2019's Most Surprising Players: Can they do it again in 2020?

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Every fantasy football season comes with its share of surprises. You might think you planned and prepared for any and all outcomes, and then a random curveball (or rather, since this is football, a random Patrick Mahomes side-arm throw?) hits you out of nowhere that throws your season off-course — or, catapults your season toward a title run.

Oftentimes, those surprises come in the form of the players we draft themselves. Maybe it’s that late-round flier who turns out to be a league-winner. Maybe it’s the random bench player who becomes a waiver wire hero after getting a chance to start. Or maybe it’s the player who has showcased talent in the past but was never able to put it together — until he finally explodes.

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The 2019 fantasy football season was full of these kinds of players, and we’ll list some of the major ones here in an effort to see whether they can do it again in 2020.

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans

What an incredible season for Ryan Tannehill. After being locked in the confines of the Adam Gase-led Dolphins and suffering through injury after injury and then being the backup to Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, Tannehill got his chance to start in Week 7 for the then-2-4 Titans.

He never looked back. From Week 9 forward, Tannehill finished as a top-6 fantasy quarterback five times.

He went from going undrafted in 2019 to finishing as the 21st-highest-scoring fantasy quarterback. Now, 21st might not sound impressive but consider this: The other 20 QBs ahead of Tannehill all played 14-16 games. Tannehill played just 12 (one he didn’t even start in, one he was used as a gadget player) in a run-first offense.

He, alongside 2019 rushing leader, Derrick Henry, carried the Titans to the AFC title game, defeating Tom Brady and the Patriots (in New England) and Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (in Baltimore) along the way.

The best seasons of Ryan Tannehill’s career (prior to 2019) came in 2014-2015, when he passed for over 4,000 yards and completed over 60% of his passes. He failed to play a full season in three consecutive years afterward.

But in 2019, things changed for the better. Tannehill was arguably the most efficient QB in the NFL, leading the league in passer rating (117.5), yards per pass attempt (9.6), and yards per completion (13.6). He was also third behind Drew Brees and Derek Carr in pass completion percentage. While he wasn’t going to buoy his fantasy managers with Jameis Winston-like yardage totals, Tannehill’s efficiency (along with his underrated rushing ability — he scored four touchdowns on the ground and averaged 15.4 yards a game) was enough to deliver quality fantasy weeks.

Sometimes, things just fit, even when you don’t expect them to. Tannehill and the Titans’ play-action passing game was a match made in fantasy heaven — the incomparable Matt Harmon outlined, “Tannehill executed a play fake on 26.6 percent of his 2019 dropbacks, the ninth-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks.” Tannehill would end with the following play-action passing numbers: 75.6 completion% (third), 143.6 passer rating (first), and an adjusted YPA of 14.1 (first).

Having the league’s most terrifying running back to fake the ball to helped, of course, but what we saw in 2019 from Tannehill was obvious: A player renewed in a system that fit his skillset. But the question is ...

Can He Do It Again?

I think so. Of course, the Titans would need to sign him or franchise tag him, as he’s set to be a free agent. It would be shocking, however, for them to let him walk, as Tannehill helped carry them within one win of the Super Bowl. All that said, a full offseason of work as the true starter alongside young talents A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith — who are rapidly becoming stars in their own rights — could help Tannehill continue his career revival in his age-32 season.

Running Back: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

Let’s talk numbers with Aaron Jones. He was tied with Derrick Henry for the most rushing touchdowns in 2019 (16). He was tied with Christian McCaffrey for the most total touchdowns (rushing and receiving) by a non-QB (19). CMC, Jones, and Henry finished as the top 3 running backs in fantasy, respectively.

But touchdowns were probably the only thing Jones had in common with those two.

Jones’ talent was apparent his first two years in the league; he averaged 5.5 yards per carry in both seasons. Yet, he’d never been given the chance to lead a backfield. In 2017, Jones averaged 6.8 carries a game. In 2018, 11.

In 2019, he carried the ball on average 14.7 times a game. Not exactly workhorse numbers, especially when you put that number next to those of his touchdown-mates: CMC - 17.9 and Henry - 18.9.

CMC caught, on average, 7 balls a game. Jones? Just 3. In fact, 13 total running backs caught more balls than Jones in 2019.

Yet, only he scored as many times as CMC and Henry. See where I’m going with this?

Now, it’s not a question of talent with Jones, but you can’t help but wonder: If not for all that red-zone work, would Jones have been the fantasy monster he turned out to be? The Packers were without Davante Adams for a few games due to a lingering turf toe issue. Jimmy Graham is far from what used to be. The rest of the Packer wideout depth chart leaves much to be desired. Time and time again, it was Jones who seemed to be the top red-zone weapon for the Packers. In fact:

  • Jones rushed for 14 TDs on 33 carries (2.4 Carries Per TD) in the red zone this season — best Carries Per TD rate of 34 qualified RBs; League Avg: 5.4

  • Jones had 10 receptions in the red zone this season — tied for 2nd most among RBs

  • Jones rushed for 16 TDs on 236 carries (14.8 Carries Per TD) this season — best Carries Per TD rate of 35 qualified RBs; League Avg: 31.8

Green Bay’s championship window is tied to the arm of Aaron Rodgers — 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers. They would do well to re-tool and revamp this offense with a couple of young, talented wide receivers. Upgraded offensive weapons could decrease the reliance of Aaron Jones in the red zone. This, in turn, would change his fantasy output. As such ...

Can He Do It Again?

I just can’t see Jones scoring this many touchdowns again. If he can, great, but keep in mind, it took CMC having a historical season and Henry leading the league in rushing yards and attempts to get to such a lofty scoring mark in 2019. That, combined with the expectation of an upgraded Packer offense, will probably lead to some sort of regression for Jones. With that said, his floor as a receiver isn’t bad at all and he’s proven time and again how explosive he can be, so we shouldn’t expect a huge drop-off in overall production. He probably won’t score 19 total times again, but we’ll still be happy with something in the realm of 10-12 total TDs.

Running Back: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

When you compare Austin Ekeler’s ADP (Pick 100) with his fantasy finish (6th-best RB), you can infer what fantasy players thought he’d be this season. I’d heard people drafting Ekeler as just a dart-throw in the hopes that Melvin Gordon would sit the season out. I’d heard people drafting Ekeler as just insurance after they drafted Gordon (5th-round ADP).

Regardless of why you took Ekeler, he paid off your investment, and then some.

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While Gordon continued his holdout, Ekeler was BALLIN. And hey, let’s face it — we should’ve known he had it in him. We had seen flashes in 2018, especially in the passing game. Ekeler went nuts in Week 1 last season and didn’t slow down until Week 6 against Pittsburgh. By this point, Gordon had ended his holdout, and most fantasy managers were understandably left with the sinking feeling that the party was over, that Gordon would once again take over the backfield.

Not so.

Ekeler’s excellent receiving floor helped buoy his fantasy value even while sharing the backfield with Gordon. Ekeler ended 2019 with the second-most receptions, targets, receiving yards, and the most receiving touchdowns among running backs. Like Alvin Kamara before him, Ekeler showed in 2019 that he’s not only able to control a backfield by himself, but he can also remain fantasy-relevant even while splitting touches.

Gordon is a free agent. Ekeler is a restricted free agent. Will the Chargers pay Gordon the money he wants or let him walk? And, with news of the Chargers moving on from Philip Rivers, what will a new quarterback situation do to Ekeler’s fantasy value? There are question marks here, but one thing is certain: The Chargers would do well to make sure they hold onto Ekeler for the near future after what he showed them in 2019. All that said ...

Can He Do It Again?

Definitely. Ekeler had over 300 more receiving yards than the third-place running back on the RB-receiving yards list (satellite-back extraordinaire, James White). His receiving prowess provides him with a safe floor week in and week out. Ekeler will give whoever is at QB for the Chargers in 2020 a security blanket, one with the explosive skills to turn a check-down into a big gain (Ekeler averaged 10.3 yards after the catch —945 RAC/92 receptions — in 2019, 2nd best of 37 qualified RBs; league average was 7.7). And if Gordon goes somewhere else this offseason? Forget it.

Wide Receiver: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

The biggest hindrance to Cooper Kupp in previous seasons were injuries along with the wide usage tree of the Los Angeles Rams. Well, all that came to an end in 2019, as Kupp played 16 games and obliterated his career-highs across the board. He finished second in touchdowns (10), behind only Kenny Golladay. His previous career-high was 6 in 2018. Jared Goff loved Kupp in the red zone; Kupp had 13 receptions in the red zone (5th most among WRs) and had been targeted 10 times on plays inside the 10-yard line (tied for 4th) in 2019.

With Brandin Cooks missing games and Todd Gurley’s role changing (and reducing) drastically, Kupp took a leading role in the passing game. The big slot receiver inhaled targets — his 94 receptions on 134 targets (70.1% Reception Pct) were good for 5th best among 68 qualified WRs — while the Rams offense struggled to develop week-to-week consistency. It was truly a breakout season for the then-third-year receiver. Not much bad to say about Kupp in 2019.

Will injuries return to haunt him in 2020? Will a fully tooled, healthier Rams offense provide a roadblock to Kupp’s upward trajectory? These are questions that must be taken into account when projecting Kupp for next season, and so ...

Can He Do It Again?

Like the aforementioned Jones, it’s only right to expect some form of regression here. Sure, Kupp’s red-zone usage is legit, and he has Goff’s trust. But Robert Woods (who led the Rams in targets) isn’t going anywhere, and you can absolutely expect him to score more than the measly two tuddies he had in 2019. Not to mention, Tyler Higbee emerged after Gerald Everett went down and became one of Goff’s most consistent targets Week 14 forward. Woods’ positive-regression combined with Tyler Higbee’s emergence (and the return of a fully healthy Brandin Cooks) could absolutely cut into Kupp’s red-zone prowess. So while he could still get the looks needed to deliver fantasy-WR1 numbers, all those weapons around him could be great for the Rams in reality, but not as much for Kupp’s fantasy value.

Wide Receiver: DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins

What a story. After looking like the absolute bust of busts, after frustrating fantasy players time and time again, DeVante Parker finally broke through in 2019.

His 72-1,202-9 line to end the season was his clear-cut best ever, and good enough to help him finish as the 7th-highest scoring fantasy wideout.

What a season for DeVante Parker. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
What a season for DeVante Parker. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

But, understandably, when random breakouts like these happen — especially in a player’s FIFTH season — we’re skeptical. I mean, Parker had never played a full 16-game season. He’d never caught more than 60 balls. He’d never surpassed 750 receiving yards. He’d never scored more than four touchdowns.

2019 was a dream come true for everyone, but was it just that — a dream? Sure, Parker had the draft pedigree, but he’d never been able to put it together. Or maybe it was just that Ryan Fitzpatrick, in his gunslinger mentality, figured he’d just throw to the de-facto Dolphins No. 1 receiver over and over again.

I don’t think it’s that simple, however. Like the aforementioned Tannehill, Parker too had been freed from the clutches of the Adam Gase regime and began 2019 in an entirely new system with a new coaching staff. And as the whole Miami team got accustomed to the new system throughout the season, so too did we see Parker’s floor become safer and safer, and we saw flashes of his ceiling nearly every week until it culminated in an excellent finish: Three TDs, 183 yards his last two games.

It definitely helps to have someone like Fitzpatrick at QB, a savvy veteran who will force-feed his top target. Fitz is signed until 2021, so the Dolphins are in a good position to sit whoever they draft at quarterback behind the veteran until the kid is ready. That means — unless the rookie QB utterly wows and wins the job in training camp/preseason — we’ll probably get to see more of that Fitzmagic-Parker connection next season. But ...

Can He Do It Again?

I sure hope so. Parker emerged as the true No. 1 target for the Dolphins in 2019, as it seemed like every week Fitzpatrick gained more trust in the then-fifth-year receiver to the point where he was just peppering him with targets (Parker averaged 11 the final three games of the season). The Dolphins signed Parker to a contract extension, so no matter how the quarterback situation shakes out, it seems like this new regime knows who its best player on offense is, and they’re expected to treat him as such. Don’t be surprised if the soon-to-be sixth-year Parker delivers another season similar to this past one in 2020.

Tight End: Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders

Darren Waller was drafted, on average, in the late-12th round of fantasy drafts in 2019. He started the run on what I like to call the “Let’s See What Happens” tight ends: Waller, a retired Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Tyler Eifert, etc. — you get the point. Though he’d been in the league since 2015, Waller had only played a grand total of 22 games heading into 2019, and had caught a mere 18 balls in all that time.

But, he was finally heading into a starting role in 2019 and with an impressive athletic profile (over 80th percentile in all his draft workout metrics). Hard to imagine he’d do what he ended up doing in the season, however.

Waller kicked Zach Ertz out of the Big Three fantasy tight ends, finishing behind Travis Kelce and George Kittle, respectively.

Waller caught the second-most balls and accumulated the second-most receiving yards of all tight ends in 2019. Once it became clear that the Antonio Brown experiment wasn’t going to work out, Waller became the No. 1 target for quarterback Derek Carr. Without a true No. 1 wide receiver, Waller was treated similarly to the way the aforementioned Ertz was in Philadelphia. And we all know how much Carr loves his tight ends; since Carr has been a Raider, pass-catching tight ends have caught over 50 balls four times (Waller, Jared Cook twice, and Mychal Rivera).

Most importantly, Waller almost never left the field and played outside and in-line — he had a 90.4% snap share in 2019. He earned 46 more targets than the second-highest targeted player on the Raiders. It all sounds good for the soon-to-be 28-year-old Waller, but ...

Can He Do It Again?

We saw his breakout in 2019, and Waller’s situation heading into 2020 hasn’t changed much. Sure, the Raiders will undoubtedly add to the wide receiver corps, but it’s hard to believe the trust built between Waller and Carr will be broken just because of some new faces out wide. So, I still expect him to be a top fantasy producer at the position. Now, whether Waller can have another top-three fantasy finish on a not-great Raiders offense is another matter entirely.

Who were the players who surprised you the most in 2019? Do you think they can do it again next season? Let us know in the comments below, and hit us up @YahooFantasy!

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