Sunday, Feb 2nd — Early
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AFC South :: 2019 Preview!

AFC East | AFC North | AFC West | NFC

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Houston Texans

I received a lot of pushback last year for suggesting that the Houston Texans were a run-heavy team. And honestly, I get. After all, there is just no way that a team with Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins could want to go run-heavy. And yet, we have the Texans – a team that didn’t skew run-heavy because the matchups called for it, or because game flow tilted that way, but rather, that went run-heavy throughout games, in all situations, simply because they somehow thought this would be the best approach for their offense.

As of this writeup, Houston has made no outside moves to replace Lamar Miller (though beat writers do seem to expect the Texans to add someone from the outside within the next few days). But unless the Texans were to trade for Melvin Gordon (which seems unlikely), we are almost certainly looking at some sort of committee in this backfield, as Houston is unlikely to feature Duke Johnson in a true workhorse capacity; and whoever the Texans bring in as a complement is not guaranteed to be better than Damarea Crockett (who – let’s be honest – for all we know, could be better than a perennially disappointing Lamar Miller). Also, we should note that Miller’s stats suffered more from predictable play-calling and bad offensive line play than from any major deficiencies on his part – a long way of saying: just because the Texans run the ball a lot does not mean that we will necessarily find ourselves wanting a piece of this Texans backfield. As has been the case for several years for this offense, the best way for us to take advantage is by looking toward target hog and top-five receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

DeAndre Hopkins… is and will remain one of the surest bets in DFS

While there are obvious frustrations to deal with when it comes to the predictable play-calling of Bill O’Brien, one thing we can appreciate as DFS players is the bankable volume DeAndre Hopkins will have each week. While Hopkins did have five weeks last year of eight or fewer targets (including, incredibly, three weeks in which he saw only six targets), he also saw double digit looks in every other game on the season. Given that Hopkins scored at least one touchdown in four of those five lower target games (while going 5-74 in the remaining game), he is and will remain one of the surest bets in DFS.

Another thing we like about the Texans is their narrow distribution of targets, as this team has failed to develop a serious receiving threat at tight end, and it doesn’t waste time feeding touches to non-playmakers – giving us a comfortable idea almost every week of where the volume on this team will go. With Will Fuller healthy, we can expect him to be involved in the game plan every week. And although this team shows a concerning tendency to ignore Fuller throughout the course of a game if the looks are not there early (see: five or fewer targets in three of his seven games last year, including a pair of games with only three targets), Fuller’s upside is high enough (and frankly, his ability to break off big plays even in difficult matchups is real enough) that he will be a guy to keep in mind for tournaments on at least the front end of every single week for as long as he is healthy.

Speaking of health: we also have Keke Coutee to think about this year, whenever he returns to the field. Although his efficiency metrics were disappointing last year – with O’Brien underutilizing Coutee’s explosive skill set and wasting him on only underneath routes – he did have a high enough level of involvement when healthy (target counts of 15 // seven // five // three // nine // two) that his game-breaking speed will make him someone to also consider every week.

And of course – speaking of players to keep in mind every week – we have Watson, who should continue to overperform both the system O’Brien has him in and the horrible offensive line he is stuck behind in order to flirt with tourney-winning upside as often as any quarterback this side of Mahomes.

It’s not always pretty with O’Brien calling the shots, and it would sure be nice if the play designs on this offense were more than, “Let’s have Hopkins run toward the sideline and have Watson squeeze the ball into a tight window.” But for as much as this team is leaving on the table, there is still plenty for the taking in DFS most weeks.

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Indianapolis Colts

And now, Jacoby Brissett will be under center. I wrote my Colts writeup before Luck retired, and given how much “wait and see” we now have with this team, I even considered simply leaving the original writeup as a monument to Luck’s career. But of course, I am me, and that means that I’m writing a bit more.

Frankly, the best way to view the Brissett situation is as a fantasy downgrade

Frankly, the best way to view the Brissett situation is as a fantasy downgrade for all skill position players on this team. With Luck under center, this was one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL, with a high scoring likelihood almost every week, and with enough quality pieces for us to always be interested without things ever being too predictable. The unpredictability element, however, makes this a -EV offense to try to guess on early in the year. After all, the value of Frank Reich as a coach is specifically that he doesn’t have a “system.” Instead, Reich molds his offense to the talent of his players, coming up with designs that will accentuate what his particular weapons do best. This means we should see a few designed runs for Brissett most weeks to take advantage of this area of his skill set; but the excitement pretty much ends there, as we should also see Reich finding ways to hide Brissett far more than he would ever have attempted to with Luck. This effectively means that every player on the Colts (with the slim, potential exception of Brissett) is fundamentally overpriced entering Week 1; and further, it will almost certainly take at least a couple weeks for the prices on these players to drop where they should be in the new normal for this offense. There will still be scores worth using from this offense in 2019, and I would be surprised if there don’t end up being weeks this season in which we are drawn to this offense for one reason or another. But for at least the first couple weeks of the year, this is likely an offense I’ll be crossing off my list, as I would rather hunt for underpriced players to fill out my roster then overpay for players who were priced for an offense that no longer exists.

With that – as a monument to Luck’s career – here is the original writeup for the 2019 Colts ::

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Last offseason, we tracked our growing love of Frank Reich in his new role as head coach of the Colts — as he continued to show a strong grasp of not only what it takes to win on the field, but also what it takes to gain the trust of a locker room and to prepare those players for all the situations that might arise throughout a game, and throughout the season.

Once games started, Reich proved worthy of our love — emphasizing a ball-out-quick passing attack and becoming one of the best “multiple” coaches in the league: showing different looks to different teams, and expertly anticipating what scheme, approach, or style would work best against each new opponent. With a pair of strong running backs, a pair of high-end tight ends, and only one major threat at wide receiver, this offense focused more on finding ways to get their best players involved than on trying to fit into any pre-constructed box of what their offensive “identity” should be. With an ultra-smart quarterback in Andrew Luck and a group of smart, talented players around him, this team was able to shape-shift from week to week — sometimes going run-heavy, sometimes pass-heavy, sometimes attacking downfield more often than other weeks, and consistently creating mismatches through creative scheming, play-calling, and sequencing.

This team was helped dramatically by the Tampa 2 defense that Matt Eberflus put in place. (Ironically, Eberflus was a McDaniels hire with whom Reich got “stuck” after McDaniels backed out of this job.) The Tampa 2 scheme requires elite, rangy play from inside linebacker (hello, Darius Leonard) and a coachable secondary that is able to keep their eyes on the quarterback and keep the ball in front of them. This scheme aims to filter targets toward the middle of the field (last year, we saw both the Cowboys and Colts dominate wide receivers in this scheme, while struggling against backs and tight ends through the air) — and this strong play on that side of the ball allowed the Colts’ offense to not only be “multiple” from game to game, but to also be “multiple” within a game: shifting shape in spots where they gained a lead and felt that the opponent would be unable to make up ground.

Although Andrew Luck may be on the sidelines at the very beginning of the season, there is not (as of yet) concern that he will miss time beyond the first week or two of the year. The Colts have a strong enough coaching staff that they will be able to hide the weaknesses of Jacoby Brissett and maximize his strengths for as long as he is under center; but the real explosiveness in this offense will arrive with Luck.

Barring any as-of-yet-unknown improvements in Marlon Mack‘s route running and pass-catching ability, he should remain a guy we can target in spots where the Colts can be expected to lean on the run, and/or in spots where they can be expected to smoothly close out a win; while Nyheim Hines will continue to operate as the third-down and pass-catching back, and will occasionally be mixed in as a featured player, depending on that week’s matchup, situation, and opponent.

Regardless of where this team leans on the ground from one week to the next, T.Y. Hilton will remain heavily involved, with his all-areas-of-the-field usage boosting both his floor and his ceiling. Jack Doyle should continue to operate as the primary tight end, with Eric Ebron soaking up red zone targets for occasional spiked weeks (and of course stepping up as an elite fantasy play if Doyle happens to miss time again). Perennial underperformer Devin Funchess will start opposite T.Y. Hilton, and should benefit somewhat from a drop in defensive attention. We should also keep in mind that Ebron was a perennial underperformer until Reich got ahold of him (though with his catch-and-fall skill set, Funchess is likely to remain heavily touchdown-dependent for ceiling). The Colts have also added rookie Parris Campbell, who they expect to develop a Hilton-esque skill set, being able to generate explosive plays from all areas of the field, and being able to line up both inside and outside. Campbell was drawing rave reviews early in camp, though injuries have sidelined him down the stretch of the summer and slowed his development. He’ll likely be a bit player early in the year, but we’ll look for his role to grow as the season moves along.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

The 2019 Jaguars are a fascinating study – a team with seemingly conflicting identities, and with potentially no real direction; and yet, a team with enough talent on defense (as we saw just a couple years ago) to make a run at a Super Bowl title. It’s crazy, but this Jaguars team is better on paper than the team that reached the AFC Championship; and it will be fun to watch this year and see where this squad ends up.

Last year, the Jaguars entered the season planning to follow the blueprint they had followed the year before: playing lights-out defense and leaning on the run game in order to hide their ineffective quarterback. This plan was thrown off before the season even started when Leonard Fournette showed up out of shape and unprepared for the grind of the NFL season. With his body not ready for football, Fournette struggled through injuries – a theme that soon spread throughout the team, with injuries becoming an issue as the year moved along, and with effort becoming an even bigger issue than that.

This offseason, by all accounts, Fournette has displayed a new level of commitment to his job as a professional athlete: working hard on his body, working hard in the classroom, and working hard on the field. Doug Marrone has also tried to make some changes after last year, getting players more rest during training camp (a stark contrast against the grueling camp he has run the last couple years), and paying attention to other elements that might have his team playing better as the year moves along.

Almost as if to counteract all of that, the Jaguars also brought in former Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo. In between DeFilippo’s Super Bowl win with Nick Foles and his hiring with the Jaguars, he ran the Vikings offense until getting fired midseason for passing the ball too much. You might remember that period; it led to Adam Thielen producing a record number of consecutive 100-yard games, and it led to a Diggs/Thielen pairing being one of the most reliable point producers in DFS.

So who are the Jaguars? We should find out quite a bit in their Week 1 game against the Chiefs; but heading into that game there are a few things we can expect:

recently called Westbrook the best route runner he has ever coached

We can expect Fournette to be on the field for almost all of the Jaguars’ games, and we should expect him to be more heavily involved in the pass game than he has been the last couple years (Fournette has thrived in his new expanded pass game role this summer). We can expect this offense to be more aggressive than they have been in the past – looking for opportunities to take control of the game on this side of the ball, rather than simply trying to bleed out the clock in hopes of winning the game on defense. And we can potentially expect Dede Westbrook to be priced much higher on DFS sites by Week 4 or 5 than he is priced entering the season. This was surely hyperbole, given that he coached both Diggs and Thielen (the best route-running tandem in the NFL), but DeFilippo recently called Westbrook the best route runner he has ever coached; and high praise has been the norm for Westbrook in Jaguars camp this summer. With no threat at tight end, plus a gadget player in Chris Conley and a raw complement on the other side in DJ Chark – on a team that appears set to throw the ball more often than they did a year ago – Westbrook will be a player to watch early in the season, with a high likelihood that we will be able to roster him at a discount relative to his midseason price.

And finally, given what we have seen in the last two years under Marrone, we should probably expect the unexpected with the Jaguars. After all, that seems to be the one thing they have done consistently well.

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Tennessee Titans

In 2017, Mike Mularkey took a beating from the analytics community, the fantasy community, Titans fans, and the national media for his “exotic smashmouth” offense. In spite of the fact that he was coaching a clearly non-playoff-caliber roster (and managed to take them to the divisional round of the playoffs!), he was fired after the season, and the Titans brought in Mike Vrabel — who brought with him Matt LaFleur as offensive coordinator, leading to excitement in the analytics community, the fantasy community, and among Titans fans and the national media. (LaFleur, after all, was coming over from the Rams, and had also coached under Kyle Shanahan.) But what do you know? — as the Titans moved into the regular season, they appeared to decide that their only way to win games was to win ugly once again.

This is a good place to point out that Marcus Mariota is probably not the player we want him to be; and frankly, a lot of the hate that Mularkey absorbed may have been somewhat unwarranted. After all, how else are you supposed to win with a quarterback who A) can’t stay healthy, and B) can’t be relied on to make much happen when he is healthy (outside of the occasional, extremely random, impossible-to-see-coming, often lucky blowup game)? Yes, passing the ball adds to a team’s scoring potential and win probability (and to be certain, it’s pretty clear that the Titans do not track their own tendencies to find what works and what doesn’t, as they consistently hammered plays last year that didn’t work for them, while underutilizing plays, formations, and approaches that did); but sometimes, a coaching staff just feels that the only way to win is to hide their quarterback, run the ball, and win ugly.

Of course… it’s not all that great for fantasy

Of course, while this is nice for Titans fans (to an extent…), it’s not all that great for fantasy. This year, the Titans have replaced LaFleur (now the head coach of the Packers) with Arthur Smith, who has been with the team for nearly 10 seasons, and who plans to maintain many of the philosophies and elements that “worked for” this team last year.

Although the Titans have built up a solid stable of weapons at wide receiver (Corey Davis still needs work as a route-runner and a technician, but he’s dripping with talent; second-round pick AJ Brown has the tools to become an ascendant player over the next few years; Adam Humphries is a solid option over the middle; and Delanie Walker remains a savvy tight end), we can expect this team to do whatever is the opposite of “putting pressure on opponents and forcing them to get aggressive.” Instead, the Titans would love for opponents to play too conservatively throughout — allowing Tennessee to stick around where they can hope to pull out a win at the end. Most weeks, this should allow Tennessee to lean on Derrick Henry while hiding Mariota, hoping to keep games close, and hoping to squeeze out wins at the end.

There is a chance, of course, that the Titans build more aggressiveness into this offense as the season moves along, and there may also be opportunities this year where we will see matchups coming that will give the Titans’ defense fits (typically, seasoned quarterbacks do much better against a scheme like the Titans than young quarterbacks will), forcing the Titans to become more aggressive on offense — particularly through the air. But for the most part, this Titans team is a fairly low-floor, whack-a-mole-ceiling unit: a team that plays solid defense, plays slow on offense, and removes excitement from the daily fantasy slate.