Game Theory

Projecting the most improved player for each NFC 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 NFC team (listed by division) that helps explain why these guys forecast to grow as contributors.

NFC EAST

Amari Cooper
Amari Cooper
Dallas Cowboys · WR

Per Next Gen Stats, Cooper already had a stellar 2019, posting a 133.5 passer rating on deep targets (highest in the NFL among those with a minimum of 15 deep targets) and catching 57.1 percent of them (second-highest in the NFL among those with a minimum of 15 deep targets). He had the most receiving yards outside the numbers among wide receivers (732), while he posted the most receptions (11) and yards (176) on boundary targets (those within 2 yards of the sideline) and tied for second in touchdowns (two). So how do I actually have his value ticking upward? Well, he's very important to QB Dak Prescott's success -- Prescott has averaged 8.2 yards per attempt with Cooper on the field since 2018, as opposed to 7.1 when he is not on the field -- as Prescott plays for a mega-extension on the franchise tag. And with the Cowboys adding rookie CeeDee Lamb (who will presumably take many reps in the slot) to a receiver corps that already included Michael Gallup, the quality of targets for all of the pass catchers, including Cooper, should climb.

Blake Martinez
Blake Martinez
New York Giants · ILB

NGS shows that, as a Packer last season, Martinez made a tackle on 15.8 percent of his snaps (third-highest rate in the NFL among those with a minimum of 500 defensive snaps). The Giants' defense, especially in the middle, will rely on Martinez's effective play, likely requiring him to make even more tackles than the Packers' defense required of him last season.

Marquise Goodwin
Marquise Goodwin
Philadelphia Eagles · WR

NGS shows that, in 2019, Eagles QB Carson Wentz completed just 11 of his attempted 44 deep passes to wide receivers. Over his past three seasons as a Niner, Goodwin -- who was traded to Philly this offseason -- averaged over 17 yards per reception. Goodwin's speed and deep-reception potential in this Eagles offense drives value for him and creates space for his teammates.

This is a photo of Derrius Guice of the Washington Redskins NFL football team. This image reflects the Washington Redskins active roster as of Friday, July 5, 2019. (AP Photo)
Derrius Guice
Washington RB

Coming off a 2019 in which he lost 11 games to injury, the former LSU back forecasts to be an asset for first-year coach Ron Rivera (and offensive coordinator Scott Turner), and to help second-year pro Dwayne Haskins develop at QB by being an efficient, reliable source of earned yards. In 42 rushes last season, Guice averaged 5.8 yards per rush (for 245 total yards). His pass-catching potential also helps drive value.

NFC NORTH

Akiem Hicks
Akiem Hicks
Chicago Bears · DE

Since 2018, the Bears' defense has pressured opposing quarterbacks on 31.1 percent of dropbacks with Hicks on the field, as opposed to 23.3 percent when he was not on the field. The combination of Hicks returning from injury on the interior and Khalil Mack being on the edge changes the potential for opposing offenses to make gains on the Bears. 

Kenny Golladay
Kenny Golladay
Detroit Lions · WR

NGS shows that Golladay earned the second-most yards on deep targets in the NFL last season (546), which is even more impressive when you consider he averaged the fewest yards of separation on all targets (only 1.9 yards) among those with a minimum of 50 targets. With QB Matthew Stafford returning from an injury that cost him eight games in 2019 and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell projecting to have more run-pass play-calling balance (given Kerryon Johnson returning to health and the selection of D'Andre Swift), it's reasonable to expect Golladay to work with more separation -- and that typically correlates with a better catch rate. Given his deep-ball results even in tough circumstances, the increase in quality targets coming his way drives an increase in forecasted production.

Adrian Amos
Adrian Amos
Green Bay Packers · SS

The moves Green Bay made last offseason, especially on defense (including signing Amos), created a big uptick in pressure and efficiency, which helped propel the Packers to the playoffs. While Amos may only have been Pro Football Focus' 12th-highest-graded safety for the season (among those with a minimum of 300 snaps), the net impact of all of the pieces of the defense working together likely obscured how much any individual contributed to the whole. With linebacker Blake Martinez now a member of the Giants, the middle of the defense could function differently, meaning Amos could have more opportunities to realize his potential.

Tajae Sharpe
Tajae Sharpe
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Last season, the Vikings threw 12 touchdowns of 10-plus air yards to players aligned wide, per NGS, and while the team did draft Justin Jefferson, there should still be snaps to be had in the wake of Stefon Diggs' trade to Buffalo. In an offseason that included big-name wideouts changing teams and a very deep receiver class in the draft, Sharpe's signing in Minnesota did not draw many headlines, but the veteran was an actively sought-after free agent. The teams I spoke to that were interested in him consistently brought up his ability when aligning wide, something the former fifth-round pick did on 76 percent of snaps as a Titan last season, per NGS. 

NFC SOUTH

Hayden Hurst
Hayden Hurst
Atlanta Falcons · TE

The former Raven steps into an offense where he forecasts to see a big uptick in targets. Last season, he caught 30 of the 39 targets he saw (76.9 percent, tied for seventh among tight ends with a minimum of 30 targets). Hurst's increased opportunity means he should be a tight end you try to add in fantasy.

Robby Anderson
Robby Anderson
Carolina Panthers · WR

Since 2016 as a Jet, Anderson averaged 15.2 air yards per target (most in the NFL among those with a minimum of 300 targets) and 1,164 yards on deep targets (10th in the NFL, both per NGS). Adding him to an offense that also includes standout players D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffrey may not be the best for Anderson's fantasy football value, but it should drive a big increase in the Panthers' possibilities to earn first downs and touchdowns. 

Jared Cook
Jared Cook
New Orleans Saints · TE

In the final six weeks of the 2019 season, Cook saw pay dirt five times when he was aligned in the slot (most in the NFL in that span, per NGS). With receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders figuring to command significant attention from opposing defenses, the space Cook operates in has the potential to be more favorable for the 6-foot-5 threat to catch passes -- especially quick-strike passes, which have been a hallmark of Drew Brees' game, including in the red zone.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

The Pats signal-caller did not have his most efficient season in 2019; NGS shows that he only completed 37.4 percent of passes when he was under pressure (third-lowest in the NFL among those with 200-plus pass attempts), a considerable drop from his mark over the three prior seasons (52.1%). Brady's 67.4 passer rating to targets aligned wide in 2019 was the lowest rating among those with 200-plus passes in the NFL last season (with only five touchdowns against six interceptions). Now, PFF does show that Brady's receivers dropped 34 passes (fifth-most in the NFL) last season. With his superior arsenal of weapons in Tampa Bay, Brady's production forecasts to significantly improve. One additional area my model feels strongly about: Last season, Brady only had the seventh-highest passer rating on deep passes (107.6, per NGS) among those with 50-plus deep attempts. My model forecasts this number to rank no lower than fifth in 2020.

NFC WEST

Kenyan Drake
Kenyan Drake
Arizona Cardinals · RB

Between David Johnson's departure via trade and QB Kyler Murray's development as a second-year pro (and, of course, the space that will be created by the presence of newly acquired receiver DeAndre Hopkins), Kenyan Drake's role in this offense forecasts to increase significantly, making him the PPR fantasy back that could seal your season (especially presuming you can get him at a discount compared to other top-end backs). NGS shows that last season, Drake reached 15-plus mph on 26.8 percent of his rushes as a Cardinal -- that total of 33 such rushes counted as the second-most in the NFL from Weeks 9 to 17. Arizona's fast-paced offense suits him well, as that percentage was a big uptick from the mark he posted with the Dolphins in 2019 (he reached 15-plus mph on 14.9 percent of rushes).

Jalen Ramsey
Jalen Ramsey
Los Angeles Rams · CB

In Weeks 11-17 of the 2019 season, Ramsey (who was traded to Los Angeles mid-season) allowed an exceptional 59.0 passer rating in coverage, nearly cutting his rating allowed from Weeks 1-10 (117.3) in half. In the tough NFC West (my model rates this as the most difficult division), it will be paramount for the Rams to reap the benefits of their high-pressure front (Aaron Donald) and top-notch coverage (Ramsey) working together.

Raheem Mostert
Raheem Mostert
San Francisco 49ers · RB

Mostert's 2019 efficiency while splitting carries in this run-heavy offense helps drive my forecast that he'll be a top-10 running back in 2020 (in non-PPR fantasy rankings), presuming his full-season usage ticks up, with Matt Breida having been traded to Miami. One of my favorite metrics from last season? Mostert led all qualified running backs in yards per rush outside the tackles (6.2, per NGS). 

Greg Olsen
Greg Olsen
Seattle Seahawks · TE

Over the past two seasons, Seahawks tight ends caught 73 percent of their targets (127 of 174), which was tied for the fifth-highest rate of any tight end group in the NFL. While the depth chart is crowded in Seattle, Olsen's elite drop rate (under 5 percent for his career, per PFF) and reliable route-running drive this vet's production potential. 

 

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