Entering any new NFL season, so much is unknown. As the infamous quote from former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora Sr. goes: “You think you know, but you don't know, and you never will.” The best fantasy managers need to know what they don’t know and be able to research and ask questions before investing draft capital in a player. Sometimes it’s simply finding out about a player’s health. Other times it’s more complicated and one is forced to project how a player may be used differently in a new offense because of a trade, free agent signing, or a new head coach.
This division-by-division series will look at each of the NFL’s 32 teams and ask one fantasy-relevant question that needs to be answered this season. Some will be answered by or before Week 1, others may take 17 weeks to flesh out. Let’s look at the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers
Who Steps Up In Deebo Samuel’s Absence?
Now that the 49ers patched things up with running back Raheem Mostert, the biggest question they face offensively is how they make up for the early-season loss of Samuel while he recovers from a broken foot. There is some optimism he could be ready by Week 1, but it feels like early October is a safer bet. Aside from All-World tight end George Kittle, who else is poised to step up?
TDN’s Alexis Mansanarez wrote about three San Francisco wide receivers who could emerge this year, and any one of them could have early-season success. Rookie Brandon Aiyuk is likely the biggest beneficiary of Samuel’s absence early on, but is there a dark horse we might not be thinking about? I might take a last-round flier on Jalen Hurd. He missed his entire rookie season in 2019 with a stress fracture in his back, but he’s been cleared to return. He’s a complete dart throw, but he’s a former college running back turned wide receiver that can serve as a “temporary Samuel” for Kyle Shanahan in September.
Will Chris Carson Be The Starter Throughout The Season?
Carson led all running backs with seven fumbles last season, two more than the next closest rushers (Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry). He’s also recovering from a hip injury that didn’t require surgery, but is still something to monitor as we get closer to the regular season. Those two factors, along with former first-round pick Rashaad Penny being hurt, led to the Seahawks signing Carlos Hyde this offseason. While I’m not sure either Penny or Hyde are real threats to take over the starting job on their own, Carson could force head coach Pete Carroll’s hand.
Carson finished last season ranked as the RB10 in total PPR points and RB12 in average points per game. He was the RB18 in both categories in 2018. There’s no reason he can’t be an RB2 in a run-heavy offense if he just holds onto the ball and stays healthy. If he doesn’t, Seattle’s backfield becomes quite chaotic.
Los Angeles Rams
How Will Backfield Reps Be Distributed?
Todd Gurley is gone. And while you open up a new tab to fact-check me when I say he’ll only be 26 years old this season, I’ll ask the question of who replaces his workload in Los Angeles’ backfield. Rookie Cam Akers is a trendy pick in many fantasy drafts, but he’ll have competition from last year’s trendy pick Darrell Henderson and the too-often-ignored Malcolm Brown. Will any of these backs get consistent enough work to be fantasy-relevant on a weekly basis?
TDN’s Benjamin Solak wrote a great piece on how determining the winner for potential touches between Akers and Henderson comes down to the style the Rams want to run. The other issue is whether or not Brown comes into the game in goal-to-go situations. If Akers and Henderson split touches and then lose goal-line carries to Brown, none of these three backs are going to be startable in fantasy.
Can Kenyan Drake Be A Bell-Cow Back?
Let’s make it three-of-four with running back-related questions in this article. From the time Drake was traded from the Miami Dolphins to the Cardinals, he ranked as the No. 3 running back with an average of 19.9 fantasy points per game. He was more boom-or-bust than many remember, but any way you slice it, he was sensational. Entering 2020 as the clear starter in Arizona’s backfield, how productive can he be as the true lead back for the first time in his career?
It’s so easy to take his eight-game sample size from last season, double it, and use it as a baseline for 2020. I outline here why that’s a mistake. However, he should be highly productive as a three-down back in a fast-paced offense. The question is, can he hold up over a full season and are his peaks from 2020 aberrations or signs of things to come?