This past championship weekend in fantasy football made a strong argument that 2017 is the year of the running back. Prior to the Christmas Day double header, three of the four top scorers were running backs. Todd Gurley II, arguably the biggest first round bust from 2016, thoroughly dominated in Week 16 with 38 standard points and a loud statement that he deserves to be the no. 1 overall pick in 2018. We also saw running backs Dion Lewis, Giovani Bernard and Bilal Powell all take advantage of teammates’ injuries to post top 10 finishes.
You may want to read that above sentence again. It’s been that kind of bizarre fantasy championship. No way in August were either Bernard or Lewis considered as a potential Week 16 fantasy MVPs (well second place MVP, considering no one was close to Gurley). The weirdness extends to quarterback too where undrafted players from August and September like Jared Goff and Blake Bortles are currently posting top five finishes.
*Note: This week’s fact or fiction verdict refers to Week 17 of the 2017 NFL season. Being that many fantasy leagues are completed in Week 16, there is also some discussion given to the player’s prospect for the 2018 fantasy season.
Points in this article are based on ESPN standard scoring.
Surprise of the Week: Giovani Bernard, CIN RB.
This honor could go to Lewis, Goff or Bernard. Lewis, however, was given plenty of pre-game love thanks to both Rex Burkhead and James White being declared out for the New England Patriots in Week 16. Goff, if you haven’t been paying attention, has put up several QB1 performances this season and therefore had high expectations for his game against the Tennessee Titans.
Bernard was not at all expected to go off this week. Sunday was supposed to be a day where Cincinnati Bengals starting running back Joe Mixon went off and put his struggling offense on his shoulders. That might have happened too, only Mixon left early because of an ankle injury and ended the day with an abysmal three fantasy points. As one of just two healthy Bengals running backs left, Bernard took advantage of his opportunity and finished in fourth place with 22 fantasy points.
We forget too easily that way back in his rookie season of 2013, Bernard had shown that he could be more than just a change of pace or third down running back. He was excellent in both running and receiving statistics in Week 16, rushing 23 times for 116 yards and a touchdown and catching seven passes for 52 yards. Bernard has always been a back with enormous potential, it’s just that with guys like Jeremy Hill and Mixon on the roster, he’s rarely been called upon to be an every-down back.
Make no mistake, Mixon should have this Bengals backfield on lock in 2018 and as good as Bernard’s performance was, it’s not going to put him ahead of the talented rookie. For those few fantasy owners that have championships in Week 17, Bernard may again have an opportunity for a monster game since there’s basically no incentive for the Bengals to play Mixon, who has suffered a concussion and an ankle injury just this month. For the Bengals, this week’s 26-17 win over the Detroit Lions was a really nice way to close out the bittersweet Marvin Lewis era, since they were able to eliminate an NFC playoff contender. A win next week over the Baltimore Ravens could do the same and if Bernard delivers an encore performance, he could put himself in position to be Mixon’s top backup next season.
Antonio Gates, LAC TE.
Basically out of nowhere, Antonio Gates emerged from what had been a very quiet season to putting up a vintage performance that reminds football fans of why he is one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. Granted, Gates did have some sleeper appeal for Week 16 when it was heard that starting Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry was put on injured reserve because of a kidney injury. No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen looked to be a risky start because of his recent back injury, yet even so, Gates was viewed as a touchdown dependent tight end for fantasy purposes and very much a desperation start.
Gates did score one touchdown, but also had a really nice yardage day with six catches for 81 yards on eight targets. He was the most productive Chargers pass-catcher and proved to be a huge reason why Los Angeles was able to keep their playoff hopes alive by knocking off the New York Jets, 14-7. Still, Allen did finish with two more targets and 63 receiving yards in his own right, which does make it very possible that Gates will regress his fantasy production in Week 17. Sad to say, but this could be Gates’ last big game as it remains possible that he will retire after the Chargers’ 2017 season comes to a close.
It’s been an amazing career for Gates, who is both the oldest and most experienced tight end currently in the NFL. Gates’s rookie year came way back in 2003, a year before Philip Rivers was drafted and the tight end is now 37 years old. There’s really not much to prove and though Henry’s season-ending injury should result in Gates getting a lot of playing time in Week 17, it’s virtually assured that the latter will either not be in the NFL or will be a severely limited backup next season. For now, we should enjoy seeing Gates still put up big numbers even as he is now firmly in the twilight of his career.
Kirk Cousins, WAS QB.
You got to love the games that have absolutely no playoff implications but are still viewed as important for fantasy because of having multiple stud players involved. The Washington Redskins’ 27-11 win over the Denver Broncos was one such game and it rewarded fantasy owners with two players topping 20 fantasy points, while the Redskins defense/special teams and Josh Doctson were also respectable starters getting 13 and 12 fantasy points, respectively.
Running back C.J. Anderson was a bit of a shocker as he put up 20 fantasy points, but he still finished behind Captain Kirk’s 21 fantasy points. It was another great day for Kirk Cousins, who went 19-of-37 for 299 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Even though that’s a very low completion percentage, Cousins was able to top 20 fantasy points for the sixth time this year and finished third among quarterbacks this week behind Goff and the recently resurgent Blake Bortles.
Cousins may have been a late-round bargain in a lot of fantasy drafts this season, but don’t expect that to hold in 2018. Regardless of which team he ends up with next season, Cousins is going to cash in and his new team is going to want him to prove that he is a championship caliber quarterback. At seventh place among all quarterbacks with 235 fantasy points on the season, Cousins might actually be a candidate to leap up to the elite tier that Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson sit at right now. It’ll most likely be tougher to get him late in fantasy drafts in 2018, especially if he can close out the 2017 regular season strong with an easy week 17 matchup against the New York Giants.
Adam Thielen, MIN WR.
The story of undrafted wide receiver Adam Thielen becoming the Minnesota Vikings’ top pass catcher has to be one of the more heartwarming stories of the year. He was good enough to make it as a starting wide receiver for the NFC in the Pro Bowl and is currently ninth among all wide receivers with 133 fantasy points on the season. All this to say, it must have been deeply frustrating to have Thielen in your championship lineup and to only see him deliver a paltry two points during Saturday night’s 16-0 win over the Green Bay Packers.
His two catches for 24 yards on six targets makes this his worst game of the year from a yardage standpoint. He had another two-point stinker in Week 2, but that one saw him get 44 receiving yards and a fumble. This week, the Vikings had the honor of playing a Packers team that is closing the season shorthanded on offense and was only just recently eliminated from postseason contention for the first time since 2008. The point being the Vikings did not need a whole lot from the passing game as their defense has been dominate these past few weeks and they really don’t want any more offensive players to suffer injuries before the playoffs.
Thielen meanwhile has had single-digit fantasy points in four of his last five games. It’s a cold streak that has come at an awful time for fantasy owners and is really surprising to see considering how dominant he was throughout the season. The Vikings may need a win in Week 17 to clinch a first-round bye, but they get a lifeless Chicago Bears team and as a result should get an opportunity to rest plenty of players. For the Vikings, it’s all about the playoffs and a chance for a Super Bowl on their homefield, so don’t expect Thielen to do much of anything until the divisional playoffs.
Jacksonville Jaguars D/ST
This dud performance was a shocker as for weeks now, the Jacksonville Jaguars defense/special teams has been one of the surest bets in fantasy. The Jaguars had put up 10 double digit fantasy point performances this year and were easily the best defense for fantasy with a position-leading 189 fantasy points on the season. They are basically a lock to be the first defense/special teams drafted in 2018 and will probably be one of the few options at the position that will be gone long before the 15th and 16th rounds in standard fantasy leagues.
But Week 16 was a rare misstep for this elite defense. Jimmy Garoppolo led his San Francisco 49ers to a 44-33 win over the Jags, giving them their fourth (!) consecutive win. The 9ers have gone from a team content to lose out and finish with the second overall draft pick to 5-10 and possibly the most dangerous non-playoff team entering Week 17. Garoppolo had his doubters during the three-game win streak, but they are considerably fewer in number after seeing his offense shred the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
The Jags avoided negative points, thanks to recording one interception, one sack and a block. This was their second-worst game of the year, only behind the 37-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 that netted them -1 fantasy points. Sadly, the Jaguars get those same Titans in Week 17 and Jacksonville doesn’t really have anything to play for. The Steelers’ Monday night victory locks the Jaguars in at either the three or four seed, thus giving them the option to pull starters against the Titans and potentially put up another horrible fantasy performance for those who start them in Week 17.