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 4, 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:
A speed bump for Dallas
For the time being, we should call this Cowboys loss only a speed bump. For the first three weeks of the regular season, the new-look Dallas offense looked like a breakthrough unit. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had injected life into a stale approach and Dak Prescott was unlocking new potential in a suddenly intriguing set of weapons while looking like a possible MVP candidate. It appeared that Dallas was ready to challenge the NFC elites under this new format.
Doubters could quickly point out their opponents (The Giants, Washington and Dolphins) were mere doormats. Beating these teams, even in such convincing fashion, could easily be a mirage. Fuel gathered around that fire Sunday night as the Cowboys went into New Orleans and couldn’t take out a limited Saints team led by Teddy Bridgewater.
Top receiver Amari Cooper was limited by the Saints’ top cover corner, Marshon Lattimore. The running game was bottled up. Most importantly, we saw little from Prescott even as some of the concepts brought in by Moore remained apparent. Prescott straight up left points on the board and was stagnant for stretches of this game.
Again, for now, we view this as just a speed bump. The larger collection of evidence shows us this is a Dallas team that has turned the corner and is cruising. However, a loss to the best team on their schedule, so far, even if they’re weakened, should give us some pause. It’s even more crucial of a note when that team will be one of the Cowboys’ competitors for the NFC title. One cannot afford to wave off this Sunday night performance, even if we should spare a quick-turn reaction that erases all the good Dallas offered in Weeks 1-3.
Time to put some respect on the Lions’ name
The Lions were a favorite punching bag in the offseason. Hell, they were a popular target even dating back to last season.
We all laughed at their constant insistence that they wanted to be a run-first team. Few gave Matt Patricia much respect as the head figure of this organization. Matthew Stafford was left for dead as a fantasy quarterback, frequently going off the board with the dregs of the position. Not much respect was paid to their defense, a unit that had added new faces.
Through four games, the Lions aren’t exactly smashing, but they finally endured their first loss after getting dropped at home by the Chiefs. It was a brutal late-game loss and that “1” in the tie column is still a dark mark after choking away a win in Week 1 against Arizona. However, this version of the Lions looks like a perfectly capable team.
Stafford has the passing attack in Detroit looking like a fun, vertically driven unit. Perhaps the Lions want to be built around the running game but this aerial assault is deadly when they can push the ball downfield.
The defense in Detroit has been a unit to attack in years past but of all the new realities surrounding this team here in 2019, this is the most crucial. Detroit isn’t an elite stop unit but they’ve been more than pulling their weight. Coming into the weekend, they were ranked 10th in both run and pass defense by Football Outsiders. Here in Week 4, they held Patrick Mahomes without a passing score and under a 60 percent completion rate. Several new additions like Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman have shown to be near-finishing-type pieces for this underrated Patricia-led group. Coleman had a fabulous Week 4, breaking up a pair of potential Sammy Watkins touchdowns.
The Lions aren’t one of the best teams in the NFL but they are far from the cellar. Right now, this is one of at least 25 teams in the league that could finish anywhere between 6-10 and 10-6. At least for me, that’s a big adjustment. It’s time to respect the Lions and adjust your expectations.
Courtland Sutton’s quiet breakout
Coming into Week 4, Broncos second-year receiver Courtland Sutton was showing signs he had made the leap. Quiet signal but a buzz was nevertheless building for him. Sutton was averaging 82.3 yards per game and catching over 72 percent of his targets in what was a narrow Joe Flacco-captained offense. He cleared only 90 yards in one game (Week 1), so it largely went unnoticed. Hard to blame anyone for checking out on the ultra-dull and now 0-4 Broncos.
On Sunday, Sutton announced his presence to the wider audience with two touchdowns inside the 10-yard line against Jacksonville. He drew nine targets to tie Emmanuel Sanders (5-104) for the team-lead. If you missed it before, it’ll be harder now.
Sunday served as a reminder that some of the skill position talents for the Broncos are indeed tantalizing. Not only did Sutton explode and the veteran Sanders splash, rookie tight end Noah Fant found the end zone. It’s hard to take shots at Flacco with how solid his box score looks coming out of Sunday but he has been an anchor for this unit so far. Even worse, the offensive line continues to be a problem to the point the team can’t work down the field. For now, as Denver sits winless without many clear strengths, the team may already start to glance toward next season. As the Broncos do, they know they have a building block in Sutton.
The Bills have found something in Dawson Knox. Don’t get me wrong — he didn’t smash fantasy leagues on Sunday. He was well down the target pecking order with three looks. Cole Beasley and John Brown paced the team with 13 and 11.
However, Knox made at least two big-time, high-level NFL catches today — one from each Bills quarterback. A Day 3 draft pick with a limited college profile, Knox looks like he belongs so far. In Week 3 he posted his first career touchdown and took off on a long catch and run. He has stacked two good straight games and was already third on the team in routes run.
The Bills did a great job landing Brown and Beasley to stabilize this wide receiver group but are light on dangerous options behind them. Their rookie tight end continues to make a case that he can be that player.
Marlon Mack’s goose egg in the passing game
We were told that Marlon Mack would have a role in the passing game this year and that he had earned the status of a three-down back. So far in 2019, that looks like a lie.
Mack dropped a blank in the receiving department on Sunday when such a role was desperately needed to save his fantasy floor. A desired daily fantasy option, Mack had the resume you’re looking for as a lead back on a home team that was a touchdown favorite. The script went awry early as Oakland rushed out to a 14-0 lead. That’s the type of outing where an early down banger finds himself left in the cold.
At this point, that’s all Mack is; an early down banger back. He has just four catches in as many games and that essentially makes his floor a bottomless pit. A line like the 11-39 he put in fantasy lineups is a true killer.
5 Things I don’t care about:
Anyone on the Saints offense not named Thomas or Kamara
Amazingly, a unit long bemoaned by fantasy managers for its bountiful options has become so highly concentrated. The Saints offense used to present far too many options to choose from. Here in 2019, we are narrowed to just a pair of elite options.
In the backfield, Alvin Kamara touched the ball a whopping 20 times. Last week he did most of his damage as a receiver but in Week 4, he paced the team with 17 carries for 69 rushing yards (and added three catches for 20 yards) against a swarming Dallas front seven.
The receiver corps has evaporated after Michael Thomas. The lead dog drew a target on nine of Teddy Bridgewater’s 30 throws and went 9-95. No one else cleared 30 yards. Jared Cook has been a flop addition so far and no wide receiver plays enough to sniff an impact.
Perhaps this would look different if Drew Brees was in the mix. However, this duo is so clearly leaps and bounds better than anyone else on the offense that this might be how it is for the Saints. The reality is that as long as the limited Bridgewater starts, this will be what it has been. So far that hasn’t been a massive issue in the win-loss department and it’s been a coup for fantasy managers who get to keep Kamara and Thomas’ floors intact while Brees is gone. Yet, you can’t help but wonder if this suddenly shallow offense could thwart this once high-flying New Orleans team in a high-scoring script.
A Super Bowl MVP and one of the NFL’s most likable figures, it’s brutal to see Nick Foles in this position. As Foles sits on IR, the Jacksonville fan base and the NFL media landscape at large falls further into captivation with his backup quarterback. Foles can relate. He also captured the hearts and minds of an entire city for what he did in 2017 with the Eagles. Gardner Minshew has a long way to go until he hits that sort of fabled status, but he’s passed every test so far.
The Broncos have historically been a dangerous team at home early in the season as they are the lone team adjusted to the altitude and conditioning combination. For the Jaguars to go into the Denver and hand this team a loss says a great deal.
Minshew wasn’t necessarily the driving force that willed them to victory but he was a key factor. He withstood a revived Denver pass rush that dropped him five times. His third-quarter touchdown was a franchise quarterback-type play. Such a player evades a rush, stands in the eye of the storm and delivers a crucial play in a key situation. That comfort is the defining aspect of his game. Players who do that, they win games for teams sooner than later.
— #DUUUVAL (@Jaguars) September 29, 2019
The ever-present reminder that Minshew is a sixth-round pick who could turn into a pumpkin at any moment hangs over this team. But to this point, he has shown exactly zero hints that this moment will arrive. All the while, Nick Foles hangs in the shadow. Until he’s eligible to return, Minshew’s pristine play will assure he remains there. It’s hard to expand the mental energy on the player paid so much money by Jacksonville this offseason. The longer Minshew Mania lasts, the more likely it gets that Foles never comes out of that shadow. Fine by me.
Ever since the 2016 season wrapped, the Falcons have stabilized into a stuck-in-the-mud rut of a team. Seriously, Atlanta has seemingly been the exact same team for the past three seasons.
On offense, the running game never seems to get out of the blocks. Devonta Freeman rushed for just 28 yards on Sunday, making it the third time in four weeks he has failed to clear 30 yards. Injuries are a problem this year but the offensive line always has issues. Matt Ryan and his talented array of weapons routinely flashes the potential to be one of the most dangerous groups in the business but all too often, they come under expectations in the most random of moments.
It’s even worse on defense, where for three straight seasons, they’ve been among the least inspiring units. It doesn’t matter what changes in the collection of players; Dan Quinn’s side of the ball shrinks. It came to a head Sunday as the lowly Titans sliced through the Falcons defense. Marcus Mariota, coming off a dreadful Week 3 performance, could have lit up a cigar and poured a glass of wine or two for how comfortable he looked in the pocket. The receiver duo of Corey Davis and A.J. Brown dog-walked a subpar set of cornerbacks with no pass rush to back them.
Any offense going against this defense feels like a group you want to raise expectations for in fantasy. Atlanta draws a Houston team in Week 5 that could use an explosive outing. As the Falcons sit at 1-3 and last in the NFC South, it feels like changes could be on the horizon for this stagnant franchise.
Mitchell Trubisky’s injury
Mitchell Trubisky is in his second full season as a starter. Just as the first, this one will also contain an injury absence.
Typically, the loss of a young starting quarterback for what could be multiple games would be a cataclysmic event. For Chicago, it looks like it might not be much of a needle-move. The Bears haven’t seen a great deal of progress out of their young quarterback thus far in 2019. He’s been a net neutral asset at best and a problem at worst. That’s actually a step back from where he was last year when he at least offered some ceiling weeks to sell you on his potential.
The Bears remain a defense-first, second- and third-team that has enough offensive skill-position players to keep a defense guessing. Not much changed when Chase Daniel entered the game. Tarik Cohen made a splash play on a well-designed concept that got him a quick out-route on a linebacker in the red zone. Allen Robinson inhaled big-time wide receiver volume and turned it into a 77-yard game with several monster receptions. That sounds like a Trubisky-led outing.
Chase Daniel has been in this offensive system for years. He knows what he’s doing and isn’t a total dustball of a quarterback. If you project opportunity and offensive effectiveness for the Bears, not much changes for however long Trubisky is out of the picture.
Odell Beckham’s 2-20 letdown
Ignoring a slow day from Odell Beckham in Week 4 is simply an act of looking at the bigger picture for Cleveland. This is easily the best the Browns offense has looked all year and that matters more.
On the back of Nick Chubb, the Browns finally looked like the scoring unit last year that ran with a physical presence and then fostered big plays through the air. Chubb was explosive and dominant in Baltimore. He touched the ball 23 times and ripped off chunk gains against a tough front with ease. With a running game to lean on, Baker Mayfield played largely clean football and averaged 11.4 yards per pass attempt. That looks like a page torn from the 2019 Browns offense.
To make this statement against a division rival was a big win, especially following a week where I called on Freddie Kitchens to look in the mirror. It was needed. He got back to his roots and hopefully, Cleveland can build on this performance. When that happens, Beckham as the prized offseason jewel will get in on the fun.