Christian McCaffrey doesn’t have to bounce back from poor stats, just a bad string of injuries. Regardless, Fantasy managers may qualify him as the biggest bounce-back candidate this summer.
The 27-year-old suffered through ailment after ailment for the second straight season, dealing with a hamstring issue that cost him five games when he was expected to miss just two or three, then an ankle problem that landed him on injured reserve when he was supposed to sit out two weeks. And this happened after a 2020 campaign that saw McCaffrey miss 13 games with a high-ankle sprain, then a combination of shoulder and quad damage.
If you think you’re irritated with this run of bad luck, imagine being the Panthers. McCaffrey, who is definitely tired of being sidelined, got some advice from Marshall Faulk on how to change his offseason regimen. Coach Matt Rhule is ticked off from not having his “chess piece” on the field more and intends to take more precautions in how McCaffrey is deployed because he’s “had enough hits on his body.” And the front office is clearly sick of being caught short-handed when McCaffrey misses time and added bulldozing back D’Onta Foreman to help shoulder some of McCaffrey’s workload.
The days of McCaffrey averaging 25.2 touches per game like he did in 2019 are probably over. Maybe even the 19.4 touches per game he had in 2021 are history, too. But Fantasy managers will still go ga-ga for him even if he settles in at 17 touches per game because the track record of success is just too rich. For his career, he has averaged 5.8 yards per touch and a score once every 24.2 touches.
For what it’s worth, McCaffrey said this offseason that he felt great, and the Panthers have no intention of playing him in preseason games. If taking a little less of McCaffrey on a weekly basis means keeping him on the field for most of the season, then Fantasy managers should expect a very good bounce-back season from him, albeit one with a lesser ceiling because he seemingly won’t get as much work as he has previously.
McCaffrey is just one of 13 bounce-back candidates who disappointed Fantasy managers last year, each of whom will have the chance (which I’ll put odds on) to redeem themselves.
Age as of Week 1: 25
What went wrong in 2021: Jackson was already averaging a three-year low 21.6 Fantasy points per game before he sprained his ankle in Week 14. A lack of touchdowns was to blame: His 11.1 rush attempts per game were on-par with his prior two seasons, but he only ran for two scores and claimed multiple passing touchdowns in just two games. Jackson also had at least one turnover in nine of 12 outings.
What has to go right in 2022: Many beat reporters have suggested the team’s offseason actions (trading Marquise Brown, improving their O-line and running back depth) were made to replicate their success from 2019. That was Jackson’s MVP campaign when he averaged 31.5 Fantasy points per game on the strength of 1,209 rush yards, 3,127 pass yards and 43 total touchdowns. Jackson had a 9.0% TD rate and 6.9 yards per carry; since then, one quarterback has been above an 8.0% TD rate (Aaron Rodgers, 2020, 9.1%) and Jackson is the only guy who came close to matching his own rushing average (6.4 in 2020). Jackson doesn’t have to be 2019-good to bounce back for Fantasy, but he must match the nine games of two-plus passing touchdowns he had in 2019 and 2020.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-five quarterback: 45% It’s a plus for Jackson that the Ravens are going to revert back to what worked for them in 2019, but defenses will be better prepared for it this time around. Jackson has a tough projected schedule, too. Buying in sure would be easier to do if Baltimore had a receiver like Brown on the roster to help keep defenses honest.
Fantasy draft value: Even with the substandard bounce-back odds, Jackson’s rushing prowess gives him the skyscraper upside only a handful of quarterbacks have. That will put him among the first five quarterbacks drafted in every league.
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Age as of Week 1: 33
What went wrong in 2021: Wilson got off to another red-hot start (25.5 points per game in Weeks 1 through 4) before breaking a finger on his throwing hand in Week 5. It took him two weeks to get back to normal before he finished the year with 22.0 points per game in his final seven. Thanks to those two games to get his hand right and the Week 5 game when he was injured, 2021 was the first year since 2016 when Wilson didn’t exceed 20.0 Fantasy points per game.
What has to go right in 2022: So much already has. Wilson was traded from Seattle to Denver, where new head coach Nathaniel Hackett figures to gleefully let Wilson throw a bunch. He’ll work behind a top-10 graded offensive line and have among the deepest receiving groups in the NFL, not to mention a pair of running backs who are adept at catching passes. Wilson also has a top-five easiest projected schedule and should pop off for his usual hot start against Seattle and Houston to begin the year.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-five quarterback: 40% Wilson has only finished top five on a per-game basis once in his past four years. Even with the more conducive environment to put up gangbuster numbers, it’s probably safer to expect a top-10, or even a top-eight, finish.
Fantasy draft value: Expect Wilson to be a consensus top-10 Fantasy quarterback, but don’t be surprised if someone thinks so highly of him that he’s the fourth or fifth passer taken. If that doesn’t happen, Wilson will be among the best potential values in your draft.
Age as of Week 1: 25
What has to go right in 2022: Everything. Barkley was eased back into action and actually began to look like his old self in Weeks 3 and 4 before spraining his ankle on a freak play in Week 5 and missing four games over five weeks. When he came back in Week 11, Barkley was not only ineffective, but also on some kind of snap count through most of the rest of the year. The Giants’ wonky offense and bottom-12 graded run-blocking O-line didn’t help anything.
What has to go right in 2022: Everything. Barkley enters a contract year with two healthy ankles, an improved offensive line and a new play caller. Coach Brian Daboll’s track record suggests Barkley will see at least 20% of the Giants’ receptions, and minicamp reports say Barkley is lining up all over the field and looking good. A full year removed from knee surgery, he has to stay that way.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-10 running back: 40% Last year, the 10th-best running back in per-game PPR points was 15.2; in 2019 it was 15.7. Barkley averaged a ridiculous 23.4 in PPR in 2018 and 17.9 in 2019, and he flashed for 25.0 over Weeks 3 and 4 last year before the ankle twist of doom. He has it in him and seems to be in the right condition and offense to have the chance to get about 15.0 again.
Fantasy draft value: Drafting Barkley feels a lot like drafting McCaffrey — you’re betting on health — except in Barkley’s case, it won’t cost you a first-round pick. Barkley should get picked anywhere from 20th to 30th overall in every league.
Age as of Week 1: 25
What went wrong in 2021: For starters, Sanders scored as many touchdowns as you did: ZERO. He only had four carries from 3 yards or closer to the goal line. Sanders also averaged only 11.4 attempts per game, a number that was battered from his lack of participation in three other games. He did get 15-plus carries four times and did rack up at least 94 total yards each time, but missing five games and parts of three others on top of the scoreless skid really hurt.
What has to go right in 2022: Being modest, Sanders gets into a groove where he averages close to 15 touches per game and at minimum splits the short-yardage/goal-line carries with his teammates, Jalen Hurts included. Staying healthy would be nice. Anything beyond that — outplaying other Eagles running backs, taking on more work on passing downs, improving his elusiveness — would be a big bonus.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 running back: 35% There isn’t nearly the same kind of buzz around him as there has been in the past. Meanwhile, the Eagles have second-year sensation Kenneth Gainwell along with a couple of other solid running backs ready to pitch in, plus Hurts should continue to do a fair share of running. It feels like there are too many hurdles for Sanders to overcome.
Fantasy draft value: He’s a much safer bet as a low-end No. 2 running back than as a potential top-15 guy, which is why he’ll probably land as a late Round 5 pick.
Age as of Week 1: 24
What went wrong in 2021: Urban Meyer brought utter misery. Robinson never got consistent touches for more than four games at a time, the Jaguars offense was awful and a torn Achilles in late December finished his year with a thud. Not surprisingly, most of Robinson’s efficiency metrics tanked.
What has to go right in 2022: A Cam Akers-like recovery from the Achilles would go a long way. Robinson said in mid-June that he’s resumed running, and there’s a sense of optimism Robinson can contribute this preseason. Being ready for the start of the season is just the beginning — he must also wrest the lion’s share of touches in the Jaguars’ backfield away from Travis Etienne. That could be especially difficult because Etienne is the more explosive player (and pass-catcher), and new coach Doug Pederson has a track record of being inconsistent with his running back usage.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 running back: 35% Robinson missed a top-24 finish last year by 0.07 points per game, something we can blame on Meyer. If the third-year back is rolling by late August, Fantasy managers shouldn’t have a hard time expecting another solid season. It’s a bigger, top-15 campaign that might be tougher to count on.
Fantasy draft value: Robinson will be a Round 10 stash until it’s clear he won’t start the season on the PUP list, at which point he figures to catapult to a Round 6 selection.
Age as of Week 1: 23
What went wrong in 2021: More injuries and more underwhelming opportunities. Edwards-Helaire didn’t really get going until Week 3, then looked sharp for a couple of weeks before suffering a knee injury in Week 5 that cost him five games. When he came back, he saw nearly four fewer carries per game, was mostly ineffective outside of four touchdown scampers and then lost significant reps in the playoffs to Jerick McKinnon.
What has to go right in 2022: The Chiefs replaced Darrel Williams with speedster Ronald Jones and brought back McKinnon, both clear threats to Edwards-Helaire’s playing time. Underrated power back Derrick Gore is also still there. Edwards-Helaire has to outplay everyone to earn the type of workload he had to begin 2021, and then he has to stay on the field. Edwards-Helaire has missed at least three games in each of the past two years and parts of three others over that time.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-20 running back: 15% Considering he’s never actually finished as a top-20 running back on a per-game basis in PPR, odds are slim he’ll displace his competition and grind his way to big numbers without something holding him back. He seems destined to split reps in an offense that’s been top-10 in pass rate in each of the past three seasons.
Fantasy draft value: There probably aren’t that many drafters willing to give Edwards-Helaire the benefit of the doubt anymore. That should slide him into Round 6 with the rest of the low-end No. 2 running backs.
Age as of Week 1: 29
What went wrong in 2021: With a career-low 5.5 targets per game, you’d think Robinson was purposely phased out of the Bears offense. His efficiency metrics were ugly including finishing 85th out of 90 qualifiers with 2.66 yards after contact per catch. Was it because Robinson lost a gear, or because of how he was utilized in Chicago? Robinson had a reported falling out with then-coach Matt Nagy, potentially because of how he was being used in what was a valuable contract year. Tack on a rotation of quarterbacks who varied from inconsistent rookie to veteran passer who focused on other receivers, and it adds up to a rough year.
What has to go right in 2022: Signing with the Rams was a good start. Obviously, Sean McVay didn’t see a downturn in Robinson’s game, and a lot of talk out of L.A. is about how Robinson has looked energized and has displayed the technique and body control that made him a Fantasy-known name in the first place. Matthew Stafford has to come back strong, and the Rams can’t add anyone else to their passing game who might knock Robinson off the field, including Odell Beckham. If that turns out, Robinson could pace for 120 targets in a clever passing offense.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-20 wide receiver: 55% Robinson’s always gotten good numbers based on volume and touchdowns. Multiple wide receivers have had at least 117 targets each in three of the past four seasons under McVay, and it probably would have happened in 2021 had Robert Woods not gotten hurt (he was on-pace for 130 at the time of his injury). Los Angeles has finished top 14 in total wide receiver touchdowns in four of the past five seasons, including No. 1 in 2021 in Stafford’s first year. There should be enough there for Robinson to compile numbers that get him a good finish in 2022.
Fantasy draft value: Even after a horrible year, Fantasy managers are buying back into Robinson as a low-end No. 2 wideout with upside. He’s an OK pick after 50th overall, but the value skyrockets if he makes it past 60th overall.
Age as of Week 1: 25
What went wrong in 2021: Brown finished 29th in PPR points per game because he couldn’t stay on the field. He strained a hamstring in Week 3 and missed Week 4. Then he hurt his chest in Week 11 and missed three games. When he did play full games, he was equal parts awesome (five with 16-plus points) and frustrating (five with single-digit PPR outcomes). This despite having eight-plus targets in eight of 12 games. Ryan Tannehill’s 77.1% adjusted completion rate (16th among passers) wasn’t a factor, but the Titans’ 51.4% season-long pass rate definitely was.
What has to go right in 2022: Besides staying on the field? Brown must command at least the same 8.1 targets per game he had last year in the only offense that threw less than the Titans (Philly’s season-long pass rate was 48.8%), including in the red zone (39.2% red-zone pass rate). His advanced metrics, particularly on throws inside of 10 yards and longer than 19 yards, were troubling. However, he’s been at his best on those intermediate routes for two seasons, and that happens to be the particular area where Jalen Hurts has thrived. They must connect at a high rate. The good news? Philadelphia has the easiest projected strength of schedule for wide receivers and second-easiest for quarterbacks.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-12 wide receiver: 50% There are a lot of obstacles to overcome (health, Hurts’ accuracy), but the two biggest ones are Brown’s target share and the Eagles’ offensive philosophy. No doubt they’ll try throwing more than 2021 so as to not waste Brown’s talent, but if it doesn’t go well there’s real risk they’ll revert back to being run heavy. And even if they do throw a good amount (league average last year was 57.9%), Brown will see DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert get their respective shares. He didn’t quite have that much competition for targets in Tennessee.
Fantasy draft value: Round 3 is the right time, but he’ll be a risky Fantasy pick no matter when you get him.
Age as of Week 1: 26 (27 by Week 2)
What went wrong in 2021: Washington’s offense continued to be a big mess. McLaurin ranked 20th among all receivers in targets per game (7.6) and had four games with over 100 yards, but he also had 12 with under 70 yards. He did score on four of 11 end-zone targets and had a solid 19.1 explosive play rate but dealt with a quarterback who finished 25th in adjusted completion rate.
What has to go right in 2022: Washington believes it upgraded at quarterback with Carson Wentz, but he was 32nd in adjusted completion rate with the Colts and 34th in 2020 with Philadelphia. Wentz’s only edge over Taylor Heinicke is in arm strength, which should help McLaurin complete some long-distance passes. But Washington added rookie Jahan Dotson, who began developing chemistry with Wentz during minicamp while McLaurin sat out with a contract dispute. McLaurin must keep his hammerlock on target share while also succeeding with Wentz. Wentz has never helped a wide receiver finish top 20 in PPR points per game and only twice has guided a top-24 receiver (Alshon Jeffery in 2017 and 2018). A bump in touchdowns sure would be nice.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 wide receiver: 45% McLaurin’s talent remains unquestioned, but for the fourth year in a row, the quarterback he’s catching passes from is a major issue. The added depth at receiver does not help. A contract squabble also would not help. The only saving grace is that an 87-1,118-4 stat line put him as a top-24 receiver in 2020, and those kinds of numbers are certainly in reach.
Fantasy draft value: As a No. 2 receiver with questionable upside, Round 4 is the right time to take him.
Age as of Week 1: 26
What went wrong in 2021: Sutton stayed healthy but only stood out in three games, all with Jerry Jeudy off the field. Sutton had single-digit PPR points in 13 games, including each of his last 10. To be fair, the offense was not pass-friendly and definitely low on pass plays per game with quarterback play that varied from mediocre to dreadful. Sutton also was in his first year back from a torn ACL and had some grotesque efficiency metrics including an 88th-ranked 2.33 yards after catch per reception (he averaged 4.89 in 2019). Zero red-zone touchdowns did not help.
What has to go right in 2022: Getting Russell Wilson at quarterback is a humongous boost. Wilson has finished first, fourth, sixth, first and fifth in red-zone TD rate in each of the past five seasons and has favored outside wide receivers over every other position in target share in each of the past four seasons. That bodes well for Sutton, who has to prove he’s the No. 1 guy in the offense. That’s assumed, but not guaranteed. He needs to display improved elusiveness so he’s not constantly turning every target into a contested catch. Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick were much more slippery last year, and Patrick had one more end-zone target (8 to 7; Jeudy had zero).
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 wide receiver: 35% He’s never been a top-24 receiver, but the quarterback upgrade gives him a chance. Problem is, it also gives Patrick and Jeudy a chance, though Wilson’s metrics definitely favor downfield threats and outside wideouts. You could make the case that Patrick is the better draft value than Sutton.
Fantasy draft value: While late Round 4 is a fair time to take the chance, expect excited managers to reach for Sutton as soon as late Round 3.
Age as of Week 1: 28
What went wrong in 2021: After a solid start (15-plus PPR in four of his first seven games), Cooper strained a hamstring and became mostly touchdown-dependent, scoring 12 or fewer PPR points in six of his last eight games. A bout with COVID-19 cost him a couple of opportunities to be at his best in December, then he publicly complained about his workload frustrations and only saw short-term attention. His targets (6.9 per game), receptions (4.5 per game), catch rate (65.4%) and yards (57.7 per game) were at all-time lows in his time with Dallas. After it was leaked that the Cowboys were set to release him because of his bloated contract, the Browns offered a late pick in exchange for him and restructured his deal.
What has to go right in 2022: Cooper’s staring at a huge target share in Cleveland, but there’s a pretty good chance most of them will come from Jacoby Brissett and not Deshaun Watson. Brissett will need to have a Pro Bowl year and/or the Browns must voluntarily choose to pass frequently, both of which are unlikely scenarios.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 wide receiver: 30% If Watson were to quarterback the entire season, it would be a much higher number. In fact, there would be a decent amount of optimism if anyone other than Brissett were under center. But the Browns figure to scrap any plans of being a more pass-friendly offense with an average quarterback, which hurts Cooper’s chances of rediscovering his 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown form.
Fantasy draft value: Expect Fantasy managers to sour on Cooper if Watson’s suspension is long. That could put him past Round 5. A shorter suspension could move him up as many as two rounds.
Age as of Week 1: 29
What went wrong in 2021: You’d have to go back to 2020, when Thomas hurt his ankle in Week 1, then came back months later, then got hurt again, then came back for two playoff games, then delayed having surgery until the summer of 2021, then suffered a setback in his recovery. He missed all of 2021 after playing nine games total in 2020.
What has to go right in 2022: Thomas attended offseason minicamp in New Orleans but didn’t practice with the team. He did post a video of him running what appeared to be a 40-yard dash at full speed on Instagram in June, which is a positive. Thomas has to finish his rehab and get back into the swing of things in training camp, including developing rhythm and chemistry with Jameis Winston. Once that happens, he’ll need to earn a high target share again if he’ll ever touch what he once was in Fantasy.
Odds of a bounce back to a top-24 wide receiver: 30% When Thomas hoarded 120-plus receptions, he was on the other end of passes from Drew Brees in a Saints offense that didn’t really have an established downfield receiver opposite him. Now he’ll catch Jameis Winston’s throws and share the field with hot rookie Chris Olave and established receiver Jarvis Landry, plus Alvin Kamara is still there. It’s a different situation for a player who hasn’t played in over a year.
Fantasy draft value: If Thomas is a regular participant in training camp, then a case could be made for taking him in Round 4 as a 90-catch, 1,000-yard, seven-score candidate. Otherwise, you shouldn’t feel good taking him until late Round 6.