This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.
Who Can You Trust?
Imagine if you came out of a 12-team auction with this team:
You'd probably have felt pretty good about your prospects. Little did you know, you not only had the worst team in the league, but perhaps the worst in its history.
* This was gratuitous, but he got picked for his name.
Many of the players we trusted yesterday are worthless today, mostly due to injuries, but if you had Ty Montgomery, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Amari Cooper, Sammy Watkins, Isaiah Crowell, Marshawn Lynch or Terrelle Pryor, you know health is not the only issue. I do RotoWire's cheat sheets, and once I get outside the top-25 overall, it's pretty much a guess.
One could argue we encounter this problem every year, but I think it's worse than ever. One reason is the NFL has moved to more base three-receiver sets, so instead of dividing the passing output between two primary targets, most teams divide it by at least three. As a result, aside from the star wideouts like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, there are fewer clear No. 1 and No. 2 targets on a given team, and so the game-to-game output is more varied. One week it's Corey Davis, then it's Rishard Matthews, then Eric Decker. Maybe it's Delanie Walker. If there were only two of them on the field at once, there would be less variance. The more variance there is, the harder it is to find a player's true baseline, i.e., a solid basis for ranking him. As such, once you get past the good, healthy players guaranteed large opportunities of which there are few, it's mostly feel. And by feel, I mean the kind where you got a shot of novocaine, and you're only faintly aware of the drill's vibration.
But it's not only the receivers. The proliferation of two- and even three-man running back committees, with each back serving a different role also fogs the windshield. At one point, it looked like Darren Sproles was the player to own in Philadelphia, then it seemed like Wendell Smallwood, and now LeGarrette Blount. In Oakland, Marshawn Lynch is touchdown dependent because he's not involved in the passing game. In New England, Mike Gillislee is even more so, and God forbid any of them fumble. In Arizona, Andre Ellington had 18 catches on 24 targets over a two-game stretch, but the Cardinals jumped out to a massive lead, and Adrian Peterson saw nearly all the snaps Sunday. Different roles make backs game-flow dependent, and game-flow is a fickle mistress, not always predictable, especially for long-haul seasonal rankings. For example, did anyone think the early-down running games of the Giants and Cardinals would suddenly snap into shape? A week ago, I'd have said it was check-down city for both, meaning Ellington and Shane Vereen were the only startable options in PPR.
But that's not all. PPR scoring, initially conceived as a counterbalance to the 300-carry backs that dominated the league, had an unintended side effect. As the top backs declined in importance the top receivers put up such monster numbers they became the new goliaths, unequally tipping the balance of the game. But the last two seasons, that trend has abated and fragmented into two other trends: (1) The all-purpose back - last year's David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt and Todd Gurley - are the new kings, now that there are so few high-volume receivers with elite skills (Antonio Brown might be the exception); and (2) The emergence of short pass-catchers at both the running back and receiver positions who rack up PPR points, but neither score touchdowns nor make big plays. These specialists like Danny Woodhead (on the rare occasion he's healthy), Keenan Allen, Golden Tate, Willie Snead, Theo Riddick, James White, Jarvis Landry, etc. also clog up various tiers of the cheat sheet and do battle with less predictable but higher upside types like DeSean Jackson, Will Fuller, John Brown and Martavis Bryant (assuming the Steelers either target or trade him.)
The PPR-scoring cloudiness is exacerbated by another NFL trend - the obsession with check-downs. Last year, Sam Bradford broke the all-time record for completion percentage (71.6), but managed only 7.0 YPA (league average was 7.2.) To break the record for completion rate while being below average in YPA requires an epic lack of ambition on your throws. An article by Kevin Clark for The Ringer went into some detail about how and why the check-down has come into fashion, but the result is less skill-based play. Anyone can catch a five-yard pass, but to beat an NFL cornerback and catch a pass 50-yards downfield while running full speed is a different degree of difficulty. And the skills required to pull off such a feat are ones we can measure and therefore ascribe more to some players than others. We know Martavis Bryant can do this, while Larry Fitzgerald cannot, but these days the NFL is less about that. What's more important to know is whether Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians want to call plays designed for Fitzgerald and the extent to which Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger want to get Bryant involved (the answer is a lesser one, which is why Bryant is reportedly unhappy and wants a trade.)
The fantasy game, therefore, is more about reading team and coaching tendencies than correctly assessing skills. Or to formulate it differently - to select for skills that are required more in today's game, e.g., having a good attitude, not making mistakes (fumbles, drops), always running the correct route, blocking on running plays, etc., however commonplace and uninspiring they are. While those skills are no doubt important, unless he's truly a screw-up, the extent to which a player lacks them is probably overstated. Think Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Odell Beckham, for example. Nonetheless, you'll hear announcers falling all over themselves to praise Jason Witten, who has those skills in spades, but was the 104th out of 106 tight ends in actual effectiveness per ProFootballFocus through Week 5. But Witten is averaging more than seven targets per game, behind only Zach Ertz and Rob Gronkowski.
The bottom line - the murkiness beyond the 25 or so reliable players that are healthy at the moment doesn't strike me as a fluke, but a feature of the modern NFL and its intersection with the most common fantasy scoring systems. I won't advise you to offer three-for-one trades to get one of the rare reliable players because frankly no one in a league worth playing will accept them. But perhaps there is something actionable to take away from this: don't be afraid to play matchups with all but your most rock solid players. The murkiness means usage is provisional, temporary and subject to arbitrary whims. Try to anticipate them to whatever extent you can, while knowing you'll make plenty of errors. (I sat Carlos Hyde for Andre Ellington last week, and I feel horrible about it, but I'll still be playing more matchups than set-in-stone starters going forward.)
It's easy to say "buy-low, sell-high" but virtually impossible to execute. Whoever drafted the player that's temporarily struggling most likely loves that player, and if anyone thinks he'll bounce back it's him. There's no way he's going to take Carlos Hyde for Julio Jones or Michael Thomas.
But there is one category of players you can buy at a proper discount, and it's those who aren't just off to disappointing starts, but who are on the ropes. Players who you know have skills, but who make even you - the shark willing to gamble on undervalued assets - nervous. Put differently, if the prospect of acquiring these players doesn't make you nervous, you won't land them. (And I'm not talking about cowardly nervous like "What if Julio Jones isn't good anymore?" I mean nervous for good reason.) Here are the list of players I'd target and for whom you should get a reasonable discount:
Sammy Watkins - My one concern with Watkins was health, but he's been slow to integrate into the Rams offense. Still, he's a big-time talent, and the Rams have played some tough cover corners of late.
Martavis Bryant - Maybe he'll complain himself out of the league, but he's Randy Moss physically and has just missed some big plays already this year.
John Brown - He was one of my biggest sleepers before the year, but got derailed with a quad injury that everyone thought was a death sentence due to his sickle-cell trait. (He might be more expensive after his TD last week.)
Jordan Reed - He's been hurt all year and probably will get hurt again, but even a four-game window of health could be monstrous.
Terrelle Pryor - Even Pryor owners are fed up, and you could probably get him for anything of value at this point.
Corey Davis - He's been out for a few weeks with a hamstring injury and is in a crowded receiving corps, but he was one of the team's top targets early, and if he's making plays the team will get the No. 5 overall pick the ball.
Joe Mixon - The Bengals can't run the ball, and Gio Bernard is getting the third down work, but the Giants fixed their awful run game against the Broncos No. 1 defense, and Adrian Peterson's carcass racked up 134 yards behind the Cardinals abymsal offensive line, so these things aren't set in stone.
Week 6 Observations
• The Giants finally won a game, and it's no coincidence it happened after Ben McAdoo gave up the play calling to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. The Giants also decided to run block for once, handed the ball to a running back who aimed for where defenders were not and played defense the way they did a year ago. It's rare to see a 13-point underdog not only win, but dominate. In what was already the hardest Survivor season of all time, the Broncos surely knocked out another big chunk of pools.
•Evan Engram is third in targets, fifth in catches and yards among tight ends, and his role should be huge going forward. He also runs a 4.42 40.
•Jason Pierre-Paul is healthy for now, and on the rare occasion that's the case, he's one of the league's elite pass rushers.
• Denver's top-ranked run defense was so stout it eviscerated Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy, but yielded 148 yards to the Giants, one of the bottom-three rushing attacks in the league heading into Week 6.
• It's ridiculous Al Michaels had to apologize for his Harvey Weinstein joke. It was as mild as can be, and one reason Michaels is a good sportscaster is he talks like an actual football fan and human being rather than a nutless monkey.
• The Chargers finally got Hunter Henry involved, mostly on the game-winning drive, and it paid off. He's a top-five TE if they stop being moronic enough to target Antonio Gates' carcass (seven for Henry, one for Gates this week.)
• I never saw the appeal of Keenan Allen except as a reliable, moderate-upside PPR specialist, and he has injury risk, to boot.
•Marshawn Lynch ran well enough against a soft Chargers front, but the volume isn't there, and he's never used as a pass catcher.
• Every team should have a Tyreek Hill, Jalen Richard or Cordarrelle Patterson – they always seem to make huge plays on low volume. Unfortunately, the Raiders have two, and it's no substitute for a competent offense.
•Le'Veon Bell is an all-time great back – his patience in the hole is one of a kind, and he pushes the pile and falls forward for extra yards on every play. He had 32 carries and six targets.
• The Steelers shut down Kareem Hunt on the ground, but he caught 89-yards-worth of passes, giving him 100 YFS in his first six games.
•Tyreek Hill managed only 34 yards on seven targets. Week 1's explosion against the Patriots (where the defender fell down, and Hill had a 75-yard TD) looks like an outlier.
• The Chiefs were due for some regression offensively, but the Steelers defense is legitimately good.
•Leonard Fournette did almost all of his damage on his first carry, a 75-yard TD run. Todd Gurley, by contrast was gashing the Jaguars for a lot of productive runs, but his long was only 14. Neither back was a big factor in the passing game.
•Robert Woods has been productive for consecutive weeks against two of the toughest pass defenses in the league.
• After 24 targets the last two weeks, Andre Ellington saw only one target (no catch) and no carries. That said, the game flow was unexpected – the Cardinals had a massive lead until the tail end of garbage time. Ellington should be relevant when the Cardinals are trailing or facing more third downs.
•Carson Palmer had 12.9 YPA and only four incomplete passes against an awful Tampa defense. Half of Palmer's 22 attempts went toward Larry Fitzgerald, who had a huge game – 10 catches for 38 yards and a TD. I'd still trade him straight up for Amari Cooper in non-PPR, though I'm sure I'm in the minority.
•Ryan Fitzpatrick played pretty well in relief of Jameis Winston, who left early with a shoulder injury. If healthy, Winston's not in danger of losing his job, but I still can't tell if he's any good. If Fitzpatrick is forced to take over, I don't see a huge downgrade to DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans or Cameron Brate.
•Kevin Hogan had been better than DeShone Kizer as a reliever, but as a starter, not so much. He threw one of the worst pick-sixes I've ever seen, lofting the ball well over the head of his intended target and right into the arms of Jonathan Joseph who ran untouched for an 82-yard score. The Browns should give Cody Kessler a shot, but they seem determined to bury him.
•Deshaun Watson has a chance to be the greatest fantasy quarterback of all time. That he threw a pick six up 33-3 in the fourth quarter convinced me.
•D'Onta Foreman got more work in the blowout and ran more effectively than Lamar Miller. It's still Miller's job, but Foreman is arguably the top backup to own (Assuming we consider Derrick Henry a co-starter.)
• The Ravens offense is horrific. They scored 24 points, but 15 of them were on special teams touchdowns, and the other nine on Justin Tucker field goals. I saw them run a check-down to Ben Watson on 3rd-and-10, down seven points that he caught six yards short of the first down and was tackled two yards later. It's the worst offense in the NFL, behind even the Browns, Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Colts and Bears.
•Carlos Hyde was stuffed on the ground, but he scored twice and caught five passes for 47 yards. Reports of his demise were exaggerated, though after the team cut NaVorro Bowman, there were rumors Hyde would get dealt. The deadline is Oct. 31.
•Kirk Cousins played well and had a big fantasy game, thanks to a rushing TD. It was a designed play, and Cousins had nine rushing TDs from 2015-16, so this wasn't a fluke.
• Neither Chris Thompson nor Samaje Perine did anything on the ground, though Thompson surprisingly had 16 carries, easily a career high. Thompson was a monster in the passing game, though, with four catches for 105 yards, and Perine caught a TD.
• None of the Redskins receivers did anything. Josh Doctson caught an early TD, but that was his only catch on three targets. This offense has upside, but it has to get its playmaking receivers – Pryor, Reed, Doctson and Jamison Crowder – more involved.
• The Jets went toe-to-toe with the Patriots all game and might have tied it but for a bizarre call on a would-be Austin Seferian-Jenkins TD that was ruled a touchback.
• Gillislee fumbled, and Dion Lewis (11 carries to Gillislee's 10) got the subsequent goal-line carry and converted it. Gillislee is no LeGarrette Blount, offers nothing in the passing game (telegraphing a run play when he's on the field) and now has lost a fumble. He's not done yet, but he's on the ropes.
• Every QB that's faced the Patriots this season has now thrown for 300 yards. Matt Ryan is up in Week 7.
• Seferian-Jenkins saw 11 targets and should have scored twice. He managed only 46 yards on those targets, but the workload seems fairly assured. Robbie Anderson also saw 12 targets.
• The Saints-Lions game had 90 points, but five defensive and special-teams touchdowns.
•Ameer Abdullah had 14 carries, no catches and no touchdowns.
•Adam Thielen produces every week, no matter who the quarterback is. Last year's first rounder, Laquon Treadwell made a great catch and could have a role yet, though Stefon Diggs isn't expected to be out long.
• The Dolphins were down 17-0 in Atlanta and won the game 20-17. Between the Falcons, Ravens and Broncos going down, some Survivor pools are surely over at this point.
•Jay Cutler had 4.6 YPA, two TDs and an interception. Despite being 3-2, he's not out of the woods yet.
•Marvin Hall, a receiver of whom I had previously never heard, now has more touchdowns on the year than Julio Jones. It's bizarre how little the Falcons used Jones (seven targets) or Devonta Freeman (nine carries.)
•Austin Hooper had nine targets, catching seven. He isn't especially fast (4.72 40), but someone has to be the red-zone target in Atlanta.
• Mariota wasn't very mobile, but he played well, getting 9.6 YPA and converting on the big go-ahead score. It's worrisome the hamstring is still bothering him though, both because his mobility is a big part of his fantasy value and also because he looks like he could aggravate the injury on any play.
• Henry had a monster game, thanks to the 72-yard TD at the end, but it's noteworthy he had 19 carries to DeMarco Murray's 12, though Murray got the short TD and had four targets (for 47 yards) to Henry's one (for 14.)
•Eric Decker seemed like Mariota's go-to target – he had nine looks to Delanie Walker's eight, and converted a few key first downs. Decker looked sharp, getting open, catching what was thrown his way and having good awareness of the distance to make. Rishard Matthews (four targets) and Taylor (four) also made plays, while Walker was getting useless shovel passes near the line of scrimmage.
• The Titans love settling for short field goals (they should have gone on 4th-and-2 on one series), and Ryan Succop never misses one. I couldn't remember if his last one was the 51st or 52nd consecutive without a miss from inside 50 yards, but either way, it's not bad.
• The Colts scored a defensive TD in the third quarter, and after the Giants defensive TD against the Broncos Sunday night, I have to imagine it was a record for an NFL weekend. Certainly it had to be a record for a 14-game weekend.
• His numbers weren't good, but Jacoby Brissett looked sharp to me. He was victimized by a few drops, and for whatever reason didn't get the ball to T.Y. Hilton, but his passes had plenty of zip and were for the most part accurate.
•Frank Gore ran pretty well, I have to admit. I'm an ageist when it comes to NFL players, and nowhere more so than at running back, but Gore's decisive, and if the hole is opened, he'll run through it. Not that he has any upside.