The 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:
- Unanswered Questions About Aaron Jones, Rookie RBs, and Pass Pro: The Packers rookie didn't see a single pass pro rep against Dallas. With Aaron Rodgers ability to buy time, it wasn't as necessary. The same could be said for Kareem Hunt, whose assignments in this phase of the game are limited to no more than a handful a week, tops. Alex Smith takes a lot of sacks, but his legs are also a potential mitigating factor. With the college game infiltrating the NFL with greater regularity (see below) perhaps pass protection will become less important for backs in certain offenses. That said, Charcandrick West caught two touchdowns in the red zone because he's the more reliable blocker, and the red zone's compressed field and time requirements demand a savvy pass blocker at RB.
- What Marlon Mack and Tevin Coleman Have in Common: Both have great burst and generate downhill power from the momentum of their acceleration. Both can catch the football. And both entered the NFL as much better space runners than between-the-tackle producers. Mack had big moments, but his pass protection, maturity between the tackles, down-and-distance awareness, pad level, and ball security were problems at South Florida. He hasn't passed these tests yet. Mack will be a much-discussed fantasy investment this week. My early take? Think Coleman as a rookie and second-year player but with lower expectations with production and weekly consistency.
- Joe Flacco Healthy: Returning from a back injury that limited his summer work, Flacco looks back to normal. He unleashed a 58-yard bomb to Mike Wallace and made Russell Wilson-like throw while twisting and falling away from contact that contorted Flacco as he finished his throw. If he can make that play in the second quarter and then deliver that 58-yard bomb, there's little to worry about.
- Brice Butler Watch: He didn't do much in the box score and Dez Bryant and Dak Prescott are making incremental progress with their communication issues. However, Prescott has often looked to Butler this fall when he's in trouble and Butler has delivered. He may never ascent to every-week fantasy starter, but he's worth monitoring as a preemptive addition if things go "New York Giants" with the Dallas corps.
- Don't Write off Thomas Rawls Yet: He missed a pass protection that got Wilson smacked in the second quarter of the Rams game, but he also displayed the burst and cutback ability that is a much better fit for the outside zone game that has been the Seahawks offense than what Eddie Lacy has to offer. I'm speculating, but something may be amiss behind the scenes with Rawls if he's not earning more touches within the next two weeks.
- Devin Funchess Update: I'm not ready to say Funchess is the primary receiver in this Panthers offense, but I was so wrong about him. His route running is improving beyond that of an "above-the-rim" receiver. He's not a polished route guy yet, but he's good enough to produce in this offense that is designed to work him open with misdirection, bunch sets, and rub routes. Last week, I considered Funchess a guy you can rely on for 40-60 yards a week with a touchdown as a potential bonus that pushes him into WR3-WR2 ceiling weekly. The Lions defense has improved, but it's not good enough to amend this outlook on Funchess after his two-TD weekend. Still, I'm encouraged.
1. Doug Martin hit the Ground running
Martin was my preseason focal point for many fantasy drafts. I spend many weeks explaining why Martin's spring and summer were leading to a strong 2017 when he returned from suspension. The Patriots defense is an easy opponent, Martin did exactly what a top back does when he faces this step down in competition.
Although not a huge gain, Martin displayed the timing that can't always be expected from a back who hasn't practiced or played for a month. It's also clear that Martin has been working hard while he's been away. His burst was as good as it was this summer.
Martin showed this acceleration and change of direction quickness on both inside and outside runs.
His low center of gravity also makes him difficult to bring down without a hit and a wrap together. One or the other typically doesn't get the job done.
Arizona, Buffalo, and Carolina are the most difficult run defenses on the Buccaneers' schedule, and none of them are invulnerable to a good runner like Martin. With New Orleans, Atlanta (twice), Green Bay, Detroit, and the Jets also on the docket, there's reason to be optimistic about Martin as an RB1 the rest of the way.
The only concern is usage. Martin was killing the Patriots but the Buccaneers didn't stick with him nearly enough. It's possible that they had Martin on a pitch-count for his debut. Don't expect that to continue long-term.
2. why Jacksonville matches up well with Pittsburgh
The Steelers are a great organization. According to pros that I've spoken with, Pittsburgh's organizational environment is among the best in the league for players if you're serious about the game. However, my fan relationship to the Steelers is as if they were my older brother who often got the best of me when we were growing up. So when I have a chance to pick on Pittsburgh, I relish it. This week is that time.
The Jaguars kicked the Steelers' ass on both sides of the ball and exposed them as conceptual "himbos" who can be too aggressive and athlete-reliant. They are the bro-town of the NFL.
In the first quarter of this game, Marcedes Lewis took a tight end screen for the first down and, considering how I characterized the Steelers, I had a good idea how this game might unfold. Pittsburgh's defense prides itself on overpowering its opponents upfront and giving it's linebackers a chance to attack downhill or fly to the ball and deliver YAC-stopping punishment.
Ryan Shazier epitomizes this Steeler mentality. He's a good player and a great athletic talent. He also gets too aggressive and I've shown this flaw multiple times in this column last year. The same can be said for much of this defense.
On the surface, the Jaguar's downhill ground game that's predicated on no-nonsense runs to a specific gap seems like a perfect match for the Steelers. It's a "whose man enough" matchup that this defense seemed poised to win.
And if the Steelers offense wasn't facing the Jaguars defense, I would have given them better odds. The Jaguars zone defense forced Ben Roethlisberger into taking too much time and he's no longer the time-buyer that he was 2-3 years ago.
The Steeler's offense had to score points and win the time of possession and the Jaguars did a strong job of defending some of LeVeon Bell's perimeter runs that often set up bigger plays in the passing game.
The combination of the Jaguars pass rush and active zone linebackers prevented the Steelers offense from winning the time of possession war. It meant they couldn't prevent the Jaguars offense from ramming that cement mixer, Leonard Fournette, into the Pittsburgh front. Do that enough times, and Fournette is going to break the retaining wall wide open.
This tight end screen in the first quarter got me thinking about all of this as a potential outcome.
As the game remained close, the Jaguars turned the aggressive mentality of the Steelers defense into a weakness with trips to the corner after successful runs inside that caught Shazier and Bud Dupree attacking the wrong gaps or losing discipline.
Chris Ivory is no slouch, either. When he gets into the lineup as Fournette's sub, he can bulldoze or reach that mini-mart.
The Jaguars relentless physicality and pressure brought the worst out of the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger and coordinator Todd Haley made questionable decisions on and off the field with gameplan an execution—including an out-and-up to Antonio Brown on the narrow side of the end zone that was truly showed a lack of consideration of field position to be targeted, much less work. Route combinations were odd for the Steelers this week that led to mistakes.
Five interceptions later, the Jaguars had a commanding lead, multiple runs that left Shazier stuck in the wrong gap, and eventually, a worn-out defense that couldn't handle a grill full of the Mack Truck accelerating through the rubble for 90 yards.
I still appreciate the new-school offenses that work in the NFL, but I'm old school at heart. Some may call this boring football—and some less informed know-it-alls may even say it's bad football—but I enjoy watching the ground game and good defense wear down an opponent. If you studied this game and tracked the volume, direction, and outcome of carries, you would learn a few things.
One of them: Yards Per Carry is a statistic that leads fans astray with a misinformed focus on a flawed "micro" perspective while ignoring the intention and execution of the "macro" strategy of a relentless, physical gameplan that can cause opponents to unravel when executed well. There can be a smaller margin for error with this strategy if the offense lacks a passing game capable of picking up the slack when that gameplan goes off the rails but if that physical game plan becomes a massive strength, it's a formidable weapon.
The Jaguars aren't there yet, but they are a lot closer than we've seen in a long time. Jacksonville could be a first-round playoff team if the trenches stay healthy and Bortles remains a game manager who makes good pre-snap calls for the ground game and smart decisions when he must throw.
I hope you took my advice on Fournette.
3. Gallman-darkwa in context
I liked Darkwa enough 2-3 years ago that the first time Giants players lobbied the coaches for his usage, I profiled him in previous Footballguys features. However, Darkwa is a hard-running, straight-line guy with an all-around game much like Javorius Allen—serviceable, but not creative.
Gallman has that little extra to his game that Darkwa lacks and you can see it with their carries against a hapless Chargers run defense.
In contrast, Gallman's carries often required cutbacks that Darkwa's didn't. These were more skillful runs and Gallman's ability to set up creases and make defenders miss before a strong finish stood out.
I expect Darkwa to remain an active part of the ground game, but Gallman is the best runner on the team and gaining ground as a receiving option. His upside is unfortunately limited to run defenses like the Chargers that pose easy matchups for the Giants, especially after New York lost Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard on Sunday.
It leads to the next subject...
4. What's left of the Giants passing game?
Evan Engram and Roger Lewis. Engram was split wide as a receiver after the Giants lost its entire starting rotation. The perimeter was really the strength of Engram's game at Ole Miss. However, the breadth of routes that he ran there didn't compare with what's expected of him in New York.
If the Giants can target him as an above-the-rim option and capitalize on his quickness, speed, and size with shorter routes in open space, he might develop a quick rapport with Manning. The potential problem is how predictable Engram's usage might become.
If the Giants employed multiple tight end sets and ran the ball more, it could play to its remaining personnel strengths. Unfortunately, those strengths aren't likely to match up well against the Broncos, Seahawks, and Rams—its next trio of opponents.
Lewis is a sneaky deep threat with good ball-tracking. He's at his best when he can earn early separation and track targets with his back to the quarterback. This touchdown came against Casey Hayward, a good man-to-man corner. Lewis did nothing special early in the route, but he was quick enough to get on top of Hayward early and win the ball with good boundary awareness.
Although Engram got shut out this weekend, he's still worth elevating as a bye-week option with TE1 potential. The volume could be there for him. Lewis may also become a good preemptive pick for a few weeks if needing a bye-week receiver. Tavarres King has bounced around the league. He's known for decent intermediate route skills, but his athletic ability and consistency haven't earned him chances to stick. with a team.
It will be fun to see if the Giants opt for a bigger offense focused on the run and use multiple tight ends. They could do some fun work that might surprise better teams that only have 2017 tape on its struggling passing offense. Considering that Rhett Ellison, Jerrell Adams, and Shane Vereen might be better options than King at this point, I'm hoping against hope to see something original.
5. dynasty alert: Forget the box score, Jared Goff shined
Goff was 22-of-47 for 288 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. Forget the box score, the average depth of completed pass, and any report that says Goff isn't heading in the right direction. Goff passed the test and earns no less than a B+ from me; his team failed him.
Todd Gurley fumbled a touchdown away at the pylon. It was the difference in the game's outcome. The film is showing that Goff is making confident, accurate throws on difficult targets and often with pressure bearing down.
Goff may not be a future stud, but he's still causing those with biased processes to formulate reasons why he's not good. This is a ballsy throw that not only shows accuracy but also trust in his receiver to make the play in a tight high-low window with bad consequences if missed.
Detractors will say that it was a foolish throw, but they're often the same people that blow sunshine up the hind parts of players who the consensus has already proclaimed "good." This was a necessary throw and a good one.
Goff is more old-school from the pocket than Wentz, Mariota, and Watson, but it's also the reason why the Rams are using an offense with him under center. His feel in the pocket is decisive and poised.
While many analysts are short-sighted and bemoaning the interception and fumble as a "failed test," I'd rather examine how Goff responded to the strip sack in the previous series—a terrific play from Frank Clark against veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth that was no fault of Goff.
These two plays, the sack and subsequent offensive series for Goff tell me that the young quarterback has the goods to become a long-term starter in the NFL.
This kind of play despite a Gurley TD-turned-touchback and failures of Goff's line is a failed test for Goff against the Seahawks defense? Try again. Try harder.
Goff had the knockout blow served up to the Seahawks with this target of Cooper Kupp. White a difficult catch, it was a makeable catch and one Kupp has routinely made at Eastern Washington—and several of greater difficulty.
Goff brought the Seahawks to the brink the way Russell Wilson brought the Cardinals to the brink in his rookie opener. The way several long-term starters came back from adversity during rookie starts to put their teams in position to win the game.
If you're the same people who attacked Jeff Fisher's offense then you must acknowledge that this year is still Goff's rookie season. He hasn't started 16 games in the NFL. One thing that's certain, there's a marked difference with the way defenses are respected Goff and the passing game this season compared to last.
This touchdown run for Tavon Austin against a dime defense bent on stopping Goff is a great example. Last year, opponents dared Goff to beat them. They now know he will.
The more year-to-year continuity that Goff, his line, and coach Sean McVay can have together, the more layers we'll see with this offense that will make the Rams a dangerous unit.
Quarterback trades are difficult in many leagues, but if you are in a format where you can roll with Goff and trade away a well-known commodity for positions of need, I'd take the chance. Goff has the technical, conceptual, and emotional acumen to be a starter for a long time in this league. Last year was a perfect storm working against him.
6. THE MCCAFFREY EFFECT ON THE PANTHERS OFFENSE
It won't make fantasy owners feel much better about Christian McCaffrey's mediocre production as a PPR back, but there is a glimmer of hope that we'll see an uptick as the season progresses. McCaffrey's presence is a big deal in this scheme because he's forcing defenses to cheat to him until they pass a breaking point where the Panthers can exploit it.
One of the reasons for optimism is the increased presence of Curtis Samuel. Much like what we're seeing with the Chiefs and the Texans (see below), the Panthers are using a lot of misdirection in its offense. McCaffrey's first NFL touchdown was the result of the Lions paying more attention to Samuel as a jet sweep option and after that, Newton as the option trigger man to Stewart.
Look for McCaffrey to earn more fantasy love as the season progresses. It may not be an explosion of production, but the targets should increase incrementally now that Funchess and Ed Dickson are producing enough to force opponents to respect them. That offensive diversity will benefit McCaffrey.
7. Deshaun Watson Check-in
I watch 9-12 games between Sunday afternoon at 1 pm and Monday afternoon at 2 pm as research for this column. I saw Watson's performance against the Bengals but missed the past two weeks. There were others players that required a higher priority of attention and I thought the Chiefs game would be the best test to determine where Watson truly is as a rookie passer.
My verdict: The Texans are shaping an offense around him that maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses and it will be enough to make Watson a stronger fantasy play even with real-football weaknesses.
Like Jacksonville, Houston has a shot to make the playoffs this year but Watson is an exciting player with rookie limitations that playoff-caliber defenses will expose. However, I also expect a lot of garbage time to work in Watson's favor.
Watson decision-making, like most young quarterbacks, comes apart against interior pressure.
He's not folding on this play, but it's not a wise decision to leave one's feet to throw the ball inside the numbers. It was about a foot away from costing him.
On the other end of the spectrum, I liked the maturity that Watson showed to deliver accurately and with strong time management between two defenders in the red zone, an area that requires quick and precise decisions. It was also good to see make this throw on a play originating from the center.
Brains, mobility, toughness, and creativity have always been Watson's strengths. What the Chiefs offered that I didn't think the past two weeks of opponents did was a test of Watson's arm strength and the Texans' ability to steer a limitation into something constructive.
The Texans have helped Watson by featuring a lot of the same elements of play fakes and misdirection from the college game that we're seeing Alex Smith and Cam Newton execute this year. The constant threat of Bruce Ellington or Will Fuller as a constraint play option on jet sweeps, end-arounds, and reverses, can make defenses hesitate long enough on simple inside zone plays that it creates openings that might not otherwise be there.
Chris Collinsworth seemed perplexed by this during the broadcast, but any defender will tell you that it must respect the speed of a big-play threat at receiver and quarterback when there's potential for them to get the ball. This and Watson's ability to avoid pressure and create plays are working well for the Texans offense.
Although Watson and Carson Wentz's issues are different (Wentz has the arm but poor footwork to deliver accurately beyond 35 yards), neither quarterbacks are ideal fits for a timing-based vertical game off a drop. However, both quarterbacks thrive when they can buy time and force a break in coverage.
Think of Will Fuller as the Texans' version of early-career Mike Wallace, who often earned huge plays by flying behind the defense eyeballing a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger. This,.and play-action post routes is where he'll win most often in the deep game with Watson under center.
We're not going to see Watson consistently win deep outs, deep comebacks, or deep curls at the sideline. Kansas City had enough of a pass rush to force Watson into some of these targets and he lacked the arm velocity to hit them. The intermediate and deep routes that fit Watson are also the strengths of DeAndre Hopkins and Bruce Ellington: Fades and corner routes.
Despite his clear weaknesses Watson's game and this offense is a great matchup for defenses that play a lot of zones or use man on the outside but lack a superior pass rush like Kansas City or Seattle. Even so, Watson will remain a viable scorer due to the loss of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, which will substantially weaken this defense.
Re-draft formats should be bullish on Watson as a committee option with QB1 upside. Dynasty formats should look at Watson with a career track much like Cam Newton and Carson Wentz. All three quarterbacks will need surrounding talent that specializes in specific things that erase their flaws as passers, but they aren't too difficult to find around the league.
Watson is an exciting option. There's a danger he'll be exposed a little more due to his arm but unless the surrounding talent falls apart, I'd remain optimistic.
8. THE COLLEGE GAME CONTINUES TO INFILTRATE THE NFL GAME
The Chiefs, Titans, Panthers, and Texans are four teams that are using a lot of misdirection and designed quarterback runs, including the option, as base plays within its offense.
Unlike some of my colleagues who are bound to say this is the "future" of the NFL, I think it's safer to say it is "a" future. Diversity is a great thing and I'm hopeful that what we'll see is greater diversity rather than a trend that every team follows—and many follow poorly.
I love what these four teams are doing. However, I also love what the Jaguars are cultivating with Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin. With so many spread offenses in the NFL, it pays to be one of the few teams that can handle that scheme with its defense (and Telvin Smith and Myles Jack can roam the middle as well as any set of linebackers) but also have an offense that can bludgeon units loaded with nickel personnel ill-equipped for the throwback power game.
If the diversity element becomes the trend, I'll be excited because it may help football fans eventually understand that one-size-fits-all analysis templates are limited and misleading.
9. the raiders performance wasn't on e.j. manuel
Jared Cook fumbled and the Ravens returned it for a score. The Raiders defense also gave up big plays early. Manuel did a lot of good work to keep the Raiders in this game.
Even when Manuel wasn't at his best, the Ravens defense earned more credit than Manuel earned blame.
When the Raiders succeed on offense, they vary personnel to trick opponents into the wrong diagnosis.
Derek Carr should be back this week but if Manuel's services are needed again, the desperate should consider him for bye-week duty.
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.
- Tight End Cameron Brate: Although he caught a late-game touchdown in a big moment, he also dropped three passes in this game, including two in the red zone.
- Right Tackle Chris Hubbard (And the rest of the Steelers offensive line): The Jaguars were the good team in black and gold.
- Tight End Eric Ebron: Two drops on makeable targets—including one in the red zone—and the Lions removed him for Daniel Fells, who scored twice late.
- Gadget-Ram Tavon Austin: Two muffed punts in this game and one of them lost. I've seen Austin muff three punts this year.
As always, the league is moving fast. Don't blink...