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The 2021 NFL season is rapidly approaching. This past off-season has flown by as free agency started off with a bang as Matthew Stafford was sent packing to the Los Angeles Rams. Even now, we’re still yet to see what will happen with All-Pros like Aaron Rodgers and Julio Jones.
The drama has been fantastic for fans all over the country. However, it’s almost time to play actual football again. Training camp is just a few months away and soon we’ll be evaluating preseason games with fervor.
We’ll be profiling each of the divisions across the NFL for fantasy football impact and overall outlook. One of the most interesting divisions is the AFC South. The Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans have each had their moment in the spotlight this off-season. Many would say as a whole, the AFC South has been a loser after seeing all of the defectors in free agency.
It’s never that simple, though. This will be a competitive division with some uncertainty still yet to be played out. We’ll break it all down in this AFC South divisional profile.
2020 record: 11-5
The AFC South’s 2020 champion endured several painful losses this off-season thanks to some cap constraints and financial decisions. Corey Davis departed to New York, and the Titans decided to fill his role with the speedy but underachieving Josh Reynolds. Tight end Jonnu Smith was paid handsomely by the New England Patriots, and his role was backfilled by Anthony Firsker.
The offensive recipe won’t change much even as coordinator Arthur Smith found a head coaching gig in Atlanta. Todd Downing was promoted to replace him, and has 21 years of experience under his belt. Downing doesn’t have to implement anything radically different to find success.
Running back Derrick Henry remains a top pick in fantasy thanks to a stellar offensive line, favorable scheme and schedule, and his immense talent. He’s been a monstrous presence in each of the last three seasons. Last year he produced 2,027 yards and 17 scores. But he had fantasy owners plenty happy with three-quarters of the production in 2019.
Of course, the Titans have an elite receiver in A.J. Brown as well. Brown is a must-grab in any league. He has little competition for passes now that Davis is gone, but there’s just enough in place to keep defenses from overloading against him. Ryan Tannehill loves him, and this is critical for his outlook.
Firsker and Tannehill are backup-level, spot starters in fantasy but average overall. The Titans don’t have an overly high ceiling because of their offensive limitations (trading for Julio Jones would help here), but still present a weekly nightmare for their foes because of their physical style on both sides of the ball. They’re my pick to win the South division but will struggle to get beyond the Wild Card round.
My advice: draft Henry and Brown highly, and the rest are fringe starters. Firsker and Reynolds have late-round potential due to the lack of competition on the roster.
2020 record: 11-5
On one hand, Colts general manager Chris Ballard has done a nice job building a young team that has several options at key positions. There’s intriguing talent at receiver and running back, and the defense has numerous athletic bodies to utilize. But there’s a lack of proven stardom right now thanks to injuries and underwhelming performers.
Ballard has somewhat handcuffed at quarterback this off-season. Landing Carson Wentz was understandable even if it was a massive risk for what they spent. Their only other option may have been to trade up for Justin Fields but it wasn’t a given he’d fall as far as he did.
Wentz has upside to be quite good even if the last couple of years topped out as average. He has an elite offensive line and decent group of receivers to utilize. His guys have to stay healthy, though.
Parris Campbell is fantastic but has only played in nine games over two years. The to-be 24-year-old is coming off a major injury but reports have sounded positive on his recovery. He has the most talent within the unit but taking him is a clear risk on whether he’ll be available.
T.Y. Hilton could be Wentz’s DeSean Jackson. However he’s aged, and his availability has been an issue for the team as well. You can see where the downside is with investing into any of the playmakers on the offense.
If all goes well, the Colts might be pushing for an AFC conference crown. The opposite end of the spectrum is missing the playoffs completely. Their fantasy profile is one of the riskiest in the league.
Tight end Jack Doyle and Michael Pittman might be the safest plays of the receivers. Doyle is a nice starter in fantasy thanks to his reliable hands and how Wentz likes to utilize tight ends. Pittman has great movement skill and hands for his size, and is a blooming talent who worked his way into a bigger role after coming back from injury last season.
Running back Jonathan Taylor offers the best chance at turning your league into your favor. Currently with an ADP of seventh overall, it’s clear many have the same expectation.
Taylor has competition for catches with Nyheim Hines and eventually Marlon Mack. This is dangerous. Guys like Aaron Jones, Antonio Gibson, Austin Ekeler and J.K. Dobbins are being taken behind Taylor but have less competition behind them. There’s even a slew of mid-round backs with similar upside.
I’m fading most of this roster and their overall outlook. Philip Rivers was decent even if limited in 2020, and there’s not many upgrades across the roster since 2020. I don’t want to touch their injury-prone receiving room even if I love what they can be.
2020 record: 1-15
I don’t foresee the Jaguars leaping the Colts in 2021, but they’re a much more interesting team in fantasy leagues than the Colts. Their quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is surrounded by exciting talent. Of course there’s more at play in Jacksonville.
Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer will be one of the most-scrutinized first-year coaches in recent memory. There’s concern the soon-to-be 57-year-old won’t be flexible enough to adjust for what won’t translate from college to the NFL. The controversial but highly successful collegiate coach gave some ammunition to skeptics with the Travis Etienne pick.
Etienne joins a backfield already set with James Robinson, an undrafted free agent who produced 1,351 total yards in 2020. Immediately the pick was questionable as far as value but Meyer has made it clear he wants his version of Percy Harvin again. Getting a versatile, movable and explosive open-field athlete excited him.
The decision to move Etienne into a hybrid slasher role says multiple things we can translate into fantasy projections. The first is he doesn’t have terrific RB1 value if he’ll line up at receiver more than a rare occurrence. The Jaguars will feed their backfield of Etienne, Robinson and Carlos Hyde, and flexing out Etienne on run plays is one way to create touches for others.
Because he’s not a great downfield threat at his speed, size, or experience, Etienne will function more as a slot receiver. Unfortunately, mediocre volume and low efficiency as a receiver won’t significantly help him in PPR leagues.
Fantasy players can also glean the projected role of Laviska Shenault now. Shenault will be moved to a more traditional receiver role with Etienne taking his hybrid job. This is likely due to the differences in build and durability. Shenault can absolutely thrive as strictly an outside receiver, but he’ll be a low-end play unless Lawrence identifies Shenault as his security blanket.
Instead, I’m looking at a potential tight end pickup like Zach Ertz, or star receiver D.J. Chark. Marvin Jones offers downfield catching ability that Lawrence should love as well. So if you’re prioritizing consistency and role within the offense, start with Chark.
The backfield conundrum is a difficult one. Robinson fits the bill as far as being a workhorse. Can this offense churn out production like Cleveland has with both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt? Failing to produce two quality starters in fantasy will leave owners disappointed and losing.
But betting on one taking over makes more sense. I think Etienne gets more receiver reps and Meyer eventually leans on Robinson for scoring opportunities. It’s not that the latter is a better player or athlete but the allure of moving Etienne around can lead to being miscast in his first season.
Jones is the one who can swing a few games if he quickly finds chemistry with Lawrence. He’s a much more advanced player than anyone at the position on the roster. I expect he’ll get a high volume of targets and this will help him become a great value in PPR leagues compared to his teammates who benefit from chunk plays.
2020 record: 4-12
The Texans’ roster isn’t completely awful but it’s certainly devoid of star talent. Deshaun Watson’s future is incredibly murky. I’d be absolutely stunned if he played for Houston again and it’s entirely possible he won’t see the field until 2022 or beyond, if ever. The sexual assault charges against him must be thoroughly fleshed out by the NFL and legal system.
The horrifying situation could settle itself and leave Houston with a special but highly disgruntled asset. The Texans botched their handling of this past off-season, ruining their relationship with the star. Teams know that if he’s eligible to play, Watson will be moved sooner or later.
It’s safe to say Tyrod Taylor will win the job in Houston barring a shocking turn of events leading to Watson’s swift return. He has some pieces to work with but the names are bigger than the impact. The only quality starting playmaker worth noting is Brandin Cooks.
Cooks has put together quite the career despite being traded three times. The 27-year-old has 6,880 yards and 40 touchdowns with four teams. The speedster is a well-rounded target who is continually underrated considering his ability to adjust to new situations and schemes.
His pairing with Taylor is troublesome but my guess is Davis Mills takes over the job within eight weeks anyways. Drafting Cooks is banking on him being traded again or Mills coming into the position and relying heavily on him. That’s a tough proposition for a seventh-rounder but the upside of going to Buffalo, Las Vegas, Green Bay, or Seattle exists.
The backfield has some intrigue in PPR leagues. David Johnson will get a ton of looks from this conservative group of passers and could be a stud if he’s healthy. Don’t expect a ton of efficiency but his skill set is more endearing than either the washed Mark Ingram or one-faceted Phillip Lindsay.
Ingram won’t give the team much outside of short yardage and goal line touches. It’s really quite something that the former Ravens’ receivers coach, now Texans’ head coach, David Culley, would sign the slowed Ingram after seeing him phased out in Baltimore last season. Signing him on this roster was a complete wasted spot and usage of money.
Lindsay will hopefully earn more touches since he’s the best pure runner of the group. His presence on the field is troublesome, though, as he’s a non-threat as a receiver and is a major liability in pass protection. Opponents figured out a run play was coming when he was on the field for Denver and it’s likely Houston will lack creativity to utilize him more based on Culley’s credentials.
Fade these familiar names. Even Randall Cobb will likely do little here besides catch short passes at a low-efficiency rate. The upside of the unit is low.
The most intriguing long-term piece is Nico Collins. The third-rounder has measurables to die for, and Houston could quickly put some pieces together around him if they trade Watson for picks and lose most, if not all, of their games in 2021 as expected. Dynasty owners should buy-low on Collins in hopes Spencer Rattler will come to Houston next season (and maybe Lincoln Riley).
Image courtesy of Wade Payne/Associated Press