What we learned in fantasy football in 2017, and what it means for 2018

Alvin Kamara went undrafted in many leagues due to the presence of Adrian Peterson. Those who did draft him were rewarded. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

First-year running backs have led the NFL in rushing for consecutive seasons, and this is a trend fantasy managers need to take seriously. After all, another loaded crew of healthy, determined players will be entering the league from college this summer, skilled enough to statistically dominate should opportunity arise, and that sure did happen in 2017. Four of the top 10 running backs in ESPN PPR formats were rookies this season, and it’s not a fluke. It’s the future, and while it doesn’t mean fantasy managers should avoid the older fellows like Mark Ingram and LeSean McCoy, it does mean we can’t ignore facts. It doesn’t matter what real-life round these young running backs go in; all that matters are the opportunities they receive.

Take New Orleans Saints star Alvin Kamara, for example. It seems ridiculous now, but fantasy managers actually believed the threat of Adrian Peterson was a good reason to bypass him. Kamara finished third among all running backs in PPR scoring, collecting 14 total touchdowns, catching a cool 826 yards worth of passes and looking like a future Le’Veon Bell. The Kansas City Chiefs chose Kareem Hunt in the third round, and when Spencer Ware -- remember him? -- got hurt, the starting role opened up. Hunt starred in September, led the NFL in rushing and scored 11 touchdowns. Neither the Jacksonville Jaguars nor Carolina Panthers made any secret about the critically relevant roles that awaited Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, and each finished as a top-10 option, though with a vastly different statistical path.

And there were more, of course. Those were the big names, but opportunity also presented itself for the Cincinnati BengalsJoe Mixon, Washington RedskinsSamaje Perine, both Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers and who knows what the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook could have achieved statistically had a devastating knee injury not intervened in his fourth NFL game. Fantasy managers have been advised for years to beware of rookie disappointments, and that remains the case at quarterback and wide receiver, where that trend didn’t alter this past season. But when it comes to running backs, the opportunities are coming earlier, and these guys are clearly, for the most part, ready to seize them.

That said, it’s all about value, and not every first-year running back starred. Mixon is the obvious option who had his chances and couldn’t thrive, but then again, look at the rest of his team. It didn’t thrive, either, until the very last stunning drive of the season. The aforementioned rookies are playoff-bound. Still, I admit I haven’t always been so eager to rely on a rookie, opting for safer, more proven choices like Ingram and McCoy, and those guys were great for the Saints and Buffalo Bills, respectively. Like everything else in fantasy and reality, there are no guarantees.

Most teams aren’t afraid to turn to players right out of college with less wear and tear on their bodies. We don’t know yet, of course, where the likes of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, Stanford’s Bryce Love and several talented Georgia Bulldogs -- Sony Michel and Nick Chubb are fantastic! -- are going to end up in the upcoming NFL draft, but more than ever I’m going to be willing to want to be the one in my leagues to find out, even if I have to reach just a little bit. Yep, I’ve learned that I’m evolving. Who knew?

Anyway, what a fantasy season it was, and hopefully you finished with a fantasy championship or two. Check out the final fantasy PPR leaders here. And below are more thoughts on what I learned and how it could affect future seasons.

New coaches, new systems, new stats: No, I didn’t think Los Angeles Rams disappointment (circa 2016) Todd Gurley II would lead the fantasy world in scoring. But I did invest in several places, buoyed by the thought that he’s far better than he showed in 2016. When a new coaching staff enters, it’s like the player gets a new start, like the player moved on. Invest in skills, and when awful coaches are replaced by younger, smarter ones, definitely take another look.

Second-year QBs: I found it shocking how many experts simply gave up on the Rams’ Jared Goff. Sure, he was terrible as a rookie. He also had limited coaching and help around him, whether it was the offensive line or the lack of receivers. Then it all changed and now he’s great. And Carson Wentz made MVP-like strides once the Philadelphia Eagles gave him players more reasonable than Dorial Green-Beckham to target. I’m not going to rank Chicago Bears rookie Mitchell Trubisky in my 2018 top 10, but I certainly won’t be dismissive in larger leagues, and that’s without even knowing whom the new coach or receivers will be. It can’t be worse!

Don’t be scared of depth charts: If Peterson hadn’t signed with the Saints, Kamara would have been selected in all leagues. We couldn’t have known he’d be that awesome, but still. So what if the foolish Houston Texans start someone other than Deshaun Watson in Week 1. You know he’s going to play and there’s intriguing upside. Was Minnesota’s breakout receiver, Adam Thielen, really their No. 2 option after Stefon Diggs? Nope. Was Baltimore find Alex Collins really going to lose playing time once he started thriving, simply because the Ravens had so many options? Nope. And Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate was a top-10 tight end yet again, despite the presence of a first-round rookie.

Bill Belichick is always right: Well, we kinda knew this already, but the fact that longtime backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was so good once his new team, the San Francisco 49ers, finally let him start games, is a credit to Belichick. Why trade him at all, one might query? Well, Tom Brady probably earned another league MVP award. He’s not going away soon. The Patriots sent Garoppolo to the other conference, and I’m thinking we might have a top-10 QB on our hands. Good for the Niners! Plus, who thought Dion Lewis could handle such a lofty workload or Chris Hogan could outscore Brandin Cooks for half the season until injury or that the Pats would play excellent defense in the second half of the season, which all happened. Belichick should win top coaching honors annually.

Stay healthy, Tom: All that said, for the second consecutive season a top wide receiver statistically vanished when the quarterback play was terrible, and it surprised me because it still seems a rarity. In 2016 it was Texans star DeAndre Hopkins being unable to overcome the incompetent Brock Osweiler. This past year it was Green Bay Packers star Jordy Nelson becoming basically unusable in fantasy with Brett Hundley replacing the injured Aaron Rodgers, which was odd because it didn’t harm the numbers for Davante Adams. The bottom line on this is we can’t prepare for QB injuries, so draft the top receivers regardless, but if -- and nobody should root for this -- Brady gets hurt next September and has to miss a month, I would no longer assume someone like Cooks is a top-20 option. I guess each situation is a bit different, but this is an angle we have to at least take into consideration.

Nobody is truly safe: Well, we knew that already, didn’t we? Injuries are the great equalizer in fantasy sports. They take the No. 1 pick (David Johnson). They take the top wide receiver right at playoff time (Antonio Brown) and arguably the No. 2 guy in October (Odell Beckham Jr.). They take great quarterbacks young and not young (Wentz, Watson, Rodgers). Always, always be prepared with a balanced bench. It’s not about handcuffing options, but paying attention at all times, be it the offseason or Week 5 when you’re undefeated.

End it in Week 16: I’m usually the one saying it doesn’t matter to me if I have to play a championship round in Week 17 because that’s still a big part of the NFL season and most top players don’t sit. But I think we learned that seemed to change this year, even with teams that did have something to play for. The Steelers and Rams games turned out to be meaningless, but their coaches sat the top options without that prior knowledge. Then other coaches played options when it didn’t seem like they needed to, such as the Jaguars. Hopkins sat with an injury nobody knew about. It’s a total guessing game! People won fantasy leagues with Andy Dalton, Kapri Bibbs and Chris Godwin leading the way, which is a different kind of achievement, I suppose, but for 2018, I’ll advise my leagues to finish it up before the final week.