It was a simpler time. Those late-July and early-August days when we knew everything about the soon-to-begin fantasy season. The offseason was coming to a close and preseason games were about to begin. We were locked in with projections and tiers and certainties about all the relevant fantasy players and couldn’t wait for the draft to arrive. I was even bold enough to predict five outcomes of the season that may have seemed ludicrous at the time. Were they? Let’s take a look back and find out.
Prediction #1: Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz would finish outside the top five among TEs
Travis Kelce: 131 targets, 94 receptions, 1,205 yards, 5 TDs, 4 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD, 1 fumble lost | Finished as TE #1 with 248.9 PPR points
Zach Ertz: 134 targets, 88 receptions, 916 yards, 6 TDs | Finished as TE #2 with 215.6 PPR points
Why in the world did I think Kelce and Ertz would slip out of the upper echelon of TEs? Well, for Kelce I surmised a regression was in store for Patrick Mahomes after his record-setting year and the competition for targets would increase with the addition of Mecole Hardman and a return to health of Sammy Watkins. Of course, Tyreek Hill was still there and the team had a trio of capable pass-catching RBs.
Now, while we did get the expected regression from Mahomes, the rest of the equation didn’t pan out as expected. Kelce garnered nearly 50 more targets than anyone else on the team and easily paced Kansas City in receiving yards and receptions. Kelce appears to be locked in as a top-tier TE for the next few years despite being 30 years old.
As for Ertz, I examined what appeared to be a statistical outlier in regards to his 2018 season in which he saw a nearly 50% jump from his career averages to that point. I attributed that increase to Philadelphia’s dismal running game in 2018 and assumed a rebound was in store in 2019 with the arrivals of Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders. I also expected the return of DeSean Jackson and the continued improvement of Dallas Goedert to siphon targets away from Ertz.
Ertz did slide back some from his incredible 2018 season but was still plenty involved in the offense. Jackson was injured early in the season, making him a virtual non-factor. Goedert did see a significant increase in usage but the running game was only marginally better. As a result, Ertz nearly doubled any other player in targets, receptions and receiving yards leading to another elite TE finish.
Prediction #2: The NFC South will produce 4 of the top 7 QBs
Jameis Winston: 4,908 passing yards, 31 TDs, 28 INTs | 245 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD, 5 fumbles lost – QB #4 (21.2 PPG = #6 QB)
Matt Ryan: 4,153 passing yards, 25 TDs, 14 INTs | 147 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD, 5 fumbles lost – QB #9 (19.1 PPG = #11 QB)
Drew Brees: 2,726 passing yards, 24 TDs, 4 INTs | -4 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD – QB #24 (20.7 PPG = #8 QB)
Cam Newton/Kyle Allen: Does it really matter? (8.9 PPG / 15.2 PPG)
In the original article, I touted both Ryan and Newton as locks for top-five production. Obviously, Newton’s lost season prevented him from finishing as a top-end QB, but his production in the games he played was abysmal and I can’t envision a scenario in which he would have even been in the top 12 at the position. So that was a big-time whiff. Ryan, on the other hand, missed just one game and had nearly the same attempts and completions as his 2018 season in which he finished as the QB #3. However, he saw a substantial dip in yardage and TDs along with an increase in INTs leading to his six-spot drop.
Brees essentially missed six games as he was injured early in the team’s week two loss to the Rams. Despite missing more than one-third of the season, Brees still managed a QB2 finish and was the eighth-best QB when looking at his average points per game. If we dismiss that week-two game, Brees trails only Lamar Jackson in average PPG with 23.28. Alas, we only care about the actual finish and Brees was nowhere near the top seven.
Oh, Jameis. He was my wildcard among the group. The one I thought would have the toughest time breaking into the top seven. Despite my belief in Bruce Arians and the impressive weapons in the receiving game, I didn’t trust Winston to not shoot himself in the foot. While Jackson fired several shots at or near his feet (30 INTs), he was among the league leaders in attempts (T-1st), completions (6th), yards (1st), and TDs (2nd) leading to his QB #4 finish. As of this writing, Tampa Bay has not made a decision on Winston’s future with the team, but if he returns he HAS to be considered a top-five option at QB for fantasy owners.
Prediction #3: JuJu Smith-Schuster will finish outside the top 12 among WRs
JuJu Smith-Schuster: 66 targets, 40 receptions, 546 yards, 3 TDs, 1 fumble lost – WR #62 (10.1 PPG = WR #53)
Leading up to fantasy drafts, Smith-Schuster was carrying an average draft position (ADP) of #6 among WRs and #14 overall making him a borderline first-round pick in larger leagues and a sure-fire second-round pick in almost every type of league. I had my doubts due to the departure of Antonio Brown, the emergence of Vance McDonald, the presence of Donte Moncrief and James Washington, and the likely regression of Ben Roethlisberger.
Let’s begin with what would seem to be the most obvious explanation of why Smith-Schuster had a down year; the injury to Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger only played in the first two games of the season before succumbing to an elbow injury but Smith-Schuster didn’t see much of a reduction in targets with Mason Rudolph under center. Smith-Schuster saw seven or more targets in three of the team’s next five games (he saw eight targets in each of Roethlisberger’s two games), so the opportunities were still there. Now, some may argue the QUALITY of the targets dropped, but Smith-Schuster did have all three of his TDs during weeks three through eight.
An injury to Smith-Schuster cost him four games during the second half of the season, negatively affecting his overall numbers, but he still was outside the top-50 in average PPG, so he still wasn’t the WR1 most expected him to be. The other receiving options in Pittsburgh didn’t pan out to be anything special either, although Diontae Johnson seems like he could become a solid option as he learns and grows in the position. Barring injury, Smith-Schuster would have easily been the #1 WR on the team and there is no indication that will change in the near future. The uncertainty surrounding Roethlisberger’s future and the lack of quality options behind him will lower the ceiling of Smith-Schuster next season, likely keeping him in the WR2 range.
Prediction #4: Kerryon Johnson will finish in the top 8 at the RB position
Kerryon Johnson: 353 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 1 fumble lost | 15 targets, 10 receptions, 127 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD – RB #58 (10.5 PPG = RB #30)
As an unabashed long-time Lions fan, this prediction was probably more about what I wanted to see happen versus what I thought might actually happen. Johnson looked like a three-down back in 2018 and that sentiment seemed to come to fruition when the team released Theo Riddick in August. I expected Johnson to take on a larger pass-catching role and that the team would move to a more run-heavy approach under new OC Darrell Bevell. Unfortunately, an injury once again eradicated most of Johnson’s season, leaving his fantasy owners struggling to find a suitable replacement.
Detroit only saw an increase of 5 rushes over 2019, so a more run-heavy approach never materialized. Perhaps part of that was the injury to Johnson paired with a lack of proven talent behind him. Or, perhaps it was the fact Detroit was unable to finish games, leading to a 3-12-1 record despite holding a lead at some point in 14(!) contests.
Johnson’s injury history is the biggest concern looking forward to the 2020 season. Johnson was no better than an RB3 when looking at average PPG, and I suspect that’s where he’ll fall in the leadup to next season’s drafts.
Prediction #5: Royce Freeman will outscore Phillip Lindsay
Royce Freeman: 500 yards, 3 TDs | 49 targets, 42 receptions, 248 yards, 1 TD – RB #34
Phillip Lindsay: 958 yards, 7 TDs | 47 targets, 35 receptions, 196 yards – RB #18
Throughout the preseason, Lindsay was forced to observe from the sidelines recovering from a hand injury suffered late in the 2018 season. Freeman was productive and impressive during Lindsay’s absence and I thought he would turn into a substantial weapon for Denver, perhaps even earning more than the 50% share many were expecting once the season began.
However, Lindsay was able to get some work in during the preseason and his body of work from 2018 almost forced the team to continue to feature him as the #1 RB. Denver did keep the two at close to a 50/50 workload until the team’s week nine BYE, but following that point, Lindsay received about 75% of the RB duties. Freeman still had a respectable season finishing as an RB3 and sometimes FLEX option, but Lindsay easily outscored him. I’d expect more of the same next season with Lindsay flirting with RB1 status and Freeman getting enough scraps to fill in as an emergency play.
(Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire)