To say that 2020 has been a wild ride thus far would be a massive understatement. Should the NFL season go on as planned, it will be a season unlike any ever witnessed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be no preseason, a reduced training camp and numerous other changes; revealing a new set of challenges for fantasy footballers. To what extent the pandemic plays a role is the key question.
The NFL’s Plan
While other professional sports have returned to play, the NFL finds itself preparing for an unprecedented season. The challenges the league faces are stark compared to other leagues; larger rosters, close contact on the playing field, a full season, etc. Every precaution will be taken to ensure things forge on; the fantasy community would also be wise to prepare for the unexpected.
The NFL will implement a testing procedure for players before they are even allowed on the practice field. Testing will then continue to play a major role in keeping the virus out of locker rooms. During the season, players that test positive will go to injured reserve (for up to three weeks) until they pass protocols for a safe return. In addition, practice squads will be increased from 10 to 16 players.
Another aspect to consider is the change in the salary cap. Not for 2020, for which it remains unchanged, but for 2021. The cap for the ‘21 season will be around $35 million lower than originally estimated. While this is certain to affect players in the final year of their deals going into ‘21, it will also affect veterans now. Because unused cap space rolls over to the next league year, teams are incentivized now more than ever to shed salary.
In addition, the opt-out clause for this season is yet another layer. Multiple players opted out, with Damien Williams being the most fantasy relevant. With no preseason to flush out rosters, teams will need to be innovative in their approach.
The Impact On Fantasy Football
Though there’s no telling exactly how much COVID-19 will impact the coming season, there are steps that can be taken to avoid disaster. The NFL’s plan to move ahead amidst the pandemic is crucial in strategizing for the fantasy season. Teams will be adapting to the multiple changes and adjusting their plans accordingly; those in the fantasy community need to do the same. Roster cuts will need extra attention this season.
On the surface, it would appear that veterans will be safe; coaches won’t have the luxury of the preseason to play new additions as they normally would. Given the lower salary cap in 2021, however, the incentive for teams to save money for next year opens the door of opportunity. Certain teams will choose to cut veteran players and rely on their younger talent.
Additionally, one must wonder if the first month of the season will be treated somewhat like the preseason. If so, rookies and second-string players will see more playing time than in other years. Given the potential that any player can test positive for the virus at any point, all rostered and practice squad players demand an increase in attention.
The lowered cap in the ‘21 season will play a large part in how teams approach this coming season. The lack of training camp will hurt some younger players, but teams looking to shed salary will rely on that youth. Not to mention, it is the youngsters who will likely provide depth for teams losing players to COVID-19. For that reason, it’s important to identify those with the most talent and clearest paths to relevancy.
Contenders May Need Rookie Help
Any team that lacks depth at a skill position is the first place to look. The Philadelphia receiver group is a great example; Marquise Goodwin has opted out and Alshon Jeffery is headed for the PUP list to begin the year. That leaves DeSean Jackson, Greg Ward and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside as the top incumbents. Jackson is nearly 34 years old and is coming off an injury-riddled 2019 campaign. Ward, a quarterback-turned-receiver, played well in relief last season, but is not a long-term answer. Arcega-Whiteside is an average talent, at best.
Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia’s first round draft pick in 2020, will certainly garner a starting job. If healthy, Jackson will start opposite of the rookie. That would still leave plenty of room for improvement, and the team’s late-round rookies can provide answers. Both John Hightower and Quez Watkins have impressive player profiles, with upper-percentile marks in the 40-Yard Dash, Speed Score and Burst Score. There is opportunity for an impact to be made.
Joe Reed and Darnell Mooney are others to watch, with their respective squads lacking a true third receiver. Reed, a fifth-round pick of the Chargers, has little competition for the third spot behind starters Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Like the Eagles rookies, he recorded high marks in both Speed Score and Burst Score. Mooney, with a 4.38 (96th-percentile among qualified wide receivers) 40-Yard Dash, has the Bears coaches excited about his speed.
Finally, we come to running back, the most fragile position. Stashing, a common practice in dynasty, should also be implemented in seasonal leagues. We may see more of these lesser-known backs hit the field as the 2020 season rolls along. Arizona’s Eno Benjamin jumps out immediately. While his speed is average, he ranked highly in Burst Score and Agility Score. In college, he drew a 14.4-percent (92nd-percentile) Target Share. He is a great fit alongside quarterback Kyler Murray, and should begin the year third on the depth chart.
Rookies who didn’t make an impact in 2019 will also look to capitalize on the potential opportunity this season. Still early in their rookie deals, these players maintain a sense of potential, while costing their teams very little in salary. Many have been lowered in rankings, even forgotten about. All because they didn’t splash in year one. However, most players need a year or two to find their way in the league.
In Miami, the top two wide receiver spots are settled. Preston Williams and DeVante Parker form an excellent duo. That being said, Williams is recovering from a torn ACL, and Parker had been rather quiet up until last year. With Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson opting out, the third receiver chair is open. At 6-1, 214-pounds, sophomore Gary Jennings boasts upper-percentile marks in the 40-Yard Dash, Speed Score and Burst Score. He is the most talented wideout on the roster after the two starters.
In San Francisco, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has two high-end youngsters on the roster in Deebo Samuel and rookie Brandon Aiyuk. Samuel likely won’t be ready for Week 1 due to a broken left foot. Aiyuk will have to navigate the abnormal offseason as a rookie. That opens the door for Jalen Hurd, who is coming off of his own injury from 2019. The running back-turned-receiver is one Shanahan hopes to get going in 2020.
Some Things Never Change
Up in Seattle, Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde lead the way for one of the more run-heavy teams in the league. Rashaad Penny will begin the year on the PUP list. Carson’s flaws are well documented. Hyde is nearing age 30 and coming off an inefficient campaign in Houston. Enter Travis Homer. The sophomore back has an impressive player profile and compares to one Matt Breida. There’s nothing stopping Homer from working his way up the depth chart.
In New England, Sony Michel may miss time early in the year, paving the way for Damien Harris. While Harris saw little action in 2019, there is reason for optimism. In the new-look Patriots offense, he should make quick friends with Cam Newton. At 5-10, 216-pounds with a 4.57 (56th-percentile) 40-Yard Dash and a 99.0 (60th-percentile) Speed Score, he has the requisite size and speed to be successful. Surely, coach Bill Belichick will want to prove his mastery in a season such as this.
Tight End Time
At the tight end position, there are several second-year names worth picking up and stashing. Josh Oliver, Drew Sample and Kahale Warring all have impressive profiles and a semblance of a path to fantasy relevancy. While some may have forgotten these players, we have to remember that tight ends take more time to develop than other positions. In general, the rookies don’t break out in year one, but year two is a different story.
Tyler Eifert‘s arrival in Jacksonville is a threat to Oliver’s ascent. However, the former Bengal has dealt with injuries in recent years and has not been the same player. A change of scenery may benefit Eifert, though Oliver will be right there breathing down his neck.
In similar fashion, Sample has C.J. Uzomah ahead of him in Eifert’s former city. While not much of a producer in college, Sample has the necessary athleticism to make defenses pay.
The Houston tight end room is a bit more crowded. Darren Fells scored seven touchdowns in 2019, but was otherwise unimpressive. Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins have both had their chances, though neither have done enough to claim the starting job. Warring is nipping at their heels, and has already been working with quarterback Deshaun Watson during the offseason. It should surprise no one when he becomes the top tight end in Houston.
The Year of the Backup
Though there is good reason to highlight rookies and sophomores for the upcoming campaign, entire depth charts need to be put under a microscope. Given the possibility of any player being removed for weeks due to a positive COVID test, depth is as crucial in fantasy as it is in the NFL. Injuries happen; the difference with COVID is that, generally, more than one player is affected.
The quarterback position is now even more vulnerable than in past years. Teams will do what is necessary to keep their stars from contracting the virus, but the players must still get out on the field with each other. Therefore, names like Andy Dalton, Matt Moore and Brett Hundley need to be rostered in deeper leagues. P.J. Walker is another one to monitor. His play in the XFL earned him a contract with Carolina and former college head coach, Matt Rhule.
Depth Chart Mining
Kansas City is a team with questions at running back after Damien Williams opted out. While Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the biggest beneficiary, the remainder of the depth chart needs sorting out. Incumbent Darrel Williams is joined by new additions DeAndre Washington and Elijah McGuire. There is also second year man Darwin Thompson. Washington looks to be the next man up, but any of these backs can carve out a role in this offense.
Another back to roster is Jerick McKinnon. Though he has been an afterthought recently due to injuries, he remains a 49er and is third on the depth chart after Matt Breida was traded to Miami. Raheem Mostert and the San Francisco front office may have worked out a new contract, but Kyle Shanahan tends to ride the hot hand. There’s no reason it can’t be McKinnon at some point this year. With upper-percentile marks across all workout metrics, the league-winning potential is still there.
Check out Jerick McKinnon’s 2020 Projection on PlayerProfiler’s “World Famous” Draft Kit:
At wide receiver, there are opportunities galore across the landscape. Rashard Higgins continues to vye for the third receiver spot in Cleveland, but Taywan Taylor arrived in the offseason to provide competition. Taylor may ultimately win the job. His player profile reveals superior speed and athleticism to Higgins. In Kansas City, Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman are intriguing players who won’t see meaningful playing time without an injury to one of the starters.
Down in Houston, the wide receiver room is loaded. Randall Cobb, Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller will lead the way, but Kenny Stills and Keke Coutee hang around. Despite struggling in his first two seasons, Coutee is a player to monitor. At 5-10 and 181-pounds, he clocked in at 4.43 (86th-percentile) in the 40-Yard Dash and posted an Agility Score in the 67th-percentile. Most impressive, a 76.9-percent Catch Rate in his final college season.
In addition, some may be writing off certain tight ends too soon. O.J. Howard and David Njoku currently both have ugly outlooks for 2020 and carry ADPs in the double-digit rounds. However, the potential remains for these two players, as does the possibility of them being dealt. Both Njoku and Howard are highly undervalued at the moment. Does anyone truly believe that Rob Gronkowski can go the entire season without a house party? He’s sure to miss time (I kid, I kid).
2020 will bring an NFL season unlike any other; in turn, bringing a fantasy season the likes of which we may never see again. The teams who are most prepared will prosper. Depth will be more important, requiring a level of research some may find to be “too much.” Despite the unknowns that are present this year, there exists a means to capitalize on the chaos. The additional research and preparation will pay dividends in the year of COVID-19.