2016 Fantasy Football's Surprise Stars and Busts

Fantasy football is always full of surprises. For example in week 6 Case Keenum threw for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns finishing as the QB2 (2nd best QB in fantasy scoring). However, we're not focusing on one-week-wonders like Case Keenum. Instead Pigskin Podcast writer Will Pendleton takes a deep-dive into the 2016 breakout stars who shocked the fantasy world...

Surprise Stars

The 2016 NFL season cannot be discussed without mentioning Dak Prescott. The rookie sensation finished fifth in total quarterback touchdowns with 29 while only throwing 4 interceptions. Prescott had a campaign that most veteran quarterbacks would be proud of that helped him lock up the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. 

Finishing as the QB6, it could be argued that Prescott’s fantasy season outperformed what he actually achieved out on the field. Considering Prescott had an ADP (Average draft position in fantasy drafts) in the 13th round this offseason, the top 6 quarterback campaign he turned in gave you tremendous value if you drafted him. Prescott’s consistent play week after week allowed you to plug him into your line-up without having to worry about your quarterback, a luxury most fantasy owners did not have. 

Coming into the 2016 fantasy season many fantasy experts were scared of drafting DeMarco Murray in the early rounds. Coming off a terrible stint in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly and now sharing a backfield in Tennessee with Heisman winning running back Derrick Henry, most did not expect Murray to perform well or have a consistent workload.  

Murray however, had different ideas and thrived in Tennessee’s ‘Exotic Smashmouth’ offense, finishing the season with over 1600 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns to go with one 10 yard touchdown pass too. Murray surprised us all this year and finished 2016 as the RB5 and was arguably the best fantasy running back in the entire NFL for the first half of the season.  

Adams has been a sore-spot for many fantasy expert over the years. The consensus thinking was Adams was to have a breakout season in 2015. This certainly did not happen and his lack of success burned a lot fantasy football fans. For this reason his draft stock fell in 2016 and for those lucky fantasy owners who drafted him late, Adams certainly outperformed his ADP. 

With Jordy Nelson’s health in question for most of the season (even though Nelson still finished as the best WR in fantasy this year), Adams became Aaron Rodgers’ go-to-guy, catching 12 touchdowns on his way to finishing as the WR6. This was the breakout season many had predicted and been waiting for, however, no-one predicted Adams would catch the same amount of touchdowns as Mike Evans and Antonio Brown while finishing just 3 yards short of a 1000 receiving yard season.  

If it wasn’t for fellow rookie running back and fantasy stud Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard’s great season would have gained more headlines. Howard began the 2016 season buried on Chicago’s depth chart and had to earn the starting role. Considering Howard was only named the starter a few games into the season, the fact that he racked up over 1,600 scrimmage yards without a full 16 game stretch is even more impressive.  

Howard burst onto the fantasy scene once given a consistent workload and was quickly one of the must-add players via the waiver wire. Rushing for over 100 yards in 7 of his 12 games as a starter, Howard has shown that he has not only a high ceiling for fantasy production but also a high floor which is arguably more important in season long fantasy formats.  

Even though Howard finished as the RB9, he will likely be drafted extremely early in next season’s drafts. To take Howard in the first two rounds however he would need to ramp up his touchdown production. 7 total touchdowns doesn’t cut it as a top fantasy running back (typically top backs score between 15-20 total touchdowns) and on weeks where Howard didn’t reach the endzone he usually produced fairly average fantasy scores. 

New Orleans’ offences have been nothing short of a fantasy factory since Drew Brees became a Saint and this year was no different. Both Saints running backs, Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower, had very solid fantasy seasons and with Drew Brees leading the passing attack to another 5000+ yard campaign, you would expect that the New Orleans wide receivers put up big numbers. The No. 1 man in New Orleans this year was rookie WR and former Ohio State Buckeye, Michael Thomas.  

Thomas’ sure hands pulled in 92 of his 122 targets for over 1,100 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns, finishing as the WR9. Much like Dak Prescott, Thomas’ ADP was astoundingly low this season, averaging around rounds 12-13, and so he provided incredible value. Not enough is being made of Thomas’ success and with another offseason with Drew Brees under his belt you can expect Thomas to improve on an already stellar year.  

Fantasy Flops: 

On the flip side however, there are always a few big name players who seriously under-perform on expectations and sadly often lead to the downfall of a fantasy season. 

Lamar Miller was an offseason darling for fantasy owners this year. The Texans offense had the potential to be one of the best in the NFL and with a shaky quarterback under-centre in Brock Osweiler, Miller was guaranteed a big workload.  

Miller did in fact receive the workload of a bell-cow-back but unfortunately only managed to turn 268 carries into 1,073 rushing yards. This together with a 4.0 ypc (yards per carry) average and only 6 total touchdowns combines to make Miller, a first round pick in August, one of the biggest fantasy disappointments of the season.  

The argument can be made that opposing defences were focused on the Houston running game as their passing game was so poor. However, the Texans offensive line is one of the best in the league, and so Miller’s lack of production is almost entirely on him. 

Miller had everything he needed to make the leap and become a top fantasy running back this season but just simply failed to do so. LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman were both drafted after Miller this year, both received smaller workloads than Miller this year and yet both thoroughly outscored Miller this year by over 60 fantasy points. It is safe to assume Miller will not be taken in the first round again in 2017.  

As bad as Lamar Miller was last season, another first round running back performed even worse - Todd Gurley.  
Gurley was part of the worst offense in the NFL but he bears some responsibility for that too. Gurley, like Miller, was set up for a huge workload and particularly in the redzone and yet he converted 278 carries into 885 rushing yards for a 3.2 ypc average. That is not what was expected from a top 5 fantasy pick.  

Gurley didn’t rush for over 85 yards in a single game this season, a feat he achieved seven times during his 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. For a player who predicates his game on using his power to break off runs, Gurley looked like a different player this season, he failed to see holes and lacked the ambition to power through tackles and gain tough yards.  

The most characteristic stat of Gurley’s struggles this season is that he scored the same amount of fantasy points as Matt Forte, a player who due to injury did not play significant snaps since week 10 of last season.  

Gurley’s woefully below par season is put into perspective when you consider he scored the same amount of fantasy points as Matt Forte. Gurley, a bell-cow running back and bona fide NFL superstar, could not outscore a player who missed 2 whole games and played through half the season with a torn meniscus in his knee.   

After an incredible season in which Robinson finished as the WR4 with 1400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, this was not the season Allen Robinson wanted to post nor the one fantasy owners expected. His 2015 play made him a borderline first round pick this season but his 2016 production made him one of the biggest flops of the year.  

With a stat line of 883 yards and 6 touchdowns, Robinson nearly halved his production from 2015. Robinson’s struggles can be mostly attributed to the struggles of his well maligned quarterback, Blake Bortles, who had has been plagued by mechanical issues this year resulting in inconsistent, inaccurate passes. Robinson also ran the deep routes more than any receiver in the league in 2015 which was changed this season and so his best talents were under-utilised.  

However, even though Bortles struggled on the field he still finished as the QB9 and so fantasy owners still managed to gain value from him. Allen Robinson had no such luck however, finishing up the year as the WR30 and cementing his place as a 2016 fantasy flop. 

The tight end position as a whole in 2016 was one of the worst overall performances by an entire position group for many years. To put it in perspective, the top 4 fantasy defences all outscored the No. 1 tight end and by a sizable margin.  

Travis Kelce was this season’s TE1 essentially by default due to Rob Gronkowski’s season ending injuries and a general lack of production from the position. Kelce’s inconsistent production strangely also resembles that of a deep threat wide receiver – he was boom or bust. Depending on the week Kelce would either produce more than 15 fantasy points or less than 5.  

Fantasy production from tight ends is dependent on touchdowns and with only six tight ends scoring more than 6 touchdowns this season, there was not a single tight end that stood out in terms of season long fantasy production. When guys like Cameron Brate, Kyle Rudolph and Jack Doyle (historically unknown and unproductive players) all finish inside the top 12 tight ends, you begin to understand why fantasy experts began to refer to 2016 as “the year of the tight end apocalypse”. 

Eli Manning.jpg

For a guy who was drafted over Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott and Derek Carr, Eli Manning seriously underperformed this season, both on the field and in fantasy.  

With the addition of the dynamic slot receiver Sterling Shepard to compliment a top three fantasy player in Odell Beckham Jr, Eli Manning was the hot name in fantasy quarterbacks before the season began. However, this rise in status did not coincide with a rise in performance. 

Out of the top 20 quarterbacks in fantasy, Eli Manning had the 3rd most turnovers, 20 in total, and finished as the QB21. Falling out of the top 15 quarterbacks in fantasy effectively means that a player is unusable to a team. The only regular starting quarterbacks that finished beneath Eli this season were Alex Smith, Sam Bradford and Carson Wentz.  

Manning is a shining example of why it is paramount to wait on drafting a quarterback when drafting your fantasy team. By waiting until after round 10 there are still stud quarterbacks with plenty of fantasy potential available but, if you waste a high pick on a QB who underperforms, such as with Eli Manning this year, a large proportion of your team is thrown off.