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The Deep South: A Star Studded View from the NFC South

A must-read in-depth breakdown of all the fantasy relevant players in the NFC South!

By Jared Clifton

NFC South

New Orleans Saints

If this is to be Drew Brees’ swansong, then the Saints have set up a team capable of a deep playoff and possibly a Super Bowl run.  The South hypothetically got more difficult this year, with Tom Brady taking his talents to Tampa, but New Orleans is still the gold standard within the division.  Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton made some quality moves to replace aging veterans such as Larry Warford and fixing a creaky secondary with solid new starters, Malcolm and Janoris Jenkins.  The offense should be back to top 5 with a full year of Brees and they now boast a respectable defense that has improved six seasons in a row.  Queue up a storybook ending to a spectacular career.

Must Start: Drew Brees (QB10), Alvin Kamara (RB5), Michael Thomas (WR1), Jared Cook (TE9)

The Saints players are always sought after assets within fantasy drafts, but it is a very top heavy group that doesn’t roll very deep.  Kamara is 1B to Thomas’ 1A in the offense and although his efficiency dropped last year in a banged up season, he keeps offenses honest with his versatility in both the run and pass game.  He lines up all over the field and that is a big reason why defenses aren’t able to key in blanket coverage on Thomas, even though he is responsible for nearly 33% of the team’s target share.  Kamara has made a career of creating his own space and maximizing an overall load that isn’t necessarily consistent with a top 5 RB.  He has caught exactly 81 balls in each of his first three seasons and while that is strange, it’s likely the range he’ll be in again this year. He has more competition near the top of fantasy tiers, but he is still a high caliber player worth a first round pick and a set it and forget it RB1 spot.

Matchup Based Start: Latavius Murray (RB42), Emmanuel Sanders (WR42)

It’s been four years since the Saints had a WR2 repeat in back to back years.  While Ted Ginn, Trequan Smith have alternated that finish since Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks left town, those aren’t exactly above average receivers.  Although Sanders is 33 and hasn’t topped 100 targets since 2016, he provides the best outside WR option in quite some time. If he’s healthy, he should easily surpass the three years average line of 37/545/3 that Saints WR2’s have posted.

Flexually Active: Trequan Smith (WR84)

See below for analysis

Waivers/Streamers: Jameis Winston (QB36), Ty Montgomery (RB) Taysom Hill (TE57),  Adam Trautman (TE47), Deonte Harris (WR166)

Taysom Hill is one of those players that is innately more valuable in real life football, than he is in fantasy.  That said, Sean Payton loves using him and each year has presented a new wrinkle in Hill’s game.  His increase in targets last year from 7 to 22, included a whopping 6 TD’s, to go with his 27/156/1 rushing totals.  He’s a gadget player for certain, but another increase in receptions or carries, could make him an interesting TD dependent FLEX play come bye time. 

Sleepers: Jameis Winston

Winston made a wise decision to follow his need for tutelage and not his need to try to cash in a contract on a poor team or one year prove it deal.  Sean Payton is a fantastic sculpter of QB’s, going back to his days with a young undrafted QB named Tony Romo and through his symbiotic partnership with Drew Brees in New Orleans.  Winston isn’t going to find any meaningful snaps so long as Brees is healthy, but if anything were to happen to the 41 year old signal caller, then Winston would be a premium fill in, in an offense that is built to minimize turnovers.  Jameis still has a big arm and with an automatic security blanket like Michael Thomas, as well as quality targets in Sanders and Cook, his numbers would be equal to, if not greater than what he put together in his final year in Tampa…with better ball control baked in.

Must Stash: Adam Trautman (TE47), Tommy Stevens (QB)

It remains to be seen if Trautman’s huge numbers in Dayton can translate into the NFL, given he is the first Flyer in the NFL in 43 years, but Sean Payton must have seen something in the agile behemoth, to trade four picks to grab him in the 3rd round.  The Saints have struggled to find continuity at the tight end position, ever since Jimmy Graham was traded to the Emerald City.  Trautman probably has a year of tutelage behind Cook, longtime TE2 Josh Hill, and even Taysom Hill, but he is the future at the position and we could be talking about a Zach Ertz type player when he gets his shot.

Breakout: Trequan Smith

Smith is an immensely talented wide receiver, whose current claim to fame is catching the pass that allowed Drew Brees’ to surpass Peyton Manning’s all-time passing yards record.  With MT vacuuming up targets and a bothersome ankle last year, his talent has only flashed, via a few big games in 2018.  Having Sanders to play Robin to Thomas’ Batman could very well be the spark Smith needs to see meaningful targets on a consistent basis.  Smith operates out of the slot over half the time and now has the opportunity to take advantage of deeper routes against LB’s and safeties, with the notorious 9 route runner Ted Ginn gone from the team.  Big air years could be on the horizon, which leads to big numbers.

Bust: Jared Cook 

I’ve noticed a strange trend of players that make my Must Start category and my Bust category.  I suppose that’s largely because we rely on the must start guys when drafting and therefore, they hurt more when they don’t perform.  The good news for this bust candidate is that he won’t cost a lot of draft capital around the tenth round, but he is still considered a top 10 TE for 2020.  The bulk of that is tied to his improbable 20.8% TD rate last season at age 32, when the 11 year journeyman had never topped 9% in any of his previous seasons.  The volume just isn’t there, with huge target shares going to Thomas, Kamara, Sanders, etc. and there are other TE’s that will eat into that, including potential wunderkind Adam Trautman. He needs to get near double digit TD’s to pay off and the history and other weapons doesn’t lend itself to that happening. 

Atlanta Falcons

With established fantasy stars Matt Ryan, Todd Gurley and Julio Jones, as well as 2020 darlings Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst, the Falcons are in line for a seventh straight Top 10 offensive finish. While they desperately need to incorporate balance in the running portion of the offense, that’s unlikely to happen this year with Dirk Koetter continuing to dial up the pass on nearly 68% of their plays and a defense that has broken too often in a bend but don’t break system. The fantasy numbers should be huge for this offense. Just don’t expect that to translate to season victories. 

Must Start: Matt Ryan (QB8), Todd Gurley (RB15), Julio Jones (WR4), Calvin Ridley (WR16)

In somewhat of a surprising offseason move, the Rams released Gurley and his 56 TD’s over the past 5 seasons.  The Falcons didn’t waste time and locked him down within 24 hours of his release.  Now, the Rams will effectively pay him to rush for Atlanta, and if he can remain healthy, that could sting a bit for Stan Kroenke and Sean McVay.  Gurley gets a bad wrap, as we speculate on his arthritic knees and he was a victim of the NFL catching up to McVay’s version of The Greatest Show on Turf.  But, he has yet to finish outside the top 15 in RB fantasy scoring and even last year’s yawner came in at an RB14 finish.  He may be used more judiciously this year, but the Falcon’s offense isn’t afraid to use their RB’s in all facets of the game.  It may not exactly be a renaissance to his 2017/2018 form, but he could very well help Atlanta forget about Devonta Freeman completely.

Matchup Based Start: Hayden Hurst (TE12)

See analysis below.

Flexually Active: Russell Gage (WR94), Ito Smith (RB74)

Concussions have cut Smith’s audition as the change of pace back in Atlanta the last two years, but he is penciled in for the #2 role ahead of Brian Hill this year, and with a healthy season, he is in a grand position to gain significant workload with a likely truncated number of carries for Gurley.  He’s a great pass catcher and works well in space with an above average juke rate.  If Gurley were to miss time, he’d get the first crack as the lead back, and lead back for the Falcons is a pretty good bet to be at least an RB2.

Waivers/Streamers: Brian Hill (RB85), Qadree Ollison (RB97), Laquon Treadwell (WR156), Jaeden Graham (TE62)

Qadree Ollison is another of the many capable backs in Atlanta that could gain work depending on how Koetter and Quinn decide to utilize Todd Gurley.  Ollison profiles best as the primary goal line back outside of Gurley, so that is a niche that could become very valuable if Gurley or Smith miss time.  Hill is nipping at his heels, but did struggle in the red zone and was pulled in goal to go scenarios for the grinding Ollison, even when Hill was the primary ball carrier for a few weeks in 2019.

Sleepers: Russell Gage

Shameless Plug Alert! The bulk of my take on Gage as a sleeper can be found in my article, but he has the largest opportunity from all the Falcon’s holdovers to gain a sizable amount of the Falcon’s 248 vacated targets.

Must Stash: Olamide Zaccheaus (WR179)

Similar to the children’s Bible song, Zaccheus is a wee little man, but instead of collecting taxes he collects receptions, or at least he did at his alma mater of Virginia just a few short years ago. He showed his potential as a playmaker last year in limited action, as he took his first ever catch 93 yards to the house.  The Falcon’s have rotated WR3 and WR4 over the past several years and it just takes an injury or possibly Gage or Treadwell faltering, for a guy like Zaccheaus to get his opportunity.  Christian Blake also remains in the mix, but Olamide is less possession receiver and more playmaker, than Blake.

Breakout: Calvin Ridley

It could be because I’ve way overdrafted Ridley this year in both dynasty startups and redraft leagues, but Calvin Ridley is my breakout lock of the season.  He has shown to have Matt Ryan’s full confidence and even the ability to take over a game with or without Julio Jones being a factor.  Year 3 is historically the year that WR’s truly breakout and if 64/821/10 in 2018 and 63/866/7 (13 games) in 2019 were the appetizers, I can’t wait for the full course to arrive. We got to watch the changing of the guard in 2014 as Julio Jones supplanted Roddy White as the WR1 for the Falcons and I believe this season is the beginning of the next passing of the torch.  Buy all the shares you can, while the price is still reasonable. 

Bust: Hayden Hurst

I’m in on Hurst as a potential back end TE1, but at the price I’m currently seeing, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.  While he is a near perfect replacement for who Auston Hoper was, he’s still largely unproven and not only was the former first rounder surpassed by Mark Andrews, but at times Delaware’s Nick Boyle.  His inclusion on ascending TE lists isn’t unjustified, as he is immensely talented and going into a TE friendly offense, but his ADP in the mid 7th round seems unjustified when comparable TE’s like Jared Cook, Hunter Henry and even the former Falcon Hooper are going several rounds later.  I’m still focused on RB’s and WR’s where he’s going, save for TE premium drafts.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

We’ve heard the hype since the late March signing of the iconic Patriot signal caller. Tompa Bay.  TB to TB. The seemingly impossible break up of the greatest dynasty in NFL history is being seen as a resurgence in a city that has struggled mightily since the improbable 2002 Jon Gruden led Super Bowl championship. A bulk of the weapons are in place, but this is a team that despite finishing as a top 3 offensive unit in 2019, was largely irrelevant in a mediocre division. Can a 43 year old Brady live up to the challenge of reviving a team that has not been meticulously crafted in his image?  Can Rob Gronkowski return, after a year off, anywhere near the caliber of his mid-2010’s dominance?   Can Bruce Arians find a running game that will keep defense honest against his two integral offensive weapons; Mike Evans and Chris Godwin?  It’s a lot of what ifs, but all within the realm of possibility.  I, for one, am looking forward to finding out. 

Must Start: Chris Godwin (WR6), Mike Evans (WR8)

Chris Godwin’s emergence as a fantasy superstar wasn’t exactly unforecasted.  Listening to any radio show or reading any relevant fantasy publication, the industry was 100% in on Godwin as the next big thing. Boy were they right on the nose. Godwin was as consistent a star as any WR not named Michael Thomas and if he didn’t have to share the spotlight with another bonafide WR1, could very well have been in that conversation. Now the Bucs hope that they don’t have to throw the pigskin around nearly as much this year, but through improved efficiency from Brady over Winston and Brady’s affinity for great hand slot receivers, Godwin’s ceiling could be peak level Wes Welker, with a floor of peak Julian Edelman.  That’s a range of outcomes that I’m buying into.

Matchup Based Start: Tom Brady (QB11), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB33), Ronald Jones (RB36), Rob Gronkowski (TE10)

It’s true that Ronald Jones finished #77 in fantasy points per play, but a deeper look shows RoJo as a Top 30 RB finisher in 8 of his 16 games last year.  Now factor in the amount of turnovers (41) the Bucs had last season and what that does to a running backs opportunities to both score TD’s and stay game script relevant.  We’ve spoken about the improved efficiency this offense is likely to encounter and Brady is going to need a running game to take the pressure off his current skill set, so it stands to reason that the fantasy opportunities will be up for the Tampa RB’s.  They did use a third rounder to get Ke’Shawn Vaughn out of the SEC’s Vanderbilt, but Ronald Jones is just two years removed from being the 38th overall selection out of USC, so there is draft capital tied to him, as well. The load will be split this year, but I see Jones being the lead guy, at least to start the season. 

Flexually Active: OJ Howard (TE25), Cameron Brate (TE35)

The breakout year that was predicted didn’t happen and furthermore, he took significant steps back in nearly every category.  That said, tight ends are historically a slow burn position and Tampa Bay plans to install more 12 personnel sets this season. Brady hasn’t had a healthy alpha TE since 2015, but with Gronk, Howard and Brate, he should be able to have a healthy stable to choose from.  The consensus is that Gronk is that guy, but if he’s lost a step or just can’t stay on the field, OJ Howard could be in for his breakout year a year or two later than expected. With a 13.5 YPR, he is a weapon down the seam and that is where Gronkowski made his mark.  Brate is more reliant around the goalline, but Howard has the talent to give Brady and the Bucs a power trio of capable pass catchers. 

Waivers/Streamers: Tyler Johnson (WR116), Justin Watson (WR119), Dare Ogunbowale (RB83), Raymond Calais (RB117)

When we think about Tom Brady’s best pass catchers, names like Welker, Edelman, Gronk and Branch come to mind.  On that list at #7, in just 5 full seasons, is James White. He was as reliable a check down valve as we have seen in recent years and a huge part of Brady’s game.  That role is up for grabs in TB and although Jones is a proficient pass catcher and Vaughn showed glimpse in college, Dare Ogunbowale fits the James White profile to a T.  Dare will never be in line for much work as a runner, but he was a constant staple on 3rd down and his route running and pass protection are plus grades, which should keep him in play for that role most games. Be ready to strike if he opens the season with healthy targets from Brady and be prepared to deploy.

Sleepers: Cameron Brate

There was a three year window in the early 2010’s where NE tight ends averaged 18.66 TD/game.  Those were with world class tight ends talents in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but it shows what Brady can do with a TE room full of talent. This is the best collection of tight ends that Brady has had since those days and Brate is always dangerous within the red zone.  If Arians is truly going to move towards more 12 personnel sets, it takes more than two tight ends in that rotation and sets up Brate as a TD dependent league winner contender off the wire.

Must Stash: Raymond Calais

Vaughn and Jones are the RB’s to watch this year, but Calais is a dark horse as a sparkplug in the same vein as Arians’ favorite Andre Ellington. His speed could be what sets him apart if Jones struggles and he could be lightning to Vaughns’ thunder.  He has no real history as a pass catcher at small school Louisiana-Lafayette, so if he shows to be decent in that regard, his speed will play somewhere. 

Breakout: Tyler Johnson

Rashod Bateman is the WR everyone loves to talk about in PJ Fleck’s now vaunted Big Ten offense, but Tyler Johnson was Tanner Morgan’s number one target the past two seasons. He has the misfortune in profiling best in Godwin’s primary slot role, but he has shown crisp route running and significant yards after the catch potentials that can play on the outside, as well.  He’s not the same type of player that Breshad Perriman was last season, but he could very well shoulder the load left behind, over guys like Scott Miller and Justin Watson.

Bust: Rob Gronkowski

Against my better judgement, I always liked Rob Gronkowski.  His affability and genuine joy playing the game, generally overshadowed his frat boy D-Bag antics for me.  I also liked Tom Selleck vehicle Magnum P.I., so much that I considered naming my Must Stash section of each team after the glorious whiskers that adorn his upper lip.  The point is that reboots aren’t always a success, as we have seen from Jay Hernandez’s stashless revisitation of the Thomas Magnum role. Likewise, Gronkowski, just a year removed from his last season in New England, is unlikely to recapture the magic that left him peerless for several seasons in the 2010’s. The problem is that he is going as high round six in drafts I’m seeing.  We need to seperate from the nostalgia, much better than he has been at separating from defenders in his final few seasons.  Let someone else pay for the name.  It won’t be a fun watch. 

Carolina Panthers

This is a completely different looking team from just a year ago.  Gone are longtime stalwarts Ron Rivera, Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, and a number of integral defensive pieces. In are former Baylor HC Matt Rhule, Teddy Bridgewater, and a draft heavy on young defensive playmakers.  While the turnaround for this team may be daunting for a team that finished in the bottom half of nearly every pertinent category, there are a couple of players that will keep it from being fantasy irrelevant. That begins with All-World RB Christian McCaffrey, who eclipsed the next nearest ball carrier by 156 points in PPR formats and up and coming star receiver DJ Moore who managed a Top 15 finish despite having ineffective QB play from both Kyle Allen and Will Grier. It may not be a particularly deep pool for fantasy, but that’s a pretty floor for Matt Rhule and former LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady to work with.

Must Start: Christian McCaffrey (RB1), DJ Moore (WR15)

DJ Moore was on pace for a 98 catch/1341 yard campaign before a concussion knocked him out early in week 16 action. Especially with the aforementioned Kyle Allen throwing him the ball, that is an impressive pac, along the lines of Julio Jones 2019 season.  He is among the most athletic young WR’s in the game and even with his less than ideal size on the outside, his contested catch rate is elite. With Teddy Bridgewater’s notable accuracy, especially on play action passing situations with the most dangerous RB in the game, it is a foregone conclusion that Moore’s TD opportunities should see significant positive improvement.  Moore is being slept on in redraft leagues and is one of just a handful of WR’s that has a legitimate path to the #1 overall WR finish in 2020. Reach past his 4th round ADP.

Matchup Based Start: Robby Anderson (WR49)

Robby Anderson has been a staple on my Best Ball teams for several years now and always a bit of an afterthought on my dynasty and redraft squads. His catch rate has always hovered around 60%, but that is in large part due to his catchable target rate being just a shade above that.  For a deep ball target, that is to be expected, but it makes for a frustrating week in and week out play.  No one likes a 1 catch for 11 yards outcome. However, he is reuniting with his former college coach in Matt Rhule and looking back at how Rhule used him at Temple, it leaves open the possibility of a more consistent target share and therefore a reasonable floor.  Couple that with Bridgewater being an adequate deep ball thrower and there is reason to like Anderson as a fringe WR2 type this year. 

Flexually Active: Curtis Samuel (WR56), Ian Thomas (TE22)

Speed kills and that apparently goes for killing the ability to catch as well. There may not be a faster WR on the planet, but Samules inability to focus on catch first/run second has hampered his ability to use that speed for good. This could be the last year that Samuel is viewed as anything other than a higher octane Tavon Austin, if he isn’t able to turn his mechanical woes around, but in the interim, he is fun to speculate on.  If he were to find a home in the slot role, he has the wheels and elusiveness to play an inside out role similar to Tyreek Hill in Kansas City.  Here’s hoping he spent his time in quarantine in front of a Jugs machine.

Waivers/Streamers: Teddy Bridgewater (QB25), Reggie Bonnafon (RB91), Seth Roberts (WR152)

Matt Rhule likes to spread out the work to his running backs, as evidenced by his most recent college run at Baylor. Now, CMC is not your average or even above average runner and commands a large portion of this offense.  However, getting him over 88% of the RB touches just isn’t conducive to a player staying on the field and CMC staying on the field is kind of a big deal if Rhule wants to have early success.  Enter Reggie Bonnafon.  The sample size is about as small as a sample size can come, but he showed great burst and an eye for the big play when called upon. He’s a former QB turned WR turned RB, so there is still a raw element to his game, but he is deserving of a heavier workload this year and if McCaffrey were to miss time, he would be a suitable dual threat replacement.

Sleepers: N/A

Must Stash: PJ Walker (QB63)

Another former Rhule player at Temple, PJ Walker was one of the few bright spots of the now in-limbo XFL. Even though this is now a new regime, there are still elements of the offense that are reflective of a team built around Cam Newton. If Bridgewater stumbles and Rhule and Joe Brady need to add an athletic spark, it could very well be the XFL star that gets the call over Will Grier.  The NFL is becoming more fluid, as it pertains to rushing QB’s and NFL teams love to copy what they’ve seen succeed a la Baltimore. Walker is not Lamar Jackson, but he showed his capabilities to move downfield with his legs in an abbreviated XFL season. 

Breakout: Ian Thomas

After a nice rookie season, Thomas was forgotten often last season and was a non-factor in the red zone, even though Carloina lacked a big presence inside the 20. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, the third year jump for TE’s is as real as the third year jump for WR’s, and now Greg Olsen is up in dreary Seattle to finish out his fine career. Thomas is athletically gifted and, although he was quiet collegiately in Indiana and for the majority of his first two seasons in Carolina, he pairs nicely with new signal caller Teddy Bridgewater.  Bridgewater has been above league average in the 5-10 yard range where Ian Thomas should live, and also above average in the middle section of the field at 10-15 yards, where Thomas’ athleticism should make for a good running seam cushion.  I like him a lot better than where he’s being drafted and fringe TE1 season isn’t out of the question.

Bust: Teddy Bridgewater

I’ve spoken, rather glowingly, about Bridgewater’s accuracy and how his presence should provide a boost to a number of playmakers, after a rough Kyle Allen led year.  At the end of the day though, he’s a JAG.  Not the Catherine Bell hot version either.  Just a guy. He’s a better real life player than he will ever be in fantasy and outside of your third QB on SuperFlex/2QB team, he just doesn’t move the needle.  I’ve seen some hype surrounding his first starting role since his terrible injury in Minnesota and I’m happy for him.  But, not as happy as I would be facing him in my fantasy matchups.

Jared Clifton
Dynasty/Redraft Analyst

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