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Return of the Walking Dead

By Steve Schwarz | 6/16/23

Last week we investigated which of the “career-year” players could repeat or improve on their performance. This week, we look in the other direction, at players who fell off the fantasy radar with historically poor performances to see who can return to at least viable fantasy starter status or perhaps even better.

We start at the quarterback position.

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson – Cleveland

It was unrealistic of fantasy owners to expect Watson to return to the 26.2 FPts/G level he produced over four seasons in Houston after missing close to two years of football. But many did, and after Jacoby Brissett stumbled for 11 games in Cleveland (15.3 FPts/G and a 4-7 record), the Browns had nothing to lose by throwing Watson out there over the final six games. The Browns went 3-3, but Watson looked nothing like the quarterback he was for the Texans. He was sacked 20 times (Brissett was sacked 24 times in almost twice as many games) and produced 183.7 passing yards per game. His final season in Houston he averaged 301.4 yards per game. He’ll get all the practice he needs this season because the team doesn’t have to get two starters ready this time. Neither Joshua Dobbs nor rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson behind him on the depth chart should get in the way of Watson’s preparation to start in Week 1. The team also traded with the Jets for underused Elijah Moore to go along with holdovers Amari Cooper (78-1,160-9), Donovan Peoples-Jones (61-839-3) and tight end David Njoku (58-628-4). At 28-years-old, there is no reason Watson shouldn’t return to top-10 form.

Matthew Stafford – Los Angeles Rams

The 35-year-old looked every bit of those years as he struggled in 2022. He dealt with a head injury which limited him to nine games. I’m sure he thought about retirement in the off-season, but he’s back. The problems working against him are weapons and age. There is no Robert Woods to help prevent double teams on Cooper Kupp. Van Jefferson and Ben Skowronek aren’t the answers. The OL hasn’t been the same since Andrew Whitworth retired. Running back Cam Akers finished 2022 well, but is it enough? I don’t think so. Stafford averaged 16.8 FPts/G in 2022 which was 30th among quarterbacks with at least two starts. Kupp played in all those games (though he was injured in the last one). In my opinion, he probably should have retired and I’m avoiding him.

Aaron Rodgers – New York Jets

Rodgers averaged a career-low 17.9 FPts/G, the worst since he was installed as the Green Bay Packers starter in 2008. Now, after the usual off-season Rodgers’ drama, he’s the starter for the Jets. He brought some familiar names over with him – Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard. But if the soon-to-be 40-year-old is to return to an MVP level (or at least a fantasy worthy level) he’s going to need to use second-year star Garrett Wilson a lot, along with speedster Mecole Hardman and perhaps Corey Davis. Last season, “ARod” wasn’t very good at blending in new talent (see Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs). It took half the season before he seemed comfortable with the rookies. If it takes that long again, Rodgers will disappoint fantasy owners. I believe he will improve on last season’s total, but put his fantasy production at 21.5 FPts/G which puts him at the bottom of the QB1 ranks. Don’t overpay for the name, but he could be useful in a paired situation with another low-end QB1 starter.

Justin Herbert – Los Angeles Chargers

Don’t sleep on Herbert based on his 2022 season. Everything went wrong for the Chargers’ passing game. Herbert spent most of the season throwing with injured ribs. He lost star wide receivers Keenan Allen for six games and Mike Williams for three games. No. 3 receiver Jalen Guyton played two games. There were more than a couple of games where DeAndre Carter and Josh Palmer were his best receiving options. Because of those issues, Herbert finished 14th among quarterbacks with at least two starts. In the off-season the Chargers upgraded the receiver room with No.1 draft choice Quentin Johnston out of TCU. He’s big and strong with plenty of talent, but raw. Still, he’s very good insurance for the injury-prone starters. Herbert should return to the 26.4 FPts/G he averaged over his first two seasons. That would return him to a top-five at his position.

Kyler Murray – Arizona Cardinals

A fantasy stud in 2020 and 2021, Murray produced his worst season last year averaging just 21.3 FPts/G before suffering an ACL injury in December. He’s likely not to be ready to play until after midseason, so fantasy owners who depend on him might be out of the playoffs before he gets a chance to play. DeAndre Hopkins is gone, a free agent, looking to play on a winning team, which the Cardinals won’t be in 2023. Marquise Brown, Rondale Moore and Greg Dortch are the top-three receivers and Zach Ertz at tight end. Murray won’t be on my team in 2023.

Player 2022 2021 % Decrease Pa Yds Pa TDs INTs Ru Yds Ru TDs
Deshaun Watson 17.8 27.2* -34.6% 1102 7 5 175 1
Matthew Stafford 16.8 24.3 -30.9% 2087 10 8 9 1
Aaron Rodgers 17.9 23.9 -25.1% 3695 26 11 94 1
Justin Herbert 20.7 26.5 -21.9% 4739 25 10 147 0
Kyler Murray 21.3 25.5 -16.5% 2368 14 7 418 3

Next up running backs.

Chase Edmonds – Tampa Bay

Edmonds produced double-digit fantasy points in 2020 and 2021 with Arizona, but in Denver and Miami last season he disappeared. He’ll reappear in Tampa Bay for 2023, but whether he’s got a big enough role is unclear. The Bucs offense, “led” by Baker Mayfield, isn’t likely to be a top-scoring team and what the backfield produces is more likely to come from youngsters Rachaad White and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. If as expected this team struggles, there isn’t much incentive to play Edmonds and there may be more incentive to “sell” off parts like Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Edmonds to a contender in need and start over in a full-on rebuild.

Jonathan Taylor – Indianapolis

I’m buying a Taylor return to form. Not to the level of 2021 when everything went right and he led all backs with 22.2 FPts/G, but a return to top-five status. An ankle injury and lack of quarterback play left fantasy owners’ disappointed last season. Neither noodle-arm Matt Ryan nor Sam Ehlinger could keep defenses honest. It’s a whole new ballgame when rookie Anthony Richardson goes under center. New head coach Shane Steichen, formerly OC in Philadelphia, knows how to use a physical running quarterback. This will make it harder to stop Taylor. Unless third-round rookie Josh Downs becomes a star to team with Michael Pittman Jr., the Colts’ offense goes as Taylor goes.

Antonio Gibson – Washington

I loved Gibson in 2021 when he produced 14.7 FPts/G as a 1,000-yard rusher, but apparently the Commanders didn’t share my admiration. They drafted Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. and gave him 205 rushing attempts to 149 for Gibson. At least Gibson was the receiving back with 58 targets and 46 catches, but the role isn’t going to be enough to make him a top-20 back as he was in 2021. He’ll only be viable in full PPR leagues, otherwise, he’s a handcuff.

Najee Harris – Pittsburgh

Volume continues to dictate Harris as an RB1, but unless he can produce more than 3.8 ypc he’s going to be limited in just how high he can go. He also saw 41 less targets out of the back field in 2022 as youngster Kenny Pickett didn’t utilize him as much as Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers OL should be better with the addition of No. 1 pick Broderick Jones, but the AFC North is a tough division to run the ball, particularly from behind on the scoreboard. If Pickett and the receivers gel, if the OL gels… but that’s a lot of ifs. Expect a season a little better than last year, but no higher than top-12-14 and draft him accordingly.

Alvin Kamara – New Orleans

Everyone, including the Saints, expects a suspension for Kamara. It’s why New Orleans brought in Jamaal Williams from Detroit and drafted Kendre Miller. The trial begins July 31. Until that trial has a verdict (conspiracy to commit battery), it’s going to be impossible to evaluate Kamara’s value, so the simple answer is - stay away.

Player 2022 2021 % Decrease Ru Yds Ru TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Chase Edmonds 5.7 12.1 -52.9% 245 2 16 157 1
Jonathan Taylor 13.9 22.2 -37.4% 861 4 28 143 0
Antonio Gibson 11.1 14.7 -24.5% 546 3 46 353 2
Najee Harris 13.4 17.7 -24.3% 1034 7 41 229 3
Leonard Fournette 14.3 18.3 -21.9% 668 3 73 523 3
Alvin Kamara 14.6 18.1 -19.3% 897 2 57 490 2

Finally, wide receivers.

Hunter Renfrow – Las Vegas

You bring in one superstar receiver and all of a sudden Renfrow’s value plummets from 15.4 FPts/G in 2021 to 8.1 last season. Now it gets worse, as the team added Jakobi Meyers in the 2023 off-season. Renfrow is being offered on the trading block, but as of yet no takers. A little surprising for a guy who has proven hands and the ability to make a big catch when needed. I can’t see a path for his return to 15 FPts/G in Las Vegas and there isn’t a perfect landing spot for him at the moment. He’s a handcuff only barring injury or trade.

Diontae Johnson – Pittsburgh

Johnson is a volume receiver on a team which finished 16th in passing attempts. And with the arrival of George Pickens last season, he’s no longer the most explosive receiver either. On the other hand, there is no way Johnson goes another season without a touchdown pass. After producing 20 in his first three seasons he was kept out of the end zone last season. That won’t happen again. He’ll improve his numbers both because he’ll score and Pickett should improve, but not all the way back to his 2021 career-high of 17.3. Something like 2020 when he averaged 14.9 FPts/G is more likely.

DeVante Parker – New England

I’m afraid this is the new reality for Parker. He’s with a quarterback I have little faith in and he’s competing for top targets with newcomer JuJu Smith-Schuster, a couple of pass-catching tight ends in Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki and Rhamondre Stevenson out of the backfield. But mainly it’s a Mac Jones issue. He doesn’t throw enough and he doesn’t throw well enough to support elite fantasy wide receivers. Oh, and free agent DeAndre Hopkins is in town for a visit with Bill Belichick this week. Pass.

Adam Thielen - Carolina

Thielen’s move from Minnesota to Carolina won’t help his fantasy value. Rookie quarterbacks are brought along slowly and a crowded receiver room with D.J. Chark Jr. as the No. 1, Terrace Marshall Jr., Thielen, Laviska Shenault and second-round pick Jonathan Mingo. This says even distribution to me. Someone will select Thielen too early based on name recognition only… don’t let that be you.

Michael Gallup, Brandin Cooks - Dallas

I’ve grouped both Cowboys receivers together here. Gallup struggled in his return from the knee injury, but the second year removed from the injury should see him producing at a higher level. Meanwhile, Cooks is a consistent 1,000-yard receiver (six in the last eight seasons), but is also on his fifth team in 10 pro seasons. I’m more willing to trust Cooks returning to form because of his successful history. Gallup has one 1,000-yard season in five years. In the Dallas receiver room, CeeDee Lamb is a top-6 fantasy option, Cooks around top-30 and Gallup no higher than top-50 receiver.

Player 2022 2021 % Decrease Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs Ru Yds Ru TDs
Hunter Renfrow 8.1 15.4 -47.4% 36 330 2 0 0
Diontae Johnson 10.4 17.3 -39.9% 86 882 0 25 0
DeVante Parker 7.9 10.4 -33.7% 31 539 3 0 0
Adam Thielen 10.5 15.4 -31.8% 70 716 6 4 0
Michael Gallup 7.5 10.2 -26.5% 39 424 4 0 0
Brandin Cooks 11.2 14.5 -22.8% 57 699 3 7 0

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