The Gut Check No.500: 12 Outliers for 2020

Matt Waldman discusses 12 players he's much higher on than his peers as we head into the summer of 2020. 

This is my 500th Gut Check column, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to write about football for a living. I conceived this column at the end of 2003 as potential content for a mock draft website that I was creating.

I wrote three columns in advance touting the skills of Brian Westbrook, Brandon Lloyd, and Larry Fitzgerald and put them aside to focus on helping my programmer create an app that would make smart picks against any number of users who wanted to do a mock draft on the site.

Good idea, but we couldn't get the execution worked out. However, the columns wound up at FFToday.com and eventually here at Footballguys in 2009.

Funny how the seeds you plant don't always yield the fruit you expect.

In the long tradition that has been a part of the Gut Check feature, here are 12 players where my projection and ranking of their values are outliers to the Footballguys.com staff. Some of these projections I'm confident should be outliers but there is a handful that I will revisit and I note them in the analysis.

The numbers next to the names indicate the number of spots I'm higher than the average rankings of our staff as of posting this piece.

12-10: Ben Roethlisberger (+6), JuJu Smith-Schuster (+12), and James Conner (+15)

The Steelers have a top-tier offensive line. Last year it had to play with reserve-caliber quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs. This year, those veteran skill players will be back in the lineup and it will make a huge difference.

There are some new players on the line—rookie Kevin Dotson or Stefen Wisniewski will replace left guard Ramon Foster—but left tackle Alejandro Villaneuva, center Maurkice Pouncey, and right guard David Decastro Pro-Bowl talents.

Villanueva's skills are essential for protecting Roethlisberger's blindside. Decastro's work at right guard is a massive part of the run game. And the center position is the most vital part of creating cohesion for the unit. Having a star like Pouncey should help with an inexperienced left guard while still being a big part of the ground game when teaming with DeCastro up the middle and to the right side of the field.

Good offensive lines give less skilled/experienced quarterbacks time to complete passes. Mason Rudolph's 62 percent completion rate is a good example. However, less skilled quarterbacks behind good offensive lines will not be as efficient with their choices. Rudolph averaged 6.24 yards per attempt—45th among NFL quarterbacks last year. He also managed only 13 scores in 10 games and threw 9 interceptions.

The year prior, Roethlisberger delivered 7.6 yards per attempt, completed 67 percent of his passes, and threw 34 touchdowns to 16 interceptions in 16 games. He was the No.3 quarterback during the 2019 fantasy season.

With a healthy offensive line, healthy veteran skill talent returning like Smith-Schuster and Conner, and the addition (Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool) and potential growth (Dionte Johnson, James Washington, and/or Deion Cain) of compelling skill talent, it seems wiser to bet on the Steelers offense performing closer to 2018's production than 2019.

Player
Att.
Comp.
Pct.
P Yds
YPA
TDs
Ints
R Att.
R Yds
R TDs
675
452
67%
5,129
7.60
34
16
31
98
3
Ben Roethlisberger (2020 Projection)
665
452
68%
4,890
7.35
28
16
31
98
3

Without Antonio Brown and working with new faces, expect Roethlisberger's yards per attempt to decrease as he checks the ball more often to John Conner and Smith-Schuster. This will also slightly raise his completion percentage despite throwing for fewer yards and touchdowns.

When Roethlisberger has played at least 15 games during a season he has been a good bet to produce as a fantasy QB1 in almost every format. Roethlisberger has played 16 seasons. He's had 9 seasons with at least 15 games played and has earned a top-10 fantasy finish in 7 of those 9 seasons.

Prior to last year's arm injury, Roethlisberger started 14, 15, and 16 games during the prior three seasons. A healthy Steelers unit will mean healthy starter production from Roethlisberger.

This obvious benefits Smith-Schuster. Last year, I was much lower on the Steelers' receiver than the norm because I had concerns about the loss of Antonio Brown and the reliance on rookie replacements who might not take enough heat off Smith-Schuster to support an elite fantasy season. Smith-Schuster played 12 games last year and ranked 63rd among fantasy receivers.

After eight weeks with a combination of Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph at quarterback, Smith-Schuster was the No.24 fantasy receiver in PPR formats. Once opponents began playing off-coverage, Rudolph had difficulty finding solutions and it hurt Smith-Schuster. Then, Rudolph got hurt and the Steelers dealt with an even less-experienced option under center.

With Roethlisberger back, Smith-Schuster will have a quarterback who can read, anticipate, and beat coverage that thwarts lesser passers. Roethlisberger and Ebron should also connect well enough to stretch the field and allow Smith-Schuster to work behind or underneath the big-play tight end. Johnson performed well for a rookie playing with three different quarterbacks that he's the favorite to take another step forward as a contributor that should force opposing defenses into binds that free up Smith-Schuster.

When combining these factors, I have Smith-Schuster earning 157 targets, 115 receptions, 1,298 yards, and 7 touchdowns in 2020. this is a little lower than his 2018 production when he was the ninth-best fantasy option among receivers. Roethlisberger has gotten at least 1,200-yard seasons from Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, and Santonio Holmes and nearly 1,200 yards from Hines Ward. This is a diverse crew of receivers who have been the lead producers for Roethlisberger and there's enough surrounding talent to find creative targets for Smith-Schuster to thrive almost weekly.

Conner's return appears as if it will be a massive surprise to the fantasy community. He suffered shoulder and quadriceps injuries that limited his workload last year and he lacked a viable NFL quarterback in the lineup for all but two games of the year.

Once again, look at the yards per attempt numbers and it's clear that opponents weren't afraid of the Steelers passing game, which meant it could focus more on attacking the run. Despite having a strong offensive line, opponents counted on the Steelers' young quarterbacks to struggle with specific looks and this allowed them to overwhelm the offensive line. We've seen this before with Todd Gurley during the Jeff Fisher era with a rookie Jared Goff, Adrian Peterson in 2016 with Minnesota's awful offensive line working with an emergency quarterback (Sam Bradford) and in 2017 with Arizona's banged-up line where Peterson shined briefly before Carson Palmer got hurt.

James Conner may not be on these player's level of skill but he's a better back than many give credit. With a quarterback who can attempt deeper passes and keep opposing defenses from crowding the box, Conner will have bigger rushing lanes. Mike Tomlin dispelled Steeler beater writer Ed Bouchette's spring proclamation that Conner would see a significant cut in touches. Tomlin told the media in May that Conner will be the featured back when healthy.

As a featured back, I have Conner earning 265 attempts, 1,198 yards, 11 rushing scores, and catching 68 passes for 512 yards and 3 receiving scores. This is based on a 16-game season, which Conner has yet to attain in three years of pro football.

None of his past injuries seem to point to any predictive/chronic issue. I'm projecting his totals based on 2018's production and extrapolating much of it to a 16-game season. In fact, the receiving totals are a far more modest bump from 2018's campaign than a true extrapolation. The rushing totals aren't that aggressive an extrapolation, either.

Conner's ranking may appear like a wild outlier but if you consider the stability of the Steelers' line and the return of players who impact the run game by creating a vertical stretch against defenses that open rushing lanes, then there's considerable logic to the 2020 projection.

9. Gardner Minshew (+9)

Our staff that handles player projections have Minshew attempting a range of 500-545 passes for 3400-3750 yards and 18-22 scores. I have Minehws attempting 574 passes, earning 4,160 yards, and 25 scores. My optimism is rooted in a second-year bump due to a full offseason to prepare as the starter, the additions of Tyler Eifert and Laviska Shenault Jr, and skill attacking the vertical zones of the field as a rookie.

The Jaguars have an underrated receiving corps beyond the headliner D.J. Chark Jr. Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole are emerging contributors who can offer slot work underneath and big plays one-on-one. Adding Eifert to the mix should give Minshew a reliable third option in many progression looks and a skillful first or second option when attacking the seams. This also opens the field better for his supporting cast.

Shenault has the potential to become a force as a flanker opposite Chark and he'll make plays this year as a versatile gadget used at various spots for big plays in space as well as sneaking behind zones or earing athletic mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Minshew sees the field well and buys time better than at least two-thirds of the passers I see starting in the league.

The worst-case scenario for Minshew's projection is that his offensive line isn't gifted enough to make his life easier. Matt Bitonti has this unit ranked as a mid-tier line with a perfect cohesion score but chock-full of road graders who don't move that well against top edge defenders to protect the pocket.

This is why Shenault and Eifert as important additions. They have the size and skill to help in the run game as blockers but also create in the flats and seams on play-action looks that, if successful, will force defenses to play with greater balance between then run and pass rather than being as committed to stopping the run.

These two options should increase Minshew's completion percentage while also helping him attain a reasonable 7.25 yards per attempt due to their ability to get open fast in the intermediate ranges of the field. If they can do their jobs, Fournette should have bigger lanes to run and that will create even better opportunities in the vertical game for the likes of Chark, Westbrook, Cole, and Shenault. Those big plays should result in touchdowns.

Minshew had 21 scores in 14 games last year with a lesser cast. Adding 0.29 yards to his yards-per-attempt average and 4 touchdowns to his 2020 totals isn't a massive expectation. As a result, I have Minshew as my No.15 quarterback—a nice bye-week option at a late-round price who should also deliver strong starter matchups that you can exploit several times during the season.

8-7. Derek Carr (+10) and Josh Jacobs (+5)

The Raiders have a top-tier offensive line. This is a big and strong line that has improved massively during Jon Gruden's tenure. Trent Brown and Rodney Hudson are excellent run blockers and pass protectors and Richie Incognito is almost at Hudson and Brown's level as a player. The weakest link is Kolton Miller and he made progress last year. Bitonti also has this group as an elite unit.

Last year was Carr's best as a pro in terms of yardage, yards per attempt, and completion percentage. Many will see last year as a career-year and expect a regression with his production.

This could happen if his offensive line gets hurt but if the unit stays healthy, there's a reasonable expectation that Carr's numbers increase in 2020. Considering that he had new options at receiver, tight end, and running back, there's reason to expect that the Raiders have room to improve its red-zone efficiency.

Last year, Carr was the No.16 fantasy quarterback with 21 scores. Add three touchdowns to that total and Carr is the No.13 quarterback. Add five to that total and Carr is the No.11 fantasy passer.

Now, look at the surrounding skill talent working with Carr last year. Tyrell Williams earned six scores with Carr—his second-best total as a pro during his first season as a Raider. Hunter Renfrow was a rookie. Zay Jones was never the player most thought he'd be. Keelan Doss was a rookie and Marcel Ateman is a career reserve.

Last year was Darren Waller's first full season as a starter and Foster Moreau was a rookie. Waller, Renfrow, and Williams should have a better rapport with Carr and Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, and Jason Witten offer compelling skills that should fill in the blanks. Witten in particular is still difficult to stop in the red zone (four scores after a year off), and the rookie Moreau had five touchdowns with Carr.

Even if Carr has issues performing outside of the structure of a play and against pressure, Gruden and Mike Mayock have done a lot to build a unit that minimizes those scenarios for the quarterback. One of them not yet mentioned is Jacobs, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 13 games as a rookie. Expect Jacobs to come close to that mark once again behind this offensive line and the surrounding talent that should keep running lanes open a little longer.

The untapped production left in Jacobs' game is his receiving ability. He only earned 28 targets last year, catching 20 for 166 yards. Known as an excellent receiver at Alabama, Jacobs should have a better understanding of protections and routes that will keep him on the field more often and increase his target totals in 2020.

I have Jacobs earning 77 targets this year, catching 62, and earning 511 receiving yards and 2 scores. Considering that Nick Chubb earned 50 targets in Cleveland last year after earning 29 and catching 20 as a rookie for Cleveland in 2018, I don't think my expectations for Jacobs are too high. After all, Kareem Hunt still earned 45 targets in 8 games for the Browns after serving his suspension and I have 46 targets going to other Raiders backs on the depth chart.

Put it all together, and Carr should build on last year's campaign because he has the offensive line, another year of continuity with his base talent, and exciting new talent. Expect a season stat-line close to 563 attempts, 390 completions, a 69 percent completion rate, 4,448 yards, and 26 touchdowns. It's this kind of production that places him No.17 among fantasy quarterbacks on my board, which is 10 spots higher than my peers.

My peers are high on Jacobs as a low-end fantasy RB1 but I am bullish on his skills and his line play. I'm expecting Josh Jacobs to be the No.6 fantasy back in 2020 with 300 attempts, 1,425 yards (4.75 ypc), 8 scores, and those bolstered receiving totals mentioned earlier.

Offensive line play and surrounding skill talent to aid the quarterback is the consistent theme with these outlier projections.

6. A.J. Brown (+9)

Brown will be one of the top candidates mentioned among fantasy analysts as a player who will see a regression in production this year. I agree. He won't average 20 yards per catch. I have him at reasonable 15.6 yards-per-reception.

Brown won't earn a touchdown on 9.5 percent of his targets like last year. Expect that rate to dip to 9 percent. He also won't catch 61.9 percent of his targets now that defenses will make him a top priority in the passing game. Expect a 74 percent catch rate.

Wait. What? A higher catch rate?

Yes. Brown will earn more quick-hitting targets this year based on better rapport with Ryan Tannehill pre-snap. Expect these two to be deadly on slants, fin routes, and quick outs where Brown will be difficult to cover with tight man-to-man as well as off coverage. As a result, the yards per catch will drop but the catch rate will rise, the reception total will rise, and the yardage totals will climb.

Because Brown will earn more targets and catch more balls, his lower touchdown rate than last year will still earn him more total scores (12) in 2020. Although Tennesse lost Jack Conklin at right tackle, Tannehill's blindside has an excellent bodyguard in Taylor Lewan. That right side is also an excellent run-blocking unit for one of the most productive backs in the NFL.

Derrick Henry should remain a huge reason why Brown should earn advantageous targets in the passing game. Although the rest of the skill-talent lacks top-tier talent, Tannehill has shown he can spread the ball around and get timely production from his teammates to set up big plays for Henry and Brown.

I get that my projection for Brown—108 targets, 80 catches, 1,250 yards, and 12 touchdowns—could be too high based on the catch percentage. A conservative assertion could be a lower percentage than last year—say 58 percent. With this rate, we're looking at 54 targets and 844 yards. I'm not buying a dip. However, I concede that Brown's 61.9 percent catch rate is good for a rookie and could remain in the 61-64 percent range.

At 62.5 percent (splitting the difference), Brown catches 68 passes and earns 1,054 yards. That's a difference of 32 fantasy points from my total and would drop Brown from 6th in my PPR rankings to 14th among receivers. This is essentially where my peers have Brown ranked.

I see this as a reasonable expectation considering the lack of offensive firepower surrounding Brown and baking in the potential for regression on a per-game level. This gives me something to consider as I update my projections and rankings over the next few weeks.

5. DeVante Parker (+10)

This is another risky outlier coming off Parker's career-year of 1,202 yards and 9 scores. I have Parker at 70 catches, 1,200 yards, 8 scores for 2020. Last year, Parker probably earned more targets that would have gone to other receivers if the corps remained healthy throughout the year.

At the same time, Parker also finally made good on his potential and he'll have another chance to play with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for at least part of the year before he gives way to rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Both quarterbacks are aggressive throwers in the vertical game, which bodes well for Parker to remain an oft-targeted, big-play threat.

New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is also good at simplifying offenses to allow his talents to make big plays. Last year, the players felt that former coordinator Chad O'Shea's system was too complex and created unnecessary obstacles on the field.

Weighing these pros and cons, I'll likely revisit this projection for Parker and drop his targets, catches, yards, and scores just enough that he'll probably remain in my top 20 fantasy receivers but not the No.11 option.

4. Julian Edelman (+23)

Edelman is my No.9 receiver after projecting his production for 2020 whereas my peers have him as the No.32 option. I knew I'd be revisiting this one after my first round of projections were complete and I looked at my rankings.

However, it's not the production and efficiencies that I'll likely change as much as it is the number of games he'll play. When Edelman plays 16 games, he's earning at least 150 targets each year and over 1,000 yards with at least 6 touchdowns. I have Edelman at 144 targets, 99 catches, 1,113 yards, and 5 scores.

That's a reasonable projection based on his history with 16-game seasons. Tom Brady's departure won't change the offensive scheme but it will alter the quality of the execution. Depending on the play of Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham that difference could range from moderate or massive.

Yet, when you examine the Patriots' all-slot-receiver depth chart—you cannot name a player on that depth chart that isn't best-suited for the slot—it's likely that opposing defenses will have no problem covering whatever options the Patriots use on the perimeter, which means quick-hitting short looks to Edelman will be the modus operandi for this scheme.

Opposing defenses will likely have more confidence in allowing Edelman to catch a zillion passes with the expectation that Hoyer or Stidham will eventually make a mistake during a long drive of nickel-and-dime throws that ends the effort without a score.

Even if Edelman is the best shot for retaining his rates of production during the post-Brady era in New England, there's a legitimate question about him staying healthy. He's 35 years old and he's played a full 16-game slate three times in 10 seasons. Of course, he's done it for two of the past three seasons, which could mean he's figured out how to care for his body later in his career.

Edelman has averaged 13 games per year. Considering his overall track record and his advancing age for the game, it may be worth adjusting his production to this number of starts despite recent success with staying healthy.

I'm still 50/50 on whether I'll change anything.

3. Emmanuel Sanders (+29)

I'm not changing my stance here but I expect my peers will as the summer progresses. As long as Drew Brees remains the starter, I expect Sanders to approach top-10 fantasy production among receivers. My peers have Sanders as the 39th option.

What are they missing? A lot.

Sanders is the No.9 receiver in production since 2010:

Most Productive Receivers Since 2010

Games

Receiving

Rk
Player
From
To
GS
Tgt
Rec
Yds
Y/R
TD
Y/G
Ctch%
Y/Tgt
1
2011
2019
125
1252
797
12125
15.21
57
96.2
63.7%
9.68
2
2010
2019
103
1283
841
11263
13.39
75
86.0
65.5%
8.78
3
2010
2019
156
1398
855
10016
11.71
61
63.4
61.2%
7.16
4
2010
2019
128
1186
724
9763
13.48
63
68.3
61.0%
8.23
5
2011
2018
111
1026
602
8907
14.80
63
80.2
58.7%
8.68
6
2013
2019
110
1048
632
8602
13.61
54
78.2
60.3%
8.21
7
2012
2019
97
946
552
8598
15.58
45
72.9
58.4%
9.09
8
2010
2019
119
830
474
8352
17.62
44
66.8
57.1%
10.06
9
2010
2019
104
982
601
7893
13.13
42
54.8
61.2%
8.04
10
2010
2019
111
989
660
7890
11.95
44
53.3
66.7%
7.98
11
2010
2019
111
1009
649
7883
12.15
74
51.5
64.3%
7.81
12
2014
2019
89
835
462
7260
15.71
48
80.7
55.3%
8.69
13
2010
2019
144
962
692
7012
10.13
45
48.7
71.9%
7.29
14
2010
2019
128
981
589
6874
11.67
52
52.1
60.0%
7.01
15
2010
2019
136
908
565
6867
12.15
44
48.4
62.2%
7.56
16
2012
2019
95
814
469
6671
14.22
45
65.4
57.6%
8.20
17
2011
2018
90
722
493
6563
13.31
49
53.4
68.3%
9.09
18
2014
2019
71
755
464
6511
14.03
48
86.8
61.5%
8.62
19
2013
2019
89
715
507
6465
12.75
37
67.3
70.9%
9.04
20
2013
2019
82
766
524
6405
12.22
34
74.5
68.4%
8.36

He's a consummate route runner who can stretch the field as well as move the chains. He's a massive reason why the 49ers offense could finally get out of second-gear and help its defense make a Super Bowl run.

Sanders joins an offense with a stellar offensive line and an excellent quarterback. Drew Brees was on track for 4,400 yards last year before he got hurt and the Saints passing game came within two yards of that mark despite Brees missing five games.

Michael Thomas earned 1,725 yards on his way to a career-year. The rest of the Saints offense underachieved. Ted Ginn Jr is a really good three-route runner with so-so hands. Tre'Quan Smith is an athlete who hasn't developed into a versatile receiver, and the rest of the corps is raw.

Sanders will step in and earn 1,210 yards and 8 scores in 2020, generating that production at some expense to Thomas's 2019 workload. Even so, Thomas will earn 1,364 yards and 9 scores, which is only 14 yards below his career average. The production of these two will not change Smith's role from last year and I'm only shorting Cook 50 yards from 2019.

Even Alvin Kamara earns 750 yards in my team projections. Add this up, and I'm expecting 4,561 yards from Brees. That's roughly 150 more than he was on pace to earn last year and when healthy for at least 15 games during the past 11 seasons, Brees has reached the 4,500-yard mark 8 times. The two times he didn't, he earned 4,300 yards.

Sanders is a big addition to the Saints and the fantasy community is sleeping hard on it.

2. T.J. Hockenson (+7)

Hockenson is low-hanging fruit. He had a lot of drops last year, especially in the end zone. Nothing scares fantasy players and analysts more than dropped passes, especially red-zone passes. Hockenson hasn't had a drop problem in the past, and he lit-up training camp last year.

Expect deeper targets, bigger plays, a higher catch percentage, and a lot more fantasy points in an offense that will feature him from two-tight-end sets as well as a detached receiver in three- and four-receiver sets.

I have Hockenson earning 80 targets, 58 catches, 676 yards, and 7 scores. A 72.5 percent catch rate is high for a player whose rate was 54 percent last year. I still believe he's the best tight end prospect to be drafted since Travis Kelce.

The catch percentage for the elite tight ends last year:

As you can see, if you're with me on Hockenon's talent translating in year two, the projected catch percentage is well within expectations for top tight ends. Considering that I have Hockenson No.8 on my tight end board, I'm not projecting a crazy jump in production. Unless you're so scared of first-year drops that you need proof of improvement before projecting starter production.

This inflection point between projecting what others need proof to warrant is often the difference between being ahead of the crowd and part of the crowd.

1. Greg Olsen (+12)

Olsen played 14 games last year after rehabbing a foot injury that hindered him for 16 games between 2017-18. Despite playing most of the year with Kyle Allen, Olsen earned 52 catches, 597 yards, and 2 scores. He earned between 800-1,100 yards and 5-7 scores during his prime years and usually the touchdown totals don't drop off tremendously for venerable tight ends.

I believe Allen was a bigger hindrance in this area than Olsen's age, and Russell Wilson will prove this notion correct in 2020. Give Olsen an additional 18 points (3 touchdowns) last year and he vaults from 16th among fantasy tight ends to 11th.

Expect Olsen to earn 54 catches, 619 yards, and 7 scores with Wilson. These are totals well below his yardage prime but on the high end for touchdowns. One of Wilson's most accurate throws during his career has been the seam route to the tight end.

He hasn't had the tight ends consistently capable of earning the separation and making the play in the red zone. Olsen's best plays of his career have come on this route in that range of the field. My peers have Olsen 22nd among tight ends. If the projection above his correct, you'll be getting a top-10 tight end significant discount.

Keeping Score

In case you need a reminder, here's where I stand with these projections.

See you next week.

Did you enjoy this article? Find more of Matt Waldman's work here.

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