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2020 Comeback Player

By Jared Smola 9:07am EDT 7/28/20


What’s the easiest way to identify a comeback player? Find a guy who disappointed the previous season simply because of injury. Bonus points if that guy has an otherwise clean injury history and an established track record of strong fantasy production.

That describes our 2020 Comeback Pick to a T. He didn’t miss a single game over his first 5 NFL seasons and finished among the top 10 at his position in fantasy points in both 2017 and 2018. But an injury-ruined 2019 has him coming at major value in fantasy drafts this summer.


What went wrong last year?

Adam Thielen’s disappointing 2019 is easily explained away by a lingering hamstring injury.

He first went down at the end of a beautiful 25-yard TD grab in the 1st quarter of a Week 7 game in Detroit. Thielen missed Week 8 and aggravated the injury just 7 snaps into his Week 9 return. He was then sidelined for the next 4 games. Thielen was active for Weeks 15 and 16 but clearly wasn’t at 100%, playing 70% of the offensive snaps and totaling just 3 catches on 7 targets. He was held out of a meaningless season finale.

So Thielen was useless in fantasy after Week 6. He finished with 30 catches for 418 yards and 6 TDs, ranking outside the top 50 WRs in PPR and non-PPR points. Even in points per game, Thielen failed to crack the top 36.


Still a stud

But that masks the fact that Thielen is still a high-end fantasy producer.

How can we be so sure? Because he racked up numbers both before and after that hamstring injury last year.

In 6 healthy games before the injury, Thielen tallied 38 targets, 26 catches, 366 yards and 5 TDs. Only 8 WRs scored more PPR points over that stretch; only 5 had more non-PPR points.

And Thielen was efficient. His 9.6 yards per target through Week 6 ranked 14th among 51 WRs with 30+ targets. Thielen sat 12th in that group in yards per route run and 6th in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades.

He popped again in the postseason, when he was at least close to 100% healthy. Thielen went for 7 catches and 129 yards in the upset win over the Saints, including this clutch 43-yarder in overtime. He then posted a 5-50 line on 7 targets against a tough 49ers defense.

Thielen turns just 30 in August and still has at least 1 more high-end fantasy season in him.


The upside

We only need to look back to 2018 to see a healthy Thielen’s ceiling. He ranked 6th among WRs with 153 targets, 3rd with 113 catches, 8th with 1,373 yards and 8th with 9 TDs. That season included a record-setting stretch of 8 straight 100-yard games. Thielen finished as a top-36 PPR WR in 14 of his 16 outings — a rate of 87.5% that was beaten by only 4 guys. Thielen ranked 7th at his position in total PPR points and 8th in non-PPR.

He was nearly as good in 2017. Thielen compiled a 91-1,276-4 line on 142 targets that year, ranking 8th among WRs in PPR points and 10th in non-PPR.

He also fared well in advanced metrics in both of those seasons. Among 84 WRs with 50+ targets in 2017, Thielen ranked 15th in yards per target, 7th in yards per route run and 12th in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades. In 2018: 23rd in yards per target, 13th in yards per route run and 7th in PFF’s receiving grades among 83 qualifiers.

By pretty much any metric, a healthy Thielen has been a top-tier WR over the past 3 seasons. And if you’re worried about his durability after last year, stop. He didn’t miss a single game over his first 5 NFL seasons.


Target competition

Thielen turned in those WR1 seasons in 2017 and 2018 despite playing alongside Stefon Diggs, a top-tier WR in his own right. Diggs, of course, was shipped to Buffalo this offseason. The Vikings are hoping to replace him with 1st-round rookie Justin Jefferson. The LSU product is coming off a huge 2019 season in a pro-style offense. But he’s still a rookie who hasn’t been done any favors by the COVID-shortened offseason. In fact, Jefferson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on July 27, which might sideline him for the start of training camp.

In an absolute best-case scenario for the Vikings, Jefferson approximates Diggs’ role, which fed him about 23% of the team’s total targets over the past 3 seasons. It’s more likely that Jefferson falls short of that target share. And what if he just proves unready or unhealthy? The depth chart behind him reads: Olabisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe, Chad Beebe.

So Thielen is a strong bet to at least see a target share in line with 2017 (26.9%) and 2018 (25.2%). In those 6 healthy regular-season games last year, he registered a 24.5% target share. Those marks would all likely land him inside the top 12 WRs this season.

And that’s just the floor. The ceiling — if Jefferson isn’t ready for a big role out of the gate — approaches 30%.


Kirk Cousins

Thielen will also benefit from continuity with his QB — more important than ever this season. Thielen and Cousins have spent the past 2 years together and been 1 of the more efficient duos in the league, connecting on 71.1% of their attempts.

In fact, Cousins has been 1 of the league’s most reliable QBs since arriving in Minnesota. Among 33 QBs with 500+ pass attempts over the past 2 seasons, he ranks 2nd in completion rate, 15th in yards per attempt, 8th in TD rate and 6th in QB Rating.


Gary Kubiak

Thielen should also benefit from a similar offensive scheme this season. 2019 OC Kevin Stefanski left to take the Browns HC job. But he’ll be replaced by Gary Kubiak, who was with the team last year as an offensive advisor. It’s likely that Kubiak had a big say in last year’s offense, so don’t expect a significant change in 2020.

And Kubiak has a long and promising history with his #1 WRs. Here are Kubiak’s top WRs across his 22 seasons as HC or OC, along with their rank among WRs in targets and PPR points.

Thirteen of these 22 guys ranked top 11 in targets, and only 5 failed to crack the top 20. Two of those instances — 2007 and 2011 — came when Andre Johnson missed significant time. Sixteen of the 22 WRs (73%) saw 130+ targets. That would have ranked top 13 among WRs in each of the last 3 seasons.

The fantasy production has been there, too. Kubiak has produced a top-12 PPR WR in 12 of 22 seasons. His lead dog has ranked top 18 in all but 5 of those seasons. And, again, 2 of those came when Johnson missed time. He ranked 2nd and 25th in PPR points per game those years.

And that’s all despite Kubiak’s offenses leaning toward the run. Fifteen of his 22 NFL offenses have ranked higher in rush attempts than passes. The 2019 Vikings finished 4th in rush attempts and 30th in passes — and project to remain run-leaning in 2020. But that doesn’t preclude Thielen from hitting 130 targets, which is exactly what we have him projected for.


Value

All the ingredients are in place for a WR1 season for Thielen in 2020: talent, opportunity, continuity and coaching. But he’s not being drafted there. His positional ADP ranges from WR13 to WR17, depending on your source. Thielen sits 10th in our PPR rankings and 11th in non-PPR.

He’s an even bigger value if you look at overall ADP. With the thirst for early-round RBs, Thielen is regularly available in the 4th round of drafts. We’ve even seen him slide into the 5th.

That means you can load up on RBs early and still get Thielen as your WR1. Or take an elite TE with a couple of RBs and land Thielen. You could even secure a stud RB and still make Thielen your 2nd or 3rd WR.

Whatever path you choose, make Thielen a staple of your draft plan.



Honorable Mention Comeback Pick: James Conner

Conner is in a similar boat to Thielen, coming off an injury-ruined 2019 season. He lost out to Thielen for our Comeback Pick, though, because he carries more injury-related downside going forward. Conner plays the higher-injury-risk position and comes with a lengthier injury history. He missed 6 games last year with shoulder and thigh injuries and another 3 in 2018 with an ankle injury.

But, like Thielen, Conner has a track record of strong fantasy production when healthy. Back in 2018, he ranked 6th among RBs in both PPR and non-PPR points (in 13 games). He averaged a strong 4.5 yards per carry and ranked 9th in Elusive Rating out of 47 RBs with 100+ attempts. He was also busy and effective in the passing game, turning 71 targets into 55 catches, 497 yards and a score.

Even last year, Conner was producing as a RB1 before the injuries started piling up. Through Week 8, he ranked 8th in PPR points and 11th in non-PPR. He compiled 380 yards and 4 TDs on 97 carries and was again awesome in the passing game, posting a 29-236-2 line on 32 targets.

We’re expecting Conner to play a similar role in 2020 — health permitting. The Steelers have a bunch of bodies behind him on the depth chart, but none looks like a real threat. Jaylen Samuels is solid in the passing game but has mustered just 3.5 yards per carry through 2 seasons. We didn’t like Benny Snell coming into the league, and he did nothing to change our minds with his 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie. Anthony McFarland is a much more exciting prospect, but he’s still a 4th-round rookie who carried just 245 times in college. He’s a long shot to seriously threaten Conner’s volume, especially in this COVID-impacted offseason.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin prefers a feature back, anyway. He said so himself back in May.

“I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality. I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him, and it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way.”

In that same conference call, Tomlin called Conner a “featured guy” and “proven runner when healthy.”

Tomlin’s history backs all of this up. He’s had a RB top 240 carries in 7 of his 13 seasons with the Steelers. He’s produced a top-22 PPR RB in 10 of 13 seasons, including 6 top 12s — Rashard Mendenhall, De’Angelo Williams, Le’Veon Bell 3 times and Conner in 2018.

If he can string together 16 healthy games, we like Conner’s chances of another RB1 season in 2020. And he can regularly be had in the 3rd round of fantasy drafts.


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