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.
Denver at Carolina (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Broncos…
I think the Broncos could be one of the more fascinating teams this off-season coming up. Why? Because GM John Elway did so much to build around QB Drew Lock for 2020, but Lock hasn’t exactly repaid him with strong play. That all being said, Elway must be sick of continually trying to put a Band-Aid on the QB wound that has been festering since Peyton Manning’s retirement following Super Bowl 50.
Mile High Report’s Adam Malnati thinks the 2021 plan is clear: the Broncos are going to bring Lock back and give him a more “normal” off-season of development, hopefully with #1 WR Courtland Sutton healthy.
Look, at this stage for a team that isn’t going anywhere in 2020 — and isn’t giving us much for fantasy, either — the focus will definitely be on 2021 and beyond. And no player is even close to the level of debate in Denver that Lock is inspiring. However, as The Athletic points out, there’s no easy fix here.
“Lock’s footwork has improved from his college days but he still has to continue to improve and refine it, especially when he’s under pressure. However, it won’t matter how strong his footwork is if he keeps making bad decisions. The most concerning issue with Lock is that he hasn’t shown a lot of growth reading defenses and making good decisions,” Ted Nguyen writes.
At least Lock will have a near-100% WR Jerry Jeudy this week — he’s been dealing with an ankle injury but has returned to full practice.
Phillip Lindsay (knee) is also practicing in full but he’s useless for fantasy — despite a pretty big role, he’s been a top-24 PPR RB just twice all season.
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
The Panthers have a COVID-19 mini outbreak, and the NFL is apparently blaming it on players getting together outside of the team facility. There could be some hefty fines coming to the club.
The Panthers were expecting to get RB Christian McCaffrey back from his shoulder injury, but coach Matt Rhule told reporters on Wednesday that CMC now also has a thigh injury that popped up over the bye week. CMC did not practice on Thursday, either, calling his status into major doubt — Rhule said on Thursday he doesn’t expect CMC to play. Obviously, Mike Davis should not be dropped in any league.
The passing game could be the most affected by the COVID situation here. WR DJ Moore was one of the first players to go on the list, then Curtis Samuel did as well, before coming off the list on Friday. If either or neither can play (obviously, Samuel has a much better shot), this could be a big week for Robby Anderson against a Denver team that just lost CB AJ Bouye to a positive PED test and suspension. Moore isn’t expected to play, but Samuel is.
The Panthers could be “growing impatient” with kicker Joey Slye, The Athletic’s Joseph Person concludes, given the team signed former CFL star Lirim Kajrullahu to their practice squad.
The Broncos are just an impossibly crappy fantasy team right now. WR Tim Patrick is a WR3, and RB Melvin Gordon is a FLEX-level option. The Panthers’ D isn’t good, but neither is this offense.
Davis is a high-end RB2 this week with CMC likely out. I especially like Anderson and Samuel as WR2s with this passing tree narrowed for the week with Moore likely out.
Houston at Chicago (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
Sometimes all players need is a second chance, even if there were real early issues. Since the firing of Bill O’Brien, Texan WR Keke Coutee has slowly emerged from O’Brien’s doghouse and has become a real contributor on a team that’s needed it down the stretch. The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak did a really nice breakdown of Coutee’s game against Indianapolis last week, including a video breakdown of his tape. He writes:
“Coutee was awesome against the Colts in 2020. He caught eight out of nine targets for 141 yards, with the one miss coming on an inaccurate Deshaun Watson pass. Operating almost exclusively out of the slot, Coutee showed exactly that which made him an intriguing prospect out of Texas Tech: the quickness and burst to run away from coverage, a surprisingly large catch radius, and some toughness over the middle. Used as a vertical threat, intermediate crosser, and underneath option alike, Coutee was given the full book of responsibility in his sudden action in 2020 and immediately delivered.”
However, even with O’Brien out, could there still be a major leadership void in Houston? The rise of former team chaplain Jack Easterby to interim general manager has rankled some in the organization, according to Sports Illustrated. It’s a fascinating story of power struggles that deserves a read — even if it’s depressing for Texan fans. According to the report, Easterby pushed to trade DeAndre Hopkins because of a poor “culture” fit.
Anyway, Bear DC Chuck Pagano called QB Deshaun Watson “a top two or three player” in the NFL this week. If only the Bears were ever in a position to get them one of those…
The Texan run game has been a secondary thought for the entire year, but we could get another week of near-full Duke Johnson usage. RB David Johnson, the Texans’ top RB, landed on the COVID-19 list (though it doesn’t appear to be for a positive test). However, we’ll be monitoring closely — Duke missed practice on Thursday with an “illness” (we don’t know if it’s related or not, and he was full go on Friday).
WR Brandin Cooks (foot, neck) has been limited in practice but there doesn’t appear to be a reason to worry about his status. Cooks and Coutee (knee) are both listed as questionable, but there doesn’t appear to be a reason either would miss.
What They’re Saying About the Bears…
One of the first signs a coaching staff might be losing control over a situation is miscommunication, and the Bears have had a ton of it this season. The Athletic’s Adam Jahns examines one area they’ve truly failed — coming out of timeouts.
Jahns also has his advice for team owner George McCaskey, who is approaching a critical off-season in Bears history — after a 5-1 start, six straight losses have the Bears extremely unlikely to advance to the playoffs. It looks like a new GM, a new coach, and obviously a new quarterback will be on the way.
It’s a great week for the Bears to continue giving the ball to RB David Montgomery. As the Chicago Tribune points out, the Texans are giving up the second-most rush yards per game (150.9) and per carry (4.86). Montgomery averages just 3.4 YPC without Mitchell Trubisky at QB, but 5.1 YPC with him. He averages virtually the same yards after contact — 2.5 to 2.7 — without him vs. with him, however. Why? He’s a much more decisive runner from under center, and the Bears run more under-center stuff with Trubisky vis-a-vis Nick Foles.
In terms of the passing game, keep an eye on the status of WR Darnell Mooney, who missed multiple practices this week for a personal issue. Coach Matt Nagy does expect him to play.
Coutee and Cooks are WR2s if they go. If not… Chad Hansen? Dukie is an RB2. And you know you’re playing Watson.
I think Trubisky is a defensible streamer this week, and Montgomery is one of the best RB plays on the board.
Dallas at Cincinnati (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
We know what the Cowboys’ offense is at this point for fantasy, and it’s obviously not producing the numbers it would be if Dak Prescott and this offensive line were healthy. But coach Mike McCarthy’s boys put up over 400 yards of offense last week against the Ravens in a tough matchup, including 285 passing yards from QB Andy Dalton. It was Dalton’s best game with the Cowboys, McCarthy told reporters. And now he’s ready for his REVENGE GAME in Cincy!
Unfortunately, Dalton playing well isn’t enough for the networks. Even bad Cowboys teams don’t get flexed out of primetime games… until now.
The Athletic’s Bob Sturm has done an extensive breakdown on WR CeeDee Lamb’s rookie season, which obviously has slowed to a near crawl with Dalton at QB — Lamb’s 16-game pace with a backup at QB is for 600 receiving yards, while it was nearly 1400 yards with Prescott. But Sturm still sees many positives from Lamb’s game, though he has a couple of concerns. He writes:
“First and foremost, I am pretty worried about the shots he takes over the middle of the field. It was incredible how well he connected with Prescott right away down the seams, but man, did he take some massive shots to the head in that first month or so. Nothing can halt the progress of a great receiver’s career quite like concussions, and his courage might outweigh his durability at his size. He just isn’t big enough to sustain that much punishment as a habit. You have to be judicious at this level.
The other thing are the recent drops. He does have six on the year, and I don’t think he had anything close to that at Oklahoma. I assume having four different quarterbacks this season has not helped, but the touchdown he dropped on Thanksgiving and then the Hail Mary at the end of the half against Baltimore are two catches that Lamb can make, and I just want to make sure that this doesn’t creep into his game at all.”
Cowboy RB Ezekiel Elliott has been limited in practice this week with a calf injury, but it appears to be more precautionary than anything else. It’s yet another reminder to handcuff him with Tony Pollard in the event the Cowboys want to sit him down when they’re totally out of it, though.
What They’re Saying About the Bengals…
Bengal RB Joe Mixon (foot) will not come off IR in Week 14, though coach Zac Taylor told reporters on Wednesday Mixon could still return this year. That makes me wonder — when would you feel comfortable playing him in this awful offense? Say he returns in Week 15, are you rushing to get him back in there without seeing what he looks like? Remember, the Bengals were struggling to run the ball even when Mixon was in there.
That being said, Dallas’ run defense is miserable. Could this be a week for Giovani Bernard to actually get going?
Though Taylor’s job has been marred by terrible offensive line play and two seasons of QB injuries, his perch atop the organization apparently is not safe — his record is 4-23-1, after all. The Athletic’s Paul Dehner examines:
“The injury to Joe Burrow hovers over all of this. The offense looked great and was really coming into its own prior to the injury. Burrow was developing and the Bengals were going games where they barely punted.
For the five-game stretch from Week 4 to Week 8, the Bengals ranked 10th in scoring drive efficiency, 12th in points per drive and 12th in yards per attempt, which includes an absolute stinker in Baltimore. After the bye, they were beaten up by Pittsburgh and Burrow got hurt in Washington. Then the trainwreck began.
They’re now running plays with Brandon Allen, no Joe Mixon, the same bargain-basement offensive line and an $18 million receiver who hasn’t caught a pass in three of the last four games. Yes, they stink. Yes, the lack of answers depth-wise falls on the head coach. Yes, they are responsible for making the offensive line they drafted, coached and at times stood on the table for work.
Inevitably, what’s in the best interest of Burrow holds the most importance in regards to what’s in the best interest of the Bengals. I don’t know what the family thinks the answer to that question is, but the quarterback is the organization right now. He’s about all they have going for them. They have to view it that way.”
It could be a little easier for the Bengals to throw the ball this week with the Cowboys putting CB Chidobe Awuzie on the COVID list, but yeah, the Bengals have a garbage QB situation and Tee Higgins (hamstring) has been limited in practice this week.
Zeke is an RB2 and Dalton a low-level streamer in this matchup. When it comes to the WRs, I think all three Dallas WRs are WR3s — I’ve been impressed with Bengal CB William Jackson.
I want nothing to do with the Bengals with the exception of Bernard (FLEX), Higgins (WR4), and Tyler Boyd (WR3).
Tennessee at Jacksonville (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
The Titans have been cautious all year long with star WR AJ Brown, who has dealt with knee ailments. But he got rolled up and suffered an ankle injury last week against the Browns, and has missed multiple practices this week. Hopefully, it’s just another example of the Titans being cautious — our Adam Caplan is told Brown is expected to play.
One of the most bizarre and troubling stories of 2020 is that of Titans’ first-round pick OT Isaiah Wilson, who has played just a handful of snaps but is now on the non-football illness list because of what GM Jon Robinson calls “personal issues.”
The Tennessean’s Gentry Estes talked to some people close to Wilson who are troubled.
“It’s surprising to see. It’s sad to see, too,” said Kevin Fountaine, Wilson’s high school coach. “I just hope he kind of wakes up a little. …It’s almost like he’s self-destructing on purpose.”
Clearly, Wilson has struggled with the transition to the NFL and making a lot of money. I pray he gets the help he needs to turn his career around.
On the brighter side, I laughed at this quote from Jaguar safety Jarrod Wilson about RB Derrick Henry — “I definitely don’t want to be part of no stiff-arm tape.” Wilson, ostensibly, was referring to the misfortune of poor Josh Norman.
Titan TE Jonnu Smith (knee) is expected back this week. Smith sat out last week and he seems to think sitting out helped him reduce the pain he’ll have to play through the rest of the year.
What They’re Saying About the Jaguars…
The Jaguars are one of those teams that is going to look so different in 2021, but our Greg Cosell still got a pretty good look at their offense this past week against the Vikings.
Here’s what he had to say about RB James Robinson, a player with whom he’s been impressed all year:
“Robinson continued to show strong downhill traits: decisive, urgent, competitive, leg drive, some natural power to finish – Robinson is more workmanlike than shifty, elusive or explosive. He is effective in the outside zone run game with his desirable combination of patience and decisiveness. He also ran gap scheme well with his inside running traits.”
Rookie WR Collin Johnson is probably someone who has been added in dynasty leagues. Here’s what Cosell had to say:
“Johnson is smooth and fluid for a big WR with good overall athleticism and deceptive quickness as a route runner — my sense is he can work the boundary effectively with his combination of size, competitiveness, and strong hands.”
Meanwhile, the QB position continues to limit what the Jaguars can do, it goes without saying. On QB Mike Glennon, Cosell says:
“There’s a mechanical element to Glennon’s game. He can function effectively in clean pockets — you need to make him feel pressure, get bodies around him and force him to speed up both his decision making and mechanics.
Glennon did not do a good job before the snap [against Minnesota] recognizing the coverage and isolating where the ball should go. Glennon left a lot of throws on the field with both poor pre-snap and post-snap elimination and isolation.”
So yeah, it’s a bad offense with some promising players for the next GM, coach, and QB!
Jaguar TE Tyler Eifert (shoulder) is questionable for this game.
The Titans are simple at this stage. The only guy in question is Jonnu, and I’d probably be looking for another option.
With the exception of Robinson, the Jags are a bad fantasy team right now.
Kansas City at Miami (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
One of the most intriguing matchups of the week will be Patrick Mahomes against Miami’s excellent defense — the Dolphins allow just 17.7 PPG this year, 2nd-fewest in the NFL (Pittsburgh). But according to NFL Research, this is the kind of bell that Mahomes answers on a consistent basis.
Mahomes is 7-0 in his career against top-5 scoring defenses, based on the opponent’s rank entering the week. The Chiefs have averaged 28.0 points per game in those matchups and have outscored the opponent’s scoring defense average (entering the game) by at least 7 points in all seven games. So, by that history, the Chiefs are putting at least 25 on the board.
Chief RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire was “active” but only in an emergency sense last week as he dealt with an illness, but is practicing in full this week. For what it’s worth, the Dolphins are the 6th-best defense against the pass per FootballOutsiders DVOA, but 24th against the run. The Chiefs will throw it against everyone, to be clear, but the Dolphins are easier to run on than to throw on.
What They’re Saying About the Dolphins…
It’s a tough draw for rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week — according to NFL Research, rookie QBs are 10-35 against the defending Super Bowl champions, including playoffs. Those rookie QBs have 34 passing TDs and 58 INT, which is notable because Tua has yet to throw his first NFL interception.
So, we all know the conversation around Tua has been bizarre because of the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who almost certainly is the better fantasy option for us. But it’s hard to ignore that, even though his numbers haven’t been massive, Tua is 4-1 as a starter in the NFL so far. What are the Dolphins and OC Chan Gailey doing with Tua offensively, and how is he playing? Our Greg Cosell took a look this week:
“Gailey continued to do an excellent job defining the reads and throws for Tagovailoa with his route concepts versus anticipated coverages.That allowed Tagovailoa to play in rhythm.
Dolphins continued to feature quick game timing and rhythm concepts with Tagovailoa: RPO concepts, bang play action.
At this point Tagovailoa is predominantly a programmed ball distributor, an efficient executor of a well-schemed offense that allows him to play with timing and rhythm.
Tagovailoa showed a good feel for throwing into zone windows, he was decisive turning it loose with a strong sense of timing.”
A big problem for Tua this week — the Chiefs CBs are healthy and playing very well, as The Athletic’s Nate Taylor writes.
The Dolphins are still down RBs Salvon Ahmed (shoulder) and RB Matt Breida (COVID), so it’s another big week for Myles Gaskin, potentially.
The Chiefs are the Chiefs, but I also understand if you don’t want to play CEH as anything more than a FLEX even with a decent matchup.
I’m still not sold on Tua as a fantasy option. If you use Gaskin as an RB2, hope he catches the ball.
Arizona at NY Giants (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Cardinals…
The Cardinals are a competitive team, but they clearly live and die with Kyler Murray, who has had a flashy but up-and-down season. Murray is potentially working through a shoulder injury right now, and that might be the reason he’s struggling to throw the ball down the field the last number of weeks.
However, I was stunned to hear criticism about Murray’s work ethic from FOX broadcaster Brock Huard this week. Huard called the Cards’ loss to the Rams last week, in which Murray had only 1 completion (a busted-coverage TD to TE Dan Arnold) until the final drive of the first half.
Here’s what Huard said to Arizona Sports 98.7 FM:
““Some of what I was hearing coming out of there is that Kyler is laser-focused on Sunday, he loves to compete, but that laser focus is not there Monday through Saturday and I think you’ve seen that show up on Sundays,” Huard said. “Everybody competes on Sunday. Everybody loves their paycheck. Everybody loves to play. But if you want to be great, you’ve got to compete on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday on the practice field like it’s the most important thing in your life and that is where I think he has the most area to grow.”
That’s a pretty damning thing to put out there on the record. According to the Arizona Republic, Murray responded this week.
“As far as practice goes, I don’t even know if he’s .. if [broadcasters are] even allowed at practice,” Murray said. “So, I don’t really know what that means.”
Huard also talked about a running play in which he speculated Murray ran away from contact because he didn’t want to get hit (perhaps because of the shoulder).
Murray also took issue with that.
“My shoulder is fine,” Murray said via Bob McManaman of The Republic. “As far as running the ball goes, it’s pretty obvious if you watch the game if they (opposing defenses) make me hand the ball off, I have no choice but to hand the ball off. I don’t know what you want me to do. You want me to pull it and run into a defensive line? Like, I don’t know. They’re making me hand the ball so that’s what I have to do.”
The Cardinals will get WR Larry Fitzgerald back from the COVID-19 list this week. Fitzgerald told reporters he lost nine pounds with the virus… and updated his will. He obviously would encourage everyone to take it seriously.
Keep an eye on RB Kenyan Drake, who is dealing with a hip injury and was limited in practice this week. He’s questionable. Meanwhile, WR DeAndre Hopkins (neck, back) has missed practice time but there doesn’t appear to be a reason to worry about his status.
What They’re Saying About the Giants…
The Giants could get QB Daniel Jones (hamstring) back this week. Jones is officially listed as questionable, but got in a full practice on Friday which bodes well for his status.
In a true examination of the over-discussed “Running Backs Don’t Matter” trope, The Athletic’s staff took an examination into whether the rushing attack anchored by Wayne Gallman is better than that with the injured Saquon Barkley.
Basically, the writers — and Giants coaches — acknowledged that Gallman and Barkley have much different styles. Gallman falls forward on his runs, trying to clean up as much meat on the bone as possible. To borrow from baseball, Gallman will hit a single to the opposite field when he gets a pitch in the zone. Barkley is more likely to let that pitch go by, get deep into a count, and try to hit a home run (or at least a double).
The writers’ determination was that, no, the Giants’ run game isn’t better, and Gallman has benefitted from better blocking. But it wasn’t as obvious as you might think. Ted Nguyen writes:
“Watching the tape, Gallman has gotten better blocking than Barkley. The biggest difference is in the last four games. The Giants aren’t suddenly blowing opponents off the ball, but they looked to have significantly cut down on blown assignments so Gallman doesn’t have to deal with the unblocked defenders in the backfield that lead to negative yards. Gallman does have better vision on inside runs than Barkley and will get more consistent yardage, but I’d love to see what Barkley could do with better blocking and a line that looks like it is closer to average, which is better than what Barkley has had in front of him for most of his career.”
One of the improving offensive linemen is rookie LT Andrew Thomas. The #4 pick has progressed from an early-season disaster, writes Dan Duggan.
I’m still worried about Murray, but he responded to criticism well early this season and I feel like a big game is around the corner. This matchup stinks, though, and I understand people being cautious. Keep an eye on Drake’s status — if he can’t play, Chase Edmonds is a high-end RB2. If he can go, he’s a low-end RB2 and Edmonds a FLEX.
For the Giants, Danny Dimes raises the ceiling of this whole offense, but the only two guys I feel decent about for fantasy at this stage are Gallman and TE Evan Engram.
Minnesota at Tampa Bay (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
Minnesota has been really good of late on the offensive side of the ball, so I want to turn to our guy Greg Cosell with some observations from last week’s win over the Jaguars. He has observations on WR Justin Jefferson, QB Kirk Cousins, and G Ezra Cleveland.
“Jefferson continued to show the ability to win vertically from the boundary X position … • Jefferson 20-yard TD on first-and-10 late in the third quarter … Jefferson sold the crosser to the boot action side then broke to the corner, outstanding detailed nuanced route running by Jefferson.”
“Cousins is sixth in the NFL in 20+-yard completions with 43, Vikings produce explosive plays in the passing game both with scheme and with one-on-ones with Jefferson.”
(I think this was a fascinating point, in particular, because The Athletic’s Chad Graff wondered openly this week why the Vikings wait so long to be aggressive with the passing game.)
“This was rookie Cleveland’s second start at RG. He gives the Vikings more athleticism inside in their foundational outside zone run game.”
The Vikings’ WRs will be extra important in this game — TE Kyle Rudolph (foot) is doubtful to play, snapping a six-year Iron Man stretch, while Irv Smith (groin) is questionable after missing the last few weeks.
They’ll also continue to feed RB Dalvin Cook — Alexander Mattison is out yet again after an appendectomy.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean (groin) cleared concussion protocol but is doubtful to play because of the groin injury.
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
This matchup presents a “stoppable force” against a “movable object,” and that’s Tom Brady’s deep passing against the Vikings’ deep passing defense. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady is posting career lows (in the NGS era, since 2016) with a 27.7% completion rate, 3 TD to 4 INT TD/INT ratio, and a 58.9 passer rating on throws of 20 or more air yards.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have allowed a 50.0% completion rate (2nd-worst in NFL) and 118.3 passer rating (5th-worst in NFL) on deep passes this season.
Here are some things Greg Cosell said about the Bucs’ offense and Brady last week after an up-and-down performance against the Chiefs.
“I still got the sense there were throws in which Brady was rushing his mechanics and playing a little fast, He still did not look consistently comfortable in the pocket.
Bucs did not have a lot of success versus the Chiefs’ man coverage concepts. The Chiefs stayed aggressive with man coverage and pressure in the fourth quarter with a multi-score lead, even playing more snaps of zero.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer approaches the defense knowing this. Zimmer has always favored split-safety looks (like Cover 2 and Cover 4) and less man concepts, though he did mix in single-high safety man looks against the Jags last week. The Chiefs play much more man than the Vikings do, but the Vikes will mix it in.
Anyway, at least Brady will have WR Mike Evans in this one. Evans has been dealing with a hamstring injury in practice this week, but he was a full go on Friday so it doesn’t appear to be endangering his status for Sunday. Coach Bruce Arians, never one to mince words, said “he’s fine.” Evans doesn’t have an injury designation for the game.
The Vikings are easy. Play Cousins, Cook, Jefferson, and Adam Thielen.
For Tampa, I’m sucking it up and playing Brady and this passing game. I like the matchup for just about everyone, and I’m glad they were just being cautious with Evans.
Indianapolis at Las Vegas (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
The Colts didn’t have LT Anthony Castonzo (MCL) last week, but could have him back in Week 14’s matchup with the Raiders — he’s officially listed as questionable for this game. The Colts really need him, since backup LT Le’Raven Clark went on IR with an Achilles injury.
Castonzo is critical in protecting QB Philip Rivers, who has been playing through a toe injury. But Rivers has been playing well through that injury — in fact, he’s been playing mostly well for almost two months now.
Rivers called himself out after a loss to the Browns in Week 6, in which he threw 0 TD to 2 INT. Rivers had no more than 1 TD pass in any of his first five games with the Colts. Since then, he’s thrown at least 2 in five of seven games, including 3 TD in three of those seven.
“I just think it is a lot of things going on. Everybody – coaches, players, offense, defense, special teams – getting better, and the quarterback position is a unique position. I always like to refer to the quarterback as like a multiplier effect. Obviously, his presence and play multiplies the impact of what we’re doing as a team, but he also benefits when we’re playing good football as a team,” coach Frank Reich said this week. “The Cleveland game was our big hiccup as far as the team goes.”
Reich also acknowledged how a couple of his rookies — specifically RB Jonathan Taylor and WR Michael Pittman — are stepping up to help matters out with the offense.
“A lot of these [rookies] have [strong] makeup, but Jonathan in particular – I really feel like these last two games for him, he’s just running very decisive, very aggressive, with a lot of confidence and I think he’s seeing it well. We just have to continue to build on that,” Reich said.
OC Nick Sirianni also sang Taylor’s praises this week.
“Jonathan has been a model citizen of getting better every day because he works. It’s not just because he is out there every day, it’s because he is out there and he’s working every day,” Sirianni told reporters. “He really is an explosive athlete. He’s fast, he’s big, he’s strong. We’re just looking for ways to get him touches.”
What They’re Saying About the Raiders…
At 7-5, the Raiders are in OK shape to make the playoffs. They’ve beaten the Chiefs, the only team to do so this year, and nearly beat them again. QB Derek Carr is having his best season since Jon Gruden took over the club for the second time.
And they completely no-showed in Week 12, losing by 37 to the hapless Falcons, and then also should have lost to the Jets last week, if not for one of the worst defensive calls in the history of football. So, what exactly is this team? The Athletic’s Robert Mays did an amusing dive into that question.
Here are some of his observations:
“The Las Vegas offense ranks 25th in Football Outsiders’ variance metric, which measures how consistent units are from week to week. Most of the teams below the Raiders had experienced QB uncertainty of some kind (Cowboys, Bengals, Patriots) or improved significantly on offense (Browns). It’s fair to say that given their circumstances, the Raiders have been the most volatile team in the NFL. To that end, following the Falcons’ loss, The Athletic’s Raiders reporter Vic Tafur recirculated a year-old quote from Carr about the Raiders’ Jekyll and Hyde tendencies. “You can rewind two weeks ago, we were the best story in the NFL,” Carr said on December 4, 2019. “Two weeks later, we suck again.”
One thing that has perhaps led to the Raiders looking more dangerous this year, though, is the fact that Carr is throwing the ball down the field more. Mays writes:
“Carr and the Raiders have experienced an uptick in deep passes this season. After attempting just 48 of them all year in 2019, Carr has uncorked 45 throws of 20-plus air yards this season. The Raiders already have 690 yards on deep passes through 12 games — 122 more than they had all of last year — and there have been flashes of what an aggressive Carr and the addition of downfield threats like [Henry] Ruggs and [Nelson] Agholor can provide this unit.”
Consistency is the next thing to come… but is this just who Carr is?
Anyway, it looks like RB Josh Jacobs (ankle) will be a game-time decision. It’s a decently tough matchup — the Colts are 11th in FootballOutsiders’ run defense DVOA, though last week’s opponent — the Jets — is 7th (Devontae Booker was a fantasy bust). But the Colts also have game-wrecking DT DeForest Buckner back from the COVID list.
I like Rivers as a streamer this week, and DFS players could pair him with Pittman or TY Hilton. Taylor is my favorite back here, but both he and Nyheim Hines are RB2s.
The Raiders are in a tough spot. I’m probably shying away from most of this offense aside from Darren Waller. Jacobs is an RB2 if he plays.
NY Jets at Seattle (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Jets…
The Jets’ WR position could be a mess this week. WR Denzel Mims is out for a personal emergency. Meanwhile, Jamison Crowder (calf) was added to the injury report on Thursday, and Breshad Perriman (shoulder) has been limited all week. Crowderr is questionable.
RB Frank Gore is still in the concussion protocol but the Jets hope he can play. If not, it could be a decent enough week to stream Ty Johnson.
There isn’t much to say about the Jets from a fantasy perspective, but man, the autopsy of now-fired DC Gregg Williams’ hysterically awful zero blitz call on the pseudo Hail Mary that won the Raiders a miracle game last week to keep the Jets winless has been entertaining. The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen had the best breakdown from an Xs-and-Os standpoint, in my opinion.
Since this column uses a lot of beat writer work, I thought I should call to mind one of the most fascinating (and disturbing) stories I’ve put in here all season. Manish Mehta, who covered the Jets for about a decade for the New York Daily News, has been fired. And the story is a doozy. He, uh, wasn’t exactly ethical.
What They’re Saying About the Seahawks…
For much of the year, the Seahawks had arguably the worst defense in football. Since the return of S Jamal Adams and the trade for DE Carlos Dunlap, those issues have been cleaned up significantly. (Dunlap is a game-time decision this week with a foot injury.)
But the Seahawks still don’t look like an elite team. And that now falls on the offense, writes The Athletic’s Michael-Shawn Dugar. Dugar quotes QB Russell Wilson, who knows that putting together a complete game has been a problem:
“When we play both sides of the ball altogether, offense and defense in particular, we know it’s going to be a great thing,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be a magical thing.”
But when is that going to happen?
One of the big issues is Wilson: Dugar wrote this week that he also needs to make better decisions, as he’s been uncharacteristically turnover-prone this year. It’s a great game to get him going — the Jets have been a pass-funnel defense all year, sporting FootballOutsiders #24 pass defense but #7 run defense by DVOA.
And in the backfield, both Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde are off the injury report and will play. Could there be more of a split here than we’re used to?
“We’re trying to not overload [Carson],” Carroll said, via Dugar. “We have a lot of games left, and we’re just trying to make sure that he can play and contribute, which is what he’s doing, and I thought they handled that pretty well. But, he’s not to the point where we can just let him stay out there and keep on going and let’s run him 25 or 30 times and see what happens.”
Perriman is a WR3 in this matchup. I don’t know if I want to mess around with an injured Crowder on this team in a fantasy playoff week. If Gore can’t go, Johnson is a FLEX. If he can, I don’t want to play anyone here.
I think the entire fantasy industry will be banking on a Wilson surge this week, but Carson is still an RB1.
Green Bay at Detroit (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Packers…
How remarkable is the season Aaron Rodgers is having? Well, let’s count the ways.
Per NFL Research, Rodgers leads the NFL with a 118.5 passer rating and WR Davante Adams leads the NFL with 102.9 receiving yards per game this season. Each of the five previous times in the Super Bowl era that the individual passer rating and receiving YPG leaders for a season were on the same team, one of those players won either NFL MVP or NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Rodgers also had a PFF grade of 96.9 last week against the Eagles, the highest he’s had in the last 10 years, including playoffs. The dude is just dropping the best performances of his career as he trends toward the NFL MVP, and the Packers toward the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Adams is helping matters, because teams just can’t know what to expect from him. The guy our Greg Cosell calls the most complete receiver in the NFL is precisely that. According to Next Gen Stats, Adams has 10 or more targets on seven different types of routes — screen, cross, hitch, slant, in, out and go — the most different routes with double-digit targets among all players in 2020.
The other Aaron on this team ain’t so bad either. Per NFL Research, RB Aaron Jones is the second player since the 1970 merger to average at least 4.9 YPC and have 35 or more rush TD over his first 50 career games. The other? His counterpart in this game, Adrian Peterson.
At WR, the Packers still aren’t willing to give Allen Lazard a full share of snaps as he continues to progress from core muscle surgery. But even if he plays the same number he played last week — 69% against Philly — he should be able to do enough against a shorthanded Lion defense that is still missing CB Jeff Okudah.
What They’re Saying About the Lions…
We know the Lions will have to hire a permanent head coach for 2020 after firing Matt Patricia. But what MLive’s Kyle Meinke is wondering is if interim HC Darrell Bevell deserves to have his name thrown in the ring. Fans won’t like it if so, but he did get QB Matthew Stafford to throw for over 400 yards with a skeleton squad at WR last week against Chicago. Meinke writes:
“Patricia failed not because he doesn’t know the game -- he does -- but because of everything else. He was a poor leader who fractured his own locker room and drove away some of his best players because of personality clashes. Those are the facts. Leadership matters, and he didn’t have it.
Bevell, on the other hand, might. This country is littered with people from coast to coast vouching for the guy. Brett Favre is one of them. So is Russell Wilson. Bevell was instrumental in bringing Wilson to Seattle and then developing him into one of the game’s best quarterbacks. Then he came to Detroit, where his positive attitude, good energy, and general charisma was a huge draw for players strung out on Matt Patricia. People throughout all levels of the organization go out of their way to praise him for his leadership. He kind of reminds me of Jim Caldwell in that way. They’re different coaches, but the way they treat people and try to lead are similar.
Matthew Stafford has loved the guy from Day 1. He played some of his best ball under Bevell last season, too. Obviously, things haven’t gone nearly as well this year either, and that’s part of the resume too. But I do wonder how much of that is due to Patricia wanting to play so conservatively. Either way, they now have five games to show what they can do without restrictions. And that’s one advantage Darrell Bevell does have in this process -- a five-week audition to actually show what he can do.”
Meinke does note, however, that Michigan native Robert Saleh seems to have a ton going for him when it comes to the job.
Anyway, Meinke also writes that the Lions expect RB D’Andre Swift to return this week — despite clearing concussion protocol last week, Swift had some migraines but they have dissipated (he is listed as questionable). The same can’t be said for WR Kenny Golladay, who looks like he’s going to miss yet another game with a hip injury — Bevell didn’t elaborate when asked why Golladay hasn’t been put on IR.
Play your Packers. I don’t know if that needs to be said loudly enough against this Lion defense.
Stafford is a low-end QB1. Swift is an RB2 with some upside — I hope Bevell unleashes him, but it’s possible they’re careful with him.
Atlanta at LA Chargers (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
The Falcons are now in potential shutdown mode — coach Raheem Morris told reporters this week that WR Julio Jones (hamstring) won’t play against the Chargers and there’s a chance he won’t play the rest of the season. You wonder how much of that directive is coming from owner Arthur Blank, who is tasked with finding a new GM and a new coach for his team for 2021.
Anyway, we know Julio being out doesn’t bode well for QB Matt Ryan. Look at these numbers. Blech.
Of course, that shutdown campaign doesn’t including RB Todd Gurley — Gurley (knee) isn’t even on the injury report.
What They’re Saying About the Chargers…
With the Chargers constantly losing games they shouldn’t, Anthony Lynn’s job is constantly in question, at least in the punditry. However, the Chargers aren’t likely to make a decision on Lynn’s job in season, according to NFL Network. It’s obviously going to be difficult for ownership here to parse out how much of Justin Herbert’s amazing rookie season is because of the development of Lynn and his staff, because the decision-making in close games has indeed been abysmal. If Lynn has been integral to Herbert’s Rookie-of-the-Year season, what’s more important to the Chargers?
Most of the discussion around Lynn’s failings surround how the Chargers have too much talent to be this bad. I’d agree 100%, but the Chargers always seem to just be more injured than their counterparts. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper examines whether that assertion is fair.
Popper used FootballOutsiders’ Average Games Lost (AGL) metric to examine the last eight years of Chargers’ football, and by that number the Chargers have been the league-worst team over that span. But the number does have its limitations. And Popper also writes:
“Moreover, their injures are not an excuse for a lack of success. The Colts ranked 27th in AGL when they won the Super Bowl in 2006. (Telesco was their director of player personnel.) The Giants ranked 27th in AGL when they won the Super Bowl in 2011. Still, there is no doubt that staying healthy gives a team a better chance of winning it all. The past five champions each have ranked 18th or better in AGL.”
Popper’s piece is an excellent dive on the Chargers, for sure, but it also examines the concept of “injury-proneness”, which our Edwin Porras would be interested in. Give it a read.
Speaking of injuries, the Chargers could get RB Justin Jackson (knee) back from injury this week. Given how Joshua Kelley has played, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Chargers make Jackson the #2 RB to Austin Ekeler.
Ryan is a QB2. I want no part of Gurley. This team stinks without Julio.
This is a phenomenal bounce-back spot for Herbert after his struggles with the Pats last week.
New Orleans at Philadelphia (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
It’s looking like Taysom Hill will start this week against Philadelphia as Drew Brees looks to be taking another week off to recover from his 11 broken ribs.
And Hill has done something as a starting QB that has never been done before in the NFL — per NFL Research, he’s the only QB with 150 or more rushing yards and 4 or more rushing TD in his first three starts since at least 1950. He’s also the first QB with 4 or more rushing TD and a 90-plus passer rating in his first three career starts. We were skeptical, but he’s played well.
Obviously, Hill and Brees play different styles. That begins with the run game, where the Saints are keeping it on the ground on 56.9% of plays with Hill as a starter vs. just 39.6% with Brees. But just how different are they in other areas? Next Gen Stats lets us know.
|STAT (Next Gen Stats)||Drew Brees (starter)||Taysom Hill (starter)|
|Avg Time to Throw||2.67 seconds||2.77 seconds|
Though Hill is pressured more because he holds onto the ball longer, he’s all been successful on extended dropbacks of 2.5 seconds or more: 31/47 (66.0%), 424 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (36.3% pressure rate, 8 sacks taken).
Hill’s presence has also had a profound effect on both RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas. In Brees’ starts, Kamara was targeted on 36.9% of his routes, a staggering number that was the highest among all players with 100 or more routes run. He’s been targeted on just 15% of his routes with Hill at QB.
Meanwhile, Thomas has been targeted on 41.4% of his routes with Hill at QB, compared to just 22% with Brees this season. Of course, that coincides with Thomas getting healthier, but I will admit I didn’t foresee Thomas’ revival coming under these circumstances.
What They’re Saying About the Eagles…
Obviously, thinkpieces have been flying all week about the Eagles’ decision to bench Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts, as you might expect. And it’s not at all unjustifiable — as our Greg Cosell noted in his film study this week, Wentz is anticipating pressure due to his “consistently poor pass protection” and “looks like a QB whose confidence is shot.”
We’ll see if the Eagles have any options for moving Wentz and his massive cap hit this off-season, as The Athletic’s Mike Sando outlined here. But for fantasy purposes, the focus is on the here and now with Hurts.
Here’s what I don’t understand: coach Doug Pederson acknowledged this week that he may try to get the run game and RB Miles Sanders going more, while perhaps sitting down cooked vets WR Alshon Jeffery and OL Jason Peters to get Hurts more comfortable. My question is this: why didn’t it happen weeks ago when it was evident both Jeffery and Peters were hurting the team and Wentz? (After Pederson’s comments, Peters was announced to be out for the year with a toe injury.)
Check out what Pat Thorman dug up on Jeffery and his performance relative to that of Travis Fulgham. Fulgham might not be great — especially to the level he was for that month-long stretch — but we know Jeffery is cooked. Why is he playing? It’s malpractice.
For the Saints, Hill is a QB1. Kamara is a high-end RB2, while Thomas is a WR2 against Philly.
I think this is a tough spot for Hurts, but I can endorse him as a low-end streamer. Sanders better get the ball this week, but Pederson has shown no control or flow with personnel usage this year. Sanders is an RB2.
Washington at San Francisco (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Football Team…
The Team will be without RB Antonio Gibson (turf toe) this week against the 49ers. Given the timetable our Edwin Porras laid out, it’s possible we don’t see Gibson for the remainder of the fantasy season.
The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker said the Team will use JD McKissic and Peyton Barber to fill in for Gibson, as expected, but the passing game could also help. She writes:
“The hope is the team can keep plugging away on the ground with Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic, who carried the load in Gibson’s absence in Pittsburgh. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said the game plan won’t vary that greatly if Gibson isn’t in the lineup. Of course, Washington uses its short-passing game as an extension of its running game, so players like Terry McLaurin, Cam Sims, Logan Thomas, Steven Sims and Isaiah Wright will likely factor into the offensive game plan heavily.”
Part of the reason Washington has been so competitive of late is clearly because of QB Alex Smith, who is in a REVENGE GAME this week, but also because the offensive line has been doing a spectacular job of protecting Smith, as The Athletic’s Mark Bullock writes.
As for McLaurin, he might have caught only 2 passes against the Steelers in the upset win last week, but he was still a big part of the reason the Team won, Ben Standig writes.
What They’re Saying About the 49ers…
The 49ers are competitive many weeks despite the injuries because coach Kyle Shanahan does a good job designing this offense. As our Greg Cosell wrote this week, QB Nick Mullens deserves credit — “Mullens played a solid game [last week against the Bills]. He is an executor of a well-schemed offense, not a playmaker.”
Mullens will have WR Deebo Samuel (foot) this week — while it was obviously scary for 49er fans to hear “foot” given Deebo broke his this summer, Shanahan said this injury was unrelated, as he was merely stepped on during Monday’s game against Buffalo. Meanwhile, WR Brandon Aiyuk “continued to show refinement as a route runner” against Buffalo, Cosell wrote this week.
As The Athletic’s David Lombardi points out, this is an opportunity for one of these receivers and TE Jordan Reed to have a big game. According to FootballOutsiders DVOA, Washington is the worst team in the league against “#1” WRs, and the 7th-worst against TEs. Of course, the 49ers don’t have a traditional “#1” WR, so both guys should have opportunities to make plays.
McKissic is a borderline RB1 this week given I think his receiving will be very important. Barber stinks; I’m only using him as a FLEX. McLaurin is back on the WR2 radar.
I’m playing all of Samuel, Aiyuk, and Reed this week, and I like them for DFS.
Pittsburgh at Buffalo (Sun, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Steelers…
One of the big problems for the Steelers — inasmuch as an 11-1 team can have “big problems” — is the team’s inability to run the ball. Only Cincinnati, Chicago, and Houston average fewer yards per game rushing. However, this hasn’t been uncommon in recent years — Pittsburgh was 31st in rushing offense in 2018 and 29th in 2019. The difference is it just feels worse this year, not to be too vague. Indeed, this year’s version of the Steelers are third-to-last in FootballOutsiders rush DVOA, compared to 12th overall in 2018. So they’re struggling to run it when they do run it.
Well, Pittsburgh is expecting to get a big boost against Buffalo’s mediocre run defense — 9th-worst in yards per game allowed (124.0) and 18th in DVOA. RB James Conner and C Maurkice Pouncey will be activated off the COVID list and are expected to play.
Also, the Steelers have had an unusually high number of dropped passes the last few weeks, with WR Diontae Johnson and TE Eric Ebron the main culprits. With Pittsburgh losing last week, the perfect season honeymoon may be over. While I don’t anticipate either guy getting benched imminently, coach Mike Tomlin warned his players this week.
“They can catch the ball,” Tomlin said, “or get replaced by guys who will.” It’s just something to keep in mind.
What They’re Saying About the Bills…
There might not be a better game in the NFL than this one this week, and watching Josh Allen’s continued development will be fascinating against a defense that pressures as much as the Steelers do. According to Next Gen Stats, Allen has a 74.6% completion rate, 21 pass TD, and 4 INT this season when not under pressure. When under pressure, Allen has a 52.7% completion rate, 5 pass TD, 4 INT, and a 74.8 passer rating. The Steelers lead the NFL in sacks (44), QB hits (114), QB pressures (179), and pressure rate (39.6%) this season, though obviously the loss of EDGE Bud Dupree to a torn ACL two weeks ago was a big loss.
How good was Allen last week? Well, according to our Greg Cosell, he may have never been better.
“This was one of, if not the best, game Allen has played in his three-year NFL career. Precise ball placement throws both inside and outside the pocket, second reaction ability,” Cosell wrote. “Allen is a high level arm talent with outstanding movement ability.”
Cosell also noted how the Bills’ play design negated almost all of the 49ers’ pressure. It’s a complete package, from the top down, and a spectacular job by OC Brian Daboll. Both Daboll and Allen’s job is easier this week, by the way — not only are the Steelers down Dupree, but also top CB Joe Haden (concussion). There could be room for young “X” receiver Gabriel Davis to make a play here, in addition to obvious guys like Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley.
The Bills, building the core of a championship roster, have extended GM Brandon Beane, one of the best at his job in the entire league. If Allen continues to progress, Beane — along with coach Sean McDermott — will have built one of the NFL’s model franchises with a lot of success on the horizon.
Conner is an RB2. Johnson is a WR2, and Ebron a TE1, though the drops are concerning.
Allen is just someone I’m not sitting right now. I think Diggs and Beasley are WR2s, while Davis might be an intriguing cheap DFS dive.
Baltimore at Cleveland (Mon, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
The Ravens have heard all the cries from fans and, yes, fantasy players about playing JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards more, at the expense of veteran Mark Ingram. Well, they don’t want to hear it, and OC Greg Roman does not care about your fantasy team.
"Fantasy football is great, but reality football is where we live,” Roman told reporters on Friday. Roman cited Ingram’s “dirty work” as the reason he’s still getting snaps.
While the Ravens did have to put WR Dez Bryant on the COVID-19 list this week following the bizarre game against the Cowboys last week, they pulled WR Willie Snead and TE Mark Andrews off it. Andrews is particularly interesting given the Browns’ woes at safety.
Things could also be better on the perimeter for WR Marquise Brown if CB Denzel Ward (calf) can’t play. As of publication, Ward hasn’t practiced yet this week.
What They’re Saying About the Browns…
Browns G Wyatt Teller, one of the best at his position in the entire NFL, was placed on the COVID-19 list this week but it appears he was there as an at-risk contact and not because of a positive test himself. Coach Kevin Stefanski said on Thursday that Teller should be able to come off the list in time to play on Monday night if the status quo holds, which is good news for Cleveland’s run game.
The Ravens are the same team every week, though I like that they’re starting to phase Ingram out. Dobbins is an RB2, and Edwards a FLEX.
The only Brown I feel particularly good about this week is RB Nick Chubb, though less so if Teller can’t play.