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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.
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 3 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.
- Time to Break the Glass on Jamaal Williams, Khalil Herbert, and Alexander Mattison (And Who's Behind Them)? Running backs and injuries are synonymous in football. This trio will offer you solid starter production if called upon.
- Fantasy Check-In on the Ravens Running Backs: J.K. Dobbins had a better debut on film than the box score. Justice Hill looked good in both areas. Gus Edwards might be 1-2 weeks away. How to prioritize.
- Kyle Pitts or Drake London, But Rarely Both? Although both produced well enough to start in larger formats, the QB and the coaching staff may be the reason why both won't perform to potential in any given week.
- Jeff Okudah: A Big Part of the Answer to "What Happened to Justin Jefferson vs. Detroit?": The Lions' young cornerback did a lot to shut down Jefferson on his own and with a little help from his friends.
- A James Cook Sighting: Heat-related issues got Cook more involved in the Bills' offense in the second half of the Dolphins' game, but Buffalo tried to involve him in the first half. Thoughts in his fantasy value ahead.
- What Did I Tell You About Chris Olave? Last week, I told you Olave's time is coming. This week, he showed up in grand fashion and it won't be a one-off deal.
- Enjoy the DeVante Parker Sighting: It's All You'll Get: Parker earned a great match-up on Sunday, but even the film revealed his fantasy value will remain limited, at best.
- Enjoy the Derrick Henry Sighting: Facing the Raiders Didn't Cure His Ills: Nothing about Henry is cooked, but the Raiders' defense is two pass rushers and a hard-hitting and over-aggressive safety.
- Can We Trust Mack Hollins and Rhamondre Stevenson? Both had promising visual and numerical data on Sunday, but are they legitimate fantasy starters long-term?
- Fresh Fish: Two defensive backs and two defensive units you should be accounting for when looking at matchups next week and need an edge for your decisions.
1. Time to Break the Glass On Jamaal Williams, Khalil Herbert, and Alexander Mattison?
Running backs and injuries are synonymous in football. This trio will offer you solid starter production when called upon.
The safest short-term option with the highest floor is Williams. He doesn't sizzle as an athlete, but he does everything well. He's a skilled pass protector, a reliable check-down and screen receiver, powerful, and capable of making the first defender miss.
With the Lions' offensive line, Williams is quick enough to execute perimeter runs.
Of course, he'll also set up his blockers between the tackles.
With D'Andre Swift week-to-week with a shoulder injury after playing the past two weeks on a bum ankle, Williams will be the lead back in Detroit and have a well-rounded box score in terms of targets and attempts, especially in the red zone. Craig Reynolds and Justin Jackson earn bumps up your "Monitor List" of players who could come into play if Williams gets hurt.
Although Reynolds is the No.3 runner on the depth chart, his athletic profile is closer to Williams than Swift's. While I expect to see an uptick in receptions for Williams with Swift gone, Justin Jackson could earn more of the Swift role and leapfrog Reynolds in fantasy value. There's a strong chance that I'll be recommending him as a potential option for this Friday's Replacements.
If Williams gets hurt, Reynolds will have a bigger shot at the lead role and with Jackson supplementing him.
Herbert has the most upside of the three backs with potential starter stints for the team, but unlike Swift being week-to-week, Montgomery is day-to-day. Like Williams and Mattison, he's a versatile player who can run inside and outside as well as be a winning option in the passing game. Herbert isn't as rugged as Williams and Mattison, but he runs with a low center of gravity and he has more acceleration and deep speed. H
Herbert's efficient footwork also stands out among this trio. He's a big-play threat on any given run.
Although Montgomery is day-to-day, this was Swift's diagnosis heading into the Vikings' contest. Injuries can cascade as players compensate for hurt body parts, exposing themselves to hits or awkward movements trying to protect the original injury. Look for Herbert to have an elevated role next week with the potential to be in Jamaal Williams' situation if Montgomery falters.
Trestan Ebner is a speedster with finishes with good pad level, but he's primarily a Swift-like archetype: A fast player who does his best work in space and can catch. He's not the ideal back for the lead role. Neither is practice squad option Darrynton Evans, a speedster with suspect decision-making between the tackles. If Montgomery and Herbert were to get hurt, expect Chicago to bring in a veteran free agent.
Adrian Peterson would be a name to keep in mind. He's a good fit for this offense, he still wants to play, and he would need little time to acclimate.
Dalvin Cook says he'll be ready for the Saints in London, but he'll be wearing a shoulder harness. He couldn't lift his arm after the Lions game and this early in the season, Minnesota's staff may decide it's best to give Cook a breather.
Mattison has proven for years that he's one of the best backups in the league. With the way the league is structured for running backs, it's unlikely he'll ever earn a shot as a season-long starter without an injury to a player with higher draft capital, but he has all the tools to perform as a productive volume-back in the NFL.
If the Vikings lose both Cook and Mattison, Kene Nwangwu has excellent speed and short-area explosion. He's at his best in space but can perform well with man (gap) blocking. Rookie Ty Chandler would earn serious consideration as a low-cost investment at this point because he's a more accomplished inside runner with good hands and could leapfrog Nwangwu quickly if Nwangwu hasn't refined his game between the tackles in Year Two.
Fantasy Advice: Williams is the only legit break-the-glass starter this week, but Herbert and Mattison could easily be in this category by week's end. If seeking a runner for one game next week and all three's starting opportunities were equal, Herbert would be the guy followed by Williams and Mattison. Of the "backups to the backups," Reynolds and Jackson are the best of the three depth charts.
2. Fantasy Check-In on the Ravens' Backfield
The good news: J.K. Dobbins earned his first regular-season playing time since 2020.
The bad news: Are we sure this won't be a committee where everyone ultimately loses with trying to make the best weekly pick who isn't named Lamar Jackson?
That's the fear. Is it legitimate? Two weeks ago, Gus Edwards told the media that he was very close to returning. We know Edwards can win as a between-the-tackles thumper and close-out back when he's healthy and the Ravens have been in a position to close out games but lacked the ground game to do it.
Justice Hill arrived in Baltimore as an exciting scatback from Oklahoma State, but his game never took off and he suffered an Achilles' injury after being embedded on the bench. If you're looking for a good example of a player who has regained a lot of his explosion post-tear, Hill (and the Vikings' Ngwangwu) might be the best test case, thus far:
Last week, the Ravens told the media that Hill has earned more playing time and they made good on that statement. Hill also maximized the good blocking that he earned.
Hill looked good with his touches and when he was at his best at Oklahoma State, he could make a lot of defenders miss. He was a terrifying open-field threat. Still, he's not the all-around back that Dobbins is when healthy. Although the creases weren't there for Dobbins in the way they were for Hill, Dobbins demonstrated enough that he's well on his way to making a full recovery, especially with this specific play.
Fantasy Advice: Dobbins told the media after the game that he was pleased about returning to the field, " . . . but now it's time for me to try to do what I do. And that's run for 100 yards and stuff like that." While the Ravens rode the hot hand with Hill, I'd consider Dobbins a target for a trade if you have a surplus at other positions and need a running back.
Hill could earn another 2-3 weeks as a potential hot-hand vulture, but he's not the every-down player that Dobbins is and it's clear that Dobbins fully expects to be the lead back.
Valuing Dobbins for a fantasy deal is the greater challenge because the imminent return of Edwards could complicate matters. Dobbins has the ability commensurate with top-10 fantasy production at the position. If Edwards returns to form, it's probably best to value Dobbins about 10 spots lower than his ability and consider him a low-end second back or high-end third back for your lineups.
The problem with this value is that potential sellers will want to value him as a high-end second option. While I love Dobbins' upside as a player in a vacuum, if you're paying that price for his services, you better have a lot of depth at the positions you're giving away because there are enough factors to consider Dobbins a boom-bust return on investment.
At the end of the day, most of you won't need to be this bold. If the fantasy GM holding Dobbins is worried about Hill and/or Edwards, if not Jackson's rushing production, you might get him at a low-end RB2 value. That's the type of GM where Dobbins presents a good target.
Having Dobbins already in hand was always the way to go — if you were going to have him at all. Be patient with him because the Ravens' secondary should get healthy enough that Baltimore will turn to its running backs to control games.
3. Kyle Pitts or Drake London, But Rarely Both?
This is my fear for fantasy GMs after watching three Falcons games. London's best two games left Kyle Pitts wanting for production. This week, it appeared as if Arthur Smith was tired of the media asking him about Pitts' involvement and demanded his staff scheme plays that got Pitts involved early and often.
Guess Arthur was tired of the media…Pitts screen pic.twitter.com/qTJdWMnBpl— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 26, 2022
Half of these plays were designed for Pitts as really the only target. One of them used London to set up the play for Pitts' benefit.
If this continues, hoping for London to earn more production than the 54 yards and a score against Seattle is wishful thinking. Even if Arthur Smith doesn't run as many schemed plays for Pitts, featuring them on the same side of the field creates a one-or-the-other proposition for Marcus Mariota and the opposing defense is more likely to prioritize the fastest of the two options, which is Pitts.
If you look at the safety on this vertical target below, you'll see that Pitts' in-breaking shallow route influences his attention more than London going deep.
As the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio notes about its No.2 wide receiver pre-draft, "London is a skilled and physical rebounder with timing, grace, technique, and toughness to find ways to win at every phase of the route. He's not going to run away from the 32 fastest cornerbacks in the NFL, but [Tee] Higgins, [Michael] Thomas, [A.J.] Brown, and [Mike] Williams still manage."
The key is managing the offense so London earns targets less reliant on straight speed (like above) to earn the ball and more like what we see below.
London is quick enough to earn separation, he's not fast enough to maintain it as a primary deep threat in every coverage situation. That's a lot different from "he can't separate."
Atlanta has to create an even balance of scenarios where London's presence opens the field for Pitts as well as Pitts' opening the field for London. Placing them on opposite sides of the formation but with routes breaking to the middle of the field is one way to accomplish this task.
Still, I'm writing around the real impediment to both players having weekly fantasy success and that's Mariota. Atlanta runs a lot of schemed plays through Mariota and it tells us that the staff lacks confidence in Mariota's processing speed and coverage acumen to deliver winning offensive football without highly rehearsed, one-read plays disguised as multi-read scenarios thanks to designed movement and play-action.
Mariota's second and third read is often his legs and while it keeps the offense moving, it's an impediment to fantasy production for whichever receiver isn't earning the build of the schemed looks or, in the absence of schemed looks, which receiver is the smallest threat to the defenders in the deep third of the field.
This week may not have been a London or Pitts proposition, but London was 32nd in PPR value among receivers in order for Pitts to earn 6th-ranked PPR value at his position. The week prior, London was 12th among WRs after debuting in Week 1 as 36th. Pitts was nowhere to be found prior to last week.
When combining receivers and tight end scoring on one ranking filter, London was 37th and Pitts 41st. After three weeks Miami has two in the top five, the Eagles have two in the top 20, the Saints have two in the top 24, the Jaguars have two in the top 25, Cincinnati and Baltimore have three in the top 35, and even the Jets have two in the top 32.
Atlanta has London 18th and Pitts behind teammates Khadarel Hodge and Olamide Zaccheaus in the 81st spot.
Fantasy Advice: Either London is about to become a mediocre fantasy option not worth his current billing or you're going to wish you dealt Pitts. The problem with trading Pitts is not selling him at a discount that most GMs will demand. Cordarrelle Patterson is the only player I see as a must-start on a weekly basis. Otherwise, you're playing matchups with London and Pitts in that order.
4. Jeff Okudah: A Big Part of the Answer to, "What Happened to Justin Jefferson vs. Detroit?"
Detroit's cornerback didn't shut down Jefferson all on his own, but he had plenty of one-on-one reps against Jefferson and faired well enough to earn a lot of the credit.
When Okudah earned man-to-man on Jefferson, he was patient, physical, and quick.
When Jefferson didn't see man-to-man, the Lions either doubled Jefferson or the Lions' safeties did a good job of hanging in the passing lane of Jefferson's breaks, forcing Minnesota elsewhere.
Another high low on Jefferson. Leads to Cousins sack. pic.twitter.com/QDpyCMrDlj— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 26, 2022
But Matt, the Vikings won the game . . .
Yes, and the back-breaking play was poor coverage from the safety on K.J. Osborn. One play can be the difference between a win and a loss in the NFL. The fact that the Lions are only 1-2 plays away from beating a good football team on a regular basis is an optimistic development.
This one play in the Lions' secondary didn't have to be the backbreaker if the offense performed better down the stretch. That said, this coverage shows the effort required to stop a receiver like Jefferson — both a coordinated team effort and a high-end individual effort. Even so, shutting down Jefferson came at the cost of Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn delivering.
Fantasy Advice: Don't sweat Jefferson's performance. Don't presume Thielen is disappearing from the scene as a low-end starter value in PPR. Don't expect Osborn to return to weekly prominence as the weekly breakout that most of us hoped would occur this summer.
5. A James Cook Sighting: Will We see More?
After fumbling away his first touch in his NFL debut early in the game, Cook found himself at the bottom of the depth chart. We had a sighting of him performing clean-up duty against the Titans in Week 2 and this week, the Bills tried to get him involved twice in the first half.
The first play resulted in a botched exchange between the center and Josh Allen. The next was a red-zone snap with a pre-snap penalty where it appeared Cook could be a target on a wide route.
I think James Cook’s touches will increase as he gets more time to prepare/handle variety of demands #Billsmafia has in mind for him.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 25, 2022
But Dawson Knox and Isaiah McKenzie’s heat-related issues necessitate the playing time. pic.twitter.com/Nqmxu90ao7
Cook is clearly a weapon that the Bills want on the field. He can do so many things from the running back position. Watching just a handful of plays involving him demonstrates the variety of roles the coaches are implementing with him on even a small scale. And therein lies the fantasy problem for Cook.
Because Buffalo has him blocking, running, and running routes from the backfield as well as a detached receiver, they're asking a lot of him as a rookie. It not only takes time for Cook to acclimate to the regular season and perform his role under the lights but also, the coaching staff has to trust he's comfortable and do it to the extent that either Dawson Knox and/or Isaiah McKenzie see fewer snaps.
Especially when both players aren't giving the coaches reason to get benched in favor of Cook. With Devin Singletary and Zack Moss also performing well, expect Cook to remain on the periphery for at least another 3-4 weeks.
Advice: Having Cook on your roster is a patience play. If you have the luxury to acquire a throw-in with no immediate fantasy value in a trade, Cook might fit the bill. He'll see a gradual rise in workload, but so gradual that he's not worth starting. If you are struggling, Cook's promise may have enough trade value as a sweetener to the pot.
6. What Did I Tell You About Chris Olave?
Last week, I told you Olave's time is coming. This week, he showed up in grand fashion and it won't be a one-off deal — especially with Jarvis Landry and Michael Thomas nicked up. Olave may not be as flashy as his former teammate Garrett Wilson or as big as Treylon Burks and Drake London, but he's the best route runner in the class and the best all-around receiver.
After the first three weeks of the season, Olave's 17 catches for 268 yards places him 21st among PPR receivers and fifth among the top 25 fantasy receivers with 15.8 yards per catch wi
Most importantly, Olave has established himself in the Saints' rotation as a priority target.
Chris Olave is a WR2 moving forward in fantasy.— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) September 26, 2022
Another huge week for the rookie, and target competition might be weak depending on Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry injuries.
23.7 fantasy points ðŸ˜
93% route participation ðŸ”¥
33% target share ðŸŒ¶ï¸
40% air yards ðŸ¤©
This play was NEEDED. Huge catch from the rook pic.twitter.com/b76pflI8QQ— The Jordy Culotta Show (@CulottaShow) September 25, 2022
Advice: Olave has the best fantasy situation of the rookie receivers in this class. Zach Wilson's imminent return is an unknown for Garrett Wilson and likely a worse scenario than working with Joe Flacco, who has outperformed the second-year quarterback. As shown above, Mariota creates an either/or scenario for London and Pitts. The potential use of rookie Desmond Ridder in Atlanta is an additional wildcard.
Thomas and Olave are coexisting in the top 24 with an injured Jameis Winston and Jarvis Landry is 48th. Andy Dalton doesn't inspire as a fantasy option but he can keep an offense from collapsing. Olave is the safest rookie receiver on the board and a good candidate to lead first-year options by year's end.
7. Enjoy the DeVante Parker Sighting: It's All You'll Get
Even before Mac Jones got hurt, I wasn't buying Parker's game as a coming-out party for his 2022 fantasy value. The main reason was Jalyn Armour-Davis, the fourth-round rookie who has committed multiple mistakes during his September learning curve in the NFL. Parker got to match up with Armour-Davis multiple times during this game.
The Patriots also found ways to sneak Parker over the middle and have the Ravens' zone coverage snooze on him. When tasked with beating a physical corner with experience, Parker looked like he did during the first two weeks of the season — on non-factor.
Fantasy Advice: Parker only caught 50 percent of his targets. While 10 targets is a lot, I think he's been found out as an athlete who bullies lesser competition or needs to be schemed open. I don't know if I'd rather take a chance on Kendrick Bourne on the waiver wire, who caught 4 of 5 targets for 58 yards this week despite playing only 18 snaps, but he's the type of player who will mesh well with Brian Hoyer if Parker disappears.
Green Bay, Detroit, and Cleveland have the cornerbacks to limit Parker over the next three weeks. Counting on him to become a weekly starter is risky.
8. Enjoy the Derrick Henry Sighting: Facing the Raiders Didn't Cure All His Ills
Maxx Crosby. Chandler Jones, and Jonathan Abram. Two pass rushers and an over-aggressive safety. That's the strength of this Raiders defense. Maybe include Rock Ya-Sin and Denzel Perryman, but I wouldn't go crazy.
This is a "get healthy/gain confidence" defense for opposing NFL squads. It was a confidence boost for Tennessee's ground game that lost two linemen to free agency and, this month, two more to injury. Last week, I was asked if Henry was cooked.
Of course, Henry isn't cooked. Still, the question is a reflection of an offensive line that hasn't done Henry many favors against the Bills and wasn't as good as expected against a middling Giants unit.
This week, Henry earned 143 yards and a touchdown against Las Vegas and the offensive line bullied the middle of the Raiders' defense, especially when the Raiders employed a base nickel package.
More Henry pic.twitter.com/wr2A84K36l— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 26, 2022
Henry looked like the same back we've seen for years. The offensive line looked excellent when attacking the interior of the Raiders' front and stopping early penetration from Crosby and Jones, who stuffed Henry early in the game from the edge. Still, it's worth noting that Henry's production on the ground was roughly similar to the opener against the Giants.
If not for the 58 yards on 5 receptions, touches that could still wind up with Dontrell Hilliard in subsequent weeks, many would still be wondering about Henry.
Fantasy Advice: It's funny to label Henry a match-up play, but he's a talented back with a lackluster offensive line who needs good matchups to thrive. Unfortunately, the next two teams on the Titans' schedule that might offer similar match-up advantages as the Giants and Raiders are the Packers and Texans. The rest of the opponents on the Titans' schedule have been decent against running backs.
Unless the performance against the Raiders is the truest indication of the offensive line's identity, Henry will not be a top-12 running back this year in fantasy leagues without significant usage in the passing game. You may want to give this offense another week against the Colts before deciding to bail on Henry, but I'm skeptical that the line with match up well against most of its opponents this year.
9. Can We Trust Mack Hollins and Rhamondre Stevenson?
As bye-week options or flexes in larger lineups? Absolutely.
Hollins made a pair of clutch plays late in the Titans' game that kept the Raiders' alive.
Winning in the red zone against single coverage may appear indicative of a matchup receiver, but we've seen a lot of receivers who are scheme players but can win red zone matchups on fades. Hollins is a better player against off-coverage than he is against tight man-to-man coverage between the 20s.
His success for the Raiders comes as the third or fourth option and if you noticed, Hollins' productive games this year came against defenses that could not sack Derek Carr. The Titans and Cardinals only forced one sack of Carr, giving the Raiders' quarterback time to find his third and fourth options or second or third option on longer-developing routes. When the Chargers sacked Carr five times in the opener, Hollins earned 1 target for 1 catch and 16 yards despite earning 51 snaps.
Stevenson earned his second consecutive week of at least 40 snaps, delivering 101 yards of offense and a touchdown behind a Patriots offensive line that is returning its original gap blocking scheme after spending the summer running wide zone.
Rhamondre Stevenson stepped into an RB1 utilization profile in Week 3, per PFF data ðŸ˜¤ðŸ˜¤ðŸ˜¤— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) September 26, 2022
54% rushing atts
64% route participation
16% target share
60% short yardage
Despite the promising increase in opportunities for Stevenson this week, Damien Harris hasn't played himself out of a role in this offense. Stevenson is good, but he's not so much better than Harris that the Patriots will abandon their committee. At best, Stevenson earns a small edge due to his receiving prowess and contact balance in the red zone.
Fantasy Advice: Mack Hollins is a solid match-up play in fantasy under two conditions: 1) One of the first three receiving options on the Raiders is hurt/out. 2) The opposing defense has difficulty generating meaningful pressure on the quarterback.
Stevenson may earn the lead role in the Patriots' committee but with Brian Hoyer about to take over the offense for several weeks due to Mac Jones' high ankle sprain, the ground game will lack what little upside it had under Jones to close out contests. Both players are good for larger rosters, neither are ideal starters nor are they about to emerge as such. They should deliver enough points to help you during byes.
10. Fresh Fish
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: The Raiders' Defense
Robert Woods, Derrick Henry, and Ryan Tannehill earned a boost against them and a decidedly mediocre Cardinals' offense without DeAndre Hopkins looked strong against them. They're a "booster week" for your downtrodden fantasy options.
Here's the rest of the list.
- The Titans defense can't generate pressure and that's great for an opposing passing game.
- The Giants were on this list last week. I expect the same after Monday Night Football -- even without Dak Prescott.
- Vikings' corner Cam Dantzler got picked. Expect him to be the target opposite Patrick Peterson all year.
- Jaylyn Amour-Davis is acclimating in Baltimore and that means he's the player opposing quarterbacks are targeting.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.
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