When it comes to the fantasy football season, you know there's going to be a whole lot of unpredictability. Admit it, you were worried about the fragility of DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster, but knew deep down that Eddie Lacy would be a top-five back. You thought Andrew Luck was good, but not that good. You were thrilled when you went WR-WR in the first two rounds and ended up with Brandon Marshall and Julio Jones.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Fantasy football teams and seasons are like living organisms. As circumstances change and surprises occur, championship-caliber owners adapt to the new reality. Sometimes, you have to adapt three or four or five times over the course of the season to hoist the fantasy hardware at the end.
Let’s take a look at the five biggest fantasy football surprises of the first half, and diagnose what they mean for the remainder of the season.
5. Quarterbacks who count on their legs have run aground
It has been a rough year in different respects for Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. Wilson has been the best in terms of raw fantasy points, currently ranking seventh at the quarterback position, but his production has been wildly uneven. In the two games where he ran for more than 100 yards, he scored a total of 71.3 fantasy points, representing 43.2 percent of his total output this season. In his six other games, he scored fewer than 20 points five times, and fewer than 15 three times.
Kaepernick is 13th in points and 14th in points per game, but it has largely been a struggle for him this year. He has just one top-10 week to his name this year, and he has ranked 20th or worse among quarterbacks for a single week twice. Despite season-long stats that suggest he has been a borderline starter in a 12-team league, he has put up top-12 numbers three times in eight games. He has yet to score a rushing touchdown this season.
Finally, Newton, the only one in this group considered a sure starter entering the year, has been the worst of the three in 2014. He ranks 18th in overall points and 21st in points per game, just narrowly edging the likes of Mike Glennon and EJ Manuel. After being felled by ankle and rib injuries at the start of the year, it appeared Newton was rounding into form when he ran for 107 yards and a touchdown, while throwing for 284 yards and two scores, against the Bengals. In the three games since, he has averaged just 11.6 fantasy points per game.
What to do: At this point, you can’t trust any of these three as your regular starter. At the same time, you can’t just cut them, and you’re unlikely to get much of anything in a trade. All you can really do is sit tight, count on another quarterback, and play Wilson, Kaepernick or Newton in the right matchup. All three of these players entered the season with question marks, so if you drafted one of them, you hopefully came out of your draft with at least two quarterbacks. On the plus side for Newton and Kaepernick, they have the third- and sixth-most fantasy friendly remaining schedules, respectively, for quarterbacks.
4. Andrew Luck is the top-scoring quarterback
While you may not have agreed with everyone on the order of the first three quarterbacks for 2014, you no doubt had the same three making up the top tier. I personally ranked Aaron Rodgers first, Peyton Manning second and Drew Brees third. You could find all six possible combinations coming from fantasy experts this season, but what you couldn’t find was a fourth quarterback penetrating that group. Of course, not one of those elite signal callers has been fantasy’s No. 1 quarterback this year. That honor belongs to Luck.
After Monday night’s game against the Giants, Luck has 2,731 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has thrown for at least 300 yards seven times, and a minimum of 340 yards six times. Just once has he failed to throw multiple touchdown passes in a game. What’s more, he has 114 rushing yards and two scores on the ground. Manning and Rodgers have been great, Brees has been very good, and Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have recently made a charge for pole position, but none can quite measure up to Luck.
What to do: If you’re a Luck owner, sit back and enjoy. You don’t sell out on this kind of season, unless you have another great quarterback and can get top dollar for Luck. His remaining schedule is neutral, at worst, but you don’t worry about schedule when you have a top-notch quarterback at the peak of his game. The Colts have run, by far, the most plays per game, and Luck’s connection with T.Y. Hilton is becoming one of the most lethal in the league. You likely didn’t have to take Luck until the fifth or sixth round of a traditional one-quarterback league, meaning you were able to load up on running backs and receivers before ending up with fantasy football’s best quarterback. That’s the sort of draft that translates into a championship.
3. The Pittsburgh Steelers have three players ranked in the top 12 overall in fantasy leagues
Everyone expected the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the league, and they do. Everyone figured Peyton Manning and company would again be among the most potent offensive teams in the league, and they, too are. They have, however, combined to put a total of three players in the fantasy top 20 through three weeks. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn’t come close to what the Steelers have done by themselves. Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s back-to-back six-touchdown games, the Steelers now have three players among the top 12 in fantasy leagues. Roethlisberger is the No. 3 quarterback, Antonio Brown is the No. 1 receiver, and Le’Veon Bell is the No. 4 running back. They rank sixth, fifth and 12th, respectively.
Brown and Bell have been at the top of the rankings all season. Brown just set an NFL record by putting up 80 receiving yards for his 11th-straight game, and leads all receivers in receptions (71) and yards (996) while ranking second in touchdowns (eight). Bell, meanwhile, kicked off the season with eight straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. That streak ended against the Ravens last week, but he’s third in the league with 711 rushing yards and second with 1,144 yards from scrimmage.
Roethlisberger rode a record-setting streak of his own to near the top of the quarterback leader board. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 12 touchdowns in a two-game span, putting up six apiece in wins over the Colts and Ravens. He now has 2,720 yards, 8.05 yards per attempt, and 22 touchdowns against three interceptions. We may not have expected it, but the Steelers have one of the league’s best offenses.
What to do: Brown and Bell are set to be fantasy stars for the rest of the season. If you own either of them, enjoy it for the next two months. If you’re a Roethlisberger owner, however, you have a unique opportunity. Chances are if you own Roethlisberger, you likely have another quarterback on your roster. If it’s someone like Wilson or Kaepernick, or the recently injured Nick Foles, you’ll want to hold onto Roethlisberger. If it’s a quarterback you can count on as your starter for the rest of the season, you have a chance to sell Roethlisberger high in the next two weeks.
The Steelers play the lowly Jets, who have allowed the most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks this year. Roethlisberger could get himself another six touchdowns this coming week. After that, however, they play the Titans, go on bye, and finish the fantasy season with games against the Saints, Bengals, Falcons and Chiefs. Only one of those teams, the Saints, is a plus-matchup for quarterbacks. Take this opportunity to move Roethlisberger for an upgrade at running back or receiver for your looming playoff run.
2. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are outside the top-20 wide receivers
Back in August, it appeared the Bears were on the precipice of a great offensive season. The team was returning all 11 starters in year two under head coach Marc Trestman. Jay Cutler earned a few darkhorse MVP picks, and the Bears were seen as an under-the-radar Super Bowl threat. A lot of that had to do with Marshall and Jeffery, widely praised as the best receiver duo in the league. Both were off the board by the end of the second round of a typical 12-team draft.
In that vein, Marshall and Jeffery have been two of the most disappointing fantasy players this season. Jeffery is 24th among receivers in points per game in standard-scoring leagues, while Marshall checks in at 29th. Some players who have outscored both of them include Mike Wallace, Terrance Williams and Brandon LaFell. In case you’ve forgotten, fantasy owners were able to get any of those three players just a tad later than Marshall or Jeffery. Injuries have been a factor for both Chicago receivers, but the fact remains that they have provided a negative return on investment.
What to do: Despite their struggles, Marshall and Jeffery remain strong fantasy options for the rest of the season. Cutler is ninth among quarterbacks in points per game, and Trestman loves to dial up the pass, even though Matt Forte may just be the best running back in the league. The Bears still have games remaining with the Packers, Buccaneers, Saints, Cowboys, Lions and Vikings. The Buccaneers and Saints present great matchups, and only the Cowboys and potentially the Lions would be worse than matchup-neutral. If you don’t own either of these players, check in on their price. You may be able to steal a WR1 if their current owner is frustrated. If you do own one of them, sit tight. The per-game production you expected is almost certainly on its way.
1. LeSean McCoy is fantasy’s 19th-ranked running back
It’s very hard for any running back to repeat as the NFL’s rushing champion, but McCoy seemed like one of the few who could do it. His season began innocently enough, as he racked up 115 total yards, but zero touchdowns and just 74 yards rushing, in a win over the Jaguars. He scored his first touchdown against the Colts the following week, but only ran for 79 yards on 20 totes. Then came the one-two punch for his owners. In a Week 3 win over Washington, McCoy ran 20 times for 22 yards. The next week in San Francisco was even worse, as he picked up 17 yards on 10 carries. Injuries had piled up along the Philadelphia offensive line, and McCoy’s production hit rock bottom.
Things have improved recently, but McCoy has still made just one trip to the end zone this season. The list of running backs who have more fantasy points than him is truly shocking. It includes Jeremy Hill, Matt Asiata, Chris Ivory, Justin Forsett, Mark Ingram and Ahmad Bradshaw. This is not to knock those players, as a handful of them have been excellent this year. If someone told you in August that all of them would have more points than McCoy through nine weeks, though, you probably would have assumed that he blew out his knee Week 1. In a season full of surprises, none has been more jarring than McCoy slumming it with the Branden Olivers and Bobby Raineys of the world.
What to do: Now is truly the time for McCoy owners to get excited. In his last three games, he has rushed for 349 yards on 66 carries, good for 5.29 yards per carry. The Eagles got center Jason Kelce back from a hernia last week, and left guard Evan Mathis is expected to return shortly from a knee injury. It will be the first time this season that the entire offensive line is intact, and that group was the top-ranked run-blocking unit in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus. The Eagles next three games are against the Panthers, Packers and Titans. All three of those teams are among the top-12 in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs this year. McCoy is on the cusp of being the high-level RB1 you thought you were getting in your draft. If you don’t own McCoy, check on his price with his owner right now. It will be the last chance you get to steal him.