The real-life MVP debate may not have all that much drama this season. Cam Newton made himself a viable candidate within the first few games of the season, and likely ran away with the award over the final month of the year. The fantasy MVP debate, though, rages on, with a number of factors to consider. In the fantasy world, it’s not just a player’s overall performance that makes him an MVP. It’s also his weekly consistency, his ability to single-handedly win his owners’ games, and the return on investment he provided, based on his draft-day price tag. After taking all of that into account, the following players earned the SI.com positional fantasy MVP Awards for the 2015 season.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Panthers
Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson all had phenomenal seasons. But not one of them was even close to taking this award from Newton. The eventual real-life MVP was just as good in a fantasy context, finishing the season with 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air, and 636 yards with 10 scores on the ground. Newton racked up 407.1 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, good for 25.4 points per game. Brady, who finished second at the position, had 351.1 points, or 21.9 points per week. In other words, Newton averaged a full passing touchdown more per week than the No. 2 quarterback. There was a wider gap between Newton and Brady than there was between Brady and the No. 12 quarterback, Philip Rivers.
Newton was the picture of consistency, while also carrying the highest ceiling at the position. Newton had 12 QB1 (top 12) weeks. He was in the top three a remarkable seven times, including four as the No. 1 weekly quarterback. Factor in his average draft position, which placed him 11th among quarterbacks and 84th overall, and his MVP case becomes open and shut. Newton isn’t just the quarterback MVP, he is the overall fantasy MVP for 2015.
Running Back: Devonta Freeman, Falcons
Running back is the position without a clear-cut winner. Adrian Peterson was the league’s leading rusher, but his 1,485 yards were the fewest for a rushing champion since LaDainian Tomlinson had 1,474 in 2007, and the former Chargers great had 18 touchdowns that year compared with Peterson’s 11 this season. Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles were well on their way to contending for the award before suffering season-ending knee injuries. Doug Martin and Todd Gurley both climbed north of 1,000 yards and provided huge return on investment, but they had too many dud games to be considered an MVP. Devonta Freeman emerged in a weak year for running backs, and ultimately finished as the No. 1 player at the position in standard-scoring leagues. That’s enough to make him the 2015 fantasy running back MVP.
Freeman enjoyed a four-game stretch from Week 3 to Week 6 in which he averaged 30.88 points per game, carrying him to his RB1 status. His production may have tapered off during the second half (his high-water mark the rest of the way was 16.1 points) but he was largely responsible for getting a lot of his owners to the playoffs in the first place. His 232 fantasy points were, by far, the fewest for a league leader at running back since 2000. In fact, the next lowest total was Ray Rice’s 292.8 in 2011, which should hammer home just how much the fantasy game has changed over the last few seasons. In arguably the worst season for the running back position from a fantasy perspective, Freeman’s dominant mid-season run makes him the MVP.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown, Steelers
There are more elite wide receivers than ever before, and more guys playing the position who are capable of carrying fantasy teams. Despite that fact, there isn’t any argument over the fantasy receiver MVP for 2015. The conversation begins and ends with Antonio Brown.
First, let’s go over the raw numbers. Brown caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns, good for 15.4 points per game. His 136 receptions were the second most in a single season in NFL history, while his yardage total was good for fourth all-time in one year. Now, to be fair, Julio Jones also hauled in 136 passes and totaled 1,871 yards, which is the second-highest total in NFL history. Jones, however, had his starting quarterback under center all season. The same cannot be said for Brown. Ben Roethlisberger missed four games, forcing Brown to do his best with Michael Vick and Landry Jones. In 12 games with Roethlisberger at the helm, Brown had 119 catches for 1,599 yards and all 10 of his scores. That translates to a 16-game pace of 158.7 catches, 2,131.9 yards and 13.3 touchdowns. Brown was a top-three receiver in six of those 12 games, including three at the very top of the heap. He was, essentially, the Cam Newton of the receiver position, and by far the receiver MVP for 2015.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
The best battle for a positional MVP award is at tight end, where Gronkowski and Jordan Reed were head and shoulders above their competition. They finished first and second, respectively, in total points and points per game, tied for second in touchdowns, and were both in the top five in yards. Had Reed played a full 16-game season, he very well could have wrested the tight end championship belt from Gronkowski. Unfortunately, he missed two games due to injury and played only a small role in Washington’s season-ending win over Dallas. That kept Gronkowski on the throne as the king of Tight End Mountain.
That doesn’t mean Gronkowski won the award by default. He caught 72 passes for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns, scoring 12.2 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He had more total points than all but the top eight receivers and more points per game than all but seven who played at least 10 games. Gronkowski also showed up for his fantasy owners in the playoffs, pulling down a total of 13 balls for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Reed wasn’t the only player to break out at the position. Tyler Eifert scored 13 touchdowns, while Gary Barnidge had 1,043 yards and nine scores. They joined old standbys Greg Olsen and Delanie Walker in the top tier of tight ends. Gronkowski will have more competition than ever next season, but for one more year he was the best fantasy tight end in the league.
Of course, the sun doesn’t shine in every corner of the fantasy world. There were also players who need to be recognized for the way they undermined nearly every fantasy team they inhabited this season. Through a combination of poor play and expensive draft-day prices, these four players saddled their owners with a challenging road to respectability. We now present to you, the SI.com positional fantasy LVPs for 2015.
One note before we get to the indignity. Players who suffered injuries were exempt from consideration. No one can fault Dez Bryant for essentially losing his entire season to a broken foot.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Falcons
Ryan entered the 2015 season with the seventh-best ADP among quarterbacks, four slots at the position and 30 total picks ahead of Cam Newton. His starting running back, Devonta Freeman, was the top scorer at the position, while his No. 1 receiver, Julio Jones, scored more points than every receiver not named Antonio Brown. That should help drive home just how bad Ryan was this season.
Ryan, in his eighth season, had one of the worst years of his career. He was 18th in total points, despite playing all 16 games, trailing Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill. He was 28th in points per game, behind Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler and the inimitable Blaine Gabbert. Among quarterbacks who started at least 10 games, the only ones who had fewer points per game than Ryan were Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, Peyton Manning and Nick Foles. Ryan had fewer than 15 points in standard-scoring leagues seven times. To give you an idea of how bad that is, Matt Schaub scored 15.3 points per game in his two starts. Thankfully, if you drafted Ryan, you had plenty of options to grab off the waiver wire, from Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, to Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles, but there’s no doubt Ryan put you behind the eight-ball to start the season.
Running Back: DeMarco Murray, Eagles
All hope for Murray to follow up on his stellar 2014 season evaporated by the end of Week 2. In Murray’s first two games with the Eagles, he had 11 yards on 21 carries. He was sort of able to mask his terrible start with a pair of touchdowns in Week 1, but his owners were likely ready to throw in the towel after he totaled 48 yards from scrimmage in his third game of the season. After a brief stint of fantasy usefulness in the middle of the year, Murray went back into the tank for his owners, as well as the doghouse in Philadelphia, in the second half of the season. Over the final eight games of the year, Murray failed to reach 70 rushing yards or 100 total yards in any game. He ran for 312 yards on 87 carries in that stretch, which comes out to an average of 3.6 yards per carry. All told, he ran for 702 yards, caught 44 passes for 322 yards, and scored a total of seven touchdowns, finishing as the No. 18 running back by total points but 30th in points per game. This is a good time to remember he was the eighth running back, and 11th overall player, off the board in a typical draft. Murray’s bust season likely sunk more than a few of his owners.
Wide Receiver: Randall Cobb, Packers
When Jordy Nelson suffered a torn ACL in a preseason game, it was roundly assumed that, while the Green Bay offense would take a step back, things would mostly remain the same. So long as Aaron Rodgers was at the controls, the offense could continue humming as usual, with perhaps just a bit of explosion taken away. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, and Rodgers was the most noticeable sufferer. He had the worst statistical season of his career, throwing for just 3,821 yards, 6.68 yards per attempt and 31 touchdowns. Cobb, of course, was right there alongside him, only he, unlike Rodgers, was a complete fantasy bust.
In 2014, with Nelson occupying the defense’s attention and opening up holes in the middle of the field, Cobb had a career year, catching 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. That production was essentially cut in half this season. Cobb had 79 receptions for 829 yards and six scores, finishing as the No. 31 receiver in total points in standard-scoring leagues. It’s even worse on a per-game basis, where Cobb ranked 41st at his position. He had one 100-yard game and one multiple-touchdown game, and both of those came in the first three weeks. Cobb was no more than a WR3 this season, yet he was drafted as a low-end WR1. In a climate where it’s nearly impossible for a receiver to bust, Cobb did just that.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Seahawks
Graham missed the final five games of the season after tearing a patellar tendon, but the injury didn’t change the fact that his season was already a massive disappointment. Graham was supposed to be the go-to receiver Russell Wilson had always lacked in Seattle, as well as the team’s third dynamic playmaker in the red zone, alongside Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Instead, he failed to make a real noticeable impact, and now, when we all sit around draft tables in the summer of 2016, Graham will be no more than a mid-tier TE1.
At the time of Graham’s injury, he was on track to have the worst full season of his career. Graham finished the season with 48 receptions for 605 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.6 points per game. That actually had him tied for 12th among tight ends, but low-end TE1s aren’t exactly the same as low-end WR1s or RB1s. Graham was sandwiched between Zach Miller and Crockett Gillmore on the points-per-game leaderboard. Miller and Gillmore weren’t anywhere near the fantasy radar back in draft season. Graham, meanwhile, had an overall ADP of 27.5, coming off the board just about 15 picks after Rob Gronkowski in a typical draft. Gronkowski could have caught zero passes in his final 10 games and still finished with the same number of fantasy points as Graham (72.5). The Seahawks tight end had double the number of games with fewer than five points (six) as he did with more than 10 (three). In short, Graham’s debut season in Seattle was a disaster. He capped it off by being the easiest positional LVP choice.