Top 5 fantasy takeaways from the 2016 season

As the NFL enters the playoffs, Jeff Ratcliffe highlights the top lessons we learned this season.

| 5 months ago
Saints QB Drew Brees

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Top 5 fantasy takeaways from the 2016 season

Well, that was fun.

The 2016 NFL regular season is in the books, and there’s a lot to process before we move on to the playoffs. It’s a great time of year to come full circle and evaluate some of what we thought during fantasy draft season back in August. In turn, we can use these insights to continue to improve as fantasy players.

Here are five things we learned this season:

1. What works one year may not work the next.

Back in August, the drafting public was abuzz with zero-RB fervor. We saw more wide receivers go in the first round of drafts than ever before. Five out of the first picks were wideouts in average draft position: Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and A.J. Green.

The first three wound up finishing among the top six at their position in fantasy scoring, and Green was well on his way to a strong showing before getting injured in Week 11. But Hopkins was the glaring miss, as was Allen Robinson in the second round. These two players will likely swing the pendulum significantly back to a RB-heavy first round.

Just like we advised back in draft season five months ago, it’s important to not drink the Kool-Aid on any groupthink draft fad like zero-RB. There are certainly merits to this approach, but using only one draft strategy limits your ability to adjust on the fly to the changing dynamics of your draft. We’re going to see more running backs in the early rounds this upcoming year, and that will actually create plenty of value at the wide receiver position. Those who zigged toward running back while the masses zagged to wide receiver this past year likely ended up hoisting their league trophy. Next year, the opposite could end up happening.

2. This is a great era for fantasy quarterbacks.

A decade ago, it was really rare to see a 4,000-yard passer. This year, we had 13 of them, including Drew Brees’ fifth 5,000-yard season. While we did see some regression in terms of touchdown passes—only five quarterbacks topped 30 touchdowns, compared to 11 last season—the fantasy production remains through the roof.

While the zero-RB approach failed many a fantasy player this year, the mid- to late-round quarterback approach remains a tried-and-true strategy that seems to become more salient each season. In 2015, Carson Palmer was a late-round gem. This season, it was Matt Ryan who offered a huge return on investment. Ryan wasn’t drafted in many leagues and ended up finishing as the No. 2 fantasy scorer among quarterbacks in PFF standard scoring.

The productivity at the quarterback position eliminates any need to draft a signal caller early. In fact, doing so and missing on your pick has a huge negative correlation to fantasy success. Considering that you likely only rostered one or two quarterbacks, the value cost of whiffing on someone like Cam Newton in the third round is vastly more significant than missing on a running back or receiver in that spot, since you will have several more options at those positions on your roster.

3. David Johnson’s season was excellent, but Le’Veon Bell’s was better.

Both players were prolific this year, with each essentially playing the role of running back and wide receiver in one. Looking forward to 2017, Johnson is the early favorite to be No. 1 in most industry rankings, but a strong case can be made for Bell.

Johnson finished the year with a massive 20 total touchdowns, and was averaging 24.4 touches per game before getting injured in the season finale. While Bell didn’t equal Johnson’s touchdown productivity, he averaged nearly four more touches per game (28.1) and a half-yard more per carry. The side-by-side comparison is close, but Bell gets the edge in the more predictable stats. Touchdowns can be very difficult to predict from one season to the next, so it isn’t wise to bank on a repeat performance from Johnson in that department.

Ultimately, we’re really splitting hairs here. Both players are fantastic and barring any injuries and/or suspensions, they’ll be the top two picks in most fantasy drafts next year. However, given the choice of the two at No. 1, I’m picking Bell.

4. Wide receiver targets got back to normal.

Following a crazy 2015 season where three receivers topped 180 targets, we had Mike Evans lead the league with a reasonable 168 targets, followed by Odell Beckham Jr. at 161. The moral of the story is that regression to the mean is a real thing. This is important to keep in mind any time we see outlier performances.

Previous to last year, there was only one receiver who had over 190 targets in the PFF era, which goes back to 2006. We nearly had three in 2015, with DeAndre Hopkins narrowly missing at 187 targets. While the league has certainly shifted to a more pass-happy style of play, it’s unreasonable as fantasy players to expect the bubble to continue to expand exponentially. Those sorts of lofty expectations just simply cannot be met, because the NFL isn’t a video game.

5. Tight end was brutal this year.

If you had problems at tight end, you weren’t alone. Injuries, inconsistent play, and regression plagued the position all season. These factors, among others, led to a slight decline in production among the top options year over year. Last season, four tight ends topped 1,000 yards, and three hit double-digit touchdowns. This year, only two tight ends reached 1,000 yards, and zero went for 10-or-more scores. Cameron Brate and Hunter Henry tied for the position-high with eight touchdowns.

There are multiple fantasy draft strategies at tight end. Some argue to draft one early due to the scarcity at the position. That would have worked for part of the season if you drafted Rob Gronkowski or Jordan Reed, but both players were injured for the late-season playoff run. Others suggest a late-round approach. With this strategy, you could have possibly landed Jimmy Graham, or dumped your pick and streamed Cameron Brate or Kyle Rudolph.

Both strategies have merit heading into next season. However, the inconsistencies and uncertainties at the position tip the scales toward the late-round approach for many of the same reasons as the late-round quarterback strategy. Missing on a tight end early has a much more significant value cost than striking out later in the draft.

| Director of Fantasy

Jeff Ratcliffe is the Director of Fantasy at Pro Football Focus. He produces all of our projections and is 2016's second-most-accurate ranker in the fantasy industry. Jeff also is the host of our show on SiriusXM fantasy sports radio and is one of the main hosts of our Fantasy Slant podcast.

  • evo34

    Regarding point #2, I agree that QB parity is hitting all-time highs. But it’s important to note that we are about to enter a “QB1″ drought like we’ve never seen. Brady, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Manning, Rodgers, Ryan, Brees, Romo and Palmer are all mid or late 30s, and the young-gun replacements (Mariota, Prescott, Carr, Winston, Luck (28 next year), Newton (28) and Cousins (29)) are small in number and a bit questionable in terms of fantasy quality. Beyond the youngish QBs I just mentioned, the landscape is truly frightening.

    Things can change in a hurry, but I’m anticipating QBs looking a bit like TEs in a couple years in the sense that there may only be 2-3 really good ones, and #5 through #15 will be interchangeable. For those few studs (if they exist), their fantasy value may be enormous.

    • Mark Erickson

      You could throw Stafford and Wilson in there as well, both are 28 and playing well with a good amount of consistency.

      It’s too early to tell if your prediction is possible, while Brady and Brees (39 and mere days from 38, respectively) continue to defy father time, their performance could regress fast at anytime. Still, I’d imagine at the least they both play for 2 more seasons. Manning, while younger, could also be awarded that same time frame from what we’ve seen of him the past 2 years. The rest of the vets range from likely 4-8 years minimum depending on age, playstyle, and overall talent/situation. That’s a substantial amount of time. It means when a lot of these guys hang up their cleats, the guys coming out of college at that time won’t even have played their first snap of college ball today, or may have barely played at a high school level yet!

      Anyways there’s already a decent sized crop of young signal-callers who play well, and there’s quite a bit of time left for even more before these HoF-caliber guys call it a career!

      • evo34

        I hear you. But I think we’re in an unusual spot where a lot of high-end and mid-tier fantasy QBs will be irrelevant in 2-3 years. That situation doesn’t happen often.

    • Patrick Linabury

      The “drought” you referenced isn’t a drought, its just back to the future. 4-5 years ago, outside of Manning, Brady and Brees, you could have interchanged Romo, Rothlisberger, Rivers, Ryan, Rodgers, Stafford and even Kaepernick and not seen a huge drop-off in production. We are looking at the same situation with these young guys. You’ll be fine with Mariota, Winston, Prescott, Cousins and possibly Wentz next year. You just won’t have the huge production.

      • evo34

        Exactly my point. The Rivers/Roethlis/Rodgers/Stafford level from 4-5 years ago is what we take for granted. It might not be around in 2-3 years — which will make the 2-3 high-end QBs much more valuable — a la the TE situtation right now. Re: the five young guys you mention, the odds of all five being top 15 QBs are minimal.

  • DaStrongSKRAWN

    Won my 16 team league. Thanks, David Johnson, Jay Ajayi, Michael Crabtree, Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Spencer Ware and Vikings D/ST! Took me 6 years lol

    • Paynotron

      12 team league and my first win too – took 8 years. I had Carr and Cooper too, along with OBJ, but Bell coming back in week 4 really made my season. Was 1-2 at the time, finished regular season 10-4. No doubt Bell and Johnson are the first two off the board next year.

      • DaStrongSKRAWN

        Taking a chance on David Johnson was so huge along with Arian Foster retiring for Ajayi to be the main guy. Congrats on the championship!