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The Top 10 could be the Top 12 or Top 15 every week. Here are some short points and late cuts that didn't make the featured segments:
- Is the light coming on for Jamaal Williams? I think it might and I'll share what I'm seeing in this week's Gut Check.
- Dez Bryant looked healthy. Bryant ran some excellent routes against good cover corners on Sunday afternoon. This hard break is a good example that his leg issues aren't major. Concerns about his health should take far less precedence to concerns about Tyron Smith's health (see Fresh Fish).
- Alfred Morris looked good. Unless fantasy owners have a spot available for stashing an upside player with little weekly value, Rod Smith doesn't belong on shallow rosters. Morris had several strong gains behind this Cowboys line during the third quarter.
- Tevin Coleman looks better, but... Coleman is getting better at making cuts that match the demands of a zone scheme running back. But he's not Devonta Freeman, who can routinely turn the lemons of great defensive penetration into the lemonade of positive gains. While Freeman is out, expect big plays from Coleman but also expect more losses and a less efficient stat line.
- Has Randall Cobb lost a step? I don't have a clear answer, but this slant where he's run down by the linebacker caught my eye. If you're observant, there's a play later in this column involving Adam Thielen where a linebacker runs him down, but that linebacker is Zach Brown, who is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. If Cobb is, does it matter? I'm not so sure. See below.
- What happened to Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette? Gordon wasn't as efficient on a per-carry basis as the Chargers likely desired from him early in the game. He made that one extra move without success on enough carries that when the Chargers fell behind, the offense went with UDFA Austin Ekeler. When Ekeler got hot in the passing game and made some decisive runs, the Chargers stuck with the hot hand until Ekeler fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter deep in Chargers' territory and allowed the Jaguars back into the game. At that point, the Chargers returned to Gordon. Fournette earned reasonable volume early but when the Jaguars fell behind, the team turned to T.J. Yeldon's third-down prowess. I wouldn't worry about Gordon or Fournette's outlook based on this game.
- Austin Ekeler's performance explained: Ekeler scored twice on receptions up the right sideline. The first was a strong tightrope of the boundary through a defender's reach of his pads. The second was a rub route where Keenan Allen was working up the field on a defender playing tight to Allen over top. Ekeler worked under Allen and that over top defender engaged Allen as linebacker Telvin Smith Sr chased Ekeler from the inside and ran into Allen. Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton was the broadcast analyst for CBS' coverage of the game and he believed Allen should have been called for an illegal pick. Allen engaged another defender and therefore, Smith ran into a player who was clearly playing a different man and had no responsibility to avoid Smith. Either way, Ekeler's game was consistent and efficient, but nothing special. He's a short, versatile back with vision who can hide between the tackles and make plays in space, but he's not overtaking a healthy Gordon.
On to the main course.
1. Vikings defense: Playoff Approved
Now that the Seahawks have lost Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are nicked-up, the Vikings might be the best defense in the NFC. This might have been the case even before the slew of Seattle injuries.
When a defense can defend sideline-to-sideline, rush the passer, limit yards after the catch, and anticipate routes with the consistency and of this trio, offenses have a difficult time against them and that's before introducing shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes to the mix. There are also several underrated players on this unit.
Andrew Sendejo broke up two potential touchdown receptions in this game. It's not the first time I've seen Sendejo contribute at this level.
Then there's the Vikings front four. We often cite Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, but even a rotational player like defensive tackle Tom Johnson has authored big plays. This tackle-for-loss on Chris Thompson on a 4th and 1 late in the game was a huge play that began with him beating Pro-Bowl guard Brandon Scherff.
If this defense stays healthy and the offense can play consistent, smart football with its offensive talent, the Vikings could be for real. Thanks to a two-game lead over Detroit and Green Bay, Minnesota could also run away with this division if not for a more difficult schedule down the stretch than the Lions and Packers.
The offense could be the greatest source of late-season drama and fantasy owners will also feel its impact. I'll have more about this in a moment, but I wanted to set the stage with the prowess of this defensive unit to underscore forthcoming points.
2. Adam Thielen, Juju Smith-Schuster, Allen Hurns, and evaluating Wide receivers
Ana, a regular listener of The Audible, told me that she thinks fantasy owners go through various stages of development.They begin the hobby thinking that they can win based on their own football knowledge.
Most learn that they lack the time and resources to get the actionable information they need when facing other football-knowledgeable competition. This often leads to subscribing to a fantasy information and strategy service (a site, a magazine, consultants, etc.).
Eventually, they realize that they must expand their knowledge across all possible areas that overlap with fantasy football. The draft is one of those realms because rookies or slower-developing players are often the most underrated values.
Whether its fantasy or reality, there's often great variation with how we evaluate the wide receiver position. There are three different roles that the wide receiver position encompasses and they require different skill sets. Different offenses place different values on those roles, which often equates to different production.
However, fantasy owners often try to apply a one-size-fits-all process for evaluating all three roles — if a receiver doesn't match the physical skills of A.J. Green or Mike Evans, he doesn't have a notable future until he has proven that his production overcomes his size and speed.
It's often why the 40-yard dash is a misunderstood tool for evaluating wide receiver play. The 40 measures a player's top gear over a distance that can flip the field for an offense or defense. It's an important layer for determining the vertical prowess of a receiver, but it's not the only thing that matters.
Bill Walsh argued that the most important physical displays of "speed" where short-area acceleration and quickness within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Jerry Rice had plenty of success as a vertical receiver with a 4.6-second 40-yard dash because Walsh properly identified that Rice was a special athlete within the first 10-15 yards of a play.
This fit Walsh's specific offensive needs for a receiver, but it also still fits the schemes of every offense in pro football. Route running is linked to the way quarterbacks read the field in a timing passing game. When that route running faces man coverage, quarterbacks need a quick visual indicator that the receiver is open or in the position to break open. Otherwise, he won't target the receiver.
That visual indicator does not come at 20, 30, or 40 yards from the line of scrimmage. It comes from the first 10-15 yards. It means that initial quickness and change of direction speed are the most important physical elements to route running for 90 percent of the routes in football. Even "slower" receivers according to their 40-times have been successful vertical receivers against faster defenders because they earn and maintain that separation won within the first 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Adam Thielen is an excellent example. Thielen has several successful vertical plays in his NFL portfolio during his three-year career. However, his ability to earn separation within the first 10-15 yards is the most valuable asset for this receiver with 4.5-speed.
Maintaining one's focus on the target when facing tight coverage and tracking the football are also important factors. Many draft analysts who do multi-year rankings regarded JuJu Smith-Schuster as the top prospect at the position heading into 2017 but dropped him on their boards when they saw evidence that he lacked great vertical speed.
There was nothing wrong with them dropping Smith-Schuster from the top spot because those spots are often reserved for future primary options. If they didn't think he could be that kind of player, I respect that. I didn't think so. However, there's a difference between dropping Smith-Schuster's value and believing he wasn't good enough to be a starting NFL receiver.
This is where many inexperienced football writers and fantasy owners make a mistake. Speed isn't a commodity where faster is directly proportional to better. Speed, acceleration, and quickness, are baselines and they have values that are different based on the other physical and technical skills of the player and the projected role of that player.
Smith-Schuster's size, speed, and quickness made him a good blend of a flanker who could also play in the slot. The Steelers learned that Smith-Schuster was savvy enough to learn both the flanker and the slot responsibilities of the offense and we're seeing that play out with his production.
Smith-Schuster's focus also translates to courage and toughness, which are important qualities to assess. Some call this an intangible, but measuring the player's success on targets with a true threat of a collision is trackable.
This type of in-air adjustment with a threat of a safety over top is one of the reasons I liked Allen Hurns.
Hurns also displays a strong in-game awareness that isn't lost even when he suffers an injury after a physical play. He hurts his ankle while somersaulted on this fourth-quarter crossing route and instead of laying there, he crawls off the field to save his team a timeout.
This awareness also extends to plays that extend beyond what's drawn-up. Here's Thielen demonstrating this awareness on a scramble drill with Josh Norman in coverage, a defender he beat repeatedly this weekend for a huge fantasy effort.
This isn't some dramatic physical effort that got people excited about Justin Hunter or Stephen Hill when they were college stars. However, these small details are just as impactful. Thielen's awareness to slide inside far enough to work open, but not too far to get covered up by another defender is as subtle and important as the difference between Brett Hundley hopping into the pass rush and Tom Brady taking a controlled step towards the rush but having room to throw the ball on-target.
So is the position of Thielen's hands and his ability to extend and catch with a defender's arm across his line of sight at the last moment. These displays of focus are quantifiable and more important than running fast in a straight line. They also get you closer to determine where that player fits in the NFL instead of a simple "yes/no" on if he fits.
Thielen, a UDFA from Mankato, has grown into a reliable fantasy starter with elite-game upside. So has his teammate, Stefon Diggs. This pair and the reliable Kyle Rudolph constitute a versatile and well-rounded receiving corps.
Throw in a much-improved offensive line that didn't allow a sack of Case Keenum in Week 10 and road graded the right side of the Washington defense for the emerging Jerick McKinnon and healthier Latavius Murray, and the Vikings look like a fantasy powerhouse down the stretch.
There is one potential kink that could sustain, elevate, or deteriorate this fantasy-rich environment...
3. Vikings Quarterback situation
Keenum had a much bigger day against Washington than I anticipated. In hindsight, it makes sense: Washington performed well against Seattle, but the defense still gave up a lot of production to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks lack the Vikings' run-pass balance. If I thought about it in those terms, I would have recommended Keenum with enthusiasm.
Even so, Teddy Bridgewater's promotion to the active roster poses a valid question about Keenum's short-term outlook as the starter. Mike Zimmer told the FOX broadcast crew that Bridgewater will eventually return as the Vikings' starting quarterback. The question is whether it's this year or next.
Keenum performed well enough during the first two-and-a-half quarters that it's easy to see how he could retain the job throughout the year and a potential playoff run. He knows the offense, he sets up the run game well enough with his pre-snap decisions, he's aggressive downfield, and he can buy time and find the open man. His rapport with his receivers on vertical routes is also strong.
If he loses his starting role, I'm betting against Keenum's missteps with pre-snap/post-snap changes and late-game management. Keenum allowed back-to-back interceptions to D.J. Swearinger Sr and allowed Washington back into this game. The first was a play where Keenum didn't see Swearinger change his position, and it altered how Keenum should have gauged the coverage of the route to the tight end.
Once Keenum lifted his leg to call for the snap, he didn't take a second look to the right side and missed the adjustment. Even long-term starters make this mistake. However, good starters also do a better job of managing mistakes and not compounding them with unnecessary recklessness.
This is the type of play that we weren't as likely to see from Bridgewater whereas Keenum has made this kind of error multiple times during his career with the Rams and Texans.
A talented squad on both sides of the ball with a two-game lead in the division but a schedule that includes the Rams, Falcons, Panthers, Bengals, Lions, and Packers, if Keenum's performance costs this team a victory or two, I'm betting we see Bridgewater. With the Rams and Lions up next, a 0-2 stretch will do it. So will a 1-3 stretch against the Rams, Lions, and Falcons.
If Keenum and the Vikings go 2-1 or 3-0, Bridgewater will only serve as an injury substitute barring a complete Keenum meltdown afterward.
4. Robert Woods
I apologize. I don't think I ever mentioned Woods during the past five weeks despite adding him to rosters between Weeks 4-6 as a player of note. I presumed most of you knew he was a quality receiver and my coverage of Jared Goff during that time would mean that you'd make the connection if you saw him available on your waiver wire.
My pre-draft thoughts on Woods from the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio still resonate with his game:
Compared to his peers in this 2013 wide receiver draft class, Robert Woods has a “quiet game.” The USC Trojan is an average-sized receiver with good quickness, but his measurements as an athlete is nothing special. Yet, Woods is one of the best prospects at his position – a wide receiver class that I contend is a deep one.
I think where we often miss with prospect evaluation – whether you’re a scout, media, proponent of data mining/analytics , or a fan – is the notion that stronger-faster-quicker-taller is better. I have been gradually arriving at the perspective that Combine measurements are best used as a baseline: Does the player have the minimum strength-speed-quickness-size to compete in the NFL?
The level of these qualities only come into play once you can feel comfortable with the conceptual and technical promise of this player at his position. Otherwise, you just have a tall, strong, fast, and quick player trying to play his position and failing in dramatic fashion.
Robert Woods may have a quiet game as an athlete but just like music, some of the most stirring moments are the quietest.
What most people overlooked about Woods was his deep speed. Marqise Lee played the game-breaker role with the Trojans and Sammy Watkins with the Bills. However, Woods has the speed to get vertical and the playmaking to play more than one role.
Ari Ingel made a humorous but telling assessment of the Rams receivers, stating that Watkins and Woods have switched roles from their years with the Bills. This is true for 2017. Although there are differences in the details, Woods knows the offense better and he's the primary whereas Watkins has a supporting role.
Watkins is also versatile enough to work the entire route tree in a way that some vertical types are not. If this pair can stay in L.A. long-term, this offense could be special. If not, Josh Reynolds is a talent that I would not underestimate.
Although the Saints and Cardinals are a tough pair of matchups, Watkins will likely draw the toughest corner from each unit. Look for Woods to remain steady, if not spectacular down the stretch. Philadelphia, Seattle's depleted secondary, and Tennessee are a promising fantasy playoff schedule.
5. Saints Ground game with Jet sweep ghost-action
Sean Payton was one of the first NFL coaches to adopt the ghost-action of a receiver working across the line of scrimmage during the quarterback's exchange with a runner. I remember them doing this with Devery Henderson years ago.
While this form of window dressing has been helpful to teams across the league, the Saints are not a gimmick run offense. This is a physical team that often uses I formation and single back sets to pound teams into submission. Mark Ingram had several runs where he earned downhill momentum into the soften-up spot of the defense.
The Saints look closer to Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers before Brees got traded to New Orleans than the offense we're used to seeing. Either way, Brees can work with it. Ladies and Gentleman, the NFL South will be an exciting division for the next six weeks and with meaningful games for these teams, there will be no rest for your Saints, Falcons, or Panthers.
Hundley's problems have always been about the footwork. I've written about this when I originally scouted him. He can be too quick and uncontrolled with his pocket movement and that lack of precision in situations where he should hitch puts him too close to defenders in the pocket and forces him to drop his eyes. My friends are looking at the end result, but they aren't looking at the root issue.
The Packers said that Hundley's footwork had gotten much better, but this was in practice and away from the public eye. Thus far, we're seeing some instances where that footwork deteriorates to the Hundley of old. There's a fine line between urgency and panic. I've seen enough of him to believe it's unrefined urgency rather than panic, especially when the context of this particular example includes three reads and good decisions not to throw any of them.
Talking with a scout today about Hundley who has a background as a defensive back, he looked at this example upon my request and agrees with the assessment above. I also broached the idea that when we consider the downfield throws Hundley delivered against the Vikings in tight coverage, the ultra-conservative first-half play calls against the Lions, and McCarthy's halftime comments that Hundley did everything as asked, it's likely that McCarthy has had a heavy hand in coaching Hundley not to make a mistake and forgo his best traits for now in favor of protecting the football.
This scout agreed:
"It's a risk of coaching guys too strongly to 'protect the ball'' they start getting gun shy and it takes some of Hundley's best attributes to the background...There are better examples of Hundley's struggles but that play wasn't terrible."
I think the Packers believed it could run on the Lions and gradually open up the game plan for Hundley, but that never materialized. McCarthy commented to the Monday Night Football broadcast crew that he'd be 'taking the training wheels off Hundley' this week, but it's interesting to me that he put them on in the first place.
It appears that Hundley's performance against the Vikings is a false positive of things to come because he's been asked to be super cautious. The garbage-time potential still remains, but the high upside that comes with a quarterback who has the confidence and support to attack early won't be there.
This weekend, Hundley was given the okay to work downfield and make tight-window throws. The results, like the Vikings game, were encouraging.
Here's an example of footwork in the pocket that I've expected to see from Hundley when the staff commented that the quarterbacks' footwork was "night and day" better after his rookie season.
There were still plays where Hundley reverts to undisciplined reactions, which is natural for a first-year starter playing his third game.
Despite some of these issues, Mike McCarthy didn't go ultra-conservative when the game was on the line. He put the ball in Hundley's hands and let him be aggressive in a meaningful situation.
Hundley may not finish as a consistent low-end QB1, but his overall production hasn't been bad. He's also demonstrated improvement from Week 9 to Week 10. The fact that he made plays within a high range of difficulty is another encouraging sign. He may not be ready to support Jordy Nelson, but there's a rapport with Devante Adams that's worth some optimism.
7. Don't sleep on Perine
While true that his fumbles progressed beyond overrated concern to a true problem, Samaje Perine continues to flash the skills that could make him a lead back in the NFL. Thanks to his ball security and Chris Thompson's healthy year, Perine will likely be the change of pace even if he fits the conventional dimensions of a lead back better than Thompson.
Even so, there's compelling evidence not only to stick with Perine long-term but consider him as a flex-option or reserve for your fantasy squads down the stretch.
The quickness, agility, vision, balance, and power are all on display with these clips. So is his ability to catch the football. The question mark is Jay Gruden's confidence in Perine to hang onto the football.
While not a major problem at Oklahoma, he had some issues where his minor issues with technique were exploited and that became magnified as a rookie. It also hurt his confidence and compounded the problem. With Rob Kelley dealing with a high ankle sprain and a partially torn MCL, Perine has a true shot to earn a major long-term role with a strong finish this year.
I believe in patience with players who make mistakes early in their career. Perine's successful plays indicate he deserves it.
8. where Mitchell trubisky must grow up
Trubisky's management of plays when backed up in his own territory was dicey at North Carolina and so far, he's experiencing a similar lack of maturity in Chicago. Trubisky takes too long to come off the deeper look or at worst, ignores the flat option for that deep look when he has a clear read of open field in the flat for easy yards.
The best NFL quarterbacks maintain a balanced understanding of when to be aggressive and when to take the easy play. This was a situation for the easy play and Trubisky turned it into a difficult task.
It's not remotely a death-knell for his development. It is a layer of information that indicates Trubisky not only lacks the surrounding talent to deliver this year, he's not in a place as a passer to deliver consistent production.
Wait til next year and reassess.
9. Why Jalen Ramsey is good
I could answer this in so many ways, but the one quality that stands out to me is his patience. Cornerbacks assigned to man coverage must display patience.
With the exception of maybe Darrelle Revis in his prime, it doesn't matter how fast or strong you are as a defensive back, if you overreact to a receiver within the 10-15 yards, you're toast. Here's a Patriots cornerback with 4.33 speed matched up with Emmanuel Sanders last night. He's toast within the first 10 yards.
Keenan Allen isn't as fast as Sanders, but he was one of the quickest prospects of his class. As I mentioned above, quickness matters more than long speed when it comes to most routes. It means that cornerbacks must display patience and timing with when to react to a receiver on a route.
It also means that the defender must have an idea of the type of routes that a receiver might run. Ramsey does an excellent job displaying patience and timing against one of the best third-down receivers in football, who is also regarded as one of the better receivers against press-man.
Pay close attention to what I say about Ramsey's footwork after Allen's jab-step at the top of the receiver's stem.
Ramseys' technique, timing, and footwork are all on display because the core factor of his patience puts him in position to make a play.
10. FRESH FISH
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," I provide my weekly short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up. This week, I'm beginning with a Catch of The Week. This player doesn't pose a great match-up advantage for your team. H headlines this list because of a gaffe that couldn't have changed the fortunes of a team with a real shot of clinching a playoff berth.
That player is Jaguars receiver, Marqise Lee. The Jaguars beat the Chargers in an improbable sequence of plays that began with the Chargers committing a delay of game penalty that moved the attempt five yards closer for Josh Lambo. The former Chargers kicker saw his attempt partially blocked by Adrian Phillips but it still managed to somehow lurch over the crossbar for the game-winner.
This sequence might not have happened if Lee, who was targeted in the end zone after Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson, recovered an Austin Ekeler fumble, didn't act like a fool. Lee took a hit from a defender on the tight-window target and hopped to his feet so he could taunt one of them with a goofy dance in celebration of a presumed unnecessary roughness call.
The defender's hit was close enough to Lee's helmet that it was safe to presume a flag might fall for hitting a defenseless receiver. This would put the Jaguars inside the Chargers five and increase the chances of a go-ahead score. Instead, Lee's dance led to a taunting foul and backed up Jacksonville, forcing a game-tying field goal and forced overtime.
If not for the Jaguars A.J. Bouye's fantastic interception (and return) of a Philip Rivers pass that set up the game-winning field goal, Lee could have been one of the goats of this game. Speaking of which, Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin's taunting foul during the interception return to the Chargers' one, backed the spot of the ball to the 22 and also set this improbable sequence of events in place.
I understand if anyone looks at the hit above and criticizes the officials for not calling a penalty on the defender. However, even if it was an uncalled foul, Lee's foul still hurts his team. The Jaguars have the talent to make the playoffs, but the maturity to win in January isn't there with some of its players.
Lee is a fine talent, but its this lack of on-field maturity and awareness that I dinged him for displaying at USC. It most often showed up with his discipline as a runner in the open field and inconsistency making tough catches. It was one of the reasons his development track has been slower than expected. I'm rooting for Lee and the Jaguars, but this behavior has to change or it will cost them when the margin of error grows tighter.
- Chaz Green: The Cowboys guard moved to left tackle as All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith's replacement for the Atlanta game. Green gave up six sacks to Adrian Clayborn. While Clayborn has always been a good defensive lineman, his edge game was never his strength and a big reason he has been used as a tackle during stints with other NFL teams. Clayborn beat Green around the edge on (seemingly) every snap. It was one of the worst mismatches I've ever seen in a pro football game.
- CB Janoris Jenkins: There were at least two tackle attempts where Jenkins' effort could be legitimately called into question and both plays were longer gains. One was a touchdown.
- Atlanta Linebackers: Every week, it's the same story for this athletic crew. They are great at running to the ballcarrier IF they can locate the ballcarrier, set a good angle of approach, and play team defense without conceptual miscues. You can still expect at least one of these a week that leads to a big play for Atlanta's opponent.
- Bills Defense: The jet-sweep action to Ted Ginn Jr with a handoff or toss to Mark Ingram or Alvin Kamara fooled the Bills several times for big gains.
- Denver Special Teams: Isaiah McKenzie muffed a punt in the first quarter that led to a Rex Burkhead touchdown. The Broncos kick coverage unit gave up a 103-yard return to Dion Lewis during the same quarter. And before the half was over, the punt coverage team allowed Burkhead up the middle for a block deep in Denver territory.
As always, the league is moving fast. Don't blink...