I like to grade things. Last week we did the AFC Midterm Grades, this week it’s the NFC. (Sure, we’re a little past the midpoint of the year. If you prefer a different word, I won’t argue with you.)
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. In some cases, mediocre teams are listed before legitimate playoff contenders. That’s the life we navigate, the gap between real football and fake football.
Teams are listed in grade order, and teams at the same grade are considered roughly even. I didn’t attempt to break any ties.
Green Bay Packers — Grade: A
Maybe the Packers stumbled onto a post-modern strategy — draft staff you don’t need, then watch your incumbents go off. Aaron Rodgers is QB5, Aaron Jones RB7, and Davante Adams WR1 — and the latter two have missed multiple games. Imagine what this offense would look like with Tee Higgins or Antonio Gibson. Rodgers is known for having a narrow Circle of Trust, but Robert Tonyan, Allen Lazard, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have popped occasionally.
Seattle Seahawks — Grade: B+
Letting Russell Wilson cook was glorious for about two months, and DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are reliable, even if they seldom score well in the same game. Now the challenge is to make adjustments and become more efficient on third down. David Moore occasionally flashes, but doesn’t get enough weekly volume to proactively start. Chris Carson is a high-attrition back who produces when healthy; the Seahawks haven’t had a good answer since he got hurt. The modest tight end numbers are split by three players.
Arizona Cardinals — Grade: B+
Kyler Murray has become Lamar Jackson 2.0, a monster profit even if you proactively went after him. And there are signs that Murray’s game could be more bankable than Jackson’s in future seasons. Along with Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins has crushed the new-city receiver narrative. Christian Kirk has enough plausible upside to play in medium and deeper leagues. Kenyan Drake was a road to nowhere for two months, but the first Chase Edmonds start was a disappointment, too. Perhaps this needs to be a platoon for the rest of the year, like it was in Week 10.
Atlanta Falcons — Grade: B+
They’re America’s favorite Meme Team, with two more gut-punch losses, but the offense employs a condensed usage tree — we know where the points are coming from — and is reliable for fantasy. Efficiency metrics don’t trust Todd Gurley, but he’s still proficient at the short touchdown, even when it’s not called for. Calvin Ridley has been able to meet lofty summer expectations, and Hayden Hurst recovered nicely after a modest start. A hobbled Falcons defense keeps the Carnival atmosphere humming. Julio Jones and Matt Ryan are always stable plays.
Minnesota Vikings — Grade: B+
It’s one of the most condensed trees in the league. Dalvin Cook would go No. 1 or No. 2 if all of fantasy redrafted today, while Adam Thielen (touchdown monster) and Justin Jefferson (downfield dynamo) are every-week auto-plays. The Vikings could have a playable tight end, too, if Irv Smith or Kyle Rudolph would get out of the other’s way. Despite the upside of the pass-catchers, Kirk Cousins is merely a fantasy fill-in — Minnesota has the fewest pass attempts in the league, and Cousins offers no rushing juice.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Grade: B
You get the idea this team could ace the final exam and be the conference valedictorian come January. Rob Gronkowski had a slow return to NFL life, but he’s looked spry for six weeks. The Antonio Brown story always includes ticker fear, but he remains a good player, if not an electric one. Tom Brady has needed time to get comfortable with his receivers, but the story started to come together in Week 10; every pass-catcher had a playable line.
Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette have passed the backfield baton almost weekly, but Jones overcame an early fumble and smashed against Carolina — even the blitz pickup was crisp. Is there any loyalty with Bruce Arians?
Carolina Panthers — Grade: B
They were such a darling underrated story in the first month, it’s fair to wonder if they quickly became overrated. But Matt Rhule and Joe Brady look like smart hires, albeit Brady might be too appealing as a head coaching candidate for Carolina to retain him.
Teddy Bridgewater’s upside might stop around league average, and in the NFL, good is the enemy of great. Mike Davis had a quick start as the Christian McCaffrey understudy, but he’s been ordinary for the last month. Three good receivers get in each other’s way at times, but TE Ian Thomas has been invisible all year.
Detroit Lions — Grade: B-
It took two months for the coaching staff to finally give D’Andre Swift the keys, pushing Adrian Peterson to the bench. Peterson saw just seven snaps in Week 7. T.J. Hockenson has been a consistent breakout, though 53 targets still feels light for the matchup nightmare he is. Kenny Golladay was a rock in his four healthy games, but a hip problem lingers. Marvin Jones had a sluggish start, but he’s scored four times in the last three weeks. This grade could easily be a C+, but I gave the bump because Detroit’s two hits fill difficult positions.
Washington Football Team — Grade: C+
I will never get tired of the name change. I hope they keep it for a while; WFT seems to fit them. The Alex Smith comeback story is a fun one, but it’s sad that he’s actually a notable upgrade over the two quarterbacks he’s replacing. At least Washington has been proactive in getting the ball to its two best playmakers, Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin.
Logan Thomas isn’t an explosive tight end, but he has a weekly floor and should be a safe TE1 moving forward. J.D. McKissic is tailor-made for Smith and the PPR format. It might seem odd to see Washington graded higher than some of the NFC’s primary contenders, but it’s giving us four credible fantasy options every week.
New Orleans Saints — Grade: C
This might feel like a harsh grade given Alvin Kamara’s dynamite season (RB10 or better every week), but who else have you profited on? Drew Brees spent 10 weeks sharing with Sean Payton’s Taysom Hill fascination, then suffered a nasty injury against San Francisco. Everything that could go wrong for Michael Thomas has gone wrong. Jared Cook sits at TE19 and was bageled Sunday.
Be careful with those Jameis Winston bids, he’s not stepping into the Pinball Saints of the past. Kamara belongs at the top of the class; everyone else might need Summer School.
Los Angeles Rams — Grade: C
Sometimes we see delicious fantasy teams that are rotten in real life; the Rams are the polar opposite. Los Angeles is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but the offense is a weekly fantasy puzzle.
Sean McVay steers plenty of options into the weekly plan — three running backs, multiple tight ends, a third receiver (Josh Reynolds) with 416 receiving yards. It’s no fun trying to time this backfield market. Tyler Higbee’s December run is a distant memory. The only happy fantasy story is Robert Woods’s widely-projected touchdown regression.
New York Giants — Grade: C-
They’ve become this year’s version of the 2019 Miami Dolphins, a plucky team with a new coach and a fresh culture. And maybe the Giants can steal the NFC East, albeit that’s more a comment on how putrid that division is.
Daniel Jones is still waiting on pocket awareness, though his recent games have been a little cleaner. The Giants had no expectations for Wayne Gallman — when Saquon Barkley got hurt, they called for retread Devonta Freeman — but he’s been handy for a month now, especially at the goal line. The Jones growing pains cap the range of the receivers, but Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard are reasonable WR3s. Jason Garrett has no idea what to do with TE Evan Engram.
Chicago Bears — Grade: D
Thank god these guys have a bye week. They could skip the rest of November and no one would miss them, short of Allen Robinson. Mitch Trubisky had the short leash everyone expected, but Nick Foles hasn’t been any better. Unlimited volume hasn’t propped up David Montgomery — a messy offensive line deserves blame, too — and Jimmy Graham’s touchdown deodorant ran out quickly. The support receivers flash occasionally, but there isn’t a quarterback — or a coach — to really draw them out.
Dallas Cowboys — Grade: Incomplete
This was a smash offense until Dak Prescott got hurt — admittedly too loose with the ball at times, but a unit poised to challenge fantasy records. Everything’s come undone without Prescott; he was able to mask a crumbling offensive line, but the replacement quarterbacks have not. Ezekiel Elliott has been consistently outplayed by understudy Tony Pollard, but Zeke’s contract will keep him in the pilot’s seat. Michael Gallup’s role (deep routes, stretch the field) is far more important in real life than it is in our fantasy grab.
Philadelphia Eagles — Grade: Incomplete
Philly’s offensive line was broken before the year started, and almost every key skill player was hurt soon thereafter. To be fair, relying on a collection of 30-something pass targets (Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson) was a bad business plan.
Carson Wentz plays every snap like it’s his last, which has led to some rushing deodorant and a bunch of crushing hits. It’s amazing he’s still upright and able to play. It’s fair to wonder if OC Frank Reich was the real puppeteer of the 2017 Championship team, not Doug Pederson. Travis Fulgham was a fun story for a month, but can he keep it up now that the big names are starting to return?
San Francisco 49ers — Grade: Incomplete
Kyle Shanahan is capable of winning with almost any hand, but San Francisco’s had the worst injury luck in the league on both sides of the ball. At least we can see the exciting upside of the young receivers, but is Jimmy Garoppolo the right quarterback for 2021 and beyond? Shanahan’s ability to get rushing production from almost anyone is a gift and a curse; touches aren’t always projectable before kickoff. And it’s extra pesky when San Francisco has game-time decisions, given most of its games fall in the later windows.