NFC West 2012 fantasy preview
Niners have said Brandon Jacobs will be an inside runner primarily this season
Beanie Wells appears slotted to be the Cardinals' primary back if healthy in 2012
In his third NFL season year, Golden Tate could emerge as Seahawks' top receiver
The record-breaking 2011 season for quarterbacks and passing numbers skipped right over the NFC West a year ago. It doesn't look like that will change much here in 2012.
Sure, the 49ers' Alex Smith is improved and has added weapons; Kevin Kolb should be better with a full offseason and training camp; offseason free agent Matt Flynn could add some presence to the Seahawks passing game; and the Rams' Sam Bradford has no place to go but up in Year 3.
Still, all of them can improve, and this will remain the worst quarterbacked division in football.
Exactly how much those low-end fantasy passers improve will determine just how much fantasy value will be found in the NFC West. It makes for a lot to watch in training camps and the preseason here, particularly if you're mining the depths of fantasy for some potential sleepers.
We are already taken our capsule looks at the NFC East, AFC East, NFC North, AFC North, NFC South, AFC South and AFC West. We conclude with the run-heavy (out of necessity) NFC West's depth charts, position battles, injury questions and fantasy positional rankings:
No. 2 RB: On another team, this battle doesn't register in fantasy. With the 49ers, it is a potential 1,000-yard, 10-TD rusher ... and that might be even if Gore stays healthy for a full season. This is clearly a defense and running team, and Gore hasn't been a model of health. The 49ers told Jacobs he will be an inside runner exclusively, which suggests he might get some touchdowns, but he won't be a feature runner. "He has to understand who he is as a player," Tom Rathman told the Sacramento Bee. "We need him to pack it up inside and run over guys and be physical as a ball carrier. If we want to ... run outside, we'll put somebody else in." That limits Jacobs' value. Second-year burner Hunter and second-round pick James figure to battle to be the feature back if Gore goes down for a significant period. This is easily the deepest RB depth chart in the NFL.
No. 2 WR: The 49ers didn't have much help for Smith a year ago, but they added Moss and Manningham via free agency and drafted project Jenkins in Round 1. This is now a championship-caliber group -- at least good enough to complement arguably the best rushing offense in the NFL. The coaching staff is expecting the 35-year-old Moss to be a starter, but his age, having sat out all of 2011, history of sketchy behavior and Manningham being in his prime all combine to make that a tentative situation. If Moss can't hold down a significant role, Manningham can be a fantasy starter, while Jenkins can emerge as a sleeper later in the year. Crabtree and the tight end, Davis, clearly are the primary targets, regardless.
WR Ted Ginn (knee) -- If Ginn hadn't missed the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers might have played in the Super Bowl. It was a costly fumbled punt that handed the game to the Giants in overtime. With that said, Ginn just doesn't impact fantasy anymore. He is at least healthy. His presence helps clinch the 49ers as the No. 1 Defense/Special Teams unit to have in fantasy.
Starting QB: Kolb has the contract, but Skelton is the one that turned the team around as a rookie a year ago. Kolb likely will win the job, and if he does, he could be a real sleeper in fantasy. Skelton is a bit more of an up-and-down guy, having tossed more picks than touchdowns a year ago. Kolb hasn't had a full offseason, or even a full training camp, to get himself acclimated to Arizona, so this is a huge preseason for him. It should help him take off in Year 2.
Starting RB: The Cardinals have the big back in Wells and the speedy talent in Williams. It is a nice mix, but both backs are coming off injury and might not be 100 percent at the start of camp. Either one could run away with primary back duties, although Wells, 23, would be the pick if both were healthy, with Williams as the change-of-pace back. This stands to be a pretty good running game, and Williams is an exciting sleeper, particularly if Wells falters or is banged up again as he always seems to be.
No. 2 WR: This obviously is a team full of position battles at every position. This one is merely a question of who is going to take the pressure off Fitzgerald. Floyd is the first-round pick with the elite potential long term, but Doucet showed a lot last season and Roberts was the hyped rookie a year ago. This group stands to make significant strides, especially if Kolb proves to be the man. There are some sleepers here, because Fitzgerald draws just so much attention.
RB Beanie Wells (knee) -- He is coming off the best season of his young career, but he required offseason surgery and has added to his injury-prone stigma. After missing OTAs, Wells might have lost some ground to the emerging Williams. Wells has some work to do, some proving to do, to regain workhorse back status this preseason.
RB Ryan Williams (knee) -- Last year's rookie phenom blew out his patella tendon and missed the whole year, but reports this offseason are he looks great and is ready to go. The problem Williams has now is he is no longer a true threat to challenge Wells for the primary back role, if both are healthy. When Williams was out, Wells had his best season, so Williams opens camp as the likely backup -- unlike last preseason, when the competition was a bit more open. The Cardinals just weren't as confident in Wells as they are now. The good news is Williams looks recovered and ready to make an impact, though.
Starting QB: This is supposed to be a three-headed battle with Jackson as the incumbent. But when the team signs a big offseason free agent and then drafts a quarterback to challenge for the starting job as a rookie, clearly there is little confidence in Jackson. It shouldn't take much for Flynn to emerge as the starter early in camp. The question with the QB here regards is there enough in the receiving corps to make the passer fantasy-worthy? The bet here is no.
WRs Nos 2-4: Rice is clearly the go-to man if he is healthy. If he is not, any number of receivers can emerge as the to-be-named QB's leading target. Tate and Baldwin are the young, hyped talents, while Obomanu and Butler can step forward if the production doesn't match the hype. Consider this an important year for Tate to emerge. Watch this group closely in the preseason, because of Flynn takes off, it will because someone from this eclectic group took a significant step, or two, forward.
WR Sidney Rice (shoulder) -- He is hoping to be ready for Week 1, but if he doesn't prove healthy early in camp, he could really cost himself important time to meld with the to-be-named QB. Rice has 1,200-yard, 10-TD potential, but he really needs to prove healthy early to establish go-to man status here. To be fair, he was banged up last year and didn't have a full offseason or training camp to set his roots in Seattle because of the lockout. This is an important first full camp with the Seahawks for him.
WR Golden Tate (hand) -- He expects to be ready for training camp and he is entering his third year as a wide receiver. It tends to be the breakout year for woebegone WR talents. Tate finished strong last season and should be the starter opposite Rice ... maybe even the go-to man if Rice missing too much time in camp.
WRs Nos 1-4: When a second-round pick out of Appalachian State is atop your preseason depth chart, with Steve Smith and Danny Amendola coming off injury-plagued seasons challenging him, you have issues at receiver. Salas, Alexander and fourth-rounder Givens are also in the mix, perhaps along with Brandon Gibson. None of these guys have significant fantasy value going into the season, but Bradford has ability and can emerge in Year 3, but he will need to find some targets among this group.
WR Steve Smith (knee) -- After a season where he was a non-factor in Philly, Smith at least gives this group some experience. He came back too soon from knee surgery, but another year removed from it, and he should at least prove healthy enough to give Bradford a possession receiver. He is a late-round sleeper with a strong preseason.
WR Danny Amendola (elbow, triceps) -- He was 100 percent for OTAs and figures to be a slot option in multiple-receiver sets. It gives him a chance to make some plays, perhaps, but the Rams aren't going to be a pass-happy team. Amendola is likely off the fantasy radar for draft day.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) -- He tore his ACL in mid-November and is coming off surgery. Since Kendricks is expected to make significant strides in a TE-friendly offseason, Hoomanawanui isn't worth tracking in fantasy until midseason. Kendricks just might be Bradford's primary target, so put that in the back of your mind late if you're looking for a stopgap tight end. Kendricks can really take off.
1 Kevin Kolb ARI
2 Alex Smith SF
3 Sam Bradford STL
4 Tarvaris Jackson SEA
5 Matt Flynn SEA
6 John Skelton ARI
7 Colin Kaepernick SF
8 Kellen Clemens STL
1 Marshawn Lynch SEA
2 Frank Gore SF
3 Beanie Wells ARI
4 Steven Jackson STL
5 Ryan Williams ARI
6 Brandon Jacobs SF
7 Kendall Hunter SF
8 LaMichael James SF
9 Isaiah Pead STL
10 Robert Turbin SEA
1 Larry Fitzgerald ARI
2 Michael Crabtree SF
3 Sidney Rice SEA
4 Michael Floyd ARI
5 Randy Moss SF
6 Mario Manningham SF
7 Early Doucet ARI
8 Brian Quick STL
9 Steve Smith STL
10 Golden Tate SEA
11 Doug Baldwin SEA
12 Danny Amendola STL
1 Vernon Davis SF
2 Kellen Winslow SEA
3 Todd Heap ARI
4 Lance Kendricks STL
5 Zach Miller SEA
1 David Akers SF
2 Jay Feely ARI
3 Steven Hauschka SEA
4 Greg Zuerlein STL
1 49ers SF
2 Seahawks SEA
3 Cardinals ARI
4 Rams STL
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).
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