When you're trying to figure out if a player is going to bounce back from a down season, you have to try to figure out what went wrong for the player in question. If he was a formerly elite player who just suffered a major injury, like Saquon Barkley, it seems pretty safe to assume that player will bounce back. It's not guaranteed, but if Barkley is a full-go by the start of training camp, he's gonna be a top-five pick for me.
Another obvious type of bounce back candidate would be the player who dealt with a nagging injury -- not bad enough to keep them off the field, necessarily, but enough to clearly limit them. Then there are the players who dealt with personnel changes around them that made it harder to thrive. Or players who simply seemed to have some bad luck -- an unnaturally low touchdown rate being an obvious place where players might see some regression leading to a rebound.
There might be one player whose 2020 fits all four of those categories: Michael Thomas. Thomas suffered a high-ankle sprain that forced him out of Week 1 late -- a pretty serious injury, even if it wasn't a season-ender. Then he missed six games while recovering from the injury, and may not have been 100% when he first returned -- he played just 55% of the snaps in his first game back, notably. Plus, Drew Brees got hurt in that first game back, so Thomas had to play with Taysom Hill for the next four weeks -- and the Saints averaged just 28.5 pass attempts per game in those four starts. And, while Thomas did eventually get going -- 343 yards in his next four games -- he ultimately ended up with no touchdowns on 55 targets before missing the final three games with a recurrence of that previous ankle injury.
Thomas is by no means a guarantee to bounce back in 2021, of course, despite fitting into so many categories. He'll be playing with a new starting quarterback, either Hill or Jameis Winston, and neither is guaranteed to be as effective as Brees nor to look for Thomas as often. However, I'm willing to bet on Thomas bouncing back in a big way in his age-27 season -- especially if Winston is starting for the Saints.
Winston isn't particularly similar to Brees as a passer, of course, and I wouldn't expect Thomas to catch 80% of his targets the way we've come to expect with Brees. But I still expect he'll see a ton of targets, and the targets he'll get may even be more valuable with a quarterback like Winston, who is much more willing to push the ball downfield and take risks than Brees. For all Winston's flaws, he's averaged a very healthy 7.7 yards per attempt for his career, with a solid 4.7% touchdown rate -- the 12th-best mark among active quarterbacks. With Winston in as QB for the Saints, I have Thomas projected to be the No. 2 wide receiver in PPR leagues, and No. 3 in non-PPR.
Obviously, I'm not quite as high on Thomas if Hill is in at QB, but I would still be higher than his WR9 ADP currently at NFC. He would WR6 for me with Hill at QB, because while I think the total pass volume in New Orleans would be lower, his target share might be higher than ever. The Saints leaned heavily on Thomas in Hill's starts, as he had a whopping 31.6% target share and a 16-game pace of 96 catches for 1,144 yards, and I think he'd be even better with a full training camp to prep. Touchdowns may be more of a concern, but if he gets enough targets to catch 96 balls, I have no trouble expecting eight touchdowns or so.
Which is all to say, I'm going to have Thomas on a lot of my teams. I think he's arguably the most obvious bounce-back candidate in the league heading into 2021, though my colleagues are a bit more skeptical, as they discussed on Tuesday's episode of Fantasy Football Today. You can listen to that episode here, but I'll pull a few quotes from Jamey Eisenberg, Dave Richard, and Heath Cummings to give a sense of what they had to say about Thomas.
- Jamey: "It's a little bit more of a wild ride -- but a fun ride -- with Jameis as we saw in 2019 when he threw for 5,000 yards. He was leaning on Chris Godwin and Mike Evans quite a bit, so hopefully the same thing happens with Thomas. If Jameis does win the job and maybe the LASIK situation helps with his accuracy and he can pick up from where Brees left off, not the same type of quarterback, but maybe can throw the ball a little bit better accuracy to his top wide receiver."
- Dave: "I think [his current NFC ADP as WR9] is fine. I think I'd probably prefer to have him a little bit lower than that, and I don't even know if I'd necessarily have him ranked that way. But you start thinking about what this passing game is going to look like for New Orleans ,and the fear I've got is that it's going to be Winston 80% of the time and Hill 20% of the time, and half the time that Hill is in, it's not going to be a pass. So, fewer pass attempts potentially coming in New Orleans, and they've gotta do something to try and get a talent opposite Thomas. Otherwise, it's going to be a lot of double coverage on him. And for a guy who's a great route runner but not necessarily a speedster, that could be a problem."
- Heath: "I think I think it's more of a question of how far is he going to bounce back? I don't think anybody should expect him to bounce back to 2019 levels when he was the best wide receiver in PPR. I don't expect he's going to get 185 targets. I absolutely think he'll get back to 2016-17 levels, where he was a 1,200-yard wide receiver catching 100 passes and 6-7 touchdowns. What can he do beyond that? Yes, Taysom Hill leaned on Thomas, but I would still feel a lot better about a Michael Thomas breakout if you told me Jameis Winston was starting 16 games."
We also talked about QB and RB bounce-back candidates on Monday's episode of the podcast -- you can listen to that here -- and in today's newsletter, I'm going to highlight a few other candidates and their chances of truly bouncing back to be high-end Fantasy options in 2021. If you've got any other bounce-back candidates on your mind or want to make the case against any of these guys, send me an email at Chris.Towers@CBSInteractive.com.
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QB bounce-back candidates
- Rams QB Matthew Stafford. It's going to be strange to see Stafford in a new uniform after 12 seasons in Detroit, but his move to the Rams should be very good for his Fantasy appeal. The combination of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp should give Stafford his best receiving corps in some time -- I'd argue it's a better duo than Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, or at least a more complete duo. I don't expect a return to the days when the Rams offense passed for 4,700-plus yards like they did in 2018, but I think Stafford should be a much better option than Jared Goff and should allow them to open things up after relying heavily on shorter passes in 2020. Woods and Kupp are both quite good in the short area and with the ball in their hands, but Stafford should be able to hit them down the field a bit more often, too, and I think this should return to being close to a top-10 offense. I've only got Stafford ranked as my QB20 right now, but there's plenty of upside for him to grow well beyond that in this offense.
- Colts QB Carson Wentz. Wentz is certainly a candidate to bounce back, but it's hard to be overly optimistic about his chances given how poorly he played in 2020. That being said, Indianapolis gives him a much better situation than Philadelphia did, especially with their offensive line. The receiving corps isn't great, but it's not like Philadelphia's was either, and the Colts have multiple solid pass-catching running backs -- something Wentz clearly didn't trust Miles Sanders to be after a handful of costly drops early last season. My expectations aren't super high with Wentz, but maybe the change of scenery will do him good. We've seen him be a borderline elite Fantasy QB before.
RB bounce-back candidates
- Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott seems like one of the more obvious candidates to bounce back, along with Thomas. He got off to an incredible start, with 364 yards and five rushing touchdowns along with 24 receptions for 173 yards and another touchdown through the air in his first five games. Then Dak Prescott got hurt, the offensive line fell apart, and Elliott found himself struggling in one of the tougher situations in football. He may not be quite the elite runner he was at the start of his career, but Elliott might have grown a bit underrated last season due to the poor situation around him. I've got him as RB7 in non-PPR and RB8 in PPR, and I'm happy to take him in the first round, especially if he falls to pick 10 or later.
- Bengals RB Joe Mixon. I wrote about why the release of Giovani Bernard potentially opens up Mixon to finally live up to the potential we've wanted to see from him, and that's one of the main reasons to consider him a bounce-back candidate. If the Bengals can block better in 2021 and he finally sees a consistent stream of targets, Mixon might just "bounce back" to being better than he ever has been.
WR bounce-back candidates
- Rams WR Cooper Kupp. Kupp is an obvious candidate for some positive touchdown regression after he scored just three times on 124 targets in 2020. It's funny, that used to be his biggest supposed strength -- he scored 16 touchdowns in 24 games between 2018 and 2019. I think he'll bounce back in that regard in 2021 with the upgrade at QB and a likely change in his usage, as his average depth of target fell to a career-low 6.0 yards down field as the Rams tried to keep things easy for Jared Goff. That'll go back up to where it was before, and we'll see some more big plays from Kupp as a result. I drafted him and Robert Woods together in our recent PPR mock draft, and I've got both as top-15 wide receivers right now, compared to an NFC ADP of just WR25 for Kupp.
- Jaguars WR DJ Chark. Chark was mentioned as a bounce-back candidate on Tuesday's podcast and he was drafted as a seventh-round pick in that same PPR mock we did a few weeks ago as WR30, and I don't hate that price for him. But I don't love it, either. The case for him bouncing back is obvious: The QB play in Jacksonville just wasn't any good at all in 2020, and it prevented Chark from following up his breakout 2019. I like Chark's talent and I would bet on the QB play being better with Trevor Lawrence under center, but I would also be pretty stunned if the Jaguars threw the ball 600-plus times again (on a 16-game pace, at least). With the addition of Marvin Jones and the hoped-for development of Laviska Shenault, I'm not sure Chark is going to see the kind of targets he needs to bounce back to 2019, when he had 1,008 yards on 118 targets in 15 games. But the potential is obvious.
TE bounce-back candidates
- Giants TE Evan Engram. There is so much potential in Engram, and he's been a perennial disappointment since his rookie season. Engram probably won't see 109 targets again, not with the addition of Kenny Golladay to serve as a true No. 1 receiver for Daniel Jones, but surely he can manage better than 6.0 yards per target or a 10.1% drop rate. Of course, his career Y/T is just 6.8, and he's been below 7.0 in three of his four seasons, so you certainly can't bank on it. Engram could finally have his breakout season, and I think he'll probably be more productive than last season almost by default. But I'm not targeting him expecting that breakout.
- Eagles(?) TE Zach Ertz. The chances of Ertz bouncing back to being a 1,000-yard receiver are pretty slim at this point. The Eagles will likely be a pretty low-volume pass offense, and the emergence of Dallas Goedert means Ertz has more competition for those middle-of-the-field targets. However, that doesn't mean he has much competition overall -- the Eagles receiving corps still figures to be pretty talent deficient unless they make a big splash in the draft. Ertz should probably still be either the No. 1 or 2 target for the Eagles, and while he won't belong among the elites of the position anymore, I think he's still in the discussion as a No. 1 tight end. Assuming the price is cheap enough, a bounce back seems like it's worth betting on, and the potential for a trade into a better situation is always there, given that his name has been thrown around in plenty of rumors.
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