We’re a quarter of the way through the 2020 NFL season, and as much as a third of the way through the 2020 fantasy football regular season. If you’re sitting at 1-3 right now, you need a big-time push to make the playoffs. If you’re sitting at 3-1, you probably feel pretty good.
If you’re 3-1, you’re probably reveling in what you got right. If you’re 1-3, you’re agonizing on what you did wrong. From my perspective, I thought we gave pretty good off-season advice, but when you’re breaking down an entire league, you’re bound to get some things wrong.
So for this week’s Tuesday Talking Points, I’m going to discuss one thing that’s surprised me about every team — positive, negative, or somewhere in between — that might go against some of the advice we gave in August.
Where is Kenyan Drake in the passing game? Drake has been one of the most disappointing players in fantasy football thus far, but if you told me in August he’d be averaging 16.8 carries per game in the first month of the season, I’d have argued he’d be a top-five performer. One TD is a large part of the reason he’s disappointed so far, but the biggest reason for me is that he has only 5 targets through four games, and doesn’t have a reception longer than 6 yards. He hasn’t had more than 2 targets in any game so far this year — he had at least 3 in seven of his eight games with the Cards last year, and had at least 4 in six of eight. I haven’t been terribly impressed with QB Kyler Murray, and the easy argument to make is that the presence of DeAndre Hopkins has siphoned targets away from this backfield. The problem with that argument? “Backup” RB Chase Edmonds has 17 targets through four games.
Russell Gage is real. Gage was one of my most drafted players — he was a mainstay on our Mr. Relevant list, because he was free all off-season. But I didn’t know how important he’d be to this offense overall, with two huge games in Weeks 1 and 2. He has just 4/48 on 6 targets over his last two games (he left early in Week 3 with a concussion), but if Julio Jones is going to miss time with the hamstring injury he aggravated in Week 4, Gage could be a high-end WR3 for the time being. Heck, even with two down games, Gage is still the WR35 through four weeks, which means he’s already paid off the free pick you spent on him.
Uh, the backfield? The 2019 Baltimore Ravens — led by Lamar Jackson — had the most dynamic and dominant rushing offense I’ve ever seen, and both Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards had some solid fantasy production in it (especially Ingram, who was a rock-solid RB2). Though the addition of rookie JK Dobbins muddied things up a bit, there was too much upside here to not invest in this backfield… right? Well, through four games, Baltimore doesn’t even have a single RB in the top 36 in total PPR points. That’s despite Baltimore having a top-three rushing offense. They don’t have a single RB who has played more than 88 snaps this season — that’s the same number of offensive snaps as Packers RB Tyler Ervin. As good as the rushing offense has been, the backs need to play to produce.
Josh Allen is good. Really good. Look, we knew Allen would be great for fantasy. We didn’t know he’d be doing this on the strength of his arm, though. By pretty much every metric, Allen has been an elite passer — he’s second in the NFL in passing behind Dak Prescott, with 53 fewer pass attempts (he’s 8th in the NFL in attempts). He’s #1 in FootballOutsiders DVOA among QBs. And he’s #3 in total fantasy points. Allen was one of my three main targets at the QB position this year, but mostly because of his rushing upside. I had no idea that this passing game would cook this much following the trade for WR Stefon Diggs. Allen is playing at an MVP level, and OC Brian Daboll should be squarely in the “next great offensive mind” discussion with Greg Roman and Eric Bieniemy.
Robby Anderson: WR1? Anderson was a player I fully faded this off-season. I figured he was an elite deep threat playing with a QB who doesn’t throw the ball downfield, and most of the short-to-intermediate targets would go to DJ Moore. Well, not only does Anderson have a 25.4% target share (higher than Moore’s 23.2%), he’s also averaging just 8.9 aDOT, much lower than Moore’s 12.0. He’s running a wide variety of routes and is showing himself to be a significantly more versatile receiver than I figured he would be. He’s currently the WR9 in PPR FP, and nothing about his usage suggests that’s a huge fluke.
Jimmy Graham can still play. Our Adam Caplan insisted all off-season the Bears thought the Packers got their evaluation of Graham wrong and that their much-pilloried contract for the veteran TE would work out. As skeptical as I was, Adam’s insistence made us put Graham on the Mr. Relevant list. Well, so far, the Bears have been justified — Graham is the TE11 through four weeks of the NFL season. While he probably isn’t going to be a league winner, he’s someone who should be rostered in every league, and QB Nick Foles will probably filter targets his way, especially in the red zone.
AJ Green looks done. I much preferred Tyler Boyd this off-season, but I really didn’t expect Green to look this bad. Through four games, Green’s intended air yards stand at 475, third among all players in the NFL, per SIS. His 96 completed air yards are 69th. He’s 79th among WRs in PPR FP, one spot behind Atlanta’s Olamide Zaccheaus. Normally, such a discrepancy in attempted air yards and completed air yards is a sign for positive regression. And while Green probably won’t be this bad the rest of the way, I honestly think I’d prefer to have Tee Higgins straight up the rest of the year.
The backfield is dominant. Yes, Nick Chubb is now hurt, which changes things. But I think a lot of fantasy players weren’t willing to spend a second-round pick on Chubb because of Kareem Hunt’s presence. A lot of fantasy players also weren’t happy paying a 5th-round pick for Hunt because of Chubb’s presence. But through four weeks, the Browns are the only team in the NFL averaging 200 rushing yards per game, and both Hunt (RB7) and Chubb (RB15) are top-15 PPR RBs. If Chubb didn’t go down in Week 4, they’d both be top 12. Sometimes, teams tell you how they’re going to play with their personnel moves, and Cleveland told us all off-season they were going to run the hell out of the ball. We probably should have believed them.
How can the defense be this bad? Our support of Dak Prescott as our preseason QB3 was valid, and then some. He had elite weapons and the Dallas defense was going to take an obvious step back. But man, a defense that has given up so many points that Prescott has over 200 pass attempts through four games? Prescott’s 201 pass attempts through four weeks is the most through four games in NFL history — Drew Brees had 191 in 2012. Matthew Stafford’s 727 pass attempts in 2012, that same season, remains an NFL record. Prescott is on pace to shatter that.
Is anything surprising? The Broncos have started three QBs — Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, and Brett Rypien — in four games. With all the injuries they’ve had on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to really know if any of our takes (good or bad) are right through four weeks. Sometimes, you can’t evaluate your process because there were too many variables thrown into the mix.
Coaches love Adrian Peterson. The only thing surprising about AP is that we keep getting surprised by him when we should come to expect this stuff. Obviously, his release in Washington was an unexpected variable, but once he landed with the Lions, we should have known he would blow up our entire off-season of analysis in the backfield — and just when we were starting to really like D’Andre Swift. Peterson — who has said he wants to play until he’s 40 — is still a very good back, and a meathead coach like Matt Patricia is going to favor someone like Peterson who can lower his head through tackles over a rookie like Swift, who made a critical mistake in dropping a potential game-winning TD pass in Week 1.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers again. This will go down as my biggest “L” so far. We had Rodgers on players to avoid. We said any real evidence that a huge season from Rodgers was coming was strictly anecdotal. We should not have underestimated someone who gets motivated by slights against him. Rodgers is currently the QB6 with Davante Adams missing two games and Allen Lazard missing one. He has Robert Tonyan as the TE1 — the TE1 — through four games. He’s arguably the NFL MVP right now. And the Packers are legitimately dangerous.
Bill O’Brien got fired. And before Adam Gase or Dan Quinn! I always am stunned by how team ownership cedes so much power to a guy, lets that guy do whatever he wants, and then pulls the plug on said guy. O’Brien made a ton of mistakes as the Texans’ GM, and that was his downfall despite winning four of the last five AFC South titles as coach. The DeAndre Hopkins trade might have been the last straw. And despite O’Brien’s on-field success, an 0-4 start in 2020 (amid, admittedly, a brutal schedule) was enough to send him on his way. We’ll see if the Texans rally around each other, but even with a franchise QB in place, it’s a tough GM and coaching job to take with no first or second-round picks in 2021.
Why aren’t the Colts letting Jonathan Taylor take over? We pushed Taylor as a third-round pick in August despite Marlon Mack being involved, because we thought Taylor would push Mack out of the backfield rotation. Well, that didn’t happen, only because Mack got injured. What we didn’t expect after that is how the Colts seem to be forcing a three-man rotation in their backfield, involving both Nyheim Hines (35% snaps) and Jordan Wilkins (17%) alongside Taylor (46%) in their backfield during Week 4’s win over the Bears. To be fair to coach Frank Reich, Taylor hasn’t taken full control of this backfield — he had just 17/68 rushing and 1/11 receiving and is averaging a pedestrian 3.8 YPC this season. But Hines and Wilkins combined for 39 yards on 18 carries, and just 24 yards on 4 receptions. Taylor might not look like, say, Dalvin Cook out there just yet, but he was the better and more efficient player than both his teammates in Week 4. We can handle Hines being involved — it’s the pedestrian Wilkins touching the ball 10 times that we didn’t anticipate. Will that change? And if not, what is Taylor lacking?
James Robinson is an RB1. I think a lot of analysts overuse the old trope “good process, bad results” as a crutch — sometimes, I think people should look a little more critically at their processes. But the dead nuts definition of “good process, bad results” was my strategy of fully fading Leonard Fournette (great process) and spending all my early drafts utterly loading up on Ryquell Armstead in late rounds (terrible result). The UDFA Robinson — who started getting hype late in camp — was one of the major reasons the Jaguars cut Fournette, and with the Jags playing more competitive football than I anticipated, it’s allowed him to be a true bell cow. He’s currently the RB6 in PPR, and showing no signs of slowing down.
Kansas City Chiefs
Clyde Edwards-Helaire is dominating touches. Yes, we made the obvious call and moved CEH into the first round when Damien Williams opted out. But even after Williams’ opt-out, the Chiefs had Darrel Williams, Darwin Thompson, and DeAndre Washington in camp. But through four games in a pandemic-shortened off-season, CEH has 85 of the 109 touches doled out in the Kansas City backfield. Darrel, who was expected to have a role independent of CEH, has been little more than a breather back, and has no fantasy value outside of being a handcuff. CEH is fitting the profile of an Andy Reid back — versatile, featured, and a fantasy hammer.
Las Vegas Raiders
They’re actually using Josh Jacobs as a receiver! Jacobs has 17 targets in four games, and at least 3 in every game this season. He had 3 or more targets in just five of 14 games last year, and had more than 3 in just one game. We did like Jacobs this off-season, but I’ll admit a lot of that was hope that Jon Gruden was telling the truth. It appears he was.
Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert is the real deal. When projecting the Chargers to be a low-volume passing team this year, of course we anticipated Tyrod Taylor would be starting more than one game, and predicting he’d lose his job because his own team doctor stabbed him wasn’t exactly something on my bingo card. But I also didn’t expect things to change much when Herbert took over — while Herbert is a far more gifted passer than Taylor, I expected the Chargers would keep a run-heavy approach. Instead, through three starts, Herbert has more games of 300 passing yards (2) than Taylor has in his career, and just as many games (3) with 290 or more passing yards. I faded Keenan Allen — that’s looking like a huge mistake. I don’t expect Herbert will get his job back.
Los Angeles Rams
Darrell Henderson takes advantage of his opportunity. This observation will probably fall on deaf ears after his hugely disappointing Week 4 game against the Giants, but after an injury in training camp, Henderson was the clear #3 back behind Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown. But with Akers suffering a rib injury and Brown a finger injury in Week 2 against Philadelphia, Henderson had two consecutive breakout performances, likely ensuring that this backfield will be a committee for the time being (especially with Brown already back and Akers set to return in Week 5).
Myles Gaskin is the lead back, by far. The Dolphins spent $10 million on Jordan Howard and a fifth-round pick in a trade for Matt Breida, both reasonable moves for a team on which Ryan Fitzpatrick was the leading rusher last year. But it’s clear neither player — especially Howard, who is averaging under 1.0 YPC — has earned the touches that Gaskin has. Through four games, only 11 RBs have played a higher snap share than Gaskin’s 67.1%. I say every year that, even in August, there will be a significant fantasy contributor at running back nobody is even talking about. Gaskin hasn’t been a fantasy stud (RB26 so far), but he’s certainly someone who should be rostered in every league.
Justin Jefferson is playing outside — and succeeding. Over the last two weeks, the rookie Jefferson has 11/279/1 receiving while playing predominantly outside. He had just 5/60 in the first two weeks playing from the slot, where he played almost exclusively in his 2019 breakout season at LSU. The Vikings still have an extremely low-volume passing game, which could limit Jefferson’s upside for fantasy, but he or Adam Theilen have been targeted on 51% of QB Kirk Cousins’ throws this year, and that kind of target share can keep both guys afloat for fantasy purposes.
New England Patriots
Cam Newton has the Patriots crushing it on the ground. Hopefully, Cam can get back on the field soon, because the Patriots’ run game can be elite with him. The Patriots average 179.8 yards per game on the ground, second in the NFL, and that’s with Cam missing Week 4 (COVID). The Patriots are one of only two teams — the Steelers being the other — who have had two different players run for 100 or more yards in a game this year. With the Patriots’ lack of strong weapons at WR, they’re going to have to continue playing this way.
New Orleans Saints
Latavius Murray has a role independent of Alvin Kamara. I did a full fade on Murray’s 8th-round ADP this off-season, because as good a handcuff as he has proven to be, he was useless last season when Kamara was healthy — in the two games Kamara missed last year, Murray handled 91% of the team’s touches out of the backfield, averaging 24.0 carries, 9.0 targets, 153.5 yards, 2.0 touchdowns, and 34.4 fantasy points per game. But when Kamara was in the lineup, he averaged just 6.3 FPG. This year, with Kamara the #1 overall fantasy player (and way healthier than he was last year), Murray is the RB34.
New York Giants
The entire offense sucks. Obviously, we ranked Saquon Barkley #2 overall, so we didn’t exactly predict he’d get hurt. But what has been a huge disappointment otherwise? How bad everyone else has been. In PPR, the Giants don’t have a QB ranked in the top 24, an RB ranked in the top 48, a WR ranked in the top 24, or a TE ranked in the top 20. It is abominably bad in MetLife Stadium, and the Giants may be the worst fantasy team there, which is saying something.
New York Jets
Adam Gase isn’t fired yet. The only Jet worth a damn for fantasy right now is WR Jamison Crowder. It wasn’t a team I was drafting much for fantasy anyway, though I remain stunned how useless TE Chris Herndon has been given the Jets’ overall lack of weapons. If the Jets get a new coach, I don’t know if that will change, but I’m still shocked that Gase wasn’t the first coach to go this season.
The injuries. My God, the injuries. Sometimes, our analysis is based on the fact that something so improbable can’t possibly happen again. That’s why we were bullish on the Eagle offense in 2020. And while QB Carson Wentz has not played well overall, he once again has an old and fragile roster to blame for a lot of his struggles. Of the Eagles’ projected top-five WRs this year, four have missed games with injury and one opted out. Of the Eagles’ projected starting offensive line this year, four have missed time with injuries. The guy they brought in to replace one of them — Jason Peters — is now on IR. Of their top two TEs for the league’s most predominant 12 personnel team, one is on IR. The starting RB missed Week 1. Ironically, Wentz has been the only healthy guy here, but he might not be soon if he keeps taking the pounding that he’s been taking.
James Conner confirms your priors — whether you were high on him or not. If you faded Conner, his Week 1 performance in which he went down with an ankle injury and/or was flat benched while Benny Snell outplayed him justified your take. Conner’s rebound to run for over 100 yards in each of the Steelers’ next two games justified your take if you loved Conner. Mostly, we’re seeing why he was a third-round pick and not a first — the injury history is real, and the Steelers have some depth in the backfield. But for the most part, when Conner plays, Conner produces.
San Francisco 49ers
Jerick McKinnon has been incredible. I’ve talked a lot in this column about players who ended up on our Mr. Relevant list, and McKinnon fits the bill, but I have to admit I didn’t expect this. In a twist of irony, McKinnon — who missed each of the last two NFL seasons — is the only of the Niners’ projected top three RBs who has been healthy all season long. With Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman each missing the last two games, McKinnon has been the PPR RB7 over than span, and the PPR RB10 overall. It’s always worthwhile investing in great run games, and though sometimes you have to cast aside camp hype, the Niners beat writers did a great job all off-season calling McKinnon’s resurgence real. I don’t know how coach Kyle Shanahan can take him off the field at this point, even if he won’t be a bell cow once Mostert returns.
Russell Wilson is cooking. There might be no more relevant story in fantasy football this season. The QB2 overall, Wilson is third in the NFL in passing, behind Dak Prescott (who has a league-record 201 pass attempts through four weeks) and Josh Allen, who is joining Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the MVP discussion. Wilson is the league’s best downfield passer, and he’s turned WRs DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett into weekly-start studs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The RoJo Truther discussion isn’t over yet! I am a RoJo “Falser” — is that a thing? I think that Ronald Jones stinks, and I think that everything the Bucs have done suggest they think the same. Hell, even when RoJo has a great game for his standards — 129 yards from scrimmage in Week 4 with Leonard Fournette out — he marred it by dropping three passes. RoJo is currently the RB24 in overall fantasy points, which means to this point, those who drafted him have gotten a decent return on their investment. But if Fournette is healthy — a big if — I still believe it’s going to be a nightmare trying to decide whether to play him or not every week.
Ryan Tannehill is still good — even without AJ Brown. The Titans had to play twice without WR AJ Brown (bone bruise) before a COVID outbreak pressed pause on their season. But despite Brown missing two games, Tannehill is still the QB13 in FPG, and was the QB12 in the two games Brown missed. OC Arthur Smith has Tannehill cooking, and an emerging star in TE Jonnu Smith and a post-hype WR in Corey Davis carrying the load. Tannehill’s ADP never made sense this off-season, but I factored Brown’s presence into that analysis. The fact that he’s performing like a fantasy starter without him is exceptionally impressive.
Washington Football Team
Terry McLaurin is everything proof. McLaurin is QB proof — Dwayne Haskins is ranked dead last in ESPN’s QBR. McLaurin is injury-proof — he went into Week 4 with a quad injury. McLaurin is matchup proof — despite playing the Ravens with an injury in that Week 4 game, he posted 10/118 on 14 targets. Very rarely can NFL players overcome so many negative factors, but McLaurin has done it for 20 games now.