We’ve all been burned by a top draft pick and more-often-than-not that player will find themselves firmly on our “Do Not Draft” list for the remainder of their career (I’m looking at you, Doug Martin). However, underperformers often don’t live up to the hype strictly because football can be a fluky game. Setting emotion aside, those players can be good bargain buys in the following year because of a consensus idea that their career is trending downward. Here we’ll dissect a few of last year’s “underperformers” that should be on everyone’s radar this season. I’ll call out their 2019 pre-draft ranking and their end-of-season finish in half-PPR.
Aaron Rodgers (pre-draft 3, end-of-season 10)
Rodgers was regarded as one of the safest picks you could take last season for a quarterback. Experts harped that Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were due for regression and Rodgers had 11 solid seasons of proven production. While he technically still finished as a QB1, people were expecting more when they reached for Rodgers. He finished the season with 4,002 yards which marked the second-lowest mark of his career in a full-health season. His 26 touchdowns tied for ninth overall with Watson, Mahomes, and Matt Ryan who all missed at least one game. While his numbers didn’t reflect the dominance that he has shown in past, a deeper look shows that he should bounce back in 2020. This was the first year in Rodgers’s career as a starter than he didn’t have Mike McCarthy as his head coach. There were some growing pains with rookie head coach Matt LaFleur but the Packers and Rodgers should assume their spot atop the NFC North again next year. The Packers were notoriously thin at wide receiver and Davante Adams’s four-game absence didn’t make things any easier. With a healthy Davante Adams, growing faith in Alan Lazard, Aaron Jones’s pass-catching abilities, and another year of experience for LaFleur Rodgers will bounce back. Running quarterbacks will shoot up the draft boards because of Lamar Jackson’s success, but Rodgers can easily put up top-3 value and not cost you one of your first picks in 2020.
Baker Mayfield (pre-draft 4, end-of-season 19)
Mayfield had one of the most talked about sophomore slumps ever. The Browns loaded up with talent last off-season, acquiring superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. and electric pass-catching running back Kareem Hunt to complement Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb. Experts may have been a bit overzealous touting Mayfield as a quarterback to draft over Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, Kyler Murray, and Drew Brees but it happens every year. The offseason hypetrain for the Browns derailed Week 1 with a crushing home loss to the Marcus Mariota-led Titans. Mayfield regressed in just about every per-game metric in his second year as a pro; yards, sacks, interceptions, touchdowns, and QBR. A lot of that blame falls of the shoulders of recently-fired head coach Freddie Kitchens. His anemic play-calling hampered the entire passing game. Mayfield’s yards per attempt dropped from 7.5 in 2018 to 6.2 in 2019. With two speedster wide receivers and a pair of great running backs, it was head-scratching as to why more plays weren’t called to get his receivers downfield and let Mayfield showcase his big arm. Newly hired head coach Kevin Stefanski should be the answer to the Browns’ problems. Stefanski was the Vikings’ quarterback coach in 2017 and helped Case Keenum have the best season of his career. Between 2018-2019 as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, Stefanski elevated Kirk Cousin’s game to a new level. Combine the addition of Stefanski with newly-acquired tight end Austin Hooper and I’ll take all the Mayfield shares this season. The Vikings and Browns have a similar group of skill players and you can’t help but imagine that Stefanski will coach Mayfield to improve his game this year by adding some longer-developing and deeper routes to their playbook. While the risk undeniable with Mayfield, I really like his value as a quarterback that isn’t cracking the top-10 in most rankings. I won’t add a full write-up on Odell to this list, but he should still be targeted in drafts for the same reasons as Mayfield.
Alvin Kamara (pre-draft 3, end-of-season 12)
Kamara is an obvious one but let’s dive into why you shouldn’t pass on Kamara after the first three picks. He will still be drafted in the first round, but his projection as a top-three running back last year should carry over into this season. Kamara had 18 total touchdowns in 2018 and followed it up with an underwhelming six in 2019. To make matters worse, four of those six came in weeks 16 and 17 when most of his owners were already done for the year. Latavius Murray had a much larger role than expected, but lack of opportunity wasn’t the reason for Kamara’s regression. Like I mentioned in my opening paragraph, football is a fluky game. There were only 11 running backs that had more scrimmage yards per game than Alvin Kamara this year. Those running backs averaged 11.7 touchdowns on the year. Keep in mind, Kamara only had two touchdowns heading into championship week. But, he missed three games to injury and still finished third in broken tackles, behind only Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb. He led the league in broken tackle rate, evading a defender once in every 5.9 attempts. He also only had four touches in his first game back from injury, which drags his per-game numbers down even further. Kamara is just as slippery as ever and the lead back on a powerhouse offense that likes to feed him the rock. He should finish top-three this season and can be snagged late in the first round. Draft him with confidence after Christian McAffrey and Saquon Barkley.
JuJu Smith Schuster (pre-draft 7, end-of-season 66)
Smith-Schuster caused so many fantasy football fans to miss the playoffs. He was a bust of epic proportions and spent the entire season teasing fantasy owners. There are only two words that I need to convince you that the fourth-year receiver will bounce back: Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was only healthy for one full game and Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 78 yards in that matchup. He only had more than six catches in one other game for the entire season. Any young wide receiver is going to struggle with a practice squad carousel at quarterback and that was evidenced by Smith-Schuster’s lackluster numbers in 2019. In 2018, he posted 111 receptions, 1,426 yards, and seven touchdowns playing second fiddle to Antonio Brown. With Brown out of the picture, Smith-Schuster was expected to take the league by storm in 2019. Instead, he finished the season with 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns. With Roethlisberger back in the fold next year, Smith-Schuster will most certainly return to his superstar form. The Steelers attempted 31.5 pass attempts which doesn’t look bad until you look deeper. Mason Rudolph averaged 6.2 yards per attempt and Devlin Hodges averaged 6.6. Roethlisberger’s career average is 7.8 yards per attempt, good for ninth in league history and second for active players, behind only Russell Wilson. JuJu’s big-play ability disappeared in the modified offense that focused on short and high-percentage passes.With Roethlisberger back under center will be the high-scoring and deep-ball-throwing brand that the Steelers are known for. There’s no reason that the young wide receiver can’t bounce back to top-10 form next season. His 2019 season will be remembered as nothing more than a blip in this future star’s career. The same goes for Vance McDonald. He will be a safe tight end to draft this year.
T.Y. Hilton (pre-draft 23, end-of-season 57)
Hilton posted his worst season of his career, last season, after Andrew Luck’s unexpected retirement. Which will hurt his draft value this year, though you shouldn’t be scared. His targets, receptions, and yards were all career-lows and his five touchdowns were second-worst of his eight-year career. A casual fan might think that this is because of Jacoby Brissett’s play, but really Hilton had nagging injuries all season.An explosive receiver relies on speed to get separation and a calf injury didn’t allow Hilton to do that in 2019. Prior to suffering an injury, Hilton was putting up great numbers. Over his first three weeks had had 20 catches for 195 yards and four touchdowns and led the team in every measurable receiving statistic. He just couldn’t stay healthy after that. The team had debated shutting him down but Hilton kept suiting up and hitting the field on limited snap counts and used more as a decoy than an actual downfield threat.He’s one of the toughest and fastest players in the league and has spent time working out with Phillip Rivers. When Rivers finds a target he likes, he forces the ball to him. Keenan Allen had 297 targets over the last two seasons. Hilton should be in line for a similar target share. Don’t be scared to draft him, feel confident drafting him in the fourth round or later.