Top 5 fantasy takeaways from the 2016 season
As the NFL enters the playoffs, Jeff Ratcliffe highlights the top lessons we learned this season.
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.
Jeff Ratcliffe | 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.