NFC South Fantasy Football Preview: Studs, Sleepers, and Division Winners and Losers
We're inching closer to the start of football season, which means two things: your favorite team is about to embark on a hopeful journey to the Super Bowl, and your fantasy football drafts are about to take place.
So, to get you prepped for both things, we'll be covering each team -- division by division -- over the next week in order to help you set expectations (analytically, of course) for what's about to happen on both the real and fake football field.
Let's count down the NFC South from worst to first, ranked entirely by our nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect the team to win or lose by against an average one on a neutral field.
4. New Orleans Saints | nERD: -2.29 | Projected Record: 7.1-8.9
Fantasy Football Stud: Mark Ingram
For those a little cloudy remembering Mark Ingram's 2015 greatness, let me give you a quick reminder.
By the time Ingram was injured in Week 13, he ranked third in fantasy points among all running backs, averaging 16.8 PPR points per game. He had eight weeks finishing as a top-12 running back and finished lower than RB24 just once.
Of the 44 running backs with at least 100 carries, his Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) ranked as the sixth-highest. After averaging 1.4 targets per game during his first four seasons, Ingram jumped up to a whopping 5.0 targets per game.
Ingram established himself as a veritable fantasy force last season, and his late-season injury is giving him a nice discount. Ingram is currently available at the second-round/third-round turn according to Fantasy Football Calculator. We should expect a similar heavy usage of Ingram in 2016 with Ingram having top-five running back potential.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Michael Thomas
The plethora of Vines and GIFs of Michael Thomas excelling in practice at Saints camp have been coming out on a near daily basis, and it's safe to say that the New Orleans Saints' rookie is already a player we should be keeping an eye on in 2016.
Thomas enters a terrific situation with one of the league's best passing offenses that just vacated 176 targets between Marques Colston and Benjamin Watson. While historically the third wide receiver has seen just over 10 percent of the team's target market share the past two years in the Saints' offense, Thomas' second-round draft pedigree and physical build could force a shift in philosophy.
Thomas could make an immediate impact in the red zone with his 6'3" frame and could be an injury away from seeing significant snaps and targets. He's already shown a penchant for making the big play in the preseason, and the hype has forced Thomas to elude the "sleeper" tag and become someone squarely on your radar towards Rounds 9 and 10.
3. Atlanta Falcons | nERD: -0.66 | Projected Record: 7.4-8.6
Fantasy Football Stud: Julio Jones
Sure, there's a case to be made for ranking Odell Beckham over Julio Jones if you have the second spot in your PPR fantasy drafts (the top spot hands down led by Antonio Brown according to our draft kit). But I'm taking Julio 10 out of 10 times and not looking back.
Jones was just one of three receivers to garner 30-plus percent of his team's passing targets last season. He led all receivers with a whopping 203 targets on the year. His 136 receptions tied Antonio Brown for the league lead. If you want volume and opportunity, Jones is your man.
You're worried about touchdowns? Julio's touchdown rate may have fallen short of most of his peers at just 5.9%. However, it's scary to think that he's actually due for positive regression and could score more touchdowns in 2016. According to JJ Zachariason's study, receivers seeing his Reception NEP should've scored an additional 3.17 touchdowns more than the eight he caught in 2015.
The top receiver in Kyle Shanahan's offense, Jones is set up for another terrific season and is a fantastic choice to be the anchor of your fantasy squad.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Mohamed Sanu
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu joined the Atlanta Falcons this offseason to help provide a shot in the arm to an offense that needed help outside of Julio Jones. The lack of depth on Atlanta's receiving corp is concerning, but Sanu showed he had no problems stepping up for the Cincinnati Bengals, according to the rotoViz Game Splits app.
Obviously it is a small sample size, but the upside and playmaker mentality is there. Sanu and Marvin Jones both played second fiddle to A.J. Green while with the Bengals, often cannibalizing each other's fantasy ceiling. Sanu may finally have a chance to emerge as a reliable fantasy weapon after an inconsistent start to his professional career.
However, it should come with tempered expectations. The second wide receiver in Shanahan's offense has historically fared poorly. Over the past five seasons the best we've seen one finish is Santana Moss at WR48 in 2012, and the role has averaged just a 13.7% target market share over that time span. That seems to be baked into Sanu's current WR53 ADP, which makes it a palatable if aiming to swing for the fences with a receiver who's just an injury away from seeing a sizable portion of Julio's monster 30% target market share dominance.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers | nERD: -0.51 | Projected Record: 7.7-8.3
Fantasy Football Stud: Mike Evans
Among second-year wideouts, only Jarvis Landry saw a higher target market share than Mike Evans' 27.5% last year. In just his second year, Evans has already become a fantasy football stud, and there's reason to believe he's in line for an even bigger campaign in year three.
After posting a top-12 Reception NEP score last year with rookie Jameis Winston under center, Evans' numbers could improve after another offseason working with Winston. Reports are already showing a strong connection between the two during training camp, and Evans could be in line for another high percentage of Winston's throws as his main target.
Evans' three touchdowns are due to increase for a player seeing the type of volume he is seeing; he saw just 14 red zone targets last year as the Buccaneers averaged 3.1 red zone trips per game -- right around league average. After scoring 12 touchdowns in his rookie campaign, Evans and the entire Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense could be in store for an increase in touchdowns in 2016.
Vegas is projecting a 7.5-win season for Tampa Bay, right in line with our projections that have them at a 7.7-8.3 record. They've also got a fairly difficult schedule which should result in some pass-heavy game scripts with Mike Evans being the largest beneficiary and a prime bounce back candidate.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Jameis Winston
Last year only three quarterbacks successfully finished top-24 in fantasy scoring each and every week -- Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and rookie Jameis Winston. The first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft already showed that he has a surprisingly high floor and has every indication that head coach Dirk Koetter will call an even more aggressive game plan for Winston in 2016.
Aided by a strong running attack by the tandem of Doug Martin and Charles Sims, Winston could be in line for some strong play action bites to allow Koetter's offense to get vertical with Evans and Vincent Jackson streaking downfield. Winston's average depth of target last year was already top-five in the league (10.3), leaving the potential for even more big plays in this passing attack.
Winston's fantasy success was also tethered to his six rushing touchdowns, a number that may be hard to improve on. Dating back to 2000, out of the 23 quarterbacks who had at least six rushing touchdowns in a season, only Newton (twice) and Tim Tebow were able to repeat that success by scoring six or more rushing touchdowns in back-to-back seasons.
Luckily for Winston, Koetter has been able to get the best out of his quarterbacks during his coaching tenure where he helped Matt Ryan threw a career-high 32 passing touchdowns 2012. Winston finished four weeks last year inside the top-12, and if Koetter can help get that same magic out of Winston that he had with Ryan, Winston could easily become a terrific late round fantasy value at his current QB17 price tag.
1. Carolina Panthers | nERD: 5.56 | Projected Record: 9.5-6.5
Fantasy Football Stud: Cam Newton
Speaking of Newton, since entering the league here's how he's finished each season: QB4, QB4, QB5, QB17 (injured), and QB1. Luckily the late-round quarterback methodology has continued to hit home more and more in casual leagues, and Newton is currently going at the third-to-fourth-round turn. It wasn't that long ago that last year's top-scoring quarterback was going in most leagues in the first round.
I like to place a heavy emphasis on week-to-week fantasy finishes and nobody beat Newton's 2015 campaign on either a ceiling or consistency level. Newton led all quarterbacks in top-6 weeks (7), top-12 weeks (11), and top-24 weeks (16). It wasn't just his rushing ability that provided a dependable weekly floor for Newton. What really stood out was how well of a passer he developed into during last season.
Newton set a career-high in passing touchdowns (35) while displaying some incredible efficiency statistics. He had a career-high in adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) at 8.3, quarterback rating (66.09), and a career-low 2.0% interception rate. His Passing NEP of 105.04 blew his previous career-high of 64.95 (in 2012) out of the water. Newton became the dual threat quarterback that people had been yearning to see, and it translated to the fantasy scoresheets in 2015. While the touchdown totals may decline due to natural regression, Newton should once again contend for the top overall fantasy quarterback again in 2016.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Devin Funchess
We've campaigned heavily against Kelvin Benjamin's ludicrous ADP, which is currently slated at WR20. Reports out of camp continue to show Benjamin struggling to get into playing shape, simply providing more reason to target his teammate Devin Funchess, who provides spectacular value at WR52.
The former second-round draft pick has made quite the opposite impression of Benjamin, being declared, "the MVP of at training camp." Last year in games where Funchess saw at least six targets, he averaged 14.2 fantasy points per game -- a pace that would've been on par between Mike Evans and Jordan Matthews.
We can't necessarily slate Funchess for six targets each game, but if Benjamin were to continue struggling or see any setbacks, Funchess could be in line to see a major role in this offense. Inconsistency may be a problem with Funchess, but there is some incredible potential and upside to target him in the later rounds of your fantasy drafts.