A way-too-early sneak peek at next year’s fantasy football studs!
The 2016 fantasy football season has effectively come to a close, except for the few oddball Week 17 championships. Let’s be clear, Week 17 is not meant for fantasy as many starters around the league are sitting for the playoffs. But that’s not what this article is about. Hopefully your fantasy team exceeded your preseason expectations, but for those with teams that didn’t, it’s never too early to begin looking ahead for next year.
Just a Few Matchup-Proof Quarterbacks
Quarterback was considered a deep position going into 2016, but the season saw many top quarterbacks falter. The defending MVP Cam Newton failed to recapture his 2016 success, while past MVPs Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers reaffirmed their elite status after forgettable starts. Matt Ryan excelled in his second year under Kyle Shanahan, while Matt Stafford played more conservatively in his second year under Jim Bob Cooter.
Tier 1 - Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan: These are passers that are as matchup-proof as you can get this year. Rodgers and Ryan had two games below 15 points, while Brady had just three games. All three will perform at least well enough to not cost you a matchup, while having the possibility of dropping 30 points any given week.
Tier 2 - Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Kirk Cousins, and Derek Carr: These solid QB1s are susceptible to bad matchups, but their high passing volume gives them a high floor in most games. Brees, Luck, and Roethlisberger are all pretty much guaranteed 4,000 yards and 30 TDs, but they have bad games where turnovers become a huge problem. Cousins and Carr are great young quarterbacks with strong arms to give them great yardage, but their good run games might limit their touchdowns.
Tier 3 - Dak Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Philip Rivers: A lot of mobile quarterbacks in this tier, whose running abilities increase their floors and ceilings. Prescott and Taylor won’t turn over the ball, but their strong run games limit their passing TDs; they will also get plenty of rushing yards and TDs. Newton played horribly this year, but his ability to take over any game makes it hard for him to be kept out of QB1 status. Rivers is a bit matchup-dependent as he throws too many picks, but he’ll give good yardage and TD totals. Lastly, Wilson is truly an enigma as this was the second year in a row where he was unstartable in the first eight games, but unbenchable in the last eight. In 2015, he threw 23 of his 31 TDs in his last eight games; in 2016, he threw 15 of his 20 TDs in his last eight games. At this point, it seems reasonable to either draft and stash him or just trade for him midway through the season.
Tier 4 - Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Matthew Stafford, Blake Bortles: Here are the top end QB2s that are picked at the end of the draft. Winston improved this year by upping his yardage, completion, and TDs; Mariota improved his efficiency with a better TD:INT ratio. Stafford had a Pro Bowl-worthy season as he dramatically reduced his turnovers, but an increasingly balanced offense shows a decreasing trend in 300-yard games (eight in 2011 & 2012, six in 2013, four in 2014, three in 2015 & 2016). Bortles took a massive step backward, both in real life and fantasy, but still finished 11th thanks to garbage time despite having six games below 15 points.
Tier 5 - Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, and Carson Palmer: Here are low end QB2s that are likely undrafted in 12-team leagues but should be considered as streaming options. Dalton should play better next year with Green and Eifert healthy, but doesn’t lack the consistency to be trusted week-to-week. I feel like I’m undervaluing Kaepernick since he had just three of his 10 games below 15 points; however, he’s someone that can put up 35 points one week and zero points the next. Manning took a step back this year, reaching 20 fantasy points only twice due to his tendency to throw picks. Palmer is nearing the end of his NFL career and fantasy relevancy as he failed to reach 15 points seven times last season.
Every year I say that Jay Cutler is poised for a good season, but I’m always wrong; despite a good supporting corps, it’s unlikely he’ll be anything more than a QB2 next year. The same can be said for Joe Flacco, who makes for a good streaming option. Carson Wentz had a strong start to his career but regressed to a more reasonable rookie campaign; if he improves in 2017, he’ll be an outstanding streaming option at least.
Return of the Running Backs
2016 saw the rise and fall of the zero-RB draft strategy, as players like David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, and LeSean McCoy were consistent workhorses that won many fantasy owners a ring. I mean, the consensus top-3 this last year — Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr. — didn’t do bad as all three finished top-7 among receivers; however, they did not have the consistent production and touchdown upside that the aforementioned RBs had. In addition to those four, DeMarco Murray, Melvin Gordon, LeGarrette Blount, and Latavius Murray were notable mid-to-late round backs that provided consistent RB1/RB2 production, whose respective stocks increased between this and next year’s drafts.
Tier 1 - David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, and LeSean McCoy: And yes, that is the order in my opinion. Both Johnson and Elliott scored double-digit points every week. I’m lower on Bell and McCoy due to his suspension and injury risks, respectively, but other than that both are elite runners and receivers. All four provide consistent touches, yards, and TDs week to week and will be gone in the first round.
Tier 2 - DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi, Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, Lamar Miller, and Devonta Freeman: This tier has the rest of the RB1s from this past season, runners who emerged as solid week-to-week options. Murray, Ajayi, and Gordon emerged as week-to-week plug-and-play options. I’m particularly high on Howard as he ran very well behind an oft-injured Bears line. Miller provided a high production floor, while Freeman is the lead back in a high-octane offense.
Tier 3 - Doug Martin, Todd Gurley, LeGarrette Blount, Rob Kelley, Latavius Murray, Carlos Hyde, Matt Forte, and Thomas Rawls: Category is … elite upside and guaranteed touches. Martin, Gurley, and Rawls were once solid RB1s and can breakout any given week but likely are RB2s. Kelley, Hyde, and Forte are guaranteed plenty of snaps but a bad line limits their upside. Murray leads a committee but his goal-line snaps make him valuable. Blount is an enigma (as is Belichick’s RB game plan), so who knows if he can recreate his 2016 season.
Tier 4 - Jeremy Hill, C.J. Anderson, Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Ameer Abdullah, Eddie Lacy, Spencer Ware, and Jonathan Stewart: This tier is more of a hodge-podge of players who either are boom-bust (Hill, Anderson, Ingram, Ware, and Stewart) or are coming off of major injuries (Peterson, Abdullah, and Lacy). Gore is a steadfast RB2 next year, likely with a reduced role if the Colts resign Turbin. These players are decent RB2s that will have a hard time carrying your team but will do great in complementary roles.
Other players that are lower include Tevin Coleman (RB committee but great offense), Isaiah Crowell (suspicious offense but lead back), Ryan Mathews (RB committee and weak offense), and Giovani Bernard (RB committee and passing downs). Danny Woodhead is also an intriguing option in PPR leagues. Rookies like Leonard Fournette can also come into play, but it’s too early to tell.
Red Zone Wide Receivers Most Valuable
Remember when people said Antonio Brown will break the single-season reception record? People forgot that wide receivers’ value any given Sunday is still very dependent on the quarterback’s play as well as defensive game planning. There just isn’t a single receiver with the consistent production displayed by David Johnson. Ranking wide receivers are a tad more difficult due to the sheer number of players.
Tier 1 - Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Jordy Nelson, and T.Y. Hilton: Honestly, it is a toss-up between the first six for me, all capable of producing elite yardage and touchdowns. Nelson was the most consistent, only having two games below eight points. Green leads the group in fantasy points per game. Hilton leads the league in yardage after Week 16. All seven receivers have a case for a first or second-round pick.
Tier 2 - Dez Bryant, Sammy Watkins, Michael Thomas, Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper, and Brandin Cooks: Bryant and Watkins are oft injured, but their scoring upsides are both too tantalizing. The order for the next four might be controversial, but I value consistency over boom-bust behavior. Thomas and Crabtree are their teams’ target leaders with red zone upside. Cooper has great yardage but only four TDs this year. Cooks is the definition of boom-bust, with nine games (over half) below 10 points, including a goose-egg.
Tier 3 - Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Julian Edelman, and Donte Moncrief: This tier is composed of WR2 with a decent floor and high ceiling to complement a WR1. Hill and Adams emerged this year with dominant performances. Allen, Thomas, Sanders, and Edelman are all possession receivers that provide a solid production floor, while having the talent to take over games. Moncrief has tremendous TD upside (seven in nine games) despite not having great yardage.
Tier 4 - DeAndre Hopkins, Doug Baldwin, Terrelle Pryor, Allen Robinson, and Stefon Diggs: All five of these receivers are talented receivers capable of producing WR1 levels but are limited by inconsistent quarterback play. Hopkins, Pryor, and Robinson struggled to get in rhythm all year because of Osweiler, the Browns quarterbacks, and Bortles. Baldwin and Diggs had great games followed by duds, which can be frustrating for owners to manage.
Tier 5 - Jarvis Landry, Larry Fitzgerald, Kenny Britt, Tyrell Williams, Rishard Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin: Landry, Fitzgerald, and Benjamin had underwhelming seasons as they struggled to find the end zone, downgrading them to WR3 status with WR2 upside. Britt, Williams, and Matthews in contrast all had great seasons, putting them on the fantasy radar for next year. Williams has great upside, but with the Chargers offense looking stacked, his role in the offense might diminish. Britt could be underrated next year as he gains chemistry with a growing Jared Goff.
I struggled to find a justification to put DeSean Jackson or Jamison Crowder in, but are both great WR3s that will have touchdown upside, albeit for different reasons. Not putting in Brandon Marshall hurt, but Fitzpatrick, Petty, Smith, and Hackenberg are all just terrible. Watch out for Martavis Bryant’s return as he can take the top off any defense.
Inconsistency at Tight End
Even the best tight ends this year failed to show any semblance of consistent fantasy production, whether that is due to being prone to injury, offensive game plan, or getting ejected in the playoffs (*cough* Jordan Reed). 2016 was a game of roulette with tight ends, and in 2017, it’s hard to imagine taking someone like Gronkowski in the first (2015).
Tier 1 - Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce: Olsen and Kelce were the only two tight ends to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, despite neither of them catching five TDs. These two players are bonafide number one receivers in their offenses with big-play ability. They’re as close to tight end “consistency” as you can get. However, with such talent at RB and WR going early, I imagine them going fourth round at the highest, but likely in the fifth.
Tier 1.5 - Jordan Reed, Rob Gronkowski, and Tyler Eifert: These three tight ends all should belong in Tier 1, but recurring injuries have given their owners headaches for years. All three, if healthy, have the ability to reach 1,000 yards and eight TDs, but if they are put on IR, you’ll have to play tight end roulette again.
Tier 2 - Delanie Walker, Cameron Brate, Kyle Rudolph, Jimmy Graham: These four just about complete the TE1s for next year. Walker and Rudolph are reliable targets for two young quarterbacks (assuming Bridgewater is healthy), providing a decent floor. Brate emerged as a great red-zone target for Winston, but will have some low-scoring weeks. Graham is arguably the most boom-bust tight end in this group due to inconsistent targets from Wilson.
Tier 3 - Martellus Bennett, Zach Miller, Charles Clay, Zach Ertz, Jason Witten, and Hunter Henry: This tier is made of two types of tight ends: those with touchdown upside (Bennett, Miller, Clay, and Henry) and those with targets upside (Ertz and Witten). Bennett can qualify as both, but the presence of a healthy Gronk might limit him. I’ve always been a fan of Clay — my trust in him led me to a championship — as he has the talent to be a consistent catcher for the Bills. However, with Rex Ryan gone, it’s unclear how Clay will be used in 2017.
Tier 4 - Eric Ebron, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Dennis Pitta, Gary Barnidge, and Coby Fleener: This tier is composed of yardage guys who will probably go undrafted but remain good streaming options week-to-week… and Coby Fleener. I’ve never really been a fan of Fleener’s skill set, despite being a Colts fan, because he can’t block or catch, but others have overlooked these glaring deficiencies because he plays with Brees. The other four will get you some yardage probably but no TDs; they’re guys you play to avoid laying a goose-egg when you have no one else to start.
I left out Antonio Gates because while he’ll be back in 2017, there’s no telling how the team will use this veteran, future Hall-of-Famer with so many mouths to feed on offense. Julius Thomas was someone I loved in 2016, but Bortles’ regression and coaching changes make Thomas’ prospects uncertain.
Thank you for reading this and for a great 2016 fantasy football season. I hope these past months brought you as many exciting moments and, more importantly, victories as they brought me. On one hand, it feels lacking watching games without fantasy implications, but on the other, this years’ playoffs are going to be a tight one, especially in the NFC. Don’t forget to spend time with the family during this beautiful holiday season, and don’t forget to watch some good ol’ American football!
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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- Antonio Brown
- T.Y. Hilton
- Julio Jones
- Odell Beckham Jr.