We call it "fantasy football," but "value" is the true name of the game. Maximize your draft-day values, and you've accumulated more high-scoring talents than your competition. Here are 15 players that performed below expectations last year who are poised for a rebound.
15. WR Keelan Cole (Jacksonville)
According to Black & Teal, Keenan McCardell predicted a breakout year for Cole before the 2018 season. Cole was the Jaguars playmaker down the stretch of 2017, delivering clutch moments during the playoffs.
Cole looked like he was going to make good on that prediction. After the first two games, including a big week against the Patriots, Cole looked like a rising star. By the season's midpoint, he was no longer a true contributor to the offense.
According to the local Jacksonville outlets, Cole has taken responsibility for his performance and so far in 2019 OTAs, looks more like the player McCardell praised last year. Being accountable as a player is paramount to having sustainable success in the NFL. However, let's not undersell the fact that Blake Bortles is no longer plaguing the Jaguars passing game.
Bortles deserves credit for doing whatever it takes on the field to win and remaining resilient despite the criticisms about his game. Unfortunately, he earned those criticisms because he didn't do whatever it took off the field to become a productive quarterback who could distribute the football with maximum efficiency.
Bortles was a known partier early in his career whose best season happened because he recused himself from the nightlife to work at his craft. Even after he figured out that he couldn't turn the work ethic on and off and sustain NFL success, he had difficulty recognizing coverages pre- and post-snap. An easily-tricked starter, Bortles' lack of conceptual acumen for the position limited his receiving corps potential.
Nick Foles is by no means a great quarterback, but his preparation and conceptual understanding of football is a huge upgrade for the Jaguars offense. Cole and Foles have meshed thus far in OTA's, including some highlight-reel plays against tight coverage that underscores the budding trust this duo should build this spring and summer.
Cole is a low-cost investment in an offense with a bad reputation based on a departed quarterback and a banged-up offensive line. Even if he has a strong training camp and regains the starting job, I doubt he'll creep inside 12th round of most drafts. That's value.
14. RB Spencer Ware (Indianapolis)
Marlon Mack is the man for the Colts and Nyheim Hines had 81 targets in the passing game as a rookie. Even Jordan Wilkins looked good as the No.3 back. It's why the one-year, $1.3 million contract that Ware signed in May doesn't appear disruptive to the current backfield.
Last year, Ware dealt with the typical soft-tissue injury that often happens after a player recovers from major surgery to a joint/ligament. Because running back talent is so prevalent, the Chiefs moved on from Ware at the end of the year.
Even so, Ware earned 181 total yards on 35 touches during his final two regular-season games—129 yards of it against the Ravens' physical defense. An excellent pass protector and receiver, Ware excels at earning yardage after the catch and he's a rugged close-out runner and short-yardage player.
Marlon Mack is neither a close-out back nor a short-yardage option. Ware is also a better pass protector. While not a breakaway threat like Mack, Ware's receiving skill makes him a multidimensional weapon in ways where Mack and Hines are a little more limited.
Ware's 2017 knee injury could hold him back in one of two ways. He's either perceived as damaged goods and teams think he has lost some quickness, or he actually has. If it's the former, Ware will likely prove he can still play and earn a role that could lead to significant playing time as the starter if Mack gets hurt. If it's the latter, he'll only see a situational role.
Based on 2018 training camp reports out of Kansas City, expect to see a healthy Ware. He'll be a cheap addition as depth working behind a strong offensive line if he earns extended playing time.
13. TE Greg Olsen (Carolina)
Ian Thomas has youth on his side, but Olsen has experience and rapport with Cam Newton. He also cleared his medical checks after foot surgery and will participate fully in practices. It's an important step for a player who has only played 16 of the past 32 regular season games due to the injury.
There's a reasonable concern that Olsen has stumbled off the age cliff, but Olsen finished nine consecutive seasons without missing a game and five of them prior to his injury were top-10 fantasy performances at his position. Olsen hasn't been suffering through a cascade of different injuries and declining physical skill.
Although foot injuries are difficult ailments, the fact that Olsen is cleared for full practice four months before the season is a great sign that he will return to the player he was for the three years prior to the issue. Look for Olsen to resume his role as the starting tight end deliver top-10 production at the age of 34. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Ben Watson, and Jason Witten have done it in recent years; Olsen is also capable.
12. TE Jason Witten (Dallas)
The simple truth about aging tight ends with starter fantasy value is that they earn a lot of targets against zone coverage. Greg Olsen has been a seam-stretcher prior to his foot injury. If he struggles, it might be the result of an athletic decline and Olsen not being able to meet the previous demands that the Panthers had for the position.
This won't be the case for Witten. The Cowboys will use him as an underneath option against zone coverage and he'll benefit from play-action fakes to Ezekiel Elliott as well as the designed movement for Dak Prescott.
With Amari Cooper stretching the field vertically and Randall Cobb stretching it horizontally in the way that Cole Beasley and Witten created openings for each other, Witten has a strong shot of delivering top-12 production at his position. Witten caught 63 passes and 5 touchdowns in 2017, averaging close to 9 yards per catch. Expect a similar output now that he's retired from the broadcast booth.
Because he's old, his current draft value is far lower than his likely top-12 positional fantasy value.
11. QB Philip Rivers (Los Angeles Chargers)
Rivers had a pair of top-10 fantasy seasons in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, dropped to the No.13 option despite posting his best completion percentage in five years and a yards-per-attempt average that was his highest since 2010.
The difference in 2018 might have been the absence of tight end, Hunter Henry. The Chargers' tight end depth chart had 48 receptions for 567 yards and 3 touchdowns. There were 13 tight ends in the league that earned more yards than L.A.'s entire depth chart.
Considering that the Chargers didn't make up the difference in passing yards with other players, Henry's presence could add another 400-500 yards and 4-6 touchdowns to Rivers' 2018 totals. That was the difference between the No.7 fantasy quarterback and the No.13 fantasy quarterback (Rivers) last year.
As of Memorial Day, Rivers isn't even valued as high as he finished last year. He's a terrific bargain in a loaded offense with young surrounding talent. I'll gladly wait until 10-12 quarterbacks have left the board to take Rivers as my QB1. At this point in the preseason, I'm still taking him earlier than most.
10. QB Dak Prescott (Dallas)
Prescott was the No.17 fantasy quarterback in the NFL before Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys. After acquiring Cooper, Prescott was the No.8 passer and sported the third-best completion percentage of the top-12 passers during that span.
He lacks great anticipation and he's not the PhD-level strategist of his peers, but most of his peers lack his toughness and athletic ability to keep plays alive and not be turnover machines while trying to do so. There are all types of good fantasy quarterbacks (as well as NFL quarterbacks). Prescott's type is that of the battler. Considering that Prescott only had Cooper and no one else—Michael Gallup could be "someone," someday, but he wasn't anyone of note last year—and earned fantasy starter production is a testament to his ability.
This year, Jason Witten and Randall Cobb join Cooper to offer a revamped receiving corps. Center Travis Fredrick returns to the game, which will greatly enhance the communication and cohesiveness of the units' pass protection.
As your peers are looking down their noses at Prescott because his game doesn't appeal to what people think they know about quarterback play, it's more likely that Prescott will have his third-straight top-12 fantasy season at this position and a greater likelihood of approaching top-5 production.
9. WR Golden Tate (New York Giants)
It made little sense for the Eagles to trade for Golden Tate. His skills were redundant to the roles of existing starters. This year, he'll join a Giants squad that has enough flexibility to use Tate in a variety of roles.
Tate is at his best in the slot and it would be nice to see him displace Sterling Shepard, who hasn't been a playmaker in the role as much as a reliable guy at finding open space and catching the ball. However, it's more likely that he plays flanker or split end. Tate has proven capable in either role when in Seattle, but it has been six years since he's done it consistently.
It's possible that Tate has lost some of his juice as a veteran who will turn 31 during training camp. He has been a physical player. However, expect another year with close to 1,000 yards and 5-7 touchdowns. It usually makes Tate a solid fantasy WR3—and unless UDFA Reggie White, Jr. makes an immediate impact as a surprise replacement to Odell Beckham Jr—there is the upside for high-end WR2 production.
8. QB Drew Brees (New Orleans)
Despite this reality, Brees led the league in completion percentage, posted a strong yards-per-attempt average (8.16), and only threw five interceptions. With Jared Cook joining the team and the Saints dusting off the Jimmy Graham chapter of the playbook to accommodate the tight end, Brees now has three reliable options in addition to a year-older Smith, a healthy Ted Ginn Jr, and some intriguing UDFA options I'll mention later this summer if opportunity merits.
Last year, Brees was the No.8 fantasy quarterback. It's a testament to his skills and a top-notch offensive line. This year, expect a return to top-five production as long as his supporting cast remains healthy.
And if disaster strikes, Brees is the Survivor Man of fantasy quarterbacks. He can deliver fantasy QB1 production in situations that would demoralize his peers.
7. WR Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams)
Kupp is the receiver that has the best rapport with Jared Goff and an example of why suddenness and acceleration far outweigh deep speed when seeking versatile performers at the receiver position. Kupp not only gets open as a slot man in the shallow zones. He also routinely earns bigger plays up the seam and along the sideline due to his acceleration to get on top of coverage early in routes. His sudden transitions also earn him significant yards after the catch.
A November ACL surgery has him on track for training camp clearance. How soon he regains confidence in his knee is a legitimate question. We've seen some receivers ready for training camp and playing as if nothing happened. Others have need 6-8 games to regain comfort and confidence.
A young player with an otherwise clean injury record, Kupp hasn't had any setbacks and his doctor described the surgery as "straight forward." He should return to his role as the Ram's top route runner and Goff's favorite red-zone option—Kupp had six touchdowns in eight games last year.
6. WR Sammy Watkins (Kansas City)
With only a single 1,000-yard receiving season during his five-year career and his first two years of totals exceeding his last three, Watkins is officially an underachiever. Not all underachievers are solely responsible for their disappointments and Watkins qualifies.
Chronic foot woes have cost him 17 games during the past 4 years, and he suffered through a stint in Buffalo that made Robert Woods look like a career reserve. This offseason, the Chiefs' trainers and Watkins put in extensive work to do preventative work on Watkins' body.
According to B.J. Kissel, the trainers have been able to correct a lot of issues with Watkins body so he's moving better and building on his health in a way that's making him quicker, faster, and more durable. Watkins told KC Star writer Pete Grathoff that he feels great:
“I think now, I’m settled there. I know the offense, I know the coaches,” Watkins said. “I know everyone in the organization is supporting me, so I’ve got to give my all. This offseason has just been good to correct my body on the things I need to correct, and the Chiefs staff has been great with this, helping me tremendously with my body.
“I think this year I feel like I’m in college again. Or high school. My body is just holding up right. I just feel like this is the best time right now for the next — I don’t know how long I’ll play — but the next six to eight years, is giving my all. Putting my heart, my soul, my energy, my spirit in the game, I just feel like the success will start coming once I change my attitude about it.”
Despite the lack of production volume last year, Watkins and Patrick Mahomes II were among the most efficient quarterback-receiver duos in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Watkins has been one of this writer's favorite receiving prospects to come out of the draft. He's a versatile option who can win in the vertical game, after the catch, in the slot, and in the red zone.
I projected 56 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns this year for Watkins—before learning about him getting positive results with the training staff and looking great in OTAs. There will be a lot of wary fantasy players with Watkins because receivers that haven't reached their upside after 3-4 years rarely do so. Still, the scheme and supporting cast is compelling enough to take a chance.
5. QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)
Despite the dysfunction between Rodgers and Mike McCarthy and an inexperienced and/or lackluster receiving corps beyond Davante Adams, Rodgers delivered fantasy QB7 production last year. Even more impressive, Rodgers only threw two interceptions last year in this environment.
This year, Rodgers will run a system similar to what we've seen Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo run with Kyle Shanahan—a wide zone running game with a lot of play-action and designed quarterback movement. This is an excellent fit for Rodgers and should get his young receivers open on quick-hitting throws into open space.
Expect Green Bay to use Aaron Jones as its lead back, an excellent fit for this system because of his quickness and speed to the edge as well as his cutback ability. Jones' work will set up the play-action game for receivers like Adams and Marques Valdes-Scantling to get up the seams or work across the middle behind opposing linebackers. We'll also see the Packers leak its tight ends Jimmy Graham and Jace Sternberger into deeper zones off these play-action looks.
The changes should make this offense less predictable and more dynamic in ways that it hasn't been for years. Rodgers should reach his potential as a top-three fantasy quarterback this year—even without a fully-developed and well-rounded corps of receivers.
It's a small, but significant fantasy bump.
4. RB Le'Veon Bell (New York Jets)
Bell has always spawned a tremendous amount of debate among fans and analysts. It began with the flawed idea that he wasn't quick or fast enough to play in the NFL despite having better quickness and change of direction speed than Jahvid Best and Ahmad Bradshaw—when he was still 230-plus-pounds!
That argument remained intact during his rookie year, because of a poor yards-per-carry average. However, the Steelers suffered multiple injuries along its offensive line and Bell was contending with a lot of backfield penetration.
When Bell followed up with a breakout year, fans and analysts used Bell's weight loss as part of their revisionist history to justify their original flawed view of Bell the athlete. Bell's weight loss probably aided his stamina even more than his already elite quickness. The truth to his second-year bump in production is that the Steelers' line got healthy.
This foolishness of analysis concerning Bell's skill continues into recent years. The argument based on expected points and Bell that suggests Bell and other running backs don't matter makes a valid point that runners matter less than they used to. More backs are interchangeable than before, but the argument gets carried away with itself when it suggests that runners don't matter at all.
Top runners still influence defenses and force them away from the specific type of coverages that cheat to the passing game. The current data for this "don't matter" argument doesn't account for the strategic influence.
The argument also spawns inelegant interpretations. For instance, the idea that James Conner is "just a guy" at the running back position. Conner would have been considered a top prospect at his position if not for his career-threatening illness in the middle of his tenure at Pitt. The idea that Conner is average is propaganda to support the "don't matter" argument.
The truth with the Steelers, Bell, and Conner—and really, any NFL ground game—is that most elite running backs have a good offensive line. When I define a running back as "elite," I'm not only referring to statistical production from the box score. A team can earn top-notch statistical production without a top running back, but it won't necessarily influence the coverage of defense the way an elite runner with a good line will.
Running the football is a team effort. An excellent back can deliver below-average production and still be an excellent back if you understand and track the decision-making of that player. If you do, you'll see instances where that back is performing well within this context. Similarly, a below-average back can earn strong production despite not making consistently optimal decisions that would lead to better production from a superior runner behind the same line.
Bell and Conner are good backs. The Steelers have a good offensive line. It's not a one-or-the-other argument. All three points are true.
The Jets added Kelechi Osemele to its offensive line after New York finished 29th in rushing last year. The two-time, Pro-Bowl guard is good enough that it should also solidify the tackle and center play on the left side of the line.
The addition of Trevon Wesco will also do wonders for Bell because he's a skill in-line and lead blocker who can handle defenders one-on-one in ways that many tight ends can't. Wesco is also an excellent H-Back who can be moved around the formation and has the quickness to work across the line and reach his assignments.
These additions will diversify the running game, reduce blown assignments and the need for extra help, and open more creases. Expect 1,100-1,200 yards from Bell on the ground and another 400-600 as a receiver is not unreasonable. It puts him in line with a top-10 fantasy season at his position and within reach of the top five.
3. WR Amari Cooper (Dallas)
The No.19 fantasy receiver last year, most of Cooper's productive weeks came after the Raiders traded him away. Cooper's nine games with the Cowboys led to 53 catches, 724 yards, and 6 touchdowns—No.8 among fantasy receivers in PPR leagues during the second half of the season and No.6 at the position in non-PPR formats.
We may never know what exactly happened in Oakland with Cooper, but the move has initially been a good thing for the fifth-year receiver.
Cooper is one of the better route runners in the league and he's in an offense that allows his quarterback to make off-script plays. It forces a receiver to remain involved throughout the length of the play.
He also benefits from one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Although running backs matter less, Ezekiel Elliott is one of a handful of runners whose presence force opponents to abandon pass-friendly schemes and play then run. This leads to more advantageous situations for Cooper.
With a full offseason to work with Prescott and the return of Witten and Frederick, Cooper is the primary option on a loaded offense. As long as the supporting cast stays healthy, he's a lock for top-10 production at his position.
2. RB Devonta Freeman (Atlanta)
Ito Smith will not replace Tevin Coleman's production in Atlanta. The Kyle Shanahan system is no longer the base scheme and Smith is a change-of-pace scatback who is more likely to earn a role like Jacquizz Rodgers once had under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Freeman will be the man in Atlanta. With a game predicated on quickness, balance, and creativity, Freeman is a smart runner and should deliver 1,400-1,600 total yards behind a line that has some new blood that's inexperienced but talented—specifically, Chris Lindstrom rookie who fits best at right guard despite often scouted as a tackle.
Freeman is 100 percent past his October groin surgery. He has battled injuries that cost him 50 percent of the past two years' worth of games, but the team's offseason acquisitions suggest that it's supremely confident in Freeman returning to form.
He's one of the smartest running backs in the NFL and I'm expecting a return to no worse than top-15 fantasy production.
1. RB David Johnson (Arizona)
Arizona Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban recently surmised that Johnson will earn fewer receptions in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. Urban must have only looked at the past three years of receiving production from Texas Tech running backs.
|Combined RB Totals||Rec||Yards||TDs|
One of the strengths of Kingsbury's offenses is that he's known for shaping his offense around the talent on the team. When Kingsbury had the receiving talent from the backfield—DeAndre Washington, Justin Stockton, Kenny Williams, and Sadale Foster—he used that talent productively between 2013 and 2015.
David Johnson will be the centerpiece of the Cardinals offense because this wide receiver corps is still a work in progress. Figuring out where the current options will fit could be a problem that is rarely discussed.
Larry Fitzgerald is an aging future Hall of Famer whose best fit is in the slot. Christian Kirk starred at Texas A&M as a slot receiver and is a bit miscast as a flanker. Some believe that Andy Isabella will be a split end, but his playground movements to separate from coverage could ground him. Like Fitzgerald and Kirk, Isabella is a better fit in the slot.
Look for Kingsbury to move his receivers around this year, and it includes detaching Johnson from the formation. Keep in mind that the combined running back production listed above is college football seasons with 11-13 games.
When Kingsbury had the receiving talent in the backfield between 2013-2015, the Red Raiders averaged 12.33 games, 71 catches, 700 yards, and 4.6 touchdowns during that span. Extrapolate those totals to a 16-game season and we're looking at 92 catches, 908 yards, 6 touchdowns.
Last year, Johnson earned 63 percent of running back receptions; 74 percent of the receiving yards; and all of the touchdowns. In 2016, Johnson earned 85 percent of the position's receptions; 90 percent of the yardage, and all of the touchdowns.
If we take Texas Tech's extrapolated totals and use last year as the worst-case scenario, Johnson is in store for 58 catches, 672 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Last year, Johnson had 50 catches, 448 yards, and 3 scores.
If we use Johnson's 2016 season as the best-case scenario, 2019's receiving projections for Johnson are an awesome 78 catches, 817 yards, and 6 touchdowns—career bests in two out of three categories (receptions and touchdowns) and all results well within a realistic realm of expectation.
Before conducting this analysis, I had Johnson projected for 74 catches, 790 yards, and 5 touchdowns—closer to his best-case scenario.
Although the name of the scheme is the Air Raid, Kingsbury has had success with running the football. In 37 games, Washington earned 528 carries, 3045 yards (5.76 Avg.), and 20 touchdowns as a two-year starter and three-year contributor in this scheme.
Stockton played 47 games and earned 294 carries, 1714 yards (5.8 Avg.), and 14 touchdowns. Williams played 25 games in the scheme and earned 136 carries, 575 yards (4.22 Avg.), and 9 touchdowns.
Kingsbury often used inventive designs of spread and condensed formations to create run-pass binds against defenders, leading to rushing productivity. The biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Cardinals' ground game is the offensive line. When healthy, the offensive line has shown promise, but good health has been a rarity for the past two years.
Arizona added former Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert and Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy during free agency and both should upgrade the starting unit. The team also has a number of reserves under contract, including Broncos center Max Garcia who can also play guard. Center Mason Cole earned an All-Rookie Team nod from the Sporting News last year.
Walter Mitchell's analysis of the Kingsbury offense at Revenge of the Birds also notes some positives that benefit the offensive line—even if the unit doesn't maximize its potential this year:
- The ball comes out quickly in spread offenses.
- Defenses rarely stack the box, which favors running plays.
- Skill players who can earn quick separation create mismatches.
- Up-tempo offenses dictate pass-oriented defenses.
Mitchell also astutely notes that Kyler Murray's skills combined with this offensive style will lead to more zone coverage, fewer pass rushers, and a spy to account for Murray. This all benefits Johnson, who should have no problem running from a heavier dose of shotgun and pistol looks.
My projections for Johnson currently place him as the No.8 running back in PPR and non-PPR formats. That's not much of a climb from 2018 unless you look at the fantasy points. Last year, Johnson totaled 198.7 non-PPR fantasy points. In this format, I'm projecting 255 points.
In PPR leagues, Johnson earned 248.7 points; I'm projecting 329. Johnson's totals are much closer to top-5 production at the position than the bottom half of the top 10.
Even if my rankings don't currently account for it, my projections are telling you that Johnson will regain his fantasy role of a weekly stud—and making this small move from low-end RB1 to high-end RB1 is more difficult than it appears.