Chargers Shine in 2021 Staff Predictions
Compiled by Vincent Verhei
Our numbers say the Chargers will once again miss the playoffs in 2021. Our writers, for the most part, disagree.
This is one of our favorite features to write every year. It is also one of our most hated features to write every year. Every group of football fans—be they fantasy leaguers, officemates, drinking buddies, television crews, or in our case, a loose-knit collection of laptop warriors enslaved to our Internet connections—loves to debate and discuss which teams will excel in the ensuing season, and which will suck. For our crew, it's an especially sweet time. After months of squinting at spreadsheets preparing our annual Football Outsiders Almanac (still available!), we get to put the data aside and put our knowledge to the test. It's a chance to find out if we're as smart as we think we are. The downside, though, is that our picks are on the record. Here's what we thought would happen in past seasons:
So here's your standard warning: predictions are probably wrong. It is the intrinsic nature of the NFL. There are so many variables and so much luck involved in a
16- 17-game season that teams will make the playoffs or bomb for totally unexpected and sometimes baffling reasons. We can only guess.
Let's say we think the Tampa Bay Buccaneeers have the best chance of any team in the NFL to play in the Super Bowl. Let's say we think they'll get there 30% of the time, which are roughly the odds based on our most recent simulation (The exact odds are 30.2%, about half a percentage point ahead of Kansas City for best in the league.) Imagine then that 15 other teams in the NFC each have a 4% or 5% chance to reach the Super Bowl.
OK, so we pick Tampa Bay to win the NFC. Even based solely on this opinion, there is a seven-out-of-10 chance the pick will be incorrect. So all preseason predictions are going to be mostly wrong. It is unavoidable.
As we note every year, we're going to make picks anyway, because that's part of running a football site: you make picks.
Then again, if we each picked our 14 playoff teams, there would be a lot of overlap and you wouldn't learn a lot. Instead, we're showing our individuality by each arguing with our own statistical forecast, giving answers to questions such as "which team is most likely to beat its projection?" and "who will go first in the 2022 NFL draft?" However, the official FO predictions are based on the statistical projection system, even when the output looks a little strange. You can find those projections here, and as a reminder, the updated playoff forecast is:
AFC divisions: Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, Tennessee
AFC wild cards: New England, Denver, Miami
NFC divisions: Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Seattle, Dallas
NFC wild cards: L.A. Rams, San Francisco, New Orleans
Super Bowl: Tampa Bay over Kansas City (in reality, there's no pick here, as the difference between the projected DVOA ratings is 0.01%)
First Pick in the Draft: New York Jets
"Officially," we are projecting three new playoff teams in the AFC: the Broncos, Dolphins, and Patriots, who would break playoff droughts of five years, four years, and, um, one year, respectively. We see two new NFC clubs in the postseason, with Dallas usurping Washington in the NFC East and San Francisco getting a wild-card berth instead of Chicago.
We often say—even though some people don't seem to ever hear it—that we do not believe that our statistical methods are perfect. Our subjective views are informed by our objective numbers, but not dictated by them. However, we want to make this clear: EACH OF THE OPINIONS LISTED BELOW IS THE OPINION OF THAT WRITER AND THAT WRITER ONLY. These are not "Football Outsiders predicts."
And now: here are your 2021 staff predictions.
Note: Listed ranks for the DVOA projections may be slightly off if they are based on the projections in the book instead of the updated projections published on Wednesday.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO BEAT ITS FOA PROJECTION
J.P. Acosta: Los Angeles Chargers. In Football Outsiders Almanac, the Chargers were projected at 7.3 wins; that projection actually dropped a few decimal points yesterday. I think they'll flirt with the playoffs this year and go over their preseason projection. Under new head coach Brandon Staley's defensive scheme, players such as Derwin James and rookie defensive back Asante Samuel Jr. should star in their roles. Justin Herbert will continue to rise under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and their schedule gets relatively light after their Week 7 bye.
Thomas Bassinger: Philadelphia Eagles. Our projections have the Eagles finishing among the six worst teams in DVOA and last in the NFC East. I don't see them as Super Bowl contenders, but I don't see them being that bad. It all starts up front, right? Well, that's where this team is strongest, on offense and defense. The offensive line, which led the NFL in adjusted games lost last season, features three linemen—Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson—who were Pro Bowl selections in either 2019 or 2020. The defensive line features two: Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. With Jalen Hurts entering his first season as a starting quarterback and Nick Sirianni entering his first season as a playcaller, I figure the offense might start slowly, but the defense has one of the more favorable schedules in the league (10 games against offenses projected to be below average). One thing's for sure: this isn't an organization that stays down for very long. Since the NFL realigned in 2002, the Eagles haven't finished in last place in consecutive seasons.
Cale Clinton: Los Angeles Chargers. I know the Chargers have become the team everyone wants to hop on board, and I fear I may be arriving on this bandwagon a year early. I am just so optimistic about the changes this team made in the offseason. Brandon Staley is going to make a world of difference for this team's defense, especially with the return of Derwin James. Joe Lombardi's Saints/49ers hybrid offense perfectly suits the skill sets on this roster. While I do fear Justin Herbert may see some Year 2 regression, the improvements to the offensive line and incorporation of a new scheme may stave off that dreaded sophomore slump. Not only do I believe that the Chargers will outperform their predicted win total of 7.2, but this team may even sneak into the playoffs.
Derrik Klassen: Chicago Bears. This is sort of tied to my team most likely to fall short of their projections. While the thought of Andy Dalton starting is about as inspiring as day-old oatmeal, I expect Justin Fields to start sooner rather than later and give this team a real boost. Fields improves both Chicago's passing and rushing offense, and you never know what might get into the defense if they feel they have a quarterback worth playing for.
Bryan Knowles: Cleveland Browns. This is maybe not a shocker of a prediction, as there isn't a team out there with a bigger gap between our projections and the general consensus as the Browns; there's a lot of wriggle room between our 8.7 projected wins and Vegas' 10.5 over/under mark. The Browns got better as 2020 progressed, and while historically that isn't an indicator of great success, I'm willing to accept that a pandemic-shortened offseason coupled with a new head coach led to some early-season growing pains last year, and so their negative DVOA was somewhat artificially depressed. I'm not in on the Browns as AFC title contenders by any means, but I think the defense will be improved, and the running game and offensive line should hold up even if we get September Baker Mayfield instead of December Baker Mayfield.
Rivers McCown: Los Angeles Chargers. I am a Brandon Staley believer. I think the data showing how he approached things extremely differently as Rams defensive coordinator was persuasive enough that it's not necessarily about just having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The Chargers have had an underachieving defense for a few years, and I feel good about their subjective chances of taking a jump higher than the 24th-place DVOA we are projecting. We give them the worst special teams projection in the NFL, and they were worst last year by a comical amount, but I don't see that as extremely likely to repeat itself. I believe Justin Herbert is good enough to stymie regression. I think the Chargers are a real contender for the AFC West and think they should comfortably hold a wild-card spot.
Andrew Potter: Tennessee Titans. I have gone into this in some more detail in Scramble for the Ball, but I'm a lot higher on the Titans than our model is for a variety of reasons. Although going from Arthur Smith to Todd Downing is a significant downgrade, I believe Ryan Tannehill showed enough in Miami for us to believe that he's not purely a product of Smith's excellent coaching. The receivers are very strong, and the offensive line will be good enough. It won't take much for this to be the best offense in the division. It's the defense where I really disagree with our projections, though: the Titans are not the worst defense in the AFC South, never mind the entire league. The pass rush will be better than it was a year ago (not a challenge, admittedly), Janoris Jenkins still has something to offer at cornerback, and the rest of the lineup will be fine. The Titans are no more than makeweights in the postseason, but they're still my favorites for the division. They'll snag nine or 10 wins and finish around No. 12 or so in DVOA, like they do every year. That's not a bold over, but it's an over.
Aaron Schatz: Los Angeles Chargers. I had to think hard about this one but I guess I'll go with the prevailing opinion. There's a "QB no team" variable in the offensive projections and I think that's a little low for Justin Herbert (he ranks 14th). That's causing the Chargers' projection to be a little too low on offense. I definitely agree with what the numbers say about the defense, that the defense is probably not going to become the juggernaut that people are expecting... but hey, it's defense, so it's harder to predict in general. I wouldn't pick the Chargers for a playoff spot right now but I'd go over our mean projection of 7.2 wins.
Scott Spratt: Los Angeles Chargers. Quarterback Justin Herbert exceeded expectations as a rookie and could face regression after showing the second smallest differential between his passing DVOA with and without pressure. That said, the Chargers can counterbalance that concern with improved pass protection. They made over a bottom-third line that allowed a 26.5% offensive pressure rate with the additions of first-rounder Rashawn Slater and free agents Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler. And I think their defense and special teams should improve. The former unit suffered a bottom-four total of adjusted games lost in 2020 and had its best two players, Joey Bosa and Derwin James, miss half the season. The latter unit finished 32nd in DVOA each of the last two seasons but has new players at lynchpin positions like kicker (Tristan Vizcaino) and punt returner (K.J. Hill). With that new talent and a new head coach in Brandon Staley, the team is poised to improve on its 7-16 record in one-score games from the last two years under Anthony Lynn, especially with a schedule I believe is easier than DVOA suggests (ninth-hardest) that includes the NFC East and threats for the No. 1 pick in the Lions and Texans.
Mike Tanier: Tennessee Titans. Sorry if my choices are predictable. But the Texans are a vanity project, Urban Meyer will have visions of cushy college jobs dancing in his head by December, and we'll get to the Colts in a moment. The Titans should coast to 11 wins due to simple competence.
Vincent Verhei: Washington Football Team. I don't think people understand just how terrible this offense was last year, and what a radical improvement Ryan Fitzpatrick should be over last year's one-legged quarterback the coaches didn't even want (who was still better than the former first-round pick who was cut midway through his second season). In the last five years, only two clubs have had a worse pass offense DVOA than last year's Football Team: the 2016 Rams (Jared Goff's rookie year) and 2018 Cardinals (Josh Rosen's rookie year). Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick and his teams have had a positive DVOA six times in the last seven seasons. Even if the defense slips some, just an average offense makes Washington a solid wild-card contender. They could even repeat as division champions if Dallas' defense plays down to its usual level.
Robert Weintraub: Pittsburgh Steelers. Call me scarred by decades of Steelers dominance, but the idea that a team this good defensively will suddenly plummet to the dregs of the league is difficult for me to fathom. I know, I know, defense is less consistent than offense, and our projection remains higher than many who have fully written off the Black and Gold would have it. I just wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Steelers repeat as AFC North champs, minus the wild mood swings of 2020. Ride or die with Big Ben!
Carl Yedor: Los Angeles Chargers. My heart is open, and I'm ready to get hurt again. Brandon Staley may not be bringing Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey with him, but his more modern schematic approach to defense should serve the Chargers well. Justin Herbert was strong in Year 1, and the Chargers finished with exactly seven wins last season in a 16-game campaign despite some shoddy game management by the coaching staff.
TEAM MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF ITS FOA PROJECTION
J.P. Acosta: Minnesota Vikings. Despite a high-flying offense that features one of the NFL's premier back-and-receiver tandems, I'm not that high on the Vikings this year. Outside of Brian O'Neill, I don't have much faith in their offensive line, especially with rookie tackle Christian Darrisaw still being hampered by injuries. Defensively, there's nobody outside of Danielle Hunter who can consistently rush the passer, and they're banking on Patrick Peterson returning to his pre-2016 form. This doesn't look like a team that will reach a nine-win total, even in a division with only one truly elite team.
Thomas Bassinger: New Orleans Saints. I don't trust Jameis Winston. His 30-interception season in 2019 might be an outlier, but he's no victim of bad luck. His adjusted interception totals in each previous season: 22, 20, 19, and 19. Best-case scenario is that Sean Payton reins in some of Winston's recklessness and he produces a season around league average. The Almanac projects defense to be the Saints' strength, but it's hard to see them finishing in the top three in defensive DVOA after losing Malcom Brown, Janoris Jenkins, Trey Hendrickson, and Sheldon Rankins.
Cale Clinton: Seattle Seahawks. The dichotomy between the Seahawks' two half-seasons is so drastic that I worry we may be near the end of Seattle's window for contention. After Brian Schottenheimer's exit this offseason, head coach Pete Carroll emphasized a need to run the ball more. The comment seems to fly directly in the face of the "Let Russ Cook" movement that practically locked up the MVP award for Russell Wilson by Week 5. It nearly looked like Wilson was going to hold out in the offseason, but he was never going to launch an Aaron Rodgers-style production; his gripes were quelled when the Seahawks acquired Gabe Jackson. In arguably the toughest division in football, the Seahawks cannot afford referendums on the run game or half-measure corrections to the offensive line. A tepid offense, coupled with a declining defense, may not be enough to overcome the finally-healthy San Francisco 49ers and the star-studded Los Angeles Rams.
Derrik Klassen: Minnesota Vikings. The atmosphere around this Vikings team screams of collapse. Not only is all the conflict with Kirk Cousins' refusal to vaccinate a problem, but I'm not confident the Vikings have fixed their biggest on-field issues. The secondary is shakier than usual and betting on some guys to have stronger seasons than they did a year ago, while the edge spot is pretty thin (or at least unproven, in third-round rookie Patrick Jones' case) outside of Danielle Hunter. Expecting things to go right on a team whose chemistry seems to have gone up in flames just does not sit right with me.
Bryan Knowles: Dallas Cowboys. We're gambling a lot on Dak Prescott returning to his pre-injury form, and I'm not entirely sure that's a signed, sealed, and delivered deal. But even if he is the Prescott of old, I fear that he's coupled with the defense of old as well. I don't think they have an interior line or a secondary, which I suppose are only problems if their opponents intend to either run or pass. They're going to be involved in a bunch of shootouts, in other words, and I don't think they're gonna win every game 40-38. Mind you, 8-9 might still win the NFC East...
Rivers McCown: Pittsburgh Steelers. The extreme turnover on the offensive line, the ongoing T.J. Watt hold-in, and Ben Roethlisberger's decline last season make me pretty comfortable with the idea that this team is going to struggle to approach nine wins. I think the defense is going to have to be top of the league again for them to get to that spot, and the questions at cornerback post-Steven Nelson's release also are discomforting. I think it's more likely they have a top-five defense than a No. 1 overall defense. A lot of regression is already put into our projection, of course, but I'm not seeing a lot of reasons to believe that they can hit the optimistic side of things short of Najee Harris just being the best back in the NFL in 2021.
Andrew Potter: Indianapolis Colts. I really like the way Chris Ballard has built this roster. The offensive line is very strong, the running back stable is deep and talented, and the defense is solid at every position. Like Ballard, I feel better about the receiver group than the general public does, though losing T.Y. Hilton for the opening month or so hurts. That said, I have no faith in any of their quarterbacks. The best of those is already hurt and has COVID concerns lingering around him, and even a reunion with Frank Reich might not be enough to fix what ails Carson Wentz. The Colts should be too good to be bad, especially in the AFC South, but I think projecting them to finish neck-and-neck with Tennessee requires a little too much faith in Wentz and a roster that, for all its talent, is a little lacking in elite players at impact positions.
Aaron Schatz: Pittsburgh Steelers. I really don't think any of our team projections seem particularly too high but I'll go with the Steelers just because it's going to be hard for them to repeat as the best defense in the league (or one of the best defenses in the league) with the questions they have after Joe Haden at cornerback. Also, the Steelers have one of the hardest projected schedules in the NFL. I guess I have similar qualms about the New Orleans Saints projection and their status at the cornerback position, but I'm the one who's been screaming all offseason that Jameis Winston doesn't suck so now I'm riding that Saints bandwagon.
Scott Spratt: Las Vegas Raiders. With my high expectations for the division-rival Chargers, the Raiders suffer by circumstance. But they also made their life much harder by trading center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson and letting tackle Trent Brown walk in free agency. With those players, the team enjoyed a top-seven pass-protecting line (21.2% pressure rate). Without them, the team may lose the upper-half offense that keyed their competitiveness the last two seasons with bottom-five defenses by DVOA. They have mostly struck out in their bids to add talent to that latter unit. And I don't expect their biggest additions this offseason—free-agent pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue and second-round safety Trevon Moehrig—to stem that tide.
Mike Tanier: Indianapolis Colts. This was an easy choice even before the Colts' preseason of injuries, quarantines, and mayhem. There just aren't many historical data points for "Team Risks its Fortunes on Injury-Plagued Anti-Vax Quarterback Allergic to All Forms of Accountability." Carson Wentz is a system-breaker, in many ways.
Vincent Verhei: Indianapolis Colts. I think Carson Wentz is toast. That's what I thought for most of last season, and it's what I thought that when the Eagles took on over $30 million in dead money for the privilege of kicking him out the door. His surgery- and COVID-related absences during training camp have done nothing to change my mind.
Robert Weintraub: Los Angeles Rams. The "eight stars and a roster full of filler" strategy is already taking on water, as the team was forced to trade for Sony Michel merely to prevent having to play with an empty backfield on 100% of the snaps this season. Is Matthew Stafford going to become Arizona-era Carson Palmer merely due to proximity to Sean McVay's synapses? It's possible, but the more likely outcome seems that one or more of L.A.'s irreplaceable players get injured, and Stafford starts pining for the good ole days of Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Meanwhile, the Chargers one-up their landlords and become the hot ticket in town.
Carl Yedor: Detroit Lions. The Lions are heading into what looks like a multi-year rebuild, and while they started filling in some foundational pieces this offseason, there is a long way to go for this group. The receiver room looks iffy, which does not bode well for Jared Goff's success under center.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO BEAT HIS KUBIAK PROJECTION
J.P. Acosta: Laviska Shenault, WR, JAX. Listed as WR39 in our KUBIAK rankings, Shenault should blow his projection out of the water. Reports have come out of Jaguars camp that Shenault has been very impressive, and in an offense with an actual quarterback throwing him the ball, Shenault should improve massively as a true receiver. There's also the quick passes and screens he catches where he almost always makes the first guy miss. I wouldn't be surprised if Shenault leads the Jaguars in total yards from scrimmage.
Thomas Bassinger: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, KC. As noted in the Almanac, Edwards-Helaire posted a 56% success rate last season, placing him among the top 10 running backs. And that was behind suspect blocking. A revamped offensive line, headlined by the acquisitions of Orlando Brown and Joe Thuney, could pave the way for a breakout season.
Cale Clinton: Austin Ekeler, RB, LAC. Part of my optimism around the Chargers comes from my excitement regarding Austin Ekeler's usage in this new Joe Lombardi offense. I believe Ekeler was criminally underutilized in Anthony Lynn's offense, finishing the season with just 65 targets. With Lombardi's background as a quarterbacks coach in New Orleans, I could see Ekeler being integrated into the Chargers offense similarly to how Alvin Kamara is with the Saints. Ekeler's pass-catching abilities will no longer be relegated to simple screens on third-and-long. As of this writing, our KUBIAK rankings currently list Ekeler as RB8. Depending on how hot this Chargers team gets, Ekeler could finish this year as a top-five fantasy running back, especially in PPR leagues.
Derrik Klassen: Jameis Winston, QB, NO. I have always been a bit higher on Winston than the public, so I will take the swing on his variance here. New Orleans could have used some help in the pass-catcher room this offseason, but I have full faith in Sean Payton to orchestrate a good offense anyway, and I really like Alvin Kamara as a reliable safety valve for Winston to lean on. The offensive line is still quite strong, too, which bodes well for Winston's tendency to hang around in the pocket and search for plays down the field.
Bryan Knowles: James White, RB, NE. It remains to be seen how Mac Jones replacing Cam Newton will work on the field, but White should be doing cartwheels. When Newton got pressured, he was more likely than not to pull the ball down and run with it. When Jones gets pressured, he looks for the dumpoff. Plus, with the reshuffling of the New England backfield with Sony Michel gone, I expect White to be on the field on basically every third down, which is going to help. Four or five receptions a game isn't out of the picture, and I'll go as far as saying he'll be the best PPR back in New England this year. We're talking top-30—not a week-in, week-out starter, but a valuable guy at the FLEX and as a bye-week choice.
Rivers McCown: Javonte Williams, RB, DEN. Melvin Gordon didn't spend most of the preseason playing, allowing the Broncos to begin an acclimation process with the rookie. The fact that Williams was a healthy scratch from the preseason finale was eye-opening and could be read a few different ways. I read it positively, as a sign that they didn't want wear and tear on him. We project Williams as a clear No. 2 back to Gordon, but I think as the season wears on it will become fairly obvious who the more dynamic back is, and Williams projects as a better passing-down back than Gordon does at this point. I think Williams is someone who you will hear a lot about in October and who will close the season as a top-12 back in several weeks.
Andrew Potter: Jameis Winston, QB, NO. Winston is the kind of quarterback who's likely to be more valuable to fantasy owners than he is to the Saints. Sure, he has some obvious risk factors: Sean Payton loves to get Taysom Hill those goal-line touches, and that receiver room is shockingly shallow even with Chris Hogan back on the roster. However, Winston is a mad bomber who can put up big fantasy numbers, and though he is famously a turnover machine, there's no further penalty for throwing pick-sixes instead of regular picks. I can't really fathom having Winston below Teddy Bridgewater, Jared Goff, and Jalen Hurts, guys I expect to see well behind Winston come the end of the season.
Aaron Schatz: Javonte Williams, RB, DEN. I would like to repeat everything Rivers McCown said while adding nothing.
Scott Spratt: Antonio Gibson, RB, WAS. Of all the KUBIAK projections, I'm the most nervous that Gibson will beat his forecast of 229 carries and just 28 catches. That latter number feels awfully low for a former college receiver who had more catches as a rookie (36) and is entering his second professional season. The projection reflects the team's likely major decline in running back target rate going from Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith (both top-10 at the position, and the latter an outlier) to Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and the continued presence of J.D. McKissic (who more than doubled Gibson's target rate). But maybe Gibson really is the next Christian McCaffrey. It seems like a stretch for a third-rounder still learning his new position and whose 206 touches from 2020 are by far his most in a college or pro season. But Gibson has the same head coach that McCaffrey did in Ron Rivera. And like with McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart, Gibson has the path to a substantial target bump if he can simply take that work from his teammate.
Mike Tanier: Curtis Samuel, WR, WAS. We have him at 66 catches. I think he's going to be a PPR machine in Scott Turner's system, which is built around horizontal passing and YAC. That assumes Samuel gets healthy, of course, but he's trending toward playing soon, if not in the opener.
Vincent Verhei: Tyrell Williams, WR, DET. The Lions are going to lose a lot of games. They are going to throw a zillion passes. Jared Goff is not that big a downgrade from Matthew Stafford. One of these wide receivers is going to go over 1,000 yards, even if 500 of those come in garbage time. Williams is the only one who has done that before (with the Chargers in 2016), so he's got the best shot to do it again.
Robert Weintraub: Joe Burrow, QB, CIN. OK so last year I reverse-reverse-jinxed Joey B. by calling him to fall short … which of course he did, in the same way a racecar driver falls short of the finish line at Talladega after smashing into the wall in Turn 3. I may not have been wholly convinced by Cincy's offensive line makeover (more of a change of lip gloss, really), and hoping for the best from my Bengals is folly personified. But now is the time for the Great Leap Forward, if it is to happen at all. Can I possibly pull off a second double-reverse jinx?
Carl Yedor: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, KC. Kansas City invested heavily in their offensive line this offseason, setting Edwards-Helaire up to be more successful in short yardage. This would help him rack up red zone touchdowns that were difficult to come by in 2020 and subsequently charge past his projection.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO FALL SHORT OF HIS KUBIAK PROJECTION
J.P. Acosta: Joe Mixon, RB, CIN. I really want to like Mixon in this Bengals offense, but I just can't. He'll be running behind an offensive line that is below average, and has seen his targets in the passing game steadily decline under Head Coach Zac Taylor. It's going to be tough sledding for Mixon, who will now have to share targets with the newly added Ja'Marr Chase in the receiving game, along with running behind that same offensive line. Mixon could fall well short of his 1,400 total yards projection.
Thomas Bassinger: Derrick Henry, RB, TEN. Seven other running backs have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. None of them reached 1,500 yards the next season, and five saw a 40% drop. KUBIAK projects Henry to rush for nearly 1,800. I'll take the under and hope Henry doesn't stiff-arm me.
Cale Clinton: Derrick Henry, RB, TEN. I mean, he's gotta fall off at some point … right? Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. The seven 2,000-yard backs prior to Henry saw major regression in the following season, with just one (Barry Sanders) eclipsing 1,400 yards. None managed to average 100 yards per game. Plus, the tides may be shifting away from Tennessee operating a Henry-first offense. Arthur Smith was the mastermind that helped better utilize an asset like Henry, turning Tractorcito into the human wrecking ball we know today. Smith is now in Atlanta. With Todd Downing taking over, coupled with the arrival of Julio Jones, I'm skeptical that Henry's usage will remain the same.
Derrik Klassen: Diontae Johnson, WR, PIT. For me, this is less an outright indictment of Diontae Johnson and more that I believe that one of these Steelers wide receivers has to fall a bit short of their projection. JuJu Smith-Schuster is still going to get a hefty helping of targets, and I like Chase Claypool's chances to really emerge as the offense's explosive-play generator. Johnson should still produce, but if anyone gets some of their production chipped away at, I would guess it is him.
Bryan Knowles: Derrick Henry, RB, TEN. We have Henry projected with 250 more rushing yards than anyone else in football. This after a season with more carries than anyone since DeMarco Murray in 2014. Including the playoffs, Henry has had 681 carries over the past two seasons, the most for anyone since LaDainian Tomlinson had 716 in 2006-2007. Tomlinson was never a top-five running back again; Murray fell to RB17 the year after his workload. Add in the change of offensive coordinator, Henry's lack of value as a receiver, and the Titans at least pretending that Darrynton Evans is a thing, and I just can't get behind Henry as RB2. A top-10 back, sure, and the league leader in rushing yards again, but nowhere near what he put up in 2020.
Rivers McCown: Julio Jones, WR, TEN. Jones is amazing when he's healthy. He wasn't healthy for a lot of last season, is 32, and I think is clearly a No. 3 option in the Titans offense after running Derrick Henry and using A.J. Brown. I have zero bad words to say about Jones and think he's amazing, but I see a lot of circumstances out of his control (new team, inexperienced offensive coordinator, pecking order) in alignment that could make him less of a factor than he was for the Falcons. That's baked into his ADP to some extent. I don't know that it is baked in as much as it should be. I would much rather have a surer road to targets like Terry McLaurin or Allen Robinson in that same ADP range.
Andrew Potter: Saquon Barkley, RB, NYG. Coming off a second consecutive season impaired by a significant injury, the Giants will be more cautious with their prized asset than they were in 2018 and 2019. Barkley's not going straight back to his 2018 workload, and the team invested heavily in targets to get away from the slants-and-dumpoffs offense of previous years. He'll still be a fantasy starter for sure, and his workload will increase as the season goes on, injury permitting, but the red warning on his KUBIAK projection is there for good reason. The Giants will tread cautiously with Barkley, and so should you.
Aaron Schatz: Joe Mixon, RB, CIN. I feel like we have him too high given the status of the Cincinnati offensive line. It's a problem for Najee Harris, and it should be a problem for Mixon as well.
Scott Spratt: Jalen Hurts, QB, PHI. In projecting 104 carries for 586 yards and 5.2 touchdowns, KUBIAK is already lower on Hurts for fantasy than many other projection systems. But I still believe he has major downside risk. As a draft prospect, Hurts drew unflattering comparisons to Tim Tebow because of poor arm strength and poor decision-making. And he did little to prove questions of his NFL future wrong in a rookie season with a -17.6% passing DVOA, dramatically lower than that of Tua Tagovailoa (-8.5%) who has somehow sparked greater public concern. That may be overly critical since Hurts had the deck stacked against him on an Eagles team whose offensive line injuries netted them the worst pressure rate in football (31.5%). But I don't believe the team invested enough in Hurts to give him every chance to succeed as a starter. Late-offseason addition Gardner Minshew could end up starting games this November and December.
Mike Tanier: Dalvin Cook, RB, MIN. The whole system in Minnesota is on the verge of a collapse: they don't have enough tight ends to run their scheme or enough wide receivers to run a 21st century system. Cook may get force-fed the ball in first halves, but the Vikings will be playing catchup in second halves, and punch-it-in touchdowns will be hard to come by.
Vincent Verhei: Tom Brady, QB, TB. Six years in a row now. Once you pick a guy specifically because he is old, you're pretty much stuck picking him until he retires. But Brady is 44 now. At some point soon, he will join George Blanda, Steve DeBerg, and Vinny Testaverde as the fourth 44-year-old to throw a touchdown pass since 1950. The single-season record is four; Brady should pass that mark in September. But he is, allegedly, human, and the human body is only designed to last about four decades or so. At some point, he has to decline … doesn't he?
Robert Weintraub: Kirk Cousins, QB, MIN. Playing in full HALO gear just to avoid a simple shot feels extreme, but regardless of pricey precautions it seems highly likely Bubble Boy will miss games due to COVID protocol/stubbornness this season, which is a shame as Captain Kirk is generally very reliable. Meanwhile, the Vikes' offensive line is in shambles and Justin Jefferson seems due for at least a slight regression now that defenses know to triple-team him. Cousins has been somewhat underrated in the past, mainly because people didn't like him, for whatever reason. Now that there is a definitive reason to dislike him, that should turn in the opposite direction.
Carl Yedor: D'Andre Swift, RB, DET. Swift showed a lot of promise as a rookie, and this assessment is mostly due to the situation in which he finds himself on a Lions team that is likely to be bad. The Lions probably won't be leading late in that many games, and Jamaal Williams has drawn praise from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, implying that Williams will be involved in the backfield as well. On a bad team, it can be hard to maintain fantasy success if you aren't hogging all the volume.
SUPER BOWL LV WINNER AND LOSER
J.P. Acosta: Tampa Bay Buccaneers over Kansas City Chiefs. Well, call me original! Tampa Bay re-signed literally everyone to the same roster that won the Super Bowl, and the only thing that could stop them is their health. Tom Brady will continue to throw to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but the somewhat-resurrection of Antonio Brown in training camp this year should be a scary sight for any team. Oh, they also have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Kansas City revamped their entire offensive line, and with that should come a better run game and protection for Patrick Mahomes. They'll cause AFC defensive coordinators to have nightmares with how exotic the Chiefs offense is. However, the Bucs have the personnel to slow down Kansas City, even with a new offensive line.
Thomas Bassinger: Baltimore Ravens over Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers are projected to have one of the easiest schedules in the league, so it's entirely possible that we see Tom Brady play in his 15th conference championship game in the past 21 seasons and in his 11th Super Bowl. The Ravens are one of the few teams that can take him down. They blitz often and effectively, and though Brady continues to do many things well, he no longer torches a five-man rush like he used to.
Cale Clinton: Tampa Bay Buccaneers over Cleveland Browns. Imagine Cleveland finally making their first Super Bowl, overcoming decades of misery, only to run into the buzzsaw that is this Tampa Bay roster. The Browns are a truly cursed franchise.
Derrik Klassen: Kansas City Chiefs over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A rematch is kind of lame, but it does not feel like either team is going to experience any sort of hangover this season, barring some insane injury misfortune. Kansas City spent a ton of resources fixing the area most responsible for last year's loss—the offensive line—and should be better equipped to handle Tampa Bay's pass rush in a rematch. Tom Brady is the only opposing quarterback to push Patrick Mahomes out of the playoffs, but I think the young gun takes this round.
Bryan Knowles: Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, a rematch of last year with the same results. I, too, wish I was more interesting at parties.
Rivers McCown: Green Bay Packers over Baltimore Ravens. The last dance.
Andrew Potter: Kansas City Chiefs over Green Bay Packers. In his career as a starter so far, the only team that has defeated Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs is Team Brady. Nobody in this year's AFC is bucking that trend, especially after the Chiefs secure the No. 1 seed. I'm loathe to tout a rematch, but I have absolutely no idea who's emerging out of the NFC in Brady's stead. Every team has issues, even the Buccaneers. Given all that's gone on this offseason, I'll go a bit nostalgic and push all-in on the Last Dance Packers. Give me last generation's generational talent against this generation's generational talent. Chiefs over Packers in a shootout.
Aaron Schatz: Kansas City Chiefs over Dallas Cowboys. I know, the numbers say Tampa Bay in the NFC, and they are very strong, and I tend to go with the numbers, but I just don't feel like going with chalk this year. I feel like being daring, because an unexpected team always seems to make the Super Bowl. Dallas would be unexpected, but the Cowboys are in position to do it. With Dak Prescott back and that receiving corps, and the offensive line healthier, this could be a top-five offense. I think that under Dan Quinn the defense can rebound to be league-average. This seems like the kind of defense where after the season we look back and go, oh, I guess there were better players there than we thought -- because defense is so damn inconsistent, players often perform better than expected. Toss in a couple of playoff upsets and we get the Cowboys all the way to Los Angeles. I can't pick them to win though. It's hard to pick anyone but Kansas City while the Chiefs still have the best player in the game.
Scott Spratt: Kansas City Chiefs over Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I hate to pick chalk, but the Ravens team I seem to like more than most analysts has lost a lot of important players to injury this preseason. And I like multiple teams in the NFC West and AFC East, which will make it difficult for any of them to beat the reigning conference champions to homefield and a playoff bye with their relatively easy schedules—the Bucs have free wins all over their calendar in division rivals in the Falcons and Panthers plus the whole NFC East. As for the matchup itself, I think the Chiefs can flip February's script with better injury fortune. They invested a ton in their pass protection to build the depth that should survive even a couple of starter injuries. And the Chiefs were poised for better luck by way of regression, in any case. They suffered more than twice as many adjusted games lost as the Bucs last season. I wouldn't count on Tampa Bay surviving another 22 weeks without losing a prominent starter or two.
Mike Tanier: Buffalo Bills over San Francisco 49ers. Calling my shot here! Patrick Mahomes looks for the No. 3 option in his passing game in the playoffs and finds no one! One Buccaneers starter gets injured in October and the whole system goes kablooie. Aaron Rodgers starts calling his on plays (passes to Randall Cobb) in late October. Cole Beasley turns out to be immune to COVID because, let's be real, he already contracted the hell out of it. And the 49ers channel the spirit of 2012 by handing Trey Lance the job in mid-November to spark a late-season winning streak!
Vincent Verhei: Kansas City Chiefs over Seattle Seahawks. You can pretty much pencil in Kansas City as my pick to win for most of the next decade. As for their opponent, even if Tom Brady is still sharp, I can't imagine Tampa Bay will be as healthy again as they were last year. There's no obvious alternate in the NFC, so I'll shrug and put on my homer hat and go with Seattle. I do think the Seahawks will emerge victorious in the NFC West—San Francisco's annual injury wave has gotten pretty reliable, and I think the Rams' losses in the secondary will hurt them more than most people realize.
Robert Weintraub: Kansas City Chiefs over Green Bay Packers. I'm in the business of always picking the best possible QB matchup, which we never seem to get. Last year I anointed Russell Wilson in the NFC role, only to be slapped back hard by Mr. Rodgers, not to mention Touchdown Tommy. But who wouldn't sign up for this Showdown at SoFi right now?
Carl Yedor: Kansas City Chiefs over Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a rematch of last year's game, Kansas City brings a fully revamped offensive line to the party and keeps Patrick Mahomes from needing to run for his life all game. The contest looks more like their 2020 regular season matchup, where the Chiefs eked out a close one. Kansas City faces the least competition within its division of the major AFC contenders, and the non-Tampa Bay NFC South is in flux.
WITH THE NO. 1 PICK IN THE DRAFT, [TEAM] SELECTS [PLAYER]
J.P. Acosta: The Houston Texans Select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. Respectfully ... the Texans roster might be one of the worst I have ever seen. The Texans limped to a 4-12 record last year, but won't be buoyed by Deshaun Watson any time soon like they were last year. J.J. Watt is no longer with the Texans, and Whitney Mercilus has yet to live up to the contract that he's on. The whole franchise needs a reset, and Rattler is the quarterback to give them that. His arm talent and ability to make difficult throws off-platform is any coordinator's dream, and he should have another strong year with Oklahoma.
Thomas Bassinger: The Houston Texans select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma.
Cale Clinton: The Philadelphia Eagles select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. I don't actually picture the Eagles ending up with the first overall pick solely off their record. That distinction will most likely fall to the Houston Texans. However, Philadelphia has the capital to make a move, picking up a first-round pick from the Miami Dolphins in last year's draft. The only way I see the Eagles making that move is if they end up close enough to the top and want to secure "their guy." A record bad enough to be in trading distance of the No. 1 overall selection would imply the Jalen Hurts experiment has failed; Philly would then need a quarterback. Houston essentially needs to go scorched earth on their roster at this point, so they'd take all the picks they can get in order to rebuild.
Derrik Klassen: The Houston Texans select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. Rattler did not look so hot in the opener against Tulane, but he didn't start off last season too hot either before really taking off over the second half of the year. Between Rattler's arm talent, ample mobility, and creativity, he is probably still the best bet to end up as next year's top quarterback and the Texans need one, assuming the Deshaun Watson era is over.
Bryan Knowles: The Philadelphia Eagles take Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. 2021 is Jalen Hurts' opportunity to cement himself as the quarterback of the future in Philadelphia. Suffice to say, I am somewhat less than overwhelmed at the moment. Maybe just whelmed, leaning towards underwhelmed if the Eagles do in fact beat the Jets, Panthers, and the rest of the usual suspects to the bottom of the totem pole. If the Eagles end up in the bottom five but not the first pick, I could see them grabbing a Derek Stingley-type for the secondary. But if they're at the bottom, it's gotta be the quarterback.
Rivers McCown: The Houston Texans run into a 2014 scenario yet again and select ER Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon.
Andrew Potter: The Detroit Lions select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. Rattler's the closest to a sure thing from this quarterback class, making him the most likely No. 1 pick. The Lions are not the worst team in the league, but their schedule is a death march. They could easily be mid-20s by DVOA, better than their book projection, and still finish 3-14. The only way they'd be able to resist the allure of the No. 1 pick is if Jared Goff plays so well that they don't earn it. I don't believe that's going to happen.
Aaron Schatz: The Detroit Lions (trading up a couple selections with the New York Jets) select Carson Strong, QB, Nevada.
Scott Spratt: The Houston Texans select Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon.
Mike Tanier: The New York Giants, with a new coach and general manager, select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma.
Vincent Verhei: Carolina Panthers select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. This was HARD this year—there are lot of terrible teams out there! The Texans are such an obvious answer that it feels like a trap, but I can see a world where they rally around each other, us-against-the-world style, and pull off some upsets in their weak division. Speaking of which, I'm pretty sure Urban Meyer is in over his head in Jacksonville. Out east, I have faith that Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson will eventually get the Jets turned around, but it won't be in 2021. The Lions are better in a vacuum than any of those teams, but their schedule is brutal. In the end, I'm going with Carolina for the second year in a row. Last year, they did better than I expected in part because Teddy Bridgewater had the best season for a Panthers quarterback since the Super Bowl year in 2015. His reward was getting fired and replaced by Sam Darnold, a move I still can't wrap my head around months later. Ultimately, this may be decided by the Panthers-Jets game in Week 1, but when a five-win team goes out and downgrades itself at quarterback, that sounds to me like a team that will be picking first next April.
Robert Weintraub: The Houston Texans select Carson Strong, QB, Nevada. The Josh Allen Effect works its magic on Strong, who will be the seldom-seen but ultra-promising Trey Lance-like prospect this time around. And with no Trevor Lawrence slam dunk on the board, the eye of the beholder will be 20-20 next April. Not sure if Strong will be able to pass the purity test required to be a Texan these days, but he'll pass all the others.
Carl Yedor: The Houston Texans select Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma. At this point, Deshaun Watson's time in Houston looks likely to be over, and the Texans went 4-12 last season despite an excellent on-field performance from Watson. Houston can at least take solace in the Astros' continued success on the baseball diamond.