Oftentimes in fantasy, the biggest names don't win you championships. Instead, it's the guys you grab in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, or the waiver wire pickups who stumble into heavy workloads after a team’s starter succumbs to injury—the underrated players—who clinch the title for you.
To illustrate this point, PointAfter calculated the top players at each position who outperformed their weekly projections in Yahoo! standard leagues the most over the season.
If you owned a few of these players down the stretch, there’s a decent chance you captured your league’s championship—or at least snuck into a playoff spot and avoided the disappointment of finishing in the consolation bracket.
QB: Cam Newton, Panthers
Projected weekly average (position rank): 20.2 (3rd)
Actual weekly average (position rank): 22.7 (1st)
It turns out Cam Newton has a legitimate claim to being the fantasy MVP, as well as that other MVP trophy he’s favored to add to his mantle.
Newton was on 24.8% of Yahoo’s Top 500 public teams, the second-highest mark among QBs behind Tom Brady. However, Brady’s presence there can be attributed to many fantasy drafts occurring before Brady’s four-game suspension was overturned.
The former Heisman Trophy winner took a giant leap as a passer in 2015, setting career-best marks in passing touchdowns (33) and interceptions (10) while maintaining his dangerous running style (626 rushing yards, eight touchdowns).
Kirk Cousins was close to taking this spot, but Newton was more consistent and gave his fantasy owners about 5.3 more points per game.
RB1: DeAngelo Williams, Steelers
Projected weekly average: 8.6
Actual weekly average: 12.0 (3rd)
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the stunning rise of DeAngelo Williams is to say that from a fantasy perspective, he readily outplayed Le’Veon Bell, who averaged 13.8 points in the six games he played in. After Bell went on injured reserve with a knee injury, Williams exceeded any reasonable expectations for a 32-year-old handcuff by averaging a whopping 20.4 points per start.
Despite only starting eight games, Williams is tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns and finished as the No. 3 overall RB in fantasy. Like Newton, the longtime Panther was the second-most common name at his position among Yahoo’s Top 500 public teams, behind only No. 1 fantasy RB Devonta Freeman.
RB2: David Johnson, Cardinals
Projected weekly average: 7.9
Actual weekly average: 10.6 (7th)
David Johnson, a 24-year-old rookie out of Northern Iowa, transformed into a one-man wrecking ball for the Cardinals during the stretch run of the fantasy season.
He notched double-digit performances between Weeks 13-16, including a massive three-touchdown outburst on Sunday Night Football on Dec. 20 that netted his gleeful owners 40.9 points in standard leagues.
The third-round pick suffered a period of anonymity around midseason due to Chris Johnson’s resurgence, but proved to be a fantastic stash and was the main factor in many fantasy playoff games.
WR1: Doug Baldwin, Seahawks
Projected weekly average: 7.3
Actual weekly average: 12.0 (7th)
Give yourself a pat on the back if you recognized Baldwin’s Week 12 explosion against the Steelers (6 catches, 145 yards, three touchdowns) as the beginning of the 27-year-old’s production finally catching up to his top-notch hands.
Baldwin is tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdown receptions, including 12 in Seattle’s last seven games. The Stanford product has blossomed during his fifth year under Pete Carroll, posting his first 1,000-yard season and morphing into the legitimate red-zone weapon that Russell Wilson and the Seahawks tried to make of Jimmy Graham.
Perhaps all he needed was a chance. Baldwin has 14 red zone targets since Week 11 after recording just one in his first nine games.
WR2: Allen Robinson, Jaguars
Projected weekly average: 10.2
Actual weekly average: 13.8 (4th)
Jacksonville had a crowded receiving corps at the beginning of the season, but those who predicted Robinson would stand out from the team’s pack of second-year receivers were handsomely rewarded. Robinson is the fourth-most common WR on the rosters of Yahoo’s Top 500 teams, directly ahead of Julio Jones.
Like Baldwin, Robinson matured into a favorite target for his QB near the end zone and is tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns. His 21 red zone targets were tied for second in the NFL, behind Eric Decker, of all people.
TE: Gary Barnidge, Browns
Projected weekly average: 6.1
Actual weekly average: 9.5 (T-3rd)
The breakout tight end of 2015, Gary Barnidge is remarkably on pace for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season after posting previous career highs of 242 receiving yards and two scores. His average of 13.8 yards per catch ranks second among tight ends, behind only Rob Gronkowski.
With Barnidge and Travis Benjamin providing explosive plays for Cleveland, the Browns actually have the foundation for an exciting passing offense. Now, if they could only find a QB who could consistently get them the ball.
Flex: Allen Hurns, Jaguars
Projected weekly average: 7.5
Actual weekly average: 10.3 (11th)
That’s right—two Jaguars receivers make the All-Value team.
With Blake Bortles ranking second in touchdown passes (35) and sixth in both attempts (574) and yards (4,189) through 16 weeks, there were more than enough targets to go around for the two Allens in Jacksonville.
D/ST: Kansas City Chiefs
Projected weekly average: 6.2 (16th)
Actual weekly average: 10.1 (3rd)
The rise of the Chiefs defense has been well-documented over the past month. Kansas City has allowed just 13.2 points per game since Week 5, with 32 sacks, 25 turnovers and five defensive touchdowns in those 11 games.
Turning 20% of your turnovers into defensive scores is quite a feat, and the owners who showed faith in Andy Reid’s defense after two awful showings in Weeks 3-4 (zero turnovers, one sack) must be feeling pretty lucky.
Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
Projected weekly average: 8.6 (1st)
Actual weekly average: 11.1 (1st)
Drafting kickers before the last few rounds is usually ill-advised, since their week-to-week performances are quite random. Stephen Gostkowski was a popular choice in the middle rounds of many mock drafts I participated in, and I thought that was overvaluing the longtime Patriots kicker.
Though it’s true that Gostkowski only outperformed most kickers by two or three points on a weekly basis, those earnest drafters probably didn’t regret the decision. The 31-year-old more than justified his No. 1 rank in kicker ADP and average weekly projection, recording 11 points or more in nine of 15 games. That’s awfully consistent production from a kicker.
We probably wont start listening to those guys who spring for Gostkowski before the rest of their starting lineup is filled out, but still, Gostkowski's owners were happy campers this season.
Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that's part of the Graphiq network. PointAfter is a platform for shot charts, scatter plots and other data visualizations about NBA players, NFL teams and dozens of other topics.