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Welcome to my in-season column. If you're seeking strategic tips, match-up advice, game observations, IDP info, and dynasty advice with a little bit of current "football" events opinion (if anything involving the madness of the NFL commissioner's office actually qualifies) added into the mix then you've come to the right place. Think of the in-season Gut Check column as a department store with a variety of areas:
- Futures (Rookies and College Prospects)
- Wild Side
How much attention each department earns depends on what I observe. If you missed the Week 1 tour, you can pay a visit down memory lane and before you check out Week 2.
Re-Draft: Sanity Check
The most challenging thing about the first three weeks of the season is discerning which events are a sign of things to come and which are fool's gold. I'm dividing this basic diagnosis into four categories:
- True Positives: What you saw that was good in Week 1 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Positives: What you saw that was good in Week 1 is an illusion or rare confluence of positive circumstances.
- True Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Week 1 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Week 1 is an illusion or a rare confluence of positive circumstances.
You got it, I'm playing the fool in Week 1 trying to tell you how it's gonna be.
Packers WR James Jones: When the news broke that Jones would reunite with Green Bay, I immediately placed Jones above Davante Adams in my pre-season rankings. Bold move to show this kind of love for a receiver cut by the Giants after the Raiders no longer required his services, but I had my reasons.
First, Aaron Rodgers wanted the Packers to re-sign Jones before he ever went to Oakland in the first place. The duo had a rapport, but the team brass was in a difficult situation because Jordy Nelson was the top guy in need of money and Randall Cobb offered a different dimension in the receiving corps that Jones couldn't match and with younger legs.
Talent was not the issue with Jones. This year will be an indication of that statement as I expect to see Jones to perform as one of the top-two receivers most weeks. Jones still has the speed, body control, strength, and agility to beat starting cornerbacks.
Second, Aaron Rodgers is a quiet taskmaster. There are multiple reports from teammates that the Rodgers stare after a poor route is a real thing. I've seen Rodgers make a point through the media that he throws to receivers who are open and the context is if you can't get to the place you're supposed to be, I'm not throwing the ball to you--I don't care how good you're supposed to be. Jordy Nelson went through this early in his career. So has Randall Cobb.
Jeff Janis and Ty Montgomery are inexperienced players with inconsistent route and reception skills. At minimum, Jones was brought to Green Bay to play the No.3 role and take the heat off two physical talents lacking the seasoning to do the job on the big stage.
Third, getting cut by the Giants doesn't mean anything. Jones was a late signing of the Packers this summer much like Reggie Wayne to New England. If you recall, Wayne asked for his own release. We don't know if this was the case with Jones, but I bet something similar was discussed with the Giants who were satisfied with its starting trio and Jones' departure meant it could keep a promising young player for further development at a cheaper price than Jones, which also meant greater flexibility to aid other parts of the roster as the season progressed.
Davante Adams out-gained Jones in this game, but the flow of the game tells the story. Adams caught 4 of 8 targets and Jones caught 5 of 6 targets--if you include a third touchdown nullified by a holding penalty.
Adams earned the early targets, including some deep shots and he and Rodgers couldn't connect. At this point, Rodgers and Jones began gaining steam and that past rapport came into play in the red zone.
Adams will surely get his looks and I expect him to out-produce Jones at least half of the games this year. But I don't expect Jones to go silent during those big Adams weeks, either. Mike McCarthy praised Jones for his preparation since returning to Green Bay on short notice.
I was lower on Adams than most during the preseason, valuing him as a WR3. I think Jones is a high-end WR3 with low-end WR2 upside. I'm counting on Jones edging Adams this year statistically in a minor shocker.
Chargers WR Keenan Allen: This in-shape version of Allen was the player that I remember seeing at Cal. Tall, wiry, and as sudden as a deer. I watched Allen make moves in the open field that seemed as quick as DeSean Jackson, but from a bigger guy.
I wasn't alone. Former Cal player and Cal football writer Ryan Riddle and I have talked about Allen over the years. His initial view of the receiver was that Allen had a wider range of player type than many, but you had to know what you wanted from him physically and then how to manage the result.
If you wanted a 220-pound, post-up receiver who could use his strength and still make some decent plays in the middle of the field as a ballcarrier then you would have to rest Allen a little more often because the stamina wouldn't be as good. If you wanted a quick, explosive guy then Allen would need to be thinner.
I think the Chargers and Allen have figured out that a thinner, quicker Allen offered more position flexibility to the offense and had the added benefit of greater stamina. Allen's 15 catches broke Kellen Winslow's club record. Although many of them came on crossing routes, the quickness Allen displayed was notably better than what I've seen from him since he became a pro.
Remember that Allen was hurt during his final year at Cal and could not train properly in preparation for the NFL. After an excellent rookie year, I think Allen got a little complacent or he and the team thought that he should play a little bigger. Last year, Allen appeared a little more sluggish and it was a combination of his size and playing through an injury that limited him most of the year.
The 2015 opener is an indication that Allen and Steve Johnson will cause problems for opposing defenses. Although the Chargers lost two offensive linemen in this game, I expect the injuries to hurt the ground game more than the passing game. If you got Allen as your WR3, congratulations on drafting a strong WR2 at value.
If you took Allen as a WR2 or WR1, this week's performance should be encouraging as something for you to build on. If you hit on Allen and another receiver between rounds 4-6, you should be in good stead.
RB Danny Woodhead: Last week, I featured Woodhead here and mentioned that he would outproduce Melvin Gordon. I was wrong that Ladarius Green wouldn't play, but my 5-45 receiving projection and 30-yard rushing projection for the passing-down back was close to Woodhead's actual production. Where I underestimated Woodhead was the red zone.
What I forgot is how effective Woodhead has been in the red zone for two teams during his NFL career. Here are the past two seasons where Woodhead played more than three games:
- 2013 Red Zone: 25-77-3 on the ground and 23-129-5 in the air.
- 2012 Red Zone: 19-61-4 on the ground and 5-57-3 in the air.
The Chargers will try to give Melvin Gordon more opportunities to establish his dominance, but there's a line where San Diego will realize that with a center and guard missing from the lineup, the short passing game, draw game, and runs that are easy to conceal a 5-7 runner might be the better strategy to win games this year.
I loved Gordon's intensity when he was on the field and I'm confident he'll show progress. Still, Woodhead is for real at least during the first 5-7 weeks of the season. If you can parlay Woodhead into a better player because the RB is depth on your roster, do it. If your RB strategy was a collection of mid-round guys then keep riding Woodhead until something changes.
Bengals TE Tyler Eifert: The tight windows that Andy Dalton targeted Eifert against the Raiders on Sunday should tell you all that you need to know about their rapport. The fact that Eifert converted those plays should tell you all that you need to know about his athleticism and skill. I'd flip-flop him with Greg Olsen if I had to do my rankings all over again.
The Buffalo Bills Offense: I like that Rex Ryan went with Tyrod Taylor and I believe that Taylor can be an effective quarterback. Week 1 was not the litmus test to become a true believer. The Colts defense is soft and the two big offensive plays that gave the Bills a commanding lead against Indianapolis and gave an aggressive defense the chance to pin its ears back were a Karlos Williams touchdown and a Percy Harvin bomb.
The Williams run was a gap play designed to the right but foiled by the inside linebacker taking a good angle on the right tackle and working inside the pulling left guard. Williams does a good job feeling the backside. He clearly doesn't see the backside open lane because his head is down and staring a the hips of his pulling lead blocker.
But Williams knows that the only direction he can go if the front side is clogged is a cutback. Even when he cuts back, his head is down becuase he's anticipating contact. It means he doesn't see the backside. It's a hope and a prayer of a cutback and once he realizes that he made it through the backside untouched, then it's an easy on-on-one with the safety.
Williams' speed, power, one-cut agility, and intensity are all positives. Even so, this play is not an indication that the light has come on. I hate to call it a lucky play, but if the Colts maintained better backside gap discipline Williams does not score. He might not even make it past the line of scrimmage.
I have hope that Williams' vision will improve because he only played two years of major college football as a running back. This play was not an indication of that improvement. I support any fantasy owner buying Williams as depth, but don't make the mistake of thinking this touchdown is a sign of a breakout.
When LeSean McCoy--a player who may has discipline issues at times with good decision-making, but has excellent vision--struggles on the ground and the outcome of this play for Williams was based more on poor gap discipline by the defense and I think Williams is a false positive this week. Watching the Bills game, McCoy faced a Colts interior that earned consistent penetration off the snap. Don't get too excited about Williams yet.
While I'm encouraged that Percy Harvin saw enough targets to matter, the touchdown bomb appeared to be a blown coverage between the safety and the cornerback based on their pre-snap alignments against the receiver and the position they each take after the snap.
It's not to say that the Bills offense won't continue to improve or that they won't capitalize on more mistakes from opposing defenses. It is to say that this unit still has a ways to go before getting too enamored with the performances of Percy Harvin and Karlos Williams could be a mistake.
The Bills Defense is a true positive--they played fast, broke early on routes, delivered punishment, and got pressure on Andrew Luck from all angles. If this were the Game of Thrones, Luck was Jon Snow against that horde of winter zombies pouring over the mountain. Expect more of this against lesser offensive units.
I'm not ready to declare Taylor a false positive. He executed the game plan well and recognized the opportunities the Colts presented. I am concerned that Taylor will struggle as a consistent two-read or three-read quarterback. Not because he's not smart enough, but because the team is encouraging Taylor to use his legs at the first sign of pressure.
When there are plays designed to look at multiple reads, they will often be to one side of the field with the aid of play action and movement to read levels to one side. It means the fantasy prospects for receivers won't be as rich as teams where the quarterback can win from the pocket.
Bills WR Sammy Watkins: There will be a ton of over-analysis about what Watkins hasn't shown or isn't as polished as what he was supposed to be. The simple truth: Watkins is not in a sophisticated passing offense and I fear that his best hope for a long and fruitful career is to work his tail off, stay healthy, and bide his time for free agency. If he's a No.3 fantasy WR by year's end then Tyrod Taylor and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have proven me wrong about my above diagnosis of this scheme or Harvin gets hurt by Week 4.
Panthers TE Greg Olsen: Many fantasy analysts considered Olsen a shoe-in as "the" tight end to own this week. I kept quiet on that front. Wasn't so sure, but I wanted to wait and see. My misgivings have to do with one basic issue: Which players present enough consistency in this passing game to keep the opposing defense from taking Olsen away from Cam Newton?
Olsen had five targets in this game and caught one for 11 yards. The tight end nullified his own touchdown in the red zone with an offensive interference foul and a short gain in the flat was also nullified by an illegal man downfield call. Despite these penalty-nullified targets, there wasn't much to like and the Jaguars aren't a top-line defensive unit.
Olsen had always been a good receiving tight end, but he was never a match-up nightmare without at least one excellent receiver capable of placing a safety in a bind or forcing the defense to cover Olsen with a linebacker in intermediate or deep routes.
Olsen will have much better games, but I'm not expecting top-five production this year after seeing what I saw. I'm not ready to say he won't be a top-10 TE. I am worried though.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford: I have been a Stafford defender, but Bloom's statement that Stafford is a nicer Jay Cutler is appearing more apt. I also liked Bloom's statement that sometimes Stafford is paying attention and gives a great answer to a defense's question and other time's he's staring at the butterfly out the window. The weapons are there for Stafford to have a QB1 season, but yesterday's game was a great example of a player who did enough to encourage you for several plays and then just as you're ready to say he's turned the corner--oh, is that a Monarch or a Gulf Fritillary?
Giants WR Odell Beckham: The plays versus contact where there. The route skills are still there. The quality and number of targets were not. I don't think we're seeing a sophomore slump, but I do think the absence of Victor Cruz and slow summer for Larry Donnell could hurt Beckham's production for the next few weeks because opposing defenses know what the second-year player can do. Don't sell this guy for a song or "could-be" trash that your owners like to throw at you.
Ravens RB Justin Forsett: Forsett got what the offensive line gave him against the No.2 rushing defense from 2014. This is what happens when a team has a good back-up as its starter. Another reason this poor output is a false negative is how the Ravens called plays with Forsett and Buck Allen.
A great example came during the third quarter after a Steve Smith punt return. The Ravens put Allen into the lineup and ran from heavy, unbalanced single back set four consecutive times. Allen earned two gains of five yards apiece and then had a four-yard gain on the third run from this set. The Ravens lined up in this set for the fourth straight play and ran it with Forsett. This time the Broncos defense cut off both the front and backside gaps.
I saw Forsett get the short end of this play-calling stick on a couple of instances in this game. The lack of a second field-stretcher in this Ravens offense will encourage opposing defenses to stack the box and dare Flacco to throw deep. At the same time, Forsett should have more room to run against lesser rush offenses.
I'm not panicking on Forsett yet nor am I especially bullish Allen. The rookie played well, but the play-calling and game scenarios weren't favorable to Forsett.
Broncos QB Peyton Manning: Before I watched this game, I heard that Manning's arm looked shot and that he gave up an unheard of four sacks. I heard that he's done. After watching the game, I don't see a different thrower than the one I saw the past two years.
I see a different offense that's forcing Manning to drop from center more often and asking him to use different types of play action that require more movement and time in the pocket than past Denver systems. I also saw a game where Manning's head coach was the offensive coordinator for the opposing team and that had to be an advantage for the Ravens defense.
The pick-six Manning threw was an opposite hash throw with a pass rusher in his face. It was throw Manning wouldn't have made for the past three years and not a sign of a sudden decline. If anything it was an uncharacteristically bad decision where Manning forgot about his limitations.
Some of the lollipops that Manning threw in this game also came off drops from center or with play action fakes and turns where Manning had to throw the ball over a defender in his face. The end has been near for Manning for the past three years, but I don't think the end is here.
Dynasty (With Re-Draft Implications): Rookie Quarterbacks
Three rookies took the stage yesterday: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel. Yes, Manziel should be considered a rookie. More on that soon enough. None of happened on the field was as good or as bad as what you'll likely see depicted about these three in the general media. Here are my thoughts on what I saw Sunday:
Marcus Mariota: Statistically, Mariota had a fantastic rookie debut and it was a reflection of just how efficient and prepared he was to execute the Titans' game plan. He deserves a ton of credit from this standpoint.
The game plan from Ken Whisenhunt's crew might deserve equal if not greater credit for Mariota's debut. The Titans ran a short passing attack that allowed Mariota to use read option fakes, drops of less than three steps, and even borrowed from the Oregon play book.
A total of 10 of Mariota's 17 attempts were short passes. Five of his attempts required no drop back--just set and throw. And eight of Mariota's throws were play-action plays with a drop back no longer than three steps.
It's clear that the Titans understand what Mariota can and can't do at this stage of his career and they aren't forcing him to play traditional pocket football with longer drops and slower-developing plays.
This isn't a slap at Mariota's potential as a much as a more clear-eyed view of his current development curve. When the Titans face a team that can get pressure faster and at the same time make deep drops into shallow zones that require Mariota to come off his first read on these quick-hitting plays I'm going to be watching for the rookie to buy time and make consistently poised decisions. Can he do it more often than what I saw on these less common occasions where defenses forced the issue versus Oregon?
Mariota demonstrated patience on two intermediate routes in the first half and one was a three-step drop from a shotgun set, sliding to a side just enough to find the throwing lane and hitting his receiver in a tight zone. The only deeper route he threw in this game came off a three-step drop where the Bucs pressure forced Mariota to the right and the rookie vastly under-threw the ball and gave the cornerback position to intercept the target, but the defender failed to make the grab.
This wasn't the only near-fatal error. Mariota threw blind to a dropping linebacker in the right flat and this pass should have been a pick-six instead of a dropped interception. The rookie also held onto the ball too long inside his five.
The officials ruled that Mariota's forward progress was stopped and called the play a sack, but Mariota was trying to spin through the wrap of the defender and had the ball punched loose. The Bucs recovered the ball in the end zone and I'd be willing to bet that at least a third of the officiating crews in the league would have not ruled the play a sack after the fact.
If this play wasn't ruled as it was, the Bucs would have cut the lead to 21-14. It's likely that the tenor of the game and the Titans game plan would have changed enough that Mariota might have been forced to execute more plays that required deeper drops.
Remember when Robert Griffin was operating a productive offense with short drops and read option? He looked like a world-beater. He also ran the ball more effectively than Mariota and had a better ground game. This game didn't test Mariota to the extent that I believe he will be this season.
Be patient with him, but I sprint to your fantasy website to offer a trade for him just yet. Kendall Wright is worth re-draft consideration, as is Delanie Walker and Harry Douglas, because they will do good work off play action and quick-hitting plays. Don't rush to get Bishop Sankey or the vertical receivers like Dorial Green-Beckham or Justin Hunter just yet. I would consider Terrance West. He ran hard and north-south and he'll be a cheap add.
Jameis Winston: For as many quick-hitting plays Mariota had, Winston had plays require five-step drops and reads further down field--actually more. I don't want to belittle Mariota and say that Winston was asked to play more big boy football as a quarterback as much as the fact that Winston was asked to do more traditional things and the Buccaneers offensive line was not up to handling the task. Winston had one quick-hitting three-step drop and throw and it was a backside slant off play action early in the second half to Vincent Jackson. It's a signature play of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's that he ran at will with the Falcons to Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Otherwise, Winston had to climb the pocket or slide outside after his final plant step on the vast majority of his drops from center. Where Mariota often found his first option within 5-12 yards off the line of scrimmage, Winston's first option was often 12-15 yards down field and off a five-step drop that the offensive line wasn't allowing him to complete with out addressing pressure.
Winston made the kind of errors I've been saying he'll make all year: "All-arm" muscle throws with lazy footwork with the belief he can make something happen that he shouldn't attempt and getting into quicksand scenarios where he or his team makes one mistake and Winston will try too hard to bail the team out and sink deeper into the morass.
Yet Winston also made some throws that I'd describe as hyper-accurate, fearless, and willing to give his receivers a chance to win with their athleticism. One that that will hurt Winston and this offense is penalties. The Buccaneers had 12 penalties against the Titans and most of them were illegal motion or holding fouls. At least 4-5 of these calls nullified good runs from Doug Martin.
I think this team gets sharper down the stretch, but expect some ugly moments from the unit and Winston. If one of your fantasy owners is willing to crown Winston a massive bust, I highly recommend you try to low-ball him. I'd give up a second-round rookie pick for Winston and you might get him for a third-round pick or better if the Buccaneers get into a real funk.
Johnny Manziel: Yes, he's a rookie. If you're smart about it, that's the perspective you should have with Manziel. The former Heisman winner didn't prepare last year. He didn't come to practice on-time. He didn't even arrive to games on-time. For all practical purposes he was an addict barely pretending to be at work.
This year, Manziel prepared. He eschewed the night life. He jumped into offensive line meetings to get conversant on protections that they were studying as a unit. He did extra.
The Jets game wasn't a great result, but the process I saw from Manziel on the field as more akin to what I expect from a rookie who takes his craft seriously.
Manziel had moments where he exploited the Jets defense when they made mistakes or gave him a mismatch (the Travis Benjamin bomb). The Browns quarterback nearly hit his receiver on a roll left in the end zone for a score, but place the ball a little too high to the diminutive pass catcher on a difficult target on the move to his left. This is a play that at least 50 percent of the starting NFL quarterbacks on Sunday would have missed.
Manziel's interception was a bad read of the field and he gave up the ball trying to climb the pocket and work to the flat as a runner. These were plays where he tried to do too much, but they weren't the egregious errors that we saw from him last year in limited time or even at Texas A&M when he was getting away with horrible decisions against the likes of Alabama or LSU.
If Manziel truly gets a "reset" in Cleveland and more playing time due to Josh McCown's concussion, a year where he gets a better feel for what he can and can't do physically with his quickness and arm on the move will make him a much better player if he earns a shot to start with the Browns or somewhere else. If you can get Manziel super cheap (a fourth-round rookie pick or lower), I'd make the deal and stash him.
IDP: OLB Melvin Ingram III
Ingram's two tackles and two assists doesn't reflect the pressure he put on Matt Stafford on Sunday. One near-sack resulted in an interception. Later, he stuffed Melvin Gordon on a play where he blew up Brandon Pettigrew with a shove to meet the rookie runner in the backfield and put Gordon on his back. Ingram's agility, burst, and strength make him a player I'd monitor. I still think he's on the verge of bigger things.
TCU RB Aaron Green
This 10-minute video should help you understand why "Saturday pretty" doesn't always translate to "Sunday gritty."