32 Fantasy Questions: Southern Divisions
What is the key fantasy football question for each NFL team? Pat Thorman examines the AFC and NFC South.
32 Fantasy Questions: Southern Divisions
While plenty of time remains before training camps open, the Draft is in the rearview mirror and basic roster structure is formed. Before things really start to pick up, let’s take a spin around the league, and ask one pertinent fantasy question for each team. For fun I’ll add my best guesses, which, in most cases will be safe to ignore in about a month.
I kicked things off with the Northern divisions. Here’s a look at the South:
Atlanta Falcons – How quickly can Justin Hardy emerge?
Harry Douglas saw 72 targets and is gone. Levine Toilolo got 49 looks and will be replaced, by someone. Atlanta attempted the third-most passes last year, and had a thin receiving corps even when Roddy White was healthy. Hardy is agile, boasts reliable 10-inch hands (he dropped just 5 of 170 targets last season), and is no slouch physically (192 pounds). The Falcons threw nearly 10-percent fewer passes between the hash marks than they did before Tony Gonzalez retired. Offensive line concerns elevate their need for receivers to uncover quickly.
Best Guess: As soon as September. The Falcons have nobody to hold him back if he’s even close to ready. In fact, they have a significant vacuum in an area of the field that calls for exactly what Hardy does well.
Carolina Panthers – Is a “Kelvin Benjamin clone” enough to restore Cam Newton as a top-five fantasy quarterback?
Carolina’s second round pick isn’t actually a Benjamin clone, “catch-radius” narratives aside. Devin Funchess is nearly three years younger, is a little smaller, and he plays a lot smaller. Interestingly, during Newton’s three-game December run as the highest-scoring fantasy quarterback (he missed Week 15), Benjamin was the 63rd-“best” PPR receiver, Greg Olsen was not a TE1, and nobody caught more than one touchdown. A whopping 48-percent of Newton’s fantasy points came via his legs.
Best Guess: It’ll be an insignificant factor. Perhaps more than any other quarterback, Newton’s fantasy success does not hinge on his receiving weapons. His top five chances are disproportionately tied to his rushing attempts, which jumped from 3.5 during his first four games of 2014, to 9.8 over his final four.
Houston Texans – Can anyone get the ball to, or take coverage way from DeAndre Hopkins?
Without Andre Johnson, and once Ryan Fitzpatrick got hurt, the Colts held Hopkins to three catches on nine targets for 53 yards. Even with Johnson active, potential 2015 starter Ryan Mallett could only complete nine passes for 119 yards on 16 throws to Hopkins over two games. He averaged 1.74 fantasy points per target with Fitzpatrick, and 0.53 with everyone else. Cecil Shorts, whose PFF passing game grade has ranked 38th, 63rd, and finally 98th among wideouts, figures to start.
Best Guess: Houston’s opponents have no need to shade coverage anywhere else but toward Hopkins, or to fear their passers. Jaelen Strong’s routes and releases still need refinement, and their tight ends don’t scare anyone. Hopkins is a stud, but his borderline-WR1 ADP makes him a risky one.
Indianapolis Colts – Is Frank Gore really a screaming bargain now that he’s a Colt?
Gore was PFF’s 26th-graded running back last year, when Carlos Hyde received higher cumulative marks on 367 fewer snaps. Gore ranked 28th (out of 42 backs) in both Elusive Rating and Breakaway Percentage. He hasn’t graded positively in the passing game since 2009, although he still saw 72 targets the following season. On only five occasions has a running back had a season with three or more touchdowns, and per-game averages of 50-plus rushing yards and two-plus catches, after the age of 31.
Best Guess: No, but he’s worth drafting …for now. Gore is pushing third round territory in MFL10s over the last two weeks. His offense is better, but not the offensive line – and he won’t benefit from playing with a running quarterback anymore. He’ll see more targets, but are we sure that’s even a strength? How long will he hold up if ridden hard? Josh Robinson is a must-handcuff.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Is the depth chart smoke clearing for their other second-round wideout?
From Week 3 through Week 10, when Allen Robinson hit his stride, Marquise Lee’s slot percentage was 61.1 – versus 38.8-percent in all other weeks. Robinson is back, Cecil Shorts is not, and it sounds like Justin Blackmon is just a bad memory. Allen Hurns did most of his damage with Chad Henne under center, Shorts not yet playing, and before Robinson broke out. He’s better-suited as a late “best ball” dart-throw. Julius Thomas and Robinson will draw coverage like flies, leaving Lee room to settle into soft spots.
Best Guess: Yes, but if things go according to plan for the Jaguars, their defense and ground game will be strong — and passing volume will decrease. Lee won’t win any fantasy weeks alone, but will be useful in PPR leagues, and is essentially an afterthought only a year removed from being the 39th pick.
New Orleans Saints – Is C.J. Spiller the cure for the “RB-RB-RB” draft start?
Darren Sproles finished as the RB5, RB13, and RB23 in PPR leagues, and averaged 106 targets during his time with the Saints — and that was with Pierre Thomas averaging 459 snaps and 63 targets per season. Other than Brandin Cooks, Spiller is the most explosive weapon in New Orleans. Mark Ingram will get most of the carries, with runoff going in Spiller’s direction, and they will often be on the field together. Drew Brees might not throw it 650 times again, but a Sprolesian workload is a reasonable projection.
Best Guess: As long as his ADP stays in the fifth round, absolutely. Considering all of the Saints departed targets, it’s no a stretch to project Spiller as a high-upside fantasy RB2 — and Sean Payton is too smart to run him into the backs of his interior linemen.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Which wideout is the best fantasy football value?
Of all receivers who saw at least 100 targets, Mike Evans derived the second-highest percentage of his fantasy points from touchdowns (29.4). Vincent Jackson, who was targeted 22 more times than his rookie teammate, gained only 6.6-percent of his points from touchdowns. Evans — who scored 10 more touchdowns, but only had one more red zone target than Jackson — ranked 31st in catchable target percentage (62.1). Jackson’s 55.8-percent catchable target rate ranked 36th, and last.
Best Guess: In MFL10s, Jackson is going in the seventh round, as the 37th receiver. Evans is the ninth wideout off the board, usually in the second round. Jackson has much more room for positive draft equity, especially if you expect their touchdown production to regress.
Tennessee Titans – Who is the best bet to decisively outperform their draft cost?
Delanie Walker was the seventh-best fantasy tight end on a point-per-game basis (PPR), despite playing with the 32nd, 33rd, and 35th-“best” quarterbacks in Accuracy Percentage. In fact, Walker saw a catchable ball on just 69-percent of his targets – which ranked 32nd among 39 qualifying tight ends. Even if Marcus Mariota suffers from growing pains, it is no stretch to say that Walker will see more accurate passes this season than he did from last year’s scatter-armed trio.
Best Guess: As the 14th tight end drafted, usually in the 11th round, Walker fits that bill. He trailed only to Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett in forced missed tackles, and he derived the second-lowest percentage of fantasy points from touchdowns of any top-12 tight end. His numbers have room to grow.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman