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The Top 10 Week 14 - Footballguys

Matt Waldman opens his film notebook and examines the fantasy fallout from Week 13.

Welcome to Footballguys' Weekly Top 10. Since Week 4, the Top 10 has been free to Footballguys Insiders. All you have to do is register with your email and you'll receive access to this in-depth film breakdown (with a fantasy bent) of the weekend's games.

The Changes that occur during the NFL's stretch-run

We're at a point of the NFL season where a lot of subtle shifts take place. Young players are physically or mentally wearing down. Most quarterbacks will see a slight deterioration in arm strength down the stretch due to their workload — and defenses know it. And speaking of defenses, they've seen enough tape on their upcoming opponents to have solid game plans to stop or limit an offense's staple plays.

You'll see some of these developments as underlying themes of this week's topics. Among this week's topics, you'll get a break-down Travis Kelce's gigantic day and the underlying question of Patrick Mahomes II' decision-making mindset. You'll learn how the Lions thwarted some dangerous elements of the Rams' passing game and why Josh Reynolds is still worth you weekly consideration in larger lineup formats.

Dallas was another defense that figured out a high-powered attack when it stifled the Saints' tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II. You'll learn how it happened and if it's translatable for opponents facing New Orleans in December.

Rookies Justin Jackson and Dante Pettis are emerging, and you'll learn more about their skills and how that matters in the short-term and long-term future. Quarterback development can be like watching grass grow. We'll examine a blade of grass in Deshaun Watson's game.

Wrapping up this column is a series of miscellaneous thoughts about players based on this week and the month ahead and of course, Fresh Fish.

1. The Travis Kelce Show

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 footblal 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 sudden change of direction. Kelce runs it as if he's a slot receiver.

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.

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.

2. Is Patrick Mahomes II II Reckless Or Daring

Mahomes' targeting of Kelce on the seam route is a traditionally a daring throw. It requires a look-off of the safety, placement over the trailing defender, but not so high or too far inside to get his target killed or lead to a tipped pass.

Relative the rest of Mahomes' throws in this Raiders' game, this seam route was tame.

As a college player, most characterized Mahomes as a reckless gunslinger who makes wild throws. There were concerns that his penchant for odd-angled throws, forays across the width of the field while throwing on the run, and his choice of targets would lead to high-interception totals and losses.

The root concern has been the question of Mahomes' maturity. This column has shown a lot of tape that defends Mahomes' maturity as a young player. However, there's a question that remains for many: Are some of Mahomes' most incredible plays a sign of recklessness or daring?

Here's what might be called a "back-shoulder seam route," that comes off a read with the running back. While true that Chris Conley is open in the left slot because the defensive back at the left hash blitzes, Mahomes has Kelce as his first read and he notes the position of the defender before making this throw that forces Kelce to turn back-shoulder and snare with one hand.

Was this the intended placement? There's a good argument that it was not intended by design. However, the decision to throw this ball, as tight as the defender is to Kelce, is a sound one.

Delve into how quarterbacks read defenders on the field based on the receiver's route against them, and you'll learn the importance of leverage — the combination of distance and/or angle the defender is positioned in relation to the receiver's intended direction of his break.

On the pay above, the defender turns his back to the quarterback as Kelce begins his downhill break and slight turn ot the inside before pivoting back-shoulder for the target. It can be argued that Mahomes and Kelce have worked on this adjustment becuase the entire play is so fluid. Mahomes anticipates the break and Kelce's adjustment is almost effortless.

Throwing open receivers is a sign of great trust in a primary target. Aaron Rodgers did it with Jordy Nelson and Drew Brees did it with Jimmy Graham. We're seeing the same with Mahomes and Kelce.

There are other throws in this game where Mahomes looks like a trick-shot quarterback, and it begs the question further...reckless or daring?

The supporting argument for the side of daring is that Mahomes knows his limitations better than quarterbacks who possess some of his arm strength, manueverability, and vision as well as the success rate of these targets. Mahomes isn't throwing the ball into the middle of the field up for grabs and a defensive back slips just before the ball arrives.

That's what we saw during Nick Foles' career year with the Eagles before the unimpressive follow-up.

Mahomes also displays excellent touch, which you don't usually see from wild and reckless throwers who tend to power the ball into every window.

Mahomes' connection with Kelce and willingness to make bold decisions separates him from many quarterbacks who could not thrive if the team lost its starting running back to criminal behavior, its prized free agent receiver to injury, and its All-Pro primary reciever had an unproductive day. The Chiefs can lean on Mahomes, whose decisions on Sunday also showed an ability to learn from mistakes he made in the Rams' game (accounting for the location of ancillary defenders in the area of a target before attacking).

Tougher defenses will make life harder for Mahomes and the Chiefs if the ground game struggles, Sammy Watkins doesn't return, and opponents can limit Tyreek Hill or Kelce, but Mahomes is playing too well and finding too many creative solutions to put him on the fantasy bench, barring a one-of-a-kind matchup elsewhere.

3. How The Lions Defense Limited Elements of the Rams' Passing Game

A big part of the Rams' passing offense is the screen game to Todd Gurley. Below is a picture-perfect illustration of how linemen set up for a screen pass.

This was the only good screen that the Rams ran all day against the Lions. Detroit shut down all variations of Los Angeles' screen game and many of its outlet receivers for the rest of the contest.

In additon to closing off outlets for Goff, the Lions did great work implementing twists for its edge players and interior linemen. You saw some of this against screen plays but it also confused the Rams' offensive line on other plays.

These methods—in addition to physical play of receivers in bunch set, which you'll see a little later in this column, is valuable intel for upcoming opponents on ways to slow Sean McVay's offense. Goff is a good player against pressure but he's more Brady-like than Mahomes. He's a better thrower on the move than Brady or Matt Ryan — he's actually significantly above average in this area.

Like Brady, he has an excellent feel for smaller adjustments so he can maintain his base and fire away.

Still, there's a line between greatness and failure that occurs when pressure is too intense for a pocket quarterback. The Lions frequently took Goff to this place.

The Bears, Eagles, and Cardinals have the pass rushers to challenge the Rams in similar ways. Expect the Bears and its secondary to pose a worthwhile challenge. The Eagles could do the same if its secondary can get healthy.

The Cardinals will need to generate more consistent offense to have a chance. If Mitchell Trubisky returns and his Jekyll-Hyde tendencies don't emerge, the Bears could seriously challenge the Rams' offense.

The Lions limited Goff to 207 yards a touchdown, an interception, and a fumble lost. The Bears could make it another disappointing week for the Rams' passing game (which means count on only one receiver to produce — likely Woods) and if the Eagles secondary gets healthy, Goff could wind up a fantasy playoff disappointment. Monitor this closely.

4. Justin Jackson Takes Another Step Toward Short-Term (And Long-term) Relevancy

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.

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.

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 reason for Jackson to have long-term value — and maybe maximize his short-term production.

5. Dante Pettis: Better late than never

The Seahawks wiped the floor with the 49ers but Dante Pettis had another week where he showcased his talents — and against a better secondary than the Buccaneers. The Pac-10 record-holder for punt return touchdowns, we haven't seen Pettis showcase his open-field skills in the NFL until this weekend.

The first run was more impressive than the second and both paled in comparison to his route running. This stem, break, and attack of the ball is a great display of skills.

This is the type of route that will go a long way to setting up double moves and other routes on the tree that should lead to bigger plays as cornerbacks study his tape. Denver and a rematch with the Seattle are the next two opponents on Pettis' schedule. Good route runners riddle the Broncos:

  • Amar Cooper: 10 targets, 10 catches, and 116 yards.
  • Robert Woods: 10 targets, 7 catches, and 109 yards.
  • Sammy Watkins: 9 targets, 8 catches, 107 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
  • Keenan Allen: 9 targets, 9 catches, 89 yards, and a touchdown.
  • JuJu Smith Schuster: 17 targets, 13 catches, 189 yards, and a touchdown.
  • Tyler Boyd: 8 targets, 6 catches, and 97 yards.

Expect Pettis's production to have a range between Boyd and Watkins in Denver.

6. How the Cowboys Defense Limited Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II

Take two fast linebackers with patience and supplement them with strong defensive line play and you get a defensive unit that can stifle the Saints' running back tandem and offensive line. Let's start in the trenches with Tyrone Crawford and Antwaun Woods. These defensive linemen did excellent work against the Saints.

As the Lions stifled the Rams' line wit twists and limited check-downs for Goff, the Cowboys did the same below with Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory.

Crawford had a good game as a rusher and run defender. Below is an excellent job of him defending the edge to force Ingram inside and then one-arming the left tackle with excellent leverage to push the blocker into Ingram's cutback before sliding off for the wrap.

Crawford gets double-teamed in the green zone (inside the five of the red zone) as the guard works to linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Although the center earns initial position on Crawford, watch how Crawford fights to maintain a push. This is vital second effort from the lineman because Vander Esch meets the guard with force and pushes the guard into the backfield, forcing Karmar to cut back and collide with the center.

Antwaun Woods also foils Kamara with a great angle of pursuit at the edge, forcing Kamara to flatten his path. This gives Vander Esch time to work across the field and clean up the play. The Tweet references Crawford, but it's Woods making the play.

Dallas' defense also showed patience with Kamara in the passing game. The Saints love to use Michael Thomas as a decoy, mesh, or rub to distract the zone defender responsible for Kamara. This forces the defender out of position as Kamara follows behind Thomas for the reception.

Dallas did not take the bait on Thursday night.

The Saints should rebound against Tampa in a big way. However, Carolina has the front-seven to pose a challenge. Here's how the unit performed against the Saints backfield in 2017:

  • Kamara Week 2: 2-37-1 and 3-5-0
  • Ingram Week 2: 14-56-0 and 2-30-0
  • Kamara Week 12: 9-60-2 and 5-66-0
  • Ingram Week 12: 14-85-1 and 6-37-0
The Panthers didn't sut out either back but the healthier unit in Week 2 limited the tandem enough that the outputs were disappointing for fantasy football lineups. Carolina contained James Conner, Ezekiel Elliott, and Saquon Barkley to modest totals this year.
It might be worthwhile to consider the best matchup over Kamara or Ingram in Week 15 when the Saints visit the Panthers. It's always scary but scouting ahead is one of the purposes of this analysis

7. Deshaun Watson: Maturation in Progress

We've all seen enough of Watson's strengths to this point. He's a fine scrambler, he's creative on the move as a thrower, and he has the arm talent to throw deep. His best throws are ones where he leads receivers with rainbow-type throws. It makes the corner route his top pattern.

Pocket movement is where Watson is making incremental gains as a quarterback. He's never been awful at maneuvering the pocket with controlled steps, but he's becoming more refined.

This development not only matters for Watson avoiding pressure but it helps the quarterback increase the efficiency of the offense. The more he can move and throw in rhythm, the better the tempo this offense has and the less work his offensive linemen and receivers have to do on every play.

A scrambler can wear-out his teammates if he's doing it too often. The more Watson can become a rhythm thrower, the better this team will become.

8. It Wasn't a Big Day for Josh Reynolds, but He's in the Game Plan

Although the Bears defense could pose problems for the Rams next week, it's likely that the Eagles and Cardinals will still lack the talent in the secondary to compete at the highest level. It's good tidings for Reynolds, who earned significant targets within context of the game despite them not translating to worthwhile fantasy production.

Sunday's matchup and the Chiefs' game shows that the Rams like sending Reynolds to the back corner of the end zone from bunch sets and let him high-point the ball. We probably won't see McVay add any back-shoulder fades (he should) but expect Los Angeles to continue using Reynolds in high-leverage situations that could translate to production.

If you're desperate for a third receiver or have four-receiver sets and you're not particularly strong at the position, Reynolds' skill and usage make him worthwhile even if the matchups are boom-bust.

9. Miscellaneous

Here are some thoughts based on this weekend's games.

  • Spencer Ware looked healthy enough. He ran hard, but he was not the focus of the game plan. Still he didn't look exactly like the 2016 version that rumbled through defenses with tremendous cut-back ability. He looked 85-90 percent of his old self. He's worth using but if you can afford to wait-and-see, do that.
  • Jalen Richard is an underrated running back. He has Justin Jackson and Ahmad Bradshaw's stop-start quickness, big-play acceleration, and he's better between the tackles than his size indicates. If Bill Belichick finds that he's without James White at some point during the next 2-4 years and Richard becomes available, it could be a sweet match.
  • Derwin James may not become the next Sean Taylor but he's an emerging force who can cover ground, diagnose like a veteran, and reshape ball carriers and receivers with his hitting.
  • Jeffery Wilson, Jr., a rookie runner from North Texas, performed well for the 49ers this weekend. He's a straight-line runner with one-cut ability who runs hard. He's average sized and not a tremendous athlete at the position. However, he's an excellent route runner and receiver. If he earns the time he did in Seattle, he could be helpful to a needy playoff team.
  • Baker Mayfield's three interceptions were a mixed bag of decisions that shouldn't concern fantasy players although Carolina and Denver also have the front-sevens to pressure the quarteback into tougher throws that he might not make. If he struggles down the stretch, don't be concerned about his future. He's also making some excellent plays and showing off the arm and mobility to create.
  • Jaylen Samuel has enough speed to reach the edge in the Steelers' well-blocked outside ground game but he's not the well-balanced, powerful runner that James Conner and Le'Veon Bell have been. Oakland could be a decent time to use him but if Conner isn't available in Weeks 15 or 16, reconsider Samuel if he struggles.

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.

Catch of the Week: Antonio Callaway and Charles Clay

Callaway fumbled twice in this game, including this 76-yard play that should have resulted in a touchdown.

Clay's drop at the end of this game is the punchlne to Josh Allen performing this Benny Hill segment on the Dolphins' defense.

Onto the fish case:

  • Calvin Ridley: He dropped another pass this weekend and ran a third-down route too short to the sticks and forced a punt.
  • Doug Martin: Two fumbles
  • Richard Sherman: The 49ers defense belongs on this list, especially the secondary. However, Sherman gave up a first down to Doug Baldwin on a 2nd and 21 with Seattle backed up at its 17 in the third quarter with the 49ers only down by 17. If Sherman makes this play, who knows, it could have changed the complexion of this game.

Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.