Welcome to Footballguys' Weekly Top 10. Since Week 4, the Top 10 has been free to Footballguys Insiders. All you have to do is register with your email and you'll receive access to this in-depth film breakdown (with a fantasy bent) of the weekend's games.
The Fantasy Playoffs mimic the NFL Stretch-run
We're at a point of the NFL season where a lot of subtle shifts take place. Young players are physically or mentally wearing down. Most quarterbacks will see a slight deterioration in arm strength down the stretch due to their workload — and defenses know it. And speaking of defenses, they've seen enough tape on their upcoming opponents to have solid game plans to stop or limit an offense's staple plays.
Last week's Top 10 shared some of these developments including Travis Kelce's gigantic day and the underlying question of Patrick Mahomes II' decision-making mindset that led to another big week for the two in Baltimore that included more daring plays. You learned how the Lions thwarted some dangerous elements of the Rams' passing game and it served as intel for the Bears defense on Sunday night.
Dallas' defense continues its emergence but it was the strategic adjustment that Amari Cooper made on a staple play of the Cowboys offense that helped make the difference against the Eagles this weekend. Neither Justin Jackson nor Dante Pettis delivered impressively for fantasy players this weekend, but Spencer Ware — an option this writer and many others tabbed as a top stretch-run target — emerged as a fantasy option against a tough Ravens defense.
Rookies Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen have similar stats and are ironically doing similar things for their respective offenses despite those offenses beginning with opposite intentions for them. This week, the Top 10 will highlight the similarities and differences of their execution.
Wrapping up this column is a series of miscellaneous thoughts about players based on this week and the month ahead and of course, Fresh Fish.
1. Patrick Mahomes II II continues his magical mystery tour
Excluding the Rams' defensive front, the Ravens defense might be the greatest test that Patrick Mahomes II II faced as a pro. Like the Patriots and Steelers, the Ravens ran a variety of blitzes at Mahomes. Unlike these teams, the Ravens have the caliber of players to challenge the Chiefs offense at a different level. Baltimore is a physical football team that brings it and expects you to beat it.
Teams like the Ravens are physically and mentally tough and their opponents usually have to show similar or greater resilience to compete at Baltimore's level. Without Kareem Hunt and coping with Tyreek Hill (heel) and Spencer Ware (shoulder) shuttling in and out of the lineup, Mahomes took more hits than usual from a stout Ravens' pass rush and found a way to improvise, adapt, and overcome.
He showed that he's a gamer and gameness is a vital factor that separates long-term starters from talented comets given a great scheme that burns out.
Mahomes elevated that gameness with a combination of pocket presence and trickshot throwing that showcases why he's equal parts quarterback point guard and shortstop.
I had no idea these two throws by Patrick Mahomes II occurred consecutively. The #Ravens are a mentally tough defense but they had to be looking at each other with a bit of wonder afterward. #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/URE1j5E9QV— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
There's some poetry to Patrick Mahomes II playing in Kansas City and throwing these submarine deliveries under pressure like Dan Quisenberry did for the Royals back in the day.#ChiefsVSRavens pic.twitter.com/0oJL8yFOqe— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
Mahomes had a moment where he crossed the line from daring to reckless, throwing an interception on a play where he tried to overcome the contact from a pass rusher to fit a ball too finely. The difference between this play and interceptions that Josh Allen made are minimal when comparing on a one-to-one level.
However, there's an important factor that comes into play that's a broader point: Allen mostly makes decisions that cross the line from daring to reckless in these situations. Mahomes has proven that he treads that line far more effectively, and it's why his reputation is gradually changing in the public eye.
Patrick Mahomes II INT.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
If not wrapped, this might have been a decision close to the line of "reckless" but actually daring.
But this goes past that line due to the contact wile throwing that alters the trajectory. #ChiefsVSRavens pic.twitter.com/my6rsfdN4Z
There is just no defense for this. pic.twitter.com/tIOmNmWjdT— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 9, 2018
The reason I compared Patrick Mahomes II to Brett Favre is this gameness and daring. He's actually a wiser version of Favre, but he has the same daring mentality to make throws you rarely see and when the defense thinks it has limited him, he finds a way to transcend those barriers.
Mahomes has thrived with a fully stocked offense and made it look easy. He's rallied his team from significant deficits. And now, he's hung tough in a physical game and used his technical and conceptual wizardry to pull out a victory.
If that's not enough to convince you, then you don't know what a matchup-proof fantasy quarterback looks like. Mahomes will disappoint in the future — he's human. However, he's not a quarterback that you bench barring an act of God.
2. (If Healthy) Spencer Ware showed he's Ready
The quote in the Tweet below is something I used when studying Ware at LSU. It's the version of Ware we'd hope to see last week against the Raiders when the Chiefs fired Hunt.
“If I had to take a hit from anybody, it wouldn’t be Spencer Ware. He’s a guy who’s going to put everything into it and fight for that extra yard.” #Chiefs— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
– Josh Dworaczyk, LSU Tacklehttps://t.co/984joSOAHY pic.twitter.com/zinRWZzVHr
This Ware showed up a week later in Baltimore. The cuts, the burst, and the power were all on display this weekend.
Although lacking Hunt's long speed, Ware is a superior pass protector and Hunt's equal as a receiver. As long as Ware's shoulder injury isn't a significant concern for Week 15, expect another strong yards-from-scrimmage output as a solid fantasy RB2 with RB1 upside if Damien Williams doesn't rob him of goal-line opportunities.
3. The Bears took a page from the Lions Defense to Foil the Rams
Last week, the Lions stifled elements of the Rams passing game with line twists (Edge rushers crisscrossing paths to confuse tackles and guards into strong angles to the quarterback--also known as "game."). The Top 10 mused that this could be helpful intel for the Bears.
Indeed it was.
The #Lions foiled the #Rams screen game with twists up front with the outside man working inside to foil the RB's route while the inside man gets pressure.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
The #Bears also foiled the Rams screen game with a twist last night. pic.twitter.com/z6uAXcOfyS
Unlike the Lions, the Bears also had the linemen up front to effectively rush three and drop eight.
Bears rush three, drop eight and the NT with a nice push-pull on the C to reach Goff as he's forced to check to the RB. pic.twitter.com/jeaStQ1Lkm— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
Former GM Michael Lombardi told his Twitter base that Goff appeared uncomfortable maintaining a grip on the ball in the cold weather. Upon closer look, it appears that pressure disrupting Goff's ability to deliver from his spot was the cause of inaccurate passes. Here's one notable example.
Pressure on Goff forcing a catch-able throw but not pinpoint and Woods can't hang on. pic.twitter.com/F7vrgg35Z7— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
Although much blame will be placed on Goff and his for interceptions, two of them were not egregious decisions. The first was the one above and the second was an end-of-half throw to the end zone.
Sunday was Goff's first game as a pro with more than two interceptions. The Rams offensive line is the unit that needs to regroup. As seen above and below, Los Angeles had difficulty diagnosing pressure and making adjustments to maintain a clean pocket as much as it had difficulty with one-on-one matchups with excellent defensive linemen.
The Rams have a good offensive line that can lose against superior physical talent and well-schemed fronts that confuse them. If this NFC front-runner wants to emerge as the team to beat in the conference, it must adjust before the playoffs or it will risk further exposure.
The Eagles have the linemen to foil the Rams' screen game and outlet receivers but lack the secondary. There will be fantasy players spooked about playing Goff and their Rams players this weekend — if they survived.
Don't be. Go to the well once more unless you have a great matchup elsewhere because Dak Prescott managed 455 yards and 3 scores on the Eagles despite the pressure — and he didn't earn most of it running around the pocket the way Goff can't.
4. Amari Cooper Took matters into his own Hands to help the Cowboys
Speaking of the Cowboys, one of the heroes of the Dallas offense for the past month is Amari Cooper. After another huge game from Coope, he shared an insightful story about the game and the origins of a pivotal play — a 75-yard touchdown reception — where he asked Prescott to let him run a go route rather than another stop route that has been a staple of Scott Linehan's playcalling.
Not a good look for Scott Linehan. https://t.co/krg26FCcwe— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 10, 2018
~5 plays with stop routes for #Dallas in this compilation. The one with 5:22 in the fourth quarter has a similar look as the one with a little over 3:00 left.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
This is why Amari Cooper wanted to run the go and Dak Prescott gave him the signal #CowboysNation
(No Audio) pic.twitter.com/ecuSTbPmxZ
I'm a fan and friend of John Owning, who I recommend you follow but I'm ambivalent about agreeing with him about how this looks for Linehan. Maybe it's because I grew up in an era of football where quarterbacks and receivers changed plays all the time — especially on great teams. Is the offense running this many stop routes five different times in a game too much?
If it was working, no. However, it wasn't working and it Cooper noticing how the cornerback and safety on his side of the field were playing him led to a huge play. My friend Dwain McFarland, who writes at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, analyzed Cooper's fit in Dallas after the trade with Oakland and while not recalling him writing this, we watched some of Cooper's film together and he speculated that Cooper is an intelligent player who wasn't challenged in a healthy way as a Raider.
If football becomes more free-flowing and open with the use of college spread concepts and option plays, the future of the game will likely hinge on players taking back more of the play-calling and in-game adjustments that they've had for the past 15-20 yards. The Cowboys got a little taste of it Sunday afternoon.
Cooper remains hot and the Colts and Buccaneers may not even often as much as a speed bump in his path.
5. Baker Mayfield's hand trickery stole the Show
The Browns' firing of Todd Haley and Hue Jackson came around the time that most opponents begin to get a handle on their upcoming opponents with the help of past game tape. It means Cleveland's changes often occurred out of sight of these traditional ways of preparation because the Browns' game plans have been evolving during these past 4-6 weeks.
While it may not be wise to run out and nab Breshad Perriman for your playoff roster, it looks like Mayfield could be worthwhile for fantasy players in December after all. Now that Denver and Cincinnati are further weakened in personnel, Mayfield has upside as a desperation play.
More than anything, Freddie Kitchens has made enough positive tweaks to the scheme that Mayfield's play continues to give the run game a chance and support more established but inconsistent options like Jarvis Landry and David Njoku. One of these adjustments is more deception with play fakes — a specialty of Mayfield's game before he went pro.
They 100% stole that from OU the year prior. pic.twitter.com/6Np7E5tQZX— Drew Piscopo (@DrewCPiscopo) December 10, 2018
Mayfield's ability to sell a variety of play fakes resulted in significant plays for the Browns this weekend and allows a great deal of versatility for the run game.
While his red zone efficiency is up there with Drew Brees and the comparisons between the two have been common in the draft community, there's still a long road ahead before we see if they're accurate. However, add the play fake game to the list of things that Mayfield has in common with Brees — and perhaps an edge.
If he continues making throws like this one, count me as one who may arrive fashionably late to the bandwagon.
As a fan who grew up on Cleveland football, it will be a welcomed development.
6. Derrick Henry showed the Jaguars his hand for much of 99 yards
Was this bad tackling or great stiff-arms from Derrick Henry, who treated the Jaguars defense like he was back at Alabama and facing Southwestern Universities School of Quilting?
As our buddy Matt Harmon says, both can be true. The first stiff-arm is an excellent display of leverage high to the chest of A.J. Bouye and caught the defender by surprise with the length of his reach. Bouye was still gauging his angle to Henry when the runner delivered the George Foreman-like triphammer of a jab to the chest of the Titans' corner.
It helps that Henry also turned toward Bouye at the last moment to initiate the contact. Before Henry made that move, Bouye was anticipating that he'd wrap Henry from behind at the waist and slide down the back's legs to wrap up the big fella. However, once Bouye closed, Henry dipped inside and gave the corner a healthy sized soup bone to the chops.
Round 1: Credit Henry more than disparage Bouye.
Leon Jacobs could have done better. When he earns an angle on Henry up the sideline, he initiates a high wrap and earns the hand twice and shown the exit at Henry's feet about 10 yards later. Jacobs completely underestimates Henry's strength when going high and once he's hit with the straight-arm and fighting to overcome it, he's stuck in a process that will only end badly.
Round 2: Although there's a technically sound reason for going high on paper, Jacobs should have gone low from the beginning. This was bad form for this situation.
Miles Jack also goes high for Henry. This is the most problematic of the three tackle attempts to judge. On the surface, it seems inexplicable that Jack would go high. However, he has to make a 90-degree turn and cross the face of Corey Davis to even make contact with Henry.
If you freeze this video at the 13-second mark, you'll see that Jack would have to dive across the frame of Davis and collide with the receiver to reach Henry's legs from this angle. Jack would have lost any leverage in that collision and may not have even gotten more than a hand on Henry low.
Jack — and even Jacobs to an extent — is trying to execute a sound tackling technique. Although there are many football drills that show players diving around the field and leaving their feet, it's not fundamentally strong work —, especially against a bigger man.
You can learn about tackling here in this podcast with USA Football's Tackling clinician Andy Ryland.
Round 3: Jack did what he could to close and expecting him to go low doesn't account for Corey Davis as an obstacle.
Considering how Henry performed and the weaknesses we've seen from the NFC East defenses ahead (New York and Washington), it's time to put your preconceived notions at the door and give Henry a shot.
Otherwise, your fantasy team could be on the other side of Henry's hand.
13th carry: looks similar to a play from the 1Q. This time it's a toss to the left. @KingHenry_2 avoids the diving Dawuane Smoot and stiff arms Myles Jack, dragging him from the LoS all the way past the 1st down. @TaylorLewan77 bulldozes A.J. Bouye #HenryStiffArm #ProBowlVote pic.twitter.com/MjsgWh8BRk— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) December 10, 2018
7. Josh Allen fits the Stereotype Better Than the Prototype
The Buffalo Bills wanted a pocket quarterback with a big arm. It didn't want a quarterback that would be labeled a runner, a mobile quarterback, a dual threat, or a playground operator.
Congratulations Bills, Allen is all of these things and while the staff isn't running zone reads and triple option, its encouraging Allen to run and run often with quarterback draws, quick pocket escapes, and designed bootlegs with a run option if nothing comes open (or, more accurately, when Allen doesn't read the open receiver).
In terms of size, arm strength, willingness to stand and take a hit in the pocket, and book smarts, the Bills got a prototypical quarterback prospect. However, Allen's propensity to run, lean too much on his arm while on the move, keep plays alive unnecessarily, and make reactionary decisions under pressure, he's far closer to the stereotypes associated with quarterbacks the Bills wanted nothing to do with.
Here's where Josh Allen has to improve as a decision-maker. He has the open man (slot right) but leaves it early.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
The best QBs find the easy solutions. Physically, Allen can do some amazing things in terms of difficulty level.
He must learn to find the easy. #bills pic.twitter.com/k0BPwRi8to
While all three can cross the line from daring to reckless, one of the many differences between Josh Allen and passers like Mahomes and Rodgers is that he must mature with his decision-making.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
This is straight out of Wyoming vs. Nebraska...or Iowa.#Bills pic.twitter.com/XVXeeQJEMB
Please understand, like many dual-threat quarterbacks who engage in playground ball, Allen has some skill in the pocket — the Bills must harness and refine it with the cooperation of Allen to grow into this behavior.
These are the types of plays that NFL starters and backups make with a high percentage of success. It's avoiding plays like the one below that differentiate the two.
What's fascinating about the Allen-Jackson dynamic is that the Bills are encouraging Allen to run but it's not having the same impact on the ground game because of play design. The Bills' scheme has Allen faking the ball, dropping to pass, and then running. This process holds defenders for less time than the zone read and option game of the Ravens.
Although the Ravens emphasize the threat of Jackson running much earlier in a play than the Bills when Jackson drops back, he's more likely to hang in the pocket until forced to leave it. Or, if he's on a designed roll, his movements are more precise and efficient.
As mentioned in the past, Jackson's feet get too narrow and he can have some mechanically-induced inaccuracies with low throws as a result. Mechanical issues like these are easier to amend than conceptual issues of judgment. They are also easier to live with if not fixed — look back at Donovan McNabb's game or take a closer look at Carson Wentz.
Allen is an exciting player who is capable of earning equal to greater fantasy points on the ground as he is through the air. Just understand that like Michael Vick, Tyrod Taylor, and Kordell Stewart, Allen will have to learn to win from the pocket more often as a reader of defenses and field general pre- and post-snap. He may remind people of a young John Elway but his current behavior is more like quarterbacks who decision-makers often mused about making wide receivers and tight ends.
Ironic, isn't it?
Funny thing is, it's hard to say whether Allen has the footwork, vision, and maneuverability as a runner to execute the zone read and option game with the effectiveness of Jackson. There's a lot of upside for Allen but he's a much better fantasy quarterback than NFL passer this year. His development will be one of the more compelling storylines over the next 3-5 seasons.
8. Quiet Feet
One of the notable differences that separate Allen from Lamar Jackson is quiet feet. While both quarterbacks can hang in the pocket, Allen is far more likely to bolt the pocket on the run — looking to run or throw — than Jackson, who is far more likely to use economical footwork to maintain a throwing base while avoiding oncoming pressure. This has nothing to do with courage as much as control and refinement of moving in crowded surroundings.
Quiet feet is a term that Tony Romo used to describe Goff. It also applies to passers that Bill Walsh prized for their footwork. Joe Namath and Joe Montana had it. Carson Wentz doesn't but Russell Wilson does. Michael Vick's feet had the decibel reading of a jetliner.
Tom Brady has ninja's feet.
Brady quiet feet and TD to Gronk pic.twitter.com/9RO8rgY0UV— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
This is a difficult skill to learn at this stage of the game. While there are moments where Allen has displayed skill to hitch and slide from pressure, his first reaction is far more often about bolting if he's not standing in to deliver an obvious open receiver with a hit coming. This won't make him an incompetent quarterback but ironically, Jackson's the more refined player in crowded areas despite the constant repetition of inaccurate commentary to the contrary.
9. Rookie Tight Ends to Monitor
The state of the tight end position remains pretty good for fantasy players. Rob Gronkowski remains an excellent option when healthy, George Kittle has taken the league by storm, Travis Kelce is the reigning king, and Eric Ebron has figured out how to catch again. Even Jared Cook is making plays worthy of his athletic talents.
With the slow and steady emergence of Austin Hooper and David Njoku and the hopeful return of Hunter Henry, fantasy players should have plenty of starters to choose from. The key will be finding players on the rise as others fall. Zach Ertz is in his prime, but Dallas Goedert should not leave your sightlines for the next few years.
He has the potential of an All-Pro, especially the receiving game. Forgive the incorrect reference to Jaylen Smith in this video (long night) as Jaylen Samuels (thanks in advance).
Goeddert's seam route nullified... pic.twitter.com/0kbphLlnUQ— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 10, 2018
Goedert is a big, strong, fluid pass-catcher who can block better than any of the Eagles' options on the depth chart. A patient fantasy player will either hold onto Goedert or made a well-timed trade in another year when the current team holding Goedert's rights gets impatient.
Ian Thomas is another big, fluid, all-around option with potential to succeed Greg Olsen as a productive receiver. He made some underrated plays against the Browns this weekend as a route runner, pass catcher and ballcarrier.
10. Fresh Fish
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," here is my short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Catch of the Week: Robert Alford
In the NFL, when a player isn't performing well, offenses continue picking on them. As is the case with Fresh Fish. Atlanta's decimated defense has been a weekly supplier of the goods at this fish market. Alford is a veteran corner who Aaron Rodgers toyed with on Sunday.
On the play before this touchdown below, Alford interfered with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, playing way too aggressive and the foul put Green Bay in the red zone. On this play, Alford plays way off Davante Adams as a reaction to his foul. Guess what?
Onto the fish case:
- Calvin Ridley: He two passes this weekend and disappeared from the game, catching 1 pass for 10 yards on 4 targets.
- Rams offensive line: The unit had several bad reads pre-snap that resulted in confusion and pressure on Jared Goff.
- Jaguars Defense: Although siding with the argument that bad tackling wasn't the whole story for Derrick Henry's evening, bad angles and the lackluster play overall earns the unit a spot in the case.
- Mitchell Trubisky: This game should have been a laugher but Trubisky is closer to a dual-threat quarterback who fits the stereotype more than the prototype than it may look.
Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.