Most Pleasant Surprises of the 2018 Season
Author: Marc Schwartz (@fantasyfballOG)
I’ve noticed that not many people actually learn from the fantasy season as a whole once it’s over. Some of the people who don’t have a team in the playoffs have already checked out on the season. While others who did make the playoffs are just making sure to start whoever on their roster is still actually playing. But I believe there is valuable insight to be had as the season comes to a close, and there’s no time like the present to start digesting it, while it’s still fresh in our mind. So over the next few weeks, we’ll be going over pleasant surprises, busts, and players who have had intriguing seasons, all so we have the freshest perspective possible for next year.
The Top 4 QB’s
We don’t see this; it doesn’t happen. The QB position in fantasy has been turned on its head from last year. It’s not uncommon to see a new face at or towards the top of the QB rankings, and it’s not uncommon to see someone have a big bounce back year. But the entire top 4 of the current QB rankings are either new faces or guys on a sharp bounce back.
1) Patrick Mahomes – There were plenty of experts, including some floating around this site, who loved Mahomes’ value in drafts. At his backup QB price, you could just cut him if he was a bust. But no other QB getting drafted in the later rounds had as much potential. And those who saw this clearly are being paid off with a record breaking season. For as little as people value the QB position, you don’t see many teams who have Mahomes who didn’t make the playoffs. He was the guy this year, and there was no risk where he was drafted. Keep the following in mind about Mahomes coming into the season: 1) Very strong offense around him. 2) Rushing ability 3) Big arm 4) Bad Defense keeping him throwing 5) Complete show of confidence by his team in letting Alex Smith go.
On the cusp of one of, if not the best fantasy season ever, we are all pleasantly surprised of course. But the blueprint for fantasy success and value was there all along. Next year, we should be willing to roll the dice on guys like Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. They will likely go in the double digit rounds, and both have top 5 upside.
2) Drew Brees – He’s no stranger to the ranking, yet most of us are very surprised. After all, Brees already has 8 more td’s (including rushing td’s) than he had all of last year, with a quarter of the season left to play. And while big bounce back seasons do happen, we wouldn’t have guessed it would be from a guy who is going to be 40 before the Super Bowl. Not with the Saints seemingly pivoting to a run-first identity behind an improving defense. Brees was bad last year for fantasy, and he’s a guy most experts shied away from at his ADP. The casuals won big with Brees this year, and they deserved to.
The mistake some of us made in evaluating Brees in the preseason, was overlooking the fact that his arm was still very live last year. Yes the play calling changed, and yes the Saints had a superior rushing attack. But Brees was still Brees when it came to throwing the ball. With Ingram being out for the first 4 games, knowing that Kamara is very dangerous as a pass catcher, a hot Brees start was slightly predictable. Last year’s low TD total from Brees did turn out to be an anomaly. My take away from this is that we should have counted the weight of his last 10 seasons more so than we did just the single season, especially since he showed no decline as a thrower.
3) Andrew Luck – The sure-fire comeback player of the year is having a magical season, and will probably get a few MVP votes as long as the Colts win a couple of more games. And it’s a shocker to some, myself included. Nobody is surprised that Luck is good; we all figured he would be. But we had plenty of reasons to think he’d be good in a “Chad Pennington” type of way. After his injury just seemed to linger endlessly, Luck’s arm looked like it had no gas in the preseason. He still isn’t throwing the fast ball like he used to, but he’s been adding mustard to his throws, seemingly game by game. And he’s always been accurate. But with a some-what shaky offense around him, Luck wasn’t supposed to completely go off this year, and that’s exactly what’s happened.
The take away here is that players with hall of fame pedigree can bounce back into their prime even after missing extended time from injuries that were previously thought to be significant and long term. Modern medicine is that good these days,…well for VIP’s like Andrew Luck it is. We saw Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning bounce back in a big way, and I think we need to re-evaluate the way we perceive “rust” and “last year’s injury.”
4) Jared Goff - We knew Goff had potential this year, and some did draft him late as a top of the line QB-2 with upside. But looking back, Goff had already proven to be a top of the line QB-2 in his second season, with 29 total td’s and 3804 passing yards. Heading into his 3rd season, with a team that everyone knew was loaded, Goff should have been treated like a low end QB-1 with upside. That would have made the “abandon QB until late” plan even more attractive than it already was.
Why did we miss it? Why is it so surprising to see Goff as an elite fantasy starter? Because he was truly terrible as a rookie, and most of us just couldn’t shake it off. I remember a lot of experts thinking Goff had a chance to regress slightly. And it all stems from that porous rookie season of his. Otherwise, a QB with the #’s he had in his second year, playing on as good a team as the Rams are, should have been pegged for a year 3 breakout. Remember that Peyton Manning had horrendous numbers in his rookie season. I think the take away here is that Goff, while never showing elite ability, proved that he could command this high octane offense. We shouldn’t be putting a lot of stock into a QB’s rookie season struggles if they show major signs of life in year 2. And yes, Mitch Trubisky, we’re taking you very seriously now.
Conner might miss the fantasy playoffs with his recent injury, but that doesn’t stop him from being the most important player in the 2018 fantasy football season. Conner was an elite RB-1, and was drafted in the last round or two, even when there were already some rumblings about Bell missing a week. He warped the entire fantasy season because most of the teams with Bell didn’t wind up with Conner. Why? Because we were routinely told that handcuffs are useless. I think there is a lot to learn from how this all unfolded.
Handcuffs do have a recent history of being wasted picks. You stash Gurley or Zek’s backup in any of the past couple of years, you just wasted a pick that could have otherwise been spent on a late round gem. And then even when you stash a handcuff like Ekeler behind Melvin Gordon, he’s merely thrown into a time share when the Gordon injury does wind up happening. This has mostly been the pattern in the last handful of years, so avoiding the traditional handcuff has been the right move. But it was different with Conner, and we should have seen it coming. Well, some of us did! I featured him twice in the preseason articles, citing Bell’s over-usage in previous years, and Conner’s ability to avoid a committee should Bell go down.
We’ve seen the handcuff backfire even when the injury occurs, because some 3rd down RB’s, like Ekeler, aren’t meant to be volume rushers regardless of the depth chart. But we knew Conner had volume rusher ability – he was no scat back. And while none of us could see Bell’s hold out scenario becoming what it was, we knew he had been overused the last few years. In the modern day NFL, over-usage for running backs is taken very seriously. If not by his team or even by the team’s physicians, certainly by the player himself, and the player’s family. Bell is already set for life, and taking a season off might have done a lot of good for his brain. I have to think this had at least some impact on the decisions that were made this year. And it won’t be the last time we see this.
Amazingly, Boyd has flirted with low end WR-1 value this year. This is a guy who wasn’t drafted, and who nobody really believed in after his first few big games. On pace for 92/1250/8, the misperception out there is that Boyd has gone off in AJ Green’s absence. To the contrary, Boyd’s #’s actually dipped in games where AJ didn’t play. And it makes sense for all of the reasons we’ve been chasing AJ Green’s compliment WR for years; anyone half way decent lined opposite AJ was going to have extremely soft coverage. The strategy failed us up until this year, because the Bengals never did have a half way decent complimentary WR. And coming into the season, Boyd hadn’t shown enough to think he’d be the first.
There was no real reason to draft Boyd, but there were early signs that he was a prime pickup, and then more signs that he was an elite trade target. Boyd showed early this season that he had very solid body control and footwork. And he’s always had a reputation for having good hands. He’s not a burner, and he’s not huge, but he showed great competence early this year, to be exactly what the Bengals needed, the perfect complement to AJ Green. I suspect Boyd will be undervalued next year, especially if he struggles with the increased coverage he gets in the final 4 games with AJ Green being sidelined.
On pace for 83/1191/4, in a very down year for tight ends, on a team that has been a complete mess and a seemingly different QB each week, Kittle has quietly been in contention for late round steal of the year. Barely being drafted as a TE-2 with upside, Kittle has become a locked and loaded top 5 TE this year, and I think that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
There were all sorts of clues floating around for Kittle’s breakout. I’m not going to make much of all of the coach-speak. Yes the 49ers staff was gushing about him, but no more so than the Bears staff was gushing about Trey Burton. The difference is that we already got to see it work at the end of last year. Kittle finished hot, and showed good chemistry with Jimmy G. He also played on a team that lacked an end zone threat at receiver, and his pass catching prowess was never in doubt. We had him pegged on the site, but the real surprise here is that his breakout continued even without Jimmy G. And I think that shows that the sky is the limit next year, when we can at least assume that he has better quarterbacking than he had this season.