As we prepare for the 2020 season, there are tons of hot takes swirling around the internet. Some are baseless tweets and articles meant to stir up conversation and clicks. Others are bold predictions that do have some foundation in reality, even if it’s a long shot. I plan to make this article somewhere in the middle.
Football is set up for small samples with only 16 games in a season and roughly 55-65 offensive snaps per game. In football, even a player with “a lot” of volume may only participate in a fantasy relevant play on 20 of those snaps. Contrast that with baseball where each hitter on a team sees 600 at bats in a season!
For this exercise I will highlight a player or situation on each team in the NFL using a nugget from 2019. You need to decide for yourself whether the information should dictate your position or whether it’s just a fun statistical oddity chalked up to sampling bias.
Bills – Josh Allen who is known for his big arm and gun slinging ways got a new weapon this off-season. Stefon Diggs came over from Minnesota where he was a quality deep ball receiver, ranking 4th in the NFL in average depth of target at 14.8 yards (airyards.com) in 2019. His catch rate on passes over 30 yards in the air was about 55% compared to the NFL average of 30%.
The caveat is that Josh Allen is a bad thrower, and especially bad once his passes travel over 10 yards in the air. Will a good deep threat like Diggs be the key to unlocking Josh Allen? It can only help, but ultimately Allen has to get the ball in the vicinity and I remain skeptical he’s got that club in his bag.
Dolphins – This one will be short and sweet: Preston Williams was on a historic pace for a rookie wide receiver before injury took him down in week 9. He was tracking for 120 targets, which would be in the top 20 most voluminous seasons for a rookie and that was with a fully healthy DeVante Parker. His closest rookie comp if you extrapolate his 8 game line over a full season is Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison. Not bad for an undrafted rookie.
Jets – After a year off, Le’Veon Bell had the lowest yards per touch in his career. In his uninspiring rookie year he gained 4.4 yards per touch but as a 27 year old in 2019 he gained only 4.0 yards every time he got the ball. Normally this stat is somewhat meaningless, but given the entire context of Bell’s team change, time away from the game and age I think it’s worth taking note. Per sharpfootballstats.com, Bell was the best runner on the Jets, but still 7% below the NFL average for rushing success. He went from a perfect ecosystem in Pittsburgh to a messy offense with an unproven QB and terrible offensive line.
The Jets certainly tried to correct the line by drafting Mekhi Becton in the first round and signing 6 other new faces in the trenches. Is Bell just washed as he enters his age 28 season or will the line upgrade help him look like the stud we once knew? Both can turn out to be true, but guessing which side to err on is the drafter’s challenge.
Patriots – There really isn’t a good way to spin first rounder N’Keal Harry’s rookie campaign. A.J. Brown outproduced Harry’s entire season in week 14 alone. Even once Harry was on the field he saw more than 4 targets just once and never caught more than 3 balls. I’ve tried to glean some hope and there just isn’t much to find. His raw stats are obviously disgusting and his efficiency stats are awful: 1.7 receptions per game, 3.2 targets per game, 50% catch rate, 4.4 yards per target.
Even whittling down to the smallest sample size, I found nothing to hang my hat on. Full disclosure: I have a number of rosters that would benefit from a bounce back sophomore season from Harry. I am hoping that his preseason injury was just too much to overcome in the Patriots’ complex system and that he’ll be able to realize his potential with Cam Newton.
Colts – Indianapolis has had quite a roller coaster since 2017. The Colts have attempted 469, 639 and 447 passes the last 3 seasons. I’ll let you guess which season Indy didn’t have Jacoby Brissett under center. Now we have the Philip Rivers era beginning and Indy will likely fall somewhere between the 2 extremes seen over the last three seasons. Despite looking old and haggard, Rivers actually threw for the second most air yards of his career in 2019 and had about an average season for him that simply lacked touchdown passes.
What we think of both Rivers and the offensive play calling has a large impact on many fantasy relevant players such as T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack, Parris Campbell, Jack Doyle, Jonathan Taylor, and Michael Pittman, Jr. I think all the pass catchers are being under-valued and would be happy to take any of them at their average draft position.
Jaguars – D. J. Chark enjoyed quite a breakout season as a sophomore, in part because he was the only quality receiver on the roster. Dede Westbrook has shown us all he is just not dynamic after seeing back to back seasons of 100 targets and still being useless for fantasy purposes. Chark opened up the offense and flashed big play ability down the field but was barely average on passes under 15 yards (airyards.com). Gardner Minshew was also less productive than league average on short passes, so that could be a chicken or the egg situation.
Enter Laviska Shenault, the second round rookie who profiles as an open field monster in the short and intermediate areas. I am of the opinion that in an ideal scenario Chark moves to a high quality, lower volume deep threat with Shenault and others soaking up the remaining targets.
Texans – Since Deshaun Watson took over as the Texans’ quarterback, he has played 22 games with Will Fuller. In those contests, Fuller has seen 6.27 targets per game and turned that into a 4-66-0.6 line, or 14.7 PPR points per game. This is with DeAndre Hopkins commanding over 150 targets per season in that time frame.
With Hopkins departed to the Cardinals, Fuller won’t inherit all those looks but he should see at least a small bump in targets. At a career clip of 2.3 points per target, just one more target per game could mean 16 fantasy points per game which would be WR1 production.
Titans – Fantasy scoring efficiency is exciting, but studies have shown that efficiency alone does not project increased volume. However, if a player has shown he can do a lot with a little and there is an obvious reason he will get increased use we have to pay attention. Jonnu Smith is everything a tight end sleeper should be: he possess elite athleticism at his size and was second in the league in yards per target for a tight end in 2019. The Titans don’t throw a ton but their target tree should be pretty narrow.
Corey Davis has been usurped by A. J. Brown and Delanie Walker is gone. Tennessee doesn’t have a receiving threat out of the backfield, so there is a very real possibility Smith is second on the team in targets in 2020. If you need one more nudge, Smith saw 4 rushing attempts for 78 yards and two touchdowns last year.
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