What We Learned in 2019: Stories of the Year

A look back at the biggest stories of the 2019 fantasy season

We've gotten enough distance from the 2019 season now to step back and see what exactly were the biggest stories of the season, the cranks that made the fantasy wheel of fortune turn. When we remember the 2019 fantasy season, which stories will last, which narratives were the golden threads of truth that led to championships?

The Adam Gase Effect is real and it is spectacular

Narrative matters in fantasy football. Sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that you have to grant that the narrative must account for a significant part of the why behind what we observe on Sundays. Adam Gase went from being the Dolphins head coach to the Jets this offseason and the ripple effect produced some of the best waves to ride in fantasy leagues this year.

The Jets side is less interesting, so let’s get it out of the way first. Gase didn’t play games with backfield workloads, but Le'Veon Bell still suffered greatly because the offense and team had fits and starts of success and failure. This also rendered Sam Darnold, Jamison Crowder and Robby Anderson too inconsistent trust week-to-week, although Anderson at least finished on a strong enough streak to help us in the playoffs. The Jets offensive line wasn’t a positive and Darnold missed four weeks with mono, so the Adam Gase Effect could be seen as a modest win perhaps even with reason some optimism in 2020.

In the wake of Gase’s demise in Miami emerged a wide-reaching set of team-changing figures. Ryan Tannehill was sent packing for Tennessee in a trade, but Mike Gesicki, Kenyan Drake and DeVante Parker were still Dolphins. Gesicki's case is the easiest to cover as Gase for some reason decided to challenge the ultra-athletic pass-catching second-round to become a blocker. Lo and behold, a rededication to his role in the passing game created a relevant fantasy tight end by the end of the season.

Drake’s next chapter in Miami was alarmingly similar to the time he served with Gase. All traits, no skills Kalen Ballage was given first crack at the job by the new regime, forcing us to ponder the possibility that Drake might have been the weak link in his road to production, not Gase. Ballage was laughingly incapable of competence, but Drake still wasn’t given a chance to reprise his December 2017 rampage. In a replay of the Gase-Ajayi divorce, Drake was sent to Arizona in a mid-season trade and ended up proving his backers right for the most part with a smashing debut and league-winning performances in Weeks 15 and 16.

DeVante Parker had become a punchline in fantasy circles by 2019, so his latest round of offseason hype was collectively brushed off with kneejerk skepticism.

In hindsight, the regime’s willingness to turn the rejection of Parker’s fifth year option into an opportunity to sign him to a very modest two-year, $11 million dollar deal was a sign. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ability to create fantasy value in Tampa Bay last year shouldn’t been ignored. Parker finally played up to his #1 receiver potential, with a strong season that culminated in a performance that owned Stephon Gilmore during a season that many believe deserves Defensive Player of the Year honors and set up the shot that blew up the Death Star when it forced the Patriots to play in the wild card round against a dangerous Titans team. He also got a four-year, $40 million extension. Under normal circumstances, this would easily be the biggest turnaround of the season, but the Adam Gase Effect was not done by a long shot.

When Ryan Tannehill was traded to Tennessee of course all of our first thought was, well that makes sense because Mariota could/should be benched. Correctly gauging that Mariota was likely to be benched wasn’t nearly as big a stretch as positing that Tannehill might actually be a good quarterback who was held back by the Adam Gase Effect. Only Lamar Jackson was better in fantasy leagues than Tannehill once the former all-big 12 honorable mention wide receiver took over for the Titans. AJ Brown had the stretch run of a thoroughbred that makes tickets pay off. Derrick Henry’s big runs became as inevitable as death and taxes, and this wave didn’t crest with blowing the the Death Star in Foxboro, no that wasn’t enough, they depantsed the #1 seed Ravens in front of their home crowd and a national primetime TV audience. Tannehill should be at least 20 million dollars richer for it. The Adam Gase Effect is life-changing.

We Three Kings

Did you go deep in your fantasy playoffs in 2019 is another way of saying, did you draft Christian McCaffrey, Michael Thomas, or Lamar Jackson? The trio ruled their respective positions to an extent that made them unfair advantages and the stuff that fantasy football dreams are made of.

McCaffrey was part of a debate at the top of the board that included Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and at the last Ezekiel Elliott. It didn’t take long to declare a winner, and McCaffrey only lengthened the gap as the season went on, despite losing Cam Newton and occupying a much more crowded passing game than he did in 2018, to the tune of over 100 receptions. His versatility, durability, efficiency, and production authored an historic season that will likely be forgotten because it came in a bottoming out year that resulted in the Panthers clearing the coaching deck and tearing up the old blueprint. He scored about 50% more points than the #2 back in PPR leagues about as big an advantage as we can ever contemplate at any position. The future in Carolina is uncertain, that is except for the offense being more #1 running back centric than any other in the league. He’ll be as close to a unanimous #1 pick in drafts as we’ve ever had.

Thomas continued to make getting open and catching the ball against NFL corners look so routine that it almost insults other receivers, but his volume peaked and the record book will never be the same for it. He was very good with Teddy Bridgewater and posted his best single game of the year with him against the Buccaneers in Week 5, but it was the return of Drew Brees that really lit the fuse. Save for a 6-48 performance on Thanksgiving night in what was basically a cakewalk against the Falcons, Thomas did not drop below 25 PPR points in any game after Brees returned. Thomas was about 33% better than the next best wide receiver who didn’t miss a game, DeAndre Hopkins, and he scored in the 30s in the three traditional fantasy playoff weeks, a threshold only surpassed by one receiver in four different weeks this season.

Lamar Jackson started off the season by slicing and dicing the Miami and Arizona offenses, which set up well for reservations about his residence in the fantasy big time once he faced better defenses, and he did indeed have a stumble with three interceptions against the Steelers the week after throwing two in a blowout loss to the Browns, the week after he threw no touchdowns in a game against the Chiefs which wasn’t nearly as close as its 33-28 score makes it seem. He went on to run for four scores and over 300 yards over the next three games including an embarrassment of the previously elite Patriots offense, and answered fantasy questions, but he only had one passing touchdown over that span. He had 24 passing scores over the next seven weeks and also broke the single season record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Imagine he gets some good wide receivers. I won’t talk anyone out of taking him in the first round next year.

The Most Important Offseason Hires Are Not Head Coaches

We spend a considerable amount of time in the offseason analyzing and studying head coaching changes, and we should. It made sense that Matt Lafleur would be good for Aaron Jones, for instance, and Jones was surely one of the biggest hits at running this season. When we look back on 2019, it was still three offensive coordinator moves that pointed in the direction of three of the most valuable players of the season, including quarterback king Lamar Jackson.

The Baltimore Ravens promoted Greg Roman to replace Marty Mornhinweg, which set Jackson up with the coordinator behind hyperefficient passing years married to strong rushing stats from Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick. Excitement about the Ravens new offensive scheme was rampant and there were numerous indications that the offense had been retooled and revamped. In addition to creating the biggest hit of the season at quarterback, the Ravens offense also yielded a strong RB2 at a discount in Mark Ingram II and a solid TE1 at a deep discount in Mark Andrews.

The Titans get another piece of our most important fantasy stories of the year and it was because they made a seemingly conservative choice that was actually somewhat risky when they promoted tight end coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator. He wasn’t one of the “hot names” and had only been an NFL position coach for three years after climbing the ladder from quality control coach in 2011 to tight end coach in 2016. Previous to that he was a graduate assistant for North Carolina, an intern for Ole Miss, and a quality control coach for the Washington NFL team. The franchise valued continuity over ingenuity, which is the “safe” decision, but the Titans also installed a playcaller who hadn’t called plays at any level of football, or even been an offensive coordinator under a head coach that called plays. The other aspect of this decision that wasn’t necessarily “safe” was making a hire to create consistency around Marcus Mariota, who hadn’t performed well enough for a sustained period to be a driving force behind a hire of this importance. General manager Jon Robinson later hedged this decision with the trade for Ryan Tannehill, which ended up changing the destiny of the 2019 Titans and some fantasy teams.

The Titans offense and Derrick Henry’s fantasy fortunes sputtered for six weeks with Mariota at quarterback before the team did the right thing and installed Tannehill. The rest is history, but give a big assist to Smith (and Mike Vrabel for giving Smith a long leash and getting in the spirit with fake punt calls and the like) whose playcalling with Tannehill was a mix of nuance and sledgehammer obviousness when the game script allowed. Derrick Henry was the #2 fantasy running back after Tannehill took over and from Weeks 9-14 he was actually less than a point behind McCaffrey, ie well ahead of the #3 running back to the extent to constitute an unfair advantage. Henry did rest for Week 16, but he makes the list of the best fantasy picks of the season nonetheless. Rookie wide receiver Arthur Juan Brown had a huge debut with Mariota in an upset of the Browns, but was otherwise inconsistent until Tannehill took over, building momentum that culminated in an elite WR1 scoring profile in the fantasy playoffs. Even Jonnu Smith posted TE7 numbers in the fantasy playoffs on the back of the Titans offensive revival.

The last big offseason offensive hire wasn’t even a coordinator, but you don’t have to announce Gary Kubiak (and his frequent shotgun rider Rick Dennison) as coordinator to know that his team will be able to run the ball well (and Dennison’s title actually is run game coordinator). Much like the buzz around Roman in Baltimore, Dalvin Cook’s fit in the Kubiak/Dennison running game was trumpeted far and wide and it was as beautiful as the most optimistic projection would have painted. On the flip side, investing in any part of the Vikings passing game backfired, in another development that we already saw a preview of at the end of 2018.

The Whizkids Aren’t Alright

Maybe part of the reason that the offensive staff hires overshadowed the head coach hires was the faddish move towards offensive whizkids that looked like, sounded like, and resided in the rolodex of Sean McVay. Certainly fantasy players wouldn’t argue as hitching your team to the Rams choochoo train was a ticket to wins in 2018. 2019 wasn’t a complete disaster, but the momentum behind the “whizkids” came to screeching halt.

Let’s start with McVay. At the end of the year, none of the key performers in the offense were true fantasy busts except for Brandin Cooks, whose season was derailed by multiple concussions, but no one will look back fondly on drafting Rams in 2019. The turnover on the interior offensive line was a worry, but new starters Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom were only part of the problem. Andrew Whitworth, Rob Havenstein, and Austin Blythe all regressed, and to top it off the line had injury issues during the season. Jared Goff was only trustworthy against the worst defenses in the league. Todd Gurley, who stayed in the first round in many drafts despite signs that the team didn’t trust his surgically repaired knee after his 2018 fizzled out because of it, collected some touchdowns to keep his fantasy stock afloat, and survived a first half that saw Malcolm Brown threaten to become a goal line specialist and a later missed game because of a thigh bruise. Rookie Darrell Henderson was a complete bust as hopes of him attaining the Chris Thompson role never materialized. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods were technically WR1s at the season’s end, but both had long stretches of scoring malaise that undermined confidence in them when it came time to set lineups. The only story with a happy ending was Tyler Higbee, who was the #1 fantasy tight end from Weeks 13-16. McVay’s response to the bumpy ride at the end of the season? Let Wade Phillips go and get more involved on the defensive side of the ball. Really.

Matt Nagy turned Mitchell Trubisky into a near elite fantasy quarterback despite a clear lack of elite quarterbacking ability. After he retooled his backfield during the offseason, it appeared the Bears offense would take the next step, but lots of negative buzz about Trubisky in the offseason and preseason should have been our clue that this offense could actually go backwards. Allen Robinson and briefly Anthony Miller salvaged fantasy contributions, but David Montgomery was part of the parade of rookie running back fantasy busts, Trubisky was laughably bad at times, although not being able to run as much because of an injured non-throwing shoulder was partially to blame. Tarik Cohen was inconsistent and failed to produce the big plays that highlighted his 2018. Trey Burton was never healthy and the Bears had some of the worst play at tight end of any team in the league.

I was as excited as anyone for the Cardinals to go full air raid with Kyler Murray at quarterback, who new head coach Kliff Kingsbury had admired from afar for years. The Cardinals weren’t an offensive failure when you compare them to the 2018 baseline, but Kyler Murray was basically push at ADP, David Johnson looked like a success then bottom dropped out, Chase Edmonds and Kenyan Drake had some big games but we won’t remember the 2019 Cardinals as a strong running team. Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald had only modest and unsustained success. There were moments and the first year of the Kliff and Kyler show has created hope for the future, but it hardly took the league by storm.

When Zac Taylor was hired as the Bengals head coach after only progressing as far as quarterbacks coach under McVay, you could snickers around the football world, but Week 1 was promising even without AJ Green as Andy Dalton set a career high for passing yards in a game at Seattle. That would be the high water mark for the offense in a season that ended with the Bengals picking first in the 2020 draft, set to take Dalton’s replacement after he was briefly benched but mercilessly not traded during the lost season. Joe Mixon still looked like a rising star but at one point in the season wasn’t even a clear start in fantasy leagues after costing a top 20 pick in drafts. Tyler Boyd did everything he could to stay afloat for fantasy, but at best was a push despite pass-friendly come from behind game scripts.

The true whizkid of 2019 was Kyle Shanahan, but his offense was so varied and good that no single receiver or running back excelled long enough to be a true fantasy MVP outside of George Kittle, who was drafted to be a team cornerstone. Shanahan’s play designs, calls, and sequencing dazzled week in, week out as he dialed up plays that either hadn’t been seen before, were timed perfectly, or displayed his ability to create numerous ways to defeat defenses out of identical personnel sets, formations, and presnap motions (which in and of themselves were an envy of the league).

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