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.
Why not both?
Whoever said it's better to be lucky than good did not understand the value of the process. Being good generates luck.
The goal of this feature is to you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, but the fundamental mission is to get the process right. It's a rush to see the box score or highlights and claim you made the right calls. Without a sustainable process, success is ephemeral.
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).
My specialty is film analysis. I've been scouting the techniques, concepts, and physical skills of offensive skill talent as my business for nearly 20 years.
The Top 10 will give you fantasy-oriented insights rooted in football analysis that has made the Rookie Scouting Portfolio one of the two most purchased independent draft guides among NFL scouts. This is what SMU's Director of Recruiting Alex Brown has told me based on his weekly visits with scouts during his tenure in Dallas as well as his stints at Rice and Houston.
Sigmund Bloom's Waiver Wire piece, that's available Monday nights during the season, is also a good source of information to begin your week as a fantasy GM. 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 1'S CLIFF'S NOTES
This week, I'll be examining a lot of players who should be on your Waiver Wire Rolodex. Are you young enough to wonder what a Rolodex is? It's the precursor to your smartphone's contact list and after your fantasy drafts, it's wise to build a preliminary list of free agents who have the talent, depth chart spot, and/or offensive scheme to deliver fantasy value for your rosters if and when an opportunity arises.
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points. I always provide bullet points for those lacking the time to see the tape examples and expanded commentary.
- Saquon Barkley Is Back: The burst, the finishing mentality, and the gap plays that fit his game the best. Don't sell high.
- Gabriel Davis Is A Scheme Play; Stefon Diggs and Justin Jefferson are Matchup Plays: All three can help you, but only two will be elite.
- Aaron Rodgers' Rookie Blues by Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson: Sure, the Packers started slowly last year. They also had two starting tackles and Davante Adams. Rodgers won't save you.
- Put some Respect on Cordarrelle Patterson's Name: . . . and game. Patterson is the best fantasy asset in Atlanta. Pitts is too reliant on limited quarterback play.
- It Took A Few Quarters, But Michael Thomas and Jameis Winston Figured It Out: Thomas was supposedly on a snap count but with the game on the line, he took over.
- Unsettled: A History Lesson with the Chiefs' Backfield: I've been telling you for years that Andy Reid is more open than his peers with allowing his utilization of running back personnel to evolve.
- Enjoy Greg Dortch, Look Forward to Rondale Moore (This may also be a Richie James-Kadarius Toney Message): Dortch and James played well, but the role has more value than these two players, long-term.
- Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' Line Looks Ready to Roll -- Too Bad the Passing Game Won't Cooperate: The Cowboys' ground game was ready, but they're on ice until the passing game heals.
- Allen Robinson Was the Victim of Familiarity, But Fantasy Horrors May Still Be Lurking: Matthew Stafford leaned hard on Cooper Kupp. That could change but that's dependently on the OL who were...
- Fresh Fish: Andrew Whitworth is sorely missed in L.A. Derek Carr sorely missed, period. And the Falcons' Defense went soft at the wrong time. Matt Ryan and the Patriots also make the list.
1. Saquon Barkley Is Back
I wasn't buying into Barkley this summer. Last year, Barkley was a hesitant runner in the open field who tried too hard to make opponents miss than use his size, strength, and burst.
You didn't need hindsight to conclude that Barkey's burst wasn't all the way back to pre-injury form and the subconscious doubts about the rehabbed knee led to overthinking and compensatory injuries. It was reasonable to assume, Barkley would acclimate to his overhauled knee in 2022.
Where hindsight would have come in handy were the parts where Barkley would not only regain his elite acceleration and short-area quickness, but the Giants would also feature him in a gap-heavy blocking scheme that maximizes his talents while minimizing his shortcomings as a decision-maker. We knew Brian Daboll used gap blocking in Buffalo, but the scheme hasn't been widespread in the NFL due to the athletic demands of the pro game.
At least until the past 18-24 months.
As the league's defenses countered spread offenses and RPOs with smaller and lighter box defenders, it appears this has made gap blocking more viable. It's more difficult for smaller linebackers and defensive ends to hold up at the point of attack, and it appeared most of the league was incorporating heavier doses of Power, Counter, and Toss — all run plays with pulling guards and/or lead blockers marshaling the strength of their resources to one gap or rushing lane.
Gap blocking asks the runner to do less manipulation of defenders into blockers and requires them to attack earlier. Athletic runners with size perform particularly well as gap runners, especially runners who are prone to poor decisions as zone runners because they try to out-athlete the competition.
Barkley starred in a gap-heavy scheme at Penn State and struggled as a decision maker when forced to consider alternative gaps. It didn't mean Barkley was a complete bust as a zone runner, but his performances were less consistent—even when accounting for a weak offensive line.
Just like the media underestimated a weak Texans defense that helped Clyde Edwards-Helaire look better than he was during his rookie debut a few years ago, there's a legitimate chance that the Titans' defense will prove generous to running backs all year. Even so, there are some ascending talents along the Giants' offensive line, and playing to the wheelhouse of one of their two best skill players — whose burst is back — is logical and productive.
Note how many of these plays had a pulling lineman or a draw-like element of immediate open space.
Fantasy Advice: Barkley is confident, quick, and attacking defenders when necessary. His first true test might not come until Week 6 against the Ravens. In fact, the best units he faces won't happen until the Giants face Washington (twice) and Philadelphia in Weeks 13-15. If I were drafting today, Barkley would easily be a top-10 pick in fantasy leagues, likely top-five if you aren't the least bit skeptical of the Titans as Barkley's Week 1 opposition.
He could be the league-winning piece for a team that got him as a relative bargain this summer. You'll probably have to give up way too much to get Barkley at this point. It means you'll need to build a strong all-around team or hope you also have a league-winning talent on your squad, like the alpha receiver in Minnesota.
2. GABRIEL DAVIS IS A SCHEME PLAY; STEFON DIGGS AND JUSTIN JEFFERSON ARE MATCHUP PLAYS
I spent the summer defining the difference between Scheme Players and Match-Up Players because it should have helped you determine where summer buzz could exceed the limits of realism. Scheme Players are more dependent on the offense to marshal its forces to maximize their skills.
Davis is a great example of not only a Scheme Player but also one who can approach Match-Up Player production ceilings at various points of the year because of the strength of his offensive game plan and personnel. Davis' Week 1 performance against the Rams is a clear illustration of a player who didn't have to defeat tight man-to-man coverage to earn his production.
Gabriel Davis was basically the same tonight as he was down the stretch last year in a full-time role.— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) September 9, 2022
Didn't demand heavy targets (16% share; 13% TPRR) but saw 100% route participation and hit the TD on a busted coverage.
Diggs 29% share; 30% TPRR ðŸ‘‘ðŸ‘‘ðŸ‘‘
Scheme Players can be good starters but rarely do they become elite weekly producers in fantasy football. That said, Josh Allen is so good at working through pressure and making throws that most quarterbacks lack the power to deliver, it gives Davis an edge over other scheme players and more weeks of high-ceiling potential.
As opponents scout the Bills, they will become savvier to the schemed plays that get Davis easy points. The Bills will likely counter, but you still won't see opposing defenses sticking their best cover corner on Davis in pivotal game scenarios.
At the same time, a Match-Up Player also earns his share of schemed plays.
If the coaching staff is good, they can create a lot of schemed mismatches for their top match-up player. Many of Justin Jefferson's receptions came on plays where the offense found ways to align him against personnel with no business covering him — such as OLB Preston Smith — or presented either/or binds for opposing coverage based on alignments, routes, or other schematic wrinkles.
Of course, if you play Jefferson, man-to-man, he'll beat anyone in front of him because he's an elite athlete and technician at his position.
Fantasy Advice: This is why you don't draft Gabriel Davis so highly that you count on him to serve as a top-12 or top-15 fantasy asset at his position unless you're going so heavy at receiver that you've also taken match-up talents earlier. Otherwise, you're at risk of relying too much on players whose big weeks aren't enough to compensate for small weeks.
Davis is a great option as your third or fourth receiver, but if you're being offered Davis in exchange for a receiver who started slow but has the skills and quarterback to win man-to-man against the opponents' top cover corner, don't get suckered.
The Diggs and Jefferson videos against man-to-man coverage provide the techniques and athletic ability that we see from most match-up plays.
3. Aaron Rodgers' Rookie Blues: By Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson
Remember Rodgers telling the media that Romeo Doubs made a "Wow Play" on a daily basis during the first two weeks of camp? Do you also remember when Rodgers told the media during the final weeks of training camp that if the young players didn't stop making mistakes they wouldn't see a lot of playing time?
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