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AFC West :: 2019 Preview!

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Denver Broncos

After another disappointing year under Vance Joseph, the Denver Broncos changed tracks this offseason – bringing in Vic Fangio to run the team, and bringing in Rich Scarangello to run the offense. Fangio – who, of course, coordinated the elite defense of the Bears last year – has some solid pieces to work with on the Broncos. Before we dive into the Broncos offense, however, we should note that there is a chance this year that Fangio’s name and the label “Broncos defense” will leave people with a different perception of this unit than they should have.

While this team will have a strong pass rushing presence, they do enter this year with some question marks on the perimeter – where Bryce Callahan could be picked on by bigger receivers, and where this secondary as a whole tends to get eyes locked too fully on the quarterback, making them susceptible to double moves and the big play. This unit also enters the season with fairly major question marks in its linebacker corps; and while this unit was solid against running backs on the whole last year, only seven teams in the NFL allowed more rush plays of 20-plus yards, and only one team allowed more rush plays of 40-plus yards. Denver tends to always present a difficult matchup at home, but there is a chance that road games for the Broncos will have potential to be higher-scoring than most (especially early in the season) will assume at first glance.

the Broncos… seem to have a handle on where their deficiencies lie

One thing that can be said for the Broncos (at least for their coaches, if not for Elway himself) is that they seem to have a handle on where their deficiencies lie. Joe Flacco is in at quarterback this year; but how much of a help is this when Flacco, by a bevy of both standard and advanced metrics, has been one of the worst quarterbacks in football for the last several years? Furthermore, Emmanuel Sanders is returning from an Achilles injury (an injury, of course, that is notorious for sapping burst), and while it has been well documented on this site that Courtland Sutton is dripping with high-upside athleticism, we also had to start documenting last year the fact that Sutton doesn’t seem to be quite as interested in maximizing his physical tools as we would like (it is probably at least worth noting that Sanders got into a legitimate, fist-throwing fight with Sutton on the field this offseason – with fights not being all that uncommon in training camp, of course, where tempers tend to be at their highest; but where it is very unusual for two players from the same position group to get into a fight — and by all accounts, the fight began due to Sanders’ frustration over the lack of effort the younger receivers on this team are showing). This leaves plenty of question marks in the passing attack for this team, and so, it makes sense that the Broncos brought in Scarangello (who comes over from the 49ers – where, sure, he probably learned plenty of cool offensive tricks from Shanahan, but whose main job with the Broncos, it seems, will be to turn them into a dominant zone-running team), and also brought in Mike Munchack, who is one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the NFL.

What does all of this mean for fantasy?

There will surely be spots this year in which we will be able to see signs in advance of a potentially explosive offensive game involving the Broncos. But more often than not, the Broncos – not just as a team, but also as “game environment creators” – will likely be a team we are looking to avoid in cash games, single-entry tournaments, and small-entry tournaments, as these games will often be unlikely to produce truly week-winning fantasy scores. Early in the year, we will keep an eye on the rotation in the backfield (right now, the expectation is that Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay will have a more even timeshare than they did last year – which would, disappointingly, make it tougher to roster Lindsay for the games we could sometimes target from him last year), and we will also be keeping an eye out for signs of life from this passing attack. But in the early going, this is likely to be a team we generally avoid in roster construction, allowing others to chase the lower-likelihood chances of a blowup game involving the Broncos, while we hunt for our upside in higher-percentage spots.


Kansas City Chiefs

There have been only a few times in history when we have seen an offense in the NFL perform at the level of the 2018 Chiefs; and when an offense makes things look that easy for an entire season, it can lead many to believe that the offense in question is truly unstoppable, and that the good times will continue rolling in perpetuity. As such, we should begin our Chiefs writeup by noting that none of the previous offenses who performed at this level were able to duplicate the feat. With that said: even 80% of the Chiefs’ 2018 production would be perfectly acceptable for us from a fantasy perspective this year.

While Patrick Mahomes was truly and genuinely special last year, huge amounts of credit should also go to the weekly game plans that Andy Reid cooked up. The Chiefs were at the bottom of the league last year in passes thrown into a tight window, and they were at the top of the league in yards after catch – a remarkable testament to the magical powers that Andy Reid possesses. Furthermore – to counter the small amount of “drizzle” on the Chiefs’ parade from the previous paragraph – Andy Reid is not going anywhere; and while there are some “system” coaches on whom we would have to be concerned that perhaps the league would study them in the offseason and catch up with their scheme, in Reid we have one of the most creative play designers in the NFL, and it is an absolute lock that he will enter this season with new wrinkles that defenses have not yet seen, and with new ways in which he can strain an opponent with his unique stable of weapons.

as fantasy players, we can always feel comfortable that Reid is the ultimate talent maximizer

The beauty of this setup is that defenses rarely know exactly what Reid will throw at them in that week’s matchup; and yet, as fantasy players, we can always feel comfortable that Reid is the ultimate talent maximizer: finding ways each week to utilize his most dangerous weapons, and generating consistent production from his offense’s top players.

Given all of that, the element that is actually likeliest to cause the on-paper production of this offense to drop a small amount this year is the Chiefs’ defense. While this squad is by no means expected to join the ranks of the NFL’s elite, there are a number of reasons to expect improved performance this year from this side of the ball. Gone are the attack-heavy, man-coverage-heavy defenses of Bob Sutton, replaced by a new design from Steve Spagnuolo intended to execute a mix of press-man and zone, filled with blitzes and disguises aimed at confusing an opponent. For a defense like this, assignment-strong play and expert communication across the board tends to be more important than the talent of the pieces involved. Notwithstanding the fact that the Chiefs have added some talent this offseason (with Tyrann Mathieu likely to be particularly valuable from an assignment and communication standpoint), there have also been reports from Chiefs camp that communication has been strong, and that the designs have been working as intended – with Mahomes (who, of course, practices against this defense daily) at one point even calling the new defense “hard to read.” Andy Reid is not one to go into a shell early in the game, but there is a chance that in blowout-type performances this year, the Chiefs will ease off the throttle in the fourth quarter. Fewer shootouts would mean fewer opportunities for this offense to put up the unheard of production we saw last year. And yet…it isn’t as if all shootout opportunities will evaporate for this team. There will be plenty of weeks this season in which we dive into the NFL Edge and discover that Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill (along with the Chiefs’ running back du jour) project to be well worth rostering, even at their elevated price tags and sure-to-be elevated ownership: the rare team that can produce tourney winners even when everyone is on them.


Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers’ offense is a lot like Anthony Lynn :: calm, confident, commanding, precise, and methodical. This team likes to lean on the run (ranking near the top of the league in rushing play rate until the stretch run, when Melvin Gordon was banged up), and pace is not an emphasis (dead last in pace of play last year // 28th in plays per game). In PPR and half-PPR scoring, this is always worth noting; though while floor is tied to volume, ceiling comes from touchdowns — and with this team finishing sixth in points per game last year, there are typically touchdowns to be found, creating an interesting situation for us in DFS: an offense that people like to target because it tends to produce results, but that has a lower by-the-numbers floor than we would typically want to target from a highly-owned team ourselves. With that said, it is difficult to argue with results; and if you choose the Chargers as a team to typically lean on from a roster construction standpoint, you will in fact find that the results are typically there.

Although this team plays slowly (thus limiting volume on a weekly basis), one thing we can appreciate about this team is its limited distribution of touches. Unlike a team like the Patriots, or the Saints, or the Browns down the stretch last year, we generally know that a handful of players on the Chargers will see the bulk of this team’s touches.

Through the air, there are three main pieces that Philip Rivers will focus on downfield: Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, and Mike Williams.

Because of a couple stretches of just ridiculous volume two and three years ago, there is a perception of Keenan Allen among DFS players that is different from his reality. Allen is generally used close to the line of scrimmage, on possession-like routes that allow him to rack up a large number of catches, but that often prevent him from posting big games in the yardage department. As such, Allen rarely exhibits the ceiling that we would like to be targeting at the place where he is generally priced – and because perception has led to his ownership typically remaining somewhat high, his price has remained somewhat high as well. With that said, Allen is often one of the safest receivers to target – with impeccable route running, awesome hands, a high-scoring offense, and a quality quarterback who is guaranteed to look his way often. Also, we tend to be able to spot Allen’s big games before they occur, making him an important piece to pay attention to almost every week.

As long as Henry proves to be healthy, we should also see him immediately step in as an integral member of this passing attack. Henry has the big body to be able to make a difference over the middle of the field; but he also has the athleticism to make things happen after the catch, putting him in with a small group of players at this thin position who have a chance on almost any given week at posting a monster game. The first few weeks of the season will give us a better feel for Henry’s floor, but regardless of floor, this is a guy who will post at least a handful of monster point-per-dollar scores this season.

speaking of monster scores, we have Williams

And speaking of monster scores, we have Williams. After his lost rookie season, it was a bit of a question as to what we would get out of Williams last year; and while consistency was elusive, we did get a glimpse on a number of occasions of the sort of upside Williams carries. Given the pace and nature of this offense, we should not expect Williams to be a reliable, consistent producer. We should, however, expect him to be a player with week-winning upside – a player we should take note of every week, paying attention to his matchup and expected game environment, and making sure we have at least some tournament exposure on weeks in which he carries elevated blowup potential.

Finally, of course, we have the Chargers backfield, where – as of this writing (and who knows, really; I mean, heck, Andrew Luck retired after I finished my Colts writeup) – Melvin Gordon is still holding out for a new contract, which means that the backfield will belong to Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson early in the year. There are two things we will be watching for with this backfield in the early going (again: assuming that Gordon does not show up), as there is potential for this backfield to be extraordinarily useful early on, but there is also potential for this backfield to be less useful than people want it to be, and for it to be higher owned than it should be as a result. The two main things we will be watching for: the workload split in this backfield // and the pass game involvement. We should expect Austin Ekeler to carry the fat end of this workload split, with Jackson settling in as little more than a “hope for miracle” play; though we will see in the early going if the Chargers are thinking something different. As for pass game usage, Gordon saw his role in this area drop after Week 4 last year, when he picked up four or fewer targets in six of his next eight games (after averaging a ridiculous 8.5 targets per game through the first four weeks of the year). Similarly, Ekeler saw less work in the pass game than anticipated in his two weeks as the starter, catching only seven passes for 50 yards across those two weeks combined. Week 1 against the Colts (whose Tampa 2 scheme filters targets to running backs with the best of them) will give us a great opportunity to see how aggressive L.A. is with targeting their space back in his role as the starter, and will help us understand a lot more about this offense as we step into the remainder of the year.


Oakland Raiders

The Raiders took a beating last year – both from the media and on the field – for their head-scratching roster decisions, and for their declining play throughout the season. One under-explored angle to consider regarding last year’s Raiders team is that perhaps they were not all that interested in winning. Jon Gruden jettisoned talented players in favor of Gruden-type veterans – guys who may not have had much to offer on the field, but who were the types of players that would mesh well with Gruden’s personality, style, and approach. They paired this group of veterans with younger players (many of whom had been picked by Gruden) – almost certainly in the hopes that Gruden could build his own team, his own way, with players who would buy into his system: theoretically enabling him to win down the road (much as the Patriots do) not because of talent, but because of superior outmaneuvering of opponents, with hand-selected chess pieces.

Of course, it is an open question as to whether or not Gruden is equipped to pull off this strategy

Of course, it is an open question as to whether or not Gruden is equipped to pull off this strategy (certainly, it would seem that keeping players like Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack – players who not only boasted immense amounts of talent, but who are also known for their hard work and leadership qualities – would have been in the best interests of any strategy that involved long-term thinking), but it is worth noting that last year’s Raiders squad was near the top of the league in yards per game during the first portion of the year. And while the team did struggle in the red zone, and did begin to fall apart on the field as they fell out of the standings, we should also keep in mind that this is a much more talented version of the Raiders than they had last year. In understanding what to expect from the Raiders this year, there are two main position groups we need to pay attention to. We don’t have all the final answers here (in fact, we won’t have these answers until we get a few weeks into the season), but we do have a number of the pieces in place here, helping us get a sense of what we might see from this team early in the year.

The offensive line:

Last season, the Raiders’ line was an embarrassment – and if you know much about Derek Carr, you know that an embarrassing offensive line is going to seriously impair his play. When Carr appeared in 2016 to be a budding franchise quarterback, it was behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Whenever Carr has had a poor offensive line, on the other hand, he has had a difficult time keeping his eyes up and making plays down the field. The rise and fall of this line will depend primarily on two players: Trent Brown, whom the Patriots let walk this offseason, and Kolton Miller, who was an absolute bust last year at left tackle. What do we know so far? Part of the knock on Brown has been related to work ethic (with Brown going so far as to say that he doesn’t need to study film, because he is Trent Brown and defenders should be studying film to get ready for him (hint: they are)), but Brown is a beast of a player, and while there are plenty of elite pass rushers now rushing at right tackles, this position should enable Brown to get the most out of his purely physical talents. By all accounts, Brown has looked dominant in Raiders camp. As for Miller…well, by all accounts, Miller has had a strong camp against Clelin Ferrell – though no one outside of Gruden and Mayock thought that Ferrell belonged as the number four overall pick in the draft, so we may have to give it a week or two before we really have a sense of where our expectations on this line should be. If this unit has taken big steps forward from last year, there is a chance – with Tyrell Williams and Antonio Brown added to the mix, as well as potential upside rookie Josh Jacobs in the backfield – that this offense will have a lot more juice to it than most people will anticipate coming into the year; though before we get too excited, we should also keep in mind that offensive line coach Tom Cable has never had a line finish in the top half of the league in pass protection (and generally speaking, his units hang out at the bottom of the league). Naturally, this is a spot we will be keeping an eye on early in the season, as the public would likely be slow in coming around on the Raiders offense if they prove to be a solid unit this year.

The secondary:

To a lesser extent, we will also want to pay attention to the play of the Raiders secondary early in the year. Much of the Paul Guenther scheme relies on communication, assignment-strong play, and the ability to keep eyes on the quarterback. During Guenther’s years with Cincinnati, his schemes – while non–aggressive, and at times too vanilla – were often able to give wide receivers trouble. Even last season, in fact, the Raiders quietly faced the ninth fewest targets to wide receivers – with teams often throwing elsewhere simply due to coverage leanings, even as the Raiders struggled against wide receivers from an efficiency standpoint. With the addition of Lamarcus Joyner to handle slot duties and help direct the communication in this unit, there is a chance for the Raiders to be better against the pass than most will anticipate. If this proves to be true, there will be added game flow elements to consider each week, as some teams (particularly if the Raiders prove poor against the run, solid against the pass, and dangerous on offense) may choose to bleed the clock against this team, keeping the ball on the ground and aiming to dominate the time of possession and frustrate Gruden’s plans in this way.

While there is a lot we don’t know about the Raiders coming into the season, we have the fortune of being able to observe them off the main slate in Week 1; and we can also know that if the Raiders are showing stronger signs of life by Week 3 or 4 than most are anticipating coming into the season, most people will assume this is fluky, giving us a chance to jump on this offense before the field, and giving us an extra little edge through the early portion of the season. With the weapons on this offense and the turnover on this team, this is a squad we will be keeping a particularly close eye on early in the year.