Congratulations to all of you who will spend this entire week celebrating fantasy championships. Chances are you taught your league-mates a thing or two on your way to a title in 2015. Those lessons, of course, aren’t the only ones that the fantasy community can take into next season and beyond. As always, this football season provided us with plenty of teachable moments that can help all of us build winning fantasy teams in the future. They all seem so obvious now, but they certainly weren’t when the season four months ago. They also won’t be nearly as fresh when we begin draft prep next summer. Take these lessons to heart and bookmark this page for your future self’s edification. You’ll need them before drafting your 2016 team.
1. The worst investment is the backend of the RB1 class
This is something we really already knew, but there were still some holdouts who refused to learn it in previous seasons. They no longer have a choice. The No. 6 through 12 running backs by average draft position were Matt Forte, C.J. Anderson, DeMarco Murray, Jeremy Hill, LeSean McCoy, Justin Forsett and Lamar Miller. The only ones who came anywhere near justifying their draft-day price tags were McCoy and Miller. The latter was the only one to finish in the top 12 in total points among running backs, while the former was the lone back in the group to be an RB1 by points per game. Forte had a fine season, but certainly didn’t provide first-round value. Anderson, Murray, Hill and Forsett were outright busts. There isn’t a subset of players with a higher bust rate. Remember this when you sit down at draft tables next summer.
2. The RB2 class isn’t much better
You can say this for this year’s group of projected RB2s: At least they weren’t nearly as expensive as the players listed in the above lesson. The following backs were ranked 13th through 24th, by ADP: Mark Ingram, Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, Melvin Gordon, Latavius Murray, Carlos Hyde, Andre Ellington, Jonathan Stewart, Joseph Randle, Arian Foster, T.J. Yeldon and Todd Gurley. Morris, Gordon, Hyde, and Ellington, fully one-third of the class, were worthless. Randle and Foster missed significant playing time. The only player to provide a significant profit was Gurley, though Ingram, Gore and Murray did have their charms in 2015. Meanwhile, Devonta Freeman, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, Danny Woodhead, David Johnson, Darren McFadden, Thomas Rawls and LeGarrette Blount turned out to all be top-24 backs. Combine this with lesson No. 1 and basically you want to stay away from this position entirely, unless you can get one of the very few backs about whom there are no concerns, outside of the baseline injury worries.
3. Zero-RB should be the standard draft-day strategy
This lesson naturally follows the first two. To be fair, there were some busts at the top of the wide receiver group. Injuries completely ruined Dez Bryant’s season. Calvin Johnson clearly fell into the WR2 class this season. Jordy Nelson’s absence brought Randall Cobb’s ceiling crashing down. Still, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones were three of the most bankable players in the league. DeAndre Hopkins and Allen Robinson turned into fantasy stars. Brandon Marshall was predictably great in year one with the Jets. There are just four running backs with 1,000 rushing yards with one game left in the season. Eighteen receivers have reached 1,000 yards through the air. Brown, Jones, Beckham Jr. and Hopkins will have more receiving yards than whoever ends up winning the rushing title does yards on the ground. Receivers have much higher floors, and their ceilings are just as high as backs. Early-round receivers bust far less frequently than their brethren in the backfield. If you want to win a fantasy league in 2016, invest in receivers early and often.
4. Antonio Brown should be the No. 1 overall pick in your draft next season
After Sunday’s loss to the Ravens, Brown has played 11 games with Ben Roethlisberger under center. In those games, he has 105 receptions for 1,412 yards and nine touchdowns. That translates to a 16-game pace of 152.7 receptions, 2,053.8 yards and 13.1 touchdowns. As great as Beckham Jr. and Jones are, Brown’s feats at the receiver position are unparalleled. He is not only the best receiver, but the best, most consistent fantasy player in the league. His floor is higher than the ceiling of three-quarters of all other receivers. He’s a ridiculously safe investment and carries the possibility of turning a real profit even as the top overall pick. That’s exactly what you’re looking for when you’re at the top of the draft. He should be a consensus No. 1 pick in 2016.
5. You can still find mid- and late-round value at quarterback
After Week 15, the top-five fantasy quarterbacks in total points are Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Blake Bortles, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson. Wilson was the No. 4 quarterback by ADP. The other four were all ninth or worst. Brady (ninth), Bortles (28th), Palmer (20th) and Newton (11th), provided four of the most significant returns on investment this season. Meanwhile, the top-three quarterbacks by ADP, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, all ranked 11th or worst. Injuries effectively turned Luck and Manning into busts. Rodgers was barely a QB1 with the entire Packers offense compromised by Jordy Nelson’s knee injury. Luck and Rodgers weren’t only pricey relative to their fellow quarterbacks. They were just flat-out expensive. Both cost their owners first-round picks, then performed more like late-round fliers. In one-quarterback leagues, there is simply no reason that you should ever think about taking a quarterback until the middle of your draft.
6. There will be a changing of the guard at running back
Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte have long been at or near the top of the fantasy running back food chain. When the 2016 season begins, Peterson will be 31 years old, while Lynch and Forte will both be 30. Charles, meanwhile, will be 29 and coming off his second torn ACL. Rookies Todd Gurley and David Johnson are on the ascent. Le’Veon Bell will be back and rightfully be the top running back, but the field is wide open after Bell comes off the board. Devonta Freeman and Doug Martin will be in the mix, but you could make an argument for at least 10 backs to be ranked second behind Bell. And it’s entirely possible that it won’t be Peterson, Charles, Lynch or Forte.
7. The best time to sell high is right after Week 1
Carlos Hyde ran for 168 yards and two touchdowns in San Francisco’s 20-3 win over Minnesota in Week 1. He ran for 302 yards and one score the rest of the season, and likely will end up missing nine games due to injury. Savvy owners used that Week 1 performance to sell Hyde at his high point of the season. On the other hand, too many fantasy owners take it too slowly at the start of the year. A player like Hyde, who entered the season with RB2 expectations, is the perfect player to sell early in the season after one good showing. Don’t be skittish when thinking about trading a player who has a big game in Week 1. It’s far more likely that it was his best game of the season than the beginning of a breakout.
8. Learn from Bill Belichick: Better to be one year early than one year late
One pillar of the Patriot dynasty is their willingness to give up on a player who seems to still be at the tail end of his prime. More than any other team, the Patriots know how to rid themselves of a player before his play takes an irreversible turn for the worse. Learn from the best coach of this era and understand how to do the same. Some players who fit that bill this season included Calvin Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Peyton Manning and Jimmy Graham. Yes, that strategy will cost you a shot at, say, 2015 Larry Fitzgerald, but it will keep you away from all the Johnsons and Murrays at the same time. Mitigating risk, especially early in drafts or at the top of the pricing ladder in auctions, is crucial to winning in fantasy football. As we learned this season, aging stars are one of the riskiest groups of players.
9. Allen Robinson is the breakout star of 2015
Robinson had plenty of breakout buzz this season after catching 48 passes for 548 yards and two scores in just 10 games as a rookie in 2014. He made anyone who bought in look smart, and is a WR1 for the foreseeable future. Through Week 16, Robinson has 75 catches for 1,292 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s a key part of an up-and-coming offense with Blake Bortles at the helm, Allen Hurns opposite him at the receiver position, and T.J. Yeldon heading into his second year in the Jacksonville backfield. This Jaguars offense should only be getting better. The team will be a chic pick to win the AFC South in 2016. Robinson is key to both of those endeavors. He’ll be a rock-solid WR1 for years to come, and should be off the board within t he first 20 picks of drafts next season.
10. Melvin Gordon will be the greatest bargain in 2016
By all measures, it was a disappointing rookie season for Gordon. The Wisconsin product continued the trend of former Badger star running backs flopping the pros, running for 641 yards and a shocking zero touchdowns on 184 carries. Still, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can buck that trend next season. Gordon averaged 2.22 yards after contact per carry, good for 18th in the league. Gordon was better in that predictive stat than Matt Forte, Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy. He also forced 34 missed tackles, seventh most in the league. Gordon forced more missed tackles than Freeman, Thomas Rawls, Mark Ingram, Lamar Miller and Forte. He was the No. 16 back by ADP this season, burning anyone who bought in on the idea of him as a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year. That, as well as the perception of Wisconsin running backs once they reach the pros, will help push Gordon down draft boards in 2016. He’ll prove to be one of the best buys at any position next season.
Photos: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images (McCoy), Joe Sargent/Getty Images (Brown), Alex Goodlett/Getty Images (Hyde)