Senior analyst Michael Fabiano breaks down the fantasy history along with the potential of the NFC South coaches and offensive coordinators.
These days, there’s no shortage of information to prepare for your fantasy drafts. Heck, there might even be too much info! Well, I’m going to add to the madness with a look at how offensive coordinators and head coaches have run their offenses and what it might mean for the 2021 season. After all, the coaches and OCs are the minds behind the chess game that is the National Football League. Some coaches like to run the football, thus producing a ton of fantasy points at the running back position. Others prefer the air assault, making fantasy heroes out of quarterbacks while loading up wide receivers and tight ends with oodles of targets and chances to score points in the passing attack.
Well, this article will break it all down for you.
We’ve already looked at the entire AFC, the NFC East and the NFC North so let’s next look at the NFC South. What you’ll find below are each team’s current head coaches and offensive coordinators. I’ll discuss which positions have thrived or failed based on past statistics and fantasy finishes during their respective tenures in the league.
Head coach: Arthur Smith (2021)
Offensive Coordinator: Dave Ragone (2021)
Smith will be calling the plays in his first season as an NFL head coach, which is good news for the value of many of Atlanta’s offensive skill position players. At quarterback, he helped Ryan Tannehill rank 10th in fantasy points scored per game in 2019 before a solid QB7 finish last season. That’s good news for Matt Ryan, though one does have to wonder how much value he’ll lose without Julio Jones. In seven games without him last year, Ryan threw 11 touchdown passes with seven interceptions and an 86.2 rating.
Running backs, most notably Derrick Henry, thrived under Smith’s guidance. He ranked as the RB3 last season and was fifth in fantasy points in 2019. The Titans also ranked third in rushing percentage a season ago, however, which is not going to happen with Mike Davis as Smith’s lead back. The fact that he has little competition makes Davis a worthwhile RB2 in fantasy drafts, but don’t expect a Henry-like workload this season.
Smith’s offense didn’t produce a solid fantasy wideout aside from A.J. Brown, who was the WR12 last season but was sixth at the position in points-per-game average. Corey Davis was the WR30 a season ago, which was the best fantasy finish of his career. The Titans threw the football just 49.5 percent of the time, which the Falcons were eighth at 62.1 percent. Based on the talent Atlanta has in their pass attack, I’d suggest a move into the mid-50s in terms of pass percentage in 2021. That would be good for the likes of Calvin Ridley, who broke out a season ago. Russell Gage, who had 45 targets and 30 catches in seven games without Jones, is now on the late-round radar in drafts.
A former tight ends coach, Smith likes to incorporate the position in his offense. As a result, players like Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith have had some level of success. With Jones no longer on the roster, don’t be shocked if the Falcons force-feed the ball to rookie phenom Kyle Pitts. He’s being picked as a top-5 fantasy tight end in drafts.
Head coach: Matt Rhule (2020-present)
Offensive Coordinator: Joe Brady (2020-present)
Carolina’s offense was fantasy-friendly in the first season under Brady’s watch. Teddy Bridgewater ranked a respectable 18th in fantasy points among quarterbacks, as the team threw the football 59 percent of the time. That comes as no surprise, as Brady was the architect behind L.S.U.’s explosive offense with Joe Burrow in 2019. This is all good news for Sam Darnold, who is in a great position to have a career season after failing in New York. He’ll be a worthwhile late-round selection in larger fantasy leagues in 2021.
Brady’s system was a positive one for the ground attack, too. Christian McCaffrey put up an average of 25.2 touches and 30.1 points in three games under Brady’s watch. Despite missing 13 games, he’s still the consensus No. 1 overall pick in 2021 redrafts. Mike Davis was the RB12 in CMC’s absence, earning a near 29 percent touch share.
The wide receivers were also successful under Brady, as Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel all finished in the top 25 in fantasy points at the position. The team lost Samuel to free agency, leaving behind 97 targets. Those opportunities will be split up between Moore, Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr., who will be worth a late flier in larger leagues. Moore and Anderson will be on the WR2/WR3 radar in drafts.
Tight ends weren’t heavily involved in the offense, as a combined 41 targets went to Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz, and Colin Thompson. The Panthers did add Dan Arnold in the offseason, but he’s unlikely to make a significant impact on the field or in fantasy land.
New Orleans Saints
Head coach: Sean Payton (2006-present)
Offensive Coordinator: Pete Carmichael (2009-present)
Payton’s offenses have been one of the best when it comes to statistical production, as his system has produced 13 top-10 finishes including seven top-5s at quarterback. All but one of those finishes has been from Drew Brees, who retired after last season. The lone other top-10 rank was Kerry Collins, who was the QB9 in 2000 when Payton was the offensive coordinator in New York. Jameis Winston is considered the favorite to start in 2021, though Taysom Hill is also in the mix in what will be a camp battle to monitor.
The running back position has been quite fruitful under Payton. The position has ranked in the top 12 a total of 13 times, including four top 5s and 11 top 10s. Alvin Kamara has been a top-10 runner in all four of his NFL seasons, and he’ll remain a top-5 selection in 2021 redrafts. Payton also loves to throw the ball to his running backs, as the position has finished with 69 or more catches 12 times. It’s notable that Winston threw the ball to his running backs just 17.9 percent of the time in his final season with the Buccaneers, compared to Brees’ 28.5 percent a season ago. Of course, Winston’s best backfield options among pass catchers were Ronald Jones and Dare Ogunbowale.
At wide receiver, Payton has produced eight top-12 finishes and another eight players have finished WR13-WR24. Michael Thomas had been the top fantasy point producer in four straight years before having a disastrous 2021 season. Even still, he was targeted eight times per game. In Winston’s last full season as a starter, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans both averaged more than eight targets and over 17 points per game. So, while some would be concerned about Thomas’ value without Brees, it is notable that the projected starter, Winston, has been at the helm with two productive fantasy wideouts.
Payton’s offenses have been tight end friendly, producing a combined six top-10s. Of course, three of those came from Jimmy Graham (2011, 2013-2014). The other three came from Jared Cook (2019), Benjamin Watson (2015), and Jeremy Shockey (2002). That’s good news for Adam Trautman, who has late-round sleeper appeal this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head coach: Bruce Arians (2019-present)
Offensive Coordinator: Byron Leftwich (2019-present)
Arians has had success at the quarterback position as both an offensive coordinator and head coach, producing six top-10 finishers. Of course, he’s also coached some top-notch signal-callers including Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, and of course, Tom Brady. Even in his age-43 season, the G.O.A.T. still finished as the QB8.
The running back position hasn’t been nearly as productive, however. In fact, the lone top-10 fantasy runner Arians has produced is David Johnson (2015-2016). Rashard Mendenhall ranked as the RB11 (2010) and RB16 (2009), and backs have ranked RB18-RB24 five other times. That’s not a great track record over 16 NFL seasons. This trend is likely to continue in 2021, as the Buccaneers will lean on a backfield committee that includes Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones and free agent add Giovani Bernard. None of the trio should be considered more than a RB3/RB4 in most 2021 redrafts.
Arians’ system has produced a combined 16 top-24 fantasy finishes among wideouts, including six top 10s. Last season, Mike Evans (WR11) and Chris Godwin (WR31) were his top fantasy receivers, though Godwin was much better in terms of points per game (WR15). Fantasy managers should note the target distribution in the eight games when Arians had Evans, Godwin and Antonio Brown were all active. Evans led the way with 7.9 targets and 17.4 points a game, Brown was second with 7.8 targets but third from a points perspective (14.6), and Godwin was third in targets with 6.9 but second in points at 15.8. Surprisingly, Evans actually averaged more targets and points with Brown.
At tight end, Heath Miller and Rob Gronkowski are the lone players to finish better than 15th in fantasy points at the position in a single season. What’s more, Miller is the lone tight end to more than 45 catches. With Brown in the mix for a full year and O.J. Howard back from an Achilles injury, Gronkowski should be seen as a TE2 in redrafts.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!