Fantasy Football Comeback Candidates: Will Jamaal Charles, Eric Decker Bounce Back?

Jamaal Charles has played just eight games in the last two seasons, but will he find success in Denver in a non-workhorse running back role?
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4for4’s TJ Hernandez examines a few players who are likely to rebound after down seasons in 2016.

Jamaal Charles, RB, Broncos

Charles has played just eight games over the last two seasons, but now finds himself in a situation in Denver where he won’t be expected to be the workhorse. There may not be a better coach to set up Charles for success in his new role than the Broncos new offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy. In four seasons as a primary playcaller, McCoy’s backfields have averaged 60.6% of its team’s total touches, a share that just three backfields reached in 2016. Additionally, McCoy tends to spread the ball among his running backs: No running back has ever seen over 56% of the backfield touches with McCoy calling plays.

If Charles thrives in Denver, it could very well be in Danny Woodhead-like role. In Woodhead’s last full season under McCoy, he finished as the No. 10 RB in standard leagues and No. 3 RB in PPR on just 176 touches. Much of Woodhead’s fantasy success that year can be attributed to his usage in the passing game, especially in the red zone, an area of the field where he saw a position-leading 17 targets. It’s unlikely Denver will want to give Charles a huge workload, but if the Broncos can keep him involved in the passing game and high-leverage situations in scoring position like McCoy did with Woodhead, a return to fantasy relevance is on the horizon for the former Chiefs great.

Eric Decker, WR, Titans

Especially in fantasy leagues with standard scoring, which is heavily driven by touchdowns, Eric Decker should be on every fantasy owner’s radar. Decker played just three games in 2016, but when healthy he is one of the most consistent and prolific touchdown scorers in the league. Since becoming a starter in 2011, Decker has scored a touchdown in 41 of his 81 games. He has also converted 36.7% of his career red zone looks into touchdowns—the third-highest touchdown rate of any player with at least 40 career red zone targets.

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In 2017, Decker will be paired with Marcus Mariota, who has the league’s best red zone touchdown rate since he came into the league in 2015. The argument against Decker is the crowded receiving corps in Tennessee—Rishard Matthews finished as the No. 12 WR in standard leagues last year, and the Titans used the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft on wideout Corey Davis. Matthews does most of his damage from long range, though, and rookie wide receivers typically take at least one year to develop. With Decker’s track record, look for him to be Mariota’s primary red zone weapon in 2017.

Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals

Just one year removed from being in the MVP discussion, Andy Dalton finished 20th among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game in 2016. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert missed a combined 14 games, which led to Dalton struggling mightily in the red zone. Just 13 of Dalton’s 72 pass attempts inside the 20 were converted into scores—a touchdown rate of just 18.1%. For his career, however, Dalton has nearly a 26% red zone touchdown conversion rate, which tends to regress to the mean.

Even without his top two targets for much of the season, Dalton led one of the league’s most efficient offenses last season. Cincinnati ranked seventh in percentage of drives to reach the red zone and 10th in yards per drive. So with a fully healthy offense—Green and Eifert should help Dalton normalize his scoring rates—and the addition of wide receiver John Ross, the No. 9 overall pick, the Bengals are likely to carry that efficiency into 2017 while Dalton gets back into the QB1 ranks. Dalton is currently being drafted as the No. 18 fantasy QB, but 4for4 rankings guru John Paulsen has Dalton ranked 10th, which makes the Bengals quarterback one of the better values on draft day.

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Coby Fleener, TE, Saints

Coby Fleener finished as the No. 12 TE in standard leagues in 2016, but there’s no doubt his fantasy owners were left feeling unsatisfied—Fleener is just two years removed from a No. 6 TE fantasy finish and was drafted as the No. 6 TE last year. Though Fleener’s production wasn’t what everyone was hoping for, it wasn’t due to a lack of opportunity. The Saints tight end led his team in red zone targets—fourth among tight ends in that category—but scored on just two of those looks.

Even if Jimmy Graham is removed from the equation, tight ends have scored on 27% of red zone targets from Drew Brees in the QB’s career, suggesting that Fleener is due for positive regression to the mean. Brandin Cooks, who accounted for 11 red zone targets last season, is now in New England, and the Saints didn’t add any notable red zone pass-catchers in the offseason. So not only is Fleener likely to maintain his role in the offense, but it could arguably increase in 2017. Investing in one of Brees’ favorite red-zone targets is usually a great bet to make.