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  • Can the Falcons get anywhere near their 2016 selves? Assuming Drew Brees is back, how explosive can the Saints be? An early 2018 fantasy outlook for these two NFC South teams.
By Michael Beller
January 16, 2018

A thrilling weekend in the NFL ended with the Titans, Steelers, Falcons and Saints waving goodbye to their 2017 seasons. All that’s left now is the exit interviews. For our purposes, that means looking ahead to the fantasy prospects of their players in 2018. We’ll tackle the NFC teams in this column. Click here for the AFC teams.

The average football fan—the average football writer, for that matter—has a nebulous idea of how important a coach is. Sure, we can wrap our heads around the impact a coach can make on his team, but most of us aren’t steeped in the X’s and O’s like they and their players are. We’re not in the locker room or the meeting rooms, hearing what they’re saying to their assistants and players. We get the logic behind a coach affecting his team, but it’s more abstract to us than anything else.

In that vein, we should all thank Steve Sarkisian and Kyle Shanahan for making the idea more concrete for the average fan and writer than it has ever been. Nothing about Atlanta’s offense personnel changed in 2017 from the Super Bowl team the previous year. And yet, the offense looked entirely different, in an altogether bad way. As hard as it was going to be for the Falcons to match what they did in 2016, the downturn points an obvious finger at Sarkisian replacing the departed Shanahan.

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The Falcons averaged 415.8 yards and 33.8 points per game in 2016. Those numbers fell to 364.8 and 22.1 this season. Matt Ryan threw for 4,944 yards, 9.26 yards per attempt, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. This season he had 4,095 yards, 7.74 YPA, 20 touchdowns and 12 picks. Devonta Freeman totaled about 400 fewer yards from scrimmage, five fewer touchdowns, and experienced a 0.4-yards-per-carry dip. Tevin Coleman averaged 0.4 fewer yards per carry and 2.5 fewer yards per reception. Julio Jones, one of the three or four best receivers on the planet, a physical marvel at 6’3” and 220 pounds, had three touchdowns. Three. Fewer than Travis Benjamin, Garrett Celek and Ryan Grant.

For now, fantasy owners have to assume Sarkisian will be back running the offense next season. Still, something has to change. There’s no way a team can have that much talent and get that little out of it all season. In terms of fantasy value, it’s hard to see much, if anything, changing for the principles in Atlanta. Jones will be a late-first or early-second round pick, though I think it’s impossible to rank him ahead of Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins or Michael Thomas. It has been a long time since this was true, but Jones is no better than the fifth player at his own position. Freeman should come off the board about a round later, projecting as a low-end RB1. Ryan’s name brand will likely make him more expensive than he deserves to be in typical leagues. He has the ceiling of a season-long low-end QB1, but will not be reliable from week to week. Coleman will remain a high-variance play who’s best as a flex option, but not as a regular starter.

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The Saints have one huge question to answer before they can move on to the rest of their offseason: Will Drew Brees be back. The 39-year-old face of the franchise is a free agent heading into 2018. Given that the Saints were on the verge of heading into the NFC Championship Game as the favorite to advance to the Super Bowl, it seems likely that the team and its superstar quarterback will come to an agreement. Brees doesn’t have many years left, and the Saints would be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2018 with him at the helm. It seems too good, obvious and easy a match for either side to go in another direction.

Assuming Brees is back, fantasy owners are going to want to do what they can to invest in the Saints next season. Brees himself will be a top-10 quarterback, but closer to the backend of that than he has ever been at the start of the season. That owes to the change that took place in the team’s scheme, thanks to season for the ages from its running backs. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram produced an unprecedented season for a duo sharing a backfield, with both topping 1,500 total yards. Kamara scored 13 touchdowns, while Ingram hit paydirt 12 times. As great as both players are, and project to be again, it will be hard to match the heights they reached in 2017, simply because it’s a challenge to have one such season, let alone two.

Kamara, in particular, will be a Rorschach Test for fantasy owners. Do you see a one-off season in terms of efficiency and touchdown rate, or do you see the inheritor of a torch previously carried by Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson? If you want to secure Kamara’s services in your league, you’ll have to view him as the latter. As for Ingram, he should be in the late-second and early-third round mix in standard and PPR formats.

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Michael Thomas, too, broke into the elite this season, and should be viewed as a rock-solid first-round pick next year. The second-year receiver out of Ohio State caught 104 passes for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns, finishing as the No. 7 receiver in standard leagues, and the No. 6 receiver in PPR formats. In two seasons, Thomas has 196 catches, 2,382 yards and 14 scores. He’s the No. 1 receiver in an explosive offense, a weapon everywhere on the field, and heading into his age-25 season. He has the look of a championship fantasy team’s centerpiece for 2018.

Finally, Ted Ginn remains under contract for next season. He had a solid debut year with the Saints, catching 53 passes for 787 yards and four scores. He’ll be back in a familiar fantasy role as a depth receiver who owners are happy to have around during the bye-week portion of the season, but don’t turn to as an every-week starter.

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