The 2016 NFL regular season is still winding down, but it's never too early to start thinking about next year. Included here is my first run of 2017 rankings at the four primary fantasy football positions. Obviously, a lot will change as a result of offseason research, coaching changes, the draft and free agency, but this is an effort to get an early look at what 2017 drafts may look like.
Additionally, many of you are currently able to stash players in dynasty/keeper leagues. This should help you make some tough decisions. Last year, 'Zero RB' was cool, hip and in, and if you didn't follow suit, you were laughed at. Now that those who picked David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott are holding league trophies, and running back is making a comeback. But will the pendulum swing too far back away from wide receiver? It's very possible and, if it does, you should be looking to zig when your opposition zags in an effort to maximize your roster.
Nonetheless, the debate between running back and wide receiver at the top of drafts rolls on. I think some of the disconnect comes because many analysts who do the studies on 'Zero RB' are focusing on PPR leagues. In PPR, top wide receivers will catch upwards of 80 more passes than some top-15 running backs. That's a huge gap and obviously inflates the value of the position. You can't simply apply that 'zero RB PPR' strategy, however, to non-PPR without making adjustments. Consider that the average point total of the top-15 scoring running backs through Week 16 is 212. The average wide receiver total is 162. No. 1 scoring RB David Johnson has scored 323 points, whereas top wide receiver Antonio Brown has 201.
Regardless of any small sample size examples you feel the need to pontificate, running backs do bust at a slightly higher rate than wide receivers. That's a big deal in PPR leagues where the point totals are similar atop the position. It makes the decision to go wide receiver-heavy easy. In non-PPR leagues, that risk is offset a bit by the higher scoring production of top-end running backs.
So, while we can all agree that owning a top-end running back is of the utmost importance on a week-to-week basis, the real trick is actually finding that running back. And that is where the old school 'running backs score more points so you're a fool if you don't go RB heavy' crowd tends to go wrong. Because running backs get hurt more and miss more time when they go down, it's easier to find competent backs on waivers than it is wide receivers.
To put it another way, if you go WR heavy out of the gate in a non-PPR draft, your leaguemates who went RB heavy will probably end the draft with a roster projected to score a few more points than your squad. However, as injuries happen, you will have a much easier time adding value to your lineup, closing the gap and hopefully ending up with the best squad when it counts most. As the aforementioned link shows, top-scoring fantasy backs are easier to find than receivers in later rounds.
Entering 2017 drafts, my advice will be the same as it was last year: Don't be stubborn and attach yourself to one set strategy. You'll only end up handcuffing your ability to maximize your starting lineup. Go in with a game plan, but be prepared to adjust to the flow of the draft.
Included here are my non-PPR top-50 quarterbacks, top-70 running backs, top-100 wide receivers, top-50 tight ends and top-50 overall players as we head into the offseason -- as well as some quick notes on each position.
Rodgers started slowly, but ended up blowing away the field at quarterback this season. Just keep in mind that Green Bay went super pass-heavy and that's likely to level out a bit next year. He's my top 2017 quarterback option, but I won't be pouncing on a passer before, at least, the fifth round.
Ryan's efficiency is off the charts and he, like Carson Palmer last year, is going to come back to earth. He's still a QB1, but more of a midpack option.
I posted an absurdly early set of these ranks back in September and you cats thought I was too cute in ranking Dak Prescott at No. 11. As it turns out, I was too low.
Newton and the Panthers are candidates for a rebound next year, but Newton's passing struggles are enough to make him more of a borderline QB1 target. Wentz is a good candidate to throw downfield more and add points with his legs next season.
The likes of Taylor, Romo, Cutler and Kaepernick will have their landing spot move the needle on their ranking, so I'm hedging a bit at the moment.
Garoppolo, Glennon and possibly even Geno Smith are the best bets among clear backups to land a starting gig on the open market or via trade this offseason. However, none figure to see a huge boost in value as a result.
Johnson, Bell and Elliott will be top-three players off the board in nearly every 2017 fantasy draft. The question remains, though, in what order you should take them. Elliott's lack of usage as a receiver is just enough of a factor for me to move Johnson and Bell ahead, but "Zeke" is younger and is a capable pass-catcher, so his role could expand in that area. Johnson vs. Bell is extremely close, but Johnson has been slightly better on a per-game basis and he doesn't have as many off-the-field/injury question marks.
Behind the "big three" is where it gets tricky. Howard emerged into a star this year and, although he does have some concerns as a receiver, he's so dominant running the ball that he belongs in the top-five discussion.
I'll probably end up high on Ajayi, but Miami should return most of its personnel to a run-first offense that allowed Ajayi over 20 carries per game once he became the starter. The NFL leader in yards-after-contact is primed for a complete breakout next year.
Gordon is likely to lose passing-down work to a healthy Danny Woodhead and it's hard to bank on the absurd amount of work he saw at the goal line.
McCoy and Murray feel like safe picks late in the first round, but I'm definitely concerned about the heavy workloads, combined with the fact that both will be 29 years old. They are assets at their peak value, but on the verge of a sharp decline. That's a scary investment. Meanwhile, Gurley is simply too talented to remove from the RB1 discussion.
Anderson is a tremendous talent and Booker's struggles all but assure he'll return to lead back duties.
Could Charles return and disrupt Ware's workload? It's a possible scenario, but for now, I'm betting on Ware as the lead man.
Lacy was terrific in 2016 before his injury and I think his most likely outcome is a one-year deal with Green Bay. Buy low.
The Redskins could add a more dynamic feature back, but I'm a huge "Fat Rob" fan. I expect him to keep the lead-back job.
Don't forget about Abdullah, who was a 2016 breakout candidate before injury. He will be a terrific midround target.
Dixon and Perkins are realistic candidates to be atop their respective depth charts in 2016, but both Baltimore and New York very easily could address the position in the draft.
Don't just assume Henry will play a bigger role in 2017, but he's obviously an elite handcuff.
Will Peterson and Forte land feature back roles somewhere in 2017?
Richard was a big-time playmaker and elite after contact as a rookie. He's a sneaky buy low with Latavius Murray headed to free agency.
Hey, some consistency in fantasy football! It's the same as last year, with Beckham, Brown and Jones making up the top tier of wide receivers. I'll be picking 24-year-old Beckham over 29-year-old Brown, but it's close.
Cooper was a bit of a disappointment this year, but he's only 23 years old and a candidate for an even larger target share next year with Crabtree set to turn 30 during the season.
As 2016 has proven, Drew Brees can certainly support a pair of top-15 fantasy receivers in Cooks and the emerging Thomas.
I'm going to be a bit low on Jordy Nelson because I'm scared of his age. There aren't many 32-year-old stud fantasy receivers, but certainly Aaron Rodgers' top target is a contender to defy the odds and post another WR1 season. Still, I'm hedging some.
The ADPs of 2015 studs/2016 busts Hopkins and Robinson will be very interesting. My thought is that we're looking at two young, very talented wide receivers who are featured in their respective offenses. Both should be viewed as rebound candidates and back-end round-two targets. Watkins, Allen, Decker and Jeffery are too good at football to not bounce back in a big way.
Coleman and Shepard are locked into huge roles in their respective offenses and Tyreek Hill and Josh Doctson round out the top-five second-year receivers in the ranks. Doctson's value will depend on whether or not Jackson and/or Garcon are re-signed.
Martavis Bryant will push as high as the WR2 discussion if he's reinstated. Gordon may as well, but he'll need to compete with Coleman and Pryor in an offense unlikely to have an impact quarterback.
White and Treadwell will be terrific post-hype fliers and Mitchell is a strong breakout possibility as an every-down player in New England.
Gronkowski will have the offseason to get healthy and, although his injuries have been a pain, keep in mind that he finished three straight weeks as the top-scoring tight end when healthy this season. No other tight end had more than two on the year. He'll be 28 years old and is an absolute stud. He's worth a look at the second/third-round turn.
Similarly, Reed is dominant when healthy and Kelce took his game to a new level this year. Both should be targeted in the fourth round.
Henry will be the popular tight end breakout of the 2017 season, especially if the Chargers move on from Gates. Unfortunately, this probably means Henry will be too pricey at his ADP.
Sneakier late-round breakout candidates will be second-year Higbee, Hooper and DeValve.
I'm on board with the one-two-three punch of Johnson, Bell and Elliott at the top of the draft, but just remember -- and this is one of the enigmas of fantasy drafts -- that you're drafting these players at or near their ceiling. David Johnson is an absolute fantasy stud, but he's not a realistic candidate to repeat his 2016 performance. Think 2016 Antonio Brown. He's fantasy's top-scoring wide receiver but many will tell you he disappointed. Why? Because he was at his ceiling during 2014-15 and couldn't match that production.
It was considered silly to take Mike Evans over Allen Robinson back in August for the same reason. Of course, players who are at their ceiling will often be picked early in drafts. Someone has to come off the board first and those are generally the players who have the most appeal. It's probably the very best defense for those in favor of auctions. This isn't my way of saying that Johnson is a poor pick at 1.1, but don't bank on another 16 games and 300-plus points. It's not the most-likely outcome.
If anything, just be careful not to overvalue a player who was at his ceiling last year (and vice versa). An example of this would be selecting Melvin Gordon over Jordan Howard on the grounds that Gordon will repeat his obscene 2016 usage, especially near the goal line, and Howard "only scored seven touchdowns." That's not to say Gordon is definitely a worse pick than Howard, just that you need to determine realistic expectations and outcomes for each player before making a selection. Consider a player's ceiling and floor, as well as potential roadblocks to achieving either outcome.