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FANTASY FORECAST 2017: Bounce-Back Candidates

There’s an old fantasy football adage which stipulates the following: championships are never won in the first round; they can only be lost in the first round. I am a firm believer in this piece of ancient wisdom (believed to have been brought down from the mount by Moses) — last year, it wasn’t the selection of Antonio Brown in the first round that brought you that elusive fantasy trophy, but likely that late-round flier you took on Theo Riddick or Jerrell Freeman.

Heading into a draft, every fantasy owner has a list of players that he feels will have bounce-back seasons. Some of the players on the list are coming off an injury (see Rashad Jones), some have switched teams (see Eddie Lacy) and still others will be playing in a familiar system (see Julius Thomas) or have an opportunity to start for the first time (see Paul Perkins). While the preparation of a “bounce-back list” is a sound strategy, it is largely driven by human intuition. As a computer geek, I find that prospect worrisome — isn’t there some way to inject some cold, hard logic into the process?

Enter Mighty Max, my decades-old supercomputer to add some order to the chaos. I asked Max to see if there was some way we could use formula to find a few players who had a high probability of a bounce-back season. Here are some of the criteria I used to whittle down the pool of candidates:

  • Minimum of four years in the league
  • Considered “draft-worthy”
  • Increasing fantasy production from 2013-15
  • Performance in 2016 at least 20 percent below that of 2015 (but above the position average)
  • They are not past the age of effectiveness for their position

We want to look at four-year veterans, because anything less than that is not enough to establish a reputation for being productive; “draft-worthy” would mean players likely to be on a fantasy roster; increasing fantasy production would indicate a positive fantasy reputation; a dropoff in production last year would indicate a devaluing in fantasy owners’ eyes; and finally, we want to make sure that they have not hit the infamous “wall” for their position.

Max chugged through the data and came up with the following:

Some observations on Max’s selections:

Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta – OK, whatever I write here isn’t going to prevent Jones from being a Top 5 wideout; but it’s interesting how perception overtakes reality in our game. I mean, did you realize that Jones’ production had slipped roughly 27 percent year over year in 2016? Heck, his 2016 production in 20 percent below his 2014. I think we need to acknowledge that 2015 was an outlier, and that maybe owners should expect 2016 to be his new norm. So while still a great receiver, I don’t see Jones coming anywhere near his glorious 2015 season.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston – Hopkins is a difficult case to evaluate. Clearly, he suffered from poor quarterback play in 2016 … but does 2017 look much better in that regard? I would argue that it does, but it’s not going to be 2015 again. Whether he ends up with Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson for the majority of the season, I think he’ll see more targets come his way. But of greater concern is whether or not Hopkins will return to that 15-16 yards per catch range … I don’t think so. So while he might pull in 90 receptions, they’ll be of the 12-13 yards per catch variety (with maybe 8-9 touchdowns). So all told, I see him bouncing back to Top 10 wide receiver status, but nowhere near Top 5.

Tom Brady, QB, New England – OK, this doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, especially since Brady’s decline in 2016 was due entirely to his missing four games as the result of Deflategate.

Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia – When you look at Cox’s dropoff last season, it was clearly due to his precipitous drop in tackles from the year before (43 to 71) and not so much sacks (6.5 to 9.5). When it comes to defensive tackles, I like their potential to reclaim tackle numbers vs. sack numbers … so I’m thinking a young dude like Cox entering the prime of his career will get that motor running again and bounce back to his 2015 form.

Kawann Short, DT, Carolina – Unlike Fletcher Cox, Short’s … shortcoming last season was largely due to his reduction in sacks (6 to 11) and forced fumbles (1 to 3); his tackle production was steady at 55. For the reason mentioned above, I think it’ll be harder for Short to make up all the “impact plays” that came his way in 2015, and I don’t think he gets to the 80-90 tackle range he’d need to come fully back to 2015 levels. So for those reasons, I think Short’s 2017 will look a lot more like his 2016 season than his 2015 season.

Corey Graham, S, Philadelphia – Graham’s odds of rebounding don’t look too good, considering he’s now on a Philadelphia squad where he’s behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod on the depth chart.

Malcolm Jenkins, S, Philadelphia – Speaking of Malcolm in the middle, I like his odds of a bounce-back season, although I think he may have peaked in 2015. I see his final output falling somewhere in the 100-105 point range.

There you have it … just a little extra ammunition for your draft. Use this information in context and you should be able to nab a bounce-back player in 2017!

About John Georgopoulos

John T. Georgopoulos is a 24-year veteran of fantasy sports journalism. John’s Fantasy Forecast series has won the prestigious Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) award for Best Series, and he’s been nominated as an FSWA Award finalist on nine occasions. You can also listen to and watch all his various shows at The Riot.