Quick! Pop-quiz: what two things do Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey have in common? They’re all going in the top-12 picks of PPR drafts, and they all play in the NFC South. When you have offensive minds like Sean Payton and Bruce Arians coaching in the same division, you can count on fantasy production. More than ever, the NFC South is poised to put on a scoring spectacle. Teddy Bridgewater and newly hired offensive coordinator Joe Brady should provide stability in Carolina, while staples like the Falcons and Saints have only gotten stronger. Oh, and did you hear that Tom Brady is a Buccaneer now? There’s really no better way to wet your fantasy appetite than a deep-dive of this division! With that said, let’s get into it. The NFC South awaits!
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2020 Fantasy Football: NFC South Team Previews
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Well, this isn’t a scenario I ever imagined I’d be projecting. Yet, here we are. Tom Brady is no longer a Patriot, and he’s joined fellow future hall-of-fame quarterback Drew Brees in the NFC South. Could there have been a better offensive situation for Brady to walk into? Jameis Winston vacated a first-class seat on the esteemed Arians Express. He joins the likes of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to create what can only be described as a sublime fantasy experience. In addition, there was some fuss about an all-time great at the tight end position coming out of retirement to play for Tampa. I think his name was Gronkowski?
What are the five words that sum up Bruce Arians’ offensive philosophy? “No risk it, no biscuit.” Oh, and risk it Jameis did. Winston threw a staggering 113 deep ball attempts last year, which placed him atop the league. Now, just shave off a mere 53 attempts and you have Brady’s total. At this point in his career, Brady isn’t going to rival Winston’s 2019 air yards. In fact, looking at player profiler, Brady threw for 1,962 fewer air yards than Winston last year. Despite the large disparity in air yards, Winston only threw 13 more passes than Brady. A lot of this had to do with the differences in offensive schemes and personnel, but the point remains. We saw it with Manning, and we’re seeing it with Brees and Brady. As Father Time’s influence increases, in turn, the arm strength decreases.
For all of the limitations that come with Brady’s age, the fact remains that he’s a superior quarterback to Winston. He won’t sling the ball around as intensely, but he will throw it more efficiently. Looking at their respective true passer ratings, which takes away unpressured throwaways and drops, Brady’s number was 88.6, and meanwhile, Winston finished nearly 12 points behind him. Oh, and one more thing about those deep ball attempts I was talking about earlier. Where Winston only managed to complete 36.3% of his attempts, Brady was able to convert on 41.7% of his. Air yards be damned, Brady is going to be a significant upgrade in terms of efficiency, and he’ll be a low-end QB1 this season.
One of the most intensely debated topics I’ve come across this offseason revolves around Tampa Bay’s backfield. How does the newly drafted Ke’Shawn Vaughn factor into the offense? We know two things for sure. Bruce Arians won’t tolerate poor pass protection, and that goes double for Tom Brady. Going back to last year’s late-season matchup between the Jaguars and the Bucs, Ronald Jones hit the bench after blowing a blocking assignment that led to a Tampa Bay turnover. Given the environment he’s currently in, if he wants to be a contributor, he’s going to need to step that area of his game up. There’s added pressure to do so now that there’s an explosive pass-catcher breathing down his neck. Last year, he netted 31 receptions compared to Peyton Barber’s 16 and Dare Ogunbowale’s 35. That number is liable to drop a bit with Vaughn in town.
Compared to Barber, Jones is far and away the better runner. Barber posted an embarrassing 3.1 yards-per-carry, while Jones produced a modest 4.2. Needless to say, he didn’t have much competition in the talent department. Without imbuing Vaughn with exceptional rushing ability, it’s clear that he’s going to be an upgrade from Barber. By the end of the season, my expectation is that there’s going to be a 60/40 split between Vaughn and Jones. Whoever earns Brady’s trust is going to be on the field, and I can’t envision a poor pass-blocker being that guy. Keep in mind, playing in the NFC South guarantees a high amount of passing plays. Both backs are in the RB3 range in PPR, with Vaughn being toward the top and Jones at the bottom. As long as you don’t overspend on Vaughn, he’s the guy to get, if not solely for his upside.
The pairing of Chris Godwin and Tom Brady was truly a match made in heaven. Brady loves nothing more than to throw to a trusted underneath route runner, and Godwin finished last season as the WR2 doing just that. There was a difference of 5.2 yards-per-target between him and fellow receiver Mike Evans. I’m not projecting Godwin to finish as the WR2 this season, but that’s certainly his ceiling. He’ll line-up on the outside a bit more this season due to the team’s increased use of two tight end sets, but his primary role will remain the same.
The biggest question mark about his performance is the number of touchdowns he’ll haul in. Last season, he finished with nine, which made him the third-highest scorer at the position. He finished 13th in red-zone receptions among wide receivers, but with Gronk now in the fold, that number might take a small dip. Godwin is still a WR1 in my rankings, but I have him sliding a few spots down from last year’s performance.
As for Mike Evans, his relationship with Brady might be a bit more problematic. Brady’s history with outside receivers hasn’t led to many dominant fantasy seasons. Obviously, he and Randy Moss obliterated secondaries together, but outside of that Brady’s track record spells trouble for Evans. Besides being a big-play threat down the field, nothing about Evans’ game is elite. Both his route-running and hands leave room to be desired. Sure, when you’re second in total target distance, you’re going to come away with fantasy numbers. What happens when those yards shrink by 25-30%? Evans has been a formidable fantasy presence in the league long enough that I’m not completely fading him, but at his second-round ADP, he won’t be on many of my teams.
What in the world are we supposed to make of Gronk coming out of retirement? As of now, he’s being taken as the eighth tight end in drafts. Call me crazy, but that’s too high for my taste when there are intriguing sleepers I can take at a much cheaper price. The last time we saw Gronk play like…well, Gronk, was back in 2017. He played all of 2018 banged up, and then he retired in 2019. He’s battled with injuries often in his career, and a year off doesn’t eliminate that risk. If this was New England’s offense we were discussing, I may be a bit more optimistic. At least there, he wouldn’t have much to worry about in terms of target competition. Julian Edelman always gets his slice of the pie, but together, receivers like Godwin and Evans are much greater threats.
There are too many mouths to feed to justify projecting Gronk for a high total of yards, so his value is contingent on touchdowns. Godwin and Evans are both capable red-zone targets, and O.J. Howard didn’t vanish into thin air. He’s still a matchup nightmare near the goal-line, but he’s only one of a few dangerous weapons. There’s nothing crazy about ranking Gronk as the TE8, but why draft the eighth tight end if they don’t possess top-three upside? You’re better off going with a late-round option who could just as easily finish in the TE8 range. As exciting as it is to see Gronk back on the field with Brady, don’t let it affect your draft board. There are other NFC South options to keep your eye on.
In Dirk Koetter’s four seasons as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, here are the Falcons’ end-of-year pass attempts rankings: first, eighth, third, and third. Gee, ya think they’re going to throw the football?
Not only does Koetter’s play-calling indicate the Falcons’ intentions of throwing the ball, but their poor defensive play is going to turn that desire into a necessity. Atlanta finished 22nd in team opponents points per game, and you can expect more of the same from their lackluster unit. As a result, the Falcons are going to be playing in negative game scripts for much of the season. This rings especially true in a high-flying division like the NFC South. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their loss is our gain when it comes to fantasy. Go ahead and pencil Matt Ryan in for 4,500 passing yards, and if his touchdown numbers go up, he’ll be knocking on the door of the elite tier of quarterbacks.
Less than articulately put, Todd Gurley scares the bejeezus out of me. I wrote an article about Gurley earlier this offseason detailing my trepidations about the formers Rams running back. For starters, Atlanta’s offensive line was atrocious in 2019. Pro Football Focus graded them as the lowly 24th ranked group in the league. Although they recently signed Justin McCray and drafted Matt Hennessey in the third-round, they aren’t likely to improve much. We’ve already seen what a bad o-line means for Gurley while he was in LA.
Next, there’s Gurley’s usage. Looking at Devonta Freeman’s 184 carries last season, take a guess at how many of those came at the goal-line. The answer is one. One measly rush inside the five-yard line. Gurley is much better in that area than Freeman, and I don’t anticipate him seeing only a single attempt down there, but it’s worrisome that Atlanta hasn’t used their running backs in that capacity.
For argument’s sake, let’s discuss a positive aspect of Gurley’s outlook. Freeman caught 59 receptions last season, and Ryan has gotten his running backs involved in the passing game when needed. It’s true that Freeman’s volume of receptions was impressive, but on the other hand, he failed to exceed 6.9 yards-per-reception. There’s no way a prodigious pass-catcher like Gurley is going to be that inefficient through the air, right? Wrong. Gurley was somehow less efficient than Freeman. Granted, not by much, but what does it matter when that’s your bar? Regardless, his receptions provide a nice floor in PPR, but his upside is questionable if 6.7 yards-per-reception is all he can do with them. No, by the way, I haven’t forgotten about his injury concerns. Gurley’s workload alone will make him an RB2 if he can stay healthy, but in my opinion, a top-10 finish is out of the question.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. What needs to be done about Julio Jones? Nothing, nothing at all. Draft him, everybody. There was a slight dip in his production last year, but it was hardly anything to be concerned about. Mainly, it was yards-per-reception that dragged his stat-line down. He went from 17, to 16.4, down to 14.8 before hitting last year’s total of 14.1, but again, don’t panic. While there’s a downward trend in those numbers, he still looks electric on the field, and his involvement in the offense guarantees him top-five potential at the position. Despite last year’s minor downtick, he finished as the WR3 in PPR and averaged 18.1 points-per-game. Eventually, his reign as one of the league’s best will come to an end but now is not that time.
What about the guy on the other side of the field? Jones’ successor in other words. Calvin Ridley is giving us Roddy White/Julio nostalgia with the way he’s building up his game. Don’t let his WR23 finish fool you. Ridley missed three games of his sophomore campaign, and he would’ve finished higher had he not gotten injured. It may be a small sample size, but taking a look at Weeks 11-13 provides an illuminating perspective. After losing Austin Hooper in Week 10, Ridley’s targets rose substantially. He received 32 targets in that small span, and his production made him the WR4 during that time.
Unfortunately, the Falcons went out and replaced Hooper with Hayden Hurst, which puts a dent in Ridley’s upside. However, it’s unlikely that Hurst steps in and demands the same target share as Hooper. Especially given that there’s less time to acclimate into the system due to the shortened offseason. Hurst will still be a huge facet of their offense, but it stands to reason that Ridley’s targets will see a slight spike. It’s Julio’s offense, but Ridley offers top-12 potential if he stays healthy.
Hey, speaking of Hayden Hurst, do you remember where he was drafted in 2018? Oddly enough, he was taken ahead of Baltimore’s star tight end Mark Andrews. That’s hardly a knock on Hurst. Andrews took the gig for himself while Hurst dealt with injuries in his rookie season. Stacking Hurst up against his predecessor, thus far he’s averaged 11.9 yards-per-reception while Hooper is about a yard and a half behind him at 10.5. Their target totals are pretty far apart, but the former first-rounder offers the chance at higher efficiency. This would mean that he’s capable of falling short of Hooper’s target pace without seriously jeopardizing his fantasy value. Considering the Falcons traded away a second-round pick for Hurst and neglected to pay up for Hooper, it seems as though Hurst is in line for a big role in Atlanta’s offense.
Hurst is being drafted as the 16th tight end currently, and while I expect that to rise, he’s going to be a bargain for a guy whose ceiling is a top-five tight end. He’s without a doubt one of my favorite value picks at the moment.
Teddy Bridgewater earned himself a nice contract after filling in for Brees in his absence last year. He didn’t lose a single game in Brees’ five-week recovery period. Of course, being coached by Sean Payton doesn’t hurt, but guess what? His new offensive coordinator Joe Brady not only worked under Sean Payton in New Orleans, but he managed to play a part in LSU’s historic offense last season as the quarterback coach to Joe Burrow. I’m in no way saying that Carolina is going to revolutionize the way offenses play the game, but his future with Brady encouraging to say the least.
In his time leading New Orleans’ offense, Bridgewater averaged 241 yards-per-game and just shy of two touchdowns on the same basis. These numbers were inflated with a noticeable improvement in his game during the last three games as the starter. He’s a conservative quarterback who won’t hesitate the check the ball down, but he can afford to do that with weapons like D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey at his disposal.
Carolina has arguably the worst defense in the NFL. Just look it does in Atlanta, this means there’s a clear path to an abundance of fantasy points. Brady is likely going to make the most of Bridgewater given that he can provide a similar structure to what his quarterback got used to last season. I’m not advocating for Bridgewater to be drafted in 1QB leagues, but he’ll be a waiver-wire commodity in stream-worthy matchups. Bridgewater is the weakest quarterback in the NFC South, but that only speaks to the strength of the division.
Realistically, we could skip right through this portion. If you’re not taking McCaffrey with the first pick in your draft, then may God help you. McCaffrey was leaps and bounds ahead of the competition as the RB1. His recent four-year, $64-million contract says all we need to know. If there was ever a doubt that he was going to be a stud for the foreseeable future, this should clear that up. His new head coach Matt Rhule has addressed that the team plans on using him a little less than last year for the sake of health maintenance, but that was to be expected.
Instead of rambling on about things we already know, I want to make a quick note about Reggie Bonnafon. He needs to be on your radar as a last-round handcuff option if you’re lucky enough to have the first pick. He would fill into what is arguably the best situation for a running back to find himself in. Both his production and involvement would in no way rival McCaffrey’s, but he would have opportunities galore. Keep an eye on him, and don’t be afraid to spend your FAAB dollars if the unthinkable should happen.
The NFC South truly has the most potent concentration of elite fantasy receivers in the league. The receiving corps in Carolina is no exception. The era of D.J. Moore is upon us, and the fact that Robby Anderson is being reunited with his college coach in Matt Rhule isn’t being discussed enough. Moore is the prototypical receiver in terms of the kind of player Bridgewater needs to throw the ball to if he hopes to be successful.
The third-year receiver is a polished route-runner who’s going to eat up shallow targets. Mark my words, he’s going to be a PPR monster. Through the horror show starring Kyle Allen and Will Grier, Moore persevered for a WR16 finish in PPR. Bridgewater isn’t, and never will be a gunslinger, but he’s far more accurate than either Allen or Grier. So long as Curtis Samuel doesn’t eat into Moore’s work too much with all of the talks of him playing an underneath role in the offense, he’s a locked and loaded top-12 fantasy receiver. Should Samuel assume that role, by the way, he would become an interesting late-round flier.
Robby Anderson has been a deep threat receiver throughout his career. His play-style isn’t one that Bridgewater will naturally mesh with, but is it possible that he’s more than a big-play guy? His speed allows him to burn past defenders, but his talent suggests that he’s more versatile than what we’ve grown accustomed to from him. Anderson has never finished higher than the WR18, but there are plenty of targets to go around in Carolina. They’re the basement-dweller of the NFC South, and they’re going to be chasing points more often than not. He’s being drafted as the WR47, which isn’t bad value for a guy with potential impactful weekly upside. As your fourth or fifth wide receiver, Anderson could prove useful.
Hypothetically, a big-bodied target in the middle of the field sounds like a dream come true for a quarterback like Bridgewater. Ian Thomas will be just that, but what if that target is the fourth or fifth-best option on the field? To be fair, we haven’t seen much of Thomas to this point, and he actually flashed in Week 14 following Greg Olsen’s injury, as well as the end of 2018.
I’ve been banging the drum for the high target volume available in Carolina as they play six games against NFC South opponents, but it has to stop at some point. At best, Thomas is the third option in the passing game behind Moore and McCaffrey. Even then, a top-12 season is just barely in the range of outcomes. Thomas has only averaged nine yards-per-reception up to this point, and it’s unlikely that Bridgewater is the quarterback to drive that number higher. At least with Anderson, he’s capable of ripping off a massive play that tallies up a nice fantasy point total for the week.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is a rare breed among quarterbacks. His arm strength was never anything to write home about, and even then it’s diminished from his prime days, but the 41-year-old still has it. Brees is the most accurate quarterback to ever play the game, and he’s showing no signs of slowing in that particular part of his game. Following his brief injury-related hiatus last season, he came roaring back as the QB4 for the remainder of the year. He’s got a healthy Alvin Kamara back in the mix, and the team went out and signed the first legitimate WR2 he’s had in years. Not to mention the rapport he developed with Cook over the back half of the season.
The Saints have bullied the rest of the NFC South for the last couple of seasons in large part of their offense. It doesn’t look like that’s going to change with the recent additions to their team. Brees is currently the 10th quarterback being drafted, and that’s a value for a guy who threw three touchdowns four times in nine starts. That was possibly the most numerically driven sentence I’ve ever written…
It’s hardly reasonable to judge a player on a year where he not only missed two games but also struggled to fully recover from the same injury. Miraculously, however, he finished as the RB16 in PPR. There’s only a small sliver of names capable of that kind of feat, and Alvin Kamara is one of them. Due to his aforementioned injury, Kamara had what was by far his least efficient season in 2019. Nevertheless, he posted a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, but it was work in the passing game that suffered the most. His yards-per-reception total drastically dropped compared to the last two seasons, as did his touchdown totals.
If he’s healthy, both his touchdowns and receiving efficiency are bound to return to the mean. Touchdowns are typically the least sticky stat in fantasy, and by that I mean they’re the hardest to predict, but Kamara’s involvement in the red-zone all but guarantees a high volume of them. He’s being drafted in the top-five picks for a reason. He’s a top-12 guy without hesitation, but a healthy 16-game slate for Kamara affords the possibility of an RB1 year.
Not only is Michael Thomas the best receiver in the NFC South at the moment (sorry Julio), there’s a good chance that he’s number one wideout in football. Elite doesn’t even begin to describe both his hands and route-running ability. It’s no coincidence that he set the single-season record for receptions. Adding to his impressive resume, Thomas and Brees connected on 85% of his targets. He’s not going to top his reception record, and he’s going to fall 20-30 receptions short of that total, but when you draft Thomas, you know you’re getting an elite receiver.
His WR1 finish in fantasy is going to be difficult to replicate without seeing an increase in touchdowns, but part of his draft price is based on the fact that he’s not going to be a bust if he’s healthy. His touchdowns, by the way, are not an issue. In three of his four seasons, he’s notched nine of them. File it away, he’s at worst the WR6, which is his previous high. End of story.
His counterpart Emmanuel Sanders is far from a shoo-in to provide significant fantasy upside. The last time Brees supported two WR1’s was in 2o16. That happened to be a season in which he threw the ball 673 times. Since that time, he’s yet to come within 137 attempts of that total. Thomas is the alpha, and there are too many mouths to feed in an offense where the quarterback is going to hover around 5oo attempts.
On to yet another star in the NFC South. It was a slow start to the season for Jared Cook in 2019, but once he got going he never looked back. From Weeks 10-17 Cook was the TE2 behind only Travis Kelce. Sean Payton and Drew Brees’ love of tight ends has been well documented, and a talented player like Cook is a natural fit for their offense. In his earth-shattering eight-game stretch to end the year, Cook scored seven touchdowns on only 26 targets. There is no way, and I repeat, no way that he duplicates that kind of touchdown efficiency.
The good news, however, is that he’ll hopefully have a full 16 games with Brees in which he can expand upon their now-established connection. Furthermore, while his touchdown rate will drop, he still has the ability to be hyper-efficient. That’s a perk of playing with a quarterback who throws with pinpoint accuracy.
Cook is the tenth tight end off the board currently, and he’s likely going to finish in the top-six due to his touchdowns alone. If you like to wait at tight end, which you generally should if you don’t take Kelce or Kittle, Cook is the perfect candidate for your roster.
More Division Previews: AFC North | AFC East | AFC West | AFC South | NFC North | NFC East | NFC West | NFC South
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