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Finding the 2017 Fantasy Football Surprises From 2016

By studying the big fantasy football surprises of last season, we can dive deeper in 2017 and identify a corresponding prediction for 2017.

From Last Word On Pro Football, by Mike Randle

Those who fail to learn from the fantasy football past are doomed to repeat it.

Edmund Burke would be proud.

Fantasy football owners are exactly like poker players. Out of necessity, they maintain extremely short memories. Regardless of the level of success during a particular year, week, or game, fantasy competitors quickly move on and prepare for their next contest. But it is critical to remember, there is always something to be learned from studying the past.

By examining the big fantasy football surprises of last season, we can attempt to project the corresponding predictions for 2017. Let’s take a look at how last year’s surprises will translate to this year’s upcoming fantasy football season.

(All statistics from PlayerProfiler).

Finding the 2017 Fantasy Football Surprises From 2016

2016 Surprise:  Terrelle Pryor’s Breakout Season
2017 Prediction:  Mohamed Sanu’s Breakout Season

Rationale:  According to MyFantasyLeague Average Draft Position for 2016, Terrelle Pryor was the WR81 with an ADP of 181.6. He finished the season ranked 19th among all wide receivers in total PPR fantasy points. Pryor successfully made the conversion from quarterback to wide receiver, and somehow totaled over 1,000 receiving yards with five different starting quarterbacks. Pryor’s season was even more unlikely considering he bounced in and out of the league during his pedestrian five-year career. It was a truly remarkable breakout fantasy season.

The corresponding 2017 prediction is a big breakout season for Atlanta wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. He is the same age (27) as Pryor was in 2016, and possesses a similar corresponding 177.6 ADP at WR69. Sanu converted from a high school quarterback to wide receiver and plays in an Atlanta offense that scored the seventh most points in NFL history. The Falcons produced 11 30-plus-point games and five 40-plus-point games.

Sanu ranked 17th among all wide receivers with nine red zone receptions, while competing with All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and red zone reception magnet Devonta Freeman for targets. He also ranked ninth among all wide receivers with a 72.8 percent catch rate. Jones has a history of nagging injuries, and just had surgery on his foot in March. With a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian calling the plays, Sanu could see a significant target increase. He is also versatile, having been used as a runner and quarterback during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals. Sanu producing a WR2 season would be much less surprising than Pryor’s 2016 explosion.


2016 Surprise:  Kyle Rudolph Finishes as PPR TE2
2017 Prediction: Charles Clay Finishes as PPR TE2

Rationale:  Rudolph was a 2016 fantasy afterthought, carrying a 183.1 ADP as the preseason TE25. Over the previous five seasons, Rudolph eclipsed 50 receptions only once and never totaled over 500 receiving yards. The prevailing thought was a run-first offense with mediocre quarterback play will always cap Rudolph’s fantasy production. That perception changed in 2016.

Rudolph enjoyed a career year with 83 receptions, 840 yards, and seven touchdowns. His 132 targets not only ranked first among all tight ends, but placed him 15th among all wide receivers. Rudolph also ranked third at the position with an average of 13.1 fantasy points per game. Despite being a late round tight end selection, Rudolph was one of the big draft day fantasy surprises.

The comparable 2017 fantasy tight end breakout will come from Buffalo’s Charles Clay, who finds himself in a similar situation to Rudolph. He is on a run-first offense, but is clearly one of the best Buffalo receiving options. Unlike Rudolph, Clay has already produced at a high level during his 2013 season in Miami. His 69 receptions, 759 yards, six touchdown performance provides a window into his potential for 2017.

Clay ranked fifth among all tight ends with a 28 percent red zone Target Share, while only finishing 12th in total tight end targets. Clay is the clear number one tight end in Buffalo, and his ADP of 188.9 puts him behind several rookie tight ends who historically struggle in their first season. Be sure to target Charles Clay in all fantasy drafts and enjoy his impending breakout season.


2016 Surprise:  Michael Thomas Has Huge Rookie Wide Receiver Season
2017 Prediction:  John Ross Has Huge Rookie Wide Receiver Season

Rationale: Thomas was drafted as the WR48 with an ADP of 109.1 last season. While on a prolific offense, he was clearly behind both Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead in the target pecking order for All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees. Thomas was drafted after other rookie wideouts such as Laquon Treadwell, Sterling Shepard, and Corey Coleman.

Thomas became the star wide receiver of last year’s draft class, leading the Saints in receptions, receiving touchdowns, and targets. He is viewed across the fantasy community as an absolute WR1 this season.

Cincinnati’s John Ross could repeat the same success for the Bengals this season, with a current ADP of 151.8 at WR60. Ross is listed behind All-Pro A.J. Green and veteran Brandon LaFell on the depth chart, similar to Thomas’ preseason spot last year in New Orleans. Ross possesses incredible workout metrics, and is well known for breaking the 40-yard dash record at this year’s NFL combine.

Using his 115.3 (95th percentile) Speed Score and 129.4 (86th percentile) Burst Score, Ross will became an Andy Dalton red zone favorite in a revamped up tempo Bengals offense. While he will not surpass Green as the top receiving target in Cincinnati, Ross has an excellent chance to become this year’s top rookie fantasy wide receiver.


2016 Surprise: San Francisco backup Colin Kaepernick Produced Five Top Ten Quarterback Weeks
2017 Prediction:  Cleveland backup DeShone Kizer Produces Five Top Ten Quarterback Weeks

Rationale: Most fantasy drafters forget that Colin Kaepernick became a legitimate fantasy option after taking over the starting quarterback role in week six for San Francisco. He tallied five QB1 fantasy performances, and ranked seventh among all quarterbacks with 18.7 fantasy points per game. Kaepernick was supported by a pass heavy offense and a favorable game script during a difficult 2-14 season for the 49ers.

While the Cleveland Browns will follow a similar path during a rebuilding season, they do have several offensive weapons that benefit the fantasy value of whoever is the Browns starting quarterback. Cleveland boasts a solid running back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, who are both efficient pass-catching options. The starting wide receivers are very athletic in free agent signing Kenny Britt and second-year speedster Corey Coleman. The Browns also used a first round draft pick on talented tight end David Njoku of Miami.

Cody Kessler enters Browns camp as the current starting quarterback, but Kizer is already impressing the Cleveland coaching staff. Last season, the Browns ranked seventh overall with 634 pass plays, and will experience negative game scripts throughout the season. Following the Kaepernick model, Kizer will have the passing volume to become a viable fantasy starter in certain matchups this season. Target the Browns rookie signal caller as a mid-year waiver wire pickup.


2016 Surprise:  Jay Ajayi, Spencer Ware, and Tim Hightower Break Free Of Handcuff Role
2017 Prediction:  Samaje Perine, Robert Turbin, and Tim Hightower (again) Break Free Of Handcuff Role

Rationale:  Jay Ajayi, Spencer Ware, and Tim Hightower were never considered to be fantasy starters prior to the start of the 2017 season. Ajayi (ADPs 89.31) lost the competition for the Dolphins starting job to Arian Fosterand was left off the travel roster during week one. Ware (ADP 175.1) was nothing more than Jamaal Charles‘ injury insurance, while still battling Charcandrick West (ADP 196.7) for the backup role. Finally, Hightower (ADP 212.2) had a nice finish to the 2015 season, but was clearly behind New Orleans’ Mark Ingram on the depth chart. 

While only a rookie, Perine fits last season’s Ajayi narrative perfectly. Perine is currently behind second year back Rob Kelley for the starting job in Washington. While Kelley is the favorite for the lead spot in week one, Perine will soon earn the starting job. Like Ajayi, Perine is a violent runner who should thrive in short yardage goal line situations. His 127.5 (88th percentile) SPARQ-x score illustrates his superior all-around athleticism, which will flourish in Washington’s explosive offense.

Turbin is the backup to the 34-year-old Frank Gore in Indianapolis. While Gore appears to have defeated father time, Turbin already started stealing his goal line touches in 2016. He scored three touchdowns on four carries inside the five-yard line last season, and ended the year with eight total touchdowns. Turbin’s athleticism is vastly underrated as his 108.3 (86th percentile) Speed Score and 122.2 (70th Percentile) Burst Score illustrates. Reports out of Colts camp are that Turbin is likely to see a bigger role this season, making the current RB69 an insane fantasy value.

Finally, new San Francisco running back Tim Hightower is ready to outperform his fantasy handcuff value once again. He is listed directly behind the very tenuous starting running back seat of Carlos Hyde, who is now rumored to be a possible cut candidate. Hightower was out of the NFL for three seasons before rejuvenating his career in New Orleans during 2015. He excels in both offensive phases and produced three top ten fantasy running back weeks over the last six weeks of 2016.

All three of these running backs are currently slotted for reserve roles, but should pay huge dividends for patient fantasy owners in 2017.


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