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We're now at the edge of the cliff. Whether it's one player or several, you've had to make the leap if you've come to play.
After spending the summer studying 2018 and 2019 tape, monitoring personnel changes and consulting with the local psychic down the street from the Pho joint, it's almost time to unveil my bold projections for the 2018 NFL season.
First, let's look back at last year's disaster:
- Chris Godwin will have more touchdowns than Mike Evans: Close, but nope...Godwin earned seven, Evans earned nine total.
- Patrick Mahomes II will be a top-five fantasy quarterback: NFL MVP, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and Fantasy QB1 by a margin of 66 points. Bull's Eye.
- Dallas Goedert will lead the Eagles in touchdown receptions: Goedert tied for third on the team with four but with at least 55 targets less than the top three.
- Tarik Cohen will be a top-20 PPR fantasy running back: Boom...No.11 in PPR formats.
- Mitchell Trubisky will earn fantasy-starter production in a 12-team league: No.15 and 33 points off the 12th spot.
- Jamaal Williams will be the Packers most productive fantasy running back since 2014 Eddie Lacy: Ha! I don't even have to look this up.
- Carson Wentz will not finish the year and only start eight games, maximum: He started 11 games but finished like he only played eight—fantasy's No.23 QB.
- Jordy Nelson will be a top-15 PPR fantasy receiver: Swing and a miss.
Two out of eight (25%) is failing if this were a quiz with equal weight given to each prediction. However, I think we all know that the Mahomes could get me to 50% in a weighted format of my own fantasy.
Let's see if I can crawl out of last year's hole without mailing-in easy predictions.
1. Patrick Mahomes II Breaks Peyton Manning's regular-season touchdown (55) and Yardage (5,477) Records
Yeah, I'm doubling down. Wouldn't you in this scenario?
Manning broke records in Year Two of his tenure with the Broncos after spending a year working with his young and talented receiving corps. If you're looking for a reason Manning retains those records besides the fact that Captain Obvious says records are difficult to break, it's Manning's ability to be a coach on the field and his penchant for drilling the smallest details with routes and target placement that set him apart.
Still, Mahomes gets a second year with the essential members of the band still together and the addition of LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson will keep the offense as multiple and dangerous as it had been with Hunt and Damien Williams as the sole options from the backfield. The real differentiator will be a healthy Sammy Watkins. If you're seeking a team with the potential to deliver two fantasy WR1s and a TE1, Kansas City is the easiest choice.
2. T.J. Hockenson Earns the best fantasy production for a rookie tight end since Mike Ditka
Ditka earned 56 receptions for 1,076 yards, and 12 touchdowns during his rookie year for the Bears in 1961. That's right, Dikta averaged 19.2 yards per catch and didn't fall below 12 until 1966. Hockenson is no Ditka and I'm not calling for him to best Iron Mike's NFL-best rookie season at the position.
I am willing to predict that Hockenson earns at least 850 yards and 7 touchdowns. If he hits those marks, he's outperformed Jeremy Shockey, Keith Jackson, Charlie Young, and John Mackey. No, Patriots fans, I haven't forgotten Aaron Hernandez's 563 yards and 6 scores and Rob Gronkowski's 546 yards and 10 scores.
Hockenson may not begin the season as the starter, but he'll see a lot of time on the field. Tight end coach Chris White says that Hockenson has been a dominant blocker against strong competition during the preseason, a good receiver, and a hard worker.
"Every day you can see him getting better and better. He makes plays out there that we are really, really happy about."
Matthew Stafford will target Hockenson extensively in the red zone and with his skills winning the ball in the air as well as earning yards after the catch, it wouldn't be surprising if Hockenson leads the Lions in touchdown receptions. Detroit has a favorable schedule of passing defenses early in the year, so look for Hockenson to come out strong—even as a situational contributor off the bench.
Remember, the Lions are molding the offense after major elements of the Patriots. The team took Hockenson early as a linchpin to this scheme. He has the talent and opportunity to make himself the linchpin of your fantasy strategy as a rookie who far outplays his late-round status.
3. Ezekiel Elliott earns career highs in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns
If you count my ranking of Elliott as 1.01 despite the ongoing contract negotiations that kept Elliott out of the country until Tuesday morning, I may already have my first bold prediction work out by the time you read this if Elliott is signed this week as expected and starting against the Giants in the opener.
Elliott is one of the elite backs in football. There are some writers who approach football from predominantly an analytical perspective who disagree. A league professional in this area with well-rounded training and experience in data analytics and scouting commented to me about this ongoing debate among writers.
"Cause and effect are awfully hard to separate in fields that actually have good, clear explanatory data. Football lacks that luxury, which makes it even less clear what data is useful.'
He also joked that if you follow this contrarian argument about running backs then every team 'could win automatically if they just pay nothing for any player except an elite quarterback and 3-4 good receivers.'
The argument that running backs aren't as skilled as wide receivers and products of their offensive line look like a quantifiable conclusion using the existing data, but it excludes the decision-making process that backs employ pre-snap and post-snap that includes several factors this argument glosses over:
- Matching up the defensive alignment with the play design.
- Box counts and defender-teammate counts on each side of the center.
- Late pre-snap shifts and motion.
- Early post-snap changes to the factors above.
- Early post-snap penetration.
- Early post-snap leverage advantages and disadvantages for the offensive line as the runner heads to the exchange point.
- The reading of the above keys post-exchange.
- Having conceptual and physical fluency of dynamic and economical footwork combinations to address the above factors.
- Integrating field position, down-and-distance, score, and time left in the game into the runner's judgment of which decisions have an acceptable amount of risk.
Many of the "running backs are among the least skilled of positions" arguments lack a fundamental understanding of the position's mental and technical components. While giving credit to a receiver's route running versus man, press, or zone coverage or his understanding of option routes and press-man releases, they aren't giving appropriate weight to the value of the running back's skills mentioned above.
They aren't even giving credence to the idea that runners actually set up blocks. They're not far from stating that runners mindlessly run through open holes. Hell, it's not far from saying that singers are the least skilled musicians because it's the band that makes them sound good and they only sing melodic lines and individually, can't produce chords.
Until they begin tracking the outcome of processes that coaches have taught runners to execute, the arguments aren't rooted in realistic, context-driven information.
I've been deconstructing essential running back processes for 15 years in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. If I separated a few of the processes that I judged to be more integrative in nature than I did with wide receiver and quarterback, there would be as many separate factors for the running back position as those positions deemed more skill-intensive.
Elliott has worked with good-to-great offensive lines since entering the NFL. Sure, Elliott will benefit from big creases without having to do much mental or physical work. However, he also makes excellent decisions that enhance line-play when creases don't open so easily.
This is one of the better offensive line units Elliott has worked with now that Travis Frederick and Jason Witten have returned. Add Amari Cooper to the equation as a fully-dimensional receiver in the passing game and veteran Randall Cobb, who also offers skill at multiple receiver positions that Cole Beasley lacked, and Elliott will maximize a great situation.
I expect a career-year from Elliott, who gained nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie when Dez Bryant was still relevant and Dak Prescott was also a first-year option. Elliott may have been immature off the field, but he has always been in tip-top shape. I'm not expecting anything different this year.
4. LeSean McCoy will be a top-10 fantasy Running Back in Kansas City
Another entertaining and related debate over the years has been the idea that certain running backs were frauds or only a product of their offensive lines. Todd Gurley was the focus of this debate two years ago when the Rams' scheme and line were basic and poor relative to the rest of the league's offenses. Adrian Peterson earned the over-the-hill moniker three years ago behind an injury-riddled and underperforming unit in Minnesota and then again in Arizona despite the process-driven factors showing up well in the charting of his games.
This may seem confusing to those of you in the data camp and may seem like I'm contradicting myself by discussing the offensive line as a factor. However, the argument isn't a black-and-white, "the running back is a product of the line or isn't a product of the line." Until we begin charting and quantifying the results of quality decision-making and technique-driven processes, the production-driven results lack enough context and encourage simplistic thinking about the subject matter.
LeSean McCoy is in that Peterson territory. He's older, he's coming off a season of poor production, and the Bills second-year coaching staff not only did away with one of the most productive run schemes in the NFL it got rid of multiple key members of its offensive line heading into 2018.
The Chiefs' decision to sign McCoy to a one-year $4 million deal indicates that they understand that difference between the processes McCoy exhibited that still make him a good NFL contributor and the lack of quality processes his line delivered to enhance McCoy's production potential. McCoy is an excellent receiver and has past experience in parts of Reid's offenses.
He has only missed three games in three years and never more than four games in a season during a 10-year career. Because of is age and lack of recent production on a poor team, projecting McCoy a top-10 back is bold because he'll have to earn the majority of playing time while competing with good runners with a headstart on the offense. However, if we're talking about skill and surrounding talent, I'm not sure it's that much of a risk at all.
5. Josh Gordon plays the entire season
New England's response was to sign aging veteran Ben Watson who will serve a short suspension for a PED violation and drafting N'Keal Harry, a big slot receiver with known issues when it comes to separating against man coverage. Then, the organization cut Thomas despite signs of a full recovery.
I think New England knew Gordon would be available to play this year. Because Gordon has been cooperative with the commissioner's office in recent years with his issues, I believe he's closer to becoming a healthier and higher-functioning adult than he ever has been. If this weren't true, Gordon would be earning as many chances and being as open about his issues in recent years.
Obviously, Gordon remains a high risk but the rationale above is why that risk may be lower than it ever has been. As we've seen, he's still a dominant receiver when he's on the field and he's still young. That works for me and I think this is the year he finally makes it through an entire campaign.
6. Lamar Jackson earns 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns—From scrimmage
I'm buying the idea that Jackson runs the ball less often than he did last year, but not to the extent that his rushing totals dip below 700 yards. The athletic comparisons to Michael Vick will remain until the end of his career.
Even so, Jackson has proven better at avoiding hits and working to the boundary. Vick was a kamikaze pilot of a runner early in his career.
Greg Roman got 3,600 yards from scrimmage and at least 23 total touchdowns from Tyrod Taylor during consecutive seasons in Buffalo between 2015-2016 and Taylor missed three games during that span. In 2013, Roman engineered an offense that led to Colin Kaepernick earning 3,700 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns and 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2014.
Jackson is a superior runner and pocket player to Taylor and Kaepernick and he has a strong offensive line that adapted well to the option game. Although the most talented receivers are a pair of rookies, Jackson still has solid veteran performers in Willie Snead and Chris Moore who should do enough to supplement Jackson's passing production as the youngsters get acclimated.
If you recall, Kaepernick worked with 33-year-old Anquan Boldin as his leading receiver in 2013 after Michael Crabtree got hurt in Week 5. Boldin was the No.16 receiver and the next-best option that wasn't Crabtree was 133rd-ranked, Kyle Williams. The 49ers leaned on No.2-ranked tight end Vernon Davis.
During Kaepernick's 4,000-yard season from scrimmage, Boldin turned in the 23rd-ranked receiver performance, Crabtree was 52nd, and end-of-career Steve Johnson was 79th. The best tight end on the 49ers was 36th-ranked Vernon Davis. Roman got a lot of yardage from his quarterback despite having a single fantasy-worthy receiver in the aerial game.
This was also the case in Buffalo. Taylor had No.15 fantasy receiver Sammy Watkins in 2015 but the next-best option was either Robert Woods at No.61 or No.18 tight end Charles Clay. In 2016, Clay remained 18th among tight ends and the highest-ranked fantasy receiver on the Bills was Woods at No.72. Marquise Goodwin was the next-highest at No.81.
Just so you heard this right...Tyrod Taylor earned top-15 production as a fantasy quarterback in 2016 despite the fact that he didn't have a single startable fantasy option in the aerial game. And, Jackson is a better runner and pocket player than Jackson and Kaepernick.
4,000 yards and 25 total touchdowns suddenly appear a lot more attainable.
7. Dede Westbrook Will be a top-20 receiver
Criminal off-field behavior from high school involving his pregnant girlfriend was among the non-football reasons Westbrook's stock slid as far as it did. Talent-wise, I still contend that Baker Mayfield misses the Jaguars option who plays big in the air and sudden after the catch. Nick Foles has recognized Westbrook's talent and developed a quick rapport with the third-year receiver, who has the potential to develop into a T.Y. Hilton-like receiver in a good offensive environment.
Foles will supply that environment because he actually understands coverages—an important requirement for most NFL quarterbacks that Blake Bortles did not have. Although missing Tevin Smith, this defense is still strong and the offensive line is a lot healthier.
For what it's worth, Leonard Fournette has re-dedicated himself to football and eliminated off-field distractions. If these pieces come together, Jacksonville could rebound from a disastrous 2018 with Westbrook leading the way as a high-volume and big-play option in the passing game. If the defense falters or the running game suffers, Foles has the experience and skillset to deliver strong production in a garbage-time role and once again, Westbrook will lead the way as a slot option who will also earn mismatch opportunities on the perimeter.
8. Matt Breida out-points Tevin Coleman and earns top-12 Fantasy RB production
Maybe Kyle Shanahan believes in Coleman so much that he felt saddled with Devonta Freeman and pined for the day that he could make Coleman the lead back and featured weapon in his offense. And maybe Marquise Goodwin believes playing with cheetahs makes him faster.
Until we see otherwise, I'm banking on Coleman earning the same role he had in Atlanta, which lacks great upside for fantasy players but it creates problems for opposing defenses. The potential bargain of the fantasy season could be Matt Breida, who has the skills between the tackles and athletic ability to reprise the Freeman role.
Despite missing two games, playing hurt for several others, and saddled with backup-caliber quarterback play throughout the season, Breida's 1,075-yards from scrimmage campaign that included a 5.3 yards-per-carry average has been quietly one of the most impressive performances of 2018. If Breida can stay healthy, he has the skills to earn 200-220 touches and deliver top-12 production at the position—even with Coleman producing in the role he had in Atlanta.
Good luck this year and may your bold calls come to fruition.