We kicked off our fantasy football coverage with a discussion on Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. We’ll circle back to the Bears later in this series, but today we launch our divisional previews. We will review all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the summer. Reviewing the league this way helps for a couple obvious reasons. Teams in the same division play essentially the same schedule and teams will many times be built in a way to try and win that division. Also, it’s easier to think of the league in 8 parts instead of 32. We’ll review each team, the players to consider, and finish it up with a best of divisional team. I use a variety of sources to build my analysis including DVOA from Football Outsiders, average draft position from Fantasy Football Calculator, and offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus. As always, civil discourse is welcome. We start with the worst cumulative 2017 DVOA ranked division – the AFC South. However, there are plenty of interesting names to know in this preview. This division plays the NFC East and the AFC East this year.
2017 DVOA – 29th; Passing DVOA – 27th; Running DVOA – 30th; Offensive Line – 25th
The Colts finally moved on from Chuck Pagano and hired their
first choice Matt Nagy , second choice Josh McDaniels, man in Frank Reich, the OC for the champion Eagles. Reich is an interesting choice to lead this team. He should bring in new energy to a moribund offensive unit, but this team’s 2018 rests on the arm of Andrew Luck. We haven’t seen Mr. Luck in game action since 2016 and he missed half of 2015 due to injuries. Luck was an excellent player early in his career and certainly has a ceiling of NFL MVP, but there is legitimate fear that this shoulder injury that cost him all of 2017 may be a career ender. If the torn labrum has healed, he will need to rebuild shoulder strength and that takes time. It will be fascinating to see what this does to his ability to deliver a ball into tight windows and down the field on deep throws to T.Y. Hilton. I’m willing to let someone else find out if Luck can make the return successfully in 2018 unless I can get him at the end of the draft. His current ADP of round 10 might still be too rich for me but that’s an excellent spot to start thinking about the risk. I’d want to play Luck with a caddy, pairing him with a Philip Rivers or Derek Carr to protect myself.
Discounts should also be applied to the Colts receiving tree, led by Hilton. The explosive Hilton is off the board by the end of the third round and he’s the only receiving threat I can find being drafted in a standard league from this squad. Whoever is taking the snaps under center will likely force feed Hilton and volume could justify that price tag. The depth chart is wide open after Hilton. I’d probably steer clear of these names, but if you’re looking for trouble, I’d guess Chester Rogers will have the first chance at securing the role of WR2 in this offense. The tight end position features the occasionally interesting Jack Doyle and the former Lions bust Eric Ebron. Look away.
The Colts used the draft to stock interior offensive linemen, ostensibly to better protect Luck, with the added benefit of improving their run game. Guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith and veteran signings Matt Slauson and Austin Howard add talent to a line that has been a bugaboo for a number of years. The running backs behind this revamped line are a little difficult to navigate. Many assumed Marlon Mack would step into the feature role when Frank Gore took his talents to South Beach but the Colts drafted Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in the middle rounds. The current ADP assumes Mack is the guy to own, followed by Hines, with Wilkins a flier in the waning moments of the draft. This looks like a headache waiting to happen but if you’re looking for a lottery ticket, take one of the rookies.
2017 DVOA – 24th; Passing DVOA – 30th; Running DVOA – 24th; Offensive Line – 32nd
Second team, second injured QB. Deshaun Watson was an absolute revelation last year, lighting up the football world and unlocking DeAndre Hopkins in the process. Of course, we can’t have nice things in the NFL and Watson’s ACL tore in practice after 6 splendid starts and thrilling the nation in a 41-38 battle with Seattle. That gives about a 10 month window for recovery for Watson and all indications are that he’s on schedule with his rehab. Watson was willing to take chances and air it out in his brief stint in the lineup and while the injury may impact his 2018, it’s hard to not be excited about how good he could be. The fantasy community is clearly excited as this early stage has him as the second QB off the board in round 4! At that price, he won’t be on any of my rosters, but it’s tough to stand in the way of that level of enthusiasm.
Watson won’t be the first Texan off the board in most drafts though. That honor belongs to DeAndre Hopkins, aka Nuk. The all-world wide out will cost you a first round draft pick and I fully endorse starting your squad with him as your centerpiece. Watching Nuk struggle through a string of terrible QB play was an absolute shame and the Deshaun Watson coming out party was that much better with Nuk’s reemergence as a superstar. The speedy Will Fuller is an interesting WR3 target with plenty of boom potential in Watson’s downfield approach. He’ll go somewhere around the 6/7 turn and could win you a week or two with long TDs. Rookie Keke Coutee will have a shot at winning the slot role and I imagine he’ll be a hot name in preseason leading up to your fantasy draft in a lot of “sleeper” articles. Rookies typically don’t carve out huge roles in the passing game, particularly with an alpha dog in place. Keep your expectations in check.
The running game is led by Lamar Miller who did not live up to lofty 2017 expectations. He has been lowered on draft boards down to the level of borderline RB2/RB3. The other name to know is D’Onta Foreman, who chipped in for over 300 yards and had more success than Miller on a per carry basis. The Texans did add three offensive linemen to the mix via free agency (Zach Fulton, Senio Kelemente) and the draft (Martinas Rankin, 2nd round). The good news is that they can’t get worse up front than they were last year.
2017 DVOA – 18th; Passing DVOA – 21st; Running DVOA – 19th; Offensive Line – 5th
The Titans made a few moves in the right direction this offseason. They started off by jettisoning the mastermind behind exotic smashmouth, Mike Mularkey, and replaced him with former Patriot great Mike Vrabel. The meteoric rise of Vrabel was a shock to some in the media, but I love the hire. Take a chance on an up-and-comer rather than retread. The second improvement was the change to a navy helmet and uniform. I think we can all agree that navy is a superior color to all others and instantly make this team easier to cheer for. The new and improved color scheme will no doubt help Marcus Mariota, coming off his worst season as a professional. I’m not sure if Mariota was injured but he was just plain bad last year. What that means for fantasy purposes is that there might be a decent value proposition on the Hawaiian signal caller this year. Mariota is the 18th QB off the board in the late rounds of the draft. I love him at that price because he has the potential to return QB1 numbers.
His weaponry should improve with a new scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur. You may not be familiar with him yet, but you’re certainly familiar with his work. LaFleur worked with Sean McVay in LA last year on the resurgent Rams project and was with Matt Ryan the previous year when he won the MVP. Results like that get you quick promotions and while he was working under inventive offensive minds, he now gets the chance to show what he has. He’ll be working with former first rounder Corey Davis, who never got his 2017 going after starting the year with a hamstring injury. Davis holds a price in the middle rounds as the 31st WR off the board. Sign me up for that, please and thank you. As the clear #1 in an offense that can only get more creative, Davis has the chance to return a big profit. Rishard Matthews is a guy likely to be drafted late, dropped in week 2, and used during the bye weeks. That’s because the #2 target in this passing game is Delanie Walker, an often overlooked TE. Walker led the team in catches and yards en route to a Pro Bowl selection last season and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be any less effective in the new offense. I’ll reveal overall positional rankings in August, but Walker has a good shot to be in the top 5 at his position.
As for the running game, I should be more excited than I am. The problem is that the Titans finally sent DeMarco Murray packing, setting up the Derrick Henry coming out party. The numbers certainly favored Henry throughout the year and his 184 yard playoff performance against Kansas City looked like his coronation at the lead back in Tennessee. Then the Titans signed Dion Lewis, the former do-everything Patriot, to a sizable deal. Lewis said he was looking for a lead back role and signed in a place to be a full partner in a committee. From a football standpoint, Henry and Lewis are a wonderful combination of two very good backs. From a fantasy perspective, it’s difficult to get excited as they sap each other’s value. At the high end, this could be a poor man’s New Orleans backfield, with Lewis creating more of his value like Alvin Kamara in the passing game and Henry more of a traditional back like Mark Ingram. At the low end, this is a duo that will alternate the juice in a way that makes neither consistently usable. In the end, I will have shares of this backfield as I love this offensive line and I believe the arrow is pointing up for offensive creativity.
2017 DVOA – 16th; Passing DVOA – 19th; Running DVOA – 15th; Offensive Line – 15th
The best thing that can be said about the Jaguars is that they have an amazing defense. That means that they’re going to want to run the ball to try and maintain possession to keep that defense fresh. This isn’t a team that wants to rely on Blake Bortles throwing the ball down the field. The Blake Bortles garbage time machine is no more – this is a squad that can win games 6-3 and they reinforced what kind of offense they wanted to be by letting Allen Robinson go (thank you!) and investing along the offensive line with Andrew Norwall. That leads us to the first Jaguar off the board – Leonard Fournette. The second year back is going to be a fixture in the first round of fantasy drafts and it’s easy to see why. He topped 1,000 yards rushing in just 13 games last year and even caught 36 balls despite being considered a liability in the passing game. As the clear feature back in a run-first offense, Fournette provides elite talent, volume, and safety on a team that expects to make a deep playoff run in 2018. He is a totally defensible first rounder.
The only real issue I have with Fournette is that I think this passing game has a very low ceiling. You’re not drafting Blake Bortles unless you play in a 16 team, 2 quarterback league and I wouldn’t recommend drafting any of his receivers. Austin Sefarian-Jenkins might be my favorite name of the group. The big TE could be a nice goal line target when 11 guys commit to stuffing Fournette. Marqise Lee is likely the WR1 in this offense, but I’m not sure if Keelan Cole or Dede Westbrook aren’t more interesting to take a chance on if you insist on being involved in this offense. Veteran Donte Moncrief comes over from Indianapolis where he seemed to be a product of Andrew Luck rather than a difference maker at the position. Rookie DJ Chark (which, honestly, is a really cool DJ name) is a speedy second rounder from LSU who wants to stretch the field – but do you trust Bortles to get him the ball? That’s 5 names in an offense that shouldn’t throw the ball more than 25 times a game if they follow their script. Trying to pluck value from that group is a fools errand.
The All AFC South Squad
QB – Deshaun Watson, Texans
RB – Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
RB – Derrick Henry, Titans
WR – DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
WR – TY Hilton, Colts
WR – Corey Davis, Titans
TE – Delanie Walker, Titans
D – Jacksonville Jaguars