Note: Free agency and salary data is from spotrac.com.

Atlanta Falcons (11-5; 1st in NFC South)

Quarterbacks

Matt Ryan – After one of the most impressive quarterback seasons in history, the Falcons’ season ended in utter and blatant despair. The world watched as the Falcons’ slowly bled away a 28-3 lead with a little less than one and a half quarters left to play in Super Bowl 51. Atlanta’s fall from a 25-point lead was like watching a train-wreck in slow motion while onlookers have zero power to stop the tragedy in motion. Now without their mastermind OC Kyle Shanahan and still licking the wounds from their failure in Super Bowl 51, Matt Ryan and Co. will have to pick the pieces off of the ground in 2017. Atlanta has a new OC in Steve Sarkisian and Ryan himself will have an extremely tall task of not necessarily repeating his greatness of 2016, but to at least remain a top-3 passer in the league in 2017 and beyond. Whether or not Ryan can maintain his efficiency is a totally separate question for another article—but there is no denying Ryan’s 2016 season was nothing short of epic. Starting from the top, Matt Ryan’s 10.1 adjusted yards per pass attempt blasted past his career average (7.4 AY/A) was the third-best mark for a single-season all-time. Ryan, too, posted a league-leading 7.1% touchdown rate and threw for 309.0 yards per game – by far a career-best. With Shanahan and an extremely multiple passing attack, Atlanta formed one of the most lethal offenses of all-time in 2016. Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper all have two or more years left on their respective contracts while Devonta Freeman is signed through 2017 only. In theory, the Falcons’ can keep the same offense and carry over their multiple scheme into 2017 without Shanahan. Of course, Shanahan was one of the best play-callers in the league and Sarkisian and Matt Ryan have never worked with each other. With all of this being said, Ryan is a strong candidate to be over-drafted in 2017 fantasy leagues. Ryan had one of the single-best passing seasons ever, but 7.1% touchdown rates simply do not carry over year-over-year. While Ryan was the QB2 in fantasy points/game in 2016, his four prior finishes are as follows: QB7, QB19, QB11, and QB30. Ryan may have reached new heights as a passer and he’s certainly improved in virtually every category, history should tell us Ryan is a strong regression candidate in 2017. Ryan could very well post another top-5 quarterback season in 2017, but fantasy drafters will likely have to pay a fairly early premium and buy-high on Ryan coming off an elite season. Ryan’s average draft position this summer will make for a contentious debate.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Coming off of a stellar 2016 season, is Matt Ryan a regression candidate in 2017? Will he be too pricey in 2017 fantasy leagues?

Running Backs

While he didn't finish as a top-3 RB after dominating 2015, his RB7 finish and 10 RB1 performances gives us a whole lot of confidence moving forward. He's a stud.Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman – Even though Tevin Coleman was healthy and more involved in 2016, Freeman was inarguably one of fantasy football’s best running backs for a second-straight year. Devonta Freeman did not bookend his RB1 season with a top-3 2016 performance, but he did post rock-solid RB7 (PPG) returns. Freeman scored at least eight fantasy points in all but one game in 2016 and he owned one of the best floor/ceiling combinations at the position once again. Freeman ended 2016 with 11 top-24 (RB2 or better) weeks, six of which were top-8 performances. For reference, Freeman had 11 top-24 performances in his fantastic season in 2015, but 10 of those games were RB1 (top-12) weeks. Freeman had six top-12 weeks in all of 2016. While Freeman did not see 24 opportunities (attempts plus targets) per game like he did in 2015, he still averaged a robust 18.3 opportunities/game and was one of the most voluminous red-zone backs in the league. Devonta Freeman ended the 2016 season second in total red-zone carries (61) and third in carries inside of opponents’ 10-yard line (18). Only David Johnson and LeGarrette Blount saw more carries inside of the 10-yard line than Freeman. With one year left on his rookie deal, Devonta Freeman has said he wants to be paid like an elite back. We’d agree he’s earned it. On the opposite side of Atlanta’s backfield duo, Tevin Coleman has two years left on his rookie deal and will undoubtedly be a source of contentious fantasy debate this offseason. Legitimately improved as a receiver, Coleman became one of the league’s best change of pace/secondary backs in 2016. Freeman led Coleman in snap rate by a good distance (59% to 41%), but it was Coleman who arguably stole the spotlight as a pass catcher. After catching just two of 11 targets in his rookie campaign in 2015, Coleman caught 31 of his 40 targets in 2016. What’s more, Coleman caught two or more passes in 10-of-13 regular season games while Freeman had at least two receptions in 15-of-16 contests. (For what it is worth, Coleman averaged an explosive 13.6 yards/reception to Freeman’s 8.6 yards/reception). What will make Coleman a bit divisive as a 2017 fantasy asset is his possibly bloated touchdown total. Coleman finished the year as the RB14 in PPR points per game and his 11 all-purpose touchdowns were ninth-most among running backs, but Coleman finished the year 37th in total opportunities. On the surface, it would appear Coleman benefited from positive touchdown variance on his 11.5 touches per game. While Freeman’s role as the “lead” punch is not in question, it remains to be seen if Coleman can continue to score touchdowns at an elite rate without OC Kyle Shanahan at the controls. Coleman certainly proved he is a game-breaking talent that can punish opposing defenses, but it’s certainly possible his 2017 production may slip a bit if he does not see a few more touches per game.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Can Atlanta’s running back duo form an elite one-two punch again in 2017? Will Kyle Shanahan’s absence hurt both Freeman and Coleman? Where will both backs be drafted in 2017 leagues? Will Freeman or Coleman be the better value?

Wide Receivers

Julio Jones – At this point, we know exactly what to expect from Julio Jones every single year. Even though Julio has put together just two 16-game seasons in six career years, he has finished as the WR7, WR12, WR2, WR5, WR2, and WR6 in PPR points per game since entering the league. What’s scary, too, is Jones may be getting better. Over the past three years, Julio’s yards gained per route average has increased in every single year. Jones gained 2.72 yards/route in 2014, 3.04 in 2015, and his 3.12 yards per route run in the last season is the best rate among all receivers, dating back to 2010. Jones has averaged over 100 receiving yards per day for four-straight seasons and has at least 5.9 receptions per contest during that stretch. Julio’s ceiling is unquestioned. What is in question, however, is how many lower-extremity injuries Jones can accumulate before slowing down. Since college, Julio has suffered two separate foot fractures that required surgery, two hamstring injuries, one sprained ankle, a hip pointer, and this past year he had a nagging toe injury that caused him to miss two games. (Julio’s toe injury may need surgery this offseason). Heading into his age-28 season, Julio certainly has two or three more years of elite production left in the tank if we could guarantee full-health. On one hand, it’s amazing Julio has owned such an elite ceiling while playing through so many leg, toe, and foot injuries. On the other hand, in an alternate universe, it would be nice if we could see what Julio could do at 100-percent health for a two or three year period. Opposing defensive backs can’t cover him as is. Julio, given a clean bill of health, would wreck the NFL. Julio’s health will once again be an offseason talking point in fantasy conversations.

Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel – In his first year in Atlanta, Sanu posted a respectable 59/653/4 receiving line on 81 targets. Primarily running his routes from the slot, Sanu was banged up for a good portion of Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl campaign. Mohamed Sanu gritted out 15 games played while dealing with a shoulder ailment a groin pull that caused him to miss one game. Perhaps due to his health, Sanu never really became an integral part of Atlanta’s attack during the fantasy season. Sanu saw five or more targets in just 7-of-15 contests and only gained 60 or more yards just four times during the regular season. What’s more, Mohamed Sanu was the least efficient Atlanta receiver by a good margin. Julio posted his usual sterling efficiency, while Taylor Gabriel averaged a strong 0.546 fantasy points per route run. Sanu was near league-average in fantasy points per route run (0.330) while Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel finished second and fourth among all receivers in fantasy points/route in 2016. Speaking of which, Gabriel, however, was a spark plug in Atlanta’s offense. Granted, Sanu was a near full-time player—he played on 76% of Falcons’ snaps compared to Gabriel’s 42% snap rate—but Gabriel was the much-preferred No. 2 fantasy receiving option by the end of the year. Gabriel finished the fantasy regular season (Week 1-16) with six top-30 or better PPR performances while Sanu had just four. Despite Sanu nearly doubling Gabriel’s snap rate on a weekly basis, Gabriel finished as the WR42 in per game PPR output while Sanu was a less-than-stellar 57th. What will be most interesting in 2017 re-draft formats is the cost difference between Sanu and Gabriel. While Sanu projects to be on the field most often, Gabriel owns the higher upside role by a mile. Gabriel’s average depth of target was 3.2 yards further downfield than Sanu’s in 2016. The cost gap—or lack thereof—between Sanu and Gabriel will be one to monitor in the second-half of drafts this summer.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: To what extent is Julio Jones’ toe hurt? Will Julio ever be able to put a full 16-game season at 100 percent health? Will Taylor Gabriel be too pricey in 2017 re-draft leagues? Can Mohamed Sanu put a full season together? Will Atlanta’s passing offense come back down to earth in 2017?

Tight Ends

Austin Hooper, Jacob Tamme, and Levine Toilolo – The Falcons’ tight end situation is actually going to be an intriguing secondary storyline to track this offseason. Both veteran Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo are heading towards unrestricted free agency while Austin Hooper is an intriguing second-year tight end with a lot of promise. Tamme, who turns 32-years-old in March, is coming off of a season-ending shoulder injury and it is still unclear whether or not he will get a new contract from Atlanta this offseason. Levine Toilolo, primarily a run blocker, was on the Falcons’ roster bubble in August of 2016 and he has not shown any signs of upside as a receiver in his four-year stint in the league. Toilolo has caught just 20 passes in the past two years combined. This leaves Austin Hooper in a possible intriguing role if Tamme and Toilolo are both not brought back. Matt Ryan targeted his tight end a combined 83 times in 2016 alone while the mish-mosh of Falcons’ tight ends turned those targets into a combined 58/788/10 receiving line. Austin Hooper won’t swallow up 100% of Atlanta’s tight end production if Tamme and Toilolo are not brought back, but it is worth mentioning that all of the Falcons’ tight ends put up a combined 196.8 PPR points in 2016. At that scoring rate, 196.8 PPR points would have bested Jimmy Graham for the cumulative TE4 slot on the year. If Atlanta does not elect to bring back Tamme and Toilolo for contract extensions, Austin Hooper will definitely be a popular deep fantasy sleeper this coming summer. Hooper put up 6/65/1 on nine targets in Atlanta’s postseason run and posted 3/46/1, 5/41, and 3/32/1 receiving days in the three contests in which he saw five or more targets.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Can Austin Hooper take the next step in 2017? Will Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo be back?
Key Free Agents: RG Chris Chester, DT Jonathan Babineaux, OLB Dwight Freeney, LB Phillip Wheeler, DL Courtney Upshaw, TE Jacob Tamme, TE Levine Toilolo, QB Matt Schaub, WR Aldrick Robinson, LB Sean Weatherspoon

 

Carolina Panthers (6-10; 4th in NFC South)

Quarterbacks

Cam has been taking a beating for years now. Their run-blocking was 25th last year and 19th in pass protection and Cam's dip in rushing volume may be a sign of things to come.Cam Newton – After an MVP campaign in 2015, Newton’s follow-up this past season was an absolute disappointment. Cam Newton set a career-high passing touchdown rate of 7.1% in his league-topping 2015 campaign only to toss for a score on 3.7% of his attempts in 2016. What’s more, after posting a stellar 8.30 mark in adjusted yards per attempt in 2015 – Newton was much less than Superman this past year. Newton’s AY/A of just 6.4 in 2016 was a new career low. Newton not only whacked his passing efficiency numbers to the bone this past season, he also failed to make up for his disappointing year through the air with his legs. Newton’s 90 carries for 359 yards were new career-lows while his five rushing scores tied a career-low. By all accounts, Newton regressed sharply in 2016. To be fair, though, regression to the mean was likely in the touchdown department after his stellar 2015. No quarterback upholds 7-plus percent passing touchdown rates year-over-year. Newton is squarely to blame for a good deal of Carolina’s overall problems on offense. However, the Panthers’ never gained continuity rushing the ball in 2016 – thanks in large part to a sagging offensive line that dealt with multiple injuries. Per FootballOutsiders, the Panthers were 25th in run-blocking and 19th in pass protection in 2016. (The Panthers’ offensive line was 12th and 21st in those respective categories in their Super Bowl push in 2015). Equally as distressing as their offensive line, the Panthers’ wideouts all struggled in one way or another in 2016. Besides stud TE Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin proved he is just a boom-or-bust No. 2 wideout in 2016, while Ted Ginn Jr. was legitimately Carolina’s best receiver at times and Devin Funchess’ career is still in a holding pattern. After spending a ton of capital at the position in the 2014 and 2015 NFL Draft, Carolina arguably has one of the weakest and shallowest wide receiver corps in the league. For fantasy purposes, it is genuinely concerning that Newton failed to rush more than 100 times for the first time ever last year. He did miss one game due to a concussion, but Newton typically averages 7.7 rush attempts per game. In 2016, Newton averaged just six rushes per day. After playing through a balky shoulder for the majority of the season, it is possible that Carolina just scaled back Newton’s rushing workload to reflect the pain he was in. On the other hand, Newton’s dip in rush volume may be a direct sign of things to come. One thing is for sure: Cam Newton will be much cheaper to acquire in 2017 fantasy drafts.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Newton run the ball less often in 2017 and beyond? Can he rebound after a supremely disappointing 2016 season? Do the Panthers have enough weapons to support an elite offense once again?

Running Backs

Jonathan Stewart – Rounding into his age-30 season in 2017 and possibly due for a restructured contract or being cut out-right by June 1st, Stewart’s fantasy future is murky. Jonathan Stewart is due $8.25 million in 2017 and if Panthers’ GM Dave Gettleman does decide to let Stewart go, he can save Carolina $6.25M against the salary cap. Stewart did run behind an injury-depleted offensive line that finished 25th in FootballOutsiders’ run-blocking metrics, but he was most certainly a touchdown-or-bust fantasy option in 2016. Jonathan Stewart caught only eight passes in all of 2016 and was only “usable” in fantasy football when he scored a touchdown. In the six fully healthy games in which Stewart did not score a touchdown, he finished as a top-24 running back one time (RB19 vs. Washington). Of course, Stewart did pop for RB4, RB7, and RB9 finishes in weekly PPR output on the back of multi-score games, but those were the only three times Stewart crossed 15.1 or more PPR points in a single game in 2016. Stewart still was fairly effective in his carries in 2016 and showed he still has a ton of lateral juice, but he has missed at least three games due to injury for five-straight years and can only play on first and second down. It is possible Carolina will draft a running back with the eighth-pick (first round) or the 38th-pick (second round) in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

Cameron Artis Payne – Only made active for three games this year—each of which Jonathan Stewart missed due to an ankle injury—Artis-Payne is likely going to be off of the fantasy radar in 2017. Unless Carolina does not address running back in the 2017 NFL Draft, Artis-Payne is at best a weak No. 2 change of pace back who will turn 27-years-old in just his third pro season. Cameron Artis-Payne has just 81 carries and six receptions in his first two years as a Panther. Artis-Payne may have to compete for his roster spot in 2017.

Fozzy Whittaker – A UDFA that is now an unrestricted free agent in 2017, Whittaker is a decent passing game specialist—but nothing more at this point in his career. It’s possible the Panthers bring Fozzy Whittaker back on another one- or two-year deal, but we’d bet Panthers’ GM Dave Gettleman will opt to try and overhaul Carolina’s backfield a bit this offseason. Whittaker did post career-highs in both receptions (25) and receiving yards (226) in 2016, but he’ll likely move onto his fourth professional team this offseason.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: At 30-years-old, Jonathan Stewart is on the wrong side of the proverbial age curve; will the Panthers’ go after a running back (or two) in this year’s class?

Wide Receivers

Kelvin Benjamin – You know it has been a bad year when you and Ted Ginn Jr. have the same number of top-24 (WR2 or better) weeks (4). That is right. Coming off of a torn-ACL, Kelvin Benjamin failed to separate himself from a nearly 32-year-old receiver who is notoriously boom-or-bust on the field. As it turns out, targets are a helluva a drug. In his rookie year, Benjamin saw 145 total targets (seventh-most in the league); in 2016, Benjamin saw just 118 targets, enough for 27th among all wideouts. Benjamin’s WR31 (points/game) campaign in 2016 was a distant cry from his WR19 finish in 2014. What’s most interesting, however, is Benjamin averaged the same amount of fantasy points per route run in 2016 as he did two years ago (0.422 fantasy points/route in 2016 versus 0.421 in 2014). The difference is strictly in volume. Benjamin ran 4.31 fewer routes and saw 1.88 fewer targets per game in 2016 versus 2014. With Cam Newton’s major statistical regression last year in play, it is possible Benjamin hit his ceiling as a rookie in 2014 and his dead floor in 2016. At 6’5”, Benjamin surely has a ton of touchdown equity built into his profile no matter Carolina’s offensive makeup. Benjamin has converted 41.2% of his red-zone targets into scores over his first two pro seasons. For reference, the league average touchdown rate on targets inside of the red-zone is about 25%. Benjamin will, once again, be an interesting point of debate in the 2017 offseason.

Ted Ginn Jr. – Turning 32-years-old and becoming an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Ginn may not be back in Carolina for 2017 and beyond. It’s possible this is Ted Ginn Jr.’s last shot at a fairly large payday in the NFL and he may play for the highest suitor this upcoming year. For fantasy football, Ginn is best suited to just stay put in Carolina. His three best seasons (2013, 2015 and 2016) have all come with the Panthers. In fact, 48% of Ginn’s career receiving yardage and 76% of his career receiving touchdowns has come in his three years in Charlotte. Ginn spent seven combined years in Arizona, Miami, and San Francisco. At any rate, Ginn may move onto a new city in 2017. As a punt and kick returner as well, Ginn is still one of the most explosive players—in terms of pure-speed in the league.

Devin Funchess – After posting a cumulative 54/844/9 receiving line through two years as a pro, the Panthers’ and Funchess’ fantasy truthers alike are still waiting for him to arrive. Somehow, Devin Funchess managed to catch 0.3 fewer passes per game in 2016 versus his rookie year (1.94). What’s more, Funchess’ efficiency lagged behind his rookie year, too. Funchess averaged just 1.39 yards per route run in 2016 per PFF after averaging a semi-strong 2.04 yards/route in 2015. Funchess was asked to run 4.57 more routes per game in 2016, but he offered virtually unchanged production despite a slightly change in year-over-year snap rate (45% in 2015; 48% in 2016). Funchess will be free in most fantasy formats in the summer of 2017 and he’s currently dirt cheap in dynasty leagues. Devin Funchess will be only 23-years-old in the upcoming league year.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Can anyone currently on the Panthers’ roster step up at receiver? Is Kelvin Benjamin just a mediocre WR3 in fantasy? Will Carolina ever get a solid return out of Devin Funchess?

Tight Ends

Greg Olsen – After leading the team in receiving yards for a fourth-straight year, Olsen has become one of the league’s most consistent players on a yearly and weekly basis. Greg Olsen has also led Carolina in targets in three of his past four pro seasons and he’s caught at least 73 passes in four-straight campaigns. What’s most impressive, however, is Olsen’s reliability. He has not missed a game since his rookie year. In fact, Olsen has been available and active for every single contest for an astonishing nine-straight years. That’s simply Jason Witten-esque. For fantasy, Greg Olsen has put his reliability to get use and has finished as the TE6, TE7, TE4, TE4, and TE2 in his last five years with Carolina and undoubtedly has another top-8 season or two left in the tank. Olsen did post a career-low (with the Panthers only) in touchdowns (3) with Kelvin Benjamin back healthy, but Olsen still eclipsed 1,000 yards for the third-straight year. If Cam Newton rebounds next year, Olsen’s touchdowns are bound to normalize near his career level (6 per year). Greg Olsen has one-year left on his deal before he scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. He’s a no-brainer top-5 tight in 2017 once again.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Greg Olsen be undervalued again in 2017 fantasy drafts? At nearly 32-years-old, how many more TE1 seasons does he have left in the tank?
Key Free Agents: DE Charles Johnson, RT Mike Remmers, WR Ted Ginn Jr., DE Mario Addison, DT Kawan Short, DB Leonard Johnson, SS Michael Griffin, LB A.J. Klein

 

New Orleans Saints (7-9; 3rd in NFC South)

Quarterbacks

He believes he has a "few" more years left in him, and the addition of Michael Thomas really aided him in putting up monster numbers once again.Drew Brees – Somehow always forgotten as an elite fantasy quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, Brees himself has forged a phenomenal track record over the long and recent history in New Orleans. In fact, since Brees has joined the Saints in 2006, he has never failed to finish worse than sixth in cumulative fantasy output among quarterbacks. Indeed, since 2006, Drew Brees’ yearly finishes are as follows: QB3, QB5, QB1, QB2, QB6, QB2, QB1, QB2, QB6, QB6, and QB3. That is simply an unprecedented ceiling and floor at any position. What’s just as equally as impressive as Brees’ year-to-date dominance is the fact he averaged 325.5 yards/game at 37-years-old. In fact, only Peyton Manning has averaged more passing yards/game (342) at age-37 or older than Brees’ 325.5 YPG in 2016. Not only did Brees own the highest yardage floor in the league on a weekly basis in 2016, he was also the second-most accurate passer per PFF. Only Sam Bradford (81%) had a higher adjusted completed percentage than Brees (80%). With the addition of Michael Thomas and the continued consistency from Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead, Brees has maintained amazing efficiency, voluminous counting stats, and prime fantasy production despite his advancing age. Thomas’ addition in the 2016 draft in particular makes Brees’ range of outcomes on a weekly basis tighter and has actually slightly reduced Brees’ famed volatile home/road splits. In between 2013-15, Brees’ average fantasy output at home went up by a stark 32.1% compared to his usual baseline. This past year, Brees averaged 24 fantasy points per game on the road versus his 21.7 PPG on the road in his three prior years. With one-year left on his deal—New Orleans’ crafty five-year “extension” was essentially just a one-year deal—Brees will possibly be re-extended for 2018 this offseason. Brees himself stated he has a “few” more years left in him in early January of this year. We sure hope so. 

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: How many more top-6 seasons does Brees have left? Will he be a bargain once again in 2017 fantasy drafts?

Running Backs

Mark Ingram – Even though he finished the season as the RB10 in PPR points per game, it was a bit of a weird year for Ingram. He never missed time due to injury—Ingram actually played his first full year since 2012—but Mark Ingram was “benched” for fumbling at one point during this past season, he played under 40% of Saints’ snaps in five games total, and he scored fewer than 12 PPR points in nine of 16 games. Still, throughout all the ups and downs, Ingram still posted back-end RB1 fantasy output – just like his average draft position called for (he was the RB11 in 2016 fantasy drafts). Still, even though Ingram paid off his draft day cost, his inconsistency needs to be noted. Mark Ingram actually finished the year with just six RB2 or better (top-24) finishes in PPR leagues from Week 1-16. Interestingly, Mark Ingram also had a bunch of mediocre finishes to boot. In fact, Ingram finished in between the RB26 and RB33—essentially “RB3” (top-25 to top-36) output—seven times this past year. While Ingram did have some monster weeks, he was essentially just a replacement-level fantasy running back in 47% of his games. The big weeks are nice when they come, but Ingram had quite a few outings between 8 and 11 PPR points. Those mediocre weeks are fine in large leagues with 14- or 16-teams, but it is not what we’re looking for in standard 10- or 12-teamers. With Tim Hightower likely gone in free agency, the Saints’ currently only have Daniel Lasco and Marcus Murphy under contract for 2017 and beyond. If the Saints don’t bring in a legitimate No. 2 back—like Hightower—Ingram could wind up being a more consistent workhorse back in 2017. He’ll be 27-years-old during for almost the entire 2017 regular season.

Tim Hightower – An unrestricted free agent in 2017, it is still unsure whether or not veteran running back Tim Hightower will be back in New Orleans in 2017 and beyond. While Hightower’s story is special—he stepped away from the NFL for three years in 2012-14—his talent is still lacking. Hightower played well in spurts this past year, but he really struggled down the stretch. In fact, Hightower failed to play on at least one-third of Saints’ snaps in any of their final five games. Keep in mind, Hightower “replaced” a “benched” Mark Ingram at one point during the 2016 season. At any rate, Hightower will likely draw some interest in the secondary days of free agency if New Orleans does indeed decline to re-up him on a one- or two-year deal. Hightower turns 31 in May.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Mark Ingram was fairly inconsistent in 2016; can he bounce back in 2017? Moreover, will the Saints’ sign a free agent or draft a back in the upcoming draft? Will New Orleans re-sign Tim Hightower to a veteran one- or two-year deal?

Wide Receivers

Michael Thomas – What an amazing rookie year Thomas had in 2016. Playing with Drew Brees certainly has its perks. Amazingly, Michael Thomas finished his rookie season second all-time in receptions (92) and seventh in receiving yards (1,137) among first-year receivers. As a rookie, Thomas led the Saints’ wide receiver corps in the following categories: targets, receptions, yards per game, touchdowns, and red-zone targets. Of course, for fantasy, that means Thomas also led Brandin Cooks in PPR points scored. Thomas finished as the WR7 and Cooks the WR9. 0.87 fantasy points per contest separated the two. Thomas’ immediate accession with the Saints and in the league is simply astonishing, even by today’s measures. Even from just a pure football sense, Thomas deserves all the credit in the world for immediately establishing trust between Brees and HC Sean Payton in Year One. Even though Odell Beckham and Mike Evans have cleared our pathways of considering rookie wideouts, it’s still not easy for rookies to come in and dominate in same way Thomas did. For this upcoming year, Thomas’ average draft position will be one to watch. While his rookie year was stellar, there may be a decent gap between him and Cooks in terms of fantasy draft day cost. That’s not to say it isn’t deserved—it certainly is—but with the way New Orleans spreads the ball around all over the field, it’s tough to really envision one of the Saints’ top two targets really separating themselves by a wide margin in 2017 and beyond. At any rate, Thomas will almost assuredly be a top-30 pick in 2017 fantasy leagues.

Brandin Cooks – It’s almost impossible to believe that Brandin Cooks will be only 24-years-old in his fourth year with the Saints while rookie Michael Thomas will turn 24-years-old in March, 2017. Cooks has essentially been a pro three years longer than Thomas despite the fact they’re the same age. While Cooks put together another phenomenal year in 2016 with 78/1,173/8 on 117 targets, it is worth considering what his true ceiling is with Thomas in tow. Cooks saw 12 fewer targets in 2016 compared to one year ago and was actually just slightly out-targeted by the rookie Thomas (121:117). While this may not seem like a big deal since both receivers finished the year as the WR7 (Thomas) and WR9 (Cooks) in PPR points per game, respectively – Cooks may never hit a mid-to-high end WR1 season with so many mouths to feed in New Orleans. First off, consider that Michael Thomas averaged more PPR points per route than Cooks in 2016, Thomas saw more targets per route run than Cooks, and Thomas massively out-targeted Cooks in the red-zone (19:12). What’s more, Thomas finished the year with eight top-24 (WR2 or better) weeks compared to Cooks’ seven. Thomas, too, had six top-15 PPR scoring weeks to Cooks’ three. By almost all measures, Cooks played second fiddle to Thomas in 2016 by a slight margin. For fantasy purposes, Cooks may end up being the better bargain in 2017 fantasy drafts. It’s still way too early, but Cooks is currently going almost one full round in FFCalculator’s Mock Draft ADP. It’s hard to draw too many definitive conclusions from one year of playing together, but Cooks could wind up being a screaming bargain if he does end up being selected near the WR13-WR14 overall this summer.

Willie Snead – Clearly behind both Thomas and Cooks on the Saints’ target totem pole, Snead had a strong 2016 season in his own right. After posting 69/984/3 on 101 targets in 2015, Willie Snead backed up his unexpected 2015 campaign with 72/895/4 on 104 targets in 2016. Snead did not have much touchdown equity because of his role—he ran over 70% of his routes from the slot—but he did catch four or more passes in 10-of-15 games and his 1.89 yards gained per route run was fourth-best among qualified slot receivers, per PFF. In fact, only Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman, and T.Y. Hilton gained more cumulative receiving yards in the slot than Snead did in 2016. Unfortunately, Snead’s consistency did not generate a big weekly ceiling or floor, for that matter. He only finished as a top-12 (WR1 or better) receiver twice during Week 1-16 and finished the year with just five top-24 (WR2 or better) scoring weeks. Snead will undoubtedly be the Saints’ cheapest receiving option in 2017 fantasy leagues, but he’ll also have the weakest upside by a good margin, too. Snead is an exclusive rights free-agent this offseason, meaning New Orleans has until the league deadline to extend Snead before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Snead is essentially stuck to a one-year deal (if the Saints offer it) unless New Orleans signs him to a long-term contract before free agency opens.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Michael Thomas repeat as a top-15 receiver in 2017? Is Brandin Cooks just a mid-WR2 with Thomas in the fold? Can Thomas and Cooks form a dynamic one-two fantasy punch once again?

Tight Ends

Coby Fleener – Dubbed by John Hansen as the “single-most frustrating player to project in the history of fantasy football”, Fleener was nothing short of an enigma in 2016. Even with Josh Hill missing seven games due to injury, Coby Fleener could not muster a TE1 (top-12) season with Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense. Despite the fact Brees averaged over 325 passing yards per day, Fleener mustered a wholly unimpressive 39.4 receiving yards per contest in his first year with New Orleans. In his defense, HC Sean Payton and Brees’ offensive scheme and playbook is not easy to master—but rookie Michael Thomas seemingly earned Brees and Co.’s trust overnight at the NFL Draft. Fleener never even sniffed consistency. Instead, Fleener finished 24th in points per game among tight ends. What’s more, Coby Fleener only mustered four top-12 (TE1 or better) scoring days from Week 1-16. For comparison’s sake, Rams’ tight end Lance Kendricks, too, mustered four top-12 weeks in 2016. Fleener’s inconsistency permeated throughout his route running, his run blocking, and his general lack of field awareness. Among qualifying tight ends, Coby Fleener finished the year tied for 19th out of 22 in yards gained per route run. Only Gary Barnidge and Will Tye were more inefficient on a per route basis than Fleener. He’ll surely still have a small band of truthers that fight for him in 2017 fantasy drafts, but it’s probably best to wait on Fleener to provide a semblance of consistency at the NFL-level before you insert him into another fantasy lineup in the near future.

Josh Hill – After breaking his fibula in Week 13 and subsequently being placed on I.R., Hill unfortunately was unable to continue make strides after receiving a three-year extension last offseason. Josh Hill missed time due to an ankle injury in the first few weeks of 2016, but played on a strong 66% of Saints’ snaps from Week 5-11. Hill only managed to see 20 targets in that seven game span, however. Because of Coby Fleener’s relative inconsistency—Josh Hill will certainly be back in 2017 provided his rehab from his broken leg goes smoothly. Hill may earn an even larger role if the Fleener experiment does not go to plan once again.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Coby Fleener ever be a relevant fantasy asset? Can Fleener ever become a consistent part of the Saints’ attack? Has Josh Hill earned a larger role?
Key Free Agents: LB Paul Kruger, DT Nick Fairley, G Jahri Evans, RB Tim Hightower, RB Travaris Cadet, CB Sterling Moore, DL Darryl Tapp

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7; 2nd in NFC South)

Quarterbacks

Jameis Winston – It was a tale of two seasons for the Bucs’ second-year quarterback. Before the Bucs’ Week 6 bye, Jameis Winston was slightly struggling. Winston was averaging a healthy 265 yards per game – but he owned a crippling 9:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In those first five games, Winston averaged a putrid 5.54 adjusted yards per pass attempt. For reference, only Ryan Fitzpatrick (5.4), Brock Osweiler (5.0), and Jared Goff (4.3) were worse than Winston’s opening five-game AY/A. The final 11 games were a different story. Winston became far more efficient, averaging a healthy 7.48 AY/A and a 19:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most impressively, a rock solid 45.8% of Winston’s throws inside of the 10-yard line went for a score, which was the fifth-best rate in the league. As a result, Winston and the Bucs’ went 7-4 and were on the precipice of a playoff spot before losing two of their last three games versus Dallas and New Orleans. While Winston did improve in a lot of important categories in Year Two—most notably his touchdown percentage—he failed to separate himself as a high upside weekly passer in fantasy football. Winston eclipsed 22 fantasy points just twice during the entire 2016 season and both occurrences came in the two of the Bucs’ first three games. Winston was a solid floor-QB2, however, as he finished as the weekly QB13 or better in 8-of-16 games and the QB16 or better 10 times. Winston scored 15 or more fantasy points in 11 games, but he simply did not carry a large ceiling on a weekly basis. Winston is undoubtedly the Bucs’ quarterback of the future and deserves praise for improving in his second year, but four our sole fantasy purpose: He has not reached the QB1 (top-12) mountain just yet. 

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: His floor was strong in his second professional season, but can Winston become a ceiling-type QB1 in 2017?

Running Backs

Doug Martin and Charles Sims – Per Tampa Bay Times' beat writer Rick Stroud, it does not seem like Doug Martin is going to be short- or long-term part of the Buccaneers plans for 2017 and beyond. After injuring his hamstring that caused him to miss Weeks 3-9, playing poorly upon return, and subsequently getting suspended (Adderall) for four games, Martin is rightfully in hot water in Tampa Bay. Martin was wholly unimpressive in 2016 after a strong bounce back campaign in 2015. In weekly PPR output, Martin finished as a top-12 (RB1) scorer just once in seven healthy games this past year. Martin had five top-12 performances in 2015 alone. Outside of his rookie season and a strong 1,400-rushing yard performance in 2015, Martin’s career has been a mixed bag. Martin has missed significant time in 2013, 2014, and 2016 due to shoulder, knee, ankle, and hamstring issues. Now 28-years-old and suspended for the first three games of the regular season, the Bucs’ have an easy out with Martin. Because he was popped with a four-game ban this past December, all of Martin’s remaining guaranteed money in his contract is voided. If the Bucs’ want to cut Martin this offseason they can do so, scot-free. With Martin’s ugly situation combined with the fact Charles Sims dealt with major knee and pectoral injuries in 2016, the Bucs could target a running back in this year’s loaded draft class. Sims himself is 27-years-old and is heading into a contract year. What’s more, Sims has just 224 carries and 94 receptions through three pro seasons (10.25 touches per game). Two of Sims’ first three years have been cut short due to injury; but at least he’s been more efficient than Doug Martin in his carries in Tampa. 35% of Sims’ carries with the Bucs’ have gained five or more yards compared to Martin’s 30% rate in the same timeframe (2014-16). After a 9-7 season, the Bucs’ have four picks inside of the top-120 overall (19th, 50th, 84th, and 114th). They are undoubtedly a team that will address running back this offseason.

Jacquizz Rodgers – Who would’ve thought Rodgers would be the Bucs’ best back in a full season? With injuries to Doug Martin (hamstring) and Charles Sims (knee, pectoral), Jacquizz Rodgers had his career-best season in 2016. Rodgers’ 129 carries and 560 rushing yards were both career-highs (by far). What’s most interesting, however, is Rodgers was Tampa’s most efficient back this past year. It wasn’t close, either. Jacquizz Rodgers gained five or more yards on 38% of his rush attempts in 2016 alone, while Doug Martin gained 5-plus yards on just 30% of his carries and Charles Sims lagged way behind (25%) both running backs. Rodgers probably isn’t the best long-term option for Tampa Bay, but he certainly showed he is well worth a job as a change-of-pace back that plays a 30 to 40 percent snap rate on a weekly basis. Rodgers is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will likely be re-signed by Tampa for depth. The 26-year-old knows HC Dirk Koetter’s scheme very well from his time in Atlanta.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Doug Martin be back in Tampa in 2017? Will the Bucs’ completely overhaul their backfield after a disappointing 2017? Will Tampa spend premium capital on a running back in the draft in April?

Wide Receivers

Not including Week 17, Evans finished as a top-15 receiver a robust nine times last year. He's the alpha dog here in Tampa Bay.Mike Evans – There is now no doubt where Evans’ weekly ceiling sits. After getting unlucky in the touchdown department in 2015—he scored only three times on 148 targets—Mike Evans smashed any concerns over his standing as a top-15 option among wide receivers. Evans posted a WR3 finish (points per game) in 2016 after posting WR26 returns in 2015 and debuting with a WR11 finish in 2014. Evans’ 0.581 fantasy points per route in 2016 was sixth-best among all receivers as Evans led all wideouts in target share (30%) and was second in target rate per route run (29%). While the Bucs’ desperately need a No. 2 and No. 3 receiver to bookend Evans, there is no denying the still 23-year-old Mike Evans is every bit of the “alpha” receiver Tampa drafted him to be. Not including Week 17, Evans finished as a top-15 receiver a robust nine times in 2016. What’s more, Evans scored 20 or more PPR points seven times this past season while the perennial “WR1” in PPR, Antonio Brown, hit the 20-plus point milestone eight times. Evans is well deserving of his soon-to-be top-20 average depth position in 2017 fantasy leagues.

Vincent Jackson – Coming off of a knee injury that claimed 11 games in 2016 and a trip to the injured-reserve to boot, it is possible Jackson has played his last snap in the NFL. Vincent Jackson is now 34-years-old and his last two years have been cut short due to injuries. Jackson got a massive $56M 5-year deal in 2012 with $26M fully guaranteed and is now heading toward unrestricted free agency. If his health checks out and if Jackson wants to play one more year, he possibly could in a veteran-mentor type role while primarily playing a limited snap rate. Jackson’s receiving output per game has been in a five-year decline since his best season in 2012. Jackson ripped defenses for 86.5 yards per game in 2012 and he has since slipped to 76.5 (2013), 62.6 (2014), 54.3 (2015), and 34.6 YPG in 2016. If Jackson does not elect to retire, he’ll have to take a one-year deal in the open market. Jackson used to be one of the league’s premier deep-threats but he has lost more than a step due to various injuries over the past three years.

Adam Humphries – Standing 5’11” and weighing 195lbs, what Humphries lacks in athletic acumen he makes up for in #grit as a slot receiver. All stereotypes are on the table here. In seriousness, Adam Humphries proved he could play a comfortable, small- to mid-size role in his second-year out of Clemson. Running 76% of his routes from the slot, Humphries ranked a modest 34th out of 54 qualifying slot receivers in yards gained per slot route (1.18) per PFF. In fact, Humphries’ 16.8 target rate on slot routes tied known-slot baller Jamison Crowder for 26th in the league. Due to Tampa’s offensive makeup and identity, Humphries will never be a voluminous PPR option out of the slot like Jarvis Landry or Julian Edelman, but Humphries certainly showed he belongs as a spot role player in three-wide receiver sets for Jameis Winston and the Bucs’ pass attack in the future. Tampa should (and probably will) go after one or two more receivers this offseason in free agency and/or the NFL Draft as Humphries is short on game-breaking talent and Vincent Jackson is past his prime.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: The Bucs’ desperately need a No. 2 receiver to bookend Mike Evans; will they seek one out in the draft? Is Mike Evans a perennial top-8 fantasy receiver?

Tight Ends

Cameron Brate – Even though his season ended in Week 17 with a back injury, Brate was an unsung fantasy hero in 2016. At the weakest position in fantasy football, Cameron Brate finished as the TE11 in PPR points per game and as the TE7 in cumulative PPR points for the entire year. Brate’s eight receiving scores tied Hunter Henry for the league lead while his 660 yards was 12th-best at the position, respectively. Brate’s 10 red-zone targets were second on the team only behind Mike Evans while Brandon Myers siphoned an inefficient six more targets inside of the 20-yard-line away. Myers is an unrestricted free agent this year. While Brate needs to improve dramatically as a run blocker, he could once again be a strong red-zone threat with Myers likely gone and if Brate himself is brought back. (For what it is worth, Brate finished 45th out of 65 qualifying tight ends in PFF’s run blocking grades). Brate is an exclusive-rights free agent this offseason, meaning that Tampa must make Brate a contract offer by the free agent deadline or he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. There is a strong possibility Brate will earn his second contract with the Bucs. Brate’s 2016 campaign as a formerly undrafted player was surprising, but he’s a very capable receiving tight end.

Fantasy questions to answer in 2017: Will Cameron Brate be back with the Bucs in 2017? If so, does he have the tight end job to himself?
Key Free Agents: DE William Gholston, DT Akeem Spence, C Joe Hawley, QB Mike Glennon, WR Vincent Jackson, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, FS Chris Conte, FS Bradley McDougald, LB Daryl Smith, WR Russell Shepard, WR Cecil Shorts, RB Antone Smith