The second week of preseason action in the NFC South will come to an end by Sunday night, after the Carolina Panthers play host to the Kansas City Chiefs at Bank of America Stadium in a nationally televised game on Fox. Carolina, the defending division champions, will look to join the New Orleans Saints in the week 2 win column, while the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers came out on the short end of the ledger this weekend.
By tomorrow, all four teams will find themselves focused on preparations for the always pivotal third preseason game, a game that has become synonymous with dress rehearsals and dry runs. Week 3 of the preseason usually provides fantasy managers with an exclusive look into how things stand heading into the closest simulation to week 1 yet, with position battles and plenty of other questions still hanging in the balance.
On the cusp of week 3, here are some notes and thoughts from around the NFC South division:
The defending South champs are set to welcome back Cam Newton tonight, as the signal-caller sat out the team's 20-18 loss to Buffalo last week. Newton has been on the mend from offseason ankle surgery, and will handle his first live game action of the summer this evening in Charlotte.
Newton will look to take the next step in his budding rapport with talented rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, while his receiving crops as a whole leaves plenty to be desired. With Steve Smith in Baltimore, Ted Ginn in Arizona and Brandon LaFell in New England, Newton will be throwing to a seemingly different group of weapons, with Benjamin, fellow rookie Tavarres King, and veterans Jerricho Cotchery,Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood entering the fold. Greg Olsen returns at tight end, but with an overhaul at the receiver position, these next two games will be vital for Newton and his teammates to take advantage of the game environment in an attempt to make progress with the regular season opener just three short weeks away. Cam Newton is set for his first game action since undergoing offseason ankle surgery.
In a recent piece, Greg Brosh notes that Newton is currently one of fantasy football's most overhyped players in camp, mostly due to the shakeup at the receiver position. RB Jonathan Stewart has been battling a hamstring problem, and further injury would put an even greater onus on Newton to produce, which could work in either a positive or negative light. DeAngelo Williams and short-yardage specialist Mike Tolbert are poised to play their parts in the running game, but only unproven players such as Kenjon Barner and Darrin Reaves provide insurance behind them.
We still like Newton to have a good year, but his 6th/7th round average draft position may be deemed too risky for some. Perhaps the next two preseason games will provide a clearer glimpse into what Cam and his receivers can conjure up through the air.
New Orleans Saints
Even though Drew Brees sat out yet again as the Saints beat the Titans Friday night, business as usual appears to be the modus operandi in the Big Easy. A usual, New Orleans will likely feature one of the league's best offenses, featuring the usual fantasy studs such as Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham.
However, as much as a boon as the Saints can be to fantasy managers everywhere, they can be a Rubik's Cube all the same. This usually entails trying to dissect the team's multifaceted running game, a three, sometimes four-headed monster of fantasy permutations. Pierre Thomas is still a key part of the Saints' offense.
Darren Sproles is now a Philadelphia Eagle, but the rest of last year's group remains intact. Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson all return in 2014, while Travaris Cadet has been ticketed for a bigger role. Rookie Brandin Cooks has lined up in the backfield at times, as coach Sean Payton will be certain to find every which way to get the ball into the hands of his dynamic first-round draft pick. Cooks has taken reverses and swing passes out of the backfield at Saints' camp, adding yet another dimension that opposing defenses must account for.
Thomas, the elder statesman of the group, should be in line to see his usual workload on the ground, but still seems to be the best fit in the Saints' passing game. New Orleans is one of the best in the business when running their offense with tempo, be it by design or situationally, while also employing one of the league's most effective screen games. Outside of his rookie year (2007) and 2010 when he missed 10 games due to injury, Thomas has never had less than 105 carries, but has also had no fewer than 31 receptions in that same time frame. Coming off a year in which he had a career-high in catches (77) and matched his career-high with 147 carries, in addition to the 71 receptions that Sproles accounted for, Thomas' prowess in the passing game will become even more important in 2014, with his adept pass protection and blitz pickup skills especially valued.
Thomas has upside in PPR leagues, as his workload could actually increase in the passing game, while remaining a serviceable option on the ground as part of a three-pronged attack with Ingram and Robinson. All three of those players are worth owning, though Robinson is coming off the board too early with a 5th round ADP. Ingram is a better value pick in the 11th/12th rounds.
Brees is honing in on a full recovery from his oblique strain, and remains a top-three quarterback.
The Dirty Birds took were dealt another ugly and unfortunate blow during Saturday night's loss at the Houston Texans, when LT Sam Baker went down with a season-ending patella tendon injury in his right knee. The former USC man missed most of 2013 with a similar injury to his left knee.
This is just the latest setback for Atlanta, having already lost LBs Sean Weatherspoon and Marquis Spruill for the season, while RB Stephen Jackson is one of several other players to miss time in camp with an injury.
The good news on that front is that WR Julio Jones made his return to the field in Saturday's 32-7 loss to the Texans, catching 2 passes for 20 yards on 4 targets from Matt Ryan. Jones broke his foot last October, and subsequently missed the rest of the Falcons' disastrous 2013 season. Jones looked the part Saturday, and with positive reports on the foot all offseason, he figures to be poised to put 2013 behind him and at the ready to try and build off the 2012 season in which he caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jones is a somewhat-high risk, high reward option in all leagues, possessing the ability to post top-5 numbers if he stays healthy. Back at the schoolyard: Julio Jones returned to action Saturday in Houston.
Julio's running mate Roddy White has been coming off draft boards in rounds 4 and 5, where he presents good value. White toughed out most of 2013 with nagging injuries, snaring 63 receptions for 711 yards and 3 touchdowns, all lows across the board dating back to 2007, his second season in the league. Like Jones, White is now healthy, and has a fresh four-year $30 million contract in his back pocket. With Tony Gonzalez retired, a void in the form of 83 catches, 859 yards and 8 scores exists, so expect Julio and Roddy to get their's.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New head coach Lovie Smith is hoping to speed up the rebuilding process in Tampa Bay,and took the first step by bringing in veteran Josh McCown during free agency to provide stability at the quarterback position.
In last week's preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bucs struggled to protect McCown, who took a pair of sacks and tossed a pick-six in the game. The offensive line showed improvement from week 1 to week 2, as McCown had more time to make decisions to the tune of a respectable 5-7, 46 yard, 1 touchdown performance in Saturday night's 20-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
McCown thrived in Chicago last season, called into action upon Jay Cutler going down with groin and ankle injuries. Surrounded by a pair of giant playmakers on the perimeter in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, McCown threw for 1,829 yards across 8 appearances, with 13 touchdowns to just 1 interception. The key ingredient, however may have been head coach/quarterback guru Marc Trestman, whose playcalling and game management catered to the steady McCown, who took advantage of his weapons on the outside and a reliable asset at running back in the form of Matt Forte.
In Tampa, McCown has his two giants on the perimeter. Vincent Jackson and first-rounder Mike Evans cut similar figures to Marshall and Jeffery in terms of their frames and skill sets, while a healthy Doug Martin provides a formidable ground option. The key piece will be if Jeff Tedford can have a similar effect on 35-year-old McCown as Trestman was able to. McCown has struggled in his past stints as a starter in places like Arizona and Oakland, so playcalling and gameplanning will be very important as the Buccaneers look to brush aside doubters and challenge for more than 3rd in the division. Now a Buccaneer, can Josh McCown duplicate his success with the Bears?
Given the circumstances, we are starting to like Martin as a RB option with an early-to-mid third-round ADP. Rookie Charles Sims is set to miss most of the 2014 season, if not all of it, with an ankle injury, leaving change-of-pace man Bobby Rainey and Mike James as Martin's top backups. Martin had a stellar rookie season in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards on 319 carries (4.6 ypc) with 11 touchdowns. He added 49 receptions for 472 yards and a further score that season, but his 2013 season came to an end after just six games due to a shoulder injury.
If the Bucs can continue to see improved play from their offensive line, Tedford should be able to establish Martin while generating enough balance to give McCown and the passing game a chance to thrive. Martin's usage rate figures to drop under the Smith regime, but he is still an asset, and should be in the RB1 conversation given the current landscape of Tampa's backfield and offense, in general.