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To help prepare for the upcoming season for all you fantasy footballers, we will examine every team in the league before the start of the season. This effort will be organized through divisions and we will go roughly in order of overall strength of offenses from worst to best. Since teams in the same division play roughly to same schedule, it can be helpful to consider the defenses each division will face. I use team stats from Football Outsiders (DVOA), Average Draft Position (ADP) from Fantasy Football Calculator, and standard fantasy scoring on Yahoo. As always, comments, disagreements, and questions are welcome.
Our last divisional preview is the NFC South. I love this division. Good to great offenses with questionable defenses. The Saints defense continues to be a wonderful dumpster fire that fantasy championships are built on. A lot of stars throughout this division so make sure you get your favorite early.
24th Passing DVOA, 22nd Rushing DVOA
QB: Cam Newton
RB: Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey
WR: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel
TE: Greg Olsen
The Panthers are a great place to start off this division. After an amazing 2015, Cam Newton crashed down to earth in 2016. There were some injury issues that he worked through, the offensive line wasn’t as stout, and the weapons weren’t as sharp. As a result, Cam and the offense come into 2017 drafts with some potential value. We’re one year removed from MVP Cam and he’s currently the 9th QB off the board! I’ll be on an improvement from last year. The passing game still features Greg Olsen, the one that got away for Bears fans. He’s a stud and completely defensible as the top TE off the board given his durability and consistency. Benjamin struggled at times last year and he’s entering a make or break season in his young career. Devin Funchess has a similar skill set and needs to show more to be a fantasy contributor. Rookie second rounder Curtis Samuel will likely man the slot and offers a different type of target for Cam. I’ve got a keeper share of Benjamin so I’m hoping to see some return on that investment, but I have no real confidence in how the new evolution of this passing game will evolve.
That’s because we need to talk about the biggest acquisition for the Panthers – Christian McCaffrey. The dynamic pass catching back gives the Panthers run game and pass game a new dimension. McCaffrey could be a revelation in PPR leagues and may even hold up in standard point leagues on his own merit. He becomes the key to how this offense operates as it completely shifts the progression for Cam. If he can wrestle away half the carries from Jonathan Steward, McCaffrey becomes a fascinating pick. I’d go as high as the 3rd round on him and if I’m in a PPR league, I’d take him in the 2nd. However, know that sinking a pick in a rookie that high in the draft can, well, sink your season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11th Passing DVOA, 28th Rushing DVOA
QB: Jameis Winston
RB: Doug Martin (3 game suspension), Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jeremy Nichols
WR: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin
TE: OJ Howard, Cameron Brate
Doug Martin will sit the first 3 games of the season, leading to an interesting draft proposition. On the one hand, how much draft capital do you sink into a guy who will miss 20% of the year? On the other, can you survive the first 3 weeks and get back a good running back for a deal? Martin is backed up by journeyman Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims. If you’re looking for some cheap, short term play, my guess is that Rodgers will be the main ball carrier with Sims getting the passing downs work. If you’re grabbing Martin, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to grab one of these guys a couple rounds early to cover his absence. Alternatively, if you’re a zero running back strategy drafter, Rodgers or Sims should be in your plans as you’ll get some cheap starts. Having said that, the running game was pretty terrible last year so keep in mind the name brand of Martin from 2015 lost its shine. I’ll probably let someone else deal with this headache at the draft table.
The real side of this offense to get excited about is the passing game. Winston took a step last year and while he’s still another step of two away from being a solid fantasy starter, the drafting community is already treating him like one. It’s hard to not get excited about this passing game with the addition of DeSean Jackson to the budding superstar Mike Evans. (Admission: I traded Evans for Gurley in a keeper league at the start of last year and it is a pox on my house) Jackson is the absolute perfect signing for this offense and should only help the value of Evans. I’d be willing to draft Evans at the end of the first round after the guys you know by their first names…Antonio, Julio, and Odell. Jackson is the perfect WR3 – a boom or bust big play guy. Rookie Tight End OJ Howard was the perfect draft choice for this offense. A big, powerful athlete that moves like the wind, Howard has enough talent for me to break my rule of never drafting a rookie TE. What’s interesting about this offense though is that Cameron Brate is relevant too. Howard and Brate are both considered #1s on the depth chart as Howard is the more traditional in-line TE while Brate is the move TE. Both could be on the field at the same time and they likely will not interfere with each other’s snaps. If all goes well for this offense, both are catching passes.
New Orleans Saints
6th Passing DVOA, 3rd Rushing DVOA
QB: Drew Brees
RB: Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara
WR: Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, Ted Ginn
TE: Coby Fleener, Josh Hill
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again - no one ever lost money betting on Drew Brees in fantasy football. His average season in New Orleans yields 5,000 yards and over 30 TDs. Plus, with the papier-mâché defense the Saints trot out, he gets to fire the ball around the field over 600 times a year. He’s my favorite QB to own on fake teams. His weapons will need to step into fill Brandin Cooks’ shoes, particularly Michael Thomas, last year’s second round pick. Thomas had a good rookie year and expectations are already so high for this year that Thomas is drafted on average in the 2nd round! Behold the power of Brees! That’s probably a little high for me and might mean I won’t have a shot at drafting him this year. Instead, I’ll dial up Willie Snead who is going four rounds later in the WR3 range. I think we’ll look back at the end of the year and find Snead’s value far exceeded Thomas’, even if Thomas has better numbers. Drafters aren’t falling for the Coby Fleener hype anymore as he’s basically free at the draft table.
The running game was also very good last year from an efficiency standpoint. Again, that’s the power of Drew Brees when he’s rolling as he’s able to call runs against soft boxes, but we’ll take it as fantasy owners. The problem is that it will be difficult to navigate this backfield. One of the most curious signings of the offseason, Adrian Peterson signed with the Saints to share the load with Mark Ingram. Then they went ahead and drafted intriguing talent Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round. Sidestepping the conversation about just how bad Mickey Loomis plays the salary cap, I’m not sure what to make of this backfield. I would assume Ingram will remain the starter with Peterson serving as a power back in obvious running situations. Kamara might be a hidden gem under other circumstances, but it’s really difficult to project playing time with Ingram and Peterson ahead on the depth chart. You’re drafting Ingram or Peterson as a RB2/3. My preference would be Ingram, sound off in the comments who you’re favoring.
1st Passing DVOA, 7th Rushing DVOA
QB: Matt Ryan
RB: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman
WR: Julio Jones, Mohammad Sanu, Taylor Gabriel
TE: Austin Hooper
Last year in this space, I encouraged optimism in this offense. The prices were friendly, the set up was solid. This year, I’m going to warn you against pushing too many chips into this offense. The Falcons were an all-time unit last year and they return essentially the same crew as the Super Bowl unit from last year. A key difference is former Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan is now the Head Coach in San Francisco. Ryan took time to learn the Shanahan system, hitting on all cylinders en route to the MVP award. I just simply don’t see that repeating without Shanahan and you’re going to have to pay the Super Bowl price for a lot of these guys. I won’t argue with Julio in the first, he’s that good, but be careful with Ryan and the rest of this offense. Gabriel emerged as a speed threat last year and is an interesting name that could sneak into the top 100. Hooper is basically free and may be a sneaky way to buy into this offense.
Freeman wasn’t able to quite replicate his 2015 numbers but he was still plenty impressive. He’s still a value in PPR and despite the pressure from Tevin Coleman, Freeman has remained the lead back. Freeman has proved to be a steal in 2015, a bargain in 2016, and now sits at the end of the first round behind the “big 3” backs. I’m not a huge fan of the handcuff system, but do yourself a favor invest in Coleman if you draft Freeman.
Atlanta’s young defense looked like it started to come into its own when Dan Quinn took control in the middle of last year. I’d be willing to bet they turn in a top 10 fantasy defense effort so here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. I’d take them before Carolina.
NFC South Review
There are so many quality names in this division, it’s no wonder their divisional games turn into shootouts. This division boasts 2 top 5 QBs, good running backs, and 2 top 5 wide receivers. Simply put: it’s continues to be the best division for fantasy football.
All NFC South Fantasy Team – The ideal roster as chosen from only NFC South squads:
QB: Drew Brees
RB: Devonta Freeman
RB: Christian McCaffrey!
WR: Julio Jones
WR: Mike Evans
WR: Michael Thomas
TE: Greg Olsen
What say you? Do you agree that this is the best division for fantasy purposes? Would you take Matt Ryan over Drew Brees?