By Nick DaSilva
During fantasy football draft season, managers set out to start assembling a team to win a championship. Ideally, they fill their squad with the top-scoring players at each position. We are talking guys like Lamar Jackson, Christian McCaffery, Michael Thomas, and Travis Kelce. Players who all finished as the #1 scorer at their respective positions last year and are favorites to do the same this year. If you had all (or even just a couple) of those guys on your team last season, you probably won your league.
Realistically, nobody had all of them on their team due to the draft capital needed to draft them. You can win most leagues are by finding the diamonds in the rough (see Lamar Jackson last year, Patrick Mahomes the year before, Matt Ryan before that). Each year there is at least one player that managers left for dead that surprises everyone and finishes #1.
This article will make a case for three players at each position who are draft day values that I believe have a chance to finish as the #1 at their respective position. Keep these underappreciated guys in mind when you miss out on one of the favorites, and you might just be surprised. Even in dynasty leagues, teams in “win now” mode should consider these aging players to lead them to the promised land even if only for a year or two.
Also, please note that some might consider these to be “hot takes,” and I am by no means saying I would bet on these coming to fruition, but they are plausible outcomes. Let’s get to it.
For someone not named Jackson or Mahomes to finish as QB1 overall, there is going to have to be some severe regression from both of those guys. For the sake of this article, let’s assume that happens. The following are three QBs who I think could push for #1 overall status if everything went right for them. Let me know if you notice a trend.
Tom Brady – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After nearly 20 years of excellence with the Patriots, the elder statesman of the league and just arrived on a new team. Brady immediately finds himself surrounded by the best fleet of receiving weapons he has ever had. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, a returning Rob Gronkowski, OJ Howard. That’s a Pro Bowl worthy set of pass-catchers, and what I think helps Brady the most is that they all excel in different parts of the field. Evans can stretch the field and grab contested balls, Godwin will take the middle of the field a la Julian Edelman, and Gronk and Howard up the seams is a nightmare to cover.
Last time Brady had weapons like this was his famed 2007 season in which he threw for over 4800 yards and 50 TDs. We just saw Jameis Winston be a top 5 QB in this offense last year, even while throwing 30 INTs. Brady will be able to sustain more drives, be more efficient in the red zone, and reduce the turnovers significantly. Fewer turnovers will lead to a much more efficient offense.
This one isn’t about numbers; it is about situation. Brady will have every opportunity to thrive in Bruce Arians‘ offense with these weapons. Don’t be surprised to see TB12 on top of the QB heap again this year.
Matt Ryan – Atlanta Falcons
I know, I know, another old guy. Much like TB12, phenomenal weapons surround Matty Ice. Julio Jones, an ascending Calvin Ridley, a healthy (?) Todd Gurley, and Hayden Hurst, who could flourish this offense. Combine those weapons with the most pass-happy offense in the league (only the Saints last year had more completions than the Falcons), and it would seem Matt Ryan is set for a monster season.
Did I mention that it happens to be an even year, and Matt Ryan’s fantasy finishes in 2016 and 2018 were #2 at the QB position? He plays most of his games indoors and should see significant progression on his yardage, touchdowns, and completion percentages from last year. He should also reduce his INTs as his total in 2019 was his highest in four years. He now has players in Julio, Ridley, and Gurley who can take a dump-off to the house at any time. The volume will be there for Matt as it always is.
If he can be more efficient and finish drives for six points rather than three, we could be looking at another “even year” performance for Matty Ice.
Deshaun Watson – Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson has all the tools to be the QB1. He is an accurate passer, has a big arm, and, most importantly, he can run the ball very effectively. He also has perhaps the deepest set of pass-catchers in the entire league. Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Randall Cobb, David Johnson, and Duke Johnson are all sure-handed players who can help Watson get out of trouble when his terrible offensive line (#23 in the league) lets him down. If he can’t find any of those guys open, he can run, and I expect him to do so quite a bit this year.
If Houston is going to make a run this year, it is going to be on Watson’s back. We can expect Watson to surpass his 495 pass attempts from last year and cut down on his INT rate. More passes and fewer INTs should lead to more than the 26 TDs he had last year and significantly more than the 3852 yards. Deshaun ran for 413 yards and 7 TDs last year. I would expect the yardage total to go up this year as he puts the team on his back. With a middle of the road defense and no superstar playmakers, Deshaun should be the focal point of the offense.
If his weapons stay healthy, he will have substantial big-play potential, safe underneath options if he is in trouble, and efficient red-zone options to cap off drives. Of the three players we discussed, I think this is the most likely. I love Watson at his current redraft ADP in the 5th round.
For any of the players listed below to finish as RB1, we also need a HUGE dropoff for CMC. For this discussion, let’s say CMC regresses 25% from his last year’s totals. That would still make him #1 most years, but it gives the field a chance. A new QB and added weapons in Carolina, along with a new head coach, could mean fewer touches. Plus, no back who had as many touches as CMC did last year has come close to repeating those numbers. Is it time for a new sheriff in town?
Todd Gurley III – Atlanta Falcons
We all know how good Todd Gurley can be. We saw it in 2017 and 2018 when he was the #1 back in the NFL. He is very efficient in the red zone, a good pass catcher, and can break off long runs if he gets even the smallest hole. These things are all true WHEN HE IS HEALTHY.
The Falcons look to be a much more high powered offense, and that should allow TGIII to do what he does best – pound the ball into the endzone (14 TDs on 59 red zone touches last year). He will also see targets in the passing game much more often than last year (Rams RBs only had 62 targets and 31 receptions compared to the Falcons RBs who had 111 targets).
Health is the primary concern here, and with the weapons in Atlanta’s offense, Gurley should be able to stay off the field a bit and stay fresh throughout the year. There isn’t any competition for touches in this backfield, so we can expect Gurley to get a significant workload. Gurley is going to make his money in the red zone and the passing game this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him surpass 1000 yards on the ground, 500 yards receiving and 20 total TDs. If he does that, he will give CMC a run for his money.
Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon is as complete an RB as there is in the league. A deceptive runner, great pass catcher, and good in pass protection, he stays on the field in all situations. The problem? He plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. That should change this year, though. No, he isn’t switching teams (yet?), the Bengals offense might be relatively good.
Joe Burrow comes in with a healthy AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Tee Higgins, and Mixon. If Burrow lives up to the hype, this offense could be good sooner rather than later. As for Mixon, he is the clear lead back. He had 1137 rushing yards last year and only 5 TDs mostly because he was running against stacked boxes – the defense didn’t fear anyone else in that offense. That should change this year, giving him more running room and more opportunity for big plays.
If this offense is as efficient as I think it can be, those numbers will go up significantly. He also should see more work in the receiving game, building on the 35 catches for 287 he had last season, as Burrow dumps off to relieve pressure from this weak offensive line. Another telling stat from last year is his 48 red zone touches for only 5 TDs. Those numbers have to go up. I don’t see how Mixon doesn’t get a bump in all of his stats, pushing him into the elite tier. Maybe even #1.
Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara had an “off-year” last year. We are now hearing that he played through foot, back, and other injuries. Even so, he finished with 797 yards rushing and 5 TDs and 81 catches for 533 yards and 1 TD. If that is a bad year, it isn’t too difficult to make a case for him as potentially the #1 RB. His 6 total touchdowns were 12 less than he had in 2018. That will go up. His 533 receiving yards compared to the 709 and 826 the two prior years on the same amount of catches will go up. A healthy Kamara will also see an uptick in his explosive plays, which will lead to more yards and presumably TDs.
He is one of the few players in the league who, when healthy, can rival CMC in rushing AND receiving prowess. RB4 in 2017 and 2018, I expect Kamara to get back to those levels again. If he does, he could easily finish as RB1 this year and for years to come.
Odell Beckham Jr. – Cleveland Browns
You would be hard-pressed to find a WR with more pure talent than Odell Beckham Jr. How many highlight-reel catches has he made? In his first three seasons, OBJ looked like a truly generational talent. Since then, he struggled with injuries and inconsistent play. Heading into 2019 when he was traded to the Cleveland Browns, there was a ton of optimism for OBJ and Baker Mayfield. Unfortunately, the two didn’t quite connect, and both had down seasons.
I’m here to tell you that I can’t ignore the talent with OBJ. The Browns have vastly improved their offensive line, and OBJ and Baker have a season playing together under their belts. Last season was essentially OBJ’s floor- 74 catches, 1035 yards, and 4 TDs compared to his first three years, where he averaged 96 catches, 1374 yards, and 11.7 TDs. An improved offensive line will lead to better QB play and a higher catch rate for OBJ. We can also expect OBJ to be more efficient with his red-zone targets (13 targets for 5 receptions and 2 TDs in 2019).
OBJ is still young, talented, and has tremendous opportunity for progression in his second year in Cleveland. If he and Baker can form a connection, OBJ should get back to the player we know he is, and that means he should be in the conversation for #1 WR.
Juju Smith-Schuster – Pittsburgh Steelers
BIG BEN IS BACK. That is all I need to hear to be all in on Juju Smith-Schuster this year. The last time Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, he threw for 5000 yards. Juju caught 1426 of those yards. I don’t have any reason to think that the Steelers will be any less pass-happy this year. Juju played banged up last year, now he is healthy and so is Big Ben. That means Juju is going to be heavily targeted, especially in the red zone.
In 2018, Juju had 29 red-zone targets, turning them into 16 receptions and 5 TDs. Last year (12 games), Juju only had nine such targets for 4 catches and 0 TDs. Juju’s drop percentage spiked last year and should level out. Juju is also going to get to play in the slot this year, which is where he excelled in 2018. Diontae Johnson and James Washington should be better in their second and third years, respectively, taking some pressure off Juju.
Before last year, we considered Juju a top 5 (at least) dynasty WR. That kind of talent implies WR #1 ability. Juju is currently going as the #29 WR in redraft. That is absurd. The bottom line is he is a #1 WR on what will be one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league. Juju could be a league winner, and a big year would do a great deal to re-establish his dynasty value.
Robert Woods – Los Angeles Rams
I heard somewhere that Robert Woods has the current record for most years in a row out-producing his ADP. It is going to happen again this year. In his last two seasons, Robert Woods has averaged 135 targets, 88 receptions, and 1176.5 yards. As a “#2” option on the Rams. He has also had 19 and 17 carries the last two years for over 100 yards and 1 TD in each year.
With no more Brandin Cooks, Woods should see a slight bump up in targets this year. We have to assume that Sean McVay and Jared Goff are going to figure things out and improve on Goff’s 22/16 TD/INT ratio. If they do, that opens up more TD opportunities for Woods. The receptions and the yards have always been there. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Woods could have 100 catches for over 1300 yards.
If he can add a few more TDs, he will end up right near the top of the WR rankings. If there are any injuries to the Rams, Goff’s favorite target can become a superstar and challenge for the #1 spot.
Rob Gronkowski – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes, I went there. I think Rob Gronkowski could finish as the TE1 this year as he reunites with TB in TB. He should be well-rested and fully healthy for the first time in years. He is Brady’s BFF and favorite red-zone target. He is now on a team where defenses must contend with 3-4 other deadly options. Brady has a coach that likes to air it out and has stated that 12 personnel (2 TEs) will be their base formation. Godwin and Evans on the outside with Gronk and OJ Howard could lead some huge chunk plays for Gronk in the middle of the field. That should also mean Gronk will be running in the open field more often, and we know how difficult it is for people to tackle him.
All of this leads me to believe that we could see a monster TD and yardage season for Gronk, vaulting him back to the top of the TE rankings. I think it’s a longshot, but damn, wouldn’t it be cool to see TB12 and Gronk put on a show in 2020?
Evan Engram – New York Giants
Evan Engram is one of the tight ends I would call an “athletic freak.” He ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash with a 36-inch vertical jump. He can beat you down the field with his speed and out-jump you for a contested ball. He also happens to play on a team with a promising young QB in Daniel Jones. He also doesn’t face too much stiff competition to be Daniel Jones’ #1 target. I don’t think Golden Tate, Darius Slayton, or Sterling Shepard can match his athleticism.
Evan has struggled to stay healthy early in his career, but he appears to be healthy now, and so are his teammates. With a robust array of weapons, the offense should take a step forward. That means more targets, receptions, and, more importantly, TD opportunities. That also means less attention from defenses for Engram. Daniel Jones already looked for Evan in the red zone – 11 red-zone targets in 8 games had him on pace to lead all TEs in red-zone targets. Especially for TEs, TDs are king.
If Engram gets close to the 115 targets, he had his rookie season, increases his efficiency, and continues his dominance in the red zone. We could easily see him make the jump and finish as the TE1.
Zach Ertz – Philadelphia Eagles
Does anyone remember Zach Ertz? Hello? Anyone? Well, I do! It seems like George Kittle, Mark Andrews, and Darren Waller’s emergence is why some are sleeping on Ertz. Ertz will undoubtedly be the #1 target for Carson Wentz in Philly this year, as he has been for the last 2. Just two seasons ago, Ertz set records for TE targets and receptions when he finished with 156 targets and 116 receptions.
The only thing that has changed since that season is the injury history of his quarterback. Now healthy, I expect Ertz to get right back to it. The WRs surrounding Ertz are either older and oft-injured or young and unproven. If Wentz can stay healthy, we can easily see Ertz get back to the 140-145 target and 100 catch mark again.
If he picks up his usual 8 TDs to go with 1100 yards, we are looking at a top 3 TE season and quite possibly TE1. Ertz is still going as the #3 or #4 TE off the board in early drafts, but I sense many people aren’t too excited about the pick. I think they should be because Ertz could very easily end up this season as the TE1.
Nick DaSilva – Dynasty/IDP
Ride or Dynasty