This is the first installment of my weekly column previewing the fantasy draft board for 2019. Each week, I will reveal the next 20 players in my rankings for a standard scoring league.
Now, you’re probably worried about my mental health after writing 2200 words about a fantasy draft that won’t take place for another 8 months. Well, I think it’s productive to start thinking about next year while football is still fresh in our minds.
It also eliminates the bias that comes with certain players being over-hyped in the offseason by the media and coaches. It’s important to understand why each player had their level of success in 2018 and what factors may affect their production going forward. And with that, I present my top 20 players in 2019.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB1
Saquon Barkley had an Ezekiel Elliott-type breakout rookie season this year. The difference? Barkley did it behind a mediocre offensive line. He put up gaudy numbers on the 20th ranked offense, meaning better quarterback play will put him in more positions to score TDs next year. This kid has the breakaway speed and elusiveness of Alvin Kamara at 233 lbs, which really isn’t fair. Just take one look at Saquon’s thighs and tell me he isn’t about to go on an Adrian Peterson-type run.
2. Todd Gurley, RB2
Todd Gurley just had the first back-to-back seasons as the fantasy football RB1 since Priest Holmes in 2002-03. He likely won’t do it again next season, but his offense should be every bit as prolific as it was in 2018. Gurley is the focal point of the high-flying Rams offense, meaning they’re committed to establishing the run early and they oftentimes use him to close out the game with a lead in the 4th quarter. He has never had 350+ touches in a season, which helps him stay relatively fresh and avoid serious injury. It will be interesting to see the Rams’ schedule next year; a matchup against a good cold-weather defense during the fantasy playoffs could make Gurley a tradeable asset.
3. Melvin Gordon, RB3
Melvin Gordon had an extremely efficient 2018 season, averaging 5.1 YPC and 9.9 YPR. The Chargers offense is set up to be an explosive unit again in 2019 with the emergence of Mike Williams and the return of Hunter Henry. The main concern with Gordon is his durability: he’s only played one 16-game season in his 4-year career. Bet on Gordon to stay healthy in a contract year and be an elite fantasy RB next season.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB4
Zeke Elliott is a true workhorse back, leading the league in carries in 2016 and 2018. He has also been utilized more in the passing game this year, making 77 receptions and touching the ball a career-high 381 times. Accounting for the playoffs, Elliott is guaranteed to surpass the 400-mark, which has been somewhat of a curse for RBs — 18 of the past 24 members of the 400-club have seen their YPC drop the following season. That said, Zeke will remain the focal point of the Cowboys’ offense, and he proved in 2018 that he can produce behind an offensive line that is no longer a dominant unit.
5. Alvin Kamara, RB5
It’s possible that the Saints let Mark Ingram walk as a free agent in 2019, which would do wonders for Alvin Kamara’s fantasy value. With Ingram suspended for the first 4 games of 2018, Kamara gained 611 all-purpose yards and scored 6 TDs. Prorated over a full 16-game season, that would be 2,444 yards and 24 TDs. He won’t reach those numbers in 2019, but the upside of an Ingram-less Saints backfield is clear. Kamara proved his ability to stay healthy last season with over 300 touches and his elusiveness in the prolific Saints offense gives him an enormous ceiling.
6. Christian McCaffrey, RB6
CMC was the Panthers’ offense in 2018. They showed no reluctance to give him the ball, as Christian McCaffrey amassed 107 receptions (an NFL record for RBs) and over 300 total touches. Cam Newton’s shoulder injury resulted in the entire Panthers’ offense running through McCaffrey and the short passing game. They should push the ball downfield more in 2019, which could open up space for McCaffrey to operate and give him more red zone opportunities. That said, he does not have the size to be a prototypical goal line back. It will be interesting to see who the Panthers sign to be the backup RB and whether he will pose a threat to vulture TDs from McCaffrey in 2019 like we thought C.J. Anderson might do.
7. DeAndre Hopkins, WR1
Looking for a safe WR pick to start off the draft? DeAndre Hopkins is your guy. He has never missed a non-Week 17 game in his career. With Deshaun Watson fully healthy and likely receiving some reinforcements on the offensive line in the offseason, the Texans offense is primed to be an elite unit in 2019. Hopkins has proven he can produce under almost any circumstance, but with everything around him trending in the right direction, it’s possible 2019 is his best year yet.
8. James Conner, RB7
In the absence of Le’Veon Bell, James Conner stepped right into fantasy stardom in 2018. Then, after a late-season injury, Jaylen Samuels walked into the lineup and did the same thing. The Pittsburgh offense is a factory for fantasy RB production and having shown no inclination to use a committee, Conner is set to be the primary beneficiary once again in 2019. He is a three-down back who can produce in both obvious running and passing situations. Conner is guaranteed 10+ rushing TDs in the explosive Steelers offense in 2019, making him a safe RB1.
9. Davante Adams, WR2
After Hopkins, Davante Adams is the next-safest WR in terms of guaranteed WR1 production. Adams has missed only 5 games in his 5-year career and showed incredible chemistry with Aaron Rodgers in his best season to date. The Packers are expected to upgrade their receiving corps in the offseason and get Geronimo Allison back from injury, but Adams should remain the most consistent fantasy star in 2019 due to his dominance in the red zone. He received 41.9% of his team’s targets inside the 20-yard line and scored 12 red zone TDs, leading the league in both. Adams has a special connection with Rodgers and if the Packers offense improves in 2019 like it should, he stands to score even more TDs.
10. Julio Jones, WR3
Julio Jones is an absolute freak of nature at the WR position. He’s led the league in receiving yards twice, including 2018, and he has the most receiving yards/game in history at 96.3 yards/game. Somewhat surprisingly, the Falcons fired their offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after finishing with the 10th-ranked offense in the league. That move says a lot about the Falcons’ expectations for a talented offense that seemed to stall out in the red zone far too often. Jones has the talent to be the WR1, but he needs another dominant season by Matt Ryan to get there.
11. Le’Veon Bell, RB8
This may be higher than you’ll see Bell ranked anywhere else and I’ll explain why. Whichever team signs Le’Veon will be paying him north of $10 million/year with the intention of using him. He could easily receive 400 touches again next season and he’ll be fresh after taking 2018 off. The teams rumored to be interested are the Colts and Jets, which present very different opportunities. Bell is a top-10 pick with Andrew Luck and the Colts, but he falls to the 2nd round on the Jets or another inconsistent offense. He is by no means a safe choice in the first round, but Bell could be a fantasy star once again.
12. Tyreek Hill, WR4
Tyreek Hill is the most explosive player in the NFL and he happens to have the quarterback with the biggest arm. He set the league on fire to the tune of 15.2 fantasy points/game in 2018, albeit scattered amongst a handful of games. Just four weeks accounted for 57% of his production, meaning he was a week-winner four times and the WR20 for the other 11 weeks. If volatile production is something you can handle emotionally, Hill is the receiver to build your team around.
13. Antonio Brown, WR5
After spending four straight years as the WR1, Antonio Brown had a relatively tumultuous season in 2018. He missed OTAs for the first time in his career, skipped multiple practices, and ended the season as a malcontent in a must-win Week 17 game. Then, to top it all off, he requested a trade the day after the Steelers’ season ended. If they do end up satisfying his request, it could only hurt Brown’s value. In his last 4 games without Big Ben, AB has posted 235 yards with no TDs. He’s still the most talented receiver in football, but Brown’s immediate future is steeped in uncertainty.
14. David Johnson, RB9
There was no talent wasted more than David Johnson’s in 2018. The coaching staff is being replaced and the offensive line needs to be upgraded in the offseason for Josh Rosen’s sake. Johnson caught only 47 passes for 440 yards in 2018 after going for 80 catches and 879 receiving yards in his healthy 2016 campaign. The Cardinals’ offense was also dead-last in scoring, offering Johnson very few red-zone opportunities. They need to add a speedy receiver in the offseason to add the threat of the deep ball, which should create more space for Johnson to operate in the short passing game. He has the talent to be a top-10 pick and the potential to be a league-winner if the Cardinals offense can just improve to mediocrity on offense.
15. Joe Mixon, RB10
Joe Mixon is another talented RB who has been held back by poor offense and coaching. The Bengals being 22nd in the league in rushing with a back the caliber of Mixon is a travesty. With Marvin Lewis moving on in the offseason, the new-look Bengals offense should run through its most effective player. Andy Dalton has shown a propensity to make back-breaking mistakes and A.J. Green is not durable enough to receive a heavy workload, so Mixon could catch upwards of 60 balls next year and become a true workhorse back. Any improvements along the offensive line would also be a welcome sight.
16. Odell Beckham Jr., WR6
OBJ’s recent production has been impacted by three main factors: a regressing quarterback who can’t get him the ball deep downfield, Barkley replacing him as the focal point of the Giants’ offense, and injuries causing him to start only 14 games in the last two years. He’s played more than 12 games only twice in his 5-year career. Despite all that, OBJ’s talent is undeniable and with better QB play (it’s hard to get worse), he could return to top-5 WR production in 2019.
17. Michael Thomas, WR7
Michael Thomas has proven himself to be among the most consistent WRs in the game, leading the league with 125 receptions and an 85% catch rate in 2018. He is clearly Drew Brees’ top option downfield, with his main competition for targets being Kamara. Brees really spread the love around to his receivers in 2018, throwing TD passes to 13 different pass-catchers and limiting Thomas’ TD upside. He should continue to post WR1 numbers in the explosive Saints offense without cracking the top-3 at the position.
18. Nick Chubb, RB11
The 2018 Browns coaching staff was so incompetent, the GM had to trade away the starting running back just to get Nick Chubb some playing time. After taking over in Week 7, he averaged over 100 scrimmage yards/game with 5.3 YPC. Chubb remains on the field in all situations, as he’s both a goal-line back and a capable receiver. He is primed to be a workhorse back in one of the most exciting units in the league in 2019: the Cleveland Browns offense.
19. Patrick Mahomes, QB1
There is much debate about positional value in fantasy football and when the first QB, TE, and D/ST should be drafted. For Patrick Mahomes, it comes down to whether he provides enough additional value over the average QB to warrant being taken so high in the draft —and I say he does. Mahomes scored 6.3 points/game more than QB6 Brees in 2018, while the difference between the RB12 (who you’re looking at taking #19 overall) and the RB26 (replacement-level RB3) was only 3.8 points/game in 2018. Meanwhile, the difference between the WR8 and WR26 was 4.4 points/game. Mahomes probably won’t set fantasy records again next season, but he is set up perfectly to succeed in an Andy Reid offense with Hill and Travis Kelce at his disposal.
20. Travis Kelce, TE1
Travis Kelce likely won’t be available at this point in your draft, but I’ll give you four reasons not to worry about that: Zach Ertz, George Kittle, Hunter Henry, and O.J. Howard. The TE position was a desolate wasteland in 2018 and Kelce’s production kept his owners above the carnage. He outscored the TE6 Trey Burton by a whopping 6.4 points/game. He had a career year with Mahomes at QB, but is he worth taking early in the second round at the cost of an RB1 or WR1? Those types of performers are much more difficult to find than a reliable every-week starter at TE. Wait for Kelce and Ertz to be over-drafted and scoop up Kittle or Henry in the next round to maximize positional value.