Surprising Performances that are Sustainable in 2020 (Fantasy Football)
The 2019 fantasy season is over. If you’re addicted enough to start getting ready for next year’s draft already, digging into the stats from 2019 is a good way to stay involved before free agency and the NFL Draft. We saw quite a few breakout performances this year, including ones by Lamar Jackson, Chris Godwin, and Kenyan Drake (well, after he got traded). But whose breakouts are the likeliest to be sustainable?
The best stats to gauge a player’s performance from year to year are volume-based. For example, we could predict that Eric Ebron wouldn’t repeat his breakout 2018 since his points came from touchdowns, not from consistent usage in the offense. His 13 scores that year, while impressive, could not be sustained with his rate of 4.12 targets per game.
But the most basic volume stats — targets, receptions, snaps, and carries — don’t tell the whole story. For instance, some targets are worth more than others, and we can assess their worth by a player’s air yards. Air yards are the total distance a pass travels to the receiver, and we can use them to calculate a player’s average depth of target (aDOT). For instance, Jamison Crowder’s impressive 122 targets and 78 receptions are a lot less impressive when you consider that they were good for only 975 air yards, giving him an aDOT of 7.99 and a WR31 finish. In contrast, Stefon Diggs scored 20 more PPR points than Crowder on just 94 targets and 63 receptions because of his 1,424 air yards and 15.1 aDOT, putting him at WR21 on the year.
After taking a look at both traditional and more advanced stats, a few breakout players jump out as likely to maintain their strong 2019 performances. That said, while I do expect them to keep producing a high level, stay careful — all the stats in the world can’t prevent a bad coach from misusing a player’s skillset, and they won’t keep an unskilled quarterback or offensive line from limiting their upside.
Josh Jacobs (RB – OAK)
Jacobs broke out to finish as this year’s RB18, and he did so in only 13 games. If you take his 14.0 half PPR points per game and average that over 16 games, he’d be up to RB9. Jacobs averaged 18.6 carriers per game, the fourth-most in the league, and although he couldn’t stay healthy enough to manage the heavy workload Jon Gruden put on his plate, I’d expect Gruden to keep feeding him in 2020.
The Raider was efficient with his high usage, too, as he finished with 4.8 yards per carry. Of the 20 running backs who earned 200-plus carries this season, only Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, and Mark Ingram were more efficient (Christian McCaffrey also finished with 4.8).
The concern with Jacobs might be too much usage. Through Week 11, Jacobs was on pace for 305.6 carries on the year, which is more than any rusher finished with this season. It’s also more than Ezekiel Elliott’s league-leading 304 in 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gruden rides Jacobs until the wheels fall off, which is what he did with Cadillac Williams in Tampa Bay. I don’t expect Jacobs’ shoulder injury to affect him in 2019, but if similar injury issues flare up, they could limit his otherwise sustainable situation.
Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC)
The Chargers did not play good football this season. They finished 5-11, scored a pedestrian 21.1 points per game, and their offensive line ranked 29th on the year. But somehow, despite these issues, Ekeler finished as the RB6. He proved that he could succeed with or without Melvin Gordon, too — Ekeler finished as the RB2 during Gordon’s four-week holdout and as the RB8 for all weeks after. Since Gordon is unlikely to return to the Chargers next season, he’s even in line for an increase in volume.
Gordon’s likely departure would free up 162 carries and 55 targets in the Chargers’ offense. Even if Justin Jackson or a new addition get some of that work, Ekeler’s volume stats were nothing to sneeze at, either. He earned 132 carries, but most of his value came through the air, as he caught 92 of his 108 targets. Only Christian McCaffrey earned more work in the passing game than Ekeler.
I was a fan of Ekeler before this season, but I was concerned about how he would fare without Gordon. Back in 2018, he failed to impress when Gordon missed time, but his strong start to 2019 has put my fears to rest. Look for him to succeed with or without Gordon (and Philip Rivers) next season, as long as the Chargers bring in another passable quarterback and an offensive lineman or two.
Devin Singletary (RB – BUF)
Singletary looks like Buffalo’s feature back of the future. After splitting carries with Frank Gore, Singletary seized control of Buffalo’s backfield in Week 9 with a 20-carry performance against the Eagles. From Week 9 to Week 16, he carried the ball 131 times, good for 16.4 attempts per game. While he finished as the RB31 on the year, he was the RB17 through that span.
His fantasy points came not from touchdowns but impressive yardage totals. He earned 603 yards after Week 9, good for 7.5 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. On the season, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry — a rate that only Derrick Henry could match. While an increased workload capped his efficiency, Singletary has proven himself as an NFL-caliber running back.
Gore was Singletary’s only real competition in the backfield this year, although Josh Allen has shown skill as a runner as well. While the quarterback’s massive frame makes him a threat to Singletary’s red-zone work, Gore’s potential retirement would put Singletary in line for more short-yardage carries. However, the rookie’s value does not depend on his ability to score touchdowns, and he’s a mid-to-high range option at RB2.
Chris Carson (RB – SEA)
Carson broke out last year, but he outplayed his RB15 ECR and RB2 expectations this year, so I’m including him anyway. He probably went somewhere in the fourth or fifth round in your league’s draft because people feared what Rashaad Penny would do to his role. Well, Penny wasn’t much competition until late in the year, and his knee injury could force him to miss the start of next season. Meanwhile, Carson logged 278 carries on the season, good for 18.5 per game. He ranked fifth overall in total carries and on a per-game basis. He also earned 47 targets this year, turning them into 37 receptions, or roughly 2.5 per game.
The running back managed to turn his heavy workload into 4.4 yards per carry despite poor offensive line play. ProFootballFocus put Seattle at 27th overall on their year-end rankings. Despite firing offensive line coach Tom Cable two years ago, Seattle still needs help in the trenches — and I expect them to address that need this offseason. As long as they do, Carson should be a strong bet to see an uptick in efficiency.
Fumbling issues are the one thing holding Carson back. He started 2019 off by losing fumbles in three consecutive games, and just when it looked like he’d made improvements, the rusher put the ball on the ground four times between Week 9 and Week 12. While poor ball control limits his upside, I still expect Carson to finish as a low-end RB1 once again.
Courtland Sutton (WR – DEN)
Sutton was truly quarterback proof in his impressive sophomore campaign. He suffered through Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, and eventually Drew Lock to finish as the WR19, which offered his drafters a strong return on investment. Although Sutton only caught 72 passes — fewer than Larry Fitzgerald and Austin Hooper — his value becomes apparent when you look at air yards. Sutton put up 1,466 total air yards and had an11.8-yard aDOT. That’s more impressive when you consider that the Broncos prioritized the run and did not throw frequently.
One metric to gauge the value of air yards between teams is Weighted Opportunity Rating (WOPR). WOPR uses a receiver’s target share and their share of total air yards, and it gives us a value that helps us gauge how involved they are in their offense. Sutton finished 2019 with the fifth-highest mark at .65 WOPR, between Davante Adams’ .66 and Allen Robinson’s .63. Since Sutton controls the Broncos’ receiving corps, he’d be the first to benefit from any improvement by Drew Lock.
Sutton should return WR2 value next season. His average of 4.5 receptions, 92.18 air yards, and .375 touchdowns per game make him a solid fantasy contributor in half PPR formats. Let’s do the math: if he earns half of his air yards every game, he’ll put up 11.35 half PPR points per game (PPG). Those are pretty solid WR2 numbers, and they come with upside should Lock improve his accuracy, which would boost Sutton’s catch rate.
D.J. Chark (WR – JAC)
Chark burst onto the scene this year, earning 1,000-plus yards and eight touchdowns on 73 receptions. He finished the season as the WR16, and while he faded down the stretch, he’s a good bet to repeat his WR2 performance. Chark earned 118 of Jacksonville’s 587 total targets, besting Chris Conley by 28 and Dede Westbrook by 24. He finished with an 11.3-yard aDOT, and while his 1,333 total air yards aren’t the most impressive, he flashes a bit more at WOPR, where he ranks 20th, above guys like Kenny Golladay and DeVante Parker. That means he’d benefit substantially from improved quarterback play should the offense otherwise remain the same.
Chark flashes most in efficiency, however. He’s got a strong Receiver Air Conversion Ratio (RACR), which calculates how many receiving yards a player earns with each air yard. With a RACR of 0.76, Chark outranks the likes of DeAndre Hopkins (.74) and Julio Jones (.73). So even if Chark regresses a little bit efficiency-wise next season, he’d still finish among good company.
Like Sutton, Chark had a strong 2019 season despite his quarterbacks. Nick Foles was a disappointment, and while Gardner Minshew is an American treasure, he could improve as a passer. I’d value Chark as a mid-tier WR2 unless Jacksonville reconfigures their offense by adding a better receiving option.
Terry McLaurin (WR – WAS)
Call him Scary Terry or F1 McLaurin; the Washington wideout impressed us by finishing as the WR27 on the year. He caught 58 of his 93 targets this season, turning them into 919 yards and seven touchdowns. Although that touchdown mark may regress downward, McLaurin should still finish as a low-end WR2.
Advanced stats show just how well McLaurin worked as a deep threat this season. He finished as a top-10 receiver in terms of WOPR, and he had an impressive 14-yard aDOT. He earned a massive 1,299 air yards, just 34 yards fewer than Chark, and on 25 fewer targets.
Like Sutton and Chark, McLaurin didn’t have much to work with at quarterback this season. Neither Case Keenum nor Dwayne Haskins played like franchise guys, and while Haskins looked better as the year progressed, he’s still got a ways to go. Fortunately, Ron Rivera is a better head coach for quarterbacks than Bill Callahan. Callahan emphasized the run to Haskins’ detriment, and we should see more passing attempts to go around in Washington next year. McLaurin’s WOPR suggests he’d be the primary beneficiary of a more balanced offense.
Hunter Renfrow (WR – OAK)
The former Clemson walk-on got hot in the back half of 2019. Renfrow finished as the overall WR55, but after Week 8, he was the WR37 — and he didn’t even play in Weeks 13 through 15! He was targeted on 71 of Oakland’s 523 total passing attempts, more than both Tyrell Williams and Zay Jones. That should give prospective Renfrow owners some confidence that he can translate his strong finish to 2019 into a low-end WR2 performance next season.
In Renfrow’s final seven games this year, he logged 45 targets (6.4 per game), 35 receptions (5.0 per game), 490 yards (70 per game), and four touchdowns (.571 per game). Assuming that’s how the Raiders use him moving forward, that’ll net you 15.4 PPG. Sure, he’s bound for some touchdown regression, but over a full season, that would have earned him 246.4 points, good for an overall WR2 finish. With that in mind, I fully expect Renfrow to finish as a WR2 next year.
Preston Williams (WR – MIA)
Don’t forget about Williams! He finished as the WR39 from Weeks 1 to 9, but in his second stint with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting at quarterback, he was the WR13. Sure, that’s a conveniently small three-game sample size, but it shows that the undrafted rookie should be able to sustain at least low-end WR3 numbers.
The receiver caught 32 of his 60 targets in his first season. Those numbers reflect some inefficiency, but keep in mind that most of those games were with the struggling Josh Rosen under center. His 7.5 rate of targets per game is nothing to scoff at, and barring wholesale changes to the Dolphins’ receiving corps, I’d expect Williams to be a safe bet at WR3 next season.
Darren Waller (TE – OAK)
I got sentimental about Waller back in Week 2. Allow me to do so again. As a Ravens fan, I was elated when we drafted the 6’6″ then-wide receiver out of Georgia Tech. He’d come and play the Anquan Boldin role we’d been missing since the Super Bowl! Unfortunately, things didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, but I’m glad that he’s gotten his life turned around for the Raiders.
The analysis on this one is pretty straightforward. Waller was Derek Carr’s best receiving option all season, catching 90 of his 117 targets for 1,145 yards and three scores. Waller’s TE3 performance on the year is a lot to maintain, but unlike Ebron, he’s bound for some positive touchdown regression. I think it’s safe to call Waller a good option at TE1 going into next season, and while the Raiders may add another player or two to their offense, they paid the man mid-season for a reason.