BALANCING REALITIES OF FANTASY WITH THE FANTASIES OF REAL FOOTBALL MEDIA
Because the football season has far fewer games than other popular American sports, analysts commonly emphasize the week-to-week urgency that each NFL organization must feel compared to other professional teams.
While this is true, the difference is still relative. As with any situation in life, the best decision-making involves reacting when necessary, but not overreacting. Because fans and media buy and sell the storylines and revel in the drama, we're prone to overreacting.
Many of Week 1's outcomes require a quick decision without all of the information that we'll eventually see as the season unfolds. This is the reality of fantasy football.
However, there are at least 1-3 teams in your league that will overreact to what happened in the season opener and they will do more harm than good to their rosters.
The mission of this column—and a lot of my work—is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality of football analysis. Football analysis—fantasy and reality—is often dramatized because there's a core belief that it's more important to entertain than to educate.
I don't live by the idea that it's better to be lucky than good. While I want to give you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, I prefer to get the process right. There will be a lot of people talking about how they were right to draft or start specific players. Many of them got the right result but with the wrong process.
Much of Week 2's Top 10 will cover topics that attempt to get the process right (reality) while understanding that fantasy owners may not have time to wait for the necessary data to determine the best course of action (fantasy).
1. is Patrick Mahomes II For real? (Yes, And So is tyreek hill)
One of the biggest questions of the month will be about Patrick Mahomes II II, who delivered four touchdown passes against a Chargers defense that lacked Jason Verrett and Joey Bosa — two of them shovel passes where the scheme earns more credit than the quarterback.
Mahomes' first touchdown...
Mahomes' fourth touchdown...
4th Mahomes TD with shovel to Hill. Chargers have numbers to correct side but react to ball fake to Hunt (except MLB who seems to be trying to tell his pals it’s going to Hill) pic.twitter.com/Whtrm2D19t— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 10, 2018
These are plays that defenses will eventually figure out by committing enough defenders to each side of the line and daring Mahomes to keep the ball up the middle. Until then, the Chiefs are benefiting from the confusion that results from a well-drawn, well-executed offensive play.
Despite the productive outing, Mahomes wasn't at his best. The skeptics will say that he's simply not as good as he appeared — citing his 55 percent completion percentage and the two plays above as "easy touchdowns."
Mahomes' receivers dropped multiple passes in this game but only one of them was a pinpoint target. Neither of Hill's big plays in the passing game was a perfect throw (see below). He was also a step shy of delivering a fifth touchdown on a deep post to De'Anthony Thomas while on the move to his right. If not for the Sean Taylor-like range of Derwin James where the rookie got a hand on the ball to knock it away at the last second, it might have been the throw of the week.
There were only two throws in this game that Mahomes didn't place only where his receiver could make the play. This is consistent with Mahomes' game dating back to Texas Tech despite the promulgated analysis that he's a reckless player because of a handful of bad outings. While he's bound to have reckless moments ahead, there's a difference between daring and reckless and Mahomes walks that line better than most quarterbacks.
You saw the 70 yard throw in the preseason, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.@PSchrags gives us an exclusive look at what Patrick Mahomes II has been doing in practice for the Chiefs. pic.twitter.com/OvZFh0uvnO— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) September 9, 2018
Mahomes only took one sack despite the Chargers earning pressure to force him from the pocket repeatedly in the contest. If he couldn't run for a positive gain or find an open man, he threw the ball away. Mahomes had more impressive moments as a passer in the 2017 season finale against Denver, but today's game was a more mature quarterbacking performance.
Performance aside, Tyreek Hill also deserves a massive amount of credit for Mahomes' Week 1 production. Hill gave the Chiefs the early lead with a 91-yard punt return and accounted for 268 total yards as a receiver, runner, and return specialist.
After 2016, skeptics feared that Hill was a gadget player who would falter once opposing defenses caught onto the Chiefs. After Hill proved he was a bona fide receiver last year, skeptics have been forecasting a regression because they don't see him as a true primary option.
Although Hill has a solid grasp of the route tree, great speed, and elite skill in the open field, comparing him to Steve Smith seemed sacrilege. Smith was far more physical and an otherworldly rebounder for his size. Smith is still a superior receiver to Hill, but it's no longer laughable to make the comparison.
This target is on the extreme level of difficulty that we've seen Smith handle, but Hill makes the difficult adjustment to the football that one expects from Pro-Bowl talents.
Hill landed awkwardly on the play above but for those concerned about the play, Hill returned to the game, made a diving catch on a low throw, landed on the same shoulder, and didn't have an issue. Earlier in the contest, Hill made an underrated adjustment on a route breaking to the middle when the Chargers' pass rush forced Mahomes into a three-quarter delivery, resulting in a breakaway catch and run for a touchdown.
Mahomes is a buy-high target who has the potential for an even higher return. This deal isn't for most to try but if you have massive depth and a skill for negotiation (you know who you are), the scheme, the surrounding talent, and Mahomes' talent make the Chiefs' quarterback a potential game-changer.
2. James Conner has rendered Le'veon Bell a luxury for the Steelers offense
Le'Veon Bell is not an essential need for the Pittsburgh Steelers; he's a luxury. There's no doubt that Bell is a superior player to James Conner but football is a team sport and a running back's performance is highly dependent on his offensive line. If the running back is earning what's blocked for him, it still forces defenses to alter its game plan to stop it (as long as the opponent isn't holding a significant lead).
When Bell was a rookie, the Steelers had a young and banged-up offensive line. He was still good, but Bell's production lacked efficiency and fans and analysts panned his selection in the draft and rolled with the convenient narrative that he became good only after he lost weight despite always having the quickness of a small back.
Today, the Steelers have one of the best offensive lines in football and a competent all-around back like Conner can generate chunk plays and keep the offense on schedule.
Conner caught the ball well and handled a variety of targets smoothly.
The only play where Bell might have performed better was a red-zone screen pass were Conner and Roethlisberger weren't on the same page with the pressure and how Conner should have released behind the opponents so he was ready for the ball. Even Myles' Garrett's forced fumble of a Conner carry in the fourth quarter was the type of play that could have easily happened to Bell.
If you drafted Bell, be prepared for a longer hold out. If you have James Conner, use him like a top-15 fantasy runner — and every-week starter in the mold of Jordan Howard as long as the Steelers' offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger remain healthy.
3. Do the math: T.J. Yeldon + Jaguars OL = Conner-like PRoduction
If Leonard Fournette's hamstring injury requires rest or he aggravates it (or his longstanding ankle issue becomes a problem...), Yeldon is an instant starter. Much like the faulty narrative of Bell's rookie year and subsequent transformation, the general public regards Yeldon as a product of the Alabama offensive line and NFL defenses exposed his game early
This is false. The dumpster fire that posed as Jacksonville's offensive line during the early Bortles years limited Yeldon's production to that of a check-down receiver. That staff also noted that Yeldon lacked maturity during those early years and it was only until the team drafted Fournette that Yeldon came around as a professional.
Fournette offers the punishing power and breakaway speed that Yeldon never had. However, Yeldon has always been a patient runner with underrated strength and balance. He can carry the load for an offense but he's going to make defenders miss and pull through wraps rather than engage and attack defenders at the end of runs to wear them out.
Good stride-rhythm variation to let TE blocks develop by TJ Yeldon pic.twitter.com/Ax4O4QOYYI— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 9, 2018
A proven college workhorse, favorite check-down option who is in-tune with Bortles, and working with a good offensive line and a great defense, you could do far worse than Yeldon if you need a running back.
4. to meet pre-draft expectations, Saquon barkley needs consistent volume
Barkley delivered thrilling moments against the Jaguars in the opener. Barkley earned 106 yards and a score on 18 carries, but 86 of those yards came on 3 runs. Barkley's production this weekend — and what you should likely expect as a worst-case scenario for the rest of this year — is the product of a lackluster offensive line and a back with a big-play mentality.
At this worst, Barkley will seek creases that may (but often don't) give him bigger gains than the one directly ahead. This weekend, the Giants' line faced a Jaguars defense that shut off enough creases that even when Barkley engaged in this behavior, the downside of the choice wasn't much worse than the upside of sticking with the design.
Even so, it only took one play with six inches of daylight for Barkley to create a work of art. Give him the ball enough times and one of these plays will likely happen.
Although the line didn't do Barkley any favors, the fact that Barkley performed this well against the Jaguars is a promising sign for his fantasy output in the sense that he'll produce if fed a high volume of touches. The potential problems for fantasy teams will occur during weeks where the Giants face other competent defenses that have prolific offenses that erase the game script for running the football.
The saving grace for Barkley is that he's an excellent receiver, so his floor is a little higher than a back like Jordan Howard, who unlike Barkley, doesn't run routes and make receptions with the versatility of a wide receiver.
The question is whether Barkley will earn the volume he needs to overcome the limitations of his surrounding talent. The schedule is favorable enough that he should offer enough highs that he's worth starting every week. Hopefully, you drafted or can acquire consistent producers that can balance out any potential lows that occur because he's anchored to the Giants.
5. myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, and Cleveland's defense will help the Browns offense
It was a rainy, sloppy day and it created rainy, sloppy football in Cleveland. However, this game does not fit Sigmund Bloom's narrative that the Steelers played down to its competition. This has happened in the past but not this time. The Browns have talent and while the light isn't on yet, it's flickering thanks to the Cleveland pass rush of Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Gernard Avery, and the stellar debut of rookie cornerback Denzel Ward.
Ward earned a pair of interceptions, each came on targets where he recognized the opportunity to peel from his assignment and cut off Ben Roethlisberger's intended target.
Second INT for Roethlisberger and second for Ward. pic.twitter.com/zdh4o7N5hi— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 9, 2018
Garrett nearly took over the fourth quarter, forcing consecutive turnovers with a tackle-for-loss on James Conner and then a strip-sack of Roethlisberger on the following drive.
Ward and Garrett kept the game close and gave the offense an opportunity to get back into the game. In fact, the Browns were running through the Steelers' defense on a third-quarter scoring drive and should have been more patient with the ground game on the following possession but tried to establish the pass when Pittsburgh had trouble stopping the run. This is what forced the need for Garrett's heroics.
The Steelers have a strong offensive line and the Browns wrecked it, preventing Roethlisberger from his usual improvisational big plays. Although Tyrod Taylor will earn criticism for holding onto the ball too long at times, he didn't make huge mistakes as a thrower. DeShone Kizer's rookie issues often took Cleveland out of its game more than the defense.
If you can maintain patience with the Carlos Hyde (or Nick Chubb if Hyde gets hurt) and Josh Gordon, this offense has a good enough schedule to pay dividends during the first two months of the year. We'll assess the rest of the year in November.
6. josh Gordon's game turns to Antonio Brown's game and says, "hold my bee...sobriety chip."
The rookie Ward covered Antonio Brown as well as one could expect on this fade for a touchdown but it wasn't enough to contain the most refined receiver in the game.
Roethlisberger's throw was nearly perfect, which we all expect from one of the best quarterback-receiver connections in the game today. In contrast, Tyrod Taylor consistently undershot his receivers in this contest. However, when it Cleveland needed to get close, Taylor and Gordon arguably topped Roethlisberger and Brown with this pitch and catch.
Cameron Sutton earned a strong position on Gordon, getting his hand and arm across the receiver's chest but it wasn't enough to contain the most talented receiver in the game.
The lights are flickering on in Cleveland. Don't go out and make any rash moves to acquire its talent but if you have Browns on your roster, remain patient.
7. Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson are an excellent 1-2 punch in Washington
Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson are a dangerous and productive combination that Washington used in ways to go with and against tendencies that opponents will try to predict based on formation and personnel.
Washington's healthy offensive line deserves a lot of praise here. Think about how much love Philadelphia center Chris Kelce earns because he's athletic enough to pull. Washington's Chase Roullier does similar work above, which generates tremendous versatility for this ground attack.
Thompson may not be 100 percent after breaking his leg last year but he still looks 25 percent better than Duke Johnson Jr as a runner, blocker, and receiver — sorry Johnson fans, he's a decent player but yours truly much prefers a semi-healthy Thompson who his too quick for linebacker/safety hybrids as an underneath receiver.
Washington used Thompson on a variety of pass plays and also featured him successfully as a runner from the shotgun and single-back sets. Opponents cannot presume that Thompson will only catch passes. The offense also put future opponents on notice not to pigeon-hole Peterson too quickly either.
Peterson's efficiency doesn't look great for you fantasy numbers guys out there but those yards-per-carry figures dripped from 4.3 to 3.6 in the fourth quarter after Washington built a hefty lead thanks in large part to the old man's performance.
Simply put, Peterson's short-area quickness remains elite. If you were worried how it would look in the preseason versus the regular season or last year to this year, stop. Still, don't believe it? Watch Peterson make Patrick Peterson miss twice in tight quarters.
Peterson also caught two passes in this game — one of them he took for 50-plus up the sideline until he fumbled the ball trying to be the superhuman on the field that he still is. Here's another.
The bottom line: Peterson performed well, earned the volume we hope for in fantasy football and helped the Washington offense keep the Arizona defense off-balance. Like Saquon Barkley but now for different reasons (because Peterson lacks true breakaway speed nowadays), Peterson will need consistent volume to deliver top-15 totals every week. It appears Washington has the team to do the job because the NFC East has the potential to be one of the weaker divisions in football this year.
Both runners are worth a roster spot.
8. 49ers rookie receiver Dante Pettis is a long-term bet with potentially a short-term payoff
One of the reasons the 49ers drafted Pettis in the second round is the rookie's ability to play all three receiver positions and return punts. Pettis immediately delivered in training camp and the preseason, prompting speculation among beat reporters that he may push his way onto the field as soon as Week 1. While a Marcus Goodwin injury facilitated a bigger role for Pettis in a less organic way, Pettis flashed the same eye-catching traits and skills that he showed at Washington.
Fingertips... https://t.co/60gBR33xFt— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 9, 2018
A mobile, flexible athlete with quick-twitch skill in tight spaces, Pettis had a good showing against a strong defense with limited reps. If you're in a league with at least 20 roster spots and start 3-5 receivers, Pettis is worth adding now and waiting patiently. For the rest of you, continue monitoring him and act as news (and need) dictates.
9. the Saints defense hasn't been good but the buccaneers' offense ain't bad at all
Perhaps the Saints defense made the Buccaneers offense look better than it is but even if that's the case, Tampa's offense is maturing — especially the skill talent. Let's begin with O.J. Howard, who almost never earned these types of targets at Alabama.
Tampa spreading field with superior athletes at WR/TE...OJ Howard pic.twitter.com/Xt5psLhjhn— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 10, 2018
We hoped that Howard's athletic ability meant he could do this type of work but until it shows up on film, you never truly know. Howard earned a pair of targets on intermediate routes as a slot receiver in spread sets and performed well in both instances. Howard and Mike Evans are an imposing pair on the same side of the field — especially 2018 Evans, who is playing with greater energy and precision off the line of scrimmage. He's playing like a player who was told that he wasn't as good as he thought he was. His release and stack of Marshon Lattimore for a long touchdown was a beautiful route.
Although Howard and Evans are physical mismatches, so is Chris Godwin. Place him in another offense and he'd easily be seen as an emerging primary receiver. Godwin has the route skills, physicality, and range to play all over the field, and he showed it again this weekend.
In addition to the third-most impressive catch (behind Gordon and Brown) of the weekend — a diving one-handed stab up the seam in the first half — Godwin also exploited the Saints' concern within Evans in the red zone.
Let's not forget about DeSean Jackson, who could still be a primary weapon in most NFL offenses. The Buccaneers are alternating Jackson and Godwin in the slot, giving them those juicy, JuJu Smith-Schuster-Kenny Golladay coverage treats and both players are superior talents.
This happened all summer in practice. Fitz to Jackson pic.twitter.com/fvQFreJ0t0— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 10, 2018
Add the reliable Cameron Brate to the equation and the Buccaneers have five receivers who can move around the formation and four of those five present notable athletic mismatches against someone on any given play. Ryan Fitzpatrick never had this kind of mature, athletic weaponry and he made the most of it in Week 1.
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: The Denver Broncos linebacker corps has been week against tight end play for a few seasons. This weekend, they made rookie tight end Will Dissly look like Mike Ditka.
Dissly and the Seahawks exploited the linebackers who were often late or confused with their coverage assignments. While Dissly is a big dude with good hands and an excellent blocker, he's not a consistent big-play threat. Expect this receiving output to be his best of the year (and maybe the next 2-3).
- Duke Johnson Jr: He cannot pass protect. The Steelers linebackers ate him alive this weekend. He had one successful block and he barely contained the bull rush. While Nick Chubb misdiagnosed an assignment early in the game that resulted in a sack, Chubb will be a superior pass protector soon than later. Most will disagree but the extension for Johnson was a questionable move this summer.
- Deone Buchannan: He couldn't catch Adrian Peterson, cover Chris Thompson, or do much with Jordan Reed. Washington exploited the worst parts about Buchannan — a 'tweener without a true position.
- Carlton Davis: Tampa's rookie cornerback is a physical player. Matching him against speedster Ted Ginn Jr, Jr. resulted in ugly moments. Stay tuned for more work against vertical speedsters.
- Travis Benjamin: The Chargers receiver dropped three long passes in this game — one in the end zone and two that could have led to him running there.
Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.