What We Learned in 2019: Positional Breakdown

A look at the state of the four fantasy football positions after absorbing what we learned in 2019

It’s time to turn the page on another season. We know what it was all for, a champion has been crowned, and around the league it’s time to look ahead to prepare for the 2020 season. Best ball drafts are going to sprout like plants revived by Spring any day now, but we should still pause and take one more look back over our shoulder at what we spent so much time imagining, watching, reacting to, and hopefully learning from in 2019.

Quarterback

State of the Position Address: From the 30,000 foot level there’s no real change in quarterback drafting philosophy. Not only did waiting at quarterback yield the unfair advantage #1 Lamar Jackson, another five quarterbacks that finished as QB1s on a points per game basis (Ryan Tannehill, Dak Prescott, Jameis Winston, Matthew Stafford, and Josh Allen) did not come with a QB1 cost in drafts, meaning that you had an equal shot at a QB1 if you took one a quarterback before everyone had a starter as you did if you didn’t, which makes the decision to take one in the top 10-12 seem like a sucker bet (more on that later). Tannehill and Ryan Fitzpatrick gifted teams that ended up relying on the waiver wire solid to strong QB1 scoring, rewarding vigilant teams that had to put out fires caused by relying on Baker Mayfield, Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton to open the season and teams that waited on quarterback but took the likes of Kirk Cousins or Mitchell Trubisky as their late round dart. Even if you punted quarterback completely and didn’t land Tannehill or Fitzpatrick, Daniel Jones, Gardner Minshew, Teddy Bridgewater, Jacoby Brissett, Kyle Allen, and Andy Dalton were all adequate scorers at the position for prolonged stretches. As long as you cared and paid attention, you could at least cobble together baseline 15-20 point weeks without a problem.

Least Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers never really let you off of the hook after spending a top five pick on him, putting up week-winning scores in good matchups but never really getting the engine of the pass offense to turn over otherwise.

Rethinking Early Round Quarterback Drafting, Part 1: Patrick Mahomes II was scoring close to Lamar Jackson’s level before getting hurt. While he was a lot more expensive than Jackson, his scoring to that point made him a big hit and wise pick at ADP. He was mostly only a baseline QB1 for his first month back, but he has turned back into )and actually surpassed) September Mahomes in the playoffs. If he’s healthy next year, he’ll be a big part of a lot of successful fantasy teams, even at an early round quarterback third round cost.

Rethinking Early Round Quarterback Drafting, Part 2: Deshaun Watson also delivered more than enough VBD to justify his QB2 draft cost, although he also stubbed his toe four times during the season with subpar scores, including a possibly Championship-losing Week 16 dud in a meaningless game against the Bucs defense, a game that should have been a massive hit.

Rethinking Early Round Quarterback Drafting, Part 3: If enough people are betting on Lamar Jackson regression to make him fall out of the top 20, he’ll be a similarly solid bet as Mahomes was this year. Regression comes in the form of injuries, not just erosion of play or the “league catching up”, but Jackson should also have a lot better receiver group in 2020 and like Mahomes he could get even better in his third year.

Team Philosophy Matters: The Ravens letting Lamar Jackson run, run, run and Bruce Arians letting Jameis Winston pass, pass, pass surely put gasoline on the fantasy fire, just as the Vikings and Seahawks dampened our spirits with run-first philosophies. Ryan Tannehill overcame this factor with hyperefficiency, which is surely part of the reason he’s being faded and not honored as a returning strong QB1 in early 2020 drafts. Russell Wilson seems like he’s politicking to change his team’s offensive philosophy so far in his offseason.

Homework for 2020: Narrow our focus to a few late round targets. Don’t say Kyler Murray because early indications are that he’s getting the “Won’t Be Fooled Again” bump and likely to go well inside of the top 10 to get ahead of the curve and chase upside, and he may well be one of the most profitable picks at quarterback even with the increased price from Jackson in 2019. Roethlisberger, Newton, Mayfield and Jared Goff are bounceback candidates available at a big discount from 2019 prices. Stafford, Fitzpatrick and Tannehill won’t be drafted as the QB1s they were last year. What if Philip Rivers goes to Tampa? What if Tom Brady goes to the Chargers? Who is starting for the Saints? What if Jason Garrett is a lot better offensive coordinator than head coach (Hello, Daniel Jones) (and Jerry Schulpinski has magic seeds if you ask Jimmy Garoppolo)? These questions and others should keep us busy.

Running Back

State of the Position Address: Much like quarterback, the running back Big Picture didn’t really change in 2019. The terrain is treacherous, even in the first round. In that round alone, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara got hurt, affecting their play weeks after they returned from their injuries, David Johnson suddenly aged twenty years before our very eyes, Le'Veon Bell had the lead weight of Adam Gase around his ankle, and James Conner saw his offense collapse before he too succumbed to the injury bug. Christian McCaffrey was the sole success story as Ezekiel Elliott and Nick Chubb were pushes at ADP at best. The takeaway might be that nothing changes for 2020, but wide receiver had a bit of a recession across the board, which means this result shouldn’t shift us closer to eschewing running back early, but instead be more willing to take a running back early next when combined with *spoiler alert* the incredible depth at wide receiver next year.

Why? The waiver wire was uncharacteristically bare this year. No rookie running backs hit in a significant way and many ended up being wasted picks and roster spots. Running back by committee diluted the value of some of the best backfields and some old standpoint value-producing backfield withered on the vine. The harder it gets to find consistent running back production the more valuable and costly the commodity becomes. Teams that went “Upside Down/Do the Opposite/Zero RB” didn’t get as big an advantage at wide receiver because of widespread deflation in scoring at the position and more week-to-week volatility, and there weren’t any surprise strong running back plays from the late rounds and waiver wire pools.

The Most Important Running Back Round: Going into drafts, it was easy to see the third round was oozing with upside at running back and choosing the correct back from the group would be a key to building a winner. Aaron Jones and Derrick Henry were the correct answers, but we’ll also accept Chris Carson and Josh Jacobs for partial credit. Devonta Freeman, Kerryon Johnson, and Damien Williams were busts for various reasons, but the hit rate at running back in that range of the draft was similar to wide receiver. An early peek at 2020 ADP opens a strong possibility that each of us will have a pet third round running back or two that we are targeting.

How to Play the Holdout: Fading the holdout was fantasy football conventional wisdom until Le'Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season and destroyed fantasy teams. Melvin Gordon III and Ezekiel Elliott held out through the 2019 summer, giving fantasy players two situations to navigate in drafts with a huge span between the ceiling and floor. Elliott signed right before the season and was worth the top four pick, but not really a reason fantasy teams won the title this year. Gordon sat our four weeks, but was back to PPR RB1 status in short order and ended up being a fine pick at his discounted ADP. The biggest winner in the holdout scene was Austin Ekeler, who handsomely rewarded anyone who took him to harvest the excess value while Gordon was away from the team. Ekeler was an elite RB1 for the first month of the season and remained a strong RB2/low RB1 PPR play after Gordon returned, riding the momentum of his triumphant September.

RBs Knees: Todd Gurley and Sony Michel’s knee were subjects of great interest in fantasy draft preparation with wide-reaching implications. Week 1 seemed to be a reveal that betting on Gurley’s role changing significantly would be a hit, although it was Malcolm Brown, not Darrell Henderson who was poised to benefit. Gurley was actually ok except for one game missed due to a thigh bruise, but he was a disappointment at a not very discounted ADP because the Rams running game took a big step back and he wasn’t as involved in the pass offense. Michel’s knee was also fine despite offseason surgery and even though like the Rams, the Patriots drafted a running back in the third round (that like the Rams they would barely if at all use). Like Gurley, Michel was a dud more because of his offense’s degrading surroundings than a failing of his own, and along with Michel went the mostly safe production security blanket “Patriots RB” had given us in draft prep (notwithstanding a run as a PPR solid RB2 by James White that Rex Burkhead ruined in Week 16).

Hit the Pine, Rookie: Josh Jacobs ran his heart out and was at least an everyweek start before his shoulder gave out, Devin Singletary had some flex usefulness, and Miles Sanders helped win championships with a late push, but for the most part rookies were a disappointing bunch in 2019. David Montgomery got the hoped for opportunity but he was running in wet cement in a running game performance that got multiple people fired in Chicago. Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison flirted with hitting as handcuffs and showed some promise for the future, but had no value to anyone who drafted and held them. Don’t even get me started about Justice Hill, Darrell Henderson, Darwin Thompson and Damien Harris. A much much more talented rookie class is coming so perhaps we shouldn’t be reluctant to take rookies in 2020, but we’ll pause after watching rookies flounder in 2019.

The Cupboard is Empty: One truism in fantasy football that has been mostly tried and true is the running backs who were anonymous in September winning titles in December. The waiver wire was so cruel at running back this year that a desire to crown a king when Mike Boone got his shot in Week 16 ended up dooming title hopes of many. DeAndre Washington was actually a solid plug-in and kudos if you played him over Boone, and Raheem Mostert gave us a good month, but for the most part the 2019 running back waiver wire is littered with punchlines… Wayne Gallman, Ty Johnson, Brian Hill, Benny Snell, Darrel Williams, Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Williams, Patrick Laird, Chase Edmonds, these were some of the darlings of the waiver wire in 2019. They will not be missed.

Homework for 2020: Of course scouting the rookie class will be job one, but will there be enough opportunity for more than a couple to have big first year impacts? What will the Jets do with Le'Veon Bell and should we care because Adam Gase? Who will the Dolphins draft and/or sign? Will the Jaguars even exercise Leonard Fournette’s fifth year option? Will Tennessee pay Derrick Henry (yes.)? Will anyone take a shot on Kareem Hunt in restricted free agency? Who pays Melvin Gordon III and how much? Can Derrius Guice stay healthy? How about Kerryon Johnson? Will the Cardinals keep Kenyan Drake? Those questions and more will keep us occupied as we do our prep for 2020 drafts.

Wide Receiver

State of the Position Address: Do wide receivers matter? It was a bad year at wide receiver, there’s no way around it. Aside from the crowning achievement of Michael Thomas’s record-setting year, the position was racked with injury and inconsistency. To put a finer point on it, consider:

Wide receiver had a narrow and underwhelming top, but a very fat middle in 2019. In 2018, five wide receivers averaged between 14 and 16 PPR points per game (WR19-23). In 2019, that number was 17 (WR11-27). So while it was more difficult to find a true stud, getting good enough scoring at the position became easier. Wide receivers got hot and cold with mercurial turns of fate, rookies hit with exciting frequency and the waiver wire gave us useful options, even if it was sometimes for a short period. If you didn’t take a wide receiver in the first three rounds, you weren’t much worse off than a team that started WR-WR-WR in their draft in many cases. Looking ahead, the depth at wide receiver is going to persist, or even grow, so be willing to let 2019 change your approach to devalue wide receiver in the early rounds.

The Rookies are Coming: In an unexciting year at the position for running backs, wide receivers picked up the slack, bookended by Terry McLaurin’s strong WR1 start and AJ Brown’s strong WR1 finish. DK Metcalf a consistent WR3 contributor. Darius Slayton, Deebo Samuel, Mecole Hardman, Preston Williams, Diontae Johnson and Marquise Brown all helped lineups at different points in the year. It’s exciting to think about this group growing in year two and some of the less hyped names on the less will be excellent 2020 targets.

Sophomore Jump: The second-year wide receivers shouldn’t be left out of this discussion. Anticipating a step forward from DJ Moore, Calvin Ridley, Michael Gallup, Courtland Sutton, and DJ Chark was the right call in 2019, and you could have fielded a strong lineup if you drafted just this group, none more expensive than a fourth round pick. Anthony Miller, James Washington, and Christian Kirk were solid options for at least a stretch during the season. Keke Coutee and Dante Pettis represented the cautionary tales about projecting second year growth, but the overall returns give even more ammo to the strategy of targeting standout 2019 rookies in 2020 drafts.

“Buccan” is another word for Smoker: Drafting a Buccaneers wide receiver was a hit this year, with Chris Godwin one of the biggest success stories, and Mike Evans one of the few early round wide receivers to not drop in per game scoring in 2019. Even Breshad Perriman was a hit after they both went down. The alignment between coach and quarterback in aggressive mentality fueled the fire, as did a narrative we ignored at our risk about Bruce Arians and neglected tight ends. In case you’re wondering, “Buccaneer” is a derived from the word “Buccan/Boucan”, which is a Carribean term for a frame to smoke or roast meat. French hunters liked to use them on the island of Hispanola, hence “Boucanier/Buccaneer”. So it’s really the Tampa Bay Pitmasters if you ask me.

2020 Homework: Create your list of targets for your “Zero Wide Receiver” draft. Based on early ADP, Ridley, Thielen, Metcalf, Chark, Samuel, McLaurin, Gallup, Edelman, Kirk, Brown, Tyler Boyd, Tyler Lockett, DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry are all going in the fifth round and at WR20 or later.

Tight End

State of the Position Address: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before - there are only a few consistently productive tight ends, we overestimate how well the mid-round picks will perform, injuries brutalize the position at a greater rate than even running back, and about half the teams are just trying to stay afloat most weeks. It was that kind of year at tight end… again. If you invested a pick on a top three option, you got a good return on investment. A couple of late round picks hit. Some mid-round options gave you TE1 production for sustained stretches, but not the entire year. The waiver wire was hot, in part because of the shortage of viable options, but especially because of a vigorous churn of value at the position, and one of the elite tight ends in the fantasy playoffs was a player who was on the waiver wire through Thanksgiving. Going into 2020 there will again be no clear correct draft strategy answer. Taking an early round tight end is likely to be safe. Taking a mid-round tight end could be a big win, and we’ll all have our favorite late round options. Punting the position completely, taking a late round option with a good early schedule, and relying on the waiver wire looks better than ever.

Say Hello to the New Bosses same as Old Bosses: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz powered teams with strong to elite TE1 scoring and rewarded teams that spent picks on them with mostly consistent scoring despite some situational factors that held them back at times.

Playing Tight End is Hazardous to Your Health: Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Mark Andrews, Jason Witten, Mike Gesicki, Kyle Rudolph. That’s a complete list of tight ends who finished in the top 20 on a PPR points per game basis who did not miss a game through Week 16, and Kelce and Andrews spent a lot of time on the injury report along the way. It’s another reason to consider taking one of the elite tight ends early. George Kittle did miss two games, but produced after the injury to save his fantasy teams some grief and proved his toughness (not that there was any question).

Keep Calm and Fade Rookie Tight Ends: Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson were about as ballyhooed as any first round rookie tight ends in recent memory. Hockenson looked like he might be one of the steals of fantasy drafts after Week 1 and Fant made some splashes on big plays that highlighted his elite athleticism, but neither could string together two good weeks in a row. Dawson Knox, Foster Moreau, and Irv Smith all had flashes of what should be bright futures, but in the end only the 49ers sixth round pick, Kaden Smith, moved the needle in fantasy leagues, and only after getting released by San Francisco and called up to the Giants roster to replace Evan Engram and Rhett Ellison.

Waiting For My Ship to Come In: Before Fant and Hockenson, there was the 2017 class of OJ Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku which promised to shake up the tight end fantasy ranks for years to come. We’re still waiting for them, as all three had shown why they were first round picks in small doses, with Engram’s value topping out as a rookie and all three poised for year three explosions entering 2019. Njoku had a good debut in a blowout loss and then missed most of the rest of the season with a wrist injury, Engram was elite through Week 3, missed Week 6 with a knee injury, and from Week 10 until the end of the season with a foot injury. We all learned to never take a Bruce Arians tight end again after Howard was marginalized in the pass offense, adhering to Arians past usage patterns even though the coach had never had a tight end with Howard’s talent, by Arians own admission! All three could be big values on the rebound in 2020 as their teams mull over the fifth year option for 2021, potential extensions, and in Howard’s case and outside shot at a trade.

Look for Weak Wideouts: The best late round picks had one important thing in common: they were great passcatching tight ends on teams with thin, unproven wide receivers groups. We couldn’t have predicted this for Darren Waller in the offseason because Antonio Brown was supposed to lead the Raiders passing game. When he got himself a one-way ticket out of Oakland, Waller’s redemption story soaked up the mojo and the former size/speed wide receiver from Georgia Tech became Derek Carr’s most reliable target and an every week fantasy starter at tight end. 2018 third-round pick Mark Andrews continued to overshadow 2018 first-round pick Hayden Hurst in Baltimore, and 2019 first-round pick Marquise Brown’s being less than 100% all year only helped. Oh and the Ravens second first round pick of 2018 contributed to Andrews fantasy breakout season.

What About 2016 Draft Picks: We’ve discussed first round tight ends from 2017, 2018, and 2019, but we can’t do that for 2016 because there weren’t any. The first two tight ends taken were Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. Henry was finally healthy in Week 1 and then promptly missed the next four weeks with a tibia plateau fracture. He was a TE1 for six weeks after that but fizzled at the end of the season. Hooper was a strong TE1 until missing three weeks with a knee injury. Both are entering free agency with some question marks and lots of volatility with the uncertainty about their 2020 teams.

Pay Attention Until the Very End: Many fantasy players will remember tight end in 2019 (like most other years) for the difficulty in getting consistent scoring from their options, but a few will carry a torch for players who didn’t click until the second half of the season. Jared Cook was a solid to strong TE1 once Drew Brees returned. Tyler Higbee got an extension that seemed questionable early in the season, but his elite TE1 run from Week 13-16 showed that the Rams likely saved money and threw Gerald Everett’s short-term prospects into limbo. Mike Gesicki was one of the beneficiaries of the Adam Gase effect and put up good to great fantasy numbers late in the season after he was allowed to focus on passcatching over blocking. Jonnu Smith was a December bully in the open field joining forces with AJ Brown and Derrick Henry to terrorize defensive backs. 2019 cumulative numbers won’t show it, but the arrow is pointing up for this quartet heading into 2020.

2020 Homework: Figure out what your preferred tight end strategy will be. No one will talk you out of targeting Kelce, Kittle, or Ertz at ADP. Andrews, Waller, Hooper, Cook, and Engram will all come at a discount from the top three and should be everyweek starts. You can gamble on Higbee to carry over his 2019 breakout, or look for 2020’s Andrews/Waller, which could be Fant, Hockenson, Goedert, Gesicki, Howard, Smith, or Njoku, or if you really want to go deep, Knox, Blake Jarwin, Ian Thomas, or Jace Sternberger.