News & Analysis

The biggest fantasy surprise for each AFC team in 2017

By Dan Clasgens
Jan 24, 2018

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Wide receiver Robby Anderson #11 of the New York Jets scores a touchdown against cornerback Desmond Trufant #21 of the Atlanta Falcons during the second quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 29, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images)

The 2017 season was filled with surprises, both good and bad. As we continue a look back at the campaign, let’s turn our attention to what the biggest surprise was for each of the 16 AFC teams and offer some insight on what to expect from these players in the year ahead.

Alex Collins carried the load

After only seeing 31 carries in 11 games during his rookie season in Seattle, Collins emerged when given an opportunity in Baltimore. He finished with a 212/973/6 stat line and was a steady producer all year. However, he didn’t score his first TD until Week 11. Kenneth Dixon is expected to return from his knee injury and both Danny Woodhead and Javorius Allen are still under contract, so it remains to be seen what Collins’ role will be in 2018.

LeSean McCoy ran for just six TDs

McCoy scored just six rushing touchdowns a year after scoring 13 times on the ground, and this was despite goal-line vulture Mike Gillislee leaving in free agency last offseason. Some regression should’ve been expected in the case of McCoy though as he had only hit double-digits in rushing touchdowns one other time before 2016 in eight pro seasons. With his scoring down in 2017 and him set to turn 30 in July, expect McCoy to slip further down draft boards this summer.

Giovani Bernard outscored Joe Mixon in PPR

The Bengals got out of the gate slowly and changed offensive coordinators less than a month into the season. Jeremy Hill started at running back before finally yielding to Mixon and getting placed on IR. The rookie showed flashes before suffering a concussion and that opened the door for Bernard to shine down the stretch. Bernard tallied 847 total yards on 148 touches and scored four times. Mixon had 60 more touches and finished with just 66 more total yards and the same amount of touchdowns. The younger Mixon still figures to have a leg up moving forward.

Josh Gordon returned to game action

Given his history of suspensions, it was hard to imagine Gordon ever returning to the field, but return he did for the Browns in Week 13. He finished as WR19 over the last five weeks, catching only 18 of his 41 targets for 335 yards and a score. His 17.5 average depth of target suggests he still has his big-play ability. Gordon, who is a free agent, currently sits as a consensus top 20 WR in PFF’s early 2018 rankings.

Demaryius Thomas disappointed

Thomas posted his lowest totals in receptions (83) and yards (949) since 2011 and his touchdowns (5) matched his previous lowest mark in that span during 2017. He failed to score during the season’s first eight weeks and only had one 100-yard effort all season. The veteran still finished as WR16 in PPR formats. Thomas played in all 16 games, but only finished as a top 10 WR three times. The 30-year-old is starting to see his skills decline a bit, but much of his 2018 value will hinge around whether or not Denver is able to upgrade at quarterback.

Deshaun Watson provided a glimpse of greatness

When Watson went down with his ACL injury he was leading all quarterbacks in both fantasy points per game (25.0) and fantasy points per dropback (0.73, 19.5 percent higher than the next quarterback on the list). The 168.9 fantasy points were the most by a quarterback through their first seven career games. It also marked the 10th-most fantasy points through seven games by any quarterback at any point of their career. Assuming he’s fully recovered from his injury, the sky could be the limit for Watson in the season ahead.

Andrew Luck missed the entire season

Luck had offseason surgery last January, but was never able to return to action and eventually went on injured reserve in November. Owners that rolled the dice on him in 2017 came up empty. However, even though he had a shoulder injury in 2016, Luck’s 11 touchdowns and 1,161 passing yards on deep throws ranked second and fourth, respectively. It’s going to be real interesting to see where he falls in the pecking order at quarterback in 2018. If healthy, he could provide significant value.

No WR finished inside the top 40

Jacksonville made it to the AFC Championship game behind an amazing defense and the league’s top-ranked rushing attack. The passing attack was average mostly, but there were weeks that certain wide receivers provided nice performances. However, the Jaguars didn’t have a single wideout finish inside the top 40 in fantasy points on the season. They joined the Bears, Bills, Browns, and Giants as the only teams to accomplish that feat. Jacksonville has some young playmakers, but needs to re-sign Allen Robinson, who missed all of 2017 with an injury, or add a go-to No. 1 wide receiver this offseason.

Alex Smith was a top-end QB1

Smith posted career highs in passing touchdowns (26) and passing yards (4,042) in 2017. The bigger surprise may have been the fact he was the league’s most efficient deep thrower, finishing first in adjusted completion percentage and yards while tying for first with 12 touchdowns. More aggressive play-calling opened up the door for opportunity. With Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings, it should be a very interesting offseason ahead for Smith.

Keenan Allen played 16 games

For the first time in five pro seasons, Allen played in all 16 games. He had totaled just nine games in the previous two years combined. He finished inside the top five in targets (147), receptions (102), receiving yards (1,393) and points per opportunity (0.50) as a result. Durability concerns will still linger heading into 2018, but Allen should be considered as a back-end WR1 worthy of second-round consideration.

Kenyan Drake provides RB1-type impact

Drake provided a big boost to owners that scooped him up as a free agent. From Weeks 12 to 15, he was fifth in PPR points by a running back. He rushed for 332 yards and two touchdowns on 73 carries and added 162 yards and a score on 17 receptions. Only Alvin Kamara boasted a higher mark than Drake’s 3.2 yards after contact during that span and only Kamara and Le’Veon Bell had more catches. He should be able to build off that success as Miami’s workhorse running back in 2018.

Dion Lewis delivers as best backfield bet

James White had the monster Super Bowl. Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee were added as free agents. That left Lewis undrafted in many leagues. However, Lewis finished atop the group in fantasy points (RB15 in PPR) on the season. His best outing came in Week 17 though, when it didn’t count for many. Lewis rushed for 289 yards and three scores and caught 12 balls for 77 yards and two more scores of the final three weeks of the regular season. Still just 27, Lewis is a free agent this offseason and will be an intriguing name to watch.

Robby Anderson was a top 20 WR

No team exceeded expectations more as a whole more than the Jets, and Anderson topped the list. The undrafted free agent shined with 941 yards and seven touchdowns on 63 catches and 111 targets. Before Josh McCown went down in Week 14, Anderson was on fire. From Weeks 6 to 13 only Antonio Brown and Marvin Jones Jr. scored more points (non-PPR). His 16.1-yard average depth of target and 10.7 yards-per-target numbers were elite during that span. The youngster has already found his way into some offseason trouble, but if he stays on the field his future is bright.

Amari Cooper fell outside of top 25

No wide receiver was more disappointing than Cooper was in 2017. He was drafted as a top-10 player at the position, but finished just as WR35. Add to that the fact that nearly half of his receiving yards came in two games and the frustration mounts. In his other 12 games he played he failed to even reach 70 yards in a single contest. Cooper did score in four of his last five contests though and he will still just be 24 when the 2018 season begins, making him a nice bounceback candidate with Jon Gruden coming to town.

JuJu Smith-Schuster produced earlier than expected

Pittsburgh liked enough of what they saw out of Smith-Schuster coming out of USC to spend a second-round pick on him and the Steeler turned out to be the top producing rookie wide receiver in the class of 2017. He posted a 58/917/7 line and averaged 15.8 yards per reception during his first season. Smith-Schuster just turned 21 in November and appears to have a huge ceiling heading into Year 2 and beyond.

DeMarco Murray faded

After finishing as a top-10 running back in three of the past four years, Murray dropped off big time in 2017. He fell outside the top-20 at the position as he played through myriad injuries but only missed one game. Murray only registered one 100-yard game all season. The veteran saw his yards per carry drop from 4.4 in 2016 to just 3.6 this past season. He turns 30 in February and it remains unclear on whether the Titans will bring him back in 2018.

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