You guys have a ton of articles.
This statement about Footballguys is a blessing but it can feel like a curse. Our staff delivers insights that change seasons for the better yet realistically, no fantasy owner has the time to read everything we publish in a week.
If this describes you, let me be your scout. Here are five insights from Footballguys articles that I find compelling for the weekend ahead. I'll share what should help you this week, touch on the long-term outlook, and sometimes offer a counterargument.
1. trendspotting and the Top 10: is Austin Ekeler as good of an option as he appears?
Melvin Gordon III III will be out for at least another week when the Chargers face the Bengals' and its worst rushing defense in the NFL. It makes backup Austin Ekeler seem like a must-play this weekend.
But is he?
Let's begin with the data analysis from Hester's excellent weekly column.
RBs vs. Cincinnati
|Mark Ingram II||10||13||104||0||3||58||1||28.2||$4,500||6.3|
- Trend: Cincinnati is allowing 39.4 fantasy points per game to running backs over the last five weeks, most in the NFL. Cincinnati has allowed multi-touchdown games to three running backs in its last four games.
- This Week: The L.A. Chargers host Cincinnati as a two-touchdown favorite. Austin Ekeler disappointed some fantasy GMs last week, but it's worth noting that he still had 13 carries to Justin Jackson's 8 and 8 targets to Jackson's 1. As the main passing downs back on a team slated to score plenty of points, Ekeler is an attractive DFS play, especially as a pivot off similarly-priced Philip Lindsay, who will be popular after his big game last week (against Cincinnati, coincidentally).
There's no doubt that the data history screams for Ekeler. The Bengals have a soft run defense and Ekeler is the second back on the depth chart and Jackson the third.
However, there are two items that could foil the data: context and narrative. When examining the touch advantage Ekeler had to Jackson last week, it's vital to note that Jackson didn't earn a touch until the third quarter after Ekeler saw all the snaps for the first half of the game.
Once Jackson got into the game, he played so well that he immediately split time with Ekeler during the third and fourth quarter. And by the end of the game, Jackson was the runner earning carries and receptions during the final game-winning drive. Here's how Jackson looked (from this week's Top 10):
"Last week, this column showcased Justin Jackson's work at the end of the Rams-Cardinals blowout and noted that you should make Jackson a luxury addition from the waiver wire because it was unlikely that Austin Ekler would earn both Melvin Gordon III's touches and keep his own.
It was also noted since the draft that Jackson has the talent to challenge Ekeler for his job and potentially develop into a lead back for the Chargers when Gordon's contract expires at the end of 2019. Jackson had a performance against the Steelers on Sunday night that showcased his potential and indicates there could be more in store for him this year.
Justin Jackson #ChargersvsSteelers— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
What made him good at Northwestern? Quick-twitch movement based on processing information to eliminate direct angles of pursuit. He does this four times on this nine-yard run. #Chargers pic.twitter.com/ycM2GPeDqc
Justin Jackson check-down. Not a speedster but sudden with excellent vision and feel for angles. Watch him bleed about eight more yards with his split of the pursuit at the boundary. #Chargers pic.twitter.com/gJ4x5TzVVH— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
Jackson's play in the third quarter led the Chargers to insert him into the lineup on a pivotal fourth-quarter drive during the final minutes of the game. Teams don't usually make this move with a rookie or young, unproven player unless they have a lot of confidence in his skill.
Jackson not only earned touches but he was the ballcarrier on plays to set up the game-winning field goal. As insignificant as the gains were, it's a huge endorsement of Jackson from the staff. And, there were impressive things to see about Jackson's game from these touches.
Diego Lopez, good thought on the Ahmad Bradshaw comp in style for Justin Jackson.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
Here's Jackson earning more time in a tie game late (A big sign of confidence he earned from coaches).
Note the stiff-arm...he has a great arsenal of them. https://t.co/mVg61GMbgl#Chargers pic.twitter.com/zRgaVDgmjy
Good example why I have long stressed the value of short-area quicks, vision (which is many things), and footwork.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
Justin Jackson only needs the span of a yard (if that) from decision to action to change course as he reads the line. #Chargers pic.twitter.com/8gQ6KB22lz
Cincinnati and Kansas City are both soft enough run defenses that, if Melvin Gordon III is limited or out, Jackson could push Ekeler for additional playing time (if he hasn't already). If Gordon is out, there's a chance that Ekeler could be relegated to his old role and the Chargers give Jackson the lead spot.
Next summer, Jackson could overtake Ekeler and earn an extended tryout to succeed Gordon. Take it one step at a time, but there's a reason for Jackson to have long-term value — and maybe maximize his short-term production."
Matt's Verdict: It's widely known among teams that when a young player earns time during a final drive — especially a game-winning drive — the team has gained confidence in that player and it's a massive statement about how it sees his value.
When counting the beans from last week's game, Ekeler wins. When separating the best beans from the rest, Jackson wins.
That's the context of the game that the data doesn't show. Then there's narrative — a factor that data analysts try to rightfully minimize in most situations because a narrative can generate unhealthy bias.
However, there is a time and place for narrative. One of those times could be for the Ekeler-Jackson debate this week. Chargers' head coach Anthony Lynn told the media that Austin Ekeler is worn down from playing special teams and third-down back all year and they want to give Jackson more carries.
If you take this statement at its most conservative face value, Jackson will earn Ekeler's role this weekend and get intermittent work throughout the day as Ekeler takes breaks from his job of substituting for Gordon.
However, it's also reasonable to look at Lynn's statement as an opening for Jackson to earn more touches than Ekeler did in his old role. For one, Ekeler's size is below-average for an NFL starter and it's logical to see a greater split of touches between Ekeler and Jackson than Gordon and Ekeler.
At worst for those intrigued with Jackson's Week 14 fantasy potential, this could be much closer to a 50-50 split considering that Jackson earned all 8 of his touches in one half when Jackson had an entire game to earn 13. Combine Lynn's statement, the second-half trend of important touches leaning in Jackson's favor, and how much more dynamic Jackson appeared compared to Ekeler, and there's a compelling argument that Jackson could earn the majority of touches this weekend.
Still, Ekeler and Jackson should each earn a productive half of a split in touches. Look at Kamara and Ingram in Hester's chart above and you'll see that they split touches evenly.
Ingram earned more yardage but Kamara had one more touchdown. The duo combined for 54.4 fantasy points. Don't expect this kind of day from the Chargers' ground game, but halve the Saints' totals and you still have good production for both.
However, if I had to only choose one — I'd take Jackson because of the context of the data, the performance against a decent defense, and the narrative point toward a new development that can't be spotted with trends until that new development has taken effect for a few more weeks.
That that point, the fantasy season will be over.
2. Trendspotting and the Top 10 Part II: Travis Kelce vs. Baltimore
One of Hester's segments includes play-calling preferences, and Travis Kelce's seemingly tough contest against the Ravens earns Hester's attention. Trendspotting's author likes Kelce in this one:
In this section, we'll look at how teams call plays. Because game script and the red zone can skew pass-to-run ratios, the percentages below only show plays called when the game is within seven points in either direction and plays run between the 20s. We're also looking at the last five weeks only.
|Offensive Team||Pass%||Defensive Team||Pass%|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||73.2%||Oakland Raiders||44.3%|
|Atlanta Falcons||69.6%||Green Bay Packers||58.2%|
|Philadelphia Eagles||68.8%||Dallas Cowboys||66.0%|
|Indianapolis Colts||67.4%||Houston Texans||63.8%|
|Kansas City Chiefs||66.7%||Baltimore Ravens||66.7%|
|Washington Redskins||66.7%||New York Giants||56.2%|
|Denver Broncos||65.8%||San Francisco 49ers||62.6%|
|Minnesota Vikings||65.7%||Seattle Seahawks||68.5%|
"Pass%" = the percentage of neutral script plays where an offensive team calls a passing play or a defensive team has a passing play called against it
Commentary and Action Items
Teams run against Oakland because they can, but Pittsburgh is deploying an RB1 who never carried the ball more than 78 times in any college season, never carried it more than 12 times in any college game, and only saw eight carries or more on four occasions in college. Jaylen Samuels is a hybrid player who will be the passing downs choice for Pittsburgh, meaning he'll be on the field far more than Stevan Ridley, especially as long as this game remains close. Both players are fine DFS options, with Ridley being more of a GPP dart in the hopes that he gets goal line and clock-grinding work in a blowout.
Indianapolis passes on 67.4% of its neutral script plays, the fourth-highest percentage in the league. Houston faces a pass attempt on 63.8% of its neutral script plays, the 10th-highest percentage. The Indianapolis offense had been as hot as any in the league until an airball at Jacksonville last week. Look for Luck, Hilton, and Ebron to bounce back in a big way. Any time an offense has skilled players, a plus matchup, and a narrow distribution of targets, the main pieces need to be in your DFS player pool. It's also worth noting that Indianapolis is the second-fastest neutral-script team in the NFL, while Houston is the eighth-fastest.
Baltimore is a unique case here. They are difficult against the pass, but teams attempt passes two-thirds of the time in neutral scripts. Last week, picking Matt Ryan and Julio Jones as a low-rostered GPP stack here and on Power Grid went horribly wrong. This week, a similar case can be made for Patrick Mahomes II and any of his pass-catchers. Since Baltimore allows 27.0% of its passing yards to tight ends, the seventh-highest percentage in the NFL, Travis Kelce is the best candidate.
In this case, I agree with Hester because Kelce is Mahomes' safety blanket and a player Mahomes isn't afraid to target with tight-window throws. Kelce also poses a difficult matchup for linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks. Simply put, he's the best receiving tight end in the game:
"The Raiders have been a historically generous defense against tight ends. Although it hasn't been helpful for Oakland to face a steady diet of players like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Julius Thomas, Hunter Henry, and Kelce six times a year, it's not just the quality of talent that created the problem.
Still, this segment's focus will be the quality of Travis Kelce's talent. He is (and arguably has been for the past few years) the best receiving tight end in football. Bookmark this column if you ever anticipate having doubts about a matchup for Kelce because it provides a showcase for skills that translate to success well beyond a forgiving Raiders' defense.
As an in-line tight end, Kelce can challenge the seam with the best of them. He's also an incredibly tough player. This is not a target that Mahomes wants to throw on a regular basis because it places his tight end in jeopardy of injury. However, it's a throw that, on occasion, is necessary.
Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed are especially good at making plays on seam targets with oncoming safeties waiting to blast them. Kelce has been more durable but it's also notable that Alex Smith doesn't like throwing the ball into a crowd or leaning on his receiver's athletic ability as willingly as Mahomes.
An underrated part of the previous play is how it's connected to the next one — a low target in the flat.
After taking a shot to the gut on the play prior, Kelce has no problem bending with excellent mobility to catch a low throw with his fingertips at the point of the football in stride. This is a target of underrated difficulty and to do it after stretching in the opposite direction and taking punishment is a display of great athletic ability and focus.
Kelce's rare athletic gifts as a big receiver extend to route running. He can be placed on an island against a cornerback or safety. Below is a Whip Route, a pattern that receivers like Julian Edelman or Keenan Allen run with great success that requires a sudden change of direction. Kelce runs it as if he's a slot receiver.
A foundation of that Mahomes-Kelce trust is Kelce's mobility to run a whip route and earn separation on a CB on an island. That kind of movement allows a QB to target him on back-shoulder and odd-angle targets. pic.twitter.com/y8Tl198zW9— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
Here's a fine play at the boundary. Mahomes' throw is fantastic, but let's not discount Kelce's awareness of the sideline and first-down marker. A player of his size rarely alters his down-hill momentum back to the football this well.
Is this the one you're referring to, @Midwestsports5?— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 3, 2018
Fine placement for sure by Mahomes and good boundary awareness and position by Kelce without letting momentum take him shallow of the marker. #ChiefsKindgom #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/IKmVdKvjq1
Kelce's route-running, catch radius, and toughness combined with his speed, strength, and balance make him a security blanket in an offense — and a player who can break a defense schemed to account for him. The only way an opponent will stop Kelce is if it double or triple-teams him off the line of scrimmage the way opponents did with Atlanta when injuries struck the Falcon's receiving corps several years ago.
He may not be the best fantasy tight end in football for the next 3-5 years (although I'd put money on the next 2-3...) but he is the reigning king of the position in real football.
Matt's Verdict: It's unlikely the Ravens will double- or triple-team Kelce at the line. While unlikely that Kelce comes close to his gigantic day against Oakland, expected another fantasy TE1 week from him against Baltimore. Hester's data matches the current state of the Chiefs — and the offense's need to lean on Kelce due to the loss of Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins.
3. Sigmund Bloom's Sleepers
Always an informative feature, Bloom has taken the torch from Bob Henry ably and delivers thoughts on several sneaky-good options for those wildcard fantasy teams with holes that need filling. Here are some of my favorites:
Michael Gallup (vs Philadelphia) - Gallup had his highest catch total as a pro last week when he caught five balls for 76 yards, and he should have had a long touchdown to cap his night, but Dak Prescott missed him badly when he was open behind the defense. This week, he and Prescott are facing a banged up Eagles secondary that could easily create more opportunities for Gallup to get free behind the defense again this week.
Matt's Verdict: Two of Gallup's targets came in situations where he didn't allow physical play from Eli Apple to dissuade him. Start him with confidence if you're in need.
LeGarrette Blount (at Arizona) - Blount has run with renewed vigor in the last two weeks, and he’ll get the best matchup he’s had since he became the lead back this week in Arizona. The Cardinals offense isn’t capable of running away from anyone, so Blount should get at least the 16-18 carries he’s gotten as a starter, and we know he’s the first option on goal-to-go downs. Big, bruising backs like Jordan Howard, Adrian Peterson, and Latavius Murray have all gotten over 20 carries and a score against Arizona, and they’ve allowed four rushing touchdowns over the last two weeks and 15 on the year
Matt's Verdict: A long-time favorite, Blount has scatback footwork in a big body. He'll find creases and at worst, he'll prevent you from a horrific total at one of your running back spots. At best, he can deliver sneaky RB1 fantasy production.
Jaylen Samuels (at Oakland) - Samuels is going to share with Stevan Ridley this week, but the coaches benched Ridley after a fumble earlier this year and trusted Samuels to back up James Conner even after it became clear that Le'Veon Bell wasn’t coming back this year. Samuels has been able to score twice in the last month in limited action, including in a high-pressure situation last week. He’s a vastly better receiver than Ridley, and whatever the Steelers plan is to split the work going into the game, there’s a chance Samuels outplays Ridley and gets more work as the game goes on. Oakland had given up over 100 rushing yards in six straight games before last week, and they’ve given up over 150 in half of their games this year, so there’s something to exploit there for the strong Steelers offensive line.
Matt's Verdict: I'm not concerned about Ridley but I wonder if Oakland won't eliminate Pittsburgh's passing script. Either way, Samuels is a solid play despite thoughts that he might be the least productive option on Bloom's running back list.
Justin Jackson (vs Cincinnati) - Austin Ekeler will get the start, but it’s Jackson who could be the finisher against the terrible Bengals run defense. Vontaze Burfict can’t seem to stay healthy and the Bengals offense isn’t going to do their defense any favors keeping them off the field via long drives. Jackson was magnificent in the fourth quarter against the Steelers and had a flex-worthy game on basically one drive. He only played 14 snaps last week and had four plays of at least 11 yards. He could score again this week against a Bengals defense that has allowed multiple running back scores in four of the last seven games.
Matt's Verdict: You already know...
Mark Andrews (at Kansas City) - Andrews has already displayed great chemistry with fellow rookie Lamar Jackson, catching five balls for 140 yards in three games on only five targets. That target number could go up significantly this week if the Chiefs can force the Ravens into a more pass-heavy game script by opening up a lead, and one of the Achilles heels of the Chiefs defense has been defending the tight end. They have given up at least 50 yards or a score to a tight end in every game this year. The player best poised to cash in on that trend this week is Andrews.
Matt's Verdict: I tried to get Andrews as my second tight end in a league where I face Bloom in the playoffs. Bloom won the bid. Jackson's best throws are in the middle of the field or wide-open rainbows on wheel or bullet routes. Andrews is a great fit for these targets.
4. Projecting the Pros
Danny Tuccitto pens a weekly guide to playing rosters percentages like the top professional tournament players on Draftkings. Tuccitto uses a statistical model to project these roster percentages and supplies a link to the methodology.
"Compared to the rest of the population, these 205 pros play more, they win more, and they do both consistently," says Tuccitto.
Click the first link in this segment to see his tables for each position. Otherwise, here are some of the top plays for this week — helpful to DFS and re-draft players this weekend...
Jameis Winston is the pro projection model's early-week chalk at quarterback. Although he does have the fourth-highest probability of achieving 4x value, his high projected roster percentage among pros is mostly due to the popularity of his wide receiver corps. Chris Godwin (26.2%), Mike Evans (10.9%), and Adam Humphries (9.1%) combine for a 46.2% aggregate roster percentage, which is the highest of any team by a country mile this week.
Given the proven replaceable production associated with Pittsburgh's starter, whoever he may be, it's not surprising that Jaylen Samuels is currently setting the pace at running back this week. He's viewed so favorably by the pro projection model because he has the highest probability of achieving 4x value (49.4%) and will be facing a Raiders defense projected to appear in less than one percent of tournament lineups.
Chris Godwin may sit atop the table, but the model actually views Courtland Sutton as a sharper play, as indicated by the gap between his overall and pro projections. It now sits at +6.2% because he has the highest 4x value probability among wide receivers (34.3%) and will be facing a 49ers defense projected to appear in less than one percent of lineups.
For the fourth time this season, Travis Kelce has the highest pro roster percentage projection among tight ends on the Sunday Main slate. Despite his position-high salary, Kelce's outsized point projection (20.1) means he still ranks second in 4x value probability (26.4%). In addition, he'll be facing a Ravens defense that's projected to appear in less than one percent of tournament lineups.
With no defenses in double digits, this is the flattest that pro rostership projections have been all season. The reason is because defenses favored by the overall public don't show well according to the model's influential factors. For instance, the Steelers and Chargers are popular overall, but they rank 14th and 16th, respectively, in 4x value probability. Similarly, neither is facing a quarterback projected to appear in less than one percent of lineups
Matt's Verdict: I agree with all of the picks and thought this statistical model tied in well with what's been discussed thus far. As for the defense, might I suggest Dallas? They played great against the Saints and the emergence of Randy Gregory, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylen Smith, and Byron Jones gives this team speed that will pose problems for an Eagles offense that has been inconsistent.
5. Phillip Lindsay Roundtable
We'll end this week's "Best Of" with some reflection on Phillip Lindsay. Should fantasy football analysts have seen Lindsay's production coming? Maurile Tremblay, Jason Wood, Will Grant, Danny Tuccitto, and I tackle that question below.
Matt Waldman: No one expected much from Phillip Lindsay. The only person I know who found him notably intriguing this time last year and leading to the NFL Draft was NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.
I didn't have a strong grade for him in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, citing concerns about him playing to his speed and working between the tackles. Although Denver did a great job creating perimeter runs that allowed him to function like a punt returner from the line of scrimmage, Lindsay deserves credit for running well between the tackles when called upon.
Much of the industry collectively missed on Lindsay as a fantasy option. What is there to learn?
Will Grant: The 'Miss' on Lindsay reminds me of the 2003 draft where the Cardinals took Bryant Johnson at 17th overall and Anquan Boldin at No.54 overall. Johnson was a high draft pick in most dynasty leagues and Boldin was undrafted in most of them. Yet after the first, Boldin had 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson barely made the box score with one catch for seven yards. Boldin went on to have a pretty solid career and Johnson had some very average stats.
The reality is that NFL players sometimes exceed expectations when the games count. Players sometimes come out of nowhere and the snaps count and turn into fantasy studs overnight. They also flame out when expectations are high. There are a lot of factors that go into a solid fantasy player.
What fantasy football players should take away from this is that the season doesn't end when the draft does. You need to read the stats and watch the waiver wire. Constantly. Each week players succeed and fail, and you can often find big value in players that everyone overlooks. Winning your fantasy league is about supplementing a good draft with constant vigilance of players you should drop or players you can add to make your team stronger.
Waldman: What I"m about to share is all in hindsight, but I communicate with Russ Lande pretty often, the current director of scouting for the Montreal Alouettes. Lande worked in the NFL as a scout for the Rams and the Browns. He was part of the Browns' staff the year that the NFL was evaluating Boldin,
Before Boldin's NFL Combine performance, the Browns had the receiver graded as a top-five overall pick. After Boldin ran a 4.71-second 40, his ranking on Cleveland's board plummeted. Cleveland had the 21st and 52nd picks in the first two rounds and when they passed on him with those picks, the Cardinals took Boldin two picks later at No.54.
It goes to show you how much weight certain metrics hold for teams. Further, there are times where knowledgeable scouts understand the application of speed, acceleration, and stop-start quickness but cannot convince management to separate them.
Maurile Tremblay: I did not have Lindsay ranked as a likely fantasy contributor heading into this season. That's a clear miss for me, and it's important to learn from one's misses. But it's important not to learn the wrong lessons.
When evaluating an unproven player's fantasy prospects, two of the rules I live by are: (1) the player's draft position trumps his college production, and (2) the player's depth-chart position trumps his preseason performance.
Both rules amount to giving deference to NFL personnel departments and coaching staffs who have better information than I do about how a player will fit into their team's plans.
Lindsay was very productive in college (he was Colorado's all-time leader in yards from scrimmage), but went undrafted nonetheless. He had an impressive preseason, but as preseason came to a close, Lindsay was still listed fourth on the Broncos' depth chart at running back behind Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, and De'Angelo Henderson.
Lindsay hugely outperformed my expectations. Is that a reason to revise the two rules I mentioned above? It's certainly a reason to reexamine them. But upon reexamination, they seem to hold up fairly well. In general, unproven running backs without a good draft pedigree who are third or fourth on their team's depth chart are pretty unlikely to make a fantasy impact.
Other running backs who fit that description this preseason, in addition to Lindsay, were: Mark Walton (Bengals), De'Lance Turner (Ravens), Matt Dayes (Browns), Devante Mays (Packers), Tyler Ervin (Texans), Damien Williams (Chiefs), Senorise Perry (Dolphins), Roc Thomas (Vikings), Jalen Simmons (Giants), Chris Warren III III (Raiders), Josh Adams (Eagles), Jeremy McNichols (49ers), Shaun Wilson (Buccaneers), David Fluellen (Titans). (I'm ignoring players on teams with a true Stud RB because they are even less likely to make an impact.)
Phillip Lindsay and (to a lesser extent) Josh Adams both became relevant in fantasy circles this season, but on the whole, it's not a group that was worth investing in before the season started. In terms of doing preseason projections, I don't think there's all that much to learn from Lindsay's success other than "anything can happen," which isn't very actionable advice.
Danny Tuccitto: In scouring the web for potential statistical canaries in the coal mine, I couldn't find anything in his college stats or workout profile that stood out in terms of telling analytics folks like me something we didn't already know about projecting running backs into the NFL.
What did stand out, however, was his preseason performance. So perhaps preseason does matter? These two articles are biased sources, to be sure, but the writing was on the wall about Lindsay by virtue of him
- Outclassing the backups he was playing against,
- Wowing both coaches and veterans, and
- Quickly working his way from undrafted free agent to guaranteed roster spot. (He got the fourth preseason game off.)
There's obvious hindsight bias here, as it's much easier to look back and notice these things than successfully wade through the ubiquitous muck of preseason puff pieces. That said, my point is that, if Lindsay isn't just a case of one-in-a-million variance, and therefore gives us a genuine learning opportunity, then the only lesson that can possibly be learned is to give more consideration to preseason wonders that fit the criteria I listed above.
Wood: At the risk of sounding trite, Phillip Lindsay reminds us that there are no absolutes and that systematic analysis still leaves us prone to errors. As Danny noted, nothing in Lindsay’s profile hinted at this. He went undrafted. He’s smaller than just about any successful rusher in the modern era. He was playing on a team with another rookie, Royce Freeman, who has a pedigree, and a high draft status. And beyond all that, I wasn’t high in the Broncos offense thanks to Case Keenum.
In algorithmic trading systems, one of the main risks is overfitting the models. Meaning quants try to account for so many variables that they end up breaking their system or at the very least creating suboptimal risk-adjusted returns. Spending too much time on figuring out how to account for Phillip Lindsay is tantamount to overfitting our projections process.
Waldman: I think the jury is still out on Lindsay as an NFL starter. This will sound crazy given that the Broncos lost two left guards and its starting center during the course of the year and Lindsay is earning a league-leading 6.1 yards per carry.
As impressive as it seems for Lindsay to do this well with losses along the Broncos offensive line, let's keep in mind that entering Week 13 contest against the Bengals' 31st ranked rushing defense, Lindsay still led the NFL with 3.18 yards before contact per rush. Lindsay is earning half of his yards before he's touched on every carry.
It doesn't take a football genius to understand that the Broncos are blocking well despite the injuries along the offensive line. The room he's earning on perimeter runs and cutbacks to the middle of the line has been impressive.
Where Lindsay deserves credit is his ability to stop and re-accelerate through a backside crease when the designed crease to the edge is occupied. This also requires good vision and strong footwork. A quick and fast player — two different physical qualities that are often conflated and then leads to an inaccurate analysis of the running back position — Lindsay is also earning huge plays in space on well-blocked plays that look more like punt returns than runs.
The @Broncos may have a legit RB in undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay. For a smaller back, he has all the tools. As you can see, he's also extremely fast. #DenverBroncos #philliplindsay pic.twitter.com/pyE6osqLeo— Steven Spaccarotelli (@sspac21) December 6, 2018
Even this cutback up the middle looks like a punt return. Lindsay's patience is an asset that contributes to this play but it's indicative of the space he's earning for a ground game that's thriving.
Not only can he get outside, he can also run inside. His patience setting up the blocks & explodes through the hole to take 40+ yards to the house. Love me some Phillip Lindsay. #DenverBroncos #PhillipLindsay @Broncos pic.twitter.com/VKm4h75jql— Steven Spaccarotelli (@sspac21) December 6, 2018
It's important to note that the loss of offensive linemen is not as impactful for the ground game as it is the passing game. I'm not saying that losing an All-Pro guard or center doesn't hurt an offensive line but most replacement-quality linemen are much better run blockers than pass protectors.
Look at Matt Bitonti's weekly offensive line grades from last week. He gave the league 22 As and Bs to teams in the run game and no team earned less than a C. In the passing game? 19 As and Bs but 5 teams earned Ds. The Broncos earned a B- as a run-blocking unit.
The league gave Denver eight games with teams ranked 22nd or worse in rushing defense in terms of yards allowed: Oakland (twice), Kansas City (twice), Cleveland, Arizona, New York Jets, and Cincinnati. The Broncos have or will face three more teams with defenses in the bottom half of the league this ranking: the Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks.
Baltimore, Houston, and the Chargers are the No.3, No.5, and No.11 defenses in rushing yards allowed. Here are Lindsay's outcomes from those games:
- Baltimore: 4 rushes, 20 yards, 2 targets, and no catches — he was ejected near the two-minute warning of the first half.
- Houston: 17 rushes, 60 yards, 2 catches for 24 yards — 22 rushing yards came one play on a pitch to left end.
- Chargers: 11 rushes, 79 yards and 4 catches for 27 yards — 41 of his rushing yards came on a fake punt.
I recognize that it is far from conclusive that Lindsay only thrives against softer NFL defenses but 13 games of data suggest that Lindsay has benefitted from a soft schedule. We all understand that you don't discount big plays from a runner's totals — I'm highlighting them to share the context in which they came in the tougher games above.
There's no doubt that Lindsay is quick, fast, willing to hit a crease and get under defenders for whatever he can get up the middle, and he can catch. These all made him a possible satellite back of worth when I studied him in the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. He's played well, Denver's line has played well against most of its opponents (as soft as it has been), and Lindsay's big-play capabilities can't be discounted.
However, many of us are not too old to remember Steve Slaton, who, a decade ago in 2008, was the No.6 fantasy running back during his rookie year with the Houston Texans. A 5-10, 195-pound runner, Slaton earned 268 carries for 1282 yards, 9 touchdowns, 50 receptions, 425 receiving yards, and a receiving score.
The next year, Slaton started 10 games and neared 131 carries for 437 yards, 3 touchdowns, 44 receptions, 417 receiving yards, and 4 receiving scores. The following year he started 1 of 12 games, earned 19 carries for 93 yards and 3 receptions for 11 yards. Slaton finished his career in 2011 with 17 carries, 64 yards, and a touchdown for the Texans and Dolphins.
Slaton and Lindsay are similar runners, although Slaton often leaned hard on his spin move and I haven't seen Linsday use one nearly as often. A closer work as Lindsay's workload, tape (I watched a number of his games this evening on NFL Game Pass), and strength of opposition indicate that we need to see more before we make a conclusion about him as a long-term prospect.
The same was true of Slaton, Dak Prescott, Nick Foles, and many other players who earned statistically strong seasons as first-year options. Many analysts also bagged on the likes of Le'Veon Bell, and Jared Goff after their rookie years and questioned the legitimacy of Todd Gurley as a top talent when the Rams offensive line struggled during his second year.
As someone who studies rookies for a living, the greatest insight I can give from the recent lessons of players mentioned above is that one year is not enough to evaluate any player. You will hear people huff and puff about how they knew after one game, one half, or even a single play that a player would be a study.
Listen, I thought Patrick Mahomes II had the potential to be awesome and I believe he will remain awesome. Even so, I still understand that he's only started 14 games in two years and if I'm going to be exacting with my analysis, I have to make room for the idea that we haven't seen enough to deliver a definitive conclusion.
This weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that I missed on Lindsay but that I'm still guarded about his long-term outlook. Both things can be true. Here's an excerpt of my scouting report on Lindsay:
Lindsay has good long speed and runs with intensity for his size. He’ll alter his stride to patiently set up gap plays like counter as well as inside and outside zone. With his speed, he’s well-suited for the counters and wind-back plays Colorado used.
He’ll hit the hole with a decisive burst or set it up and jump cut to the open crease. He understands angles and is able to spot when the defensive leverage is ripe for him to bounce a run outside. However, Lindsay often needs multiple steps to cut downhill on perimeter runs,
and he doesn’t win there as much as one might expect for a back of his speed.
When he does win, he’s fast enough to force defensive backs playing outside contain to re-calibrate their angles and give chase. Despite forcing safeties to change their angle of attack, these defensive backs often recover and catch him if he doesn’t have the runway to fully build up his speed.
Lindsay often resorts to pace alteration to set up defenders in pursuit and then run by them. It’s a good ploy but telling that his acceleration is good but not as good as his long speed.
At his weight, power will never be his game. He lacks the strength to truly push a pile without help. He can slide off indirect contact by defensive ends to his upper body and lean through it for another yard but that’s about it. He can earn a little more against linebackers and defensive backs when he’s earned downhill momentum into the collision. When wrapped, Lindsay finishes with good body lean.
He’ll mitigate penetration with his quickness, identifying the angle to reach open space or the soft-spot of a crease to push. Despite his long speed, he’s not sudden. Defensive linemen and linebackers often catch Lindsay from behind in pursuit before he reaches a crease.
Expecting a back of his size to become a competent NFL blocker is a stretch. However, Lindsay does a good job of squaring his target and delivering an uppercut punch.
He has a tendency to leave his feet while delivering his punch and damages his ability to maintain leverage while moving with the defender during the second strike/follow-up phase of a block. At the same time, leverage is only so effective when there’s a massive size disadvantage.
When setting up blocks at the edge, Lindsay will get square and hip-to-hip with a teammate, minimizing the effectiveness of his opponent’s inside or outside move when double-teaming with his teammate. He times his cut blocking well and will work across the legs of and linebacker to drop him at the point of contact.
However, Lindsay has moments of indecision between cutting and using a stand-up technique, which leads to failed assignments. His receiving game is promising and the linchpin of his NFL potential. Lindsay runs an effective double-move in the middle of the field to fake out linebackers on routes in the flats or up the seams. He’s targeted on vertical routes up the sideline and adjusts well to them.
What I've seen from the NFL tape isn't that different from what I saw of him at Colorado State. He still gets run down from behind if he doesn't get a long runway and he's not powerful or a strong blocker.
The key area where I missed was his stop-start agility and acceleration. Lindsay's 3-Cone Drill was a pedestrian 7.12 seconds and he didn't run the 20 Shuttle. Both are key stats for acceleration in a more realistic football sense than the 40-yard dash.
For me, this is where the data really has an impact on film study because no one sees speed, acceleration, and stop-start quickness on the field as well as they think they do. As a good example this year, Nick Chubb earned the "his injuries wrecked his speed and acceleration" analysis that biased their view of him on the field and even throughout the Combine workouts where his key metrics were not far from Saquon Barkley.
Without the 20-Shuttle and 3-Cone Drill, two of my most important metrics for running backs, I had to lean on my eyes and I underestimated Lindsay to be safe. I gave Lindsay a 69 as my overall grade, which is a developmental project and special teams option. A 70 would have earned him a label of an occasionally used offensive contributor as a reserve.
If I had the above data, his grade could have been at least 4-8 points higher and possibly 12 points higher if he tested top category. To give you an indication of how that would have changed my rankings, Lindsay could have been ranked in the same range as John Kelly, Chase Edmonds, and Jordan Wilkins — contributors with upside. At best, he could have been close to Rashaad Penny, my No.9 back.
From an evaluation standpoint, I worked with the data that I had and did the best that I could with missing information on physical abilities that are problematic to pinpoint accurately without it.
From a fantasy standpoint, I didn't take the preseason drumbeats about Lindsay with the gravity that I should in hindsight. However, as Wood pointed out with overfitting — a common occurrence in the football data landscape — projecting one year of success in this scenario is not something anyone should sweat.
I can live with my decision from both perspectives, whether next year proves we needed more data or not.
Thanks again for reading and good luck this weekend.