In the fantasy world, there’s nothing like that post-draft euphoria spent looking at your lineup. You’re peeking at the rosters of the other owners in your league, and you can’t help but smugly chuckle. “It’s mine for the taking,” you tell yourself. Fast forward to Week 5. Some of the guys you most depend on aren’t performing the way they should, or they’re flat out missing time. You’re throwing your FAAB out like a madman to fill the holes in your team. By the time it’s all said and done, you’ve completely soured on your former prize draft picks and have no intention of ever taking them again. Be warned, while you and others are busy living in the past, your savvy league-mates are capitalizing on the value created by scorned fantasy owners everywhere. Obviously, players don’t always rebound, but that’s why you have us! My job is to highlight the players who can bounce back and put you one step ahead of the competition. So, who’s poised to have a 2020 resurgence? Stick around, and let’s jump into my list of comeback players for 2020.
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Comeback Players For 2020 Fantasy Football
Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Hell hath no fury like a fantasy owner scorned. That’s the saying, right? When you spent high draft capital on Adam Thielen, you had no idea you were signing up for the WR64 in PPR. Just two years ago, Thielen was a top-7 performer that would have been much higher if not for a second-half slump to finish the season. When he was on his game, he was absolutely brilliant. Following a season marred by injuries and disappointing play, owners have every right to feel skittish about the Vikings’ receiver.
Here’s the deal though, in both 2017 and 2018, Thielen saw over 140 targets go his way. These target totals, by the way, were unhampered by the presence of Stefon Diggs, who only missed three games in that time period. With Diggs gone, and rookie, Justin Jefferson, likely being the next guy up in Minnesota, Thielen should once again see 140+ targets in 2020, setting the stage for his candidacy as one of 2020’s comeback players.
Additionally, what makes Thielen a safe bet is his ability to maintain a high-target volume even when the defense is performing at a high level. In the years that Thielen raked in those high-target totals, Minnesota’s defense finished top-10 in points allowed. Just last year, the Vikings finished sixth in that category. Unfortunately for Minnesota, however, free-agency was unkind to their defensive unit.
The Vikings lost key pieces on defense like Eversen Griffen, who remains unsigned. They took a beating in their secondary as well. Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes have found new homes for 2020, leaving gaping holes in their passing defense. While Mike Zimmer has always gotten the most out of his defense, his hands are going to be full this season. His defense allowed Minnesota to utilize the running game as he and Kevin Stefanski wanted, but a potential decline is likely going to force Minnesota to finish higher than 30th in pass attempts like they did last year.
The Kubiak Effect
For those of you rightfully asking whether or not Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme can support a high-quality fantasy receiver, I’ve got a few things to share. Dating back to 2014, here are some of Kubiak’s wide receiver finishes in PPR. In 2014, Steve and Torrey Smith finished 19th and 28th respectively. In 2015, Demaryius Thomas was the WR11, while Emmanuel Sanders finished 19th. Lastly, in 2016, Thomas ranked 16th and Sanders came in at 20th. Take a look at the quarterbacks responsible for supporting these fantasy finishes. Joe Flacco, a deteriorated Peyton Manning, and a combination of Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. If I had to choose one of these quarterbacks to get the ball to Thielen…I wouldn’t. I’d take Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings’ quarterback wasn’t a fantasy MVP last year, but he fell just short of completing 70% of his passes. If Minnesota is forced to throw more, and I strongly believe they will, I have faith in Kirk to deliver high-quality targets to his star receiver.
The Bottom Line
Barring injuries, Thielen’s target volume is going to be in the same range as 2017 and 2018’s totals. I’d feel more comfortable with him as my WR2, but make no mistake, he has top-10 upside.
Brandin Cooks, Houston Texans
Injuries And Offensive Struggles
It was a strange year in Los Angeles. Ever since Sean McVay took over as the Rams’ head coach, we’ve been accustomed to strong performances from all of his weapons. Behind a pedestrian offensive line, Jared Goff struggled to repeat his stellar performance in 2018. For a deep-threat receiver, having a skittish quarterback who’s constantly pressured isn’t conducive to a productive fantasy output. Cooks went from 16.6 and 15.1 yards-per-catch respectively in 2017 and 2018 to 13.9 last season. Adding to his dip in yards-per-reception average, aside from the goose egg he laid in Week 5 of 2018, Cooks had only one other game of five targets or less that year. Meanwhile, prior to his injuries last season, he had already had three such games.
On top of the diminished Cooks/Goff connection, Cooks suffered two concussions in a 25-day span. In the seven weeks before suffering his first concussion in Week 8, Cooks was the WR29 in PPR. By no means is that impressive, especially by Cooks’ standards, but he did have some fantasy relevance. Juxtapose this with his Week 12-17 stretch after being cleared to play, and you’ll notice he dropped 36 spots to the WR65. It’s fair to say that offensive dysfunction and injuries severely impeded his ability to have his customary 1,000-yard outing.
Life After DeAndre Hopkins In Houston
I’ve already spent my fair share of time disparaging the trade between the Texans and the Cardinals, so I’ll skip that part of my analysis. Now that Hopkins is out of the picture, there are 150 targets available that are ripe for the picking. Cooks doesn’t inherit these targets by default, but it’s reasonable to argue that he’ll return to his range of targets of 110 and above. The biggest threat to his targets is Will Fuller. When healthy, Fuller is one of the most dynamic deep-threat receivers in the league. Let’s go back to the beginning of that last sentence for a moment. How did it start again? Oh yes, “when healthy.” In the last three seasons alone, Fuller has missed a whopping 20 games. I understand the concerns about Cooks’ concussions, but come on, 20 games!
As far as Kenny Stills and Randall Cobb go, there’s no reason to be concerned about them eating into Cooks’ targets in a meaningful way. I’m projecting the running backs to haul in more receptions as well, but Cooks already had Todd Gurley and two other stud receivers to fight over targets with. Houston is a team that’s going to be forced to throw the football, and it would be unwise to bet against Deshaun Watson’s passing abilities.
The Bottom Line
Under normal circumstances, I’d be wary of a receiver heading to a new team. Typically, that doesn’t bode well for fantasy production. Cooks has already defied that trend twice. In what’s going to be a pass-heavy offense, Cooks is going to see a high-volume of targets, and Watson can cater to Cooks’ particular style of play. His concussions are cause for concern, but this is also a player, who aside from last season, hasn’t missed time since 2014. Cooks carries a great deal less of an injury risk than Fuller, and his track record speaks for itself. Considering where Cooks is being drafted, he might be the most impactful of my comeback players on your roster.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
I don’t know who JuJu Smith-Schuster missed more last season, Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown. Without a competent quarterback, and with increased defensive attention, Smith-Schuster had a nightmare of a year in 2019. To be fair, the injury bug plagued the young receiver as well, but all-in-all, he was a disappointment to fantasy owners. Heading into a contract year, Smith-Schuster has a lot to prove if he hopes to sign a long-term deal with someone.
The Pittsburgh Quarterback Fiasco
Big Ben was sorely missed by his team following his elbow injury. In his stead, youngsters Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges both got their chance to run the offense. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh soon realized how hollow their depth chart was at quarterback, as Rudolph and Hodges were graded out by Pro Football Focus at 53.0 and 45.8 respectively. In their time as starters, between the two of them, they threw only 18 touchdowns, while throwing 17 interceptions. Their lackluster efforts led to Pittsburgh being ranked 31st in passing yards, and 29th in passing touchdowns.
In Ben’s only two games, Smith-Schuster managed to receive eight targets in each. For the remainder of the season, however, Smith-Schuster only saw eight targets or above just once. If Smith-Schuster had played out a full season with Rudolph and Hodges, he would have been on pace for a measly 72 targets. That’s just shy of 100 targets short from his 166-target season in 2018. Injury limitations may have very well been a contributor to his low-target volume as well, but sheesh.
Now that we’re all depressed, let’s get back to those first two games he played with Ben. In said games, Smith-Schuster finished as the WR33 in PPR. His upside was capped though, as he faced the Patriots’ vaunted defense in Week 1, and Ben exited the game in Week 2. Still, he put up a respectable 78 yards in Week 1, and a nice follow-up of 84 yards in the following game. Had he converted of those receptions into a touchdown, he would have catapulted to the WR24.
The Bottom Line
Of all the comeback players on this list, Smith-Schuster has the highest ceiling. If he and Ben are granted a full season together, you can take a top-15 performance from him to the bank. Ben has other weapons in the offense that now have to be accounted for, and hopefully, this will take some of the pressure off of Smith-Schuster. Diontae Johnson, for example, established himself as a capable outside receiver in his rookie season. His ability to play the outside will make it easier to put JuJu in the slot, which is where he makes his money. Draft Smith-Schuster with confidence, and if you can buy-low in dynasty, start making those deals happen!
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
At last, we’re talking about a running back on my list of comeback players.
The only person happy with James Conner’s performance last season was Le’Veon Bell. After telling the veteran star to take a hike, Pittsburgh elected to hand the backfield over to Conner. He already had plenty of playing experience in the team’s offense when Bell held out for the entire 2018 season. In the 13 games he played in 2018, Conner finished as the RB6 in PPR without even rushing for 1,000 yards. Granted, he was just shy of that total. What made him elite though was his knack of finding the end-zone and his versatility as a pass-catcher. Conner brought down 55 receptions for 497 yards. Despite the massive breakout campaign he had in 2018, last season’s injury-riddled affair was less than stellar. As a result, Conner’s fantasy stock has plummeted after having missed six games.
Obviously, there’s reason for optimism, or he wouldn’t be on this list. What’s encouraging about Conner’s outlook is the way he produced with such a limited body of work last season. He wasn’t the same guy as the year before, but he found ways to be useful. In 10 games, he averaged four yards-per-carry and combined for 715 yards overall and seven touchdowns. He was also on track to be in the range of his previous season’s reception total. With or without Ben, Conner’s usage in the offense is vital.
So, I guess I should address the elephant in the room. It’s difficult to nominate someone as a comeback player when you know the inherent risk attached to their name. It is, however, equally as difficult not to mention the potential a player has if he can manage to stay healthy for at least the majority of the season, but we’ll get back to that later. Even with a clean bill of health, it isn’t going to be easy to trust Conner’s durability from here on out. In his two years as the starter, Conner has already missed nine games due to multiple injuries. Just last year, Conner sustained three separate injuries that either forced him to miss time or hampered his play. Given this concern, Conner is the first of my comeback players that I’m attaching a stipulation to. If you draft him, you need to go out and get Benny Snell Jr. as well. Remember, that’s Snell, not Anthony Macfarland Jr., who profiles as anything but an early-down back.
The Tomlin Way
Is anyone buying the talk of Pittsburgh utilizing multiple running backs? I’m not. Even head coach Mike Tomlin himself said in a recent interview that he’s a “featured-runner type guy by mentality.” Adding to the idea of Conner being the bell cow running back, Tomlin also addressed Conner’s backup, Snell. “Benny Snell is a guy that is capable of being a featured runner who plays with a physical style in a similar manner to James. He’s capable of being a James-type of guy if James is unavailable.” More talk will come out on the topic, but it’s telling that Tomlin is being so candid about a style of offense he’s been utilizing for years.
The Bottom Line
There’s no denying that Conner carries risk, but when healthy, he’s an elite talent. Even when battling through injuries last year, Conner was the 17th ranked running back in fantasy points-per-game. If he can at least give you 13 healthy games as he did in 2018, a top-15 performance is almost a lock, and there’s plenty of upside there. Like Brandin Cooks, Conner is a comeback player who could help define your entire season. With where he’s going in the draft, if he even comes close to his upside, you have a serious value on your hands.
So, let the media talk about a committee backfield. Hell, let members of the Steelers’ organization talk about it as well. When you’re heading into your draft, if you have any doubts, ask yourself, “what would Mike Tomlin do?”
I hope you enjoyed my list of comeback players for 2020. If you haven’t already seen it, check out the SuperFlex mock draft that I participated in with the crew at Fantrax by clicking here!
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