NFC West Fantasy Football Preview: Studs, Sleepers, and Division Winners and Losers

Todd Gurley is a stud, but is there anyone else on the Rams you might want to target in fantasy football this year?

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 NFC 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 Francisco 49ers | nERD: -5.40 | Projected Record: 6.2-9.8

Fantasy Football Stud: Carlos Hyde

Hyde is the “stud” because there really aren't many other places to go in the 49ers offense. But just because he’s the only pick, doesn’t mean he’s the wrong one. For as much as Chip Kelly’s offenses get talked about their spread passing principles, they’re a run-based and run-friendly offense -- DeMarco Murray aside.

During 2013, Kelly’s first season in the NFL, the Eagles had the sixth lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league and led all teams in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. The next year, the Eagles had the 12th lowest pass-to-run ratio, though ranked just 16th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Then, of course, it all went to hell last season in Kelly’s final year in Philly. But even with the offense crumbling, the Eagles were in the middle of the pack regarding the play calling split.

Hyde, too, played well relative to the offense around him. There were 44 running backs who carried the ball at least 100 times last season, and Hyde ranked 20th in Rushing NEP per attempt. That doesn’t scream “stud,” but when the rest of the offense ranked 27th in schedule-adjusted NEP per play, that efficiency is pretty impressive. And even if Kelly’s running game bump only lasts for one season, that’s this season and that could be good for Hyde.

Fantasy Football Sleeper: Bruce Ellington

Bruce Ellington is third-year player with 32 career targets who will turn 25 years old on August 22nd. Yet, he’s one of the most hyped late-round fantasy targets this year. Part of that is due to a certain fantasy writer, and the other is similar to why Hyde is considered the stud -- there’s not much else on this roster.

There’s Torrey Smith, but he’s being drafted five rounds higher than Ellington and last year showed his skill set of getting open deep doesn’t exactly fit with the skill set of his quarterbacks. Per Fantasy Football Calculator, Ellington’s average draft position spiked up in the mid-13th round, but is now settling back to the beginning of the 14th. He’s going after Mike Wallace and Victor Cruz. Ellington might not be a star, but he might be good enough to provide value where he’s being drafted.

3. Los Angeles Rams | nERD: -0.91 | Projected Record: 7.5-8.5

Fantasy Football Stud: Todd Gurley

If it wasn’t for Todd Gurley, the Rams offense would have been a disaster last season. If not for Todd Gurley, the Los Angeles Rams offense might be a disaster this season. The Rams had the fifth-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league last season, and it probably would have been lower had Gurley played in all 16 games. In the 13 games (12 starts), Gurley carried the ball 225 times while no other Ram broke the 100-carry threshold. Gurley will again be the undisputed bell-cow back, especially as last year’s main backup, Tre Mason, has sadly gone between AWOL and showing up in police reports this offseason.

There were 15 running backs who saw over 200 carries last season, and Gurley ranked second in Rushing NEP per attempt. That’s an impressive feat for someone who is the only real offensive threat on his team. The Rams will figure to feature Gurley even more this season because they’ll either be trying to hide Case Keenum at quarterback or breaking rookie Jared Goff in.

Don’t be concerned by possible game script or pass efficiency disadvantages, either. It wasn’t much of a problem last season. Gurley was the second-most efficient high-volume back, and the running game as a whole ranked 18th in Adjusted NEP per play. All of this happened while the passing offense was 32nd by a wide margin in the same metric.

Fantasy Football Sleeper: No one. My God. Just stay away.

There are 32 teams in the NFL, for the sake of your sanity, pick any one of the other 31 to grab an offensive sleeper. If you’d like to hop on the "Tavon Austin will get touches" train, go for it, but we’re entering Year 4 of that game and there’s been no winners. The passing offense was the worst in the league last season and arguably the best fantasy player of that group, tight end Jared Cook, now plays for the Packers.

2. Arizona Cardinals | nERD: 6.27 | Projected Record: 9.2-6.8

Fantasy Football Stud: David Johnson

Some may be intimidated by the small sample size David Johnson had as a full-time player last season. While we would normally not want anyone to overreact to a small sample, Johnson’s time on the field last season was absolutely incredible. The third-round pick immediately made it clear he should be considered one of the top running backs in the league.

Johnson ranked first in Rushing NEP per attempt among the 44 running backs who got at least 100 carries last season. Of that group, he was just one of two backs to have a Success Rate -- the percentage of plays positively impacting NEP -- above 50 percent, along with Rashad Jennings. Johnson only got 125 carries last season, but he’ll now enter 2016 as the starter and will have a bigger role for the season.

Not only is Johnson one of the league’s best runners, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim recently described Johnson as “probably the best receiving back I’ve seen.” The numbers back that up, too. Of the same group of 44 running backs, only Washington’s Matt Jones had a higher Reception NEP per target, but Johnson was thrown to more than twice as often as Jones, 57 targets to 25. Johnson was also the most successful with the highest Success Rate on receptions at 80.6 percent, while only four other backs were at 75 percent or higher.

There is a lot of hype around Johnson right now, but he has the talent to live up to it.

Fantasy Football Sleeper: John Brown

Figuring out a “sleeper” in the Arizona offense is not easy. All of the useful quantities are known and the unknowns are utilized often enough to make an impact -- say, the tight ends or someone like J.J. Nelson. John Brown is known enough and has produced to a level that wouldn’t make him a “sleeper” by the traditional sense of the term, but if we can consider a sleeper someone who has a high chance of outplaying his average cost, then Brown is the guy to look to in Arizona.

Right now, Brown is the third receiver being drafted in the Cardinals’ trio. Michael Floyd’s cost is in the early fifth-round as WR25, Larry Fitzgerald is in the early sixth as WR30, and Brown is currently late-sixth as WR32.

There’s really no place to go wrong in the Arizona offense, though. It’s a downfield attack, and Carson Palmer might be the best in the league connecting on those throws. Palmer had the higher Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt last season, and also the third-highest Success Rate among quarterbacks.

This is an offense that’s going to produce.

Fitzgerald was the most targeted receiver on the team last season with 146, but with that much volume, his Reception NEP per target was around the league average. Brown and Floyd were well above Fitzgerald in that metric and among the league’s best. Floyd actually finished higher in Reception NEP per target at 0.88, but Brown was just behind him at 0.84.

The concern for Brown right now is a concussion, as he has yet to clear the concussion protocol to return to practice. The Cardinals are being cautious with the receiver, but should he return to the field soon, he’ll be making an impact.

1. Seattle Seahawks | nERD: 7.97 | Projected Record: 9.8-6.2

Fantasy Football Stud: Thomas Rawls

Thomas Rawls has the potential to be a stud at a non-stud price. Right now he’s the 13th running back being selected, around the middle of the third round. Of course, players like this don’t just drop in drafts for no reason and, with Rawls, there certainly are reasons.

The first is the recovery from his ankle injury suffered at the end of last season. He had surgery to repair the ankle in the offseason, and he just returned to practice for the first time this past Monday. He does appear to be on track to start Week 1 of the regular season.

The other concern is workload. Between the injury, Seattle drafting two running backs in April, and the Christine Michael train back on the rails, it’s unclear how the carries and snaps will be split in the backfield. Enter Sheil Kapadia, who is one of the best beat writers in the business. Kapadia previewed the roles for Seattle’s backs and claimed Rawls will still be the top guy with Michael possibly taking a few carries per game. He also predicted Rawls would be the main ball carrier in the red zone, which should help touchdown totals.

Last season when Rawls was on the field, he was effective just about everywhere. He finished second in Rushing NEP per attempt among those running back with 100 or more carries and fifth in Success Rate. When Rawls is on the field, he should have production that exceeds where he’s currently going in drafts, and it sounds like there shouldn’t be quite as many concerns about how much time he’ll get on the field in 2016.

Fantasy Football Sleeper: Jermaine Kearse

Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett get most of the love, but Seattle’s entire passing offense last season was productive, including Jermaine Kearse. Kearse’s 2015 was almost identical to Lockett’s, but since one of them was a rookie, that got more attention. Lockett didn’t really come on as a focal point in the offense until late in the year, but he was targeted at least once in all 16 games. Still, his numbers weren't much different from Kearse's.

WR Rec Targets Yards TD Rec NEP per Target Rank
Lockett 51 69 664 6 1.00 3rd (of 122)
Kearse 49 58 685 5 0.85 16th (of 122)

Kearse was sneaky-productive last season, and the Seahawks were the only team to have three receivers inside the top-20 of Reception NEP per target. Most project Lockett’s role in the offense to grow, but so, too, could Kearse’s. While Lockett and Baldwin will flow between the outside and the slot, Kearse is a consistent outside threat.

At 6’1”, he’s easily the tallest of Seattle’s top three receivers, and he has the ability to get downfield. If the Seahawks open up the passing game this season, Kearse will be a benefactor. Seattle is also shifting to having more wide receivers on the field. Per the 2016 Football Outsiders Almanac, Seattle had 11 personnel (3 wide receivers) on the field for 54 percent of offensive plays in 2015. That’s the highest of the Russell Wilson era, up from 50 percent in 2014, 46 percent in 2013, and 36 percent in 2012.

Especially if Jimmy Graham isn’t healthy enough to start the regular season, Kearse will still have a decent role in the offense.