Justin Dunbar’s Five Bold Predictions For 2021

Justin Dunbar makes five bold predictions for the upcoming fantasy football season.

We are inching closer and closer to the return of preseason football! Believe it or not, it’s been well over a year since the last time we were gifted this beautiful source of entertainment. Really, though, what’s even more exciting is that we’re even closer to the beginning of the NFL season; fantasy drafts are on the horizon!

With that in mind, let us have some fun! Tired of hearing the same information from multiple sources? That’s where bold predictions come into play! These five predictions are not outcomes that I expect to come to fruition, yet are ones that I believe have a greater percentage chance of happening than you’d think. In a year, these probably will turn out to be a moot point, but, hey, you never know when one can pan out! It is time for us to get BOLD!

All Stats via Pro Football Focus

 

Joe Burrow Finishes Top-Ten All Time In Passing Yards

 

After being the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, expectations were quite high for Joe Burrow to turn the Bengals around, and, to his credit, he certainly made them a much more entertaining team. Sadly, his season came to an end after tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 11, but we were given a taste of what’s to come for the 24-year-old.

In those 10 games, Burrow averaged 268.8 passing yards and earned a 75.1 PFF grade, though his 6.7 yards/attempt left a lot to be desired. That being said, there is a lot to suggest his production will take a step up in his second year as a pro. While he earned an 86.2 PFF passing grade in clean pocket situations, that number dropped to 45.1 when under pressure. Luckily, performance under pressure is significantly less stable than performance in a clean pocket, meaning positive regression should be in the cards for 2021. Boosting the offensive line with the addition of tackle Riley Reiff also could help create more clean-pocket situations.

Then, there’s Burrow’s production when throwing down the fields. On passes 20 yards or more, he had just a 20.8% adjusted completion rate and averaged just 6.1 yards/attempt, which is quite underwhelming. That being said, the receiving corps likely played a major role here. Last season, AJ Green was one of the least productive receivers in the NFL, averaged just 1.02 yards/route run. More specifically, on throws 20+ yards down the field, passes thrown to him yielded just a 12.5% completion rate. Not only is deep-ball production also a less-stable metric, but simply allocating targets down the field elsewhere will help.

Where will those targets be going to? How about one of the better receiving prospects in recent memory: Burrow’s former college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. As a sophomore in 2019, the 21-year-old not only was one of the most efficient (3.52 yards/route run) receivers in the nation but also meshed perfectly with Burrow in the vertical passing game. Targeted on 29.8% of his routes, he yielded a 66.7% catch rate and averaged 23.89 yards/route run, and scouting reports indicate significant prowess as a vertical threat; it’s safe to say he’ll be a major upgrade over what Green brought to the table last season. Add in second-year receiver Tee Higgins and slot receiver Tyler Boyd, and Burrow will have quite a trio to throw the ball to.

To finish top-ten all-time in passing yards, Burrow would need to throw for 5,085 passing yards or just around 300 per game. Can he get there? When he was healthy, the Bengals led the league in pass attempts. Between their strong receiving corps and the poor state of defense, they are a likely candidate this season to lead the league in pass attempts. The combination of improved efficiency with loads of opportunities makes him extremely intriguing from a fantasy perspective; he’s a quarterback I’d want to have a lot of shares of this year. By the looks of it, Burrow wouldn’t project to be your average Joe this season.

 

Elijah Mitchell Leads The 49ers’ Backfield In Fantasy Points

 

Wait, what? A sixth-round rookie is going to lead a backfield? He wasn’t even the highest-drafted running back in the 2021 draft! Hey, I’m not saying Elijah Mitchell that should be starting for your fantasy team. At the same time, I wouldn’t call him your typical sixth-round pick:

 

 

Those are some marquee numbers! Mitchell not only was one of the better running backs in the NFL in creating yardage but also was quite the explosive runner (40.5% breakaway). That production and explosiveness are backed up by his athletic testing numbers, which include a 4.38 40-yard dash. That straight-line speed makes him a fantastic fit for Kyle Shanahan’s zone-rushing offense; Mitchell had a zone-rushing concept on 76.2% of his attempts at Louisiana.

Will Mitchell get the opportunity to shine? That is the main question here. Raheem Mostert and third-round rookie Trey Sermon head the depth chart, while Wayne Gallman, JaMycal Hasty, and Jeff Wilson Jr. (when healthy) are all in the mix as well. Regardless, Kyle Shanahan has generally cared less about prior investment in a running back than other coaches, and Mitchell’s explosive style mirrors Mostert very well. Should Mostert miss time with injury, Mitchell would be an advisable replacement in a timeshare with Sermon, while he could simply outperform Sermon altogether. It’s a long shot, but when all else fails, bet on talent!

Currently, Mitchell’s average draft position means he likely won’t be drafted unless in deeper formats. In that case, he is a very intriguing flier given his talent and the “upside” of him potentially getting an opportunity to contribute; you can always drop him with no loss if he doesn’t make an impact. In dynasty and rookie drafts, too, he’s someone that I would be very interested in. Raheem Mostert’s contract is up after this season, after all, so we could be looking at a tandem of Sermon and Mitchell should Mitchell impress in the way I think he is capable of doing so. Can Mitchell be this year’s version of Aaron Jones or James Robinson? I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

 

Dan Arnold Is This Year’s Logan Thomas

 

Every year, we do our best to predict the top performers at each position, spending countless amounts of time researching each player based on their projected opportunities, and how they’ll perform within those opportunities. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Logan Thomas, a 29-year-old converted quarterback with 35 career receptions, would finish as the fourth-ranked tight end in fantasy points last year! At the end of the day, that is the beauty in all of this!

In general, tight end is a position where breakout players come from all directions, which begs the question: who will fit that bill this year? Could it be Dan Arnold? Recently signed to a two-year contract by the Panthers, all indications are that he will be the team’s starting tight end this season. If so, that is a great opportunity for him. Last year, starting tight end Ian Thomas ran 466 routes with 53.2% of them coming in the slot and 21.7% out wide. The problem was that Thomas, with a 42.2 PFF receiving grade and 0.31 yards/route run, certainly did not take advantage of those favorable route concepts.

Arnold, on the other hand, is in a much better position to produce. As a former wide receiver, the 26-year-old is an exceptional athlete for the position and performed well with the Cardinals last year. On 298 routes, he worked a vertical route tree (12.6 aDOT), performed tremendously after the catch (5.7 YAC/REC), and averaged 14.1 yards/reception. Considering that the tight end position isn’t a major focal point of Arizona’s offense, his 1.47 yards/route run (19th for tight ends) is actually somewhat impressive.

Receivers DJ Moore and Robby Anderson will likely command a high target share, but there are some vacated targets in Carolina following the departure of Curtis Samuel. Given his big-play ability, Arnold doesn’t need to command a massive target share to be productive. For Logan Thomas, the path to success was mainly around running a lot of routes (655 routes), and while Arnold won’t receive 114 targets, he’ll likely make up for it with a much higher yards/reception. Add in that his previous usage in terms of lining up in the slot and out wide almost completely mirror Thomas’ usage, and there is a lot to like here.

Someone has to capitalize on the positive regression of the Panthers converting more than 50.88% of their red-zone attempts into touchdowns, right? Neither Moore and Anderson profile as typical players to benefit from this, but the 6’6″ Arnold certainly could; it was his main role was with both Arizona and previously with the Saints. Saying he finishes as a top-five tight end would be even too bold for my liking, but I could certainly see him finishing as a top-15 option. With that in mind, he’s someone to look into stashing at the end of drafts.

 

Odell Beckham Jr. Leads The NFL In Receiving Touchdowns

 

Remember when Odell Beckham Jr. was considered one of the top receivers in the NFL and an undisputed top-two round pick in fantasy? I wish we could get back to those times. Few players can match the production he displayed during his first three years as a pro:

 

 

Sadly, it hasn’t been as smooth sailing this season. The 2017 season was cut short due to injury, and after being traded to the Browns in 2019, he posted the worst yards/route run (1.79) of his career. Meanwhile, the production was similar in 2020 before tearing his ACL in Week 7.

So, is Beckham Jr. doomed? I don’t think so. There is apparently a narrative that the Browns’ offense got better once he was injured, but I think this is a clear case of “correlation without causation”. Without a normal offseason, the organization was trying to mesh together a new offense with a first-time head coach in Kevin Stefanski. Overall, the team only finished 13th in points per game, but they were a much more efficient offense (28.33 PPG) down the stretch. Based on market-implied power ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, they are expected to be a top-ten offense this season, and many project them to once again be a playoff team in 2021.

In other words, Cleveland is primed to score some points, and Beckham Jr. is in a position to thrive. He was on pace for 10.67 expected touchdowns per 16 games as is, which would have ranked near the top of the league. Remember, that was with a struggling offense. While the overall run-heavy nature could prevent the star receiver from having a monstrous total in terms of receiving yards, there is definitely a path to him thriving in terms of touchdowns. Last season, Adam Thielen failed to go over 1,000 receiving yards, but still managed 14 touchdowns with a very successful offense. The combination of Beckham Jr. being utilized down the field, in addition to him being featured in red-zone scenarios, gives him the type of “boom” potential to lead the league in arguably the most difficult-to-predict statistic out there.

While there is some reason to be concerned about Beckham Jr. coming off of a severe injury, he appears to be recovering well. If so, one of the game’s most talented receivers will get to be featured in a thriving offense, finally with a full offseason to prepare. This is the type of player to target in drafts; he has “top-ten receiver” in his range of outcomes. Right now, I cannot even find his odds to lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns, which means this certainly qualifies as a bold prediction. For a player, this talented, though, should that really be the case?

 

Joe Mixon Outscores Derrick Henry

 

What have I done? Derrick Henry is coming off of a season in which he ran for 2000 yards, and he’s led the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons. Is Joe Mixon really going to outscore him? Hey, that’s not my median expectations, but, remember we’re getting BOLD here. In PPR leagues, especially, there certainly is a path for this happening.

Henry has been fantastic, but there are certainly reasons to point to regression. For starters, his 35 touchdowns are a complete outlier compared to the rest of the NFL. His expected touchdowns in that span were just 22.9, and while Henry is such a productive running back that is built to thrive in red-zone scenarios, overachieving by THAT much would appear to be difficult to sustain. Meanwhile, his efficiency will need to continue to be fabulous, as it’s likely that Tennessee won’t be in as favorable of game scripts this season. Here is a list of some of their notable offseason losses:

  • CB Adoree’ Jackson
  • CB Malcolm Butler
  • WR Adam Humphries
  • OT Dennis Kelly
  • WR Corey Davis
  • TE Jonnu Smith
  • IDL DaQuan Jones
  • CB Desmond King

Jackson and Humphries dealt with injuries last season, while Davis will be replaced by Julio Jones. That said, the defense is in difficult shape with a lot of turnover in their secondary, If the Titans are going to have to participate in more shootouts, that’ll limit Henry’s usage. Remember, he’s never had 20 receptions in a season, while he’s only run over 200 routes once in his career.

Then, there is the loss of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. We cannot quantify coaching, but losing him certainly is going to harm the offense, which could mean fewer touchdown opportunities for the star running back. It is very difficult for a running back who doesn’t produce in the receiving game to consistently rank as the top of the NFL in PPR fantasy points, and that could catch up to Henry this season.

Mixon, on the other hand, is likely to work a three-down role for the Bengals this season following the departure of Giovanni Bernard. Based on expected fantasy points per game, he actually was given more favorable opportunities (18.1 vs 17.3) than Henry, earning 26.33 touches per game before getting injured. It is clear that head coach Zac Taylor wants him to have an all-around workload, and with positive regression in terms of efficiency (3.6 YPA last year compared to career 4.1), he is very likely to end up as a top-ten running back.

While some see Mixon as a risky pick, I actually see someone with a high floor given his likely workload. To get a running back like that in the second round is excellent value. As for outperforming Henry, Mixon is likely to double Henry’s receiving output, which could make up for the gap in rushing production. While this is currently a bold prediction, it is one that very well could come true by the end of the year.

 

Photo by Alexander Jonesi/WIkimedia Commons | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

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