Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Oct 2014

Scramble for the Ball: Quarter Pole Projections

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Tom: After four weeks of the season, it is time for the column we annually write after four weeks of the season.

Mike: That's news to me!

Tom: We have reached roughly the end of the first quarter of the NFL season. Some players are on pace to have their first 1,000 yard-season of their career. Some will in fact reach that hallowed mark. Others will not. Your Scramble writers attempt to divine which is which.

Mike: Oh, I remember that old rime.

Tom: Looking at last year's exercise, we were our usual mix of right (Bilal Powell no), wrong, and split (Jordan Cameron). Can we do better this year? We'll try, at least.

Running Backs

Tom: The trend the last couple years is that we only have one or two running backs to talk about, as the NFL rushing leaderboards have been dominated recently by established backs. Not so this year. There are ten backs with at least 250 yards rushing and therefore on pace. Only four of them have had 1,000 yards rushing in their career. Mike, do you have thoughts on Le'veon Bell, Rashad Jennings, Knile Davis, Lamar Miller, Chris Ivory, and/or Justin Forsett?

Mike: I do have thoughts about Le'veon Bell, and most of them are pity that he is stuck in that horrendous offensive system.

Tom: Yes, but we don't care about that. All we care about here is pure numbers! He had 860 yards rushing as a rookie in 13 games, which was a 1,058-yard pace had he played all 16 games.

Mike: Thank you, racetrack grandpa. What is interesting is that the Steelers do actually have a decent rushing attack this year. Not great, despite their top-five rushing rank and Bell's own sixth-ranked DYAR, but an effective one.

Tom: He's second in the NFL with 378 yards. Is there any reason other than the standard "he breaks for too many games" to expect him not to go over? I don't see any, so over to me.

Mike: He is second in the NFL by yardage because they've run him a ton. He has racked up those gaudy numbers despite a 42 percent success rate, near the bottom of the league, and with a good-but-not-great 8.7% DVOA. That said, he's almost halfway there with a lot of games to play. I'll go over also, but not by much.

Tom: Jennings is a more interesting case. He's at 341 yards, so well ahead of the pace, and comes out very well by DYAR (second) and DVOA (sixth). But he's 29, old for a back, has never had more than 733 yards in a season, and the Giants also have rookie Andre Williams to carry the ball.

Mike: On the other hand, he's never had enough attempts to end up north of 733 yards. You're referring to last year with Oakland, where he only carried the ball 163 times, despite excellent DYAR and DVOA, because Oakland.

Tom: Does that tell you he's a committee back, or he's finally coming into his own? I think you can reasonably come down either way on that.

Mike: Darren McFadden's 2013 numbers tells you everything you need to know about that.

Tom: I think his three-down skill set, plus Williams' lack of pass game work, means he'll get enough snaps and work he gets there. I liked him enough to take him in fantasy, and I still like him in New York. Over.

Mike: Considering Eli Manning is still something less than unstoppable, the Giants need a good running game. By the numbers, Jennings seems to fit the bill. He's going to get a lot of touches, and it seems that he'll make good use of them. Over. I need to stop liking the Giants so much, it is a constant source of embarrassment for me.

Tom: Chris Ivory actually made it to 182 carries last year. Can we still assume he'll break before getting to 1,000 yards?

Mike: Yes.

Tom: Yeah, I think so too, where "break" also includes enough of a carry split to avoid said breakage. Knile Davis and, to a lesser extent, Lamar Miller have benefited from the absence of another back in the backfield.

Mike: Which, let's be honest, is a rarity in the NFL these days for any but the most elite tailbacks

Tom: Davis: 54 carries in the two games Jamaal Charles was inactive, 17 in the two he was active. I think that answers that question.

Mike: Charles is most definitely back, as I both wonderfully and painfully learned this week.

Tom: Miller has been between 11 and 15 carries every game, which seems sustainable even after Knowshon Moreno returns. With that limited volume, though, he'll need to average around 5.0 yards per carry to make it to 1,000 yards. He's at 5.7 right now without a single long run to skew everything (season long 24), but that seems like a tall order.

Mike: Especially since Moreno was running well last year and has still looked good in the limited time he received in 2014.

Tom: I'm going under on Miller, even though I do like him as a player.

Mike: Like I said, Moreno has a good track record and I generally feel he is going to get almost all the work. Under.

Tom: Forsett is the last back. We talked about him a couple weeks ago. He's barely over the threshold at 255 yards. I like him, I like Baltimore, and I still can't see him at 1,000 yards. I guess he could get there with a bunch of 14-66 lines like he had against the Panthers, but, no. Under.

Mike: I like Baltimore significantly less than you do, particularly the running game. That said, his division has taken a complete pratfall in rushing defense this year, to the point where I don't think the Ravens even need to be good at running to get him to 1,000. Over.

Tom: Fine, be contrarian.

Mike: Pessimist, contrarian, same difference.

Tom: Terrance West and Andre Ellington are on pace for 1,000 yards through three games their teams have played. But since they're under 250 yards, they're not in this week's conversation.

Wide Receivers

Tom: Jeremy Maclin has never had 1,000 yards. He has had at least 773 every season, but topped out at 964 in 2010. At 353 right now, he seems like a lock.

Mike: That's what Maclin wants you to think. The tricksy devil.

Tom: The Eagles will have volume. He's their best receiver. Or are you making a "he'll break" argument?

Mike: That was a joke. Over.

Tom: OK. We agree on the over. Good.

Emmanuel Sanders has 334 yards in three games. Is he as simple as Maclin?

Mike: Yes.

Tom: More games for Wes Welker may hurt his numbers a bit but not enough to put 1,000 in question. Over for both of us on Sanders as well.

Mike: I mean, he is still vulnerable to the Peyton Manning Wheel of Wide Receiver Woe, but he's producing in every way measurable, so Peyton will keep feeding him the ball.

Tom: Young receivers: rookies Kelvin Benjamin and Allen Hurns, plus second-year man DeAndre Hopkins.

Benjamin has been a much better player than I thought he'd be this early, and given Carolina's wide receiving depth chart seems like a lock with 329 yards.

Mike: I suppose the big question for Hopkins is how quickly and how healthy Andre Johnson can be in the next few weeks.

Tom: I'd almost put him in the same category as Sanders, namely that as long as he keeps being as productive as he is, the other weapons won't matter too much.

Mike: Is he going to keep being productive? So productive that Johnson, a known quality receiver, won't suck all the oxygen out of the room? On a team with a sketchy offense to begin with? Sorry, not buying it. Under.

Tom: Well, I was going to say too much of his production has come on long plays with a quarterback I don't trust to throw beyond 15 yards downfield and go under because of that. But that works, too.

Mike: We need to stop agreeing on things.

Tom: We do, lest we turn into The Buddy Bears.

Mike: Is there any way we can shoehorn more Football Giants into this column?

Tom: I'm going over on Benjamin. Are you as well?

Mike: Carolina's ponderous offense really bothers me, but the passing component of it looks well above average, with Benjamin playing a surprisingly large role in that. I agree with over.

Tom: A receiver we might disagree on: Golden Tate. He's at 317 yards, well ahead of the pace, and had almost 900 yards in Seattle last year. He plays with Calvin Johnson and has 31 targets to Megatron's 36. Johnson has dominated Detroit's targets to an incredible extent in recent years. Will the current distribution, or something close enough to it, stick?

Mike: The Lions have been winning, which is why Matt Stafford has been spreading the ball around. Stafford's mechanics look so much cleaner this year, but I don't trust his instincts to move away from panicked throws to Megatron whenever he needs yards.

Tom: Tate also has a 77 percent catch rate. That seems high. It's early, obviously, and there are a few players with an even higher catch rate (Percy Harvin: 88 percent on 17 targets!).

Mike: Unsustainably so, yes. Although on the upside, he will never, ever draw double coverage. Which I'm sure is a nice change from Seattle. That said, even if Detroit does start losing, Stafford, especially new and improved Stafford, is capable of hanging some incredibly gaudy numbers on opponents. Opponents with weak secondaries. I hate this, but I have to go over.

Tom: I think Tate's the most interesting of the receivers we've discussed. I see the arguments on both ways. My guess is he cools down a bit and finishes close but under.

If James Jones never went over playing with Aaron Rodgers, how is he going to do with Derek Carr, Matt McGloin, and/or Matt Schaub?

Mike: I think that about sums it up.

Tom: I know, volume, with a 112-target pace. But he had 98 before and only 784 yards. Like Tate, his catch rate (75 percent with that quarterback situation!?) seems unsustainably high.

Getting back to Jacksonville, Hurns is just over the threshold at 254 yards, 60 percent of which comes on three receptions. Not with that team, even with Blake Bortles at quarterback.

Tight Ends

Tom: We have a passel of them, and I don't think we need to discuss them individually. Do you like any of Delanie Walker (317 yards), Niles Paul (313), Martellus Bennett (295), Travis Kelce (259), or Greg Olsen (254) to go over the millennium mark?

Mike: I think of any of them, Olsen probably has the best shot, and it is still extremely remote.

Tom: In doing last week's NBC column on Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten, I found Olsen was actually fourth in receptions among tight ends since the start of the 2011 season. That surprised me.

Mike: He's a workhorse.

Tom: Personally, I think if Kirk Cousins stays in the lineup Paul has a shot, just because that's his sweet spot.

Mike: Possibly, but again, still remote.

Tom: Kelce does as well, at least if Alex Smith continues to play with good efficiency. He's as athletic as advertised, and the Chiefs need that.

Mike: So are we discussing these players individually, or are we continuing our usual fantasy-steeped practice of unfairly ignoring tight end performance?

Mike: You're sending out mixed signals.

Tom: No, I was done, since no kickers are on pace for 1,000 points and quarterbacks on pace for 1,000 yards isn't worth discussing.

Mike: Step up your game, kickers.

Lessons Learned

Tom: Some lessons in the NFL are enduring. Others are like Tampa Bay's ineptitude and Green Bay's offensive struggles, beyond obvious one week and seemingly gone the next. What did you learn in Week 4, Mike?

Mike: That fantasy football is the most fickle of beasts. As you said, an enduring lesson, that many of us learn every week. This past week, I was down in one league by 15 points, and up in another by 10. In the former, Jamaal Charles proved to be my savior, with a big game that swept me to victory over the second-best team of the week. In the latter, Jamaal Charles proved to be my downfall, knocking me down to an unacceptable 1-2. For someone like me, part of the joy of fantasy football is finding ways to root for players who normally you would not care about. There is a special agony when you are both playing and playing against that player, however, and this week was the most acute lesson.

Tom: Cruelty and caprice is a good theme. Just ask now-former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen. He seems like a good man. He had success as a defensive coordinator. This was not some vintage late career Al Davis screwy hire of somebody who wouldn't have found another NFL head coaching job so quickly, if at all. He ended up coaching a team that was about as untalented as any NFL team of recent vintage, down there with the post-Gene Smith Jaguars and the no-money Bucs. And they lost a lot of games, which is exactly what you'd expect. That left him on thin ice heading into this season, and one (quite bad) four-game stretch was enough to cost him his job. He'll probably get another shot, since he had the resume and it seems like being an NFL head coach is the best way to get an NFL head coaching job. But he went into a no-win situation and didn't win, and got fired for it. The NFL is a results-based business. Results-based decisions are often ruthless, and such was Allen's firing.

Loser League Update

Check out how your team did on the Loser League results page.

Quarterback: It was a bad week to be a 2014 quarterback in an East division. Tom Brady and Nick Foles each failed to track 200 yards while turning the ball over multiple times in losing efforts and ended up with 5 Loser League points each for their troubles.

Running Backs: Of course, Foles was not the only Eagles player to put up a low fantasy score. LeSean McCoy had a mere 17 yards on 10 carries for 1 point. The 2-point scorer of the week came from the same game, but of course Carlos Hyde was the complement to lead back Frank Gore, who did have a productive game.

Wide Receivers: Davante Adams, Cole Beasley, Calvin Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, and Robert Woods combined to have 11 catches for 73 yards and 1 Loser League point each.

Kicker: It was a pretty good week for kickers overall. There were no missed extra points, and every kicker who missed a field goal made at least one field goal and at least two extra points. That left Kai Forbath, Stephen Gostkowski, Sebastian Janikowski, and Josh Scobee as low men with 2 points from a pair of extra points.

Awards!

Keep Chopping Wood: Twice, Jairus Byrd had the opportunity to come up and tackle Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray short of the end zone. Twice, it seemed like he was in excellent position to do so. Twice he came nowhere close to actually doing so. On a woeful night for the New Orleans defense, Byrd's missteps were perhaps the most prominent.

Mike Martz Award: Down by two scores with under eight minutes to play, Sean Payton decided to go for it on fourth-and-long from the Saints 41. For this crucial conversion attempt, Payton sent out not star quarterback Drew Brees, but punter Thomas Morstead. The easily-identified fake came nowhere close to converting, and the Cowboys easily drove for the clinching score. If you're going to lose a game, why wouldn't you do so with your best players? As Payton said at his Monday press conference, "that's on me for being impatient."

Lock of the Week

Tom: The New Orleans Saints away from home let you down.

Mike: Of course they did. They always do

Tom: Although you could just think of it as Sean Payton wanting to make his neighbors happy, since he lived in Dallas while he was suspended for a season.

Mike: I would never think of it that way, I always imagined the Payton lived in some kind of bunker or fortress of solitude or some combination of the two.

Tom: Meanwhile, my trust in the Baltimore Ravens was well-founded, as they routed the Panthers and covered easily. I am now 2-1, while you are 0-3. As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium Picks.

Mike: The pessimist in me is sorely tempted by the Jaguars +7 at home, but I think that's largely an emotional reaction to a disastrous game against a bad team. And as we have seen, my barometer is way, way off this year. In which case I will simply rely on our stats. Now, our stats happen to agree with me, but I will never admit that, because I really, really do not want to jinx this. 0-4 is a really ugly record. New England and Cincinnati are a pick 'em. Cincinnati is a very good team this year. New England is a mediocre team this year that just got the snot beat out of it. Cincinnati Bengals over New England Patriots.

Tom: I have to go back to a well that paid off for me last week. The Panthers were a darling at 2-0. Their defense has collapsed the past two games. Their running backs are all injured. Their wide receiver depth chart is shallow enough even Chicago's cornerback depth chart can match up with it respectably. The line suggests the Panthers and Bears are two even teams. Our numbers don't agree with that, and neither do I. Chicago Bears +2.5 at Carolina Panthers.

Scramble Mailbag

Bill: I was leading my fantasy game by 1.8 points heading into Monday night, with Rob Gronkowski left for me and my opponent out. Would it have been okay if I benched Gronkowski, since my only way of losing is if he fumbles, and play without a tight end?

Mike: Yes, that is perfectly legitimate. There's nothing in the rules against starting a blank spot on your roster. If there was, 75 percent of the old FO staff league teams would have been disqualified by Week 3.

Tom: I'm convinced that 4-hour window to change your lineup was part of Barnwell's master plan for winning the league.

Mike: Yes, although that plan really drove home the idea that there is no such thing as too much overkill.

You are ahead, he has no players left, there is no reason to shoulder even the miniscule risk when you can simply win outright.

Tom: The only possibility is stat corrections. I would go through the gamebooks and check fumbles to see if a player could be reassigned credit, thus costing you a game you already won.

Mike: That is likely a wise precaution, but considering we are talking about the Monday night game, stat corrections in all but the most bizarre cases have already been applied.

Tom: Also, total points is a real tiebreaker. Missing out on Gronkowski's eventual 9.10 (non-PPR) points could end up costing you.

Mike: True. But you know what the first tiebreaker is? Record. Take the guaranteed win.

Tom: I concur. Though I'd still play your players unless it's an extremely close game, of the sort that could be decided by a single fumble. If you're up by 20 points, go ahead and play your players. Unless you just want to rub it in.

Send your questions to Scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com!

Posted by: Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower on 01 Oct 2014

11 comments, Last at 02 Oct 2014, 2:20pm by Travis

Comments

1
by slipknottin :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 5:20pm

How did you forget about Larry Donnell? Hes often the #1 option for the giants this season. Just have to look at how often the packers threw to Finley to get an idea of how many targets Donnell will end up with. Should be in the area of 90-100 targets.

2
by Perfundle :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 6:02pm

To be fair, Donnell forgot how good he was too, when he benched himself on his fantasy football team and thus lost his matchup.

3
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 11:48pm

You need a lot more than 90-100 targets to be comfortable about breaking 1000 yds. Finley has never gone over 1000 with Rodgers throwing to him.

5
by slipknottin :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 12:54am

Thats because Finley's catch percentage always has sucked. What did he have, 60% in his best receiving year?

4
by dbostedo :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 12:15am

They didn't forget. He has 236 yards in 4 games. He's not on pace for 1000 yards.

6
by slipknottin :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 12:55am

Thats on pace for ~950 or so yards, its close enough to be mentioned. Or if you use EYards, he is 3rd on that list of TEs they did mention

9
by dbostedo :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 10:52am

Just because he's close doesn't change the criteria they used or mean he should have been mentioned. They laid it out pretty plainly.

7
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 3:24am

Did I miss mention of Reggie Wayne? On track to hit 1,228 yards at age 35. Steve Smith, too, for that matter.... How cool would it be if the two top AFC WRs at season's end are both over 35?

8
by Perfundle :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 4:29am

Both of those players have already hit 1000 yards many times in their careers; this article is only looking at those who have a chance to do so for their first time.

10
by Kurt :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 1:04pm

Unless a fumble is -5 or something, the chances of that guy losing on one Gronkowski fumble is *extremely* remote. He has to catch the ball to fumble it; even if he fumbled on his only catch of the night the catch would have to be for one yard or less for him to lose the game (two yards gets him a tie). I wonder how many times in the history of football a WR or TE has gotten -1.8 points or worse in standard scoring.

11
by Travis :: Thu, 10/02/2014 - 2:20pm

Unless the WR returns punts or kickoffs (Devin Hester has had 3 separate games where he had 3 fumbles and no catches), it almost never happens. Maybe 3 times a year, if that.

The worst fantasy WR/TE (non-returner) games I could find:
-5.3 points: Jimmy Kleinsasser, 10/10/99: 2 catches for -13 yards, 2 fumbles
-4.2: Nate Washington, 10/18/09: 1 catch for -22 yards, fumble (this was the 59-0 loss to the Patriots)
-3.7: Az Hakim, 11/11/01: 1 run for -1 yard, 1 catch for 4 yards, 2 fumbles (did return punts without fumbling)
-3.5: David Terrell, 9/19/04: 1 run for -15 yards, fumble
-3.3: Greg Olsen, 9/14/08: 2 catches for 7 yards, 2 fumbles
-3: Anthony Fasano, 9/13/09: 2 catches for 10 yards, 2 fumbles