THE NFL'S DRESS REHEARSAL WEEKEND
Many of this week's games featured starters and key contributors for at least a half of football. Generally, teams don't work from an expanded playbook because they don't want to tip their hands to in-season opponents scouting ahead. This is another compelling reason why we don't see opponents catch onto a player, a scheme, or a team until at least 4-6 weeks into the season.
One thing the preseason dress rehearsal weekend reveals is the personnel that teams value. If a reserve earned playing time with starters this weekend, it's a good indication that, regardless of listing on the depth chart, the team values the skills that they've seen from the player thus far—even if injuries are the reason the player is earning time with the first or second unit. Seattle running back Chris Carson is a good example (more on him later).
Sometimes, a team will play a reserve sparingly because they have already seen enough from the player to know that they will be using him during the season and there's no need to evaluate his play. Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen, who only played a portion of an offensive series this weekend, could be that player in Chicago.
And in other instances, a veteran finally sees the field to shake the rust off. Cardinals running back Chris Johnson saw his first extended time of the summer after getting signed in August. Like Johnson, I'm getting some preseason reps with Footballguys' Top 10, which will be available every Monday evening and filled with fantasy insights from my weekly notebook based on film study.
1. The Patriots Without The Field General's Scout, Julian Edelman
Throw out all the names you like and have a fun conversation about it with your buds but if New England acquires a starting receiver in a trade to replace the injured Julian Edelman, he'll have to be an option with a lot of experience in New England's system. Brandin Cooks and Tom Brady have spent the entire summer working on rapport and even they have told Pats reporter Mike Reiss that it will be a year-long journey for them.
One of the reasons a trade for an instant impact player is unlikely is the personnel packages that New England uses. The Patriots often use the exact same personnel in extremely different alignments and when they can catch an opponent with personnel that lacks the flexibility to defend a certain look, New England will heighten the tempo and run plays from alignments that exploit mismatches.
For those of you unable to listen with the volume on, these are consecutive plays from the Lions game. The Patriots begin in a two-tight end set with both tight ends on the same side to block the edge for Dion Lewis around right end. The offense recognizes that the Lions personnel could be exploited with the pass so it rushes back to the line with the same personnel but now in an empty shotgun set that forces the defense to adjust fast and with players who aren't the ideal match for the Patriot's passing game.
This type of choreography takes weeks of practice, especially when it comes to retaining the offensive verbiage and alignments. If a new player has to be told where to line up in an offense with this game plan, it slows everything down and that ruins the purpose.
Fans also underestimate how much of the passing game is about quick recognition of defensive coverage and acting on changes as they happen in real time. It requires that the quarterback and his receivers have a shared baseline of knowledge about what they're expecting from the opponent, how that information may change less than a second before the snap, and then how it could change again within the first 1-2 seconds after the snap.
When this happens well, a lot of the plays look like simple pitch-and-catch situations into wide-open spaces. When it doesn't, fans are screaming at quarterbacks who seemingly appear to be throwing the ball blindly to a defender or into open space where a receiver is nowhere to be found.
This is what happened during Chad Johnson and Brandon Lloyd's arrival in New England. Remember a few years ago when Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and a casting call of rookies were asked to handle the passing game early in the year? It wasn't pretty.
Unless the Patriots trade for a star known for his unusual intelligence for the game and a great familiarity with the scheme, it's best to head into the season with an idea of what the existing personnel will do in the offense. Let's begin with Edelman's existing role as Scout for Field General Tom Brady.
One of the primary purposes of pre-snap motion in an offense is to scout the defense's intentions. Movement forces the defense to tip its hand about how it is covering the field. If the quarterback is the field general, the receiver in motion is the scout.
The Patriots love to motion Edelman to determine which defenders are playing man or zone and it gives Brady a starting point with where he'll read the field. In the case below, Chris Hogan replaces Edelman in this capacity and his motion reveals zone coverage on the right side based on how the cornerback and linebacker on the right side of the formation adjust to the movement.
Football geniuses can point out all they want that rookie LB Jarrad Davis doesn't play the zone as well as he should, but the point is that the motion is to scout the weakness of the defense and wouldn't you try to target a rookie's coverage responsibility in the red zone? I know I would.
Look for Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola to replace Edelman in this capacity this year. They will be the two receivers who do the bulk of the pre-snap motion. Here's Amendola as the field general's scout on a touchdown pass to Hogan.
While Hogan isn't as quick as Edelman, he's a superior player against tight coverage down field and as you see above, a lot of what New England does isn't as predicated on speed as it is timing. Hogan should earn a lot of vertical targets because of Brandin Cooks ability to stretch the field and force safeties to shade towards Cooks. New England will also use motion like they did with Amendola above to spot situations where the defense only has one safety high and manipulate the alignment with the motion so a player like Hogan can earn a one-on-one.
If you noticed above, Cooks was on the right side with the defense play this Cover 1. When Brady motions Amendola to Cooks side, it confirms the coverage because the cornerback on the left follows Amendola to the right but the safety on the left remains in a shallow position behind the linebackers over Rob Gronkowski. If you're a safety playing in the middle of the field with Brandon Cooks on the right side, which direction will you initially cheat or at least play as long as possible in a spot where you can still make it to the deep right quadrant of the field on a throw?
The common sense answer to the above question gives Hogan time to work downfield against the cornerback in the left flat for a well-timed touchdown pass.
Look for Amendola and Hogan to share some of Edelman's existing production. This gives Hogan every-week starter upside. If you're aggressive with those projections, you're thinking Hogan could be a fantasy WR2. I prefer to consider him a good flex-option or WR3, at best.
Amendola will have some huge weeks because he's so knowledgeable of the scheme and has a rapport with Brady. However, we're all concerned about him taking on his "Danny Hematoma" alter ego and missing chunks of 4-6 weeks after a two-touchdown outburst in the first quarter and a half of a game. Consider him a bye-week option for your bench.
Cooks' role won't change and I'd be surprised if his production increases. He's there as a threat in the vertical game—both as a deep target and one to force safeties to honor his presence and set up plays like the one above—and as a ball carrier on short and intermediate targets into wide-open space.
One of the staple plays that I envisioned Cooks running since his arrival in New England has been the back side slant. Here's how Chris Hogan's pre-snap motion leaves an open space behind the linebacker on the left side of the formation and gives Cooks open space to catch the slant off a play-action fake where Brady is turned to the right (front) side before throwing to the left.
Cooks still has fantasy WR1 upside, but I'd be surprised if Hogan's injury elevates Cooks' production because it doesn't make sense when factoring the philosophy of this offense, the learning curve he still has, and his role.
Skimmer Alert: Safely upgrade Hogan to a flex or WR3; Amendola to a bye-week reserve; and keep Cooks' value steady.
2. Upgrade Russell Wilson
The lower body of a quarterback's release motion is still an area of knowledge where the media remains behind the curve when critiquing players. Carson Wentz earned a ton of criticism about his wind up but little was mentioned about his stance and lower-body movement into his release that opened up too early and forced Wentz to throw off-balance and without peak velocity. Wentz's arm motion may not be perfect, but it meets baseline expectations for accurate and timely throwing. The footwork is where he must get better.
And when a quarterback's legs aren't healthy it can mess with his accuracy, especially a player like Russell Wilson, who runs an offense that's matched with his mobility. The scheme utilizes him not only with zone-read plays but play-action rollouts that exploit Wilson's quickness as a threat that defenses must honor and also his skill to execute athletic setups for accurate throws.
Wilson couldn't do this for most of 2016 and by the time he was feeling healthy, the constant repetition of attempts where he had to compensate for his injuries made it difficult to return to an established pattern of movement that gets ingrained with repetition. Even a top professional will tell you that something never feels quite right when forced away from a habitual process for a time and then trying to return to it.
Now that Wilson has been healthy all summer, we're seeing the things that make him a borderline elite quarterback—even if his offense hasn't leaned on him to produce like one purely as a passer. This pinpoint throw while moving left is a great example of skills that I know I won't see from most top quarterback prospects that I study every year.
The touch, anticipation, distance, and movement are all impressive skills that few quarterback have—even when throwing to their natural side. These rollouts are important for an offense that wants to run the ball, use its quarterback as an outside running threat to set up run plays up the middle, and to cover up some of its weaknesses as a young, inexperienced unit in pass protection.
When Wilson wasn't a threat to make plays like the one above or the one below, defenses made it a point to pressure him.
I know that I'd pressure Wilson like this last year. If he remains as healthy as he is right now, then forget about it because he's a point guard with a sniper rifle. And if the Seahawks' offense can give Wilson time in the pocket, he'll pick teams apart.
If Wilson isn't a top-7 fantasy quarterback in your list, I suggest making the change. He's healthier, Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson Jr are healthier, and this offensive line has improved just enough that the ground game should be better and that will give Wilson more opportunities to win from the pocket.
Skimmer Alert: Upgrade Wilson, Jimmy Graham, and be prepared to get one of the Seahawks' secondary receivers off the waiver wire.
3. Kareem Hunt: It's Not the ball-carrying that should temper your expectations
The hottest fantasy topic of the weekend has been Spencer Ware's injury and Kareem Hunt's rise up draft boards. His ADP has even surpassed Ware's in some circles because of the idea that he'll be the true feature back and healthy Ware was expected to at least split reps with Hunt.
Hunt is a smart ballcarrier. He's patient, quick enough to hit creases with authority, he can make the first defender miss, and he has enough strength to earn yards after contact. Few backs are as powerful as Ware, but Hunt definitely has enough skill with ball in his hands to be a starter and workhorse.
So do a lot of backs, including those training at local high schools waiting for a call about a potential tryout.
The area that will help fantasy owners determine if young or inexperienced NFL running back can lock down the starting job is pass protection. Blocking for a quarterback requires more than size and technique. Understanding angles and blitz types also matter greatly.
Here's Hunt trying to block Kam Chancellor's blitz off the left edge. Hunt doesn't gauge the correct angle with his approach against Chancellor, giving up the incorrect side with his setup and opening the inside for the defender.
Let's look at some veteran NFL running backs who handled similar assignments correctly this weekend. Marshawn Lynch hops into this set up like Hunt, but he does it with the correct intention and depth towards the line.
Lynch hops towards the inside rather than the outside, which forces Orlando Scandrick onto an outside track, which is always the path of greatest resistance to a quarterback. Here's C.J. Anderson doing the same thing against the Packers.
Anderson also approaches with appropriate depth to cut off the inside and force the defender outside. It may not seem like there is much difference between the three examples, but a single step can make a huge difference in a ballgame.
Alfred Morris' mistake against the Raiders on Saturday evening was a different type of assignment, but it highlights how being a step late to react can be the difference between a protected quarterback throwing a complete pass (perhaps even a touchdown) and a pick-six.
The issue wasn't Morris' technique, but his recognition of the linebacker's drop. If he reads this a step faster, he slides across the quarterback's face fast enough to prevent the corner blitz from reaching the passer.
Reading the defense is where I'm most concerned with Hunt's game. He earned early praise for his pass protection during training camp drills and 11-on-11's and made some successful plays during Week 2 of the preseason. However, defenses are often playing simpler looks and hiding what it plans to unveil during the regular season. The dress rehearsal often reveals a small taste and that small taste confused Charcandrick West this weekend (and me too, who at first thought this was Hunt).
While I can't be certain that West got this wrong, there's a strong likelihood that Frank Clark's movement from the right guard to the left should have meant that West handle the blitz because there was an overload to that side. The fact that West executes a small hesitation with his hop to the middle of the formation before running his route tells me that he was accounting for pressure before leaving the backfield but didn't make the connection between Clark's shift and where he should have adjusted.
Even if I'm completely wrong with this assessment of the play, it's still a telling example of the adjustments that running backs must make pre-/post-snap. Even when Alex Smith complimented Hunt's pass protection skills in early August, he made a qualifying statement about it being drills and training camp because Smith knows that coverage and blitz types that occur during the regular season will be far more complex.
I think Hunt is worth a 4th or 5th-round pick. It's high enough that he has strong RB2 upside, but you're accounting for the possibility that his pass protection adjustments aren't sound and the Chiefs have to use West, Anthony Sherman, or a second tight end. The fact that Alex Smith is mobile and can be used on designed rolls (however, we just saw above how Hunt hurt that kind of play) can mitigate some of the potential screwups is somewhat helpful but still not something the Chiefs will tolerate for long if Hunt doesn't acclimate fast.
Best case? Hunt adjusts and he doesn't have to leave the field for anything but a breather. Worst case? Hunt becomes a specialist, the Chiefs offense gets more predictable with personnel, and Hunt doesn't earn enough opportunities to become a consistent fantasy producer.
Skimmer Alert: Hunt's pass protection is unproven and the regular season could present more complex problems than he can handle. If he doesn't adjust fast, he could wind up in a committee. Don't count on him as one of your first RBs during a draft unless you have a couple of mid-round starters in your back pocket that you are certain will compensate for him underwhelming in this area to the point that it hurts his workload.
4. Chris Carson's Preseason
The big back from Oklahoma State has been a popular late-round dart for fantasy owners. As you can see in the Russell Wilson section, he can catch as well as run. However, I wouldn't get too excited. Let's remember that Carson earned playing time because Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise were dealing with minor injuries. At best, he's fourth on the depth chart.
At the same time, the fact that he's fourth on a crowded and talented depth chart that includes Alex Collins and Mike Davis—who could contribute to any team in a needy position for depth—is saying something. What is says is that Carson has picked up the system and produced consistently during practice.
I was also impressed with how Carson played this weekend but probably not for the reasons you'd expect. The catch on the broken play was nothing special and his gains as a ball carrier were through big creases that Eddie Lacy, Rawls, or Prosise would have exploited as well (if not better). It was Carson's comfort level to do what he was supposed to do without mistakes during a dress rehearsal game as a fourth option on the depth chart earning time with the starters that were notable. Being comfortable is a huge part of the equation for a rookie and it means to me that he has a good shot of producing if needed.
Skimmer Alert: I'm not drafting him, but he's definitely earned a spot on my waiver wire speed dial.
5. Don't write off John Brown yet
Brown told the media a couple of weeks ago that he was not returning to practice until he was completely healthy. Bruce Arians told the media that he wasn't sure he could count on Brown any longer. In case you haven't heard much about Arians, he's a hot-tempered guy. I've had bosses like this—some of them even good bosses. You just have to shrug off what they say during the stressful moments and just do you job. Last Saturday, Brown did his job.
When I saw this first touchdown, I tempered it a bit because it was a manufactured big play that you'd see Willie Snead IV earn in New Orleans. But score No. 2 erased the doubts that Brown is ready.
Skimmer Alert: As WR48 with an ADP of the 11th round, how can you not take a chance on him? If Brown were a rookie or an emerging talent who never started a game and performed in the dress rehearsal like this, you'd take him. In fact, he's more proven than DeVante Parker, who is leaving boards at pick 80 as WR34. It's a great value.
6. What to make of Jamaal Charles?
I've been skeptical of Charles returning to form after the Chiefs cut him. The fact that he's done little during Broncos training didn't help. Denver gave Charles as much time as possible "to get right" and the regular season tune-up was Charles' opportunity to prove that he could contribute. After seeing the results, I'm cautiously optimistic.
These two plays demonstrate that Charles still has the timing, coordination, and savvy of a feature back. The burst is still good enough and there's even the possibility that his cutting ability will return. However, that "possibility" is the biggest question mark about this iteration of Charles the fantasy producer.
If that shallow cut on the second player is a sign of him getting healthier and more is on the way, he could wind up the biggest surprise of the fantasy season. If that's the case, then Charles simply needs to get over the psychological hurdle of trusting his knees. I'm not counting on this happening because I believe it's more likely that Charles stumbled due to his leg unable to support that kind of cut as well as he once did. I don't think the issue is psychological as much as it is physiological.
One thing I can say for sure, Charles knew this was his shot and he played with that "salty" demeanor that Cecil Lammey described this summer on one of our Audible episodes.
Charles's fantasy outlook this year reminds me a little of LaDainian Tomlinson's first year with the Jets in 2009. Tomlinson was supposed to be done and he was there as a backup to Shonn Greene. It only took a half against the Ravens in the opener for Tomlinson to earn the starting gig and he performed like a fantasy starter the rest of the way.
I'm not counting on Charles to do the same, but I think there's late-round value to be had with him. Consider him a surprisingly productive bye-week option who might give you stretches of flex play for as long as he stays healthy. Personally, I can't expect him to stay healthy the entire year, but you don't have to at his ADP.
Skimmer Alert: Charles is worth a draft pick at his ADP and could be a mild surprise on a team that should remain in games every week due to its defense. Even if the offense is playing from deficits, Charles' pass protection has been an asset of his game and he could play himself into a role that will disappoint D'Angelo Henderson believers.
7. Terrelle Pryor and the jugs machine
A polarizing fantasy option, make no mistake that Pryor is still learning the position. However, first-year receivers paying with three different sub par quarterback don't earn 1,000 yards in Cleveland if they lack talent or readiness to contribute.
What makes me willing to roll with Pryor this year is his work ethic. Pryor has attacked his new position like the quarterback he was, and that intensity has paid off. Here are two plays of this "second-year" receiver from Sunday. Note the hand position to attack the football is promising but has minor lapses.
These are minor flaws. I've seen many veteran receivers with greater pedigrees than Pryor do the same thing on plays this weekend. Stefon Diggs is probably still dropping passes in practice today if Sunday night was any indication.
What I love is that Pryor is studying his game and others as we speak. The issue above is correctable with daily time working with a jugs machine and a player like Quincy Enunwa, who played the position in college, had a much longer road to travel than Pryor. Look for Pryor to earn a lot of red zone targets this year. I'm all-in.
8. IDP Coronation: Reuben Foster
For hardcore IDP players, this is way late to the party if the intent of my Foster mention is to alert folks to Foster. Let's call the Vikings game a "coronation" of the next great fantasy linebacker in San Francisco. Foster is known as a run-down linebacker, but the two most impressive plays he had all night were demolitions of Laquan Treadwell on a crossing route and this hit of Dalvin Cook on a wide route during the first series of the game.
These are the type of plays in the open field that I promise you Dalvin Cook will win the majority of confrontations this year and in hindsight, Foster's play will look even better than it does now. I'm expecting LB1 numbers out of the gate.
9. IDP Alert: OLB/DE Carl Lawson
My buddy John Owning, the NFL content editor at FanRagSports.com and one of my go-to defensive linemen evaluators in the online draft community, joined me in an RSP Boiler Room on the Auburn edge rusher. Lawson's work against none other than left tackle Trent Williams was as impressive as it gets for a rookie that the Bengals are trying to get onto the field even if the role hasn't been fully defined.
Lawson's work with his hands and arms to turn the corner on a Pro Bowl-caliber lineman is impressive. I liked the effectiveness of the hammer fist to chop down on Williams early in the rep. Here's a second play where Williams had to commit a holding foul to prevent a sack of Kirk Cousins at the end of the half.
Lawson had Williams's number in this game and it won't be the last we see of him. If he earns a role this year, and I think he will, he's a nice waiver wire option for re-draft IDP formats.
10. Fresh Fish
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," here is my short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Chris Johnson: The veteran runner earned his first playing time in the preseason tuneup against Atlanta and in two series had a dropped pass, two fumbles, and one of them lost inside the Atlanta 10-yard line.
This should not be cause for concern. Johnson remains a nice late-round option if David gets hurt. I believe Chris and Arians had an arrangement this spring that Johnson would get the spring and early summer off so the team could give more reps to its young talent and then sign Chris in early August so he could get ready to backup David. If the mistakes continue, we'll see more of Kerwynn Williams. However, I'm not counting on it.
Stefon Diggs: As I mentioned, he dropped multiple passes against the 49ers. Again, not a concern but one of the worst games for a receiver of his caliber this weekend.
Ronald Darby: The Philadelphia cornerback is known for his ability to run with receivers, but cannot track the football. This problem showed up repeatedly against the Dolphins last week.
This is a matchup I would look for on my players' schedules. If you have a vertical threat on your roster facing the Eagles, this could be a positive—especially as we get into the bye-week matchup phase of our season.
The next Top 10 will come out the Monday after the opening weekend of the regular season.