Fantasy football 2011: Team-by-team preview of the NFC South

Young QBs with major upside. That is the theme in the NFC South, a division typically defined by defense and smash-mouth football.

Drew Brees is the elder statesman among the group, but Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman are both moving in the right direction and rookie phenom Cam Newton has recently been crowned the official Week 1 starter for Carolina.

This is the second of my divisional fantasy previews. Don’t miss my AFC South breakdown.

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan has no reason not to explode upon the scene as a fantasy quarterback in 2011. Missing a secondary receiver to keep defenses honest in 2010, he now has rookie sensation Julio Jones to complement Roddy White. He also has one more year of tight end Tony Gonzalez before Gonzo enters retirement. The time is now for Ryan. If he can step up to the plate, he could emerge as a potential top 5 fantasy QB for years to come. However, there is also a large platform here for him to fall flat on, and if he struggles in 2011, it won’t be pretty.

Where do I stand? Well, I had no trouble taking him as my QB1 in a number of leagues this summer, backing him up with one of my other elite value QBs. More on them here.

Don’t expect Julio Jones to tear things up immediately in that offense. There are guys, such as Randy Moss and Mike Williams (of TB) who blew onto the scene during their rookie seasons. However, that is more the exception than the norm. Julio will be surrendering some looks and targets to Roddy White. A decent amount of them, actually. Expect more of a Dez Bryant type introduction to the league at best.

The Falcons running game is intriguing. Michael Turner has been the mainstay for quite some time, but there is little doubt that he’s slowing at least a tick or two. He’s still the best down hill runner on the team and the best bet for TDs.

But look closely at Atlanta in 2010 and you’ll realize the offense was much more dynamic during the weeks Jason Snelling was starting and proving a receiving threat out of the backfield. Snelling is back, as is pass-catching speedster Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons brass have publicly admitted they are moving towards a more pass-happy approach and both Rodgers and Snelling will eat away from Turner’s workload.

New Orleans Saints: Few offenses the past several years have been higher in octane than the Saints, who behind Drew Brees offer an offense that spreads the wealth … much to fantasy owners’ disgust at times.

While Brees is a fantasy constant in the pass-heavy approach, his receivers are less dependable. Marques Colston has always found a way to produce when healthy, but health isn’t a certainty for him from week to week anymore. Lance Moore and Robert Meachem have shown flashes of brilliance, but then stretches where they disappear altogether. Neither can be trusted as a weekly starter, especially with Devery Henderson still in the mix.

In spite of all those weapons, one pass-catching option that deserves definite fantasy attention is tight end Jimmy Graham. He has shown glimpses of sheer football greatness and has become a favorite option of Drew Brees. He may have been more apt for fantasy superstardom on a team where he is the primary option, but Brees will still find ways to elevate Graham. If you miss out on guys like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark and Jason Witten on draft day, stock up on RB and WR talent and grab Graham later.

Running backs for the Saints are committee options. Rookie Mark Ingram is the lead option at the moment, but don’t expect Pierre Thomas to totally disappear in game planning. Chris Ivory is still on the team, too. And added this offseason was Darren Sproles, who looked like he’ll share a part of the pie after watching some preseason action.

Colleague sockonfl has wondered for quite some time if the turf at the SuperDome is less forgiving on backs than other surfaces, pointing at injuries over time to guys like Deuce McAllister, Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas and others. This is something we’ll research a little more in a future post. At the moment, it is hard for me to get excited about starting any of the Saints RBs until we see how the pie is sliced – although it may be more of the same philosophy of spreading the wealth.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A young team with uber-potential, the Bucs are becoming a fun squad to watch.

At the center of that excitement is Josh Freeman, a quarterback who can get the job done both through the air and on the ground. He was in the top three in rushing yardage in 2010, behind just Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers. He also found a solid young target in Mike Williams.

Williams has fallen down many a draft board due to concerns of regression in his sophomore campaign. I am less leary than most – while it is hard to expect Williams to repeat his TD numbers from last year, there is little doubt he’ll increase in number of receptions and yardage. I have no trouble using him as my WR2 with WR1 upside yet again.

The sleeper option here is at WR2 with preseason star Dezmon Briscoe. Reports from the St. Petersburg Times already has Briscoe as the No. 2 option ahead of rehabbing Arrelious Benn. His presence will help the Buccaneers take the next step in offensive prowess, and expect Briscoe, who has formed a good relationship with Freeman, to be a key part of things even when Benn is fully healthy.

Some flock to Kellen Winslow as a fantasy tight end worth starting. I’m not as thrilled. Sure, you can get him later in drafts, but then again, guys like Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook are also available later and  provide much more upside.

The running game is headed by rookie breakout LeGarrette Blount. While not a major contributor in the passing game, he did average 5 yards per carry last season for more than 1,000 yards and six TDs. He did enough for the Buccaneers to allow Cadillac Williams to leave for St. Louis. However, recent talk out of Tampa suggests that Blount will not be used as the third down option according to a recent comment from Freeman. They’ll likely limit him to 15 receptions throughout the year projects the rotoworld draft guide. I would think that number a bit low, but it also suggests that Earnest Graham could be a sneaky good late-round investment.

Carolina Panthers: While the other three teams will be duking it out for the division crown, the Panthers will be providing a different sort of service to the NFC South – a defense so bad, it will make the other squads’ offenses look much better. The Panthers have allowed mediocre backs to look like Hall of Famers this preseason – a continuation of their ineptitude as a unit last year.

Offensively, all eyes will be on Cam Newton as he tries to tackle the NFL as a rookie QB. Expect growing pains but a much longer leash than last year’s project Jimmy Clausen, who reportedly is now third on the depth chart behind journeyman Derek Anderson. Newton’s running abilities may make him a tad more valuable than a typical rookie QB, and as a bye week fill-in against a shoddy defense, he could be useful in 2011. Just don’t expect Michael Vick-esque stats just yet (or ever for that matter).

The passing game is still a question mark. Steve Smith is likely the 1A option yet this year. The options behind him are less than exciting. San Diego castoff Legedu Naanee is penciled in as the No. 2 guy with Brandon LaFell third on the depth chart. The situation screams sleeper potential for someone to break out of the pack – it is just hard to imagine who will be the best option here.

Greg Olsen could be a sleeper option late at tight end. The new Carolina option is expected to benefit from offensive coordinator’s Rob Chudzinski’s tight-end heavy track record. Someone needs to be the offense’s second best receiver and Olsen could be that guy. I’d still rather hitch my wagon to Jimmy Graham or Jared Cook, but Olsen could emerge and should be watched closely.

The running game has three able backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. It is weird that the Panthers would spend so much to bring DeAngelo back into that crowded backfield – unless they have serious concern about Stewart being an every down back. It also means that, if the Panthers value their investment, they’ll do what they can to minimize wear and tear, meaning more of a committee approach.

Division breakdown

Fantasy MVP: Matt Ryan, ATL. (While Drew Brees will likely score the most points of anyone in this division, he’s going numerous rounds ahead of Ryan, making Ryan the true Most “Valuable” Player)

Fantasy rookie of the year: Cam Newton, CAR. (starting from Day 1 and his running abilities will make him more viable than receiver Julio Jones or other rookie options in this division)

Fantasy sleepers: Dezmon Briscoe, TB (a true late round sleeper if he sticks as TB’s WR2); Jimmy Graham, NO (has top-5 TE potential); Earnest Graham, TB (Blount isn’t the most proven of commodities yet and had a history of being a knucklehead in the past and already is losing third down privileges); Greg Olsen, CAR (not going to put up elite TE numbers, but may be a decent option to stop the bleeding if one of your stud TEs goes down or if you are desperate for TE help)

Fantasy bust: Michael Turner, ATL. (For a guy going in the second or third round, I’m nervous that Turner will see a big drop in carries to two younger, more versatile options in a new pass-first regime)

Comeback player of the year: Steve Smith, CAR. (older but still dangerous, Smith is the unquestioned best receiver in an offense that needs to stretch the field to keep up in games they’ll be blown out in due to a horrific defense)

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