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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.
Quick Thoughts on the San Francisco Backfield
For the first five weeks of the season, I covered this difficult (and fluid) situation that has been 49ers' backfield. After watching Elijah Mitchell earn the vast majority of touches upon returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for two weeks, it's reasonable to assume that Mitchell will remain the starter for the foreseeable future.
While Mitchell's performances reveal a straight-line runner with limited cutback ability, Mitchell fits the mold of a speed back that Kyle Shanahan values for his offense. With George Kittle on IR, the 49ers also lose a great run blocker on the edge. This places a premium on a runner's speed to reach the edge if the 49ers want to continue employing as diverse of a game plan as possible for its rushing attack.
Trey Sermon showed enough speed to reach the edge — even against unblocked penetration from J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones during his lone touch against the Cardinals on Sunday — but the one area where Mitchell clearly bests Sermon is speed. To Mitchell's credit, he performed well as a pass protector on Sunday, especially when there were second-chance opportunities to help his quarterback in the pocket.
What does this mean for Sermon long-term? My recommendation is to stay patient. A coaching regime burying a talent on its depth chart can happen in the NFL but there are prominent examples of talent eventually bearing out.
In 2013, I showed fans why they needed to remain patient with Le'Veon Bell despite underwhelming production. Nick Chubb didn't earn his opportunity for several weeks and I showed how his on-field play was better than the online conclusions many posited. Ray Rice earned few opportunities during his first season in Baltimore and became an elite producer in Year Two.
These are just three examples. If you're in a re-draft league, Sermon is droppable if you're desperate to add talent to your roster. Otherwise, there has been enough instability with the 49ers' roster in the first five weeks alone to keep Sermon on your roster. He has produced with the limited reps given to him.
In dynasty formats, Sermon is a good buy-low based on his talent, the skill of the 49ers' offensive line, and the high turnover at the running back position in the NFL. He's definitely a talent I'll be holding because fantasy GMs are notoriously impatient. This is understandable, the season is short and careers can be short. However, when a player exhibits skills on film and doesn't earn an opportunity, it's worth remaining patient. While we can make assumptions as to why Mitchell is the favorite option, there hasn't been enough information in light of what Sermon has shown to know definitively why this is the case.
Still, fans and analysts are uncomfortable with that unknown, and the desire to fill the vacuum with a broad take that overrides the good sense of accepting that all we know is that Mitchell is the starter. Until we know more, accepting the discomfort that comes with a lack of information is part of the game — and for skilled fantasy GMs, exploiting that unknown (buying low in dynasty) is a good strategy.
STRAIGHT, NO CHASER: WEEK 5'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- Justin Herbert is an example of a quarterback who is making "the 3-5 plays that matter" in a game and making a strong case that he's an elite NFL quarterback.
- Kadarius Toney lit up the Cowboys' defense with a display of old and new skills that indicate a promising future for the rookie from Florida. With multiple injuries to the Giants' offense, Toney is the primary option in New York for at least the short term.
- Kyle Pitts had a strong week against the New York Jets due in part to Atlanta playing without two of its best receivers but the way the Falcons used Pitts is worth understanding where he wins and a big part of that answer is inside the numbers.
- Zach Wilson is having the season one would expect from a rookie quarterback in Johnny Manziel-like decision-making tendencies (on-field only) in New York on a team without a veteran backup. Wilson's footwork is a notable problem and it's killing his accuracy.
- You only need to see one play from Rondale Moore's afternoon against the 49ers to understand that his low center of gravity and awesome strength make him a game-changing player for as long as he can stay healthy.
- With David Montgomery out, rookie Khail Herbert's ability to produce in Chicago was no surprise, but his immediate production split with Damien Williams was unexpected — especially earning the all-important role of game-sealing touches.
- Dawson Knox has arrived and he has the athletic ability, emerging skills, and quarterback to become the next elite producer at tight end in fantasy football. Will the Bills' scheme and game plans continue to support a breakout? Are we about to see David Njoku play to his potential? He's a stud athlete but was his breakout against the Chargers an aberration due to the matchup or the sign of more to come?.
- While I've seen fantasy analysts and fans call for the end of Mike Davis' role in Atlanta because they've seen flash plays from Cordarrelle Patterson, there's a reason why Davis will maintain a split in reps with Patterson for the foreseeable future and that's due to what makes a competent NFL ground attack: blocking scheme diversity.
- As forecasted here, patience with Robert Woods was rewarded on Thursday night and should continue to bear fruit.
- Mason Crosby, Evan McPherson, and Tristan Vizcaino headline this week's Fresh Fish for an almost comical number of big misses.
- The Jets defense had a pair of coverage mistakes that led to big plays for the Falcons.
- The officials running the Chargers-Browns contest called pass interference against the wrong team and committed the most damning form of interference that can happen during a game.
- Tyreek Hill had two uncharacteristic drops, including one that lead to a pick-six that effectively sealed the game for Buffalo.
- Taylor Heinicke made two high-risk perimeter throws that revealed that he's still backup material.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Justin Herbert and the 3-5 Plays that Matter
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.
Unless one team has dominated the other early, most games have a dynamic where the opposing defense has at least 3-5 chances to stop an offense and affect the outcome of the game. The combination of game script, field position, down-and-distance scenario, score, and specific schematic and personnel match-ups give the defense an opportunity to eliminate what the quarterback and/or offense likes to do or limit its execution to the point that the quarterback must transcend these limitations to win the play.
While there's a worthwhile conversation to be had about the momentum swing that can occur when a quarterback transcends the limitations that a defense, this isn't about the idea of momentum. I'm simply pointing out plays that keep drives alive in situations where a defensive stop reinforces or compounds an advantage or creates further opportunity for the other team to draw even.
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.
When I watch Justin Herbert, he's making those 3-5 plays that matter. Here are three from his comeback victory against a good Browns' team.
Some plays require patience under pressure, some require excellent athletic ability, and others require a specific combination of skills. While one of these plays appears fairly routine — the 4th-and-8 conversion — there are many quarterbacks who fail when they have to show patience, placement, and accurate decision-making with intermediate throws in the middle of the field in a situation like this.
Herbert has not only performed to the task this week but also for the past 12 months of NFL games that have included raising the games of two UDFA receivers playing pivotal roles in the Chargers offense in 2020.
2. Kadarius Toney's Sizzler in Dallas
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