I thought of this column as Monday Night Football unfolded before us. The first two quarterbacks selected in every draft going head to head and one of them scoring less than Teddy Bridgewater. Before you ask, no. I am not nor would I ever recommend moving on from Lamar Jackson. However, the results should prompt us to revisit our assumptions. We’re three weeks into the season and still learning much about each offense and the players connected to them. While some findings agree with our offseason thoughts, the players lagging behind in the stat sheets challenge our collective wisdom. I highlighted a few instances to reconsider as head into Week 4.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers, Colts
Week 3 Results: (Projected) 19.2, (Actual) 12.7
The Jets had allowed 29 PPG to opposing offenses the previous two weeks. Josh Allen finished as the QB3 in Week 1 with over 300 passing yards and a +6.9% Completion Percent over Expected (CPOE). Jimmy Garoppolo tried to follow suit, but the litany of injuries to 49ers (along with a high-ankle sprain of his own) prevented what would have been a productive passing game. Garoppolo was 10th in quarterback Expected Points Added per Play (EPA per Play) despite attempting just 16 passes. Regardless, the 49ers were still able to hang 31 points on the Jets’ hapless defense. The game environment set up well for Indianapolis on all fronts, but their defense was the only bright spot. Without a team to challenge Indianapolis, we need to rethink our expectations for Rivers and the entire passing offense as their schedule doesn’t invite much opposition over the coming weeks.
Advice Moving Forward:
Rivers should only be considered as a floor-play streaming option. Indianapolis’ defense has limited their opponents to 27, 11, and 7 points while running backs have averaged 28.7 attempts per game (10th-most in the league). Since their Week 1 fiasco against Jacksonville, Rivers’ has averaged just 23 pass attempts as the offense reverts back to their 2019 style of play. While the offense has passed at a 58.8% rate in neutral game scripts (league average is 56.0%), they haven’t been pressed into a pass-heavy game script with the defense limiting opposing offenses. Granted they’ve only faced Kirk Cousins and Sam Darnold in that time span, but that’s an indicator of a larger point. The Colts were lauded late in the offseason due to their relatively easy schedule featuring only four games against some of the top offenses in the league (HOU, BAL, GB, and PIT). Without a scoring deficit to reduce, Indianapolis has not been the team to continue to pad their lead with multiple touchdowns. Rivers will look like a viable streaming option most weeks given their schedule. However, given the number of injuries already sustained, it’s likely they’ll take the simplest path to victory limiting Rivers’ upside each week.
Running Back: Joe Mixon, Bengals
Week 3 Results: (Projected) 13.9, (Actual) 8.5
It’s Week 4 and Mixon is yet to score a touchdown. I’m not specifying a rushing touchdown as he’s still used in the passing game. I mean Joe Mixon is yet to find the end zone in 2020. The only other running back that’s seen similar volume and yet to find the end zone is Adrian Peterson. While touchdowns aren’t everything, a comparison to Peterson in 2020 is not what you want for your starting running back. Cincinnati has maintained a pass-heavy script this season which was assumed to be a positive for Mixon. However, his target share sits at 5.0%. He’s yet to even finish as an RB2 in weekly scoring. His point totals have become an anchor to fantasy managers that have him rostered and it’s time to look into what’s the issue and if anything can be salvaged.
Advice Moving Forward:
Don’t sell low unless your playoff hopes are at risk. Complement your roster at other positions via waiver wire or trade to boost your projected floor. The positive is that he’s still the primary ball carrier in Cincinnati. He’s handled 80.8% of the total running back touches and 96.3% of the carries. It’s Mixon’s backfield. But our concern isn’t rooted in the number of carries he’s earned. It’s in how he’s used them. Mixon ranks 31st out of 36 running backs in rushing success rate. His longest run is 14 yards. Even worse, he’s only broken a single tackle. While Mixon has been out on the field when the team is in scoring position, Cincinnati has opted to throw on 74.2% of their red-zone plays. While we were optimistic about Mixon’s workload, the reality of their weak offensive line and increased passing quickly took center stage. None of their opponents had allowed an RB1 performance prior to or since their match with Cincinnati. Plus, the Bengals are yet to play either Baltimore or Pittsburgh. The hope is that Cincinnati figures out the optimal receiver rotation and re-integrates the running backs into the passing game. Running back target shares have dropped each week as a different receiver has been a healthy scratch. Once the offense stabilizes, Mixon may regain some passing work sustaining his value despite the tough defensive matchups.
Wide Receiver: Brandin Cooks, Texans
Week 3 Results: (Projected) 11.7, (Actual) 5.3
Brandin Cooks is in a similar situation as Joe Mixon. The former Ram has averaged 6.0 targets per game and is yet to find the end zone. His target share increased from 15.6% in Week 1 to 22.2% in Week 2 with Will Fuller V nursing an injury. Cooks’ 12.1 aDOT is similar to his time in Los Angeles, but he’s earned only a single target while the team is in scoring position. His draft ADP didn’t come with high expectations, but both Fuller and Cobb have Top-24 performances. Fuller even put up a respectable stat line against a formidable Pittsburgh secondary in Week 3. While Cooks may only fall into the WR2 or FLEX conversation on a weekly basis, our expectations should shift given the limited information we have. I dug into Cooks’ peripheral numbers with some thoughts on how to approach him in fantasy moving forward.
Advice Moving Forward:
Cooks is relegated to match-up based starter. When everyone’s healthy, Will Fuller V has operated as the team’s primary wide receiver. In Weeks 1 and 3, Fuller dominated both total air yards and targets at a near 2:1 pace. What’s worse is that Fuller isn’t Cooks' only source of competition. Our offseason priors kept Fuller as the deep threat, Cooks as the experience route runner, and Cobb with the short-area work out of the slot. However, Cobb’s aDOT was 17.8 in Week 3. Fuller took much of the intermediate targets with an 11.8 aDOT. The route tree diversification has blurred the defined roles for all of the Houston receivers based on their historical usage. With Fuller being slotted into DeAndre Hopkin’s role, Cooks falls into a WR2 role with the ancillary players like Cobb and Jordan Akins close behind. Since the Texans have spent 47.4% of their plays trailing by more than a touchdown, Watson has continued to be aggressive downfield with a 9.1 aDOT. Cooks will get his work eventually, but the team will need the right defensive matchup to open up all of the receiving options.
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