In Part 6 of my eight-part series into fantasy football’s breakout stars for 2019, we will begin our examination into what’s cooking in the AFC South for this upcoming season. If there is one thing we already know about this highly contested division, it’s that Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Houston’s Deshaun Watson are two of its brightest stars at the quarterback position. With those two firmly planted as the “Kings of the South,” there isn’t much room at the table for any party-crashers. But, don’t tell that to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans however, as they’re planning on bringing a couple of quarterbacks of their own with worthy credentials to this party in the AFC South whose intentions don’t just rest with crashing the event, but flipping the entire division upside down. They’re not coming alone either, as these two quarterbacks are elevated by a couple of intimidating running backs who don’t shy away from contact or mind leaving a mess in their aftermath. So, without further ado, here are my predictions for potential breakout stars in points per reception (PPR) formats from the AFC South for 2019.
Nick Foles, QB – After waiting for 2014’s No. 3 overall draft pick quarterback Blake Bortles to take Jacksonville to the next level, the Jaguars finally decided it was time to move on from his inconsistent play at the quarterback position. Seemingly, it came at the right time too, since the Philadelphia Eagles had just made their own decision to not franchise tag quarterback Nick Foles and instead decided to part ways. In doing so, Philadelphia granted Foles the outright release he was seeking back in February. And it didn’t take long for Jacksonville to zero in on the Super Bowl MVP from two years ago as Bortles’ successor, giving him a crowd-pleasing four-year, $88 million contract in the process which essentially ended the failed Bortles experiment and giving birth to a new era in Jaguars football.
So, what does Foles bring to the Jaguars that Bortles lacked? Two things – experience playing in big games and a propensity for making big plays in those big games. Many experts thought last season that Jacksonville was ready to take the next step; that scenario never developed. Instead, the team regressed significantly after its 2017 AFC Championship game appearance under Bortles. With a refocused approach to the running game in 2019, Foles stands to benefit from what he does best, the play-action passing game. With the ability of Marqise Lee and D.J. Chark to get deep, look for Foles to take full advantage of the time he will have to survey defenses. Current Average Draft Positions have Foles as the No. 25 quarterback for fantasy purposes, making him an excellent late-round buy who could pay big dividends for those willing to invest in the new Jags gunslinger.
Leonard Fournette, RB – It wasn’t just injuries that caused Fournette’s production to slip last season (even though it was a big part). It was actually just about everything else that went wrong in Jacksonville. The quarterback play was abysmal, the play calling from an offensive perspective was a joke, and the loss of wide receiver Allen Hurns in free agency coupled with the preseason ACL injury to wide receiver Marqise Lee, didn’t help their offensive woes. These problems from last season appear to have been fully addressed in the offseason as quarterback Blake Bortles is out and Nick Foles is in. The Jaguars have changed offensive coordinators, bringing in passing game specialist John DeFilippo and Lee looks as if he will be making a full recovery in time to begin the season. All of this bodes well for Jacksonville as a team, but, it especially makes it a better situation for Fournette from a fantasy aspect.
Most mock drafts have Fournette listed lower than where I have him currently rated. The idea that you can get him midway through the third round right now is absolutely absurd. This reminds me of 2016, when Todd Gurley was going as late as the end of the second round. At this price, Fournette is an immediate buy and anyone telling you otherwise is either not hip to the game or is trying to get you to pass on him so they can pull the rug out from under you. Don’t fall for this. Not to mention that last year’s third down running back T.J. Yeldon has taken his talents to Buffalo, clearing a path for Fournette to presumably be on the field more in third down situations. So, be proactive and select Fournette to pair with the two studs you will have already taken by the third round.
Marcus Mariota, QB – Can you really blame me for pumping up the former Heisman trophy winner here? Well if you do, you’re totally within your rights too, but you shouldn’t and here’s why. Mariota is finally in a situation that will allow him to flourish. Stick with me here because I know it’s going to be tough to swallow what I’m about to layout, but I promise it will be well worth it in the end. First, there is a comfort level with new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith that up until this point has not existed with Mariota and former play-callers. Smith has been the tight ends coach ever since Mariota arrived in Nashville and he has a great deal of confidence in him and what he can do and vice versa. The next thing that Mariota has going for him this offseason is that he will finally be fully healthy going into an offseason.
From 2015-17, Mariota has dealt with a litany of lower body injuries, specifically to his legs and knee, including two separate Grade 2 MCL sprains to the same knee in 2015 that derailed a season, and a gruesome fracture to his fibula during the last game of 2017. As with most quarterbacks who have serious injuries to their legs or ACL’s, it is normal to see that they don’t get back to being fully comfortable for more than a year or so. We are now approaching the point with Mariota that he might just be beginning to feel like his old-self again. Most of us who have followed Mariota’s career in high school and in college have come to know a player who is a legit duel threat nightmare for defenses to stop. If he really is healthy in 2019, the offseason acquisition of slot wide receiver Adam Humphries, having another year of chemistry with wide receiver Corey Davis, and being protected by one of the best offensive line units in the NFL could quickly return Mariota to University of Oregon form. That would yield huge returns for fantasy owners that take the chance late in drafts on the native Hawaiian.
Derrick Henry, RB – Anyone who had this man on their rosters during the last three games of the 2018 fantasy season were rewarded for their patience. with him. Because for whatever reason, it took 13 games for the Titans to realize that the key to their offensive success runs through the 2015 Heisman trophy winner. Flat out, Henry is a load to tackle anytime he touches the ball. What gives me added excitement for Henry this season is the addition of offensive guard Roger Saffold to an already existing top offensive line. It’s no secret that the Titans want to run the ball, and adding a player of Saffold’s caliber is just going to make them want to run it even more. That’s great news if you are interested in buying Henry this season.
Another positive that Henry has going for him is that he is in a contract year with Tennessee. Not many people put stock into this unquantifiable stat for fantasy purposes. But, I truly believe in it. Players are always going to be looking for leverage when it comes to negotiations and one way to do that is to have career season in a contract year. Conversely, the contract situation also applies when looking at this from the Titans perspective as well. If this is possibly Henry’s last year with the club, it would make sense that the Titans could attempt to squeeze out every ounce of juice that Henry could potentially give them. The stars don’t often align themselves like this every season for talented players such as Henry, so from a fantasy owners’ perspective this is a situation worth risking what his current Average Draft Position of running back 17-20 is asking in order to catch that breakout potential.