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Gut Check No.325: Swinging the Mallett

Waldman examines the fantasy viability of five players, including Houston's new starting quarterback.

Who is Ken Bryers And Why Did I want to kick his Ass?

I have a rich fantasy life. I'm not talking about football, although that obviously applies.

And I'm not talking about the kind of fantasy life that I have a feeling my friend and colleague Cecil Lammey has. When I got the name wrong of the Atlanta Falcons' third-string center on a recent Thursday night Audible podcast, Lammey erupted in giggles like an 11-year-old discovering forbidden fruit in his father's sock drawer. His mind went straight to celluoid.

It gves a whole new meaning to "personnel (or is it "personal") charting," doesn't it?

My fantasy had to do with kicking Ken Bryers' ass in the ninth grade. Ken Bryers is not really his name, but I need to exercise some level of class and propriety. Protecting the identity of this coattail-hanging, suspender-wearing, preppy airhead who always tried to hit me up for answers to tests in English Lit is the ethical thing to do.

Seriously, who knows if that job his daddy got him actually developed into a career or not, right? I don't want to sully his reputation and ruin his livelihood. What if he has children that he has to teach how to properly cheat in life? It would be tragic if they never got the chance to learn how to exploit others for personal gain.

Ken was little more than a mosquito on the annoyance scale. Even so, he doesn't realize that while I shrugged my shoulders to his whispered requests, I imagined how much I'd love to strap his suspenders to the desk top, and slam his forehead into that slab of wood and metal. I often wondered that if I did it just right, would Ken's suspenders pull him back for a momentum-induced rebound headbutt like one of those rubber balls attached to a wooden paddle with a string?  

Sad little irony that one of my main gigs is dispensing "cheat-sheets" to you all, isn't it? 

Sometimes I still have variations on this fantasy while I'm answering your questions about players. Don't take it personally, I enjoy this job and I often like communicating with all of you...okay, most of you.

Even the best of you want football information served up like you're still strapped to a high chair with a bib around your fat little necks. And because of this quirk of human nature my fantasy life grows richer in this department by season's end. 

I want the same servings of answers in many areas of my life. In fact, this job helps me appreciate that I may think that I want a simple answer, but what I really want is an accurate and helpful answer (even when I have a feeling that the plumber is imagining me throwing a tantrum with pea puree dripping from my cheeks as I ask about septic tanks). 

Fire away and keep asking me those questions, but don't be surprised when my answers aren't spoon-sized servings of pureed goodies from jars and plastic shrink-wrapped containers. 

Hoyer The Horrible? Will He Ruin Gordon's Return?

Some of my peers are too quick to offer canned judgments. "Brian Hoyer is horrible," for example. The accompanying explanation is that the Browns' quarterback went 20-for-50 against the Texans yestearday. 

I charted that game in the wee hours of Monday morning. Of those 30 incomplete passes, 14 were inaccurate throws with time in the pocket and a reasonably open receiver. One of those misses was ball that Hoyer threw while getting hit.

The other 16 "misfires" fit into these categories: 

  • 14 dropped passes
  • 2 deflected passes at the line of scrimmage (yep, you know who...)
  • 2 throwaways due to pressure and no open receiver. 

Of those dropped passes, one of them generated Hoyer's interception and the other was a pass that the receiver should have been able to catch in bounds, but didn't do so. If 10 of these 14 receiver-induced misfires didn't go down, Hoyer is throwing at 60 percent yesterday. 

Not that Hoyer is a fantastic NFL starting quarterback, but horrible is way too strong when viewing stats without game context. Several of Hoyer's misfires were vertical throws to a receiving corps that will see one of the best big-play threats in football returning next week. 

That said, some of Hoyer's deep throws wouldn't have hit the broad side of a barn on Sunday. What's vital to keep in mind is that the Browns are often throwing deep with the aid of play-action boots and throwbacks across the width of the field where there's added time built into the vertical route and release. When Josh Gordon returns, expect more quick-hitting, anticipatory vertical routes predicated on Gordon's skill to separate quick. 

Hoyer's best skill as a deep thrower is anticipation. Now that he'll have a receiver who fits well with this skill, expect better production down field, ranging from slants to fades and streaks that I'm rarely seeing thrown in Cleveland's current passing game. 

I wouldn't be scared off of Gordon because of the Texans game, but I'd seriously consider making a deal if you're offered a hot, big-play receiver in exchange for the unknown of Gordon's stretch-run this year. 

eating Crow(ell)? 

The Browns started Crowell, and he fumbled the ball away late in the half when a Houston defender punched it loose at the line of scrimmage. This is the kind of turnover that a running back cannot have on a routine basis. If you weren't buying my early explanation about Crowell's ball security issues being a product of a bad pitch, a great hit that would have forced a fumble from any back, and a dropped pitch, then you'll have some satisfaction that the rookie did it again on Sunday.

You're also unlikely to buy this theory that I'm going to float next. Admittedly it's a speculative theory, but one that comes with the experience of training people to perform tasks in the workplace. As a leader or instructor, if you harp on the negative or constantly stress, "Don't do [the negative]," instead of focusing on how to perform the task correctly, the student often performs the negative result because he or she is inadvertently too focused on the problem rather than the solution. 

I'm not saying that a player shouldn't get benched if he has multiple fumbles, but the context of those mistakes is important to consider. If the errors are unforced, mental, or technical then it makes sense to take action. If the error is as much or more good work from an opponent or an error involving a teammate then factoring those plays into a decision can troublesome. I don't know if this was happening in Cleveland with the Browns' running backs, but I didn't see evidence that Crowell was a fumbler at Alabama State or Georgia. 

What we did see is that Crowell started this game and opened the third quarter on the field after his red zone fumble late in the second quarter. Adrian Peterson is substantial testament to the idea that it's better to allow a runner to play through some of his ball security mishaps.

Some of you may argue that Peterson is the exception because he was such a great talent. However, running back isn't a position where you want the player over-thinking things on the field. Too much instruction with decision-making can slow down the player's game and render him a wooden, ineffective version of what he's capable of doing. 

Good quarterback coaches don't bench young quarterbacks after they throw multiple interceptions in a game. There are exceptions where the errors are so basic and egregious that the issues are tied to behaviors that make the passer a liability. But in most cases, coaches have learned to allow quarterbacks to play through these growing pains. The same should be true of any player that a team deems talented enough to start. 

"We weren't going to just not play him because we felt he had lost, I think, one fumble before that," Pettine told Tom Reed of Cleveland.com. "He had dropped a couple of pitches, but that wasn't anything, defensively. He was a guy that we felt we wanted to give the start. The fumble was unfortunate. It was just one of those (plays) the guy was running across and made a heck of a play punching it out, but I thought there were a punch of runs Isaiah ran pretty hard."

We'll see if Pettine gives Crowell a second start against the Falcons. The article suggests there could be a weekly rotation of starters based on matchup, but I'm not buying it. I'm optimistic Crowell will get another shot.

Kenny Britt's Big Day

I was too optimistic about Britt's fantasy prospects this year. I thought Shaun Hill's aggressive vertical tendencies would make Britt his favorite option. Unfortunately, Hill couldn't stay on the field long enough during the first 10 weeks of the year to find out. 

This changed in Week 11 when HIll and Britt hooked up for 4 receptions, 128 yards, and a score. Nice work, but the context of this performance isn't nearly as encouraging as the box score. 

Britt's first target was a 3rd and 3 seam route against a slot defender that opened his hips and let the receiver inside because he thought he had help over the top from a safety that wasn't there. Britt gained 33 yards on the play. 

The touchdown reception was a deep post against rookie corner Bradley Roby for a 63-yard gain. Hill's throw was perfect and Roby had zero help over top. Although Britt didn't toast Roby on the play, there was enough separation that the touchdown was an easy pitch and catch. Two plays for 96 yards and a score where inexperience and mental errors were the underlying themes of the production. 

This is my contention because the final two catches for the remaining 32 yards came on a crossing route under a zone look and a quick slant with Aqib Talib playing off coverage. Once the Broncos placed Talib over Britt in the second quarter, the Rams receiver didn't generate a catch--or even a target--for the remainder of the game. 

Britt and Hill give fantasy owners a puncher's chance at WR1 production every week, especially with Washington, Oakland, Atlanta, and the New York Giants rounding out the schedule. However, the Rams take on the Chargers next week and that defense saw edge rushers Melvin Ingram III and Jeremiah Attaochu return to the field in Week 11. 

You might have a shot to buy-low on Britt this time next week. 

Still(s) The Logical Replacement For Cooks?

The Saints rookie lost the ball and 2-4 weeks of playing time late in the game when he took a helmet to his thumb on a punt return. Cooks stayed in the game and made two receptions during the drive, including a one-handed effort for a first down. Adrenaline is one fine chemical. 

One of the hot names that fantasy industry is tabbing as Cooks' production replacement (or more accurate, an approximate replacement) is Kenny Stills, who caught three balls for 24 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals on Sunday. 

Footballguys' writer Dan Hindery estimates that Stills was only seeing only 30-40 percent of the snaps when the rest of the receiving corps was healthy (note that Stills was still dealing with a lingering quad issue that sidelined him all summer) and 50-60 percent of the snaps when Meachem got hurt. With Cooks out for a stretch, how much more will Stills factor into the game plan? 

Pierre Thomas will be back next week, which means Mark Ingram II will probably see a decrease in snaps. There will also be more draws and screens added back to the game plan. It's not automatic that Stills will earn a significant bump in targets. 

Stills is also a tweener in terms of his physical dimensions and athleticism. He's not the big-play, after-the-catch dynamo that Cooks promises the Saints. However, Stills might be as good or better in the vertical game. Cooks was inconsistent in the vertical game at Oregon State, but showed promise of building on this skill to become (at least) a competent vertical threat.

Stills' audacious 20 yards-per-catch average in 2013 smacks a bit of catching opposing defenses by surprise within this Saints' system. The rookie played well, but his performance wasn't the entire story--rarely is it with an average this strong.

The young receiver lacks a big, strong body type to win physical confrontations on 50/50 balls. He's a timing route option as evidenced by his first catch in Sunday's game, a back-shoulder fade at the left sideline in tight coverage. As long as Brees places the ball well, Stills has the athleticism and comfort with physicality to win the ball. However, he's not going to out-muscle anyone on a consistent basis.

The fact that Jimmy Graham's shoulder is still ailing him enough that the big-play tight end still experiences extreme discomfort on a weekly basis is also a sign that defenses won't be as concerned about him down the stretch. Stills won't be earning a free pass relative to his rookie season.

Before Cooks' injury Stills' use had mixed implications for his future fantasy outlook. On the one hand, he saw two targets on third down and converted both. On the other, Stills' touchdown was a blown coverage where safety George Illoka and Adam Jones didn't establish which of them would cover Marques Colston in the slot, and it left Stills wide open at the sideline for an over the shoulder catch inside the five and a nice dive for the pylon. Jones was berating Illoka well after the play.

Carolina, Chicago, and Atlanta are the final three match ups for most playoff-bound fantasy owners that will have Stills on their rosters. However, Cooks' range of time missed encompasses the first two games plus Baltimore and Pittsburgh's defenses. Everything from Stills' skills, the Saints' scheme and personnel, and the remaining schedule indicates a mixed bag of highs and lows.

If you can count on Stills as a flex No.4 or at worst, a desperation No.3, I'd feel okay about starting him.

Swing The Mallett? 

I think so, at least as a match play down the stretch. Mallett debut resulted in a 20-30, 211-yard, 2-touchdown, 1-interception effort this weekend in Cleveland. There were three notable qualities present in the young quarterback's game, but also one notably absent factor that will serve as a litmus test for his long-term development.

Much of what Houston's new quarterback displayed was apparent from his tape at Arkansas. Here is my summary of Mallett's skills as my No.6 QB from the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:

Mallet has flashes of elite passing skill, but he lacks the refined conceptual tools and mechanics to make the jump to the next level as smoothly as the Matt Ryans, Ben Roethlisbergers, and Peyton Mannings of the NFL. Some of his issues are serious enough that many teams will see players like Newton, Locker, and Ponder as safer bets.

Mallett has the fundamentally strong, over-the-shoulder release that is compact and powerful. The ball flies off his arm with great velocity down field, and when he has the time to throw the football, he is capable of pinpoint accuracy.

His skill at "dropping the ball in the bucket,"--arching the ball over the cornerback, but underneath the safety with enough room for the wide receiver to run under the ball--is better than any quarterback in the class. Mallett is as good as any NFL quarterback at back-shoulder fades and streaks down the seam or the sideline. He also demonstrates confidence in throwing players open in tight coverage.

Mallett is also very good at quickly setting his feet on designed plays with short drops. When his feet are set, he's very accurate. It's why he's a productive player in the two-minute offense with a spread offense.

His height gives him access to throwing lanes that some quarterbacks can't, and he has a a natural tendency to play the position aggressively. This are all things that the NFL wants from a quarterback.

Mallett displays mobility in the pocket. He can throw the ball with velocity on the move. He takes smooth drops from center and he'll frequently look to his second option in the passing game.

Mallett's performance in Cleveland featured all of these facets. Because of his arm, Mallett is willing to wait that extra split second to deliver a pass across the field that will result in more favorable check-downs against single coverage rather than setting for short dump-offs in the middle of fhe field. 

When he does decide to attack the middle, he has the rifle to fire the ball into a tight area. His pass over the official to Garrett Graham for his second touchdown was a good example.

His touch was also on display with targets to DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson. However, his best throw was the fade to J.J. Watt for his fist touchdown. The pass had perfect trajectory and placement.  

The fact that Mallett is working behind an offensive line that is allowing Alfred Blue to dominate makes life easier for this new NFL starter under center. When the Houston offensive line allows Blue to produce like a feature back, it affords Mallett that extra half-second of a clean pocket to make reads and target his receivers down field with good form. 

But Houston will face Cincinnati and Baltimore down the stretch and those teams will test Mallett's poise--poise that was often missing from his game at Arkansas: 

When Mallett has a clean lane to slide, he'll elude outside pressure and find a clean area to to deliver the ball. However, Mallett needs to develop consistent footwork to climb from pressure and still maintain a balanced stance to throw the football. Although he senses pressure well, and he's more mobile than the average pocket passer, he doesn't have control of his feet.

Whether the footwork comes before the poise or the poise comes before the footwork, the important point is that Mallett needs to develop both. When he can make one quick move to elude a defender and throw, he's accurate down field. But this doesn't happen most of the time for quarterbacks experiencing pressure.  

There are generally more steps required and Mallett has yet to master the compact movement to elude heavy pressure that experienced starters handle with aplomb. As with many strong-armed quarterbacks, Mallet will often fixate on one receiver and try to squeeze the ball into coverage. He'll also attempt vertical throws into coverage while taking a hit.

He also loses track of zone defenders and places the ball in harm's way. It appears this happens when Mallett loses patience due to consistent pressure.  

The debut against Cleveland didn't feature a lot of pressure thanks to the strength of the Houston ground game, and because this was Mallett's first regular season appearance as an NFL starter we didn't see him display any development with his poise and pocket presence since his days at Arkansas. Any improvement that a quarterback makes with his poise and pocket presence generally comes with experience, so I'm skeptical that Mallett's cracks won't show against physical and aggressive teams like the Ravens and Bengals.

If the ground game continues to perform, Houston may successfully mask Mallett's flaws this year--especially with the Titans, Jaguars, and Colts as the rest of the teams on the schedule. However, there is reason to believe Mallett could get exposed somewhat in 2015.

Re-draft owners in need of a quarterback or a potential stud-substitute should consider Mallett, expecially if they have the likes of Rodgers, Manning, or Brady--passers who could be rested during your championship week. Dynasty owners are getting an option that I believe has a broad range of possibilities.

At the bottom end of my comparison range, Mallett could have a career that's closer to Joe Flacco or Eli Manning at their worst. However, keep Mallett clean and in space and he also has this pair's fantasy upside.

Andre Johnson is worth consideration as a player with a modest uptick in production down the stretch this year, because Johnson's skill against tight coverage will benefit from Mallett's skill to fit the ball into tight windows. I'd remain bullish on DeAndre Hopkins, because Mallett's down-field demeanor and pinpoint trajectories will give the second-year receiver even more opportunities for success as long as the ground game remains productive.

Even Damaris Johnson is worth watching. He saw a deep target last weekend, and his skill after the catch is good enough that Mallett might find him for the occasional big play.

Don't pay the farm for Mallett, but he could help you this year and give you high-end backup production in 2015 and beyond.