In Part 2 of my eight-part series into fantasy football’s breakout stars for 2019, it’s time to tackle what could very well be the equivalent of nature’s bountiful bliss for fantasy purposes – the NFC South. In many regards, the NFC South boasts some of the biggest names in fantasy football — period. Superstars such as running backs Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey to go alongside game-breaking wide receivers Mike Evans and Julio Jones. But, we are not here to discuss what we already know, we are here to find what we don’t. Who are the players in 2019 who can reach superstar status in the NFC South?
Calvin Ridley, Wide Receiver
Move over Mohamed Sanu, the former Alabama Crimson Tide pass catcher is here and poised to soak up 120-plus targets opposite perennial All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones this year. Ridley projects favorably to another young wide receiver who has seen his breakout occur last season for Pittsburgh, one JuJu Smith-Schuster. In Smith-Schuster’s rookie campaign, he posted numbers very comparable to Ridley’s rookie year, all the while playing second-fiddle to the great Antonio Brown. Then, in his second season, Smith-Schuster absolutely lit the league on fire. Breaking out so much in fact, that Pittsburgh felt comfortable with trading away the future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Brown to Oakland.
See where I’m headed with this? For all intents and purposes, Ridley’s trajectory is on a very similar path as Smith-Schuster’s. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is one of the league’s most efficient passers in football and now he welcomes offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter back onto the Atlanta sideline. Koetter returns to Atlanta this season from his failed attempt as a head coach in Tampa Bay. One positive thing that Koetter is bringing with him in his bag of tricks, is last season’s No. 1 passing offense. With weapons like Jones and Ridley, one can bet that he will try to continue to stay king of the passing game. A situation Ridley can only expect to benefit from if Koetter’s passing game continues to see success. Bottom line, the sky is the limit for this talented young wide receiver.
Austin Hooper, Tight End
Welcome to Year 4 Austin Hooper! Traditionally, fantasy leagues and owners have seen tight ends emerge in Years 3-5. Think Travis Kelce in 2016, Vernon Davis in 2009, Eric Ebron in 2018, and Jimmy Graham in 2013. These guys all posted career years during those seasons, and if you were an owner who took the time to study the year before the breakout, they all gave a slight glimpse into what type of potential lied ahead, and I believe Hooper is no different. Will this be the time that Hooper steps up and makes the leap into the upper echelon of the tight end ranks? In my view it’s very possible he does. Last season Hooper posted 71 receptions on 88 targets for an ultra-efficient 80 percent catch rate percentage.
Hooper certainly made his case in Year 3 for why last season was just a small preview of what’s to come, in what has proven to be a high-flying Atlanta offense since Matt Ryan arrived. Speaking of quarterback Matt Ryan, clearly, he has his eyes focused on finding Hooper on game days in the passing game. The only question that remains is, will Hooper catch Ryan’s eye in the redzone after posting a meager 10 touchdowns in his first three seasons? Because, if Hooper can increase his touchdown rate this year, then, there is absolutely no reason to doubt that Hooper can make the jump into elite fantasy tight end status.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Chris Godwin, Wide Receiver
Godwin seems to be the consensus fantasy darling for owners everywhere this 2019 off-season. And why shouldn’t he be? The Penn State alum carved out quite the sophomore season for himself amid a crowded wide receiver group in Tampa Bay last year while often times being the fourth- or even fifth-option in the quarterback carousel that was Tampa Bay last year. With all the instability at the quarterback position, Godwin still managed to put up excellent numbers in the league’s No. 1 passing offense. His 59 receptions on 95 targets for seven touchdowns caught many fantasy owners off guard last year.
What may turn out to the biggest reason Godwin continues to build on his 2018 success is the arrival of head coach and offensive guru Bruce Arians. Arians, best known for his work as an offensive coordinator in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, was revered for his head coaching abilities after he took over Arizona in 2013 and in only three seasons had Arizona in the NFC Championship game. With departures of wide receivers Adam Humphries to free agency DeSean Jackson (trade), the offense is left with making up a vacated 179 targets those two accounted for last year. It only stands to reason that Godwin’s workload should increase tenfold from last season.
O.J. Howard, Tight End
Last week, I talked about T.J. Hockenson being the best all-around tight end I’ve scouted since O.J. Howard. So, now it’s fitting to talk about Tampa Bay’s 2017 first-round draft pick. Midway through 2018, Howard was well on his way to asserting himself as to why he was the best tight end I’d ever scouted until a late season injury derailed him. O.J. Howard possesses rare size and speed for a tight end. At, 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, his 4.5 40 speed makes him lethal option for quarterback Jameis Winston down the middle of the field and when he lines up inside the red zone. That is an option Arians is going to utilize early and often throughout the 2019 season.
A four-year starter at the University of Alabama, Howard was able to improve his game each year, which has also been the case for him in his first two years in Tampa Bay as well. So much so, that it has caused the Tampa Bay front office to push the highly paid Cameron Brate down to second on the depth chart. Former NFL quarterback and current offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has already stated this off-season that he is looking forward to finding ways to get the physical freak that is O.J. Howard much more involved in the offense. Now, given that earlier in this article I referred to Years 3-5 being the time that we traditionally see tight ends with upside really begin to take off, it would not be one bit surprising, given Howard’s unique skill-set, that the tight end renaissance just might be headlined by the former first-round pick from Alabama.