What to make of Dolphins' backfield?
Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "I'd buy low on Steven Jackson before Trent Richardson ... and it breaks my heart" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show! And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter at @CHarrisESPN. All right, let's get to today's topics:
Three in depth
1. The sad story of Lamar Miller: At least the Miami Dolphins announced their intentions right away in Week 7. On the game's first play from scrimmage, Daniel Thomas was in the offset I and took a simple lead draw up the gut against the Buffalo Bills for 5 yards. On the same series, he took an inside draw out of the shotgun and ran a painfully slow sweep to the right, gaining 4 yards mostly because the left side of the Bills' back two levels took horrible paths to the ball. But let's be fair: Thomas was effective early in this game. He had six carries for 31 yards, and all but one of his totes went for 4 yards or more. You wouldn't characterize the running as scintillating, as Thomas doesn't show you much in the way of escapability or moves, but credit where it's due: It was solid.
In that first stanza, Miller had only two carries for 5 yards, playing an obvious complementary role. But in the second quarter, Miller showed why he's the more enticing fantasy commodity, taking an inside shotgun handoff straight up the gut, showing good patience behind his linemen, then bursting forward for a 30-yard gain, which included a subtle but high-degree-of-difficulty midstream change of direction that left a slightly overpursuing safety coming right at Miller grasping at air. It was impressive. Alas, that was really all Miller got done all day. He had a series to himself late in the second quarter and got nothing going. He was in most of the time when the Fins went no-huddle, but Ryan Tannehill mostly threw, and the running backs just aren't a big part of Miami's passing game.
Meanwhile, for one afternoon at least, Thomas kept looking like the better player. In the third quarter, he took a pitchout around the right side and looked like his usual so-so-speed self, but as Buffalo's defense converged, he fought through two lazy tackles and turned a 5-yard gain into 16. I don't think anyone would say Miller isn't capable of doing more with such a look, but the fact is that Thomas was effective. He's bigger (2 inches taller, 16 pounds heavier) and more physical as a runner, at least in games like this past Sunday's, when he ran with true purpose. Thomas looks like a favorite for early-down work at the moment (at least based on usage as the Dolphins came out of their bye, having evaluated their first five games). I was among the more dubious prognosticators when it came to Miller this season, and that concern for his value is proving correct. At the moment, this looks like a platoon, plain and simple. I still prefer Miller for his game-breaking ability, but Thomas is a major drain and even a deeper flex option if your team is hurt by the byes. And if I see another game where Thomas is the lead dog, it'll be him, not Miller, who'll be ranked higher for Week 9.
2. Should you worry about Peyton Manning's health? Well, listen, no. Of course not, at least not to the point where you should do something silly like bench him or trade him. It will take far more than a shaky half of football in Indianapolis for anyone to contemplate abandoning ship, and that's as it should be. My preseason worries about Manning's arm strength looked ridiculous for six weeks, and I'm not suddenly going to start trundling them out again now.
But to be fair, Peyton's game tape wasn't stellar after he took a huge hit from old pal Robert Mathis (who abused left tackle Chris Clark on the play), which led to a fumble and a safety. Let's admit: It's pretty freaking great when "not stellar game tape" leads to 23 additional points on the scoreboard. Peyton is a manimal (with apologies to fellow Denver pro athlete Kenneth Faried). But I'll point out a few passes that looked decidedly as though his brother Eli was doing the throwing:
• Right after the first half's two-minute warning, he pump-faked and then took a shot down the left side to Demaryius Thomas. Thomas had a step on both Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry, but the ball didn't lead him far enough, and the pass was broken up.
• The very next play was an attempted "in" route to Eric Decker that Jerrell Freeman jumped and maybe should've taken to the house; it was hauntingly similar to the pick Manning threw in overtime that doomed his squad against the Baltimore Ravens in last year's playoffs.
• The play right after that was an even deeper shot down the left side where Manning felt pressure up the middle and couldn't step into the throw, and it sailed on him, and probably also could've been picked.
• A lousy throw on what was probably a bad decision on a third-quarter third-and-5, where he tried to hit Knowshon Moreno on a wheel route that was essentially triple-covered.
• A play-action duck intended on the right side to Wes Welker (7:45 left in the third) that could easily have been picked by Darius Butler. (And when did I think I'd ever say that about Darius Butler?)
• A long fourth-quarter pass to Decker (12:59 left in the fourth) was underthrown over the middle, popped up by Cassius Vaughn, but caught by Decker. Not a horrible throw, but not a great one.
• The very next play was a badly thrown pass to Thomas that Davis should've intercepted. (Of course, the very next pass was a brilliant touchdown to Thomas. I don't care that it fluttered a little; it was a great play.)
With five minutes to go in the third quarter, Manning was 12-for-22 for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Why, those are Tom Brady numbers (except for the touchdowns)! Listen, Peyton made good throws, and he rallied the Broncos. And as I said off the top, the point here isn't to slag him, or recommend you do anything other than start him and love him on your fantasy team. But the difference between the six Denver wins to start the season and this first loss versus the Indianapolis Colts was clearly Manning. The Broncos' defense isn't very good. Moreno gets work done because of Peyton. We all need to hope Manning stays healthy all season long, because when he was nicked up Sunday (reportedly his ankle was bothering him), he just did not look like the same guy, and he could easily have thrown several picks.
3. The best Jimmy Graham insurance money can buy: I will refrain from "I told you so" on everything having to go perfect for Graham to justify him as a second-round fantasy pick. I will do this partly because I still believe it, but I'll also do it partly because he's not definitely out for Sunday's game against the Bills, and Mr. Graham takes unexpected pleasure in making me look dumb. However, it's sounding more and more like there's a chance the bye week wasn't long enough to heal Graham's injured foot, and you must have another option on your roster in case he winds up inactive for Week 8. (If he's active, no matter what, yes, you start him.)
Even after a nine-catch, 134-yard breakout last week against the Chicago Bears, Jordan Reed is unowned in more than half of ESPN.com leagues, and I'd say he makes the most logical replacement if he's available in yours. Field and I discussed Reed as a smart add before his big game in Week 7, because we watch the tape, and we saw that even though he'd been targeted only 21 times in four games, he was regularly displaying a size/speed combo that puts you in the mind of the Grahams and Gronkowskis. (And, particularly, Aaron Hernandez, given that Reed went to the University of Florida, plus grew up in Connecticut, as Hernandez did.) Major Wright, Lance Briggs and Chris Conte took turns not being able to cover Reed on Sunday, and his 3-yard score was a simple fade that made him look like a big wideout rather than a tight end.
Now the requisite caution is required. Tight ends will break your heart. They can string together two or three good games, but a stinker always looms. That doesn't mean you don't start Reed, it just means he's a rookie tight end, and if you read enough of my stuff, you know what I think about both of those things. But I'll say this: Reed is talented enough and has muscled so far ahead of Fred Davis (who was a healthy scratch in Week 7) that I won't panic if he does go out and lay an egg against the Denver Broncos. He should be on rosters in all leagues.
What if Reed isn't available in your league, and you're looking for Graham insurance? In order, my preferred tight ends who are owned in fewer than 25 percent of leagues would go like this: Rob Housler, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Pettigrew. In a very deep league, I suppose Ben Watson, Graham's direct replacement, would be usable.
Four in brief
4. How good is Jordy Nelson? Well, he just got the full Joe Haden. Now, Haden didn't track Nelson on every play in Week 7's tilt between the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns. As is usually the case, that's an oversimplification. The Browns played some zone, and in such cases when Nelson went in motion away from Haden, the corner passed the wideout to a different defender. (In addition, the one time Nelson ran a route from the slot, Haden didn't line up opposite him.) But I do think you'd say overall, we did see a ton of Nelson matched up on one of the NFL's scariest cover corners. Haden mostly lined up close to Nelson (usually "playing back" only on the rare occasion that he didn't have safety help), only allowing the wideout to catch a series of stops and short hooks, resulting in minimal gains. But it's a testament to Nelson's impervious fantasy value that he found a way to contribute: He caught a 1-yarder for a touchdown on a short slant, where Haden was left on an island and basically in an unwinnable position. Jarrett Boykin was a nice story, going for eight catches, 103 yards and a garbage-time touchdown, but realize all this came because Aaron Rodgers didn't want to mess with Haden. Versus the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, there will be no such problems. Given the absence of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, Nelson is officially in the elite class of fantasy wideouts, not least because he's a downfield threat nonpareil. His average of 12.9 yards at the catch so far this season is second among all wideouts with at least 20 grabs, behind only Alshon Jeffery.
5. Does LeSean McCoy need Michael Vick? He does, more than ever. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Philadelphia Eagles already have run more option plays this season (155) than any team has done over the course of a full season since 2001 (which is as far back as I could find data). They're on pace to more than double the Carolina Panthers' number of option snaps from last season, which had been the most a team had registered in the previous decade-plus. Now, one person's read-option play is another person's simple handoff; in Philly's offense, sometimes the quarterback obviously has every intention of handing to McCoy but nevertheless executes a kind of fake and merely strolls in the other direction after he gives away the ball. Still, though, it's a unique action in the NFL, and it does tend to keep a defense honest. But how effective are these zone reads on which Chip Kelly bases much of his running game (110 of McCoy's 141 carries so far this year have been zone reads of one flavor/intensity or another) when the Eagles' quarterback is Nick Foles or Matt Barkley? See for yourself. Here are Shady's numbers on read-option carries with and without Vick under center:
LeSean McCoy, Read-Option Carries This Season
In fact, in Week 5 after Vick was injured, Foles came in and the Eagles -- who had basically done nothing but run zone-read plays to that point -- gave McCoy just four such carries for the rest of that game, which went for a combined minus-3 yards. Clearly, the option got better over the past two weeks sans Vick, but just as clearly, things work better in this offense when the quarterback is a running threat. In fact, Vick himself has nine keeper carries for 126 yards (including scampers of 61 and 36 yards) out of Kelly's varying option plays. Although the health of his hammy is an open question, his return will be welcome.
6. Le'Veon Bell does impressive things: I've been a bit hard on the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie, because while I think he finds himself in a potentially valuable situation as the only RB his team trusts, I find myself flummoxed by his occasional insistence on pretending he's not a 244-pound human being. But in what I thought would be a tough matchup against the Ravens on Sunday, Bell came out ablaze. His first five carries went for 6, 8, 11, 6 and 4 yards, plus he topped off the Steelers' first drive with a carry from inside the Ravens' 5 (although he couldn't convert the touchdown). It was a great start, and on Pittsburgh's second drive, he had three straight totes for 9, 8 and 5. Best of all, when he found himself on the second level, he lowered his head and punished defensive backs, something he definitely did sometimes at Michigan State, but not always. Now, when I watch his tape, I still see Bell waiting at the line, and the distinction between "being patient" and "dancing" can be precariously thin. I think you saw that as Sunday's game went on; after those first nine carries for 58 yards, Bell amassed 41 on 10, occasionally doing his "Bad Le'Veon" thing of bouncing runs outside where his relative lack of speed dooms him, rather than just butting it on up in there and taking a short gain. But make no mistake, the Steelers are using him in the Wildcat, they're throwing it to him on occasion (I'd like to see more, given his skills), and Felix Jones is really only involved in the hurry-up. Bell is my No. 12 RB this week against the Oakland Raiders, and if his tape stays this positive in what should be a solid matchup, that's probably where he'll stay in the ranks going forward.
7. Cam Newton is good. His receivers aren't: Watching Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell play football is just painful. They can get open with the best of them. But week after week after week we have to watch these wideouts drop catchable passes. Ginn had a perfectly thrown bomb go directly through his arms on what would've been a long touchdown. LaFell ran a lovely dig route in the third quarter and Newton stuck it on him, and it ricocheted off his chest. These are not one-time events, and if you're looking for a reason Newton hasn't taken that proverbial "next step" as a passer, that's it. Newton is on a ridiculous three-week streak, during which he's gone 58-for-75 (77.3 percent completion rate) for 667 yards, six TDs and zero INTs, and Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he rushed for his second TD in his past three games, making his fantasy night. Steve Smith? He's still really good, but even he's had some drop problems. Yet the biggest failing of Panthers management past and present is failing to surround Big Cam with a viable stable of supporting wideouts. When they struggle, when Newton struggles, it's almost always because better defenses take away Smith, and nobody else can win consistently.
FANTASY TOP HEADLINES
- Berry: Love, hate and good cheer
- Week 17 flex rankings
- Harris: Week 17 free-agent finds
- Matthew Berry's fantasy football top 200 for Week 17
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