Fantasy football value is found annually by filtering through the injured players from the previous season for the best bounce-back candidates. Here is a look at the notable returning players returning from a partial or entire missed season in 2020:
*aPPG is a blended ranking system of a player's per-game production and accounting for missing games*
Prescott was a dominant force, leading the position in fantasy PPG on the season. He posted 12 total touchdowns and averaged nearly 400 total yards per game. Prescott was on his way to a career year through his five healthy games. The surrounding cast remains one of the best in the NFL with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Prescott is projected with the third-most pass attempts in the NFL, nearly 5,000 passing yards, and 36 total touchdowns by the consensus Footballguys staff. The No.1 overall quarterback spot is within the range of outcomes for Prescott in 2021.
Burrow's rookie season was cut short, missing six games due to a season-ending injury. Burrow's QB19 aPPG finish as a rookie surpassed the historical average for 1.01 NFL Draft quarterbacks (QB23) and he looked the part of a solid NFL quarterback with upside from there. Like Dak Prescott above, Burrow's surrounding weapons rival the best teams in the NFL with Tee Higgins logging a quality rookie season in 2020, Ja'Marr Chase drafted at 1.05 this offseason, and Tyler Boyd one of the more underrated productive profiles at the position.
While Burrow is mobile, he does not project as a strong rusher for fantasy purposes, but Footballguys projects more than 200 yards and repeating his multiple scores from a year ago. Years 2-3 is the most common breakout season zone for 1.01 quarterbacks with 31% posting a top-six season and more than half overall finishing in the top-12. Burrow participated in OTAs and has a good shot to be ready for Week 1.
McCaffrey was dominant yet again in 2020 but missed nearly all of the season. McCaffrey was RB4 in aPPG, his third straight season in the top-4. McCaffrey has been a dominant workhorse and PPR option, seeing a wide receiver-like 379 targets, 303 receptions, and 15 touchdowns between 2018 and 2019. McCaffrey is one of the few running backs with change-a-fantasy-season upside where he functions as two players in a lineup. Sam Darnold is a noteworthy change for the Panthers offense, but even if Darnold does not surge to a top-12 season, Teddy Bridgewater was a low-end QB2 a year ago and did not hinder McCaffrey or Mike Davis from producing.
Barkley arguably has the most physical upside of any running back in the NFL. After RB2 and RB7 aPPG finishes to start his career, Barkley had a non-season in 2020 with a ho-hum Week 1 and exiting with a major knee injury in Week 2. Barkley offers one of the bigger upside profiles for running backs, seeing 194 targets over his first two seasons. There is easing Barkley back into a full workload potential early in the season for his volume. The Giants' passing game projects as stronger than a year ago with Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney added. Daniel Jones is the lynchpin to an offensive uptick. At a minimum, defenses have more weapons about which to worry on the Giants offense than the last time Barkley was healthy.
Mixon sustained a foot injury in 2020, limiting him to six games. A lack of touchdowns (21 in 36 career games) and a stunted ceiling in the passing game 2.8 receptions-per-game in his career have been limitations to date. Mixon has been pedestrian on a per-game basis with aPPG finishes of RB31, 9, 20, and 14 in his career. The key question is will Mixon take a step forward without Giovani Bernard in a critical Year 5? The Bengals were No.21 in the NFL in High-Leverage Running Back Opportunities a year ago (weighting goal-line carries and running back targets). Bernard's departure has workhorse potential for Mixon as Samaje Perine is not a higher-level receiving option as the projected RB2 and Chris Evans more adept in the passing game but a Day 3 rookie.
Thomas played through injury and missed more than half of 2020 in what turned into a lost season. Thomas' volume dipped and he notably did not score a touchdown on 40 non-descript receivers. Previous to 2020, Thomas was a top-8 aPPG receiver each of the previous four years. Thomas is projected to return to his healthy WR1 perch for the Saints, but without Drew Brees as a projected starter for the first time in Thomas' career. Jameis Winston (and Taysom Hill) are both variables under center but the supporting case to siphon targets away from Thomas is weak. Emmanuel Sanders is gone and Tre'Quan Smith and Adam Trautman are the best of the rest. Thomas is a threat for 125+ receptions, which he has hit twice in his career and Footballguys projects him comfortably in the top-10 receivers.
Jones returns from a hamstring injury which cost him seven games in 2020. Plus, Jones was traded to Tennessee this June. The variables are pronounced with Jones, shifting to Tennessee's passing game - a lower volume unit than Atlanta. A.J. Brown barely saw 100 targets as the WR1 for the Tians last year, a modest total. Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith are notably departed from the passing game leaving 157 available targets. Jones had nine straight top-12 aPPG seasons to begin his career before WR15/16 finishes over the past two years. Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss are two notable receivers from the past 20 years to rebound to elite seasons after a similar career arc downturn like Jones. Will Tennessee be more pass-friendly with Brown and Jones one of the top tandems in the NFL? Jones has yet to finish lower than WR16 in aPPG in his career and 2020 was his first season missing more than two games since 2013.
Beckham was on his way to a dud season through seven games, totaling a meager 43 targets on the Browns' low-volume passing attack. Beckham was a dominant force, opening his career with five straight top-10 aPPG seasons. Since his move to Cleveland, however, Beckham has fizzled to WR32 and 41 seasons respectively. Like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Beckham is one of the current multi-year production dips from previously high-producing receivers. Beckham getting back to 100+ targets would put him into the top-35/40 zone in PPR on volume alone, close to his Footbalguys consensus projection and redraft ranking.
Golladay finished his Lions career missing 11 games in 2020 and regressing from his 2019 banner year on a per-game basis. Golladay has yet to finish in the top-12 of aPPG but does have two top-24 seasons and now a strong free-agent contract with the Giants. The competition for targets is high in the passing game with Saquon Barkley returning from injury, plus Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard, and Darius Slayton in addition to the arrival of Golladay. Daniel Jones is on the bust track through two seasons and now with no excuses regarding surrounding weapons. Golladay is outside the top-20 wide receivers in Footballguys rankings and projections for 2021.
Samuel missed a chunk of 2020 with hamstring and foot injuries. The after-the-catch maven watched as Brandon Aiyuk sizzling in his rookie season, plus George Kittle is slated to return this season after missing games himself. The logjam of quality targets for the 49ers comes on a run-centric offense and potentially Trey Lance under center for a chunk (or all) of 2021, providing another rushing option to a creative Kyle Shanahan attack. Samuel has flashed in his career, but more with manufactured touches than as a traditional wide receiver, a worrisome trait considering Kittle's presence plus Aiyuk being a rookie phenom as a traditional lead receiver.
Kittle, like Deebo Samuel, was a notable missing piece for the 49ers' offense in 2020. Kittle missed half of the season and was on track for a stat line rivaling his career year in 2018. Kittle is one of the most dynamic tight ends in the NFL and has posted three straight top-5 aPPG seasons. Touchdowns have been the lagging statistic for Kittle, scoring only 14 times over 53 career games with a season-high of just five. With a thin group of potential TE1 overall challengers this season, Kittle is firmly within the subset and a top-4 Footballguys projection.
Howard missed 12 games last season after a sturdy opening month. Howard's 19 targets were easily TE1 on the team compared to Rob Gronkowski's 14 looks over the same span. Howard has shown as a seam-stretching mismatch over his first four seasons, plus one of the highest yards-per-catch marks for the position over the span. With Tampa Bay's bulging skill position Rolodex, a true breakout season for Howard is a tall order. Howard has TE2 with TE1 moments as he outlook with a more optimistic projection for dynasty leagues than 2021 specifically.
Ertz mired through a forgettable 2020 season, which included five missed games, playing hobbled, plus a systematic breakdown for the Eagles offense overall. Ertz was coming off a combined 204 receptions and more than 2,000 yards the previous two seasons. Still rumored as a potential trade candidate to a new team, the equation is murkier for Ertz to return to a high-end TE1 if remaining on the Eagles for the season. DeVonta Smith was added in Round 1, Dallas Goedert has been a strong producer despite sharing the depth chart with Ertz, and questions abound about Jalen Hurts as a production-dealing passer to lead the Eagles' offense. There are numerous open tight end depth charts for Ertz to be a clear starter, plus thinner competition for targets. Ertz's outlook is rosier if dealt than remaining with the Eagles. Ertz is outside of the top-20 tight ends in Footballguys projections.