Zachariason: 15 Bold Predictions for the 2020 Fantasy Football Season
Sometimes you've got to think outside the box in fantasy football. You have to use your imagination. Not every player situation is going to be perfectly projectable, so you've got to come up with stories to show how a player is going to either far exceed expectation or fall flat on his face.
Those narratives don't have to be math-less. A late-round pick that ends the season as a week-in, week-out starter doesn't get there only because of a freak injury to a player in front of him on the depth chart, or some other unpredictable occurrence. Math and numbers can help us see a path to upside, too.
And that's what this bold predictions article is all about each season. It's not one of those "throw stuff at a wall and see if something sticks" pieces. It's logical. And it often uncovers insights that can help you win your fantasy football title.
Note: All predictions are for full point per reception leagues.
1. Terry McLaurin Will Score More Points Than Amari Cooper
Why This Is Bold: McLaurin is being selected about 12 to 15 wide receiver spots lower than Amari Cooper in drafts.
Why This Will Happen: There's nothing wrong with Amari Cooper's average draft position (ADP), per se, but there's some volatility involved with his projected stat line for 2020. As we know, the Cowboys took CeeDee Lamb in the first round of April's draft, giving the offense another legitimate mouth to feed. That has a chance to lower Cooper's target share, or at least cap it.
Cooper himself was actually pretty fortunate in 2019, even though his numbers weren't eye-popping. He scored eight times, but ESPN Mike Clay's opportunity-adjusted touchdowns (oTD) metric showed that he should've had a little under five. He was one of the top-20 biggest overachievers in touchdowns last year, according to the metric, thanks to some unsustainable play in the red zone.
Add Lamb to the mix to go along with historically inconsistent play, and there's at least a path to downside for Cooper. Like I said, his ADP makes sense, but he's not exactly safe.
With McLaurin, there's obviously some fear that the Washington Football Team could be bad offensively this year, which would limit his upside. But if we're looking at the upper side to his range of outcomes, McLaurin's got a lot of potential. He only saw 93 targets despite a 20% target share last year, and that's because Washington ran the second-fewest plays that any team has run since 2011. At the same pass-to-rush ratio, with an average number of plays, McLaurin would've had closer to 110 targets. As a rookie.
Washington didn't do a whole lot in terms of adding real competition for McLaurin this offseason, so him hitting a 25% or 26% target share is most definitely possible. If he does that, then any negative touchdown regression coming his way (his seven scores last year were a little too much given his overall production and where he saw targets) and any bad feelings about the offense may not matter.
2. Cam Newton Will Finish as a Top-5 Quarterback
Why This Is Bold: Newton is usually drafted outside the top-10 or -12 at the position.
Why This Will Happen: This one's not all that difficult to imagine. Newton's in a new environment and there's going to be some sort of learning curve, but when he's healthy, he's a monster in fantasy football. And by all indications, he's pretty healthy.
Newton's finished eight NFL seasons with 14 or more games played. He's ended up as a top-four fantasy quarterback in five of those campaigns. You can point to the lack of weapons that New England has, but Newton wasn't exactly playing with studs in Carolina. And let's not forget, in 2018, which was the last time we saw him healthy, he was a fantasy football stud. Before injuring his shoulder in Week 10 against Pittsburgh, Newton had averaged 23.7 fantasy points per game. He was the QB4 in fantasy football.
3. Jerick McKinnon Will Catch At Least 15 More Passes Than Mark Ingram
Why This Is Bold: Fantasy drafters aren't really paying attention to Jerick McKinnon and his return, while Mark Ingram continues to be a fifth-round pick.
Why This Will Happen: OK, OK. Mark Ingram isn't much of a pass-catcher. Even though he finished last year as a top-10 fantasy running back, he only had 26 receptions in Baltimore's run-heavy scheme. The Ravens should be more pass-heavy this year, though, and that would hypothetically help Ingram's catch total. But with J.K. Dobbins now in town, Ingram's target share could look worse than it did last year, when it was just a little over 7%.
Meanwhile, McKinnon has a pass-catching skill-set. He hasn't played since 2017, but in his four active seasons with the Vikings, he had 27, 21, 43, and 51 receptions. San Francisco starter Raheem Mostert averaged a target share per game under 7% when he was playing significant snaps last year, but the 49ers still ranked 14th in the league in running back target share. With positivity surrounding McKinnon out of 49ers' camp, he could push the 40-reception mark.
4. Adam Thielen Will Finish as a Top-3 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: We often see Adam Thielen being selected outside the top-12 wide receivers.
Why This Will Happen: Since 2011, of the 27 wideouts with a top-3 season-long finish, 23 of them saw 150 or more targets. There are only so many wide receivers with 150-plus targets in their range of outcomes, but Thielen is one of them. He's coming off a season where he wasn't healthy, so his 11% target share that led to 48 targets isn't super meaningful to work off of. Not only that, but Minnesota was good last year, running just 36.6% of their offensive plays while trailing, one of the lowest marks in football. Without Stefon Diggs and with the likelihood of more negative game scripts (the Vikings have an over/under win total of 8.5 on FanDuel Sportsbook), Thielen has as high of a target ceiling as almost anyone in football. If that hits, a little touchdown volatility can get him to a top-three finish.
5. Marquise Brown Will Score More Points Than AJ Brown
Why This Is Bold: Marquise Brown is usually drafted 10 wide receiver slots below A.J. Brown.
Why This Will Happen: It's important to remember that regression in fantasy football doesn't mean a player is going to become irrelevant. From Week 7 through Week 17 -- which is when Ryan Tannehill took over the Tennessee offense last season -- the Titans scored a touchdown on 26 of their 30 red-zone trips. They were second in the NFL in touchdowns per drive but finished eighth in overall scoring per drive, which tells you that they were pret-tay fortunate when it came to scoring touchdowns. That's also reflected in Tannehill's well, well above average 7.7% touchdown rate.
AJ Brown not only benefited from that efficiency -- leading to a points-per-game average that was about three points better than Hollywood Brown's -- but he largely aided it. His 12.5 yards per target rate was the highest in football among relevant pass-catchers, and he finished with the highest rate of yards after the catch per reception that we've seen since 2011. Brown's built to crush it after the catch, but we can't expect things to go as smoothly year in and year out. Those numbers tend to regress. The Titans are likely to be run-heavy again this year, too, which can limit Brown's overall volume.
You can make a similar argument with Marquise Brown, but that's sort of the point. Just a little bit of variance can catapult Marquise over AJ. And keep in mind that Hollywood spent a large portion of his 2019 rookie campaign injured, so we may not have seen everything he can offer. It's a reason he's one of my favorite targets this year.
6. TJ Hockenson Will Finish as a Top-5 Tight End
Why This Is Bold: As of today, Hockenson is being drafted as a higher-end TE2.
Why This Will Happen: A couple of months back, yours truly did a study on spotting breakout tight ends in fantasy football drafts. What I found was that breakout tight ends generally share four common attributes: they don't come from nowhere, they're often Year 2 or Year 3 players, they play with good quarterbacks, and they're athletic.
TJ Hockenson fits every piece of criteria.
We didn't get to see a full season of Hockenson as a rookie given injury, and his only big game happened in Week 1 against Arizona, a team that couldn't defend the tight end position at all last year. He was also a rookie. It takes time for tight ends to get acclimated to the NFL.
He should be in line for the third-most targets in the Detroit offense, and it's one that really chucked the ball deep last year -- Matthew Stafford led the NFL in deep-ball rate. Those high-value targets can go a long way for any pass-catcher in fantasy football.
We just have to hope he's healthy enough this year.
7. Jared Goff Will Throw More Touchdown Passes Than Drew Brees
Why This Is Bold: Brees is the preferred fantasy option to Goff by almost any fantasy manager.
Why This Will Happen: In terms of regression, the Rams and Saints are heading in opposite directions. In 2019, Los Angeles ranked 31st in pass-to-rush touchdown ratio, while the Saints ranked 4th. That's usually a number that fluctuates a bit year over year -- how a team scores touchdowns one year doesn't impact the next.
That means the Rams will likely see an uptick in passing touchdowns this year, with the Saints seeing a decline. That aligns well with the touchdown rates we saw from Goff and Brees, too: Goff had his lowest rate since Sean McVay became the Rams' head coach (3.5%), and Brees saw the highest touchdown rate of his career (7.1%).
Another reason to be intrigued by Goff's touchdown upside is that the Rams no longer have Todd Gurley. Over the last three seasons -- the three since McVay landed in LA -- the Rams have ranked second-lowest in pass rate from within their opponent's five-yard line. Only Tennessee has been more run-heavy. If there's a lack of trust in the current, inexperienced running back group, the Rams could opt to throw more in that area of the field, helping Goff's touchdown total.
8. James Conner Will Score More Points Than Nick Chubb
Why This Is Bold: Everyone is drafting -- and rightfully so -- Nick Chubb well ahead of James Conner.
Why This Will Happen: The biggest knock on James Conner seems to be durability, and it's understandable as to why -- he's yet to play a full season during his three-year NFL career. We've seen his upside in a normal environment (read: as the starter with Ben Roethlisberger), though, and it's pretty awesome. He tallied 21.5 points per game in 13 contests during the 2018 season, a number that's 5.6 points larger than Chubb's single-season points per game high. Let's not pretend this is close to impossible.
What happens if Chubb's workload is dinged more than we expect with Kareem Hunt now in the mix across the entire season? It's honestly tough for things to get better for Chubb, at least as it pertains to his rushing. In 2019, he handled almost 76% of Cleveland's rushes, the third-highest individual rushing share we've seen since 2011. Are we to believe that's going to get better? Of course not. And considering Hunt's receiving ability -- he saw almost 9% of the Browns' targets last year in just 8 games played -- we can't feel that bullish about what Chubb will be able to do through the air.
The Browns are probably going to be better offensively with Kevin Stefanski in town, and Chubb has a real opportunity to take a big jump in touchdown scoring this year. But we know there's some variance to that, and we know that Conner could have similar opportunity for Pittsburgh. Is it really that hard to imagine the player with a better receiving ceiling winning this one out?
9. Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones Will Both Finish as Top-12 Wide Receivers
Why This Is Bold: We see Julio Jones consistently drafted as a top-five wideout, but Calvin Ridley goes a couple of rounds later. They're also both from the same team.
Why This Will Happen: This is similar to last year's prediction about Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, since both wide receivers come from the same team, but wide receiver teammates finishing as top-12, WR1 options in a single season happens more frequently than you think. We had the Buccaneers' wideouts do it last year, two pairings did it in 2018, one in 2017, two in 2016, none in 2015, and two 2014, 2013, and 2012. So we've been averaging more than one wide receiver teammate pairing finishing as WR1s per season.
Jones and Ridley seem like obvious picks this year. (So maybe this isn't so bold.) The Falcons were the pass-heaviest team in football last year, and they've ranked in the top-eight in pass attempts during each of the four seasons Dirk Koetter has been their offensive coordinator. With a really shallow target tree, Jones and Ridley are in store for a lot of volume this year.
10. Bryce Love Will Outscore Both Kerryon Johnson and Marlon Mack
Why This Is Bold: Fantasy drafts will often see Kerryon Johnson and Marlon Mack fall off drafts boards multiple rounds before Bryce Love.
Why This Will Happen: With Derrius Guice no longer on the team, the Washington backfield is up for grabs. Swiss Army knife Antonio Gibson is someone I've targeted a lot in drafts given his athletic profile and upside, but Bryce Love has been, too. All he really has to do to get a big workload is beat out a rookie with 77 total college touches (Gibson) and a 35-year-old back who doesn't catch a lot of passes (Adrian Peterson). Considering he wasn't a bad prospect coming out of school -- an injury derailed his draft equity -- there's some potential.
Johnson and Mack are both walking into the wrong side of a committee this year. With the Lions selecting D'Andre Swift and the Colts taking Jonathan Taylor, Johnson and Mack could end up being on the outside looking in when it's all said and done. Both Swift and Taylor ranked as 92nd percentile (or better) prospects in my running back model, giving them high odds to succeed in fantasy football at the next level.
Taylor and Swift both need to just slightly exceed expectation in order to make Johnson and Mack borderline worthless fantasy options this year. If Love can topple relatively easy -- or, I should say, relatively volatile -- competition, it's easy to see him out-producing both Johnson and Mack.
11. Tyler Lockett Will Finish as a Top-8 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: Most fantasy managers are taking Lockett outside the top-20 at the position.
Why This Will Happen: Tyler Lockett had a leg injury last year that seemed to slow him down. Prior to the injury, he was averaging about 19 PPR points per game. Post-injury and through the end of the regular season, that number dropped to 9.2. Had Lockett maintained that pre-injury pace through the rest of the season, he would've finished as the WR3 in fantasy football.
Now, there's no telling if that would've happened, but what's great about a player like Lockett (or his teammate D.K. Metcalf) is that he's projected to do well despite the run-heavy offense he plays in. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been in Seattle for two years now. During this time, he's forced the Seahawks' offense to rank 32nd and 31st in neutral script pass rate. And, why, yes, it's true -- that's with Russell freaking Wilson as his quarterback.
A mentality shift of any kind would make the pass-catchers in this offense explode. Because Lockett (and, again, this can apply to Metcalf) not only sees targets down the field, but he sees a lot of end-zone targets. Lockett's average depth of target placed him in about the 62nd percentile last season, and he ranked fourth in end-zone targets (Metcalf was first). That depth was even greater in 2018, for the record.
If he's able to maintain his 22.4% target share, Lockett should be able to exceed his draft-day expectation. And if things are just a little more pass-friendly for the Seahawks' O, watch out.
12. Jamison Crowder Will Score More Points Than Stefon Diggs
Why This Is Bold: You'll typically find Jamison Crowder getting selected 15 or more wide receiver spots after Stefon Diggs. Crowder also plays for Adam Gase.
Why This Will Happen: I'm a little worried about Stefon Diggs this year in fantasy football. The Bills probably won't be throwing the ball a whole lot after averaging 506 pass attempts over the last two years. That's not a good thing for Diggs' upside. The WR12 -- the last of the WR1s -- over the last five seasons has averaged 15.9 PPR points per game. Since 2011, 30.2% of teams have thrown the ball 525 or fewer times in a single season. Only 11.5% of wide receiver seasons where the wideout hit that 15.9 mark came from those low-volume teams.
Add in the fact that Diggs is playing with a new quarterback, has less time to prepare with that new quarterback, and has efficiency regression concerns (his yards-per-target rate was unsustainable last year), and it's possible we see him with a fringe top-30 performance this year.
Crowder's in a position where his team may not throw a ton of passes, but the Jets, per FanDuel Sportsbook, are projected to win two fewer games than the Bills. That could lead to more negative game scripts and more volume for Crowder, who's really the only reliable target in that passing game. He'll be competing for looks with Breshad Perriman, Chris Herndon, and an already banged-up rookie Denzel Mims.
Crowder already hit a near 25% target share last season en route to 122 targets. That's a number that should look pretty similar in 2020, and it's one that projects higher than what Diggs' share will be. If Sam Darnold takes a step forward, Crowder could very easily outscore Diggs.
13. Miles Sanders Will Finish as a Top-2 Running Back
Why This Is Bold: His ADP continues to skyrocket, but Sanders still isn't being drafted with the top tier of running backs.
Why This Will Happen: Without Jordan Howard last season, Miles Sanders averaged a running back rush share of 66.8% while hitting a 12.2% target share per game rate. He tallied 17.2 PPR points per game, which would've ranked in the top-10 last year had he done that across the entire season.
This year, the competition didn't get any stronger in the Eagles' backfield, and everyone out of Philadelphia is saying that Miles Sanders is "the guy." And that's a big deal. During Doug Pederson's four years in Philly, the highest single-season running back rush share has been 46.4%. There were 26 different running backs who hit that last year alone.
If there's not committee, then Sanders could go nuts in one of the better offenses in the league. To me, he's this year's Dalvin Cook.
14. Logan Thomas Will Be the Surprise Tight End This Year
Why This Is Bold: Are people even drafting Logan Thomas?
Why This Will Happen: Part of the reason that you're seeing three Washington Football Club players on this year's list is because there's lots of ambiguity in that offense. And when there are question marks, there's potential value to extract.
Who's Washington's number-two receiver? Who's their top tight end? Exactly.
Enter Logan Thomas. He's a converted quarterback with insane athletic measurables who's only been playing tight end for a few years. As I alluded to earlier, breakout tight ends are almost always superior athletes. Thomas is indeed that. And there's been positive news around him in camp.
There's a much better chance that Thomas does nothing this year versus being ultra productive, but this is a bold predictions article, remember?
15. Will Fuller Will Score More Points Than Keenan Allen
Why This Is Bold: Over the last month, Keenan Allen has been drafted 10 wide receiver spots ahead of Will Fuller on BestBall10s.com.
Why This Will Happen: Keenan Allen is one of three wide receivers who's averaged 16 or more PPR points per game in each of the last three seasons. He's essentially hit the 1,200 yard mark in each of those campaigns. But without Philip Rivers, we don't know exactly what his production is going to look like in 2020.
Can he maintain the 26% target share that he's seen in every single season over his last three? It's not going to be easy for that number to get higher, at least. Will his 26th percentile average depth of target mesh with a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who's traditionally thrown it deep at a higher rate than Rivers? Who knows? Will the Chargers play things more conservatively on offense, limiting volume upside? It's very possible.
Those are the questions and reasons Allen could see a down year in 2020.
Fuller, on the other hand, is working with an elite quarterback, is no longer competing for looks with DeAndre Hopkins, has a 91st percentile average depth of target since he entered the league, and has a rate of finishing as a top-12, WR1 that ranks 23rd-best over the last five years. If Fuller can stay healthy this year -- and, yes, I know, that's a big "if" -- watch out.