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 an unsustainable process.
A good example is the recent James Conner-Benny Snell analysis. The pervading thought after last Monday night was that Snell outplayed James Conner. While Snell earned more playing time, played well, and out-produced Conner, the film didn't support the conclusion that Conner played poorly as much as his offensive line got off to a slow start and he suffered a minor ankle injury that concerned the team.
Snell may earn another opportunity to take the job from Conner as the season progresses but against the Broncos and Texans defenses, Conner did enough to keep his role as the feature back and the non-film narratives did not come to fruition. Based on the process of studying what makes a running back productive, Conner did nothing to lose his role to Snell.
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). Still, this work may help you make wiser decisions that will help your team in the long run.
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 9'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Tua Tagovailoa's second start revealed a decisive, aggressive, and athletic quarterback willing to walk the tightrope for positive plays. This may bite him as the season unfolds, but his aggression is a long-term positive when properly harnessed.
- The Steelers are countering the defensive adjustments made against Chase Claypool but it's not eliciting chunk plays and means Claypool's fantasy outlook declines to that of a second or third option in the passing offense for the rest of the season.
- Contrary to flat-earther-like thinking, Antonio Brown's on-field presence didn't hurt the Buccaneers offense on Sunday night, the Saints defensive line shut down tom Brady early.
- Kyler Murray had a good game against an aggressive Miami Dolphins defense that confused and rattled Jared Goff, but it was the Arizona Cardinals offensive line that deserves a ton of the credit for keeping the team in this competitive contest and why the offense is poised for consistent fantasy production down the stretch.
- Deshaun Watson is a good example of well-harnessed aggression where Tagaovailoa shows promise. In contrast, rookie Jake Luton's efforts were a mixed bag, and he's unlikely the long-term answer for Jacksonville's quarterback woes.
- Drew Lock could be the answer for the Broncos' quarterback question but he must develop a better understanding of who he is and who he's not as a pro player. Right now, Lock drifts beyond that boundary with behaviors that the high school and college game let him get away with.
- Unless you thought Jerry Jeudy was the next Antonio Brown as an on-field producer, there's no need to be concerned with his rookie season. He's also much more like Reggie Wayne than Brown, which should change your long-term fantasy expectation if you bought into the scintillating pre-draft comparison to Brown.
- Olamide Zaccheaus is the best reserve receiver on the Falcons but his role as a perimeter player limits his upside in Atlanta.
- Great footwork is efficient coverage of space that creates the illusion of downfield movement while covering the least amount of field. It's the common denominator for great skill player performances. This week, I share footwork from Dalvin Cook, Mike Thomas, Adam Trautman, and Emmanuel Sanders that fits this description.
- This week's Fresh Fish: Seattle's secondary. Although the defense sacked Josh Allen eight times, the pressure wasn't enough early on and Allen riddled the unit for 400 yards 3 touchdowns.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Tua Tagovailoa is walking the tightrope
After a sub-par fantasy debut in Week 8, thanks to a Miami defense that shut down the L.A. Rams' offense and allowed the Dolphins to play conservative offensive football, Tua Tagovailoa showed his promise in Arizona on Sunday. Miami's rookie quarterback went 20-for-28 for 248 passing yards and a pair of scores and added another 35 yards on the ground.
One of Tagovailoa's most impressive qualities was his decisiveness as a thrower.
As is the case with most strengths, Tagovailoa leans on his to the point that he walks the tightrope spanning the gulf between aggressive and reckless play. Some of his throws on Sunday were within inches of bad outcomes.
These are throws that will likely come to bite Tagovailoa as the season progresses. Just because he got away with some plays that could have gone either way, it doesn't mean that Tagovailoa's long-term future is overrated.
His pocket management can be chaotic at times, but he has a feel for baiting pressure and finding solutions in ways that the best improvisational players often do. Tagovailoa displayed these skills repeatedly at Alabama and this week's performance against an athletic Cardinals defense was no different.
Because of his aggression and pocket management, Tagovailoa should continue a top-15 fantasy pace as the year progresses. Another reason is Chan Gailey's offense. The veteran offensive coordinator has always been good at molding scheme to his players and he's doing the same with Tagavailoa, creating plays that leverage the rookie's mobility with play-action and faux-screen looks.
These plays give the illusion of multiple reads when their often slow-developing plays with one primary option.
The Chargers, Broncos, Jets, Bengals, Chiefs, Patriots, and Raiders are all vulnerable defenses and the final seven units on Miami's schedule that qualify as matchups for most fantasy leagues. As good as Joe Burrow is, it wouldn't be a surprise if Tagovailoa matches or exceeds Burrow's stretch-run output.
2. The Steelers are countering the defensive adjustments to Chase Claypool, but his WR1 year is over
For the past two weeks, I've been writing about Steelers opponents game-planning against rookie Chase Claypool and predicting that JuJu Smith-Schuster would return to being the most reliable fantasy option in the Pittsburgh passing game. After the Titans' game, it was clear that opponents would make Claypool the first priority with zone coverage, with safety alignments, and with more physical play--even to the point of interfering with Claypool's path to the ball if necessary.
So far, this analysis has been true. The step fantasy GMs of Claypool are anticipating is how Pittsburgh would counter these adjustments when it directly relates to Claypool's targets.
After the Titans and Ravens limited Claypool, the Steelers made some changes against Dallas. While Claypool still earned vertical targets in all three games, the Cowboys limited the receiver—even interfering with him twice and getting away with it.
Claypool will still give fantasy GMs a shot at a big play every week, but the commitment to play physical football to the point of pass interference reduces Claypool's shot of chunk-play success. Without the benefit of a blown coverage, Claypool's vertical game is a much smaller factor for the next seven weeks compared to the first six.
The good news for Claypool's fantasy GMs is Pittsburgh creating opportunities to match the rookie with linebackers and safeties in zone coverage in the shallow zones and hope he can create after the catch for bigger gains.
Using Claypool on quick-hitting slants, crossers, and outs should pad his target numbers and give him a higher floor than the past two weeks. It may also lead to double moves off these quick-hitters that involve play-action to set up wide-open vertical routes to Claypool that are in less danger of physical play.
These plays will be less frequent than then 3-4 vertical shots a week, but could boost Claypool's prospects, albeit in an unpredictable manner. If you didn't sell high on Claypool, this will at least solidify his rest-of-the-season value to a third option or a flex-play as a fourth.
3. Antonio Brown didn't kill the Buccaneers offense, the Saints defensive line is the murderer
I don't know if Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans or football media are accusing Brown's addition as a factor in torpedoing the offense, but I can imagine it. In case you didn't watch the game, I can assure you Brown had nothing to do with the murder of Tampa Bay's offense on Sunday night. However, the Saints defensive line is the primary suspect with the murder weapon on hand when apprehended at the scene of the crime.
When a defense can get pressure up the middle on Tom Brady early and bring additional points of pressure to box him in the pocket but force him to move off his spot or hurry his throws, Brady can't overcome it. Few quarterbacks can.
And because it happens to Brady so rarely, he's prone to trying to get the ball off under extreme pressure, which leads to bad throws that are at risk of interception—even when he's trying to get rid of the ball.
This game was an anomaly for the Buccaneers offense. Although Brown caused one of Brady's interceptions with a route that he cut off and Brady still threw it, the Buccaneers were already trailing 31-0.
Expect Brown and Brady to acclimate fast and the line to play better.
4. The Cardinals' offensive line deserves credit for Kyler Murray's fantasy rise
Kyler Murray has taken over the spot as the top fantasy quarterback after delivering a 389-yard, 4-touchdown performance, including 106 rushing yards, against the Dolphins. Considering how thoroughly the Miami defense trolled Jared Goff the week before, this was not an easy matchup for Murray, who completed all but five passes against the Dolphins despite their aggressive blitz tactics that led to a strip-sack and touchdown early on.
#FinsUp Disruption in defense again this week. Love how the two defenders who drop rush forward first and force #Cardinals OL to commit early to look that isn’t the reality.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
Ogbah strip sack, Lawson TD pic.twitter.com/du6UtUlfKL
However, Murray's arm and legs kept Arizona in this game to the very end. Although Murray's running was a significant factor, some of his biggest rushing gains of the day were designed plays.
The real story behind Murray's fantasy production isn't Murray's maturation as a player, but the performance of the Cardinals' offensive line. This unit quelled the Dolphins pressure with assignment-sound protection that afforded Murray time to make big plays.
Arizona's ground game may be pedestrian without Murray, but this passing game has a favorable schedule against teams that have trouble getting pressure and/or covering the back-end. Miami's blitz-happy unit that effectively blanketed DeAndre Hopkins for much of the game was Arizona's biggest test and the offense passed—and passed well.
5. Deshaun Watson and Jake Luton: Why decisiveness is vital for quarterbacking
Jake Luton's 300-yard day looks good on the box score. Jake Luton's 300-yard day against a Texans defense that has massive holes with its coverage schemes week in and week out, looks pedestrian in reality.
The lone positive with Luton in the lineup is that (most of the time) he was accurate enough when finding D.J. Chark Jr wide-open, which Chark often was.
Tough play, but Luton misses wide-open DJ Chark on scramble drill pic.twitter.com/xx2dvARl2j— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2020
Tough play, but Luton misses wide-open DJ Chark on scramble drill pic.twitter.com/xx2dvARl2j— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2020
Although Houston's porous defense enhanced Chark's fantasy performance, Luton and Chark should thrive enough for Chark to at least serve as a match-up starter from the likes of the Packers, Browns, and Vikings in Weeks 10, 12, and 13.
For Luton to elevate the potential of his passing game, he must become more decisive with his aggressive play. In fact, he should borrow a page from Deshaun Watson's behavior with a similar coverage look during this game.
This play is one of the significant differences between inconsistent starters and elite starters. It comes down to trusting what you see and placing the ball where teammates can make plays.
6. Drew Lock's fatal error against Atlanta and why it is the linchpin to his development trajectory
Drew Lock was the hero in Week 8 and the goat in Week 9. That's the simplistic way of looking at it.
A more nuanced version? Lock managed the game well during his final drive against the Chargers and didn't make egregious errors to cost them the game. Against Atlanta, Lock committed a fatal error at an untimely moment during the game that cost Denver.
In fact, add one more interception to this graphic that begins the play below.
This doesn't make Lock a bad quarterback. However, it's a sober reminder to Broncos fans and fantasy GMs of Lock that too much was made of his final drive against the Chargers last week and he has only played 11 games in the NFL.
He's essentially a rookie with a partial offseason. As such, defenses are going to adjust to what he does well and figure out ways to bait him into things he doesn't. For Lock to develop into the player he's capable, he must come to grips with who is he is and who he isn't.
Right now, he's a light-switch player who turns his technical and conceptual smarts on and off rather than a thermostat player whose preparation and methods are grounded in consistency.
A talented thrower who dazzled in high school and against lesser college opponents, Lock's coaches may have preached good fundamentals to Lock, but it is clear from Lock's play that they let him get away with his lazy footwork and arm talent.
Against lesser opposition, Lock succeeded or, at least didn't fail, and fans and media compared him to Patrick Mahomes II (yeah, they went there). Once Lock faced top competition and tried to be more disciplined with his feet and decisions, he couldn't play this style at a high level because it wasn't an embedded part of his game. And when he leaned on these bad habits he also struggled.
Since no one benched him for this behavior, Lock thinks this ability is an essential part of his game. It's not. In fact, it's most often an anchor that's weighing down his game rather than buoying it.
If he figures this out and finds the very small area of his play where he can use these skills, he can become a good NFL starter. Otherwise? it could drown his career. It's early enough that his maturation is possible.
7. Jerry Jeudy is not the next Antonio Brown but perhaps, the next Reggie Wayne
This has been an uncharacteristic part of Jeudy's game. It's likely due to overthinking as a rookie as the game flows a little slower for young options.
This was a critical drop that ended Denver's hopes in the fourth quarter on a difficult but convertable target.
Still, Jeudy did a lot right this week and it was beyond his usual array of crossing routes that have been the majority of his targets in 2020. Jeudy's route savvy showed up twice in ways that baited the Atlanta secondary for big plays.
This type of throw is in Drew Lock’s wheelhouse.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
Note how Jerry Jeudy baits Sheffield into thinking back shoulder or an early break with his turn to the ball early and then accelerates past the CB who bites. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/2r3tUCePn2
Jeudy is not the next Antonio Brown. He has long speed, but he's not sudden with his initial acceleration like Brown. He has some of Browns' sudden stop-start movement but without the acceleration, Jeudy relies more on tactics that create long runways to build up speed or force opponents to stop their feet (see above).
He's a zone player who can win against man-to-man but not as the consistent primary guy in any scheme. Think of him as an aspiring Reggie Wayne who needs an excellent teammate to deliver strong production.
Right now, Tim Patrick has performed well enough that Jeudy can be that guy against defenses like Atlanta. However, Patrick (and Lock) limits Jeudy to a match-up starter for the rest of this year. As fantasy's WR36 heading into Monday night, the play on the field matches the data.
8. Olamide Zaccheaus is the best reserve receiver in Atlanta and it will stay that way, for now
I thought Olamide Zaccheaus would earn a shot as Atlanta's slot receiver. He was a scatback with slot experience at Virginia before he went undrafted due to his inexperience as a complete wide receiver and high drop rate.
He's also making the tough catches over the middle. This is the second of its kind from Zaccheaus since the Packers game.
Unfortunately, for Zaccheaus's fantasy prospects, Atlanta views him as strictly a perimeter option and use Justin Gage in the slot. It's too bad Atlanta doesn't move Jones to the slot more often and leverage his fantastic route work and skills after the catch, while using Zaccheaus to stretch safeties.
It would be even better to see what Zaccheaus' can do as a slot man. It's possible that they already have and moved him outside. However, based on the fact Zaccheaus was a UDFA, he probably got the one-size-fits-all work as a seldomed-considered option last year and worked his way into greater attention as a perimeter guy.
If Atlanta figures out Zaccheaus' versatility could be a greater asset, look out for his fantasy value as well as Matt Ryan's prospects.
9. Scouting Lesson on Footwork: Dalvin Cook, Mike Thomas, Adam Trautman, and Emmanuel Sanders
My wheelhouse is scouting football talent. It's what I've been doing for the past 16 years with my annual publication, the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, which has become an established part of the dynasty league community.
It's also one of the 2-3 most purchased independent publications among NFL scouts, according to college football recruiting coordinators and directors that I have met in recent years.
I'm often asked what sets players apart at their position. Refined technique and the conceptual and intuitive understanding of how to apply it is my stock answer. It sums up a lot in a quick way. Understandably, quick summations are vague unless you're going to give a highly specific answer and those answer risk getting perceived as if you're offering a magic pill.
There are no magic pills, bullets, or beans unless you're in comics, horror movies, or fairy tales.
There is excellent footwork and for offensive skill players, excellent footwork is one of the common factors that separate productive professionals from top athletes with inconsistent production. Earlier this year, I posted a video about Allen Robinson's footwork, illustrating how he gives the illusion of covering more ground than he really is as a way to setup opponents trying to tackle him or press him at the line of scrimmage.
This weekend, I noticed a variety of top players (including a rookie with a lot of promise) exhibiting footwork in this fashion as ball carriers, and route runners. Dalvin Cook is one of them. And, I believe I've shared this in the past but when a back earns a 200-yard day and I'm repeatedly asked why he's so good, I can give the same answer repeatedly...
Dalvin Cook: Teaching tape for transitioning downhill from a sideline path—especially for athletes lacking great lateral skill.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
His legs moving like pistons throughout this C.O.D. that only a few backs perform this way.
Elliott does this sometimes but Cook leans on it well. pic.twitter.com/X8otLwNvOy
I love how Cook can transition downhill and keep his feet moving throughout the process while maintaining a balanced position. Few backs possess this skill and at first glance, you may not reven realize that he was moving his feet the entire time in such an incremental fashion.
Saints receiver Mike Thomas finally returned to the field after his injury-related absence and immediately flashed why he's so dangerous as a short- and intermediate-range route runner.
What Mike Thomas’s break and Allen Robinson’s release footwork have in common: hyper efficiency.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
Thomas’s line step actually being set up before his break step.
He’s an illusionist with how he runs routes. #Saints pic.twitter.com/QpyPcVlozK
I can't remember a receiver who sets up breaks like Thomas. It's easy to miss that, in a sense, he's taking his steps in reverse order of break, drive, and line steps.
Thomas and Cook both create the illusion of downfield movement when they're actually creating separation by covering less distance towards the opponent than it appears. Rookie tight end Adam Trautman also creates this illusion on this touchdown off a double move against Pro-Bowl-caliber linebacker Devin White.
More footwork illusions, this time by #Saints rookie TE Adam Trautman with the double move on Devin White.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
Note the inside foot and how he uses it to set up second move. Illusion of coveting more distance than he really is. That’s the ðŸ”‘ pic.twitter.com/xhsxxesz9r
I'm a fan of Trautman's long-term promise and if he's approaching the rest of his development like this route, he's going to become a Pro Bowl tight end in this league.
Although these are the savviest displays of footwork I saw this weekend, Emmanuel Sander's break on this whip route might be the most impressive, physically.
Well, let’s go for the #Saints trifecta: Emmanuel Sanders’ break is not as slick as the first two, but technically the most demanding by far.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 9, 2020
Imagine running into a full lunge and the moving quickly through that lunge without falling...you don’t have to, because he shows us. pic.twitter.com/m5adSekZlk
If you want to get better at identifying promising players, learning about route releases, route breaks, and executing gap and zone runs is the starting point. Once you know the basics of how these processes work, identifying the type of footwork associated with them is next. As you can see, there's room for creativity within these processes—as long as that creativity generates efficient separation.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 9
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for the weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd loving nothing more than our players to 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: Seattle's secondary.
Josh Allen got sacked eight times at home thanks to the offensive line missing its starting guards for most of the game. Allen still managed over 400 yards and 4 touchdowns because Seattle had massive gaps with its zone coverage and its wounded corners can't hold up in man-to-man.
We saw Houston's defense give up a 73-yard score to D.J. Chark Jr earlier in this column. The Texans are a weekly special among the fresh fish in this segment. Jacksonville was not to be outdone.
Jaguars defense does its best not to be outdone by Houston’s defense pic.twitter.com/mXQVdPfsTs— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2020
Here are a few others making the list this week:
- Matthew Stafford: After completing over a dozen passes in a row, Stafford had consecutive second-half drives that ended with interceptions, including a pick in the end-zone. Minnesota poured it on Detroit and Stafford got knocked out of the game with a head injury.
- Russell Wilson: The Seahawks' quarterback had some wow moments but the Bills strip-sacked him twice and Wilson threw a pair of interceptions, including one in the end zone.
- Andy Isabella: A fleet-footed receiver known for his quickness and speed as well as him making way too many moves for his own good, Isabella had a certain third-down converted during the second half when he caught the ball two steps from the marker with his back from the marker. All he had to do was lean across. He ran away from the sticks and it forced him to attempt moves on a pair of defenders. He failed and Arizona had to punt. Later, he fumbled away a kick return.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.