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Fantasy Playbook: What We Learned in Fantasy Football in 2019

For those of us not in our league’s fantasy football championships, it’s time to look ahead to next year. Here are the biggest takeaways to keep in mind for 2020.

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With the bulk of Week 15 in the books and just one week left in most fantasy football leagues, the vast majority of fantasy teams’ seasons are effectively over. If you’re one of the lucky few playing for a fantasy championship next week, we’ve got you covered with risers, fallers, and waiver-wire adds below—but for everyone else, it’s time to start looking ahead to next year. With that in mind, let’s do a quick debrief about what we learned—or, in some cases, what was really driven home—from a wacky fantasy football season.

The Quarterback Cheat Code Is Real

The Konami Code isn’t exactly new—the term was originally coined (for fantasy purposes) by Rich Hribar back in 2013—but it’s certainly had its banner year in 2019. Thanks to a fantasy-scoring loophole that gives quarterbacks more points for rushing yards and touchdowns than it does for analogous passing stats (rushing yards are worth 2.5 times as much as passing yards, and rushing touchdowns are worth 1.5 times as much as passing touchdowns), dual-threat quarterbacks dominated the fantasy ranks this season, with five out of the league’s top seven fantasy quarterbacks coming into this week notching at least 300 yards and three-plus touchdowns on the ground.

That group is led by fantasy’s QB1, Lamar Jackson, who has not only thrown 33 touchdowns but has set a new league record at quarterback with 1,103 rushing yards to go with seven touchdowns on the ground. Jackson is a rare case, of course. He is a supremely talented and explosive ball carrier who benefits from Baltimore’s scheme, which has made him a focal point of the rushing attack. But the QB cheat code has boosted a handful of other athletic signal-callers this year too: Deshaun Watson (the QB2 coming into this week) has added 376 yards and seven scores on the ground; Russell Wilson (QB4) has rushed for 311 yards and three touchdowns; Josh Allen (QB6) has tallied 467 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground; and rookie Kyler Murray (QB7) has run for 504 yards and four scores.

Of course, apart from the truly unique Jackson, it’s tough to depend solely on a quarterback’s ability to make plays with his legs—the passing production has to be there for most of these guys, too. But the big lesson from the 2019 season is just how powerful dual-threat signal-callers can be in offering fantasy managers strong fantasy floor/ceiling combinations. Quarterback rushing was a better cheat code this season than ever before, giving these versatile signal-callers consistent three-to-five point weekly bumps with the potential for much, much more. Those points can often be the difference in your fantasy matchup.

Regression Comes for Us All

With injuries, supporting cast, opponent strength, weather, and pure, dumb luck, there’s a vast multitude of variables that affect NFL player and team performance in any given game or year. That’s why seasons like Patrick Mahomes’s near-perfect MVP campaign from 2018 typically end up being, well, outliers. History suggested that the Chiefs’ quarterback would struggle to match his unbelievable numbers from last year―particularly when it came to his 8.6-percent touchdown rate―and while Mahomes seemed like the type of rare talent who could overcome all that precedent (and early in the season, it looked like he might be), history proved to be true.

Mahomes battled a litany of injuries that robbed him of two games and sapped him of some of his signature playmaking mobility and arm strength―and combined with injuries along the Chiefs offensive line, in its running backs group, and to receiver Tyreek Hill, the third-year pro’s volume and efficiency numbers have both fallen off from 2018 levels. Mahomes has posted 23 touchdowns against four picks this year (he threw 50 touchdowns in 2018), and his touchdown rate (5.4 percent), yards per attempt (8.3), and quarterback rating (105.3) have all dropped back to mere mortal levels. Those statistical dips have obviously affected his fantasy bottom line.

After finishing as the QB1 last season with a quarterback-record 417.1 fantasy points (an average of 26.1 points per game), Mahomes came into this week as the QB6 in per-game average (21.0 points per game). That’s still very good, and he’s helped plenty of fantasy squads this year, but he hasn’t been the league-winning fantasy world-beater he was in 2018. The good news? I’d bet Mahomes “regresses” again in 2020―only this time, in the positive direction.

It’s Best to Chase Volume, but Touchdowns Are Flukey

This is really just an off-shoot of the regression discussion above: Touchdowns, while powerful in fantasy, are relatively unpredictable. And while it’s almost always better to chase volume at the skill positions in fantasy football (touchdown production tends to correlate heavily with total carries and/or targets), some guys just score in bunches while others can’t find the end zone to save their lives. Good on you if you can predict who will fit into either of those categories in a given season.

Leonard Fournette and Aaron Jones are two of the best examples of wacky touchdown variance this year. Fournette has completely dominated touches in Jacksonville, registering a combined 323 carries and catches on the year, but the bell-cow back has struggled to get into the end zone, scoring just three times this year―well below his expected totals. Jones, meanwhile, has found the end zone 17 times on just 233 touches, a ludicrous rate that’s paid off big for his real-life and fantasy teams.

Some may say that this was a predictable outcome; that Jones is just the superior back who’s playing in a superior offense. And those variables likely played a part in the two players’ relative fantasy values this season. But for me, the lesson isn’t necessarily to fade Fournette or try to predict who’s going to far outperform fantasy expectations. Instead, I’m going to just keep on chasing volume; assuming touch counts remain relatively stable in 2020, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Jones’s touchdown production takes a massive dip while Fournette grabs double-digit scores.

Beware Team and Coaching Changes

The easiest way to derail your fantasy season is to whiff on an early-round pick, and based on the performances of a handful of consensus first- and second-rounders this year, more than a few fantasy managers did just that in 2019. A bevy of highly drafted fantasy stars disappointed this season, with four of them―Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Cardinals back David Johnson, Jets bell cow Le’Veon Bell, and Bengals star Joe Mixon―sharing one common theme: major team upheaval. Sometimes, a new team or a new coaching staff can pay dividends for a fantasy player, providing the opportunity to get more volume or play in a better, higher-scoring, and more efficient scheme. Other times, like for the above mentioned four, it does not.

Johnson never fit into Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme, often appearing too slow-footed to take advantage of the wide open space that offense creates. The veteran back did miss two games to a back injury, but even when healthy, he was relatively ineffective and was eventually replaced by Kenyan Drake as the team’s starter. Drake, by the way, scored four touchdowns in the team’s shellacking of the Browns on Sunday while Johnson carried the ball three times for 6 yards. Bell, meanwhile, was never really used effectively in Adam Gase’s Jets offense, far too often deployed as a traditional running back instead of as the versatile hybrid running back/receiver that he was for the Steelers.

Mixon was a fantasy afterthought for most of the first half of the season as new head coach Zac Taylor struggled to integrate him into the team’s scheme. And we all know what happened with Beckham in the Browns’ underachieving offense his year. The superstar receiver has caught 67 passes for 910 yards and just two touchdowns, failing to generate much chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who went through a massive sophomore slump of his own.

Don’t Underestimate Rookie Receivers

The 2019 rookie class made a major impact on the fantasy landscape this year. Quarterbacks Kyler Murray (who came into this week as the QB7), Daniel Jones, and Gardner Minshew II all factored in for fantasy teams this year (with a late cameo from Drew Lock), while running backs Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, and Devin Singletary each made their mark. But the rookie receiver class was most impressive, with eight first-year receivers already past the 500-yard receiving mark and a handful of others (Preston Williams and Hunter Renfrow) who looked primed to do so if not for untimely injuries.

Fantasy managers tend to temper expectations for most rookie receivers, who’ve traditionally faced a steep learning curve going from the college game to the pros. That was true for this class, which was deep but lacked the hype of some recent rookie receiver groups―with the highest-drafted member of that class (Seattle’s DK Metcalf) coming off the board, on average, in the 11th round (the WR51). But the 2019 rookie receivers have exceeded expectations, and then some, providing near-instant impact on the field while easily outplaying their respective fantasy draft slots. A.J. Brown (47 catches, 893 yards, seven touchdowns), Terry McLaurin (51-833-7), DK Metcalf (52-819-6), Darius Slayton (44-690-8), Deebo Samuel (48-669-3), Marquise Brown (43-563-7), Mecole Hardman (25-508-6), and Diontae Johnson (47-545-4) headline that group, and bring potential to change the way rookie pass catchers are drafted next season. With the 2020 receiver class expected to be one of the most top-heavy and talented groups in recent memory, it wouldn’t be surprising if Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and the rest of the headliners for the upcoming class shoot up draft boards next fall.

OK, on to the Week 15 happenings from around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: RB Kenyan Drake, Cardinals
Drake sliced up the Browns defense in the Cardinals’ 38-24 win, carrying the ball 22 times for 137 yards and four touchdowns while adding one catch for 9 yards en route to an NFL-high 39.6 PPR points. It was a nice bounce-back game for the soon-to-be free agent, who’d posted single-digit PPR points in his past two outings. Drake was the clear lead back for Arizona, out-touching David Johnson 23-3 on the day.

Slider: WR Kenny Golladay, Lions
Golladay’s outlook for the day looked good on paper, with the Lions down Marvin Jones and facing a porous Tampa Bay defense. But backup quarterback David Blough was awful from start to finish, completing just 24 of 43 passes for 260 yards and two picks in the 38-17 loss. Golladay caught just three passes for 44 yards, netting 7.4 PPR points as Blough mostly looked underneath to Danny Amendola, who finished with eight catches for 102 yards on 13 targets (an absurd 30 percent target share). Golladay has plenty of upside next week against the Broncos, but his floor is frighteningly low thanks to Blough’s erratic play.

Riser: WR Tyler Lockett, Seahawks
Lockett broke out of his three-week slump, reeling in eight passes for 120 yards and a touchdown on nine targets, good for 26 PPR points. The fifth-year playmaker looked fully healthy for the first time in weeks, regularly getting open downfield for quarterback Russell Wilson. With the Seahawks’ passing game apparently back on track, expect more of the same next week in Seattle’s matchup with the Cardinals.

Slider: RB David Montgomery, Bears
Montgomery posted another disappointing performance on Sunday, finding little room to run in the team’s 21-13 loss to the Packers with a tepid 39 yards on 14 carries. With just 5.9 PPR points on the day, the third-round rookie has now notched five single-digit finishes in his last six games. Montgomery’s shown flashes as a tough, elusive back this year, but those moments have been too few and far between to make him a trustworthy fantasy option next week against the Chiefs.

Riser: WR Breshad Perriman, Buccaneers
Perriman took advantage of Mike Evans’s absence in the Buccaneers’ 38-17 win over the Lions, building on his recent late-season surge with a five-catch, 113-yard, and three-touchdown line against the Lions. Perriman’s 34.6-point output represents a career high and marked his third straight double-digit PPR finish―and with Evans out for the year and both Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller suffering hamstring injuries on Sunday, he’ll be one of the top waiver-wire targets this week.

Slider: RB Phillip Lindsay, Broncos
Lindsay―along with basically the entire Broncos offense―struggled to get things going against the Chiefs on Sunday, rushing seven times for a season-low 32 yards to notch just 3.2 PPR points. The game got away from Denver early in this one, forcing the team to mostly lean on a less-than-efficient passing game in the snow, and Lindsay was the forgotten man in the 23-3 loss. The elusive running back has now notched single-digit PPR points in four of his last five games and has found the end zone just once in that stretch. He’s a low-floor flex option next week against the Lions.

Riser: RB Saquon Barkley, Giants
Barkley broke out of his month-long slump in the Giants’ 36-20 win over the Dolphins, posting a season-high 30.3 PPR points on the back of a 24-carry, 112-yard, two-touchdown line. Barkley feasted on a weak Dolphins defense in this one and should be a full go next week against the Redskins, who surrendered 172 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns to Miles Sanders on Sunday. Barkley’s Week 15 explosion won’t help any of his already-eliminated fantasy squads, but last year’s overall RB1 could give his surviving squads another massive boost in the championship round.

Cutting Up the Pie

Chris Carson Takes Back the Reins in Seattle’s Backfield
With Rashaad Penny sidelined for the year with a torn ACL, Carson took back over as the Seahawks’ unquestioned bell-cow back, rumbling for 133 yards and two touchdowns in Seattle’s 30-24 win over the Panthers. Carson was spelled at times by C.J. Prosise (five carries, 15 yards), but there’s no longer any reason to fear a committee backfield in Seattle. Start Carson with confidence next week in Seattle’s matchup with Arizona.

Darwin Thompson Leads Committee Approach for the Chiefs
Thompson led the way for the Chiefs’ ground game in Kansas City’s 23-3 win over the Broncos, notching a team-high eight carries for 38 yards. The explosive rookie was buoyed by Spencer Ware (seven carries, 26 yards) and LeSean McCoy (six carries, 16 yards)—but none of the team’s backfield troika succeeded in generating much momentum on the slippery, snow-covered field. Damien Williams, who missed Sunday’s tilt with a rib injury and an illness, could return for the team’s Week 16 tilt against the Bears, which would further muddle an unpredictable running back rotation. Williams, Thompson, Ware, and McCoy are all risky flex options next week.

The Injury Report

Here’s a few notable injuries to monitor this week.

WR Chris Godwin, Buccaneers
Godwin left in the second half with a hamstring injury, and when asked about the severity of that tweak after the game, head coach Bruce Arians said it “doesn’t look good.” That’s basically what Arians said of Mike Evans’s season-ending hamstring injury from last week, so it seems likely Godwin will miss the Week 16 fantasy championships. With Scotty Miller also leaving the game after reaggravating a hamstring injury, Breshad Perriman could suddenly find himself as the team’s de facto no. 1 against the Texans next week. Godwin’s injury is also a potential bump for both tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Justin Watson.

RB Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Cook left the Vikings’ 39-10 win over the Chargers with a shoulder injury and was quickly ruled out. There weren’t many details about the severity of the injury after the game, but per head coach Mike Zimmer, it’s separate from the chest injury that Cook had been dealing with over the past few weeks. With Cook’s status for Week 16 a major question mark, the team’s duo of backups, Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone, both suddenly bring championship-winning potential. The only question for waiver-wire hunters is which Vikings back to target: Mattison is the normal no. 2, but has been nursing an ankle injury, an ailment that could push no. 3 back Mike Boone into the starting role against the Packers.

Smash the Add Button

With fantasy championship weekend upon us, I’m going to limit this section just to the few waiver-wire targets worth starting next week.

WR Breshad Perriman, Buccaneers (rostered in 10 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Perriman’s in line to be Jameis Winston’s top target next week against the Texans, giving the former first-round bust a decently high floor and massive ceiling in the always-explosive Buccaneers passing attack. He’s a no-brainer flex option if Chris Godwin doesn’t return in Week 16, and he’s probably startable even if Godwin returns.

RBs Alexander Mattison (39 percent) and Mike Boone (2 percent), Vikings
Mattison’s uncertain status for Week 16 makes this a tough waiver-wire call (hey, grab both if you can!), but considering the rookie didn’t participate in any practice last week while rehabbing an ankle injury, Boone may be the better bet as the team’s starter against Green Bay if Cook can’t go next week. Boone, who’s been a standout for the Vikings in both of the past two preseasons, racked up 17.6 PPR points in relief on Sunday, rushing 13 times for 56 yards and two scores.

WR Anthony Miller, Bears (26 percent)
Miller caught nine passes for 118 yards and a touchdown on a team-high 15 targets Sunday, pushing his streak of double-digit PPR games to five. The second-year pro has had a strong second half and cemented his role out of the slot down the stretch, offering a solid volume floor as one of Mitchell Trubisky’s favorite targets. The Bears draw the middling Chiefs pass defense next week.