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You love to read it when you somehow had the foresight to draft these players, you hate to read it when it's time to figure out how that could have happened: It's The Year In Confounding Fantasy Football! Cooper Kupp shatters his "physical ceiling." Mark Andrews bounces back in a big way. Cordarrelle Patterson and James Conner come out of nowhere to finish as top-10 backs by fantasy points.
Cooper Kupp finishes as the overall WR1, wins the wideout triple crown
How did this happen? Not only was Cooper Kupp not the No. 1 preseason wideout, he was narrowly not the No. 1 preseason wideout on his team -- that was Robert Woods. Kupp was being drafted close to 20th overall among wideouts after a 2020 season where he was targeted 124 times for 974 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games. Under Jared Goff, Kupp played in a fairly prolific offense but was getting more extension-of-the-running game treatment as the Rams struggled to move on from Todd Gurley. He had a 20-target, 110-yard game against the Dolphins in 2020. His average target distance fell from 7.4 in 2018 and 2019 to 6.7 in 2020.
And so, after just three 10-plus target games in 2020, Kupp went on to be targeted 10 or more times in all but three Rams games in 2021. His targeted air yards skyrocketed to 8.4, and it was very evident that he took the lead role in the passing game from Woods in Weeks 1 and 2. He broke DFS slates for four of the first seven weeks with multiple touchdown catches. Matthew Stafford raising the tide of the Rams offense wasn't something widely unexpected for anyone who watched Goff struggle in 2020, but what that looked like on paper was harder to understand. There was something in Stafford's history that foretold this a bit: His attachment to peppering Golden Tate with slot targets in Detroit. (Of course, he also had literally Calvin Johnson.) But how would the Sean McVay/Stafford mix work out? Most projections predicted a slight bump for Kupp but also believed that every receiver would benefit a bit.
Instead, with Woods gone to a torn ACL in midseason, Van Jefferson becoming the team's primary deep threat, and Odell Beckham joining late -- it really became the Cooper Kupp show. Kupp finished with 145 receptions, 1,947 yards, and 16 receiving touchdowns, leading the league in each category.
Who can we blame for this? Kupp and Stafford forged an intense friendship pretty early, forming Breakfast Club. I think Stafford holds most of the blame for this, though it looks a little obvious that he liked slot wideouts with perfect hindsight. Kupp has only developed his route-running more and more as he's gotten older, and I think that in particular augurs well for him holding his value.
What's our takeaway? A lot of massive outliers get quashed back to the mean in some way the next season. Because all the principal players will be back next season for the Rams, it's hard to believe that will happen with Kupp. Maybe Beckham will be back, and maybe he won't, but either way, the Kupp-Woods-Jefferson trifecta will remain explosive with McVay calling the shots and Stafford shooting them. I would suggest that there will be regression here because there's no way there couldn't be, but Kupp will likely remain an easy WR1 in 2022.
Cordarrelle Patterson turns the RB1 meme into a reality
How did this happen? One of the greatest enduring #DraftTwitter truths of the past decade has been that Cordarrelle Patterson would have made a great running back. It was founded in reality: Patterson has always been able to make people miss in space, and that's why he has eight kickoff return touchdowns. The Patriots dabbled with Patterson in the backfield on passing downs in 2018, and the Bears did it in 2020. But when he signed with the Falcons, there was no reason to believe that the Patterson renaissance was upon us. Patterson didn't even take an offensive snap in the preseason. The backfield looked to be in the hands of Mike Davis.
But in Week 1, there it was staring us in the face: Patterson outrushing Davis 54-49 on half the carries. With an offensive line that had trouble creating more than an initial push off the snap, Davis' subtle movements and vision were wasted. Davis finished dead last in Next Gen Stats' rush yards over expectation per attempt at -0.76. Patterson, meanwhile, was one of 26 qualifying backs that were above expectation. Patterson could always hit a hole quickly, and he simply performed better than Davis. He averaged 2.5 yards after contact per Sports Info Solutions charting through Week 17, whereas Davis added 2.0.
Patterson's 11 touchdowns rushing and receiving obliterated his career-high at age 30, and as fantasy backs have tended to become more and more reliant on receiving yards, it was only natural that someone would do this, right? Patterson only had more than 10 carries in a game six times all season. But he was constantly adding value in the air even despite that. Patterson became a best ball and waiver wire hero after finishing the season with 153 carries for 618 yards rushing, 52 receptions for 547 yards receiving, and 11 total touchdowns.
Who can we blame for this? Necessity is the mother of invention, and Falcons head coach Arthur Smith deserves some credit for understanding how bad his backfield and offensive line situation was and leaning into Patterson. There would absolutely be coaches who saw a player with this kind of talent and ignored him because he's not a running back. And that is kind of a worry for 2022, actually.
What's our takeaway? Patterson told reporters last week that he wants to be with the Falcons for the rest of his career, but that it's "not on me." It would be a grave mistake for Patterson's burgeoning fantasy football career to leave, in my opinion. You can't rely on a different team to understand this lightning in a bottle and how to capture it. You certainly can't rely on the highest bidder to do it. But the bank account is going to decide this, it sounds like. I'm currently looking at Patterson as an RB3 to capture both the upside and the downside. If we knew today he'd be a Falcon in 2022, I'd be more comfortable heading up the rankings with Patterson.
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James Conner becomes the zero-RB poster boy of 2022
How did this happen? There are two swing factors to this question that went Conner's way, the first of which is that the Cardinals were actually good. Ever since Kliff Kingsbury took over the Cardinals they've been effective running the ball off Kyler Murray, but they've had to dial that back a little bit and leave more of Murray's rushes to scrambles because there are hits that our favorite roomba just can't be taking as a franchise quarterback. Arizona's defense took enough of a step forward this year, though, that they still found themselves running out plenty of time with leads. The Cardinals (through Week 17) were fourth in the NFL in average game time spent leading, at 33:45. In 2020, that number was 23:52 -- 17th in the league.
But beyond that, there was the projection that Chase Edmonds would be the main back. Edmonds was the incumbent, and there was plenty of smoke both from press conferences and offseason reports about him being the lead back. When Conner was added, he was added off of an injury-plagued season and given the "always injured" scarlet letter. Certainly, he earned that to an extent after missing games in every season of his rookie contract with the Steelers. But it wasn't like Edmonds had ever fully taken over the backfield on his own for Arizona, either -- Edmonds didn't even have a 100-rush year to his credit. And he had injury problems of his own, which ballooned in a big way this season as he spent time on the IR and dealt with various maladies all season.
Even without being the "starting back" outside of Edmonds hitting IR, Conner took command of the backfield in the red zone and used that game script to his advantage by notching a career-high 14 touchdowns before a heel injury sidelined him for most of the fantasy playoffs. Conner even got some pass-catching usage in a few big spots without Edmonds around. Conner lingered much too long in most drafts, with an ADP around RB35, because he was cast as too injury-prone to be worth it in a spot without a lot of upside. Both the spot and Conner overperformed our wildest expectations, and faith in Edmonds' body holding up as a starting NFL back was not rewarded. Conner finished with 202 carries for 752 rushing yards, 37 catches for 375 receiving yards, and 18 total touchdowns.
Who can we blame for this? It can be as simple as Edmonds not being able to withstand the pounding of an NFL schedule, but since we talked about the Arizona defense vaguely: How about some love for Vance Joseph? Even after J.J. Watt went down for the season, the Cardinals were able to fly around for most of the year and cover up their major defects -- cornerback depth, mainly -- with aggressive play. The biggest reason Conner had the opportunity to run all that clock was because Arizona's defense stood strong.
What's our takeaway? Conner's an impending free agent, but with the Cardinals actually making the playoffs, we don't know what the plans are for 2022 just yet. He may have put himself near the top of the free-agent running back market with Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, and Raheem Mostert after this breakout season. Arizona does not have a ton of cap space to spread around in 2022, so it'd make a lot of sense for Conner to move on if there's an actual bidding war for his services.
Mark Andrews outdoes Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and others to finish as the overall TE1
How did this happen? A top-five ranked ADP tight end, but well beyond the top three of Kelce, Waller, and George Kittle, Andrews found himself behind the Kyle Pitts hype machine. 2020 saw a precipitous dip in production as Baltimore's passing offense struggled. Andrews fell from 10 touchdowns to seven and, most notably, gained only 3.1 yards after catch compared to 2019's 4.5.
2021 stabilized to old norms -- he was back at 4.5 yards after the catch, and he improved on it by offering a career-high 69.8% catch rate. But what really made Andrews' season special and revved it over the top was his three-game stretch with Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson in the fantasy playoffs, where he had 376 receiving yards, 29 catches, and four touchdowns and ballooned several squads over the top. Even in Week 17's relative "dud," Andrews still caught six balls for 89 yards. Most projections for 2021 had Andrews as a stable target instead of projecting an increase in his volume, but Andrews led all tight ends with a 30.67% air yardage share of the Baltimore offense. Some of that is about the health and consistency of the non-Marquise Brown wideouts, with Rashod Bateman slow to start, then in-and-out of the target pecking order while Sammy Watkins remained mostly mercurial from a fantasy perspective.
It was never that Andrews was not a statistically-sound TE1. His depressed ADP was more about a lack of confidence the industry had in Lamar Jackson throwing the ball well in combination with Greg Roman. The Ravens may look to shake up the passing game in 2022, but the signs that Andrews would rebound were always there. He finishes with 107 catches for 1,361 yards and nine receiving touchdowns.
Who can we blame for this? You can blame Huntley and Johnson. Andrews performed very well with Jackson under center, but he averaged 8.2 targets and 67.6 yards per game. During the four-game stretch without Jackson from Week 14-17, Andrews managed an 87.5%(!) catch rate, 10 targets a game, and 116.3 yards per game.
What's our takeaway? I think no matter the outcome of this offseason, Andrews belongs in a tight top-four with Kittle, Kelce, and Waller. But with how badly the Baltimore passing game has struggled with Greg Roman, I think his job may be less stable than some think. Baltimore's season didn't die because of Roman -- it died because injuries destroyed their running game and defense -- but the lack of statistical prowess Jackson has made under him is puzzling. Particularly when you look at these splits that Andrews is putting up.
Andrews will have to compete for touchdowns more often if Jackson is running the show, and he may fall a bit statistically as Bateman begins his climb up the rankings in 2022. But there's room for everybody at this table, and if the Ravens hire a more impressive passing-game coordinator, this could be a spot to watch for explosive play next year.