Zachariason: 15 Bold Predictions for the 2019 Fantasy Football Season
Every player in the fantasy football pool has some sort of risk-reward profile. On the risk side, you're looking at the most realistic worst-case scenario for a player. The best-case scenario, then, is the reward.
In the end, the actions we take when playing fantasy football are all probability-driven. We're using information to weigh the risks versus the rewards in order to be optimal when we're drafting, playing the waiver wire, making trades, or setting lineups. We're saying, "Here's what's likely to happen," not "Here's what's going to happen."
What goes down when you look at fantasy football in a "going to happen" kind of way? You start to analyze the extremes. You look at only the risks or only the rewards.
You start to get bold.
1. Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz Will All Be Worse Than They Were Last Season
Why This Is Bold: All three tight ends are being drafted early, which means fantasy football managers are expecting big seasons.
Why This Will Happen: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz each had potential outlier seasons in 2019.
Last year, 25.7% of Kansas City's pass attempts were directed at Travis Kelce. That was easily the highest mark of his five-year career -- his previous high was 22.5%. It's true that it was Kelce's first year with Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback, but maintaining that type of target share won't be an easy task.
Kelce also played in an offense that threw 50 touchdown passes, aiding his double-digit scoring total. His 20% touchdown share in the Chiefs' O was the lowest mark of his career, but with regression likely hitting the passing attack, he'll need to up his touchdown share a good bit in order to maintain a high scoring total.
Kittle's in an interesting spot regression-wise. His yards after the catch rate was otherworldly last season, making it difficult to repeat, but he also scored just five times despite breaking the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Based on the receiving-yards-to-receiving-touchdowns rate for tight ends since 2011, Kittle should've had closer to 10 scores.
So why won't he live up to his average cost this year? Admittedly, he's my favorite early-round tight end given price. But he did have a slightly lower target share when Jimmy Garoppolo was under center last year, and there's more competition for targets in the 49ers' offense in 2019.
And speaking of target competition, that's a big reason to fade Zach Ertz. When Golden Tate played more than 40% of the Eagles' snaps last season, Ertz's target share dropped by over seven percentage points versus his pre-Tate rate. With Dallas Goedert an extra year in, the addition of DeSean Jackson, and a potential run-heavier offense, Ertz probably won't come close to his production totals from last year.
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster Will Be Fantasy Football's Top Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: Smith-Schuster is being drafted, on average, behind six wide receivers on DRAFT.
Why This Will Happen: What has JuJu Smith-Schuster done during his two years in the NFL to tell you that he's not an elite talent? No player in history has more receptions before turning 23 years old than Smith-Schuster. Only two players -- Randy Moss and Josh Gordon -- have more yards and, barring injury, JuJu's bound to pass them before his birthday in November. Meanwhile, he's top-10 in pre-age 23 touchdowns.
Sure, some of this is skewed given the era Smith-Schuster's playing in, but it's hard to deny his ability.
From a projection standpoint, Smith-Schuster comes in, for me, as the WR5 in fantasy football. numberFire's algorithm has him sixth. So he's a top wideout in fantasy drafts, but we can agree that saying he'll be the best is bold, right?
One downside with JuJu would be that the Steelers see a more run-heavy offense this year after posting a pass-to-run ratio of 2.00 last season, the highest in the league. Since 2011, of the 18 teams with next-season data that had a pass-to-rush attempt ratio above 1.70 -- so significantly lower than Pittsburgh's -- all but one saw that number drop the following year. It's safe to say Pittsburgh won't see as many pass attempts in 2019.
Smith-Schuster can see a larger piece of the pie in the offense to make up for the dip in passing volume, but after finishing 11th in target share last season, there's not that much room for growth. And on top of that, what if he can't handle being the top guy in the Pittsburgh offense?
Those are the potential issues. Fortunately, there are arguments to make for each of those points. Like, the Steelers may not pass as much, but they can still project to be one of the more pass-friendly teams in football. What if Smith-Schuster's target share rises more dramatically than we think? It's not like there are locked-in options in the passing game outside of him.
And regarding the whole "Maybe he can't produce as the top weapon in Pittsburgh" thing: he's essentially played four games without Antonio Brown, and he's scored a touchdown in three of the four while hitting 100-plus yards in two of them. He should be just fine.
Almost every elite wide receiver supplants another top wideout at some point in their career. That time is now for JuJu Smith-Schuster.
3. Royce Freeman Will Outscore Phillip Lindsay
Why This Is Bold: Phillip Lindsay outperformed teammate Royce Freeman last year, and Lindsay's being drafted 30 picks before Freeman.
Why This Will Happen: There are plenty of things pointing to Phillip Lindsay having a worse 2019 than 2018. His 5.4 yards per carry average, for example, isn't very sustainable. Of the 31 backs who've had 100 or more attempts and an average of at least 5.0 yards per carry over the last eight years (and these are backs with following-season numbers), only two were able to increase that rate the next year. And those two players were the only ones who were able to hold that average of 5.0 yards per carry.
He's also got some touchdown regression coming. There were 24 running backs with more goal-line rushes than Lindsay last season, but he was still able to find the end zone 9 times on the ground. According to ESPN analyst Mike Clay's opportunity-adjusted touchdowns (oTD) metric, only five running backs outperformed their touchdown total more than Lindsay did last year.
Talk out of Denver is that there's going to be more of a backfield split this year than last, too. Freeman wasn't as strong as Lindsay in 2018, but he did face a stacked box on 36% of his rushes versus Lindsay's 14%. And Pro Football Focus' elusiveness rating gave Freeman the edge.
If Freeman steals more goal-line work and is able to showcase an underrated pass-catching skillset, it wouldn't be shocking to see him outscore Lindsay.
4. Dalvin Cook Will Finish as a Top-3 Running Back
Why This Is Bold: Dalvin Cook is currently being drafted as the RB10.
Why This Will Happen: A key reason Dalvin Cook hasn't been able to take the next step in the NFL is health. He always seems to be hurt. But when he's healthy, he's been productive. Over the last two regular seasons (and this removes the fantasy irrelevant Week 17), Cook has provided a top-24 performance in 10 of his 14 games played. That's a top-10 number at the position.
Minnesota's offensive approach this season is really intriguing for him, too. Current offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski took over for the fired John DeFilippo last year for the final three games. In those games, the Vikings saw their neutral game script pass-to-run ratio fall to 1.21 after having a ratio of 1.68 throughout their first 13 games. A target is more valuable for a running back than an attempt is, but Minnesota had the third-highest pass-to-rush touchdown ratio last year, which should decline with a more run-heavy scheme. In other words, there'll be more opportunity for the team's running backs to score.
The Vikings' target tree also isn't very deep outside of their top-two wideouts. That allowed Cook to capture a target share north of 12% when active last year. If he can flirt with that type of share in 2019, then the workload should be pretty strong, as long as the team doesn't completely split early-down work.
5. Christian Kirk Will Catch More Passes Than Kenny Golladay
Why This Is Bold: Christian Kirk is typically picked more than two rounds after Kenny Golladay.
Why This Will Happen: The Cardinals are going to run a lot of plays this year. Or, at least, that's the hope.
Kliff Kingsbury's air-raid offense is fast-paced and pass-heavy. During his six years as Texas Tech's head coach, his offenses ranked no lower than ninth in pass-to-rush ratio, and they ranked outside the top-10 in plays run just once.
That favors all of the playmakers in the Arizona offense, including Kirk, who was low-key awesome last year in a horrific situation. Before a season-ending injury that left him out of the team's final four games, Kirk had seen 18.4% of Arizona's pass attempts go his way, and he was top-40 in the league in yards per route run, per Pro Football Focus. He ranked highest on the Cardinals in yards per route run last year...as a rookie.
Golladay -- I'm sorry, I mean Babytron -- is a hell of a talent, but the Lions want to run the football. During his seven years with the Seahawks, new Detroit offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell saw his offenses rank 24th or lower in neutral script pass-to-run ratio five times. So even though Golladay may project to see a higher share of targets in his offense versus Kirk, it's in an offense that should see fewer pass attempts.
6. John Brown Will Have At Least 300 More Receiving Yards Than Any Buffalo Receiver
Why This Is Bold: The Bills project to have flat target distribution, which is partially why Brown is a late-round fantasy draft pick.
Why This Will Happen: Before Lamar Jackson took over as Baltimore's starter last season, Brown was doing things in fantasy football. Through Week 10, he was a fringe top-30 wide receiver in PPR points per game, having posted multiple games of 100-plus yards while scoring 4 times. When Jackson took over, Brown failed to hit 30 receiving yards in a single contest.
We know Brown's skillset by now: he's a player who can stretch the field. With Joe Flacco as starter last season -- so from Week 1 through Week 9 -- Brown was tied with Julio Jones for the league lead in targets that traveled 15 or more yards through the air.
What does Josh Allen like to do? He likes to throw it deep. Among all quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts last year (33 of them), Allen ranked first in percentage of throws that went 15 or more air yards.
We saw some down-the-field magic between Allen and Robert Foster last season. Perhaps we see some with Allen and John Brown this year.
7. Darwin Thompson Will Score More Points Than Kareem Hunt and Jaylen Samuels Combined
Why This Is Bold: At this time, Darwin Thompson is being drafted after both Kareem Hunt and Jaylen Samuels.
Why This Will Happen: Is there not a scenario where Kareem Hunt and Jaylen Samuels are irrelevant in fantasy football this season? Honestly, this shouldn't be all that bold of a prediction considering James Conner dominated the Pittsburgh backfield touches when he was active last year, and Nick Chubb is one of the best young runners in football.
It's really about where you land with Thompson. It's tough to ignore the draft capital involved with the Thompson selection -- he was a sixth-rounder, and we typically don't see later-round picks succeed in fantasy football. But he tested as a pretty explosive running back, and despite his smaller frame, his BMI is right where it needs to be.
Damien Williams is Thompson's biggest competition. He (Williams) is fairly priced in fantasy football drafts (unless you're taking him ahead of top-tier wideouts), but it's not hard to envision a situation where Williams, who's never been a lead back across an entire season, cedes work to the rookie. If that happens, then Thompson may not have an issue outperforming both Hunt and Samuels.
8. Lamar Jackson Will Finish as a Top-3 Quarterback
Why This Is Bold: Typically, you can draft Lamar Jackson in the double-digit rounds.
Why This Will Happen: We likely won't see the same type of rushing numbers per game that Jackson posted last season as starter -- he was running it 17 times per contest -- but we'll still see him use his legs often. In his eight starts (including the playoffs) last year, Jackson totaled 610 rushing yards. Since the turn of the century, we've seen eight instances where a quarterback hit 700 rushing yards in a single season. Of those eight, seven finished as top-five fantasy quarterbacks.
Of course, in order to reach that type of potential, Jackson's going to need to improve as a passer. Fortunately, Greg Roman was named Baltimore's offensive coordinator this offseason. As the OC for San Francisco a handful of years ago, Roman coached Colin Kaepernick -- an athletic, mobile quarterback -- to his best seasons in yards per attempt. Then, when Roman went to Buffalo, we watched Tyrod Taylor -- another signal-caller with strong rushing ability -- throw to a rate of 7.42 yards per attempt, almost a full yard better than his average without Roman.
With the coaching and new weapons in the Ravens' offense, Jackson can easily improve in the passing department this year. Add in his rushing floor, and a true top-three ceiling can be hit.
9. Deebo Samuel Will Finish as Fantasy Football's Top Rookie Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: Over the last month on DRAFT, rookie wideouts Marquise Brown, Andy Isabella, Mecole Hardman, Parris Campbell, D.K. Metcalf, and N'Keal Harry are being selected ahead of Deebo Samuel.
Why This Will Happen: This year's rookie wide receiver class wasn't bad, but there's not a ton of potential for them in Year 1. Just look at the aforementioned list of first-year pass-catchers, and the obstacles in their way are obvious. Hollywood Brown's recovering from an injury and is in a run-heavy offense. Andy Isabella will be, at best, the fourth receiving option in Arizona. Hardman's got Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to deal with. The Colts have a ton of competition for Campbell. Metcalf may struggle to see volume in a run-heavy system. And with Josh Gordon back, N'Keal Harry's target potential isn't as attractive.
Why pinpoint Deebo Samuel, then? Well, the 49ers' offense has some ambiguity outside of George Kittle. Dante Pettis is the projected number-one wideout -- and you should draft him as such -- but negative reports have surrounded him this month. And, as a second-year player, it's not like he's a proven asset. (He's still a good pick at his current cost, though.)
Enter the Niners' second-round pick, Samuel, who came through with fantastic combine measurables (an 80th percentile Speed Score, above-average agility marks) to go along with good enough college production. There weren't any major red flags within his final-season market share numbers. He's an explosive player. And the fact that he could see the field right away -- at least in three-wide sets -- in a Kyle Shanahan offense should give him an edge over some of his rookie competition.
10. Eric Ebron Will Score Fewer Than 6 Touchdowns
Why This Is Bold: Ebron finished 2018 with 13 receiving touchdowns.
Why This Will Happen: An injury to Jack Doyle last season really helped Eric Ebron. With Doyle, Ebron averaged just 3.7 targets per game and a target share barely over 10%. Without Doyle, both of those numbers more than doubled.
Strangely enough, Ebron scored seven times during his six games played with Doyle last year -- he averaged more touchdowns per game with Doyle than without him. Does that mean he can keep up the pace and score 10-plus times in 2019? That's doubtful. He still averaged fewer red-zone targets per game when Doyle was active and, according to oTD, despite awesome volume close to the end zone last year, Ebron should've scored closer to 10 touchdowns rather than the 14 (he had a rushing score) that he scored.
But not even scoring six? That seems...bold.
Yes, that's the point. It's a bold predictions article.
Over the offseason, Indianapolis added Devin Funchess and drafted Parris Campbell. They seem to be high on Mo Alie-Cox, as well, an athletic ex-basketball player who could hypothetically play some sort of role in the red zone.
11. Matt Breida Will Finish With More Rushing Yards Than Tevin Coleman
Why This Is Bold: Tevin Coleman is being drafted five or so rounds ahead of teammate Matt Breida.
Why This Will Happen: Consider me as someone who's buying the San Francisco backfield in 2018. Breida is one of my favorite values in drafts this season, and while projecting him to straight-up out-rush Coleman would be a little out there, it's not out of the question.
Coleman's never been his team's lead back in the NFL -- at least not without an injury. But even last season with Devonta Freeman sidelined for almost the entire year, Coleman still reached only 167 rush attempts with a rushing share that ranked outside the top-10 at the position.
This is an article full of "what ifs," so what if the split between Breida and Coleman is closer than many are projecting? Can we even confidently say that Coleman's the better rusher between the two? Over Breida's only two seasons in the league, he's had a higher Success Rate (the percentage of positive expected point runs made by a running back) in both seasons than Coleman's career high rate. Maybe Breida is just...better?
If the backfield share is closer than imagined, this one's not as far-fetched as it might appear.
12. Latavius Murray Will Outscore Mark Ingram
Murray's taking over Ingram's old role in New Orleans, and it's one that should be productive. Since 2011, Saints running backs -- as a team -- have ranked first in fantasy points scored in all but one season. The exception year, which came in 2015, saw them finish second. That allowed Ingram to finish 8th and 25th in points per game over the last two years at the position with stud Alvin Kamara getting work in the same backfield.
New Orleans is fantasy football running back heaven.
Perhaps the thought is that Ingram is better than Murray, so Murray won't see the same type of workload. We can debate the talent side of things all day, but all signs point to Murray being slotted into that number-two role. So far in the preseason, Murray's played 13 snaps with the first team, while Kamara's played 21.
That gives Murray RB2 upside in the offense. In order for this bold prediction to come true, then, Ingram would probably have to finish as an RB3.
In the run-heaviest offense in football, it's hard to see that coming to fruition. But it can happen. Because of Baltimore's run-first tendencies, the team's running backs averaged the second-fewest targets per game in the 2018 regular season once Lamar Jackson took over as starter. Even though Gus Edwards was fourth in the NFL in carries during this timeframe, he was still just the RB26 in PPR formats from Week 11 through Week 17.
What happens if Ingram isn't a primary pass-catching option out of the backfield in the Ravens' offense? What if Baltimore decides to utilize the speedy Justice Hill when looking to throw? What if Edwards and Hill dig into Ingram's backfield share more than we think?
Any of those scenarios would certainly lower Ingram's ceiling. So while no one would project Ingram to finish lower than Murray, it's an entirely possible outcome.
13. Sammy Watkins Will Finish as a Top-20 Wide Receiver
Why This Is Bold: Depending on where you're drafting, Watkins usually falls off the board in the low-end WR3 range, or the 35th-ish overall wide receiver.
Why This Will Happen: You know how everyone has Tyreek Hill locked into their top-10 fantasy wide receiver rankings this year? Well, when Sammy Watkins was healthy and played 75% or more of Kansas City's snaps last year, he averaged just 0.4 fewer targets per game than Hill did. Watkins actually had more receptions per contest.
Now, don't twist my words -- Tyreek Hill is better and more efficient than Watkins is. That's why he's a top-10 wide receiver. But it's hard to deny Watkins' upside, especially when you consider Hill's probable touchdown regression. Per oTD, just three wide receivers scored more touchdowns than they should have last season.
What happens if Watkins -- who, by the way, averaged the same number of regular season red-zone targets per game as Hill last year -- ends up benefiting in some way from his teammate's regression? It's not hard to see a path to upside for the oft-injured pass-catcher. Health is the biggest hurdle.
14. Darren Waller Will Finish as a Top-8 Tight End
Why This Is Bold: The managers in your home league probably only know Darren Waller because of Hard Knocks. He's a double-digit round dart throw at tight end.
Why This Will Happen: Waller's been playing the tight end position for only a couple of years. With only 29 career targets in the NFL, production hasn't been there, but there's at least a reason for it: he's a converted wide receiver.
And that's what helps make him a potential breakout tight end this season. Oakland lost Jared Cook to the Saints this offseason and, as we know, Cook played a big role in the Raiders' offense last year. Just three tight ends had a higher target share, and Cook finished with almost 900 yards receiving.
Now, part of this could be -- and probably was -- due to necessity. The Raiders didn't exactly have a lot of talent at wide receiver last year, allowing the tight end to see more looks than usual. But with plenty of questions outside of Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, it's not hard to see a path to Waller finishing third on the team in targets.
Would he able to produce?
At the very least, he has the right athletic profile to be a pass-catching tight end. As I noted, he used to play wide receiver, and he ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine at 6'6'', 238 pounds. He's now listed at 255 pounds, but even if you were to slow down that 40 time, he still comes through with a ridiculous height-adjusted speed score.
With the tight end position being the dumpster fire that it is, Waller at least has some potential to make some noise this year.
15. Both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin Will Finish as Top-12 Wide Receivers
Why This Is Bold: Mike Evans has a top-12 wide receiver cost, but Chris Godwin doesn't. And they both play for the same team, making this prediction less probable.
Why This Will Happen: You could easily argue that the top-heaviest target distribution this year is going to come from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's Mike Evans, it's Chris Godwin, it's O.J. Howard, and then it's...Breshad Perriman, I guess.
That means it's not going to be difficult for the Bucs' Big Three to accumulate a ton of volume. That's especially true if you project Tampa Bay to be pass-friendly team, which is an entirely fair assumption to make given the roster.
Really, it's possible for Evans and Godwin to combine for 50% of Tampa Bay's targets this year. We don't see that type of combination often, but the Steelers and Vikings, with their wide receiver duos, did it last year. It's not some completely nuts idea.
And we've also seen plenty of instances where teammates finished together as WR1s in the same fantasy season. We had two pairings -- the ones just mentioned -- who did it last year. In 2017, we had Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. The 2016 season had another two instances, with Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams for Green Bay, and Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks from New Orleans. It didn't happen in 2015, but 2014, 2013, and 2012 each had two duos where wide receiver teammates ended their seasons as top-12 fantasy producers at the position.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs probably have the highest likelihood of doing it this year, but there's room for Evans and Godwin to do it, too.