2015 Training Camp Preview: NFC South

Three burning questions for each NFC South team as training camps are here

We've been making mountains out of molehills (in the words of ESPN's Matt Williamson) all offseason, so it's almost a relief to know that new data is coming from camp reports and preseason games to correct some of our entrenched assumptions build up while we whittled away the time between football seasons. Which situations and changes should bear the most fruit in terms of honing our understandings of just what we have to work with entering our 2015 fantasy drafts? Let's look at the NFC South, a division that could follow its worst to first history yet again with the introduction of another #1 overall pick quarterback.

Atlanta

1. Backfield in Motion - Tevin Coleman is already sidelined with a hamstring injury, but even before that second-year back Devonta Freeman was showing no signs of going away quietly. This backfield is shaping up as an RBBC with Freeman getting more passing down work, and maybe more of the bread and butter stretch plays that make the running game of new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan go. Coleman has lethal long speed, but he needs to be basically untouched for those runs to work. Antone Smith also has long speed, and the team brought him back in free agency after he broke multiple long plays last year. We might have no clearer picture of how this backfield shakes out in a month, but we’ll try.

2. Roddy Rule in Effect - Roddy White revealed that he had his knee drained in the offseason and might have to have the procedure again during the season. The good thing is that White himself has already told us that if he practices Friday, play him, and if he doesn’t, then don’t. If White misses games this year, rookie Justin Hardy or early camp sensation Leonard Hankerson could have some marginal fantasy value, and Julio Jones will positively blow up. Watching White’s practice participation and how his body responds this summer will be a big clue to how likely he is to hold up this season.

3. Shanamagic - Kyle Shanahan made Robert Griffin III look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL as a rookie with half a Pierre Garcon and a rookie sixth round running back as his main weapons. He made the Browns running game able to carry the offense to a 7-4 start before Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel took all of the life out of the team. What can do with the Falcons’ pieces? Signs point to a career year for Julio Jones and a revitalized running game. How will Shanahan adjust his outside zone heavy running scheme to Tevin Coleman, who looks like a better back as a downhill runner who can just attack a predetermined gap? Will Matt Ryan benefit from a more balanced defense behind an offensive line that still leaves something to be desired.

Carolina

1. Funchess Match - The Panthers had to try to upgrade at wide receiver to give Cam Newton another credible threat opposite Kelvin Benjamin. They did draft a wide receiver in the second round, but they got one that has just as many questions as Benjamin did last year at draft time. Maybe that’s a good thing? Devin Funchess is long with very fluid athleticism and terrific ball skills - against air. On contested balls, Funchess shrunk from the action a la Jon Baldwin. He was also a tight end before last year and played through a toe injury that he says limited him. While Funchess won’t break out to the tune of Benjamin’s 2015 without a Benjamin injury, he could uplift the stock of Newton and the rest of the Panthers passing game if he’s ready for prime time.

2. Kelvin Temperature Rising? - On the surface, Kelvin Benjamin had a big rookie season that portends even bigger things in year two. A closer look reveals that Benjamin got almost half of his scores in garbage time and was an inconsistent player in almost every facet of the game. He got targets by default and perhaps that could fuel him again this year, but you want to stake your fourth or fifth round pick on more than volume. Benjamin was overweight in the spring, which was a problem at Florida State. Unless we hear the Benjamin is in great shape and impressing this summer in camp, it will be hard to feel confident enough to pay retail price for him.

3. Reversing the Trend - Are we really going to try to kick this football again, after Lucy has pulled it back so many times? Jonathan Stewart finally looked like the back we had hoped he’d become at Oregon after going at the 13th pick in 2008. DeAngelo Williams is gone and won’t be splitting his workload in half. The Panthers didn’t bring in any backs to challenge him as the lead back. All that’s left is for Stewart to stay healthy. His health and form in training camp and preseason will make us more likely to trust Lucy or see her trick coming. Stay tuned.

New Orleans

1. Too Many Cooks? - Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills are gone, and the Saints only added CJ Spiller in free agency to help replace the lost targets. That means that the passing game will fall squarely on the wide shoulders of Marques Colston and more narrow shoulders of Brandin Cooks. Colston has had lots of knee issues over the years, and isn’t exactly in the prime load-bearing segment of his career. Cooks will be the #1 receiver in the offense with about a half-year of NFL experience under his belt. Will Cooks be used more on deep routes, as he was before he got hurt, or on shorter routes, as he was to begin the season, especially when the Saints were playing at home? Whether Cooks is up to the task, and the content of that task as envisioned by the Saints are important pieces of the ADP puzzle.

2. Our Cup Spillereth Over - You couldn’t pick a better landing spot for Spiller than New Orleans. They’ll play 12 of their 16 games indoors on a fast track, they need a new addition to soak up a ton of abandoned targets, and they already showed they could feed a running back in a receiving role when Darren Sproles was in town. The only real question here is whether Spiller can stay healthy, and that’s a huge one. He has low RB1/high RB2 upside in PPR leagues, and Spiller has already been a top five fantasy back earlier in his career. He’ll be a lot better with the Saints than he was in the miscast between the tackles role he had in Buffalo. A healthy camp and preseason would go a long way towards creating confidence in Spiller at his 3rd/4th round ADP.

3. Taking Up the Slack - If you think Drew Brees is going to throw for 4500+ yards again, then you need to stick your neck out for a mystery man who will approach fantasy relevance this year. Maybe it’s Josh Hill or Ben Watson. Perhaps Brandon Coleman, an early star of camp, could fill the #3 wide receiver role admirably. Joseph and Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones, and Nick Toon will also vie for snaps and targets. Watch closely to see which member of the supporting cast Brees zeroes in on to identify another sleeper and gauge Brees’ shot at keeping up his usual passing game numbers.

Tampa Bay

1. Famous or Infamous Jameis? - A healthy amount of caution is called for when we project any rookie, especially quarterbacks, but it appears that projecting #1 pick Jameis Winston for anything but historically good passing numbers (for a rookie) is pessimistic. Few, if any rookie quarterbacks have had a pair of targets like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Winston has advanced pocket mobility, arm talent, and boldness as a passer, and Evans/Jackson will reward him for taking chances, just as Evans did for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. The Bucs had major troubles getting any push in the running game last year and will likely lean on Winston. Even if Winston bombs in camp and the preseason, we need to remember Cam Newton also did right before he became one of the only rookie passers to hit 4000 yards.

2. My Favorite Martin - Doug Martin came out of the gate like he was going to be one of the next great fantasy football running backs as a rookie, fizzled out with an injury in his second year, and practically disappeared for fantasy in his third year. What is in store for Martin in year four? Many thought the team loved 2014 third-round pick Charles Sims, but new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter reportedly went to bat for Martin. We know Martin has displayed the talent and ability to be a strong fantasy back in the past, but he’ll need to make lemonade out of a poor run blocking line and a split backfield with a receiving back. If you’re thinking of investing in Martin, you’ll want to hear something like “recapturing rookie form” coming out of Tampa camp.

3. Tri Towers - Give Jameis Winston Kelvin Benjamin, and he can hook up with him for 15 scores on 54 receptions as his #3 receiver in 2013. Give him Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and a hopefully healthy Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and well, we don’t really know how productive he can be, but the arrow is pointing up. If new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense gives Winston the wide berth to throw his towers open and give them chances to make one-on-one plays, the numbers could pile up very quickly.