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Waiver Wire All-Stars: The top breakout fantasy football saviors of 2016

Dak Prescott, Jay Ajayi and Davante Adams were just a few of the gems who were mined from the Waiver Wire to salvage owners' 2016 fantasy seasons.

Fantasy football is a year-round obsession for many of us, and mere hours after Week 16 had wrapped up, Twitter was pulsating with debate about whether David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell should be the top pick next year. Yes, we’re already thinking about our 2017 drafts. Perhaps this is a good time to trot out the old truism that drafting is just a fraction of fantasy success, and that in-season roster management is critical.

Sure, if you nail your draft, you might not have to spend as much time investigating trades and working the waiver wire. But in August, we never know as much as we think we know, and before long our carefully drawn battle plans have gone askew. Either that, or the inevitable tidal wave of injuries leaves our rosters perilously thin. It’s almost a certainty that we’ll need to rely on the waiver wire more heavily than we’d like.

Fortunately, there are waiver gems to be mined every year. In 2016, fantasy owners trawling the waiver wire in all the right places were able to get significant contributions from unheralded rookies, positional misfits, former fantasy pariahs and even an Ivy Leaguer.

Without further ado, we present the 2016 Waiver Wire All-Stars ...

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QB1: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys — Before we praise the Cowboys’ rookie quarterback, can we take a minute to laugh at the Jets for drafting Christian Hackenberg 84 picks before Dallas snatched Prescott? But no laughter from you, Rams fans, since the Hackenberg pick could eventually look like a minor mistake compared with the Rams’ massive capital investment in Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick. Yes, seven other teams drafted quarterbacks before the Cowboys pilfered Prescott in the fourth round. Dak was a revelation in the preseason, but fantasy owners remained skeptical even after Tony Romo broke a bone in his back during the Cowboys’ third exhibition game, leaving Prescott as the Week 1 starter. Two weeks into the regular season, Prescott was still available in 64% of Yahoo leagues. After Week 16, he ranks sixth among all quarterbacks in fantasy scoring, with 3,630 passing yards, an impeccable 23-4 TD-INT ratio and six rushing touchdowns. It’s usually pretty easy to find capable one-week fixes on the waiver wire, but Prescott is the rare waiver-wire quarterback to prove he's a worthy every-week starter.

QB2: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers — And you thought you had an eventful year. On the cusp of superstardom just a few years ago, Kaepernick took a calamitous nosedive, hitting rock bottom when he performed poorly enough this summer to lose a positional battle with Blaine Gabbert. In addition to the career turmoil, Kaepernick became a polarizing national figure by refusing to stand for the national anthem before games. He eventually became a starter again after Gabbert’s predictable belly flop and started churning out the sort of numbers he’d produced back when Jim Harbaugh was still coaching the Niners. From Week 9 to Week 12, Kaepernick had weekly finishes of QB5, QB8, QB8 and QB1 in fantasy scoring. Alas, just as fantasy owners started to warm to Kap, he crashed during a snowy Week 13 game in Chicago, completing just one pass for five yards before being pulled. Still, Kap’s glorious November run earns him a spot on our all-star list.

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RB1: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears — When Jeremy Langford sustained a foot injury in Week 3, Howard took over as the Bears’ lead runner and became the most impactful rookie running back in the league other than the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott. A fifth-round draft pick out of Indiana, Howard has six 100-yard rushing games and nine games in which he’s totaled 100-plus yards from scrimmage. He has also punched in seven touchdowns on the season, punctuated by a three-TD day against the 49ers in Week 13. Howard is averaging a robust 5.1 yards per carry. He’s also averaged exactly 20 touches over his last 12 games, and since he’ll almost assuredly enter the 2017 season as the Bears’ feature back, he’ll draw first-round consideration in leagues that use standard scoring.

RB2: Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins — Ajayi currently ranks 10th in fantasy scoring among running backs, just a spot behind Howard. It seemed far-fetched to think that Ajayi would pop to such a degree, considering how lightly regarded he was by his own organization. After failing to keep Lamar Miller in the off-season, the Dolphins extended an offer sheet to C.J. Anderson, and after being rebuffed, they signed Arian Foster, whose uncooperative body forced him to retire in October. When Foster was hurt early in the year, Miami briefly tried an unwieldy four-man RB committee. Then, once it became evident that Ajayi was the best of Miami’s backs and he was finally turned loose, he had back-to-back 200-yard rushing days in Weeks 5 and 6, followed by a 111-yard rushing day in Week 8 when the Dolphins returned from their bye. Ajayi’s numbers tapered off when road-grading offensive linemen Mike Pouncey, Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil were felled by injuries, but he punctuated his breakout season with yet another 200-yard rushing day in Week 16 that helped carry some of his fantasy owners to championships.

WR1: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers — The object of ridicule (not to mention a slew of unflattering GIFs) in 2015, Adams has been perhaps the most pleasant fantasy surprise of 2016. So ham-handed was Adams last season that he remained 84% unowned in Yahoo leagues this year until he caught 13 passes for 132 yards and two TDs against the Bears in Week 7, finally sending owners scurrying to the waiver wire for his services. With 69 catches for 966 yards and 10 TDs on the season, Adams ranks WR9 in fantasy scoring. (Note: Michael Thomas made a brief early-season appearance in our weekly waiver column when he was owned in just under half of all Yahoo! leagues, but he was excluded from all-star consideration because he was drafted in the vast majority of highly competitive leagues.)

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WR2: Tyrell Williams, San Diego Chargers — This product of Western Oregon University caught only two passes last year as an undrafted rookie, but a season-ending injury to Keenan Allen in the 2016 opener thrust Williams into fantasy prominence. He leads the Chargers in receptions (63) and receiving yardage (989), and he’s tied with tight end Hunter Henry for the team lead in TD catches (7). Williams has dependably cranked out big plays all season; he has 19 receptions covering 20-plus yards to rank sixth in the league in that category. The anticipated return of Allen will complicate Williams’s 2017 outlook, but it’s reasonably safe to say he’ll no longer be an afterthought in fantasy drafts.

WR3: Terrelle Pryor, Cleveland Browns — Granted, Pryor has been stumbling down the stretch, with eight catches for 58 yards and no touchdowns over his last three games, but blame it on the comedic stylings of Robert Griffin III, who was given a late-season opportunity to prove beyond any doubt that he doesn’t deserve to be a starting NFL quarterback. Before the Browns’ passing game went completely off the rails, Pryor averaged 5.2 catches and 71.3 receiving yards over his first 12 games, with five touchdowns for a scoring-challenged team. And let’s face it: Even before RG3 took over, Cleveland was getting mediocre quarterback play at best. A former college quarterback himself, Pryor has made a remarkable transition to wide receiver, and though he’ll be 28 by the time the 2017 season begins, his combination of size, speed and athleticism gives him a bright fantasy future.

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TE: Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — O.K., I promise: No more “Let’s make America Brate again” jokes. But let’s acknowledge that this Harvard product was a smart addition to fantasy teams this year. With the Buccaneers woefully thin on WR talent behind superstar Mike Evans, Brate has become a key cog in the Tampa Bay passing game, ranking second on the team in targets (81) catches (57), receiving yardage (660) and TD catches (8). Brate is currently fifth in TE fantasy scoring behind only proven studs Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker and Jimmy Graham.

Flex: Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs — The flex spot seems like the perfect place for Hill, a unique hybrid weapon. (It would have been a fitting place for Green Bay WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery, too, but Monty only had a handful of productive games.) Currently sitting 15th in WR fantasy scoring, the blazingly fast Hill has done roughly a third of his fantasy damage as a runner. In addition to his 56 catches for 547 yards and six TDs, Hill has 252 rushing yards and three TD runs, with an average of 12.0 yards per carry. He hasn’t caught a single pass over the last two weeks, but he had a 68-yard TD run in Week 15 and a 70-yard TD run in Week 16. Remarkably, Hill was still unowned in 85% of Yahoo! leagues after Week 10.