Note to readers: This post, although it may not appear that way in the first section, also has dynasty implications. Promise. Look for "DYNASTY FOLKS" in bold as the flare shot from the designated meeting point...
Early season trades are dangerous (Hindsight: "Matt, I am your mother").
Many of you are diving into early-season negotiations to "fix" what ails your roster after two weeks. It may work. However, it's an act of urgency that often crosses the line to impulsivity and impatience. Yours truly learned many years ago — back when Raiders rookie runner Chris Warren III III was literally still in diapers — that if you don't know who the sucker at the trade table is during the first month of the season, it's best not to sit down.
If you're interested in this origin story of how the Gut Check is a son of — sorry, Joe — read on (if not, you can skip this silly sob story):
Yours truly was desperate for a big-time running back after two weeks of starters under-performing. A friend and competitor had Warren III's daddy, a 6'2", 228 lb. monster of a runner who earned 4,980 rushing yards from 1992-95 before succumbing to an 855-yard season in 1996 due to injuries that cost him two and a half games.
Yours truly, 0-2, worried about his team's performance, and hoping for a rebound year from Pops Warren, offered a package deal for the Seahawk. One of those players in the package was a rookie running back from the University of Washington that the Gut Check coveted in his early years of studying college talent as a hobby: Corey Dillon.
A ferocious after-contact runner with game-breaking speed, the only action Dillon saw during the first two weeks of 1997 was kick returns. So yours truly gave Dillon away in the deal and made Warren the centerpiece of his backfield.
It almost worked out but not because of Warren. The Seahawks runner split time in the Seattle backfield and only earned a total of 26 carries during the next 3 weeks and only 26 more for the next 2, scoring twice in that 5-week span. Yours truly had a squad under .500 with mediocre running back production until about Week 6 when his other rookie find — Carolina UDFA Fred Lane — came to life in Week 6 and later went on a tear from Weeks 13-15.
When the Gut Check's squad limped into the playoffs, Lane helped him upset the best team in the league and reach the league semifinals. All the Gut Check needed to advance to the league championship was for Lane, who faced the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, to earn 120 yards and a touchdown.
Lane earned those 120 yards and late in the game earned five straight shots at the end zone. On his first red-zone carry, pushed the Panthers from the Cowboys' 10 to the 1 and then failed to cash in on four straight carries from the 1.
Lane finished the Week 14 game and yours truly's season with 34 touches for 138 yards.
Meanwhile, Dillon became the Bengals' starter in Week 9 and earned 933 of his 1,129 yards during that final stretch. Yours truly earned 70 yards and a touchdown from Warren in Week 14; Dillon earned 246 yards and 4 touchdowns for the squad that eventually won our fantasy championship.
In hindsight, a team with Dillon and Lane would have won this league. Trading for an aging running back coming off a disappointing campaign and playing in a new offense wasn't a good idea, either. Losing patience was the root of the problem.
In Week 14 of 1997, yours truly learned that hindsight was his momma.
It's best to wait at least until Weeks 5-7 to negotiate fantasy trades — preferably Weeks 6-8 because you see how opponents are trying to stop hot performers and how well it's working — but many lack the patience or the confidence to wait even 4-6 weeks with a struggling team before making that big move.
Instead of trying to fix everything with a major trade, begin with incremental work with the waiver wire, shore up minor weaknesses and identify players who have the talent and potential situation to be worth your time now and later. Running back is a good position where this idea comes into play because there is a talent glut at the position in the NFL.
Most fantasy leagues have created rules where you only need moderately successful running back performances to build a serious contender. If you're struggling at running back and you're fielding deals that want you to give up your top receivers for a package of diluted talent in return, it's better to stick with your strengths and identify runners who could be available for a lesser price at the bottom of your competition's roster or on the waiver wire.
This week, the Gut Check has some backfields that you should be targeting in a variety of ways now and later — this includes DYNASTY FOLKS (worked like a charm, didn't it?) who have tired of the offers that scream, "I'll trade you a high-performing backup, a troubled drug addict, a raw athlete, and two picks for your two young, consistent, an high-performing professionals."
Atlanta Now (Tevin Coleman) and later (ito Smith)
We'll see what Jene Bramel has to say in his Mid-Week Second Opinion piece but as of Monday, he believes Devonta Freeman will miss closer to four weeks than just the one against Carolina on Sunday. Bone bruises are no joke.
The wise bet, for now, is Tevin Coleman. After covering the Falcons for Footballguys on a weekly basis for several years, there's ample evidence that Coleman has developed into a good starter. He had starter talent when he arrived in Atlanta but despite running an outside zone scheme at Indiana, Coleman lacked the craft needed to run the scheme and earn consistent, carry-to-carry production.
He's gained that understanding over the years and while the Falcons chose Freeman over Coleman because he's the more versatile player with the superior change of direction and short-yardage skill, Coleman will perform at a high level for the right scheme when he leaves Atlanta in 2019.
Here's a run Coleman made on Sunday that wouldn't have made as recently as 2-3 years ago.
This run required patience and footwork that he did not possess. He also added a sweet little shoulder dip to the bounce inside the defensive back at the edge. In the past, Coleman either doesn't bounce out and back in as precisely as this run or he plows directly into the middle of the line and can't extricate himself for the bounce.
Buy Coleman's services in dynasty and don't be surprised if he's the 49ers running back next year. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida are stopgap options. Re-draft players, count on another split this year between Coleman and eventually Freeman but it's a worthwhile risk to bet on Coleman leading this backfield in touches for the rest of the year, earning borderline fantasy RB1 production and Freeman earning that RB2-flex production Coleman has tallied in the past.
When Coleman leaves next year or gets hurt next, Ito Smith is worth a cheap addition. He's a runner in the mold of Freeman — a scatback who might have a big enough frame to grow into a feature back.
Smith's greatest flaw is ball security — and he fumbled in the red zone during the fourth quarter of this game. However, he's a creative runner with the stop-start acceleration, agility, and change-of-direction speed that turns unsuccessful blocking into positive plays.
The Falcons drafted Brian Hill last year and he's worth noting because Atlanta added him to its roster last week. Hill is a powerful runner with good footwork but he didn't start strong last year and got cut. Smith will get the first shot to back up Coleman and a dinged Freeman. If he doesn't fumble away the opportunity, there's more growth potential in Smith's game right now based on his status on the depth chart.
Consider adding Smith in re-draft and dynasty leagues because he could provide cheap RB2-flex production as the Falcons' complementary back for the next few weeks. This will give you a hedge so you're not trading impulsively at this time of the year.
Denver now (Phillip Lindsay) and later (Royce Freeman)
Lindsay is the biggest shocker of Fantasy September. Here's his report from the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
Lindsay has good long speed and runs with intensity for his size. He’ll alter his stride to patiently set up gap plays like counter as well as inside and outside zone. With his speed, he’s well-suited for the counters and wind-back plays Colorado used.
He’ll hit the hole with a decisive burst or set it up and jump cut to the open crease. He understands angles and is able to spot when the defensive leverage is ripe for him to bounce a run outside. However, Lindsay often needs multiple steps to cut downhill on perimeter runs, and he doesn’t win there as much as one might expect for a back of his speed.
When he does win, he’s fast enough to force defensive backs playing outside contain to re-calibrate their angles and give chase. Despite forcing safeties to change their angle of attack, these defensive backs often recover and catch him if he doesn’t have the runway to fully build up his speed.
Lindsay often resorts to pace alteration to set up defenders in pursuit and then run by them. It’s a good ploy but telling that his acceleration is good but not as good as his long speed.
At his weight, power will never be his game. He lacks the strength to truly push a pile without help. He can slide off indirect contact by defensive ends to his upper body and lean through it for another yard but that’s about it. He can earn a little more against linebackers and defensive backs when he’s earned downhill momentum into the collision. When wrapped, Lindsay finishes with good body lean.
He’ll mitigate penetration with his quickness, identifying the angle to reach open space or the soft-spot of a crease to push. Despite his long speed, he’s not sudden.
Defensive linemen and linebackers often catch Lindsay from behind in pursuit before he reaches a crease. Expecting a back of his size to become a competent NFL blocker is a stretch. However, Lindsay does a good job of squaring his target and delivering an uppercut punch. He has a tendency to leave his feet while delivering his punch and damages his ability to maintain leverage while moving with the defender during the second strike/follow-up phase of a block. At the same time, leverage is only so effective when there’s a massive size disadvantage.
When setting up blocks at the edge, Lindsay will get square and hip-to-hip with a teammate, minimizing the effectiveness of his opponent’s inside or outside move when double-teaming with his teammate.
He times his cut blocking well and will work across the legs of and linebacker to drop him at the point of contact. However, Lindsay has moments of indecision between cutting and using a stand-up technique, which leads to failed assignments.
His receiving game is promising and the linchpin of his NFL potential. Lindsay runs an effective double-move in the middle of the field to fake out linebackers on routes in the flats or up the seams. He’s targeted on vertical routes up the sideline and adjusts well to them.
Yours truly didn't expect much from Lindsay, giving him a grade that was on the cusp of a low-end contributor in offensive sub-packages and potentially a healthy role on special teams in the return game. Lindsay has obviously made the most of opportunities.
After two games, the tape reveals that if you got him at a value, Lindsay is definitely a worth riding as long as the ride lasts. Lindsay has shown patience, the skill to read penetration and cut away from it, and good second effort within the expected limitations of his size. He runs with good balance.
His speed makes him a big-play threat when fed the ball in space, or the Broncos can set up a "space play" up the middle with a delay, like this 53-yard gain below.
The common factor with all of these plays is that Lindsay is earning excellent creases. As a non-power runner, that's a helpful component to successful play-making. So is the fact that opponents will pay more attention to Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton, and Jake Butt than a check-down, seam, or wheel route to Lindsay in September.
As the season progresses, expect Lindsay to earn a higher priority in opponents' game plans after he spends the rest of this month feasting on opportunities as a receiver. Until that time, Lindsay is definitely a play-him-if-you-got-him fantasy option.
However, the Broncos backfield is a committee and the Royce Freeman will have weeks where he is the runner of choice. While Lindsay is flirting with top-10 fantasy production, Freeman's No.32 ranking at the position is deceptive. A touchdown is all that separates him from the 19th spot on this list and he's 25th at the position in rushing attempts. Denver is feeding Freeman, using him in the red zone and as it gains more confidence in his pass protection, he'll earn targets as the season progresses.
Although Lindsay's big-play ability has made him the flashy and productive play in the short-term, Freeman has not disappointed with the ball in his hands.
Freeman is a patient runner who understands how to set up creases and has the finishing power to work through contact for bigger gains. In terms of style, he's a faster Jordan Howard. The Broncos also have no problem feeding him on run plays that also go to Lindsay. He's a run that's the difference between him being the 32nd and 30th runner in fantasy leagues, thanks to a holding penalty on Thomas.
Freeman is may not earn that top-15 value for those drafters hoping to land a mid-round stud in August but he'll provide worthy flex play with top-15 upside against teams with lighter and less proven linebackers. The Jets, Rams, and Cardinals linebackers are a good draw for Freeman's style between weeks 5-7 and if you've tweaked your squad in re-draft leagues as much as you can without making a big move, showcasing Freeman during this stretch and selling him while he's hot in exchange for a more consistent high-performer may be the ticket.
Dynasty players will want to hold onto Freeman and ride out the Lindsay buzz. Although Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis were 190-pound backs when they entered the league, it doesn't appear that Lindsay has the frame to support 210-220 pounds. This is shaping up to become a productive committee with Devontae Booker's sidecar likely to turn back into a pumpkin sooner than later.
Now and later: Sony Michel
Now is the time to buy into Michel's services for the year or perhaps, prey on a frustrated dynasty newbie who wonders why he ever decided to pick a player in a New England backfield. Michel's performance against the Jaguars won't get box score jockeys excited and that's a good thing for anyone hoping to buy low.
The caveat: BUY LOW. If you can't buy low, don't let the team with Michel sucker you into a package deal. Just move on. Don't at me with "what do you think of this trade where I'm offered Michel, an AMC Gremlin, a half a Pacer, a Ford F150 in need of a transmission, and two magic beans for your established studs?'
New England drafted Michel to be the future answer of its backfield. Not, an answer but the answer. Watching him perform against Jacksonville, the film reveals what the box score didn't: Michel is an all-purpose back who will eventually reveal that he has greater upside at each phase of running back play than his peers on the depth chart.
Michel was the best pass protector in this rich class of rookie backs and he flashed this on Sunday with an excellent cut block of Calais Campbell.
The most impressive part of this play is how decisive he was with the transition between setting his feet to square Campbell and attacking with the cut. It was seamless. So many backs hesitate at this transition point and wind up with a late execution of whichever choice they made. In this case, Michel's choice of the cut — this close to Brady — was the correct decision or else he risked getting bulled into the quarterback.
Michel's work to protect Brady will earn him more playing time, especially when this was his first time in pads since early August and against the best defense in the NFL. His rushing production shouldn't be overly scrutinized. New England ceded an early lead, Michel was likely on a snap count, and the game script wasn't friendly to the New England offense.
There were a couple of bright spots for Michel as a runner.
This ain’t the world’s biggest cocktail party but Michel runs thru the safety like it is. pic.twitter.com/Jeh4cfSqSh— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 17, 2018
Although the safety gave away his power by dropping to one knee in an attempt to get lower than Michel, this is a good example of an efficient run with a strong finish from a back who often earned the Mr. Outside role at Georgia thanks to Nick Chubb's work as Mr. Inside. While Chubb is a better inside runner than Michel (if you don't agree with this perspective, consider the perspective of a lineman who played with them at Georgia who privately answered this question to a reporter that yours truly knows), Michel has the skills and potential of an every-down NFL back.
With Josh Gordon coming to New England, expect more room for Patriots backs to roam. As long as Michel stays healthy and holds onto the ball, expect his volume to rise steadily throughout the fall. If you can buy low, he's both a "now" and a "later."