Week 4 recap: Beyond the Box Score
After four weeks, fantasy football owners have enough of a sample size to be able to evaluate player performance, highlight emerging trends, take stock of rising and falling player value and try to project future performance. The analysis below is my own opinion (except for the stats, those are real I promise) and comes from nearly ten years of evaluating NFL offenses from a fantasy perspective. Hopefully my perspective and observation will help you evaluate your fantasy roster and make decisions that will give you the best chance to win a fantasy football championship.
San Francisco 35
St. Louis 11
In the short history of Thursday Night Football, the games have on a consistent basis been virtually unwatchable. It just isn't a good product. What you have more often than not are two teams playing on the short week with little time to recover or prepare, which leads to sloppy football, penalties, injuries and blowouts like we saw in this game.
I won't go so far as to say that the San Francisco 49ers have cured all of their offensive woes. They have just finally come to the realization that the key to their entire offense - one devoid of explosive playmakers in the passing game - is the running game with Frank Gore.
Colin Kaepernick rebounded from a difficult two weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, I firmly believe that Kaepernick has all of the necessary skills to become the best quarterback in the NFL and (given his running ability right now) potentially the top fantasy quarterback in the game. Fantasy owners in dynasty leagues should look to make a trade to acquire the third-year signal caller. Does that mean Kaepernick is at that level or even close to that? No, but in my opinion, that is his ceiling. At the moment, Kaepernick is one of the better fantasy options at quarterback - a legitimate top-10 guy - but until he gets some playmakers healthy or added to the roster, his upside is limited to basically what we saw against St. Louis (167 yards and two touchdowns with an 83.6 QBR.)
The truth is somewhere in between the only two possible explanations (Sam Bradford's lack of execution and stalled development or the lack of weapons around him) as to why the Rams produced only 188 total yards and went 3-for-17 on third down in a blowout loss. Daryl Richardson had nearly as many carries (12) as yards (16) against the Niners on the ground. The real culprit here is the lack of any semblance of a vertical passing game. Virtually every pass play offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (the real behind the scenes culprit here who you may remember from the Mark Sanchez days with New York) dialed up resulted in a throw within ten yards of the line of scrimmage despite having "big-play weapons" like Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and Jared Cook. The only teams averaging less yards per pass (6.0) than the Rams this season are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars. The numbers don't lie in this case.
The St. Louis Rams are one of (if not) the worst run defenses in the NFL this season, giving up an average of 133 yards per game on the ground. Their upcoming schedule features plenty of stud fantasy running backs as well in Jacksonville, Houston, Carolina, Seattle, Tennessee and Indianapolis.
Facing a defense that struggled against a rookie quarterback a week ago, the results should have been better than what fantasy owners got from reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off five times. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for 24 yards on nine carries as Baltimore fell behind early and abandoned the run against one of the league's worst run defenses that had been giving up over 150 yards per game on the ground coming into the contest. Clearly a major letdown for the Ravens, who are an offense transitioning to a new identity, so it is fair to write it off as one bad game and see how they fare against a stingy Miami defense next week.
Robert Woods is quietly putting together an impressive rookie campaign for Buffalo. The USC product was targeted a team-high eight times by E.J. Manuel against the Ravens, catching four passes for 80 yards and one touchdown. Woods has just 11 catches through four games, but has already scored a pair of touchdowns and with bye weeks already upon us, is worthy of consideration as a quality fill-in.
C.J. Spiller rushed for 77 yards on 23 carries, but did suffer an ankle injury (which has the potential to impact his Week 5 availability because the Bills have just three days off before taking on the Cleveland Browns on Thursday Night). Fred Jackson sprained his MCL against the Ravens. The veteran runner believes he will be able to play on Thursday Night. It sounds like neither back is willing to risk losing the lion's share of the carries due to injury. Fantasy owners need to monitor their status throughout the week as both will likely be game time decisions. It isn't a good matchup facing the Browns, who are the fourth-best run defense in the league yardage-wise this season, but have given up five touchdowns on the ground. Tashard Choice is the third stringer fantasy owners looking to hedge against Spiller and Jackson need to pickup this week. If Spiller or Jackson (or both) can't go, Choice would be in line for an expanded workload.
The Ewing Theory is in full effect in Cleveland. The Browns are 2-0 since trading Trent Richardson and turning to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. The Browns are finding a way to win ugly. Tight end Jordan Cameron is the real deal. Cameron reeled in 10 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals and is looking like the best tight end in the league not named Jimmy Graham.
This has nothing to do with fantasy football, but it is more of a philosophical question: is this the right move (winning games) for the Browns? I'm not advocating for blatant tanking, but if they take themselves out of position to get one of the top quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL Draft (they may have the ammunition to trade up) aren't they essentially tied to either Brian Hoyer or Brandon Weeden and in the same position they are today? A team with an outstanding defense, solid weapons in the passing game, but missing a quarterback who can lead them to a Super Bowl. That's what the rest of this season is about in Cleveland, finding out if Hoyer (who is from Cleveland) is good enough to be an "elite" quarterback capable of leading his team to the playoffs and a Super Bowl. Otherwise, this season means nothing. I'm rooting for Hoyer to get it done.
The Cleveland defense is legitimately one of the best units in the league. The stats back it up too. Nose tackle Phil Taylor and linebacker Barkevious Mingo are two of the most underrated defensive players in the league. Stud cornerback Joe Haden did an outstanding job on A.J. Green, who was limited to just 51 yards on seven catches despite 15 targets. The Bengals' running back tandem of Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for just 50 yards on 16 carries. Bernard is the better of the two options right now for fantasy owners, so it is only a matter of time before he runs away with the starting job.
Reggie Bush is having the most productive season of his career any way you slice it. Bush (5.3) trails only LeSean McCoy (6.0) in yards per carry among running backs with over 50 carries this season. Despite missing one game and being limited in another due to injury, Bush still ranks sixth at the position with 433 all-purpose yards. After 139 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against Chicago, it may not be a stretch to call Bush the best running back in the league not named Adrian Peterson. I said it in the pre-season that Bush was in my opinion the "best value in fantasy football this season" and he should live up to that if he can avoid injury.
The absence of Nate Burleson didn't have a major impact on the Lions' passing game as Calvin Johnson got his usual double-digit targets, Bush got six, while Matthew Stafford targeted Brandon Pettigrew seven times, Kris Durham and Joique Bell four times, Tony Scheffler twice and Ryan Broyles only once.
Chicago wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey has been trending upwards over the last couple of weeks and is worthy of a pickup after a big game in Week 4, but this offense revolves around two players (Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall). Until Jeffrey shows that he can have a major impact on a week-to-week basis, he shouldn't be trusted in your fantasy lineup just yet.
The biggest difference for the Chicago Bears offense this season is the play of quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears have only given up six sacks in four games and Cutler had cut back on the interceptions prior to Sunday when he threw three against the Lions. If Cutler can limit the mistakes and the protection holds up, he should remain in the top 10 in total QBR this season.
The Seahawks' passing game was non-existent on Sunday, which is something we saw plenty of times last season, but not through the first three weeks of this year. The bad news is that it isn't likely to turn around in the next two weeks as Seattle faces a pair of top-10 pass defenses in the Colts and Titans before it gets better with the Cardinals and Rams. Aside from Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson (you have to roll him out there if you own him regardless), there aren't any other options worthy of fantasy consideration right now.
For the first time this season, we saw a clear split in carries between Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster got a season-high 27 carries, while Tate only got seven. Foster is clearly back to elite stud status, but if Tate is going to max out at 10 carries per game (unless he scores a touchdown), his upside is limited - meaning he should only be in your lineup in the most favorable of matchups. The Texans threw the ball 49 times, but only three went in the direction of DeAndre Hopkins. Obviously it was a tough matchup against Seattle, but after catching at least five passes in the first three games, this was a major dip in production.