We return for another edition of the Real Deal Report Previews! This time, I’m in LA (or was, at first draft), frantically typing at a Starbucks while my jet-lagged body marvels that it is somehow still morning. It is also, 107 degrees. Therefore, I have elected to preview the Southern division.
We return today to our contemplation of history by remembering a time in which sports were pure and disciplined. We remember smash-mouth, three-yards-in-a-pile-of-dust football. We remember the New Jersey Devils utterly ruining hockey with their BS dump and trap nonsense that totally took all the fun out of the game while at the same time being undeniably effective. We remember the “raised mound” era of baseball in which ERAs under 2 were commonplace and runs were like gold. We remember the 20XX Seattle Mariners in which all opposing pitchers had ERAs under 2 and runs were like gold. We mock the 20XX Seattle Mariners in which all opposing pitchers had ERAs under 2 and runs were like gold. Oh we mock them. And oh how we cry. We cry.
In any case, what all of these disparate eras had in common were one single, undeniable trait – nobody could score. Offenses were inept compared to the powerful defenses that terrorized them. It was like Mark Sanchez was starting for everybody – ALL. THE. TIME. We shudder and shake our heads violently to clear them of such disturbing visions.
Welcome, my friends, to the 2016 AFC South – a division of powerful defenses and apathetic, castrated offenses (don’t worry, no images).
Tennessee Titans (10-6):
We begin with Tennessee, another team whose rebuild has seemed to last forever – but who, this humble author believes, has finally turned the corner and will contend for a championship. We begin with that offensive collossus Odell Beckham Jr. striding across the land and catching everything that moves in his mighty two-finger grip. We move on with the mostly unproven but filled with potential supporting cast of Teddy Bridgewater, CJ Anderson, Devin Funchess, Dwayne Allen, Mohamed “I’m next to Julio Jones instead of AJ Green, perhaps the curse will be lifted” Sanu, and newcomer Tajae Sharp. We speak of Justin Hunter, Andre Williams, Kenny Stills, and Wendell Smallwood, and consider them yet more young and fantastic potential.
We do not mention the poster child for potential come to naught, Ladarius Green, who was been heir apparent to Antonio Gates since Kennedy’s assassination. Every year has been his year. Every year has come and gone. And now his career stands in jeopardy, a warning to children of the dangers of relying on “potential”. We do not mention Ladarius Green, and we drink to forget. We turn our heads away from the horrifying sight, and put it out of our mind. The young players WILL develop. The potential WILL become reality. It must. Ladarius who? I HAVE NO SON.
We think also of a ferocious and veteran defense, like all in this nil-nil draw of a division. Anchored by Mario Edwards and Ndamukong Suh, bolstered by the “I’m so mighty I have an “e” at the end of my name for absolutely NO REASON” Stephone Anthony, and outfielded by the capable McCourty twins (Devin and Jason). We wonder what the hell is up with a team that has two guys with the last name of “McCourty” and two guys with the first name “Devin” starting for it at the same time. That’s weird right? And we conclude by looking at Rookie Scooby Wright, chuckling at his name, and instinctively making the “Scooby-dooby-doo” noise in our heads and fetching our hallucinogens.
And at the end of the day, we realize that Tennessee is about to complete it’s rebuild and win the NFC South. Unless… unless “LADARIUS” comes to pass for them all… No. No. That won’t happen. Of course it won’t. It won’t…
Houston Texans (8-8):
Speaking of three yards in a pile of dust, Da Coach loves Da Texans, who seem to have adopted on old school ground and pound philosophy. Da’meis Winston lines up behind center, and is ready to hand it off over and over and over again to the two best players on offense, David Johnson and Carlos “I’m going to carry the ball 53 times a game this year and then Chip Kelly is going to trade me next year for Ladarius Green and a mesh bag of athletic socks” Hyde. In all likelihood the best RB tandem in the league, this duo combined with Winston and Donte “I have a hoity-toity name that makes it sound like I could be a count of some random territory in Southern France” Moncrief should keep the Texans competitive.
Like all the AFC South, this defense should also stay competitive with Chandler Jones and Malcolm Brown joining new draft pick steal Kenny Clark to form a fearsome front-line, and a solid defensive backfield of the flying Jonnies (Joseph and Cyprien) joining Earl “I have a hoity-toity name that it sound like I could be an Earl” Thomas and Desmond Trufant.
The trick for the Texans is going to be their depth. While Tennessee can bring out starting-caliber players 18 deep, the Texan line-up runs a little thinner. Guys like Angelo Blackson and Damien Swann are not players you want starting for a championship calendar team, and even true stalwarts like Bruce Irvin tend a little cold in fantasy. It’s less pronounced, but no less dangerous on the offensive side where Jaelen Strong, Levine Toilolo and Chris Hogan need to produce FAR beyond what they have ever produced before. They may. But we’ll talk about counting chickens later.
Look, there’s really potential here. Toilolo and/or Austin Hooper could start catching lots of touchdowns from Matt Ryan, Brock Osweiler to Jaelen Strong could be a household combination by the end of the season, and Chris Hogan could become Tom Brady’s after-Gronk go too. It’s possible. But to my mind, the Titan potential has a better chance of panning out (and more wild cards with the chance to do so) than the Texan potential, which means it all comes back to just how good those running backs are…
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9):
The Jacksonville Jagulars (that’s how they say it in Winnie the Pooh. Heffalumps and Woozles steal hunny. Beware.) has
theyselves a ferocious defense. Potentially the best defense in a division full of them. It’s young. It’s fresh. It’s ferocious. It features some of the best players in fantasy football and the best names in fantasy football. Guys like CJ Mosley at LB, Bashaud Breeland at CB, and Linval Joseph and Jabaal Sheard on the line provide the football skills and serious scoring. Then there’s this guy called Obum Gwacham, who takes over from, get this, Hau’oli Kikaha. Seriously. No joke. Hau’oli Kikaha got injured. They replaced him with Obum Gwacham. My prevailing theory is that absolutely nobody had been able to say the first name, so they just figured “since we’ve just been grunting and making coughing noises and calling out “hey you” with the last guy, may as well just do the same thing with the new guy.
Anyway, the defense is really good. Could be a 100 point defense on a regular basis if it plays to potential. I mean, when Mark Barron and Donte Whitner are forgotten role players and the GM has been frantically trying to sell Richard Sherman all season like Count Moncrief trying to marry off his sister for political reasons all Game of Thrones style, you know you have a defense that is strong and deep.
The trick is that this team really ain’t going to score no points. Kirk Cousins is genuinely good. He has always been great at throwing passes that other players catch. Now that he’s figured out that he should throw the ball to only guys who look like a McDonalds and are labeled offensively to Native Americans, he’s become borderline unstoppable. Travis Kelce is also fantastic. I bitterly resent the day I traded him away. He’s going to score a LOT of touchdowns. We can even give this team the benefit of the doubt and assume that Marqise “I have a hoity-toity name that makes it sound like I could be a Marquis of some random town in southern France” Lee will actually do something this year.
But after that? The lineup is as follows, and I quote “Seth Roberts, Tyler Ervin, Rashard Higgins, Marcedes Lewis, Duron Carter, Tre McBride.” There is an excellent chance that Odell Beckham Jr. will outscore everyone on this offense but Cousins and Kelce on a fairly regular basis. Ouch.
Indianapolis Colts (6-10):
Same as it ever was for the Indianapolis Colts. Fortunately for you, they do NOT have Duke Johnson, so you won’t have to put up with me making the same tired nobility pun. Unfortunately for Indianapolis, they don’t have Duke Johnson, which means that after Andrew Luck and Julian Edelman, they will be trotting out Bruce Ellington, Charcandrick “no longer starting but still costing 12M” West, Troy Niklas, Chris Johnson, and Will Fuller.
Here’s the thing, this offense could be ok. But it’s full of question marks. Will Luck be better? Will Edelman stay healthy? Will Bruce Ellington truly take hold of a strong role in a Chip Kelly offense – and can whoever starts at QB get him the ball? Will Charcandrick West get any touches? What happened to Troy Niklas’ “c” and “u”? Did he lose them in a poker game to some rough and tumble mates at a bar while in college? Will Chris Johnson maintain his resurgence? Will Will Fuller get anything done as a rookie? It’s a lot of questions. And while some answers may be positive, at least some answers are unlikely to be, and Indy really doesn’t have the depth to sustain any “no” answers.
The defense too is a step back from the rest of the division’s stalwarts, possessing a lot of compelling youth, but not enough short-term answers. Guys like Artie Burns, Eli Apple, Tavon Young, and Shaq Barrett will bolster the team in the future, but will struggle to score points today. Jerrell Freeman, Brian Orakpo, and Antoine Bethea are all on the wrong side of 30 and even they can only do so much. Landon Collins is a strong player for the future and present, and Perrish Cox could be the same, so it’s not as if this defense is weak – but it’s also not as exceptional as some of the others in the division.
I have a bad habit of betting against Indy at the beginning of the year, and usually look foolish for doing so. It could happen again. If the vets on D have one more great year in the tank and the kids develop quickly… if the opportunity is there in the right places for the young guys… this team could get to a place of being Super Bowl worthy if everything pans out. I just think it’s more likely that the old guys decline faster and the young guys are a year away… in which case, it could be a long season in the land of Eli Lilly.
Now this division is straight up impossible to predict. Carolina won the Super Bowl and brings back the whole team. The Saints have a strong but shallow offense and the best defense in the division. Atlanta is a trendy offensive pick with some star power and some defensive liabilities. Tampa Bay might well have the best composite team on both sides of the ball – but also may not have a starting QB – or may have two. It’s a predictor’s nightmare.
But who am I kidding. When have I ever been any good at this anyway? Time to solicit the aid of the stars, owl pellets, and least reliable of all, ESPN analysts. Let’s start from the top.
New Orleans Saints (10-6):
New Orleans gets the benefit of the doubt because of the starting lineup, a very solid defense, and a history of excellence. The Saints and Chiefs are the only teams in RDFL to have made the playoffs in every season of the league’s existence, and this team still has all the parts on both sides of the ball. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham join forces with newly minted #1 WR Golden Tate to anchor what should be a decent offense, while the defense remains a strength of this team – as it has since day #1. While the New Orleans secondary is a little porous, the front seven is insane: Jordan Cameron, Rob Ninkovich, Damon Harrison, William Gholston, Kiko Alonso, Anthony Barr, and Brandon Graham. Mercy. That’s a 4-3 defense that can GET AFTER the quarterback and generate some points. As I mentioned, there are some weaker spots in the secondary, but a combination of Malcolm Jenkins and that front seven will mask a lot of coverage weaknesses!
So why am I so hesitant about putting the Saints as the clear-cut #1 here? Well, first and foremost, because this division is GOOD. All four teams in this division have star power and the chance to put it all together. Hell, Carolina is the defending Super Bowl Champions – it’s certainly possible they should be getting the benefit of the doubt!
More importantly, though, New Orleans needs things to break right. The Saints don’t have a lot of margin for error. If Jeremy Langford (he of the 3.3 ypc) loses his starting role to Ka’Deem Carey or Jordan Howard, there’s no real viable replacement on the roster. If Sammie Coates struggles to replace Martavis Bryant, there’s no real solid replacement at WR. If the legs fall off Darren Sproles, same story. If Rob Ninkovich’s injury is longer and more debilitating than expected, the drop-off could be significant depending on how well Nick Fairley plays in his new digs. At the end of the day, New Orleans is already being forced to start JJ Nelson due to a lack of depth on offense. If the rest of the team plays to its potential, this should be easily overcome – but if things break badly for the Saints (and many things happen in an RDFL season), this offense could go from excellent to potentially bad. And given the strength of this division, a bad offense is probably not going to be enough – even with the grade A beef the Saints are running out there on D each week.
Carolina Panthers (9-7):
Carolina has to be feeling a little bit like “I win the Super Bowl and all I get is this bloody Tee-shirt?”. Sorry, man. If it makes you feel any better, I completely underestimated your team last year because of how it looked on paper, and you made me look like a fool at every turn. I picked against you in the division, and you won. I picked against you in the playoffs, and you won. I picked against you in the Super Bowl, and you won there too. So, basically, think of it this way – when I pick against you, you win! So really, you should probably be mailing me a 20 spot for picking you second.
Carolina really has the same strengths and same weaknesses as last year’s team. The strengths are a fantastic defense headlined by human Robocop Luke Kuechly, edge-rusher extraordinaire Marcell Dareus, and anchored by Patrick Patterson and Kurt Coleman. This is the same defense that every week put the Panthers over the top and led them to some 300 point games. It returns largely intact, and is bolstered by the karmic and spiritually uplifting preference of DE Greg Hardy, who is making a cool 12M to cheerlead. That’s a problem for me. But aside from that, this defense will be wonderful once again.
Also once again, the offense looks a little underwhelming on paper. Cam Newton is back to dab and dance his way to victory, all the while fielding complaints about his leadership when they lose and being praised for his maturity as a leader when they win. Gotta love sports narratives. Greg Olsen, his favorite target, should put together yet another fantastic campaign. There’s even an argument that the return of Kelvin Benjamin and the maturation of Cam’s other receivers should lead to an even better campaign for one of the best quarterbacks in Fantasy.
Mark Ingram, who for some reason my mind still can’t fully trust as a running back worthy of starting, should actually put up another solid campaign, as should young guns Willie Snead and Zach Ertz. One huge question for Carolina is how much juice Steve Smith still has in the tank. He’s clearly front and center of a bad Baltimore receiving corps, and was on pace for a career year last year before his devastating injury. But can he maintain a comeback to post solid numbers? If so, that Carolina offense could suddenly look pretty compelling. Even if he fades hard (37 year old receivers returning from devastating injuries have that tendency), Robert Woods has looked great in Buffalo by all indications, and Eddie Royal always seems to put up numbers…
Man, I don’t know. The Panthers have snuck up on me again. I like them more than I did when I started writing this. For some reason, it’s very hard for me to vote FOR this team… but the more I look at it, the more I think the Panthers are a legitimate threat to defend their title, at least within the NFC. Carolina and Indianapolis both do this to me… and I don’t know why. Something about the owl pellets just doesn’t work when these teams are around.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7):
Man. This division is tough. I had to put New Orleans on top given that D and their consistent history of success. And Carolina brings just about everybody back from a team that just won the stinking Super Bowl. But man. The Buccaneers at third? I LOVE the Buccaneers. This is a team that I am extremely high on for this year. In fact, I’m high enough on this team that I would have absolutely no surprise if it was the Bucs representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Why the confidence? Well, it starts in the heart of the defense, where LaVonte David, Von Miller and Clay Matthews form what will almost certainly be the best linebacking core in the league. Jaye Howard and Gerald McCoy may well be the best DT pairing in the league as well. And while Darelle Revis and Aqib Talib are clear-cut “better in real life than in fantasy” corners, they are still no slouches. This isn’t as strong a defense as the Bills and Panthers defenses that carried them to the Super Bowl last year – but it is fantastic nonetheless, and is in the top 5-10 in the league.
And not only can the Bucs defend, but they can CATCH. Tampa Bay comes into the year intending to go four-wide and do so with Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Vincent Jackson, and Torrey “I may not be good, but Chip’s going to throw it to me 83 times a game and he made RILEY COOPER good” Smith. Clive Walford is a TE with some high potential as a 5th pass catcher, and they are joined by by pass-catching Running Back Doug Martin, whose Muscle Hamster nickname is good enough that I don’t even have to give him another one.
Interestingly, Tampa Bay faces huge questions at Quarterback, where they may legitimately have anywhere between 0-2 strong starting quarterbacks, though the trend line is pointing more towards 0 than 2, which is a legitimate concern and a major reason for the third place finish. By all accounts, Josh McCown has basically lost the QB competition in Cleveland to RGIII, and Blaine Gabbert remains in a bitter struggle with Colin Kaepernick to inherit a role as Chip Kelly’s signal chucker. It’s hard to say how that contest is going to turn out, but when you are relying on Blaine Gabbert to win anything (and I mean ANYTHING. A quarterback competition. A game. Fricking Yahtzee. A stuffed bear from one of those carnival games where you have to knock over the bottles. The claw game at Denny’s…)
That reminds me. When I was in high school, I had a buddy named Dan. Our posse (yes, I can call them a posse now. It was 20 years ago. You can’t tell me it wasn’t. You weren’t there.) had been up all night and were out at 6am at Denny’s, a high class establishment if ever there was one. Some of my buddies bet Dan a dollar that he wouldn’t drink the full bottle of Tabasco sauce sitting on the table in front of him. Dan, being a sleep deprived 17 year old male who knew the value of money, agreed and downed the whole damn thing. After spending a good chunk of time writhing in agony and drinking way too much Denny’s “chocolate milk” (true substance remains unclear), he triumphantly claimed his dollar – which he immediately spent on two 50 cent attempts at the claw game. He failed both. All he had for his trouble was pride and fiery anguish in his bowels which persisted for several days.
I love the Bucs. I’m high on the team. But man I feel like Gabbert and McCown are two attempts at a Denny’s claw game, and that anguish in the bowels might be in the cards for a Bucs team that has the potential to win it all – but might not even make the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons (7-9):
There is perhaps no more compelling case to be made for the NFC South as the best division in RDFL 2016 than this 4th place pick for the new and improved Atlanta Falcons (now with a Quarterback!). This team could win several divisions in this league. And in truth, it is entirely possible it could win this division. These four squads are all good and they are all tightly bunched. And it’s not as if Atlanta would really have to improve that much over last year – burned out of the gate by a brutal start during the early weeks with multiple games, the Falcons never really had a chance to recover, but were not nearly as bad as their record indicated.
Newly minted franchise QB Jared Goff has by all accounts looked good in Ram’s camp, and your devoted author seriously hopes he is the real deal, because somebody needs to get the ball to my man Tavon Austin. But a rookie QB in a Jeff Fisher system that has Todd Gurley is more of a void-filler than a “light the world on fire for 20ppg” guy. But y’all, this offense is really compelling. Goff is throwing to Julio Jones, Jeremy Maclin, and Kelvin Benjamin (now with a belly) – and he is handing off to some guy named Jamaal Charles, who, if he can stay healthy, should have another season or two as a top 10 Running Back. Aside from QB and J-Mail’s hammies, the only real question is at TE, and there Atlanta has loaded up on high potential wild cards like Vance McDonald, Anthony Fasano, and Ryan Griffin. This should be a strong offense – how good will depend on Goff’s development and the training staff.
The defense is also compelling, though honestly still a small notch down from some of the league’s best. DeAndre Levy and Michael Bennett are great at football, and Brent Grimes’ wife is a ferocious, aggressive tackler who is the vocal leader of this team, but gets flagged for too many unsportsmanlike penalties. Beyond that, though, there’s a lack of star power on this defense. Shamarko Thomas? Daryl Smith? Captain Munnerlyn? Good players. But not stars on the level of TB’s lineback trifecta or guys like Luke Kuechly.
It’s tough. This is a good team. No obvious weaknesses and Atlanta’s offensive skill players are
really good. This would be a serious candidate to win the NFC North. But this is a tough division. And my hunch is that something goes wrong. Jamaal Charles is actually closer to done than we think. None of the Tight Ends pan out. The defense underwhelms. Danny Woodhead gets concussed. It’s not really realistic. The Saints probably have more TRUE question marks. But they also have a track record with depth and lady luck. Atlanta’s had a rough go of it. And my sixth sense just wonders if there’s more of that coming this year…