Welcome to Footballguys' Weekly Top 10. Since Week 4, the Top 10 has been free to Footballguys Insiders. All you have to do is register with your email and you'll receive access to this in-depth film breakdown (with a fantasy bent) of the weekend's games.
Among this week's topics, we'll evaluate the progress of Marcus Mariota and Baker Mayfield's development, examine the Colts' three-tight end attack, look into Robert Woods' rushing prowess, and of course, we'll finish with some fresh fish.
1. Marcus Mariota CAreer-Check
Tennessee’s upset of New England registered far and wide among non-Patriots fans, including a message from a friend of mine who wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, the Tennessee Titans are the greatest team in the history of the National Football League. That was glorious.”
While not a Belichick or Brady hater, only the most insulated Patriots fan would not understand the league-wide sentiment from fans. It’s why Titans’ Head Coach Mike Vrabel’s on-the-job trolling of former boss Bill Belichick with the game salted away had so much appeal.
As with Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota’s development has been anything but a linear trajectory upward. However, many have noted that Mariota might be emerging into the player the league expected after a hot rookie start (link to Mark’s article).
One concern with Mariota this summer that is showing signs of improvement is his footwork. Mariota spent the offseason working on his drops and stance so he could keep his feet wide enough to deliver more accurate and powerful targets but yours truly wondered if the lessons would remain ingrained during game action – especially when there were rough moments during the preseason and earlier this year that indicated otherwise.
This week, Mariota showed some positive signs with maintaining that stance in a tight pocket and when a route didn’t break on-time.
He also displayed pinpoint accuracy in situations where he hasn’t always been consistent.
The big question is whether he’ll become a superstar player. Titans fans will push that narrative as far as it can go without breaking.
For Mariota to reach the throne room of elite quarterback play he’ll have to become a better game manager from the pocket. Regardless of how many actual sacks he’s taken this year, the context of the field reveals that he still takes too many.
Mariota’s athletic ability is something that every level of football coach has leaned on to the point that Mariota’s legs became a part of the game plan. However, he’s a straight-line runner at his best using his legs for designed plays or slipping through wide holes in the pocket. He is not a creator along the lines of Russell Wilson.
This presents problems for Mariota because he’s been counted on to be Wilson-like when he must learn to become more Brady-like.
The fine line with Mariota’s game that will propel him even higher if he can improve a specific type of pressure management. Small thing, but will make a difference. #Titans pic.twitter.com/9a7UnPN4xC— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
In contrast to earlier tweet about Mariota pocket management, here’s Brady. I also broach Mahomes here. pic.twitter.com/O2dkwskAUa— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
This lesson is not mandatory learning for Mariota to develop into a long-term productive starter. However, it reduces his chances of achieving consistent statistical greatness as a fantasy producer year after year. Overall, Mariota’s recent play is promising and that’s great to see.
2. Going Multiple: Indy Ups the Ante of the Gronkowski-Hernandez Era
The fantasy headline from Indianapolis is that Eric Ebron earned three touchdowns against the Jaguars defense this weekend. The real story is head coach Frank Reich’s offense that confused Jacksonville’s linebackers and safeties with multiple personnel looks that included Ebron, Jack Doyle, and Mo Alie-Cox.
The trio combined for 45.5 fantasy points in PPR formats – exceeding Zach Ertz’s 14-catch, 145-yard, 2-touchdown showcase against the Cowboys on NBC – making Ebron and Alie-Cox the second- and seventh-highest scorers at the position. When Doyle returned to the Colts offense against the Raiders, fantasy players were concerned about Doyle’s presence hurting Ebron’s production. After Sunday’s performance, the odd but nagging question that might not go away is, can the Colts support three fantasy starters at tight end?
Before we got there, let’s establish that Ebron remains the Colts’ top receiving option at the position. Indianapolis uses him in-line, in the slot, and singled outside as one of its intermediate and deep field stretchers. The Jaguars entered this game concerned about T.Y. Hilton and Nyheim Hines – the Colts’ most explosive options.
As you can see below, the Jaguars use one high safety to play over top of Hines’ shallow defender and it leaves Hilton one-on-one with Jalen Ramsey. The problem with this coverage is that Jacksonville’s linebackers and defensive backs haven’t accounted for their assignments on running back Jordan Wilkins and Ebron.
The Colts continued exploiting the Jaguars one-high defensive look by challenging the linebackers and safeties to identify the correct assignments with a variety of personnel looks that either widened or compressed the defense. Here’s an I-formation look where the Colts condense its personnel, but the offense sends Doyle from the fullback position up the left seam behind the linebackers. Ali-Cox distracts the defense with a wind-back across the formation that hints at a run while Doyle sneaks through the line.
It doesn’t matter if Doyle is three-quarters speed to the normal speed of Jacksonville’s linebackers and safeties, if an offense forces a defenses to guess wrong or overthink its assignments, they’re going to be staring at the backside of a slow player with the ball rumbling down the field. It’s the story of Doyle’s career—that’s had a viable fantasy life when he’s healthy.
With Ebron and Doyle beating the Jaguars defense from traditional NFL sets seen above, the Colts upped the ante and used all three tight ends at the same time. You might as well have laced catnip with a fast-acting hallucinogenic and fed it to these North Florida kitty-cats.
The Colts unveiled a three-tight end set with all three players at the line side by side and then ran Four Verticals – a staple play that you might see in offenses with one top receiving tight end but is most often reserved for four- and five-receiver sets.
As we’ve seen, Ali-Cox can stretch a seam and catch the ball. Creating this kind of confusion with Ebron on the same side is not an easy task for a defense that has never seen this on film before.
Although this unusual Four Verts play is new, this isn’t some gadget play like Hue Jackson’s odd pre-snap looks when he was the Bengals offensive coordinator. The Colts are integrating multiple looks with two and three tight ends throughout the offense and that’s why you should remain optimistic about Ebron and weighing the merits of Doyle and Alie-Cox down the stretch if you’re lacking an every-week starter at the position.
Alie-Cox scored from another formation with three tight ends albeit it a simple I-formation where Doyle played the role of fullback. This is where the term “multiple” applies – the Colts not only use each player in-line but also as slot receivers, wide receivers, H-Backs, and full-backs. This play begins with all three “tight ends” heading in the same direction as if they’re blocking for a one-yard run, but Cox sneaks past linebacker Myles Jack while the rest of the Jaguars are focused on the back, Doyle in the flat and Ebron challenging the back corner.
And if this wasn’t enough, the Colts used Ebron on an end-around with Doyle on the opposite wing as the lead blocker.
Ebron end around TD pic.twitter.com/UcKXg0QPox— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
It would be surprising if the Colts only used these looks for the Jaguars. Tennessee and Miami are especially ripe for this strategy and the Jaguars will probably not master what happened to them three weeks from now, either. Houston and Dallas are also highly athletic units with players who fly around the field but could get victimized into overthinking and not being assignment savvy.
If you are desperate for a tight end, Doyle and Alie-Cox (in this order) are players you want to consider based on scheme and opponent – even if other options in that TE12-18 range of fantasy rankings have more reliable volume from the data.
3. In Contrast, Cleveland’s 31 Personnel Is Less Noteworthy
If you saw the Browns use of three running backs during a first-half drive, you might have gotten excited – especially if you’re an Oklahoma fan who remembers these looks from the DeMarco Murray era. You might have even seen Baker Mayfield’s version of the Sooners use the “Diamond” – an inverted Wishbone look often used with pistol. It was fun to see and it worked for two-thirds of a drive, but option football from this type of formation requires elevated and mature judgement from running backs with the football and the Browns backs became increasingly reckless as the drive unfolded.
Maybe Cleveland continues working on this to the point that Duke Johnson Jr, Dontrel Hilliard, and Nick Chubb become ball-handling wizards who take pro football to the SWAC of the 1970s-80s. However, I wouldn’t begin adding Hilliard to your fantasy rosters just yet.
4. Cleveland’s Interim Staff to Baker Mayfield: “No, Meat, don’t think, just give him the gas.”
Quarterbacking is more performance craft than science. If you’ve ever performed extensively, you understand that you learn your role to the point that all of the details of your execution are no long a conscious thought process. You’re reacting to the speed of instinct.
Or, as catch Crash Davis told rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin ‘Nuke’ Laloosh in the movie, “Bull Durham,” “No, Meat, don’t think, just give him the gas.”
Whether its high school, college, or the NFL, the acclimation process for quarterbacks is essentially the same: The level of difficulty and complexity increases just enough that you temporarily question or overthink in situations where you used to “just play.” Depending on the quarterback’s combination of talent, skill for preparation, and supporting staff, he either once again reaches a point where he’s no longer thinking or he drowns in self-doubt.
This weekend, the Browns gave Baker Mayfield time to read the field and deliver the ball on-time without overthinking.
Nothing Mayfield did on the plays above is extraordinary. At best, it’s baseline-level expectations for an NFL starter. However, it’s nice to see him emerge from this rookie phase of self-doubt that has increasingly seeped into his processing after two successful starts where opponents didn’t make him pause.
Atlanta has a decimated defense, so don’t get too excited about Mayfield’s performance in terms of this year. However, it offered a preview of what Mayfield – and Nick Chubb—can do when the offensive line gives them the expected space to operate.
5. Nick Chubb And the Dirty Little Secret of Broadcast Color Commentary
Moving onto the Browns’ most talented rookie (I didn’t stutter…), Nick Chubb compiled 209 total yards and 2 scores against Atlanta’s banged-up unit and authored the longest run in Cleveland’s rich franchise history of backs.
Since Chubb became the Browns’ starter in Week 7, he’s earned 454 total yards and 4 touchdowns – No.5 among running backs in fantasy production with Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffery, and Alvin Kamara ahead of him. Each of these runners have superior offensive line play, a more seasoned (and arguably, more talented) quarterback, stable and superior coaching, and at least two receivers and or tight ends who would be an upgrade in Cleveland.
Chubb’s rushing output is tops among fantasy backs during this span – ahead of former Georgia teammate Gurley by 41 yards. Even if you did the misguided thing and took away his 92-yard run from his totals, Chubb would still be fourth on the list.
Despite the Browns’ struggles that include offensive coaching power struggles, inconsistent tackle play, and an unrefined passing game, Chubb has displayed patience, creativity, contact balance, and acceleration that rivals any back in the league.
Chubb isn’t known as a receiver but he has 6 receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown during the past three weeks and he’s done a good job catching the football.
Here’s the fact that everyone wants to keep as a dirty little secret: Chubb can catch and he always could catch. The idea that Chubb isn’t a receiver is the perpetuation of media scouting reports that broadcast commentators use to prepare for games. Ronde Barber watched Chubb catch two passes in this game and still later said Chubb wasn't a capable receiver as if he had just read someone else's scouting poinrts:
Good play design against the right coverage for Mayfield-to-Chubb TD + the dirty secret about color commentary perpetuating incomplete scouting reports on air. pic.twitter.com/NYAqHimMmx— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
Chubb is not likely the next Saquon Barkley or Marshall Falk in a receiving game, but he’s a skilled runner of screens, swing routes, and angle routes against linebackers. Mayfield targeted Chubb a few weeks ago on a wheel route that would have resulted in a long play if the quarterback didn’t severely underthrow the pass.
6. Matt Barkley’s Bills Debut
Returning to the subject of playing without thinking, the journeyman Barkley earned the starting job off the street this week and because he trusted what he saw on more attempts than not, he made the most of his opportunity
As @FBallGameplan says, "football is simple (or easy...you remember...I don't...you get the point)."— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
But the business of football is a convoluted cluster$%#@.
Here's Matt Barkley making it simple again. pic.twitter.com/xGVznsvHlj
Barkley playing with nothing to lose because well...relative to established guys on rosters, he has nothing to lose. Top starters play this way even when they have everything to lose.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 12, 2018
Nice play nonetheless....#Bills pic.twitter.com/KzaXwoYCMY
It may seem far-fetched but Barkley could develop into the next Ryan Fitzpatrick – a journeyman capable of productive play for a period of time when an organization’s quarterback room isn’t working out. And as odd as it sounds, he could offer surprisingly good starter production this year in Buffalo.
If you forgot, Barkley started for a woeful Bears’ offense last year with a lot of journeyman receivers and managed some significant fantasy production:
- 316 yards and 3 touchdowns vs. Tennessee
- 362 yards and 2 touchdowns vs. Green Bay
- 323 yards and 2 touchdowns vs. Washington
Granted, Barkley threw 10 interceptions in those contests – 5 alone against Washington – but what isn’t Fitzmagical about that?
Barkley’s remaining schedule could include Jacksonville, Miami, a rematch with the Jets, Detroit, and New England. If the bottom falls out with your quarterback position, he’s a viable consideration.
7. Reading the Seahawks’ Backfield
Chris Carson couldn’t face the Rams due to an injury. Mike Davis started the game. Rookie Rashaad Penny led Seattle in rushing against Los Angeles with 108 yards and a score on 12 carries. Davis earned 70 total yards and a touchdown with 15 touches.
Considering how well the Seahawks offensive line has been playing, the lead back on this team is becoming an enviable fantasy option. Who is that player?
The simple answer is Carson – as long as he’s healthy. However, let’s presume this is a simplistic take for the sake of planning for your fantasy stretch run.
In terms of talent, Carson, Davis, and Penny are individually capable of all-purpose fantasy RB1 performances behind this line. All three can catch the football and possess cutback ability.
Here’s Davis and Penny in action this week.
Davis and Penny are the best receivers. Davis and Carson are the most rugged between the tackles. Penny has the most breakaway ability. And Davis is the best blocker.
However, judging from the way the Seahawks used its first-round pick Penny this weekend, Seattle wasn’t satisfied with giving Davis much more than a near-equitable split of the workload. When Penny performed well early, Seattle stuck with the hot hand and Davis didn’t see another carry until the second half of the game.
Seattle wants a reason to continue feeding Penny, give him confidence, and let the rookie prove that he is ready for more. Spending first-round capital creates this scenario when there’s an opportunity to fill the lead role thanks to an injury.
Davis is a late-round free agent who worked his way onto the active roster after the 49ers cut him. While a testament to his resiliency, the Seahawks want Penny to be its future to justify its early pick. Davis’ skills are there to keep the team from putting Penny in situations where he could fail early on.
Regardless of who is truly the most talented Penny’s shot will come soon if Carson isn’t healthy enough to compete. If Carson is ready, he’ll remain the lead back this year and Davis split time. Penny could see time as Carson’s substitute if Carson needs more rest due to his injuries.
Davis’ role the most stable with the least upside, because Penny is a good receiver but has a lot to prove as a blocker. Carson has the most upside when healthy. Penny has the most upside with Carson out because of his draft capital and big-play speed.
8. The Rams Use of Receivers in the Ground Game
Robert Woods 111 rushing yards is the third-highest for a receiver in the NFL this year – behind Cordarrelle Patterson’s 146 yards (who earned most of his as an I-formation running back and with nearly 3 times the attempts) and D.J. Moore’s 122 yards on 8 attempts. Patterson and Moore’s combined receiving yardage is roughly half of Woods’ total.
Woods (and to an extent, Keenan Allen) doesn’t fit the image of a leading ground-gainer at the position. Patterson, Tyreek Hill, Tavon Austin, Sammy Watkins, and Tyler Lockett round out the rest of the top-eight in this category and all five are athletes that make Combine Jockeys swoon.
In contrast to the Browns 31 personnel example (and semi-debacle) Sean McVay understands that athletic ability doesn’t take precedence to skill. Athletic ability is a baseline in the NFL: If you have enough of it, you can help a team; if you lean too much on it, you risk playing bad football really fast.
As we showed last week, McVay integrates a lot of different plays from similar looks. Paraphrasing former Footballguy Justis Mosqueda, McVay knows it is better to use a handful of looks and see how opponents are adjusting to them before the second half than use dozens more and have no idea how defenses will react when it sees them again.
Because of the offensive design, McVay wants a player he trusts to make smart decisions. The purpose of the play isn’t solely to gain as many yards as possible, it’s about consistently gaining as many yards and as wisely as possible.
The small variations in alignments and starting points also require a player who handles the minor details. Think about all of the times you’ve seen a super-athletic player occasionally earn usage in a gadget capacity and he invariably generates a false start, illegal motion penalty, or an illegal formation foul.
Translate that careless behavior to McVay’s system where a receiver is used in this fashion multiple times per game – even as a decoy—and the Rams offense would stall out before it even begins. Woods offers this reliability and it allows the offense to vary the usage and adjust to how the opponents play them.
This is not to imply that the Rams don’t use Cooks as a runner/decoy in this scheme. McVay is more selective about the usage.
This red zone example is a good illustration:
Using Cooks as a decoy here is more advantageous because the offense doesn’t need him to stretch this compressed area of the field vertically as much as horizontally – plus, as we showed last week, he’s not a receiver who wins fade routes. While Woods may seem like a surprise top-10 fantasy receiver, yours truly has been telling you since late last year that he was a value due to the McVay offense.
The takeaway for some of you is that McVay made Robert Woods. The truth is that McVay values what Robert Woods does and has a system that maximizes Woods’ underrated game that’s been underrated since his years at USC.
Foiling the Panthers Option Game
The Steelers dismantled the Panthers last Thursday night. Although Carolina will rebound, one of the notable things that Pittsburgh did was render the Panthers’ option game useless. The biggest reason was edge pressure from its outside linebackers
Pittsburgh made a conscious decision to penetrate the edges early in the game – even at the cost of Christian McCaffery earning some nice gains inside of the Steelers outside linebackers. The effort paid off and transformed the Panthers into an ordinary offense that couldn’t handle Steeler pressure in the passing game
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.
Catch of the Week: Atlanta's Offensive Tackles
This is a sneaky choice because Cleveland didn't record a record number of sacks against Atlanta's offense but it was clear from the onset that the Falcons feared the Browns edge rushers and did a lot of alterations to its game plan to avoid pressure to Matt Ryan early on -- to the point of sacrificing targets to wide receivers.
This won't be a popular take but prior to Atlanta making late preseason upgrades (unheard of in the NFL) to its line a few years ago, Ryan was in danger of getting David Carr-ed. While he's not a lost cause against pressure (and often pretty tough), there are types of pressure where he wilts and Atlanta is aware of it enough to create a gameplan around it -- even if it ultimately failed.
Onto the fish case:
- Miami's linebackers: They finally stopped a tight end! Oh wait, they gave up huge creases for Aaron Jones and took some nutty angles.
- Jets Defense: Matt Barkley looked like the season-long starter against New York only days after joining the team.
- Kelvin Benjamin: He earned an NFL pick for his fade game and he couldn't do that this weekend.
Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.