After all the hours of preseason preparation for their fantasy drafts, owners can start seeing some real results now that the 2016 regular season is here.
The question is … did they learn anything from last season? And what’s different this season?
Let’s take a look at some of the major themes in the fantasy football landscape for 2016.
Passing game is king
The fantasy world has seen a massive shift from just last season as NFL teams once again set records for completions, yards and touchdowns through the air.
The emphasis on throwing the football has philosophically changed the way most fantasy teams are being built.
The top five players, on average, in fantasy drafts a year ago – Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch – were all running backs.
But as injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll, only one (Peterson) even finished among the top 25 running backs at the end of the season. And among the 10 highest-scoring backs last year, just five were among the top 30 in average draft position.
Instead, star wide receivers have become the safest commodities in fantasy.
This year’s near-unanimous No. 1 overall pick is Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, who’s coming off a season in which he caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Brown is joined by Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Allen Robinson as consensus first-rounders.
Many season-long leagues and the major daily fantasy sites also award fantasy points for each reception, further boosting star receivers’ values.
All this passing should make quarterbacks more valuable, right? Actually, it’s the opposite.
If everyone’s throwing for all these yards (a record 243.8 per game in 2016), the total number of fantasy points they’re generating isn’t that different from each other.
Cam Newton was the clear No. 1 fantasy quarterback in 2015, but that was largely because he ran for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns – to go with his 35 passing TDs. Newton’s 24.4 fantasy points per game helped his fantasy owners considerably.
However, the difference between Russell Wilson and Tom Brady, who tied for second (21.5), and No. 16 Derek Carr (17.0) was a mere 4.5 fantasy points per game.
Had their owners passed on a top quarterback not named Newton and taken a second receiver instead, those 4.5 points per game would have equaled the difference between No. 15 WR Jarvis Landry and No. 48 Torrey Smith.
It’s no wonder savvy fantasy owners waited later than ever this season to draft their starting quarterbacks.
Still the key to the offense
Despite their diminished fantasy value, quarterbacks are still the most important players on the field – in fantasy and in reality.
How well they execute the offensive game plan directly impacts their skill-position teammates.
Fantasy owners will be keeping a close eye on the early-season progress of Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, will look to keep the Philadelphia Eagles offense on the field longer than it was a year ago when it ranked last in time of possession per drive.
Prescott is in a better position with the Dallas Cowboys as he takes over for the injured Tony Romo. He’ll work behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and have two potential fantasy stars alongside in running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant.
And Garoppolo will start the New England Patriots’ first four games with starter Tom Brady suspended. Can Rob Gronkowski live up to his status as fantasy’s No. 1 tight end if Brady isn’t throwing him the ball? Will anyone else emerge as an offensive threat? Garoppolo holds the keys.
Suspensions are not fatal
Speaking of Brady, he isn’t the only star player who won’t be eligible to play in his team’s opener.
The Steelers’ Bell would have been in the discussion (with the top wideouts) as a potential No. 1 overall pick this season if he weren’t suspended for the first three games because of a missed drug test.
He’s recovering from offseason knee surgery, so the extra time off could be a blessing in disguise if it helps keep him healthy for a full season. The No. 1 fantasy running back in 2014, Bell was suspended for the first two games last year, then tore a ligament in his knee in Week 8, crushing his owners’ title hopes.
In addition, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon will have to sit out four more games after being suspended for all of last season. He was the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver in 2013, but has played in only five games since then.
Because of their reduced playing time, all three stars were discounted to varying degrees in drafts this summer. But if fantasy owners are able to at least tread water to open the season, they’ll have proven difference-makers in their lineups the rest of the way.
The ultimate goal isn’t winning the regular season. As Brady can tell you, it’s all about having your best team on the field and peaking in time for the playoffs.
Follow Steve Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner