The 2016 season will, in all likelihood, be labeled "The Year Running Backs Rebounded."
A 230-point fantasy score led the position in 2015; in 2016, four running backs exceeded that number. In retrospect, many fantasy owners will look back and question why wide receivers were so popular in preseason drafts, a trend taken to extremes with the "Zero RB" strategy.
In truth, however, did all that much really change?
The top tier of running backs stayed healthier, which contributed, while the wide receiver position was hit with its share of bumps and bruises, setbacks and, in certain cases, unexpectedly poor quarterback play.
Meanwhile, the quarterback position, while taking a step backward in total fantasy scoring -- its 7,993 total fantasy points fell shy of its combined 8,298 in 2015 -- still enjoyed its second-most-productive season in history (2015 was first). It's still a passing league, folks.
It's a lesson in why we shouldn't be so quick to chase last season's points, as 2017 could -- and probably should -- be a year of greater health for wide receivers, continued success for quarterbacks and scarcity at running back. Value needs remain the play at the draft table, and it's why this season's top winner isn't necessarily one from the position you might expect.
Top winner: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Though he fell short of the season's No. 1 spot in total fantasy points as well as VBD (Value Based Drafting) fantasy points, second- and 10th-place finishes in those categories aren't bad, especially considering his relatively cheap draft price. Ryan's 334 total fantasy points were second only to Aaron Rodgers' 365, shattering his previous single-season best of 291 (2012), and in fact ranked 20th all-time among quarterbacks.
Among top-10 VBD finishers, no one was selected as late as Ryan, a 13th-round pick (129th, 121.4 average draft position) drafted in just 41.3 percent of ESPN leagues. It wasn't a matter of a complete unknown racking up unused fantasy points in the early weeks, either. Ryan's ownership soared past 75 percent by Week 3, and his 283 fantasy points from that week forward were second best among all players. Ryan found himself on playoff teams in 59.5 percent of ESPN leagues in 2016, most among quarterbacks.
Ryan was also started in at least 62.5 percent of leagues in each of the final five weeks -- considered the traditional "fantasy playoffs" regardless of where you play -- during which time his 103 fantasy points were third best, behind only Rodgers' 117 and Andrew Luck's 104. A position-best 22.0 percent of ESPN league champions had Ryan on their rosters.
Top loser: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
One could go in several different directions here, but Gurley stood out among disappointments for two important reasons. First, his lofty draft position: He was the No. 4 player selected on average (5.1 ADP) and No. 1 running back off the board, but he was outscored by 19 other running backs, six of whom were selected more than a 100 spots later (and one of whom was effectively undrafted in ESPN formats).
Second, Gurley's pedigree planted patience in his fantasy owners' minds: He entered 2016 as a 22-year-old, dynasty blue-chipper, burgeoning breakout stud, so they stuck with him through his lows. Not once in his 16 games played was he started in fewer than 56.5 percent of ESPN leagues, and in 13 of them he was started in at least 80 percent. Among players with a top-50 overall ADP and at least 14 games played in 2016, Gurley was found on the fifth-fewest playoff teams (33.7 percent).
After Gurley had just three single-digit fantasy games as a rookie in 2015 -- one of which was in his 14-snap NFL debut -- he tallied 11 such performances as a sophomore, with only nine of his 16 point totals ranking among the position's top 25 for the week and none of them ranked among the position's top five.
Nevertheless, he'll enter 2017 at age 23 with the presumed best years of his career ahead of him, making him a virtual certainty to be picked in one of the first two rounds. With the Rams' coaching situation in flux, Gurley's situation will be one of the ones most worth watching.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals: A "Fantasy MVP" case would be an easy one to make for Johnson, the player most commonly found on ESPN playoff teams (66.9 percent) as well as championship teams (23.6 percent). He paced all running backs with 313 fantasy points, the fourth-best total among players at any position and the 18th-best single-season total in history by a running back. Johnson was the highest-scoring running back since Arian Foster scored the same amount in 2010.
Using PPR scoring, Johnson's 393 fantasy points were 28 more than anyone else, 81 more than any other "flex" player and ninth-best in NFL history. That underscored his value as a receiver, something that makes him a compelling No. 1 overall pick for 2017.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: He was the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft and the sixth player taken (7.1 ADP) on average in ESPN live drafts, and he proved to be worth both lofty spots. Elliott's 280 fantasy points were second best among running backs, seventh among all players and the third most among rookie running backs and fifth best among all rookies in history, behind only Cam Newton's 352 in 2011, Eric Dickerson's 329 in 1983, Robert Griffin III's 303 in 2012 and Edgerrin James' 295 in 1999.
Elliott also scored double-digit fantasy points in each of his 15 games, the most by any rookie in history, and he didn't absorb an outrageous workload in the process, his 322 carries ranking only 10th among rookies all-time. He's a surefire top-five-overall pick entering 2017.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: If your MVP is the first name on the fantasy leaderboard, here's your man, as Rodgers' 365 fantasy points led the way by 31 over Ryan and were the sixth most by any quarterback in history. Even using VBD scoring, Rodgers' season was a great one, ranking sixth in the league in 2016.
Most remarkable was his consistency: If 20 fantasy points is the goal for your quarterback, Rodgers' 11 such performances tied him for the fourth most in history, trailing only his own 14 in 2011, Drew Brees' 12 in 2011 and Peyton Manning's 12 in 2013.
It is no coincidence, incidentally, that Rodgers' three best fantasy seasons -- 385 points in 2011, this year's and 342 in 2014 -- came in seasons during which his favorite target, Jordy Nelson, was healthy for all 16 games and managed at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns receiving.
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The No. 11 wide receiver selected on average in live drafts this preseason (25th overall, 27.2 ADP), Evans tied for the position lead in fantasy points with 200, and was one of only six out of the first 15 picked to score as many as 140. He became only the 11th different player ever to reach the 200-point plateau at the age of 23 or younger.
Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys: His was one of the most memorable rookie years in history, and it nearly didn't happen. An Aug. 25 injury to Tony Romo created an opening for preseason darling Prescott, resulting in the third-best fantasy point total by any first-year quarterback in history; Prescott's 271 fantasy points trailed only Newton's 352 in 2011 and Griffin's 303 in 2012. Looking back, it's remarkable that there was even a midseason debate as to whether Prescott or Romo should be starting in Dallas once the latter healed.
Prescott's ADP soared after the Romo injury news broke, settling at 103rd (106.1 ADP) at the time of the Week 1 opener, though unlike the aforementioned Ryan, fantasy owners weren't as quick to capitalize. In only three of his 16 games played was Prescott started in 50 percent or more of ESPN leagues, and in only one of his five highest-scoring weeks was he started in more than 38.8 percent.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings: A largely undrafted player -- he was selected in only 20.9 percent of ESPN leagues -- Rudolph scored a career-high 120 fantasy points, third best among tight ends. He also managed 43 fantasy points in the season's final four weeks, third best at the position, which helps explain how he managed to appear on the greatest percentage of championship teams (17.5 percent) among tight ends. Rudolph's 539 routes, 128 targets and 23 red zone targets easily set new personal bests, but his repeat prospects could hinge upon whether Sam Bradford, whose check-down tendencies helped boost Rudolph's numbers, or Teddy Bridgewater will be starting under center come Week 1 in 2017.
Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers: A hip strain and knee sprain suffered in the first quarter of Week 13 that also cost him the season's final three games came at a most inopportune time for his fantasy owners, and helps explain how he was on championship rosters in only 7.9 percent of ESPN leagues. Still, Gordon's sudden good fortune in the touchdown department -- his zero in 2015 became 12 in 2016 -- helped him enjoy a 135-fantasy-point increase (64 to 199), second largest among players who appeared in at least half of their team's games in both years -- behind only Jay Ajayi (plus-146) -- and the eighth-most points among running backs.
Matt Bryant, K, Atlanta Falcons: Admit it, you thought you'd see Justin Tucker here, didn't you? Tucker had an outstanding year -- his 174 fantasy points ranked second among kickers, 29 ahead of third place -- but Bryant actually led the way with 176. That was the third-best total in history by a kicker, trailing only David Akers' 182 in 2011 and Gary Anderson's 180 in 1998, and it earned Bryant a place on championship teams in 20.5 percent of ESPN leagues, tops at the position. Bryant was drafted in only 19.4 percent of leagues.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: Of the eight first-round picks on average this preseason who appeared in 14 or more games, Hopkins' 112 fantasy points ranked last, as did his appearance on only 30.9 percent of playoff-bound teams. He saw his point total decline by nearly 100 -- he scored 211 in 2015, sixth best among wide receivers -- and suffered statistically due to the poor play of his quarterback, Brock Osweiler. Fantasy owners can only hope that Hopkins' rebound prospects improve if the Texans bring in a new signal-caller for 2017.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars: A good chunk of the blame for his season belongs squarely on the shoulders of his quarterback, Blake Bortles, who threw 12 fewer touchdown passes and scored 43 fewer fantasy points in 2016 than 2015, but Robinson's own performance played a part. He had two more drops in 2016 (6) than 2015, and despite one more target (149-148), he saw his fantasy point total go from 217 in 2015 to a mere 118 in 2016. Robinson was the No. 6 wide receiver and 15th overall player off the board in ESPN drafts (15.9 ADP), and he was active in more than 80 percent of leagues in nine of his 16 games.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: He topped the fantasy leaderboard in 2015 with one of the greatest all-time point totals (373) and subsequently was the 13th player selected (15.3 ADP) on average in ESPN drafts this preseason, only to put forth the second-lowest single-season fantasy point total during his six-year career (241). Most distressing to his fantasy owners was that he scored just 48 points combined during Weeks 14-17, 22nd among quarterbacks, while being active in greater than 50 percent of leagues in three of those weeks. He wound up on championship rosters in only 5.1 percent of leagues; 14 other quarterbacks could be found with a greater percentage.
For those projecting forward, most troubling regarding Newton's prospects were that he rushed for a career-low 359 yards while matching his career low with five rushing touchdowns. Those made his 10-touchdown rushing outburst of 2015 look like the outlier, and it'll make a top-five positional ranking difficult in 2017.
Coby Fleener, TE, New Orleans Saints: He appeared to be entering a golden opportunity after signing a five-year, $36 million deal with the Saints, who in the previous half-decade (2011-15) had totaled the second-most fantasy points from their tight ends. In a down year for tight ends, Fleener didn't even crack the top 12 at the position, and in nine of his 16 games he was held to three fantasy points or fewer. Championship teams sported Fleener on their roster in only 4.9 percent of leagues.
Simply the facts
Among players who appeared in 12 games or fewer in a season, Tom Brady's 251 fantasy points in 2016 were second most by a quarterback, behind only Michael Vick's 300 in 12 games in 2010. Brady also scored the second-most fantasy points by any player age 39 or older, behind Brett Favre's 274 in 2009 (age 40).
From Weeks 10-16, Le'Veon Bell scored a league-leading 168 fantasy points (all positions). Despite his Week 17 absence, he finished second to David Johnson in terms of ownership percentage on ESPN championship teams (23.0 percent).
Frank Gore's 164 fantasy points using standard scoring were the fourth most by any running back age 33 or older, behind only John Riggins' 272 in 1983 (age 34) and 206 in 1984 (age 35) and Marcus Allen's 170 in 1993. Gore's 202 points using PPR scoring were fifth, behind Riggins' 277 in 1983, MacArthur Lane's 214 in 1976, Riggins' 213 in 1984 and Allen's 204 in 1993.
Only 11 rookie wide receivers since 1950 scored more fantasy points than Michael Thomas' 157.
Tyreek Hill's 97 fantasy points the final eight weeks of the season were second most among wide receivers, behind only Jordy Nelson's 113, resulting in Hill residing on championship rosters in 15.8 percent of ESPN leagues.
Odell Beckham Jr. scored 188 fantasy points, fourth most among wide receivers, giving him at least 180 in each of his first three NFL seasons. He joined Randy Moss (1998-2000) as the only wide receivers in history to do that, though Beckham's 601 total fantasy points trailed Moss' 665 in those first three seasons.