Sports are the ultimate test of the Butterfly Effect. One small thing changes just a little, and subsequent things could all be different forever.
My personal favorite: At the start of 2011, the Giants were rolling with Hakeem Nicks, Domenik Hixon, and Mario Manningham as their top three receivers. They lost their opener, then blew out the Rams in Week 2. Hixon scored a touchdown in that game, but tore his ACL on the play. That led to the Giants unleashing their next-man-up receiver … Victor Cruz. Cruz hadn’t been targeted at all prior to Hixon’s injury, but he went on the rest of the way to have 1,539 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns on the year, then 269 yards and a score on the Giants’ postseason championship run.
The Giants went 9-7 in 2011, barely winning the NFC East. Between that Week 2 game and two blowouts in Weeks 16 and 17, their margins of victory were: 13, 4, 3, 3, 4, 3. Hixon’s career-best PFF grade was 77.2, while Cruz put up an 82.7 that first year. Can I say for sure that a healthy Hixon would have held off Cruz and cost the Giants even one win over the year? No. But it’s close enough that it’s fun to imagine. The Giants lose one game they won, they likely don’t make the playoffs. The Patriots likely win the Super Bowl. Eli Manning becomes a quarterback who never made the playoffs between 2008 and 2016, who never won a playoff game outside of one magical run. There’s basically no way he’d still be the Giants starter. Tom Brady and the Patriots would have yet another Super Bowl championship to hang on their … okay, that part of the hypothetical was more fun when the Pats had gone almost a decade between titles instead of winning two of the last three.
Still, the Hixon-Cruz swap likely forever changed the fortunes of one franchise and one huge-profile player, and it remains my all-time favorite NFL what-if.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at some of key hypotheticals for the 2017 NFL season, and how they’d have affected fantasy. This is obviously little more than fan-fiction, but it’s an interesting exercise in how fragile our reality can be.
What if: Adrian Peterson breaks off just one long run in Weeks 1-2
Peterson never got much run in his limited Saints tenure. He topped out at 9 carries in a game, and never played more than 15 snaps. But what if just one of his carries in Weeks 1-2 (against Minnesota and New England) goes for 45 yards? What if he breaks through the line once and looks like vintage Peterson?
The supremely talented Alvin Kamara would have broken through eventually, almost certainly — the team was already enamored of him. But if Peterson had given the Saints reason to believe in him, the two-headed monster of Kamara and Mark Ingram would instead have been a three-headed beast. Instead of Kamara finishing as the No. 4 fantasy RB and Ingram No. 6, Peterson would have spent more of the year cutting into their workloads. Maybe Kamara and Ingram still both finish top-20, but a Peterson cannibalization would have cost them top-10 slots.
What if: Seattle never cuts Alex Collins
Collins was in competition with Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, and others for a role in the Seattle running game. He was the odd man out, leading to his release and subsequent catching on with the Ravens. It took Collins a while to break out, but he finished the year with 973 rushing yards (1,160 yards from scrimmage) and 6 touchdowns, finishing the year as the No. 16 fantasy RB. He had an overall PFF grade of 87.6, rushing grade of 89.7.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks’ leading rusher (non-Russell Wilson division) was Mike Davis, who ran for … 240 yards. Carson looked good before getting hurt, but otherwise, no Seattle back had a rushing grade higher than 65.3. It was clear early on that the Seahawks weren’t happy with any of their options. It took Collins a while to seize the job in Baltimore; he’d have seized it earlier in Seattle, and maybe finished inside the season-long top 10. Meanwhile, the Seahawks went 9-7, with six of their seven losses by one possession. Give them another win or two with Collins outshining Lacy & Co., and maybe the Seahawks’ run is continuing.
Meanwhile, the Ravens would have plodded through the year with the uninspiring grouping of Terrance West, Javorius Allen, and Danny Woodhead. On the plus side, Kenneth Dixon, who missed the year to injury, would have a pretty clear-cut line on the full-time gig in 2018, rather than the question mark of how he and Collins will fit together.
What if: The Jets try to see what they have with Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg from Week 1
Josh McCown was a big surprise in 2017, sitting as the No. 8 fantasy QB through Week 13 before injury cost him most of the rest of the way. He did this despite a Jets offense that got rid of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, helming a team most thought was going full tank in 2017. In fact, despite the definite success story McCown was in 2017, it didn’t make sense to go with him over at least exploring the possibilities of Petty and Hackenberg from the start of the year.
Of course, when Petty did relieve McCown late in the year, it didn’t go well — he threw for 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions across the majority of four games, totaling only 544 passing yards. Robby Anderson finished the year as the No. 15 fantasy receiver, giving the Jets a definite building block for the future. Jermaine Kearse, fresh over from Seattle, was No. 29. And Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a short run as a fantasy-relevant tight end before fading late in the year. Over the last four weeks, though, the threesome combined for 288 receiving yards and no scores. Bilal Powell had a fine go as a running back — a Petty-led Jets team for all of 2017 would have had to go heavy on the running game — but if the Jets had explored a Petty-and-Hackenberg season, we’d be looking at a team that needed all new receiving weapons across the board in 2018, and not one that has surprising potential if it can find a quarterback.
What if: Willie Snead never drives under the influence
This one hits home for me, as I wrote about Snead’s sleeper candidacy behind No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas over the offseason, only for him to finish the year with a total of 8 catches for 92 yards. He was handed a three-game suspension in the preseason after a DUI arrest, and the team held him out of Week 4 before a Week 5 bye. The upshot of all of this is that he played only about a quarter of one game until Week 8, having lost his role to the combination of Ted Ginn and Brandon Coleman. By the end of the year, it was mostly Ginn, with Coleman’s fumble issues costing him a job, and his 46.6 PFF grade showing it was earned.
Snead put up a PFF grade of 84.1 in 2016, finishing fourth in the league in yards out of the slot (707). With Brandin Cooks and his 1,203 yards from scrimmage leaving New Orleans, if Snead had held onto his role in the offense, it wouldn’t have taken any kind of reach of the mind to get him to a thousand yards, even if Ginn and Alvin Kamara had gotten their shares as well. A thousand-yard Snead, plus the requisite touchdowns that go along with that, would be a top-20 receiver.
What if: Aaron Rodgers doesn’t break his collarbone
This is the obvious one, of course, but it’d be incomplete to write this piece without it. Rodgers went down early in Week 6; through the first five weeks, Jordy Nelson was the No. 6 fantasy receiver despite only 230 receiving yards and despite missing essentially all of Week 2 to injury. That performance came because of his then-league-leading 6 receiving touchdowns. Exactly one spot behind him on the fantasy leaderboard was teammate Davante Adams, who had 285 yards but 4 touchdowns in his own right.
The two receivers saw their fortunes diverge from that point forward. From Week 6 to the end of the year, Nelson barely doubled his to-that-point receiving total (285 more yards) and didn’t find the end zone again. Adams, meanwhile, had 600 more yards and 6 more touchdowns, ending the year as the No. 12 fantasy receiver.
If, however, Rodgers had stayed healthy, and continued using his receivers in a similar fashion, you’d have to bump Nelson way back up. There’s no way he meets the pace he was on (863 yards, but a record-tying 23 touchdowns), but with Rodgers around, Nelson likely holds his spot as a top-10 or -20 fantasy receiver. It’s hard to give Adams much more credit than he earned with Brett Hundley, but if Rodgers stays healthy, he’s a top-five fantasy quarterback with two fantasy-starter wide receivers. In other words: Typical Aaron Rodgers.