AFC West Fantasy Football Preview: Studs, Sleepers, and Division Winners and Losers
We're inching closer to the start of football season, which means two things: your favorite team is about to embark on a hopeful journey to the Super Bowl, and your fantasy football drafts are about to take place.
So, to get you prepped for both things, we'll be covering each team -- division by division -- over the next week in order to help you set expectations (analytically, of course) for what's about to happen on both the real and fake football field.
Let's count down the AFC West from worst to first, ranked entirely by our nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect the team to win or lose by against an average one on a neutral field.
4. San Diego Chargers | nERD: -2.38 | Projected Record: 7.2-8.8
Fantasy Football Stud: Keenan Allen
With Keenan Allen missing the second half of last season, it's easy to forget just how stupidly good he was early on.
We shouldn't do that.
In those first eight healthy games, Allen was on pace to turn 178 targets into 134 receptions for 1,450 yards and 8 touchdowns. He saw at least 15 targets in three separate games, and he left due to injury in one of only three games in which he didn't have double-digit targets. This is stupid production, and getting it in the second round is unfathomably dope.
With a quarterback as efficient as Philip Rivers has been in his career, each target a player receives become more valuable. numberFire's projections allot Allen the third-most receptions in the league for this upcoming season, so you can bet he's worth his lofty draft cost.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Antonio Gates
It's fair to have a few reservations about Antonio Gates as he enters his age-36 season coming off of a banged-up 2015. But as a 10th-round pick in PPR leagues, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, we should happily take on that baggage.
As mentioned with Allen, you want exposure to Rivers' high-efficiency arm, and there are few better ways to get it than with Gates. Even while battling injuries in 2015, Gates still had at least 8 targets in 6 of his 11 games, something only six tight ends did on more occasions. Gates' 18.56% market share from games in which he played may decline with Allen being healthy, but that doesn't mean we need to avoid Gates.
The tight end going right before Gates -- Jimmy Graham -- is coming off a devastating patellar tendon injury. The guy right behind him -- Martellus Bennett -- isn't even the top tight end on his own team. Gates is very much worth his cost, even at his advanced age.
3. Oakland Raiders | nERD: -1.27 | Projected Record: 7.6-8.4
Fantasy Football Stud: Amari Cooper
A lot of Amari Cooper's current ADP is banking on some progression out of him in his second season with the Oakland Raiders, but it's also an acknowledgement of some of the skills he flashed as a rookie.
Cooper finished 2015 as the 21st-ranked wide receiver in PPR formats. That was despite seeing only a 21.59% target market share and 7 total red-zone targets. These both illustrate his potential deficiencies entering 2016, but if he were to add to either total, his upside would be intriguing.
Cooper is certainly not the best value among the wide receivers currently going in the first three rounds. However, he produced well last year in just his age-21 season. It's hard to overlook that and completely write him off despite a frightening cost.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: DeAndre Washington
If we wait much longer, DeAndre Washington won't be eligible as a "late-round target." Dude's ADP has jumped a full two rounds the past month, and that's easy to understand when you see plays like this.
Yup. @Raiders RB DeAndre Washington is FAST.
🏃💨 #OAKvsAZ https://t.co/7cI9RnUUbC
— NFL (@NFL) August 13, 2016
Washington is currently stuck behind Latavius Murray on the depth chart, but Murray struggled with his efficiency last year as the Raiders' bellcow. If Murray were to continue to slip there, it would open a hole for Washington to step in and hold the torch in the backfield.
The lead back on Oakland's offense will be a valuable spot for fantasy, considering their rapid improvement last year and the signing of free agent offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. It's worth giving Washington a slot on your roster in hopes that he can snag it.
2. Denver Broncos | nERD: 3.88 | Projected Record: 9.1-6.9
Fantasy Football Stud: Demaryius Thomas
Over the past four years, there have been 27 instances in which a receiver has logged at least 90 receptions and 1,300 yards in a single season.
Demaryius Thomas has accounted for four such seasons.
Despite producing four consecutive other-worldly campaigns, Thomas is still on the board in the third round in most drafts. That likely derives from the recency of a somewhat disappointing season, but you have to assume the quarterback play has a role in it as well. It's possible the effects of that second concern are being overblown.
The 2015 Denver Broncos finished 25th in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, numberFire's schedule-adjusted metric to measure a team's efficiency through the air. Basically, they were awful. Thomas still managed to finish to finish 11th in scoring in PPR leagues. Things could certainly be worse this year, but there's not a whole lot of room for that ranking to move downward. That's why we should feel fine about taking Thomas early in our drafts.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Devontae Booker
Running backs are always valuable assets on teams with defenses as stout as the Denver Broncos', and it seems like Devontae Booker is in line to be the first guy off the bench should anything happen to C.J. Anderson.
Booker has started getting reps with the team's starters in practice, according to Mike Klis of KUSA, fueling thoughts that he may be on the verge of passing Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart. Hillman struggled when he got chances last year so this shouldn't be a surprise, but it is big for Booker's potential fantasy value.
The other potential reason for targeting Booker is his ability to help in the passing game. He had 80 receptions in his two seasons at Utah, and he was one of only nine players in the NCAA last year with at least 200 rushes and 30 receptions. If he can carve out a role there, it would give him healthy standalone value in the offense. Any inroads he made after that in the running game would simply be icing on the cake.
1. Kansas City Chiefs | nERD: 4.99 | Projected Record: 9.3-6.7
Fantasy Football Stud: Jamaal Charles
This will be Jamaal Charles' ninth season in the NFL; he has never averaged fewer than five yards per carry in any of the previous eight. Yards per attempt is a heavily flawed stat, but that number should get you all hot and bothered.
Charles is one of those rare running backs who couples top-tier rushing production with a solidified role in the passing game. If it weren't for his knee injury last season, he'd likely be the first running back off the board, but instead, you can get him in the middle of the second round in PPR leagues. Swoon.
Spencer Ware was extremely efficient in filling in for Charles last season, so it would probably be smart for the team to conserve Charles a bit and cut into his rushing market share. Even if that happens, though, Charles' floor is immense due to his role in the passing game, making him a steal at his current ADP.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Alex Smith
There are currently 24 quarterbacks who have an ADP in 12-team, PPR leagues, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. Alex Smith isn't one of them. This is the same guy who hasn't finished outside of the top 20 in any of the past four seasons in which he has played at least 11 games. He should probably be getting more love.
The reason to dig Smith is his stupid consistency. He finished in the top 12 in weekly quarterback scoring seven times last season, more than Drew Brees, Tyrod Taylor, Matthew Stafford, Jameis Winston, and others. Additionally, he was only outside of the top 20 in three of his 15 games. If you need a quarterback who will bring you a solid floor, there aren't many options better than Smith.
In targeting a late-round quarterback, you generally prefer to snag a guy with more upside than Smith, so it makes sense that he'd slide down draft boards. But if you miss out on the player you want and just need someone to hold down the fort until your saving grace rolls through, Smith is the type of player who can lend a hand.