Fantasy Notebook: AFC West; Manning Up Faster; Charles Is It

By Bob Harris (4for4 Scout) on Apr 20, 2013

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After 20 years covering the NFL, Bob is a 2013 Fantasy Sports Writers Hall of Fame Inductee. You can catch Bob on the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio every Saturday night throughout the offseason on Sirius Channel 210 and XM Channel 87.

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Setting a baseline of information? Already?? Oh yes. Starting early and staying on top of developments and stories along the way is the key to fantasy success. That being the case, I'm here to help with the latest installment of my division-by-division review/preview of the NFL -- and as always, doing so from a fantasy perspective. This week: The AFC West.

We'll get the ball rolling this week in Denver, where fantasy owners suddenly find themselves facing a bit of a head scratcher. As the Denver Post framed it last week: "Add a receiver who has 672 receptions over the past six years into an offense and it's bound to have an impact on how things get distributed."

Still, Demaryius Thomas argues that Wes Welker's presence can help everyone's output.

"I knew when he was coming in that I would probably get more one-on-one coverage, so I was kind of excited, actually, because with that guy, and [Eric Decker], and two great tight ends, it's going to be hard to double-team somebody," Thomas said. "So, I think it will help me out and help the team out."

There's no doubt Welker's arrival will help the team out, but will it help out fantasy owners looking for high-end production from Thomas, Decker and Welker?

During an April 13 appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, Associated Press reporter Arnie Stapleton told listeners he believes Welker will lead the team in receptions. But Stapleton also contends that Thomas and Decker will be plenty busy as the Broncos try to increase the number of plays they run each week by increasing their offensive tempo.

Perhaps one or two series more each game, Stapleton suggested before advising listeners that 90 snaps a game would be the goal.

This after the Broncos finished tied for the fourth-most offensive plays last season.

According to ESPN.com, Denver ran 1,090 offensive plays during the regular season, an average of 68.13 per game. So bumping it up to 90 snaps seems like a reach. In fact, Peyton Manning told reporters earlier this week that he wants the Broncos to get closer to the league-leading New England Patriots, who ran 1,191 plays (74.44 per game).

The Broncos also finished second in scoring offense to the Patriots last season, with 481 points compared to the Patriots' 557.

"For whatever reason, our offense plays better the faster we go," Manning told the Post. "I think that was clear cut last season. The receivers liked it; they got into a rhythm. Anything we can do as an offense to build off that, anything we can do to make us more efficient as an offense, that's what we're looking to do."

Considering they fared pretty well last season, that works for me. Especially when it comes to Manning and the passing attack.

Remember: Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2012, both the second-best totals in his career. His passer rating was a 105.8.

And the best totals of his career?

That would be in 2004, when Manning posted a career-high 121.1 passer rating and threw 49 touchdown passes.

Given the arrival of Welker, it's worth noting that Manning was throwing to a very solid trio of wideouts in 2004: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. Each had 1,000 yards receiving. Harrison had 86 catches and 15 touchdowns. Wayne had 77 catches and 12 touchdowns. Stokley had 68 catches and 10 touchdowns.

Can he come up that big again?

As Post staffer Mike Klis put it, "Manning may not have the arm he once he had. But he's a better quarterback."

No argument here. I think Manning is more than capable of maximizing the abilities of all three wideouts. Even so, expecting Welkeresque totals -- even from Welker (remember, he was consistently one of the NFL’s best wide receivers in New England, catching more than 110 passes in five different seasons while averaging 112 receptions during his six seasons as a Patriot) -- also seems like a reach.

Believing his arrival won't limit Thomas and Decker at all seems unrealistic, too. It's something I'll be keeping in mind as I compile and tweak my initial 2013 rankings; my initial feeling is Thomas will still be drafted as a WR1 with Welker and Decker more likely going in the WR2 range. Not saying I don't think that's how it will play out, but I might like the value of the latter two once draft day rolls around.

By the way, Stapleton believes if anybody's totals take a hit due to Welker's arrival it will be those of tight end Jacob Tamme, who pulled in 52 catches last year.

One last note: Stapleton is looking for Denver to draft a running back early later this month.

"The thing they missed late last year was a bell cow running back," Stapleton reminded listeners. "They couldn't stay on the field. All they needed against Baltimore in the playoffs was one third-down conversion to keep a drive alive."

It's a good point and Stapleton believes Eddie Lacy could be the guy to change that.
 

In Kansas City, it appears things are looking up for Jamaal Charles.

Why?

As Associated Press Chiefs beat writer Dave Skretta told the FootballDiehards, it's simple: "There's nobody else on the depth chart."

That's right. There's no Peyton Hillis or Thomas Jones to make significant inroads into Charles' touches at this point -- and it doesn't appear there will be.

So as Skretta suggested, there is a lot riding on Charles this year.

Better still, new head coach Andy Reid is ready to take full advantage of what Charles brings to the table.

ESPN.com's Bill Williamson recently reported that, in order to get a better feel for Charles, Reid studied film of the 2010 AFC West champion Chiefs, whose offensive coordinator was Charlie Weis. Reid said Weis’ offense is similar to his and he liked what he saw of Charles.

“Charlie kind of moved him around like we did with our guys [in Philadelphia],” Reid said. “I did that just to see how [Charles] handled the quick passing game or the deep passing game from the wide receiver position. He handled it well. So that gives you another dimension that you know is in there that he wasn’t utilized. They just didn’t use it in him the last couple years.”

In 2010, Charles had 1,467 yards rushing and 45 catches for 468 yards receiving. It was his second-highest rushing season total and a career high in catches and receiving yards. There have been questions whether Charles will fit with Reid because Reid is a pass-first coach.

Reid knows Charles, who had 1,509 rushing yards last season, is a dangerous runner. But the coach will also give defenses multiple looks at Charles. In fact, given the way Reid uses his backs, as prolific receivers out of the backfield, Kansas City Star beat man Adam Teicher believes Charles can break that personal best for pass receptions this year.

“I’m happy I can catch out of the backfield more,’’ Charles said this week. “This is the most movement I’ve been (asked to do) in five years in the league, shifting and motion. This is the most I’ve ever (done). I have to get my mind right and my body in shape for this type of offense.’’

This one isn't hard to figure out boys and girls. Whatever puts the ball in Charles' hands more is good news for fantasy owners.

Can you say top-three running back? Pretty sure Charles will join Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster in my top three this summer.
 

In Oakland, the Raiders spent this offseason getting rid of almost all of the remaining high-profile players brought in by the previous regime. But as Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow reminded readers this week, one of the few still around in is running back Darren McFadden.

McFadden is entering the final season of his rookie contract hoping a new offense that better suits his talents will help revive his game after a disappointing 2012 season.

General manager Reggie McKenzie cut three former top 10 picks this offseason when he let go of defensive back Michael Huff, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and linebacker Rolando McClain. But he remains confident McFadden can regain the game-breaking ability he showed when healthy in 2010 and '11 in former coach Hue Jackson's offense.

That's going to be a tough sell for fantasy owners who burned an early pick on McFadden last summer. I should know; I'm one of those owners.

But San Francisco Chronicle staffer Vic Tafur told the FootballDiehards that McFadden is excited about the new blocking scheme. Tafur added that he thinks DMC can have a rebound season.

Dennis Allen is also on board. The coach recently noted that McFadden is going back to a system in which he excelled in will help him. “(McFadden’s) most effective years have been in a downhill, power scheme,” Allen said last month. “That's why Greg Olson and Tony Sparano are here."

More specifically, it's why former coordinator Greg Knapp and his zone-blocking scheme only lasted one year.

Olson, the new coordinator, and Sparano, the new offensive line coach, will go back to a predominantly straight-ahead power scheme, one in which McFadden averaged 4.75 yards per carry his first four seasons.

As Tafur recently put it, "McFadden is coming off a season in which he averaged 3.27 yards per carry running sideways in Knapp's zone-blocking scheme."

And as nice as it is to know that Allen and McKenzie are happy with the changes, it's even better to know that McFadden can't wait to get back to what he does best.

"This is very exciting for me," he told Tafur. "I am the type of guy who likes to go downhill, make a cut and go; that's my thing. We'll mix it up like we used to, and get some zones in there, but for the most part, I will be keeping my shoulders toward the line of scrimmage."

Besides being held to 707 yards on 216 carries last season, McFadden was also stopped by injury again. He missed four games because of an ankle sprain and has missed 23 games in his five seasons -- "just a fluke," he said, "because I am always going hard."

And now that he'll be running more north-south than east-west, the Raiders have high expectations.

So does McFadden. "I know what I can do," McFadden said. "I do feel like I am still a top-five back."

I suppose that's possible; the talent is clearly there. But the best part for fantasy owners is there's no way they'll have to pay a top-five price to secure his services come draft day.
 

And finally this week, in San Diego: In the wake of back-to-back mediocre seasons -- and with the arrival of a new head coach, Mike McCoy, and general manager, Tom Telesco, there are those who believe Philip Rivers heads into his 10th season as a Charger in a precarious position. That speculation ramped up earlier this month, when San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Kevin Acee told an NFL Network audience, "No one will say it, but I think that 2013 is the final audition of Philip Rivers."

As NFL.com's Dan Hanzus notes, Acee based his assumption on San Diego's decision not to restructure Rivers' contract this offseason despite the team's tight salary-cap situation. Acee says the Chargers' choice to sit tight on Rivers "speaks volumes."

During his appearance with the FootballDiehards, Union-Tribune beat writer Michael Gehlken agree with Acee's assessment. But Gehlken went on to express at least some optimism about a turnaround. It all hinges on protection.

"Rivers needs to get back to basics with his technique," Gehlken explained. "His arm strength is still fine, but his mechanics have suffered."

And with good reason: Rivers was sacked 49 times last season.

There's no denying Rivers has done a lot of good things for the Chargers. And he pointed out some of the positives this past week, after a reporter asked him to evaluate where his career stands.

"As far as whatever the numbers say over the last few years, and I say this humbly and respectfully, I played in 110 straight games or more, and have thrown a bunch of touchdowns, and over a seven-year period the ratio of touchdowns and interceptions is pretty dang good," he said. "So, I don’t feel like, ‘Oh, man, I’m in a struggling mode,’ or ‘Gosh, if I don’t play (well) this year, I’m out of football.’"

Rivers also made an excellent point when he conceded it's more about the team's success than it is his individual performance (although the two are clearly tied together to a degree).

"I think this league’s about winning, more than anything," he said. "And the bottom line is we’ve been a .500 team for three years. We’ve been out of the playoffs for three years. I look at it that way more than anything. I’m the leader of this group."

Rivers has also been responsible for 47 turnovers over the last two seasons. It's not unreasonable to suggest fewer turnovers might lead to more wins.

It's also not unreasonable to believe that better protection would lead to better mechanics, fewer turnovers and ultimately, more wins.

Again, as Gehlken stressed, it all starts up front.

"Ryan Mathews needs to turn it around," Gehlken said. "Rivers needs to turn it around. Offensive line is the key."

That being the case, Gehlken advised listeners that when trying to project Rivers' and Mathews' fantasy value for 2013, keep close eye on the draft and whether the Chargers address the O-line.

In a couple of related notes: With Norv Turner gone, Gehlken expects to see less of a focus on having a single featured back handling the bulk of the work. Mathews is obviously coming off a disappointing season that began and ended with broken collarbones (one suffered on his first carry of the preseason and cost him the first two regular-season games followed by the one suffered in Week 15, on his final carry of the season).

The addition of former Patriot Danny Woodhead, signed as a free agent last month, and continuing presence of Ronnie Brown, give the new coaching staff plenty of options.

According to Gehlken, the Chargers "didn't sign Danny Woodhead for 2-years to sit."

Gehlken is expecting a big role -- especially in passing situations (Woodhead is a solid pass blocker in addition to being an outstanding receiver out of the backfield). The arrival of Woodhead doesn't ensure a lesser role for Mathews. In fact, one might argue that a serviceable complement could make Mathews and the entire offense more effective.

Indeed, from a fantasy perspective, the addition of Woodhead might drive Mathews' draft value down into a range where more risk-adverse owners could find themselves with a high-end talent at a bargain basement price.

And finally, Gehlken told us "the sky is the limit" for Vincent Brown, who's 2012 season ended with a fractured ankle late last summer. If healthy, he will be a big part of the offense in 2013.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2013