Fantasy Fact or Fiction: Falcons' RB situation is a headache for owners
The Week 4 Fantasy Fact or Fiction looks at the most confounding question facing the fantasy community as a whole. After two straight 30-point fantasy games, Devonta Freeman was one of the breakout stars of the season’s first month. But what will the Falcons do with their backfield when Tevin Coleman returns from injury? We also look at the state of the 49ers' passing attack after Colin Kaepernick’s second straight awful performance.
Fact: The Falcons' running back conundrum is good for the team, but bad for fantasy owners
Devonta Freeman has turned in a couple of star performances over the last few weeks, posting consecutive three-touchdown games and racking up 209 rushing yards, 10 receptions and 133 receiving yards in the process. In two weeks, he has scored more fantasy points in standard leagues (70.2) than he did in all of 2014 (57.3 in 16 games). Freeman is on a roll the likes of which few players ever get to experience.
It’s easy to get lost in the moment, but it’s important to remember what Freeman did during the first two weeks of the season as well. Freeman may have entered each of those games as the secondary player in a timeshare with Tevin Coleman, but he got double-digit carries in the wins over the Eagles and Giants. Freeman totaled just 43 yards on 22 carries in the first two weeks, though he was a factor in the passing game, catching seven balls for 63 yards. Coleman, meanwhile, had 80 yards on 20 carries in Week 1, and 32 yards with a score on nine totes the following week before leaving the game with broken ribs. Then, and only then, did Freeman turn into the first major fantasy surprise of the season.
The purpose of this column isn’t to debate Freeman vs. Coleman for the rest of the year. We’ve already covered that ground in many other columns over the last few weeks. Coleman could very well return for the undefeated Falcons in Week 5, and barring any sweeping backfield statement from either Dan Quinn or Kyle Shanahan, we can only approach the Falcons backfield with the following presuppositions, until we see both players on the field in the same game:
1. Freeman likely earned additional playing time after the way he played the last few weeks.
2. Coleman may very well remain the starter, or quickly reclaim the starting gig. The team used a third-round pick on him and named him the starter for a reason.
In other words, we’re likely staring a timeshare directly in the face. We can, however, try to handicap that timeshare by examining how Freeman has done what he has done the last two weeks. Is he making plays, or is he simply cashing in on great blocking? The answer, almost as always, is a little of both.
No back posts consecutive 30-point games by accident or without making things happen on his own. All of Freeman’s touchdowns last week started inside the 10-yard line, but his first two touchdowns last week were from 16 and 23 yards out, respectively. Those two runs give us a glimpse into how he has been succeeding this year.
Here is the first one: Matt Ryan is in the shotgun with Freeman lined up on his left. The line eventually creates a hole directly over the right guard, but it wasn’t readily apparent until the last second, and Freeman was in perfect position to burst through. Take a look at what the situation looked like as Freeman took the handoff, and then again as he reached the line of scrimmage.
You or I might not see a whole lot there, but then again, we aren’t NFL running backs. After a great block from center Mike Person and a lightning-quick cutback to the right from Freeman, this play turned into the first touchdown of the game.
That sort of run takes patience to let the linemen get to where they need to be in order to create the hole that Freeman knifed through. He may not have had to break anything more than an arm tackle or juke a defender out of his shoes, but patience is one of the traits that can make a good back great. That’s what Freeman brought to the table on this run.
It’s always hard to say if a different running back, placed in the same spot, would have produced the same outcome. Any time you’re dealing with counterfactuals, it’s going to get a little messy. Having said that, I have a tough time believing Coleman wouldn’t have also scored on Freeman’s second touchdown against the Texans.
Ryan is again in shotgun on this play with Freeman lined up to his right. Instead of taking the handoff and coming across the formation, Freeman runs straight behind his left guard. The blocks delivered by the entire line, but especially by right guard Chris Chester (the pulling guard who gets a block on safety Eddie Pleasant, No. 35), left tackle Jake Matthews (who first double teams Jared Crick, No. 93, then moves to the second level to seal off Brian Cushing, No. 56), and Person, the center (who stonewalls Vince Wilfork) should be shown to every line in America, from high school through the pros.
Here’s how the play looked when Freeman was on his way through the hole. No running back in the NFL is going to screw this up.
And here’s what the play looked like from start to finish.
Again, Freeman had to fight off a few arm tackles, but the line did all of the heavy lifting on this one.
The big takeaway from the last few weeks is that while Freeman has been undeniably great as the starter for Atlanta, the team still likes Coleman, and he could very well have done exactly what Freeman did against the Cowboys and Texans. Moreover, the team likes both backs enough to assume that they will both have a role in the offense when Coleman returns. In fact, that’s exactly how Quinn and Shanahan drew it up. In their perfect world, they never would have leaned on either back too much this season. As good as the Falcons have looked over the last two weeks, they’re almost certainly better when both Freeman and Coleman are contributing to the offense. If “Falcons RB” were an individual player, he’d likely be an RB1. That’s a lucrative spot with a ton of value. Split between Coleman and Freeman, however, it’s a fantasy headache that could give us two low-end RB2s, or one mid-tier RB2 and one high-end RB3, over the course of the season.
Fiction: There’s an easy fix for Colin Kaepernick
I re-watched all of Kaepernick’s dropbacks on Monday afternoon. First of all, I don’t recommend anyone do this, unless you have to or you’re some sort of football sadist. Kaepernick played a terrible game against the Packers, completing 13 of his 25 pass attempts for 160 yards, 6.4 YPA and one interception. He also took six sacks, at least three of which were his responsibility.
When a quarterback plays that poorly, rarely is there just one problem. Kaepernick was in the majority, suffering not just mechanical and execution issues, but ones between his ears, as well. Let’s take a look at one of each that stood out on Sunday.
It didn’t take long for the red flags to start flying. The following was Kaepernick’s first throw of the afternoon on the 49ers’ second play from scrimmage. It’s a first-and-10 from their own 32-yard line. Kaepernick’s first read is covered, but his second, Anquan Boldin, is wide open on a hitch what would be an easy five or six yards and set the 49ers up with a manageable conversion on the next two plays. Here’s how that play unfolded:
Kaepernick looks like a relief pitcher without any fastball command on this throw, not an NFL quarterback. This play is representative of his mechanical mistakes, as we can see from a screenshot of the coach’s film. Look how his feet are lined up and compare that with where he threw the ball. He stepped directly forward and threw to the right, ultimately throwing against his body.
The 49ers scored just three points on Sunday, but there were plays to be made that Kaepernick just missed. About halfway through the second quarter, the Niners were down just 7–0 and had the ball at the Green Bay five-yard line with a first-and-goal. Let’s watch the play before breaking it down. Pay particular attention to No. 88, Garrett Celek, who motions from outside the numbers to the right of the formation and ultimately runs his route out of the slot.
Did you notice how open Celek was? This is a simple read and throw that needs to be delivered. Somehow, Kaepernick doesn’t anticipate him coming open across the middle. A second or two later, he’s brought down by Nick Perry for a loss of 10 yards.
The end zone camera really tells the story on this one. That’s Celek you see by himself at the bottom of the screenshot below. The camera does cut off part of the field, but if you piece it together with multiple camera angles, you know that the Packers do not have a single deep safety in the middle of the field. Celek is just as alone as he appears in the screenshot, and Kaepernick clearly has plenty of time to make the throw.
Here it is from the regular broadcast angle. Again, the only Packer in the vicinity is Casey Hayward, No. 29, and he’s trailing Celek by a yard or two. Both players are circled in red. If Kaepernick delivers the ball at the time of this screenshot, it’s a touchdown and, likely, a tie game:
Finally, let’s get to an error of execution. Kaepernick struggled mightily with the deep ball on Sunday, going 1 for 5 for 47 yards and an interception. The one completion was late in the fourth quarter with the 49ers trailing by 14, so it wasn’t exactly one he can build on next week. The following miss illustrates another issue with Kaepernick.
Torrey Smith is the lone receiver lined up to the left of the formation, and he runs a straight go route on this play. To be fair to Kaepernick, Smith doesn’t create a ton of separation. That might matter if the Kaepernick’s pass landed in an area where Smith could make a play on it rather than, you know, three or four yards out of bounds.
These are all significant structural issues that Kaepernick has to fix. We aren’t talking just a simple mechanical fix, and even that would be easier said than done. I was admittedly bullish on Kaepernick as a low-end QB1 or high-end QB2 coming into the season, and there’s still a decent fantasy floor for him because of his rushing production. But until he deals with the varied problems he has as a thrower, he’s no more than a mid-tier or low-end QB2.