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The New Reality, No.85: Lessons Learned, 2017 Strategy

Navigating the ever-changing landscape of dynasty fantasy football

With just Week 17 left in the regular season, a vast majority of dynasty leagues have awarded their championship trophies. For owners, it is time to get back to business - improving their roster through trades, rookie draft strategy, and proper player valuations for next season. Here are some lessons learned from 2016 and strategies for 2017:

2016 Lessons

Workhorse Backs Rule

In 2016, seven running backs averaged at least 20 touches per game. However, Melvin Gordon and Lamar Miller were not healthy for the end of the fantasy season and no Todd Gurley owner felt all that comfortable starting him any given week. This left LeVeon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and DeMarco Murray. If you owned any two of them, you likely won the title or were at least the favorite entering Week 16. Compared to last year's workhorse backs, Bell, Johnson, Elliott, and Gordon all had more touches per game in 2016 than last year's leader Devonta Freeman. Bell and Johnson in 2016 were like starting a running back and wide receiver in your RB1 spot. The golden goose is finding backs who are true three-down options without much competition for touches...then get lucky with them staying healthy for the critical late-season weeks.

Who could be the 2017 new workhorses? How about Jordan Howard? The Bears back clearly separated himself from preseason incumbent Jeremy Langford and Howard did not find his stride until Week 4. In the 12 games since Howard hit 25 touches or more in a game four times and was over 15 in all but one contest. Another name to keep in mind for a big 2017 uptick is Kenneth Dixon. His tape was impressive but an early season injury kept his uptick in usage on simmer until Week 9. Terrance West was turned into a two-down option as Dixon dominated passing downs and had three games of double-digit carries down the stretch. Dixon had four games with at least four receptions and West is a free agent in the offseason. Dixon could be the clear starter for Week 1 and run with the job.

Go Cheap at Tight End

Tight ends are more touchdown-dependent than other positions as their volume is lower than wide receiver and they get less point-blank cracks than a running back. Travis Kelce, the top tight end in PPR PPG this season, would have finished as TE6 last year behind Jordan Reed, Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker, Gary Barnidge, and Tyler Eifert. Less than three points per week separated Kelce (TE1) and Jimmy Graham at TE9. Touchdowns were the biggest change from last year as Cameron Brate led the position with eight scores. Three tight ends had 11 or more scores a year ago and five had as many, or more, touchdowns than Brate.

With the position producing more 'sameness' within the scoring than ever, finding cheap production was paramount. While I had my favorites at tight end heading into the season (Virgil Green did not pan out as I hoped), being active on the early waiver wire was essential. Cameron Brate was widely available as the news out of Tampa Bay soured on Austin Seferian-Jenkins during the summer. Dennis Pitta was free in almost every league and he logged 75 catches through Week 16, third-highest of tight ends. Jack Doyle was another; C.J. Fiedorowicz as well. Even Vernon Davis supplied spot starts in the middle of the season.

Being flexible is key as tight ends are readily available on the waiver wire and snap counts and opportunity rise quickly with most teams centering on a single option. Who could be a key tight end next year? How about upcoming free agent Ryan Griffin who has performed well in limited duty in Houston? A.J .Derby is my bet to be the clear Week 1 starter in Denver. Basketball convert Erik Swoope is finally developing and now enters free agency. Jerell Adams has been ramping up his playing time and Larry Donnell and Will Tye are nothing more than speed bumps to the Giants starting role for Adams. Finally, keep an eye on Seth DeValve, who has strong movement skills and Gary Barnidge had a forgettable season on the forgettable Browns. DeValve progressed in his snap counts and flashed at times, all that can be expected of a Day 3 rookie tight end.

Churn and Burn Low-Pedigree Players

While patience is key with young players of high pedigree (draft position, metrics, etc), Day 3 and relative marginal NFL talents should be treated as hot potato assets in the final roster spots on a dynasty squad. Starting with rookie draft picks, favor optimistic depth chart situations for 'good enough' players who can pop early on. This could be preseason hype or being an injury away from prominence early in the regular season. Approaching Round 3 and beyond of rookie drafts and the waiver wire moves from May through the regular season to find flip players (or spot starters) is the goal. These assets are unlikely to evolve all the way to core dynasty assets, so cashing out and churning through many options to hit lightning in a bottle is ideal. Repeating this process over and over reduces roster cloggers and adds future rookie capital to the pockets of active dynasty owners.

2017 Regression Candidates

Quarterbacks

Carson Wentz is dead last of ProFootballReference.com qualifiers at quarterback in touchdown rate in 2016. The rookie showed well on tape, battled through a few games with early interceptions well, and dealt with one of the worst surrounding casts of weapons in the NFL. Expect Wentz to see improvement, specifically at wide receiver, in the offseason and be a strong regression candidate with touchdowns in 2017. A good sign from Wentz is 31 sacks through 15 games, only 16th-highest in the NFL.

Andy Dalton lost A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard for stretches of the 2016 season. He never posted a game with more than two touchdowns all year. His 3.2% touchdown rate is easily the lowest of his career and for the second straight season, Dalton protected the ball to the tune of a sub-2% interceptions rate. A full complement of weapons to start 2017 resets Dalton to a high-QB2 with mid-QB1 upside for next season.

It was a lost season for Cam Newton with a bench-worthy 52.7% completion rate, a career-low 3.8% touchdown rate, and just 6.6 yards-per-attempt. Add to Newton's struggles through the air his 353-5 on the ground (both career lows) and we have seen his fantasy floor. Kelvin Benjamin did not raise the tide of Carolina's previously strong passing game as expected and the reset button is needed in the offseason. Bet on strong performers - especially at quarterback - over their careers after a low-water-mark campaign.

Running Backs

Todd Gurley posted a horrific stat line in 2016 as the Rams struggled on offense mightily. Gurley dropped from 4.8 to 3.2 yards-per-carry. Fortunately, his pass-game involvement rose to 2.5 receptions a week and his six total touchdowns kept him afloat as an RB2. Some will be writing him off entering Year 3, but he was an elite prospect and the Rams crumbled around him. With a new coaching staff and supplements coming at wide receiver and offensive line (No.27 in Adjusted Line Yards by FootballOutsiders.com), Gurley is the perfect buy low on his talent.

Carlos Hyde stayed relatively healthy for the first time in his three-year career. Despite a low-ranking offense, Hyde persevered with 4.6 yards-per-carry, nine total touchdowns, and 27 receptions (all career highs). San Francisco was also dead last in Adjusted Line Yards, even below Detroit, Minnesota, and Los Angeles. Any boost of their pass game will open things up for Hyde, who is still in the historical productive prime window for running backs.

Wide Receivers

Allen Robinson was the centerpiece of a struggling Jacksonville offense. Marqise Lee thrived in the No.2 role against lower-level defensive backs, but Robinson failed to meet the lofty expectations after a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown 22-year-old season in 2015. Robinson regressed in touchdown rate as expected, but his down season also included 166 yards of defensive pass interference penalties drawn, by far the highest in the NFL. In addition, Robinson had more 50/50 balls tipped away (or thrown outside his radius by Blake Bortles) than 2015. As a result, Robinson had just two games of more than 80 receiving yards all season. 

Alshon Jeffery is an upcoming free agent and the landscape of his destinations points to a quarterback upgrade by probability. Jeffery missed at least a month of games for the third time in five NFL seasons. His per-game yardage was actually higher than his 1,133-yard season of 2014. What stands out the most is Jeffery's two touchdowns on 51 receptions, by far the lowest touchdown rate of his young career. Jeffery is the perfect buy with a likely quarterback upgrade, touchdown regression, and the general mantra of buying talented players coming off an injury equation.

Tight Ends

It was a critical season for Eric Ebron entering his third year. The former top-10 pick missed games (again), but produced a career-high 55 receptions, 11.8 yards-per-catch, and nearly 70% catch rate. He caught just one touchdown, however, an anemic 1.8% rate after his promising 10.6% clip last year. Round 1 drafted tight ends do not miss from a fantasy perspective and Ebron is a strong buy for 2017 as his touchdown regression odds are sky high.