Fantasy Football Draft Prep: 12 career years to buy before they happen – CBSSports.com

You know what helps bring home Fantasy football championships? Players who post their best numbers to-date. Also, the sky is blue, water is wet, Christian McCaffrey is good and Adam Gase isn’t. All of the above are obvious. What’s not obvious is who will have career years in 2020. Many will be drafted with the expectations to have their best stats ever, but as veteran Fantasy drafters know, few actually come through.

Here’s my annual list of players primed for their best seasons ever, the same list that called Austin Ekeler, Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin last year (but ignore the parts about Dede Westbrook and Curtis Samuel). Please keep in mind that I tried to limit the number of second-year players on the list, going with the ones I truly had serious convictions about. And there are no rookies and only one late-round sleeper (there’s another list for those). Otherwise this list would be … obvious.

Running backs

Miles Sanders, Eagles

Numbers to beat for a career year: 1,327 total yards, 50 receptions, six total touchdowns

How many times does Doug Pederson have to tell you that Sanders will be the Eagles’ primary running back before you believe him? Eight times? 62 times? 1,526 times? How many?! Because Pederson’s had to have known since last January, when Sanders’ 16-game pace from his final eight outings including the playoffs was for eight touchdowns, 62 receptions and 1,526 total yards. No other Eagles running back since Pederson’s been the head coach has had over 1,000 total yards in a single season besides Sanders.

Still not sold? Let me know how the Eagles treated their running back group this offseason. Did they add a veteran? How about a draft pick?

Sanders won’t see every touch, but he’s their best option. It’s him and it’s Boston Scott and it’s probably a prayer after that. Sanders played north of 70% of the snaps each week from Week 11 through Week 16 and in the playoff game — he could see that much work again once the lower-body injury from training camp heals. The Eagles are wise to rest him knowing the depth behind him isn’t so great.

Sanders is easily a candidate for at least 1,500 total yards, 10 scores and 60 receptions. No one’s there to take a lot of work away from him. The offense he’s in is plenty aggressive and has added a bunch of speed to force defenses to play them honestly. There simply aren’t a lot of running backs in Fantasy with a situation as great as Sanders’. That’s why he’s worth a first-round pick.

Joe Mixon, Bengals

Numbers to beat for a career year: 1,464 total yards, 55 receptions, nine total touchdowns

This one’s easy. Mixon’s already been good in consecutive seasons, but the way he finished 2019 is all the evidence the Bengals’ coaching staff needed to know he was their best back and they used him the right way.

In his final eight games, the Bengals used more zone-run concepts that allowed Mixon to play patiently, which is his strength. He had 994 total yards and five scores, which if you doubled to reflect a 16-game pace put Mixon on the line for over 1,900 total yards and 10 scores. That would have been more than everyone except Christian McCaffrey.

Mixon also figures to get a big boost by the arrival of Joe Burrow under center. By all accounts, Burrow is throwing dimes and hasn’t needed much time to acclimate to the pros. How the heck does that help Mixon? Simply by being dangerous, Burrow can open up opportunities for Mixon that wouldn’t have been there with a less effective passer. Then again, Mixon hit over 100 total yards in two of backup Ryan Finley’s three starts last year. So maybe Burrow’s arrival will only make Mixon stronger.

Giovani Bernard could work passing downs, keeping a lid on Mixon’s receiving upside, but don’t you dare think for a second that the Bengals coaches won’t rely on Mixon for a heavy dose of work this year. He’ll earn that new contract.

Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Numbers to beat for a career year: 1,550 total yards, 92 receptions, 11 total touchdowns

Consider this: For all of his success, Ekeler has just two career games with 15-plus carries, two with 20-plus touches (both came without Melvin Gordon in 2019), and only 11 games with 15-plus touches. He’s been in the NFL for four seasons.

With very few exceptions, the Chargers under Anthony Lynn have operated their run game with the No. 2 back getting between 8 to 13 touches and the No. 1 running back getting the rest. Ekeler had long been that No. 2 back, but by virtue of his new contract and the Chargers’ mild investments in other rushers, Ekeler is now primed to be the team’s lead back. It’s reasonable to expect more touches.

That’s going to be a good thing for Ekeler, who ranked sixth in elusiveness (52 tackles avoided on 224 touches), 10th in yards after contact per attempt (3.23, tied with Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott) and first in yards per target (9.2, next closest was Dalvin Cook at 8.2) per Pro Football Focus.

Not bad for a guy who played fewer than 60% of the snaps in every game from Week 6 on. Give an efficient running back more touches and he should end up delivering better numbers. Even better than 1,550 total yards and 11 scores.

The cherry on top is a schedule that I graded as the absolute easiest for any run game. He’ll go up against the AFC West, the NFC South (a couple of tough run defenses), the AFC East (another couple of tough ones) plus the Bengals and Jaguars. This works very much in Ekeler’s favor to deliver a fantastic year. You should be comfortable drafting him around 12th overall in PPR formats.

Ronald Jones, Buccaneers

Numbers to beat for a career year: 1,033 total yards, 31 receptions, six total touchdowns

The crux of my argument for Jones can be found in this deep dive, where his trainer, Luke Neal, basically went over Jones’ entire career and what the rusher has done to overcome every issue.

Following that story, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians has called Jones “the main guy” in the Bucs’ backfield, and reports from training camp have been almost roundly glowing about Jones’ improved size and continued explosiveness. He’s the team’s only true candidate to be the primary ball-carrier on running downs and short-yardage situations, and anything he can do to add some passing-game work would send his numbers into the stratosphere.

And it doesn’t hurt that he’s playing behind an improved offensive line and with Tom Brady firing passes to a deep receiving corps. No stacked boxes here.

So unless you think McCoy has found the fountain of youth, or that rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn will go from special teams to the starting lineup, Jones is the Bucs running back to grab. You could aim to settle for him in early Round 6, but Round 5 is when you should be able to safely snag him.

Raheem Mostert, 49ers

Numbers to beat for a career year: 952 total yards, 14 receptions, 10 total touchdowns

Just like his old man, Kyle Shanahan has become a magician when it comes to pulling running backs out of thin air. From Terrell Davis to Mike Anderson, from Arian Foster to Alfred Morris, the Shanahan fam has unearthed good zone-scheme runners and placed them in winning situations.

Mostert is the next rags-to-riches story, except it’s already begun. He was fifth in PFF yards after contact per attempt rate, sixth in Pro Football Focus’ breakaway run percentage metric and seventh in their elusiveness metric, all out of 45 rushers with at least 100 carries.

About the only thing Mostert needs is more carries. The 49ers might be apprehensive about that since it’s clear one of their philosophies is to not overwork any single running back. However, Mostert was spectacular in the 10 games he had at least 10 carries in, including the playoffs. He found 10-plus non-PPR points in 8 of the 10 and averaged at least 4.8 yards per rush in nine of them. A nose for the end zone especially solidified that production.

The bet is that Mostert’s ultra-efficiency forces Shanahan to trust him more and more, even if he’s still starting Tevin Coleman and bringing Jerick McKinnon into third-down work. Shanahan isn’t an idiot — he’ll give Mostert more work in 2020, and the schedule to begin the season (ARI, at NYJ, at NYG, PHI, MIA) is dreamy.

Reaching 10 touchdowns again is rough, but finishing under 1,200 total yards seems unlikely too. He’s in the right place at the right time.

Wide receivers

DK Metcalf, Seahawks

Numbers to beat for a career year: 58 receptions, 900 yards, seven touchdowns

Putting it simply, when a receiver has the potential to dominate inside the 10-yard line and also catch deep passes, he’s got the stuff to reach ridiculous Fantasy ceilings. Metcalf’s got it. That much can be gleaned by his stat line. Metcalf’s 100 targets were the most for any rookie last year, and it made him just the 17th rookie receiver in the entire decade to get at least 100 targets.

There’s more: Metcalf ranked 11th among all wideouts in red-zone targets, and he was 15th in deep-ball targets with 25. Of those 25, 13 were deemed catchable and he caught 10 for 362 yards and four scores.

Who can stop this guy? Easy answer: Metcalf can. Last year he left plenty of stats on the field as he dropped the fifth-most passes (eight, including three on deep throws). He also had only 1.69 yards per route run, which really isn’t that great — John Brown and Emmanuel Sanders had more. Metcalf has to cut down on mistakes while also improving as a route-runner and a contested-catch maker.

The secrets to Metcalf stepping it up involve his teammates. Russell Wilson’s magic ability to keep plays alive helps all of Seattle’s playmakers, and the defense’s lack of a pass rush and potential to struggle keeping opponents off the scoreboard could force the Seahawks to take to the air more often than they’d like. Both should yield more numbers for Metcalf.

The opportunities aren’t going to slow down, and he’s not getting any smaller or slower. He’s got a shot at a top-12 season, which is why no one should be shy to take him by the end of Round 4.

D.J. Chark, Jaguars

Numbers to beat for a career year: 73 receptions, 1,008 yards, eight touchdowns

It wasn’t too long ago when the Jaguars had a bunch of Fantasy dreamboats thanks to their propensity for putting up garbage-time points. Sadly for Jaguars fans, the possibility of a similar scenario playing out is on the table for 2020. Happily for Fantasy fans, Chark may benefit the most.

There’s zero doubt what his role is heading into 2020 with Gardner Minshew looking for him. Nearly 20% of all of Minshew’s throws went in Chark’s direction — a percentage that should rise this year. Minshew was better for Chark than Nick Foles was — the two averaged 8.9 yards per attempt together (1.5 yards better than Foles-to-Chark) with a 62.4% completion rate (slightly better than Chark did with Foles) and five scores compared to just three from Foles.

Where Chark can and should improve is in the red zone, where he somehow saw just 10 targets all year and caught only five. Partially to blame was a not-so-good Jaguars offense that amassed 133 red-zone plays on the season, 23rd-best in the league. It sure didn’t help that Dede Westbrook inexplicably had 11 red-zone targets.

The Jaguars will have new playcaller Jay Gruden and offer a more versatile offense this season. Gruden’s track record with wide receivers isn’t great except when he’s had an established player with some legit speed (A.J. Green and DeSean Jackson are the two brightest examples). Finding ways to get Chark the ball should be a priority, and a necessity given the likelihood that the Jaguars will play from behind often.

Tyler Boyd, Bengals

Numbers to beat for a career year: 90 receptions, 1,046 yards, seven touchdowns

Think back to Joe Burrow’s days at LSU. He had a dynamic big-play receiver in Ja’Marr Chase and an incredible slot guy in Justin Jefferson. Heading into his first season with the Bengals, he’s got that big-play target in A.J. Green, leaving Boyd as the main man in the slot.

Expect Burrow to continue his tendency of throwing to the middle of the field and on short breaking routes to his slot receiver. Burrow has even commented on how he’s developed chemistry, timing and rhythm with Boyd. It’s helped that Boyd has stayed on the field with Burrow in training camp, unlike Green and John Ross.

Here’s a fun wrinkle: Boyd’s best per-game stats came with Green ON the field in 2018. He caught 74.2% of his throws, averaged 9.4 yards per target and scored every 9.8 receptions in those first eight games of the season. In the 22 games since without Green, Boyd’s catch rate (61.6%), yards per target (7.7) and touchdown ratio (one every 16.7 catches) declined. Mind you, that’s with Andy Dalton throwing most of those passes, not the best quarterback prospect to come out of college in nearly a decade.

I can’t say for sure that Boyd will beat his career-bests by much, but I do feel like he’s an overlooked receiver in PPR and should be considered more of at least a low-end No. 2 option instead of a flex. His Round 7 ADP is irresistible.

Darius Slayton, Giants

Numbers to beat for a career year: 48 receptions, 740 yards, eight touchdowns

No doubt, Slayton’s best work as a rookie was saved for his final seven games, when he logged 31 receptions, 467 yards and five scores. He played with a depleted Giants receiving corps, but it seemingly provided the springboard to be a fixture in the offense.

Slayton isn’t necessarily the Giants’ most complete receiver, but he is the fastest and most likely to be Daniel Jones‘ top target. The two were in sync last season as four of Slayton’s six touchdowns of 20-plus yards came from Jones. So did 8 of his 12 receptions of 20-plus yards.

Because of his big-play ability, Slayton profiles as the receiver best suited to fill a specific role in Jason Garrett’s offense. In Garrett’s six years calling plays in Dallas, he had a receiver top 1,000 yards five times and a receiver score at least eight touchdowns five times. In the year where he didn’t have a 1,000-yard wideout, Garrett had two receivers get over 850 yards each. And in the year a receiver didn’t have eight scores, two had six. These were perimeter pass-catchers running the gamut from Dez Bryant to Terrell Owens to Miles Austin to Antonio Bryant to Laurent Robinson. Not all were spectacular players, but each had spectacular numbers.

Here’s hoping Slayton fills that role for the Giants.

Tight ends

Tyler Higbee, Rams

Numbers to beat for a career year: 69 receptions, 734 yards, three touchdowns

Those final five games last year were special for Higbee. He averaged 11.2 targets per game, led all tight ends in Fantasy points while averaging 12.4 per game in non-PPR and a ludicrous 21.0 PPR points per game.

Expecting him to match that is nuts. Expecting the Rams to ignore his finish to last season is nuts, too.

Jared Goff was effective in those final five games due in large part to his large tight end. He averaged 328.6 yards and 2.2 touchdowns per contest with a 66.2% completion rate. He didn’t have a better five-game stretch than that in 2019.

Higbee offers a George Kittle element to the Rams offense. He’s humongous and moves really well for his size. He’s physical with defenders and can flat-out get open in the red zone. The Rams even ran screen plays to Higbee last season — imagine that guy running in open space with blockers in front of him! More of that figures to come in 2020.

Yep, he’s a big-time blocker too, which could cost him some routes on passing plays, but the analytics were very much in his — only Kittle and Mark Andrews had a better season-long yards per route run at the position; Higbee’s 5.8 yards after contact per catch was better than Travis Kelce, Andrews and Zach Ertz. He should remain prominent and schemed well in the Rams offense. Come and get him once it’s Round 7.

Quarterbacks

Kyler Murray, Cardinals

Numbers to beat for a career year: 3,722 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions; 544 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns

Anyone who writes anything about Fantasy Football has put Murray on their breakout list. It’s a crystal-clear call following an impressive rookie year with just a few hiccups. What exactly were those hiccups? How about throwing just 13 red-zone touchdowns (tied for 23rd in the league and last among top-10 Fantasy quarterbacks) despite 75 red-zone pass attempts (tied for 10th). It’s the biggest area Murray needs to improve in this season, and the team got him red-zone dominator DeAndre Hopkins (12 red-zone touchdowns in 2018-19) to help.

Otherwise, Murray was pretty awesome. He was third among quarterbacks in rush attempts (93) and averaged nearly six yards per rush with four scores. He had the sixth-best deep-ball accuracy (45.2%), and his overall numbers would have been even better if his receivers didn’t drop 18 passes (Chase Edmonds had five). His dual-threat ability creates multiple ways for him to rack up numbers, and there’s room for improvement in both passing and rushing totals.

But what you might not have considered about Murray could be the key to his numbers breaking out: The Cardinals schedule between Weeks 2 through 9 should induce at least a bunch of high-scoring games and some high-efficiency totals from Murray. It’s seven games without any matchups against the 49ers or Rams and with a bunch of suspect defenses. Expect this run to carry Murray to a masterful second season, not to mention make you confident in trusting him when he eventually plays versus the Bills (Week 10), at the Patriots (Week 12), versus the Rams (Week 13) and versus the 49ers (Week 16).

There’s a shot he gets 4,000 yards, 25 passing touchdowns, 500 rush yards and five rushing touchdowns. And he’d be only the second quarterback ever to do it (Deshaun Watson in 2018, with Hopkins on his side, did it first).

Daniel Jones, Giants

Numbers to beat for a career year: 3,027 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns, 23 turnovers; 279 rushing yards, two touchdowns

A more muscular Jones reported to Giants camp this summer and has so far delivered on the kind of lofty expectations a top-picked second-year quarterback tends to get. Per reports, he’s got command of the Giants’ new offense under ex-Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and even overcame a rough start to throw two touchdowns in a recent intra-squad scrimmage.

Working in Jones’ favor is a dual-threat skill-set that isn’t as prolific as, say, Murray’s, but certainly still dangerous. Jones had four games with 35-plus Fantasy points last season thanks to a deep receiving corps, his ability to evade pressure and make plays with this arm and his legs. Working against him was a more consistent track record of futility: 16 or fewer points in seven outings with ELEVEN fumbles lost in 2019. Some of the fumbles were due to a leaky offensive line as well as simply holding on to the ball too long, both of which have been addressed. Had he lost five fewer fumbles, he would have averaged 20.2 Fantasy points per game, nearly the same tally as 2019 top-12 finisher Matt Ryan, and more per game than Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz.

The Giants have one of the toughest schedules in football, including a Week 1 date with the Steelers that only true sadists would start Jones in. Regardless, he is among the very best late-round breakout candidates at any position in Fantasy. Every year since 2016 we’ve seen a quarterback come from the back-half of drafts and dazzle as a top-10 guy. Jones has that opportunity and is worth a pick after Round 10 in one-quarterback leagues. His 16-game pace of 32 passing touchdowns last year will be difficult to match, but it’s possible given how much he’s expected to throw based on the Giants’ iffy defense and challenging schedule.

So which Fantasy football busts should you completely avoid? And which running back going off the board early should you fade? Visit SportsLine now to get cheat sheets from the model that called Baker Mayfield’s disappointing season, and find out.