NFC South Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks
The NFC South quarterbacks are certainly an interesting bunch. Atlanta has Matt Ryan, who has been as steady as they come throughout his 13 seasons, but now must prove he can thrive in a post-Julio Jones world. Sam Darnold failed to reach expectations as the savior of the New York Jets franchise and will look for a new lease on life in Carolina. And of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the division hosts the GOAT when it comes to quarterbacks. But enough about Taysom Hill for now. The division also is home to the quarterback who recently finished as a top-five fantasy quarterback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But enough about Jameis Winston for now. Tampa replaced Winston last season with Phil Mickelson’s golf partner. That’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for them.
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NFC South Quarterback Breakdown
Matt Ryan has been a tried and true fantasy performer for well over a decade now. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards in 10 consecutive seasons and has missed one game since 2009. Ryan has finished the last two seasons as the QB11 and QB12. The popular assumption seems to be that Ryan falls much further in 2021 now that he will be without star wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones averaged 95.5 yards per game in 10 years as a Falcon and will go down as one of the most gifted receivers the game has ever seen. But I would not be so quick to declare Ryan dead and buried from a fantasy standpoint quite yet.
Though Jones is gone, Atlanta still has one of the game’s best young receivers in Calvin Ridley. Ridley often outshined Jones last season and had eight 100-plus yard performances in 15 games. Ryan also trusts Ridley quite a bit when the Falcons get in scoring territory. Ridley has 26 receiving touchdowns in just 44 career games. For reference, Jones has 60 in 135 games. Ryan also stands to benefit from Atlanta’s selection of tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. Pitts is an athletic freak and could be Ryan’s second favorite target right from the get-go. Even though Pitts is still just 20 years old, he should play a big role in Atlanta’s offensive attack under new head coach Arthur Smith. Smith rose to prominence as Tennessee’s play-caller over the past two seasons.
Some of the surrounding pieces (or lack thereof) in Atlanta may also benefit Ryan. As of now, the depth chart at running back is painfully thin behind Mike Davis. Davis has never been anointed as a full-time starter during his six-year NFL career. He has been inserted into the lineup due to injury and ineffectiveness, but he has never been tapped as “the guy” until now. He set a career-high in rushing attempts last season with 165. Time will tell if Davis can absorb an every-down workload over four and a half months. He also is not much of a home run hitter. Davis averages just 3.7 yards per carry and has scored 11 rushing touchdowns on 412 career carries. If he cannot be a consistent threat in the running game, Ryan could be asked to heave it all over the yard in 2021.
Atlanta’s defense does not look well-equipped to hold opposing offenses, which means Ryan should throw the ball a ton once again. Because Ryan does not do much with his legs, there is virtually no chance of him repeating the fantasy success he enjoyed in 2016 or 2018. In each of those seasons, he finished as the overall QB2. However, I do believe he can maintain his status as a borderline QB1 in 12-team leagues. I currently have him at QB14, but he will have some spike weeks. Fantasy managers are currently drafting several quarterbacks as surefire QB1s despite some questions surrounding them. Examples are Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts. I would target Ryan in drafts where I had one of those four as my designated starter. Matt Ryan should continue to be a productive fantasy quarterback as he enters his age-36 season.
I should have realized after Sam Darnold’s very first NFL game what I was about to subject myself to over the three years that followed. His very first NFL pass was an ill-advised throw across the field that was returned for a pick-six. There were some highlight-reel plays for sure, but it was mostly a bumpy road for Darnold as a Jet. Darnold makes plays at times that seem to justify his standing as the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. But too often are the plays where he looks like he has no business on an NFL field. As a Jets fan, I am probably a bit of an apologist. But he had very little help in New York, both from a personnel and coaching standpoint. Those two areas should improve by leaps and bounds in Carolina.
First, let’s start with Christian McCaffrey. You may remember him from being 2018’s overall RB1 in fantasy. Or perhaps from being 2019’s overall RB1 in fantasy. In 2019, the New York Jets ran for a total of 1,257 yards and six rushing touchdowns. That includes the 62 yards and two scores that Darnold provided. That season, McCaffrey ran for 1,387 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Jets never had an 800-yard rusher during Darnold’s three seasons. McCaffrey will be the most talented player Darnold has played alongside in his NFL career. And Panthers wideout D.J. Moore will be second on that list. The Jets also never had a 900-yard receiver during Darnold’s tenure. Moore has surpassed 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons.
Darnold is not without blame for how he performed in New York. He got rattled often, took too many sacks, and made some ridiculous throws. But the talent is there, and he just turned 24 years old last month. He still has time to develop and will benefit from the tutelage of Matt Rhule. Rhule squeezed a QB19 overall finish out of Teddy Bridgewater last season, and that was mostly without McCaffrey. I would not bet anything of value that Darnold finishes as a top-20 fantasy quarterback this season. Despite the much-improved skill players, Darnold will once again have to deal with a subpar offensive line. Performing well under duress is not Darnold’s forte. But I also do not think he will be the worst starter in the league like he was for much of his time in New York. I currently have him as my QB25.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees retired after spending the last 15 seasons as the on-field leader of the New Orleans Saints. There will be a new sheriff in town in the Bayou. But with just eight weeks remaining until Week 1, we still do not know who Sean Payton plans to trot out against Green Bay on September 12. Perhaps Payton thinks it is only fair since we do not know who the Packers’ starting quarterback will be either. What a sportsman the Saints coach is.
There are two candidates to start the year as the Saints’ starting quarterback. One is a former number-one overall draft pick in the NFL who is one of eight quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in a season. He was also drafted by the Texas Rangers as an 18-year old before winning the Heisman Trophy as a freshman in college. The other is an undrafted free agent who entered the NFL four years ago as a 27-year old special teams player.
That description sounds ridiculous, and yet I cannot rule out that Taysom Hill will start the year under center for the Saints. After all, it was Hill and not Jameis Winston who filled in when Brees was forced to miss four games last season. Hill’s performance is a matter of perspective in many respects. If you are judging from a purely aesthetic aerial viewpoint, you are sure to be disappointed. To say that his accuracy metrics leave a lot to be desired would be a massive understatement.
That much red only looks good on a Baseball Savant Statcast page. Hill had a particularly good uncatchable ball rate, but part of that was because 20.7 percent of his throws last season were behind the line of scrimmage. Only Alex Smith had a higher percentage of such passes among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. His accuracy + percentage and catchable but inaccurate percentage are almost off the chart bad. The good news is that none of us (at least none that I know of) are competing in leagues where such statistics are measured. Fantasy football is a beautifully flawed game, and Hill performed admirably in its context while Brees was out. Hill was the overall QB7 during that stretch, and his worst weekly finish was QB14.
Because of his aptitude as a dual-threat, you can argue that Hill has a higher weekly fantasy floor than Winston does. However, I cannot bring myself to rank or draft Hill over Winston just yet. I still think Winston is a better NFL quarterback than Hill is. Winston was a top-five fantasy quarterback in his own right when he last started in 2019. Sure, some of that was a byproduct of Winston’s propensity to throw interceptions, but fantasy points are fantasy points. Still, a repeat of that performance is highly unlikely even if he does get the job. I have both Winston and Hill ranked as QB3s in 12-team leagues based mostly on the uncertain circumstances. Once we have some clarity on the situation, the winner will likely be a QB2, while the loser can be temporarily ignored for fantasy purposes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on an incredible defensive display en route to their second Super Bowl Championship. Their defense was so dominant against Patrick Mahomes and company in last season’s finale that I do not even remember if they used a quarterback on offense or not. They might have just handed the ball off to Leonard Fournette on every play. I will have to confirm this later. OK, fine. Tom Brady may have had something to do with the Bucs bringing home the Lombardi Trophy. He also was an upper-echelon fantasy quarterback last season, which is what really matters. Brady finished as the overall QB7 last year despite learning a completely new offense and playing through an MCL tear. Oh yeah, and he was also 43 years old.
Most of Brady’s PFF metrics from last season were superb, which should come as no surprise. He ranked first in accuracy plus as well as in turnover-worthy play percentage. He also finished fourth in big-time throw rate and third in positive grade rate. All of this came despite Brady throwing a career-high 14.9 percent of his passes at least 20 yards down the field. While his year-end statistics and metrics were solid, Brady did suffer some bouts with inconsistency in his first season in Tampa.
Brady was very much a boom or bust fantasy quarterback in Bruce Arians’ system. He had six games where he finished with fewer than 250 passing yards last season. In all six, he had two or fewer touchdown passes, totaling nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. On the flip side, Brady threw for at least 340 yards on seven occasions. In those games, he combined to throw 25 touchdowns against just four interceptions. I would expect more weekly consistency from Brady now that he has a bit more familiarity with the offensive scheme and personnel. It is hard to believe that Brady can finish higher than last year’s QB7 finish. But those who have bet against Brady over the last two decades have not fared very well. I currently have Brady as my QB11 who should be more consistent on a week-to-week basis than several of his low-QB1 counterparts.
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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