News & Analysis

Lessons from the last decade of fantasy results

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 27: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions catches a second quarter pass in front of Kyle Fuller #23 of the Chicago Bears at Ford Field on November 27, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve revisited the very best fantasy seasons of the PFF era (since 2007) for each position. Other than a fun trip down memory lane, the premise was to dig into our signature data to help shed more light on what made these guys so exceptional.

On a macro level, combing through 11 years of PFF data for each position is a pretty good way to uncover some perhaps not-so-obvious trends and takeaways that can be of use in our draft prep for the upcoming season. So, what did we learn?

Quarterbacks

In recent seasons, the league has seen a shift in the pass-run balance as I’ve touched on throughout this series. To help illustrate that shift, four quarterbacks from the 2011 season alone made the top-10, but the past two league MVPs (Tom Brady 2017, Matt Ryan 2016) didn’t score enough fantasy points to qualify, nor did Aaron Rodgers’ 2014 MVP season. Russell Wilson didn’t make the list for his 2017 campaign (or any other season, for that matter) despite being fantasy’s overall QB1. In fact, Brady’s 4,577 passing yards this past season were the fewest to lead the league since 2006 (Drew Brees, 4,418).

Wide receivers

Notice anything about the yearly breakdown of the top-20 wide receivers of the PFF era?

2007 2 2013 2
2008 1 2014 4
2009 1 2015 5
2010 1 2016 0
2011 2 2017 0
2012 2

While the usual caveats about sample size and contributing factors apply, we don’t need to be statisticians to spot the trend here. Whereas the 2014 and 2015 seasons make up nearly half of the entire list, the subsequent two seasons were the only ones not represented. It’s a trend that shouldn’t be ignored in fantasy, and one we’ll delve into as we gear up for our coverage of the 2018 season.

Wait, isn’t the NFL a passing league? Well, yes. However, 2017 did mark the lowest league-wide passing average (224.4 YPG) since 2010. And on the flip side, of the best fantasy running back seasons, after zero entries in 2015, 20 percent of the top-20 RB list occurred in the past two seasons (David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell) in 2017.

Running backs

As we’ve touched on throughout this series, thanks to an influx of talent in recent seasons, the running back position is once again in vogue in league circles.

After the 2013 and 2014 NFL drafts saw zero RBs taken in the first round, there were five first-round RBs 2015-17. Naturally, a team doesn’t invest that kind of draft capital on a situational back, but rather, a back it expects to be a bell cow. And now here we are approaching the 2018 NFL Draft, and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley has generated buzz to perhaps be the first RB taken first overall since fellow Nittany Lion Ki-Jana Carter in 1995.

One can’t help but wonder if that would have still been the case had Barkley come out just a few years earlier during the passing-game apex. All of which is to say, top-shelf RBs are making something of a comeback, and it’s begun to shift the balance of power in terms of our fantasy player evaluation.

Over on Fantasy Football Calculator right now, all of the top five average draft positions and nine of the top 12 are RBs. Compare that to last year, when only three of the top five and six of the top 12 ADPs were RBs.

The average age of the top-20 fantasy RB seasons of the PFF era? 25 years old. Ezekiel Elliott is the youngest, at age 21 (2016), while Matt Forte is the elder statesman, at age 29 (2013).

Here are the averages of some key PFF metrics comprising the top-20 RBs:

AGE PPR AVG. PPO ELUSIVE RATING YAC
25 356 22 0.51 42.4 2.6

Here is the list of qualified RBs from this past season who hit each of those last three marks:

PLAYER PPO ELUSIVE RATING YAC
Todd Gurley 0.59 46.6 2.8
Alvin Kamara 0.76 108.5 3.8
Kareem Hunt 0.51 73.1 3.1
Duke Johnson 0.52 65.5 2.6
Dion Lewis 0.59 73.2 3.2
Alex Collins 0.53 55.7 3.0
Chris Thompson 0.54 50.7 2.6

Interestingly, we see a few names with current ADPs in the middle rounds. Of course, even with the rarity that was Alvin Kamara, the key word in assigning draft value here is opportunity. So, circle those names and keep tabs on how roles shake out as the dust settles from the draft and preseason position battles.

Tight ends

Just how rare is elite tight end production these days?

Three names occupy seven of the top-10 fantasy seasons of the PFF era, a list that doesn’t even include Travis Kelce. In fact, only one member of the top-10 is currently active and under 30 years old… and he was last seen climbing onto Shaquille O’Neal’s shoulders in Miami.

Oh, and for anyone still sold on the importance of pass blocking in fantasy, Kelce was 51st in pass-blocking efficiency in 2017. Also outside the top-20 were fellow TE1s Zach Ertz, Delanie Walker, Jack Doyle, Jason Witten, Cameron Brate, and Tyler Kroft.

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