By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
The 2017 Fantasy Football season delivered a healthy share of surprises and unprecedented results. Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt, rookie running backs drafted outside the first round, finished among the top-5 fantasy running backs. Amari Cooper was the least efficient professional receiver since Greg Little, and Dez Bryant’s fantasy value imploded like a supernova in the sky. The most stunning season belonged to Deshaun Watson, who became the first rookie quarterback since Fantasy Football became a thing to lead in the world points per game.
When a season seems too good to be true, it probably is. Reviewing last season’s advanced stats and metrics, which shock-worthy events and outcomes are more probable than plausible in 2018?
Marcus Mariota outscores Deshaun Watson
Watson lived a charmed NFL life, right until the moment he tore his ACL in early November. A deep dive into Watson’s efficiency metrics revealed a curious dichotomy. Of his 13 interceptable passes, only eight were picked off, and of his 204 pass attempts, only four were dropped by his receivers. Defenders dropped more of Deshaun Watson’s passes than Texans receivers last season. Friendly bounces propelled Watson to the most efficient quarterback season since Nick Foles was first paired with Chip Kelly. Watson finished No. 1 in numerous efficiency metrics from Adjusted Yards Per Attempt to Air Yards Per Attempt to QBR. Yet, his 64.0-percent True Completion Percentage, which factors out receiver drops and throwaways, ranked No. 32 among NFL quarterbacks. Watson was the luckiest quarterback in football.
In contrast to Watson’s rookie campaign, Mariota experienced an exceptionally unlucky 2017. Defenders caught an unusually high percentage of his interceptable passes and Titans receivers dropped 1.5 of Mariota’s passes per game, nearly tripling Watson’s 0.6 receiver drops per game.
On the other hand, Watson’s serendipitous 2017 season actually mirrored Mariota’s 2016 campaign. Mariota’s Adjusted Yards Per Attempt, which rewards touchdown passes and punishes interceptions, as well as his deep ball completion percentage, actually exceeded to Watson’s otherworldly 2017 numbers.
Stats & Metrics
Adjusted Yards Per Attempt
Air Yards Per Attempt
Deep Ball Completion %
The continued development of young talents Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith will bolster the play-making ability of Mariota’s supporting cast next season. As a prospect, Davis was particularly strong in the two most predictive WR metrics. His 51.6-percent (96th percentile) College Dominator Rating and 18.7 (95th percentile) Breakout Age indicate he was one of the best college receivers of the last decade. As the entire Titans offense ascends, Davis will come along for the ride and likely finish 2018 as a top-10 fantasy receiver.
All external forces aside, it stands to reason that both Mariota and Watson are destined for a mean reversion. Don’t be surprised when Mariota scores more fantasy points than Watson in 2018.
Austin Seferian Jenkins: Top-3 Tight End
While Corey Davis was one of the most impressive receiver prospects of the last decade, Seferian-Jenkins is the single most impressive tight end prospect of the last 10 years. His College Dominator Rating, Breakout Age, Speed Score, Agility Score, and Catch Radius are all well above the 75th percentile. Based on the advanced stats and metrics, Seferian-Jenkins owns the most impressive talent profile of any receiver on the New York Jets roster.
After bad luck and arcane NFL rules robbed Seferian-Jenkins of at least three touchdowns this season, he will enter 2018 as the best-value tight end in fantasy. Operating as a featured weapon in a Jets passing game destined for a quarterback upgrade this offseason, Seferian-Jenkins is one injury (Gronkowski, Kelce, Ertz) away from ascending into the top-3 fantasy tight ends.
Helping Seferian-Jenkins back into the top-3 will be the tight end’s ignominious reputation as the most injury-prone positon in sports. Just ask Jordan Reed. Given how football has ravaged Reed’s body, it would be shocking, and yet not surprising, if he retires in 2018.
Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook: Top-5 Fantasy RBs
The NFL’s running back renaissance is just ramping up. Next year’s rookie class featuring Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Bryce Love, and Sony Michel will likely score more fantasy points than the 2017 running back class that included Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara. Beyond the numerous cut candidates who are approaching retirement such as Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson, many younger incumbent backs from C.J. Anderson to Lamar Miller to Kenyan Drake to Ameer Abdullah to Jordan Howard to Jay Ajayi to Isaiah Crowell are at risk of losing touches to accommodate this continued running back talent infusion.
Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry are two of only a handful of safe backs for dynasty leagues. Both backs were exceptional in key efficiency metrics on PlayerProfiler. Henry finished in the top-10 in yards created per carry and Cook finished top-10 in yards per touch.
Beyond efficiency, the Titans and Vikings offer quality offensive line play and a run-oriented offensive philosophy. Both Cook and Henry have workhorse résumés stretching back to their college years. When RB depth chart chaos ensues in the wake of the upcoming draft, Cook and Henry will be well-positioned to vault into the top-5 fantasy running backs in 2018.
Slot Receivers Will Rule Fantasy
Slot receivers scored an unprecedented number of fantasy points in 2017. Ten receivers with Slot Rates above 35-percent scored 12.0 or more PPR fantasy points, despite the quintessential volume slot man, Julian Edelman, missing the season with an ACL tear.
The 2018 NFL Draft class again features strong slot receiver prototypes, most notably Christian Kirk, D.J. Moore, Trey Quinn, and Anthony Miller. In Oakland, Jon Gruden is rumored to move Amari Cooper primarily into the slot where he flourished at Alabama and in Oakland.
As more NFL teams run three and four-receiver sets and call plays featuring slot receivers in the read progression, a higher percentage of target share will funnel inside. Given this trend, half of the top-25 receivers should operate out of the slot in 2018.
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