A few years ago, east coast fans hated the 4 pm EST games. Most of the games aired at 1 pm and there was only a select few that remained for the afternoon. The bulk of those afternoon games were dominated by appearances containing NFC West teams, for obvious reasons. Times have changed. The nation looks forward to watching the NFC West, no matter what time the games air.
The biggest changes over the last few years have been the faces of the decision-makers. Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher, and now Bruce Arians have taken the NFC West from laughingstock to leaders. These coaches, along with their front offices, with the exception of Arians (first year), have molded these teams into winners by utilizing the strengths of the players they have, signing key free agents, and most importantly drafting intelligently.
This series, “Thin Line between Fantasy and Reality” focuses on the 2013 NFL Draft and undrafted free agents and how they may contribute to your Fantasy team this year. There was no better place to start than the NFC West. The “Thin Line” references not only the skill positions, but also the other picks that bring value to those skill players. For example, Larry Fitzgerald will be more effective when he has an offensive line to protect his quarterback. Below is how these teams drafted in April and more importantly, your Fantasy outlooks may be affected.
Jonathan Cooper – Arizona’s first round selection will step in and upgrade the interior of the offensive line immediately. He is the most versatile, talented, agile offensive lineman that the Cardinals could have added to their interior. While Arizona would have loved to add Lane Johnson to the offensive tackle group that includes Levi Brown, and two second-year players, Nate Potter and Bobby Massie, the interior upgrade was just as important. Levi Brown has improved over the last few seasons and Massie came on strong late last year. Potter will develop into a suitable swing tackle. Cooper can now step in and help out at guard or center. Regardless, the Cardinals’ running backs and even Carson Palmer will be grateful.
Stepfan Taylor & Andre Ellington – Arizona is taking every precaution to not be caught off guard at the running back position. Beanie Wells, who is no longer with the team, and Ryan Williams can’t seem to stay healthy. They’ve added Rashard Mendenhall this offseason as well as these two rookies. Taylor and Ellington were selected in the 5th and 6th rounds. They couldn’t pass on their value at that point, but their presence should lead the Cardinals to see what they have in Williams and Mendenhall. Williams has the most to prove, seeing as how he can’t stay healthy and he’s the only one of the four that this new coaching staff didn’t bring in. Stepfan Taylor can carry the ball and is built for the NFL wear and tear. He’ll be a chain mover and shouldn’t see an enormous role unless Mendenhall goes down. They could find value in Taylor as a goal-line back, but if they’re comfortable with Rashard in that role, there may be no need for Taylor to even get those touches. Ellington is the true wild card in this race. Andre has exceptional burst, vision, and balance that is remarkable. So why was Ellington still available with the 187th pick? The same reason that his in-state counterpart, Marcus Lattimore fell. Neither one can stay healthy. If Andre would have been able to stay as healthy as Taylor in college, he would have been drafted ahead of Giovani Bernard. He’s a far better running back than his ACC rival. If you’re stuck on draft day, and have to select Taylor or Ellington, I’d lean in Ellington’s direction. His ability to run between the tackles and even burst towards the edge is worth the risk. He’s a big play threat and will stand out more in the preseason and training camp….if he stays on the field.
Ryan Swope – It seems the Cardinals made a conscious effort to get late round values in talented players that have injury concerns. Swope has the ability to go outside, but will mostly be an inside receiver. Paired with Larry Fitzgerald and second-year receiver Michael Floyd, Swope could do some damage. Andre Roberts will be learning the offense with Swope and Swope is the better player. Before Kevin Sumlin came to Texas A&M, Swope played in a highly sophisticated, pro style offense. He’s one of the best blocking slot receivers and that will help him see the field early. LaRon Byrd is another player that you’ll have to be concerned with if you’re a Swope owner. Byrd was impressive during the 2012 preseason. The team recently signed Jarrett Dillard and Kerry Taylor is still on the roster. Both are possession type receivers, but neither should threaten the more talented Swope. The fear factor in Swope, more than competition, is the fact that he has small hands. On his A&M tapes, he routinely dropped the ball during contact or even fumbled it. Going to a bigger, NFL sized ball is something to watch during this offseason.
Jaron Brown – While no one found him worthy of a draft pick, he could turn out to be this year’s Rod Streater. Brown has similar size to Streater, both are in that 6’2-6’3 range and around 200-205 pounds. That’s not the only reason that I feel he may be a hidden gem though. Streater was one of Carson Palmer’s favorite targets last season. Now he’s in Arizona and just like Streater gained his trust as a rookie, Brown may do the same as they both have “catch everything” type hands. Neither will be a playmaker after the catch, but Brown has a huge catching radius and he’ll gain the Cardinals and Palmer’s eyes early. You might be asking how he goes undrafted with that type of size and hands combination. The answer is easy, he was buried on the depth chart behind first round pick, DeAndre Hopkins and probably a first round pick in 2014, Sammy Watkins.
San Francisco 49ers
Vance McDonald – It’s becoming expected that the 49ers will lose a talented player and replace him with someone with even more talent. The tight end position isn’t any different in this regard. San Fran lost Delanie Walker this offseason and replaced him with second round pick McDonald. The rookie is a physical freak. It would be unbelievable to see what he can do at 6’4, 267, only if they hadn’t seen it before with Vernon Davis. McDonald isn’t a finished product, but he falls into an ideal situation. He’ll be allowed to learn beside Davis and will get to see action early on in two tight end sets. He’ll be an impact player in 2013 and if Davis goes down for any amount of time, he’ll become a heavy contributor in the offense.
Quinton Patton – I wasn’t as high on Patton coming out as most of the media. When I watched his tapes, I noticed that he took every rep from the right side of the field. I spoke with a friend, who just so happens to be a quarterback that threw for him at a workout, and he said he never took reps from the left side. As an NFL slot receiver this is a huge concern. His film was great, especially on the deep post and 5 yard stop. I’m sure he can learn to become a complete route runner, but he won’t be polished at this early on. While he’s learning, last year’s first round pick, A.J. Jenkins will be developing for the 2nd year in this offense. Jim Harbaugh has a chip on his shoulder to prove that Jenkins wasn’t a bust as a first round pick. Mario Manningham should be back to full health and the “Rocket”, Ricardo Lockette, may find a spot on the team as he’s had a few years to develop between Seattle and San Fran. He’s a speedster that’ll provide a deep play threat for Colin Kaepernick as Davis, McDonald, Michael Crabtree, and Anquan Boldin stay underneath and occupy the focus of the defense. Patton’s value should be extremely low.
Marcus Lattimore – The 49ers had the luxury to make this choice because they had accumulated so many picks and running back wasn’t a need. San Francisco still has Frank Gore running well. LaMichael James is a nightmare for opposing defenses as a zone read, pistol threat, Kendall Hunter is coming back, and Jewel Hampton was last year’s Lattimore. Marcus has never gotten back to the same player that he was before the first injury. Like everyone else, I’m pulling for him, but he’ll probably spend 2013 on the injured reserve or the PUP at a minimum.
Christine Michael & Spencer Ware – I think it’s become apparent what type of back Pete Carroll likes. Marshawn Lynch, Michael, Ware, and last year’s pick, Robert Turbin are all between 5’10-5’11 and 215-225 pounds. Carroll likes big power backs that make defenders earn every tackle, run with vision and power, and they have to be decisive. Ware is cut more in the mold of Turbin, while Michael is similar to Lynch, but is more explosive. Michael was my number one back in this class and will be a steal for the Seahawks. I thought that there would be no way that the Packers would pass on Michael, but they did it twice and the second time they took Eddie Lacy one pick before Seattle made the Michael selection. While Lynch will be the primary back, I don’t see any way that Michael doesn’t get touches in Week 1. He’ll have the best career out of all the 2013 running backs, if he can become humble and follow orders. Talent isn’t what caused Michael to be available at the 62nd pick overall. He makes insane cuts, has great vision, explosion, power, and he can protect the quarterback.
Chris Harper – I’m sure the Seahawks are happy to reunite Percy Harvin with Sidney Rice. The team needs that third option and Harper will be fighting with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate for it. Tate has vastly improved each season and Baldwin was an early surprise in Seattle. Neither has Harper’s size or hands. He literally catches everything. He has the toughness and physical nature that Carroll covets. He’ll be a main part of the offense and can contribute immediately in 2013.
Luke Wilson – Seattle is taking this competition with San Francisco a little too far. First the 49ers get a Rice tight end and then Seattle follows suit. Wilson stands 6’5, 250-plus and ran a high 4.4 forty yard dash. Got your attention now? He dealt with injuries all year in 2012, or he may not have been around in the 5th like he was. If he stays healthy through camp, he could push Anthony McCoy for the number two tight end job. Another target for Russell Wilson, just what the rest of the NFL needs.
St. Louis Rams
Tavon Austin & Stedman Bailey – The Rams apparently love receivers under 6’0 and 200 pounds. Chris Givens was their biggest producer last year that’s still on the roster and he fits the above criteria, as does their two new playmakers. Danny Amendola left for the payday in New England. While Amendola had talent, he couldn’t stay on the field. I just find it odd that they go back to the smaller receivers, even though they’ve been burned before, recently. Don’t get me wrong, Austin is the best in space and a matchup nightmare for defenses, and Bailey is a great possession guy, but if Brian Quick doesn’t develop vastly this offseason, I think they’ll be stuck with a lot of complementary pieces that require a talented, big target to take some of the focus away. Jared Cook could contribute in this regard, but Quick really needs to develop as an consistent outside threat or the Rams will face eight in the box on the bulk of their snaps. They don’t want the focus to be on Austin or he’ll get lit up over the middle. I think Austin is a Fantasy stud and Bailey will be a big contributor as well, but I would draft them conservatively, as injuries are truly a factor based on the team’s makeup.
Barrett Jones – The Rams have a solid offensive line now. Jones was the one missing piece after the Jake Long acquisition. There’s isn’t a lot of depth at the tackle position, but the Jones pick gives the offensive line a little more security. Jones should come in and compete with Chris Williams, Brandon Washington, and Shelley Smith for the starting offensive guard position opposite of Harvey Dahl. He should win the starting job, but Washington is a guy I also liked coming out of Miami last year. He also gives insurance if something happens to Scott Wells. If he doesn’t win the OG position, his depth at guard and center will be valuable to the team over 16 games. The completed offensive line will hopefully allow Sam Bradford to go back to the quarterback he appeared to be early on in his career. It’ll also be a huge benefit to the three young backs.
Zac Stacy – Stacy comes along at the right time. No one is the clear premier back in St Louis with the departure of Steven Jackson. However, I think people will be pleasantly surprised by Isaiah Pead in year two. I believe he’ll take the crown as lead back, but we should see heavy contributions from Stacy and Daryl Richardson. Stacy is worth tracking during the offseason. I had him ranked higher than Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard. Pead better get his act together or Stacy could come in and take the job before Week 1.
Philip Lutzenkirchen – Lutz never looked overly impressive at Auburn, but he was always in position to make a play, come up with a big catch, or even throw a game changing block. He’s a guy that can fight to make the roster. He doesn’t have much fantasy value, but if he out works Lance Kendricks we could see him taking some H-back type of reps.