You may have wondered what would become of my column once the Fantasy Football season was over, and that time has come.  I am happy to report that now is when the real Fantasy Football analysis begins.  The successful Fanager is a perpetual student of the game, and what better time to introduce my first quasi-academic piece than in the “dead week” (the week before final exams where students theoretically have the week off to study) of the NFL (the week before the Super Bowl).

Over the past few weeks, I have been surveying actual Fanagers to gather information that goes beyond what statistics can provide me.  For this particular column, I asked Fanagers which players came through the most for their Fantasy team when comparing preseason projections to actual performance.  

Now, you might be thinking that I wasted a lot of time doing all that work because those 2 statistical categories happen to be quite easy to discover on a number of Fantasy Football websites.  But I wanted to include additional factors that are not so cut and dry.  For instance, not all Fantasy leagues are the same size, so someone who was a huge success in League A with 14 members, might be considered a dud in League B, with 8 teams.  Moreover, the point of the season in which they produced or didn’t produce their best numbers is also an important consideration.  So, I relied on the individual Fanagers to weigh both the tangible and intangible aspects to make their decision (call it my version of the BCS).

Based on their feedback, here are the Top 10 Surprises from this past Fantasy Football season:

10.) Darren Sproles (New Orleans Saints – Running Back) The Chargers certainly could have used this guy this season.  Sproles racked up all kinds of yards during his first year with the Saints, with 603 yards on the ground and 710 more in the air.  Sproles also rushed for 2 touchdowns, caught 7 passes for touchdowns, and even had another touchdown on a return.  Not bad for the 118th-averaged pick, huh?  Moreover, he closed out the season strong in the Finals for his owners against the Falcons, who held him to just 30 yards earlier in the season.

9.) Eli Manning (New York Giants – Quarterback) I think it is safe to say that what we saw from Eli this season was nothing short of remarkable.  Baby Manning threw for 4,933 yards including 29 touchdowns and even managed to limit himself to just 16 interceptions on the year – a drastic improvement from last season.  Eli also rushed for 15 yards and an additional touchdown.  Eli was solid all season long and finished 12th overall in Fantasy points while averaging the 82nd overall pick in Fantasy drafts.  The downside of Eli came for Fanagers who started him in the Fantasy postseason, where Eli really struggled, particularly in the loss to the Redskins during the Semifinals.  

8.) Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions – Quarterback) There were all kinds of questions surrounding Stafford before this season started, and I think most of us can agree that he answered them convincingly.  Stafford averaged the 97th pick in the draft and ended up 5th in overall Fantasy points.  Stafford threw for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and rushed for 78 yards.  Stafford owners had to be especially pleased with the way he finished the season against Oakland and San Diego if they were fortunate enough to make it to the final rounds.

7.) Victor Cruz (New York Giants – Wide Receiver) This largely undrafted Wide Receiver stole our attention in Week 3 and never gave it back. Cruz set the Giants’ franchise record for receiving yards in a single season this year with 1,536 yards on 82 catches and 9 touchdowns.  Plus, Cruz was clutch when it mattered.  Cruz had one of his biggest weeks against the Jets in the Fantasy Finals with 3 receptions for 164 yards and a 99-yard touchdown reception that broke the record for the longest in Giants’ history.

6.) Jordy Nelson (Green Bay Packers – Wide Receiver) Somehow this guy never seemed to get the attention that his 2011 season warranted.  Nelson, who averaged the 101st pick in the draft on, emerged as Rodgers’ go-to guy with 1,263 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns this season.  These numbers are even more impressive when considering the other receiving talent surrounding him on the Packers’ stacked offensive squad.  Nelson did fall short at times, especially when playing on the road.  Nelson averaged nearly 18 Fantasy points per game at home and just over 7 points per away game.  But when it mattered most, he came through huge for his owners by posting his highest score of the season in the Fantasy Finals.

5.) Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints – Tight End) Graham was the 104th average pick in leagues and finished No. 2 in Fantasy points for his position.  This beast of a Tight End hauled in 1,310 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on the season, but the last 4 weeks of the Fantasy season were among his least productive, making the postseason a struggle for his owners.

4.) Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars – Running Back) This name might surprise you a bit as MJD averaged the 10th pick in drafts this year, but what you may have forgotten is that the Jaguars’ starting Quarterback, David Garrard, was cut right before the season started.  With rookie Blaine Gabbert starting at Quarterback, Fanagers who had already drafted MJD were nervous that opposing teams would shut him down by stacking the box.  Much to his Fanagers’ delight, MJD ended up leading the league in rushing with 1,606 rushing yards, despite the Jags mediocre production in the air.  On top of that, Jones-Drew had 8 rushing touchdowns, 374 receiving yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns.  MJD is the perfect example of a player that was much more valuable than projections and statistics suggested.  In fact, the first person to put forth a case for MJD has one of the highest Fantasy Football IQs of anyone I’ve encountered; that’s why I call him “the Commish” (well, that and the fact that he is the commissioner of our league…)

3.) Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots – Tight End) Yeah, this guy was re’Gronk’ulous.  On average, the Gronk was taken as the 125th pick, and man, was he a bargain!  Sure, it must be great living the life of a Tom Brady receiver, but sharing the stage can be hard when considering all of his options.  This did not slow Gronkowski’s production, as he set the NFL record for the most receiving touchdowns by a Tight End in a single season with 17.  He also scraped up a mere 1,327 receiving yards and even a rushing touchdown.  However, the Semifinals and Finals were rough for Gronkowski owners.  Gronkowski finished with just 4 catches for 53 yards against Atlanta in the Fantasy Semifinals followed by another skimpy performance against Miami in the Finals.  The 2 Brady touchdowns on Quarterback sneaks against the Dolphins certainly didn’t help Gronkowski’s owners and the only passing touchdown in the Finals went to Deion Branch, which is why Gronk isn’t higher on this list.

2.) Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers – Quarterback) One of the most talked about players before the start of this season was Cam Newton and he deserved every bit of the hype!  Newton averaged the 117th pick in ESPN drafts and ended up with the 3rd most Fantasy points among all players.  This guy was the runaway Rookie of the Year for the 2011 season, with 4,051 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, 706 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, and 27 receiving yards.  I haven’t forgotten the 17 interceptions, but Cam surpassed all expectations being the first rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards and set the record for the most rushing touchdowns in a season by a Quarterback.  Unfortunately for Fanagers with Newton as their starting Quarterback, Cam did not put up his best numbers in the final weeks of the Fantasy postseason, making it difficult to reach the Finals when going up against heavy hitters like Brady or Rogers.

1.) Marshawn Lynch (Seattle Seahawks – Running Back) Early in the season this 79th-averaged pick left his owners worried that he was not worth that high of a pick, but Fanagers who held on to him were handsomely rewarded for their patience.  Lynch showed sparks in Weeks 4 and 5, but launched into “beast mode” in Week 9 never to look back. Lynch accumulated 1,204 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 212 receiving yards, and 1 receiving touchdown this season, but his performance against the 49ers in the Fantasy Football Finals is what won him the #1 spot on this list.  Going into the Finals, Fanagers had to weigh Lynch’s consistently monstrous performances against the ‘Niners’ stout defense that had yet to allow a rushing TD all year, and once again, Lynch came through for those confident enough to start him.  Lynch put up over 100 rushing yards against the number 1-ranked rushing defense in the NFL and he did so at the most critical time for his Fanagers.  Gotta love Skittles.

Obviously not every player who exceeded expectations could make this list, but here are some of the players who just missed the cut:

Antonio Brown, Laurent Robinson, Fred Jackson, DeMarco Murray, Steve Smith (Carolina), A.J. Green, Nate Washington, Julio Jones, Aaron Hernandez, Torrey Smith, Brandon Jacobs, Jahvid Best, Kenny Britt, Roy Helu, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Fred Davis, Matt Forte, Ben Tate, Jabar Gaffney, and the Texans Defense

Look for my next column, where I will give you the Top 10 Fantasy Football Disappointments from the 2011 season.