The Gut Check No.277 - Week 2

Among the assortment of observations in this week's Gut Check, Matt Waldman separates running backs into two categories: slow-roasters and microwaves.

20/20 Hindsight (Would've, Could've, should've)

Every week I'll offer three insights from the prior week of football and my take on the fantasy situation moving forward. 

Who Would've known: Terrelle Pryor Would Be a productive fantasy option (Waiver Strategy Tip of the Week)?

You can't count me in that mix until last week and even then I wasn't fully on board. I watched Pryor against the Colts and his fundamentals are much improved from his days at Ohio State.

He's keeping his feet in position to escape pressure and deliver the ball with greater accuracy. He's demonstrating greater touch in the intermediate and deep zones. And he's demonstrating better placement against coverage in the short game and deeper perimeter routes. 

Pryor performed like a much different player than the one I accused the Raiders of seeing Steve McNair through beer goggles when they acquired him two years ago. All the credit goes to Pryor for getting this far and I think fantasy owners should acquire Pryor as a bye-week quarterback with trade appeal if he can stay healthy. Because of how much he scrambles, this will be a challenge. I'm not worried about the designed runs within the zone read system, it's the improvisational plays from the pocket that concern me with any quarterback. 

Fantasy Takeaway: With the Jaguars, Broncos, Redskins, and Chargers ahead, Pryor has enough opportunities to build value as a sell-high option if you acquire him this week from your free agent pool. This brings me to a pivotal point of strategy about the waiver wire: Even if you don't need a quarterback it's important to evaluate whether Pryor is the type of fantasy option you can later trade for a position you need. While much of your competition is only targeting positions of need, it's still a good idea to target Pryor. 

Examine your league and the players on the waiver wire and ask yourself, which players you're targeting at other positions have a chance to perform with the same or greater productivity and consistency as Pryor. Even if you have Peyton Manning and a solid QB2 like Carson Palmer and you're fortunate to be set at other positions, taking a shot at one of the best options on the waiver wire early while dumping a late-round flyer is a sound strategy if you are willing to wheel and deal. You should be acquiring players not only to use in your lineup, but also barter for options you want and need. 

If you need a running back and your waiver position is lower than your competition who also needs a running back, or you're in a good position to have your choice of players and dislike the backs available, take Pyror and build from a position of strength so you can deal some of that strength to shore up a weakness. 

Who Could've known: Roddy White could convince the Falcons to let him play, but he couldn't perform (Injury Assessment Tip of the Week)?

I own Roddy White in one league. I started Michael Floyd against the Rams and I'm glad I did. However, I understand why many fantasy owners got torched last weekend for taking the opposite stance. It was difficult call to sit a productive, reliable player who has played hurt and played well in the past.

Jene Bramel cited two player cases who performed well after enduring a high ankle sprain: Julio Jones and Andre Johnson. It was enough for me to bench White after reading his analysis. First, Johnson came back and played well after he had a poor performance the week after sustaining the sprain. His strong performance two games later - taking a week off in between. 

I can't explain Jones' performance other than the fact that a lot of the routes where I see him and Johnson earn their pay are not hard-cutting, precision breaks that require sudden acceleration and change of direction. Their respective offenses could veer away from these route choices and still get productive targets their way. Not so with White. 

The Falcons veteran receiver is often the primary option on backside slants, bootleg action comeback routes, and sideline routes that require a lot of stopping and planting to tightrope the boundary. White and Ryan may have the best timing game between receiver and quarterback in the NFL. Although White could have been healthy enough to go after three weeks without practice, the fact he had to convince his team in this situation to let him play was the deciding factor against starting him. 

We all knew this was the right decision once we watched White in action. He could not accelerate off the line of scrimmage. This was apparent when he wasn't performing releases with his head and pads low. To compound matters, he was not executing any discernible break. And to top it off, Saints defenders were abandoning their coverage to help elsewhere before Matt Ryan released the ball. While White made one excellent catch on an improvised comeback at the sideline, it was more an indication of his toughness; not his readiness. 

Fantasy Takeaway: The reason Bramel is such a strong resource has just as much to do with his football background as his medical training. He has a methodical thought process. As a fantasy owner, you have to develop this as well. Here's my advice for gauging whether to start-sit players: 

How long has the player been injured? If it's multiple weeks without practice and he still has to convince a team to use him, be wary about using him. 

What is the player's role on his team? Will the injury impact his role? Roddy White had a specific role that forced the Falcons to abandon a huge portion of its best passing plays. White's role was predicated on skill sets that rely on a healthy ankle. On the other hand, receivers with a greater vertical game might be worth taking the risk. The same can be said with leg injuries for a straight-a-head runner like Vick Ballard versus a cutback/space demon like Reggie Bush

Are there other players capable of shouldering the production? Tony Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, and Julio Jones? Well, yes there were. 

White says it may take him another three weeks before he's back to his old self. I'd rather see him sit for that period of time and come back 100 percent. 

I should have known: I should have known not to draft Mark ingram - The Rise of the Term "Volume Runner"

Mark Ingram II is growing more frustrated about his situation than any fantasy owner who has stuck with him for the past few years. He may not be saying so, but just watch him after the isolated, predictable plays where he receives a carry, gains minimal yardage and he's called to return to the sideline. He has to be thinking Why am I even here if they don't use me?

Tony Siragusa and Darryl Johnson read the mind of many football fans on Sunday when they broached the topic of committee situations and the difficulties it presents for runners in these scenarios. Getting shuffled in and out of the lineup without multiple plays or series of particiaption on the field is a recent development during the past decade of the NFL. Some players are good at handling it while others are not. 

The reason why is a description of certain runners' styles that is as pejorative as the label "game manager" is for quarterbacks: "Volume runner." 

We never thought much about players as volume runners. If we did, we often lumped them into the same category of backs who "got stronger as the game went along". This changed with the rise of the running back by committee. 

Mark Ingram II is a volume runner. His best work comes between the tackles where he can use his balance and power to earn short gains early in the game when the creases tend to be smaller and then use his vision and decision-making and stamina as the game progresses to set up defenders with movement and force based on tendencies he's seen on previous carries. This is a long way of describing that a Ingram and runners like him need to get into a rhythm. It doesn't mean they can't or won't break a big run early, but it's not indicative of their style.

Volume runners thrive on enough reps to get a feel for his linemen and his opponents to build on what they do on the field. Think of them as players as ovens: they can get hot, but they often need time to heat up. In contrast, there players who are like former Detroit Pistons guard Vinny Johnson - best known as "The Microwave".

Ingram is is an oven-style runner stuck on a depth chart with two microwave-style backs (Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas) in a wide-open offense that does its best work on the ground with the passing game as its backdrop. Draw plays, I-formation runs against nickel defenses, pitch plays, and screens are space plays. Ingram isn't explosive like Sproles and he's not as quick as Thomas. When he's in the game, the plays are more predictable. 

Football still has a man-on-man, I'm-coming-at-you, and try-to-stop-me element to the game, but it's not nearly as prevalent as it was when Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, and Bo Schembechler were the pinnacles of coaching excellence and three yards and a cloud of dust still had some shred of value as a complimentary description of offense. Spread football is on the ascent in the NFL and it means there is room for teams to find larger roles for scat backs who would otherwise be role players in the old NFL. 

Be careful about this label, because it's not always an either/or classification. Just like a lot of things in life, there's a spectrum of ability. Some players have the complete kitchen: the microwave to bust game-changing plays at any moment and the oven to slow-roast the opposition in the third hour. To further qualify, slow-roasters can have breakaway skill and volume runners aren't always slow. It's more about decision-making, aggressiveness, and feel for the game. 

Fantasy Takeaway: I'm going to list some runners I feel I have a good handle on their style. The left side of the spectrum are microwave style runners, the right side are volume-style runners, and the middle are the players who have the complete kitchen - the ability to get hot early and sustain production late.

Again, this is not based on talent or production, but the need for carries to get into the flow of the game. Some runners have enough talent that even if they aren't a perfect stylistic fit in their offense, they are productive. Yet, other runners only have enough talent to thrive if they're a close fit with the style of offense.

This is also something that can change about a player as he evolves. Maurice Jones-Drew is a player I would have classified a few years ago as one of those runners with the complete kitchen. I'm keeping him in that category, but I'm beginning to think he's creeping to the slow-roaster end of the spectrum. Some of this may have to do with the quality of the offense.

Remember this is far from objective and there will also be some blur between player style and team fit. In fact, I can imagine changing several of these as I refine how to define this all. I'm going to make this a running list that I revisit throughout the year because I don't have a feel for every player yet. 

Microwave  Complete Kitchen  Slow Roasters 
Darren Sproles C.J. Spiller Jamaal Charles Adrian Peterson Ray Rice Arian Foster Montee Ball  
  Shane Vereen LeSean McCoy Doug Martin Trent Richardson Marshawn Lynch Mark Ingram II  
  Daryl Richardson David Wilson Matt Forte Darren McFadden Alfred Morris Bilal Powell  
  Ahmad Bradshaw Reggie Bush Frank Gore Demarco Murray Eddie Lacy Shonn Greene  
  Pierre Thomas Stevan Ridley Steven Jackson Chris Johnson Reshard Mendenhall Chris Polk  
  Fred Jackson BenJarvus Green-Ellis Maurice Jones-Drew DeAngelo Williams Daniel Thomas LeGarrette Blount  
  Joique Bell Ben Tate Christine Michael Ronnie Hillman Mikel Leshoure Donald Brown
  Mike Goodson Bernard Pierce Chris Ivory Lamar Miller Joseph Randle James Starks
  Lance Dunbar Kendall Hunter   Ryan Mathews Roy Helu Toby Gerhart
    Brandon Bolden   Bryce Brown Knowshown Moreno Cyrus Gray
        Michael Bush   Mike James
        Jacquizz Rodgers      
        Robert Turbin      
 

The players on the left are runners I believe maximize their touches. They aren't all breakaway players, but they don't need 4-6 carries over a series or two to get rolling. Ben Tate, Joique Bell, Stevan Ridley, and Bernard Pierce are power runners, but I think they get into the flow of the game faster than power runners like LaGarrette Blount, Toby Gerhart or James Starks. However, players like Ronnie Hillman, Chris Johnson, and Ryan Mathews are explosive but I feel they don't acclimate as fast to the flow of the game. 

The runners I think fit well with their scheme are in bold. The players I think are a slight mismatch with their scheme are underlined. This is not something you should worry about when considering the player. The players in italics are not well-suited for their current offense due to surrounding talent gaps or offensive scheme. As you can see, being quick to adapt is a better trait in most offenses that employ committees. 

Lurkers:Fantasy Players Below The Radar

Last week's player was Ace Sanders. The box score wasn't pretty, but he was targeted enough in both the short and intermediate game that I believe he'll continue to be a vital part of the Jaguars' game plan with Chad Henne at the helm. One such play was up the right flat that was nullified by a Cecil Shorts pass interference foul. Continue to keep an eye on the rookie from afar. 

This week, watch Lions tight end Joseph Fauria. He's a rookie from UCLA with 6'7" size and fluid skills down field and in the red zone. Brandon Pettigrew was underwhelming this week and Fauria's three catches for 27 yards and a score were impressive. Even more impressive was his two, first-quarter targets down field. Most important, Tony Scheffler didn't produce this week when he was targeted and Fauria's use was at the veteran's expense. 

Here's Fauria versus UCLA. You'll see that he he might not be a inordinatley fast, but his quickness and height and comfort in tight spaces makes him a great asset.

His blocking needs work, but in the red zone duty with Calvin Johnson on the field he could drive defenses crazy because he'll draw mismatches because of the all-world wide receiver. This weekend, Chris Cook had no business being on Fauria and the pitch and catch was an effortless touchdown.

GUT CHECKS: PLAYERS, TEAMS, AND TIPS DESERVING A DOUBLE-TAKE

Last week I dropped the names that are now strong waiver wire candidates this week: Joique Bell, Kenny Stills, and Marlon Brown. I'd still keep an eye on C.J. Anderson and Kenbrell Thompkins, too.

This week, let's talk about players I'd begin scouting as options to acquire who have a chance to provide consistent production. Think of these players as depth with starter upside who can provide reinforcements to the strength of your roster. What they have in common is that they were the go-to guys on third down last week and I see it continuing as the season progresses. 

Third-Down Guys

Andre Roberts - While Michael Floyd's one-handed catch in the vertical passing game was spectacular this weekend, Carson Palmer threw multiple targets of high difficulty Roberts' way and the receiver didn't drop a single pass. He's not a bright and shiny toy in most fantasy leagues, but he'll outplay a lot of them. Make this work in your favor.

Jermaine GreshamI've been critical of Gresham's mental and physical toughness over the past couple of years. He hasn't played to his potential. I've had some Twitter followers tell me that Gresham has always been a beast with the ball in his hands, but I think he has only looked good when he can be a bully and not in the short area where it counts the most. Last week, Gresham showed me that toughness when he needed that extra few yards. He was also a favorite on third down for Andy Dalton. Tyler Eifert is the new gadget, but Gresham might be a nice bargain.

Jared CookIf he was under the radar, his two-touchdown week that should have been a three-score performance was like a depth charge to any sleeper status he had. He was also Sam Bradford's favor money-down target. 

Tavon AustinIf someone sours on Austin after week one, take him. There were enough looks on third down in the short and intermediate game that I think his production will continue to improve. 

Martellus BennettHe had at least a few key third-down plays in this game and he converted them all. He should have some easy targets playing with Marshall and Forte, who occupy a lot of defensive attention in the passing game. 

Davone BessHe has the most reliable hands and routes on the Browns right now. He's a garbage-time player at this point, but if you've played fantasy football for at least 3-4 years then you know Bess has been one of the best third-down receivers over this span. 

Darryl Richardson - This was the first time I got a great look at the Rams' second-year player. He's one of those options with excellent technique despite limitations with his size. His speed and decision-making are what makes him a solid player. I think he's a little better than advertised, but not star material. After Cook, Richardson might have been the most pivotal all-around skill option on the field on Sunday and I think he'll hold off Zac Stacy and Isaiah Pead

Worry About . . . 

You don't necessarily need to take action with these players, but I hope you have a good hedge strategy with your roster to compensate in case the bottom drops out. There are ominous signs after Week 1. Don't overreact, but these issues caught my eye.

Matt Ryan - I've long maintained that Roddy White is the most important component of the Falcons' passing game because of the quick precision routes I noted earlier. White and Tony Gonzalez are the most reliable options and White is by far the most versatile. The Falcons run a lot of plays with window dressing set up to confuse defenses in short order to move the chains with White as the target. This is not Julio Jones' game. It could develop along those lines one day, but he hasn't demonstrated the same route skills as White from his high school days through last week.

The most ominous issue is the offensive line. Sam Baker is one of the best lineman of this unit and he's average, at best. The play from Atlanta's right tackle and guards has been troubling all summer and it didn't change last week. Ryan doesn't have time in the intermediate and deep passing game and at best, the pressure will disrupt the productivity of this aspect of the offense. At worst, Ryan will continue to take punishment that either impacts his productivity ala Jay Cutler with the Bears in recent seasons or he'll miss time.

Expect to see more of the screen game in coming weeks with Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers while Roddy White needs another 2-4 weeks to get his wheels back. However, I'd make sure you fortify your QB2 spot on your roster. It could be a rougher ride than most thing from a player regarded as one of the safest QB1s in fantasy football heading into 2013.

Michael Vick - I loved what I saw from Philadelphia on Monday night. Some of the rushing lanes they got from the combination of their alignments and the up-tempo pace looked as wide as the canyons Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James were exploding through at Oregon. While LeSean McCoy looked fantastic - and he's a terrific back - there may be as many as 10 runners in the league who wouldn't have much of a drop off from the Eagles' starter if they were in Chip Kelley's attack.

It's heartening to see tackle Jason Peters back and playing well, but one problem still remains: Vick's skill versus pressure. The biggest problem is coming before the snap where he's not recognizing or reacting to obvious signals from the defense that a blitz is coming. He takes too many hits in situations he could prevent with a different protection call or hot read to a receiver. This has been happening for years and it's the biggest reason why I think writers are counting on him getting hurt once again this year and it has nothing to do with his running.

Mike Wallace - Wallace didn't see a target until the early third quarter. Why I'm concerned is that Tannehill has displayed no extensive rapport with Wallace throughout the preseason, the Dolphins offensive line has gotten worse with its pass protection with the loss of Jake Long, and Wallace will continue to see heavy doses of the opponent's top corner. I have maintained all summer that Wallace is no better than a WR3 and I would not regard him as a buy-low commodity.

Trent Richardson - I thought Richardson looked good early in the game when the Browns ran designed plays to the outside or the offensive line opened big holes. However Richardson's style has me quietly concerned about him as an RB1. It's the type of worry that could be nothing, but it's something to continue monitoring.

What I'm seeing with Richardson's style is a reliance on his great footwork and quickness for his size. Like Jerome Bettis, he's a big back with nifty agility to make defenders miss at the line of scrimmage and find lanes you might not expect for a big man. There were a few runs against the Dolphins where I thought he was too tentative, but he created space and got down hill for a nice gain.

Still, there are too many runs for my taste where he's getting a good results off bad decision and I'd estimate twice as many carries in these situations where he would have gained twice as many yards getting his pads low and taking a decisive, north-south path. There were too many no-gainers and outputs of 1-2 yards that should have been totals of 3-4 yards. It's a small thing, but it matters - especially when most of these plays I'm writing about were situations where the Browns didn't allow defensive penetration past the line of scrimmage. The creases were simply smaller and veteran runners blow through them for gains of 4-5 yards with regularity. 

Laurence Maroney had the same nifty feet and explosiveness as Richardson and he danced his way off the Patriots. He was arguably the best running back prospect the Patriots drafted since Robert Edwards and Curtis Martin. Odds are likely Richardson will continue to be a solid RB1 with some big games once Josh Gordon returns, but if you own Richardson and in the next week or two you find you have serious holes on your sqaud, I'd deal the bell-cow for a group of players who might offer more upside in a given week.

IDPers

Players who caught my eye this week:

Vontaze Burfict - The Bengals linebacker not only looked good with his drops in pass protection this week, but Mike Zimmer gave the defender shots at the quarterback on some passing downs. Burfict is rounding into one of those feel-good stories where a team recognizes talent and pushes the right buttons to help the prospect mature into a man with a professional attitude. I don't think he was overrated this summer.

Chandler Jones - Along with Tyrann Mathieu, who I'll broach next, this is the one player I could not get in any IDP draft and was frustrated that I missed him. He might be the best all-around defensive end on the rise in football. He's like a more explosive Justin Tuck (in his prime) in terms of his skill sets.

Tyrann Mathieu - The strip of Jared Cook inside the five was a great play last week, but I was impressed with his gap discipline on running plays that forced Rams runners inside. Mathieu made a lot of nice reads and got into strong position to make a play or prevent a play from developing. Give me a safety who sees the field and gets where he needs to in a hurry with good tackling technique. While I'd rather have Harrison Smith of the Vikings, who is a better all-around player, Mathieu is going to be a good one. Props to John Norton for being the only IDP guy on our staff to rank Mathieu so highly.

Jurrell Casey - The defensive tackle has looked great against two weak offensive lines in the past two weeks, but the Titans have maintained that the difference is he's healthy. I believe it and I'm looking forward to a strong season from the Tennessee lineman.

Dontari Poe - I picked up Poe on the waiver wire a few weeks ago and while it was Jacksonville he dominated last weekend, he looked strong and his pursuit to the ball carrier was good. A defensive tackle you're probably too late to grab cheap, but if you can - don't hesitate.

Terrell Thomas - Another feel-good story, Thomas is coming off his third major knee surgery and didn't look bad against the Cowboys. He has always been a fine run stopper and if the explosiveness returns, he could make transition into a career as a poor man's Charles Woodson in terms of role with the Giants defense. One of my favorite IDP players who could have had a strong fantasy career if he could have stayed in the field: smart, physical, and confident.

Eric Reid - Reid was considered a good prospect, but not a top prospect by many IDP enthusiasts. This might still be the case, but I was impressed with his tackling and find finding his way to the opposing ball carrier. At the same time, the Packers might offer a bit of a false positive because not many teams will test the 49ers down field as often this season as Green Bay.