By Michael SalfinoSpecial to CSNChicago.com
NFC South - What You Need To Know
New Orleans Saints (13-3, 547 Points For, lost in Divisional Playoffs): How much does an elite offense rely on the coaching staff? We'll get a perfect guinea pig to study this year, as the Saints work through a season without mastermind Sean Payton. Given that the club still has quarterback Drew Brees and most of the key skill players, there's no reason to make a radical fantasy adjustment to your New Orleans expectations. But some dropoff from last year is to be expected, especially if the offensive line is slightly compromised (it looks weaker on paper). The Saints love a deep backfield and a rotating backfield, so don't expect too much from any one option. Darren Sproles is a dynamic receiver, but his size requires a modest role. Pierre Thomas is superb from an efficiency standpoint, but the club likes to watch his workload, too. Mark Ingram only managed 3.9 YPC as a rookie, a shockingly-low number given what his teammates managed. Top targets Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore look like reasonably safe picks; keep in mind Graham is still relatively new to football, playing just one year at the University of Miami. There is no reasonably way for defenses to account for him.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6, 402 PF, lost in Wild Card Playoffs): You have to be careful about what you see and take away from the preseason, but Matt Ryan has been terrific through two games. He might be ready to step up to a Pro Bowl level, a Top 5 at the position level - especially if sophomore Julio Jones turns into the breakout star many are projecting. Roddy White will have to share more with Jones this year, but it also will result in a little less defensive attention, in theory. Both wideouts look like Top 10 options at the position. Michael Turner was moving at a turtle's pace late in 2011, but a Week 17 romp over the give-up Buccaneers protected his stats. He'll probably lose some of his gross output this year, with Jacquizz Rodgers ready to take on a meaty change-of-pace role. Turner should score 8-10 times anyway, but his yardage upside is probably gone for good. Rodgers is a dynamic receiver, a skill Turner has never had. Tony Gonzalez has been steady his entire Atlanta career, but doesn't the aging curve have to kick in at some point? He's 36, entering his 16th season.
Carolina Panthers (6-12, 406 PF): You can say just about anything you want with arbitrary endpoints, so take our Cam Newton stat survey with a grain of salt. That established, it's interesting to note that his YPA dropped from 8.3 to 7.2 in the second half of 2011, and his rushing scores dipped in the final four weeks. Newton's raw ability and rushing chops can't be denied, but will the Panthers want to limit his goal-line collisions at some point? Buzzy sophomores can break your heart. New fullback Mike Tolbert isn't expected to see a lot of carries - the club has Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for that - but he might steal some goal-line work. Keep in mind Tolbert knew the current Carolina coaching staff back when all were in San Diego; his signing wasn't a big surprise. Steve Smith remains a dynamic playmaker into his mid-30s, but the rest of the Panthers wideouts are suspect. Brandon LaFell has shown deep speed and a knack for big plays, but he needs to be more consistent. Greg Olsen is a talented but somewhat-erratic tight end, but he should see increased snaps and targets now that Jeremy Shockey is gone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12, 287 PF): A new coach and a new attitude were clearly needed here, as the Bucs quit on Raheem Morris about halfway through 2011. Look at the defensive tapes in the two Atlanta games; the effort level was appalling. Quarterback Josh Freeman lost 20-30 pounds and he's gained a bunch of skill players, so a modest bounce back is to be expected. Rookie RB Doug Martin has an outstanding chances to settle in as the team's starter and three-down option, though LeGarrette Blount has been more focused this summer and is getting positive feedback from new coach Greg Schiano. Vincent Jackson was imported to be the No. 1 wideout, but how many free-agent receivers break out immediately on their new club? Mike Williams needs a strong rebound after a messy second season; his off-field focus was openly questioned last year. Don't bother with TE Dallas Clark, who can't seem to stay healthy.
AFC South - What You Need To Know
Houston Texans (10-6, 381 Points For, lost in Divisional Playoffs): The Texans probably would have been the AFC's playoff favorite last year if not for a slew of designer injuries around midseason. Sack-master Mario Williams is gone for good - he signed with Buffalo - but otherwise, the Wade Phillips defense looks formidable. QB Matt Schaub and WR Andre Johnson are no longer fantasy targets - Schaub doesn't throw all that much in the red area, and Johnson can't seem to stay on the field. Johnson's never scored ten touchdowns in any season, a sobering stat given how talented he is. Tailback Arian Foster is the consensus No. 1 pick in most fantasy league and he's running behind an elite line, but be warned that backup Ben Tate is a difference-maker as well. Tate should be the first or second backup runner off your board, depending on how you feel about Kansas City's Peyton Hillis. Strength of schedule can be a fool's errand, but nonetheless keep in mind that the Texans have the fourth-easiest slate, on paper, as we head into 2012.
Tennessee Titans (9-7, 325 PF): Although the Titans were a sneaky-competitive group last year, they're moving into a transitional phase - with second-year QB Jake Locker close to winning a starting job over incumbent Matt Hasselbeck. Locker's rushing ability makes him a possible QB2 this fall, though he got into trouble with his aggressive play in college. Chris Johnson is also entering a prove-it season; he was a bust after his late signing last year, though he miraculously played all 16 games. He's a reasonable pick in the middle of the first round, on volume more than upside. Kenny Britt is a Top 10 wideout by talent alone, but he's been arrested eight times since turning pro (the latest for a DUI incident) and he's probably going to receive a multiple-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell. Rookie Kendall Wright might have to play a lot of snaps right away, though the most consistent receiver on this roster (and the best fantasy value) is unheralded Nate Washington. TE Jared Cook isn't much of a blocker, but his receiving stats have improved every season. He's something of a sleeper if you want to go cheap at the position, though he's become a little trendy in the tout industry.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11, 243 PF): First, the good news: the Jags offense can't be nearly as horrendous as it was last year, and at least these guys aren't on prime time three times (as they were in 2011). But if holdout back Maurice Jones-Drew doesn't make nice with the club and report to headquarters, you won't want to spend your Sundays tracking these folks. Backup Rashad Jennings has looked snappy in camp and could be a Top 20 back if MJD walks away for good. That established, most holdouts hear the biological clock ticking just before the games start (and the game checks start), so look for Jones-Drew to eventually report. Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert has to improve quickly - import Chad Henne is pushing him - and there's talent on the flanks, albeit Laurent Robinson is learning a new offense and Justin Blackmon had a disappointing DUI arrest shortly after draft day. This probably will be the AFC's worst team in 2012.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14, 243 PF): While it's going to take several years to return to contention, the 2012 Colts should be an improved and fun team. The defense looks woeful on paper, but we'll take that for fantasy purposes: bring on the shootouts. Rookie QB Andrew Luck has been impressive from Day 1 (and his preseason debut was a smash), leading many to conclude that he's a Top 12 quarterback right now. His decision-making is excellent, and he's handy with his pocket movement. The Colts have plenty of good receivers for Luck to work with, and most of them are excellent draft values: Reggie Wayne; Austin Collie (hopefully the concussions are gone for good); rookie TE Coby Fleener. Running back Donald Brown also looks ready to break through; you can get him in the 25-30 range at the position in most leagues, but we won't be at all surprised if he's a Top 15 back on the field. Get to know this roster.
By Michael SalfinoSpecial to CSNChicago.com