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 7'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- What's wrong with Patrick Mahomes II? The answer to these questions is rarely simple: The Chiefs' offensive line is young, opposing defenses are playing coverages that exploit the Chiefs' long-developing routes and lead to coverage sacks, and offensive penalties and drops are putting the offense into these situations where these coverages are effective. It's a vicious cycle that's leading to Mahomes' game crossing the line from "daring" to "risky" and he's paying for it.
- As mentioned last week, Jaylen Waddle's role prevents him from earning production efficiency on par with Ja'Marr Chase, but it has more to do with his surrounding talent. With Chase in a position to earn single coverage and working with two receivers that would start for most teams, he's putting on a clinic almost weekly. His performance against Baltimore was no exception.
- Bet on players working with good offensive lines part one: D'Ernest Johnson is a good NFL reserve but against Denver, the Cleveland offensive line made Johnson look like a legitimate starter.
- Bet on players working with good offensive lines, part two: The Bengals' offensive line — wait, what? Yes, the Bengals' offensive line blew the doors off the Ravens' defense, giving Samaje Perine enough room for a career-long run a series after Joe Mixon knifed through Baltimore's unit. Moreover, opposing defenses can't cheat its scheme towards heavy blitzes without paying dearly.
- Although Kyle Pitts' consecutive 100-yard games came against the Jets and Dolphins, two defenses with legitimate issues, the tape reveals why he's at least in the conversation for a record-breaking season.
- If the Dolphins have their way, they are throwing out a good quarterback prospect in Tua Tagovailoa. The mistakes he makes are typical of a young passer but many of his skills are typical of successful starters if given the opportunity for development. If Miami's leadership focused more on the personnel around Tagovailoa rather than having a dysmorphic perception of itself as a perennial contender, it could get to work without distraction and eventually become a playoff team.
- Khalil Herbert was the first running back to earn 100 yards against the top-ranked run defense of the Buccaneers — the first player to pass this mark since Dalvin Cook in Week 14 of 2020. Although Herbert ran well, the weight of this statement about his skill as a running back because of the box score and opponent are superficial. The Bears' offensive line outperformed the Buccaneers' front to open holes that made Herbert's efforts easier than the past two weeks of contests -- the games where he legitimately earned the No. 2 role in Chicago.
- The Raiders have leveraged Josh Jacob's skills in space in recent weeks and needed to continue doing so, especially with Kenyan Drake in the fold.
- Dynasty Alert: TE Foster Moreau's contract expires in 2023. If you have a 1.5 PPR scoring format for the position, it's time to begin pursuing package deals that get him on your roster before he's a starter elsewhere.
- Fresh Fish.
- Eagles' tackle Jordan Mailata gave up multiple sacks and pressures in the first half of the Raiders game, injecting life into Yannick Ngakoue's stat-line.
- DeVonta Smith dropped three passes on Sunday. While two of them were difficult targets in the quick game, the best receivers make more of the plays he missed and he's still getting pinned to the boundary too often.
- Zach Wilson's backyard quarterbacking style gives analysts hope, but he's in a hopeless situation this year and an easy mark.
- Opposing defenses are exploiting the limits of Patrick Mahomes II' patience and he's paying the price.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. Dissecting Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs' offensive Struggles
Although Patrick Mahomes II is still on pace for a 2021 campaign of 5,083 yards and 43 touchdowns, he's also on track for 22 interceptions. Even if Mahomes and the Chiefs address its offensive problems, Mahomes' worst interception totals in his NFL career were the 12 he threw during his first full season as a pro. Eight of Mahomes' nine interceptions this year have come in the past five weeks and he's had three outings during this span with two interceptions.
What's wrong with him? As is the case with quarterbacking, it's rarely one thing.
The first issue is the Chiefs' offensive line. This is an overhauled unit that is not performing to the level it was 3-4 years ago as a pass-production unit. When an opposing defense can generate early pressure, especially interior pressure with only four pass rushers, it's a sign that the offensive line is overmatched. Tennessee's defenses generated this type of pressure all day.
Mahomes Int, trying too hard to while down 0-17 pic.twitter.com/EuSkKcvh4n— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 24, 2021
If a quarterback doesn't have room or time to set up and throw at the end of his drop due to pressure compromising the pocket, few offenses will succeed in the league, even if the quarterback can still post fantasy-relevant production. Another part of the equation is coverage. Opposing defenses are using two safeties aligned in the deepest quadrants of the field. These two-high looks limit the vertical game and force the offense to run or throw short and intermediate passes.
Two-high coverage may seem like something new because it's something that's the common denominator in recent weeks, but when Mahomes had strong offensive line play, this coverage wasn't a problem. Here's Mahomes splitting Denver's two-high look in his first NFL start — a watershed moment for most league analysts with legit football knowledge.
Mahomes splitting two high safeties. Good decision but difficult execution done well. pic.twitter.com/QypXER3NPb— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) June 29, 2018
The combination of this coverage and defenses getting into Mahomes' face early on in passing plays and early in the game are the root issues that create a host of ancillary problems that Mahomes must address.
QB Patrick Mahomes II in the first half…— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 24, 2021
Voluntarily playing outside of structure. Lot of unnecessary movement. And the turnovers.
KC will continue to see this type of defensive game plan moving forward (2-deep, 2-Man…limit the deep ball throws). #Chiefs
Mahomes fumble and he was careless with his security. Attempting to tuck as late as he did is way too late. pic.twitter.com/ud2A5dzxGz— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 24, 2021
Mahomes Int, trying too hard to while down 0-17 pic.twitter.com/EuSkKcvh4n— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 24, 2021
Mahomes' game is at his best when he's daring. And when the Chiefs faced single-high coverage, Mahomes showed he could still deliver daring throws that didn't bleed over into the arena of "risk."
Mahomes extended play vs one-high look. pic.twitter.com/3UIsTbO6mm— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 24, 2021
However, risk and daring are two ends of the same spectrum of style. When opposing defenses can create an environment that forces Mahomes into abandoning structure early and/or deal with negative outcomes without time to generate anything positive, it influences most quarterbacks to push the envelope too far towards risk. This is where Mahomes and the Chiefs are at the moment, especially when opposing defenses can get early pressure, protect the deep quadrants of the field, and cover the intermediate and short routes well enough that force Mahomes out of the pocket.
The coverage view of the Mahomes sack pic.twitter.com/83Ck6q4wOW— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 24, 2021
Again, when this happens enough early on, it influences quarterbacks to have less trust in their offensive structure. That lack of trust pushes quarterbacks, especially creative passes like Mahomes, to force things. It would also be helpful for the Chiefs to get more quick-developing routes and screens into the game plan. If the Chiefs can generate more offense with the ground game — the combination of running Darrel Williams and using its receivers and Kelce in the run game as it once did frequently, opposing defenses won't have as much success with these two-high looks.
Until that happens, expect Mahomes to have a Favre-like season. This is really what I expected from Mahomes' development cycle earlier in his career, but the offensive line and skill talent helped Mahomes play to his best-case scenario. If a buy-low scenario for Mahomes presents itself in any format, take it.
2. The magnificent Ja'Marr Chase
Last week, I mentioned that Jaylen Waddle was playing impressive football and if he had the receiving corps that Chase has, we'd see plays closer to what we're seeing from Chase. I've seen nothing to change my mind about that statement. Even so, that's no knock on Chase, my top-graded receiving from any draft class I've ever studied.
Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins create a lot of binds for zone defenses because these units often lack the personnel to cheat towards one specific receiver without paying dearly. When these units play man-to-man coverage, Chase earns opportunities without safety help for similar reasons.
As a result, we get to see Chase dominate good cornerbacks one-on-one with his speed, quickness, and advanced techniques for a rookie receiver.
Chase was my top player in the 2021 NFL Draft class with a Depth of Talent Score in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio of 95.7. This is a rare grade that equates to a player with instant All-Pro upside who takes over games and changes teams.
I compared Chase to a mix of Roddy White and DeAndre Hopkins. Chase shares their body types, has White's vertical speed, and he's a tough ball-winner against tight coverage who can run every route, which is essentially the case for both White and Hopkins. Analysts wondered if the Bengals should have taken left tackle Penei Sewell because the offensive line has been poor in recent years and Cincinnati already had Higgins and Boyd.
So far, it appears Cincinnati made the best decision. The Bengals offensive line is improving as a run and pass-protection thanks to its new personnel, the steady development of its second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, and the presence of three good receivers that now includes a true playmaking threat at any place on the field who prevents opposing defenses from cheating with heavy blitzes that stress an offensive line.
Yes, sometimes, skill players are the superior draft-day priority to trench players. Chase is that exceptional case.
3. Bet on Good Offensive Lines Part I: D'Ernest Johnson and the Browns' Pummelling of the Broncos
Johnson is a good "find" by the standards of the NFL scouting community — a runner who lacks top-notch starter athletic ability and creativity but has an all-around football acumen to contribute when called upon, especially when that contribution is behind one of the best offensive lines in football and a defense missing its best linebackers.
Johnson had trap-door value heading into the week because there was the possibility that Cleveland might be missing both tackles for a second straight week, which led to the Browns' worst rushing effort of the year in Week 6. Fortunately, left tackle Jedrick Wills was healthy enough to play and play well, which opened the door for the offensive line to create huge creases for Johnson.
Strong push by Cleveland’s OL pic.twitter.com/1IyDaJ3lSr— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 22, 2021
Strong early drive leads to a huge crease for D Johnson pic.twitter.com/5iov2pCgp5— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 22, 2021
When an offensive line generates this kind of push, it gives even average running backs the confidence to create because they are doing so at the line of scrimmage or past the line of scrimmage.
While Johnson has fantasy value for as long as the offensive line remains healthy and the Browns are without Nick Chubb and/or Kareem Hunt, he's not a buy-low in dynasty leagues as a future starter or heavily relied upon contributor elsewhere. This could change if he earns an opportunity to sign for a team with a good offensive line but he's a lot like Chester Taylor and Justin Forsett, good football players who can play to the skill of the surrounding talent but won't transcend it.
Still, the Browns' offensive line and offensive system offer an important reminder to fantasy GMs that safe picks with the ground game (Chubb, Hunt, and whomever the Browns start at RB behind a top OL unit) offer better odds than a high-end individual talent like Saquon Barkley and the Giants' depth chart behind its offensive line. Considering that Chubb and Barkley are roughly equal talents — Chubb was always a little better as a decision-maker, pick the combo of the back and the OL unit and make the team's RB depth chart a consistent waiver-wire priority.
4. Bet on Good offensive lines Part II: The Bengals Unit Is IMproving
Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer breaks down a moment in the Jaguars' game that in some respects, repeated itself against the Ravens on Sunday:
The Jaguars sent an all-out “zero” blitz at Burrow. After he completed a 25-yard screen to Uzomah, Burrow was shouting “you can’t zero me” as he walked toward the sideline. Even though Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams didn’t complete the pass or catch the pass, Williams said he felt the same sense of pride after the play.
When the Jaguars blitzed Burrow, they bet on the fact that the defensive line could sack Burrow before a Bengals receiver could get open. Burrow was hit as he made the throw to Uzomah, and it took every second from every block of every offensive lineman for Burrow to have just enough time.
“When teams bring zero, you kind of have to make them pay because they’re trying to make you pay,” Williams said. “They’re trying to create a big turnover or a big sack or loss of yards. So if you can take their aggressiveness and use it against them, (you can) break a big play like C.J. did.”
As detailed in Goldsmith's article, the Bengals have cut down on mental mistakes and while they may not have earned top grades from media analysts outside the league, a unit that doesn't make egregious errors gives its playmakers chances to change the game. We're seeing this unfold with Chase, who repeatedly beat the Ravens' best cover corner throughout the game (see above).
And when Chase is winning against the defense's best player, it creates binds and breakdowns that open the field for players like tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Ravens vs. Uzomah 2https://t.co/zJKaHo9LnC— Schema FF - Football & Fantasy (@schema_ff) October 25, 2021
The benefits also show up in the running game because the defense cannot load the box with safeties in the middle of the field and the linebackers can't be too aggressive with run blitzes. By the games' end, the Bengals are now in position to salt away contests with the ground attack. Watching the interior of Cincinnati's offensive line blow the Ravens' unit off the ball was a big moment. Watching some Ravens players with questionable effort — a team that, alongside the Detroit Lions, might have the most "fight" of any organization in the NFL this year (and for the Ravens, this has been a long-term characteristic of their team) — is shocking.
The Bengals are a playoff contender this year if projecting their current record, recent performances, and schedule of teams that have defensive weaknesses that include the Jets, Raiders, Chargers, 49ers, Broncos, Ravens, and Chiefs. If they can win five of these seven matchups, they are a 10-6 unit heading into Week 17 against Cleveland, which could be the deciding contest for the AFC North crown.
Fantasy GMs with Mixon need to keep Samaje Perine in its plans as long as the line play and skill talents in the passing game remain healthy.
5. The Watershed Moment for Kyle Pitts' league-wide Perception
I profiled Pitts against the Jets two weeks ago, nothing that the way the Falcons used Pitts is worth understanding where he wins and a big part of that answer are inside the numbers. I said to realistically expect more extreme swings in production from Pitts before he stabilizes into a top 5-7 fantasy option by year's end.
While Carolina (twice), New Orleans, New England, Tampa, and Buffalo are the best candidates for Pitts to have six weeks of low-end starter or sub-par fantasy performances, Pitts' work against Miami showed that even when a defensive puts a cornerback on Pitts when Pitts is work from the inside, it's a mismatch in the rookie's favor.
What could be the watershed moment of Pitts' rookie year, at least from the league's perspective of Pitts the weapon, is this catch against Xavien Howard. One of the best cover corners in the league and a physical presence, Pitts wins this mano-a-mano moment in a pivotal moment just as stars are expected.
While there is a lot of tape of Pitts' work for opposing teams to consider, it's this play against Howard that will lead them to change how they play him. If this happens, expect some bigger weeks for Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson in the passing game when opponents cheat its coverage towards Pitts.
This was the play where the NFL, not its media analysts, will likely conclude that he's an elite weapon.
6. Another Man's Trash...Miami's Executive Leadership Wants to Throw AWay a Perfectly Good Prospect
I'd take Tua Tagovailoa as an alternative to Baker Mayfield getting a new contract in Cleveland. I'm not alone among the community of analysts that cover the Browns although there's a contingent of fans who are ride-or-die with Mayfield. Why is this?
Mayfield is going to command $100 million, the going rate for a second-contract starter. Miami's executive leadership can't wait to dump Tagovailoa by the side of the road because it believes it is a playoff team in the hands of a veteran superstar at the quarterback position. This is a dysmorphic viewpoint of an executive team that thinks it's one player away from being a perennial contender that can go deep into the playoffs when what's looking back at them in the mirror is the Houston Texans if they acquire Deshaun Watson.
Watson and the Dolphins have enough talent to help Watson lead them to the playoffs but not enough to beat the best teams in the AFC. It's a lateral move for Watson, who will continue first-round exits more often than not if the Dolphins continue the way they have prior to Watson's arrival.
That's probably ok for Miami's executives, who want to see increases in merchandise sales — this is where the real money is — and in our society, Watson will command those sales even with his current legal woes, especially if the Dolphins are pursuing this trade as hard as reported. It's likely that interest has heated up again because there are signs that Watson's accusers don't have strong enough cases for Watson to earn a conviction, much less a suspension.
Meanwhile, there's Tagovailoa who is a better pocket player than Mayfield and his decision-making doesn't fall apart after making mistakes earlier in the game. Tagovailoa was the reason the Dolphins came back in this game, the Dolphins' defense was the biggest reason Miami was losing.
He's a superior runner to Mayfield, his arm is as strong as Mayfield's, and he fits the Browns' scheme well with his footwork and play-action game.
Tagovailoa'ss baseline accuracy is superior — on film and in the box score — to Mayfield and Tagovailoa is getting it done without the offensive line and run game that Mayfield has.
Tagovailoa also has a lot less NFL game experience and is on his second offensive system in two years. The mistakes he makes are common instances of decision-making immaturity where a young passer is trying too hard to make a play rather than manage the situation. Give me a mobile play-action quarterback with efficient pocket movement, baseline accuracy to fit the ball into tight windows and over coverage, and the resiliency to overcome mistakes and make tough throws.
The Dolphins leadership may want to throw him in the trash, but in the right situation, Tagovailoa can be a franchise option. Where Miami sends him may change that ceiling of potential, dramatically so, but until then, I'm buying low.
7. More Superficial Watershed Moments: Khalil Herbert's 100-Yard Performance vs. Tampa
As many of you know, I've been talking and writing about Herbert's potential value since July of 2020 and updating his improvement as a player in the months after that first mentioning of him. This week, Herbert topped 100 yards against Tampa Bay's top-ranked rushing defense in the NFL and it is the point where the majority of analysts and fans will anoint Herbert a legitimate running back with starter potential. After all, many of my peers shared the collective skepticism that Herbert would have value this week thanks to the return of Damien Williams to the lineup.
They didn't value the weight of Herbert's impressive two weeks of performances that included pivotal fourth-quarter touches and a better zone game than Williams. This week will serve as the validation that most of them needed to label Herbert a valuable contributor when given an opportunity.
Ironically, Herbert may have faced the best rushing defense in the league thus far, but it was his easiest performance thanks to the play of his offensive line. Unlike previous weeks, most of Herbert's significant gains didn't require cutbacks or avoiding penetration in the backfield, which he had to frequently do in Weeks 5 and 6.
Herbert faced more demanding run defenses on a play-to-play level (despite TB’s stat ranking) during the two weeks prior but he showing skill to slip reaches and wraps at the second level. pic.twitter.com/M0o908xt18— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 25, 2021
Herbert's performance was a combination of the Buccaneers having a big lead and the defense playing the pass with great weight, the Bears' line executing well as run blockers, and Herbert finishing strong through big gaps. If you are now on the Herbert Train, the price of the ticket already skyrocketed for dynasty formats. Still, it's nice knowing that the Bears have an Alexander Mattison-Tony Pollard type of No.2 option when David Montgomery can't play.
8. The Freeing of Josh Jacobs...Thank you, Kenyan Drake?
Yes, thank you, Kenyan Drake, for joining the Raiders. From a fantasy GM's perspective, this may be a premature thanks because Drake and Jacobs have split the Raiders' backfield to the point that both are low-end RB2 options this year despite having the talent to deliver no worse than low-end RB1 value as individuals.
The reason I'm thanking Drake in a fantasy-focused column is that his work between the tackles has been just good enough to allow Las Vegas to use Jacobs more often in the passing game. Jacobs' 14 receptions on 16 targets in 5 games, is the highest rate of use that Jacobs has seen during his NFL career. While staying healthy has been a moderate issue for Jacobs, a 17-game projection for Jacobs' rate of use in the passing game would put him within a shot of 50 catches.
When you watch Jacobs catch the ball and win yards in the open field, you should understand my excitement.
The Raiders under Jon Gruden pounded Jacobs so often between the tackles that they neglected the easier yards he could get in space, especially for a player known for his receiving prowess at Alabama.
Jacobs missed the second half of the Eagles' game with a chest injury but should be available after next week's bye. With an interim coaching staff in place, look for a little more flexibility from the staff to get Jacobs and space. Even if this doesn't happen to the extent that Jacobs delivers as a strong fantasy starter down the stretch — and I expect he won't with Drake and him splitting time — Jacobs is getting enough film in the league as a receiver that a smart coach will maximize what Jacobs offers as a talent.
This could happen next year in Las Vegas with a new coach or in 2023 when the 25-year-old becomes a free agent.
9. Dynasty Alert: Buy Foster Moreau
In a recent RSP Quick Game Podcast with Mark Schofield, I touted Moreau as one of the underrated backups in the league who I'd sign as a starter for an expansion team if given the opportunity. With Darren Waller out, the Raiders went to Moreau early and often and he delivered as more than just a schemed option who can generate yards after the catch but also a player who could win one-on-one matchups.
As with Jacobs, Moreau is a free agent after the 2022 season. Look for him to earn his first starting gig at that point. He has always been a skilled blocker and his quickness off the line and after the catch is underrated for a player of his size and strength. Underutilized in LSU's passing game, Moreau always flashed these high-end skills as a receiver. If you have room for a patience-play, and I try to set you up for rosters that do, Moreau should be high on your list in PPR formats.
10. FRESH FISH: WEEK 7
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 love 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.
Special of the Week: Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs offensive line
Mahomes has thrown eight interceptions during the past five weeks, by far his worst stretch as a pro, and his offensive line is allowing opposing defenses to reach Mahomes at the top of his drops with just four pass-rushers. It's a delicious seafood recipe for Chiefs' opponents.
Here's the rest of the list.
- Eagles' left tackle Jordan Mailata gave up two sacks, two pass deflections, and multiple pressures to Yannick Ngakoue, who accumulated nearly half of his season totals against Mailata.
- Zach Wilson and the Jets' offensive line are easy pickings for opposing defenses. Backyard plays that surprised Tennessee's defense late in the game supported his best performance of the year but as we've seen, it's not a sign of sustainable work for the rest of the year.
- I was not bullish on DeVonta Smith's prospects for his rookie season. Although the targets are coming Smith's way, he's not delivering at a level to elevate his offense. He dropped three passes on Sunday and while there's a valid argument that two of those throws were not accurate, the best receivers make these plays. I'm more concerned about opposing cornerbacks having success with pinning Smith along the boundary and limiting his vertical production. This was my initial concern while studying him in college and it's an area where he must improve during the offseason because it's limiting his potential.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.