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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.
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).
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 12'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Josh Reynolds' reuniting with Jared Goff in Detroit led to the duo making good on their rapport established in L.A. Reynolds never got to be a perimeter option for the Rams that made him a start at Texas A&M. That's about to change and that could lead to fantasy starter production for the Lions in December.
- DeSean Jackson dominated the Cowboys' secondary with his route running, speed, and savvy for drawing penalties. He's legitimately a short-term upgrade to Henry Ruggs III and a viable fantasy for December.
- Although the Cowboys missed Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, Dak Prescott once again showed that if he isn't an elite NFL quarterback, he's absolutely an elite fantasy passer.
- Stefon Diggs' touchdown off a red-zone jerk route against Marshon Lattimore illustrates a wide receiver at the height of his powers as well as a route that is only useful situationally in the NFL.
- Dontrell Hilliard, a player I recommended as Week 12's Add-Now option in the Replacements, earned over 140 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against the Patriots and will be a hot waiver-wire option. While worth adding, Hilliard is not the answer in Tennesse while Derrick Henry is out as much as he's part of the answer to its woebegone ground game.
- Any lingering concerns about Rhamondre Stevenson's ball security, which was a moderate concern during his only season at Oklahoma, might be gone after the Patriots study one of Stevenson's fourth-quarter runs to help salt away the game.
- Rob Gronkowski may not be what he used to be, but what he is is still Pro-Bowl-caliber skill as a blocker, pass-catcher, runner, and decoy.
- Odell Beckham Jr scored for the first time in over a year and on the type of play where he's gotten open in Cleveland but not fed the ball. Maintain starter expectations for Beckham in December.
- One overused trick play tells you a lot about the struggles of the Cleveland Browns' offense.
- Fresh Fish: The Jaguars' run defense got run over by Atlanta's offensive line, regulars to 2021's Fresh Fish, and a still gimpy Cordarelle Patterson.
- Cowboys CB Anthony Brown gave up four defensive pass interference penalties — three to DeSean Jackson alone.
- Jalen Reagor and the Eagles' offense made key mistakes.
- Kirk Cousins earned praise in this column two weeks ago and true to Vikings fans' expectations, he had a cringe-worthy moment against the 49ers.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself: Josh Reynolds
The NFL is the real world but with a lot of cameras running and the desire for everyone profiting from it to portray it as fantastical. Once upon a time, Josh Reynolds displayed contested-catch artistry as a perimeter threat at Texas A&M.
His draft eligibility coincided with the sunset of the NFL's demand for the Dez Bryant-Alshon Jeffery types that teams elevated in value because they could jump high and body defensive backs on slants and fades. It was also the dawn of the NFL embracing the primary receiver with excellent route skills free of ancient and pseudo-analytical restrictions to height and weight — Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr, and Tyreek Hill among others.
It didn't mean that long-tall athletes at the position were out, but when Mike Mayock and most of the NFL Draft community had an early-round grade for Equanimeous St. Brown and he went on the third day, this and other recent draft decisions felt like the dawning of an age of reason for receiver valuation. Still, Reynolds was an unnecessary draft-day casualty of this change.
Landing in L.A. as a third-day pick and holdover from the Jeff Fisher era, Reynolds was skilled enough to survive the roster turnover that new coaches initiate, especially a system coach like Sean McVay. The fact that Reynolds not only survived but earned routine playing time in McVay's system as a slot receiver running digs, posts, seams, crossing routes, and corner routes is a testament to Reynolds having more skills than his new coach first thought.
Still, Reynolds rarely got to do what he did best as a receiver: Win the football on the perimeter, especially in the vertical game. Signing with Tennessee this spring, it appeared Reynolds would earn the opportunity to become a primary or high-end complement as an outside receiver until the Titans traded for Julio Jones. While we don't know for sure, the timing of this deal coincided with Reynolds suffering an Achilles' injury that limited him throughout the summer and early fall. When we saw Reynolds on the field, the Titans used him as a big slot receiver.
The NFL labels players based on the film. And tape may not lie but the people watching it may not know how to see — or choose to see what's there. Players earn labels based on their video resume and past behavior. I still think of Pro-Bowl special teams ace Cedric Peerman, an excellent 215-pound college running back with rugged balance and 4.3 speed who might have been the precursor to Nick Chubb if given a real shot.
Instead, Peerman landed on a Ravens' team with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, moved onto Detroit and Cleveland for brief stints over the same summer as a UDFA in crowded backfields, before Cincinnati kept him based on his prowess for kick coverage. Peerman spent years in Cincinnati and only earned offensive snaps in the late fourth quarter of preseason games — the time of games where none of the coaches were looking at him as a legitimate running back option because he already made the team covering kicks.
It took the decimation of the Bengals' running back depth chart for Peerman to earn playing time in a regular-season game and when he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage and looked like he belonged at the position, Jay Gruden told reporters after the game that "We didn't really know what we had in Peerman."
Doug Farrar's excellent book on the NFL's history of schematic innovation, "The Genius of Desperation," is aptly titled. It's also an apt description of how many players without draft capital or mislabeled due to coaching changes and mass player turnover earn another opportunity to show what they truly can be. Raheem Mostert, Isaiah Crowell, Kurt Warner, Adam Thielen, many other starter-caliber players were essentially born from a team's desperate need for contributors due to injury or disappointing players at the top of depth charts.
The Detroit Lions are in a rebuilding year (era) and even before the team lost Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus to injury, there wasn't much there. A friend of mine, recruiting director at a D-1 program got to watch and evaluate the Lions' receiving corps for the team this spring and he asked me a question about a specific type of receiver often seen in the NFL and how often did I think that type of player actually developed into something productive. I brought up Breshad Perriman as an example of his general description of the player type and that I regarded this type, including Perriman, with pessimism.
He laughed and told me that was the exact player he was thinking about when he thought of the question. Neither of us had a strong impression of the Lions' receiving corps a far back as May. Because the Lions need receivers, their desperation makes them open to players who have been mislabeled by established teams with richer depth charts. No, the Titans need receiving help right now, but when they let go of Reynolds, they still had a healthy A.J. Brown and were expecting Jones to return soon.
Now in Detroit, Reynolds gets to work with the quarterback that knows him best and as a perimeter threat, which Reynolds only got to do in parts of Rams' practices. In his first game with Goff, Reynolds' 3-catch, 70-yard, 1-score afternoon against the Bears scratched the surface of what he could become for Detroit.
Reynolds did most of his work on the perimeter but we also know that he and Goff were productive together on routes that broke inside the numbers and the hash. Although we didn't see completed "trust throws" to Reynolds in this game, Goff completed several to Quintez Cephus earlier in the year. Expect Reynolds to become Goff's favorite target on the wide receiver depth chart and that rapport leads to fantasy starter production in at least three-receiver lineups.
2. You Can Call Me Al: DeSean Jackson
Al Davis was addicted to the vertical game. So much so, former journeyman quarterback Jason Campbell tells a story of Al Davis calling him in the middle of a game to throw the ball deep despite the defense playing a two-deep safety coverage.
The ghost of Davis is ecstatic over the Raiders' addition of DeSean Jackson. A temporary replacement to Henry Ruggs III, the aging Jackson may be at the end of his career but his athletic ability, route skills, and overall savvy for the game make him a temporary upgrade.
Jackson caught 3 of 4 targets for 102 yards and a score against the Cowboys, an impressive afternoon in the box score. However, Jackson's performance goes well beyond the box score when considering he also forced Dallas cornerback Anthony Brown into three defensive pass interference (DPI) penalties.
Ruggs had made strides as a route runner during his first year and a half as an NFL receiver, but he didn't execute at the level of detail that Jackson often exhibits.
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