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So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise.
In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 5, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
DK Metcalf can be the WR1 overall this year
After five weeks of regular-season action, I’m not sure this is even a bold stance anymore. Every bit of data suggests DK Metcalf finishing as the top-scoring fantasy receiver is well within his range of outcomes.
Coming out of Week 5, DK Metcalf is second only to DeAndre Hopkins in receiving yards, is one of just five players with five-plus touchdown catches, and is absolutely roasting anyone who tries to cover him. Hell, even when he makes mistakes like his drop before the game-winning touchdown against the Vikings or his infamous early celebration fumble against Dallas, he’s still wide open when the ball arrives. Even if those are negative plays, they still remind you just how positive the outcome is for most Metcalf targets.
All of this talent was on display as a rookie. If you doubted Metcalf in the predraft process — and frankly, I can’t recall a more unfairly criticized, over-critiqued wide receiver prospect in the last five years — his rookie film should have instantly proved you wrong. He showed he could get open against press and win on a variety of routes. If you didn’t see it, that’s on you:
Overall DK Metcalf was awesome as a rookie, both as a separator and at the catch point
- 73.9% success rate vs. man coverage (85th percentile)
- 74.7% success rate vs. press (79th percentile)
- 14th among sampled 2019 WRs in contested catch rate - 81.3% #ReceptionPerception pic.twitter.com/rhDIblk8Rw
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) July 22, 2020
Metcalf was a player with a Dez Bryant-like skill set getting to play across from an established No. 1 receiver in Tyler Lockett and alongside one of the NFL’s most efficient passers in Russell Wilson. That’s a pretty easy positive evaluation.
Of course, most assumed Metcalf would have a capped ceiling along with the rest of this Seattle passing game because of the franchise’s conservative leanings. Well, that went out the door right away as we saw the Seahawks debut as one of the NFL’s most pass-heavy operations this year. That changed the game and raised Metcalf’s ceiling as high as it can go for a wide receiver.
This Dez-like talent has the receiver chops from a physicality and separation standpoint to finish as the top receiver in fantasy this season now that the opportunity has caught up. Would anyone be surprised if Metcalf turns in a line like Bryant’s peak season in 2014 when he caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns?
Right now, Metcalf is pacing for a 70-1,587-16 finish. So, yes, the shock meter would be at a firm zero.
Alex Smith returns and replaces Kyle Allen
We care about this from a couple of angles.
For one, it is such a compelling human interest story. Alex Smith literally nearly lost his leg two seasons ago. He decided he wanted to make an NFL comeback. He worked impossibly hard and willed that into existence. Smith deserves all the praise, accolades, and love from the NFL community for making it happen.
Getting the NFL fanbase to universally agree on anything is impossible. Yet, it’s hard to imagine a reasonable person not rooting for and celebrating Alex Smith this past Sunday.
From a pure football angle, as we all held our breath any time a Ram defender got near Smith, the Washington quarterback was dropped for six sacks. That was in addition to two sacks taken by the Week 5 starter, Kyle Allen. The duo combined for 111 passing yards. Smith’s return was a beautiful story, but it would have probably been a more pleasant chapter had Aaron Donald not been involved in this particular section.
Allen and Smith taking snaps for Washington revealed that this offense has a barrage of problems beyond their quarterback position. First and foremost is the porous pass protection. It took down Dwayne Haskins, it was a problem for Allen (who lost more yards on sacks than any other quarterback in 2019) and you can bet it’s a dealbreaker for the current version of Alex Smith.
Apparently, Ron Rivera benched Dwayne Haskins because he sees a window to win the NFC East. He’s going to have to wipe even more fog off that window to keep that vision clear.
The Panthers are in the NFC South race
The 2020 Carolina Panthers are fun. The offense puts a variety of players in a position to succeed. The defense is filled with young guys who have flaws but are starting to improve. This crew worked their way to a 3-2 start on Sunday by delivering Atlanta their fifth-straight loss.
On offense, Carolina has survived an injury to their best player to string together three strong performances. Teddy Bridgewater has thrown for 824 yards, scored six total touchdowns, and committed just one turnover. Fellow newcomers Mike Davis (351 yards from scrimmage) and Robby Anderson (lead wide receiver) haven’t just been stuffing stat-sheets, they’ve straight-up balled out. In Week 5, DJ Moore scored his first touchdown and Curtis Samuel totaled 64 yards and continued to pick up key chain-moving catches on third down. Joe Brady continues to be creative and has everything clicking in Carolina.
The defense is notoriously young. It’s a note that’s been well-publicized. While the run defense continues to show major cracks in the armor, the Panthers are starting to slow down passing attacks. The defense has held Justin Herbert (6.7), Kyler Murray (4.3), and Matt Ryan (6.1) under seven yards per attempt.
This Panthers team is tough and talented, especially on offense. Most importantly, Matt Rhule appears to have the team well-coached and clear on its identity. With Atlanta lost at sea and the top-two teams in the NFC South (Tampa Bay/New Orleans) a bit inconsistent, the Panthers could make some noise in this division.
Chase Claypool demonstrates the Steelers’ depth
Steelers starting receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson didn’t offer much in Week 5. Smith-Schuster drew just five targets and totaled 28 yards. Johnson once again left a game early thanks to a first-half back injury.
You didn’t notice it. That’s because Chase Claypool stepped up to demonstrate Pittsburgh’s embarrassment of riches at receiver.
The rookie from Notre Dame put up a dominant performance, catching seven of 11 targets for 110 yards and scoring four total touchdowns. He won in the vertical game, in scoring areas, and in tight spaces down the sideline. It was a sublime performance.
After the game, Claypool noted that if he wasn’t the one to go off against Philadelphia, it could have been any of his fellow wideouts:
#Steelers WR Chase Claypool on his four touchdown day: “If it wasn’t me, it’s someone else making those plays. That’s how deep we are at receiver.”
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) October 11, 2020
It’s a great point. In the first two weeks, before injuries started to hit, Johnson led the team in targets by a decent gap. Smith-Schuster has a history of absorbing major volume. It’s hard to imagine this team not spreading the wealth a little more going forward considering how talented they are in the pass-catcher department. We haven’t even mentioned Eric Ebron or James Washington yet, both of whom are solid role players.
Most importantly, Claypool’s breakout game is going to be a tough genie to put back in the bottle. He’s going to command reps going forward.
Henry Ruggs’ big play
Another rookie receiver that made a statement was Raiders wideout Henry Ruggs. The first receiver off the board in April, Ruggs just hasn’t been healthy enough to show off his wheels. That changed in Week 5.
Ruggs ripped off a 72-yard reception for the first touchdown of his career against the Chiefs. It wasn’t the only big play of the day for Las Vegas, as veteran Nelson Agholor was on the receiving end of another Derek Carr deep heave for a 59-yard score.
I’ve previously bemoaned the Raiders’ lack of a counterpunch in this column. When a team keys in on Josh Jacobs, it’s just too easy to defend their passing game if Darren Waller is the first, second, and third option. If explosive players like Ruggs can stack some good games together for this offense, they’ll be a much more difficult unit to play.
That needs to happen because we’ve seen that this defense is going to force them into track meets. Gruden can love the physical game all he wants and that will remain the central part of their identity. However, they just don’t have the defense to play that way for 16 games.
5 Things I don’t care about
Considering the fantasy angle in Dallas
I know it’s part of the job and at some point, the analysis will be given. But this is my column. I can write what I want and I’m going to just get this out there. I loathe the idea that we have to flip the script and “Consider the fantasy implications of Andy Dalton starting for the Cowboys.”
There haven’t been many injuries that I can remember that felt more like a true gut-punch than when Dak Prescott injured his ankle on a run against the Giants in Week 5. That’s saying something considering we’re in the middle of a season that has been flooded with serious injuries every single week. It was immediately apparent to everyone watching just how devastating a situation we all watched. The Cowboys players looked haunted. His former head coach and current Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett left his sideline to support him. The football universe felt like it came to a halt as a titanic quarterback was struck down in the middle of a record-breaking season while playing under the limits of the trash franchise tag.
It just didn’t seem right. No injury is fair, no malady deserved. Something about this, though, considering his contract situation and the absolute true leadership Dak displayed while coming forward about his own mental health battles after his brother’s suicide, felt particularly cruel.
Lastly, if you’re one of the people who felt the need to remind us, “Well, this is what can happen when you bet on yourself,” or even imply Prescott should have settled for less than what he deserved: Just stop. Read the room. Come back to reality.
Justin Jefferson’s slow night
Cris Collinsworth felt as shocked as any of us as he continually predicted throughout Sunday Night Football that the Vikings would hit Jefferson on a vertical play-action pass despite it never happening. It was quite a letdown.
The rookie was coming off two 100-yard outings in his first couple of games as a clear key piece for the Vikings. He passed every test. Essentially every efficiency metric would tell you he was making the most of his targets. If you put him under the eye test, it would be impossible to come away from your viewing with anything but a glowing review.
So, to see Jefferson turn in a three-catch, 23-yard line against a Seahawks defense that had allowed 500 more yards to wide receivers than any other team was a bummer. But that’s all this is. Just a small bummer.
Jefferson is too good to be denied for the majority of his outings going forward. And we could replay this game 10 more times and get nine outcomes where Jefferson balls out, especially if you tweak the weather settings or Seattle doesn’t fall into a hole early. The bottom-line, when Jefferson prepares to run routes against the Falcons next week, no one is going to advise you to remember what happened in Week 5.
Offensive expectations for the Falcons
The Dan Quinn era is over. The Falcons never recovered from the 28-3 debacle against New England in the Super Bowl. They were nothing but the same ghost of the team every year that followed the 2016 season.
However, as their defense continued to get worse, ceding piles of middle-of-the-field yardage and endlessly searching for a pass rush, you could typically count on their passing offense to be competent. At least competent enough to help them get to a meaningless 7-9 record.
Over the last three weeks, that hasn’t been the case. The defense remained hideous, the brutal late-game twists persisted but the once strong pass game just wasn’t there. After two awesome games to start the season, Matt Ryan has gone under 290 yards passing and thrown just one touchdown to two picks over the last three weeks.
Seriously. Just one touchdown.
Obviously, Julio Jones has missed the majority of these three games. While Calvin Ridley has fully emerged as a top-flight receiver, missing Jones’ presence is a problem. The offensive line has also started to sustain injuries. You can make excuses but that doesn’t mean it was any more surprising to watch the aerial attack circle the drain along with the rest of the operation.
For now, we’re done with our typical expectations for this offense. We need to see something positive from this unit at some point. However, we shouldn’t be ready to write them off for the rest of 2020. For one, Jones could get healthy. That alone would make a world of difference. Additionally, the team might like Dan Quinn but given the way the season has gone, there might be a certain spark brought on by a change at the top of the coaching ranks. We’ve seen that with other teams (including the next team we’re discussing here). So, because there are at least two variables of change about to hit the team, we can have some imagination this gets back on track.
Weeks 1-4 Houston Texans
The Texans we saw in Week 5 looked a lot more like the crew we expected to see this season. Deshaun Watson threw for over 350 yards with three scores, David Johnson rushed for 96 yards (5.6 per carry) and both Brandin Cooks (161-TD) and Will Fuller (58-TD) made an impact.
What changed? Well …
You can argue that this was the product of playing a young Jaguars defense. No doubt, that played a factor. It’s just as easy to posit that Houston breathed a collective sigh of relief when Bill O’Brien was sent packing last week.
At some point, as the season begins to slip away amid a 0-4 start, the players have to start losing confidence in their chances while captained by the guy who is responsible for one of the worst trades in NFL history, amid a bevy of other gaffes. The NFL is a thin margin for error league. If having a coach the guys want to play for, which by all account Romeo Crennel is, replacing a figure like O’Brien increases that margin by just a sliver ... it can certainly make a big difference. We can start inching these Houston offensive players back up closer to their preseason rankings with more samples like the result from Week 5.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s meltdown
The temptation exists to be ultra-harsh on Jimmy Garoppolo and spell doom for the 49ers after a hideous loss to the Miami Dolphins. However, it was clear that the San Francisco starter just wasn’t healthy.
You could see on several of his errant passes that Garoppolo just wasn’t comfortable planting on his compromised ankle. It was all too apparent on one of his crucial interceptions. It’s really the only explanation for Garoppolo’s 7/17 passing line with two picks and three sacks. That would mean Kyle Shanahan’s second-half insertion of C.J. Beathard was less of a benching and more of an admission that his starter shouldn’t have been out there.
The 49ers don’t have too much wiggle room on offense given their injuries on the other side of the ball. We saw that unfold as Ryan Fitzpatrick ripped through them to the tune of 12.5 yards per attempt and three touchdowns. The 49ers got Raheem Mostert back and he was exactly what fantasy managers would expect. He didn’t share much of the work, handling 14 of the 21 running back touches. The receivers are healthy. If a quarterback can get out there at 100 percent and play well, this offense is ready to flow.
That was not the case in Week 5.