Welcome to my in-season column. If you're seeking strategic tips, match-up advice, game observations, IDP info, and dynasty advice with a little bit of current "football" events opinion (if anything involving the madness of the NFL commissioner's office actually qualifies) added into the mix then you've come to the right place. Think of the in-season Gut Check column as a department store with a variety of areas:
- Futures (Rookies and College Prospects)
- Wild Side
RE-DRAFT: SANITY CHECK
The most challenging thing about the first three weeks of the season is discerning which events are a sign of things to come and which are fool's gold. I'm dividing this basic diagnosis into four categories:
- True Positives: What you saw that was good in Week 1 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Positives: What you saw that was good in Week 1 is an illusion or rare confluence of positive circumstances.
- True Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Week 1 is what you'll get in the foreseeable future.
- False Negatives: What you saw that was bad in Week 1 is an illusion or a rare confluence of positive circumstances.
I'll be playing this game for two more weeks. Let's quick Week 2 review last week's list:
- WR James Jones (True Positive): The targets and looks from Rodgers in critical situations were there even if the box score total was not while drawing Richard Sherman. Davante Adams' ankle injury likely seals the deal that Jones has at least another 2-4 weeks of primary receiver targets.
- WR Keenan Allen (True Positive): Allen's total of 16 yards on 2 catches and 4 targets was a disappointment, but Allen isn't the type of player one would consider as a dominant WR1. When Antonio Gates returns, expect more opportunities for Allen to sustain a consistent rate of fantasy production that has more highs than lows.
- RB Danny Woodhead (True Positive): Melvin Gordon III's 16-88 performance at Cincinnati was an improvement, but Woodhead continues to motor along as the more consistent producer. I know that my bud Cecil Lammey hates singling carries from the equation of a player's production, but the fact that 53 of Gordon's 88 yards came on two carries indicates that Woodhead's role remains alive and well because his 13 touches for 104 yards was not only more productive, but also more efficient.
- TE Tyler Eifert (True Positive): I take it as a good sign when a mediocre game for a tight end equates to 4-49-1 against a decent Chargers defense.
- QB Matthew Stafford (True Negative): The Lions' QB had better production, but he continued making errant throws that are uncharacteristic of a top starter. He was fortunate to have just one interception. I would not expect great things against the Broncos.
- WR Sammy Watkins (True Negative): As my friend Ryan Riddle predicted this weekend on our drive to the Rose Bowl, Watkins would earn more targets because he was a team player the week prior. Watkins saw 8 targets and converted 6 of them for 60 yards and a score. But the score came in garbage time and I'm still not sold he's more than a flex-play as a WR4 in most fantasy lineups.
- TE Greg Olsen (True Negative): His 6-70 total against the Texans was a much better week than his 1-11 Week 1 output, but I have a feeling that Olsen's totals will only be as good as the production he gets from his colleagues on the outside. In other words, if Ted Ginn Jr catches his deep opportunities, it's likely to be a good day for Olsen up the seam. If not, look for defenses to keep the clamps on the veteran.
- RB Justin Forsett (False Negative): Forsett didn't look much different than I characterized from his Week 1 performance. The difference was the opportunities Forsett saw behind a line that did a little better job opening creases. He made two tough runs that required a bounce outside to earn much-needed first downs. I also think the Ravens found a second weapon in the passing game this week (see below).
- QB Peyton Manning (False Negative): Every fantasy owner and their mother was talking about Manning's declining arm strength, but this seemed about as notable an observation as freaking out this year that Donald Trump has funny-looking hair. The real issue was the team trying to use Manning's arm in Kubiak's offensive system. I was joking with my friend Eric Stoner during this game that one could imagine Manning telling Kubiak in the locker room that it was fine if the coordinator wanted to call non-shotgun plays during the second half, but Manning wasn't going to run them. Go ahead, cut me and play Elway's son's dorm mate. Don't think the Rams, Jets, or Texans wouldn't take me? Manning will continue running a shotgun offense if the Broncos brain trust didn't lose its collective mind.
- WR Odell Beckham (False Negative): I had a lot of worried Beckham owners last week. I think 7-146-1 gave them some relief from what ails them. I'm not convinced Beckham won't have more troughs while they find a healthy, productive receiver to fill the WR2 void, but I think Beckham and Manning are figuring out how to beat double teams this year. By season's end I'd look out for more big-time production.
- Bills' Offense (False Positives for Tyrod Taylor, Percy Harvin and Karlos Williams): I'm still not convinced about Taylor. I like what I'm seeing, but three interceptions and 242 yards in garbage time counterbalances the enthusiasm I feel for his 4-touchdown day. But if you're a believer, there's nothing I will say to dissuade you. Most likely, interceptions have no penalties in your league if you're a believer. I did like a few of his throws--on particular bullet up the right seam after eluding pressure to his right was a great display of arm talent and accuracy. Even so, if I could package Taylor and a second player for a study, I'd consider it. Harvin saw the same number of targets that he did Week 1 and drew a pass interference penalty that set up a score for the offense. He's a boom-bust option. Williams continues to get the short-yardage carries that take advantage of his hard-charging, physical skillset. The use of him in the receiving game was a notable development, because this is a skill that could make him a consistent "true positive" as a fantasy starter rather than a fantasy flex posing as a starter if the rate of targets from Taylor continues.
Browns WR Travis Benjamin: I'm a believer that Benjamin can have a good fantasy season. The 5'10", 175-pound receiver isn't that different in size from players like DeSean Jackson or Isaac Bruce of yesteryear. Benjamin wins either as a runner after the catch or getting behind defenders. Here's an except from the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio on Benjamin's talents, which he has flashed before in Cleveland:
There are a lot of good slot receivers in this draft and many of them are more talented than the potential flankers and split ends. Although it would be safer to rank the bigger receivers ahead of these slot players, it would not properly portray the talent spread of this class. Travis Benjamin is one of these slot players.
Benjamin has game-breaking speed and good hands, but one of the better aspects of his play is route running. He does a good job of coming out of breaks on a path that doesn't veer away from the ball. He often takes strong angles back to the ball while maintaining good route depth and he attacks the football after the break.
He demonstrates skill making adjustments on the football both in tight coverage and vertical routes where the ball is thrown over his head. His route skills make him a versatile threat because he can be used outside as well as in the slot. Although his height and weight is considered small for an outside receiver, DeSean Jackson has similar dimensions.
Benjamin is an experienced return specialist and he's capable of generating big plays. One of Benjamin's issues is that he can try too hard to make big plays and not take what's in front of him in the open field. As a result, he'll dance too much and not work down hill.
His small frame makes him ineffective as a runner against contact; he won't break many tackles down field. He also doesn't generate much pop as a blocker even when demonstrating good technique. He's a finesse player and he's best suited for the slot where he won't have to deal with a lot of press coverage.
Despite the obvious negatives of Benjamin's size, his game-breaking ability, good-to-great hands, and strong route skills are too much to ignore if matched with an NFL team seeking a slot receiver with game-breaking versatility.
Although I'm wary of the idea that Benjamin is a long-term answer for the Browns, because the organization has real issues choosing or keeping skill talent that is A) good or B) a good match for what the coaches want, I think the combination of Benjamin and Manziel has the ability to remain a quality fantasy combo as long as Cleveland doesn't muck it up.
Cleveland will muck it up if it has a choice. Let's hope Cleveland doesn't have a choice this year.
Browns QB Johnny Manziel: Did you watch the last two games? Manziel threw the ball 50-55 yards in the air with velocity and accuracy. One of those throws last week was an excellent scramble to the left where he turned on a dime to reset and throw the ball. Manziel routinely climbed the pocket and found open receivers. When he had to break the pocket, he worked to a side and either ran, targeted an open man, or threw the ball away.
This is the kind of learning progression that takes place when a quarterback commits to becoming a student of the game and he's given an opportunity to test the limits of his athleticism under live fire. Manziel will surely have failures in the coming weeks. He'll try to extend the play a little longer than he should. He'll attempt to fit the ball into a tight spot that wasn't wise.
Thus far, he has done a great job keeping both hands on the ball, using his athleticism as a positive, and playing smart football. The past two weeks are what I expected from a mature Manziel. I only expect him to get better. Does it make him a good fantasy option? Not yet, but if you have the luxury to find out, I'd take him as a cheap waiver wire addition and sit on him for a few more weeks to see if Mike Pettine doesn't bench him. Even if Manziel gets benched, I think this period of play was a helpful part of his developmental process. He's a must-add in dynasty leagues if any of you league mates have given up on him.
Ravens TE Crockett Gillmore: Maxx Williams saw 20 snaps in the Ravens lineup this weekend, which was up from the 16 he had in Week 1. It was still no match for Gillmore who had 76 snaps (21 more than the previous weeks) and he did a great deal more with them, catching 5 balls for 88 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also forced the defense to commit a pass interference penalty and a holding foul. Gillmore looks like he's added good weight to his frame and his ability to break tackles after the catch is a notable skill that should keep him a viable weapon for the Ravens for as long as he can stay healthy. He's a fluid athlete who bounced off defenders or drove through contact. Forget the Todd Heap label our recap-per gave Gillmore (a nice reference), he looked more like Mike Ditka after contact. Even if Maxx Williams earns more snaps, it's highly possible that the Ravens use more two-tight end sets because of the benefits is gives the ground game and it complements the lack of proven receiving talent beyon Steve Smith.
Ravens WR Steve Smith: Every year for the past four I draft this "too old to be good" fantasy option and every year I've been rewarded. Smith's 10 catches for 150 yards were only part of the story, because he wasn't getting open on crossing routes over and over like Keenan Allen the week prior. Smith hung onto a ball between a corner and safety where he took a huge hit. He drew a holding call that put the Ravens inside the 10 that led to a game-tying field goal near the half. He also had multiple catches on a variety of routes, screens, patterns breaking back to the quarterback, and working across the field. There was even a near-miss for a touchdown to take the lead late in the game. If Crockett Gillmore can maintain strong presence in the passing game--and I believe he will--Smith will remain a viable fantasy option every week.
Raiders WR Michael Crabtree: He made a fantastic catch over the middle early in the second quarter of the Ravens game that set up a one-yard score and showed me what I wanted to see about Crabtree as a fantasy option. His extension for the ball towards impending hit over top after running free down field was a sign of his confidence in his healthy, Derek Carr's confidence to target Crabtree in tight windows, and a talented receiver mentally at the top of his game.
Crabtree also got open on a play during the middle of the third quarter that could have been a touchdown of around 30 yards if Carr didn't under throw the target. Amari Cooper may have more big weeks, but I'm beginning to wonder if the guy to own in this offense isn't Crabtree. The reason is Cooper's penchant for dropping passes--something I noted about his play at Alabama. He's a fine route runner, he has the speed and quickness to get open deep and win after the catch, but he drops his share of passes--many of them easier targets. Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Amari Toomer were examples of big-play options who often had higher drop rates than one might expect. I'm still bullish on Cooper, but there's room for Crabtree to give fantasy owners WR3 production this season.
RB Dexter McCluster: If there is a player you wish could stay in college football, who is it? McCluster was the answer to that question posed to me last week. It has nothing to do with lack of talent. McCluster is a terrific running back. The NFL is too afraid to use McCluster more than 10-12 times per game in the capacity of a running back and therein lies the reason I wish he could play every Saturday for Ole Miss and showcase his gifts. The Browns game was a taste of what the Titans could get from McCluster if they featured him as a regular part of the backfield action. The fear is that he won't last more than 4-6 games. I'd prefer to see a NFL team test that fear and give him 12-15 touches per game, if not more. McCluster knows what he's signing up for and at his relatively low cost, if he wears out he wears out. He's a smarter, more versatile runner than Sankey or Terrance West and you can certainly use one of those two for short yardage. The Titans may use McCluster more often, but that size-based fear will place a cap on McCluster's upside. Last week may be one of the best efforts we'll see from a back who I think has Warrick Dunn-like potential if used correctly.
Colts TE Dwayne Allen: Put Allen in Atlanta and his bad years would result in 60 catches and 7-8 touchdowns. The Colts are committing a crime against fantasy by using two-tight end sets and doing little with either of them in the passing game. I haven't looked close enough to determine if the culprit is Andrew Luck or offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. I'm leaning towards Hamilton, who tends to compress the field when his tight ends are in the game and Allen is relegated to blocking duty. There are too many options in this Colts passing game and Allen remains lowest on the list of priorities on the progression list.
Cardinals WR John Brown: The Cardinals receiver hasn't been the big-time fantasy play that the majority of analysts (me included) have predicted all preseason, but he's a lot closer to big games than his stat column appears. He drew two defensive pass interference penalties in the first quarter and one of them would have resulted in a touchdown if not fouled. He's a major part of the offense and he's also making big plays on third down in the short and intermediate game. The production will come.
Colts RB Frank Gore: Yes, Gore lost a fumble in the red zone and his 3.8 ypc looks bad, but he ran the ball well tonight if you watched the game and examined what he did with the creases he earned (and created). Gore doesn't look old or washed-up. He looks like a back who faced two top defenses in consecutive games while playing with a very good quarterback who can struggle against pressure just like all mere mortals at the position. I'd start Gore with confidence against the Titans this week.
Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham: Pete Carroll told the media that he would not reconfigure the offense to get Graham the football. He also told the media that Seattle wanted to get Graham the ball more and it just hasn't worked out that way during the past two games. I'm telling you not to listen to Carroll without reading between the lines: Seattle will find a way to feature Graham if they want to win football games. He is the biggest matchup advantage in the Seahawks receiving game and there is no way Graham will go more than 4-5 weeks without seeing more targets. If Graham continues to do little for the next two weeks, I would buy low on the Seahawks tight end, because change will be coming to the offense in Seattle. Are you listening Darrell Bevel?
DYNASTY (WITH RE-DRAFT IMPLICATIONS): Jets WR Quincy Enunwa
Anyone want to ask me about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel? Read last week's column and think about what happened on Sunday. As I said, none of happened on the field Week 1 was as good or as bad as what you'll likely see depicted about these three in the general media.
Devin Smith is the receiver that Jets fans and fantasy owners are hoping will add spark to the vertical game, but a player that the organization likes as a developmental project is Quincy Enunwa, the second-year option from Nebraska. I don't blame them, I see flashes of Terrell Owens in Enunwa's game.
The reason Enunwa dropped in the draft--beyond the fact that he was in a run-first offense and Nebraska hasn't been known for producing NFL receivers since Irving Fryar--is that his hands are inconsistent. Enunwa's issue is using proper hand position to attack the ball based on the trajectory of its arrival. This is a fixable issue and I believe it's why Enunwa not only made the team, but is seeing playing time at this point in the season. The ESPN broadcast crew described Enunwa as a "blocking receiver," which is an oxymoronic comment. Enunwa is a potential big-time option with a major but surmountable technique flaw. He's a player I'd consider stashing at the end of this year.
Futures: Thoughts on UCLA's QB Josh Rosen (And Brett Hundley)
I spent last week in Los Angeles for a magazine assignment and had an excellent time couch surfing at the homes of Eric Stoner, Matt Harmon and Ryan Riddle. Saturday night, Riddle and I went to the Rose Bowl for the UCLA-BYU game. The Bruins faithful are a laid-back fan base compared to what I'm used to seeing in the SEC, but I like it.
One thing is for certain, UCLA fans are in a throes of a love affair with freshman quarterback Josh Rosen. After an opener against Virginia where the 18 year-old went 28-for-35 for 351 yards and 3 touchdowns, the 6-4, 210-pound passer from nearby Manhattan Beach has tailed off since. His 22-for-42, 223-yard, 1-score, and 1-interception performance at UNLV was a middling effort in a 37-3 blowout of UNLV, but fans were notably excited about Rosen entering the match-up with BYU.
The frosh looked every bit like an inexperienced talent, but take both of those words into serious consideration. Rosen's 47.8 percent completion percentage and 3 interceptions were the product of the quarterback trying to extend plays and be a hero. He threw two of those interceptions in the red zone while extending the plays from the pocket and trying to throw the ball across his body.
Yet Rosen also threw the game winner on UCLA's final offensive drive. I liked Rosen's desire to attack defenses and take an aggressive approach to quarterbacking. It's difficult to have a successful career as a starting NFL quarterback without this attitude.
The quarterback throws a pretty ball and as he gets stronger and gains more experience, I can see how his career path could lead to success as an NFL starter. Right now, the Aaron Rodgers comparisons are premature. UCLA's offense does not give Rosen the opportunity to change plays and the scheme is one of the simplest and most predictable you will see in major college football.
The offense offered little for us to see when it comes to Rosen's acumen as a field general and it got me thinking about last year's Bruins starter Brett Hundley, who is now backing up Aaron Rodgers. One of the larger criticisms of Hundley that dropped his draft stock was the fact the UCLA offense was simplistic and he had no playing-altering privileges in the scheme.
I never bought this, because I watched Hundley make some seriously smart decisions while shackled in a scheme that I believe was made simplistic on behalf of a struggling offensive line. Hundley was a film rat at UCLA and the Packers rookie quarterback took it upon himself to start a study group in Green Bay with a number of players. Hundley went from a player who seemed initially overwhelmed during the first week of August to the NFL's best performing quarterback during the preseason, earning head coach Mike McCarthy's praise for his approach as quoted in an ESPN blog piece:
"I just really like his approach, the way he's gone about it," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's picked it up quickly and done some things, you know [he needs] those reps as a young player so really the last two weeks have been huge for Brett just for the fact that he's been able to get out there and play, see some different things. He's performed very well. I think he's off to an excellent start.
I doubt Rosen came to UCLA so he could be a shackled by this offense for the length of his career. If the heralded freshman doesn't earn more leeway to make pre-snap decisions, I wouldn't be surprised if we learn about some friction behind the scenes with the offensive philosophy. This potential problem may take care of itself if Jim Mora earns another opportunity in the NFL next year.
What watch Rosen confirmed to me is that the criticisms of Hundley were overstated. If you're a dynasty league owner with deep pockets and a practice squad that allows you to hold players during their first two seasons, Hundley makes a great option.
IDP: SAINTS OLB HAU'OLI KIKAHA
My friend Riddle has been touting Hau'oli Kikaha for at least a year and the early returns are promising: 8 tackles, 4 assists, a sack, and 2 forced fumbles in 2 games. Kikaha topped his underrated rookie list and he has tweeted about the outside linebacker's talent extensively. Here's Riddle talking about Kikaha on the Three-Cone Drill Podcast with Footballguy Danny Tuccitto and my old-time Football Outsiders' colleague Rivers McCown: (9:35-mark).
"I was surprised he went in the second round...specifically because of the two ACL injuries that he had. Although he's two years removed from any injury, which shows [the surgeries and knees] are holding up to some degree, but it is an area of some concern. I was a big fan of his tape. He was the most productive edge rusher in this draft class. He was actually the most productive edge rusher of any draft class that I've done in the last four years, which was most impressive. Vic Beasley Jr was right up there, too.
The thing that always boggled him about the NFL's view of Kikaha is that the rookie had similar measurables to Shane Ray but a better three-cone drill and the Washington prospect's pro day was "subpar" but still better than Ray's "disastrous" pro day. When you factor in production and the tape, he felt Kikaha was far more polished and creative:
They don't even come close...Kikaha looked like a much more polished, creative pass rusher. His hand technique, his ability to counter, his awareness for when do to what and understanding the game of football in all the nuanced levels [of the game made him] a far superior prospect. It seemed like the consensus that Shane Ray was the better edge rusher just boggles my mind.
And Riddle knows a thing or three about rushing the passer. I got to watch Riddle's cutups during the year that he became the single season sack leader at Cal and while I'm biased because we've become good friends, the film is a strong argument to support Riddle's story that his draft stock dropped due to playing through a hamstring injury late in the season and having a subpar Shrine game performance. Riddle was a smart player with refined technique to use his hands, excellent awareness of the ball, good burst, and a high motor.
If Riddle appreciates what he sees in Kikaha, I'm sold on making a play for him in IDP leagues--especially teams with a more limited number of IDP options where he's still on the waiver wire. If you're in a league with a larger IDP roster and Kikaha is a free agent, don't hesitate.
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