Passing Judgment: Fantasy Football – Grading the Pre-Season ESPN Top 25 Players

The NFL season is six weeks old which means we are almost halfway done with the fantasy football regular season. By this point, you have a good sense of what your team really is. But if you think back to July and August when you were preparing for your draft, you are probably both pleasantly surprised and excruciatingly disappointed with some of your selections. Like every season, things don’t always pan out the way we think they will. I thought I would go back and take a look at ESPN’s top 25 ranked players from before the season started and grade how they have performed thus far based on their ranking.

Adrian Peterson1. Adrian Peterson (RB-MIN). There was no dispute over the reigning MVP being the top overall pick in any draft. Peterson came into the season motivated to set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season, and many people believed he was capable of doing it. Thus far he has rushed for 483 yards and five touchdowns, which is solid production. But he is playing on an awful team with major quarterback issues. Plus, he is dealing with untenable personal loss after the tragic death of his son. That in and of itself could hamper him, but I get the sense he will use it as an inspiration. He may not reach the same level as he did in 2012, but he is money in the bank and well worth the number one pick. GRADE: A-

2. Arian Foster (RB-HOU). After Foster burst onto the scene in 2010, he has become one of the most productive yet frustrating players in the league. He certainly deserves to be one of the top running backs taken in the draft, but fantasy GM’s are frustrated with his lack of ability to find the end zone thus far (531 yards but only one rushing touchdown). He also always seems to have nagging injuries which prevent him from reaching the levels he attained in 2010. GRADE: B

3. Marshawn Lynch (RB-SEA). It’s been Beast Mode all season in Seattle as the Seahawks have emerged as the favorites in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl. Lynch has followed up his terrific 2012 season with a stellar beginning to this season amassing 487 yards and five touchdowns. While he was the 3rd highest ranked player on ESPN, he was frequently drafted later in the first round. Fantasy GM’s who “settled” for Lynch have reaped the benefits. GRADE: A-

4. Ray Rice (RB-BAL). The trend starting taking a wrong turn last year, but that didn’t deter fantasy GM’s from regarding Ray Rice as one of their top draft picks. Unfortunately, it has been a disaster thus far with Rice seeing a decrease in carries and averaging less than three yards per attempt. His three rushing touchdowns are the only reason he has amassed over 30 points thus far. GRADE: F

5. Doug Martin (RB-TB). Martin burst on the scene with a great rookie season in 2012, but I sensed an over-reaction to him heading into this year. His numbers were a bit skewed last year with some 200+ yard games to help. He has been a disappointment through six weeks on a dysfunctional Tampa Bay with only 409 rushing yards and one touchdown. GRADE: C-

6. Jamaal Charles (RB-KC). Now another year removed from major knee surgery, Jamaal Charles was poised for a breakout season under Andy Reid’s tutelage. Charles has been in charge thus far rushing for 475 yards and five touchdowns. But even more impressively, he has been a major factor in the passing game which has rewarded fantasy GM’s in PPR leagues. His 33 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns have made him the best fantasy running back by far. GRADE: A

7. C.J. Spiller (RB-BUF). If you drafted C.J. Spiller in the first round of your draft, then your team is probably trying to dig out of a hole. Spiller has been a complete bust due to a combination of poor production and injuries. He only has one rushing touchdown and is averaging less than four yards per carry with only one of his trademark explosive runs. When there is a debate of whether to start him or Fred Jackson on your fantasy team, that does not bode well. GRADE: D-

8. Trent Richardson (RB-CLE). Expectations were high for the second-year running back after a successful rookie season. However, Trent Richardson was shockingly traded to the Colts in September which sent his fantasy value into a whirlwind. With Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw on IR, Richardson is the primary running back for Indianapolis and will start getting more touches as he learns the offense. But to date (296 yards and two touchdowns), Richardson has been a fantasy bust for a player pre-ranked in the top ten. GRADE: D

9. Alfred Morris (RB-WAS). Coming off a great rookie season, fantasy GM’s had high hopes for Alfred Morris despite Mike Shanahan’s tendency to rotate running backs. Morris has been respectable with 377 rushing yards and three touchdowns. While he was dealing with some injured ribs, it does not excuse the fact his performance is more indicative of a RB2 than a top ten ranked player. GRADE: C+

10. Calvin Johnson (WR-DET). There was no question that Megatron was the top ranked wide receiver and arguably a top five overall pick. But a leg injury has already cost him a game and relegated him to being a de facto decoy in another. Johnson has 24 receptions for 337 yards and four touchdowns to date. Fantasy GM’s who spent an early pick on him have to be disappointed with this pedestrian production. GRADE: C-

11. LeSean McCoy (RB-PHI). After some injuries and the emergence of Bryce Brown at the end of 2012, there was some question about McCoy’s value coming into this season. However, he has quieted the critics and put up great numbers thus far despite not finding the end zone as frequently as fantasy GM’s would like. His league-leading 630 rushing yards and 241 receiving yards make him the second best fantasy running back. GRADE: A-

12. Aaron Rodgers (QB-GB). Rodgers was understandably the first quarterback off the board in many drafts. But it has been a bit of a struggle for the former Super Bowl MVP as the Packers have dealt with a slew of injuries to their wide receivers. Another reason Rodgers’ touchdown numbers are down is the emergence of Eddie Lacy and a consistent running game. In years past, Rodgers was forced to throw the ball 40-50 times per game because they could not run the ball. That isn’t the case now. If you drafted Rodgers, you probably expected more than 1,646 yards and 10 touchdowns after five games. GRADE: B-

13. A.J. Green (WR-CIN). Green was the consensus number two ranked wide receiver coming into the season for good reason. He has been Andy Dalton’s favorite target and has proven to be durable and consistent. His numbers have been solid thus far, but not spectacular. His 37 catches for 464 yards and four touchdowns fall in the middle of the pack with the upper echelon receivers. GRADE: B

14. Drew Brees (QB-NO). It’s not as though Drew Brees hasn’t put up huge fantasy numbers in the past, but big things were expected of the Saints’ quarterback with Sean Payton back on the sidelines. Brees has put up the second most points under ESPN’s standard scoring thus far, but it doesn’t feel like he has. The Saints are 5-1 thanks to a better defense and some semblance of a running game. We haven’t seen the best of Brees yet this year, which is scary. GRADE: A

15. Steven Jackson (RB-ATL). I still don’t understand why Steven Jackson gets so much hype every year. It seems like he is always injured and he constantly fails to fulfill expectations. His move to Atlanta looked like a good situation for him, but sure enough he got injured and has missed several games already. He has been a complete bust which comes as no surprise to me. GRADE: F

16. Dez Bryant (WR-DAL). There are few players in the NFL with more raw talent and ability than Dez Bryant. The only question about him was whether he could behave himself off the field and remain healthy. He was banged up a little bit earlier in the year, but he has been as good as advertised so far with 34 receptions, 459 yards and six touchdowns. Expect continued production and ride Tony Romo’s wave as a good regular season fantasy quarterback. GRADE: B+

17. Matt Forte (RB-CHI). It seems like Matt Forte is an afterthought in fantasy drafts because he is not in the top tier of running backs and never seems to stand out. But he has been extremely productive in the Bears improved offense rushing for 442 yards and three touchdowns. He also is productive in PPR leagues with his 33 receptions and 244 yards. GRADE: B

18. Stevan Ridley (RB-NE). Big things were expected for Ridley as he seemed to establish himself as the primary running back in the Patriots potent offense. But once again, injuries have limited Ridley’s production. He is now back and had a big game in Week 6 which could bode well for fantasy GM’s going forward. But based on his performance through six games (270 rushing yards and two touchdowns), Ridley has been a disappointment. GRADE: C-

19. Peyton Manning (QB-DEN). If there is any doubt who the MVP is, then clearly you haven’t been watching any football this year. Peyton Manning has had a record-breaking start to the season throwing for 2,179 and 22 touchdowns through six games. Manning has looked better than ever and has a wide variety of weapons to throw to. He played exceptionally well in 2012, but no one could have foreseen this production. Anyone who drafted Manning is likely at or near the top of the standings in their leagues. GRADE: A+

20. Brandon Marshall (WR-CHI). There were some health questions coming into the season for Marshall, but he has quelled any concerns with tremendous production for the Bears’ improved offense. Marshall has 40 receptions for 465 yards and five touchdowns. He has a great rapport with Jay Cutler and has benefited from Cutler’s apparent maturity, even while Marshall tends to act like a high school girl at times. GRADE: A

21. Frank Gore (RB-SF). Frank Gore seems to have found the fountain of youth running with tenacity and speed for the 49ers. With so many other running backs on the roster and in the fold, there was some concern for a decrease in carries for Gore. The only downside for him is that he doesn’t seem to get goal line opportunities so his touchdown production has been limited. Overall, Gore has played great and has been the best part of San Francisco’s offense. GRADE: B

22. Julio Jones (WR-ATL). There was great hope for Julio Jones this year as the emerging primary receiver in Atlanta’s explosive offense. But that has all gone out the window as Jones re-aggravated a foot injury which required season-ending surgery. Despite only have two touchdowns, he did have 41 catches for 580 yards. His loss was a major blow to fantasy GM’s. GRADE: C (only because he is done for the season).

23. Chris Johnson (RB-TEN). It is exasperating having CJ2K on your fantasy team. There is always the hope that he will regain his form from his 2,000 yard season, but it just doesn’t seem to happen. He will break out a few 100-yard games, but there are too many stinkers mixed in there. With only 327 rushing yards so far, fantasy GM’s are losing their patience. But his failure to reach the end zone on the ground makes fantasy GM’s lose their lunch. GRADE: D

24. Demaryius Thomas (WR-DEN). There is no doubt that Thomas has benefited from having Peyton Manning as his quarterback. He has learned to run crisp routes and gained Manning’s trust. The presence of Wes Welker has also given Thomas some mismatches against opposing defensive backs. He has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Manning’s historic numbers with 37 receptions, 528 yards and four touchdowns. GRADE: A

25. Tom Brady (QB-NE). The amazing thing about Tom Brady is that he seems to put up gaudy statistics no matter who his cast of receivers is. While the Patriots have been winning, Brady has not amassed the type of statistical production we have been used to. That is because he has not had an offensive-minded tight end and he has yet to develop an established rapport with his young receivers. At this point, Brady does not belong in the same tier as Manning, Rodgers or Brees in terms of elite fantasy quarterbacks. GRADE: C

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