Every year when it comes time to do this column, I struggle with
whether or not I should be bold in terms of shock value or simply
deviate from the perceived norm on a handful of players. I still
don't have the answer for that this year and I'm not quite sure
I ever will. Be that as it may, people love to see "hot takes"
and analysts all across the fantasy industry love to cling to the
one or two they got right from the season before, so let's saddle
up for another round.
I suppose the reason why this task is harder for me than some
is because readers have typically been exposed to my Big Boards
for around a month by the time this piece comes around, so my
secrets are no longer secret. In an effort to make myself feel
better, maybe entertain you and reinforce the fact this is NOT
a sudden departure from all the Big
Boards I submitted last week, I've decided to include how
likely I believe my bold prediction will come true. Let's get
An above average receiving group and a
cozy late-season schedule could push Rivers into the top 5.
1. Philip Rivers will throw for at least
4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns and finish among the top five fantasy
Before I begin, it boggles my mind how underappreciated Rivers
has been for most of his career. (Another subject for another
time.) Also, I feel pretty good about Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers,
Drew Brees and Russell Wilson finishing inside the top five, so
I guess you have your first five options.
Back to the task at hand, this may not seem like a bold prediction
per se. but hear me out. For all of his year-to-year consistency
(in terms of durability), Rivers has only three top-five fantasy
finishes to his credit and only topped 4,500 yards AND passed
for 30 touchdowns in the same season once. So why is it going
to happen this year?
For starters, this is probably Rivers' best supporting cast since
at least 2007 (when he had the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers and Antonio Gates - all under 30 years of age). A healthy Keenan Allen gives
Los Angeles a short and intermediate option Rivers trusts, while
a healthy Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams are easily capable
of getting behind defenses. Let's not forget about No. 7 overall
pick Mike Williams, who may be able to make an impact around midseason
if his back cooperates and give the Chargers a size mismatch inside
the 10 and 20 at the very least. Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates
provide a 1-2 punch at tight end few teams have and should allow
Rivers to be one of the more efficient red zone passers in the
league this season. Last but not least, Melvin Gordon is a more
than capable receiver, as is backup running back Branden Oliver.
The offensive line is a concern, but that has been the case for
a while now, and this year's front five should be markedly better
than the 2016 edition. The early part of the season (two matchups
against the Broncos and one each against the Giants and Patriots)
is another slight concern, but Los Angeles has a sweetheart of
a schedule down the stretch. Starting in Week 11, the Chargers
play Buffalo, Dallas, Cleveland, Washington, Kansas City and the
New York Jets. So even if Rivers falls just a bit shy of my top-five
prediction, he's probably going to help you make the fantasy postseason
(and quite possibly win it).
Likelihood of happening:
2. Neither David Johnson nor Le'Veon Bell
will finish the season as the top running back in fantasy.
Wait, what? You want bold, right? I'm trying to give you bold.
We will get to my bizarro-world overall RB1 pick in a second,
but first let's discuss why the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 overall
picks in most drafts might fail to live up to their lofty preseason
Last year, Johnson amassed 373 touches. Over the last 10 seasons,
17 backs have reached that magical mark. Of that bunch, only three
did so again the following season (Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis
and Tomlinson).Of those three, only Portis increased his production
from the following season. Some of the most recent members of
the 370-touch club include Bell, who played only six games in
2015 after amassing 373 carries in 2014. DeMarco Murray was blindsided
by the Chip Kelly train in 2015 after going bonkers in 2014 and
Arian Foster only played more than half of his team's games once
over the final four games of his career following his 391-touch
campaign in 2012. Johnson is undoubtedly built to take a pounding,
but there's a reason so few running backs can string together
seasons of 350-plus touches. Beyond workload concerns, there's
the likelihood of touchdown regression. Of the 25 instances in
which a player scored at least 15 touchdowns in a season between
2007 and 2015, all of them scored fewer times the following year.
So what? He can spare a few, right? He had 20 last year, no? That's
not really the point. Let's say he loses six scores and settles
for 14 TDs this year. At that point, his season becomes only slightly
better LeSean McCoy's 2016. Arizona's offense has also become
considerably more predictable in recent years, and there is little
doubt the NFC West got better this offseason. I'm not telling
you to bypass Johnson in your draft - I would take him or Bell
almost without fail every opportunity I got - but history shows
he carries at least some mild risk.
I think I can sum up Bell pretty quickly. He didn't show up to
practice until Sept. 1 and told reporters he felt "a little
winded" after the first one was over, but promised he'll
be ready for a "full
load" in Week 1. Although I believe he was partially
kidding, that is not the part that concerns me. There are too
many examples of players who pull a hamstring in the first month
the season after not reporting for camp and sitting out the preseason.
If I'm a Bell owner, I am making sure I am loading up on high-upside
backs in the middle rounds in addition to probably adding both
James Conner and Terrell Watson late. Bell is such a unique talent
that I hope he ends up proving me wrong, but owners should feel
happy if they get 12 healthy games out of him this year.
So who's my pick to replace them atop the leaderboard? Devonta Freeman. Yes, I understand this has very little chance of happening,
but it honestly wouldn't surprise me if it did. First of all,
he's one season removed from doing it. Secondly, he's the only
back in the NFL to rush for over 1,000 yards and score at least
10 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. Add in 50-plus
catches in both 2015 and 2016, a supporting cast to keep the box
light, an offensive line that remains mostly intact from last
year and a schedule I have graded as the easiest for any running
back, and there is enough to at least make a case for Freeman.
The obvious downside is how much work he figures to share with
Tevin Coleman, but do we really know how new OC Steve Sarkisian
plans on splitting up the work? Something about that six-year
contract worth over $43 million, including $22 million guaranteed,
tells me Atlanta has or is about to commit to Freeman more in
Likelihood of happening:
3. Not only will Kareem Hunt finish as
a top 10 fantasy running back, but he'll also outscore LeSean
McCoy and Jordan Howard.
As we discussed last week,
Andy Reid has been a head coach for 18 seasons and placed a running
back inside the top 16 in PPR scoring 14 times (including nine
top-10 finishes and five top-fives). The four exceptions: Jamaal Charles' 2015 season in which he was lost for the season in Week
5, McCoy's rookie year in 2009 in which he shared touches with
Brian Westbrook for half a season, a three-headed backfield in
2003 and, in 2000, when Duce Staley missed 11 games. While it
can be debated whether or not Tyreek Hill is ready to be a No.
1 receiver, the threat he poses vertically (as a deep-ball receiver)
or while in motion (such as on a reverse or jet sweep) can keep
a defense on its heels. Travis Kelce also stretches defense vertically
and Alex Smith remains a running threat, so while Smith may never
be the most aggressive passer, there are plenty of reasons why
Hunt won't be seeing stacked boxes very often. Spencer Ware is
no longer around to steal goal-line work, leaving Hunt as the
clear top inside runner on the team. Hunt has a finite ceiling,
however, as Reid does a good job of making sure his top backs
rarely go much beyond 240 carries. Only once did Westbrook or
McCoy go over that mark under Reid - both of whom are much more
dynamic backs than Hunt - so the rookie's rushing ceiling will
probably be just a bit over 1,000 yards, so owners need to hope
the rookie pushes 50 catches like Westbrook and McCoy used to
do on a fairly regular basis under Reid. OC Matt Nagy may have
done late drafters a favor by suggesting Kansas City may
employ a committee backfield in Week 1. The Chiefs may very
well do that for the first three or four weeks and Charcandrick West is very much worth a late draft pick, but make no mistake:
this is Hunt's backfield and any slight reduction of carries he
sees in September only figures to help him stay fresh later into
the season - always a big deal for a rookie back.
So why am I picking on McCoy and Howard? With McCoy, there are
several reasons I dislike him as a first-round pick this year.
Among them: age (29), a history of soft-tissue injuries, a supporting
cast that has quickly eroded and the looming threat of Tyrod Taylor
not holding onto the starting quarterback job very long. (While
"Shady" can get his own yards a lot of the time, defenses
respect Taylor's running ability and always run the risk of giving
up a 10- to 20-yard gain to the quarterback if the weak-side defensive
end or linebacker crashes down too hard.) The release of Jonathan Williams makes the case even stronger, as McCoy will almost certainly
be asked to carry the ball more often. While fantasy owners are
generally happy to hear their stud runner is in line for more
work, McCoy has struggled to stay healthy over the last two seasons
without a heavy workload. Touchdown regression is also another
consideration after visiting the end zone 14 times a year ago
for an offense that surprising scored 46 offensive TDs last year.
At the moment, Mike Tolbert projects to be the backup in Buffalo.
If there is one thing he can probably still do at a decent rate
at the ripe old age of 31, it is probably score touchdowns at
the goal line. So what we have in the end is a player in McCoy
who is getting older, will receive little to no help from his
teammates, plays for an offense with uncertainty at quarterback
and he may not even be the goal-line back.
What gives with Howard then? I believe he will lose more looks
to rookie Tarik Cohen in the passing game than owners expect,
but Howard didn't make huge noise as a receiver last year anyway,
so that's a minor knock. One of my biggest problems with the second-year
pro is touchdown upside. Half of six touchdowns last season came
in one game against the most forgiving run defense in the league
(fantasy and real-life). The offense projects to be worse overall
this year, while the schedule figures to be considerably more
difficult. Assuming positive game script, volume will be in Howard's
favor, but how often will that happen for an offense that lost
last year's top playmaker (Cameron Meredith) and doesn't how long
it will be able to count on arguably its best offensive lineman
(LG Kyle Long) against the slate of games that includes the likes
of the Falcons, Steelers, Packers (twice), Ravens, Panthers and
Saints? The teams in that group that don't have great run defenses
have some of the league's most explosive offenses. I will admit
the Bears' interior linemen (when healthy) - Long, C Cody Whitehair
and RG Josh Sitton - are about as good as it gets in the league,
as Howard's league-high 996 yards between the tackles last year
will attest, so I do question this part of the bold prediction
more than I do with McCoy.
Likelihood of happening:
4. Jonathan Stewart will finish as a top
30 running back.
As the original conductor
of the Christian McCaffrey hype train (unofficial title) in fantasy
circles, this prediction may seem a bit odd coming from me. However,
anyone who has been tracking my Big Boards knows I am serious.
Yes, I still think Easy Ed's son will be a top-15 back in PPR
leagues. But Stewart is still the starter, will see a significant
portion of the early-down work and be the one of the top two options
on the ground at or near the goal line for a Carolina offense
that could be very dynamic this season against a rather soft schedule.
The fact a potential - if not likely - 200-carry back is coming
off the board around the 10th round (and quite often later) as
a RB4 or even RB5 after a nine-score season is stunning to me.
Stewart's current draft stock seems to be the product of at least
a couple of different narratives coming together.
Allow me to explain what I believe is happening and let me attempt
to shoot down the most common concerns:
He always gets hurt. Fine, he's played 13 games in each
of the last three seasons, but Stewart has never been the most
durable player to begin with. (That has already been baked into
his ADP for years.) I'd also like to think we know what he is
entering his 10th year in the league. Considering the amount of
draft capital it takes to acquire him this year, find me another
running back after the top 100 picks whose potential range of
outcomes could include 200 carries, 800 yards and 10 touchdowns.
We should all have such big problems to be without our RB4 or
RB5 for three to five games.
McCaffrey will simply take over the backfield. In the
scenario, McCaffrey pushes Stewart into the same kind of role
Jeremy Hill is expected to have in Cincinnati once Joe Mixon takes
over. While there is a decent chance of this happening, why did
the team give Stewart a two-year contract extension in March?
(Do we really want to believe the Panthers didn't have at least
an inkling of what player they might take a month ahead of the
draft? (Considering they opted for two very similar versatile
threats, I think they did.) And what was the rush to get the deal
done? He wasn’t a free agent, so the team could have waited
on the extension if it didn't expect him to be a fairly big part
of the "new" offense.) Carolina has rushed at least
453 times in each of the last three seasons, and the goal all
offseason has been to run Cam Newton less in 2017. If McCaffrey
does end up as the clear starter, I am quite confident he won't
see much more than 200 carries. Newton will continue to run, but
I'm willing to bet the Panthers want to keep his attempts in the
70-75 range as opposed to the 90 he had last year and 100-plus
that he's typically had.
Newton is not a good short-range passer, so the offense will
not take off. It has been well-documented he was the worst-rated
passer in the league last season on throws less than five yards
downfield. If the detractors believe this narrative wasn't personnel-based
and more of a "Cam problem," then McCaffrey is going
to struggle, not Stewart. We already saw last year what Stewart
can do in a "broken" offense.
OK, so you don't like either one of those explanations/scenarios.
How about this one? When is the last time the Panthers haven't
used running back by committee when both top backs on the depth
chart are healthy? If you don't like Stewart because he is "injury-prone,"
I get it. Just be aware you could be thumbing your nose at a potential
200-carry back (he reached that mark easily last season in 13
games) with the capacity to run for more than 800 yards and 10
touchdowns for a team that should have more than its fair share
of positive game scripts. In a worst-case scenario (at least in
my estimation), Stewart will be a 170-carry back with goal-line
Likelihood of happening:
5. Julio Jones will overtake Antonio Brown
and Odell Beckham Jr. for the title of fantasy's top receiver.
Rather than make a case against Brown or Beckham not finishing
No. 1, I'll make the case for Jones to do it. He's arguably the
most talented receiver in the game today. He consistently beats
coverage designed to stop him. He nearly won the receiving yardage
title last season despite missing two games and posting four games
with 35 yards or fewer. Owners want to blame him for inconsistency,
but he's selfless enough to keep his mouth shut about not getting
his looks when just about every other wideout would whine. The
most common complaints owners have regarding Jones is durability
and an inability to consistently score touchdowns. I'll grant
you the first one, although he has played 15, 16 and 14 games
the last two seasons and produced an average of 107.7 catches
for 1,624.3 yards. (Is he really disappointing owners?) This season,
one of first things Sarkisian noted upon his arrival was that
while the Falcons ranked sixth in the league in converting red
zone trips into touchdowns, he thought one way they could improve
was by making sure they took advantage of every opportunity Jones
had even a hint of single coverage inside the 10 and 20. As a
player who has finished inside the top six at his position in
PPR scoring in each of the last three years despite relatively
modest touchdown totals, it's not going to take much of a spike
in that area to push him to the top given his recent averages
in the other categories. But here's the main reason I like this
year to be his year:
CHI | GB | DET | BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ | CAR | DAL | SEA | TB
| MIN | NO | TB | NO
Of that group, the Patriots and Vikings probably concern me the
most. Richard Sherman could shadow, but Jones produced twice against
Seattle last year and did so even when Sherman was in primary
coverage. At worst, owners are probably looking at three tough
days at the office, with potential blow-up spots against teams
like the Packers, Bills, Jets, Cowboys and maybe twice against
the Saints in the fantasy playoffs.
Likelihood of happening:
6. Evan Engram will finish as a top-12
tight end in PPR leagues.
In what was a bumper draft crop at the position this spring,
Engram should be considered a heavy favorite to leave the biggest
mark on the fantasy landscape as a NFL freshman. But this prediction
isn't about out-producing the likes of O.J. Howard and David Njoku,
but most of his veteran counterparts as well. By now, we all know
trusting rookie tight ends is often a fool's errand. It's the
second-most difficult position to learn on offense and the combination
of being asked to stay in and block along with the mental demands
of the job can often be too much for the kids.
Engram is not your standard tight end, however. If the Giants
know what's good for their immediate future, they won't try to
put him in a box. (To their credit, it does not appear they are.)
The Ole Miss product is a matchup nightmare in virtually every
sense, as he runs 4.42 while carrying 235 pounds. He is essentially
a younger and faster Brandon Marshall in that regard. But it's
more than just about speed. New York seems happy enough with his
blocking to use him in-line on occasion, and he is versatile enough
to move into the slot or serve as an H-back. Versatility typically
allows players to stay on the field, and Engram has it in spades
- much more than the traditional young bucks at his position.
However, I still haven't mentioned the real reason why Engram
should shine this year. New York's running game may actually be
worse than last year when it ranked 29th in rushing and 30th in
yards per carry. Something or someone is going to need to pick
up yards and first downs over the middle of the field which would
usually be achieved by running backs on most teams. While five-yard
curl routes aren't exactly Engram's bread-and-butter, Eli Manning
may not be a good enough quarterback at this stage of his career
to consistently take advantage of the rookie's ability to stretch
the seam. Still, Eli's arm is probably a better option than hoping
the ground game will carry its weight, so there will figures to
be significant volume in the passing game. I'm not going to go
crazy and suggest Engram is poised for 60-plus catches, 700 yards
and six to eight touchdowns, but a 53-548-7 line allowed Antonio Gates to finish as the TE12 in 2016. It's not unfathomable the
rookie could post similar numbers with more yardage and fewer
Likelihood of happening:
Every year, I end my Bold Predictions piece with something for
the dynasty leaguers. Usually, I share my views about the potential
upcoming rookie class, but I was inspired by one player I recently
stumbled across already in the league. So here comes one more
7. Austin Ekeler will be a player owners
want to add before the end of the season.
There are very few true "sleepers" in fantasy anymore,
but every so often the preseason yields a player completely off
the radar who is worth tracking at the very least and possibly
adding in dynasty leagues in short order. Victor Cruz immediately
comes to mind with his three-touchdown game against the Jets in
2010. But not all performances can or will be that flashy.
Before we can get to why Ekeler could have an impact on your
season, we must first look at what he has already accomplished.
The 5-9, 195-pounder was an absolute workhorse at Division II
Western State, breaking a number of school records by logging
932 carries for 5,857 yards and 55 touchdowns. He signed as an
undrafted free agent in mid-May and proceeded to finish the exhibition
season with 87 yards on 15 carries and 72 yards on five catches.
In doing so, he essentially stole Andre Williams' roster spot.
Ekeler immediately jumped off the tape to me and is a spitting
image of a faster and more athletic Danny Woodhead, which is ironic
on at least a couple of levels. (The same Chargers' scout that
identified Woodhead years ago also "found" Ekeler and
Woodhead played at Chadron State - also a Division II school).
There's a pretty good chance Ekeler will do little more than
work on the special teams units and possibly return kicks/punts
well into the season, so owners don't need to rush to add him
at the moment. But it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which
he - like Oliver did for a brief spell in 2014 - plays his way
onto the fantasy radar, be it as a committee partner to Oliver
should Gordon go down, or as a Woodhead-like weapon in the passing
game. He's got a future in this league.
Likelihood of happening:
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.