Wednesday December 31st, 2014

We made a lot of predictions about the 2014 football season, some as long ago as the Fourth of July. Jeff Samardzija began that day as a member of the Chicago Cubs. He’s now on the White Sox, following a three-month stop in Oakland. LeBron James still hadn't made his ballyhooed return to Cleveland. The 49ers were a few weeks shy of beginning training camp as one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

In other words, it has been a long time since we first started looking into our crystal ball for the 2014 fantasy football season. We’ll forgive you if you have forgotten most, if not all, of what we predicted back in the summer. But we love transparency here at SI.com -- you could even say we’re fanatic about it. In that vein, let’s look back at the best and worst of our calls for the season in this 2014 fantasy football audit.

• SI's 10 favorite NFL moments of 2014

I’ll examine our prognostications on rankings, sleepers, busts, breakouts and bold predictions, with the good and bad from both. Hopefully you listened to more of the former.

Rankings

The Good

One of the hottest debates this summer was whether 2013’s rushing leader, the Eagles' LeSean McCoy, or its touchdown leader, the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, should be the No. 1 overall pick. We came down on the unpopular side, giving the nod to Charles. Neither ended up as the top player, but Charles at least gave his owners consistent RB1 production all season long. McCoy, on the other hand, was one of the biggest busts of the season.

Fantasy
Choosing fantasy football's most valuable player of the 2014 season

Le’Veon Bell ended the season as the No. 2 running back and carried many owners to championships. His average draft position placed him in the low 20s overall. If you listened to us, you might have reached for him even higher. We had him as a top-10 overall player and the No. 7 back entering the season, ahead of supreme bust Montee Ball.

Speaking of Ball, David Gonos labeled him a reach in our running back primer. Even if you liked Ball, having that caution was likely enough to help you avoid one of the biggest letdowns of the 2014 season. Ball scored a total of 27.4 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues this season. By contrast, Bell had 25.7 points in Week 1.

We had Jeremy Maclin as a steal in our wide receiver primer after he carried an average draft position of 76.6 and WR26 late into the draft season. Maclin stayed healthy all season and took over as the top receiver in Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense. Whether it was Nick Foles or Mark Sanchez under center, Maclin was wildly productive for his owners. He finished the year as the No. 9 receiver, ahead of Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, all of whom were taken within the first three rounds of a typical draft.

The Bad

Brandon Marshall was our No. 11 overall player and a top-three receiver. The Bears’ team-wide struggles sunk him this year, as he had just 721 yards and eight touchdowns for the season. He finished as the No. 33 receiver in standard-scoring leagues and was the only true bust among the top-tier receivers heading into the season.

Fantasy
Ten things we learned in the 2014 fantasy football season

We had the following running backs ranked between 20th and 30th overall: Doug Martin, Reggie Bush, C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews. In our defense, most everyone had those four backs ranked firmly as RB2s. This should serve as even further evidence of all the risk associated with running backs.

According to our quarterback primer, Andrew Luck was a reach at his average draft position in the early stages of the fifth round of 12-team leagues. He ended up as fantasy’s top-scoring quarterback this year and was actually one of the most common players found on championship teams. Even if he scored 30 fewer points, he would have provided a better return on investment than Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees.

In that same primer, we dubbed Jay Cutler a steal. The thought process behind that call was sound. After all, there may not be a better collection of skill player talent than what you’ll find on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan. Cutler finished the year as the No. 14 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues and was holding onto the No. 10 spot before losing his starting job. He did have a respectable fantasy season, but that doesn’t make him a steal. He essentially returned even value on his draft slot.

Busts

Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I pretty much nailed all my calls for busts. I will now proceed to knock myself over as I list them all.

The Good

Most everyone who writes about fantasy football for a living had Zac Stacy as a safe RB2. Some even said he had RB1 upside, and he carried an average draft position of 27.8. We never bought into the hype, predicting he’d completely bust on the owners who believed in him. He did just that, eventually ceding his job to Tre Mason. Stacy finished the season ranked 72nd among running backs.

One of the most crucial parts of the early rounds in any fantasy draft is to minimize risk and lock in high floors. That was only part of the reason why we recommended staying away from Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson this season. Both players are explosive with the ball in their hands, but they had serious red flags heading into 2014. For Harvin, it was health. For Patterson, it was his route running and lack of a track record. Both receivers were in the top 50 overall by average draft position, and both finished outside the top-50 wide receivers by on-the-field results. Harvin checked in 58th at the position, while Patterson ended up 78th.

Fantasy
Who was fantasy football's Least Valuable Player of 2014?

Matthew Stafford was considered the fourth-best fantasy quarterback at the start of the year, behind the great triumvirate of Rodgers, Manning and Brees. That lofty ranking carried with it an average draft position right on the third/fourth-round border in a 12-team league. Stafford was our fourth quarterback as well, but that price seemed far too high, especially when you factored in the opportunity cost.

We labeled Stafford a bust on the belief that you were way better off going with a back or receiver with a similar price tag. That proved to be true, but Stafford also ended up being a pure bust. The Lions may have made the playoffs, but Stafford was the 15th-ranked quarterback in standard-scoring leagues.

Finally, Larry Fitzgerald headed into the 2014 season clearly on the back nine of his career, especially from a fantasy standpoint. Despite that, he still had an average draft position of 36.4. Part of the reason we believed he’d be a huge bust was because of our faith in Michael Floyd, but being right for the wrong reasons is fine in fantasy leagues. Fitzgerald had 63 receptions for 784 yards and two touchdowns. Do not go down this road next season.

The Bad

We had an honorable mention section in our columns on busts, sleepers and breakouts, and there were some ugly calls there. Chief among them was Russell Wilson, who finished as the No. 3 quarterback in fantasy leagues. However, these were our second-tier predictions. The busts column was an unmitigated success overall.

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Sleepers

I wish I could say the same about our sleepers. I’d rather be right on busts than sleepers, but this was a humbling column.

The Good

It took a while for Jonathan Stewart to pay off this season, as he dealt with injuries and poor performance early in the year. If you stuck with him, though, he did pay off late in the fantasy regular season and the fantasy playoffs, running for 352 yards and hitting paydirt twice in a strong three-game finish to the year. You didn’t have to invest a top pick on him, and if you kept him buried on your bench, he came through when it mattered most. That qualifies as a good sleeper pick. Unfortunately, our other guys came up short.

The Bad

A trio of deep sleepers at the wide receiver position never woke up and nuked our sleepers column. Doug Baldwin had a useful game here and there, but if you were starting him at any point this season, you were either decimated by injury or a bye week, or were extremely desperate at wide receiver. Greg Jennings was actually respectable this season given his average draft position -- he had 59 receptions for 742 yards and six scores, ending the season as a WR4. He was never more than a depth receiver, however, failing to gain any real traction as a regular starter. Santonio Holmes was a complete non-factor from the opening kickoff of the season until the moment the Bears waived him.

Fantasy
From Murray to Cutler: Players who tell the story of 2014 fantasy season

Speaking of the Bears, our biggest miss in the sleeper category was on Jay Cutler. We already covered Cutler, who had a much better fantasy season than real-life season. All he did, though, was meet the low-end QB1 expectations he had entering the year. That doesn’t make him a successful sleeper pick.

Breakouts

Our breakouts were in the middle of the road between our busts and sleepers. Not quite the unqualified success of our busts, nor the disaster of our sleepers. Let’s take a look.

The Good

The formula for Terrance Williams’ breakout was relatively easy to follow after he went on a four-game touchdown streak in the middle of the year last season. With more regular playing time in what figured to be a high-powered offense, it only made sense that Williams would take a step forward in 2014. He was maddeningly inconsistent, keeping him from being a true breakout, but he still scored eight touchdowns, turning a profit for his owners thanks to his cheap price. That makes this a partial win.

Everyone was all over Brandin Cooks this year, and for good reason. There are few better landing spots for a rookie wide receiver than New Orleans, and the mere fact that the Saints took him in the first round suggested he would have a big role in the offense. He caught seven passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in his first game, and went on to rank 27th among receivers in fantasy points per game. A broken thumb ended his season in mid-November and prevented him from being a complete breakout, but there are bigger days in store for him in the future.

The Bad

Like Terrance Williams, it wasn't difficult to imagine a breakout for Michael Floyd. He already had broke out to a certain degree in 2013, catching 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns. With Larry Fitzgerald entering the twilight of his career, it was logical that Floyd would take on a larger role in Arizona’s offense, and with Carson Palmer at the helm and Bruce Arians on the sidelines, Floyd had a quarterback and coach who would be capable and willing to take advantage of his ability to stretch the field. Palmer’s multiple injuries doubtlessly had an adverse impact on Floyd, but they don’t explain away his struggles this year. Floyd topped 100 yards twice in the first three games of the season but didn’t hit the century mark again until the final week of the season. He had just 47 receptions for 841 yards and six touchdowns, and two of those came in Week 17, meaning they were useless for his fantasy owners. Even those playing in Week 17 had long since given up on Floyd. He fell woefully short of expectations and was our worst swing and miss this year.

Fantasy
Bridgewater, Beckham Jr. lead '14 Fantasy Waiver Wire All-Star team

Jordan Reed failing to stay healthy was eminently predictable, but it didn’t stop us from calling him a breakout player during the preseason. Reed missed five games, didn’t visit the end zone and had a total of 50 catches for 465 yards in 2014. He will once again be a tantalizing prospect next year, but he’s a major risk until he proves he can stay healthy.

Meanwhile, Devonta Freeman never really got an honest chance to be relevant in fantasy leagues this year. The rookie out of Florida State had 65 carries and 30 receptions in 2014, having double-digit touches in a game just once. He’ll be a very intriguing player next year, but it wasn’t in the cards for him this season.

Bold Predictions

We can dispatch of the two of these that we've already covered, one of which was dead-on and the other just a tad off. Zac Stacy was nowhere near a top-20 running back, as we predicted. Jay Cutler was nowhere near a top-five quarterback, heights we believed he could reach. Let's revisit our other bold predictions and put a bow on this 2014 fantasy football season audit.​

The Good

Jordy Nelson will be the No. 1 fantasy receiver: Nelson didn’t quite make it to the top of the receiver mountain, but he came close enough to consider this a win. Nelson caught 98 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns this year, ending up second at his position behind Antonio Brown. Most everyone expected Nelson to be a WR1 this year, but we had him as a truly elite player at the position.

Cam Newton will not be a top-10 quarterback: This prediction was aided by a couple of injuries Newton suffered, but even without them he was well off a top-10 pace for most of the season. Even with Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, Newton didn’t have enough support in the passing game, and he didn’t supplement his passing stats with the same rushing numbers he's had in the past. We nailed that prediction, calling for a regression in his production as a runner. When all was said and done, Newton was fantasy’s No. 17 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues.

Ahmad Bradshaw will outscore Trent Richardson: For reasons that remain wholly indiscernible, fantasy owners still wanted to believe in Richardson in 2014. He was widely considered a low-end RB2 despite owners having plenty of evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Bradshaw was available at a pittance. Even though the wily veteran played just 10 games before fracturing his fibula and going down for the season, he was the No. 26 running back in standard-scoring leagues. Richardson played all but one game and finished 35th at the position. Bradshaw had 725 total yards and eight touchdowns, while Richardson had just 748 yards from scrimmage and three scores. Bradshaw was an RB1 on a points-per-game basis, ranking 11th. All told, he outscored Richardson by 25.7 points in five fewer games.

The Bad

Shane Vereen will be an RB1 in PPR leagues: Vereen missed half of the 2013 season but played at an RB1 pace in PPR leagues. With his role in the New England offense solidified, it seemed that all he needed was to remain healthy to capitalize on his potential. He did play all 16 games this year but never got himself on track. He caught 52 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns, and while those are great receiving numbers for a back who gets 250-plus carries, no fantasy running back can live on those pass-catching stats alone. Vereen got just 96 carries, turning those into 391 yards and two scores. On top of that, owners rightly expected more out of Vereen through the air. He was just inside the RB2 class in PPR leagues and just outside it in standard formats.

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