2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: AFC West
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QB: The Broncos opened the season with Kyle Orton at QB, but in case you didn’t notice, they didn’t finish that way. Orton started five games for the Broncos, and to make a long story short, he was benched in the middle of a terrible start against the Chargers, and the Broncos never looked back. In the four full games Orton started, he was actually decent, throwing for 945 yards with 8 TDs and 6 INTs to average a 15th-most 20.2 FPG over that span. But against the Chargers in Week Five, Orton went 6/13 for 34 yards and an INT in the first half, and coach John Fox benched him. The rest, as we all know, is history. Orton would soon be released (and claimed by division rival Kansas City) and the NFL’s favorite lightning rod Tim Tebow would lead the 1-4 Broncos to the playoffs, with a 7-4 record in his 11 starts. And Tebow did most of his winning while putting up consistent, if not very good, fantasy numbers. Starting in Week Five, when Tebow relieved Orton and put up 17.6 FP against the Chargers in one half (in a near comeback victory), he averaged 19.8 FPG, which ranked him a very solid 14th at his position over that span. On the year, Tebow completed only 126/272 passes (46.3%) for 1729 yards, with 12 TDs and 7 INTs, so he’s clearly still very rough around the edges as a passer. But he also added 120/666/6 as a runner, making him the 2nd-most-productive QB with his legs, behind only Cam Newton (for comparison’s sake, Tebow had more rushing yards than Ahmad Bradshaw). And as inconsistent and unreliable a passer as Tebow was, consider how consistent a fantasy producer he was. Between Weeks Five and Sixteen, he bottomed out at 17.8 FP (which he did three times), and maxed out at 31.0, so he was a solid bet for decent numbers most weeks (until, of course, he threw up a 4.6 FP stinker in Week Seventeen). As a starting QB, Tebow completed fewer than 10 passes four times, which is unheard of, but he produced positive rushing statistics in three of those four games. So when looking at Tebow, we have to analyze whether or not his performance as a passer signals the potential for improvement. If you want a short answer, it’s “yes.” But it’s not quite that simple. As most know, Tebow came out of Florida with a really long and slow delivery and what was likely the need to overhaul his entire system of mechanics. That hasn’t changed; Tebow still takes way too long to wind up and get the ball out, and he still throws a lot of dead ducks. But the Broncos did a great job giving him easy reads, and within the constraints of the read-option offense they ran, Tebow ended up making several big-time NFL throws, and usually at least one most weeks. That’s certainly praise with an asterisk, but it’s praise nonetheless. Like we would expect from most young QBs, Tebow occasionally looked comfortable, and he occasionally looked lost. This is a guy who has started less than a full season as an NFL QB in two years, so we still have to keep in mind that he’s young. As Tebow showed in the playoffs against the Steelers, he can make strong individual plays, and if he can make the proper reads and accurate throws against man coverage, he’s a tough kid to beat. However, we do have significant doubts about Tebow’s future as a passer, and ultimately, he’ll have to prove he can win in the pocket consistently to assuage those concerns. A full off-season might make or break him, and the Broncos now have no choice but to enter 2012 with him as their starting QB. But all the things people rave about with Tebow – toughness, competitiveness, etc. – fuel his strong performance on the ground, where he’s a better runner than we thought. That’s the key to his fantasy performance.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will a full off-season as the assumed starting QB put Tebow in a better position to succeed as a thrower? With Brady Quinn a free agent, who will back up Tebow in 2012? The team definitely wants to give him some competition by adding a viable backup.
RBs: Although it might not have gone exactly as the Broncos planned, the fact that Tim Tebow emerged as the club’s starting QB meant a strong run game was going to have to be the foundation of the Denver attack. And as we predicted early in the season, it was free-agent signee Willis McGahee who piloted the ship, not third-year disappointment Knowshon Moreno. We’ll start by getting Moreno out of the way quickly. He can play a role, but he’s more of a swing back who can catch the football than anything else. Moreno played in only seven games before tearing his ACL, and he didn’t touch the ball much – 37/179/0 rushing and 11/101/1 receiving ranked him just 56th at the RB position with 4.9 FPG, a horrendous finish for a guy who was typically overdrafted as a 5th or even 4th-round pick. Although the torn ACL obviously put a dagger into Moreno’s season, he was already well behind McGahee on the effectiveness meter. Typically, a John Fox-coached team needs a foundation back, and McGahee provided what Moreno couldn’t. Whether in a standard base offense or the Broncos’ option-hybrid offense (with which McGahee initially expressed skepticism), McGahee was stellar. In 15 games of action (he battled knee and hamstring issues), he carried for 249/1199/4, an average of 4.9 YPC. Unfortunately, his lack of TDs and almost invisible production as a receiver (12/51/1) meant he ranked just 24th at the RB position, so he probably had a better season on the field than he had in the box scores and for fantasy. He certainly had his opportunities to make an impact, as he carried the ball 20 or more times in six different games, and he had seven 100-yard performances as well. Unfortunately for McGahee, Tebow stole some TD opportunities in tight, and his fantasy production wasn’t as strong as his overall performance would suggest. McGahee ran with promising power, and his vision was a great asset when running the college-style option plays. He’s going to turn 30 early in the 2012 season and he did suffer a variety of injuries in 2011, and as we know 30-plus RBs usually don’t have much left in the tank, so the Broncos might want to supplement McGahee with some talent in the backfield, but with Tebow likely to remain the starter in 2012, we’d predict more success for McGahee as long as he continues to stay healthy. And if the Broncos opt to move on from Moreno or want to keep his role reduced, they have a solid option already in the backfield in Lance Ball. There’s nothing really special about Ball, but he’s a physical downhill runner who contributes more as a receiver than McGahee. In 16 games, Ball carried for 96/402/1 and added 16/148/1 as a receiver. He averaged only 4.2 FPG, ranking him 65th at the RB position, but he only had two games with double-digit carries. When given an opportunity to produce, he usually did pretty well. He’s built like a brick house, so he could be a handcuff for McGahee if Moreno’s future is uncertain and the team opts to address other needs elsewhere. One thing is clear: If Tebow is the starting QB here, the RB position will be really important moving forward.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can McGahee maintain his level of success despite getting older? Is there a possibility that the Broncos could cut Moreno, who isn’t much of a fit in their new scheme? If so, will Denver stick with Ball as the backup, or will they go with either a rookie or veteran addition?
WRs/TEs: With Tim Tebow at QB, there wasn’t a whole lot of production to go around for the Bronco WRs. That doesn’t mean they don’t have good players here, it’s just that the fantasy relevance was difficult to find. Case in point: WR Brandon Lloyd, who played in only four games with the Broncos before being traded to the Rams, finished third on the team in receiving with 19/283/0. The Broncos made the switch to Tebow at QB in the middle of Lloyd’s final game with the team, and the Broncos went to some very basic WR sets for the rest of the year, often using just one wideout on the field while running a jumbo package. These formations would free up receivers in single coverage, making an easy read for Tebow down the field. The first guy to assume the “#1” WR role here was Eric Decker, who was pretty solid between Weeks One and Nine this year. Over that span, he ranked tied for 19th at the WR position with 9.6 FPG on 33/406/6 receiving with 59 targets (55.9%). But Decker’s role was about to take a major hit. The gifted Demaryius Thomas returned from injury in Week Seven, and he slowly built up his strength and became the Broncos’ top option down the stretch. Decker’s numbers were clearly affected, finishing Weeks 10-17 with only 11/206/3 on 33 targets (33.3%), and a miserable 76th-ranked 4.1 FPG. Decker is a #2 receiver at best, in that he has good size and decent speed but he doesn’t stand out in any one area. That’s why Thomas was such a solid pairing with Tebow. While he’s battled injuries, and the Broncos have certainly been criticized for taking him over Dez Bryant, it’s important to remember that he was indeed a 1st-round pick, and he has the kind of ability to stick as a major threat for a long time. Thomas, recovering from a torn Achilles and a finger injury, debuted in Week Seven, and in 11 games he posted 31/551/4 on 67 targets (47.8%, more Tebow’s blame than Thomas’), which ranked him only 41st at the WR position. But most of that production came in the last five weeks of the season – 25/448/3 on 45 targets (55.6%), enough to rank him 10th at the WR position with 12.7 FPG. Maybe it took him time to get his feet under him, or maybe it just took him a few weeks to show the coaching staff (and Tebow) that he’s the perfect option if they’re just going to run a lot of iso sets for a receiver (ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who got burned for 204 yards and an overtime TD in the Wild Card round of the playoffs). Although it’s somewhat a lazy comparison because both players went to Georgia Tech, Thomas did get some scouts thinking they had a lowercase Calvin Johnson on their hands, and occasionally, his play backed that up. It also helps that Thomas is running a lot of the same plays he ran at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets played an option offense that featured a lot of vertical routes for Thomas. We’ll see if a full off-season helps the Broncos expand their passing game, but Thomas – who is very physical off the line and who can run well for a bigger man - is certainly a good enough receiver to anchor this attack. Outside of Thomas and Decker, the Broncos didn’t get much of a contribution from anyone else. WR Eddie Royal went for just 19/155/1 on 48 targets (39.6%) in 12 games, and their top receiver at the TE position Daniel Fells had just 19/256/3 on 31 targets (61.3%) in all 16 games. The Bronco offense just didn’t lend itself to much production from the players on the perimeter, so we’ll have to be careful in our handling of them heading into 2012.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can more than one receiver at a time have a noteworthy fantasy performance? Will Royal, a free agent, return to the fold? With both Fells and Dante Rosario set to hit the market, will talented young TEs Julius Thomas and Virgil Green get a chance to produce?
Key Free Agents: WR Eddie Royal, TE Daniel Fells, QB Brady Quinn, TE Dante Rosario, FB Spencer Larsen, OG Russ Hochstein, DE Derrick Harvey, DT Brodrick Bunkley, LB Joe Mays, LB Wesley Woodyard, S Brian Dawkins, CB Jonathan Wilhite, K Matt Prater
Kansas City Chiefs
QB: Nobody is going to mistake Matt Cassel for an elite quarterback, but, heading into the 2011 season, the Chiefs knew they at least had a capable starter who was also a pretty solid #2 QB for fantasy. But Cassel got off to an extremely rough start, and while he ultimately had a few solid weeks, his season was cut short after Week Ten because of a right hand injury. In nine starts, Cassel completed 59.5% of his passes for 1713 yards, 10 TDs, and 9 INTs to average a disappointing 15.1 FPG. He was held to fewer than 10 FP in two starts against Detroit and Oakland, and he averaged only 190.3 passing YPG for the season. Cassel clearly has limitations as a passer with mediocre arm strength, and he seems incapable of performing at a high level when the matchup is tough. He can beat weak defenses, but he can also look overwhelmed against a good unit. It didn’t help that he opened the season with a rib injury and put up a total of 16.6 FP in blowout losses to the Bills and Lions. Cassel’s season ended after Week Ten, leaving the QB job, temporarily, to the unproven Tyler Palko. Palko started four games, and he was clearly in over his head as a starting NFL QB. In his first two games against the Patriots and Steelers, Palko threw 0 TDs and 6 INTs, and he was held under 200 yards in each of his final three. HC Todd Haley (for some reason) liked something about Palko, but Palko’s arm strong is not of NFL quality, and he averaged only 11.5 FPG. And that brings us to Kyle Orton. Orton isn’t spectacular, but he’s capable of being a solid starting QB. He opened the season as the Broncos’ starter, but after losing the job to Tim Tebow, he ended up getting claimed off the Waiver Wire by the division-rival Chiefs before Week Twelve. Orton made his first appearance for the Chiefs in Week Twelve against the Bears; however, that appearance lasted only one snap, as Orton attempted a pass on a flea flicker and dislocated his finger when he hit his hand on an opponent’s helmet. The injury gave Palko another start before Orton mercifully took over in Week Fifteen, promptly leading the Chiefs to a shocking home victory over the then-undefeated Packers. In three games, Orton completed 61.5% of his passes for 779 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs, so he wasn’t really viable for fantasy with an average of 14.2 FPG in those games – although he did throw for 300 yards against the Raiders. Orton was solid but nothing special with the Chiefs, who operated a fairly simplistic offense with quick throws, play-action passes, and a lot of runs. As always, he was fairly erratic at times, but he has a solid arm and can be really effective in the play-action game, as he was when he was at his best in Denver. At the very least, Orton was a significant upgrade over Palko. As for the other QB spot, rookie 5th-rounder Ricky Stanzi never even saw the field, although he could move up the depth chart next year with Orton and Palko likely gone.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Orton is an unrestricted free agent, so it looks like Cassel will be the starter again, as he’ll be healthy and ready to go. The Chiefs could bring someone in to compete with Cassel, but Cassel is expected to be the starter heading into the summer. As for Orton, he’ll be looking to move on, most likely, and could factor into a team’s QB situation.
RBs: After leading the league in rushing in 2010, the Chiefs appeared to be set at RB heading into 2011. While Thomas Jones had certainly lost a step, the offense was in good hands revolving around the speedy Jamaal Charles, who had nearly 2000 total yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 15.1 FPG in 2010. However, those expectations unfortunately fell off a cliff quite early. Charles tore his ACL early in the team’s Week Two game against the Lions, sidelining him for the season. So, that left the Chiefs with a bunch of pieces – none of whom was capable of being a featured back. Jones has been an excellent runner in the past, but, at 33 years old, he was not capable of carrying the load. Dexter McCluster was a good candidate to see increased involvement as a satellite player capable of big plays, but he never really broke out, as the team continued to struggle to use him effectively. And the unproven Jackie Battle looked solid as a power back, but he brought little juice to the table and is very one-dimensional. So, without Charles, the Chiefs were left with an unspectacular backfield, and they subsequently fell from 1st in rushing to 15th, with an average of only 3.9 YPC (26th). Jones and Battle got the bulk of the work as inside runners, and Battle was generally more effective. Jones had 153/478/0 with averages of 3.1 YPC and just 3.3 FPG, while Battle had 149/597/2 with averages of 4.0 YPC and 5.2 FPG. For the most part, neither was reliable for fantasy. Battle got into the mix with a larger role in Week Five, when he put up 119 yards on 19 carries, and he actually had a nice little run as the Chiefs played better. However, his role as a “closer” was diminished after Matt Cassel got hurt, as the Chiefs struggled and Battle had more than 50 yards only once in his last six games, making him undependable for fantasy, even as a low-end guy. Battle is a big and physical back, but unfortunately he’s not much more than a straight-line runner and has poor lateral quickness. He can wear down a weak defense, but he’s rarely going to have a lot of success against a strong front seven. If nothing else, he was at least a better option than Jones, who received 88 fewer carries than 2010 despite the absence of Charles. Jones was held to an average of under 3.0 YPC in 10 of 16 games, and he failed to reach the endzone with 5 attempts inside the 5-yard line all season. In other words, he was never valuable for fantasy. When Charles went down, it was natural to assume that McCluster would see a larger role at RB. Obviously, his talent level is not near that of Charles, but he can theoretically do similar things because of his explosiveness and elusiveness in the open field. Unfortunately, McCluster still isn’t making the big plays that are expected from someone with his skill set. He generally saw about 8-12 touches per game, and he was only useful as an occasional reach play as a flex with an average of 6.0 FPG. He had 113/510/1 on the ground and a solid 47/334/1 through the air, although a positive sign is that his biggest games came late in the season. For a small back, McCluster actually runs pretty hard, but he’s obviously not going to be a consistent runner between the tackles. Plus, unfortunately, he just didn’t get the ball in space enough.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: The Chiefs need to get Charles back in the mix, and the good news is that he’s reportedly on schedule with his rehab, so he should be okay in 2012, although we have to hope he is back to his previous speed and can’t expect it. The Chiefs need to find a power back to complement him. Both Jones and Battle are free agents. Also, with Charles back, what will McCluster’s role on offense be?
WRs/TEs: After catching 15 TDs in 2010, it was nearly impossible for Dwayne Bowe to duplicate his success in 2011. However, despite a really shaky QB situation that saw his QB Matt Cassel miss half the season, Bowe still almost duplicated his numbers – only without the TDs. So, his fantasy value took a hit, as he fell from 12.9 FPG to 9.2 FPG, but Bowe still had a solid season, given the circumstances. He put up 81/1159/ on 136 targets (59.6% catch rate), and he actually ranked 11th in the league in catches despite playing in an offense that was quarterbacked by three people – including Tyler Palko. Despite Palko’s severe limitations as a passer, Bowe actually caught 7 passes in each of his first two starts, and he also had 6+ catches in eight of his last 12 games, making him a very solid PPR option. Bowe isn’t necessarily an elite player, but he has good size and uses that to his advantage, gaining separation and making plays all over the field. With Jonathan Baldwin not ready for a bigger role, Steve Breaston nothing more than a complementary piece, and TE Tony Moeaki out for the season, Bowe was clearly the go-to guy on the outside again. The Chiefs were a mess for most of the season, so the fact that Bowe was consistently pretty solid was impressive. All things considered, he had a nice season. However, other than Bowe, no one here did much of note for fantasy. Breaston was solid enough, but he still finished only 60th among WRs with an average of 5.8 FPG, putting up 61/785/2 on 98 targets (62.2%). The hope was that Breaston would eventually move into the slot to make room for Baldwin on the outside, but that never really happened. The Chiefs used a lot of base personnel on offense, utilizing a lot of play-action passes working off the run game. But Breaston’s fantasy value was rarely great, as he had one 100-yard game and both his TDs came in one other game, so most weeks he came up with 4-5 catches and 40-50 yards (in fact, he had a five-game stretch of exactly those numbers in Weeks 12-16). Breaston is a solid player, but he’s not going to command a ton of targets on the outside. Ideally, Baldwin will start doing that next year. Baldwin’s NFL career got off to a rough start, as the 2011 1st-round pick injured his thumb in a preseason fight with RB Thomas Jones and subsequently didn’t make his debut until Week Seven. He got off to a solid start on the field, though, putting up 5/82/1 in Week Eight against the Chargers, but that was the last we really heard from him. He finished the season with only 21/254/1 on 51 targets (41.2%), and while some of his lack of production can be blamed on Cassel’s injury and the shaky QB situation, he clearly didn’t progress enough to get on the field much. The Chiefs used a lot of base personnel packages, and Baldwin failed to do enough to permanently move Breaston into the slot. Baldwin isn’t a burner, but he has enough speed to go with his size that he should be a fairly dangerous target downfield. However, after the preseason fight, 2011 became mostly a lost cause, so we have to hope he avoids trouble and is focused on possibly breaking out alongside Bowe in 2012. Inconsistency was a concern with him coming out of college, so this will be a very big off-season for him. It will be especially big if the team lets 2012 free agent Bowe fly the coup. If so, Baldwin will have to be put on the fast track as the #1 WR here. Most of the Chiefs’ passing game production went to Bowe, Breaston, and Dexter McCluster, and the TE position was a wasteland. The promising Tony Moeaki tore his ACL and missed the entire season, leaving the position in the hands of Leonard Pope (24/247/1 on 34 targets) and Jake O’Connell (7/52 on 12 targets). Moeaki is talented, but he’s had some injury issues and the team may look to upgrade their TE spot in the draft or free agency.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: While Cassel isn’t spectacular, his return would at least provide some stability here. Obviously, Bowe is the top question. If he receives a large offer and doesn’t get the Franchise tag by KC (possible), he could be gone. If so, the passing game rests with Baldwin, Breaston, and Moeaki. If they live up to their potential, this Chief offense actually could have a lot of weapons, especially because RB Jamaal Charles will return.
Key Free Agents: QB Kyle Orton, WR Dwayne Bowe, RB Thomas Jones, RB Jackie Battle, FB Le’Ron McClain, WR Jerheme Urban, TE Leonard Pope, TE Anthony Becht, OT Barry Richardson, C Casey Wiegmann, NT Kelly Gregg, CB Brandon Carr, FS Jon McGraw
QBs: The Raiders opened their season with Jason Campbell under center hoping to improve on their 8-8 record in 2010. Their 2011 season ended with Carson Palmer under center and yet another 8-8 record. Let’s take you back to the start to figure out how they got there. After finding himself in and out the of lineup at times in 2010, there appeared to be more of a commitment to Campbell in his second year with the team under HC Hue Jackson. Campbell started the team’s first six games before suffering a broken clavicle that prevented him from playing for the rest of the season. He had been doing a decent job up until that point, going 100/165 (60.6%) for 1170 yards, 6 TDs, and 4 INTs, which put him at 16.8 FPG. With Kyle Boller as the team’s primary backup, the Raiders decided to be very bold (what else is new?) and trade their 2012 1st-round pick and a conditional 2nd-round pick in 2013 to acquire Carson Palmer from the Bengals, who had been in “retirement” after the Bengals had refused to move him before and after the lockout. With the deal coming down near the trade deadline, Palmer found himself with little time to prepare for a starting role after missing the early part of the season in addition to training camp and the preseason. He made his debut in relief of Kyle Boller with very little knowledge of the playbook in the second half of the team’s 28-0 loss to the Chiefs and threw three picks. After a Week Eight bye, Palmer had a little more time to get comfortable not only with the playbook, but with his receiving corps as well. It showed when he threw for 332 yards and 3 TDs (in addition to 3 more INTs) in a Week Nine loss to the Broncos. Palmer appeared to be fresh, and he was still willing to pull the trigger on dangerous throws, which showed he still had confidence in his arm. Connections appeared to be made with WRs Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford, but foot injuries to both players really hurt the team’s receiving corps and made Palmer’s job that much tougher. Palmer may no longer be the young stud thrower with the cannon for an arm that he was 5-6 years ago, but he didn’t look like a declining player, either. The ball came out very well, and his arm strength was solid. He simply looked like an older player who is still playing at a high level. While in years past we may have seen Palmer’s talent be enough to overcome injuries around him, it was clear that he’s not a player a team can build around. He doesn’t do anything outside of the frame of the offense and needs everything around him to be clicking to be a consistent player. If not, he’ll come up small here and there. The Raiders must know that Palmer’s more of a complementary piece now in an offense and not the player who used to be able to pick apart a beatable defense. In 10 games, Palmer went 199/328 (60.7%) for 2751 yards, 13 TDs, 16 INTs, and was 10th among QBs at 19.8 FPG. Barring another major move, the 31-year-old will enter the 2012 season, his 9th in the NFL, as the team’s starter and should have a healthy, potentially dangerous group of WRs at his disposal. However, we’ll have to see what kind of offense they run because new hire (1/31/12) Greg Knapp has been a west coast guy for most of his career, and Palmer may not be totally comfortable in that scheme.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can a normal off-season be enough to get Palmer in tune with his receiving corps and give this offense a chance to have a reliable passing game for the first time in years?
RBs: After finally realizing his potential in 2010, it was hard not to get excited about Darren McFadden’s chances, but his ability to stay on the field became an issue yet again. When the season opened, McFadden picked up right where he left off by running with very good physicality. The reason he was so productive early in the season is because he ran extremely hard and played with an edge. Couple that with his excellent North-South speed and improved balance, and you have a guy who gets yards consistently. McFadden wasn’t comfortable in Tom Cable’s zone blocking scheme, which asks RBs to stretch a play out, take one cut, and go downhill. McFadden isn’t a one-cut runner; he’s a no-cut runner. He just gets the ball and goes, and he builds up top speed very quickly. While McFadden runs with velocity when he gets going, he’s still a power back and needed to be treated as such. His skills as a receiver are solid and make him a versatile option out of the backfield. Unfortunately, he suffered a foot injury just seven games into the season, and even though the team held out hope and kept him off the injured reserve, McFadden was never able to return, although he apparently would have been able to practice if the team made the playoffs. The displaced bone in his foot was an injury that then-HC Hue Jackson would finally admit to being a Lisfranc issue, but the team tried to stay away from specifics while McFadden was out. In seven games, McFadden ran 113 times for 614 yards (5.4 YPC) with 4 TDs while adding 19154.1 on 23 targets, which was good enough for 7th among RBs with 15.3 FPG. Michael Bush, who has served as the team’s primary backup to McFadden, went from the team’s goal-line back to their starter for the rest of the season. While McFadden’s injury was always in question, Bush’s play in McFadden’s absence made it a little easier on the Raiders. That’s because Bush brought it big time and played with incredible physicality without having any problems adjusting to the increase in his role. On multiple occasions, we made a point to say that we’d much rather have Bush on our team than Michael Turner, for example, because Bush is a much better receiver. Bush has some acceleration, and he’s a load to bring down when he gets going. Bush played in every game and started nine times, rushing for 977 yards and 7 TDs on 256 carries (3.8 YPC). As a receiver, Bush finished with 37/418/1 on 47 targets, and overall he finished 18th at the RB position with 11.7 FPG. Rookie speedster Taiwan Jones was slowed by a hamstring pull that limited him to just nine games and very little impact in his first season. While he may not have had a lot of consistent fantasy value, FB Marcel Reeceshowed off his versatility as a blocker, runner, return man, and even a receiver, where he excelled and stepped up at a time when the team was dealing with major injuries. Reece played in 11 games, catching 27/299/2 on 36 targets and added 16/73 on the ground, which was good enough for 4.8 FPG.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: With Bush entering free agency, will the Raiders look to keep him considering McFadden’s injury history? If Bush does leave, can the Raiders survive with Jones and Reece playing behind McFadden?
WRs/TEs: Speed has been the name of the game when it comes to the Oakland receivers, and it looked like that might be the case again in 2011. Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was drafted for his speed, was entering his third season, but he had competition not only from Jacoby Ford, but also rookie, Denarius Moore, who earned rave reviews from then-HC Hue Jackson for his performance in the preseason. Heyward-Bey continued to get opportunities to start and appeared to be turning the corner right before the team acquired Carson Palmer. In the three games before Palmer first appeared in Week Seven, DHB had 17/296/1, but in Palmer’s first two starts Heyward-Bey didn’t catch a pass. Injuries to both Ford and Moore put him right back in the mix, and despite suffering a concussion, he didn’t miss any time. As we learned, he’s primarily a physical, catch-and-run receiver, although he did catch a couple of long passes near season's end. While DHB is mostly a straight-line guy, which will likely always prevent him from being a great player, he does have the speed to go with his good size, and he’s caught the ball better in 2011. In 15 games (14 starts), Heyward-Bey was the team’s leading receiver with 64/975/4 (15.2 YPC) on 113 targets (56.6% caught) and that made him a viable fantasy option since he average 9.3 FPG and finished 23rd among WRs. A foot injury cost Moore three games, but when he was out there, we saw a player who has a chance to be special because he has great speed, is able to fight for the ball and pull it down with bodies around him, and has good hands. Moore may be another straight-line player, but the guy is explosive with great acceleration, and that’s fine for the Raiders, since they’re all about the vertical passing game with the ball traveling a mile in the air. Palmer complimented Moore on more than a few occasions and definitely missed the rookie when he was out of action. Moore got 10 starts in his 13 games, giving the team 33/618/5 (18.7 YPC) on 73 targets (45.2% caught) and was 33rd among WRs with 8 FPG. Both hamstring and foot injuries limited Ford to just eight games (three starts) and his absence was noticeable, especially when Palmer was trying to find some chemistry with his new teammates. When Ford was out there, we saw someone who plays with great physicality for a smaller guy, which stands out because he can fly. His acceleration once he catches the ball is fantastic, and he played with a serious edge at times. He has a chance to be special, since he might actually be more talented than Steve Smith, at least when it comes to speed. With 19/279/1 (14.7 YPC) on 31 targets (61.3% caught), Ford had just 4.6 FPG. The aforementioned injuries increased the playing time for Louis Murphy (15/241/0, 32 targets), Chaz Schilens (23/271/2, 33 targets), and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (11/146/1, 16 targets), but none of them had any fantasy relevance. The departure of TE Zach Miller, who was without a doubt the team’s best receiver in his time with the Raiders, was filled by former Giant TE Kevin Boss. Boss never really got going after missing the first two games of the season with a strained knee and appeared to become invisible to the coaching staff at times. Boss started in 11 of his 14 appearances, but was somewhat disappointing with just 28/368/3 (13.1 YPC) on 39 targets (71.2% caught), which put him 28th among TEs with 4.2 FPG.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: If healthy, can this receiving corps turn into one of the better young groups in the league and develop some chemistry with Palmer over a normal off-season? Will they move to a west coast system and if so are the speedy WRs a good fit for the scheme?
San Diego Chargers
QB: There was a lot to like about Philip Rivers coming into the 2011 season, but while his fantasy numbers actually weren’t far off from his 2010 campaign, his season was mostly considered a disappointment. The Chargers failed to make the playoffs in a very winnable division, and Rivers couldn’t match the numbers of guys like Tom Brady and Drew Brees – two star QBs who were in the same fantasy range in the preseason. Rivers completed 62.9% of his passes for 4624 yards with 27 TDs and a career-worst 20 INTs, resulting in an average of 21.8 FPG, which placed him 8th among QBs. So, for all the criticism of Rivers and his struggles, he was still viable as a starter for fantasy. His numbers just weren’t quite as good, and he had more bad games than the top guys available at the position. For much of the year, Rivers’ problems were hard to pinpoint, and there was even a lot of speculation that he was playing hurt, although he frequently denied that. Still, he had a five-game stretch in Weeks 7-11 in which he threw 10 INTs, which is a big number considering he threw only 9 picks in 16 games just two seasons earlier. As always, Rivers made a lot of big-time throws, but he was more erratic than usual. He had issues behind an offensive line that struggled in the middle of the season, as he played too fast and appeared uncomfortable in the pocket. He overreacted to pressure, and he struggled to make plays downfield. Instead, he was forced to frequently dump the ball off to the RBs, as Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews combined for 104 catches, while WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd combined for 103. Their O-line was below-average – although it did improve late in the season – their receivers struggled to beat man coverage, and something was simply off with Rivers in terms of pocket awareness. Still, again, despite all the problems, his fantasy numbers weren’t bad. Jackson was inconsistent but still had some big games, and TE Antonio Gates did a nice job battling back from a nasty foot injury to average a solid 9.2 FPG. Rivers threw for 300 yards six times with a few more close calls, and he had multiple TD passes in half his games. That was pretty good, but unfortunately it wasn’t good enough for those who invested a lot in him as his stock moved up in the preseason. He looked fantastic in August, and with so many weapons, he appeared poised for a big season. Unfortunately, once again, the Chargers failed to meet expectations, and Rivers’ numbers didn’t quite get to the elite level that was expected of him, despite the fact that he threw for 4624 yards – a number that would have ranked him 2nd in 2010, when he won the passing title, but was 6th-best in 2011. So, perhaps people overreacted a little bit to his struggles, especially because guys like Brees and Brady were breaking records. But it was pretty clear that something was off with Rivers. The high number of interceptions provides clear evidence, and he also appeared to struggle to drive the ball downfield, in addition to trying to do too much. Rivers successfully lobbied for the return of HC Norv Turner, and while many people will question Turner’s ability as a head coach, hopefully a stable off-season will allow Rivers to brush off whatever went wrong in 2011 and reclaim his status as one of the top QBs in the league.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: There are questions about the supporting cast with the free agency of Tolbert and Jackson and the health of Gates and the O-line, but, for Rivers, we’ll have to see if he adjusts and corrects what went wrong in 2011. Fantasy owners are going to be wary of putting him in the same category as Brees and Brady again, but it will also be important not to underestimate Rivers, who was still a solid fantasy starter.
RBs: Ryan Mathews was a slight disappointment for fantasy as a rookie in 2010, but let’s remember that he was a rookie. Even with high expectations, nothing is ever certain for a rookie. Well, despite more problems with durability and fumbles, Mathews still emerged as a nice option in 2011, taking a big step forward as a dangerous runner on the edges. Mathews finished 13th among RBs with an average of 13.6 FPG, as he had 222 carries for 1091 yards (4.9 YPC) and 6 TDs with 50/455 on 59 targets (84.7%) as a receiver. His biggest problems were a lack of TDs and time missed because of injuries. We’ve labeled him the “human injury report” in the past, and for good reason, as he has been listed with injuries to his groin, thumb, calf, wrist, and foot. There always seems to be some kind of problem with him, so he can be frustrating for fantasy because owners are always worrying about his status – in addition to the presence of vulture Mike Tolbert. But Mathews still played in 14 games, and he had double-digit fantasy points in 10 of those games in standard leagues with at least 14 touches in all but one. He’s not quite consistent enough and he had 5 fumbles, but, overall, he looked like a very good player who’s capable of being a featured runner. He runs hard, and he has excellent quickness and explosiveness to beat defenders to the edge and get into the open field, where he can be very dangerous. He also had a lot of success as a receiver, and both he and Tolbert were active targets in the passing game with QB Philip Rivers looking to dump the ball off more than usual. Mathews has the ability to be one of the best home-run threats in the league from the RB position, but he just needs to prove he can stay healthy and handle the physical toll that the job takes on a RB in the NFL. As for Tolbert, he got off to a hot start with 3 total TDs in the opener and 17 catches in the first two games, but he played more of a support role next to Mathews for most of the season. Mathews saw 102 more carries, as Tolbert finished with 120 for 492 yards (4.1 YPC) with 8 TDs, while adding 54/433/2 on 78 targets (69.2%) in the passing game. Known for his role as a short-yardage back and vulture, Tolbert had 4 more total TDs than Mathews, and he ranked 7th in the league with 18 goal-line rushes to Mathews’ 5. Still, Tolbert lagged behind Mathews in overall fantasy production, finishing as a viable flex play with an average of 10.2 FPG. Tolbert doesn’t have a great skill set, but he gets the most out of what he has. He’s a bowling ball as a runner, and he’s also trustworthy in the passing game. Obviously, he is much different than Darren Sproles, but it was encouraging to see him more than double his receptions after Sproles left. Of course, now Tolbert is a free agent, so it will be interesting to see if San Diego brings him back. He is certainly valuable insurance for Mathews, who needs another back to take some pressure off him because of his injury history. Elsewhere in the backfield, the only player to really do much of note was FB Jacob Hester, although he had only 40 total touches for the season, so he wasn’t really a factor, except as a blocker.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Mathews took a big step forward in Year Two, so can he continue to improve in Year Three? The biggest question is obviously durability. If he stays healthy, he could be a special player, but that’s a big “if.” Aside from him, what will the Chargers do with the #2 RB spot if they can’t bring Tolbert back? If Tolbert departs, Mathews may at least get more scoring opportunities.
WRs/TEs: Vincent Jackson may have played in only four games in 2010 because of a contract dispute and injuries, but expectations were still high for him coming into this season. The Charger offense looked unstoppable in the preseason, and while overreacting to the preseason is always a bad idea, it was hard to doubt a talented player like Jackson with Philip Rivers throwing him the football. Well, Jackson and Rivers did have some huge games, but they were also both very inconsistent. Rivers was erratic and made some poor decisions, while Jackson struggled to get separation vs. man coverage and disappeared at times. Jackson was certainly a big-play threat, as expected, as he averaged 18.4 YPC and scored 9 TDs. He finished 16th in receiving yards with 1106, but his 60 catches placed him 45th – behind guys like Greg Little and David Nelson. Obviously, that’s not quite what you want out of a #1 WR like Jackson, especially because TE Antonio Gates missed three games and isn’t quite the player that he was before dealing with his foot issues. Jackson had 3 catches or fewer in 10 of 16 games, and he was held to fewer than 50 yards 8 times. He was a boom-or-bust fantasy player, and he was still hard to sit because he could have huge games – including the 7/141/3 he put up against the Packers in Week Nine. The end result was an average of 10.6 FPG, placing him 16th at WR. Like with Rivers, fantasy players typically had to just suck it up, ignore the glaring issues, and hope for the best. Jackson is inconsistent, but he’s the kind of guy you can’t really bench. You have to accept him for what he is. At the very least, he’s more reliable than Malcom Floyd, who is also a boom-or-bust type of player. Floyd is a talented big-play receiver, but he also struggled to get separation at times. He finished the year with 43/856/5 on 70 targets (61.4%), giving him averages of 19.9 YPC and 9.6 FPG. At least with Floyd, expectations weren’t as high as they were for Jackson. Rivers struggled with consistency, and Floyd missed some time with a hip injury and had a few really bad games. Still, in 12 games, he had at least 95 yards six times with four 100-yard games, so it wasn’t like he had a bad season. In fact, he ended up ranking 21st at WR with an average of 9.6 FPG, and he improved late, right along with Rivers, who started to turn things around. He may not be great in PPR leagues, but Floyd is never a bad option, ideally as a #3 WR, because he has the big-play ability to go off at any time. He just needs to prove he can stay healthy. The other big name in this receiving corps is TE Antonio Gates, who battled back from a nasty foot injury and somewhat quietly put together a good season despite not playing at 100% much of the way. Gates sat out three games, and while he was the dominant force he’s been in the past, he still finished 4th among TEs with an average of 9.2 FPG. He had a team-high 64 catches on 87 targets (73.6%) for 778 yards and 7 TDs, and he capped off his season nicely in Week Seventeen by putting up 5/106/1 against the Raiders – his first 100-yard game since Week Eight of 2010. Gates clearly isn’t as dynamic as he once was, and he’ll probably never be quite as dominant as he was earlier in his career, but he’s still a dangerous player who is athletic and tough to handle for any defender. Behind those three, the Chargers got some contributions from guys like backup TE Randy McMichael (30/271 on 44 targets) and Patrick Crayton (23/248/1 on 33 targets), but the guy to watch is Vincent Brown. A rookie in 2011, Brown got off to a slow start because of preseason leg injuries. And, aside from the 5/97/1 he had against Oakland, he really didn’t do much of note, as he finished the season with just 19/329/2 on 40 targets. Still, Brown is a versatile player who can play inside and outside, and with deceptive quickness, he could boost the receiving corps by becoming a sustaining receiver from the slot with Jackson and Floyd making big plays. Plus, Jackson is a free agent and Floyd is always hurt, so Brown could really see his role increase. Ideally, the Charger passing game as a whole will take a step forward next year, as the downfield throws were too inconsistent, resulting in more than 100 catches for the RBs.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Jackson’s free agency is the big story here. The Chargers want to pursue a long-term deal with him, but obviously he’s had his contract issues in the past. If he moves on, the Chargers will have to add another receiver, especially because of the questionable health of Floyd and Gates. We do like the potential of Brown, though.
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