Fantasy football highs and lows for the NFL season: Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor lead the way

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Every fantasy football season takes on a different shape and feel than the one before it, and this one was certainly no different. From rising young stars and feel good stories to pivotal injuries and disappointments, we saw a little bit of everything.

Here are Matt Bowen and Tristan H. Cockcroft to break down the biggest takeaways from 2021, and what to make of them heading into next season.

Cooper Kupp to the moon

From the No. 46 overall pick on average in ESPN leagues in the preseason (18th among wide receivers) to fantasy football’s top-scoring player, Cooper Kupp is my 2021 MVP. He became the 15th player in NFL history to reach the 400 PPR fantasy point plateau through the season’s first 16 games, scoring 412.9 through Week 17, and his 439.5 come season’s end shattered Jerry Rice’s previous wide receiver record of 414.0, set in 1995. Kupp also scored at least 20 points in 14 of 17 games, also setting a single-season record at his position and underscoring his week-over-week consistency for our purposes.

What’s more, Kupp was on a championship game team in six of my seven leagues this season, and his team won four of those six league titles, after he had been by far the most rostered player on ESPN playoff and finalist teams. We’ll see whether he’s the leader on the most rostered list for league championships — that’ll be released early in the week — but I’d guess he will be.

Now the question becomes: How good can Kupp be in 2022, and is he truly worthy of the first-round selection he’ll certainly cost? The expected return of Robert Woods might cut into Kupp’s league-leading 32.5% target share, but a deeper look into the numbers shows that Kupp’s usage and fantasy production scarcely shifted as a result of Woods’ season-ending injury suffered during the Week 10 practice week. Kupp averaged 26.2 PPR fantasy points, 11.4 targets and 2.3 red-zone targets in the nine games Woods played, and 25.5 points, 11.1 targets and 2.1 red-zone targets in the eight games played without Woods, and quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had such a strong connection with the receiver, is under contract for 2022. The dreaded “law of averages” says that a 400-point campaign will be difficult to replicate, but Kupp has to enter 2022 regarded at worst a top-three positional choice, depending entirely upon your opinions off Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson. — Cockcroft

Tristan, is there a better mix of talent and scheme than Kupp in Sean McVay’s offense? I don’t see it. Just look at the open voids McVay can dial-up for Kupp versus zone coverage. Three-level flood concepts, Hi-Lo reads for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Or the isolation matchups that allow the Rams wide receiver to utilize his high-end route running traits. Sudden and detailed there. Kupp scored at least 20 PPR points in 14 games. And he had six games with 30 or more PPR points. Just ridiculous (and consistent) numbers. We can mention Colts running back Jonathan Taylor in the fantasy MVP discussion, but we all know it’s Kupp. What a season. — Bowen

Ja’Marr Chase was one of the best rookie WRs ever

Chase fell 0.1 PPR fantasy points shy of the single-season rookie record for a wide receiver, held by Randy Moss (304.7 in 1998), but a 304.6 point campaign is still an extraordinary feat. Chase’s freshman year will be remembered for two things: His amazing connection with his quarterback and college teammate at LSU, Joe Burrow, and his near-record setting Week 17/fantasy championship week 55.6 PPR fantasy points.

Chase’s fantasy production did waver at times, especially later in the year, as he had three games worth more than 15 PPR fantasy points but another three worth less than seven in his eight played after the Cincinnati Bengals’ bye, but anyone watching him could see his game-breaking potential. I’ve written this before in this space and stand by it: I think he has an entirely legitimate shot at finishing the 2022 season as the top-scoring fantasy wide receiver. — Cockcroft

Jonathan Taylor became an early favorite for No. 1 pick in 2022 fantasy drafts

After an early season slump that saw Taylor fail to top the 10 point PPR mark in Weeks 2 and 3, he finished the year as RB1, with a total 373.1 PPR points. Pretty good lesson here on trusting a volume back — with big play ability — in a run-heavy offense. Taylor, who led all running backs with 23 explosive play rushes (rushes of 15 yards or more), saw 20 or more carries in six of his last eight games, with 11 total touchdowns during that stretch. And while Taylor doesn’t give managers a ton of upside as a receiver, we have to focus on his running style behind an offensive line that can move people off the ball consistently. Taylor made a jump in his second pro season, displaying more patience as a runner, while using his vision to find daylight. He’ll be our RB1 heading into the 2022 season. — Bowen

Diminished depth at QB position

It was a strange year for the quarterback position, perhaps one that will swing the pendulum (even if only slightly) back towards investing in the big names. There was a definite advantage to having a Josh Allen, who led the position in scoring for the second consecutive year, Justin Herbert, the first quarterback in history to score 330-plus fantasy points in each of his first two NFL seasons, Tom Brady, who enjoyed his sixth career 300-point season, Patrick Mahomes, who exceeded 360 points for the third time in the past four years or Aaron Rodgers, who extended his NFL record with his 10th career season with at least 300 fantasy points.

That quintet, plus Kyler Murray, represented the six quarterbacks who averaged 21-plus fantasy points per game, with the tier beneath them featuring another six who averaged between 19 and 21 (minimum eight games started). No other quarterback, however, averaged even 17 fantasy points per game, illustrating the widening divide between the position’s elite and fantasy’s QB2 class. Was it a one-year blip? Perhaps. But I’ll be one analyst at least considering paying an extra buck for a proven name, while using my backup spot — that effectively mandatory in these days of quarterback volatility — as the one from which I’ll speculate or stream matchups. — Cockcroft

Lofty expectations clouded Kyle Pitts‘ huge rookie campaign

The only things wrong with Pitts’ rookie season were his ADP, as he was the No. 50 overall selection on average in ESPN leagues, the earliest a rookie tight end has been selected this century, and his inability to score touchdowns. Pitts found the end zone only once all year, despite 68 receptions, 14 red zone targets and five end zone targets. It was one of the season’s unluckiest developments, something his fantasy managers consistently pointed out, but everything else on his rookie stat sheet offers optimism for 2022. Despite Pitts’ touchdown struggles, he totaled 176.6 PPR fantasy points, the fourth-most by any rookie tight end in history, and he had the second-most receiving yards by any rookie tight end (1,026), trailing only Mike Ditka’s 1,076 in 1961. Everyone saw future superstardom in this youngster, and for me, nothing has changed in that regard. Once the big three of Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews and George Kittle are gone, Pitts is right behind them on my draft board. — Cockcroft

Cordarrelle Patterson came up big

Patterson, a top in-season pickup, got you to the fantasy playoffs, and that’s all that really mattered. While he was a Weeks 15-18 disappointment, scoring only 22.0 PPR fantasy points combined in those four games, that nevertheless brought his season total to 234.6, still the position’s seventh-most. That’s not bad for a player who was drafted in only 2.4% of ESPN leagues in the seven-day period immediately leading into Week 1, instead a popular pickup exiting either that week or Week 2. Patterson landed in a perfect spot in Atlanta, behind a shaky starting running back in Mike Davis, but much more importantly, he fit brilliantly in offensive coordinator Dave Ragone’s system, which maximized the gadget player’s skills. — Cockcroft

Rookie QBs fell flat

This season that was advertised as one rich in rookie quarterbacks turned out not so much. Quarterbacks — specifically Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance — went 1-2-3 in the NFL Draft, and a record eight quarterbacks were selected in the first three rounds of said draft, and at season’s end, the 2021 rookie quarterback class amassed 71 starts, the second-most since at least 1950 behind only 2012’s 89 (that class featured Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson). Additionally, a record-tying five quarterbacks — Mac Jones, Lawrence, Wilson, Davis Mills and Justin Fields — scored at least 125 fantasy points, matching 2012’s total.

That said, this year’s freshman quarterback class, on the whole, had to be characterized as a near-complete disappointment. Jones scored a productive, and rookie quarterback-best, 224.94 fantasy points, but his brethren fell far short of expectations. Rookie quarterbacks totaled 18 games — out of those aforementioned 71 starts — that finished among the position’s weekly top 10, Davis Mills‘ Week 18 was the only one that placed in the weekly top three and only Jones (2 times), Wilson (2), Davis (1) and Fields (1) finished among the position’s top five in any week. As a whole, rookie quarterbacks averaged a mere 12.3 fantasy points per start, the lowest total in any season since 2014 (that class featured Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Johnny Manziel).

That’s not to condemn this entire draft class’ chances at future success, especially considering the learning curve at the NFL level. Josh Allen is a recent example who took a big step forward as a sophomore, but even then, his rookie campaign didn’t fall as low on the leaderboard as the aforementioned names’ years. The bottom line: If you leaned heavily on a rookie signal-caller, it blew up in your face. — Cockcroft

Tristan, let’s go back to August here, when I targeted either Justin Fields or Trey Lance late in my home league drafts. Just be patient, right? And wait for the rooks to get to the keys to their respective offenses. I wanted the anticipated upside of two quarterbacks with high-end physical tools and dual-threat ability. QB run game, schemed vertical throws, playbooks that would maximize Fields or Lance as viable fantasy starters. While that didn’t bury me, given where I landed both rookies late in drafts, but I expected a lot more here.

Lance, who is a really easy fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, started a total of two games. That’s it. Fields? He went through an up and down season for a poor Bears offense. Some injuries, too. And he scored over 18 fantasy points in a game just twice this season. Now, the Bears are going to make a coaching change. And maybe Lance is the unquestioned starter heading into the [2022] season. We’ll see how the offseason shakes out here. Because I still believe both quarterbacks have the traits to be productive fantasy players. — Bowen

Deebo Samuel became one of fantasy’s top WRs

Samuel finished as WR3 in fantasy this season, and we can point to his versatility here in Kyle Shanahan’s system. Sure, the physical element is always there with Samuel on schemed-up throws in San Francisco that cater to his catch and run traits. He’s got explosive play juice, too. However, we can’t talk about Samuel without looking at his role as a running back in this offense over the second half of the season. Samuel saw at least five-plus carries in his last eight games, with at least one rushing score in six of those last eight. Perimeter schemes, the inside the tackle carries that allowed Deebo to get on a downhill track, more. And what did we see? Ball carrier vision, second-level speed, the ability to run (and finish) with low pad level. Those are the same traits we discuss with the top running backs in the league. Given how he was deployed this season, we can say that Samuel is one of the most unique, high-level talents in the league. — Bowen

Dallas Cowboys was the D/ST to have

Dallas had a huge rebound season, pacing the D/ST position with 163 fantasy points, the franchise’s most since 2003 (164). They were led by a pair of young stars: Cornerback Trevon Diggs, who had six consecutive games with an interception to start the season and finished with 169.8 IDP fantasy points (using ESPN’s traditional Individual Defensive Player scoring settings), and edge rusher Micah Parsons, whose 219.5 fantasy point season places him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Granted, that the Cowboys’ fantasy point total wound up the third-lowest total by the league’s leader in the past 60 uninterrupted seasons (i.e. excluding 1982) underscores the importance of streaming the position, strategically speaking, but this was also a defense you could’ve streamed initially, then stuck with and ridden to a fantasy title late. From Week 10 forward, the Cowboys scored 110 of their 163 points, including a trio of games worth at least 22. — Cockcroft

Dallas had playmakers — at all three levels of the defense this season. And, Tristan, I agree with you on Diggs and Parsons. Two highly disruptive defenders. Picks, sacks, impact plays. But we also need to talk about how the Cowboys coordinator, Dan Quinn, completely changed his defensive profile in [2021]. The old three-deep zone shells? Gone. This Cowboys defense ranked No.1 in the NFL in man-coverage snaps. And we saw a lot of late movement to split-safety zone, with the schemed fronts that created pass rush matchups. Play design, scheme and talent. The Cowboys’ defense checked those boxes this year. — Bowen

Other QB storylines

Jalen Hurts did what it took to put up fantasy numbers

Hurts’ season wasn’t pretty to watch, but it was plenty valuable in fantasy terms, as the second-year quarterback scored a ninth-at-the-position 312.16 points. His was an uneven season though, as he began with seven consecutive weeks ranking among the position’s top 10 scorers, but managed only three top-10 performances in his final eight games, while sitting out another two (including the Week 18 game). Questions also rang loudly all year whether the Eagles would change quarterbacks, considering his modest 61.3 completion percentage (59.0% through his two NFL seasons). Hurts did steer his team into the playoffs, however, and seems likely to hold his job into 2022, his scrambling ability enough to keep him regarded one of the 10 best picks at his position. — Cockcroft

Joe Burrow broke out, showed bright future

Is it a stretch to say that Burrow could find himself as a Top 5 QB when then 2022 ranks come out? Just based on the key traits that lead to high-level quarterback play, Burrow is going to check the boxes there. That’s the processing ability, accuracy, movement skills. Read it out and deliver the ball with timing/rhythm, or go make a play when things go south. Plus, just look at the skill positions in Cincy, an offense that leans on three wide receiver personnel. Chase, Higgins, Boyd — and the pass game production this offense can generate with running back Joe Mixon. Burrow won a bunch of managers a title in the fantasy playoffs too, dropping 38.1 points on the Ravens in Week 16 and another 34.84 against the Chiefs in Week 17. You want to target a quarterback next year with a high-ceiling, in an offense that will create explosive plays? That’s Burrow for me. — Bowen

Justin Herbert stayed hot in year two, made history

Herbert is one of the game’s brightest stars, after scoring 353.34 fantasy points through 17 weeks, third-most at his position entering his Sunday night game. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to score 330-plus points in each of his first two seasons, and his 686.18 points in those years combined trailed only Cam Newton’s 693.8. Herbert is one of those franchise-chip passers I’m talking about above, and he should join Allen and Mahomes as the position’s big three for an awfully long time. — Cockcroft

Other RB storylines

Ezekiel Elliott showed signs of slowing down

Zeke checked-in with three 20-plus point games over the first six weeks of the season. But after the Week 7 bye, Elliott produced just one game with 20 or more PPR points. I think we saw some decline to his game here, especially when focusing on his play-speed. And with Tony Pollard getting his touches in the Dallas game plan, Elliott rode out the second-half of the season as a touchdown dependent RB2. — Bowen

Derrick Henry‘s injury shifted the season

Henry’s injury in Week 8 was a real shame, in that he was off to a positively dominating year at the time. His 24.2 PPR fantasy points per game average remained the league’s leading rate, among players with at least as many as his eight played, he had a 40.1 point lead over the next-best at his position at the time and he was a top-five weekly positional performer in 4-of-8 games. Henry is the heart of the Tennessee Titans’ offense, which while decent after his injury, wasn’t quite the same during his absence. I still see him as a top-five positional pick, especially since he’ll likely be ready to play for the Titans during the divisional playoffs week, meaning we’ll at least get a glimpse at his health before the year concludes. — Cockcroft

Saquon Barkley, Giants’ offense fell off

With only two games of 20 or more PPR points, and just four total touchdowns on the year, Barkley obviously didn’t play at a level that meshed with his ADP (RB5). We know this. And you can say that Barkley didn’t look as explosive a year removed from the knee injury. Plus, he missed some more games this year, too. But we can’t put this all on him, right? That Giants offense was extremely poor this year. From personnel to in-game management. Barkley has RB1 talent, but the Giants need to get some things fixed here in [2022]. — Bowen

Leonard Fournette became a force in passing game

I missed big here on Fournette, because I didn’t anticipate the receiving totals for the Bucs’ running back. Fournette, who was put on IR in Week 16, had five or more receptions in seven games this season. And Tom Brady is going to take the throws that are available. Fournette caught 69 passes this year — and racked-up 255.6 PPR points. — Bowen

Javonte Williams impressed in debut season

The Broncos will have a new head coach in [2022], and they will have to address the quarterback position. But, if they hit it right, I think Williams has RB1 upside with Melvin Gordon III entering free agency. The most explosive runner of the rookie class, Williams is extremely sudden and he will drop the hammer on contact. And he can give you some numbers in the pass game, too. With three games of 20 or more PPR points this past season — while sharing touches with Gordon — I love the upside of Williams moving forward. — Bowen

Other WR storylines

Justin Jefferson stayed on torrid pace

I’m tempted to place Jefferson atop my wide receiver rankings entering 2022, after the historic first two NFL seasons he has delivered. He concluded 2021 with 330.4 PPR fantasy points, third-best at the position, after scoring a sixth-most-in-history-by-a-rookie 274.2 points in 2020. Combine them, and Jefferson’s 604.6 points trail only Odell Beckham Jr.’s 614.3 as far as wide receivers through their first two years, a testament to his big-play ability. — Cockcroft

Jaylen Waddle stood out among rookie receivers

Playing in a Miami pass game designed around the throwing traits of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Waddle emerged as a volume target in his rookie season with motion/movement ability. Lot of quicks, unders and middle-of-the-field concepts for Waddle. And we saw how the Dolphins utilized his formation versatility with backfield releases more. This season, Waddle caught seven or more passes in eight games, and he registered at least 15 PPR points in nine games. Given the lack of a consistent vertical element in the Miami pass game structure, Waddle will be in the WR2 mix for me next season.. — Bowen

Amon-Ra St. Brown stepped up in fantasy playoffs

If you’re looking for a fantasy playoffs MVP, look no further than Detroit Lions rookie St. Brown. The wide receiver saw double-digit targets and scored 15-plus PPR fantasy points in each of his final six games, and his 111.0 points in Weeks 15-18 represented the league’s leading total. He benefited in a big way from T.J. Hockenson’s injury, but St. Brown proved his worth as a handy option running routes out of the slot for Jared Goff and Tim Boyle. Best yet: St. Brown was available in an incredible 24.0% of ESPN leagues heading into the four-week fantasy playoffs, meaning you could’ve easily scooped him up and benefited. — Cockcroft

Other TE storylines

Mark Andrews put up top-5 all-time season at TE

He wasn’t drafted as one of the “big three,” but Mark Andrews topped the tight end position with 301.1 PPR fantasy points, in the process becoming only the fourth tight end in history to reach the 300-point plateau. Point out “but it’s 17 games!” if you wish, but Andrews was excellent, especially when fantasy managers needed him most, scoring 122.0 points from Weeks 14-18. That was almost 50 more than any other tight end had during that time span, as he excelled when many of the proven names at the position fizzled. Andrews will enter 2022 a definite, positional “big three.” — Cockcroft

Source: ESPN

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