Tuesday December 23rd, 2014

When my editors (hat tip to Bette, Ben, Eric and Amy, who do a great job behind the scenes) first asked me to write a year-end piece highlighting the 10 most important players to the story of the 2014 fantasy football season, I thought it would be pretty easy. But when I sat down at my desk, it soon became apparent that I was in for a more daunting task than expected.

SI's 10 favorite NFL moments of 2014

Sure, DeMarco Murray, Odell Beckham and Le’Veon Bell were easy inclusions. After that, the story of the 2014 fantasy football season spirals out of control, as have so many of its predecessors. Does the guy who had six touchdowns in back-to-back games get a mention? What about the quarterback who threw for 300-plus yards with almost unprecedented regularity? One particular tight end became a force of nature about halfway through the season. Surely he must be a part, right?

At the same time, I could go a completely different route on focus on the absurd. Like the Week 1 waiver wire darling who was back on the wire in most leagues one month later. Or the unmitigated running back bust who resurfaced with his best game of the year in championship week. And could a kicker be crucial to telling the story of the 2014 fantasy football season? Really? A kicker?

• NFL Playoff Picture following Week 16 | Fantasy studs of Week 16

So as you can see, it was a much greater intellectual challenge than I originally thought it would be. Luckily, I was able to whittle my list down to the 10 most important players from the past four months. You may have your own, but I think it’s safe to say that you can’t recount the tale of the 2014 fantasy football season without…

DeMarco Murray’s assault on the record books

Murray kicked off the season with a bang, running for 118 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. The calendar flipped to November before a team held him to fewer than 100 yards in a game. He’s not going to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, and he almost certainly isn’t going to make it to 2,000 rushing yards, but the fact that both were in play for so long tells you how dominant Murray was this season. He scored fewer than 10 points in standard-scoring leagues exactly once this year. Conversely, he had more than 20 points in six games. However, he finished the season as fantasy’s No. 2 running back, ceding the top spot to…

Le’Veon Bell, your No. 1 flex player in 2014

Ten things we learned in the 2014 fantasy football season

Like Murray, Bell hit the ground running in Week 1 and never looked back all season. He let the fantasy community know exactly what type of player he’d be, racking up 109 rushing yards, 88 receiving yards and one touchdown in that game. The touchdowns proved to be hard to come by over the first half of the season, but Bell continued to eclipse 100 total yards each game, a number he has been held south of just once this season. He matched Walter Payton’s record of three consecutive games with 200 yards from scrimmage, and made up for his early-season touchdown drought by hitting paydirt eight times in the final five weeks of the fantasy season.

Bell was second among running backs in rushing yards (1,341), receiving yards (774), total yards (2,115) and receptions (74), fifth in total touchdowns (11) and, thanks to zero fumbles on the year, first in fantasy points. His three-game run during the fantasy playoffs, in which he averaged 26.23 points per game, set him up for a playoff MVP award. Unfortunately, he came in second for that honor, as well. He, like so many others this season, could not keep up with…

Odell Beckham Jr., this season’s greatest wide receiver sensation

It’s fun to look back at average draft position with four months of perspective at your disposal. Beckham’s ADP made him the 66th receiver off the board in an average draft; sure, he missed the first four weeks with a hamstring injury, but most leagues don’t even draft 66 receivers. Steve Johnson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Kenny Britt were all deemed more valuable than Beckham back in the summer. That’s not a good look for the fantasy community.

Odell Beckham Jr. hauls in spectacular one-handed TD catch

When Beckham finally played his first game in Week 5, he became the most prolific receiver in football. In just 11 games, Beckham has 79 receptions for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ranks 14th among receivers in catches, 12th in yards and fourth in touchdowns, with the obvious handicap of having played three or four fewer games than everyone ahead of him on the leaderboard. Beckham averaged a ridiculous 16.32 points per game, which was tops among receivers. He saved his best for when it mattered most, hauling in 31 balls for 421 yards and six touchdowns in the fantasy playoffs. His worst playoff game -- yes, worst -- saw him put up 19.9 fantasy points.

As a result of his regular-season and playoff exploits, Beckham was on more championship teams than any other player in the league. That made him the playoff MVP, as well as the brightest light of the key element of the 2014 fantasy football season, which is…

A rookie wide receiver class like no other

Heading into this season, we had an inkling that this class of wide receivers could be special. After all, five receivers were selected in the first round of the draft, including three in the first 12 picks (Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Beckham). Seven more receivers heard their names called in the second round. Even before one pass was thrown this year, it was clear that this was a wildly talented group of receivers.

Eight in the Box: Ranking the best rookie wideouts in an all-time class

That group of receivers performed beyond even the most sanguine of expectations. Beckham was at the head of the class, but Evans and Kelvin Benjamin, whom the Panthers nabbed with the 28th pick in the draft, ranked 12th and 15th, respectively, at the position. Watkins checked in at No. 24, meaning that one-sixth of the WR1s and WR2s this year were rookies.

That says nothing of the achievements of Brandin Cooks (53 receptions, 550 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games), Martavis Bryant (25-528-7-9), Jordan Matthews (59-767-7-15), Jarvis Landry (79-703-5-15) and John Brown (44-645-5-15). Donte Moncrief and Allen Robinson each had their moments in the sun, too, though Moncrief didn’t get a lot of opportunity behind T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, while Robinson had his season cut short by injury.

Rookie wide receivers were among the most effective pass catchers, and most lucrative fantasy weapons, in 2014. However, they still have a way to go before they catch…

The stud wide receiver, this year’s safest return on investment

Through 16 weeks, the top five receivers are Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. They were all drafted as top-10 receivers and delivered from start to finish this season. Brown and Jones have already eclipsed 1,500 yards. Nelson and Thomas are likely to do so. Bryant won’t quite get there, but he leads the pack with 14 touchdowns. All five, including Thomas, who was a first rounder by the end of the draft season, gave their owners a massive return on their investment.

Out of the receivers taken in the first three rounds of a typical fantasy draft, only Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green provided a negative return. Johnson and Green fell victim to injuries. On a per-game basis, Green finished seventh while Johnson checked in at 13th, and that includes two games in which he was largely a decoy.

In other words, nine of the 10 receivers pegged in the top two tiers during draft season met or exceeded expectations, when healthy. They may always fall short of the sheer value of the elite running backs, but there’s no better place to invest your resources to guarantee a return than with a top-flight wide receiver.

Of course, receivers aren’t the only pass catchers who led their owners to fantasy titles this season. While Brown, Thomas and Nelson were the best receivers from wire to wire, they may have been surpassed in value by a tight end who was everywhere in 2014. In between preseason injury concerns and late-season hijinks…


Rob Gronkowski put the New England offense, and his fantasy owners, on his back

Gronkowski got off to a slow start this season, at least in terms of snaps played, as the Patriots eased him into the offense. Through the first four weeks of the year, he never played more than 62 percent of the team’s snaps in an individual game. However, he did catch 13 passes for 147 yards and three touchdowns in that span. It was clear that once his playing time picked up, his overall production would as well.

Given the way he prepares, Tom Brady won't be slowing down anytime soon

In Week 5, Gronkowski played 79 percent of New England’s snaps, grabbing six receptions for 100 yards and a score. From that time forward, he has been full Gronk, averaging 87.7 yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game. Gronkowski had a 149-yard, three-touchdown game against the Bears, kicking off a three-game stretch in which he had 22 grabs for 325 yards and five scores. He came through for his owners in the playoffs, as well notching 17 receptions, 214 yards and three trips to the end zone.

Along the way to being the best tight end in the league, Gronkowski tossed opposing defensive backs out of the club, took pictures with kittens and cracked himself up with sophomoric jokes. Basically, he was one of the most fun players to own in 2014, and his consistency from start to finish made him one of the players most frequently on championship teams. Having said that, his consistency paled in comparison to that of…

Andrew Luck, who vaulted from the middle rounds to the top of the quarterback position

His terrible game during championship week notwithstanding, Luck was one of the most valuable commodities in fantasy leagues all season. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that he was the single most valuable commodity in standard formats. According to Yahoo, Luck was on a ridiculous 61.2 percent of the top 500 teams in their public leagues. There’s plenty of squishiness in that statistic, but it does give you an idea of just how good Luck was this year, when you take into account overall production, draft-day price and consistency.

Before his flop in Week 16, Luck had finished outside the top-12 at the quarterback position just once all season. He was a top-three quarterback six times, and a top-10 quarterback 13 times. That sort of consistency is absolute gold in head-to-head leagues. It’s a whole lot easier to rack up 8-to-10 victories when you quarterback is a mortal lock to finish with one of the 10 best scores every single week.

Let’s illustrated that with an example. On the surface, it may not seem that Luck was that much more valuable than Ben Roethlisberger this year. Luck was the No. 1 quarterback, while Roethlisberger finished sixth at the position. Luck averaged about four points per game more than Roethlisberger. The real difference between the two, however, comes into focus when you look at their weekly stats. Roethlisberger finished outside the top-20 quarterbacks in five different weeks, while putting up a top-10 week just six times. Of course, he threw six touchdown passes in two of those weeks, and that’s why he ranked so high among quarterbacks. Luck’s measured consistency was the ultimate difference at the quarterback position this year.

While Luck was just as valuable in real life as he was in the fantasy game, one of his brethren showed just how divergent fantasy and reality can be. It should come as little surprise that one of the league’s most polarizing players brought the difference into stark relief...

Jay Cutler: Real-life mess, fantasy stalwart

The Bears were arguably the biggest disappointment of the 2014 season, and Cutler was right at the center of it all. The much-maligned quarterback was supposed to be leading one of the best offenses and a dark horse Super Bowl contender. Instead, the Bears sputtered to a last-place season highlighted by a tearful apology from the offensive coordinator to the team after he threw Cutler under the bus to a reporter. When it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, head coach Marc Trestman benched Cutler for Jimmy Clausen in Week 16.

Here’s the thing, though. None of that turmoil, or the real-life losses, matter all that much in fantasy. All that matters in the fantasy game are statistics, and Cutler accumulated those while he was under center. In 14 games this year, Cutler threw for 3,640 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also ran for 152 yards and a pair of scores. Even when you factor in the league-leading 24 turnovers, Cutler was the ninth-ranked quarterback in standard-scoring leagues before he was benched. To that point of the season, he had outscored Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill and Eli Manning.

Chicago’s front office may have buyer’s remorse with Cutler, but his fantasy owners likely do not. He may have been a frustrating player to own this season, but he was also profitable, especially when you factor in his draft-day cost. He was not, however, the return on investment MVP, non-Odell Beckham Division. Instead, you’ll have to shift your gaze to the east and to the running back position, where a forever castoff caught on with a new team and the fantasy community. After years of toiling in anonymity…

Justin Forsett takes the reins in Baltimore

With Ray Rice facing a two-game suspension at the start of the season, fantasy owners climbed over each other to draft Bernard Pierce, thinking he could wrest the job away from Rice permanently. It seems that these owners forgot just how bad he was last season. Pierce got the start in the first week of the season, but it was the scatback Forsett who ran for 70 yards and a score on 11 carries. The following week Forsett got just eight carries, but he turned that into 56 yards. It became clear he was carving out a role in the offense.

When Rice was cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the league, Forsett still wasn’t the preferred Baltimore running back for fantasy owners. Both Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro had equal or higher ownership rates, despite what Forsett did the first two weeks of the season. The seventh-year man out of California kept on plugging along, running for 63 yards on 11 carries in Week 3. He scored in each of the next two weeks while nearly putting up 100 total yards in both games. By time he ran for 111 yards against the Buccaneers Week 6, it was clear who was the man in the Baltimore backfield.

Forsett finished the fantasy season as the No. 8 running back, sandwiched in between Jamaal Charles (ADP: 2.4) and Alfred Morris (ADP: 24.4). Forsett didn’t even rank among the top-250 players in average draft position. His production waned in the fantasy playoffs, as he scored just 3.2 points in Week 16, but he was also instrumental in getting his owners to that point. Forsett provided his owners with RB1 value at a replacement-level price. That’s just about the most valuable currency there is in fantasy football. On the other hand…

The early-round running-back bust is alive and well

The following is a comprehensive list of players who had an ADP more than 200 spots higher than Forsett’s and scored fewer points than he did this year: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Giovani Bernard, Doug Martin, Zac Stacy, Reggie Bush, Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller and Toby Gerhart. Don’t let the Le’Veon Bells, DeMarco Murrays and Eddie Lacys fool you. There is still plenty of risk baked into using a first-, second- or third-round pick on a running back.

Heading into the season, a consensus formed around the top-five running backs for 2014. Most people also believed they were worthy of being the first five overall picks in a fantasy draft. Those backs were, in order of ADP, McCoy, Peterson, Charles, Matt Forte and Lacy. Only Charles, Forte and Lacy finished the season as RB1s, and even they ranked seventh, fourth and sixth, respectively, at the running back position.

Things got even uglier further down the totem pole. The busts listed in the opening paragraph all ranked between 18 (Bernard) and 40 (Gerhart) in overall ADP, and nine and 17 at running back. Every single one of them, other than Bernard, ranked 50th -- 50th! -- or worse at the position. Bernard finished the year as the No. 21 running back, behind Chris Ivory, Andre Ellington, Matt Asiata and teammate Jeremy Hill, just to name a few.

As a whole, the running back position had one of its best seasons in years, with Bell, Murray and Foster leading the way, and Marshawn Lynch, Forte, Lacy and Charles not too far behind. There were still plenty of landmines out there, however, and if you stepped on one, your season may have been over before it even started.

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