What to care/not care about from Week 1: The Cowboys offensive line may be a problem
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 1, 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
The Cowboys offensive line may be a problem
We’ve looked at the Cowboys offense with hungry eyes all offseason. Quarterback Dak Prescott has the league’s best wide receiver trio and is flanked by one of the game’s premier running backs. You can find a lot to like.
One problem: The unit that has long anchored this offense is suddenly looking like a weak spot. The Cowboys’ long vaunted offensive line has turned ordinary at best and problematic at worse.
We knew they’d be without center Travis Frederick after he retired earlier in the offseason. Now, while already having to get a new pivot-man up to speed, Dallas needed to plug another hole when right tackle La’El Collins went on IR. Matters got worse Sunday night when his subpar replacement Cameron Erving left the game with a malady.
Prescott was only sacked three times but was constantly harassed by waves of LA pass rushers. He needed to get the ball out too quickly and pass up downfield throws. Top receiver and typically dangerous vertical threat Amari Cooper finished with a paltry 8.1 yards per catch on 14 targets. It seemed Cooper was constantly targeted on mistimed hitch routes that came after Dak had to deliver the ball under pressure and earlier than he would have wanted.
One also has to wonder if the coaching staff began to lose faith in the protection as the game went on. The Cowboys threw the ball on 1st and 2nd down 35 times compared to 21 runs. However, they just got more conservative the later the contest got. Several dubious play calls didn’t help put Dallas in a position to succeed. It shouldn’t have come down to a questionable OPI call on Michael Gallup.
While we all have fantasies about what this dreamboat of players can do together in Dallas, we just have to hope what was once the foundation of this team doesn’t become an anchor that keeps the Cowboys docked in the harbor.
Cam Newton has a new home
Tom Brady’s new team didn’t feel particularly spirited in Week 1. On the other hand, Brady’s old stomping grounds were awash with good vibes.
You just get the sense watching/listening to Cam Newton, Josh McDaniels, and Bill Belichick that this crew has all been re-energized by their union. That’s not to say that Josh and Bill are hyped to be rid of Tom Brady; it just means this new challenge is scratching a football-junkie itch.
Newton was the engine of the Patriots offense. He popped in two scores on his 15 carries, a team-high. More than that, his arm looked like it had the life we haven’t seen since early 2018. He threw with zip and power and it showed up in the stat sheet. Newton completed 79 percent of his passes at 8.2 yards per attempt.
Now that we know Newton is comfortable and in place as the key figure in New England’s offense, we must begin to search for who will benefit ... beyond those who drafted Newton late in fantasy.
The backfield was murky alongside him. There may still be room for Damien Harris in a few weeks. N’Keal Harry fumbled his potential biggest play into the end zone for a touchback. Edelman led the team with seven targets. We’re still hunting for an answer beyond the veteran slot man.
Eagles’ offensive line injuries
The Eagles pass offense looked way too much like last year’s version in the box score. Carson Wentz finished well south of 6.5 yards per attempt and the two tight ends and slot receiver Greg Ward were by far the most productive part of the passing game, handling 54.8 percent of Wentz’s throws.
Philadelphia wanted to evolve from that formula this year; it was more of the same in Week 1. The two big-play outside receivers, DeSean Jackson and rookie Jalen Reagor, added some 20-plus yard splash plays but they were too few and far in between.
You can chalk this up to another consistent theme with the Eagles: Injuries. Of course, fantasy managers were furious to lose out on early round pick Miles Sanders right away and a better running game may have taken some pressure off Wentz. However, it’s hard to place the blame on anything but a hideous offensive line performance that got their quarterback dropped for eight sacks. We should have seen it coming.
Second-year left tackle Andre Dillard is on IR while 38-year old veteran Jason Peters made the last-minute move from guard to replace him. Right tackle stalwart Lane Johnson missed this game. All-star guard Brandon Brooks is out for the season. Swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai left for the Lions in free agency.
The results of all the transition and injuries showed on Sunday. Any big expectations for the Eagles offense may need to be dialed back until the line looks a bit better.
Despite controlling this game for most of the afternoon and playing on enemy territory, the Seahawks operated as a pass-first outfit. Repeat: The Seahawks were a pass-first team and no one forced them into it.
Seattle’s early down (1st/2nd) play selection went 32 passes, 18 runs. If this holds up, it’s a huge development. It’s massive for both hungry fantasy managers and the real-life outlook of the Seahawks.
Russell Wilson was on fire with this script. The star quarterback went for 322 yards at 9.2 per attempt and four touchdowns. His completion percentage was 13.7 points higher than expectation, per Next Gen Stats. Both of the Seahawks starting receivers excelled, clearing 90 yards against the Falcons. DK Metcalf found the end zone, Tyler Lockett hauled in eight passes.
We definitely need to see this over multiple weeks to declare Pete Carroll the beneficiary of a mid-career epiphany, but as the football world has cried louder than ever for the Seattle brass to let Russ Cook, this was a great sign.
Jaguars passing game
Gardner Minshew turned in one of the surprise performances of the Week 1 slate, delivering a home upset over the new-look Colts. The Jaguars starting quarterback completed a sterling 95 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns to three different wide receivers. That has my attention.
Jay Gruden made it a priority to give Minshew high-percentage throws. With a 2.34-second time to throw and 4.5 average intended air yards per attempt, there were plenty of layups. Playing with underrated young wideouts like D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault, that’s not a bad thing.
Sunday’s results could just be a result of a national overrating job of the Indianapolis Colts. On the other hand, we might need to leave open the possibility of this young passing game possibly providing plenty of value all season.
5 Things I don’t care about
Trying to predict the Rams backfield a month out
Malcolm Brown looked like the best back on the Rams roster in Week 1. It really wasn’t close.
Brown popped in two red-zone scores, sure, but he ran with authority all night against the Cowboys. The veteran has been with Sean McVay for years and has long been a coach favorite. As the Rams have had to onboard Cam Akers with less time than anticipated while nursing Darrell Henderson back to health, it only made sense that Brown would come out as the top guy.
Will it be that way in four weeks? No way of knowing. Sean McVay has repeatedly called this a committee backfield and declared they’ll take a hot-hand approach. After Sunday night, Brown looks like the hot hand. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Brown should definitely be rostered in all fantasy leagues and be considered the RB1 for the time being over Akers. Just don’t be surprised when/if that flips on its head.
Tom Brady’s bad bottom-line
The Tom Brady-led Buccaneers offense was enough to put you to sleep. The flair that the big names should bring was nowhere to be found. All that excitement that came through during the free agency period didn’t show up on gameday.
It’s extremely tempting to say “Tom Brady is washed,” and declare this a failed experiment. And that may well end up being the correct answer. More likely though, this was 30 percent the fault of a lot of new pieces still needing to gel and 70 percent the fault of a stellar defense on the other side. It just doesn’t get discussed enough but this New Orleans defense is loaded. The cornerback corps boasts a lockdown shadow-man and a ballhawk. The safety crew is loaded with good players, with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on the come-up. Closer to the line, Cameron Jordan and Demario Davis lead a fast and aggressive front-seven.
Brady could have easily just been foiled by a defense well ahead of his offense in terms of development. Life isn’t always easy when you change addresses. My Yahoo Sports colleague Dan Wetzel wrote a good piece breaking this whole concept down. Brady’s 2020 task isn’t going to be simple just because his receivers are now far better than his New England crew. It may end up being a failure but let’s wait to see him go up against a defense a few levels lower than the Saints’ underrated collection of talent.
Alvin Kamara-induced preseason sweat
Alvin Kamara popped in two touchdowns and was the most targeted player on the Saints in Week 1. All that came after a couple of weeks of sweating by fantasy managers amid contract negotiations and suspicious injury scares.
No one should come out of Week 1 feeling anything but good vibes from the Alvin Kamara show. The receiving work was of particular interest. Despite a hot finish to 2019, the Drew Brees we saw in January didn’t look like a guy sporting an arm capable of running an offense that can push the ball down the field. After an offseason when he pondered walking away, to the point that the Saints reportedly considered chasing Tom Brady in free agency, the Brees we saw on Sunday with his 5.8 yards per attempt looked more the same as the one we saw last winter.
With a short passing game continuing to be the engine in New Orleans, Kamara becomes that much more important. Don’t be shocked if he pushes for double-digit scores and triple-digit catches.
DeAndre Hopkins’ missed practice time
The fantasy world had a little worry creep into DeAndre Hopkins’ projection given the rocky history of wide receivers changing teams. It turned from a whisper to a not-so-inside voice when Hopkins missed valuable practice time in an already truncated offseason.
No victory lap here; he’s not on many of my teams and was a Week 1 fade for me. But this quote was a big part of my process when projecting DeAndre Hopkins for 2020. The lesson here is the value of talking to the players and learning what makes them tick. These guys are not numbers on a spreadsheet:
Back in January I spent some time with @DeAndreHopkins. One of the things I really wanted to ask him was how he's always been productive no matter what QB he played with.
This was his answer and what Kyler Murray can now look forward to, "it's really being his best friend." pic.twitter.com/SvYKWKsTbf
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) March 20, 2020
Few receivers are as used to working so hard in a truncated period to get on the same page with his quarterback as Hopkins is. As weird as this offseason was, that part of it may have felt familiar to him. He dominated the target share in his debut outing with Kyler Murray and turned in a career-high 14 catches for over 150 yards. It’s full speed ahead for Hopkins going forward.
A rush to judge rookie RBs
In a conversation with my editor this afternoon, he noted that while several rookie running backs posted some interesting performances, many of them contained an element of, “Yeah, but …” hidden behind the final fantasy point total.
Lions rookie D’Andre Swift saw Adrian Peterson lead the backfield on the ground with 14 carries for 96 yards. But ... the rookie got usage near the goal line, led the team in snaps played, and saw the most targets (five). Of course, he did whiff his biggest chance as a receiver by dropping what would have been the game-winner.
Ravens rookie J.K. Dobbins scored twice on the ground, perhaps leading to some thought he’s the RB1 in Baltimore. But ... he finished behind Mark Ingram in rush attempts (10 to seven) in a completely non-competitive game. This is still a straight-up split.
Jonathan Taylor looks like he could rocket up fantasy stock-watch lists with Marlon Mack suffering a serious injury and proving himself in the passing game (6-67 on six targets). But ... Week 1 revealed Nyheim Hines has a big role on this team after he touched the ball 15 times.
Some of these rookie backs look like they have impediments in their way at the goal line, like Cam Akers dealing with Malcolm Brown and Antonio Gibson with Peyton Barber.
Some of the others, it’s too early to rush to judgment with their role projection.