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.
Carolina at Atlanta (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
I mentioned this in my Tuesday Talking Points column, but one of the players I was most wrong about during the pre-draft cycle this year was WR Robby Anderson. I didn’t think someone who has been primarily a deep threat was a great fit with QB Teddy Bridgewater. That has turned out to be a valid complaint — Bridgewater was last in the NFL with 6.2 air yards per attempt in 2019, and he’s 6th-lowest (6.8) in 2020.
Per Next Gen Stats, Anderson averaged 15.2 air yards per target in 2016-2019, which was the most in the NFL. So my analysis was correct! … Not so fast. The unexpected variable was Anderson being a more complete receiver than he showed with the Jets — he’s averaging just 9.6 AY/target, and most notably, he’s caught 8 of 8 targets on crossing routes after catching just 13/24 with the Jets last season. So perhaps it was the Jets and coach Adam Gase who have used him incorrectly. Hmm.
The Panthers’ backfield is exceptionally thin with both Christian McCaffrey (high ankle) and Reggie Bonnafon (high ankle) both on IR. The Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Alexander and Alaina Gatzenberg broke it all down here, but it looks like Trenton Cannon will be the #2 behind Mike Davis this week.
It’s a great matchup for Davis, who has 21 catches for 146 yards over his last three games. The Falcons are allowing 64.3 receiving YPG to RBs this year, which is 4th-most in the NFL.
The Panthers are hoping that LT Russell Okung (groin) can play this week, but coach Matt Rhule has been saying that for a few weeks now.
On defense, the Falcons are getting healthier — safeties Keanu Neal (hamstring), Ricardo Allen (elbow), and DE Takk McKinley (groin) all returned to practice this week. CB AJ Terrell came off the COVID list, as well.
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
The Falcons seem unlikely to have WR Julio Jones (hamstring) this week after he tweaked his nagging injury on Monday night. Julio is a Panther killer, posting 92.7 YPG against them in his career, second-most all time.
Number 1 on that list? How about Calvin Ridley (93.3 YPG), who was shut out in the box score last week against the Packers. But he was predominantly matched up with top CB Jaire Alexander in that tilt, and the Panthers simply don’t have someone who can slow him down the way Alexander can.
The Falcons seem to be holding out hope for Julio (you’d have to think because coach Dan Quinn’s seat is boiling right now), but to me, it seems extremely risky to go to him given he suffered a setback on Monday and is playing on a short week. But you know, desperate times call for desperate measures.
In the secondary, Panther CB Eli Apple missed the first three games with a hamstring injury. He pulled his other hamstring against Arizona, and isn’t expected to play.
The Falcons are getting healthier, but I really like this spot for the Panthers’ passing game, including Teddy as a streamer and Anderson as a WR2. I’m still sucking it up and playing DJ Moore as well.
I don’t think the Falcons should risk it with Julio, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m going back to the well with Ridley as a WR1 — I think last week was fluky, overall. If Julio plays, you have to use him in this glorious matchup, but I’m not exactly convinced he’s going to make it through the game after what happened last week. Those in deeper leagues can have Olamide Zaccheaus at the ready in the event Julio can’t go (I prefer Russell Gage).
Cincinnati at Baltimore (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bengals…
Bengal QB Joe Burrow is on pace for 464 completions, 708 pass attempts, and 4484 passing yards, all of which would be rookie records.
Where he’s having a ton of success is throwing to the middle of the field. Per Next Gen Stats, Burrow has completed 78.4% of his passes with a 126.6 passer rating on in-breaking routes. However, the Ravens have had a lot of success on in-breakers — they’re allowing just a 64.7% completion rate and a low 71.3 rating on such throws.
One of the problems with the Bengals’ passing game is the apparent decline of WR AJ Green. 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, Normally, such a discrepancy in attempted air yards and completed air yards is a sign for positive regression. But according to Next Gen Stats, no wide receiver is getting fewer average yards of separation (1.6) on his targets than Green. All the peripherals are trending in the wrong direction, and the Bengals seem to love getting rookie WR Tee Higgins more involved.
RB Joe Mixon had a massive game last week, but popped up on the injury report with a shin issue midweek. There doesn’t appear to be a reason to worry just yet, but with Mixon listed as questionable, picking up Gio Bernard is a prudent move.
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson sat out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, but it’s not expected to be serious. It was more alarming that he was out on Thursday, but ESPN’s Jamison Hensley noted that Jackson had an illness added to his status. He was back at practice on Friday and coach John Harbaugh called him “100%” on Friday.
Jackson’s legs are always important, but if his knee allows him to scramble in this game, they’ll be more important than usual. Per Next Gen Stats, Jackson is averaging 12.8 YPC on scrambles vs. man coverage and “only” 7.1 YPC vs. zone coverage since the start of last season. That’s bad news for the Bengals, who are playing slightly more man than zone this year, per SIS.
Perhaps quietly, TE Mark Andrews’s 14 TD receptions since the start of last season are tops in the NFL. The Bengals have allowed an 8th-most 259 yards to TEs this year. Andrews was added to the injury report with a thigh issue on Thursday, so keep an eye on that.
One of the most interesting things that came out this week is that the Bengals are demoting DE Carlos Dunlap — more of an edge rusher — in favor of Carl Lawson, who was better against the run last week, according to The Athletic’s Jay Morrison. Dunlap was not happy with his coaches — ““Evidently, I didn’t make enough tackles in the run game,” he said. “I’m really trying to figure out the plan. It’s kind of frustrating, you know. I would like to just prepare for Baltimore, but I’ve got to prepare to figure out how to handle the madness that they’re doing.”
The Bengals’ run defense would obviously get a boost this week if DT Geno Atkins (shoulder) can get back in the lineup this week. Coach Zac Taylor said on Friday he’s expected to have Atkins back in the lineup.
It’s a brutal matchup for Burrow and this passing game. I’m inclined to sit Burrow and Green, and I’m not too enthused about playing Higgins, though I’d rather have him in my lineup than AJG.
Mixon is a must-start, but I’m not exactly expecting three TDs this week, and the shin injury means you should have Gio at the ready just in case.
For Baltimore, you just play who you usually play, but unfortunately, I might be avoiding the backfield for the time being while OC Greg Roman decides to just rotate them to mess with us. Obviously, Lamar and Andrews are in your lineups barring a Sunday surprise.
Jacksonville at Houston (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Jaguars…
It’s good news for Jaguars RB James Robinson this week. The Texans have the NFL’s worst run defense — 181.8 rush YPG allowed. They’ve allowed 32.7 FPG to RBs, which is 4th-most in the NFL as well.
Robinson needs just 6 yards from scrimmage to pass Branden Oliver for most by a UDFA through five games in NFL history. He’s going to be consistently rewriting the record books this year.
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
The story of the week for Houston is obviously the firing of coach Bill O’Brien. It seems stunning that ownership would acquiesce to O’Brien’s constant grabs for more power, only to fire him four games into the season, but there’s more to it than just a whim from Cal McNair.
According to ESPN Radio Houston’s John Granato, Texan DE JJ Watt was fed up enough with O’Brien’s style that it boiled into an on-field confrontation in practice prior to Week 3. Granato said Watt’s leadership led to a player revolt, which was the reason BOB got canned. And NFL Network’s James Palmer confirmed that O’Brien completely lost the locker room. The fact of the matter is that this is a deeply flawed Texans roster (owing in significant part to O’Brien), but there’s still enough talent here with QB Deshaun Watson and others to start winning some games if the players can rally around interim coach Romeo Crennel.
For what it’s worth, the Texans have been moving WRs Will Fuller and Randall Cobb into the slot quite a bit, with each player seeing 15 targets from the slot, per SIS. And the Jaguars put slot CB DJ Hayden (hamstring) on IR this week, which should bode well for both guys. Top CB CJ Henderson (shoulder) left last week’s game and is getting in limited practice this week, so he isn’t likely to be 100%.
This could be a big week for the Texans to throw it, because not only do they have the league’s worst rushing defense (as noted above), they also have the league’s worst rushing offense (73.5). You don’t have to go far back to find the last team to rank dead last in both categories — that was the 2018 Cardinals. The bad news for Houston is that the Cardinals team’s leading rusher was David Johnson.
That said, Watson averages 167.0 yards per game vs. the Jags in his career, against 269.5 YPG vs. all other teams. With Hayden and DE Josh Allen (knee) potentially both out, it’s a better matchup for Watson than he’s had against the Jags in the past.
I say it every week, but Robinson is an RB1. I like Chark as a high-end WR2 this week with Shenault banged up.
I think I’m comfortable with Watson and Fuller this week as a QB1 and WR2, and Cobb is mostly a lower-end WR3 if you’re affected by byes or have COVID concerns. DJ is a low-end RB2, and you hope that the string of tough matchups is why he hasn’t been productive the last few weeks. The Jaguars’ injuries on defense — Allen, Henderson, and LB Myles Jack are all questionable — have me feeling better about loading up on Houston players in general.
Las Vegas at Kansas City (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Raiders…
We know QB Derek Carr won’t ever be a legitimately aggressive passer, but what he needs to do is take the shots given to him when they present themselves. At the least, he’s succeeding on the shots he is taking this year.
According to Next Gen Stats, Carr has a top-10 QB rating in the NFL on both short throws (111.8) and on throws of 10 or more air yards (120.4). Without WR Henry Ruggs (hamstring), though, the latter throws were few and far between. As Nate Taylor of The Athletic points out, the Chiefs have been conscientiously limiting big plays in the passing game, and have been doing so successfully.
While the Raiders are optimistic Ruggs — who has practiced in full this week — will play, I still expect a ton of work for TE Darren Waller yet again. Raider WRs have 55 targets this year, with only the 49ers (53) having fewer. Ruggs and the Raider WRs will have to deal with the fact that CB Bashaud Breeland will be coming back from suspension this week, giving the Chiefs’ already great passing defense a boost.
You might think this also bodes well for slot WR Hunter Renfrow, but the Chiefs have been phenomenal defending the slot. Per SIS, the Chiefs have seen the third-lowest percentage of pass attempts targeted to slot receivers (36%) and have allowed the fewest YPA on slot targets (5.9). Renfrow has run 93% of his routes from the slot. Houston’s Will Fuller is the only opposing receiver to catch more than three passes out of the slot against KC this season — that includes Keenan Allen (1/25/0), Julian Edelman (3/35/0), and Mark Andrews (3/22/0).
Mostly, the Raiders want to keep this close enough so they can rely on Josh Jacobs on the ground. The Chiefs have a top-three defense in points per game, passing YPG, and QB rating this year. According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs have the #1 passing defense by DVOA. But in terms of rush YPG, their 161.0 YPG allowed is 5th-most in the NFL. Jacobs, of course, has dealt with ankle, knee, and now hip injuries this year. It would help matters if he can get T Trent Brown (calf) back from injury.
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
I mentioned in this column in recent weeks that the Chiefs seem to have focused on getting the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands a little bit quicker this season. Well, if that was a conscious focus, it’s now out the window. After Mahomes averaged 2.54 seconds on throws and just 6.1 air yards per attempt in Weeks 1 and 2, he’s back up to more Mahomesian levels of 2.91 seconds and 8.0 air yards per attempt over the last two weeks, according to Next Gen Stats. Mahomes is also throwing on the run on 23.9% of throws the last two weeks, vs. just 15.2% in the first two games. Will the Chiefs change things back to their early-season approach given Mahomes’ relative struggles in Week 4?
One thing I do expect — the Chiefs are going to give the ball to RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That’s obvious. But it’s a good matchup, too — according to SIS, CEH is behind only Dalvin Cook in broken tackles + missed tackles forced (16 to Cook’s 20), and the Raiders have surrendered a broken or missed tackle on 16% of rush attempts, the most in the league.
Moreover, the Raiders have given up an NFL-high 68 YPG to RBs as receivers, and CEH trails only Ezekiel Elliott (88 to 125) in routes run among RBs.
I think I’d prefer to sit Carr and Ruggs if I have better options. Renfrow is a low, low-end WR3 this week. Waller and Jacobs are hammers at their positions as usual.
The Chiefs are the same team every week for fantasy, but I’m planning on being overexposed to CEH in DFS this week.
Arizona at NY Jets (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Cardinals…
There just seems to be something missing with Cardinal QB Kyler Murray. While he has the flair for the spectacular, his passing numbers have been pedestrian all season, as he’s averaging just 6.4 YPA, down from 6.9 last year. And he can’t blame the offensive line — for the second consecutive season, Murray is being pressured on a lower percentage of his dropbacks than any other QB in the NFL (11.9%), according to Next Gen Stats.
But when he is under pressure, Murray has been terrible — 19.1 passer rating, 3rd-worst in the NFL (he was 2nd-worst last season). And he’s also completing just 21.4% of his passes that travel 20 or more yards through the air. Everything is a dink and dunk for Murray.
Cardinal reporters have noticed — they asked Murray about it this week in his media availability. Murray noted that the Panthers were more physical than the Cards last week, and he wasn’t “panicking over one week.” “The first three weeks the ball was downfield,” Murray said.
RB Kenyan Drake has been one of the most disappointing players in fantasy so far this year, as I said in my Tuesday Talking Points column, and he left last week’s game with a chest injury. He’s practicing in full this week, so it at least isn’t an injury that’s the reason for his struggles (is that bad news?).
WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle) is also back practicing in full.
What They’re Saying About the Jets…
NOTE: The Jets had a presumed positive test on a player Friday morning. They are re-running tests to confirm that positive test, but for now, their facility is shut down and their game could be at risk of being moved. There are some reports that test was a false positive, so just monitor this situation. For now, expect the game to be played.
Nonetheless the Darnold question is beginning to have a definitive answer. He is not the QB of the future for the New York Jets. The Athletic’s Connor Hughes is one of the best beat writers in the entire league, and this story he wrote on Thursday was pretty staggering. “Darnold’s regression was evident well before he crash-landed on his right shoulder Thursday night against Denver,” Hughes wrote. “It began this summer. Darnold, supposedly much more comfortable entering his second season in Gase’s offense, had a wildly underwhelming training camp.”
Blame it on whatever you like, and certainly coach Adam Gase and GM Joe Douglas should shoulder some blame for failing to develop Darnold and the talent around him. But Darnold also has never completed a full season, and has never shown the kind of upside or consistency that would make the Jets eagerly anticipate that magical year in which he doesn’t get hurt. Whether or not Gase and/or Douglas are here to see it through, Darnold is going to be replaced in 2021, and the still-young passer will get a fresh start somewhere else.
Jet RB Le’Veon Bell (hamstring) is practicing this week as he prepares to come off of IR. The Jets are hopeful he can play this week, and Gase expects him to. But WR Breshad Perriman (ankle) and Denzel Mims (hamstring) still seem a ways away, so Flacco isn’t going to have much more to throw to than slot man Jamison Crowder, and he might not have LT Mekhi Becton (shoulder) to protect him.
It goes without saying, but if you have anyone you’re planning on playing in this game, you have to keep an eye on the results of COVID testing, because the game could be moved or canceled.
For Arizona, Murray and Hopkins are in my lineup, and with the Cardinals thinking they need to go down the field more this week, I like Christian Kirk as a WR3.
For New York, I’m considering two players — Bell (as a FLEX), and Crowder (as a WR2). That’s it. They are abominable.
Philadelphia at Pittsburgh (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Eagles…
There’s no doubt Eagle QB Carson Wentz played his best game of the season in Week 4’s win over the 49ers, but that was a low bar to clear for Wentz, who had played his worst three-game stretch of his career. Wentz is still missing throws and overreacting to pressure, which suggests he’s just not comfortable in the pocket.
That could be bad news against Pittsburgh, which is pressuring opposing QBs on 41% of dropbacks, a league-high number per Next Gen Stats. Remember that if RT Lane Johnson (ankle) can’t play, Wentz will be playing with just one starter on his offensive line — C Jason Kelce — in the spot he was projected to start at in August. The Eagles have allowed a 3rd-most 14 sacks this season, though some have been on Wentz.
The unique problem for coach Doug Pederson is that Wentz’s mechanics have failed him on some short, lay-up throws this year, meaning easy completions turn into incompletions or “inaccurate completions” on which receiver YAC has been limited. But he certainly doesn’t want Wentz taking seven-step drops against Pittsburgh — according to Next Gen Stats, Wentz has been pressured on 21 of his 28 dropbacks (75%) that last 4 seconds or longer, the most in the NFL. Wentz’s 13.5 passer rating on such dropbacks is the lowest in the league.
So one thing that Wentz has done the last two weeks — and I fully endorse — is run more. Pederson has gotten Wentz outside the pocket, where he is more comfortable making plays. But Wentz has 3 rushing TDs over the last three weeks, doubling his career total heading into the season. I think it should be something the Eagles do more.
“We’re comfortable putting him in that situation,” Pederson said. “We don’t want to do it too much, but as long as he protects himself and we can help him do that then we’re OK.”
I view it like this — yes, you want to protect Wentz, as he tore his ACL three years ago on a scramble. But if he’s a better player when he’s running, throwing on the move, and getting outside the pocket, then the Eagles have to put him in positions to succeed.
Wentz could also get some help on the perimeter soon — WRs DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and Alshon Jeffery (foot) were practicing this week, but Jackson is looking like a game-time decision, while Jeffery was slowed this week by a non-COVID illness that will keep him out. So Wentz’s group of ragtag scrubs will probably have to step it up again.
For what it’s worth, our Adam Caplan was told that TE Zach Ertz’s poor game last week was not a result of the 49ers playing special coverage — he just couldn’t get open, which is uncommon for him. Greg Cosell said the tape showed the same thing. Yikes.
What They’re Saying About the Steelers…
The Eagles have played more man coverage this year than they have under Jim Schwartz because they have a CB in Darius Slay who can handle top receivers in man coverage. So the big question this week is if Slay will shadow — or at least selectively match up — on WR Diontae Johnson. QB Ben Roethlisberger has noticed that Johnson is getting significant attention from defenses. “He should be getting attention,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s a heck of a football player with an incredible skill set.”
The Eagles have been getting creamed in the slot, where they’ve rotated Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cre’Von LeBlanc, and with S Jalen Mills having to move back to CB because of the injury to Avonte Maddox (ankle), they have a rotation at Mills’ old spot with Marcus Epps and rookie K’Von Wallace. That is potentially great news for slot WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and TE Eric Ebron.
There’s no doubt this game will be decided by the pass rush. Philadelphia’s 17 sacks lead the NFL, but Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger is being pressured on just 15.8% of his dropbacks this year, 3rd-lowest in the NFL per Next Gen Stats. One major reason? His average time to throw is just 2.40 seconds, the second-fastest in the NFL.
This is a horrific matchup for the Eagles, so I’m benching Wentz if at all possible. But you could talk me into WR Greg Ward if I needed a volume WR3, and I think Ertz can bounce back. If DJax plays, I’m sitting him until I actually see him make it through a damn game.
For Pittsburgh, I’m playing the usual suspects (including Johnson, as I don’t think he’ll catch a full Slay shadow), and I think Ebron is a justifiable streaming TE1 against an awful Eagle LB corps and banged-up group of safeties.
LA Rams at Washington (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Rams…
It hasn’t been a big year for QB Jared Goff. He’s been more efficient and a game manager than the orchestrator of a high-powered offense — the Rams are tied for 14th in the NFL with 26.5 PPG this year, which would be the lowest under Sean McVay. Goff’s 1063 passing yards and 6 TD passes are he fewest through four games under McVay, but he’s also been very efficient, with a passer rating of 100 or more in three straight games (the first time he’s done that since 2018).
I write it every week here, but Goff has been excelling on play action. According to Next Gen Stats, Goff is using play action on 46.9% of his dropbacks, 2nd-most in the NFL, with an excellent 125.7 rating on play action (91.6 without). And the thing McVay is doing very well is getting Goff on the move off of play action — he’s completing 93.8% of his passes off of play action when outside the tackle box, with a league-most 15 completions.
Moving the tackle box is likely to be a big focus for the Rams this week, because it’s possible Washington gets disruptive rookie EDGE Chase Young (groin) back in the lineup.
The Rams’ backfield is also getting more crowded this week — rookie Cam Akers (ribs) is practicing in full and is expected to play. Every indication is that McVay will ride the hot hand here, so we’re going to have some level of a guessing game every week here.
What They’re Saying About Washington…
The Team has made the switch. Second-year QB Dwayne Haskins has been benched for Kyle Allen. It’s a move that’s been both panned and understood on social media. I think it’s completely reasonable to say Haskins hasn’t gotten a particularly fair shake, but also to say that he hasn’t done anything with the opportunities he’s gotten to take hold of the job. If you want to know just how the Team feels about Haskins, he won’t even be the backup on Sunday — that’ll be Alex Smith.
I liked this piece from The Athletic’s Mark Bullock, using an All-22 look at how restricted the Team’s offense was with Haskins. Bullock’s takeaways were that OC Scott Turner just couldn’t get Haskins into a rhythm consistently enough to open up the field and connect on shot plays. The numbers bear that out — according to Next Gen Stats, Haskins had both the lowest average time to throw (2.38 seconds) and completed air yards per throw (3.8) in the NFL. Turner basically felt like putting scoring drives together with Haskins was like pulling teeth.
Allen’s positives — he’s an aggressive mentality player who played in Turner’s system in Carolina last year — can also be negatives. As The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker writes: “While Allen had success early on his career – he won five of his first six starts – from there, the signal-caller crashed and burned. He tried doing too much and tried to get everything back on one big play instead of chipping away at the deficit. Allen made ill-advised throws and decisions, but could also get aggressive, fit the ball into the tight windows, and was also never afraid of going for the home-run ball.”
The Team put WR Steven Sims (toe) on IR this week, so it will be interesting to see how many more snaps rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden will get. He’s played a total of 30 snaps in the last two weeks. Allen will take shots, which can get ugly but is also good for fantasy — I certainly don’t think his insertion into the lineup is bad news for this receiving corps (especially Terry McLaurin).
The big question for the Rams is the backfield — I think all of Akers, Darrell Henderson, and Malcolm Brown are FLEX options until further notice, and highly volatile ones at that. The passing game is solid with Goff, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods as must-starts, but I’ve been disappointed in the usage of TE Tyler Higbee, who is benchable.
For the Team, you’re still playing only RB Antonio Gibson and McLaurin, but we’ll see if Allen raises the floor for the rest of the fantasy options here.
Miami at San Francisco (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Dolphins…
The Dolphins aren’t making a QB switch just yet — Ryan Fitzpatrick is starting this week. The fact that coach Brian Flores had to confirm it this week, though, is a sign that they’re planning a change to Tua Tagovailoa pretty soon. Fitz knows his role here, so he’s obviously going to go with the flow.
One player who stands to benefit from Fitz’s continued presence in the lineup is WR DeVante Parker, who seemed to finally get past his nagging injuries to post a 10-catch game in Week 4. Fitzpatrick says he relies “on [Parker] to win one-on-one,” something that’s a little easier to do against San Francisco these days because the 49ers do not expect to have Richard Sherman (hamstring) back until next week, even though he’s eligible to come off IR this week.
One of the reasons the Dolphins might be reluctant to plug Tua into the game is the offensive line — they had to place rookie LT Austin Jackson (foot) on IR this week, which is a blow to a team that is already thin up front.
What They’re Saying About the 49ers…
The key for the 49ers is obvious this week — it looks like QB Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle) is going to return to the lineup. The Niners got good mileage out of backup Nick Mullens, but Mullens was consistently under siege from Philly last week and got shook. The Niners benched him in the fourth quarter for CJ Beathard, who nearly rallied San Francisco back.
The 49ers released veteran WR Mohamed Sanu this week, which seems to be a good indication that they think second-year WR Deebo Samuel (foot) can handle a bigger role. Samuel played about a third of the snaps last week against Philly and handled four touches. According to the Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman, Samuel is “a little sore” but mostly because he hasn’t been in a game situation since the Super Bowl.
“I think it’s more space for all of us, because now you actually got to cover the whole field with me, Kittle and Brandon able to break tackles,” Samuel said. “You don’t know who’s getting the end around, who’s getting the screens, so it puts stress on defensive coordinators for how they’re going to game plan against us.”
The 49ers’ focus on YAC is obvious on film and in the stat sheet. Both Garoppolo and Mullens are in the bottom five in the NFL in intended air yards per attempt, per Next Gen Stats.
The Dolphins might be able to get CB Byron Jones (groin, Achilles) back from injury this week. That would be massive for Miami’s defense because, according to Next Gen Stats, Kittle has been in the slot or out wide on nearly half of his snaps this year.
Kittle’s impact has also been felt in the run game, as he’s a fantastic blocker — San Francisco has averaged 5.2 YPC with Kittle on the field and 4.4 without him. And the run game could get a boost this week with RB Raheem Mostert (knee) returning to practice.
Play Parker and maybe Myles Gaskin (FLEX) for Miami. I don’t feel good about anyone else.
For the Niners, Garoppolo is expected to play and he’s a decent streamer this week. Deebo and Aiyuk are both WR3s, with Deebo’s role expected to increase this week. Mostert and McKinnon are both FLEX options — I expect Mostert to play, but I don’t know how Kyle Shanahan can completely go away from McKinnon given how great he’s looked the past couple of weeks.
Indianapolis at Cleveland (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
As we expected, Colts QB Philip Rivers is benefiting from something he rarely had with the Chargers — he’s being pressured on just 18.5% of dropbacks behind Indy’s elite offensive line, per Next Gen Stats (6th-lowest in the NFL). It’s the first time in the NGS era he’s been below 20%.
The Colt offensive line will be tasked with slowing down Browns EDGE Myles Garrett. According to NGS, Garrett has already forced 6 turnovers with pressure this year. That would have tied for the NFL lead in 2019 — over the full season. And the Colts are down their starting left tackle — LT Anthony Castonzo hurt a rib last week, so this could be a feast game for Garrett. Colts beat man Zak Keefer of The Athletic has noted how bad Castonzo’s backup Le’Raven Clark has been when filling in.
For what it’s worth, our Greg Cosell with a direct quote from this week’s Matchup Points livestream: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Jonathan Taylor and I expect he’ll get better as the season goes on.”
The Browns being without DT Larry Ogunjobi (abdomen) helps the Colts’ run game.
What They’re Saying About the Browns…
After a terrible Week 1 performance in a brutal matchup with the Ravens, coach Kevin Stefanski has the Browns absolutely humming. Over their current three-game winning streak, Cleveland has averaged a league-high 39.3 points per game. But on Indy’s current three-game winning streak, the Colts are allowing a league-low 9.7 points per game.
QB Baker Mayfield is aiming to become the first Browns QB since the 1960s with four straight games of a 100 passer rating or better. Unfortunately for him, the Colts lead the NFL in defense, allowing a paltry 68.4 passer rating this year.
You knew following last week’s massive game against the hapless Cowboys that WR Odell Beckham would be a huge focus of fantasy players this week. Is he back? Does the Stefanski offense suit him? Well, one thing we know for sure is that Beckham was playing hurt with a groin injury last year, and that might have limited his explosiveness.
According to Next Gen Stats, OBJ’s average max speed this year is 15.98 MPH, up over 2.0 MPH from last season, and up over 1.0 MPH from 2018, his last season with the Giants. So the player tracking technology suggests OBJ is healthier this year than he’s been in quite some time. It’s an encouraging development, to be sure, but let’s see how he looks against the Colts, who are allowing a league-low 159.3 passing YPG this year (and a league-low 236.1 YPG overall).
Obviously, one of the major stories for the Browns is the absence of RB Nick Chubb, who is on IR with an MCL sprain. But the Browns have the best handcuff in the NFL in Kareem Hunt, and their scheme and offensive line (especially the right side) are clearly helping. According to Next Gen Stats, the Browns lead the NFL with 1.98 rushing yards over expected per attempt, with Chubb, Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson all ranking in the top 11 in the category.
The Browns have been best outside the tackles, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt (3rd) on a league-high 77.5% of their runs coming from that scheme. But the Colts have allowed just 3.9 yards per attempt outside the tackles, 6th-fewest in the league. The Colts have FootballOutsiders’ #5 run defense by DVOA. The Browns’ run game gets a massive boost with Colt LB Darius Leonard (groin) out this week. That’s extra important, because their other starting LB, Bobby Okereke, broke his hand last week and will need to play with a cast on his hand, and LB Anthony Walker (ankle) is questionable.
The entire Colts offense catches a downgrade with Castonzo out. I think Taylor remains an RB2, but it’s not great news for Rivers and company.
The Colts’ defensive injuries are making me excited to fire up Hunt as an RB1 and Johnson as a prayer FLEX play — I expect Hunt’s role will increase this week (remember, he came into last week with a groin injury).
It’s not a great week for Mayfield. He’s more of a QB2, while you just have to suck it up and play OBJ as a WR2 after last week’s monster game.
NY Giants at Dallas (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Giants…
To put a twist on the old adage, this is a “stoppable force” against a “movable object.” The Giants — 11.8 PPG — are the league’s worst scoring offense. The Cowboys — 36.5 PPG — are the league’s worst scoring defense. It’s a get-right game for Dallas, as the Giants are the only team in the NFL with under 300 yards gained in every game so far this year.
And it’s an OC Jason Garrett revenge game! I have my doubts, but you know Garrett has to be licking his chops to get after his old team here… if they have enough personnel to take advantage of the Cowboys’ struggles.
A lot of folks might consider streaming QB Daniel Jones this week. The good news is Jones has a better passer rating against zone coverage than man — per Next Gen Stats, the Cowboys play the 10th-most zone coverage in the NFL. The Cowboys’ 126.4 passer rating allowed in zone is the worst in the NFL. The bad news is Jones’ rating against zone is just 76.5, per PFF — his overall QB rating is 68.3. So he’s simply just been “less bad” against zone. When the Cowboys do play man, expect the Giants to go after rookie CB Trevon Diggs, as PFF points out. A good athlete like WR Darius Slayton could torch him.
The key for Dallas is to pressure Jones — Jones has been pressured 73 times this year, per Next Gen Stats, the most in the NFL. But the Cowboys have generated pressure on a mediocre 25.2% of dropbacks (14th).
One observation I made from last week is that I thought new Giants RB Devonta Freeman looked pretty good. Meanwhile, The Cowboys’ run defense was absolutely pathetic last week against the Browns. The Cowboys’ 20 missed tackles vs. the run are 7th-most in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
The Cowboys’ awful defense and excellent receiving corps has QB Dak Prescott on pace for multiple NFL records. He’s the first QB to ever attempt 200 or more passes (201) through the first four weeks of the season. At current pace, his 804 passing attempts would break Matthew Stafford’s NFL record 727 from 2012. And with 1690 pass yards through four games, Prescott is on pace for 6760 — that would utterly shatter Peyton Manning’s NFL record 5477 from 2013.
Expect Prescott and the Cowboys to attack down the field in this one. He has a 134.9 passer rating on throws 10 or more yards down the field (4th-best in the NFL), while the Giants are allowing a 103.3 rating on such throws, according to Next Gen Stats.
The Giants have been a disaster overall this year (I don’t think many would dispute that at this point), but it’s worth pointing out that our Greg Cosell said they dominated at the point of attack against the 49ers’ run game two weeks ago, and the Rams couldn’t get the run game going last week either (when everyone was playing Darrell Henderson for fantasy). So it’s perhaps not the best of matchups for RB Ezekiel Elliott, who is posting career lows in every major rushing category so far (17.5 carries, 68.3 rush YPG, 3.9 YPC).
The line is also affecting Prescott — only Daniel Jones (73) has been under pressure on more dropbacks than Dak (72 — though the sheer number of times Dak has had to drop back increases this number). The Cowboys will be down more linemen this week, with LT Tyron Smith having a setback with his neck injury that will cost him the rest of the season (as Mike McCarthy confirmed on Friday), and C Joe Looney (knee) going down last week. They’re already on their third-string RT, and rookie Tyler Biadasz is looking like he’ll be the center, where Looney was already replacing the retired Travis Frederick. The Giants’ underrated DL could get some penetration here.
Jones hasn’t been as effective when on the field, even if he does manage to play through the injury — Giant DL Leonard Williams told reporters that Smith looked like he was playing hurt when watching the tape.
I am actually considering four Giants this week — Jones (low-end streamer), Slayton (WR2), Freeman (FLEX), and TE Evan Engram (low-end TE1). But it is entirely matchup based because this offense stinks.
Play everyone from Dallas, though the offensive line issues might make Zeke far less appealing than he typically is (and, frankly, his play from this year has already made him less appealing).
Minnesota at Seattle (Sun, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
If you like big plays, this is going to be the Sunday Night Football game for you. We know about Russell Wilson, and I’ll break down why this matchup is glorious for him in a sec. But how about how well Viking QB Kirk Cousins is throwing the ball?
According to SportsInfoSolutions, Cousins is throwing deep balls (15+ air yards) on 22% of his throws this year, up from 13% last year, the biggest gain in the entire NFL so far. He’s also second in the NFL in deep ball on-target throw percentage at 71% — 2nd-best in the NFL, and up from just 46% last year. (Wilson leads the NFL, having been on target on 78% of his deep balls this season so far).
Cousins has a very narrow target tree, though — 51% of his throws this season have gone in the direction of either Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson. Jefferson has a chance to make history — if he goes over 100 yards receiving in this contest, he will be the first rookie Viking receiver to do so since some guy named Moss in 1998.
What They’re Saying About the Seahawks…
It’s a good matchup for MVP candidate Russell Wilson against a Viking defense allowing a fourth-most 291.8 passing yards per game this year. In a refrain I’ve been hammering in this column every week, Wilson’s deep-ball production has been insane — according to Next Gen Stats, Wilson leads the NFL with 430 passing yards and 7 TD on throws that have traveled 20 or more yards in the air. And keep in mind he should have 8 TD… DK Metcalf got Leon Lett’d against Dallas two weeks ago.
Part of the reason the Vikings have been so bad against the pass? Their expensive pass rush. Per Next Gen Stats, the Vikings are getting pressure on just 18.5% of dropbacks, 2nd-lowest in the NFL, and they’re allowing 9.2 YPA when not generating pressure (2nd-most in the NFL). When not pressured this season, among all QBs, Wilson is first in completion percentage (80%), second in YPA (9.9), first in passing TD (14), and second in passer rating (140.1). That doesn’t bode well for the Vikings, methinks!
The Vikings have three must-starts — Dalvin Cook, Thielen, and Jefferson. In this matchup, Cousins is a viable QB streamer (I prefer him to Daniel Jones, for instance).
Seattle is the same team every week. Play your guys.
Denver at New England (Mon, 5 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Broncos…
Broncos QB Drew Lock (shoulder) has been practicing this week as he looks to get back on the field, but it appears more likely that he returns to the lineup next week, according to the plugged-in James Palmer — so it appears Brett Rypien will get another start.
RB Melvin Gordon had a huge game last Thursday night against the Jets, but he’s now going to have to compete for touches with Phillip Lindsay, who is returning from a three-game absence with turf toe. Lindsay’s return has been a huge topic of conversation among Broncos fans and beats alike, and Gordon has his own thoughts on the situation.
The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider points out that Gordon and Lindsay were actually on the field together for the Broncos’ first snap of the 2020 NFL season — Lindsay went down late in the first half against Tennessee in Week 1.
“We were just kind of trying to figure out how that [rotation] going to be and then Phil, unfortunately, got hurt and was out a couple games,” Gordon told Kosmider. “Obviously, the game plan changes a little bit, I’m assuming. I’m assuming they’re going to try to get us both on the field at the same time, use us both as weapons and keep teams uneasy. We both bring different things to the table and I think we’ll be a great attack.”
The Patriots are 19th in the NFL with 4.43 YPC allowed and are 19th in Football Outsiders rush defense DVOA, so I expect both Gordon and Lindsay to get a lot of work to help out Rypien in this matchup.
Two key injuries/illnesses will affect Rypien if this game is played this week. While Patriot top CB Stephon Gilmore seems highly unlikely to play after testing positive for COVID-19 this week, Rypien is expected to be down TE Noah Fant, who has an ankle injury. It is unfortunate for football fans, because it would have been interesting to see if coach Bill Belichick put Gilmore on Fant or tried to double him and limit him the way he did Darren Waller two weeks ago. Gilmore being out is good news for Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick, at least (KJ Hamler also isn’t expected to play). The Patriots play man coverage on 61.4% of their defensive snaps, according to Next Gen Stats — only Pats protege Matt Patricia and the Lions (62%) play more. Will they change that up with Gilmore out?
Overall, it’s a brutal matchup for Rypien. Belichick knows how to scheme against young QBs. Since 2014, QBs under 25 years old against the Patriots are 3-21 — the only three to win are Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson.
What They’re Saying About the Patriots…
Obviously, the biggest news for the Patriots this week is whether or not this game can be played as scheduled. While they haven’t had an outbreak of COVID to the scale of Tennessee — or anywhere close to Tennessee — with QB Cam Newton and CB Stephon Gilmore both being on the reserve/COVID list, that’s two critical players who have tested positive.
With this game being delayed until Monday, there’s a chance Newton returns, which would be huge for the Pats.
Obviously, Newton being back would change a lot for the Pats, but mostly effectiveness — despite New England trailing the Chiefs for virtually the entire game last week, Damien Harris got 17 carries, the most by any Pat not named Sony Michel (on IR) in the last three seasons. That was in large part because QB Brian Hoyer was awful, but because of how bad this receiving corps is, this will be a running football team going forward. Harris will have an opportunity to nail down that backfield.
I expect Rypien to start here. Jeudy is a WR3, and Patrick is a FLEX flyer, obviously in a more appealing situation if Gilmore can’t go. In the backfield, Gordon is a low-end RB2, and Lindsay is a prayer FLEX. I want to see how he’s used, and the matchup stinks.
Newton being available would raise the ceiling for this entire Patriot offense. I consider Harris an RB2, but with more upside if Cam can go.
LA Chargers at New Orleans (Mon, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Chargers…
It’s no surprise given how well he has played the last three weeks, but Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has officially named Justin Herbert the starting QB over Tyrod Taylor, even when Taylor is 100% healthy.
It’s not just the production, though, according to Lynn — “I like the way he handles himself and how his teammates respond to him,” Lynn said, according to Gilbert Manzano of the Orange County Register. And Herbert hasn’t exactly been given an easy draw, either — he will become the first QB in NFL history to make three of his first four starts against Super Bowl MVPs (Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees), per NFL Research.
Herbert plays much different than his counterpart in this game. According to Next Gen Stats, Herbert has thrown from play action at the 10th-highest rate in the NFL, and is averaging 11.0 air yards per attempt on play action (5th-highest). Meanwhile, Brees attempts play-action passes at the lowest rate in the NFL (just 12.7%), and his 7.4 air yards per attempt out of play action is a bottom-10 number among QBs.
One player who has to be happy about Herbert starting is WR Keenan Allen. Since Week 2 (Herbert’s first start), Allen leads the NFL in targets (41) and receptions (28) and ranks 6th in receiving yards (290). He’s averaging 13.7 targets, 9.3 receptions, and 96.7 yards per game with Herbert. His per-game rates in targets, receptions and receiving yards with Herbert are all higher than in any season with Philip Rivers (11.1 TPG, 8.4 RPG, 90.6 YPG in 2015 were his highs with Rivers).
The matchup will be tough for Herbert, too, if things keep trending in the right direction for some key Saints defenders. CB Marshon Lattimore (hamstring) and DE Marcus Davenport (elbow/toe) returned to practice this week. CB Janoris Jenkins (shoulder) seems less likely to go than Lattimore or Davenport. The Chargers aren’t expected to have WR Mike Williams (hamstring) either, so Jalen Guyton should have a role again.
While the Chargers have not yet put RB Austin Ekeler on IR with his hamstring injury, he’s going to be out this week and likely longer, though he doesn’t need surgery at this point. ESPN’s Adam Schefter said the initial four-to-six-week timetable is intact.
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
If Thomas is back, he’s clearly going to benefit from top CB Chris Harris, who can play both outside and in the slot for the Chargers, being on IR with a foot injury.
The Saint defense hasn’t been nearly as good as I expected this year, so Herbert is a viable QB streamer, with Allen a slam-dunk WR1. Guyton is a prayer WR4 if you need him.
With Ekeler out, Joshua Kelley is an RB2, but his fumbling issues could mean more carries than expected for Justin Jackson (FLEX play).
Keep an eye on Thomas and Cook’s statuses throughout the weekend. If one or both goes, that’s obviously an upgrade for QB Drew Brees and company, but a downgrade for these fill-in receivers.
Buffalo at Tennessee (Tue, 7 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bills…
The Bills have a true playmaker in QB Josh Allen, but by reigning in some of Allen’s more reckless tendencies, OC Brian Daboll has helped to mold an MVP candidate.
According to Next Gen Stats, Allen’s average air yards per attempt in 2020 is at a career-low 8.0. That’s not dink-and-dunk football, but it puts him firmly in the middle of the pack in the NFL (he’s tied with Dak Prescott and Ryan Tannehill). Here’s what is interesting — Allen’s average time to throw of 3.04 seconds is third-most in the NFL, so he’s simply making better decisions and letting receivers get open — 51.4% of Allen’s throws go in the direction of a receiver who has 3 or more yards of separation at the time of the target. So this is a perfect example of great coaching, great QB improvement, and great roster-building (the Stefon Diggs trade) melding together.
Diggs has especially helped Allen on crossing routes — Allen has a perfect 156.3 rating on those throws this year (Next Gen Stats), and Diggs is creating great separation on those routes.
WR John Brown — who has dealt with lower-body issues so far this year — appeared to come up lame in practice this week. Keep an eye on his status, because if he’s out, rookie Gabriel Davis will get snaps.
Bill RB Zack Moss (toe) has missed the last two games but has gotten limited practice in this week.
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
Look, everything being said about the Titans right now is about their COVID outbreak, as it should be. As opposed to teams like Atlanta, New England, and Kansas City — which all appear to have isolated or very small numbers of cases — the Titans have an active outbreak of more than 20 positive tests.
It seems pretty obvious the Titans skirted protocols and held an unauthorized workout at this point, as longtime Titan beat man Paul Kuharsky writes. Kuharsky has a source that put QB Ryan Tannehill at the workout. Yikes. For more details on what the NFL is investigating regarding the Titans, read this Twitter thread from ESPN’s Dan Graziano.
Who knows what kind of hammer the NFL is going to drop on the Titans, but it figures to be a big one.
If this game is played there are two big injuries to watch — WR AJ Brown (knee) has theoretically been limited in practice this week (the Titans are only estimating since they aren’t actually practicing), but Bill CB Tre’Davious White is dealing with a back injury and hasn’t practiced this week. I’d like to be able to recommend Corey Davis in the event Brown doesn’t play, but he’s on the COVID list!
Obviously, it is up to you to decide if the risk is worth taking on this game on Tuesday, though your league might have instituted some rules to make it easier on you.
The injuries over the weekend are important to follow too, so I’m not comfortable making any definitive calls just yet.