Blanchard’s Big Predictions for 2017

Here’s a bit about me: when I’m not moonlighting as a purveyor of fantasy knowledge on Sleeperbot, I work as a photojournalist. I handle all the definitive local news fare — car accidents, city council meetings, high school sports. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both jobs, it’s that people love to tell me how wrong I am. So why not make it easy for you? I’ll set up the pins of my ego and you can knock them down.

Here are four predictions for this fantasy season that probably won’t be right. I wouldn’t even call them “bold” predictions. They’re “big.” They probably won’t happen, but none of these are completely out of left field; they are all, in my opinion, well within the realm of possibility. They aren’t meant to blow your mind, or emulate your drunk cousin at the Labor Day reunion who insists Dak Prescott will have a better season than Tom Brady. They’re just a little bigger than what others are expecting, and if I’m wrong you can rub it in my face.

Michael Thomas finishes as the WR1

I covered Michael Thomas a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about the wide receivers with the highest upside. Thomas exploded last season playing opposite Brandin Cooks, and is now going to be the focal point of a pass-heavy offense. In fact “pass-heavy” is a massive undersell. The Saints defense continued to be at the bottom of the league last season, and the only way for them to win games is to throw the ball. No one should doubt Thomas’ talent, but take a look at his red zone usage last season:

Michael Thomas (2016) and Jimmy Graham (average of 2011–2014)

That table compares Thomas to the last four seasons Jimmy Graham had in New Orleans, when he was an elite tight end. Graham scored double-digit touchdowns all but one of those years (ruined it with only 9 in 2012). Thomas has taken over as both the de facto red zone target and the top wide receiver. I actually expect him to improve in every category this season, topping 100 receptions, 1,200 yards and breaking into double-digit scores to make the him top receiver in fantasy.

Todd Gurley will return to being a top 5 running back

The worst thing about Todd Gurley last season was that everything around him was terrible. Now, everything is a little less terrible, particularly the offensive line. Football Outsiders has a great breakdown of offensive lines and how they affect running backs. What’s notable going from 2015 to 2016 for the Rams is that they were consistently terrible in a lot of areas: 28th in hits behind the line both years, and 24th and 31st in second-level runs respectively. But in 2015, Gurley was still able to produce by breaking into the open field, which the Rams ranked 3rd in. In 2016, they ranked 30th.

Since then the Rams have made huge moves to improve their team. They added one of the best tackles in the game in Andrew Whitworth, a move that takes their line from the bottom of the league to being mediocre. But perhaps the most important acquisition is Sammy Watkins, giving the Rams a legitimate threat in the passing game. Jared Goff may not be a great passer, but neither was Tyrod Taylor. Good luck sending an extra safety into the box when Watkins is threatening to tear the top off your defense every play. Add Cooper Kupp and Gerald Evertt from the draft, and defenses can no longer solely key in on Gurley.

Don’t forget the addition by subtraction of Jeff Fisher. New coach Sean McVay recognizes that Gurley is the cornerstone of the team. He’s emphasized a desire to increase Gurley’s role in the passing game, which was one of the few ways they were able to generate success with him last season. All of these offseason moves are designed to give him more room to breathe and return him to form.

Corey Coleman will be a top-15 receiver

The first-round pick flashed potential last season with Josh McCown before being sidelined for six games, and was never able to get back on the same page with Robert Griffin or the carousel of quarterbacks in Cleveland. Despite poor production, Coleman was on pace for almost 120 targets had he been on the field.

Meanwhile, Terrelle Pryor finished as the WR18 as the only show in Cleveland. With Coleman moving into his role, I predict he will not only outperform Pryor but will do so on less than the 140 targets Pryor got in 2016. In fact, Pryor’s end of season stat line of 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns is rather uninspiring given his targets; not as inefficient as DeAndre Hopkins or Allen Robinson, but squarely in the realm of Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate.

Coleman has the advantage of stepping into the lead receiver role without having to carry the weight of the entire team. Kenny Britt will be lining up opposite him, a capable enough receiver for defenses to respect him. And I’m of the opinion that DeShone Kizer is already better than any quarterback that took snaps for the Browns last year — though maybe not by much. I hesitate to put stock in preseason highlights, but the chemistry between the two is looking good.

DeShone Kizer hits Corey Coleman for 32 yard catch.

Add in that the Browns’ run game is looking strong, along with Kizer’s ability to move around as well. In short, Corey Coleman has all the talent and opportunity that Pryor had last season, but less negative influences working against him.

Jamaal Williams will have more touchdowns than Ty Montgomery

This offseason I have gone from being a Ty Montgomery hater to just a Ty Montgomery skeptic. Seeing him play has convinced me he’s much more talented than I was giving him credit for, and I’ve come around to the idea that drafting four running backs was equal parts future planning and depth building, rather than a desperate search for an immediate answer. But I’m still not satisfied with his situation in Green Bay, and a lot needs to trend upward for him to be worth his draft price. Take a look at this chart of rushing touchdown leaders in Green Bay, going back to 2010:

Yes, these are the team leaders. With the exception of Eddie Lacy the Packers have never felt the need to rely on one running back, especially in goal-line situations. And while I’ve been sold on Ty as the lead back in Green Bay, all of William’s draft analysis screams, “I’m going to steal your goal-line work.” Even without compeition, Ty only found the endzone three times last year. I think the Packers have a deadly combination at running back, but it may lead to neither getting enough scores to be valuable.

I also question Montgomery’s opportunity for red zone passes. As a converted receiver many are looking at him as an elite pass-catching back, but that’s a fallacy. Nearly half of his receptions for the year came in weeks five and six, averaging 2.7 catches per game for the last nine weeks, and he had only 3 targets within the 10-yard line.

Yet again, he faces tough competition for those targets; not only did Jordy Nelson lead the league in red zone targets last year (15), but he was one of the most efficient players in the league with them (73.33%). Davante Adams was right behind, finishing 7th with 10 targets and a 70% catch rate. Let’s not forget the acquisition of Martellus Bennett, adding yet another short-yardage weapon.

It’s possible that sliding into the position in the middle of the season is the biggest cause for these lackluster numbers, and that an offseason of work at running back will lead to a boost in production. In fact I think that’s absolutely the case, I just don’t think it will lead to the breakout performance some owners are hoping for. With Green Bay’s history with running backs and the number of talent mouths to feed on that offense, scoring opportunities may be harder to come by than owners realize.

Matt is a professional photojournalist and amateur fantasy writer. He’s a lifelong New Englander with a contempt for snow and the Patriots. You can find him on Sleeperbot @mblanchard
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