This Top 10 could be the Top 12 or Top 15 every week. Here are some quick thoughts on some of these late cuts from the feature: :
- Alvin Kamara remains exactly what I thought he was pre-draft: He runs hard, displays excellent balance through contact when he generates momentum, catches the ball well, and operates best in space. When the Saints don't get him the ball on screens and other passes beyond the line of scrimmage, the offense hands Kamara the ball when opposing defenses are expecting the pass. It doesn't mean that Kamara won't develop into a complete runner, but he hasn't proven that he's an every-down back as a rookie. Fantasy owners should remain thankful that he's matched with a team that understands who he is as a player and how to use him.
- I've said this for a couple of years, but Tevin Coleman is exactly how the Bills described him to the CBS broadcast crew before the game: A one-cut runner who can't produce with multiple moves the way Devonta Freeman sets up opponents or avoids trouble. What Coleman has is speed and momentum-generated power. Atlanta is using Coleman more often with a fullback lead and it's a productive pairing. If and when Coleman is a free agent, hope that there's a good match for him with a team that understands this and has the personnel to support it.
- The Patriots defense is so bad that I was wrong on Sunday morning's Audible to expect them to at least stop Cam Newton and a struggling Panthers offense. In addition to what I'll share about Devin Funchess in this column, Carolina used a lot of misdirection and pre-snap motion concepts that the Chiefs used in the season opener and it often confused New England's defense. While I was wrong to underestimate how bad the Patriots defense is, I'm not doing a 180 on the Panthers unit, either.
- Christian McCaffrey looks good as a runner, receiver, and pass protector. However, the Panthers need more reliable weapons that will open the field for McCaffrey. I don't think it happens this year, which means the chunk plays for breakaway scores that the rookie is capable of delivering won't come as often this year.
- It was a sample size that I fear is too small to act upon with any level of confidence, but Aaron Jones looked more comfortable as a runner than Jamaal Williams. Jones demonstrated a patience and looseness that I was used to seeing both backs show as collegians. Williams has been stiff and more likely to ram into the line of scrimmage as if he's bought into the simplistic characterization that team and the media have described him to be this summer. Jones may still have a short-term opportunity to earn more playing time, but I would look at Jones as no more than a change-up worth 4-6 touches if he can displace Williams as the No. 2 and prove his pass protection has improved since his career at UTEP.
For film examples of these items and more, you can follow my Instagram account that I use to research this column.
Time to unveil the storylines that made the cut.
1. Carson Wentz: Where he's improving, where the Eagles are adjusting
One of the best explanations of Wentz's mechanical deficiencies came from this video interview and demonstration of throwing mechanics from National Football Academies' Dub Maddox. I don't endorse a lot of products, but if you want to learn more about football—and specifically quarterbacking—Maddox is among the best you can find as a resource. I own his P4 System publication and DVDs and I'm learning a lot as I make my way through them. As my friend and frequent RSP Film Room guest Will Hewlett—a quarterback coach to dozens of top high school kids (he tutored Drew Bledsoe's son), NCAA players, and several pros—says, Maddox has been passed over by multiple big-time college coaches needing an offensive coordinator out of fear that Maddox would quickly replace them.
Maddox explains that Wentz's 2016 mechanical issues were based on his footwork and in some specific situations, Wentz's footwork leads to him opening his hips too early into his release motion and the ball sails and/or lacks velocity. A quarterback's release motion and footwork are ingrained patterns that require relentless work to correct. Certain footwork patterns tend to be easier than others to fix; release motion with the arm is far dicier. Wentz's arm motion is not the big problem despite less educated analysts stating otherwise throughout Wentz's rookie year.
One of the concerns I had about Wentz during his final two years at North Dakota State was his tendency to maintain the same stance after his drop when pressured arrived and compressed the pocket. Wentz has a habit of twisting his torso to earn a throwing window rather than move his feet to an open space, reset, and fire. It's akin to a boxer holding his breath during a flurry of exchanged punches; eventually, he'll freeze to a point that he becomes vulnerable to a knockout blow.
As a college star and rookie starter, Wentz often took sacks, delivered inaccurate and contested targets, and threw interceptions because of his habit to let his feet to sink into concrete at the top of his drop and not move from his spot as necessary. Against the Chargers, I saw improvement from this facet of Wentz's game on multiple targets. Here's a good example below:
He's not smooth like Tom Brady or even Jared Goff—who take steps and adjust their stride with quick and precise footwork—however, his trained hop and pivot works well for him and it's a good start towards his refinement. Will his eventually become like Brady and Goff? I doubt it because if he didn't even have a sloppier version of that footwork as a collegian, I'd be skeptical that he develops it to that level as a professional.
It's not a death-blow to his pro potential, but it means that the Eagles—like most teams—must understand their player's strengths and limitations and create offenses that maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. One of the weaknesses that come from a lack of great footwork is the deep ball delivered in rhythm.
I don't know the data on this topic but based on film observation, many of Wentz's highlight plays in the vertical game come from him buying time that can't often be bought from small movements to avoid pressure. This is a less efficient means of maneuvering the pocket that takes the play away from the timing of its route rhythms.
At the same time, when Wentz gets free his receivers also buy enough time to slip behind coverage and wait on the ball. It means that Wentz's throws don't require the pinpoint accuracy of a timing route.
Knowing that Wentz may never achieve consistent pinpoint accuracy on vertical routes requiring a range of at least 40 yards, the Eagles added jump-ball, vertical threats like Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to maximize his strengths while reducing the need to deliver passes that require the skill Wentz lacks. In addition to personnel, the staff has scaled back its vertical route range. Instead of deep go routes and deep posts off play-action that require 3-, 5-, and 7-step drops, we're seeing more read-option looks from spread where Wentz and hop into a static position, and use his arm more than his legs to throw the ball accurately up the seam.
These seam routes also fit well within the Eagles' run game and its shorter routes, which often occurs in spread sets. If Wentz isn't hitting a receiver on a seam route, he often earns a quick-hitting over route, crosser, or slant. He also has three running backs still capable of operating from the spread with at least functional power, quickness, and agility.
The best back remains LeGarrette Blount, who starred in a spread set at Oregon and remains much quicker than those who must get some sort of physical pleasure from saying the word, "plodder."
This may not even be the best example of the carries I could have shown, but it still accurately illustrates that quickness and agility are far more important than speed for running back play. If Blount lacked the former, he could not do what he did Sunday from a spread set. Look for Blount's quickness and the supporting cast of Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement to remain a well-integrated part of the offense that sets up the vertical passing game for Wentz this year.
Clayton Gray's August Ultimate Strength of Schedule concluded that Wentz has a difficult itinerary this year. However, I think an updated version would reveal some changes or at least potential bright spots from the film that may not coincide completely with the data. The Panthers, 49ers, Cowboys, Bears, Rams, and Raiders are all vulnerable passing defenses. Despite quality pass rushers on each squad, if the Eagles offense doesn't get them to overreact with these quick-hitting plays, Wentz's ability to buy time and find that deep receiver sneaking behind coverage will still be there.
As the No.6 fantasy quarterback after 4 weeks, I would remain optimistic that his production continues along a top-12 fantasy path at his position. I don't expect him to remain this high on the list, but I wouldn't sour on him as a viable and necessary fantasy starter, either.
2. EVAN ENGRAM IS EMERGING INTO A FANTASY STARTER
Engram didn't have a huge game against the Buccaneers, and I realize that veteran safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Kwon Alexander were notable missing links in the Tampa secondary. It doesn't change how Engram performed on Sunday and why the context of his performance bodes well for his season moving forward.
Manning is targeting Engram on more challenging routes than earlier in the year. This over route isn't the most difficult play, but it's a step forward compared to the play-action tosses with a wide-open Engram facing Manning in the end zone or shorter routes where Engram is in a static position after the break. These early targets frustrated me as an evaluator of talent because Engram's best skills come with him on the move and working downfield as he catches the ball in stride.
The Giants targeting Engram in this fashion is encouraging. Most significant is this pair of fourth-quarter plays between Engram and Manning while working from a deficit in a tight ballgame. Ask coaches and scouts about the context of fourth-quarter work and they will tell you that it signifies the value that player has earned with the team.
Knowing that Manning went back to Engram on a difficult third-down target immediately after Engram dropped the ball on the play before is a good sign. With Brandon Marshall struggling to develop appropriate timing with Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. limping off the field every 2-3 big-time targets, Engram is earning more trust that I don't think was solely a product of the Giants' game plan.
3. TODD GURLEY IS BECOMING A COMPLETE NFL BACK
Separating the quality of offensive skill players from their offensive lines is essential to worthwhile football analysis over the long haul. If at all humanly possible, please use Gurley's current production as a path towards opening your mind to the concept.
That's my public service announcement for the week thanks to the firm of Whitworth and Sullivan, LT&C.
Remember when Tavon Austin and Gurley were the rage for a chunk of the 2015 season? Yeah me, too. Defenses hadn't caught on how to defend either player and how the offensive line blocked for them. However, it didn't take long to expose the line, shut down Gurley, and render Austin into a below-average wide receiver.
While Austin proved he isn't a complete route runner or a consistent pass catcher on receiver-like routes, analysts were way too early to say that Gurley's poor production was a symptom of him "not being as good as we thought." There are few backs capable of transcending their offensive line with their play—not few a year, but few every 10-12 years.
Great backs don't need great offensive lines, but they need at least key capable linemen. The Rams didn't have that until this year. One of the most important positions along the line for line calls as well as coordinator efforts of most blocking schemes is the center—former Broncos' general manager Ted Sundquist will tell you that its the most valuable position of the unit even if blindside tackle is the one requiring the most physical skill.
It's why Alex Mack elevated the Falcons offense and why we're seeing similar results for the Rams. It's also why Austin is returning to prominence in the offense as a productive gadget player who also sets up Gurley for big plays on the ground and through the air.
Jared Goff told the FOX broadcast crew that Gurley has been the last player on the practice field and asking Goff to help him work on his receiving game. If you think that wasn't a reaction to the idea that Lance Dunbar was going to take touches away from Gurley before Dunbar got hurt this summer, you probably aren't aware that Gurley has been characterized as the type of player that will never leave the field unless forced to do so. A Cowboys scout also told the crew that the year Gurley went to the NFL, he earned the highest draft grade of any back they studied during the past 10 years.
I know Gurley was on that level for me and the notion that he was not as good as advertised seemed to lean too hard on a Trent Richardson precedent that didn't match well with Gurley. The Rams' bell-cow heads into Monday Night's Washington-Kansas City matchup four yards ahead of Chris Thompson for the league lead in receiving yards. He's also the top back in receiving touchdowns, second in rushing touchdowns and second in rushing yards.
While only averaging 4.2 yards per carry, Adam Harstad did a good job explaining why it's a useless stat to judge a running back. Gurley is making smart choices at the line of scrimmage, he's helping the Rams offense stay on schedule so Goff has easier situations on third downs with a greater variety of plays to draw upon that keep them less predictable.
The Giants, Jaguars, Saints, Eagles, and Titans remain decent matchups for Gurley on the ground and I wouldn't rule out Arizona's defense, either. While the Vikings are at a tough draw, the unit allowed 74 yards and 9 receptions to the combo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
If you can command LeVeon Bell or Devonta Freeman (if Julio Jones won't be out for more than a few weeks and limited for longer when he returns), I'd consider selling Gurley high. Otherwise, I'd rather have him as an all-around back who finally has the support of an improved offensive line, offensive mind, and offensive signal caller.
4. why buffalo matched up with the Falcons and a wingless outlook ahead
Despite all the love for Deion Jones and the athletic Falcons defense, one of the longstanding weaknesses that Jones and the Atlanta linebacking corps has is stopping yards after the catch. While there has been some improvement with drop depths and rallying to the ballcarrier, Jones and company often miss good angles to receivers in the open field. It's one of the reasons why I stated on Sunday morning's Audible podcast that Charles Clay would pose a strong matchup against the Falcons.
This also extends to a back like LeSean McCoy and the screen game because it tests Jones' understanding of angles of attack in open space.
Combine, McCoy's work in space as a receiver with Clay in space, and there are a lot of things Buffalo can do to control the ball with safe, short passes that function as runs without being too predictable.
Once the defense begins predicting the ground game and short passing game, the Bills can then sneak Clay behind the coverage. Here are two successful vertical plays where Atlanta lost Clay thanks to boot action.
Clay's work downfield were the effective constraint plays that made Atlanta's offense pay for cheating to defend the run. The Bills dominated the third quarter with a long drive of mostly run plays and found Clay for big plays when they needed them.
The time of possession kept the Bills defense well-rested and capable of pressuring Matt Ryan with four defenders for most of the day. Buffalo routinely forced Ryan into inaccurate throws when his first reads didn't break open. Like Trevor Siemian, Ryan found out that rookie cornerback Tre'davious White is no fresh fish. White limited Falcons receivers after the catch and showed strong coverage skills.
The Bills defense also exploited the dirty little secret that most Falcons fans know, but hate to admit: Julio Jones is the Falcons passing game. Mohamed Sanu thrives in specific situations and Taylor Gabriel is used as a matchup option even if he flashes more ability for Ryan to develop a better rapport. And Austin Hooper hasn't been targeted to his potential.
With Atlanta, fortunately, earning a bye week, it could get one or both players back in Week 6. However, that's not a given. The week off should give Ryan, Hooper, Gabriel, and Hardy more work to develop their rapport as well as Steve Sarkisian to figure out how to use Hooper better than he has.
Considering that Buffalo's starters at the skill positions have some similarities to the corps that remains healthy in Atlanta, it might be worthwhile to study the plays that the Bills use that fit within the Falcons' scheme. The ones listed above are a good start.
5. don't overreact to joe Mixon's performance
I mentioned Mixon as an emerging fantasy option last week and his box score was a dud. To make matters worse, the Bengals fed Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard throughout the contest. Keep in mind that the Bengals build a significant lead in this game and there's a good possibility that the team didn't want to overuse one player in that situation.
Mixon still earned 21 touches and several of them went for losses later in the game when the Browns defense knew that Cincinnati was nursing the clock. Mixon lost 19 yards on 3 of his 7 attempts during the final quarter. One of those non-losses was also a gain of zero.
It is important to note that the Browns limited Mixon to nine gains of no more than two yards during the first three quarters of the contest. However, Mixon also earned four first downs and had a seven-yard pass play called back due to a penalty that wouldn't have changed the play dramatically. Mixon's tape still has a lot of good moments.
He's still worth the risk as a starter if your team is in need of a runner and it can sacrifice depth at other positions to acquire him.
6. don't make too much of Devin Funchess
I was wrong about the Panthers passing game matching up well against the Patriots defense. I also bad-mouthed Funchess' skills and didn't expect him to offer anything in this contest. When I saw that he had a two-touchdown day, I thought I'd examine his game to see how much has changed with him since the last time I studied him.
Here's a good use of his size to be the aggressor on the release to win this slant.
Here he is in the slot working free of the coverage with an arm-over move to get outside the coverage, but the throw wasn't accurate.
Here's a pivot route and yards after the catch up the sideline. Once again, he's in a bunch set with three receivers.
He's breaking tackles with his size when matched up north-south against cornerbacks and slot backs in space. He's also using his size to win press coverage—something that Kelvin Benjamin has rarely done and it's why he continues to line up 3-4 yards behind the line of scrimmage since his days at FSU. These are positives, but I'm not convinced he's improved to a point where he can be counted on weekly as anything more than flex play unless the matchup is truly favorably like Sunday.
The big plays are a good example. Funchess' first touchdown came on a blown assignment.
The second touchdown was a great matchup against favorable coverage with an easy slant to foil it.
If you need a receiver, I was wrong about Funchess lacking the ability to contribute meaningfully. However, he's benefitting from Carolina's bunch sets that can confuse less disciplined and experienced defensive units. This may continue for a few more weeks, but enough scouting and tape study from future opponents could further limit the production.
I wouldn't grade Funchess as a buy-low in any format. You'll get what you pay for with him, which is a steady target with red zone upside who might be found out as a cog in a system that can be foiled as the season rolls along. He's worth adding as depth or as a throw-in for a player you really covet and may continue producing, but I'm still skeptical about his upside.
7. don't sleep on Bengals TE Tyler Kroft
With Eifert's return from back and knee issues an unknown, I recommend Kroft. I liked Kroft's receiving skills since he was at Rutgers and most people were unaware of his talents—at least until this weekend's box score and highlights. Let's examine some of those plays.
One of the most important routes a tight end runs in the pros is the stop route under zone coverage. There are many great athletes at the position in college who lack the refined technical ability to run the route properly when they enter the league. Some of the best runners of stop routes are actually older tight ends who lost their speed but retain their timing, technique, and quickness to snap the turn at the top of the stem.
Kroft has learned this skill well.
When asked to work the seam, Kroft can work through contact at the stem, track the ball against tight coverage, and make plays against contact.
The Steelers linebackers are highly reactive and vulnerable to play-action routes up the seam. The Colts pass offense is as bad as its rushing offense is good. And the Titans are a fantasy football oasis for tight end production. These are three of the Bengals' next four opponents. If you need a tight end and can't find name-brand option, Kroft could be a nice pickup for you.
8. Leveon Bell and the Steelers settle into a groove
Bell touched the ball 39 times against the Ravens this weekend. As a fantasy player who used to have the likes of Eddie George, Ricky Watters, and Terrell Davis on my rosters, it was a nostalgic moment to see a mega-dose of running back in a ballgame. Plus, there are four teams that I will always choose the side of the Steelers as a fan: Dallas, Washington, Baltimore, and Denver. It's nice to see the Ravens defense look helpless against the run.
Back to Bell, his carries were so productive that I was shocked to see that he touched the ball 35 times as a runner. It's a good indication of how dominant the Steelers were in this phase of the offense.
As strange as it may seem, there are still aspects of Bell's game that are underrated. His quickness and jump-cutting ability are celebrated, but his hips and precision of moment with small actions are sometimes the most amazing. This play caught my attention and when one of my followers—"The Footwork King"—who trains high school, college, and pro players out of the Houston area, including Melvin Gordon, Jalen Richard, and Emmanuel Sanders, used it as a teaching point for his students.
We may not see Bell earn this workload against this year, but the Steelers want to emphasize the run and they have long believed that their skill to pound the ball becomes an advantage that opponents can't overcome by midseason. Another reason why Bell might be the one guy I'd pursue if I could sell Gurley high.
9. Dak-to-Dez Disconnect
The FOX broadcast crew reported that Jason Garrett noted poor miscommunication between the pair during Sunday's game, and there were multiple instances on display.
The pair had better production than previous weeks, but it's these types of misses that are the difference between Bryant performing as a top-12 receiver and a flex-play. I'd have optimism that this gets addressed, especially after the first month of difficult matchups.
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.
- Chargers Defense: Heading into the Eagles game, the Chargers led the NFL with 34 missed tackles. The Titans (27), Packers (26), and Giants (24) round out the top-four hapless tackling units. L.A.'s habits didn't change this weekend against the Eagles' ground game.
- Kenny Britt and the Browns receivers: Britt foiled the Browns' first drive with a false start on 3rd and 7. He then stumbled out of a break and missed the next third-down target in the following series. He was also one of the several Cleveland receivers who dropped the ball.
- Ravens Defense: See above.
- Matt Ryan: Not only did he misfire on most of his second and third reads due to pressure (sometimes anticipated a little too early), but he delivered a horrific underthrow of a wide-open deep post to Taylor Gabriel in the second half that resulted in an interception.
- Trent Green: He's now a broadcaster, but his defense of Ryan's mistake by characterizing this route as an intentional jump-ball situation was almost as bad as the play.
Good luck this week!