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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 6, 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
Stefon Diggs’ eruption reveals Vikings ceiling
While Adam Thielen got the squeaky wheel treatment last week, Sunday of Week 6 brought us Stefon Diggs’ time in the sun. The perhaps disgruntled wide receiver ran wild through a hideous Eagles secondary that looked a mix between uninterested in and unable to cover him. Diggs finished the day with a team-high 11 targets, catching seven for 167 yards and three touchdowns.
Sunday’s outing brings Diggs’ 2019 totals to 23-420-4. He’s now pacing for a 1,100-yard season. One day can coverup the sins of an underwhelming season. The Vikings have all the incentive in the world to make it work with Diggs. Week 6 showed us he is still a big part of this team in specific matchups.
While you certainly got to smile for what this means for your precious little fake football team, the real-life implications are just as key. It’s clear the Vikings are a highly talented team. Minnesota’s defense and running game are among the best in the league. That level of play in two areas gives them a great floor.
However, championship teams aren’t made by a squad’s floor. We’ve seen middling teams like the Texans and Bengals consistently make the playoffs in the mid-2010s with zero hope of advancing because they simply had no access to a ceiling. You look at a team like the 2017 Eagles, that once dropped these Vikings from the playoffs, who took a strong floor roster to the Super Bowl on the back of Nick Foles lifting them to a new ceiling.
Kirk Cousins feeding Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in back-to-back weeks to the tune of five total touchdowns between the receiver duo reminds us that this squad has a ceiling. The defenses they drew as opponents certainly opened up some windows. Yet, Diggs and Thielen are elite players at their position and Cousins has shown the ability to pile up production when the conditions are right. Taking down one of the true NFC contenders as they did on Sunday is a reminder the Vikings are one of the many teams who could hoist a Lombardi Trophy in February.
Buccaneers completely outclassed
The Panthers and Buccaneers met up in London and the former emerged victorious by way of a 37-26 advantage. While a mere 11 points separated the bottom-line, it was far more clear who the better team was in this game.
At different points in the 2019 season, it looked like the Buccaneers might have what it takes to make some noise in the NFC South. Going into Week 3, they were coming off a strong win in Carolina while watching Drew Brees and Cam Newton head into a multi-week absence. The Tampa Bay defense appeared to be a transformed unit. Jameis Winston’s play was stabilizing to the point where you could convince yourself he’d turned a corner in the Bruce Arians/Byron Leftwich offense.
The last two weeks appear to show a team reverting back into “same old Bucs” territory. The defense looks like one fantasy managers need to attack with conviction. Neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Kyle Allen was exactly riding high coming into their matchups with Tampa Bay. Each tossed multiple touchdowns and managed passer ratings well north of 100. A pass rush that looked like it was launching Shaquil Barrett to a stunning Pro Bowl season has just two sacks the last two weeks.
Couple the defense turning back into a pumpkin with Winston reminding us that he still has disaster games like his six turnover outing against Carolina in his range of outcomes, it looks like it’s business as usual in Tampa Bay. No doubt, we’ll see some offensive fireworks. The run defense is beastly enough to hold all-star back Christian McCaffrey to a measly 1.4 yards per carry. However, the Bucs aren’t going anywhere and some of what looked like structural changes in the first few weeks of the season appear to be nothing more than mirages.
The Texans haven’t allowed a sack in two weeks
Considering it’s meant to be the biggest weakness on their team, the fact that Deshaun Watson hasn’t been dropped for a sack the last two games is a miracle. He didn’t face stiff defenses with matchups against the lifeless Falcons and the Chiefs missing Chris Jones, but it’s a development.
Watson does plenty of work to get out of pressure. He’s a huge asset there. However, this offensive line has indeed improved. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil may just now be getting comfortable after being a late arrival before the season began. That makes a huge difference, as he’s supposed to be the lynchpin of the group. Rookie tackle Tytus Howard was carted off with an injury but it looks like it might not be the worst-case scenario.
Even more so than the improved blocking, it’s notable that the Texans finally did something to mitigate their weakness up front. As Next Gen Stats show us, the quick-passing game was a big factor in this contest.
Going into Arrowhead and dropping the Chiefs is no joke. Mahomes and company are one of the top-flight contenders in the AFC along with the Patriots. The Texans looked like they were lurking somewhere in the next tier of teams. A win like this, especially one that shows verifiable growth in a key area is a tremendous sign they might be ready to join those other two teams as strong options to push for a Super Bowl appearance.
Baker Mayfield’s issues remind us of an old truth
Evaluating quarterbacks is the most difficult thing to do in the sport of football. With all the whiffs in the league, it’s certainly true for those on the inside. And if that’s the case, those of us on the outside are, without question, fighting an uphill battle.
Anyone brazenly optimistic about Baker Mayfield coming off an introduction campaign where he set the rookie passing touchdown record was well within their rights, especially when you consider his skill-position group received a major shot in the arm in the form of the trade for the legendarily productive Odell Beckham. Nothing from Mayfield’s rookie season would have set off alarm bells about an impending disaster.
Yet, so far, Mayfield’s sophomore campaign has been a disaster. He’s tossed just five touchdowns to a whopping 11 interceptions. Bad habits continue to emerge when he’s under pressure, which is all too often. It’s to the point that teams are scheming around his propensity to float right and create a more difficult throw for himself on the move.
Mayfield is far from the only issue with the Browns but he’s been a net negative through six games. That’s the reality but it’s not one that anyone could have seen coming based on what we saw from him in Year 1. That brings us back to the original premise.
On a day where Marcus Mariota was benched, Jameis Winston threw up all over his shoes and Jared Goff managed a measly 3.2 QBR, it’s fitting we get this reminder from Baker Mayfield. The story of each of those passers has landed at all different spots. Each has been crowned at one point or another. Goff, in particular, has been at all levels of the mountain. During his rookie year with Jeff Fisher, he looked like total dust under disastrous conditions. In the first two years of the Sean McVay era, he produced like one of the best in the game. Here in 2019, with deteriorating conditions on the line and with the running game, Goff is looking like dust again.
You never see quarterbacks go from Deshone Kizer levels of bad, for example, to becoming a competent starting quarterback. If you can’t play, you can’t play. Barring health issues, we rarely see the best in the game go through extended slumps that last multiple months. For everyone in between, we can see them swing wildly between a problem and a clear asset before we truly know who they are. Mayfield is in the middle of that journey right now. We just don’t know where that story will end but you can compile plenty of evidence that he and a player like Odell Beckham will just figure it out eventually when you consider who Mayfield was as a rookie.
Hunter Henry’s return
The tight end position lost one of its breakout players in 2019 when Will Dissly went down with a likely season-ending injury but regained a previous candidate in Hunter Henry. The enthralling talent dropped 100 yards and two scores on the Steelers in his return to action. He looked excellent while doing it too, snaring contested passes in the end zone and ripping through middle-of-the-field coverage. A game like tonight is everything we’ve always hoped to see from Henry and something he’s offered us in spurts whenever he sees the field.
In addition to his own work, his presence over the middle may have been a reason Kennan Allen handled just six targets and caught two passes for 33 yards against a defense he crushed last year. Correlation doesn’t equal causation but the fact that they see targets in the same area of the field does give us something to think about when projecting one of the hottest receivers in September the rest of the way.
Henry has the chance to be one of the bright stars of the league and his presence is proven to be a hulky one in the Chargers offense when he’s healthy. There is no doubt this development is something to care about ... and deeply, at that. Evan Engram came out of September looking like the clear right answer from the fantasy draft tier of him, Henry, and the underwhelming O.J. Howard. Henry has more than enough time to make it interesting.
5 Things I don’t care about
Who plays QB for the Dolphins
Earlier this week Brian Flores declared that Josh Rosen would be his starter for the rest of the 2019 season. Well, he didn’t say anything about who would finish those games.
Rosen was yanked for Ryan Fitzpatrick in the second half after yet another showing where he just couldn’t move the ball. Whatever. I just don’t care who is taking snaps for this team anymore because frankly, it just doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter for fantasy in the slightest. The idea that Rosen was going to come in and rekindle the preseason connection has turned in nothing but dust so far. People keep trying to chase Preston Williams but he turned in 31 listless yards in a gorgeous matchup. Neither Fitzpatrick nor Rosen has been able to breathe life into a unit that’s consistently in pass-heavy game scripts. No new production has been uncovered with these switches, no new trends have emerged. There is just nothing here.
It also doesn’t matter a lick from the Dolphins’ future perspective. Let’s admit it: Rosen just isn’t providing any evidence to think he’s a starting quarterback at the NFL level. At least, he has shown nothing through two years — where he’s, admittedly, been in brutal situations — that he’s the type of talent that can elevate his surroundings. The Dolphins have already made this decision. If they hadn’t he wouldn’t have been working behind Fitzpatrick from literally the moment he arrived in Miami until the very last moment before the veteran finally threw himself out of the job. He wouldn’t be benched against a poor Washington team with the game in reach. You don’t treat a possible future franchise passer this way.
Rosen isn’t a serious fixture in Miami’s future. There is no evaluation period for him. The Dolphins will take a quarterback at the top of the draft in the near future no matter what Rosen does the rest of the way in 2019.
The ancillary Chiefs receivers
A few weeks ago the answer to “Which Chiefs receiver should you play?” was a simple, “All of them.” Coming out of Week 6, the answer may have quickly changed to “No one beyond Tyreek Hill.” A confluence of events has brought us here.
The return of Hill is the biggest factor. The star receiver’s return featured an outing that required no rust to shake off. His 10 targets led the team by a decent margin. Travis Kelce was second with six and Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson were behind him with four apiece.
Even without Sammy Watkins, the Robinson/Hardman/Byron Pringle trio combined for 69 yards on six catches. Even if Watkins hasn’t done anything of consequence in over a month, his absence should free up some volume. It all went to Hill and the rest split the scraps.
The second piece of the puzzle lies behind center. We knew Patrick Mahomes would be something less than his usual god-like form. The ankle injury he’s played with all year and became worse last Sunday night did indeed knock him down to being about the fifth- or sixth-best quarterback in the NFL. Mahomes tossed three scores against the Texans but also threw his first pick of the year. He also ran just once for -1 yards. The mobility is clearly compromised.
With the ceiling shaved off this scoring unit, the receivers that far down the pecking order just can’t overcome the lack of volume with wild efficiency. For the time being, these ancillary Chiefs receivers are not weekly options.
People who say “The 49ers haven’t played anyone.”
Give me a damn break. The 49ers are a good football team. Believing otherwise is nothing but ignorance at this point.
For starters, say what you will about the team they played heading into Week 6 but you can only play who is on your schedule. More importantly, the Niners didn’t just beat some of these teams, they thoroughly destroyed them. San Francisco’s wins over the Bengals and Browns were two of the most convincing ass-kickings of the young 2019 season. Neither AFC North team was even remotely competitive. They were outclassed in the way we see meaningless programs by SEC teams in the opening few weeks of the college football season. Great teams don’t just beat inferior squads, they demolish them with authority.
Even with all that in mind, you can’t say that after Week 6. The Rams may not be the team they were in 2017 or 2018, but going on the road in the division and taking down a team that was in the Super Bowl last year is no joke. Even better, this win was similar to many of the others enjoyed by the 49ers. It wasn’t close. A 20-7 result may indicate otherwise but it was clear who the better team was all Sunday, especially as the reborn San Francisco defense kicked around, chewed up and spat out the once-prolific Rams offense.
The 49ers don’t make it easy for fantasy managers on offense. Outside of George Kittle, there just aren’t many players locked into weekly volume here. Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida split the backfield touches, 20 to 17. No player other than Kittle cleared 50 yards in the pass-catching corps.
However, they do make it easy for those who enjoy a badass brand of football that, when at its peak, can overpower any team in its way. It’s this style that has the 49ers looking like one of the better teams in the NFC. One that has yet to reach its full ceiling with a passing game still firing on about 75 percent of its cylinders with Jimmy Garoppolo working his way back to full form.
Searching for the Joe Mixon buy-low
We know things can change quickly but we’re running out of evidence to support the idea that things will turn around in 2019 for Joe Mixon. The Bengals offense remains one of the more uninspiring in the league and features an offensive line that came into Week 6 ranked 26th in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards.
The rushing work was at yet another low point here in Week 6. Mixon handled just eight carries and managed 10 yards as the Bengals trailed throughout the afternoon.
What’s been more troubling for Mixon is the lack of receiving work. Against Baltimore, he managed 29 yards on two measly catches. He hasn’t cleared 40 receiving yards in any game this season and has four games with two or fewer catches. It doesn’t matter what injuries befall the wideout group, Mixon just isn’t seeing the passing volume.
Sometimes, it’s just not going to work for these running backs in any given season. That usually comes when they’re stuck in a dreadful offense. Check that box for Mixon. 2019 looks like it just won’t be his year.
A quarterback change in Tennessee
The Titans have truly intriguing potential. Parts of their defense are downright nasty. Players like Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown look like keepers; potential building blocks for a young offense that should be growing. Mike Vrabel has shown glimpses of being a good head coach through his early seasons.
With all that said, it was clear coming into this season they had a quarterback situation that would hold them back. Marcus Mariota has not made any progress since his early seasons and frankly, looks far too passive as a quarterback to ever elevate what’s around him. You couldn’t realistically tell yourself the story of how he would rise from the ashes and carry this team to the playoffs.
He offered no evidence of this fabled turnaround in the first month of the season and was finally benched in Week 6. Backup Ryan Tannehill entered the game and followed Mariota’s lead by not putting up any points in Denver.
No one believes Tannehill is about to become the answer for the Titans. He was merely signed to be an improved backup option when Mariota either got hurt or underwhelmed again. However, I’m not convinced he even changes the projections for this year. Tannehill carries some of the same robotic tendencies of Mariota and has also failed to develop further from his early years or show the ability to function outside of structure.
Whatever your previously held beliefs about Titans skill-position players were, keep them. This change behind center is unlikely to move the needle, divvy up targets differently or increase the ceiling for the offense.