All last offseason I said that the San Francisco 49ers were the key to unlocking fantasy football in 2021. It was a team that we needed to get right to unlock excellent value across draft boards. I was right about the idea but, whether due to missed player evaluations or lack of information coming out of training camp/preseason, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the execution.
No one reported Brandon Aiyuk’s doghouse visit prior to Week 1 and we never heard anything but a few peeps on Elijah Mitchell all offseason. I was too stubborn in assuming Kyle Shanahan would turn things over to Trey Lance at some point.
All that mixed together to form a cocktail of terrible takes.
That said, I have no regrets about how much importance I put into trying to get this team right. Every offseason there are teams whose projections — when nailed correctly, of course — carry an extra layer of importance.
As training camps dawn, I see four obvious teams we need to get right for 2022 fantasy.
It’s all about playing style for Philadelphia. The Eagles came out of the gate as one of the more aggressive passing teams to start the season but dialed it way back in the second half. Philly ended up finishing dead last in pass attempts in 2021.
They’re unlikely to finish that low for a second straight season but how much can we reasonably expect them to open it up going forward?
On one hand, the acquisition of A.J. Brown and the analytics-heavy approach of the front office would seem to point to a desire to push the pass this season. On the other, the team found a winning identity down the stretch with a run-heavy approach and teams often don’t just change that on a whim if it led to wins.
Good coaches design their system and play-calling to the strengths of the players on their roster. While the Eagles have some good pass-catching options the team will almost always be able to roll out a good running game with Jalen Hurts at quarterback and their a mauling offensive line.
Hurts has improved as a passer in each of his last four seasons dating back to college and the Eagles might see fit to put more on his plate. You can bet that giving Jalen Reagor’s targets to A.J. Brown is going to help Hurts’ efficiency. Still, even getting the Eagles to 21st in the NFL in pass attempts makes it tough to project enough volume for Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert to beat their ADPs. And going from 32nd to 21st is still a massive jump — and far from a lock.
Brown is a WR1 in industry consensus rankings, making him the most tenuous pick. You’ll need him to be hyper-efficient. The good news is that Brown is a top receiver on a pure individual talent basis and has been hyper-efficient throughout his career. That lack of overall volume could still lead him to be a volatile performer, however. Unlike in Tennessee last year, Brown will have to split slices of a smaller pie with legitimate target earners in Smith and Goedert.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have a few easy answers.
You should draft Cooper Kupp within the first four picks of any 1-QB league format this year. Matthew Stafford pretty easily slots in as a back-half QB1. If you’re looking for a solid late-round dart throw at wide receiver with some upside, Van Jefferson merits your consideration. Tyler Higbee slides into the general malaise of the TE11 to 20 range.
However, they have two massive pivot point players that we need to get right: Allen Robinson and Cam Akers.
Akers goes at an extremely comfortable range in drafts — outside the top-two rounds — and is only the industry consensus ranked RB16. That’s pretty tempting to lock up a potential bell-cow back on an offense we all expect to be good. The Rams gave Akers 31 touches per game during their Super Bowl run despite coming off a serious injury. He wasn’t efficient with those opportunities but the intent speaks a bit loudly over the results.
Even if his low ADP does bake in some of the risks it’s impossible to just gloss over those clear potential pitfalls.
Akers is still battling against history in terms of running backs successfully returning from an Achilles tear. There’s also a chance the Rams give him a breather on passing downs, as we saw in the Super Bowl with Darrell Henderson healthy.
I’m in line with consensus rankings on Akers representing a clear understanding of the risk/reward proposition of the player.
It’s going to be really difficult for Allen Robinson to fail this season as he’s set to moonwalk right into the Rams' No. 2 wide receiver role.
The only way he totally flops is if he’s completely toast.
Based on his Reception Perception results from 2021, I don’t think he’s anywhere close to toast but was rather cratered by an “all things that can go wrong, did go wrong” situation.
The Rams' offense has always functioned better with a true X-receiver who could beat man coverage on the outside. Look no further than back to Odell Beckham Jr.’s impact on the team late last season and how crucial he was to the Super Bowl game plan. They aren’t in that game without Beckham. Robinson profiles as that type of player.
I’m ahead of consensus on Robinson and think he should be ranked as a top-20 receiver.
Lastly, while I’d love you to trust my evaluation on wideouts, you don’t have to do to believe in Robinson. You just need to have faith in the Rams’ pro receiver evaluations, which have been almost can’t-miss in the Sean McVay era.
We already went over their Beckham acquisition and how he became a crucial figure despite questions about his status post-Cleveland. Don’t forget that when they traded for Brandin Cooks, he stepped in as the missing piece in the deep game for a team that went to the Super Bowl in 2018. The Rams were outright clowned for the Robert Woods contract in 2017 but he became a staple piece of their offense for years. Even Sammy Watkins scored eight touchdowns in 14 starts in his lone year as the Rams' X-receiver. They know wideouts; this is a good place to put your fantasy pass-catching chips in.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs' passing game could be a treasure trove of wide receiver value this season.
With the exit of Tyreek Hill, Kansas City has one of the largest target and air yards vacuums in the NFL. The team was proactive in adding bodies to the mix with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in via free agency and Skyy Moore in the second round of the draft.
There is a chance there is a league-winner among that trio, given their attachment to Patrick Mahomes. My favorite bets are JuJu and Moore. You can squint at Smith-Schuster, in particular, and see something like a “this year’s Cooper Kupp” outlook.
Kupp is a big slot receiver who benefits from schemed layup targets and that’s the same role in which JuJu needs to operate. Kupp had an established resume but wasn’t anywhere near offseason top-10 lists this time last year. JuJu has strong seasons in his background and while he was usurped by a superior WR1 in Diontae Johnson, Kupp was also out-targeted by Robert Woods from 2019 to 2020.
Kupp was a good player who experienced a massive quarterback upgrade going from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford and JuJu is in line for perhaps an even bigger bump going from the husk of Ben Roethlisberger to Mahomes.
Kupp has always been just a straight-up better player than Smith-Schuster and has long operated in a crucial role for the Rams but you can make the case the latter could experience a similar breakthrough as a mid-round fantasy selection this year.
However, with JuJu only signed to a one-year deal it’s no lock that he’s the top target earner on this team. Valdes-Scantling’s history as a one-trick pony burner and his limited skill-set have me hesitant to chase his (somewhat funny money) big contract. The rookie Skyy Moore is loaded with talent but could be on a slow burn as he transitions from a lower collegiate level to the NFL. I believe in him as a player and think the fireworks start whenever he lands a full-time role, but that might not be until deep into the season.
No one wants to talk about it but Mecole Hardman may well still be a factor with this team. The Chiefs haven’t been shy about throwing a ton of receivers out on the field, as Scott Barrett notes:
Something we don't talk about a lot, but may be more impactful than we want to admit is WR-by-committee situations pic.twitter.com/6wEp3gFljW
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) July 20, 2022
The fantasy community is still burned because he was a “wasted” eighth-round pick last year but Hardman has been something more like an average rotational receiver since entering the league. He doesn’t even have to break out or take another step to throw a wrench into this team’s target pecking order and cloud the outlooks of JuJu, MVS and Moore.
Deciphering how these players are going to be deployed and featured will be crucial during training camp. There’s a chance we see a huge leap from someone in the Chiefs' receiver corps but there’s also a scenario where this is a jumbled mess to be avoided.
San Francisco 49ers
The folks who hated me for harping on the 49ers over and over again last year aren’t going to like to hear it but we’re almost right back where we started in 2021.
Trey Lance is taking over as the starting quarterback. That much has been confirmed by how the 49ers have handled Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason. The offense is bound to experience some changes in the transition.
The 49ers were sixth in the NFL in rush attempts last year but Kyle Shanahan and co. could employ an even more focused ground game with a mobile Lance under center. The young passer could also be the key to getting this team unstuck from the mud as an aerial unit. Garoppolo has his strengths but was far too short- and over-the-middle-focused. Lance could help this team open up the downfield game and attack outside the numbers, perhaps offsetting any loss of volume with efficiency we haven’t seen from this passing game.
Uncovering clues about the play calling and Lance’s development will be a key task for the rest of the summer. We’ll have to juggle that with also attempting to decipher if Tyrion Davis-Price is the No. 2 RB in this offense and any threat to Elijah Mitchell’s workhorse role from 2021. In addition to tracking how the targets might get distributed if Deebo Samuel goes back to a pure receiver role.
Hopefully, all of that goes a little smoother than it did last training camp and preseason.