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Prognosticating the potential for a career-year in 2020 seems as safe as crossing all 10 lanes of rush-hour traffic on Atlanta's I-85 while walking backward and blindfolded. A football season is still tentative, at best.
It doesn't mean that we haven't seen players produce on pace with their career-bests during shortened seasons. An extreme example is Jerry Rice. He earned 65 catches, 1,079 yards, and 22 touchdowns in 12 games during a strike-shortened 1987 campaign. His next-best touchdown total during a season for the remainder of his 21-year career was 17 in 1989.
Mark McGuire and Frank Thomas were on their way to record seasons in major league baseball before a player strike. This might be the first time I ever mentioned baseball in this column.
It will also probably be the last.
Rice's 22 scores broke Mark Clayton's 1984 record of 18 in a season where Clayton played 15 games and remained the top mark until Randy Moss caught 23 scores from Tom Brady 20 years later during a 16-game campaign with New England. To put it another way, ridiculous things happen during ridiculous years, and considering what 2020 has been like, we can't rule anything out.
Even if none of the five candidates delivers a career-year, it's a worthwhile exercise for determining players poised to deliver on their upside—and the supporting cast of talents who also benefit—for as long as a season remains a viable consideration.
5. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Last year, Wilson had his second-best completion percentage of his career, his second-highest passing yardage total, and a career-low interception total. He did this with rookie D.K. Metcalf, a journeyman tight end in Jacob Hollister after Will Dissly suffered another serious injury, and the sometime-ish Josh Gordon, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch in five games of spot duty.
The Seahawks earned 1,821 rushing yards as a ground attack and Wilson still managed a top-five fantasy season. Wilson is a play-action monster and when the ground game is working as it has in 2018-19, Wilson attacks downfield with healthy yards-per-attempt averages hovering around 8 yards per attempt.
Wilson earned 1,545 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions as a play-action passer last year and completed 71.3 percent of those passes. He was also the most accurate passer in the NFL last year on passes that traveled at least 31 yards downfield with a 65.4 percent rate and also on passes covering at least 41 yards at 83.3 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
Because the Seahawks defense won't be returning to its Legion of Boom legacy anytime soon, the passing offense will still have to be aggressive more often, which should keep Wilson's attempts, yards per attempt, and yardage within range of a career-year.
D.K. Metcalf should make a cognitive and statistical jump in performance after having a full season in the NFL. Tyler Lockett remains in his athletic prime and had the two most productive seasons of his career in 2018-19. Add Greg Olsen to the equation and it's the first time that Wilson has worked with a complete tight end during his NFL career.
Olsen's age and health are the question-marks with his potential in Seattle, but he rebounded well on the field in 2018 after dealing with foot injuries during his previous two campaigns. When healthy, his red-zone routes are an excellent match for Wilson's strengths in that part of the field.
I have Wilson projected to complete 66.3 percent of his passes at 7.96 yards per attempt and it translates to a 3,950-yard, 36-touchdown campaign. I also have Wilson earning 375 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns, which is similar to what he's delivered in 2018-19 and still far from his career totals in those departments.
The forecasted passing touchdown total is the only career-best mark I'm banking on, officially. However, there are a number of factors that could unlock a career-best performance from Wilson this year.
The rapport between Metcalf and Wilson should improve to the point that we'll see more plays where Metcalf and Wilson diagnose a coverage mismatch that leads to more chunk plays than they had in 2019. This could add as much as 200-300 yards and 1-2 touchdowns to their totals in 2020.
Metcalf's improvement will lead to more attention that should help Lockett and Olsen earn easy chances due to blown coverages or easier matchups due to opponent's overreacting to the threat of Metcalf.
Now that Seattle has a trio of big-play passing weapons, it will also benefit the supporting cast in the receiving corps. A player like David Moore may not be a complete receiver, but his vertical prowess will be easier to unlock with Metcalf, Lockett, and Olsen commanding attention. This will be true with the rest of the depth chart.
And because Seattle competes in a division with plenty of offensive fire-power, look for Seattle to be a fair share of high-scoring contests.
If Wilson's efficiencies remain as projected above but he has 50-60 attempts more than I assigned—496, which is less than recent seasons—Wilson would earn career-marks with yardage (4,425).
This type of upside isn't guaranteed to place Wilson atop the stats pile for 2020 fantasy quarterbacks but he's had seven consecutive top-10 fantasy seasons as a passer and four top-five campaigns. If he hits his career-highs in yardage and touchdowns, he'll easily provide top-five production and that's a safe return on investment for a passer earning QB6 ADP figures at this point in mid-June and won't likely change unless passers picked ahead of him get hurt.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
The massive focus among fantasy players will be the young and unproven receiving corps beyond JuJu Smith-Schuster. James Washington must improve his route reliability. Diontae Johnson has never worked with Ben Roethlisberger for a full season, and Chase Claypool is a rookie.
These three players will likely earn significant roles in a receiving corps, which means it seems odd to list Roethlisberger as a candidate for a career-year. After all, Roethlisberger's best season came with Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown in 2018 with 5,219 yards, 34 touchdowns, and a 67 percent completion rate.
What are you missing? Eric Ebron for starters. Don't laugh—alright, I'm laughing a little—but don't laugh for too long because while we were laughing for years about Jared Cooks' foibles and the fantasy players that fell for his annual disappearing act, he became a productive tight end.
Ebron has that kind of upside and delivered on it two years ago with the Colts and with a quarterback who had a lot of similarities in style to Roethlisberger. Ebron is effectively a slot receiver in this offense that still has Vance McDonald as its in-line tight end.
McDonald earned 610 yards and 4 touchdowns as part of Roethlisberger's career-year. Jesse James was the second option on the depth chart and his 432 yards nearly doubled the individual totals of Ryan Switzer and James Washington.
If the five biggest producers in the passing game were a pair of Brown (1,297), Smith-Schuster (1,426), James Conner (497), McDonald (610), and James (423), it's not remotely out of the question that we could see Smith-Schuster, Ebron, Conner, McDonald, and one of Claypool or Johnson combine for totals that rival Roethlisberger's career-year.
Ebron has had two campaigns with at least 700 yards during his career. McDonald and Ebron can co-exist and combine for 1,300 receiving yards. Smith-Schuster is capable of 1,200 yards without Brown and Conner has another shot at 500 receiving yards now that he's healthy. That's 3,000 yards without accounting for Claypool, Johnson, Washington, Switzer, Deon Cain, and Jaylen Samuels. If five of those six combine for 2,000 receiving yards, Roethlisberger is in range for another career-year.
Five players responsible for another 2,000 yards is realistic, especially given the most important factor supporting this ceiling of potential—the Steelers' offensive line. Everyone on this front is healthy and there are three Pro-Bowl caliber players in the unit. I don't have Roethlisberger projected for 5,000-plus yards as a passer but the I totals I've forecasted put him well within the realm of possibility.
Roethlisberger is a terrific value as the 18th quarterback on many draft boards early this summer. Because fantasy analysts and players focus so much on receivers and not enough on the offensive line, the combined effect of a lesser-regarded corps, Roethlisberger's injury history, and a short memory as to why Pittsburgh wasn't productive last year should keep the veteran quarterback a massive draft-day value.
You can get Roethlisberger as your second quarterback who could easily outperform your first—and most of your competition's first quarterbacks in 2020.
3. Drew Brees, Saints
Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham in 2011-14 was the last period of time that Brees had a pair of excellent receivers at their respective positions. Brees delivered at least 4,950 yards each of those seasons, including three campaigns with 5,000 yards and a career-best 5,400 yards in 2011.
That 2011 season also included a career-high 43 passing touchdowns and 8.3 yards per attempt. Darren Sproles was the third-most productive receiving option with 710 yards and 7 scores. Because Brees had a trio of a deep-receiving tight end, a middle-of-the-field enforcer like Colston, and a big-play satellite back like Sproles, the rest of Brees' cast shined as role players with easier jobs.
Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson weren't complete players but they had the speed to burn. They combined for 1,123 yards and 8 scores. Lance Moore, an excellent slot receiver, deserves mention with Colston, Graham, and Sproles. He earned 627 yards and 8 scores in 14 games.
Give Brees 3-4 complete options and he's leading the Saints offense to elite, if not record-breaking, production on an annual basis.
Fast-forward to 2020, and Brees has the league's best big-slot receiver in Michael Thomas, and elite all-purpose back in Alvin Kamara, and top-end veteran athlete at tight end in Jared Cook. This trio combined for nearly 3,000 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns despite Kamar and Cook each missing more than two full games in 2019.
The supporting cast was the aging and one-dimensional Tedd Ginn, Jr. and a one-dimensional TreQuan Smith. Add reserve tight end Josh Hill to the mix, and those three combined for a little more than 800 receiving yards.
Enter Emmanuel Sanders, one of the most productive NFL receivers of the past 10 years. A complete route runner who can still get deep, Sanders' addition will likely diminish Thomas's career-best totals from 2019 but not by so much that Thomas loses his status as an elite fantasy producer.
If anything, Sanders' skills should enhance the overall productivity of the New Orleans offense. I expect Sanders to earn 1,200 yards and 8 scores this year, which will cut about 350 yards off Thomas' totals from 2019 if Brees delivers a similar yardage total as his yards-per-game pace as last year.
While those receiving values aren't conservative for the starters, Brees has a lot more upside than 4,500 yards if the presence of Sanders, Thomas, Cook, and Kamara creates high-efficiency and big-play production for reach other. This could come in the form of easy mismatches as that Brees ferrets pre-snap.
The presence of these four options on the field will also lead to high-efficiency plays for the supporting cast of Smith, Hill, rookie tight end Adam Trautman, and the reserves on the Saints receiving depth chart. When an offense has 3-4 top options who are multi-dimensional threats, it makes life easier for the one-dimensional threats and often leads to enhanced production.
If this happens, Brees could once again surpass 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. While I prefer Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as individual players, the combined skills of the Saints starting skill players are better than the combined talents of the Chiefs. The Saints also have a better offensive line and a terrific quarterback, who may not offer what Patrick Mahomes II does, but he's good enough to return to stratospheric production with this cast.
As QB10 with current ADP standards in mid-June, Brees is a value that is well worth pairing with Roethlisberger as your passers available after the sixth round who could outperform most of the options that were taken before them.
Even if he doesn't, remember that Brees' 10.5-game totals equated to 394 fantasy points last year when extrapolated to a 16-game span. Only Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott had more points in 2019. He doesn't need to be better than he was last year to deliver elite production and he has top receiving added to the mix.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Running backs have short career spans on average and they're also the position that has one of the quickest transitions to earning meaningful playing time of any position in the NFL. Two of Eric Dickerson's three best rushing outputs were during his first two seasons.
He earned 1,808 yards and 18 scores as a rookie in 1983 and followed up with 2,105 yards and 14 scores in 1984. The Los Angeles Rams had an excellent offensive line during those years, including Pro Bowl options Kent Hill at guard and right tackle Jackie Slater, a future Hall of Famer. Guard Dennis Harrah was a six-time Pro-Bowl option and Doug Smith earned six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1984-89.
The Indianapolis Colts have an excellent offensive line. Center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson are Pro Bowl performers as is their tight end, Jack Doyle. Anthony Castonzo and Mark Glowinski are strong run blockers as well.
Together, they led the way for Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, and Jonathan Wiliams to earn 1,832 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. The most talented runner of the four, Jordan Wilkins, has not been the starter because he lacks the speed and draft capital of Mack.
Wilkins has the best decision-making, footwork, contact balance, and agility of the four backs and his yards-per-carry efficiency smokes the rest of the options. While this stat is a troublesome one, it matches Wilkins' carry-to-carry efficiency and production relative to his teammates based on what I've observed on film.
Mack is a competent runner. Like Tevin Coleman, he has grown from an athlete who carries the ball into a back that understands his blocking schemes and how to manipulate them enough to earn what's blocked for him.
Mack has the speed to deliver breakaway gains but his processing and footwork are not strong enough to get him into the secondary without greater assistance from his teammates that a back like Wilkins needs. The difference between the two is that Wilkins may work his way into the second and third levels of the defense on runs that Mack cannot, but he lacks Mack's speed to pull away.
Enter rookie Jonathan Taylor, who along with J.K. Dobbins, are two of the most talented runners of the 2020 NFL Draft class. Taylor has some ball security and pass-protection flaws that plagued him at Wisconsin but they are correctable.
Taylor is a big, fast, and powerful back with impressive production from a gap-heavy scheme. Mack is a fast running back who generates his power based on downhill momentum. Taylor pushes piles without momentum. In fact, Taylor is the best back I've seen since Marshawn Lynch when it comes to his ability to stay on his feet and create scrums.
Taylor also has the vision, feet, and decision-making savvy to create space on his own. Get him into the second level and he's more dangerous than any back that was on the Colts' roster last year. He's easily capable of 1,200 rushing yards this year if he can earn the lead role immediately.
If Mack gets hurt or the Colts decide that they don't need to use him in a significant capacity, Taylor has 1,500-yard upside. Regardless of Mack's presence, Taylor has double-digit likelihood as a touchdown producer.
As you can see, Taylor is a terrific candidate for instant success. Look at Josh Jacobs as an example. Jacobs earned 1,150 yards and 7 scores on the ground behind an accomplished Oakland Raiders offensive line and veteran quarterback.
Strictly as a runner, Jacobs is almost as talented as Taylor but neither as fast nor as powerful.
Now add Philip Rivers to the equation. The veteran signal-caller has more experience manipulating and diagnosing defenses before the snap than Jacoby Brissett. If the Colts could earn over 1,800 rushing yards with Brissett under center, Rivers should be capable of helping this offense produce in a similar or greater fashion.
Yes, the recent incarnations of the Chargers' offense with Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, and Justin Jackson delivered 1,400-1,600 combined rushing yards during recent years. But the last time Rivers had a running back this talented it was Ryan Mathews, who led the way for the Chargers to earn 1,800 total ground yards in 2011 and 2013.
Rivers also enjoyed some fine years with LaDainian Tomlinson, which included 1,400 and 1,800 yards from Tomlinson by himself.
Mathews had the talent to become a great back but he lacked emotional resilience and work ethic. Tomlinson was among the greatest that ever played. Taylor could become what Mathews almost did and with the surrounding talent of the Colts, he could emerge this year.
In this era of football, a 1,200-yard rushing season is often a top-10 fantasy season. Mack is an average running back who excited the stats extremists with his speed. Taylor is an excellent running back about to make Mack look average, and he's available at a relative value as the 23rd runner on the average draft board at this early point of the summer.
His value could climb with additional buzz and it makes him a riskier pick because rookies are relative unknowns to most of the fantasy community. However, the logic is there to consider Taylor even if there's a bump.
After all, he has a lot of qualities similar to one of the few backs with greater talent than Taylor, Cleveland Browns starter...
1. Nick Chubb, Browns
Based on my tape study, Nick Chubb is one of the five best running backs in the league and that's being conservative. He's one of the best contact runners in the NFL, he has breakaway speed, only Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and maybe Alvin Kamara are in his class when it comes to processing information at the line of scrimmage.
Chubb transforms negative situations into positive gains because he not only has underrated quickness and agility but he also knows run schemes so well that he can move in ways to help his blockers reach defenders after they initially failed to do so. Chubb is teaching tape for running backs.
The Browns' additions of Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills to the offensive line are significant upgrades to the tackle positions that were massive weaknesses for the Cleveland ground game last year. Even with a spotty offensive line, a struggling quarterback, and much of the season with a staff that didn't make Chubb a schematic focal point, only Derrick Henry gained more rushing yards than Chubb last year.
This year, former Vikings coordinator Kevin Stefanski brings a run-heavy scheme that features two and three tight ends as well as the use of a fullback. Even if Chubb and Kareem Hunt rotate more often this year, Chubb should be more efficient and break bigger gains because he won't have to work as hard to turn scenarios that were losses for most starting backs into decent gains. He'll be turning decent gains into breakaway plays.
If you follow my work at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, you probably heard me on a couple of shows mention Chubb as the most likely candidate to earn 2,000 rushing yards in the NFL, if there's someone from the current generation of players capable of doing so. It doesn't mean that I'm projecting 2,000 rushing yards for Chubb.
As it stands, I have Chubb earning 285 carries for 1,450 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. I have Hunt earning 123 carries, 600 yards, and 4 scores. Both will split targets, receptions, and yards almost down the middle.
The 2,000-yard upside occurs if Hunt does not factor into the season. Be it an injury or a trade, if Hunt is out of the picture, there isn't a back that's remotely capable of filling Hunt's role other than Chubb taking on more work.
If this happens, Chubb has a floor of 1,700-1,800 yards. This sounds outlandish until you look back at Chubb's work with the mess that has been the Cleveland Browns offense. If Baker Mayfield and/or Case Keenum can perform efficiently, Chubb has 2,000-yard upside behind a healthy offensive line operating a scheme that gets a lot of assistance from tight ends and fullbacks.
I'm not counting on a 2,000-yard season at all. Still, the exercise underscores why Chubb is one of the safest fantasy backs projected for RB1 production in 2020.
Did you enjoy this article? Find more of Matt Waldman's work here.