News & Analysis

The out-of-nowhere fantasy performers of 2017

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 01: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans pumps up the crowd after a touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins #10 in the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on October 1, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Every year, the late rounds and waiver wires uncover the occasional diamond. 2017 was no exception as rookies and veterans alike significantly outperformed their initial value. That does mean the price tag has gone up for redraft owners looking to acquire them for the 2018 season.

It also raises two questions:

  • Can they keep up the pace?
  • Who will be their 2018 doppelganger?

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

How it happened: The most obvious success was that of Kamara. He went from being a double-digit-round draft pick (undrafted in some leagues!) to the third-highest-scoring running back in PPR formats. He led all runners in elusive rating and was fifth in breakaway percentage, showing his penchant for big plays. Kamara was also first in yards per route run, averaging almost half a yard more than second place (Rex Burkhead).

Can it happen again: These days, the most popular word in a fantasy analyst’s arsenal seems to be “regression.” That has been the presumption of many after a season where Kamara put up high rates of big plays and touchdowns. While it is likely he will not be quite as effective with teams having more data to look at on Kamara, he could lose 100 fantasy points and that would have still ranked him seventh at the position in 2017.

2018’s Kamara: Kalen Ballage. Similar to Kamara, he will be a rookie who is athletic and is a versatile weapon but never saw a full workload in college. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound back had a tough 2017 but accumulated 348 yards rushing and 469 yards receiving in 2016 despite playing under 50 percent of the team snaps. Plenty of teams could use a playmaker like Ballage and he could see time early in an up-tempo offense.

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

How it happened: An unlikely top-12 fantasy receiver (eighth), Thielen was largely picked after the 10th round if at all in redraft leagues last year. He was seventh in yards per route run (2.33) despite dealing with a backup quarterback and a running game that mostly relied on a career backup (Jerick McKinnon) and another team’s castoff (Latavius Murray). Thielen also finished eighth in deep-ball catch rate (46 percent) and tied for 17th with eight forced missed tackles, showing his ability to accumulate yardage.

Can it happen again: The offseason will shake out the quarterback situation, which should give some clarity to Thielen’s future. Add in a healthy Dalvin Cook and the offense should remain a strong fantasy landscape. Since Thielen did not rely on touchdowns (four) to score his points, there is less reason to worry that he suddenly sees a dropoff in performance.

2018’s Thielen: Brice Butler. The Cowboys receiver would have ranked 10th in yards per route run if he was given more opportunity (just 22 targets on 148 routes, 2.14 yards per route run). Much like Thielen, he could see a surge in value during draft season if he can beat out Terrance Williams for a starting role prior to the season. The 6-3, 220-pound option is a favorite of deep dynasty owners, but he may gain redraft fans in 2018.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans

How it happened: Granted, it didn’t last a full season, but Watson led all quarterbacks in fantasy points per dropback (0.73) and had the highest average depth of target (11.7 yards) in the NFL. The latter was due to a league-high 19.6 percent of his targets going for 20-plus yards and he completed 48 percent of them, third among all quarterbacks. Four straight games of three plus touchdown passes before his injury helped, too.

Can it happen again: The big question is health — not just Watson’s, but DeAndre Hopkins, his top receiver, has suffered five concussions already in his football career. While Hopkins has proven he can thrive with just about any quarterback, the same can’t be said for Watson (yet) and his group of receivers. Hopkins averaged 2.39 yards per route run last year (tied for fourth in the NFL) with the rest of the wide receiver group collectively averaging just 0.98 yards per route run. That number is the equivalent to throwing to Bennie Fowler last year.

2018’s Watson: It’s hard to say before the NFL draft who could be the rookie to start early and be successful. The best bet to succeed early appears to be Baker Mayfield. Much like Watson, he has physical question marks (height, arm strength) but proved to be a highly effective and accurate quarterback in college. Mayfield had the highest PFF quarterback rating (117.3), the highest adjusted completion percentage (82.0 percent), and the highest deep-target accuracy rate (64.2 percent) in college football last year. He only finished fifth in accuracy under pressure (70.5 percent) so hopefully he goes to a team with a good offensive line.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

How it happened: Another quarterback who didn’t finish the season, Wentz went from late-round quarterback darling to second in fantasy points per dropback (0.57) and passing touchdowns (33). His deep-ball success helped as he finished fifth in accuracy rate (44.6 percent) and second in deep-target touchdowns (10). Turnovers were also a big improvement with just seven interceptions including only one when under pressure, showing evolved decision-making ability.

Can it happen again: The Eagles retain Alshon Jeffery — their big acquisition from last offseason — and improvements from Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz give Wentz a nice set of weapons to have a full offseason with. The most ridiculous question is the ascension of Nick Foles this postseason. Even if he does win the Super Bowl, no one should expect any quarterback controversy. This is Wentz’s team and while the touchdowns could see a slight decline, he does have upside in yardage and efficiency within the offense.

2018’s Wentz – There are two options here: Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes. Of the two, Trubisky’s situation seems more similar. He is clearly the starter going into 2018 and the Bears need upgrades at wide receiver. While injury recovery will bring back both Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, most pundits see the team adding a free agent from the deep wide receiver pool or looking early in the NFL draft. With a running game and established offensive line, Trubisky could see a second-year leap as the pressure remains low.

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