The Top 10 Week 8 - Footballguys

Matt Waldman opens his film notebook and examines the fantasy fallout from Week 7.

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.

Among this week's topics we'll discuss the Amari Cooper trade, the Browns reconfigured backfield, the importance of running backs, the emergence of O.J. Howard, the potential of Carolina's red zone offense, and of course, fresh fish.

1. Thoughts on Amari Cooper to the Cowboys

After you get past the jungle of Gruden criticisms (although Reggie McKenzie negotiated the deal and held out for his original asking price) and hand-wringing from fans over Monday afternoon's trade that sent Amari Cooper to Dallas for a first-round pick, what does it mean for Dallas?

Obviously, the Cowboys are no longer in the running for a first-round quarterback. While Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins could upgrade it and there are seniors with a fighting chance of developing into capable NFL starters, the 2019 NFL Draft doesn't have a strong quarterback class. There's always a chance that Dallas lands a developmental talent it likes that falls to the middle rounds like Dak Prescott but this team isn't wavering on Prescott as its future.

Contrary to popular opinion, it's a good decision. Prescott has always been a quarterback that needs a strong surrounding cast. Give him a good offensive line, a productive ground game, and veteran receivers, and Prescott can operate Dallas' offense at a high level and even create off-script.

The Cowboys hoped it could compete with a young receiving corps but didn't anticipate the injuries to its offensive line. The combination of inexperienced and/or less skilled players in each unit places more stress on the offense than it can handle. The blame naturally goes to Prescott but Dallas had always known the quarterback's limitations.

Drafting a first-round quarterback only closes the window of contention for this team, which has an emerging defense, a great running back, and an excellent line when healthy. If the Cowboys have to address its line during the offseason, it's less likely the process will require a complete overhaul.

The smarter decision is to upgrade the receiving corps, patch up the line (if needed next year), and give Prescott another shot. If it doesn't work, the Cowboys will be in a more attractive position to acquire a veteran quarterback. At that time it's plausible that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, or Aaron Rodgers have one or two more years of skill left in them than their current teams willing to commit.

Speaking of the Dallas receivers, there's a dearth of proven talent on the corps. Allen Hurns is solid depth who can do a little bit of everything but he's best in the slot and Cole Beasley owns that position. Michael Gallup is an exciting young player, but he's not yet a fully-developed option.

Gallup is more likely the next Robert Woods than the next big, bad primary option who does everything for an offense. Cooper gives Dallas a second outside option who can play multiple positions. He can beat press coverage and get deep — especially with the help of Dallas' play-action game.

Cooper's presence gives the Cowboys offense greater versatility. Opponents will have to take the threat of Dallas' corps stretching more seriously than it did before. A worst, Cooper is an upgrade to the absent Terrence Williams; at best, he gives Dallas a primary threat who can run the complete route tree.

There are concerns about Cooper's drops and his overall passion for the game. This column pointed it out Cooper's lack of effort on a deep crossing route during the Dolphins game.

While not the best look for Cooper, this play spawned a lot of unwarranted criticism of Cooper with attempts to use other targets as supporting evidence. Many of those targets were situations where Cooper was on the other side of the field and could see the ball was not going to him based on his accurate read of the coverage and the play design.

There's still a valid argument that Cooper could give full effort even if he's not on the side of the field where he'll be a target, but a lot of receivers take selected plays off and still perform well. Unfortunately for Cooper, he gave up on a play (above) that 8 times out of 10 a quarterback doesn't create time to target — much less target it accurately that deep downfield — and it added to the growing perception that he's not a good teammate.

We may eventually find out that Cooper doesn't work hard enough, but the current evidence could easily signal a false positive. At this point, Cooper earns a new opportunity with a team that's hoping this year is a step back in preparation for two steps forward the next.

2. The Browns backfield after the Carlos Hyde trade

Cleveland's fan base got what it wanted when the Browns sent Carlos Hyde to Jacksonville because it created an opportunity for the offense to increase its usage of rookie Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson Jr. The Cleveland backfield tandem performed well on Sunday against the Buccaneers and there's potential for a lot more production ahead.

Chubb played to this writer's expectation — given that the Browns line lacks quality tackle play, a top-notch blocking tight end, and a receiving corps filled with injury substitutes that most defenses don't respect enough not to cheat towards the ground game. When the Browns created creases, Chubb found them and made the most of them as an athlete and a technician.

As the game unfolded Chubb wore down the Buccaneers defense that lost two defenders during the game to injuries, including linebacker Kwon Alexander. Here's a carry where tight end Daniel Fells holds his opponent and nullifies a gain that wouldn't have needed Fells' effort to break it open.

Fantasy players with Chubb were inches away from the rookie earning two touchdowns in this game. In addition to Chubb earning the red zone carries, it's encouraging that Chubb also earned targets in the passing game — even if the initial results weren't positive.

Chubb didn't earn a lot of targets after his freshman year because Sony Michel became a co-starter in the offense but 18 of his 31 career catches came as a freshman. Based on that tape, he can catch the ball and make plays in tight coverage on routes targeted to running backs in the flats and the middle of the field — even the occasional downfield play (if Mayfield can deliver accurately next time).

The Buccaneers were a good match-up for the Cleveland ground game due to its injuries prior to the loss of Alexander. If Cleveland didn't commit so many penalties, Chubb would have earned at least 100 yards on Sunday.

The bigger question is how Chubb and Johnson's usage will look for the rest of the year? Johnson told the media that he likes catching the ball and lobbied the team to use him more as a receiver.

The Browns offense didn't use Johnson as well as it could. Todd Haley repeatedly split Johnson outside and targeted him on receiver screens.

As the game progressed, Johnson converted a target on a route befitting a wide receiver.

Haley also went back to the screen concept with Johnson outside, but wisely faked the screen to hit David Njoku for a pivotal 23-yard gain in the fourth quarter.

Although Cleveland may have gone to the well too often with this screen pass concept earlier, it paid off late. Cleveland's game plan also gave hope to Johnson owners that he could be used more dynamically as the season progresses.

This play fake with Johnson working behind Mayfield is productive for numerous teams in the league and often means the player will get the ball enough times to eventually make it meaningful. The Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Bears do this well with its talent. Perhaps Cleveland may borrow a few pages from those playbooks to create these Johnson-Chubb binds for opponents.

Although Chubb's usage could decline in games where the Browns fall behind early, he appears primed to earn fantasy RB2 production. There should be more optimism for Johnson's role but Sunday only revealed the potential to use Johnson to his talents so he's a bigger risk.

3. In case you were truly wondering, Running backs matter

Yes, you've heard differently these days. The phrase "running backs don't matter," is the range in parts of the fantasy community. Intuitively, this makes about as much sense as the last big blanket statement about wide receivers and how they don't matter unless they are at least 6'2" and 210 pounds.

Remember that one? Steve Smith, Tyreek Hill, Odell Beckham Jr Jr. and a host of receivers who actually matter dispelled that idea.

Running backs still matter. It makes sense that their roles have changed as player safety, player contracts, and the passing game has grown to matter more since the 1990s.

However, to make such a provocative and blanket statement that the position no longer matters is incorrect. Those are my initial thoughts upon seeing this argument circulating on social media.

Of course, I'm not a data expert. However, I know a few whom I trust — including some with league experience who have actually worked closely with leadership truly capable of driving ideas throughout organizations. They don't brag about their NFL connections as a sales point for the public, because they only provide their expertise to teams.

This is important because there is a lot of salesmanship happening in this space and according to those I've spoken with, it's often coming at the cost of statistical rigor. So I asked one of these connections I trust the most if running backs matter.

'Running backs matter less than wide receivers in today's game?' I'm fine with that statement. 'Running backs don't matter,' simply no.

It's not entirely without merit to place less value on running backs as the value gap between the 40th percentile versus the 80th percentile at the position isn't as big as the 40th versus the 80th percentile receivers. Rules changes have slowly tilted numbers in favor of receivers over the last five years or so.

If the people making these statements are being honest with themselves most of the high EPA running backs have excelelnt pass-catching tools in addition to being legitimate run threats. From the persepctive of value and utility, a back who can split outside and catch passes is a win for roster consctruction.

The Patriots draft and acquire backs who have significant pass catching tools. Saquon Barkley is a current example. Look what Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Marshall Faulk did. Let's go back to Larry Centers and James Brooks. Alvin Kamara is another back that fits the mold. So is Melvin Gordon III.

It's like the NFL goes through a cycle on this topic. Hindsight bias is a super-prevalented problem among analysts comparing across teams and systems; 'Well, he did fine with team ABC, he would have been just as good with team XYZ.'

Running backs also matter when you begin to think in terms of contextual game situations. Far more often, we see offensive lines as the driver of running back performance and it's easy to presume that the line always makes the back. This true for the majority of situations.

However, it should not be a blanket statement. There are backs who do as much or more than their line. as you can imagine, many of them aren't great fantasy options. Peyton Barber is a good example.

When given a little easier opportunity, Barber also generates quality runs.

Washington brought Adrian Peterson to the team in August after it lost Derrius Guice, Jr. because it mattered greatly to have a back of his talent to create when the line doesn't do optimal work. Otherwise, Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine would have sufficed.

When non-NFL/public-focused data analysts account for additional variables — such as the way defenses make significant adjustments to its alignments and initial post-snap reactions due to the threat of the run as well as to offensive formations that pose the potential for the run or the manner down and distance situations and field position reasonably expand or contract a playbook's offerings — then we'll see some meaningful information.

Until then, it doesn't matter.

4. O.J. Howard is emerging into what we hoped he'd become

O.J. Howard arrived in Tampa Bay an athletic stud with limited experience as a big-time receiving weapon. The presumption was that Howard would develop into a primary threat.

Last year, Howard had a timeshare with Cameron Brate. This year, Howard has double the snaps and targets of Brate. The only role where Brate still earns as much opportunity as Howard is the red zone.

Howard spent the offseason studying Zach Ertz, Rob Gronkowski, and Travis Kelce. He also studied a lot of Tony Gonzalez. This weekend, Howard looked like an emerging Gonzalez.

It's also encouraging to see the Buccaneers split Howard from the formation and give him routes from the slot.

Although he had a fourth-quarter drop, it's a good sign that the Buccaneers are leveraging Howard's athletic ability when it spots a clear game plan opportunity on the schedule. Brate has earned steady targets almost weekly and Howard is at least matching those totals if not doubling them.

5. Josh Gordon at 80%-85% health is still fun to watch

If you're seeing takes that Josh Gordon has slowed down since his return to the NFL, please remember that he's still working with a hamstring injury and it's notable that his leg still bothers him on longer-developing plays.

It's not preventing him from making big plays in tight windows. Gordon's attack of this ball is among the best displays of technique on a difficult target that happened on Sunday.

Sharing this target has a greater importance than reiterating that "Josh Gordon is still good," there were several players on Sunday who are good or emerging talents who dropped targets that required a similar technique:

Players with consistent techniques are more likely reliable options. Players tend to feel more pressure in pivotal moments and if their technique isn't automatic and efficient, their production often suffers. Gordon is a clutch player — even at less than 100 percent.

As his hamstring heals and his knowledge of the Patriots' system increases — and reports indicate that he's picking it up well — remain confident with using him in fantasy lineups.

6. The Patriots backfield after the sony Michel injury

Speaking of the Patriots, Dr. Jene Bramel reports that "Michel's MRI..." revealed no structural damage" and "doesn't appear to be season-ending." As of now, his timetable remains unclear. There was speculation earlier on Monday that Michel may have suffered an MCL sprain. If that proves accurate, Michel could miss 1-2 weeks or more depending on his recovery. It's unlikely he'll play this week but there's reason to be optimistic about a relatively quick return."

For the next 1-3 weeks, we could see more Kenjon Barner to complement a steady dose of James White. If you're desperate for a bye-week option, Barner isn't a bad choice.

The Patriots line is blocking well enough to create creases that lead to efficient runs and a greater chance of big plays. Barner is an explosive back who runs efficiently for his size.

He won't break the tackles Michel is capable of breaking but he offers a big-play element in an offense that can support him. Whether it's Barber or someone else, Michel's substitute is worth serious consideration

7. Carolina's red zone game is good and has room to grow

The Panthers offense is 12th in the league in red zone scoring percentage (touchdowns only), crossing the stripe 63 percent of the time. On the road, Carolina is second in the league with a 78-percent mark — and it accounts for half of the team's games thus far.

It's notable the Panthers have been productive despite Greg Olsen only earning 16 snaps in Week 1 and not returning to the field until Week 6. We know that Cam Newton is a red-zone monster but the recent additions of Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and D.J. Moore to bolster big-men Olsen and Devin Funchess makes this an intriguing unit.

Samuel and Moore are essentially running backs in space used at wide receiver. Moore is steadily earning more time as the season progresses and he's doing a good job of finding open zones.

Many draft analysts considered McCaffrey the best route runner of the 2017 NFL Draft class regardless of position. These individual weapons give Carolina tremendous potential if used imaginatively.

Norv Turner isn't regarded as a visionary coaching mind but he is demonstrating some creativity with these weapons in the red area.

Of course, you'd like a prediction for who might benefit in this offense beyond Newton, Funchess, and McCaffrey because the play above was Samuel's first red zone touch this year and Moore only has one touch in this area so far. It would be nice to give you one, but it's not happening.

Sometimes the best we can do is show you the potential for an emerging trend so you can keep an eye out for it. Carolina is one of those cases.

8. Another week, another reason Aaron Donald is a monster

The fact that Donald can make Geno Atkins seem underrated by comparison is ludicrous. If you want to learn about defensive line play, Donald is the first place to begin. While no other player has his range of technical skills, it's the fact that he possesses this library that makes him so instructional.

Warning: You'll experience temporary disappointment watching other players afterward.

9. Justin Tucker and what makes football great and terrible

Justin Tucker never missed a point-after-attempt in 222 career-tries in the NFL — until Sunday's Saints' game with seconds remaining on the clock to tie the contest and send it to overtime.

If it weren't for the fact that Tucker has been so consistent, he'd be headlining this week's Fresh Fish.

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: Miami's Linebackers

Atlanta's defense may be the most frequent catch of the week but the Dolphins' linebackers are notorious for giving up love in the red zone to opposing receivers, tight ends, and backs in the passing game. This week is an excellent example.

The national television broadcast crew made a big deal of the Lions self-scouting and using its tight ends more in this game. It might be more accurate to say the Lions scouted the Dolphins and realized that Kiko Alonso and his rookie teammate are vulnerable to losing track of receivers. Alonso has been a featured catch for at least two years in this weekly segment.

Detroit's Michael Roberts has the potential to become a weekly producer but don't count on it happening unless Alonso gets traded to a team that's on the Lions' remaining schedule.

Onto the fish case:

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


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