DeMarco Murray was one of the most hotly-debated players during draft season this year.
The NFL's rushing leader in 2014 had switched teams during the offseason, joining the Philadelphia Eagles after spending last season behind the Dallas Cowboys' dominant offensive line. Murray is a running back who is still in his prime, going to an offense that has proven to be a high-powered one since Chip Kelly took over. The hesitation surrounding Murray was three-fold.
Firstly, he was joining a team with a much less-talented offensive line than the one he had played behind previously. The Eagles still had Jason Peters at left tackle, Jason Kelce at center and Lane Johnson at right tackle, but each guard spot was a concern after the departure of Evan Mathis. Murray had benefited from excess time and space between the tackles and behind the line of scrimmage last year that he wouldn't get this year.
Secondly, Murray was coming off a season when he had over 500 touches when you include preseason, regular season and post-season touches. Murray's record-breaking season had undoubtedly come at a physical cost as his body was repeatedly pounded under that kind of workload. That wasn't the only concern though because Murray had durability question marks in previous seasons and 2014 was his only big season in Dallas.
Thirdly, Murray was joining a backfield that also featured Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Mathews and Sproles are both better receiving options than Murray. Murray had no chance of taking snaps away from Sproles on passing downs, but Mathews' running ability was going to cost him rushing attempts also because the running back is an extremely talented player whose career has been marred by injuries.
During his debut, these concerns all became problems.
Murray lost snaps and touches to both Mathews and Sproles. Incredibly, he touched the ball just 12 times(eight carries and four receptions). When he did get the ball, he couldn't create yards between the tackles. Murray's eight rushing attempts created nine yards and most of those came on outside runs past right tackle. The running back wasn't a focal point of Chip Kelly's offense so he didn't act as a feature back or carry the load.
Yet, while all those concerns became problems, they weren't big problems. Murray still finished the game with two touchdowns despite touching the ball just 12 times. Kelly got carried away with his new-look passing game, throwing the ball over 50 times and almost completely ignoring the running game. When he did run it, he worked away from his biggest advantage, All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters against rookie edge defender Vic Beasley Jr.
Such is the value of being just a part of Kelly's offense. Murray had a quiet game but still found the end zone because of how dangerous the unit as a whole is. He could have easily had another, but Ryan Mathews was given the goal-line carry that led to the team's third touchdown.
Considering how much the franchise invested in Murray during the offseason, it seems unlikely that they don't plan on giving him the ball. In this game specifically, Kelly clearly lost focus as a play-caller and his gameplan became imbalanced as a result. While he has a track record of doing that kind of thing on occasion, a commitment to running the ball is very much a part of his identity and always has been. This should be the worst case of imbalanced play-calling that the Eagles face this season.
Therefore, Murray survived his most disastrous situation with what was still a relatively strong fantasy performance. When the Eagles review the tape of this game, they will understand that their interior offensive line play needs to be better but that they also need to show a greater commitment to getting Murray touches.
As he showed on Monday night, his talent is still obvious.
Even though Murray won't find space as easily this year as he did last season, it doesn't mean that he is in a situation that will handicap him. His blocking, particularly on the edges, should be good enough to allow him to be productive with good decision-making and quick cuts. That is what he did on this play, the lone run outside left tackle from the game. Murray pushes the play towards the sideline initially before perfectly timing his cut back infield behind his pulling guard. His vision and timing to recognize and properly adjust to what happened in front of him was highlighted by his fleet footwork to quickly skip upfield.
Murray was creating yards between the tackles when given the ball up the middle by running hard. That is what makes him such a valuable running back, he can be creative in different areas on different play designs. While his production was limited last night, it was also made to look a lot worse by his first carry of the game, a carry that resulted in -12 yards.
He also had a 19-yard run around right tackle that was negated by multiple penalties.
That 19-yard negated run was the same play as Murray scored his 8-yard touchdown on. This time it was blocked without incident and the spacing of the offense allowed Murray to get to the goal line without being touched. The running back's acceleration was evident on this play. How Kelly spreads out defenses and threatens them in multiple ways from the same formation will afford Murray an abnormal number of runs such as this one where he simply has to sprint to a spot. He didn't really have to read the defense or set up any blocks to be successful.
It would be easy to argue that this game justified the skepticism that surrounded Murray entering the year. He wasn't heavily involved in the offense and if that continues he's unlikely to find the end zone at the same rate.
Being famililar with Kelly's past makes it a positive indicator though. Last season, the Eagles ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing attempts per game. With hindsight, we know that Kelly wasn't happy with LeSean McCoy's performances during that time also, so it's fair to think that with a back he prefers he is more likely to run the ball even more often. In 2013, when McCoy was playing better football, the Eagles ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and ran the ball 31.2 times per game, one of only four teams to rush more than 31 times per game.
While Murray was used less than expected in Week 1, nobody expected Darren Fells to have as big of a role as he did in the Arizona Cardinals offense.
Bruce Arians has been in the NFL for a long time now. For much of that time he has been an offensive coordinator and/or a head coach. Arians is known for getting the most out of two positions, quarterbacks and wide receivers. Tight ends have never been a focal point of Arians' offense in terms of receptions. Instead, he has primarily employed players who are better suited to be key blockers in the running game. That is reflected by his franchsie spending a second-round pick on Troy Niklas in the 2014 draft and the signing of Jermaine Gresham in the offseason when the depth chart was lacking options.
One of the options on taht depth chart was Fells. Fells is a 29-year old former basketball player who has been in the NFL since 2013. He couldn't make the Seattle Seahawks roster out of training camp that year before landing with the Arizona Cardinals on their practice squad. He made the active roster in 2014, but only caught five passes for 71 yards in 10 games. His 6'7",281 lb frame made him an interesting player, but his age, limited experience and landing spot negated that.
Against the New Orleans Saints last weekend, Fells outperformed all expectations. He had a favorable matchup entering the game, but with Michael Floyd returning from injury and a plethora of other receiving options spread through the offense, the tight end spot wasn't supposed to produce like it did.
Fells' first reception was a simple checkdown. He was eight yards downfield and left uncovered by the play call of the defense. When he caught the ball though, he squared up to a defensive back and beat him past his inside shoulder for a first down. He dragged the defender further downfield to extend the play. It was an impressive play, but only a prelude to his second reception. A reception that was significant for a variety of reasons.
This play accounts for 48 of Fells 82 yards on the day. The athleticism he showed off at his size was astounding. He was not only able to run his slant route comfortably, but he was also able to hit full speed quickly before fending off safety Rafael Bush while on the move. More important than anything Fells did was what Arians did. On 3rd-and-2, he drew up a play that was designed to go to his tight end. He could have simply lined up a wide receiver in that spot, but Fellls stayed on the field and was trusted to make the reception.
Arians hasn't completely ignored his tight ends in the past, but drawing up plays for them on specific downs isn't something you'd typically expect of him. When he had Heath Miller in Pittsburgh, he was more likely to throw to the tight end but Miller didn't have the same explosiveness that Fells showed off on this play so it was less significant for fantasy owners.
While Fells did everything perfectly on this play, it wasn't a difficult reception to make. It was the one thing left out. Fortunately, he was soon afforded an opportunity to show off his ball skills in a tougher spot.
For his 17-yard touchdown reception, Fells lines up in a tight end spot and runs a corner route against linebacker David Hawthorne who is in man coverage. He shows off his athleticism but also makes a subtle move to bump into Hawthorne as he enters his break to create separation outside. Once there, Carson Palmer throws an accurate pass for him to catch. While the pass is accurate, it's not in Fells' chest. He has to lean down and make a hands reception while moving at full tilt. His ability to control his balance and feet to finish inside the pylon is just as impressive as his soft hands to pluck the ball out of the air.
Adding to the long line of former basketball players plying their trade as tight ends in the NFL appears to have been added to.
The question for fantasy owners is how productive can Fells be. Individually, he appears to be very talented. However, consistency is a major concern and it's still unlikely that Arians decides to fully embrace the tight end position based on what he has done in the past. Fells should be rostered, but starting him at this point on a weekly basis will take some courage.
Other Thoughts from the Tape
Don't expect James Jones to go anywhere. He is still a good wide receiver who obviously has an established rapport with Aaron Rodgers. Jones may not create a huge amount of separation, but he never did. His value comes at the catch point, an area where he can still dominate defensive backs on a regular basis. How the New York Giants kept Preston Parker over him I'll never know.
Speaking of older receivers, Andre Johnson was receiving a lot of criticism during the Bills-Colts game in Week 1. Johnson is old so the threat of a sudden drop-off in quality is prevalent, but it wasn't evident physically. The whole Colts offense was bad during that game. Johnson looked fine running his routes, even if a little uncomfortable with his new team.
Carlos Hyde's huge production in Week 1 may be an abnormality when we look back over the season. The Vikings clearly didn't play to their ability and the odd timing on Monday night during the opening week double-header can do that to teams. In spite of that, Hyde still looked a lot better than most expected. His strength to break tackles and ferocity attacking contact was very impressive.
Marcus Mariota is ready to be productive in the NFL. It obviously won't be like it was in Week 1 again, but Mariota's skill set translates to the NFL and he should be consistent within Ken Whisenhunt's offense. Whisenhunt adjusted his playbook just the right amount to get the most out of the quarterback without oversimplifying his offense. Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker have immediately benefited and should continue to throughout the year.
On the other side of this game, Jameis Winston's problems are likely to continue. Winston landed in an awful situation, especially when Mike Evans is sidelined, but his decision-making and arm strength look to be big concerns also. Until he sorts out his mechanics, interceptions are going to be a constant issue as NFL defensive backs are too quick to let fluttering passes get by them consistently.
Nick Foles made a better-than-expected debut for the St. Louis Rams. Foles had clearly defined reads and did much of his best work off of play action. There were still signs of his inaccuracy and panic against pressure, but he was able to produce by making some throws against front-side pressure to wide open receivers. Even though this game came against one of the better defenses in the league, it's unlikely that Foles sustains this level of play based on what he's done throughout his career to this point.
Tyrod Taylor can sustain his success with the Buffalo Bills. Taylor isn't benefiting froma gimmicky offense or being over-reliant on specific areas of his skill set. He's making plays from theb pocket and using his legs when he should use his legs. He's never likely to put up huge numbers, but his production should be consistently solid. It will be especially so when Sammy Watkins is more involved.
Unsurprisingly, DeAndre Hopkins is going to be productive no matter who is throwing him the ball in Houston. For the sake of the Texans, hopefully it will be Ryan Mallett. Hopkins and Brandon Marshall were the standout players from last weekend in terms of receivers playing with bad quarterbacks. Marshall looked better than he did all last season as his health is where it should be.
Julio Jones exposed the Philadelphia Eagles secondary as fraudulent in Week 1. Jones should continue to be a dominant player in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but that shouldn't excuse the poor play from the Eagles cornerbacks. Byron Maxwell isn't built to be a number one starter who plays against better receivers in space. The luxuries afforded to him by Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman are no longer there to carry his limited skill set.