2012 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2013 Preview: NFC South

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Published, 1/28/13 

Also See: NFC East I NFC North I NFC West I AFC North I AFC East I AFC South I AFC West

Atlanta Falcons
QB: Falcon QB Matt Ryan’s 2012 season will ultimately go down as a big-time success for the fifth-year quarterback, especially for fantasy players, as he put up career numbers and led the Falcons to his first playoff victory. Ryan continued to avoid injury and stay on the field and he’s a pretty solid fantasy option, finishing 6th among QBs this year with 24.0 FPG, on 422/615 passing for 4719 yards, 32 TDs, and 14 INTs. Ryan has improved every single year since he came into the league in 2008, as he topped his 2011 numbers 347/566 passing for 4177 yards, 29 TDs, and 12 INTs. He topped 300 yards passing seven times, had multiple TDs in 10 games, and threw for fewer than 200 yards only once. Still, Ryan’s season felt a bit incomplete when it ended on Jan. 20 in the NFC Championship, which is odd to think, considering he threw for 396 yards and 3 TDs. Ryan played lights-out against the 49ers in the first half to build a 17-0 lead, but he threw an interception when WR Roddy White fell on a route, and he fumbled a shotgun snap to let the 49ers back in the game. The 49ers eventually grabbed the lead, and Ryan and the Falcon offense failed to execute in the red zone with under two minutes in the game. To make things worse, Ryan played the final couple of plays with a sprained AC joint in his left arm after taking a big hit. Shoulder injuries are never good news for QBs, but it’s in his non-throwing shoulder, so Ryan won’t need surgery and is expected to be ready to go for off-season workouts. He’s actually missed just two games during his career back in 2009, so Ryan is pretty reliable to play every Sunday. He’s not a special passer, but few are and it doesn’t hurt that White is one of the league’s more consistent top-end receivers, and Julio Jones is one of the NFL’s best young wide receivers. As the NFC Championship showed, Jones is on the verge of challenging to be in the discussion for the best receiver in the game, up there with Lion WR Calvin Johnson and the other elite wide receivers. However, Ryan should be without star TE Tony Gonzalez next season, as he’s indicated many times this year that he’s about 95% sure that he’ll retire at the end of the year. Gonzalez’s departure would certainly be a big blow for Ryan, as Gonzalez has been Ryan’s security blanket and a weapon in the middle field since 2009. Even if Gonzalez retires, Ryan is still a high-end fantasy QB, since the team will certainly find a suitable replacement. And he has a chance to be something of a value again next year if his draft status falls a little bit given the increase in “running” QBs around the league. Ryan may not be an exciting fantasy player, but it’s fair to say he can be a solid foundation player still for your roster. He’s not flashy, but he’s been a pretty consistent force in the fantasy world.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Ryan has had a career season every year since he came into the league in 2008, so can he have another career year in 2013? How much will Ryan miss Gonzalez, if he does indeed retire?
RB: The Falcons had one of the more explosive offenses in the league in 2012, but their running game left a lot to be desired, starting with aging RB Michael Turner. Turner’s yards per carry dropped off severely in 2012 to 3.6, down from 4.5 in 2011. Turner finished 26th among RBs this year with 9.9 FPG, on 223 carries for 803 yards and 10 TDs (the TDs remain his most marketable asset and what made owning him for fantasy worth it in the end). He also added 19 catches for 128 yards and 1 TD. Turner ran for 100 yards only twice this year, but most disturbingly, he ran for fewer than 20 yards four times in the last eight games of the season. His struggles were hidden by his TDs (six in the final seven games), but they were there.OC Dirk Koetter did about all he could this year to slowly phase out Turner from the offense, but speedy RB Jacquizz Rodgers never really showed he could take over in full. Turner can still run over defenders in the open field, but he no longer has the short-yardage burst to get into the open field on a consistent basis. Turner no longer looks to be a good fit in Koetter’s pass-heavy offense going forward. Turner, who will be 31 next season, will enter the final year of a six-year contract this season, and he’s due to make $5.5 million. Turner will likely have to take some sort of pay cut if he’s got any prayer of sticking around with the Falcons next season. If the Falcons do part ways with Turner, the team could be in the market for another big back to pair with the quick Rodgers. It looked quite evident this season that Quizz isn’t built to be an every-down back in the NFL, so it’s tough to envision Rodgers’ production coming up much more in 2012, unless the Falcons can’t find a lead back. Quizz finished 51st among RBs this year with 5.5 FPG, on 94 carries for 362 yards and 1 TD. He added 53 catches for 402 yards and 1 TD. He was clearly involved, topping 50 yards from scrimmage eight separate times, but his season high in that department was only 80 yards, so he never really blew up. What’s more, Turner went down with an ankle injury during the NFC Championship, and Rodgers failed to run effectively between the tackles, like all season long other than a few nice efforts, in the second half against the 49ers. We’ll wait to see what the Falcons do at RB, but Quizz looks like he’ll see most of his snaps on passing downs in the future, so he’ll be a decent PPR option once again next year. RB Jason Snelling has been sufficient in his limited role as the #3 RB, but it’s tough to imagine his role expanding next year, even if the Falcons part ways with Turner.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Has Turner played his final snap in Atlanta after a disappointing year? Will the Falcons go out and find a new lead back, or will they give Rodgers a chance at increased touches after a mediocre year?
WR/TE: Falcon receivers had the best fantasy year of any team in the NFL, with two top-12 fantasy WRs and a top-3 TE. Roddy White and Julio Jones formed one of the most dynamic tandems at wide receiver this year. White continued to be one of the league’s more consistent top-end receivers, especially for PPR formats, and Jones is one of the NFL’s most exciting young receivers. As he showed in NFC Championship (11/182/2) on Jan. 20, Jones is on the verge of becoming one of the best receivers in the league, and certainly a guy who will be unlikely to make it out of the second round of fantasy drafts next year. Jones finished the year 10th among WRs with 11.4 FG, on 79 catches (63.0% catch rate) for 1198 yards and 10 TDs. Jones demonstrated his immense talents against the 49ers in his final game of the season, burning the defense for a long touchdown and then making an acrobatic catch for his final score. Jones is bound to be picked as a top-5 wide receiver in fantasy drafts next summer, especially after ending his year with a dominant performance on a national stage. While Jones may be demonstrating his potential to be an NFL superstar, he’s still not entirely a complete receiver and still seems to be leaning a little too much on his raw ability. Meanwhile, White continues to be a consistent force and one of the league’s more underrated WRs. He’s coming off his sixth consecutive season with at least 80 catches and more than 1150 yards receiving. White ended 2012 with 92 catches (64.3% catch rate) for 1351 yards and 7 TDs to finish 12th among WRs with 11. FPG. White, who turned 31 in November, still has plenty of spring to get open deep. He’s deferred a lot of that role to the younger Jones, but White did get open downfield more in 2012 than he did in 2011, and his 14.7 YPC average was his highest since 2008. That’s a good sign for the aging White, who has been dealing with lingering knee issues and did deal with one in 2012. White is still the main chain-mover in the offense, and he’ll continue to see plenty of targets next season. TE Tony Gonzalez may have played his final NFL game in the NFC Championship and, if so, he ended his career on one hell of high note this season. Gonzalez finished the year 3rd among TEs, with 8.8 FPG, on 93 catches for 930 yards and 8 TDs, with a ridiculous 76.2% catch rate. Gonzalez has said dozens of times this year that he’s 95% sure that he would retire after the 2012 season, but he has left a sliver of a chance that he’ll play in 2013. We’d love to see Gonzalez back again next year as he’d be one of the top fantasy TEs heading into next season, but we can’t blame the 36-year-old tight end for wanting to leave at the top of his game. If indeed this is Gonzalez’s final season, he will end his record-breaking career with 1242 catches for 14,268 yards and 103 TDs. QB Matt Ryan would surely miss his middle of the field threat and security blanket next year, and the Falcons would look to free agency or the draft to address the tight end position. WR Harry Douglas may be asked to make even more contributions next year as the #3 WR, if Gonzalez does in fact retire. Douglas recorded 38 catches (64.4% catch rate) for 396 yards and 1 TD this year. He has never caught more than 40 passes or exceeded 500 receiving yards in a season during his five-year career, but Douglas could be more involved slightly more involved next season. The Falcons should also look to add another impactful wideout this year, since Douglas hasn’t exactly been a force.
·         Fantasy Situation to Watch for 2013: Will Gonzalez return for one more season or will he stick to his 95% chance of retirement? Can Jones make the leap to elite status next year and challenge Megatron as the league’s best fantasy WR? Will White ever slow down after another huge year in 2012?
Key Free Agents: TE Tony Gonzalez, LT Sam Baker, C Todd McClure, FB Mike Cox, SS William Moore, TE Michael Palmer (RFA), QB Luke McCown, MLB Mike Peterson, CB Chris Owens.
Carolina Panthers
QB: Panther QB Cam Newton was a tad bit frustrating for fantasy in the first half of the year, but he was awesome in the second half of the year, which exhibited why he was a high pick in the first place. For those who stuck with him, Newton rewarded a ton of people with fantasy titles. In his final nine games of the year, Newton was the top QB, with 26.4 FPG, on 159/273 for 2168 yards, 14 TDs, and 4 INTs. He also added 76 carries for 431 yards and 5 TDs. For the year he was 4th among QBs (24.5 FPG), Newton totaled 280/485 passing for 3869 yards, 19 TDs, and 12 INTs, and he added 127 carries for 741 yards and 8 TDs. He has now rushed for at least 700 yards and 8 TDs in his first two seasons. He led all QBs in rushing TDs, and only Redskin QB Robert Griffin had more rushing yards with 833. Newton certainly backed up his 2nd-round fantasy draft status from 2012, and he has a chance to creep into the 1st round next summer if for no other reason than his reliability early in drafts. Newton did battle through some ankle and rib issues in Week Seventeen, but he managed to end the year without missing any games for a second consecutive year and really showed no serious signs of injury trouble. Newton came into the league in 2011 as the #1 overall pick, and he quickly gained a reputation as a brash and cocky player. But now, most indications are that Newton has really started to develop into a quarterback and into a leader on the field. LT Jordan Gross praised his QB at the end of the year for his growth as a player, especially in the second half of the season. Former OC Rob Chudzinski has garnered some praise around the league for how he helped to develop Newton, but Chud took his talents to Cleveland to be the Browns’ new head coach. It’s a little worrisome that Newton won’t work with Chudzinski next year, but the Panthers decided to keep it in house by hiring their quarterback coach Mike Shula to be the new offensive coordinator. Newton wasn’t present for any of the OC interviews, but he was seen as one of the critical decision-makers in promoting Shula, as last season was the first time since high school that Newton played consecutive seasons in the same offensive system. Shula isn’t expected to run an identical system, but his should be very similar to Chudzinski’s system. The continuity between offenses should only help Newton in 2013, as he’ll look to carry over his success from the second half of the year. It will be interested to see if Chudzinski’s departure helps or hurts Newton. Chud was overly-enamored with using Newton in all ways, which was usually good for his Newton’s fantasy value but not great for the offense overall.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Newton sneak into the 1st-round of fantasy drafts and back it up by playing the way he did in the second half of 2012? Will the transition from Chudzinski to Shula at offensive coordinator be seamless?
RBs: The Panthers had a complete mess at running back, and from our perspective, they completely bungled their use of the talented RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. It was so messy for the Panthers that they became the first team in 12 years to have a quarterback lead the team in rushing. The Panthers had two NFL featured backs on one team, but OC Rob Chudzinksi decided to have the majority of their run plays out of the shotgun. The good news for Williams and Stewart is that the Browns hired Chudzinski to be their new head coach. The Panthers decided to promote quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator, and we’re certainly hoping that they adopt more of a traditional power running scheme. It looked like Williams might be expendable in 2013 (and he still might be) after the Panthers locked Stewart up to a five-year deal. Williams, who signed his own five-year contract in 2011, turned out to be the more active of the two backs, with Stewart battling ankle issues for much of the year. Williams finished 31st among RBs this year with 8.4 FPG, on 173 carries for 737 yards and 5 TDs. He added 13 catches for 187 yards and 2 TDs receiving. Late in the year, with Stewart injured, Williams posted a 4th-most 18.9 FPG over the last four weeks of the year, including a 210-yard day against the Saints in Week Seventeen. However, his overall standing was helped by two fluky receiving TDs in Weeks Fourteen and Fifteen. The Panthers now need to decide if they want to take a cap hit and move forward with Stewart as the primary back and Mike Tolbert as the short-yardage runner. Stewart’s health this off-season (or lack of health throughout his career) may be the deciding factor whether Williams stays or goes. Stewart sprained his left ankle in Week Twelve, and he missed the rest of the year. He played in just nine games this year, finishing 38th among RBs with 6.8 FPG, on 93 carries for 336 yards and 1 TD. Stewart added 17 catches for 157 yards and 1 TD. He underwent surgery in the middle of January, so Stewart might need to demonstrate that he’s on pace to make a full recovery before the Panthers can make a decision on Williams. Stewart has dealt with ankle, foot, and toe injuries in the past, but he missed only two career games in his four previous seasons. Williams would likely be a coveted free agent for some veteran teams if the Panthers decide to unload him. He’s 30 now, but his workload has been relatively light in his career. Tolbert didn’t see much action in 2012 until the end of the year after Stewart went down with his ankle injury. Tolbert continued his vulturing ways in Carolina with 7 TDs, including 5 TDs in the final three games. Tolbert finished with 19 TDs in his last two seasons in San Diego before coming to the Panthers in 2012. Tolbert has a nose for the endzone, so expect him to continue to frustrate fantasy owners with more goal-line touches next year. Of course, QB Cam Newton is also really tough to stop near the goal line, as Williams and Stewart combined for 10 goal-line carries this year and Newton and Tolbert combined for 21.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will the Panthers cut Williams this off-season and hand the reigns to the backfield to Stewart? Can Stewart get over the hump with his lingering ankle and foot issues? Will new OC Shula get back to more power-based running style?
WRs/TEs: Panther WR Steve Smith will be 34 in 2013, but he hasn’t really shown any signs of slowing down just yet. Smith was once again productive with 73 catches (although his 53.3% catch rate wasn’t very good) for 1174 yards and 4 TDs to finish 25th among WRs this year, with 9.0 FPG. Smith now has seven 1000-yard seasons in 12 career years since 2001. Smith didn’t find the endzone in his first seven games of the year, but he eventually scored four times in his last nine games. Smith has never been a prolific scorer, but he still usually finds the endzone 6-7 times a year. We obviously have to be a little concerned that Smith’s age will eventually catch up to him, and he won’t be able to use his speed and quickness forever. Yet he’s shown very little signs of decline to this point in his career, so he’ll enter 2013 as QB Cam Newton’s top receiver. And it’s a good sign that he finished strong, ranking 10th among WRs, with 12.0 FPG over the last five weeks of the season. The Panthers have struggled to find a true #2 WR to pair with Smith, and it was Brandon LaFell’s chance to take the role in 2012. LaFell, in his third season, produced some big games opposite of Smith, but he also had a knack for disappearing at times. LaFell likely showed enough that he’ll get another chance to be the #2 WR next fall, but he needs to become a more consistent force, yet the play-calling could improve for him as well. LaFell finished the year 52nd among WRs with 6.8 FPG, on 44 catches (57.9% catch rate) for 677 yards and 4 TDs. LaFell often alternated big games with TE Greg Olsen, depending on matchups and who Newton was throwing to that day, besides the heavily targeted Smith. Olsen ended up being one of the better tight end options this year, as he finished 9th among TEs with 7.1 FPG. Olsen had a career year in his sixth NFL season, with 69 catches (67.0% catch rate) for 843 yards and 5 TDs. Olsen played even better down the stretch as Newton picked up his game, with 35/448/4 in his final eight games. Former OC Rob Chudzinski was always pretty friendly to his tight ends, but he left to take the Browns’ head coaching job. We’ll see if new OC Mike Shula will keep Olsen as involved in the offense next year. The Panthers will need to address their #3 WR spot this off-season. They traded for Raider WR Louis Murphy in the preseason, and he was a limited contributor as the #3 WR this year. Murphy will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season. WR Armanti Edwards continued to be a huge disappointment after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft, and his time in Carolina might be just about over. As for rookie wideout Joe Adams, his snaps were severely limited, as the Panthers rarely go three-wide, and he caught only 3 passes in 2012.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Smith continue to play at a high level at the age of 34? Can LaFell develop into a true #2 WR that the Panthers have coveted for years now? Will Olsen stay heavily involved in the offense with Chudzinski headed to Cleveland?
Key Free Agents: WR Louis Murphy, QB Derek Anderson, DT Dwan Edwards, TE Gary Barnidge, TE Ben Hartsock, CB Captain Munnerlyn, FS Sherrod Martin, LG Mike Pollak.
New Orleans Saints
QB: Much like QB Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, QB Drew Brees had what some may consider a “down” year, but he was still a fantasy superstar. Brees was the top QB with 27.3 FPG thanks to 5177 yards, 43 TDs, 19 INTs, and even a rushing TD. However, when you compare his numbers to a season ago, you can see how things dropped off. After completing 71.2% of this throws in 2011, he dropped to just 63% in 2012, his lowest number since the 2003 season with the Chargers. It’s understandable to see his yardage and TDs drop slightly after going for 5476/46 in 2011, but his INTs rose from 14 to 19, which tied for the league lead with QB Tony Romo. Having said all that, it was his second-best season ever from a fantasy standpoint, so there’s really nothing to worry about when it comes to him being a top-tier option. What we saw from Brees was a QB who needed to throw it a lot to get back into games, thanks to another terrible season from the defense, which has since led to the firing of 2012 DC Steve Spagnuolo. Brees has usually been one to handle a pass rush pretty well, since he often gets rid of the ball before getting hit, but with a below-average OL this season, Brees was sacked 26 times, the most in his seven years with the team. With protection being an issue, Brees wasn’t able to get as many clear looks downfield, but he still forced those throws at times, as opposed to taking the shorter throws. That resulted in the rise in picks and drop in completion percentage. Because pass protection was such an issue, TE Jimmy Graham was asked to stay in and block more in the second half of the season, thus reducing the impact of Brees’ most-talented option in the passing game. Various injuries to Graham, WRs Marques Colston and Lance Moore, and RB Darren Sproles certainly hurt Brees during the season as well, especially with the running game being one we wouldn’t consider reliable. However, through it all, Brees still led the league in yards, TDs, and FPG, which just goes to show the margin of error he has as a top fantasy option. We wondered at the beginning of the season what the absence of HC Sean Payton would mean, and while there may not be a way to quantify his absence, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see the team, and even Brees at times, struggle in 2012. Luckily, Payton has already been reinstated for 2013 and beyond and has a new deal with the team, so he should be able to right the ship after a disappointing year in New Orleans.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Brees cut down on the interceptions in 2013? Will the Saints improve their OL to help the pass protection? How big an impact will Payton’s return have on the offense?
RB: The Saints were a top-five rushing team in 2009 and 2011, and they won games on a near weekly basis during those year. The Saints were erratic running the ball this season, and they had mixed results. We know this is not your typical backfield, but it had been an effective one. However, the team struggled to establish their ground game early in the season under interim HC Aaron Kromer. That started to change when (another) interim HC Joe Vitt was reinstated, but it still wasn’t as effective as previous seasons. A big part of the problem was the team’s defense, which struggled so badly that the Saints had no choice but to throw. While we know they have a great passing attack, this offense is operating on their highest level when there’s more balance in the offense. RB Mark Ingram ran very hard and showed signs of improvement in the second half of the year, but he still averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry. He finished the year with the most touches in the Saint backfield. RB Pierre Thomas is still a factor, but he was not involved and invisible in way too many games. RB Chris Ivory also looked good later in the year, but it took way too long for the coaches to get him involved, although that did start to happen more under Vitt. RB Darren Sproles was again the top fantasy back on the team with 10.7 FPG (21st), but carried the ball just 48 times for 244 yards and a TD. Luckily, he had another busy season as a receiver, with 75/667/7 on 103 targets. Sproles missed three games, thanks to a broken hand in the middle of the season, but he finished the year on a high note, and started in six of his 13 appearances. Sproles continues to be a mismatch for the opposition because of his great speed and pass-catching ability, but with other backs on the roster, he’s not really needed to be between-the-tackles runner. Ingram looked to be on his way to another frustrating season, after getting double-digit carries just once through Week Nine, but he saw an uptick in touches in the second half of the year. He had at least 10 carries in seven of the last eight games. For the season, Ingram rushed 156 times for 602 yards and 5 TDs, while adding just 6/29 on 10 targets, putting him in a tie for 46th, with 5.8 FPG. The good news is he stayed relatively healthy after toe and knee issues in his rookie season and was able to play in all 16 games. We’d like to see more of Ingram, and we think the Saints do too, but with the team trailing so often, it limited the number of times they could run the ball. As we mentioned, Thomas didn’t play a major role, rushing 105 times for 473 yards and a TD with 49/354/1 on 53 targets, putting him 41st among RBs with 6.3 FPG. He ended up on the injured reserve with a knee injury, but it kept him out only for the season finale. He continues to be a human flex player, as his role is split between running the ball and being a receiver out of the backfield. Ivory’s slow start in the preseason kept him off the active gameday roster until Week Nine, when he finally made his season debut. When Vitt took over, there seemed to be more of a push to run the ball, but Ivory had just one game with at least 10 carries. He was very productive on a per-touch basis, but injuries continued to be a problem, which is disconcerting because of his minimal touches. A hamstring injuring limited him to just six games. Ivory ran 40 times for 217 yards and 2 TDs (5.4 YPC), but caught just two passes to finish 45th at 5.9 FPG. He was a subject of trade rumors near the deadline, but Vitt shut that down. Ivory is an RFA, so it’ll be interesting to see if the team lets him walk if he gets a decent offer. Ivory has shown some flashes as a tough runner, who can occasionally break one, but the sample size has been too small to decide if he can truly handle a bigger role, especially with his injury issues. Rookie RB Travaris Cadet, who had decent size at 6’1”, 210 pounds, primarily played special teams in his 13 appearances and had just 1 carry on the season and 5/44 on 8 targets. He has some pass-catching skills and could be an intriguing prospect going forward, especially if the team lets Ivory walk. Cadet had a great preseason, but it’s a good sign for him that he made the team, since they were loaded with backfield options.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can the Saints get back to running the ball effectively to find some balance in their offense? Will Ingram finally be given the chance to reach his potential?
WR/TE: It was business as usual for the Saint receivers in 2012, and by that we mean the guys you expected to contribute for fantasy were solid and the others barely made a blip. WR Marques Colston dealt with a foot injury early in the year and got off to a slow start, but he ended up finishing as a borderline #1 option, with 11 FPG thanks to 83/1154/10 (13.9 YPC) on 129 targets, which was good for a 64.3% catch rate. He was frustrating at times, especially Weeks Eight through Fifteen, when he topped 5 receptions just once. He hit 100+ yards just three times all season, but those were also the only three times he had more than 73 yards. WR Lance Moore has been a reliable option for QB Drew Brees for years, but his fantasy value has usually put him at the level of a flex player. However, that changed this season in what was a career year. Despite a hamstring issue that caused him to miss Week Five, Moore played in 15 games this season, posting 65/1041/6 (16 YPC) on 103 targets for a 63.1% catch rate and 9.3 FPG, which put him 24th among WRs. The yards were the most in Moore’s career with the targets being the second highest, but his TD production was a little disappointing. WR Devery Henderson, who has been a regular starter for about the last five seasons, started just 9 of his 15 appearances and had his worst season since becoming a regular starter with 22/316/1 (14.4 YPC) on 46 targets for a terrible 47.8% catch rate and just 2.6 FPG. Henderson is a free agent and probably won’t be back with the team. Second-year WR Joe Morgan appeared in 14 games, including five starts, three of which came in the last four games. He had just 21 targets, but he caught 10 of them for a whopping 379 yards (37.9 YPC). With numbers showing he could be a dangerous deep threat in the future, it looks like Morgan could take over Henderson’s role (and Robert Meachem’s old deep threat role). TE Jimmy Graham didn’t have a bad year, but he fell short of expectations after his monster 2011 season. An ankle injury cost Graham a game, and it was revealed late in the year that he’d been dealing with a wrist issue for most of the season, so it might explain his issues with drops. Of course, Graham wasn’t anywhere near bad with 85/982/9 (11.6 YPC) on 134 targets for a 63.4% catch rate and was second among TEs at 10.1 FPG. Graham was also asked to block more in the second half of the season and saw 4 TDs go to backup TE David Thomas, who had just 11/86 on 17 targets. Graham is entering a contract year, but should have a chance to get an extension before that happens.
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Graham get back to the monster numbers he put up in 2011? Will Moore continue to be more than a flex option? Is Morgan a player the Saints will look to use more of in the future?
Key Free Agents: WR Devery Henderson, LT Jermon Bushrod, C Brian De La Puente (RFA), QB Chase Daniel, RB Chris Ivory (RFA), DE Junior Galette (RFA), DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Turk McBride, LB Scott Shanle, LB Ramon Humber, LB Jonathan Casillas
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
QB: Under new head coach Greg Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, Buccaneer QB Josh Freeman had an interesting season. The baseline numbers, for both fantasy and reality, are solid, and there’s no doubt they indicate progress from his abysmal 2011 season. In 16 starts, Freeman posted 306/558 passing (54.8%, the lowest mark since his rookie season), but he threw for a career-high 4065 yards and 27 TDs, adding 17 INTs. His 20.3 FPG were also a career high, and ranked him 15th among all QBs. But Freeman’s rushing output of 40/135/0 (3.4 YPC) marked career lows across the board, and his inconsistency had to drive fantasy players absolutely ballistic. As he got accustomed to the new offense, Freeman struggled through the first month of the season, ranking only 30th among QBs with 15.4 FPG over his first four games (5 TDs, 4 INTs). But after the Buccaneers’ Week Five bye, something clicked for Freeman, who started to look like the elite fantasy QB he has the physical talent to be. Over his next six games, Freeman posted 1715 passing yards with 16 TDs and only 3 INTs, and he ranked 3rd among all QBs with 26.1 FPG and was starting to edge his way into lineups as a weekly starter just in time for playoff runs. And then, all of a sudden, he plummeted back to earth. From Week Twelve through the end of the season, Freeman played arguably his worst football of the year. He completed only 52.7% of his passes and threw 6 TDs against 10 INTs, while averaging 17.8 FPG (19th among QBs). The low point for Freeman came in Weeks Fifteen and Sixteen, when he combined to throw 8 INTs and only 1 TD, with back-to-back 4 INT games (if you’re keeping score, that’s more INTs in one game than he threw in the entire seven-game stretch after the Bucs’ bye). It was hard to predict Freeman’s successes or failures. He put up numbers against good defenses and struggled against bad ones. It just came down to his erratic play, decision making, and inconsistent accuracy. The talent is obviously here for Freeman to succeed. He has one of the better WR duos in the NFL in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, both of whom are great fits for Freeman’s big arm. But Freeman has to get sharper mechanically to make that big arm more accurate. There was a lot to build on for Freeman, and injuries along his offensive line didn’t help, but it’s certainly concerning that he went through a season with really steep peaks and valleys. In 2013, the team needs to find him a more dynamic TE and slot receiver, and adding speed and playmaking ability from both positions could help push the inconsistent Freeman over the top.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2013: Can Freeman build on the really high highs of his 2012 season instead of falling into the lows, which occupied about 60% of his year?
RB: When new Buc coach Greg Schiano took the head job in Tampa around this time a year ago, the first thing he and his staff did was watch film on each player on his roster and evaluate where his team needed to improve to have success in 2012. So when the Bucs traded back into the late first round to select Boise State RB Doug Martin, it told you two things: number one, they believed Martin to be a fantastic fit as a three-down back; number two, they felt they needed to improve on LeGarrette Blount. Well, they were right on both counts. Despite being asked to step into a major role from Week One and despite his offensive line suffering some key injuries, in 16 games, the rookie RB ran 319 times (4th among all RBs) for 1454 yards (5th among RBs) and 11 TDs (tied for 4th among RBs). He averaged 4.6 YPC, certainly a strong number. But Martin also made his hay as a receiver, catching 49 of his 70 targets (70%, receptions tied for 8th among RBs) for 472 yards (5th among RBs) and a TD, averaging 9.5 YPC (3rd among RBs with at least 40 receptions). Are you sensing a pattern here? Martin was a top-10 producer in nearly every major RB category, and a top-five producer in most of those categories, and his 16.5 FPG ranked him 3rd among all players at the position, and only 0.1 FPG behind consensus #1 overall pick Arian Foster for 2nd place. As a result, he made the Pro Bowl. A strong, tough runner built low to the ground, Martin has adequate straight-line speed and side-to-side elusiveness, but his best quality is probably his capacity for volume, which has become a rarity in today’s NFL. Martin had at least 20 carries on eight separate occasions and he had five 100-yard games on the ground. If you include receptions, he added four more games with 20 touches, and five more games with 100 yards from scrimmage. In other words, he was completely automatic. After a somewhat slow start caused in part to defenses stacking the box to stop him, Martin’s season picked up in Week Six, when he started a run during which he had either 100 yards from scrimmage, a TD, or both in 10 of his 12 remaining games (over that span, he ranked 2nd to only Adrian Peterson with 19.1 FPG). Martin announced himself as a fantasy stud with his insane games in Weeks Eight and Nine, especially the latter, when he posted 272 yards from scrimmage and 4 TDs in one of the all-time great individual fantasy performances against the Raiders. Martin will likely be a top-five pick in fantasy drafts next season, and he’s earned it. That’s also because there’s really no one to challenge him here. Blount was terrible, with 41/157/2 in 13 games with a snap, while third-down rotational back D.J. Ware posted 11/51/0 rushing and 14/100/0 receiving. The one thing that might give someone pause about investing a top pick in Martin is the fact that the Bucs would probably be prudent to get an effective backup in place. But until that happens, we have a brilliant young back who was insanely productive last season, and no one to challenge him for touches. One player to watch is 2012 rookie Michael Smith. Smith didn’t get a carry this past year, but he does have some speed and could settle in as a changeup runner if he continues to develop in 2013.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2013: Simply, can Martin keep up his ridiculous pace he set for himself as a rookie? Will Blount, a restricted free agent, be back in 2012? Even if Blount is back, will the Bucs add a more effective backup to spell Martin more often?
WR/TE: Sometimes big-ticket free agent signings don’t work out the way teams plan. Heck, it might seem that they don’t work out more often than they actually do. But the Bucs must have gotten exactly what they hoped they were paying for in Vincent Jackson in 2012. Signed to a five-year, $55.55 million contract in March, the Bucs and coach Greg Schiano hoped Jackson would be the ideal fit for their offense, focused on power running and stretching the field. Well, that turned out to be an accurate prediction. Meshing well with the big arm of QB Josh Freeman from the get-go, Jackson posted 72/1384/8 on 147 targets (48.9%, 19.2 YPC), ranking 7th among all WRs with 11.7 FPG. Obviously, we would have loved to see Jackson catch a higher rate of his targets, but it’s at least understandable that he had such a low rate, considering how frequently he was targeted down the field. In fact, Jackson averaged over 1.0 YPC more than any other WR with over 15 catches, so he was both a deep threat and a clear #1 WR. Jackson had five games with 100 yards or more receiving, but also four games with 50 yards or fewer. But looking at his numbers, and given how erratic Freeman was, plus Jackson’s style of play, it might be surprising Jackson wasn’t more inconsistent. But there’s no doubt Jackson needs Freeman to step it up to make his game a little bit better. In Freeman’s best stretch of the season, from Weeks Six through Eleven, Jackson was 3rd in the NFL with 559 receiving yards, 1st in YPC with 21.5, and 4th in FPG with 14.3. If Freeman can improve his consistency, Jackson can certainly continue posting great numbers. Jackson’s presence also helped out third-year WR Mike Williams, who broke out of his sophomore slump with a very nice 2012 season. In 16 games, Williams, ideally cast as a #2, posted 63/996/8 on 126 targets (50%, 15.8 YPC), ranking 23rd among WRs with 9.6 FPG. Williams had 19 targets inside the red zone and 6 inside the five, converting 4 of his goal-line targets into TDs, which tied for the NFL high among WRs. So while Williams certainly wasn’t just playing the “possession guy” to Jackson’s “deep threat,” he was Freeman’s preferred receiver in tight spaces. Williams had six games with fewer than 40 receiving yards, owing perhaps to Freeman’s inconsistency, but he also had three 100-yard performances, and four games with at least 6 receptions. If Freeman can improve his play, both Jackson and Williams can build on the strong seasons they had, despite subpar catch rates. The Bucs didn’t really have much at the WR/TE position outside of Jackson and Williams. TE Dallas Clark was okay, hauling in 47/435/4 on 74 targets (63.5%, 9.3 YPC), but he ranked only 26th among TEs with 4.5 FPG and had five games with either 1 or no catches. He’s a free agent and could be contemplating retirement. WR Tiquan Underwood (28/425/2 on 54 targets, 51.9%) could be an interesting rotational player, but like at the RB position, the Buc WRs and TEs were top-heavy. Underwood has speed, but he didn’t produce enough to be considered a great #3, so they should look to upgrade that spit. If young TE Luke Stocker (16/165/1 on 27 targets, 59.3%) doesn’t step up, which is unlikely, the Bucs should also focus on upgrading that position as well.

  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2013: Can Jackson and Williams build on their strong 2012 campaigns by improving their chemistry with Freeman and increasing their catch rates? If Clark, a free agent, doesn’t return, who will play TE for the Bucs? Will the Bucs add a viable third WR, or do they feel Underwood can be that guy?

Key Free Agents: TE Dallas Clark, RB LeGarrette Blount (RFA), WR Sammie Stroughter, WR/KR Roscoe Parrish, OT Jeremy Trueblood, DE Michael Bennett, DT Roy Miller, DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, CB E.J. Biggers, FS Ronde Barber, LS Andrew Economos.

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