This week is a RB-heavy Top-10. The next 2-4 weeks is that time of year where the RB market still has some viable options that may still be available as free agents or roster depth that fantasy owners are agreeable dealing away. Don't be disturbed by the focus on two defensive options; both sections have implications for popular fantasy options in most leagues.
1. A KC Masterpiece: The Chiefs offense is maximizing its talent, minimizing its limitations
I spent the past 24 hours watching all but two games (Cleveland-Baltimore and Indianapolis-Arizona). My favorite was the tightly contested Chiefs-Eagles game.
I get why Eagles fans love Carson Wentz. Despite the fact that he led NFL quarterbacks in fumbles last year, and his vertical accuracy requires enough work that it may never become a strength of his game, Wentz is a tough, resourceful, and athletic quarterback who can keep hope alive.
I'm also thankful that Philadelphia returned to a 4-3 defense last year. It's a joy to see Brandon Graham free to do what he does so well (My IDP dynasty squads with Graham and former Chargers 3-4 prisoner, Melvin Ingram, are mighty thankful). This Eagles duo were two of many reasons I enjoyed this game, but the primary reason was the Chiefs offense and the intelligence of the coaching staff to build a strategy that maximizes the strengths of Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, and Alex Smith while minimizing their weaknesses.
It means that Hunt will remain a for-real fantasy threat for as long as the Chiefs can maintain this scheme without defenses foiling it and forcing conventional looks that require a running back to pass protect. It also means that Smith has a strong shot of remaining a viable boom-bust fantasy starter with a relatively high floor.
It begins with Smith, who has never been an aggressive passer but has been taking successful shots early on. While there's a fun narrative that Patrick Mahomes' presence is motivating Smith to take more chances because the rookie is pushing for playing time if Smith falters, I don't think it's a valid storyline.
Chiefs writers have been detailing Smith's progress with the vertical game for the past 3-4 years and concluded that he was quietly improving in this area before 2016. If Smith's work during the past two weeks is more notable, take a look at the Chiefs' scheme.
Andy Reid and his staff have learned that Smith is a hesitant down-field thrower. From my observation, Smith has been less likely to take vertical shots if the route is not his first read and it's a timing route in a progression. He likes to make absolutely sure the player is open.
Unfortunately, the time Smith takes between seeing the necessary information to release the ball and actually begin his release is the equivalent of a cautious kid at pool's edge saying to his friends, "Are you sure the water's warm?... Are you really sure?...Really really sure?"
Smith can get into this routine on routes that break open into the middle of the field or with a safety over the top because it leads to interceptions or hazardous targets for his receivers. The Chiefs' scheme eliminates a lot of these routes and creates vertical plays that are the first read and based on its offensive strengths: Smith's ball handling, Smith's legs, and personnel versatility.
At Utah, Smith was one of the first big-time spread quarterbacks and a terrific runner from the position at the major college level. His years of work in the West Coast Offense have also helped him become a skilled executor of play action fakes. Because Smith's still mobile enough to break runs of 15-30 yards, the threat of him running remains a real concern for defenses and enforces gap discipline.
When Spencer Ware got hurt, the Chiefs lost its best pass protector at the running back position. I've detailed Hunt's issues as a young pass protector for the past two weeks in this column.
If you're one of the few stubborn folks who think Hunt is a good blocker because of one cut block where he two-bagged a pair of Bengals during the preseason, why is it that Hunt has earned one pass pro rep in two games? Why have the Chiefs preferred to have Smith work from formations without an RB assigned to the line of scrimmage despite Smith taking four sacks, five hits, and five hurries in the first half of Sunday's game?
Hunt should improve, but the Chiefs decided that it's better for Smith to know that he has limited resources than to count on a resource that can't yet be counted on. As a way to minimize this issue, Kansas City is spreading the field and using Hunt, Smith, Hill, Travis Kelce, Albert Wilson, and De'Anthony Thomas as ball carriers.
Not only are the Chiefs using these five players as ball carriers, they are varying the alignments of the runners. Hunt, Hill, and Thomas take exchanges from the backfield or motion from wide receiver alignments. Hill and Kelce also work from the wing and earn the end-around or shovel pass.
As I mention in the clip above, even short gains are successful because they set up bigger plays later in the game. Last week, Hill took a jet sweep to right end earlier in the game. This set up a fake jet sweep later that baited the Patriots into thinking Hunt was lead blocking for Hill on the same type of play, but he ran a bullet route up the seam and earned a mismatch with a defensive end for a long score. By the way, this play was so effective, CBS commentator Tony Romo astutely noted that Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels stole the play and used it against the Saints on Sunday.
The Chiefs set up the Eagles for the knockout blow with another pair of plays from this scheme. The first was a third-quarter run by Hill where he executed "orbit motion"—a common term FOX's Charles Davis used to describe Hill's pre-snap motion from one side of the field and back again.
On this play, Hill got the ball and earned the third-down conversion.
Note that Thomas as the player in the backfield and Kelce was at the right end as the lead blocker. While successful in keeping a drive alive, it also set up the game-winning touchdown where Hill once again ran orbit motion pre-snap with Thomas in the backfield and Kelce was as the wing back at right end.
The motion hinted at the same play where Hill work back to the right and Kelce would lead block for a run to the right flat. This time, Hill ghosts across the formation to the right, Smith fakes the read option to Thomas and delivers the shovel pass to a streaking Kelce behind three linemen sealing the Eagles front inside for a clean alley up the left side.
Kelce, arguably the best playmaking tight end in the game, hasn't had a bad gain on any of these shovel passes this year. Purely from a football standpoint, it's beautiful scheming and execution. For fantasy owners, it means that the Chiefs are content with using these formations with hybrid personnel to keep opponents off balance with runs inside or outside or passes short and deep to a variety of options.
Will defenses figure it out like the read-option with Robert Griffin III in Washington? Absolutely, but it could take most of the year. When they do, the Chiefs staff will hope that Hunt has improved enough as a pass protector that they can incorporate I-formation and single back sets with Smith under center and feel Smith will remain safe.
Until then, Hunt is a boom-bust RB1 with a reasonable RB2 floor. Hunt ran hard this weekend only earning two really strong creases in the contest. His effectiveness as a pass receiver presents enough scheme diversity for the Chiefs that he's not needed as a blocker for now.
The best player in this offense is Kelce. Despite the fact that if he were paired with an aggressive passer he'd earn 50/50 targets and have a higher ceiling, this scheme gives him quality PPR volume on well-blocked run designs that count as passes in addition to down-field work.
Hill is a solid WR2 with some boom-bust range that's as bad as bye-week production to as good as elite WR1 statistics in any given week. Don't be surprised if Wilson or Thomas have 2-4 weeks with big plays that put them into a bye-week tier of production. The difficulty will be predicting those outcomes and I'm not about to try.
If you have Hunt, Kelce, and Hill, congratulations (at least until we see a defense truly stymie them).
2. Justin Houston is on the verge of a monstrous year
It's necessary that I pepper this column with at least one, if not two, IDP takes each week. It's good for you. The more you learn about defense, the more astute you become about offense. It will help you with lineup decisions and personnel changes to the supporting cast of your fantasy options.
Outside linebacker Justin Houston earned some love last week and he was so good this weekend, I have to highlight him again. This one-arm move to bend the edge, transition inside the lineman, and disrupt Wentz is football art.
Houston isn't just an edge rusher. HIs work to disengage and dive across the face of his blocker to wrap Darren Sproles on an island is an incredible display of explosion and accurate tackling.
Sproles is 34 and the Eagles seem almost embarrassed to use him (they shouldn't be), but I'd argue he was still the quickest back on the field in Kansas City this Sunday. More on his fantasy value later.
Houston also forced an interception with this push off the edge that led to Wentz's throw careening off the edge defender's head and into the arms of a teammate.
Houston and the Chiefs' playmaking defensive unit will miss Eric Berry, but it's still good enough to keep game scripts close enough for Hunt to remain a factor between the tackles. While it's a good reason to love Houston's skill, if it's the only reason, I feel a little sorry for you.
3. trust and caution: a tale of two no. 11 wide receivers
There are two receivers that wear the No. 11 who earned new quarterbacks during the offseason (three, if you count DeSean Jackson, but there was really no reason to be concerned about him): Terrelle Pryor and DeVante Parker.
Thus far, Pryor has been a disappointment with his usage and performance. With Jay Gruden, it's likely that one drives the other. If Gruden's response about Samaje Perine leading to Week 2's contest was that he remembers fumbles (see Andy Reid and Kareem Hunt, Jay), I'm sure he remembers drops, too.
Pryor works hard on his craft, but he's essentially a third-year receiver—not just a third-year NFL receiver, a third-year receiver learning the craft of the position for the first time and doing so at the highest level. He still has kinks to work out with gray area targets like ones that arrive waist-high where either type of hand position would be acceptable if he could react fast enough to choose one rather than an amalgamation of both that won't be effective.
A greater concern is that Washington hasn't featured Pryor on deep perimeter routes or in the red zone the way that he was in Cleveland. I thought Washington was holding these plays for Pryor in reserve for the regular season. So far, I was wrong. There's still hope for Pryor to earn greater volume, but it's becoming clear after two games that Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed are the options in critical situations.
We're not seeing this problem with Parker and Jay Cutler. Then again, Cousins is the kind of person who probably doesn't like eating with his hands, his food touching, or anything considered unhealthy. Cutler is a dude you could probably take to a Shoney's food bar and his plate would look like an edible Tetris screen and Parker would be the jar of maple syrup he's spread over everything: the waffles, the eggs, the bacon, and even his cinnamon roll.
(Yes, I know that Cutler has diabetes. Don't go engineer on me, folks. I wasn't being literal.)
Watch these two plays below and tell me that I'm wrong:
I'm not ready to get excited about the Dolphins, but like an all-you-can-eat breakfast bar after a long hike or road trip, Parker, Landry, and Ajayi are an appetizing fantasy menu.
4. Alvin Kamara Progress REport
I love that the Saints are using Kamara in the passing game. I also get the excitement that many analysts have about Kamara's quickness and balance. While I don't want them to stop the hype train, I would make sure you have a plan to hop off if there's news that the track ahead isn't stable.
There are signs it isn't.
Like Pryor, Kamara needs to work on his hand position—even more than Pryor. It's impressive that Kamara runs by safety Patrick Chung without any manipulation needed on this go route. His technique with his hands is lacking.
Here's an example of passive hands position on a crossing route that Kamara should have caught.
Then there's Kamara's route running. In addition to the lack of nuance with the go route above, which is a back-handed positive due to his speed, Kamara slows down on a route later in the game that could have been a reception if he maintained his pace.
Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson still looks alright to me.
The problem is what Charles Woodson noted on ESPN, which is that he is not a fit for the Saints scheme as anything more than a red zone runner who might be used too predictably to be effective. Unless the Saints decide to scrap the passing offense because it lacks receivers who can help Drew Brees put points on the board at a rapid rate, I was wrong about the Saints having a good plan to use the veteran back.
I guess Fantasy Santa is about to go the way of Steve Smith, Sr., The Fantasy Easter Bunny...
5. Thoughts on Chris Carson
One down, three to go...that's what Sigmund Bloom's id was thinking when it saw the Seahawks deactivate Lacy as a healthy scratch against the 49ers. I didn't think Lacy was as bad as some made it out, but it is clear that he is the slowest and least versatile of the healthy options.
I also didn't see much from Carson during the preseason and Week 1 that excited me about his prospects.
This week, Carson showed me more than he did at any point prior.
This run below impressed me for his quickness in and out of cuts.
I am beginning to see why Seattle is excited about him as a contributor. However, we must remember that Seattle has been excited about Christine Michael, Thomas Rawls, Alex Collins, C.J. Prosise, and Eddie Lacy since Marshawn Lynch left the Emerald City, and I've got a feeling I'm forgetting at least 1-3 other backs that should be on the list.
Rawls is finally healthy, which was another reason for the Lacy scratch, and I anticipate we'll see more of him. Prosise dropped two passes in Sunday's game, but he was also used as a vertical target in the scheme and done in such a way that I don't think his role will diminish yet.
What this tells me is that Carson's talent is interesting and certainly worth having on a roster if you need a flex play, but I would not overpay for him with the hope that Seattle will "figure out" its line woes by midseason the way it did in 2015. It didn't figure them out last year and I'm not into paying a starter premium for a part-time option with promising production but struggling surrounding talent and viable competition.
If you get him cheap and get lucky with unfortunate injuries to the Seattle depth chart, good for you.
6. Samaje Perine's first extended opportunity
As I mentioned earlier, Jay Gruden remembers Perine's fumbles. Unfortunately for Gruden, Rob Kelley suffered a rib injury during the first half of the Rams game and had to leave the field after earning 78 yards.
Gruden divided the workload between Chris Thompson and Perine. Thompson had the greatest output, but Perine earned the most touches. Here's a sample of Thompson's explosive skills that work best on draws, screens, and delays.
One thing Mike Shanahan often did well was scout running back talent. Thompson was his selection. The veteran has true game-breaking skill when he can stay healthy. If Kelley is out for any length of time, Thompson could make a viable bye-week option for the desperate and potentially grow into something more.
However, I still believe Perine is the guy to own as a reserve who should grow into his role. Despite the poor box score production, there are things you should know about Perine's performance this weekend.
Washington was most successful running counter plays against the Rams defense during the first half. The Rams also didn't stack the box against Kelley on these plays and repeatedly displayed a lack of gap discipline to contain the edge and various players with those responsibilities got washed inside.
When Perine entered the game, Washington did not try to run the counter trey once despite its success up to that point. Odd. Then again, it was also odd that Washington was pushing Los Angeles down the field with this play and then opted to throw consecutive red zone fades when it had the defense tired out and on the ropes.
The Rams also began stacking the box with at least eight defenders when Perine entered the game, and the rookie displayed a considerable lack of patience with some gap runs. As the game progressed, Perine found his bearings and looked better, including multiple runs during a fourth-quarter drive.
Gruden has not proven to have an ounce of patience with young running back talent. He may be forced to do so with Perine. If so, I think he may be inadvertently rewarded.
7. Darren Sproles is still the best back on the roster for Philadelphia
Sproles is pound-for-pound one of the best backs in the NFL, and he's a strong fit for the scheme. Philadelphia has an athletic line that can reach the edge, the offense likes to play from the shotgun, and it still has a tendency to run a lot of east-west plays for the ground game.
Other than Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey, none of the backs on the Eagles roster have the combination of burst, agility, and vision to make the most of these plays. Pumphrey appropriately earned Sproles comparisons at San Diego State because he skillfully ran the pro-style ground game of I-formation plays like trap, power, ISO, and counter.
Pumphrey inappropriately earned the Sproles comparisons because people don't consider how special Sproles' strength, balance, and agility truly are. I rarely say this about players, but Pumphrey might be too small in dimensions and style to be an NFL running back. Sproles has never been too small.
This pass protection against Pro-Bowl inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was my favorite play of the week, and it offers a glimpse as to why Sproles can hold up in the Eagles offense as the lead committee back.
I know a few football analysts like myself who wish the Eagles would say, 'Screw it, Sproles is our feature back and we're running him into the ground as his one opportunity to be everything he could have been for years but teams were too chicken to try it.'
If they don't do this, I suggest they bring in DeAngelo Williams for a year. He'd be a fine fit for this scheme.
Expect Sproles to remain a top-36 fantasy back this year. He's No. 34 after two weeks and I believe there's more to come.
8. if the bear's offense were a classic western, Tarik Cohen would be the mortician.
You know those westerns where the gunfighter comes into town and the mortician is already measuring the hero for a black suit and a casket? After watching the Bears continuously lose important starters on offense each week, I'm wondering how there will be any other viable option than Cohen.
Kevin White and Cameron Meredith are gone, which means that Mike Glennon is throwing crossers, short outs, and slants to the middle of the field because these are the easiest to target without having any rapport with the reserves. This also makes life easier on the defense because it doesn't have to respect the entire field until the offense can prove it has a viable vertical game with perimeter receivers.
This weekend, the Bears lost its center and right guard and had to shuffle its line. In fact, they are down to their last reserve until Kyle Long can return from injury. This doesn't help Jordan Howard, whose game is predicated most on the timing, patience, and rapport that comes with his offensive linemen.
While all running backs need to develop a rapport with their line between the tackles, options with that "space player" element can at least do damage in the passing game or gadget plays. Cohen is that guy in Chicago.
This week, Cohen fumbled a punt that led to a downward offensive spiral after a well-contested first quarter. However, John Fox didn't pull a Jay Gruden with Cohen, putting the rookie back into the game for an inside run on the first series that the Bears got the ball back.
Cohen got the attention of the Buccaneers after last week's effort because Tampa assigned a safety to the rookie in the passing game. It didn't matter....
Cohen also delivered an effective cut block against a linebacker. I could nitpick the details of his technique, but he delivered it with a height that many backs won't dare.
I don't see Cohen as more than a flex-play with weeks of low-end RB1 upside in PPR. However, the Bears offensive line woes are creating game scripts where Cohen will be on the field as much as Howard, if not more.
9. Cam Heyward wrecked the Vikings offense (And Sam Bradford might not have mattered)
The Vikings rookie had some decent moments against the Steelers and it probably would have been better if Sam Bradford didn't hurt his knee again. Even so, defensive end Cam Heyward wrecked the Vikings offense with his performance against the left side of the Minnesota line.
Here's Heyward displaying excellent technique with his hips and hands to shove the guard into the backfield and disengage into Cook.
Here's another where he splits two blockers, rips underneath contact, and forces Case Keenum into a throwaway and a field goal.
Here's a rep where Heyward deposits the tight end into the backfield directly into Cooks' path and gets the first contact on the rookie. Unless Bradford would have changed the play calls into something more advantageous, I doubt he would have been able to counteract Heyward's work against the left side of the Vikings line.
If I'm correct, the Vikings offensive is far more matchup dependent than many initially concluded after Week 1's thrashing of the hapless Saints defense.
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," here is my short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Danny Trevethan: The Bears linebacker had two holding calls in pass coverage on third downs that led to scoring drives for Tampa Bay. In fact, the Buccaneers could have run away with this game if it continued placing DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans in the slot and ran them against Trevethan and Jerrell Freeman's substitute. They were getting great matchups during the first two series and didn't stick with it.
Kendall Wright: The contest was essentially over by the third quarter, but Wright dropped consecutive fourth-quarter targets in the red zone. Don't be surprised if a film evaluation of the Bears' second-half performances yields some changes to its lineup.
The Back Seven of The Cowboys Defense: The Broncos killed the Cowboys with pivot routes in this game. If you don't know what a pivot route its, imagine a receiver running a crossing route and just as he accelerates through the break across a portion of the field, he stops and reverses his field to the opposite direction. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and even tight end Virgil Green scored on these routes on Sunday. If I ever get a shot to play against the Cowboys as a slot receiver, the first route I want is a pivot.
Mike Zimmer removed Waynes from the game sometime in the fourth quarter.
Cowboys receiving corps: The Broncos limited yards after the catch from this receiving corps as well as any unit I've seen, often stopping Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Zeke Elliott, and the rest of the crew as soon as they made the catch. It was an impressive display as much as the Cowboys smelled more like a bunch of dudes who just docked a longline trawler.
Marquise Goodwin: He dropped a likely score at the Seahawks' 10 that could have been the game-winner.