NFC and AFC South: What you need to know

NFC and AFC South: What you need to know

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.

E'Twaun Moore signs four-year deal with Pelicans

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USA Today Sports Images

E'Twaun Moore signs four-year deal with Pelicans

E'Twaun Moore has agreed to a four-year deal worth $34 million with the New Orleans Pelicans, agent Mark Bartlestein told Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill.

Moore spent the last two seasons with the Bulls, putting together a career year last season in a reserve role. The 27-year-old shooting guard averaged 7.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 59 games, including 22 starts.

General manager Gar Forman said during the offseason the Bulls had interest in bringing back Moore, who's capable of playing both guard positions. But when free agency began Thursday night at 11:01 p.m., Moore's suitors came calling. It was reported that six teams, including New Orleans, were interested in the two-way guard.

In New Orleans he'll join a backcourt that is losing Eric Gordon to free agency and could lose both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans the following year. The Pelicans drafted shooting guard Buddy Hield with the No. 6 pick in last month's NBA Draft.

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

With lineup trending in wrong direction, Cubs seeing issues Mets exposed in NLCS

NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.

“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”

Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).

Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).

[MORE CUBS TALK: Willson Contreras showing why he belongs as big part of Cubs' plans]

The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.

“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.

“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.

“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”

The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).

A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.

“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.

“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”

The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.

John Goossens scores his first MLS goal in Fire win

John Goossens scores his first MLS goal in Fire win

John Goossens and Rodrigo Ramos were in the middle of most of the Fire's chances throughout the match so it only seemed fair that the pair would both factor into the game-winning goal on Friday.

In the 59th minute, Ramos crossed a ball into the box from the right side which was directed for Kennedy Igboananike. Igboananike didn't win the initial header, but it was headed out into the path of Goossens. Goossens drilled the ball with his first touch on his left foot and scored his first Major League Soccer goal.

That goal stood as the only one of the match in a 1-0 Fire win against the visiting San Jose Earthquakes.

The Fire (3-7-5, 14 points) picked up a second win in three home matches and snapped a three-game winless streak in MLS play. A crowd of 16,487 watched the game and the fireworks that came after the match.

[MORE FIRE: John Goossens' return could be key for the Fire]

The first half featured a slow start, especially from the Fire. San Jose (5-5-7, 22 points) forwards Chris Wondolowski and Quincy Amarikwa were largely kept in check other than an Amarikwa header that forced a diving save from Sean Johnson.

The Fire finished the half much better with a Joao Meira shot from outside the box that David Bingham could only push over the bar and another effort from Kennedy Igboananike that forced a rebound in front.

John Goossens nutmegged two Earthquakes in the first half and Rodrigo Ramos was very aggressive going forward at right back. Most of the Fire's attacking buildup came from those two on the right side. Both were subbed out in the 80th minute.

The Fire outshot San Jose 16-6 and had a 6-2 edge in shots on goal.

[SHOP: Pick up your own Fire jersey]

Late in the game Fire forward David Accam and San Jose defender Fatai Alashe collided and went down immediately. After a stoppage, Accam got to his feet and returned. Alashe did not and San Jose, which was already out of subs finished the match with 10 men.

The Fire return to action next Saturday, July 9, in Toronto. Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw will be eligible to make his debut.