The Gut Check No.460: Stretch-Run Candidates

In this week's Gut Check, Matt Waldman profiles four players varying degrees of potential as stretch-run starters.

Some players emerge from anonymity to carry your fantasy squad through the playoffs. Others overcome difficult beginnings, benefit from team adjustments, and turn on the afterburners that propel fantasy players to championships. And many offer timely outputs that solidify a small hole to help a good fantasy team earn consistently great production.

They are all versions of stretch-run candidates, and they range from pass-catching backs in offenses facing weekly deficits on the scoreboard (Marcel Reece a few years ago to Jalen Richard in the present) to marquee talents whose situations appeared hopeless during the first two months of the season (Russell Wilson almost every year). This week, we'll examine four stretch-run candidates coming from radically different situations who could help your team.

The Rebounding Marquee Talent: David Johnson

David Johnson is the No.11 fantasy runner in standard and PPR formats, which isn't as remotely as disastrous as the way the fantasy community regards his 2018 campaign. Yet, it doesn't render the fantasy communities perception a moot point. The difference between Johnson and the No.7 fantasy back in PPR is the same difference between Johnson and the 20th-ranked runner, which means Johnson has much more in common with mid-range and low-end fantasy RB2s than mid-range RB1s.

The Cardinals offense sputtered this year thanks to poor line play, young receivers, a rookie quarterback, and an offensive coordinator renowned for overcomplicating his schemes. Fantasy players hoped that, in one week, new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich would turn around the mess outgoing OC Mike McCoy left behind.

That wasn't going to happen. An offense may not be a supercarrier, but it's a pretty big boat that can't make hairpin turns. Leftwich met with position coaches and players last week, asked them to assess what they do best, and paired down McCoy's tome of a playbook.

The production didn't increase, especially in Johnson's case, but the Cardinals made timely plays and earned its second victory — overcoming a 12-point deficit in the second half. Johnson remained a high-volume commodity for the offense. He earned his second-highest rushing output this year and tied his season-high for receiving yards.

While the totals remained modest and it would be great to see the Cardinals change up its usage of Johnson from a check-down option to a more frequent downfield receiver, Leftwich needs another week or two of transition time to solidify the offensive identity before making significant changes. Using Johnson more like an H-Back or wide receiver a few more players per game is not a huge alteration but addressing the fundamental plays inherent to the scheme that work off each other is more important than ideas that only lead to big plays but become predictable gimmicks after a week or two if the foundations of the offense aren't sound.

What we know is that Johnson will remain a high-volume, marquee component of the Cardinals offense. And while everyone is trying to identify the magic pill internally that may turn around this offense's production, we can also entertain the notion that Arizona has four run defenses in the upper third of the league.

Opponents Against the Run (So Far)

  • Washington: 2nd
  • L.A. Rams: 16th
  • Chicago: 3rd
  • Seattle: 11th
  • San Francisco (twice): 17th
  • Minnesota: 9th
  • Denver: 29th

It's also worth noting that the Rams wiped out the Cardinal's game script with a 19-0 lead by halftime and the Broncos capitalized on Cardinals offensive mistakes to generate a 21-3 lead in the first quarter. Part of the problem is an offense that has been bogged down in a complex scheme that has led to mistakes and slow starts forces the staff to abandon the run.

While it will feel better if we can attribute an improvement to the scheme, there is also hope that the Cardinals face an easier diet of run defenses down the stretch.

Upcoming Opponents Against the Run

  • Kansas City: 27th
  • Oakland: 26th
  • Detroit: 25th
  • L.A. Chargers: 10th
  • Green Bay: 18th
  • Atlanta: 15th
  • L.A. Rams: 16th

Although these opponents have offenses capable of generating commanding first-half leads, the Cardinals defense has enough talent to keep the team in games if the offense can limit mistakes and generate drives. Johnson has run well enough that we should begin seeing 75-80 yards per week as his baseline rather than 40-50 yards.

An extra three points per week from Johnson during the first half of the season would have placed him much closer to Melvin Gordon III as a mid-range RB1 than a low-end RB2. Although Johnson's efficiency and yardage production are low, he's tied for fifth among running backs with five rushing scores despite the team's offensive struggles.

A good parallel to this argument in favor of Johnson based on his upcoming schedule is Peyton Barber. An underrated runner who most see as a mediocre back, at best, Barber plays on a pass-heavy offense with a line that struggles with run blocking and a defense that's filled with injury substitutes and rookies.

For the past three weeks, Barber has been the No.15 runner in standard formats and No.19 in PPR. For the year, he's 39th and 41st in each format, respectively. Why? He certainly didn't take a magic pill that Merck manufactures for running backs — those who understand running back play on film, know that Barber does a lot to minimize the disaster that has been the Buccaneers rushing offense.

The answer is the schedule. Barber faced the following teams during the first four weeks of the season:

Opponents Against the Run (September)

  • New Orleans: 1st
  • Philadelphia: 5th
  • Pittsburgh: 4th
  • Chicago: 3rd

Barber's opponents the last three weeks? Atlanta (15th), Cleveland (30th), and Cincinnati (28th). During these past three weeks with the same caliber offensive line, Barber has been a legitimate fantasy RB2 when he wasn't even an RB3.

Expecting Johnson to earn three fantasy points per game more than he has so far isn't as outlandish as it may appear. If you have Johnson, don't give him away. If you have great depth elsewhere that you can leverage for Johnson, he's worth consideration.

The unlikely riser: Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen didn't produce a top-20 fantasy week at his position during the first seven weeks of the year. The closest he came was 22nd. He was often outside the top-25.

Let that sink in.

Larry Fitzgerald is old, Ricky Seals-Jones is a slow wide receiver dressed up as a tight end, and like Seals-Jones, Christian Kirk and Chad Williams are young. Add Mike McCoy's ponderous playbook to the equation and it stymies the execution of everyone on the offense, not just the quarterback.

While David Johnson's statistical output didn't change much one week after the promotion of Byron Leftwich, Rosen earned his first top-15 fantasy week at the position. Point to the opponent all you want, because we'll be pointing at the rest of the Cardinals schedule in a moment, but let's recall that this was the second time Arizona faced San Francisco and Rosen didn't earn a near-startable week against the 49ers' 23rd-ranked passing defense.

Leftwich's simplification of the playbook will allow this passing game to think less and play more. As Peyton Manning revealed at ESPN when studying Rosen's performance, the rookie doesn't repeat mistakes and shows great promise at the position.

Rosen is a good intermediate and deep-ball thrower and he reads the field well. Here's an excellent anticipation throw based on Rosen's pre-snap and post-snap work in the red zone that resulted in the game-winning score last week.

Simplifying the offense doesn't mean that the offense will be simplistic. The Chiefs and Rams have simple offenses. The schemes don't have a dizzying array of formations for defenders (and quarterbacks, offensive linemen, and receivers) to digest. Instead, these teams force linebackers and safeties to make the correct guess of whom to cover in areas where there are multiple choices.

As the Cardinals simplify its offense and allow Rosen and his receivers to unclutter their minds and focus on the primary objective of getting coverage to guess wrong, production will follow. In fact, production has a good shot of improving regardless of the changes. The Cardinals face a schedule that includes some bottom-dwelling defenses against the pass.

Remaining Schedule of Pass Defenses

  • Kansas City: 31st
  • Oakland: 14th
  • L.A. Chargers: 12th
  • Green Bay: 4th
  • Atlanta: 26th
  • Detroit: 5th
  • L.A. Rams: 15th

The Chiefs are playing better and pressure is its strength, which could derail Rosen and company early. However, the Raiders unit is losing whatever teeth it had, and the Rams were much better before losing Aqib Talib and much worse with Marcus Peters overreacting to everything during the month of October.

It gives the Cardinals four legitimate weeks for low-end starter potential from Rosen if we don't account for a significant improvement down the stretch from this intelligent rookie quarterback who hasn't made many of the same mistakes twice. Considering that two of those favorable weeks are this and next, Rosen might offer fantasy teams a legitimate (and cheap) bye-week option in larger leagues where a fantasy player can't afford to give away talent in a trade or has used up his budget in free agent bidding.

It's not unheard of; Jameis Winston was the 24th-ranked fantasy quarterback after 7 weeks in 2015. He finished 11th overall based on his stretch run, earning top-10 production. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson earned top-10 production after Week 7 as rookies — Wilson was the No.28 fantasy quarterback after the first seven weeks.

Sometimes it's calculated cheap bets for a week or two that can sustain a good team with a big hole during stretch-run bye weeks. Rosen is an unlikely but viable candidate.

While everyone's zigging, Daesean Hamilton is the Zag

Courtland Sutton is the Kenny Golladay of 2018 — a big, fast, rebounder of a receiver who makes fantasy players and analysts drool. They see the highlights and have two-touchdown weeks dancing in their heads.

It will likely happen 1-3 times this down the stretch now that Demaryius Thomas is a Texan. The Broncos will target Sutton on fades and let the big man do his thing. He'll also see a strong bump in volume as the new starter. If you have him play him; if you need a starter and can afford him, go get him.

If you don't have Sutton, can't afford him, or you have the luxury for a sneaky-good beneficiary of the Thomas trade, pick up Daesean Hamilton while he's close to returning from an MCL injury. Hamilton is a Cooper Kupp-like option who can play in the slot and outside.

Hamilton excels at the line of scrimmage against tight coverage and is among the best receivers in this rookie class at earning separation from press coverage.

Hamilton is automatic within the first 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. He was at Penn State and he will be in Denver.

The Broncos want to run the ball more, which potentially limits the amount of three-receiver sets it uses. However, Sutton is not a complete route runner. Chris Harris Jr stated as much this summer.

These final games are about giving Sutton on-field experience to develop his game but only so much development will happen without rigorous practice after the season ends and his body has a chance to heal and train without interruption. Look for Hamilton to earn more snaps and generate viable PPR production as a flex-play. He's low-cost, a low-risk option with the skills worth your attention.

Don't let the volume Scare you: Kenyan Drake

Kenyan Drake isn't a major revelation this year. Fantasy players have loved his talent. While agreeing that he's a great athlete with fantastic natural balance and receiving skill, yours truly has been critical of his skills between the tackles — the reason the team acquired Frank Gore.

Fans and fantasy writers often fight the notion that Miami made a wise decision to lump Drake in a committee with Gore. They claimed Gore is washed up and it's stifling Drake. It's mostly an argument with selfish motivations for fantasy production. Understandable but still selfish.

When Adam Gase says that he values Gore because he knows that Gore will produce what's intended from the play, that's a statement about Gore's maturity and reliability to keep the offense on schedule and a statement that Miami headed into the year without proof that Drake was a fully-realized starter talent who could run play with the reliability and craft that it needed from a back.

Drake excels on perimeter runs and gap plays where he can use his acceleration early without diagnosing multiple choices at the line of scrimmage. NFL offenses run a wider range of plays and need a back who can get the hard yards — the gains of 1-3 yards when big-play backs are too tempted to lose patience and stall drives with an ill-advised decision to go for the big play in a bad situation.

It's possible that Gase intends to keep Drake in a committee for the remainder of their time in Miami but there's also a chance that Gore is Drake's finishing school as a runner. If Drake learns what Gore can teach, Drake could graduate to an every-down player.

Regardless of the future, the present situation limits Drake's volume and it makes fantasy players uneasy about a top-15 fantasy PPR runner. It shouldn't. Drake's remaining schedule is pretty cush...

Remaining Schedule of Run Defenses

  • New York Jets: 22nd
  • Green Bay: 18th
  • Indianapolis: 21st
  • Buffalo: 20th
  • New England: 19th
  • Minnesota: 9th
  • Jacksonville: 24th

Drake has become a reliable receiver who the Dolphins target downfield in a manner that fans would love to see happen for David Johnson in Arizona. He's also showing signs of improvement with his footwork on runs heading towards the line of scrimmage, which is an indication he's working at his craft.

Although still used mostly in the passing game and shotgun sets as a perimeter runner, Drake is the No.6 fantasy back since Week 5 and the schedule ahead is promising enough for him to maintain that production.

His dynasty upside remains contentious but his stretch-run potential is strong. If you're trying to deal for a good starting back but a team with Drake balks at giving up its marquee back, consider a package deal for Drake and another player at a different position. It's a compromise that could become a pleasant surprise.

Author's Note: I'm moving next week so there will be no Gut Check. I'll see you in two weeks.