This is our eighth and final divisional preview. We have now reviewed all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the last month. 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’re finishing up with my favorite division in all of fantasy football – the NFC South. They draw the NFC East and the AFC North this year.
2017 DVOA – 17th; Passing DVOA – 15th; Running DVOA – 17th; Offensive Line – 10th
Welcome to the land of milk and honey, where the worst offense in the division last year was a middle-of-the-pack Panthers squad led by a former MVP quarterback. Life is good in the NFC South. Cam Newton is now in his 8th season, which hardly seems possible, and will be working with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Ugh. I have plenty of respect for Turner’s success in the league historically, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in his ability to adapt to the modern NFL nor do I think his scheme fits the personnel in Carolina. This kills me because Cam is one of my favorite fantasy players. He’s the rare signal caller that doubles as the team’s best goal line back. He’s got the ability to create something out of nothing, can get into the AFC South shootouts with the best of ‘em, and those extra yards and scores on the ground are fun. I want to be wrong about the Norv Turner era because fantasy football is more fun when Cam is at the top of his game.
He’ll be throwing to great Greg Olsen, entering his 12th campaign. Olsen never was able to work his way back from injury last year, and was ineffective when on the field. He should be all systems go to start 2018 and is in my top 5 at the position. The Panthers spent their first round draft choice this year on DJ Moore, wide receiver out of Maryland. Moore was one of my favorites coming out and he lands in a good position to make an immediate impact. Devin Funchess turned in a respectable fantasy campaign in 2017, but this guy has some real limitations. His career catch percentage is right around 50% and with the presence of Moore and a healthy Olsen, I’d expect his targets to actually go down from last season.
In the running game, longtime stalwart Jonathan Stewart has moved on to the Giants, replaced by C.J. Anderson. I’ve never been a big fan of Anderson and I’m not about to draft him here. Stewart was only able to secure 200 carries last year and that’s probably about what you can expect from Anderson. That’s not enough volume to get me excited. What’s interesting is where Christian McCaffrey is going in drafts – as the RB15 in standard leagues. Wowza. I like McCaffrey but unless you are playing in a PPR league, I can’t afford that gas. McCaffrey caught 80 balls as a rookie, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him flirt with 100. If Norv can figure out how to use him properly in the run game, you might have a real impact player, but he was a total disaster running the ball last year. If you draft McCaffrey, beware that he might just be an expensive WR on your roster.
2017 DVOA – 11th; Passing DVOA – 14th; Running DVOA – 9th; Offensive Line – 17th
Jameis Winston will start the year off by serving a 3 game suspension and that should be enough to remove any sort of fanciful temptations you may have in drafting him. Winston is not really a threat to run the ball and he likes to give the ball to the other team…a lot. He has seemingly regressed each year with a number of head scratching throws each game and he led the league in fumbles a year ago. Tampa Bay has a number of issues on both sides of the ball, they play in a stacked division, and they’ll be starting the year off without their signal caller. I can’t imagine that will go well and could lead to Winston pressing when he does return to action.
Winston’s main target when he does return will be Mike Evans. A pure WR1, Evans has attracted triple digit targets in each of his four years in the league including a ridiculous 173 in his Pro Bowl campaign of 2016. The problem with Evans is his catch percentage is pretty low for a top flight WR and the TDs are variable. The first part of that may be due to Winston’s lack of reliable accuracy or just a reflection of his game – a jump ball vertical artist. The latter part of that is just the nature of the position, but generally tracks well with overall team performance. If you think the Bucs can be a good, competitive team this fall, Evans will likely be able to jump that TD number back up into the double digits. Outside of Evans, Desean Jackson is still around and running past people. I love Jackson as a real life player but he’s more of a bye week hope and a prayer play at this point in his career. Tight Ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are both on the draft radar, which is a pretty rare site and shows just how shallow the TE pool is this year. Howard is the former first round pick in his second year and he’s got the kind of upside you’re looking for in a late round pick. I’m not necessarily one to burn a roster spot on a second tight end, but Howard and Cleveland’s David Njoku are the two guys I’d consider holding a spot for.
The Muscle Hamster, Doug Martin, has moved on to the other Pirate-themed franchise, opening up a competition in the backfield. All eyes are on Ronald Jones II, rookie out of USC to slide in and immediately fill the role. While I’m not exactly high on this team doing much of note this year, Jones is a guy you need to check out. He’s currently drafted as the RB26, but I think his stock will rise throughout the preseason. Running back is a position that rookies can and should be able to have an impact and as long as he secures a feature back role, Jones should be a safe RB2 option in your lineup.
2017 DVOA – 9th; Passing DVOA – 10th; Running DVOA – 10th; Offensive Line – 2nd
Atlanta added to an already stacked unit this offseason by taking Calvin Ridley, WR out of Alabama. Some were speculating that this was a Julio Jones backup plan and while that’s not completely settled, Jones did restructure his deal recently, and should allow for more cordial long-term talks next offseason. Either way, the rookie Ridley has a great chance to learn from one of the best in the league in Jones and solid veteran Mohamad Sanu. With the exit of Taylor Gabriel, there are targets in this offense to be gobbled up. Make no mistake, Matt Ryan can keep multiple targets relevant and I think Ridley is a sneaky good pick around the 10th round in drafts while Jones remains a top 5 WR.
Speaking of former MVP Matt Ryan, he’s looking to bounce back from a pedestrian 2017. Whether that was losing Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan or a Super Bowl hangover, Ryan just wasn’t the same guy last year. Still, 4,000 yards and 20 TDs has been his floor since 2011 and he certainly has the ability to return QB1 numbers despite being drafted outside of the top 12. Part of the problem is that Ryan doesn’t excite people much and he has to support all of his fantasy points with his arm as he’s no threat to scramble. But I think the upside is there – this is still a fast track team that added another dangerous weapon in Ridley. Take Ryan as your “floor guy” at QB and pair him with a similarly priced “ceiling guy” like Pat Mahomes or Marcus Mariota and you’re in good shape.
As a guy with a keeper share of Devonta Freeman, this backfield continues to vex me. Freeman and Tevin Coleman return to give the Falcons a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield, but it certainly muddies up our plans for fantasy football glory. Freeman will cost you a second rounder while Coleman comes at a 7th round price. If you take Freeman, you really want to take Coleman because he’s a handcuff that’s actually useful in a pinch, but it’s certainly a lot to pay for securing the services of one backfield. Freeman is the better back, but Coleman has carved off enough carries to limit Freeman’s upside over the years. If Tevin Coleman were in, say, Cleveland instead of Atlanta, I think we’d be talking about Freeman like we do David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell but the volume simply isn’t there. Thus, he’s a high end RB2 that will cost you a low end RB1 price with the unfortunate necessity of grabbing the caddy in the 7th. Yuck.
2017 DVOA – 2nd; Passing DVOA – 2nd; Running DVOA – 5th; Offensive Line – 9th
Drew Brees owns 7 season passing titles, continues to shine as the most accurate quarterback in the league, is a first ballot Hall of Famer, and has consistently paid dividends at the draft table. My old maxim was “no one ever loses money betting on Drew Brees.” But, while the Saints enjoyed an incredible 2017 in real football, Brees actually underperformed his draft position. Sure, he still finished as a top 10 fantasy QB for the 14th straight year, but he didn’t return top 5 numbers or challenge for that top dog spot. In fact, his 4,300 and 23 scores were his worst season statistically since before he donned the black and gold in NOLA in 2006. So what happened? Maybe Brees is missing a true red zone target that can finish off drives, maybe the offense has really shifted gears to run through the backfield, or maybe it was just a statistical anomaly. Whatever it is, it appears the fantasy community isn’t too worried, taking Brees as the QB5. I think he’s still got the skills to burn the league down so I’m happy to take him in round 6, but I’m not going to pull a muscle reaching for him this year.
The top target in the passing game is Michael Thomas, and wow is he good. Entering just his third season, Thomas is selected as a top 5 wide receiver in drafts, likely due to his consistency and the Drew Brees factor. Thomas only found the end zone 5 times last year so you’re betting that, like Brees, the TDs will rebound. I think that’s a defensible bet and worth taking early in the second round. Cameron Meredith comes over from Chicago and projects to be the #2 WR in this offense if his knee is back to 100 percent. The Bears may have known enough about his recovery to worry about him as they didn’t match the Saints’ offer sheet. If he’s healthy, he’s relevant and worth the roster spot purely because of volume and Brees. Meredith was a good route runner in Chicago and has a chance to break out. Ted Ginn Jr., despite being a punchline for his drops, was a viable play at times last year. If he still has the speed, he can still help Brees move the ball. I’ll mention Ben Watson, returning to New Orleans after one year in Baltimore. Despite being long in the tooth, Watson has TD potential as a big target with a history of success with Brees. He’s not the worst bye-week fill in at the position, but don’t count on him reproducing his 2016 season of 800 yards and 6 scores.
Mark Ingram will sit the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s PED policy. Ingram had a great 2017 by running for over 1,100 yards and pulling down 58 catches. He scored 12 times and finished the year as the 6th ranked RB in fantasy. Ingram’s been a good back the last couple seasons but with the 4 game suspension, his value is certainly sapped. He’s being taken as the RB24 at the end of the 4th round right now and I imagine that might settle out a little lower as we get closer to the start of the year. If you pay that price, you’re knowingly sacrificing at least 25% of the season for a player that you drafted as a starter. I’m never a huge fan of this type of play. The other factor to consider will be – will his backfield mate have taken over as a superstar before he gets back? It’s appropriate we wrap up this series with Alvin Kamara, a guy I unearthed for myself writing up this series in 2017. Obviously, I had no idea he was capable of his award winning rookie campaign, but there were some signs that he could be relevant. I’ll enter two of my leagues this draft season with an incredibly cheap keeper share of Kamara, which is why it’s worth digging into all teams to pan for gold. We have to expect his carries to increase from the modest 120 of last year with the Ingram suspension but his 6.1 ypc is almost certainly going to go down. The 81 receptions from a year ago seem sustainable to me as he’s unbelievable out of the backfield. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to flirt with the 100 reception mark. If everything breaks right for Kamara, we could be talking about 2,000 yards from scrimmage and he certainly has a chance repeat or beat his 13 scores from a year ago. He’s the 5th RB off the board right now and I fully endorse him as a first round pick.
The All NFC South Squad
QB – Drew Brees, Saints
RB – Alvin Kamara, Saints
RB – Devonta Freeman, Falcons
WR – Michael Thomas, Saints
WR – Julio Jones, Falcons
WR – Mike Evans, Bucs
TE – Greg Olsen, Panthers
D – Saints
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