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 7, 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
Cowboys get out of their own way
It was deeply troubling that the Cowboys seemed to be the dog returning to its vomit the last week after enduring a painful loss to the Jets while piling work on a middling Ezekiel Elliott. As I noted in my preview piece, it appeared as if this team was willing to forgo the progress it made while leaping into the modern NFL in September and head back to the establish-the-run alter. Week 7 brought hope renewed.
The Cowboys were willing to run Elliott early against a brutal Eagles front but more importantly, were aggressive in blending their passing game with the rushing attack. Dak Prescott was back to taking shots off play-action. He threaded a few needles to hit an injured Amari Cooper in tight spaces. The result of the game wasn’t close. Dallas looked like the better team all night. The return of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins bring flawless nights but clearly helped unlock previously lost potential for the aerial attack.
Talent is laden across this Cowboys offense. When they’re at their peak, fantasy gold is ready for mining. Prescott can break slates with his rushing skills married to an aggressive right arm. Elliott can help control the pace of the game. Cooper continues to evolve and is miles better than he was at any point with the Raiders. Michael Gallup hasn’t smashed the stat sheet the last two weeks but brings a physical credibility to the X-receiver spot in Dallas.
Dallas secured an important win and are in the driver’s seat of the NFC East race. Even more so, they brought some confidence to the idea that the offense of the first few weeks wasn’t a competition-induced mirage. For all Philly’s flaws on the back-end, they're light years ahead of horrifying defenses like the Giants, Washington, and Miami. There is still evolutionary progression taking place in Dallas.
Perhaps Kellen Moore and this Cowboys offense with new wrinkles is just a snake oil salesman in the local market, swearing by a faux product. Even so, when the oil gets into the diffuser just right, it freshens up a room once slushed in the mud of a 1990s-era attack. Let’s hope the journey doesn’t end here, that the vapor keeps diffusing and is born anew when Dallas returns from their Week 8 bye.
John Brown is a No. 1 wide receiver
I’ve been lacing up for this one since about 2014. So while he played the Dolphins on Sunday and this might not be the spiciest fantasy storyline, let me run this victory lap.
Here on his third NFL team, John Brown is putting everything together to the point that he doesn’t just look like his team’s top receiver; this is a bonafide No. 1 wideout. Brown put 83 yards and a touchdown on the Dolphins today and that’s been consistent with what he’s done all season. He has five-plus catches and cleared 68 yards in all but one game. The boom-or-bust aspect of his resume just hasn’t been present this year.
Even better, the volume paints the picture of a top-flight receiver. The defensive-based, run-heavy Bills will never funnel passes into the air but within the context of his own offense, Brown looks like the clear top dog. While his targets are a near-even with Cole Beasley, Brown has a commanding lead when it comes to air yards with a 35 percent share.
Last year in Baltimore, Brown was on pace for a 1,000-yard season with Joe Flacco but was mostly winning on the back of big plays while working with the declining passer. Josh Allen has his warts but the second-year passer is unlocking Brown’s potential unlike any signal-caller has since Carson Palmer. Brown is pacing for a 1,200-yard campaign.
If you’re looking for something actionable here other than to break ties in favor of playing Brown every week, remember to keep context in mind with all evaluations. Brown had been dealing with serious health issues that derailed his career in Arizona. Even when he was healthy after Palmer, the quarterbacks were often dust. Flacco was an upgrade and brought his potential back to the forefront. In Buffalo, he’s earning the type of volume that his route-running prowess has long told us he could handle. He isn’t just thriving because he’s the only game in town as some mega-volume-inflated, inefficient fantasy producer. Brown is real.
It took time but we are here. Welcome to Smoke Season.
The explosive Chase Edmonds managed to earn his fifth touchdown in three weeks with a trio of end zone visits against the Giants. The fantasy community the world over was put on mega-tilt when David Johnson vanished from the game after a single touch. From then on, it was all Edmonds’ show.
Clearly, the Cardinals were never intending to use Johnson to his fullest extent. Kliff Kingsbury essentially said as much after the game. The other takeaway here is that the Arizona coaches clearly think Edmonds is good. Based on what we’ve seen, he brings a new explosive element to this offense. If the team didn’t think this, they wouldn’t have had Edmonds own the backfield all to himself and handle a whopping 29 touches. He did nothing to dissuade them from extending his role going forward.
David Johnson is having a good year. Kyler Murray handled 10 carries tonight and is second in rushing yards among quarterbacks. However, Edmonds and his 5.6 yards per carry is a big reason the Arizona offense came into this week ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA. Edmonds isn’t going anywhere.
Aaron Rodgers’ explosive outing
It’s been a refrain in this space for weeks. The Packers found themselves in an enviable position sporting one of the best records in the NFC all the while waiting for one side of the ball to “figure itself out.” The envy came from the reality that that side of the ball was being led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback. You could have confidence that Aaron Rodgers would eventually get his scoring unit into shape while playing in a new system for the first time in years.
Rodgers’ previous two outings against the Cowboys and Lions began to offer signs that things were heating up. All while missing his top receiver, Rodgers made some truly eye-popping throws. He was dropping Patrick Mahomes-type dimes that he’d been doing in years past well before we knew Mahomes existed. Indeed, it was coming.
The eruption finally arrived in Week 7 as the Packers offense strung together an elite performance through a full 60 minutes. Rodgers was simply flawless. He dropped six total touchdowns on the moribund Raiders, completing 81% of his tosses at 13.8 yards per attempt. It was a signature performance.
The Packers will now prepare to face the Chiefs, Chargers, and Panthers before their bye week. Only one of those secondaries truly scares you. However, if this is truly a turning-of-the-corner moment for Rodgers and company, few defenses will be a match for them.
Taking stock of Jacoby Brissett
It’s been a run the gamut type season in terms of Jacoby Brissett’s range of outcomes. We’ve seen him yo-yo from game manager behind a stout rushing game to wild gunslinger several times this season. After an economical, don’t-get-in-the-way game in Kansas City before their bye, Brissett came out slinging against the Texans, dropping 326 yards and four scores on the division rival.
Week 7 brought us Brissett’s third game this year with three-plus passing touchdowns. Overall, he’s offered up just one week without multiple scores through the air.
On balance, Brissett has played well this season. He’s come into a tough spot replacing a beloved former No. 1 overall pick with just a handful of days notice before Week 1. It’s far from outrageous to say he’s played like one of the five or six best quarterbacks in the AFC this year, even if that’s more a damning note on the quality of the conference.
While it’s provided a hell of a story to see Brissett function well with this Colts team, the Indy brass still has to be in evaluation mode when they’re deciding just how good he can be. The yo-yo effort of his nature from caretaker to the aggressive engine of the passing offense has given us a range of outcomes but we’re still without a guide to where his true mean lies. It’s a long season, and as the Colts stay in the playoff race, November and December football may provide us with more answers. For fantasy gamers, we know he can more than keep the ship afloat, even if predicting when the Colts will need him to man that ship can be a bit of a chore.
5 Things I don’t care about
Kirk Cousins’ state of the union
It feels like there is a need to write the book on Kirk Cousins every week of the NFL season. Getting a fully guaranteed contract certainly made the target on his back an obvious one but at the same time, that’s a ridiculous notion.
The idea that NFL players’ pay must directly line up with where they rank within their own position is a complete fallacy. Players get their salaries based on timing and leverage. Cousins had unbelievable leverage hitting the open market at a time when a number of teams had a hole to fill at the most important position in sports.
He got big money. So what? Sorry, but quarterbacks getting paid is just at an “is what it is” point in the league right now. We should believe that a team will willingly walk into quarterback wilderness when they have a shot to lurk in quarterback comfort.
Cousins has now stacked three 300-yard games in a row. He has a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in that stretch. Again, this is Cousins’ MO; get hot and dunk on teams in spurts. Yet, when you’re talking about the postseason, where Minnesota certainly hopes to be at the end of this calendar year, it’s just a one-game elimination sequence. Cousins can certainly get hot for a stretch like this to make a playoff run. Joe Flacco once did this and took home a Super Bowl. So, give me a break.
We’re also at a point where this offense can start to support its two star receivers. Adam Thielen got hurt early but not before he managed to score for the second straight week. Stefon Diggs cleared 140 yards and caught seven passes once again. Yes, this team wants to establish the run but it’s not at the painful point where it was to start the year when it looked like it may turn out to be a detriment to the team.
Trying to find a pattern in Todd Gurley’s usage
It’s been tough to map out exactly what the weekly plan is with Todd Gurley in this Rams offense. Frankly, they might well still be trying to figure it out on the fly, if there’s even a plan at all.
Gurley sat last week and returned to handle 18 carries in a Week 7 win over the Falcons. He was still in the game late even when the result was well in hand. The Rams must have felt quite good about where he was after a thigh bruise absence last week, as he never seemed to be in doubt to miss this contest and was seeing run on the final few drives. Darrell Henderson and John Kelly were sprinkled in with 15 combined touches.
I wondered coming into the year if Gurley could be a fast starter while healthy coming into the year and used sparingly as the season concluded, or slow to get out of the gate and a hot finisher. So far, it doesn’t look like he’s either. To this point, the usage and plan for him seem to be a week-to-week proposition. His target totals have been all over the map and he handled more carries than any other game this week coming off an injury.
The Rams may not have a set-in-stone plan for Gurley’s usage. He rolled through top back usage today and hauled in a beauty of a touchdown catch. He was feeling it today. It might not be the case every week and he might be feeling the whole process out himself as his body is evolving. On our end, we’re just going to have to let it play out. We don’t have a map to follow on this one.
Fearing the Bears defense
I noted on Twitter that the Bears defense has allowed a rookie running back and middling veteran to enjoy their best performances of the 2019 season in each of their last two games. Josh Jacobs ran all over them in London. Latavius Murray absorbed 27 carries and scored twice.
The Bears defense has allowed Latavius Murray and Josh Jacobs to drop 242 rushing yards combined on their head over their last two games.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 20, 2019
At least one Bears fan objected to the post, claiming a pushed faux narrative. While it’s always bemusing to see someone immediately infuriated by a simple fact, their note demanded we take into account that the opposing running backs ate up snaps on the field against their defense as the offense struggled to hold up their end of the bargain. But that’s, like, the point.
Who cares how this defense is giving up production. The bottom line remains the same: They’re getting pummeled on the ground under the current conditions of their team. We haven’t seen a shred of evidence those conditions will change any time soon. An offense that’s led by a barely functional passer who needs 54 throws to amass 251 yards and has no reliable running game to speak of isn’t about to suddenly reverse course. The Bears defense will continue to find itself in vulnerable spots.
Playing defense in the NFL is hard these days. The rules tilt the field in favor of the offense. Coordinators are more creative, smarter and more aggressive than ever. Every season, the number of defenses that are truly game-changing shrinks. That’s on both ends. There are about three or so defenses that just bleed production to nearly every opponent they face and whom fantasy managers can exploit weekly, and then there are three on the other end that are truly suffocating and cause worry for any player going against them. The Bears were without a doubt one of those latter units last year. Based on the last two weeks especially, largely thanks to a crippling offense here in 2019, it’s looking like they may have joined the large group in the middle that doesn’t move the needle much either way week-in and week-out.
Wanting something done about David Johnson being active
It’s tilting if you played David Johnson in a tasty matchup against the Giants on the back of his “active” designation. If you did this, you don’t need me to remind you what happened next. It was beyond brutal to watch Johnson vanish and Edmonds thrive ... and Kliff Kingsbury himself to admit Johnson was not truly part of the plan post-game.
Bemoaning it is one thing, but asking something to be done about it; come on. What do you possibly expect here? The teams are not beholden to us and even if you’re mad about it, they’ll never feel the squeeze from your fury. Yes, fantasy drives the popularity of the league and brings more money to the table. It’s nice when they throw fake footballers a bone but expecting the coaches, players, and teams looking to win their games to cater to you? Get real.
Here’s the bottom line: Are you going to stop playing fantasy because of this? No chance. Will you no longer watch games because you got banged by this David Johnson situation? Doubt it. So where is the incentive for them to do anything different from something like this? It doesn’t exist if they think it helps them win their real football games.
Fantasy managers will keep gaming, you’ll still keep tuning into the games and coaches will continue to not care one bit about making decisions with you in mind. As long as the cash keeps flowing, so will the status quo. It’s a cold, dark dose of corporate-induced reality but let the nihilism hit you on this one. You’re not getting any better than that.
My preseason hope for the Eagles offense
The Philadelphia offense screamed a loud cry for us to let go of any remaining hope of it being one of the better offenses in the NFL. For weeks now this unit has been scratching and clawing to get by and Sunday night’s effort was nothing short of a painful culmination.
The receivers after Alshon Jeffery continue to turn up total dust for Carson Wentz. Nelson Agholor has regressed badly each of the last two seasons, while youngsters Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside have too often been net-negatives. The tight ends have been bright spots but too often not consistently in the same game together.
Philly’s running game is middling and too often thrown out of the mix right away as the secondary digs the team into massive holes. Stunningly poor blocking upfront often allows enough heat on Carson Wentz for the team to stay in those trailing situations. Even Wentz himself doesn’t look as comfortable or decisive in the eye of the storm this year like he has in years past.
The fire of this unit has been put out. The daring aggressiveness neutered and the time for curing what ails it running out.
The return of DeSean Jackson might be just the boost this team needs. He was looking like a true difference-maker for the Eagles early but was taken away too soon. Still, it doesn’t speak well if the entire unit stays treading water for weeks without him. If the key to the offense was an aging deep threat with mounting injuries, that’s problematic. He was close to returning in this Cowboys game so help is on the way even if they’re counting on him too much.
The Eagles don’t have a friendly slate before they meet up with Miami to begin December. They travel to Buffalo next week before facing Chicago prior to the bye and then returning to dates with New England and Seattle. Philadelphia’s offense needs to be the rebound unit of this team — the defense is too far gone. It needs to happen soon if they wish to hold onto Super Bowl aspirations.