By Tzali Nislick
The AFC West may be the most star-filled division in football. Many of the elite talent resides with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, but the other three teams either have bonafide superstars as well or young talent ready to take over in a few years. So let’s continue the division preview series by taking a look at some of the game’s best players in the AFC West.
More from this series:
Drew Lock: I’ve been very high on the Broncos coming into this season and Lock is a big reason why. I wrote about him in my piece detailing five late-round quarterbacks who could provide QB1 value. Denver’s offense was much better under Lock than it was under Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen, and that was evidenced by the Broncos scoring over 5 points per game more with the Missouri product, resulting in a 4-1 record in their last five games. We’ve seen a pattern in recent years with quarterbacks taking enormous jumps in their second seasons, with guys like Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson to name a few. I’m not saying Lock will take a leap like those players who all either won an MVP or was close to doing so in their sophomore campaigns, but Lock has the talent and the playmakers around him to succeed.
Melvin Gordon: It took a few games after his holdout, but Melvin Gordon found a way to be productive for yet another season in 2019 and finished as the RB23 despite missing the first four games. He wasn’t very efficient though, averaging just 3.8 YPC, the lowest mark of his career since his rookie season. His volume wasn’t very consistent either, as he had only three games with at least 20 carries. He was also often saved by touchdowns, as four of the six games he found the end zone in, he was held to fewer than 60 rushing yards. Now joining Phillip Lindsay, the volume may be inconsistent again for Gordon, so I’m staying away from him this year at his 3rd or 4th round ADP.
Phillip Lindsay: I wish Denver never signed Melvin Gordon because Lindsay has been a great player for fantasy purposes over the last two years. After finishing as the RB13 in 2018, he returned another 1,000-yard campaign and finished as the RB19 in 2020. But now with Gordon in the fold, Lindsay will struggle to maintain a consistent workload, and that could be bad news for someone who’s only averaged 13 carries per game over the last two seasons. Unless Gordon gets hurt, Lindsay may be stuck in a frustrating position for fantasy owners in 2020.
Courtland Sutton: Sutton was one of the players I named on my do not draft list. We all know Denver spent first and second-round picks on Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, who could both significantly eat into Sutton’s workload. Also with Noah Fant hopefully developing in his second season, targets may be scarce for someone who finished as the WR19 despite having the third-highest target share in the NFL.
5 players with the highest target shares in 2019:
1) Michael Thomas 33.03%
2) DeAndre Hopkins 31.56%
3) Courtland Sutton 29.17%
4) Julian Edelman 29.13%
5) Allen Robinson 27.62% pic.twitter.com/KBonSdoBwn
— 3CoSports (@3CoSports) July 22, 2020
Now with more competition, I’m afraid Sutton won’t repeat his target share and unless he improves his efficiency, (74th in catch % among wideouts) Sutton may disappoint in 2020.
Jerry Jeudy: If Lock develops like I think he will, Jerry Jeudy may be a direct beneficiary of a potentially revamped Denver offense. He was by far the best route runner in the draft and that could translate perfectly for Lock if he’s not ready to air it out 50 yards downfield yet and elects to attack the middle of the field instead. Rookie wide receivers are sometimes difficult to judge entering their first year, but Jeudy is polished and could make an impact right away if Lock continues to develop.
KJ Hamler: Likely won’t make a sizable impact in year one.
Noah Fant: Fant made my must have list. Rookie tight ends usually don’t have a huge impact right out of the gate, but Noah Fant certainly did and finished as the TE16. He had rookie year numbers that were similar in some ways to Rob Gronkowski, George Kittle, and Mark Andrews, who all took massive leaps in their second season. Fant has the cachet as a first round pick and could vastly outperform his ADP of TE12.
Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes: Patrick Mahomes is the best in the game right now, no matter what the NFL Top 100 list says. And since he’s a truly elite player you’ll know what you’re getting week in and week out if you take him at his insane price tag. So that’s the justification of taking Mahomes or Lamar Jackson at the end of the second or start of the third round. But as I said when looking at Jackson in my AFC North preview, I’d prefer to take a running back or receiver at that spot and wait on a quarterback until the end of my drafts. This just comes down to personal preference, but there’s no need to worry about Mahomes disappointing in 2020.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: With Damien Williams opting out of the 2020 season, it’s time to shine for Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The LSU product became the only running back in SEC history to run for 1,000 yards and catch at least 50 passes in the same season. That’s part of the reason why he was the only running back taken in the first round after the Chiefs selected him 32nd overall. He finds himself in a similar situation as Kareem Hunt in his rookie year in 2017, who was vaulted to the top of the depth chart after a preseason injury to Spencer Ware. Hunt finished as the RB4 that season, and that wasn’t even with Mahomes under center. Kansas City’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat this season and they’ll be in a position to score often, resulting in many opportunities for Edwards-Helaire. Unless the Chiefs sign another running back (like Devonta Freeman), Clyde Edwards-Helaire is without a doubt a top-10 running back.
Tyreek Hill: Despite missing four games due to injury and seeing a slight drop off in usage, Tyreek Hill still finished 11th in PPG for wide receivers. He did still have five or more catches in eight of his 12 games last season though, and any number one receiver in an Andy Reid and Mahomes offense will have plenty of opportunities. He’s still the most explosive player in the league, so as long as Hill stays healthy he’s an elite wide receiver for fantasy.
Sammy Watkins: It’s possible Mecole Hardman has passed him as the number two receiver. Unless there’s an injury to one of the top guys, Watkins isn’t much more than a flier.
Mecole Hardman: It’s possible he’ll be the number two receiver in his second season. He’s nearly a carbon copy of Hill with his speed and big play ability. He’ll need more volume though if he wants to be a consistent option in fantasy.
Travis Kelce: Sorry all you George Kittle fans, but Travis Kelce is still the best tight end in the game. He produces like an elite wide receiver and is well worth his 19th overall ADP, given how hard it is to find elite production at his position.
Las Vegas Raiders
Derek Carr: Does Jon Gruden trust Derek Carr? Who knows. But I think Carr has been given a bad rap. He was actually decent last season, going over 4,000 yards for the second year in a row and completing a career-high 70.4% of his passes. He finished as the QB16 and the Raiders only improved over the offseason, drafting Henry Ruggs in the first round. Even still, Carr is being drafted as the QB27. He had a quietly nice floor last season too, scoring at least 15 fantasy points nine times. I don’t think he repeats as the QB16, but he could be a sufficient streaming option depending on his matchup and a pretty good value at his ADP too.
Josh Jacobs: Josh Jacobs was awesome in his rookie season, finishing seventh at his position in rushing yards despite missing three of his last four games. He would’ve been on pace for 1,415 yards and nine touchdowns had he played a full 16 game season, numbers that are on par with what Nick Chubb did last season. The only knock on Jacobs’ game is his lack of ability to catch the ball. He finished as the RB14 in non-PPR formats but just 21st in PPR. I don’t think that will matter much for someone of Jacobs’ caliber though, especially if he continues on his upward trajectory. With a full season behind the Raiders’ solid offensive line, Jacobs could easily deliver a top-10 fantasy season.
Henry Ruggs: Make no mistake about it, Henry Ruggs is more than just a one-trick pony. He has blazing speed but can run routes and has great hands too. His wheels still are his most prominent feature, so he compares well to Tyreek Hill. Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t have the arm that Mahomes does. I have confidence in Henry Ruggs and it’s possible, if not likely, that he outperforms his WR48 ADP, but we’ll need to see him against NFL defenses and how Jon Gruden chooses to use him on offense will be key. Keep Ruggs on your radar though.
Hunter Renfrow: Renfrow quietly had a really solid rookie campaign, catching 49 passes for 605 yards and four scores. Now with Ruggs, I feel like a lot of people are forgetting about Renfrow, who made an impact as just a former fifth-round pick. It’s possible he works himself into the FLEX conversation this year if things bounce his way.
Tyrell Williams: Williams was only the WR47 last year and that was pre-Henry Ruggs and with Renfrow being a rookie. It’s now entirely possible that Williams begins the year as the number three receiver on a low volume passing attack. He’s been remarkably consistent over the last few years but his best fantasy days may be behind him.
Darren Waller: Darren Waller was great last year, coming out of nowhere and finishing as the TE3 thanks to his 90 receptions and 1,145 receiving yards. Now the next step in solidifying himself among the game’s best tight ends is improving on his three touchdowns from a year ago. Considering his breakout season was such an outlier, I expect Waller to regress a little in the receptions and yards department, but if he’s able to score more than he did in 2019 he should be able to repeat as a top-5 tight end.
Los Angeles Chargers
Tyrod Taylor: I anticipate Tyrod Taylor starts the year as the Chargers starting quarterback over Justin Herbert. People forget that Taylor was a solid quarterback for the Bills before they drafted Josh Allen, as he took Buffalo to the playoffs and was a Pro Bowler in 2015. Taylor also establishes a high floor with his rushing ability, as he ran for 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns between 2015-2017. With the exceptions of the Chiefs and Saints, Los Angeles doesn’t face too many daunting defenses before their Week 10 bye, so Taylor could be a sneaky streaming option in 2020.
Justin Herbert: Who knows when, or if Herbert gets the starting role this year. I believe Taylor is a good quarterback, and if he keeps the Chargers in contention throughout the year there’s no chance he hands the reigns to Herbert just yet.
Austin Ekeler: Ekeler was amazing last year, finishing as the RB4 in PPR and RB7 in non-PPR. He was finally given the chance to show why he’s capable of being a starting running back after Melvin Gordon held out for the first four games. It would be nice to see him improve as a runner, as 77.4% of his fantasy points last season came through the air. And although I like Taylor, he won’t throw nearly as much as Philip Rivers so I expect Ekeler to take a slight step back in the receiving department. I think this makes him a borderline top-10 running back, and he’s on the outside looking in for me. Now without having to compete with Melvin Gordon for touches, the key will be improving on the ground, as he averaged just 4.2 YPC in 2019.
Justin Jackson/Joshua Kelley: Both are valuable handcuffs in case anything happens to Ekeler.
Keenan Allen: Keenan Allen hasn’t gotten close to enough respect around the fantasy community. Over the last three years, he’s averaged 101 receptions, 1,263 yards, and six touchdowns without missing a game. He’s finished as the WR3, WR12, and WR6. Yet he’s being drafted as the WR20 at the end of the fifth round. I understand the offense may be less pass-happy as it’s been in recent years with Taylor under center, but at some point, you just can’t deny a player’s talent, in this case, Allen’s. He’s easily inside my top 20 this year.
Mike Williams: Mike Williams hasn’t quite put it all together yet so far in his NFL career. After an incredibly quiet rookie season, he caught 10 touchdowns but just 664 receiving yards in 2018. Last season, he went over 1,000 receiving yards but only found the end zone twice. But given his 6’4″ 220 lb frame, I expect that to change. He has more value in non-PPR, with his career-high being just 49 receptions. Not many people are counting on him taking the next step forward, as his ADP is just WR51. That means he could prove to be one of the biggest steals if he just puts it all together. The size, athleticism, and talent is there.
Hunter Henry: Hunter Henry has been somewhat of a disappointment for fantasy in my opinion. He’s had so much potential over the years, and his numbers have been solid, averaging 667 yards and seven touchdowns per 16 games for his career. But he hasn’t taken the next steps towards being a consistent top-5 fantasy tight end and part of that is his inability to stay healthy. He’s never played 16 games in his four-year career and missed all of 2018. He’s also had the benefit of playing with Philip Rivers, who made a living throwing to Antonio Gates, so it’s pretty evident that Rivers likes his tight ends. Now with Taylor though, there will likely be less volume to go around. And for Henry, who was fourth on his team in targets, that may not bode well. He’s still a top-10 option considering the scarcity of producers at his position, but his ceiling isn’t as high as it’s been in recent years.