There are two kinds of super productive offensive players in the NFL. There are those that are tremendous athletes who are just better than the guy trying to guard or tackle them. Then there are those who are good football players, like all players in the NFL, but they happen to be on a team that has a good offensive system, a great play designer and caller, or both.
Sometimes players and schemes are perfect fits, like Wes Welker during his time with the New England Patriots. But other times, players have to fight through not just opponents, but their own offenses to succeed — think of Andre Johnson with the Houston Texans or Adrian Peterson’s 2011 season with the Minnesota Vikings. Taking a player from the latter situation and placing him in the former is how an offensive breakout can be accomplished.
I think the combination of play calling and a great system is the single biggest way to equalize a game. The simple calling of a play, knowing exactly why and having a reason and a plan off of each play called. You would be amazed at the large percentage of coaches calling plays in the NFL who do not think like that at all. They have a scripted sheet and have watched film, but are terrible at taking advantage or even seeing things that could really help them once the game has begun.
Using this method, I wanted to find some of the traditional sleepers as the fantasy world likes to call them. The following players are thought of as solid, but not the best at their position, but that may change for many of these after this year is over because of their ability but also because of the offense they are playing in. Players I will focus on have either a good offensive system, what I think is a good playcaller, or both.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers (Okay, some order. Hunter played for me in high school, so he is my favorite among these) – Henry comes off an ACL injury that took him out of all of last year except their playoff loss to the Patriots. He played sparingly in that game but it is huge for his confidence, and the team’s confidence in him to go back out there the same year he tore it. Now, it can be business as usual without worrying about limiting him in plays, etc. The great thing about the Chargers is they have a lot of offensive weapons in Melvin Gordon, Mike Williams, and Keenan Allen. That threat of a running back and wide receivers opens it up for the tight end more than people realize. You don’t think of tight ends as going 50 yards on you so if you have to choose on defense, you take away the sure thing (handoff to the back) and the possibility of the big play. That leaves the option routes and over and unders for the tight end. Two years ago, by some analytics, Henry was the single best player, not just tight end, to throw the ball to in the NFL. Now add this system that allows him some freedom, and playcalling that I think isn’t nearly as good for the receivers because they run a lot of deep routes, but it’s great for the tight end on all the underneath stuff. The deep routes the Chargers mix in will allow Hunter plenty of room to work. I am not calling this a great system for winning offensively, but it is for Hunter Henry. 1,000 yards this year is my prediction.
DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers – Moore led all wide receivers in yards after the catch per reception (7.9) last year. Add in the fact that Christian McCaffrey beat some teams and if Norv Turner opens up his offense even more than he has, Moore is looking at a potential 1,200-yard year. He fits into a lot of offenses, but with McCaffrey drawing the attention of linebackers, and the fact that Turner loves calling dig routes to his best receiver in behind them, Moore is set to turn those into big plays. He showed last year what he could do on a limited scale with 55 receptions for 788 yards. I look for him to be a well over 1,000-yard receiver with eight touchdowns or more.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts – For Luck to make this list, I have crazy high expectations for him because everyone already expects him to be a great player. I think this year he takes the torch as the best regular season QB. In just one year in Frank Reich’s offense (and coming off a huge shoulder injury), we saw how much better Luck might be than he already has been. His interception rate was the second-lowest of his career. His touchdown total was second-highest. It was the second-fewest number of sacks he has taken, and highest completion percentage. Reich has a good system and I love the fluidity of his offense, which finished fifth in Weighted DVOA last season. Throw all that together with a solid group of receivers, a good running back, a great play caller, and a Vegas over/under win total of 9 – 9.5, and Andrew Luck will be the MVP of the NFL in my opinion.
Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals – A lot of people think Kirk is a sleeper, but I think he is a possible monster in a new offensive scheme that I like very much for players who can run after the catch, where Kirk excels. One of the major things I love in an offense but one of them is throwing the ball to nonstationary receivers, (less throwing outs, comebacks, stops, hitches, and more crossings, digs, slants, posts, etc). Add in what I think will be a ton of post-snap adjustment by receivers and sprinkle in a mobile QB. That has the makings of this young athlete to take over as a huge asset on a team. It is certainly not going to hurt that the Cardinals will get behind and have to throw the ball more often. Kirk will revert back to his college days when he showed great ability to get to the open field. Last year’s 43 receptions for 590 yards with the possibly worst quarterback and offensive line in football could be doubled this year, easily.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals – Remember when DJ had 1,239 rushing yards and 879 receiving yards in 2016? I think he easily could get back there. I know I touched on Arizona throwing the ball more but this offense will open up the run game. Linebackers don’t come downhill quite so fast when they know the ball can be thrown behind them and will be if they are too aggressive. It will make teams play them with an extra defensive back and lose a linebacker. Johnson is the man to make them pay for that. If Kliff Kingsbury does as good a job as he has done in the past with his offenses, and knowing he has to run it a little more with a rookie quarterback, this will be a huge year for Johnson. Kingsbury will have a plan and scheme for the lack of quality on the O-line. I am not saying Arizona will win a super bowl by any means, but Johnson is in for a year similar to his best year.
Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints – Exit Benjamin Watson, who in my opinion was limited and limited the Saints, and enter Jared Cook. If he can have right below 900 yards and almost 9.0 yards per target in that terrible Jon Gruden offense in Oakland, the limits are beyond view in what he could do with the Saints. I mentioned about Hunter Henry that the key to a great tight end season is often times a good receiver and a good running back for the defense to focus on. If they run a lot of deep routes with receivers, that opens things for the tight end. Although the Saints don’t do that, they do have a great receiver in Michael Thomas and an awesome running back in Alvin Kamara. The Saints are one of the better play calling teams and have one of the better schemes in the history of the game. If they went at a faster pace, they could be even better. They run great route combos, allow player freedom in option routes, play action, screens, and have a quarterback who can put the ball in tiny windows as well as anyone the game has ever seen. Cook can easily be a 1,000-yard receiver in an offense that Benjamin Watson only had 400 in last year.
Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers – Jesse James had 423 receiving yards last year for the Steelers. He left. Antonio Brown had 1,297. He left. Vance McDonald should have been playing more in my opinion anyway. He had 610 yards receiving, showed he could run after the catch (google Vance McDonald stiff arm), and is in an offense that loves to throw the ball with a quarterback who understands the game and can buy time with his feet. Forget the addition by subtraction that will already come by AB leaving and going to the Raiders. McDonald caught almost 70 percent of the passes thrown to him. Compare that with Jimmy Graham (61 percent) last year with one of the supposed best QBs in the game, Antonio Gates (62 percent), and Rob Gronkowski (65 percent) and you can see the type of talent he has mixed in with this Steelers offense along with the chemistry he has with Big Ben. The Steelers offense has long been a good one and might even be a little better this year. Their running scheme is great. Their passing offense and route combos are very good. They have enough ability to throw over and run under the part of the field that McDonald will have a chance to own this year.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons have a top-10 passing offense statistically in the NFL. They have a solid quarterback who is accurate, isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and make his reads, and they have a great running game. They also have one of the best receivers in the league in Julio Jones. That allows Ridley to be used inside, outside, under, and over Jones. Jones is in his prime and people know that he can beat them with one incredible game. I am not one for one-on-one matchups necessarily but the NFL is, and this creates more opportunities for Ridley, who has the ability to make big plays after he catches the ball. This is a perfect fit for a second-year player who learned a ton last year. The Falcons know their offense is on the arm of Ryan and they have developed a nice mix out of it. Ridley was thrown to 92 times, around the same number of times as tight end Austin Hooper (88) and veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu (94) last year. That was as a rookie. Now that he and they have confidence in him and with the screens and running abilities of Devonta Freeman, look for Ridley to get to 1,300 yards this year. This is a great fit for Ridley, which could limit possible touchdown regression.