Every year the fantasy season takes what we think we know and stomps all over it.
Last year, the recent history of wide receiver moves would tell us that DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs wouldn’t erupt in new locales, and much smarter fantasy writers than me were down on those players’ ADP prospects.
Those two receivers destroyed everyone who faded them.
That was hardly the only thing that blew up in our faces last year. Let’s learn from some of those moments, and work on refining our process. We can’t always predict everything, but we can listen to the moments that hit us in the face and try to learn from them.
1. You can never rest on your laurels at running back
The 2019 season was easy. Of the consensus top four fantasy football running backs, each of them started at least 13 games and finished in the top 10 in standard scoring. The 2020 season? Not so much. Of the nine fantasy football backs that were drafted highest on average, only Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook delivered massive value. Mostly, this was because of injuries. Nick Chubb played in 12 games, Christian McCaffrey played in three, Joe Mixon in six and Saquon Barkley in two. Ezekiel Elliott played in 15 but lost Dak Prescott and the majority of his vaunted offensive line.
Related: Running Back Tiers for 2021
The returns you get on your running back are always going to be most impacted by injury. While I’m not saying that you have to handcuff every running back, and I’m not saying you have to spend four of your first seven picks there or anything like that, you do have to be conscious that the injury rate is simply higher for the position than it is for receivers or quarterbacks. Running backs take the brunt of tackles and dangerous hits in a way that the other positions on the field simply don’t anymore.
So the plan, then, isn’t to devote even more of the high picks to running backs, but to make sure you have a diverse plan of attack at the position. Unless you’re in a league that has an extremely short bench, or you have other mitigating factors, running back should probably make up the majority of your backup spots. And the churn at those positions should naturally be high when injury turnover hits. Very few running backs are guaranteed to be top producers when healthy, and you pay a premium for those. For anyone else, it’s about opportunity, and the loyalty has to be low on your end. You can’t keep plugging in a Devin Singletary when he isn’t giving you value.
2. Buy on rookie running backs after Week 8
Odds are you probably had at least one rookie running back on your roster. The biggest fusses were made over Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who got a big boost after Damien Williams opted out, and Jonathan Taylor, whose anticipated slow transition was accelerated because of Marlon Mack’s torn ACL.
However, neither player got off to a hot start. Edwards-Helaire was 19th among running backs in standard scoring in Weeks 1-8, and the only rookie who was in the top 10 was James Robinson.
From Weeks 9-16, though, a slew of rookie running backs got in on the act. Taylor finished sixth among running backs over that timeframe with 105.4 standard points. Robinson was eighth. Antonio Gibson was 10th. J.K. Dobbins was 15th. Cam Akers was 20th. Even D’Andre Swift, who I think it’s fair to say had a disappointing fantasy football campaign, was 22nd. Edwards-Helaire ran poorly enough at times to get himself stuck in a competition, dealt with injuries and finished 34th.
Obviously, our first takeaway is recognizing that you need a lot of depth at running back in a standard league. But if you happened to stack, say, James Conner with Taylor, or Kenyan Drake with Gibson, you were able to generate pretty close to RB1 production without actually getting a No. 1 back.
Familiarity with players will breed opportunity. The coaching staff will grow more comfortable with a player the more they see of him, and the player will grow more comfortable with his teammates and blocking as the season goes on. This is not only a helpful hint to recognize in a general roster sense, but it can also help you out a lot as you’re exploring the trade market.
Your local Taylor owner? They may have been quite disappointed by the time Week 8 rolled around. That emotion might have bled into taking a reasonable offer for Taylor. Think about this when the calendar rolls over to Week 8 this year and, for a hypothetical example, the disappointed Travis Etienne owner is wondering why Etienne can’t get more snaps over Robinson. The odds will be in your favor that Etienne’s role will grow.
Related: 6 Tips to Build a Dynasty Team
3. Josh Allen's explosion wasn't predictable, but it was a reminder that we can't necessarily rule things out
Out of 43 quarterbacks with 17 or more starts in their first two years from 2004-19, Josh Allen came into the 2020 season with an average of 5.16 adjusted net yards per attempt, which ranked 29th. The only outliers that low who turned into solid starting quarterbacks were Eli Manning, Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill. Even those three players, I would say, were left in the dust by Allen’s sensational 2020 season as far as peak value.
Related: QB Tiers for 2021
What Allen did was phenomenal. It was a culmination of both his own natural progression, his offensive coordinator’s progression as a play-caller and Buffalo’s acquisition of Stefon Diggs moving everybody else on the depth chart into roles that better maximized their talent.
I don’t think that necessarily means the drafting process needs to change. When you looked at the raw factors that created Allen, you couldn’t have predicted his breakout. If we’d had a preseason of him working on some of the new offense’s sets, maybe that would have been a tip-off for later drafters. But on the pure face of it, he was more likely to wind up with a career like the guys immediately around him: Sam Darnold, Jacoby Brissett, Mike Glennon, Blake Bortles and so on.
Outliers are fun. It was fun to watch Allen make the statheads look silly. That doesn’t necessarily mean the data was wrong. It does mean that data is just data, and that the right combination of circumstances can destroy it.
4. Tight end was never a one-player position
In standard scoring leagues, Travis Kelce led tight ends in scoring by almost 40 full points. Third-place Robert Tonyan finished closer to 35th-place Zach Ertz than he did to Kelce. George Kittle wasn’t healthy, but even if he had been healthy, on his seasonal pace, he wouldn’t have come close to Kelce.
Related: Tight End Tiers for 2021
Every year, the fantasy football media comes up with some players who could challenge Kelce’s status, but he’s finished as the No. 1 tight end in all but one season since 2016. (Rob Gronkowski was No. 1 in 2017 by about eight points.) There can be thinkpieces all day about T.J. Hockenson’s impact or Mike Gesicki’s promise, but being a “No. 1 tight end” because they finished in the top 10 of tight ends doesn’t mean much if they’re not even in Kelce’s orbit.
The overwhelming historical odds of rookies producing poorly at his position say that Kyle Pitts will not be an instant NFL success. Other than Pitts, nobody looks even close to pushing enough upside to threaten Kelce’s status as the clear-cut No. 1 tight end. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and it doesn’t mean Kelce won’t get hurt or get old. But it does mean that until one of those things happens, you’re going to be justified in drafting Kelce very highly. Even in the first round.