With the NFL regular season finished, and all fantasy leagues officially done, we can look back at the season and see where the value was, as well as where the mirages were. The fantasy draft is where it all starts, and the waiver wire is where it all ends. While some teams employ the strategy of set it and forget it, the ones who win are the ones who stay active until the bitter end.
The season was full of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, and twists and turns. The journey of any fantasy owner is to navigate the road with the cunning of a fox, and the stealth of a Great White Shark. See value where others see junk, and do it quietly so nobody knows what your plan is. THAT, my friends, is how you win fantasy leagues like a boss!
Let's take a look at some of the winners and losers from this past season from QB to defense, and everywhere in between.
Carson Palmer – Cardinals: Before the season started Carson Palmer was viewed as an often-injured QB whose time remaining in the NFL was limited. And from a fantasy standpoint, he was firmly planted in the QB2 rankings.
He had played just six games in 2014, totaling 1,626 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Even if you were to look at 2013, he managed to throw for 4,274 yards, but had 24 TDs and 22 INTs. His numbers were suggesting his time as a difference-making QB were over.
But 2015 was the year of Palmer, as the Cardinals QB set career highs in passing yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35), and posted the 3rd-highest completion percentage (63.6) of his 12-year NFL career. He led the Cardinals to a division title in reality, and finished as the #3 ranked QB in fantasy football in doing so.
At 36-years-old, Palmer surprised us all with his elite level of play this year.
Blake Bortles – Jaguars: Nobody, except me that is, gave Bortles a chance before the season to be anything more than a bottom-feeding QB both in fantasy as well as reality. Those big-box websites and "professional" analysts pointed to his rookie numbers, when he finished with 2,908 yards, 11 TDs and 17 INTs. They all said he was a bust, and little more than Blaine Gabbert 2.0.
If you remember in the preseason, I said of Bortles: "Given his receiving corps (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marquis Lee, and Julius Thomas at TE), and RBs T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson, I think Bortles has more sneaky upside than people around the nation are willing to admit."
Bortles shocked the world by posting 4,428 passing yards, 310 rushing yards, 35 passing TDs, 2 rushing TDs, and just 18 INTs over 16 games. By the middle of the season, even those bandwagon big-box websites were saying what I had been saying for a month and half – GO GET BLAKE BORTLES!
He was the #6-ranked QB in fantasy football, and his owners were able to snag him off their waiver wire for free. Now that's a great return on investment!
Devonta Freeman – Falcons: Freeman was having by far the best season of any RB, until Week 11 hit and he suffered a concussion. Prior to Week 11, Freeman averaged 76.4 rushing yards, 42.0 receiving yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game. After that, he did manage to rush for 59.4 yards per game, but the receiving yards dropped to 31.6 yards per game and he scored just 3 TDs in that 5-game span.
Freeman was projected around the middle of the pack for RBs entering the season, but was the #1 overall player in fantasy football for much of the first half of the season. His numbers fell off after their Week 10 bye, as he managed to hit 100 total yards just twice, and even then he had just 103 and 101 total yards in Weeks 13 & 15, respectively.
Freeman took a huge leap forward in his sophomore season, and will enter next season firmly in the RB1 rankings if healthy. The Falcons have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but the rest of their pass catching roster needs real attention. Their No. 2 and No. 3 WRs are inadequate, and while TE is solid, they need more consistency from Jacob Tamme. Freeman will have lofty expectations next season, so be ready to get him early if you want him.
DeAngelo Williams – Steelers: When fantasy drafts where taking place, Williams was nothing more than a short-term starter with Le'Veon Bell suspended for the first two games of the season. Williams put up 127 rushing yards in Week 1, and 92 total yards and 3 TDs in Week 2. Bell was back in Week 3, making Williams bench fodder until Week 8 when Bell tore up his right knee (MCL and PCL).
In the eight games from Weeks 8 – 16, Williams turned back the clock and averaged 124.9 total yards and scored 8 TDs in the process. All three of his previous touchdowns came in Week 2 against the 49ers.
Williams proved he has something left in the tank after 10 seasons, but a backup role in 2016 is more likely than not, with Bell expected back at 100 percent health. Maybe the Steelers will find a way to get him touches, but Bell is going to be a free agent in 2017 and won't split snaps with Williams in a contract year. His 2016 value is completely up in the air right now.
Blake Bortles & Blake Bortles – Jaguars: Ok, it's not like Allen Robinson came out of nowhere and shocked the world with his play this season. Robinson was already a top-75 fantasy player, but closer to 75 than 1. Hurns, on the other hand, was not even drafted in standard leagues, and sat on the waiver wire in lot of deep leagues.
In their second seasons in the NFL, Robinson posted a monster 80/1,400/14 line, with Hurns adding 64/1,031/10 of his own. Robinson tied for the league lead in TD receptions, and Hurns made the duo the most productive WR tandem in the NFL with 1,531 receiving yards and 24 TDs this season combined.
Robinson is going to go early in drafts next year, with Hurns following a round or two later. The Jaguars have one of the hottest up-and-coming offenses in the NFL, so make sure you don't listen to those talking heads when deciding on taking them in your 2016 fantasy draft!
Doug Baldwin – Seahawks: Over his first four seasons in the NFL, Baldwin was reliable with an average of 49 receptions and 689.3 yards. But the 15 TDs he totaled throughout those four years suggested he was more of a No. 2 WR than a true No. 1.
Poor offensive line play, coupled with injuries to Lynch and Thomas Rawls, forced QB Russell Wilson to reinvent the Seahawks offense. When that happened, Baldwin stepped up his game and showed he has the stuff it takes to be a true No. 1 WR in the NFL. He finished the regular season with 78 receptions, 1,069 yards, and tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns.
Baldwin's production didn't kick in until Week 10, which makes you really wonder what the Seahawks will do next season if Lynch and Rawls are once again healthy. Will they embrace the new passing game that Wilson has found with no running game present, or will they try and rebuild that O-Line and play ground-and-pound football once again? I'm guessing the latter of the two, personally.
Baldwin's fantasy value has risen, but I also see him being taken too early in fantasy drafts as a result of it next season.
Gary Barnidge – Browns: Barnidge was clearly the lone bright spot in a dark and dismal 2015 season for the Browns. The 7-year NFL veteran surpassed his previous 6-year totals this season, despite playing 16 games for the fourth time in six years.
Barnidge finished with 79 receptions, 1,043 yards and 9 TDs in 2015, with a career total of just 44 receptions, 603 yards and 3 TDs from 2008-14. The statistical jump at the age of 30 is improbable, but he took full advantage of problems at both RB and WR, and emerged as the Browns' top pass-catching option.
You really do have to wonder if Barnidge is the real deal, or the product of a lack of other options on offense. With the Browns looking to rebuild their team from the ground up on offense, his value will depend on the talent the Browns put on the field in 2016. I wouldn't ignore him in fantasy drafts, but I also wouldn't be so quick to anoint him a top-5 fantasy TE either. He is a risk/reward kind of draft pick.
Denver Broncos defense: Up until about Week 13 the Broncos were the best defense not just in the NFL, but in fantasy football. Through the first 13 weeks of the season, they had racked up 41 sacks and 11 INTs, recovered 12 fumbles, and scored 5 defensive touchdowns. From Weeks 14-17 that production tailored off a bit with them keeping pace with 11 sacks, but managing just 3 INTs, 1 fumble recovery and no TDs.
Hall of Fame QB John Elway built one of the league's best defenses as the GM of the Broncos, with studs like Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and T.J Ward on the depth chart. The Broncos defense was the 12th one taken on average in fantasy leagues, and you can be sure that won't happen again next year. Owners will have to decide between the Seahawks and the Broncos when taking the first defense off the board in 2016.
Peyton Manning – Broncos: It seems like I can remember watching Peyton Manning highlights on my old 6" black and white TV in between Vietnam war special alerts. Well, maybe he hasn't been in the NFL that long, but it sure seems like it.
Manning is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Fame player, but everyone eventually succumbs to Father Time. This year marked many career lows for Manning as he finished with just 2,249 yards, 9 TDs, 17 INTs and a 59.8 completion percentage. It's hard to watch an icon of the game look lost on the field as Manning did this year.
Manning was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler, forcing fantasy owners to do the unthinkable… cut Peyton Manning. This is without a doubt Manning's last year in the NFL, and it was a disappointing way to see him go. Fare well Peyton; see you in Canton, OH!
Tony Romo – Cowboys: The list of things that went right for Romo and the Cowboys this season is far shorter than what went wrong, so let's just sum it up by saying it is one they can't forget quick enough.
Romo played a total of four games, amassing 884 yards, 5 TDs and 7 INTs. If you look at it from a fantast standpoint, of the four games, only two were worth it as he put up 583 yards and 5 TDs in Weeks 1 & 11. In Weeks 2 and 12 he managed just 301 yards, 0 TDs, and 3 INTs total. It was a disaster of unfathomable proportions for Dallas on every level this season.
Romo's season was ravaged due to injury, and he should be fully healed and ready to hit training camp for the 2016 season. While he has Dez Bryant, the Cowboys need to upgrade at their No. 2 WR spot, and find themselves a bell cow running back instead of the committee approach they tried this season. With that said, Romo is a borderline QB1/QB2 because of his unpredictable play. Draft him accordingly next season.
Marshawn Lynch – Seahawks: If the Seahawks win another Super Bowl, Lynch better make some amazing plays in the playoffs or his ring should be donated to charity! Yes, the Seahawks offensive line is… well… offensive. But, Lynch didn't help matters with his legs either.
Through seven games this season, Lynch averaged 59.6 YPG on the ground, 11.4 YPG from the air, and scored 3 TDs for the Seahawks. To be fair, the rushing totals would be lower had he not faced the 49ers' inept run defense in Week 7, when he racked up 122 yards on 27 carries. It was his only 100-yard game of the season.
Lynch is owed $9 million in 2016, but the Seahawks have nothing to put in the backfield even close to his talent level. He showed the 1,181 carries he totaled from 2011-14 clearly took a toll on his body this season. I wouldn't put it past him to hit 2016 with an eye on redemption, but I am not going to be taking him in the first round of any of my drafts, either.
Le'Veon Bell – Steelers: As I mentioned earlier, Bell missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension, so his draft value dipped slightly because of it. Once he got back on the field in Week 3, he reminded people why he was possibly the most valuable fantasy RB in the NFL with his dual-threat game.
Over his 6-game stint this season, Bell averaged 92.7 yards on the ground and 22.7 yards from the air, adding 24 receptions to those in PPR formats, and scored 3 TDs in the process. But that is as far as it would go for Bell, who went down for the season with a right knee injury in Week 8.
In the end, Bell saw just 137 touches this season throughout six games. Injury may have cut his season short, but it was a bust regardless of the cause. He will hit next season ready for training camp, and without a suspension to start the season. With it being a contract year, you can be sure Bell has plenty of incentive to produce 2014-type numbers again.
Dez Bryant – Cowboys: Bryant's season was wasted with a broken foot taking him out in Week 1, then inept QB play when he returned in Week 8. The problem with a WR in fantasy football is they are 100 percent dependent on their QB for production. Without a quality QB, even the best WR will do you more harm than good.
Bryant was able to post one good fantasy game in Week 9, when he torched the Eagles secondary for a 5/104/1 line. After that, his high for receptions was 5, 62 for yards, and he scored just two more times. Not the type of production you expect from a guy that was taken with the 8th pick overall on average.
The Cowboys have an owner who may be meddlesome, but is also as focused on winning as Mark Cuban is in the NBA. Romo may have a season or two in him, but people need to remember that he has thrown for 4,000-plus yards just four times in 12 seasons. Bryant is an elite WR, but without a quality QB, and a good running game, teams will double-team him and compromise his fantasy value. He's a WR1 for sure, so be prepared to burn a 1st-round pick if you want him.
Davante Adams – Packers: Adams was slated to be the Packers No. 2 WR behind Jordy Nelson, making him a sleeper pick at WR with defenses not focused on him. Then Nelson went down before the season kicked off, and Adams was thrust into a lead role in the passing game.
Adams didn't flourish in that role, managing 50 receptions, 483 yards and 1 TD through 13 games this season. Adams is clearly maxed out as a No. 2 WR for now, and my guess is Aaron Rodgers knows he can't lean on him too heavily in the playoffs.
With a preseason ranking in the top 50 for all fantasy players, Adams finished ranked in the 75 range for WRs, and somewhere in the 250 range overall. The Packers are still playing in the playoffs, but I wouldn't be quick to use Adams in DFS leagues unless he comes dirt cheap. He has been the definition of inconsistency, and you really have to wonder what his role will be next season if Nelson comes back healthy. Be aware and beware in 2016.
Jimmy Graham – Seahawks: When the Seahawks traded for Graham, the reviews were mixed with the Seahawks favored to win the Super Bowl, and yet others saying his value would take a dip in fantasy leagues. But it became evident early on that Russell Wilson didn't know what to do with his new toy, and the Seahawks weren't forcing him to play with him either.
Graham finished the season on the injured reserve with a knee injury, managing just 48 receptions, 605 yards, and 2 TDs in the 2015 season. His best game of the season came in Week 6 against the Panthers, where he hauled in 8 passes for 140 yards.
We all know that tight end is an all-or-nothing position most of the time in fantasy football, but just last year Graham was battling Rob Gronkowski for the #1 ranking for fantasy TEs while in New Orleans. Graham gave us nothing more often than not, averaging 4.4 receptions, 55.0 yards and 0.18 TDs per-game this year. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Graham trade was a "great long-term decision," but they will have to really tweak their playbook to make him right.
Buffalo Bills defense: After the Bills finished the 2014 season as the #2-ranked fantasy defense, owners were determined to get the jump on other owners this year by taking them in the 8th round on average. What happened was they dropped from the #2 defense to the #21 defense in just one season, and managed 17 INTs, 8 recovered fumbles, 3 defensive touchdowns and the 2nd-fewest sacks in the NFL at 21.0.
There were rumblings late in the season that Bills players were frustrated with Mario Williams, saying Williams has been giving "zero effort" this season. With the Bills defense down across the board, there are likely to be many more fingers pointed before we hit the 2016 season. The departure of Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz obviously hurt more than the Bills expected. Next year the Bills will be more of a streamer defense than a starting one unless they make some significant moves in the offseason.
There you have it fantasy football fans, the winners and losers from the 2015-16 fantasy season. If you won your league, congratulations and be ready to defend your title next season. If you came in 2nd place, remember what I always say: 2nd place is just the first loser!