NFL 2020 Record Predictions and Off-Season Summary: NFC South
This is part two of my record predictions series, please feel free to check out the other divisions below.
Team success can play a major role in determining how an individual player will perform in fantasy football. Will receivers benefit from a consistently losing game script? Will running games thrive as the team looks to run down the clock on their way to victory? Over the next two weeks, I will dive into each division, predict how it might shake out in 2020, and how that could impact fantasy football. Let's take a look at the NFC South.
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Last season Jameis Winston pulled off the impossible and authored the first 30 touchdowns and 30 interception season ever, and in 2020 he will be learning the ropes of responsible quarterback play from the leagues most accurate passer ever (67.6% career completion for Drew Brees). Tom Brady fills the void left by Winston in Tampa Bay and he is getting the band back together by having Rob Gronkowski join him. Matt Rhule looks to make an impact in his first season as an NFL Head Coach with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, while Dan Quinn tries to reignite the flame in Atlanta one more time.
New Orleans Saints (2019: 13-3, 1st in NFC South)
Best Victory: Week 15 vs Kansas City Chiefs
Worst Loss: Week 13 @ Atlanta Falcons
Off-Season Recap: The New Orleans Saints had a quiet off-season which makes sense for a team that put together a 13-3 record despite Teddy Bridgewater starting five games. Though Bridgewater did leave the team for a division foe, the Saints were able to satisfy their QB needs by first bringing back Drew Brees on a two-year deal, then Mickey Loomis planned for the present and future by signing Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Hill will continue to be used as a jack of all trades player while having Winston serves as wildcard option for the future and likely backup QB. The flashiest signing for the Saints was a veteran receiver, Emmanuel Sanders. Adding a sure-handed receiver like Sanders next to Michael Thomas will be a wreck for opposing defensive coordinators to handle.
Fantasy Impact: I expect a lot of the same from the New Orleans Saints in 2020. They should continue to run their efficient and calculated offense with ease regardless of opponent. Over the last three years, Alvin Kamara has seen his yards per reception dwindle from 10.2 to 8.8 to 6.6, but he was hobbled by injury for most of 2019. I would expect that stat to bounce back up, along with his yards per carry. His injury cost him some explosion and took away a lot of his big-play potential. Latavius Murray will still be around to prevent Kamara from hitting his 14 touchdown mark from 2018, but he’ll end up closer to 8-9 in 2020. Buying him before this season begins could a great value.
Tre'Quan Smith will have some big games here and there, but I fully expect Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to dominate targets. Sanders coming to town results in Thomas's 2019 receptions record remaining intact, but I can still confidently say he will lead the league in the category. Count on Thomas to remain locked in as a WR1 and Sanders should be a steady high floor WR2 with upside. Jared Cook will still maintain his red-zone role within the offense but with a full stable of talent, we can expect Drew Brees to spread the ball. Brees himself will continue to be a valued fantasy quarterback. He doesn't possess the mobility of the younger quarterbacks, but his surgical mentality, decision making, and Sean Payton's friendly play calling will allow him to make the most of each opportunity.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9, 3rd in the NFC South)
Best Victory: Week 6 vs Green Bay
Worst Loss: Week 7 @ Las Vegas Raiders on SNF
Off-Season Recap: Tampa Bay centered their entire off-season around one man, Tom Brady. Every move was made to maximize their opportunity to win in 2020. The Bucs signed lineman Joe Haeg from Indianapolis to protect Brady, then added Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Wirfs should slot in at right tackle immediately. Ke'Shawn Vaughn joins Ronald Jones II in the backfield and should push Jones for some touches. Brady is used to steady production from the running game and this has been a weakness of the Bucs for several seasons. Hopefully, Vaughn can help them take a step forward. On the defensive side of the ball, GM Jason Licht prioritized retaining his league-leading rush defense from 2019 by placing the franchise tag on sack leader Shaq Barrett (19.5 sacks in 2029) and re-signing Ndamukong Suh and Jason-Pierre Paul. It’s Super Bowl our bust in 2020.
Fantasy Impact: Bruce Arians has guided many quarterbacks to fantasy football stardom including Jameis Winston, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, and Andrew Luck. Let's see what he can do with the greatest to ever play the position. I fully expect both coach and player to influence the game plan, so we'll see more methodical play calling from Arians, but Arians will push Tom Brady to throw the ball downfield. Whatever happens, this team will stick their game plan regardless of the matchup. I believe with Brady's lack of mobility, a Top 8-10 fantasy finish is his ceiling, don't be shocked if he is competing for the most total passing touchdowns crown by the end of the year. He'll be competitive in that stat because he has perhaps the best young wide receiving duo in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. The pair finished as the second and eighth-best receivers in fantasy last season, thanks in part to the touchdown volume (Evans 8 and Godwin 9) and impressive yards per reception. Evans finished at 17.3 YPC (6th best) while Godwin was at 15.5 (13th best). I expect this to come down a bit with Brady instead of the fearless Winston throwing passes, but not much given Arians has confidence in Brady's downfield passing abilities. Both Godwin and Evans might take a step back in total yard statistics, but with Brady's efficiency, reliable touchdown production, and positive game scripts, lock these two in a top 15 receivers in 2020.
Now the running back and tight end positions are a bit more difficult to discern. With Gronk joining his ageless friend in sunny Tampa Bay, the tight end position has become crowded. Gronk is a favorite of Brady, but O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate have shown the ability to make big plays. If Gronk can return to some form of his prior self, then he will be a massive fantasy asset with an outside chance to finish top five at the position. Howard and Brate are worth late-round darts throws in most redraft leagues. It will be evident after week one who Brady has developed a rapport with, both will likely be inconsistent performers next to Gronk. Inconsistency will be the name of the game for the running backs in Tampa Bay, with Peyton Barber out Ke'Shawn Vaughn is expected to be given a shot at the passing back role, but don't be surprised if Dare Ogunbowale carves out that role for himself while Ronald Jones II continues to make him money on the ground. Tom Brady loves making use of a third-down passing specialist, so I love the idea of taking a late-round shot on Ogunbowale. The backfield will be a committee. Ronald Jones should shine against weaker opponents, while Vaughn and Ogunbowale will play well in close matchups.
3. Carolina Panthers (2019: 5-11, 4th in the NFC South)
Best Victory: Week 4 vs Arizona Cardinals
Worst Loss: Week 16 @ Washington Redskins
Off-Season Recap: Matt Rhule rises from the college ranks to make his head coaching debut in Carolina. He brings in ascending star Joe Brady, who orchestrated Joe Burrows record-breaking 2019 Heisman campaign, to lead the Panthers offense. Teddy Bridgewater comes over from division rival New Orleans Saints to replace current free agent and former MVP Cam Newton as the starting quarterback. The front office team traded Trai Turner to the Seahawks for Russell Okung in a mysterious move to hopefully improve the offensive line. The new coaching staff also welcomes speedster Robby Anderson to the team on a friendly 2 year/$20 million deal. The Panthers retooled through the draft by using all seven picks on defensive players after losing even more than that to a combination of free agency and retirements. Most notably, Luke Keuchly called it a career at just 29 years old. Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos come in to fill the pass-rushing void left by Dontari Poe, Bruce Irvin, and Mario Addison. Jeremy Chinn looks to support a barren secondary that lost James Bradberry to the Giants and Eric Reid.
Fantasy Impact: Christian McCaffrey is the straw that stirs the drink in Carolina. I cannot think of a quarterback who will love having such a reliable and steady security blanket more than Teddy Bridgewater. McCaffrey will still put monster numbers as the leagues most complete running back in Rhule's run-first system. Rhule has demonstrated mastery of running the ball while at Temple in a grind it out fashion and at Baylor while running a run-pass option attack. Either way, McCaffrey will thrive and have a shot at putting together a second 1,000 rushing/1,000 receiving yard season, take him first overall in redraft, and let him carry you to the playoffs. The Panthers will be playing from behind in most situations, so cash in once again in PPR as CMC racks up the receptions. Teddy Bridgewater should be able to thrive with his new offense and Joe Brady won't hesitate to take the training wheels off to see what Bridgewater can do. I expect him to be a safe play most weeks in fantasy, but often just a QB2.
D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson make for a riveting receiving unit. New teammate Seth Roberts might contribute as well, but these three and CMC will handle the bulk of the receiving duties. I'm expecting a huge sophomore season from D.J. Moore as a big-play threat and a stable intermediate route runner in 2020. He was a great outlet for Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, and Will Grier last season and flashed game-breaking potential on the outside throughout the season. With Joe Brady in house, I expect to see some of the doubles concepts that he utilized at LSU for Burrow, which benefits outside receivers. Brady's style should maximize Samuel and Anderson's speed. D.J. Moore will move into that top 15 receiving category while Samuel and Anderson offer boom or bust flex upside. There should be more passing attempts to go around than anticipated from Teddy as Carolina won't control games quite like the Saints were able to last year. I'd bank on Anderson if I had to pick one as he and Matt Rhule go back to their days at Temple. At tight end, Ian Thomas has an opportunity to contribute regularly, but shouldn't be considered more than a waiver option.
4. Atlanta Falcons (2019: 7-9, 2nd in the NFC South)
Best Victory: Week 1 vs Seattle Seahawks
Worst Loss: Week 14 @ Los Angeles Chargers
Off-Season Recap: The most crucial move of the off-season occurred via trade for the Falcons when they picked up Hayden Hurst for a second and fifth-round pick from the Baltimore Ravens. Hurst should step right in to replace a good amount of the production vacated by Austin Hooper, who put together a 6 touchdown and 787-yard season. Todd Gurley comes back to Georgia and hopes to recapture the spark he once had while wearing red and black in the state, as he replaces Devonta Freeman. The Falcons spent most of the season as one of the leagues worst defensive teams ranking bottom ten in points, yards per play, and passing touchdowns allowed. They addressed this weakness in the draft by adding the lengthy and athletic A.J. Terrell in round one and defensive tackle Marlon Davidson in round two. Terrell's ability to make plays when he comes down with the ball jumped off the screen. Thomas Dimitroff also brought in Dante Fowler Jr who seemed to find himself in Los Angeles as he tallied up 11.5 sacks in 2019.
Fantasy Impact: The Atlanta Falcons will likely be a league leader in passing attempts again, it's just who OC Dirk Koetter is. Their defense isn't anything to write home about, even with an influx of some young talent, so the Falcons are unlikely to participate in any low scoring affairs. Matt Ryan looks to be a fringe QB1 most weeks due to most sheer volume and a talented surrounding cast, his lack of running ability will cap his potential like the rest of the QB's in this division. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley both managed to put together top 25 scoring seasons in standard leagues. I project that this season Ridley will continue to bite into Julio's volume. Jones trailed only Michael Thomas in targets at 157 last season, while Ridley managed 93. Ridley will move closer to 115 while Jones continues to see his fair share without the reliable Mohamed Sanu around anymore. Sanu's departure opens up a role for Russell Gage, who averaged 7.3 targets per game over the final nine games of the season, which adds up to a 16 game pace of 117 targets. I don't think he'll make it quite to this threshold, but he will possess flex appeal almost every week, he's a target for me late in drafts. In 2019, Gage ran 64.4% of his routes from the slot and saw his snap share peak at 82.4% in Week 12 and eclipsed 70% in weeks 13, 15, and 17. This sets him up to be the go-to third receiver on this high flying offense.
Hayden Hurst is one of my favorite mid to late route tight ends. Stepping immediately into the starting role now that he is out of tight end central in Baltimore, Hurst will make a quick impact. Coming into the league he was lauded for his athletic ability and willingness to make plays, now he has the opportunity to do so. I don't expect him to replicate all of Hooper's stats, but a top-five fantasy finish is not out of the question for Hurst, who should haul in anywhere from 4-6 touchdowns on the year. Todd Gurley is befuddling to the fantasy community, but I'm not expecting a huge bounce-back season like some. Given the offensive line is returning most players, I don't expect a drastic difference in production between him and Devonta Freeman in 2019. I anticipate Gurley will lead the way but will still fall short of 200 carries, while Brian Hill gets over 100 carries on the season himself thus creating valuable but limited production from both players.