FOX Sports Exclusive
AFC South fantasy preview
The long and winding highway brings my training camp tour to Latrobe, Pennsylvania and a date with the Steelers on Tuesday. Along the way, I pondered the following assessment of the teams in the AFC South. That little voice inside my head just kept saying “The planet Houston” in the voice of General Zod out of Superman 2.
And, while we all presume that the Texans will make another playoff appearance, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some fantasy goodness to be found on other squads. There are most certainly a number of interesting stories that will pique the interest of football fans this fall.
Let’s begin this round with Houston and work our way to the new world order in Indianapolis.
Drink some coffee for me.
Overview The Houston offense is always seemingly plagued by injuries, and it appears that 2012 will be no exception. The only thing seemingly standing in this team’s way for a playoff berth is, in fact, health. The longtime hunter in this division is now the presumptive favorite.
Quarterback: Matt Schaub returns from a Lisfranc injury to lead the division favorite Texans. He was limited to 10 games last season and was putting up numbers in line with previous performances. Schaub presents an injury risk, and the fact that his No. 1 target was already banged up in camp leaves me less than enamored with him as a top option. I have him ranked as a high-QB2 this season.
T.J. Yates, who was thrust into action as a rookie following Schaub’s injury, returns in the backup role.
Running Back: Versatile tailback Arian Foster remains a consensus top-2 option and one of the few running backs that fantasy owners trust entering 2012. You’ll see some mentions of his diet change in columns and blog posts. It’s an issue certainly worth mentioning. I’d rather focus on the loss of Eric Winston from the offensive line.
Ben Tate is either the first or second (Michael Bush of Chicago) taken off the board. He’s playable in the Flex slot with 8-10 touches per game and represents a valuable handcuff.
Wide Receiver: Do you trust Andre Johnson? Johnson’s groin injury is a concerning development to start camp, particularly after he was forced to miss extensive time in 2011. Still, he opens the draft season as a top-5 receiving, though owners are taking long, hard looks at the quarterback position and whichever running backs remain on the board at the turn into the second round.
Kevin Walter returns as the No. 2 option. He struggled with injuries issues of his own in 2011 and finished the season with 39 receptions. If healthy, he’s of some value in deeper PPR leagues given his rapport with Schaub. In general, he’s a waiver wire pickup if circumstances (another Johnson injury) were to change.
There are several young receivers battling for a shot at the No. 3. DeVier Posey, the team’s third-round selection from Ohio State, appears to have the inside track. I see the word “Velcro” in copy describing his efforts in drills. Basically, he’s catching everything in reach. Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin are also competing for reps. Jean started strong in camp, but struggled of late. Martin’s speed invokes thoughts of former Texans receiver/return man Jacoby Jones.
Tight End: Can Owen Daniels stay healthy? He did in 2011, producing 54 receptions in 15 games. However, he didn’t score a touchdown after Week 4 (three total). Owners can rely on Daniels posting a high target count when healthy, but he’s hardly an overwhelming selection.
Red zone option Joel Dreessen is now a member of the Broncos, leaving fellow Badger Garrett Graham (one career reception in two years) as the primary backup.
Kicker: Neil Rackers is now competing for the kicker slot in Washington. The Texans drafted Randy Bullock out of Texas A&M this spring, but also brought veteran Shayne Graham to camp. Graham has performed well in camp, and no clear-cut winner has emerged as of yet.
The winner will certainly see ample opportunities and hold fantasy value behind Schaub and the Houston offense. Rackers attempted 38 field goals last season (32 makes) with 39 PATs.
Defense: Last year, I predicted that the Texans would finish as a top unit under Wade Phillips. I didn’t expect them to do it and record 44 sacks without Mario Williams. They’ll be charged to do so again following Williams’ signing in Buffalo. Additionally, the team traded linebacker and leader DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia. I believe they’ll remain a top option for fantasy owners this year, if only by virtue of the division in which they participate. J.J. Watt (watch his elbow injury) and Antonio Smith work off the edges, leaving linebacker Brian Cushing room to roam.
Overview Mike Munchak’s Titans opened camp with many questions. Would Chris Johnson return to form? Who would win the QB job? What is the status of Kenny Britt? The Titans’ become intriguing in this division if the answer to the first question is “Yes” and Britt recovers quickly from his knee issues.
Quarterback: There’s not a clear-cut favorite to win the quarterback job at this juncture. The battle between Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck likely won’t be decided for another two weeks. Fantasy owners are rolling the dice with Locker as a late-QB2 selection in early drafts. He made several appearances in 2011 and represents the upside play particularly if, as expected, the team opens up the passing game.
Running Back: Fantasy owners are approaching the selection of Chris Johnson with caution early in the draft season, often leaving him on the board in favor of a wide receiver or quarterback. The first three running backs come off the board quickly, rededicated himself to coming to camp in shape and prepared to dominate. Johnson amassed nearly 1,500 total yards in 2011, but those owners who used a first or second selection on him are inconsolable.
Javon Ringer returns as Johnson’s backup. Ringer averaged just 3.1 yards per carry last season.
Wide Receiver: Top receiver Kenny Britt has undergone several knee surgeries and had yet another off-field incident. As a result, Britt is both an injury risk and may stand before Roger Goodell regarding his frequent infractions.
Nate Washington caught 74 passes in 2011 and topped 1,000 receiving yards (1,023) for the first time in his career. His value is obviously tied to the health and availability of Britt.
Fantasy owners are also placing a bet on Kendall Wright, the team’s first-round pick from Baylor. Wright has big-play potential, and owners have made him one of the early movers this summer.
Tight End: Jared Cook doubled his yardage output from 2011 and caught 20 additional passes. Fantasy owners are hopeful that he visits the end zone more frequently for 2012 and have made him a low-end TE1 option. The 6-foot-5 fourth-year player made great strides in his overall game last season.
Kicker: Rob Bironas remains one of the more underrated kickers in fantasyland. My colleagues will quote that line back to me with derisive comments about kickers. I choose to be positive. Bironas owns a fantastic career conversion rate (86.3%) and launched additional 50-yard attempts (seven, with six conversions) in 2011. That’s bonus time for fantasy owners!
Defense: The Titans ranked eighth in total defense last season at 19.8 points allowed per game. The unit excelled despite deficient quarterback play and the team’s inability to sustain drives. Tennessee generated 25 turnovers and 28 sacks. At a minimum, the Titans will be a popular plug-in play for four divisional games.
Overview Mike Mularkey takes over a squad looking for its identity. Its lone star, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, is engaged in what could become a long, protracted holdout, thereby putting more focus and pressure on young quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The long-time coordinator brought along Matt Ryan along during his tenure in Atlanta, and he’ll look to do the same here.
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert wasn’t given much of a chance last season. His top receiver was released, his tight end regressed markedly and he played under constant duress. He’s not roster-worthy to start the season, but the Jaguars at least addressed the receiver position this offseason.
Former Dolphins starter Chad Henne joins the Jaguars following Miami’s selection of Ryan Tannehill and signing of David Garrard.
Running Back: When will Maurice Jones-Drew end his holdout? He operated as a veritable one man gang in 2011 with the Jaguars offering zero productivity in the passing game. Jones-Drew led the NFL with 1,606 rushing yards last season and posted another double-digit touchdown total (eight rushing and three receiving).
If the holdout lingers into the season, Rashad Jennings will be ready to assume the top slot. Jennings has demonstrated his ability to excel with an expanded touch count, averaging 5.5 yards per carry in limited duty (84 carries) with 26 receptions in 2011. Gambling fantasy owners have made Jennings one of the first backups to be taken off the board this summer.
Wide Receiver: The Jaguars finally came to terms with Justin Blackmon on Tuesday, so he’ll have ample time to catch up on the 10 days of missed action. Blackmon’s off-field issues have put fantasy owners at arm’s length in early drafts. Though he’s the top option for Jacksonville, he’s still being selected as a fourth wideout.
Laurent Robinson had his breakthrough season in Dallas (54 catches for 858 yards with 11 touchdowns) and cashed in with a big contract in Jacksonville. Robinson’s concentration issues have been one of the stories coming out of camp.
Mike Thomas regressed markedly amid the team’s struggles last season. Of course, he became a de factor No. 1 option following the release of Mike Sims-Walker. Thomas had excelled in the No. 2 spot with 66 receptions in 2010.
Speedster Cecil Shorts and Lee Evans, formerly of the Bills and Ravens, are vying for the fourth spot in the Jacksonville offense.
Tight End: Marcedes Lewis was one of the breakout stars of the 2010 season with 58 receptions, including 10 touchdowns. He regressed mightily in 2011 as the passing game sputtered. Lewis was limited to 37 receptions and did not score. Much has been written about his conditioning issues coming into training camp. He’s a mid-level TE2 coming into the preseason.
Kicker: Josh Scobee was an effective kicker for the Jaguars last season, converting 23-of-25 field goal opportunities, including five conversions of at least 50 yards. Scobee’s actually converted 11 field goals of at least 50 yards in the past three seasons.
Defense: The Jacksonville defense quietly played well in the face of a terrible 2011 season, the brilliance of Maurice Jones-Drew notwithstanding. The Jaguars ranked 11th in total defense (20.6 points allowed per game) with 33 turnovers and 33 sacks. There are at least a few division games on the slate whereby the Jaguars become worthy of spot-start consideration.
Overview The Peyton Manning era is officially over, having ended with a resounding thud following multiple neck surgeries and a disastrous season for the Colts. They got a fresh-faced “Can’t Miss” quarterback with the No. 1 selection and a new defensive-minded head coach in Chuck Pagano. It’s a year to rebuild in Indianapolis.
Quarterback: There’s a new sheriff in town, and the Colts can only hope Andrew Luck’s reign is as long and decorated as his predecessor. Luck has several steady options as his disposal in the passing game, but the onus is obviously on the offensive line to improve following a disastrous 2011. I have him rated as a mid-QB2, as I suspect a sizable number of passing attempts are in the offing. Owners in leagues that penalize heavily for turnovers might want to knock him down a peg or two.
Running Back: It is now Donald Brown’s time to shine in Indianapolis. The former first-round selection rushed for a career-high 645 yards last year, including an 80-yard sprint. If you remove that run from his log, Brown still averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry. The Colts figure to utilize the running game more under Chuck Pagano, with Brown expected to take the bulk of the workload ahead of Delone Carter. Can he stay healthy and handle? That’s the overriding question that forces Brown down to a RB3 slot in most drafts.
Carter averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 101 attempts with two touchdowns as a rookie in 2011. He’s waiver wire fodder unless you’re in a deep league.
Wide Receiver: I’m encouraged by the early reports about the receiving corps. Reggie Wayne isn’t the stat-aggregator that dominated fantasyland in the past, but he nearly reached the 1,000-yard mark in the disastrous 2011 season.
Wayne is joined by two players on the injury comeback trail. Fantasy owners remember the PPR brilliance of Austin Collie from a few years back. Collie has reportedly developed a strong rapport with Luck. His route-running precision makes him a perfect fit for the young quarterback.
Another player in the mix for a prominent role this fall is has former St. Louis draft pick Donnie Avery. Avery is one to put up on your “Watch” list. Remember, he caught a total of 100 passes in his first two seasons with the Rams before essentially missing two years to injury.
Draft choice T.Y. Hilton also represents an intriguing option for Luck. He’s a pure speed receiver who fits the profile of a No. 3 threat.
Tight End: While Luck works to establish communication and build a rapport with his receivers, he has a security blanket in Stanford teammate Coby Fleener. Fleener caught 34 passes for 667 yards with 10 touchdowns last season for the Cardinal.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri remains the kicker in Indianapolis. He converted 23-of-27 attempts in 2011, including two conversions from at least 50 yards out (he had zero in 22 games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons). Vinatieri is a Bye week fill-in option behind a rebuilt offense.
Defense: The Colts rebuild after a dismal 2011 in which the defense ranked 28th in total defense, allowing 26.9 points per game. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney shift to linebacker in the Colts’ new scheme under Chuck Pagano, thereby putting their contributions in IDP leagues in question. The shift to the 3-4 will be aided by the arrival of several former Baltimore defenders, including defensive end Cory Redding and safety Tom Zbikowski.
More Stories From Michael Harmon