The AFC South was one of the least competitive divisions in the entire league last season. No team finished in the top half of the NFL in total yards, and two (Tennessee & Indianapolis) actually finished in the bottom five. The Houston Texans were able to win the division title with a 9-7 record, one game better than the Colts. The Titans (3-13) and the Jaguars (5-11) combined weren't able to muster up as many wins as the Texans did. Heading into 2016, the AFC South now has the looks of a division full of contenders, especially without a unanimous top pick in sight. There won't be a shortage of Fantasy Football weapons either, as each of these teams has multiple playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, many of which are playing for new clubs this season. Let's take a look at the notable weapons in the AFC South.
*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.*
Houston will surely field a new-look offense in 2016. After managing to stumble into the playoffs behind a slew of mediocre quarterbacks, the Texans went ahead and signed Brock Osweiler this offseason, formerly of the Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos. Although relatively unproven after making only eight appearances in 2015, the 6'7" gunslinger has the potential to elevate Houston's entire offense, and his hefty contract indicates that coach Bill O'Brien believes the same. As it stands now, Osweiler probably isn't worth drafting in 10 or 12 team standard leagues. He has the looks of a low-end QB2 as he acclimates himself in Houston's offense, but as the season progresses, I think he definitely has the weapons and tools to approach fantasy quarterback streamer territory in plus matchups.
His top target in 2016 will certainly be DeAndre Hopkins, who is coming off a monster campaign which saw him reel in 111 catches for 1521 yards and 11 touchdowns. These statistics obviously resulted in a WR1 fantasy finish in virtually every format (WR6 in standard). Clearing 50 yards in 15 out of 16 contests last year, "Nuk" Hopkins was targeted third-most in the NFL, showing how important he was to a Houston offense that was without Arian Foster or a reliable QB for most of the season. With a stronger quarterback, running back, and supporting cast at his position, Hopkins shouldn't be leaned on as heavily this season. Even with a decline in targets, though, he offers a safe floor and ridiculous set of ball skills. He's a WR1 in every draft this August, but I see a distinct tier gap between him and the top-3 wideouts in fantasy football.
Among the receivers brought in to compliment Hopkins this season are rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, products of Notre Dame and Ohio State, respectively. Fuller possesses blazing speed, made obvious by his 4.32 wheels at the combine's 40-yard dash. Although he's a small-handed prospect with college drop issues, Fuller should be able to make enough lid-lifting plays this season to alleviate some pressure from Nuk, but he'll be hard-pressed to become a fantasy factor in his rookie season. He's worth a late-round stab at best. Braxton Miller, selected in the third round of this year's draft, recently declared himself as a "playmaker" instead of a wide receiver. Miller should find himself in a diverse, yet limited, role in his first season, making it tough to pick him in a standard re-draft league this summer.
Veteran wideout Cecil Shorts took a pay cut to stay with Houston this offseason, but his presence will likely be more important to the real-life Texans than the fantasy football community. Coming off a season where he averaged 44 yards per game, Shorts won't be matching those numbers in 2016 with a younger, deeper depth chart than last year. Perhaps the most difficult Texans WR to forecast this upcoming season is sophomore Jaelen Strong. Babied along in 2015 and then having a run-in with the law earlier this offseason, Strong still has plenty of question marks after his rookie year. I'm willing to bet that Strong has the inside edge over both rookie wideouts on this roster, and after Bill O'Brien said a slimmer Strong has impressed this offseason, he should open the season as a top-3 receiver at worst.
After losing centerpiece Arian Foster early in the season due to an achilles tear, Houston was left with a stable of uninspiring replacement runners. Alfred Blue led the team with a mere 698 rushing yards and the Texans were only able to manage 3.7 yards per carry as a team. Clearly, Bill O'Brien lacked a workhorse in his run-based offensive scheme. Houston decided to move on from the aging, injury-prone Foster this offseason in order to scoop up one of the NFL's top young backs in Lamar Miller. Formerly of the Dolphins, Miller finds himself in a much better position for 2016 than in recent seasons. In South Beach, he was regularly deprived of a robust workload despite putting up impressive YPC marks for consecutive years (4.5 and 5.1 respectively), not to mention his prowess in the passing game. In a Houston offense that has been at or near the top of the league in rushing attempts since O'Brien has been their coach, Miller should have no problem establishing a career-high touch total in 2016. He should exceed 15 carries on a weekly basis, allowing him to reach a minimum of 250 carries or so on the season. With major potential in a new uniform, I like Miller as a borderline top-12 pick in just about every fantasy draft this summer.
Behind Miller, Alfred Blue, Chris Polk, and Jonathan Grimes worked as a mediocre committee in 2015. Now, Blue will likely back up Lamar once again with Grimes and a rookie vying for situational touches, as Polk wasn't re-signed. Blue played very well down the stretch, averaging 88.3 rushing yards per game over his last four games, including the Wild Card playoff loss. That should be enough for him to be considered Miller's top handcuff to open 2016.
Grimes was arguably Houston's most effective runner last season after averaging 5.0 YPC in a limited role. In a crowded backfield with newly-drafted Tyler Ervin, he'll have a tough time being relevant in any fantasy format. Ervin is an explosive rookie RB from San Jose State, and could potentially offer the most upside beyond Miller. If he can flash in the preseason, he might even carve out a more meaningful role than Alfred Blue, but we'll just have to wait and see.
The Colts desperately needed their franchise quarterback last season in order to be a serious contender. But even with Andrew Luck playing in only seven contests, the Matt Hasselbeck-led Colts still managed to go 8-8 without their young signal-caller. But when Luck did play, he wasn't overly impressive, as evidenced by a 15:12 TD to INT ratio and his lowest completion percentage since his rookie year. Whether his struggles were injury-related or not, I'm looking for the ultra-talented QB to bounce back in 2016 after recently being made the highest-paid player in NFL history. Although Luck will be without Coby Fleener and Andre Johnson, the Colts beefed up their offensive line this offseason and he still has a ton of weapons at his disposal. These facts, paired with his elite arm talent, make for an appetizing QB1 recipe in 2016.
Even without his star QB at the helm, speedster T.Y. Hilton was able to finish 2015 as a solid fantasy option. Although he was drafted with higher expectations, T.Y. finished as the 23rd-best receiver in standard leagues, showing that he's capable of producing respectable numbers even in an almost worst-case scenario. With Luck back in action, Hilton should have a similar expected outlook in 2016 as he did last season, which is reflected in his current WR16 ADP. In a Colts offense that figures to be in a lot of high-scoring affairs, T.Y. Hilton projects as a safe WR2 with week-winning upside.
Across from Hilton is Donte Moncrief, who is fresh off a quality sophomore campaign in 2015. A healthy Luck will undoubtedly help every Indy WR this season, but Moncrief might be the main beneficiary. Seeing only 11 less targets than Hilton when Luck was at quarterback, the bigger-bodied Moncrief should see a ton of targets this season and serve as a sturdy red-zone threat. He scored 6 touchdowns last season compared to Hilton's 5, so it wouldn't be unthinkable for Moncrief to lead the Colts' WR corps in scores this season, while Hilton racks up more yardage. He's being undervalued in summer drafts, as the physically-gifted receiver sits outside of the top-30 in his position.
Last year's first round pick in the NFL draft, Phillip Dorsett fractured his fibula in Week 11 after averaging only 20.5 yards per game up to that point. With targets to dish out after losing a few pass-catching weapons, the Colts will certainly look for the second-year wideout to make a big impact in 2016. Dorsett's emergence as Indy's No. 3 receiver bodes well for his fantasy prospects this season, and his blazing 4.33 jets don't hurt either. He's a high-upside, late-round flier that could be extremely useful if Moncrief or Hilton were to miss action.
Dwayne Allen, who hasn't played a full season since his 2012 rookie year, is now free from the tight end timeshare he's grown accustomed to. He doesn't have game-breaking athleticism, but could emerge as a legit red-zone option. With Fleener departing, Allen could have a meaningful part in Indy's 2016 offense, but as of now he's just a mid-range TE2, albeit with more upside than usual.
After celebrating his 33rd birthday back in May, it's safe to say Frank Gore is nearing the end of his illustrious NFL career. But for a back who has historically churned out 1000-yard seasons, Gore had to be disappointed in how 2015 transpired. In his first season with Indianapolis, he averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC along with a dismal (for his workload) 60.4 yards per game mark, his weakest YPG average since his rookie season in 2005. Keep in mind, however, that a decent portion of his woes can be attributed to the absence of Andrew Luck. When Gore signed with the Colts, surely he expected to be running behind one of the premier QBs in the NFL, and he'll get another chance to do that in 2016. With little to no competition for carries out of Indy's backfield, Frank should have enough gas left in the tank to put up at least one more solid fantasy season. I'm fully expecting Gore to crack the 1000-yard mark and score his fair share of TDs in a potentially powerful Colts offense - assuming Luck can stay on the field for the majority of the season.
Gore's counterparts are unproven, including replacement-level RBs Jordan Todman and Robert Turbin, neither of which figure to get much work this season. They actually may be fighting for the same roster spot, as No. 2 job could very well be given to rookie UDFA Josh Ferguson. Colts owner Jim Irsay and HC Chuck Pagano have already raved about Ferguson multiple times this offseason, saying things like "he's got a chance to be special" and "he's a mismatch out in space". A sub-4.5 speedster out of Illinois, Ferguson's raw upside easily trumps the aforementioned running backs, giving him the most fantasy upside behind Frank the Tank.
One of the major fantasy football surprises of 2015 was the materialization of Blake Bortles, who finished the year as the 4th-best quarterback, firmly in the QB1 discussion. While, much of his production was done in garbage time, that isn't necessarily a problem in the fantasy football world. However, at least on paper, Jacksonville appears to be a much more competitive team on defense after bringing in plenty of talented pieces this offseason. This means a more stable offense could be in the cards for 2016, leading to more rushes and less pass attempts for the young Jaguars. Still, Bortles has plenty of athletic pass catchers to target this season, so I'm not worried about him dropping out of fantasy relevancy. While his yardage (4428) is likely to decline due to decreased garbage time, if he can cut down his league-high interception total (18), I'd be willing to bet Bortles finds himself as a starting fantasy QB during most weeks of the season in 10-12 team leagues.
A huge reason for Bortles' success last season was wideout Allen Robinson. Following a rookie 2014 season ended by a foot injury, Robinson proceeded to punish opposing secondaries throughout the 2015 campaign, ending the year with a clean 80-1400-14 stat line. A-Rob's 1400 yards and 14 TDs might be hard to match even if he remains a stud go-to receiver this season, but his catch total should easily be within reach. In a Jacksonville offense with plenty of mouths to feed, Robinson figures to see less scoring chances in 2016, but this athletic specimen still projects as a trusty WR1 in every format.
Somewhat astonishingly, second-year undrafted free agent Allen Hurns finished last season as the 15th overall WR in standard leagues, just behind Demaryius Thomas and right ahead of Sammy Watkins. His 1031 yards and 10 touchdowns from just 64 receptions allowed Hurns to provide dependable WR2 production for most of the season, despite dealing with nagging injuries. This year, with Bortles' pass attempts likely to decline in favor of a more run-happy offense, Hurns will have a tough time out-producing last year's numbers. However, after just signing a four-year contract extension for $40 million, I'd have to think the Jags envision this ex-Miami Hurricane as a high-end No. 2 option in 2016 at the very least. While his TD total will likely descend, Hurns should be able to near 1000 receiving yards and provide WR3 value in fantasy football.
Battling for the No. 3 spot on Jacksonville's WR depth chart are Marqise Lee and Rashad Greene. If Lee can get over his recurring leg injuries that he has constantly dealt with, he'd be the higher upside option between the two, but that's far from a sure bet. Even if Lee does stay healthy this season, last year's fifth round pick out of FSU might have a slight advantage to steady playing time this season, specifically in the slot. Rashad Greene doesn't possess overwhelming athleticism, but he's probably the safer bet for production this season.
The third option on Bortles' 2016 totem pole will most likely be Julius Thomas, who enters his second year in Jacksonville. After suffering a broken hand before the start of last season, Thomas was slow out of the gates, scoring 1 TD and eclipsing 23 receiving in just one of his first five games. But he gained some steam as the season went on, scoring a touchdown in four consecutive contests starting in Week 11. As somebody who could emerge as Blake Bortles' safety blanket with red-zone aptness, Thomas has the looks of an undervalued, low-end TE1 in August fantasy drafts.
Rushing for the 6th-least yards as a team last season (1473), the Jaguars couldn't quite find their groove in the run game. Constantly being down on the scoreboard didn't help fantasy owners who rostered T.J. Yeldon or any other Jags RB, as this team compiled a mere 354 rushing attempts all season, good for 2nd-least in the NFL. Yeldon's respectable 4.1 YPC as a rookie wasn't the reason Jacksonville struggled in the run game, but he definitely could have done the Jags a favor by staying on the field more, as he missed four games due to knee and groin injuries. His touchdown deficiencies (3 total as a rookie) are a bit worrisome for standard scoring leagues, but Yeldon should be able to serve as an effective change-of-pace, pass-catching back for the Jags if he stays healthy during his sophomore campaign. I'd pin him as an RB3/FLEX play at best.
Of course, my expectations for T.J. Yeldon are only tempered due to the arrival of ex-Jets bruiser Chris Ivory. After stints in New Orleans and New York, Chris Ivory is now headed to Jacksonville to possibly lead his new team in carries. A personal favorite of mine, Ivory was signed for big bucks this offseason (5-years, $32.5 million) to come in and serve as a downhill, between-the-tackles runner for the Jags. This ultimately could keep Yeldon fresher and more effective, but it clearly puts a dent into his originally predicted 2016 workload. Chris Ivory will more than likely finish the season with more attempts and goal line carries than T.J. Yeldon, while the latter will earn more work in the passing game. Here's how I see it: The Jags won't be losing games as often as they did in '15, and would probably want to pound the rock with a physical back like Ivory when they have the lead. With double digit carries and superior TD potential, Ivory seems to be a safer RB3 in standard formats, but the shifty Yeldon has more upside in PPR leagues. If either Ivory or Yeldon were to miss games, whoever starts would be an RB2 with a heavier dose of touches.
A year ago, if I told you the Tennessee Titans would accumulate the exact same amount of passing yards in 2015 as the Green Bay Packers, you probably would have called me crazy, or maybe even stupid. Well, that's precisely what happened last season, although that says more about the Packers' struggles than it does the Titans' success, as they were tied for 25th in the NFL. Rookie Marcus Mariota was constantly under duress, leading to a pair of MCL injuries that kept him out of four games. Nevertheless, Mariota flashed some serious potential in his rookie campaign, both with his arm and his legs. His fantasy hype has been quiet heading into drafts this year, partially because of the Titans' outspoken goal of establishing a run-heavy attack in 2016. Even if Tennessee follows through with their "exotic smashmouth" gameplan, Mariota's dual-threat ability could force him into the QB1 streaming picture when a favorable matchup arises.
Tennessee's wide receiver corps consists of a relatively young, unproven stable of pass catchers. Perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch is sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, who has dealt with his fair share of maturity issues in the past. Assuming he can make a mental leap in his second season in the pros, this kid has every characteristic you could possibly desire in a No. 1 WR in today's NFL. With a massive frame (6'5", 237 lbs) and wide catch radius, DGB undoubtedly has the most upside of the Titans' WR group, but it's also possible that he continues his lagging developmental pace in 2016. If he can seize one of the starting jobs in Tennessee, Green-Beckham would be an erratic WR3/4 with plenty of highs and lows.
Kendall Wright has the most chemistry with Mariota compared to the other Titans wideouts, but his stats have sharply declined over the past two seasons. I can't consider him more than a low-ceiling WR4/5 with more PPR value than standard value. The Patriots tried to sign free agent Rishard Matthews this offseason, but the Titans were able to offer a more tempting contract. Matthews comes over from Miami after an impressive 11-game showing last season playing alongside Jarvis Landry, where he averaged 60.2 yards per contest, 15.4 yards per reception, and 4 TDs. Matthews is a bit tough to predict, but he's a WR3/4 in my books, one that's less volatile than DGB, but offers noticeably lower upside.
His path to a starting position in Tennessee is pretty clear with Kendall Wright manning the slot and Green-Beckham potentially battling rookie Tajae Sharpe for the other WR spot. While the Titans have Sharpe, a fifth round pick from UMass, listed ahead of Dorial at this point in time, many believe that's simply to push the inconsistent effort of DGB so he doesn't think the starting job will be gift-wrapped for him. With Wright, Matthews, DGB, Justin Hunter, and others in the fold, Sharpe probably won't be a relevant fantasy target in this passing offense unless he truly blows away the coaching staff.
With 94 grabs for 1088 yards and 6 TDs a year ago, Delanie Walker was Marcus Mariota's favorite option by a wide margin, accounting for nearly 27% of the Titans' targets - the highest team mark of any tight end in the league. This led to him finishing as a top-5 TE in fantasy football, showing enough for the Titans to sign him to a two-year extension this offseason. While I certainly think he's a TE1 again in 2016, I'm expecting Walker to finish near the back of that range, possibly on the top-10 borderline. He's currently being selected as the 6th TE in summer drafts, which is a bit too rich for my taste after Tennessee brought in more receiving options and have vowed to be a run-oriented team this season.
The Titans finished last season as the 8th-worst team in terms of rushing production, so they've completely overhauled their backfield in hopes of a re-energized 2016 attack. In an offense that promises to provide a better scheme than the Chip Kelly's Eagles did, Tennessee made a splash earlier this offseason by trading for DeMarco Murray, whom they plan to use strictly as a downhill runner. Whether or not Murray can return to his elite 2014 form is a major question heading into this fantasy football season, but he'll almost certainly exceed 2015's measly 702 rushing yards with a career-low 3.6 YPC mark. Although he seemed lethargic and somewhat out of gas last season, I'm still a believer in Murray's talents after averaging just under 5.0 YPC from '13-'14. Tennessee has said they expect DeMarco to carry the load this season, so for as long as he remains focused and upright, Murray should return RB2 value for fantasy football owners.
If it weren't for the selection of Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry in the second round of this year's draft, Murray may have even pushed for borderline RB1 stats in 2016. However, as we know, that is no longer the case, and Henry figures to see a decent amount of action in what should be a run-happy Titans offense. Considering his draft stock, Derrick Henry was my favorite prospect heading into the NFL draft. He stands at an imposing 6'3", and weighs in at just under 250 pounds. In a nutshell, Henry is a big, fast, powerful, tackle-breaking machine who lacks elusiveness and lateral agility in open space. Additionally, I think it would be unfair to say Henry is a poor receiving back, since Alabama has the personnel to deploy multiple RBs during the course of a game, and he actually showed soft hands in limited opportunities. While some compare him to a Brandon Jacobs or LeGarrette Blount, I see a lot of Eddie George, the former Titan legend, in Henry's game. While he doesn't have the shiftiness that George may have possessed, they're both hammering, downhill runners who also have the ability to break off enormous gains. He'll run through, not around, any small-framed defender and could siphon goal line work as the season goes on. I see Henry as a must-have handcuff for Murray owners, and it wouldn't shock me to see him carve out a steady role in his rookie year.