The mission of this column—and a lot of my work—is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality of football analysis. Football analysis—fantasy and reality—is often dramatized because there's a core belief that it's more important to entertain than to educate.
I don't live by the idea that it's better to be lucky than good. While I want to give you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, I prefer to get the process right. There will be a lot of people talking about how they were right to draft or start specific players. Many of them got the right result but with the wrong process.
The Top 10 will cover topics that attempt to get the process right (reality) while understanding that fantasy owners may not have time to wait for the necessary data to determine the best course of action (fantasy).
As always I recommend Sigmund Bloom's Waiver Wire piece which you'll find available on this page, Monday night. Bloom and I are not always going to agree on players—he errs more often towards players who flash elite athletic ability and I err more towards players who are more technically skilled and assignment-sound.
Straight, No Chaser: Week 11's Cliff's Notes
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points:
- After watching several weeks of Todd Gurley, I think it's safe to conclude that he looks slower. At the same time, I wouldn't get carried away with that conclusion and write him off as a fantasy commodity—especially when the Rams have adjusted its blocking scheme to suit its offensive line.
- In last week's Top 10, the Falcons defense earned praise for stopping the Saints. Based on the play of a now-healthy secondary as well as developing youngsters, Atlanta's unit will remain dangerous for the rest of the year.
- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan didn't get much from the Falcons' run game without Devonta Freeman, but he made a handful of vertical throws under pressure—including a pair to Calvin Ridley— that made Atlanta's blowout of Carolina a team effort. Atlanta should not be taken lightly as a fantasy haven down the stretch.
- Kyler Murray performed well enough against the 49ers defense to keep this game competitive but it was San Francisco's front four that consistently beat Murray and the Cardinals. Murray is a dynamic runner but he's not unstoppable compared to a handful of NFL passers.
- One of those irresistable forces on the ground is Lamar Jackson. He makes running the football look effortless, including a maddening behavior with ball security that he may get away with until he loses a step.
- The Broncos took an early lead with a pair of plays that toyed with Vikings linebackers. The Vikings responded with a pair of plays that toyed with Broncos defensive backs. Guess what happened? That's right, the deep man wins.
- Alvin Kamara is back and healthy enough to dominate if the Saints will let him.
- Dallas Goedert is an emerging talent but he has a technical quirk with his receiving game to address if he wants to become a star.
- We heard some corners of the fantasy community whispering that Mark Ingram II was just a guy and it would be a matter of time before Justice Hill earned a split of the Ravens backfield. Ingram is a notch below the elite starters but an old narrative from his early days as a Saint may be the reason he remained underrated.
- This week's Fresh Fish:.
- I haven't examined box score evidence of regression to the mean when measuring the Cardinals defense against tight ends, but even if Arizona has somehow improved statistically, the on-field results remain favorable enough to start tight ends—even many reserves—against this pass defense.
- Carolina's offensive line gave up six sacks to Atlanta and four of them came off the left side of the line.
- After flashes of poise against the Packers last week on a snowy Lambeau field, Atlanta's defense thawed the ice running through Kyle Allen's veins to the tune of three interceptions—all three thrown inside Atlanta's five yard-line.
- Houston's offensive line, Bill O'Brien's short passing game, and Deshaun Watson were no match for the Ravens defense. The Texans gave up multiple sacks and forced Watson into reckless behavior.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Todd Gurley looks like he's running in Sand—He always has—And it clouds current analysis
Todd Gurley remains a solid, NFL starter talent. He may also be a step or two slower in terms of speed and acceleration—two different things. I'd like to tell you I know this for sure, especially when so many of you think it's a foregone conclusion.
For reasons you see in this column weekly, I prefer to wait and judge with my own eyes. Judging speed and reaction time can be really difficult on the field. And invariably people will believe they know the answer definitively.
After 11 weeks, I think he's slower but I'm not completely sure.
Gurley is a glider in style who always looked slower than he was. The plays I'm linking to are long plays before 2018 where I don't see a massive difference:
Exhibit A, you can see Gurley's long speed come into play. However, it's difficult to compare with a play like below where Gurley never reaches the open field. Remember, initial acceleration and that second gear of long speed are two different traits. Adrian Peterson still has his acceleration.
Exhibit B, He's not blowing past people at the 1:23, 1:30, or 1:41 marks.
Exhibit C is a career highlight package. I don't pay attention to the UGA highlights because there can be a gulf between elite, NFL-caliber athletes and NFL prospects who don't necessarily make a team or even get drafted. The play at 4:17 is deceptive because most of the defense is at the line of scrimmage. The rest require a microscopic eye for detail to compare his play in traffic with what we see below.
Gurley’s initial burst is still good enough. pic.twitter.com/p5rteHPBoI— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
It's tough to figure out. Some of you football geniuses will invariably take a crack at it. I'm leaning towards the idea that Gurley is slower but not 100 percent convinced.
In the end, I know that the Rams did an excellent job of switching to a gap scheme and man blocking to tailor this offensive line to a pair of rookie replacements on the right side. A lackluster game for the fantasy community, the Rams earned 75 yards on Gurley's first-half carries and the line deserves a lot of credit.
Nice push by the right side of the Rams line pic.twitter.com/sDTL5nSchw— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Gurley is a versatile runner who can operate well behind a variety of blocking schemes. However, if there's a scheme-related hint that Gurley is slowing down, we might speculate that gap and man schemes that require its backs to make fewer decisions behind the line of scrimmage and hit the crease downhill are a better fit for a back who may lack the same change-of-direction quickness he once had.
The conundrum with this point of analysis is that most teams employ man and gap for quick-twitch runners with physicality who can hit creases hard and fast, earning acceleration in an instant. There are exceptions where the team uses the scheme for the benefit of the linemen rather than the back.
As good as Gurley still is within the first 10-15 yards of the line—and he is—he has some adjustments to make with the scheme change in order ot maximize plays. Things he hasn't had to do as often in outside zone.
Gurley tried to set this up but his setup is too deep to work around OL’s pull. pic.twitter.com/iVcsmukcGm— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Although the Bears slowed Gurley's output in the second half, Sunday night should prove an encouraging site for those with Gurley on their rosters. Thanks to his vision, power, receiving skills, balance, and the speed and quicks he has (regardless of the debate), Gurley is a high-end RB2 on the border of fantasy RB1 territory in standard formats and the No.15 PPR back.
If you are disappointed with these totals, you didn't value him correctly in August.
2. The Falcons secondary is healthier and so is the rest of the defense
"Atlanta’s defense sacked Kyle Allen during the first three drives, all from the right side of Carolina’s front—and earned four sacks overall in the first half and five for the day. Takk McKinley had two of those three sacks, injuring his shoulder at the end of the first quarter but he returned in the second half. Atlanta’s defense also had four consecutive stops on third-down attempts in as many series and two fourth-down stops during the third quarter, including a great team effort against Christian McCaffrey from the I-formation on a fourth-and-short. Atlanta intercepted Kyle Allen four times—three times inside the Atlanta five and all pressure-induced. Atlanta’s special teams also got into the act when Kenjon Barner returned a punt 78 yards for the first touchdown of the game."
This is part of my weekly recap of the Falcons' defense from this weekend. Altanta is benefiting from a return to health from several starters, including Desmond Trufant, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee. Combine these returns with improving play from rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver, and the Falcons are shaping into a ball-hawking unit that can cover long enough for Atlanta's defensive line to get home.
Atlanta Defense okaying stronf for second straight week. Second INT of half inside Atlanta 5. pic.twitter.com/CBX30IkE5k— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 17, 2019
Atlanta Defense okaying stronf for second straight week. Second INT of half inside Atlanta 5. pic.twitter.com/CBX30IkE5k— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 17, 2019
The Falcons are playing well and healthier in key spots. Although the schedule isn't cake (see below), a healthy Atlanta defense is among the most athletic in the league. Look out, we have our first late-season fantasy spoiler candidate.
3. Matt Ryan overcame his offensive Line against Carolina And Calvin Ridley Fans Are Grateful
Although I'm not a Falcons fan, it admittedly feels good to praise Matt Ryan in this weekly column. The Falcons have experienced a rough season. When you factor the shuffling of the offensive line, a change in scheme, and a midseason trade of Mohamed Sanu, Ryan has dealt with the brunt of it.
Now that the defense is getting healthier and supplying support, Ryan's attempts to carry the offense can have greater impact. This weekend, Ryan made multiple throws under heavy pressure or while buying time that helped the offense hold up its end of the bargain for the team.
Ryan TD to Ridley. pic.twitter.com/nN8NP2cmV4— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 17, 2019
These plays were the difference for the offense despite the Panthers effectively shutting down the Falcons run game. Atlanta doesn't have an easy schedule ahead—Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Carolina, San Francisco, and Jacksonville—but if Atlanta performs close to it did against its first matchups with the Saints and Panthers, Ryan will continue delivering as a low-end-to-mid-range fantasy QB1.
4. How the 49ers Front-Four slowed Down the Mecurial Kyler Murray
I've gradually arrived at the view that quarterbacks need 18-24 months to truly show us who they are. There are players I've written about here and noted issues that others minimized until defenses game-planned accordingly against these once-successful passers and magnified the flaw to a point that no one could deny.
It's why I think it's enough to state that Kyler Murray has had a good rookie year as opposed to proclaiming he's already a star passer in the league. If I had to bet on him making the transition, I would do so. However, I enjoy the luxury to being open-minded and waiting.
One thing about Murray's game that has held up well thus far is his accuracy in the vertical and deep game.
One thing about Murray's game that I long thought was overstated was his mobility. There's no doubt that he has elite acceleration and quickness. Put it to good use within a scheme and he can make a questioanble design look good against an elite defense.
Make opponents consider something different for even a beat, and Murray has the speed to run by you. This keeper with an RPO look does the trick.
Listen, Murray is a good scrambler but when a good defense like the 49ers can pressure him to one side and keep a defensive tackle in front of the quarterback, Murray loses.
Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are excellent athletes who underscore a long-held point I've had about Murray: If you don't think fast and move with added purpose, you will get caught by much bigger men in the NFL than you did consistently in the Big 12.
Here’s another with Erik Armstead cleaning up on Aisle 1 with a sack of Murray pic.twitter.com/dqJ9egrmAO— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
The 49ers sacked Murray four times, pressured him numerous more, and held to 217 total yards. While not an astounding box score for the defense, the play baking it up was the difference on the field.
Opponents will be watching this performance and try to implement the same methods. It would be easy but the Rams, Steelers, Browns, and Seahawks have the personnel to do so.
Don't ditch Kyler Murray at the side of the road. However, don't presume you're set at quarterback if he's your only current option of merit. I'd try to find a backup with a decent schedule just in case opponents make the savvy adjustments.
5. Lamar Jackson's Ball Carriage Is Crazy
Another week, another mature, play-making throw from Lamar Jackson that has me imagining Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Polian responding to told-you-so'ers, "The exception proves the rule."
I don't get on Polian's case about Jackson because you're asking a former NFL employee who built his excellent career on methods that are often credited to him.
He has been the status quo and that expertise is why ESPN or any other network would value him. It's the status quo that most people try to emulate in this industry. Or, they try to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.
I'm accused of it from time to time, but I really try to show you through detailed means (Lamar Jackson's pre-draft NFL Scouting Report) that the contrarian behavior is a by-product of the work and not the design.
One area where Jackson thrills and scares me is his ball security. The way he carries the football walks the line between genius and insanity in every bit as his pocket movement and scrambling.
His quickness and movement are so far beyond anyone else that he gets away with behavior that would be Turnover City for any other quarterback in existence. Enjoy it while it lasts, because I'm betting that as soon as Jackson loses a step, this behavior will have to stop soon after.
6. Broncos vs Vikings: Deep Man Wins
The Broncos took a 20-point lead against the Vikings with some strong offensive play design that put Minnesota's linebackers in a bind. A few weeks ago, I showed how the Vikings excel as coverage players when working downhill toward the receiver.
Up the seam where they have to chase? Advantage opponents.
Denver leveraged this advantage with some strong playcalling early in the game. Phillip Lindsay set up this big play below with productive gain up the middle from a 13 personnel (1 back, 3 tight ends).
Denver follows up with 22 personnel before shifting the fullback (Andy Janovich, who was the third tight end on the play before) to the wing to give another 13 personnel look. Then, Denver motions its one wide receiver across the formation as the Brandon Allen takes the snap.
This motion places the flat defender on notice and forces middle linebacker Eric Kendricks to chase up the seam after he determines the exchange will be play action. Too late for Kendricks, but right on time for Noah Fant.
With a 20-point lead and the defense limiting the Vikings ground game, this looked like the makings of a blowout. After all, the broadcast crew delivered a graphic during the third quarter that explained how teams behind at least 20 points at the half of a regular season game over a recent time span of years are 0-99.
Nothing is insurmontable for Kirk Cousins.
Can you believe I just typed this with a straight face? No...I didn't.
We still have to give Cousins credit for his recent stint of efficient and productive football. Since Week 5, Cousins has been the No.2 fantasy quarterback—only a deep comeback shy of Lamar Jackson.
This is what happens when you have an excellent outside zone runner and a strong screen game because the third element in this equation that works wonders is the play-action boot game. Whereas Denver messed with the Vikings' linebackers, the Vikings went deeper and toyed with the Broncos' defensive backs.
Deep man wins...
Even without Adam Thielen, Cousins posted his third-best outing of the year against an athletic defensive unit that hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer until Sunday. Before Cousins' three scores, the Broncos have limited every quarterback to no more than one touchdown (with the exception of Gardner Minshew in Week 4).
Looking at the remaining schedule, the health of the team, and Cousins' play within the confines of the scheme, I don't believe we'll see a massive letdown from Cousins like we have in the past.
I'm not completely convinced Cousins has turned a corner as a dynasty player, and this season's schedule won't likely pose a bigger test than Sunday, but he's performing well and he's proven a strong buy this year—something I was dead-wrong about after Cousins and his receivers made up with each other.
7. Alvin Kamara: The Norcross Necromancer
Not far from where I grew up in suburban Atlanta (which by the way, has become a term that has been stretched well beyond its original elasticity) is the town of Norcoss, home of Alvin Kamara—a back whose feel for dealing with impending contact is magical. I don't know how else to put it becase there are plays where the only plausible explanation that I have for his movement is that he has ESP and/or other mutant-like behavior.
More of the Norcross Necromancer pic.twitter.com/awzMw14SgA— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
In case you're wondering, no, this is not Kamara's nickname from high school. I didn't even know he grew up near me until he was a draft prospect at Tennessee.
Now that Kamara, Jared Cook, and Drew Brees are healthy at the same time, look for Kamara to deliver 120 total yards and a primary receiver-like targets for the rest of the year. Maybe you can talk a team with Kamara on its roster into a deal (if your trade deadlines aren't up) and play up the matchup with the 49ers.
As good as the Niners defensive unit is, I'll bet on Kamara with a healthy supporting cast.
8. The State of Dallas Goedert's GAme: Emerging But There's Ceiling to Bust through
Dallas Goedert and Mike Gesicki were considered the top two prospects at tight end for the 2018 NFL Draft. Gesicki was the NFL Combine Wonder Child who wins the ball above the rim but lacks great functional balance againt phyiscal play when his feet are on the ground. Goedert didn't play at a marquee program and there were concerns about his blocking.
Now 18 months into the careers of these two, Gesicki has produced in a limited capacity befitting his strengths but he hasn't overcome his weaknesses. Goedert looks like emerging starter.
Unlike Gesicki, Goedert is a light-footed athlete with good flexility in the hips to make quick changes of direction.
Unlike many young options at the position with athletic prowess who shrink from physical play—think Julius Thomas, who the Seahawks made the linchpin of its defensive game plan to foil the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl—Goedert almost thrives on it.
Goedert stays on schedule through contact at two points of the play. TD pic.twitter.com/p81IihIAuz— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Pivotal catch for Goedert, who executes a good break on this route. pic.twitter.com/K1R5pP7xBm— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
A ceiling remains on Goedert's game despite earning regular playing time as a contributor in the starting lineup alongside Pro Bowl option Zach Ertz. That limitation is Goedert's technique at the catch-point when he must extend his arms or face tight, physical play.
Another attempt to clap-catch by Goedert pic.twitter.com/iYIU6hrj0o— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
These drops don't kill is viability as a future starter and there's no dout that Wentz will be returning to Goedert as a target without hesitation as the season continues. However, if Goedert wishes to emerge from Ertz's shadow and become an elite force at the position, he must become more technically sound at the catch point.
He's close enough that I wouldn't hesitate to invest in Goedert long-term.
9. Perennially Underestimated: Mark Ingram II
Look out for Justice Hill. You heard the whispers or asides this summer whenever anyone broached the Ravens ground game. It's understandable, Hill is swift, quick, and catches the ball. At first blush, he's the next Alvin Kamara.
Wait, you didn't say that? They didn't say that, either? I bet many implied it because high-metric wonders seduce fantasy players—especially younger players where there's a lot fewer people who know much about them.
- Sean Payton's offense made Ingram productive.
- Alvin Kamara made life easier on Ingram.
- Ingram is older for a potential feature back.
- Ingram didn't have a 1,000-yard season until the sixth year of his NFL career.
We could go on about all the things Ingram hasn't done right according to the fantasy football resume points compiled against him his summer. What we missed is the film that consistently revealed a runner with strong decision-making between the tackles, power and balance, quickness and lateral agility, and underrated pass receiving skills that appeared non-existent during his first four years in the league.
Ingram is a notch below the great backs, but he's allowed a guest pass into the gated neighborhood and the guards will sometimes let Ingram through without calling the player he's visiting. This reception and run is an excellent display of balance and footwork that will frequently work as said guest pass.
Despite ceding some time to Gus Edwards and Hill and the touches Lamar Jackson earns as a runner, Ingram's 136-667-8 rushing totals through 10 games is ahead of what he did in 12 with the Saints last year. He's also four catches, eight yards, and a touchdown behind his 2018 totals as a receiver.
Yes, Jackson's presence in this offense tailored to maximize the dynamic quarterback's legs makes life easier for any running back paired with Jackson. It doesn't detract from the argument that Ingram has been a productive NFL back for the past six years and shows no signs of slowing down this month or next.
10. FRESH FISH: Week 10
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," I provide my weekly shortlist of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Special of the Week: Cardinals defense against tight ends
An ESPN baseball analyst in the area of analytics broached the idea several weeks ago that we shouldn't tell the public that Arizona's defense is a haven for fantasy tight end play. After all, if the Cardinals continue to stink against tight ends then we should presume that Arizona will bench or cut the offending players and make necessary adjustments. We should give more credence to principles behind Regression to the Mean.
Baseball analytics work because the ball is round and there's very little dynamic movement of players on the field all at once. It's a simple but powerful point about the predictability of data in that sport. Football analytics can generate powerful tools—but like most entities in their infancy, they tend to overstep their bounds as they learn about the environment around them.
I respect Adam Harstad's work on Regression. I'm not sure about the baseball guy who, if I'm correct about what continue seeing from the Cardina's against tight ends, might as well be talking about the retrograde of planets in an astrological chart—and I dig the details and mythical archetypes behind that process.
Looking at the tight end data, the Cardinals defense remains the most generous defensive unit against tight ends in fantasy football. They hold a 43.5-point lead on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 159.1 fantasy points scored to Tampa's 115.6 We're talking about 2.9 points per game more for Arizona.
However, did cutting of D.J. Swearinger Sr help? Yes, if you look at the values without any context beyond each team's top-scoring tight end:
- Week 1: T.J. Hockenson -19.1 points.
- Week 2: Mark Andrews - 17.2 points.
- Week 3: Greg Olsen - 19.5 points.
- Week 4: Will Dissly - 11.7 points.
- Week 5: C.J. Uzomah - 1.6 points.
- Week 6: Austin Hooper - 17.7 points.
- Week 7: Rhett Ellison - 9.3 points.
- Week 8: Josh Hill - 3.9 points.
- Week 9: George Kittle - 13.9 points.
- Week 10: O.J. Howard - 10.7 points.
- Week 11: Ross Dwelley - 13.4 points.
If you examine the context of quality receivers who can work downfield and are hired for their receiving skill, Uzomah doesn't qualify as a true move tight end. Josh Hill does but he played with Teddy Bridgewater rather than Drew Brees. Considering that Howard is seldom-used this year and he had his best day, it's a statement that teams with competent pass-catching tight ends and starting quarterbacks exploited the Cardinals.
Reddick’s Mercury must be square his Saturn on this TD to Dwelley.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Nice design by 49ers to hold Reddick with the mesh pic.twitter.com/7dXVXLNdCo
I think the square between Reddick’s Mars and Jupiter plus this month’s opposition between Pluto and Uranus prevented this retrograde—regression to the mean with TE play pic.twitter.com/rQ6IQU5aod— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Good thing Venus was trine to the Sun or this TD to Dwelley might have counted... pic.twitter.com/Esd4YVwNnH— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 18, 2019
Although the points per game is lower after Week 4, there are nearly twice as many games played and just as many double-digit outcomes during this later span. Based on the old eye test, don't let the forecasts for a retrograde scare you off. Unless Saturn goes direct and conjuncts Neptune, I think you can count on quality fantasy performances from tight ends facing Arizona.
We should Special teams can kill seasons. Let's move onto additional specimens from the fish market:
- Houston's offensive line, Deshaun Watson, and Bill O'Brien: The Ravens secondary is healthier, fortified, and gelling. The Ravens also blitz a lot and that confused the Texans' coaching staff, offensive line, and Watson. Baltimore sacked Watson seven times, intercepted him once, and recovered a fumble, routing Houston in the process. New England, Denver, and Tampa are on all teams on the schedule that can pressure the quarterback.
- Kyle Allen: Three interceptions at the end of drives where the passes targeted receivers inside the Atlanta five-yard line. This game wasn't solely on Allen, but he did a lot of self-inflicted damage.
- Carolina's offensive line: The other party responsible for Carolina's rough outing was the left side of the Panthers' line that allowed three sacks that ended three consecutive drives to begin the game.
Thanks again for all of your feedback with this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.