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Lessons Learned: 4 Takeaways from the 2021 Fantasy Football Season

James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

Fantasy managers who focused more on James Conner's opportunity in Arizona rather than his injury history were rewarded with a top-five RB in 2021.

No matter how well your fantasy football teams did last season, there's always some nugget or kernel of truth you can glean from the experience. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result.

Maybe your late-round sleeper worked out or maybe someone snatched the player you wanted off waivers just before you. But in the spirit of being prepared for the upcoming season, Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) has four big takeaways for you to keep in mind heading into the season.

1. Cooper Kupp showed us the power of the quarterback upgrade

The Rams received a lot of plaudits for dealing for Matthew Stafford, but nobody could have predicted it would turn out as well as it did for Cooper Kupp. Kupp had often been a lower-tier read in the Rams' offensive structure despite his extremely obvious talent. Trading for Stafford — and, to be fair, Kupp's ability to superglue himself to Stafford to the extent that the two had a “breakfast club” — elevated Kupp in a way that was unthinkable. Everyone knew Kupp was good — he was drafted right around the same spot that Robert Woods was in most drafts — but instead he just dominated target share in a way he never had before Stafford. A guy with 974 yards in 2020 more than doubled that in 2021 en route to the receiving triple crown: 145 catches, 1,947 yards, 16 touchdowns. An easy WR1 that wasn't so easy to call in retrospect.

Who gets that boost this year? Well, let's think about the Broncos with newly acquired Russell Wilson. Fantasy analysts have elevated the ADPs of Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton well beyond where they would be with last year's quarterback situation. But that's the easy part. Is one of them going to become the go-to-guy for Wilson? That depends on how the offense shakes out. How about in Indianapolis, where it could be argued that Michael Pittman Jr. made the leap last year? Can Matt Ryan take him to the next level? Is Deshaun Watson going to play enough to elevate Amari Cooper? Hitting on one of these quarterbacks to elevate someone in a real way gives you league-winning upside. This is no guarantee that picking one of these receivers means you'll win your league — but it's something Kupp brought to the forefront of our minds last season.

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2. James Conner taught us not to dismiss injury-concern players on weak depth charts

While fading running backs went wrong in a real way last season, there were still some major successes in the middle rounds of your draft. One of them was James Conner, a good back who had just turned up in Arizona after several years of injuries in Pittsburgh. Chase Edmonds was by far the preferred back of the two, and as a result, Edmonds was usually around RB40 on most draft sheets. Conner's return on that, despite missing a few games, was an RB5 overall finish last season. He had burned fantasy players after a bright 2018 season a few years in a row with injuries behind a bad offensive line, and so, well, Conner was downgraded.

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Who do we look at this year in that vein? I hate to say it, but I think my fantasy brethren are sleeping a bit on Ezekiel Elliott and Cam Akers. I understand that Elliott's play has been rough over the past two seasons. I just think there are easy-to-understand reasons why, starting with him trying to play through a torn PCL for most of the 2021 season. I'm not quite as concerned by the yards per touch as some are — this is a guy whom the Cowboys are committed to and who has a track record of generating volume. Isn't volume supposed to be king? Akers is the lone back of any draft capital the Rams have, and the Rams spoke to how they felt about him when he immediately played off a torn Achilles in the playoffs. He did not play well in those games, and nobody is denying that. But he clearly out-carried Sony Michel, who is now gone, and Darrell Henderson Jr., who was essentially a non-factor.

Elliott and Akers are guys who are getting knocked for injuries and poor play, and I'm not trying to say that they ran well last year. I think it speaks more of how highly the coaches think of them that they continued to get the rock anyway, even while hurt or essentially rehabbing in-game. I also think running back production rarely is the product of the back rather than of the offense as a whole (outside of things like fumbles, anyway). Let people laugh when you take them. They both still have a strong claim on their respective backfields, and people overrate the idea of scatback-type players like Tony Pollard being given full workloads.

3. Rashaad Penny and the value of the backup running back in a season that only seems to get longer every year

Quick, name me the eight best running backs in standard scoring leagues from Weeks 13-15. I gave you Rashaad Penny for free. I’m willing to bet you came up with Jonathan Taylor, as well as maybe James Conner based on the answer above. You were right. Did you come up with Sony Michel? How about Javonte Williams, who led the NFL in fantasy points per game over that stretch despite spending most of the season as a backup to Melvin Gordon III? And if I dig further down into the top 30 — we're talking about weeks here that were make-or-break for many teams — I come up with names like D'Onta Foreman, Duke Johnson and Jeff Wilson.

Not every running back in the NFL is set up in a position to succeed instantly when someone gets hurt. Wilson was a rarity last year in that the Shanahan clan tends to give backups free rein. But with the season continuing to grow, I think we'll naturally see more of a trend towards players being given a week off here or there to get through things they might have played through otherwise. Good wideouts can't be replaced so easily — when Calvin Ridley stepped away, that didn't make Olamide Zaccheaus a star — but running back production is easier to create. That's no slam on the world's best backs; they simply have less to do with whether the play works or not than a quarterback or a wideout, and there is also a surplus of backs now who can play well enough to get solid results on a good team.

What's the practical implication? You need to spend more bench spots on running backs. If the choice is rostering a WR5 or 6 who doesn't cover a bye week and an RB spot that could suddenly catch a few weeks of fire with an injury in front of him, well, there aren't many wideouts you can say the same about. That also means that these spots should be turned over often if better opportunities present themselves. I'm not saying Penny didn't play well down the stretch or that he's not good — but anybody could have called him having a big game against the Texans. The exact shape of how it played out said a lot about his talents. Justin Jackson did the same thing against the Texans in Week 15, and he's not even employed as we go to press. Be opportunistic with running back bench spots and keep churning them if you see something flash in front of your eyes.

4. Ja'Marr Chase laughed away the catchy preseason narrative

Let's end this with one of the funniest preseason narratives in a long time, courtesy of 2021: Ja'Marr Chase couldn't catch the ball. He dropped three balls in a preseason game against Washington, and his stock tumbled coming into the season. It was flatly obvious that this shouldn't have been a long-term concern — drops aren't random, but at the NFL level they happen at rather random times — but fantasy managers panicked and dropped him almost a full round.

If a story pops up about a player clearly losing playing time in training camp, I think it's fair to worry about him. If Ja'Marr Chase couldn't catch a football, do you really think he would have been the No. 4 overall pick in the draft? I know that's an appeal to authority with a bad team, but that story is a little too far-fetched to believe. It stuck to him anyway because it was a) a funny subject that b) laypeople don't understand much about and c) was easily meme-able in a culture that grows memes by the bushel now. You don't win fantasy football games with memes — you meme after you win fantasy football games. It was always silly that Chase fell down boards. If you read something similar about Jahan Dotson or someone in that vein in training camp this year, don't take the bait.

— Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) for Athlon Sports' 2022 Fantasy Football magazine.