Game Theory

Projecting the most improved player for each AFC team in 2020

Each offseason gives NFL teams a chance to adjust and craft new strategies, with those changes often helping to create opportunities for certain players to increase their production in the upcoming campaign. Using my forward-looking data models, I've identified one player from each team who projects to see such an uptick in 2020 based on their performance trajectory and the scheme they'll be playing in this season.

Below, I've included a note on one player from each AFC team (listed by division) that helps explain why these guys forecast to grow as contributors.

AFC EAST

Devin Singletary
Devin Singletary
Buffalo Bills · RB

With Frank Gore now a Jet, this is Singletary's moment to show out. His ability to break tackles and move the chains was the key to his rookie campaign, as he gained 10-plus yards on 23.3 percent of his rushes outside the tackles in 2019 (the highest rate among backs with a minimum of 60 such rushes, per Next Gen Stats). He projects to see a big jump in production, even with 2020 third-round pick Zack Moss competing for snaps.

Mike Gesicki
Mike Gesicki
Miami Dolphins · TE

The Miami tight end scored four touchdowns on just seven receptions when lined up in the slot in the final six weeks of last season (tied for second most in the NFL during that span, per NGS). Slot production forecasts to be a key source of strength for the Dolphins, whether it's Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa under center, as Gesicki will be an enticing option from that area of the field.

N'Keal Harry
N'Keal Harry
New England Patriots · WR

Josh McDaniels' offensive game plans have historically been hard for defenses to peg and anticipate. That figures to be even more true as New England begins the post-Tom Brady era, with Cam Newton set to compete with Jarrett Stidham for the starting job. So, when the Patriots rank last in the league in any one particular area, I think it stands to reason that it likely won't be a trend that continues. Here's one example in which the expected improvement stands to benefit Harry: The Pats posted 6.2 yards per attempt to players aligned wide in 2019 (the lowest mark in the NFL, per NGS). Harry aligned wide on 86 percent of his snaps last season. As Harry starts his sophomore campaign, it's likely he'll be a bigger focus of -- and contributor to -- the game plan.

Chris Herndon
Chris Herndon
New York Jets · TE

A look at Herndon's rookie production from 2018 helps forecast a big 2020 for the tight end. In 2018, Herndon had a catch rate of 69.6 percent (sixth-highest among tight ends with at least 50 targets). He scored four touchdowns in the final 11 games that season, which tied for fourth-most among tight ends in that span. However, he played in only one game in 2019, missing nearly the entire season due to a suspension and injuries. A bounce-back season is in the offing, though. The Jets' wide receiver corps is not among the strongest in the NFL, meaning Sam Darnold is likely to lean on Herndon.

AFC NORTH

Marquise Brown
Marquise Brown
Baltimore Ravens · WR

We've already seen glimpses of what Hollywood can do when Lamar Jackson wants to find him deep. He caught three touchdowns on six deep receptions and 15 such targets as a rookie in 2019. No other Ravens wide receiver had more than three total deep receptions on the season, per NGS. Baltimore's deep passing game forecasts to improve in 2020, which should mean greater opportunities for Brown. 

A.J. Green
A.J. Green
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Between 2016 and 2018, Green scored nine touchdowns and averaged 9.2 yards per target, while quarterbacks had a 104.8 rating when targeting him on tight-window passes, all ranking third-best in the NFL over that span, according to NGS. Last season -- with Green missing the entire campaign -- Bengals receivers averaged the third-fewest yards of separation per target in the NFL (2.9 yards). With first overall pick Joe Burrow taking over under center, Green's production will be a big key to rejuvenating the Bengals' offense in 2020.

Odell Beckham
Odell Beckham
Cleveland Browns · WR

Last season, OBJ caught only 30 percent of his deep targets (9 of 30), which was the third-lowest percentage in the NFL of all pass catchers who saw at least 20 deep targets, per NGS. New head coach Kevin Stefanski figures to craft an offense that creates better opportunities for Baker Mayfield to succeed, and leveraging Mayfield's strengths means taking advantage of Beckham's abilities. Last season under Stefanski's play-calling, Stefon Diggs caught 57.7 percent of his deep targets (15 of 26), which was the best rate in the NFL. 

Diontae Johnson
Diontae Johnson
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR

PFF credited Johnson with 18 forced missed tackles last season, which tied for the most among wideouts. Couple Ben Roethlisberger's return from injury along with Johnson's elusiveness/season of experience in the Steelers' system, and his potential makes him not only a threat defenses will have to account for but someone you should earmark as a potential fantasy steal, as well.

AFC SOUTH

Kenny Stills
Kenny Stills
Houston Texans · WR

Stills caught 77.3 percent (17 of 22) of his targets of 10-plus air yards, which was the highest rate in the NFL, (min. 20 such targets). With the departure of DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, look for Stills' opportunities to increase and his capabilities to drive value for Deshaun Watson and the Texans' offense.

Xavier Rhodes
Xavier Rhodes
Indianapolis Colts · CB

Rhodes allowed a 127.8 passer rating last season with the Vikings (third-highest among corners, min. 50 targets) and an 84.3 percent completion percentage, which was the highest for any qualified corner, per PFF. OK, that was then. But now, as a Colt, he has the potential to realize results more like his 2016 and 2017 output (he was a Pro Bowler in each season), meaning at least above-average production in coverage and helping against the run.

Gardner Minshew
Gardner Minshew
Jacksonville Jaguars · QB

I'm seeing boom-or-bust production attributes in my models for Minshew in 2020. However, one of the boom areas is deep passing. Why is this such a good sign? Well, he had a 123.3 passer rating on deep balls last season, the highest mark in the NFL.

Malcolm Butler
Malcolm Butler
Tennessee Titans · CB

The thing about having an efficient offense like Tennessee's -- one that puts points on the board and eats up clock with a run-heavy approach -- is that it can create a lot of work for the Titans' pass defense. Think about it: Teams that fall behind and need to score in a hurry are forced to pass more often. That makes Butler's ability to force incompletions a very valuable trait for the 2020 season. He forced an incompletion on 19.6 percent of his targets in 2019 (10 of 51, ninth-highest rate among CBs, min. 25 targets), per PFF. Butler's coverage will be a key driver for the Titans' win total.

AFC WEST

A.J. Bouye
A.J. Bouye
Denver Broncos · CB

Bouye, acquired in a trade with the Jaguars this offseason, allowed a 103.8 passer rating last season, which was more than double his average from the previous two seasons (51.9), per PFF. My model forecasts Bouye's production to look a lot more like his 2017 and 2018 output due, in part, to the net effect of playing in a better defense that features perennial Pro Bowler Von Miller and franchise-tag recipient Justin Simmons.

Mecole Hardman
Mecole Hardman
Kansas City Chiefs · WR

Hardman scored four touchdowns of 40-plus yards last season (tied for most in the NFL). Being a proven home-run threat on every down might mean Hardman will draw more attention from defenses in 2020. But if he faces tighter coverage, that will just create opportunities for Kansas City's other talented pass catchers to make plays. This makes Hardman a threat whether he has the ball in his hands or not, but we still project a jump in production from the second-year speedster. First-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire's potential impact in the short passing game might even open more space for Hardman downfield. After all, Andy Reid has already said the rookie is better than the Eagles' versatile backfield weapon from the coach's days in Philly, Brian Westbrook.

Nick Kwiatkoski
Nick Kwiatkoski
Las Vegas Raiders · ILB

As an eight-game starter for the Bears last season, Kwiatkoski was PFF's 15th-highest graded linebacker (min. 300 snaps). I identified him as the Raiders' most underappreciated player a few weeks back based on the potential for his impact to be more valuable than his cost. My models forecast Kwiatkoski's production to increase because he will have more to do as a Raider. He won't be playing alongside Khalil Mack or between Chicago's talented front line and coverage anymore. Signing Kwiatkoski was a very smart offseason move for Las Vegas, though, as I expect them to quickly see his three-year, $21 million contract pay off.

Hunter Henry
Hunter Henry
Los Angeles Chargers · TE

One of the most predictive metrics in terms of earning first downs and touchdowns when teams change quarterbacks (as the Chargers will do this season following the departure of Philip Rivers) is the ability to catch passes in the middle of the field. And since 2018, Henry has an 87.1 percent catch rate in the middle third of the field, which is the highest rate among tight ends (min. 25 targets), according to NGS. Henry's value to the Chargers is obvious -- there's a reason they placed the franchise tag on him in March. He'll be the highest-paid TE in the league this season (making $10.6 million under the tag), but they're likely still getting a good deal relative to the output he's likely to produce.

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