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The Gut Check No. 426: Midpoint Lessons and Confirmations

Matt Waldman takes stock of what's transpired this year and shares what he's learned. 

I've spent 45 years playing, watching, and reading about football as a fan, but I've only spent 23 of those years playing fantasy football and only 13 studying football with the commitment and effort of a full-time job. It's why I may be closing in on 50 in life, but I feel like an adolescent in my profession. 

As much as I have fond memories of being a teenager, it's not a phase of life that I thought I'd be reliving in any respect. However, my professional development has some parallels to the adolescent experience.

I vacillate between feeling like I can take on the world with what I've learned one day and wish I could hide in my room and play video games all day the next. There are moments where I discover that I know more than I thought and other instances where realize that I still have a long path ahead and it's filled with dues-paying work that makes me want to skip school, go to the local park, and spend the afternoon with my girlfriend. 

Since I'm embracing my career adolescence, it seems appropriate to examine what's happened after eight weeks of the 2017 season, share the lessons I've learned, and whether they've changed or confirmed my point of view about football—especially fantasy football. 

Lessons Learned

Scheme Fit Determines Fantasy Value More Than Player Skill

Repeat after me: Most of these players are highly skilled.

Please remember this as we look under the microscope because it's easy for the fanboy/fangirl side of our personalities to feel slighted when an analyst says that our current new favorite player is benefitting from a scheme. Next thing you know, folks are ranting about how a terrific talent is under-appreciated and then stretch analysis out of proportion to fit their arguments. 

Kareem Hunt is a fine talent. It's also unlikely that he would have earned the volume to produce as anything more than a mid-range RB2 if Spencer Ware remained healthy. The reason is pass protection. Hunt has made two notable cut blocks that have fans using them as examples as to why he's a good blocker. 

This is like saying a quarterback is an accurate passer because he can throw the screen with touch. While part of the equation, it's not enough to make that determination. 

Hunt either gets out-flanked or knocked on his hind parts when he engages as a stand-up blocker. It's why he hasn't earned more than 1-2 pass pro reps every other game, and most of them are cut-block opportunities where the quarterback has a direct sightline of the action. 

This does not make Hunt a bad player. It does not mean Hunt will never be a good blocker. Pass protection takes time to learn. I've written about the intricacies of pass protection with video examples earlier this week if you want to learn a lot more about this skill. 

Still, Ware was a better all-around blocker, a good receiver, and, at the very least, a competent pro runner. If Ware were healthy, Hunt would earn carries and possibly cut deeply into Ware's workload as a runner and receiver. However, Hunt would have needed more time earning that volume and that fantasy impact wouldn't be nearly as great during the first eight weeks of the year. 

More important, if Ware were healthy, the Chiefs wouldn't have been compelled to tweak its offense so the blocking component for its starting running back wouldn't be as necessary. The loss of Ware and Hunt's weaknesses prompted Andy Reid and his staff to make this adjustment. It's a tremendous credit to them for doing so because other teams might have been stubborn about its starter as a competent pass protector, which would have severely limited Hunt's production ceiling.  

Hunt will likely become a better all-around blocker and broaden what the Chiefs can do with him in the lineup, but it's important to note that if it weren't for the scheme fitting to Hunt, his rookie campaign wouldn't be this great. 

A related lesson is Adrian Peterson, who signed with a Saints squad that had no intention of using him as an every-down back in a scheme with a power running role. Part of that role is a high enough volume of carries to wear down a defense through blunt force. 

Although Carson Palmer's injury may ultimately reduce Peterson's case to one game against Tampa, the evidence was compelling that Peterson was far from done as a talent. If Hunt has proven he's a talent on a team that allows him to play to his strengths, the same has to be true of Peterson. 

Bottom Line: When you're evaluating 2018 fantasy prospects, pay attention to the player's preseason use in the scheme and what the coaches say they expect to happen. Then examine the first 2-3 weeks of performance to see if the words are translating to action.

Related Lesson: Embracing The College Game Generates Valuable Diversity, But Disrupts Old Maxims About NFL Game

Hunt's usage goes against the old maxim that NFL starters must be competent pass protectors. While the Chiefs proved the exception to the rule and those who took the risk won big, it's still a case-by-case situation at this point and it will be important to compare many of the points I stated above to the next situation that may look like "the next Hunt" on the surface. 

Another old maxim about the NFL game is that arm velocity is a vital skill. Deshaun Watson's performance, and more importantly, the way the Texans are embracing the college game to maximize Watson's strengths is calling this into question.

If Watson had the mobility of Chad Henne, the likelihood of him delivering starter production with his arm talent would be a lot less likely. And please disregard any television analyst—even if it's a former player or coach—who reviews a replay of one of Watson's 50-yard throws deliver from the opposite hash or his 15-yard outs thrown from the same hash and declares (or implies) that Watson's arm strength issues are overblown. 

That's show business pandering to the audience more than football analysis. 

Watson has the arm strength to throw the ball for distance with a high trajectory or much shorter distances with a lower trajectory for velocity, but his arm strength is limited. It is the reason why Watson's vertical success is mostly based on corner routes, posts, fades, and improvised 50/50 throws and his struggles are plays where the defense has forced him to attempt high-velocity throws beyond 10-15 yards or covering a horizontal distance from the middle of the field or the opposite hash. 

This is not meant to demean Watson. Every quarterback needs a system that maximizes his talents and minimizes his weaknesses. Part of the problem is that we're approaching which quarterbacks are "good," "not really that good," and "not good enough" with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees as the standard. 

Despite Rodgers' mobility, it's an incomplete standard for quarterback play because all three are primarily pocket passers and movement-mobility are considered an ancillary benefit rather than a must. Analysts older than I (or with a mentality that's older) insist that quarterbacks must win from the pocket in the NFL.

While I agree with this as a baseline statement, I prefer modifying it to a quarterback and his offense must know how to win from its pockets and how not to lose outside of it. This revised statement encompasses a broader and more realistic idea of the NFL in the immediate present and likely future. 

Watson can win from the pocket. He can win outside the pocket. He's also learning how not to lose outside the pocket.

The Texans are also maximizing the first two skills with plays that capitalize on his abilities to stretch an opposing defense with methods that borrow heavily from the college game. It's not intentional, but the common broadcast description for it is "window dressing," and it sounds like a back-handed compliment. 

For those of you who feel me here, keep in mind that Alex Smith and the Chiefs' offensive tweaks are also earning this "window dressing" description.  

As NFL owners continue to exhibit impatience with quarterback development well beyond reason and college offenses continue to revolve around designs that aren't modeled as closely to the NFL as they used to be, it's likely that the NFL will have no choice but to embrace the college game and its offensive diversity. 

Bottom Line: This is ultimately a good thing for the NFL even if it's a bad thing for change-resistant, my-ego-is-attached-to-my-scheme, veteran coaches who hate change. It will also be an adjustment for football analysts who are mired in the old maxims about quarterback talent, quarterback development, scheme. Quarterback developing timelines and talent assessment may only get bumpier for fantasy owners.  

Offensive Coordinators Can Make And Break Fantasy Value 

While Houston and Philadelphia's offenses have tailored its scheme to feature things that its starters like, Atlanta's moribund offensive performance is a disappointing example of how the "scheme" isn't the only important job of an offensive coordinator. Steve Sarkisian has turned a top-flight offense with a rich variety of personnel into a two-man fantasy show of Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman that has been neutered of its richness and unpredictability. 

I won't say no one could have seen this coming, but, at least from my point of view, it was entirely unexpected. The personnel is the same and Sarkisian said this summer that he was keeping Kyle Shanahan's scheme. 

The significant changes we heard about publicly where the following: 

  • The expansion of Mohamad Sanu's route tree so he'd be a deep threat. 
  • The expansion of Taylor Gabriel's route tree so he'd be a timing option on intermediate routes. 
  • The pairing of specific routes on the same side of the field so opposing defenses would have greater difficulty containing yards after the catch. 

Of these three tweaks, I've only seen evidence of the last one. Sadly, Sarkisian has seemed to erase more of the richness from the scheme's use of pre-snap alignments and shifts that put Gabriel, Austin Hooper, and Tevin Coleman in situations to break big plays due to mismatches or misdirection that causes coverages to break down. 

Bottom Line: It's possible Atlanta figures this out soon, but I have no idea how to anticipate this as a problem before it generates a major issue for fantasy owners. Some teams are quicker and more competent at adjusting than others.

The Patriots have been great at it and as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady remain in their positions, it will be that way. Arthur Blank has shown the ability to recognize and execute winning adjustments on a macro level as a team owner that has directly impacted football operations with personnel management, coaches, and players. However, we're talking about the timeline of a fantasy season and not year-to-year. 

The Context Of A Player's Usage and Impending Matchup Matters More Than Past Volume

Speaking of the Patriots, the New England passing game taught me a valuable lesson last year when it came to whom it targeted versus man and zone-heavy coverage. This year, the same is beginning to take shape with its ground game. 

Although no fantasy owner wants to depend on a Patriots back, those desires change to needs as the fantasy season unfolds. What we're beginning to see in New England is something to put into practical application:

  • James White is the fantasy "constant" as a source of PPR value with his role as the receiving back.
  • Mike Gillislee is the man-blocking/gap thumper. 
  • Dion Lewis is the zone-blocking creator. 
  • Rex Burkhead is the utility thumper/receiver whose performance may dictate the volume between him, Gillislee, and to a smaller extent, White.

Defenses that win against receiving backs have great zone linebackers who can run sideline-to-sideline and prevent yards after the catch. Jacksonville and Seattle are good examples. Units that win against zone runners are disciplined and maintain gap integrity. It means reactive, young, and/or undisciplined units like the Lions, Falcons, Steelers, and Rams can struggle against a good zone runner like Lewis, but stuff a gap guy like Gillislee. 

New England is an extreme example of how volume matters less than the context of usage and future matchups. White doesn't earn high volume, but his usage is steady and high-impact. Lewis' volume has been trending as the highest in recent weeks and while people are saying he's looking better, I thought he looked a lot like his old self this summer before the volume made it easier to B.S. about it.

Lewis is a good fit for defenses vulnerable to a zone runner. Look at Footballguys' Defensive Game Logs for the Patriots upcoming opponents and see which type of backs and run schemes performed better or worse against them for an indication of the matchup. 

Lessons Confirmed

Quarterback Development In The West Coast Offense Is Generally a Long-Term Project

Carson Wentz and Jared Goff respectively earned moderate and severe criticism for their rookie performances. While there's a chance they could decline dramatically down the stretch, we've seen yet again that quarterback development in the West Coast Offense should not be considered a one-summer project—even with Wentz, who spent his college career playing in a version of the scheme. 

In contrast, the Erhardt-Perkins scheme that is a prominent influence in the Cowboys and Texans offenses are helpful factors with Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson's early success. 

But the Patriots are using this scheme and until Brandin Cooks came along, New England has struggled to use veteran receivers because of the scheme's difficulty, so what gives about your argument?  

We're actually talking about two different things. Learning the E-P offense is easier for a quarterback to function competently at a baseline level than it is in a WCO due to the WCO's verbose play calls and volume of play types. However, once a quarterback has mastered the E-P scheme and the team incorporates layers and layers of options and adjustments that the quarterback and receiver use when reading the pre- and post-snap coverage positions of the defense, a veteran receiver has a lot of if/then possibilities to master with a quarterback. 

An easy way to think of it is dancing. For most, it's probably easier to master a basic waltz than it is a basic salsa. However, there are a lot of things that can be added to the waltz that can make the dance an equally layered and intricate performance when two experienced partners work together.  

By the way, DeShone Kizer was rushed into starting for a team with a West Coast Offense while Patrick Mahomes is spending time in the WCO sitting and learning behind Alex Smith in Kansas City. So is Chad Kelly in Denver. 

Bottom Line: Offensive schemes can be a huge part of accelerating or slowing (if not doing irreparable harm to) quarterback development.

Offensive Line Play Is the Invisible Thread that Drives Fantasy Value

Having two summers to learn the West Coast Offense has helped Goff. So has an offensive-minded coach who can integrate the ground game with the passing game and be an influence with acquiring receivers with skills that actually match the WCO (route running precision). However, the greatest help to Goff has been the upgrade of Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan to the offensive line. 

Whitworth has stymied the free lunches that top edge defenders were getting last year and Sullivan manning center—the most underrated and important position along the offensive because of its responsibility to make line calls and work in tandem with each guard to win the middle of the field—has opened the run for Todd Gurley.

Of all the backs I've seen this year, Gurley and the Rams line have been the most consistent at generating significant gains on a per-carry basis compared to other RB-line tandems. And part of that has been due to Goff's ability to make defenses pay with his accuracy and precision as a play-action passer from the pocket. 

The marriage of coach, quarterback, running back, and the offensive line has become a mutually beneficial system of quality production where each unit part helps the whole. Jacksonville hasn't been as successful as Los Angeles in this respect, but it has dramatically improved thanks to a line coach known for tailoring his scheme to his players when he was with the Giants and the 49ers. 

The Jaguars changed its offensive identity to a run-first unit with gap- and man-dominant principles that match Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory's style (as seen on Sunday, it wasn't a bad fit for T.J. Yeldon, either) and the result as the maximization of Fournette's talents and the minimization of Blake Bortles' flaws. It may not make Jacksonville a strong playoff team, but there are stabilized fantasy values.  

While I appreciate the financial game Seattle is playing to keep its defense and Russell Wilson on the team, it's come at the cost of Seattle getting too cute with its offensive line. It would be too easy to say I'd prefer to see Russell Wilson have a great offense, but knowing the defense is dominant enough to withstand a strong offense and come up with a few game-changing plays to set the table for Wilson to pull magic out of his hindparts late makes it hard for me to argue the strategy beyond the emotional pain I experience seeing Wilson put into harm's way and forced to do a lot more to get a lot less out of it. 

Bottom Line: Monitor the quality of the center when determining the strength of an offensive line. Is he healthy, experienced, and proven with line calls and adjustments? If so, the ground game will have a fighting chance if the rest of the unit has at least 2-3 years of experience. Continuity with the same team will also help. Left or right tackle is also important, but mostly for the passing game and an a perimeter-heavy ground game, which most teams don't lean on.

Confidence Is A Fantasy Resource

Nelson Agholor dropped passes early in his career, earned the ire of his coaching staff, got in trouble off the field, and earned the ire of his fans. His confidence went downhill and he looked nothing like the player he was at USC. He played like every target was a math problem that he was unfamiliar with. 

Am I breaking to the right spot? 

Did I make the correct adjustment? 

How should I position my hands? 

This could be a big play if I turn upfield fast, but don't screw up the catch...

When a player's game looks like he's asking questions or thinking through his process, he's no longer playing within the spirit of good performance.

Terrelle Pryor is going through this right now. Last year, he wasn't wondering where he should be with his breaks or how he should place his hands. On consecutive targets Monday Night, Pryor experienced drops.

The first target, Pryor extended his arms to the ball but his hands were in overhand position when they should have been in an underhand technique. The second target, Pryor was clearly reacting to his previous drop and tried to trap the ball to his body. It prompted Jon Gruden to exclaim—and I'm not quoting directly, but the spirit of his statement is captured accurately—"Pryor needs to catch the ball with his hands...that's the problem."

No, that's the problem from a coach who only remembered one play. The problem is that Pryor has lost his confidence and he's questioning every little process that should be second-nature, but the switch to a new team and early failures have caused him to lose his confidence. 

A loss of confidence can create a massive tailspin for a player's career. I whiffed on my preseason call on Pryor. What I missed wasn't his talent, but the effect that a change would have on his development. Pryor hasn't had enough ingrained years to solidify the basic skills of the position and this has shown up when even minor changes have forced him to overthink the fundamentals and cause a bad start to get worse. 

Bottom Line: Position conversions where the old and new position aren't related and the skill sets require a lot of small technical details generally require years to get ingrained to the point that they can withstand the pressure of new lessons and mistakes. Otherwise, they are more likely to crumble. 

Talent Doesn't Always Win Out, But Talent And Persistence Can Shock Us

I've often been critical of Mike Shanahan's leadership and people skills, but he has always possessed and eye for talent. I studied Chris Thompson at Florida State and it was during a time when spread offense concepts were about to gain its first bit of traction in the NFL. It meant I did not anticipate Thompson's skills would be a match for most teams and didn't value him as a scheme fit. I also didn't like that his college resume included a torn ACL and two broken vertebrae in his back:

Speed and agility are the hallmarks of this runner's game. When he gets his shoulders down hill, he can hit holes and beat defensive angles that few can. He might be the quickest back in this draft. 

I like that he can make the first man miss, and he runs with a pad level to fall foward when there's contact to his side or from behind. He's not a big back he won't break a lot of tackles. 

He makes the effort to get his pads low, but he's often late with his pad level and it allows opposing defenders to get hits under Thompson's pads. He plays light and unless he's already accelerating downhill he won't break through a lot of wraps. If he has to work east-west he can get pulled backwards to the ground if he's not at full speed... 

He catches the ball well...I think there's potential for Thompson as return specialist and change of pace runner in a passing game. In a Chip Kelly-influenced offense, he could be a dangerous option. 

You can see that I recognized Thompson as player with skills that range from Darren Sproles to Tarik Cohen but my low ranking (43rd among backs) was influenced by injury and matching him to traditional and prevalent schemes in the NFL before the 2012 season (when the spread and read-option debuted in a notable way). 

That said, Shanahan considered Thompson a first-round talent if not for injury. It was definitely a reason why I held Thompson for a few years in a couple of dynasty leagues, but my patience didn't match Thompson's persistence. His incremental increase of usage has bloomed into a starring role as the nature of NFL offenses have evolved to match his skills. 

Bottom Line: I remember enough about a story involving Washington's personnel and the training methods and measurements of the team when Robert Griffin was the starter and still a star. The story higlighted Griffin as the best pound-for-pound athlete when measured by this process with Thompson as the lone notable exception ahead of him. 

Talent doesn't always win out but when scheme fit and injuries that don't hamper athletic ability are the obstacles, it's worth having patience.

Draft Position Is a Heavily Weighted Factor Driving Preseason Opportunity

When the Packers drafted Jamaal Williams I was excited. Williams has the elements of a complete back even if he hasn't earned extended reps to show it. However, when the Packers drafted Aaron Jones sooner after, it tempered my excitement. 

Jones's grade in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio pre-draft publication not much different than Williams. Willams had a more well-rounded game, but Jones excelled as an instinctive runner and talented pass catcher. I continued expressing my confidence in Williams, but cautioned people to learn about Jones and understand that it could take something as small as an injury and/or a strong game for Jones to give him a leg up on the depth chart. 

My confidence in Williams was based on two things: his talent and his draft status. I often mention my friend Ryan Riddle's article, The Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick because it reveals the latent biases that coaches and management have with practice reps and their analysis of those reps when comparing players with various draft positions. 

Although Williams and Jones were only a round apart as draft picks, Williams' higher draft day value on a depth chart with one experienced player ahead of him gave Williams the advantage over Jones with a volume of reps. It meant he got the first shot at the backup job as long as he didn't consistently make huge mistakes. 

Williams showed well as a pass protector and he maintained good ball security. This was enough for him to maintain his early rep advantage over the third-string-by-default Jones. If it weren't for two injuries in the same game, Jones may have never earned an opportunity this year despite his obvious talents that caught the eye of Aaron Rodgers this summer. 

Bottom Line: While the data that suggests draft position is an accurate indicator of talent, it actually reinforces the biases that early-round picks earn more opportunities earlier in practice and therfore, more opportunities to fail without drastic consequences. Don't write off players due to draft position or a lack of playing time.