It’s not even half over, but 2020 is already the strangest and most disturbing year of many of our lives. At this point, I’d be happy if we could simply downshift to “weird” for the rest of the year. And maybe that’s where the sporting calendar comes in. If and when things start up again, they’re certain to be different, unusual in 2020. Perhaps weird was the right word all along.
With respect to the NFL, this has pushed me to the theme of continuity. I want to bankroll offenses that are mostly the same from last year — quarterback, other personnel, key coaching spots — given that preparation and practice time is likely to be limited this summer. To be fair, not everyone subscribes to the continuity theme; the league had limited ramp-up time in 2011, and yet several rookies popped that year. Perhaps there’s signature significance to that, perhaps not.
In any event, we’ll go hunting for continuity teams in this piece, and we’ll throw in a secondary theme for fun — the carnival. What is a fantasy carnival? It’s a mix of chaos and a mix of volume, resulting in bushels of points and fantasy juice. Think of the Buccaneers from last year; a team that could move the ball but would give back to the other guys. A weekly track meet is a good thing. Pinball is your fantasy friend.
Get out the binoculars and let’s see what we find.
Kings of Continuity — Tennessee Titans
We’ve already done our team preview on the Titans and I also did a one-off on A.J. Brown, so I understand if you’re Titaned out at the moment. No one is forgetting the 2020 Titans. But they fit the continuity suit perfectly: Same quarterback, same featured back, same alpha wideout. The offensive line is also poised to be strong again.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith could be the secret to this team’s success. He clicked as the new play-caller last year, and that came on the heels of four years as tight ends coach. This is his sixth year with the organization, and that’s a rarity in the NFL — a good position coach or coordinator that a team is able to keep. If Smith is hot with the play sheet this year, he’ll be a hot head-coaching candidate in 2021.
To be fair, the Titans angle could fall apart if Ryan Tannehill turns into a pumpkin. But I’ll posit Tannehill can give back a fair amount of last year’s shocking efficiency and still be a neutral quarterback for our purposes, perhaps an eyelash better. I’m also thinking Jonnu Smith could be ready for a jump in his fourth year.
Kings of Continuity — New Orleans Saints
Although the odds are unlikely to be juicy, I’m already considering some New Orleans props for this year. This team likely returns the most starters from 2019, and the offensive infrastructure is well established. Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in 2006. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. got the job in 2009, after two years as a quarterback and passing coach. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara have validated themselves as fantasy first-round talents, the rare combination of high upside and high floor.
The two possible wrenches in New Orleans relate to the quarterbacks — Brees enters his age-41 season, and Payton often gets cute with those Taysom Hill packages. If the octane dips in this offense, it probably relates to one of these guys. Nonetheless, the Saints offense remains one of the most bankable in the league, and the team overall belongs on the shortlist of NFC and Super Bowl favorites.
Other Continuity Cases — Seahawks, 49ers
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has been the team’s de-facto offensive coordinator since 2017; he enters his fourth year. In NFL years, that’s an eternity — only the Saints and Patriots (Josh McDaniels) have a more established OC (you could also nod to the Chiefs, where Andy Reid calls the plays but Eric Bieniemy is a respected OC). If you’re a bad play designer in the NFL, you lose your job quickly. And if you’re a wizard with the play sheet, you’re quickly targeted for a head-coaching position.
It’s an interesting inflection-point year for Jimmy Garoppolo, his fourth run with San Francisco. He was a part-season wonder in 2017, then had an injury-wrecked 2018. Last year’s team was one solid quarter from a championship, but Garoppolo’s play wasn’t as consistent as we’d like. If he’s going to be a star, liftoff time is now; he enters his age-29 season. His primary weapons are back, and perhaps rehabbing WR Trent Taylor is ready to contribute.
With the Seahawks, we’re open to wonder if OC continuity is even a good thing. Play designer Brian Schottenheimer (hired in 2018) has been a fantasy frustration at several stops, as he refuses to throw most of his offensive responsibilities on his star quarterback. Nonetheless, Russell Wilson puts out a lot of fires, Chris Carson and Tyler Lockett are building on solid resumes, and DK Metcalf looked like a potential star last year. There’s plenty of comforting familiarity here.
Bengals at the top of the Carnival list
Cincinnati probably won’t be a winning team in 2019, but they sure look fun. Joe Burrow comes off a monster Heisman Trophy year and seems to have the mix of maturity and physical gifts to handle an immediate starting job. And he's going to get plenty of help — Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd are well-established, A.J. Green is a possible comeback candidate (I won’t draft Green proactively, but perhaps he can help the offense in aggregate). Tee Higgins comes to the NFL with a glittering pedigree; even if he’s not fantasy-ready immediately, he can at least be useful in this offense.
And then there’s the Cincinnati defense, which allowed 420 points last year and ranked 30th in DVOA. These Bengals are likely to chase the game regularly, and if Burrow is ready for his close-up, pinball results could follow.
Jacksonville also has some Carnival potential — a mobile, DGAF quarterback in Gardner Minshew, deep receiver talent headed by D.J. Chark, and a disassembled defense that ranked 29th in DVOA last year. Windows close so quickly in the NFL; Blake Bortles was an eyelash away from a Super Bowl trip in early 2018, but that feels like 10 years ago. The team is totally different now, perhaps dysfunctional. But sometimes dysfunctional is fun.
Daniel Jones brought the fun and dysfunctional to his rookie year. We loved the 24 touchdown passes, 3,027 yards, 279 rushing yards — but winced at the 39 sacks and 18 fumbles. The Giants defense (27th in DVOA) didn’t make his life easier. Maybe new OC Jason Garrett will find success now that he’s not holding a head-coaching job. The deep skill talent around Jones gives him a strong chance to succeed.
The hybrid case for the Falcons
Atlanta looks like an intriguing mix of Continuity and Carnival. Their offensive depth chart isn’t a complete carryover, but Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and breakout-darling Calvin Ridley make for a fun set of triplets. The offense was in the bottom third last year and doesn’t look particularly improved. A schedule filled with dome games, that never hurts. You’ll have to pay up for Jones and Ridley — and maybe you should — but the durable, proven Ryan is one of my favorite boring value plays in the middle of the quarterback market.
Another continuity case: Detroit
Another carnival candidate: Carolina