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  • A handful of established players who disappointed in fantasy last year will bounce back to their usual performance
By Michael Beller
August 08, 2018

Fantasy owners were not happy with Cam Newton after the 2016 season. Newton electrified the league in 2015, cruising to the MVP award and carrying the Panthers to the Super Bowl. That helped make him the first quarterback off the board in a typical draft the following season. He ended up throwing for 19 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, while setting a career low in rushing yards and tying a career-worst mark in rushing scores. As such, drafters approached him warily last year, barely making him a top-10 quarterback by average draft position. That turned out to be a big mistake.

The Newton of old returned, throwing for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns, while adding 754 yards and six scores on the ground. That was good enough to make him the No. 2 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues, trailing only Russell Wilson. The lesson: Don’t put too much stock into one bad year for a veteran with an impressive track record, especially if he has turned in superstar seasons in the past.

Bouncebacks happen every year. Just like Newton last season, a handful of established players who disappointed last year will regress positively back to their mean performance. It really isn’t much of a challenge to find bounceback candidates. Simply look for veterans with strong track records who surprisingly performed below their expected floor last season and confirm that said underperformance was anomalous and not related to genuine skill decline. With that, you’ve uncovered a bounceback candidate. Here are five of our favorites.

Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons

It’s striking to think back on just how significantly the Falcons offense regressed last year compared with the Super Bowl season a year before—and then to remember that they were still one of the final four teams alive in the NFC last year. The narrative around the Falcons last year was, at times, gloom and doom, and yet they were two yards away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the second straight season.

That is foundational for Ryan’s bounceback candidacy. Good-to-great fantasy quarterbacks typically play for good-to-great teams, and the Falcons certainly enter this season as Super Bowl contenders. Another fact in Ryan’s favor is that his cosmetic stats significantly underperformed his efficiency numbers. Ryan completed nearly two-thirds of his passes for 4,095 yards and 7.74 yards per attempt, but threw for just 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The 20 scores were his fewest since his rookie year, and his 3.8% touchdown rate was the third-worst mark of his career. Not only is that touchdown rate suspiciously low based on Ryan’s efficiency metrics, but it doesn’t square with the fact that he threw 35 passes inside the 10-yard line and 16 inside the 5-yard line, good for fifth and seventh, respectively, among all quarterbacks. As T.J. Hernandez showed in his column on quarterback stats, touchdown rate has a low correlation from year to year.

Yes, the Falcons clearly missed former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who took over as the head coach in San Francisco last year, but his departure doesn’t completely explain Ryan’s shrinking touchdown rate. Ryan could be the exact same quarterback this year that he was last year, and add at least five touchdowns to his bottom line. He’s a good bet to be a top-10 quarterback again this year.

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Drew Brees, QB, Saints

Like Ryan, Brees in 2017 suffered from an oddly low touchdown rate. His 4.3% rate tied the lowest mark of his Saints tenure, and was even more divergent from the rest of his stat line than Ryan’s was from his. Brees completed 72% of his passes for 4,334 yards and a league-best 8.09 YPA. He ranked third in the league with 82 red-zone passes, 31 of which came from inside the 10-yard line, while 16 were on plays inside the 5. Those numbers simply should not add up to just 23 touchdowns, but that’s where Brees landed last year.

Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara siphoned away much of Brees’ expected touchdown total last year. The duo combined for 20 rushing touchdowns, 10 of which came inside the 5-yard line. Ingram scored eight of those, but he’ll miss the first four games of the season due to a performance-enhancing drugs suspension. That alone should send some touchdowns back to Brees.

Additionally, Brees’ 536 pass attempts were his fewest in a season since 2009. Last year’s Saints defense was one of the best he has played with, and the positive game script curbed the passing attack’s presence late in games last season. Still, Brees threw 650 passes on an 11-5 Saints team in 2013, and 657 on a team that went 13-3 in 2011. As good as the Saints were last year, the low attempt total was likely a one-off. Even if Brees remained at that 4.3% touchdown rate, an additional 80 attempts would have netted three or four touchdowns. Add it all up, and it’s a near-lock that Brees puts up his usual yardage and efficiency numbers while experience major positive regression in the touchdown department this year.

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Jay Ajayi, RB, Eagles

Things never clicked for Ajayi last season. He spent the first half of the year stuck on a dreadful Dolphins team and feuding with his head coach, Adam Gase. He spent the second half of the year on an already-formed Super Bowl contender in Philadelphia, fitting in on the fly where he could without upsetting the delicate balance on the offense. All that changes this year.

First and foremost, by the time the Eagles host the Falcons in the season opener in Week 1, Ajayi will have had a full offseason with the team. Just as importantly, the coaching staff will have had an entire offseason to draw up its offense with Ajayi as a crucial part of it. LeGarrette Blount is off to Detroit, leaving Ajayi as the team’s clear option at the goal line. And then there are the two factors that solidify Ajayi’s bounceback candidacy.

The first, and this cannot be overlooked, is that Ajayi is a very good running back. He racked up 1,272 yards on 260 carries, and 151 yards on 27 receptions, with eight touchdowns as the starter in Miami in 2016. Even in ugly circumstances last year, he ran for 873 yards, caught 24 balls for 158 yards, and scored a pair of touchdowns. He’s easily the most talented back on the roster and he’s all of 25 years old.

Second, if you go back through Ajayi’s game logs last year, you’ll find something interesting. He got single-digit carries in each of his first four games with the Eagles. In Week 12, his fifth game with the team, he got 15 carries. He rushed 12 times the next week and 14 times in Week 15, his final game of the regular season. He then carried the ball 15 times in the Eagles’ divisional round win over the Falcons, and 18 times in their NFC Championship Game victory over the Vikings. Slowly but surely, even in a crowded backfield, he took over as Philadelphia’s lead back last season. All of that will pay off for fantasy owners who believe in an Ajayi bounceback this year.

Randall Cobb, WR, Packers

The argument for Cobb’s bounceback could probably end with, “He’s starting in an Aaron Rodgers offense,” but that would feel lazy. It’s true, though. If you’re a receiver who starts with Rodgers, you deliver more often than not.

I’ve referenced this stat a few times this summer, so I apologize in advance if you’ve read it elsewhere: Aaron Rodgers has played at least 15 games eight times in his career. He produced a WR1 and a WR2 in six of those seasons, and in two of those years carried both of his starting receivers to WR1 status (2014 and 2016). With Jordy Nelson now in Oakland, Cobb figures to be second on Green Bay in targets behind Davante Adams. Jimmy Graham looms as a red-zone threat, but he’s not going to eat too significantly into the overall target share, with last year’s 96 targets a ceiling. It would be a surprise if Cobb came up short of 115 targets.

It’s worth noting, too, that Cobb has performed well as the third banana to Nelson and Adams the last two years. He combined for 139 catches, 1,439 yards and 10 scores in those seasons with barely more than 100 targets per year. An 80-1,000-8 season is well within Cobb’s reach.

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Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos

No player in Denver suffered more from the Trevor Siemian/Brock Osweiler quarterback pairing than Sanders. After three straight years with at least 75 catches and 1,000 yards, Sanders hauled in just 47 balls for 555 yards. He did miss four games due to injury, but even on a per-game basis, his numbers dipped across the board.

In other words, no one could have blamed Sanders if he volunteered to pick Case Keenum up from the airport when the quarterback arrived in Denver to sign with the Broncos. Keenum represents as dramatic an upgrade as any team experienced at the quarterback position this offseason. Yes, both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were among the league-leaders in contested catch rate last year, giving Keenum more help from his pass-catchers than the average quarterback received. Still, Keenum was accurate and on time with his passes, completing more than two-thirds of his attempts for 3,547 yards and 7.37 YPA. He’s a godsend for Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas is more of a go-up-and-get-it receiver than Sanders, and he, too, was one of the best at securing contested passes last year. Keenum’s presence could help him back to the back end of the WR1 class, and that’s unlikely to happen for Sanders. It’s Sanders, though, who fell off the fantasy map last year. That will not be the case this season. Thanks to the major quarterback upgrade, Sanders should get back to being the 70-catch, 1,000-yard, six-touchdown receiver he had established himself as over the first three years of his Denver career.

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