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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: The Season In Review
This week's article shares 10 topics from the 2021 season that will carry over to 2022 and beyond. This will be a shorter column with an occasional film example that serves as a brief example of the points made below. For more examples, you can always click the links that will take you to the past articles.
1. Scheme Players vs. Matchup Players
Scheme Players are individuals who have the baseline skills to produce in the NFL if placed in an offense that asks them to execute plays where there's minimal effort to defeat an individual defender one-on-one. Matchup Players are your starters who can win one-on-one.
The best players are Matchup Players who can consistently challenge top individual opponents. Think Justin Jefferson and JaMarr Chase at wide receiver, Nick Chubb and Christian McCaffery at running back, and Patrick Mahomes II at quarterback. Pat Freiermuth and Dawson Knox have made the transition from players solely useful with schemed plays to Matchup Players who a quarterback can force the ball towards in a key situation.
Learning the difference between scheme and matchup player can help you as a fantasy GM and football fan:
You Primary Want to Target Matchup Players in at Least the First 6-8 Rounds of Fantasy Drafts: If a player is productive why should it matter which type of player he is? In many cases, it won't matter. However, let's use Elijah Mitchell and Nick Chubb as examples. Mitchell has had a terrific rookie year as a sixth-round pick, earning 165 touches for 759 yards and 5 scores as a runner.
The 49ers' playbook uses a smaller range of plays for its ground game with Mitchell. Far and away the most common play is Toss, which relies heavily on the tackle, fullback, and tight end to open a large crease that allows a running back to hit without much manipulation of the defense. The faster the back, the better.
With Trent Williams, George Kittle, and Kyle Jusczyck at these three key support positions — and arguably the best in the world at each as blockers — Mitchell has become a productive starter despite having a limited range of developed tools at his position. Mitchell epitomizes the Running Backs Don't Matter Extremist's idea of the position because for those who take the idea to an extreme, running back is an intuitive position largely based on the raw athletic materials of speed, quickness, agility, and strength.
Deebo Samuel is fast, quick, agile, and strong, and look at how this wide receiver has earned 39 percent of Mitchell's total yardage on 26 percent of Mitchell's workload, mostly on Toss.
With this formula in place, why wouldn't you want to invest in Mitchell as an early-round player in 2022? If you can guarantee Williams, Kittle, and Jusczyck can stay healthy, you would.
With that in mind, let's contrast Mitchell and the 49ers this year with Nick Chubb, who epitomizes the Running Backs Have Developed Skills camp. Yes, Chubb is fast, quick, agile, and strong but he also has excellent footwork, an awesome range of techniques for finishing runs and maintaining his balance, and fantastic skills for anticipating blocks and manipulating defenders into blocks.
Like Mitchell, Chubb has an excellent offensive line. Unlike the 49ers, the Browns run a far wider range of play types for Chubb in the ground game. The Browns have also suffered numerous injuries to its offensive line throughout the year, which has often forced Cleveland to roll with second-, third-, and fourth-string options.
Despite the issues with the line, Chubb has been more efficient as a producer on a wider variety of plays than Mitchell.
In the early rounds, you want players who can maintain starter production when there are injuries to support staff. Certainly, there are scenarios where even the best Matchup Players cannot deliver fantasy starter production due to injuries to enough surrounding talent, but their skills have greater stability than scheme talents.
Scheme Talents are better picks for the mid-to-late rounds because you're not as invested in their success on a weekly basis. If everything remains stable with the support staff, then it won't matter. But if you're seeking rain-or-shine production, Matchup Players are the more stable choice.
If you pick a Scheme Talent in the early rounds it's not an issue, but it can make your team less stable if you pick multiple Scheme Talents in the early rounds.
Quarterbacks and Tight Ends Are the Easiest to Discern between the Two Types: You saw the two examples of Matchup Tight Ends above. I'll add Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam to the conversation. Fant is an athletic Scheme Talent. Fant wouldn't be a more productive player if he earned Okwuegbunam's targets because the type of plays targeting Okwuegbunam isn't the type that Fant is good at.
Fant does best with targets that give him the time or space to get into the open field thanks to misdirection. You can even include double-moves to this list because what's happening at the line of scrimmage is often a more elaborate form of misdirection taking place than straight-forward play-action. While Fant certainly needs to have some skill to execute a double move it's often happening with the offense is placing a larger than usual amount of resources into misleading the defense.
Fant has performed to the projections of many, but we know most touted Fant as the next "breakout" player to reach at least the top-five at his position's production value. Match-up Players win one-on-one with a wide variety of routes and ranges of the field.
Baker Mayfield and Kurt Cousins are great examples of Scheme Players at the quarterback position. Mayfield has only produced consistently during the season when his line has been healthy and the Browns have faced subpar defenses. Cousins, like Mayfield, runs an offense rooted in a versatile ground game with an elite running back depth chart but the wide receiver talent is far better among the top three options.
This isn't to say that Mayfield and Cousins are equal talents and Cousins has a better supporting staff. Cousins is more accurate, a better decision-maker from the pocket, maneuvers better from pressure, and he has a near-equal ground game and better supporting staff at wide receiver. Matchup quarterbacks can make more of the 3-5 Plays That Matter (more on this idea later) with or without Matchup Receivers, something I'll discuss again in this column a bit later.
Patrick Mahomes II is a Matchup Quarterback. Despite the offensive line struggling, the ground game limited, defenses having greater success with specific coverage schemes, receivers dropping the ball, and Mahomes veering more often into reckless decision-making in an attempt to make things happen, Mahomes is still the No.4 fantasy quarterback of the 2021 season. Cousins is having an excellent year and he's almost 50 fantasy points behind Mahomes.
Scheme Players Can Have Elite Production: Darren McFadden did it twice. He was a much better gap runner than zone runner. If he were a rookie this year, he'd be the Running Back Fever Dream for Kyle Shanahan's ground game. Toss. All. Day. Long. The Raiders ran gap plays with McFadden early in his career and he had a 1,157-yard rushing season in 13 games in 2010.
But ask McFadden to run zone, which the Raiders did in 2012-14 and he struggled, and he needed an elite offensive line to help him. In 2015, McFadden worked with the Dallas Cowboys' elite offensive line and earned 1,080 yards on the ground. Even so, McFadden had a number of runs with creases so big that he pause, confused, in the middle of the hole, and still generated productive gains.
Don't exclude Scheme Players from your draft plans, just make sure they have proven surrounding talent that perform at the top of their craft.
When you begin developing an understanding of the difference between Scheme Players and Matchup Players, you can have more success with picking "the most productive players" at the position rather than following methodologies that are rooted in data without valid sample sizes or broad-stroke ideas like "only pick running backs with top offensive lines," or "mobile quarterbacks."
These methods lock onto one attribute in the same way health and wellness media will lock onto the cancer prevention benefits of broccoli and in an attempt to integrate its content, the cooking media will post a wide range of broccoli recipes — most of them drowning the benefit of the vegetable with oil, cheese, or carcinogenic methods of cooking it.
The more you can identify the root value of the player (Scheme vs Matchup), the less dependent you will be on fad drafting methodologies.
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, Deebo Samuel, and Toss (Kadarius Toney)
The most fascinating development I saw this year was the Toss Play. A lot of teams ran Toss this year but the Falcons and 49ers took it to another level, using a pair of punt return specialists-turned-running backs with great success.
As I've shared over the years, running back is the most misunderstood position in football. The basic reason is the wide range of "what works" for a ground game.
Top running back talents can range in size and athletic ability comparable to a cornerback all the way to a defensive end. Top running back producers can either have the full complement of skills to run every type of blocking scheme and make their offensive line better or they do a limited number of things at a high level and have a great supporting cast and scheme to exploit these skills.
The more limited the back, the more versatile and skilled the surrounding talent must be for that back to deliver competent production.
Toss is a great example of a play that works great for less refined running backs paired with talented support. This is an outside run by design that gives the back a long runway into the crease. When they hit this crease, they are at full speed, heading downhill, and the demands to manipulate blocking before they hit the hole are minimal.
This requires athletic and skilled blockers, especially at tackle, tight end, and fullback. The 49ers have all-world players at each position in Kyle Jusczyck, George Kittle, and Trent Williams — arguably the best in the game, especially as run blockers, at all three spots. Most teams with one of these All-Pro talents would have at least moderate success with the toss play.
For the 49ers, Toss is far and away, the team's best running play. Because they have dominant players at the three key positions, it's a staple play for the offense and few teams can run this play as frequently with their level of success. Add to the fact that Charlie Woerner is also a competent blocking tight end and it expands when and how they can run it.
Watch how Williams, Woerner, and Jusczyck dominate their assignments to generate a lane for Samuel. Williams (No. 71) sends his assignment about five yards off his spot and Samuel earns a huge cutback lane in the hole that is not much different from what he'd see if he were returning a punt through a crowded lane by returner standards.
This was one of the few plays where Samuel even had to make a cut in the hole. Most of his runs — and even Mitchell's runs on toss — require no change in pace, variation of stride length, or cuts. They are free to build up speed and hit the lane as fast as they can.
Deebo breaks for a 25 yard touchdown— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) November 21, 2021
SF up 10-0 pic.twitter.com/zr529FcVLt
You'll also notice on two of these plays, Trey Sermon is used as a receiver motioning across the backfield pre-snap. The 49ers are not only leveraging the speed and punt return skills of Samuel on a play design that is as close to a punt return from the backfield as an offense can simulate, but it also throws in the potential constraint of the true running back used as a receiver on a jet sweep or a deep play-action pass on a wheel or bullet route.
This added flavor creates enough for the opposing defense to take into account that it can slow their processing by as much as a step. That difference in reaction time to account for the back can enhance the outcome of the play in San Francisco's favor.
So why has Patterson been so successful when Atlanta's offensive line isn't nearly as good as San Francisco's? While Patterson has been productive as an all-around threat at multiple spots, Samuel has been far more productive on a per touch basis as a runner — earning 52 percent of Patterson's yardage on just 31 percent of Patterson's attempts.
Patterson also has a tight end, Lee Smith, essentially a sixth member of the Falcons' offensive line and is considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Patterson is listed at 216 pounds, but he's closer to 230 pounds and he's more powerful than Samuel at the point of contact.
The point about Toss is that in this era of football, the play often gets bigger bodies matched up against the smaller nickel personnel that's become the base defense for most NFL teams. The onus of the refined skills to win on this play is on the blockers rather than the runner, which opens the door for punt return specialists to have an impact on the offense.
The bigger question is whether we'll see more teams try to incorporate a wide receiver with return skills into the offense with the Toss Play. Patterson and Samuel are built like running backs, so the easiest answer is that other teams will have limited success with smaller options. Kadarius Toney comes to mind as a potential option but the coaching staff will question the long-term efficacy of the strategy, considering that Toney is 193 pounds. Still, using Saquon Barkley as the jet sweep constraint, the way the 49ers used Trey Sermon above, could offer some compelling play design possibilities for the Giants.
We may see more Toss plays as a trend, but I doubt we'll see more than 1-2 additional receivers transition to the backfield as its recipients. The positionless player is likely more of a utopian ideal that's fun to discuss over wings and beers than it becoming a widespread offensive revolution. Evolution over the next 2-3 decades? I'll buy that. Revolution in 2-3 years, doubt it.
3. NFL Quarterbacks, And the 3-5 Plays That Matter
3-5 Plays That Matter has evolved into a quick way of describing the diverse set of skills that I've observed the most talented quarterbacks integrate into their games and execute during vital moments. You can find a more in-depth explanation here. Here are some of the highlights:
The best quarterbacks in the game make "the 3-5 plays that matter most" in a contest. This is a difficult thing to track objectively with a team of data trackers. Although these (mostly) entry-level employees lack years of specialized knowledge, a quality management infrastructure and good training could make the difference and that's usually what's missing because of the volume of items these businesses want these teams to track. It's about keeping expenses as low as possible and maximizing profits. If the quality of work happens to be stellar, that's a nice benefit but as long as the quality meets minimum acceptability, most in business management are satisfied.
This is why you won't likely see any widescale football analysis in the future that tries to weigh the value of specific plays and deliver analysis that can compare quarterbacks within these scenarios. Although it's not a refined process, evaluators have long understood that there are scenarios that have elevated value when studying a quarterback:
- Third and fourth-down
- Red zone
- Two-minute offense
- End-of-game drives
These are just four example scenarios and they're often combined with other elements. These are plays that often carry greater weight in determining the outcome of a game — and I call them the 3-5 plays that matter (most). The range of 3-5 plays isn't a scientific determination — it can be more or less, given the contest. It's based on my anecdotal experience of grading hundreds of quarterbacks over the past 17 years...
...I've found that in most games, that there are 3-5 situations where a defense has opportunities to paint the offense into a corner, limit the scope of the playbook, and force the quarterback and/or his teammates to do something that transcends the expected schematic outcome of a play to win the interaction. Rookies often have the greatest variance of outcomes. One week, they make 3-5 of these plays, and they are shut out the next.
The journeyman quarterback can make 1-2 of these plays in any given week. The solid starter worthy of a second contract makes 2-3 of these plays. The best make 4-5 of these plays. Of course, it's not strictly about the quantity of the play but the quality because other players can impact the game in a way where the quarterback may only need to make one of those plays to change or reinforce the outcome where another passer may have to make all five of these plays to keep his team in the contest.
At the end of the day, the fundamental point for this, and all good evaluation practice, is whether a player shows the skills (physical, theoretical, technical, and intuitive) to put his teammates in the position to make positive plays. Whether or not the teammate makes the play is not on the player being evaluated.
This absolutely matters for fantasy football because it's the difference between perennial fantasy QB1 production and prospects with early buzz who fade away into journeymen. Even the quarterbacks need surrounding talent to deliver consistently high production, but it's their ability to deliver 3-5 plays per game that can put a team, and his individual performance, over the top. And if you're a worst-case thinker, it can make a bad game more respectable.
4. MAC JONES: ONE RECEIVER AWAY FROM QB1 FANTASY VALUE?
While Jones followed up his Week 15 performance with a Week 16 stinker, that's part of the early-career growth process for most young passers. Jones is one of the difficult players for most to diagnose as a Scheme Player or Matchup Player. Most will say he's a Scheme Player, a passer with the promise to be Cousins' at Cousins' best.
This has to do with Jones lacking top athletic talent. He's not a dangerous runner and he lacks a powerful arm. Still, if you watch Jones' second half against a good Colts' defense, you'll realize that his accuracy, field vision, aggression, and pocket movement are all creative enough to qualify as a Matchup Player who makes those 3-5 Plays That Matter.
He just lacks 1-2 Matchup Talents to complement his efforts.
It's a nuanced argument but I believe Jones is a match-up player confused as a scheme player who is going through the typical ups and downs of a young player. As good as the uber-athletic and cannon-armed Justin Herbert is, he's still had four games this year with at least two interceptions and another five with fewer than 250 yards passing. Herbert also has Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Mike Williams who offer a lot more in match-up play than the Patriots' receiving corps.
Still, Jones' impressed me pre-draft, performed at my expectations for much of the year, and wowed me in a losing effort in Week 15.
The first thing that grabbed me by the collar and wouldn't let go throughout this game was Jones' footwork and spatial awareness. He had the best pocket management of the prospects in the 2021 class, but what he did against the Colts was low-key next-level skill. There were several plays where Jones climbed the pocket, threw on the move, and had the control of his feet to change pace and deliver an accurate ball after avoiding pressure, but this was by far the best clip and a must-see movement if you want to understand the nuance of his tremendous skill.
There were even plays where Jones took sacks and displayed impressive skills to initially avoid the first point or two of pressure. Jones may be a system quarterback when thinking about his arm strength, but his pocket movement and creativity help him transcend the confines of a well-executed game plan.
I heard Steve Smith, Michael Irvin, and Maurice Jones-Drew's post-game analysis of Jones. You could tell Irvin and Jones-Drew's conclusions from the game were still forming as they discussed Jones, but Smith nailed it: Jones has the goods but he needs an outside wide receiver who can deliver playmaking skills in crunch time.
This isn't as cliche as it sounds. The Patriots' receivers made big plays — I'll be showcasing one of Nelson Agholor's late. However, there is a primary option with a complete game on this depth chart who can win match-up plays anywhere on the field. They are strong in the middle of the field as we'll see in a moment. This is why I've repeatedly mentioned the prospect of Chris Godwin coming to Foxboro this winter.
Godwin makes plays like his vertical target below, and against any cornerback. It's a play where Jones reads the secondary pre-snap and gets the ball out fast. It's a straightforward look relative to many that Jones has seen, but it still has a corner blitz as part of the call and Jones' pre-snap and post-snap processing and timing are excellent.
He's also steadily become the aggressive vertical thrower that made him dangerous at Alabama. This is a 3rd and 6 play from the second half.
While these are nice plays, the underlying reason Jones' performance wowed me was how he battled back from a pair of interceptions and a 20-point deficit in the second half to make this a ballgame. While I had no disillusions about Jones as a competitor, a lot of fans thought of Jones as solely a beneficiary of an Alabama powerhouse who rarely encountered true adversity during a ball game who might wilt when things go wrong.
After throwing his first interception in the red zone late in the first half, Jones followed up with a second interception during the Patriots' first possession of the second half. As with many young passers, Jones knew where his options were but didn't take the extra moment to confirm the location of the coverage.
By the late third quarter, the Patriots needed someone to step outside the barriers the Colts defense had created and make a play. Jones was the catalyst, taking calculated but aggressive risks that carried a physical price.
Sometimes you just have to go for it. Down 0-20 in the late third QTR? Yep. pic.twitter.com/6djQg0nMyn— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 19, 2021
And despite taking this punishment, it didn't alter Jones' poise or pocket management one bit. The second throw below is special because of the tight margin for error due to his position in the pocket, the small window to get it out, and the tight window of placement.
If Dan Marino applied his scouting exercise to Mac Jones in the pocket, Jones would be the few to pass.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 19, 2021
Mac Jones. Baller. This is the gm I will remember that confirms it. pic.twitter.com/66Au5Ee39c
The Colts got the best of the Patriots and it's understandable to conclude that they are the more physical team that might repeatedly expose the limitations of the Patriots this year. Even so, Mac Jones dusted himself off at his lowest point and made plays that brought the Patriots back. He took hits and he still made excellent plays that many veteran quarterbacks would not.
If you can't glean this from the game on Saturday or from what I explained, I can't help you any more than I tried above. If you follow me, then it's a good idea to buy into Jones while he's still not a fantasy QB1 value — or at least not a top-five QB value. Jones is 1-2 options away in the passing game from becoming as promising as Joe Burrow in terms of production. I think he only needs one versatile receiver to tie the rest of the unit together but it would be helpful if he had two.
If you are in a rebuild situation and you have an aging veteran passer like Rodgers, Stafford, or Brady, you should be able to parlay that for Jones and picks or a promising second player. Or, if you have a rookie from this year that someone else covets more and thinks they're selling Jones high and getting another player cheap, let them think that.
5. Jonathan Taylor And the Colts OL Have become An Elite Producer (as a Unit)
With Quentin Nelson out for Week 16's game, Ross Tucker posed the question this week on Twitter: Is Taylor really an elite running back or a product of an elite offensive line? Taylor delivered 108 yards on 27 touches, not his most efficient week. In fact, with Nelson in the lineup, Taylor has generated 35-78 more yards in the games where he earned 27-32 touches.
This is a fun question to discuss but let's get real: The answer isn't one or the other, it's "both."
Taylor might be a 1,626-yard back in 15 games so far because his offensive line has generated creases that lead to breakaway gains, but Taylor is also a 1,626-yard back in 15 games because he has the vision, agility, and contact balance to transform the occasional weekly mistakes of his offensive line and turn them into positive gains. Taylor is also one of the 2-3 best backs in the league at keeping his feet when gang-tackled, giving his offensive line time to reach him and push the pile forward another 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 yards.
Have fun with the chicken or egg game. It's a damn good carton of eggs and a helluva bird. This is the ideal pairing you seek as a fantasy GM because you're going to eat almost every week.
6. RECEIVING TECHNIQUE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY
This week's matinee is the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, starring six marquee receivers. If you want to improve your evaluation of receivers based on watching their film, bookmark this section and you'll become much better at understanding the differences between good and bad techniques, while also having a template for the exception to the rule.
Elite NFL receivers, Jefferson and Chase have the size, speed, route running, and hands of top fantasy options. An understated part of wide receiver play is tracking and positioning at the catch point, especially on the targets where the metrics-minded segment of our community connects the dots from testing (vertical leap, height, weight, speed) to college production and to the presumption that these players will win back-shoulder throws and other vertical targets.
Those dots don't connect as often as you'd think. Not unless those players understand how to track the ball. Tracking is not just about finding the ball in the air and looking it into one's hands. While in itself a vital skill on vertical routes, there's also an advanced part of tracking that requires receivers to have the right timing to act on the target: When to put the hands up without tipping off the defender, when to turn back to the target, and when to leap.
All three of these timing aspects of tracking contribute to a technique often called "the jump back" among college and pro wide receiver coaches. I profiled Chase's jump-back technique a few weeks ago in this column. It's no surprise that his former LSU teammate Jefferson has a similar refinement of skills.
This skill has fantasy implications. It's one of the differences between a contributor like Collin Johnson who has everything but the top-end speed and mastery of this technique to become an NFL starter. Johnson could be on par, if not better than Allen Lazard if he could time his leaps efficiently and productively.
It's a skill that also encourages trust throws, something that we like to say NFL quarterbacks deliver routinely but it's not as common as you'd think. We see it a lot more during the preseason with a variety of receivers but once the season begins, these plays are either targeted for specific stars or delivered out of desperation.
Receivers who earn these trust throws and convert them are quarterback-friendly regardless of the quarterback. They also earn targets regardless of the skill of the cornerback covering them. If you watch college football and you see a receiver who can track and position themselves just like Chase or Jefferson, that's a player you want to monitor.
A.J. Green is the textbook example of how to use his hands.
Another textbook catch from AJ Green. pic.twitter.com/BPoDS2bWv4— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 22, 2021
It's also no surprise that Green is a fantastic tracker of the ball.
Green may have preternatural talent, but most top talents do. They also work hard at the details of their craft.
Top wide receivers should bail out quarterbacks when they deliver targets that lack pinpoint placement. There are obviously limits to the truth of this statement but we're talking about reasonable situations. Last week, I profiled the two drops D.K. Metcalf committed against the Packers.
Second drop for DK Metcalf today on a slant. Both targets featured poor hands position by Metcalf. This target was pinpoint. The other was behind Metcalf but still catchable. pic.twitter.com/pfrNA8GdYB— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 15, 2021
This week, Metcalf dropped a pair of passes that could have changed the outcome of the Seahawks-Cardinals game — challenging targets for sure, but perfect throws from Russell Wilson — passes one expects an elite receiver to win. While both drops would have been understandable if Metcalf used the optimal technique and the resulting contact jarred the ball free, the fact that Metcalf generated the drops before the contact due to subpar technical skill is something he must correct if he wants any shot of becoming a consistent force in the NFL.
After all, the aren't many NFL quarterbacks who can place the ball this well in these scenarios below as consistently as Wilson has throughout his career.
Metcalf knows how to use the correct technique but it's becoming clear that has practiced the scenarios where he needs to respond with the optimal technique when the ball arrives at chest level or over his shoulder against tight coverage. Bucket-catching technique is acceptable when a defender can't reach for the ball but in both cases, the defense is in a position to defend the target.
Metcalf also has to practice using the correct hand position when catching targets that are at a chest-level height and above. His first reaction is the suboptimal technique and that's what's hurt him. This is a problem that spans as far back as his years at Ole Miss.
It's obvious that Metcalf hasn't gone to the lengths of isolating specific target heights and working on the correct technical reaction to them. Until then, Metcalf will remain less reliable on targets that his quarterback and coaches will expect him to make according to his draft capital, paygrade, 2020 production, and athletic ability portend.
And the virus is spreading across the Chargers skill players…Mike Williams with the clap on the same drive.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 15, 2021
Chargers position coaches have low hanging fruit this week in terms of lesson plans, if they teach. pic.twitter.com/FI80eI0fP1
Both receivers have football's version of The Clap: Clapping the hands onto the ball because they aren't using the correct technique to receive the target. The Clap is what your toddler does when you're teaching them how to catch. They hold their hands out and try to clap their hands onto the ball. Usually, they mistime the motion, and either the ball flies between their hands and rebounds off their face or they strike the ball with one hand or arm and it flies violently away from them.
I was incorrect with my evaluation of Terry McLaurin and I'd gladly be that way again with a player like him. McLaurin is an exceptional talent in more ways than one. He's a top producer on a team that, until last year, lacked a complementary talent opposite him.
Another exceptional quality about McLaurin is that his technique as a pass-catcher is not close to what a team will want on paper from an NFL receiver. I'm talking receivers just trying to earn a roster spot, not starters. McLaurin catches the ball like many receivers from the 1950s and 1960s — often with a technique that isn't as good.
Why I missed on Terry McLaurin and why I would do it again. He’s exceptional in more ways than one, including poor technique to at the catch point that only he and Golden Tate have executed at a high level in the past 10-12 years pic.twitter.com/7CrcoaQrhH— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 17, 2021
TD McLaurin pic.twitter.com/E4OIbCkG1z— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 17, 2021
The only receivers I've seen who have been able to carry subpar pass-catching technique into the NFL and remain successful during the past 16 years were Golden Tate and Early Doucet. Tate could catch the ball with the correct technique but often chose not to do so. Doucet only used overhand technique when the ball was above his head.
I had a reader ask me about the role of intangibles, but unless you have the budget and authority to interview players, coaches, teammates, people around town, and have the resources to do psychological assessments, you're not going to have a process with a high percentage of success when it comes to linking intangibles with on-field play. Even teams that have this information often screw it up based on their execution of the process and interpretation/implementation of the data.
It's why I'll err on the side of good technique. It helped me discern that Robert Meachem, Stephen Hill, and many others weren't as good as touted. And, I'll gladly draft McLaurin in any format now that he's proven he can win with a bad process.
Chase and Jefferson are studs. Barring injury or off-field issues, these two are perennial fantasy producers with the best chance of greatness. Metcalf reminds me of Seattle's NFL version of Shawn Kemp, an imposing physical talent with enough skills to deliver on a strong team but his all-around match-up skills aren't as strong as his physical skills lead people to believe. Yes, Kemp was a six-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Second Teamer, but he wasn't an all-around stud at his position.
Like Kemp, put Metcalf in a position to leverage his dominance in 1-2 areas of the field, and he'll deliver. While Metcalf will kill opponents in loud and grotesque ways, Chase and Jefferson can dispatch their opponents in ways both loud and quiet. Goliath is fun, but these two Davids are works of art.
McLaurin is the exception that proves the rule.
7. DIONTAE JOHNSON AND THE MYTH THAT PLAYERS GET COACHED UP
It's becoming a professional mission of mine to help readers understand that players don't get "coached-up" in the NFL (or even college football) in the ways that football fans and analysts often characterize. Over the past 17 years of scouting rookie talent, I've seen the following response to a player who displays a significant technical lapse to their game.
That's not a big deal. Once he's drafted, he'll get coached up and learn how to do the work. What's important is his [production share and/or workout metrics].
Stephen Hill. Bishop Sankey. Andre Williams. C.J. Prosise. Jeremy McNichols. Mecole Hardman. Zay Jones. Taywan Taylor. Carlos Henderson. Breshad Perriman. Sammie Coates Jr. Tevin Coleman. Knile Davis. This is a Baker's Dozen of runners and wide receivers with glaring technical and conceptual deficiencies where I heard these "will get coached up," responses. If their careers aren't already over, their promise as high-end starters is already dead in the water.
Fans and media either don't know or think hard enough about the nature of NFL practice. If teams called practices "rehearsals," it would probably help because that's what football practices are — meetings where individual players and coaches work on the macro skills required to execute as a team. Yes, they warm up with technical drills for each individual position but those exercises only help a player improve a limited amount.
After all, many variations of these individual exercises are used at most high schools across the country. They may help a 16-year-old wide receiver develop into a competent high school player, but the gap in knowledge and technique between a kid with Pop Warner experience (at most) and a kid competing for a roster spot at a high school is a canyon.
In contrast, the gap in knowledge and technique between an NFL hopeful and an NFL All-Pro comes down to a small margin of execution that can barely pass through the eye of a needle. Yet, most starters play at a level with such a low margin for error, mistakes are magnified in importance.
This is why top athletes entering the NFL can rarely excel or even "get by" solely on athletic ability alone. Exhibit A of this point is one I've pinned to my Twitter Account: Tony Gonzalez.
Refer to this every time you or someone fan wonders-assumes: “Players will/do get coached on positional fundamentals and advanced techniques in the NFL.”— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 3, 2021
Or watch Tony Gonzalez break it down.https://t.co/rV1hWViEom https://t.co/EkU24XE1q7
The best players figure out that developing and ingraining the smallest details create the greatest advantages and they take it upon themselves to create and implement training exercises devoted to correcting and/or enhancing existing football skills. Diontae Johnson is the latest example of a player I've discovered to be taking the development of his game into his own hands.
Johnson had a penchant for drops at Toledo and early in his career with the Steelers. NBC profiled Johnson's pre-/post-practice regimen with tennis balls designed to improve his tracking and catching of the ball.
This exercise helps Johnson practice the vital ability to find the ball with his back to the quarterback and at the latest points of its trajectory. This simulates what he encounters as a receiver. It also helps him learn how to attack the target with the optimal fingertips-first catching technique because of the size and texture of the ball.
Johnson led the NFL in dropped passes in 2020 with 16, according to Sport info Solutions. I couldn't find his exact number of drops, but checking NBC Sports' current statistics for the leaders in drops for each conference, the leading pass dropper among Steelers wide receivers based on a minimum number of targets is Chase Claypool with 2.
Clearly, Johnson's efforts are paying off. Of course, like most acquired skills, consistent work is part of maintaining consistent performance. Right now, Johnson is putting in the work and ingraining that exercise into a training habit.
8. JAMARR CHASE, JAYLEN WADDLE, AND THE 2021 WR CLASS: ONLY THE BEGINNING
As we wrap up Week 16, Chase is the No.8 PPR option, Waddle—who plays Monday night— was the 21st option in Week 15 despite missing a week, DeVonta Smith is 29th, and Amon-Ra St. Brown is 30th. Chase and Waddle are potential superstars. Smith and St. Brown may not be primary threats on Chase and Waddle's level, but they offer future fantasy reliability.
There's an immense promise with Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore, Rashod Bateman, and Toney, who were the next tier in statistical order. And let's not forget about Terrace Marshall, Amari Rodgers, Josh Palmer, and Nico Collins.
We're looking at a dozen receivers who've earned early playing time and have shown promise to develop into reliable NFL starters.
I'm absolutely buying Chase and Waddle. I'm holding Smith and Brown although I'm not buying them if I don't have them. I'm buying the Moores and holding Bateman and Toney. I'm holding the rest or buying low where I can. Camp is a player I'm adding from waiver wires with my large-roster dynasty teams.
9. Khalil Herbert, Justin Jackson, Craig Reynolds, and the Fantasy Value of the BAckup RB
Backup running backs in fantasy football are vital. Herbert delivered four consecutive weeks of starter production for a moribund offense in David Montgomery's absence. A rookie that I compared to a Dalvin Cook starter kit, usurped Damien Williams' role, posting RB18 fantasy totals in PPR formats between Weeks 5-8.
During weeks 14-15, vital games for the fantasy season: Craig Reynolds was the No.20 fantasy RB, Jeff Wilson 18th, DOnta Foreman 12th, and Rashaad Penny was 7th. All three outperformed Ezekiel Elliott, Cordarelle Patterson, Miles Sanders, and Joe Mixon.
This is why we tell you every year to accumulate backup running backs as you enter the stretch run of the regular season. Sure, there's some luck to who you get and how it turns out, but if you ascribe it solely to luck, you don't know what you're doing.
Monitor training camps, read draft reports, watch how they're winning, and most importantly...
10. DON'T WRITE PLAYERS OFF!
This happens too often.
Herbert left Kansas because of Pooka Williams...An example of conflating talent with scheme fit/coaching decisions.
Craig Reynolds played at Kutztown, which is only known for Andre Reed, and how long ago was that? ... An example of logo scouting.
Jeff Wilson may never return this year...Losing patience with monitoring players -- keep a list of players to check the news about.
Foreman is in a committee that will cancel all three heads out...Sometimes you have to make hard cuts and this is a good reason if you think you have a better option and not enough room to keep both. But this is also a product of impatience to let things play out.
Penny hasn't done anything but hurt himself...Teases will always tease. Not so.
There are also season-long examples. No one should berate themselves for not believing in Cordarrelle Patterson, but if you saw what he did during the first two weeks of the season, it was enough to add him as a speculative play on season-long excellence.
You may need to make calls against players due to available space and but if you have the roster space and these players either never crossed your mind when adding free agents or you didn't make value calls on them in drafts, it's worth asking yourself if you wrote them off with simplistic statements uttered in your head.
Thanks again for reading the Top 10 this year. While I'm focused year-round on the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, soon it will be the high season for this task.
Happy New Year and good luck this week.