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This week, The Top 10 conducts its year-end review of the 2018 season. Hopefully, some of the lessons can be applied to future fantasy seasons.
1. "What We Thought Reggie Bush Would be"
Christian McCaffrey set the NFL's running back reception record with 106, breaking Matt Forte's mark of 102, and he still has a week to spare. His 1,975 total yards only places him 150th among all-time season leaders at the position.
Although it would take a record-breaking day of mammoth proportions for McCaffrey to reach the best season of all-time, his mark is an impressive feat considering that he didn't return kicks or punts his year. Few backs earn his snap counts and touches, especially backs entering the league at the 200-pound mark.
There were a lot of McCaffrey doubters during the 2017 NFL Draft and heading into this season. He's too small to handle this workload and he lacks the high-end athletic ability of a difference maker.
In hindsight, these critics needed to pay more attention to the correct metrics. Although McCaffrey's 4.48-second, 40-yard dash is on par with deep threat Marvin Jones Jr, it's not eye-popping for his size or even for his position. However, McCaffrey's 4.22-second, 20-Shuttle, and his 6.57-second, 3-Cone marks were.
McCaffrey is a sudden back with wide receiver skills and excellent vision. Stanford's scheme with McCaffrey in the backfield employed tight line splits that might as well be rugby scrums compared to the Air Raid and Spread schemes that are popular in the college game.
McCaffrey could have easily been a record-breaker in one of these schemes, but he chose an opportunity for a great education on and off the field. In addition to Stanford's academics, McCaffrey's work in the Cardinals scheme with these tight line splits mimicked the most conventional "pro-style" offenses in the NFL.
The Stanford experience helped McCaffrey refine his footwork, his understanding the common blocking schemes he'd run on Sundays, and develop the decision-making necessary to make the most of small creases. Many top running back prospects spend their rookie years trying to learn or refine one (if not all) of these skills while also acclimating to the significant jump in athletic and conceptual abilities of professional competition.
McCaffrey was already more advanced. He made rookie mistakes, but they were more often issues related to gaps in concentration. Cam Newton may have needed more acclimation time to target McCaffrey than McCaffrey needed to get used to the pro game.
I compared McCaffrey in skill, talent, and style to Brian Westbrook — one of my favorite running backs of the past 15 years and a player I touted in my very first Gut Check column in the early 2000s. Westbrook bristled at these comparisons last year.
Whether Westbrook still disagrees or has softened his stance, it doesn't matter because McCaffrey has played like Westbrook's equal. A person with well over a decade of experience in the league and, someone I trust considerably, scouted McCaffrey and told me last year that he thought McCaffrey would be what everyone expected Reggie Bush to become.
If McCaffrey sustains production near 2018's outputs, that comparison will prove correct.
Fantasy Lesson(s): The running back position is not one-size-fits-all. There are several archetypes of styles and those styles often match certain physical dimensions of height and weight. Successful NFL running backs have dimensional ranges the encompass the entire span of cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, and defensive ends.
In most cases, pay more attention to measurements of straight-line and stop-start acceleration and change of direction (20 Shuttle and 3-Cone). Also, give additional weight to college backs with experience playing in offenses that run a wide range of blocking schemes with tight offensive line splits. This is good training for Sunday.
2. offensive lines are vital
Running backs matter less than they did in the recent past. As for them not mattering at all, this click-bait-ish talking point will rage on into 2019 as analysts will continue to overfit the data in zealous pursuit of a making their arguments appear true.
One area where I think most can agree is that offensive line play is vital. Yet it still remains largely ignored by a significant portion of the fantasy community.
Writing off Adrian Peterson behind atrocious offensive line play in Minnesota and Arizona is one recent example. Bashing Nick Chubb during the preseason is another. Melvin Gordon III's lack of efficiency until this year is yet another.
While most fantasy players and analysts can identify a trips alignment, an I-formation, the shotgun, the 4-3 defense, and the 3-4 defense, many possess little knowledge about gap and zone blocking. Fewer can articulate how a running back is supposed to set up these schemes as a runner.
They may tell you Todd Gurley doesn't matter because C.J. Anderson earned more yards after contact than Gurley ever earned during a game, but it's lost on them that Gurley's choices are often so strong and his athletic ability so excellent that he doesn't have to do the dirty work of Anderson on the same plays.
My boy TG the goat that happens cuz I’m slow https://t.co/3SN1CMyLne— Cj Anderson (@cjandersonb22) December 24, 2018
The fact that Saquon Barkley is performing as well as he is with a craptastic offensive line that made fundamental mistakes as run blockers are lost on them. So is the fact that Ezekiel Elliott labored much of the year without much of a supporting cast.
Although the contingent of analysts who bashed the Raiders preseason for its older offensive schemes was probably doing victory laps, the Seattle Seahawks offense looked to the past and has been trolling them and the NFL with its run game all year. The differences were the quality of the offensive line and the health of its starting running back.
Interestingly enough, Combine-fave and first-round pick Rashaad Penny never took the starting job away from last year's seventh-round pick Chris Carson because Penny can't be relied upon to execute the zone blocking correctly — even if the occasional success is borne from a mistake in judgment.
Fantasy Lesson(s): If you want to increase your chances of hitting on running back selections on draft day and in free agency, spend the winter and spring learning to diagram trap, power, outside (wide) zone, inside zone, ISO, toss, duo, and counter. You can Google diagrams and practice on a whiteboard, with a notebook, or on napkins at your favorite local dive.
Also get some lessons on vision, footwork, and body position from a former NFL running back, position trainer, and state champion high school coach. Do these two things and you'll eventually have more success spotting why players are experiencing success and failure and whether the results have a sound supporting process.
It's work but your eyes won't hurt as much trying to concatenate spreadsheets. You'll even gain some balance in your analysis that will help you avoid some mistakes while enhancing your chances of success with selecting backs.
3. Player Fit is paramount
Amari Cooper faltered in Oakland the past two years but emerged down the stretch as one of the Cowboys' most valuable players after fans and media lamented the price Dallas paid to acquire him. Robert Woods was 'just a guy' in Buffalo while Sammy Watkins was 'the man.'" But in L.A., it was a complete role reversal.
Baker Mayfield started strong, regressed, and finished stronger than he began thanks to the Browns turning over key members of its staff. And if Rashaad Penny were a Colt, he might have been a Rookie of the Year candidate because Indianapolis' excellent offensive line runs a blocking scheme with a predominance of gap plays.
Organizational and scheme fit is paramount for the success of a player.
Although fans and analysts were long predicting that Mayfield would be the starter by mid-year, it was not the intent of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley. They signed veteran Tyrod Taylor and repeatedly told the media that Mayfield would not start this year.
They were set to stick with that decision until an injury knocked Taylor from the Jets game and forced Mayfield onto the field, revealing the rookie's superior immediate potential to ownership and the media. It generated (additional) serious questions about the competency of the leaders on staff and that staff's desire to cover its behind by not starting Mayfield wound up victimized by their own bad decision.
At the same time, team leadership — in the locker room and boardroom — should be aligned in these decisions. The Chiefs and Seahawks were with theirs when it came to Patrick Mahomes II and Russell Wilson.
Granted, Kansas City got a career-year from Alex Smith but it also traded into the early first round to take Mahomes, who was considered by most a late-first or second-round pick and didn't waver about sitting the rookie for a year. Seattle made Matt Flynn a reasonably wealthy man as its free agent signing and didn't hesitate about starting Wilson ahead of Flynn when he demonstrated the skills to do the job immediately. Even so, Wilson didn't make the leap as a passer until the second half of the season.
Fantasy Lesson(s): Team fit is a massive factor in the success and/or failure of players — talented players. It's easy to judge players too early and casually write them off with language that's definitive. However, we too often simplify players into three broad categories: Stars, "just guys", and busts.
As odd as it may seem, practicing the habit of identifying specifics about where a player is performing or not prevents you from slapping broad labels onto them and keeps you open to the possibility of growth or regression. It's a basic philosophical step but one that sets you up to anticipate changes rather than react to them.
4. Congratulations NFL, your offenses have greater scheme diversity
The NFL may still be a 'copycat' league but it is farming a broader pool of resources. We're seeing more elements of the Air Raid, Spread, and Option incorporated into West Coast, Erhardt-Perkins, and Air Coryell schemes.
In addition to I-formation, the shotgun, and the pistol with clearly defined positions at receiver, tight end, and running back, we're seeing teams blur the lines with set positions. The Colts ran passing plays reserved for shotgun offenses with multiple receivers from a three-tight end set and if those tight ends didn't get hurt, T.Y. Hilton might have been the only true wide receiver on the field more often than not.
The Rams used 11 personnel over and over, forcing defenses into difficult binds because everything looked the same before the snap. The Chiefs and Bears did some similar things like the Rams but could also morph into schemes that confused with its variety and diversity of attack.
The Bears could go ground-and-pound with jumbo looks and T-formation or go empty with five-wide or double stack receivers 2x2 on each side. The Chiefs mixed and matched personnel into a voluminous playbook that media wondered if Mahomes could fulfill Andy Reid's demands that he learn it all.
The Ravens morphed into a team with an option-based attack to slow-roll Lamar Jackson's developmental challenges and maximize his strengths to the benefit of a playoff team that is ready to compete now. The Seahawks also went from the shotgun and spread out alignments to compact, run-heavy looks after giving up 12 sacks in two games.
All of these teams are different, all of them are playoff contenders, and all of them yielded multiple fantasy producers of high quality.
Fantasy Lesson(s): Scheme diversity allows different styles of players to emerge as fantasy talents. Tarik Cohen is an excellent running back but pair him with a team that only wants to use a conventional pro-style run attack like the Seahawks or Browns, and Cohen would not have a priority role due to concerns about his fit. He'd be a special teams ace and occasional gadget oddity.
The same could have happened to Tyreek Hill, who arrived in Kansas City as a running back but developed gradually into a stud receiver thanks to a Chiefs scheme that didn't require him to be a well-versed receiver as a rookie. The Chiefs gradually expanded Hill's role as he developed.
Scheme diversity maximizes the talents of a wider range of players who have NFL athletic ability and skills but didn't fit the narrower range of roles. It means you must become more open to possibilities based on these schemes rather than applying your father or grandfather's understanding of "talent" and "skill" to the modern game.
5. Don't judge Young Quarterbacks Too Early
Remember when Jared Goff was a bust? Remember when Carson Wentz was the next great quarterback? Remember when Marcus Mariota had an incredible debut? Or when Winston was a year away from emerging as a top passer?
How about when Dak Prescott was amazing?
And now performing like a top-five talent again?
Or what about Nick Foles who was amazing in Philadelphia?
Or the Foles who was bad in Philly, shipped away, and on the verge of retirement?
Or the Foles who returned to Philly and was the Super Bowl MVP and might have put the struggling Eagles back into the playoff hunt?
Quarterbacks benefit or suffer from the availability or lack of supporting cast, ill-conceived schemes, or coaching staffs that don't understand (or don't care to cater to...) the true strengths and weaknesses of these passer's talents. One year of production is usually not enough to know the long-term value of a quarterback.
Marcus Mariota has suffered through multiple coaching changes and schemes and he's still trying to develop better footwork. Once opponents figured out what he did well and where he struggled, he got tested. The exam is still in progress.
Wentz benefited from a strong offensive line and like Mariota, produced early and then faltered with accuracy as opponents identified his weaknesses. The Eagles changed its offense after the first 3-4 weeks of 2017 and minimized Wentz's issues with drops and vertical accuracy. To this day, opponents have learned that forcing Wentz to move in the pocket is better for them than it is for Wentz and the Eagles — even when the healthiest version of Wentz can win with the backyard baller mentality on occasion.
Most quarterbacks are system players. There's no shame to the label. The problem is that teams don't want to sell this to fans and media who overreact like covetous neighbors who see a luxury car pulling out a garage on the street and feel inadequate if they don't have one that's considered its equal.
Lesson(s) Learned: Winston, Mariota, Foles, Wentz, Prescott, and Goff are good quarterbacks. That range of "good" spans from the low-end of Winston and Mariota to the high-end of Goff. And with the exception of Goff, most of them aren't likely to transition into elite passers despite all of them earning that label as "the future stud."
As good as Baker Mayfield has looked at times and as poor of a situation as Josh Rosen has found himself, it's best to give them another year before making long-term conclusions. Same is true of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, two sides of the same coin in terms of their current usage.
This does not apply to Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Both have seen a variety of defensive looks and schemes to stop them that newbies like Mayfield, Allen, Jackson, and Rosen have not.
Unlike Mitchell Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson have demonstrated steady growth as technicians and strategists during the past two seasons. While Mayfield and Allen have lost or lacked supporting cast members of value, Mahomes and Watson have thrived without them (Mayfield notably has as well to an extent).
The coaching staff hasn't had to remove or lessen responsibilities for Mahomes and Watson. Nor have they needed to adjust the offense for them to thrive after they became starters.
Fantasy Lesson(s): The six sentences above are decent shorthand criteria for determining the differences between a potential system starter and star players.
7. 2018's Running back Class lived up to its hype
Saquon Barkley has 7 games with less than 50 yards rushing because his offensive line stinks and it exacerbates Barkley's tendencies to extend runs into breakaway attempts rather than take what little is there. However, Barkley also has 6 games with at least 100 yards rushing for some of the same reasons.
Barkley also has 4 games with at least 70 yards receiving despite having an aged Bambi caught in headlights as his quarterback. The Giants are 4-12 but have been in 11 games where the point differential has been 7 or less. In all 11 of those games, Barkey has at least 90 yards from scrimmage.
Only McCaffrey has caught more passes this year at the position and only Nick Chubb has been more productive after contact.
Speaking of Chubb, he's the No.15 fantasy runner in standard leagues despite only earning 9 starts. The only player average more yards per carry than Chubb who is also ahead of Chubb on this list is fellow rookie Phillip Lindsay (5.4 to 5.3) who displaced Royce Freeman heir apparent and leap-frogged Devontae Booker as the lead back. Although Chubb has more help up front than Barkley, the Browns' need to upgrade its tackles.
Kerryon Johnson equaled Lindsay's per-carry mark in 10 games and with even fewer starts while showing off an all-around game as a receiver, short-yardage, and breakaway threat inside and outside the tackle box. Once Sony Michel got healthy he became the Patriots' much-needed workhorse in lieu of injuries to Julian Edelman, Rex Burkhead, and Rob Gronkowski. Michel's 881-yards at a 4.5-per-carry clip is only scratching the surface of his talents because the University of Georgia's receiving specialist only has 7 catches for 50 yards as a rookie.
Nyheim Hines has 710 yards from scrimmage and 60 receptions in an offense that has used him extensively as an option split from the formation and teammate Jordan Wilkins has earned important plays big and small during limited playing time as a runner and receiver, nearly stealing the primary role from Marlon Mack this summer.
With the exception of Wilkins and Freeman, each of these six players is still ranked as no worse than flexes in three-running back formats as of Week 15.
Justin Jackson wasn't a household name in this class but he showed well when called upon and could compete for Austin Ekeler's role next year, if not more in 2020. Royce Freeman didn't beat Lindsay but he's among the better yards after contact runners year-one and if the Broncos opted to trade him, there would be parties eager to acquire his services as its future feature back.
We haven't even discussed Derrius Guice, Jr., who probably would have equaled Adrian Peterson's output if not for a knee injury. If Guice can overcome the complications he's faced with his recovery, he could be one of the best of these 11 rookies mentioned here.
Fantasy Lesson(s): Most fantasy players have learned early on that rookie runners can contribute at a high level. In addition to this lesson, it's worth remembering that rookie rankings are more than a just a linear number when a class is packed with this much talent. In the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I advised readers that, as a testament to the excellence of this class, 2018's top 10-12 runners had better grades than half of the top 6 from 2017.
8. The Dirty Little Secret of Broadcast Analysis
There were two narratives with Nick Chubb that were flat-out wrong as we head into the draft. The first is that he was no longer a top athlete due to the knee injury he sustained as a sophomore at Georgia. It's still something mentioned by broadcasters today despite performing nearly as well as Barkley at the NFL Combine.
The second is that Chubb isn't a good receiver. This is from Week 11's Top 10:
"Moving onto the Browns’ most talented rookie (I didn’t stutter…), Nick Chubb compiled 209 total yards and 2 scores against Atlanta’s banged-up unit and authored the longest run in Cleveland’s rich franchise history of backs.
Since Chubb became the Browns’ starter in Week 7, he’s earned 454 total yards and 4 touchdowns – No.5 among running backs in fantasy production with Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffery, and Alvin Kamara ahead of him. Each of these runners has superior offensive line play, a more seasoned (and arguably, more talented) quarterback, stable and superior coaching, and at least two receivers and or tight ends who would be an upgrade in Cleveland.
Chubb’s rushing output is tops among fantasy backs during this span – ahead of former Georgia teammate Gurley by 41 yards. Even if you did the misguided thing and took away his 92-yard run from his totals, Chubb would still be fourth on the list.
Despite the Browns’ struggles that include offensive coaching power struggles, inconsistent tackle play, and an unrefined passing game, Chubb has displayed patience, creativity, contact balance, and acceleration that rivals any back in the league.
Chubb isn’t known as a receiver but he has 6 receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown during the past three weeks and he’s done a good job catching the football.
Here’s the fact that everyone wants to keep as a dirty little secret: Chubb can catch and he always could catch. The idea that Chubb isn’t a receiver is the perpetuation of media scouting reports that broadcast commentators use to prepare for games. Ronde Barber watched Chubb catch two passes in this game and still later said Chubb wasn't a capable receiver as if he had just read someone else's scouting points:
Good play design against the right coverage for Mayfield-to-Chubb TD + the dirty secret about color commentary perpetuating incomplete scouting reports on air. pic.twitter.com/NYAqHimMmx— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
Chubb is not likely the next Saquon Barkley or Marshall Falk in a receiving game, but he’s a skilled runner of screens, swing routes, and angle routes against linebackers. Mayfield targeted Chubb a few weeks ago on a wheel route that would have resulted in a long play if the quarterback didn’t severely underthrow the pass."
Fantasy Lesson(s): Broadcast color commentators study games from NFL Game Pass while on planes, hotels, or between production meetings when they aren't at home. Most of them are former players who know a lot about their position and often the position they faced on the field most often. Few of them have studied the entire breadth of the game.
Most of them rely on scouting reports for Cliff's Notes about players because it's impossible to study every single player in-depth to prepare for a weekly game. As a result, these players can relay inaccurate narratives about players. It's unintentional but understandably logical that it happens.
Learning this frame of reference about commentators is a good lesson for trusting your eyes more than your ears.
9. Size and Speed are not Skills
Courtland Sutton is big, strong, and fast. He wowed many analysts leading to the NFL Draft and more during training camp with his size and speed. Expectations of a rookie season like the ones we saw from D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, and (in limited time) Dante Pettis was not far behind.
However, Sutton's teammate, Chris Harris Jr tempered enthusiasm about Sutton, telling the media that the rookie needed to learn the route tree. Sutton earned 37 targets, 17 catches, 324 yards, and 2 touchdowns before the Broncos traded Demaryius Thomas to the Texans in Week 8. For the past 6 weeks, Sutton has earned 34 targets, 18 catches, 290 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Not much different despite becoming a primary starter. Why? He can't run enough of the route tree yet.
In contrast, Ridley runs the route tree well and displaced Mohamed Sanu was a primary perimeter option in Atlanta, earing 59 catches, 789 yards, and 9 touchdowns. D.J. Moore has tailed off lately but still has 51 catches, 707 yards, and 2 scores and an additional 13 touches for 172 rushing yards. Moore also runs a more complete route tree than Sutton.
Since Week 9 Dante Pettis has been more productive than Ridley, Moore, and Sutton as fantasy football's 23rd-ranked non-PPR receiver. He runs the best routes of the four.
Fantasy Lesson(s): Size is a dimension and speed is a measurement of athletic ability. Neither correlates directly to skill once you establish that the player has met the minimum requirements of dimensions and athletic ability.
Jonathan Baldwin was tall. He could not run routes or catch the ball consistently. Robert Meachem was tall and fast. Catching the ball for Meachem with the proper technique was an advanced physics equation. He had a couple of notable years in New Orleans but couldn't advance his game.
Justin Hunter is tall, fast, and leaps out of the stadium. He runs a limited number of routes and can't consistently catch passes that he should. In comparison, JuJu Smith Schuster, Dante Pettis, Robert Woods, Michael Thomas, Adam Thielen, T.Y. Hilton, Keenan Allen, and DeAndre Hopkins are either smaller, slower, and/or less explosive but possess the skills of route running and pass catching.
Athletic ability and physical dimensions are baselines to get into the NFL that, IF the player possesses skills, can add to the effectiveness of the player. Otherwise, don't overrate them.
10. Every Fantasy Season is "Crazy"
The common refrain I hear every year from analysts and fans is how crazy this year has been. Whether it's crazy, odd, strange, weird, or unusual, they're all code words for unexpected events and it surprises them. Often, it also means they're having difficulties adjusting to the change-ups.
Whether it's the excellence of the 2014 rookie receiver class; the death or re-emergence running backs, the stud tight end revolution, or a healthy regular season followed by a fantasy playoff with a laundry list of injuries to studs, there will always be unexpected developments during a fantasy season.
Fantasy Lesson(s): Become well-versed in multiple skills of the hobby:
- Projecting performance.
- Developing a draft plan.
- Executing a draft plan.
- Negotiating trades.
- Budgeting for free agency.
- Identifying free agents.
- Lineup management.