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Dark Horse Fantasy Football Leaders for 2020

Jul 13, 2020

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Lamar Jackson shocked the NFL by leading the league in passing touchdowns last season. Meanwhile, Mark Andrews finished tied for second in receiving touchdowns and DeVante Parker surged into the top five for receiving yards. We see this sort of volatility every season with dark horse candidates surging toward the top of the leaderboard. Today, I’ll tell you which players have a potential scenario that would see them making that leap to finish at or near the top of the league in the most important fantasy stats.

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Passing Yards – Ryan Fitzpatrick (MIA)
“Wait, what? They drafted Tua!” Right, and he is coming off a major injury and had a limited off-season with his teammates. He most definitely isn’t starting right away and it’s possible that he doesn’t start at all in year one because the Dolphins offensive line isn’t quite ready to protect their prized franchise QB. If Fitzpatrick is the year-long starter, which I’ll admit is less than 50% likely, I’d argue that he is the odds on favorite to lead the NFL in passing yards. After all, the Dolphins will be playing from behind all season again. In fact, from the time Fitz took over as a starter, he was second in the NFL (behind Winston) with 3,094 yards in his 11 games. Add in an improved offensive line and now healthy Preston Williams and that pace should even improve.

Other dark horse candidates

  • Joe Burrow – Tremendous weapons, perfect game scripts = heavy volume
  • Daniel Jones – Flashed immense ceiling last year, has great weapons too

Passing Touchdowns – Ryan Tannehill (TEN)
“Ok, now you’ve just gone too far, Bobby. Tannehill of all quarterbacks?” Folks, I’m all-in on Tannehill this season. Not only was third in TDs during the 10 weeks he started (Brees, Lamar Jackson) but he accomplished it on just 27 passes per game. Not only that, from the time Tannehill took over as the starter in Tennessee (Week 7), he was the best quarterback in football. Really. In fact, he became just the fifth quarterback of all-time to post 10 or more AY/A (Pass Yds +(20 * Passing TD) – (45 * Interceptions))/(Passes Attempted).

In fact, Tannehill had 1.09 more yards per attempt than any other QB in the final 11 weeks. That is larger the career difference between Tom Brady and Trent Dilfer. It’s twice the difference between Drew Brees and Andy Dalton or Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler. Folks, Tannehill was ridiculous as the starter. And it just isn’t true that Tannehill has always been terrible. Prior to his injuries and the arrival of Adam Gase in 2016, he was #3 all-time behind Peyton Manning and Dan Marino in passing yards during the first four seasons of a career and top 10 all-time in most TDs. His interception rate? Top 10 best and he accomplished all of this with lackluster weapons and a struggling offensive line.

Other dark horse candidates

  • Kyler Murray – High-tempo offense, huge volume, improved weapons
  • Baker Mayfield – New coordinator, incredible weapons, broke rookie TD-record in short season

Rushing Yards – Jonathan Taylor (IND)
Outside of Saquon Barkley, I’d put Taylor’s college tape up against any of the elite RB prospects in the last decade. Zeke, Fournette, Derrick Henry? Yep, he’s on par with them all. Frankly, though, this has much more to do with his landing spot. The Colts just so happen to have the best offensive line in all of football. They also have a defense strong enough that they should end up in the type of game scripts that lead to many carries. Not only that, but if we know anything about Frank Reich, he wants to run the heck out of the football. If Indy gives Taylor the keys to the backfield from Week 1, he could explode onto the scene.

Other dark horse candidates

  • Raheem Mostert – Don’t forget he went for 146 rush yds on 19 carries vs BAL and 220 on 29 carries vs GB in the playoffs
  • Alexander Mattison – If Dalvin Cook holds out or suffers another injury, Mattison is more than capable of filling the gap as a workhorse

Rushing Touchdowns – Ronald Jones II (TB)
The Bucs backfield is a nightmare to figure out but there is plenty of upside to be found in this dynamic offense from whoever ends up with the job. As we’ve seen with Tom Brady‘s teams before, lackluster runningbacks can end up with elite goal-line usage and pile up the touchdowns. Jones may not be Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara through the air, but he is plenty competent on the ground and if he wins this job outright in the preseason, we could potentially be looking at 12 to 15 scores from this mid-round pick.

Other dark horse candidates

  • David Johnson – Was a top 10 fantasy RB before injury last season + he joined a run-heavy offense with an elite QB 
  • Damien HarrisSony Michel had spring foot surgery and Pats likely to run a ton with Brady gone

Receptions – Cooper Kupp (LAR)
Through five weeks last season, Kupp had 63 targets which was eight more than even Michael Thomas! From that point on, his snap counts plummetted every other week and he was seeing inconsistent targets. He flashed for 220 yards in Week 8, for instance, but then caught 0 balls the following week. Perhaps the Rams were hiding an injury. While there are many questions about who Kupp and the Rams will be this season, there is one thing that is clear: Kupp has shown the upside to be a league-winning reception hog and few others can make that claim.

Other dark horse candidates

  • Adam ThielenStefon Diggs is gone and Thielen had 204 rec in 2017-2018 even with Diggs on the team
  • Terry McLaurin – Incredible rookie tape, limited competition for targets, useful game scripts in store

Receiving Yards – Brandin Cooks (HOU)
Despite playing for three different teams, Cooks is one of the only 7 wideouts in NFL history with at least 4 seasons of 1,080+ yards in his first five years (Moss 5, M Thomas 4, Ochocinco 4, T Holt 4, T Hilton 4, L Alworth 4). He has been nothing short of exceptional but last year he just so happened to share the field with Cooper Kupp (WR #4) and Robert Woods (WR #17). Cooks is still just 26 years old, joins a team that just traded away a receiver who had 150 targets and now gets a substantial upgrade at quarterback. Perhaps most importantly, the Texans figure to throw the ball significantly more than the 534 passes we saw last season because their subpar 2020 defense will often have them playing from behind.

Other dark horse candidates

  • DeVante Parker – Led the NFL in receiving yards over the final 9 weeks
  • D.J. Chark – Game script should create huge passing volume, third-year WR with elite athleticism, was top 10 in yards before injury

Receiving Touchdowns – Calvin Ridley (ATL)
Since joining the league, Ridley has 17 touchdowns on just 185 targets. Check out how that 9.2% compares to other elite wideouts: Michael Thomas (5.4%), Julio Jones (4.3%), DeAndre Hopkins (5.8%), Mike Evans (6.3%), Tyreek Hill (8.4%) and Davante Adams (6.1%). Not only that, but Ridley (9.12) is right there in yards per target with Thomas, Julio and above Hopkins and Adams. To put it plainly, Ridley belongs in that elite tier but a lack of targets has kept people from realizing it. That all changes this year with over 200 targets vacated and now up for grabs. Much like Chris Godwin last year, it isn’t absurd to think Ridley could supplant Julio as the #1 receiver on his team this year.

Other dark horse candidates

  • Marquise Brown – Finally healthy, huge aDOT with incredible speed and the reigning MVP
  • A.J. Green – TD-machine throughout his career including 2018 when he was on pace for 12 again when he got hurt

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