18 for ’18: Fantasy Football predictions for the 2018 season

You can take many routes to fantasy football success. You can conduct dogged research and statistical analysis. You can watch a lot of preseason action, trusting the eye test over all. Or you can go with your gut. Ideally, your preparation is a well-rounded mix, but there’s a lot to be said for that gut feeling. With the NFL season a week away from kicking off, here are 18 gut predictions for the upcoming fantasy football year.

RELATED: Top 250 overall rankings.

1. David Johnson will rush for 1,000 yards and gain 1,000 yards receiving. I led off with this prediction last year, but things didn’t break the right way, so to speak. Johnson was out after the first game as a result of breaking his wrist. He was the consensus first pick in fantasy last year and an argument could be made that he should still be No. 1. It’s not like he had to deal with an injury to one of his wheels. Recovery from a broken wrist isn’t as dicey as coming back from a torn ACL for example. Johnson possibly could have played at the end of last season had the Cardinals been alive in the playoff picture.

2. Matt Breida will make 50 receptions. Jerick McKinnon was lost for the season Saturday before he had a chance to be featured by Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Last season Carlos Hyde, who hadn’t caught more than 27 passes in a single season in his career, was targeted 87 times and hauled in 59 of those. Shanahan’s offensive philosophy is what made Hyde a passing weapon and it’s what will allow Breida to post a career high in receptions.

3. Saquon Barkley will make it three straight rookies to lead the NFL in rushing yards. Two years ago Ezekiel Elliott was a bit of a surprise selection by the Cowboys, but he turned out to be worth the pick. He led the league with 1,631 yards. Last season when Spencer Ware was injured in preseason, rookie Kareem Hunt shot up draft charts and ended up leading the league with 1,327 yards. It’s Barkley’s turn. We haven’t seen much of him this preseason, but what we did see was outstanding. The Giants have turned into a sneaky pick for some to surprise a lot of people. The passing game should be much improved with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., helping keep the pressure off of Barkley.

4. Royce Freeman will be the second-highest scoring rookie running back. Freeman has been productive in the preseason and signs point to him carrying it over to the regular season. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored in each of the first three presason games. Freeman has to fend off Devontae Booker who has been a disappointment in his career thus far, despite having ample opportunity. Booker has a career average of 3.6 yards per rush attempt. Freeman will have competition from fellow rookies Kerryon Johnson and Rashaad Penny, but I give Freeman the edge.

5. Sammy Watkins won’t catch more than 60 passes. Eight touchdowns last season hid the fact that Watkins caught just 39 passes for 593 yards. He didn’t miss a lot of action either, playing in 15 games. Tyreek Hill will be the leading wide receiver in Kansas City, and I don’t think it will be close. Travis Kelce will be a red zone target, but Watkins may have some success for the Chiefs. He’ll have to, if fantasy owners will enjoy a productive season out of the fifth-year receiver. If Watkins doesn’t find the end zone on a consistent basis, his workload won’t be enough to be a legitimate starter for you.

6. Marshawn Lynch will eclipse 1,000 yards rushing this season. Jon Gruden wants to run the ball. Lynch has looked better this preseason than he did last year. He rushed more than 200 times last season, proving he could still carry a good load. Lynch broke off a 60-yard score during the preseason, but the play was called back due to penalty. He was running away from the safety in the effort. It’s possible he has a bounce-back year and he won’t have to worry about Doug Martin taking away many touches.

7. Latavius Murray will frustrate Dalvin Cook owners by scoring eight rushing touchdowns. Murray is a solid goal-line back and there’s no reason why the Vikings wouldn’t use him in that role. I think their offense could be outstanding this season, with weapons like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, not to mention reliable tight end Kyle Rudolph. Cook should lead the team in rushing if he’s the running back he was before tearing his ACL last season, but I see Murray turning into a touchdown vulture this year.

8. Rex Burkhead, though a fantasy expert darling all offseason, won’t finish as a top 24 running back. This could be the year. It could be the year the Patriots finally start to fall off. Tom Brady is 41 and father time has to catch up to him eventually. There’s not a clear standout running back on the team. Burkhead has gotten quality touches as a Patriot, but I’m thinking he ends up outside RB2 status. James White is still a pass-catching expert and I don’t see New England giving Burkhead more than 12 carries a game.

9. Dion Lewis will outscore Derrick Henry in the Tennessee backfield. Lewis, a former teammate of Burkhead, has flashed in previous seasons but finally put it all together last year. He rushed for 896 yards and six touchdowns while catching 32 passes for 214 yards and three more scores. Lewis was especially good in the last part of the season, scoring seven times in the final eight games. I think he takes the lead role in Tennessee this year. Henry had a couple of big games last season, but he averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in his final four games.

Running back Dion Lewis #33 of the Tennessee Titans rushes against M.J. Stewart #36 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half of a pre-season game at Nissan Stadium on August 18, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

10. Keelan Cole is the wide receiver to own for the Jaguars. With Marqise Lee going down, Cole will lead the Jaguars in receiving this season. He has competition in Dede Westbrook and Donte Moncrief, but Cole has been trending in the right direction. He ended last season with 42 receptions and 748 yards. I’d guess he scores more than three touchdowns this year. Cole caught 20 passes for 426 yards and two scores in the final four games of last season. I see him continuing to be productive with the run-first offense.

11. Nelson Agholor will be the wide receiver to score the most fantasy points for the Eagles. I was already thinking this was going to happen before news broke that Alshon Jeffery was going to miss at least two games to start the season. Jeffery has missed games in three of the six seasons in which he’s played. He played in 16 games just twice in his five years with Chicago. Jeffery started off right with Philly, playing in all 16 contests and helping the squad win its first Super Bowl last season. It’s important to note, however, that Agholor actually caught five more passes than Jeffery. Agholor also finished with 768 yards and eight touchdowns, just 21 yards and one touchdown shy of Jeffery’s numbers. If healthy, Agholor should be the most productive wide receiver.

12. Peyton Barber will outscore rookie Ronald Jones in the Buccaneers backfield. Jones is struggling in the passing game with Tampa Bay. He hasn’t been productive in that aspect of the game in his entire football life. Peyton Barber is ahead of him on the depth chart and Jones hasn’t looked good in the preseason. Though Barber won’t be too special, he’ll do better than Jones by virtue of staying on the field, getting more touches than the rookie.

13. Trey Burton will be a top-4 tight end. Once Burton got out of Zach Ertz’s shadow in Philadelphia, fantasy owners everywhere took notice. Whenever Burton filled in for Ertz last season, Burton more than pleasantly surprised. In the Eagles’ 43-35 win over the Rams last year, Burton stepped in to catch five passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. I think that was a sign of things to come as a starter. He’ll be a nice safety blanket for second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky as the apparent go-to guy in Chicago.

14. Kenyan Drake will rush the ball 205 times and top 1,000 yards. Last season Drake had to split carries with Jay Ajayi, understandably. Ajayi is a talented back who is now in Philadelphia. Drake rushed the ball 133 times for 644 yards and scored three times. The Dolphins will have 138 carries (the number Ajayi had last year) to dole out this season. Though Frank Gore is now in Miami, I think Drake gets the majority of those carries, giving him at least 200 rushes. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry so he’ll cross the 1,000-yard mark if he stays healthy.

15. John Brown will outperform Michael Crabtree. Brown has had a pretty outstanding training camp and preseason. He’s already connected on a touchdown with Joe Flacco and is looking like he could be the No. 1 wideout in Baltimore. In 2015 he caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns. The year before that he scored five times as a rookie. Brown has had a couple of disappointing years related to his health, but he looks great now. Crabtree rejuvenated his career once already, but I don’t know that he’ll be able to do it with the Ravens.

16. Kenny Golladay will double his receptions and touchdowns from last season. Golladay had a decent rookie campaign, catching 28 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns. Matt Stafford can support two 1,000-yard receivers like he did last season with Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. That could repeat, but Golladay has a shot and digging into some of Jones’ numbers. Also, Eric Ebron and his 86 targets are no longer on the team. Those will be redistributed among the three wideouts.

17. Christian McCaffrey will top 250 touches. The second-year running back had 197 touches last season and gained over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. With Jonathan Stewart now with the Giants, I think McCaffrey takes on a bigger role. He just needs 16 touches per game to get to 250, and his offensive coordinator has talked about getting McCaffrey 25-30 per contest. I don’t think he gets 400 touches, which is what 25 per game would total, but he’ll definitely see more action on the ground this year.

18. Mike Williams will replace Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry as an effective red zone target, catching 6 touchdowns.Williams has already out-muscled a defender for a touchdown in the preseason. Expect to see more of that as the Chargers are in need of a big red zone target after losing Hunter Henry. Gates just rejoined the team but Williams will carve out that role.

Contact Cat Vasquez at 512-445-3677. Email cvasquez@statesman.com. Twitter @AAS_Cat.