News & Analysis

2017 in memoriam: The fantasy performers who didn't show up

Oct 2, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) catches a pass for a touchdown as Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters (22) defends during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL season was a riveting drama that played out differently than almost anyone expected. From a fantasy perspective, it was probably a season we’ll never forget. Perennial top-12 wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Julian Edelman missed most, if not all of the season entire season, as did consensus top-five fantasy selection David Johnson. A rash of quarterback injuries (including Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford) completely changed the course of the season for a number of players. The games that these players missed impacted fantasy leagues in significant ways, but there were still some amazing accomplishments (and miserable failures) we shouldn’t soon forget as we begin shifting our focus to 2018.

Let’s start with the mourning – the players who entered 2017 as fantasy-relevant names, but now have some work to do if we’re ever going to trust them again.

The bad

Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders

Cooper was a huge disappointment in 2017, finishing as PPR WR35 after being drafted as WR9 in fantasy drafts prior to the season. If that’s not depressing enough, upon closer inspection his season was actually much worse. Cooper had five games with fewer than 10 receiving yards. He also had five games with two or fewer receptions. Cooper amassed 49.2 percent of his receiving yards in just two games, and one of those games was week 17, when nearly all fantasy leagues had already been decided. With an average draft position inside the top two rounds in 2017, Cooper owners likely had a short season.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

Ajayi may have been the least valuable player in fantasy in 2017, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. Preseason expectations were high after offseason narratives about him seeing an expanded role in the passing game. His average draft position was 12th overall (RB6). However, the Dolphins traded Ajayi to the Eagles following Week 8, which turned what was already a disappointing start into a full-blown disaster. Ajayi didn’t see double-digit touches with the Eagles until his fifth game with the team and never saw more than 16 touches in a game in Philly. He scored just two touchdowns on 232 touches. Ajayi ranked 77th in fantasy points per opportunity, which was dead last among all running backs who saw at least 25 percent of their team’s touches.

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins

Pryor was expected to see a primary role in the pass-heavy Washington Redskins offense. He finished in a tie with Jeremy Kerley for PPR WR102 with 50 PPR points. Fantasy owners were absolutely burned by Pryor, as he was being selected as the 15yj wide receiver in drafts this year and had a third-round average draft position on nearly every fantasy platform in the industry. Pryor eclipsed 30 receiving yards just three times through nine games before landing on injured reserve due to an ankle injury. He only had one game with more than three receptions and only scored one touchdown.

Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

There have only been three instances of a quarterback scoring fewer than 200 fantasy points when playing in all 16 games in the PFF era (2007-2017). Two of those instances belong to Flacco (2008, 2017). The other belongs to Kerry Collins (2008). Some fun facts to help memorialize the original elite signal-caller’s 2017 season:

  • Flacco scored 21 more fantasy points than Deshaun Watson, but played in 9 more games
  • Flacco finished seventh in passing attempts, but just 21st in passing yards
  • Among quarterbacks who played in all 16 games in 2017, only first-year starter Jacoby Brissett had fewer passing yards
  • Among qualified quarterbacks, Flacco finished 36th in points per dropback (out of 40 qualifiers)

Coby Fleener, TE, New Orleans Saints

After a solid-if-unspectacular debut in New Orleans in 2016, Fleener was drafted as a borderline TE1 in fantasy drafts in 2017 with a positional average draft position of 15 and an overall average draft position of 133 (12th round). He finished as PPR TE34 and tied for 50th with the fantasy titan Nick O’Leary in fantasy points per opportunity. Fleener posted two or fewer receptions in eight out of 11 games. He was eventually placed on injured reserve due to a concussion.

And now, so we don’t end our look back on 2017 with such a bad taste in the mouth, let’s look at some of the success stories.

The good

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Brady’s 2017 performance was improbable (and legendary) in so many ways. He lost his trusty slot wide receiver, Julian Edelman, before the season even began. When Chris Hogan soon emerged as an effective replacement, he was also injured and missed seven games. Brady never really skipped a beat, amassing the following accomplishments:

  • Led the NFL in passing attempts (581)
  • Led the NFL in passing yards (4,577, the fifth-highest total of his career)
  • Finished third in the NFL in passing touchdowns (32)

Brady ended the regular season as the QB3 in fantasy, a feat he accomplished five times in his 30s. His season was good for a quarterback of any age, let alone a quadragenarian. While many questioned the Patriots mid-season sale of Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers, Brady’s continued excellence lessened the sting.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

On the other end of the quarterback age spectrum, Watson’s 2017 rookie season was one of the best we’ve ever seen. Despite only playing in seven games, he finished tied for 18th in the NFL in passing touchdowns with 18 (he was leading the league at the time of his injury). His 25 fantasy points per game were at least two points clear of every other quarterback this season. His dynamic, aggressive playing style (average depth of target – 11.5 yards!) looks to be on display for years to come as the Texans recently signed Bill O’Brien to a contract extension.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans

Speaking of the Texans, their alpha wide receiver channeled his 2015 performance once again in 2017. Hopkins finished as the overall fantasy WR1 in PPR despite playing 10 of his 15 games with either Tom Savage or T.J. Yates at starting quarterback. His 13 touchdowns were a career best and led the NFL. He also finished first in targets and fourth in receiving yards. Hopkins is still just 25 (he turns 26 in June) and hasn’t even reached his prime.

Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins

The ultimate “get no respect” fantasy player, many may be surprised to know Landry ended the season as WR4 in PPR, the best finish of his career. His 112 receptions were a career-high and led the NFL. He also scored nine touchdowns, which was four more than his previous best. Landry is now the NFL record-holder for most receptions through the first four seasons of a career with 401. He will only need 27 receptions in 2018 to set a new record for receptions through the first five seasons of a career.

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

The third-year running back finally had the breakout everyone had been waiting for — well, those who hadn’t written him off entirely. Gurley’s 385 PPR points were the second-highest total by a running back in the past five seasons despite only playing 15 games. He led all running backs in rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns. He also finished second in the NFL in rushing yards and second among running backs in receiving yards. If the Rams hadn’t rested Gurley in Week 17, he could’ve finished first in both of those categories. A quick look around popular fantasy league webhosts showed that Gurley was the most frequently owned player on 2017 fantasy championship teams.

The rookie running backs

The 2017 rookie running back class quickly changed the fantasy landscape. Four of the top-10 PPR running backs were rookies. Alvin Kamara finished as PPR RB3 and led all running backs with 826 receiving yards. Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing en route to a PPR RB4 finish. Christian McCaffrey was the unlikely RB9, with just 435 rushing yards, but caught 80 balls on 106 targets to make up for it. His 80 receptions were tied for 14th among all players. Leonard Fournette scored 10 touchdowns despite missing three games. The top-10 could’ve featured a fifth rookie running back, Dalvin Cook, were it not for his early-season injury. Through the season’s first quarter, Cook totaled 444 yards from scrimmage.

Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs

Kelce joined Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham as the only tight ends with multiple TE1 seasons in the past 10 seasons (2008-2017). Kelce repeated as PPR TE1 in 2017 on the strength of his second consecutive thousand-yard receiving season. He also doubled his 2016 touchdown output, from four to eight. While Gronkowski remained the most dominant per-game performer at the position, Kelce cemented himself as a true tier-one option at tight end thanks to his consistency and availability. When Kansas City sat Kelce in the final week of the season it was the first game he’d missed since 2013.

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