Fantasy Football Midterm Grades: Separating stars from flops in AFC

Scott Pianowski
·10-min read

If things didn’t work out in the sportswriting game, it’s possible I might have gone into teaching. I like to learn, and I like to share learning. I like to evaluate things. I like to spark smart, reasonable discussions. (And I’m sure I could pretend to be oblivious while a host of teenagers or college kids were tuning me out.)

In the meantime, I’m still pounding away on the keyboard. Let’s unveil some Team Fantasy Grades for the AFC. My method is more gut feel than scientific, with the lone criteria being this — just how useful has each franchise been for fantasy football managers? I’m sure grades will fluctuate significantly between today and the final exams.

I’ll do the NFC at a later date. Teams are listed in grade order; teams at the same grade are considered roughly even, I didn’t attempt to break any ties.

Click here for NFC Grades

Kansas City Chiefs — Grade: A

Only Patrick Mahomes could be in the midst of a quiet 25-touchdown, one-interception season. He’s even run in a couple of scores, being more proactive with his scrambling. Tyreek Hill (WR1) and Travis Kelce (WR1) have been cheat codes, especially Kelce, given the messiness of the tight end landscape. Check his weekly finishes: TE4, TE5, TE5, TE8, TE1, TE4, TE26 (the weird Denver runback game), TE1, TE1.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire has shown occasional flashes, but between goal-line struggles and volume concerns, he hasn’t come close to meeting his ADP. The non-stars in the receiving game are difficult to trust, week-to-week. Some teams have too many good players.

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 01: Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) takes the field prior to the game against the New York Jets on November 1, 2020 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Travis Kelce's fantasy managers are having a good laugh every week. (William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Buffalo Bills — Grade: B+

Josh Allen has been a little inconstant, though perhaps schedule jockeying explains some of that. He’s still returned a fantasy draft profit. Stefon Diggs smashed all the changing-team narratives, and Buffalo’s support wideouts have been very good. The backs have to accept that Allen will always be the most dynamic goal-line runner, but Zack Moss has been playable since returning from injury.

I wish this team had a special tight end; put one of those Iowa grads on this roster, and they’d be unstoppable. I liked Buffalo’s defense in the summer; I don’t trust it now. OC Brian Daboll is going places.

Tennessee Titans — Grade: B+

Things have been choppy since LT Taylor Lewan got hurt, but the Titans have maintained their ridiculously high touchdown efficiency in the red zone, and they don’t have a wide usage tree. If you need to be reminded of how difficult scouting is, look at the silly things that were held against A.J. Brown before the 2019 draft. Brown and Derrick Henry have extremely high floor, then it’s scraps for the support players. Still, you’re making a par or better on just about everyone here.

Los Angeles Chargers — Grade: B+

Justin Herbert was going to play sooner or later, but it’s wild to think that a medical mistake hastened his denotation on the league. Keenan Allen is a good player with any quarterback, but he’s a superstar with Herbert. Mike Williams also takes a step up in class. Hunter Henry has been oddly healthy but even more oddly unproductive, and a collection of running backs have canceled each other out, after Austin Ekeler was hurt in September.

Pittsburgh Steelers — Grade: B

We love the defense, we like the offensive line, and we’re amazed at how they draft wideouts better than everyone else. But is Ben Roethlisberger anything past a game manager these days? The depth at receiver comes at a price; the weekly usage is very difficult to project. Eric Ebron has been a sneaky hit.

[Week 10 Fantasy Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Kickers]

Houston Texans — Grade: B-

Deshaun Watson has been pretty good despite a hellish setup, and at least the offense has been consistent — and more concentrated — since the Bill O’Brien firing. The line is a mess, and David and Duke Johnson aren’t really “make it on their own” backs. Throw out all your narratives tied to Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks, they’ve been terrific (especially over the last month). I faded them in the summer (especially Cooks), a major regret. The Texans have covered just once in eight games.

The grade gets saved by the fact that this offense has three easy starts every week. I keep waiting for a Jordan Akins mini-breakout, health permitting; most of us are dying of thirst at tight end. Houston’s schedule does get more difficult going forward, but with a concentrated target tree, we can still be proactive.

Cincinnati Bengals — Grade: C+

It’s frustrating to watch Joe Mixon get swallowed up by his offense line, because he’s stayed afloat despite lousy setups in the past. Maybe a second-half rally is coming, health permitting; the offensive line is also on the mend. Joe Burrow is unflappable, despite the weekly beating he takes, and he’s also proven a resourceful runner. He quickly clicked with Tyler Boyd and rookie Tee Higgins, and Cincinnati has also covered six times. They’re not a good team yet, but they’re entertaining, and useful for our fake football purposes.

Las Vegas Raiders — Grade: C

The Nevada kids rank a respectable 12th in Offensive DVOA, but with a splintered usage chart, there isn’t much fantasy value. Darren Waller (TE2) and Josh Jacobs (RB9) are every-week staples, then it’s the fool’s errand of trying to time the market on Derek Carr or one of several wideouts. If this were a real-life grade, I’d probably give them a B. But for fantasy purposes, there’s not enough of interest.

Jacksonville Jaguars — Grade: C

They were fun for two weeks, but that’s faded. Gardner Minshew wound up being a disappointment, perhaps because he was playing hurt and didn’t want anyone to know. D.J. Chark’s ankle — and Minshew’s slump — wrecked his first half, but he perked back up with Jake Luton in Week 9. I’m not sure if I’m more excited or hopeful, but either one sounds good to me.

James Robinson? Only the find of the year, the biggest low-cost or no-cost fantasy addition. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. They still haven’t unlocked Laviska Shenault; not every rookie hits the ground running. Robinson’s emergence keeps this grade from bottoming out.

Cleveland Browns — Grade: C-

Given all the name recognition on this offense, it still leaves you a little cold. Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham never got on the same page, Jarvis Landry is playing hurt, and Austin Hooper’s appendix gave way just when he was rounding into form. I love Hooper as a second-half target. A deep backfield and a strong offensive line has sparked an efficient ground game (5.0 YPC), but playoff upside is routed through the passing game.

At least Kevin Stefanski looks like this team’s first competent head-coach hire in a long time. Don’t bury Rashard Higgins after the fluky Week 8 wind game; he still has an interesting upside. And Cleveland’s schedule is about to soften up.

Denver Broncos — Grade: C-

Almost every key part of this offense has been hurt at some point; if any team deserved an incomplete, it’s the Broncos. But we’ll grade what we see on the field. Jerry Jeudy is taking a step forward, and only balky hamstrings can stop a Tim Patrick breakout. No one is sure Drew Lock is any good.

Phillip Lindsay is their best back, but the coaching staff still prefers Melvin Gordon. Brandon McManus has five field goals from 50-plus, if that matters to you. There’s room for improvement in the second half; I suspect they’ll do well on the final exam.

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) has a touchdown run called back for a holding penalty during the Pittsburgh Steelers game versus the Baltimore Ravens on November 1, 2020 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD.  (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense have taken a tumble in 2020. (Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Baltimore Ravens — Grade: D+

Anyone with a basic understanding of regression figured Lamar Jackson would have a hard time meeting his summer ADP, but it’s been a torpedoing. The Ravens as a team are 24th in fantasy points. A three-headed backfield (until the Mark Ingram injury) has rendered all three players unstartable, and the second game without Ingram was also a mess. Mark Andrews has been a modest disappointment, Hollywood Brown a significant one. Jackson’s not comfortable throwing to the entire field at the moment, and defenses are making adjustments.

There’s too much talent to fail these guys, but the 2020 Ravens have been the biggest fantasy disappointment (not counting injury-riddled teams) in the league. One bright spot: the second-half schedule is considerably easier.

Miami Dolphins — Grade: D

They’re a much better real-life story than a fantasy one, though things could get fun if Tua Tagovailoa is the genuine article. Four touchdowns have been wasted on the generally-unplayable Jordan Howard. Mike Gesicki’s expected breakout hasn’t happened, and DeVante Parker was a lot better in 2019. Myles Gaskin was useful if unspectacular in a lower-RB2 or higher-flex play, before his knee pushed him to injured reserve.

Brian Flores has done an amazing job with the culture here, but we’re not grading on intangibles. We just want the numbers.

New England Patriots — Grade: D-

Surprise, surprise — the lousy supporting cast that sunk Tom Brady at the end of 2019 has largely sunk Cam Newton, at least in the passing game. Granted, Newton at this stage of his career probably offers modest passing upside. I think his last touchdown pass came against Ole Miss in 2010. Jakobi Meyers has been a recent find; oddly, the Patriots showed little interest in him until others got hurt.

The cast of thousands in the backfield cannibalizes itself for fantasy purposes, and Cam is still a divine goal-line back (and one tough hombre; man, does he take a physical pounding). Opt-outs have hurt the Patriots defense, currently dead last in YPA allowed (8.8) after finishing second in that stat last year.

Indianapolis Colts — Grade: D-

If not for the Ravens, this would be the offense everyone is piling on. Philip Rivers looks close to shot, the team plays at a snail’s pace, and the once-lauded offensive line has been a flop. And for as much as I admire Frank Reich, he never met a secondary player he couldn’t fall in love with. When Reich orders a dozen donuts, I bet he insists on 12 different donuts. Jonathan Taylor has struggled with the speed of the pro game, though the line’s cratering hasn’t helped.

If Jack Doyle is it out for a while, Trey Burton and Mo-Alie Cox become interesting. (Yes, Virginia, The Rule of 2 and 3 applies to positions other than running back.) T.Y. Hilton, I’m sad to say, is unlikely to be fantasy relevant ever again.

New York Jets — Grade: F

A coach no one likes or trusts. A hurt quarterback. An injured slot receiver. A running back older than the Bible. It’s no great shock these guys are 0-9, and stitching Trevor Lawrence on a jersey. But does Lawrence want to play in Jersey? One bright spot — when the Jets finally got their primary wideouts healthy in Week 9, they looked like a professional offense. Denzel Mims, Breshad Perriman, Jamison Crowder, they can all play. I want to burn every nice thing I ever said about Chris Herndon.

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