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 2019 and 2020 tape, monitoring personnel changes, and consulting with the groundhog in my backyard, it's almost time to unveil my bold projections for the 2021 NFL season.
First, let's look back at last year's disaster:
- Josh Jacobs earns top-three fantasy RB production: Nope.
- Matthew Stafford eclipses 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns: Bupkis.
- Saints Adam Trautman will lead rookie tight ends in receiving: Trautman flashed, but his stats fizzled.
- Tua Tagovailoa will outplay Joe Burrow and deliver starter production after Week 9: Accurate on a technicality, but not in the spirit of the call.
- CeeDee Lamb will deliver top-15 production: Until Dak Prescott and the offensive line went to the training room, this was true.
- O.J. Howard and Rob Gronkowski will combine for 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns: Maybe this year, but not on my list of bold predictions for 2021.
- Mike Thomas will be a fantasy contributor by year's end in Cincinnati: Ha!
- Todd Gurley will have one more year as a top-10 RB: For much of the year, he was close, but close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear war.
So, I've hit rock-bottom in this three-year slump: Not a single correct bold call this year after a 12.5-percent performance the year prior.
Nah, injuries contributed to his status, although he performed well. We're not doing easy predictions — what's the fun in that?
Tom Brady Breaks Peyton Manning's Yardage And Touchdown Records
The idea most of the industry has considered Brady's projected value as no better than the 7-10 range of quarterbacks this summer has triggered me more than anything I've witnessed in the past decade, including our society's political behaviors, the pandemic, and the U.S. government's public acknowledgment this summer that aliens exist. For those of you who read at the depth of a coked-fueled groupie at [Insert your favorite band of geriatrics stretching the rope of their relevancy to a frayed strand here] concert, understand that I'm more concerned on a day-to-day level about the latter situations than I am about the football analysis of a bunch of wannabe meteorologists and reality show participants.
Oh, and actual fantasy writers I respect as well. Still, it puzzles me that a team with this packed with receiving talent that was banged up for much of last year and still managed 40 passing touchdowns and a Super Bowl victory is discounted in fantasy to the degree it is. I've written about this weekly, so I'm not rehashing it. Even if 2-3 of these receivers can't stay healthy this year, I'm confident Brady can still manage a year similar to his 2020 campaign. I have his floor where most are projecting his ceiling.
This development where I'm standing on the opposite side of the Brady issue has almost been as crazy to me as people not seeing Nick Chubb as the best running back prospect in his draft class, Lamar Jackson as a legitimate weapon at quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II as a special talent, or A.J. Brown and Justin Jefferson landing in good situations. I've come to realize that I watch football in a way most don't, so what's common sense to me may not be to others, but when those gulfs appear, they still surprise me.
Of course, with my string of luck with my one fluff piece of the year, Brady and his receivers will all fall off the age cliff and the dragons at the edge of this flat world that the ageist analysts have created will devour them.
MATTHEW STAFFORD Eclipses 5,000 Yards And 40 Touchdowns
I think I was a year early with my Stafford call and now that he's in a Sean McVay system that helped Jared Goff earn 4,688 yards and 32 scores in 2018, I'm going back to the well. Stafford played with one of the best singular talents in the history of the game but the combination of Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, DeSean Jackson, Van Jefferson, Darrell Henderson, and Sony Michel might rival any corps of skill talented he's had during his career.
What makes this a bold call is Stafford's health. The guy plays with the abandon of a Hollywood stuntman. Two years ago, he was on his way to a 5,000-yard campaign when he broke his back. With an extra game, good health, McVay's scheme, and surrounding talent, I'm thinking this could be Stafford's best shot at career highs within this realm of production.
DeSean Jackson Is A Top-15 Fantasy WR Heading into Week 5
I'm bold, but I'm not crazy. Jackson is old for a receiver and he hasn't appeared in at least 15 games since 2016. His only 16-game seasons were in 2013 and 2008! Jackson is one of those European sports cars that need a perfect road and constant tuning to perform. But by God, when Jackson gets on one of those well-maintained roads for short stints, his performances are stunning reminders of the wonders of human engineering.
In football theory, Jackson and Stafford are a match made in heaven and I expect to see Jackson average at least 17 yards per catch and score 3-5 touchdowns in September. It won't surprise me if Jackson has 2-3 games with at least 120 yards receiving and is among the top fantasy receivers during the first month of the NFL season.
If he somehow bucks the trend of his career and plays 14-17 games, Jackson could be a 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown performer. As I said, I'm bold, but I'm not crazy. A good month of Jackson is about as far as any reasonable risk-taker should go.
Quez Watkins Will Lead the Eagles in receiving
The thing that impressed me the most about Watkins at Southern Mississippi was his skill at winning contested catches. He had that wiry strength for a thin receiver you see from guys like Jackson, Randy Moss, and T.Y. Hilton. Watkins had excellent speed, but he needed work with his short-area quickness and acceleration.
These are athletic skills that can improve with better technique and a stronger conceptual and technical understanding of the position. As I've shown over the years at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio site, a receiver with 4.3-second, 40-Yard speed will look more like the 4.7-player if he can't run routes and release from press coverage whereas a technically skilled 4.7-runner who understands the game and his position, will look a lot more like a 4.3-guy. The better a player becomes at the techniques of route running, releasing from the line the faster he will play in games.
Watkins showed the drive and maturity to work hard at his game during the offseason and returned to the Eagles with a much greater understanding of his position and potential roles with the team. He has arguably been the best receiver on the team this summer and will man the slot for a team that will likely need to throw the ball a lot to stay in games. Look for Watkins to challenge for the lead in receptions because he has a rapport with Jalen Hurts and be in the hunt for the yardage lead.
Watkins is more physical than DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, he's at least—AT LEAST—their equal as an open-field runner, and he will earn the benefit of two-way-go situations in the middle of the field with greater frequency than Smith and Reagor
Marquez Valdes-Scantling Will Deliver Top-20 WR Production
I was a fan of Valdes-Scantling as a developmental project out of South Florida when he arrived in the NFL, and for a rookie, he impressed with flashes of strong route-running as a big-play vertical receiver. He didn't build on his immense promise in subsequent seasons, dropping a lot of passes that otherwise cemented him as the 1-B receiver for Aaron Rodgers. Instead, Valdes-Scantling became the player Packers fans held their breath every time the ball was heading for him.
I'm not a huge narrative guy, but I embrace narratives that aren't derivative PR thinly disguised as sports journalism stories — you know what I'm talking about here:
- "He's in the best shape of his life."
- "He's doing MMA training with Jay Glazer."
- "He had three phone conversations with Peyton Manning."
- "The team wants to get him (and five other players) the ball more."
Tony Gonzalez's story is a good narrative to seek from other developing players. After his second season, Gonzalez's worse year by his account, Gonzalez sought answers to his goal to become great in various books and then formulated an action plan based on what he learned. Most people I know who aren't reaching their goals but are always talking about them read a lot of books. They make great dinner guests but they're always setting goals without ever coming close to reaching the ones that are most meaningful to them.
Gonzalez created a routine to improve his hands and routes and made sure he worked on them multiple times a day—before and after practice and throughout the offseason. He recruited assistant coaches to participate in his routine to help him when at the facility. Gonzalez told this story on the air when named one of the NFL's 100 Greatest Players a few years ago and I've cited this story frequently as a real type of narrative to seek when reading critically about players.
Valdes-Scantling's offseason story bears similarities to the Gonzalez tale. This winter, he sought out Aaron Rodgers, an avid reader, and asked Rodgers for titles that influenced the NFL's reigning MVP. Rodgers went to the local Barnes and Noble and bought Valdes-Scantling a number of books. Fast-forward to this summer, the Packers and national media have seen a notable improvement with Valdes-Scantling's consistency in practices. That link also gives you the details on the books.
Seeking information and creating an actionable plan are clearly two things Valdes-Scantling has done this offseason and the early returns are notable. He's a better route runner in the short game and rarely dropping a pass. The last time Aaron Rodgers had a pair of dynamic outside receivers was Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams in 2016 when Rodgers threw 40 touchdowns and earned 4,428 yards. Nelson earned 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns and Adams earned 997 yards and 12 scores. Look for Valdes-Scantling to approach 1,000 yards and double-digit scores this year.
Jamaal Williams Will Lead the Lions in All Running Back Production Categories
I like D'Andre Swift as a player, but I don't love him. I'd say that's also true for Williams, except that what I like more about Williams than Swift is that Williams knows what kind of runner he is and after what I saw from Swift last year, I'm not sold that Swift has gained that self-awareness. Don't get me wrong, he may have done so this year, but we won't see it until the real games begin.
Combine Swift's learning curve with a lingering groin injury, and I'm concerned that this is a back whose mind and body aren't aligned. This sounds "woo-woo," but it's rooted in the idea that a back who doesn't know what he does best is playing outside the bounds of his athletic ability and is at greater risk of hurting himself. I'm no media professional, but I have spent nearly 20 years of my life studying the performance mechanics of four positions. While I still have a lot to learn, players who don't understand their scheme or how to move efficiently within the scope of their athletic strengths tend to underperform. While my concern about Swift is anecdotal and I hope he stays healthy, I am personally avoiding Swift this year until he proves that he's figured out the type of back he can be.
Because I have none of these concerns about Williams and I appreciate his no-nonsense style behind an offensive line that will likely perform as such under Dan Campbell's regime, I think Williams leads this backfield by default of a Swift injury. Even if Swift stays healthy, Williams' work as a red-zone option, blocker, and route runner has been superior to Swift when comparing their film.
The potential saving grace for Swift is that the difference between the first and second year for an NFL player can be dramatic and Swift is the type of worker who could make this leap. This is the same player who led late-night workout sessions at the University of Georgia. They began with just him and wound up with several players joining him as the years passed.
But for this fluff piece, and my drafts in general, I've been playing the odds in Williams' favor.
Tyson Williams Will Earn 1,000 Yards from Scrimmage And 8 Touchdowns
Le'Veon Bell joins the Ravens practice squad this week — a move to get Bell in the fold without paying him a full veteran minimum for the active roster before the season begins. Like Adrian Peterson and many older backs before him, Bell probably lost more on the spreadsheet column than losing actual skill, which is why most of the general public will tell you that his career is toast.
If there's a reason for Bell's career as a top starter to be over, it's not as much what he lost due to age, but the self-inflicted damage he caused with holdouts and communication with his past teams. His behavior, like many folks on social media, has been immature and it burned bridges. Bell's behavior doesn't fit the image of what coaches usually want from players, especially insecure coaches or coaches with young locker rooms.
The Ravens are a mature organization that can afford to gamble on players with bad reputations if the talent and need are compelling enough. I expect Bell to compete with Williams for touches this year if Bell is in good shape and behaves. Even if Williams plays well in this regular-season debut, expect the Ravens to feed Bell enough touches during the next 3-5 weeks to determine if they want to expand Bell's role in the offense as the complement to Gus Edwards.
If Bell plays to his prime abilities, he could be the free-agent addition of the year. At the same time, Bell isn't an exact stylistic fit for the quick-hitting Ravens run game that mixes zone and gap blocking. Bell is a dynamic zone runner who operates a lot more on patiently pressing the line of scrimmage. If he doesn't adapt to the quick-hitting aspects of the gap game, he could stay on the bench or wind up on the street.
Williams has developed a good feel for the scheme, has young legs, and has the potential to be a three-down back if he displays the consistency he has shown since late last summer. It's why I'm betting on the Ravens using Bell and Williams in a platoon with Edwards in September. By mid-October, we'll see Williams emerge as the clear No.2 to Edwards and the recently acquired Trenton Cannon as an occasional change-up similar to the way the Ravens gave Hill 2-3 touches per contest last year.
Edwards earned 853 yards from scrimmage and 6 scores last year. While he grinds down opposing defenders, I'm not convinced he's the style of running back that a team will want to give 270-300 touches. The Ravens running backs averaged 377.5 rushing attempts and 51.5 targets in 2019-20. They had nearly 400 rushing attempts, not counting Lamar Jackson, in 2019.
The most rushing attempts a Ravens running back has earned during a season in the past five years is Alex Collins' 212 in 2017. Justin Forsett earned 235 in 2014 but this was when the Ravens were counting on Ray Rice before Rice's, ill-fated, self-inflicted demise. Expect 1-2 backs to earn another 120-150 carries and a larger share of targets for a No.2 back considering that Edwards doesn't have the reputation of being a dynamic receiver (we'll see...).
While we could see a split among Williams and Bell, I believe Williams is a better system fit and the added veterans are likely insurance/low-odds dice rolls on greatness. At this point, I'm projecting the following for my RSP subscribers:
- Gus Edwards: 205 attempts, 1,050 yards, 9 scores, 21 targets, 15 catches, 118 yards, and 0 receiving scores. 185.8 PPR points.
- Ty'Son Williams: 133 attempts 611 yards, 5 scores, 26 targets, 19 receptions, 138 yards, and 2 receiving scores. 135.9 PPR points.
- Le'Veon Bell: 40 attempts, 155 yards, 1 score, 10 targets, 6 receptions, 45 yards, and 1 touchdown. 38 PPR points.
These projections will likely evolve in one of three ways: 1) The winner of the Bell-Williams competition earns what I have projected for Williams right now. 2) Bell looks like the great back he was in his prime, fits the system, and you can move his name above Edwards these bullet points. 3) Edwards gets hurt or underperforms as the lead back and Williams becomes the Alex Collins of 2021.
Those are the reasonable projected outcomes. My bold take? The Ravens, like most NFL teams, don't really know what they have in a running back until the regular season. They may think they know but they don't want to get burned with any crazy declarations so they prepare for the worst (getting Bell and Cannon) and hope for the best (Williams plays under the lights as he has in practice).
If that happens, Williams could create an even split with Edwards, both earning 160-170 rushing attempts, 750-800 yards rushing, 5-7 rushing scores, and Williams splitting the bulk of the receiving workload with Bell. If this happens, Williams approaches 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns as his ceiling.
Royce Freeman Resucitates His career
Since this is the fluffiest piece I'll write this year, let's go full narrative: Getting beat out by a short and small UDFA in Denver (who just happened to be an excellent runner with terrific vision) really messed with Royce Freeman's head. I'll also argue that John Elway's management style of personnel played favorites based on his ego more than strong assessments of talent. C.J. Anderson-Devontae Booker is a good example. Elway also headed a personnel department that failed with its top running back selections.
I know little here, but based on what I read, one can read between the lines and see that Elway's desire to be right trumped working with the scouting department as a team.
Here's my scouting report on Freeman, who said no thanks to the Ravens and chose the Carolina Panthers. On the surface, a curious move for those who believe Freeman would have earned more immediate playing time in Baltimore, but I think Freeman is taking a calculated gamble on the best long-term fit and/or upside.
The Panthers like to throw the ball to its backs more than the Ravens and Freeman, a good receiver at Oregon was underutilized in Denver. Freeman also showed promise as a pass protector with the Ducks. Chuba Hubbard is a flashy speedster, but not a disciplined runner between the tackles. He's still learning how to use his pads, make the correct reads, and execute efficient footwork. Hubbard has a high upside if he gets it together, but he's in about the same spot Tevin Coleman was as a rookie Atlanta — a lot of excitement and big plays likely couched between underwhelming touches where he leaves yards on the field.
Freeman probably looked at the Panthers' depth chart and saw a fit for him as a real change of pace to Christian McCaffrey. Yes, McCaffrey is one of the biggest workhorses in the leagues but after an injury-shortened season, the Panthers would probably love to have a player who can take some of the touches from McCaffrey's workload to keep him fresh. However, their depth chart is uninspiring after the loss of Mike Davis. Hubbard is raw and Rodney Smith, Trenton Cannon, and Rod Smith were all fringe roster candidates.
Freeman could fill that role the Panthers would have loved to give Davis but knew Davis would get a shot to lead a backfield elsewhere. Here's my scouting report of Freeman from the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:
Freeman reminds me of Carlos Hyde with superior speed and quickness. A big back blessed with starter speed and star-caliber burst and change of direction, Freeman’s 20-Shuttle and 3-Cone performances will make a lot of draft analysts that were sleeping on him to take a second look at his tape.
And it is easy to sleep on Freeman. He’s an efficient, intelligent runner who figures out ways to access rushing lanes without the showy maneuver that impresses highlight viewers.
Freeman is adept at reading the line of scrimmage at the earliest stages of a run play and varying his stride length or changing his approach to set up his blocks. His skills in this area are often subtle enough to go unnoticed to the point that some viewers may attribute the success of the play solely to the blocking.
Freeman’s 4.16-second, 20 Shuttle and 6.90-second Three Cone performances translate well to the field. His acceleration and stop-start speed would be notable for any back—and quicker than any of the backs ranked ahead of him on this list. Now throw in the fact that Freeman is slightly smaller than Barkley, and his athletic profile should have your attention.
Freeman consistently identifies the secondary option as a zone runner and will access it as necessary. Although his frame, acceleration, ability to run through reaches could make him an excellent fit in a gap-heavy scheme, he’s an adept zone runner.
He has flexible hips to bend around the pursuit of defenders and when he decides to drop the pads, he can push a pile or break though contact in the hole. Another reason he’s a good zone runner is his agility.
He can deliver jump cut combinations layered together to set up downhill creases with outside-inside setups. Once he’s in the hole, he reads the action accurately enough to make a second move that bounces him to open field.
Although I only saw Freeman take plays outside by design or a quick and easy cutback that he identified at the exchange point, he has the speed and acceleration to bounce a lot more plays when it makes sense to do so. I’ve seen him outrun a defensive end’s containment in the backfield as well as linebackers pursuing him to the flat working to the wide side of the field. If a defensive back gets caught in a static position at the beginning of Freeman’s bounce, the runner can beat him, too.
Freeman’s athletic ability and decision-making refinement makes him competent at outside zone despite his size. However, force him to widen his path and he’s much easier to take down. He also needs a 1-2 prep-steps to gather his feet when he’s reached full speed working towards the sideline and has to get downhill. Freeman is at his best when the majority of his runs allow him to square his pads and get downhill.
Linebackers better have direct, downhill angles on Freeman or they won’t tackle him on their own. Most defensive backs better hope reinforcements are on the way if they can’t wrap him low.
Although he doesn’t find his target as much as I’d like to see, Freeman has an active stiff-arm that’s effective at working through all three classes of defenders for yards after contact. He can run though the grasp of defensive linemen and push linebackers for yards through contact.
Freeman should earn an early role as a short-yardage runner in the NFL. He consistently finds the backside crease in these situations and his skill with stride variation and footwork helps him work around blockers. He knows the differences that are required to setup his blockers in gap and zone blocking.
Freeman is also a capable receiver. He has the hand-eye coordination to catch the ball while running away from the formation. He tracks the ball over his shoulder with his hands. He sets up screen passes well.
Freeman’s pass protection needs more work but he does a lot of good things. At this stage of his development, he reads the defense well and knows when to pass protect or when to leave the pocket and run a route.
Freeman squares opponents and uses his hands to deliver an uppercut punch. His feet are quick enough to slide with linebackers and safeties as they redirect their path after Freeman engages them.
However, he must not abandon a technically sound approach when assigned to larger defenders. The larger the defender, the less confidence Freeman demonstrates with delivering an uppercut punch. He often leans into contact and he gets pushed into the pocket. A decent cut blocker, Freeman cuts across his opponent’s frame with good height.
His ball security is competent enough for playing time until proven that he must improve. His career fumble rate is 1 per 114 touches—committee tier. However, he upped that efficiency to a starter tier of 1 per 134 in 2017. He carries the ball with the arm that’s working away from heavy pursuit.
I can see Freeman as an effective starter or contributor in several offenses. He could replace C.J. Anderson in Denver and push Devontae Booker hard for the starting role. Although the New York Giants ground game isn’t an enviable spot at this time, Freeman has the skills to at least jump-start it in the right direction as the team improves its offensive line.
Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Arizona, and Indianapolis have different strategies for its ground games, but Freeman could fit them all as a committee back. He’s a scheme-versatile bargain who could justify a team’s decision not to take a first-round back.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Because there’s so much depth at the position that’s been stockpiled from recent drafts, it’s also possible that Freeman falls beyond the third round and begins his career as a backup. If this happens, fantasy owners will need to adjust expectations and it will make his ADP volatile.
I can see an NFL team falling in love with Freeman and taking him on the second day, proclaiming him an immediate contributor. I can also imagine him falling to Day Three and his ADP drop, only to push a veteran starter aside.
He’s a damn good running back who’s a wise selection for fantasy owners with picks at the 1-2 turn who aren’t about getting too cute with picks that are typically popular at this point—upside athletes with glaring football weaknesses who make three memorable plays in three years and wind up on the cutting room floor.
If I'm correct about Denver and John Elway, Freeman, who had a good preseason before getting cut (and I bet the Broncos tried to offer him to other teams behind the scenes), has the skills to make the Broncos look bad. As a Cleveland Browns fan, I always enjoy that possibility and it's why Freeman makes this list.
Expect Freeman to usurp Hubbard's projected workload as the No.2 runner and lead this backfield if McCaffrey gets hurt. This is a smart runner who I bet the Broncos scouts liked more than Elway and the coaches, but Denver was enamored with breakaway speed, the cleavage of bad NFL decision-makers everywhere.
Good luck this season and I'll be back next week with real analysis. Be sure to check out my weekly Top 10 on Monday Evenings throughout the season where I provide film breakdowns catered to fantasy GMs. I'll also be moderating the Regular Season Roundtable and writing The Replacements.