The NFL's Dress Rehearsal Weekend
Many of this week's games featured starters and key contributors for at least a half of football. If a reserve earned playing time with starters this weekend, it's a good indication that, regardless of listing on the depth chart, the team values the skills that they've seen from the player thus far. The fact that the Ravens gave fourth-string running back Kenneth Dixon multiple series during the first half should tell you that Dixon earned the opportunity to prove that he should be promoted. This weekend's knee sprain will slow his progress but if you read in October that Dixon will serve as Justin Forsett's backup and the team wants to give him 8-10 touches per game, look back to Preseason Week 3.
Here are the top 10 items from my Preseason Week 3 notebook.
1. Communique From Captain Obvious: Josh Gordon is still an Elite talent
In 2013, Josh Gordon caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and 9 touchdowns from Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell. This would have been like Luciano Pavarotti winning a Grammy as the guest frontman for your Uncle Paul's Knights of Polka. Paul and his buddies might get the fellas to clap with vigor (and sometimes in rhythm) at the Masonic Lodge in Medina, but don't tell them to wait at the local Greyhound station for the tour bus.
They'll freeze to death.
I read last November that Gordon was working out hard in anticipation of a 2016 return.But the questions about the layoff remained. After this weekend, we can pack those doubts into your Uncle Paul's accordion case.
Brent Grimes isn't a shutdown corner but he has held his own with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, and Alshon Jeffery. Gordon completely turned Grimes around with head fake on the out and up and later, he undercut Grimes at the last second for the touchdown. Gordon is built like an in-shape "Big" Mike Williams but runs like Julio Jones. Paired with a great deep-ball thrower, Gordon's fantasy stock just climbed inside of the 8th round with this performance.
Even if the Robert Griffin Redemption Tour doesn't last, Josh McCown is still a step up from Uncle Paul's Knights of Polka. Punch my ticket, I'm going to the show.
2. Ezekiel Elliott Walked into Seattle and Owned The Place
Although their strengths and weaknesses are different, I rated Elliott's potential about even with Todd Gurley in the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio and Gurley was the 2015 RSP's top back. From his execution of a variety of run-blocking schemes to his skills on passing downs, Elliott is the most refined rookie back in this class. Even before the Dallas Cowboys selected Elliott in the first round, I wrote that his skill "makes him a better bet to deliver consistent [first-year] production than any rookie runner during the past two years."
Elliott's hamstring injury precluded him from participating in most of training camp but the Cowboys knew what they had and they were wisely cautious about resting their new bell cow until he was ready for the regular season tuneup in Seattle. Seahawks thumper Kam Chancellor had also missed time this summer and he wanted nothing more than to return to the field and deliver few "welcomes to the NFL." Chancellor learned that Elliott had already made himself at home and had brought a few housewarming gifts.
Elliott demonstrated most of the significant things that I saw from him at Ohio State. He ran with burst, power, and maturity. He protected the passer and caught the ball. And he took the fight to defenders at the end of plays.
The last time I was this bullish on a rookie running back as a fantasy prospect, I took Edgerrin James at the end of the first round of my drafts in 1999. I hired a crew to paint my house with my league winnings that year—a soothing shade of "Boathouse Blue."
I called it "Edgerrin Blue" when my league-mates dropped by.
3. Dak Prescott Watch Part II
With Tony Romo in a back brace, we're about to learn a lot more about Dak Prescott and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. As I mentioned last week, Linehan has done a good job of giving Prescott clearly defined reads limited to 1-2 options that are mostly on the same side of the field. Even a defined plan can be difficult to execute as well as Prescott has, so the rookie deserves kudos for his poise and productivity.
The demands on Prescott jumped a notch against the Seahawks' defense last week. Prescott's 17-for-23, 116-yard, 1-touchdown stat line indicates another strong performance.
Beneath the surface of the box score, there were some loose threads that, if not fixed quickly, could unravel the sweater:
- 1st Throw: I liked seeing a play where Prescott's progression reads began on one side of the field and he finished with a throw to the opposite side. The drop, hitch, and throw weren't in rhythm but he found the underneath option in the shallow zone with time to get the first down.
- 3rd Throw (0:14): The double A-gap pressure is a confusing pre-snap look for veteran quarterbacks. Prescott waited a little look long on his first read of Jason Witten when Cole Beasley is open on a cross behind the tight end's route (pause at 0:18). When Prescott finally delivered to Beasley, the throw was rushed and off-target.
- 4th Throw (0:23): It's good to see Prescott cycle through two reads and then find his back as the outlet but just like his career at Mississippi State, the rookie has difficulty maintaining a rhythm from read-to-read and his accuracy suffers.
- Touchdown (0:35): This is a great result with a bad process. Witten was not only well-covered, but Prescott doesn't even throw the tight end open with the placement of the pass. It takes a great play from Witten for this not to be an interception in the end zone. If this was a high-pointed ball over Witten's head, I'd give Prescott credit. It's clear this was a poorly placed ball with a fortunate outcome. I can't say for sure, but it appeared to me that Prescott determined Witten was his target from the beginning. The middle trips right receiver had an advantageous pre-snap coverage look and if Prescott read how well Witten was covered after the third step off of his drop (0:37), he could have hitched and thrown to the middle trips option between the linebacker and safety for a safer target, a first down and possibly a score.
- Deep Post (0:49): I loved this play. Excellent job calmly climbing from pressure and giving his option a chance to make the play. The throw needed to be 2-3 steps ahead of the receiver but he had the right idea. Although Prescott does difficult tasks well in a vacuum, when he's required to combine these things into one play, the integration of these things is missing. In contrast, there were more heralded prospects in this class who integrated difficult tasks better than Prescott on a consistent basis but they are also struggling because they are being asked to execute offensive schemes with more demanding reads. Will it click one day for Prescott? I don't know. He had always appeared "this close."
- Completion on the move (1:12): Gutsy play but look closer and you'll notice that this alignment has five eligible receivers but only two of them are leaving the formation as receivers. Once again, the demands on Prescott to make more than two reads are few.
- Inaccurate after the first read (1:20): Asked to hitch and throw with accuracy and smart placement after cycling through his first read, and the execution is not there.
- Poor placement under pressure (1:27): Once again, Jason Witten erases a bad throw. Prescott rushes his target while under pressure and the back shoulder placement is a perfect spot for a flat defender in a trail position to undercut. Good outcome, bad process.
- More of this please (1:31): One of the few plays where Prescott hits a player after the first read and the placement isn't too far off for a reception. Still, the pass is behind the receiver and the fact it's a zone route creates a more forgiving situation.
- Hitching and throwing accurately under pressure beyond 10-15 yards is a problem (1:55).
Give Prescott a quick game of short passes, fewer than three options to read, or throw-run options to one side of the field and he's performing well. As long as the Cowboys line and either Ezekiel Elliott or Alfred Morris stay healthy, the Cowboys will have a strong play-action passing game that will help them make most of what Prescott can do well. If opposing defenses can stop the run or get early pressure on Prescott, the rookie's decision-making and pass placement suffer.
With a healthy ground game and great offensive line, I am optimistic that Prescott can have weeks where he out-performs 80 percent of his fantasy peers. If you're going to consider using Prescott, I recommend doing it earlier in the year. NFL teams like to collect four weeks of information on each team that they scout in advance. It means there's often a month-long lag for new starters and the opposition doesn't usually form game plans specifically for those players.
4. IF THE EAGLES TOOK A FACEBOOK TEST FOR OFFENSES, THE ANSWER WOULD BE "WISHBONE"
I almost forgot that once upon a time, Philadelphia had DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Nelson Agholor can't hang onto easy targets. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens was cut this weekend and several beat writers projected the pair as no worse than contributors. Josh Huff is a one-dimensional holdover from the Chip Kelley era and Dorial Green-Beckham runs two routes with reliability: the slant and the red zone fade.
The concentration of talent on the Eagles' depth chart is at tight end and running back. I'm three-quarters kidding, but with that athletic Eagles line and the skills of Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, and Kenjon Barner, the triple-option looks more attractive with every Sam Bradford drop and throw.
And hey, Carson Wentz is a good runner.
If we're lucky, he may even share a story about that one time in North Dakota where they ran the wishbone. Anything is possible in the Flickertail State. Or is it the Peace Garden State? Or the Roughrider State?
I Googled "North Dakota is what state?" and among those options was also "Heaven." Maybe Wentz is right. Even so, I wish Wentz and Betty White's Golden Girl's character could meet up. Hearing about St. Olaf at every turn might cure him of his annoying "one time at band camp" segues about his home state.
5. Will Fuller is This year's Ted Ginn
Last year, I recommended Ted Ginn has a worthwhile fantasy option at the beginning of the year. If Kelvin Benjamin's rookie year proved anything about Cam Newton, it was the fact that Newton did not shy away from a big-play threat even if the receiver dropped multiple targets during a game. Like Ginn, Fuller has no problem separating but his pass-catching technique is still a work in progress:
Fuller's performance this summer is one filled with big plays and big drops and often because of the technique issues displayed in the video above. Even so, it appears that the Texans are prepared to live with Fuller's education in progress on the field—and for good reason.
— NFL (@NFL) August 28, 2016
One of the things this video doesn't show that I loved seeing from Fuller against the Cardinals was the suddenness and violence of his hands against press coverage. Twice, Fuller separated from defenders at the line and he did it differently each time and with textbook execution. Fuller may have some big drops this year but he'll also create big plays for himself and his teammates.
6. Night and Day, Jekyll and Hyde, Brady and Garoppolo
It's just a dress rehearsal but Jimmy Garoppolo does not look ready for prime time. He's still throwing the ball into the drop range of opposing defenders, he's hesitating on open looks, and against the Panthers, he "turtled" a couple of times against the pass rush. In one of these instances, Garoppolo lucked out and unintentionally slipped under the defender, getting free to the left flat. But Thomas Davis and his three ACL repairs still chased down Garoppolo and separated him from the football.
When Tom Brady entered the game as the No.2 quarterback for the night, he made this offense hum. Chris Hogan looked dangerous enough on the perimeter and the red zone that it left me wondering if holding him for a month at the end of my fantasy roster would be worth the wait. Not that he was perfect—he missed a linebacker's drop from a double A-gap pressure look (see Dak, you're in good company) and threw the ball into the hands of a Panthers defender.
Even so, if the Garoppolo-led Patriots go 1-3, I think the team has the talent to go 11-1 and win the division once Brady returns. Realistically, they need Garoppolo to help the team go 2-2 so Brady can engineer no worse than a 10-4 record the rest of the way. I think it's possible, but I'm more concerned about how well he'll spread the ball around.
Unlike the Matt Cassell era that felt more like Brady's replacement was operating a driverless car with properly functioning technology, I would not fall asleep at the wheel of your Pats'-heavy fantasy rosters.
7. Latavius Murray's Job is as Safe As a Narcoleptic Night Watchman guarding a jewelry store
Jack Del Rio explained to the media this weekend that Murray's lack of touches during the preseason is not about Murray's performance but a need to determine the order of the depth chart behind Oakland's lead back. I believe him. Murray is the starter and he has done nothing in the preseason to lose that opportunity.
But last season, Murray's 3.4 yards per carry on first down was the second-worst average among the 24 runners with at least 100 first-down attempts—only a frustrated DeMarco Murray on an Eagles team that turned on its coach was worse. There were only eight backs on this list with averages below four yards per carry (the two Murrays, Alfred Morris, Jonathan Stewart, Eddie Lacy, Melvin Gordon, Devonta Freeman, and Jeremy Hill) and only Stewart and Freeman's performances this year were considered "good years" by even their own standards and the rest were in time shares.
If Murray continues sleepwalking through first down, that second and third options behind him will be of utmost importance to fantasy owners. These guys need more looks than Murray because the Raiders must learn if they have a depth chart of players capable of replacing Murray or they should find a veteran backup. The two best candidates on the roster are rookies with similar builds, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard.
Washington is a good receiver with open-field skills who has flashed competence between the tackles. Fellow rookie Jalen Richard has been the most impressive all-around runner in camp and made good on the looks he earned against the Titans on Saturday.
It wasn't as impressive as the work from Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray, but Richard's burst, efficient change of direction and skill after contact was evident on multiple runs. Raiders' Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave said Richard was doing something "spectacular" every day of practice before the minor knee scope that cost him a few weeks.
While I liked Richard more than most before the draft, and I'm a fan of Washington's future, I'm sharing this because I'm more concerned about Murray minding the store than what the Raiders are expressing publicly. If the right veteran comes available, I wouldn't be shocked if he winds up in Oakland. If not, I think Washington and Richard are capable of helping immediately.
8. Vulture-Fest: Postpone The Jared Goff Bust Watch
If you're the Los Angeles Rams, you have to be concerned about Jared Goff's preseason performance. The media vultures smell the odor of Jared Goff's preseason work and have mistaken it for carrion. Goff hasn't lit up the Rams offense this summer but doom-and-gloom headlines have been sensationalized.
I spoke with a quarterback coach who works with top prospects at the high school and college level. He also does some NFL consulting work. We talked about a variety of things for about 90 minutes. One topic of note was the preseason performances of Prescott and Goff.
Goff starred in an Air Raid offensive system. The hallmark of the offense is throwing to open grass. Although Goff had more opportunities to take responsibility at the line, he was not in a progression-based offense we see with the common NFL offensive schemes.
The terminology and the way Goff is learning to read the field is completely new to him right now. The Rams offense is rooted in Marc Trestman's variation of the West Coast scheme. When executed to perfection, the West Coast offense is unstoppable but it requires a quarterback who can function at the highest level.
The QB coach I spoke with equated Goff's initial transition with "learning Chinese."
If you've ever learned a new language, your personality and talents are sublimated during the process. It's difficult to be witty, incisive, bold, or playful in the course of conversation when your head is swimming with new ways to express information.
In the Air Raid, Goff's pocket presence, accuracy, and skill to read the defense within this scope were all strengths of his game. Right now, his head is swimming. It's why NFL.com's Bucky Brooks' surprise that Goff "isn't anywhere close to being ready to play as a starting quarterback at this stage" seems disingenuous to me. Get past the headline-inducing remark, Brooks essentially explains exactly what I shared above and he's not labeling Goff a bust.
But I have some crow on my plate for believing that Goff would make a faster transition than he has. Looking at his past two weeks of preseason games, I still see the things I like about his potential.
There traces of strong pocket skills, willingness to find receivers in tight windows, and excellent placement to throw receivers open are still there.
This is a placement throw. In contrast to Prescott's touchdown, Goff's throw is intentionally placed behind the coverage in a spot where only the receiver can make the play, and not the coverage further downfield.
Patience will be required, but the Rams got the right player—even if the buzzards are excited.
9. Minnesota Vikings Defense: The Ship is Loaded and the blades are sharp
I'm among the writers who has devoted a lot of time to explaining that Teddy Bridgewater's game has incrementally improved since entering the NFL but poor offensive line play has obscured the visible progress for most fans. Just as I believe the passing game is about to make a significant leap (see below), I also believe the defense is poised to break out as a fantasy play.
The Vikings only forced 22 turnovers last year despite this top-10 statistical unit fairing well in yards allowed and points against. Mike Zimmer's units in Cincinnati and Dallas were never turnover machines but I believe that the Vikings has the young, athletic playmakers to reverse that trend with disruptive play.
Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and Everson Griffin have the skills to force more fumbles and Eric Kendricks is a budding star as an all-around linebacker—especially in coverage. The Vikings have also built its defense with four talented cornerbacks with the potential to cover the field better than most, following the lead of teams like the Cardinals.
As the Vikings offense improves, the defense will have more opportunities to play aggressive football. Last year's experience also gives these talented cogs in the unit time to gel. Look for a lot more forced fumbles from the Vikings this year and fantasy scoring opportunities that accompany them.
10. When Teddy Has Time: A Vikings Fan's Bedtime Story
Once upon a time, there was a quiet little quarterback from Louisville with gloves on his hands. He arrived in Minnesota and excited the fans.
He made them jump and shout with his displays of poise and mobility. But by the end of Year 2, little Teddy's efforts were a tale of futility.
It was enough for fans and reporters to wonder aloud, "Can little Teddy be all the things those Twitter guys were gushing about?"
He can't throw deep!
His delivery isn't high!
The learning curve is too steep!
Maybe Mike Mayock was right!
All of these displays of illogical pliability were enough to make Mike Zimmer downright prickly.
Little Teddy's good, the red-faced coach roared, he just needs the same help that all QBs need to score!
Charles Johnson started slow...
Mike Wallace couldn't pluck...
Kyle Rudolph couldn't go because the line's play sucked!
So Zimmer and Chris Spielman's brother retreated to their snowy lair and stuck to their plan to give little Teddy a prayer.
They sent Matt Khalil a get-well.
They added Alex Boone.
Then drafted Laquon Treadwell,
And said goodbye to Mike Wallace, "we'll see you soon!"
Fast-forward to August and the New Stadium by U.S. Bank and little Teddy went out there and put defenders on skates!
We don't care, we don't care! Vikings fans roared, we don't believe little Teddy can throw!
So little Teddy dropped back with 1:52 to go and unleashed three excellent passes, all in a row.
He hit Charles Johnson on a 19-yard dig and followed with an out deep to Stefan Diggs.
Then little Teddy looked up the seam, and look what he found: Kyle Rudolph over the LB for a 27-yard TD!
Hooray, hooray, cheered the fans who Little Teddy summoned from their funk.
We only thought he could dink and dunk!
Mike Zimmer just stood there and gave a little smile.
Little Teddy's good. He doesn't need luck.
Just give him a line that doesn't suck.
...or a Brothers' Grimm ending. Get well soon, Teddy.
My post-injury outlook for the Vikings? If the team makes a trade for a potential starter with more upside than Shaun Hill, it will happen within the next 3-4 days because the quarterback will need time to learn the system—even if he has experience in Norv Turner's scheme.
I believe Minnesota will trade for a passer but the deal will be to fortify the depth chart with a more competent backup than rookie Joel Stave. There's plenty of starter experience available but not nearly as much (if any) starter talent. I don't see Shaun Hill's upside as anything better than a bye-week fantasy option. I would drop all Vikings receivers 1-3 rounds in value. Adrian Peterson remains fantasy Teflon.