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 13'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Baker Mayfield had his best game of the year, and potentially of his career. He did nothing outside of the framework of this offense that indicates he's on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback. Anytime between now and the offseason is a good time to sell him high in dynasty leagues.
- Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen kept the Houston Texans' offense afloat despite a myriad of losses to starting receivers in recent weeks. Both players are proven zone receivers. Coutee is more dynamic, but Hansen is a grittier performance against coverage. Both should thrive against the Bears although the rematch with the Colts so soon after their first matchup could lead to quick adjustments that foil at least one of this duo. I'm banking on it being Coutee.
- Is Corey Davis a late bloomer or a sell-high dynasty option? I don't have a definitive answer, but if anyone is offering capital commensurate with a receiver who consistently earns production in the top 15-20 at the position, take the deal.
- Once again, Cam Akers had fantasy relevancy. Because the NFL season is short, I get a lot of "how about now?" questions about players like Akers. The answer remains the same: Akers isn't the best back on the roster. He could become the best back, but a good performance by the offensive line didn't change my outlook o Akers one week later.
- Collin Johnson was once considered a top prospect at his position while at Texas but he lacks top acceleration against man coverage and he fits the mold of those tall ball-winners that NFL teams stopped drafting early. Johnson and Mike Glennon have built a rapport for the Jaguars that Glennon hasn't built with D.J. Chark. Don't abandon Chark long-term, but continue to monitor Johnson, who should make Chris Conley expendable and earn more targets as a big slot option when the Jaguars let Keenan Cole walk at the end of the year.
- Quintez Cephus hasn't earned a lot of targets, but he continues to flash promise as a route runner and pass-catcher for the Lions.
- Josh Reynolds has the look of a second-contract starter with the potential to post a season of 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
- Why D.K. Metcalf wins as a route runner where many didn't expect him to is his ferocious approach to the first 5-7 yards of his routes
- Alvin Kamara's red-zone prowess is extraordinary because he has developed his body awareness, movement, and balance into high art.
- Fresh Fish: Greg Williams and the Jets secondary, the Texans secondary, and Jaguars rookie cornerback Luq Barcoo.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Sell High: Baker Mayfield
Mayfield's 25-for-33, 334-yard, and 4-touchdown performance was the most complete statistical game of his NFL career, and it came against a Tennessee Titans team that most media believed was the first true litmus test that the Browns have had in weeks. After this game, there was the usual polarizing mix of optimism and skepticism about Mayfield.
True. Browns fans can still enjoy the lead and Baker actually doing what he’s supposed to. https://t.co/SyplEkOP90— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 6, 2020
This one caught me off-guard.
Baker Mayfield is an MVP candidate and I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) December 6, 2020
Mike, I can't believe you wrote that sentence, either.
Then again, I can, because football writers who made their bones as beat writers were raised on the value of QB Wins. The 9-4 Browns fit the profile for writers to tout him as a click-worthy subject of a story as an underdog MVP candidate.
In 1995 or for the geriatric crowd of fans who still place greater value on print than perhaps they should.
Mayfield did what he was supposed to do against a defense that gave him wide-open looks throughout the game.
Nashville hospitality by #Titans defense today. At this rate, Titans will be serving #Browns that Prince’s Hot Fried Chicken ðŸ“— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 6, 2020
Mayfield with wide open receivers play after play. 31-7 after this to Higgins pic.twitter.com/vfyZ4pKOiE
None of these required the elevated technical or conceptual demands that I see from good NFL starting quarterbacks on a weekly basis. And yes, it is reasonable to compare Mayfield to Patrick Mahomes II and Deshaun Watson, because what they show below is also what I see the likes of Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, and Matt Ryan face on a weekly basis.
They may not be elite performers but they are legitimate franchise quarterbacks. Here's Watson overcoming pressure designed to keep him in the pocket and unlike Mayfield, Watson finds solutions that Mayfield lacks the physical ability and conceptual wherewithal under pressure to execute.
This is some great back-and-forth between #Texans Deshaun Watson and the #Colts defense.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 6, 2020
Play 1. Picture perfect play by DL to sack Watson.
Plays 2-3: Watson foils what Colts did I play 1. Including an off-script special to KeKe Coutee by beating THREE points of pressure pic.twitter.com/HiY0eorP6O
Mayfield lacks the footwork and accuracy to make this type of throw below that Mahomes, Stafford, Ryan, and Carr make weekly.
Reason #1,235 Mahomes is a baller. The late out is a difficult timing route that he hits with ease here. pic.twitter.com/cQUPPUkrqX— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 7, 2020
Mayfield's pre-snap game has been restricted as his career has unfolded rather than been expanded. He's an executor of an offense as opposed to the coach on the field.
Even Derek Carr, often considered by the football media as a low-end franchise starter, at best, has a much bigger role as a field general.
Mayfield is now the product of the Browns offense. Yes, Nick Chubb told Browns beat writer Tony Grossi that Sunday's performance was the Baker Mayfield that Chubb knows. And sure, there are football analysis sites, scouts, and draftniks that still think Mayfield can become the next Brett Farve, Russell Wilson, or Drew Brees.
It's why, as someone who doesn't agree with this optimism believes it's important to give you a reasonable argument to the contrary. Is it possible that Mayfield can deliver fantasy QB1 production in this Browns offense? Kirk Cousins is doing so this year in a variation of this scheme, so yes, it's possible.
However, based on what I've seen, Mayfield is a scheme-dependent passer who lacks the pocket feel and pinpoint accuracy against tight man-to-man coverage and reasonably avoidable pressure ahead of it for him to thrive.
From what I've seen in these situations, Mayfield is still struggling through the same second half of the Rose Bowl game against Georgia when the Bulldogs upped its man coverage and pressure on Mayfield during the second half and Mayfield displayed serious flaws.
If you have Mayfield in a dynasty league, hope for a late-season surge and a rise in value for Mayfield during the offseason. Then, unless, I see enough that counters my argument above (and I will post it here, on my site, or on Twitter) sell high.
Baker Mayfield continues to show that he's a placeholder quarterback talent drafted as a franchise starter. Don't be fooled.
2. Stretch-Run Specials: Keke Coutee and Chad Hansen
Two wide receiver prospects that I liked when they came out of school, Coutee and Hansen are now on the same team and provided support to Deshaun Watson as 100-yard performers against the Colts defense on Sunday. Coutee offers more after the catch where Hansen displays the grit to win in traffic.
Watson to Coutee for a big gain. Nice adjustment. pic.twitter.com/to9C5KhAgv— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 6, 2020
I'm non-committal about Coutee's ability to win against top man-to-man corners in the NFL, whereas I have seen Hansen shown skill one-on-one early in his NFL career as a Jet. This is important to know for future weeks if the Texans use Coutee or Hansen more often as outside options.
The Bears use enough zone that next week's matchup should remain a good one for both receivers. The rematch with Indianapolis could be harder to predict because their matchups are two weeks apart and it could lead to some defensive adjustments, especially for a meaningful rivalry that has playoff implications for the Colts.
Coutee will be in high demand because the fantasy community knows the most about him. Hansen should be more readily available and a worthwhile addition who should offer as much value.
3. Corey Davis: Late Bloomer or Sell-High Candidate?
A first-round pick of the Titans, Davis' career never really took flight in Nashville to the expectations of his draft capital. Injuries and a struggling offense have been reasonable excuses to the extent that Davis isn't solely at fault for his lack of development.
Now healthy and playing for a different regime and quarterback, Davis is 12 catches, 90 yards, and a touchdown away from a statistical career-year. A top-25 fantasy receiver in PPR and non-PPR formats, who has earned a trio of 100-yard games this year, including a career-best 11-catch, 182-yard offering against the Browns on Sunday, it's worth asking the important question:
Is Davis is a late bloomer or a sell-high candidate, long-term? There isn't a simple answer.
Davis absolutely benefits from the Titans' play-action scheme as the backside receiver who gets wide-open behind linebackers who must account for the potential for a Derrick Henry run. Davis earns significant yardage on a weekly basis from variations of these plays below.
While these are clearly easy pitch-and-catch opportunities relative to what we see in the NFL, they are also common plays where Davis can find work and thrive elsewhere in a similar capacity. Here's Tim Patrick earning a reception on a similar play design on Sunday night against the Chiefs.
I could even show you a Travis Kelce reception operating from a similar concept. It's why the question the fantasy community is asking should be refined to whether Davis is on his way to becoming a viable top-15 fantasy receiver or is near his ceiling as an occasional top-20 option who has years outside the top 25?
One way of answer this question is seeing how Davis performs when play is less about the scheme and more about Davis forced to do extra. Davis' performance against Cleveland when restricting his play to these scenarios reveals what I've seen for much of the year: mixed results.
If you're being honest with yourself and your motivation to acquire Davis is based on his potential to deliver top-15 fantasy production for a new team, I'd refrain from pursuing Davis. If you're getting offers for Davis that are commensurate in value for a top-15 receiver or even a consistent performer in the top 20-25 range, I'd pull the trigger.
He's a capable starter, but if you think of him as a player with Allen Robinson's style but a tier below Robinson in talent, you're doing yourself a favor. Even if he develops into a Robinson-like talent, keep in mind that few wide receivers have consecutive seasons of starter production at a high level.
4. From the 'What About Now?' File: Cam Akers, One Week Later
I've been doing this long enough to anticipate the question after cautioning readers about Akers last week: Have you changed your mind about Akers after Sunday's performance?
The short answer? No.
The longer answer? Akers benefitted from huge lanes to work downhill.
Can Akers TD. Big crease and carries defender 7 yards.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 7, 2020
Impressive at first blush. Second look: Big hole and long runway with a defender who should have slid to the legs and dropped Akers.
A scatback would have carried this wrapper 3-5 yards in same scenario. #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/GX5dr4z1oa
When given an opportunity to show the vision and footwork that is evident with the likes of consistently productive NFL starters, or even a back like James Conner who hasn't seen a lot of great creases, Akers' game isn't there yet.
The most dangerous running back between the tackles for the Rams remains Darrell Henderson.
Like Akers, Henderson benefitted from big creases against the Cardinals. Unfortunately, he didn't get the touches his ability merits because the Rams seem bent on feeding the ball to Akers, hoping the light bulb will click on.
It's likely that the Rams have seen enough from Akers in practice that encourages them to believe he's close to taking another step with his game. However, keep what I wrote here last week for additional emphasis:
Akers' behavior on this pair of plays has been the same since he took the field in the NFL. He needs an offseason of tutelage and practice to develop a nuanced understanding of zone blocking and the vocabulary of corresponding footwork to generate space that can be there for him if he knew what to do.
Right now, he's at his best in a gap-heavy scheme. He'd be a top-20 fantasy back for Washington or San Francisco who still left too much on the field. How much Akers can master within the next 8 months will determine his opportunity to extricate himself from a three-headed committee.
If you have Akers, I wouldn't trade him. But if you don't have Akers, I wouldn't trade for him, either.
Why? Because Akers' improvement won't come from more carries.
He needs a daily dose of film study and workouts with a coach/consultant to learn the various blocking schemes and defensive alignments used to stop these plays. While he's learning about this on tape, he must be developing footwork patterns that help him navigate these schemes and set up his blocks as well as manipulate opponents.
He needs to be practicing these scenarios regularly. This is what pro running backs do. Akers runs like a guy who was a physical phenom by college standards but hasn't learned the position in these ways.
Can he learn now? Yes, if he hires a trainer and does daily work. Will he? That's the big question and one that will determine the trajectory of his career.
I'm not down on Akers as much as I am realistic about his development timeline and the fact that Henderson is the best back on the roster, right now. That can change next year until then, the Rams are stubbornly wasting a chance to keep the best talent on the field.
5. Collin Johnson Has a Rapport with Mike Glennon, D.J. Chark Doesn't
Cecil Lammey asked me about Johnson during last week's Thursday Night Audible Live. Johnson was once considered a top wide receiver prospect, but concerns about his lack of top speed and a downturn in production as a senior hurt his draft stock.
A bigger factor is the NFL veering away from big and tall ball-winners as early-round picks. Just a few years ago Mike Mayock was still touting Equanimeous St. Brown and Allen Lazard as viable early-round options. Fast-forward to the present, and the UDFA Lazard is outperforming Brown, the sixth-round pick.
Johnson fell to the fifth round in the 2020 NFL Draft but did enough this summer as a big-slot receiver and occasional perimeter option to earn regular playing time. I envisioned Johnson fitting with a team as a more athletic and vertically viable version of Marques Colston—a big slot presence who could win against zone coverage on the perimeter or against man-to-man with the assistance of play-action passing.
With Mike Glennon under center, Johnson has earned 8 catches, 162 yards, and a touchdown during the past two weeks and averaging 45.5 snaps per game. The last time Johnson earned more than 20 snaps was against the Texans in Week 5 when he scored a touchdown.
The biggest flaw I saw with Johnson's game at Texas was his tendency to mitigate his length as a strength.
Where can Collin Johnson help himself out and build on a strength?— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) February 19, 2020
Getting better at jumping back for the ball on fades. Too often, he's fading away in a position where he has to be incredible to win a target where better approach would only need him to be "good" to win. pic.twitter.com/4YebE4rTuu
This weekend, there were signs of improvement from Johnson in this area of his game.
Meanwhile, Glennon was often too hesitant to target Chark on routes where Chark was breaking open. Or, Glennon was late and inaccurate. Chark is still getting open and while he had a dropped pass in this game, those with a vested interest in Chark long-term shouldn't be worried about him.
Right now? As long as Glennon is in the lineup, you'll want to maintain a wait-and-see approach with Chark before using him down the stretch. If you're desperate for a receiver, Johnson could be a good bet against the Titans' zone coverage. The Bears and Titans? Not so much.
6. Quintez Cephus' Big Shot Is Coming in 2021
One of my favorite sleepers of the 2020 rookie class was Cephus. He had an excellent training camp, but he's had little fantasy value during the regular season. After earning 101 snaps, 13 targets, 6 catches, and 87 yards during the first two weeks of the season, his snap counts dropped sharply until he didn't see the field by Week 6.
When Kenny Golladay got hurt again, Cephus returned to earning snaps—averaging 27 per week since Week 9 as well as 2 targets per game from Weeks 9-12. Although not he has not been a viable fantasy option this year, Cephus has shown enough that you should be monitoring him or buying low where you can as a potential starter in 2021 after the Lions part ways with its starting corps.
Cephus has enough speed to win in the vertical game, strength to win after the catch, and terrific skill at winning contested targets. Cephus showed some of his promise with a trio of plays against the Bears' stingy pass defense this weekend.
ðŸ™ƒCephus hasn’t been a big contributor but he’s been a consistent part of offense and that’s a good sign for a rookie. https://t.co/CLLJwrfarV— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 6, 2020
The skills are present in Cephus' game. The experience and refinement aren't.
7. Josh Reynolds Could Be the Next Robert Woods...Elsewhere
If there's a player I would love to see alongside Cephus in Detroit next year, it's Reynolds. The young veteran isn't remotely the same style of a receiver as Robert Woods, but like Woods, he has the skills to become a far more productive player at his second NFL stop.
With Sean McVay gushing about Van Jefferson as a potential Keenan Allen in the Rams offense (I like Jefferson enough to believe he'll develop into a starter, but good luck with that take), there's virtually no chance that Reynolds is staying in L.A. in 2021.
Known as an excellent perimeter threat at Texas A&M, Reynolds won a lot of contested plays at College Station, but it was rarely part of the plan for him in L.A.
Reynolds became an intermediate route runner in the NFL who worked the middle zones rather than winning marquee matchups. It may have proven a blessing in disguise for Reynolds, who is now a more complete player at his position.
Watching plays like these for the course of the past 2-3 years, I can't help but think that Reynolds is going to become an NFL starter with the upside of seasons with 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
And it also wouldn't shock me if, in 2-3 years, Sean McVay is on NFL broadcasts talking about Keenan Allen while Van Jefferson remains a third or fourth option and Reynolds is prolonging Stafford's career or outpacing Jefferson elsewhere.
8. D.K. Metcalf Is Ferocious And It's Why He Wins
Metcalf wins because he plays with great intensity, especially within the first 5-7 yards of the line of scrimmage. He knows himself as a player and leverages it to strike fear in opponents.
What he knows is that he's stronger and faster than most receivers in the game. Most cornerbacks can't reroute him or pin him to the boundary. Few can keep up with him if they don't jam him. And fewer can jam Metcalf without getting pushed aside.
Knowing these things about himself, Metcalf makes sure that he begins routes with the intensity of peak Mike Tyson in the early routes of a fight. Like Tyson, Metcalf also has sudden and violent hands when he uses them to release against press coverage. He can knock opponents off-balance with the suddenness and violence of these strikes.
It's why opposing defenders pay extra respect to Metcalf when he releases from the line.
DK Metcalf’s separation on shorter routes is often a product of how ferociously he attacks downhill with his stems.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 7, 2020
This stiff-arm was fun, too.
Metcalf won the battle, #Giants won the war. pic.twitter.com/FyHg9zUBsu
Metcalf may not have great skills with breaks back to the quarterback but because of the cushion that he commands due to his speed, strength, and the violent quickness of his hands, he doesn't need it.
9. Alvin Kamara Has Raised His Athletic Game to High Art
Kamara is known for his workout regimen that includes some novel methods for cultivating spatial awareness, balance, and creative movement. His work has translated to the field with plays that appear downright mystical. Alvin Kamara from the Shaolin Monk School of Running Back play.
Wow Kamara...Wow pic.twitter.com/rXZYo0aREv— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 4, 2017
So, it doesn't surprise me that Kamara has authored another awe-inspiring, dumbfounding play. Although subtler than the one above, it's still an amazing testament to his athletic ability that he has honed onto martial art.
If the aliens come and tell us they want to play a football game for our freedom with our best current players, Kamara will at least be on that team's depth chart to defend the planet.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 13
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.
This week's featured fish are a pair of fish: The Jets' and Texans' secondaries. The Jets gave up eight games worth of typical tight end production to Darren Waller thanks to giving Waller one-on-one looks with cornerbacks and little safety help, telegraphing coverage intentions to the Raiders' benefit, as well as blown coverages.
Then there's the final play of the game, a walk-off touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs where defensive coordinator Gregg Williams called a Cover 0 look (no safety over the top and strict man-to-man) in a situation that few ever dare to play this reckless at game's end. It was such a reckless call that legitimate veteran NFL defenders of years past have questioned the Jets' intentions of fair play.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but watch this and tell me the #Jets weren’t trying to lose this game.— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) December 6, 2020
Cover 0, with 13 seconds left & you spy Derek Carr like he’s Mike Vick in his prime?? pic.twitter.com/FR53RF1sxU
Williams, who offered bounties to Saints defenders, may not be above this kind of thing. It would be difficult to prove that the Jets brass directed Williams to tank a game and if Williams ever wants another shot in the league, he'll never admit to doing so. However, I at least understand the rationale for posing the question, even if I simply see it as Williams being recklessly aggressive with little to lose based on the team's win-loss record.
I don't think Williams tanked for draft picks as much as he tried to disrupt a quarterback with a past history of not performing well under pressure and knew his team had lost enough games not to think twice about it.
If there's any conspiracy theory I'd buy about this play, it would be that he knew he'd be free from working with Adam Gase.
The Texans' secondary remains a group prone to miscommunication and breakdowns. They have invented what I call the Moon Concept: Coverage that allows opponents to catch defenders with their pants at their ankles.
Our final mention is Jaguars rookie cornerback Luq Barcoo, who Kirk Cousins eventually figured out was a good target to pick on during the second half of Sunday's game. Barcoo had the unfortunate job of covering Justin Jefferson for much of that half, giving up multiple penalties and a touchdown to Jefferson.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.