Over the next few weeks I’ll give an overview of the fantasy-relevant quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends in each division. In the interest of keeping these columns under 10,000 words, rather than going into substantial detail on each player (there are plenty of sources for that), I tried to give you about a briefer Cliff Notes version of my opinion. I will update these entries as more news develops and once pre-season starts.
NFC South – Home of High Upside From a fantasy perspective, there’s not one team I don’t like in this division. Each team has at least a couple players with top-10 potential in their position, despite them not all being drafted at that level. If everything clicks this year, the NFC South could go bananas as far as fantasy point production.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With a new head coach, a new go-to wide receiver, and a highly-touted rookie running back, the Bucs have done a lot in this off season to improve an offense that struggled last year, and, in doing so, should have some pretty decent fantasy players available at a good value.
Assuming I won’t get RGIII, Josh Freeman, is next on my radar for high-upside back up QBs. Although he followed an impressive rookie performance with a 22:16 INT:TD ratio in his sophomore year, the changes the Bucs have made all point to signs of improvement. Freeman is currently being drafted as a mid-level QB2 in the 9th or 10th round, but he easily has top-10 QB upside.
Dallas Clark, while a good upgrade at TE for Tampa, is largely irrelevant for fantasy purposes. There are plenty of higher-upside TE’s available as starters, and, though Clark makes a solid bye week plug, you’ll be able to get him off the waivers.
Though not official yet, rookie Doug Martin is the favorite for the starting running back role in Tampa. He’s got great receiving skills and is somewhat more versatile than the up-the-middle power back, LeGarrette Blount. He’s been on the rise in drafts over the last few weeks–currently going in the early 4th round as a mid RB2, but beware of his value getting too inflated as preseason gets more underway.
LeGarrette Blount had a disappointing rookie season, and the Bucs acquisition of Doug Martin doesn’t suggest confidence in Blount ever having a starring role. However, it’s possible that a role as change-of-pace back could be more complementary to his running style, and Blount could have some interesting upside accordingly. I like him in the 9th round as a possible RB3/Flex.
Vincent Jackson was a big-name acquisition in Tampa this off-season. He’s a great upgrade to the Bucs’ offense as both a deep threat and go-to WR1, but he’s likely to be feast-or-famine as far as fantasy production. If he’s still around in the 6th round, I think that’s a great value, but otherwise Jeremy Maclin and Brandon Lloyd make more attractive options to me before Jackson.
Mike Williams, on the other hand, should benefit significantly with Jackson’s presence drawing coverage from him. Currently available in the 10th and 11th rounds of most drafts, his value should exceed that, and I like him as a high-upside WR4.
Arrelious Benn, the Bucs’ likely 3rd receiver, should largely go undrafted. He’s worth keeping an eye on, though, if the Bucs’ offense opens up as much as it could, and/or if he emerges as their slot receiver.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are a solid all around team this year, and, depending on how the Saints fare with all their various suspensions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Atlanta at the top of this division.
Matt Ryan is my favorite undervalued QB1. His 4,177 passing yards and 29 TDs last year were not a one year blip, but a continuation of a steady increase in performance throughout his career. And with a receiving corps of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, he hasn’t peaked yet. I definitely like him more than Peyton Manning, who’s being drafted ahead of him.
When one of my competitors drafted Tony Gonzalez last year well ahead of many younger TEs, I laughed out loud. Well, it seems that he actually got the last laugh. Despite his age, Gonzalez continues to be one of the most reliable fantasy TEs. Maybe he doesn’t have the upside that some others do in that position, but he’s an extremely safe option to draft as a mid to low-end TE1.
Of you ask me, Michael Turner “The Burner” is burning out. He’s been in the league for 9 years, turned 30 in February and has seen more than 300 carries in each of the last two seasons. The Falcons noticeably eased up on his use at the end of last season, and have already said they plan on using him less this season. Even as a low-end RB2, I’ll pass on Turner, thanks.
Three weeks ago my brother-in-law asked me who I thought would be the big break-out performer for this year. My answer? Jacquizz Rodgers. Though small, he’s a talented pass-catcher with an ability to find holes and make plays. It’s a stretch, for sure, but I have my eye on Rodgers and, depending on how the rest of my draft is going, I might be willing to take him in the 7th round, which is far ahead of his current ADP.
Jason Snelling is the RB3 in Atlanta, and his numbers have been decreasing over the past few years. Snelling still warrants final-round draft consideration if you, like me, have doubts about Tuner’s remaining stamina.
Roddy White is one of the most reliable WR1′s available. His stock is taking a dip this year, thanks to the emergence of Julio Jones, but it shouldn’t. If anything, Jones forces defenses to spread coverage, and even with Jones getting more targets this year, White led the NFL in targets last year, and it’s hard to imagine too much of a dip for Ryan’s go-to guy.
I loved having Julio Jones on my fantasy team last year. He was exciting to watch and fairly reliable as a big-play WR2. This year I expect the Falcons to use him even more, as they rely less on a running game. Still, drafting him in the mid-3rd round as a low-end WR1 seems a little pricey to me, so I’m guessing he won’t be on my team again this year.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers seem to be on a steady rebuilding path centered around QB phenom Cam Newton. It’s unlikely they’ll see the playoffs this year, given the strength of their division, but they should still produce some useful fantasy performers.
Cam Newtonis the most over-valued QB in the fantasy draft this season. Don’t get me wrong…I love the kid. What he did in his rookie year was amazing. He’s a hard worker, and I will root my heart out for him to succeed, but his fantasy performance in the second half of last season was off that of the first half, he’s still only in his second year in the league, and the addition of Mike Tolbert is likely to impact his rushing TDs. So would I take him in the 2nd round as the 4th QB off the board? No way, no day.
With the exit of Jeremy Shockey (good riddance), TE Greg Olsen is expected to see an increased role in this up-and-coming offense. If you’re into the practice of drafting 2 TEs, which I am most certainly not, Olsen could be a good TE2 to snag. However, I see him going largely undrafted in most leagues. I’ll definitely keep my eye on him as a potential waiver add, should my drafted TE not pan out.
DeAngelo Williams was formerly the clear RB1 in Carolina, but their backfield situation has morphed into that of a committee–and a committee that includes the quarterback. Though the Panthers had a league-leading 26 rushing TDs last year, the addition of goal-line specialist Mike Tolbert should hamper Williams’ numbers even more. He’s currently being drafted around Peyton Hillis, Donald Brown, Ben Tate and Mark Ingram, all of whom are likely to have more upside.
Jonathan Stewart was a happy surprise to owners last season, as he emerged as the leading receiving back in Carolina. Look for him to have a similar role this year, but with somewhat of a threat to carries/targets coming from Mike Tolbert. Stewart is rightly being drafted ahead of Williams in PPR leagues, but I am wary of the Panthers’ rushing situation overall and see him as a low-end RB2 at best.
Mike Tolbert is unlikely to repeat his performance from the last couple years in San Diego, but his receiving ability and red-zone effectiveness make him worth a look in the late rounds. Tolbert would have significant upside should Williams or Stewart get injured.
For a number of years, Steve Smith of the Panthers had been forgotten and cast aside for the younger Steve Smith (who?). Thanks to Cam Newton, he burst back on the scene last year as a top-10 receiver. His most impressive performances were in the first half of the season, and his upside is clearly more limited this year given his higher draft position, but he’s still a solid WR2 to roster.
Brandon LaFell wins my Panther-with-the-most-upside award. He should win the starting WR2 role opposite Steve Smith, and his height and speed could make him a successful big-play and red-zone target for Newton. He’s definitely worth a grab in the 11th or 12 round.
New Orleans Saints: I don’t remember a team being fraught with more off-season controversy than this year’s Saints, and I think the suspension of Sean Payton is more damaging to their offense than some people think. Are they a talented enough team to ride this out?
Okay, I’m biased, Drew Brees has been my fantasy QB for 4 of the last 6 years, and I was very close to naming my daughter after him in 2008. Still, as last season proved, there is no disputing he is easily one of the top-3 QBs in the league (if not #1 or #2). There are two major things going against him this year: the unlikeliness of repeating such a record-breaking year and the suspension of Sean Payton. Still, even if his numbers take a 10-15% decline, he remains in the top-3 QB strata. Brees will be on my team again this year, but I view him with slightly more risk than usual, and will be drafting a back up as well.
Jimmy Graham, I believe, is more likely to repeat his numbers from last year than Rob Gronkowski, and therefore warrants the #1 TE draft pick. Graham and Gronk will both be going in the first or second round, which seems early for a TE, but their stats compare better to a top-tier receiver than other TEs, and so they should be drafted accordingly.
Darren Sproles won’t be the same value play in this year’s draft, but he’s still a solid RB2 to target in PPR leagues. Not only is he solidly written into the Saints playbook, but Sproles’ rapport with Brees makes him the go-to option to dish-and-dump busted deep plays. Regardless of how the Saints perform this year, Sproles is probably one of their safest bets.
Pierre Thomas also has reliable receiving abilities, but he is a more traditional back that is being threatened by the presence of Mark Ingram. What Thomas has going for him is that, with holes in their defense, the Saints may likely use a more conservative run-out-the-game-clock approach than they’ve employed in past years, giving Thomas a garbage time yardage upgrade.
Mark Ingram is an extremely talented running back lost in the shuffle of an extremely talented offense. He also has a nagging injury from last year. Despite that, if he’s still available in the 8th or 9th round, Ingram could be a great high-upside RB3 or RB4, especially if the Saints’ offense proves to be more conservative.
Marques Colston would be a solid WR1 if it weren’t for the fact that New Orleans has so many offensive weapons. The fact that Robert Meachem is gone may give him a small uptick, but Brees just has too many mouths to feed to make him a top choice for fantasy. I would take him as a low-end WR2 or WR3.
Lance Moore‘s ability to make plays in the red zone makes him worth rostering as a WR4. Largely available in the 9th or 10th rounds, that’s the right spot for someone you’d use as a plug-and-play option against weaker defenses, with significant upside should he see more consistency in targets.