print 2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: NFC South

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Published, 2/2/12    

Atlanta Falcons
QBs: The Falcons have had a lot of success since they drafted Matt Ryan in 2008, and while he’s certainly been an important part of that, we’ve had questions about just how good he is. We were critical of Ryan this past season at times, but that’s really a function of high expectations. If we can accept that Ryan doesn’t have special physical skills, then we’re still left with a good QB. He’s simply good and will probably never be great. If you compare his skill set to someone like Matthew Stafford, there’s no comparison, as Stafford has elite arm talent. Ryan’s a great professional, but we think he’s a little limited physically. That comes into play when his timing is off because it will cause him to miss throws he should make, especially downfield. A QB with better skills can make up for those, but because Ryan is somewhat limited, he needs to be on point with his accuracy, which to be fair, he usually is. Because he’s not at an elite level, Ryan may never be the consistent producer than someone like Aaron Rodgers is. A player like Rodgers can be a little off and still put up solid numbers and have his team in a position to win. If Ryan is inaccurate and/or erratic, it’s very easy to see and the team will struggle. He’s not going to be someone that makes his receivers much better, but luckily he has a great pair of them in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Having a power running foundation with Michael Turner also helped Ryan be more efficient and keep the offense on schedule. However, this offense needed to take a step up if they wanted to hang with dangerous offensive teams like the Packers and Saints, and having Jones and his big-play ability on the team definitely helped them move in the right direction, although they may not be there yet. While the Falcons may be at their most efficient when Turner is carrying the offense, that’s probably not going to be enough to compete with the elite offenses in the league, so in 2012, we’ll need to see Ryan take his game up to the next level. They did start to transition to relying on his passing more than ever the end of 2011, so it will be interesting to see if that trend continues with Turner a year older in 2012. Ryan did have a very solid year in 2011, going 347/566 (61.3%) for 4177 yards, 29 TDs, and 12 INTs, while adding a pair of rushing TDs to finish a respectable 9th among QBs at 21.6 FPG.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: With new OC Dirk Koetter using a similar scheme to what the Falcons used under Mike Mularkey, how much will their passing game change if any? Can Ryan get much better, or have we seen the best he has to offer?
RBs: While it didn’t really come out until after the season, we found out that Michael Turner played just about all of 2010 with a groin injury that ended up needing to be corrected by surgery. Luckily, that surgery happened early in 2011 and let Turner have plenty of time to heal before the season began. We were a little worried about Turner wearing down because of his heavy workload since coming over as the new starter in 2008, but he opened the season strong with 100-yard efforts in four of his first seven games. He cracked the century mark only two more times the rest of the season and didn’t top 76 yards from Weeks 12-16, which was a big disappointment for his fantasy owners, especially during the playoffs. While he did finish the year with a season-high 172 yards and 2 TDs, it came against the hapless Buccaneers, who had already lost a lot of players to injury and didn’t show much effort. And that Week 17 performance was too-little-too-late for many. We’d say that Turner may have lost a bit of his edge due to age and wear and tear, and he didn’t bust off the longer runs quite as often, but for the most part he looks like the same guy, which is a good sign for next year. He doesn’t have a lot of speed to lose to begin with, but bigger backs with a lot of wear and tear tend to fall off quickly, yet while Turner did seem to break fewer tackles, he didn’t seem to be slipping too noticeably. What we didn’t see this season was the use of Jason Snelling to give Turner a breather here and there. The versatile Snelling returned to the team on a one-year deal, but he didn’t play much of role, carrying just 44 times for 151 yards and 0 TDs (3.4 YPC) and grabbing 26/179/1 on 33 targets, which put him at just 2.6 FPG. By comparison, Turner had 301 carries (third time in four years with 300+ carries) for 1340 yards and 11 TDs (4.5 YPC) and added 17/168 on 26 targets, so his 13.6 FPG ranked him tied for 11th at the RB position. The player we’re most intrigued about is Jacquizz Rodgers, who took some time to get going in his rookie season, but ended up seeing an increased role by the end of the year. Down the stretch, Rodgers got meaningful carries behind Turner. He’s very short, but he’s built well and he’s also very decisive. He’s not nearly as quick and fast, but he reminds us of a powerful version of Darren Sproles. Keep in mind Rodgers was an accomplished receiver out of the backfield in college. He’s a powerful guy who is not afraid to stick it up in there, yet since he’s so small he can’t run over people. But he’s a very interesting player going forward and an active complement to a bigger back. New OC Dirk Koetter may look to get Rodgers a bit more involved both as a runner and a receiver since he gives them a little juice out of the backfield. He appeared in 16 games, rushing 57 times for 205 yards and a TD while adding 21/188/1 on 27 targets to finish with 3.2 FPG. If the team feels good enough about Rodgers, it may make the decision easier to let Snelling leave through free agency.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can Turner continue to carry the load for this offense with so many carries to his name in such a short time? Will we see Rodgers have an increased role to the point he becomes a viable fantasy option?
WRs/TEs: We have always given plenty of love to Roddy White – and his fantastic 2010 season deserved it – but he really was doing it alone and that’s why the Falcons weren’t able to go far in the playoffs. The team addressed that when they traded three picks from their 2011 draft and two picks from their 2012 draft to Cleveland to take Julio Jones 6th overall. That’s a huge haul to give up for a WR, but the Falcons believed Jones’ big-play ability could put them over the top. Jones had a solid start to his season, but a hamstring injury suffered in Week Five kept him out until Week Nine and then again for Weeks Eleven and Twelve. Early on we saw him make some great individual plays, but never really get on a roll. When the Falcons got back to basics and ran the ball, it did open things up for explosive plays, which is exactly what the Falcons were looking for all along. For a time, we had trouble calling Jones reliable because of the injury issues and lack of consistency, but there’s no doubt he had a knack for big plays. He finished the season strong with 24/289/6 in his final five games and ended up with 54/959/8 (17.8 YPC) on 94 targets (57.4% caught), which was good enough for a tie for 9th among WRs with 11.5 FPG. We came out of his rookie season believing that Jones is a physical receiver who can make big plays, and if he gets over some of the mental lapses that have still caused him to slip up at times, he's proven to be a very good player. Of course, he's also at the mercy of the sometimes-shaky Matt Ryan. White played and started every game, but he definitely wasn’t 100%, and he had his fair share of drops early in the season. However, he started to get going once he felt healthier and the team began moving him around to get him favorable matchups, which he has always believed is what makes him tough to key on for opposing defenses. Targets are never an issue for White, as he led the league in that category for the second straight year with 178, which is interesting considering he had Jones playing opposite him this past season as opposed to the combination of Harry Douglas and Michael Jenkins in 2010. White turned it on late and ended up finishing with 100/1296/8 (13 YPC) on 178 targets (56.2% caught) and was 12th among WRs at 11.1 FPG. Speaking of Douglas, outside of the time he had to step in for the injured Jones, we saw him in more of his natural role in the slot and it was clear Ryan liked throwing him the ball. He was more important for the Falcons than he was for fantasy with 39/498/1 (12.8 YPC) on 61 targets (63.9% caught) for just 4 FPG. It’ll be interesting to see what he decides to do in 2012, as he’ll be able to test the free agent market. TE Tony Gonzalez had a surprisingly strong season for Atlanta and may have been their most consistent option. While he's not the dynamic playmaker he once was, Gonzalez was one of the most reliable TEs in the league all season, despite Ryan's inconsistent play. His upside may not be as big as some of the more athletic TEs in the league, but he still has good hands, gets open, and gets chances to score. In a season with so much volatility, it was nice to be able to hang your hat on something, and you could have done that if Gonzalez was on your team. He started all 16 games and put up 80/875/7 (10.9 YPC) on 116 targets (69% caught), which put him in a tie for 5th among TEs with 8.1 FPG. Gonzalez killed the retirement rumors before they even got off the ground when he signed a one-year deal to return to the Falcons in 2012.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: If Jones can stay healthy and on the field, will he be able to develop enough to bring this team to the next level? Can Gonzalez give the team anywhere near the same numbers or will the possible increase in role for RB Jacquizz Rodgers cut into his targets?
Key Free Agents: WR Harry Douglas, QB Chris Redman, RB Jason Snelling, C Todd McClure, DE John Abraham, DE Kroy Biermann, LB Curtis Lofton, LB Mike Peterson, CB Brent Grimes, CB Kelvin Hayden, FS Thomas DeCoud
Carolina Panthers
QBs: When the Panthers selected Cam Newton with the 1st overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, we thought they found their QB of the future, not necessarily for the present. Newton thought otherwise. An up-and-down preseason was good enough to win the starting job over veteran Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen, who was picked by the team in the 2010 Draft. Newton then shocked us all by throwing for 400+ yards in his first two games, becoming the first player ever to do so to open a career. Even though the Panthers lost in both games, it was apparent Newton was ready to go way ahead of schedule. In what was probably a result of those first two games, the Panthers seemed to fall in love with Newton’s arm and had him throwing a lot more than he probably should have in the first half of the season. At some points, Newton got taken out of his comfort zone by the blitz, but that also tied into the idea that opponents could play the pass since the Panthers weren’t doing enough with their running game to help Newton out, especially since he didn’t have much to work with in the receiving corps. It helped that he had a lot of time to throw, as the Panther OL was very good this year. With time to throw, Newton was fantastic in the pocket – he continued to look to pass first and (more often than not) run as a last resort – and he threw the ball extremely well. He lost his accuracy at times and struggled to protect the ball at times, but for the most part he put the ball right where it needed to be and was as effective with power throws as he was with timing throws in which he needed to put touch on the ball. Sometimes it looked like he wasn’t stepping into all his throws like you’d want him to, but it didn’t matter because he has a big arm and can flick it with ease. So, as crazy as it sounds, he has upside as a passer compared to what we’ve already seen because he can make all the throws. What’s also amazing about Newton is that, unlike many QBs in the league right now, Newton can throw the ball down the field on the outside, even going across the field. Many QBs these days work inside the hash marks because they don’t really have the arm strength to throw it on the perimeter, yet Newton clearly does. And for the most part, Newton puts the ball in his receiver’s hands. Players can be in the league for years and never develop that kind of touch, so Newton is already showing special traits that make him elite. As the season went on, we saw the Panthers get the ground game more involved, including some use of the read option, which works so much better with Newton than someone like Tim Tebow because Newton is a better passer and a better athlete than Tebow. By the end of the season, Newton’s play was bordering on elite. He would make the occasional high throw, but that’s something that can be corrected for a young player. And while Newton may have had some trouble with bodies around him earlier in the season, he was much more comfortable towards the end and made some throws in those situations that only a handful of player can make, which is why he is so special. He ended up starting in all 16 games, finishing the season with 4051 yards, 21 TDs, and 17 INTs on 310/517 passing, which was good for 60% accuracy. That would have been plenty good for a rookie, but Newton took it to another level with his running ability. He racked up 709 yards and a record 14 TDs on 125 carries, which was the main reason he finished 4th among QBs at 27.6 FPG. While Newton was amazing as a rookie, we also have to give offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski credit for putting Newton in a great position to succeed. There are no imitations to their offense because he can do it all. Even better, he looked very comfortable and has no memory after he makes a mistake. Newton’s ability to connect with Steve Smith immediately was great to see, but the Panthers should be looking to give their talented QB more weapons to maximize his talents.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: How much better can Newton be with a normal off-season under his belt? If his rushing TDs slip, can he make up for it with improved passing numbers?
RBs: Count us among those who believed that DeAngelo Williams would probably be moving on from Carolina this past offseason with Jonathan Stewart getting his first real crack as the team’s lead back. The Panthers thought differently and decided to bring Williams back on a lucrative new deal, which once again made this backfield a headache for fantasy owners. Because this offense had been carried by the run in years past, it still made sense for both players to be meaningful and productive fantasy options, but that idea went out the window, at least in the first half of the season, when the team fell in love with Cam Newton’s arm. It’s not like Williams and Stewart were playing poorly during this time either, and, in fact, they both looked quite good. However, the lack of opportunities made them frustrating to have on your fantasy team. When given chances, Williams made the most of them because he's an exceptional talent. Williams is a good player who's capable of making big plays because he has elite burst, and when he gets to the second level, there are few players in the NFL who can run him down from behind. Stewart was used more as a receiver, which was surprising because that’s never been his game. He also played more of the “closer” role than Williams, although with the team winning just six games, that didn’t happen that often. Newton’s rushing TDs limited the values of both players, as Newton was usually the primary ball carrier around the goal line. It was bad enough that the two weren’t getting a lot of opportunities to run the ball, but when their chances to score are taken away, it really hurts their fantasy value. By the end of the season, though, the Panthers found more of a balance in their offense and appeared to be turning a corner for the 2012 season. Williams played in 16 games, rushing 155 times for 836 yards (5.4 YPC) and 7 TDs and grabbed 16/135 on 24 targets to finish 33rd among RBs at 8.7 FPG. Stewart also played in all 16 games, going for 761 yards and 4 TDs on 142 carries (5.4 YPC) while having his best season as a receiver with 47/413/1 on 60 targets to finish in a tie for 29th at the RB position with 9.2 FPG. Although this rotation may be maddening to deal with in fantasy, the backs are comfortable working together and have admitted that it keeps them fresh and could extend their careers. Unless they surprisingly deal one of the players to another team, which is highly unlikely, this situation should continue to be problematic for fantasy purposes.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can the Panthers keep the balance in their offense they started to find at the end of the season? Stewart is entering a contract year, so will this be his final season in Carolina?
WRs/TEs: Smith didn’t appear to be too happy about his place with the Panthers coming into the 2011 season. He was grumbling about not wanting to be the #1 WR anymore and felt the team needed to bring another player in to take over that role. They brought another player in, but it was a player who helped Smith be a #1 WR once again. Of course we’re referring to Cam Newton, who made a connection with Smith almost immediately and helped Smith become one of the dominant players in the league once again. Newton’s success this season was almost always tied to Smith’s, which is why both had amazing seasons. With Newton’s great arm and ability to hit downfield throws with accuracy, Smith looked like the player we saw in the early 2000s. He played with an edge and showed he could still get down the field. The timing and chemistry he developed with Newton was unbelievable considering the lockout and made this offense fun to watch. Because the Panthers used a lot of two-TE sets and worked all areas of the field with the passing game, in addition to Newton keeping defenses off guard with the threat of running, Smith was an explosive and physical playmaker who could make plays anywhere on the field. With other options like Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee not jumping off the page with their skills, Smith was the only truly viable downfield weapon at the WR position on a team that threw the ball a lot, and that guaranteed him targets. Unfortunately, the lack of weapons did hurt Smith at times, since defenses could key on him more, which might explain why the second half of his season wasn’t quite as good as the first. However, we can’t complain about him putting up 79/1394/7 (17.6 YPC) on 129 targets (61.2% caught) and 11.7 FPG (7th among WRs) in 16 games. The Panthers lost the promising David Gettis to a torn ACL in the preseason, so we saw guys like LaFell (36/613/3, 56 targets, 5.3 FPG) and Naanee (44/467/1, 75 targets, 3.5 FPG) involved as well, although neither demanded the attention of the defense. OC Rob Chudzinski loved using the TE, which is why we saw the team bring in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. While Olsen was considered the starter, Shockey was on the field just enough to take opportunities away from Olsen, which made him tough to trust for fantasy. Red zone chances for both players were hard to come by since Newton scored 14 times with his legs and looked like the team’s primary option when they got near the goal line. Olsen played in all 16 games, catching 45/540/5 (12 YPC) on 88 targets (51.3% caught), but that landed him at just 17th among TEs with 5.6 FPG. Shockey saw action in 15 games and had a respectable season with 37/455/4 (12.3 YPC) on 62 targets (59.7% caught), which was good for 4.6 FPG (25th at the TE position).
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can Smith have another great season in what will be a contract year? Will the Panthers bring in another WR to draw some attention away from him or will LaFell or a healthy Gettis step up and emerge as a strong #2.
Key Free Agents: QB Derek Anderson, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey, RG Geoff Hangartner, LB Dan Connor
New Orleans Saints
QBs: Trying to analyze Drew Brees at this point in his career is pretty pointless because he’s the same, phenomenal player every week, and 2011 was probably the best we’ve ever seen him play. While he obviously wasn’t bad in 2010, a knee injury did appear to bother him at times and INTs were an issue (he had 22), so with health back on his side as well as arguably the best TE in the game, Jimmy Graham, things were set up well for Brees to rebound in 2011. He did that and more leading the Saints to the a division title and a victory over the Lions in the Wild Card Round before bowing out to the 49ers in a classic matchup in the Divisional Round. Efficiency has always been the name of the game for Brees, and his numbers from this year demonstrated that. He had the highest completion percentage for a single season at 71.2%, and while it certainly helps to have a lot of weapons at your disposal, like Graham, Marques Colston, and Darren Sproles to name a few, he also has a great coaching staff led by HC Sean Payton that’s able to put those players in a position to take advantage of beatable matchups. Brees has a solid OL, but the extremely quick internal clock allows him to get rid of the ball in a timely manner, which is why he was sacked just 24 times all year. We mentioned that INTs were a problem for Brees in 2010, but he cut that down to 14 in 2011, with 8 of those coming during Weeks 3-6. For the season, Brees ended up going 468/657 for 5476 yards, 46 TDs, 14 INT, and added a rushing TD to finish 2nd among QBs with 29.5 FPG. His completions, completion percentage, and yards were all single-season records. In addition, he had the most 300+ yard games in season (11), the most consecutive 300+ yard game (7), and the most consecutive 350+ yard games (4). 2011 was a contract year for Brees and after starting negotiations before the season started, he asked that those talks be put on hold until after the season was complete. Although no new deal has been reached yet, all parties involved fully expect Brees to return to New Orleans, so it’s only a matter of time before that is resolved and it likely will before free agency kicks off on March 13th.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can Brees keep up these insane numbers? If Colston and/or Robert Meachem aren’t re-signed, how will that affect Brees?
RBs: The Saint running game took a step back in 2010 after they ran the ball so well in their championship season, and that was an issue that HC Sean Payton wanted to address coming into 2011. First, in what we thought was a somewhat surprising move, the team re-signed Pierre Thomas before the lockout began. Then, the Saints traded their 2011 2nd-round pick and a 2012 1st-round pick to the Patriots to move back into the 1st round so they could draft Alabama RB Mark Ingram 28th overall. They traded Reggie Bush to the Dolphins and completed their big backfield transactions with one of the best free agent signings of 2011 when they inked former Charger Darren Sproles to a deal. Sproles proved to be a better fit for their offense thanBushbecause he has so much quickness to go along with his speed. Bush was more of an open-field guy, whereas Sproles is deadly in any situation. While Sproles did a fine job in a somewhat limited role as a runner, the team was enamored with him because he consistently beat defenders to the outside and could turn it up field for good yardage. He ran it 87 times for 603 yards and 2 TDs (6.9 YPC), but most of his damage came as a receiver, with him catching 86 of 111 targets (77.5% caught) for 710 yards and 7 TDs. Even in a standard scoring league, Sproles managed to finish 19th among RBs and was probably one of the best values in any draft. While the Thomas signing may have been somewhat questionable when it happened, especially since he was coming off another injury, the Saints knew exactly what they were doing and got a productive season out of him. With Sproles being the primary pass-catcher out of the backfield and Ingram and Chris Ivory used in short-yardage/goal-line situations, Thomas was the do-it-all back and performed quite well in that role. While he was probably better to use as a flex, he still had the upside to be a #2 fantasy back any week because of his involvement both on the ground and through the air. Like Sproles, he played in all 16 games, rushing for 562 yards and 5 TDs on 110 carries (5.1 YPC) and added 50/425/1 on 59 targets, which put him at an amazing 84.7% catch rate. While he was a #2 fantasy option at times, his 8.4 FPG put him in a tie for 36th at the RB position, which was still impressive considering this backfield was using a three-man rotation for most of the season. We wouldn’t call Ingram’s season a total disappointment, but heel and toe injuries, as well as a lack of touches at times, didn’t allow him to reach the lofty expectations we had for him at the beginning of the year. He’s mainly a power and inside sustainer, yet he does move a little bit better than we thought he would, and he’s an underrated receiver. He has a chance to be just a notch below the elite at the position, but only if they make a commitment to him. However, we’re not sure they will in the coming years with Sproles there, but Ingram clearly needs to get a defined role in this backfield in the years to come. That’s because we’ve seen a player who showed excellent power and the ability to run people over, but could also make unblocked defenders miss. Despite missing six games, Ingram still led the team with 26 red zone rushes. His heel injury caused him to miss two games in the middle of the season, but his toe injury suffered in Week Thirteen kept him out the rest of the season and in the playoffs, although it’s not expected to be an issue going forward. Ingram finished his rookie season with 474 yards and 5 TDs on 122 carries (3.9 YPC) and added 11/46 on 13 targets, which put him at 8.2 FPG (38th among RBs). With the return of Thomas and the drafting of Ingram, we didn’t know what kind of role Chris Ivory would have in 2011. He started the season on the PUP list due to a sports hernia and foot injury, and with plenty of talent in the backfield, he didn’t end up taking the field until Week Eight. Between a hamstring injury and Ingram returning from injury, Ivory was inactive from Weeks 10-13, but he returned for the rest of the season and the playoffs when Ingram was out. Although not as talented as Ingram, Ivory filled his role as a power back who could get the ball in short-yardage situations and be a volume guy if needed. In six games, he had 374 yards and a TD on 79 rushes (4.7 YPC), but didn’t catch a pass and finished in a tie for 43rd among RBs with 7.2 FPG. His presence only complicates this backfield because they do not like to keep 4 RBs active on gameday.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will Ingram’s role be increased or will the Saints stick with what worked and keep using their rotation? Can Sproles be just as reliable for fantasy or will team’s look for ways to take him out?
WRs/TEs: In previous years, the Saint receiving corps could be a nightmare for fantasy purposes. Outside of WR Marques Colston, the ball could be spread around enough to make Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, and even Devery Henderson worthwhile options in any given week. Colston is still a very good receiver, and while he had a great season, the team’s true go-to player was second-year TE Jimmy Graham. It became apparently quickly that Graham was the top target in this offense, and his amazing physical skills allowed him to line up anywhere in the formation and make plays anywhere on the field, whether it's down the seam or in the red zone. Matchups never seemed to matter for Graham because his size, skill, and physicality made him a mismatch for any opponent. The Saints may be better than any team in the league at getting their players in winnable matchups, as we’ve learned with Colston over the years, so it wasn’t that surprising to see Graham emerge as a dangerous threat right away in this past season. Graham was everywhere on the field and catches everything thrown in his area, so much so that it was surprising to see him drop any passes. His rapport with Drew Brees was fantastic, and it was very clear why the team had no problem letting Jeremy Shockey move to the division rival Panthers. Outside of some back spasms late in the season, Graham had no troubles with injuries and was able to play the entire season, racking up 99/1310/11 (13.2 YPC) on 148 targets (66.9% caught) which gave him 12.3 FPG, ranking him 2nd among TEs and 7th among all receivers. As we said, Graham may have been the team’s top receiver, but it didn’t stop Colston from having another great year. A broken collarbone in Week One cost him two games, and it did take him a week or two to get back in the mix, but for the most part Colston continued to show his value to this team as a versatile receiver who could play inside or outside and be relied on to make plays and move the chains. In 14 games, he caught 80/1143/8 (14.3 YPC) on 107 targets (74.8% caught) to finish 8th among WRs with 11.6 FPG. With Colston continuing to play well – and a lot of his consistency was thanks to the presence of Graham – and both Graham and Darren Sproles emerging as top options in the passing game, Moore saw his numbers slip a bit with only one football to go around. After being a solid PPR option and RZ threat with the ability to move around the formation, Moore’s upside was limited in 2011, which is why in the 14 games he played, Moore ended up with 52/627/8 (12.1 YPC) on 72 targets (72.2% caught) and was tied for 34th among WRs with 7.9 FPG. Considering he may have been the fourth option in this offense, finishing that high at his position was quite good and reaffirmed his worth to the team as a savvy, versatile receiver, who Brees loved throwing to because of his reliability. A hamstring injury knocked him out of the end of the season and the playoffs, but he should be right back into the mix in 2012 after signing a new deal before the 2011 season. Someone who may not be back in 2012 is Meachem, who was once again relegated to being little more than a deep threat in an offense full of weapons. He played in every game and started eight times, but wasn’t anything more than a reach play with 40/620/6 (15.5 YPC) on 58 targets (69%), and 6.7 FPG, which tied him for 47th at the WR position. Henderson ended up with another quiet season after yet another strong start to the season, which has become the yearly tease. He played in every game, but had another meaningless fantasy season with 32/503/2 (15.7 YPC) on 48 targets (66.7% caught) and just 4 FPG.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will the Saints re-sign both Colston and Meachem? If Meachem leaves, does Adrian Arrington finally get to player a bigger role in what will be his third season with the team?
Key Free Agents: QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, WR Robert Meachem, LG Carl Nicks, NT Aubrayo Franklin, NT Shaun Rogers, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, CB Tracy Porter, PK John Kasay
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
QBs: It was tough not to be excited about Josh Freeman’s chances in 2011 after he and the Buccaneers appeared to be ahead of schedule coming off a 10-6 season in 2010. However, we probably underestimated the fact that this was still a very young offense that didn’t have a lot of special talent. Without a normal off-season, they didn’t get the same chances to develop and jell as a group. When you add in a defense that struggled, 2011 ended up being a disastrous season for Freeman. He often tried to do too much to keep the young Bucs in games, which led to a lot of mistakes for a QB who still has things to improve on in all facets of his game. Freeman’s biggest problem was his accuracy, which never seemed to be there all season, but luckily that is something that can be worked on and improved with time. The other major issue with Freeman is that he made shaky decisions all year, and it looked like he was doing a poor job reading coverage and he forced throws to his receivers in the red zone. The best explanation we have is that he was trying to do too much, and his problems were exacerbated because they are very limited talent-wise at receiver. Freeman just didn’t see the field as well and had trouble pulling the trigger at times, and he pulled the trigger on risky throws in the red zone. The Tampa passing game was out of sync all year, and there was no rhythm to it. While Freeman definitely deserves blame for the disappointing performance from the team’s passing attack, the lack of talent on this team has to be acknowledged. The Bucs’ OL was mediocre, they don’t have a #2 WR, and, while TE Kellen Winslow is a solid player, he looked sluggish. Top WR Mike Williams had problems with drops and the extra attention he was receiving towards the end of 2010 and with no other WR stepping up yet again in 2011, defenses continued to key on him and make his life difficult. Basically, no one was getting open for Freeman, which would explain why he had to take too many chances and force throws in an effort try to make something happen. Thumb and shoulder injuries bothered Freeman for multiple games, but only kept him out once. In 15 starts, he went 346/551 (62.8%) for 3592 yards, 16 TDs, and 22 INTs, but was able to salvage some of his fantasy value with 55/238/4 on the ground, which is why he was able to still finish 15th among QBs with 19.4 FPG. Even though Freeman make have taken a step back in 2011, he’s still very young and very talented, so hopefully a real off-season will help him and this team get back on track for 2012. A dynamic weapon in the passing game would certainly help.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will Freeman get some more help from his receiving corps? Can he keep up the solid rushing numbers and improve his passing numbers to become a viable fantasy starter?
RBs: The Buccaneers got a little lucky to grab LeGarrette Blount off the scrap heap in 2010 and he gave them a productive season when the wheels started to fall off Cadillac Williams. However, we preached caution with Blount coming into the 2010 season. In the preseason, we said Blount was a pretty straight-forward (downhill) guy who can run people over and always falls forward. However, he doesn't have quick feet and won't really make anyone miss or find his way through small cracks. He's big and physical, but sometimes he shies away from contact and doesn't use his size to his advantage, a la Brandon Jacobs. But he's also not nearly as quick on his feet as Jacobs was in his prime, so we have a guy in Blount who falls forward and picks up yards and can occasionally bust a big one with his athletic ability (he has been known to leap over defenders). Without a presence in the passing game, Blount had no upside due to his very basic skill set, and, as we saw, that translated into him being a fantasy bust considering he was probably selected to be a #2 fantasy back. Blount looked like a man among boys some weeks, yet some weeks he looked slow, sluggish, and plodding. Blount really is a week-to-week proposition at best simply because he’s not a very skilled runner. He’ll bust off the run of the year like he did against the Packers one week and come up small against the worst run defense another. If he doesn’t get volume, his lack of upside leaves just a small margin for error. When he faces a good run defense that will stand up to him, he can look very slow. A knee injury kept him out for two games, and in that time we saw veteran Earnest Graham step up and look like a better option for the Buccaneers because of his ability to make people miss (more so than Blount, at least) and avoid defenders, not to mention his significantly better skills as a receiver. Graham originally came into the season as a FB, but needed to be used more as a RB because Kregg Lumpkin was so bad in the preseason and couldn’t be trusted as the team’s #2 RB. Graham was lost after seven games due to a torn Achilles, and he finished with 206 yards on 37 carries (5.6 YPC) and 26/163 on 31 targets, which put him at 5.3 FPG. Graham may not play for the team again, as he is a free agent heading into 2012 and is 32 years old. Blount returned after missing a couple of games, saying that he’d improved his skills as a passer and would be able to play on passing downs, but that never came to fruition and we ended up seeing Lumpkin and Mossis Madu see time on passing downs. Lumpkin appeared in all 16 games, rushing 31 times for 105 yards (3.4 YPC) and added 41/291 on 53 targets to end up with 2.6 FPG. Madu saw action in 9 games, but had just 15/55 on the ground and 10/72 on 12 targets. Blount started all 14 games he played in, rushing for 781 yards and 10 TDs on just 184 attempts (4.2 YPC) and caught 15/148 on 25 targets to end up 32nd among RBs with 8.8 FPG. Hopefully the Buccaneers learned that Blount really isn’t cut out to be a lead back and should primarily be a short-yardage/goal-line option behind a more well-rounded back.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will the Buccaneers make changes when it comes to their rotation or will they give Blount another shot to be a lead guy?
WRs/TEs: One of the more surprising developments of the 2010 season for the Buccaneers was the play of 4th-round pick Mike Williams, who outshined 2nd-round pick Arrelious Benn and ended up as one of the more reliable fantasy options at the position. Expectations were deservedly higher for Williams and this young offense in 2011, but they fell well short and took a step backwards. Williams had problems with the extra attention he received as the only legit WR threat in 2010, and those continued into 2011. As someone who isn’t very explosive, Williams had trouble getting separation off the line, and, because he’s still a young player, his route-running needed a lot of work. It’s a tough position for a second-year player to be in, but it wasn’t all Williams’ fault. Josh Freeman struggled with his decision-making and accuracy and the team’s next best option in their receiving corps was Kellen Winslow, who was able to play in all 16 games despite chronic knee problems, but still looked sluggish more often than not. Winslow was probably the most reliable target for Freeman and ended up leading the team in catches, finishing with 75/763/2 (10.2 YPC) on 119 targets (63.2% caught) and was 18th at the TE position with 5.5 FPG. Williams got down on himself for his play and promised to improve, which we think will come in time. He was still the most-targeted receiver on the team, but his catch rate was an issue yet again. Williams started all 16 games and put up 65/771/3 (11.9 YPC) on 124 targets, for a miserable 52.4% catch rate and ended up just 55th among WRs with 6 FPG. Benn was able to start the season despite tearing his ACL at the end of 2010, but was mostly a disappointment with just 30/441/3 on 50 targets (60% caught) to finish with 4.4 FPG. Preston Parker improved in his second season, playing in all 16 games and grabbed 40/554/3 on 64 targets (62.5% caught) to finish with 4.6 FPG. Parker did impress the team and could have a future as an active slot receiver. But perhaps the best candidate for someone to step up opposite Williams was rookie Dezmon Briscoe, who had a very strong preseason and looked like he might start had Benn not been ready. He played with physicality and ran well after the catch, plus he looked like a better route-runner and a more consistent player than Benn. Because Freeman struggled, we may not have gotten a complete assessment of Briscoe’s game, but we’re definitely intrigued to see what he can do with a full off-season of work in this offense. He started twice in 16 games, grabbing 35/387/6 (11.1 YPC) on 50 targets to lead the team with an excellent 70% catch rate and wasn’t that far behind Williams with 5.3 FPG.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Can Williams develop into a legitimate #1 WR? Who will step up to become the #2 option this team desperately needs? How much does Winslow have left in the tank?

Key Free Agents: QB Josh Johnson, FB Earnest Graham, LG Jeremy Zuttah, SS Sean Jones, CB Ronde Barber, PK Connor Barth

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