AFC West – San Diego; The Chargers pretty much take this division by default. Kansas City fired their offensive coordinator just two weeks before the start of the season, Oakland’s Head Coach is under investigation for allegedly punching an assistant, and the off-season drama in Denver negates any chance they may have had this year. Opponents’ problems aside, the San Diego Chargers are one of the most talent-laden teams in the NFL. LaDainian Tomlinson has reached NFL running back senior citizen status as he turned 30 years old this summer, but splitting some carries with little man Darren Sproles should help him stay healthy and effective. LT will rebound from his “down” year (1500 total yards and 12 TDs).
An elite O-line and a defense that specializes in takeaways and rushing the passer will make you a contender every year. Philip Rivers stepped up his game last season, vaulting himself into the upper echelon of NFL QBs. Vincent Jackson took a huge step up last season as well, becoming not only a deep threat, but also a legitimate #1 receiving option. San Diego should run away with this division, but then again they should have last year as well.
Since taking over for Marty Schottenheimer in 2006, Head Coach Norv Turner has seen his team’s win total drop by three games each year, down to just 8-8 a year ago. Turner bailed himself out last season with an overtime win over the Colts in the playoffs, but if the Chargers do not make a serious run this season he could find himself looking for a job in 2010.
Stud – LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego: Rivers was the stud for San Diego last season, but I think a returned focus to LT is far more likely than a repeat performance from Rivers.
Sleeper - Vincent Jackson, San Diego: His current ADP has him as a #2 receiver in most leagues, but by the end of the season he will be among the top ten fantasy receivers.
Bust – Darren McFadden, Oakland:You have to love Run DMc’s talent, but the Raiders will be awful this year. No quarterback and no receivers means their talented group of runners will be given no breathing room.
AFC East – New England; Say what you want about Jay Cutler or Brett Favre, but the team getting the biggest upgrade at QB this season will be the Patriots. 11-5 in 2008 with the inexperienced Matt Cassel under center, New England will be very close to their 2007 form with Mr. Bundchen once again throwing the ball. The Pats still have premier talent surrounding Brady on offense, has there ever been two receivers that complement each other better than Randy Moss and Wes Welker? Expect both to see a spike in production this season.
The retirement of long-time defensive leader Tedy Bruschi may hurt chemistry, but Jerod Mayo showed last year that he is going to be a super star in this league. New England’s weakest link last season was undoubtedly the secondary, a fact underscored by their off-season commitment to improving that area. Free agent Leigh Bodden was added to accompany youngsters Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler, and Brandon Meriweather. With all of these pieces in place the Pats will make yet another post-season run, although this time I believe they will come up short in the AFC Championship game.
Miami should continue building a really good team, but don’t be surprised if they take a step back this year. Sometimes rebuilding can be a rollercoaster ride. They will battle for a playoff spot, because teams lead by Bill Parcells always do, but don’t expect a Super Bowl run just yet.
Stud – Tom Brady and Randy Moss, New England: I fully expect this duo to enter this season without skipping a beat from two years ago. They should both be considered near or at the top of their respective positions.
Sleeper - Ronnie Brown, Miami: This season looks like the perfect storm of fantasy production for Brown. Now two years removed from his ACL tear, entering the final year of his contract, and his only competition for carries is 32 years old.
Bust – Thomas Jones, NY Jets: Coming off a career year in 2008, you may be tempted to over-value Jones. He is now over the 30-year threshold and may be the second or third best running back on the team.
AFC North – Baltimore; With offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco entering their second year together in Baltimore, look for huge improvements on the offensive side of the ball to go with the Ravens legendary defense. If you can take anything from preseason, it looks like Flacco will get a lot more passing opportunities in 2009. Through three games he ranks second in passing yardage and the Raven offense has been decidedly more balanced compared to last season. We know they can run the ball effectively, but if they are able to add a down-field attack as well they will have little trouble outscoring opponents.
The Ravens defense has ranked 6th or better in total yards through 11 of the past 12 seasons, or right around the time Ray Lewis came to town. Although he is getting older, he is the leader of a young and talented defensive nucleus that includes Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. The Ravens lost three times last year to the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so they will be hungrier than ever. I believe that hunger, along with Pittsburgh’s post-super bowl hangover, will allow Baltimore to take this division and ultimately end this season as the Super Bowl Champions.
Stud – Pittsburgh and Baltimore Defense: Not much is guaranteed to any offensive players in the defensive-minded AFC North, but we all know these defenses will once again be two of the best.
Sleeper – Joe Flacco, Baltimore:I would have went with Ray Rice here, but I think people are catching on. The latest draft results put him around the 20th running back off the board. Flacco is mostly seen as an afterthought in fantasy circles, but he will constantly be working with good field position and stacked defensive boxes. He could easily eclipse 22 TDs and 3,500 yards.
Bust – Jamal Lewis, Cleveland: This guy just looked done last year. He would have some value as a goal-line back on a good offensive team, but in Cleveland he is just too old and slow to stay on the field.
AFC South – Indianapolis; The NFC East is still the best division in the NFL, but the AFC South is closing the margin quickly. Tennessee was a big suprise last year and Houston looks like a team on the verge. Do not underestimate Jacksonville either, as injuries derailed what many thought would be a very successful 2008 season. With an improved offensive line and the experience of Torry Holt, David Garrard will rebound this season. But of course, when Peyton Manning is in the division with a full, healthy off-season the Colts have to be the favorites.
The coaching change from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell has to have some effect from a leadership standpoint, but with a QB like Manning this team has plenty of leadership to spare. First-round draft pick Donald Brown will pair with Joseph Addai to help shoulder the load in the running game. Anthony Gonzalez enters his all-important third year in the league and he has the heavy burden of replacing Marvin Harrison in the starting lineup. Run defense will continue to be a problem for the Colts’ under-sized defensive line, but second-round pick Fili Moala provides some added beef in the trenches. Even with their struggles against the run, only 6 teams gave up fewer points than the Colts in 2008.
It is very likely a wildcard team will come out of the South, with my pick being the Texans. Yes, their hopes are pinned to the unstable health of their QB Matt Schaub, but if he can actually make it through an entire season Houston’s offense will be elite. Mario Williams has emerged as one of the best all-around defensive ends in the league, justifying himself as the #1 pick over Reggie Bush and Vince Young back in 2006. Clearly Tennessee also has the talent to compete as well, but I refuse to put any faith in Kerry Collins to be the difference-making quarterback he would have to be for the Titans to make any noise in the loaded AFC South.
Stud – Peyton Manning, Indianapolis:Maybe the surest thing in all fantasyland, we just know Manning will pass for close to 4,000 yards and 27 TDs every year. That kind of confidence is a rarity. Although there are QBs whose upside is higher than Mannings, none can match his consistency.
Sleeper – David Garrard, Jacksonville: Few people realize Garrard was a top ten QB in most scoring formats last season, and his O-line and receiving corps should both be better this year. Garrard’s ability to run adds to his value, he should add around 300 yards and 2-3 TDs with his feet.
Bust – Owen Daniels, Houston: I love Daniels in reality, but in fantasy he is not targeted in the red zone enough with the presence of Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and Steve Slaton.