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NFC West :: 2019 Preview!

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | AFC

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Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals are one of the most exciting teams in the NFL entering the 2019 season — and frankly, the fact that they showed somewhat poorly in preseason only makes them a stronger value. Optimally, in fact, the Cardinals will struggle somewhat in Week 1 against the disciplined, eyes-on-the-quarterback defense of Matt Patricia’s Lions, and will struggle even more in Week 2 against the Ravens — lowering all interest in this offense before they enter a stretch of favorable matchups beginning in Week 3 (Panthers // Seahawks // Bengals // Falcons // Giants // 49ers // Bucs; sheesh!).

What to expect from this offense:

This is the big question, right? And that’s the funny thing about preseason scaring everyone off this offense as well, as Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have both been open about the fact that the Cardinals were not planning to show their actual offense in those games. So then, we had a quarterback in what was essentially an un-schemed offense, putting up a couple disappointing performances in limited time on the field — leading to ADPs dropping in best ball, and leading to fewer people talking about this team heading into the season than we were expecting a month ago.

The 2019 Cardinals are going to bring the air raid attack into the NFL. We know this already, but what does this mean?

The main way to think about this offense is “pace and space.”

The main way to think about this offense is “pace and space.” This offense wants to play fast and tire out defenses, and they want to space out the field — often playing with four wide receivers, and primarily focusing on short, quick passes, essentially overloading the defense and making it easy for Arizona to march the field. In much the same way the Rams do not focus much on big plays, and instead focus on ultra-consistent yardage gains — understanding that a defense will eventually make a mistake that will lead to a big play — we should expect the Cardinals to attempt to get into second- and third-and-manageable, and continually keep drives alive. Between a fast pace of play and a short-area passing attack, we have an excellent recipe for DFS — particularly on PPR sites. Even if the Cardinals don’t put up a lot of points one week, there is a chance for their receivers to pile up production in a point-per-reception (or even half-PPR) sense.

This does, of course, bring up one of the more difficult elements we have to think about with this offense: Who are the wide receivers? With this team sure to spread the ball around, it may be a couple weeks before we have a true feel for which wide receivers on this team have a shot at double-digit targets. (Larry Fitzgerald is still the best route runner on this team; Christian Kirk is full of talent; KeeSean Johnson showed well in camp, and could even pass Kirk in the target pecking order; Andy Isabella has mouthwatering upside with his speed; and David Johnson will be involved in the pass game as well. We may even find that DJ is more of a 75% player, with Chase Edmonds mixing in for four or five carries and two or three catches per game.) Frankly, this is another bonus of the Cardinals opening with at least one, and possibly two difficult matchups. We can get a sense for exactly how this offense is filtering volume, in order to be ready to attack when the matchups lighten up.

This offense will flow through Kyler Murray; and while he is sure to have some typical rookie growing pains, he is also all but guaranteed to post at least a couple of week-winning scores this season. Kyler has pinpoint accuracy, an advanced ability to read a defense for a rookie QB, and incredible wheels that will make him a threat for a handful of 30+ yard runs this season. Even if the volume never levels out so that one or two skill position players are seeing the bulk of the touches, Kyler is sure to evolve into one of the more valuable DFS quarterbacks this season — with the right matchups opening opportunities for the sorts of scores that can shoot you past the field of DFSers who are targeting those 20 to 25 point ceilings from most traditional pocket passers.

All in all, there are question marks on this team; but if we enter this season knowing more about this offense than others, we’ll gain additional opportunities for profit, and will potentially build a big edge for ourselves during a few weeks in the first half of the season.

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Los Angeles Rams

At this point, it is probably safe to say that the Los Angeles Rams are one of the more well-known commodities in the NFL, in fantasy football, and in DFS. In back-to-back years, this team has been one of the higher-scoring offenses in the NFL (ranking first and second in points per game, while ranking third each year in points per drive), and as this team runs pretty much the same offense week in and week out, there is not a lot of mystery or a lot of question marks. (Unlike other high-scoring, easy-to-target offenses like the Saints, Eagles, Patriots, etc., we know what to expect from the Rams most weeks.)

So what should we expect?

Here are the staples of the Rams offense:

Everything in the Rams’ offense is built off the run. The Rams deploy a zone blocking scheme that allows the offensive line to flow one direction, and allows their running back to flow with the line until they spot an opening through which they can make one cut and get upfield. We can debate all we want about whether or not Todd Gurley would be one of the top running backs in the NFL in a different system, but what does it really matter? In this system, Gurley is able to use his elite vision and his ability to cut and go — picking up steam right away — to be one of the most valuable and consistent running backs in the NFL. (More on Gurley in a moment.)

the simple truth is that most defenses are not talented enough, disciplined enough, or well-coached enough to stop the Rams

With the huge threat that Gurley provides in the run game, defenses have to constantly pay attention to what he can do. The Rams are able to then use this to build in bootlegs and misdirection — building branches of their pass game directly off run concepts and play action, and constantly getting teams out of position before hitting them through the air. While there are some fundamental concepts that a defense can use to combat an offense such as this one, the simple truth is that most defenses are not talented enough, disciplined enough, or well-coached enough to stop the Rams from start to finish in a game. In much the same way that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have long been able to march the field with a precision-oriented, short-area passing attack that consistently converts first downs and trusts that opponents will eventually make mistakes, McVay and Goff are able to trust that only a few defenses in the league are even capable of keeping up with this offense from start to finish — eluding mental lapses, and playing with proper technique and responsibility throughout the course of a game.

Another bonus for us in DFS is that this passing attack is concentrated around three players. While the Rams’ offense in reality is more nuanced than this simple description, the best way to view Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Brandin Cooks is this:

If the Rams want to flood areas of the field and give Goff multiple options to choose from at various levels along a single line of sight, then Kupp is typically the short-area option, Woods is typically the intermediate option, and Cooks is typically the deep option. All three players are involved consistently/heavily in the game plan each week. All three players have a schemed role in the red zone. And all three players have a high floor and a high ceiling (though with the work spread around, each player is also less likely to hit his ceiling than other options we can often consider).

And finally, we have the biggest question mark of all on this offense: Todd Gurley, and his 2019 role on this team.

Here’s what we will be watching for with Gurley early in the year:

1) What happens when the Rams grab a big lead? If Gurley gets phased out of the game to protect his knee when the Rams are leading big in the fourth quarter (which seems likely), this will take away some of his opportunities to pad his stats.

2) What happens in short-yardage situations? Gurley is sure to still get the ball inside the 10-yard-line, and likely inside the 5; but what happens when bodies are banging against each other on goal-to-go at the 1 or 2? Does Gurley get the rock here, or do the Rams protect his body in these collision-heavy situations?

Ultimately, Gurley is too elite of a weapon for McVay to take him off the field too often throughout the touch-and-go portions of the game; but Gurley’s workload will be curbed in some way this year, and it will be important for us to pay attention to what those ways are in order to get the most out of our exposure to this team.

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San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers have one of the better designed offenses in the NFL — which is something we all know already; but in order to truly get the most out of our exposure to the 49ers’ offense in DFS, we have to also understand what it is that makes this offense click, and what players this offense is working with.

There are two specific things we should think about when considering this offense in DFS. The first thing takes place in the backfield, and the second takes place in the pass game.

Backfield:

Kyle Shanahan typically produces one of the more productive run games in the NFL. With a quality zone blocking scheme, and offensive play designs that require defenses to defend the entire field, Shanny is regularly able to pull production out of his running backs (and he is also able to identify specific running backs who will be able to do well in his scheme). But another trademark of the Shanahan offense in recent years has been timeshares. In Atlanta, it was Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman; and even last year in San Francisco — with Jerick McKinnon getting hurt — Matt Breida was splitting touches with guys like Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert. (As a side note, it’s at least worth noting that Breida was playing hurt all season; though that is merely a side note, as Shanahan brought in Coleman this year to once again split the load.) This offense also runs as much 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) as any team in the NFL — often leaning on Kyle Juszczyk to be a force in the blocking game while also providing a sneaky target in the pass game.

Pass game:

outside of Kittle, it is difficult to find consistent production out of this group

Many of Shanahan’s designs and concepts capitalize on his ability to effectively scheme multiple pass catchers into a single area of the field — giving the quarterback multiple options at multiple levels, along one line of sight. When Shanahan has a receiver like Julio Jones, he is able to feed extra targets to this player, as he can put this particular player in the best position to be open (in two years with Shanny, Julio averaged an absurd 11.1 targets per game — more than a full target per game higher than he averaged under Sarkisian). But now that Shanahan is on the 49ers, where there is no dominant wide receiver, targets tend to get spread around fairly evenly. ( Dante Pettis is immensely talented, but he still has too much finesse to his game — something Shanahan is trying to train out of him, and something that isn’t there quite yet. Marquise Goodwin is an elite speed threat, but is not an elite all-around wide receiver. And now, the 49ers have Trent Taylor (who is currently injured), Jalen Hurd (who they love), and Deebo Samuel (who SF beat writers love) all set to fight for snaps as well — on a team that doesn’t run a ton of three-wide sets. ) George Kittle has effectively become the closest thing Shanny has to Julio — a target hog who can create mismatches throughout the course of a game — but outside of Kittle, it is difficult to find consistent production out of this group.

And that’s really the thing with this offense, isn’t it? Even if Jimmy Garoppolo balls out this year, this team spreads the ball around: with three backs who will get touches most games, and with four or five wide receivers who will see at least some looks most weeks.

With all of this, Kittle is the only truly reliable piece on this team. Outside of Kittle, this offense is best left alone in cash games most weeks. However, with the upside of this offense as a whole (and the legitimate guarantee that some players from this offense will have big games throughout the season), this team is always worth considering in tourneys — paying attention to the matchup, and getting a feel for who is likeliest to have a big game: allowing you to fold this player (or these players) into some large-field tournament play.

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Seattle Seahawks

In 2018, the Seahawks flew in the face of conventional thinking across the NFL – choosing to become the first team in ages that decided to run the ball more often than they passed it. There are steep and obvious analytical arguments against the approach that Seattle used last year (not to mention the fact that Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and is now taking up as much salary cap space as any player in the league).

But analytically sound or not, Seattle found something that works for them

But analytically sound or not, Seattle found something that works for them. Last year, the Seahawks were expected to find themselves in a transitional state – entering the season with low expectations from the NFL community as they retooled their roster and began a youth movement. After some early-season struggles (they were 4-5 on November 11), the Seahawks won six of their last seven games and became a “surprise” playoff team, barely losing to the Cowboys in the Wild Card round. While it is difficult to account for this from an analytics standpoint (and certainly, I am comfortable with arguments being made all day as to why Seattle should have approached games differently), this team was able to hide their young, developing defense by slowing down games and keeping the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Seahawks were able to use the run to A) physically wear down opposing defenses, and B) build concepts into their offense that allowed them to take advantage of Wilson’s unbelievable deep ball accuracy. In spite of ranking dead last in the NFL in pass attempts and 27th in the NFL in net passing yards, this team ranked fifth in passing touchdowns and sixth in yards per pass attempt. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Seahawks did this without any real threat at tight end, and with Doug Baldwin missing a chunk of the season and not really looking like himself when he played. And as much as we should lean on and believe in analytics, this is also a reminder that we should have some level of healthy skepticism when it comes to the fancy advanced metrics that the “nerds with computers” (is that a direct quote from David Gettleman?) come up with. Yes, passing the ball more often increases both expected points and win probability. But if the Seahawks had tried to institute a truly pass-heavy approach last season, would they have actually been able to hit the same ceiling that they did? Given how much we all want Seattle to unleash Russ for the excitement and fantasy goodness he would be certain to provide, there is a viable argument to be made that a 2018 Seahawks approach that elected instead to play fast, go pass heavy, and force opponents to get aggressive in return would have led to a much more disappointing season given the roster this team had.

And honestly, even if you or I choose to disagree with that, it doesn’t really matter. Pete Carroll is still the head coach of this team, Brian Schottenheimer is still running the offense, and after Seattle exceeded public expectations last year, they are going to be doubling down on this strategy once again – running the ball, controlling the game, hoping to wear down opponents, and using all of this to both build in downfield shots and hide their still-young defense.

The backfield once again will belong to Chris Carson, who – in spite of carrying a lesser pedigree than Rashaad Penny – continues to do all of the little things right, while running with a forcefulness that we have yet to see from Penny. Expect Carson to touch the ball around 20 times most weeks (with room for fluctuation on either side of that mark on a week-two-week basis, but with his end-of-season, touches-per-game numbers settling around that range), and expect Penny to mix in for some breather carries and some pass game work – with potential for spikes in involvement on weeks in which Seattle can be expected to truck their opponent and salt away the game throughout the second half.

Entering the season, at least, the only other player who is worth our attention outside of “chasing fluky outcomes and hoping for the best” is Tyler Lockett, who will be taking over this season as the de facto number one receiver. Although Lockett is likely to rarely see double-digit targets, his speed and his deep connection with Russ combine to make him one of the more attractive plays in tournaments most weeks. While the run-heavy nature of this offense and the lack of big-volume games from Lockett will tend to suppress his ownership, we can pick some weeks to say, “Hey, I’m fine taking on a little less floor in order to target some lower-owned ceiling.” Lockett is guaranteed to have a handful of the monster games this season.