If you're new to Footballguys, I'm an independent scout by trade. The Rookie Scouting Portfolio is entering its 18th year of publication for the 2023 season. The most comprehensive scouting reports you'll find on offensive skill position prospects available to the public, the RSP is one of the two most purchased draft guides by player-personnel employees in the league (scouts and management) according to Alex Brown, SMU's recruiting director, who meets with scouts weekly as a part of his job.
I began as a data guy in fantasy football. I evolved into as deep of a film watcher you'll find in football media who uses process management best practices to create data out of film insights. I'm sharing this because while I study college tape year-round, I use NFL film study to inform my process as a scout.
MATCH-UP PLAYERS VS. SCHEME PLAYERS: WHY DOES IT MATTER FOR FANTASY?
Much of what I learn, I convert to fantasy insights at Footballguys, especially during the fall when I write my column, The Top 10. One of the prevalent themes of my film study last year in the Top 10 was the development of the terms "Match-Up Players" and "Scheme Players."
Both types of players can deliver fantasy value, but it's valuable to build a roster with more Match-Up Players than Scheme Players because they are less volatile producers when things go wrong outside of their control such as coaching changes, injuries to supporting talent, and level of competition. The more Match-Up Players you can have, the less volatility your roster will likely have.
Match-Up Players have a combination of football skills and athletic ability to generate production without the benefit of specific plays schemed to get them into optimal positions on the field. The best way to explain this in more detail is to discuss what Match-Up Players look like at each skill position:
- Receivers and Tight Ends: Match-Up Players at these positions have the route skills, catch-point positioning, and athletic ability to defeat man-to-man coverage — even against the top defenders who excel at press coverage.
- Running Backs: Match-Up Players at this position routinely minimize losses against stacked boxes (eight more defenders within 5-7 yards of the line of scrimmage), penetration into the backfield, or favorable defensive alignments that overmatch the offensive line's blocking design. And, in rare instances, there are backs who embody the match-up skills found with wide receivers and tight ends of this type.
- Quarterbacks: Signal callers with match-up abilities are especially skilled at the craft of pre-snap and post-snap diagnosis (the 3-4 seconds before the snap and 2-3 seconds after it) of wrinkles that defenses disguise. They also possess a productive combination of management and improvisational ability to create big-play solutions or at least minimize bad scenarios theoretically stacked in the defense's favor.
Match-Up Players have enough physical talent to make every play demanded of them in the playbook. Any physical skills beyond the basic requirement for a starter is a "nice to have," but not essential to become a Match-Up Player.
Scheme Players don't have enough skills mentioned above to create high-end starter production without their team building plays into the playbook to leverage their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Often, these play designs require the team to marshall a high degree of manpower towards one possible outcome.
Screens, RPOs, reverses, jet sweeps, draws, long-developing misdirection plays, and gap runs like Toss, Power, and Trap are designs that do an easier job of leveraging the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of Scheme Players.
Scheme Players and Match-Up Players represent two ends of the player spectrum. Most players fall somewhere in between these poles and aren't exclusively one or the other. Most Match-Up players can excel on schemed players and a significant number of Scheme Players have at least 1-2 areas where they perform like a Match-Up Player — it's just that their range of versatility to do so is notably limited.
Some Scheme Players will also develop into Match-Up Players as they become more technically sound. Likewise, some Match-Up Players as they age will still have enough skills to function productively as scheme players despite diminishing athletic and technical skills
Last week, I shared 10 players who notably fall towards the Scheme Player side of the spectrum. This week, I'm sharing 10 Match-Up players whose skills transcend any scheme and are underrated in 2022. I'm ordering them from 10-1, from least underrated to most underrated. These 10 Scheme Players have the talent to deliver starter production for you in 2022 if they maintain a high-level contributor role for their team.
10. Chris Olave
Olave's game lacks the flash of Garrett Wilson and George Pickens and he lacks the size of Treylon Burks, but his routes, hands, tracking, and rushing skills make him the most substantive receiver in this 2022 draft class. Olave can play all three receiver positions and in comparison to the rookies mentioned, he's notably more refined against press-man coverage.
Olave is already holding up well in OTAs against Marshon Lattimore and making catches in other scenarios that had observers repeatedly asking, "wait did he just come down with that?". My top receiver in the pre-draft and post-draft RSP publications, fantasy analysts, and GMs are prone to underrated receivers joining squads with quality talent already on the corps.
This happened with CeeDee Lamb two years ago when much of the fantasy space worried that there wouldn't be enough targets to go around for Lamb to thrive and assigned a ninth-round value, which is understandable in part that Lamb was a rookie. Fast-forward to late October and Lamb was 2020's No.11 receiver before Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton got hurt and left the receiving corps in the hands of quarterbacks with roster bubble quality. Still, Lamb finished as the No.21 fantasy receiver overall as a rookie because veteran quarterbacks can support fantasy starter production from 3-4 fantasy players in the passing game.
Guess who else has supported 3-4 players in the passing game during the same season during their careers? Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton. In fact, they've done it multiple times. Olave's pairing with veterans Jarvis Landry and Michael Thomas is a tremendous blessing for him as a young player because his veteran teammates excel at reading coverages and making route adjustments and he'll learn from the best.
Landry and Thomas also command attention from the opposing team's best defenders, which means Thomas will initially draw the top corner on the team on a majority of snaps, and zone defenders will make Landry's routes their priority to watch and initially slide toward. Chase Claypool is a great example of a rookie receiver who authored top-five fantasy production during the first two months of the season thanks to opposing defenses exhibiting these two tendencies before finally adjusting and shutting down the Steelers' rookie.
Let's be clear, Chase Claypool is not Chris Olave as a technician at the position. We'll see Olave hold his own against top defensive backs and make plays when targeted in tight zones. Olave reminds me a lot of Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson. He's a budding craftsman of the game who will benefit early in the year from one of two scenarios: A healthy Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry who commands the priority of opposing defenses or a still-rehabbing Thomas on the sideline that leads to Olave commanding primary targets to begin the season.
Another facet of Olave's fantasy situation that is strikingly similar to Lamb's rookie year is his ADP. A tenth-round selection at his current ADP as WR46, Olave offers greater upside than the players in the same range, including Claypool, Allen Lazard, Russell Gage, and a rehabbing Michael Gallup who won't be ready until at least mid-October. None of these options are as versatile as Olave when it comes to where he can align on the field. While Lazard, Gage, and Gallup have superior quarterbacks, Lazard and Gage are Scheme Players and Gallup is a patience-play for half of the regular fantasy season.
Roll with the rookie.
I'm positive most of you will hate this suggestion. Some of you will hate it because the cool kids have been a great influence on your perception of Watkins. The whole "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice..." fear is in play here and I get it to the extent that Watkins entered the league with the perception that he'd become a generational talent and instead, he has been a journeyman starter who has underachieved in large part due to injuries.
Please remember one thing: If you take a chance on Watkins, who will likely be one of 2-3 target players on a Green Bay team where Davante Adams has moved on, it's not like you're sweating the idea he'll stay healthy because you invested an early-round pick. Watkins isn't even a mid-draft selection. Watkins' ADP of 189 is at the end of round 15 in 12-team leagues and there are multiple ADP trackers that show Watkins still available after the 20th round!
Are you really going to take Jamison Crowder, Mecole Hardman, Josh Palmer, K.J. Hamler, Jameson Williams (who won't be ready for half of the year), Robby Anderson, Jalen Tolbert, and a dozen other receivers who will likely be available on your waive wire by Week 6 ahead of a receiver like Watkins, who, when healthy has been a productive fantasy starter as a primary perimeter deep threat (Buffalo and L.A.) and a slot option (Kansas City)?
Please people, have some guts and go for upside this late. Don't worry about injury, Watkins' ADP bakes that risk into the value. I know he has only had three fantasy-starter seasons during his career, but they all came when he played at least 13 games during his career. He has earned that value three out of the four times he's played this many NFL games during a season.
Be aggressive here. You'll be rotating through scheme-dependent options like Crowder, Hardman, and Hamler weekly. Take a chance on the upside of a Match-Up Player.
The 32-year-old Jones is perennially a forgotten commodity because of his age and Jacksonville's performance under the Urban Meyer disaster. Jones hasn't suffered a difficult injury in recent years that would create concern about diminishing athletic skills and the year before the Meyer-led nightmare, Jones was the No.15 fantasy receiver in 2020 with Detroit.
While rarely given a true primary role in an NFL offense, Jones has always been an underrated and versatile option capable of playing this role. This goes back to his years at Cal when he began his tenure with the Bears as a sophomore deep threat. When Allen arrived, Cal funneled much of the offense through him and relegated Jones to a possession role.
Many scouts and media I spoke to only watched Jones' junior and senior tape and labeled him a possession receiver. I had seen the sophomore tape and when Jones dominated a strong class off press corners at the Senior Bowl early in the week, winning vertical routes at will, it validated my research.
Jones is an excellent route runner who can get open anywhere on the field. Cincinnati valued Jones' skill after the catch and used him initially as a slot receiver. By year two, Jones proved he could stretch the field and win contested targets in the red zone, earning 14 yards per catch and 10 scores in 2013 as the No. 3 option in the Bengals' offense.
Detroit used Jones as a 1-A/1-B option and exploited his vertical prowess and Jones' peak season as the No.5 fantasy receiver in 2017 included an 18-yard-per-catch average. Jones often earned accolades from stat services like PFF for his ability to win contested targets.
Send him deep, target him over the middle and let him run, or use him as a slot or possession receiver, Jones offers a complete range of skills for a Jaguars offense that lacked stability under Meyer whose amateur-hour environment exacerbated the learning curve for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
It didn't help that the team's co-primary option, D.J. Chark Jr, missed most of the season. Chark's absence exposed the lack of skilled options behind Jones on the depth chart. Opponents weren't punished for making Jones the first priority to take away. This wasn't the biggest factor, but it was a development that added to the existing issues of greater import.
Expect Doug Pederson to create a professional and predictable environment where it matters for an organization to function and Lawrence to take a significant step forward this year. Adding Christian Kirk, another versatile talent, to the receiving corps, will also help Lawrence and Jones thrive.
Don't expect Jones to deliver top-15 fantasy production, but his current ADP of WR69 in drafts underestimates his high-floor value as a fantasy WR4 last year for an unmitigated disaster of a situation. Jones is a fantasy WR3 with WR2 upside if Jacksonville only returns to its recent pre-Meyer years as a below-average team rather than a laughing stock.
At this point, fantasy GMs are grouping Jones among rookie receivers with high upside but lower floors this year including Christian Watson, Jahan Dotson, Jalen Tolbert, Jameson Williams, Alec Pierce, and George Pickens. They're also opting for incomplete veterans that perennially seduce the public due to size and speed, including Kenny Golladay, DeVante Parker, Mecole Hardman, and Robbie Anderson.
What's most telling about how GMs regard Jones is the rest of the players taken among this range of high-upside athletes. Jakobi Meyers, Van Jefferson, and Jamison Crowder. I'm betting many GMs are lumping Jones in with these options who have low ceilings but high enough floors to offer bye-week production.
They are underestimating the height of Jones' floor because they don't understand that Jones remains a Match-Up Player. Meyers, Jefferson, and Crowder are closer to the spectrum of Scheme Players. So are Golladay, Hardman, a most of these rookies (at least for this year).
Taking upside in the later rounds is a good guideline. However, when you have a player with Jones' skills and what should be an improved situation, fantasy GMs have undervalued him.
Stats and highlights only tell a partial story. There are a few better examples of this than how the fantasy football public regards Elliott.
Dallas' lead back set a high standard the moment he entered the league. Paired with an offensive line at its peak, Elliott delivered a 1,994-yard, 16-touchdown rookie year and followed up with two seasons of at least 1,775 total yards and 9 scores out of the next three.
By the team Elliott turned 24, he had averaged 292 attempts, 1352 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 47 catches, 430 receiving yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns per year during his first four years in the NFL. That's top-five fantasy RB value during most seasons.
However, the anti-Elliott rhetoric among football analysts coincided with the Running Backs Don't Matter Movement. Their points about the financial value of running backs have merit, the rhetoric they drape it in is over the top to attract eyeballs and one of the focal points has been Elliott due to his contract.
So does the idea that a team could earn a baseline level of value for its offense from a running back with lower draft capital and salary. However, any attempts to cast Elliott as an average runner is either attention-seeking rhetoric or a limited understanding of the position due to reliance solely on data that lacks enough context about the position's impact.
Most data sources track results but not the processes vital to the position — processes that have an impact on how opposing defenses play the offense. This includes alignments, shifts, blitzes, and the amount of personnel in the box. On an even subtler level, a skilled runner influences the way individual defenders handle their keys with the running back.
While the has been a growing public sentiment that Tony Pollard should be "set free" and offers more promise than Elliott, this is based on limited box score data and highlight packages of Pollard earning touches in situations where the defense isn't as committed to stop the running back as it is when Elliott is in the game. Pollard is a promising back with starter potential, but comparing Pollard's production to Elliott's is not 1:1.
Elliott is in a role where down, distance, field position, and the game script create a higher degree of difficulty with more of his touches than they do when Pollard is in the game. Elliott is often the primary option to stop whereas Pollard is a talented secondary target of the defense based on the factors just mentioned.
The narrative that Elliott's skills led to a bad season in 2020 is an ill-conceived one. Elliott had an injury-riddled 2019.
He's still an excellent decision-maker who turns situations with a higher chance of negative outcomes into neutral or net-positive outcomes. It's one of the less-discussed aspects of running back play. We value football players, especially offensive skill players, for their contributions to big plays—yardage earned in chunks—often to the point of overvaluing them in fantasy football.
We recognize the impact that poor decisions and execution can have on the outcomes of drives but we undervalue players who, during a moment where the opponent theoretically has a significant advantage and/or likelihood of generating big play, can significantly limit the negative impact if not transform the outcome into a positive one for his team. These players turn lemons into tasty lemonade in a kitchen lacking sharp knives, strainers, and a functioning sink.
Despite earning 12 fewer touches in 17 games during 2021 than he did in 15 games the year prior, Elliott still delivered production that left him one spot away from top-five fantasy value at his position. I know much is made about seeking a return on investment, but it's naive to expect that a top-five fantasy pick performs below expectation if he doesn't generate top-five production.
While reasonable that the higher than pick, the higher one's expectations are for the player to have a shot at elite value, it's wiser to draft a player based on his floor. Some may disagree, but if I draft a player during the early rounds, I'm expecting starter production. Whether it's the first round or the eighth round, if the player performs as a starter and remains healthy enough to count on, he's in a range of reasonable expectations.
Certainly, there's merit to the point that drafting a back among the top 10 players overall means your baseline expectations are higher than a player you draft 95th overall. However, characterizing Elliott as a back who has fooled us because he performed as the No.6 fantasy runner in 2021 after a "down" year as the No.11 back the year before misses the mark of effective fantasy valuation.
If I draft a back in fantasy RB1 range and he reaches it, that's an accurate pick. The more picks that are accurate in this manner, the more likely your team will be a high scorer. The less this happens, the more dependent your roster will be on players who vastly outperform their draft-day value. As we know, this happens enough to be a difference for teams — regardless of how well they draft during the "starter rounds."
Elliott's total touch counts are no longer in the range of 300-350 totes he earned during three of his first four seasons. In 2020, Elliott was on a pace for 300 overall touches if not for injuries to him, his line, and multiple quarterbacks.
Last year, Elliott finished 16 touches shy of 300 with one extra game on the NFL schedule. Only six running backs had more rushing attempts than Elliott last year and half of them scored fewer fantasy points overall. Only four of those backs were at least a year younger than the 26-year-old Elliott.
Only eight backs had more receptions than Elliott. Only three of those backs outscored Elliott in fantasy leagues. And only three of those backs were at least a year younger than Elliott.
Don't worry about Tony Pollard and relish the fact that the fantasy public has Elliott at a ridiculous RB16 value. Elliott's baseline was last year's production as RB6 with nearly 1,300 total yards and 16 scores. If Tony Pollard gets hurt, Elliott's upside is 1,800-2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns.
He's one of the most substantive early-round values in fantasy leagues this year.
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