We’re nine weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.
Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold.
We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
Can the Kliff and Kyler combo show out?
It feels like we aren’t talking enough about what Kyler Murray did last Thursday night.
The No. 1 overall pick had his best game of the season based on adjusted yards per attempt (11.7) against a defense that was obliterating everything in its path heading into Week 9. Murray helped the Cardinals drop 25 points on the 49ers, completed 71 percent of his passes and tacked on 37 more yards on the ground.
He was brilliant based on the eye test, as well. Murray’s arm strength was on full display, tossing out multiple heaters against San Francisco. Even the deep out-breaking pattern to Andy Isabella that boosted Murray’s bottom-line stats was about as elite as you can get from a velocity and placement combination. His Week 9 performance showed why Murray is so tantalizing. When he’s firing on all cylinders he opens up areas of the field other quarterbacks simply do not.
The Cardinals’ offense is, on paper, an about-average unit. They rank 18th in yards per play right now. That’s not eye-popping but it’s hugely impressive when you consider they were the stone-worst attack last offseason and are still playing behind a subpar offensive line. This is true even when their best young receiver (Christian Kirk) and running back (David Johnson) have struggled with injuries. All told, Kill Kingsbury is getting better each week as a play-caller in the NFL, to which he’s brand new, and has the Cardinals offense working.
The team travels to Tampa Bay in what could be a high-scoring game in Week 10. The way the Bucs function on defense could make them especially susceptible to Murray’s style of play. No team blitzes at a higher rate (51.6%) than Tampa and that leaves their back-end coverage men in one-on-one situations. Those players aren’t good and with the way Murray is placing the ball right now, he gets the easy advantage. Additionally, if he’s able to elude blitzers or his blocking holds up, expect Murray to take off running a handful of times.
Week 10 could hold Murray’s most explosive outing in weeks. His fantasy outing will be helped if Jameis Winston can victimize the wide-open caverns in Arizona’s secondary and avoid throwing up on his shoes.
What’s up in the Cardinals backfield?
The Cardinals offense has my interest so much this week, they’re getting a second pressing question.
It’s not just the passing game. Another matchup to watch is how this Tampa Bay front seven fares against the Cardinals running game. The Bucs overcommit to stopping the run and allow the fewest yards per carry in the NFL. But Kingsbury is smart. It’s much harder to commit extra resources to the run when you spread the field with as many receivers as he does. Despite some turnover at running back and a less-than-ideal (from a talent perspective) offensive line, the Cardinals are the third-best rushing offense, per Football Outsiders.
You cannot overstate the impact of the spread offense on the ground game in Arizona. They have run the ball out of four-wide receiver sets 56 times in 2019, by far the most of any team. Washington ranks second with 10 carries. Their runs out of that personnel grouping account for 26% of their team carries and average 5.3 yards per rush.
The Bucs have loaded the box on 63 carries this season, fifth-most in the league this year and 34% of their runs allowed. Again, that is a wild overcommitment to stopping the less efficient dimension of offensive football. It’s also impossible to do against a team that’s running out of four-wide sets like the Cardinals are at this rate. Despite the Bucs’ 3.4 yards per carry allowed, we could see Arizona get rolling on the ground more than we think.
Now we just need to see who will actually get that rushing work. David Johnson should be back but it’s impossible to go away from Kenyan Drake after the explosion he brought to the table in his Cardinals debut. We could see a 50/50 split here and while that might make them tough to trust in fantasy, it will make the Cardinals offense that much more dangerous.
Can Marquise Brown put the stats to the performance?
Marquise Brown is a difference-maker. If that feels weird to hear a week after he recorded just 48 yards on three targets, please, get a grip. He might be the true key to the Ravens passing offense.
The horde of delusional haters who want to question Lamar Jackson’s viability as a “real” passer at every turn is always present. Make no mistake, they were ready to pounce on his three-game stretch against the Steelers, Bengals, and Seahawks where he threw for just 530 yards with a 69 passer rating. It’s no coincidence that two and a half of those games came without Marquise Brown in the lineup. He is a straight-up difference-maker.
Brown is obviously far and away the best receiver on the Ravens roster. However, he’s the type of field-tilting talent that changes the complexion of how a team must be defended. Double coverage is overstated in terms of how often it’s deployed on just any old wideout. There are a few players who are what I call “true coverage dictators.” That small group of players is made up exclusively of the elite tier of No. 1 wide receivers, like Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins, and the most dangerous vertical threats. Brown fits into the latter category this early into his career.
Even when he’s not producing in the stat sheet, Marquise Brown’s mere presence on the field for the Ravens is a game-changer. Judging Jackson’s passing metrics without Brown amid a cast of vagabond receivers is a pointless endeavor. Having his top receiver certainly helped Jackson post his second-best completion rate and passer rating against the Patriots last week. Brown himself didn’t go wild but he did catch all of his targets and help move the offense on his three catches.
Week 10 could be the moment when Brown’s difference-making ability shows up for fantasy managers and not just in the defensive gameplan. We know their run defense has been a mess but Cincinnati’s passing defense has its issues too. The Bengals secondary has been stung by injuries throughout the year and allows a 103.5 passer rating on throws that travel 15-plus air yards. Brown could be in for a big week now that he’s a full game back from his injury and in line for a snap share closer to 70 to 80%.
What’s up with the Packers defense?
The Green Packers defense carried the team during a slow start for the offense and looked like a transformed unit through the first month of the season. The shine has worn off the deeper we’ve gone into 2019. Heading into Week 10, the Packers allow the fifth-highest yards per play.
The combination of Za’Darius and Preston Smith still leads what is a strong pass rush. Green Bay ranks fourth in hurries and ninth in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions. The problem is that they aren’t getting home enough. Despite all the heat, the Packers rank 20th in sack percentage.
When they aren’t getting home, teams have just been shredding them through the air. Quarterbacks are finding chasms downfield and receivers lined up out wide are averaging a league-high 11.7 yards per catch against Green Bay. The erosion of the pass defense is stacked on top of a run-stopping unit that’s been problematic all season, ranking 26th in run defense DVOA.
With the defense looking thoroughly average, the Packers are trending a bit too close to returning to an Aaron Rodgers-or-bust operation. We saw just last week that when the offense busts, the team isn’t even competitive. Philip Rivers was able to bomb all over their secondary and with the offense stalled on the other side, the game was never in question.
The Packers don’t need to be a top-level stop unit that smothers opposing offenses. They need to be the epitome of a good defense in the modern NFL. We’re not looking for efficiency, we’re looking for sacks, disruption, and turnovers. The early iteration of Mike Pettine’s crew appeared to be that crew. It needs to return for Green Bay to truly join the NFC’s elite tier.
With the Panthers on the docket for Week 10, the Packers have a shot to gain some momentum. Kyle Allen is a different quarterback under pressure. He averages just 2.8 yards per attempt and boasts a 52.2% on-target throw rate, ranking fourth- and seventh-worst among quarterbacks with multiple starts. If the Packers can’t find a way to disrupt the volatile Allen, he could clock this secondary with vertical passes to his exciting young wideout corps. That cannot happen if Green Bay wishes to keep its status as a serious contender.
Is Damien Williams back?
One of the tried and true principles of fantasy football is that victory laps are dangerous. Football is such a wild game that you can be right and wrong about a player evaluation scenario in the course of just one season. Results vary from month to month. So be careful when you drop the “I told you so.”
We could be sitting at the precipice of reckoning for those who took their anti-Damien Williams victory laps in the first few months of the season. You have to tell a story to convince yourself but it’s not an unreasonable one.
Williams went on the shelf with a knee injury for multiple weeks. He had almost no rushing game work upon his return and didn’t clear nine carries until last week. It was not uncommon to see him used as a passing-down back only for a few weeks. You need to convince yourself that was all in an effort to keep him healthy while trusting reliable veteran LeSean McCoy to handle the dirty work on the ground.
Next, you have to tell yourself that Williams’ return to near full strength has coincided with McCoy falling out of favor due to a lack of reliability. Williams was clearly the more explosive back against the Packers two weeks ago and then took over the backfield last game out. He led the team in touches while McCoy played just six snaps. He smashed with the workload, going for 120-plus yards and a long touchdown on the ground.
If Williams is indeed back to even close to the status some hoped for him as a second-round pick in drafts this year, it’s a game-changer for fake football. This is especially true since it aligns with a healthy Patrick Mahomes returning to the scene. Any back playing alongside Mahomes is on the fantasy radar — hell, we had real conversations about Darrel Williams for god’s sake and don’t forget about the bevy of ninth-round picks wasted on Darwin Thompson. Williams has already proven he can be a hit in that exact role.
The Chiefs would also welcome a stable figure in the backfield. Mahomes leads the NFL with 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt and was in the middle of his elite encore with zero running game to start the year. A multi-dimensional running back by his side only makes this team more dangerous.