Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate
Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, the column in which less is more, the worst players in the league are our MVPs, and the craziest occurrences in the league are our bread-and-butter plays. You'd almost think we both follow losing teams or something!

Bryan: Losers on the scoreboard, perhaps, but not in our hearts.

Andrew: Speak for yourself. My heart is a dark and stifling thing. Unlike the Saints defense.

Bryan: Yeah, a bit of an Arena League game broke out on Monday, didn't it? The Saints exist in a weird dimension where defense doesn't really exist. When our teams meet later this year, it'll be a case of the stoppable force versus the movable object.

Andrew: It's truly bizarre. Allow 35 points at home to Oakland, hold the very decent Giants offense without a touchdown in part due to decent coverage and very solid open-field tackling, then allow 45 at home to Atlanta despite Matt Ryan throwing for under 250 yards and Julio Jones having precisely one catch.

Bryan: More exciting than watching Blaine Gabbert try to set a record for most passes completed without surpassing 100 yards through the air. Even opposing teams are calling for the backup to enter the game. But really, both of our teams are bad in predictable, familiar ways. You know what's more fun? Cleveland, losing while having Terrelle Pryor attempt to play every position simultaneously.

Andrew: And almost succeed! And be one backup kicker (and one questionable kneeldown, discussed below) away from winning regardless!

Bryan: They should have Pryor kick next week, too. At the very least, it keeps them entertaining. Pryor became one of only seven players this decade to have 20 receiving yards, 20 rushing yards and 20 passing yards in the same game, joining the likes of Cecil Shorts, Cam Newton, Fred Jackson, and Joe Flacco.

Andrew: A truly luminary list.

Bryan:I don't know why, but it's always fun to see players trying new positions. Or old positions they haven't played since high school. Remember Doug Flutie getting to drop-kick an extra point in his last NFL game?

Andrew: Hmm. J.J. Watt at running back. Tyson Alualu at fullback. Trent Richardson at running back. (Wait, Trent Richardson WAS a running back?!? He hid that well.) Once again, the AFC South proves the exception to the "always fun" rule. And yes, I remember Flutie against Miami. I also remember linebacker Mark Simoneau kicking an extra point for the Eagles, Ndamukong Suh failing to do so for Detroit, and Wes Welker kicking both an extra point and a field goal for the Dolphins against the Patriots.

Bryan: And if neither Jacoby Brissett nor Jimmy Garoppolo are healthy this week, we might see the Patriots trot out Julian Edelman at quarterback. I love stuff like that -- I remember growing up, enjoying Kordell "Slash" Stewart playing different positions, and Deion Sanders trying out his skills at wide receiver. The Fridge barreling in for a touchdown. The entire concept of the Wildcat as a formation. You'd think that we'd want to watch professionals play the positions they're trained to play, but no.

Andrew: Patrick Peterson had a go at playing receiver too, and that possibility used to come up with Antonio Cromartie all the time. Conversely, I have vivid memories of Troy Brown at nickelback for the Patriots in the mid-2000s. With all of the offensive versatility, it has almost gone under the radar that Pryor also played one snap at safety on Sunday. So that opens up a fun question: what would happen if we revoked unlimited substitutions for one day? Aside from approximately 22 completely broken players, that is.

Bryan: That's a good question. It really devalues certain players; can you imagine Eli Manning having to play zone coverage? Tom Brady trying to come off the edge?

Andrew: Blake Bortles, on the other hand, would be fine. He must be used to chasing down opposing ball carriers by now. Ooh, ooh, TEBOW!!! A place for him at last!

Bryan: But where would Tebow play on offense?

Andrew: Not quarterback. That would be Ben Roethlisberger, as there's no way he couldn't play linebacker too.

Bryan: I'm not so sure I'd take Big Ben back there, though he's not a bad choice at all. Someone like Cam Newton or Russell Wilson, with their athleticism, could find a role in the secondary.

Andrew: But can they punt? Ben can! Oh, but wait, Andrew Luck's coach has recently called him out for playing the position like a linebacker. In our team, we actively encourage that!

Running back has to be the easiest question here. It's hard to imagine that no NFL-caliber defensive player could play running back, and there must be several who did so in college. In fact, I generally think a team like this would do better with defensive players playing offensive positions than offensive players playing defense.

Bryan: I'd definitely agree with that. Someone like Patrick Peterson has much of the skill set you're looking for in a running back; he's skilled with the ball in his hands as a returner, and Arizona found ways to get the ball into his hands as a running back in his first three years in the league. He even has a completed pass! He was a star running back in high school, too, so I think he's a pretty solid choice for our cornerback/running back hybrid here.

Andrew: We're going with a modern 11 formation, so we need a tight end/H-back. A linebacker seems like the better option, somebody who can play the Mike Vrabel role. Not Julius Peppers though. That did not work well.

Bryan: It's J.J. Watt, right? That has to be who we're talking about. That was his original position in college.

Andrew: Right, but the Jaguars threw more passes to Tyson Alualu last season than the Texans threw to Watt. Which, to be fair, probably says more about the Jaguars than it does about Watt.

Bryan: If we're playing two-way football, I don't think we can give up Watt's power on defense, and unless you think he'd be better suited on the offensive line…

Andrew: He might well be, but for now we'll leave him in. We need three receivers: two outside, one slot. College wideout Richard Sherman's the clear top choice here, with the added bonus of punt gunner and returner duties.

Bryan: Agreed, and with Sherman and Peterson as our cornerbacks, we're well set there. Our other two receivers have to be able to play safety, most likely, or we're going to run into trouble. Do we go for receivers who can handle safety, or safeties who can catch?

Andrew Potter: I think we're look at one big safety who can catch, and one rangy receiver who can cover. Somebody like Eric Berry could be a good fit, as a powerful safety with good ball skills who could probably play a "big guy" receiver role.

Bryan: I could get behind that. I keep trying to find a way to put Tyrann Mathieu on the team somewhere, but Berry is probably a better choice. For the wide receiver who can cover, why not DeAndre Hopkins? He had 28 interceptions on defense in high school, and it would be nice to have one actual receiver our quarterback can throw to. I think he could work in a deep ranging free safety sort of role; he's got the speed and the ball skills to close in.

Andrew: Can he tackle though? Eh, probably, and he could certainly learn. Any time I think about stuff like this, I'm drawn toward special teams standouts like Marcus Easley or Brandon Bolden; offensive players who have proven time and again that they can be solid tacklers. I don't disagree on Hopkins, I simply find that question interesting for offensive stars like him who didn't necessarily have to earn their job on special teams.

Bryan: It's a fair point, and if you wanted to slide in Brandon Marshall there, I wouldn't argue too strongly -- he played special teams earlier in his career, if I remember correctly, and he's a tough, physical guy. I still think I'd go with Hopkins, though.

Andrew: I'm happy with that, which leaves the fantasy scoring positions on our two-way team looking like this:

QB/LB: Andrew Luck
RB/CB: Patrick Peterson
TE/FB/DL: J.J. Watt
WR/TE/SS: Eric Berry
WR/CB: Richard Sherman
WR/FS: DeAndre Hopkins

Bryan: That leaves us with the offensive line, which is a bit tougher to pull together, I think.

Andrew: Offensive line is the one area I'd be more inclined to take offensive players who have played some defense than defensive players who've played some offense. Guys like Jason Peters, originally recruited as a defensive lineman out of high school, make more sense to me than Dontari Poe, who has played some fullback for the Chiefs.

Bryan: I'd have to agree. Plus, a competent offensive line might give us one side of the ball that actually works; we've seen how a disastrous offensive line can hurt even otherwise talented teams; if you can't slow down your opponents, it really doesn't matter who you have in the backfield.

Andrew: So Peters at right tackle, and former high school defensive lineman Joe Thomas at left?

Bryan: About as good as we're going to find, I think. I guess we'll place them on the defensive line, as well. Are we trying for a 3-4 or a 4-3? Both bring with it significant issues here.

Andrew: Either way, we'll need interior linemen who can play linebacker. I think this is where the team's likely to fall apart. It's funny, given how the fantasy positions are usually considered the "skill positions," that it's in the trenches that we'd really struggle to find effective players who aren't specialists.

Bryan: Center, especially, is impossible. It's such an important role on the line, calling out blocking assignments, and then the actual mechanics of snapping the football -- I don't think I'd trust that to anyone but an actual factual center.

Andrew: As we've seen recently with the Seahawks and guys like J.R. Sweezy, Drew Nowak, and Lemuel Jeanpierre, defense-to-offense lineman conversions are not always as effective in practice as they are in theory.

Bryan: Jason Kelce was a walk-on linebacker at Cincinnati, though I don't think he actually got into any college game action on defense. I don't think we're going to do much better than sticking him at outside linebacker and hoping some of that athleticism transfers over.

Andrew: Which leaves us needing two guards. The aforementioned J.R. Sweezy could passably fill one of those spots. Nowak and Jeanpierre, not so much.

Bryan: And at least one of them needs to play linebacker, with the other on the defensive line.

Andrew: This pass rush is going to be worse than the Saints.

Bryan: I'll agree with Sweezy at guard and defensive tackle, but maybe we should boost that pass rush by sticking a defensive player at the other guard position?

Andrew: Jared Allen would have been perfect for this. I miss Jared Allen.

In his stead, I nominate Fletcher Cox. Of all the guys with three or more sacks so far this season, he seems the most physically suited to the interior line.

Bryan: That gives us a 5-2 defense, doesn't it?

Andrew Potter: To get five big enough offensive linemen, it kind of has to be. And that, right there, is exactly the problem with this kind of thing.

Bryan: So we move Sweezy out to linebacker and close our eyes, I suppose.

That gives us a line of:

LT/DL: Joe Thomas
LG/LB: J.R. Sweezy
C/LB: Jason Kelce
RG/DL: Fletcher Cox
RT/DL: Jason Peters

This is a team that could be quite competent on offense, but is going to get blown out of the water on defense. You've managed to recreate the New Orleans Saints, Andrew.

Andrew: Fortunately, not quite. This team at least has a chance of coming in under the salary cap, giving it room to add talent instead of trying to stop the Falcons by imagining that two UDFA rookies and Sterling Moore make for a viable defensive backfield. Not that there's a flaw in that plan, mind.

Still, I can at least look forward to Week 9 and the universe's futile attempt to determine whether New Orleans' inability to cover overcomes Blaine Gabbert's inability to pass. Until then, there's always loser league.

Loser League Update

Quarterback: Quick Reads already went over Ryan Fitpatrick's terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day, setting records for worst single game DYAR on record thanks to six interceptions. It won't be surprising to learn, then, that he also led all loser league scorers, becoming the first quarterback to reach the negatives this year with minus-2 points.

Running Back: Chris Ivory made his 2016 debut this week after missing the first two games of the season with an illness. To celebrate his return, the Jaguars' offensive line decided to take most of the day off, leaving Ivory smashing into defenders for just 14 yards on 12 carries against Baltimore. Welcome back, Chris, and enjoy your 1 point.

Wide Receiver: This week, it was only four receivers who tied for the honor of racking up 0 points, each of them hauling in one reception for less than 10 yards: Quinton Patton, Chris Hogan, Markus Wheaton, and Marquise Goodwin. Wheaton had perhaps the worst day, being targeted five times and ending up with just 2 yards receiving; he dropped a sure touchdown in the first quarter and spent most of the game sitting on the bench as a result.

Kicker: Never, ever, ever draft a kicker. Roberto Aguayo has not exactly been lighting up the world as a second-round draft pick. For the second week in a row, he has put up negative Loser League points, missing a 41-yard field goal and pushing an extra point to the left. Aguayo ended up with minus-5 points on the day. Never, ever, ever draft a kicker.

The Loser League page is now updated for 2016, and you can check out your team's score here.


Keep Choppin' Wood: With an abundance of choice after last week's relative lack of epic failure, contenders include Browns kicker Cody Parkey (more on that below), the Texans kick return unit, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins, and whoever decided to trade up for Roberto Aguayo. A late entrant takes the No. 1 spot this week, however, and does so in spectacular fashion. Not content with smashing full speed into his own returner and preventing a fair catch on a first-quarter punt, Saints undrafted rookie De'Vante Harris then picked himself off the turf and attempted to field the previously untouched bouncing ball amid a crowd of Falcons. That did not end well: Harris muffed his catch and the Falcons recovered the live ball, turning a Falcons three-and-out into a game-tying touchdown drive and utterly ruining the only defensive stop the Saints achieved before the fourth quarter of Monday's game. Saints head coach Sean Payton didn't mince his words, describing Harris' contribution as "a terrible play," but he can take some small solace from the knowledge that nobody was watching and it probably wasn't the stupidest thing on TV at the time.

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Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: Most coaches starting their third quarterback in three games -- and a third-round, third-string rookie in his first professional start at that -- would draw up a conservative, run-heavy game plan, keep things simple, and run as vanilla an offense as possible. Most coaches, but not Hue Jackson. As early as Cleveland's second drive, Jackson mixed Cody Kessler and veteran quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, with Pryor having a 9-yard reception, a 15-yard run, and a 26-yard pass completion on consecutive first-quarter plays. The Browns continued to shuffle their pack, calling shotgun option runs and passes for Pryor between standard runs and passes for Kessler, and generally mixed up their offensive play calling throughout the rest of the game. Some of it worked, much of it didn't, but it was clear that Cleveland was not going to settle for an inevitable loss and play merely to keep the score respectable. The result was probably the most interesting Browns game in recent memory -- an admittedly low bar to clear -- and Cleveland having a chance to win rather than merely to avoid being beaten.

John Fox Award for Conservatism: And yet this award is also going to Hue Jackson. If that seems a little incongruous, so it should. Jackson's Cleveland Browns were aggressive on Sunday, they were creative, they were adventurous, right up until they had the chance to win, and then they Schottenheimered it away. Given the hand he was dealt by injury and suspensions, Jackson was playing with house money when his Browns not only made the game competitive but actually came from behind to tie the Dolphins in the fourth quarter. Even better, they got the ball back on Miami's 27-yard line with 20 seconds and one timeout left after Corey Lemonier unleashed the pass-rush trifecta (sack-fumble-recovery) against Ryan Tannehill on second-and-1. Newly-signed kicker Cody Parkey had already missed two field goals from outside 40 yards, so you would expect Jackson's new, improved, aggressive, creative Browns to use those 20 seconds and the timeout to try to advance the ball closer to goal instead of settling for the 46-yarder, right? Wrong. Cleveland's former adventurers instead took an arrow to the knee and settled for the field goal, and Parkey promptly missed. NFL coaches need to consult Marv Levy about the wisdom of settling for long field goals. Then they need to stop doing it. That this sequence stands in such stark contrast to the entire rest of the game for the Browns only makes it all the more exasperating.

Mike Martz Award for Confusing Coaching: Bill O'Brien did not have a good day on Thursday. His team played poorly on both sides of the ball and his play calling could have qualified for the John Fox award without too much trouble. His worst move of the night, however, came with the red challenge flag. In the second quarter, Shane Lechler punted to the Patriots. Cyrus Jones fielded the punt, but fumbled, with the Patriots falling on the ball further upfield. O'Brien opted to challenge that Jones was down by contact, however, and the ruling was overturned. Net effect? The Patriots started their drive seven yards further back than they would have otherwise. That was certainly worth the time, two commercial breaks, and the use of one of Houston's limited challenges to gain. It might have been the single least meaningful challenge in NFL history.

"Drafting is Overrated" Fantasy Player of the Week: Did you draft a quarterback high in your fantasy draft? Did you plunk down an early pick for Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, or Andrew Luck? Then you must have been steaming at the likely undrafted quarterbacks who tore up the league this week. Trevor Siemian led all scorers in most leagues with a 312-yard, four-touchdown passing day on the road, and Brian Hoyer's two-touchdown day made him more valuable than any of those drafted players. Heck, Jacoby Brissett and Case Keenum outperformed Luck and Wilson, making all of us fantasy draft experts look really good.

Jon Snow (We Know Nothing) Lock of the Week

Once again this year, all picks are made without reference to FO's Premium picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.

Andrew: Sports is hereby cancelled until October. Of course, October starts on Saturday so that only means I'm not watching Jets-Bengals on Thursday Night Football. Given my form so far, I'm tempted to attempt some kind of reverse jinx by picking the Colts to cover the spread against the Jaguars, but … wait that line's only three points? Oh, go on then, Indianapolis -3 "at" Jacksonville (London). Which probably means Andrew Luck throws four red zone interceptions and Gus Bradley somehow avoids being fired during the post-transatlantic bye.

Bryan: Ah, the backdoor cover, the most glorious of all covers. I knew I could count on MIke McCarthy going conservative, allowing Detroit to cover the +8 spread long after the competitive part of the game had finished. I have done pretty well so far this year zigging against the zag, so I'm going to go Tampa Bay +3 versus Denver. Tampa Bay is only 3-14 at home since 2014, so picking them against the defending Super Bowl champs who just put up a tremendous road performance against a playoff-contending Cincinnati team might seem outlandish, but Tampa Bay has not played that poorly to this point. I could see the Jameis Winston-to-Mike Evans connection doing just enough to keep Tampa Bay in this one. If I were bolder, I would predict an upset here. I am not that bold, but I will take the points.

Records so far:
Bryan: 2-0
Andrew: 0-2

Scramble Mailbag

SX: I'm in a standard 10-team league where a lot of owners seem confused about which waiver RBs are going to have any short- or long-term value. I'm in a pretty dire RB situation now that DeAngelo Williams is headed for the bench, and could use someone to speculate on as a starter for Week 4 on. Can you discuss which order you'd prefer these players, and how much of your FAAB budget (assuming a $100 season long budget) you'd spend: Shane Vereen, Matt Asiata, Darren Sproles, Terrance West, James Starks, Shaun Draughn.

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Bryan: This email was sent before it was revealed that Shane Vereen tore his triceps and will be out for the rest of the season, so my professional advice there is to not pick him. Matt Asiata is Minnesota's second back, but he is a potential touchdown vulture, so he might be the most consistent player there. Sproles is an interesting option; while I think that 20-plus-point day he put up in Week 3 was an aberration, he's kind of an interesting boom-or-bust option, especially now that it looks like Philadelphia might be actually good, and not just good against bad teams. I wouldn't use too much of your budget on anyone, though; this is probably best to be a week-to-week situation.

Andrew: I've never played FAAB, so my advice on that specific format is probably even less valuable than my general fantasy advice, but of those options Terrance West is the most appealing to me as a pure rusher and Darren Sproles as a PPR option. West has outperformed Justin Forsett carry-for-carry so far, and it's only a matter of time before a good coaching staff notices that. It also helps that the only notably tough run defenses the Ravens play outside their division are the Jets and Philadelphia. I think there's enough there to keep him churning out yardage, especially if he does begin to eat more into Forsett's playing time. Nothing I'd be comfortable speculating more than the bare minimum on, however.

Football Outsiders doesn't answer fantasy questions on Twitter, so if you don't have a Premium subscription and access to the 24-hour Fantasy Answering Service, the Scramble mailbag is one way to get a Football Outsiders answer to your fantasy questions! Email us with fantasy questions, award suggestions, crazy videos, outlandish conspiracy theories, things to do in London instead of watching the Jaguars, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam at Contact Us.


14 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2016, 2:12pm

3 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

I would play nothing but left tackles and one center on the O-line. That would give you the most athletic lineman, which would at least give you athletes on defense. I actually think a defence with four of the largest, most athletic people in the world would be kind of terrifying. Trent Williams made an excellent guard last weekend, I'd put him at left guard. He could probably also play inside linebacker at 300 some odd pounds.

4 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Took the Dolphins in suicide pool last week. The confluence of errors that lead to my advancing is mind boggling. Tannehill getting stripped sacked but Browns not trying to advance. The missed field goal. Cleveland winning the coin toss but electing to kick. The fact they started a kicker they hadn't even tried out...Crazy

13 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Took the Giants week 1(Terrence Williams brainfart) and the Ravens week 2(going down big early, just eeking it out agains the Browns). At this point, I feel like I deserve to be out. Takes a lot of the pressure off

So me and my buddy both took the Dolphins. I called the strip sack at the end of the 4th. We're cursing up a storm when another friend, who had just arrived says, "Relax, it's the Browns. They're gonna miss this"

5 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

This column.

Makes me want to play NFL Street so much. All players both ways. Come on Madden 20xx. Make it happen as a feature and I'll buy it.

Players on one side: 11/9/7/5
Ironman option: On/Off
Punts: Yes/No
Field Goals: Yes/No
Field Dimensions: NFL/CFL/NCAA/ARENA


6 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Landry makes an Antonio Brown-like celebration, jumping around the goal post.

"Excessive celebration, 15 yards, one more and he's disqualified".

But sure, the netwoek (CBS) shows it over. And over. Again.

Dear NFL, if you like to show it to us, don't make it a penalty.

10 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Chris Long did cross my mind. He'd boost the pass rush, at the very least.

What I did neglect to mention is that as both teams would be playing under the same rules, what seems like a weakness might actually turn out not to be. I do wonder whether a team of all defenders might do better than a team of all offense, or whether each would be better than a pick-n-mix.

11 Re: Scramble for the Ball: The Great Debate

Historically, at the time the substitution rule came in, positions looked a lot of like:

G,T = DL

You could stick with linemen and have a 5-2, or swap in an LB and run a heavy 4-3. This was basically the state of things when unlimited substitution came in.

The hard part for a modern defense is that fifth lineman. The first couple of decades of the NFL saw a lot of 7-1 or 6-2 defenses, so it wasn't really an issue. You probably want to plug in a LB of some type and shotgun snap a lot and try to have them hold up as an oversized long-snapper (who seem to commonly be former LBs). Or... you go with four true linemen and use a lot of double TE formations with chipping to help your now undersized TE. This would actually work okay against the Freeney-type undersized DEs who exploit speed and leverage, but your TE is getting owned against a Watt-style power rush.