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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
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 Weeks 1-3 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Positives: What you saw that was good in Weeks 1-3 is an illusion or rare confluence of positive circumstances.
- True Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Weeks 1-3 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Weeks 1-3 is an illusion or a rare confluence of positive circumstances.
I'll be playing this game for one more week. Let's do a quick Week 3 review past lists:
- WR James Jones (True Positive): "Thank God James Jones is a Packer," is what I believe Aaron Rodgers told ESPN after the game. 'Nuff said.
- WR Keenan Allen (True Positive): Allen has been feast or famine the past three weeks, but two weeks of feasts keeps the needle pointing towards the optimism end of the forecast needle. Not a classical No.1 receiver, but he's often a reception magnet and Antonio Gates' imminent return should only help.
- RB Danny Woodhead (True Positive): A dip from the past two weeks, but I believe Woodhead and Gordon should have solid weeks against the Browns.
- TE Tyler Eifert (True Positive): He dropped a potential touchdown and besides contributing to a sack-fumble-touchdown for the Ravens where he couldn't contain Elivs Dumervil, Eifert was not a huge factor. He's a good football player, but I'm growing skeptical that he's a future dominant force. Think of a young Greg Olsen.
- WR Travis Benjamin (True Positive): I'll have more to say about Benjamin below, but there were five targets where he had a chance to score if Josh McCown was accurate. His decent, but not great outing despite the previous point keeps me optimistic about his fantasy prospects.
- QB Johnny Manziel (True Positive): Getting benched is a big strike against my view of him last week. McCown does what the coaches expect him to do--make the right reads, go through the correct progression, and keep the game plan on course. But McCown can't extend the play like the more disciplined version of Manziel that we saw for the previous two weeks. With 6:44 left in the third quarter and down 20-3 McCown had Travis Benjamin in single coverage up the left side and when pressure compressed the left side of the pocket, McCown wasn't confident enough to roll outside and to his left to make the attempt to throw on the move to Benjamin deep. McCown moved right and tried to climb the pocket when Manziel has shown the skill to do what I just described. The Browns' staff wants consistency and established knowledge. I get it, but it's a play-not-lose strategy for a staff that doesn't want to lose its jobs.
- TE Crockett Gillmore (True Positive): A 3-catch, 40-yard stat-line isn't much, and Maxx Williams slightly out-pointed Gillmore, but I still like what I'm seeing and the receivers outside of the alien wearing No.89 aren't doing enough to make you think Gillmore won't remain a viable part of the offense.
- WR Steve Smith (True Positive): My third receiver to defend the planet. More on Smith below.
- WR Michael Crabtree (True Positive): Bad call on my part when I thought aloud last week that Crabtree might be the guy to own in this offense despite Cooper likely to have better weeks more often. Cooper is clearly the man here. Crabtree is a slightly slower version of what he was and it's a testament to his work ethic that he's still a viable NFL option.
- QB Matthew Stafford (True Negative): I'm not one in the "Stafford sucks" camp, but this offensive scheme needs major adjustment.
- WR Sammy Watkins (True Negative): Watkins made two nice grabs this weekend--one of them was out of bounds in the end zone. Too bad he also got hurt and missed the rest of the game. Percy Harvin is the guy to own for now.
- TE Dwayne Allen (True Negative): Allen didn't play this week.
- TE Greg Olsen (True Negative): Last week, I said, "If Ted Ginn Jr catches his deep opportunities, it's likely to be a good day for Olsen up the seam. If not, look for defenses to keep the clamps on the veteran." Ginn had a good day and Olsen had a great one. I'm optimistic about what I'm seeing with the Panthers. The passing offense should be a good match-up watermark for determining how good defense is. If Carolina has success, the defense is average at best.
- RB Justin Forsett (False Negative): He still looks solid, but "solid" doesn't win fantasy championships unless "productive" is in the same sentence.
- QB Peyton Manning (False Negative): Look at that, the Broncos found a compromise. That's called teamwork. If the Broncos win a Super Bowl with this offense, the ground game will have improved a lot between now and December. They'll make the playoffs and so will many Manning fantasy owners.
- WR Odell Beckham (False Negative): Keep on truckin'.
- WR John Brown (False Negative): I know it's a tough patience play, but Brown's 3-62 performance also included a deep crossing route on thrid down where Brown came up a yard shy of a touchdown. It may seem counter-intuitive to think that Brown will benefit from Michael Floyd returning to form, but Floyd will make it easier for the Cardinals to find optimal match-ups for Brown that result in more production. Floyd had an excellent catch up the left flat where he high-pointed the ball over Antoine Bethea, but a holding call nullified the 50-yard play. Floyd also earned a vertical target in the end zone during the late third quarter, but the receiver interfered with the defender.
- RB Frank Gore (False Negative): Two touchdowns added to some of the same good running I saw the past two weeks should help fantasy owners feel better about Gore. He's a fine play this week against Jacksonville.
- TE Jimmy Graham (False Negative): I told you that the Seahawks would make some tweaks for Graham. They need to make more, including not asking him to pass protect or for the ground game to run to his side. Ever.
- Bills' Offense (False Positives for Tyrod Taylor, Percy Harvin and Karlos Williams): I've seen enough and I was wrong. I was too cautious on all three. Funny enough, I still own Harvin in multiple leagues so I'm happy to be benefiting there. The Bills aren't totally predictable with how they use Harvin, but they are giving him routes where he can either get behind defenders or have open space beneath them to operate after the catch. Williams has improved his patience while still remaining decisive. He's running more frequently with his head up and taking a slower pace on gap plays so he's taking a good approach behind his pulling guard. At this point, Williams is out-performing a banged-up and hesitant LeSean McCoy. Taylor's work has been consistently good enough as a decision-maker and thrower that I'm convinced Buffalo's offense has enough bite for fantasy owners. I'm a fan of how Buffalo stretches the field horizontally and vertically both with the run and the pass--it's a consistent aspect of the offense that has worked this month. There will be more tests for the Bills and some bumpy weeks, but there's enough weaponry in Taylor, Harvin, Williams, Charles Clay, Robert Woods, Watkins and even Chris "7-11" Hogan to use the first five names in many fantasy lineups.
- Dexter McCluster (False Positive): McCluster got the start, but it was about as juicy of a reward as a gold star on the elementary school bulletin board. Antonio Andrews was the most productive Titans back this week. It's a carousel right now for Tennesse's run game. I did like the ability Andrews displayed to earn yards after contact. If you need to jump the gun and be aggressive but cheap about taking a RB, Andrews is worth a flier.
Wild Side: A Six-Year Dose of Perspective On WEek 3 vs. Rest of SEason
Two years ago, Aaron Rodgers had to tell the media and public to relax. Last year, the football viewing public had a fork in Tom Brady and the Patriots entering Week 4 as teh No.27 fantasy quarterback. And two weeks ago, the vultures had Peyton Manning's career on a death watch.
There are a lot more examples like this from last year alone:
- 2014's No.10 fantasy TE Jason Witten was No.31 after the first three weeks of the season.
- Ben Roethlisberger finished the first three weeks of the 2014 season as the No.20 fantasy quarterback.
- Aaron Rodgers was barely a QB1 (12th).
- Ryan Tannehill was barely a QB2 (24th).
- Eli Manning before Odell Beckham? 19th among fantasy QBs.
- Odell Beckham hadn't even seen the field since mini camp.
- Demaryius Thomas was WR42--yep, a flex-play.
- T.Y. Hilton wasn't even a flex-play (No.49).
- Mike Evans was the 59th-best fantasy receiver this time last year.
- Alshon Jeffery was a WR3 and that ends my list of half of the WR1s from 2014 who began the first three weeks as anything but.
- Eddie Lacy was the No.48 RB and finished as the No.6 back.
- C.J. Anderson was the No.77 RB and couldn't even stay on the active roster before he finished as the No.12 RB.
- Frank Gore was barely a RB2 (No.24) after three weeks. You know...too old. At least for the first three weeks. He finished as RB16.
Football is a performance medium and it has a 16-week tour with the hope that each group can extend its production schedule for another 3-4 weeks. It's easy for us to expect that what we see between September and January is solely the product of the team's preparation between May and September. What we see the first 2-4 weeks is what we're going to see the next 3-4 months.
The first month of the season is like the opening month of a restaurant where there has been months of preparation. If you've ever successfully worked at a restaurant you instantly get it. If not, imagine the cooks as the offense; the wait staff, servers, and hosts as the defense; the bus staff and dishwashers as special teams; the bartender as the field goal kicker; and the management as the coaching staff.
A restaurant can spend weeks getting ready and have an opening night where the cooks are making great food, but the wait staff is slow to act and it screws up the entire flow of the team. Or, the wait staff can be on it, but a cook or bartender is slowing things down or making mistakes that kill the flow of the evening.
When things go wrong, the tension can get high enough where an outsider will see panic, disorder, and incompetency (or hear screaming and a pot or pan thrown against a wall). But this is usually isn't a moment for a 9-1-1 call. At the end of the night those engaged in the most heated arguments often leave the restaurant and have a quiet conversation over a drink or late night night diner food.
It's easy to imagine that the Denver Broncos were on their way to a complete meltdown after the win over the Ravens and the first half of the Chiefs game where the offense struggled. I can see how my jokes about Manning and Gary Kubiak having a conversation at halftime of the Chiefs game might reinforce that impression, but re-frame that in the context of what I just explained above and it actually makes more sense than how we often blow things out of proportion. Adjustments are made--sometimes after heated moments and disastrous, soul-sucking performances. Of course, there are restaurants that are unmitigated, dysfunctional disasters, so don't think I'm telling you everything is rosier than it appears.
I share this because my good friend and awesome colleague Sigmund Bloom likes to be the gas pedal for urging fantasy owners to take a proactive approach and make bold moves early. He's often right. But as I've said every year for several years, sometimes the best thing to do with a 1-2 or 0-3 roster is to drop anchor, hold tight, and let those waves of panic pass.
I don't necessarily want to be the brake to Bloom's gas pedal. Think of this information I'm providing as the dashboard. Six years of data says pick your spots, but don't panic if you either missed out on those players or you opted to sit still. Read below and you should have a better feel for how to act moving forward.
QBs and TEs sustain early high rankings more than RBs and WRs: Quarterbacks and tight ends who are top-12 performers at their position after Week 3 have a higher rate of sustaining that top-12 production (63 percent for QBs and 65 percent for TEs) compared to running backs (46 percent) and wide receivers (44 percent). If you have two QB1s and/or TE1s at this stage of the season, sell one of these players and use the data above as a talking point during your negotiations.
Injuries are a greater factor for RB and WR ranking movement: It's common sense, but still worth noting here. The rigors of the two positions should inform a strategic choice to stockpile these positions even if your starting backs and receivers are healthy and performing well. If you have depth at QB and TE, selling an established starter at either position for a slightly under performing stud at RB and/or WR could be a good move.
Trade for RBs, hunt and gather WRs: Seeking an RB1? Look at at the top-24 from this week and either strike now on the waiver wire or get ready to make a deal, because during the past 6 seasons an average of 87 percent of the runners that finished as RB1s by season's end were top-36 backs after Week 3 and 84 percent of the backs in the top-36 after Week 3 finishes as RB2s.
Wide receivers? Over the past six seasons, 77 percent of the top 12 receivers at year's end finished no worse as a top-36 WR by Week 3; 69 percent of the WR2s were in that top-36 ranking by Week 3; and 40 percent of the top-36 receivers were WR3s at this point of the season. You have a little more room to hunt and gather a receiver from the waiver wire if you're seeking a WR3 or WR4--and you have a slightly better chance of grabbing a future WR2 or WR1 than you do a RB1 or RB2, but at this point you should probably start thinking about negotiating a trade.
Good Luck With That Waiver Wire QB: During the past six years, only four percent of the quarterbacks outside the top-24 after Week 3 earned QB1 production the rest of the way -- we're talking a little less than one quarterback manages this feat every two years. If there's a QB with top-24 production sitting on the waiver wire after Week 3, he might be worth that speculative add because 33 percent of the QB1s by season's end began the first three weeks as QB2s.
You'll Have to Trade Your Elite TE: If you're desperate for a top option at RB or QB and your waiver wire is already barren based on the criteria above then it's unlikely anyone will accept a deal for a low-end TE1. However, if you can command a strong deal for that elite option, take heart because a combination of your low-end TE1 and the waiver wire could make this deal fruitful. The six-year average for tight ends not in the top-12 after Week 3, but finish at that spot by season's end is 34 percent.
Week 3 Player Notes (Re-Draft & Dynasty)
Let's not go overboard on Freeman--and this is coming from the guy who favored Freeman over Coleman this summer. Dallas was missing integral pieces along its front seven and it was likely the easiest run defense that Atlanta faced this year. But let's eliminate the simplistic from the analysis:
This was the most decisive Freeman has ever been in the NFL is a take based on watching a runner forced to show patience and change of direction much earlier into a run than what is designed and it makes him appear hesitant or tentative. Freeman has rarely been these things, but he's not the type of back to charge into the back of his blockers or headlong into a defender at the line of scrimmage for no gain if he can create even a sliver of space to avoid contact. Once he's through the crease, he's willing to attack defenders in the secondary--as he demonstrated multiple times with Cowboys' safety J.J. Wilcox.
This week, Freeman had large running lanes as the rule rather than the exception and he earned what the Falcons offensive line game him, and a little more. Coleman may not have earned as much on some of these plays where Freeman had to use his agility and pacing in ways where Coleman isn't (yet) as effective, but there were some huge holes up the middle and lanes outside where Coleman has the speed to gain a lot more.
Unless Freeman has multiple breakaway runs while Coleman is out, don't expect the Falcons to make Freeman its feature back. We're looking at a committee all year long, barring more injuries.
Jimmy Graham's Release from the Hole
The warden of this prison in the Pacific Northwest is Pete Carroll (Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Seashank.) but the captain of the guards is Darrell Bevell (Drink up while it's cold, ladies...). Bevell has just enough free reign to make the prisoners' lives miserable, but not enough to overrule the warden.
This weekend, the warden had the captain release Graham from the hole and let him walk the yard like the rest of the prisoners. Graham even showed Bevell a thing or two that might help him at tax time. You know, like still having a paycheck at year's end if he continues to use Graham properly.
We know who Graham is. Put him on the line of scrimmage and ask him to block and he'll conspire to murder your running back and quarterback. Use him as a large receiver in the slot or split wide and he'll help your operation earn a lot of revenue. Moving Graham from the boiler room helps everyone--even if it doesn't allow Bevell to indulge in his sadistic side.
Expect more use of Graham split from the formation. The next statement is an assumption of rational coaching, but also consider Seattle tweaking its offense so Graham is used more as a straight-up wide receiver in alignment and they leave the blocking duties to someone more capable (yes, I know, Darren Sproles is more capable at the line of scrimmage than Graham, but we all have our flaws). I truly don't think the Seahawks are dumb enough to continue using Graham the way they did the first 2.5 weeks of the season.
Like the Broncos asking Peyton Manning to drop from center and do things like he was a sophomore at USC, it was worth a try for Seattle to see for themselves what Graham looked like as Tony Gonzalez. The shoe didn't fit.
Don't let the pumpkin rot on the stoop.
Drink up while it's cold, ladies...
Players I'd Trade For
Steve Smith: It doesn't matter that he's arguably the only game in town. What he does is a beautiful blend of refined technique, athleticism, and tenacity. Although he had far bigger plays in this game, my favorite was a 3rd and 4 with Baltimore down by 14. Smith was slot right against Leon Hall, a corner renown for his physicality, playing tight to the line of scrimmage. Smith played this with the technique of a boxer with a speed advantage on his opponent.
At the snap, Smith immediately bends inside Hall to begin his stem. Just before the top of this initial line of the route, Smith delivers his hands so fast that it looks like he lightly tapped Hall's chest just before breaking to the sideline. But when you watch this flick of his hands into Hall's frame, you'll see that it notably moves Hall off his mark. If you've ever seen Bruce Lee's one-inch punch, Smith's quick flick had that kind of deceptive power and because it appeared so light and quick, there was no way any official would flag Smith for the maneuver.
Even with the shove before the top of the break, Hall recovers enough to contest the target, but Smith manages to hang onto the ball almost plastered to his helmet through the contact and get the first down. It's all fluid and easy on the outside but physical and technical below the surface. Smith remains effective all over the field because he knows how to time his move on vertical routes to win position at the last moment, it takes at least two defenders to tackle him in the open field, and pound-for-pound, he's tougher than anyone on the field. I believe Smith ends his career on a high note, at least statistically.
Frank Gore: The Colts are figuring out what Gore does best in the run game with his new teammates and they're going to continue to refine it. If you're presuming that Indianapolis had all off-season to refine this then consider the fact that Gore had limited touches during the preseason against live fire and with his starting unit. This stuff takes time, folks. Despite the limited touches and issues with offense overall, Gore looks good now. I think he'll look even better moving forward.
Larry Fitzgerald: Late Night Larry rounds out my Cocoon Trifecta of old fantasy players that I'd acquire. Last year, Palmer and Fitzgerald didn't appear to be on the same page. This year, it's a 180-degree difference. Although fantasy wide receiver production has a high variance between what see the first three weeks versus the final 13, I doubt Carson Palmer veers away from a good thing that works. If anything, the Cardinals defense plays well enough to give the offensive more opportunities.
Percy Harvin: See this week's Sanity Check.
Amari Cooper: Cooper beat Joe Haden early in the game during the first series on three routes against press coverage. It was fun to watch. Haden got a little revenge in the fourth quarter when he landed a perfectly time shoulder into Cooper after the catch and knocked the ball loose for a Raider turnover, but the rookie won the battle and his team won the war. Cooper is by far the primary option in this offense. He's only going to get better.
Allen Hurns: He's arguably the best route runner on the Jaguars and without a doubt, he's the best after contact. Allen Robinson is the best athlete of the receiving corps, but he's much more of a finesse option than his size may indicate. This is not a bad thing about Robinson, but he's not the guy you consistently want over the middle taking hits as he makes the catch. Hurns does this well and he can beat defenses on vertical routes. If you can get Hurns as part of a package deal with a bigger name, do it.
Cam Newton: I'm sold on the Carolina quarterback and I feel like I owe the Panthers organization an apology. I railed on them for not getting Newton more help in the receiving corps and the offensive line, but the line has played well thus far and Ted Ginn Jr has been better than expected. Ginn has been good enough that he's a true fantasy commodity. He's making grabs in the middle of the field in addition to getting open on vertical routes at least 2-3 times a game. It may have to do with the success of the offensive line, but I'm actually liking the play calling that I'm seeing from Carolina this year. I still think Ginn and the Panthers offense will struggle against the upper echelon of defenses in the league, but other than Seattle and Green Bay in Weeks 6 and 9, and possibly a healthy and complete Dallas defensive line in Week 12, the rest of the schedule isn't at all imposing. I'd trade Luck or Brady for Newton and a second player and there's a league where I have both of these AFC QBs.
Peyton Manning: The ground game will be a work in progress more than the passing game. Manning physically does not look much different than he did for the past three years unless you simply haven't see him sans the smoke-and-mirrors of his magic act called the shotgun passing game. If you have Luck or Brady or another high-performer at QB and the Manning owner is nervous, I bet you could swing a good deal for Manning and a second starter at another position if you try.
Julio Jones: I don't need to explain.
Matt Forte: He's such a great player and Jimmy Clausen won't be the starter forever. Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery will be back soon enough and they will give Forte owners a lot more opportunities to cheer.
James Jones: Davante Adams will probably struggle with that ankle injury for half of the season, no matter what the Packers may tell us. Jones and Rodgers are having a lovefest that only Randall Cobb can one-up. (Yes, if someone is crazy enough to part with Cobb, get him.)
Charles Clay: This guy is the element that will keep this passing game less predictable and the offense balanced. I like how the Bills got him involved against the Dolphins and there's so much flexibility to his game that I believe he'll become a consistent factor.
PLayers I'd Trade Away
Matt Jones: He needs bigger runways to do his job. I think he'll be a good starter in this league, but the difference between Jones and the Marshawn Lynch comparisons he has received is that Lynch at his best can kill you in small creases. Jones doesn't display this change of direction and patience just yet. It may take a year.
Tom Brady: I probably won't trade Brady in the 3 or 4 leagues that I own him, but if I happen to have another quality QB1 on my roster, I'll entertain offers knowing that I'm in the driver's seat to command top value. Considering where most of you Brady owners got the Patriot's quarterback this year, it's likely you have a good enough reserve to make the deal or you can command a player like Cam Newton or Palmer and a WR3 with upside or take a risk on Andy Dalton or Tyrod Taylor and command a WR2 or RB2. Maybe With what we know about RB finishes based on the data above, use that info to your advantage and pick your poison.
Dion Lewis: Bloom and Matt Harmon will be ecstatic to take him off my hands if the deal is right for me. It's not that I dislike Lewis. I too have been a champion of his skills since his days as a Pitt Panther. I also understand that the snap counts favor Lewis and he still earned red zone looks and short-yardage opportunities with LeGarrette Blount back from suspension. But if folks are willing to pay me RB1 value what I might consider high-RB2 value for Lewis, I'd entertain the deal because there's far less margin for error with Lewis in New England than backs that I actually like less as talents.
David Johnson: If you can sweeten the pot in any package deal with Johnson because of the way he tantalizes with his size-speed-receiving, do it. He's not the "future-is-now" back that many of my esteemed colleagues believe. He still thinks he can truck the likes of Navorro Bowman at the entrance of a hole and somehow gain positive yards. I think he'll mature into a starter one day, but that day won't be this year without Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson getting hurt.
Donte Moncrief: If you can WR1 value for Moncrief (or an experience RB currently sitting at RB2 value or higher), I'd do it. He's a good player, but not yet a complete player. T.Y. Hilton is the go-to guy once he's fully healthy, and it's not changing. Yes, there's room for Moncrief to also earn high-end WR2 value in this offense--and he's already out-pointing Hilton in every way. I'm expecting Hilton to turn it on and Moncrief to level off enough that a trade of strong value would be worth your while if you have Moncrief as a luxury. If you have to lean on Moncrief because you added him off the waiver wire as a starter then please ignore this segment unless Cobb, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, or someone who can get a coach fired for not getting involved enough is part of the action.
Rishard Matthews: He's playing well, but he's a WR3/WR4 in role disguised in WR1 production after three weeks. If you can get WR2 or even WR1 value from him or package him with another player to earn a receiver that you know has more value (John Brown, T.Y. Hilton), make it happen.
Jordan Reed: I like his skills, I dislike the skills of his quarterback. There's enough of a boom-bust element to this offense that if you can part ways with Reed for a promising WR2/WR3 or a current RB3 who has the starting role, I'd take the chance.
The Imagination Game
The Detroit Lions abandoned Joe Lombardi's scheme, simplified its play library, and operated an uptempo scheme with Matt Stafford and all of these athletic weapons with great skill after the catch? Wouldn't you like to see Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron, Theo Riddick, and Ameer Abdullah catching the ball in space against busted coverage or mismatches due to catching the defense in a bad scheme for the offense? I know I would.
Tempo isn't the solution to every problem, but when I see the Lions, I see fast-break athletes at the skill positions with a big-armed passer who would probably limit his more egregious mistakes if he didn't have to buy time in the pocket or wait on slow-developing routes or strange and elaborate screen plays. Like the Lions fans and the Super Bowl, a man can dream about Detroit tailoring their scheme to their talent.
Travis Benjamin had a mobile quarterback with an accurate deep arm against Oakland? I know, crazy, right? Benjamin had five scoring opportunities from Josh McCown targets that wound up incompletions. There was the wide open Benjamin on a deep route on 2nd and 8 at the top of the third quarter that was overthrown. Then Benjamin executed a fine double move in the red zone where he ran a stutter-and-go ending with a back shoulder turn at the left sideline of the end zone that McCown threw too high and too far outside the boundary for all but 5-6 receivers in the league. McCown also under-threw Benjamin with two minutes left in the game where he was behind the last man standing on defense. And if that wasn't enough, McCown undershot Benjamin up the right sideline and instead of the Browns receiver running untouched up the boundary, the Raiders picked off the pass for a game-sealing interception.
That's four potential TD opportunities to add to the slant that Benjamin caught for a score after ducking under the LB's hit while dragging the CB across the goal line. It would be pretty neat to see Benjamin with a quarterback who could buy time and deliver the ball 50 yards in the air after moving left or right and do so with accuracy so the wide receiver could maintain his separation on the defensive back. Wouldn't it? Maybe McCown will eventually show it. Let's see...he's 36 now...maybe it will happen when he's 43.
Tampa Bay molded its offense to help its quarterback? Novel idea. I can't think of a team (that's 729.5 miles northwest of them) that's taking that kind of approach can you? Marcus Mariota and the Titans have done a fantastic job this month. A vast majority of the Titans' passing game involves drops of three steps or less and short passes that allow Mariota to make quick decisions without a lot of pressure around him and receivers to gain yards after the catch.
At the same time, Tennessee is gradually incorporating more five-step drops with the use of play-action and Mariota is hitting these intermediate throws. I know it's a stretch (like the idea that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers would inconceivably stop throwing the ball deep as often as they used to and mostly execute a short game. Oh wait, they are...inconceivable!), but I can completely imagine the Titans continuing to expand the playbook to more five-step drops with and without play action as the season progresses and Mariota and the offensive line gain comfort.
Right now, these five-step drops are used just enough to keep the opposing defense off balance when facing Mariota. When pressure arrives, Mariota has done a good job of finding a check-down or buying time to make plays. He's still having moments where he looks lost on the occasional play or the luck of the football gods has either saved him from disastrous moments or skewered him with turnovers based on factors not of his doing.
While Mariota would be on my short list of current QB1s who won't finish as QB1s after Week 3, I wouldn't hesitate to consider him for my team if I was in need of productive QB play. Isn't this supposed to be about Jameis Winston?
Yes. Yes it is. In fact, it's the scene-setter for my point about Famous Jameis.
While Mariota is completing slants, crossers, screens, short hitches, and the occasional intermediate dig off play-action at a 62 percent clip with 8 touchdowns, Winston's first pass against the Houston Texans gives you an accurate picture of the contrast of quarterbacking environments that these two players have been dropped into as rookies. The setting is far bleaker:
Imagine a 2nd and 15 with 11:53 in the first quarter with Winston dropping five steps into his own endzone with the big blue blur of J.J. Watt's frame within inches of Winston as the rookie delivers an 18-yard throw between tight high-low coverage on Vincent Jackson that is placed perfectly over the shallow defender's head and hands and with just enough time for Jackson to make the catch before he's smacked by teh safety over the top. These are the types of throws that Winston is being asked to deliver that Mariota is not.
Don't get defensive, Mariota/Titans fans. The point isn't that Winston is a better player. The point is that Winston is being asked to make more difficult throws on a regular basis:
- An intermediate fade on a three-step drop that's perfectly placed to Mike Evans, but the second-year receiver commits pass interference.
- A perfect 3rd and 6 pass down field to Evans under Jonathan Joseph that's dropped.
- Two on-point dig routes in a row while under pressure.
- A perfect 18-yard skinny post up the seam.
- Great anticipation early in the fourth quarter on a target inside the hash that gave his receiver room to leap for the ball under the defender--a throw made with Watt bearing down once again
Mariota is fortunate that he doesn't have to make most of these throws right now. I'd love to see Winston play on a team that gives him quick decisions, short passes, and let these big, physical receivers break tackles after the catch or run free on slants and crossers. These are two routes that are excellent for physical--and even slower (or less quick)--receivers to get separation. Instead, the Buccaneers are asking a rookie quarterback and two rookie offensive linemen to execute mostly three and five-step drops for intermediate and long-developing patterns.
Winston has a 52 percent completion rate at this point and one of this games was without Mike Evans in the lineup and another was without Austin Seferian-Jenkins. I've been impressed with Winston thus far. He has been asked to make the more demanding throws than Mariota.
But it's not Mariota's fault that he's playing good football in a conservative passing attack that's built to his strengths and limits his weaknesses. It's a great thing that I'd love to see done for Winston and his o-line's weaknesses. I like both players to develop, but Mariota's trajectory looks safer and better conceived on paper. In this respect, I can't wait to see how the year plays out for both.