- You can't win a fantasy football league simply by following a script. Every now and again, you have to get bold. Three of SI's fantasy experts give their bold predictions for the 2017 season.
The first week of September is here, and that means the first NFL Sunday of the season is right around the corner. We've spent all summer ranking players, highlighting breakouts and busts, and debating similarly priced players. We've drafted, drafted and drafted some more. All that's left to do is make bold predictions. SI's Michael Beller, and 4for4's Chris Raybon and T.J. Hernandez share their boldest calls for the 2017 season.
Michael Beller's bold predictions
David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell will top 2,500 yards from scrimmage
Chris Johnson is the only player in NFL history to rack up 2,500 total yards in a season. Back in 2009, when Johnson ran for 2,006 yards, he also caught 50 passes for 503 yards. Even as offense has exploded since then, no one has matched Johnson’s 2,509 yards from scrimmage in that season. That will change this year.
Johnson and Bell are the two best offensive players in the league, the prototypical weapons for the modern NFL. They’re the two truly indispensable players in the fantasy game, giving their owners a significant leg up on everyone else. Last year, Johnson piled up 2,118 yards from scrimmage in 16 games, good for 132.4 yards per game. He’d need about 24 more per game to get up to 2,500 yards from scrimmage this season. Bell, meanwhile, doesn’t need to increase his per-game output. He totaled 1,884 yards from scrimmage in 12 games, a 16-game pace of 2,512 yards.
Johnson and Bell are the centerpieces of their offenses, the two best running backs in the league who could probably be elite receivers if they switched positions. They’ll triple the membership in the 2,500-yard club this season.
Ty Montgomery will be a top-five running back
Everything is lined up for Montgomery to break out this season. He has the unquestioned lead of the Green Bay backfield, with rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones behind him on the depth chart. He bulked up to 223 pounds this offseason, putting him in better condition to handle the workload of a starting running back. The Packers have finished outside the top 10 in scoring once and top 10 in yards twice in the nine years that Aaron Rodgers has been their starter.
Montgomery broke into the league as a receiver, which should suit him well in the Green Bay backfield. Rodgers will use his running backs in the passing game if they’re capable, as proved by Eddie Lacy and James Starks combining for 84 catches in 2014 and 63 catches in 2015. Montgomery is a superior receiver to both of them, and a more explosive runner, as well. He could easily approach 300 carries plus targets in what promises to be one of the best offenses in the league. If he does, he’ll be an easy RB1 who helps carry his fantasy owners to championships.
Ben Roethlisberger will throw for 40 touchdowns
As great as Roethlisberger has been his entire career, he has never thrown for more than 32 touchdowns, and has reached the 30-mark just twice. He’ll obliterate that career high this season, reaching the 40-touchdown threshold with a collection of weapons that is the envy of the league.
Le’Veon Bell is, at worst, the second-best running back and non-quarterback offensive player in the league. Antonio Brown is the league’s best receiver. Since 2014, however, Roethlisberger has never had the pleasure of operating with a full deck. One of Bell or Martavis Bryant has been on the sidelines every game the last two years, thanks to suspensions and injuries. That won’t be the case this season.
In 19 games with Bryant in the lineup, Roethlisberger has 6,385 yards and 41 touchdowns. That comes out to a 16-game average of 5,376 yards and 34.5 touchdowns. Yes, Roethlisberger would have to increase his touchdown rate, but if he can really approach 5,300 yards, his touchdown rate won’t be able to do anything but increase. With Bell, Brown and Bryant finally at his disposal at the same time, Roethlisberger will have the best year of his career, marked by 40 passing touchdowns.
Odell Beckham will catch 20 touchdown passes
Two receivers in NFL history have 20-touchdown seasons to their name. Jerry Rice hauled in 22 touchdowns (in just 12 games) in 1987. Twenty years later, Randy Moss broke his record, hitting paydirt 23 times for the 16-0 Patriots. This season, Beckham will become the third.
There’s no doubting that Beckham has the talent to join this illustrious club. In three years in the NFL, Beckham has 288 receptions for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns. His 20-touchdown potential is evident in both his numbers and his style of play. Of course, if a receiver is going to catch 20 touchdown passes, he needs more than just ability. He needs the right environment and opportunity. Beckham has both this season.
The Giants are going on seemingly their 100th straight year hunting for a reliable running game. Without that, they’ll once again lean on Eli Manning and the passing game, featuring the league’s widest use of three-receiver sets. With Brandon Marshall in town, Beckham will be free to spend more time in the slot this season than he did last year. When Beckham was busy turning into a star as a rookie, he did most of his damage out of the slot, where he is one of the most lethal players in the league. Bundle that up, and you’ve got the right environment and plenty of opportunity. Beckham will put his name alongside Rice’s and Moss’s this season.
Terrelle Pryor will be a top-eight receiver
Top eight might not sound very bold, but consider the state of the receiver position this season. If Pryor is going to be in the top eight, that means he will for sure outscore one of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, Michael Thomas or Brandin Cooks, not to mention Dez Bryant, Doug Baldwin and Amari Cooper. Predicting anyone not in that group to be in the top eight is bold, especially when the receiver in question is entering his second season at the position.
Pryor has what it takes to be inside the highest-scoring octet in the league. It’d be impressive for anyone to catch 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in his first season as a receiver. Add to that the degree of difficulty of reaching those numbers in an offense that finished 30th in total yards, 28th in passing yards and 31st in scoring, and it becomes one of the biggest feats of the year. That’s exactly what Pryor did while mired in the Browns offense a season ago. Even had he remained in Cleveland, he would have been a receiver on the rise.
Pryor didn’t remain in Cleveland, though. He left the Browns for Washington, giving him a prime spot in one of the pass-friendliest offenses in the league. In two years with Kirk Cousins at the helm, the Redskins have averaged 4,426.5 passing yards per year and 24.2 points per game. Pryor may not get the volume he did in Cleveland, but he’ll more than make up for it in efficiency. With Cousins and the Washington offense at his back, Pryor will improve statistically across the board, and lock in the first WR1 season of his career.
Chris Raybon's bold predictions
Todd Gurley will finish as a top-three fantasy running back
Gurley suffered through dismal offensive line play, historically bad quarterback play, and a clueless coaching regime in 2016. Guess what: he still topped 70 yards in 13-of-16 games. This season, the line should be much improved with the additions of veterans Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan. In Fisher's place is Sean McVay, whose offensive wizardry earned him the title of youngest head coach in NFL history. McVay has experience turning around quarterbacks, having transformed a maligned Kirk Cousins into one of the league's better passers during his time in Washington.
McVay plans to use Gurley more as a receiver this season, which could result in him topping last season's 321 touches. And remember, Gurley has already shown us his massive upside. Upside so high, in fact, that he was the first running back drafted on average last season. Gurley is unlikely to best David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell, but could easily lead the next tier in scoring. LeSean McCoy will be in a new scheme and is primed for regression off his 5.4 yards per carry and 14 TDs. Devonta Freeman may not be a true feature back with Tevin Coleman behind him. Melvin Gordon may see his workload scaled back and has yet to top 3.9 yards per carry. Jay Ajayi is yet to show week-to-week consistency. DeMarco Murray could lose snaps to Derrick Henry. Jordan Howard’s passing-game involvement is in question.
Don’t be surprised if Gurley gives 2017 drafters what we all wanted from him in 2016.
Marshawn Lynch will lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns
Only six teams ran less than the Raiders inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in 2016, and only four ran less inside the 5-yard line. Even so, Latavius Murray finished fifth in the league in rushing touchdowns (12) while missing two games. After jettisoning Murray for Lynch, Oakland may now feel comfortable running more in scoring position.
Some drafters may be scared off by Lynch’s subpar 2015 with Seattle, but remember, he was behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines that year. This year, he’ll be behind one of the league’s best in Oakland. The Raiders are one of five teams with double-digit win total odds, which should equate to a high-scoring offense often in positive game script.
The year off has Lynch looking spry, so don’t be surprised if you see him in the end zone more often than any other back in 2017.
Randall Cobb will outscore Davante Adams
The Cobb-versus-Adams dynamic is a perfect example of recency bias and overcorrection. Last season, Cobb was going as a third- or fourth-round pick while Adams wasn’t even being drafted. This season, Adams is a third- or fourth-rounder while Cobb routinely falls out of the top 100 picks. The thing is, just like Adams had an injury-riddled 2015, Cobb had an injury-riddled 2016. Cobb sat out three games and played banged up in many others, missing nearly a quarter of the team’s snaps.
Despite Cobb’s struggles, he drew only 1.1 fewer targets per game than Adams. If Cobb is healthy, that differential could completely evaporate. When healthy, it's Cobb, not Adams, who is the Packers’ most explosive weapon behind Jordy Nelson. And Adams’s touchdown total is likely to regress while Cobb’s is primed for positive regression. Adams scored a TD on 9.9% of his targets last season, but his career rate up to that point was only 2.5%. Meanwhile, Cobb scored on only 4.7% of his targets last season, but his career rate up to that point was 7.1%.
Given average draft position, there's a lot more upside to drafting Cobb than Adams in 2017.
Antonio Gates will outscore Hunter Henry
This prediction shouldn’t even qualify as bold, but here we are. While Henry’s average draft position has been firmly in the top 12 all summer, Gates’ has been outside the top 20. Drafters are a year too early on Henry, who averaged only 3.2 targets per game last season with Gates in the lineup.
Think Gates is going away? He actually played on a higher percentage of snaps in Henry's first season than he did the season before. Henry had an excellent rookie year, but his rate of eight touchdowns on 57 targets isn't sustainable. What’s more, Henry’s snap count with Gates in the lineup actually decreased as the year went on last season.
Henry’s time will come sooner than later, but for now, Gates is still Philip Rivers’s top tight end.
Cole Beasley will catch 90 passes
After catching 75 passes in 2016 despite playing only 56% of the snaps, Beasley could be in for even more catches this year. Why? Beasley was targeted 33% more when Dallas didn’t have a lead last season, but Dallas spent more snaps leading than all but two teams. That led to a league-low 50.6% pass-play rate. This season, oddsmakers forecast a 3.5-win decline for America’s team, which should equate to more targets to go around for everyone. Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and Dez Bryant’s difficult slate of cornerback matchups should also funnel more targets toward Beasley. In 2016 it was Beasley, not Bryant, who led Cowboys receivers in targets per snap.
Beasley was a top-40 receiver even in standard formats last season and is a late-round steal.
T.J. Hernandez's bold predictions
DeVante Parker will finish as a top-20 fantasy WR
In his first two seasons in the league, Parker has finished no better than 51st among wide receivers in standard scoring leagues. That could change in 2017. The third-year Dolphins wideout has physical attributes akin to A.J. Green while his early-career numbers put him on a similar arc to players like Doug Baldwin, Martavis Bryant and Kenny Britt. Parker is the big-bodied type of receiver that Adam Gase featured in his offense the last time he coached Jay Cutler.
Andy Dalton will set a career high in fantasy points scored
With A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert out for a combined 14 games last season, Dalton struggled to find the end zone. Even without their top two pass catchers for much of the season, the Bengals ranked seventh in percentage of drives to reach the red zone, and 10th in yards per drive. Dalton is due for positive touchdown regression, and with a healthy Green and Eifert and rookie John Ross there to help stretch the field, the Bengals quarterback could be in for a career year.
Eric Decker will lead the league in touchdown receptions
As a starter, Eric Decker has scored in 41 of 81 career games and converted 36.7% of his red zone targets into touchdowns, the third-highest rate of any active player with at least 40 career targets inside the 20. Now, Decker is paired with Marcus Mariota, who has the league’s highest red-zone passing touchdown rate since he entered it. Tennessee ranked 25th in red-zone pass-play rate last year, but after an offseason focused on building the receiving corps, that number is sure to climb. Decker is the most likely beneficiary.
DeAndre Washington will score more fantasy points than Marshawn Lynch
Last time Marshawn Lynch played football, he was active for just seven games and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, his lowest mark since 2010. After a year off, Lynch is now 31 years old and in a crowded backfield under a coach that prefers to use a running back committee. Oakland offered a running back at least two-thirds of the team’s backfield touches in a game just three times last year, fourth fewest in the NFL. Behind Lynch on the depth chart is DeAndre Washington, a running back who profiled as one of the more impressive backs in 4for4’s Joe Holka’s Rushing Expectation series. Washington can be utilized in the passing game, which is something Lynch has rarely done in his career. If a three-down back emerges for the Raiders this year, it’ll be Washington.
Kirk Cousins will finish as a top-three fantasy quarterback
In 2016, Kirk Cousins finished as the fantasy QB5 despite ranking 13th in passing touchdowns. Much of Cousins’s touchdown struggles last season can be explained by the fact that more 30% of his red zone passes were aimed toward Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson—receivers whose career red zone touchdown rates rank 44th and 49th, respectively, among players with at least 40 career red-zone targets. Additionally, Cousins was without tight end Jordan Reed for a quarter of the season. With a presumably healthy Reed and the addition of Terrelle Pryor, who converted over 30% of his red-zone targets into scores in his first season as a full-time wide receiver, Cousins should see his red zone touchdown rate climb considerably in 2017. Only seven teams threw at a higher rate than Washington last year and there is little evidence to suggest Jay Gruden intends on changing his game plan. For those wondering how Cousins jumps Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Tom Brady, consider that Brees has finished in the top-three in fantasy points per game just once in the last four years, while Brady and Rodgers have done so only twice.
Eric Ebron will finish as a top-five fantasy tight end
Despite scoring just one touchdown last year, Ebron finished the week as a top-12 tight end six times, a feat accomplished by just seven other players at the position. With Anquan Boldin no longer in the mix, Ebron’s red zone targets are sure to increase from the six he saw last season. Even without the bump in red zone looks, Ebron is due for positive touchdown regression. He scored on just 1.2% of his targets, but the league-wide touchdown rate for tight ends is 5%, and Matthew Stafford throws a touchdown on about 4.4% of his passes. In one of the pass-heaviest offenses in the league, Ebron could be a league winner.
Julio Jones will set the single-season receptions record
Last season, the Falcons had their highest rush-play rate since 2010, but much of that was due to favorable game script; Atlanta won nine games by at least a touchdown last year. Given the history of Matt Ryan offenses, it’s likely that 2016 was simply an outlier season for the Falcons, who should find themselves in many more close games in 2017, necessitating a return to more of a pass-heavy offense. In addition to expected regression, the hiring of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian points to an increase in pass-play volume. Outside of Jones, the Falcons are full of replacement-level pass catchers. Look for him to command well over 30% of Atlanta’s targets this year like he did in 2015.
Russell Wilson will throw 40 touchdowns
Until Russell Wilson’s injury-riddled 2016 campaign, the Seahawks had been pass-happy every year since his rookie season, while his passing efficiency had continued to improve. Despite last year’s struggles, Wilson still has the second-highest career passing touchdown rate among active passers, including the third-best rate in the red zone. Seattle’s backfield situation is shaky at best, and with Wilson at 100%, the team figures to continue to trend in a pass-first direction. A look at Seattle’s strength of schedule shows only two noticeably restrictive matchups all season.