Occurrences in this domain are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature. - Albert Einstein, Noted football fan and sometime physicist
We can’t be sure Einstein was talking about the NFL of a bygone era when he said this, but it could have applied to the league then, and it definitely applies to it now. There are a variety of factors at play that makes it awfully hard to predict what will happen in any NFL season, but there still is an order in the league. If you can decipher that order, you’ll have a much better chance at making the right predictions and looking like a genius in December.
With that, here are some bold predictions for the 2015 NFL season.
Jeremy Hill Leads the League in Rushing
Hill initially became the Bengals’ starting running back by default when a hip injury forced Giovani Bernard to the sidelines in Week 9. He stayed there by proving he was already one of the best backs in the league. Hill ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start. Two weeks later, he had the second 150-yard game of his rookie season. All told, Hill racked up 929 yards and six touchdowns on 172 carries in his nine starts. That per-game average comes out to 1,651 yards and 10 touchdowns, rounded down to the nearest whole number, when extrapolated over a 16-game season. If per-carry averages are more your thing, we can figure pretty safely that Hill will get 250 carries in a full season as the starter. Using that as our baseline, Hill’s nine-game run to end last season would translate into 1,350 yards and eight touchdowns. No matter your preferred metric, the numbers and your eyes should both say that Hill is in store for a monster season.
The Cincinnati offense is going to be better than you think. A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert are all healthy. Hill, the team’s best running back, will start from day one, and Bernard is a perfect complement as a receiver and change-of-pace back. No one, however, will shine brighter than Hill this season. Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension will cost him the rushing crown. Jamaal Charles’ rushing numbers have been trending downward for two straight years. Adrian Peterson will have just enough rust to keep him from the top spot. Hill will narrowly edge Eddie Lacy for the rushing title, and will finish the season as a top-three fantasy running back.
The Most Productive Wide Receiver Pair Plays in Detroit
Just a few weeks ago, it was clear that the best wide receiver duo in the league resided in Green Bay. That’s how quickly injuries can change things. First, Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, ending his 2015 season before it started. Then, to add to their struggles, Randall Cobb suffered a shoulder injury that could cost him some time at the start of the season. And while a number of other teams can now make an argument that their receivers are best, the title won’t even leave the NFC North.
In 2014, three sets of teammates reached 1,000 yards through the air. The Broncos’ duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders led the league with 3,023 receiving yards. Nelson and Cobb came in second, combining 2,806 yards. Next up was Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate of the Lions, who had 2,408 yards between the two of them. The big difference, though, was that Johnson missed three games, and was hobbled for three more, because of an ankle injury. On a per-game basis, they were more productive than the Packers’ duo, on a yardage basis. And this year, Johnson and Tate will be better than the entire league.
Catching Thomas and Sanders will be a tall order, but those two pairings are easily the cream of the crop with Nelson injured. Most of the other top pairs live off of the exploits of the better receiver, from Julio Jones and Roddy White in Atlanta, to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams in Dallas, to Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz in New York. The third-best duo is likely T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson, but they’re running comfortably behind Thomas/Sanders and Johnson/Tate. If Johnson gives the fantasy community 14 healthy games, he and Tate will be good for 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
At Least Five Receivers Have 1,500 Yards This Year
I’ve been playing fantasy football for 20 years now, and I can safely say that I’ve never seen a deeper pool of talent at the top of the receiver position. We may differ on how we rank the individual players, but its hard not to view the consensus top-10 receivers—Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery and T.Y. Hilton—as safe WR1s this year. The position is in great hands.
Beyond them is an equally safe crop of WR2s with WR1 upside. You may prefer Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews, DeAndre Hopkins, Emmanuel Sanders or Davante Adams, but yet again you’re finding talent and value, regardless of what neighborhood of the position you isolate. It’s a great time to be a receiver in the NFL.
Last year, for the first time in NFL history, four receivers—Brown, Thomas, Jones and Nelson—had at least 1,500 yards. This season, that number will reach five. You want to invest in the elite group of receivers. Heavily.
Dez Bryant Shows Why 15 is His Favorite Number in 2015
Bryant’s touchdown consistency over the last three seasons has turned him into the best fantasy receiver in the league. Bryant has visited the end zone 41 times since 2012, which comes out to .85 touchdowns per game, a ridiculous rate for a wide receiver. To put that into some historical context, Jerry Rice had a seven-year stretch from 1989 through 1995 in which he had at least 10 touchdowns every season. In his most prolific three-year window of that run, he scored .92 touchdowns per game.
It has been just four years since a receiver reached both the 1,500-yard and 15-touchdown marks. Calvin Johnson actually did it 100 yards and one touchdown better, going for 1,681 yards and 16 scores in 2011. Bryant will come at within at least a touchdown of his career-best 16 set last year, and he’ll surpass 1,500 yards for the first time in his career, making him the top receiver in 2015.
DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy are Among the Running Back Busts
Montee Ball, Doug Martin and Andre Ellington in 2014. C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Ray Rice in 2013. Darren McFadden, Ryan Mathews and Maurice Jones-Drew in 2012. The question isn’t if there will be high-profile busts at the running back position. Rather, it is who will be the ones to ruin their owners’ seasons. That infamy will belong to a former NFC East star and the man who replaced him in Philadelphia.
I’ve already laid out cases for Murray and McCoy being busts this season. Let’s take another short pass at both of them, starting with last year’s rushing leader. Murray is coming off his first fully healthy season in recorded memory, going back to his days at Oklahoma. He touched the ball 497 times, including the playoffs, in that season. This is an injury-prone back coming off the fourth most active year in NFL history. Ryan Mathews will have a significant role in the offense, especially since the Eagles need Murray healthy in January. He downgrades from Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to Sam Bradford and Jordan Matthews. And yet, he’s still being treated like a first-round pick. Do yourself a favor: stay away from Murray, and take one of the elite receivers still on the board.
Going from the current Eagle to the erstwhile one, McCoy, too, finds himself in a worse setting than he was last year. At least much of the case against Murray is circumstantial, however. To believe in McCoy is to ignore the obvious trends in his play last season. After racking up 5.1 yards per carry in an offense perfectly suited for his talents in 2013, he had just 4.2 yards per tote in last year. He was a total non-factor as a receiver, and while that was a bit of a fluke, we may never see him catch 50 passes in a season again. Buffalo’s offense isn’t nearly as tailored to McCoy’s strengths as the one he left behind in Philadelphia, and he’s already dealing with a hamstring injury. He has taken a beating over the last two years, amassing a total of 831 touches. He is also the only back to have at least 300 carries the last two seasons. If you want McCoy, however, you’ll have to burn a second-round pick on him. His ADP is higher than A.J. Green’s and Randall Cobb’s. Do not make that mistake.
Tyler Eifert is a Top-Five Tight End
If you’ve been following along with our preseason draft kit, you know that I’ve been hinting at this bold prediction all along. Everything is in line for him to have a top-five season at the tight end position. If he stays healthy, there's no doubt he'll provide one of the highest returns on investment this season.
We’ve seen so little from Eifert as a pro that it’s hard to lean on anything he has done in the league for evidence that he’s set for a breakout campaign. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to prove himself as a rookie in 2013, but he did catch 39 passes for 445 yards and two touchdowns. Last year, the Bengals were featuring him prominently in Week 1. On the team’s first three possessions, he had three catches for 37 yards. Unfortunately, he dislocated his elbow on the third catch, ending his season. That’s why we partially have to lean on pedigree and preseason numbers. In both areas, Eifert comes through spectacularly. The former first round pick out of Notre Dame enjoyed yet another flashy preseason. He wasn’t on the field much in the Bengals’ first three games, but he hauled in five passes for 67 yards, and routinely looked like one of the best players in the team’s training camp practices.
As we discussed in the Jeremy Hill prediction, this Cincinnati offense could end up being among the best in the league. At 6’6” and 250 pounds, Eifert may just be the breakout star of the team’s offense this season. We’ve seen what game-changing tight ends have done for their teams in recent years. Eifert could be the piece the Bengals have been missing in their playoff flameouts the last four seasons.
Riding With a Ryan at QB Leads to Glory
The opportunity cost associated with early-round quarterbacks is simply too high to buy into Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers at their respective ADPs. I’m willing to consider a quarterback I really like earlier than some late-round QB zealots, but more often than not I’ll be taking a patient approach at the position in one-QB leagues. More often than not, that leads me to the league’s best before-and-after to find my starter.
Let’s start with the before part of the equation. It seems that no one is ever excited to tab Matt Ryan as their fantasy starter. I’m having trouble figuring out the motivation behind that lack of enthusiasm. Over the last three seasons, Ryan has never thrown for fewer than 4,515 yards or 26 touchdowns. His average season since 2012 translates to 4,642.67 yards, 28.67 touchdowns, 7.35 yards per attempt, and 15 interceptions. He finished those three years ranked seventh, 12th, and seventh at the quarterback position, and has never been more than 1.5 standard deviations below his season yardage or touchdown average. In short, Ryan is a consistent back-end QB1. There is a complete absence of evidence that he will fall out of that group this year. He has one of the best receivers in the league at his disposal. The chances of him jumping into the top five at the position may be so slim as to be almost non-existent, but you can draft him cheap, and etch 4,500 yards and 28 touchdowns in stone. There’s a lot of value in that reliability and week-to-week consistency.
Moving on to the after, Ryan Tannehill has improved in each of his seasons in the NFL. He was the No. 8 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues last year, notching 4,045 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 311 rushing yards, one score on the ground, and just 12 interceptions. Not only does he continue to improve, but he’s working with the best supporting cast he has had in four years in Miami. No one pass-catcher jumps off the page, but Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings, DeVante Parker and Jordan Cameron appear to be a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Dolphins upgraded the offensive line, and have the league’s most underrated back in Lamar Miller. Tannehill is a safe QB1, with the upside to push the established hierarchy that rounds out the top-five quarterbacks this year. That’s not all he’ll accomplish, either.
Photos: Michael Conroy/AP (Hill), Sarah Glenn/Getty Images (Johnson), David Banks/Getty Images (Tate), Joe Robbins/Getty Images (Brown), Tony Gutierrez/AP (Bryant), Bill Wippert/AP (McCoy), Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Eifert), Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images (Ryan)