Fantasy Football: 5 burning questions in the AFC South

Ebron's encore, Watson's draft slot and more

Last Updated:

The Texans and Colts went a combined 4-8 to start the season and finished 17-3 en route to the playoffs, where Indianapolis thumped its rivals in Houston before receiving its own beat down, courtesy of the Chiefs. Eric Ebron nearly outscored new teammate T.Y. Hilton in standard leagues, while owners got full seasons from Will Fuller (psych!) and Deshaun Watson (real and often spectacular).

The Jaguars suffered the NFL's steepest single-season regression. The Titans? They mostly disappointed owners before Derrick Henry outscored everyone — including quarterbacks — in Weeks 13-16, aka, fantasy nut-dropping time.

So, what happens this season? The answers can be found within these 5 burning fantasy questions in the AFC South:

1. Can Eric Ebron be a horse of the same color?

You've probably heard the stat by now: Ebron, the 10th overall selection to the Detroit Lions in 2014, scored 12 touchdowns in four seasons in Motown before totaling 14 last season, his first with the Indianapolis Colts. He led all fantasy tight ends in the category, finishing as TE4 overall.

What you may not have known is that Ebron's 66 catches for 750 yards were also career highs, good enough for sixth and fifth, respectively, among his TE peers, and his personal-best 110 targets ranked fourth at his position (No. 3 with 21 red-zone targets).

But the other horseshoe could soon drop for Ebron with a healthy former Pro Bowler in Jack Doyle and ascending Mo Alie-Cox also returning to Indy's TE corps. There's also imminent TD regression on the horizon. Can Ebron thwart those concerns and remain a viable TE1, period, much less one of fantasy's more valuable commodities?

A few pieces of good news: Ebron did his damage on less than 56 percent of the team's total snaps last season, compared to Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz finishing well over 90 and George Kittle north of 87. Ebron is also more athletic, theoretically bringing more upside to the mix than Doyle. But he's never been consistent with his hands, ironically averaging the second-lowest catch percentage of his career (60), an area where Doyle thrives.

Add it all up and it seems likely Ebron — who had never finished higher than TE12 overall with the Lions, returns to the fringe TE1-sphere this season, making his current ADP (TE7, 6.10) uninviting.

Teammate Marlon Mack (ADP of RB16, 3.04), fresh off his late-season flourish and reaffirmed as the team's lead dog after the Colts punted at the position this spring, is a better bet. He returns behind perhaps the NFL's best O-line, back entirely intact, and showed last season he's best with a lather.

2. How high should we draft Deshaun Watson?

The QB4 overall last season, Watson played 16 games for the first time, naturally leveling out his fantasy-leading 24.1-point average from a ridiculous but unfortunately injury-shortened rookie season, to 20.7.

If healthy — and remember Watson began last season less than one full year removed from his second ACL reconstruction — it stands to reason his scoring average could return closer to 24. Mind you, that would remain two full points below what Patrick Mahomes averaged last season, with 50 TDs and 5,000 passing yards, stats he's almost assuredly not readying to repeat.

But Watson this season could have a healthy Keke Coutee, the fourth-rounder a year ago with whom he developed an instant rapport. Fuller is a game changer whenever he's on the field.

DeAndre Hopkins remains a top-five receiver. And Houston's TE corps is brimming with potential. We're not sold on the O-line renovations, but can it possibly be worse after allowing Watson to be sacked more than any quarterback in football and ranking dead last in Football Outsiders' pass-protecting units with an adjusted sack rate of 11.6 — more than a full point worse than Miami, the 31st-ranked group?

Interestingly, Watson is currently going off as QB4 in the back of Round 5, behind Mahomes, Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. Which is a bit weird to us because although Luck and Rodgers have far longer and more established track records, in the short term they've missed as much if not more time with injuries, and are a half-dozen and full dozen years older than Watson, respectively.

And of course there's Watson's scrambling ability that makes him as dangerous as any of fantasy's dual-threat quarterbacks. He actually ran slightly more last year on a per-game average but his efficiency fell by a lot. Now a second season removed from the knee injury, that dimension of his game should only become a bigger asset.

We're not really into drafting quarterbacks early, but if we do, there's no one except Mahomes we prefer over Watson.

3. How many touches can Derrick Henry command?

The coordinator change from Matt LaFleur, who seems to prefer a RBBC (running back by committee), to Arthur Smith, who told the team website he'll ride Henry in a contract year, is encouraging. And encouraging obviously doesn't begin to fully describe what Henry did in a lead role late last season: 97-625-8 rushing in five December games, with the Titans going 4-1.

In three seasons, Henry has a 4.6-yard clip yet averaged only 167 carries. But his usage has increased each year, with a career-high 215 totes (and 230 total touches) in 2018, more than 40 percent of those opportunities coming in the final month.

Tennessee's O-line was better blocking the run than the pass but disappointed nonetheless in 2018 for a second consecutive season. Still, it returns Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, like Henry in a contract year, and upgraded at left guard with the signing of Rodger Saffold. Of course, the beauty of Henry is that when he's showing the necessary urgency, he can be his own blocker.

But the caveat with Henry is that regardless of what Smith says about his usage, he's never shown much in the passing game, where Dion Lewis is the specialist, catching 65-of-67 targets last season. He'll earn more than $5 million this season — and not to be phased out of the offense. His presence potentially limits Henry's value, but we saw the upside in December. If he gets, say, a minimum of 280 touches (roughly 260 as a runner), we like his prospects as a rock-solid RB2.

4. At career crossroads, what path does Leonard Fournette take?

Of the six backs selected in the top 15 picks over the past four years — Saquon Barkley, Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon — five have been home runs and one is on the verge of becoming a strikeout.

Yes, Fournette as a rookie helped the Jaguars to a division title, finishing eighth in the NFL with 1,040 rushing yards and tied for third with nine touchdowns — good for RB8 overall in half-PPR leagues. But he averaged below four yards per carry, missed three games with injuries ... and Jacksonville would've killed for that production last season.

Fournette instead missed more than half the season because of a nagging hamstring injury and suspension, was out of shape and disinterested when he returned and was told at the conclusion of his second season that his contract guarantees voided after he left the bench during his best game of the season for a fracas with Bills DE Shaq Lawson.

Will Fournette receive the message loud and clear that his immaturity is threatening to derail his once-promising career? Appearing this offseason in an Instagram video with teammate Jalen Ramsey as the All Pro corner vows not to give the Jaguars a hometown discount might suggest otherwise. But the flip side of all this is that Fournette has a chance to run behind the best offensive line and quarterback during his short NFL tenure, and though the Jaguars recently added a few interesting challengers in Alfred Blue, Thomas Rawls and rookie Ryquell Armstead, none come close to matching Fournette's talent level and draft pedigree.

His current ADP reflects Fournette as a high-risk, high-reward RB2 right now. It'll be important to monitor his camp to try and get a better indication of whether he's finally ready to be a pro and realize his potential.

5. Who'll be the fantasy stud, dud on each club?

Colts:

STUD: Andrew Luck: No reason to think he won't be even better in Year 2 under Frank Reich. DUD: Ebron: Modest production after banner campaign will equal disappointment overall.

Texans:

STUD: Watson: Only injury, another Mahomes freak show prevents Watson from being QB1. DUD: D'Onta Foreman: He's a rumor until he isn't.

Titans:

STUD: Delanie Walker: Even at 34, he comes with fewer questions than Henry and Corey Davis. DUD: Marcus Mariota: We're tired of waiting.

Jaguars:

STUD: Fournette: Now or never and the stars could easily align. DUD: DJ Chark: Why sign Terrelle Pryor and Chris Conley if Chark's ready to attack in Year 2?

Pro Football Weekly