Welcome to Part 3 of the NFL Division Preview Series. Each installment will include my prediction of each team’s record and divisional finish. Along the way I’ll point out fantasy studs, mid-round values, late-round gems, and a breakout player from each division.
New Orleans (10-6)
Tampa Bay (6-10)
This is one of the most competitive divisions in football. I expect these teams to beat each other up, and no team should come out of this division 13-3 or even 12-4. Atlanta is much improved on both sides of the ball and I expect them to run neck and neck with New Orleans the whole season. Hopefully one team wins the division and the other gets a Wild Card berth, as both teams should be among the Conference’s elite.
When looking at fantasy stars, this division has it all. There are potentially four first-round picks and various others scattered throughout the rest of the draft.
Christian McCaffrey – McCaffrey finished the 2018 season basically tied with Saquon Barkley as the top RB in PPR formats (McCaffrey was 0.3 points behind Barkley). With 107 receptions, 1,965 total yards, and 13 combined TDs, he was a league-winner for many fantasy owners. Despite his smaller stature, McCaffrey has proven durable, playing all 16 games both seasons he has been in the league. He has reportedly put on 5-10 pounds of muscle to help absorb the pounding of an NFL season. He is a lock top-three pick in all formats.
Alvin Kamara – Kamara is right behind McCaffrey and is a top-four pick in fantasy drafts as well. He had 81 receptions and a combined 1,592 yards and 18 TDs last year. This was while sharing the load with Mark Ingram, who is now off to Baltimore. New Orleans signed Latavius Murray to absorb some of the workload, but he won’t hurt Kamara’s stats at all. In fact, he will probably get a little less work than Ingram did so Kamara’s numbers could actually increase.
Michael Thomas – Thomas was the epitome of consistency last year, catching 85% of the passes Drew Brees sent his way. He is the clear top target in one of the league’s most explosive offenses. He seems to get better every year and the sky is the limit again this year.
He is a great pick near the end of Round 1 in your fantasy draft.
Julio Jones – The knock on Jones is his touchdown totals. He is a given for a ton of receptions and yards every year, but his TD totals have been inconsistent. He did have eight TDs last year, so that is encouraging. Dirk Koetter is back as OC. He was the Falcons OC from 2012-2014. In 2013 Julio was hurt and only played five games. However, he had 10 TDs in 2012, the highest total of his career. In 2014, he only had six TDs but had 104 receptions for 1,593 yards in 15 games. Having Koetter back will hopefully help his touchdown totals. If he could move up to double-digit TDs, he could rank as the No. 1 receiver in all of fantasy football. Like Thomas, he is a great value at the end of Round 1.
Mike Evans – Evans rounds out the trifecta of stud receivers in this division. Like Thomas and Jones, Evans is huge and consistent. At 6 feet 5 inches and 231 pounds, he is a beast for cornerbacks to handle. He has also had over 1,000 yards receiving in all five of his NFL seasons. Tampa Bay hired Bruce Arians out of retirement this offseason. Arians has a history of implementing a downfield passing attack that should fit Evans’ skill set perfectly. Evans averages 15.5 yards per catch over his five-year career. The new offense should be exciting to watch and Evans appears to be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
Devonta Freeman – Freeman is healthy again and having at great camp. I’ve previously mentioned Freeman as a great value this season:
When Freeman was healthy in 2015 and 2016 he had over 1,000 yards rushing and added 11 rushing touchdowns each season. Additionally, he caught 73 passes in 2015 and 54 more in 2016.
I fully expect Freeman to return to his previous form. Health is the biggest knock on him but if he can remain healthy he is likely to be a top ten RB. I would gladly take him in the late second/early third round of any fantasy draft in which he was available.
In that same article I discussed Chris Godwin as one of my favorite middle-round values. I would put O.J. Howard in that same category, and for the same reasons. Coach Bruce Arians is going to bring a wide open, downfield passing attack to town. He is reportedly helping Jameis Winston make better reads and eliminate mistakes. Winston’s development is crucial to this offense. Assuming Winston takes a step up, Godwin and Howard should share in picking up a majority of the 179 targets, 1,590 yards, and nine TDs vacated by DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries. Taking either in Rounds 4 or 5 adds nice stability to your fantasy team.
Latavius Murray – I don’t understand the lack of interest in Murray. Does anyone remember Mark Ingram in this offense? As I mentioned earlier, Murray may get a few less carries than Ingram did but it should be close. And close is still awfully good in this offense! Ingram was getting drafted anywhere between Rounds 3-5 when he played for the Saints. Murray is being drafted in Round 7! I expect Murray to get double-digit touches each week, and the majority of goal line work, in one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. He has stand alone value and would be a top 10-15 RB if Alvin Kamara were to suffer an injury.
Ronald Jones – Jones was awful his rookie year, averaging 1.9 yards per carry and catching seven passes for 33 yards in the nine games he was able to suit up for the Buccaneers — not exactly what Tampa Bay had in mind when they selected him with the 38th overall pick in Round 2 of the 2018 NFL draft. After all, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry at USC his final college season, and tallied 1,550 yards and 19 TDs. Jones obviously has the talent, but injuries slowed him down and he just didn’t seem to “get it” as a rookie. Reports from training camp have been positive, and Tampa is hoping Jones makes a big leap in Year 2. It’s not as if incumbent starter Peyton Barber set the world on fire last year either. He only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on his 234 carries for 871 yards. Barber is a career 3.8-yards-per-carry rusher. The job is there for the taking and if Jones makes any progress in Year 2 he should be able to land the starting gig. He is worth the gamble in double-digit rounds of fantasy drafts.
Brian Hill/Quadree Ollison – Keep an eye on the Atlanta backfield in the preseason. The Falcons have some sleeper talent at the running back position. As I mentioned previously, I am very high on Devonta Freeman, but the backup position is also very interesting. Ito Smith doesn’t appear to have the backup RB slot locked down. Atlanta also has two fifth-round draft picks lying in wait. Brian Hill (2017) barely saw the field his rookie year and most of his sophomore season. He then got an opportunity last year in Weeks 16 and 17, and proceeded to rush for 145 yards and two TDs on just 16 carries. He also looked good in the Hall of Fame game to open the preseason last week, rushing for 57 yards on 11 carries and catching two passes, including Atlanta’s only touchdown. Ollison, this year’s fifth-round pick, wasn’t quite as effective in the preseason opener but has a lot of promise as well. He ran for 1,213 yards and 11 TDs his senior season at Pittsburgh. The winner of this competition could have some stand alone value as Freeman’s complement, and definitely is a handcuff worth taking in the last couple of rounds of your draft.
Curtis Samuel – Samuel is the ideal candidate to be a third-year breakout WR. He is a dual threat who is just learning the WR position, as he was primarily a running back at Ohio State. His last season there (junior year) he ran for 771 yards and caught 74 passes for 865 yards with 15 combined touchdowns. And did I mention he can fly? At the combine he recorded 4.31 second 40-yard-dash. Carolina knows how to take advantage of his speed and versatility too. Last year he scored seven TDs on only 47 touches. Two of those touchdowns came on runs. He carried 8 times for 84 yards and two TDs to go along with his 39 catches for 494 yards and five TDs (most coming after Week 10). D.J. Moore is getting all of the hype but his ADP is in the fourth round. Samuel may put up numbers just as good (or better) and be available three or four rounds later. Samuel is the Carolina receiver to invest in.