Most pressing fantasy questions the NFC South has to answer

Matt Harmon

With the offseason now in view for the majority of NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each NFC South team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pressing question to answer: Where is Jameis Winston’s ceiling?

On the surface, a 2018 campaign that included an early-season suspension, flip-flopping the starting gig with Ryan Fitzpatrick and posting a career-high 3.7 percent interception rate would be enough to push any quarterback off the plank.

And yet, new Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians has all but thrown his weight behind Jameis Winston as the team’s answer behind center … at least for now.

Bruce Arians must come out of the 2019 season with a full understnading of who Jameis Winston is. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Bruce Arians must come out of the 2019 season with a full understnading of who Jameis Winston is. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Winston and Arians have history together, dating back to the quarterback’s high school days. He fits the prototypical Arians quarterback; a big-armed pocket passer who won’t shy away from a downfield risk. From a pure stylistic perspective, this is a match made in air yards-heaven.

Winston gained 66.5 percent of his total passing yards through the air since the start of the 2017 season — highest among 29 starters in that span, per Inside Edge. He’s been the best quarterback at converting third and longs, earning a first down on 40.1 percent of his third-and-seven-plus throws since 2016.

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At this point, we know that Winston is a flawed player but certainly one of the best 32 quarterbacks in the NFL. The Bucs know they would be hard pressed to find a clear upgrade on the former No. 1 overall pick this offseason.

The question for Tampa Bay isn’t whether they can get by and put up points with Winston as the starter, but rather, what’s his most likely ceiling? Arians and company will hope that a more established group of coaches can milk the best out of the talented and aggressive passer.

Time is almost completely out on the waiting game. Winston will play 2019 on the fifth-year team option of his rookie contract, meaning he’ll be a free agent next spring without a contract extension.

It’s one thing for the Bucs to count on Winston as a starter for this season. Committing to him with a Matthew Stafford-like $27 million per year extension is another matter entirely.

If the Bruce Arians-led Buccaneers don’t see anything beyond the admittedly skilled but hopelessly volatile quarterback Winston has been since he hit an NFL field, it’s easy to imagine them simply letting Winston walk this time next year. The excuses have all run thin.

With a proven offensive mind in the big chair alongside one of his top proteges in Byron Leftwich at OC and a top-flight set of weapons around Winston, Tampa has to come away from this season knowing without a doubt who Winston is.

Possible solutions

Despite their public of affection for Winston, expect Tampa’s brain trust to add some depth to the position with Fitzpatrick set to depart in free agency. The Buccaneers don’t have a ton of flexibility in terms of the cap. Sitting at just $12.2 million, they have the fourth-fewest cap space in the NFL.

Tampa has some expensive salaries it could slash with no dead cap penalties. Taking that route would require taking major hits on the defensive line with the likes of Gerald McCoy, Jason Pierre-Paul and/or Vinny Curry. They could also cut loose ancillary receivers like DeSean Jackson and Cameron Brate. While the former feels more likely, we shouldn’t expect a big-time veteran addition behind center. The team could decide to sink a Day 2 or 3 draft pick into a developmental player as a contingency plan in case Winston flops in his tryout season.

Sine this season essentially amounts to a trial with Winston and the Arians regime, the solution is really just to follow Bruce’s long-held risk-tolerant philosophy. Let Winston get out there and see what results follow.

The Bucs passing offense was one of the most fruitful soil to grow fantasy production throughout a variety of conditions in 2018. Under a more successful offensive coach in Arians and a possibly steadier Winston, the offense could be even more appetizing to fantasy gamers in 2019. Should Winston truly stabilize, of course.

Even better, the Tampa passing game has a chance to be even more concentrated this coming season if Jackson and Brate are sent packing. More predictable weekly target volume would be a major boom to the stock of already appealing assets like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard.

Carolina Panthers

Pressing question to answer: How can we continue to help Cam Newton?

After a 6-2 start, it looked like the Panthers were primed to hang with the best in the NFC. The joy quickly evaporated. The Panthers dropped seven straight games, capped off with a Week 17 loss over the Saints B-team.

At the start of their losing streak, quarterback Cam Newton was still passing at a high level. He completed 76 percent of his passes with a 111.7 passer rating over the course of losses to Pittsburgh, Detroit and Seattle. The wheels fell off after that, as Newton posted a 4.2 adjusted yards per attempt and a 2:6 touchdown to interception ratio in his final three games of the season.

It was obvious to anyone watching the games that Newton’s once-surgically repaired shoulder had begun to fail him. The Panthers left him out there too long. After sitting out the final two contests of the regular season, Newton predictably underwent another shoulder surgery in January.

The work done to Newton’s shoulder seemed about as minor as it could possibly be and the quarterback said afterward, “It’s good. It’s good. It’s better than I thought it would be.”

If we take his word for it and he keeps to his schedule of throwing by OTAs, then the Panthers can release worries about their franchise passer and continue to make life easier around him — a perennial struggle for this operation.

The Panthers have taken some effort to remove the gross amount of high-degree-of-difficulty throws they assigned Newton early in his career. His expected completion percentage, as quantified by Next Gen Stats, has gone up from 54.6 percent (lowest), 62.1 percent (11th lowest) to 64.8 percent (21st lowest) in 2018 (min. 120 pass attempts). Moreover, the middle-passing and layup-throw facilitators, Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, who was the best yards after catch receiver last season, have truly helped evolved the offense the last two seasons.

The work isn’t done yet. There are still holes that need to be plugged and improvements to be made.

Cam Newton is, at his best, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and a clear difference-making talent. To argue otherwise is completely disingenuous, to be kind. Yet, his game is changing as his career goes on. Most of those changes are for the better. Remember, he’s coming off easily the best statistical season of his career from an efficiency perspective.

However, as the changes unfold, especially ones that may result from the continued work on his shoulder, the Panthers must go the extra mile to assure they adjust the conditions around Newton for him to succeed — not force him to succeed in spite of the conditions around him.

Possible solutions

With the focus on layup throws and Newton’s shoulder injury, the vertical passing game suffered in Carolina. Newton’s 10.6 average yards per completion mark was the lowest of his career and 28th out of 33 quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts.

Newton’s arm strength dissipated as the year went on. Whether it returns in full strength after another surgery or if we should always expect a slightly diminished version remains to be seen. They can certainly get more downfield weapons and playmakers involved, either way.

With the current roster, their best bet is to make Curtis Samuel a clear full-time starter. Once Samuel became a full-time player around Week 11, he was instantly productive. He will be a prime sleeper in 2019 and it was poor roster management for him not to be on the field more last year.

The Panthers also desperately need to invest in their offensive line, which they’ve let deteriorate around Newton for far too long. Newton’s ability and feel for pressure allow him to escape a number of sacks many other quarterbacks would absorb with little fight. However, he’s struggled when defenders managed to put heat on him, positing passer ratings of 44.4, 62.0 and 48.3 under pressure over the last three years.

Even before injuries struck this unit, it was well below standards. It’s a strong offensive tackle class and the Panthers should strongly think about a lineman at the 16th overall pick.

Cam Newton was shocked at how good he was feeling following another shoulder surgery. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)
Cam Newton was shocked at how good he was feeling following another shoulder surgery. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn, File)

If the Panthers sink resources into the line this season and the skill position players continue to grow around Newton, we could be looking at the best season for the presumably healthy quarterback since his MVP year. We saw the skeleton of it last year. Now let’s get some meat on the bone.

Atlanta Falcons

Pressing question to answer: How much more can we get out of Calvin Ridley?

You can argue the Falcons have other issues that need solving beyond the projection of their No. 2 receiver. Fair point, but Calvin Ridley figures to be one of the more fascinating debates this offseason.

Ridley blazed through secondaries as a rookie, dropping 10 touchdowns and showing immense prowess as a route runner. Only four wide receivers scored more touchdowns than Ridley in 2018 and you’ll recognize their names. Antonio Brown, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and DeAndre Hopkins were the only wideouts who found pay dirt more than the Crimson Tide product.

While he was impressive as a player and useful as a fantasy asset he made his money on limited work. Ridley hauled in his 10 touchdowns on just 92 targets. His 10.9 touchdown rate and 69.6 percent catch rate will have statisticians scream regression when projecting his 2019 outlook. It’s even easier to be skeptical when you consider Ridley ran 100 fewer routes than veteran Mohamed Sanu last season. He played more than 70 percent of the team snaps in just three games all year.

It’s true; if Ridley maintains a sub-70 percent snap share and runs fewer than 500 routes in 2019, he’s a prime candidate for statistical regression. But in what world can we possibly expect that to be true? Not this reality.

Possible solutions

The Falcons can’t possibly bungle this one. No matter what you think of Dirk Koetter, back for his second stint as the Falcons offensive coordinator, even he can’t get in the way. Ridley is due for a clear promotion to the undisputed No. 2 behind Julio Jones.

The Falcons offense has been a good unit over the last two years following their dynamic 2016 campaign. They’ve ranked eighth and ninth in offensive DVOA in 2017 and 2018. What they’ve lacked in the wake of Kyle Shanahan taking his spicy scheme out west for a head coaching job is the individual talent to lift the team to the next level. Alongside Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley can be that player.

Ridley was one of the best pure technicians and separators to come into the NFL over the last few years. He’s paired with a strong quarterback for the foreseeable future and already proved he can ball. Don’t get lost in the weeds with the periphery numbers with this player and forget to project obvious playing time growth. Buy into Ridley.

New Orleans Saints

Pressing question to answer: The ending to Drew Brees’ 2018 was meaningless, right?

You can all but guarantee Drew Brees’ strangely slow finish in 2018 will go under-discussed, because season-long numbers rule the world. Yet, when New Orleans spends the quiet moments truly reflecting on how their season wound down, it must haunt them ever so slightly.

Brees averaged a mere 214 yards per game and threw three touchdowns to three picks in his final four games of the regular season. The playoff games were fine, but not once did you see a Saints offense that truly took over the game. With 43 points between two contests, we just didn’t see the prolific Brees-led Saints even when the postseason began.

Search your heart of hearts, Sean Payton and company. Yes, you got epically robbed in the wake of one of the worst blown calls in NFL history but you can’t deny the reality that your offense never quite looked the same after your loss in Dallas.

Doubting a clear first-ballot Hall of Fame player like Drew Brees is a surefire way to look like a goon. But waving off any semblance of worry about a quarterback potentially declining while entering his forties is just as foolish.

The most likely answer is that Drew Brees is fine. He’ll come back yet again in 2019 and post sterling efficiency numbers. So what the exercise of asking this question should lead the Saints to do is not doubt their quarterback, but rather find ways to surround him with more talent to get the best out of him in the twilight of his career. While Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are two of the very best at their position, the well has started to run dry at other skill positions spots.

Possible solutions

The Saints have sacrificed a great deal to continue to build up a championship-type roster, which makes the way they’ve been sent packing in the last two postseasons all the more painful. Draft picks were traded a year ahead of time to secure Kamara in 2017 and Marcus Davenport last year. New Orleans will have just one pick in Round Two among the first four rounds of the college selection process.

The team should strongly consider sinking that second rounder into a tight end. Benjamin Watson gave the club workman-like production at his advanced age but another young tight end in the development system down in New Orleans is long past overdue.

There are several tight ends in this draft that could push for Round 1 status, like Irv Smith and T.J. Hockenson. If either of those players fall, perhaps the Saints think about another draft day trade up. They are all in and this move would help. Any tight end in New Orleans would immediately find themselves on the sleeper radar, lest we forget the Coby Fleener hype.

The Saints are also limited in cap space, sitting at the seventh-fewest amount with $15.7 million. Expect a minor addition or two in the receiving corps and/or the backfield as Mark Ingram likely leaves town. Someone like John Brown or Tyrell Williams could make for a fine starter along with Michael Thomas. Neither should truly break the bank and their vertical chops would help continue to allow this offense to get the best out of Brees.

Additionally, the Saints should also focus on developing last year’s rookie wideout, Tre’Quan Smith. While he merely flashed but didn’t sustain momentum as a first-year player, Smith’s vertical ability gives this offense a different dimension. He will make for a solid late-round sleeper next year, along with theoretical additions like Brown or Williams.

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