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 4'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Justin Herbert is good enough to support a top-15 fantasy season from Keenan Allen thanks to his pocket presence and vertical accuracy.
- Daniel Jones has no feel for the pocket and he stares down his first reads at an alarming rate. Get out now or suffer the horror.
- With O.J. Howard out for the year, don't write-off Rob Gronkowski and consider Cameron Brate.
- Jonathan Taylor is not the next coming of Trent Richardson. He's had some rookie learning experiences, but he's light years ahead of Marlon Mack's rookie tape and plays with more nuance that the neurotic Colts faithful are stating.
- Emmanuel Sanders and Drew Brees had a good rapport on Sunday against man and zone coverage and that's a good sign for the players and the offense.
- Justin Jefferson didn't build on last week's stats, but he's building on his performances when looking at the tape.
- Dalvin Cook's running is instructive for fantasy players evaluating young talent at the position.
- Ronald Jones II has matured as a runner but his hands are a fundamental problem that limits his fantasy upside. Watch for Ke'Shawn Vaughn to gradually earn a role similar to James White by next year, if not by year's end.
- Josh Allen and the Bills are winning big on shot plays and it's a boon for fantasy general managers.
- This week's Fresh Fish:
- The Rams Screen Game: The Lions created a blueprint to foil the Rams' screen game in Week 13 of 2018 and McVay continues to ignore the memo as it hurts his offense.
- Dallas Defense: Cleveland ran over, around, and through this unit and the leading rusher for the Browns was its third-string back, D'Ernest Johnson.
- Houston Defense: The Vikings riddled this unit with the ground game.
- Jaguars linebacker Dakota Allen gave up the game-sealing score to Joe Mixon went he abandoned his gap responsibilities while replacing the injured Myles Jack.
- While safety George Illoka stopped David Johnson in the green zone late in the game, he gave up two touchdowns because of coverage deficiencies while replacing the disqualified Harrison Smith.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1 Justin Herbert Can Support a Top-15 WR Season from Keenan Allen
Last week, I noted that Tyrod Taylor's starting gig may be in jeopardy after Justin Herbert's display of pocket management and aggressive decision making. Not only am I leaning toward Herbert keeping the starting gig despite the old coaching rule not to take away a veteran's starting gig due to injury, but I also think Herbert is capable of supporting Keenan Allen's fantasy value on the cusp of the WR1/WR2 tiers.
Allen's 8-catch, 62-yard performance was nothing special for most leagues, but the fact that Herbert didn't struggle without Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler is an important factor of consideration if concerned that opponents will shut down Herbert if they pay extra attention to Allen. Herbert's 290-yard, 3-touchdown output against the Buccaneers included 2 passes for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns to undrafted receivers on their second teams and the third to Donald Parham, Jr., a developmental draft project from a few years ago.
When any quarterback displays a willingness to go to unproven options and win, it puts opposing defenses on notice that it must play that quarterback honestly. This bodes well for Allen, who Herbert trusts enough to target aggressively and let Allen use his talents to win the ball.
The pocket movement wasn't a two-week fluke, either. Herbert told this week's broadcast crew that the most eye-opening thing about the NFL thus far was how important it is for a quarterback to climb the pocket against pressure. This is a less than Baker Mayfield has yet to learn three years into the NFL but Herbert is proving a quick study—even to the point that he's making the effort in difficult scenarios.
Herbert's pocket movement is a good example of why process-over-results evaluation is an essential part of studying players. It's the supporting framework of Herbert's game that makes his successes repeatable on the field. Considering that Herbert is the No.7 fantasy quarterback since Week 2, it's good to see that there's substance to his game holding up the box score value.
Allen is the No.11 receiver in PPR formats this year and the No.3 option since Herbert took over. Expect Allen to remain a high-volume option who's red-zone success will be low but his yardage and reception outputs to keep him a viable starter in every PPR format.
2. Daniel Jones Has the Pocket Awareness of a Horror Movie Victim
If the Giants quarterback's pocket awareness and decision-making were his life skills, he'd be the first victim in the opening scene of your typical Hollywood horror flick.
He has what I call "Pocket Deafness," and it's a difficult flaw to overcome if this has been a quarterback's issue throughout his college career and has shown zero signs of improvement in the NFL. The Giants got sold a bill of goods on Jones when Duke University staff told scouts that Jones was a David Cutcliffe Disciple of the order of the Manning Family.
Based on my contacts, half the league understood that Jones didn't earn the level of coaching from Cutcliffe that he gave past students. The Blue Devils' athletic department perpetuated the idea that Jones was a true "Cutcliffe player" to increase the program's standing to recruits.
Since Jones has arrived in New York, the team has had to implement a lot of scripted plays that are essentially one-read plays that get the ball out fast and leverage Jones' arm and athletic ability. The problem is that Jones hasn't developed sufficiently beyond this point.
This is apparent when that first read doesn't come open immediately because Jones lacks the game management skills, pocket timing, or the timing and feel for moving through his progresses to make good decisions.
Scene Two: Our victim doesn’t feel the push to the left side of the line and instead of sliding, he pivots in place as the wall breaks. pic.twitter.com/nmwlBvfYWI— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Now we’re at the scene in the dilapidated house in the country with Jones in the hallway with a chance to run for the front door or down the stairs where he already encountered the bloody meat hooks and butcher tools and yes, like every horror victim, he ignores the best choice. pic.twitter.com/72h9CjDukk— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
“Is that a man butchering two college kids? Is he running at me? Maybe I should walk away...” pic.twitter.com/cHzTQ7jeGG— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
These issues are also factors behind the high number of passes deflected that Jones had has a collegian. I don't know if this has continued at the NFL level, but I suspect i has.
While everyone and their Peruvian grandmother was concerned about the potential for the NFL to deflect every Kyler Murray pass, I tracked (by far) more deflections of Daniel Jones passes than any of the early-round prospects.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Can’t study coverage on the field. pic.twitter.com/zyfKFM96z8
While it's likely the wisest of you stayed away from Jones this summer and the more risk-friendly cut bait after Saquon Barkley's injury, if you still have Jones on your rosters—even in dynasty formats—I would calmly and quickly turn around at the entrance of this dangerous place before your fantasy team is the next victim of cruel and bloody death.
3. Don't Write-Off Rob Gronkowski (or Overlook Cameron Brate)
Two weeks ago, Bruce Arians told reporters that the Buccaneers signed Rob Gronkowski to serve primarily as a blocker, you could hear fantasy GMs rushing en masse to their nearest device to drop Gronkowski from their rosters. I was one of them.
Then, I had second thoughts and spent some FAAB money to add him back to my squad in my premium scoring PPR league. Maybe I was overthinking this change of course, but I felt like I was overreacting like the fantasy media. Why would I believe a coach telling the media how he would use a weapon like Gronkowski?
Wouldn't it be beneficial to Arians for teams to read that Gronkowski was primarily a blocker as they continue to let him acclimate back to football? Why on earth would you not leverage the rapport that Brady and Gronkowski have?
As a founding member of the, "I've won money in fantasy leagues thanks to drafting 'Washed-Up Tight Ends Who Weren't,'" why would I discount Gronkowski, who can still win downfield better than the fantasy TE1 versions of Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and Tony Gonzalez that I proudly started?
Gronkowski was brought into block. Yep.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
With OJ Howard out, Gronkowski will be asked to do a little more ðŸ™ƒ pic.twitter.com/OGS48ltKuk
Again, I may be overthinking this abut with O.J. Howard out for the year, I'm wiling to take that risk. Especially when one can ignore two bad fantasy analysis stand-bys that need to be retired:
- Once-elite athletes at tight ends who slow down due to age no longer have TE1 value.
- An offense with multiple top skill options has too many mouths to feed.
The second standby is absolutely false when there is an elite quarterback manning the offense. Tom Brady threw five touchdowns against the Chargers on Sunday while still getting acclimated to his teammates, missing Chris Godwin with a concussion, and working a primary receiver in Mike Evans who messed up his foot in the first half of the game and played through it at a fraction of his complete healthy.
And yes, O.J. Howard tearing his Achilles during the second half of the game. And it's because of this tear and the surrounding talent of the Buccaneers' remaining skill players that I'm urging you to keep an eye on Gronkowski and Cameron Brate.
The Buccaneers still have good reasons to continue its use of two tight ends. The alignments are difficult for opponents to defend and it allows flexibility with run and pass. It's also a good base alignment to change the looks pre-snap and find mismatches against the defense.
Tampa has enough speed on the outside with Evans, Godwin, and Scotty Miller to create good looks for tight ends in the intermediate and deep passing game. The Gronkowski catch above has Miller working up the same sideline.
This play below that generated a long touchdown for Howard should also work with Gronkowski or Brate, especially with one of the receivers also on this side of the field.
Will this play work with Cameron Brate and/Rob Gronkowski now that OJ Howard is out for the year?— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2020
I wouldn’t write it off despite Howard’s athletic advantage over most LBs/S’s pic.twitter.com/CnEOf7U5xv
Something that fantasy players and analysts fail to remember about Tom Brady and his offenses is that it's a more cerebral system based on a detailed level of communication that evolves as the season progresses. This is why there were multiple seasons during Brady's tenure in New England where analysts, fans, and former players-turned-parrots, clucked madness about the sky falling only to watch the Patriots ultimately deliver.
Brady and the Buccaneers are still undergoing an acclimation process and Brady is threatening to remain a top-7 fantasy quarterback after Monday Night's games. It's possible that Gronkowski remains in a low-priority role for targets and Howard's injury elevates Brate's opportunity. Brate adjusts well to the ball, has the quickness to work up the seam, and he's been a red-zone favorite for every quarterback he's worked with in Tampa.
I anticipate more of a split that gives Gronkowski the most value and Brate having good but less predictable weeks. If you have to choose one for help, Gronkowski is your swing for the fences who can give you TE2 value, at worst. Brate is a decent speculative add in leagues with deeper rosters or premium PPR formats.
4. Jonathan Taylor Is Not the Next Trent Richardson
This afternoon, I discovered that there are a contingent of Colts fans on team message boards and fantasy analysts who are concerned that Jonathan Taylor has bad vision. There's a sordid part of Colts history where the team thought it bought magic beans from the Cleveland Browns. Trent Richardson was those magic beans and he's a nightmarish chapter of the fanbase's lexicon.
Richardson was a one-dimensional runner in terms of his knowledge of blocking schemes and he never improved sufficiently enough to sustain his first year of success in Cleveland. Taylor came from a gap-heavy run scheme, so the Colts faithful are afraid that Taylor is a limited product.
I've watched Taylor enough this season to say that Taylor has some minor issues as a decision maker that are common among most rookies acclimating to the NFL, but he's far and away a more skillful craftsman at the position than Richardson or even Marlon Mack when Mack was a rookie. The idea that Colts fans should be concerned about Taylor is bordering on neurosis.
Taylor's leverage reading of the line, press-and-cut patience, and setting up of blockers are all superior to the two players mentioned when they were rookies.
If anything, Taylor is forced into difficult decisions that often mean taking what little he can get. Are there runs where he could arguably pursue a cutback or a half-beat quicker with his processing of information? Absolutely.
Still, the negatives are points most good running back prospects correct as they get a better feel for their linemen and the looks of the defense. Overall, Taylor is doing more to create yardage than he is to miss out on it.
Good press and cut here for a Jonathan Taylor. As shown with Adrian Peterson NFL Lens vid on my YouTube channel, a good jump stop creates a sense of acceleration to front side and sets up backside. #Colts pic.twitter.com/ivSfNeGs4y— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Where many have difficulties with analyzing running backs is that they get too focused on what the offensive line is doing at a point that isn't synched up to where the runner realistically has to make his decision. They'll see a push or open gap to one side of the field after the runner has made his decision to go the opposite way and use it as a reason the runner made the wrong choice.
They don't understand that the runner is using leverage points of defenders working against blockers to project where these defenders will be and then make decisions based on this data. Or, this analysis doesn't understand the blocking scheme or incorporate down-and-distance context into the runner's decison-making process.
Jonathan Taylor could have made a bigger cutback here. But consider situational football. Also, listen to common analysis I see those who look at the OL but don’t understand RB decision points in context of OL/DL interaction #Colts pic.twitter.com/WtrFKNXtYu— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Taylor is still worth your investment. He has a particularly nice stretch-run schedule with Green Bay, Las Vegas, Tennesse (twice), and Houston (twice).
5. Drew Brees And Emmanuel Sanders Are Heating Up
During the first half of the month, Emmanuel Sanders' targets seemed restricted to high-leverage work in the red zone. And after Mike Thomas got hurt, there were people sounding the alarm about Brees being washed up because he wasn't throwing the ball downfield.
Last week, I learned that those calls were alarmist and not taking Brees' logical responses to coverage into account nor were they considering the inexperience and/or errors from Deonte Harris, Jared Cook, or Josh Hill as route runners. If you have 20 minutes, you can see the details here.
While his arm talent was never a strength of his game, downfield accuracy always was. Against Detroit, Brees had a strong performance with throws of over 20 yards from scrimmage. This has more to do with the difference that teams played Brees earlier this month as well as the developing rapport Brees is showing with Sanders.
In the video above, you'll see more plays against zone or off-man coverage where the Saints use Sanders is a decoy to set up open looks for Tre'Quan Smith. In the clips below, you'll see Sanders and Brees working zone and man routes to perfection.
Brees is QB19 in fantasy leagues through Week 4 but QB16 since Week 2. The developing rapport with Sanders, the eventual return of Thomas, and one of the easiest remaining schedules for any team in the league should lead to better production for Brees and Sanders.
If you must take a chance on a buy-low option in a trade where you give away a better passer to get a Brees and a capable receiver or top tight end, I'd do it.
6. Your Second Reminder that Justin Jefferson Is For-Real
Justin Jefferson was the subject of last week's Gut Check, including a short video that demonstrated why the rookie has immediate upside for fantasy teams.
Jefferson didn't build on his 7-catch, 175-yard outing against the Titans in the box score, but he had his second straight 100-yard outing against the Texans this weekend, showing off excellent route work and pass-catching against zone and man-to-man coverage.
He's also a good run blocker, something I loved about him at LSU when studying him for the 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
If you're not on Jefferson's bandwagon, think about the fortunate souls who got on the A.J. Brown Express last year. Read the Gut Check and figure out how to get him if you need receiver help.
7. Dalvin Cook Is An Instructive Runner for the Fantasy Community
Dalvin Cook checks several boxes when it comes to common mistakes fans make when evaluting the talent and potential of NFL runners. Cook's size, poor vertical leap, lack of hard-cutting ability, and other workout metrics sounded the alarm for the fantasy community interested in Cook's pre-draft profile.
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.
The lack of top metrics scared them into thinking that Cook was a good college athlete who wouldn't translate to the NFL because he wasn't strong or explosive enough for a starting gig. I thought he might be the safest back in his class. The problems with their thinking has always been based on a template.
You see, to many fantasy writers are embedded into the Matrix. Everything is formulaic and if the player doesn't fit the formula he is spit out. They don't account for the fact that running backs have the greatest range of height, weight, speed, and style of play of any position.
Successful running backs during the past 10 years have a variation of height, weight, and speed that ranges from defensive ends, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. No other position has that wide of a range of successful options, and we haven't even gotten to style of play.
Cook runs with a lot of curvilinear movement. It's a method of changing direction that's akin to a bending one's way around an obstacle in a curve more than an angular change of direction. Think of a street motorcycle taking a curve.
Runners with excellent curvilinear movement like Cook are rare but those like Cook won't show well with the metrics tests because those workouts are based on runners with hard-cutting styles and stop-start explosion that hasn't been a huge part of his game.
Cook keeps his feet on the ground, maintains his speed well, and understands angles of contact to defeat contact. His stiff-arm has always been an asset and as has the variation on that theme--the forearm shiver. Both act as after-contact tools that present the illusion of power because they achieve the same result of power running.
Dalvin Cook has some power for sure, but the broken tackles are more about coordination and body alignment to handle each defender posing an obstacle.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2020
Leverage. Shoulders. Knees. Hand placement. #Vikings
This is like great voice leading on rhythm changes. @moceanworker pic.twitter.com/NuDKZ2AJTN
Before you jump on the metrics bandwagon sounding the alarm about a top college running back prospect, it's worth understanding if his style fits the exercises used to measure his game.
8. Ronald Jones II Has Matured between the Tackles, but His Hands Are Frying Pans
I've shown Jones' improvements as a runner before. There's no need to show it again. If you want a reminder, you can click these links here:
Although Jones worked on his receiving skills this summer, it's clear that his hands are still a weakness that will prevent him from attaining feature-back status this year. Based on the short window of patience that teams must exhibit, Jones will probably be labeled a two-down back and never got a featured shot again.
The problem with Jones's pass-catching is the way he uses his hands. He's figuring out the correct position of his hands to attack the ball, but he lacks the coordination and feel to finish the process.
Jones needs to watch the Keenan Allen catch I showed earlier in this feature. Allen presents his hands perfectly and uses his fingertips rather than his palms to win the ball. Here are more examples that are excellent teaching tape for young receivers and backs with frying-pan hands.
This is a catch of great difficulty—an unanticipated tip that knuckles in motion—and watch how well WR CeeDee Lamb uses his fingers to win this ball.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
More teaching tape for Ronald Jones II. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/6gHhO3ruUu
Ronald Jones II is currently RB27 in standard formats and RB22 in PPR, which is likely an inflated value based on Vaughn not being a part of the lineup and the Buccaneers having more comfort with Jones and LeSean McCoy in the passing game more than Leonard Fournette.
Expect this to change with Vaughn performing well in spot time. He could evolve into a burgeoning James White option as the season progresses and cut significantly into Jones' role next year.
9. Josh Allen And the Bills Are Excelling with Shot Plays
There are two situations in the NFL where shot plays (aggressive, vertical passing plays) have great success: The play after a turnover and the play after a defensive back gets hurt.
Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are capitalizing this year and it was the difference in the Raiders game.
Allen is playing confident football and when a player with his physical talents is confident, you get some high-upside performances.
As much as Allen has improved, it's worth remembering every week that until proven otherwise, Allen still has the tendency to make awful decisions with game management 1-3 times a week. This is what separates starters from backups and deep playoff contenders from short-term playoff entries.
Someone Slipped “Pop Goes the Weasel” into LV...— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Josh Allen having an excellent gm but 1-3 plays per week look like this. Fortunately it was only one and with a 14-point lead. #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/nkhTwkG6U5
If Allen can mature past this issue and beat teams that can play zone coverage and get consistent pressure, he has a chance to fulfill the most optimistic pre-draft outlooks. I'm optimistic he'll continue to have a good fantasy year, perhaps maintain a top-five season but the challenges haven't arrived yet.
10. Fresh Fish: Week 4
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: Rams Head Coach Sean McVay
McVay loves the screen game and every NFL coach in the league knows it. Unfortunately, based on McVay's penchant for calling them, he hasn't gotten the memo that the league has figured it out.
The league actually figured it out in Week 13 of 2018 when the Lions foiled McVay's screen game so well that it became a template for the NFL to follow. Bill Belichick credited the Lions' strategy for shutting down McVay's offense in the Super Bowl later that year.
Still, it took McVay more than half of the year to change parts of his offense in 2019. The screen game wasn't part of it. This must be his offensive version of a Woobie or favorite blanket, because for the past two weeks, the Bills and Giants made McVay's screen game look ill-advised, repeatedly.
But WAIT! They won’t stop are super-secret screen!!!— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 5, 2020
Sean McVay can remember play calls from his years as an assistant but can’t remember he ran a failed screen the play before and the opposition had been fouling his screen gm since late in the 2018 regular season. pic.twitter.com/7ggr9AAFMJ
You want more cowbell? You got more cowbell! On to the rest of the Fresh Fish...
- Falcons defense: I'm calling my shot even though they play in an hour. They're injured and awful.
- Houston's run defense: The front seven cannot hold up at the line of scrimmage and it's killing this team.
- Dallas' defense: D'Ernest Johnson looked competent but there's a reason why he's the Browns' third-string running back. He benefited from a good offensive line and an awful run unit. He could have stopped for directions on a few of these runs.
- Dakota Watson replaced Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack during the Bengals game and promptly abandoned his run fit, resulting in a long scoring play from Joe Mixon.
- Vikings' safety George Illoka stopped David Johnson inside the five late in the game but he also gave up two passing scores due to his confusion with coverage assignments and this kept the game close.
Thanks again for all of your feedback with this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.