As if the offseason wasn’t crazy enough with the dark cloud of doubt surrounding everything NFL in the year of the lockout, the teams in the AFC South continue to be shrouded in mystery heading into the 2011 opener.
And that mystery can wreak havoc with well-meaning fantasy football owners as we attempt to sort through the coach-speak and player's Twitter accounts while fielding the best team possible in Week 1.
In the first of a new series, here is my fantasy preview of the AFC South:
Indianapolis Colts: Of course the big situation here is Peyton Manning, who had offseason neck surgery, and was denied access to team trainers and rehab specialists for an extended amount of time due to the lockout.
In typical NFL (and CIA) fashion, there is no real way of knowing what Manning’s official status will be for Week 1. Coaches and owners don’t want to spill the beans too early for fear that opponents will have an easier time game planning.
Of course, that doesn’t help John Q. fantasy owners prepare for game action, either. If Manning does miss some regular season action, it affects the entire offense. Guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, among others, would take a significant downgrade.
Over the course of the season, I still feel strongly that Manning will have a banner year fantasy-wise. He produced well during a “down” season last year when a number of his favorite targets were nursing injuries. This season, all those pieces are back.
Austin Collie will forevermore be a concussion concern, but when healthy, it is obvious he has Peyton’s attention, and could be a good value WR2 when on the field.
The Colts running situation is intriguing in its own right. Joseph Addai has a bad track record when it comes to staying healthy for a full season. Donald Brown has struggled to stay out of the doghouse. This makes one wonder how soon it will be until we see a healthy dose of rookie Delone Carter. Preseason rumblings suggest that the Colts have been very impressed with what they’ve seen so far.
Houston Texans: Arian Foster is the mystery guy here. A top-three pick in most fantasy drafts this summer, Foster has suffered some sort of hamstring issue that has caused a good amount of concern. The Twitter picture of his hammy (if it even is his) is casting major doubt about Foster’s availability for Week 1 and beyond.
Recent news reported on Rotoworld.com suggests that Foster will be ready for Week 1, but how much of that is backpedaling from the higher-ups in an attempt to muddy the game prep waters for Week 1 opponent Indianapolis?
At this point, I would personally bet that Foster is at 50-50 odds to be ready for Week 1, with the logical part of me leaning more towards him being sidelined.
Even if he does play, one has to wonder at this point if Foster is shaping up to be the MJD of 2011…a player who easily has top-five fantasy potential who is entering the season injured and could be hampered most of the season. Ben Tate is licking his lips right now.
In the passing game, it will be more of the same. Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson will continue to highlight the box scores. The return of Owen Daniels will give Schaub more options in the aerial attack, and Schaub is starting to look like a decent value in most late-summer drafts.
Don’t sleep on Daniels, either. When healthy in the past, he was a fantasy beast. Early indicators suggest he could revert back to those tendencies this season if he can stay on the field.
Tennessee Titans: Mystery solved in this case. Chris Johnson’s highly publicized holdout is over, and he has plenty of time to knock off the rust before the season opener. He immediately climbs back up the boards and should be considered heavily with the first overall pick…I’m flip-flopping him and Foster in my preseason redraft rankings.
One positive from the Johnson holdout was that we got to see what the Titans have behind Johnson. Javon Ringer was dinged up part of the preseason, but looks solid when healthy. The surprise guy to keep in mind in very deep dynasty leagues is Jamie Harper. He lit things up in preseason action.
In the passing game, Matt Hasselbeck should have enough weapons to be, at the very least, a solid bye week fill-in. Kenny Britt lucked out on potential suspensions and has elite WR1 potential if he can keep his attitude and off-field escapades in check.
Jake Locker has looked sneaky-good in preseason action so far, albeit against second and third-string defenses. One guy you don’t want to sleep on here is Jared Cook, who has Jermichael Finley upside at a mere fraction of the price.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A team that always seems to lurk in the shadows, the Jaguars have plenty of their own question marks heading into 2011.
Who will be the quarterback? On the surface and in all likelihood for the season opener, it will be veteran David Garrard. But how long until Blaine Gabbert becomes the main guy? I would suspect that Garrard will be under center for at least half the season…he wasn’t exactly a horrible QB in the past.
And who will be the main receivers? Gone is Mike Sims-Walker, and remaining is a log jam of questions. Mike Thomas did well in place of Sims-Walker last season, but seems more of a PPR maven than an explosive every week fantasy WR1. Jason Hill and Jarrett Dillard aren’t exactly world-beaters.
Enter Cecil Shorts, who has been lighting things up in the preseason and wowing the whole organization. David Garrard has sung the praises of Shorts, suggesting he is something special. I think Shorts will be a main cog in that passing game sooner rather than later.
Maurice Jones-Drew comes with his own aura of mystery. Will he revert back to the mojo that made him an elite fantasy option, or will he continue to just be a shell of what he once was?
I was high on Rashad Jennings as a sleeper option behind MJD this season, but Jennings was seriously dinged up recently and see on crutches. Could this open a hole for Deji Karim? Perhaps a name to keep an eye on.
Marcedes Lewis had breakout campaign as a tight end last season and I believe he will have an OK followup, just don’t expect a ton of TDs off the bat. Tight ends that live off the TD (see Visanthe Shiancoe) seem to be inconsistent from year to year.
Fantasy MVP: Peyton Manning, IND. (considering how far he’s falling in drafts due to his neck surgery woes, he could be a super value if he can revert back to the high-flying Peyton of old)
Fantasy rookie of the year: Delone Carter, IND. (bold prediction: he’s the Colt’s starter by mid-season)
Fantasy sleepers: Carter, Owen Daniels, Jared Cook and Cecil Shorts
Fantasy bust: Arian Foster, HOU (hamstring injury situation compounds the fact that he wasn’t going to repeat last year’s breakout)
Comeback player of the year: Dallas Clark (especially in PPR leagues, he is a beast and won’t miss a beat)