Expecting the Unexpected: Lessons from the 2016 Fantasy Football Season

By Alex McCarthy
Alex McCarthy For as much time as enthusiasts invest in fantasy football, you would think that we could predict player performance with near certainty. Every year we obsess over analysis and repeat subjective narratives until we convince ourselves that they’re fact, and every year so many of those narratives prove to be laughably false. Last year a team with Cam Newton, Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, DeAndre Hopkins, and Allen Robinson would have been considered an unstoppable powerhouse poised to win championships for the next five years. A mere few months later the owner of that team would be wondering how they missed the playoffs and cursing the gods of fantasy football.

So what lessons can we learn from the flawed narratives of 2016? How can we avoid the “sure things” that reveal themselves to be colossal disappointments? While the day will never come when we can predict everything, we can learn and improve from our failures last season.

Fantasy Football Lesson #1:
There’s no such thing as “quarterback-proof”.

In startup drafts leading up to the 2016 season, the near-consensus #2 overall asset was Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins. And why not? He was a 24 year old wide receiver with steadily ascending production who had reached new heights in 2015 with an impressive 111/1521/11 statline. He had even produced in the absence of a quality quarterback, which led many to believe that he was “quarterback-proof” and arguably the safest pick in a startup.

Blinded by production and a relative lack of any other red flags, enthusiastic investors in Hopkins ignored the fact that they were betting the house on an unknown- Brock Osweiler. No player exists in a vacuum, and willfully ignoring something as relevant as an unknown at quarterback is the sort of mistake managers hope to avoid repeating.

The elite player most likely to be affected by this in the near future is Antonio Brown, as rumors have long swirled of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s potential retirement. Though all signs point to Big Ben remaining a Steeler at least through next season, he has a history of concussions that seem to be catching up with him so he may not be around much longer than that. Without him in the pocket, Brown could be poised to disappoint in a big way.

As was the case with Hopkins, it is tempting to dismiss these concerns by citing Brown’s elite talent. You might even argue, not unreasonably, that Brown is much better than Hopkins and therefore would be more quarterback-proof, but consider this: in 2015 when Roethlisberger went down for four games, Brown’s average yards-per-game dropped from 135.1 to 58.8 and he failed to score a single touchdown.

Believe what you see on the field- every receiver needs a quarterback.

Fantasy Football Lesson #2:
Don’t ignore the offensive line just because they don’t score.

This could be considered tangential to lesson #1 because it also emphasizes that no player exists in a vacuum. Running backs and quarterbacks buy their offensive lines expensive gifts for a reason- they know that almost every successful play starts with quality blocking up front.

After several offseason departures including left tackle Russell Okung, the Seattle Seahawks entered 2016 with the youngest and lowest-paid offensive line in the league. They also had a quarterback (Russell Wilson) coming off a season in which he finished as QB3 in fantasy football and a running back (Thomas Rawls) who had torn defenses apart for 5.6 yards-per-carry. The pair were considered valuable assets in both dynasty and redraft formats and commanded relatively high draft capital going into the season.

Owners were quickly disappointed, though, as Wilson and Rawls spent the 2016 season constantly under seige. The utter inability of their offensive line to block handcuffed the both of them and their production dropped off precipitously- Wilson dropped twelve spots to QB15 and Rawls’ impressive YPC dropped an incredible 2.4 yards all the way to 3.2. The constant beating didn’t do Rawls’ health any favors, either, and he only managed to start nine of sixteen games.

In 2017, the team I foresee encountering major problems in this area is the Cincinnati Bengals. They lost their two best offensive linemen in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler and failed to address their newfound weakness in the draft, instead loading up at skill positions by picking up weapons like Joe Mixon and John Ross.

The Bengals have an above-average QB and are flush with weapons from AJ Green to Tyler Eifert to Ross to Mixon, giving them what appears on the surface to be a lethal offensive attack. However, the utter lack of support those players can expect from their offensive line will end up handcuffing many of them in the same way that it did Wilson and Rawls. Green should be fine, but Ross and Mixon in particular will feel the pain- Ross because pass protection won’t hold up long enough for Dalton to throw bombs downfield, and Mixon because there won’t be any holes to run through.

Without big men to block, the divas don’t dance. Remember that.

Fantasy Football Lesson #3:
Not every RB can handle a “feature” workload.

In three years as a starter in Miami, Lamar Miller looked like an elite talent who was being criminally underused by his coaching staff and deserved a shot as a true feature RB. When he signed with Houston before the 2016 season, his fantasy football stock skyrocketed and everyone expected a top-5 season, optimistically projecting his 4.6 YPC to a 250+ carry workload. It didn’t take long for owners to realize their error, as although the Texans did up his workload substantially (from 12 to 19 carries/game), his efficiency suffered dramatically (from 4.6 to 4 YPC). The Brock-pocalypse certainly didn’t help, but it quickly became clear that Miller was a back who is at his best when he has fresh legs.

A candidate for a Miller-esque 2017 has been gaining more and more popularity of late- Isaiah Crowell. Crowell is in line for an enviable position this season, as the Browns have assembled an elite offensive line and coach Hue Jackson has talked him up of late, implying heavily that he will see more of a “feature” role. These factors plus Crowell’s impressive 2016 YPC of 4.8 have many owners slotting him in as a top-10 RB on their draft boards.

I see a number of disturbing parallels between 2016 Miller and 2017 Crowell, however, that have me less enthused. Like Miller, Crowell averaged only around 12 carries/game when he put up his impressive YPC (and he only did so for one season compared to Miller’s three; Crowell’s YPC in his first two season was a decidedly less impressive 3.9). He also plays in an offense that will depend on an unknown commodity at quarterback, which could translate to a lack of red zone opportunities much like it did for Miller. It’s even possible that Crowell could suffer through Brock himself, now that he has ended up in Cleveland.

Neither Miller or Crowell are objectively bad players, and Crowell should function as a decent RB2 just as Miller did last season. But for those who have been hyping him as a potential top-10 performer, 2016 Lamar Miller says slow your roll.

Not every talented back is a feature back.