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Week 9 Booms and Busts: Dalvin Cook makes case as fantasy football's top player

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The 2020 fantasy football season has been a messy one for the first round. Injuries, underperformance, bad breaks and bad scores.

Dalvin Cook looms as a rare exception. Whatever resources you spent to draft him in the summer, it’s been worth it.

Cook posted the best running back game of the season in Week 8’s win over Green Bay, and he was nearly as good in Sunday’s romp over Detroit. Cook had 206 rushing yards and two touchdowns at Detroit, and tacked on 46 receiving yards. It’s the No. 6 PPR game of the year from the running back position, a ridiculous showing from the guy who posted the No. 1 score a week prior. I empathize with all the fantasy managers who got trampled by Cook in the last two games.

Cook can play any style you like. He can run inside or out, and he catches the ball well. He had a high success rate in runs against the Lions, but he also hits a lot of home runs (including a 70-yarder on Sunday). Whatever is in your playbook, he’s the man for the job.

Consistency also comes standard with Cook. He’s scored at least one touchdown in all seven of his starts this year, and he’s gone well over 100 yards rushing in four of his last five games. Minnesota’s strong offensive line — ranked fourth in Adjusted Line Yards, a blocking stat — helps the cause, and remember Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer never met a running play he didn’t like. The Vikings also have Gary Kubiak, a noted running-game guru, calling the offensive plays.

Just how run-heavy are the Vikings? Consider that Kirk Cousins attempted only 34 passes over the last two weeks. Cousins also has four other starts with between 22 and 27 attempts. Minnesota entered Week 9 as a 50-percent pass team, easily the lowest rate in the NFC. Although Cook missed one game with an injury, he’s taken over the NFL’s rushing lead.

Christian McCaffrey returned Week 9 and did CMC things (10 catches, 151 total yards, two touchdowns), and he might be the most valuable fantasy commodity of the moment. But if I were walking into a fresh draft, I would proactively consider Cook at any lottery spot. Depending on how you feel about McCaffrey and Davante Adams, Cook would probably go anywhere from first to third in any new draft.

To be fair, Cook’s recent explosion has been schedule-boosted — Green Bay and Detroit are especially leaky against the run. But Cook has some juicy draws in the second half of the year. The Bears should challenge him in Week 10, but after that the Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars come calling.

If there’s a dark side to this, it’s the fantasy playoff schedule. Cook lines up with the Buccaneers, Bears, and Saints for Weeks 14-16. But let’s not get hung up on that now; the world view could be totally different in a month or so. The NFL is a snow globe league.

Letting Dalvin Cook is a good strategy against any opponent.

Cardinals skid, Dolphins validate

The NFC West has been strutting proudly all year, pondering the possibility of securing three or maybe even four playoff spots.

As the sun sets on Week 9, it’s just another division in a slump. All four teams are on a losing streak; the Rams of course lost last week (into a bye), and the Cardinals, Seahawks, and 49ers lost this week.

You can excuse the Niners malaise, given that their team photo is on the injury report. But Seattle and Arizona have foundational cracks, too. The Seahawks secondary is generationally-awful, and you can’t expect Russell Wilson to bail you out every week.

Kliff Kingsbury is an interesting play designer, but his game theory could use some work. He did several sub-optimal things in the Week 7 win over Seattle, and then struggled to solve the endgame in Sunday’s loss to Miami. The decision to kick on fourth-and-1, late in the fourth quarter — despite the fact that Kyler Murray was unstoppable by land and by air — was a misstep, especially when you consider that a field goal only tied the game, and Miami had plenty of time remaining for a drive. And then Zane Gonzalez came up short on the kick, putting Arizona in a corner. Three running plays later, Miami had the game salted away.

It was shocking to see Chase Edmonds manage just 88 yards on 28 carries, including a pedestrian 2.8 yards per rush. Kingsbury is a noted Kenyan Drake believer, and this Edmonds outing probably secures Drake getting his job back, if he can return shortly.

Miami was able to hide Tua Tagovailoa in last week’s shocker of the Rams, but the rookie was a proactive part of Sunday’s plan — running, scrambling, looking downfield. He threw for two touchdowns, averaged 8.9 YPA, didn’t turn the ball over, chipped in 35 rushing yards. Three-quarters of Miami’s targets went to the top four options — DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki, and Jakeem Grant. This is an offense that can support multiple passing-game options.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) runs for a touchdown as Miami Dolphins free safety Eric Rowe (21) defends during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had four total touchdowns on Sunday, but it wasn't enough to beat the Dolphins. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Speed Round

The Steelers mailing in a half or so against a lesser opponent —stop us if you’ve heard that one before. Pittsburgh is lucky Ben Roethlisberger was able to hobble through the second half; even this late in his career, he’s the difference between a team having Super Bowl upside and a team that has almost no playoff upside.

• To be fair, Garrett Gilbert was passable in his emergency start, and the Dallas defense has quietly improved in recent weeks. Maybe the Cowboys are just another losing club but not necessarily the league laughing stock. Dallas finally earned a cover in Week 9, after failing to grab the money in its first eight games. The Pokes are off in Week 10.

Is Dallas better off with Tony Pollard these days? Likely, especially if Ezekiel Elliott isn’t 100 percent. And there’s probably no reason to go back to Andy Dalton, either. Then again, you never know what will happen in Jerry World.

• When I saw Washington and the Giants on the schedule, I envisioned a turnover parade, Washington’s defense making life miserable for Daniel Jones. The Washington defense was passable Sunday, sacking Jones five times and forcing two fumbles, though neither one became a turnover. Meanwhile, the Football Team had a sloppy five turnovers and all but gave the game to the Giants.

Alex Smith had some crisp moments and even some lucky moments in his emergency appearance; the long touchdown to Terry McLaurin was a risky throw into coverage that the electric receiver converted into a touchdown. But Smith also had two soul-crushing picks in the fourth period, along with an earlier interception that wasn’t his fault (J.D. McKissic fell down). It was Smith’s first three-interception game since Week 1 of the 2014 season.

I’m still intrigued by the skill talent in Washington. And perhaps Smith’s game will get a lot cleaner when he’s given starter reps during the week. Kyle Allen (dislocated ankle) is likely out for the year.

• Buffalo should enjoy OC Brian Daboll while it can; he’s going to be someone else’s head coach next year. Give Daboll credit for junking the running game and aggressively attacking Seattle’s horrible secondary. The Bills also deserve front-office props for how they’ve packed the receiving fridge for Josh Allen; John Brown and Cole Beasley were value plays in free agency in 2019, while the team traded for Stefon Diggs in March. It’s a credit to Daboll that all of these receivers have quickly acclimated in Buffalo, working against the trend that says receivers are risky initial bets with their new teams.

• I have Davante Adams at the top of my going-forward receiver board, but Keenan Allen might be the No. 2 guy. Consider what Allen has done in seven Justin Herbert starts: 78 targets, 58 catches, 614 yards, four touchdowns. If you ignore the New Orleans game, when Allen got hurt, he’s averaging just under 13 targets a game with Herbert.

• Jake Luton’s debut probably looks a little better in the boxscore then it did on the first watch, though I’ll go under the hood and review it Monday. What’s important for fantasy is that Jacksonville’s two true difference-makers on offense, DJ Chark and James Robinson, both thrived in the first Luton start. I’ve always been something of a Gardner Minshew apologist, but given his injury and Jacksonville’s spot in the standings, might as well give Luton an extended chance to play.

If Jack Doyle’s injury is anything serious, look into Mo Alie-Cox. He’s the most talented tight end on Indianapolis’ roster, and the fantasy role of 2 and 3 applies (two is manageable as a platoon, but when you see three, you flee).

• Jonathan Taylor had a touchdown but also lost a fumble, and Jordan Wilkins had 11 carries to Taylor’s six. You get the sense that Taylor could be thinking too much, running too tentatively, struggling with the speed of the pro game. Things need to be more fluid, more instinctive. And maybe that Indianapolis offensive line is a lot worse than we expected.

• David Moore is just an emergency flex at the moment, but he could be a hot commodity if a primary Seattle receiver got hurt. Keep him on the radar, and maybe add him in deeper pools.

• Wayne Gallman isn’t special, but he’s serviceable. I don’t think the Giants are forced to go back to Devonta Freeman.

• The Panthers have all sorts of skill talent, but it’s fun to watch how they creatively scheme for Curtis Samuel. They’re always looking for ways for him to make a splash play and/or score a touchdown, even around the goal line. It took a while, but they finally have the Samuel skeleton key. I can play him proactively now.

• Todd Gurley is 50 percent low-octane volume and 50 percent touchdown deodorant. I still don’t trust him long term. I’m not saying there’s a passionate market for Gurley out there, but maybe you can find some interest. Atlanta, however, is off in Week 10.

• Nick Foles needs the volume to be even a QB2 in Superflex — the YPA isn’t there. Chicago’s lousy offensive line doesn’t help. David Montgomery isn’t entirely at fault for his struggles, but he’s not the type of back who can survive this setup.

• Irv Smith Jr. kept a healthy route share last week despite little volume, and this week he popped for two short touchdowns. Sure, he’ll need touchdown equity to maintain borderline TE1/2 status. But when you catch balls around the goal line — and remember he also has a 2-point conversion on your ledger — teams tend to go back to you. And he’s always had a pedigree — he played at Alabama, and his dad was an NFL tight end, too.

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