Since 2002, when these four teams were realigned to create the current NFC South, only two division champs had less than double-digit regular season wins. In the same 14-year span, each team has won the division at least three times. In general, the Bucs did their damage in the early stages of the division's history, the Saints and Falcons thrived in the middle years, and the Panthers have run the table for the past three seasons. Coming off a 15-1 record with a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers are clearly the team to beat in the NFC South. Of course, while the division title is Carolina's to lose, every other team is looking to take the next step in 2016. With studs like Julio, Cam, and Doug Martin, just to name a few, this is one of the youngest and most potent divisions in terms of fantasy weapons, Let's take a closer look at what the NFC South has to offer for fake football owners heading into this season.
*This particular series of articles is intended to break down every NFL team's 2016 offensive playmakers and discuss what impact they'll have on the wonderful world of Fantasy Football. In each divisional write-up, I predict player outlooks for the upcoming season by separating each team's offense into two parts: Passing Game + Running Game. I'll update each divisional article as news and reports surface, so don't forget to check back regularly.*
Tabbed as a late-round QB sleeper in many 2015 drafts, Matt Ryan was a major disappointment for owners who thought he could provide occasional QB1 numbers. The yardage was there (4591), but with a measly 21:16 TD:INT ratio, and tossing more than 2 touchdowns in just one contest all of last year, "Matty Ice" wasn't very helpful for fantasy owners. He should improve upon his fantasy numbers this season, however, as he enters year two in OC Kyle Shanahan's scheme. Don't draft Ryan to be your starter in 10-12 team leagues, but he should offer more touchdowns in 2016 as he continues to heavily target Julio...
One of the most talented WRs in recent memory, Julio Jones is seemingly at the top of the fantasy WR board every year. He just finished up the second-best receiving season in NFL history, snagging 136 balls for a whopping 1871 yards. On a very short list of candidates, he's a legitimate threat to break Megatron's legendary receiving record in 2016. I rank him slightly behind AB and ODB, but Jones is an elite WR1 that shouldn't slip outside of the first round in any fantasy football drafts this summer.
Behind him, the Falcons have lacked wideout depth for a few years now. Roddy White was just released this March after a relatively glorious 11-year career in Atlanta. Now the Falcons have brought in ex-Bengal Mohamed Sanu to serve as the team's new #2 WR. A gadget player in Cincinnati, Sanu will have a tough time maintaining solid fantasy value in 2016. Targets probably won't be an issue, as Matt Ryan will surely look his way when Julio is seeing extra attention. However, Sanu led the NFL in drops last year and I can't consider him more than a bench-stash WR4 heading into the season. Second-year slot receiver Justin Hardy should step into the #3 WR spot in Atlanta, but without any eye-catching size or speed credentials, he's a long shot to enter the fantasy football discussion in 2016. Tight End Jacob Tamme finished with 657 yards and 1 TD last year, making the veteran nothing more than a very low-end TE2 at best.
Fantasy football championships are oftentimes won in the mid-to-late rounds of a draft. Picking Devonta Freeman last summer was undoubtedly a trophy-winning decision in many 2015 leagues. Finishing the year as the top overall RB in standard leagues, Freeman now enters his first season as the lead dog in Atlanta. Still, there are reasons to question Freeman's ability to produce like an every-week RB1 in 2016. He was on fire early last season, earning workhorse touches to go along with incredible TD-scoring success. After his bye in Week 10, however, Devonta slowed down tremendously, unable to surpass 80 rushing yards in any remaining week. Even with a worrisome late-season regression, Freeman's impressive flashes in 2015 should give him a legitimate shot at solidifying himself atop the Falcons' RB depth chart. I see him as borderline RB1 at the moment, worthy of a top 20 selection in fantasy drafts.
However, second-year back Tevin Coleman will definitely be involved. especially if Freeman begins 2016 like he ended 2015. I see him as a potential steal in fantasy drafts this summer. Last season, the rookie couldn't shake some typical first-year habits like injuries and ball-security issues. While Freeman broke out in a big way in '15, he hasn't exactly proven any long-term effectiveness or durability, making Coleman better than your average handcuff. He should start the year out as the backup, change-of-pace option for Atlanta, but could step into a meaningful role if Devonta sputters. Tevin Coleman is a solid late-round selection in every fantasy league.
Cam Newton went into last season as a mid-round fantasy option based mainly on his big-time rushing ability. All Newton did was go on to have a historic season in which he set career highs across the board, throwing for 3837 yard with 35 TDs to only 10 INTs. Not only that, but he rushed for a ridiculous 636 yards and 10 more TDs. Newton proved that he can be a dynamic pocket passer in addition to his frightening talents on the ground, scoring more than 23 points per week in standard leagues and ending 2015 as the top fantasy QB by a wide margin. In his prime with his top wideout from 2014 returning from a torn ACL, it's safe to say that "Super Cam" heads into 2016 as the undisputed #1 QB in fantasy football.
Kelvin Benjamin was "fortunate" enough to tear his ACL last August before the season began, so he is fully expected to be 100% for 2016. In his rookie year, "KB" was a mega-sized red zone weapon who racked up 1008 yards and 9 TDs. If he comes back in good shape, paired with Cam's newly refined passing mechanics, Kelvin should restore his WR2 value from two seasons ago. Another young wideout for Carolina is Devin Funchess, who will likely enter this season as the second receiver across from Kelvin. As a rookie, he was forced into action in 2015 with a thin WR depth chart, but started to look more comfortable later in the season. I think the big-bodied Funchess has WR3 upside if he wins the #2 job. Ted Ginn Jr. was a surprise last season as he led the Panthers WR corps with a 44-739-10 receiving line. With Benjamin returning and Funchess entering his second season, I think his role will heavily decrease in 2016. I can't see him being anything more than a risky WR4.
The overall receiving leader in Carolina was the ever-sturdy Tight End who goes by the name of Greg Olsen. He finished with 1000+ yards for the second year in a row, tallying 1108 yards and 7 TDs as Cam's top target. Olsen is as reliable as they come in fantasy football - stick him in your TE1 slot and let him go all year. With more healthy weapons for Cam to throw to in 2016, Olsen's targets may decline, but he's dependable enough to once again be drafted as a top 3 fantasy TE.
Operating as Carolina's workhorse, Jonathan Stewart had a very productive 2015 en route to the Panthers' NFC Championship season. In a run-heavy scheme, "J-Stew" rushed for 989 yards and 6 TDs in his 13 healthy games, good for 4.1 YPC. He was a solid RB2 last season, but I have my doubts about him this season. For one, Stewart has not played a full 16-game season since 2011, illustrating his lack of durability. His 242 carries in 2015 were a career-high, and he would have approached 300-carry territory had he not missed the last three regular season contests. Entering his 9th season in the NFL, I fear the inevitable RB breakdown could be just around the corner. Also working against Stewart is the fact that he hasn't rushed for more than 1000 yards or 6 TDs since 2009 - his second year in the pros. That isn't the kind of upside fantasy owners should be looking for in an RB2. All in all, I consider "The Daily Show" an RB3 in 2016 due to the aforementioned reasons.
He doesn't have much competition to worry about, although, as passing-down FB Mike Tolbert and youngster Cameron Artis-Payne don't pose much of a threat to Stewart's job. A late-round pick out of Auburn last year, I think Artis-Payne could have an expanded role in 2016. He's the handcuff to own, and would be in the RB2 picture if an injury were to strike Stewart once again.
New Orleans Saints
Both his durability and the Saints' pass-happy offense bode well for Drew Brees' fantasy football value. Brees has averaged an insane stat line of 5127 yards and 38 TDs in his last five seasons, showing just how reliable of a fantasy asset he is. By adding a sure-handed WR in this year's draft and bringing in Fleener from Indy, he's a locked-in QB1 heading into 2016.
The small, yet explosive, Brandin Cooks will enter the season as Brees' top weapon on offense. Standing at only 5'10", he may lack the ideal frame of a WR1 in real life, but he will often produce like a WR1 in fantasy football. Cooks finished as a top 12 WR in standard leagues after posting 84 catches for 1138 yards and 9 TDs in 2015, and I can imagine a similar stat line in 2016. The 129 targets might be tough to replicate with a few new weapons in the passing game, but his explosiveness and chemistry with Brees makes him a high-end WR2.
Behind Cooks, second-year undrafted free agent Willie Snead made a splash for the Saints as their second wideout. Hauling in 69 balls for 984 yards and 3 TDs, Snead finished in the WR3/4 range after enterting 2015 as a no-name. With more options in the '16 NO offense, I think Snead will struggle to replicate those numbers in 2016. A massive body (6'6") who the Saints consider similar to Marques Colston, Brandon Coleman is an intriguing weapon who has yet to make his mark. His 2015 season was up-and-down, but he flashed the ability to be a fantasy factor if he can keep his roster spot.
A relatively big (6'3") rookie with soft hands, I think ex-Buckeye Michael Thomas will be an immediate impact in New Orleans as a slot WR. It wouldn't surprise me to see him finish as their second-best wideout in 2016. Mostly underwhelming as a Colt, Coby Fleener will now be catching passes from Drew Brees. The Saints like to feature a vertical TE, so it wouldn't be shocking to see Fleener set career highs across the board, making him a solid back-end TE1 selection in fantasy drafts.
Mark Ingram was performing as an RB1 in every format last season before going to the I.R. with a serious shoulder injury. Heading into 2016, the former Heisman trophy winner should be back to full health and looks to be the clear-cut, top RB in New Orleans. Last season, the Saints defense was so bad that oftentimes the running game was abandoned in order for Brees to play catch-up. If the Saints can become more balanced and Ingram stays healthy, he could easily be an RB1. However, he hasn't played more than 13 games since 2012, so I feel better classifying him as a high-end RB2.
The annually-overhyped C.J. Spiller flopped in his first season as a Saint, dealing with a knee injury that supposedly hindered him for the entire season. Garnering only 70 touches last season with an abysmal 3.1 YPC, Spiller has nowhere to go but up this season. I've always been a fan of his electric playmaking abilities, so maybe this is the first year in a while that Spiller can at least partially live up to his potential. Still, counting on that wouldn't be wise. He's merely a late-round roll of the dice in fantasy drafts. When Ingram hurt his shoulder, it was veteran Tim Hightower who stepped in as the Saints lead runner. He averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, but if Spiller can't be trusted to carry the mail after Ingram, then Hightower will once again be the handcuff to own in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Heading into his second season, Jameis Winston seems to be a more mature, NFL-ready QB than many thought he would be at this point. The top selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis didn't disappoint as a rookie, throwing for 4042 yards and 22 TDs, sprinkling in 213 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. His 15 INTs could be improved upon, but after scoring 12+ points in every week last season and finishing the year as the 13th-best fantasy QB in standard leagues, there's no reason to believe he can't be even better in 2016. He has a slimmer body, a spectacular arm, plenty of huge targets surrounding him, and a great running game behind him. Currently being drafted as a low-end QB2 in mock drafts, I think Winston has a chance to slide into the back-end QB1 discussion at some point this season. He's one of my favorite sleepers for 2016.
As for the large weapons at his disposal, one of them particularly stands out. Mike Evans was plagued by drops in 2015, but still managed to rack up 1200+ receiving yards. His TD total (3) was unluckily low, so look for that number to at least double this season. If he can get his drops under control, Evans has mouth-watering upside for fantasy football purposes. He can be drafted as a low-end WR1 and carries high-end WR1 upside.
This past year, Vincent Jackson had his weakest statistical season in the league since 2010. He managed only 33 catches for 543 yards and 3 TDs in 10 games, keeping him outside of the top 60 in fantasy WRs. It seems obvious that he'll improve upon those numbers if he stays healthy, but he's more of a compliment to Evans than the difference-making WR he used to be. Second-year wideout Kenny Bell is being counted on as the Bucs' third receiver for the upcoming season, but he'll have trouble being anything more than a WR4 even if he wins the slot job.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins enters his third NFL season having played only 50% of games this far, suggesting an injury-prone player at this stage of his career. When on the field, ASJ is a mammoth red zone target with TE1 upside. He's a risky TE2 selection that comes with plenty of upside, but the Bucs continue to talk up Cameron Brate's red zone prowess amid ASJ's somewhat slow development.
Doug Martin has book-ended two sub-500 rushing yard seasons with two spectacular 1400+ yard campaigns, first as a rookie and again in 2015. Martin was the second-leading rushing in the NFL last year, trailing only Adrian Peterson. His 1673 yards from scrimmage were good enough for a top 3 fantasy RB finish, placing him firmly in the weekly high-end RB1 picture. After testing free agency this off-season, Martin ultimately decided to remain a Buccaneer, signing a 5-year deal in March. Entering his fifth season as a pro, "The Muscle Hamster" (I wish he didn't hate that nickname) looks primed to produce solid RB1 numbers in a young and on-the-rise Tampa Bay offense.
His only competition comes from receiving back Charles Sims, who was very effective in a change-of-pace role alst season. Even though he tallied 529 rushing yards in 2015, the passing game is where Sims does most of his damage, finishing with 51 grabs for 561 yards and 4 TDs. He's a solid handcuff for all Martin owners, but Sims actually carries a decent amount of standalone value in PPR leagues after racking up the 4th-most receiving yards in the NFL from the RB position in '15.