(Early) Fantasy Football Predictions
It’s time for a new season of football which means hot takes and bold predictions will flood the market. My predictions are all grounded in cold, hard analysis backed up by facts, data, and statistics. These takes are often not that bold on their own but are scorching in the context of how the fantasy football community views players and teams in the NFL. In order to assess the “market value” or consensus evaluation of a player, I will be using Average Draft Position (ADP) from Fantasy Football Calculator as of June 18, 2018. Let’s do this — 10 of my best fantasy football bold predictions for 2018.
1) Jared Goff (ADP of QB12) will finish outside the Top 15 QBs for Fantasy
This is hardly even a hot take. I started you out with an easy one. Goff finished last year as the 10th-highest scoring QB in fantasy production in points per game. Goff’s fantasy production was driven largely by scoring, as he ranked 3rd in the NFL in red zone passing attempts, and 5th in passing touchdowns. While I don’t expect the Rams’ offense to be any worse than last year, these numbers will be difficult to sustain with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, and Andrew Luck all under center. Goff was helped quite a bit by his supporting cast as well, ranking 10th in the league in passing yards, but only 18th in air yards. Goff was nothing special by himself, ranking outside the Top 18 quarterbacks in true completion percentage (factoring out throwaways and drops), red zone completion percentage, and play-action completion percentage. He ranked only 13th in deep ball completion percentage. For comparison, Goff’s yards, air yards, and completion percentage metrics look pretty similar to Blake Bortles and Eli Manning of 2017.
2) Marcus Mariota (QB19), Jameis Winston* (QB17), and Dak Prescott (QB20) will all finish as Top 12 QBs
Marcus Mariota finished last season as a back-end QB2 in fantasy football but played much of the season on a bad hamstring. That aside, it’s easy to see why his output will improve in 2018. Mariota ranked inside the Top 15 in air yards and total attempted air yards (air yards of all pass attempts), so the opportunity is there, even if he didn’t add with his legs, which he does. Mariota ranked 6th in carries per game, 8th in rush yards per game, and 3rd in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks in 2017. He threw touchdowns on only 2.9% of his passes, compared to 5.0% and 5.8% in his first two years. So, with ample passing volume, more touchdowns, and plenty of rushing production, he’s a no-brainer here.
Jameis Winston was equally disappointing in fantasy football in 2017, but Winston’s cause is even more simple — he missed 3 games with a shoulder injury. Since this article was started, Winston has been handed a three-game suspension, but that doesn’t change my feelings about him for fantasy football. Across the board, Winston has improved year-over-year in almost every way. His passing volume (per game) has been stable, but his completion percentage, yards per attempt, and yards per game were all career-highs in 2017, and his interception percentage was a career-low. The only downsides really are that Winston was sacked at a higher rate (6.9%) in 2017 than previous years, and his rushing attempts tally (2.5 per game) was a career-low. The Buccaneers ranked 3rd in the league in passing plays, and Winston ranked 7th in air yards as well as 5th in attempted air yards, so the volume is excellent, and there’s no reason that should change in 2018. Winston’s strong supporting cast won’t hurt, either.
*Since Winston will miss three games (pending his appeal), it will be nearly impossible for him to finish inside the Top 12 in total points, but I’ll stand by Winston and say his points per game extrapolated out to 16 games would make him a Top 12 quarterback in 2018.
Dak Prescott is the most disrespected back-to-back QB1 in recent memory. After finishing as QB7 in points per game in 2016, and QB12 in points per game in 2017, Prescott is being drafted as the 20th quarterback in 2018. This makes no sense to me. Even without a strong supporting cast in 2018, Prescott should see ample volume — he ranked 16th in pass attempts in 2017, 11th in air yards, and 15th in attempted air yards. Much like Mariota, this is the bare minimum, but adequate, volume for a pocket passer. Prescott, however, adds with his rushing ability, too. He ranked inside the Top 10 quarterbacks in rushing attempts, and inside the Top 5 in rushing yards. He also led all quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns in 2017 with six of them. Prescott’s efficiency was sufficient, though not stellar. With an upgraded offensive line from the unit allowing a 6.1% sack rate and the return of Ezekiel Elliott, Prescott’s 2018 outlook appears better than his 2017 outlook, a campaign in which he still finished as the QB12 for fantasy purposes. What’s not to like?
If you aren’t a believer in the late-round QB approach, these are the reasons why you should be.
3) Deshaun Watson (QB2) will finish outside the Top 6 quarterbacks in Fantasy in 2018
Sorry to disappoint everyone drafting him in the third round (oops) and before Russell Wilson (double oops), but that will doom your fantasy team. Watson was an absolute sensation in 2017 during his 7 appearances, racking up 168.8 fantasy points (24.1 per game). He was propelled by several unsustainable factors, the first and most obvious of which is his 9.3% touchdown rate. Just for fun, if we change up his stats and give him Tom Brady’s career average of 5.5%, Watson’s fantasy output drops to 17.4 fantasy points per game, which would put him in a tie for 8th place with Ben Roethlisberger. Raise your hand if you’re drafting Ben Roethlisberger in the 3rd round of fantasy football drafts for 2018 (I’m not). Watson was remarkably efficient last year, and his output came at the hands of high-value throws (deep balls that went for touchdowns). Watson threw 6.9 deep balls (20+ yards) per game, and ranked 6th in terms of completion percentage on those throws, propelling him to a league-leading 5.3 air yards per attempt. Factoring out throwaways and drops, Watson ranked 7th in passer rating, while only ranking 32nd in completion percentage. The big plays are the signature storyline of Watson’s 2017 fantasy season, and that’s a tough sell to repeat those figures. So, if you’re the one in your league drafting Watson in the 3rd round (or earlier), you’re either expecting him to start a career trajectory that would make him the greatest quarterback to ever play football (by a wide margin), or you’re expecting a rash of injuries to the other top quarterbacks like in 2017.
4) Rashaad Penny (RB18) will outscore Kareem Hunt (RB7) in 2018
This is another one that shouldn’t be scorching hot. Kareem Hunt was excellent last year leading the league in rushing yards (1,327) and finishing 8th in receiving (455). Hunt ranked inside the Top 5 in yards per carry (4.9) and led the NFL in runs of 15+ yards (18) and evaded tackles (137). While Hunt was exceptional on his own, it’s naive not to acknowledge the benefits of the volume he saw due to the preseason injury of Spencer Ware. Hunt’s 78.3% opportunity (carry + target) of the team’s RB corps will be very difficult to repeat. Ware posted a 69.9% opportunity share in 2016 in 14 games, a Top 10 share in the league. Ware was less elusive but still productive, and he’ll certainly get some touches in 2018.
On the other side of this equation is a relative unknown in Rashaad Penny, the rookie RB from San Diego State University drafted by Seattle in the first round. Anyone who tells you to be worried about 7th round pick Chris Carson, Mike Davis, or J.D. McKissic is misunderstanding Penny’s draft capital. The only real threat to his workload is C.J. Prosise, who may steal passing-down work — and that would be the case where Penny can’t pass up Kareem Hunt in fantasy scoring. However, Prosise has struggled to stay healthy in his career thus far, so Penny has a chance to become a true 3-down bellcow. Last year, Seattle used a heavy committee approach due to injuries, but at various times, Chris Carson and Mike Davis were the lead backs. When Davis carried the load, Seattle granted him a 59.7% opportunity share (13.8 touches per game), ranking 12th in the league. Davis was mostly held back in fantasy terms by not scoring any touchdowns. In 6 games, however, he racked up 59 total yards per game. It’s safe to assume the rookie first-rounder Penny will see more work than Davis did in 2017. If Penny approaches 20 touches per game, posts decent efficiency, and fins the end zone 8-10 times, it’s easy to see how he would outscore his expectation as the 20th RB taken in fantasy drafts.
5) Marshawn Lynch (RB36) will finish inside the Top 18 RB’s in Fantasy Football
Not much has changed in Oakland as it relates to the run game, except the addition of the corpse of Doug Martin, who ranked outside the Top 60 among running backs in both yards per carry (2.9) and yards per touch (3.3) in 2017 His 2016 marks were equally bad, at 2.9 and 3.5, respectively. Lynch might be 32, but he showed no signs of slowing down last season, racking up just shy of 70 yards per game, and 7 touchdowns in 15 games. Oakland’s offensive line allowed their backs to be stuffed 22% of the time per Football Outsiders, which was high but was effective at run blocking overall. Lynch had to do quite a bit on his own, regardless. He did just that, delivering 4.3 yards per carry and 4.6 yards per touch, propelled by his 99 evaded tackles (2nd in the NFL), which is the best mark in the league on a per-touch basis. Lynch also ranked 3rd in the NFL in yards created per carry with 1.99. Oakland’s game script was the biggest problem for Lynch, as they were leading just 19 minutes and 48 seconds of each game on average (22nd in the NFL), and trailing 26 minutes and 46 seconds on average (21st in the NFL). If Oakland as a team takes a step forward, it will afford them more situations to run the ball, and there are no signs pointing towards regression for Lynch. He’ll have to stay healthy, of course, but if Oakland starts winning more games, Lynch could find himself having a productive and busy year in 2018.
6) No wide receiver on the Cleveland Browns will finish as a Top 18 scorer
Even just by doing some “back-of-the-napkin” calculations, this looks like a good bet, despite Josh Gordon being drafted as the WR12 (as of June 18) and Jarvis Landry as the WR25 (as of June 18) in PPR leagues. Excluding Odell Beckham Jr. since he played only 4 games, Josh Gordon finished as the WR31 in PPR points per game in 2017 (11.5), and Jarvis Landry as the WR5 in points per game (16.3). Landry will certainly see fewer targets in an offense with other viable weapons in the passing game, especially relative to Miami, a team that lacked a reliable WR2, TE, or RB that commanded significant volume in the passing game. Landry was a target monster, a trend that is unlikely to continue. Gordon saw 8.6 targets per game in his limited action in 2017, also a generous number. Adding in the other weapons in the offense, ranging from the firmly established Duke Johnson to known potential in Corey Coleman and David Njoku to relative unknowns in Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, can only hurt the target shares of Landry and Gordon. Add in a historically conservative quarterback in Tyrod Taylor (who will start the season under center), and the situation looks bleak. With less overall volume and a reduced target share, it will be very hard for Gordon or Landry to deliver high-end fantasy output. Landry is the better bet to return value on his ADP, but both are comfortably on the “avoid” list at their current prices.
Of the Top 18 WRs in 2017, none saw fewer than 105 targets total, and only Tyreek Hill and Marvin Jones say under 114 targets. The disproportionate finishes are easily explained, too. Jones finished Top 5 in yards per target and Top 3 in touchdowns (9) among wideouts, so he was very efficient and scored a lot of touchdowns, which have immense fantasy value. Hill finished second in yards per target and Top 15 in touchdowns (7), so his scoring came very similarly to Jones. All this is not to say that Gordon can’t finish Top 18, because he absolutely could with efficiency and touchdowns, as could Landry if the volume ticks up a bit. However, this is a bold predictions column, so the outcomes need not be a sure thing, or even likely.
|Name||2017 Tgt/ Gm||2018 Targets||2018 Tgt/ Gm||Gain / Loss|
|16 Gm. Total||701||500||35.7||–|
Note: 2018 Target Distributions are for illustrative purposes only and do not reflect actual projections of the stated players.
7) Jamison Crowder (WR38) and Marqise Lee (WR49) will both finish as Top 24 scorers
The prices of these players confound me, as both projects to be the top target on their respective passing offenses. This is also not that bold. Marqise Lee saw 96 targets in 13 games last year, a pace of 118 per 16 games. The lowest finishes in fantasy scoring for WRs with 118 or more targets in 2017 were Alshon Jeffrey (WR20) and Dez Bryant (WR24). Lee’s volume alone will put him comfortably in that conversation, as not much changed in the passing game from the 2017 group except the addition of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and D.J. Chark. While these two might impact the rest of the depth chart, there’s no reason to be worried about the status of the wide receiver that the Jaguars extended over Allen Robinson. Jamison Crowder finished as the WR31 and WR33 in the last two years in PPR formats, while missing one game in 2017 (his WR33 finish). With the addition of Paul Richardson, perhaps some fantasy players are concerned about Crowder’s target share, though they need not be. Crowder is firmly locked in as the slot receiver in Washington, now paired with Alex Smith throwing passes. Smith has been the model of consistency in terms of throwing short passes, logging an 11.1 yards per completion mark in 7 years with the 49ers, and the exact same mark in 5 years with the Chiefs. His outlier campaign in 2017 saw him reach 11.9 yards per completion. Smith benefited in 2017 from an extremely strong supporting cast, who averaged 1.95 yards of separation at target, the best mark in the league. In Washington, expect Smith the revert to his normal style of the short passing game. Crowder’s 2017 marks of 103 targets and a 20.4% target share could easily tick up. Crowder averaged 2.07 yards of separation at target in 2017, which smells like success in a new pairing with Alex Smith. Expect Smith to look to the slot early and often in the nation’s capital.
8) Kenny Stills (WR54) will finish as a Top 30 scoring wideout in fantasy football
Who is the WR1 on the Miami Dolphins? Fantasy players would, of course, have you believe that it’s DeVante Parker because he’s big and athletic and makes fantasy players drool. However, with the departure of Jarvis Landry, the player most likely to lead the Dolphins in targets is naturally Kenny Stills. This is probably the most obvious take in this article, so I’ll keep it brief. Stills saw 105 targets in 2017 with Jarvis Landry on the team, a 17.9% share. If Landry’s targets are simply removed, Stills saw 24.7% of all the non-Landry targets. Forecast that out for 550 targets (less than Miami’s 2017 pass attempts of 586), but right around Ryan Tannehill’s career average of 548 attempts per 16 games, and Stills would see a massive 136 targets in 2018. Let’s assume that probably doesn’t come to fruition in full, but as mentioned in #7, no WR with over 118 targets in 2017 finished outside the Top 24 in fantasy scoring, so Stills seems a comfortable pick to return well over his value at WR54 in ADP.
9) Evan Engram (TE6) will not be the top scoring sophomore Tight End in 2018
Evan Engram was a sensation in 2017, especially given that he plays a position at which it is notoriously hard for rookies to excel. However, Engram’s situation last year put him in the perfect place to succeed more due to opportunity than individual ability or efficiency (not that he was bad, just less impressive). Engram’s production was mostly driven by volume, as is the case with many players in fantasy football, but Engram’s case was the extreme example. Entering a passing attack that featured Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard as established weapons, it was hard to project Engram for a high target share immediately. However, due to the passing attack being ravaged by injuries and the WR depth chart being essentially non-existent past the top two, Engram got his chance and made the most of it. The Giants also performed below expectations last year, which contributed to them finishing 4th in the league in passing plays. Engram’s role necessitated that he be fed targets, allowing him to finish second at the tight end position with 115 targets. While his output on that immense target volume was not poor, his ranks in output lagged that of targets. Engram finished 6th in receptions, 5th in receiving yards, and 7th in touchdowns while ranking only 25th in yards per target and 31st in catch rate at the position. Despite elite-level athleticism across all workout metrics, Engram failed to separate from defenders on his pass routes, reaching just 1.22 yards of separation at target on average, which ranked 30th among tight ends. Engram also led the position in drops, which is understandable since he was basically thrown into the fire by the Giants.
Projecting forward to 2018, Engram’s volume is sure to drop by a good margin. The Giants will not only get back a health Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, but they will have their new featured running back in Saquon Barkley, their 2018 first round draft selection, taken at #2 overall. The capital spent on Barkley all but ensures the Giants will skew more run-heavy than they did in 2017, but even if not, Barkley is an exceptional pass-catching back and will command targets out of the backfield in a way that the 2017 running back corps did not. Engram’s ceiling is probably lower than his 2017 outputs, which is a scary thought for those drafting him in the top 6 tight ends for 2018. His volume makes him look more like a back-end TE1 or even a TE2 perhaps, and his weekly volatility should be frustrating as well. While I admit that he’s immensely talented and his 2017 campaign was extremely impressive, this prediction is a bet on volume regression more than anything. With several excellent tight ends also in the sophomore class, I’m betting on one of them breaking out. Fellow first-round draft picks O.J. Howard (TE15) and David Njoku (TE14) both flashed great talent as well last year, but need help to step into a high-volume role in their respective offenses, which are both loaded with other weapons. Later round draft picks George Kittle (TE11) and Jonnu Smith (N/A, TE18+) both tested very well athletically and play in more favorable situations. Kittle needs nothing external in order to break out — he should start from Day 1 on the 49ers and could easily become a favorite target of new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, especially with a relatively weak wide receiver group on the team. Jonnu Smith is the least likely candidate here, but should the aging Delanie Walker suffer an injury, which is far from impossible, Smith will step into a starting role on a team that made efforts to get him on the field last year, and an offense that uses the tight end heavily. Should Walker miss any time in 2018, Smith will very quickly become a waiver wire favorite. There are conceivable paths to any of these four players outscoring Engram this season, and I only need one to happen for this prediction to come true.
10) Mike Gesicki (TE18+) will outscore Jimmy Graham (TE4) in Fantasy Football
I saved the hottest of them all for the end, and this one is pretty unlikely, but volume is king, and tight ends also benefit from playing while their team is trailing. I expect Miami to be trailing far more than Green Bay if that wasn’t obvious. Both Gesicki and Graham are virtually guaranteed to have the starting job — Gesicki only has to beat out MarQueis Gray, A.J. Derby, and Durham Smythe (taken in the 4th round this year, compared to Gesicki in the 2nd), and Graham is a no-brainer. Gesicki should see a higher target share than Graham since the Dolphins have a thinner depth chart both at tight end and wide receiver. Miami features no established options other than Kenny Stills, trotting out either unknowns like DeVante Parker and Leonte Carroo, or new acquisitions like Danny Amendola or Albert Wilson. Meanwhile, Green Bay has Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks at tight end, both of whom have had some semblance of NFL success, and a loaded wide receiver corps — Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, and Geronimo Allison all return, as well as several intriguing young players drafted in either 2017 or 2018 in DeAngelo Yancey, Trevor Davis, J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown. While Graham is absolutely an established option, he will still have to earn his targets from Aaron Rodgers, and his production at this stage of his career has come primarily in the red zone. Should Graham fail to haul in as many touchdowns as he did in 2017, his fantasy output could look very bleak. Gesicki, while guaranteed nothing, is one of the most athletic tight ends to ever test at the NFL Scouting Combine, and has a much easier path to significant target volume in 2018. If he also earns some red zone snaps, it’s conceivable that the rookie tight end for the Dolphins could outscore a fantasy mainstay at the position — one who now plays with Aaron Rodgers, no less.
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