Footballguys' Top 10: Insights From the NFL's 2018 Dress Rehearsal

A sneak-peek at Matt Waldman's in-season column profiling insights you need to know from each week's games.

The NFL'S DRESS REHEARSAL WEEKEND

Many of this week's games featured starters and key contributors for at least a half of football. Generally, teams don't work from an expanded playbook because they don't want to tip their hands to in-season opponents scouting ahead. This is another compelling reason why we don't see NFL opponents catch onto a player, a scheme, or a team until at least 4-6 weeks into the season.

One thing the preseason dress rehearsal weekend reveals is the personnel that teams value. If a reserve earned playing time with starters this weekend, it's a good indication that, regardless of listing on the depth chart, the team values the skills that they've seen from the player thus far—even if injuries are the reason the player is earning time with the first or second unit.

Sometimes, a team will play a reserve sparingly because they have already seen enough from the player to know that they will be using him during the season and there's no need to evaluate his play. In other instances, a veteran finally sees the field to shake the rust off.

This week is my opportunity to get some preseason reps with Footballguys' Top 10, which will be available here every Monday evening and filled with fantasy insights from my weekly notebook based on film study.

1. maintain cautious expectations for Marcus mariota this year

Mariota had a statistically promising start to his career and after a 2016 campaign where he earned top-15 fantasy production, fans and analysts have been anticipating a career ascension. Mike Mularkey's exotic smash-mouth offense became the scapegoat for Mariota's slow development. However, there's more to Mariota's struggles than Tennessee's scheme choice.

Mariota's footwork has never been heavily tied to his route progressions — not with Mularkey, Ken Whisenhunt, and not at Oregon. Matt LaFleur's offense will be the first scheme where Mariota must have his feet synchronized with his receiver's routes. Although he has been drilling his footwork daily, he's still reverting to his old habits on game days.

Below are three examples of Mariota's feet lacking the precision to deliver accurate passes to wide-open receivers. The first video is troubling because he lacks a footwork plan for a short drop-and-throw that will be necessary for quick-hitting plays like this third-and-short as well as red zone targets when the defense and field position compresses the allotted time for execution.

This is an open target for Corey Davis that Mariota sails because his feet are too wide after he hitches in the pocket. Whenever he has to move forward or side-to-side after his initial set from his drop-back, Mariota's feet are in a position to deliver an accurate target.

Here's a target that Mariota short-hops because he never gets is back foot anchored to the ground. His footwork is rushed and that lack of stability with that back foot prevents Mariota from delivering the ball with a full transfer of his weight. Without this transfer of energy, there's not enough velocity for the ball to reach the target.

It will be difficult to say when Mariota's drilling of his feet will translate to game conditions. It could be next month, the second half of the season, or another year or two. Former Giants and Titans quarterback Kerry Collins had to revamp his footwork during his NFL career and it took him a couple of years to see the benefits.

Most people link athletic quarterbacks to effective improvising from the pocket but this isn't true of Mariota. He's at his best when plays remain on-script. For Mariota to emerge as the player many expected after 2016, he'll need to develop better footwork from progression-to-progression as well as all types of drops from center.

Consider this year a learning curve. If Mariota's receivers struggle, this issue will be a factor. If they thrive, it will be an encouraging sign that they haven't reached their statistical ceiling.

2. Rookie Courtland sutton is this year's Kenny Golladay

The big and athletic Sutton is the source of tremendous excitement among the Broncos faithful and fantasy owners seeking a late-round steal. Much like Golladay in Detroit last year, we should maintain modest expectations if Denver's starters remain healthy.

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris faces Sutton daily in practice and as much as he appreciates Sutton's skill with fades, slants, and crossing routes, he told the media in early August that Denver's rookie receiver must learn the entire route tree. What does this mean for fantasy owners? Unless Denver is forced to simplify its offense for Sutton as an interim starter in case of an injury, Sutton's 2018 fantasy ceiling is that of a flex-play.

Even as a flex-play, there is potential for concern because of the lackluster receiving technique that he often displayed as a collegian. Sutton often claps his hands on the target, which is a troublesome process that can lead to dropped passes — especially when there's a collision with a defender during the act of the catch.

Sutton also has difficulty getting his hands close enough together so the fingertips of both hands meet and control the target. As a result, the ball often strikes the palm of his right hand and prevents Sutton from earning control of the target immediately.

So far, Sutton's technique still has some of these minor flaws but there hasn't been a target during the preseason where he's had to deal with a collision with a defender while making a reception. Still, you can see in the two videos below the issues the exist and how the outcomes of these targets could be like his college tape when the coverage gets tighter.

As was the case with Golladay last year, expect highs and lows from Sutton in 2018. He'll earn some excellent mismatches and exploit them but he'll also have some struggles against tight coverage when facing top cornerbacks who can challenge him at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point.

The greatest benefit that Sutton will have for fantasy players is creating mismatches for his teammates Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Sutton's skill with slants, crossing routes, and fades will allow Denver to create matchups with Thomas and Sanders against linebackers, safeties, and slot corners. Here's an example from last week's game that put Denver in scoring position.

3. Cleveland's ground game will thrive as long as Tyrod Taylor starts

Baker Mayfield has maneuverability but he's not a dangerous runner along the lines of Taylor. Opposing defenses won't have to spy Mayfield, which means it can use a greater variety of coverage without the risk of Mayfield gashing them for huge gains.

Taylor's big-play ability with his legs creates a number of problems for opposing defenses — especially when the surrounding skill talent is significantly better than what Taylor has had before. Whenever Cleveland uses a play-action fake, opponents must respect the possibility of Taylor keeping the ball and this forces opponents to honor pre-snap and post-snap shifts.

Taylor's big-play ability as a runner also prevents opponents from cheating against the running back, which makes life easier for Cleveland's offensive line.

Hyde earned the starting job with his preseason performance. However, do not rule out rookie Nick Chubb as a late-round upside selection. Although you'll read that Hyde out-played Chubb, keep in mind that Hyde always played with the starting offensive line and Taylor.

Chubb's work early in the preseason game with Mayfield and reserve linemen and it forced the rookie to take what was available or risk bigger losses with immature decisions. When Chubb earned creases, he played like the player yours truly has been talking about for years — and it didn't go unnoticed by those on a bigger stage who have experience blocking for NFL running backs.

When Chubb worked with Taylor during the third week of the preseason, he also performed well — and often in scenarios with greater difficulty.

As long as Cleveland's starting offensive line and quarterback remain on the field, the Browns run game is a fantasy value.

4. Adrian Peterson demonstrated Starter skills

This column devoted multiple sections to Peterson last year because it was clear that he still had starter skill despite the box score jockeys' myopic look at statistical trends and histories. Peterson looks the same this year. The only difference is that Peterson has a better offensive line that is willing to run a more diverse run game.

This is important because there are younger analysts with big stages writing pieces that say Peterson doesn't perform well in a zone-blocking scheme when it's the scheme where Peterson authored some of his greatest runs during the first 4-6 years of his career in Minnesota. Peterson performs well in single back, I-back, zone, and gap schemes. He can also catch the football. The only alignment where he's not a great fit is shotgun looks.

Washington runs enough of what Peterson does best that it's time to consider the veteran a potential value pick in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts. The acceleration, stop-start quickness, agility, vision, and power are all on display.

Can he hold up? Well, he did last year with a bad offensive line, a second-string quarterback, and often performed well on film with over 20 touches against the likes of Jacksonville and San Francisco. At the price you can get him, he's worth the risk.

5. Calvin ridley isn't ready for prime time

Ridley will earn playing time, if not a starting role, this fall. However, he's going to have some maddening drops throughout the year if the inconsistencies he's displayed during the summer continue.

Here are three drops — one per quarter — during the first three quarters of last weekend's game when Ridley was on the field. There is a different technical issue with each drop.

Fortunately, Ridley's hand-eye coordination isn't the underlying issue. Technique and focus lapses are the problems. Either Ridley has never paid attention to the finest details with his catching techniques (see Courtland Sutton) or he's thinking so much about his assignments that it's detracting from his focus at the catch point.

Ridley dropped the ball enough at Alabama that the issue is likely about finer detail. If the rookie spends daily time with a jugs machine, he'll improve through the course of the year if he can maintain his confidence level. If Ridley struggles, remember that Jerry Rice dropped a lot of passes as a rookie.

Short-term, fantasy players should exercise caution with Ridley. Long-term, he could be a buy-low if the owner of Ridley's current fantasy team loses patience after this year.

6. Sam darnold: now and (hopefully) later

With New Orleans demonstrating its brains and trading for Teddy Bridgewater, Darnold will earn the starting job in New York. He's played well enough to earn it. However, that's only if you factor the bias of draft capital, which generates a higher expectation for a first-round pick to earn immediate playing time and receive a patient learning curve relative to late-round picks or cheap free agents.

Head-to-head, Bridgewater delivered a compelling argument for the starting job and offers a more complete skill set at reading the field and handling the pass rush. In fact, Bridgewater has a strong quarterback rating against pressure during the preseason. The veteran has always been an efficient player from the pocket.

This is a skill that Darnold has always lacked. As mentioned in the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, Darnold can create in difficult situations but his lack of clean fundamentals often prevents him from capitalizing on easier opportunities. The best NFL quarterbacks find the easy plays in difficult situations; Darnold may generate solutions under difficult circumstances but he often creates those circumstances unnecessarily.

This third-down scramble is a prime example. Darnold has an open post route but his footwork is so sloppy and inefficient for the pocket around him that he prevents himself from seeing and acting on the route.

There's also reason to wonder just how effective he'll be reading the underneath coverage. Darnold delivers a successful curl route in the video below and while I'm inclined to believe Darnold read the dropping linebacker, there's a valid argument that he was focused more on the route than the defender and he only completed the pass because the linebacker didn't look back to the quarterback during his drop into the zone.

Although these types of plays will present a learning curve for Darnold this year and Bridgewater would have handled them better, Darnold has performed well enough that there's a sound argument in favor of him learning on the field as a rookie.

7. Cam Newton: the obstacle holding back Christian mcCaffrey's top-five fantasy campaign

McCaffrey should sustain top-15 fantasy production at his position this year. The bigger question is whether he can enter the Top 10 or Top 5. Much of the argument is focused on McCaffrey's size, and if Carolina's stated desire to give him well over 20 touches per game is a viable strategy.

Strictly focusing on these arguments, McCaffrey can handle the load and thrive. He's used to working the tight creases of Stanford's run scheme. He has excellent vision, acceleration, stop-start speed, and footwork.

The greater concern is Cam Newton, who has not developed the wisdom to create easy solutions. Consider this video below the future for Sam Darnold if Darnold doesn't work on the finer details of owning the pocket.

Newton was 10 yards behind McCaffrey at the point that he could have delivered the ball. Instead, he forgoes the easy check-down and winds up putting his career in jeopardy. If he lands just an inch different or his head is turned just a little more, the outcome could have been disastrous for Newton. For his safety and production, let's hope Newton makes wiser decisions.

If he does, McCaffrey has a chance to perform to his production ceiling. Until Newton stops fantasy-blocking McCaffrey, it won't happen.

8. cordarrelle Patterson: flex-play upside?

Julian Edelman will return from injury after he serves his suspension and we'll see if he can actually stay healthy long enough to do anything worthwhile. The Patriots brought in Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, and Eric Decker without success, which leaves New England with Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson as the starting rotation.

Hogan and Dorsett are at their best in the slot but the Colts never used Dorsett in the right position and New England is doing the same wrong thing. Hogan will be viable, Dorsett is the "he's wide-open" prayer, and most of the passing game will revolve around manufacturing mismatches for Rob Gronkowski.

Patterson may also benefit from the Patriots scheme because New England creates a lot of these mismatches with the quick passing game that allows its options to run after the catch. While Tyreek Hill presents a compelling argument as the best open-field runner in football, Patterson has balance and power in addition to field-flipping speed and agility.

Upon signing Patterson, Bill Belichick told the receiver that he was going to make Patterson the play he should have already become in the NFL. Maybe this is the hubris of a great coach who wants to show up the likes of Norv Turner but it's unlikely that Belichick cares a lick about that kind of thing. It's more likely that Belichick has identified how to maximizes Patterson's strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

The Patriots' scheme can minimize the number of man-to-man looks Patterson faces, which is his weakness as a route runner. Maximizing zone routes as well as space plays that are the extension of the running game could not only elevate Patterson's production but also his weekly volume.

If you're seeking an early-season waiver wire or late-round high-upside play, Patterson belongs on your list.

9. Brandon Marshall: Seattle's new and improved Jimmy graham?

Nick Vannett is a good run blocker with the athletic ability of a top tight end. However, he's not a starting-caliber receiver unless he's running wide-open against zone coverage. He's one of those specimens that gets beat writers and football analysts excited early in his career when he catches everything in site during drills against air and the balloon pops when defenders press him or contest his catches.

Seattle wanted a power running game, which is something it would never achieve with Graham as an in-line blocker. Vannett and rookie Will Dissly can man these roles. Marshall can give the Seahawks a receiver who can block better than Graham and still offer Graham's rebound/fade route/red zone game.

Below is a sail route that Russell Wilson throws like a sideline fade. It's a complete anticipation-up-for-grabs toss. Marshall dispenses with Xavier Rhodes with a swipe — one of the most physical corners in football — like Rhodes is a sixth-round rookie and wins the between Rhodes and the safety.

With Doug Baldwin dealing with an injury that will hamper him for the rest of the year, it's possible that he could be forced to shut down the 2018 season if it gets worse. Tyler Lockett is supposedly healthy and ready to roll but was he ever really better than Paul Richardson? He's not as good in tight quarters and he's not as multi-dimensional as Richardson. Jaron Brown is a career backup who can give Seattle a lot of what Jermaine Kearse offered in the past but he's not a go-to option. David Moore and Amara Darboh are athletic but still learning.

If Marshall is truly healthy, he could be one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 fantasy season.

10. fresh fish: Andrew luck

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," I provide my weekly short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.

Special of the Week: Andrew Luck

The allure of Luck's upside remains strong — perhaps too strong for the good of fantasy players. While a mobile player with a good arm, he's not on Russell Wilson's level as a creator. The fact that he's as good as he is at creating when he should be in an offense like the Saints or Steelers is a testament to Luck's talent.

The lack of offensive line talent has come at a cost. Luck has missed 26 games out of the last 48 after sustaining a rate of hits that no other quarterback has come close between 2012-2016.

Quarterback Hits Allowed by Year

Season
QB Hits
PosRank
2012
116
2nd
2013
109
3rd
2014
107
4th
2015
118
2nd
2016
128
2nd
2017
113
6th

Even Jacoby Brissett sustained a similar rate of punishment at the struggling hands and feet of this line. Although Quentin Nelson will likely help this unit sooner than later, the Colts need reinforcements or what we saw the 49ers do against Luck will be commonplace throughout the year.

When opposing defenses can stop the run and put the Colts in third-and-long situations, the Colts' offensive line play is bad enough that defenses can play quarters coverage (Cover 4) and rush four defenders effectively. Quarters coverage is designed to take away the intermediate and deep passing game, forcing the offense to throw to the shallow flats. This isn't an effective solution for an offense in third-and-long situations.

Rushing four and dropping seven forces Andrew Luck to buy time and find a coverage breakdown at the risk of taking hits, scrambling around multiple defenders, or dumping the ball and giving up on the drive. If Luck stays healthy, he has a shot at top-10 fantasy quarterback production as a garbage-time passer. However, it's difficult to believe that Luck will fend off opposing defenders any better than Andy Dufresne against the sisters at Shawshank.

You'll see this column weekly beginning Monday evening of Week Two.