The freshmen ruled this school.
If we can pick only one fantasy football headline from 2014, it would be this: We just witnessed the greatest rookie wide receiver class in NFL history.
It's the truth. Rookie wide receivers, as a whole, scored 1,696 fantasy points this season, the most in any year since 1960. That's 229 more than were scored by the second-most productive rookie class in 1987, but there's a caveat with that group: That was the year of the four-week NFL players' strike, which led to teams using replacement players, many of them "rookies," for a three-week span. Compare this year's rookie wide receiver production to the third-best year of 2012; that class totaled 1,215 points, 481 fewer than in 2014.
In the process, 2014 placed two wide receivers among the top 10 all-time in terms of fantasy points by a rookie: Odell Beckham Jr.'s 197 placed second, and Mike Evans' 168 placed eighth. Here's how their seasons, along with Kelvin Benjamin's (144), ranked among NFL rookie wide receivers since 1960, both using ESPN standard and PPR (point per reception) scoring:
Beckham's rookie efforts were most extraordinary. For some fun, let's throw in some other historical notes excluded from the chart:
• To find the only other receiver to score more fantasy points than him in a rookie campaign, you need to include AFL seasons and Bill Groman's 219 in 1960. Include that one and Beckham's season ranks third-best in the past 55 seasons.
• Include seasons before 1960 and two join the top 10, both of which fall short of Beckham's 197. The first was eerily similar to Beckham's: Billy Howton scored 196 fantasy points in 12 games for the 1952 Green Bay Packers; remember that the NFL schedule was only 12 games back then.
The other: Harlon Hill's 179 points in 12 games for the 1954 Chicago Bears. That means that, all-time, Beckham's season placed third among rookie wide receivers.
Pro-Football-Reference.com collects fantasy points using fractional scoring, to provide another rankings reference. If we use their rookie wide receiver rankings, Beckham still finishes third; his 204 fantasy points trail Moss' 235.7 in 1998 and Groman's 221.4 in 1960. Howton's 1952 season falls just shy (200.1).
• Beckham's 197 fantasy points through his first 12 NFL games are a record for a wide receiver. Randy Moss (162, 1998 Weeks 1-13) and Bob Hayes (155, 1965 Weeks 1-13) were the only other wide receivers with as many as 150. If we include all positions, Beckham's performance through his first 12 career contests ranks among the all-time greats:
Quarterbacks: Still stealing the show
Bad news, folks: Quarterbacks, in 2014, fell short -- by 11 points -- in their quest for a fifth consecutive season setting a new single-season standard for total fantasy points accrued by the position. But worry not, as the position amassed 7,819 total fantasy points, which is the second-most in any season by the position and a whopping 264 fantasy points more than the third-most in a season, 2012 (7,555). It's still a passing league, even if we didn't have a record-setter at the top, as we did last year.
To that end, quarterbacks did set one record: Fourteen reached the 240-fantasy-point plateau -- that number's significance being that it's 15 points per game for a 16-game season -- the most in any season in history. That's more than the number that did it in 2013 (13), 2012 (11) or either 2009 or 2011 (9 each). By the way, three others finished within six points of 240: Cam Newton (237), Matthew Stafford (237) and Colin Kaepernick (234).
Two quarterbacks posted fantasy point totals that ranked among the NFL's 20 best since 1960, and here's where they placed:
Aaron Rodgers: With his 342 fantasy points, Rodgers has four seasons with at least 300 (327, 2009; 385, 2011; 329, 2012; 342, 2014), making him only the second player with at least that many. He is also one of only 15 players since 1960 to top the fantasy leaderboard in two seasons, with Drew Brees the only other active player to do it.
Andrew Luck: He scored 336 fantasy points in his age-25 season. Only four quarterbacks scored more than 320 fantasy points in a season -- a 20-point average over a 16-game season -- at a younger age: Cam Newton (352 in 2011, age 22 years, 123 days as of his Week 1 game), Dan Marino (353 in 1984, 22 years, 353 days), Matthew Stafford (333 in 2011, 23 years, 216 days) and Daunte Culpepper (324 in 2000, 23 years, 219 days). Luck began Week 1 of the 2014 season at age 24 years, 360 days.
Peyton Manning: With his 307 fantasy points, he became the first player in NFL history with at least five seasons of 300-plus (350, 2004; 302, 2006; 304, 2012; 406, 2013; 307, 2014). Manning's 1,017 fantasy points from 2012 to 2014 are the second-most all-time in a three-year span, behind Drew Brees' 1,065 from 2011 to 2013, and his 713 fantasy points in 2013 and 2014 combined trail only Priest Holmes (720, 2002-03), Brees (717, 2011-12) and Rodgers (714, 2011-12).
Manning also broke another one of his own records: He is the oldest player in history to notch a 300-point fantasy season, doing so as a 38-year-old.
Russell Wilson: With his 312 fantasy points in his third NFL season, Wilson has 827 points in his first three years in the league combined. Since 1960, that trails only Newton's total in his first three seasons (943), and it tops both Eric Dickerson's (818) and LaDainian Tomlinson's (817). In addition, following up on a point made in this space last week, Wilson's 312 fantasy points gave him the fifth-best single-season fantasy point total by a quarterback who derived at least 20 percent of his production via rushing, behind only Steve Young (353 in 1998, 21.5 percent via rushing), Newton (352 in 2011, 41.5), Randall Cunningham (342 in 1990, 34.5) and Daunte Culpepper (324 in 2000, 25.0).
Running backs: Murray's greatness is relative
Quarterback scoring was slightly down this season, so it makes sense that running back scoring was up. But there's that word again: slightly. Running backs, as a whole, averaged 0.037 fantasy points per game more this season than last -- and bear in mind that that's accounting for a team's average contribution from all its running backs. Just like last season, injuries, committees and general unpredictability from the position led to another underwhelming year from this group.
From a historical perspective, running back was one of two positions -- team defense/special teams was the other -- that didn't place a single player in the top 20 seasons since 1960 in terms of fantasy points. The year's leader, DeMarco Murray, didn't even come close; his 282 fantasy points placed 46th since 1960 and were 21 points shy of a top-20 ranking.
Here's a frightening fact: Only 11 running backs managed to score as many as 160 fantasy points this season, which is merely a 10-point average over a 16-game season. That's the fewest to do it since 1996, and you have to go back to 1994 to find a season with fewer (9).
Le'Veon Bell: Though his 272 fantasy points paled in comparison to the greatest years since 1960 -- with 53 better seasons during that time span -- Bell's performance was noteworthy in that it came during only his second season in the NFL, with him only 22 years, 201 days old as of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 contest. Only two running backs scored at least that many fantasy points at a younger age: Clinton Portis (272 in 2002, 21 years, 7 days as of Week 1) and Edgerrin James (295 in 1999, 21 years, 42 days as of Week 1; 315 in 2000, 22 years, 33 days as of Week 1).
In addition, Bell's 2014 tied for 10th in terms of fantasy points by running backs playing in either their first or second season in the NFL, and it was seventh among those playing their sophomore year. Bell's 355 fantasy points using PPR scoring, incidentally, ranked 29th since 1960.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard: They accrued 171 and 132 fantasy points, respectively, making the Cincinnati Bengals the only team to have two running backs score 120 or more fantasy points. They are the eighth team to do that in the past five seasons. Consider that only 10 teams had two running backs score at least 120 fantasy points during a 15-year span from 1990 to 2004.
Wide receivers: More productive than ever
Here's the position that set a new standard for scoring: Wide receivers as a whole scored 10,534 fantasy points in 2014, breaking 2013's mark (10,531) by a mere three points. Yes, Antonio Brown's touchdown catch with less than three minutes remaining on "Sunday Night Football" put the position over the top.
Brown was the only wide receiver, though, to finish with a fantasy point total that ranked among the top 20 at his position since 1960:
More on Brown: We've all heard about his 129 catches, second-most in a season in NFL history behind only Marvin Harrison's 143 in 2002. Those made him especially attractive in PPR scoring -- leagues that award an additional point per reception -- and earned him an even higher spot on that list:
Demaryius Thomas: By scoring 223 fantasy points, he topped the 200-point plateau in consecutive seasons. That makes Thomas only the seventh NFL wide receiver to do that since 1960, joining Roy Green (1983-84), Jerry Rice (1986-87, 1989-90, 1993-95), Randy Moss (1998-2000), Marvin Harrison (1999-2002), Terrell Owens (2000-02) and Calvin Johnson (2011-13). Thomas is also only the eighth NFL wide receiver to have multiple seasons of 200-plus fantasy points, with Sterling Sharpe the only one joining the previous list (his three years of 200-plus came in nonconsecutive years).
Odell Beckham Jr.: He's the player who's so fun, he earns two spaces in this column. You've seen Beckham's rookie feats above; now consider this: He scored 185 fantasy points in his final 10 games, which was the portion of the season missed by Victor Cruz following the latter's injury. The chart below lists the only instances by any wide receiver -- not just a rookie -- scoring at least that many points over any 10-game stretch.
That's some exclusive company in which Beckham finds himself. In fact, it can be accurately noted that he is one of only five players to ever score at least that many fantasy points in a span of 10 consecutive team games scheduled within the same season: Rice's 208 in 1987 Weeks 6-15, Moss' 196 in 2007 Weeks 1-11, Muhammad's 191 in 2004 Weeks 8-17 and Rice's 187 in 1986 Weeks 2-11 were the only ones better. It has been that kind of year for Beckham.
T.Y. Hilton: Nothing against his 172 fantasy points, which made his season the 10th-best among wide receivers, but please don't drag out that tired "third-year receivers" argument using him as evidence entering 2015 draft season. The truth is that third-year wide receivers totaled 1,267 fantasy points in 2014, which was the lowest total by that class since 2009 (also 1,267), nearly 200 fewer than were scored by the 2013 class (1,431) and 406 fewer than the 2012 class (1,673). By the way, let's not forget how exciting some of the names from this year's junior class looked in August: Alshon Jeffery (167 fantasy points), Michael Floyd (111), Kendall Wright (104), Rueben Randle (103) and don't forget Josh Gordon (28, though at the time most fantasy owners were aware he'd miss a significant chunk of 2014).
Tight ends: I am Gronk!
Oh, what might have been, had the New England Patriots allowed Rob Gronkowski to play a 16th game in Week 17, in a season fresh off January surgery to repair both the ACL and MCL in his right knee. Still, the fact he tied for the fifth-best season by any NFL tight end since 1960 is a remarkable feat, considering the difficulty most players face coming back from such an operation.
Antonio Gates: His 148 fantasy points might not have set a career high -- scored 169 in 2004, 164 in 2005 and 156 in 2009 -- but they weren't expected considering his age and the presence of young up-and-comer Ladarius Green. Gates, in fact, became the oldest tight end since 1960 to score at least 140 fantasy points in a season; he broke the previous mark held by Pete Retzlaff (172 fantasy points in 1965, age 34 years, 29 days entering Week 1). Gates was 34 years, 82 days old as of the San Diego Chargers' Week 1 contest.
Jace Amaro and the rookie class: Coming off a relatively productive 2013 for the rookie tight end class -- that group scored a since-1960 high of 517 fantasy points -- the 2014 freshman tight end crop must be labeled a disappointment. Amaro's 41 fantasy points led the way, which was ahead of only Charles Clay's 38 in 2011 as far as the season's rookie tight end leaders are concerned since 2001. And remember, this year had other attractive names in Eric Ebron (26 fantasy points) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (28), to name two.
Travis Kelce: The sophomore class, however, enjoyed a bit more success, paced by Kelce's 108 fantasy points. That was the eighth-most productive season by a second-year tight end since 2001, and it was the 16th-most-productive season by a second-year tight end since 1960.
Kickers: Who's the new kid?
With increasing league scoring comes greater kicker point totals. While the 2014 kicker position didn't set a single-season record -- the per-team, per-game fantasy points average by kickers was roughly 0.4 lower than in the record-setting 2013 campaign -- it still amassed nearly 4,000 fantasy points for the third-most productive season ever by the position.
For the third consecutive year, Patriots place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski registered a seasonal fantasy point total that placed among the NFL's top 10 since 1960; his 168 fantasy points ranked seventh. Rookie Cody Parkey, meanwhile, scored 158 fantasy points for the 12th-best season:
More on Parkey: His was the second-best season by a rookie kicker, behind Blair Walsh's 165 in 2012. That's particularly impressive if you consider that Parkey didn't join the Philadelphia Eagles until Aug. 20 -- acquired via trade from the Indianapolis Colts -- and a week later was a surprise winner of the team's place-kicker job ahead of Alex Henery. At the time of the NFL season opener Sept. 4, Parkey was owned in only 10.1 percent of ESPN leagues, while Henery was still on rosters in 0.5 percent. Come Week 17, Parkey was started in 67.0 percent of ESPN leagues, the second-highest percentage of any kicker.
Team defense/special teams: Don't stop streamin'
Advocates of the stream D/STs strategy can use 2014 as their most compelling evidence yet. This season saw the least overall production from team defense/special teams in terms of fantasy points since the 1982 strike season, and D/STs scored 207 fewer fantasy points in total than in any other season since the NFL expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978.
The Buffalo Bills' D/ST led the way with 170 fantasy points, but understand that that set an all-time low for the season's No. 1 scoring D/ST in a 16-game season; the 2011 San Francisco 49ers previously held the mark (172). And the Bills, let's not forget, were the 16th D/ST off the board in average drafts on ESPN in the preseason, available as free agents in 67.4 percent of leagues as of the NFL kickoff Sept. 4.
Now, how about the next four most productive defenses? The Eagles (153, second) were undrafted in ESPN leagues, available as free agents in 81.8 percent of leagues as of Sept. 4; the Houston Texans (148, fourth) were selected 11th, available in 60.7 percent; and the Detroit Lions (136, fifth) were undrafted and available in 90.8 percent.
Only the Seattle Seahawks (152 points, third) were relatively productive comparative to draft price; they were the No. 1 D/ST selected -- albeit at the whopping and, frankly, absurd price of the No. 48 overall pick. In leagues where they slipped beyond the 10th round, they might not have hurt you. If you raced to select them sooner? Well ...
Meanwhile, look at where the other members of the ADP (average draft position) top 10 finished: The Carolina Panthers (second in ADP) finished 19th in fantasy points, the 49ers (third) finished 10th, the Denver Broncos (fourth) finished tied for 11th, and the Bengals (fifth) finished a ghastly 24th, including three weeks with a negative point total.