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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 impact and overall outlook. This time we’re focusing on the confusing but tantalizing NFC South. This division hosts the reigning NFL champions and three intriguing competitors.
We’re going to look at every fantasy football-relevant player within the NFC South. Breaking down you should draft and what you should expect out of your investments can help swing your league. Finding the right outliers and avoiding big risks is the name of the game champions continually win.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 record: 11-5
The defending Super Bowl winners rode the wave of dramatic improvement throughout the end of the season and playoffs. Tom Brady’s impact on what was a young but talented roster paid clear dividends at key moments. But this roster as a whole was excellent and built to carry Brady when his age showed.
Tampa Bay somehow brought their key free agents back despite cap limitations. There’s a perfect blend of young veterans and savvy on both sides of the ball. It’s hard to see a pure weakness at any position barring a big regression.
Brady’s outlook is the one most worth monitoring. Turning 44 years old this year, Brady clearly had some moments where he was fading. The Buccaneers were able to get past some highly flawed competitors last year, and the NFC in general is down again this season. Capitalizing on this window to win again is a rare shot.
The AFC produced an injury-plagued representative in Kansas City and the Buccaneers blew them out of the stadium with ease. It’s hard for champions to play at an extremely high level out the gate after winning but the Buccaneers must find the right balance of urgency and effectiveness. They shouldn’t be too hard pressed to win the division but must start clicking near playoff time or risk being upset.
The fantasy outlook for this team mirrors last year’s iteration. They’re deep with options and it’s interesting to see the ADP rankings reflect that. There’s only two rounds currently not featuring a Bucs’ player, the first and the 12th. No other offense can boast that.
It’s easy to see why. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Ronald Jones are no-brainer investments depending on the price. Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette are decent backup options in later rounds. And Rob Gronkowski did well enough to justify being drafted as a starter despite so much competition around him.
The return of O.J. Howard might muddy Gronk’s production but he could also be traded (please grab him, Jacksonville). Fournette has been overvalued as a sixth-round pick because of his name, so if you own him, trade him. Their signing of Gio Bernard doesn’t bode well for Fournette’s role outside of goalline poaching.
The one issue with the team in the fantasy view is the lack of great upside. Evans and Brady don’t have amazing chemistry, and even Godwin was a so-so producer when healthy. Any downturn from Brady will any investments made at receiver turn sour.
Reflect on whether you have faith in Brady continuing his level of solid but unspectacular play at 44 before taking any of these star names at their ADP. Getting value on anyone except Jones is the right play. Jones is the unique guy who should hit 1,000 yards with ease and he might get to 10 touchdowns total.
New Orleans Saints
2020 record: 12-4
The Saints are now into an era without Drew Brees and it’s beyond strange to say that. Brees defined this franchise for so long, and he accomplished so much. We saw a flash of what the offense could look like for four games while Taysom Hill started with Brees out, but it wasn’t impressive or likely good enough to win on a bigger scale.
Does Sean Payton trot Hill out as a starter again or does he turn to Jameis Winston? Winston is a traditional pocket passer with a history of creating chunk plays. The thought of him in a prolific passing attack with Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and this offensive line is incredibly exciting.
Winston could prove to be the next Saints’ franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Winston attempted only 11 passes total so there’s nothing to glean from his season. He put up monstrous numbers with the Buccaneers in prior seasons but also has never shaken the interception numbers. His 88 career interceptions is a major black mark on his resume despite totaling almost 20,000 yards and 121 touchdowns already.
Fantasy-wise, Winston averaged about 17 points per game with the Buccaneers and had a high of 305.4 total points in 2019. His upside is considerable even if the interceptions continue. The Saints may lack the weapons Tampa Bay had but they’re not far behind.
Hill’s fantasy numbers were solid, averaging 7.7 yards per completion and connecting on 72.7 percent of his attempts. He ran for 457 yards and eight scores, averaging 9.3 fantasy points per game and totaling 148.6 points for the season in standard leagues. Prorating his production over 16 games would’ve given him a total near Winston’s average fantasy output, which is impressive considering the passing difference between the two.
There’s not a clear second receiving option worth a fantasy pickup if Hill is named the starter. But Tre’Quan Smith is definitely worth stashing if Winston earns the job. The Saints will air it out and he’s the only other drafted receiver on the depth chart with real experience in the system.
Thomas and Kamara will have great value regardless of the starter. They’re scheme transcendent and will inherently produce at a high-level. I’d have no problem spending a top-five pick on Kamara and a late second-rounder on Thomas.
2020 third-rounder Adam Trautman is a waiver wire candidate as well. He’s an adept blocker and solid athlete. Winston liked to use his tight ends in Tampa Bay and the New Orleans offense so there’s a possibility Trautman becomes an under drafted starter.
2020 record: 5-11
It’s not common to say there was an enjoyable 5-11 football team but the Carolina Panthers were must-watch games for me last year. There were clear limitations with Teddy Bridgewater and the offense struggled to perform in two-minute drills. I’m a big fan of Joe Brady but the fact Bridgewater said the team didn’t practice two-minute rallies and red zone is a bad sign of what’ll come in the future if not fixed.
Most of the positive assets are back. D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, Ian Thomas, Christian McCaffrey and Terrace Marshall Jr. are absolutely legitimately dangerous producers as a whole. McCaffrey is a superstar and the top two receivers should hit 1,000 yards again with Sam Darnold if he’s worth his weight.
The trade for Darnold is significant here. Anyone who was high on Darnold as a prospect out of USC believes he still has the talent to right the ship, and they could be correct. Adam Gase was a disaster for the Jets and sunk a decent team to a lower level. However, Darnold’s play has mirrored what he did at USC and his ineffectiveness shouldn’t be surprising.
His arm talent is good, but not great as far as strength, and he struggles massively with turnovers. His best throws are out of the pocket and out of scheme, but part of the reason he has to break the pocket is his slow pre-snap processing. His mental acuity has to improve.
Joe Brady will help him get rid of the ball quicker and find receivers easier, but Darnold will frustrate the play caller and playmakers every time he passes up an open target. Carolina’s offense is more built on timing than hero-ball. Adjustments will need to be made by every party for this unit to flow.
Marshall isn’t quite as versatile as Curtis Samuel was and that tradeoff likely means more touches for a healthy McCaffrey and backup Chuba Hubbard. I’m pessimistic on Darnold being a positive acquisition and if he doesn’t prove he can play better than what we’ve seen, the fantasy value of these receivers will take a considerable dip.
The good news for the team itself is the defense looks better than they were last year. Adding A.J. Bouye, Daviyon Nix, Haason Reddick and Jaycee Horn are huge. These are helpful short- and long-term acquisitions.
More wins should be on the horizon for the franchise if Darnold is the guy. A leap from the quarterback position can completely change the outlook of the organization, or end up costing people their jobs. Don’t forget that the Panthers passed on both Justin Fields and Mac Jones after they preemptively traded for Darnold prior to the draft.
I’d take McCaffrey, Moore and Anderson at their current ADP but know the possibility the receivers may fall short of last year’s breakout.
2020 record: 4-12
Although I liked the Falcons’ draft haul overall and the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, their strategy in free agency made little sense. Keeping Matt Ryan at his gigantic cap hit at 37 years old when there were quarterbacks going for high prices all over the place was a missed chance to get a first-round pick for someone who has never been able to push his team over the top towards a Super Bowl. They subsequently passed on Justin Fields with the fourth overall pick and missed their chance to secure their future franchise passer.
Now there’s Julio Jones rumors all over. Many expect Julio to land in Tennessee or New England prior to the season, and the Falcons will get a Day 2 pick in return for a face of their franchise. Why Atlanta didn’t make the move prior to the draft to add a young body to develop in 2021 again makes no sense.
The franchise will try to win with an all-out offensive attack in the meantime. Ryan will have Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, and Kyle Pitts to throw to. Running back Mike Davis was a shrewd pickup as he gets a good opportunity to start behind a rebuilt offensive line.
Ridley has a higher ADP than Julio for now but he’ll justify the expectations. Smith will have to throw a lot to offset a bad defense in a high-scoring division. Ryan’s arm hopefully won’t die off despite his creeping age.
Gage is a must-draft player. Currently being taken in the 14th-round, he’s in line for a 1,000-yard season. I’d expect his touchdown number to increase from four to six as well.
Pitts is a tougher projection. Oddsmakers have his receiving yards at 850 but I’m not buying that number. Only two tight ends hit over 755 last year and a rookie is unlikely to translate that well even if Pitts is unique.
I’m buying everyone in this offense nonetheless. The defense won’t stop anyone even if Dean Pees has his magic touch ready. The lack of pass rushers and cornerbacks is startling for an NFL team.
Drafting rival NFC South players to take advantage of their two matchups with Atlanta is a sharp play. Keep this in mind during your draft. It’s possible we’ll see the Falcons score last in defense in numerous categories, and they already play several star-caliber producers within the division. Hunting their foes on the waiver wires is also a wise way to win on key bye weeks for your own stars.
Atlanta will be hard-pressed to do better than their 2020 campaign. Buckle in, Falcons fans.
Image courtesy of Ashley Landis/AP Photo