Eric Mack
Friday July 27th, 2012

You never can expect a record-setting quarterback to repeat his performance, especially when you throw in the variables working against Drew Brees right now.

Peyton Manning hasn't had a season with a QB rating over 100 since his record-breaking 2004. Tom Brady couldn't even finish the first half of Game 1 in '08, after his record-setting '07, being lost for the season with a torn ACL.

But Brees now has to play up to a large contract, deal with the loss of his offensive guru Sean Payton, who is suspended for the entire season over the bounty scandal, deal with the loss of one of his weapons, Robert Meachem (signed with San Diego) with no significant addition to replace him and cope with the expected emergence of a running game that might alter a pass-heavy scheme.

It may be enough to see the Saints take a significant enough of a step back to allow Matt Ryan and the Falcons to step forward. The Falcons are moving away from a run-heavy offense, while Julio Jones is on verge of a huge breakthrough as a fantasy star.

Oh, there's also the sophomore season to consider for Cam Newton, who is coming off the greatest rookie season in fantasy football history. This will be an interesting division to watch, particularly when you consider the little defense played by the four teams that reside here.

We are already taken our capsule looks at the NFC East, AFC East, NFC North, AFC North and AFC South. We continue with the wide-open NFC South's depth charts, position battles, injury questions and fantasy positional rankings:

QB Matt Ryan Chris Redman

RB Michael Turner Jacquizz Rodgers Jason Snelling

WR Roddy White Julio Jones Harry Douglas

TE Tony Gonzalez

K Matt Bryant

Position battles

No. 2 RB: This is a significant battle because Turner is now 30, the age of breakdown for running backs. He also has a lot of wear on his body in the past four years, going well over 300 rushing attempts in three of those seasons. "We discussed the possibility of making sure that we monitor his reps so that he can stay strong for us through the season and into December," RB coach Gerald Brown told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We feel very good about Jason Snelling and Jacquizz [Rodgers], too." Snelling, 28, isn't a young himself and Rodgers has game-breaker speed, so consider both valuable handcuffs for Turner, or just late-round sleepers in their own right.

Injury questions

None -- While the Falcons don't have a significant player coming off injury, Gonzalez, 36, and Turner are at risk because of their ages and wear and tear. You should slide them down your draft boards and perhaps avoid picking them as starters in standard leagues.

QB Drew Brees Chase Daniels

RB Mark Ingram Darren Sproles Pierre Thomas Chris Ivory

WR Marques Colston Lance Moore Devery Henderson Nick Toon Adrian Arrington

TE Jimmy Graham

K Garrett Hartley John Kasay

Position battles

Starting RB: Ingram was supposed to help make sense of the Saints' backs last year. Instead, his injury-plagued season just left fantasy owners a bigger mess. The diminutive Sproles, 29, took off as a third-down back in a pass-happy (and record-breaking) system, so he could be the first Saints back picked in fantasy. Thomas, 27, remains a factor, too. Ingram, 22, is the one with the highest ceiling, but he needs a strong and healthy training camp to run away with the workload and prove to be a valuable middle-rounder in fantasy again.

Kicker: Hartley is coming off a lost season (hip) after a breakthrough '11 that made him arguably the No. 1 placekicker in fantasy. Kasay emerged as a gem because of his accuracy inside 40 yards, but we should fully expect Hartley, 26, to win the job over the 42-year-old and potentially be one of the top five most productive kickers in fantasy.

Injury questions

RB Mark Ingram (toe, knee) -- His injury-plagued rookie season continued into the spring as he needed a left knee scope in May. He is coming off toe surgery and might not be 100 percent going into training camp. At just 22-years old, he is quickly earning a injury-prone label. He is at least a risk to pick as a fantasy starter, even if he has the potential to emerge as an elite option in a great offense.

K Garrett Hartley (hip) -- Although the Saints re-signed Kasay this offseason, it was meant merely as insurance. Hartley is just 26 and potentially the best kicker in all of fantasy this year.

QB Cam Newton Derek Anderson

RB DeAngelo Williams Jonathan Stewart Mike Tolbert

WR Steve Smith Brandon LaFell David Gettis Joe Adams

TE Greg Olsen

K Olindo Mare

Position battles

Starting RB: Williams vs. Stewart has been a battle waged ever since Williams' career year of '08 (1,518 rushing yards and 20 total TDs). Somehow both injury-prone backs managed to play in all 16 games a year ago, although neither really proved to be a fantasy-worthy starter. While they are both good -- actually, potentially great -- they negate each other and make each more of a fantasy backup or, at best, a flex option. Stewart played a higher percentage of snaps a year ago, but Williams trumped him in carries, yards and touchdowns. Stewart is the better pass receiver, and with Newton as the team's primary weapon now, might be the better fantasy pick of the two because of his involvement in the passing game. Williams will start, but Stewart and the passing factor will make this is a mess all over again.

No. 2 WR: Stewart is actually the second receiver in this offense, while the TE Olsen is the tertiary. Regardless, Newton had such a smashing rookie season, fantasy owners need to take note of who starts alongside Smith at receiver. LaFell showed promise and is entering that breakthrough third year. Gettis is in his breakout third season as well, but LaFell has the benefit of having played last season as a sophomore.

Injury questions

WR David Gettis (knee) -- It is shocking to note Newton, Williams, Stewart and WR Smith, 33, did not miss a game last season. It is unlikely we will be able to say the same next summer. Gettis is coming off a lost '11 and will push LaFell as the complement receiver to Smith.

QB Josh Freeman Dan Orlovsky

RB Doug Martin LeGarrette Blount Michael Smith

WR Vincent Jackson Mike Williams Arrelious Benn Preston Parker Dezmon Briscoe

TE Dallas Clark Luke Stocker

K Connor Barth

Position battles

Starting RB: The Bucs drafted Martin because they want to feature a run-first offense under new coach Greg Schiano. There is plenty of potential there, but Blount remains the incumbent that can throw a monkey wrench into all those people selecting Martin first among the two in early drafts. Blount is still the pounder and finisher, even if Martin has a higher ceiling. This is a dangerous battle that has to be tracked, because if one wins the job outright, he could run away with 1,200 yards and 10-plus touchdowns, even in a so-so offense. Martin is the sexier nouveau pick, but don't sleep on Blount, who looked a like a breakthrough back in his own right in '10.

Injury questions

TE Dallas Clark (neck) -- Peyton Manning didn't push for Clark to sign in Denver and that should be a telling sign. Those two were inseparable in Indy and Manning wanted little to do with him. Clark appears ready for training camp, but he is 33 and no certainty to stay healthy, or start. Also, the Bucs relied heavily on TE targets with departed Kellen Winslow, to their detriment. They are going to de-emphasize the TE this year.

Quarterbacks

1 Drew Brees NO 2 Cam Newton CAR 3 Matt Ryan ATL 4 Josh Freeman TB 5 Derek Anderson CAR 6 Dan Orlovsky TB 7 Chase Daniels NO 8 Chris Redman ATL

Running backs

1 Michael Turner ATL 2 Mark Ingram NO 3 DeAngelo Williams CAR 4 Darren Sproles NO 5 Jonathan Stewart CAR 6 Doug Martin TB 7 LeGarrette Blount TB 8 Pierre Thomas NO |9 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 10 Jason Snelling ATL

Wide receivers

1 Roddy White ATL 2 Julio Jones ATL 3 Steve Smith CAR 4 Marques Colston NO 5 Vincent Jackson TB 6 Lance Moore NO 7 Mike Williams TB 8 Devery Henderson NO 9 Arrelious Benn TB 10 Brandon LaFell CAR 11 Harry Douglas ATL 12 David Gettis CAR

Tight ends

1 Jimmy Graham NO 2 Tony Gonzalez ATL 3 Greg Olsen CAR 4 Dallas Clark TB 5 Luke Stocker TB

Kickers

1 Garrett Hartley NO 2 Matt Bryant ATL 3 Connor Barth TB 4 Olindo Mare CAR 5 John Kasay NO

Defense/Special Teams

1 Falcons ATL 2 Saints NO 3 Panthers CAR 4 Buccaneers TB

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.