"You heard me."
As the regular season inches closer, it's time once again for my eighth annual "bold predictions" column.
The "you heard me" premise works like this. Pretend we are having a conversation:
Me: You know, I just turned in another bold predictions column. But it's already pretty long, so I didn't do a long opening or anything like that. Just getting straight to the column.
Me: You heard me!
Yes, it refers to statements that are hard to believe but have a foot in reality. Surprising, sure. Unlikely? You bet. But not impossible. I'm doing it now, in fact.
Now, to truly be a bold prediction, it needs to be, well, bold. Saying Antonio Brown will catch more than 100 balls this season is not only not bold, it's actually much more likely to happen than not. A bold prediction would be to say Antonio Brown will play all 16 games and catch fewer than 60 balls. That is very unlikely to happen.
I've made a ton of predictions this preseason, and while the odds say it's unlikely all of them will come true, they are steeped in research, scouting and facts that suggest they are much more likely to happen than not.
So the idea for this column is not to nail low-percentage outrageous predictions, but rather to highlight players I have strong feelings about, one way or the other. These are scenarios that are not likely to happen, but they aren't impossible, either.
And frankly, it's not important whether I get it right.
You heard me.
Wallace ended up with 862 yards and 10 touchdowns, good enough to be tied for 18th among wide receivers. So technically, I got it wrong. He was NOT a top-15 fantasy wide receiver. But considering he was going 35th among wideouts and returned top-18 value, fantasy owners got a bargain with Wallace, and he paid off for anyone who drafted him there. I count that prediction as a win, and if you're using this column correctly, so should you.
Among other things I nailed in last year's column that were definitely not obvious 12 months ago: Saying Cam Newton would finish outside the top 10 for the first time in his career (he'd never been lower than top-five); that Travis Kelce, undrafted in the preseason last year, would finish as a top-12 tight end; that Vernon Davis (a top-five pick at tight end) would finish outside the top 10. And I came close on ones like Dez Bryant catching 18 touchdowns (he caught 16), that Trent Richardson (drafted 21st among RBs) would finish outside the top 40 (he finished 35th) and Mike Evans would be the highest-ranked rookie wideout (Odell Beckham Jr. beat him).
Of course, I also predicted a top-five finish for Cordarrelle Patterson, Pierre Thomas breaking the single-season record for running back receptions (Matt Forte actually did that), Geno Smith as a top-12 fantasy quarterback and Steven Jackson as a top-12 fantasy running back, among other misses. So, yeah ... be warned. This is high-risk, high-reward territory we are entering.
So again, please use this column as intended: to highlight players I have a strong feeling about one way or the other, to make you feel better about your own predictions and to subtly remind you that I have a premium fantasy football site called RotoPass.com, now with a fancy box to the right!
So here you go. One bold prediction per NFL team, in alphabetical order, with my thinking behind it. You heard me.
Arizona Cardinals: I say John Brown, currently being drafted as WR39 (11th round), finishes with more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. My thinking: The speedy breakout star of training camp in 2014, Brown somehow managed almost 700 yards with people like Ryan Lindley throwing to him last season. A full season with Carson Palmer and a Bruce Arians offense that throws deep more than any other team in the NFL? Sign me up.
Atlanta Falcons: I say Julio Jones has the best fantasy football season for a wide receiver in the history of the NFL. My thinking: Well, I wanted to do a bold prediction for the guy I already have ranked No. 3 among wideouts, so there you go. But with no run game to speak of and a defense that should struggle, Atlanta should be throwing early and often. Playing the "X" in Kyle Shanahan's offense, there's a very good chance Jones leads the NFL in targets and, with Matt Ryan as his QB, a very good chance he catches most of them.
Baltimore Ravens: I say 90 receptions, 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns for Steve Smith Sr., who hasn't reached all three of those levels since 2005. My thinking: The Frank Gore of the receiving world, Smith will not die. As Rudy Tomjanovich once said, never underestimate the heart of a champion. That's Steve Smith, who will go out with a bang in his final season. It helps that he has a very fantasy-friendly coordinator in Marc Trestman, who will keep a lot of Gary Kubiak's scheme (which worked well for Smith last season), and there is not a lot of competition for targets on the Ravens.
Buffalo Bills: I say Tyrod Taylor, currently being undrafted, is a top-15 fantasy quarterback. My thinking: They'll need to generate offense somehow, and Taylor, while raw, has the running and passing combo that equals fantasy goodness. He has more than 100 yards rushing and a score in the preseason; people forget how good a fantasy QB Tim Tebow was, and Taylor is much better than Tebow. If he's even halfway competent, he'll keep the job all season. You heard me.
Carolina Panthers: I say Cam Newton has fewer than 3,100 yards passing, fewer than five rushing touchdowns and fewer than 500 yards rushing, all of which would be career lows. My thinking: Bad offensive line, keeps getting beat up and no one to throw to except Greg Olsen. There's only so many times you can get hit before you don't want to get up anymore, you know?
Chicago Bears: I say Eddie Royal sets career highs in receptions, which is currently 91. My thinking: Jay Cutler will have to throw it to someone. He and Royal have a rapport from their Denver days, I don't think the Bears' defense will be any good and the receiving corps is all sorts of banged up ... and thin. Royal is one of my favorite sleepers this year.
Cleveland Browns: I say Duke Johnson finishes the year as a top-20 running back in PPR. My thinking: He needs to get healthy, of course, but the Browns can't throw it to their wideouts. Johnson has great hands, and why do I see Josh McCown not being able to find an open receiver and having to dump it off? Like, a lot?
Dallas Cowboys: I say Joseph Randle is a top-10 running back this season. My thinking: Everyone is assuming there will be a time-share right now, and that's fair, based on what we've seen. But an injury to Darren McFadden and Randle's natural talent (I'm a believer) will allow Randle to take the job and, er, run with it. Sorry.
Denver Broncos: I say Owen Daniels, currently going in the 12th round (12th among tight ends, as well), is a top-five tight end. My thinking: We know Peyton loves tight ends. We know Gary Kubiak loves tight ends. We know Daniels has had success with Kubiak before. And after the big four at tight end, it's a big downtick, so the opportunity is there.
Detroit Lions: I say the wide receiver on the team with the most fantasy points is Golden Tate. My thinking: Already looking strong in the preseason, Tate was a top-10 wideout when Calvin Johnson was out in 2014. The last season Johnson played all 16 games was 2012. It all comes down to how many Calvin plays ...
Green Bay Packers: I say Jeff Janis, currently being undrafted, is a top-30 wide receiver this season. My thinking: As of this writing, Jordy Nelson is out for the year, Randall Cobb is banged up and Ty Montgomery is considered the favorite for the third-down role, so I like Janis, who is truly the best remaining deep threat on the team. I believe he'll be a bit of a fantasy whack-a-mole, but that offense needs to take shots deep. Janis, who has scored multiple times in the preseason, will be a poor man's Torrey Smith/DeSean Jackson type for Green Bay and wind up top-30.
Houston Texans: I say Arian Foster is a top-10 running back this season, in total points. My thinking: As of this writing, we don't know how much time Foster will miss, just that he suffered a bad groin injury at the start of camp and there were varying timetables for his return. We've heard rumors he'll return by the end of September, but that hasn't been confirmed. So my belief is that those rumors are true, that because of the fantastic shape he was in when he got hurt, he will heal a bit quicker. He missed three games last season and still finished as a top-five fantasy running back. So given his talent and workload, top-10 is easy. That's not the bold prediction part; it's the health. That's a gut call more than anything, but so is a lot of this column. Foster has at least one great season left in him. And something to prove.
Indianapolis Colts: I say Andre Johnson, currently going 21st among wide receivers, sets career highs this season in touchdowns (currently nine) and receptions (currently 115) and has more than 1,200 yards receiving. My thinking: Getting more than 100 targets from Andrew Luck in a high-scoring, high-volume passing offense, Johnson might as well have found the actual Fountain of Youth.
Jacksonville Jaguars: I say the Jaguars' defense finishes the season as a top-10 fantasy unit. My thinking: It's actually much better than people think. Not amazing, of course, but definitely better and trending in the right direction. The Jags tied for sixth in sacks last season and had three double-digit fantasy games in their final six. They have a decent schedule and, with some good breaks, could definitely finish in the top 10. They will certainly be in streaming consideration.
Kansas City Chiefs: I say, with Alex Smith as his quarterback now that he's in Kansas City, Jeremy Maclin has the best fantasy season of his career. My thinking: Conventional wisdom has Maclin, currently going as WR24, dropping off significantly after leaving Philly for K.C. and the conservative Smith. But knowing Andy Reid's offense, the relationship Maclin and Reid have and the crazy number of targets and touches the offense will generate for Maclin, his talent and volume propel him to a monster season.
Miami Dolphins: I say that currently injured rookie wide receiver DeVante Parker ends up with the most fantasy points among Dolphins pass-catchers this season. My thinking: Odell Beckham Jr. has taught us you don't need to play in Week 1 to make an impact. I love Jarvis Landry this season but see him running more short routes like he did last season, with Parker becoming the deep threat and No. 1 WR. His talent is off the charts. He just needs to get healthy, and he's getting close.
Minnesota Vikings: I say Charles Johnson, currently going two rounds after Mike Wallace, actually outscores Wallace by more than 20 fantasy points. My thinking: Wallace's fantasy value last season came more from touchdowns than yardage, and as he's on his third team in four years, it'll take time to make a connection with Teddy Bridgewater. It's a connection Johnson already has. Norv Turner's offense tends to be much better for one specific WR than two, and if Wallace doesn't get the ball early (a real possibility), this could go south in a hurry.
New England Patriots: I say Tom Brady, on a points-per-game basis, is the best QB in fantasy this season. My thinking: Even though a judge nullified Brady's four-game suspension, the NFL's appeal means we don't know whether he plays 16 games or 12, but I do know this: As long as Brady is on the field, he and the Patriots will be in total "blank-you" mode. He also returns almost all of his offensive starters, including a 100-percent-healthy Rob Gronkowski, a rarity for him.
New Orleans Saints: I say Drew Brees, a surefire top-five and often top-three QB, finishes outside the top 10 at quarterback this season in fantasy points. My thinking: He says last season's sixth-place finish among QBs was because of injury, and maybe it was. But losing guys like Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and Pierre Thomas, going more run-based and hoping to keep that same production with a young and somewhat unproven Brandin Cooks, an injury-prone C.J. Spiller, a slowing-down Marques Colston and a raw Brandon Coleman is dicey. Plus, with downgrades at tight end and a growing number of talented quarterbacks in fantasy-friendly offenses, I can easily see another "down" year for Brees.
New York Giants: I say Rashad Jennings, currently being drafted as RB29, is a top-12 fantasy running back. My thinking: Jennings just needs to stay healthy. He was seventh in fantasy points before getting hurt last season, 10th after he came back. Whatever he loses because of Shane Vereen will be made up by a more efficient and higher-scoring offense, now in the second year with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
New York Jets: I say Chris Ivory, currently going as RB26, sets career highs in total yards (currently 944), touchdowns (seven) and fantasy points (124). My thinking: In Chan Gailey I trust. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson combined for 32 touchdowns in three seasons in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the QB, and Ivory doesn't really have a ton of competition for the starting job. Health permitting, he'll get a ton of work in a decent -- not great, but decent -- offense and the best Jets offense he's played on.
Oakland Raiders: I say Michael Crabtree, currently being drafted as WR58, finishes the season as a top-30 fantasy WR. My thinking: This will be a much-improved offense from last season. There's rookie Amari Cooper, and Latavius Murray and Derek Carr are playing their second seasons. Crabtree looks fully healthy to me, and this team will throw, throw, throw.
Philadelphia Eagles: I say Sam Bradford plays all 16 games and is a top-five fantasy quarterback. My thinking: The really bold part is the staying healthy; he's played all 16 games in a season only once. But I believe in the Eagles' offensive line keeping him upright, and this will be a high-scoring offense with many weapons that will run a ton of snaps. The running game will take off, setting up Bradford very nicely. That three-touchdown first quarter versus Green Bay in the preseason won't happen every week, obviously, but it wasn't totally outside the realm of possibility for the regular season, either.
Pittsburgh Steelers: I say Heath Miller, currently being drafted as TE19 in the 14th round, scores more fantasy points than Jason Witten, currently being drafted as TE6 (in the seventh round), does. My thinking: I'm sort of cheating here. Miller had more receptions, more yards and just two fewer targets than Witten last season. Witten had two more touchdowns, but touchdowns are fluky. Honestly, with Martavis Bryant suspended four games and Le'Veon Bell suspended for two, there will be more opportunities for Miller early on.
San Diego Chargers: I say Ladarius Green, currently undrafted (as TE26), scores eight touchdowns this season and is a viable fantasy starter at the position. My thinking: Well, I've been on the Green bandwagon for a few years now, what's one more? The four-game suspension for Antonio Gates opens the door for Green to show what he can do, and the Chargers don't have a lot of great red zone threats.
San Francisco 49ers: I say Reggie Bush is not a top-60 fantasy running back this season. My thinking: It's gonna be the Carlos Hyde show, and Bush is a much bigger name than the actual production he offers. A better pass-catcher on third down than he gets credit for, Hyde is not coming off the field as much as people think. Bush is injury-prone as well, and his role on the Niners is little more than running back depth at this point.
St. Louis Rams: I say Brian Quick, currently being drafted as WR56, is a top-25 wideout this season. My thinking: As I mentioned in my 10 Lists of 10 column, Quick gets targeted deep and now has a QB who can throw the deep ball. He was good when healthy, and I expect a strong running game from the Rams to set up play-action.
Seattle Seahawks: I say Jimmy Graham has the second-highest touchdown total of his career (currently 11). My thinking: His yardage and receptions will absolutely go down from when he played in New Orleans, but he's a red zone beast on a team that struggles in just one area: red zone passing. His career high for TDs is 16, so even I couldn't be that bold, but 12 is absolutely within reach.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I say Vincent Jackson has a better fantasy season than Mike Evans does. My thinking: I actually think Evans is really something special, but despite a down year last season, Jackson is no slouch, either. Their yardage totals were basically the same, and Jackson actually beat Evans in receptions and targets. The major difference between the two players was touchdowns, as Evans scored 10 more. Things like that tend to regress, so I could see Evans' total come down a bit, Jackson's go up, and frankly, my heart just wasn't into a bold prediction on Doug Martin, Jameis Winston and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (I feel like I've done a ton of tight end ones). I love Evans, but I do think the hate on Jackson has gone too far, so I wanted to basically highlight that.
Tennessee Titans: I say Delanie Walker is a top-five fantasy tight end. My thinking: Walker is a nice, big red zone target for a rookie QB while Dorial Green-Beckham gets up to speed. Walker has been a top-10 guy with much worse QB play. He is my favorite later-round TE this year. See? Weird. Lotta tight ends this year in bold predictions.
Washington: I say Matt Jones scores the most points of any Washington running back. My thinking: I love this kid. Every time I see him, he is big and fast and a very tough tackle. They want to run a ton this season, and he'll already be getting some third-down work and spelling Alfred Morris. They are talking more 1A-to-1B kind of thing. Morris is great, but Jones will force his way onto the field. I believe once he gets his shot, he's not giving it up. If nothing else, Jones will be flex-worthy, and he's currently being undrafted.