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2017's fantasy football winners and losers: Year of the rookie RB

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Ryan barely a top-20 fantasy QB in 2018 (0:52)

Matt Ryan had a lackluster 2017 and Matthew Berry ranks him as QB19 for the 2018 campaign. (0:52)

The 2017 season was one we'll likely remember as the year of the rookie running back.

It's fitting, therefore, that it was a rookie running back, Kareem Hunt, who kicked things off with a record-setting NFL debut in the season's very first game. He scored 45.6 PPR (40.6 non-PPR) fantasy points in a performance that looks all the more impressive when you consider he did it on the road against the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions.

It's also fitting that the season ended with another rookie running back, Alvin Kamara, scoring 30.8 PPR (24.8 non-PPR) fantasy points on his way toward helping many of his fantasy teams to league championships.

Between those outings came many other headlines generated by freshman RBs -- Hunt and Kamara included -- in what was one of the deeper draft classes at the position in years. Kamara and Hunt both scored over 295 PPR fantasy points, ranking third (320.4) and fourth (295.2), respectively, at the position after having been third-round draft selections. Meanwhile Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were top-eight draft selections overall and both tallied over 225 PPR fantasy points -- Fournette with 230.2 and McCaffrey with 228.6.

Additionally, second-rounder Dalvin Cook was a top-10 running back at the time he tore his ACL in Week 4. All told, the 2017 rookie running back class totaled 2,751.84 PPR (2,116.84 non-PPR) fantasy points, the second-largest totals in a single year behind only 1960, in which rookies appeared in a record 644 games (231 more than this year's class), due in large part to the advent of the AFL.

This year's freshman class also averaged 6.66 PPR fantasy points per game, which trailed only 1957's 6.73 among seasons since 1950 -- the first year for which such data is fully available. Also, be aware that the 1957 rookie RB class appeared in just 177 games, the third-lowest amount during that time span.

Coming on the heels of a 2016 campaign also dominated by running backs, it's clear that the position has once again seized control as the game's most important (if it ever actually lost that honor in the first place). Amazingly, 11 of this season's top-15 PPR RBs will begin the 2018 season age-26 or younger, and six of them won't have yet celebrated their 24th birthdays. Toss 2018 rookie Saquon Barkley and other strong candidates into the fantasy draft pool, and there's plenty of reason to be excited about the position's future.

With that in mind, this year's top fantasy winner is an obvious one who fits the theme:

Top winner: Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

He was fantasy football's No. 4 scorer overall (320.4 PPR points), ranked third among all players in VBD (Value Based Drafting) fantasy points and finished No. 17 in non-PPR scoring (239.4) -- all despite going undrafted in a majority of ESPN leagues in the preseason. Selected in only 16.6 percent of leagues prior to the Week 1 kickoff, Kamara found himself on 42.3 percent of rosters ahead of his Week 4 breakthrough game (25.6 PPR and 15.6 non-PPR points), which was played in London.

Coming out of the bye entering Week 6, and with former teammate Adrian Peterson having been traded to Arizona, Kamara's roster percentage soared to 69.3 and ended up being greater than 92 percent in each of his final eight games. From Week 6 forward, he was the No. 3 scoring running back in PPR formats (234.6 points), behind only Todd Gurley II (258.7) and Le'Veon Bell (245.1), and No. 4 in non-PPR (179.6), behind Gurley (216.7), Bell (187.1) and teammate Mark Ingram (185.1) -- the latter's role making it all the more remarkable that Kamara could maintain that level of production.

Kamara found himself on a whopping league-leading 77.4 percent of ESPN playoff rosters this season, a number that was 11.2 percent greater than the next most-common player. His appearance on 48.3 percent of finalists' rosters was again tops in the league by 9.1 percent over No. 2. While Gurley ultimately was the most-common player on eventual fantasy champions, Kamara's 24.1 percent was second-best, underscoring his importance to team success in 2017.

By scoring 320.4 PPR fantasy points this season, Kamara enjoyed the fifth-best season by any rookie running back in NFL history, trailing only Eric Dickerson's 392.2 in 1983, Edgerrin James' 369.9 in 1999, Billy Sims' 339.4 in 1980 and Ezekiel Elliott's 325.4 in 2016. Kamara also finished 21st all-time among rookies using non-PPR scoring.

Kamara's fantasy value entering 2018 now awaits an important decision, likely to come later in the week: Ingram's candidacy for the Associated Press All-Pro Team. Should Ingram make that team as either a first-team running back or "flex," his contract automatically voids and he'll become a free agent. In the event that Ingram departs New Orleans -- which isn't necessarily likely -- Kamara, who tallied just 120 rushing attempts this season, could see much more rushing work in 2018, boosting his fantasy value.

Top loser: Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers

While he has a viable excuse for his disappointing season -- the broken collarbone suffered by QB Aaron Rodgers in Week 6 put a severe drain on Nelson's production -- the level of patience Nelson's fantasy managers exercised with him made his output all the more difficult to absorb.

Selected on average at No. 7 overall in the preseason, Nelson was rostered in greater than 92 percent of ESPN leagues every week until Week 17 (86.2 percent), when he was scratched due to a shoulder injury. He was also started in greater than 20 percent of ESPN leagues in every one of his 15 active games, and greater than 60 percent in nine contests, including all seven of Rodgers' starts.

The 2017 campaign wasn't all bad for Nelson. At the time of Rodgers' injury, and including the remainder of that Week 6 game, Nelson had 90.0 PPR fantasy points through the season's sixth week, sixth-best among wide receivers. His 65.0 non-PPR points was fourth-best at the WR position. Brett Hundley's installation as Green Bay's quarterback, however, caused Nelson's fantasy output to plummet. Nelson scored just 47.2 PPR (19.2 non-PPR) fantasy points in his nine remaining healthy games. During that 10-week span (Weeks 7-16), Nelson ranked just 78th (100th) among wide receivers.

Though Nelson will enter next season at age 33, Rodgers' healthy return would almost assuredly restore much of the receiver's fantasy stock. After all, in the past 16 games started by both Nelson and Rodgers, Nelson totaled 294.0 PPR (200.0 non-PPR) fantasy points. This season, only Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins scored more in either scoring format.

More winners

Todd Gurley II, RB, Los Angeles Rams: The "Fantasy MVP" case is an easy one for Gurley. He found himself on the greatest number of ESPN fantasy championship rosters, at 34.4 percent. He was also the top-scoring player in PPR formats by more than 35 points (383.3), and his 319.3 non-PPR points trailed only Russell Wilson's 347.92. In the process, Gurley enjoyed the 20th-best single-year PPR total (21st non-PPR) in NFL history -- and he did that despite sitting out Week 17 in order to rest up for the postseason. Gurley's 25.6 PPR points-per-game average was actually the 14th-best rate among running backs since 1950:

What's more, Gurley enjoyed one of the most dominating fantasy-playoff (Weeks 14-17) runs ever, scoring 123.1 PPR (107.1 non-PPR) points during that four-week span, tops in the league by roughly 30 points in either format. Again, remarkably, he did that despite playing in only three of those four games. Counting only Weeks 14-16, Gurley scored more fantasy points in either format than any other player in history in those specific weeks.

Counting the last four scheduled regular-season team games during the 16-game era (1978 forward) -- those roughly coinciding with our "fantasy playoffs" -- Gurley's totals ranked 12th (PPR) and 18th (non-PPR), and all of the players who scored more points played in all four games in their respective seasons. Just as he was entering 2016, when he was the No. 2 running back and No. 4 player overall in terms of ADP, Gurley is again likely to be one of the first picks off the board in 2018 drafts.

Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Since he was lost for the season to a torn ACL in Week 14, it's easy to forget that Wentz was well on his way to a truly historic, breakthrough year. He finished his sophomore year with 281.74 fantasy points in 13 games played, for an average of 21.7, trailing only Cam Newton's 23.1 in 2011 (age 22) and Dan Marino's 22.5 (age 23) on the all-time list among players who started at least half of their team's games in a season played entirely before turning 25.

Despite the missed time, Wentz also scored the ninth-most fantasy points by any quarterback in his sophomore (second) NFL season. In addition, only two quarterbacks in history scored more fantasy points through the first 13 team games of either their first or second NFL seasons: Newton (306.02 in 2011, his rookie year) and Robert Griffin III (286.88 in 2012, also his rookie year). Depending upon Wentz's recovery from surgery, he could make a compelling case for a top-three pick at his position in 2018.

Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: Though he was overtaken by Kamara for the season's rookie lead in PPR fantasy points, Hunt paced this year's freshman class with 242.2 non-PPR fantasy points. That non-PPR total ranked 17th all-time among rookie running backs, and his 295.2 PPR points ranked 14th. Hunt's season had its ups and downs to be sure, but it featured exceptional performances at the very beginning and very end. His 112.9 PPR fantasy points from Weeks 1-4 were second-highest among all running backs, as were his 92.5 PPR points from Weeks 14-17, with Gurley being the only one with more during either time span. Hunt could be a first-round pick entering 2018.

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: Though somewhat quiet during the fantasy playoffs -- his 68.48 fantasy points during the Weeks 14-17 span came in only eighth among quarterbacks -- Wilson set a new personal best for fantasy points (347.92) and captured the top-scoring spot at his position by a 48.44 margin. It was the largest gap by the league's leading quarterback since Peyton Manning's record-setting 409.98 campaign of 2013, which was 52.30 points more than the No. 2 quarterback.

Wilson now has three seasons of 325-plus fantasy points, moving him into a tie with Aaron Rodgers for the most such seasons by any quarterback before his 30th birthday. A top-five drafted quarterback in each of the past three years, Wilson is a virtual lock to be a top-three quarterback in 2018, and he might well enjoy his best ADP yet.

Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers: While more prominent names Antonio Brown (310.3) and DeAndre Hopkins (309.8) scored more PPR fantasy points for the season, Allen enjoyed a thoroughly dominating finish to 2017 that landed him on 13.4 percent of ESPN championship rosters. His 174.0 points from Week 11 forward were nearly 30 more than any other wide receiver. During the 16-game era (1978 and after), only 16 wide receivers scored more in their teams' final seven games of a season. Allen is a clear top-10 wide receiver and second-round pick entering 2018.

Jacksonville Jaguars D/ST: The Jaguars were a trendy sleeper pick, selected in the ninth-most leagues (82.6 percent) overall, but ranking only 10th in ADP among defenses that were drafted in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Jacksonville became the first defense to reach the 200-fantasy point plateau since the 2012 Chicago Bears (214), scoring a league-high 208.

Less a streaming pick than it was a "take one of the last ones, with its arrow pointing up," the Jaguars scored double-digit fantasy points in 11 different games -- the most by any defense since the 2013 Seattle Seahawks (12). With elite cornerback play from Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. and a strong defensive front including Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Malik Jackson, the Jaguars are now likely to enter 2018 one of fantasy's top D/ST selections.

Greg Zuerlein, K, Los Angeles Rams: It's a shame that a herniated disc requiring surgery ended his season prematurely, because he wasn't only on a record-setting pace for kicker fantasy points -- he was on track to obliterate David Akers' six-year-old record (182.56 points, set in 2011). Zuerlein finished with 180 fantasy points in his 14 games, tied with Gary Anderson (1998) for the second-best all-time total.

Among pure placekickers -- in other words excluding dual-role historical players like George Blanda and Gino Cappelletti -- Zuerlein's 180 points were 24 more than any other kicker had posted through his team's first 14 games of any season (Mike Vanderjagt in 2003 and Stephen Gostkowski in 2015 both scored 156 to tie for second-most). That Zuerlein was drafted in only 0.7 percent of ESPN leagues underscores why you should never pay for a kicker. Always make them your final pick.

More losers

Terrelle Pryor Sr., WR, Washington Redskins: November ankle surgery ended his season prematurely, but Pryor's lack of productivity in the nine games prior to that caused a severe drain on his fantasy teams. He scored 50.0 PPR (30.0 non-PPR) fantasy points before getting hurt, less than one-quarter of his numbers in his 16-game, breakthrough 2016 (213.44 and 136.44) -- and that was with his quarterback, Kirk Cousins, averaging 18.7 fantasy points in Pryor's nine games played. Pryor's quarterbacks with the Cleveland Browns the year before averaged just 13.8.

Pryor was rostered in greater than 90 percent and started in at least 30 percent of ESPN leagues in each of his games through Week 7. He enters free agency once again this offseason, and will not only need to find a team with a large enough opportunity for a rebound, but will once again have to earn his fantasy managers' trust.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: The "top winner" of 2016 regressed in a major way in 2017, following up his career-best 347.46 fantasy points from last season with just 228.10 this year -- his worst single-year total since his sophomore effort of 2009 (183.54). The No. 4 quarterback off the board in the preseason, Ryan finished No. 15 in QB scoring, with a mere two games within the top 10 in any given week -- 22 other quarterbacks had at least four such games.

Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders: The No. 10 wide receiver off draft boards and a near-universal starter in ESPN leagues for each of his first three regular-season games, Cooper was one of the most disappointing players in fantasy. Through the first six weeks of 2017, his 38.6 PPR fantasy points were tied for 71st among wide receivers and his 20.6 non-PPR points clocked in at No. 83. That made him an extremely difficult player to trust for the remainder of the year, evidenced best by his 50.9 percent start rate for his 44.0 PPR/33.0 non-PPR point Week 8 -- a game that accounted for roughly 30 percent of his seasonal production in either scoring format.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins/Philadelphia Eagles: The No. 8 running back off the board, and a second-rounder on average in the preseason, Ajayi had one of the most disappointing RB seasons that wasn't mostly influenced by injury. He scored a mere 135.1 PPR fantasy points in his 14 games. Of course, it wasn't entirely his fault, as his Halloween trade from the Dolphins to the Eagles resulted in a significant reduction in his role. He averaged 21.7 touches per game with the Dolphins, but only 11.4 with the Eagles. With LeGarrette Blount headed for free agency, however, Ajayi could take over as the Eagles' "go-to" running back in 2018. A potentially big increase in touches could make him quite the value selection.

Simply the facts

  • Antonio Brown, who led all wide receivers with 310.3 PPR fantasy points, reached the 300-point plateau in that scoring format for the fifth time in his career, tied for the second-most in history (with Marvin Harrison) among WRs, trailing only Jerry Rice's seven. Brown, however, hasn't yet turned 30 years old, giving him the most such seasons by any wide receiver before that milestone birthday (Rice and Sterling Sharpe each had four by their 30th birthdays).

  • Dak Prescott's 260.66 fantasy points represented a step backward from the 286.88 in his rookie year of 2016, but they gave him a total of 547.54 in his first two NFL seasons. Among quarterbacks, only Cam Newton (693.80) and Andrew Luck (569.04) scored more fantasy points in their first two NFL seasons combined.

  • Evan Engram's 173.6 PPR fantasy points were the fourth-highest total in history from a rookie tight end, trailing only Mike Ditka's 235.6 in 1961, Keith Jackson's 203.9 in 1988 and Charlie Young's 184.8 in 1973.

  • The 2016 NFL draft represented the seventh time in the Common Draft era (1967 forward) that quarterbacks were selected with both of the first two overall picks. Jared Goff (1st) and Carson Wentz (2nd) were the first two off the board, and both scored 250-plus fantasy points as sophomores in 2017. Wentz scored 281.74, and Goff had 255.26. It was only the third time in history that quarterbacks selected back-to-back to open the NFL draft scored that many points in the same season: Luck and Griffin did it as rookies in 2012, while Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota did it as sophomores in 2016.

  • Le'Veon Bell scored 341.6 PPR fantasy points in his 15 games, giving him two seasons (out of five in the NFL) of at least 340 points. He's one of only 11 running backs in history with multiple seasons of that many points, and only the fifth to do so by his age-25 season, joining Marcus Allen (1984-85), Emmitt Smith (1992, 1994), Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2002-03) -- each of whom also did it exactly twice by that stage of their careers.

  • The Baltimore Ravens D/ST scored 20-plus fantasy points on five occasions in 2017 -- the most by any D/ST since the Chiefs had five such games in 2013.

  • Harrison Butker's 156 fantasy points were the third-most by any rookie kicker in history, behind only Blair Walsh's 165 in 2012 and Cody Parkey's 158 in 2014.

  • Tom Brady's 295.88 fantasy points set a record for a season played entirely at the age of 40 or older, breaking Warren Moon's prior mark of 219.12 set in 1997. Incidentally, only one quarterback since 1950 has scored even 100 points in a year played entirely at the age of 41 -- Brady's age entering 2018 -- or older. That would be George Blanda, who scored 107.84 as a 43-year-old in 1970 and 100.12 as a 44-year-old in 1971.

  • Though he missed six games due to suspension this season, Ezekiel Elliott has played 25 games in his two-year NFL career, during which time he has scored 528.6 PPR and 470.6 non-PPR fantasy points. Among running backs since 1950, those totals rank No. 5 (PPR) and No. 4 (non-PPR) through that many career contests.

  • Deshaun Watson appeared in only seven games and made six starts before tearing his ACL in an early-November practice, but he scored 168.86 fantasy points before getting hurt. That was the most by any quarterback since 1950 through that many career games. Among all positions, only Eric Dickerson (200.5) and Marcus Allen (174.38) scored more PPR fantasy points through that many games, while only Dickerson (176.5) scored more using non-PPR scoring. Watson is also one of only three players since 1950 to score 30-plus fantasy points three times in his first seven career games, joining Dickerson and Billy Sims.

  • Quarterbacks, as a whole, scored 7,945.68 fantasy points in 2017, a 447.72 point (and 5.3 percent) drop-off from 2016. Wide receivers scored 16,080.68, a 2,039.76 point (and 11.3 percent) drop-off. Those were the lowest totals at either position since 2011 and 2009, respectively. Quarterbacks also tallied only 125 instances of 20-plus fantasy points in a game, a 12.6 percent drop-off from 2016, and the position's lowest number since 2011.