By David Ferris
Denver Broncos (8-8, 309 Points For, lost in Divisional Playoffs): The Tim Tebow party concluded with a surprise playoff berth, but the shrewd Broncos saw the forest for the trees and didn't hesitate to grab Peyton Manning when that door opened. Manning's sterling pro career has been built on continuity and familiarity; look for his numbers to gradually improve as the year goes along. Demaryius Thomas has the highest ceiling of the wideouts, but he's still raw and undisciplined. Eric Decker's sharp route-running skills figure to make him the team's most productive downfield option. Also keep an eye on tight end Jacob Tamme, who had a big year with Manning back in 2010. Willis McGahee had a renaissance of sorts last year, though the threat of Tebow's running helped keep defenses honest. If McGahee starts to show his age, rookie Ronnie Hillman will see plenty of snaps. Kicker Matt Prater is a solid kicker on the cheap if your league gives extra points for long-distance boots.
San Diego Chargers (8-8, 406 PF): The Mad Lib of the Chargers never seems to change - they start slow, catch fire late, and drive fantasy owners crazy along the way. Norv Turner is known as a star coordinator who is overmatched as a head coach, but several San Diego players stumped for the coach to return. That means something, especially with QB Philip Rivers waving the flag. The team didn't mind Vincent Jackson leaving in free agency, feeling he was a No. 2 wideout in No. 1 clothing, but there's no obvious replacement. Malcom Floyd and signee Robert Meachem look like support players, while talented Vincent Brown is just entering his second year. Rather than target any of these wideouts, let the market determine how you handle them; Rivers will get 27-30 touchdowns, somewhere. Tight end Antonio Gates is moving well in training camp, but his health has been a shaky bet for a few years now. Tailback Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone on his first carry of the exhibition season; he'll be down 4-6 weeks. Rinse, lather, repeat. Let someone else use a Top 35 pick on him. Veteran Ronnie Brown has the mind of a star, but the explosion in his legs is gone for good. If the Chargers are going to make the playoffs, they'll do it because of Rivers and the aerial attack.
Oakland Raiders (8-8, 359 PF): While it's easy to tax Carson Palmer for his 16 picks over 10 games, you have to credit the guy for an 8.8 YPA and 2,753 passing yards - he was essentially sitting on his couch when the Raiders dealt for him in October. With a full training camp coming, we're excited about Palmer as a QB2 sleeper with upside. The outside targets are excellent: Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey could easily be Top 20 receivers this year (you'll get them outside the Top 30 in most leagues), and there's decent talent behind them. Darren McFadden is one of the league's best tailbacks when healthy, a dominant player who can run every play in the book, inside and out. But he's also missed 19 games in four seasons, and the team phased him out of the passing game last year. Some will have the stomach for him in the second round, some won't; we certainly implore you to find a safer pick for Round 1. Mike Goodson is the first hedge after McFadden, which means he'll be a mid-round pick everywhere.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9, 212 PF): The Chiefs were the most injury-riddled club in the division last year and yet almost stole the title; don't be surprised if they go back to the playoffs in 2012. Running back Jamaal Charles looks sharp after last year's knee blowout; at least the injury happened in September, giving him a head start on rehab. The Chiefs realize Charles has to be spotted with another heavy-usage back, so Peyton Hillis is around to handle 40 percent of the work. Charles is an excellent second-round pick if you can swing it, even with his modest touchdown upside (Hillis figures to get all the chippies). QB Matt Cassel will never get back to the Pro Bowl without a ticket, but he's good enough to keep WR Dwayne Bowe relevant. Jon Baldwin did almost nothing as a rookie, in part because of the short camp; a full season can only help him. Watch out for the Kansas City defense, especially in front of the Arrowhead crowd. The Chiefs were the only team to beat the Packers in the regular season last year, thanks to the inspired play of sack master Tamba Hali.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8 last year, 312 Points For): The quarterback position is up for grabs, as Ken Whisenhunt won't let Kevin Kolb's contract rule the day. All Kolb has shown in the NFL to this point is a brief run of success with the Eagles, something that might have been more about Andy Reid's offense than anything else. Pursuer John Skelton lacks a pedigree, but he has better pocket presence than Kolb and is more willing to pull the trigger on intermediate and deep throws. Star receiver Larry Fitzgerald has shown he can produce amidst any chaos, so don't worry about him. But rookie WR Michael Floyd could take a while to develop, especially given the spotty record of recent Notre Dame skill players. In the backfield, the team will give Ryan Williams every chance to beat out unreliable Beanie Wells; if Williams is healthy after last year's lost season (knee injury), he's one key name for your sleeper list.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9, 321 PF): There's outstanding depth at the quarterback spot, as Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson all have their plus points. But a football club is often better off with one sure starter than a collection of options; don't be surprised if this passing game takes a while to take off. Terrell Owens is the buzzy receiver name and Sidney Rice is the highest-paid target, but undrafted Doug Baldwin was the team's sharpest route runner last year and he should be again for 2012. Ignore the tight ends, something the Seahawks have done for a while. Marshawn Lynch has a DUI charge hanging over his head but it's likely to be dealt with after the season, so leave him be on your cheat sheet. The Seattle defense could be a major breakout player this year, especially when playing at home (the Seahawks probably have the best home-field edge in the NFC).
San Francisco 49ers (13-3, 380 PF, lost in NFC Championship Game): The first order of business for fantasy owners is to tune out head coach Jim Harbaugh; he likes to talk about his players like they're all Hall of Fame bound, and it gets in the way of objective analysis. The Niners have positive things to say about Randy Moss, but he's 35, didn't play last year, and showed absolutely nothing in 2010. We won't be drafting him unless the cost is outrageously cheap. Michael Crabtree might find a way to catch 80 or more passes, but he doesn't run past defenders or dominate them in the red area: there's not a lot of upside here, no matter that he was the 10th overall pick in his draft class. Tight end Vernon Davis is a decent mid-round target; he finally grasped Harbaugh's offense late last year and was dominant in his final three starts, including the playoffs (410 yards, four touchdowns). The Niners aren't sold on lead back Frank Gore, given that they signed Brandon Jacobs and used a second-round pick on LaMichael James. Rookie wideout A.J. Jenkins has been a mild disappointment this summer. The San Francisco defense will command a high pick, as will lefty kicker David Akers; alas, outlier seasons rarely repeat at these two fantasy spots.
St. Louis Rams (2-14, 193 PF): The Rams used four of their 10 draft picks on offensive skill players, but there's no guarantee any of them will be immediate fantasy factors. Running back Isaiah Pead is an intriguing hedge against incumbent Steven Jackson, though Jackson has proven more durable of late, in part because of a change in diet and workout. Both backs have to deal with a dreadful Rams offensive line, probably the worst blocking sled in the NFC. It's too early to render a verdict on quarterback Sam Bradford, who's been hung out to dry through two years. No QB has received less help from his other ten players. Second-round wideout Brian Quick will be handed reps right away, but it's more likely a veteran target (Danny Amendola or Steve Smith) will lead this team in receiving. Given the structure of the NFL, look for the Rams to find a way to win 5-6 ugly games in 2012.