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PFF writer and multiple top-3 FFPC finisher Dwain McFarland and I have been conducting a team-by-team projections series pod for the past three years. We each share our statistical projections for offensive players, our process behind the data, and how our film observations match the numbers.
Rountinely, we find ourselves discussing the topic of Hidden Value. Every player has hidden value, but what we're specifically noting are players whose values could skyrocket or tank based on a change to the current dynamics of their environment: An injury to a teammate, a shift in scheme, or an expected development with that player's technique or athletic ability.
With this in mind, here are players on my list with Hidden Value for the 2020 fantasy season.
Cooper Kupp: I have Kupp projected for 110 targets, 70 receptions, 900 yards, and 7 touchdowns this year. This is a decrease from his top-five fantasy production from 2019 because Kupp's targets decreased when the Rams switched to a gap-heavy, 12 personnel (two tight ends) set as the base offense.
My projections equate to Kupp delivering mid-range, fantasy WR3 production in 2020. This is respectable value for a receiver who might not earn the value of playing in the slot as often as he did the past two to three years. However, there's hidden upside with Kupp's game because as much as the Rams want to run 12 personnel, the offensive line must prove that he can open creases for the ground game and protect Jared Goff.
If the team can't run on its planned schedule, opposing defenses will shut down Goff when it counts most and leads to game scripts where the Rams offense is earning statistical value in garbage time. If this happens, the Rams will have to work away from its 12 personnel game plan and return to the 11 personnel sets that feature Kupp in the slot.
This potential dynamic could make Kupp as valuable as he's ever been but because the team's offensive intentions are different, there's a balance between honoring what the organization says it's going to do and what we think may happen that creates a thorny decision about Kupp's value.
George Kittle: My projected No.2 tight end in fantasy leagues this year, Kittle is the best all-around tight end in the NFL and perennial fantasy stud. As good as he's been, Kittle has never scored more than five touchdowns during his career. Last year, Kittle earned 20 targets in the red zone, catching 14 for 74 yards and 2 scores. His 2018 campaign had nearly identical target volume and production.
If Kittle either earns more targets or the 49ers staff generates red zone plays that lead to more opportunities for Kittle in the end zone, Kittle's value would skyrocket if he scores 8-12 touchdowns instead of 5. This is something Dwain and I discussed during this week's podcast.
Travis Kelce is the only fantasy option who is truly Kittle's peer. He scored five touchdowns in 2019 and had 24 red-zone targets. In 2018, Kelce only earned 3 additional targets than the 2019 campaign but scored 10 times in this range of the field.
As you can see, it may not take anything more than "everything to come together" with similar volume to give Kittle a massive fantasy year if his target, receiving, and yardage totals are similar from previous seasons.
Nick Chubb: While I've spent much of the spring and summer waging a debate with Kareem Hunt proponents that Chubb will still deliver fantasy RB1 value with Hunt as a contributor of value, there's no doubt that if Hunt gets traded to a new team or misses extensive time, Chubb's value skyrockets to the elite fantasy tier.
If you use physical talent and conceptual refinement at the position as factors for determining the best back in the NFL, Chubb is at or near the top of the list. The upgrades to the Browns' tackles and the decision to feature the ground game behind sets with two and three tight ends and/or a fullback is essentially arming a fantasy weapon that has the potential to go nuclear.
Make Chubb the only game in town, and there's 2,000-yard, 15-touchdown potential this year.
Russell Wilson: If you examine Russell Wilson's statistics against the average NFL starter, he's the only quarterback last year and for the past 2-3 years who is among the top 3-5 in every meaningful passing category: big-time throws, under pressure, completion percentage in various ranges of the field, red-zone production, etc. Despite the rantings of the analytics crowd decrying the offense of Brian Schottenheimer, McFarland has pointed out during our podcast that Schottenheimer has created a hyper-efficient passing offense.
Don't get me wrong, the analytics folks are often upset that the Seahawks shut down the passing game once the team earns a lead when it could throw more and extend leads. Still, Schottenheimer gets a bad wrap from these folks and the wannabe cool crowd that tags along.
With Tyler Lockett in his prime, the ascending D.K. Metcalf, the return of Paul Richardson Jr (who always had a rapport with Wilson), and the addition of Greg Olsen, the Seattle offense has the best receiving weapons we've seen on this team in a long time. If the Seahawks defense struggles—and there's no mistaking it as the Legion of Boom it once was—Wilson could top Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes II if game scripts force Seattle from its conservative leanings.
Gardner Minshew: I already have Minshew rated higher than most (14th) at our site. This is accounting for Minshew's skill to read the field, attack vertically, and manage the pocket far better than many starters in the league. It's also accounting for some of the flaws with the Jaguars' defense that will lead to favorable garbage-time game scripts.
Still, Blake Bortles was a far less disciplined quarterback who wasn't a consistent student of the game and he had two top-10 fantasy years as the lead sanitation engineer among quarterbacks. If the Jaguars defense is a dumpster fire, Minshew could reach these fantasy heights and present excellent value relative to his ADP.
Drew Brees: Brees was on track for a 4,500-yard season before getting hurt. This was with Tre'Quan Smith and Ted Ginn Jr as notable factors in the receiving corps. Jared Cook and Michael Thomas notwithstanding, a top-producing offense needs a trio of skill options to force opposing defenses to play honestly. Alvin Kamara's injury hampered those designs.
The addition of Emmanuel Sanders gives Brees and the offense a complete receiver who, in combination with Thomas, Cooks, and Kamara can create a ton of headaches for opposing defenses. Brees has had seasons of 5,000-5,400 yards and 39-46 touchdowns with similar or less firepower than he has this year.
I have Brees delivering 4,700 yards and 35 scores in my projections, but he could deliver a consistent diet of 300-yard, 2-touchdown outings and even greater outbursts this year. Consider the improved offenses the Saints will face in the NFC South and this could be a fantasy barnstormer of a division.
Boston Scott: If you've been paying attention to Jene Bramel's weekly injury reports, you know that hamstrings are difficult injuries because of the heightened potential for re-injury. I placed Miles Sanders on my Fantasy No-Fly List after earning a week-to-week designation with his injury.
Sanders is a player who has relied (too much at times) on his physical prowess. It would not surprise me if Sanders rushes back, gets hurt again, and the Eagles have to rely more on another back.
While possible that "other" back isn't currently on the roster, Scott is a stronger runner between the tackles that his height may indicate. He's a smart and creative runner who doesn't need a lot of space to excel.
If Sanders rushes back and subsequently tweaks his hamstring within the first 4-6 weeks of the season, Sanders might wind up the best option that the Eagles can get, and that could lead to solid fantasy RB2 production for a talented player slated for a "Darren Sproles Role."
Todd Gurley: Last year, I was among the few who maintained that a Gurley with declining physical skills could remain a top-15 fantasy back. Gurley delivered as such behind a bad offensive line in L.A. that also faced schemes designed to stop the outside zone game, and Sean McVay didn't adjust schematically until it was too late.
Atlanta has an offensive line with a strong mix of veterans and talented youth that showed moments of its skill late in 2019. If Gurley delivered top-15 production with lesser talent, it stands to reason that Gurley could deliver top-12 production in Atlanta.
But what if Gurley earns enough sizeable creases to reach full speed? Gurley's speed hasn't diminished as much as his initial acceleration in and out of cuts. If the Falcons offensive line creates these holes, Gurley has top-5 upside—as much as this may seem to go against the narrative of conventional fantasy analyst thinking.
Of course, you know I couldn't care less about that.
Quintez Cephus: I've had Cephus projected for 52 catches, 567 yards, and 4 touchdowns before training camp even began. I also have Danny Amendola projected for 61 targets, 640 yards, and a score. This is in addition to the nearly 3,500 yards of receiving projected for the Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, T.J. Hockenson, and the running backs.
After all, Matthew Stafford was on track for a 5,000-yard season before getting hurt. I'm only forecasting 4,678 yards from the Lions veteran.
Speaking of injury, Amendola has rarely proven durable. Every game he misses could lead to more targets for Cephus. And because Cephus has skills that transcend the slot, every game Jones or Golladay misses could also lead to more targets.
And if you consider that Cephus is earning the Anquan Boldin label from Detroit beat writers, think back to Boldin's role with the Lions as a big slot who earned 584 yards and 8 touchdowns. Boldin's scoring prowess was a factor in limiting Eric Ebron to one touchdown in 2016 despite Ebron earning over 700 receiving yards.
There are four players whose projected stats could feed Cephus' value and three of them have recent issues with injuries. Cephus' hidden value could range as high as a shockingly consistent fantasy WR2 this year if the right combination of Lions can't stay healthy--again.
Austin Ekeler: A terrific fantasy weapon, Ekeler is the best receiving back in the game when he has a quarterback who knows how to target him. Considering that targeting running backs is often seen as an underrated and difficult process, having Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert under center could take the luster from Ekelers fantasy value.
So could Joshua Kelley and/or Justin Jackson. While many will label it as false modesty, Ekeler has stated multiple times during the past two years that he has learned a lot about running the football from watching Jackson perform and has borrowed techniques from Jackson's game.
A healthy Jackson has the rushing and receiving chops to force a committee and Jackson may not be the greatest threat to Ekeler's volume. Kelley needed a week of training camp to sort out what he learned about the offense in the classroom but once he got acclimated, he has been one of the major bright spots for the team. His power, speed, vision, and receiving skills have all been on display.
He's physically the more ideal option for red-zone work. It doesn't mean that Ekeler isn't capable, but it's clear the Chargers would prefer not to give Ekeler the majority of the workload between the tackles so they can get the most from him in space.
If Kelley continues performing on the field as he has during camp, he could force a greater split of touches than fantasy players are anticipating—and based on those talking about Ekeler's top-5 upside, that trap door could be insidious.
Mark Ingram, Devin Singletary, Aaron Jones, and Marlon Mack: It's not completely accurate to label the presence of rookies J.K. Dobbins, Zack Moss, A.J. Dillon, and Jonathan Taylor as "hidden downside" for this quartet of backs but a nagging injury plus a strong performance from these first-year runners could shut the door on their status as lead backs and possibly as significant contributors to a committee.
It's a rough world out there for running backs, and if a troublesome hammy, foot, or high ankle sprain becomes the headline for any of these vets, you'll see how quickly they're forgotten about.
Baker Mayfield: The Browns have already created an offense that makes the ground game the focal point (as it should have two years ago) and placed training wheels on the passing game. This is a scheme that should help Mayfield become more efficient while at the same time limiting the opportunities he has to lose games with his erratic decision-making and accuracy.
The addition of Case Keenum was more than providing Mayfield a veteran presence in the quarterback room with experience in a Gary Kubiak-influenced scheme. Keenum is a capable starter who can help a strong offense stay in games.
It makes Keenum a perfect bridge between Mayfield and a 2021 first-round quarterback if Mayfield doesn't rebound this year. And this front office and coaching staff isn't as invested in Mayfield's success as the regime that selected him.
Josh Allen: If you remove the rushing production from Allen's 2019 campaign he goes from fantasy QB10 to fantasy QB20. While that change in production won't happen, there's a much greater probability of a significant decline in Allen's rushing production thanks to the addition of the hard-charging Moss in the red zone. Unless Allen can compensate for the decline in rushing with better passing numbers—and his career accuracy percentage doesn't provide much optimism—Allen's value could take a hit despite his team emerging as a force in the AFC East.
Stefon Diggs: Projected as the top-performing receiver on the team for my forecasts, Diggs' ADP as a low-end fantasy WR2 is a modest value for a player with his ability. Diggs was trending toward fantasy WR1 production in the Vikings offense with a competent quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Even if you have an optimistic view of Allen, the Bills quarterback is only trending towards competence.
Allen has not been a consistent multi-read field general and his vertical accuracy undermines his great arm strength. If Allen resorts to more familiar targets like John Brown and Dawson Knox when under pressure, or rookie Gabriel Davis earns easy matchup advantages like the Detroit Lions got from Kenny Golladay as a rookie, Diggs' value as a fantasy starter becomes far less consistent.
And if you look at Allen's NFL career, it may already be hanging by a thread.
Odell Beckham: Like Diggs, I have Beckham earning over 1,000 yards and leading his team in receiving. Yet, examining the offense that Kevin Stefanski brings to Cleveland from Minnesota brings a worrisome downside scenario for Beckham.
Adam Thielen missed six games in 2019. Still, based on his past production, you would have expected a lot more production than 30 catches 418 yards, and 6 touchdowns during this 10-game span. When you examine the rest of the offense, no receiver or tight end truly compensated for that gap in production between Thielen's 2018 and 2019 campaigns.
A significant factor was a change in the offense. The Vikings used a lot of sets with three tight ends or two tight ends and a fullback. That leaves one receiver on the field. While Beckham is a good all-around receiver and a decent blocker, Jarvis Landry is one of the best blocking receivers in the game.
Beckham won't be off the field a tremendous amount of time, but enough that it could be a further annoyance to fantasy players who will look to Thielen's 30 catches for 418 yards and 6 scores wonder how much of Olabisi Johnson's 2019 stat-line of 31-294-3 could be reasonably added to Thielen's full-season total to give them an idea of how much should they truly value a once-great fantasy option whose offense (and quarterback) could mute his upside.
Trautman's speed, hands, blocking techniques, and route running are all advanced for his age and level of college football participation. Two tight end sets are among the most difficult offensive schemes to defend.
If Trautman's play provides the Saints an opportunity to be more multiple at the line of scrimmage and shift players around pre-snap, not only will TreQuan Smith and any other depth chart option at the receiver position see their playing time dwindle, but it could take a chunk out Cook's production, especially in the red zone.
Remember Hunter Henry's rookie year as a touchdown producer running free in red-zone situations while the opposition was obsessed with other options, especially Antonio Gates? If Trautman continues performing as we've seen, we might see the same in New Orleans.