We’re seven 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.
Is this a legitimacy test for the Bills?
The Bills sit at 5-1 with a strong shot to land an AFC Wildcard spot. More than many other teams, Buffalo has an identity and organizational clarity about what they are, and the type of players with which they build their team. Yet, they feel like an operation where the public will be on a constant quest to take stabs at their legitimacy as a true contender.
The skepticism is likely a multi-layered phenomenon. The Bills just secured their first playoff spot in decades two seasons ago. It’s not as if this is a star-powered roster with recognizable faces. You could argue they jettisoned their most name brand asset during the preseason in running back LeSean McCoy, even if he’s eons from the player he once was. Most of all, their schedule to date hasn’t featured a murder’s row of candidates.
The Bills have dropped the Bengals, Titans, Dolphins and both of their fellow New York teams to start the year. Their only loss came at the hands of the New England Patriots. There’s little shame in losing to the Patriots. Everyone else they’ve played has done it. Buffalo also managed to keep the 16-10 defeat competitive, thanks to their swarming defense, even as they lost starting quarterback Josh Allen before the contest concluded. We still need to see the Bills square off with a quality team and take them down. When the Titans are the closest thing to a good squad you’ve beat, that’s a bit south of ideal.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 23, 2019
The Eagles are not the Super Bowl-level team many believed they would be at this point in the season. Things could change but they’re currently on the wrong side of .500 and littered with problems. The secondary is so deeply problematic that the defense has become unwatchable. The offense is merely average, at best, ranking 20th as a passing unit and 16th on the ground, per Football Outsiders. Defeating this team wouldn’t be an upset. The Bills are 2.5-point home favorites, but even that’s not a wealth of respect considering the contest is in Buffalo and their respective records. It would still go down as a quality win for a Bills organization that needs to stack a few of them.
As the Bills look to gameplan for this matchup, expect them to feature a heavy dose of John Brown. Already nearly auto-start territory for fantasy managers at this point, Brown should be a set-it-and-forget-it option this week. The Eagles allow more yards (971) than any other team to receivers lined up out wide. The Bills are also lagging off expectations for their deep passing offense. Despite Josh Allen’s big-armed skill-set, Buffalo’s 73.7 passer rating on throws of 15-plus air yards is sixth from the league’s basement. That could see a boost this weekend thanks to the wide-open windows offered by the Philadelphia secondary.
Can Ryan Tannehill breathe life into the Titans?
No one will kid themselves into crafting a narrative that Ryan Tannehill is in the mix to be the long term solution for Tennessee. Well ... don’t get me wrong; some takesman out there will definitely spin this web tale around what will happen if Tannehill stacking some good games together simply because we need to discuss every angle of the league in our attempt to constantly cram content into our brains. At some point, every topic gets its moment, no matter how needless. Still, no serious person will really buy he’s a plan at the position.
In the meantime, Tannehill may reveal a truth about this offense for the next real QB solution Tennessee tries to uncover that his predecessor too often made us forget. The Titans have real talent on the offensive side of the ball.
Derrick Henry continues to operate as a sustaining piece of the offense in the ground game. He’s winning after contact and moving the chains. According to Sports Info Solutions, among all NFL backs, Henry is sixth in yards after contact (369), second in broken tackles (30) and top-seven in rushing first downs (28).
Tannehill’s start also reminded us of the potential with this wide receiver corps. Corey Davis hasn’t played up to the status of a player taken fifth overall. Yes, this is true even when you isolate his play from that of his quarterback. However, he’s not a bad starting receiver at all. Davis has gone under 50 yards in five of seven games this year but came alive against the Chargers with Tannehill under center. He saw a season-high seven looks and turned in 6-80 and a touchdown. Rookie A.J. Brown has major NFL ability and has shown it in spurts this year. Last week he inhaled eight targets and racked up six catches for 64 yards. The last time we saw this duo produce together was when Mariota got to face a non-NFL defense in the Atlanta Falcons.
Make no mistake, this is a far from dead-in-the-water receiver corps. Davis and Brown can be a solid one-two punch.
Tannehill and the suddenly appealing Titans offense will go to work against a Buccaneers defense fully in “they are who we thought they were” territory. Tampa Bay is the only team to allow over 300 passing yards per game this year, despite looking like they were on the come up early this season. It’s a unit that needs a shift in approach. They’re so good against the run (No. 1 ranked in yards per carry allowed) they invite teams to throw on them and make matters worse by sending extra rushers on passing plays. The Bucs have the second-highest blitz rate in the NFL and therefore leave their subpar pass coverage players on an island far too often, resulting in a full shredding. The blitzes aren’t turning into sacks, either. Tampa has just 13 sacks on the year, nine of which belong to Shaquille Barrett, who hasn’t dropped a quarterback since Week 4.
Given some of the seemingly new ceiling appeal brought on by Tannehill and the matchup ahead, it looks like a week to play some Titans in fantasy. We don’t get to say that often. Davis and Brown have strong WR3 potential with upside and Tannehill, at just $22 in Yahoo Daily Fantasy, helps you unlock a beastly lineup.
Can Sam Darnold shake the demons?
Sam Darnold was truly thwarted by a Patriots defense that’s flummoxed quarterbacks all season. The second-year passer endured a nightmare performance Monday night to the point that the broadcast even released a clip of him declaring he was “seeing ghosts.”
The quote is hardly as damning as it seems. It’s a phrase quarterbacks of every level have uttered on the sideline for years. It could mean many different things, as well.
The immediate negative reaction is for the viewer to assume Darnold meant he was feeling pressure that wasn’t there. Takesmen can then rush in to question his confidence, fortitude, or degrade whatever other faux masculinity labels must be assigned to a franchise quarterback. However, it could just as easily meant coverage players kept popping up unexpectedly. The zero coverage Darnold saw kept him guessing to the point that he was often forcing throws to areas where Patriots players would suddenly appear. This may have been his ghost. The game broadcasters could have done a better job explaining that moment rather than just completely letting the bus back up over Darnold.
Either way, the damage is done. Memes were made, Twitter blood was spilled. That’s the natural cycle of our football consumption here in 2019. The viewer is well within their right to run and have fun with a rare moment of access like that. Frankly, Adam Gase needs to be more worried about why his offense did not provide Darnold with any man-beaters to work the outlets in the middle of the field left wide open by the Patriots blitz calls.
It happened and the moment has now passed. What this cannot do is come to define Sam Darnold. It’s hard to imagine the quarterback — who came off a multi-week absence to immediately elevate his struggling team in a win over an NFC contender just one week prior — will allow that to be the case. He can truly send this moment of intriguing, rare and humanizing access that was turned into the butt of jokes rocketing into the distant past with a strong outing against the Jaguars in Week 8.
The Jaguars have been a middle-of-the-road pass defense this year and obviously no longer have a transformative player on the backend with Jalen Ramsey gone. Jacksonville ranks dead in the center at 18th in adjusted yards per pass attempt allowed. More interesting, despite having just the 22nd highest average depth of throws allowed, the Jaguars have the eighth-highest yards per completion allowed.
Darnold could easily get a few big plays on this vulnerable secondary, especially with wide receiver Robby Anderson. Reports hit Thursday that the Jets could be looking to shop Anderson at the trade deadline. Nothing like ending your New York run on a high note.
Eagles gotta swoop in yesterday https://t.co/VVD0o39Vya
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 24, 2019
The key for Darnold will be to keep himself out of harm’s way. The Jaguars have recorded the fourth-most (41) hurries this season. Darnold’s numbers are disastrous under pressure, per Sports Info Solutions, with a 55.6 on-target throw rate and 51.7 passer rating.
Were the Lions of September and early October a mirage?
It took many by surprise, myself chief among them, when the Lions debuted in 2019 as a truly interesting operation. Let’s be clear: My expectations were low. I anticipated the Lions being a hyper-boring, clear basement-level team in the NFC North.
The Lions have now dropped three straight games to fall to 2-3-1. They aren’t getting worked by any means, however. Detroit kept it close with Kansas City, caught bad officiating breaks in Green Bay and couldn’t finish a high-scoring affair with the Vikings. Still, the outlook for Detroit suddenly doesn’t look so rosy on the other side of that skid and it’s because their already thin margin for error is only getting slimmer.
Injuries have begun to mount and that’s a huge worry. Kerryon Johnson is going to miss a lengthy stretch and he’s the perfect example of how wide the gap is between starter and backup is on this roster. The second-year back is a strong starter, who brings a physical but slippery running style to marry with solid reviving chops.
In his absence, the Lions will be faced with turning to pure scatback JD McKissic and unproven rookie Ty Johnson. Now the latter may well turn out to be a fantasy darling as a fill-in. Johnson did handle over 60% of the snaps and earn 14 touches as Kerryon faded from the picture last week. He gets a great soft landing spot for his first start against the New York Giants, who let another former Day 3 draft pick in Chase Edmonds stomp them last week.
Nevertheless, his presence in the starting lineup is a painful reminder of this team’s depth issues. You’d feel the same way if either of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones went down and we’re looking at more playing time for Marvin Hall or Danny Amendola.
Old receivers in new places: What are the immediate returns?
A pair of receiver moves shook up the landscape, as each of the two undefeated teams left in the NFL struck trades to bolster their contending squads. The Patriots added Mohamed Sanu at the cost of a sure-to-be-late second-round pick and the 49ers secured a top receiver in Emmanuel Sanders.
For New England, Sanu seems like an ideal style fit but he’s far from what they need from a vertical perspective. Phillip Dorsett is the only player who has an average depth of target in the double-digits. This team just doesn’t scare people on offense right now. Sanu has an aDOT of 6.9, hardly making him that lacking deep element. Sanu does work well as a versatile receiver who fills in as a big slot on in-breaking routes. The Patriots were primarily making use of Josh Gordon (now on IR) on such patterns, so Sanu will fill those shoes as a less theoretically explosive but more reliable option.
I don’t really care about this trade in the slightest from a fantasy perspective. Sanu functions best as a third option between quality outside players like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. You tell me if that setup exists in New England. I’m much more intrigued by how Bill Belichick will make use of Sanu and his perfect career passer rating on trick plays. I don’t know when he’ll unveil them, but they’ll come in a big regular season or postseason contest. I’m taking the over on 4.5 passes thrown by Sanu as a member of this team in 2019.
The addition of Sanders should prove more consequential from a bottom-line perspective. Sanders is one of the NFL's premier route-runners when healthy. Unlike other receivers who move midseason, Sanders has the benefit of coming from a system run by former Kyle Shanahan assistant Rich Scangarello in Denver. That should cut down on the adjustment period for Sanders in San Francisco.
Sanders might not be unusable in fantasy this week. The 49ers receiver corps needs his help yesterday. Deebo Samuel has been in and out of the lineup, while Dante Pettis just can’t gain momentum. Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor were likely slated to by their top interior pass-catchers but Shanahan said he’s losing hope either returns in 2019. Sanders is an ideal fit as an inside/outside player and thrived in that role in 2018 before injuries struck.
The Panthers secondary is a top unit and their pass rush is overwhelming, leading the NFL with 27 sacks. However, they’ve been stung by receivers on occasion this year. Another inside/outside premier route-runner in Chris Godwin has totaled over 270 yards against this team through two meetings thus far. Sanders can win in the same way right off the bat for San Francisco.