The 2018 fantasy football season was an odd one indeed. We seem to say it every season, but never was it more the case than in this one.
We saw a league-record number of touchdowns scored: 1,371, breaking the previous mark of 1,338, set in 2013. The 11,952 total points scored, meanwhile, were second-most in league history, falling just short of the 11.985 scored in 2013. Never before was scoring so evident than at the quarterback position, where a record-breaking eight different quarterbacks scored 300-plus fantasy points for the season.
Running backs seemed to dominate the middle weeks of the season, especially those leading up to the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-17 in ESPN standard leagues). From Weeks 9-13, it was a pair of running backs who led the way in fantasy points — Christian McCaffrey (248.2) and Ezekiel Elliott (202.7) — and 16 of the 37 players who scored 30-plus points a game during that five-week span were running backs.
In the fantasy playoffs, however, it was a case of “anything goes.” The six skill-position players who found themselves on playoff rosters in at least 60 percent of ESPN 10-team standard leagues appeared in a combined 12 out of 24 team games from Weeks 14-17 (assuming Nick Chubb and James Conner suit up for their teams as expected). The No. 1 scorer through 15 weeks, Todd Gurley II, sat out the final two games with a knee injury. Six of the 18 players who had 300-plus points for the season entering Week 17 were scratched for their teams’ respective season finales.
The upshot is that in-season management is becoming increasingly important in fantasy football, including such things as handcuffing running backs in advance of the playoff weeks, rostering backups to swap in for late-game scratches, and being quick to the waiver wire with an aggressive approach to your FAAB/waiver position. The key lesson learned from 2018: It’s anyone’s game.
With the season now (nearly) in the books, let’s take a stroll back through the season’s best and worst from a fantasy perspective, complete with applicable historical data. Check back again after the Sunday Night Football game for updates to our list of picks.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: It was an 89-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson in the third quarter of Sunday’s game that clinched the single-season record for fantasy points for Mahomes, as his 17.3 points in Week 17 gave him a total of 417.1 for the season. That exceeded Peyton Manning’s 410.0 points of 2013, and made Mahomes the obvious choice for 2018 Fantasy MVP, especially considering he was the No. 16 quarterback selected on average during the preseason. For Mahomes, it wasn’t a handful of big games that inflated his seasonal point total but rather a consistently excellent performance that did, as he scored at least 15 fantasy points in each of his 16 games played, joining Tom Brady (2011) as the only quarterbacks in history who can claim that. To Mahomes’ MVP case, while he wasn’t a hotly contested pick in the preseason, his managers caught on very quickly to his elite skills, reaping the benefits for the vast majority of his games, as he was started in at least 65 percent of each of his final 14 games and at least 90 percent in 11 of his 15 games (including every one from Week 7 forward). It’s no surprise, therefore, that his teams advanced to the playoffs in 59.0 percent of ESPN leagues and to the finals in 35.5 percent, both of those the highest rates amongst quarterbacks. Mahomes is a superstar with a lengthy career ahead of him, and he’ll be the first pick at his position entering 2019.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants: He came extremely close to breaking Eric Dickerson’s 35-year-old record for PPR fantasy points by any rookie at any position (392.2, 1983), as Barkley concluded his freshman NFL campaign with 385.8 points, helped by a 24.2 points total in Week 17 that was best among the early-game running backs. With that final-week score, Barkley also finished his rookie year with 12 games of 20-plus points, which is two more than any other rookie in history (Dickerson is second, with 10). Barkley’s prowess in the receiving game is what really stood out, as he caught a whopping 91 passes, breaking Reggie Bush’s 12-year-old record for a rookie running back (88 in 2006). Few rookies have entered the league surrounded with this much hype — Barkley was picked sixth overall on average in the preseason after the Giants selected him second overall in the NFL draft — and even fewer have subsequently proven themselves unquestionably worthy of said hype. His was a rookie year for the ages, and he’ll enter his sophomore campaign as one of the top picks in fantasy, and rightfully so.
Todd Gurley II, RB, Los Angeles Rams: Although his (fantasy/regular) season did end on a down note — a knee injury cost him the Rams’ final two games — Gurley’s production was nothing short of exceptional, even relative to expectations from a No. 1 overall pick on average. He scored 372.1 PPR fantasy points in his 14 games played (all of them starts), only 8.4 shy of his 2017 total in 15 games played (380.5), making him only the fifth player in NFL history to score at least 370 points in consecutive seasons (Marshall Faulk, 1999-2001; Priest Holmes, 2002-03; LaDainian Tomlinson, 2002-03; and Antonio Brown, 2014-15). Gurley’s season also concluded with his averaging 26.6 points per game, which is the 10th-best single-season number by any running back in NFL history (see the chart below). He helped propel his fantasy teams into the playoffs in 55.9 percent of 10-team ESPN standard leagues and into the Weeks 16-17 “finals” matchup in 30.3 percent. So despite his absence during the latter, it can be safely said he put his team in position to win as effectively as any high-profile player did in 2018.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers: He was an effective, one-man wrecking crew during the season’s second half, with seven games worth 25-plus PPR fantasy points from Week 9 forward, resulting in 385.5 points for the season, a mere one-tenth of a point behind Barkley for the positional lead. From Week 9 forward, McCaffrey scored a league-leading 253.2 points, and his 88.9 points from Weeks 14-17 alone ranked seventh-best in the league during that time span, as well. He also set a new NFL record for receptions by a running back in a single season, his 107 breaking Matt Forte’s previous mark of 102, set in 2014, and now has 187 receptions through his first two NFL seasons, which is 25 more than any other running back. McCaffrey provided one of the best returns on an early-round draft pick, having been selected 11th among running backs and 17th overall, and his ability to dominate as both runner and receiver will make him a certain early- to mid-first-rounder in 2019.
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers: Though a knee injury cost him the Week 17 finale, Adams’ 2018 season was as demonstrative of the consistent fantasy player as anyone’s in recent history. He scored at least 15 PPR fantasy points in each of his 15 games played, matching Jerry Rice’s NFL record for the most 15-point games in NFL history (15, 1995), and in only one of those 15 games finished outside the top 25 wide receivers for the week, when he scored a solid 16.1 points to finish 28th in Week 4. Adams entered Week 17 with 329.6 total PPR fantasy points, best among wide receivers and obliterating his previous career high of 246.7 points set in 2016, though he was passed by three other players during the 4:25 p.m. ET games. That’s still a heck of a reliable return upon what was a second-round investment, as Adams was the No. 8 wide receiver and No. 21 player selected overall on average.
Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos: Who would’ve guessed he would wind up the second-highest-scoring rookie running back behind Saquon Barkley, in a year in which seven running backs (Barkley included) were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft? No one — or at least barely anybody, considering he was drafted in only 1.9 percent of ESPN leagues in the final preseason week leading into the NFL Kickoff game. An undrafted rookie out of the University of Colorado — his local ties probably having quite a bit to do with his landing with the Broncos — Lindsay made the team as the Broncos’ No. 3 running back thanks to a strong preseason, posted consecutive games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, captured the Broncos’ starting job by Week 8 and scored 222.9 PPR fantasy points in 15 games to earn himself a spot in the Pro Bowl. Not all of that was before he registered on the fantasy football radar, either, as Lindsay was the most-added player in ESPN leagues between Weeks 1 and 2 (58 percent), was added in another 18 percent between Weeks 2 and 3 and was being started in more than 40 percent of ESPN leagues by Week 3. While Lindsay’s season was cut short by a wrist injury in Week 16, requiring surgery to repair ligament damage, he should be ready in time for 2019 training camp — during which the Broncos might be sporting an entirely new offense. Chances are he’ll enter fantasy-draft season as an RB2.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: He was “Mr. Reliable” at his position, 10 times scoring 20-plus fantasy points, and was the only quarterback in the league to score at least 19 points in each of the four weeks of ESPN’s traditional “fantasy playoffs” (Weeks 14-17). In what was a huge rebound year for the veteran signal-caller, Ryan scored 355.0 points in 16 games, almost assuredly placing him second among quarterbacks for the season (Ben Roethlisberger has only an outside chance at catching him during the 4:25 p.m. ET games). That narrowly exceeded Ryan’s previous career high of 347.5, set in 2016, and answered many questions that surrounded him during a miserable, disappointing 2017. He’s probably closer to the passer we saw this season and two seasons ago rather than last year, and he was a huge bargain as the No. 11 quarterback off the board during the preseason.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans: While his per-game pace this season (20.7 PPR fantasy points) fell noticeably short of that of his rookie 2017 (24.1), that Watson was able to maintain the pace he did was nothing short of extraordinary. By scoring 331.7 points in his 16 games as a sophomore and earning an average of 20-plus per game, he joined Cam Newton as the only players in history to do that in each of their first two NFL seasons (and that’s with a one-game minimum requirement). In fact, Watson now has a total of 464.1 fantasy points through his first 22 career NFL games, which trails only Newton’s 473.7 points through that many games among quarterbacks all time. Watson especially stepped up during the fantasy playoffs — Weeks 14-17, to be specific — scoring a combined 99.0 points during that four-week span to lead all quarterbacks.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: His story was as representative of 2018 unpredictability as anyone’s, and it ended with him scoring 280.0 PPR fantasy points in 13 games played, sixth-most among running backs for the season. Thrust into the Steelers’ starting lineup due to Le’Veon Bell’s season-long holdout, Conner found himself on only 12.7 percent of ESPN rosters on Sunday, Sept. 2, only to see that number climb to 23.8 percent on Tuesday, Sept. 4 (the day many expected Bell would finally report for practice), then 76.8 percent on Thursday, Sept. 6 (the night of the NFL Kickoff game). Conner wound up started, however, in at least 94 percent of ESPN leagues in every one of the Steelers’ games from Weeks 2-13, an 11-game span during which he totaled 233.4 points, sixth-best among running backs. He found himself on the greatest percentage of playoff teams in ESPN 10-team standard leagues, 75.9 percent, only to suffer the unexpected twist of sitting out Weeks 14-16 due to an ankle injury. Conner’s performance, nevertheless, was instrumental in getting many of his fantasy teams into the playoffs, and he came at the price of a late draft pick or a waiver pickup.
Chicago Bears defense/special teams: They were the one defense/special teams unit that you could trust, week in and week out, and their “victory margin” (in terms of total fantasy points for the season) supported it, as the Bears D/ST scored a league-leading 188 points, 55 more than the second-best Houston Texans. Since the league moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978, the only time that there was a greater differential between the Nos. 1 and 2 defenses in terms of fantasy point came in 1988, when the Minnesota Vikings (245 points) scored 68 more points than the Houston Oilers (177). The Bears managed to rank among the five highest-scoring D/STs nine times, which is three more than any other team had. That’s not bad for a team that was drafted only 10th at its position in the preseason.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers: What a finish to one of 2018’s biggest breakthrough stories, as Kittle’s 29.9 PPR fantasy points in Week 17 were second-best at his position and gave him 258.7 points, the 14th-best single-season total by any tight end in history. In the process, Kittle broke the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end, his 1,377 shattering the record broken minutes earlier by Travis Kelce (1,336). Kittle was far and away the best value at the tight end position this year after having been selected 17th at the position on average and picked in only 38.6 percent of ESPN leagues. He had 13 games worth 10-plus points, second behind only Kelce’s 15 such contests.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: His 294.6 PPR fantasy points this season were the third-most by a tight end in NFL history and easily shattered his previous personal best of 233.5 points (2017). That means he has now increased his fantasy-point total in each of his six NFL seasons to date. For a few brief moments, Kelce captured the single-season receiving yards record for a tight end, as well, exceeding Rob Gronkowski’s 1,327 of 2011 with 1,336 — before Kittle surpassed Kelce’s mark with his own 1,377. Kelce was the No. 2 tight end and No. 25 player selected overall on average in the preseason, and his production made him every bit worthy of the early pick.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles: Though he had a boom/bust fantasy-playoff stretch — a Week 16 worth 35.0 PPR fantasy points but fewer than nine points in each of Weeks 14, 15 and 17 — Ertz’s performance nevertheless carried many of his teams into said playoffs, and it’s worth pointing out that his teams made the finals in 28.7 percent of ESPN 10-team standard leagues, fourth-highest among tight ends. He finished 2018 with 280.3 points, the sixth-best single season total in history at the position, and in the process set a new NFL season record with his 116 receptions. Ertz was every bit worthy of his preseason draft position: third-highest among tight ends and 34th overall.
Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: The wide receiver position had the most compelling race for the lead in PPR fantasy points, and thanks to Hill’s 28.6 points in Week 17, coupled with the inactive status of both Davante Adams and Antonio Brown, he emerged victorious with a position-best 334.0 points. That gave Hill a mere half-point victory margin over DeAndre Hopkins (333.5). Hill, the No. 14 wide receiver and No. 33 player selected overall on average in the preseason, had four different games worth 30-plus points this season, thriving as Patrick Mahomes’ preferred deep threat. The two now have many years of their careers ahead of them and are certain to be among the most sought-after players at their positions in fantasy drafts entering 2019.
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, WRs, Pittsburgh Steelers: The season ended in heartbreak for the Steelers, both by virtue of their missing the playoffs and Smith-Schuster’s falling just shy of the 300-point plateau using PPR fantasy scoring. Brown (323.7 points this year) and Smith-Schuster (296.9) still had exceptional years, and the Steelers came awfully close to becoming only the third team in history to have multiple wide receivers score 300-plus (1995 Detroit Lions and 2014 Denver Broncos). While Brown was the player everyone knew — he was the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 5 overall player selected on average in the preseason — Smith-Schuster was one of the season’s best wide receiver values, having been selected 24th among wide receivers and 51st overall. They’re certain to both be top-10 picks at their position entering 2019.
Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts: After four so-so years in Detroit, Ebron moved to Indianapolis and finally broke through this season, scoring a total of 222.2 PPR fantasy points while playing all 16 games for only the second time in his career. That far exceeded his previous personal best of 144.2 points, set in 2016, and in fact, he had already surpassed his entire 2016 total by Week 10, in his ninth game of this season. Ebron, who was the No. 22 tight end off the board on average this preseason and was selected in only 16.8 percent of ESPN leagues, was one of the best values at a position ravaged by injuries.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He’s my pick for 2018 Fantasy Bust of the Year, mainly because although some might have foreseen his holding out for a small portion of the season’s early weeks, practically no one could have possibly predicted his holding out for the entirety of the year. Bell was the No. 2 pick overall in ESPN leagues on average, and that’s from data collected from the final week entering the NFL Kickoff game (Thursday game of Week 1), which was mere days after it became clear he would miss at least the season opener. Bell remained on ESPN rosters in 94.2 percent of leagues as of the Nov. 13, 4 p.m. ET, deadline for him to report to the Steelers to be eligible to play in 2018, clogging rosters while never providing his teams a single fantasy point. We’ll see where he winds up entering 2019 — you can be sure it’ll be outside Pittsburgh — but as a 27-year-old coming off an entirely missed campaign, he’ll have a tough time making a case for a top-five pick.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: While injuries prevented him from playing a full 16-game schedule for the fourth consecutive season, what he provided in his 13 games this year fell substantially short of his preseason expectations. The No. 1 tight end and No. 19 player selected overall on average in the preseason, Gronkowski scored a mere 131.2 PPR fantasy points, his worst total in any of his seven seasons in which he appeared in at least 10 games. Gronkowski’s 10.1 points-per-game average was his second-worst in any of his nine NFL seasons, trailing only his 9.7 in 2010, and he scored fewer than five points in three of his 13 games. He didn’t do much to help his fantasy teams in their quests for the playoffs, as he was found on only 28.1 percent of playoff and 12.5 percent of finalists’ teams in ESPN 10-team standard leagues.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: Though he finished his season on a high note, scoring 26.0 fantasy points against the New York Jets on Sunday to secure at least the AFC’s No. 2 playoff seed for his team, Brady’s 2018 cannot be characterized as anything other than a bust in fantasy terms. Remember, he was the No. 2 quarterback and No. 28 player selected overall on average in the preseason, yet he finished with only 281.3 fantasy points in his 16 games, which placed him outside the top 10 quarterbacks for the season and fell considerably short of his 16-game totals from 2017 (295.9) and 2015 (344.7). Only five times all season did Brady register a top-10 point total among quarterbacks for the week, whereas nine times he finished outside the top 15 at the position. Worse yet, he’ll enter the 2019 campaign at age 42 and might play it without his reliable tight end Rob Gronkowski, who could consider retirement (as could Brady himself).
Jimmy Graham, TE, Green Bay Packers: The move to Green Bay didn’t pay many fantasy dividends for Graham, who concluded his season with 130.6 PPR fantasy points, a 40.4-point regression from his 2017 total (171.0) and only 10.1 points better than he scored in his first season with the Seattle Seahawks in 2015 (120.5). Graham, who was the No. 5 tight end and No. 57 player selected overall on average in the preseason, finished outside the top 10 at his position in fantasy points, and had four games beneath five points.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills: His age-30 season couldn’t have gone much worse than it did, as he scored 127.2 PPR fantasy points in 14 games, by far his worst single-season total in any of his 10 NFL seasons (his next-worst was 158.5 points, in his rookie 2009 campaign). Although some of that can be attributed to horrific quarterback play — the Bills started Nathan Peterman, Derek Anderson, Matt Barkley and Josh Allen, with none completing more than 60 percent of his passes — McCoy’s performance didn’t rebound after Allen’s emergence in the season’s final weeks, which was a discouraging sign. McCoy was picked 13th among running backs and 22nd overall in the preseason.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions: He finished the year with only one game ranked among the top 10 scoring quarterbacks for the week (Week 2, when he finished ninth with 24.7 fantasy points). Conversely, 10 times in his 16 games he finished outside the top 15 for the week. It was an extremely disappointing season for the No. 12 quarterback selected on average in the preseason, in part because his team didn’t rely on him nearly as much as it had in the past, his 555 pass attempts his fewest in any of his eight seasons in which he was healthy enough to play all 16 games. Stafford went from residing on 90.5 percent of ESPN rosters to start the season, and active in 58.3 percent in Week 1, to remaining on only 34.7 percent of rosters in Week 17.
Philadelphia Eagles defense/special teams: This squad finished its season on an incredibly high note, shutting out the division-rival Washington Redskins on Sunday in a must-win game that ultimately propelled them into the playoffs, and scoring 16 fantasy points to rank among the top 10 defense/special teams for the week for the first time in 2018. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a game in which many reaped the rewards, as the Eagles D/ST was started in 37.3 percent of ESPN leagues in Week 17, eighth-highest at the position, a continuing sign of how disappointing this defense has been this year. Selected second at the position and 90th overall and picked in 98.3 percent of leagues, the Eagles D/ST scored only 66 fantasy points all season, seventh-worst among defenses. It dealt with a barrage of injuries, particularly at cornerback, and had nine games worth five points or fewer.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Although he had seemingly warrant the “injury exception” from this side of my list, having struggled in the season’s early weeks as he continued his recovery from knee surgery and missed five games overall due to injuries, Cook’s performance when he was healthy was still a huge letdown considering he was the No. 9 running back and No. 13 player selected overall on average in the preseason. He finished outside the top 30 at his position with only 152.0 points in his 11 games played, giving him a total of 217.4 points in 15 games through the first two seasons of his NFL career. Cook did pick up his pace somewhat in the season’s final weeks, which bodes well for a breakthrough in 2019, as he scored a combined 107.6 of his points in the Vikings’ final six games.
Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears: While his 180.0 PPR fantasy points this season might not have been completely disastrous, that Howard fell significantly short of the running back lead in points on his own team said a lot about his season, as teammate Tarik Cohen scored 233.9 points of his own. Howard’s usage was called into question early in the year, and after there were some hints he might become more involved in the receiving game, he caught only 10 passes combined in his final 13 games. He was selected 14th among running backs and 26th overall on average in the preseason, so much more than this was expected from him.
Chris Hogan, WR, New England Patriots: It’s telling how forgettable Hogan’s 2018 season was that his 12.4 PPR fantasy points scored in Week 17 wound up his third-best single-game total all year. In the preseason, Hogan appeared aligned for a potential breakthrough after encouraging performances in his first two seasons for the Patriots, getting picked 25th among wide receivers and 52nd overall on average in the preseason. Unfortunately, the team traded for Josh Gordon between Weeks 2 and 3, and between that and Julian Edelman’s return from suspension in Week 5, Hogan became mostly an afterthought in the Patriots’ offense. Hogan finished the season with 106.2 PPR fantasy points despite playing all 16 games, that number trailing both his 2017 (109.6 points, in nine games) and 2016 (128.9, in 15) point totals, and in fact was in the area of his best season for the Buffalo Bills, when he scored 103.6 in 16 games in 2014. Even after Gordon’s suspension following Week 15, Hogan couldn’t re-emerge, getting shut out in Week 16 before Sunday’s bounce-back.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals: He might have rescued what was seeming like a lost season with four straight 10-point PPR fantasy performances and in 9 of 10 games to conclude his year, but Fitzgerald’s near-silent start to the year put so many of his teams in an early hole. Picked 10th among wide receivers and 29th overall on average in the preseason, he was held beneath nine PPR fantasy points in five of his first six games, finishing the year with a mere 185.7 points; that is his worst single-year total since he had 151.4 in 2014 and his fourth-worst total of any of his 15 NFL seasons. Josh Rosen’s rookie struggles had a lot to do with it, but Fitzgerald’s 35 years of age might have also contributed.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks: He’s another player who could be forgiven for injuries influencing his performance, but after it was announced late in the preseason that the knee injury that bothered him in August would probably not fully heal all year, it was surprising to still see him selected 17th among wide receivers and 39th overall on average in the final week of the preseason. Baldwin wound up missing three games as a result of the ailment, and when he was healthy, he delivered only 141.8 PPR fantasy points in 13 games, the second-lowest single season total in his seven NFL seasons behind only his 83.6 points scored in 2012. In a season in which so many slot receivers stood out, capitalizing upon a hefty volume of favorable matchups, Baldwin’s performance was extremely disappointing.
Facts & Tidbits
Josh Allen’s 40.5 fantasy points were the most scored by any quarterback in history in either Week 17 of a season or his team’s 16th scheduled game of the season, breaking Matt Flynn’s previous mark of 39.2 points set in 2011. That gave Allen a total of 208.1 points to conclude his rookie season, which is the 11th-best total by any rookie quarterback in history — and keep in mind that all 10 quarterbacks ahead of him made more than his 11 starts, and eight of them made at least 15 starts. … Though he did not play in Week 17, Antonio Brown finished the 2018 season with 323.7 PPR fantasy points, the sixth consecutive season he has scored at least 300. He is the only wide receiver in history who can claim a streak of that length, and only Jerry Rice (7) has more 300-point seasons in an NFL career among wide receivers. … Derrick Henry scored a combined 105.8 PPR fantasy points during the four-week fantasy playoffs (Week 14-17), most by any player during that time span. In the process, Henry became only the third player since at least 1950 to score 200-plus points in a season, while scoring more points from Weeks 14-17 combined than he did from Weeks 1-13, as he scored 95.5 points from Weeks 1-13 and 201.3 for the season. Patrick Jeffers, in 1999, scored 244.8 points for the season (112.2 through Week 13 and 132.6 from Weeks 14-17), while Kevan Barlow, in 2003, scored 202.1 points for the season (100.8 through Week 13 and 101.3 from Weeks 14-17).