AFC South Fantasy Preview
We shift to the AFC South, a division long scrutinized as the weakest in the NFL. In fact, early lines in Vegas give the AFC South the lowest projected average win total (7.0) in the league.
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Despite the dubious distinction of being a bottom-feeding division, there are so many fantasy implications for each team including the high-profile offseason signings by the Texans, the return of the Colts’ newly crowned gazillionaire, Andrew Luck, the exciting tandem of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in Jacksonville, and the second-year maturation of the Titans’ Marcus Mariota. There are so many storylines that fantasy owners need to take notice of during preseason and take into account when drafting in late August.
We’ll start with the surprising division champs who finished last season known more for their stingy defense, than as an offensive fantasy force.
Coach/Staff: Coach Bill O’Brien shocked many experts taking the Texans to a division crown in just his second season at the helm before bowing out to the Chiefs in the Wild-Card round. O’Brien, who was a former offensive assistant with Bill Belichick for 5 years, has a plethora of talent on the defensive side of the ball but is still trying to transform the offense into a formidable group. Offensive coordinator George Godsey, a former GA Tech QB, has been with O’Brien since his New England days.
QB: After a year in which they installed the likes of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden, and T.J. Yates, the Texans think they have their franchise QB in the newly signed Brock Osweiler. The “Brockness Monster” filled in admirably for Peyton Manning last year in Denver as he threw for 1,967 yards and 10 TDs in only 8 games played. Still just 25 years old, he did end up averaging 18.8 fantasy points per game and even found his way as top 12 QB three times last year including a top 5 performance in Week 15 at Pittsburgh. He’s going as the 23rd QB off the board in standard leagues or in other words, mostly undrafted. Owners are unsure of how he can handle the entire season’s workload being the main man behind center. He will most likely run an offense that will not ask him to throw it 40 times a game. At best, he is a bye week fill-in and a streamable matchup play against weaker pass defenses. Brandon Weeden and all his old-manness will be waiting in the wings to step in and provide mediocre red-headed backup QB play if need be.
RB: The Texans cashed in during the offseason on the largest free-agent available at the RB position with former Dolphin Lamar Miller. Miller, who was always tantalizing but underutilized in Miami, will be given the reigns to the offense as the clear lead back. He’s only carried the ball over 200 times once in his career and yet has finished as a top 10 fantasy back each of the last two years. Miller has also averaged 55 targets in the passing game making him a valuable PPR asset as well. He currently is being drafted as the 6th RB off the board as an early second round selection. The collection of backs behind Miller (Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes, and Akeem Hunt) are best left on the waiver wire and should not be considered viable handcuffs. Despite the injury to Arian Foster last year, Blue was inefficient as a runner and Grimes and Dent basically ate into each other’s fantasy value as no-one positioned themselves ahead of the rest of the crew. Don’t sleep on rookie Tyler Ervin out of San Jose State, who should be given a chance to make a splash on special teams as he returned three kickoffs and two punts for TDs in his college career.
WR: The conversation of Texans WR fantasy implications begins and should end with the other-worldly talent that is DeAndre Hopkins. They’re aren’t enough exclamations to write after he balled-out in 2015 to the tune of 111 catches on 192 targets for 1521 yards and 11 TDs. I’ve written at length in a previous article about projecting Hopkins’ 2016 season as he still should end up as a clear WR1 option, albeit without the incredible ceiling of 2015. He is one of the best jump ball WRs in the game as his body control is second to none. His price tag (1.06) is a bit steeper than 2015 as somehow he was being selected last year only one WR spot ahead of *cough* Davante Adams *cough cough*. Nuk is a sure-fire fantasy star so select him with confidence. The “yawn-worthy” Cecil Shorts seems to be the second WR by default in Houston, although fantasy owners would much rather go to the dentist than place their hopes on this former PPR darling. Shorts caught 42-of-75 targets last year simply as an incumbent corpse running routes. He’s not even being considered even in the deepest of drafts as he’s being selected as WR80. The Texans, fortunately, added two rookies to the mix selecting Notre Dame speedster Will Fuller with the 21st pick. Fuller caught 62 balls for 1,258 yards and 14 TDs as a senior and could be asked to run “nine” routes in order to stretch the defense. He’s basically a free right now going as the 70th WR off the board in redrafts. The Texans also drafted former Ohio State QB-turned-WR Braxton Miller, who reminds many scouts of Packers WR Randall Cobb, another former QB who is quicker than he is fast. Miller definitely has loads of playmaking ability and yet lots to learn in order for his game to translate to the pro level. He is a dynasty stash and should not be considered for redraft leagues. The most intriguing other option for fantasy purposes is second-year man Jaelen Strong, who produced mixed results as a rookie. He was mostly buried on the depth chart behind a number veterans although he still offers great skills on jump balls as a big body. He could sneak his way behind Hopkins in the WR target pecking order. Keith Mumphrey had 15 targets in Weeks 4 & 5 so there’s something he can tell his grandchildren. Keith probably wouldn’t even draft himself for his own fantasy team.
TE: Listen, Texans TEs are kinda like the tubby fat kid in dodgeball… they take up space out of necessity but no-one obviously wants to pick them for their team. The Texans finished second-to-last in fantasy points at the tight end position in 2015 ahead of only the Jets’ miserable crew. Ryan Griffin had a few serviceable performances including Weeks 12 and 13 in which he finished in PPR scoring as TE6 & TE7 respectively. However, he still only put up 20 catches and 2 TDs in 8 games played. C.J. Fiedorowicz had potential being drafted out of Iowa a few years back but simply is being utilized as a blocking TE. UDFA Stephen Anderson, a former college WR with 4.58 speed, could make some noise and develop into an interesting prospect down-the-line. All in all, consider this a fantasy wasteland.
Coach/Staff: Chuck Pagano’ was unexpectedly retained by owner Jim Irsay during the offseason after the Colts posted a .500 record, their first non-winning season of Pagano coaching career. Recently, NumberFire.com rated Pagano as the most overrated coach in the NFL over the last 15 years. He definitely has his doubters as his defensive expertise hasn’t quite translated in Indianapolis. However, his .641 winning percentage is still fifth best among active coaches. Former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski was hired to replace Pep Hamilton as OC.
QB: Mr. Moneybags himself, Andrew Luck, recently signed a six-year, $140 million contract which made him the highest-paid player in NFL history. After being fantasy’s #1 QB in 2014, Luck took a step backward with tons of forced throws and 13 turnovers in just seven games played in 2015. The hype was just too large following 2014’s 40-TD performance and now his ADP seems to be settling at a tolerable spot at the end of the fourth round. His ceiling is as high as any QB in the league and should easily approach 4,000 yards, 25+ TDs, and a couple more on the ground. Scott Tolzien is a fantasy clipboard holding star, for those of you who enjoy playing in leagues like that.
RBs: Through the seasons of life, the pain, tears, and the ups-and-downs of it all, one thing still remains steadfast and won’t die out: Franklin Delano Gore. Frank Gore, entering his age 33 season, still finds himself in a favorable fantasy situation in Indianapolis as the lead back in a high-powered offense. Gore, in the most unspectacular and unsexy way, rumbled and bumbled his way to a career-worst 3.7 YPC yet was targeted in the passing game consistently catching 34 passes on 58 targets. He finished 2015 as RB12 in standard and RB14 in PPR formats. He is routinely undervalued and has been given the boot by fantasy owners as the 30th RB off the board. You still have to love the value, the volume and the goal line opportunities he’s sure to get. The Colts have brought in veterans Jordan Todman and Robert Turbin to fight it out for the role of veteran RB and the incumbent “Donald Brown role” as an annoyingly irrelevant backup RB. Expect one of the two to be cut before the season begins. Perhaps it could be Turbin who sheepishly declared himself “the best back” in Cleveland last year before eventually being cut. Ouch, being cut by the Browns…. UDFA Josh Ferguson, at a diminutive 5’9 198 lbs, seems from the outset like a mere scatback barely holding a roster spot. Despite playing through a shoulder injury last year at Illinois, he still averaged 5.5 yards per carry while also showcasing the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with 38 receptions. If he learns the playbook and progresses forward from his injury woes, expect Ferguson to become the handcuff to Gore, although without any current stand-alone value.
WRs: The Colts are led by the ever-consistent T.Y. Hilton who followed up 2014’s monster year with a contract extension. Unfortunately, he was drafted as WR10 at the end of the second round, finishing as WR22 both standard and PPR. This most likely underwhelmed owners as he did not provide the “boom” games many hoped for as he scored only 5 TDs on the year. Hilton still commanded the majority of the team’s targets (134) and should be treated as a safe WR2 option with upside. His teammate, Donte Moncrief, has received the majority of fantasy praise this offseason as many experts are predicting a breakout year. Moncrief, when paired with Andrew Luck, was electric during the first quarter of the year. Things turned for the worse when Luck went down, as Hilton was terribly inefficient and held without a TD for 7 straight weeks with the noodle-armed Matt Hasselbeck throwing him the ball. He has steadily crept up an entire round in ADP over the last month so snag him while you still have the chance. Phillip Dorsett, after being chosen in the first round in 2015 NFL Draft, was virtually nonexistent for most of last season finishing with a measly 18 catches, 225 yards, and one TD. He’s available super late in drafts at 155th overall and could find his way into a consistent role in the slot.
TEs: After tag-teaming with Coby Fleener the last couple of years, Dwayne Allen returns as the lone receiving threat at the TE position. He struggled to stay on the field for most of 2015 after posting an 8-TD 2014 campaign in which he finished as TE14 in standard scoring. He is definitely a TE worth a flier in the 12th round with TE1 upside. Backup Jack Doyle is basically a walking tree at 6’6 with soft hands but has been limited to only 30 percent of snaps over the last three years in mostly a blocking role.
Coach/Staff: Gus Bradley is an unbelievably nice guy with a nice attitude and a nice approach to coaching. He’s…. well…. nice. Which is the kinda thing you say about someone after a dinner party when they generally were not that exciting. Being nice doesn’t always translate to NFL coaching gold as Paul Casey “Gus” Bradley (yes that’s his full name) has managed a putrid 12-36 record in his three seasons after coming over highly regarded as one of Seattle’s great defensive minds. He’s also lost 24 games by double digits, the worst total in the league during that span. He appears to be on the hot seat although his team finally seems to be improved talent-wise with the rest of the division. OC Greg Olson was praised in 2015 for his development of his WRs and establishing a young nucleus on offense that should be potent for years to come.
QB: If you had the opportunity to ride out a Blake Bortles start as a fantasy owner, you were most likely screaming and yelling at yourself for the first quarter of the game and then doing an obscene happy dance during the second half of blowout games. To put this into scientific nomenclature, Bortles was essentially the Chef Boyardee of QBs in 2015: a cheap alternative you find on the shelf that always ends up leading to garbage. In fact, Bortles was the Garbage Man, throwing 24 of his TDs with his team behind more than double digits, by far the highest total in the league. Despite the ups and downs, he finished as fantasy QB3 an astounding number for someone who was going undrafted in 2015. He set career highs in his sophomore campaign in every category: 4,022 yards, 34 TDs, 554 yards on the ground as well as 18 INTs and a league-leading 5 fumbles lost. Proceed with caution in 2016 as his ADP has remained steady in the seventh round. Backup Chad Henne is just a pedestrian QB who did not play a single down(!) all of last season for the Jaguars. What a sad life for the Chad-man.
RB: The Jaguars have a frustrating timeshare this year at the RB position in which neither player seems to be easy rank. Chris Ivory was a steal for those who took him Round 5 last year, far outperforming his ADP as RB8 in standard and RB12 in PPR leagues and surprisingly led the AFC in rushing with 1,070 yards. He stumbled to the finish line as his YPC was only 3.7 after Week 7, as well as only scoring 3 more TDs. Ivory was signed as his physical style provides more of a threat in short yardage and red zone situations as he took 85% of the Jets’ rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line, the highest percentage in the league. T.J. Yeldon, the Jaguars’ 2015 second-round draft pick, had excellent peripheral numbers but was not given enough goal line opportunities to excel in fantasy. To give him some credit, the Jaguars did face the second-hardest schedule in terms of running the ball in 2015. He is the better all-around back and caught 36 of his 46 targets on the year so he should be guaranteed some passing downs work. If I had to pick one in terms of upside, Yeldon has fresher legs and the burst to be able to be a dynamic back as his elusive rating was top ten in the league. Denard Robinson has had his moment in the sun as a relevant fantasy option but now is clearly relegated to the bench. Still, it’s fun to refer to someone else as “Shoelace”.
WR: The story of the Jaguars WRs is a simply tale of two Allens. Allen Robinson, in his sophomore campaign, lived up to the offseason hype as he finished second in the NFL with an average of 17.5 yards per catch, catching 14 touchdowns on just 80 receptions. His price is much steeper in 2016 as he currently is being selected at the 1st/2nd Round turn. He’s still a generational talent and someone who puts up fantasy points in bunches. Allen Hurns was a revelation in his second year as Robinson’s tag team partner in the passing game, catching a ridiculous 10 TDs on just 64 catches, one of the highest TD rates in the league. He was signed to a four-year extension in the offseason but seems like a prime candidate to regress. His current WR26 in the 5th Round is assuming he’ll be able to repeat 2015’s numbers so be careful when paying up. For another opinion on Hurns, check out another recent TFFB article “What We Can Expect from Allen Hurns in 2016″. Rashad Greene, the former Florida State standout, flashed early in Week 1 with 13 targets and a TD but was injured the following week. He also had a punt return, something not to discredit as special team stats can be an early indicator for future success. He is a name to keep an eye on if either of the Allens go down. Marqise Lee shined in college at USC but has been inconsistent and struggling to stay on the field with injuries. Any dynasty talk of Lee from years past is now squelched. Bryan Walters is a prototypical possession receiver who snuck in a couple WR2 performances in PPR but nonetheless is way down in the pecking order of targets.
TE: After coming over from Denver and signing a massive five-year, $46 million contract, Julius Thomas sputtered from the beginning, after a broken hand during the preseason play cost him the first four weeks of the regular season. He had a nice four-week stretch during Weeks 11-14 as he caught a TD in every game. Overall, he caught 46 balls on 80 targets 455 yards and 5 TDs. He still has to ride his TD-dependency in order to outperform other TEs with higher target totals also available in the 8th and 9th rounds. Marcedes Lewis was a TD-machine… in 2010 when he caught 10 TDs. He was re-signed a 3-year, $12 million contract and is now relegated to being a blocking TE.
Coach/Staff: Mike Mularkey might seem like a much more enjoyable guy if he had his own stand-up comedy routine called “That’s Mularkey!” Instead, he coached a laughable Titans team that finished 2015 with a 2-7 record at his helm after Ken Whisenhunt was fired midway through the year. He’s always coached run-heavy teams as an offensive coordinator, something he’ll look to implement more and more with some of their offseason moves at RB. However, it’s shocking this guy is still an NFL head coach as his .316 career winning percentage ranks only ahead of fellow AFC South buddy Gus Bradley among active coaches. OC Terry Robiskie was hired this offseason after spending seven seasons as the Falcons’ WR coach.
QB: Marcus Mariota started last year with a bang throwing 4 TDs in Week 1 as he won the battle against fellow top pick Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers. From there on out, Mariota was a viable streaming option with 4 other QB1 performances averaging 16.8 FPP, although he did miss 4 games due to injury. Other than a monster 87-yard TD run in Week 13, he failed to showcase the running ability that was so valuable at Oregon. His current ADP of QB18 suggests that you could select him as a late round QB or a high upside QB2 in two-QB leagues. He definitely has top 10 potential although the system he is in might limit some of his production. The current backup is Matt Cassel. I think I might have wasted space typing those words.
RB: In a surprising splurge, Titans new GM Jon Robinson acquired enigmatic RB DeMarco Murray from the Eagles for a 4th Round draft pick. Along with the new $25 million contract he signed, and the $12.5 million in guaranteed money owed to him, comes the baggage and complaining Murray famously displayed in the Chip Kelly offense. What was most frustrating for Murray was being required to frequently run laterally instead of downhill. He’s one year removed from his league-leading 392 rushing attempts, 1,846 yards, and 13 TDs in Dallas. Mularkey’s system fits him well so he’s a prime candidate to bounce back and has a somewhat affordable ADP in the 5th Round. Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry, was drafted in the 2nd Round as a classic power back who has the unbelievable downhill speed for a man his size. He isn’t really in a position to garner more than 10 touches per game as a rookie unless Murray falters but seems like the logical choice as a handcuff. Antonio Andrews flashed for a second as the lead back but mostly underwhelmed averaging 3.6 YPC as the necessary evil of being a starting RB of the lowly Titans. Second-year man David Cobb seems like he missed the boat of being a dynasty stash after being talked up after the draft but struggled to see the field through injuries. Bishop Sankey, on the other hand, should be deleted from every fantasy owners’ mind as his hype two years ago (taken at 1.03 in Rookie drafts) is a waste of space in our long-term memory. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How was Bishop Sankey an actual thing?
WR: Kendall Wright has trended downward since his sophomore season in which he caught 94 balls on 140 targets. Last year, he played in only 10 games and most likely sat on the waiver wire as he displayed limited upside in this low-volume passing offense. His price is basically free as he’s being selected in the 14th Round of fantasy drafts. He could have some appeal in deeper PPR leagues if he returns to near 100 targets. Dorial Green-Beckham was mostly lost in his first NFL season as he didn’t begin to see his snap rate increase until Week 9 when he saw 10 targets against New Orleans. Still, there were some encouraging signs as he ranked 1st among all pass-catchers with a 90.9% contested catch rate, meaning he was able to make the tough catches in tough coverage. He is a red zone monster waiting to happen and looks like an affordable WR4 in standard leagues especially at his current ADP of 100th overall. Rishard Matthews was signed after posting a quietly effective first half with the Dolphins before going down with an injury in Week 12. He was WR23 for the first eight weeks of the season roughly averaging the same FPP (15.3) as higher profile guys Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, and Allen Hurns. He’s still relatively cheap as the 76th WR off the board and could move up in the pecking order if DGB doesn’t get his act together. Fifth round rookie Tajae Sharpe has made some noise in mini-camp as he’s been running with the first-team offense and was a college star at UMass. He is definitely worth a late round flier. Harry Douglas seems like he is old as Christmas (he’s only 31) and is years removed from his 2013 campaign in which he filled in for an injured Julio Jones and produced by default. He’s fourth on the depth chart in a low-volume passing offense so expect a couple flash games and that’s it. Justin Hunter is one of the many failed experiments of the fantasy community and you can be rest assured he has no value moving forward.
TE: Delanie Walker was unbelievable as he led all TEs in targets (133) and catches (94) and compiling 1,088 yards and 6 TDs. He was a league winner for those who drafted him in the 9th Round finishing as TE4 in standard and TE2 in PPR. He was consistently found as Mariota’s safety-valve and should retain that role in 2016. The Titans also will be much improved from their anemic WR corps which should add up to Walker slightly regressing in his target share, which sat at 24% in 2015, by far highest for a TE and roughly the same percentage of Odell Beckham Jr. Walker should still end up with among the safest of floors for TEs. Anthony Fasano once had a 7-TD season in 2008 as he finished as TE9. But this is 2016… so yeah not helpful for fantasy but helpful to win a trivia contest.
Here are the Divisional Breakdowns for the AFC East, AFC West, AFC North, NFC South, NFC East, and NFC West, with more to come.