Fantasy Notebook: A Comprehensive Look at the NFC South
That's right, it's time to crank up the ol' Notebook and continue our division-by-division tour of the NFL from a fantasy football perspective. We got things going last week with a look at the AFC South; this week, we'll look at the NFC South.
We'll get the ball rolling in New Orleans, where we all thought the biggest story of the offseason would be Jimmy Graham getting slapped with the franchise tag at tight end before filing a grievance to be tagged as a wide receiver (I'll go ahead and concede the ongoing DeSean Jackson saga -- which included his surprising release on Mar. 28 -- has taken over the Graham story). Half of that happened. Graham, who was split out wide or ran out of the slot on nearly 70 percent of all the teams snaps, was given the franchise tag as a tight end.
He has not, however, filed the expected grievance even though the difference between the two tags is significant (the tight end tag is worth $7.053 million; the wide receiver version is worth $12.132 million). When will that grievance be filed? According to WWL-TV's Juan Kincaid, the fact it hasn't happened yet means it's unlikely to happen at all.
Appearing on the Mar. 8 edition of the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, Kincaid expressed his believe that Graham's failure to file the grievance is an indication that he and the Saints are working toward a long-term deal -- one that will likely make him the highest-paid tight end in the league.
That's a sentiment shared by Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio, who recently explained, "By holding off on a possible grievance, the process can proceed with Graham being valued as a hybrid tight end/receiver on a long-term deal that pays Graham with the stroke of a pen much more money than he has earned in his entire four-year NFL career."
The good news? We might not have to wait as long as usual (the Saints have a history of dragging these situations out to the bitter end; see Brees, Drew) for resolution.
That Graham has until April 22 to file his grievance gives us all hope something will be done before then. Citing a league source, Florio reported earlier this week that the current expectation is that the Saints and Graham will finalize a long-term contract before Graham "pulls the pin on a grievance grenade."
Better still, head coach Sean Payton shares that belief. "I think you hit it on the head," Payton told Florio when asked about that deadline.
Of course, Graham and the Saints officially have until July 15 to hammer out a long-term contract. If there's no long-term deal reached at the close of business July 15, Graham can then only play under the franchise tag with the Saints or sit out. The last day to sign a franchise tag tender is Nov. 11, the Tuesday after the 10th week of the season.
Safe to say Fantasy Nation will be rooting for that whole April 22 thing to work out...
Meanwhile, the Saints dished up a pair of surprises by trading Darren Sproles to the Eagles and re-signing Pierre Thomas. The move to retain Thomas was something Kincaid considered wise. He cited the veteran's excellence in the screen game as a major reason why.
But is Thomas enough to make up for Sproles' absence? He might not have to be.
According to Baton Rouge Advocate beat writer Ramon Antonio Vargas, in Travaris Cadet, the Saints have a player on their roster who -- while not nearly as proven as Sproles -- shares some qualities with the guy who led New Orleans in all-purpose yards each of the three seasons he was there.
"He's a guy that can run the routes (Sproles) did," Payton said of Cadet. "He is a utility player that has gotten better at the core skill set of just being a runner but is very comfortable when it comes to being a receiver out the backfield."
While Payton admitted it will be difficult to replace Sproles, it's hard to argue they don't still have considerable firepower.
First, the Saints still have Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram, who especially showed how dangerous they can be on the ground in a wild-card win last season at Philadelphia in which the Saints racked up 185 yards, the second-most in franchise history for a postseason contest. Then there is Thomas, who was the Saints' leading rusher and led the NFL in catches among running backs with 77.
Cadet did well enough in games and practices to convince Payton he's a possibility to ease the effects of Sproles' absence, the coach said. That's not to say fantasy owners should blindly buy into Cadet -- but it wouldn't hurt Dynasty owners to look into his availability.
Does any of this impact my as-yet-still-unrequited (and poorly-hidden) love for Ingram?
Not really. I'm certainly not going to start actively shopping him in the Dynasty leagues where he's been a fixture on my bench since the get go. But from a redraft perspective? I've definitely moved into believe-it-when-I-see-it territory with Ingram in that regard -- which means he's not likely to be on many of my rosters this fall.
What is it I need to see? Well, more of that bruising, 13-carry, 83-yard effort in Week 16 against Carolina would be a good start. That he followed it up by racking up 97 yards on 18 carries (with a touchdown) in the Saints' wild-card playoff win in Philadelphia adds to the intrigue. He also averaged of 4.9 yards per carry in the NFC divisional loss in Seattle (albeit in a performance marred by a fumble).
According to Kincaid, Ingram was on the spot last year. He needed to demonstrate an ability to run between the tackles -- which he did.
"But," Kincaid added, "he still hasn't proven he can catch the ball."
Thomas has. And don't overlook Robinson's upside. The truth is, all three primary backs (and perhaps even Cadet) will get their turns if healthy. The thing to watch for as OTAs, mini-camps and then training camp is who is emerging as the best PPR threat; my guess is Thomas will be that guy...
Moore caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns in 2013, his lowest numbers since 2009, when he was injured for a large portion of the season. New Orleans Times-Picayune staff writer Katherine Terrell pointed out that as Moore's numbers went down, the numbers of rookie Kenny Stills went up.
Stills averaged 20.0 yards on 32 receptions with five touchdowns. He's a guy I'll be hoping others overlook on draft days this summer.
Finally... Payton was asked Wednesday about one of the few longtime veterans still remaining on the roster: Marques Colston.
Payton praised the way Colston finished strong last season despite continuing to battle soreness in his foot, among other injuries. Payton said the key this season will be to keep Colston fresh. "I think the key is just monitoring his snaps during training camp," the coach told ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.
The 30-year old wideout has battled a number of nagging knee injuries over the years. And his production was down a bit last season. But Triplett believes it speaks highly of Colston that the Saints remained committed to him while parting ways with so many other aging players. He finished last season with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns. It was the first time since 2008 that he finished with less than 1,000 yards or seven TDs.
But as Payton said, Colston did finish strong, catching 28 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns over the final four regular-season games. Fantasy owners should assume he'll continue to be a primary weapon if healthy. And what's not to like about any of the front-line receivers working alongside Brees?
In Atlanta... Head coach Mike Smith said this week that wide receiver Julio Jones is running and is ahead of schedule. "He's doing a great job (working) with (trainers) Marty (Lauzon) and AJ (Neibel)," Smith told Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer D. Orlando Ledbetter. "He's continuing to progress."
Asked the timetable for a full return, Smith replied, "That's a decision that's going to be made by the doctors who did the procedure on his return to play," Smith said. "I know that he'll get out there as soon as the doctors give him the OK. But he's progressing very well through his rehab. The return to play is strictly going to be a decision that's going to be made by the medical staff. I fully anticipate that long-term he's going to be ready to go."
Jones suffered a right foot fracture running a go route during the Falcons' Week 5 loss to the New York Jets. He had foot surgery shortly thereafter and has been off crutches since December.
"We anticipate he'll be ready to go 100 percent," Smith said. "We'll get him going at some point in time here in the offseason. We'll be very careful. Our No. 1 goal is to have him ready to participate in training camp."
As NFL.com's Chris Wesseling suggested, the Falcons are unlikely to rush Jones through offseason practices. He knows the offense and has no shortage of chemistry with Matt Ryan. In addition, there's no reason for Jones to risk re-injury entering the final season of his rookie deal.
White went down with a high ankle sprain early last season. As the Sports Xchange noted, instead of going with Harry Douglas and Drew Davis (a Ledbetter favorite), the Falcons used a hobbled White as a decoy. White, who suffered a subsequent hamstring injury favoring the ankle, didn't get healthy until the Falcons' record was 2-9.
Douglas posted his first 1,000-yard season and led the team with 85 catches and nine drops. Even if Jones and White are both as healthy as hoped, Douglas could continue to play a greater role this fall with Tony Gonzalez no longer playing. The veteran tight end called it a career, leaving the Falcons with unproven second-year man Levine Toilolo atop the depth chart.
According to Ledbetter, the Falcons are unlikely to address the tight end position due to their needs on the interior of the offensive line and in the pass rush.
Hence, the possibility Douglas will be busy once again...
At running back, Jason Snelling's recent retirement is a non-issue. Steven Jackson's ability to avoid injury will be... Speaking with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine last month, Smith didn't come out and declare Jackson his starting running back for the coming season; but the coach did appear to give Jackson a subtle vote of confidence while nudging the offensive line.
"Steven Jackson, unfortunately, was injured in the second game of the season (hamstring). I don't think we really got a chance to see what Steven is capable of doing until the last three or four games," Smith said. "I think he scored all six of his touchdowns in those last four ball games."
Smith continued: "We have to improve our running game, and it starts with winning the line of scrimmage. That is an area that will be an emphasis point for us; not only to be able to run the football but to protect our quarterback."
The coach then reiterated all that at his past week's owners meetings. In fact, he repeated the same comments almost verbatim (which is pretty much what every coach does this time of year).
One thing Smith did add, however: "[Running back is] more of a position where you want to have two or three running backs running the ball. It's probably the most punishing position on the field. You look at it as a position that you want to have a first-down runner, a change of pace runner, there's different body types and there's different skill sets."
As ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure suggested, the Falcons seem willing to see how Jackson, who turns 31 in July, will perform when healthy and running behind a better offensive line. He averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry on 157 attempts in 2013 as the Falcons finished last in the league in rushing.
Ledbetter also believes Jackson will continue to handle the featured role; Ledbetter doesn't expect Jacquizz Rogers' workload to increase. That might be especially true if the team adds another change-of-pace guy in the draft... or in free agency.
It's worth noting that on the same day (Mar. 28) that CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora advised his Twitter followers that the Titans are likely to release Chris Johnson within the next week, Nashville Tennessean beat writer Jim Wyatt jumped on board by saying he'd bet on the Falcons to land CJ2K once he's released.
We'll see. But again, it still goes back to the offensive line; not just for Jackson and whoever else winds up running behind it, but for Ryan, too.
Ryan completed 439 of 651 passes (67.4 percent) for 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns. He became the team's all-time leading passer. You have to wonder how much more he could have done with a healthy receiving corps -- and more importantly, better protection.
Ryan was sacked 44 times, hit 100 times and hurried on 206 plays. On 38.4 percent of the pass attempts, his pocket was broken.
That has to change...
In Carolina, Cam Newton underwent ankle surgery on March 19, but he's fully expected to return for training camp after missing some or all organized team activities. But fantasy owners hoping the QB can continue to be a high-end producer have bigger worries.
Newton took his game to a new level in 2013, establishing career bests with 24 touchdown passes, a 61.7-percent completion rate and a quarterback rating of 88.8. He also became the only player in NFL history to have 50 of more touchdown passes (64) and 25 or more rushing touchdowns (28) in any three-year span. That it happened in his first three years makes it all the more impressive. So is the fact Newton still has significant room for improvement, receiving corps willing.
The decision to release Steve Smith (who went on to join the Ravens) and failure to retain free agents Brandon LaFell (now with the Patriots), Ted Ginn (who joined the Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (now a Chicago Bear), left a serious hole at wideout.
In fact, prior to the additions of free agents Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood -- neither of whom (I'll kindly suggest) is going to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators, the top wide receivers on the roster were Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt. The Panthers also have Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons, Brenton Bersin and R.J. Webb.
Carolina claimed King off waivers last season from the Broncos, who cut the fifth-round pick to make a roster spot for Von Miller. McNutt was claimed off the Dolphins practice squad last year, and almost had a catch, but was out of bounds for what would have been a touchdown in the regular season finale.
Only Pilares and Clemons (with a combined five career catches and one touchdown) could claim credit to a regular-season NFL catch until Cotchery and Underwood were added. And yes, Cotchery comes on board as the de facto No. 1.
I'll remind you that Cotchery played in all 16 games (starting six) for the Steelers last year, catching 46 passes for 602 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. It was his third season in Pittsburgh; he previously played for the Jets from 2004 to 2010.
Underwood was with the Buccaneers last season. He caught 24 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns. For his career, he has 63 receptions for 1,006 yards and six touchdowns.
Given that, it might be worth noting that Carolina has drafted 16 wide receivers over the 19 drafts in team history but has picked one in the first round just once. As Panthers.com's Bryan Strickland noted, outside of the three drafts in which the Panthers didn't have a first-round pick, their No. 28 overall spot this year is the latest first-round choice they've entered the draft with and is a spot that could lend itself to considering a rare first-round wide receiver.
Actually, strike that "could' and make it "should."
Or perhaps there's a Plan B?
During his turn with the Diehards, Chris Allison of ESPN 730 in Charlotte, pointing to Newton's running ability and the team's loaded backfield (with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert all locked in place), suggested "maybe they'll run the wishbone."
I suspect Allison's suggestion was only slightly tongue in cheek.
One last note here... Am I the only one thinking it might be time to invest heavily in Greg Olsen?
Remember: Olsen broke the franchise record for most receptions by a tight end for the second straight season. As the Xchange recently noted, he may not be as well-known or as dynamic as Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but Olsen became the first non-wide receiver to lead the Panthers in receptions with 73 last year.
In Tampa Bay, the lone certainty heading into the draft and OTAs for the Bucs is this: New head coach Lovie Smith was never sold on Mike Glennon as his starting quarterback. In addition to the series of comments made upon arrival in Tampa to that effect, the Bucs put a period on that sentence by signing Josh McCown to a two-year, $10 million contract
Smith immediately confirmed that McCown is his starter. In fact, asked specifically if McCown is his quarterback, Smith said: "Yes, he is."
There you have it.
"I've known him for a while, got a chance to see him in every situation, as a leader, a guy coming back from adversity," Smith went on to say of McCown. "When you have a little time to reflect on a lot of things, and say 'Hey, this next chance, I want to do it right in every way.' I wanted to have people that I really knew how they would react in every situation. Josh is just a heck of a guy."
Smith has had praise for Glennon, who had 19 touchdown passes as a rookie last fall, but the coach made it clear McCown is better suited to be the starter.
"He's a coach on the field. He's accurate. Great decision-maker: Do I throw it deep, check down, take off and run?" Smith said. "You want a quarterback who can throw the ball and one that makes good decisions, and he can do that... You have to be the guy that knows how to get everybody going in the right direction. That's what he's done. It's a new year. We have a long way to go, but we'll start it together."
McCown, 34, played a significant role for the Bears under coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.
But is the McCown we saw under Trestman the same McCown we'll see in Tampa with Jeff Tedford's offense in place?
That remains to be seen. And until it is, McCown isn't a guy I'll be any more eager to draft than I would have been if Glennon were the starter. ...
Other notes of interes: Smith wasted little time in putting receiver Mike Williams on notice.
Already facing trespassing and criminal mischief charges after an incident in December, the Tampa Bay Times subsequently reported that Williams' house in Tampa was a frequent source of 911 calls because of loud parties.
"There's a pattern here and it's disturbing. No one is bigger than this football team. He has to understand that," Smith said. "Have I been disappointed in Mike Williams? Of course. There's a standard. We're just not going to put up with it, no matter who it is."
The issues with the trespassing and mischief charges were settled when Williams agreed to pay more than $43,000 in damages and acknowledged that he "continuously refused to abide by the terms" of his lease. But the Times also reported that Williams has picked up 16 traffic citations since 2010, including a DUI charge that was later dropped.
Meanwhile, on the field, Williams missed the final 10 games of last season with a hamstring injury and signed a six-year, $40.25 million contract during the summer.
Adding to the litany, Williams was allegedly stabbed in the thigh by his brother this past week. Williams also reportedly gave police a false report of the incident and was slow to respond to the team when it reached out to him to learn more.
The best news Williams got, however, came when Smith indicated that being stabbed by his brother didn't necessarily fall under the umbrella of aggravating things Williams has been doing. "The information I've got is that Mike is a victim," Smith said. "You can't blame a guy for being a victim. Hopefully, we can get past this type of thing."
Hope is cheap. I'll suggest Smith indulge himself until Williams shows signs he "gets it" or not (while I kindly chip in with the notion that giving police a false account of his stabbing is a pretty good indication of the latter. In other words, I'll draft Vincent Jackson and let somebody else be the hero if Williams can keep his nose clean and regain past -- more productive -- form.
Of course, the real position of interest in Tampa is going to be running back.
As the Xchange recently noted, the Bucs were devastated by injuries at the position, none bigger than the torn labrum suffered by Doug Martin.
Martin rushed for 456 yards and one touchdown in six games before the injury, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Mike James played in eight games and rushed for 256 yards until he suffered an ankle fracture after three games as a starter. Fortunately, the Bucs were able to claim Bobby Rainey off waivers and he responded with 532 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
So what's the plan this year?
During his visit with the FootballDiehards, Mark Cook of PewterReport.com and 98.7 The Fan in Tampa, advised fantasy owners not to get too excited about a huge rebound for Martin.
"I'd be cautious with Doug Martin," Cook explained. "Jeff Tedford said he wants a one-two punch. [Former head coach] Greg Schiano was a one-back guy. That's going to change. Martin is not going to get 90 percent of the touches. It might be 70-30."
Cook believes James will be the other half of the tandem with any contributions Rainey makes further dividing the pie.
Did I mention that Vincent Jackson was the guy in Tampa I'm most interested in drafting?