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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 3'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- The issues behind Justin Fields' disappointing rookie debut go beyond Fields' individual performance. Still, there's low-hanging fruit with his quarterbacking that Fields must address in order to have future success. Although he won't face a defense as formidable as the Cleveland Browns every week, it's clear the Bears' staff hasn't fitted the scheme to its franchise pick and it limits Fields' year-one upside.
- Trey Sermon was the only healthy running back of note for the 49ers and still didn't the anticipated debut according to the box score or the utilization analytics, but the film and the 49ers' utilization of Kyle Juszczyk and Deebo Samuel provide a contextual explanation in favor of Sermon that flies in the face of the data.
- Ja'Marr Chase had another strong performance — this time, dismantling the Steelers' secondary. In addition to his work against physical coverage, Chase's technique as a pass-catcher reveals a valuable piece of hindsight to the concerns over his summer practices.
- D.K. Metcalf is transforming his short game and making valuable post-snap adjustments, which makes him even more dangerous — and reliable for fantasy GMs.
- Emmanuel Sanders scored twice on Washington and made a resounding statement that his age is still only a number on the field. Get Sanders if someone dropped him. In contrast, DeSean Jackson's age may be why the Rams are saving him for big games.
- Alexander Mattison and the Vikings offense out-schemed and out-executed the Seahawks' defense on Sunday, proving why there are specific player-team fits that make them ideal handcuffs to fantasy studs.
- Overtime is "Bryan Edwards' Time" in Las Vegas, but his greatest obstacle to consistent fantasy production could be Hunter Renfrow.
- I have been critical of Baker Mayfield and while there's still reason for concern that many Browns' fans want to whitewash with each victory and positive data point, analytics have difficulty with small sample-size plays. It is these small samples that show Mayfield is a better "scheme talent" than "individual-matchup talent" and it's where this long and promising road may dead-end in fantasy and reality.
- Chuba Hubbard is a developing talent who showed enough to earn the first shot to replace Christian McCaffrey if McCaffrey misses multiple games. However, he's an incomplete player at this stage of his game and Royce Freeman is a cheap hedge worth consideration.
- Age is not only a number for Ben Roethlisberger, who headlines Week 3's Fresh Fish beating Marquise Brown by a step.
- Marquise Brown's three cringeworthy drops.
- Melvin Ingram III tried to make a fool out of Tyler Boyd and got clowned with his poor tackling.
- Chicago's offensive line for its sloppy execution.
- Chicago's head coach for not adjusting his scheme and game plan to Justin Field's strengths back in the summer.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. The Easy and Difficult Fixes for Justin Fields and the Bears
My friends over at Keepin' It 100 have been warning Bears' fans all summer about the likelihood that Matt Nagy would not adjust his offense to his talent based on his past behavior — even if that talent is its future franchise quarterback. As I told my daughter and a fellow Marine with her last week, Halloween would come a month early for Justin Fields and the Bears when they headed to Cleveland and not the fun kind with candy and pumpkins.
Rather, a Rob Zombie-Stephen King mashup starring "Michael Myles" Garrett and Jadeveon "IT" Clowney.
Like all good slasher flicks, the victims wind up in an unfortunate circumstance not always of their own making but compound the horror with awful decision-making due to the pressure and denial of their limitations. The first to die is often the most competent character whereas the lone survivor has hidden or undiscovered traits to barely escape death but they are often forever scarred by the experience.
The most competent character in the Bears' offense at Sunday's matinee in Cleveland was David Montgomery and if Matt Nagy had developed a scheme around read-plays with Montgomery and Fields, we might have seen a lot more early success that kept the Browns off-balance.
Unlike John Harbaugh and the Ravens, who implemented a scheme during Lamar Jackson's rookie training camp to fit Jackson once Jackson took the field but eliminated the option-game while Joe Flacco remained the starter, Nagy's use of the option was pure window dressing. It was as if Nagy was waiving a stick of dynamite at the Browns' defense but Cleveland saw the book of matches falling from the coach's pocket.
This play on the first drive was the only time I remember seeing Fields and Montgomery execute an option read. There may have been more, but not enough to slow down Garrett and Clowney, who slashed through the Bears' offensive line like a pair of cinematic killers through a sorority, an insane asylum, or a lake house.
The Browns sacked Fields seven times in this game. At its fundamental core, Fields is the victim of his coaching staff and offensive line. This is a difficult fix because it takes the leadership of the Bears to recognize that there's an incompetent intractability with those who create the scheme and the game plan.
Remember the misdirection plays with boot action in the preseason with Fields throwing opposite field? There was little to any of that on display. The Bears have dynamite and they're using it as a knife sharpener.
If analysts such as myself or Mark Schofield can sum up a lot of the offensive issues in Chicago as "thinking curl/flat is the answer to every problem," it's a pithy statement about an inflexible coach. If the Bears don't make adjustments, Fields' opportunities to create will remain capped whenever he's in the game.
The fact that Nagy told the media that Andy Dalton remains the starter when he returns from injury adds to the likelihood that Nagy doesn't want to adjust to Fields' talents but demands Fields become something that he's not — right now, or maybe ever.
Still, Fields is an able-bodied talent with great potential who has issues to address — including low-hanging fruit if he works at his craft away from the game plan. These are behaviors that are common for rookie passers but are ultimately their responsibility to improve and it contributed to Fields' dismal outing.
The lowest of the low-hanging fruit is Fields' drop footwork. As referenced with Jameis Winston's Week 1 performance, drop footwork sets the stage for how a quarterback sees the field, the rhythm and timing that he has with route progressions, his efficiency maneuvering the pocket, and his overall accuracy as a thrower.
If the drop footwork isn't precise, the quarterback's game lacks the high-end precision necessary for consistent passing in the NFL. And if the footwork isn't sound before pressure arrives, it's an even greater liability as steady pressure deteriorates the pocket.
This sack has s a lot on Justin Fields. Adds two little steps to a three step drop and it narrows his options. Had the jerk route with 85 if he’s more efficient. #bears #browns pic.twitter.com/cmQtMofxma— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 26, 2021
Fields will get better but footwork deteriorated under pressure, especially when it already needs improvement— low hanging fruit for most rookie QBs pic.twitter.com/OP4aTsUO6E— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 26, 2021
The disruptive force of Cleveland's defensive front deserves a lot of credit but if the quarterback was Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, or even Teddy Bridgewater — passers who have mastered their footwork — they would have been able to deliver more than 47 yards of offense. Their offenses would have been far more competitive.
Because Fields, like many top prospects over the past 25-30 years, arrived in the NFL without this mastery of drops, it means he lacks a foundation to make strong decisions. He's thinking so much about what's happening around him but his feet aren't in a position for him to execute and it leads to erratic choices and/or execution — especially under pressure.
If the foundation (the feet) lacks precision and clarity it's a sign that the quarterback's mind is swimming with details — thinking/remembering rather than playing. Thinking and remembering is a conscious act, playing in the way I'm using the word is like subconscious like breathing, walking, or blinking.
Even when the Bears occasionally tried misdirection, they did so in the compressed area of the field where pressure had the advantage in disrupting a long-developing play and a quarterback who lacks the precision with his base to make quick and pinpoint decisions in these scenarios.
The best thing that Fields can do is develop his footwork because, regardless of the staff that will be in place, it's something within Fields' control and he can make even a bad game plan manageable. Right now, Fields' decision-making, timing, and vision of the field all need improvement. The same can be said of every quarterback with less than three years of experience in the NFL today. Unfortunately, the Bears staff is also exacerbating Fields' issues with its approach to offensive football.
If Chicago implements more of the read-option game with Fields in the coming weeks, they at least gained some clue. If Fields does his part and the Bears accommodate his talents as a runner, it could open the ground game even more for David Montgomery, and the Bears could get earn some quick-hitting big plays for its receivers. These fixes could also create a strong foundation for effective play-action to enhance the vertical passing game, which Fields is good at.
For now, counting on Fields to deliver fantasy value is a massive boom-bust prospect. He's no more than a desperation-play against weaker defenses that can't rush the passer until we see the Bears incorporate more misdirection plays and option reads that tap into the most compelling aspects of Fields' game as he's developing into a fully-formed professional.
2. Context Matters — Trey Sermon's Debut: Beyond Utilization and Box Score
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