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The Gut Check No. 427: Mid Season Now And Later

Matt Waldman profiles three receivers under the collective fantasy radar with the potential to help now and later. 

Is your fantasy team hovering near .500 mark and your competition for a playoff spot is benefiting Aaron Jones' ascension, the Jay Ajayi trade, or another mid season development? Are you in a situation where you know you're one player away from your roster humming like a machine, but any deal you discuss will generate a net loss you can't afford? 

I feel your pain. This is the midseason conundrum that many fantasy owners experience: Good enough to contend, but not good enough to dominate or acquire well-known, impactful talent. 

It means working the waiver wire. However, everyone will be gunning for Damien Williams, Paxton Lynch, Kenyan Drake, and any available replacement starter to a starter who was benched or traded this week.

It means digging deeper. This week, I'm sharing two preemptive picks with breakout potential down the stretch and a third option potentially available as a buy-low even if the owner is thinking he's getting a sell-high. 

Earlier this year, I profiled Alex Collins as one of my prominent early-season Now And Laters. Since Week 4, Colllins has been the No. 21 RB in standard fantasy formats. My other options, Allen Hurns (No. 40 in standard this year), and Kasen Williams have not gained significant traction, but continue to flash in unfavorable situations. 

That said, everyone you're reading is talking about the likes of Williams, Drake, Lynch, and Smith-Schuster. Let's dig deeper for those of you in competitive situations where your peers are already up on game to the new flavors of the week's fantasy news cycle.

Now: Tre McBride

There are two theories about the NFL Draft. The first is that the draft is an accurate predictor of talent because statistically, the early-round talents have a greater track record of earning and maintaining starting positions than talents drafted in the later rounds or not at all. 

The second is the theory I believe: the NFL Draft sets the stage for various biases in favor of early-round picks. Late-round picks earn fewer practice reps, there is less financial and ego investment in them by coaches and management, and it means they are written off earlier than early-round picks who often get the benefit of the doubt for mistakes that late-round picks don't. 

While the several examples of late-round and undrafted stars is considered anecdotal evidence, there hasn't been an attempt that I know of to study it in a statistically sound manner because the process is either to complex for the armchair football stats writer or there are too many variables for the few with the skills to do the work. 

McBride potentially fits within the second theory. The Titans drafted McBride in the 7th round after a star-studded career at William & Mary. His workout measurables were all quality marks for an NFL wide receiver: 

  • 6'0", 210 pounds
  • 4.37-second, 40-yard dash
  • 4.08-second, Short Shuttle
  • 6.96-second, 3-Cone Drill
  • 38-inch Vertical 
  • 10-ft, 2-inch Broad Jump
  • 16-rep Bench Press

For a frame of reference, McBride's marks were all on par or better in most categories when comparing him to big-play prospects like Carlos Henderson, Taywan Taylor, Sammy Watkins, and Amari Cooper. In fact, I compared McBride's potential to Cooper in the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio: 

If McBride kidnapped Cooper and replaced the WR in the Alabama lineup, I don't think fans would be able to tellt he difference. McBride would be a more decisive ballcarrier. Cooper, [DeVante] Parker, and McBride are almost in a three-way tie on my board. McBride played enough division-I talent that I'm convinced he'll make a successful transition to the NFL.

McBride was an athletic, vertical receiver and return specialist at William & Mary. He was a decisive open-field runner, a good blocker, and made tremendous adjustments to the football in the passing game. According to those I know well in the draft community, McBride was arguably the best receiver on the field at the East-West Shrine Game practices. 

 

McBride's small-school background didn't make him a safe investment and, according to NFL scouts that I know, the wide receiver has the greatest variation of draft grades of any position. Every year, there are teams that differ as much as five rounds on a draft grade for multiple receivers. 

GM Ruston Webster and coach Ken Whisenhunt drafted McBride in 2015. Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey inherited McBride in 2016. In that respect, the Titans' new decision makers were an entirely different team with no past history with the previous talents—many of them higher-round picks who were better-known options with high-cost contracts, unproven production, and a higher priority of scrutiny. 

Because McBride was a practice squad/developmental option, it was less likely that his flashes of skill would catch the team's eye. He often flirted with the active roster but when we consider that players like Joique Bell and Orleans Darkwa needed multiple players to lobby the coaches on their behalf for more playing time after flashing routinely in practice, it's no surprise that McBride flew under the team's radar. This is especially true when considering that Robinson and Mularkey had already acquired free agents and draft picks at the position that they were more invested in.

The Titans, satisfied with their two-year turnover of the position that included the exodus of high-round picks Kendall Wright, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Justin Hunter, and the acquisition of Eric Decker, Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Rishard Matthews, and Tajae Sharpe, finally parted ways with McBride at the end of this training camp. It is notable from the standpoint of work ethic and daily performance that McBride outlasted Wright, Green-Beckham, and Hunter on the depth chart despite never earning extended time on the field. 

When the Bears picked up McBride, it definitely caught my attention. Because the Bears are decimated at the receiver position, the environment served as a good indication of how ready McBride was to show his talent. Was he still working hard? Was his confidence not too bruised while languishing at the end of the Titans depth chart? Was he healthy enough to compete to his potential.

When McBride earned playing time against the Vikings on Monday Night Football, it was a great sign that he had shown the coaching staff enough of these qualities to earn a shot in the lineup. Although his production amounted to a catch for 18 yards and he didn't earn another catch for another month, remember that Bears were working through an casting call of receivers who had better resumes than McBride. 

The fact that McBride's 3-catch 92-yard afternoon against the Saints is the best yardage output for a Bears receiver or tight end this year is notable. One, it's a potential sign of rapport that he's gaining with Mitchell Trubisky that the more proven options have not. Two, it's a potential sign that Mitchell Trubisky is gaining comfort in his role. 

However, it could also mean that he's the unknown to opposing defenses who are ceding good match ups to him. This is the most likely answer based on his three receptions this weekend. This crossing route against a safety is a good example of a mismatch in McBride's favor. 

 

T McBride

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 29, 2017 at 12:15pm PDT

So is this recpetion at the left sideline from the trips formation where he earned the benefit of the softest part of the zone when grouped with Tarik Cohen on the same side. 

 

McBride ll

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 31, 2017 at 11:36am PDT

And the catch below is simply a blown coverage.

 

McBride III

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 31, 2017 at 11:38am PDT

If you're a skeptic, McBride is a player who has little to offer because he simply did what he was supposed to do in wide-open situations for a team that is an offensive mess outside of Jordan Howard, and you can move along. 

If you're an optimism, this is the exact reason you want McBride. He's doing what he's supposed to do, he's the least likely guy the opposing defenses will game plan for during at least the next 2-4 weeks, the Bears just lost Zach Miller, and any bunch look the team uses will have McBride working off a better-known guy who will be covered. 

He's also going to be cheap. There is a wide range of outcomes possible for McBride, but if he plays to his college tape, you could have a massive surprise on your hands. If he only does what he's supposed to do, but earns opportunities based on what I described above, he could be a bargain WR3 against a slew of weak pass defenses like Green Bay, Detroit (twice), Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Week 16 with Cleveland isn't bad, either. 

Later (but very soon): Dede Westbrook

Westbrook is a strong candidate to return from IR within the next 3-4 weeks. He and Cooper Kupp were two of my favorite players to watch from the 2017 NFL Draft class and their final grades differed by 0.05 points. As I mentioned earlier about grade variation from team-to-team, my grading is often so small among the top 7-9 players that fit and depth chart dictates early opportunities as much as talent. Both Kupp and Westbrook had very little separation from my No. 3 option. 

Here is my pre-draft sample profile from the Rookie Scouting Portfolio on Westbrook:

Westbrook reminds me and my colleague Sigmund Bloom of receivers we’ve seen on the Indianapolis Colts. For Bloom, it’s Marvin Harrison, which is a heady comparison. He likes Westbrook’s skill and toughness around the ball. I cite the same reasons, but the player I drew parallels to was T.Y. Hilton.

Regardless of whose comparison is more accurate, if Westbrook comes close to performing like either one, an NFL team will come out a winner. The biggest question will be one of matching him to a coach and quarterback who value a player who performs big even if he isn’t.

Westbrook moves at a fast, fluid pace, and it begins at the line of scrimmage. He uses a variety of one and three-step releases with pacing variations to work into a defender before he releases past with a chop or shoulder reduction. His head fakes, jab steps, and burst set up short routes and double moves. His speed turns are quick and he gets his head aroudn fast to locate the ball.

He’s spent his college career working with see-it, throw-it scramblers like Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield, and it has contributed to his patience as a zone receiver. He finds openings and makes timely breaks to exploit them. He’ll also work open when the first option closes off. With the amount of improvising Mayfield does, Westbrook could be pleasantly surprised at the success rate of timing routes that he runs in the NFL.

A good pass catcher, Westbrook extends well for the ball, makes plays over his shoulder, in stride with his route breaks, and after contact. He has a good feel for adjusting his body in tight spaces and he’ll win the ball from larger defenders. Despite his size, defenders don’t have a lot of success ripping the ball free from Westbrook’s grip once he gets his hands on the ball. He’ll also rip it away from an unsuspecting defender with better position. Although he has good boundary awareness for the college game, Westbrook has to work on getting both feet inbounds for the pro game.

For the reasons above, he reminds me a lot of Hilton, but it’s also due to his skill after the catch. Westbrook accelerates well from a stop and attacks creases hard. He uses his blocks well to cut back into open spaces, even if the entry to that open area is tight crease. His underrated strength also shows up as a ball carrier. Westbrook has the balance to pull through wraps and tightrope the boundary. He balances touches after contact and he has a stiff-arm that can ward off some linebackers when there’s good placement.

A patient runner, Westbrook varies his stride, sets up angles, and splits defenders when necessary. He’s at his best when he can avoid contact. His dips, cuts, and spin have a sudden quality and when paired with the momentum of his downhill speed, he can run through wraps of defensive backs. Westbrook’s patience can veer past the line into tentative behavior where he tries one too many moves before reaching the defender when he probably avoids the man if he waited longer and used just one move. With few exceptions, he carries the ball under his right arm and must use his left arm more often...

...Westbrook’s greatest hurdles for early playing time could be his draft status and concerns about his size. According to CBS Sports, “Westbrook was accused of throwing the mother of his two children to the ground in 2012, when he was 18, and biting the same woman’s arm and punching her with a closed fist in 2013.” Both times he was arrested; neither incident resulted in a conviction.

In 2011, Westbrook’s small intestine ruptured after a hit during a high school football game. He earned 21 staples from his chest to his navel to repair the injury that cost him the rest of the year. Analysts who use Body Mass Index (BMI) data may try to link Westbrook’s low BMI to a risk of injury, but using this incident as a supporting argument would be hasty. The doctors that repaired the injury described the event as a freak incident that they had never seen before and had to happen under the exact right circumstances.

Westbrook will earn an opportunity to compete for a slot role early on. With the right team, he could move outside. Think Hilton, Travis Benjamin and DeSean Jackson.

RSP Boiler Room: Dede Westbrook

NFL Lens: Tight Coverage (T.Y. Hilton & Dede Westbrook)

Dede Westbrook Highlights

In terms of team fit, we know that the Jaguars are winning by pounding the ball and while they are compelled to limit Blake Bortles as much a possible, they aren't as content with him as a traffic cop directly which side of the line the cement mixer (Leonard Fournette) and dump truck (Chris Ivory) should travel. The ground game presents excellent opportunities for play-action and yards after the catch. Watch the Colts game, and you'll see what I mean. 

Considering that the Jaguars play the Colts again and the likes of the Chargers, Browns, and 49ers between now and Week 16, it's worth stashing a dynamic option who can exploit these below-average units at containing YAC. Westbrook had multiple big plays as a vertical threat and/or YAC option during the preseason and his potential this year really hinges on his comfort level to play consistent football if he returns. 

If he does, his skills are a good combination of Hurns and Marqise Lee in the sense that he doesn't need pinpoint targets to win the ball against tight coverage and he has vertical speed, physicality, and elusiveness to turn short targets into huge plays. Use him in the slot and he can deliver on crossing routes off play-action boot legs which fit well with Bortles' strengths and the Jaguars ground game. Bunch him with Hurns and Lee tight to the formation, and the Jaguars can send Westbrook deep from a run alignment that earns him a free release. 

If Westbrook plays to his Oklahoma tape, you might even see him develop a quick rapport with Bortles on fade routes, which was a strength the quarterback showed with Allen Robinson. At Westbrook's price as a first-come, first-serve preemptive option, it's worth stashing him if you can't get any deals done but you have room to cut bait on under-performers and wait. 

now and later: Paul Richardson Jr 

I've been a broken record (the nice part about getting older is witnessing things go in and out of style twice within your lifetime) about Richardson since he was a prospect at Colorado. I don't care because when I believe I'm right about an excellent talent, I'm sticking with that assessment until proven otherwise.

There has been no hard evidence that I'm wrong. After this weekend's two-touchdown performance—that should have been three if not for Thomas Rawls' illegal block—Richardson is the No. 13 fantasy receiver in standard formats and the No. 26 option in PPR. Since Week 4, he's been 10th in standard and 19th in PPR. 

In an offense that has been predicated on running the ball—and struggling mightily—Richardson isn't in as much demand as he should be. One of those reasons is target volume, the favorite stat among most in the industry. Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, and Tyler Lockett all have more targets than Richardson and if you look at the past four weeks when Richardson has elevated his fantasy production, the gap between Richardson and the third-highest option (Lockett)— is even larger. 

However, you all know that I prefer a healthy side of context with my stats (as do you when you can get it). As long as there is a clear role for that player which promises a steady volume with a likelihood for high impact, then sheer target volume is too blunt of an instrument compared to impact per target.

Let's look at fantasy points per target for Baldwin, Graham, Lockett, and Richardson:

Player  2  3  4  6  8  Total Fpts  Fpts/Tgt  PPR   PPR/Tgt
Doug Baldwin  4 15   12 10  61  54.7  0.90  96.7  1.59
Jimmy Graham 11  45  50.9  1.13  78.9  1.75 
Tyler Lockett 39  38.9  1.00  64.9  1.66 
Paul Richardson Jr 36  67.4  1.87  89.4  2.48 

It's clear that Richardson is getting the most impact from his volume. The next logical question is "will it continue?" Considering that Baldwin, Graham, and Lockett all have deep-threat skills, the answer might initially seem like a clear "no," but let's consider Richardson's role. He's second on the team in red zone targets and spent the Week 6 Bye working one-on-one with Russell Wilson in California to strengthen their rapport.

If that's not recognition from the team and quarterback that Richardson is a factor worth greater cultivation, then I don't know what is. In fact, Richardson has authored multiple fourth-quarter and game-winning scores this year. He's their clutch performer. The fact that his teammates are all big-play threats actually makes it harder for opponents to double-team Richardson. 

Even if they do, which I seriously doubt they can with the players who are more worthy of that attention right now, Wilson's scrambling ability is a sure way of eradicating coverage. When a quarterback can keep a play alive for 5-6 seconds, Richardson will work open. 

Even if I'm wrong about Richardson, I bet Wilson-led fantasy teams are happy. They might be ecstatic if Pete Carroll decides this season is the watershed moment to abandon the run game.

Let's compare Richardson's impact per target to the top three receivers in fantasy (in both formats). 

Player Targets Fpts Fpts/Tgt PPR PPR/Tgt
Antonio Brown  94 101.5  1.08   158.5  1.69
DeAndre Hopkins 76  102.6  1.35  147.6  1.94 
A.J. Green  65  81.2  1.25  119.2  1.83 
Paul Richardson Jr 36  67.4  1.87  89.4  2.48 

Richardson's impact per target is obvious on film and it's showing up as a leading figure among the league's best. Yes, the lack of target volume is lower and it's not as desirable as the top options, but it's also why he can be had as a bargain relative to his value. 

If you need a receiver with potential to deliver consistent top-20 production (and WR1 upside) at a WR3 price, many fantasy owners will look at his target volume and the other three receivers on this roster as reasons why they are selling Richardson high when there's a reasonable likelihood you're actually buying him low. 

Remember, off-rhythm quarterbacks who create need strong rapport with their receivers. Wilson has made it a priority to develop it with Richardson. He's targeting Richardson in the red zone and in clutch situations. The team has been excited about getting Richardson in the lineup since last year. Richardson has shown the ability to make crazy-good adjustments on difficult targets. 

The drumbeats are all there. Let volume be the reason your trade partner is smug about selling high.