A Few quick thoughts
This Top 10 could have been the Top 12 or Top 15. One storyline that will be elevated to this week's Gut Check column is Jared Goff's continued development. If you're a weekly reader of this column since its 2016 inception, then you know I preached patience on Goff while noting the odds stacked against him due to the severe impatience of organizations that succumb to public pressure often generated by a social media-fueled football media that seeks to titillate more than educate.
Goff hasn't arrived, but he has proven that his surrounding talent and coaching staff were massive anchors that weighed-down his rookie performance. I'll offer more analysis and updated fantasy recommendations on the Rams offense on Wednesday.
Other stories that could have made the cut include DeMarco Murray remaining the man in Tennessee's ground game. Cincinnati edge rush Carl Lawson's 3.5 sacks of Aaron Rodgers and my failure to add Chris Thompson as a preemptive addition to your rosters last week despite having him in my notebook listed under "preemptive picks to mention."
Quick thoughts on those three late cuts:
- When media and fantasy analysts tell you that a player looks old, it's a 70/30 proposition that they are projecting bias for athletic ability and against subtle skills that they cannot articulate. Derrick Henry is a fine player and if Murray gets hurt, Henry should easily become a fantasy RB1. Even with Murray still the man, Henry may earn low-end RB2 production as Kevin Mack to Murray's Earnest Byner is this throwback Tennessee offense powered by maulers like Tyler Lewan. Don't get sucked in by the "old" talk. I could name 20 guys during the past 5 years who were saddled with the "old" label well before their production left them.
- Lawson is one of the most entertaining young edge rushers I've seen this summer. Although the Packers left tackle was an injury sub, Lawson's accuracy with his hand placement to gain leverage on his opponent was spectacular on Sunday. Lawson's technique and motor versus Aaron Rodgers pocket presence were one of the best "games within the game" of Week 3's contests.
- My apologies for neglecting to mention Thompson last week as a preemptive pickup. Fortunately, most of you read our Upgrades, Downgrades, Waiver Wire feature and found him there. Thompson was a dynasty stash of mine in multiple leagues, but I lost my patience or couldn't justify making room for him. With Washington clamoring for the more refined, but oft-injured Josh Doctson and without Josh Reed, Thompson becomes a viable every-week flex with starter upside.
Time to unveil the storylines that made the cut.
1. New offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is a great fit for Joe Mixon's skills
The Bengals replaced coordinator Ken Zampese with Lazor this week. Chip Kelly's offensive principles have a prominent influence on Lazor's work. Although there are only so many changes that a team can make when there's a change of his magnitude days before a game, Lazor's influence was still easy to see.
The offense employed more run-pass options to help Andy Dalton get rid of the ball faster than he had in the prior system, employed a lot of perimeter runs originating from the shotgun, and found ways to target A.J. Green on quick-hitting plays. The greatest change was the increased usage of the rookie Mixon.
When you think about running backs in the Kelly offense, the top name is LeSean McCoy. The strength of McCoy's game is the ability to work sideline-to-sideline before cutting downhill. Not many backs in the NFL have the combination of vision, quickness, footwork, and balance to produce on run plays from the shotgun that don't put the back in an immediate down-hill track. McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Devonta Freeman, and LeVeon Bell are four veteran backs with the skills to thrive in this scheme.
Add Mixon to the list. In fact, I think it will be a fantastic fit.
Shotgun runs require quickness to go from east-west to north-south and make a second or third move once a back is in the crease. It also requires the strength to run through reaches and glancing blows. Bernard can do it, but he doesn't have the every-game potential to wear down a defense and allow the offense to dictate its terms in the fourth quarter the way that the Titans backs did with the Seattle defense on Sunday.
Mixon does. These two cuts on the run below remind me of Ryan Mathews at his best. If you forgot, Mathews was a much better fit for the Eagles' Chip Kelly offense than Murray.
The pad level on this play is special. I haven't seen a back run this low to finish a play since Edgerrin James, who had the best pad level of any back I've seen. Mixon only takes two steps with his pads this low before falling to the ground, but there aren't any runners who can consistently get this low with their backs flat after they've accelerated, much less take more than a step.
This wasn't the only play that reminded me of James. This cut from a pistol alignment is as James-like as it gets.
This cut requires great strength and balance and what I'm highlighting with these clips are specific to what Mixon can do as opposed to what the Packers defense couldn't without Nick Perry, Davon House, and Mike Daniels. This is the difference between evaluating talent and conflating talent evaluation with a strength of opposition. If a talent evaluator focuses on the correct things that a player can control during a given play, he won't be led astray by things outside the player's influence.
Mixon is a special talent. Some readers have already passed judgment on Mixon after he punched a female student while he was in high school. I get it.
However, I'm a football analyst. It means I'm not a superior court judge, a county prosecutor, an athletic director, head coach, or NFL general manager.
I study player talent. If you have an issue with Mixon playing professional football, I suggest you get more involved with local and national politics to push for changes to the criminal justice system. If you have an issue with Mixon being on your fantasy team, I also understand your point of view. May I suggest that you do something proactive the next time this scenario occurs and lobby to have your leagues make players ineligible under whatever conditions you deem suitable?
With that said, let's go back to Mixon on the field. In addition to his skills as a runner, Mixon already has a terrific feel for the passing game, which includes more than simply catching the football. There are a lot of backs who can catch like wide receivers. There are fewer young prospects who can consistently navigate the traffic of the line in the screen game. I believe Mixon will be one of those exceptions.
Jeremy Hill earned the start, but Mixon out-touched both HIll and Bernard in this game and I believe that's a trend that will continue. Lazor's offense could begin showcasing Mixon, who earned 21 touches on Sunday. Mixon won't always overcome the Bengals' line woes, but Lazor's system of RPO's, quick-hitters to Green, and play types that allow Mixon to showcase his agility is the best chance Cincinnati has to overcome its early struggles.
Expect much more Mixon retroactive Sunday.
2. HOW LONG CAN JORDAN HOWARD LAST?
Howard's 100-yard day against Pittsburgh was a fantastic display of grit. The second-year back had to leave the game twice after falling on his sprained A/C joint, but he returned and produced each time—including the game-winning score in overtime after the officials failed to see that Tarik Cohen's 75-yard touchdown run actually stayed in bounds.
When Howard was on the field, he used his good shoulder to power through contact and work behind a surprisingly effective Bears line that was down to its last reserve. This week's return of Kyle Long couldn't have been better timing.
The Bears also did some creative work from the I-formation, running variations of counters and misdirection that exploited the Steelers linebackers—a fast and aggressive unit that likes to shoot gaps as early as possible to disrupt its opponents. The downside is they can shoot the wrong gaps or shoot too soon and get creased by a cutback runner or a powerful option like Howard.
Unfortunately, Howard's right shoulder became a growing concern. As the game progressed, Howard would not allow a teammate to pull him to his feet with his right arm. In fact, that right arm hung limply at his side after each carry. By the fourth quarter, Howard bounced a run outside and later, turn his back to oncoming hits rather than expose his shoulder to additional trauma.
I asked Jene Bramel about Howard's rest-of-the-season outlook:
"What you see is what we've got with Howard, unfortunately," says Bramel, "Every time he takes a hit he'll have enough pain to struggle for a few snaps. Every time he takes a hit, it'll make it harder to heal. Chicago's bye is in Week 9, too. It's going to be tough if he continues playing."
I don't see it happening. If you ask me, the Bears are about 2-3 weeks away from losing him for an extended period of time. A curious development to the story is that Howard does not appear on the Bear's Week 4 injury report. I'd be skeptical of Howard making it to Week 9 without missing 2-3 weeks to heal.
It could further inflate Tarik Cohen's value. The rookie welcomed Ryan Shazier to his rookie life multiple times in this game. He also had the game-winning run if not for an inaccurate call along the sideline.
Then again, the officials also arguably blew a holding call on the wide receiver that helped Cohen get the edge. Considering that Chicago wide receivers caught one pass in this game, Cohen will remain a big part of the offense regardless of Howard's health status.
3. PREEMPTIVE PICK ALERT (YOUR SECOND CHANCE): CLEVELAND WR KASEN WILLIAMS
I think the range of Douglas-Jennings is a good spectrum of what to expect from Higgins at this point. I'd hedge to the lower end because he lacks the caliber of veteran quarterback and receiver talent that can help a receiver become a better pro. Jennings had Favre, Donald Driver, and Robert Brooks to begin his career. Demaryius Thomas became an infinitely better route runner when Peyton Manning came to Denver and Emmanuel Sanders' attention to detail in this area reinforced the importance of leaning on more than physical talent.
The Browns have Kenny Britt and quarterbacks with a year of experience, at most. Then again, the Browns also let Willie Snead and Taylor Gabriel join other teams and both have shown enough to become preemptive pickups in their own right.
The greatest issue for Higgins earning long-term success is that if he remains in the slot, the Browns still want to use two tight end sets with Seth Devalve and David Njoku. Because Njoku also showed up this weekend, it wouldn't be surprising if the use of 12 personnel sets is as much of a limiter of Higgins volume as his quarterbacks.
If Higgins succeeds, he'll likely have proven that he can win as an outside receiver against corners who don't typically play in the slot and he can do so against physical play. Higgins is a worthwhile cheap pickup to see what he can do with extended time, but I'd continue monitoring the development of the receivers on the depth chart who play on the perimeter.
One of those players was Kasen Williams, who most were surprised the Seahawks cut after he repeatedly got the best of Xavier Rhodes, arguably one of the top five cover corners in the league. Williams was a healthy scratch the week that Higgins earned his promotion from the practice squad. As I mentioned last week, I believe the inactive designation was as much about seeing what uber-athletes Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis could do.
Neither Coates nor Louis has consistent hands, route acumen, and ball-tracking skills. Louis's issues aren't as problematic as Coates, but they are unfortunately more athletes than wide receivers when comparing them to other NFL starters. Williams is a more polished receiver who may not have some of Higgins technical refinement, but he's the best blend of all of the Browns receivers' positives.
Williams' greatest strength is boundary routes, which also dovetails nicely with Deshone Kizer's most accurate decisions.
This was the only catch that Williams made against the Colts. However, the box score won't tell readers that Williams earned another target that may indicate more work is on the way—just like he told the media the week before the team deactivated him. One of those targets was on 4th and 10, and it drew a defensive pass interference call. The other was this one below.
Williams is likely at fault for his miscommunication of the route break. While it's a big mistake, it's also a common one for new receiver-quarterback pairings and an understandable one when considering that Williams spent the entire preseason with the Seahawks.
Notably, Cleveland chose to use Williams as the single receiver in this run package in the red zone during the fourth quarter and the lead within reach. NFL coaches don't use players in these situations that they don't value highly. Kenny Britt should have been that player, but he dropped multiple passes in this game. Louis is the superior athlete, but he also dropped multiple targets. Higgins earned multiple pass interference calls working from the slot and he struggled on the perimeter at Colorado State when he faced physical defenders.
Williams' game has a film portfolio filled with fade routes and YAC plays. If you're in a deeper league and have the luxury or desperate for receiver help and the pickings are slim, Williams is the cheap option worth stashing. Consider it your second notice.
4. Jacoby Brissett will keep your Colts options serviceable
If you don't watch college football or didn't see last year's start for the Patriots, then Sunday's game with the Browns would have helped you gain insight as to why the Colts traded for Brissett. The N.C. State star bears stylistic similarities to Andrew Luck: He's big, athletic, and adept at buying time to deliver an accurate downfield target.
And when he doesn't have to buy time, he's confident with his reads and gets rid of the ball fast and with the proper placement. This throw from the back of the Colts' own end zone indicates that confidence and good mechanics.
Tom Brady told the game's broadcast crew that Brissett was just getting comfortable with the Patriots offense and listed a variety of positives about the quarterback's game. The negatives were mostly enhanced mental components of quarterbacking that come with time as a starter. Considering that Brissett can buy time, he'll still make plays when the refined actions are temporarily beyond his grasp.
If someone tries to sell T.Y. Hilton high this week, I'd entertain the offer. The Colts are doing a good job of working him free with concepts that aren't difficult for any quarterback to read. Here are two looks at the same 61-yard touchdown with a discussion about the alignment and how it encourages YAC in the same way that Steve Sarkisian is employing with the Falcons offense.
Keep in mind that I'm touting Brissett as a reason to value Hilton, Gore, and to some extent, Donte Moncrief. However, Brissett is a viable two-QB flex in leagues with 14 or more teams or a bye-week option in leagues where injuries and QB hoarding become obstacles.
5. Pat Mahomes remains a preemptive stash due to chiefs pass protection schemes
I love most of what Chiefs offense is doing and it worked well against the Chargers defense on Sunday. One exception is pass protection for Alex Smith. I noted last week that Smith was sacked, hit, and harassed multiple times against the Eagles. This week, the Chargers sacked Smith five times.
This is a by-product of working with a lot of empty sets or sending running backs on pass routes without any blocking assignments. Kareem Hunt only had one pass protection assignment against San Diego and no defender broke free for him to take action.
Smith is a physical player, but he's taken 12 sacks in 3 games—3rd most in the league behind Houston and Green Bay. If that unfortunate moment arrives in 2017 where Smith leaves the field and doesn't return, Mahomes may have some inexperienced rough spot but his mobility, arm, and creativity could lead to big weeks regardless of his rookie status.
6. forget tyler LOCKETT, Paul Richardson is your end of roster receiver
Hear me out. You know I'm a Richardson fan from way back in the day at Colorado. Any bias you think I have shouldn't matter when you consider who earns more critical targets. The answer is Richardson.
While the development curve remains slower than what fantasy owners hope to see, Russell Wilson is clearly gaining trust in Richardson as a go-to red-zone option in the fourth quarter of games. Last week, Richardson earned the game-winner against the 49ers; this week, he put the game within reach with a score on a double slant.
Before that target, Richardson also earned a vertical target in the red zone that he nearly caught.
This "trust factor" in the red zone has been something that Pete Carroll and Wilson have been sharing about Richardson since the preseason of 2016 because they've seen him do this kind of work repeatedly in practice against Seattle's first-team defense. This is not Lockett's game. Lockett, at best, bears limited similarities to Doug Baldwin and I think that's a bigger stretch than most might think. He's more explosive, but not as well-rounded.
No Seahawk beyond Baldwin, Russell Wilson (as a committee QB), and Jimmy Graham are slam-dunk options to have on your roster. That includes Chris Carson for the reasons I stated last week unless you're simply a volume follower who doesn't care about context as much as touches. If that's the case, I still preach caution about whom you drop to acquire him due to the offensive line woes.
If you need a receiver, Richardson's target volume has been at nearly six per game. He's averaged just below three catches per game, but the fantasy intensity of his targets is high. It means the targets are vertical routes or red zone routes that potentially yield points in chunks. They are high-risk, lower percentage plays where sometimes he'll have little chance to make a play on the ball. However the potential reward has been there for Richardson every week.
He remains the starter and all the narrative predicting that Lockett is overtaking Richardson (Lockett is averaging four targets per game after his nine-target outburst in Week 2), needs to be walked back a bit. That said, if Doug Baldwin misses time next week, both Lockett and Richardson are worth consideration.
Lockett could earn more temporarily volume but Richardson's red zone and vertical targets are a constant that I'd prefer unless Baldwin somehow missed the season and all reports indicate that his injury is minor.
7. is Jamaal Charles back?
Charles will never be the player he was in Kansas City, but he's a lot closer than we anticipated. His cuts are crisp and the initial quickness is strong.
With Devonte Booker returning, there will be a lot of questions about the Broncos backfield. I'd be shocked if Booker cuts into either back's playing time significantly. Charles is a strong pass protector, excellent receiver, and he's earning red zone looks. The red zone opportunities are often a seal of approval from a coaching staff about a player.
We probably won't seen huge spin moves and jump cuts that span the width the line of scrimmage—things Charles did in his prime as an athlete—but like LaDainian Tomlinson with the Jets, Charles' athletic ability is still within the realm of an NFL starter and his conceptual understanding of the game is higher than most runners. He'll likely retain a split with Anderson or Booker if one of these two runners gets hurt. Don't count on him as a full-time starter, but he offers valuable flex and bye-week appeal.
8. Are Charles clay and Tyrod Taylor finally developing a connection?
There was a story from a Bills broadcast crew at the beginning of 2016 that Rex Ryan's staff compiled clips of all the plays where Taylor didn't target an open Clay the year prior. Whether it was Taylor or the staff's inability to deliver actionable coaching, there wasn't a significant improvement. In 2015, Clay earned 77 targets, 51 catches, 528 yards, and 3 scores. In 2016, Clay's stats earned a minor increase to 87 targets, 57 catches, 552 yards, and 4 scores—good for 18th among fantasy tight ends and 9 points shy of Jack Doyle's No. 12 spot.
There was a notable break in fantasy points between the starter tier (top 9) and the committee tier (10-18) last year. Clay has starter ability in a system that takes advantage of his downfield speed, and open-field running. The problem may have been how to integrate him into the offense with what Taylor does well.
One of the plays from the Bills' victory over the Broncos that caught my eye was a designed route that was well-integrated into the Bills' use of play-action bootlegs and crossing routes. This is important to fantasy owners because the Bills like to run the football and they do it well. When their opponents have to stack the box to stop the run, it forces the secondary to play a lot of man coverage.
The best way to beat man coverage is crossing routes. This is why the Bills were content with acquiring Jordan Matthews and Anquan Boldin (before he retired)—both crossing route specialists. The offense knows what defenses do to stop the run, so the play-action crossing route is a well-known and effective counter to opponents stacking the box.
In this game, Taylor threw a crossing route to Mathews that reached the Broncos red zone and the subsequent play paired with it yielded a nice wrinkle for Clay that works well with Taylor's skill as a scrambler. Here are the pair of plays.
So far, Clay is on schedule for 69 catches and he already has half of the touchdowns he scored in 2016. If he can get within 65 catches, 650 yards, and 6 touchdowns, he could be on the verge of reliable fantasy production at his position. He might be worth a throw-in to any trade where you are deadlocked on the main options because you can't arrive at a player to tip the scales to complete the deal. Currently No. 5 among fantasy tight ends this year, I bet there is still a pervasive attitude that the production won't last.
I think it's worth risking that it might.
9. Tevin Coleman improving, but Devonta Freeman sets up everything this offense does well
I was one of the initial analysts in our community to tell people that Freeman was the better player when the Falcons drafted Coleman. The former Indiana star had the superior speed and size but lacked the footwork, vision, balance, and pad level that Freeman exhibited. Moreover, Coleman lacked the advanced conceptual understanding of how to run the outside zone at the pro level despite running that scheme at Indiana.
The film reflected the context of his college production, which had a lot of boom-bust carries. Even a Big Ten, ACC, or SEC program can lean hard on a big-time athlete with huge swings of inconsistency like Coleman because the caliber of talent wasn't good enough to consistently prevent Coleman from generating 50-120 yards from 1-3 explosive runs per week that had more to do with his speed than his manipulation of the blocking ahead of him.
That changed in the NFL. Despite some early flashes of that speed and momentum-generated power that got fantasy owners excited enough to say that he was better than Freeman, they were mistaken. By the end of Coleman's rookie year, Kyle Shannahan even broke away from his prized outside zone scheme to use gap runs that were simpler decisions for Coleman so the rookie could help the team.
Not that gap schemes are better than zone schemes, but Shanahan making the switch is a little like asking Gordon Ramsay to make vegetarian dishes after you hired him based on what he's best known for cooking. Even now, Coleman is better on plays where he has a simpler decision of 1-2 alternate gaps within close proximity of his original destination.
This has nothing to do with Coleman's intelligence. The issue is his ingrained style of play. Coleman is a hard-charging, fast-accelerating back whose power is based on gaining momentum down hill. This is based on his stride and pad level, which are ingrained qualities about runners by the time they finish high school.
The only back I remember successfully changing his stride during his college career and having success as an NFL player is DeMarco Murray, who ran with greater abandon and flexibility along the lines of Reggie Bush when he was a freshman. Injuries forced Murray to adjust to a smaller, conservative stride.
Coleman's stride fits great for a ground game where he can outrun opponents to a point (sweeps, and outside zone without cutbacks) or make little to no change of direction near the line of scrimmage (traps, draws, power, fullback leads, and counters). That's not a perfect fit with the zone running game where slower, patient approaches that rely on multiple choices at the line and cutback ability rule the day.
That said, Coleman has gradually improved his footwork so he can alter his stride enough to manipulate defenders near the crease even if he'll never be the cutback artist the caliber of Freeman.
My analysis of Coleman should indicate why it was Atlanta's priority to give Freeman a new deal. Coleman will be nice to have next year because his explosive speed in open space puts a lot of pressure on defenses when he and Freeman are on the field at the same time. However, defensive coordinators have more respect for Freeman's ability to create yards when plays aren't well-blocked, convert short yardage plays, and earn yards after contact.
Freeman's running is what this offense is based on. Here's a two-part (about 2-3 minutes) demonstration of the play-calling Atlanta used against the Lions on a drive where Freeman's work set up everything that this offense typically does.
Part I of Atl using the edge to set up its playcalls pic.twitter.com/Zfl6SPk67K— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 24, 2017
Part II of ATL setting up Detroit on the edges pic.twitter.com/zjM69AmDxX— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 24, 2017
Because of Freeman's work prior to Coleman's entry into the game as the sole back, the Falcons' lead back doesn't even need to be on the field to have an influence on the defense.
I think Coleman will be a highly prized free agent this winter, but if he doesn't join a team with a gap scheme, I think he could be inconsistent and a disappointment for those expecting big things. On the other hand, Freeman won't miss Coleman's contributions on the field at all.
If Freeman isn't an elite runner, he's as close as you can get without being one.
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.
Trae Waynes: The Vikings cornerback earns a lot of work thanks to Xavier Rhodes. Unfortunately, Waynes has had issues maintaining the correct depth as an off-coverage defender in man and he's let multiple receivers run by him in recent weeks.
Tampa Bay Defense: The Buccaneers opted to stick with two-linebacker alignments this week when Kwon Alexander could not play. The Vikings ran over them with Dalvin Cook, who consistently reached the secondary thanks to an undermanned, overwhelmed second level of the defense.
Trevor Siemian: The Bills saw on tape that Siemian makes bad decisions when forced to drift from the pocket. E.J. Gaines benefited most from Siemian attempting off-balanced throws that his body can't cash.
Broncos receivers: Denver decided to pick on rookie Tre'davious White this weekend only to discover that pushing the new kid would lead to a quick comeuppance. Despite giving up a couple of big plays, White held his own against Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. He was especially good at limiting their yards after the catch, which is a big component of the Denver offense. When defenses limited YAC, passing games disintegrate. That's what happened over the course of Sunday afternoon.
Kenny Britt: He dropped two more targets on Sunday and the only significant target he converted was one of Hue Jackson's 3x3 empty personnel sets that confused the Colts pre-snap and allowed Britt to run free.
Chargers Defense: Despite earning five sacks and getting strong play with the tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, they also lead the league in missed tackles. I doubt that changed after this team missed even more makeable tackles against Kareem Hunt.