This article is part of our NFL Observations series.
I'm reprising this exercise from last year because I think it's useful to identify potential breakouts and upside plays.
There are essentially four variables that determine a player's value: (1) Health; (2) Skills; (3) Team Context; and (4) Role. Of the four, (1) and (4) are most subject to dramatic change, so I've eliminated them for the purposes of these rankings.
In the first table, I assume every player were guaranteed 16 games. In the second, I've ranked the top-20 QB, RB, WR and TE irrespective of roles, i.e., assuming everyone had an equal number of basic opportunities. For QBs, that's 550 passing attempts, for RBs, that's 250 carries, for WRs and TEs, that's 130 targets. (I'm assuming a full PPR format.)
Several players see significant boosts over their actual rankings: Lamar Jackson leapfrogs Patrick Mahomes for the top spot among QBs, and Cam Newton is No. 8 as he could lead all QBs in rushing TDs should he hold up for 16 games. At RB, Dalvin Cook shoots up to No. 3, while the durable Zeke Elliott drops to No. 5. James Conner, Todd Gurley, Chris Carson and Mark Ingram also get boosts. At WR, Odell Beckham moves all the way to No. 2, and 30-year old Adam Thielen jumps to ninth. Finally at TE, Rob Gronkowski moves ahead of Darren Waller, and the oft-injured Evan Engram and Greg Olsen also get bumped up.
Let's take a look at the Opportunity-Neutral Ranks. These eliminate not only health (you can't have opportunities without it), but also the hard-to-predict whims of coaches and coordinators:
This is where it gets interesting. All the running QBs get big boosts, including rookie Jalen Hurts, who is a long shot to play much this year as he's likely third string. Still, he rushed for 1,298 yards and 20 TDs in college last year. At a minimum he'd be a top-10 QB were Wentz to get hurt and Nate Sudfeld falter. I even put Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston in the top-20, given Trubisky's running ability and Winston's set-up should something happen to Drew Brees.
At RB, Alvin Kamara moves to No. 2. Give him the same number of carries as the workload heavyweights in a top offense, and he could have a season for the ages. Incidentally, Kamara is 5-10, 215, so it's not inconceivable the Saints would lean on him more if Latavius Murray got hurt. Clyde Edwards-Helaire moves to No. 4 with that workload in an elite offense and with tons of receptions, as do Austin Ekeler, Kareem Hunt, Damien Williams and Tony Pollard. (Note, I didn't rank pure pass-catching specialists like Tarik Cohen or James White – obviously, they would be huge with 250 carries, but it's so unlikely that would ever happen, I omitted them. One could argue Edwards-Helaire is in that category, but he's 5-7, 207 (fairly stout) and had 215 carries last year in college.)
At WR, Tyreek Hill is atop the list – target for target, I'd take him over Michael Thomas given Hill's big-play ability and his QB's arm. Beckham moves to No. 3, with A.J. Brown, who led all WR in YPT as a rookie, slotting at four. Kenny Golladay, Mecole Hardman, Marquise Brown and Will Fuller all get massive boosts too.
Finally, just to show the flip side of this exercise, I did a quick top-20 highest floor players. Floor drafting makes sense only in the early rounds, so ignore the tight ends beyond the top five:
This shuffles the deck quite a bit. Matt Ryan moves up to five, and Matthew Stafford all the way to eight as non-running QBs take on less risk. Even nondescript scrubs like Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins make appearances.
For RB, Ezekiel Elliott checks in at No. 3. Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry also see spikes for their projected heavy usage and clean bills of health. Josh Jacobs moves up, while injury prone and potential holdout Dalvin Cook drops down.