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 11'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Taysom Hill had a promising debut as the Saints quarterback, can he remain a fantasy value? Absolutely.
- The Colts offensive line committed 9 holding penalties in this game. At least half of them were during good runs by Jonathan Taylor, whose value should rebound down the stretch.
- CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson are both excellent candidates for offensive rookie of the year and their superior ball-tracking is a common element of their games.
- After watching Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt run through the Eagles in Cleveland, it's obvious this duo was holding an unofficial Jim Brown Day. Expect a "Jim Brown tour" through December.
- Derrick Henry delivering the game-winning blow with a small move that's the foundation of his successful running style.
- Baltimore is not Lamar Jackson's savior. If anything, it's Jackson saving the Ravens despite opponents figuring out how to limit the scheme.
- A.J. Brown's YAC skills make him unbenchable and poised for a huge stretch run.
- Bud Dupree's tackle of James Robinson in the backfield was athletic artistry steeped in seamless technique.
- Doug Marrone's story about Robinson is proof that draft capital bias is real.
- Fresh Fish:
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Taysom Hill's Debut
Hill earned his first NFL start at quarterback and delivered an 18-for-23 passing day that included 284 yards from scrimmage and a pair of rushing touchdowns. The Saints did a good of melding its scheme with Hill's talents, and it's clear that Hill has the passing talent to work with even if we're weeks away from seeing enough to determine how good he is.
The Saints created a gameplan that is similar to what the Browns like to do with Baker Mayfield, but with a quarterback who is a superior athlete that can actually threaten opposing defenses as a big-play runner. Hill needed to acclimate to the speed of the game early.
Once Hill got the feel for the pace, he executed the Saints' plan to give him a quick-hitting read on one side of the field and a slower-developing route to the opposite, facilitating a natural timing for a "two reads and run" strategy. Running wasn't necessarily breaking the pocket, but at least creating outside of it.
More m2m with Hill in gm. Opponents are not dropping into zone and taking away deeper targets pic.twitter.com/qSTzwfHFBq— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Hill had success on designed run plays, but he also had to figure out how to use his running skill within the context of playing quarterback and improvising when the play broke down.
Mongo big...— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Mongo go far...
Hill showed promise from the pocket, stepping into throws that would make Jimmy Garoppolo feint.
Beer pressure— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Throwing kegs? https://t.co/to6Qz4a6Xe
Atlanta's defense also encouraged Hill to attack downfield, playing a lot more man-to-man.
More m2m with Hill in gm. Opponents are not dropping into zone and taking away deeper targets pic.twitter.com/qSTzwfHFBq— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Expect the Broncos to play more man-to-man and dare Hill to beat them deep. And because we'll see more man-to-man, expect Hill to have room to break the pocket for big gains as a runner. The rematch with Atlanta could feature more zone and blitz and coverage wrinkles in an attempt to confuse Hill in Week 13. With a fantasy playoff schedule of Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Minnesota, Hill has rest-of-the-season fantasy value.
2. The Colts Offensive Line Robbed Jonathan Taylor
The rookie running back started strong in September and petered out for the past 6-8 weeks, raising questions about his efficacy as a long-term fantasy starter. The neurosis crossed the border into hysteria when the Jonathan Taylor-Trent Richardson comparisons surfaced in late October.
Taylor has been overthinking things. He tried to make one too many moves, he attempted moves without getting his feet under his frame to maintain his balance, and he had isolated carries where he temporarily forgot what was the basis of his game and what was veering away from the wheelhouse of his strengths as a power runner with straight-line speed and dynamic, one-cut ability.
Taylor didn't look like a star against Green Bay but his 26-touch, 114-yard afternoon could have been closer to 30 touches, 190 total yards, and a touchdown if not for the Colts' offensive line that earned 9 holding calls. Even if Taylor wasn't productive afternoon wasn't star-caliber work based on the film, he appeared more efficient and ran with strength all day.
Nyheim Hines cast as Danny Woodhead is here to stay in 2020, but Taylor still has the upside for 30 touches in this offense in any given week. With weeks ahead that feature favorable matchups with the Texans (twice), the Raiders, and Tennessee, Taylor could be a good buy-low (if you don't have trade deadlines in your leagues) from fantasy GMs think the Packers' game was a fluke.
If you have Taylor, it's time to start him ahead of the week-to-week desperation plays and waiver-wire Cinderella options you've been using in his stead.
3. Ball-Tracking: What Separates CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson from the Pack
CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson have a healthy list of skills and athletic traits that contribute to their rookie success. Both put on a show this weekend as route runners and showed off their speed and quickness in a face-off between their two teams.
A trait that sets Lamb and Jefferson apart from their esteemed peers of the 2020 rookie receiver class, it's their ability to track the ball with their back to the quarterback. This is a seldom discussed skill that's easy to test but often overlooked.
Several years ago at the Senior Bowl, there was a lot of buzz surrounding Sammie Coates Jr. The big, strong, and swift Auburn receiver ultimately became a Pittsburgh Steeler, and because the Steelers were known for its successful track record with drafting receivers, the excitement built around Coates.
Before that happened, I remember a long-time scout texting me from the other side of Ladd Peeple's Stadium telling me about the demand for Coates' time in team meetings after practices and that his hot stock would surely cool fast if a coach bothered to put Coates through drills where he had to track the ball with his back to the pass. He said, even a compact drill where they positioned Coates in a static spot and tossed the ball over his head would do the trick.
It took a few years and several costly drops longer for Pittsburgh to realize what it could have learned in five minutes with a drill most teams overlooked.
Lamb and Jefferson would have aced this drill.
Your scouting lesson for the day: Before you revel in the athletic potential of a prospect and get emotionally invested in him as a fantasy option, watch his tape and determine if he can track the ball directly over his head or over his shoulder while running away from the quarterback. If he consistently loses track of the ball or only wins vertical routes when he faces the target, there's a strong likelihood he'll have problems catching in the NFL.
Another fascinating lesson that many NFL teams still haven't consistently learned is the value of watching 2-3 years of college tape. This weekend's broadcast crew for the Vikings-Cowboys game relayed how the Vikings staff regarded Jefferson as purely a slot player based on the film they watched and they were surprised how good he was for the split end role (X), which is reserved for the speedster who can track the football.
Vikings scouts may have watched more than 1-2 years of LSU tape but the coaching staff obviously didn't. If they had, they would have known Jefferson could separate and track the ball as a perimeter receiver and do so at a high level. His well-rounded game was apparent even on YouTube cutups.
As long as these two get competent quarterback play, they are match-up proof for the rest of the year.
4. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt Are Kicking off the "Jim Brown Tribute Tour"
Cleveland's dynamic duo is on track for a combined 2,000 yards and 1,000 yards rushing as individuals. As a kid who grew up hearing about the exploits of Jim Brown and then watching countless highlight films and buying books with glossy action photos of Brown's Herculean feats of ball-carrying, I'm telling you that on Sunday, you could have slapped the No.32 over the jersey's of No.24 (Chubb) and No.27 (Hunt) and moments of their play would have looked remarkably similar.
Chubb's stiff-arm on this long run that ear-holes the linebacker wrapped around the runner is one of the best feats of power and leverage this year.
And I have a picture of Brown hurdling an opponent near the red zone that catches Brown in a similar position as we see Hunt hold mid-flight later in the same drive as Chubb's run.
In terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs, this is a favorable schedule that includes Jacksonville (7th), Tennessee (5th), Baltimore (22nd), the Giants (8th), and Jets (14th) are all vulnerable, even if the Ravens and Jets are statistically better than they are due to some favorable matchups that inflate their figures.
Start'em if you got 'em, the Jim Brown Tribute Tour kicked off in Cleveland is going nationwide.
5. Derrick Henry Illustrates the Value of "High Knees" And "Heels to Butt"
It still tickles me that there was much ado about Derrick Henery's footwork during his first weeks of rookie camp. It was a fun topic for my acquaintance, and former NFL running back, Chad Spann to dispel on my site.
Since then, Henry has steadily grown into an elite producer at the position. This weekend against a Ravens run defense that's statistically impressive, Henry delivered a 100-yard rushing performance and a game-winning play in overtime.
Both plays have something in common: Henry's gait incorporates high knees to keep his feet above the trash of reaches by defenders on the ground as well as kicking his heels to his backside so his feet remain high during the back-swing of his running motion.
Remember, Sigmund and Cecil, expressing concern about Henry's stretch-run viability this year? After watching this game and looking at the schedule of Indianapolis, Cleveland. Jacksonville, Detroit, and Green Bay, I don't remember that at all. I don't think it ever happened.
6. The Public Has a Savior Complex with Lamar Jackson
Since arriving at Louisville, Lamar Jackson's career has been viewed from the lens of a mass savior complex. A high school quarterback from the state of Florida who ran an option-heavy offense with few, if any. major college passing concepts, read an article about Jackson's Louisville career, and it sounds like Bobby Petrino was the benefactor who gave Jackson a chance to be a college quarterback and Jackson was lucky he got to play the position at the Division I level because it's likely where it would end.
Forget that Jackson ran Petrino's offense with the same NFL concepts and underpinnings that earned Petrino a sterling reputation as an offensive mind in the pro game. And forget that Jackson spent every morning using VR goggles to work through the offense from pre-snap to throw.
The NFL did. Listen to some tell it, and the Ravens taking Jackson was like a charitable offering. Jackson would need a system fitted to his style of play. Baltimore was a good fit because it already had Robert Griffin III and Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman was "responsible" for Colin Kaepernick's rise with his offense.
Jackson was a better quarterback than Griffin and Kaepernick when comparing them as prospects entering the NFL. While true that Jackson has a velocity and accuracy flaw outside the numbers that the other two didn't have, his pocket presence, improvisational skill as a thrower, and running ability are all vastly superior.
However, you hear the reactions to Jackson's fall from elite fantasy production and you'd think that the imposter has been found out: Baltimore made Jackson good for a time but now that real football is catching up, Jackson is just an athlete with throwing skills too limited for the league.
Deshaun Watson has similar limitations as a thrower and we're not having this conversation because the offense encouraged more throwing. Most quarterbacks need three full seasons to grow into the players that they'll become for the rest of their careers. Jackson has enough games for about two full seasons.
It takes this long because opponents have to go through the cycle of collecting film and data and formulating gameplans against quarterbacks that match their personnel's strengths. They collect in cycles of 4-6 weeks and the data and film will provide indicators but not always clear-cut, prescriptive info.
It means that opposing defenses have to pick their spots when formulating how to attack the player. Those gameplans become more similar as time unfolds. Right now, teams have learned that Jackson's accuracy and velocity are limited in specific situations and he'll need another year or two of development away from the field to determine if he can become competent in these areas.
You’re going to hear about defenses catching up to the #Ravens. They have. But this is and always was going to be a potential part of the process.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
It’s the second full season with QB and scheme. The onus is now in QB and staff to grow and the offseason will be the bulk of it. pic.twitter.com/snQBLa48oa
Still, Jackson has kept the Ravens in every game to the wire with the exception of the 34-20 loss against the Chiefs. And Jackson displays the downfield accuracy and smarts that neither Griffin nor Kaepernick ever showed at the top of their games.
You’re going to hear about how #RavensFlock coaches and organization were essentially the great savior of Lamar Jackson’s gm and now they’ve been figured out and it’s sad for Jackson.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Jackson is a smarter, better QB than those proponents of savior behavior assume.
If anything, Jackson has been the savior of the Ravens. He may never develop the arm of a Matthew Stafford clone but count on Jackson and the Ravens staff to continue growing their games—even if the reactionary football world experiences another wave of writing them off.
7. A.J. Brown Is Poised For Another Stretch Run
Brown had a mediocre and rough outing during two of the past three weeks of games before arriving in Baltimore. And through the first three quarterbacks of the Ravens game, it appeared as if Brown would continue his slump.
Then, the Titans put the ball in Brown's hands near the line of scrimmage and let him do the work. And like the dump truck with better handling and acceleration than you've ever seen, Brown ran wild against the Ravens.
AJ Brown should be registered as a Class C vehicle and issued a license plate with a bumper sticker that reads:— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
I Don’t Brake for Defensive Backs pic.twitter.com/jX3o4kRXrS
The Colts, Browns, Jaguars, Lions, and Packers are next on Brown's punch list. Fill your thermos and grab your hardhat, Brown's brief lunch hour is over. He's ready to bring the dirt for your championship foundation.
8. The Athletic and Technical Artistry of Bud Dupree
Everything about NFL play is explosive and sudden or setting up a move that is explosive and sudden. When film and scheme analysts talk about how much fantasy players and casual football fans miss when they glue their eyes to the ball, they aren't just saying it out of an attempt to validate their value to the public.
The abundance of technical skill and conceptual understanding of the game within a five-yard radius of the player's starting points at the snap is staggering. Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree was a raw athlete from Kentucky when Jene Bramel and I watched him. Five years later, Dupree has done a lot towards fulfilling his vast potential
This stop of Jaguars running back James Robinson is a portrait of Dupree's technical and athletic refinement.
This Bud Dupree TFL is a fave play of the week. He uncoils like a spring to cover three massively important yards and after flattening look how he wraps at two different points on James Robinson’s frame. #SteelersNation pic.twitter.com/Mbt2X2fehc— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 22, 2020
Dupree's acceleration from a static position, tracking of a moving athlete, and tackling technique looks like something modeled after studying cats of prey. It's not only jaw-dropping, but it also provides clues about what to seek from an outside linebacker in IDP formats (Dupree is 18th on the board of OLBs and well within striking distance of the top-12.
9. James Robinson And the Exception Proving the Rule
During the Steelers-Jaguars tilt, the national broadcast crew relayed Doug Marrone's account of how UDFA sensation James Robinson earned the starting role. After Robinson made a strong initial impression during the early part of training camp, Marrone studied Robinson's college and high school film.
Marrone then verified with assistants that they were seeing the same things from Robinson. At this point, Marrone went to the front office and told them if Robinson was an early-round draft pick, he would be in true consideration for the starting role based on his current training camp performances.
The fact that Marrone had to get some degree of permission from non-coaches to give Robinson legitimate consideration for the starting job tells you that financial considerations from draft status can take precedence to talent in the NFL. The fact that the Jaguars front office made this exception for Robinson proves this rule.
While draft capital is a reasonable heuristic to follow as a fantasy GM, it's not an indicator of talent. Draft capital doesn't measure talent as the sole variable—talent is far from the sole variable in these considerations:
- Quality of Program: While top talent often goes to Division I programs, D-I schools favor players who have developed physically. Five-star prospects usually earn their "man" size earlier than others. Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Josh Allen are examples of late bloomers when it came to athletic development.
- Health: Brian Westbrook was small for a top running back but had an FSU scholarship offer rescinded after suffering a torn ACL in high school, so health is also a factor for D-1 schools as well as the NFL.
- Off-Field Behavior/Maturity: Character is an ill-fitting term for what's often better described as maturity or immaturity. Not all players graded with character issues are criminals. Many are just immature young men who weren't any less mature than your college buds but may have lacked the social grooming to mask their behavior at the right time.
- Combine Metrics: Some metrics don't match the style of play and skills required for the position as well as the public assumes. Dalvin Cook is an example I recently wrote about.
- Production: Production is nice to have, but it's a reflection of talent, scheme success, surrounding talent, and quality of opposition to varying degrees that aren't predictably weighted in one set of data.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 11
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.
Here is who made the list this week:
Matt Ryan: Without Julio Jones for a half, Ryan looked lost against a Saints defense that executed well but didn't do anything schematically that should have forced Ryan to hold onto the ball so long and take multiple sacks. There were plays where Ryan didn't recognize the favorable leverage of his first reads.
Matt Ryan had the first read vs favorable leverage and the time but he only comes back to the first look after looking to at least two other reads and takes the sack. #falcons pic.twitter.com/4Mf5mnK37h— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 23, 2020
Carson Wentz: The Eagles' quarterback has a longstanding issue with footwork that, from drop-to-drop, you never know how he'll position his feet and it leads to unreliable accuracy. This is why the Eagles changed from primarily a drop-back offense during his first 20 games and morphed to a pistol and shotgun offense where his drops were limited to 1-3 steps.
Even so, when Went has to move off his spot and reset, his feet can get as wild as a kid playing free tag.
Obviously, pressure is the primary source of undoing for Carson Wentz here, but his feet are often stuck in concrete when forced to adjust past first read. Also missed Reagor here. pic.twitter.com/SfiEryF58L— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 22, 2020
Without top-notch surrounding talent, Wentz's game is filled with tantalizing highs sandwiched by frustrating lows. Right now, there's a lot more bread than meat.
Colts offensive line: Nine holding penalties made this game a lot closer than it should have been.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.