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25 Things We Learned in 2016

A look back at the 2016 fantasy season for take away lessons

1. Rookie quarterbacks don’t have to be first-round picks to succeed - Dak Prescott was forced into the Week 1 lineup when Tony Romo and Kellen Moore went down this summer, and it ended being the best thing that happened to the Cowboys and fantasy teams that added Prescott in the Week 2 waiver wire run despite a slow start against the Giants. Prescott was hyperefficient behind a great offensive line, set up by a great running game keyed by a fellow rookie, and turned his limited passing opportunity into a top 10 fantasy season.

2. A first-round rookie running back on a run-first team can be a league winner… - Speaking of those Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott removed “you can’t take a rookie in the first round of your fantasy draft” out of the fantasy football book of conventional wisdom. He was an elite fantasy running back after a lackluster Week 1, not falling below 87 total yards for the rest of the season and scoring 11 touchdowns between Weeks 9 and 16.

3. …but so can a fifth-round rookie RB on a team with a third-string quarterback - Jordan Howard was the 150th pick of the draft and failed to distinguish himself in training camp and the preseason despite only having to overtake Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey on the depth chart. Matt Waldman correctly identified Howard as a Stephen Davis clone for Chicago Bears head coach John Fox, who rode Davis to success when they were together in Carolina. Howard was a top 10 fantasy running back the rest of the way and fought off yet another attempt by the Bears to install a running back committee. Even more impressively Howard did this despite the Bears losing their first and second-string quarterbacks by Week 11.

4. Kyle Shanahan can still create offensive magic - Matt Ryan was the correct answer at quarterback in fantasy drafts this year. Ryan was an afterthought after a disastrous 2015 campaign, but some additions and better health on offense helped the offense stabilize and Ryan ended up with a top five fantasy season, never falling below 16 points in typical fantasy scoring, and only falling below 20 points in three games, one of which was against the brutal Broncos pass defense. Shanahan’s offense also turned a running back by committee into a fantasy bonanza with Devonta Freeman putting up RB1 numbers and Tevin Coleman putting up RB2 numbers. Taylor Gabriel became the latest Browns cut to find success elsewhere, posting near WR1 numbers in the second half of the season.

5. Cam Newton and Andrew Luck’s 2015 seasons were the outliers… - Newton’s near immaculate red zone performance last year came crashing back to earth as he got more inconsistent with each week of the season after some tough early matchups shook him up. Luck wasn’t that healthy this year and neither was his offensive line, but he had a much better season than 2015, finishing in the top five fantasy quarterbacks again.

6. ...but Kirk Cousins’ 2015 was the norm - Cousins came up small in Week 17 and failed to lead his team to the playoffs, but from a fantasy perspective, he was still a major success, finishing as a top 6-8 fantasy quarterback and taking advantage of a shoddy Washington running game to take the reins. Washington might hesitate to sign him long term, but if they bring him back for the 2017 season, he should be drafted in the top ten quarterbacks.

7. Chip Kelly’s offense can still create numbers on a bad team… - Kelly didn’t even get to year two with San Francisco, but he did remind fantasy players that his system amplifies fantasy value. Carlos Hyde was a beast and defied terrible game scripts to be a strong RB2 this year. Colin Kaepernick was barely adequate as an NFL quarterback, but save for a fiasco in the snow in Chicago, he was a reliable weekly fantasy starter with a high floor and ceiling because of Kelly’s pace and system that allows for more quarterback runs. If Kelly comes back to the NFL, we’ll factor this in wherever he lands.

8. ...And throttle the life out of an otherwise still viable player - Demarco Murray was left for dead after the design of Kelly’s running game made it hard for him to get out of first gear in Philadelphia. Kelly’s management of the team already seemed to depress LeSean McCoy to the point that he was a value in his bounceback year at Buffalo in 2015. Murray didn’t just bounce back after the Eagles traded him to the Titans for pocket change, he practically regained his 2014 Dallas form and led many fantasy teams to the playoffs and titles as a strong RB1 that was available in the fifth round and later.

9. Exotic Smashmouth is not a punchline - I take it all back. What was there in Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie’s pasts to indicate that they could make an offense that actually activated “exotic smashmouth” into one of the better offenses in the NFL? The Titans had a zest for the running game shared only by the Dallas Cowboys, and Marcus Mariota’s precise touch and execution made a strong WR2 out of Rishard Matthews by season’s end. Mariota had a long midseason run as an elite fantasy quarterback, and Delanie Walker was a somewhat bright spot in a dim year at tight end in fantasy leagues. Derrick Henry is poised to inherit this running game soon, and he could match or surpass Murray’s stellar 2016 when he gets the chance.

10. Targeting RB in the first round can and does work - The best first round pick this year was David Johnson. The second best was probably Ezekiel Elliott. If you took LeVeon Bell in the first round, he probably would have been the third best. Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham didn’t quite live up to past levels of production, Julio Jones and AJ Green were hurt when it mattered the most, and we can just agree to not discuss Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins? After wide receivers dominated the early part of drafts in 2016, running back is making a comeback in 2017.

11. Don’t fear suspensions… - Every year fantasy players discount studs missing the early part of the season for suspensions too much. This season, elite fantasy quarterback Tom Brady was falling well out of the top five after being slapped with a four-game deflategate suspension. LeVeon Bell was suspended for three games for substance abuse, which took him out of his deserved #1 pick consideration to be there for teams picking at the turn. Both ended up being highly successful picks. Josh Gordon is our counterexample, as he went into rehab just as he was about to reinstated, so we’ll remember that if Martavis Bryant or Gordon are similarly situated coming into 2017 fantasy drafts.

12. …but be very cautious with players coming back serious injury - If there’s one story that seemed stand out among all others in fantasy this year, it was the sobering reality of surgery recoveries not going as planned. We had gotten accustomed to penciling in players for full recoveries on time, which often allowed us to pocket discounts when more tentative owners would let players coming back off of serious injury/surgery fall past their typical ADP. This year many of the most disappointing picks fell into this category as returning players suffered setbacks just as they were about to return or shortly after their return. Dion Lewis, Jamaal Charles, Thomas Rawls, Tyler Eifert, and Sammy Watkins were not part of a winning recipe in fantasy this year, although Jordy Nelson still carried the flag for the “everything is going to be ok” injury crowd. 

13. Bad offenses can get worse - The 2016 Los Angeles Rams played like a horror movie for Todd Gurley, who never got out of the garage in most games, as the Rams offense actually got worse from an abysmal 2015 season that still allowed Gurley to put up elite fantasy running back numbers. Things certainly couldn’t get worse, and Gurley would be even better with another year removed from ACL surgery, right? Wrong. Gurley was barely a flex play most weeks, and he never even had a surprise breakout week to confuse us into playing him again. He’s near the top of the list of players that will be important to take a strong stance on in 2017 drafts.

14. Offensive line health can make bad offenses good - The Dolphins looked like one of the worst offenses in the league in September, and 100% of football minds would have agreed that they were not a playoff team. The line had tackles miscast as guards and they were missing the keystone, center Mike Pouncey. Pouncey returned in Week 6, which led to two straight 200+ yard games for Jay Ajayi (who emerged from a four-way RBBC that head coach Adam Gase admitted was a mistake) and a playoff berth for the Dolphins. Ajayi was a top 10 fantasy running back from Week 6 on and helped many solve their RB2 problem, even off of the waiver wire after impatient owners dumped him.

15. The Chargers didn’t waste a first-round pick on Melvin Gordon - The Chargers paid to move up in the first round of the 2015 draft to get Melvin Gordon, who went on to be outshined by Danny Woodhead and post some records for touchdown futility. A preseason touchdown portended better things for Gordon, and then an early-season torn ACL for Woodhead cleared the runway for takeoff. Gordon’s season ended with hip and knee injuries in Week 14, but up to that point, he was only looking up at the magic trio of Bell, Johnson, and Elliott in a PPR points per game rank at running back.

16. The best values at wide receiver were ascendent talents with good quarterbacks - Want to find wide receivers that can vastly outproduce a cheap ADP? Look for good talents on the upslope of their career development paired with top quarterbacks. Saints second-round pick Michael Thomas (Drew Brees), Chargers physical freak UDFA Tyrell Williams (Philip Rivers), and Packers inconsistent but occasionally dazzling Davante Adams (Aaron Rodgers) all flirted with WR1 status in fantasy leagues at different points in the season thanks to increased opportunity and strong quarterback play, and Thomas ended up there with a strong finish. Remember, when you draft a wide receiver, you’re also drafting their quarterback.

17. Quarterback play can sink fantasy first-round talents at wide receiver - Anyone who drafted Allen Robinson or DeAndre Hopkins in the first round won’t have to be reminded that you are banking on a quarterback when you take a receiver in the first round. Robinson and Hopkins were sunk by terrible quarterback play. It can indeed get a lot worse than Brian Hoyer (who curiously inflated the value of Cameron Meredith and the passing offense in Chicago this year before going down) for Hopkins, and Blake Bortles took a big step back, hampering Robinson in what was supposed to be an even better third season after an elite year two.

18. Little receivers can play big in fantasy leagues - Remember the “size matters” debate at wide receiver? Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr seemed to settle that a wide receiver doesn’t need to be big to be elite in fantasy, but this year we also had a crop of breakout receivers that defied the idea that little wide receivers can’t play big. Tyreek Hill and Taylor Gabriel (who would have been one of the ten smallest receivers ever at the combine) had WR1 stretches that helped teams get to the fantasy playoffs. Tyler Lockett and JJ Nelson (who was the second lightest wide receiver ever at the combine) had hot finishes to help teams that trusted them win titles. As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, the threshold for wide receivers to “hit” from a size perspective will get lower and lower as quickness and speed become bigger factors.

19. Early round wide receivers can be landmines too - The failures at running back tend to stick out in our minds, but the list of early round failures at wide receiver was not short. Keenan Allen tore an ACL at the beginning of the season, Sammy Watkins went on injured reserve with a foot issue that lingered from the offseason, Jeremy Maclin was a dud in a low voltage Chiefs offense and missed a long stretch with an injury, Eric Decker went down with a shoulder injury which also led to Brandon Marshall collapsing with the Jets team, Alshon Jeffery was banged up and then suspended, Randall Cobb turned into Jarvis Landry lite before getting hurt, Michael Floyd was a complete disaster and didn’t even finish the year with the same team, Donte Moncrief got hurt and played possession receiver while healthy, and Kelvin Benjamin teased us with WR1 numbers for two weeks before becoming inconsistent and marginalized at times in the game plan. No position is insulated from misforture and failure.

20. We can be right before we’re wrong and wrong before we’re right - Speaking of Kelvin Benjamin, the fantasy season has a sense of humor and can psych us out into abandoning our views right before they are correct or excitedly thinking that we were correct before all of the returns are in. Benjamin looked like a newly-minted fantasy WR1 after a huge first two weeks, including a good game after the stifling Broncos pass defense. Matt Forte was a workhorse uberstud fantasy back for the Jets for two weeks before wearing down and giving way to Bilal Powell by the end of the season. Tyler Lockett fizzled because of a knee injury before resuming his 2015 breakout in December. Jay Ajayi was lost in the mix in Miami before their offensive line got settled. It’s important to be flexible and incorporate the new reality revealed in September, but every now and then, sticking to our guns pays off the most.

21. Rookie wide receiver impact doesn’t have to come from first rounders - Four wide receivers went in the first round of the 2016 draft. Exactly zero of Corey Coleman (Browns), Will Fuller (Texans), Laquon Treadwell (Vikings), and Josh Doctson (Washington) had a significant fantasy impact this year. Second-rounders Michael Thomas and Sterling Shepard and fifth-rounder Tyreek Hill had more sustained impact despite what was seen as a poor situation for Thomas and gadget player reputation for Hill. Fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell and UDFA Robby Anderson even had more fantasy impact than the first-round quartet.

22. Consistency at wide receiver is overrated - Some of the best wide receivers to plug in your lineup every week let us down multiple times this year. Julio Jones had four games of eight points or under in PPR leagues. TY Hilton failed to break the ten point PPR barrier five times and Doug Baldwin fell below the modest line four times. In his three worst games, Brandin Cooks had ten points - combined. All four finished as top ten fantasy wide receivers on a points per game basis in PPR leagues. Ceiling is more important than floor on a weekly basis if you want to win fantasy titles.

23. If you broke even at tight end, you did well - The top two drafted tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed, had nothing to offer teams in the fantasy playoffs. Tyler Eifert was healthy for only a six-week stretch. Travis Kelce and Greg Olsen, the big success stories, were top three options that played all 16 games, but only rated as mid-WR2 level plays when lumped in at wide receiver. Coby Fleener, Julius Thomas and Gary Barnidge were drafted as top 10 tight ends and you would have been rational to never start them this year. Streaming tight ends might join streaming quarterbacks as a default strategy.

24. A “Baby Gronk” can actually live up to that nickname - While downplaying Travis Kelce’s success as a part of a down year at tight end, we shouldn’t downplay his success in a limited pass offense in Kansas City. He had four straight 100-yard games, which is something that Daddy Gronk has never done. If he can make a modest step forward in touchdowns and continue to be the centerpiece of the Chiefs pass offense, he should deliver and what will likely be a 2017 ADP of TE1 or TE2.

25. Patellar tendon tears aren’t fantasy career enders anymore - Victor Cruz and Jimmy Graham were elite fantasy options when they went down with patellar tendon tears, but no one expected them to even be relevant in fantasy leagues again after the injury. Cruz lost an additional year to a leg injury suffered during his rehab, but Graham had a smooth recovery from his injury. Both returned to significant action for their teams this year. Cruz didn’t truly return to pre-injury form, but looked more like his old self than we ever could have expected. Graham was one of the few success stories at tight end and had moments that reminded us of his fantasy golden age in New Orleans. While there were many sad injury recovery stories this season, it’s always good to end on a high note.