There is a certain palpable anticipation that accompanies the hours, days or weeks leading up to a fantasy football draft. The truth is in-season roster management is essential to success in fantasy football, as the draft does not always go as planned. More specifically, players you take in a certain slot don't end up meeting expectations. That was the case for more than a handful of standout players during the 2016 season.
Let's look at eight of those players and spin things forward, noting my confidence level in them as things currently stand and how I view them leading into training camp.
What went wrong in 2016 for Newton? A lot. But let's start here: Newton's accuracy cratered. As a matter of fact, he was among the least accurate quarterbacks in football, completing just 52.9 percent of his throws. Let's imagine he had completed his career average leading up to 2016 (59.6 percent); he would have added 34 completions, 442 passing yards and 2.4 passing touchdowns.
Can it get back on track? Well, the additions of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel via the draft should help. Prior to 2016, Newton had completed 67.8 percent of his throws that traveled fewer than 10 yards down the field, with nearly 50 percent of his touchdown passes coming on such throws. He completed just 58.8 percent of such throws last season. Having McCaffrey and Samuel should make for a dramatically improved short-passing game, especially with yards after catch piling up from their unique athleticism.
Health is unquestionably part of the equation with Newton, as he underwent surgery for a partially torn rotator cuff this offseason, though the indications are he'll be ready in time for Week 1.
So what to expect in 2017? A bounce-back. There are questions as to whether the Panthers will utilize Newton as frequently as a runner in critical fantasy situations (e.g., inside the 10-yard line), but he's still the team's best power option. Plus, he'll get a boost as a passer through the aforementioned anticipated YAC (only five teams had a lower average than the Panthers in 2016).
Cam's 2016 season was in many ways an outlier. Truth be told, his 2015 season was too (in a different way), but I still view Newton as a top-eight quarterback leading into 2017, given his near incredible upside at the position.
Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams (RB12)
Gurley was consistent last year. Really consistent. The problem was the consistency didn't align with elite production. He was essentially an RB2 who was drafted to possibly be a top-five player in all of fantasy last year after a masterful 2015 campaign. But there's something to be said for consistent touches, as fantasy production is the output of opportunity, talent and circumstances. Gurley has handled 15-plus carries in 19 of his past 28 games -- no other back has done so more times in that stretch. That takes into account that the lowly 2016 Rams were often trailing by notable deficits.
He's a true workhorse, and no move made this offseason by Los Angeles suggests there is a steady threat to steal carries from Gurley this season. He also had 12 games with at least 45 rushing yards last season, which sounds average on the surface, however Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson and LeGarrette Blount were the only other players with more last season. Again, Gurley gets work.
What gives me confidence to keep Gurley on the fringe of RB1 territory entering 2017 is the expected workload combined with what should be a better set of offensive circumstances this year. The team jettisoned Greg Robinson in a recent trade after signing the top left tackle available in free agency (Andrew Whitworth) and forecasts a better offensive line in total. Quarterback Jared Goff must make strides in Year 2, but galvanized by a new coaching staff and decidedly better group of pass catchers, this offense shouldn't be so suffocated (which limited Gurley last year). Look for a better year.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers (RB20)
If the only factors involved in ranking were a player's ability and past production, Hyde would be much closer to a top-10 running back than my 20th running back overall. But they're not.
In fact, Hyde's ranking feels like an optimistic view, given how aggressively San Francisco addressed its backfield this offseason (signed Tim Hightower, traded for Kapri Bibbs, traded up to draft Joe Williams in the fourth round, signed fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who will carry the ball for them).
However, if Hyde emerges as the clear-cut top back in this system, watch out. Kyle Shanahan's offenses routinely churn out fantasy star backs (Alfred Morris and Devonta Freeman are among those who have previously thrived. And Hyde's talent is apparent: Since he entered the NFL in 2014, the only running back (among qualifying backs) with more yards per carry after contact is Eddie Lacy.
He had a red-hot start to 2016, as he had the fifth-most rushes in Weeks 1-4, tied with Melvin Gordon for the most rushing touchdowns in that stretch and was the fourth-best running back in fantasy to that point. When he plays, he produces. But health has been an issue (he's missed 14 of 48 possible games in his career), and coaches love reliability in the backfield.
There's upside aplenty, but I'm drafting Hyde a little lower than expected, based off of the idea that he'll be far from the only focal point of this running game.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos (RB26)
Anderson's scintillating second half of 2014 had so many -- present scribe included -- forecasting major things ahead in what, at the time, was still a fluid offensive beast in Denver. He had 10 combined touchdowns with 1,057 combined rushing and receiving yards in 2014, but since then, he has just 10 touchdowns, and he missed nine games in 2016.
There's competition in this backfield, as second-year player Devontae Booker and -- if healthy -- Jamaal Charles figure to factor into the equation. In the final four games before his injury, Anderson handled just 52.3 percent of the carries for Denver. He hasn't had more than 20 carries in a regular-season game since December 2014.
Denver has made an effort to distribute the workload in its backfield, and I believe that to be the case again this season. We shouldn't expect a repeat of Anderson's 2016 line of 110 rushes for 437 yards and four touchdowns, but given the workload concerns and the fact that the offensive line remains a question mark, I'm not drafting him to be a weekly starter for one of my two running back slots.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (RB38)
Let's start by reminding you that Martin will serve a suspension for the first three games of this season, which discounts his overall value when setting season-long ranks. And he wasn't great in the games he played last year, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and failing to record more than 87 rushing yards in a single game. But the signs this offseason are that Martin is rejuvenated and that Tampa Bay still views him as its starter upon his return.
Even while he struggled last season, Tampa Bay rode him hard down the stretch. Martin had three games with 20-plus attempts from Weeks 11 to 17, third-best in the NFL, despite the fact that he missed the last two weeks of the season. Although Tampa Bay's passing offense is loaded, head coach Dirk Koetter has shown a dedication to running the football in two seasons with Jameis Winston under center, as the Bucs have the fifth-most rushing attempts in that time.
Given the way he played last year and the suspension, don't be surprised if Martin slides in drafts. But he's a player I'll be targeting, because I'm of the belief he'll be the starter when he returns and have top-20 upside each week. For good measure, he has what appears to be a favorable schedule from Weeks 11 to 17 (Falcons, Packers, Lions, Falcons, Panthers and Saints).
Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (WR19)
Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins were arguably the two biggest busts among consensus first-round players last year, as the Jaguars' top target managed just 883 yards on 73 catches. He wasn't going to repeat his 14-touchdown season from 2015, but Robinson's 2016 was a bona fide surprise. Let's not dismiss that. And, in theory, the Jaguars will be a more balanced offensive attack this year with Leonard Fournette added, which could have some mitigating value for Robinson.
Still, it's hard to envision him being anything but the centerpiece of the passing game, as he was sixth in the NFL in targets last year, 10th in the NFL in red zone targets and sixth in the NFL in red zone touchdowns. When watching Robinson, the physical traits remain -- he has incredible size and speed, he's exceptional when the ball is in the air and he can dominate man coverage in the red zone.
This feels like a major get-right year for Robinson, with 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns well within reach. He's a low-end WR2 for me.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers (WR30)
What a difficult player to assess. Benjamin missed all of 2015 with an ACL injury and then dominated perhaps the best secondary in football (Denver) upon his return to action in 2016 (6 catches, 91 yards, 1 TD in Week 1) before recording 108 yards and two scores in Week 2. That was followed up by a catch-less Week 3 and a 14-game stretch in which he managed just 50 catches and zero 100-yard games.
But let's dig deeper into those numbers and express why there's confidence that Benjamin -- who needs to stay in shape, as has been an oft-discussed topic this offseason -- can look more like his rookie self than his 2016 self.
Benjamin had a five-week stretch of 70-plus yards, the second-most by any player in 2016. He had 11 games with 70 receiving yards or a touchdown. Steady, solid production. Just not major upside. There are more passing targets for Newton to work with this season, which is why I view Benjamin -- who was actually wide receiver No. 28 in PPR scoring last season -- as a flex play for me this season.
Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants (WR38)
It was at times difficult to watch Marshall in 2016, but for no fault of his own. His quarterback play was abysmal, as the Jets went through a roulette of signal callers, and it left Marshall in a non-ideal spot.
Here's the good news: He signed with a team that is going to use him plenty, even if he ends up as the third-most productive receiver on the Giants. No team used more three-receiver sets in 2016 than the Giants. Matchups should almost always be in the favor of the towering Marshall, who is one of just three players with at least eight touchdowns in four of the past five seasons. The Giants aren't afraid to throw it up in the red zone, either, as they have ranked sixth in red zone dropbacks over the past three seasons (the three years current head coach Ben McAdoo has been with the team).
Provided Eli Manning plays better this season than he did last, there's reason to believe this offense can sustain three relevant fantasy wide receivers, which is why I view Marshall as a WR4 who has flex upside, especially in PPR leagues.