The Clipboard: Emmanuel Sanders and narrow usage trees

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The fantasy dots lined up for <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24057/" data-ylk="slk:Emmanuel Sanders">Emmanuel Sanders</a> this draft season (AP/David Zalubowski)
The fantasy dots lined up for Emmanuel Sanders this draft season (AP/David Zalubowski)

When I first started playing fantasy football, no one officially counted targets. Sometimes you’d mentally track them yourself, filing them away for future reference.

When I first got into fantasy football, running-back committees were here and there. Most teams didn’t use a third receiver much and a fourth receiver was just a depth player. A second tight end rarely entered the picture. Most teams had a fullback on the field regularly, a take-out-the-trash player who almost never touched the ball or carried fantasy relevance.

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The game is obviously much different in the 2010s. We now live in a passing world, a committee-back world, and a world where a typical NFL box score is longer than a Scorsese mob movie.

So we look for narrow usage trees where we can. We love teams that have a small collection of talented players whom they rely on constantly. The shorter the list of skill players in the box score, the more we like it.

The 2014 Chicago Bears were a classic example of a narrow usage tree (I wrote one of my old Monday Brunch columns about them). Take a moment to appreciate how streamlined their usage was. Matt Forte had 266 carries; Jay Cutler was second, with a piddly 39. The rest of the team had 50 carries for the season — that’s about three per week.

Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Brandon Marshall accounted for 89 percent of the receiving yards and 28 of the 30 touchdown catches. Even though Marshall missed three games, Chicago had just two wideouts top 140 receiving yards.

A gigantic part of the fantasy football puzzle is figuring who will consistently get the ball; who will collect the opportunity. The 2014 Bears were an easy solve.

Narrow usage isn’t a common in 2018, but there are some teams that could go that way. The Denver Broncos jump out as a candidate.

It’s easy to anoint Emmanuel Sanders after a 10-135-1 explosion against Seattle. But the additional boost here is how new quarterback Case Keenum focused on his primary targets in Sanders (11 targets) and Demaryius Thomas (6-63-1, 10 targets). No one else had more than five targets here, or 45 yards. Keenum knows where his bread is buttered.

Sanders checked a lot of boxes as a possible summer value. Thomas, a similar fantasy commodity, was priced at least a round higher, sometimes multiple rounds. Sanders has a proven resume but was coming off an injury-riddled season, which compromised the price. Keenum wasn’t a sure thing but he looked like a notable upgrade over Denver’s lousy quarterbacks in 2017. And the other primary targets in this passing game are young players — maybe someone will pop and turn into a legitimate mouth to feed but it’s highly possible that most weeks, the Broncos will ride or die with Sanders and Thomas.

It’s also important not to be automatically spooked by teams that use three primary wideouts. Consider the Lions — Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and breakout-waiting-to-happen Kenny Golladay might look like they cannibalize each other, but Detroit has an unsettled running back situation and no pass-gobbling tight end. The Lions also use three-wide as their base offense, and although it’s just one game, maybe the Detroit defense will stink. I wanted pieces of every primary option of this passing game, and although Detroit didn’t do much right in the embarrassing loss to the Jets, I still like Stafford and Tate as much as I did a month ago — and obviously I like Golladay even more.

A shallow box score is your friend. Maybe the 2014 Bears aren’t walking through that door, but we’ll try to find similar setups.

Some other Week 1 quick hits off The Clipboard:

• I’m light on Joe Mixon ownership and that concerns me. Remember Le’Veon Bell’s ordinary rookie season? He lost a bunch of weight before Year 2, came in more confident and dedicated, then tore up the league. I get that Mixon running through the Colts doesn’t merit a parade, but he came to camp more serious — and more trim — and looked like a difference-maker Sunday.

• Andy Dalton should be a solid depth QB and the reason you play in Superflex or 2-QB formats. John Ross is ready to add something. Tyler Eifert is a needle-mover when healthy, and even if he’s hurt, Tyler Kroft is an interesting understudy. A.J. Green left some stuff on the field Sunday, but he also made splash plays; still a star. Mixon looks ready to pop. Cincinnati had it so good Sunday, Gio Bernard could hardly get on the field. And the offensive line has been upgraded, too.

• Quincy Enunwa’s 10 targets don’t knock you out of your chair until you realize Sam Darnold only threw 21 passes; that’s a gigantic market share for Enunwa. Robby Anderson had the nifty 41-yard grab but it was his only look. The Jets had unusual offensive flow with the way Monday’s game played out — return touchdowns will do that to you — but at this point, you have to assume Enunwa, so long as he’s healthy, will be the primary option. He’s a middle-of-the-field guy (on a team with no major tight end), which neatly lines up with Darnold’s skill set.

• I’m very much in on Darnold. He took the early punch — a pick-six on his first pass — and didn’t look fazed. He took his successful plays in stride. You need the quarterback to be the coolest guy in the room. Darnold can be that guy. Josh McCown looks like a perfect veteran mentor — from an experience standpoint, from a no-ego standpoint, and from a mentoring standpoint.

• Obviously Ryan Fitzpatrick has nowhere to go but down after the shocker at New Orleans, but he’s always fit the Tampa offense well and he’s now up to four useful starts there. Maybe the new play calling — OC Todd Monken took over for Dirk Koetter this summer — agrees with Fitzpatrick or the offense in general. There are some fun toys in this passing game, and although the upcoming schedule is daunting (Philly, Pittsburgh, Chicago), this could turn into one of the Carnival teams of 2018.

• No one likes seeing players get hurt — it’s almost sheepish to point that out — but when Delanie Walker and Greg Olsen go down in Week 1, you start to wonder if we need new rules for aging tight ends. Obviously anyone on a football field is an injury risk and so many injuries are about bad timing or crummy luck, but Olsen was off a major injury last year, and Walker just turned 34.

Olsen is going to be a dynamite coach or announcer when he retires — I’m not trying to push him that way, but I love listening to him. Walker also commands respect around the league — consider how passionate the Miami players were in acknowledging him after his injury Sunday.

• As much as the Dallas offense makes my eyes bleed, Ezekiel Elliott is a rare player who can have a bad real-life game and still come out with a passable fantasy score. Even his bad games are going to be acceptable (for us) a fair amount of the time. Floor is a wonderful thing.

• Greg Zuerlein looks like 2018’s kicker cheat code. The Rams had an unsustainable touchdown rate last year, the defense was beefed up, the head coach will try long kicks, and even the weather lines up.

Corey Davis is ready to spread his wings in Year 2 (AP/Mark Humphrey)
Corey Davis is ready to spread his wings in Year 2 (AP/Mark Humphrey)

• I’m worried Marcus Mariota might not be durable enough to be the star I expected, but no matter who plays quarterback in Tennessee, it looks like this offense could be dominated by Dion Lewis and Corey Davis. I don’t have a lot of Davis, balking somewhat when the price got expectant in August, but the dots connect for him. And to be fair, maybe we can’t take too much from that strange Miami-Tennessee game, given all the weather delays and the ridiculous block of time that was needed to complete the match.

Derrick Henry isn’t a bad player and obviously he had a touchdown wiped out by penalty, but Lewis should have a higher success rate when he’s on the field. The catch is how many games Lewis can be expected to play — if you told me he’d get in 11 or 12 full ones, I’d sign off for that right now.

• Jimmy Garoppolo’s first loss, and first mediocre game, came against perhaps the best defense in perhaps the most hostile environment. Garoppolo also lost Marquise Goodwin in the game, and his backs didn’t do him many favors. George Kittle made some splash plays (if he’s healthy, this has breakout all over it), but he also left some plays on the field. Bottom line, I call this an excused absence for JG, a so-so start that is easily rationalized. I’d be shocked if he didn’t post a rating over 100 in Week 2 against Detroit, and I still like him as much as I did in August, even if Goodwin misses a chunk of time.

• I don’t want to hear anyone saying they won’t make any major fantasy decisions until October. The key to fantasy is being selectively aggressive. No, don’t do anything rash about your blue-chip guys who stumbled in Week 1. But you always need to carefully audit your roster and the FAAB-available talent. You want to be early to the truth of the new season. If you wait for proof in this game, you are the deadest of dead money.

Selectively aggressive. That should be your mantra.

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