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 2's Cliff's Notes
The early weeks of the NFL often deliver wild outcomes. From a film-based perspective, this has a lot to do with assignment breakdowns either on offense or defense.
This is the reality of free agent and rookie additions performing with new teammates and schemes for the first time — especially when injuries force a player into a lineup in the middle of a game. Players and coaches usually know who to pick on.
This leads to late-game collapses, surprising performers, and bewildering lows for players we expected to count on as weekly fantasy starters.
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points as well as thoughts on players who should make a difference for you this year. I always provide bullet points for those lacking the time to see the tape examples and expanded commentary.
This Week's feature is split into two pages. You can find Part II at this link.
- The Ground Game Is Back in the NFL, Thanks to Cover-2 and Nickel: It may not last, but for now, running the football is a winning proposition.
- I May Be Wrong About D.K. Metcalf . . . But on Second Thought, I Don't Think I am: Whether it's man-to-man or zone coverage, Metcalf and Geno Smith were making plays, but the matchup matters.
- The Longstanding Misnomer About Lamar Jackson's Mobility: The common refrain I've long heard about Jackson's running ability is the idea of him taking too much punishment. It's an unfounded fear.
- Gabe Davis Is, Has, and Continues to Be Overrated in Fantasy: Stop hoping, he's a limited talent.
- IDP Alert: Justin Madubuike: When I spent a season as the featured guest on Ross Tucker's College Draft, Madubuike was a favorite. The Ravens' defensive lineman is emerging into a Pro-Bowl-caliber talent.
1. The Ground Game Is Back . . . Thanks to Cover 2 and Nickel
In case you missed it, the attempt to stop the NFL's spread passing attacks has weakened the dam enough for the ground game to burst through. Currently, 16 of the 30 teams are ahead of 2021's rushing percentage figures. Last year, no team had a percentage higher than 49 percent (the Eagles). So far, there are seven teams between 49%-62%. Nine teams are between 3%-18% higher than they were last year.
During the first month of the season, we've seen 31 backs carry the ball at least 19 times during a game versus 27 backs with at least 19 carries in 2021. This weekend, there were 12 backs who earned at least 19 carries:
- Josh Jacobs
- Miles Sanders
- Jamaal Williams
- Derrick Henry
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire
- Nick Chubb
- Saquon Barkley
- Joe Mixon
- Khalil Herbert
- Dalvin Cook
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Jonathan Taylor
This is more than any week in September this year, last year, or any year since Week 2 of 2014 when Knile Davis, Giovani Bernard, DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, Alfred Morris, Bobby Rainey, LeSean McCoy, Terrance West, Stevan Ridley, Zac Stacy, Benard Pierce, and Trent Richardson matched this feat.
For most weeks this month, the total number of backs with at least 19 carries in a game is on the high end of weekly totals I counted between 2014-2022. While the frequency of running the football will likely experience some corrections as the season progresses, what matters more than the rise in volume is the quality of the running plays.
Especially a specific type of ground attack. More on that in a moment.
Two-high shells have limited the influences of the vertical passing game and goading quarterbacks to be more patient. While this has decreased the value of passing in a small but significant way, it's also increasing the value of the run in a similar fashion.
It's only natural when defenses begin coveting safety-sized linebackers, lighter defensive ends, and under-tackles that offenses run the ball at these six- and five-man boxes. The fascinating development is, at least from what I'm observing anecdotally, a rise in man-gap blocking: Power, Counter, Duo, Toss, and Trap.
Most of these plays use pulling linemen. Some incorporate fullbacks or wingbacks as lead blockers. Offenses are countering the two-high with bigger personnel overpowering lighter boxes with smaller personnel and the ground game is paying dividends.
Pacheco with a big creases pic.twitter.com/yV3Hmf5lMX— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2022
More gap vs two-high pic.twitter.com/duDhOZxhRY— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) October 3, 2022
Although it appeared as such, I didn't even unload half of my Twitter feed of clips like this on you. If I showed you the Eagles offense, you might never get home from work.
(Yeah, I know you're reading this at work. It's okay. I did the same thing with Bill Simmons and Ralph Wiley on Page2 20 years ago.)
One of these plays isn't a gap play, but it highlights the bigger offensive players against smaller boxes with smaller defenders. Josh Jacobs and the Raiders' right guard and center feasted on Broncos D.J. Jones all afternoon with double teams against Jones and the nickel fronts Denver used as its base alignment.
Although we may not see 12 running backs earn at least 19 carries every week, I bet we continue to see a rise in usage as a counter to base nickel packages that teams don't have answers for.
Fantasy Advice: There are multiple ways to win leagues and having a strong receiving corps and minimal RB depth can still get the job done. However, if you can land a lead back who is clearly the lead back, even if his production seems lacking early on, do it.
Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Miles Sanders, Cordarrelle Patterson (when he returns in November, see below), Joe Mixon, and Jonathan Taylor are all obvious options.
Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott/Tony Pollard, Aaron Jones/A.J. Dillon, Damien Harris/Rhamondre Stevenson, and Khalil Herbert/David Montgomery are all considerations for the possibility of reaching that high volume in any given week if their partner gets hurt.
2. I May Be Wrong About D.K. Metcalf — On Second Thought, Maybe I'm Not
When Metcalf was a prospect, I didn't listen to that mess about Metcalf's lack of short-area quickness and mobility as a route runner. His sudden and violent hands at the line made him a terror against press coverage.
This year, I was concerned about Geno Smith and the Seahawks offensive line. If the line protected Smith the way it has historically failed to protect Russell Wilson, Smith lacks the mobility and creativity to buy time and Metcalf isn't the ideal receiver to force to re-route.
Metcalf made this year's Dis-List with a projection of 60 catches, 805 yards, and 6 scores after Metcalf has averaged 129 targets, 79 receptions, 1,135 yards, and 11 touchdowns. I'm using 16 weeks as the projection, presuming most players will either miss a week due to the final game being meaningless or injury.
As we enter October, Metcalf is on track for 92 catches, 1,132 yards, and 4 touchdowns. He's currently 18th among fantasy receivers, which is closer to where I was comfortable with him but still higher than my pre-draft ranking outside the top-24 receivers as a WR3 (and 86th overall among fantasy skill positions . . . he's currently 55th overall).
Watching Metcalf and Smith connect was part of a fun afternoon of football.
After reacting to what I saw with Smith and Metcalf, the excitement wore off when I realized we are also watching this all take place against the Lions' secondary. Yes, this secondary held Justin Jefferson to a paltry sum, but Kirk Cousins still delivered 260 yards and 2 scores, supporting the fantasy relevancy of K.J. Osborn and Adam Thielen in Jefferson's stead.
This was also before injury further decimated the Lions' unit.
With this in mind, it's notable that more than 30 percent of Metcalf's catches and more than 50 percent of his yardage for the season came last week. Until Sunday, Metcalf was on pace for 133 targets, 85 catches 720 yards, which is closer to my projected totals than his career average.
If Smith can continue to get value from the ground game and earn enough time to work downfield, Metcalf has a fighting chance to exceed my projections and prove that I dissed his fantasy prospects this year.
I'm not counting on him doing it in grand fashion.
Fantasy Advice: Metcalf was always going to have fantasy value this year in most leagues, but not at the asking price. If your investment didn't hurt you elsewhere, stick with him. If you need a running back or a top tight end, I'd try to sell high if you have a strong receiver corps. He'll be a fair deal to a GM. Seattle faces decent-to-strong units like the Saints, Giants, Panthers, and Buccaneers but also has some softer matchups that make him appealing to other GMs. If you don't have a viable WR3 with high weekly upside Metcalf will help you.
3. The Longstanding Misnomer about Lamar Jackson's Mobility
There were so many misnomers about Lamar Jackson as a prospect. He was a running back or receiver who couldn't operate a pro-style offense despite running one of the most pro-style offenses under Bobby Petrino at Louisville. He lacked the accuracy to be an NFL quarterback despite having receivers who dropped balls with greater frequency than (insert one of Robert Griffin III's favorite on-air jokes here).
He didn't have the discipline and craft to win from the pocket, which, when I hear, I know for a fact that whoever said this, didn't watch anything but college highlights or lacked a rigorous process for watching tape.
And, my favorite, "All that running is going to get him hurt because of the punishment he'll take."
We're five seasons in. Jackson has missed six games, two of them were to rest before the playoffs. The other four were injury related and not due to contact.
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