As the division-by-division look at WR opportunities in 2016 marches on, we go westward from the NFC East and he NFC North. The NFC West a few years ago was the division of bad passing games smash mouth, run it down your throat football. The Cardinals acquired Carson Palmer, the Seahawks let Russell Wilson loose and Blaine Gabbert also exists. The Rams went out and acquired Jared Goff for a boatload of picks, so they want to join the party. They might in the second half of the season once Goff gets it sorted out a la Jameis Winston last season, but given that he isn’t exactly throwing to Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, I doubt it.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners under Jim Harbaugh and Jim Tomsula were not that proficient in the passing game, and they lost their only receivers worth their salt in that era since the end of the 2014 season. Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin all left the team since Jim Harbaugh last coached, and the loss of Boldin represents the biggest issue of all: the 49ers have 111 targets to account for under the old ground n’ pound regime. In comes Chip Kelly. Kelly’s high-paced offense fuels targets to the WR1. Smith could potentially double his 62 targets from 2015 was the WR1 in a Chip Kelly offense. History tells us he should; under Kelly the Philadelphia WR1 had at minimum 126 targets. Smith has a reputation as a boom-bust deep threat a la DeSean Jackson, but let’s not forget that Jackson had his career year under Kelly in 2013. If you fear Blaine Gabbert, take solace in the fact that Chip Kelly managed to trick us all into thinking that Nick Foles was a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.
Torrey Smith is a double-digit round ADP and has a potential for 126 targets. Get him. He will win you your league.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams lost a whole lot of middling receivers last season, but put together, the receivers leave a vacancy of exactly 100 targets. The Rams don’t have that great of a passing game, and are unlikely to produce a fantasy receiver worth rostering outside of Tavon Austin. They’re run-first and have a rookie QB at the helm. Don’t draft any Rams except Austin, though they do have a pair of promising receivers that if one pulls ahead, they could return WR3 numbers: Pharoh Cooper and Brian Quick. Cooper may pull targets away from Kenny Britt and will definitely absorb a good number of targets left by Chris Givens’ absence. If he and fellow rookie Jared Goff can get on the same page, he could provide WR3 numbers for you, especially in PPR leagues. He was a fourth-round pick but due to the Goff trade, the Rams cupboard was left bare, so he was their third pick. Quick, for his part, is all undeveloped potential and an inability to stay on the field. He could provide upside if he gets targets; in 2014, he had three games with at least nine targets. In those games he went for 99 yards, 74 yards and 87 yards and two TDs. His promise may never be realized, though. He’s started only sixteen games in four seasons, and did not play or failed to register a target in exactly half the games over the last two years.
Don’t forget, however: this is Todd Gurley’s offense for now. The Rams simply aren’t built to pass enough. They lost one more target than the Packers (100 targets versus 99), but the Rams lost 32% of their targets and the packers lost 26%. We aren’t exactly talking a prolific passing game here.
Seattle didn’t lose a whole heck of a lot from the wide receiver position; Chris Matthews and Ricardo Lockette did essentially nothing last season, but what is more likely to happen is a redistribution of targets away from Jermaine Kearse and towards Tyler Lockett. Lockett produced very well in his limited targets. He had the ball tossed his way 69 times and he went for 664 and six TDs on said targets. If he absorbs, say, 10-15 targets from Kearse and the majority of the Lockette/Matthews targets, he should end up around 1000 yards and 8-10 TDs. Find Lockett in your draft room and put him on your team. The Seahawks seem set on continuing their torrid passing game from the second half of the season, and Lockett will be the main beneficiary of this and Doug Baldwin’s inevitable touchdown regression. Baldwin will still get his targets, as yesterday the Seahawks signed him through 2020, but he caught a touchdown on 13.59% of his targets last year, the highest rate out of all wide receivers.
Much like Torrey Smith, Tyler Lockett provide quite the late-round one-two punch of wide receiver upside. However, he got the Matt Harmon Bump, so he may be priced out of deep sleeper status but is still worth an add.
For the Cardinals, the biggest argument seems to be how the existing pie will get broken down between the three star receivers. My money is on Larry Fitzgerald ceding significant targets to Brown and Floyd as they get bigger pieces of the pie. We all remember Fitz’s heroics in the playoffs, but once the Cardinals were at full strength (the last four games of the season), Fitz went from averaging over ten targets a game to averaging 5.75. Personally, I would avoid Fitzgerald for either Brown or Floyd. Floyd has the more dynamic playmaking skills but Brown has the surer hands. To wit: down the stretch Floyd had 100 yards or more in three of the last five games, but Brown caught a touchdown in three of the last four. You can’t go wrong with either, but Brown is the steadier play while Floyd has the upside. Left out in the cold is speedster J.J. Nelson. He’ll take the top off the defense but is a best ball or DFS tournament play only. There is just too much receiving talent ahead of him, especially when you consider that Fitzgerald will likely end the season third in targets.
A casual football fan may still have visions of the ground and pound NFC West of the early 2010s, but those days are long gone. The 49ers are turning towards’ Chip Kelly’s unusual up-tempo play calling style and the Seahawks suddenly have a questionable running back situation, meaning they’re likely to unleash Russell Wilson. The Rams have a question mark in Goff but opportunity exists for a #2 receiver to emerge there, whether it be Pharoh Cooper or the promise of Brian Quick. Fans of the aerial attack should no longer fear watching NFC West 17-13 slog fests.
Tomorrow we will take a look at a division that lost two stalwarts last season: the NFC South.