Remember when we all thought the Browns were the NFL’s next dominant team? Or that Carson Wentz was a no-brainer future MVP? Or that Sean McVay was the league’s next great mastermind? Some of the NFL’s teams, players, and coaches who were in the spotlight the past few seasons enter 2020 with tempered expectations—but that doesn’t mean we should count them out. Welcome to The Ringer’s Post-Hype Week, when we revisit some of the league’s biggest story lines from seasons past that aren’t getting as much love ahead of this campaign.
Preseason hype doesn’t always translate to regular-season action, and that was true for a handful of big-name stars and popular sleeper picks last year. The 2019 season was mostly one to forget for Baker Mayfield, James Conner, Curtis Samuel, and a few other disappointing fantasy picks. But for players who’ve dropped significantly in preseason ADP compared to this time last year, the upcoming season provides a chance for redemption. Here’s a few of my favorite post-hype sleepers―guys who look ready to outperform their fantasy draft slots in 2020.
WR Odell Beckham Jr., Browns
Beckham looked like an enticing high-upside target in the early second round last year after being traded to the Browns during the offseason. Pairing the mercurial pass catcher with an ascending quarterback like Baker Mayfield (more on him in a bit) conjured visions of fantasy greatness, particularly in what many of us expected to be a high-octane, creative offense under Freddie Kitchens. But things quickly fell apart for the Browns’ new-look group: Kitchens’s scheme was far too vanilla, Mayfield sputtered, and Beckham’s numbers dipped. Beckham was dealing with a sports hernia injury that affected him all season, and he finished as the WR25.
After carrying an ADP of 16th overall into drafts last year (the WR7 in PPR formats), Beckham heads into 2020 as the consensus WR12 with an ADP of 32nd overall. That’s not a massive drop, but it’s substantial enough to make him an excellent value in the third or early fourth round. With his core muscle injury now behind him, I’m expecting Beckham to bounce back in a big way in new coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme. Stefanski’s balanced, play-action-heavy system should benefit Mayfield by mixing more easy layup throws with some aggressive deep shots downfield. And Beckham will be the go-to guy in both scenarios―he’s got the skill set to thrive whether he’s running a quick slant on a three-step drop or a deep post route on a slow-developing play-action shot. I won’t be surprised if Beckham rejoins the ranks of the WR1s in 2020.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers
Disaster struck for Smith-Schuster (and those with him on their fantasy teams) in 2019. The Steelers’ star receiver battled foot and knee injuries and a lack of chemistry with backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to finish a measly fourth on the team in receptions, grabbing just 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games. Smith-Schuster went from a popular late-first or early-second-round pick in fantasy drafts (the WR5 with an ADP of 13th overall) to a WR65 finish on the year. He was, in short, a total bust.
But while most expect Smith-Schuster to rebound from his miserable third season now that Ben Roethlisberger is back under center, drafters are clearly still scared of his 2019 performance. With a current ADP of 33rd overall (the WR11), it’s possible to grab JuJu in the late third round, sometimes even early fourth. That feels like a massive potential steal for the one guy in his range with the best chance to be a first-rounder heading into 2021. JuJu finished as the WR8 in 2018 with a 111-catch, 1,426-yard, and seven-touchdown line, and I expect his numbers will approach or perhaps even eclipse those totals in 2020.
RB James Conner, Steelers
Let’s stick with the Steelers here and talk about Conner, who battled knee, quad, and shoulder injuries in 2019 en route to a RB35 finish last year. That was a disappointing performance, to put it mildly, considering he went into the year with an overall ADP of seventh (the RB5). And while injuries certainly held Conner back, he wasn’t immune to the team’s overall drop-off in offensive efficiency when he was on the field. After averaging 4.5 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns in 2018, he dropped to four yards per carry with four scores last year.
With Roethlisberger back under center, though, Conner has a shot to return to his mid- to low-end RB1 numbers in 2020. Staying healthy will be a big key, of course, but the volume should be there for a big-time bounce back. Head coach Mike Tomlin espoused the virtues of a “lead runner”-type system at running back back in May, noting that “when you have a featured runner … it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way.” He added that Conner “is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy.” No fantasy GM should hang their hat on coach speak, but Tomlin’s history of leaning on one running back in Pittsburgh backs that talk up. Right now, you can get Conner early in the fourth round (44th overall in ADP, the RB21).
RB David Montgomery, Bears
A handful of impressive preseason runs helped build some hype around Montgomery going into the 2019 season, and the rookie runner out of Iowa State carried an ADP of 33rd overall (the RB18) into the year. He even went ahead of rookie classmates such as the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs (RB19) and Eagles’ Miles Sanders (RB29) in some drafts. But despite carrying the rock 242 times in his first year―tied with Jacobs for most among rookie backs―Montgomery finished as the disappointing RB24, behind both Jacobs (RB21) and Sanders (RB15) in PPR formats. Montgomery broke plenty of tackles as both a runner and receiver (55 total, per PFF, second only to Jacobs among rookies), but his balance and power rarely translated to big runs or fantasy points. There were too many stuffs at or around the line and he seemed to lack explosive traits at times.
Still, I like Montgomery’s chances for a big second-year breakthrough with the Bears, whose run game could benefit from a more efficient passing attack in 2020 with (I assume) Nick Foles at quarterback. With little competition for early-down or goal-line work, the sophomore running back should be in line for another heavy workload this season, and he’s reportedly slimmed down during the offseason in an effort to add some quickness and speed to his game. With an ADP of 62nd overall (the RB25), Montgomery is regularly one of the last high-volume starters still left on the board in the fifth or sixth round.
QB Baker Mayfield, Browns
Mayfield regressed in just about every important statistical category in his second year, tossing 22 touchdowns to 21 picks in 2019 with an abysmal 15 interceptions coming from a clean pocket (second worst only to Jameis Winston), per Pro Football Focus. The sophomore quarterback’s 85.0 passer rating when kept clean ranked 36th among 39 qualifiers, a sign that he either wasn’t seeing the field or that he was simply trying to make too much happen as the frustrated leader of a struggling team. I lean toward the latter explanation; Mayfield was a much better decision-maker as a rookie, posting a 100.5 passer rating from clean pockets while throwing 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions on those plays―and with a focus on getting “back to basics,” I’m expecting a bounce-back performance from him in the team’s new, upgraded offensive scheme.
If I’m right about that, it’s unlikely Mayfield will ever come as cheap as he does right now. After being drafted as the QB4 going into last season (with an ADP of 65th overall), the third-year pro currently ranks as the QB17 in preseason drafts (ADP of 141st overall). With a new coaching staff, a new scheme, a new-look offensive line (that added Jack Conklin and rookie Jedrick Wills Jr. over the offseason), and, perhaps most importantly, far less hype, Mayfield should have little trouble outplaying his late-round draft slot.
QB Jared Goff, Rams
The Rams’ offense fell back to earth with a heavy thud in 2019, in part due to the ineffectiveness of its injury-riddled offensive line. The team’s typically dominant ground attack struggled, its usually explosive play-action passing attack took a massive step back, and far too often, the team looked to Goff to simply drop back and carry the offense. That wasn’t a recipe for success: Goff came out of the team’s 45-6 loss to the Ravens in Week 12 ranked as the QB20, boasting a miserable 61.2 percent completion rate, an 11 touchdown to 12 interception stat line, and an 80.3 passer rating. That was obviously a disappointment for fantasy drafters who took Goff in the seventh round of preseason drafts (he went into the year as the QB8 with an ADP of 82nd overall).
The good news, at least for the fantasy managers who hadn’t already dropped him, was that Goff caught fire down the stretch. Knowing the struggles on the offensive line were creating a domino effect felt at all levels of the offense, head coach and play-caller Sean McVay switched to heavier two-tight-end sets later in the year to help better protect Goff and create more run lanes for the team’s backs. From Week 13 on, Goff’s numbers took a dramatic turn: He completed 66 percent of his passes in the team’s final five games, throwing 11 touchdowns to just four picks to register a 98.2 passer rating and rank as the fantasy QB6.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Rams will run predominantly three-receiver or two-tight-end sets in 2020 (I lean toward the latter), but in any case, I expect that offense will look a hell of a lot closer to the one we saw in the final five weeks of last season than the one that struggled during the first 11. With an ADP of 157th overall (the QB19), Goff is one of my favorite late-round quarterback targets.
WR Curtis Samuel, Panthers
Samuel was an exciting potential breakout candidate going into last season and steadily made his way up preseason rankings. The speedy receiver was coming off the board as the WR35 (overall 90th), and had Cam Newton not suffered a season-ending injury after playing just two games, he may have ended up looking like a value.
Unfortunately, that was not the case: Samuel finished as the PPR WR36, catching 54 passes for 627 yards and six touchdowns while adding 19 carries for 130 yards and a score. He had the opportunity to do a whole lot more, though―Samuel finished the season ranked ninth among all receivers in total targeted air yards (1,608), so he was a clear focal point of the team’s passing attack―but wild inaccuracy from backup quarterback Kyle Allen sank Samuel’s fantasy stock. Things could turn around for the fourth-year pro in 2020 with a more accurate Teddy Bridgewater under center.
It’s tough to say exactly how new coach Matt Rhule will utilize the versatile playmaker, but with a very late ADP right now (186th overall, WR64), Samuel is as good of a flier as you can find in that part of the draft. He’s posted a steady increase in production in each of his three seasons in the league, has been consistently strong as a route runner, and may even see his role in the team’s run game expand under the new regime.
TE Eric Ebron, Steelers
Ebron enjoyed a breakout Pro Bowl campaign in 2018, catching 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns to finish as the fantasy TE4 in PPR. After being drafted as the TE12 in 2019, though (123rd overall in ADP), Ebron disappointed: His injuries and drops led to a lackluster performance, and the former first-rounder finished as the wholly irrelevant TE23 in 11 games.
The 27-year-old gets a fresh start in Pittsburgh this year, though, where he could have the chance to break back into the low-end TE1 range. And if you’re sensing a pattern in this piece, the answer is yes, I see the Steelers as a potential fantasy gold mine. Smith-Schuster and Conner are far higher on my priority list, of course, but Ebron is a solid late-round pick who could find a niche as a seam-running, middle-of-the-field threat and outperform his depressed ADP (TE18, 167th overall).