Well, we made it. For the overwhelming majority of leagues, the fantasy football season is over. All that's left in the regular season is Week 18, and then 14 teams will duke it out to be the Super Bowl champ. For the most part, analyzing Week 18 from a fantasy perspective is fairly pointless because leagues are over. For those who still need their fix, I recommend starting a playoff fantasy league with your friends or playing one of the best ball playoff leagues already available, but most fantasy managers are turning their attention to 2022 (or, more likely for the non-degenerate crowd, taking the next six months off from thinking about fantasy football). With that in mind, let's break down the most actionable stats from Week 17, but we'll do it with more of a forward-thinking view and focus more on ascending players who will be highly relevant next season. Let's get right into it.
1. Ja'Marr Chase broke the rookie receiving record on Sunday with a 266-yard outburst against the Chiefs. He also reeled in three touchdowns and led the Bengals with 12 targets. Chase now has 1,429 yards on the season (on just 124 targets, good for 11.5 yards per target). He's been everything Bengals fans could have possibly wanted with the fifth overall pick – and then a whole lot more. Tee Higgins has commanded near-equal volume when healthy, but Chase has stolen the show with his unreal efficiency. And he's done it as a rookie.
Not fantasy-relevant, but the Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson, and Chase trio at LSU has to be the best of all time given what we know now. Chase has exceeded his former LSU teammate's rookie receiving record, and he did it in 16 games, so there's no debate about whether his rookie should count considering the extended season.
There's almost no way Chase matches his rookie-year efficiency in Year 2, but he doesn't have to considering what we know about second-year wideouts. Wide receivers who are efficient in their first pro season tend to command more targets and continue to be efficient in their second year. Basically, Chase's yards per target average will drop, but he should get more targets and ascend into the top tier of NFL wideouts (and you can argue he's there already despite his inexperience), much like what Jefferson has done this year. Chase has a strong argument to be a first-round fantasy pick next fall, and Higgins could also be underrated even though Chase should strengthen his grip on the WR1 role in 2022. The Bengals' wide receiver duo is one of the best in recent memory, and the scary part is they're only going to get better as they get more experienced. Cincinnati was one of the hottest stacks in best ball last summer, and they should enter a Cowboys-esque realm next year with one of the brightest young quarterbacks and best young wideout duos in the game. Chase is a fringe first-round pick who may slip into Round 2 because of running back thirst, and Higgins' breakout second season has also gone under the radar because of his younger teammate. Expectations will be sky-high for the Bengals in 2022 – and rightfully so.
2. Kyle Pitts topped the 1,000-yard mark in Week 17, an incredibly impressive feat for a rookie tight end (even though he is used as a wide receiver so much). Even more noteworthy is that he's done it on elite efficiency – 9.7 yards per target – despite playing on such a woeful team with no other pass-catching weapons over the second half of the season, especially now that the Falcons have stopped using Cordarrelle Patterson as a receiver. The major knock on Pitts this season is that he only has one touchdown, but it's only a matter of time before the 6'6", 250-pound size-speed freak starts hitting paydirt regularly.
Unfortunately, the Falcons' future isn't as bright as Pitts' individual outlook, but the Florida product should still be a highly sought-after asset in Year 2. After becoming the first rookie tight end to hit the millennium mark in receiving yards in 60 years (60 years!), Pitts will warrant a selection at the 2-3 turn in 2022 fantasy leagues, similar to where George Kittle and Darren Waller were going last offseason. He's the clear TE1 and first-round pick in dynasty leagues and should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
3. David Montgomery got 22-of-24 running back carries for the Bears. While he ran just 18 routes on 41 Andy Dalton dropbacks, he has typically been a high route participation share player over the past couple of months. Damien Williams is a free agent after this season.
Montgomery is one of the players I was most wrong about this year, as I thought he would cede more work – especially as a receiver – to Damien Williams. While Williams did actually run 11 routes to Montgomery's 18 in Week 17 (perhaps due to the blowout), that type of split has not been the case for most of the season, as Montgomery has emerged as a true three-down workhorse, and he's been one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary Bears season.
Khalil Herbert is another interesting name to watch, especially if the Bears let Williams walk. Herbert played well earlier in the season when called upon, and Chicago displayed their faith in the sixth-round rookie by handing him a full three-down workload when Montgomery and Williams missed time. Herbert could be one of the cheaper insurance policies in fantasy next season, and he would possess big upside if Montgomery misses time (assuming Williams is gone, which we'll just have to wait and see what happens there).
4. Nathan Jahnke (of Pro Football Focus) pointed out that Rashod Bateman played at least 80% of snaps for the third consecutive game in Week 17 after playing no more than 70% of snaps in his first eight games. In fact, Bateman led Baltimore wide receivers in snaps, routes run, and targets against the Rams.
Bateman's career got off to a slow start due to a preseason injury, but he now appears fully healthy, and the Minnesota product has been ascending the ranks over the past few games. Bateman had perhaps the best age-adjusted production in the 2021 rookie receiver class, and his slow rookie season may offer a buying opportunity over the summer for fantasy managers who buy into the 22-year-old's collegiate profile. Bateman has just one touchdown this season and his 7.7 yards per target average isn't anything to write home about, but he broke out at age 20.1 as a true sophomore while competing with future NFL wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Bateman could even challenge Marquise Brown for WR1 duties in Baltimore next season, and his recent upgrade to full-time player only helps that notion.
5. Even without Kenyan Drake, Josh Jacobs only ran 16 routes on 34 Derek Carr dropbacks. Meanwhile, Jalen Richard ran 10 routes and Peyton Barber got four. Barber also siphoned six carries away from Jacobs. Heading into a pivotal Sunday Night Football showdown against the Chargers in Week 18 – which could decide the final playoff spot in the AFC – it's hard to view Jacobs as a real three-down back.
There was some optimism that Jacobs could play on all three downs once Drake got hurt – and we saw that at the start with Richard on the COVID list – but Las Vegas has reverted to using a committee, although Jacobs is still leaving the backfield in routes. The Chargers are one of the bigger run funnel defenses in the league, so Jacobs' rushing workload is enough to make him a fringe top-12 option for the final week of the regular season, but Richard and Barber are too involved for Jacobs to ascend into truly elite status.
Thank you all for reading Strength in Numbers all season long. This will be the final edition, and I hope you all enjoyed reading these as much as I enjoyed writing them.