Fantasy Football: 2024 bounce-back candidates

2MNM4A8 Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) during an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez)

• The Cincinnati Bengals offer multiple bounce-back options: Both Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins are coming off down years, but there’s reason for optimism heading into 2024.

Pat Freiermuth could be one of the best values at tight end right now: After a sorely disappointing season in 2023, being a great fit in the Pittsburgh Steelers new offense should put Freiermuth back in contention as a fantasy starter this season.

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Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

Injuries and inefficiencies are the plagues of the fantasy football world, but for those fantasy managers who are willing to forgive and forget, there are several options ready to make things right in 2024.

Players who appeared in fewer than 10 games last season will be left off to avoid some of the more obvious picks such as Nick Chubb and/or Kirk Cousins. Instead, we will focus on players who struggled with missing time but also disappointed as fantasy assets when they were on the field in 2023.

QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

It only makes sense to have Joe Burrow as the lone quarterback on this list after a really disappointing 2023 campaign where he appeared in just 10 games but averaged just 15.5 fantasy points per game for only 155.2 total fantasy points – both of which placed him outside the top-20 at his position. Burrow was dealing with a calf injury heading into the year, which appeared to affect his play early on, and then a wrist injury ended his season after that. 

The Bengals franchise quarterback was drafted as the QB5 last offseason but managed just four top-10 finishes across his 10 games played, finishing with five weekly finishes outside the top-20 in 2023. Injuries clearly hampered Burrow’s level of play this past season, as his overall grade (77.9) and passing grade (76.8) dropped significantly from the previous two seasons where he was a top-three-graded quarterback in both categories each year. He fell outside the top 15 this past season due to his struggles. 

Burrow’s two most important weapons, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, are back for another season and if he’s fully healthy, there’s nothing stopping Burrow from returning to top-five form and back to being a high-end weekly fantasy starter in 2024.

Joe Burrow’s 2023 season compared to the year prior:
Metric 2023 (QB Rank) 2022 (QB Rank)
Passing grade 76.8 (QB17) 89.4 (QB1)
Overall grade 77.9 (QB17) 90.8 (QB3)
Fantasy Points per Game 15.5 (QB25) 23.3 (QB4)
Fantasy Points per Dropback 0.39 (QB28) 0.55 (QB8)

RB Tony Pollard, Tennessee Titans

Pollard’s 2023 season burned a lot of people (myself included) as his effectiveness on the field wasn’t anywhere near what we’ve come to expect from him in years past. While it was always going to be difficult to replicate his efficiency on a significantly larger workload, the hope was that he would at least come close to that performance level and deliver a comfortable top-12 finish at the position. Unfortunately, with a slow start to the year and a lack of touchdowns, he managed just an RB15 finish with a disappointing 12.9 fantasy points per game through 17 weeks.

Pollard joins a new team in 2024 as he takes over for Derrick Henry as Tennessee’s lead back with the opportunity to now outperform his current ADP of RB23 on Sleeper. One of the key factors for Pollard to bounce back this season will be to capitalize on his opportunities near the goal-line after he converted just four touchdowns on goal-to-go situations in 2023 despite 26 opportunities in these situations, causing him to rank 51st in first-down/touchdown rate among running backs (min. five attempts). The other key factor for him will be an overall return to form after his broken leg in the 2022 playoffs seemed to greatly contribute to his slow start in 2023, but he was much better in the back half of the year. Pollard ranked just 39th in PFF rushing grade from Weeks 1-10 (65.8) and was the PPR RB17 over that span, but from Weeks 11-18, he was PFF’s top-graded running back (90.8) and the PPR RB7 to close out the year.

The Titans’ 2024 offense isn’t likely to be as strong as the 2023 Dallas Cowboys, but after adding significant help this offseason, it should be a lot better than what they were in 2023, which will help increase those scoring opportunities for Pollard. He’ll likely cede receiving down work to Tyjae Spears, but there should be plenty of opportunities to carry the ball and show that he’s better than his current RB23 ADP. While he might not ever live up to that RB8 ADP that he was last offseason, he’ll ideally climb closer to that mark in 2024 than where he’s currently being drafted.

Tony Pollard’s 2023 season compared to the year prior:
Metric 2023 (RB Rank) 2022 (RB Rank)
Fantasy Points per Game 12.9 (RB23) 16.1 (RB9)
Fantasy Points per Snap 0.26 (RB43) 0.46 (RB5)
Fantasy Points per Touch 0.72 (RB48) 1.10 (RB9)
Expected Fantasy Points per Game -3.1 (RB113) +3.1 (RB1)

RB Aaron Jones, Minnesota Vikings

Much like Pollard, Jones joins a new team after a season where both injury and inefficiency hurt his overall fantasy production to the point that he finished as just the PPR RB41 by season’s end. This was obviously a far cry from his PPR RB7 finish in 2022, and thanks to a strong finish to the year helping his overall rushing metrics, there’s reason for optimism that Jones can deliver a bounce-back season in 2024.

Jones finished 2023 with a strong 81.5 rushing grade that ranked 14th at his position, as he missed several weeks due to injury prior to Week 15. When Jones returned fully healthy in Week 15, he posted an 89.0 rushing grade (third), 3.70 yards after contact per attempt (ninth) and 0.24 missed tackles forced per attempt (tied for 14th) despite ranking outside the top-40 at his position in the weeks prior to his healthy return. 

Jones’ overall play when he was back on the field late in 2023 is a smaller sample size so expecting a return to a top-10 PPR running back may be lofty expectations, but there’s still a lot of bounce-back potential here for a running back being drafted as RB19 at the moment. The Vikings backfield doesn’t offer much competition for touches, helping him carry the ball more than 12 times per game like last year, and the offense as a whole should create an above-average opportunity for scoring as well so that Jones can deliver more than the three total touchdowns he had in 2023.

Aaron Jones’ 2023 season compared to the year prior:
Metric 2023 (RB Rank) 2022 (RB Rank)
Fantasy Points per Game 11.7 (RB29) 15.2 (RB11)
Fantasy Points per Snap 0.38 (RB14) 0.41 (RB9)
Fantasy Points per Touch 0.80 (RB37) 0.94 (RB12)
Expected Fantasy Points per Game -1.4 (RB102) +1.1 (RB18)

WR Garrett Wilson, New York Jets

Garrett Wilson’s fantasy struggles in 2023 were almost exclusively due to poor quarterback play, which was not the expectation heading into the season after the team traded for Aaron Rodgers, who only lasted four offensive snaps before tearing his Achilles tendon. Wilson went on to rank 111th at his position in catchable target rate (67.5%) and ranked just 22nd in receiving yards (1,042), despite ranking fourth in targets (163). 

Wilson faced similar issues as a rookie, ranking 112th in catchable target rate (66.2%), but still managed more receiving yards (1,103) and receiving touchdowns (four) than he did in Year 2. Wilson’s bounce-back and breakout year potential, which fantasy managers are fully expecting as he owns a top-10 ADP at his position, depends almost entirely on a healthy Rodgers to throw him the ball and keep him efficient, otherwise, this may not come to fruition once again.

Wilson has the talent and opportunity to emerge as that top-10 wide receiver this year, but being tied to a 40-year-old quarterback coming off an Achilles injury makes him incredibly risky as well. If Rodgers can overcome these things and even return to just 2022 form, then Wilson should have his biggest fantasy season yet.

WR Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals

As mentioned at the top of this article, Joe Burrow’s 2023 season was not nearly what fantasy managers have come to expect from him, and that down year negatively affected Tee Higgins in a big way as well. Higgins dealt with a fractured rib early in the year, which also likely contributed to his down year as he played through that injury, however, Burrow’s struggles were more than likely the key in 2023.

Through the first 10 games of the year, when Burrow was in the lineup, Higgins saw just a 65.3% catchable target rate, which, at that point in the season, ranked 99th among 124 qualifying wide receivers. That percentage actually increased to 76.0% with Burrow out for the rest of the year, and was much closer to what it was in 2022 (77.9%) when Burrow played every game. That year, Higgins finished as the PPR WR17 overall, which was clearly better than his PPR WR47 finish this past year. Higgins enters a contract year with all the motivation and talent to deliver a bounce-back season right alongside his star quarterback.

Tee Higgins’ 2023 season compared to the year prior:
Metric 2023 (WR Rank) 2022 (WR Rank)
Fantasy Points per Game 11.5 (WR40) 14.5 (WR19)
Expected Fantasy Points per Game -0.4 (WR111) +2.2 (WR9)
Yards per Route Run 1.66 (WR41) 1.92 (WR22)
Catchable Target Rate 68.9% (WR101) 77.9% (WR41)

TE Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers

Freiermuth had a remarkably disappointing 2023 season, after being drafted as the TE9 last offseason. After finishing as the PPR TE7 in 2022, he managed just 6.4 fantasy points per game as the PPR TE30 through 11 games. Freiermuth was simply not a part of the Steelers offense in 2023, where he had just one game in which he recorded more than three receptions and happened to be the week where he finished as the overall TE1 (Week 12).

Freiermuth’s 15.9% target rate was far from exceptional, especially considering how heavily he was involved the year prior when he saw a 22.1% target rate and posted eight games where he had more than three receptions. His TE7 finish in 2022 could have arguably been better with more touchdown luck, as he saw 21 targets in the red zone and came away with only two touchdowns – the fewest among tight ends who saw more than 20 red zone targets. Touchdowns were hard to come by in 2023 for Freiermuth as well, but it was just one of many issues that plagued him this past season, including the offense as a whole underperforming and finishing bottom-five in the league in touchdown drive percentage (14.9%).

The hope for Pittsburgh and a Freiermuth bounce-back comes from a new starting quarterback in Russell Wilson, and a new approach on offense with Arthur Smith coming in as offensive coordinator. Smith’s Falcons ranked top-three in the NFL in target rate to the tight end in each of the past three seasons, ranking first in 2021 (26.5%) and 2023 (30.2%). While this resulted in frustration for Kyle Pitts managers, Freiermuth’s traditional in-line tight end role should help his case to stay involved in Smith’s offense which ranks third in tight end target rate from an in-line alignment since 2021 (24.9%), which was something that Pitts rarely did for Atlanta.

With the team’s top target-earner, Diontae Johnson off to Carolina, and more of a focus in the passing game around the tight end position, Freiermuth has a great shot at bouncing back to fantasy relevancy in 2024. He should be considered a strong value at his current TE17 ADP.

Pat Freiermuth’s 2023 season compared to the year prior:
Metric 2023 (TE Rank) 2022 (TE Rank)
Fantasy Points per Game 6.4 (TE30) 9.9 (TE10)
Yards per Route Run 1.12 (TE30) 1.68 (TE7)
Target Rate 15.9% (TE34) 22.1% (TE6)

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