Surprising 2020 Performances that are Unsustainable in 2021 (Fantasy Football)
One thing you do not want to be doing in fantasy football is chase last year. Last year was last year, and this year is this year. Just because a player was a fantasy star one year does not mean that automatically carries over to the next year. Think of it like stocks; you want to buy a stock when it is trading at $20.00 per share and goes up to $100.00 per share after your purchase. You do not want to buy a stock at $100.00 per share and watch it crash to $20.00 per share after you buy it. Even if it only crashes to $80.00 and still has good value, it was not a winning purchase to buy it for more than $80.00 per share.
Winning fantasy leagues is about maximizing value. You cannot do that if you expect repeats of the previous year and draft players higher than what they will produce in the upcoming season. Certain NFL players are going to be the staple of every fantasy football team because they consistently produce great numbers. Other players have outlier years that inflates their value. Sometimes it is a player having a few big games that over-inflate the normal fantasy value. Sometimes it is a future Hall of Fame player having a historically good season that is not going to be duplicated again, even by a Hall of Fame caliber player.
Here is a look at 10 players that had outlier seasons in 2020 that I do not think will be sustainable for 2021. All 2020 statistics are for Weeks 1 through 16. All statistics for prior years are for the entire season, but the fantasy rankings from previous years are for Week 1 to Week 16, as most fantasy leagues do not play games in Week 17.
1) Aaron Rodgers (QB – GB) Aaron Rodgers is no stranger to monster years, but 2020 was a bit of a surprise because he had not had a monster fantasy season since 2016. All I need to show how unexpected this year was for Rodgers is that his ADP was 80 in the preseason, which was close to Matt Ryan at 76, and Carson Wentz at 90. Most fantasy experts did not expect Rodgers to be this good, and Rodgers significantly outperformed that ADP with 4,059 yards passing, 44 passing touchdowns, 145 yards rushing, and three rushing touchdowns. His 119.4 QB rating is the third-highest in NFL history, behind Peyton Manning in 2004 and Rodgers in 2011.
I am not saying that Rodgers is going to become fantasy irrelevant in 2021. He just is not likely to have the season he had in 2020 again and justify a Top-20 ADP. Challenges in 2021 that are awaiting the Packers are numerous. This year their first-place schedule ended up being a cakewalk because San Francisco and Philadelphia crashed and burned. They played the NFC South and AFC South, who were loaded with mediocre to poor defenses. Other than Chicago, the defenses in their division were terrible, and their road game against Chicago came in Week 17, outside the fantasy season.
Rodgers had most of his players back from last year, and it was their second year in a new offense. Everything clicked starting in Week 1, and he never looked back. Next year, they will be playing the NFC West and AFC North, which has teams with much tougher defenses than the NFC South and AFC South. There should be a regression created by a tougher schedule and the difficulty of duplicating a historic season the following year.
Finally, Rob Reischel wrote a great article for Forbes, 3 Green Bay Packers Who Could Become Salary Cap Casualties. He lays out the cap challenges for the Packers in 2021, where they are projected to shred close to $24 million in cap space to have enough money to make it back under the cap and sign their 2021 NFL Draft class. That means that there is not going to be much money to spend on their own free agents, which includes Corey Linsley, Allen Lazard, Jamaal Williams, Robert Tonyan Jr., and Aaron Jones. The Packers may have four new starters on offense in 2021. Rodgers will help integrate the new players, and the offense will not crash and burn, but he probably won’t be a QB with a 119.4 QB rating integrating new players into the offense against a tougher schedule. Anyone who takes him in the second round hoping for a repeat of this year will be disappointed when he is good, but not 2020 good.
2) Cam Newton (QB – NE) From a rushing standpoint, Newton was terrific this year. He managed to run the ball 126 times for 513 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Those 12 rushing touchdowns are not inconsequential, the record for a quarterback was 14, also set by Newton back in his rookie season of 2011. He would have been a great fantasy quarterback this year if he could have thrown for more than five touchdowns in 14 games.
The problem is that his arm appears to be below average at this point. The Patriots tried to mask his arm troubles by having him throw the ball only 24.2 times per game. The result was an average of 172.5 passing yards per game and five touchdowns to 10 interceptions. In four of his final five games, he failed to pass for 100 yards, and one of the games where he did hit 100 yards, he finished with 119 passing yards. There is no way he is starting in New England next year and I cannot see him being more than a bridge quarterback or veteran backup in the NFL at this point.
Even though his 12 rushing touchdowns were amazing for a quarterback, that production is not sustainable given his lack of passing production. Newton will probably have work in 2021, he is still a huge name, and he can sell tickets and be a bridge for a rookie quarterback. Look for Newton to sign to a one-year deal as a backup or bridge, which will make it almost impossible for him to sustain his 2020 rushing production. I think the chances he starts anything close to 16 games is slim to none.
3) James Robinson (RB – JAC) Robinson was one of the bright spots for the Jaguars’ offense. He tallied 1,414 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. He averaged 16.1 fantasy points per game, and he was an RB1 the entire season. One of the problems is that Robinson played on a team that was consistently down double digits in the second half and a lot of his production came with the team playing from behind. If they improve the roster next year and the games are closer, teams will be trying to stop the run more than they did this year and he should see more defenders in the box.
He should still be a good player though, considering he was a 22-year-old rookie, you would think he would be a foundational piece for the Jaguars for years to come. That may not be the case, though. I have learned over the years that management turnover and contracts matter. Robinson was not a big name coming out of Illinois State. He signed there as an undrafted free and received a three-year deal worth $2,285,000. The GM responsible for his signing, David Caldwell, was fired in November. The head coach playing him this year, Doug Marrone, will be given his walking papers at the end of the year. That means that Jay Gruden will probably not be back as the offensive coordinator.
A new coaching staff could love Robinson and build the ground game around him. A new coaching staff could also not love Robinson and want to go in another direction, and there would be no cap consequences for doing that. I think a good example of how this can happen is Jordan Howard. Howard was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears in 2016 when John Fox was the head coach. Howard had 1,611 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns as a rookie and 1,247 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns in his second year. Matt Nagy took over in 2018, and Howard was immediately put into a timeshare with Tarik Cohen. Howard was gone the following year, traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a sixth-round pick.
The good news is we should know these things before fantasy football drafts in 2021. Some early clues will be who they hire as head coach and what system he runs and whether Robinson is a good fit for that system. What the team does in free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft will also provide insight into his role in 2021. I am not selling Robinson yet; there were many things to like about his 2020 season. Some questions need to be answered before I just blindly assume that he comes back and puts up even bigger numbers playing with likely first overall pick, Trevor Lawrence.
4) David Montgomery (RB – CHI) Montgomery had a tale of two seasons. From Week 1 to Week 9, he was the 14th ranked fantasy running back with 10.6 fantasy points per game. Nothing is embarrassing about that, an RB14 is a terrific season for a running back with an ADP of 66. He missed Week 9 against the Minnesota Vikings, and he had a bye in Week 10. What followed in the next five games was a league-leading 118.7 fantasy points for running backs. The temptation is going to be there by some people to make Montgomery a first-round pick in 2021. He is entering his third season, he was amazing to end the year, and he should pick up where he left off in 2021.
That could be the case but keep in mind that from Week 12 to Week 16, he played at the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions, the Houston Texans, at the Minnesota Vikings, and at the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those teams were 27th, 31st, 32nd, 26th, and 29th against fantasy backs in 2020. The schedule aligned for Chicago to play five of the seven worst fantasy running back defenses in the NFL in a row to close the fantasy season, and Montgomery hit the ground running and never looked back.
I think Montgomery is going to be a lot closer to the guy we saw from Week 1 to Week 10 than the guy we saw the last five weeks of the season. Granted, three of the worst running back defenses in the NFL were in the division and will be back on the schedule for five guaranteed games next year, but the Packers and Vikings have pretty good front offices, and my guess is they will make improvements in that area through free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Also, the schedule switches from the NFC South and AFC South to the NFC West and AFC North, so there are going to great run defenses like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco that were not on the schedule in 2020. I think that all adds up to the final five games of the 2020 season being unsustainable for Montgomery in 2021.
5) Ezekiel Elliott (RB – DAL) I went with one player that had a bad year that I think it is unsustainable that he has that bad of a year again. Elliott was trashed a lot this year, and I am not sure why he was not given the benefit of the doubt given his previous four years in the league. We are talking about a player that played 56 games in his first four years in the league and turned that into 7,024 yards from scrimmage and 48 touchdowns. He was second, 12th, fifth, and fourth among fantasy backs in his first four years. The year he was 12th, he missed six games due to a suspension. He was as dependable and consistent as any player in the league, and the result was a massive contract extension.
Let’s keep a couple of things in mind. Pro Football Focus ranked the Dallas Cowboys as having the fourth-best offensive line last year. They suffered a ton of injuries on the line this year. Pro Football Focus has not released their 2020 offensive line grades, but it is safe to say they will be nowhere near the top five. My guess is they will be somewhere around 20th in the NFL. They also lost Dak Prescott for the season very early in the year, and they were forced to alternate between Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci before going back to Dalton. Their defense is 30th in points allowed and 26th in yards allowed, so the Cowboys rarely played with a lead.
I am not exactly sure what Elliott was supposed to do with an offense that was decimated by injuries and a defense that was so terribly run that the Cowboys were always in a shootout and needing to pass the football to keep up. This is not a Todd Gurley situation where Elliott has an arthritic condition in his knee. This is not a Frank Gore situation where Elliott is turning 38-years old later this year. Elliott turns 26-years old this year, and he has 1,399 carries to date. Most elite running backs are fine until they are 30-years old and have reached 2,000 carries. Elliott’s 1,256 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns is not sustainable, he is too good to have numbers that low. The Cowboys should fix the offensive line in the off-season, and if Prescott is back in 2021, this offense should go back to the respectable offense we have seen since Elliott became their featured weapon back in 2016. Anyone selling Elliott as a mediocre back is likely to be disappointed when he bounces back in 2021 surrounded by a much better roster.
6) Davante Adams (QB – GB) – You can go back and read my arguments for Rodgers declining in 2021, and those same arguments will apply to Adams. He has had an amazing year, and at 28-years old, he is entering the prime years of his NFL career. My guess is there is going to be a drop in production that still leaves him as a WR1 because what he has done this year is not sustainable. Adams has played 13 games this year, and he has 17 touchdown receptions. That is tied for the fifth-most in NFL history.
The stars aligned for Adams this year, Adams went against the Lions twice (32nd against fantasy wide receivers), Titans (29th), Eagles (28th), Vikings twice (27th), Texans (25th), and Jaguars (24th). Eight of his 13 games were against teams that were 24th or worse against fantasy wide receivers. That is going to change next year when they play the NFC West and AFC North. Those teams have six teams that were in the top 16 against fantasy wide receivers. While nobody has a cornerback that can cover Adams, a tougher schedule should reduce the number of video game performances in 2021 that he had in 2020.
That does not mean I think Adams is going to fall off a cliff and suddenly be a WR3 in fantasy football. He is firmly entrenched as a WR1 as one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL, playing with one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. What is more likely to happen is Adams finishes 2021 with 100 receptions, 1,300 yards, and 10-12 touchdowns. Still a fantastic season, but nothing like the 238.5 fantasy points he put up between Week 7 and Week 16. To put that run into perspective, Chris Godwin was second in the NFL last year with 233.1 fantasy points in 14 games. Adams had 238.5 fantasy points in the 10 games between Week 7 and Week 16. Adams cannot sustain that type of production over the rest of the field season after season. What we watched was a historic season, and it is not sustainable next year. Anyone that drafts him in the top three ahead of some of the elite fantasy running backs expecting a repeat of 2020 is going to be disappointed.
7) Robby Anderson (WR – CAR) – Anderson was a great story early in the season. He developed a rapport with Teddy Bridgewater, and in his first five games, Anderson scored 73.3 fantasy points. He was the eighth-ranked fantasy receiver in the league through five games, and he was a big part of their offense with 14.7 fantasy points per game. That production slowed after that hot start. In his next 10 games, he tallied only 97.9 fantasy points or 9.8 fantasy points per game. He went from being a WR1 the first month of the season to a WR4 in the final 10 games of the season.
A big reason Anderson’s production dropped is Curtis Samuel became a relevant part of the offense. Samuel tallied 123.9 fantasy points in the final 10 games of the season or 13.8 fantasy points per game. Samuel will probably not be resigned in 2021, but Christian McCaffrey is going to be back, and he is someone that should command 120-140 targets in 2021 if he can stay healthy.
There is also a chance that the Panthers cut Anderson this offseason with a shrinking salary cap and save the $12 million in salary while having to carry only $4 million in dead money. The other option is keeping him, but he will probably have a reduced role behind D.J. Moore and McCaffrey. The Panthers could also draft Anderson’s 2022 replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft and slowly phase Anderson out of the offense. I think any way you slice it, Anderson’s ceiling will be what he was the final 10 games of the season, not the outlier hot start in the first five games. I think he will be a candidate to be drafted too high in 2020 as a WR2 or WR3 based on those first five games that will not be sustainable next year.
8) Adam Thielen (WR – MIN) Thielen had a terrific season this year, posting 209.3 fantasy points in 14 games this year, which was eighth in the NFL. That ranking was the product of an insane touchdown scoring year, which I do not think is sustainable. Thielen had only 103 targets, 70 receptions, and 868 yards this season. A comparable receiver would be Brandin Cooks, who posted 103 targets, 70 receptions, and 984 yards. Cooks was the 28th ranked receiver with that production, and he had only 157.4 fantasy points. The reason for the difference is that Cooks had only four touchdowns, Thielen had 14 touchdowns. To put that TD spike in perspective, Thielen had 15 touchdowns in 26 games during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. It was a huge spike from what he normally produces in the red zone.
The Vikings have a lot of young talent on offense. Dalvin Cook had 1,918 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. Justin Jefferson was one of the best rookies in the league with 1,269 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. Irv Smith is an exciting young tight end that posted 335 yards and five receiving touchdowns in his second season. Those players will be back in 2021 and ready to put up big numbers.
I think it is realistic to expect Thielen to go back to his normal 7-9 touchdowns in 2021 and not stay around the 14 touchdowns he had in 2020. Unless he is going to go back to averaging 79.8 yards per game as he did in 2017 or 85.6 yards per game as he did in 2018, there just is not enough receptions and yards to keep him at his current Top-10 ranking. Jefferson will be the star in this passing game, and Thielen will be a complementary player with WR3 value in 2021. He is not going to sustain that type of production in the red zone next year.
9) Jonnu Smith (TE – TEN) In his first four games, Smith tallied 61.1 fantasy points or 15.3 fantasy points per game. He was third among tight ends in fantasy points scored and second in fantasy points per game in that span. A.J. Brown was dinged to start the season, and Smith filled in as the red zone threat, scoring five touchdowns in their first four games. Once Brown was back to full health, Smith was unable to keep up the pace. Smith had just 57.3 fantasy points over his last nine games or 6.1 points per contest. He had five games where he failed to eclipse 3.9 fantasy points, and he was the 21st ranked fantasy tight end.
The pecking order in this offense is pretty clear. Derrick Henry dominates on the ground, and A.J. Brown dominates through the air. They are the consistent fantasy performers, and everyone else is fighting for the leftovers. There may be room for an expanded role for Smith if Corey Davis leaves in free agency. I just think the first five games were a bit fluky and Smith is more of a TE2 than TE1 that will not duplicate that fast start that propelled him to TE1 status in 2020.
10) Robert Tonyan (TE – GB) – Aaron Rodgers targeted Tonyan only 57 times, and somehow Tonyan caught 50 of those targets for an 87.7 catch percentage. That was the fourth-highest of any player in the league, and the only other players in the top 20 that were not running backs were Curtis Samuel, Mo Alie-Cox, and Randall Cobb. Tonyan also had 10 touchdown receptions, which means that 20 percent of his catches went for touchdowns. If Tonyan would have been targeted as much as Travis Kelce and maintained that level of efficiency, he would have had 145 targets, 127 receptions, 1,447 receiving yards, and 25 touchdown receptions. That is how absurd Tonyan’s season was with so little volume in the passing game.
Tonyan is a free agent, and the Packers may not be able to afford to keep him. Playing with a lesser quarterback would cap his 2020 production. Even if he comes back to the Packers in 2021, is Rodgers going to have the historic season that he had in 2020? Is Rodgers going to complete 70% of his passes overall and 87.7 percent of his passes to Tonyan? It seems far-fetched that Tonyan does anything like he did this year, especially if he is not on an offensive juggernaut like the 2020 Green Bay Packers.
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Derek Lofland is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Derek, check out his archive and follow him @DerekLofland.