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1. Teddy Bridgewater can throw the deep ball.
Teddy Bridgewater has a career 7.15 yard per attempt average with a 65% completion percentage. His game is best defined as a short-to-intermediate ranged quarterback who does well between the 20s and then struggles to hammer home the scores in the red zone. Last year when Bridgewater replaced Drew Brees for five games in weeks 3-7, New Orleans’ red zone efficiency dropped from 35.3% under Brees to 22.7% with Bridgewater. At the same time, the Saints' yards per drive with Brees was 34.5. Under Bridgewater, it was 34.3. The issue wasn't moving the ball, it was scoring once he got close. Enter Joe Brady, who was the conductor of the majestic orchestra that was Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers last year. In 2018, Joe Burrow and the Tigers had the 38th ranked offense in FBS. In 2019 Joe Brady joined the staff and was given the role of passing game coordinator. Virtually the same team finished 1st in offense in FBS and Joe Burrow set collegiate records with 60 touchdown passes and 5,761 passing yards while the team scored 48.4 points per game and 401 passing yards per game.
OK, but Steve Ensminger was the offensive coordinator. How much of the success was due to Brady? In a press conference before the National Championship game, Ensminger was asked: "How do you decide what you want to do in the red zone each time?" His response - "Look, I have a game plan that's sitting right here. I'll be honest with you here. When we get in the red zone, 12 in, that's Joe Brady. Unless I want to run a play-action, go fast, we'll go. When we get inside the 12, I tell Joe, It's yours and he calls it."
This confirms all along that Brady was the brains of the LSU offensive success. If Brady is as good as advertised he will work with Bridgewater to find weaknesses in each defense and exploit them. He may not have a 10.8 yards per attempt like Joe Burrow last year but he is capable of making plays. Look for an increase in play-action this year with a barrage of bunch formations, especially in the red zone. Bridgewater is a decent quarterback, but with Brady, his level of production could increase, perhaps substantially.
2. Tajae Sharpe becomes fantasy-relevant with the Vikings.
The Vikings signed Sharpe this offseason to be a veteran presence on the team. They drafted Justin Jefferson to eventually occupy the role opposite Adam Thielen, and perhaps more. This decision was expected and Sharpe's role as a complementary veteran leader was confirmed. Then COVID-19 struck. OTA's and mini-camps were canceled thus putting rookies and newcomers at a disadvantage. Justin Jefferson is the future of Vikings receivers, but his arrival may be on hold in year one, especially after learning on July 22 that he will need to be quarantined due to COVID-19. It's unclear if Jefferson tested positive; he may have only been exposed to others who did. The uncertainty and lack of practice, preseason games, etc benefit Sharpe who has four years of experience in the league, but only three years of playing experience due to a foot injury where he sat out the entire 2017 season. Another item of awareness is that Jefferson mostly played out of the slot with LSU and the Vikings used 11-personnel the fewest in 2019. Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski is now with Cleveland and long-time veteran coach Gary Kubiak was brought in, so that could likely change, but at the same time, that's what the offense is most familiar with. Why Sharpe could benefit? In three years of playing in the league, Sharpe has scored at least two touchdowns every season. He was once considered a young emerging talent, then the foot injury interrupted his ascension of the depth chart. He'll have a chance to make a statement this year with Minnesota as the WR2 opposite Adam Thielen, especially if the path to success for Justin Jefferson takes a few turns along the way.
3. Jalen Hurd scores six touchdowns (3 rushing and 3 receiving).
In 2019 Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers looked to have a formidable duo of young emerging receivers in Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd. Samuel was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Hurd was selected in the third. The future looked bright early on, much in part due to preseason game 1 where both Samuel and Hurd made plays for the 49ers offense with Nick Mullens under center. The athleticism of both receivers was on display and Hurd caught two passes, both touchdowns in the red zone. One was a catch on the 4-yard line where he used his 6'5, 225-pound frame to bowl over defenders to the end zone, the other was an out-fade pattern from inside the five where he stretched for the ball over a defender and came down in the end zone. In that same game, Hurd injured his back, perhaps in special teams duty, and it ended his season before it got started.
Hurd has a unique skill set in that he was a five-star running back recruit at Tennessee which is rare for someone who is 6'5, 220 pounds. In three years he finished as the 6th best rusher in Vols history. After the 2017 season, Hurd decided to transfer to Baylor and play wide receiver. He sat out all of 2018 due to NCAA transfer regulations. At Baylor, he caught 69 passes for nearly 1,000 yards with an additional 48 rushes for 209 yards. In total, he had 7 combined touchdowns with Baylor and earned himself a third-round pick by the 49ers. Fast-forward to the 2020 offseason. The 49ers spent a first-round pick on Brandon Aiyuk, a wide receiver from Arizona State with outstanding footwork and skills after the catch. Aiyuk was an underclassmen draft pick, meaning he declared for the draft after completing his Junior season. The learning curve in Kyle Shanahan's offense may be steep for the young rookie, especially due to the lack of practices and no preseason this year. It's clear that the 49ers are shaping their receiving corps with versatile, sure-footed, weapons, but it may take some time for Aiyuk to become fantasy-relevant. Both Hurd and Aiyuk will be a piece of the offense alongside Deebo Samuel who came on strong during the second half of the season. Samuel suffered a Jones fracture to his foot in the offseason and may miss a game or two in the early going. This benefits both Hurd and Aiyuk. Both may be utilized this year, but Hurd's versatility as an effective rusher and receiver, especially in the red zone, could play into Shanahan's playbook nicely.
Let me make this clear, I have a glass-half-full approach with Rob Gronkowski this year, but that only stands if he is healthy, active, and producing. I believe he will produce when active. I believe Tom Brady will use him as a hot-read when necessary because they both know each other's tendencies. I believe Gronkowski will get a lot of targets in the middle of the field where Brady should have his most accurate passes. What concerns me is the other side of the coin. The positive side of Gronkowski is known. The negative side is the unknown. What did his body feel like when he decided it was time to retire after winning Super Bowl 53? What was his mindset? Is he returning after missing the entire 2019 season simply because Tom Brady asked him to or is there a degree of desire in Gronkowski that he still wants, and can play, at a high level? These questions still need to be answered, but if the coin lands on the negative side, there is still hope.
For every occurrence in the NFL, there is a reactionary element. One player goes down and another takes over, sometimes to a greater degree and sometimes to a lesser degree. O.J. Howard is sitting in the driver's seat of an opportunity that could pay big dividends if Gronkowski falters, is injured, or decides that he longer can play at the elite level that we are accustomed to seeing. If that happens, O.J. Howard will have free range at the tight end position that Tom Brady so successfully has utilized in his extended career. Howard began his career with six touchdowns in his rookie year of 2017 and he followed it up with five touchdowns in 2018. The 2019 season saw a drop-off with only one score. Howard has had troubles of his own staying healthy, missing 12 games in three seasons, but when he is active and healthy he has performed well but he hasn't had that one season that puts him on the map as a dominant fantasy threat. Perhaps that comes this year?
5. David Johnson will win Comeback Player of the Year.
Sometimes an athlete gets dealt the short end of the stick. This has been the case with David Johnson. Six running backs were selected over him in the 2015 NFL Draft including now current teammate Duke Johnson Jr. David Johnson was selected by Arizona in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft and was initially third in the pecking order of existing Cardinals backs behind Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. He outperformed them all in 2015, his first year, and erupted to the #1 fantasy back in 2016 only to injure his wrist in Week 1 of 2017 forcing him to miss the entire season. When he returned in 2018 the Cardinals staff was gutted and replaced by defensive-minded Steve Wilks who lasted only one year. Johnson thrived in 2018 to a 10th place ranking despite the new regime. He started strong in the new offense brought in by head coach Kliff Kingsbury in 2019 but suffered a fairly severe ankle injury in Week 6. Up until then, he was the sixth-ranked fantasy back. The ankle injury forced Arizona to make a move and they acquired Kenyan Drake from Miami. Drake fit Kingsbury's offense well and he found early success. Once Johnson was healthy again, it was Drake's backfield. It appeared as if Arizona was also ready to move on from Johnson and his lofty salary demands. He was traded along with a second and fourth-round pick to Houston in exchange for veteran standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans are a running back-starved team that fits Johnson's interests. The lack of an elite running back and removal of Hopkins' targets means high volume involvement as a rusher and receiver for Johnson. In 2016, Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald combined for nearly 50% of the team's total targets which is rare to see, especially before the Christian McCaffrey era. The NFL is moving to a more versatile, multi-dimensional role of running backs and Johnson is in the driver's seat of the Texans utilizing this form of offense. The move to Houston is the break Johnson was looking for. He now has a chance to prove his worth once again and Houston is going to give him every chance.
6. Jonnu Smith will finish second on the Titans in receptions.
In 2019, Jonnu Smith finished third in team receptions with 35, behind A.J. Brown (52) and Corey Davis (43). Last year the Titans saw the emergence of one of the best young talents at wide receiver in A.J. Brown. Brown started slowly as most rookies do, but the combination of a few games under his belt and the changing of Ryan Tannehill to the starting quarterback was enough to create a spark for Brown. The rookie finished as the #7 wide receiver in fantasy points after Week 10 and became Tannehill's top target. The Titans top tight end target Delanie Walker suffered an ankle injury in Week 7. He tried to come back in Week 12 but was shut down for the rest of the season. Walker's cap hit was too much for the Titans to handle so they released him this offseason. Filling his place is Jonnu Smith who many believe can take a step forward in his fourth year in the league. His rise to fantasy relevance could be similar to what Delanie Walker did himself in his career. After laying low with the 49ers for 6-7 years Walker exploded in his first year with the Titans. Smith is a better receiver than he is a blocker, but three years of experience has seen him elevate those skills. At 6'3, 248 pounds, Smith is an excellent combination of wide receiver and tight end, but he plays more like a wide receiver. The last two years Smith has averaged 12.9 and 12.5 yards per catch with three touchdowns each season. The Titans racked up 76 receptions to tight ends last year with Smith leading the way with 35. He will have an opportunity for a larger role in 2020 due to the departure of Walker but Smith is also coming into his own and could wind up being the perfect complement to A.J. Brown, especially in the red zone.
7. Jerry Jeudy will lead the Broncos in receptions in 2020.
I know, rookies in 2020 aren't likely to be involved much. There are no OTAs, mini-camps, or preseason. Learning the offense has been through zoom meetings up to this point, but I'm here to tell you, despite all of that, Jerry Jeudy will be ready and he will be utilized. To use a baseball term, Jeudy is a five-tool player, in that he possesses several important skills needed to be successful. He is an excellent route-runner, therefore he is familiar with the entire route tree. He positions himself well to make receptions over his defender. He already knows how to draw flags on routes. He has the awareness to cut off his route to help his quarterback in trouble. When he catches the ball he is elusive as a runner and has adequate speed and strength to gain separation to break tackles. The sky is the limit on the young talented receiver. Drew Lock will have his work cut out for him but at the same time, Jeudy will make his job easier. So what about Courtland Sutton? Sutton is a great talent on his own, but he is arguably not a great possession receiver, that job will belong to Jeudy which is ultimately why he will lead the Broncos in receptions in 2020. Sutton may outscore him, but Jeudy is the next Jarvis Landry with a higher yards per catch average. Another comparison that I see with Jeudy is D.J. Moore with better route-running skills.