In theory, this fantasy-football forecasting thing should be getting easier.
What was once viewed as little more than a quirky, niche sideshow when The Huddle got started nearly two decades ago, fantasy football is now a booming business. In fact, welcome to the golden age.
Almost any study or survey will tell you that participation sets new all-time high each year, and as a result, seasoned analysts and year-round analysis abounds. It’s all evidenced with a quick perusal of your local retail magazine rack which is sure to reveal a host of glossy fantasy titles populating the shelves.
But despite all the deep study and scrutiny, fantasy football is as truly unpredictable as ever. Each season brings us a fresh crop of surprising studs taking their places among the top-10 highest scorers at their positions. They’re the holy grails of the game: The break-out, break-through players who come from the depths of drafts – or even the waiver wire – and determine the champions and alter the season narratives in legions of leagues.
There was quarterback Michael Vick in 2010, WR Jordy Nelson in 2011, rookie RB Alfred Morris in 2012, TE Julius Thomas in 2013 and wideout Odell Beckham a year later.
OK, then, so last season, the market corrected itself and order finally was restored, right? Average draft positions generally held true to form, and the lists of preseason studs and the end-of-the-year standouts largely were one and the same?
Uh, not exactly.
Blake Bortles and Kirk Cousins, who owned the 27th and 29th highest ADPs among quarterbacks, respectively, both finished as top-10 QBs.
Devonta Freeman, who entered the season as the 39th running back to come off the board in drafts, on average, finished as fantasy’s No. 1 back.
Allen Robinson, Doug Baldwin and Larry Fitzgerald – wide receivers with preseason ADPs of 33 or lower – all finished in the top 10, and largely undrafted tight end Gary Barnidge wound up putting up the third-highest point total at his position.
In all, only 15 of the 40 players (37.5 percent) owning preseason top-10 ADPs at those four primary positions (QB, RB, WR and TE) finished the year as top-10 fantasy-point producers. That’s easily the lowest ratio going back through 2010.
Of those 15, only two were running backs, meaning that eight of the top-10 fantasy backs qualified as surprises of varying degrees.
So, yeah, as stated: Unpredictable as ever.
Overall, spanning the last five seasons, scarcely more than 50 percent (102) of the 200 players with myfantasyleague.com re-draft top-10 ADPs at the four positions finished among their respective top 10s at season’s end. And of those break-through 98 players who crashed the top-10 party, a full 60 of them (61.2 percent) owned ADPs of 16 or lower at quarterback and tight end and 21 or lower at running back and wide receiver.
So who will be the breakout top-10 fantasy finds of 2016?
As established, it’s most definitely a worthwhile question to ask, but attempting to positively ID these still-undercover soon-to-be-studs in early August is as about as hard as Hall of Fame Game field paint. But I’m not simply going to pack up my notes and call off the quest before it ever gets going. (BTW: That’s strictly prohibited in our Huddle employment agreements).
And despite having Sam Bradford, Tevin Coleman (yeah, wrong Falcons back), Andre Johnson and Vernon Davis on my little list here a year ago at this time, I also included Carson Palmer, Doug Martin and Brandon Marshall.
So, that established, here’s my annual list of fearless top-10 break-out predictions/best guesses utilizing the Aug. 11 MFL.com re-draft, standard-scoring ADPs at each of the primary fantasy positions:
Quarterback (current ADP of 16 or lower)
Matthew Stafford (ADP 16) – Stafford’s 2016 fantasy chances were all but written off minutes after long-time battery mate Calvin Johnson made it clear he was sticking to his retirement plans this offseason. But the Lions have refurbished his arsenal, adding WRs Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin to incumbents Golden Tate, rising TE Eric Ebron and pass-catching backs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. Don’t at all be shocked if Stafford benefits from better protection and carries over his 2015 second-half momentum under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to notch his fifth top-10 fantasy QB finish in the last six seasons.
Ryan Tannehill (ADP 22) – Quarterback guru Adam Gase, who’s spent the last three seasons doing good things with Peyton Manning and Jay Cutler as an offensive coordinator, is now the man in charge in South Beach, and despite it constituting the third new offense in the last four years for the ’Fins, it could pay immediate dividends for Tannehill, who did throw for a career-high 4,208 yards last season. In Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, TE Jordan Cameron and newly-signed RB Arian Foster, the weapons are there, and if Tannehill can bump up his TD-pass (24 a season ago) and rushing-yardage (a career-worst 141) totals, he’ll make a strong run at a top-10 fantasy finish.
Other candidates: Tyrod Taylor (ADP 18), Matt Ryan (ADP 20), Tony Romo (ADP 23)
Running back (current ADP of 21 or lower)
Melvin Gordon (ADP 22) – More than a few of you were burned by Gordon’s resounding dud of a 2015 rookie season (833 total yards, no TDs on 217 offensive touches), and certainly stud Wisconsin backs haven’t had the greatest NFL track record over the last two decades but the Bolts aren’t about to give up on the running back they traded up to draft in the first round only last season. The San Diego run blocking figures to be better this year – it has nowhere else to go but up after sinking to league lows with 3.5 yards per carry and four ground TDs in 2015 – and doable jumps to 1,250 total yards and six TDs for Gordon in his sophomore season would likely have him threatening the top 10.
Jonathan Stewart (ADP 26) – The Panthers’ clear lead back matched a four-year high last season with 13 regular-season games played and totaled 1,088 yards from scrimmage and seven TDs in finishing as fantasy’s 16th-ranked back. Carolina already has shown it will consistently use him as he had 18 or more offensive touches in 12 of 16 games, including the postseason, in 2015, and if he can maintain his health and borrow a few of Cam Newton’s QB-most 10 rushing scores, a top-10 fantasy campaign is well within reach.
DeAngelo Williams (ADP 34) – Could Williams repeat his 2015 feat and crash the fantasy top 10 as a Le’Veon Bell fill-in? All at age 33? Don’t discount fantasy’s fourth-ranked back a year ago as the ingredients already are in place for a running start. Pending his upcoming appeal hearing, Bell is scheduled to be suspended the first quarter of the season, and then there’s the matter of the gruesome 2015 PCL injury he’s still attempting to come back from. The Steelers already have said they plan to use Williams more, even if Bell does return ready to start in October. And, mind you, only one additional Bell off-field slip-up or health issue could put Williams atop the RB depth chart (again) in one of the league’s most productive offenses.
Other candidates: Ryan Mathews (ADP 29), Frank Gore (ADP 35), Justin Forsett (ADP 37)
Wide receiver (current ADP of 21 or lower)
Donte Moncrief (ADP 22) – In case you missed it, Andrew Luck is back at the helm in Indy, and that’s nothing but good news for this third-year wideout, who caught five of his six TD passes from Luck last season. But, in the end, his opportunity for a break-out season a year ago were shunted when the QB was lost for the season after Week 9. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Moncrief provides the inviting red-zone target that sub-6-footers T.Y. Hilton and Phillip Dorsett do not, and that, combined with a full season of Luck, makes Moncrief a solid threat to outperform his draft slot.
Golden Tate (ADP 23) – Pssst … we’ve seen what the Lions’ WR corps could be like without the since-retired Calvin Johnson leading the parade, and it happened only two years ago in 2014. With Johnson missing three games and not quite his Megatronic self in a handful of others due to health issues, Tate stepped up big time in first year with the Lions and paced the Motor City crew with 144 targets, 99 receptions and 1,331 yards. And despite only hauling in four scoring passes, Tate still finished 13th among fantasy receivers. Yeah, we know Jones and Boldin are now there, too, and TE Eric Ebron appears he’s ready to take another step forward, but it would hardly be a shocker to see Tate’s numbers take enough of a leap again to verge on top-10 fantasy territory.
Corey Coleman (ADP 36) – Hey, yeah, we realize that the rookie was drafted by the Browns – who haven’t exactly had an All-Pro lineup of quarterbacks of late – but that’s far from a fantasy death sentence for a pass-catcher. Just look up 2013 Josh Gordon or 2015 Gary Barnidge in The Huddle stats archive. Coleman is regarded as the best of a strong crop of rookie wideouts, and he’s also entering the best opportunity of the bunch with Cleveland in desperate need of a No. 1 WR. And if some combination of a rejuvenated RGIII or a veteran Josh McCown can prove serviceable, Coleman could become the latest Browns’ target to catch fire – and the fantasy elite – by surprise.
Other candidates: Michael Floyd (ADP 26), DeVante Parker (ADP 28), Jordan Matthews (ADP 29)
Tight end (current ADP of 15 or lower)
Antonio Gates (ADP 16) – OK, sure, Gates is a certified shoulder-pad-wearing NFL fossil at age 36, and history says players that age are better candidates to finish among the bottom-10 tight ends than the top 10. But, then again, Gates has been defying expectations at every turn in his Hall-of-Fame career as an undrafted former college hoops player, who’s finished as a top-10 fantasy performer in 10 of the last 12 seasons. He nearly made it 11 of 12 last season, finishing 11th – four points in back of No. 10 Zach Ertz. And that was while missing five games, including a four-game suspension to start the season, and sharing TE targets with the since-departed Ladarius Green. The Bolts have since used a second-round pick to snare the top tight end in the draft in Hunter Henry, but would it truly shock any fantasy GM if Gates shows the young ’un how it’s done and coaxes one more top-10 fantasy season out of his old bones?
Zach Miller (ADP 19) – Thirty-something journeyman tight ends with fewer than 100 career receptions suddenly coming out of nowhere and posting eye-popping fantasy figures? Again, we reference 2015 Gary Barnidge, he of the celebrated 79-1,043-9 stat line a year ago. Don’t look now, but Miller has a startlingly similar resume to the pre-2015 Barnidge, and if anything, he’s shown more pass-catching promise with 34 receptions for 439 yards and five TDs only last season. Now, Miller has moved to the top of the Windy City depth chart after Martellus Bennett was traded away in the offseason. Pass-catching back Matt Forte also is gone, and No. 1 WR Alshon Jeffery is once again battling health issues. It could add up to a surprise, bust-out season for Miller.
Other candidates: Jordan Cameron (ADP 23), Richard Rodgers (AP 24), Charles Clay (ADP 27)