw for 412 yards and 3 TDs in the opener over the Packers, doing so without Crabtree. Unfortunately, Kaepernick stumbled after that and the 49ers ended up making adjustments to their offense, which put less pressure on Kaepernick to carry the offense. Instead of expanding their passing game in his first full season as the starter, the 49ers scaled things back and relied more on RB Frank Gore and the ground game. Gone was the constant use of the read-option, as Kaepernick didn’t run as much and attempted 30 passes just three times all season. While the addition of WR Anquan Boldin and improved rapport with TE Vernon Davis helped, Kaepernick still missed Crabtree, and it wasn’t until Crabtree returned that the offense started to look dangerous and Kaepernick looked more comfortable. While Kaepernick had just eight games with 20+ FP, he finished with at least 22 FP in the final three games heading into the playoffs. After his big game in the opener, Kaepernick didn’t throw for 300 yards again until Week Seventeen, but he was clearly hitting his stride going into January. It was the in-between that hurt fantasy owners banking on a monster season from him. In 10 games, Kaepernick failed to throw for 200 yards. His rushing numbers were solid, as he had 521 yards and 4 TDs on 95 carries, but with just 3197 yards, 21 TDs, and INTs on 243/416 passing (58.4%), his 20 FPG was good for just 20th at the QB position. We have to wonder if things would have been significantly better if Crabtree had been healthy for the entire season, especially since taking a young QB’s favorite target away in just his second season as a starter must have been jarring. We can only hope Kaepernick builds on his strong finish to 2013 and continues to develop because he has all the skills to be a dominant player for years to come. At this point, entering his third season as the starter and second full season, he should be ready to take a step forward throwing the ball.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Kaepernick be a reliable fantasy starter for all of next season? After admitting he intentionally runs more in the postseason, will the team coach Kaepernick to run more in the regular season?
RB: He may be getting up there in age, especially for a RB, but Frank Gore continues to play well and showed the 49ers he could carry the load and the offense when called upon in 2013. For the third straight season, Gore played in every game and anchored the 49er power rushing scheme, which was especially important when they got away from using the read-option and scaled back their passing attack with QB Colin Kaepernick struggling in his first full season as the starter. At times, we saw RB Kendall Hunter and even RB/FB Anthony Dixon in the mix to help keep Gore fresh and healthy, but neither really posed a threat to Gore’s touches. We did have some concerns about Gore wearing down and he ended up playing through knee and ankle issues down the stretch and into the playoffs. In addition to playing every game of the last three seasons, the 49ers have now made appearances in the last three NFC Championships, so Gore has played an additional eight games over that span. He had just three 100-yard games all year and did that just once after Week Six. In addition, Gore failed to hit double-digit FPs in four of his last seven games. He ran 276 times for 1128 yards and 9 TDs (4.1 YPC). He led all RBs with 61 RZ rushes. It was a quiet year for Gore as a receiver, with just 16/141 on 26 targets. Gore’s 12.3 FPG was good enough for 26th amongst RBs, but was tied for his lowest FPG since his rookie season. While Gore may be slowing down, the 49ers don’t seem to be worried about others getting involved. Hunter had 78 carries for 358 yards and 3 TDs (4.6 YPC) and 2/13 on 4 targets. Dixon ran 28 times for 56 yards and 2 TDs. Second-year RB LaMichael James ended up carrying the ball just 12 times for 59 yards. While Gore may be the man heading into next season, we have to wonder if RB Marcus Lattimore will play a significant role after sitting out his entire rookie season recovering from a major knee injury he suffered in college. With Gore turning 31 this year, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Other than a minor finger surgery, Gore should be healthy heading into a contract year and Lattimore is expected to be ready for off-season workout, so it should be interesting to see how this backfield looks in 2014. Gore might hang on for another season (2014) but his career as a lead back is winding down.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Gore continue to play a major role and be a reliable fantasy contributor? Will Lattimore and/or Hunter get more opportunities?
WR/TE: In a bit of a surprise move, last March, the 49ers acquired WR Anquan Boldin from the Ravens just a month after Boldin helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl. Even more surprising, especially now, is that he was had for just a sixth-round pick. At the time, the move was panned and after the 2013 season, those criticisms of the Ravens were justified, with Boldin having a fantastic season in San Francisco. Of course, Boldin ended up playing a bigger role than initially expected, thanks to the torn Achilles’ WR Michael Crabtree suffered during the off-season. The injury was bad enough to keep Crabtree out for all but six games, and with WR Mario Manningham starting the season on the PUP because of a knee injury, Boldin became very important, very quickly. With players like Jonathan Baldwin, Quinton Patton, and Kyle Williams failing to make any headway as the team’s #2 WR, it was left up to Boldin and TE Vernon Davis to be the only reliable options for QB Colin Kaepernick. Boldin and Kaepernick clicked quickly and any chemistry issues between Davis and Kaepernick from the 2012 season were quickly erased, as the two had a great rapport in 2013. While Boldin may not run as well as he used to, he can still get off press coverage and in addition to being a big, physical target, like Davis, he also has strong hands. Boldin ended up with 85/1179/7 (13.9 YPC) on 128 targets (66.4% catch rate) with 15 RZ targets and was 19th among WRs with 15.4 FPG. It was his best season since 2008 and his most targets since 2009. While Bolding turns 34 in October and is a free agent, both sides seem to have mutual interest on his return to the 49ers. Davis dealt with concussion and hamstring issues that held him to 14 games, but he still had 52/580/13 (16.3 YPC) on 80 targets (65% catch rate), including 21 RZ targets. He was tied for 3rd at the TE position, with 15.4 FPG. That was his second-best fantasy season, and he tied career-highs in TDs and YPC. Crabtree didn’t take very long to show he was completely recovered from his injury, which was great to see. Plus, he return definitely helped Kaepernick get more comfortable, and by the end of the season, this offense looked the best we saw all season. In five games, Crabtree had 19/284/1 (14.9 YPC) on 32 targets and 10.7 FPG. He’s eligible for a contract extension and will likely discuss that with the team, as he should be a big part of their future. Manningham landed on the IR with knee issues and may not be back after posting just 9/85 on 23 targets. The 49ers don’t have others they can really bank on as reliable contributors going forward, as Patton had just 3/34 and Baldwin had just 3/28. Rookie TE Vance McDonald is still a work-in-progress after putting up 8/119 on 17 targets. If Boldin returns, the combination of him, Davis, and Crabtree gives this team one of the best starting groups in the league.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Crabtree be as dominant as he was in 2012 with health issues behind him? Will Boldin return, and if he does, does he have enough left in the tank for any solid fantasy season?
Key Free Agents: QB Colt McCoy, RB/FB Anthony Dixon, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Mario Manningham, OL Jonathan Goodwin, CB Tarell Brown, CB Eric Wright, S Donte Whitner, PK Phil Dawson.
Seattle Seahawks
QB: The Seahawks got a pretty typical Russell Wilson performance in the Super Bowl, despite 43 Seahawk points and a lopsided affair. He completed 18/25 passes for 206 yards and 2 TDs and added 3 carries for 26 yards, as Wilson made a couple of big throws and relied heavily on a stout defense and the team’s running game. The Seahawks and Wilson followed that same script for the most part this season, as the second-year QB clearly has a flair for making a big throw or two a game to make opposing defenses pay for creeping extra players into the box. He’ll also make a few scrambles a game to keep opposing defenses honest. The Seattle passing game is probably best judged by efficiency rather than yards, as Wilson has been asked to basically keep the ship moving forward with a world-class defense and run game. Wilson finished 4th in the league, with 8.25 yards per attempt, despite finishing 29th in yards per game, with 210. Wilson played the part of a glorified game manager that can occasionally hit the shot play. He finished the year completing 257/407 of his passes (63.1%) for 3357 yards, 26 TDs, and 9 INTs. Wilson added 96 carries for 539 yards (5.6 YPC) and 1 TD, and he ranked 14th among QBs with 20.7 FPG. Wilson finished third in QB rushing yards, behind only Cam Newton (587) and Terrelle Pryor (580). Wilson will need to keep using his legs in the future to keep his fantasy value up, as the Seahawks aren’t likely to throw the ball a ton as long as their running game is playing at a high level. The Seahawks attempted only 420 passes, the second-fewest attempts ahead of only the 49ers (417). Russell did have a six-game stretch from Week Seven through Thirteen when he threw for multiple TDs in every game, racking up 1418/14/2 and helping him to rank 5th among QBs during that time with 24.9 FPG. However, Wilson threw for just 685/4/3 in the final four regular season games for 14.7 FPG, and 524/3/0 in three playoff games. Wilson clearly didn’t play great down the stretch, but he did enough for the Seahawks to win a couple of pivotal games. At 25 years old, Wilson still has plenty of room to improve as a passer, and RB Marshawn Lynch won’t be in Beast Mode forever, so Russell could have more on his plate in the near future. Backup QB Tarvaris Jackson got his moment in the sun during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, taking the field for Wilson in the blowout victory. Jackson also saw mop-up duty in four other games this year, but he’s got NFL starting experience, including 15 games with the Seahawks in 2011, so he’s got some value as a backup in a system that he’s quite familiar with. The Seahawks will look to keep the soon to be 31-year-old free agent in the fold next year, but rookie B.J. Daniels had some moments in the preseason with the 49ers, so he’s a guy to keep an eye on.
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Will the Seahawks give Wilson more responsibility as a passer next season or will this offense continue to revolve around Lynch? Can Wilson be a fantasy force like he was in Week Seven through Thirteen, or is he more of the big-play game manager that we saw in the final seven weeks of the regular season and postseason?
RB: Running back Marshawn Lynch didn’t have to go into full blown Beast Mode for Seattle to win the Super Bowl, finishing with just 15 carries for 39 yards and a TD, but the Seahawks certainly wouldn’t have gotten to the NFL’s biggest game without their workhorse back. With last season’s big acquisition Percy Harvin essentially out for most of the season, the Seahawk offense clearly revolved around Lynch once again, as it has since he arrived in Seattle in 2010. The Seahawks attempted 509 running plays, the second-most attempts behind only the Bills (546). Lynch carried 301 times for 1257 yards (4.2 YPC) and tied for a league-best 12 rushing TDs with Jamaal Charles. Lynch led the league by a wide margin in goal-line carries with 26, and next closest player was Le’Veon Bell at 19. Lynch also finished second to 49er RB Frank Gore (61) in red-zone carries with 58. Only Eagle RB LeSean McCoy (314) had more carries than Lynch this season. Lynch had a career year as a receiver, catching 36 passes for 316 yards (8.8 YPC) on 44 targets (81.8% catch rate) and 2 TDs, which helped him to finish 7th among RBs, with 17.3 FPG. Lynch will turn just 28 in April, but he will be entering his eighth season in 2014, so he’s definitely starting to get NFL old. He has logged a lot of miles in the last few years, including an average of 300+ carries the last three years, so it will be interesting to see how much wear on the tires he has left. That 300+ carries per season doesn’t even include his catches and postseason touches, as he has 1002 total carries the past three years, so he’s been used heavily. Lynch has finished as a top-10 fantasy running back the last three seasons, so we’ll see if he can maintain his high-level of play next season. We’d guess he will, since his game is not exactly about speed and quickness. The winner of the camp battle between Robert Turbin and Christine Michael could be critical for fantasy purposes, as Lynch’s handcuff could be an important fantasy draft selection for Lynch owners. Turbin, in his second season, saw much more action than Michael, but he had just 77 carries for 264 yards and 8 catches for 60 yards as a little used backup. Turbin is the better pass protector and has more experience than Michael, but the rookie from Texas A&M is far more talented and has an intriguing combination of size, power, and movement. Michael saw action in just three games and carried just 18 times for 79 yards, but he’ll have a full off-season to improve and challenge Turbin for the backup role. Michael clearly has more dynasty league value than Turbin going forward, and his stock could be on the rise in the near future if Lynch slows down at all next season.
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: How much wear on the tires does Lynch have left after averaging 300+ carries the last three seasons? Will the Seahawks continue to lean heavily on Lynch or will they give more rope to Wilson next season? Who will win the camp battle for the backup role between Turbin and Michael, which could be a critical handcuff if Lynch slows down at all?
WR/TE: We never really got to see the Seahawk offense at full strength until the Super Bowl, as key free agent acquisition Percy Harvin essentially missed the entire season. Harvin gave us a glimpse into just how dynamic he can be when he stays on the field. Of course, that staying on the field part has been the hardest part for Harvin in five seasons. Harvin has played a full 16-game schedule just once (2011), and he’s seen time in just 10 of 32 regular season games the last two years. Harvin missed all but one game this season because of a procedure on his hip, and he suffered a concussion in the Divisional Round, which forced him to miss the NFC Championship. Harvin, though, made his presence felt in the Super Bowl with a 30-yard run on the Seahawks’ second offensive play and an 87-yard kickoff return touchdown. The Seahawks would love to get a full 2014 season out of their big off-season acquisition Harvin, but history tells us that may be wishful thinking. He’ll be a hit-or-miss candidate for fantasy purposes next season. Without their top receiver for most of the season, the Seahawks attempted only 420 passes, the second-fewest attempts ahead of only the 49ers (417). WR Golden Tate led the Seahawks in receiving this season, but he didn’t make huge strides into becoming a consistent force. He finished with 64 catches for 898 yards (14.0 YPC) and 5 TDs on 98 targets (65.3% catch rate), ranking 30th among WRs with 11.7 FPG. Tate is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, and he could command some decent offers because of his big-play ability, but he has said he’d willing to take a hometown discount. WR Doug Baldwin is a restricted free agent and the Seahawks will likely keep him around, especially if Tate explores free agency. Baldwin and WR Jermaine Kearse would see the biggest jump in role and production if Tate does indeed leave town. Baldwin finished the year with 50 catches for 778 yards (15.6 YPC) and 5 TDs on 72 targets (69.4% catch rate) for 10.6 FPG. Baldwin became the #1 wide receiver in the second half of the year, racking up 26/398/4 in Weeks Nine through Fifteen, and he played well in the postseason, with 13/202 in three games. Kearse caught 22 passes for 346 yards (15.7 YPC) and 4 TDs on 37 targets (59.5% catch rate), and he showed great ability to leap and catch contested passes. Both Baldwin and Kearse showed more than enough talent to replace Tate, so the Seahawks won’t overspend to keep Tate around. The forgotten man in the Seahawk wide receiver corps is Sidney Rice, who played in just eight games before tearing his ACL. He posted just 15/231/3 before his injury, and it’s highly unlikely that Rice comes back to Seattle next season unless he takes a significant pay cut from the $9.7 million he’s due. TE Zach Miller never really emerged as a viable threat in the Seahawk offense after showing some chemistry with QB Russell Wilson late in 2012. Miller caught 33 passes for 387 yards (11.7 YPC) and 5 TDs on 56 targets (58.9% catch rate), finishing 24th among TEs with 7.3 FPG. The Seahawks could look to restructure Miller’s deal, as he’ll be a $7-million cap hit next year. Rookie TE Luke Willson flashed a couple times in his first season, so he could be ready for a bigger role, especially if Miller isn’t willing to take less money. Willson finished the year with 20/272/1, but the athletic tight end needs to improve his blocking if he’s to see a significant bump in playing time in this run-first offense.
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Can Harvin actually stay healthy for a full season and produce for fantasy in this run-first offense? Will Tate stick around with the world champs or will he bolt for a chance to play in a more pass-happy offense? If Tate leaves, can Baldwin and Kearse see more production with bigger roles? Will Willson cut into Miller’s role or possibly replace him if he doesn’t take a pay cut?
Key Free Agents: WR Golden Tate, WR Doug Baldwin (RFA), QB Tarvaris Jackson, K Steven Hauschka, CB Brandon Browner, CB Walter Thurmond, TE Kellen Davis, TE Anthony McCoy, DE Michael Bennett, OT Breno Giacomini, OT Paul McQuistan, DT Tony McDaniel, FS Chris Maragos, DT Clinton McDonald, S Jeron Johnson (RFA), C Lemuel Jeanpierre, FB Michael Robinson, OLB Michael Morgan (RFA).
St. Louis Rams
QB: Coming into 2013, QB Sam Bradford had continuity at the OC position for the first time in his career. In his fourth season, Bradford would be working with OC Brian Schottenheimer for the second straight year, and with a young, promising group of receivers, including additions like TE Jared Cook and rookie WR Tavon Austin, the Rams looked like a potentially dangerous offense if everything finally clicked. We didn’t get anything close to that in 2013, and there are serious questions about Bradford and this team’s passing game going forward. Bradford was playing well enough, but far from great, when he suffered a torn ACL just seven games into the season. While guys like Cook and Austin weren’t involved enough, Bradford didn’t exactly wow us with his play, and that’s been a problem during his short time in the league. One of the most troubling things we saw from him in 2013 was him holding on to the ball and not pulling the trigger on throws that were there. In those seven games, he went 159/262 (60.7%) for 1687 yards with 14 TDs and 4 INT and just 15/31 on the ground, giving him 20.5 FPG (15th). With Bradford out, the team turned to journeyman QB Kellen Clemens the rest of the way. Although they leaned heavily on their ground game, Clemens did his best to keep the passing game on track. In nine starts, he went 142/242 (58.7%) for 1673 yards, 8 TDs, and 7 INTs, good for just 12.2 FPG. Bradford is on schedule in his rehab and believes he’ll be ready for the start of training camp. The team has the #2 pick the draft but seem to be behind Bradford as their starter and will likely use that pick on another position of need. Bradford is heading into a contract year, so this could be his last chance to prove his worth as a franchise QB.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Bradford bounce back from this major injury and reach his potential? With Clemens hitting free agency, will he be back to backup Bradford or will the team look elsewhere to fill that role?
RB: After being the team’s top back throughout the preseason, it was assumed that the Rams would roll with RB Daryl Richardson as their starter in 2013, but that didn’t last very long, and as we found out, the switch to rookie RB Zac Stacy was the right one. They essentially did a 180 offensively and reverted to being a power running team, as opposed to being more of a spread offense. Richardson would play in eight games, but he made just three starts and wasn’t very effective. He ran 69 times for 215 yards (3.1 YPC) and added just 14/121 on 18 targets to finish with 6.8 FPG. Richardson looked great in the preseason, but he was ineffective as a runner while he was starting. It looked like RB Isaiah Pead would be the next man up, but the team didn’t show any commitment to him, as he didn’t get a start in 10 appearances and rushed just 7 times for 21 yards, while adding 11/78 on 15 targets. Instead, it was Stacy who took over the role in Week Five and never looked back. We were a little surprised to see Stacy get the job after being deactivated for Weeks Two and Three, only to start just a couple of weeks later. When QB Sam Bradford went down after just seven games, the Rams leaned on Stacy to carry the offense, and he ended up doing a pretty good job. Originally thought to be more of a short-yardage back, Stacy proved he was more than just a power back, as he also handled a fairly active role as a receiver. With 12 starts in 14 games, Stacy ran 250 times for 973 yards and 7 TD (3.9 YPC), while catching 25 of 35 targets for 141 yards and a TD to finish 23rd among RBs with 13.2 FPG. Stacy’s talent won’t bowl you over, and the team is still probably better off getting another back in the mix, so we’re not letting our expectations get too high, even if he performed at a higher level than expected as a rookie. He does have great intangibles and he clearly understands what it needs to play at a high level. In fact, we interviewed him on the radio during the season and had future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson give him some advice on the air in terms of how he can stay on the field and be productive. There are pretty good vibes surrounding Stacy coming off an impressive rookie performance on the field.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Stacy build on a strong rookie season and remain a reliable fantasy option? Will the Rams get another back in the mix, possibly as a receiver?
WR/TE: There was some buzz around the Ram receiving corps heading into 2013 with the potential of a few fantasy sleepers coming out of this offense, and it all started with the signing of TE Jared Cook. Many, including Cook himself, believe his talents were wasted in Tennessee, so a fresh start with a team needing a receiving threat at the TE position looked like the perfect situation for Cook. The Rams also moved up in the first round of the draft to take the dangerous WR Tavon Austin out of West Virginia and added Austin’s WVU teammate, WR Stedman Bailey, later in the draft. Add those names to a receiving corps with an intriguing talent like WR Chris Givens and there was certainly room for optimism when it came to this passing attack in 2013. Things got off to a great start, at least for Cook, as he would post 7/141/2 in the opener and looked to be on his way to a breakout season in his new home. Unfortunately, that was the peak for Cook, as he hit double-digit FP just three other times and topped 50 yards just once the rest of the year. Cook was blamed for his poor play, whether it was drops or poor routes, and the team seemed to lose confidence in him, which is why we saw TEs Lance Kendricks (32/248/4, 45 targets) and Cory Harkey (13/113/2, 17 targets) get in the mix. Cook would finish with 51/671/5 (13.2 YPC) on 84 targets (60.7% catch rate) and 9.3 FPG, putting him 19th at the position. While he would end up with career-highs in catches, TDs, targets, and tied for his most FPG ever, he still fell short of expectations as a reliable fantasy starter. The loss of QB Sam Bradford didn’t help, but Givens ended up being a huge disappointment, posting 34/569/0 (16.7 YPC) on 83 targets (40.1% catch rate) and 5.7 FPG, with 13 starts in 16 games. With Bradford gone, the downfield potential of Givens dried up almost completely. The use of Austin was maddening at times, especially since the team clearly needed a jolt in their passing game, but he was too often relegated to just return duty with a minor role as a WR. That would change down the stretch, as Austin began playing a bigger role in the offense as a threat out of the backfield, in the slot, and out wide. Austin would suffer high-ankle sprain and missed the last three games of the season. He started in three of 13 appearances, catching 40 of 69 targets (58%) for 418 yards and 4 TDs, while rushing 9 times for 151 yards and a TD, putting him at 9.8 FPG. Austin did fumble 4 times and that was part of the reason his role was limited early in the year. His 40 catches ended up leading the team, which shows just how much they were hurting at WR. WR Austin Pettis had some fantasy value early on, but ended up with just 38/399/4 (10.5 YPC) on 62 targets (58%) and 6.4 FPG. WR Brian Quick had 18/302/2 (16.8 YPC) on 33 targets and 4 FPG, while the rookie Bailey had 17/226 (13.3 YPC) on 24 targets in 16 games. Other than Austin and Cook, the significant roles for next season appear to be up for grabs and we’ll be proceeding with caution when it comes to trusting this receiving corps for fantasy. The one player to watch in 2014, other than Givens trying to re-establish himself as a deep threat, is Bailey, who could emerge as a key possession guy in this offense.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Austin be a reliable fantasy contributor if given a bigger role? Can Cook finally put it together? Will another Ram WR step up?

Key Free Agents: QB Kellen Clemens, OL Rodger Saffold, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB Will Witherspoon, S Matt Giordano, S Darian Stewart.

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