Welcome to Vantage Points, a column I will be writing weekly during the NFL season as a window into every game of the week. With access limited more than ever this year and with no preseason games for us to put our own eyes on, I have the utmost respect for sportswriters covering the NFL on a daily basis, giving us a window into what these teams might look like and where their strengths and weaknesses — beyond the obvious — lie.
The purpose of this column is to highlight the work of those writers, but to also turn some of their observations into actionable fantasy advice. The goal isn’t just to highlight obvious angles, but perhaps some of the lower-end ones that could lead to fantasy advantages. I’m also taking advantage of watching press conferences and reading transcripts from coaches and players, as well as using the NFL’s Next Gen Stats info to look for fantasy-relevant angles. I’ll also cover notable injuries.
I will publish this column twice weekly — on Wednesdays to preview the Thursday night game, and on Fridays to preview the Sunday slate.
All times are Eastern.
Tampa Bay at Chicago (Thu, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
You’re probably going to be sick to death of hearing about Super Bowl LII on this broadcast on Thursday night, but I still thought this was a really cool tidbit from NFL Research. While this meeting between Tom Brady and Nick Foles is the 40th QB vs. QB “Super Bowl rematch” in NFL history, it’s the first such meeting in which both QBs are on a different team than in the Super Bowl.
Brady might not be getting the credit that we’re used to seeing for him, but he’s actually #3 among QBs in PFF grade, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
Of course, the story of this game is going to be who Brady is throwing to. Not only did the Bucs have to put TE OJ Howard on IR, but four WRs — Chris Godwin (hamstring), Mike Evans (ankle), Scotty Miller (hip/groin), and Justin Watson (chest) — have missed practice this week. Godwin and Watson are out, while Evans and Miller are looking like game-time decisions.
The question is how the Bucs handle this. On the short week, it’s going to be hard for Evans (who got injured last Sunday) to get loose enough to play, and the “mini-bye” could be a great opportunity to have him ready to go for Week 6. On the other hand, they could think the “mini-bye” will give him ample time to heal up after gutting it out on a short week. With Godwin unlikely to play, the Bucs might not have a choice but to try to get Evans to play this week. Evans was an absolute warrior last week, putting up 7/122/1 after being folded up on his ankle.
The Bucs also have injury problems in the backfield — already down Leonard Fournette (ankle), they lost both LeSean McCoy (ankle) and Kenjon Barner (concussion) last week. Barner has since been suspended four games for PED use, and McCoy is out. That opened the door for Ronald Jones to get a whopping 26 touches (plus three dropped passes) and rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn to score his first NFL TD.
According to coach Bruce Arians, Fournette is looking like a game-time decision at best (he’s listed as doubtful), so this could be the RoJo and Vaughn Show… just as we all expected in July!
Beyond the injuries, the story of this game is going to be the Bears’ pressure against Brady. Brady typically crushes the blitz, which is why teams blitz him less than any other QB (15% in 2020, lowest in the NFL). But per Next Gen Stats, the Bears are generating pressure with their front four alone at a 29.6% clip, 6th-highest in the NFL.
The issue for Chicago is that the Bucs’ offensive line has been outstanding this year, as our friend Greg Auman of The Athletic points out. Not only have the Bucs returned four starters, but rookie RT Tristan Wirfs has fit in beautifully. Auman notes that Brady has been sacked on just 3.13% of dropbacks so far, which would be the lowest in a season for him since 2009. According to PFF, LG Ali Marpet has been the best pass protector in the entire NFL. Marpet will be especially important against DT Akiem Hicks, who has 3.5 of the Bears’ 7 sacks so far.
What They’re Saying About the Bears…
While everyone on Earth thinks Nick Foles is an upgrade on Mitchell Trubisky (especially fantasy players with WR Allen Robinson in their lineups), Foles hasn’t won a start since 2018 with the Eagles (0-5).
How good has Robinson been with Foles? Well, elite. With Foles, he’s caught 68.8% of his targets, with 2 TD, and 9.7 yards per target. Foles has a 113.3 passer rating when targeting Robinson. Meanwhile, he caught 56% of his targets from Trubisky, at just 7.0 yards per target, with 0 TD and a 44.7 rating.
One area where Foles has been a clear upgrade on Trubisky is under pressure — according to Next Gen Stats, Foles has a 107.5 passer rating on 17 attempts when under pressure this year, whereas Trubisky has a 39.6 rating on 14 attempts under such circumstances. According to SIS, the Buccaneers’ 44.6% pressure rate on dropbacks is 5th-most in the NFL so far, so Foles is much better equipped to face the Bucs than Trubisky.
In fact, Foles is uniquely qualified in this matchup — according to Next Gen Stats, he’s the only QB since 2016 to not throw an interception against the blitz, with a league-best 122.0 passer rating over that span. Since taking over as the Bucs defensive coordinator in 2019, Todd Bowles has blitzed opposing QBs 42% of the time, second-most in the NFL (Justin Herbert beat them for 2 TD against the blitz last week).
However, Foles must be better on third down. According to Kevin Fishbain of The Athletic, Foles’ prowess on third downs is one of the main reasons the Bears made him starter in the first place. But against the Colts last week, Foles went just 3/11 for 27 yards and a 1.7 QB rating on third downs. The Colts have been the best NFL defense on third downs this year (31%), but the Bucs are top-10 (40%), so this will be a critical part of this matchup.
Could the Bears be going with some more “12” personnel in this matchup? Veteran TE Jimmy Graham has played very well for Chicago, but coach Matt Nagy told reporters that 15 snaps last week for rookie TE Cole Kmet was “not enough,” according to NBC Sports Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Foles, obviously, has plenty of experience throwing to the tight end from his days in Philly.
Foles could be helped out here if EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul (knee), downgraded on Tuesday’s injury report, can’t play.
It’s really hard to make a call at time of publication on the Bucs given all their injuries. Brady has been awesome, but he’ll be just a mediocre starter if Evans-plus are out. If Evans goes, even hobbled, I have a really hard time sitting him. He’s the first receiver to score a TD from Brady in each of the first four games of a season since Randy Moss in 2007 (you might remember that season).
I’m not a RoJo guy, but if Fournette is down again as expected, he’s on the RB2 radar, and I think Vaughn did enough in his first action to be added in deeper leagues and used maybe as a prayer if you have injury/COVID woes. This backfield has all the makings of a fantasy mess right now, though.
For Chicago, Robinson is a WR1 with Foles pulling the trigger, even though Foles was terrible last week. Though he practiced in full this week, WR Darnell Mooney (shoulder) is questionable, so that could mean more work for A-Rob.
I think Graham is a solid TE streamer, though the Bucs have allowed just 10.2 FPG to TEs so far — 11th-fewest in the NFL.