The NFC South already had Drew Brees, a fantasy football luminary, not to mention Michael Turner, Steve Smith and Mike Williams. The biggest newcomer in the division in 2011, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, was also the most important new face in the fantasy game. Roddy White's almost always a second-round pick, Darren Sproles was the league's best fantasy sleeper and Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount were causing lots of buzz just a year ago. The NFC South even had two of the top four scoring tight ends (Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez) in fantasy football last year.
There has been a lot for fantasy football managers to like in the NFL's most competitive division in recent years, but the best may be yet to come. Could the NFC South be an even more fertile ground for fantasy drafts in 2012. Let's take a look at the key developments since the end of 2011, and how they might affect your drafts this coming summer.
- Bucs Load Up Around Freeman
Following a breakout 2010 campaign in which Freeman, Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount all exceeded expectations by a comfortable margin, the Buccaneers appeared to be a more relevant fantasy team heading into 2011 than ever before. Unfortunately, a very difficult 2011 season for the Buccaneers was just as problematic for fantasy football owners, and all three of those Bucs scored fewer fantasy points than the year before.
Few teams have undergone more change than the Buccaneers since the end of 2011, however, obviously beginning with a brand new coaching staff. There's hope that some of those changes will make the returning Bucs more effective, and that the expected returns in 2012 or Freeman, Blount and Williams will still materialize in 2012.
Oh, and then there's Vincent Jackson.
Starting at the bottom of that list, you probably saw Jackson come off your draft boards somewhere in the late-second round to mid-third round range last year. And he didn't disappoint. By some standard scoring methods, Jackson was the ninth-best fantasy receiver last year, thanks to his 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns.
Of course, Jackson was a San Diego Charger last year, and part of a passing attack that has been quite prolific in recent seasons. There is no doubting that Jackson will bring the same talents to the Buccaneers' offense, but fantasy analysts are obviously going to question whether a different situation will affect his stats.
Still, fantasy analysts were high on Williams before last season, after he caught 11 touchdown passes from a locked-in Freeman. If a new coaching staff, new offense and new weapons around him have the effect many expect, than Freeman will produce results more like 2010. And that should mean continued high numbers for Jackson. There is sure to be some skepticism in various fantasy leagues, but it's still quite possible that Jackson – one of the NFC South's most intriguing newcomers – will be a third-round pick once again.
Freeman has other new targets, as well. Likely to be most significant are the additions of running back Doug Martin and tight end Dallas Clark. Martin was the Buccaneers' second first-round pick, the player chosen #31 overall, and it's possible that his arrival has generated more fantasy buzz than that of Jackson. Martin might not go as high in your draft as Jackson, but there is already a debate over who will end up getting the most carries between the rookie back and the incumbent Blount.
Of course, that debate will be settled by a group of men who care little about fantasy results – the Buccaneers' coaching staff – and it may be that the two backs end up getting something of an equal load. That's not music to the ears of fantasy players, who have long cringed at running back committees in places such as Denver and New England. Once again, however, it does make the Buccaneers' backfield more relevant on your draft weekend, as managers decide how to value Martin and Blount. This recent ESPN ranking of the 2012 draft picks has Martin as the third most impactful rookie in the league this year.
Potentially raising the value of both Buccaneer backs (and it's possible seventh-rounder Michael Smith could emerge as a sleeper, too) is another newcomer in red and pewter: All-Pro guard Carl Nicks. By most analysts' estimation, Nicks was the best interior lineman in the NFL last year, and now he's teamed up with another guard who made the Pro Bowl last season, Davin Joseph. With young Jeremy Zuttah taking over at center and a recent Pro Bowler in Donald Penn manning left tackle, the Bucs have a very attractive offensive line situation on paper. Assuming that translates onto the field, that should make anybody carrying the ball for Tampa Bay more interesting to fantasy players.
Clark replaces a tight end in the Bucs' offense, Kellen Winslow, who has been a 70-catch guy for three years running, so from a receptions standpoint the team would probably be happy with similar numbers. Of course, Clark caught 100 passes in 2009, his last full campaign, and he could top Winslow's marks if he quickly finds chemistry with Freeman. Fantasy players would like to see higher yardage and touchdown totals, however, and that's a good bet if the Buccaneer offense is better overall with the additions of Jackson, Martin, Nicks and new coordinator Mike Sullivan.
- Panthers Look to Maximize Newton's potential
All Cam Newton did as a rookie for the Panthers, after being drafted first overall a year ago, is throw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, the first 4,000-yard season ever by a rookie passer. Yes, Newton threw 17 touchdowns and the Panthers' offense was somehow "only" ranked 13th in the league, but perhaps we should mention at this point that Newton also ran for 706 yards and an unbelievable 14 touchdowns.
Can Newton get better, from a fantasy standpoint, then 4,700 yards and 35 touchdowns? It seems far-fetched, but the Panthers have definitely taken steps since the end of the 2011 season to make it happen.
Carolina's most important move was probably the free agency addition of another former Charger, running back Mike Tolbert. Tolbert's rushing numbers fell from 735 yards in 2010 to 490 last year, but he also essentially doubled his receiving numbers to 54-433, and he scored 10 touchdowns after notching 11 the year before. Tolbert didn't get any worse in 2011, of course; he merely ended up ceding more of the carries to 2010 first-round pick Ryan Mathews.
If Tolbert can be anywhere near as effective as the last two backs to emigrate from San Diego in free agency – Michael Turner and Darren Sproles – he will be a huge fantasy player. Turner has essentially played like a first-round pick in his four years in Atlanta and Sproles was an out-of-nowhere top-10 RB producer last year. Tolbert is more like Turner than Sproles, a thicker back with a bruising style, but he's more of a pass-catcher than Turner. The Panthers have effectively split carries for years between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart…and both of those backs are still in Carolina. With Tolbert in the mix, the Panthers are absolutely loaded in the backfield, and that's without including the outside-the-pocket potential of Newton.
With all those options to carry the ball, it might be hard for fantasy players to justify investing too high of a pick on Tolbert. On the other hand, the ageless Steve Smith should still go very high after he thrived in his first season with Newton. Smith has been a fantasy star for the better part of the last decade, when healthy, and is likely to remain so in 2012. What the Panthers have often lacked, however, is a good number-two option to pair with Smith. That could be David Gettis or Brandon LaFell, but it could also be fourth-round pick Joe Adams out of Arkansas.
Actually, Adams is more likely to play in the slot given his diminutive size, but he's got speed to burn and could flourish with Smith drawing coverage away. Adams will be a sleeper, for sure, but considering the yardage that Newton piled up last year, it's tempting to want to get a piece of that passing game any way you can.
- Falcons Work on Front Line
Atlanta didn't pick until #55 overall this past April, and had only two picks in the first four rounds. Some of that had to do with last year's trade up to get wide receiver Julio Jones, and it was definitely a more impactful draft for the Atlanta offense in 2011. In addition to Jones, who rang up 959 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, the Falcons also selected running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who has the look of a dangerous third-down back. Rodgers put up only about 400 combined yards and two scores as a rookie but could carve out a bigger role in 2012.
The pairing of Jones with White and the continued production of Gonzalez made Atlanta the eighth-best passing team in the NFL last year. However, even with Turner the Falcons ranked just 17th on the ground, and that may explain why their first two picks in this year's draft were offensive linemen. Wisconsin center Peter Konz, considered a steal at #55, may push incumbent Todd McClure or, perhaps more likely, start at one of the guard positions. Third-round pick Lamar Holmes, a tackle from Southern Miss, is considered more of a project, but could muscle his way into the lineup. Both newcomers are 6-5 and north of 300 pounds, so Atlanta could end up with a huge offensive line in front of Turner and company.
The Falcons also went back to Wisconsin's power running offense to grab fullback Bradie Ewing. Ewing may have been the best lead blocker available in the draft, and that's great news for Turner, Rodgers and Jason Snelling. It's always difficult to predict how much impact a rookie offensive lineman will have, but the Falcons clearly felt like it was an area that needed improvement. If they succeed in doing so, one would have to upgrade the fantasy projections for Turner and Ryan, and thus everybody on the Falcons offense.
- Saints Try to Maintain Status Quo
The story is a little different in New Orleans, where Brees and the Saints have yet to settle the quarterback's contract situation. The team placed an exclusive franchise tag on their star passer, so he won't be playing anywhere else in 2012, but the ongoing impasse has been a bit uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine the situation not getting resolved in time to have Brees on the field this fall, but every week of delay takes away some of the Saints' preparation time on offense.
New Orleans was light on draft picks, like the Falcons, so there haven't been many additions to the Saints' offense this offseason. The fourth round brought Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon and the team also picked up two late-round offensive linemen. Toon is not likely to draw much attention during your fantasy draft, especially considering how deep and varied the Saints' assembly of offensive weapons is already.
In fact, New Orleans probably did its best offseason work in keeping what it already had. Marques Colston re-signed with the team, as did Adrian Arrington and Courtney Roby. Robert Meachem left for San Diego, but the Saints did an impressive job of replacing Nicks by signing former Baltimore guard Ben Grubbs.
All in all, with Colston, Sproles, Graham, Mark Ingram, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and the rest, New Orleans can feel comfortable with its offense despite no real additions of note in 2012. However, that will only be true if the Brees situation is resolved comfortably, and as soon as possible. From a fantasy standpoint, the longer the contract struggle continues for this outsized fantasy producer, the harder it will be to devote a first-round pick to him.