Fantasy football booms and busts: Which players exceeded expectations, who fell flat?

The 2016 fantasy season came and went like Marvin Jones’s fleeting WR1 status. Here at SI.com we’ll still have your fantasy needs covered through the NFL playoffs, and we’ll start on those efforts next week. But before we look forward, we must look back at the season that was.

Running backs re-asserted their primacy in the fantasy world in 2016, with the top-eight fantasy backs outscoring the No. 1 wide receiver, Antonio Brown. The quarterback position played largely to script, with a few surprises, both positive and negative. Tight end became a trouble spot for nearly all fantasy owners at one point or another this season, and the position as a whole could be downgraded in value next year.

As is the case nearly every year, if you had one of the positional MVPs, you likely, at the very least, were a championship contender. If you counted on one of the LVPs, you probably didn’t make the playoffs. We present the position-by-position fantasy MVPs and LVPs herein, as always, taking draft-day value into account.

NOTE: All stats through Week 16.

MVPs

Quarterback: Matt Ryan

Our fantasy quarterback MVP for 2016 doubles as the player who isn’t getting enough talk in the NFL MVP race. Ryan has been nothing short of incredible leading the Falcons to the NFC South crown, at the helm of an offense that could realistically carry the team to the Super Bowl. He finished the fantasy regular season with 4,613 yards, 9.26 yards per attempt and 34 touchdowns against seven interceptions. So long as he throws for 107 yards and fewer than two interceptions in Week 17, he will set new career-highs across the board this year.

Ryan ranked third among quarterbacks in both total points and points per game, trailing Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He beats them out for the positional MVP, though, because of the value he brought to the table. Thanks to a disappointing statistical 2015 season, Ryan was the 20th quarterback off the board in a standard draft, with an overall ADP a touch higher than 140. Rodgers and Brees, meanwhile, were ranked second and fifth at the position and 25th and 46th overall in ADP, respectively. Ryan was, for all intents and purposes, just as good as Rodgers and Brees, yet cost a fraction of the draft-day price. That puts him over the top and makes him the fantasy quarterback MVP for 2016.

Honorable Mention: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees

Running Back: David Johnson

This was easily the position with the most competition. Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott could both be in this spot and no one would complain, especially when you consider what both did during the fantasy playoffs. Still, the most valuable currency season-long fantasy football is high-level consistency. Johnson brought that more than any other player this year, along with the ceiling to be the best fantasy player every week.

How consistent was Johnson this year? As consistent as I remember a back being in the 20 years I’ve played fantasy football. J.J. Zachariason, editor-in-chief of numberFire and a great follow on Twitter (@LateRoundQB) came through with a great stat: Johnson was a top-10 back in PPR formats in 14 of 15 games this fantasy season, and was the No. 1 back in six of those weeks. He blew away the field in PPR leagues, outscoring Elliott, the No. 2 back, by nearly 80 points and more than five points per game. Bell was right there with him on a per-game basis, scoring 26.5 points per week compared with Johnson’s 27, but the latter did it all season, whereas the former missed the first three games of the year.

Johnson was just as lethal in standard formats. He outscored Elliott by 28 points and 1.8 points per game, and was 1.4 points per game clear of Bell. His 321.4 standard-league points were the most since Arian Foster had 325.8 in 2010. He put up 404.4 points in PPR formats, the best since 2006 when LaDainian Tomlinson scored 31 touchdowns en route to a 474.3-point season, and Steven Jackson racked up 419.4 points, thanks in large part to 90 receptions.

All told, Johnson ran for 1,233 yards, caught 77 passes for 841 yards, and scored 20 total touchdowns. The running back position rebounded from a disastrous 2015 in a big way this year, with Johnson leading the charge. He should be considered the top overall player heading into 2017.

Honorable Mention: Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray

Wide Receiver: Jordy Nelson

This one might come as a bit of a surprise, but Nelson is deserving of the MVP award at wide receiver. He and Antonio Brown were neck and neck in total points, with Brown totaling 201.3 to Nelson’s 201.1 in standard-scoring leagues. Just like at quarterback, it comes down to value. Brown was routinely selected with the first overall pick in fantasy drafts this year, and his owners likely aren’t disappointed. Nelson, though lasted into the third round in many leagues, and had a late-second round ADP. That vaults him in front of Brown and the other top performers at the position, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham.

Nelson entered the season as a bit of a wild card. An elite receiver two years ago, he missed the entire 2015 campaign after tearing his ACL in a preseason game. At 31 years old, there was legitimate concern that he would never be quite the same, even if he was still, say, 90% of what he once was. There’s a line of demarcation between great and elite in the fantasy world. Nelson made clear he was on the better side of that line early in the season.

Nelson was remarkably consistent this year, scoring a touchdown or totaling at least 90 yards in all but two games. He caught 91 passes for 1,191 yards and 14 touchdowns, and will post his third-career season with at least 1,200 yards and 13 scores. The only other players with three such seasons in NFL history are Lance Alworth, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice.

Nelson’s touchdown upside carried him for much of the year, but he hit his yardage stride in the second half of the season. Over his final nine games, he had at least 90 yards six times, totaling 870 yards in that span. No one in the league had more. He was also a monster in the fantasy playoffs, catching 22 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns from Week 14 through Week 16, scoring at least 12.4 standard-league and 19.4 PPR points all three games.

Honorable Mention: Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr.

Tight End: Travis Kelce

This was a terrible season at the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed missed much of the year with injuries. Greg Olsen posted his third straight 1,000-yard season, but had just three touchdowns. Fantasy Football Today tracks position-by-position scoring going back to 2000. This year’s No. 1 tight end had the lowest point total since Todd Heap’s 123.4 points in 2002. That tight end was Kelce, making him the position’s MVP for 2016.

Kelce isn’t getting the award entirely by default. First, thanks to an offense was either unwilling or unable to use him to his full potential the last two years, Kelce’s draft-day value took a bit of a dive this year. He was comfortably behind the big three at the position, and was also trailing Delanie Walker in some circles. Second, and more importantly, he was at his best when it mattered most.

After a slow start to the year, Kelce was a monster in the second half. He had six 100-yard performances over his last nine games of the season, including five in the final six weeks of the fantasy campaign. He was still frustratingly unable to get into the end zone, scoring just two touchdowns in that span, but he was doing enough in the yardage department to be the top-scoring tight end nearly every week. His owners who won a championship this season will always remember Christmas Day 2016 fondly, when he caught 11 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos. An awful year for the position as a whole made Kelce even more valuable compared with his peers.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Graham, Cameron Brate

And now the other, ugly side of the coin. Players who went bust due to injury were not considered.

LVPs

Quarterback: Russell Wilson

Yes, ankle and knee injuries suffered early in the year changed the equation for Wilson. Still, he played all season, and his owners, after investing no worse than a third-round pick in him based on ADP, likely stuck by him while those injuries sapped much of what makes him a special quarterback. As every quarterback in his draft-day neighborhood, from Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck to Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, delivered for their fantasy owners, Wilson faltered.

This was a close battle between two of 2015’s stars, Wilson and Cam Newton. The latter, however, still finished the year technically as a QB1 on a per-game basis, ranking 11th at the position. Wilson was 19th in points per game and 16th in total points in standard-scoring leagues. Among quarterbacks who started every game for their teams, he outscored only Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Carson Wentz.

Wilson nearly saved himself from this ignominy with a huge performance in the playoffs, finishing as QB3 in Week 15 and QB2 in Week 16. Of course, many of his owners didn’t make it to the playoffs because of his regular-season failings. Even if they did, he may have sunk them in Week 14 when he threw five interceptions and was QB22, outscored by the likes of Jared Goff and Bryce Petty. Newton and Carson Palmer get a pass, but just barely. Of course, Wilson is the only one of the three who will be playing in the NFL playoffs, so he can probably live with this infamy.

Dishonorable Mention: Carson Palmer, Cam Newton

Running Back: Todd Gurley

There are three players in the Bust of the Year team photo, with Gurley front and center. Many wise voices in the fantasy industry beat the drum for David Johnson, but Gurley had the highest ADP at the running back position, and was viewed by some as the top overall pick. He was likely off the board within the first five picks of your league’s draft, and had an overall ADP of 3.3. No player sunk more fantasy teams this season than Gurley.

The second-year back out of Georgia, last year’s runaway winner of the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, produced frustration, disappointment, and little else this season. He ran for 845 yards, 3.2 yards per carry and six touchdowns. A non-comprehensive list of players with more 100-yard games than Gurley this season includes DeAngelo Williams, Fozzy Whittaker, Matt Jones, Colin Kaepernick, Bilal Powell, Ty Montgomery and Kevin Hogan. Gurley did not hit the century mark in any game this season. He eclipsed 80 yards just once and he needed 27 carries to do so.

It doesn’t get any better if you go week by week. Gurley had two top-10 weeks all year. He had three weeks where he was a by-the-book definition of an RB1, ranking inside the top 12. Gurley had just as many games where he ranked 40th or worse at the position. It was possible to recover from using a top-five pick on Gurley, but his presence hurt his owners all season. Factoring in opportunity cost, there wasn’t a worse player at running back, and may not have been one in the whole league.

Dishonorable Mention: Lamar Miller, Eddie Lacy

Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins/Allen Robinson

If anyone is going to challenge Gurley for Bust of the Year, it’s one of these two receivers. Hopkins and Robinson are the only other players in that team photo, flanking Gurley to the right and left. Just like their fantasy owners, none of the players wears a smile.

Let’s start with Hopkins, he of the higher ADP between the two. Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Julio Jones were a consensus top three at the wide receiver position. There were strong arguments for many receivers to check in fourth, but the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t go wrong. Hopkins won at least a plurality of those arguments, notching an ADP of 4.3 at the position and 7.9 overall, just ahead of A.J. Green. After a year in which he had 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns, it was hard to fault those who took him with confidence in the back half of the first round.

Through two weeks, the Hopkins owners likely felt great about their selection. He had 12 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, putting him on pace for another top-five season at the position. The wheels fell off the next week. Hopkins scored just two more touchdowns the rest of the year, and did not have a 100-yard showing in his final 13 games. A combination of Brock Osweiler and the low-ceilinged Houston offense did him in, but that it was little fault of Hopkins’s was no solace to his fantasy owners. He finished the season with 71 catches for 831 yards and four touchdowns. Just to refresh your memory, running back David Johnson had 77 receptions for 841 yards and four scores through the air. In short, Johnson was a better fantasy receiver than a guy who is a receiver in reality and was taken just a few picks later in a typical 2016 fantasy draft.

Robinson was just as bad as Hopkins, but the opportunity cost wasn’t quite as high. He was the sixth receiver off the board in a typical draft and had an ADP of 14.3. That was still higher than Jordy Nelson, Mike Evans and Dez Bryant, but at least placed him beyond Green and Le’Veon Bell. After racking up 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, Robinson had 68 grabs for 801 yards and six scores this year. He had one 100-yard game and scored his final touchdown of the year the week before Thanksgiving.

Hopkins and Robinson ended the season as the WR39 and WR30, respectively. Cole Beasley was two spots in front of Hopkins. Kenny Still was one rung ahead of Robinson. Their lack of production and high draft-day cost torpedoed a significant number of fantasy teams.

Dishonorable Mention: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery

Tight End: Rob Gronkowski

Off the top, I said that a player who went bust because of injury was not taken into LVP consideration. That makes it awfully hard to find a true bust at the position. Injuries felled Gronkowski and Reed. Olsen came up shy of where he had been for fantasy owners the last two seasons, but he still had 77 catches for 1,051 yards. It’s hard to call any tight end with those numbers an LVP. Beyond those three, there was no player viewed as a sure thing at the position and the next two players by ADP, Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker, finished first and third, respectively, in total points at the position.

That brings us back to Gronkowski. Yes, he was mostly good when he played, posting three 100-yard games despite being active for just eight, and totaling 540 yards and three scores. Still, Gronk hurt his owners in two ways that make it hard to write him off as a total injury-related bust.

First, his decoy status played tricks on his owners in three of the eight games in which he was technically active this season. Second, Gronkowski had a 9.9 ADP. The only players selected ahead of him in a typical draft were Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Todd Gurley, Julio Jones, David Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott and DeAndre Hopkins. Any team that took Gronk in the first or second round was at a deficit for the entire season. In that way, he gives us just one of this season’s many illustrations of injury optimism being a danger for fantasy owners. That, coupled with a lack of great LVP options, is what makes Gronkowski the least valuable tight end of the 2016 season.

Dishonorable Mention: Greg Olsen, Coby Fleener

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