These predictions tend to fly in the face of popular opinion but could happen if things break the right way. Here are my five bold predictions for 2019 and how they could come to fruition.
Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz will fall out of the top 5 TEs
Seemingly everywhere you look, you’ll find Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle in some order as the top three options at TE heading into 2019. Those three were head and shoulders above everyone else last season, so it makes sense they will remain there. However, I believe Kelce and Ertz have enough changes in their respective offenses to keep them from making it back into the top five at the TE position.
Kelce has been a machine the past three seasons, topping 1,000 yards in each and posting 32 total TDs over that span. Kelce’s best season coincided with the arrival of Patrick Mahomes as Kelce accumulated 1,336 yards and 10 TDs on 105 receptions. Kelce was the #1 fantasy TE in full PPR in each of those seasons, so what could cause him to drop out of the top five?
First, Mahomes’ historic 2018 season is destined for regression in 2019. Here are the passing splits for QBs with 45 or more passing TDs in one season (excluding Dan Marino’s 1984 season), their passing splits the following year, and the percent change in each category.
|Quarterback||45+ TD Year||ATT/COMP/YDS/TDs||Following Year||ATT/COMP/YDS/TDs||Percentage difference|
As you can see, there is a decrease across the board in yardage and TDs and we should expect the same from Mahomes in 2019. Assuming a 10% reduction in yardage and a 20% reduction in TDs, that would leave Mahomes with approximately 4,500 yards and 40 TDs.
Kelce also has increased competition for touches assuming a fully healthy season for Sammy Watkins, the addition of Mecole Hardman in the 2019 NFL Draft, and the continued emergence of Damien Williams (Or Carlos Hyde. Or Darrel Williams) at RB. Oh, and some guy named Tyreek Hill who can score every time he touches the football.
It’s a stretch to think Kelce will drop at least five spots, but for these reasons, I believe it is a distinct possibility.
Moving on to Ertz, take a look as his production for the last four seasons.
|YEAR||RECEPTIONS||REC. YARDS||REC. TDs|
Does anything stand out to you from this set of data? For me, Ertz 2018 numbers are an extreme outlier, and we can point to some reasons why.
First, the Eagles had virtually no semblance of a running game. Philadelphia cobbled together 1,570 rushing yards and 12 TDs from Josh Adams (511 yards, 3 TDs), Wendell Smallwood (364, 3), Corey Clement (259, 2), Jay Ajayi (184, 3), and Darren Sproles (120, 1). Since the team’s playoff loss to the Saints, Philadelphia has added Jordan Howard in free agency and Miles Sanders in the 2019 NFL Draft. Those two players should be a significant upgrade and will provide a threat on the ground, reducing the team’s reliance on the passing game.
Philadelphia also brought back DeSean Jackson after five seasons away. Jackson will provide a deep threat the team lacked in 2018 and will certainly command more targets than the 72 Golden Tate and Jordan Matthews combined for in 2018. Jackson still has the speed to take any catch to the house, which could result in fewer opportunities for sustained drives. Jackson’s presence will also pull targets away from Ertz.
Finally, there has been a lot of positive buzz surrounding rookie WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside and second-year TE Dallas Goedert. Goedert is the obvious threat to Ertz as they play the same position, plus there is speculation the team wants to run more two-TE sets to get both of their athletic TEs on the field at the same time. Arcega-Whiteside, the team’s second-round pick, has a large frame and has shown the ability to come down with contested jump balls during the preseason. Any additional options in the passing game is another hurdle in the way of Ertz reclaiming a top-five spot.
The NFC South will produce four of the top seven QBs
As of this writing, Fantasy Pros Experts Rankings have the entirety of the QBs in the NFC South in the top 13. The next-highest rank of the last QB in a division is #23 (Jimmy Garoppolo), so the experts agree the NFC South houses the best stable of QBs in the NFL. I think they’re too low, to be honest, and here’s why.
I don’t have to do much in the way of convincing you that both Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are top-seven QBs. Ryan provides the safest floor of these four QBs and Atlanta has invested in help along the offensive line with their first two draft picks of the 2019 NFL Draft (G Chris Lidstrom @ #14 overall and T Kaleb McGary @ #31 overall) and free agent signings Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. Ryan still has all-world WR Julio Jones, second-year WR Calvin Ridley, reliable #3 WR Mohamed Sanu, and TE Austin Hooper. I don’t think we can expect 600+ passes again, but he should easily produce top-five numbers again in 2019.
Newton has been a fixture among the top five fantasy QBs since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011. A shoulder injury had a profound effect on Newton in 2018, yet he still finished as the 12th-best QB on the season. With an offseason to heal, the dynamic Christian McCaffrey, the expected improvement of both DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, and the healthy return of Greg Olsen, Newton is primed for another top-five season.
Just a couple of seasons ago, nobody would have batted an eye when hearing Drew Brees would be at or near the top of the QB rankings at the end of the season. Then 2018 happened. Brees attempted fewer than 500 passes for the first time since 2004 and failed to reach 4,000 passing yards for the first time since 2005. Despite the reductions across the board, Brees still landed at #8 at the end of the season for QBs. New Orleans brought in another weapon in the passing game with TE Jared Cook, arguably the best TE the Saints have had since Jimmy Graham. Ted Ginn, despite his age, will return and provides a nice vertical threat the team lacked last season. Oh, and Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are still around. I think we saw Brees’s floor last season, and even a slight uptick in production will push him back into the top seven.
Finally, we come to Jameis Winston. The former #1 overall pick has yet to put together a season that would make him a fantasy starter, yet here I am touting him as one of the top guys. Before you vilify me and stop reading here, hear me out. First, Tampa Bay lured Bruce Arians out of retirement to lead the team in 2019. Arians’ QBs have been in the top-15 in passing yards every year since 2009 and have been in the top 20 in passing TDs every year he’s coached except 2010 (21st). The team also returns Mike Evans and many are expecting Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard to take the next step in their development. Between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick last season, the two combined for 5,125 passing yards and 36 TDs. The opportunity and volume are there, and if Arians can unlock Winston’s potential he has a real opportunity to break into the top seven QBs for 2019.
JuJu Smith-Schuster will finish outside the top 12 at WR
JuJu Smith-Schuster impressed as a rookie in 2017 finishing as a top-30 WR in full PPR leagues with nearly 1,000 yards and seven TDs on just 79 targets. Smith-Schuster then followed that up with an even more impressive WR8 finish in 2018 with 1,426 yards and seven TDs. Given he’s now the new #1 in Pittsburgh, why can we expect a drop out of the WR1 rankings in 2019?
The first reason is that Smith-Schuster is the new #1 in Pittsburgh. We only have two instances in which Smith-Schuster played without Antonio Brown on the other side of the field to draw the defense’s attention. Both of those instances occurred in week 17 the past two seasons in games which the outcome had (virtually) no bearing on either team advancing to the playoffs. In 2017, Pittsburgh handed Cleveland their 16th loss of the season. Smith-Schuster had a nice game (9-143-1), but it’s hard to get excited about a game that didn’t matter against a team that was 0-16. Then, in 2018, Pittsburgh had to win and hope for a tie in the primetime game to make the playoffs. They faced a hapless Bengals team and Smith-Schuster could only muster five receptions on his 10 targets for 37 yards, although he did score an 11-yard TD.
With defenses able to focus their attention on Smith-Schuster following the departure of Brown, the open spaces won’t be as plentiful as they were his first two seasons. This is reason number one why Smith-Schuster will find himself outside the top 12 WRs this season.
Next, the emergence of TE Vance McDonald will give Ben Roethlisberger an option he hasn’t had since Heath Miller. For a reminder of what McDonald is capable of, take a look at what he did to FS Chris Conte last season.
McDonald is going to siphon away targets from Smith-Schuster, and fewer targets mean fewer opportunities to accrue fantasy points. Combine McDonald’s emergence with the arrival of Donte Moncrief and another year of growth from James Washington, and I don’t think we’ll see a target split like we did last season in Pittsburgh.
Speaking of last season, the final reason Smith-Schuster will drop out the WR1 ranks is the likely regression of Roethlisberger. In 2018, Roethlisberger set career highs for pass attempts (675 – previous high 608), completions (452 – previous high 408), passing yards (5,129 – previous high 4,952) and passing TDs (34 – previous high 32).
Perhaps the change to Randy Fichtner as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator will lead to another high volume passing output from Roethlisberger, but more likely we’ll see Roethlisberger return to numbers closer to his career averages (535 attempts, 345 completions, 4,200 yards, and 27 TDs). With the extra weapons Roethlisberger will enjoy and a likely decrease in volume for Roethlisberger, expect Smith-Schuster’s final numbers to fall short of his WR1 expectations.
Kerryon Johnson will finish as an Top 8 RB
I’ve already espoused why Kerryon Johnson will be improved this year, but I’m ready to double-down on my prediction and make him a surefire RB1 for 2019.
First, since the previous article has been published, Theo Riddick was released. The team believes Johnson is more-than-capable as a receiver, and it isn’t a stretch to think Johnson can get most, if not all, of the 60-70 vacated targets Riddick leaves behind. Projecting 65 targets for Johnson and giving him an 80% catch rate, that’s an extra 20 catches over Johnson’s 2018 total. Those catches should bump Johnson’s total yardage up by 120-140 yards and maybe tack on another TD or two.
The addition of OC Darrell Bevell is an off-the-field change that can’t go unnoticed. Bevell has a history of a strong running game complemented by a play-action passing game. Defenses will likely focus on the running game, but the threat of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones on the outside will prevent defenses from stacking the box. The addition of Danny Amendola in the slot will only continue to spread defenses out, creating more space for Johnson.
Detroit also focused on run blockers in the past two NFL drafts, selecting C Frank Ragnow at #20 overall in 2018, TE T.J. Hockenson at #8 overall and TE Isaac Nuata in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. Hockenson and Nuata are both highly regarded blocking TEs and Ragnow played out of position in 2018 (the team is moving him back to center this year). You won’t see those three players in the box score too often, but they may well be the key to Johnson having an RB1 season.
Royce Freeman will outscore Phillip Lindsay
One of the biggest surprises last season, and arguably in any season, was the success of Phillip Lindsay in Denver. Lindsay is the first player in NFL history to get a Pro Bowl nod as an undrafted rookie. However, I think things are going to change in Denver’s backfield and the primary beneficiary is going to be Royce Freeman.
For starters, Lindsay has already suffered an injury that ended up keeping him out of the majority of Denver’s preseason activities. This allowed Freeman to show the coaching staff he could perform in the newly implemented offensive scheme (more on that in a moment). There is already plenty of buzz that Lindsay and Freeman will be closer to a 50/50 split this year.
Speaking of Denver’s offensive scheme, the team is moving toward a zone-heavy rushing attack, a scheme very familiar to Freeman as it is the same one he operated out of in college at Oregon. Freeman averaged nearly six yards per carry at Oregon and that production made him a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. At the time, the team envisioned Freeman as their next great RB, but a high-ankle sprain and the surprising success of Lindsay derailed those thoughts. Freeman has finally fully recovered from that ankle injury, and his pre-injury burst was on full display in the team’s preseason game against Seattle. (Click here for the broadcast video view)
Lindsay is a small guy, measuring in at 5’9″ and 190 pounds, and doesn’t profile as the type of guy who can handle a large workload. As such, Denver would be wise to utilize both Lindsay and Freeman in roles tailored to their skill sets. Freeman profiles as the early-down and short-yardage type while Lindsay excels in space and in the passing game. If Freeman does indeed get early-down work, he might not give Lindsay as much time on the field if he’s as productive as I expect him to be in 2019. As a result, Freeman will outperform Lindsay this season and will be the better draft day value.
(Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire)