Addressing RG III's inconsistency
Also, Maurice Jones-Drew's decline and a lack of confidence in Ray Rice
Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Tone Deaf, Self-Professed" 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. What's wrong with Robert Griffin III? If you're looking for a writer to opine about RG III's news conferences or parse public statements to intuit whether there are problems between Griffin and his coach, you've got the wrong guy. There could be something to such rumors, but we'll never know the truth until after the fact, nor do I believe RG III would somehow play worse because he doesn't like Mike Shanahan. Inventing narratives to explain what we see on the field is the domain of far more creative writers than I.
Instead, I just watch and rewatch him play. Four weeks ago, I did a "Film Room" segment on Griffin in which I said I was heartened by the quarterback's renewed emphasis on running, his success at it, and the good things that likely would happen for his throwing as a result. In the four games since that analysis, here's how things have gone:
Robert Griffin III, Past 4 Weeks
In that span, Griffin is 5-of-17 on passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air, ranking him 23rd in completion percentage on such throws. In Week 7 versus the Chicago Bears, RG III had eight runs out of an option look. In the four games since, he's had 13 total. Now, anyone who watches the Washington Redskins play knows that this is not because the team doesn't use the pistol. In fact, over the past four weeks, it has used it on almost half its snaps (46.3 percent, to be exact), and no other team in that span is over 23 percent. (The San Francisco 49ers have used it 16.6 percent of the time, which helps explain Colin Kaepernick's maddening season. But that's a topic for another time.) RG III is running the same offense he's always run, but isn't taking off as much.
And to my eyes, it's killing the team. Take Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Through three quarters (and 40 additional seconds), Griffin was 7-of-15 for 57 yards and no touchdowns. And he was, in that span, mostly a pocket passer. On Washington's first drive, he had Logan Paulsen open on what might've been a 38-yard TD but hellaciously overthrew him. In the third quarter, he wildly missed Darrel Young on a seam route that could've been a big play. Later in that same stanza he threw a deep "in" to Santana Moss about 10 feet over Moss' head. And on a fourth-and-1 around midfield at the start of the fourth quarter, he had Paulsen open in the flat for a first down and mysteriously threw it 3 yards short. In the pocket, he was awful.
Then rally time came, and Griffin started scrambling around and throwing on the run, and things got crackulating. The touchdown to Young was a fluke (two Eagles defenders smashed into each other), but it was still a nice throw on a scramble to the left. His long TD to Aldrick Robinson came on a play-action sweep that turned into a naked boot. He did later miss a potential game-tying throw to Robinson on the dead run, but still, to my eyes, it was more "old" RG III that nearly saved the Redskins' bacon. What do we take from all this? Boy, I don't think I'm blaming offensive scheme for what ails Griffin. It seems to me they're giving him all the pistol he can handle and telling him to take it from there. He made a few plays with his legs, but not enough, and he really got "sandlot" only toward the end. From the pocket, he was mostly a mess. Monday night against the 49ers? We'll see which multithreat QB can shake off what ails him and make magic with his legs.
2. The ballad of Maurice Jones-Drew: Before his lost past couple of seasons, MJD was one of my favorite players. A little ball of fury and at a charitable 5-foot-7 improbably one of the NFL's best short-yardage runners, Jones-Drew was on a legitimate Hall of Fame pace. But missing 10 games with a serious foot injury last season and averaging 2.9 yards per carry this season have pretty much put the kibosh on Canton talk. Now we're at the point of wondering what he offers his fantasy owners at all. My fellow rankers have some faith in MJD this week, perhaps because they just saw Rashad Jennings post a nice day against the Houston Texans. I'm not there, and to explain why, I'm hitting the tape.
MJD used to be fast. He'd bully his way into a crease and just go. We have to be careful jumping to the conclusion that last season's serious foot injury (and more than 2,000 NFL touches) have sapped that speed, because when you're running behind what by most accounts is a pretty shaky line, often there is no crease, and you're just pummeling yourself into giant defenders. So we have to pick and choose plays. Here are a few from Week 11 versus the Arizona Cardinals:
• With 7:43 remaining the first quarter, MJD gains 3 yards up the middle and gets a face mask penalty tacked on. On the play, he gets behind his fullback, Will Ta'ufo'ou, squirts into the hole and then kind of just stops. Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby is engaged and can't really even see MJD, and to his left is wide-open space. A jump-step to his right, and Jones-Drew is in the clear for a long gain. But he just runs into the back of his offensive lineman as someone gets a mitt on him from behind.
• With 5:13 left in the second quarter, it's a classic zone-blocking scheme where MJD is supposed to run down the line and cut back when he sees an opening. In this case, his blockers all push to his left, and he cuts it back right, trying to get the edge around his right tackle. Tight end Clay Harbor pulls across the formation and gets a crushing block on Matt Shaughnessy, leveling him, yet Jones-Drew is slow enough getting between his right tackle and the fallen Shaughnessy that Shaughnessy can reach up and trip him with one hand.
• With 12:22 left in the fourth quarter, Jones-Drew gets it on a sweep to the left, but unfortunately Daryl Washington is pretty much unblocked and it turns into a race to the corner. It's no black mark on MJD that he doesn't make a big play here, and maybe I'm romanticizing his halcyon days a bit, but it's also sad to know he has no chance to get to the corner. Washington has got him and basically rides him out of bounds. Once upon a time, MJD timed out at the combine at 4.39 seconds in the 40. Washington (drafted four years later but only a year-and-a-half younger) ran 4.66.
It should go without saying that Jones-Drew doesn't have to be the '09 version of himself to provide some fantasy value. He plugged in a touchdown from the Cardinals' 1-yard line Sunday and made his owners' weeks. But any running back who's got a starting job has random TD possibilities. If I have other choices, I'm afraid a perceived good matchup isn't enough to tempt me into using MJD. And the truth is that, according to my metrics, the Texans have actually removed 2.8 fantasy points from the averages of the running backs they've faced over the past five weeks, even with Jennings' nice Week 11 contest factored in.
3. A Value-Based Drafting update: Normally, I'd wait until after Week 12 to do my next VBD update, primarily because the math gets a bit easier once all teams have played the same number of games. But Thanksgiving will knock out this column, so you're getting a Week 11 update instead. It's turned into a funny year, and you know why: There's been carnage in the first-round RB ranks. Arian Foster and Doug Martin are out for the season, and Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller and Trent Richardson are shadows of their expected selves. So while several projected No. 2 backs have lived up to their advance billing, there's more room in the top 20 for other positions. (For a frame of reference: Last season, the first nine spots in VBD -- and 13 of the top 20 -- were held by RBs.) I'm not particularly looking forward to the barrage of questions next year about why we project so many first-round RBs after half of them proved unworthy in '13. Put it this way: Even with ridiculous depth-chart turnover among supposed elite backs, we still have 10 rushers in the first 20 as of Week 11.
But let's face it, this is pretty surprising (note that these ranks don't include Thursday night's game):
Current VBD Top 20, This Season
Right now, Manning is the runaway fantasy MVP. There's still time for things to change, and perhaps the Denver Broncos do have a tougher schedule in late November and December than what came before, but it's going to take several mediocre games for Manning to lose his lead. There's another tier after McCoy right now, and then another after Stafford. But those tiers aren't so huge that we couldn't see a major shake-up by January.
Four in brief
4. Ray Rice -- recipe for disaster: I can't believe in Rice even as a flex this week. You know what nice numbers he posted versus the Bears last week (25 carries, 148 yards, 1 TD), and you also know the many explanations for why this might not represent a true reversal of fortune for Rice (hurricane-force winds, two-hour delay, soft Chicago run defense). But the deciding factor of whether Rice should be in your lineup is the fact that he faces the New York Jets' defense. No thanks. By my metrics, the Jets have removed 8.1 fantasy points from the averages of the rushers they've faced in the past five weeks. Even in a blowout defeat last week, they allowed 68 yards on 38 carries. Sheldon Richardson, in particular, stood out as a monster in that contest; if you've got the Game Rewind package, check out the play with 6:28 remaining in the second quarter, where Fred Jackson catches a screen right and Richardson runs him down and ankle-tackles him. This is a 300-pound rookie. Damon Harrison has been terrific, too. Maybe we'll look back on the Bears game as the moment everything changed for the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line and for Rice himself, and maybe I'm being overly cautious here. But this is about as bad a matchup as a running back can have, and it happens to be a running back who's been dreadful just about every game except last week's. Any RB can fall into the end zone, but I'm not starting Rice.
5. John Carlson gets his due: I know Christian Ponder is no great shakes. I know the Minnesota Vikings are DOA. And I know the tight end position is a giant flat tier after its top two members. But I look at how Carlson has performed in the two games since Kyle Rudolph's injury, and I'm not sure how we can avoid him as a top-10 option. He's got seven targets in each game and has caught 12 passes overall for 167 yards and a score and, more importantly, has made significant plays after the catch. It's now clear that Rudolph was always going to be overvalued coming off his nine-TD season in '12, but as options like Tony Gonzalez, Jordan Cameron and Martellus Bennett produce multiweek fades, beggars can't be choosers. Recall that Carlson had 55 and 51 catches in his first two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, scoring 12 TDs in that span. He's not some schmo. And right now Carlson is still available in more than 98 percent of ESPN leagues. Nobody can promise you tight end production in any given week, because tight ends are evil. But if you're looking to shake things up at the game's most frustrating position, I like Carlson as the guy to do it.
6. Is Roddy White cooked? The truth is, I don't think it's possible to know the answer to this question. In Week 10, he seemed to run all kinds of routes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although of course he fumbled after his first catch and was stuck on 16 yards receiving until the blowout's final series, on which he caught the dirtiest of garbage touchdowns. But Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints, there just wasn't any urgency to get White the ball. The Saints had emerging No. 1 corner Keenan Lewis lined up against White a lot, and it seemed Matt Ryan was mighty content shooting in the other direction, attempting to locate Darius Johnson against Corey White. That led Johnson to six catches and 87 yards on eight targets, though his inexperience showed on a bad third-down drop and a late fumble deep in Saints territory. The point here for me isn't so much what Roddy White did or didn't do Thursday (in the end, he had two catches on two targets for 24 yards), but rather the Falcons' lack of urgency to make him the focus of their passing offense. Did they try him in the slot a few times? Yes, and Lewis followed him in there at least once, while other times Roddy was covered by Kenny Vaccaro. But for the most part it was Roddy split wide left with Lewis across from him, and Ryan just didn't really even look over that way. And that lack of moving him around to find favorable matchups may speak volumes about where he is physically, or a lack of rapport he has with his QB right now. We've been told Roddy is healthy and that he could become a target monster in December. And I still think you can hang on to him if you've got the bench spot handy, though it's by no means required. Frankly, until we see the Falcons actually scheming to make sure Roddy White gets involved, I don't see how we can feel good about starting him.
7. Anyone else feel like Pierre Thomas has been at least partly wasted in New Orleans? Darren Sproles missed Thursday night's tilt against the Falcons, and we got a glimpse of what the TV series "Feature-Back Frenchy" might've looked like all these years. Thomas was perhaps the best player on the field, racking up 130 total yards on 15 touches, converting a couple of huge third-and-longs and basically doing everything you'd want your bell cow to do. Sproles has had his moments in '13, but overall he's been disappointing. In fact, in several games Thomas has wrested the catching-back role; Frenchy now has 56 receptions this year compared to Sproles' 38, an unexpected development. It makes you wonder what Thomas could do with a traditional week-to-week feature back's workload. Alas, the way the Saints operate, you just know the moment you really start counting on Thomas as a No. 2 fantasy back, we'll see a contest where Sproles goes bananas and leaves Frenchy in the dust. This is the legacy of the Drew Brees multiverse, and sometimes it stings like a bumblebee. It can be hard to remember that Thomas already has three 900-scrimmage-yard seasons in his six-year career, and now he's on pace for a career-best 1,297 scrimmage yards in '13. He's now the Saints rusher you'd feel best about using going forward, but again, New Orleans mixes it up so much on a weekly basis that any fantasy playoff tilt spent banking on Thomas will be a white-knuckler.
FANTASY TOP HEADLINES
- Matthew Berry: Love, hate and a requiem
- Karabell: Week 13 flex rankings
- Matthew Berry's fantasy football top 200 for Week 13
- Harris: Week 13 fantasy matchup tool
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