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 4'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Jalen Hurts will likely finish September as a top-five fantasy quarterback. As most predicted, Hurts' rushing — second only to Lamar Jackson among NFL quarterbacks — bolsters his fantasy value. Still, Hurts displays the promise to become more than a one-season-wonder. Among the keys to Hurts' development will be ball security, knowing when to let go of a play and efficient movement in the pocket.
- Matt Nagy earned the ire of his team, the fans, and the media for trotting out Justin Fields in Cleveland with an amateurish game plan that was a liability to his players. This week, Nagy turned these duties over to Bill Lazor and Fields and the Bears performed like a competent offense but Fields' fantasy value will remain volatile until Andy Dalton returns.
- Many draft analysts considered DeVonta Smith the top wide receiver prospect in a rich class of options. Smith has performed well and this week was his best display of skill that indicates long-term promise as a primary threat in the NFL.
- Trey Lance will earn his first start next week after subbing for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday. Lance looked like a talented prospect who lacked a week's worth of reps against the Seahawks. Expect a strong fantasy outing in Week 5.
- Trey Sermon earned 89 yards on 19 touches and more than half of his output came with Garoppolo under center. Lance's presence in the offense will make Sermon's future red-zone production volatile but enhance his yardage totals.
- Mac Jones ran an efficient offense and kept the contest with the world champion Buccaneers close. Outside of one mistake that the Buccaneers couldn't exploit, Jones performed well. However, his lack of arm strength is at least a short-term issue.
- Melvin Gordon III is the leading fantasy back for the Denver Broncos but Javonte Williams has demonstrated his promise. What is holding him back from taking Gordon's role?
- Urban Meyer, or at least Darrell Bevel, has figured out that James Robinson is too good to platoon with Carlos Hyde. Expect Robinson to reprise his 2020 role, and production, moving forward.
- What's wrong with Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr? Their quarterbacks are a big factor in their flagging production.
- Lions' center Frank Ragnow and left tackle Penei Sewell headline this week's Fresh Fish for their red zone errors that led to a pair of turnovers and took Detroit out of its game.
- Baker Mayfield kept the Vikings in the game with throws that should have more Browns fans emerging from their collective denial but not enough.
- Sony Michel's second-quarter fumble was among the factors that cost the Rams a chance to keep this game close.
- Matthew Stafford was a hero last week, but his target selection will always be a flaw of his game.
- Matt Nagy: The difference between the Bear's offense before and after Nagy abdicated the game plan to Bill Lazor earn Nagy a spot here as well as one as a "former head coach."
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Jalen Hurts: ONe-Season-Wonder or Perennial Fantasy starter?
Hurts will likely finish September as a top-five fantasy quarterback. As most predicted, Hurts' rushing — second only to Lamar Jackson among NFL quarterbacks — bolsters his fantasy value. Still, Hurts displays the promise to become more than a one-season-wonder. Among the keys to Hurts' development will be ball security, knowing when to let go of a play and efficient movement in the pocket.
You'll see some of Hurts' best downfield throws when I examine Smith's game but even if I didn't profile the Eagles' rookie, the throws are far less important than the underlying decisions. Otherwise, Drew Lock, Johnny Manziel, Mitchell Trubisky, and Blake Bortles would still be NFL starters. Most early-round NFL quarterbacks have the arm to make throws that impress the average fan. It's why the eyeball test fails with quarterbacks during their rookie years and the development of a passer is often an emotional rollercoaster for fans and media.
But for the sake of gratuitous arm talent, here's a perfect throw from Hurts against the Chiefs late in the fourth quarter that reaches the honey hole between the shallow corner and safety over the top.
perfect pic.twitter.com/bT520WPt1E— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
These are throws that ESPN junkies and college football fans love. They fulfill the requirements of the eyeball test. Another type of target that gets these super fans excited is the throw over a defender's reach and into a tight window.
Both throws are the People Magazine version of passer analysis that will make for pleasant banter at the doctor's office, bar, or client meeting — all three if you're in pharmaceutical sales. These throws won't tell you squat about Hurts' long-term viability as the Eagles' starter and fantasy option. As is the case with most big-armed and mobile prospects, they can become too invested in the outcome of plays that they extend beyond the structure of the scheme.
This was a problem with Hurts at Oklahoma as well as his stretch-run as the Eagles' rookie starter. Here's an example of Hurts trying too hard to make a big play that nearly leads to an interception.
So far, the good/bad of Jalen Hurts is on display similar to his college career. Gets too invested in plays to the detriment of his team. Fortunately this isn’t an INT after all #Eagles pic.twitter.com/ZhDh7e5mbR— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
These are tendencies that Hurts needs to eliminate from his game and there are positive signs that he's doing so. Hurts threw the ball away multiple times after extending the play beyond the pocket, illustrating that sometimes the biggest play that a field general can make is to end the play before it sours further.
Hurts also found his outlets, which is one of the most valuable things a quarterback can do. You'll hear NFL broadcast analysts tout the yardage value that comes in a drive with check-downs. The less obvious value is the way a quarterback's frequent use of outlets changes the way linebackers and safeties play as the game progresses. Defenders begin to expect the outlet and it leads to favorable alignments for receivers to get behind the defense as well as defenders overthinking and making coverage errors that lead to easy big plays.
Here's Hurts coming off his downfield progressions to find his running back for a significant gain — a promising display for a quarterback, especially in fantasy leagues where check-downs are a big part of eliminating the boom-bust production issue with some young quarterbacks.
Nice to see Hurts checking down in the NFL pic.twitter.com/YFhfFN3zJH— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
Another facet of quarterbacking that I write about all the time is pocket management. Mobility is a tool of pocket management. Some quarterbacks, like Hurts, have the premium model. Others, like Tom Brady, have a model their great-grandpa passed down from their tool shop and it has few redeemable features for modern quarterbacking. Still, it's just one tool, and if you have a master craftsman like Brady, you realize that many lesser tradesmen overuse it to their detriment.
Hurts is beginning to learn that efficient movement is often far better than dramatic movement, especially if he wants to use his legs to stretch a defense with his arm.
A mobile quarterback ideally should be forcing defenses into a bind because they don't know when Hurts will run past them or throw the ball over their heads. The reality of mobile quarterbacks is that many of them never develop their decision-making and craft to elevate this gamesmanship to its peak production and opposing defenses learn how to exploit a quarterback's limits.
This target to Smith leads to a first down and it's due in large part to Hurts not letting edge pressure trigger him into running. I see this triggered behavior from young quarterbacks with far less mobility — and many with more NFL experience than Hurts.
Hurts barely moves from his spot as this pressure climbs past him, which is an enormous positive because he's learning not to fall into the trap of wasting opportunities in the name of "buying time."
One area that I think will always plague Hurts to some degree is his ball security. A rugged ballcarrier with speed, strength, and dynamic movement, Hurts is prone to extending the ball from his frame when forced to avoid pursuit, and even when tucks the ball, his penchant for finishing strong as a runner at Oklahoma often led to fumbles as he's pushing through contact.
While I'm not as concerned about the second-effort fumbles because he's learning to finish like a new-school quarterback rather than imitate Steve McNair, his ball security when making dynamic moves to evade the pass rush remains a liability.
The Chiefs' defense is not a top unit but Hurts displayed improved management of the pocket and better situational football decision-making since I've last seen him. If he can continue building on this progress, there's no reason that he can't deliver production on par with Dak Prescott if the Eagles can develop more weapons around him and expand the scheme so it's not leaning so much on the quick game.
Right now, the short passing game is a big part of the scheme because leverages the strengths of the offensive line, the tight ends as blockers and receivers, and the wide receivers as ballcarriers while minimizing the coverage-reading and rapport required of the young wideouts and their quarterback. As the skill players develop their coverage-reading talents or the Eagles acquire weapons with these skills, the offense should expand and it will lead to fewer contests where Hurts must run to deliver top fantasy production and enhance his overall consistency as a weapon.
Hurts should remain a fantasy starter this year in 10-team leagues although expect potential bumps against Carolina, Tampa, New Orleans, and perhaps Washington if its talented unit finally develops cohesion. His schedule beyond these five weeks looks fantastic.
2. What A Difference a Week (And Competent Coaching) Makes: Justin Fields And the Bears Offense
Since I'm not a Bears fan, it's easy for me to say, "Let's just pretend last week never happened when we consider Fields." Still, let's give Fields a mulligan and treat this week as his rookie debut because last week, the Bears generated a game plan that was incompetent by NFL standards and would have put most pro quarterbacks in danger, much less hampered their productivity.
More on Matt Nagy later.
Bill Lazor took the reins of this offense and did exactly what most knowledgeable football fans would have expected against the Browns:
- Employ heavy sets with multiple tight ends and or a fullback.
- Incorporate zone read and misdirection to keep the opposing defense guessing.
- Play-action deep shots with six- and seven-man protection schemes.
After all, the ground game is often the strength of most NFL offensive lines and the Bears have an ascending talent with David Montgomery. Although Montgomery will miss time — much less than feared if the injury is indeed a hyperextension —Damien Williams is a capable reserve and keep an eye on Khalil Herbert, a talented rookie from Virginia Tech who could deliver big plays with an opportunity. Regardless of the back, Lazor's game plan bodes well for the Bears to create offense, especially when leveraging the threat of Fields as a potential runner.
Three TEs to begin the gm for Bears and the an I formation pic.twitter.com/ZUzpd6wFJJ— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2021
The diversity of alignments, the pulling of linemen, use of zone reads, and the diversity of inside and outside running generates a game within the game for opposing defenses that also generates coverage lapses in the passing game because there's a danger for the opponent to get too wrapped up with the run.
The use of multiple tight ends also allows the Bears to deliver greater protection against pressure while still having legitimate shots in the vertical game.
Watching these plays as well as the one below, you see how the Bears are asking its tight end and backs to chip-block the edge pressure before exiting the backfield into routes. Nagy only used five-man protections which placed too much pressure on an overwhelmed offensive line. These adjustments gave Fields just enough time to deliver in the intermediate and vertical game.
Good cross-field go from Fields to Mooney pic.twitter.com/Fiz5djhr9C— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
And when the quarterback has time to get his receivers involved early, the receivers get into the flow of the game fast enough to make plays that compensate for a less-than-perfect accuracy.
These successful moments keep a defense off-balance and it gives the quarterback the opportunity to use his gifts. It's one thing to ask Fields to make a play as he does below against one edge rusher but it's unrealistic to expect Fields to elude Takk McKinely, Myles Garrett, and Jadeveon Clowney in a tight space and deliver a huge play. While he may do it once in a game, he'll have far more negative outcomes than positive and the positive outcome won't likely carry enough weight for a productive week.
This play below is an example of what Fields can do for the Bears when they don't overwhelm him with multiple points of pressure. Next time, we may see Cole Kmet maintain his footing and finish the play.
Overall, it was a much better debut for Fields and this aligns well with the original idea that Fields can deliver fantasy value for GMs if he earns the starting role for a stretch of the year. As of today, Nagy has told the media that Andy Dalton will regain his starting job when he returns from injury. If we were to bet on recent history, Dalton's limitations will get Nagy fired and Fields will be starting at least the final 4-6 weeks of the season. Or, Nagy will resume his old role, get Dalton hurt, and Nagy will get fired due to this ego and vanity.
Fields was better this week, but he still has a lot to learn. Handling blitzes pre-snap is a significant weakness in his game. More than once this year, I've seen Fields ear-holed on blitzes where he has some responsibility in diagnosing the pressure pre-snap.
This is why I'd prefer to see the Bears sit Fields once Dalton gets healthy. I'd rather see Fields given a few series in each game and then give him time to sit, watch, and learn from the experience. This worked for Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, Drew Brees, and several excellent NFL passers. However, the NFL's current leadership environment prefers short-term ratings over long-term development and it's more likely that Fields starts a stretch of the year if Nagy loses his job.
Right now, I don't see how Nagy is still employed after committing gross negligence against his rookie quarterback in Cleveland so, perhaps the Bears' brass is too busy jockeying for a position to generate more wealth that has little to do with the quality on-field product or more with a 97-year-old lame duck of a trustee who might as well be one of the Lannisters that Bronn was describing (NSFW).
George Halas would want to spit.
3. DeVonta Smith Showed How He Might Overcome His Size and Become a Perennial Primary Threat
Smith is what I expected him to be as an NFL rookie while also showing the promise to become what I'd hope he could be long-term. The 35th-ranked fantasy producer at his position, Smith's production puts him on track for 76 catches, 1007 yards, and 4 scores in a 17-week season.
This output will fulfill baseline expectations for realistic fantasy GMs, although I think 600-800 yards would be a solid outcome for him as well.
Smith's suddenness off the line and technique as a short- and intermediate-range route runner are the reasons he's on his way to becoming a consistent contributor in the Eagles' offense that is leveraging the quick game to help Hurts and his young receivers stay on the same page when reading defenses.
Smith has always had good release moves when judging him on the breadth of his repertoire. And when his team uses him inside or with stems where he can work inside before breaking outside, his slight frame will never be a liability.
The problem for Smith is his lack of physicality on the perimeter. Cornerbacks can pin him to the boundary with relative ease and this potentially limits Smith's value if he can find ways to avoid it.
Situations Smith must avoid/minimize pic.twitter.com/FnHYRFYehg— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
Although this route late in the game underscores where he can be a liability as a deep threat in the NFL it only limits his potential as a primary option. Think of him as a 1-B - Calvin Ridley-type who many will mistake as an elite, do-it-all receiver, especially when paired consistently with a top physical threat opposite him. However, in order for Smith to transcend that role, he'll need to develop ways to overcome physical play on the perimeter.
Here's one method I mentioned in his pre-draft scouting report that would be important for him to develop, and he demonstrated the concept this weekend:
This is the best route I have seen DeVonta Smith run during his young career based on his weaknesses at ‘Bama. This is the result of good self-scouting and/ coaching. #Eagles pic.twitter.com/q65dOf7xHN— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
Strategies like taking the stem inside and leading the cornerback to believe he's winning the outside position will be vital for Smith's ultimate upside as an elite fantasy option. For now, Smith has shown that he can be a fantasy starter in leagues with 3-4 receivers with his current skill set. That's fulfilling realistic expectations for a first-round rookie.
Expect teams to see this week's tape and continue testing Smith's ability to stay clear of the sideline and still win vertical routes. The better he does, the greater his immediate upside. The worse, the lower your expectations should be for "Year-two growth" into a top option.
4. Trey Lance Performed Well As the Substitute, Expect More in Week 5
Lance took over for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo and exploited a lackluster Seattle defense for 198 total yards and 2 passing touchdowns in the second half. That stat total alone should indicate that Lance's game warrants further examination for fantasy use in Week 5. Of course, the box score doesn't provide enough context for evaluating a player's skill.
Considering that Lance hasn't earned first-team reps all month and that means minimal on-field preparation of value, Lance's performance being free of fatal errors is an enormous positive. Of course, having a massive arm can mitigate decision-making lapses.
A better way of assessing Lance isn't whether he missed a coverage read against a team he had no reps to prepare against but how he managed the pocket. Lance showed promise working in and outside the pocket to create plays with his arm.
Lance converts the third and short by getting a bit off script pic.twitter.com/2ZY2KuriXk— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2021
These are the plays that, if performed consistently, make defenses think twice from utilizing heavy blitz packages that stress the offensive line. So does spotting coverage lapses and showing the quick recognition and maturity to exploit them. You'll see a reader say in the responses below that that the "ball could have been better but love the result."
What the reader isn't considering is that Lance places this ball in a way so the receiver can catch the target at a standstill. When a quarterback is under heavy pressure and there's a blown coverage with a receiver all alone, quarterbacks are encouraged to make the throw as easy as possible to catch given the nature of the pocket.
In essence, get the chunk play and let the receiver worry about getting even more afterward. Don't try to be so perfect that an inaccurate attempt leads to an overthrow. Lance made the right call.
Arizona has a better defense but it isn't a world-beating unit and if Garoppolo isn't ready to return after the Week 6 bye, the Colts and Bears are vulnerable passing units as well. Expect Lance to try to force some targets into tight spots that lead to turnovers, but also count on him to generate no less than 40-60 yards rushing in each game and deliver in the red zone as a runner and thrower.
Lance has a temporary QB1 fantasy value in 12-team formats.
5. (As Expected here...) Trey Sermon's Utilization Improved but How Will It Be with Lance Under Center?
Last week, I explained why Sermon's utilization wasn't as great of a concern as the one week of data might appear. This week, Sermon's utilization looked a lot better because, yep, he got practice reps all week and the team could incorporate him fully into the gameplan.
Trey Sermon's role is more diverse through the third quarter in Week 4:— Context Matters (@dwainmcfarland) October 3, 2021
Short-down-distance snaps: 67%
Long-down-distance: 0% (100% Kyle Juszczyk)
Two-minute offense: 60%#SEAvsSF
Sermon didn't earn any targets in the passing game and Juszczyk remains the player of choice in long-down-and-distance, which makes sense. However, the red-zone usage and two-minute offense were promising. Sermon also picked up a blitz that beat the edge protection and widened the pocket successfully for his quarterback.
The block won't win any awards for the aesthetics of technique, but it was a good effort given the context and will keep him in the rotation on passing downs. Where Sermon and the offensive line thrived was between the tackles. Sermon earned gigantic lanes similar to what we saw the line give to Eli Mitchell in Week 1 and with specific inside run plays in Week 2.
Some of you have either read or are going to read analysis on Reddit, Twitter, or other football boards that argue Sermon is too slow for the outside zone. Beyond the idea that the 49ers would draft a running back in the third round who wasn't athletic enough to reach rushing lanes in the outside zone scheme is unlikely, consider that Sermon is faster than Jeff Wilson, who did just fine in this scheme last year.
It's also important to note that opposing defenses have successfully shut down the 49ers; perimeter running game after the opener in Detroit. Philadelphia limited Elijah Mitchell to 42 yards on 17 carries. Green Bay also stifled the outside zone with penetration or resetting the line of scrimmage into the backfield. This had nothing to do with Sermon not reaching the hole in time and forcing the 49ers to abandon its game plan.
The 49ers have one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the league. The offensive line executes a wide variety of blocks successfully. If a defense stops one type of play, they have others they know well. The bigger issue was the fact that Trey Sermon, Trenton Cannon, and Jacques Patrick weren't as knowledgeable of the scheme due to limited practice and playing time.
Now that Sermon is getting up to speed with more first-team reps, the 49ers can also run more plays inside, which happens to be one of his natural strengths as a runner. If Sermon was too slow to reach his spot on perimeter runs, it would show up with his initial acceleration to a short-side edge like the one below where he easily reaches the corner and doesn't stress the blocking because of the myth that he runs in mud.
I continue updating you on Sermon's progress because he's a talented back behind a top offensive line who you likely picked between rounds 6-10 and could get top-24 fantasy value out of him for at least 50-60 percent of the season if you stay patient with him. This is potential fantasy value and one many will abandon due to reactionary analysis that's based on results rather than process.
Mitchell is day-to-day with his shoulder injury and could return to the lineup this week. This could initially cut into Sermon's role, but let's remember that Mitchell was ineffective in Week 2 in the aspect of the running game that might be, far and away, his greatest strength. He also earned mixed reviews from the staff for his pass protection.
The positive for Mitchell is that, like Sermon, the presence of Trey Lance in the lineup, will create issues for opposing defenses that open wider creases.
and snother, look at the Lb run right by Sermon pic.twitter.com/L2eI0y1kSn— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2021
Lance is a good inside runner, so there's a real possibility we'll see Mitchell earn the Mr. Outside role on zone-read plays. However, I'd bet the 49ers staff would prefer to leverage Lance's speed to the edge so he takes less punishment, which means that Sermon earns more snaps in zone-read plays where he's working inside. That's the wisest game plan.
The bottom line is patience. We're only four weeks into the season. Considering that fantasy writers and fans were calling for Sermon's career death 21 days ago and yesterday he was 11 yards shy of a 100-yard outing shows you the cognitive dissonance on display here. Despite a concussion, rumors that he's too slow, undisciplined, and an off-field problem, Sermon is poised to build on a solid Week 4 performance and has been praised recently for his practice habits.
Relax, you didn't draft him as your RB2 but he's on his way to providing that value.
6. Mac JOnes' Arm Strength: Short-Term or Long-term Problem?
Jones kept the Patriots in the game, forcing Tom Brady to generate a game-winning drive. That's about all one can ask from the game management of a rookie quarterback, especially one facing the greatest player in the history of the new team that he's leading.
Jones' maturity with situational football remains strong for a young player. This 2nd-and-20 situation is a good example of Jones attacking the scenario in piecemeal fashion to get the first down.
The best pocket manager of his peers in this quarterback class, Jones was unperturbed by the Buc's impressive interior pressure packages.
Jones only had one fatal error during the game due to pressure — a target he was overconfident in his ability to hit while under pressure.
The Patriots were successful in giving Jones enough time to dink-and-dunk his way up and down the field on Sunday night. Josh McDaniels', quick-hitting arsenal of outlet passes, quick game to the flats, and screen game were successful thanks to Jones' execution.
One of the best plays that I saw from Jones was this touchdown to Hunter Henry. Jones manipulated the field well. He opened to one side and then moved the defenders in the middle of the field to set up an open area for Henry's score.
My greatest concern with Jones so far is what's evident with many of his throws: a lack of velocity. Jones wasn't known for his arm strength at Alabama but he showed more velocity on his throws in the college game as well as the preseason. While I doubt it, perhaps he's arm-weary from training camp. Another possibility is that he's operating a lot of quick-game concepts that he's not fully setting his feet with intermediate throws. I've seen this on some throws, but it doesn't explain every target.
I think the true reason is that Jones needs to get bigger and stronger and he has to optimize that eventually improved lower body strength to generate velocity. That will require an offseason of work. For now, Jones will work with what he's got and what he's got is a shot at 4,300 yards passing, 17 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. I'm banking on 3,800 yards, 20 scores, and 12 interceptions.
Either way, it's not fantasy starter material but he's absolutely a must-hold in dynasty formats because what he's showing on the field bodes well for his future if he can generate incremental improvement with the arm talent.
7. WHEN WILL JAVONTE WILLIAMS OVERTAKE MELVIN GORDON? IF DENVER IS WISE, IT WON'T REACT TO FAN OR MEDIA PRESSURE
Javonte Williams had one of the best runs of the day if you examine it solely on the basis of its outcome and highlight worthiness. When grading the play based on his ability to follow his blocking scheme and read the defense, it was a failure.
Javonte Williams turns an unadvised cutback on a gap play into a huge gain reminiscent of his efforts against UM last year. Drags a #RavensFlock DB 20 yards. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/pQIrNbzQsj— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
This play reminds me of many of Rashaad Penny's runs during his first two seasons in the NFL — great displays of athletic ability but complete unreliability on a play-to-play level because of a lack of understanding of his surroundings. Williams is one of the safest long-term running back prospects from this class. He's a good zone runner with the tools to develop into an all-around back. He reminds me a lot of Mark Ingram II.
However, the Broncos need to know that Williams can run the play as designed without the boom-bust risk of superhuman efforts on one play for a 30-yard gain and multiple losses of yardage in between. This is what Melvin Gordon III brings to the team.
Javonte Williams turns an unadvised cutback on a gap play into a huge gain reminiscent of his efforts against UM last year. Drags a #RavensFlock DB 20 yards. #BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/pQIrNbzQsj— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 4, 2021
Williams isn't nearly as ignorant about gap running as Penny was about zone schemes so don't expect Williams' development timeline to be as slow. However, if you're listening to Broncos fans complain about Williams not earning enough playing time, keep this in mind because it's logical for coaches and players to want to trust the player to get what a play design will earn even if it means giving up some athletic upside.
8. You May Plug James Robinson back into your RB2 Spot and There's REason for HOpe that He'll Take Over Your RB1 Role
Besides the fact that Urban Meyer is either trying to get fired, out of his marriage, or he's crying for help — on some level, intentional or not, he's doing all three — whoever will coach this team will have learned one thing from September. Don't truck with James Robinson's snaps.
Robinson is the best back on the Jaguars. Before Leonard Fournette and after Travis Etienne arrived. He's quick, he's strong, he has excellent footwork, and his feet are aligned with expert knowledge of zone plays.
James Robinson understands that his footwork maximizes the athletic traits he has. Good technique and understanding of scheme makes you play faster #Jaguars than the metrics without full context pic.twitter.com/bqWQ0SxL7j— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 1, 2021
Why did Meyer use Carlos Hyde at the expense of Robinson's upside this month? My theory: Look at Meyer's history of player acquisition via free agency and the draft. Meyer's guys were straight off Tom Lemming's ESPN recruiting list of college prospects coming from high school. Meyer got players he either coached or faced.
As is the case with most successful college coaches who never were head coaches in the NFL and don't appreciate the animal that is this profession, they don't fully realize the demands and the pressure. They also think recruiting is on par with drafting — only in the same way that singing Happy Birthday to your five-year-old is no different than performing with a Quincy Jones-produced band at the Grammy's.
Meyer presumed Robinson was some feel-good story with limited skills who overachieved and this would become evident when Meyer brought some of "his guys" into the organization.
Safe to say that Robinson is safe to put back in your lineups as an RB2, despite the fact that his performance was against the Bengals' unit. After all, Najee Harris would have been one of Meyer's guys and he earned 14 carries for 40 yards the week prior against the lowly Bengals' defense. Robinson is legit.
9. What's Wrong with Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr, Jr.? It's Not About Them...
Fantasy football's 39th-ranked PPR receiver Woods is the third-ranked fantasy option among the Rams' receivers and the fourth option if including all Rams skill players with the exception of its quarterback. Beckham returned to the field last week after rehabbing from an ACL tear but has been healthy enough to work with Baker Mayfield during the offseason.
Both of the receivers look good. The issue is role and rapport, which are absolutely short-term issues but also inhibit their long-term upside.
I've already documented Stafford's missed targets of Woods in the middle of the field to begin the season. This should be something that gets worked out as the season progresses, especially as opposing defenses get 4-5 weeks of tape on the ways the Rams are using Cooper Kupp and gameplan against it where possible.
While I don't expect Kupp to have a Chase Claypool-like plummet in fantasy value because he's a fully-developed player in a decent scheme with a quarterback in his prime, we should see Stafford target Woods more often and see an increase in usage between Weeks 5-11. This week, Woods scored on a red-zone play where he and Stafford had to be on the same page against the Cardinals' zone scheme.
Still, there was a red-zone rep that went for a score to Van Jefferson where Woods was on the field, but not on a route. He was in pass protection against Chandler Jones. Weird to even type this sentence, but it makes sense on tape even if it frustrates fantasy GMs.
This is one play and not worth getting alarmed about. Woods is an excellent all-around player and it often means he's blocking in the screen game. This play just displays the extreme limits of his versatility. At the same time, that versatility can limit his targets in the red zone on rare occasions.
In the case of Woods, I'd remain patient. He's an integral part of the offense despite lacking consistent fantasy starter production in September. I'm more concerned with Beckham, who was open against the Vikings and Mayfield targeted.
The problem here is Mayfield, who I wrote about last week as a player with a dead-end game. He lacks that ceiling of the top player who is capable of making those 3-5 plays per game that transcend the limits of scheme and game plan. Those 3-5 plays are what made Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre who they were as NFL quarterbacks — players many pre-draft analysts compared with Mayfield.
Wilson also displays touch with targets that demand it. He doesn't try to rip it with every opportunity the way Mayfield plays.
This week, and most weeks of his career, Mayfield failed to transcend his scheme's limits. He missed a cross-body target of Kareem Hunt wide-open in the end zone because he rushed his process — a difficult play but one that the best passers in the NFL make. Even the easier plays were difficult for Mayfield this week.
Unfortunately many Browns fans see the completion of a target like this as an elite throw. It's an expected throw and that's a big difference between an elite quarterback and a journeyman. Here's one of two missed opportunities to find Beckham.
Thought Mayfield got kicked here at first but turns out he just missed a wide open Odell Beckham Jr in a tough situation in the pocket but one of those 3-5 plays per hm against good teams a top QB must make#Browns pic.twitter.com/guQ6SUbNNT— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2021
There's also a Mayfield target late in the game that brought out the worst of my inner Browns fan — a part of my fandom that has been dormant for decades — and I can't post that Tweet here. Suffice to say, despite the denial of fans who haven't given enough consideration to the context of the film that shows these issues week after week — even during his statistically strong outings against an easy schedule of defenses last year where he posted fantasy starter production.
Beckham is getting open. He's also capable of transcending the limits that a defender can place on a route when the throw is accurate enough. Unfortunately, Mayfield cannot transcend the scheme often enough to deliver on the ill-advised promise that some made when they compared him to elite quarterbacks while he was the kind of schemed plays at Texas A&M and Oklahoma.
Beckham is still a fantasy WR1 talent but it's rotting slowly on the vine as no more than a flex-pay in production due to a scheme designed to limit Mayfield's time with the ball in his hand — and while that sounds like a good thing for any quarterback, generally, it's not meant as a compliment.
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.
2-for-1 Special of the Week: Frank Ragnow and Penei Sewell: A pair of promising linemen who are doing a great job opening lanes for one of the league's most productive ground games last month, both players cost their offense red-zone possessions.
Frank Ragnow: Fresh Fish pic.twitter.com/RFRvYj8a6S— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2021
Here's the rest of the list.
- Baker Mayfield: See above and my Twitter account for more
- Matt Stafford: The Rams' quarterback still has a penchant for forcing difficult targets and trying to be a hero under pressure. This resulted in low-odds targets and interceptions during pivotal moments.
- Sony Michel: A second-quarter fumble with 10:35 in the half while down 14-10 stopped the Rams' momentum and L.A. never got close.
- Matt Nagy: Although the Lions aren't a good team, they are a tough, high-effort squad that has kept games close against good teams. The fact that the Lions couldn't keep this game close and a lot of it had to do with Bill Lazor's changes to the offense is a further indictment that Nagy's game plan was not only incompetent but dangerous to the health of Fields. How he still has a job and I'm not saying this for hyperbole, I rarely have called for the job of a coach over the past 20 years of writing about football, is a reflection of the state of the Bears' franchise and what matters to them. It's not the product on the field.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.