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NFC West: Five Things We Learned in 2014

Jan 7, 2015

Seattle didn’t offer much skill position talent outside of Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson in 2014

*Warning, Ryan Lindley is mentioned multiple times, if you are allergic to/or have terrible memories triggered by laughable QB play, please, read another article*

Now that we got that out of the way, while the NFC West was wild during the preseason, as Marshawn Lynch‘s holdout threatened to take the preeminent fantasy player out of the division, the season gyrated in directions that I couldn’t have dreamed during draft season. A pint-sized QB outscored Peyton Manning, the 49ers fell flat, the Rams were just kinda there (but sneakily poising themselves for a 2015 breakout, read ahead for more), and the Cardinals just kept on winning, despite pretty much their entire team ending up injured. We’re minus one Harbaugh, but up one season in review, if you want you’re review, and you want it now (we’ll miss ya, Jim), here it is!

It’s a two-man fantasy football band in Seattle…but oh what a soulful band it is

Because quite frankly, the skill position talent outside of Marshawn Lynch in Seattle can nicely be described as “grungy.” While being an extremely fun team to watch, there were only so many words I could substitute for “average” or “non-existent” in my updates on Seattle WRs and TEs. It was quite the strange year, as the Seahawks had an offense orchestrated by a quarterback in Russell Wilson who would end up being the third-highest scoring passer, but had the second-fewest fantasy points from WRs in the league, and had the 18th highest-ranked TE production, which was split four ways, leading to the highest scoring TE, Luke Wilson, finishing an all but un-usable 25th in standard formats. Doug Baldwin was the best of this unremarkable lot, delivering a little bit of value with a 66-825-3 line, but overall there wasn’t much worth writing about outside of Seattle’s beastly backfield of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, who are the city’s best duo since Sabzi and MC Geologic.

Conducting the offense was the shifty and efficient Russell Wilson, who achieved career highs in both rushing and passing yardage, and lead all NFL QBs in rushing by a 210-yard margin. While proving himself to be a dynamic play-maker by air and by ground, Wilson also was able to record his first season without a fumble lost, and also posted a career low in interceptions. He was at his best during Week 16, likely clinching your fantasy title in the process.

Marshawn Lynch wasn’t about preseason rumors of a committee approach to carries, he wasn’t about a lengthy holdout, he wasn’t about internal struggles following the Percy Harvin trade, he simply was all about that action. Lynch was able to overcome a litany of off-field stories, and ongoing back issues, to post a career high in touchdowns and receiving yards, while averaging a very impressive 4.7 yards per carry. The Seattle fan-favorite ended the year delivering fantasy value as well, finishing the year as the third-ranked running back. While there remain questions about Lynch’s long-term future with the team, if he isn’t the best RB in the league, he’s at least in the conversation.

Andre Ellington is not the lead back you’re looking for…

And this greatly saddens me. Ellington was shooting up draft boards in the preseason, and if you saw him in 2013 there is a good chance you joined the rush to draft the exciting second-year scat-back from Clemson, who was in line to get an astounding “25 to 30 touches” a game. But from the very beginning, Ellington was never quite right, playing through a foot injury that was initially expected to shelve him for 4-6 weeks, but was able to at least be a passable facsimile of his former self, riding extremely heavy volume to sit as fantasy’s No. 7 RB through nine weeks. Shortly thereafter, the wheels would completely fall off. From Week 10 on, Ellington couldn’t average over 3 yards per carry, and in addition to his balky foot, he had to deal with a hip injury. He was a back that just looked spent, lacking any of his former burst and agility. While he has to be commended for gutting it out during a trying period for his team, in which they lost multiple quarterbacks, Ellington was mercifully shut-down in Week 14.

Ellington’s metrics took an absolute nosedive in 2014, his yards per carry went from a glittering 5.5 in 2013 to a Asiataesque 3.3 in 2014. If you’re looking at advanced metrics, he went from being the fourth-best back in terms of DVOA in 2013, to the 35th in 2014. Even his yard per catch slipped from 9.5 to 8.6. While we only have this one season to go on, the only sample available shows that Ellington is best utilized, at least in real football, as a very talented change-of-pace back who can contribute out of the backfield. Look for the Cardinals to add outside help to the position in 2015, as the fact they ran an obviously broken-down Ellington out there from Weeks 10-13 speaks volume to their dissatisfaction at the other options on the roster. He’s going to inspire plenty of debate in 2015 drafts, as nobody knows who is the real Andre Ellington, a rookie dynamo, the injury-ridden second-year player, or something in the middle?

The Rams might be a QB away from being a very intriguing fantasy offense

The way things are shaping up, Sam Bradford has the potential to be the most important player in the NFC West in 2015. While the Rams as a whole were thoroughly unimpressive, ranking 27th in offensive DVOA, 27th in total yards, and tied for 17th in yard per play, they had some of the worst QB play in the NFL finishing 27th in team QBR. That last part is key, as there were plenty of bright spots, and if the team can somehow simply get league-average QB play (think Bradford’s 2012 season, his last healthy campaign), that offense is poised to take off. Scintillating rookie Tre Mason led the rushing attack to a respectable 15th overall ranking in DVOA, and he himself picked up 9.9 fantasy points-per-game in his maiden voyage, he looks to get even better as he learns the intricacies of an NFL passing offense, and could flirt with RB1 numbers in 2015.

At WR, no individual player had a huge year, but there were tremendously encouraging signs all around. Kenny Britt lead the team in fantasy points, posting his best season since his sensational 201o run with a 48-748-3 line. Perhaps more importantly, he emerged as a team leader for the Rams. Britt will turn 27 early in the 2015 season, and has always had the physical tools needed to be a fantasy factor, while it remains to be seen if the team will retain him, he could be a sleeper pick in 2015.

Brian Quick was one of the breakout stories from early 2014, as he was the 22nd most productive WR through the first six weeks of the season before going down with a shoulder injury in Week 7. Despite only playing seven weeks, Quick set career highs in catches, yardage, and touchdowns, finishing up with 25-375-3 line, which if extrapolated over 16 game’s would’ve put Quick somewhere around 57-875-7, a genuine breakout season. The former second-round pick (picked before Alshon Jefferey even) has talent, and could be a sleeper in 2015.

If you’re looking for a WR a little on the smaller side, Stedman Bailey flashed some talent during Weeks 9 and 10. Tavon Austin and Chris Givens both weren’t particularly impressive, but have been fantasy relevant in the past. Supporting player/perennial tease Jared Cook showed glimpses of talent, and passing back/return man Benny Cunningham led the league in kick return yardage. For a team that went through three quarterbacks in 2014, a return to even average QB play looks to lift a bunch of talented young skill position players into fantasy relevance in 2015. Keep an eye on this team.

No Cardinal is safe from the fantasy-bummer that was Drew Stanton, and worse, Ryan Lindley

Have you ever been stuck in conversation at a party with an extremely vocal over-sharer, Debbie Downer, overly touchy stranger, someone with terrible halitosis, or just generally reminds you of super-creepy Rob Lowe? It’s a stretch of an analogy, yes, but that party is much like the Arizona Cardinals 2014, at least for fantasy purposes.

There may have been friends there, joyous carrying on, killer bean dip, raucous Mario Karting, intelligent members of the opposite gender, etc all. But when you go home, you forget all of that great stuff, and remember that awful, awful conversation that you just couldn’t get out of. Those horrid guests were Ryan Lindley and Drew Stanton.

This entry is supposed to be a column of things that I learned, but what I learned about the Cardinal passing attack is that the QB play was so terrible I don’t know if the fantasy community misjudged popular early-season pick Michael Floyd, I don’t know if Larry Fitzgerald has lost a step, and I don’t know if John Brown was a rookie sensation, or an aberration. Take a quick look at just how much Lindley/Stanton shrank the size of the fantasy pie in Arizona.

Carson Palmer 17.3 fantasy points per game
Drew Stanton 10.5 fantasy points per game
Ryan Lindley 7.5 fantasy points per game

For reference, the 14th ranked QB per game was Eli Manning at 16.8 points per game. Its strange, but because of the terrible QB play to close the year in Arizona, I actually know less about the WR options on the Cardinals than I did before the year.

We know nothing about the 49ers, except that something is amiss, and its terrifying

One of my favorite books of all-time is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (skip the movie, read the book). It has no shortage of chilling, spooky moments, but one that stuck with me was when (spoiler alert ahead) to avoid the zombie outbreak the entire nation of North Korea retreats to underground bunkers, and maintains radio silence. The not knowing is what just makes the mental visual so chilling, is there a giant pocket of underground zombies? Did their civilization collapse? Could they create a mole-person utopia? The answer to this question is left up to the reader, and in a way this mirrors what is happening with the 49ers right now, they’ve gone underground, and the fact that we don’t know what direction their going to take makes them terrifying to speculate on.

Much like a big-budget disaster movie, pretty much everything that could go wrong for the 49ers in 2014, did. Frank Gore had a mediocre year, but posted his worst fantasy season since his injury-shortened 2011, and was reportedly not happy with his role on the team throughout the year. Carlos Hyde didn’t seize his chance to become the starter and had an up-and-down year, Michael Crabtree couldn’t shake injury and looked quite mediocre indeed when he was on the field, he was another player who was rumored to be a malcontent. But worst of all was Vernon Davis, who went from top-shelf TE to waiver wire fodder, and nobody exactly knows why, or if they do, they aren’t telling.

The face of this disaster was Colin Kaepernick, whose QBR has been trending downward ever since his breakout season of 2012. Some say it’s mechanics, some say its “judgement clouded by hate,” but it’s plain as the bay breeze that something has gone sour with the undeniably gifted QB. Making a bad situation worse, Kaepernick justifiably is somewhat angry at the fact that the coach who drafted him was let go, and feels somewhat alienated. He underperformed in 2014, and whether or not he’ll even be a part of the team in 2015 is in question.

With nobody talking about what is very obviously wrong, we just have no idea what direction this team will take. Right now there is no head-coach, and none expected to be announced in the near future. The team was a disaster in 2014, but the fact that the future is so uncertain is disconcerting at best and chilling at worst.

Brian Tesch is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brian, check out his archive and follow him @TheRealTesch.

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