Thursday, Sep 10th

NFC South :: 2019 Preview!

NFC East | NFC North | NFC West | AFC

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Atlanta Falcons

When I put together the video last summer showing off the features of the Game Notes for the launch of One Week Season, the sample note I showed read, “Don’t trust Steve Sarkisian.” It was a bit of a joke, of course – a nod to readers – but it was also true. Although the Falcons continued to perform like one of the better offenses in the league the last two years, they continued to leave points and even yards on the field, consistently failing to maximize their elite level of talent.

Finally, Sarkisian is out, and Dirk Koetter is back in. We could have done better than Koetter, but we also could have done worse. In 2012, with Koetter calling the plays for this offense, they finished seventh in points scored and eighth in yards gained. In 2013, this team had a severely disappointing year, but they bounced back in 2014 to finish eighth in yards and a still-respectable 12th in points. In 2015, Koetter took over the Buccaneers offense as the coordinator, where they finished fifth in yards…but 20th in points. Red zone efficiency will likely continue to plague this team, but we should expect this unit to continue to be able to move the ball with the best of them, while producing week-winning fantasy production more than a couple times on the season.

there are also a couple of key, potentially-overlooked items that should make this team better

Outside of the change at offensive coordinator, there are also a couple of key, potentially-overlooked items that should make this team better.

The Offensive Line:

Chris Morgan is one of the better offensive line coaches in the NFL, and part of the key to his approach in practice is making his players practice fast and figure things out on the fly – increasing the ability of these players to do the same in games. Atlanta ranked 25th in adjusted line yards and 26th in adjusted sack rate last season; but just the year before, they ranked eighth in each category, and with the Falcons entering this season with their line healthy once again, we should expect this group to take a big step forward compared to what we saw from them last year.

The Backfield:

Not only is Devonta Freeman healthy once again, but he is also no longer having to deal with Tevin Coleman in the backfield. Although we have gotten conditioned to believing that the Falcons will use a timeshare in the backfield no matter what, a healthy Freeman is one of the better backs in the league, and behind Freeman this year (instead of Coleman), the Falcons have Ito Smith – who disappointed so much in his rookie year and in the summer that there was a point this offseason when it looked like Brian Hill was going to take over the number two role. If the Falcons are forced to lean more heavily on Freeman than they have in the past (say 75% to 80% of snaps), this will make their offense more dangerous than any other configuration – increasing this team’s ability to both move the field and put the ball into the end zone.

And of course, Atlanta still has the matchup-busting ability of Julio Jones (the most physically dominant receiver in the NFL); the not-yet-fully-unlocked upside of Calvin Ridley; the sturdy hands of Mohamed Sanu, and the sometimes-strong play of Austin Hooper – all with Matt Ryan still running the show, and keeping the Falcons in the upper echelon of offensive performers most weeks.

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Carolina Panthers

Because of the way that the Panthers 2018 season looks in retrospect (missing the playoffs with a 7-9 record, after beginning the year 6-2), and because of the shoulder injury suffered by Cam Newton that allowed defenses to focus on the short areas of the field while forcing the Panthers to try to beat them deep, it is easy to overlook just how many things went well for Carolina last year.

Entering last season:

1) There were serious question marks about the ability of Christian McCaffrey to function as a between-the-tackles running back, with many (myself included) believing that he would max out as a player whose best role would come through the air. But CMC increased his yards per carry from 3.7 to 5.0 while showing up in ridiculous shape and proceeding to play almost 100% of the Panthers snaps – practically unheard of these days from backs.

2) Norv Turner had been brought in as offensive coordinator with the goal of turning Cam into a more effective passer, and cleaning up some of the maddening play selection elements that had prevented this offense from reaching its ceiling in the past. By basically any advanced metric you look at, the Panthers were a better offense last year than they were in 2017, and with Cam healthy and a new pair of featured weapons (more on this in a second), this team should be expected to take another step forward.

3) Carolina entered last season with Devin Funchess (now jettisoned to Indianapolis) and Torrey Smith (released at roster cuts this year) starting on the outside at wide receiver. But by the end of the season (unfortunately, largely coinciding with Newton’s shoulder issue), D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel had taken over as the starting receivers. Moore was one of the players I was most excited about heading into last season (when he was going overlooked in best ball drafts), and Samuel is one of my favorite players heading into this year. Reports from Panthers camp have been unanimously off-the-charts in regards to Samuel, with writers calling his footwork both “stunning” and (coming from a visiting writer during joint practices) “a treat to watch.” (Samuel is my fourth highest owned player in best ball this year, at 40%. Though I should note that most of this came when he was being drafted in the eighth and ninth rounds, rather than in the sixth round where he was being – appropriately – drafted toward the end of summer.)

we should see the Panthers produce one of the higher scoring offenses in the league

Although the Panthers finished 15th in scoring last year, they quietly finished in the top 10 in yardage – and they have more going for them than they did throughout the 2018 season. With Cam healthy, CMC still an absolute beast, a pair of explosive weapons in Moore and Samuel available in the pass game, and Norv still calling the shots, we should see the Panthers produce one of the higher scoring offenses in the league, likely coming in behind only the elite, shoe-in tier.

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New Orleans Saints

Not only are the Saints among the highest scoring teams in the NFL every single year, but they also have one of the narrowest distributions of touches in the league – an element that we love in fantasy. These two elements, however, tend to lead to the Saints being higher owned in tournaments than they often should be, as there are a few additional elements that everyone prefers to ignore (like, willfully and actively CHOOSES to ignore; when these things get brought up, you will see fantasy players – and even a lot of content producers – come up with all the reasons why these things are fluky; and yet, they consistently prove to not be fluky).

1) Michael Thomas is a possession receiver. In 2018, Thomas had an average depth of target 7.7, ranking right around names like Danny Amendola, Cole Beasley, Julian Edelman, Randall Cobb, and Seth Roberts. There were 112 players with a deeper average depth of target than Thomas last year. From Week 4 on, Thomas topped 100 yards only twice. His value comes from volume, efficiency, and touchdowns – which is fine, except that a player who needs volume, efficiency, and touchdowns in order to produce is fundamentally being overvalued when he is drafted in the first round of best ball drafts and is priced at the absolute top of most DFS slates.

2) The Saints made a habit last year of running the ball (28th in pass play rate) and playing slow (29th in pace of play). Because the Saints ranked second in drive success rate and second in points per drive, it’s easy to overlook this; but absolutely, it should be kept in mind. (The Saints scored 4% fewer points per game than the Rams last year…and yet, scored 15% more points per drive than the Rams.)

fantasy players don’t like someone saying that Michael Thomas is a possession receiver, and they don’t like someone saying that the Saints are a slow-paced, run-heavy team

3) The Saints prefer to not give Alvin Kamara workhorse usage. This might be the point that I received the most pushback on last year (fantasy players don’t like someone saying that Michael Thomas is a possession receiver, and they don’t like someone saying that the Saints are a slow-paced, run-heavy team; but they really don’t like someone saying that Kamara needs ridiculous efficiency in order to produce at his price/draft slot). Kamara is one of my favorite players in the NFL, so I absolutely get it. But he had (are you ready for this?) four total games last season in which he touched the ball more than 20 times. And two of those came during Mark Ingram’s suspension. After Ingram returned, Kamara had more games with 15 or fewer touches than he had games north of 20. Latavius Murray is in town to take over the Ingram role; and while I’m sure I will hear once again about how there is no reason why Kamara (*person arguing cites his size and compares it to other backs in the league*) can’t see workhorse usage, these elements have continued to hold a whole lot of truth. These are edges to exploit in daily fantasy.

In spite of that little bit of rain on the Saints’ parade, any of you who have spent time in New Orleans know that a little bit of rain cannot fully shut down a parade. With Jared Cook added to the mix, and with Thomas/Kamara still their dominant selves, Drew Brees (who…if you want more myths about this Saints offense busted: ranked 32nd in average intended air yards among quarterbacks with 150 or more passes) should be able to continue to deliver the ball with pinpoint accuracy around the shorter areas of the field; and the elite hands of Thomas and elite after catch ability of Kamara and Cook will allow this offense to once again be among the highest scoring in the league.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

All hail Bruce Arians!

Okay, so the hype has gotten a little out of hand here (after all, the Buccaneers still have one of the shallowest rosters in the NFL, and Jameis Winston is still careless with the ball, is still not detail-oriented in his preparation and execution, and still doesn’t do well when protection fails to hold up), but after the Bucs’ offense compiled elite production last year in Todd Monken’s aggressive scheme, it is very fair to expect them to compile elite production in Arians’ aggressive scheme – especially as Arians has a lengthy track record of getting the most out of his quarterbacks. Furthermore, the Bucs’ defense (while sure to be improved under Todd Bowles…but sure to still be an attackable unit as well) ranked bottom five last year in…well, pretty much everything, and we should expect the Bucs to find themselves in plenty of shootouts once again.

Things don’t end there, however, as there are three additional reasons to be excited

Things don’t end there, however, as there are three additional reasons to be excited about this team in 2019 from a fantasy perspective:

1) Zero RB :: This team might have the worst running back situation in the NFL – with Peyton Barber a respectable grinder, but still nothing more than that, and with Ronald Jones showing an inability to A) grasp the NFL game, and B) show any nuance to his style of play. Arians wants to pass the ball anyway, and his running backs can’t make things happen on the ground, which further concentrates the touches on this offense…especially as the Bucs don’t have a major pass-catching threat at running back either.

2) Narrow distribution :: With Adam Humphries gone (and with no real threat at third wide receiver, as Breshad Perriman is only going to be schemed a few looks per game, and is rarely going to get the ball thrown to him outside those schemed looks), this “team that wants to throw the ball anyway” is going to primarily be throwing to three guys :: Mike Evans // Chris Godwin // O.J. Howard.

3) Room to grow :: Evans (26 years old), Godwin (23 years old), and Howard (24 years old) all have room to grow as players, especially under a coach like Arians.

If Jameis takes a step forward this year, this offense as a whole could take another step forward (after already being one of the most exciting and reliable fantasy offenses in 2018). And even if he doesn’t take a step forward, there will be a lot to like most weeks about Evans, Godwin, and Howard, who project to be roster staples in good matchups all year.