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 stats to back up narratives and 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.
Green Bay at San Francisco (Thu, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Packers…
Here’s the story for this game, for Green Bay — injuries and COVID-19. I mean, that frankly exists for many teams in the NFL at this point, but with Wisconsin a hot spot for the virus, it seemed inevitable that the Packers would be affected.
Unfortunately for them, it affected them at a key position group. With RB AJ Dillon testing positive for the virus, the Packers also had to put RB Jamaal Williams on the COVID-19 list because he was a close contact with Dillon. That leaves them in a precarious position, with RB Aaron Jones questionable to play with a calf injury (his official designation).
So the backfield breakdown is incredibly important for fantasy here, against a run defense that is 7th-best in the NFL by FootballOutsiders’ DVOA (though the Niners did just deal LB Kwon Alexander to the Saints).
“Ervin normally handles horizontal runs — jet sweeps, push passes, etc. — and not vertical runs like Jones and (Jamaal) Williams. This season, Ervin has six catches for 33 yards and four rushes for 43 yards,” Scheidman writes, noting that the Packers didn’t have him handle his typical return duties in full because he’s still nursing a wrist injury that cost him time earlier in the season.
Dexter Williams may have to play out of necessity, but there’s a big problem — his hands.
“In practice periods open to reporters, he’s struggled to catch passes, a trait running backs must have in Matt LaFleur’s offense. He’s also struggled as a blocker and was to blame for JK Scott’s blocked punt in the fourth quarter against the Texans,” Schneidman writes. Not exactly a ringing endorsement!
Dexter, though, might be important out of necessity, given his style as a straight-line downhill runner with some wiggle. That’s just not the kind of run that Ervin excels on.
So if the Packers aren’t able to run the ball effectively, they fortunately have a heck of a backup plan with QB Aaron Rodgers. And there appears to be a chance that Rodgers gets WR Allen Lazard back from a core-muscle injury, though the Packers could give him one more week and the Thursday to Sunday “mini-bye.”
LT David Bakhtiari (chest) is also questionable for the Packers. He didn’t play last week.
Perhaps Lazard’s imminent return is one of the reasons the Packers balked at the asking price from Houston for Will Fuller.
What They’re Saying About the 49ers…
Well, the first thing we have to wonder here is if the game is going to be played at all — 49er WR Kendrick Bourne tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, and the 49ers had to shut their facility down for contact tracing and precautions. So obviously, this game could be moved to later in the week.
Bourne’s positive test highlights the fact that the 49ers are the most injured team in the NFL. With QB Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) and TE George Kittle (foot) now both potentially out for season, the 49ers are now going to be without any single skill player who touched the ball in the NFC Championship Game against these same Packers just 10 months ago. That is insane!
The best-case scenario, per The Athletic’s David Lombardi, is Garoppolo and Kittle return in December. With Kittle out, the 49ers are hoping Jordan Reed can return from a knee injury, but he was merely limited in practice this week. If Reed can’t play, it’ll be Ross Dwelley. Dwelley scored from Mullens last week, so he’s on the radar.
One thing you can count on, though, is coach Kyle Shanahan will almost certainly try to support QB Nick Mullens with a run game, just as the 49ers ran all over the Packers in the title game last year. And this is a Green Bay defense that got utterly destroyed on the ground last week, by rival Dalvin Cook and the Vikings.
How could the 49ers exploit that run defense? My friend Ben Fennell of The Athletic breaks it down here, but the fact of the matter remains that the Packers are just terrible at tackling. But presuming the Packers get their tackling together — a big assumption, given how much they’ve struggled this year — Fennell also notes that the Packers have struggled with gap integrity. That’s something Shanahan can exploit in a huge way.
I expect a ton of work for JaMycal Hasty and Jerick McKinnon in this one. WR Brandon Aiyuk may catch a shadow from Jaire Alexander — the Niners have no one else outside to threaten with Deebo Samuel (hamstring) out. WR Richie James (ankle) is also questionable. CB Kevin King (quad) is out for the Packers.
By the way, despite all their problems on offense, the 49ers cut third-year WR Dante Pettis this week, as Shanahan clears out his doghouse for a new tenant.
Obviously, everything hinges on Jones’ availability. If he plays, he’s a must start, even though the Packers have been taking it cautiously with him, so I’m a bit nervous for an aggravation. If he doesn’t play, I prefer Ervin to D. Williams, but both are only FLEX options.
Rodgers is still a QB1 because he has Davante Adams, but it’s worth pointing out that Lazard can still be activated before Thursday’s game. He’d be a prayer WR3 if you need him, but again, it’s possible the Packers focus on throwing the ball if Jones can’t play.
For the Niners, I think Mullens is a desperation streamer, mostly because of the lack of weapons here and how I anticipate the Niners will attack the Packers. Hasty is a high-end RB2 and McKinnon a low-end RB2.
Aiyuk probably gets the volume to be a WR3, but the matchup is nasty. At TE, I prefer Reed if he plays, but Dwelley is a viable streamer if not.