We’re six 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.
Does a smash game for the Jaguars represent a new era (and is tanking worth it)?
Much of the analysis following the trade of Jalen Ramsey has been directed toward the Rams’ side of the deal. That’s understandable. Los Angeles was a Super Bowl participant last year and continues to defy the traditional norms of team-building.
The angle is just as interesting for the Jaguars. It cost them a true defensive difference-maker but Jacksonville is now in a position to continue their reboot armed with a pair of first-round picks in each of the next two drafts. Whether Ramsey was in the fold or not, the team that takes the field this Sunday will be quite different from the one that was pushing for a Super Bowl appearance less than two years ago.
It’s obvious the defense isn’t the same unit it was back in the 2017 season. Just as notable, the offense is a completely transformed operation. The Leonard Fournette of that season was a fine running back but had noticeable flaws. Here in 2019, Fournette looks much more like the type of offensive centerpiece the team imagined. Only one running back has handled more touches than him so far this season, and that’s supposed MVP-candidate, Christian McCaffrey. Once a question mark, Fournette’s catches per game have nearly doubled from his first two seasons and he’s run 10 more routes than any running back in the league. He’s done well with the chances too, clearing five yards per rush.
A receiver corps that rolled out Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns has now replaced that woebegone pair with inspiring youth. D.J. Chark is third in the NFL with 528 receiving yards and has been nothing short of a revelation. Veterans Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook have settled into strong role players behind him. Rookie passer Gardner Minshew has turned into one of the stories of the season. His precision and fearlessness have come to define the rest of the team.
With this offense as a baseline, it suddenly looks like Jacksonville doesn’t have far to go to revamp a roster that saw its window slammed shut after just one year while riding an all-time defense. That causes us to raise an eyebrow at the rest of the league.
As you look at the tanking outfits — like the Dolphins — across the NFL and then look at the position Jacksonville finds itself in, you begin to wonder if putting out a torturous product for a year is worth it. Following the Blake Bortles double-down disaster, Jacksonville looked like it was staring at a potential slew of 6-10- to- 8-8 stuck-in-the-mud seasons — seasons that have put Miami in a place where they felt bottoming out was the only way to get out.
Now, the Jaguars are loaded with picks and have promising spots all throughout their roster. It didn’t cost them a truly soul-sucking season to get here.
Of course, there are certain strokes of luck that one must get to be there. Cashing in a sixth-round pick for a possible solution at quarterback is ultra-rate. Few teams have disgruntled superstars to ship off for multiple Round 1 selections. Yet, teams have been rebuilding in the NFL for years without completely stripping the roster for parts. Certain breaks are needed for such a strategy. Not everyone gets them.
At the end of the day, the full tear-down model does greatly increase the margin for error. Talent evaluation and hitting on draft picks is deeply challenging. Having more is helpful. That’s why teams elect to go for this path. Still, seeing a team like Jacksonville boasting some of the same resources as a tanking team while running some true building blocks out on the field and suddenly providing promise in the current season should make a team think twice before they hit the self-destruct button.
Jacksonville’s offensive promise will be on full display in Week 7. The team will travel to face a Cincinnati defense that’s in complete shambles. Already struggling to defend the pass, the Bengals will play this week without their top two corners in William Jackson and Dre Kirkpatrick. We should see Minshew put up another workmanlike fantasy outing and involve Chark in the vertical game once again. And still, it’s worth wondering if Jacksonville’s passing game will need to do all that much, as this looks like a total smash spot for Fournette. The workhorse back will barrel through a Bengals front that is currently the only team to allow over 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
Not only are fantasy football gamers suddenly interested in multiple Jaguars for the first time since the Allen Robinson 14-touchdown season of 2015, but the franchise is staring at hope before they likely thought they could have it. The organization had to stumble it’s way into this, so much so that it’s hard to assign much credit to the decision-makers. Nevertheless, regardless of the path they took, the sun is shining brighter on this operation than we could have expected when they were seemingly headed to a top draft pick at warp speed when Nick Foles went down in Week 1.
Have we lost the Cowboys of Weeks 1-3 forever?
Through the first month of the season, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys had truly taken a step forward into the modern era of the NFL. The longer the season wears on, however, it’s looking more like a mirage. Perhaps it was simply induced by the hideous competition they faced but with motion and play-action adorning what were once crusty old dried-up plays, it sure looked like a corner was turned.
The last three weeks, we’re back to the same damn Cowboys. They’re back to running the ball at a top-10 rate on first down this year. Those plays average just 4.0 yards per carry, below the league average of 4.3. Additionally, we’re teetering back to the stone ages with a top-to-bottom misunderstanding of how their rushing attack impacts wins and losses:
Stephen Jones: “We normally win when Zeke gets 30+ touches”
On with @1053thefan
— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) October 14, 2019
Few in the football world were more excited about the work of Kellen Moore in the early going of the season. Frankly, the last three weeks, it looks like the burgeoning young coordinator has been grounded by Jerry Jones and his hand-picked babysitter, Jason Garrett.
The Cowboys will have to avoid the temptation of drooling over the establishment of the run this week. Philadelphia boasts the No. 2 run defense in Football Outsiders DVOA and allows the second-fewest yards per carry (3.3). The way they play defense practically begs opponents to throw on them.
The results are usually beneficial, especially to outside receivers. The Eagles have allowed the most yards (784) and touchdowns (eight) to receivers lined up out wide, per Sports Info Solutions. On the flip side, teams aren’t finding much room in the slot, allowing the sixth-fewest yards to slot receivers. While the team might not have Amari Cooper (quad) for this one, they have second-year breakout wide receiver, Michael Gallup, to rip through this secondary. And if he’s good to go, they could dust off vertical threat Devin Smith to look for big plays outside.
Dallas looked like a clear NFC title contender the first three weeks as it cut through the league like a hot knife through butter. After dropping three straight and bottoming out by losing to the once-lifeless Jets, they’re inching toward panic. They truly cannot afford to bungle this game with a poorly constructed offensive approach.
Can the Raiders steal one?
Even coming off the bye, the Raiders walking into Green Bay and emerging with a win would be a tough sell. The line has shifted from Packers -6.5 to -5.5, so the motion does note this one could get closer than it would appear on paper.
To their credit, the Raiders are a stunning 3-2. Few expected this team to boast a winning record coming into Week 7. It hasn’t always been pretty. The pass defense is still largely a problem. The offense isn’t overly prolific, especially in the passing game where they’re an average 16th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Oakland has won games with a tone-setter in the backfield and bottling-up opposing rushing attacks. It’s been all about the close games.
God help us, but it looks like Jon Gruden is indeed turning the game back to 1998.
Josh Jacobs is coming off a stunning performance against the Bears defense when he took a career-high 26 carries for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He tacked on 20 yards through the air to complete his rousing London trip. Green Bay’s aerial defense and particularly their pass rush group have enjoyed a strong season. However, they’ve shown cracks in the run game. The Packers are the 31st-ranked run defense in success rate and allow 4.9 yards per carry.
The Lions attempted to best the Packers by hitting big plays down the field. While they hit those at a solid rate, red zone stalls and assists from the officials too often came back to bite Detroit. Who the hell knows what the officiating results will be in Week 7 but Oakland will need to correct some of the red zone woes offered up by Detroit. To their credit, the Raiders are the second-ranked passing offense in the red zone and ninth-ranked rushing attack inside the 20-yard line.
Jacobs looks like he’s in line for a big workload, fresh coming off the bye. He could easily end up the highest-scoring fantasy back on the slate if the Raiders control the action. Being able to control the game will be the key for the Raiders if they hope to steal one here. Not only can they take advantage of one of the few weaknesses shown so far in the Packers defense, but they can also limit possessions for Aaron Rodgers. The future Hall of Fame quarterback showed us Monday night he can still make the most difficult throws even with a lesser supporting cast. Rushing Jacobs to keep Rodgers from chipping away at a defense that allows the seventh-highest passer rating (103.7) and ranks 30th in quarterback hits seems wise.
Going into Lambeau and knocking off an NFC favorite is a tall order even with this mismatch on the ground in the Raiders’ favor. More to the point, we need to take a moment to recognize how far this team has come in just one year. This time last season we couldn’t identify many strengths on the Oakland roster. We have a few now and that might be enough to make this game interesting.
Can the Rams offense smash the ball on the tee?
The Atlanta Falcons offer the perfect cure for an offense struggling to get rolling. Atlanta is the 31st-ranked pass defense in Football Outsiders DVOA and has ceded seven total touchdowns to running backs. Dan Quinn’s defense has looked nothing short of dead in the water since the kickoff in Week 1. They’ll draw the Los Angeles Rams in Week 7.
Once the pride of the NFL, Sean McVay’s offense is far from popping the cap off of teams like they were in 2017 and 2018. The production has been there in sporadic waves but the passing unit is noticeably off its pace of prior years, ranking 19th in success rate. Rams running back Todd Gurley told me this week that the key to this offense’s success the previous two seasons was its balance. He wasn’t referring to the simple equilibrium between rushing and passing. Gurley described a unit that could decide to attack a defense in multiple different ways and had the power to adjust its primary approach mid-game. Even if the up-the-gut run game was faltering, Gurley indicated it was easy for them to switch to hitting outside or slipping the runner out in the screen game.
So far in 2019, the reality of this unit has been well off that rosy imagery. Gurley’s oral painting displayed a unit that could use its right arm to hit you with the uppercut, hook or straight jab, based on its own whim. The Rams we see before us today have yet to find an answer when the defense ties the dominant arm behind their back and forces them to punch with the left hand.
The Rams are lost at sea and need to rediscover themselves. Over the next two weeks, they’ll square off with the Falcons and Bengals; the universe has provided a perfect opportunity to allow the Rams to return to shore. As the efficiency metrics show us, Jared Goff, in particular, has been a problem. He’ll find a pillow-soft landing spot with these two opponents.
The offensive line has been a massive issue for LA. Goff has crumbled when pressure causes the structure of the play to break down. That shouldn’t be a problem against a Falcons defense that has just five sacks on the year and is in the bottom-five in quarterback hits. Goff should finally have time to sit back and pick a secondary apart.
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say this but it’s time to get all the Rams offensive players in the pool. Even the disappointing Robert Woods is a pristine play this weekend. He’s inside the top-12 receivers in total targets and still maintains the most versatile role in the receiver corps. Atlanta gives it up both ways. They let up big plays in the open field, giving up the second-most yards after the catch. Even worse, on throws that travel 15-plus air yards, they’re allowing 31 yards per catch. You can hit them in all areas and if the Rams can’t crush this spot, it’s time to truly set off some alarm bells.
Can Lamar Jackson keep pace with Russell Wilson?
Russell Wilson is the clear-cut MVP of the NFL through six weeks. Miss me with other submissions. No one goes out and demonstrates their value above their surroundings week after week like Wilson.
The Seahawks quarterback ranks first in adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating, and touchdown percentage. He has the second-best competition percentage among starting quarterbacks and has yet to throw an interception. His statistical resume holds no flaws. Seattle looks like a possible NFC title favorite under his watch. He measures up as MVP in every possible way.
Think back to the first few games of the season. One of the players who looked like they’d join Wilson in that converted tier was Ravens passer Lamar Jackson. The second-year quarterback dunked on the “he can’t throw” crowd with gorgeous rainbows multiple times per game.
Jackson naturally saw some of his efficient metrics tail off as the competition improved and he’s had a few too many interception spurts. His Ravens dropped two straight games to the Chiefs and Browns before besting division rivals in the Steelers and Bengals. Jackson reminded us what a blistering runner he is in those two contests, racking up 222 yards rushing to lift the Ravens to 4-2.
The AFC North looks like Baltimore’s for the taking and Jackson is still firmly in the middle of a breakout season. Even if it isn’t as gorgeous as what we saw in the first two weeks, this team is well on its way.
The Ravens will draw a stiff test in Week 7 as they travel to Seattle. Jackson will have to duel with the likely league MVP. While both franchises have a storied recent history for tough defense, neither stop unit has consistently been up to snuff this season. We could be looking at a high-flying affair as these two electric dual-threat quarterbacks go to work in Week 7.
That said, Jackson and Wilson will be without two of their key emerging assets on Sunday. Seahawks tight end Will Dissly was placed on IR and Ravens rookie Marquise Brown hasn’t practiced this week, likely to miss another contest. It’s a shame as each would have exploited their opponent’s weaknesses. Baltimore has struggled to defend the middle of the field, while Seattle has leaked big plays on the backend.
Wilson could look to Tyler Lockett even more in the slot this week or involve veteran Jaron Brown ($11 in Yahoo DFS) more. The latter lined up inside on 38 percent of his snaps coming into Week 6.
For Jackson, his help is less obvious. Rookie Miles Boykin could take his runs at outside corner Trey Flowers. Baltimore can also incorporate tight end Mark Andrews on vertical routes or could go beyond their norm and involve their backs as receivers. Seattle has given up six scores on the ground to running backs and the sixth-most yards through the air. Of course, some of those cracks can also be exploited by Jackson as a rusher.
However, as each of these squads looks to best the other in a likely back-and-forth points-heavy game such as this, it will likely come down to the performance of the men behind center. For all his good work this year, Jackson has far more to prove than Wilson. He’s drawn some heat for slipping in the passing department against better teams. He can’t afford one of those performances in this spot.