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 defense, 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 3'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Packers receiver Allen Lazard is the ultimate example of how the team can make the individual shine as a match-up-based fantasy option.
- Darrell Henderson is solidifying his role as the starter in a committee with Malcolm Brown as the short-yardage and third-down option until Cam Akers shows enough to earn more than a bit role.
- Rex Burkhead scored three touchdowns, but don't expect him to overtake James White. He might have to overtake Sony Michel and Michel played well.
- Mike Davis demonstrated his versatility against the Chargers and the Panthers' usage that didn't veer far from the Christian McCaffery role is why Davis was a consensus recommendation as a free agent in Week 3.
- Robby Anderson earns targets from the slot and it's keeping his fantasy value steady enough to consider him a weekly start in many formats.
- Don't write off Devonta Freeman, yet. He showed juice with his limited workload during his Week 3 debut.
- Nick Mullens, Jerick McKinnon, and Ross Dwelley are all worth your fantasy consideration as long as their colleagues are nursing injuries.
- Just Herbert displayed promising pocket management, which is a good sign for his future development.
- Justin Jefferson and Gabriel Davis are rookie wide receivers on the rise, but it's Jefferson who has the immediate fantasy value.
- This week's Fresh Fish:
- Mitchell Trubisky: The Falcons were playing with essentially half of its starting defense and Trubisky wasn't good enough to stay on the field. Nick Foles earns an honorable mention because if it weren't for the Falcons' reserves, he probably throws three interceptions in the second half rather than earning tepid praise for "giving his receivers a chance to win the ball."
- Atlanta's aforementioned defense due to its injuries is a great matchup for opposing offenses until it gets healthy and gains more experience in the secondary.
- Tampa Bay picked on Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell in the passing game and that's a matchup you should savor for your tight ends and running backs.
- Daniel Jones is a turnover machine.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Allen Lazard's Big Night: Scheme Matters, But It's Not a Sign of Things to Come
Lazard's 146-yard, 1-touchdown performance against the Saints on Sunday night was a much-needed boost for a Packers offense that didn't have Davante Adams. However, no one would ever mistake Lazard for Adams, and no one should presume Lazard is a plug-and-play replacement as a primary receiver for Green Bay or fantasy purposes.
Most fantasy starters are among the very best performers at the highest level of football. Most NFL players are not in this tier. As fantasy general managers we sometimes need this reminder.
Lazard's size, hands, knowledge of his role, and skill as a blocker make it possible for the Packers to scheme him into a productive role in its passing game. It's important to realize this about Lazard's output on Sunday night or else casual look at the highlights might have you thinking he's an emerging star.
The Packers use Lazard in the slot and often tight to the offensive line so they can leverage his blocking and then create routes from the role. Defensive ends don't mind when they have to face a slot receiver in the run game, but it also means they have to cover if this anticipated run is actually a pass play.
Exploiting these matchups creates easy yards for even a slower receiver like Lazard. Another way to turn a defense's tendencies against intself is to find where two defenders have different responsibilities for one player and test how quickly they can react to the uncertainty of play action and maintain the level of execution and teamwork expected of them.
What you'll see below are two ways Green Bay anticipated the Saints defense having different defenders accounting for Lazard in the run game and passing game and exploiting those roles to its advantage.
It appeared New Orleans adjusted early in the second half when we saw a defender play Lazard man-to-man and jam the receiver at the line.
However, the Saints played quarters coverage and didn't jam Lazard on the following play and it led to the receiver's biggest play of the game.
Lazard wins deep when the offense can give him an unfettered runway to build up speed and run by flat-footed defensive backs trying to account for the run and the pass. He wins short when matched up against a defensive end or linebacker in man-to-man, zone coverage, or when the run/pass responsibilities are split between two defenders. And Lazard's size makes him a capable one-on-one threat at the perimeter with intermediate routes because he's big enough to win the ball in the air and strong enough to work through physical coverage at that depth.
When Davante Adams returns, Lazard will return to a supporting role and his production will become less predictable. It's possible that will happen as soon as Week 4.
Even so, Lazard remains worth your consideration as a weekly plug-and-play free agent addition or bye-week reserve when he faces defenses that prefer man-to-man coverage but the Packers can spread the field and force them into zone. Atlanta, Houston, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Carolina are all nice matchups for Lazard to have a puncher's chance at starter production this year, especially if injuries continue to hit the Packers' depth chart.
2. Darrell Henderson Is the Leader of the Rams Committee Backfield
I profiled Henderson's performance against the Eagles in last week's Gut Check feature, and concluded that Henderson could be a nightmare for fantasy players and opposing NFL defenses. It was clear from the tape that Henderson has gained some comfort and confidence in the Rams' scheme and was no longer one-dimensional as a runner.
Henderson split reps evenly with Malcolm Brown against the Bills in Week 3, but he earned the start and gained over 100 yards on the ground against a good Buffalo defense. More encouraging was Sean McVay's refusal to depart from the ground game despite the Bills earning a healthy lead at halftime, and it was behind this balanced attack that featured a healthy dose of Henderson that the Rams mounted a second-half comeback.
It was also the second week in a row that Henderson displayed the pad level, low center of gravity, and functional contact balance to earn red-zone touches and short-yardage plays. Although Brown earned a healthy share of these looks as well as third-down reps from shotgun, Henderson was the most effective runner on the field and his skills in the screen game and with vertical targets makes him the back that the Rams are most excited about keeping on the field.
If the Rams can only figure out a way not to get too attached to the screen game, the offense could be even better.
3. Wake up (Sony Michel), Rex Burkhead's Week 3 Was a Fantasy Fever Dream...
Oh, how excited some of the fantasy community gets when Rex Burkhead has is bi-annual fantasy week of note. I bet most of them have grown up in one of those Midwestern states where there's some annual traditional like Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
I imagine them treating Burkhead a lot like Punxsutawney Phil, planning year-round for the big questions: Will Burkhead get his hind-parts off the pine or will the splinters keep him from the field? Well, folks, looks like Sexy Rexy, the Foxborough H-Back didn't see his backside and made it onto the field in Week 3, and gave fantasy community quite a thrill.
Don't get me wrong, Burkhead reminded me of Fred Jackson when he was at Nebraska and if you recall, Bill Belichick used to rhapsodize about Jackson every time the Patriots played the Bills. I'm also a realist about the value of James White and the track record of Burkhead's "splinters" that have seemingly kept him off the field more often than he's been on it.
And as much as some may wish Burkhead was the lead runner in this offense, Sony Michel isn't going away just yet. In fact, the best thing Burkhead might have done on Sunday is wake up the remnants of the Sony Michel I remember watching at Georgia.
I'm kidding about Burkhead motivating Michel. The reason behind Michel's lackluster NFL career in comparison to his draft capital has to do with a degenerative knee.
As you can see from the runs above where he's caught from behind, he's no longer the consistent big-play threat that he once was. Michel is still a powerful, decisive, and versatile player and with the production he earned Sunday, don't count on Burkhead usurping the role.
If anything, throw your Sexy Rexy the Foxborough H-Back celebration for the week and count on James White returning soon as the complement to Michel. And no, Belichick isn't frowning at the thought of this, it's just his normal facial expression.
4. Why Mike Davis Was a Consensus FBG's Recommendation from the Waiver Wire
Recommending Davis is not some massive victory moment for Footballguys staff. Still, it is an obvious pick that's worth illustrating its value. After all, Davis bounced around the league after earning admiration from a number of draft analysts in the football community.
He's the example of a good running back whose lack of draft capital and top speed led to a labeling of him as a good backup, especially when he fumbled (the only time during his career) early in his career under Chip Kelley and was cut from the team shortly after.
I'd take a long look at Mike Davis alongside Chicago's David Montgomery, too. Considering that the Bears would draft Mitchell Trubisky ahead of Patrick Mahomes II (and this isn't solely hindsight bashing on my part, I bashed it when it happened) and trade for Nick Foles (more on that later), the thought crosses my mind that the team didn't want real competition for Montgomery.
We'll never know the truth about my conspiracy theory but Davis' performance for the Panthers was enough to please Fantasy GMs who paired Davis with Christian McCaffrey or at least added the veteran when McCaffrey got hurt last week.
The Panthers defense is weak enough to force passing game scripts for its offense in most games, but Teddy Bridgewater's lack of skill in the vertical game and the offensive line's mediocrity leads to a steady stream of check-downs. The fact that the coaches didn't change much with the offense when switching to Davis as its starter is also a positive.
Davis should deliver no worse than high-end, fantasy RB3 value in PPR formats until McCaffrey returns.
5. What Carolina's Offense Is Doing to Help Robby Anderson's Fantasy Cause
Even after a medicore outing against the Chargers, Robby Anderson is the No.7 fantasy receiver in PPR formats entering Monday night. After averaging 113 yards and 7.5 receptions during his first 2 starts, Anderson's 5-catch, 55-yard outing remains a source of optimism because of the way the Carolina Panthers are using him in the passing game.
In contrast to the Jets, who restricted Anderson to screen plays, seam routes barreling into safeties, and other low-percentage vertical plays up the sideline, the Panthers are playing effective matchup football with the former Pro-Bowl receiver who escaped New York.
It's unlikely that Anderson remains a top-12 fantasy receiver in this offense, but can he deliver production on the cusp of the WR2/WR3 tiers? With a steady diet of crossing routes and vertical plays, absolutely.
6. Don't Write Off Devonta Freeman Yet
Unless you're desperate, I'm not telling you to rush out and nab Freeman as a plug-in starter for your fantasy team. The Giants offensive line didn't suddenly become better, and Daniel Jones didn't buy magic pocket beans.
I am about due diligence when I can pursue it. And as the one guy at this site was required to watch and write progress reports about the Atlanta Falcons every week for the past 12 seasons, I wasn't convinced that Freeman had lost much, if anything, when he was on the field last year.
It's easy to link bad outcomes with line play to bad outcomes to the running back. Todd Gurley during the Jeff Fisher era. Adrian Peterson in Arizona. Nick Chubb during the preseason of his rookie year.
Imagine the way fans, fantasy writers, and media would have bashed Ladainian Tomlinson and his 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie or questioned Marshall Faulk a potential fraud after his 1995-96 campaigns. Those tiny dopamine hits called clicks make attention-loving idiots of all of us.
Thank goodness we didn't have social media in 1975 or else Chicago would have been demanding George Halas' head for his foolish first-round reach for that kid from Jackson State who only managed 679 yards and 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie.
Not that Freeman is comparable to any of these greats, but he's a decent running back who the Giants paid $3 million this year to salvage what it could from Saquon Barkley's ACL tear. Based on a few plays, Freeman still has short-area quickness, sees the field well, and enough burst to do the job.
The one thing going for Freeman is that he has always been a wiser decision-maker than the precocious Barkley, who often leaned too hard on his stunning athletic ability and occasionally to his detriment. If Freeman can stay healthy, he'll be the best all-around back on this depth chart in 2020 and the Giants have some decent-to-favorable matchups for its ground game with the Rams, Cowboys, Bengals, Cardinals, Football Team (twice), and Eagles (twice).
Under these circumstances, Freeman still has the skills to offer at least fantasy RB3 value during some of these weeks if Daniel Jones can tell the difference between a linebacker and a receiver. Just keep this in mind before you completely erase Freeman from consideration.
7. A Trio of 49ers Fantasy Free Agent Candidates
Nick Mullens, Jerick McKinnon, and Ross Dwelley all performed well against the Giants. While not remotely a resume booster of a statement on its own, the way they performed combined with past performances is an indication that they can deliver for the 49ers—and fantasy rosters—as needed.
McKinnon is the most value short-term (1-3 weeks) and Mullens long-term (4-6 weeks). Dwelley might be worth a one-week plug-in if the 49ers hold out George Kittle one more week and Jordan Reed's ankle injury is too difficult to play through in Week 4 after Reed tried to gut it out after sustaining it but only lasted a play.
Mullens reads the field well for a backup and knows the 49ers offense well enough to make aggressive throws.
Where Mullens could struggle a little more than Garoppolo is the red zone but even with this late throw below, it wouldn't surprise me if Mullens gets quicker with his processing after more practice time with the starters.
If you're in a Super-flex format or a deep league, Mullens is worth your consideration due to his skills and the way Kyle Shanahan is so expert at maximizing talent in his offense. McKinnon's speed and change of direction make him a big-play threat behind an excellent offensive line.
There were multiple plays where the 49ers unit opened creases where ball carriers went untouched for most of the play.
I could show others, but you get the idea. Good offensive lines generate production for skill players. Don't forget that when considering names off the waiver wire who might not be as familiar to you.
8. Justin Herbert's Promise
Herbert looks good for a rookie. I'm not even looking at the stats as a basis for this, so if you're going to respond with what Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray did, I don't care. I'm talking about the things I see on tape that often come back to bite an early-producing rookie whose team is able to minimize his weaknesses for a 12-16 starts.
One of the most important of these things is pocket management. Can the player maneuver from pressure, stay in the pocket, and efficiently reset and fire the ball with accuracy?
Herbert has it. Here are two examples along with a decent read or two.
So far, I like Herbert's willingness to attack downfield and his poise in the pocket. We'll need another 14-20 games to see how Herbert handles a variety of coverages, game situations, and adversity, but from a fantasy perspective, Herbert offers bye-week value for a team that needs to upgrade its talent elsewhere and has a marketable second quarterback to trade away.
The bigger question is whether Anthony Lynn will return to Tyrod Taylor and give Taylor another shot when healthy. I don't think so, but until we know, banking on Herbert as a No.2 passer for your re-draft roster is still a gamble.
Based on his play, especially from the pocket, his dynasty value deserves a bump.
9. Emerging Rookie Wideouts: Justin Jefferson and Gabriel Davis
Justin Jefferson may be another form of evidence that we shouldn't pay too much attention to the performance of receivers during training camp. Jefferson was slow to acclimate in camp, and I can imagine Vikings fans worrying they landed another Laquon Treadwell.
Not so. Jefferson exploded for 7 catches, 175 yards, and a score in Week 3 against the Titans. He was confident in his routes against man and zone coverage, he delivered crisp breaks, and he transitions fast from receiver to runner.
Sweet. https://t.co/0BTEnAZll4— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 27, 2020
Even if you remove the fade route that he caught over Malcolm Butler from the equation, a gorgeous play that many draftniks feared he didn't have in his game because they only watched 2019 film (thoughts on that here), it's clear that the lightbulb came on for Jefferson between training camp and this weekend.
He played fast, physical, and looked like the all-around talent who could work the slot and the perimeter when called upon. This is an excellent development for the Vikings offense that desperately needed someone to fill the shoes of Stefon Diggs because it's clear that Irv Smith and Olabisi Johnson aren't doing it in any capacity.
Jefferson's work might actually help Smith the most, if he can get out of Kyle Rudolph's shadow this year.
Davis was an intriguing receiver from UCF who I though fit best in an offense that would use him on routes that break over the middle. He has better build-up speed than stop-start suddenness and it featuring him on these middle-of-the-field routes would maximize Davis' potential after the catch in comparison to the perimeter where a lot more stop-start work has to happen as a runner.
Davis is the example of a player whose performance has been consistent with his camp exploits. He's proving reliable as a big-slot weapon who can also deliver as a blocker near the line of scrimmage.
The Bills love using 11 personnel, which gets Davis on the field often. He'll make a solid bye-week flex-play this year capable of repeating his 4-catch, 81-yard output against the Rams.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 3
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: Bears Quarterbacks
The Falcons defense came into Week 3 missing three cornerbacks from its starting rotation, a starting linebacker, and a starting defensive end. That's nearly half of the starting lineup from a until that just made this list last week. Yet, it was the fresh fish that preyed on Trubisky.
Even the good throw of the day for Trubisky wasn't very good...
Although Nick Foles brought the Bears back for an improbable victory that makes the Bears an even more improbable 3-0, it took much of quarter for Foles to find the players with the white jerseys. He spent much of the second half throwing the ball to the players with the black jerseys who just happened to miss the ball and that spheroid winding up in the hands of his teammates.
Differentiating Foles' play from Trubisky with "at least he gives his teammates a chance to win the ball," is tepid praise and a weak translation for, "he throws the ball up for grabs."
The fact that Foles barely beat a team with half of its defensive starters missing isn't a resounding victory for Chicago Bears quarterbacking. The Jaguars are still thanking Bears GM Ryan Pace for taking that bloated contract off their books.
On to the rest of the Fresh Fish...
- Falcons defense, which not only is still a liability and makes most fantasy matchups juicy for each team's players, but is had five starters in the training room and still did enough to help Trubisky get benched. If those scrubs could catch, we might have seen third-string, turnover jackpot Tyler Bray tell Trubisky and Foles to hold his beer.
- Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell is a liability in coverage and the Buccaneers exploited it multiple times on Sunday. Big and slow slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs from the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins all have a chance to make you happy and Jewell's life miserable for the next three weeks.
- Daniel Jones is an excellent counterfeit NFL quarterback, but his game doesn't hold up to the light. This is a basic leverage read that he shouldn't miss. It appears he anticipated linebacker Fred Warner's break better than the fact that Warner had his teammate covered.
Thanks again for all of your feedback with this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.