Balancing realities of fantasy with the fantasies of real football media
Because the football season has far fewer games than other popular American sports, analysts commonly emphasize the week-to-week urgency that each NFL organization must feel compared to other professional teams.
While this is true, the difference is still relative. As with any situation in life, the best decision-making involves reacting when necessary, but not overreacting. Because fans and media buy and sell the story lines and revel in the drama, we're prone to overreacting.
Many of Week 1's outcomes require a quick decision without all of the information that we'll eventually see as the season unfolds. This is the reality of fantasy football.
However, there are at least 1-3 teams in your league that will overreact to what happened in the season opener and they will do more harm than good to their rosters. I reached out to a few people I know who do work in the NFL after Thursday night's games. I led off the conversation with a question along these lines:
"Are you ready for Overreaction Friday?"
The first response: "Haha, clearly Brady and New England are finished. Clearly, Alex Smith is the No. 1 QB in football."
Another: "The more I look online, the angrier I get. Time for me to unplug today."
And a third: "People see the results, but don't understand the process."
The mission of this column—and a lot of my work—is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality of football analysis. Football analysis—fantasy and reality—is often dramatized because there's a core belief that it's more important to entertain than to educate.
I don't live by the idea that it's better to be lucky than good. While I want to give you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, I prefer to get the process right. There will be a lot of people talking about how they were right to draft or start specific players. Many of them got the right result but with the wrong process.
Much of Week 2's Top 10 will cover topics that attempt to get the process right (reality) while understanding that fantasy owners may not have time to wait for the necessary data to determine the best course of action (fantasy).
1. Kareem Hunt: Where to go from here
The rookie had a fantastic fantasy output and the most common question I've heard from fantasy owners is "Have you changed your mind about Hunt after tonight?" This question confirms a few things for me about my business and the football audience:
- This is just a game for most of the football-watching audience. Compared to the demands of their careers, families, and education, their retention of information veers to the simplistic.
- Some of that audience is seeking affirmation to trust their eyes.
- While a healthy minority of the audience understands a lot about the process of football, a majority still lean hard on outcome over the process and often don't realize how much they are doing it.
I have not changed my mind about Kareem Hunt the player. If you've read my analysis on Hunt, I've always maintained that the greatest questions about him have nothing to do with his skills when the ball is in his hands.
If solely judging Hunt and other running backs on the basis of carrying the football, he's in the same neighborhood as the top 5-7 backs in this rich rookie class. If evaluating Hunt's other skills that are important to running back play—pass protection and top-notch athletic ability—he came into the league with a few more questions than those top 5-7 prospects.
Those questions weren't answered against the Patriots and it raises another set of questions that could be vital to the outcomes of fantasy seasons.
The fundamental concern is Hunt's development as a pass protector. If you saw Hunt knock down two Cincinnati Bengals with a cut block during the preseason and judged him a good pass protector, congratulations on your simplistic approach to analysis. A cut block is one of the several variations of pass protection and the preferred method for running backs because it's the easiest.
If you wish to learn more about pass protection, this instructional video guide I made with Andy Singleton of Fantrax is a 15-minute look at a variety of pass protection reps and what's involved to execute them properly.
Hunt had one rep as a pass protector on Thursday night. One. And the rep he had was a similar situation that he faced against Kam Chancellor during the preseason dress rehearsal. Hunt's technique was only slightly better than that previously failed assignment.
Hunt set up faster and without an exaggerated hop during the Seattle game that gave Chancellor time to work inside. However, Hunt's setup wasn't close enough to the line of scrimmage and still gave up the inside to No. 25. The Patriot didn't take advantage of the gaffe.
A reader debated with me about the left guard on this play, noting that No. 25 would have had to work into the guard if he went inside. However, the guard only peels after he confirms the inside rush is picked up. If the Patriots defensive back reads this as fast as Chancellor, Smith would be chased to the sideline much like he was in the Seahawks game.
It is notable that the guard peels late in the play. Combine this with the fact that the Chiefs only gave Hunt a single pass pro rep in this game, and it underscores the fact that Hunt's acclimation as an NFL pass protector remains unproven.
This didn't matter Thursday because the Chiefs did a masterful job of keeping the Patriots off balance with runs designed for Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. The Chiefs effectively spread the field and earned respectable gains from its receiver and tight end on plays between and outside the tackles.
These plays set up the knockout blow with Hunt as a seam stretcher disguised as a lead blocker for a fake jet sweep to Hill.
Take note that the player Hunt beat, defensive end Cassius Marsh, is a total mismatch in favor of every NFL running back in the league. This is not a display of speed. Neither is this run to left end from a heavy KC alignment with multiple tight ends on the left side.
The fantastic aspect of this run is the blocking that seals the edge. If you think the backside linebacker was supposed to catch Hunt on this play, then your expectations are unrealistic. This run underscores that Hunt is a good enough athlete to threaten the secondary and earn big plays as defined by runs of at least 8-12 yards. He's not a classic breakaway threat.
He doesn't need to be—especially if the Chiefs offense blocks as well as it did Thursday night. The larger question season-long is how likely are the Chiefs to continue spreading the field and limiting Hunt's exposure to pass protection reps while keeping him on the field? Was this a singular game plan? If not, can other defenses limit the Chiefs' game plan or force an adjustment that requires Hunt to block more often? Will Hunt have to face more stacked boxes sooner than later?
These are questions we don't have answers to right now. It means that crowning Hunt an RB1 is premature, but we also have to make decisions with incomplete information.
I don't think Hunt is a superstar back. Giving him top-5 fantasy RB value moving forward is a bet on the Chiefs scheme and surrounding talent creating massive opportunities for the runner while disguising his learning curve. I wouldn't bet that steeply, but there's an overreaction of the fantasy market based on Hunt's results as opposed to the process.
I wouldn't buy Hunt. If you have him on your roster, an RB2 expectation is probably the most sensible. While there was a coverage bust for a touchdown to Hill and the knockout blow to Hunt shown above, the Patriots repeatedly forced Smith to hesitate on deep reads. New England also erred towards giving the Chiefs offense the run advantage while focusing on Kelce and Hill.
Teams like the Broncos and Chargers will have more success covering Hill one-on-one and that can mean more attention goes towards stopping Hunt. Unless you can sell Hunt for David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, or a consensus top-5 receiver and Hunt was taken as your RB2-RB3, I'd hold onto him as an RB2 who will give you RB1 weeks.
2. Tarik Cohen: The RSP's No.1 Pre-Draft Scheme-based Prospect
If you read my eight bold predictions in last week's Gut Check column, you noticed that I predicted Cohen would be a top-25 PPR running back this year, despite the presence of Jordan Howard. This wasn't something I pulled from my back pocket to fill an early September column. In the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio pre-draft publication, I listed Cohen as the No. 1 scheme-based fit.
It means that if Cohen landed in a situation where the team would get him into space and use him wisely from the backfield, he could deliver significant production for the organization and become a top flex option for fantasy owners. The paucity of wide receiver talent in Chicago combined with inexperienced quarterbacking made Cohen an option to monitor throughout camp.
When the Bears used Cohen sparingly and made the telling statement that Cohen "is short, not small," it was a good indication that Chicago planned to use him heavily. This was the case in the opener against Atlanta and Cohen did not disappoint.
Cohen's sudden quickness was on display from the first toss play where he cut inside penetration at the edge of the backfield and accelerated up the flat for a first down.
At 179 pounds, Cohen is a sturdy player. There will be inevitable comparisons to Darren Sproles because he's a strong, well-balanced option. However, he's not in Sproles' league as a runner after contact. Pound-for-pound, no one is. Yet, Cohen took some shots in this game while demonstrating his versatility as a runner, slot, receiver, perimeter option, and return specialist.
Cohen is an unknown to the league and that fact gives a good player an advantage against an unfamiliar opponent that hasn't studied any film on him. This factor tripped up the Falcons defense because it didn't know that tacklers cannot bring Cohen to the ground with high wraps and hits.
Cohen's first-half play caught the attention of Atlanta and they tried to do little things to stop him, but Cohen wore them out. This 3rd-and-4 pass reception doesn't convert to a 1st down, but Vic Beasley Jr realizes he needs to slow down this rookie scatback and the effort results in a penalty that gives Chicago the conversion.
Cohen was so difficult to contain that by drive's end, the Bears use the Wildcat in the red zone. The defense is so focused on Cohen that Jordan Howard earns an easy score around right end.
Expect to see a lot more of the Wildcat with Cohen and Howard this year. Expect to see a lot more of Cohen in this offense. This was not a fluke output. Cohen's versatility with short routes split from the formation and longer routes from the backfield make him a viable flex option right now.
He won't have games this strong every week, but he might be one of the three best receivers on the team in terms of catching the football.
He was inches away from catching a deep route in the end zone against tight coverage that could have been the difference in this game. While not a league-winning waiver wire addition, he is a significant addition who can upgrade your RB corps in leagues that start at three runners. Value him as an RB3. It's a little aggressive, but the likely game scripts and a lack of offensive talent make Cohen a valuable commodity.
3. What to make of Cam Newton?
On Sunday's Audible pre-game podcast I noted that if Cam Newton doesn't throw multiple touchdowns or earn at least 250 yards passing against the 49ers, then it merits concern. Newton delivered 171 yards and 2 scores. The short answer: don't be too concerned about him.
After studying his tape, I believe his performance was a product of rust. He saw so little game action during the preseason that it makes what I saw on Sunday is explainable. At first, I wasn't sure. After Newton airmailed a target over the head of Greg Olsen, I noticed him favoring his shoulder as if he was still physically uncomfortable.
As the game progressed, the broadcast crew cleared up this potential intrigue when it explained that Newton has been given a set of stretching exercises throughout his rehab and he has been diligent about performing them—even to the point of doing so between plays. I don't have it on tape, but there's a point during the game where Newton is on the ground and stretches his arm and shoulder from a position where he appears laboring in pain. According to the broadcast crew, this was the exact stretch they saw him do in practice and it was one of the stretches the coaching staff also noted.
While I'm still a little skeptical about the explanation, Newton's arm strength was good enough that I am betting that his mechanics and timing from the pocket in game situations is rusty. This slightly underthrown pass covers 50 yards from the pitch. A pre-injured Newton is capable of delivering this ball with less arc and greater distances for Kelvin Benjamin to run underneath the ball.
Even so, I'm nitpicking Newton's accuracy. This is as close to being pinpoint without being pinpoint as one can get and Tartt makes an incredible play on the football.
While there were even worse examples of Newton overshooting the ball during the first half and he was generally throwing the ball too high on completed passes to receivers during the second half, his accuracy and timing improved enough as the game progressed that I'm not concerned about his health. The greatest concern is the offensive scheme.
Christian McCaffrey owners had to be pleased with the concerted effort Carolina made to get the ball in the rookie's hands even if the output wasn't as productive as hoped. Part of that problem was McCaffrey and Newton getting on the same page with specific routes against zone coverage. McCaffrey misread a zone coverage and didn't settle in the correct spot, which led to a miscommunicated target.
McCaffrey also fumbled a touch in the second half. While he only fumbled once during his Stanford career, mistakes like these tend to happen when a player is acclimating to the speed and skill of the game. In the Pac-10, there were probably 3-4 players on the field who might have awareness and coordination to find and punch the ball out. In the NFL, there are probably 3-4 players on the field who lack these skills.
Another issue was the way that Carolina used McCaffrey. The coaches used McCaffrey as an offset fullback on multiple plays, trying to run quick-hitting plays that involved pulling linemen and tight ends who could not reach the designed points to open creases and McCaffrey was forced to create in unfavorable situations.
The more Carolina uses McCaffrey as a runner and receiver and the less they use him as a gadget, the better he'll play. Gadgetry is fine in doses, but they overdid it early on. Expect Newton, McCaffrey, and Greg Olsen to gel by October.
What they really need is a receiver who isn't as one-dimensional as Kelvin Benjamin.
4. Tom Brady isn't in decline
I've seen commentary (publicly and privately) among football writers that Tom Brady looks old. It's a reactionary assessment based on the Chiefs defense matching up well against the Patriots offense.
Regardless of what the stats say, there are two areas where Brady hasn't been strong for a while: the deep ball and accurate throws when moved off his spot in the pocket and not given time to reset his feet. One of the reasons that the Patriots offense incorporates so many slot options (running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends all see time there in this offense) who read pre- and post-snap adjustments quickly and earn yards after the catch is that it complements what Brady does best: quick reads and adjustments and getting rid of the ball fast.
I wrote about the Patriots using motion to determine Brady's first progression point and the defensive coverage during the preseason dress rehearsal against Detroit. One of the ways to stop this from happening is quick pressure, which is difficult to do.
Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston is one of those players who can.
These aren't sacks that we'll likely see against Brady every week. Justin Houston is simply that good. In fact, Houston earns my vote as player of the game. He was an integral part of two fourth-down stops that would have continued likely scoring drives for the Patriots offense.
5. Brandin Cooks isn't Randy Moss
This point leads to Cooks' usage in the passing game. The Patriots will go deep to Cooks and Brady will deliver accurate enough passes that Cooks will make receptions or draw defensive penalties. However, the threat of Cooks is as valuable as his actual production.
Most NFL defenses use single-high safety coverage on a regular basis, also known as Cover-1 (or C-1). The Patriots coveted Cooks because his speed forces safeties to cheat to his side or at least remain in the middle of the field long enough so New England's other receivers can earn open spaces underneath for big plays.
Remember, big plays in the NFL passing game are defined as passes of at least 16 yards. Brady is good at hitting intermediate crossing routes and dig routes breaking at 15-25 yards.
Cooks has always been at his best as a deep receiver when the ball is thrown over his head and his back is to the quarterback. Give him a target that he can catch in stride and he wins.
As you can see, the safety was late to get over the top to help the cornerback and it's what happens when the middle safety has to spend the entire game accounting for Cooks and he's giving up big plays to other threats. Eventually, he'll guess wrong and Cooks will earn a step or two on that safety's angle for a big play.
Cooks is also good at making catches after contact when targeted on these plays. However, he's not nearly as competent against tight man coverage when breaking back to the quarterback or forced to post up and win the ball in the air on deeper routes.
Randy Moss, Brandon Lloyd, and Chad Johnson won these plays during their careers. Moss was the only one of the three who made the quick adjustment to the Patriots offense. Moss also could win deep targets that weren't pinpoint. Cooks won't be as good at it and it likely means that Brady's vertical accuracy won't be as strong this year.
Cooks' acclimation will likely remain a gradual journey. Expecting him to earn top-10 fantasy production at his position is a stretch this year. Cooks and Brady will connect in the vertical game for big plays, but it won't be as frequent as some expected. Brady is not washed up; Justin Houston is a game wrecker and the Chiefs defense exposed the Patriots offense with timely plays against the run and pressure late in the game.
Don't overreact to Brady's performance and temper your expectations of Cooks as a strong WR2, at best.
6. What to make of Jared Goff's performance
There will be a lot of analyst bias about Goff's 21-of-29, 306-yard, 1-touchdown performance against the Colts. Many have already written off Goff as a bust because he didn't win a game last year and the collective freak out that the rookie didn't have an early grasp of the West Coast Offense last summer.
Some projected worse behaviors on Goff's play because it provided an emotional narrative to the unfavorable stats that he generated. Others analyzed his take without accounting for the context of his learning curve, the unprofessional behavior of receivers that the Rams jettisoned, and a bygone coaching staff with a rudimentary offense.
Quarterback analysis is difficult enough without considering the context of surrounding talent, scheme, and development curve. Still, it's important to consider Goff anew as the 2017 season begins.
This is a reset year for Goff. The Colts are an injury-riddled team with a bad offensive line and subpar cornerbacks but don't fall for the hyperbolic analysis that [name your favorite powerhouse college program] could compete with them. Don't succumb to the party line that if Andrew Luck were playing, Goff wouldn't have performed well.
Unless Luck becomes a dual-threat defensive back/quarterback like Sammy Baugh, the only impact from Luck's presence might have been more pressure from the Colts' defense against Goff if the Colts ever held a lead. Considering how much pressure the Rams got on Scott Tolzien, Luck might have made the game closer with his skill on broken plays but he wouldn't have counteracted L.A.'s defense.
Looking at Goff as if this were his rookie season, there are significant things to like. He has always been a mechanically-sound passer with quick, precise footwork to execute a variety of drops. Now that he's doing work from center, his playfakes are also improving.
Goff has also exhibited strong touch throughout his football career. This play-action pass with fakes to the runner and the receiver on the end around requires him to sell the fakes two ways, set fast with the pocket getting pushed towards him, and fire the ball to the open man.
Many veteran quarterbacks overshoot this target because they place too much velocity on the throw and not enough air under the ball. This is a soft throw after a quick series of choreographed moves to sell the fake and set up his release.
Goff exhibits the same skill under pressure with deeper targets.
He looks off the safety, sets fast under pressure, and delivers the ball over the top of rookie Gerald Everett despite defensive tackle Al Woods bearing down. In contrast, Scott Tolzien could not follow-through with his release in similar situations. Tolzien blinked when staring down the barrel and didn't step through, resulting in poor throws.
Carson Wentz does a fine job with avoiding pressure but his feet are stuck in static positions that hurt his accuracy on throws that require precision and he's still struggling with specific drops where he should move his feet after the initial set up. Goff's movement is fluid and his intermediate accuracy is often superior to Wentz.
Goff also displayed correct pass placement against zone coverage that younger passers aren't as apt to do.
What this game didn't reveal was Goff's ability to remain under control against consistent pressure from an above-average NFL defense. It won't be long before we do. Until then, fantasy owners can conclude that Goff has the weaponry to deliver the ball anywhere on the field with greater reliability than last year.
The addition of center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth are significant upgrades to the Rams offensive line and it showed in all phases of the offense's execution. Todd Gurley's rushing box score totals may not reflect it, but he made numerous plays as a runner, breaking multiple tackles because he earned creases where he could generate his explosive power.
Cooper Kupp's performance from the slot relegates Tavon Austin to an occasional gadget option that Jeff Fisher's regime overplayed to the detriment of the offense. Kupp won the ball in the air, got on top of off-coverage safeties, and flashed his skill after the catch.
He's a priority waiver wire addition this week in PPR leagues with 20-man rosters.
Goff isn't a safe addition to rosters but if you've written him off from any waiver consideration, I recommend you hit the reset button.
7. Beast Mode is Back
The Raiders are being careful with Marshawn Lynch's usage after 18 months away from the game. Lynch earned touches during the first quarter, spent the entire second quarter on the sideline, and earned time on selected offensive series during the second half. Despite the caution, Lynch is in shape and playing like he never hurt his back and retired.
When it comes to anticipating defensive penetration, awareness of the field, and balance after contact, this short-yardage play is vintage Lynch.
Despite the layoff, his timing and patience are pretty strong. This 14-yard gain is a good display of pressing the block, cutting back, then making a second move in the hole.
Lynch's trademark aggression and leverage came into play on this fourth-quarter truck of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.
Lynch's receiving skills and open field prowess also distracts opposing defenses. Oakland did a fine job of splitting Lynch outside after a significant run and distracting the coverage with the running back's presence while slipping another player past them for big plays.
Lynch may not be a 20-touch fantasy player until late October (although I doubt it will take that long based on what I've seen), but he'll be a high-impact option worth of your lineups as no less than an RB3 until then.
8. Carlos Hyde + Kyle Juszczyk = Fantasy upside
If I were to guess which bold prediction is least likely to come to fruition (not counting a Calvin Johnson return), it's fullback Kyle Juszczyk delivering viable PPR fantasy production. The 49ers used him on on fullback screens and outlet passes this weekend, but his greatest impact was in the I-formation as the lead blocker for Carlos Hyde.
The 49ers run game was unstoppable from the I-formation and I hope they find ways to use it more often. If they do, Hyde could deliver on that RB1 fantasy promise. Even without a fullback, Hyde's footwork and burst are notable. Once he gets downhill, he's a load.
Carolina's defense looked good this weekend and 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer and receiver Marquise Goodwin were a few minor disconnects away from this being a much closer contest. When the 49ers draw easier run defenses in October, get Hyde into your lineups. If this offense can build confidence and rapport, its schedule from Thanksgiving forward (Bears, Texans, Titans, and Jaguars) could be worth a difficult November (Cardinals, Giants, Seahawks).
I'll continue monitoring Hyde and if his production is inconsistent this month due to the 49ers surrounding talent, his best trade window will likely be mid-October. Stay tuned.
9. The receivers to own in Detroit
My buddy Bloom posed the question to me on Sunday as if it was a foregone conclusion that Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel would draw Marvin Jones Jr and Patrick Peterson would take Golden Tate. I turned out Peterson followed Jones everywhere, Tate earned the most volume based on his slot matchups, and rookie Kenny Golladay drew the enviable Bethel matchup.
Tate will be the safest receiver to own in Detroit, but does that mean the others aren't worthwhile? Based on what I saw of Marvin Jones Jr on Sunday, I'm not discouraged by him.
Jones only earned two targets, which often happens with all but 5-6 of the league's primary options when they face Peterson. The first was a touchdown against Peterson man-to-man where he worked free of Peterson for Stafford. On the second target for 33 yards, Peterson was playing shallow zone and Stafford recognized the coverage as an easier target.
I expect Jones to have bigger days, especially after September when the schedule gets much easier. The real question is Golladay. Was his two-touchdown performance a one-week fluke? If you're expecting similar production for 50-60 percent of his season, yes.
Golladay is still making mental mistakes, especially on targets in the middle of the field.
He's also a one-note wonder when he's releasing from the line of scrimmage. He has one move and better cornerbacks won't be holding an "open 24/7" sign that Bethel flashed at him on Sunday.
Even so, Golladay showed power, skill to stack the defender once he earned separation, and strong hand-eye coordination.
If he struggles moving forward, the reasons will be his lack of rapport and understanding of zone routes in the middle of the field and his inconsistent hand position when addressing the football.
He may have the size and athletic ability of a big-play option, but his method of addressing the football could make him an inconsistent disappointment against better corners.
I believe in Matthew Stafford's upside this year, so Golladay has shown me enough that I see him as a boom-bust flex-play with WR1 highs and free agent lows. Jones is a WR2 with elite WR1 highs and flex-play lows. Tate is an every-week WR2.
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.
Amari Cooper: The Raider dropped three consecutive red zone passes—a slant, a fade, and a cross—during the first quarter, leading to a field goal. Although he scored on an earlier red zone pass and his second effort was admirable, Cooper would not have earned that touchdown if not for the convenient push of his teammates. He's still in a career slump as a red zone scorer.
Seattle's offensive line: The Seahawks couldn't protect Russell Wilson and they generally did a poor job of dictating the point of attack as a run-blocking unit.
Seattle's offensive skill players could be one of the most frustrating for fantasy owners because they have the talent, but not the supporting cast.
Dez Bryant: It's probably fairer to classify Janoris Jenkins' shut-down of Bryant as an excellent performance (despite some valid points that Bryant may have with specific targets). Even so, Bryant's mouth was the most active part of his body on Sunday. All that talk and no action made him look like a grouper pumping water through its gills.
Scott Tolzien: The veteran reserve had an entire offseason of work with the first team and the Colts traded for Jacoby Brissett before the opener. When your own team is chanting "fresh fish" it has to be a blow to Tolzien's confidence. He didn't prove them wrong against the Rams, either.
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