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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.

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