By Tzali Nislick
The AFC South is one of the most fluid divisions in the NFL, with three of its teams winning the division in the last six years. The only one who hasn’t, the Tennessee Titans, made the AFC Championship game last season. This year the division isn’t as ripe with fantasy talent as it’s been in recent years, but there are some stars like Deshaun Watson, Derrick Henry and AJ Brown. So let’s take a look at what the AFC South has in store for us in 2020.
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Deshaun Watson: Deshaun Watson has been a fantasy star ever since he came into the league. After taking the NFL by storm during his rookie season he’s finished as the QB4 in each of the last two seasons. And despite the DeAndre Hopkins trade, I don’t anticipate Watson struggling in year four. His nearly 1,000 yards and 12 scores on the ground over the last two years provides him a safe floor, and it’s not like the Texans don’t have weapons all of a sudden. With the additions of Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to go along with Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, the Clemson product should still have plenty of options on offense. The Texans will also be more dynamic out of the backfield with David Johnson, who’s an upgrade over Carlos Hyde. Houston returns all five starters on the offensive line from a year ago, including Laremy Tunsil, so hopefully their continuity will bode well for Watson. He has the talent and the track record, so even without Hopkins, Watson is a mid-range QB1 for me this year.
David Johnson: I wrote about Johnson as a running back who could outperform his ADP. Despite not being very efficient, he did still average over 20 PPG before an injury invited the acquisition of Kenyan Drake a year ago. People also forget that Johnson was the RB1 overall back in 2016, and he finished as the RB9 in 2018 as well. So despite what the public perception of him is, David Johnson has been a productive player over the years. All due respect to Carson Palmer and Kyler Murray, but Watson will be the best quarterback Johnson has played with so far in his career and I think his level of play will be elevated because of it. It’s quite possible Johnson’s best days are behind him, but I think his ceiling is higher than his RB19 ADP suggests.
Duke Johnson: He has benefitted from being paired with other running backs who aren’t as gifted catching the ball. Unfortunately for him, David Johnson can catch passes so that limits whatever PPR upside Duke Johnson had coming into 2020.
Brandin Cooks: 2019 was a tough season for Brandin Cooks, but so was it for the Rams in general. I think that leaves Cooks being heavily undervalued in 2020 though, as prior to last season he averaged over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns over four years from 2015-2018 without missing a game. He’ll be only 27-years old in September and now figures to be the number one pass catcher in Houston, after competing for targets with Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski over the last three seasons. Watson is an upgrade over Jared Goff and that leaves Cooks with a great opportunity to outperform his WR36 ADP.
Will Fuller: Will Fuller will always just be a dart throw to me unless he can prove he can stay healthy over 16 games. He’s missed 20 games over the last three years and is only good for a few big games a year. Last season all three of his touchdowns came in one game, he scored over 12 points just twice and 40% of his points came in one game against the Falcons. Unless he can maintain consistency and stay healthy, I’ll continue to avoid Fuller. And at his WR35 ADP there are better options.
Randall Cobb/Kenny Stills: They’re better players in real life than for fantasy.
Darren Fells: He finished as the TE17 last year but that was thanks to his seven touchdowns. I doubt he repeats that in 2020.
Philip Rivers: I wrote about Rivers as a late round quarterback who could provide QB1 value this season. He has suffered behind a weak Chargers offensive line for years, and last season Pro Football Focus ranked their line 29th. He now goes to Indianapolis, which boasts the best unit in football. Although his weapons are a slight downgrade from Los Angeles, TY Hilton and the young duo of Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. should more than suffice. I still believe in Rivers, even at age 38. And with an ADP of QB24, don’t be surprised if he outperforms his projections in 2020.
Jonathan Taylor: Jonathan Taylor was one of the 10 players I wrote about on my must have list. It’s possible he starts the year behind Marlon Mack on the depth chart, but I expect the former Wisconsin start to take over sooner rather than later this year. He’s already being drafted ahead of Mack, so the fantasy community seems to agree. Considering the Colts’ elite offensive line and Indianapolis having the 5th-heaviest run offense in the league last year, Marlon Mack is the only thing stopping Taylor from RB1 production.
Marlon Mack: Despite me believing Taylor is better, I still also think Mack is a good player. For as long as he is the starting running back he could provide RB2 numbers in non-PPR leagues. After all, he did run for nearly 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns last season. I’m staying away from him in 2020 however, because I think it’s a matter of when, not if, he gets replaced by Taylor on top of the depth chart.
Nyheim Hines: I wrote about Hines as a top handcuff option. He brings receiving ability to the table, something that neither Mack or Taylor have proved so far at their respective levels. Austin Ekeler has been a productive pass catcher over the years despite Melvin Gordon having a significant role as well, so perhaps Hines will still be involved with Philip Rivers much like Ekeler was.
TY Hilton: Last year was rough for Hilton, who was limited to just 10 games due to a variety of injuries. Prior to his first missed game in Week 4 though, Hilton did have 20 receptions and four touchdowns. He wasn’t very productive the rest of the season when he was on the field, but some of that can be attributed to Jacoby Brissett’s 6.6 Y/A, which wasn’t a good match for Hilton’s career 15.6 Y/R. Rivers was 11th in the NFL last year in Y/A so that should elevate Hilton’s big play potential. His age and injury history are both concerns, but it’s very possible he bounces back.
Parris Campbell/Michael Pittman Jr.: Both are just end of the draft fliers who could carve out a larger role as the season continues.
Jack Doyle: He’s had a couple down seasons in the last two years, but there’s potential to bounce back in 2020 with Rivers, who favored Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry while in San Diego/Los Angeles. Doyle was the TE15 last year and he could have a similar season this year.
Gardner Minshew: I wrote about Minshew as a late round quarterback who could provide QB1 value. He was solid as a rookie, posting a 21:6 touchdown to interception ratio, a clip that was better than Dak Prescott, Watson, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Kyler Murray. He enabled DJ Chark to breakout, and with Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson joining Chark, Dede Westbrook and others, Minshew will have some underrated weapons to throw to. Leonard Fournette also caught 76 passes out of the backfield last season. Minshew has high upside and with his ADP at just QB26, he has a great chance to be a major steal.
Leonard Fournette: Fournette was another running back I wrote about outperforming his ADP. He finished as the RB7 despite scoring three touchdowns which is baffling. He was just one of three running backs in the top-40 from last year who scored three total touchdowns or less. That just goes to show how phenomenal he was, especially considering he faced eight defenders in the box at the third highest rate for running backs with at least 200 carries last year. I anticipate that to change if Minshew continues to improve like I expect him to. And even if Fournette doesn’t repeat his 76 receptions, his touchdown total is surely to go up. As long as he stays healthy, Fournette has RB1 potential.
DJ Chark: DJ Chark came out of nowhere last season and was a WR1 for most of the year before he trailed off in the last few games and ended as the WR17. He’s being drafted as the WR23 and that’s fair considering he doesn’t have the track record of a true WR2, but he has the upside for more at just 23-years old.
Ryan Tannehill: Ryan Tannehill was one of the best waiver wire pickups from last season, finishing as the QB9 in PPG. He scored at least 17 points in all but one game from Week 7 on and he had five games of at least 23 points in that span. He also had the highest passer rating in the league in 2019. But I don’t see him repeating his level of production again in 2020. While he had a few decent years in Miami, last season was a huge outlier for his career. I’m more inclined to believe he’s closer to the quarterback he was in his first six years than his one year of brilliance. I think he’s more of a back-end QB2 who could be a nice streaming option given the matchup.
Derrick Henry: Led the NFL in rushing and touchdowns. Nuff said. He’s a mid-RB1 though due to his lack of receiving upside.
AJ Brown: AJ Brown was AWESOME after the bye last year, averaging over 21 PPG over his final six games. While his 52 receptions is a pretty low number for a number one receiver, I expect him to improve on that total as he continues to develop entering his second season. He only had one drop in his 84 targets so he should be trusted with a larger volume in 2020. He’s a borderline WR2 with upside.
Jonnu Smith: Smith finished as the TE20 last year and has room to grow on his 439 yards and three touchdowns if he’s given an expanded role in the offense. He could be a TE2 streamer this year.