Is parity across the NFL impacting 2021 fantasy football?

Every fantasy football league’s standings feel about the same every season.

There’s usually one team at the top with one or two losses. Their first-round pick didn't get hurt, they drafted the mid-round league-winner and just caught plenty of breaks along the way.

Then there’s maybe one or two teams at the bottom with three or fewer wins. Those teams have no shot to make it into the fantasy playoffs and they’re about ready to pack it in for the year.

Between those two polar extremes lies the vast majority of the league. Sitting somewhere between 7-5 and 5-7, they can tell themselves a story about how they’ll scrap a few wins and make it into the postseason. Either that or they’ll spend Sundays sweating every second hoping not to blow their current playoff position.

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I realize this is not every single fantasy league and yours might be different — bear with me being anecdotal here.

I say all that to say: Take one look at the current 2021 NFL season standings and you might see some similarities to the ones in your fantasy app.

The NFL feels like a fantasy football league this season

The Cardinals, Packers, Ravens and Bucs have a win percentage over .700 and make up the small group of elites. Down at the bottom, seven teams have four or more losses and it would take a back-straining reach for you to convince yourself any of the Giants, Bears, Jets, Seahawks, Texans, Jaguars or Lions are anything other than cooked for 2021.

In between those two groups, 19 teams are somewhere in that 7-5, 5-7 wilderness. If you bunch the Patriots and Titans in with this group (at 8-4 their win percentage is similar since they just haven’t had a bye) that’s 65.6 percent of the league in this bundle. Just about any of those teams could find themselves in the actual postseason with a few breaks along the way.

The league looks like an actual fantasy football one this season. There aren’t many “haves” or “have nots” operations right now, but rather a bunch of “might haves” hoping to scrape by others on their way to the dance.

Part of me wonders if that parity is also bleeding into fantasy football in any tangible way.

For the most part, parity isn’t brought on by some level playing field achieved across the league. Team records are mostly the product of their own volatility. Some of the teams in that 7-5, 5-7 wilderness have had their stretches of strength, only to collapse after injuries or a fatal flaw inevitably became too much to bear.

Take the Titans for example. At one point they were mowing down great teams on a regular basis when both Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown were healthy.

Now, they’re one of the least efficient offenses in the NFL with a roster full of practice squad players.

The Eagles? They’ve basically been two teams in the course of one season after a full 180 identity shift in their run/pass ratio.

How about the Panthers? Remember when they were the hottest team in football to start the year? DJ Moore looked like a potential top-five receiver in the NFL only to be dragged down into the mud after Sam Darnold’s inevitable collapse post-CMC's injury.

DJ Moore (2) wide receiver of Carolina
Remember when DJ Moore was rocketing towards a top-five finish? (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Chargers might be the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in football. The story of Mike Williams’ rise and fall in fantasy feels as if it perfectly captures that reality.

And all that’s not even touching the absolute rollercoasters that have been the 49ers, Seahawks and Browns.

Again, this is somewhat anecdotal but 2021 feels like it’s given us fewer “set it and forget it” fantasy starters than ever before. At any given moment you’re debating between five or six players for your flex spot who have similar weekly projections. It’s fair to assume that as these teams become more volatile — representing itself as parity — it's made it more difficult to have pure every-week stars in fantasy football.

Parity, or just a unique, never-before-experienced season?

On the other hand, it might just be that in this, the longest season ever, we’re just dealing with more injuries. The early rounds of fantasy drafts were littered with landmines.

These were the Top-10 running backs in consensus ADP this summer:

  1. Christian McCaffrey (on IR)

  2. Dalvin Cook (currently hurt again)

  3. Derrick Henry (on IR)

  4. Alvin Kamara (was/is hurt)

  5. Ezekiel Elliott (fine but playing through injury)

  6. Nick Chubb (missed time but fine)

  7. Aaron Jones (is hurt)

  8. Jonathan Taylor (awesome)

  9. Saquon Barkley (nightmare)

  10. Najee Harris (fine)

So few of those guys have been “set it and forget it” players consistently hitting their ceilings all year long. While they’ve been absent, we’ve been forced to consider backup backs, to play in the sandbox of the infinite WR3-to-4 debate and weigh bench options with similar projections.

You look at the 10 receiver picks in Round 2 to 3 and this strange year continues to get more peculiar:

  1. DK Metcalf (rocky but fine)

  2. Calvin Ridley (not playing)

  3. DeAndre Hopkins (was/is hurt)

  4. Justin Jefferson (awesome)

  5. A.J. Brown (awesome or nightmare — no in-between)

  6. Keenan Allen (fine)

  7. CeeDee Lamb (fine)

  8. Terry McLaurin (fine)

  9. Mike Evans (fine)

  10. Allen Robinson (nightmare)

Only one of those guys (Justin Jefferson) pushed into the top-five scorers at the position and just six of the 10 are even in the top-20. If you picked a receiver in this range, you’re maybe feeling alright about your selection but it’s unlikely you’re loving it. You might be “setting it and forgetting it” but only by necessity and not with many degrees of enthusiasm.

Honestly, who knows what this all means.

Perhaps an expanded season has something to do with it. Maybe, as the league experiences what seems to be a philosophical push-and-pull between the pass-heavy offenses’ domination of old Cover-3 schemes and the adjustments made by modern teams, we’re feeling it in fake football.

Of course, this could all just be a weird, random year where there are very few dominant teams, a glut of mid-level/inconsistent teams and injuries.

I don’t know if we’ll take away some grand-view lessons from the 2021 season and let it impact our drafting or strategies going forward. That will take more time to unpack in the offseason.

For now, if you built up a great team this season, I also don’t know whether to applaud your skill or simply congratulate you on your good fortune in avoiding some unforeseen landmines.

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