1. Dallas offense: Building on a strength
Last year, a new neighbor moved in across the street. A warehouse manager and a Cowboys "super fan." The blue star flies at the entrance of his home on the weekends. He produces a regular Facebook show on Dallas football.
When a long-time friend of my neighbor's bashed the Boys on his Facebook feed, my neighbor was quick to remind the guy that they were great friends, but the Cowboys were his blood and he better not behave that way again with his family. Yep, that deep.
The weekend before the 2016 NFL Draft, we did the neighborly thing and hung out on his patio after some yard work and talked shop. When he asked me who I thought the Cowboys should pick in the first round, I immediately said Ezekiel Elliott.
The choice surprised him and his follow-up question included thoughts about Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and the weak state of the Cowboys' defense. What I told him is the crux of this segment on the Cowboys: When possible, it's better to build on a strength that can diminish the impact of a weakness than to directly address the weakness.
If the Cowboys spent a top pick on a defender, that young player has a much smaller likelihood of performing well immediately. Good defense requires a lot of rapport and it takes the time to generate that rapport.
Dallas' defense has too many holes for one player to join the unit and make it significantly better. There were no Lawrence Taylor's in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The strength of the Cowboys' is its offensive line. As Cian Fahey noted during the preseason, a slower and gap-oriented McFadden still managed his best season in years behind this zone-heavy line that opened holes big enough for McFadden overrun the initial approach and correct his mistakes for positive yards.
I assure you, these were problems with McFadden's vision and not a writer failing to recognize a press and cut. McFadden didn't scare opponents as much as the Dallas passing game and the adjustments opposing defenses had to make that gave any reasonably competent running back behind this Cowboys line an advantage.
Adding Elliott to the run game gave the Cowboys a runner as good as its line. It meant Dallas could consistently dictate offense with its run game immediately rather than use Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley to force that result as a game wore on.
As I told my neighbor, Elliott is like the best of McFadden and Morris combined into a single player. Compared to Morris, Elliott has equal or greater vision, footwork, balance, and power. He's more explosive than the current iteration of McFadden and bests the former Raider with his passing down skills.
Adding Elliott meant that this team could control the ball, not just hope it could gash an opponent after using the passing game to force defenses into overreacting to Romo and company. Elliott is a chain mover with game-breaking skill. McFadden is a boom-bust game-breaker. Morris is a two-down back.
I told my neighbor that Elliott would be the reason the Cowboys could build a lead, keep the opponents' offenses cold, and its defense fresh. Elliott would create offensive balance and allow both sides of the ball to dictate its game plan rather than the offense playing from behind and the defense forced out of its comfort zone.
Despite Romo and Dez Bryant getting hurt, this is what happened in Dallas—except, Elliott was the primary weapon and fellow rookie Dak Prescott and the passing game had to gradually convince opponents that the Cowboys had offensive balance. Dallas got the rookie quarterback off the ground with a gameplan designed move the chains in the passing game with high percentage passing.
This is not a fantasy boxing column. I don't even know if there's fantasy boxing. But there will be liberal references to jabs, body blows, and haymakers this week.
I didn't get lost in YouTube's treasure trove of classic fights. I've been studying explosive plays and its impact on offensive drives.
In Friday's "Best of" feature, I summarized research about explosive plays by Packers former Head of Research and Development Mike Eayrs. The NFL defines explosive plays as rushes of at least 12 yards and receptions of at least 16. These are much smaller minimums than many imagine but they matter.
When an NFL team has one explosive play of this type during the average offensive drive, it scores 29 percent of the time. When it has two, it scores 77 percent of the time. When a drive lacks a rush of 12 yards or a reception of at least 16 yards, the offensive scores only 9 percent of the time.
The general public thinks of an explosive play as bombs and breakaway runs of at least 20 yards. A 12-yard run or 16-yard reception to the average fan is an "intermediate play." But Coach Dub Maddox of Jenks High School, a top coaching mind among those in the know and the co-founder of the R4 System of offense, uses the analogy of boxing when discussing explosive plays as defined by the range in the previous paragraph.
According to Maddox, intermediate plays are like body blows in boxing that rock an opponent and forces the fighter to drop his hands, making him vulnerable to more damaging punches. Deep passes are like haymakers; they may connect without wearing down the opponent but the percentages are low and they don't usually knock the opponent out immediately. In football, those intermediate plays of at least 16 yards or runs of 12 yards are those body blows to an opposing defense.
This idea applied to a wide range of fantasy outcomes this week. First stop, Dallas.
Former players, coaches, and broadcasters praised Dak Prescott for his 25-for-45, 227-yard performance in the opener. They also complimented offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for creating an unpredictable game plan.
A lot lies beneath these two positives that may change how we view the Cowboys offense until Tony Romo returns. The analysis will explain why Jason Witten and Cole Beasley's shares are up, Ezekiel Elliott's shares are slightly down, Prescott's stock remains steady, and Dez Bryant fantasy owners will fear an implosion if this gameplan remains the same for the next few weeks.
Prescott did exactly what the Cowboys expected from him and he deserves praise for it. But don't believe for a second that Linehan created an unpredictable game plan. Troy Aikman told the nation that Linehan mixed the run and pass well, which is true, but the Giants knew where Prescott was going with the ball and they were fine with it.
The Cowboys varied their formations and alignments in ways that created a significant "either/or" decision-making table for Prescott on most passing plays: Look to the deeper routes on one side of the field, and if it's not obviously there to take, the tight end or slot receiver coming from the middle or opposite side of the field before the snap will be breaking in front of you as the check-down.
The Giants opted to cover the deeper routes and Prescott did the correct thing and checked to Jason Witten and Cole Beasley to the tune of 17 catches and 131 yards. New York made the smart decision to test the Prescott-led offense by making them win on prolonged drives. The Giants figured at least one of two things would happen in their favor:
a) Prescott would get impatient and make mistakes.
b) The Cowboys would lack enough explosive plays to make the most of its drives and the offense would bog down in the red zone.
To Prescott's credit, he didn't make any mistakes. He even had one play where he read more than two receivers with five options in the secondary.
To the Giants credit, the Cowboys settled for four field goals on three scoring drives.
The Giants realized early that if the worst-case scenario was allowing Prescott to complete passes of 8-12 yards, that these plays couldn't loosen the defense enough to force them from its game plan. Look at the box score and see it fits:
- In addition to check-down options Jason Witten and Cole Beasley accounting for over 50 percent of Prescott's output, their long gains were 17 yards and 15 yards, respectively.
- There were only five "explosive plays" for the Cowboys offense as defined by Eayrs and Prescott and company couldn't deliver more than one on a single drive.
- The gameplan held Dez Bryant to one catch for eight yards.
If Prescott was a boxer in a fight, he would have connected an impressive amount of jabs, delivered five decent body blows, and telegraphed all of is haymakers with no effect. In contrast, Eli Manning's 19-for-28, 207-yard, 3-score, 1-interception performance was like a fighter that threw few jabs but connected a lot of heavy body blows and a few haymakers. Although the interception might qualify as a knock-down, the impact of Manning's punches and his overall control of the fight proved more effective.
When taking these points into consideration, the context behind all the praise for Prescott is understandable: former players are used to rookie quarterbacks making huge mistakes. Prescott had no turnovers, he got rid of the ball efficiently, and he led five scoring drives. Good stuff for a rookie, but it doesn't change the fact that Prescott couldn't create a big-play opportunity in the vertical game and as the Giants upped its pressure in the fourth quarter, Prescott was inaccurate against the blitz.
As the season progressed and Prescott played wise football, Linehan gave Prescott more deep shots as the rapport between Prescott and his receivers grew, Elliott progressed, and the consistency of the passing game in the middle of the field generated those 16-yard explosive plays. Although these long plays were notable, what mattered most was the rookie quarterback's ability to limit fatal errors (interceptions, fumbles, and sacks).
Prescott played excellent football all year. It's a credit to him that he made conservative decisions, didn't lean too much on his athletic ability, and found ways to be creative without overstepping the bounds of the scheme. Many rookies in Prescott's situation would have found more ways to screw this good thing up with these types of mistakes.
It's why Elliott was the most talented rookie in Dallas, but why Prescott's performance was the most valuable. Balance, scheme, player fit, and good coaching helped the Cowboys dominate time of possession and dictate its offense.
Even so, if Prescott was the starting quarterback for the Rams, there wouldn't be much difference with the way the football world is criticizing Jared Goff. Prescott deserves the credit for his performance, but the Cowboys line, ground game, receivers, and staff deserve at least equal praise for creating the stage, production crew, director, and supporting actors for a performance like this to be possible.
If the quarterback is the flame for a campfire, these supporting components are the level ground, well-positions dry wood, and shelter from rain and the wind that turn the flame into a fire and help it sustain its burn. The Rams and Browns lacked this supporting structure.
Until the league figured out how to enforce its suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, the Eagles had the offensive line to make Carson Wentz a co-star with Prescott during the first quarter of the season. Once Johnson exited, we gradually saw opponents expose the weaknesses of Philadelphia's offense and the typical reactionary thoughts about quarterback mechanics filtered back into the conversation despite the fact that Wentz had these issues to begin the year.
Prescott's offensive line and skill talent remained healthy enough that the quarterback was in an ideal environment for growth. Prescott was rarely forced into spots where he had to make risky plays. When he made mistakes, the team was in a position where the rookie's errors seldom impacted the intended gameplan for the offense or defense.
Fantasy Lesson: Dallas was a rare confluence of positive factors that created a successful rookie fantasy passer. If you head into 2017 and beyond looking for a rookie quarterback "like Dak Prescott", you've fallen into the trap that most will go. Prescott was excellent but he's as much or more a product of his environment as he is a good player. It's best to consider the fit and you don't get much better a fit for a young quarterback than having one of the best lines and running backs in the league as your starting point.
2. Line Matters
I cannot overemphasize the value of offensive line play. It's a glossed-over area of the game for the mainstream fan. When the media discusses line play, it's often a hyper-focused look at one position or a single technique.
There's not enough connecting the dots among skill player performance and the support (or lack thereof) of the offensive line. The "Dak Prescott-Jared Goff" narrative is a prominent example, but there are so many others from this year that will dictate which players will be overrated and underrated heading into 2017. Fantasy lessons abound below:
- Jay Ajayi: The pervading narrative will be Ajayi's early-season benching due to a temper tantrum over Arian Foster earning the starting job, the tough love from Adam Gase, and Ajayi's maturation that came from it. It's good for Hollywood and FOX Sports but it's "a" story, not "the" story. THE story is that Ajayi is an excellent talent who was great when the offensive line was at or near its complete health and mediocre at best when the line was missing two or more starters or performing with at least two starters out of position. Ajayi's yards after contact is a fine indicator of his talent regardless of production. He routinely forced multiple defenders to bring him to the ground. When this happens 3-4 yards past the line of scrimmage, it leads to 200-yard outings. When it happens 3-4 yards behind the line of scrimmage, different story.
- Matt Ryan/Devonta Freeman: The story on the street in August was that Ryan was an overrated quarterback, Freeman was wildly inconsistent, and Tevin Coleman was breathing down his neck. Add center Alex Mack to the Falcons line and the unit became far more consistent and productive. The center reads the defense, makes the line calls, works with the quarterback to make pre-snap adjustments, and teams with the guards to create creases between the tackles in the run game. Among many general managers, it's this production and continuity from the center position that makes it the most important at the line of scrimmage despite the economics pointing to the left tackle. Mack's steadying force helped Ryan and Freeman sustain to production all year and I think most reasonable analysts and began to see the differences between Freeman and Coleman with greater clarity as a result. Coleman is getting better and may get close enough for Atlanta to eventually part with Freeman, but he's not in the same class as Freeman as an interior runner or overall player right now.
- Isaiah Crowell: Losing Mack along an offensive line that was considered a strength hurt the Browns' ground game. So did additional injuries. It should help explain to some confused fans why Hue Jackson still values Crowell as the bright future of the Cleveland ground game despite a solid, but not eye-popping 179-800-7 stat line after 15 weeks. Like Jay Ajayi, get Crowell moving down hill within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage and the stats will come, but force Crowell to do most of his work 3-4 yards behind the line of scrimmage and the good days won't be as frequent. Plus, it takes the offense away from a ground-orient game plan and rarely did Crowell earn more than 15 carries. Fantasy writers will cite consistency as an issue, which will be an ignorant piece of analysis if the analysis doesn't address the root cause of the line.
- Todd Gurley: The "is he overrated?" argument raged all year with Gurley's underwhelming performance. It will carry on as an overrated/underrated segment in every corner of fantasy football next summer. And the analysis will compare Gurley with great backs that "overcame" bad surrounding talent. Unless the analysis can appropriately compare the offensive lines, quarterbacks, receivers, schemes, and how it all fits together to help or hurt a back—and most won't—it will be another red herring argument. The Rams line could not run block; the quarterback and receivers couldn't execute consistently enough to force defenders from the line of scrimmage; and according to Gurley, the scheme was a "middle school" offense that was too easy for defenders to predict. Each factor compounded the other. If even one of these three factors improves dramatically, we'll see better work from Gurley next year because the other two issues won't be as magnified.
- David Johnson: People will use Johnson as an argument against Gurley and as good as Johnson has been, let's not forget that as bad as Carson Palmer and the Cardinals receivers have been, they are still better than half of the teams in the league and posed a legitimate threat that kept opponents honest against the Arizona ground game. And about that offensive line that would have forced many a quarterback to appear "over the hill"...we must not forget that a unit can be good in one phase of the game and not in the other. It was a poor pass pro unit, but it wasn't a bad run unit. Johnson's superior receiving skills and the staff's willingness to use him on wide receiver routes split from the line of scrimmage also helped matters. There's little basis for comparison between Johnson and Gurley and I'd ignore that argument this spring and summer unless the writer does a great job of showing why there is one.
- Adrian Peterson: Like Palmer, Peterson will be deemed "over the hill." The Vikings offensive line did not excel in either phase of the game as a unit. If Peterson lands in a new town and that team lets him run from the I formation behind a decent line, I would not bet against him.
If there aren't major splits among Crowell, Gurley, and Peterson next year, I'll be surprised. If you read "inconsistent" with players lacking good stats, it's a good bet you should look into the offensive line because it's fantasy football code for "the stats and the ability of the player don't match up."
3. Who are you calling a "gadget"?
Tavon Austin, you're dangerous. In open space, you're quick and fast enough to outrun defenders. You catch the ball well enough that a team can face you to the quarterback within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and you'll execute. And you run the ball well enough that you're dangerous through a well-blocked crease.
But you can't defeat press coverage. You lack the route skills to separate against perimeter cornerbacks. You don't make difficult adjustments to the ball in the air. You don't break tackles. You aren't on the same page as your quarterbacks. You don't find open zones. And you drop catchable passes.
You're neither a full-time wide receiver nor a running back. You're a gadget player and you force the offense to adjust to you more than you adjust to it. Gadget players rarely work out in the NFL. When they do, there's enough surrounding talent to mitigate the downside of using a limited option with regularity.
Tyreek Hill looks like this successful version of a gadget player on the surface. Like Austin, he's a dangerous return specialist. He's a threat on end-arounds, reverses, and wide receiver screens. He can turn a draw play into a huge run.
Unlike Austin, Hill has a steady quarterback in Alex Smith, one of the best detachable tight ends in football with Travis Kelce, a consistent force in Jeremy Maclin, and a solid ground game with Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. But if Hill is a gadget player, he's on his way to becoming more than one.
The rookie can stretch the field as a receiver. Austin cannot. Hill makes difficult adjustments to the football. Austin cannot. Some draft analysts thought Hill should be used a running back. Austin hasn't developed enough skill at either position to earn serious consideration anywhere.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas is not a gadget player. In fact, he's far less versatile than either Austin or Hill. But what he's good at, he's borderline great at. Give Thomas a specific role in a productive offense with a great quarterback and a supporting cast that allows Thomas to do what he does— hitch, slant, and fade—and it works.
Thomas didn't have to be everything for Drew Brees and it meant the Saints could create scenarios where Thomas earned good match ups. The threat of Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead IV, Coby Fleener, and the running backs drive matchups that favor Thomas just like the threat of Maclin, Kelce, Ware, and Conley create good matchups for Hill. Unlike Austin and Hill, Thomas can win straight-up, man-to-man even if the scenarios are less diverse.
Fantasy Lesson: These three examples are why holistic analysis matters in fantasy football. Thomas was my preseason choice as the safest rookie receiver to earn one of the most productive fantasy campaigns as a first-year option. The cause-and-effect thinking was a big reason.
Terrelle Pryor became a full-fledged wide receiver. He got the best of Josh Norman as a route runner and Norman wasn't the only one. Pryor has the potential to become a Julio Jones-like talent—and as someone who has watched Jones weekly for every year of his career, I don't say this lightly.
If Pryor finds a new team next year, he'll greatly enhance his chances of developing into a fantasy WR1. If he stays in Cleveland—and he's stated his preference is to stick around if Hue Jackson remains the head coach—quarterback development will be critical.
Pryor is a timing route runner and unless a see it, throw it quarterback operates at an extremely high level, it's not a good match. Robert Griffin and Tyrod Taylor do a lot more see it, throw it than you want to see and neither do it on a high level.
The fact that Pryor has made a successful transition from journeyman pro quarterback to top-flight receiver is a testament to his work ethic and fantastic athletic talent. He's much closer to becoming a complete wide receiver than some of the top rookies taken in the first two rounds of the past two drafts.
Fantasy Lesson: Special athletic talent, work ethic, and supporting cast are all necessary for a player to thrive. Pryor didn't get a great supporting cast in Cleveland, but the talent and work ethic have been good enough that even backup caliber passers steeped in the foundations of a timing passing game could get the job done.
As someone who wants to see Cleveland's suffering end, I want Pryor to stay. The fantasy-realist side of me believes Pryor would be better off somewhere else.
5. Pats Man-Zone Theory
In Week 6, I unveiled my Pats Man-Zone Theory...
Opponents That Play A Lot of Man
- Buffalo (Week 8): Technically, the Bills play a lot of Cover 4 zone but its style of zone converts to man against "inside" routes often run by tight ends. It also plays its share of press coverage.
- San Francisco (Week 11): The 49ers like to play press coverage.
- New York Jets (Weeks 12 & 16): Darrelle Revis...
- Baltimore (Week 14): A lot of man on the outside.
- Denver (Week 15)
Opponents That Play A Lot of Zone
- Pittsburgh (Week 7): Although some of these options have higher upside based on the defensive scheme, I wouldn't downgrade Bennett, Hogan, or Blount when they're not facing those units.
- Seattle (Week 10): Although Seattle is known for Richard Sherman coverage skills, the Seahawks are essentially a zone defense.
- L.A. (Week 13): Gregg Williams will use his share of press man to blitz defenses but he also likes to place his safeties in disguised zones.
Optimal Pats vs. Man:
- Martellus Bennett: The Browns played a lot of man coverage and Bennett's size poses difficulties for linebackers and safeties at the catch-point and after the catch. The two tight end alignments and play-action also give Bennett big-play opportunities because the opposing corner, safety, or linebacker has to honor the run.
- Chris Hogan: Not as fast as Edelman, Hogan is a better receiver at the catch-point on downfield targets. He's a physical receiver and tracks the ball better against tight coverage. Because he's slower than Edelman, he's often the target on play-action deep routes involving those heavy run sets with two tight ends.
- LeGarrette Blount: Defenses are more likely to honor the run in two tight end sets with him in the backfield in comparison to James White. Blount is also a decent screen receiver and an excellent draw runner. He'll have some big runs when Brady and company break the huddle in heavy sets with tight ends to the same side but then shift pre-snap to a shotgun look with both tight ends split from the formation as receivers on each side.
Optimal Pats vs. Zone:
- Julian Edelman: Mostly a slot receiver, Edelman performs better when a cover corner isn't assigned to him. When Brady can run play-action and find Edelman behind the linebackers on deep crossers or in-cuts that let him work across the field with a running start, he's in for big days. Cincinnati rushed four and dropped seven with regularity this weekend and it was Edelman who earned a team-high 7 targets among the wide receivers.
- James White: White had some moments against the Browns two weeks ago, but he was at his best against the zone-oriented Bengals. He earned nine targets and caught eight of them for 47 yards and 2 touchdowns. Brady often targeted White under the linebackers in the right flat for nice gains, including one of White's touchdowns. He's just quick enough to do damage. If Dion Lewis returns to form, substitute his name here.
- Danny Amendola: Amendola is a terrific zone option when healthy. If you need a bye-week desperation flier, you can do worse than Amendola when the Patriots face zone-heavy defensive units.
It's an idea that worked well for 5-6 weeks until Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski got hurt and Malcolm Mitchell got into the starting lineup. But with a week or two of adjustments, it became clear that Mitchell would be the main guy versus man coverage and Blount would remain the red zone constant in the ground game. But the loss of Gronkowski made it difficult for any player to earn prime matchups that dictated a strong outing beyond Blount at the goal line.
Fantasy Lesson: Looking back, this theory worked out a lot longer than I expected. What we should from it is that the Patriots aren't that mysterious and unpredictable. It's a matter of doing the legwork to understand the nature of the opponent and match it with what each Patriot does best. It's essentially pro scouting. The late season issues came because the loss of a foundation player like Gronkowski changed the offensive rubric and we were still waiting to see about the rookie Mitchell, the health of Bennett, and the return of Dion Lewis. All three were unknowns that were far too difficult to predict.
6. wHAT DO THESE GUYS HAVE IN COMMON?
- Rob Kelly
- RB26 through 14 weeks
- RB15 between Weeks 6-16.
- RB11 between Weeks 8-16.
- Undrafted Free Agent.
- Adam Thielen
- WR20 through 15 weeks.
- WR16 between Weeks 6-16.
- WR10 between Weeks 8-16.
- Undrafted Free Agent.
- Tyreek Hill
- WR14 through 15 weeks.
- WR7 between Weeks 6-16.
- WR4 between Weeks 8-16.
- Fifth round pick.
- Taylor Gabriel
- WR43 through 13 weeks.
- WR14 between Weeks 6-16.
- WR7 between Weeks 8-16.
- Cameron Brate
- TE5 through 15 weeks.
- TE4 between Weeks 6-16.
- TE2 between Weeks 8-16.
- Tyrell Williams
- WR12 through 15 weeks.
- WR17 between Weeks 6-16.
- WR19 between Weeks 8-16.
- Robby Anderson
- WR66 through 15 weeks.
- WR47 between Weeks 6-16.
- WR45 between Weeks 8-16.
- WR30 between Weeks 12-16.
- Spencer Ware
- RB15 through 15 weeks.
- RB17 between Weeks 6-16.
- RB 24 between Weeks 8-16.
- 6th round pick of Seahawks.
- Isaiah Crowell
- RB19 through 15 weeks.
- RB26 between Weeks 6-16.
- RB25 between Weeks 8-16.
7. 2015 was a down year for RBs, and unlikely the beginning of a trend
Last year, only two backs earned 200 fantasy points in standard leagues through 16 weeks. Nine backs earned that total in PPR leagues over the same pan.
This year, eight backs scored at least 200 points in standard leagues and in PPR, 13 backs scored at least 200 points. Spencer Ware was a yard from making it 14.
Seven runners have at least 250 fantasy points in PPR leagues right now. Only two backs earned that total during the regular season for 2015 PPR leagues. It matches the 2014 PPR total, beats the 2013 PPR total by a back, and trails the 2012 total by a back.
There is no cure-all "best" draft strategy. You must know your league, the pros and cons of your draft spot, and your talents as a team manager. If you want to become a good fantasy owner outside the confines of your local league, you have to develop multiple layers to your game—how to draft from a variety of spots, how to build with the waiver wire, how to negotiate trades, and how to develop lineup efficiency.
An RB-heavy beginning to a draft was no guarantee of success. Adrian Peterson, Lamar Miller, Doug Martin, and Todd Gurley were all early-round picks this year and taken within the first two rounds based on last year's success. Matt Forte usually went no later than the fifth round, Danny Woodhead and Chris Ivory were mid-round picks, and DeAngelo Williams was everyone's favorite late-round option.
That's eight of 2015's top-12 running backs and not a single one of them finished in the top 12. The best of these eight are Miller (16th), Gurley (18th), and Forte (19th). That's in line what with I've been espousing for a decade: most of the backs that finish as RB1s every year aren't players you pick during the first 2-4 rounds of your drafts.
Talent is not dictated by fantasy round drafted as much as past track record and opportunity for touches and there is a lot of running back talent after the fifth round and well after the 10th round.
You could get RB8 LeGarrette Blount between rounds 9-12 throughout August and the rationale about Blount remain excuses for not seeing his talent. Devonta Freeman and DeMarco Murray were mid-round risks. Melvin Gordon III had some analysts saying his stat profile made him a likely bust of epic proportions. And Frank Gore? He was over the hill.
Throw in mid-to-late rounders Spencer Ware, Isaiah Crowell, Jay Ajayi, Jordan Howard, Terrence West, and Theo Riddick and that's 11 of the top 24 fantasy backs often taken outside the range of where one would expect a top-24 RB to go in August.
With runners like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Jamaal Williams and James Conner headlining a good 2017 class, if there is a trend on RB vs. WR, I believe the NFL has a better chance of seeing an influx of young RB talent within the next 2-3 seasons.
Fantasy Lesson: Strategy helps you build a team, but you need to know how to manage one and also fit that strategy to your management talents. Otherwise, you're flailing in the dark.
8. Simplistic answers don't match complex problems
I'm talking about DeMarco Murray. The Eagles jettisoned Murray after he took a big contract and failed in Philadelphia. The Eagles locker room bad-mouthed the former Dallas back, too. Analysts explained why the scheme differences—where they were major differences—shouldn't be used to explain away Murray's production.
Instead, the narratives were mostly negative: Murray got used up in Dallas. Murray stopped working hard when he got paid. Murray is a lockerroom cancer. Murray was never that good of a running back if the erratically-behaved Ryan Mathews could out-play him.
Simplistic answers to a complex problem.
We'll never know what happened in Philadelphia. It would embarrass a lot more than Murray if we did and Philadelphia and its staff need several years removed from that situation before we get the VH-1 tell-all version.
Murray needed a fresh start, a good fit, and a healthy year. He got all three this year in Tennessee, holding off a good-looking rookie in Derrick Henry in the process.
Fantasy football's No.5 RB through 16 weeks, Murray is 28 and could earn at least one more season as the lead back. If we're honest with ourselves, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that what the NFL tells us and what we see on the field are two different things. I try to keep my eyes open and anything but the sound of good color commentary on mute.
9. players get better
My buddy Eric Stoner often tweets that players don't change. I agree that stylistically, they're often the same throughout their career. If they began their careers as aggressive, they're likely to remain that way. If they enter the league as elusive, they're unlikely to finish their career power players.
But I disagree with Stoner if that statement implies that they don't improve. Davante Adams got better this year. His route runner has been on-point and he's been better at catching difficult targets while diminishing his inconsistency with easier ones.
Tevin Coleman got better. I profiled the differences between Coleman and Devonta Freeman against the Browns during the preseason. Not only was Freeman better than Coleman on the same plays, but I'd argue that Brandon Wilds looked better than Coleman, too.
As this season as progressed, Coleman is running with more efficient footwork and decision-making on downhill runs and outside zones than I've seen in the past. It's almost becoming a strength instead of the glaring weakness it once was.
And Kirk Cousins is getting better. There are still 1-3 throws a game that makes me cringe, but that's a decrease. He has the mentality of a player that wants the ball in his hands in the critical waning moments of a tight game, but he's had to learn that he lacks the physical skills to do the extraordinary. It has been a difficult lesson for him to learn and he's still getting away with plays are "bad process, good results", but he's emerging from the tumult with promise.
Fantasy Lesson: Learning to tell the difference between players that are getting better and players need their surrounding talent to get better is an important thing to know.
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 kept a short list of players and/or units that had us chanting "fresh fish" throughout the season when our rosters drew the match-ups. There were a lot of repeat defenders.
Even so, the greatest value of this segment was learning about the type of problems these defenders exhibited.
- Defensive linemen and linebackers with a lack of gap discipline that led to big gains for running backs.
- Linebackers exhibiting poor pass drops and leaving too much space for runners, tight ends, and receiver to roam before and after the catch.
- Linebackers and defensive backs taking poor angles to the ballcarrier in the open field and often canceling out the efforts of teammates because of this bad position. We've seen these defenders fail to take an angle that slows the ballcarrier so help can catch up and we've seen defenders deliver hits that knocked out the teammate rather than the runner.
- Defensive backs reading the quarterback's eyes more than tracking his receiver.
- Defensive backs overreacting to a receiver's movements when he should be aware of the help he as to the side he's overreacting to.
- Defensive backs forced to play press or off coverage in a scheme when one of those techniques is a weakness for him.
Good defense requires a lot of rapport and experience—even with great athletes. Atlanta's linebackers are excellent athletes, but they routinely appeared on this list. Byron Maxwell was a decent cover corner as a bump-and-run guy in Seattle. With Miami, he was asked to play off and he has struggled all year. Josh Norman got burned by a lot of receivers while playing press when Carolina usually used him as a zone guy.
It was a fun year for fantasy football. I hope the Top 10 made you a more prepared fantasy owner in 2016. I hope to do the same in 2017.