Welcome to Footballguys' Weekly Top 10. This week, The Top 10 conducts its year-end review of the 2020 season—the players, the teams, and the moments that made or broke the fantasy season of many. While some of the events have no strategic value for future fantasy campaigns, hopefully, there are a handful of lessons that can be applied to future fantasy seasons.
1. Josh Allen: Don't Judge Young Quarterbacks Too Early
Josh Allen has grown up as a quarterback. Compare each season of his three-year career in the NFL and even the basic stats are revealing indicators:
- Allen is on course to increase his completion rate by 16 percent from his rookie year.
- He has already doubled his rookie passing yardage and has two games left.
- Allen has tripled his passing touchdowns.
- He's added 1.25 yards to his Yards Per Attempt average.
- Although his rushing yardage has declined each year from his 631-yard rookie campaign, he has matched his rookie total for rushing touchdowns and on pace to exceed it.
Allen still has moments where he's goaded into cringe-worthy decisions and that may never change—go back and watch Brett Favre—but it's clear that Allen is doing a far better job of playing within the scope of his talents.
He also earned a lot of help. All quarterbacks need it (see point No.10) to deliver top-5 production at their positions. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has identified the routes that Allen throws well and built an offense that maximizes Allen's strengths.
The most obvious example is the crossing route. Allen has a big arm, mobility, and a weakness for maintaining awareness of coverage that can peel off one route responsibility or zone and slide into the passing lane of his intended targets.
The crossing route by definition is known as a "man-beater", and in the hands of speedsters John Brown and Stefon Diggs, the Bills receivers are at an inherent advantage against man-to-man coverage. When you consider that the Michael, Pittmans, Allen Lazards, and JuJu Smith-Schusters of the NFL earn separation with this route against man coverage on a routine basis, it's easy to see why Brown, Diggs, and the quickness of Cole Beasley all fare well at an even higher rate of success with the pattern.
The crossing route also works well against zone coverage because a coordinator can implement them at a variety of levels within the coverage and force the players within a zone defense into binds with the depth they are playing within their zones. Another benefit to the crossing route is that, relative to other routes, there is either a longer window of opportunity to deliver the ball or the window of opportunity is easier.
When the defense forces Allen to abandon the pocket, the crossing route's extended window of opportunity is an excellent pattern that gives Allen more time to make a good decision. It also limits Allen's potential of throwing the ball into windows where a defender not covering the intended receiver can jump the route.
The best zone defenses that can get pressure on Allen with minimal numbers at the line of scrimmage while dropping a significant amount of personnel into coverage can limit Allen's production, especially if the defenders have skill with anticipating where Allen throws the ball and can peel off their responsibilities in a timely manner. However, there are few, if any, defenses that can get to Allen with 2-4 pass rushers and have 7-9 savvy zone defenders in coverage.
And when defenses are faced with the prospect of making adjustments to this extreme in order to completely shut down one player or phase of the game, it's a sign that your offense and personnel have arrived in the NFL. Josh Allen, like Farve, may have bad moments or better years than others, but he has become a legitimate NFL starter of value.
Allen's success serves as a reminder that we should not judge quarterbacks too early. Jared Goff was a bust as a rookie, but Baker Mayfield was going to be an amalgamation of Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson on the field and with a more commercial-friendly personal. Mayfield has been statistically better and he's showing small signs of growth within an offense that doesn't place as many demands on him as a playmaker.
Much of the NFL media declared Carson Wentz an elite quarterback after a second-year campaign where the Eagles staff had the surrounding talent to change the offense and limit Wentz's flaws with footwork, accuracy and reading the field. Injuries and aging talent have systematically stripped that talent bare for the past two years and Wentz's career is at a crossroads.
Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston had two of the 12-best rookie seasons in the history of the game. Ryan Tannehill, like Mariota, went through a laundry list of coaching changes during his early years. Tannehill usurped Mariota's job in Tennessee just as some wonder if Mariota is poised to do the same to Derek Carr in Las Vegas.
This was a lesson I preached at the end of 2018: "As good as Baker Mayfield has looked at times and as poor of a situation as Josh Rosen has found himself, it's best to give them another year before making long-term conclusions. The same is true of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, two sides of the same coin in terms of their current usage."
Lesson: With noted exceptions, it takes 2-3 years for us to see if a quarterback has the talent and development track to stick as an NFL starter. As a fantasy player, the safest route is to stick with proven veterans who have passed that trial period when making draft-day decisions. Use the waiver wire as a place to take shots on young players performing well at the moment but haven't been in the league long enough to experience a variety of defensive gameplans that could foil them.
2. Aaron Jones: Redefine What 'Regression' Means to You
As I mentioned in my Gut Check feature in Week 15, I missed on Aaron Jones' fantasy value. I expected a three-headed running back committee that would include rookie A.J. Dillon taking more of Jones' workload as the season progressed. Dillon has the talent and the draft capital and Jones' contract with the Packers expires at year's end.
These are factors that often lead to a transition of production during the year on a depth chart. After all, most fantasy analysts had the right idea to expect a regression with Jones' production when considering 2019's No.2 fantasy back scored 19 touchdowns—16 on the ground—and Dillon is a bruiser suited for the green zone.
Fast-forward to December 2020 and Jones is the No.5 fantasy back with nine touchdowns—seven on the ground—and even when Dillon wasn't on the COVID list, he had no more than a cameo role in the Packers offense. Why?
Since his years at UTEP, I have always recognized Jones' talent. Even if I valued it higher than most as a college prospect, I haven't valued it enough during his pro career.
If I had, I would have recognized that good teams don't limit players with Jones' talent. He's a smooth runner with excellent vision, big-play speed, and underrated contact balance. I'm not a Falcons fan, but as someone who covers them annually for Footballguys, I would love to see Jones in Atlanta if the Packers don't sign him to a new deal in 2021.
Jones would be a perfect fit for this offense because he doesn't need a great line to effective. He's a strong receiver and Atlanta's offensive line has enough promise that it could develop into a unit that can support a dominant year from a back still at the height of his powers.
If I had thought about Jones relative to Tevin Coleman, I would have realized that Jones's value wasn't dipping much in 2020. Coleman has starter speed and receiving skills, but he's a committee-level talent, at best, in terms of his vision, power, contact balance, and footwork.
Coleman can be on the bench or in the training room and the 49ers can get equal or greater value from a range of free agents and low-round draft picks. Jones offers a lot more than Coleman.
Lesson: It was why buying too hard into a 2020 regression from Jones was a mistake. Expecting a regression with touchdowns was reasonable. It was also enough. At that point, you had to look at that regression and realize that Jones was still in a strong position to deliver another season as a top-10 fantasy runner.
Wondering if Dillon would cut into Jones' time was a valid concern, but not enough to remove Jones from draft-day consideration. This was a lesson in properly gauging the tier of talent where that individual player belongs.
3. Offensive Lines Matter Less (Dak Prescott) Until They Matter More (Baker Mayfield)
We all clamor for prescriptive rules to guide us. Some of us more than others. The desire for guidance is especially true when it comes to subject matter where we have the awareness and humility to recognize our limited knowledge.
Look at the top-12 quarterbacks entering Week 15:
- Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill, and Lamar Jackson can generate gains of at least 30-40 yards on any given foray from the pocket.
- Murray, Allen, Wilson, Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes II can deliver the ball downfield while on the move with the flick of the wrist to generate huge passing plays.
- Every quarterback mentioned plus Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert's offenses utilize boot action to get the quarterback outside the pocket.
The only quarterback in the top-12 who doesn't fit the mobile prototype is Tom Brady, and Brady is one of the best pocket managers at the position with an elite skill for maneuvering around 1-3 points of pressure and delivering an accurate ball.
Mobile quarterbacks make a difference. They don't have to be as dangerous as Jackson and Murray, but if they fall within the range of Cousins on the low-end of the spectrum (a capable roll-out passer) and Russell Wilson on the high-end (a player who can gash a defense for 30-40 yards but lacks the breakaway speed and movement of a Murray or Jackson), they are responsible for significant fantasy production.
Offensive line production isn't as vital of a need for many of these passers. Matt Bitonti's Week 15 Offensive Line rankings have Las Vegas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Houston, and Baltimore among his top-12 units. Less than half of the quarterbacks mentioned have offensive line's playing at a level commensurate to the fantasy production of these passers. Seattle and Buffalo are in the bottom-end of the top-15 but that still only accounts for a little more than half of the quarterbacks on the list.
Do quarterbacks make the offensive line or do offensive lines make the quarterback? It's not that simple.
The more dynamic the quarterback's ability to throw on the move while also threatening the defense as a runner, the less dependent he is on an offensive line. Murray, Jackson, Watson, and Wilson fit this description the best and in that order on the spectrum from most to least dynamic in movement while in reverse order based on savvy and skill as passers.
This type of quarterback is less dependent on an offensive line to achieve fantasy QB1 production. You can count on them year-after-year to deliver within this range.
Jackson, who will be finishing his third full season as a starter in the middle of 2021, may not fit this tier completely if he proves more limited than Watson as a perimeter thrower. He may belong in his own special category. That's a topic for next spring.
Mahomes and Rodgers have the arm talent from the pocket and on the move to make throws that few quarterbacks can. The only other NFL passers within the same area code in this category are Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson. Stafford's injuries to himself and his talent and consistent turmoil within the Lions' organization have held him back from reaching his production ceilings year after year.
Allen, Tannehill, and Herbert are throwers who can buy time and, under the right conditions, create big plays as runners. The most common of these conditions are scheme-designed runs and breaking the pocket against man coverage following deep routes that leave the middle of the field wide open and the defense's back turned.
An awful offensive line can hurt the potential of these players enough that they could struggle to reach top-12 production ceilings, but they still have the mobility and arm talent to deliver strong weeks if not earn low-end QB value on a consistent basis.
Cousins and to a lesser extent, Brady, need more help upfront based on their scope of athletic ability and quarterbacking styles.
It's why Dak Prescott was the No.3 fantasy quarterback after five weeks despite an offensive line that rendered Andy Dalton useless. After five weeks, the Cowboys had the No.2 PPR RB in Ezekiel Elliott, the No.10 PPR WR in Amari Cooper, the No.11 PPR WR in CeeDee Lamb, the No.32 WR in Michael Gallup, and the No.10 TE in Dalton Schultz.
Prescott supported five fantasy starters. His mobility as a roll-out thrower and off-script playmaker offset many of the offensive line's weaknesses that none of the Cowboys' backups could. Elliott benefited from zone reads because defenses had to account for Prescott's legs. Cooper, Lamb, Gallup, and Schultz earned quick-hitting targets from the zone read.
The receivers also earned longer-developing targets downfield due to Prescott's boot-action skills and ability to extend plays. None of these things were skills in Andy Dalton's portfolio, or at least not to the extent that he could perform them at a high level without a strong offensive line supporting him.
This is why Prescott's skills and style of play supports the notion that the caliber of an offensive line can matter less than the quarterback at the helm. Even if you argue that Prescott's injury is an argument against this point, Prescott got hurt in the open field as a runner, which limits the validity of the point. It was a freak occurrence.
At the same time, some quarterbacks need an offensive line a lot more. Kirk Cousins is on that spectrum, but Baker Mayfield is the most prominent current example. The No.19 fantasy quarterback entering Week 15, Mayfield is coming off a pair of strong statistical outings after a month of games where the weather inhibited passing.
Mayfield is within striking distance of earning a completion percentage, passing touchdowns, and yards per attempt figures on par with his 14-game rookie totals. Yet, on a per-game basis, his passing production remains well below his first-year rates. The Browns have limited Mayfield to a style of play that places fewer demands on him in terms of target selection, plays from the pocket under heavy pressure, and coverage looks that opponents can play against him without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt making them pay dearly for it.
Right now, Mayfield is a more line and scheme-dependent talent than his peers. As he delivers consistent performances and shows signs of growth in these difficult situations that he occasionally faces in this improved scheme with better surrounding talent—scenarios where he failed more often during his first two years in the league—the Browns could expand the playbook when it feels Mayfield has demonstrated growth.
Presently, Mayfield and Prescott represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of more and less dependent on the offensive line for results.
Lesson: If you're going to play it safe with quarterbacks, begin with point No.1: Choose quarterbacks who are proven starters after three years of play in the league. Then, refine your list with point No.2: Prioritize passers who are less line-dependent for their production followed by quarterbacks who are more line-dependent but have the offensive line to deliver at their ceiling of potential.
Do this prep work, and you'll have a better chance of distinguishing the goods from the hype.
4. Antonio Gibson: Don't Go Looking for 'the Next One'
Gibson's top-10 fantasy campaign as a rookie is an anomaly. Not because he's a rookie. We all know that first-year running backs have a long track record of fantasy RB1 production.
It's the fact that Gibson is a raw talent. Rookies are often inexperienced or lack knowledge of specific skills such as pass protection, option routes, or running behind a specific type of blocking scheme. Few of them see the field as lead backs and perform well when this is the case.
Gibson performed at a fantasy RB1 level despite the fact that he doesn't understand all of the basic concepts of downhill running, he lacks refined footwork to execute the important nuances of specific blocking schemes, and he still has to learn about the details of the zone blocking scheme so he can set up defenders effectively.
Gibson is an impressive athlete operating far more on instinct than refined skill. He's the exceptional case despite the fact that there are media analysts out there that believe running back play, musical ability, and dance are instinctive skills that are not developed and refined but individuals magically possess.
Gibson produced at a high rate despite the fact that he left a lot of yardage on the field. Most backs don't this. Laurence Maroney, C.J. Spiller, Darren McFadden, and Tevin Coleman are testaments to this point.
"Who will be 2021's Antonio Gibson?"
"Which rookies could deliver production on par with Gibson?"
Several in the right circumstance, but don't use Gibson's raw skills as a supporting argument for another raw player with strong athletic ability to repeat what Gibson did. It's a fool's errand.
5. Justin Jefferson: Don't Judge Rookie Receivers on One Year of Tape
Before Allen burst onto the scene at Berkley, Jones was the Bears' deep threat. His film as an underclassman was filled with vertical targets where he beat press coverage, earned separation downfield, and won the football when the target was overthrown or if the defensive back recovered to contest the target.
However, the media's book on Jones was a senior was that of a possession threat because that's the role he played once Allen entered the picture. Although Jones showed his starter-caliber skill as a vertical threat repeatedly against top cornerback prospects during the Senior Bowl practice week and told me on media night that he practiced daily with Cal's cornerbacks on press-release techniques, Jones' draft capital is a good sign that teams placed too much weight on his senior-year role rather than the cumulative exposures of his film portfolio.
The same happened to Allen in a sense. Allen burst onto the scene as a lightning-quick receiver who played at various weights during his Cal career. A versatile option, Allen could work the slot with deer-like quickness or he could bulk-up and play outside and be fast enough to earn separation and win contested plays at the boundary. A knee injury hampered Allen during his final year at Cal and it also led to a slow workout that dropped his draft stock.
Jones and Allen were players I was higher on that most pre-draft because I had learned the lesson of valuing multiple years of film. It's a lesson many needed to learn about Jefferson, a slot receiver with massive production in the 2019 LSU offense with Joe Burrow who also had plenty of tape in 2017-18 as a productive perimeter option.
Careful, though, when a tape head like me uses the word "productive," it has a different meaning for me than box-score data. Production can also mean the successful execution of techniques, athletic skills, and football concepts that don't lead to receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
Jefferson may have surprised some in the media due to his production as an outside receiver after becoming well-known nationally for his slot play, but the skills translated to either position even of the raw production was heavily weighted in one direction.
Jefferson's landing spot was also the second consecutive year where a lot of dynasty analysts worried too much about the landing spot of a receiver in a run-heavy offense. Last year, it was A.J. Brown.
Jefferson was my third-rated receiver behind Lamb and Jerry Jeudy in dynasty rookie drafts and eighth-ranked player overall on the RSP Post-Draft's May cheatsheet. And if I had to amend the ranking in hindsight, I would have bumped him ahead of Jeudy as my fifth-overall talent on the board, keeping him behind Lamb, who was on a WR1 fantasy pace before Prescott got hurt.
Lesson: Find sources that dig deeper on players than one year of college tape and consider production as a more inclusive concept than box-score data. Don't downgrade receivers that land in towns with run-heavy offenses without considering their talent, their versatility, and their chances of starting. These are the three reasons Brown was my top-rated receiver on my 2018 post-draft board and the same three reasons Jefferson's value didn't suffer after the Vikings picked him in 2019.
6. James Robinson: Draft Capital Is Not the Measure of Talent
Draft Capital is the added consideration, practice reps, and opportunities to fail in the eyes of the coaching staff and personnel management based on how high the team drafted the player. The earlier a team takes a player in the draft, the bigger the financial investment.
When a team makes a significant financial investment, it expects the player to become a consistent contributor in the starting rotation and eventually develop into a reliable starter with meaningful production. There's a higher expectation for that player to succeed. So when the player struggles, the coaches and personnel management feel the pressure that they made a questionable decision with the choice of player.
There's a blowback to draft capital because of these dynamics: Although there is often a smaller gap in skill between an early-round pick and a UDFA in the NFL than there is between a starting-caliber scholarship player and a walk-on in the college ranks, the early-round pick usually earns a lot more practice reps, competitions are generally closed off from rookie UDFAs to earn starting jobs, and mistakes aren't as grave for players with higher draft capital than lower capital.
The media and fans have bought into the rhetoric that every player has an equal chance once they're drafted but the truth is that most teams impose a systemic bias against players with lower draft capital. Late-round picks and UDFAs have to do a lot more with a lot less room for error to even earn consideration for a roster spot, much less challenge year-one for a starting role.
Terrell Davis was barely getting noticed in Denver and had to talk himself out of quitting before a preseason game in Tokyo, Japan. It was during that game on a kick off that he blew up the return effort, caught the eye of Mike Shanahan, and earned some higher profile reps at running back. It led him down the road to competing for the starting job and eventually, a Hall of Fame career.
Isaiah Crowell, a UDFA with Cleveland, was earning a sparse amount of practice reps despite beginning his career at Georgia as a five-star prospect and having initial success there. It wasn't until the fourth quarter of the Browns' third preseason game against the Bears when Dion Lewis got hurt, that Crowell earned enough reps in the game to turn the heads of the staff.
Joique Bell, Boston Scott, Raheem Mostert, Willie Parker, and Priest Holmes are among the running backs who have had to overcome the bias of draft capital to earn opportunities. Usually, it happened at a second, third, or fourth team and required at least a year or two of work to earn a shot.
It's why James Robinson's story is remarkable. Undrafted, Robinson earned a real shot to compete for the starting job due to the team's dissatisfaction with Leonard Fournette's long-term financial outlook and a spate of injuries to the depth chart. Despite the fact that there were extenuating circumstances that led Doug Marrone to consider Robinson as a serious contender for the role, it was still an exceptional circumstance to see a head coach lobby his general manager to allow Robinson a fair shot.
That act of lobbying tells you everything you need to know that draft capital is a systemic bias. But unlike systemic social biases in society that aren't fair, draft capital is absolutely fair. Teams have every right to prioritize the opportunities of the players its roster and use sunk costs as a factor.
However, correlating draft capital to talent isn't as accurate as it may appear on the surface. When you consider the factors that determine draft capital you realize that on-field talent can be a sublimated part of the equation:
- Professionalism: The college game is a far lower tier of football, which means players with great athletic or conceptual skills for their positions can deliver strong performances despite lacking a complete skill set or they fail to work at their craft in the way that the vast majority of NFL players must do to remain viable as pros.
- Off-Field Behavior: The NFL spends more money on investigating the off-field behavior of players than any aspect of scouting. If a team doesn't believe the player is capable of maturing beyond past brushes with the law or has an emotional problem that can put their work at risk and is beyond the team's ability to rely on him as an early-round pick expected to contribute weekly, it doesn't matter if the player has first-round skills.
- Logo Scouting: Most NFL scouts will tell you that they don't value players based on their helmet decals. For instance, presuming all Georgia running backs are NFL talents based on the merits of past players. However, most NFL teams give prospects an added bump in value if they come from Power Five programs versus smaller Division I or Division II or III programs. The inherent variation of the grading processes used among NFL teams that haven't changed much since the 1950s is a root issue because these grading systems have difficulty differentiating a player's talent from the success of his team or the skill of his opponents. This is why GMs add weight to a player's overall draft capital if he plays at a top program.
- Box Score Production: If there's a correlation between box score production and talent, it's isolated to small factors. Yet, due to the old grading processes that create challenges with separating talent from supporting case or level of competition, GMs use production as another factor to justifying why their team has a high-round value on a player. It's an easy justification to the public that they are making a good decision despite the fact that there are dozens, if not hundreds of players over the lifetime of the NFL who were starting or Pro-Bowl talents that toiled on college teams that lacked the supporting cast to compete with top teams and the NFL failed to spot them. There are also thousands of players who earned great production in a scheme that the NFL doesn't use or on the basis of athletic dominance that won't be dominant in the NFL and their lack of football skills limited their upside in hindsight.
- Physical Dimension Prototypes: All-timer Steve Smith's height, weight, and to a lesser extent, his program were all reasons why he wasn't regarded as a top prospect. Smith proved that his quickness, leaping ability, incredible awareness of leverage, and play strength made him an athletic freak for his position and the way he used those skills on the field. However, players like Smith and what they do extraordinarily well are more difficult to measure and lead to far more public scrutiny when you draft them early compared to a 6'3" and 220-pound option with equal or greater production at a program of greater renown.
- Combine/Pro-Day Workouts: These workouts are helpful when employed with a nuanced hand of an experienced evaluation team but they are limited in their ability to generate a 1:1 comparison between football skills and the exercises meant to simulate them. After all, these are isolated movements lacking football context. There's no processing of coverage, blocking scheme, or adjustment to someone trying to defend them. Teams may understand this in conversation but when they try to apply it as part of a decision-making process, their lack of process management skills can lead to an unintentional overvaluing of these workouts.
These are six of the most prominent factors that can take precedence over talent in the valuation of a player. As a fantasy GM, it's alright to use draft capital as a predictor of early opportunity, but if you use it to exclude the talent of players lacking draft capital, you're overusing the tool to your detriment.
A question RSP subscribers are probably having right now is if all of what I said above is the case then, why did I have Robinson graded lower than a starter-caliber talent? I saw Robinson as a reserve talent.
I loved his burst and low center of gravity. I didn't like his displays as a cutback runner with zone schemes, his lack of commitment to a crease with holes he should have committed to harder as a zone runner, and his fumble rate of 1 per 72 touches (below average for a starter).
Based on what I've seen thus far, Robinson improved his ball security and his decision-making as a zone runner.
In those areas of my grading, he was on the cusp of the next-highest tier for vision. A bump in that area alone would have vaulted him significantly up my rankings. Add starter-level ball security that he displayed this year to that grade, and he would have earned a top-12 grade at the position in the publication.
Lesson Learned: Draft capital correlates to opportunity in the NFL and not to talent. Use it to make easy decisions for early opportunities but don't discount other players if lacking draft capital if they earn an opportunity. In fact, if they earn the opportunity despite the systemic biases against it, you better pay extra attention.
7. Marcus Mariota, Jalen Hurts, Tayson Hill, and Ryan Tannehill: The Backup Advantage
I can't say this is a definitive rule but it's something I'm noticing with increasing regularity: Backups quarterbacks with the skill to create with their legs and a baseline skill for reading coverage and throwing the football have an inherent advantage against opposing NFL defenses for at least a first start against a team unfamiliar with their play in that system. And this advantage can last at least 4-6 games if there's enough surrounding talent to support the previous starter before the incumbent got hurt or replaced in the lineup.
Watching a good Saints defense struggle against Jalen Hurts during the first half of its game two weeks ago really solidified this thought. The Saints did little to gameplan against Hurts' specific skill sets as a runner and pocket manager.
They ran tackle-end twists with four-man pressure packages that opened the edges or the middle of the pocket for Hurts to easily escape and gain chunks of yards. They were unprepared for designed runs. And they used man-to-man coverage packages that opened huge chunks of open grass for Hurts to work through when he broke the pocket.
Most of Hurts' meaningful yardage and scoring came during the first half of the game. When the Saints adjusted to Hurts during the second half, they slowed him down. Hurts' ability to throw the ball with at least a baseline level of NFL skill combined with his running gives him an early advantage in a league that is notorious for waiting 4-6 weeks to collect film and analytic data that it uses as the basis of its gameplan against the new player.
In a 16-game season, this behavior is a lot like the average family not taking action during obviously difficult financial times for their household because they felt it important to weight 6-8 months for an economist to verify that the nation is in a recession. Clearly, you might not have the best information to formulate gameplan while waiting those 4-6 weeks to accumulate film and data, but there's something flawed about playing a base defense or using strategies that play into an opponent's strengths—strengths that many who follow the college game or studied that player's game would have told coaches was a bad idea.
Until teams figure out a better way to scout and gameplan for backup quarterbacks with this combination of skills, you can count on players like Hurts and Hill having an early advantage. It's also an important factor behind Marcus Mariota's Thursday night performance.
Yes, Mariota is a talented young quarterback, but one game does not make him an instant threat to Derek Carr. While it may happen over the course of several games, Mariota's performance was a combination of good execution from him against a defense game-planning for a different style of quarterback.
Of course, the Mariota narrative is an appealing story to rhapsodize about. Especially in hindsight (if Carr loses the gig) as that moment being the beginning of Mariota's resurrection and Carr's demise. It's also an appealing foreshadowing technique of analysts in their attempt to be among the first to recognize it.
The Chargers studied Carr's tendencies all week. Now they have to face a left-handed quarterback who has excellent speed in space and poses a threat with zone read and boot action at a much different level than Carr. Unless a defense is a dominant unit that is dictating to offenses, most defenses are at an inherent disadvantage to a quarterback change if that quarterback has had success against the speed and complexity of NFL defenses in the past.
Mariota and Tannehill have. Robert Griffin III? Not so much, if you look at his rapid demise after a promising rookie year.
Lesson: If a backup quarterback has at least one successful year as a starter, is a breakaway threat, and throws with accuracy, he's a great player to bet on for at least a week if not 4-6 against opposing defenses. Treat him as a low-end fantasy starter. If the backup has no NFL starter experience but has earned spot time on the field, at least give him the benefit of the doubt for 1-2 games as an emergency fantasy starter due to the lack of preparation that opponents have or take under these circumstances.
8. DeAndre Hopkins: Making Room for Talent
DeAndre Hopkins is a stud. Top receivers don't sublimate their play for the benefit of the system. Teams sublimate their systems for the benefit of the talent.
Antonio Brown is a top talent, but he also missed a year and a half of football and wasn't in a training camp. He hasn't had enough training in a team environment in 2020 to hone his considerable talents to a fine point in the immediate present.
Hopkins is an active top talent. My bright idea that Hopkins would become a cog in the system was a foolish one. He's too good for a team to not afford extra targets his way unless they had equal or greater talents at wide receiver. They don't.
I'm never making this mistake again.
9. Darren Waller, Robert Tonyan Jr, T.J. Hockenson, and Mike Gesicki: Time Is On Their Side
For a year labeled as a miserable one for fantasy tight end play, four young tight ends emerged as reliable starters if not straight-up studs. Darren Waller was a top-three option last year but the hand-wringing about his lack of scoring from a percentage of the fantasy analysis community proved incorrect. So did the notion that rookie receivers during a Pandemic-adjusted season would overshadow Waller in the offensive pecking order this year.
While a distant second to Travis Kelce one of the leading receivers in the NFL, period, Waller's 84 receptions and 816 yards gives him a massive production advantage to the rest of the top five options at the position.
And the rest of that top five heading into Week 15? Tonyan, Hockenson, and Gesicki. This trio is closely grouped as a tier. Hockenson is a top prospect in his second year. Tonyan was a UDFA that Detroit cut and the Packers picked up three years ago who trained with George Kittle during the offseason and is among the top touchdown producers at the position. Gesicki was a top prospect who was more scheme dependent than his peers but has come into his own as a third-year passer under veteran coordinator Chan Gailey.
Gesicki was the 12th-ranked PPR tight end last year. The rest weren't even among the top 30. Tight end is a difficult position because it's at least two positions in one.
Lessons: With respect to Waller, don't anticipate rookies to overshadow a 90-catch talent with a notable athletic advantage against the players he lines up against. As for Hockenson and Gesicki, give top tight end prospects 2-3 years to develop.
As for Tonyan, he's a former quarterback who converted midway through his career at Indiana State to tight end. Logan Thomas, another emerging talent, began his pro career as a quarterback. These types can be late bloomers worth monitoring.
10. The "Not Enough Touches to Go Around," Myth
Entering Week 15, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were the top two receivers in fantasy football. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who isn't earning near the touches fantasy analysts anticipated, is still 15th among PPR options entering Week 15. If the Chiefs could have earned a healthy campaign from Sammy Watkins, even half of the combined 183 PPR points from the contributor-level talents that are Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson added to Watkins' total of 78 could have placed him on the cusp of top-25 production. If he earned 60-80 percent, we're talking top-15, if not top-12 production.
Seattle had the No.3 and No.9 fantasy receivers in D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, respectively. Minnesota had the No.10 and 11 options in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. If you combine 18th-ranked Chris Carson's 9 games with just half of 59th-ranked Carlos Hyde's production, Carson would be entering Week 15 as the No.9 PPR back in the league.
Although Jared Goff entered Week 15 as the No.14 passer, No.12 Robert Woods and No.19 Cooper Kupp have respectable totals. If you gave Darrell Henderson half of Cam Aker's production and still platooned him with Malcolm Brown, Henderson would rise from RB26 to RB16. If he earned all of Akers' touches, which I'd argue he should have and let Akers split looks with Brown, Henderson would have at least been RB6 at the rate he has played.
Heck, combine Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett's production and you easily have the third-ranked PPR tight end in fantasy football through 14 weeks.
As weekly fantasy starters. No.3 fantasy receiver Stefon Diggs and No.22 Cole Beasley have done a lot to support the high-flying production of Josh Allen. If you combine the production from Gabriel Davis and John Brown and you have the No.19 receiver, bumping Kupp to 20th on the board. That's three top-25 receivers for the Bills.
And if Devin Singletary or Zach Moss were a singular feature back of top talent earning the feature role as the majority earner of touches, their combined talents generated more points than Kareem Hunt.
And despite less than starter-caliber production from Ben Roethlisberger on per week basis, JuJu Smith-Schuster (No.20), Chase Claypool (No.23), and Diontae Johnson (No.24) are all viable starters in 12-team PPR formats.
With Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd fading from their standing as a 1-2 punch as fantasy starters now that Joe Burrow is out and the same with Ceedee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup after Prescott's injury, it appears that Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, and Jonnu Smith are climbing the list with Ryan Tannehill. And if not them, there's Carolina's trio of Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel.
Lesson: With offenses finally spreading out to maximize the changes in rules of the past 15 years as well as using play-action in ways that generate a lot of open spaces to throw the ball, the idea that there aren't enough touches to go around is becoming obsolete.
As for the combined running back points scenarios, that's a trend. There's more distribution of labor for the running back position. Still, it underscores how much potential there is for fantasy value within an offense, even when there's fear that there aren't enough footballs to go around.
The common denominator in this equation? A quarterback good enough to distribute the ball.
This is my last Top 10 feature for 2020. I appreciate the feedback so many of you have sent me regarding this feature and others at Footballguys. Enjoy your holiday season and may we all have a much more promising 2021.