The Opening Run-down
Fascinating plays and players in the Gut Check's film room this week. It's chuck full of visuals and football insights with fantasy implications for those making a playoff run and you have to consider relying on unproven players. This week is also a good resource for a little dynasty prospecting:
- Why Mike Glennon is succeeding and the veteran he resembles.
- Why Bobby Rainey is still the RB he was vs. the Falcons.
- Why Joseph Fauria's game is in the same town as Jimmy Graham, but not in the same neighborhood.
First, some observations without the visuals from games that didn't involve the Lions and Buccaneers.
Long-Term Buys at Tight End: I wasn't a raving fan of Ladarius Green's game when he entered the NFL. Tall, fast, and capable of making catches with his hands, he needed to develop better skills as a receiver against defenders in traffic for me to be completely sold on him. Green is matched with a Chargers team that is creating ways for him to run open through the middle of the field where the team can maximize the young tight end's speed and athleticism. A lot of these creative route combinations involve Green working off Antonio Gates' coattails. Green is worth buying in dynasty leagues, but for him to cross divide from boom-bust, big-play fantasy option to consistent top threat, he'll need to prove that he can win the ball in tight coverage.
Levine Toilolo isn't doing much in Atlanta as a rookie and it sounds like the Falcons are still hoping that they can convince Tony Gonzalez to return for another year, even if he was emphatic about retiring earlier in the season. Yet, I have seen Toilolo display more fluidity as an athlete in limited time on the field as a pro than I saw him show at Stanford. I believe Toilolo might not be a worthwhile fantasy option until his third year, but if you have a deep roster, his upside is worth some patience. Personally, I recommend monitoring his progress closely but not buying just yet unless you have room to play the drop-add game between now and Atlanta's last-ditch play to keep Gonzalez yet another year with the "we'll be better when healthy - you don't want to go out like this, Tony" argument.
The best risk-reward play of the young tight ends is acquiring Travis Kelce. His knee surgery makes him a risky option, but if you note how much the Chiefs use the tight end in its offense and switch between Anthony Fasano and Sean McGrath - they have 39 catches, 399 yards, and 3 touchdowns this year - then Kelce becomes even more appealing. This total doesn't sound like much, but neither player has Kelce's deep-seam speed, Kelce's skill after the catch, and his athleticism to win in the red zone. If Kelce can avoid the fate of Tony Moeaki and return to form, the Chiefs ability to run the ball with its athletic line makes the play action game to the tight end a huge weapon for the team and fantasy owners.
Terminal Tease: Ted Ginn has moments where he flashes the skills that made him a top 50 pick in the draft. However, the one thing he could never do at Ohio State, Miami, San Francisco, or Carolina, is consistently catch the ball with his hands on vertical routes. Watching Ginn on one side and Mike Wallace on the other this weekend was a terrific way of delineating this difference between the two. If Ginn could make the catches that Wallace can, the Panthers receiver would have still been in Miami playing for his third contract and earning trips to the Pro Bowl. Ginn is a much better ball carrier than Wallace, but he simply cannot catch the ball at the level of a reliable pro starter.
Kenbrell Lives: I think Thompkins remains a buy-low. Sure, some of you probably think this is an ego-pick based on the fact I profiled him last February and earned some positive attention for noting him. However, Thompkins has done little to dissuade me from believing that a full offseason won't help him immensely. My argument isn't numbers-oriented, but I think has a ton more logic in this case. Ready?
First, Thompkins is a persistent and determined young professional. We're talking about a player who not only changed his future from likely convict to a college graduate with a degree in criminal justice, but he also earned an opening day gig as a starter in the NFL as an undrafted free agent who did very little during his major college career. Granted, the Patriots lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Amendola was hurt, but wasn't Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and host of other young draft picks and free agents with a higher profile supposed to fill in?
Second, Thompkins doesn't go into a shell when he makes mistakes. After weeks of beat writers and teammates saying that Thompkins looked like the best player on the field in practices, Thompkins earns a start in the first night scrimmage. He proceeds to drop numerous passes and run the wrong routes with Tom Brady with his first prime time chance - and it's his birthday to boot. Thompkins doesn't disappear into a funk. He signs autographs at the end of the scrimmage, makes a beeline for the JUGs Machine, returns the next day with a great performance, and continues to impress throughout the preseason.
Third, these two qualities continue to run through his performances during the regular season. Thompkins has made some tough drops, but equally difficult catches: fourth-quarter chain movers after contact from a safety, acrobatic flights in the vertical game, and even a game-winner against the Saints. Darius Heyward-Bey works hard on his hands, but his work hasn't shown consistently when the lights come on. Thompkins' work pays off.
The fact that Thompkins dropped to fourth on the depth chart, but is still earning more looks from Tom Brady and making more quality plays over the past two weeks than Aaron Dobson despite a full complement of receivers should also indicate what kind of professional Thompkins is. Don't be surprised if Thompkins, who worked daily with former Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Matt Simms during their summers at junior college, doesn't find a way to work with Brady during the offseason.
Thompkins may never be more than a No.2 fantasy receiver, but he's a good route runner who attacks the ball well and these are two skills that will only get better as he gains more rapport with his quarterback.
Why Mike Glennon Is Succeeding
I'm cautiously optimistic about Mike Glennon's game thus far. He's making sound decisions for the Buccaneers and when under heavy pressure, he's doing a better job of throwing the ball away or taking the sack rather than throwing the ball up for grabs. However, the reason Glennon is performing so well is the team doing a great job of its play calling and giving the rookie time to make decisions at relaxed pace compared to many NFL passers.
Greg Cosell made headlines about saying Glennon was ahead of Robert Griffin III in his development, but it's really no surprise. Griffin is playing in an offense that makes far different demands than the traditional pocket game that Glennon has always used and without a summer of practice, Griffin's development has stalled a year.
The combination of the pass protection, play action game, and smart play calls according to down and distance are helping Glennon use his big arm and decent mobility. Yet, I don't want to downplay Glennon. If he can continue to make smart decisions during the next 2-3 seasons of his development, he has shown enough for the Buccaneers to invest in him as a long-term starter.
The pervading theme for Glennon is time and space. Give the rookie these two resources and he has the basic skills - and a fine arm - to move an offense. Here's a 3rd-and-six pass where the Buccaneers begin in an 10 personnel 3x1 receiver set and shift running back Brian Leonard to the trips side tight to the formation. The aim is to flood the Lions' zone, create a breakdown in coverage, and generate a wide-open receiver.
The offensive line does a fine job of keeping the pocket clean and providing a great deal of space for Glennon to survey the field and step into any throw.
This is not the kind of pocket space we're typically seeing in Washington or locales like Jacksonville or Pittsburgh. Give a quarterback this much space and he better find an open receiver or at least make a pinpoint throw to lead a receiver to open space.
The amount of time that the Tampa offensive line provides Glennon on this play allows the rookie quarterback to wait for Tim Wright, the rookie tight end, to finish his stem and break on a deeper in route. Wright, a slow possession receiver at Rutgers, has average speed for a move tight end.
Note the room Glennon has to step into this throw. No defender is in Glennon's path to force the quarterback to alter his stride and follow-through. Plus, there's a huge passing lane in the middle of the line for the quarterback to deliver the ball.
It's a picture-perfect delivery that looks like something seen at a football practice, not an NFL pocket. The pass travels 21 yards on a rope to Wright.
Although the tight end is breaking inside coverage that the college game might consider "tight", this is a wide-open route. Glennon places the ball low and away and if a quarterback is going to fudge the placement of a throw down the middle of the field, low and away is probably the best option to avoid a tipped pass.
The result is a 23-yard reception for the right end and a first down. Give Robert Griffin, Blaine Gabbert, or any young NFL quarterback under criticism for his play this kind of time and more often than not, this will be the result. It's why the more I study football, the more difficult it is for me to criticize just one player for the performance of a unit.
As Washington has done with Griffin, the Buccaneers employ a fair amount of max protection blocking schemes to give Glennon time, space, and simpler decisions. When an offense or defense doesn't employ sophisticated shifts, route combinations, hot reads, or great varieties of alignments, that unit has to physical dominate its opponent.
Glennon is a tall, cannon-armed quarterback with a tall, strong, and fast receiver in Vincent Jackson. When the Buccaneers can create the right conditions for its quarterback, he and his teammate Jackson can play 2-on-1 football with a defensive back. This 1st-and-10 play from a 21 personnel I-formation set is a fine example of creating those conditions.
Glennon's physcial dimensions, arm strength, and style of play have earned him comparisons to Joe Flacco. Like the Ravens did with Flacco early in his career, the Buccaneers are doing its best to attack the intermediate and deep perimeter with the help of play action on first down. Keep a defense guessing and even simple offensive plays can consistently win football games.
Glennon begins with a play fake to Bobby Rainey. The simpler the play, the greater the need for strong execution. Glennon extends the ball away from his body with his back to the defense and it forces the safety at the right hash to remain focused on the run rather than Jackson streaking up the right flat.
The Buccaneers create a roomy pocket for its quarterback and there are two men set up near the right hash to account for pursuit to the area where Glennon will roll.
Note the circumference of the space Glennon has as he finishes the boot to the right. Because it's first down, Glennon can be patient. If Jackson doesn't come open, he can look to the opposite side. If neither receiver breaks loose, he can throw the ball away or run if the conditions are right. Simple decisions with good execution is safe football.
The part of Glennon's game that made him a sought-after prospect for many teams is his arm. Give him this kind of time and space and he makes this throw that covers 52 yards appear more like a 20-yard deep out. There are a lot of quarterbacks who can only manage 50-55 yards in an exhibition setting where they aren't in pads and throwing for distance rather than accuracy.
Glennon hits Jackson at the sideline and his receiver makes a nice adjustment to win the ball over the inside shoulder of the cornerback and get his feet inbounds. This is the type of play that often works when an offense sticks with the run even if it's not yielding productive gains. Fans may complain about the offense, but some systems are predicated on remaining patient and persistent when it comes to setting up the shot plays. As with the Ravens during the Flacco-Ray Rice era, the Buccaneers have a similar philosophy.
Another facet of Glennon's game that reminds many of Flacco is the quarterback's ability to break the pocket and deliver the ball on the move with accuracy in the deep-intermediate zone. The play below is a 3rd-and-three pass in the second quarter where Glennon's first reads are on the left side of the field, but he manages improvise within the framework of the play to find an open receiver on the right.
Glennon has three receivers flooding the left flat and this is where he'll begin his progression reads. If those players don't get open, he'll look to the middle, where his tight end is running a deeper route breaking inside.
Note the path I outlined for the receiver on the right, who initially breaks inside but then works up the right flat for a deeper route. I can't be entirely sure without having the conversation a Buccaneer player or staff, but it appears that Tiquan Underwood, the receiver on the right, is set to break inside so Glennon will have a fifth receiver to target if the tight end doesn't come open.
However, as the play unfolds you'll see that Underwood changes his route and the decision is a good one. Once again, all of this reading and quarterback-receiver adjustment is predicated on the time and space that the Buccaneers' offensive line provides.
Note the four yards of space between Glennon and his nearest teammate. This is a well-formed pocket with large throwing lanes for Glennon to deliver the ball. At this point, Glennon can't find an open receiver flooding the left flat. Meanwhile, Underwood is breaking inside at the first down marker.
This shot above is the last moment where Glennon continues looking to the left. I want you to note the position of his feet. As Steve Young notes often on ESPN, a quarterback's reads are tied to his feet in many modern NFL offensive systems. If the feet aren't in sync with the location of the target, you're likely to see an inaccurate pass or a quarterback who is unable to make a quick decision because he's not playing in time with the pace of the play.
Glennon is now looking to the middle where the tight end and Underwood are breaking inside. However, look at his feet. They are still pointed to the left. He's in no position to attempt an accurate throw his receivers in the middle of the field. This quick shift of feet, hips, and shoulders is something we see quarterbacks practice in drills, but it often doesn't translate to the game atmosphere. As young quarterbacks get better at reading defenses and executing the details of its offense before the snap through the drop they often improve the fundamentals that can deteriorate due to all of the first-nature concentration that they're using rather than second-nature execution.
As Glennon rolls right, Underwood takes note and breaks his route up field to give his quarterback a target. This looks like basic scramble drill fare and the two young players execute this well.
Glennon delivers the ball on the move at the 24 with a lot of room to follow through and no threat of contact. The result is a 26-yard bullet to his receiver breaking just outside the defensive back for a first down in the Lions' red zone.
This is a promising play for the added layer of complexity beyond the max-protect, third-down play-action selections I've shown. However, this is still 3rd-and-3 situation where the Lions aren't dropping deep and it affords Glennon more decision-making flexibility to throw, run, or end the play without a turnover. It's a good play for Glennon, but like many of the plays we see from many young quarterbacks during their first three years, it's not a highly advanced one.
One of the better performances from Glennon in this contest happens two plays later, on 2nd-and-goal from the Lions' seven. Glennon shows some creativity under the threat of pressure and once again, good rapport with Underwood, a player worth a flier in re-draft formats because of this relationship. Underwood is the outside twin receiver with Jackson in the slot. This is a three-man route so the protection scheme is reasonably heavy for a red zone play. Bobby Rainey will block the left edge where the free safety is just inside the slot receiver threating a blitz off the edge. Keep this blitz in mind because, Glennon's reaction to it makes this play work.
As is the case with many max-protection plays, the offense begins with a play-action fake to manipulate the coverage and give the receivers a shot at winning a slight advantage.
Glennon again, executes the play fake with good detail: his back to the defense, his arm extended towards the back, and as you'll see in the next frame, he sells the exchange by dropping his pads towards the Rainey.
This play fake is coordinated with all three routes. Underwood's route initially breaks outside as part of its stem and then breaks inside. Jackson runs a corner-post where he fakes to the corner before breaking to the middle. The receiver on the right side runs more a post-corner route where you can see him making his move to the post before breaking to the corner.
These double-moves linked to the play action is the offense's strategy to win with just three receivers leaving the line of scrimmage. As you'll see, the wrinkle works, but not without some savvy from its rookie passer.
Glennon gets square to his target as Rainey delivers a cutblock at an angle too low to stop the safety. Many quarterbacks would either try to gun the ball past the defensive back or break the pocket to create a new throwing lane. Glennon opts for a more patient approach: the pump fake.
As Glennon brings the ball towards his back shoulder, the safety times his leap. However, Glennon doesn't go any further and this small fake eliminates the defensive back from the passing lane.
Glennon resets and the defender is still airborne. Meanwhile Underwood is just finishing his initial break outside and now turning inside.
When Glennon delivers the ball, the safety has just landed, the passing lane is open, and the receiver is inside the cornerback. The quarterback leads the receiver inside so there's no shot of anyone, but Underwood making the play.
Underwood displays good extension, attacks the ball with his hands, and scores on the play. Thanks to Glennon, who creates that extra half-second with his pump fake, the Buccaneers exploit single coverage in an area of the field that is usually congested with defenders. More impressive, they do it with just three receivers running routes and one double-covered.
Here's one more heavy-protection scheme where Glennon has to create in the pocket to make the play work. Once again, the Lions opt to blitz a defensive back. This time Glennon has to move off his spot, reset, and throw. Of course, what do we see with heavy protection schemes for the Buccaneers? Play action.
Glennon turns towards his back during his drop to provide a the fake to the fullback as Bobby Rainey reads the blitz and moves into position to make the block. The three-man routes are all breaking to the left side of the field despite the fact that two of them are starting on the right side of the formation. Simple decisions and clean execution yeilding good football.
Rainey does a good job reaching the defender and forcing the blitz further inside. I also like that the runner uses his hands to deliver a punch rather than throwing his shoulder into a defender with the potential of a wild miss. Yet, the defender swims his outside arm over Rainey and it's clear Rainey's initial punch isn't enough to take the defensive back out of the play.
Rainey hangs in there and slides enough to keep his hands on the defensive back and push the blitzer inside. This adjustment gives the Lions' defender to reach for Glennon and disrupt the quarterback's pocket. However, Glennon slides to his left and climbs the pocket. This is the type of adjustment I really like to see from young quarterbacks when it's so common to see players turn their back to this type of pressure and break the pocket, lose track of their receivers, and force their receivers to wait for the quarterback to regain a downfield position to even know where they should run.
Glennon executes his slide with his eyes down field, his carriage upright, and his feet under him. Excellent technique.
This economical movement yields an open lane and he's in position to exploit it.
Tim Wright once again finds the open space across the middle, makes a leaping catch on a pass placed a little high but to the back shoulder so Wright isn't led into the defender in the flat, and it's a first down.
None of what you're seeing is surprising about Glennon. My criticisms of the rookie haven't been his pro-caliber physical skills, but his erratic decision-making under heavy pressure. So far, the Buccaneers have done an excellent job making the offense simple, maximizing its protection schemes, and running the ball to make the play action game plausible.
If the Buccaneers can execute the same strategy with success against its opponents during the stretch run, Glennon will continue to thrive. However, I'm expecting tow of the next four defenses the Buccaneers face will be as pliable. The Carolina Panthers have a quality edge rush and will go with the A-gap pressure that should force Glennon's hand enough to induce an uneven performance.
I think he'll be a nice option against Buffalo the following week because like the Rams in Week 16, the Bills have good edge pressure, but the secondary is a weakness. It's 49ers that will offer a good test for Glennon's decision-making because they won't have to do anything tricky to play good defense.
If I'm a fantasy owner considering Glennon in the later weeks due to players getting rested or injuries, get a second quarterback for a committee that can account for the 49ers in Week 15.
Speaking of Bobby Rainey . . .
While the second-year runner displayed tenaciousness as a pass protector on the play above, the quality his work protecting Glennon has been uneven thus far. Glennon's touchdown pass above was a product of a good pump fake to slow the pressure that Rainey failed to address at the edge due to a poor angle on a cut block. Rainey's bad angles against defensive backs off the edge also allowed a sack in the first half.
Rainey is far from the worst pass protector that I've seen as a young runner, but he has work to do if he wants to surprise anyone with consistent playing time after this year. In terms of running the football, Rainey still looks like the same back he did against the Falcons. The difference is the quality of the Lions defensive line.
This is a trap play gone awry. As we've seen in the past, Ndamukong Suh is a super-aggressive defender who loves to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield. Two years ago, the 49ers broke a long run with Frank Gore on a Wham block of Suh. The difference between this play and that one is that the Buccaneers hope to block Suh with a pulling guard rather than an H-back, wingback, or fullback sent in motion and that outcome is night and day different.
Suh penetrates effortlessly and with no fullback or wing back on his way, the slower guard has no shot of reaching Suh's gap. At this point, it almost looks like Suh might beat Glennon to the exchange point with Rainey.
The guard is on the ground, Suh is breathing down Glennon's neck, and Rainey is still a split-second from receiving the exchange.
Suh times his angle perfect and as Glennon finishes his exchange with Rainey, Suh greets the runner with a bear hug.
Rainey is quick enough to avoid much of the contact, but the 300-pound-plus Suh's arm probaly exudes the same force as one of Rainey's legs.
Let's just say that the Buccaneers didn't run this play any more. Instead, they opted to run at Suh the more straight-forward way: double teams and reinforcements.
Tampa attacks Suh with two players on this run. The right guard will turn Suh inside just enough for the center to maintain that leverage. Then the guard moves down field to the middle linebacker. The fullback has the choice of clearing the hole of the linebacker outside the right hash or helping with Suh if the big fella beats the center.
The double team is successful and Suh is turned inside as the guard works to the second level. Rainey has a clean crease before he even takes the exchange.
However, this crease won't be as clean as it appears right now, thanks to the convergence of the linebacker and the fullback near the line of scrimmage, the push from the defensive end on the right tackle, and Suh's push on the center.
The good thing we've see about Rainey in limited time is that he's short, quick, shifty, and doesn't need a huge crease to generate a quality gain.Rainey sees that a straight path could put him in harm's way of Suh and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who both have leverage to shed their blocks and make the play.
Rainey instead, dips between the fullback and right tackle and makes a second sharp cut down hill of linebacker Deandre Levy to turn this run into a nice gain.
This is not an easy run. The crease is narrow and the cut has to be quick to avoid Suh, the linebacker, and the defensive end all converging at the line of scrimmage. Moreover, Rainey has to cut down hill to squeeze inside the block in the flat.
Rainey works through the desperate grasp of the end and then it's pads down and drive forward.
He finishes with his pads lowered into the safety to maximize his gain, turning a play that easily was a no-gainer for the defense into an eight-yard run and a manageable third-down situation for Glennon.
Rainey had three runs between 5-15 yards called back due to penalties so the stats don't tell the entire story. Like all backs, Rainey needs enough space to get down hill and make choices in the hole. When the Buccaneers can at least give its back this kind of space, Rainey is a dangerous player.
I feel like I've been flip-flopping on Rainey's fantasy prospects down the stretch since I said to trade him high if he performs well against Atlanta. I hope you did, because after taking a closer look at Carolina and San Francisco's defenses, the quality of the defensive front seven will probably hold Rainey to minimum yardage as a runner and receiver. The one game I'd expect RB2 play from the Buccaneers' surprise starter will be the Bills.
Next year? Rainey is worth a late-round pick in re-draft leagues or handcuff consideration if he can continue to show development as a pass protector and push for the No.2 spot behind Doug Martin. Just keep in mind that Mike James has more power, Michael Smith has more speed, and Rainey is older than both of them.
Joseph Fauria Is in Jimmy Graham-Town, but Can't Find the Neighborhood
The Lions' tight end has been a good red zone weapon as a rookie, but he's not a consistent fantasy force. The question is will he? Fauria, like Graham, is a tall and agile player with the ball in the air. He has decent hands and nice awareness of the boundary. He's also capable of making plays in tight coverage.
These facets of Fauria's game and the potential of a high-low game with Matt Stafford, Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson put him within range of Jimmy Graham's potential, but he'll need to stop for directions to find the Saints tight end's neighborhood.
Here's a corner fade for a touchdown where Fauria is split wide like Graham. However, there are a couple of key parts of Fauria's process of making the catch that reveal he still has work to do if he wants to elevate his game.
Fauria begins the play with an outside release, maintaining good cushion at the sideline so he's not forcing Stafford to make an impossibly tight boundary throw.
The tight end turns inside to gauge the quarterback's release and he does a good job of getting is arms higher than the defensive back's as they make contact. This arm positioning gives Fauria the advantage of swiping downward or simply avoiding the contact altogether by raising his arms skyward towards the ball.
I like that Fauria leans into the defender and maintains extension of is arms to frame some distance with the coverage and not get pushed too fast the sideline. While the beginning of this play is good work, the final phase of this route and catch needs improvement and it's the difference between Fauria and top tight ends like Jimmy Graham.
Fauria telegraphs the ball's arrival when he places his hands at stomach level. The best practice here is to wait until the pass is directly over head and then snatch the ball. Instead, Fauria gives his opponent the chance to time the ball's arrival despite the defender having his back to the pass.
With the ball over top, Fauria doesn't attack the ball. The best receivers are aggressive hands catchers. Not only do they extend their hands away from their bodies, but they also meet the ball at its highest point with their hands in position to grab.
Fauria's hands are in a position best suited for a vertical route with his back to the quarterback. On a fade, Fauria would be better off turning like he's doing but extending his arms over his head with both palms facing the ball so he can control the pass early with both large mitts. Instead, he's going to have the ball arrive against his outside hand while using his inside hand and chest to trap it.
This is passive catching where Fauria is waiting for the ball to arrive; receiving rather than taking. Fauria isn't using his height to his advantage because waiting on the ball allows the defender access. If Fauria extends fully to the pass, the defender isn't tall enough to access. Plus, Fauria could conceivably turn his back to the defender while securing the pass from a higher position. Neither of these things happen.
Fauria makes the catch, trapping the ball under his chin, gets both feet inbounds, and the defender fails to rip the ball loose. However, Fauria's play is equally about defender failing to take advantage of Fauria's errors as it is what Fauria does right.
The Lions have a talented young red zone threat in Fauria and he has the size, hands, and quarterback to grow into a reliable fantasy option. Even if Fauria gets there, Graham is a quicker, faster, and more physical ball carrier. Fauria is worth adding to fantasy lineups because the offense is so close to becoming a true juggernaut and how Detroit incorporates the tight end might be that missing piece that helps it all click into place.
However, Fauria will need to display more productivity in the middle of the field to make this jump. Still, if Fauria becomes a reliable red zone option for fantasy owners, will it really matter how he earns those points if he's scoring them consistently?