When is the earliest you should be allowed to write about fantasy football? In my eyes, it’s never too early to talk fantasy, especially if you are in an intense, competitive league. The stakes are often too high. The earlier you start preparing, the more likely you can avoid taking the SAT or getting the future champion’s team name tattooed onto your backside.

As the players we perpetually attempt to analyze and forecast are only just beginning OTA’s, I thought I’d take it light as well in my inaugural fantasy article of the 2017 campaign. For this piece, I’d like to take a look at the players last season that positively surprised us the most, and were certainly cornerstones for many championship winning teams. For each player, I’ve looked into why the consensus prediction about the player was wrong, and what the player did to overcome his predicted shortcomings. Perhaps a look into the past can help us forecast for this year. Or maybe it won’t. But a boy can dream.

For each position, I’ll rank the players from least surprising to most. All preseason ranks are from ESPN and end-of-year ranks represent ESPN standard scoring. Let’s start with the signal-callers.

Quarterbacks

#3 – Kirk Cousins

Kirk-Cousins-you-like-that.png
(WILX)
Preseason Rank – 13
Final Rank – 5

Captain Kirk was a polarizing prospect heading into 2016. He finished strong in 2015, throwing for a whopping 11 TDS in his final three regular season games. Critics pointed to a small sample size, with an underwhelming past, while advocates pointed to an improving talent with plenty of weapons around him. In the end, the latter proved to be more true than the former, as Cousins proved to be a quality fantasy starter in 2016.

Takeaway: Young quarterbacks, with plenty of firepower, can become big time fantasy assets. Don’t underestimate the value of a full offseason and training camp for a QB with less than 2 full seasons under his belt.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota

#2 – Matt Ryan

mattryan-getty-ftr-100216jpg_1ftr4dc8uj9i51sskl9sbyqtod.jpg
(Sporting News)
Preseason Rank – 21
Final Rank – 2

What do you look for in the leader of your fantasy arsenal? You want someone who has plenty of weapons, a good offensive line and familiarity in his scheme. A special plus goes to guys who appear to be motivated in the offseason. Ryan quietly checked all of these boxes. The Falcons benefitted from the additions of Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and a healthy Tevin Coleman. Along with Devonta Freeman and a minor asset in Julio Jones, this team had plenty of juice. The offseason signing of Alex Mack coupled with Ryan’s second year in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme were also key contributing factors.

Takeaway: Don’t be deterred by past performance for QB’s that check the boxes: weapons, O-Line, and consistent offensive coordinators.

Players that fit this mold in 2017: Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger.

#1 – Dak Prescott
dak-prescott-missisippi-state-bulldogs-football-dog.jpg
(Sports Illustrated)
Preseason Rank – 28
Final Rank – 6

Whoever drafted Prescott in your 2016 draft (if anyone) probably earned a few chuckles from the haters. If you stuck with him, though, you were the one laughing at the end of the year. The secret to the Cowboys (and Prescott’s) success last year was simple: establish the run to open up the pass. Their studly offensive line allowed for Ezekiel Elliot to run rampant when called upon, which was fairly common. In addition, they gave Prescott plenty of time to throw. Finally, his natural rushing ability was the icing on the cake for an utterly surprising and outstanding rookie season.

Takeaway: Great offensive lines, running backs, and rushing quarterbacks are the ingredients to a mean fantasy QB stew.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Marcus Mariota

I guess I’m a big Marcus Mariota fan this year.

Running Backs

#5 – Demarco Murray
DeMarco Murray stiff arm 1280.jpg
(Scout.com)
Preseason Rank – 21
Final Rank – 5

Murray’s one year stint with the Eagles couldn’t have gone much worse. A fringe first-round pick in 2015 drafts, Murray left owners with a bitter taste in their mouths. So when Murray was sent over to Tennessee, it made sense why not too many were on the hype train. Sure, he was only one year removed from his legendary 2015 campaign, but that was behind Dallas’ league-best offensive line. In Tennessee, Murray was supplanting the anemic backfield of Bishop Sankey & company. Very few saw top five upside. So what changed? In a nutshell, Tennessee’s offensive line was much better than we thought. They were even ranked ahead of the Cowboys  on Pro Football Focus as a unit at the end of 2017, finishing as the best offensive line in football. Anchored by their two young tackles in Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan, the Titans opened up plenty of holes for Murray.

Takeaway: Pay attention to the never-ending carousel of offensive lineman changes for every team. This year, there probably weren’t any players drafted that will have the first year impact of Jack Conklin, as it was considered a weak draft for offensive linemen. Also, be on the lookout for running backs on new teams, as sometimes all you need is a change of scenery.

Players who fit this mold in 2017:  Marshawn Lynch

#4 – Melvin Gordon
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(Chargers.com)
Preseason Rank – 24
Final Rank – 8

I was very high on Gordon before the 2017 draft. However, my reasoning for why I thought he would break out ended up being wrong. The main reason for the emergence of Gordon last season was not due to the rebounding of the Chargers offensive line, as I thought it would be. San Diego’s line ranked 31st according to PFF. Instead, Gordon benefitted from the injury to Danny Woodhead, which led to much higher usage than his rookie season. Gordon received 295 touches in 2016, good for ninth in the league, and 80 more than he received in 2015. He still remained relatively inefficient, averaging under 4 YPC, but all fantasy owners cared about was that he increased from zero to ten TDs from rookie to sophomore year. Above all else, usage is what makes a fantasy football star.

Takeaway: Nothing beats a running back that gets force-fed the ball every Sunday, especially if he plays on a decent offense. In the later rounds, try to find the guys that have the potential to play on all three downs.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Todd Gurley, Jay Ajayi, Leonard Fournette

#3 – Jay Ajayi
20161016-spt-fins-steelers-09.jpg
(The Palm Beach Post)
Preseason Rank – 37
Final Rank – 11

Ajayi was an afterthought in 2016 fantasy drafts. A 2015 fifth round pick behind Arian Foster and a poor offensive line, there wasn’t much to get excited about. As expected, Foster got hurt, but the true surprise was the brilliance of Ajayi. He ran like a man possessed, finishing first in yards after contact average with a ridiculous 3.46 . To put this into perspective, he just about averaged the same yards after contact as Melvin Gordon did total. His effectiveness, coupled with being the absolute workhorse for the Dolphins, lead to an incredible breakout season for Ajayi.

Takeaway: Every year, there are breakout beasts lurking in the shadows. If you think you’ve spotted one, draft him, or you’ll be kicking yourself all season thinking about what could have been.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, & many more

#2 – LeGarrette Blount
9558396-legarrette-blount-nfl-houston-texans-new-england-patriots.jpg
(Musketfire.com)
Preseason Rank – 42
Final Rank – 7

Year after year, Blount is the least sexy breakout candidate. The definition of a thick, plodding back, Blount doesn’t exactly have get-away-from-the-cops-speed. For him to bust out a long TD, he basically needs to shake off every single defender on the other side. Perhaps the only difference between last season and seasons prior was that Blount was essentially the sole rushing option in the red zone. Consider this: last year, Blount scored 18 of the Patriots 19 rushing TDs. In 2015, he scored 6 of the team’s 14 rushing TDs. Simply put, there were just no other legitimate threats to stealing Blount’s bread in 2016. The injury to Dion Lewis certainly helped him in this regard.

Takeaway: Workhorses on elite NFL offenses are fantasy no-brainers.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Ty Montgomery, Marshawn Lynch

#1 – Jordan Howard
jordan-howard-chicago-bears-fantasy.jpg
(Sports Illustrated)
Preseason Rank – 62
Final Rank – 9

You had to know a few things to correctly predict the ridiculous emergence of rookie RB Jordan Howard. First, you had to know that preseason starter Jeremy Langford was not a quality RB. Next, you had to know that Jordan Howard was a beast. The latter was certainly less apparent than the former. Coming off a 4.59 40 yard dash and weighing 230 lbs, Howard looked to be the next LeGarrette Blount. However, he was able to take advantage of his opportunity when Langford went down, and quickly showed that he had the burst that appeared to be lacking: finishing with ten carries over 20 yards on the season. Howard is the premium example of a breakout beast lurking in the shadows. Get yours today!

(Takeaway and Players who fit this mold are the same as Ajayi)

Wide Receivers

#5 – Michael Crabtree
612053616.jpg
(East Bay Times)
Preseason Rank – 35
Final Rank – 11

After a bounce-back 2015, most pundits believed Crabtree would take a back seat to the emerging Amari Cooper in 2016. Au contraire, more of the same occurred for Crabtree, as he once again out targeted Cooper both overall and in the red zone.

Takeaway: Don’t sleep on a guy who just broke out, just because there are other talented playmakers around him, even if he is old and un-sexy. A good quarterback knows how to spread the goods.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Terrelle Pryor, Davante Adams, Larry Fitzgerald

#4 – Michael Thomas
a67cd9df1f53cd27b67953dfae289f6b.jpg
(Yahoo Sports)
Preseason Rank – 49
Final Rank – 9

A second round pick out of THE Ohio State University, drafted to one of the most dominant offenses in football, what could go wrong? Well in 2017, not much did go wrong for Thomas, finishing inside the top ten of all receivers.

Takeaway: Rookie receivers are always a gamble. But one that has a good chance to start on an elite offense is almost always worth the risk.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Mike Williams, Juju Smith-Schuster

#3 – Rishard Matthews
matthews600-123016.jpg
(Titans.com)
Preseason Rank – 65
Final Rank – 13

Matthews was actually a guy that I hyped up before the season. In 2015, he finished second in both yards per target and Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in the entire NFL. Still, after signing a 3 year, $15 million contract, he was going as a late round pick or un-drafted in fantasy drafts. The Tajae Sharpe hype-train was in full steam after the preseason, and hit an iceberg shortly thereafter. Matthews finished the year being the Titans receiver to own.

Takeaway: Take Preseason hype with a grain of salt. Previous years’ performances are way more telling. In addition, sometimes all a receiver needs is a change of scenery to fully realize his potential. See: Michael Crabtree 2015

Players who fit this mold in 2017:  Terrelle Pryor, Kamar Aiken, Torrey Smith, Ted Ginn, and many more

#2 – Tyrell Williams
111316_miavssd_mn_417_0.jpg
(Chargers.com)
Preseason Rank – 81
Final Rank – 12

You’d have to be deep in the game to call this one. An undrafted rookie in 2015, expectations were not too high for Williams coming into the 2016 season. Even when Kennan Allen went down in Week 1, most thought that Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman would be the main Chargers’ wide outs to own. Williams’ game-breaking speed allowed him to surge onto the scene as a major asset for the Chargers offense, though, finishing with 9 catches of over 30 yards.

Takeaway: Much like Jay Ajayi and Jordan Howard, there are always studs lurking in the shadows. These guys win leagues.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Naming these players is much easier after the season than before it.

#1 – Davante Adams
davante-adams-nfl-carolina-panthers-green-bay-packers.jpg
(lombardiave.com)
Preseason Rank – 79
Final Rank – 7

After struggling in his first two seasons in the league, most believed Adams would remain irrelevant for fantasy purposes in 2016, especially with the return of Jordy Nelson. AU CONTRAIRE. Adams had a breakout party all year long, finishing with a sublime seventh overall performance. There were some favorable tidbits from reporters during camp, but this season can essentially be summed up by a guy, in a great situation, finally realizing his potential. Sometimes it just takes a few years for things to click. Players like Adams are what make football analysis such an imperfect science.

Takeaway: Like in life, sometimes in football all you need is another chance to right the ship. A variety of things can go wrong in a given year. In the Packers’ offense, Adams alway had the potential to be a top ten receiver. If the shoe fits, wear it.

Players who fit this mold in 2017: Kevin White, Donte Moncrief, Allen Robinson, DeVante Parker, Kelvin Benjamin, Amari Cooper

 

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