A TIER ABOVE THEIR PEERS
Outstanding Seasons from Outstanding Individuals
As someone who grew up watching countless hours of sports, no matter the game or importance of the outcome, I have always been fascinated by excellence. Whether it’s a dominating game, an outstanding season or a dynasty in the making, excellence is something to marvel at. There is just something about athletes at the top of their physical peaks squaring up and challenging others to beat them and still succeeding. The player that always comes to mind for me when I think about this is LaDainian Tomlinson. Growing up a San Diego Chargers fan meant that I had the pleasure of watching one of the greatest running backs of all-time every Sunday and seeing jaw-dropping performances. Now as a fantasy football fanatic, I decided that I would use this platform to talk to you all about the greatest fantasy football single-season performances of all time.
As you will soon learn, all of these names should be familiar if you’ve watched football in the last 20 years. There are really no surprises when it comes to these players being at the top of these lists, but it may shock you to see the statistics that were put up by these greats. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. I will be using PPR (points per reception) as the scoring system, .1 point per yard receiving/rushing, 6 points per rushing/receiving TD, 4 for passing TDs, -2 points for INTs and .04 points per passing yard. Obviously, these results may differ if you used a different scoring system, but across multiple platforms, I believe this is the most “standard” scoring format. Now, let us begin!
Coming into the 2018 season, the NFL didn’t know what to expect from the Kansas City Chiefs. Over the offseason, they had traded starting QB Alex Smith to the now Washington Football Team and showed they believed they had their future franchise QB in Patrick Mahomes. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs traded up to take Mahomes, and it caught the NFL off-guard as they had Smith in place who was leading them to wins. However, the Chiefs front office and Andy Reid saw something that they couldn’t pass up on. Starting the 2018 season, expectations were that the Chiefs and Mahomes had potential to be good but that it may take some time. Most of the time when we say, “it may take some time”, what we usually mean is a year or two, not a few games. The Chiefs started out the season 5-0 and Mahomes looked impressive. What followed is in my opinion the best ever season for a 2nd year QB and best season for a first-time starter.
Mahomes led the Chiefs to a 12-4 record while leading the league in scoring offense, putting up an insane 35.3 ppg, all while taking home the MVP. Mahomes led the league with 50 passing TDs, was 2nd with 5,097 passing yards and 12 INT. Not only was Mahomes the real-life MVP, but he was clearly the fantasy MVP as well. He put up the highest ever point total for a QB with 417.1 points, an impressive 26.1 ppg. What makes his season even more valuable as a fantasy option is that his average draft position (ADP) was QB 16! He was being drafted as a backup, and that’s if he was even drafted at all. I have no doubt that he was rostered in every league after a few weeks, and those who did so cashed in on his outstanding performance. Mahomes was worth the price of admission to watch that year; and let’s be honest, he still is. What stood out about this year was the ease with which he performed and how simple he made it look. We have seen the quarterback position played at a high level, but we had never seen it played with such calmness and gracefulness that Mahomes played it in 2018.
Well, we didn’t have to wait very long for our next great quarterback season. If we thought that there were doubts about Patrick Mahomes as a franchise quarterback, then I don’t know where the conversation would begin with Lamar Jackson. The 2016 Heisman trophy winner proved that he was an outstanding runner in college and could get by with his arm, but the real questions were about his consistency as a passer. The Ravens used one of their multiple 1st round picks on Jackson in the 2018 draft. He didn’t begin the year as the starter, waiting for the “elite” Joe Flacco to hand over the reins. While he took over midway through the 2018 season, he never truly looked comfortable ending the Ravens season in the playoffs with a disappointing loss to the Chargers in the wild card round.
The 2019 season, however, couldn’t have gone any better for Jackson as far as production is concerned. Lamar led the league in passing TDs with 36 and oh by the way, finished 6th in the league in rushing yards with 1,206. That’s not a typo; he had the 6th most rushing yards in the NFL as a QB while producing the 2nd highest ever TD% in NFL history, throwing a TD on nearly 9% of his pass attempts. That is the true definition of a dual threat QB. He finished the season with 415.7 fantasy points and an amazing 27.7 ppg, having only played in 15 games. He was the most fun to watch on a week-to-week basis due to his ability to beat you in a variety of ways. Just like with Mahomes, Jackson was an extreme value in fantasy drafts. He was the QB 15 based on ADP, which was equivalent to a 10th or 11th round pick. He was also 6 points better than the 2nd best QB that season, which to put into perspective is the same gap between QB #2 and QB #25. That’s incredible value that just put him on another tier as a league winner. Quarterbacks with the ability to run have been cheat codes in fantasy in years past, but Lamar’s 2019 year broke the game.
Peyton Manning had an illustrious career as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. He's a 5-time MVP and 2-time Super Bowl champion, but in 2013 he was fresh off his Comeback Player of the Year campaign of 2012. He looked good in his first season back, finishing 2nd in MVP voting behind Adrian Peterson, but an early round exit to future Super Bowl champions Baltimore Ravens left Manning and the Broncos with a sour taste in their mouths.
Manning and the Broncos came out the gates in 2013 and dropped a casual 462 passing yards and 7 passing TDs in Week 1, a great delight for Manning’s fantasy managers and pure horror for those who faced him (I was one of the latter unfortunately). What proceeded was the most dominant quarterback season to that point in history and potentially ever. Manning finished the year setting NFL records with 55 passing TDs and 5,477 passing yards. He was the clear MVP and led the Broncos to a Super Bowl, eventually leading to an embarrassing loss to a budding Seahawks dynasty. Manning was the overwhelming fantasy MVP as well, after being drafted in the 4th round and as QB 3 based on ADP. Manning struck fear into the hearts of fantasy managers every week because you expected 350 passing yards and 3 TDs every week, something that just sounds ridiculous even in the age of insane passing numbers across the NFL. While I expect one day for these records for Manning to be broken, I will still be in awe of what the 37-year-old quarterback achieved in 2013.
This season is one I will truly never forget. It was the first year I played fantasy football, and I had the first pick of the draft. Naturally, I drafted LaDainian Tomlinson. What ensued was the greatest single-season performance by a running back of all-time. Through the first 6 games, Tomlinson rushed for 473 yards and had 8 total TDs. Over the next 8 games, he accumulated 1,153 rushing yards, good for 144 yards per game, and 23 total TDs. Those are Madden level numbers for someone who turned the game on rookie and played the 2020 Jets for 8 straight games. Just for fun, his 16-game pace for that 8-week stretch is 2,306 rushing yards and 46 total TDs. LT just absolutely tormented defenses and opposing teams as he led the Chargers to a franchise best 14-2 season, ultimately ending in a 1st round playoff loss to the Patriots because, well, it’s the Chargers. Oh, and I forgot to mention that LT also threw 2 TDs during the season, so all in all, he totaled 1,815 rushing yards, 28 rushing TDs, 56 receptions, 508 receiving yards and 3 receiving TDs. This season broke the all-time single season fantasy point total with 481.1 points. He also broke the record for most TDs in a season by a non QB, a record which had been broken 3 times in the last 5 years at the time he broke it. He outscored the next closest player by over 4 ppg, and he was well worth the investment of the #1 overall fantasy pick by me and everyone else that drafted him that year. This year holds a special place in my memory, and the joy of watching as it happened live each week is something that I will never forget.
As the 2nd of the 2019 seasons that I’ll speak about in this article, this is the one that most people saw coming. McCaffrey came into the year ranked as a top-3 fantasy option and was drafted as such being drafted as the RB 2 based on ADP. However, what most of us didn’t see coming was the insane volume that McCaffrey would receive. McCaffrey played 93.4% of the Panthers offensive snaps and had an NFL record 142 targets for a RB. That production would lead to the NFL’s 3rd ever 1,000-1,000 season, which is 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same year. McCaffrey would do so to the tune of 116 receptions, giving him the 5th season of 100+ receptions for a RB. Just for some extra information, he did the same thing with 107 catches in 2018, so he’s the only running back to have 2 seasons over 100 catches. His stat line for the season looked like this: 1,387 rushing yards, 15 rushing TDs, 116 receptions, 1,005 receiving yards and 3 receiving TDs. All that was good for 471.2 fantasy points, which was 150 points better than the 2nd best RB on the year. McCaffrey was the best fantasy RB, and it wasn’t even particularly close to be honest. Another fun stat I found doing research is that McCaffrey is tied for 8th in NFL history for the most games with 10 or more catches in a single season, with 5 games. To put that into perspective, McCaffrey had 10 or more catches in a game 5 times, which is a RB record and something only 7 other players had done more in a season than him. That’s just absolutely insane production and something that I don’t see stopping him barring injuries, of course. While it may have been a result of immense opportunities, that’s how you get fantasy production, and Christian McCaffrey turned it into fantasy gold.
Marshall Faulk- 2000
The year is 2000, the St. Louis Rams are in the middle of their “Greatest Show on Turf” run and put together one of the NFL's greatest offenses. The starting QB was Kurt Warner, followed by Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt as the WRs and Marshall Faulk as the starting RB. All 4 of those men are now Hall of Famers, and that run from 1999-2001 is one of those stretches that NFL fans remember as some of the best offense they’ve ever seen played. Marshall Faulk only played in 14 games in 2000, yet he was still able to put up the 3rd highest point total for a fantasy RB and on a per game basis, the best ever fantasy season. Faulk finished with 1,359 rushing yards, 18 rushing TDs, 81 receptions, 830 receiving yards and 8 receiving TDs. On a team that had such outstanding talent on it, Faulk was the focus of the offense and cashed in on that usage. Faulk was one of the first true dual-threat RBs and paved the way for the prototype that we see in the league today in players such as Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley. Faulk was a true standout, and his name will always be brought up when it comes to versatile and elite RBs.
Jerry Rice- 1995
It is only fitting that I start off the wide receiver position talking about Jerry Rice, the true definition of the GOAT. This man is the all-time leader for receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs and all-purpose TDs. There may be debate about single season fantasy performances, but I'm here to tell you that the debate starts and ends with Rice as well. Rice’s 1995 season was one of legend as we saw him catch 122 passes, 1,848 yards, receiving 15 TDs and 1 rushing TD. This season gave him the single season record for most receiving yards up until 2012, when it was broken by Calvin Johnson. Rice is the gold standard for the WR position and provided us with the best fantasy season by a WR with 414 points which is better than the next season by almost 20 points. With the NFL evolving into an extremely pass-heavy league, I believe that this is one of the seasons that has the potential to be broken, but until then, it will be just another footnote on the career of Jerry Rice and the excellence he is known for.
Antonio Brown- 2015
Antonio Brown may have his off-field issues, but when it came to what occurred between the sidelines, he was one of the greats. Over a two-year span from 2014-2015, Brown put up the 2nd and 3rd best ever seasons for a WR in terms of fantasy points. I can speak from firsthand experience that he was a pleasure to have on my 2014 fantasy team, despite my team’s lack of success. However, the best of those 2 years was his 2015 season which saw him finish with 136 receptions, 1,834 receiving yards and 10 receiving TDs. He managed to put up these numbers despite the Pittsburgh Steelers starting Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones at QB that year, not to mention that star RB Le’Veon Bell only played in 6 games. Brown was put into a bad situation and found a way to still produce amazing fantasy numbers. The most incredible part is that he was able to put up those numbers despite Le’Veon Bell finishing as the #1 RB in 2014. The firepower that those Steelers teams had was great for fantasy production and led to the best 2 seasons of Antonio Brown’s career.
As most NFL fans know, 2007 was a rather important year for the history books. The 2007 New England Patriots, led by MVP Tom Brady, finished the regular season 16-0. Now, they went on to lose to the NFC Wild Card New York Giants in the Super Bowl, but regardless, fantasy production was rampant on the Patriots that year. Randy Moss put together an absurd season, and it all came down to the TDs. Randy Moss had 98 receptions and 1,493 receiving yards. These stats by themselves are still really good numbers for a WR, but not usually enough to earn the top spot in fantasy. However, for Moss, the real production that put him over the top was the amount of receiving TDs he had. He is one of only two players to catch more than 20 TDs, and the other is, you guessed it, Jerry Rice (Side note: Jerry Rice did this in 1987 in only 12 games on 65 catches, again the true GOAT). To put the sheer magnitude of this into perspective, those 23 TDs account for 35.8% of Moss’ total fantasy points for the year in PPR scoring and 48% if it was a standard scoring league. He was aided by the fact that his QB Tom Brady broke the single season passing TD record with 50, the record until Peyton Manning’s 2013 season. Moss was an extremely talented WR who benefitted majorly from his TD output, which led to his 2007 season being the 4th highest ever point total for a fantasy WR ever.
I feel like I need to provide a brief disclaimer for the tight end section. In the last 20 years in the NFL, and really the last 10, we have seen the TE position transition from blocking and occasionally catching passes to becoming an extra WR on the field. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the all-time greats that began the transformation of the TE position that were just a little ahead of their time like Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates. These players were still able to put up great years and fantasy relevant seasons, just not like the ones I will be discussing here shortly. Anyways, on to the scheduled programming.
It will always be difficult for TEs to put up the production that WRs have. It’s just the way the game is played in the NFL, even in the pass heavy league of 2020. Although, in 2011, Rob Gronkowski put up WR numbers. Gronk finished the year with 90 receptions, 1,327 receiving yards and 17 receiving TDs, even adding a rushing TD to the stat sheet. Gronk was an absolute cheat code in the Patriots offense and a fantasy god. He was the clear #1 TE by 35 points and was the 4th highest non-QB fantasy scorer that year. He would have finished as the WR #3 on the year, only behind Calvin Johnson and teammate Wes Welker. He was a mismatch for every defensive player on the field and was the red zone favorite for Tom Brady, which is usually a good thing. Up until 2018, Gronk had the single season records for most receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs by a TE (he still holds the TD record). With his trademark “Gronk Spike” he slammed his way into the fantasy history books with 330.9 fantasy points, the most ever for a TE in a single season.
Whenever the term receiving TE is brought up, the first name that comes to my mind is Jimmy Graham. From 2011-2014, Graham had at least 85 receptions every year for a total of 355 catches during that span. Those truly are WR numbers, and the Saints used him as such. During that same 4-year span, Graham led the Saints in receptions each season. In his best fantasy season, Graham tallied 86 receptions, 1,215 yards, and 16 receiving TDs. It’s the 2nd best fantasy season ever for a TE, scoring 303.5 points. He would have finished as the WR #7 on the season in total points, and he still would have been worth the high draft capital. Graham is one of the most athletic players to ever line up at TE, and during his prime, he was worth the watch.
As we have seen for all of the pass catchers I’ve written about, all of these players have played with exceptional QBs. Between Steve Young, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady (twice), and Drew Brees, these have been the QBs that have been on the throwing end of these great pass catchers. Travis Kelce is no exception to this rule with Patrick Mahomes as his QB during his 2018 MVP season. Kelce was the benefactor to the tune of 103 receptions, 1,336 receiving yards and 10 receiving TDs. This translates to 294.6 fantasy points, good for the 3rd highest ever total by a TE. Kelce used his agility and pure strength to dominate opponents, that and the incredible playmaking of Patrick Mahomes. Kelce has been a fantasy dynamo, coming in as the #1 TE every year since 2016, and he is on pace to do so again this year. He has been worth the high draft pick every year just for the fact that you never have to worry about your TE production. The only concern you ever have with Kelce is who your bye week replacement will be.
I would like to finish off this labor of love by thanking everyone for reading. I truly did enjoy researching and writing this article, or miniature novel depending on how you look at it. It allowed me to look at the intricacies of NFL history and the way in which fantasy production can be achieved. You have the LT domination through yards and TDs, the Lamar Jackson innovation and the Rice overall mastery of the game. All of these players achieved greatness in their own way, but the final result was fantasy glory and in most cases, fantasy championships. And of course, Stay Dreamin’!