Fantasy Football: NFC South team breakdowns

With the fantasy football draft season right around the corner, I’ve decided to do a breakdown on the fantasy-relevant players on every team, division by division. You can check out the previous columns here:

NFC East                          AFC East

This column will cover the teams from the NFC South. The NFC South has a lot of polarizing players like Doug Martin and Julio Jones, so there’s a lot of value (or tragedy) to be had in this division. All comments are with respect to a 10 team league with standard scoring.

New Orleans Saints

Saints’ Depth Chart

QB: Drew Brees is a stud. There, I said it. Man all I do is go out on a limb. But in all seriousness, Drew Brees is one of my favorite quarterbacks this year in fantasy football. He finished second in scoring last year with no receiving core to speak of outside of Jimmy Graham, who was dealing with a torn plantar fascia for most of the year. His wide receivers and Graham’s ankle should be much improved this year and there’s no reason to think Brees will be worse than last year. It wouldn’t be crazy if someone wanted to take Brees over Manning, so given that you will likely be able to draft Brees early in the second round this year, he’s one of my favorite players in the draft.

RB: The Saints running back situation will be one of the most interesting positions to watch during the preseason. Pierre Thomas seems to be the lead back, but he’s getting older and he’s never had more than 150 carries in a season. We likely saw his peak last year, as he’s pushing 30 years old and I’d be shocked if he catches 77 balls on 84 targets again this year, even without Darren Sproles. The other two big bodies in the Saints backfield are Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Of the two, I’d much rather have Robinson. If Ingram was going to be a relevant player for fantasy football, he probably would have done so already. Robinson has gotten a lot of buzz around Saints camp, and no one would be shocked if he becomes the main ball carrier for the Saints.

WR: Marques Colston’s career as a reliable, productive fantasy wide receiver ended in 2012. Unfortunately, he forgot to inform his fantasy owners, many of whom drafted him thinking they were getting a low-end WR2 or a high-end flex play. Don’t make the same mistake this year. He’ll likely finish as a top 35 wide receiver with a few monster games, but he’ll contribute very little on a week-to-week basis. Brandin Cooks is my favorite rookie receiver other than Kelvin Benjamin (who I talk about here), and I think he’s a WR3. Kenny Stills is worth a look as a late pick in deeper leagues, but don’t expect much.

TE: The current dispute over the Saint’s tagging Jimmy Graham as a tight end instead of a wide receiver is much ado about nothing, and unless he holds out into training camp, it doesn’t affect my analysis of him at all. His reduced performance over the second half of last season is another matter entirely. Over his last seven games last season Graham only eclipsed 75 yards in one game. He was injured, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on, especially given how a similar injury crippled Antonio Gates. I still love Graham and I still think he’s the overwhelming favorite to be the best tight end in the league, but I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable taking him in the first round of a standard league.

D/ST: The Saints defense made some major improvements this off season, signing both Jairus Byrd and and Champ Bailey to shore up the secondary. They were the 10th best fantasy defense last year and, with a talented, young pass rushing duo, they have a chance to be this year’s version of the Chiefs. Don’t sleep on the Saints.

Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ Depth Chart

QB: Cam Newton has been a top 10 quarterback ever since he came into the league, and he’s likely to be a much better value this year. Many are concerned about his ankle injury and his diminished wide receiving squad, but neither seem very consequential to me. He’s expected to be fully healthy by training camp, and it’s not as if his wide receivers were good last year. The only significant loss was Steve Smith, who played like  a shell of his former self. I’m not worried about Cam, and he has a firm grasp as the number five quarterback in fantasy football, JUST behind Andrew Luck.

RB: The running back situation in Carolina is one that has vexed fantasy owners for years, and it shows no signs of being anything different this year. Jonathon Stewart won’t get enough carries to be fantasy relevant even if he’s healthy, but he will hurt DeAngelo Williams’ value. Williams leveraged a couple big games to finish as running back number 21 last year, but that will likely drop with his increased age and a healthy Stewart. Newton and Mike Tolbert split the goal line back role, effectively spreading out the touchdowns. There’s little to like and almost no upside for any of these runners. Stay away again this year.

WR: The Panthers wide receiving core is a mess, and other than Kelvin Benjamin, who I talked about here, there’s no one worth drafting. Keep an eye on the younger guys like Tavarres King or Marvin McNutt and be ready to pick them up if they break out, but don’t hold your breath.

TE: I love Greg Olson this year for the same reason I love Kelvin Benjamin – there just isn’t anyone else to throw to. He’s also not as old as you think, having just turned 29 this past March. He’s a much safer option than many of the tight ends drafted around him like Jordan Cameron and Jordan Reed, and it’s very likely he’ll finish in the top five at his position. Olson is one of the tight ends I’d be thrilled to have for this season.

D/ST: The Panthers were the second best fantasy defense last year and they added devastating rookie speed-rusher Kony Ealy. The success of team defenses is notoriously unpredictable for fantasy football, but I would think about drafting the Panthers defense around the 11th  round in standard leagues, where they will likely still be available.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers’ Depth Chart

QB: It can’t get any worse than Josh Freeman. Last year Mike Glennon came in and played really pretty well, so it’s surprising that the new coaching staff would bring in Josh McCown and immediately anoint him the starter. I don’t have a big preference for either player. If McCown is as good as he was last year he’ll be good enough to preserve the value of the Bucs big receivers, and if he isn’t as good he’ll likely get replaced by Glennon, who played quite well. I don’t want either guy in fantasy except as a backup or in a deep league, but both as competent NFL quarterbacks.

Uncle Rico won't be happy if Mike Glennon gets a chance to start in the NFL before he does.

Uncle Rico won’t be happy if Mike Glennon gets a chance to start in the NFL before he does.

RB: Ah the curious case of Doug Martin. He’s had a couple good games, but other than that he’s been an average running back at best. He only scored more than 10 fantasy points in one game of the six he played last season despite averaging more than 21 carries per game. Now  that there’s a new coaching staff in town with no allegiance to Martin, who was outperformed by his backups last year, I would be shocked if his carries don’t drop.He’s currently going as a top 12 running back, which seems crazy to me. He won’t end up on any of my teams this year. None of his backups are interesting in fantasy except for Charles Sims in a dynasty league. If one firmly grabs hold of a secure spot in a running back committee then they might be interesting, but I think all of their usage will be pretty varied and only serve to hurt Martin.

WR: Vincent Jackson was the 13th best wide receiver in fantasy last year, and I have no reason to believe that he’ll be any worse. His quarterback will likely be better whether it’s McCown or a more experienced Glennon and he has better receivers alongside him to draw away some coverage. I’d be perfectly happy if Jackson was my number one wide receiver. Speaking of other targets, Mike Evans is the big rookie everyone is in love with. I’m not sold. Rookie wide receivers are almost always worse than than people think they’ll be and Evans won’t be the primary target. He’ll likely have two or three monster games and quite a few stinkers. He’s no more than a flex play for me.

TE: The Bucs signed tight end Brandon Myers, who isn’t interesting at all for fantasy football, and they drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is barely interesting. Seferian-Jenkins will likely be a top 10 fantasy tight end in the future, but there are other, more important and established mouths to feed and he’ll likely split snaps this year with Myers. I wouldn’t touch him outside of a dynasty league.

D/ST: The Bucs were a passable fantasy defense last year, finishing tied for 10th. Lovie Smith is an elite defensive mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they improve this year. If you wait until one of the last rounds to grab a defense, the Bucs are worth a gamble.

Atlanta Falcons

 Falcons’ Depth Chart

QB: I think we saw Matt Ryan’s peak in 2012 when he finished as the seventh best fantasy quarterback. If you wait on quarterback and you want a guy you can slot in the QB slot that you don’t have to worry about , then Ryan is your guy. He should also be better with healthier players at the skill positions and a vastly improved offensive line, but I don’t see him topping the 4700 yards and 32 touchdowns he got in 2012. The upside is limited, but I also think last year was about as bad as it gets. He’s a perfect guy to pair with a Colin Kaepernick or an RGIII that has some more risk.

RB: Steven Jackson looks to be the bell cow again this year, and I like him a lot. He’ll still get the touches near the goal, but he isn’t as young as he used to be. He finished very strong at the end of the season and the offensive line is improved. However, injuries and declining performance will be a concern for the rest of his career. If you’re going to rely on Steven Jackson as a starting running back you’re going to need a solid backup. Luckily, Devonta Freeman may provide the answer. The explosive rookie was great in college, and if I draft Jackson I’d reach a round or two to make sure I got Freeman as well. I think Jacquizz Rodgers is irrelevant due to his disappointing performance last year and his severely reduced workload towards the end of the season.

WR: The conversation on Falcons wide receivers has to start with Julio Jones. One one hand, if he finishes this season as the top

Julio has so much potential, he just has to stay on the field.

Julio has so much potential, he just has to stay on the field.

receiver in fantasy, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. On the other, if he finishes this season as the 161st wide receiver because his back/hamstring/ankle/knee injured recurred that wouldn’t shock me either. He’s a top 10 wide receiver for me but just barely, that’s just too much risk to take on before the bottom half of the second round at the earliest. Roddy White is interesting, as most attribute his terrible year last year to his high-ankle sprain. He’s a great value going around wide receiver 30 how has a great chance to crack the top 20 at his position.  The only other interesting guy is Harry Douglas, who is unlikely to be start-able if both top receivers are healthy, but showed some value last year while Jones was hurt. He might be worth a late round pick if you do draft Jones. Douglas may also see increased targets with the departure of Tony Gonzalez.

TE: The Great Gonzalez has finally retired, leaving Levine Toilolo to take the reins. Unfortunately, Toilolo is more of a blocker than Gonzalez, and head coach Mike Smith has said the Falcons plan to use more three wide receiver sets while keeping the tight end in to block than last season. There doesn’t seem to be much upside with Toilolo even though the opportunity will be there.

D/ST: The Falcons defense was terrible in fantasy last season, finishing as the third-worst fantasy defense. While they made some improvements, especially on the defensive line, they play in a very tough division and they’re unlikely to be usable even as bye week replacement in standard leagues.