by Byron Hamilton
As we get closer to the start of each season there are always numerous players we are told to keep an eye on that are labeled as sleepers. These are generally lesser known or undervalued players that have a chance to vastly outperform their draft stock. Last season it was guys like Sam Bradford, Duke Johnson, and Nelson Agholor. At this point, I don’t need to tell you how those guys have panned out. There were quite a few surprises this season in fantasy football, but I wanted to point out a few players at each position that outperformed their expectations and were likely instrumental in leading more than a few people to fantasy championships. The ranking you will find below is where each player finished in standard scoring leagues at their respective positions as of week 17 along with their positional ADP (average draft position).
Matt Ryan – Atlanta Falcons
Final Ranking: #2 – ADP #19
Matt Ryan has been a breakout candidate for what seems like a lifetime. He’s always been a serviceable fantasy quarterback but has never developed into that top tier player that many believed he could be. Last season we saw the Falcons get off to a similar start to what we saw this year. The team was red hot and rattling off wins. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off midway through the season and Ryan once again underperformed when it mattered most. That has not been the case this year. He finished second in the league in both passing yards and touchdowns, and he showed great poise and decision making in the pocket. Matt Ryan’s future looks bright, but we’ll have to see what shakes out with OC Kyle Shanahan. He’s been tapped by a few teams for head coach interviews, and much of Ryan’s success this season can be linked to becoming more comfortable in Shanahan’s system in his second year with Atlanta. If the Falcons are forced to bring in another new offensive coordinator we could see some regression for Ryan next season.
Dak Prescott – Dallas Cowboys
Final Ranking: #6 – ADP #21
Dak Prescott has to be the biggest surprise at quarterback this season, right? Tony Romo suffered a fracture in his back in the preseason, and you could cut the tension in Dallas with a knife. It took a couple of weeks for him to get going as Dak didn’t throw his first touchdown until week three, but it was mostly smooth sailing from there on out. Despite the slow start, the rookie out of Mississippi State scored 17 or more fantasy points in all but three games this season. With Ezekiel Elliott being as good as advertised, Prescott was able to take advantage of an incredible rushing attack that kept opposing defenses honestly. Looking ahead to next year the breakout rookie could very well be a top five pick at the quarterback position.
Derek Carr – Oakland Raiders
Final Ranking: #9 – ADP: #12
I don’t have to tell you how incredibly unfortunate Carr’s injury was for the Raiders. Oakland was a legit Super Bowl contender before Carr broke his leg, and you hate to see his season end on such a sour note. That being said, Carr was a sleeper candidate before the season and finished within the top ten at his position. One of the main reasons he didn’t finish higher is the division the Raiders play in. Carr has the disadvantage of playing both the Chiefs and Broncos twice each year, and his worst fantasy totals of the season came against those two defensive juggernauts. The hope is that Carr can make a speedy recovery and build upon an impressive season next year. He’ll be drafted at in the top ten at quarterback for sure.
Marcus Mariota – Tennessee Titans
Final Rank: #15 – ADP: #18
While Mariota’s sophomore campaign ended with a string of bad games and a season-ending injury, it’s not hard to appreciate some of the stellar performances he had this year. He was one of the most consistent and dynamic quarterbacks in weeks five through twelve as he averaged nearly three touchdown passes per game over that span. The resurgence of DeMarco Murray helped keep opposing defenses from smothering Mariota, and the former Oregon standout made due with a mostly subpar receiving core outside of Rishard Matthews. You can expect the Titans to stick to their guns next season and continue to pound the ball in the ground game, which will continue to help keep the pressure off their young franchise quarterback. Mariota should be drafted as a fringe QB1 next season.
LeGarrette Blount – New England Patriots
Final Ranking: #6 – ADP: #36
Blount was the very definition of a steal this season. With all the hype surrounding Dion Lewis at the end of last season, it was easy to cast the bruising Blount aside. After all, this is a Tom Brady-led offense that utilizes the short passing game to move the chains. That certainly wasn’t the case this year. LeGarrette Blount rushed for over 1,100 yards and led all running backs with 18 rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a guy that was drafted behind players like Chris Ivory and Duke Johnson. Considering we’re talking about the Patriots, there’s no way to predict what Blount’s usage will look like next season. He’ll be turning 31 next year, and his running style really isn’t all that conducive with an aging running back. Still, he’s been generally underutilized in his career, so maybe there’s still some tread left on the tires.
Melvin Gordon – San Diego Chargers
Final Ranking: #7 – ADP: #23
I feel like Gordon’s success this season was due to a series of extremely unfortunate events. Then again, he very well could have just been primed for a breakout season. His rookie campaign was beyond disappointing from a fantasy football perspective, so I wasn’t very high on the guy coming into this year. However, the Chargers lost both Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead early in the season, which left San Diego with very limited playmaking ability on the offensive side of the ball. The result? Melvin Gordon dominated the carries out of the backfield, developed in the passing game, and scored a ton of touchdowns. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Gordon would’ve easily finished in the top five had he not been injured in week four against Carolina and been forced to miss the rest of the regular season. Assuming the Chargers are healthy on offense again to start the 2017 season, it’s hard to imagine that the coaching staff goes back to a one-two punch with Gordon and Woodhead. Then again, crazier things have happened.
Jordan Howard – Chicago Bears
Final Ranking: #9 – ADP: #68
Let’s be honest, you probably grabbed this kid off waivers after Jeremy Langford went down early in the season. If you did draft and stash Jordan Howard, then kudos to you. Howard was a highly touted running back out of Indiana that was ranked in the top ten at his position heading into the NFL draft. After watching him this season it’s not hard to see why. If I’m being honest, the Bears were a terrible football team this season that had little offensive firepower. I’m of the opinion that this led too much of Howard’s success. Alshon Jeffrey was disappointing/suspended, both Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer got injured, and Zach Miller was knocked out for the season. Howard was literally the last man standing at times this year. However, there’s no way Jordan Howard isn’t the starting running back for the Bears next season. The only negative is that Chicago will still more than likely be a bad team that struggles to score touchdowns, which makes Howard a low-end RB1 unless drastic changes are made to improve the offense.
Jay Ajayi – Miami Dolphins
Final Ranking: #11 – ADP: #35
The Miami Dolphins did everything they could to not deploy Jay Ajayi as their starting running back this season. After a failed attempt to lure CJ Anderson away from Denver the Dolphins made the decision to bring in Arian Foster, who was quickly injured and ended up retiring during the season. Ajayi was a one-man wrecking crew during his historic three-game explosion where he rushed for 529 yards and scored four touchdowns over that span. He was relatively quiet down the stretch before once again rushing for 200 yards against the Bills in week 16. Ajayi is a little tough for me to peg looking ahead to next season. You have to assume that Miami’s coaching staff was pleased enough with the breakout running back to give him the starting job for the foreseeable future, but Adam Gase clearly wasn’t much of a fan early this season.
Davante Adams – Green Bay Packers
Final Ranking: #7 – ADP: #67
It’s crazy that Davante Adams finished as a top ten fantasy wide receiver considering Green Bay toyed around with the idea of cutting him during the offseason. It’s also crazy that it’s Adams and not Randall Cobb that joins Jordy Nelson as the second Packers wide receiver to finish in the top ten. Adams’ numbers are bolstered significantly by the twelve touchdowns he snagged, which is tied for second in the league. He was three yards shy of cracking the 1,000-yard mark and is the only wide receiver in the top ten to not surpass that number. If I’m down a little on Adams heading into next season that’s why. Touchdowns are hard to come by in the NFL, and I would assume that the Packers will actually have some resemblance of a running game in 2017. Adams’ breakout season reminds me a lot of James Jones in years before. He’s a solid player, but I’d have a hard time pegging him as a top ten wide receiver next year.
Michael Thomas – New Orleans Saints
Final Ranking: #9 – ADP: #51
My first time watching Michael Thomas in the preseason told me all I needed to know. This kid is going to be a top level NFL wide receiver. It certainly helps that the rookie has the opportunity to catch passes from Drew Brees in an offense that throws the ball more than any other team in the league. Circumstance aside, the one-two punch of Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas is going to cause a lot of headaches for opposing defenses for years to come as long as Drew Brees sticks around. Thomas had either 60 yards receiving or a touchdown in eleven games this season, which actually makes him a little more reliable each week than Cooks. Assuming the Saints don’t make any drastic changes I think Cooks has a chance to finish within the top 15 again next season.
Tyrell Williams – San Diego Chargers
Final Ranking: #13 – ADP: #120
As was the case with Melvin Gordon, Tyrell Williams’ success this season was directly tied to a teammate suffering a season-ending injury. Keenan Allen was a player I really liked heading into this year, but the football gods had other plans. The general consensus was that Travis Benjamin would be the one to shine after Allen’s injury, but it was Tyrell Williams that stepped up to the plate for Phillip Rivers. He scored a touchdown or had at least 60 receiving yards in twelve games this season, but I wouldn’t expect a repeat performance in 2017. The assumption is Keenan Allen will be back and healthy to start the year, which will have a huge negative impact on Williams’ production.
Tyreek Hill – Kansas City Chiefs
Final Ranking: #12 – ADP: #133
This guy is something special. Off the field issues caused Tyreek Hill’s stock to plummet in the NFL draft last year, and the Chiefs seem to have placed a bet that struck gold. He’s a dynamic playmaker that’s a threat to score anytime he touches the ball and could have finished much higher had he been more involved as a receiver early in the season. It took an injury to Jeremy Maclin for the speedy rookie to take on more of a role in the offense, but it’s his involvement on special teams and as a runner that gives him another layer of fantasy value. It’ll be interesting to see how Hill develops in the offseason. He’s already an elite athlete, but if he can continue to develop as a wide receiver he could turn out to be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league.
Travis Kelce – Kansas City Chiefs
Final Ranking: #1 – ADP: #4
Ok, so maybe Kelce wasn’t a true breakout player this season. He was the fourth tight end taken on average in fantasy drafts, but I still think his jump from seventh last year to first this year is impressive. It also speaks to the regression we saw from the tight end position, in general, this season. Both Gronk and Jordan Reed were banged up through the year, so Kelce’s path to the top wasn’t as crowded as it could’ve been. He strung together four straight games with more than 100 yards receiving and passed the century mark in six out nine games in weeks 8 through 16. The only knock on the guy is he doesn’t score many touchdowns, but that’s expected with the Chiefs offense. You really could make a case for Kelce being the number one tight end heading into 2017. Gronk and Reed struggle to stay on the field due to injury, and Greg Olsen is getting older. He should be the number three ranked tight end at the very least.
Kyle Rudolph – Minnesota Vikings
Final Ranking: #3 – ADP: #21
You really have to wonder if Kyle Rudolph would’ve finished as high as he did had Teddy Bridgewater been the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings this season. Some might argue the Sam Bradford was a big reason the third-ranked fantasy tight end saw so much attention in the passing game. Adrian Peterson’s injury that knocked him out for basically the entire season certainly helped Rudolph’s production as well considering Jerick McKinnon is a far cry from AP. For whatever reason, Rudolph took a huge step forward and proved to be one of the more consistent tight ends in the league. He had at least 50 receiving yards or a touchdown in 12 out of 16 games and finished the season tied for third in the league in touchdowns scored. Considering the lack of depth at the tight end position, Rudolph’s draft stock should be relatively high heading into 2017. All of the big name guys will surely be selected ahead of him, but you can easily make a case that he’s a top ten pick at his position.
Cameron Brate – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Final Ranking: #6 – ADP: #34
In my opinion, Cameron Brate was the most pleasant surprise at the tight end position in fantasy football this season. After off the field issues sent Austin Seferian-Jenkins packing, Brate immediately stepped in to become arguably Jameis Winston’s second favorite target behind Mike Evans. You have to think he could’ve finished higher had he started the first few games of the season and not been placed on IR heading into week 17. While his yardage totals weren’t all that impressive, Brate’s eight touchdowns were tied for first at the tight end position with Hunter Henry (who was a nice little surprise himself). Tampa Bay has many of the pieces that you look for in a championship caliber team. Their defense is solid, they’ve got an up and coming young quarterback, and Mike Evans has turned into one of the best wide receivers in the league. Outside of Evans and Doug Martin, however, they lack playmakers on offense. I look for Brate to continue to entrench himself as one of the top targets in this offense moving forward unless the Bucs make drastic changes in the offseason.