By Tzali Nislick
The NFC South is absolutely LOADED. From new faces like Tom Brady and Todd Gurley to longtime division superstars like Christian McCaffrey and Michael Thomas, there’s talent from top to bottom. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at what the revamped NFC South has in store for us in 2020.
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Matt Ryan: I feel like Matt Ryan doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s thrown for 4,400 yards in seven of his last eight seasons and has averaged 28 touchdowns per season in that span. His 2018 was significantly better than last season, as he regressed by over 400 yards, nine touchdowns and he saw his interception rate nearly double. Even still though, Matty Ice finished as the QB11 on the season. Now entering his age-35 season, that’s probably about where he’ll finish again in 2020. The Falcons offense saw some turnover with the departures of Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper, but the former was replaced by the far more productive Todd Gurley and the latter is succeeded by former first round pick, Hayden Hurst. Where Ryan can improve on is his consistency; last season he had seven games of 18 or more points, but was only able to achieve that three weeks in a row at most. Gurley is a significant upgrade over Freeman though, so perhaps that helps balance out Atlanta’s offense, which was the pass-heaviest scheme in the NFL last season. Even with a more balanced approach, I don’t expect Ryan to stop slinging it and with cornerstone Julio Jones as well as breakout-hopeful Calvin Ridley, Ryan should flirt with QB1 numbers again in 2020.
Todd Gurley: I wrote about Gurley in June as a running back who could outperform his ADP. After leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2017 in 2018 that earned him back to back top-3 finishes, he regressed heavily last season, seeing his yardage total dip by nearly 400 yards and recording 28 less receptions. Even with a lackluster season, Gurley finished as the RB14. That seems like his floor to me, because it wasn’t that long ago that he was considered the best running back in the league. His nose for the end zone helps, as he’s scored at least 10 touchdowns in four of his five NFL seasons. Atlanta’s high-flying offense should provide him just as many opportunities to score, so I believe the Falcons are a good fit for him. Of course his concerns are always injury-related, but Dan Quinn said he could limit Gurley’s workload in training camp to keep him fresh for the regular season. If he’s all systems go for the regular season, Gurley should rebound to maybe not his old self, but potentially a top-10 RB.
Julio Jones: There’s not much to say about Julio Jones that hasn’t already been said. The only thing to consider about him is that he’s 31-years old, but he’s shown no indication of slowing down anytime soon. He’s about as safe of a bet as they come and should be another mid-tier WR1.
Calvin Ridley: Ridley made my must have list, as he enters 2020 as one of my favorite breakout candidates. After an inconsistent rookie campaign, he actually had a pretty decent floor in 2019. From Weeks 5-14, Ridley had four receptions in eight of nine games and 70 yards or a touchdown in seven games. He even has comparable numbers to Jones through his first two seasons, and if Ridley continues on the trajectory he’s on he can certainly provide WR2 production this year. His ADP is WR18 but I have him as more of a mid-to-high WR2.
Hayden Hurst: Hurst is one of my favorite late round tight end targets and he has breakout written all over him. Despite being a first round pick in 2018, he was stuck behind Mark Andrews for two years and was never given a chance to show off his talent in a run-heavy Baltimore offense. That will change with the Falcons. Last season Atlanta passed over 21% more often than the Ravens, and they saw Austin Hooper perform as the TE1 before getting hurt in Week 11. Last year the Falcons ranked 10th in tight end targets and sixth in tight end red zone targets, so Hurst will see plenty of opportunities to contribute with his new team. With an ADP of TE13, Hayden Hurst could be one of the biggest steals at his position.
Teddy Bridgewater: Teddy Bridgewater was serviceable in replacement of Drew Brees for five starts last season, posting a 9:2 touchdown to interception ratio and completing 66.7% of his passes in four games, including three games with a 70% completion percentage or better. He won’t sling it downfield, but he should flourish with his conservative approach by dumping it off to Christian McCaffrey. His 7.1 YPA is a good match with DJ Moore’s 8.7 YPT and Curtis Samuel’s 6.0 YPT. The Panthers should also have one of the league’s worst defenses again, so Bridgewater may be forced to throw to keep up. And now with former LSU OC Joe Brady calling the shots, Bridgewater has a phenomenal shot at putting up the best year of his career. He’s basically free at his QB26 ADP, so he’s a textbook low risk high reward sleeper coming into 2020.
Christian McCaffrey: Seriously? He’s the number one player.
DJ Moore: Okay, I LOVE DJ Moore this season. He has one of the highest floors at his position, scoring double digits in all but three games last season. He was also red hot down the stretch, averaging 20.3 PPG from Weeks 10-15 last season. He was a volume monster last year, finishing top-10 among wide receivers in targets, receptions and yards. And he did all of that with… Kyle Allen, who averaged less yards per attempt than Bridgewater. Bridgewater isn’t a gun slinger, but he’s a massive upgrade over Allen. At only 23-years old and entering just his third season, Moore’s ceiling is as high as they come and he’s a top-10 wide receiver for me this season.
Robby Anderson: Robby Anderson has been a productive receiver over the last three years with the Jets, and he was a key free agent signing for the Panthers over the offseason. After averaging 15.0 YPR in the last three seasons, I’m not sure how his vertical play style will match up with Bridgewater’s short yardage tendencies. I think he does more for Carolina in real life by opening up the field but I’m skeptical of his fantasy potential. He finished as the WR39 and WR40 in the last two seasons, so it’s not like he’s been a no-brainer starter anyway.
Curtis Samuel: I think he’s a better fit with Bridgewater than Anderson since he’s always been a short yardage threat. But although I’m not too high on Anderson, it’s not like he’s not going to get any targets, especially since he’s getting paid $12 million in 2020. Between McCaffrey, Moore, Anderson and Samuel, that’s four players who had at least an 18% target share a year ago. McCaffrey and Moore will get theirs, so Samuel may not get enough looks to maintain his FLEX production from last season.
Ian Thomas: Thomas showed some flashes towards the end of his 2018 rookie season, but failed to build upon that last year. He’s a deep sleeper in 2020 but may be fifth in line for targets.
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees: Drew Brees didn’t show his age for a minute last year, scoring 20+ points in eight of his 10 games that he started and finished. And with Emmanuel Sanders joining an already stacked offense with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and Jared Cook, Brees will have no trouble finding weapons to throw to. He led the league in completion percentage for the third straight season, saw his TD% rise and INT% stay roughly the same compared to 2018, so you would never know he’s entering his age-41 season. I’m not ignoring his age completely though, so I’ll count Brees as more of a back-end QB1, but he should thrive again with elite weapons and a strong offensive line.
Alvin Kamara: Even in a down season, Alvin Kamara still found a way to be a RB1, finishing as the RB9 overall. He came on strong at the end of the season, scoring four touchdowns in his final two games, but those made up just four of his six total scores on the season. That’s a far cry from him scoring 31 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Kamara did reveal that he had played most of 2019 with a torn knee, but that he’s healthy entering the new season. A healthy and motivated Kamara entering a contract year could spell disaster for the rest of the NFL. He’s obviously a fixture in the passing game as well, catching 81 passes in each of his first three years. With his touchdowns surely to go back up and all else considered, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he finished the year as the RB1 overall. He’s a top-4 back for me this season.
Michael Thomas: Michael Thomas gets way too much hate, as if he only has had one great season. Even before last season, he averaged 107 receptions, 1,262 yards and eight touchdowns per season through his first three years. But now with last year’s record setting performance, he has three Pro Bowls, two First Team All Pro selections and an Offensive Player of the Year award. He’s clearly the number one receiver again entering 2020 in both PPR and non-PPR formats.
Emmanuel Sanders: Emmanuel Sanders has kept himself in the fantasy landscape over the last two years, going for back to back 66+ receptions, 868+ yards and 4+ touchdowns in 2018 and 2019. He’s now 33-years old, and at best the number three pass catcher on his team. He won’t be a huge end zone threat, but he may have enough left in the tank to push out another FLEX caliber season.
Jared Cook: Jared Cook turned in another productive season in 2019, finishing as the TE7. He came through for fantasy owners down the stretch with three 20 point performances in his final six games. He’s now 33-years old, but remains a go to threat in the end zone, as evidenced by his nine touchdowns last season. However, there are better options than Cook with more upside given his age, so that makes him a borderline TE1.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady: Maybe my Patriots homerism is coming through, but I legitimately think Tom Brady will have a great year in Tampa Bay. Brady was the QB12 last season but threw for 4,300 yards and 29 touchdowns as recent as 2018. Everyone knows about the lack of weapons Brady had last year in particular, and obviously that will no longer be an issue with the Bucs. Bruce Arians and co. addressed essentially every offensive position over the offseason. Arians got the most out of an aging Carson Palmer in Arizona and has a track record for being a “quarterback whisperer.” Although underrated, Tampa’s defense isn’t as strong as the Patriots’ defenses Brady had over the years. This may force Brady to throw more to keep the Bucs in potential shootouts. His ADP is QB7, and honestly that feels right with elite weapons left and right.
Buccaneers Backfield: I’m putting all of these players in the same category, because I honestly have no clue who’s going to be the starter. Ronald Jones is a former second round pick who has yet to make a consistent impact. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is an intriguing third round rookie who has garnered hype this offseason. And LeSean McCoy was just signed to add a third back to an already frustrating backfield. New England always used multiple backs for different purposes, so perhaps the Buccaneers are trying to recreate that for Brady. Until Bruce Arians declares a clear cut starter, I’m probably staying away from this headache.
Chris Godwin: Godwin played over 50% of his snaps from the slot last season, and we all know how Brady values the slot. Godwin is younger and was obviously better than Mike Evans last season, finishing as the WR2. He has the edge in PPR leagues as well, out-catching Evans by 19 last season. He’s a surefire WR1 again in 2020.
Mike Evans: The case for Evans over Godwin is how consistent Evans has been. He’s had at least 1,000 yards every season of his 6-year career. He has a massive frame and is a matchup nightmare for defensive backs in the end zone. His ceiling isn’t as high as Godwin’s, but one could argue his floor is better.
Rob Gronkowski: Look, if anyone can make a comeback for the ages, it’s Rob Gronkowski. Perhaps the year off did him and his body well and he appears to be revitalized teaming back up with Brady. But then again, he’s a 31-year old, injury prone tight end who hasn’t played in a year. And the last time we did see him, he scored three touchdowns on the season. Ultimately I think Gronk will have a nice season, especially since he’s the only familiar piece on the offense. He’ll need to stay healthy, but he has one of the highest ceilings as well as an unsteady floor.
OJ Howard/Cameron Brate: They likely wouldn’t have a consistent role unless Gronk got hurt.