The Gut Check No. 452: 2018 Bold Predictions - Footballguys

Matt Waldman makes eight bold predictions for the 2018 fantasy season.

We're now at the edge of the cliff. Whether it's one player or several, you've had to make the leap if you've come to play.

After spending the summer studying 2017 and 2018 tape, monitoring personnel changes and consulting with the local psychic down the street from the biscuit barn, it's almost time to unveil my bold projections for the 2018 NFL season.

First, let's look back at last year's disaster:

  • Jay Cutler Authors A Top-10 QB Fantasy Season in Miami: The local psychic probably had a vision of his wife's reality show and didn't realize that job failure is what usually leads to these TV gigs.
  • Matthew Stafford Will Be A Top-Five Fantasy QB: Stafford finished sixth — 3.45 fantasy points behind Kirk Cousins.
  • Tarik Cohen Will Be A Top-25 PPR Fantasy RB: Cohen finished 29th — 9 fantasy points behind the 25th back, Latavius Murray.
  • Carlos Hyde Will Be A Top-5 Fantasy RB: Hyde Finished 8th in PPR leagues — 52 fantasy points behind 5th-ranked, Melvin Gordon III.
  • Kyle Juszczyk Will Be A Surprisingly Valid Flex: Crash...burn.
  • Calvin Johnson Comes Out of Retirement: Nope.
  • Cooper Kupp Is the Most Productive Rookie PPR Receiver: Kupp finished second (178.9 fantasy points) to JuJu-Smith Schuster (191.7 fantasy points).
  • Evan Engram Will Be A Low-End Fantasy TE1: Engram finished fifth in fantasy points at the position.

If you have strict criteria, the Gut Check only nailed one of eight. If you give credit for "almost," which often applies to fantasy predictions, dancing, horseshoes, and nuclear war, then Yours Truly was close enough to the bull's eye with five of eight.

Without lowering the difficulty of the calls, let's see if G.C. can improve on 2017's tally.

1. Chris Godwin will have more touchdowns than Mike Evans

Godwin has performed well this summer, making plays all over the field and earning the starting gig as a second-year option despite getting quality competition from veteran play-maker DeSean Jackson. Godwin isn't Evans' size but he's a superior route runner and rugged option at the point of contact.

Although Jameis Winston earns a lot of blame for the Buccaneers' red zone struggles during the past two years, Evans owns his share of responsibility for not getting separation against press coverage, committing pass interference penalties, and failing to earn and maintain position against opponents playing tight.

Evans only earned five touchdowns last year — three came in the red zone. He's not a fluid receiver and the love given to him as a route runner this summer came on the basis of a video of a one-on-one drill with a Titan's cornerback that was designed to give the receiver an advantage.

Evans is a good NFL receiver, but not a top route runner. He wins on the basis of his size and leaping ability and last year, he became complacent about his physical advantages to the detriment of his performance.

Prediction: Godwin earns 10 touchdowns and 6 in the red zone while Evans earns no more than 9 touchdowns and 5 in the red zone.

2. Patrick Mahomes II II Will be a top-five fantasy quarterback

Alex Smith earned top-five fantasy production at the quarterback position last year while playing in Andy Reid's college-influenced offense. Quick, how many times had Smith been a top-five quarterback during the 11 years leading up to his 12th season?

Zilch. Zero. Nada. Bupkis.

That's right, last year's fourth-ranked fantasy quarterback not only had his first top-5 campaign, but he also had his first top-10 year. In fact, Smith never finished better than 15th as a fantasy quarterback!

Chalk one up for those arguing that Smith was a product of his offense last year. Even if you don't fully agree, it's a compelling argument:

  • Smith was among the best vertical throwers in the NFL last year (a first).
  • Smith's receivers lead the NFL in separation per vertical route.
  • Smith's offense generated great mismatches against linebackers and safeties with alignments and pre-snap motion.
  • Smith's allowed him to make a lot of reads to one side of the field last year.
  • Smith had excellent open-field runners as receivers.
  • Smith's three primary receivers — whose routes often threatened the short, intermediate, and deep zones all at once — where Pro-Bowl options Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill.

Kansas City's offense hasn't changed schematically and it upgraded it's receiving corps with the addition of Sammy Watkins — another Pro-Bowl-caliber talent. Patrick Mahomes II II inherits more weapons, the same offensive line, and a worse defense that will force the Chiefs to lean harder on the passing game in 2018.

Mahomes is less experienced than Smith but he has a number of advantages to the veteran:

  • Greater range and accuracy in the vertical game.
  • More experience and success with full-field reads.
  • Less hesitation with letting the ball go than Smith when coverage dictates the throw.
  • Willingness to deliver back-shoulder targets to receivers who thrived on this route (Kelce, Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, and Chris Conley) before working with Smith.
  • Greater creativity.

Mahomes is not a wiser quarterback than Smith when it comes to reading complex pre-snap looks and his aggressive nature will get him into more trouble but remember that this offense creates so many mismatches and easier one-on-one's that if a career fantasy reserve (even in 16-team leagues) like Smith can become an elite fantasy passer, it's hard to believe that Mahomes won't match Smith's production. Yours Truly finds it difficult to believe Mahomes won't build on it.

Prediction: Mahomes will earn 4,400 yards, between 30-35 touchdowns, and deliver less than 15 interceptions. That final data point counters the safer notion that he'll be closer to 20.

3. Dallas Goedert will lead the Eagles in touchdown receptions

Hunter Henry led the Chargers with eight receiving touchdowns as a rookie in 2016, edging Antonio Gates and Tyrell Williams who each had seven. Although Henry was a good rookie tight end, he benefited from a veteran quarterback, and the use of two-tight end sets (12 and 22 personnel alignments) with a future Hall of Fame tight end drawing the most interest from opposing defenders.

The Chargers exploited its opponents' desire to cover Gates by creating the expectation that Gates would be the logical first or second option when it was all window dressing for Henry to work free of the defense. Head back East to Philadelphia and the Eagles will likely do the same with its quarterback, primary tight end Zach Ertz, and the rookie Goedert.

Ertz earned eight receiving touchdowns last year with a healthy Alshon Jeffery and improved Nelson Agholor. This year, Jeffery won't be healthy for the beginning of the season, Agholor is not a significant red zone threat, and Mack Hollins is still not 100 percent from hernia surgery, which is among the reasons he hasn't taken that next step this summer.

When Henry led the Chargers in receiving touchdowns, the offense lost Keenan Allen for the year and lacked a proven receiver who could deliver in the red zone. Only two of Williams' touchdowns came in the red zone in 2016 while all eight of Henry's were in this area of the field.

The best part of Goedert's game is winning the ball against tight coverage. He's an acrobatic tight end with a massive catch radius and excellent body control. Because he exceeded the Eagles' expectations as a run blocker, he should see the field in a lot of 12 personnel alignments in every area of the field, which will not make his use in the red zone as scheme predictable.

Ertz should have another strong fantasy season but look for Goedert to deliver a touchdown-fueled, fantasy starter season in 12 team leagues this year. Henry was the No.11 fantasy option in 2016; expect similar from Goedert.

Prediction: Goedert scores 8-10 touchdowns this year — 1-2 more than his teammates below him on the team leaderboard.

4. Tarik Cohen will be a top-20 PPR fantasy running back

Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen can coexist as fantasy starters in the same offense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman do it. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II excelled at it. Doug Martin and Charles Sims managed it. LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles essentially did it (Sproles was 25th among PPR runners in 2015 — 0.7 fantasy points behind the 24th spot). And if you don't like that "almost" with Sproles, the little guy did it the year before with Pierre Thomas in New Orleans.

All of these tandems were healthy throughout the year and they operated in offenses that excelled at defining their roles. With the exception of the Sproles-McCoy tandem, each duo had a top-12 fantasy quarterback. It why Mitchell Trubisky's ability to deliver a top-12 fantasy season is the underlying reason this prediction is a bold one rather than skepticism about Cohen's talent.

Knowing that we all like a data-time story before we're tucked in at night, it's worth noting that five of Cohen's seven fantasy-relevant games in 2017 were contests where Howard also had productive fantasy outputs. Cohen and Howard coexisted well; the issues was John Fox's willingness to maximize Cohen's usage in ways that were successful last year. Many of those ways were similar to Tyreek Hill's usage in Kansas City's offense.

Enter Matt Nagy, one of the primary architects of that Chiefs' scheme, and it makes sense that Cohen, although not a carbon copy of Hill, could be used in a similar fashion. While there's a lot of reason to love rookie Anthony Miller's future, and perhaps benefit from his immediate present, Cohen is arguably the most explosive talent on this roster who can author breakaway plays as a runner and a receiver on short and long patterns — especially when pre-snap motion and alignments can create mismatches with linebackers and safeties.

Cohen earned 53 catches last year, he should at least sustain or exceed that production this year. Last year, the Chiefs didn't unleash a lot its college wrinkles during the preseason. The same is true for Chicago this year. It's a sign that Cohen will be a focal point in ways that the Bears don't want to share ahead of the regular season.

Because Nagy's incarnation of the Chiefs' offense yielded a top-five fantasy quarterback in Alex Smith — the first fantasy starter performance by Smith in a 12-year career (see Bold Prediction No.2 above) — it is possible that Trubisky could author a low-end fantasy starter campaign this year in a similar scheme. Although Eagles fans and media (and really, fans and media in general) have a difficult time reconciling the idea that the Philadelphia scheme maximized the production of Carson Wentz the football talent last year while Jared Goff is merely a puppet strung up to Sean McVay's scheme because their rookie years generated biases, we could see a similar climb from Trubisky if Nagy unleashes a similar offense in Chicago that he had in Kansas City.

Prediction: Cohen earns 400-500 yards and 3-5 touchdowns on the ground and 400-500 through the air on 55-65 receptions, which should get him close to the top-15 of PPR fantasy runners this year.

5. Mitchell Trubisky will earn Fantasy-Starter Production

Trubisky is not a fully-developed quarterback but neither was Wentz last year. Then again, the same can be said about Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and several other successful young passers with strong fantasy production. If the Bears don't adopt the Chiefs' scheme, it's doubtful that he earns starter-caliber fantasy production in an offense that doesn't generate these dynamic mismatches. However, Yours Truly believes Nagy will employ a similar system. If the same Smith can elevate Smith, Trubisky deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Prediction: The Gut Check is holding his nose on this one, but the logic is sound: Trubisky will be a low-end fantasy QB1 in 12-team leagues. Buckle up.

6. Jamaal Williams will Be the Packers' most-productive fantasy running back since 2014 Eddie Lacy

Lacy earned 1,566 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 times on his way to the 6th spot among PPR fantasy backs in 2014. As far back as Brandon Jackson's 2010 fantasy relevancy in Green Bay, the top running back on the Packers depth chart earns between 35-45 receptions.

Last year, Williams earned 25 catches while splitting time with three backs and playing all but 11 snaps in 4 games between Weeks 5 and 9. When he earned a lead role in Week 10, he averaged 2.6 catches per game for the rest of the year.

This doesn't seem like much but remember that Aaron Rodgers returned in Week 15 and virtually ignored running back check-downs while operating in desperation mode to earn a playoff spot — throwing three interceptions in that game. There was a four-game span where Williams averaged four catches a week. It's not a strong sample, but considering that Williams is the best pass protector of the backs on the roster, there's a compelling argument that he'll earn close to four catches per week as the Packers' starter.

The most difficult thing for fans and media to spot about players is their growth. Williams is seen as a plodder who survived the regular season onslaught of injuries the Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Ty Montgomery, and the offensive, becoming the default weapon for a toothless Packers offense.

However, Williams didn't play to close to his ability until Week 10. Prior to that game, he wasn't setting up creases the way he did at BYU. During that Week 10 Bears game, the light came on for Williams and he authored runs that looked more and more like the work he did in Provo.

Players often generate the best physical gains between their first and second seasons and Mike McCarthy believes Williams is an emerging producer:

"He's really poised to have a big year," McCarthy said of Williams, via ESPN.com. "Clearly without playing a game yet, I think we'll be talking about him at the end of the season as a second-year player that's made the jump."

"Jamaal was a heckuva player last year for us as a rookie, and now he's just so comfortable," McCarthy said. "He's so consistent, and like most rookies that go through an offseason, he's had a chance to catch his breath.

"You remember these guys come out of college, they're training for their senior year. They come out of college, they're training for the draft. They get drafted, then they've got to shift their training. They go to an NFL club, they roll all the way into the longest season of their life. So then, boom, it's done. They catch their breath, but now you can see just the way he's developed physically."

The article makes additional compelling points about last year: Rodgers' injury created a lot of stacked boxes to stop the run and the offensive line wasn't good enough to handle it, either. Rodgers back in the lineup will reduce those stacked fronts. Even when they don't, the line is also healthy and better.

Matt Bitonti rates the Packers' line as the fourth-best unit heading into the season, giving them A's across the board and a top score for cohesion. With Aaron Jones suspended for two games and Montgomery still not the pass protector he should be, Williams will get a big opportunity to run away with the lead role and the majority of the snaps.

Bold Prediction: Williams will earn at least 900 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground and 350 yards and a pair of scores as a receiver. This is similar to Carlos Hyde's production last year — earning Hyde the No.8 ranking among PPR backs.

7. Carson Wentz will not start eight games this year or finish the year as the Eagles starter

Football players gut through injuries. Every year, we learn in hindsight that a struggling player played through something that amateur athletes wouldn't consider. The one thing that defines top professional athletes is gameness — the will to compete despite facing difficult obstacles.

Wentz is a top competitor who earned a significant increase in production last year. Although he earned consecutive 300-yard passing outputs during the first two weeks of the season, he worked in a drop-back offense and struggled with his accuracy during two of his first four games.

Wentz still struggled with which side of the field should be his first read and his best big-play moments came when he scrambled from pressure, broke the pocket, and threw on the move — playground ball that we've often seen with a young Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson. Playground ball isn't a derogatory term — many of the best quarterbacks can create on the move.

However, playground ball is a big component of Wentz's game and as much as he did it at North Dakota State, Wentz wasn't "NFL accurate" as an intermediate and deep thrower off structured drops and in-rhythm shifts from pressure in the pocket. He must improve how he moves his feet as he scans the field to the next progression.

In order to mitigate that problem, the Eagles adjusted the offense with a heavier dose of the pistol and spread concepts that allowed Wentz to hop into a throwing position where he could deliver quick throws with greater efficiency of the proper technique. The offense also gave Wentz an easier time spotting open receivers with his pre-snap reads because of the coverage the scheme dictated.

Wentz went from averaging 1.5 touchdowns per game in September to 3 touchdowns per game during the next 2 months. While his completion percentage didn't change much, his yards per attempt rose more than half a yard.

The Eagles' scheme changes didn't increase Wentz's production as a runner, but it used the threat of Wentz's running with greater efficiency. When the pocket broke down, Wentz could still create huge plays as a runner or passer.

This year, Went's lateral mobility is a significant question mark. Wentz is healthy enough to hop into place and throw the ball quickly or take a three-step or five-step drop and throw in rhythm. However, what makes Wentz a top young quarterback is the threat of his legs — escaping pressure, buying time, throwing deep from off-platform angles over the defense, and earning big gains with his legs.

Whenever the media showed Wentz going through drills this summer, the lateral stability and mobility of his knee were clearly limited. This is what's holding back Wentz from being the player he was last year.

He may earn a shot to play this year, but defenses will test Wentz's ability to escape pressure and improvise. When it's not there, they will attack that weakness relentlessly and the way defenses played Wentz last year will change.

Prediction: Wentz will struggle with accuracy, sacks, and turnovers when pressured and it will reach a point where the Eagles decide it's better to shut down the young quarterback for 2019.

8. Jordy Nelson will be a top-15 PPR fantasy receiver

The Packers didn't cut Nelson because of last year's production or his ACL tear from two years ago. Green Bay wanted Nelson to take a significant pay cut and he refused. Nelson is 33 years-old and that production cliff is due sooner than later. Combine that with Nelson's 2017 production and the aforementioned injury and it gave the Packers' brass a compelling argument to ask for the reduction.

Nelson didn't lose anything last year but an offensive line and a quarterback who could make more than one read per snap. Before Rodgers' injury, Nelson was on pace for another strong fantasy season. Rodgers wasn't upset about Nelson leaving because they're friends — competitors don't share this with the media when the issue is simply a declining teammate who happens to be a good friend is gone. The Packers are thinking long-term and Rodgers is thinking "right now." After all, that's all that the 34-year-old Rodgers may have left in Green Bay.

The Raiders have a good offensive line, a coach who understands how to generate run-pass balance and a dangerous receiver opposite Nelson who will draw the best opposing cornerback for at least half of each game. Jon Gruden the offensive coach has a better track record than Gruden the talent evaluator. When Gruden has talent, his offenses play at or above the expectations of that talent. When Gruden has to develop talent, that's when his offenses struggled.

Prediction: This year, the combination of Nelson, Amari Cooper, Derek Carr, the offensive line, and the Marshawn Lynch-Doug Martin running back tandem will we enough for Nelson to thrive. Expect the old man to earn 75-80 catches, 1000-1100 yards, and 7-8 touchdowns. It should be enough to hit the predicted mark.