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The 2021 Midseason Fantasy Football Awards

Halfway through the NFL season, it’s time to honor the surprise players who came out of nowhere, the disappointments who’ve tanked seasons, and the producers who won’t win a real MVP, but deserve one in fantasy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Did you know who Malik Turner was before Sunday? I didn’t. Yet Turner—the no. 6 receiver on the Dallas Cowboys—had two garbage time touchdowns in a loss to the Broncos, making him a top-10 fantasy wide receiver on the week. Atlanta receiver Olamide Zaccheaus did even better, finishing in the top four at the position after two touchdowns on Sunday (entering this week, he had three touchdowns total in three seasons). James Conner—James Conner!—was the week’s no. 1 running back, recording his first career three-touchdown game. And journeyman QB Josh Johnson replaced Mike White for the Jets on Thursday night and finished as a top-four fantasy QB, with more points than Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen combined. Maybe he can add it to his meticulously curated LinkedIn page.

Week 9 was the strangest of the season thus far. And it also offered the perfect time to pause and reflect. We are halfway through the new 18-week NFL season, and roughly two-thirds of the way through the fantasy regular season. So let’s give out some superlatives—starting with the most important of all.

MVP: Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Through nine games, Kupp has 235 points in point-per-reception leagues. Here is the list of wide receivers with that many points through that many games in NFL history:

Zero. Zero receivers have ever done that. Kupp is off to the best start ever for a wide receiver in PPR scoring. In half-point-per-reception scoring, Kupp is merely having the second-best start to a season of all time, after Marvin Harrison in 1999. If we take away any points per reception, the only receivers with a better fantasy start are Harrison, Randy Moss, and Jerry Rice. No matter how you slice it, Cooper’s Kupp runneth over.

Perhaps the strangest part of Kupp’s season is how easy it’s looked. Kupp just seems to always be open. His first touchdown of the season came in Week 1 on an embarrassing busted coverage by the Chicago Bears. Kupp had an outstanding game—108 yards and the TD—but since his biggest play came on a defensive mistake, it seemed obvious that he wouldn’t continue to get wide-open touchdowns. Whoops! You can watch this highlight video of Kupp’s biggest plays this season, but honestly you can also just hit Play and listen for all the times the announcers say the phrase “wide open.”

Kupp surpassed his 2020 PPR point total by Week 8 of this season. Even though he isn’t even the highest-drafted receiver on his own team this year (that would be Robert Woods), no one has been more valuable this season.

The Fetch Award: Cordarrelle Patterson, RB/WR, Atlanta Falcons

Teams have been trying to make Patterson into an offensive weapon since the Vikings drafted him in the first round in 2013. But he had just 469 receiving yards as a rookie and hasn’t surpassed that mark since. While he moonlighted as a running back with previous franchises, Patterson really flourished on special teams. He tied the NFL record for career kick return touchdowns last year, with eight, but teams still tried to shoehorn him into a role on offense. And it never worked.

The Vikings tried in 2013 and 2014. In 2017, after moving to the Raiders, Patterson said he wanted to play more running back. He had just 13 carries that year. In 2019, Patterson—then with the Bears—said head coach Matt Nagy “really expanded my role.” He had 17 carries and 83 receiving yards that season. Patterson is basically the NFL version of Mean Girls’ “fetch” (stop trying to make it a thing, Gretchen!). So when the Falcons said they were going to involve him more this year, they seemed like yet another boy who cried Cordarrelle Patterson.

Flash forward to November, and Patterson has already set career highs in receiving touchdowns (five), rushing yards (278), and carries (73) in a single season. And he needs just 11 receiving yards next week to set a career high there, too. Patterson is the seventh-highest-scoring fantasy running back on the season in PPR (!). And perhaps more shocking is the fact that over the first two months of the season, the Falcons offense could function really only by giving Patterson the ball. He’s not just a gadget player who’s operating in space. He is mossing dudes. And the flexibility to take a receiver like Patterson and play him at running back is more valuable than flexing a running back into the slot.

Congratulations to everyone who picked up Pattterson. Fetch is officially a thing.

Gone but Not Forgotten Award: Derrick Henry, RB/Paul Bunyan/Goliath, Tennessee Titans

They say that volume is king in fantasy football, and there’s a reason the Titans running back is often called King Henry. Despite breaking his foot and landing on injured reserve last week, Henry still has 69 more carries and 100-plus more rushing yards than any other NFL rusher. He’s also still tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns.

Last season, Henry became just the eighth player to run for 2,000 yards, and this year he was on pace to become the first player to ever do that twice. He was also on pace to be the first player since the merger to ever lead the NFL in carries, rushing yards, and touchdowns for three seasons in a row. He had the most carries through eight weeks in NFL history, astonishing for a player in this era of passing and running-backs-by-committee. Even more astonishing is the fact that Henry got that workload after carrying the ball 782 times in the 2019 and 2020 seasons combined (including playoffs)—30 percent more than second-place Dalvin Cook. A total fit for a King.

The Immediately Delivering on the Hype Award: Kyle Pitts and Ja’Marr Chase

These two players, taken nos. 4 and 5 in April’s NFL draft, were touted as elite-of-the-elite prospects. And so far this season, both are on record-setting paces.

Pitts was almost unanimously declared the best tight end prospect in living memory this spring. That hype also translated over to fantasy, where he was generally seen as a top-40 to top-60 pick. The only way for him to live up to that billing would be to have the best season for a rookie tight end ever. So far, he is doing that.

Pitts already has the most receiving yards for a rookie tight end through their first nine games since the merger. And the funny thing about that is that Pitts has played only eight. Averaging 68 receiving yards per game, Pitts is on pace for more than 1,150 yards across 17 games, which would be the most in NFL history (even if this was a 16-game season, he’d be on pace for the rookie TE record). Pitts is likely going to be the first rookie tight end with more than 1,000 receiving yards since Mike Ditka in 1961. (Ditka, it is worth noting, racked up 1,076 yards in just 14 games, giving him an 77-yards-per-game mark that is even better than what Pitts is doing this year.)

In the tight end world, Pitts has been the prince that was promised, and it is scary to think how good he already is considering he couldn’t legally buy a Bud Light until last month.

Chase’s hype wasn’t quite as big as Pitts’s, but it was close. While Pitts was a 100th percentile tight end prospect by some metrics, Chase was considered a 99th percentile receiver. And that probably wasn’t high enough. Chase has 786 receiving yards in his first eight games, the best mark in NFL history. He’s on pace to break the modern rookie receiving record set last year by Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, who was Chase’s teammate at LSU. It helps that another one of Chase’s college teammates, quarterback Joe Burrow, is throwing him the ball in Cincinnati. Perhaps that connection helped Chase adapt to the league early. And to think that in August we were worried about Chase’s ability to catch an NFL football.

The Making Us Rip Our Hair Out Award: Kyle Shanahan, Head Coach, San Franscio 49ers

Shanahan is notorious for being impossible to predict for fantasy purposes, but this 49ers season has been the worst. A list of things that have happened in San Francisco so far:

  • Raheem Mostert, the team’s presumptive no. 1 running back, was injured two drives into the season.
  • Elijah Mitchell, the team’s rookie sixth-round pick, took over the workload instead of Trey Sermon, whom the 49ers traded up to draft in the third round this year.
  • After everyone rushed to grab Mitchell off waivers, he got hurt in Week 2.
  • With Sermon as San Francisco’s only real healthy running back in Week 3, Shanahan gave a career high carry total to … fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
  • Sermon became a healthy scratch when Mitchell returned.
  • While all this was going on, Shanahan essentially iced out receiver Brandon Aiyuk, a first-round pick in 2020 and a top-60 fantasy pick this year. Aiyuk got nine catches in the first six games of the year while Deebo Samuel became one of the best fantasy receivers of the first half.

Whether it’s the real draft or fantasy drafts, the 49ers have been impossible to predict. That’s infuriating for fantasy managers—but also maybe a little comforting. All this is coming from the same team that, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, traded up in the first round of this year’s NFL draft for Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, then changed its mind and selected Trey Lance, then watched Jones fall past their original pick to the Patriots at no. 15.

Is there anything more comforting for a fantasy manager who doesn’t know which player to draft than knowing an NFL team was also so conflicted in the real-life draft that they traded up to the third overall pick to take one player and then changed their mind?

The 49ers are so chaotic that they are relatable (once you stop being mad at them).

Fantasy Ghost: Allen Robinson II, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears

Look at the first 30ish players drafted in fantasy this year on average, and you’ll see that there were almost zero busts. Sure, some players have gotten injured and missed time (Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry), and some players have failed to live up to the hype or been sapped by lingering injuries (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Antonio Gibson). But for the most part, every player taken in the first few rounds has been solid.

Except one.

Robinson has fallen off a cliff this season. His yards per game and catches per game have been cut almost in half. A player who was a consensus top 10-15 receiver entering the season is the WR53 in total points (despite having played in nine games when many above him have played in just eight). And, by PPR points per game, Robinson ranks as the WR72(!). He would be the fifth-best fantasy skill player on the Detroit Lions.

Robinson has suggested his struggles this season are because he barely worked with rookie quarterback Justin Fields during the offseason (the Bears gave almost all the first-team practice reps to Andy Dalton). And while there are many indictments of Nagy and the Bears offense this season (like being last in net passing yards), perhaps none is more damning than taking Robinson—a man who has succeeded with Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky under center—and breaking him.

The RIP Father Time Lifetime Achievement Award: Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Brady, who is 44 years old, is the no. 1 quarterback in fantasy football this season. He remains the top player at the position despite being on bye in Week 9. Brady, who has been alive for 531 months, is the betting favorite to win MVP. Brady was the ninth quarterback drafted on average this year, and all he’s done is rank second in passing yards and lead the NFL in passing touchdowns. The no. 1 fantasy QB was born 16,170 days ago. For all the weirdness happening each week, like the Malik Turners and Josh Johnsons, the weirdest thing of all is Brady doing this for so long that it doesn’t seem weird anymore.