Fantasy Fool's Gold
By Matt Waldman
October 12th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.


Fantasy Fool's Gold

There's a subtle difference between writing about what you observe and what you believe. I might observe a doctor caring for a patient, but I might not believe that doctor actually cares about the patient.

The same goes for fantasy football.

I spend a good portion of my time writing about the potential direction of players based on their weekend performances. I might observe a player performing well, but I might not believe he's a good performer. Last week I gave my take on which players are fantasy finds. This week I'll profile those I believe are fool's gold.

Fantasy Fool's Gold

Matt Ryan, Falcons

In all honesty, I was three inches of content into an argument that Philip Rivers was Fantasy Fool's Gold and I just couldn't finish the section. Rivers might not finish as an elite fantasy quarterback this year, but he's too good to doubt. I tried doing it last year when he had fewer weapons then he does now and I was humbled. While I think a healthy Ryan Mathews playing to the potential Norv Turner envisioned will limit Rivers' upside I have little doubt Rivers will curb his interceptions and increase his touchdown production as the season progresses.

Matt Ryan is a different story. Before I get too far into this take, I must say that the Falcons have done a good job of using Julio Jones. If you've watched the Falcons closely you'll see that I was correct in my preseason assessment that Jones would be used mostly on the perimeter and if he did get looks across the middle the routes would be crosses and slants. Jones has consistently looked better each week and I'm beginning to believe that Jones might develop into a good match as Ryan's deep threat.

I believe there are two ends of the receiver spectrum: rebounders and ball trackers. Randy Moss was more of a ball tracker. He had the late hands to wait for the last moment to attack the football in the air, which disguised his intentions to the defensive back. Moss also had an uncanny skill to track the ball in the air with his back to the quarterback. This is not to say Moss didn't flash the skill to post up a defender, but it wasn't his first choice. Moss wanted to get behind a defender quickly or use his burst at the last moment to gain separation.

Jones is more of a rebounder. He's tall, strong, and has fantastic leaping ability. Whereas a ball tracking receiver relies more on a quarterback with great deep ball anticipation, a rebounder is good at waiting for the ball to arrive and winning the ball from a relative standstill. Because Matt Ryan does not consistently deliver the ball with great timing to allow his receivers to run under passes and Ryan lacks the elite arm to throw the ball 50-55 yards on a line, a rebounder is a better match than a ball tracker. That said, one of Jones' weaknesses has been a level of inconsistency making catches in tight coverage when he knows the prospect of contact is coming his way. So far, Jones and Ryan have been pretty good. However Jones has a hamstring injury that could force him to miss time.

Yet the most pressing issue for the Falcons is the offensive line. As I mentioned in the preseason, Ryan is good and standing and delivering in the face of pressure when he has an open target and he knows he has to take the hit to complete the pass. However, he's really bad at climbing the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield when he senses pressure flash across his face. The Falcons quarterback drops his eyes and uses dramatic movements that forces him to reset his entire throwing form and when this happens Ryan has either lost track of his receivers downfield and he has to run or throw the ball away or he's sacked.

Ryan might have enough mobility to execute boot legs and designed sprints, but there's a difference between executing designed plays and improvising under pressure. Although Ben Roethlisberger is more mobile and has a better arm than Tom Brady, both quarterbacks can make subtle adjustments in the pocket without losing their throwing form or sight of the receivers. Drew Brees lacks the arm strength of these two quarterbacks, but he also moves very well in tight quarters and maintains a great throwing form to release the ball.

Ryan thrives in a run-first, play action passing game based on getting rid of the ball quickly. He's not a player who will consistently find a way to make a big play when the defense paints him into the corner by forcing Ryan to break the pocket and deliver the ball. As much as the Chicago Bears offensive line put Jay Cutler in harm's way against the Lions on Monday night, Ryan couldn't have performed nearly as well as Cutler. He lacks that cannon to make those off-balanced throws that the Detroit defense forced the Bears quarterback to make.

The running game isn't helping much, either. Turner has enough good runs at points in each game that the stats look good, but the offense is not consistently getting Ryan in the same short-yardage situations on second and third down that has made life as easy on the Falcons quarterback as in year's past. With Carolina and Detroit coming up next and a good chance Julio Jones will be out at least this weekend, I anticipate Ryan to struggle.

In fantasy leagues where interceptions are not a factor, Ryan still might be serviceable as a match-up QB1, but I'm not expecting a significant rebound in fantasy production. Ryan is a smart, competent starting quarterback. But he's not an elite passer that can make plays when a defense forces Ryan to stretch beyond the scope of the play call.

Michael Turner, Falcons

Turner will still get his share of carries, but his YPC is significantly worse than last year. Turner looks a little slower than years past, but I don't believe he's the real problem. The reason is that while he's still hitting 1-2 big runs most weeks, he's not getting the creases for those consistent gains of 4-7 yards that set up short yardage situations on second and third down. The issue is once again the Falcons offensive line.

The Bears and Eagles might have appeared to be the toughest two defenses on the schedule thus far, but that is so August. From the vantage point of hindsight, the Eagles and Bears were the easiest two defensive units they've faced. Against the Buccaneers Turner had one gain that exceeded three yards and the Seahawks only permitted 8 of Turner's 26 attempts to result in gains of greater than three yards. Moreover, Turner only has three attempts on third down, which supports the idea that the offense isn't getting easy third down situations.

One could argue that Adrian Peterson has plenty of runs for small gains and then he breaks just enough big runs in the game to earn strong stats on the box score. The difference is that Peterson's big runs often result in touchdowns and when the Vikings were winning games they had a big-armed, mobile quarterback capable of stretching beyond the scope of the play call successfully (Brett Favre).

The lack of efficient production on a per carry basis takes away the quick-hitting passing game that is in Matt Ryan's wheelhouse as a passer. It forces deep drops, longer waits with a poorer offensive line, and creates more pressure for Ryan to execute on plays where he's simply not as equipped to deliver.

Turner might be a top-10 fantasy performer heading into this weekend, but if you're seeking an RB1 do not take the bait and agree to a trade unless you're only paying for a mid-range to low-end RB2. Turner is not a complete fraud, but this year he's like a Samuel L. Jackson in recent films – the talent is there, but you just aren't ever sure if the surrounding cast and script is good enough to buoy him.

Victor Cruz, Giants

Here's another talented player with limitations, but he's benefited thus far from two things: poor passing defenses and lucky plays. Yes, I just said lucky plays. The same way Steve Slaton benefited from lucky plays as a rookie when defenses frequently lost Slaton in piles and didn't wrap like they should have and Slaton was able to spin away for bigger gains than he should have ever earned.

Cruz deserves credit for his concentration, fluid adjustment to the ball, and confidence to never give up on a play. However his 74-yard touchdown catch versus the Eagles was a product of horrible tackling and the 28-yard touchdown reception where he wins the ball versus Nnamdi Asomugha was just one of several moments were Asomugha has looked like former Falcons cornerback Charles Dimry (Jerry Rice beat Dimry for more big plays than any corner he faced in his career). Last weekend versus the Seahawks we saw another great, but "never should have happened" play for a 68-yard score.

Cruz is good enough on vertical routes that Kevin Gilbride is placing the second-year receiver in situations where he's used more frequently downfield rather than as a traditional option-route slot player. When Cruz has to make these timing plays rather than rebound catches, he tends to fail more often. Just look at the game-sealing interception for the Seahawks. The pass was a quick throw that bounced off Cruz's mitts.

As with Turner, Cruz is a talented player capable of WR3-flex production, but I think there is too much evidence in the games played thus far to demonstrate that Cruz's best games have likely passed.

Dustin Keller, Jets

Keller does not deal with contact well enough to become an elite tight end in the NFL. He's a not a big player at his position and he tends to wear down as the season progresses. A tight end needs to be a player capable of catches in tight coverage where contact is imminent. Keller has yet to prove he can make these catches consistently and when he's hit hard his game tends to go into a shell. Just watch him against the Ravens and you'll see this clearly. Couple this tendency of Keller's with a passing offense that can't find a rhythm and a receiver like Plaxico Burress who can make these type of tight end caliber plays in the middle of the field, and expect Keller to continue dropping down the fantasy totals list as Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, and Aaron Hernandez fly past.

Quick Takes

Derrick Mason can still play. Don't let the Jets offensive fool you. Mason is a good match for the Texans because Houston can actually run the ball and Mason is excellent at setting up breaks with moves more than speed. This complements the play action game and I think Mason can produce WR3 caliber stats for fantasy teams if he and Matt Schaub can establish a rapport. It's a gamble with any midseason adjustment, but if you're desperate I think Mason is worth the gamble.

Jonathan Dwyer is still out of shape, but the burst is still there and he's a powerful guy. He looks more like a mini-Jerome Bettis than the guy in college who looked more like Stephen Davis. Of course Bettis had a better overall career than Davis, so peak physical conditioning isn't everything. The point is Dwyer is a player to I'd keep an eye on if this Rashard Mendenhall hamstring lingers.

Alex Green's burst impresses me. The Packers running back consistently demonstrated a nice burst at Hawaii and nothing has changed since he arrived in Green Bay. He's had very limited opportunities to carry the ball, but that burst is still there. If Green Bay wraps up the division early, Green could see more time against the likes of Kansas City and Chicago during the biggest fantasy weeks of the postseason. Remember Joe McKnight last year and Arian Foster the year before?

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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