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We’re four weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.
Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold.
We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
So. Can we talk about the Rams?
It’s gone under the radar because they’re 3-0 and winning is the bottom line but there’s no denying a plain reality about the 2019 Rams. So far, this looks like a radically different team from the first two years of the Sean McVay era.
The previously high-flying Los Angeles Rams through three weeks look a bit ... neutered. The offense has yet to clear 30 points and is far less efficient. LA ranks 17th in yards per drive after ranking third and 10th in each of the last two seasons, respectively. They’re down to 10th in points per drive after 3rd-place finishes in 2018 and 2017. The Rams have won on the back of their defense, not their offense, through the first three weeks of the season. That’s a sharp reversal from what we saw last year.
The structure of the Rams offense hasn’t changed all that much. McVay has kept the attack a base 11-personnel unit at 83 percent of their plays (league average: 62%). Jared Goff still leads all quarterbacks with 37 play actions passes, per Sports Info Solutions. The problem is Goff hasn’t been nearly as deadly on those throws. He has a 53.5 passer rating with three picks.
We’re now multiple months into a stretch of games where, outside of a few throws, Goff has been a problem at worst and a net-neutral asset at best. He’s averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt since the raucous Rams vs. Chiefs game in Week 11 last year.
Todd Gurley’s role change — and there’s no denying that’s taken place — hasn’t been any help either, especially in the passing game. He has just six targets this year after inhaling 80-plus each of the last two seasons. Making matters worse, the offensive line looks a few ticks off its previous standards.
The Rams have enough talent and the type of offensive infrastructure put in place by an elite coach to turn it around at any moment. The Bucs come to town this week. Goff is much better at home than he is on the road with a 23-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in LA last year, compared to 10-9 away from the Coliseum. All three of his picks in 2019 have come in his two away games. Tampa’s defense has had some bright spots through two weeks but if the Rams can’t deliver a strong performance against this unit in LA, it will further cement their new identity as a defense-first team, and fantasy gamers should take note of this.
Can Dalvin Cook smash in a difficult Vikings spot?
You could make an argument that no one has played better football than Dalvin Cook so far this season. The Vikings back has scored four times, cleared 100 yards in each contest and is the clear-cut engine of the offense through three games. Cook leads all starting backs with 4.0 yards gained after contact, per Sports Info Solutions. He’s even gotten strong play from his offensive line, as they rank fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
The Vikings have firmly established the hell out of the run. Now, here in Week 4, they’ll face their toughest challenge yet. Traveling to Chicago is no joke. The Bears defense has swallowed opposing rushing attacks, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry.
If the Bears are able to control the script, the game may fall more into the hands of Kirk Cousins than the Vikings appear to want. It’s been a tough start to the season for Cousins, even as the team has tried to hide him. Cousins is outside the top-15 quarterbacks in adjusted yards per attempt and has a sub-60% completion rate. What we’ve seen out of the 2019 Vikings doesn’t inspire much confidence if and when there are forced to the air.
Minnesota reminded us last week that they have enough front-line talent to dominate an inferior opponent by throttling the Raiders. Theoretically, they have enough to hang with and even beat some good teams. One side of the ball counts as a good team in the Bears. This is a big test.
Will Kyle Allen and Daniel Jones continue to elevate?
Two young quarterbacks revealed that there was far more fantasy gold left to mine from their offenses than their predecessors revealed. The Giants and Panthers scoring units were stuck in the mud under Eli Manning and Cam Newton. Week 4 brought about a swift change.
Daniel Jones was a massive breath of fresh air for the Giants. He brought back the vertical passing game that Eli Manning had sucked from this offense years ago. His rushing ability was a dimension never offered by the one-time Super Bowl winner.
With Manning gone, it was a sudden reminder that this Giants offense is far from being bereft of talent. Sterling Shepard is a legitimate precise route runner who can win in tight spaces even when he doesn’t earn separation. He returned from a concussion to drop 100 yards and a score on nine targets. Evan Engram is in the middle of a massive breakthrough season, catching 77% of his targets and ranking eighth in receiving yards. Even farther on the down-low, the offensive line has taken a huge leap forward. Manning was only under pressure on 22 dropbacks through his first two starts and the line was blasting open holes for Saquon Barkley.
Down in Carolina, the far less-pedigreed Kyle Allen caused a supernova of activity in the Panthers offense. Breakout receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel were already quietly emerging but Allen helped them turn up the volume to 11. Both of the young receivers popped in touchdowns against the Cardinals. Greg Olsen also turned back the clock with a pair of scores.
Allen is a bit of a riskier bet because unlike Jones, he’s not necessarily the future for his franchise. However, for the time being, he’s set to start for what could be months. And with that, suddenly all the optimism for a Panthers offense with the first cast of top-of-the-line weaponry is back on the table.
Jones and Allen will both face beatable secondaries in Week 4. Washington has been an abject mess with blown coverages all around, ranking 27th in pass defense DVOA. The Texans have ranked in the bottom-10 in completion rate and passer rating allowed. With the Giants and Panthers experiencing a shift behind center, these offenses are suddenly in a new range of possibilities. Whereas it looked like these two teams were going to be last on the watch list every Sunday and their top pass-catchers forgettable fantasy options, these two young fill-ins have set a new tone.
Is Denver hopeless?
No team has looked more lifeless than the Denver Broncos. Honestly, they don’t do anything well.
The team went into 2019 with Joe Flacco as their only clear-cut viable option to start the season at quarterback. That is a disaster. It’s not a plan. To this point, Flacco has been as much of a dud as possible. He’s limited the offense to a small box of the field, as just 5.5% of his passes have traveled 20-plus yards down the field, lowest among any quarterback to start all three games. He’s been sacked on 9.1% of his dropbacks.
The backfield has been an unrhythmic mess. Neither Royce Freeman or Phillip Lindsay has pulled away from each other. Lindsay has just nine more carries and two more catches than Freeman. Overall, the team boasts a solid rushing attack, ranking fourth in rushing success rate. However, they can’t flow through run game because the biggest disappointment has come from the other side of the ball.
Few units have been as big of a letdown than the Broncos defense. They have yet to record a sack, a fumble recovery, or an interception. Their three quarterback hits rank dead last in the NFL. It’s wildly painful that Vic Fangio came over to much hype to produce this product but we’ve also seen coaches on the offensive side of the ball fight to juggle both the head gig and the trappings of their prior jobs.
With the struggles on defense and the hapless nature of the passing game, even the potentially appealing fantasy options in the backfield have been rendered useless. The team in general looks to be careening to a sub-.500 finish and the need to retool behind center yet again, unless you believe Drew Lock (who is far from seeing the field) is the truth. That’s a tough spot when you have a general manager who is nearly un-fireable.
The Broncos have a possible get-right game on the ledger here in Week 4. Gardner Minshew and the Jaguars looked stunningly competent last Thursday but he’s still a sixth-round rookie behind a middling offensive line and a running game that’s stuck in neutral. If the Broncos can’t take advantage of this spot at home, they’re in a bad way.
Will the Steelers find a rebound lane?
The Steelers, too, are in a bad way. They’re staring into the abyss, and it’s staring right back. The storied franchise sits winless heading into Week 4, sans their franchise quarterback and lacking any true playmaking juice on offense.
Second-year passer Mason Rudolph was dropped into an offense that needs a truck, not a trailer. He cannot be a passenger on the journey; this group needs a leader to elevate them. We haven’t seen much out of Rudolph to convince us he’s anywhere near that point.
James Washington and Diontae Johnson have flashed but aren’t proven as steady starters. Outside of one long catch-and-run score, JuJu Smith-Schuster has looked ordinary and incapable of being the top receiver in the offense. The running game has been a near disaster. James Conner has been the easiest runner to bring down on first contact and the team ranks 25th in adjusted line yards. Mike Munchak is busy laughing in Denver at what a mess his old line has been, at least when he can remove his mind from the horror his own team has become.
If the Steelers are going to get rolling, Monday night will prove a perfect chance. The Bengals defense is truly hideous. They rank 28th in Football Outsiders’ run defense DVOA and allow the seventh-highest adjusted yards per pass attempt (9.5) on the season.
The Steelers have to come out of Week 4 with a win and a strong offensive performance. Should they fail to do so, the glare from the abyss will only become more painful. The Steelers will have to wonder what their future looks like. Rudolph could turn around, but if he doesn’t, the team will walk into 2020 with an aging passer coming off major surgery and without a likely high-value pick to select his heir.
A big game for Pittsburgh’s fantasy assets would go a long way to soothing urges about their 2019 statistical output. The Bengals should provide a lane for that. Another flop and we’re in uncharted waters for this underperforming collection of players.