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The Top 10: Week 15

Matt Waldman's weekly film notebook includes young QB love, RB updates, Dede Westbrook bringing the goods, big plays from heavy sets, Fresh Fish, and a gut-check of a Wow Play. 

kevin clark's football problem

The Ringer's Kevin Clark wrote a Monday morning piece lamenting the loss of Carson Wentz as bad for the NFL. I agree with the basic premise that losing an exciting and productive quarterback for the year is bad for the entertainment value of the 2017 NFL season.

However, I disagree with Clark's idea that aggressive, downfield passing is a worthwhile method of judging the entertainment value of the league.  While the term "egregious check-down offender" is clever, the argument that downfield throwing is more fun appeals to the lowest common denominator of fandom and he's better than that.   

Vertical passing is fun, there's no denying it. However, Clark's argument is based on the novel versus the sit-com mentality. There's nothing wrong with either, but Clark wants you to believe there is.

Considering that he's written good long-form pieces, I'm surprised that he doesn't recognize the parallels of the work that got him a job at The Ringer and offenses that don't pander to his simplistic idea of good football. If he did, he might appreciate the slow burn of a team like the Jaguars, whose commitment to power football and a terrific pass defense renders even the most physical teams in the league completely useless by game's end. 

His leading argument sounds like something a pop music writer would pose — one dumbfounded by trios of Roman numerals like IV-V-I and II-V-I and heaps tons of praise on the creative use of sampling of Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, and Ron Carter in Hip-Hop, but tells his readers at every turn that jazz is dead:

NFL quarterbacks throw short of the first-down sticks nearly two-thirds of the time on long third downs. The story of the modern NFL offense is that despite the athletes getting better and this generation of quarterbacks throwign more passes from high school on than ever before, NFL teams somehow took these pieces and gaves us the most conservative passing era of all time. It is, from an aesthetic standpoint, one of the most frustrating developments in the sport. Players that look likely to make the playoffs, including Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Case Keenum, and Blake Bortles, are all egregious check-down offenders. 

Clark knows (or at least he should) that teams throw short of the sticks because the athletes are better — they make defenders miss and break tackles. Go for the higher-percentage throw and let the receiver do the work. 

He must at least be aware of the idea that there's a far more worrisome shortage of talent at offensive line. If teams can't buy time for its quarterback, the passes get shorter and schemes cater to it. The Eagles also have one of the best and most athletic lines in the NFL. Nick Foles won't be as productive, but I wouldn't be surprised if Philadelphia sees a significant decrease in vertical attempts.

I'm more concerned with the underlying issue with Clark's points that are symptomatic of a larger issue I've noticed in recent years: No matter how the NFL and the media try to frame it, football is a 60-minute drama, not a series of 45-second video clips or Red Zone Channel segments.

What frustrates me most about Clark and other football writers like him is their desire to become more sophisticated with data of the game but not the intricacies of football technique and strategy. Vertical passing is fun; well-crafted drives that physically and mentally wear down opponents are not. Fast running backs who can break a run 80 yards are fun; smart running backs who can routinely earn 4-6 yards against defenses that put game-breakers on their ass 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage are not. 

I'd like to think that writers — especially a long-form writer of Clark's acumen —  would devote time to learning the subtleties of the game the way they did to initially gain a competency with words and storytelling. Games will always have a childlike nature, but there's a point where those analyzing the game and its players should approach it like grownups with jobs and learn its intricacies.

Then again, I know it's unfair of me to make this request in a sports media business that has taken a lot of good reporters and asked them to become glorified game show hosts. Fortunately, successful coaches could care less what the media thinks about the passing game.

1. the Goff-Wentz duel (was great while it lasted) and trey burton

Unlike Clark and other football media, I'm excited about the state of quarterbacking in the NFL. I don't have distorted memories of quarterbacks 15-30 years ago and how there were so many better passers on Sundays — and all playing at the same time! 

We don't value true greatness anymore. We overhype everything and everyone, and there's nothing between great and terrible. I don't agree with it.  

If there are 6-8 promising franchise quarterbacks in a given season, that's a healthy number. Even if we remove quarterbacks from the list that we expect will retire within the next 1-3 years from now, we still have several NFL passers who are good, very good, and great: Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garappolo (see below), Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins come to mind.

I'll let you argue amongst yourselves who fit each category and who I left out. Two passers who are on this list that I didn't mention are Wentz and Jared Goff, and Sunday's game was a fantastic duel for three quarters.

Although I've noted Wentz's footwork issues throughout the season, his poise in the pocket and field vision deserve praise.

 

Wentz pocket maneuvering

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 9:40pm PST

Here's a throw with great placement on a touchdown pass to tight end Trey Burton.

 

Excellent throw by Wentz to Burton

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 8:42pm PST

It seems like every week Burton earns significant playing time, he's delivering. Here's another target where he takes a tough shot working between defenders. 

 

T Burton

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 10:23pm PST

If you're seeking the next Delanie Walker (Ari Ingel's well-stated reference on Twitter this morning) — a receiver-first playmaker at the position who has developed slowly with his first team and will become a starter during his second contract, Burton is a terrific candidate 

Wentz's mobility has been a great asset and part of the long-developing drama of the NFL is the career arc of players. How will they respond to the potential obstacles that occur with surrounding talent, coaching, and injury? Will he have this kind of mobility and aggressive playing style in 12-18 months or will he change?   

 

Wentz on the move, protecting ball from edge defender and resetting shoulders to fire downfield

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 9:01pm PST

The scenario reminds me a little of Carson Palmer, who was always a pocket passer rooted in West Coast techniques, but he had greater mobility than many may remember. He wasn't Wentz, but the injury forced Palmer to adjust. If Wentz has to adjust, he'll have to address the issues that have plagued his dropbacks and setups or he may become a lesser talent. 

Although we think of Wentz as the creative quarterback in this Eagles-Rams duel, Goff's has excellent pocket presence and footwork. Where Wentz's athletic ability allows him to break free of the confines of a play that isn't working, Goff's skills afford him time to stretch the framework of the Rams' scheme while still operating within it. 

 

Goff’s excellent pocket maneuvering on display.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 8:33pm PST

  

 

Goff’s ridiculous escape and throw

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 10:42pm PST

Goff has "quiet feet." It's a valuable pocket-footwork trait that Tony Romo touched upon during the Rams-Saints game. Top pocket passers not only feel the pressure and avoid it, but they also learn how to manage it efficiently so they can deliver an accurate pass in tight confines when breaking the rhythm of the play isn't the best option. 

 

Quiet feet by Goff and strong placement

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 9:15pm PST

Goff performed well even with two injured linemen during this game. As long as his line isn't decimated, expect Goff to deliver long-term QB1 production. I anticipate Goff will be seen in the bottom half of fantasy media's top-15 at the position due to their caution about one-year wonders.  

It will make Goff a great buy in 2018 because unlike the quarterback in the next segment, Goff wasn't dealing with high expectations as a starter.   

2. I'm sold on Jimmy garappolo

I had concerns about Garappolo at Eastern Illinois. He had reactionary moments to pressure. Paired with the wrong team, Garappolo's game could have regressed to a place where Blaine Gabbert comparisons could have come to bear. 

Fortunately, that didn't happen and Garappolo worked with the best pocket passer of our generation. Last week, I said it would take something especially noteworthy to be higher or lower on Garappolo while he acclimates to the 49ers. 

I think I saw some of those noteworthy things and they are along the same lines of what I've seen from Goff: quiet feet and pocket toughness. These first two plays illustrate his skill at delivering the ball efficiently within a compressed area and/or timeframe and with the requisite power and accuracy for the rhythm of the play.

 

Garappolo with quiet feet

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2017 at 7:18am PST

 

 

More quiet feet and good adjustment to get power on the throw

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2017 at 7:33am PST

It was also encouraging to see Garappolo stand tall and make a throw with Jadaveon Clowney bearing down. As with any quarterback, too many of these hits can alter his attitude in the pocket but for now, Garappolo has shown poise and toughness. 

 

Garappolo stands in against Clowney

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2017 at 7:37am PST

His posture while throwing used to annoy me because it hinted of a passer worried about getting hit. However, his body of work shows that he's a quick-thinking, efficient thrower who often anticipates fast enough to protect himself from contact. As long it doesn't impact his results, I'm on board with him as potentially a low-end fantasy QB1 in 2018 if his key supporting staff stays healthy and intact.

He's a dynasty QB1 value based on what I've seen.  

3. upgrade the kc Ground game (for those hunt owners still alive)

To Hunt owners who listened to me and didn't start him this weekend, I can sleep well at night, thank you very much. If you didn't listen, then congratulations on truly owning your team. When a player exhibits sub-par production for nearly two months — and against multiple sub-par defenses — he's not a stud fantasy option with a must-start label.

Hunt and his supporting cast must prove they've returned to a level of competency. The Chiefs did so this weekend against the Raiders. 

 

A crease for K Hunt? No way...

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 1:43pm PST

 

 

Hunt earning double team v DT who again is turned away

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 2:02pm PST

 

 

2nd double team for Hunt to get 1st down

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 2:04pm PST

 

 

Plowing the Raiders D front like fertile soil

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 2:08pm PST

 

 

Signs of life from KC line

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 2:45pm PST

The only problem with these clips is that more of than a few of these runs came at the expense of a rookie lineman, and the Raiders right side of the defensive front has been vulnerable for two years. Although the season-long data on the Chargers' run defense is weak, the unit has improved. After giving up 611 yards during its first 4 games, the Chargers yielded 397 during its last 4 — including poor outcomes for the Patriots and Jaguars. 

There's still a greater than average chance that the Chiefs haven't corrected its problems. After all, the Raiders were an especially ripe matchup that the Chargers aren't anymore. However, if you don't have a hot option with a great matchup, I'd feel fine with Hunt in my lineups moving forward. 

4. Keelan cole earned the headlines, dede Westbrook is the goods

Rookie Keelan Cole is a speedster who is getting open and catching the ball. His biggest play of the weekend was a well-schemed play to beat the Seahawks' defense where it's weakest. 

 

TD to Cole: Crossing up the Seattle Def

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 7:12pm PST

Rookie Dede Westbrook is winning targets like a primary receiver. It's the difference between Cole and Westbrook that fantasy owners should understand — especially when weighing the long-term value of each.

 

D Westbrook doing what he did at OU

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 6:37pm PST

Wide receiver coach Keenan McCardell praised Westbrook for his strong hands. Combined with his quickness and ball tracking, Westbrook is routinely earning Blake Bortles' attention as the quarterback's first option on third downs. 

 

I don't remember if this is my second or third notice on Westbrook, but you've been advised.  

5. if Sunday is any indication, Peyton Barber will be the Bucs' starter 

This detailed look at Barber at Auburn will tell you more than what I could share from Sunday's game. However, I've written enough about him in recent weeks that you know he's been worth your attention. What's most telling about Sunday's game and Barber's potential elevation to starter was Doug Martin's performance. 

When FOX broadcast crew interviewed Dirk Koetter about Barber's play and if he'd remain the starter, Koetter told them that it wasn't fair to make a player the starter due to another's injury. That's a response that leaves the door open for a player to take the job when the incumbent returns. 

Martin had 2-3 decent runs and a reception during the first half, but his desire to create more than what was there also limited him. Martin then fumbled away a carry when he held the ball below his hip while bouncing a run to left end when the intended crease wasn't there. 

The Buccaneers pulled Martin late in the half for Barber and Martin didn't see the field for the rest of the afternoon. Barber is the biggest back on the roster with good lateral agility and quickness. He runs smart and tough. If I had to choose between Hunt and Barber during the next two weeks, I'd take Hunt. However, I wouldn't be surprised if Barber posts flex-worthy production that's closer to Hunt's output than we'd expect. 

6. FROM THE 'FANTASY IS LUCK' DEPARTMENT: JONATHAN STEWART'S 100-YARD DAY

At this time of year, the surprise performances — good and bad — carry added emotional intensity. The one that probably shocked most this weekend was Jonathan Stewart's 16-carry, 103-yard, and 3-touchdown outburst against a stingy Vikings defense that hadn't give up 100 yards to a back this year. 

Stewart benefited from a Panthers' gameplan to overpower the Vikings, stacking the box with extra offensive linemen and playing the numbers game against the Vikings defense. In a sense, this was about presenting an image of power but gradually "gaming" the Vikings into attacking the wrong gaps.

 

The plays that drive fantasy owners bonkers (good and bad) every year

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 3:17pm PST

 

 

Good gm planning and execution on Vikings who allowed its 1st 100-Yd back this season

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 4:22pm PST

Once, the Vikings were on notice with these heavy looks, Carolina switched it up with a QB keeper.

 

Variation of heavy set with Qb keeper routing the Vikings front

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 6:03pm PST

Yes, I realize there's an uncalled holding penalty on this play — stay focused on the forest, not the trees. Even so, Carolina out-schemed the Vikings defense and it benefited a fantasy option we didn't see coming. It's one of the twists that underscores the love-hate of this hobby.  

7. Browns creating mismatches with three tight end sets

The Panthers weren't the only team creating mismatches with heavy sets in a league where spreading the field has been a recent offensive trend. Cleveland nearly beat Green Bay this weekend, and the Browns generated big plays with three tight ends in the lineup. 

 

‪Using 3 TEs to create mismatch vs zone for Gordon‬

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 10:24am PST

 

 

More 3 TE with route option to Gordon

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 10:59am PST

Too bad DeShone Kizer didn't make the same read on this pivotal fourth-quarter play that could have helped the Browns keep the ball away from the Packers.

 

Wish the slant was thrown here

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 12:36pm PST

Cleveland had its chances. If Kizer reads the defensive triangle of the outside linebacker, safety, and cornerback correctly, he would have seen a clear one-on-one with Gordon on the slant. Unless Hue Jackson told Kizer to run the play as designed without any pre-snap adjustments — a possibility — Kizer missed a chance to convert a late 3rd and 2 with a lead and the ball.   

8. a difference between competent NFL starters and franchise quarterbacks

I like Kizer's potential in the right situation. Cleveland hasn't been that situation for a quarterback since Bernie Kosar. One of the issues Kizer has that is an underlying problem for many NFL starters is processor speed. 

I wrote about this with Kizer last year at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio site: 

When it comes to analyzing quarterback prospects, you can’t avoid a conversation about mechanics. There are so many physical techniques involved with throwing the football, it can be hard to keep up with them all and how they help or hurt the player.

If it’s not footwork of the drop, it’s the release motion of the arm. If it’s not the hip rotation, bend of the front leg. If it’s not the shoulders, it’s the opening of the chest.

Wonder why the smallest details matter so much to quarterbacking? Tap your foot twice.

Whether you know it or not, that’s the answer.

Listen to this song and tap your feet to every beat of the high hat.

 

 

Do it for as long as you need to memorize the tempo.

Two beats of that high hat were the difference between a long completion for Notre Dame and a pick-six for Stanford in a game this fall. It’s the span of time between when DeShone Kizer should have thrown the ball and when he actually released it.

It’s how fast a window of opportunity can open and close for a quarterback. And it’s why the smallest details that change in a defensive alignment just before and immediately after the snap—often within the first two steps of a drop—require an instant reaction that’s technically sound.

A quarterback has to develop instant recognition and reaction to what he sees. If he waits too long—even two quick beats of the high hat—he didn’t see the situation clearly enough to act.

Even when he does, his technique can’t slow down his reaction time or inhibit the precision of that reaction. During the play below, Kizer sees the receiver he wants to target at the right time but waits to release the ball for two beats.

 

 

There must be no doubt. A top passer like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees will even alter his drop depth or pace when he reads the post-snap opening so he can act on it. Kizer didn’t need to do anything but throw the ball on-time.

These two beats can also be the difference between a completion and a sack-fumble, an easy TD or an overthrown target, a pivotal victory and a season-ending defeat. Starting NFL quarterbacks see the field, top passers act with little hesitation.

Kizer sees the right things. The question is whether he’ll develop the knowledge and confidence to act on them.

The first-round starter I referenced in this analysis who often displays this hesitation is Alex Smith. While Smith has become a more aggressive quarterback in recent years, he still has moments of hesitation that frustrate former NFL starters and current quarterback coaches who've studied him. 

This sack from Sunday's game is a perfect example of Smith seeing what he needs to see in order to act, but he's hesitant to act on it. He's waiting for more movement from the safety as a form of additional confirmation that he cannot afford to take. 

 

I wrote about Smith’s tendency to process info a beat late on vertical reads and how that’s the difference between starters and top QBs

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 10, 2017 at 1:51pm PST

Rich Gannon told the CBS audience that the Chiefs staff was still working with Smith on this aspect of his game. After this many years, it's likely the improvement will only be incremental in nature. Don't expect Smith to hold off Patrick Mahomes for more than another year, at best.   

When it comes to acting on what he sees, Mahomes is better than any quarterback from this rookie class. He's also the most reckless. However, it's easier to get a risk-friendly player to pull back a bit than push a risk-averse player to the ledge.

9. Wow play: Ravens say 'put up or shut up,' and the Steelers do it

Hard-hitting and well-contested to the very end, I love Ravens-Steelers games. One of the best moments of the game came with a little more than a minute left with the Steelers down two points on 3rd and 5. The necessary backstory for the scene was the fact that Baltimore's Brandon Carr could not keep up with Antonio Brown whenever Baltimore put Carr on Brown one-on-one. 

However, it's one thing to throw deep on third down when the offense should earn another 5-6 series in the game, it's entirely different when it's do-or-die. Baltimore decided to put Carr on Brown one-on-one and dare Ben Roethlisberger to target him deep up the sideline. The Ravens decided on this play that they'd rather force the Steelers' hand without a protracted drive: complete the pass and win or miss the pass and lose.

Put up or shut up. 

I respect this about Baltimore. They know Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown better than any opponent in the league. They also know a 3rd and 5 go route up the sideline is a low-percentage play. They told Pittsburgh to prove it. 

 

Ravens tell Roethlisberger on 3rd and 5 with 1:08 left, ‘put up or shut up’ and he does.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 11, 2017 at 10:05am PST

Last night, they did with a great throw by Roethlisberger. It may not be a "wow" play from an athletic standpoint, but it's as true of a gut check you will see in a game.     

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 provide my weekly short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.

  • Browns Special Teams: Trying to maintain a lead, Cleveland's coverage team had four players directly in front of Trevor Davis, who proceeded to shake them within his first five steps of the return and peel up the left flat for a field-flipping return that set up the game-tying score.  
  • Vikings Receivers: The corps dropped five passes against the Panthers, including a high-point attempt from Stefon Diggs that went through his hands, careened off his helmet and into the arms of a Panthers defensive back. 
  • Raiders Defensive Line: The Chiefs moved Oakland's tackles and ends like the Raiders line had furniture sliders strapped to their cleats. When a defense elevates the slumping Chiefs run game to a match-up play, they're fresh fish.  
  • CB Trumaine JohnsonBefore leaving the game with an injury, Johnson cost his defense a 41-yard gain with a defensive pass interference call after breaking up a target intended for Alshon Jeffrey on a 3rd and 9 from the Rams' 33, Johnson got in the receiver's face. Instead of the Rams holding the Eagles to a field goal attempt with a 28-24 lead, Johnson gives the Eagles new life at the Rams' 18 and Philadelphia finishes the drive to take a 31-28 lead. 
  • Chargers Defense vs. TEs: If Kirk Cousins was more accurate on vertical routes on Sunday, Vernon Davis got open frequently enough against single coverage to have a huge day.
  • The Calvin Johnson Rule: The only thing I like about this rule is the irony of the name that everyone but the league office has given it. It's a ridiculous rule that befits a commissioner's office that has created a disciplinary and rules enforcement system that is arbitrary. If the ball never hits the ground after the player hits the ground or displays possession in-bounds, that's a catch. Otherwise, we could argue that a runner crossing the plane with the ball must maintain possession after he crosses the plane. Let's be fair about it. If Adam Thielen's corner fade isn't a catch, then Jonathan Stewart's diving score where he extended the ball over the goal line — which was knocked loose after it crossed the plane — is a fumble, not a touchdown. Actually, let's not — the officious behavior of our league's administrative body is already a problem. 

The film tells a compelling, insightful, and useful story, especially for fantasy owners.