This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
Every year, the expectations for the Falcons rise a notch. Atlanta fans will be disappointed with anything less than a trip to the conference championship.
Quarterback: All of the hopes ride on the right arm of Matt Ryan. He is the general for this team. Ryan has a great group of receivers to utilize and will have more passing lanes with the signing of Steven Jackson. Opposing defenses will respect the running game much more this season. Behind the starter are a pair of lesser backup passers, Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree. Expect Atlanta to sign a veteran to add to the mix as the Falcons have much invested in a strong 2013 season.
Running Back: As noted above, the signing of Steven Jackson is expected to pay off huge dividends. He runs hard and is an asset in the passing game. Last season showed the veteran tailback to have plenty left in the tank, especially when compared to Michael Turner. Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling return to add depth behind Jackson. The trio of backs are talented and will enable the prolific offense via a viable ground attack. If Jackson were to miss time, expect Rodgers and Snelling to split time, with Snelling garnering more of the carries.
Wide Receiver: Atlanta boasts the top receiver duo in the NFL with Roddy White and Julio Jones. Having both on the field at the same time helps spread out the defense for Ryan. Harry Douglas adds a play-maker to the slot. A player to watch in preseason is Drew Davis, a relative unknown who saw time as a rookie last year and made some plays. If he can develop, Davis could make an impact if he sees the field.
Tight End: Tony Gonzalez returns for his 17th and final professional season. He turned 37 years old a few months ago. Gonzalez has enjoyed a productive career, worthy of a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The athletic tight end has been able to stay injury-free for much of his career. With the strong play at the wide receiver position, the middle of the field is open for Gonzalez to find the soft spots. Behind him on the depth chart is Michael Palmer and rookie Levine Toilolo. Toilolo is a player the Falcons are high on, and expect him to take over for Gonzalez in 2014.
The Panthers can never seem to get over the hump and become the perennial contender some hope. The one reason is the lack of talent on defense and absence of depth on offense. If all goes well for Carolina, a playoff run is possible. Much will depend on the quarterback play.
Quarterback: Cam Newton has made strides, even though many love to point out his flaws. Newton's ability to run and pass puts pressure on opposing defenses. Once again, he will be an elite fantasy player, even with only one top notch receiver. Considering that Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen are behind Newton on the depth chart, Panthers fans have to hope the starter can remain healthy. If either of these two are ever under center for the entire season, Carolina might be a four-win team.
Running Back: This backfield has been a quagmire for fantasy owners. Do we roster one – or both – of DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart? There has been no right answer, unless it is "neither". Williams has produced big plays, especially off the read option play, but not enough to find any consistency. Stewart has been the proverbial tease, flashing talent, but injuries and consistency have cost him as well. Mike Tolbert was signed last offseason and will provide another option for the coaching staff. Add in Newton's running ability, and it is difficult to depend on any of of these backs unless there is a rash of injuries. Youngster Kenjon Barner and Tauren Poole will vie for roster spots. Neither has the talent to overtake the veterans.
Wide Receiver: Steve Smith has been impressive. He is the lone wide receiver and still fights through double – and sometimes triple – coverage to get open. The diminutive receiver still has the speed to break off big plays and does not seem to be slowing down. Underachiever Brandon LaFell will start across from Smith. Domenik Hixon was signed from the New York Giants. Hixon is nothing more than a depth player who will see time on a thin receiver corps. Ted Ginn, Joe Adams, and Armanti Edwards will also be in the mix. There has been positive buzz on Edwards after years of disappointment.
Tight End: Greg Olsen quietly put up solid numbers last season. It remains to be seen if he can sustain the production with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski now running the show in Cleveland. With the lack of talent at receiver, Olsen should still see ample pass targets. Journeyman Ben Hartstock will play behind Olsen.
New Orleans Saints
Head coach Sean Payton returns to orchestrate the pass-happy New Orleans offense. His presence was sorely missed last season. Rob Ryan was brought in to run his aggressive defense. That word, "aggressive", is appropriate for both sides of the ball.
Quarterback: Drew Brees has been as accurate as any quarterback in the NFL the past few years. He understands Payton's offense and seems to always find the open receiver. Brees is the favorite to be the top fantasy quarterback once again. Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace will battle for the right to hold the clipboard on game days.
Running Back: New Orleans made a splash by trading Chris Ivory to the New York Jets for a late draft pick. While talented, Ivory had little chance of seeing much playing time without a plethora of injuries in the Saints backfield. The trio of backs: Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram II, and Pierre Thomas will all play often and in specified circumstances. All three are talented and have their respective roles. A player to monitor in training camp is Travaris Cadet, an undersized player with big-play potential.
Wide Receiver: Marques Colston seems to go under the radar every year, even with strong fantasy campaigns. So does Lance Moore. Each will see an ample number of Brees passes. Joseph Morgan will look to step in to the shoes (hopefully not hands) of the departed Devery Henderson. Morgan has great suddenness and speed to stretch the defense. He is one player few know about now, but who could be a star by season's end. Second-year pro Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills could also see playing time early in the season. This is a prolific pass offense and this group of players will have strong fantasy numbers.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham is a superstar. His numbers last season would have been even stronger had he not played through a wrist injury. Graham's elite athleticism is too much for opposing defenses. After last year's injury, the Saints signed Ben Watson to replace David Thomas as the second tight end. The veteran Watson could have big fantasy upside if Graham misses time with another injury.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach Schiano has put his brand on the Buccaneers, trying to instill a tough mentality to the team. The success – or failure – of the team will depend on the play of quarterback Josh Freeman. The quarterback has all of the tools to be a top performer, but he seems to struggle for large portions of a game … infuriating his coach.
Quarterback: Freeman had some high highs and low lows last year. This has been typical for the young quarterback. For this reason, Tampa Bay drafted Mike Glennon to provide competition at the position. There has been talk of an open competition, but that will not be the case. Freeman will be given every opportunity to win the job. This does not mean he will play well enough to keep it, though. Dan Orlovsky is also in the mix at the position.
Running Back: Doug Martin was very impressive as a rookie last season. He is a hard-running back, who offers receiving and blocking ability in the passing game. LeGarrette Blount was shipped off to New England, leaving just Michael Smith and rookie Mike James vying for the backup role. Smith is a burner while James is more versatile, with limited upside. Brian Leonard was signed to play fullback and could play tailback if Martin goes down to injury. Also, do not be surprised if a veteran (e.g., Beanie Wells, Cedric Benson, etc.) is signed to add depth at the running back position.
Wide Receiver: Vincent Jackson saw his numbers explode once Freeman gained enough confidence to throw the ball down the field … and trust his big receiver. Expect more of the same in year two. Mike Williams has settled in to the second receiver role and will be a decent flex fantasy player. He does not possess the ability to make huge plays like Jackson, however Williams is a strong red-zone target. The Buccaneers traded Arrelious Benn to the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason, opening up the depth chart for youngsters and journeymen to see playing time. Tiquan Underwood, Kevin Ogletree, Derek Hagan, and Chris Owusu are in the mix. Ogletree has created a stir and could push to be the third receiver. On Underwood, the receiver-depleted Patriots allowed him to leave so fantasy owners should take that as a hint.
Tight End: After the Dallas Clark experiment failed last season, Tampa Bay is left with little at the position. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree (signed from Green Bay) will each play often, offering little fantasy upside. Nate Bynum and Zach Miller (formerly with Jacksonville) could push for playing time.
This division will be a tussle between Atlanta and New Orleans. The return of Sean Payton should give the Saints a huge boost. His genius is underappreciated in the fantasy community. Carolina and Tampa Bay could each make the playoffs in one of the league's most contested divisions.