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THE FANTASY PLAYOFFS MIMIC THE NFL 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.
December's editions of the Top 10 shared many of these developments. While leaning hard on Travis Kelce, Patrick Mahomes II is conjuring excellent fantasy production even when his wide receivers haven't been as consistent. The Lions, Bears, and Eagles have thwarted the upside of the Rams offense for the past three weeks.
As we get deeper into the stretch-run, young players earn playing time and significant production — especially when their teams are in the midst of a blowout. Kalen Ballage had a massive fantasy week that no one expected. Ballage read his creases well and had a nice cutback or two. HIs 75-yard run was a great example of his long speed after he cut downhill of a defensive back who was way too slow to the entrance of the crease.
As productive as he was, the Vikings were up 21-0 when Ballage earned his playing time in what turned into a 41-17 trouncing.
In that same game, Tyler Conklin earned early action in two-tight end sets and caught 2 passes for 53 years. However one of them was against a blown coverage along the right sideline. It was a good catch because of the safety nailing Conklin from over top but we saw nothing of Conklin's route running.
Darren Waller earned 40 yards up the sideline for the Raiders in his first extended action with the team. As is the case with Ballage and Conklin, there's no reason to count on them as much as monitor how they perform for the future.
Some of these types are worth consideration if truly desperate in Week 16.
Rookie Darrel Williams had a touchdown reception a few good runs against the Chargers on Thursday night. He's a powerful runner with quick feet and good decision-making who earned a roster spot despite the Chiefs beginning the season with Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware, and Damien Williams. In hindsight, it's a good indication that the Chiefs valued Darrel's skills (and possibly wondered if there was more to Hunt's story).
Damien also had an excellent night as the recipient of the Chiefs' misdirection screen game. He's a speedy back and if Ware cannot get right by Week 16, look for the Williams duo to continue its production. If Ware returns, Darrel will be back on the bench.
Marcus Murphy, Keith Ford, and Zach Zenner all earned significant time as running backs in the Bills-Lions game. Murphy is a journeyman who began his career with the Saints. He's a solid kick return specialist who works best from the spread. Ford has excellent burst and he runs hard. He has the most upside long-term but Murphy is the more refined player despite lacking Ford's size. Zenner has proven capable when called upon.
If Keke Coutee remains limited, the Texans did a great job of adding DeAndre Carter to its roster. Carter is a great fit for Coutee's role and it showed this weekend with decent production from the former Eagle and Raven.
These are most of the exceptional situations involving young, lesser-known talents who surprised on Sunday. With one week left, most of you with teams that are still alive have a good handle on your lineups — even if you have difficult decisions ahead. This week, The Top 10 will be a grab bag of insights — some with long-term value, some with short-term value, and one or two offering little more than a passing thought.
Next week, The Top 10 will end its 2018 season with a list of lessons learned.
1. Larry Fitzgerald's Twilight will be the Model for DeAndre Hopkins
Two weeks ago, I compared DeAndre Hopkins' career arc to Larry Fitzgerald in an ongoing dynasty series in The Gut Check. Hopkins is 26, Fitzgerald is 35, and if the Cardinals had an offensive line with a decent amount of cohesion, Fitzgerald would have more than 645 yards and 5 touchdowns based on his play.
Fitzgerald is a big, strong receiver who plays hurt. By comparison, Hopkins looks like a twig. However, only 9 pounds separate the two players.
Speed has never been the calling card for either player but both are aggressive, physical route runners who win the ball in the air and set up defenders as well as anyone in the league. Watching Hopkins earn receptions in the double digits on Saturday, it's easy to see how he'll earn more slot time as he gets older.
Although Tyreek Hill was my first choice as a receiver to anchor your dynasty leagues, Hopkins is a close second. So close, that there are teams I might opt for him ahead of Hill — especially as I see the progress Deshaun Watson is making (see below).
2. If I had to choose One player, Give me a Good center
If I ran the operations of a football team and had to choose one player to begin my build (say it's a new league, an expansion team, or even a rebuild), give me a good center. It's the most underrated position in football — despite being one that many NFL general managers cite as a vital spot.
The center is a massive factor in creating cohesion for the offensive line because he's the communicator for a lot of line calls and audibles. He's the glue that does the most double-teaming of top disruptors. He's called upon to pull or reach linebackers to transform runs into big plays.
He has to see the field as a second quarterback. Think of a center as a great editor for a publication stocked with talented writers (skill players).
The Falcons could not run the ball or protect the passer before Alex Mack joined the team. He was a huge reason for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman's success. Even with two starting guards missing, Mack has kept the line from completely destructing.
Ask the Cowboys line how much it missed Travis Frederick, a pick many panned until he stepped onto the field and helped Dallas have what was considered one of the great offensive lines in football. Ask Nick Foles and Carson Wentz about Jason Kelce. You know what? Forget that, ask Doug Peterson if the Eagles could have thrived with two different quarterbacks without Kelce.
You know when the Seahawks' like fell apart a few years ago? When it traded Max Unger to New Orleans for Jimmy Graham. You know when the Saints' line became a top unit? Same answer.
The rebuild of the Rams' offensive line often headlines with Andrew Whitworth's arrival but it was the same year Los Angeles added former Pro Bowl center John Sullivan, who at one time with the Vikings was considered the best center in the league.
Why is Melvin Gordon III averaging more than a cloud of dust this year? Mike Pouncey. His brother Maurkice is a huge reason Le'Veon Bell is still at home and aging Ben Roethlisberger is having a career year. And in the games where Adrian Peterson was opening a can of whoop ass on the league this year, Chase Rouiller was usually healthy.
Add Ryan Kelly to the list of good centers. Teammate Quenton Nelson will earn a lot of love this week for his play but Kelly was the glue of this unit that dominated the surging Dallas Cowboys defense. Whether he needed to pull, double team, reach block or shield a War Daddy one play and Dallas' tandem of athletic phenoms at linebacker the next, Kelly was up for the cause.
One of these blocks was actually Kelly on Jaylen Smith, not Vander Esch, but if you keep your eyes to No.78, you'll get the point...
Marlon Mack is a big-play running back with similar strengths and weaknesses as Tevin Coleman — a talented but a limited talent relative to his peers. When the Colts can generate simple decisions for Mack, it wins big. Kelly was a huge factor in teaching the Cowboys that lesson on Sunday.
If you have Andrew Luck in a dynasty format, your patience will be rewarded for the next few years. If you're a re-draft player and don't know who Deion Cain is, get familiar with his name now so you can draft him in the late rounds in the summer of 2019.
3. Jaylen Samuels was good, the Steelers line was better
Most good performances are the product of team play, but sometimes a player or unit deserves more credit than their supporting role receives. Kelly's support of Mack is a perfect example. The Steelers' line is another.
Jaylen Samuels is absolutely a competent NFL prospect. A former H-Back, his versatility can help an offense become multiple by shifting him to different positions and earning matchup advantages for himself or others based on where he lands.
Even one route and target like the one above forces a defense to think a little longer and react a little slower in certain formations because it must realistically account for various possibilities. Just as if every logical route progression ends in a check-down for a quarterback, a defender accounting for every possibility before making a firm decision can be late to the party. It's what the offense is trying to force on the defense.
Although Samuels is a competent player with decent quickness and good decision-making as a runner, he's not on par with a healthy James Conner or Le'Veon Bell. Fortunately, the Steelers offense matches up well with the Patriots defense, forcing New England to concentrate more on the pass, which allowed Pittsburgh to run from advantageous pass looks.
If the run design worked the play before, do the same basic thing again. #SteelersVsPatriots #Steelers— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 17, 2018
Good use of a back who lacks the same physical skill sets as the players above him on the depth chart. pic.twitter.com/9Cutkqd0UZ
The Steelers also counted on the Patriots defensive backs and linebackers getting too aggressive into the creases inside, which allowed Pittsburgh to work outside with success. Although Samuels is capable of becoming a decent NFL running back, I'm more inclined to say the matchup dictated the production more than the runner.
4. Deshaun Watson is getting better
Speaking of editors and writers, Rivers McCown used to edit my work at Football Outsiders. He's writing at the Athletic these days. A couple of weeks ago, Rivers interviewed me for a piece he did on Watson's development.
One of the topics was Watson's management of the pocket. His scrambling and off-script work are terrific, but it can wear down his receivers and offensive line because the supporting cast has to do a lot more running. A weary team also becomes more mistake-prone.
Longer developing plays also slow the tempo of an offense and tempo is a huge facet of keeping an offense crisp, accurate, mistake-free, and aggressive. Big plays come from precise execution that catches opponents off-guard. When an offense is producing well play after play and at a fast rhythm, it can discombobulate an opponent much easier than a methodically slow unit, which can get bogged down and hurt itself.
It's why Watson making plays in rhythm is a welcome sign. The Texans will always value Watson's improvisations but when the passing offense can stretch the field horizontally with routes in rhythm with the quarterback's drop, tempo becomes present in the scheme.
This is what's often missing from Josh Allen's game. Buffalo is disguising it with designed plays that give Allen more leeway to run the ball if he misreads the situation. Watson has always read the field better than Allen, but it's this good tempo in the drop-back game that is becoming a more refined part of Watson's game this year.
He's always been a smart player. This placement of this deep cross away from the coverage while under pressure is a great example. Most will love on Hopkins' adjustment but Watson's decision is just as noteworthy.
With healthy receivers and an upgrade or two along the offensive line, don't be surprised if Watson's passing production takes a significant step forward in 2019.
5. Sam Darnold remains Sam Darnold
One of the most common questions readers have about rookie quarterbacks is, "How has the player changed since you studied his college tape?" The usual answer is, "not much."
Think about a rookie quarterback's transition from college football to the NFL. He's usually the star of his team and campus and in an environment where everything is monitored, including waking, eating, workouts, class schedules, studying, practice, and bedtime.
There's only so much time that a college player has to work on his game because of the college environment. Once he declares for the draft, his priority becomes getting picked as high as possible to make as much money as possible. This does not always coincide with him getting better as an athlete, a leader, or a passer as much as it does getting the right individuals to "teach him the test," of the Senior Bowl, team interviews, the NFL Combine, the Pro Day, and team visits, and draft day.
Once on a team, that player has to learn a more complex offense, become better at diagnosing defenses, adjust to the highest level of athletic play they've ever seen, and acclimate to the increased pressure of performing with and against grown men playing to support their families for season that's much longer than the college game. For the first time, there's no break from football or from public scrutiny.
It's usually why most teams are wise not to address mechanical issues with hardcore work until the end of the season if that rookie is the starter. It's also why you probably won't see a ton of emotional or conceptual growth from all but the rarest prospects at the position.
This is why Sam Darnold remains Sam Darnold: A rookie quarterback with physical skills and awareness to make off-script plays that would be more impressive in any other year prior to Patrick Mahomes II but also the unrefined conceptual component that places his team at risk.
Darnold is another year or two away from becoming a more refined player. He could thrive sooner (while still learning) if he had an environment that Dak Prescott earned as a rookie but don't count on it. Along the way, expect some exciting highs from this talented option after hopefully, a productive off-season.
6. Green Bay's Defense EArns An Assist for Mitchell Trubisky's AFternoon
Call me a Trubisky Doubter. Not in the sense that he'll be a complete bust in a few years — although possible — but that he'll never be in the top echelon of quarterbacks. He may be at the helm of a division champion and even earn Pro Bowl berths — the NFL's version of the participation trophy — but he lacks that high-end decision-making that the best quarterbacks possess.
He's the most likely player on his team to author destructive moments. While that's true of any player who handles the ball more than anyone else, it has more to do with his tendency to force the ball, become too invested in a play, or lose his composure after a mistake.
Hopefully, he proves this assessment wrong but even in Sunday's division-clinching victory, it seemed that the Bears carried Trubisky more than most characterize.
Missed angles. pic.twitter.com/itXjF232xU— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 17, 2018
Good scramble by Trubisky and Shaheen— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 17, 2018
Also, another play where a WR gets yards after the catch that shouldn't have happened. pic.twitter.com/hs7k1Qbtt2
It's most likely that Trubisky will be a long-term starter and have some good seasons but he's a more mobile Eli Manning as a decision-maker (or a high-end Blake Bortles). When channeled well, that mobility is a saving grace that lowers the potential for his foolishness as a passer. He's a tough, big-armed, mobile player with speed but if the offensive line suffers significant issues, you will want no part of him.
And remember, Matt Ryan is having a good year despite significant issues with his line.
7. Derrick Henry's Footwork
A three-toed slot would have a favorable over/under on a 10-carry, 25-yard day against the 2018 Giants defense. It's probably why Derrick Henry, its speedier cousin, had 170 yards on roughly three times as many touches.
In all seriousness, unless you missed the Jaguars' game, we all saw how fast Henry is. He'll never beat Chris Johnson in a race, but he can challenge angles of linebackers and safeties if he gets a longer runway to accelerate.
Having a defensive end's frame as a running back is certainly advantageous after contact, but the reason Henry is a Heisman winner and early pick is it has always been his quick feet. He hasn't always used them well as a pro because certain run schemes are better fits than others for his game.
You've probably noticed that toss plays and specific downhill schemes with a fullback leading the way have generated success. This matches well with a big, momentum-based player. However, Henry's ability to stop-start or cut back is good enough when the lanes are big.
Yesterday, the only defense to yield bigger rushing lanes than the Giants was the Dolphins.
The problematic thing with Henry's game is his ability to re-accelerate after he changes direction. It appears slow until you see him glide past defenders with angles. Then there's the tremendous reach he has with his stiff-arm that ruins good angles that defenders achieve. If he's not wrapped and dropped immediately, he'll carry opponents for 3-5 yards with only a few steps and a lean of his frame.
Don't count Henry out as a future feature back. Right now, he's a matchup play. His truest test this season to date will be against the Colts, so if you have him for Washington in Week, rejoice.
8. Julio Jones TD
The Falcons have earned a lot of criticism this year from this column and injuries have been the root issue. Still, one thing that puzzles this writer is how little we see these types of targets to Jones near the red zone. This is a well-executed go route where Jones slows down just enough that the pace variation and the turn of his head fool Patrick Peterson into thinking back-shoulder fade.
It has been a while since I've even seen Jones targeted on a back-shoulder or corner fade in the red zone. The last time was the opener in Philadelphia and he attacked that play poorly.
Considered the best athlete at his position (apologies to Josh Gordon), it's odd that he's not used more in this capacity.
Speaking of poor usage, here's something everyone clamored to see when they invested in David Johnson this year.
We all want to see these targets for David Johnson #AZCardinals— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 17, 2018
Josh Rosen also needs time to deliver these targets. Here's one instance from a six-sack day where it worked out. pic.twitter.com/y01b7wZ4yy
There's your early Christmas present (or extremely late Labor Day surprise...). As for the offensive line, assembly was clearly not included with the package.
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: Cardinals Offensive Line.
As the broadcast crew of the Falcons-Cardinals game said, Arizona has some decent individual talents along the offensive line but lacks cohesion. Well, that lack of cohesion resulted in six sacks of Josh Rosen, a forced fumble, two tipped passes at the line of scrimmage, and a pick-six. Atlanta's decimated defense finally met an opponent that made it look good.
Onto the fish case:
- Calvin Ridley: He's in the midst of a three-game drop streak.
- Josh Allen: He's exciting but fumbling at the 13 yard-line while down 13-7 late in the third quarter is a recipe for disaster. He's the epitome of "good and terrible," right now.
- The right side of the Seahawks back-seven: Seattle's safety, outside linebacker and cornerback had two blown plays in a row on pass plays that resulted in 67 yards and a touchdown. It was the difference in the game.
- Miami Defense: Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray had strong days running through creases as wide as a canal entrance for passing ships.
Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.