As I’m sure you read last week (and if you haven’t, you should probably get on that), I started discussing the upcoming NFL season by breaking down the AFC and NFC West. I filled you in on how the season is going to unravel in both divisions, and gave you some players that I would and wouldn’t draft in fantasy this year. For part two of four in this Out Of Bounds special edition, we head south, where there are palm trees, struggling franchises, and new faces in new places.
For only the second time since 2003, the AFC South wasn’t won by the Indianapolis Colts. Having Peyton Manning on the sidelines after undergoing four neck surgeries, my Colts endured arguably their worst season in franchise history. The Houston Texans capitalized on Indy’s demise and finished a game up on the Tennessee Titans.
This year, Houston should be considered heavy favorites to win the division. They were 7-3 in 2011 before quarterback Matt Schaub was placed on injured reserve with a right foot injury. The defense did their job by giving up only 17.4 ppg (which ranked fourth in the league) but ultimately, Schaub’s injury was too much to overcome. This year, so long as he stays healthy, the Texans will be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They traded away LB DeMeco Ryans and lost DE/LB Mario Williams to free agency, but even after these hits, they’re still phenomenal. Featuring last year’s second-best rushing offense, they’re going to put up some points in 2012. 10 wins at the absolute bare minimum.
The aforementioned Titans are going to need 2009’s Chris Johnson in order to do anything this season. GM Ruston Webster said that CJ2K’s back to his “old self,” but I have my doubts. While he did average 4.0 yards per carry in 2011 (good, but a career low), he just barely broke 1,000 yards rushing and mustered only 4 TDs. While he’ll either sink or swim in 2012, Tennessee has numerous question marks elsewhere, such as at WR and QB.
Speaking of flaws, the Jacksonville Jaguars seem destined for trouble. Their lone offensive weapon, RB Maurice Jones-Drew is holding out for a new contract and their first-round pick, WR Justin Blackmon, is dealing with some off-the-field issues. They had five wins last year and should be right around that number again this year.
With Peyton gone from Indy, I can’t think of a single quarterback I’d rather have to be his successor than Andrew Luck. He’s got the arm strength and accuracy to be remarkable for years to come. A Stanford grad, Luck is going to be a big-time fantasy sleeper. He’ll be throwing to the two highest-rated tight ends in the 2012 NFL Draft (including his favorite Cardinal target, Coby Fleener) as well as Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie. The Colts have an atrocious defense but from what I’ve seen from Luck, he’ll be an absolute stud and take this rebuilding team under his wing.
Switching gears to the NFC South, the New Orleans Saints will have a tough time repeating as the division’s top team after the bounty scandal. While they’ve lost coach Sean Payton and LB Jonathan Vilma to suspensions, the team still has their fearless leader, QB Drew Brees. Pundits are quick to bury the Saints but that’s just dumb. Yes, winning the South is going to be unquestionably harder, but they went 13-3 last year. Their passing game is phenomenal and with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, they have a slew of running backs who can move the chains with ease. They’ll take a slight step back but I wouldn’t be alarmed if I were a Saints fan, as 12 wins could very well happen.
If Matt Ryan played every game inside the Georgia Dome, he’d be a top-five QB. He’s a staggering 26-4 at home but on the road, he’s 17-15. What I’d like to see from Atlanta’s 27-year-old QB is his ability to consistently win away games. If he can do that, the Falcons would be a serious threat. He’s loaded with targets in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll be able to win at least 10 games this year. They’re in a tough division, no doubt, but I might throw a few bucks down on their 25/1 Super Bowl odds. It’s all on Ryan’s shoulders to win outside.
A team that is on the rise, the Carolina Panthers were delighted to see their precocious neophyte, Cam Newton, break a ton of records last season as a rookie quarterback. While he’s extremely talented, the Panthers were plagued by a poor defense. They have a great running game and Cam will certainly get better throwing the ball, but it’s their D that’ll again bog them down. I can’t see them reaching the postseason and think they’ll hover around seven wins.
To close out the division, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made some moves this offseason when they inked both Dallas Clark and Vincent Jackson. They got atrocious play from a guy that butchered me in fantasy last year, QB Josh Freeman, and this is a make or break season for him. If he replicates his 2010 campaign, they could win nine games. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
As far as my fantasy picks are concerned, Matt Schaub will be a very nice value pick, as will QB Andrew Luck, WR Mike Williams, TE Dallas Clark, and RB Donald Brown. On the flipside, I’d stay away WR Andre Johnson, QB Cam Newton (for his lack of weapons), WR Marques Colston, and everyone on the Titans. What says you? firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)