Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we rank the fantasy trends and players that have surprised us—for better or worse.
Every year we think we know things about football. We don’t. Daniel Jones may be good, Baker Mayfield may not be good, and Kyle Allen, Devlin Hodges, and Gardner Minshew II all appear to be serviceable NFL quarterbacks. The illusion of knowledge is often the greatest obstacle to progress. That is true in football, but even more true in fantasy football. Here are the things we didn’t expect to happen this season in fantasy football, ranked.
9. Carlos Hyde Is a Fantasy Starter
Hyde has been on four teams (Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Houston) in the past 12 months. When a 29-year-old running back is told thanks, but no thanks by that many coaching staffs, it’s hard not to conclude that he’s going to be, well, hidden on the depth chart. But he’s found life with the Texans, who traded for him after losing Lamar Miller to a torn ACL in August. Many assumed Hyde would take a back seat to Duke Johnson, but instead Hyde has become the starting running back for one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses and is one spot ahead of Le’Veon Bell in fantasy scoring. Not bad for a player who was barely drafted in most leagues this year.
8. Ditto for Jordan Howard
Howard was the superior fantasy version of Hyde before the season and that remains true today. The Bears traded Howard to Philadelphia because of his inability to catch passes, and there he joined the Eagles’ motley crew of competent pass catchers who have trouble running between the tackles. Add rookie Miles Sanders into the mix and Howard seemed like the nominal lead back in a way-too-crowded-to-predict running backs room. But Howard has taken a surprising share of the Eagles backfield job with 52 carries for 235 yards and four rushing touchdowns over his past four games, and so far this season, he’s a top-20 running back.
7. Tom Brady Is the Only Old QB Producing
Of all of the aging quarterbacks older than 35, Tom Brady is the last one producing value. Brady’s talked too much about pliability for that to be surprising, but it’s notable considering how many of his fellow olds around him have fallen this season. Drew Brees (the no. 6 quarterback drafted on average per Fantasy Pros), and Ben Roethlisberger (no. 11), have missed time with injury. Aaron Rodgers (no. 3) is healthy but ranks no. 11 at the position through six weeks.
“Don’t draft a QB high” is sage advice, but even the youngs getting late-round preseason hype have disappointed. Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky, and Josh Allen have all performed below expectations for one reason or another. Between their disappointing fantasy play and the injuries, quarterback has not been as deep this year as advertised. Meanwhile, Brady was the 13th QB drafted, ranks no. 8, and had two rushing touchdowns on Thursday night. It is our fault for doubting him.
6. The Rushing QBs Dominating at the Top
A few quarterbacks have lived up to their potential. Seattle’s Russell Wilson paces the entire position with 25.9 fantasy points per game while looking like the NFL MVP thus far. Receiver Doug Baldwin retired over the offseason, but Tyler Lockett and rookie D.K. Metcalf have stepped into larger roles. (Will Dissly, who also impressed early this season, suffered an Achilles injury on Sunday and is likely out for the season.) But Wilson was the no. 1 quarterback two years ago and ranked in the top three in 2014 and 2015, so his ascendance isn’t shocking despite his no. 9 finish last year.
What is shocking has been the immediate emergence of Baltimore’s Lamar Jackon, who is on pace to shatter most QB rushing records. Jackson is averaging 11.5 rushes for 76.7 yards per game. That volume across a whole season would push him over 1,200 yards, enough to break the quarterback rushing record set by Michael Vick (1,039 yards) in 2006. It would also put Jackson on pace to rush 184 times, breaking the record set by … Jackson, last year. That rushing floor makes Jackson a top quarterback play even when he doesn’t pass well, as he has had less than 21 points just once this season.
5. Austin Who-oper?
There was a clear top tight end tier entering the year: Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz. The next tier was midrange picks like Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, and Evan Engram. Yet the no. 1 tight end in fantasy is not any of those players. Atlanta’s Austin Hooper, the 12th tight end drafted on average this year and one of the league’s most anonymous, is the no. 1 tight end through six weeks. Hooper ranks 14th in the league in targets (50), fourth in the league in receptions (42), and eighth in receiving yards (480). That’s not among tight ends. That’s among all players. Hooper, not Julio Jones, leads the Falcons in catches and yards. Hooper has thrown the fantasy community for a loop.
The tight end position has been less predictable than recent years with Ertz and Kittle ranking seventh and eighth instead of second and third, but contrary to what the anxiety online would have you believe, the position is not in free fall. If we add the total PPR points of the top eight tight ends through six weeks—Hooper, Mark Andrews, Kelce, Engram, Ertz, Dissly, Darren Waller, George Kittle—we get a bigger number than the average of the top eight tight ends over the past five years. Ditto for the top 10-12 tight ends. It may seem like the position is in flux, but in reality it’s name shuffling, not a smaller pie, that makes the position feel strange. That starts with Hooper.
4. Patriots Defense Is Elite—for Any Position
The Patriots’ defensive production through six weeks is absurd. New England has five defensive touchdowns in six games, one shy of what last year’s no. 1 defense, the Bears, had in 16 games. With 122 fantasy points on ESPN standard scoring, the Patriots D/St is one of the 20 highest-scoring “players” in fantasy football, has 64 percent more points than the second-ranked 49ers defense, and has nearly three times the points of the no. 10 ranked Eagles defense (44). Jacksonville’s defense, the no. 3 defense drafted in fantasy this year, has 23 points this season. The Patriots have hit that mark in a single game three times.
3. There Are No Elite Offenses
We knew offenses like the Chiefs would probably regress this year from their historic levels of 2018. We did not anticipate that through six weeks there would be no reliably elite offenses. For example:
- The Patriots defense is better than the Patriots offense.
- The Ravens embarrassed the Dolphins in Week 1 but have posted more pedestrian numbers since then.
- The Chiefs have not been themselves for two weeks now with Patrick Mahomes’s ankle affecting his mobility and their defense unable to get Mahomes the ball for more than 20 minutes per game.
- The Rams offensive line has gone from major strength to major weakness, and so too has quarterback Jared Goff. A year after having the best offense in the NFC, the Rams may have the worst offense in the NFC West.
- The Saints have relied on their defense to win games ever since Drew Brees injured his thumb in Week 2, and they may not see a reason to change that game plan even when Brees returns.
The fantasy impact is widespread, from Todd Gurley and the Rams receiving corps losing value to the Chiefs backfield becoming barely playable to Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas being the only Saints worth starting in fantasy.
2. The Top WRs Have Failed
If there was one word thrown around about the top receivers in drafts this year, it was “safe.” DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, and Odell Beckham Jr. were in some order five of the top receivers taken in the first two rounds of drafts this year. JuJu Smith-Schuster was not far behind. Only Thomas has lived up to his billing this year. Hopkins is ranked no. 15 at the position and has fewer points in six games than Washington rookie Terry McLaurin has in five. Jones is nominally in the top 10 but his overall line hides that Hooper and Mohamed Sanu have siphoned production from him the past three weeks. Odell Beckham Jr. has one touchdown in six games and just two performances over 71 yards as the Browns offense has suffered. Smith-Schuster has been a shadow of himself without Roethlisberger throwing to him or Antonio Brown lined up on the other side.
1. A Grip of Surprising Receivers
Your top two fantasy receivers six weeks into the NFL season: Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin and Jacksonville’s DJ Chark. Even in Florida, this is surprising. Neither of these players was supposed to be the no. 1 receiver on his own team. Godwin was a consensus breakout player among the fantasy football Twitter intelligentsia, though few openly ranked him ahead of Mike Evans. Many pegged Jackonville’s no. 1 wideout as a sleeper, but had that player as Dede Westbrook. Instead it’s been Chark, the second-year second-rounder out of LSU, who has developed a magnificent rapport with Gardner Minshew II.
Perhaps the only receiver more surprising than these two is McLaurin, who is averaging 18.8 PPR points in five games, the seventh most among players with more than one game and ahead of Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Adam Thielen. McLaurin has been the lone bright spot for the Burgundy and Gold amid an otherwise dreadful season. Washington’s third-round pick out of Ohio State hasn’t needed his college connection with teammate Dwayne Haskins to bear fruit yet as he already has 408 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.