Erik Smith’s 5 Bold Predictions for 2019
It’s bold prediction week here at QB List, and I’ll kick things off with my five bold predictions for the 2019 season.
I truly try to make these bold; at the end of the year, I shouldn’t be getting more than one of these right. While the following five predictions are unlikely to come true, I’ll make the case for why I believe each will happen, hopefully shining some insight onto these players and teams in the process.
Calvin Ridley Finishes As A Top 8 WR
Calvin Ridley had a rookie year that we should be taking more notice of in fantasy circles. I searched Pro Football Reference’s Play Index for all rookie wide receiver seasons with more than 50 receptions while averaging more than eight yards per target. The list is only 31 names long and full of elite fantasy wide receivers. After sorting for catch rate (receptions divided by targets), below is the top ten from that list.
Ridley’s 2018 catch rate was the sixth-best among all 31 rookie wide receivers that met the above criteria and puts him on a list with some eye-opening names. The one that really catches my eye is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has a lot in common with Ridley. Both play with a veteran quarterback in an excellent passing game, and both started their first two years in the league behind an elite wide receiver, with Julio Jones in Atlanta and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh. Below is a comparison of the rookie years of Smith-Schuster and Ridley, along with Smith-Schuster’s breakout second year.
Ridley saw more targets than Smith-Schuster when comparing rookie years but produced fewer yards per reception. However, Smith-Schuster saw his own yards per reception drop significantly during his second year in the league and was still able to finish as the WR8 overall. Smith-Schuster saw his massive total of 166 targets in 2018 despite playing second fiddle to Brown, who had 168 targets of his own. This proves that Ridley still can see a massive workload despite sharing opportunities with Jones and his league-leading 170 targets from last year.
Outside of Jones, Ridley’s competition on the offense is fairly lackluster. Number three wideout Mohamed Sanu is what he is at this point in his career. Tight end Austin Hooper is a solid player, but not good enough to prevent a true breakout from Ridley. Additionally, I am very skeptical that we will get a full healthy season from running back Devonta Freeman, and am relatively unimpressed by the backup running back options as a whole.
I expect the Falcons to rely heavily on the pass again, giving Ridley all the opportunity in the world to break out. If Ridley follows a similar path to Smith-Schuster, he will be challenging the league’s elite fantasy wide receivers by years end, giving him a shot to finish in the WR5-8 range.
The Saints Offense Has Its Worst Fantasy Season In The Drew Brees Era
While it’s common knowledge that the Saints have transitioned to a run-heavy team as Drew Brees gets older, the full extent of it is often overlooked. Below are the passing and rushing statistics from the Saints offense over the last three years, and how they compare to the league as a whole.
|Saints Offense||PF||Yds||Pass Att||Pass Yds||Pass TD||Rush Att||Rush Yds||Rush TD|
|Team Stats ’16||469||6816||674||5074||38||404||1742||17|
|Lg Rank ’16||2||1||2||1||2||19||16||6|
|Team Stats ’17||448||6259||536||4189||23||444||2070||23|
|Lg Rank ’17||4||2||19||5||16||13||5||1|
|Team Stats ’18||504||6067||519||4042||33||471||2025||26|
|Lg Rank ’18||3||8||23||12||7||5||7||1|
The Saints have gone from the second-most pass-happy team in the league in 2016 to the 23rd-most pass-happy team in 2018, a drastic change over just three seasons. Conversely, the Saints have gone from the 19th-most rushing attempts in the league in 2016 to a top-five finish in 2018. The transformation from pass-heavy to run-heavy is complete, and with a 40-year old Brees at quarterback, it would be foolish to expect this trend to reverse.
For fantasy purposes, this transition affects the secondary options in the passing game greatly. With Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara soaking up a huge amount of the ever-dwindling passing attempts, the rest of the Saints offense is left fighting for scraps. Thomas and Kamara accounted for 52% of the Saints passing yardage in 2018, a number that could increase if the Saints continue their downward trajectory in overall passing attempts. In fact, no pass-catcher saw over 50 targets for the Saints in 2018 other than Thomas and Kamara.
Brees managed to finish as the QB7 on a point per game basis in 2018, but the efficiency needed to accomplish that was astounding, even from Brees’s lofty standards. Brees posted a career-high completion percentage of 74%, the lowest interception rate of his career at 1%, and a 115.7 quarterback rating that was also his career-high. It may be odd to see these career-highs from Brees, only for me to be down on his fantasy outlook. But if Brees’s passing volume doesn’t increase, he literally needs career-best efficiency just to maintain his QB7 finish. If Brees finally starts showing signs of his age, his fantasy numbers would fall off a cliff with anything less than super-human efficiency.
Ultimately, the Saints are as top-heavy as any team in the league. An injury to Thomas or Kamara could have devastating effects, especially after the Saints transitioned away from the versatile Mark Ingram to the one-dimensional Latavius Murray in the offseason. And if Brees slows down at all, we may be looking at a middle of the pack offense being held afloat by its only two fantasy standouts in Thomas and Kamara.
Aaron Jones is Jamaal Charles 2.0
For the full writeup, check out my Going Deep on Aaron Jones from earlier in the offseason. I took a realistic look at Jones and came away very impressed, moving him up to RB12 in my rankings. These are bold predictions, however, so let’s look at what Jones can accomplish if everything goes right.
For the dream scenario to work out and for Jones to become the next Jamaal Charles, getting Jones more than ten carries per game will be a necessity. Jones has rushed ten or more times in a game only 12 times over his two-year career, and the results have been impressive. Jones has 12 touchdowns in those 12 games, with a 5.55 yards per rush average and 1,142 all-purpose yards. At 17.68 points per game in PPR scoring, Jones would have slotted in as the RB9 on a per-game basis in 2018.
Jones has room to grow as well. In those 12 contests, Jones averaged only 3.33 targets per game and 2.33 receptions per game, limiting his elite upside in PPR leagues. With talk that new head coach Matt LaFleur will utilize Jones more in the passing game, increased passing game work could become a reality this year. With an inexperienced and unproven wide receiver group behind Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers may find Jones a welcoming sight in the passing game.
But the biggest reason that the sky is the limit for Jones? Jones has produced top-end fantasy performances in two of the worst years of the Rodgers era in Green Bay, as their offense ranked 21st in points scored in 2017 and 14th in 2018. While some of the struggles are due to injuries to Rodgers, much more blame has been placed at the feet of former head coach Mike McCarthy. If LaFleur can return the Packers offense to its glory days, Jones could be a primary beneficiary.
With Rodgers set to turn 36 in December, LaFleur could look to lean on a dynamic running game with Jones as the centerpiece. Increased passing game work could quickly get Jones into the 20 points per game range, and a better Packers offense could see Jones score even more touchdowns. Like with most running backs, Jones needs to stay healthy for his elite efficiency to truly shine. But if everything falls into place, we could be looking at a fantasy season that would make Jamaal Charles proud.
Carlos Hyde Scores More TDs Than Le’Veon Bell
I have a healthy bit of skepticism for Le’Veon Bell this year, leading me to question the number of touchdowns he will score. I worry about a player that sits out an entire season, especially at a position as physically demanding as running back. Coaches always stress that there is a difference between being in shape and being in “game shape”, and I would imagine that nowhere is that truer than at the running back position. I expect Bell to have some rust to shake off early in the season.
I am also skeptical about the state of the Jets offense as a whole, and a low scoring offense would likely limit Bell’s touchdown potential. Pro Football Focus ranks the Jets offensive line as the 28th “best” in the league, a concerning sign for the offense in year two under Sam Darnold. The Jets had only 11 rushing touchdowns as a team in 2018, after rushing for 13 and 10 touchdowns the previous two seasons. Bell himself was never a great touchdown scorer in Pittsburgh, even during his elite fantasy seasons. Bell was good for eight to eleven touchdowns during his healthy seasons on the Steelers. Vegas has set the over/under at 9.5 touchdowns for Bell, and I would be inclined to take the under.
Now we turn to Carlos Hyde, and how realistically he can score eight or more touchdowns to give Bell a run for his money. There have been rumors during the offseason that Hyde could be cut before the season starts, adding to the risk in this prediction. If Hyde were to get cut, insert Darrel Williams into the title of this prediction, please. As long as Hyde is around, however, he figures to command a significant goalline role.
Most of Hyde’s competition at running back is in the mold of pass-catching backs. Damien Williams has the size to run between the tackles, but having never logged over 50 carries in his five-year NFL career, the Chiefs will look to spell him. And some of Williams’s best work has come in the passing game, so the Chiefs will likely want to feature him in that role. Rookie Darwin Thompson has flashed in the early going, but again, as a 5’8″ rookie Thompson profiles as more of a pass-catcher. That presumably leaves Hyde and Darrel Williams as running backs that could fit as a goalline option, and Williams is just a second-year undrafted free agent with 16 career touches. Hyde appears to have an excellent shot at a touchdown scoring role.
The Chiefs rushed for 16 touchdowns in 2018, five more than the Jets did. After throwing for a whopping 50 touchdowns last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs run a few more into the endzone this year, potentially increasing that rushing touchdown lead over the Jets. Hyde is a Damien Williams injury away from having an excellent shot at surpassing Bell’s touchdown total. And even if Williams stays healthy, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hyde score eight touchdowns and give Bell a run for his money. As always, I’ll be taking shots on players in elite offenses while fading players in poor offenses.
Justice Hill Is This Year’s Alvin Kamara
With explosive speed as a rookie coming out of Oklahoma State, Justice Hill he can be viewed as a poor man’s Reggie Bush. For fantasy purposes, however, Hill might be this year’s Alvin Kamara. In 2017 Kamara was a 12th or 13th round pick in most fantasy drafts, going as the 52nd running back off the board. There were concerns about the competition for touches in the Saints offense, with Mark Ingram (more on him later) and Adrian Peterson already on the roster. Kamara forced his hand quickly, and by year’s end was a top-five fantasy running back in a shocking breakout performance. Expecting Hill to be a top-five running back is foolish, but he best fits the profile in 2019.
The Ravens fourth-round pick this offseason, Hill is competing with the previously mentioned Ingram for touches, as well as Gus Edwards and to a lesser extent Kenneth Dixon. Dixon appears to be on the roster bubble, and while Edwards was a nice story in 2018, he is ultimately a one-dimensional undrafted free agent out of Rutgers. We shouldn’t have let the aging Peterson keep us from drafting the talented Kamara in 2017, and we shouldn’t let Edwards prevent us from targeting Hill in 2019. Talent wins out, and Hill looks like one of the most talented options on the roster.
Ultimately, Hill’s upside will depend on how Baltimore uses him, and what their overall offensive philosophy is. I envision Hill as a way for the Ravens to spread the field horizontally, similar to how the Saints used Kamara and Ingram together. With Ingram in the backfield and Kamara split wide, the Saints would often motion Kamara and run a jet sweep or a fake to Kamara. In this example, Ingram gets a screen pass for a touchdown after the fake.
Now imagine that scheme combined with the running threat of quarterback Lamar Jackson under center.
Much of the Ravens offense is hypothetical at this point, but the possibilities are intriguing. All that it takes to get a piece of the offense is to spend a 12th or 13th round pick on Hill, who could end up being the primary beneficiary if the Ravens find a way to make this run-heavy offense work. I’ll be sure to stash Hill at the end of my roster, in hopes of landing the next Alvin Kamara.
(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire)