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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: Gap-fillers & Temp-to-Perm
Injuries and bye weeks create scenarios where fantasy owners need options capable of filling a temporary need in a starting lineup. Some of these gap-fillers have a high profile, but most are options still available in free agent pools that seem picked clean by early October. Every year a few of these players evolve into permanent starters. Here's my list of gap-fillers after Week 4:
WR Allen Hurns: A top-20 receiver at month's end, Hurns' two most redeeming qualities are his ability to work with his quarterback when the play goes South and his toughness at the catch-point. Hurns flashed these skills when he was a starter for the Miami Hurricanes.
Allen Robinson isn't as physical at the catch-point as many assume when they look at his athletic ability. He's at his best when he can catch the ball in space or make a play where impending contact is not part of the equation. Hurns was a great play against the Colts because Robinson got matched up with Vontae Davis, a physical cornerback capable of limited the Jaguars' primary option.
Robinson's 4-80 afternoon against Davis and the rest of the Colts' secondary was a solid outing, but most of Hurns' 11-116-1 performance came against a less physical cornerback and Blake Bortles has repeatedly shown confidence to look Hurns' way. Jacksonville faces a number of good-to-great cover corners this year, which makes Hurns one of of the best temp-to-perm candidates on this list.
One of the best plays Hurns made this weekend was a first-half touchdown where he split the corner and the safety doubling him in the end zone and worked inside-out to get free for a scrambling Bortles. The receiver made a diving grab inside the end zone's boundary that was good enough to surprise the announcers that he actually scored. Davis actually covered Hurns for parts of the second half.
I don't think Hurns finishes in the top-20 of receivers, but the top-36 looks like a legit expectation--even when Julius Thomas returns. Dynasty prospects? I've had Hurns on two of my rosters since last September.
WR Willie Snead: I don't think Snead is a legitimate long-term option in this league, but I also didn't think he'd see an NFL starting lineup. To be fair, I don't think any of us expected the Saints receiving corps to turn faster than a banana in a paper bag. Snead's positives include sure hands, initial quickness, skill to catch the ball in tight coverage, and the ability to sell a route.
He's a smart overachiever that Cleveland cut last year who probably lacked the athletic profile that the Browns were seeking. While fair to add Snead to the list of receivers the Browns have let slip through its fingers, I haven't seen anything from Snead that makes me think Cleveland made the wrong choice when weighing what the new Saint has to offer compared to Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel. When it comes to small, quick slot options who can also do work outside, the Browns are well-stocked in this one area.
Snead is thriving right now because he's a reliable overachiever paired with a Hall of Fame QB in an offense that lacks any level of consistency at the position. Brandin Cooks has struggled with physical coverage since he was at Oregon State. He's not the next Steve Smith or Antonio Brown. Cooks is great if he earns separation on vertical routes and the quarterback hits him in stride behind the defender, but he's inconsistent at winning the ball when also contending with a defender.
Marques Colston looks old, Brandon Coleman hasn't gotten open enough since the games got real, and there's no dominant presence at tight end. Snead is a relative unknown making the most of his anonymity to defenses. He's a gap-filler for as long as this collective underestimation lasts. It could last long enough for Snead to remain a WR3-WR4 in PPR leagues for the duration of the season. I wouldn't consider him in a dynasty league.
TE Gary Barnidge: I've been trying to find a reason to downplay Barnidge since he was in Carolina. The former Louisville tight end had a solid college career, but he was nothing special. The past two years, Barnidge's play has been sneaking up on me. The past two weeks have been enough that I'm sold on Barnidge as an excellent gap-filler who can help fantasy owners for the rest of the year.
Besides the consistent hands, Barnidge gets separation up the seam and on intermediate perimeter routes. His diving catch at the front pylon during the fourth quarter of the Browns-Chargers tilt was every bit the kind of play a fantasy owner would expect from a TE1. So was the diving catch at the goal line during the first half.
Barnidge is an off-brand Greg Olsen on a team that needs every weapon it can muster in the passing game. Josh McCown trusts him more than any option in this passing game. Barnidge will see Travis Benjamin and Duke Johnson Jr earn more production over the course of the season, but the tight end is McCown's security blanket. He's worth a shot as a surprise gap-filling TE1 for your squad this year--even if the Browns search for a long-term replacement in 2016 (and I think they will).
RB Duke Johnson Jr: There's some dissonance to the sight of Johnson wearing the "gap-filler," label because he's a high-profile rookie. It fits because the Browns want to bang a big back between the tackles. A fantasy owner's level of optimism for Isaiah Crowell changes by the week and it's possible that Robert Turbin earns a shot if Crowell can't maintain a steady effort that pleases the coaching staff. Either way, the talk that the Browns' like Johnson's toughness and see him as an every-down back is just talk.
At least at this point. Johnson's inability to stay healthy this summer cost him the opportunity to prove that he could handle the load on his own this year. Last week's explosion in the passing game should portend more consistent production as a receiver, especially with the dearth of weaponry in the Browns' passing game, but expect the Browns to rotate Johnson with a bigger back. It makes Johnson a potential RB3-on-the-rise with RB2 potential in PPR.
Maybe more. Danny Woodhead is a low-end RB1 as of this week. Johnson has more potential between as a ball carrier.
RB David Johnson: Good luck getting Johnson from his fantasy owner, but if you happened to get one who isn't a zealot about the rookie from Northern Iowa I'd recommend it. He was great and terrible against the Rams: a fumble on the opening kickoff that led to a St. Louis score; a great catch and run after hellacious contact; multiple dropped passes, including one at the goal line; and a beautiful release against the safety on a seam route for a touchdown. Johnson's rookie nickname "Good and Terrible," is well-earned. What makes him worth owning as a flex-play is the frequency and confidence that Palmer targeted Johnson throughout this game, including the final attempt over the middle in tight coverage. Johnson is still conceptually green as a runner, but his athletic gifts and great pass-catching skill makes him too promising for the Cardinals to abandon as a passing-down, two-minute player. He has temp-to-perm potential if Chris Johnson gets hurt, because Bruce Arians doesn't appear to trust Andre Ellington long-term as an every-down player.
WR Stefon Diggs: Call it a gut feeling, Diggs will earn a role in the starting rotation long-term and likely at the expense of Jarius Wright or eventually Charles Johnson or Mike Wallace. I can see the rookie displacing Wright this year and Johnson if by necessity. Diggs has the speed and skill to develop into an all-around threat with a vertical game.
Diggs' smooth transition to the NFL has impressed me all summer and his performance against the Broncos was another positive step. Teddy Bridgewater had a lot of confidence in Diggs and the receiver came through against tight coverage as well as the intermediate passing game. We haven't seen the best of this University of Maryland product. If you can start five receivers, Diggs could fill that gap if you're lacking better options. He just may grow into a more consistent producer than bargained for.
TE Ladarius Green: I've never been as sold on Green as my compatriots at this site, but the Chargers are making Jene Bramel consider an exclusive section devoted to them in his weekly injury column. Antonio Gates returns this week as Malcom Floyd deals with a concussion and leaves the receiving corps with Keenan Allen, Steve Johnson, and Dontrelle Inman. We've seen Philip Rivers make do well with the likes of Seyi Ajirotutu and a played-out Chris Chambers, so the speedy Inman could deliver at the expense of Green.
I'd still consider Green for the next few weeks while Gates returns to form and the Chargers' offensive is missing half of its original starters. I like Barnidge more for the opportunities he should earn with his offense, but Green has more big-play potential, a better quarterback, and still some sliver of hope as a long-term dynasty option.
WR Marquess Wilson: Just when I'm ready to give up on the guy, he makes plays against the Raiders that appeared eerily reminiscent of his days at Washington State. While I have grown more skeptical of Wilson making the transition from college star to NFL starter he's till extraordinarily young for an NFL veteran and there are flashes where he shows the burst, hands, and body control that he displayed in the past. Jay Cutler likes Wilson and he got a clutch performance from the youngster during the final drive against Oakland.
Wilson has more upside than Snead and a lower floor. I dropped him in a few dynasty leagues last year, but I still own his rights in some. Wilson's strength as a collegian was tracking the football in the vertical game and a wide catch radius. Jay Cutler's style meshes well there.
WR Jamison Crowder: If I were to give Crowder a nickname based on his college tape "This Close..." might have been at the top of the list of candidates. Crowder often seemed "this close" to making the type of catch that separates future primary receivers in the NFL from good slot receivers. Grabs that separate Steve Smith, Randall Cobb, and Antonio Brown from Andre Roberts, Danny Amendola and Andrew Hawkins.
You can read the rest of my pre-draft analysis on Crowder at the RSP blog. Watching Crowder's performances this summer through this weekend, culminating with his grab between three Eagles defenders is encouraging. I'm not convinced he has that primary upside, but he's earning the trust of Kirk Cousins while DeSean Jackson is out.
He also earned the playing time over Andre Roberts, who was made a healthy scratch. That's a compelling enough news and note for me to consider Crowder as a bye-week option on a thin waiver wire.
WR Dwayne Harris: The Giants aren't getting great play from Larry Donnell and Harris did a good job against the Bills as the slot man. A star receiver at East Carolina, Harris was known for his excellence after the catch and physicality at the catch point despite his size. Harris has made his bones in the NFL as a special teams player, but he has flashed big-play ability in the Dallas offense. If you have room or you're desperate for player with at least Willie Snead's current production, Harris offers that with breakaway skill as a bonus.
Re-Draft: Buy-low Inquiries
WR John Brown: As I mentioned on Christopher Harris' podcast Monday morning, the Rams game should have fortified one's belief that Brown will remain a focal point of this Arizona passing game. The first three weeks of the season, Carson Palmer tested defenses with targets to Brown in the team game, which drew plenty of defensive pass interference calls, but no receptions. Palmer and Brown would eventually hook up on intermediate routes as the games unfolded.
This week, the Cardinals went to Brown early and often in the short game, hitting Brown on screens and short routes breaking back to Palmer at the sideline. The only vertical target for Brown was a post thrown into double coverage and intercepted in the end zone. I still like what I see despite Brown neither reaching the end zone nor breaking a big gain.
The deep targets from the three previous games worked for the team even if not for Brown's fantasy owners. They'll continue going deep to Brown because he's drawing fouls and putting the offense into optimal field position. I also like that Arizona switched up the strategy enough to start short and then take a shot deep. Varying the approach is important.
And I especially like that Palmer had the confidence to target Brown in double coverage. It didn't work, but it speaks volumes to what Palmer thinks of Brown's play-making skill. If a fantasy owner has grown impatient with John Brown because he's delivering low-end WR production--which is essentially on par with his ADP with a traditional RB-early strategy--I recommend making an offer to get the Cardinal's play-maker for your squad.
RB Melvin Gordon: I like how Gordon is running. He nearly broke away from the Browns' secondary on an inside zone play during the first half of this game and he has run hot the entire month. The injuries to San Diego's line and Danny Woodhead's RB1 production hides what I believe is mounting for Gordon down the stretch. Most of the injuries that hit the Chargers' offensive line are long-term issues and it makes Gordon a nice patience play if you have the luxury to acquire him for your stretch run or to hold onto him until then.
RB Tevin Coleman: I spent all summer telling you how I liked Devonta Freeman more for this run scheme, but I had no idea that Atlanta would actually be able to block as well as they have. No one with actual knowledge of football and this team did at the end of August. The Falcons turnover of three of it's five linemen over the course of 10 days is unheard of before the start of the season. A person I know in the league who studies these things told me that it's historically a death knell for a team to revamp it's offensive line this early in the season.
Atlanta's performance has been the exception to the rule and Freeman has played how I would expect him to play with good--and often excellent--run blocking. It doesn't mean Freeman has this job locked up when Coleman returns to the field. Freeman is a better runner between the tackles and he's a far better passing down player at this stage, but Coleman's long speed and skill outside makes the rookie too compelling for the Falcons to keep on the bench unless he struggles to return to form physically or conceptually after the injury.
A slow return could happen, but fantasy owners looking for an opportunity to buy low on a running back should consider Coleman as a second player in a larger deal where they feel good enough about the first player that they may be on the "losing end" of the deal if Coleman busts, but it won't be a complete catastrophe.
RB Charles Sims: Doug Martin looked great against the Panthers and that same burst and agility has been present all season. Sims has also looked quick and agile. He's not as rugged as Martin, but he's making plays. I'm confident that Sims could produce for the Buccaneers if given lead back touches. I'm not as bullish on Tampa's offensive line, but the NFC South is a weaker division and Sims can be had at a low price while still providing borderline flex production behind Martin.
WR Michael Floyd: There's room for three receivers in this offense. Floyd drew two defensive pass interference penalties in this game and he was underthrown on a target in the end zone on the second drive. I don't know if Larry Fitzgerald's production will fade--I'd bet against it because the slot work is easy exploitation of opposing defenses--but I'm betting that the passing game continues to heat up. I'm encouraged by the time this offensive line is giving Carson Palmer and guard Mike Iupati just returned from injury. If you're going to buy multiple shares in a passing game this year, the Cardinals is a smart bet to consider.
Andre Ellington: He'll be healthy soon and as well as Chris Johnson is playing, Ellington could find himself back in the starting lineup with Johnson injury. I doubt you'll be able to buy low on Ellington now, but it's worth a try. Wait another 3-5 weeks and Ellington might be available for even less, if he's not already on your waiver wire as a preemptive pickup. Another Iupati note: He was dominating the middle on zone runs and that's not easy to do against the Rams' line.
High-risk, High-Reward: WR Tavon Austin
Austin has appeared more comfortable and the Rams more comfortable with using Austin since the season began. The production has climbed in recent weeks and Week 4 was an explosion of activity. Thank Todd Gurley.
The rookie running back offers the perfect complement to the high-leverage opportunities that the Rams want to give Austin. The former West Virginia hybrid runner/receiver is a patient runner with good hands, but he's not a great runner between the tackles or master technician with routes. Gurley's presence allows Austin to thrive with what he does best because opposing defenses must place extra attention on the rookie runner's tremendous skillset.
End arounds are now harder for defenses to pursue too early for fear of Gurley gashing them up the middle. Austin's catch on a deep cross was the product of play action that should continue to yield opportunities for Nick Foles to throw this slow-developing route with accuracy. Austin was also on teh receiving end of a screen on the perimeter that was set up by Gurley's presence.
Just as I think Ted Ginn Jr's yardage production dictates Greg Olsen's production, I think Gurley's presence and productivity will influence Austin's performances. I'd take the chance on Austin, because Gurley is the real deal.
IDP Rookie: Giants DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa
I affectionately call him Godzilla, because his play flashes skills that make you picture monsters sacking cities like they're Legolands. Odighizuwa saw his first regular season playing time in Buffalo and accumulated two tackles. The total doesn't accurately portray the burst, motor, and skill that the rookie showed on the field.
The Giants fan site Big Blue Review, refers to Odighizuwa as "the sleeper everyone knew about". My friend and colleague Eric Stoner wrote a piece about pass-rushing prospects that is well worth your time if you're in an IDP dynasty league and it includes thoughts on the Giants' end.
Draft Breakdown's John Owning and I also profiled Odighizuwa for the RSP Film Room:
The rookie has the skills and frame that could take him a development trajectory similar to Justin Tuck. That's not bad at all.
Futures: Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell
Think Justin Blackmon's talent without the alcohol problem or potentially a Michael Irvin-type of physical receiver with big-play ability in the right scheme. This RSP Boiler Room episode profiles Treadwell's developing skills as a craftsman at the position.
Futures: Check-in with Teddy Bridgewater And The Vikings
Minnesota's quarterback has under-performed for those expecting sleeper fantasy production. The loss of center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt hurt the Vikings offense and it shows on the field. After watching Bridgewater take the Broncos to the wire in Denver, I think this team is facing a conundrum in 2015: The line can't protect Bridgewater when they throw from the scheme design that's most comfortable for it's best player, Adrian Peterson.
The future Hall of Fame runner operates best from the I-formation, but without sound pass protection Bridgewater cannot take execute the play-action game without a defender in his face. Denver's front with Von Miller and Demarcus Ware are the extreme example, but we also saw Minnesota struggle mightily against the 49ers.
I charted the Vikings-Broncos game and here is some of what I found:
- 26 attempts from shotgun with a drop of 3 steps or less and 6 of those attempts resulting in significant pressure or a sack.
- 11 attempts with a 5-step drop and 5 of those attempts resulting in significant pressure or a sack.
- 5 attempts with a 7-step drop and 2 of those attempts resulting in significant pressure.
- Denver had 7 total sacks and a game-ending fumble.
The Vikings tried to quell the rush with the use of Kyle Rudolph at the line of scrimmage or the in the backfield, but he failed multiple times to either A) make the correct diagnosis of whom to block or B) execute a useful block against pressure. Adrian Peterson also failed miserably twice as a pass protector.
The Minnesota line was even worse, failing to correctly handle overload blitzes to a side and it meant unblocked defenders were within two yards of Bridgewater before the quarterback even finished his drops. The fact that Minnesota was in this game until the end was a testament to the improvement of the defense and Bridgwater's ability to avoid nearly half of the potential sacks coming his way.
Bridgewater isn't on Russell Wilson's level of elusiveness, but what he did to get the ball off or even delay some of the sacks he took was impressive. The fact that Bridgewater's touchdown pass to Mike Wallace from inside the Denver 5 was a 7-step drop from shotgun should tell you how frequently and timely pressure reached Bridgewater.
Peterson didn't perform will from the gun against the 49ers. This week, he ran four plays from his formation and had gains of 5,3,2, and 4 yards. This wasn't a bad output and it could mean that Peterson is getting more accustomed to running from this alignment even if it's off-stated that he better with a starting point deep in the backfield that I-sets and single-back formations offer.
This week, Peterson's gains from the I or single backs sets weren't as efficient from play to play as his work from shotgun: 2,-1,-1,3,-2,3,8,1,-1, and a 47-yard score. If you isolate the three I-back runs to the inside left of the line you could argue this was the most productive area for Peterson.
This game didn't give any conclusive indications about Peterson's comfort level of I vs. shotgun, but if the statements are true then Peterson will need to get comfortable from the gun if the Vikings have any hope for a passing game while it's missing its key linemen up front.
I have concerns that Bridgewater operating in an offense where he's exposed to pressure of this kind for a prolonged will stunt his growth. Based on the amount of check-downs he's forced to make and the fact that he's struggling to hit deep throws, much less attempt them, there are good arguments that he's becoming the next Alex Smith. But Smith was not this good under pressure nor this poised early in his career.
This year may be a wash for Bridgewater, but there's still hope that a better offensive line will help him make the next step in 2016.