As the 2015 season fades away, it’s time to take stock of what happened. Here’s a look at 10 of the year’s most pivotal moments, with the definition of “moment” sometimes stretched. We’ll focus on who came out of nowhere, and who took the next step.
Devonta Freeman becoming the Falcons’ starting running back.
One of the biggest moments of the year came with 5:59 remaining in the first half of a Week 2 contest between the Falcons and Giants, teams that would go on to finish 8-8 and 6-10. Tevin Coleman had nine carries for 32 yards and a touchdown before departing with a broken rib. When he finally returned in Week 5, Devonta Freeman was not only starting, he was well on his way to finishing as the RB1. Yes, Freeman, the RB40 by average draft position, finished with more fantasy points than any other running back in 2015.
So it’s the dawn of a new era in Atlanta, right? Not exactly. For as impressive as the 23-year-old Freeman was, 123.5 of his 247.9 fantasy points came across his first four starts. That’s 49.8 percent. The rest of the way, the 5-foot-8 sophomore averaged 11.9 points. That still would have made him the RB9 by average points amongst backs with at least 10 appearances, but doesn’t pop the same way as “Devonta Freeman, RB1 overall.” On the whole, Freeman averaged 4.01 yards per carry, good for just 32nd in the league. Freeman caught 73 passes, but his 7.9 yards per catch was a modest 22nd out of 35 qualified backs.
Freeman had a great year, riding an unbelievable wave to an improbable fantasy finish, but the future implications are fuzzy. Coleman is a highly-talented back, making it possible that the Falcons employ a 2016 committee. Freeman has earned the right to be chairman, but a top-five repeat, let alone top-one, is far from certain. As things stand now, Freeman is one of 2016’s most obvious overdraft candidates.
Jamaal Charles’ injury creating a committee in the Chiefs’ backfield.
Adrian Peterson has moved the goalposts on age and injury for superstar running backs, but nevertheless, “non-contact ACL tear” would be an unideal development for any 28-year-old runner. That’s especially true for someone like Charles, who doesn’t win with brute strength, but his hoverboard running style. Charles glides between the tackles. Will he remain capable of doing so in 2016? Charles is a generational-type talent. He’s averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in all eight of his NFL seasons. He’s probably going to keep running at a well above average level even as he returns from the second torn ACL of his career.
But will he do so as a workhorse? That is far less likely. Andy Reid embraced committees in Charles’ absence, and should do so again in 2016. Charles’ most likely partner is Spencer Ware, a fullback turned early-down hammer. Ware’s presence was badly missed in the Chiefs’ Divisional Round loss to the Patriots. Even if Ware isn’t designated as Charles’ early-down caddie, Reid will probably decide Charles is best utilized as an explosive change of pace back that loosens up front sevens and catches passes. Charles will still be there to take over games if necessary, but going on 29 with two surgically repaired knees, he’ll no longer control them from the opening snap.
Derek Carr’s breakout.
I won’t tell my Derek Carr life story, but in short: I wasn’t a believer. I fixated on Carr’s (historically) bad rookie YPA, and doubted his weapons. Now that we’ve actually played the games, Carr has silenced his critics and developed the looks of a foundational fantasy piece. Not that Carr is the kind of player you’ll draft in the first and second rounds. You won’t. That’s true of every quarterback for the discerning fantasy owner. But with the position in transition — Peyton Manning is on the way out, and the Bradys and Breeses of the world aren’t getting any younger — there’s finally a new offense to target in drafts. Carr is the latest in a long line of tiebreakers. As in, if you’re on the clock deciding between a Rams receiver and a Raiders receiver, who are you going to take? The guy catching passes from Carr. Carr hasn’t reached the Brady or Aaron Rodgers level, but his name will carry weight in next summer’s fantasy decisions.
John DeFilippo turning lemons into lemonade in Cleveland.
John DeFilippo’s tenure as Browns offensive coordinator was ultimately ill-fated — is there any other kind of tenure in Cleveland? — but his one-year stay on the job mined two diamonds from the rough. Gary Barnidge entered 2015 about to turn 30 with 603 career yards. He exited it as the TE3 in fantasy, and the owner of a four-year, $13.5 million extension.
Travis Benjamin, meanwhile, opened the season as a 25-year-old return specialist. His résumé included five career touchdowns on offense and a 2013 torn ACL. On DeFilippo’s watch, Benjamin more than doubled his previous career yardage total (717), posting a 68/966/5 line as Cleveland’s No. 1 receiver. He finished as the WR28, high-end WR3 territory.
Will either player repeat in 2016? Barnidge looks like the real deal. He may be a 30-year-old tight end, but he’s no dad runner. He’s a big-play machine, one whose 13.2 yards per catch were behind only Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen at his position. Barring injury, Barnidge will remain a TE1 for 2016, and an absolute steal for anyone who landed him on the waiver wire in Dynasty leagues.
Benjamin’s case is more muddled. Just 365 of his 966 yards came in the season’s second half, while he’s headed to free agency. If Benjamin returns to Cleveland, it will be with DeFilippo subtracted and Josh Gordon added. New coach Hue Jackson is a talent maximizer, but with Gordon and Barnidge to game plan around, Benjamin could have a hard time maintaining WR3 value.
Stars still come out of nowhere. Not that Doug Baldwin was chopped liver his first four years in the league, but the fifth-year slot man was no one’s idea of a breakout player. Alas, Baldwin not only went nuts, finishing as the WR7 by total points, he tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (14). He’s one of just 56 pass catchers in league history to find the end zone 14 times in a season. Baldwin did the vast majority of his damage down the stretch, securing 47 passes for 724 yards and 12 of his touchdowns in Games 9-16. His engine powered more than one fantasy champion.
So was it the emergence of a new WR1 or a one off? Baldwin’s 2016 figures to be a classic case of splitting the difference. Baldwin probably isn’t going to be a top-12 receiver — spoiler alert — but he’s left the WR3/4 ranks in the dust. Working against Baldwin is the fact that Seattle has always been a spread-the-wealth offense, and he’s playing alongside one of the most dynamic young receivers in the league in Tyler Lockett. Working in his favor is that Jimmy Graham (patellar tendon) is out indefinitely, and Russell Wilson will be throwing more than ever with Marshawn Lynch riding off into the Skittle-hued sunset. Baldwin will be an overdraft as a WR1, but a potential value pick if too many owners fail to believe in his hard-to-believe 2015.
Kirk Cousins’ success in Washington.
Kirk Cousins is known more for the #taeks he inspires on Twitter than his quarterbacking, but his 2015 play cannot be ignored. Soft schedule, home/road splits, it doesn’t matter. When the dust settled, Cousins was the QB9, 10th in passing (4,166 yards) and 12th in touchdowns (29). In and of itself, none of that is remarkable. Someone is always going to be the QB9, someone is always going to be 10th in passing. But the most important thing that Cousins accomplished was making the weapons around him valuable. Cousins kept DeSean Jackson on the WR2 radar and helped turn Jordan Reed into a star. Between Chris Thompson and Matt Jones, Cousins showed he could make a running back PPR viable if one of them gets the third-down job to themselves in 2016. Cousins will probably never be a star, but this is no longer an offense to disregard when making fantasy decisions.
Blake Bortles attempting over 600 passes.
With the upper echelon of fantasy quarterbacks beginning to age out, someone needed to step up after the 2013-14 draft classes got off to frightfully-slow starts. Carr was the headliner, but Blake Bortles a solid undercard, somehow finishing as the QB3 while tying for second in passing touchdowns (35). There are caveats to Bortles’ huge finish. His 88.2 QB rating was just 23rd in the league, and behind the likes of Ryan Tannehill and Josh McCown. According to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, 13 quarterbacks were better, with Bortles finishing in between rookie Jameis Winston and fellow sophomore Teddy Bridgewater. An astonishing 87.5 percent of Jacksonville’s offensive touchdowns came through the air. The league average was 69.7 percent.
But Bortles’ impressive stable of weapons should help keep the fantasy points flowing in 2016. Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas are all amongst the league’s top red zone threats, and will help protect against the kind of dramatic scoring dropoff experienced by, as an example, Matthew Stafford from 2011 to 2012. Bortles’ 2015 could easily end up the best roto campaign of his career, but a natural playmaker with a host of other natural playmakers at his disposal, he’s in good position to repeat as a top-eight quarterback. There’s a strong chance he ends up as a late-round value pick next summer.
Todd Gurley living up to his hype.
It’s lean times at the running back position. Just seven backs cleared 1,000 yards in 2015, the fewest since 1991. In fantasy, Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson and Devonta Freeman were the only three runners to post 200 points. In 2005, when Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson roamed the earth, that number was 10. Fantasy’s glamour spot has become its most talent-starved position.
Which brings us to: Thank goodness for Gurley. Only the second running back to go in the top 10 since C.J. Spiller in 2010 — Trent Richardson asks that you don’t remember the other — Gurley was one of those aforementioned seven backs to clear 1,000 yards. He fell just 10.4 fantasy points shy of 200, and scored 10 touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards per carry. All this as a 21-year-old rookie who made only 12 starts as he returned from a torn ACL. Gurley was worth the hype, and is in the discussion for No. 1 overall keeper in Dynasty leagues.
Gurley isn’t the only running back reinforcement on the way. Johnson finished as the RB1 — by a significant margin — over the season’s final five weeks, and showed the kind of three-down skill-set Bruce Arians craves. Johnson flashed violence between the tackles, proved his FBS receiving numbers were not a fluke and kept his head above water in pass protection. Arians famously prefers to ride one back, and Johnson should be that guy in 2016. Andre Ellington has fizzled out as an injury-prone COP, and Chris Johnson will likely be allowed to walk in free agency. Even if CJ2K is brought back, it should be as little more than veteran insurance. David’s upside will cost a pretty penny in 2016 fantasy drafts, but he’s a darkhorse for RB1 overall status.
Tyrod Taylor proving viable in Buffalo.
The Bills entered the season with an offensive arsenal — Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay, Karlos Williams, Robert Woods — but no one to marshal it. Enter Taylor, a 26-year-old career backup who had attempted 35 NFL passes before Donald Trump began his quest for the presidency. There were bumps along the way, but some truly massive games. Taylor had three 30-point efforts in 14 starts. Like Cousins, Taylor’s emergence isn’t notable so much for his own fantasy value, but what he means for those around him. Under his care, the Bills led the league in rushing, and Sammy Watkins finally began to touch the ceiling. Watkins averaged 113 yards over his final six games, and started to emerge as the alpha No. 1 receiver the Bills hoped they were getting when they traded up to No. 4 overall in 2014. With Taylor’s running threat opening up rushing lanes, McCoy finished as the RB7 by average points amongst healthy backs. Williams scored nine touchdowns on only 104 offensive touches. Taylor’s first year on the job was a rousing success for everyone around him, and his age-27 sophomore campaign offers the promise for even more.