The chaos of a football Sunday can make it hard for fantasy football managers to focus on the truth behind the stat lines, whether a player delivered an amazing performance — or a big fat goose egg. It can be difficult to figure out what to care for, and what not to care about. But don’t worry — Matt Harmon is here to help us sift through it all and determine what is true signal — and what is simply noise.
Five things I care about
The Dolphins have a counterpunch
I thought the goal for the Dolphins this season was to find a counterpunch to good opposing defenses and smart coaches that could take away their first pitch. Turned out that wasn’t necessary in Week 1, thanks to a Chargers team that doesn’t seem to fit that bill in the slightest.
However, the importance of it couldn’t have been more clear than in Week 2 on Sunday Night Football.
It’s a cliche but nevertheless a truth of the sport that Bill Belichick will try to take away what you do best. So it’s no surprise that Tyreek Hill was limited to just 40 yards on nine targets (he did score a TD). Tua Tagovailoa’s time to throw and air yards per target both came down from the impressive standards he set in Week 1. Jaylen Waddle averaged 21.5 yards per catch but only caught four passes. It wasn’t like he took over the game either.
Instead, it was a clamp-down defense and running game that ruled the day for Miami. As I always say about Raheem Mostert: He’s here for a good time, he’s not here for a long time … and man, was it good on Sunday night.
Mostert added 0.30 EPA per play on his 18 carries. Any running back adding that much EPA per tote is extremely noteworthy. To put it into context, Tua added 0.37 on his dropbacks — we know passing lends itself to adding far more value and is more efficient than rushing in these metrics — and he ranked eighth among all quarterbacks in Week 2. That’s how much value Mostert was bringing with his rushes. He was sustaining drives and keeping Miami in positive down and distance while also adding big-play juice. Notably, he found the end zone twice, making it three trips to the paint in two weeks.
Adding this element to the offense only increases the bind Miami can put opponents in on any given week. It makes the wildly underrated Tua that much better and at some point, it’ll open up even more wide-open windows in the downfield play-action game.
As if Miami needed any more of those.
There’s a small worry in the back of my mind that is concerned about what would happen to this ground game if Mostert misses time. The depth chart behind him is light with De’Von Achane still working into form and Jeff Wilson on IR. That’s unfortunately been an issue that’s dogged Mostert throughout his career. However, he’s here right now for that good time. And as long as that’s the case, he’s a must-start in fantasy football and he’s going to keep the Dolphins in the contender’s circle.
As for the future, if injuries do continue to hit this unit, Miami is the exact type of swing that could be a big deal at the (suddenly active these days) NFL trade deadline.
You may have heard there is a running back from Indianapolis the Dolphins have poked around already. After Sunday night’s showing, that proposition is even more interesting. They don’t need that move right now but … it’s a long season after all.
The early signs of success for Baltimore’s offense
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense didn’t stuff the stat sheet in Week 2 but they secured another win. When you look deeper, with some context, they showed a ton of positive signs.
In that context, remember that the Ravens went on the road without two of their starting offensive linemen while still working through a new offense and beat an AFC contender. Their receiver room still isn’t the cleanest. Rashod Bateman is still being worked back in slowly after a tough offseason of rehab and Odell Beckham Jr. left the game with an injury.
This was not an easy spot but Jackson and co. got the job done. Jackson checked in with the third-best success rate among Week 2 quarterbacks with the eighth-highest air yards per target average. We saw a bit more verticality out of this offense in Week 2, including a strike downfield to rookie Zay Flowers.
But nothing demonstrates the positive signs of this offense more than Nelson Agholor’s day. No, seriously.
Typically, a veteran like Agholor would have been a featured piece on the Ravens. In this version of the attack, he’s a depth piece who can step in when there are injuries. Jackson made the most of Agholor and he ended up being their leading receiver on six targets.
With more time, this unit is going to be a fantastic group. It’s already on the right trajectory. By December, it could be fully unleashed. New things take some time. The Ravens offense will be worth the wait.
Puka Nacua is for real
The 49ers won the game and looked like the better offense throughout. No surprise there. But nevertheless, I came away from this game far more ready to talk about the Rams, who continue to outkick expectations.
Matthew Stafford dropped back to pass an outrageous 60 times and, notably, only took one sack. That lone sack is the only one he’s taken this season and it didn’t occur until deep into the second half.
It’s one thing to avoid punishment against Seattle; Nick Bosa and the boys for the 49ers are a different story. This positive development has allowed Stafford to flourish and uncover young gems on offense — notably, Puka Nacua.
Nacua now has the record for most catches by any player in their first two games with 26. He was thrown to an absurd 20 times in Week 2 alone and currently leads the NFL in targets. It’s just wild for a Day Three rookie receiver but does make some sense if you were familiar with this player’s game from college.
Everything about Nacua’s game in Week 1 screamed sustainable without one ounce of flukiness. The best part? Most of these skills he already displayed in college.
If Nacua hadn’t suffered so many poorly timed college injuries, he’d have been drafted higher. He’s proving that already. He can beat man coverage and win outside. The Rams are not taking a young guy who can do that off the field. Stafford already knows just how reliable he is.
When Cooper Kupp returns, don’t think of it as Nacua taking a backseat. Rather, realize that the Rams will have two receivers who consistently create separation and who have rock-solid reliable hands. Having a pair of wideouts like that with Stafford playing at his current level is an interesting proposition.
James Cook’s role
It was certainly frustrating for those who have James Cook on their fantasy team to watch both Latavius Murray and Damien Harris bang in two touchdowns against the Raiders. However, Cook had a great game himself and it’s hard to complain about 150-plus yards from scrimmage.
Especially since he has the role locked in to continue enjoying these types of outings.
Cook handled 57% of the running back touches and ran a healthy amount of routes. He drew four targets, catching all of them for 36 yards. He’s been a consistent source of rushing efficiency with a 56% rushing success rate in this relatively stress-free win against the Raiders.
Cook looks like an ADP-beater and a nice RB2, even if he doesn’t have an elite ceiling. More importantly, I think his role so far is a nice case point for the Bills evolving as an offense.
Josh Allen played much better than he did on Monday night last week. Not a high bar to clear but clear it, he did. Allen had a mere 4.5 average depth of throw and played within himself, with a cool 19.5 EPA.
He just didn’t act like Superman because he didn’t have to be that guy.
Cook and Harris were chain movers. The Bills had an 83% success rate on late downs. When’s the last time the Bills have been able to count on their run game to be a viable counterpunch to their dynamic aerial attack? Not often in the Josh Allen era. Having that up their sleeve will help keep their quarterback out of needless chaos mode and give defenses something else to think about.
Cook looks like a quiet breakout candidate who still isn’t getting enough pop around the league. And that’s true for both fantasy gamers and his real NFL team.
Nico Collins is establishing himself
The Texans passing game quietly showed some excellent things for the second straight week.
C.J. Stroud went into Week 2 with a tidal wave of injuries on the offensive line. They were without four of the five guys they intended to start this season. That made this game another hazardous one after opening the season on the road in Baltimore. The Colts held a lead throughout but Stroud acquitted himself well and has continued to run a quality passing game.
He’s also shown an instant connection with his No. 1 wide receiver, Nico Collins. This budding connection has been one of the surprise early stories in fantasy football … but maybe it shouldn’t be so stunning.
Stroud has targeted Collins 20 times through the first two games, with 226 yards and a score to show for it. The Texans have gotten contributions from Robert Woods, Tank Dell and others in the passing game but Collins has been the centerpiece of the aerial attack.
He looks like someone you want to start every week in fantasy football.
Collins’ start to the season is a huge vindication for the pursuit of trying to isolate receiver play from their surroundings. The Texans passing offense has been one of the worst ecosystems in the league over the last two seasons. Nightmare play-calling, design and quarterback play have combined to make it an offense where you have to throw out any statistical results.
Still, if you watched Collins play, he showed X-receiver traits as a guy who could separate over the middle and win downfield. A talented quarterback like Stroud was all Collins needed to put the promise into the box score.
Five things I don’t care about
Patriots’ offensive investments
The Patriots offense is better this year. Some of the investments they’ve made into the unit the last few years — with veteran player additions and the drafting of Mac Jones — are starting to show signs they’ll get back to viability after a lost season in 2022. The big investment they made this last year was Bill O’Brien and, again, that’s already paying off.
The problem is, I now feel like the Patriots offense is just good enough to sit right at the league average.
They have competent acceptable NFL players at all the starting spots. That includes quarterback Mac Jones, who looks much closer to the player he was as a rookie. He’s accurate and executes the offense well. But all that has felt like so much of a self-induced struggle just to get back to average and I’m not sure where the path to breaking the glass ceiling of the 16th-best offense in football is.
O’Brien has the offense playing fast and Jones is frequently executing the no-huddle. He’s dropped back to pass 105 times so far this season, second-most in the league only to rookie C.J. Stroud. But they’ve just been in a real hurry to throw a lot of seven-to-10-yard stop routes that are far too often contested before getting off the field.
The Patriots just don’t have playmakers. They don’t employ a consistent separator, someone to make big plays with the ball in their hands or a vertical weapon who can win in isolation.
It’s an acceptable group that fits together. It just fits into a very average picture.
Any hope for the Jets offense
You couldn’t have asked for a worse spot for the Jets in the first start of the Zach Wilson, 3.0 Era than going into Dallas against that defense.
Alas, you also can’t draw up much worse results.
Garrett Wilson made a huge play with a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown after Malik Hooker whiffed on a tackle. He can do that at any given moment but that was just one of his two catches on eight targets in Week 2.
Zach Wilson was the leading rusher with 36 yards. The backs took 10 carries for 24 yards and Dalvin Cook lost a fumble. The offensive line was a major concern, of course. Every other passing snap it just felt like a tidal wave of pass rushers was crashing down on Wilson, ready to wash him away.
Overall, Wilson ended the day dead last in EPA per dropback — and comfortably last, too. Yes, this was a rough spot for this offense but there is next to no positivity to take from this performance.
If you can tell yourself a story about how it gets better, you’re more creative than I am.
Aaron Rodgers made headlines this weekend by saying that he was confident the innovative surgical procedure he underwent would give him an outside shot to return for the playoffs. Whether he’s right or wrong, a few more games like this and it won’t matter if can make it back or not, because the playoffs will be a long-lost distant fantasy.
The Sean Payton Broncos revival
It’s not quite the same embarrassing disaster but so far, the 2023 Denver Broncos look an awful lot like the 2022 rendition.
The Broncos created an interesting ending but albeit one that may create a false sense of hope. Russell Wilson heaved a desperation Hail Mary that popped in the air multiple times before dropping into the hands of Brandon Johnson in the end zone. A moment of jubilation ensued only to be quickly snuffed out by a listless two-point attempt on a Russell Wilson pass to a blanketed Courtland Sutton.
Prior to that desperation heave, it was just looking like another poor showing for Denver where I’m left asking myself, “What does this team do really well?”
The Broncos sacked the typically erratic Sam Howell just four times and allowed him to complete almost 70% of his passes. He distributed the ball to a variety of targets and was able to pick his spots. This defense is solid but not a true needle-mover. It’s certainly not good enough to offset an offense that’s still lost in the dark.
Payton and co. put a ton of resources into the offensive line and other blocking types at tight end to supposedly beef up the run game. They only handed the ball to their tailbacks 14 times. Javonte Williams has been getting most of the work and he looks solid but still a step slower coming off a brutal injury. They haven’t quite figured out a rotation there.
The passing game isn’t dynamic either. Russell Wilson looks a bit more comfortable in what’s a better-designed unit but only really looks like an above-average starter when pushing it down the field. He uncorked a few excellent deep balls to rookie Marvin Mims (who for some reason isn’t playing much) but there’s a lot to be desired elsewhere. Jerry Jeudy returned from his hamstring injury but didn’t make a big difference.
The one good thing the Broncos have going for them is the lackluster play from other AFC hopefuls, including the always-disappointing Chargers in their own division. Still, I haven’t seen much from these new-look Broncos to get me excited about their future.
Preseason concerns for Mike Evans
I was pretty much all out on drafting Buccaneers players in fantasy football this season. I’m not exactly ready to admit that was a mistake coming off a win over the unserious Bears defense. We have a whole lot of season left to go.
However, there was one part of this team I did get wrong. The Baker Mayfield to Mike Evans connection has been quite interesting.
Mayfield has historically struggled to get the best out of vertical, X-receiver types. The worst stretches of Odell Beckham Jr.’s and DJ Moore’s careers have come with Mayfield under center. Those difficult outside-the-numbers, timing-based throws have plagued Mayfield throughout his career. Those are some of the staple plays of Evans’ career.
Conversely, Mayfield did show some solid connection with slot receivers like Jarvis Landry and that seemed like it would overlap with the skills of Chris Godwin. So I ranked Godwin as the top Bucs receiver, even if I didn’t draft much of him either.
None of that has played out so far, as Mike Evans has pulled in 12 catches for 237 yards and a pair of scores.
Given the way Mayfield’s game has always been volatile, it probably makes more sense to favor the receiver who, when he does make accurate passes, is going to hit big. Godwin is averaging fewer than 10 air yards per target in the first two weeks of the season. A player like that needs a ton of volume to be a clear fantasy starter with shaky quarterback play.
Meanwhile, Evans (and his 13.1 air yards per target) has gotten the vertical looks he needs to enjoy big weeks. Going forward, he’s the most valuable player in this offense.
Week 1 Falcons overreactions
It was understandable that people were extremely thrown off by the results of the Falcons offense in Week 1. However, it was also quite reasonable to be grounded by rational thought and understand this team wouldn’t throw 18 passes to 26 rush attempts every week. The Panthers didn’t put up much of a fight and, most importantly, gave the Falcons multiple short fields with mind-numbing turnovers. That was the biggest reason the Falcons play volume was so depressed in Week 1.
A far more competitive Packers team pushed the Falcons out of their shell and, what do you know, they looked like a normal football team.
Atlanta dropped back to pass 38 times and handed the ball to running backs 35 times with five designed runs to Desmond Ridder. He was far from perfect but was able to run a functional NFL passing game. Not a high bar but that’s the level some were simply looking for right now out of Atlanta out of Week 1.
As such, Drake London was able to get his season back on track with six catches for 67 yards and a score. His breakout campaign is alive and well, despite the worst possible start.
The Kyle Pitts crowd, well that’s a separate story. One thing at a time.
Perhaps I’m just hanging onto my priors and living in what I want to be reality. However, I think this Week 2 result is going to look like what we see out of the Falcons offense much more often than not.