The AFC South Might Not Be Horribly Boring This Season

Now that most key free agents have been signed and the draft is complete, we have a few months to overreact to offseason developments before training camp begins and ACLs start to tear.

In keeping with that spirit, let’s take a look at the AFC South teams, each of which has legitimate reason to hope for an improvement of 3+ wins in 2016:

Jacksonville Jaguars

Already boasting an impressive young passing-game nucleus, the Jags addressed their horrid defense in a major way this offseason, signing CB Prince Amukamara, S Tashuan Gipson and DL Malik Jackson to long-term contracts….and then drafting CB/S Jalen Ramsey (Round 1) and LB Myles Jack (Round 2) — arguably two of the draft’s five most talented players.

On top of all that, the Jaguars will have 2015 No. 3 overall selection Dante Fowler, who tore an ACL during rookie minicamp last year. There’s a very real chance the Jacksonville defense goes from bottom-five to top-10, as I can’t think of another team that’s gotten this kind of talent infusion on one side of the ball in a single offseason.

That being said, I’m still lukewarm on the Jags’ 2016 prospects, with my main concern being that Blake Bortles’ so-called breakout season was far more impressive in fantasy leagues than it was in the NFL.

He completed just 58.6 percent of his passes for a decent 7.31 yards per attempt, making his fantasy living due to a combination of high volume (606 attempts) and the Jags’ unsustainable pass TD:run TD ratio (35:5). Even if we acknowledge that this is a pass-first team with some awesome receiving weapons, Bortles’ 35 touchdowns might be the flukiest major statistic from the 2015 season.

If you remove some of those touchdowns, many of which occurred while trailing by double digits, you’re left with uninspiring per-play numbers, not to mention 18 interceptions and 51 sacks. And for all their offseason additions, the Jags still have a pretty shaky offensive line.

Though I can’t deny the upside if things break right, this feels like a seven or eight-win team more so than a real contender. Granted, eight wins could go a long way in the AFC South. Or maybe not….

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Houston Texans

Houston returns most of the key pieces from last season’s impressive defense, along with a solid offensive line, DeAndre Hopkins, DeAndre Hopkins and did I mention DeAndre Hopkins?

This team somehow won nine games last season, despite having Brian Hoyer and Alfred Blue in the backfield for most of the year, with no viable receiving threat to complement the aforementioned Hopkins.

Apparently privy to their limitations, the Texans signed QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller, then drafted WRs Will Fuller (Round 1) and Braxton Miller (Round 3).

I don’t particularly like any of those moves when considering the resources that were expended, but I do think the Texans significantly raised their 2016 ceiling.

If the team’s huge gamble ($37 million guaranteed) on Osweiler pays off, the rest of the roster has enough talent to reasonably compete for a championship.

Of course, Osweiler was mediocre at best in his seven starts for Denver last season, and he’s probably nothing more than a low-end starter in the NFL. That should still allow Houston to compete for an AFC South crown, but the team isn’t quite stacked enough to make a deep playoff run unless Osweiler emerges as a top-15 QB.

Indianapolis Colts

Boring roster and a boring offseason, but if Andrew Luck plays 16 games at his usual level….the Colts could get back to their 11-5 ways before getting smacked by one of the conference heavyweights in the playoffs. How fun!

Tennessee Titans

Of the four AFC South teams, Tennessee is the only one that needs to wait another year before viewing the playoffs as a real possibility – yet there’s still plenty of room for improvement from last season’s 3-13 disaster.

In addition to young bookend tackles and a 22-year-old franchise quarterback, the Titans have an intriguing group of offensive skill players led by RBs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, TE Delanie Walker and WRs Dorial Green-Beckham and Rishard Matthews.

Also boasting a bunch of extra picks in the 2017 draft, Tennessee is finally in decent position for the long run, albeit with a very young roster that’s sorely lacking in defensive talent.

Having recently traded for the rather-expensive Murray, the Titans probably should have passed on Henry at No. 45 overall in favor of some defensive help. Like everyone else, I still have major reservations about the team’s front office and coaching staff.

Random NFL Thoughts

I’m getting jacked up for my weekly column, Working the Wire, where I suggest waiver wire claims each week and, every so often, put players who are "dead to me" six feet under.  Unfortunately, it’s a little early to be talking about waiver claims, as many leagues haven’t even drafted yet, and for those that have, not too much changes in the preseason.  So I thought I’d take advantage of Kevin Payne’s one-week hiatus from "Payne’s Perspective" and share some random NFL and fantasy thoughts as the season approaches.

– Auctions are far better than drafts.  I can give a million reasons why, but here’s the top one for 2012 – imagine you’re stuck drafting at 9th overall.  I see a pretty clear consensus on the top eight – Arian Foster, Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, Tom Brady, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, and Drew Brees.  While we can quibble about the order, I think those eight are set in stone.  After that, though, it gets tough.  Do you take a running back with some question marks – Darren McFadden (health), Matt Forte (health, no goal line carries), Maurice Jones-Drew (holdout), or DeMarco Murray (unproven)?  Do you really want a receiver like Greg Jennings or Larry Fitzgerald to be your best player?  Do you roll the dice on Cam Newton or another second-tier QB?  Or do you take one of the stud tight ends – Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski – because they’re so much better than the other tight ends?  This is a miserable decision to have to make.  Please, folks – auction.  Everyone should get a chance at the top 8. 

I think I’ve settled on Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski as my 9th and 10th overall choices (for now, anyway).  That’s higher than I’d like to take tight ends, yes.  But these guys are total studs, and their floors are both crazy high.  Ultimately, that’s what I want from my best player – somebody I know is going to be a stud all season.  I’ve never seen anyone win a league in Round 1, but I’ve seen fantasy owners lose it there. 

So who do I have at 11?  Right now, it’s Darren McFadden.  Yes, I think McFadden will get hurt again, like he always does.  But if he starts out the season racking up fantasy points, like he usually does when he’s able to stay on the field, there will probably be some sucker – in every league, not just mine – who will pay full value in a trade.  So grab McFadden, then trade him high. 

Lance Moore and Devery Henderson aren’t getting enough love right now.  Moore is 136 on Rotowire’s last Composite 200, and Henderson just 190.  I checked the ranks on Yahoo! and both guys are buried there as well.  Robert Meachem is gone, his presumed replacement, Adrian Arrington, is hurt, and Nick Toon is just a mid-round rookie receiver.  Somebody is going to get more targets from Drew Brees – Moore and Henderson should be bumped up accordingly.  Right now, I have Lance Moore at 82 and Devery Henderson at 126.  Aggressive, yes, but I like erring on the side of players on teams with great offenses.  Still not convinced?  Look at Moore’s career stats – if you eliminate his injury-plagued 2009, he’s scored 26 TDs the last three seasons, with at least eight per season.  Yes, that’s 8, 8, and 10 TDs the past three years he’s been healthy. 

Chris Liss asked me to create my "Top 200" for the site, and if you’ve never done that before (from scratch – no peeking at anyone else’s lists), I have to tell you – it’s a fantastic way to get ready for the season.  Set aside half a day and try it. 

The fact that Jahvid Best still isn’t over his concussion problems forces me to bump Kevin Smith up my lists.  On an explosive Lions offense that knows it has to run more in 2012, Smith is getting under-drafted right now.  Briefly, Kevin Smith was a fantasy starter in 2011 – he could easily start 2012 the same way.  Mikel Leshoure’s hamstring problem sure helps.  

Sidney Rice is in nearly the same category as Best … the fact that his shoulders are still giving him so many problems is troubling.  That magical 2009 seems like a total outlier now – much like Braylon Edwards circa 2007. 

If you put the over/under on the number of catches Chad Johnson would get for the rest of his career at 0.5, I’d take the under.  The league might not miss him (and Evelyn Lozada apparently won’t), but fans will. Team allegiances aside, Johnson was fun. 

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It’s a shame that Carolina has spent significant money on |STAR|three|STAR| running backs the past two offseasons – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart got big extensions, and Mike Tolbert was added as a free agent – yet has done nothing to improve a subpar receiving corps.  I’d like Cam Newton much more if the Panthers had allocated their resources differently.  Plus, Tolbert’s signing, when the Panthers already had two good backs, has me convinced he’s going to steal goal line carries from Newton. 

I believe Hakeem Nicks will finish 2012 with better stats than the more heralded Victor Cruz.  I briefly debated this on the radio with Chris Liss the other day … (he has to limit my time because if he allows me to talk too long, he knows he’ll lose the debate).  Anyway, he compared Cruz to Wes Welker, and I thought about it … that’s actually a really good comparison.  Both are slot guys, very shifty/quick.  Now go look at Welker’s career stats – one season with 9 TDs, and another with 8, but two seasons with four or fewer.  That’s the problem with guys like Welker – they just don’t score enough TDs.  Yes, Cruz had 9 TDs last year in just 14 games, but many of those were of the long, broken-tackle variety – not likely to repeat.  If you’re in a PPR league, fine – take Cruz over Nicks.  If not, then Nicks over Cruz is the right answer. 

Am I the only one who likes that Roy Helu is nicked up and not currently sitting atop the Redskins depth chart?  If he doesn’t emerge as the top back in DC this season, I’ll be amazed.  The profit potential here is huge given where he’s being drafted right now.  Shhhhh. 

Every year, one or more teams make the playoffs unexpectedly.  Last year, for instance, the Bengals were expected to be in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes but made the playoffs – in a tough division, no less.  So who’s that team going to be this year?  I’m not sure, but unless the 49ers fall on their face and someone else wins the NFC West, that team won’t be from the NFC.  Six teams make the playoffs from the NFC, and that conference is littered with elite, playoff-caliber QBs – Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Mike Vick, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan (that’s nine) – and that doesn’t even include anyone from the NFC West.  Hence, it’s hard for me to see a sleeper emerging from the NFC.  The AFC, though, is much different.  No outcome would surprise me in the AFC West – literally, you could just shuffle those four teams in any order – and there’s serious potential for a sleeper from the AFC South.  If the Texans falter (and they’re hardly a perennial powerhouse like, say, the Patriots), then the Colts, Jaguars, and Titans will benefit from four games against the other two.  My Bills could challenge as well, though it’s hard for me to get past the fact that the Patriots are in their division.  OK, time for a pick … the winner of Bills/Chiefs in Week 2 (both last place teams from 2011) makes the playoffs in the AFC in 2012. 

Did Percy Harvin really rush for 345 yards and two TDs last year?  Call me crazy, but I don’t think any other receivers did that in 2011. 

What a mess in the Green Bay backfield.  I suppose Cedric Benson could be like BenJarvus Green-Ellis was in New England, a "four yards and cloud of dust, nothing special but no fumbles" sort of guy.  But James Starks and Alex Green are in the picture, too.  Green may have upside, but if the Packers intended to tap into it, then why sign a retread like Benson?  This situation looks even more crowded than last year, when no Packer running backs were worth owning in most formats. 

Facing foreclosure?  Visit www.stopalawfirm.com.  And if you don’t think that’s relevant here, several of us, including myself, will be discussing the "Stopa Law Firm League" throughout the season, as appropriate for these articles.  The participants are myself, Jeff Erickson, Chris Liss, Kevin Payne, Derek Van Riper, the five guys who cover fantasy football for Yahoo! (Scott Pianowski, Dalton Del Don, Andy Behrens, Brad Evans, and Brandon Funston), and Mike Salfino (co-author, with Scott Pianowski, of Breakfast Table).  And of course, the weekly "Working the Wire" articles will start soon.