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2022 NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals enter season four under head coach Kliff Kingsbury (who also calls offensive plays), and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.

They started their draft in the second round by selecting tight end Trey McBride with the 55th overall pick, continuing by selecting two defensive ends in the third round in Cameron Thomas (87th overall) and Myjai Sanders (100th overall), running back Keaontay Ingram in the sixth (201st overall), guard Lecitus Smith in the sixth (215th overall), and a trio of seventh-round selections in cornerback Christian Matthew (244th overall), linebacker Jesse Luketa (256th overall), and guard Marquis Hayes (244th overall).

The Cardinals have a few key moving pieces as far as personnel is concerned, most notably running back Chase Edmonds was signed away by Miami and wide receiver Christian Kirk was signed away by Jacksonville. Running back Darrel Williams was brought in as a viable number two back, wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was brought in to fill the hole left behind by Kirk’s departure, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was suspended for the first six games of the season by the league following trace amounts of a banned substance found in his system.

Interpretation

The Cardinals ranked right around league-average in 12-personnel usage a season ago but led the league (by a wide margin) in 10-personnel sets (four wide receivers and no tight end) in their horizontally spread offense. They ranked in the top five in the league in pace of play (seconds per play; 27.6) for the third consecutive season under Kingsbury, and we should expect that trend to continue for as long as the current regime is in charge. The spread nature of the offense has done wonders for the potential for explosive plays, with the team finishing in the top half of the league in explosive play rate each of the previous three seasons. They now add one of the premier downfield threats in the league in Marquise Brown, who has been victimized by poor downfield accuracy in Baltimore. He now gets to catch passes from a quarterback that has ranked in the top five in downfield passer rating each of the previous three seasons and gets to play in an offensive scheme that generated the highest rate of downfield targets deemed as “wide open” last year. Furthermore, Brown will start the season as the clear alpha with DeAndre Hopkins set to miss the first six games of the season. Consider Brown in line for clear top-12 upside at the position to start the year.

The rest of the pass-catchers to start the season should fall into line as follows: AJ Green is likeliest to start opposite Brown in base sets, second-year wide receiver Rondale Moore should be charged with slot duties to start the year, and tight end Zach Ertz should run routes at an increased rate while Hopkins is out, similar to how he did last season with Nuk out of the lineup. Once Nuk returns for Week 7, expect AJ Green to see the biggest hit to his snap rate as a pure perimeter wide receiver, with Nuk and Brown likely to rotate through the slot in spread formations. More positive game scripts and better success on the ground led to the Cardinals averaging “only” 34.7 pass attempts per game in 2021, which ranked near league average. Per-game, bankable volume is likely to remain hit or miss for the Cardinals once Hopkins returns, but the first six weeks should revert to a rather concentrated aerial attack amongst Brown, Green, Ertz, and Moore, likely in that order of precedence.

Running back James Conner re-emerged as a viable RB1 in 2021, scoring a total of 18 touchdowns across 15 healthy games. That said, he saw over 20 running back opportunities only four times in his 15 healthy games and the outburst in touchdown production came in a season where Kyler Murray struggled through injuries and saw his rushing production take a hit as a result. Consider Conner a min-range RB2 with weekly spike week potential for as long as he remains healthy, which has been an issue in the past. There have been some rumblings out of minicamp that Eno Benjamin could serve as the lead backup to Conner, but I have a hard time believing a player that played only 108 total snaps as the RB3 last season could usurp a running back the organization targeted this offseason, who appears like the perfect fit for their scheme. That player, of course, is Darrel Williams, who I have been targeting heavily in the later rounds of drafts as one of the purest handcuffs in the league.

Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay enters his sixth season as head honcho for the Rams. The team will have a new offensive coordinator this year in Liam Coen, who makes the leap from the NCAA game after serving as the offensive coordinator for Kentucky last season. Raheem Morris enters his second season as the defensive coordinator.

After successfully trading in future plans for a Super Bowl, the Rams didn’t pick until pick 104 of the third round, selecting offensive guard Logan Bruss out of Wisconsin. They continued with defensive back Decobie Durant in the fourth (142nd overall), running back Kyren Williams in the fifth (164th overall), defensive back Quentin Lake in the sixth (211th overall), cornerback Derion Kendrick in the sixth (212th overall), and three seventh-round picks including outside linebacker Daniel Hardy (235th overall), defensive back Russ Yeast (253rd overall), and offensive tackle AJ Arcuri (261st overall).

Los Angeles dealt away wide receiver Robert Woods to the Titans, have yet to re-sign wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., saw a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball walk, including outside linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Darius Williams, nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, guard Austin Corbett, tight end Johnny Mundt, and outside linebacker Ogbannia Okoronkwo, and saw Andrew Whitworth retire. To fill some of those gaps, left tackle Joseph Noteboom, center Brian Allen, offensive lineman Coleman Shelton, wide receiver Allen Robinson, kick returner Brandon Powell, cornerback Troy Hill, and linebacker Bobby Wagner were brought in. That’s quite the turnover on both sides of the ball for a team fresh off a Super Bowl victory.

Interpretation

Rams analysis has to start with the offensive line, as the unit will see two new starters after Austin Corbett departed via free agency and Andrew Whitworth retired. Last season, their offensive line ranked amongst the top five in pass protection and bottom five in run-blocking metrics, a trend likely to continue as the unit attempts to work in two new faces, each of whom have performed better in pass pro than in run blocking. Los Angeles identity remains a layered pass attack headlined by 2021’s WR1 Cooper Kupp, highlighted by a large gap in explosive play rate via the run and the pass in 2021 (23rd-ranked explosive rate via the run, ninth-ranked explosive play rate via the pass). While the team has continuity issues on both sides of the ball, the aforementioned identity is likely to remain static moving forward. As in, expect the 601 attempts thrown by quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2021 to serve as a solid baseline for 2022.

Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson return to form a convoluted backfield pairing after Sony Michel left in free agency, with Akers likely to serve as the 1A to Henderson’s 1B. Akers missed most of the 2021 season, returning in Week 18 in time for the Super Bowl run, but we have very little in the way of indicators when projecting likeliest split in snaps and opportunities in the backfield. Sony Michel was the only running back to remain healthy for the Rams in 2021, with Henderson missing eight total games and Akers not appearing until Week 18. McVay has utilized a “workhorse” running back in the past, but there is nothing pointing to that being the likeliest scenario in 2022. As discussed above, the Rams are projected to once again rank in the bottom 10 in run-blocking metrics in 2022, bringing further questions to the projections matrix for this backfield. In all, Akers has been a pretty large stay-away for me personally in early best ball drafts.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson joins holdovers Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson in the projected starting lineup, with tight end Tyler Higbee likely to serve as a borderline every-down tight end once again. Higbee’s 85 targets on a modest 52% route rate mean his current TE18 valuation is about right for the 2022 season. There have been talks around the industry of teams focusing more attention towards Cooper Kupp, denting his fantasy prospectus along the way, but I fail to see how you can have Kupp ranked any lower than WR2 overall. As in, I am not expecting Allen Robinson to lower Kupp’s NFL-leading 31.8% team target market share in 2022 as a “body control” wide receiver that typically plays in tight coverage. Kupp’s astronomical 30.3% target per route run rate should remain towards the top of the league moving forward. Van Jefferson should once again serve as the team’s primary downfield threat after seeing a modest breakout in his second year in the league. I expect Jefferson to see a healthy allotment of snaps playing on an offense that led the league in 11-personnel rate in 2021 at 86%. His athletic profile, combined with a route tree biased towards the deep areas of the field, gives him solid spike week potential in his third NFL season.

San Francisco 49ers

Kyle Shanahan returns for his sixth season as the head coach of the 49ers, with DeMeco Ryans set to serve as the defensive coordinator for the second consecutive year. As opposed to fully replacing departing offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, Kyle Shanahan will call offensive plays, backed up by offensive line/run game coordinator Chris Foerster and offensive passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik. 

San Francisco made their first pick in the second round of the 2022 draft, taking defensive end Drake Jackson with the 61st overall pick. They continued with running back Tyrion Davis-Price in the third (93rd overall), wide receiver Danny Gray in the third (105th overall), offensive lineman Spencer Burford in the fourth (134th overall), cornerback Samuel Womack in the fifth (172nd overall), offensive lineman Nick Zakelk in the sixth (187th overall), defensive lineman Kalia Davis in the sixth (220th overall), defensive back Tariq Castro-Fields in the sixth (221st overall), and quarterback Brock Purdy in the seventh (262nd overall).

The 49ers had a relatively quiet free agency window, with the biggest name to join the team being cornerback Charvarius Ward. To highlight how quiet their offseason has been, arguably the biggest “additions” are both on the coaching staff, with Anthony Lynn joining the franchise as the running backs coach and former quarterback Brian Griese stepping in as the quarterbacks coach. Wide receiver/special teams ace Ray-Ray McCloud, wide receivers Malik Turner and Marcus Johnson, and linebacker Oren Burks also join the team in what should be primarily special teams roles. Tight ends Troy Fumagalli and Tyler Kroft were signed as depth pieces as well.

Interpretation

We’ve grown comfortable in projecting what the 49ers offense will look like over the previous three seasons, which may or may not be a foolish assumption moving forward. Quarterback Trey Lance appears set to take over as the starting quarterback for the storied franchise, with rumors swirling of the eventual trade or release of Jimmy Garappolo. There are a couple issues with the ongoing quarterback saga in San Francisco, as (1) Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to be dealt or released, and (2) we can’t be entirely sure how the offense will look with Lance at the helm should he receive the starting nod from the beginning. Current reports continue to insist Lance is “the guy” of the future for the 49ers, which theoretically gives Shanahan and the offensive powers that be sufficient time to adjust their offense and build around a mobile quarterback, but, again, the guesswork associated with these assumptions should not be understated. Why is this exploration important? Well, wide receiver Deebo Samuel is currently a second-round pick, tight end George Kittle is currently a fourth-to-fifth-round pick, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk is currently a seventh-to-eighth-round pick, running back Elijah Mitchell is currently a fifth-to-sixth-round pick, and quarterback Trey Lance is currently an eighth-to-ninth-round pick in early best ball drafts. To me, all current cost-to-acquire on this offense are paying attention primarily to ceiling while neglecting the multitude of unknowns surrounding this offense. That said, the ceiling on Lance, in particular, is tantalizing, which would, in turn, bring along the rest of the offensive skill position players on the offense. That was a lot of backstory for one team but the Niners feel like one of those “gotta get it right” spots in season-long formats early in the draft window. Keep your ears to the grind surrounding this team for early DFS exploits as well.

For how dominant the San Francisco run game seems, depending on who you follow, it would surprise most to learn that they have not ranked higher than 21st in explosive rush rate since 2019 (22nd in 2021, 21st in 2020, 6th in 2019). Tyrion Davis-Price was added to a backfield that saw Raheem Mostert depart via free agency, which now includes 2021 sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell, Davis-Price, Jeff Wilson, Jr., 2021 third-round “bust” Trey Sermon, and JaMycal Hasty. Again, the field seems to be making a handful of assumptions with this team, as current ADP and buzz around the industry seem to indicate that Mitchell will see the lion’s share of work this season. San Francisco finished right at league-average in running back target rate in 2021 at 20%, but Mitchell had only two games of more than four targets across his 14 fully healthy games (including the postseason). Add in the expectation that Lance could diminish the red zone rushing projections for the 49ers running back unit as a whole, and we’re left with a confusing early draft window ADP set for Mitchell and company. Consider Mitchell a hint above a yardage-and-touchdown back with the added caveats of a crowded running back room and mobile quarterback, one whose broken tackle rate and positive run rate left a lot to be desired in his rookie season.

Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle, combined with the dynamic scheme of Shanahan’s offense, led to the Niners ranking as the top overall pass offense from an explosive pass rate perspective in 2021. The Niners are likely going to need to continue the unreal efficiency, from the perspective of individual fantasy values, considering the offense runs at one of the slowest paces in the league. Add in the expectation of a new quarterback, one that has struggled with pocket presence, defensive reads, and diagnostics early in his career, and this pass offense has to be considered one of the wider range of outcomes offenses in the league heading into 2021. Expect Jauan Jennings to serve as the starting slot wide receiver for an offense that utilized 11-personnel only 48% of their 2021 snaps.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks return head coach Pete Carrol and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron for their 13th and second seasons, respectively. New defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt gets the in-house promotion from his former position as the defensive line coach.

Seattle held three of the top 41 picks in this year’s NFL draft, selecting offensive tackle Charles Cross in the first (ninth overall), linebacker Boye Mafe in the second (40th overall), and running back Kenneth Walker III in the second (41st overall). Third-round offensive tackle Abraham Lucas came off the board next with the 72nd pick, followed by cornerback Coby Bryant in the fourth (109th overall), cornerback Tariq Woolen in the fifth (153rd overall), and linebacker Tyreke Smith in the fifth (158th overall). They finished up with two wide receivers in the seventh round, Bo Melton (229th overall) and Darake Young (233rd overall). First-rounder Charles Cross should immediately step into the starting left tackle role.

The clear talk of the town in Seattle this offseason was the trade of quarterback Russell Wilson, who was dealt to Denver for quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris, two first-round picks (2022 and 2023), two second-round picks (2022 and 2023), and a fifth (2022). The Seahawks lost numerous players to free agency as well, including linebacker Bobby Wagner, cornerback DJ Reed, offensive lineman Jamarco Jones, tight end Gerald Everett, and center Ethan Pocic. They also released three defensive ends – Benson Mayowa, Carlos Dunlap, and Kerry Hyder, Jr. Linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, cornerback Artie Burns, defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, cornerback Justin Coleman, and linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe were brought in through free agency to soften the blow of the numerous bodies on each side lost. Quite the turnover on both sides of the ball for Seattle.

Interpretation

Starting from the perspective of offensive personnel and working backwards, the stable of DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Freddie Swain, Noah Fant, Rashaad Penny, and Kenneth Walker III is a tantalizing combination of athleticism, experience, and upside potential. The offensive skill position players are currently being held back by the expectation of Geno Smith serving as the starting quarterback for the duration of the 2021 season, but what if that’s not the end game? I lead with that exploration because all of the aforementioned skill position players have an extremely depressed cost of acquisition in early best ball drafts, leading me to be extremely overweight this offense as a whole. If you haven’t checked out the first two installments of the Best Ball Theory podcast series, I highly encourage you to do so, as we explain the theoretical concept I alluded to above – upside versus cost through dynamic ADP. This Seattle offense is the perfect offseason example of upside not matching where its players are being drafted. Metcalf is currently a late fourth-round pick, Lockett is currently sitting in the 10th along with Penny; Walker is currently going in the eighth and Noah Fant is going off the board as the TE15. When I see that breakdown, two big-picture, glaring discrepancies enter my mind: (1) This offense is being slept on entirely too much considering the elite athleticism and talent at their disposal, and (2) the field assumes Kenneth Walker III is going to waltz in and take the starting job from Penny. 

Speaking on the latter, it’s easy to forget that Rashaad Penny is a former first-round selection, and assuming Walker immediately beats him out for the starting gig is foolish, in my opinion. We have to look to the coaching staff and historical precedent to cage our “what to expect” meter, particularly considering the antiquated dealings of head coach Pete Carroll. Many an analyst has pointed to the fact that it took almost four years for Rashaad Penny to emerge as the lead back on this team, but I will suggest more of a sense of thick-headedness from Carroll and an adverse reaction to change. He seems like a coach who subscribes to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, and I would expect Penny’s finish to the 2021 season to remain fresh in his mind. Penny’s 20.2% broken tackle rate and 3.7 yards after contact value highlight just how elite his end to 2021 was. Over the final five weeks of the 2021 season, when he took over as the lead back, Penny saw running back opportunity counts of 17, 13, 18, 28, and 23, churning out fantasy points values of 25.8, 4.4, 19.5, 30.5, and 25.0 over that span. He scored six touchdowns over those five weeks. Once Penny took over as the lead back in Week 14, Seattle’s situation-neutral rush rate jumped from 43% to 49%, a clear indication of Carroll hammering what was working. With the change at quarterback and improvements to the offensive line, I’d expect that mantra to continue into 2022. That was a lot of words to highlight the fact that Penny’s early draft window upside versus cost bell curve is heavily weighted towards upside at current ADP. He is a player I am targeting aggressively, and someone to keep in mind for early-season DFS contests.

Excuse me while I preach on something right quick – DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have been two of the most efficient wide receivers over the previous three seasons and are being completely left for dead with Russell Wilson no longer in town. In the three games in which Wilson missed in 2021 (and that Geno Smith started), Metcalf put up stat lines of 6/58/0, 2/96/1, and 6/43/2, while Lockett recorded stat lines of 2/35/0, 2/12/0, and 12/141/0. Spare me the assertion that those two lack upside with Geno Smith at quarterback. Both Metcalf and Lockett maintained elite underlying metrics in 2021, particularly in targets per route run and yards per route run (21.3% and 2.34 for Lockett and 26.2% and 1.97 for Metcalf in those two metrics, respectively). Metcalf also held an absurd 36.9% of the team’s available air yards in 2021. The beauty is in the concentration for these two, which serves to offset the lack in total volume from the offense as a whole. I’m sorry, but Lockett in the ninth or 10th round is theft, and DK should be just fine in the fourth or fifth for your fantasy roster. Noah Fant brings one of the premier athletic profiles across the entire NFL to the table at the tight end position and should be considered drafted at floor in early Best Ball drafts. Now take that exploration and consider the potential for the team bringing in Jimmy G or Baker Mayfield (each has been linked to Seattle already) and we get to my conclusion that all members of this offense are currently being undervalued in early drafts.


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