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The Top 10: 2017 Questions

Matt Waldman digs through his film notebooks from the past year and poses 10 questions that could alter the fantasy landscape.

In the NFL, May through August is the time where each team makes carefully tailored plans. The draft. Minicamps. OTAs. Training camps. Preseason games.

September through December is the great eraser of those plans, laughing as it wrecks personnel and scheme.

Summer is rife with football geniuses; men and women who are the average football fans that believe they have all the answers. Fall is for the football idiot; men and women who study the game and can describe their failings in great detail. 

As a student of the game—and a perpetual football idiot—the preseason (and the season prior) often leaves me with as many questions as answers. Here are 10 questions, many of them that football geniuses believe they have arrived at the answers about, that I have about the coming season. If the answers to those questions counter the assumptions of those geniuses, it could shake the foundations that many used to build their fantasy teams.

1. How much does Adrian Peterson have left? 

The football genius conclusion has been that Peterson is done. He's no longer quick enough. He can't hit open creases. And he can't stay healthy. Here is Peterson, weeks after knee surgery against the Colts.  He executes a strong lateral cut and then a jump cut so violent that I'm surprised the hash didn't crack into a canyon after Peterson's feet planted into the ground. 

 

All Day good run, rust with ball security

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 19, 2016 at 4:55am PST

 

When I heard all last year that Peterson is done, I never fully bought it—especially after seeing a small, but a significant number of plays like this. I watched Peterson make similar cuts as a Saint this preseason.

When I shared them on social media, I received questions from fantasy owners tinged with the ingrained bias that Peterson is done: He looks slower, doesn't he? He should have cleared the back end of that hole, shouldn't he? 

I don't know if Peterson has enough juice in those legs to last the entire season with a strong workload. I suspect the Saints, who acquire Alvin Kamara in the draft and still have Mark Ingram, feel the same. However, let's not forget that New Orleans let Tim Hightower go and tried to deal Ingram during the NFL Draft.

It's why I'm still open to Peterson having enough left to deliver a top-10 fantasy season at his position. He wasn't a fit for what the Vikings wanted to do. In New Orleans, Peterson can be the Deuce McAllister to Kamara's Reggie Bush. If Peterson proves the football geniuses wrong again, he'll be added to a long list of mid-round options that turned drafts upside-down.

2.  will LeGarrette Blount continue to make fools of football geniuses?

We dismiss or hate what we don't understand. Over the years, most football geniuses have misunderstood LeGarrette BlountHe's a slow, plodding runner. His yards-per-carry average is poor. He's a limited, downhill guy who isn't much of a receiver. 

Once again, half-truths. This year, Blount not only has to shoulder these perceptions but also the ideas that he's overweight, over the hill (he's 30), and unable to hit holes during training camp. 

Blount's demise may happen, but there's not enough summer data for me to buy it from people who've been selling it every year since he left Tampa Bay. Some of these salesmen also sold Tyler Gaffney and James White as Blount's replacements last August. 

Remember Tyler Gaffney? I remember him at Stanford. He was a good college running back. I hardly remember him as a Patriot.

I remember Blount in New England and for a lot more than his 18 touchdowns last year. As he has been every year that I've started him as an RB2 available in the 10th round or later, Blount displayed nimble footwork, excellent hip flexibility to change direction, and the vision to see when he could maximize his short area quickness into gains that befit smaller backs.

 

Blount cut

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 12, 2016 at 6:33pm PST

 

 

 

Blount reversal of field

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 28, 2016 at 7:30am PST

 

 

 

RB Scouting note Blount

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 14, 2016 at 9:10am PST

 

 

Maybe age has caught up with Blount and maybe Blount has added some weight. But I'm not believing the preseason hand-wringing of Philadelphia beat writers who might be the latest in a long line of media that have misunderstood and underestimated Blount throughout his career. At his ADP and the strength of the Eagles' offensive line, I'm a willing investor. 

3. Who emerges after Julio Jones in Atlanta?

Matt Ryan earned top-5 fantasy production last year despite supporting one fantasy starter among his receivers and tight ends. Based on ADP, fantasy owners have strong beliefs in any player emerging as an every-week starter to support Ryan and Julio Jones

The top candidates are Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel. The conventional choice is Sanu. He's had the steadiest drumbeat throughout the spring and summer. He was also the big-ticket free agent in 2016. 

I'm not buying him. Sanu makes the athlete-first, technician-distant-second crowd of analysts check their collective drool reflex. However, he has (barely) one top-30 fantasy season as a pro and he was the No. 57 receiver last year. According to Atlanta writers, Sanu's best production came after the Falcons moved Sanu to the slot when Taylor Gabriel became a fixture in the Falcons' offense. 

I am buying Gabriel. Although he only finished nine spots higher than Sanu as a fantasy producer, he only played 13 games for the Falcons whereas Sanu had an entire offseason with the team. Gabriel was the No.31 fantasy receiver after his first game action in Week 3 and the No. 25 option after Week 10. 

I like Gabriel because he's more explosive and technically, a more proficient route runner than Sanu, who has greater power and rebounding skill but less reliable hands and routes. Gabriel not only stretches the field and opens underneath routes for Jones, Hooper, and Sanu, but he also earns big plays as a screen player, crossing route runner, and vertical receiver. He's a cheap fantasy WR3 with WR2 upside.

 

T Gabriel screen TD no. 2

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 27, 2016 at 12:33pm PST

 

 

 

T Gabriel 35 TD screen

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 27, 2016 at 11:21am PST

 

 

If I didn't earn value on the likes of Delanie Walker, Hooper has been my go-to TE1 after the 10th round all summer. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in Sunday's news, this is Matt Ryan's offense and Steve Sarkisian is adapting to it. In other words, it's Kyle Shanahan's offense with some Sarkisian tweaks to hopefully improve its efficiency.

Those plans include the diversification of Sanu and Gabriel's route trees. While Sanu has grabbed the preseason headlines among beat writers, I'm still inclined to favor Gabriel who has the superior route acumen.

 

 

T. Gabriel delivers

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 5, 2016 at 8:02am PDT

 

 With an ADP of WR61, Gabriel is a worthwhile question that I'll be entertaining on my squads this year. 

4. Will Carson Wentz's mechanics improve or are they too ingrained? 

Quarterbacking is a performance craft. As a former musician, I've learned there are many parallels between quarterbacking and playing an instrument. One of them is the layers of technical skill that supports a strong performer.

With unique exceptions, developing good technique takes years of repetitive work. It also requires intelligent work. Otherwise, that repetition can ingrain bad habits that can't be undone within the physical and performance expiration dates placed upon young quarterback prospects.

Some of these bad habits aren't career-killers. Brett Favre was still frequently bringing the ball up from his knee with his release while leading teams deep into the playoffs late in his career.

While many will argue this point, Tim Tebow's release didn't have to be a career-killer. Based on his rookie performance, it's clear that the Broncos could have created an effective offense around him. However, no team wants to go back 40 years in time and lean on a fullback-like quarterback with improvisational smarts, calm under pressure, and limited throwing ability. No wide receiver would have wanted to play for Tebow, fearing their lack of stats would make any second contract negotiation a lopsided deal in the team's favor.

My question about Wentz isn't about the upper half of his release. The elongated motion isn't that bad. He gets his elbow and shoulder set at the correct height before the release motion and that's correct technique.

The issue is his footwork. Wentz opened his stance too early in his release progression last year and this limited his velocity and accuracy on makeable throws. He also has a habit of not moving his feet in compressed pockets and he'll throw from lower-body platforms that hurt his accuracy.

When it happens, it looks as if his feet are stuck in cement.  Here's a mild example by Wentz's rookie standards—and unfortunately, his preseason efforts as a sophomore. 

 

Wentz int and thoughts on rookie mechanics

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 6, 2016 at 8:28pm PST

 

 

The question is whether Wentz can improve these mechanics to the point that they become second nature during the heat of battle. I'm not talking about the easy throws from the pocket, but when the pocket gets tight and he has to move, reset, and fire.

If he can do so, the odds of him becoming a franchise-caliber option with top fantasy production improves. If he can't do it consistently, the odds grow lower. This year will tell us a lot and the upside of his receivers will depend on it. 

5. Will Carson Palmer rebound?

His arm was an overcooked noodle at the end of last year. It's one of the reasons why many fantasy analysts declared his career over after performing as a top-10 option the year prior. 

I asked two sources—a former player, and a former scout—about Palmer's arm last year. Both said the attention paid to it was overblown. I was told that a high percentage of the quarterbacks suffer a significant loss of arm strength due to fatigue by year's end.

It's one of the reasons why we often hear the cliche about defense and the ground game winning championships. It's not because the passing game isn't an effective way to win; competent defenses have seen enough film by December to counter offensive schemes and they also know when certain passers are dealing with arm fatigue. 

The fact that JaRon Brown, Michael Floyd, and John Brown were essentially M.I.A. last season didn't help Palmer, either. Both Browns look rejuvenated and the coaching staff put Palmer on a program to conserve his arm. 

Will that be enough? 

If the Cardinals offense and its healthy receivers can deliver with greater efficiency, Palmer won't have to work as hard in the second halves of games and his production should increase with that efficiency. 

If not, the "Palmer is done" crowd will be right (and likely for the wrong reasons). 

6.  Will the Raiders defense remain an open gate for running backs and tight ends?

Last year, it seemed like I was showing tape of Oakland's defensive allowing a big run through the right side of its defensive front.  For a few years, we've also known that the Raiders are a great matchup play for opposing tight ends. Rookie Obi Melifonwu has that Kam Chancellor-like potential to eventually change the issue with tight ends. Mario Edward's return to health could also bolster the depth of defensive front.

Delanie Walker, DeMarco Murray, and the Titans offensive line will prove a strong test for an immediate answer in Week 1.

7. Will Ryan Shazier stop giving up big run plays?

Most regard Shazier as one of the top young linebackers in the game. He is. I love his speed, aggression, and skill in the passing game. It makes him an excellent defender on gap plays where linemen pull guards and tackles to a spot and Shazier can explode into that area.

 

Run zone at Shazier, not man

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 20, 2016 at 10:16am PST

 

However, Shazier's aggression sometimes hurts his team in the run game. The Dolphins, Cowboys, and Patriots are among the teams that authored big plays at the expense of Shazier's over-aggressive tendencies to make the flashy play rather than maintain the integrity of his assigned gap. This is what happens on zone runs where backs can press a crease and cut back. Shazier hasn't been as discipline against these teams.

 

Shazier gap integrity? No

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 14, 2016 at 8:58am PST

 

If Shazier remains weak against zone running games, the Steelers could be a nice boom-bust matchup for fantasy owners.  

8. Will Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa open a Sub Shop in the AFC West?

Bosa looked every bit like a top pick in 2017. Thanks to a position switch from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB, Ingram's emergence has been a slow burn. Last year we saw signs of the QB sandwiches that this pair could make.

 

Ingram-Bosa bread with smashed horse meat...pickle on the ground

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 31, 2016 at 8:33am PDT

 

Even when using the tandem from the same side, the duo proved they could produce sammies in a variety of situations. 

 

Bosa+Ingram=Disruption

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 23, 2016 at 2:55pm PDT

 

I always thought Ingram was an excellent 4-3 DE and never understood the Chargers' decision to make him a 3-4 'backer. I'm anxious to see if my early-career assessment on Ingram is proven correct this year. With Bosa commanding the attention he deserves, Ingram should be in for a double-digit sack total. If the Chargers' secondary stays healthy, this team defense could provide solid value. 

9. Will Alex Smith trust Tyreek hill like most quarterbacks trust its primary options?

Hill remains a polarizing player because some of the fantasy playing public believes he's a gadget player who will get "figured out." The other side believes that Hill is about to emerge as a player with skills in the neighborhood of Steve Smith, Sr. 

I don't question Hill's skills as much as I question Alex Smith. My evaluation theory on quarterbacks is that passers have to perform at a high level in some combination of these categories: 

  1. Academic/Technical: Retaining play calls, reading defenses, and refined technique as a quarterback. 
  2. Athletic/Physical: Arm strength, and favorable physical dimensions to help a quarterback make plays.
  3. Emotional Intelligence: The ability to tie together the first two categories and make plays in situations that a player cannot prepare for; intuition; and leadership. 

Smith has above average Athletic/Physical skill, and excellent Academic/Technical skill. As quarterbacks go, Smith is professorial in the Academic/Technical realm. Unfortunately, he doesn't have strong Emotional Intelligence.  

He doesn't trust what he sees and often acts only after a degree of hesitation that leads to inaccurate downfield throws in moments that the difference between winning and losing is confident and decisive reactions.

Smith's best wide receiver in Kansas City has been Jeremy Maclin. While competent, if not above average with the ball in the air, Maclin is not an athlete with "primary option" skills in this realm. Hill reportedly is. 

While this still remains to be seen about Hill, Smith also must prove that he won't hesitate to believe in Hill's athletic prowess when the coverage dictates the risk. Here's a good example of Smith doing this with Hill last year.

 

T Hill w spectacular grab

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 23, 2016 at 11:08am PDT

 

While a pretty catch, it's still not a 50/50 ball we'd see on a fade route where Smith trusts Hill to win the ball above the rim. If Hill is going deliver as a true fantasy WR1, Smith must show the confidence he rarely has throughout his career. The fact that Nick Foles targeted Travis Kelce in this fashion more than Smith ever has isn't a great sign that Hill will transform into an elite threat.

We'll find out soon.  

10. Can Jared Goff make the cut?

Most football analysts I know have written him off. They cite his stats that were among the worst in history for a rookie starter and project the slim likelihood that he'll develop because of the history of rookies with poor stats in that range who never worked past their abysmal first seasons. 

If you're only about getting the correct answer (then it's unlikely you're reading this post), then staying away from Goff is the statistically correct course of action. A quarterback with a horrific rookie year for a team that fired the coach that helped draft him and is now working with a second coach who may not be tied to him long-term is not a safe option relative to other young quarterbacks.

However, if it's equally important for you to get the correct reasons for the answer, then I have concerns about many of these attempts to correlate Goff's season with past history. How many of these statistical studies included the context of offensive scheme switches as radical as the Air Raid to the West Coast Offense? Did these studies have any baseline data that examined the quality of each team's receiving corps? 

I doubt any. 

As I've written about extensively, Goff learning the West Coast Offense would be like learning Chinese. Executing the WCO during his first year would be like getting dropped into Hong Kong, asking the first person he flagged down where to find the nearest bathroom while badly needing to use one, and getting this answer in Chinese spoken at a rapid rate: 

Sure, you walk five and a half blocks, look for the blue and yellow neon sign on the left about three flights up that reads, "Tasty Duck," and below it on the ground floor is a pink door. Ring the white button on the panel—not the red one, it doesn't work—and when the electronic locks click open, enter through the hall, go three flights upstairs and then down the hall past eight doors. The ninth door is a bathroom.

Most students of a new language need to be immersed in a culture for a period of time before they can follow an explanation this detailed when spoken in the rapid fashion of a native speaker. If their lessons were mostly in a classroom and practice sessions with a language partner, this situation would be virtually impossible for them to comprehend. Their brains are likely hung up on key words that didn't sound familiar and it forced them to miss what they otherwise would have recognized. The fact that they desperately need to use the bathroom wouldn't help either. 

This scenario is a lot like Goff entering a ball game against the top percentile of the world's football-playing athletes in terms of physical, technical, and intellectual skill for the game. While many new students of a language usually go to a new country with a buddy who either knows the language well or has a guide book and a dictionary, Goff's companions (his receivers) refused to watch game film with him on their own time. 

Even so, there were positives from Goff's first season that most glossed over. One thing I've noticed consistently is that Goff throws a nice deep ball and he wanted to be aggressive. 

 

Deep shot dropped

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 15, 2016 at 5:52pm PST

It's not a pinpoint throw but there's a good balance between having air under the ball with a decent amount of velocity for a pass that travels 53 yards from pitch to catch. Anytime a quarterback can deliver the ball 45-50 yards with this requisite velocity, his arm strength isn't an issue. 

Goff often showed a quick processor for a guy learning the West Coast Offense with verbiage and choreographed movement that is often the most difficult offensive scheme in football (don't get this statement confused with the Rams play calling decisions which were criticized as "high school like").

 

Going to back side read

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 28, 2016 at 9:38am PST

 

Here's another example of seeing the correct opening. He misses the throw due to a compressed pocket, but the recognition was there. 

 

Goff unable to follow through

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2016 at 2:30pm PST

 

Rams receivers also dropped their share of passes in critical moments last year. The Thomas drop in the first quarter of the Seahawks game shown above was one big-time example. Here's Brian Quick doing the same on a good tight-window throw in the middle of the field.

 

Rams WRs dropping tight window throws

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2016 at 2:27pm PST

 

Here's an on-time throw that bounces off Kenny Britt's hands in the red zone.

 

Goff (Britt) red zone INT

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2016 at 1:45pm PST

 

What isn't mentioned enough is Goff's pocket presence. He's good at executing small movements to avoid pressure in a timely fashion, reset, and fire with accuracy. A lot of quarterbacks can move, but they can't reset and fire accurately. This is where Wentz struggles more often than Goff.

 

Goff arm

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 28, 2016 at 9:38am PST

 

Here's another timely slide and throw on the move to his left for a first down. Goff often waited until the last moment to make his move in the pocket against interior pressure at Cal, and this is a positive against interior pressure.  

 

Goff vs pressure

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 20, 2016 at 7:21pm PST

 

While we're seeing a lot of short throws this preseason, Goff displayed skill in the intermediate game repeatedly last year. Here's a pinpoint throw after great recognition of the blitz and coverage behind it. 

 

Goff TD1

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onNov 28, 2016 at 9:31am PST

 

This year, Goff has a coach with a modern grasp of offenses, more receivers with a proven work ethic and greater skill, and a year of experience with West Coast Offensive principles.  Are the odds against him? Yes. Are they against him because of last year's stats? No, they are against him because politically, Goff's coach isn't tied to him, the team is still in rebuilding mode, and the NFL has a great deal of impatience with developing quarterbacks. 

However, if Goff shows improvement, he has much better receivers in Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp, who could deliver excellent value this year. It also means that those getting their shovels ready for Todd Gurley might also be premature. The examples above reveal that Goff has a lot of the tools. The question is whether he has enough.