- It makes so much sense to line up Todd Gurley as a receiver more often. So why won't the Rams do it? Plus more takeaways from this week's target data.
Todd Gurley has been dealt a bad hand this season. No player can divorce himself from the environment in which he plays, and there’s likely no worse offensive environment in the league than whatever is happening in Los Angeles. Case Keenum is below league average even when he’s at his best. The Rams’ best downfield threat is Kenny Britt. Their fastest receiver, Tavon Austin, is really a running back who’s averaging 4.74 yards per target this season. Gurley isn’t the only back who would struggle in these circumstances.
Gurley has 288 rushing yards this season. Bears RB Jordan Howard has 229 rushing yards the last two weeks. No one would claim Howard is a better back than Gurley, and it’s not as though the rookie from Indiana is part of a juggernaut offense in Chicago. The Bears do have a competent quarterback, however, no matter if it’s Brian Hoyer or Jay Cutler under center, and they have some legitimate weapons out wide. That makes a world of difference.
By now, it should be painfully obvious to Jeff Fisher and his offensive coaches that the typical approaches to getting a running back going aren’t going to work. If a back of Gurley’s caliber can’t muster more than 2.74 yards per carry, it’s probably time for the Rams’ brain trust to stop banging its collective head against the wall. And yet they remain obstinate, refusing to try anything that might find their best player some breathing room. What makes it even more frustrating is that, even when a new tactic proves its efficacy, the Rams abandon it entirely.
Let’s go back to last week, a 30–19 loss to the Bills. Here’s the Rams’ third play from scrimmage. Notice Gurley, lined up as a receiver, stacked with Britt to the left of the formation.
Hey, look at that. Rather than handing Gurley the ball and asking him to make something happen between the tackles despite staring at an eight-man box, the Rams got Gurley singled up with a defender and made him Keenum’s first read, and he turned it into a 24-yard gain. What a novel concept, lining up your running back as a receiver! Surely a team that is in desperate need for explosive plays that has watched its best player struggle week after week with defenses keyed on him would go back to this idea regularly, right?
Wrong. Shockingly, incredibly wrong.
Gurley got all of one more target when lined up as a receiver, and it didn’t come until the fourth quarter. Unsurprisingly, he caught that one, too, nearly turning a third-and-goal from the 13-yard line into a touchdown. He had three other targets in the game, but all of those came with him starting the play in the backfield, and none were drawn up for him. He was a safety valve in all of those plays. You likely won’t be surprised to learn he caught just one of them for a negligible gain.
Every so often there’s good reason to wonder why a particular team isn’t more successful, given the players they have at their disposal. Usually, though, they come right out and show you why they continue to fail. The Rams did that for us Sunday by giving Gurley another 23 carries going up against terrible conditions while simultaneously running away from a concept that worked on their third snap of the game. Gurley’s three longest plays of the season have been receptions. The Rams have seen it succeed with their own eyes. Apparently that isn’t enough of an inducement to go away from prescribed offensive norms. I suppose Fisher is Fisher for a reason.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 5 Target and Snap Report.
Quick, someone get some Falcons game tape out to Los Angeles
Think of the Falcons as the anti-Rams. Before we get going, allow me to stress that this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Case Keenum is just like Matt Ryan, in that both are righthanded quarterbacks in the NFL. The similarities end there. Julio Jones is what Kenny Britt was supposed to be in a Rutgers fan’s fever dream. The Falcons’ personnel lets them do things that don’t even make it onto the drawing board in Los Angeles. There is one specific page they could take from the Falcons, though, and it has everything to do with what we just discussed.
The Falcons have two great running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They don’t tailor the play calls to which back is on the field. They do seem to like Freeman more as a traditional runner, with Coleman handling a greater share of the receiving work, but both backs do pretty much everything for the team. That includes lining up as receivers, something we saw Coleman do with great effectiveness last week against arguably the best defense in the league.
Coleman caught four passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 23–16 win over the Broncos. He got six targets on the day, and all six came with him lined up as a wide receiver. Coleman started all those plays in the backfield, and then motioned out, typically to the slot, where he spent all day exploiting matchups. On all four of his receptions, he drew single coverage against a linebacker.
We’re going to look at three plays, because all are instructive, especially for a certain coach in Los Angeles who seems to be obsessed with sunglasses, going .500 and being painfully set in antiquated ways. On the first, tight end Austin Hooper clears out two linebackers, freeing up Coleman across the middle. He shakes a few tackles and takes this 48 yards to the Denver 15-yard line.
Fast forward to the third quarter. The Falcons are up 13–3 with a second-and-9 at the Denver 31-yard line. Coleman motions out of the backfield and gets single coverage with Brandon Marshall. This is not a good matchup for Marshall, who simply isn’t equipped to stick with a player like Coleman in man coverage. The back easily gets on top of Marshall and breaks his route back to the middle of the field, running a sort of bowed version of a skinny post. Ryan easily finds him for six points.
Finally, let’s move to the fourth quarter, with the Falcons still nursing that same 20–6 lead that resulted from Coleman’s touchdown. The Indiana product is set to make one more big play in the passing game. Again, he motions to the slot and draws man coverage with Marshall. This time, however, there is a safety, T.J. Ward, shaded to his side of the field. You’ll notice, too, that Patrick DiMarco, who isn’t exactly a big threat as a receiver, is lined up outside the numbers on the same side of the formation as Coleman. This is another case of the Falcons getting creative. DiMarco breaks down his route at the same spot where Coleman accelerates past Marshall. By time Ward gets over to the sideline, it’s too late. Coleman has ripped off a 49-yard gain.
The Falcons are finding interesting, lucrative ways to use both of their running backs, and it’s paying off for fantasy owners. Expect more of the same from one of the most creative offenses in the league.
The Randall Cobb awakening
I predicted that Lamar Miller was going to be the No. 1 running back this season. I marked down Odell Beckham to have the third 20-touchdown season by a receiver in NFL history. I’m taking a bath with some of these preseason calls. So allow me one tiny victory lap.
Week 5 non-obvious prediction: Randall Cobb goes north of 100 yards and scores his first TD. Betting that GB used bye week to get him going.— Michael Beller (@MBeller) October 7, 2016
Cobb didn’t get the touchdown, although he did have one called back because of an illegal shift penalty that had nothing to do with the success of the play, but he did go over 100 yards for the first time since Week 2 of last season. Cobb caught nine passes for 108 yards in the Packers’ 23–16 win over the Giants last week. There’s good reason to believe that Cobb is once again worthy of your trust.
The Packers had their bye in Week 4, and I theorized that with the Aaron Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson connection clicking once again, the offense would use part of its time off to get Cobb going. Nelson is the best receiver on the Packers, but the offense hums at another level when Cobb is toying with defenses on short and intermediate routes. Rodgers’s best season came two years ago when Nelson was one of the league’s best receivers in all facets of the position, while Cobb’s incisive route running led him to 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. For the first time since 2014, we saw that Cobb in action.
Whenever a team works on something during its bye week, specifically as it relates to resuscitating the effectiveness of a struggling player, you can bet that you’ll see evidence of that work early in its next game. Green Bay’s first play from scrimmage was a six-yard completion from Rodgers to Cobb. He had two more targets and one carry on the team’s first drive. It ended with a two-yard Nelson touchdown, but Cobb caught all three of his targets for 32 yards.
Below is Cobb’s third catch on that drive, which went for 17 yards. This play is drawn up with Cobb as Rodgers’s first read. Cobb and Rodgers both beautifully sell the Lacy run to the right, and then the receiver disengages from his feint block and breaks off a route to the sideline. Rodgers hits him in stride, which allows him to turn upfield and pick up 15 yards after the catch.
Cobb’s touchdown didn’t count, but it’s worth looking at because it gives us a window into what the Packers want to do with him to get him rolling in the offense. It’s also worth noting that the penalty didn’t help him score, so we can take the play at face value.
This is all about Cobb winning the route and being one of Rodgers’s first reads, two things we haven’t seen a lot of this year. He sells Leon Hall on an inside route with a jab and quick head fake, then breaks outside him before turning his route back to the middle of the field, making him wide open for Rodgers to see. Rodgers delivers the ball on time and on the money, giving Cobb what should have been his first touchdown of the season.
One good game against a banged-up Giants secondary doesn’t mean Cobb is all the way back. The fact that he set new season highs in receptions, targets and yards, however, is a massive step in the right direction. The buy-low window is likely closed, but I’d still check in with his owner. Betting on his Week 5 performance being the in-season breakout we were hoping for is a worthwhile gamble.
Concern for C.J. Anderson?
If you aren’t an Anderson owner, you may have missed the fact that he has been relatively quiet since a big Week 1 against the Panthers. He totaled 139 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage in that game, and that seemed a portent of what was to come. Instead, he has rushed for 201 yards on 64 carries since then, good for just 3.14 yards per carry, and caught eight passes for 47 yards. He has buoyed his value with a pair of touchdowns, but Anderson has underwhelmed for four straight games.
Until last week, this wasn’t a huge issue. Sure, Anderson owners wanted more out of their back, but he was doing enough to remain, at the least, a reliable RB2, and he didn’t seem to have too much competition in the backfield. That may have taken a turn in Week 5.
Anderson got a season-low 11 carries in Denver’s 23–16 loss to Atlanta last week. He ran for just 41 yards on those carries, marking his third straight game with fewer than 50 rushing yards. Devontae Booker, meanwhile, played just seven fewer snaps than Anderson, handling six carries and six targets. He caught four of those passes and turned his 10 touches into 59 yards from scrimmage. Anderson may not have a complete stranglehold over the Denver backfield any longer.
Even if Booker is starting to take on a larger role in the Denver offense, Anderson owners shouldn’t react too harshly to what they saw last week. The Falcons scored on their first drive and led by two scores for much of the game. The Broncos were playing catch-up literally from their first possession, and that’s a script that doesn’t necessarily play to Anderson’s strengths. There’s plenty of room for Booker to get more responsibility in the offense and Anderson to remain a rock-solid RB2 week in, week out. That is, in fact, the most likely outcome.
Tom Brady changes the entire picture for the Patriots
The heading of this section doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Oh, the Patriots run a different style of offense with arguably the best quarterback of his generation under center than they do with Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett? Thanks for the revelation.
Yeah, yeah, we all knew the Patriots would look different schematically in Brady’s 2016 debut. Just how radically the complexion of the offense changed, however, is worth examining.
Let’s begin with the running backs. LeGarrette Blount had a snap rate of 62% through four games. He played at least 54% of the snaps in all of New England’s games without Brady, and at least 59% in all of their wins. Blount also comfortably outsnapped James White every week.
That completely flipped last week. White played 38 snaps, while Blount was on the field for 31. Blount played a season-low 38.8% of the Patriots snaps, and this was in a game they won by 20 points, which seemingly creates a favorable script for the team’s lead runner. White had his best game of the season, catching four of his six targets for 63 yards, while running the ball five times for 26 yards.
Blount still got 18 carries, totaling 37 yards and a touchdown. No back is going to challenge Blount’s primacy on the ground, but the offense as a whole is much different than the one in which Blount thrived during the first month of the season.
Rob Gronkowski had a season-high snap rate of 81%, while Martellus Bennett’s snap rate dipped to 69%, his lowest mark of the season. Still, Brady’s return was a boon for both tight ends. If you’re a Bennett owner, ask yourself this: Would you rather he play about 60% to 70% of the snaps in a Brady-led offense, or 100% of the snaps in a Garoppolo-led offense? The answer should be clear. As for Gronk, all he needed to get back to his old self was the return of his benefactor. Gronk and Bennett are going to have to share the spotlight, but this is nothing like Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen getting in one another’s way when they were teammates with the Colts. Gronkowski and Bennett can co-exist, as they proved last week. The former remains the king of the tight end position, while the latter is the at the top of the third tier, which begins after Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker.
Checking in on some backfield timeshares
Miami: Adam Gase did indeed narrow the backfield, with Jay Ajayi handling 13 of the team’s 16 carries last week. He ran for 42 yards and a touchdown, and while he had just one of the six targets, he’s clearly atop the depth chart when Arian Foster isn’t healthy enough to play. He should retain a role in the offense when Foster returns.
Minnesota: Don’t expect 20 carries from Jerick McKinnon and 14 from Matt Asiata too often. The Vikings trounced the Texans last week, and that script led to a run-heavy second half from the Vikings. McKinnon disappointed again, and his owners should be most concerned about the fact that he and Asiata had the same number of targets (three). Having said that, McKinnon remains the talent play here. Asiata is a plodder who has been fortunate to fall into a few short-yardage scores.
New York Jets: Matt Forte’s declining share of the Jets’ passing game continued last week. He got two targets while Bilal Powell got eight. The understudy caught six of those eight targets for 41 yards. Forte got 12 carries to Powell’s four, running for 53 yards. Forte needs bigger target numbers to reach his value floor, but it doesn’t appear they are coming any time soon.
Oakland: With Latavius Murray out last week, DeAndre Washington led the Raiders in snaps. He was on the field for 37 plays, while Jalen Richard and Jamize Olawale checked in at 23 and 22, respectively. Washington and Richard both had 14 touches, though, and Richard was more effective. He churned out 97 yards, including 66 through the air, while Washington totaled 52 yards. Olawale, meanwhile, scored a short-yardage touchdown. When Murray returns, he’s likely going to remain the top dog in the backfield. Translation: Murray is the only guy you can trust, and even he isn’t more than a low-end RB2.
Philadelphia: Ryan Mathews got 11 carries and five targets in his return from an ankle injury, totaling 75 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Darren Sproles had five carries and four targets, converting those touches into 68 yards. Sproles played 34 snaps to Mathews’s 25, but it was the latter who was clearly in command of the backfield. Wendell Smallwood played exactly one snap. Mathews appears to be a trustworthy RB2 or flex when healthy, while Sproles is no more than a depth option.
All the plays
The following receivers had 100% snap rates last week:
• The Giants took every snap in their loss to the Packers in a three-receiver set. It’s remarkable that they still can’t get any rhythm through the air, but their line, particularly their tackles, have been an issue, and, as my colleague Pat Fitzmaurice pointed out, they really have three slot receivers. Beckham certainly is talented enough to play outside, but he does his best work out of the slot. My bet is they start giving him more looks inside. At some point, you need to let your best player do what he does best.
• The Vikings shut down Hopkins and Fuller last week. You should still trust both of them, but no one will blame you if your patience is running thin with Brock Osweiler. “Maddeningly inconsistent” only scratches the surface of what the Houston receivers have to deal with every week. Their kingdom for Brian Hoyer.
• I’m enamored with Pryor’s talent, but I fear the quarterback situation in Cleveland, when he isn’t at the head of it, is going to limit his production. As for Kerley, volume is his best friend. We know he’s Just A Guy, but we’ve seen plenty of Just A Guys before him turn bountiful snaps and targets into meaningful fantasy production. Someone has to catch passes in San Francisco.
Hat tip to the local products taking advantage of their opportunities
Cameron Meredith went to high school in Westchester, Ill., about 17 miles west of Soldier Field. Adam Thielen grew up in western Minnesota, closer to Fargo than Minneapolis, but everything up there is Vikings country. Both players played college ball in their home states—Meredith at Illinois State, Thielen at Minnesota State—and hooked up with their hometown teams after going undrafted. Both were given an opportunity in Week 5 and they seized it, making themselves known to the fantasy community.
Meredith racked up 12 targets in the Bears’ loss to the Colts last week, catching nine of them for 130 yards and a touchdown. The second-year player stepped into the void created by fellow sophomore Kevin White and was Brian Hoyer’s favorite target last week. He made plays all over the field, locking down an outside spot opposite Alshon Jeffery. Meredith is 6' 3" and 201 pounds. Had he not gone to Illinois State, he likely wouldn’t have been undrafted last year. The league’s miss is the Bears gain, though. At 24 years old, he has a real shot to make himself part of the team’s future. Would you like to see him burn Patrick Robinson for a touchdown with a stutter-go? I thought you might.
Thielen, meanwhile, emerged with Stefon Diggs out with a groin injury last week, pulling down seven passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Thielen beat Houston’s corners in multiple ways, as evidenced by the two GIFs below. In the first, he breaks out a double move to burn Jonathan Joseph. In the second, he beats A.J. Bouye right at the line of scrimmage.
Both Meredith and Thielen opened eyes of fantasy owners last week. If you can only have one, though, make Meredith your priority. Thielen simply won’t have the same opportunities when Diggs returns from his injury, which is expected to be when the Vikings return from bye in Week 7. Meredith, however, should start for the Bears the rest of the season. With Jeffery still playing at less than 100% and Hoyer more willing to spread the love than Jay Cutler, Meredith could easily average seven or eight targets per game. The Bears suddenly have options offensively, with Jordan Howard emerging and Eddie Royal and Zach Miller turning into reliable weapons, but Meredith has identifiable upside in the fantasy game.