This article is part of our East Coast Offense series.
How Important is the Quarterback?
Over the last decade we've seen the running back position devalued as the NFL became a more pass-heavy league. When we decide which teams are and are not Super Bowl contenders the running back is an afterthought. The Patriots jettisoned LeGarrette Blount after last year's Super Bowl win, and they were still the favorites heading into 2017 with Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead expected to split time. In the NFC, the Eagles and Seahawks are probably the biggest favorites now, despite RB committees of no particular note. (The Chiefs and Steelers, two AFC contenders, get a big lift from their backs, but that's in large part because they double as productive receivers.) The bottom line, many have long accepted elite running backs are luxuries rather than necessities when it comes to NFL success.
But an odd thing is happening through seven weeks in 2017: Top quarterbacks are becoming luxuries too. That's not to say that elite quarterback *play* isn't of paramount importance - it surely is. But that it doesn't seem to matter that much who the quarterback is. Drew Brees is doing fine with 7.5 YPA, but has only 11 TDs in six games. Russell Wilson, the same, but with 7.2 YPA, roughly league average. Aaron Rodgers, before he got hurt, had only 7.2 YPA himself. Andrew Luck is hurt, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger look old and Matthew Stafford got a massive paycheck for a meager 6.4 YPA. Last year's MVP Matt Ryan has a robust 7.8 YPA, but only seven TD passes in six games and six INTs. Joe Flacco has been so terrible (5.3 YPA, five TDs, eight picks) you wonder whether he can possibly be healthy. Cam Newton, building off last year's disaster, has 7.3 YPA with 10 picks.
Meanwhile Alex Smith has 8.7 YPA, 15 TD and no picks. Carson Wentz has 8.0 YPA and 17 TD passes. DeShaun Watson has 7.5 YPA and 15 TD passes. Jared Goff has 7.7 YPA, Blake Bortles has 7.1 YPA (barely less than Wilson and Rodgers), Josh McCown (despite playing on a team that had seemingly given up and lost its top three WR from last year) has 7.2 YPA and had thrown the fewest off-target passes in the league per ESPN's Mike Clay through Week 6. When Jameis Winston went down in Week 6, Ryan Fitzpatrick came in and lit up the Cardinals in the second half, and Matt Moore did the same to the Jets in Week 7, subbing in for an injured Jay Cutler.
The only top QB having a predictably great season is Tom Brady (8.4 YPA, 15 TD, two INT), and he's the only passer remotely on pace for 5,000 yards. While 5,047 yards and 34 TDs - his current trajectory - is solid, if you reached into the third round for him, you had to be hoping for more. Brees through six games is looking at 4,405 yards and 29 TDs, paltry numbers for a player for whom 30-plus and 5,000 have been automatic the last half decade.
Of course, I'd expect Brees, Stafford and a couple others to pick up the pace in the second half, and Smith and McCown at least to do worse. But this year, the name on the back of the quarterback's jersey has meant less than ever before. Yes, there is turnover at every position every year, but consider the state of the Texans passing game before the season, or what we thought of Goff after his 2016 debut. Or whether you thought Alex Smith would even keep the job all year, let alone have a Year 13 breakout after the Chiefs let Jeremy Maclin walk. Wentz, we could all see coming in Year 2, right? Then why was his ADP among QBs roughly 20, despite his plus mobility?
This has had a major effect in fantasy too - streaming QBs with good matchups and getting something - 15 or 18 points - is good enough. In my QB-flex league, it hasn't been a death sentence not to have a QB in the flex. Few QBs are going crazy in a given week, and many terrible ones get shut down. One player I haven't mentioned is Derek Carr who missed a game with an injury and has only 7.0 YPA despite a huge performance against the Chiefs Thursday night. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Carr owners sat him for that matchup after two bad prior games and a lingering injury.
I'm not sure what's going on - maybe it was just a half season where the defensive adjustments to the scheme du jour have peaked, and it's only a matter of time before the offenses change things up. But maybe the conditions around a QB are - with few exceptions - far more important than the QB himself. Fitzpatrick's 2015 and 2016 seasons, Ryan's 2016 and 2017, hell, even Brady's disastrous start to 2014 or Rodgers modest 2015 are cases in point. And I'm not talking about the limitations of a quarterback winning all by himself - this isn't Dan Marino in 1984 lighting it up and trying to overcome a bad defense. Or Peyton Manning/Trent Dilfer being terrible but winning anyway because of the defense. This is about the offense playing badly despite a name quarterback, irrespective of the defense or anything else about the team.
The bottom line, if this trend persists, you're better off not trying to tie yourself to a single QB the rest of the way, but aiming to use whatever quarterback is likely to be playing in friendly conditions. There are maybe two or three exceptions (Brady, Watson, Brees, maybe Wentz), but the name on the jersey has never meant less.
Sharps Don't Know ****
Looking at the line movement this past week, the Saints were minus 5.5 mid-week, but the game went off at four. Sometimes the public can move a line if the action is particularly lopsided, but there's no way it was Joe Square betting the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. The Patriots opened as 4.5-point favorites, it went down to 3.5 mid-week, and that game went off at three, a huge shift to a key number. Again, I'd find it hard to believe it was the public taking the Falcons at Foxborough.
The honest sharps will tell you that even their strongest leans (maybe a couple games per week) have only a 55-60 percent chance of coming in, and so their being wrong on a couple games is hardly earthshattering news. But it underscores a larger point that no one knows what will actually transpire in an NFL game, and even those with the best track records and most skin in the game have only a small edge when it comes to forecasting individual contests. Their edge only really accrues over time (years) with a bigger sample. That's why if you're looking to handicap a slate or even make picks for your season-long contest, you're better off doing it yourself and cultivating your own process. What the sharps think, or how the line moves that week, shouldn't trouble you or affect your decision-making.
Week 7 Observations
• The Patriots annihilated the Falcons, who moved the ball, but came up short in most of the crucial situations. The Super Bowl hangover is hard to quantify, but losing the way the Falcons did had to be more than an ordinary one. Think getting blacked out, drunk-dialing your ex, posting your unedited thoughts on social media and wrapping your car around a tree. There's no way the Falcons aren't scarred from that.
•Tom Brady played well, with 8.6 YPA and no picks, but the Patriots offense isn't the dominant, unstoppable machine it should be with Rob Gronkowski healthy and Brandin Cooks now integrated into the offense. But maybe the fog and the Falcons' mistakes necessitated a more conservative game plan.
•Dion Lewis led the Pats in rushing on 13 carries, while Mike Gillislee had eight, Rex Burkhead six and James White four. White had five targets, Burkhead one. Bottom line, you probably can't rely on any of these backs, and even if one has a decent game, there isn't a ton of upside. Maybe White still has a floor in PPR.
•Julio Jones finally scored a TD, and he did it in a way – ripping the ball out of a DB's hands – that makes you wonder why he hasn't been heavily used in the end zone his entire career. Mohammed Sanu had 10 more targets, and is plainly the team's No. 2. Taylor Gabriel is a gadget player.
• I had a good fantasy week, largely because I picked up the Chargers defense everywhere, thanks to Jerry Donabedian's Streaming Defenses article on the site. It was one of several he recommended, but before reading the piece I hadn't really considered it.
•Hunter Henry is the Chargers' best offensive player. He led the team with 73 receiving yards, but they need to get him more than five targets. Keenan Allen got seven, but only 41 yards. Tyrell Williams is droppable. His upside is modest, and there are too many mouths to feed. And not all that much food.
•Trevor Siemian is not evolving as a quarterback, but Paxton Lynch is hurt, and the back-up is Brock Osweiler. Siemian was sacked five times, but it should have been six but for a bizarre roughing the passer call on Melvin Ingram. There was no helmet to helmet, and it obviously wasn't a late hit because Ingram made the sack. Basically, the officials saw a hard hit on a quarterback and panicked.
•Demaryius Thomas did almost nothing but had an 80-plus yard gain wiped out by an offensive pass interference.
• Maybe the Steelers defense is really good. They held the Chiefs in check last week, and they destroyed Andy Dalton (4.7 YPA, two picks, four sacks). It doesn't help that Joe Mixon got only seven carries (6.9 YPC), and the team continues to give away downs by starting Jeremy Hill.
•Le'Veon Bell had another 35 carries and three catches for 192 yards from scrimmage. The Steelers are working him like they have him in a re-draft fantasy league.
•Antonio Brown usually gets something. Martavis Bryant, not so much, and it turns out he still does want to get traded. I'm with Bryant here – he's an elite talent in his prime. If the Steelers don't have a use for him, set him free. Many teams could use a top WR. Unfortunately, even if it's plainly in the interest of the league and its fans to have a superstar level talent showcase his skills, it's the kind of freedom and individualism the league loathes. Accordingly, I'd be shocked if the Steelers – or another team by ponying up a second-round pick – granted Bryant his wish.
• JuJu Smith-Schuster looks pretty good in his own right, but with the defense playing so well, and Roethlisberger relying largely on Brown and Bell, there's probably not enough to go around.
• The Giants defense played great for three quarters, but the offense just keeps them on the field too long, especially against a scrambling quarterback like Russell Wilson.
•Eli Manning makes Sam Bradford look like Dan Marino. Manning was checking down on 3rd-and-10 to a three-yard route. They weren't even faking trying to get a first down. It was positively Flacco-esque.
• The Dark Horse is the favorite to keep the team's starting running back job. How that's not Orleans Darkwa's nickname is beyond my comprehension. Likewise, that Jesse James is not "The Outlaw" and Aaron Judge not "The Executioner," shortened from "Judge, Jury and Executioner," is similarly baffling. It's on a par with Tim Tebow not being named Christian Ponder, Steve Howe Phil Coke and Pete Rose Mookie Betts.
• The Giants simply refuse to stop a tight end from scoring a TD. Even after they left Jimmy Graham wide open for a long score, and Graham dropped the ball, they rebounded nicely by allowing him to catch a short TD near the goal line, keeping their streak going to seven games. They simply will not be denied. Graham has had some horrendous drops this year, but I think he'll have a big second half.
• Zeke Elliott was racking up yards and TDs like his season could be cut short at any time. (I'd still bet against him being suspended this year – there's no urgency to do it – but I'm probably in the minority.)
• Das Prescott is like Russell Wilson if Wilson had a good offensive line. Prescott had 9.3 YPA, three TDs, no picks, 26 yards rushing yards and a rushing score. Dez Bryant got a TD on 10 targets, but game flow cost him a bigger day.
•C.J. Beathard neither looks like an upgrade from Brian Hoyer nor the future of the franchise. It can't hurt to give him a few more starts, though. Carlos Hyde got another 14 carries and four catches – he's earning his draft slot.
• It sucked if you had Dan Bailey going – it was an ideal matchup for an elite kicker. It looks like he'll miss several weeks with a groin injury.
• Flacco in Minnesota was about as hopeless as Manning against Seattle. The Ravens' lone TD came in garbage time. There's really nothing else to say about this game from the Ravens' side, except that Justin Tucker is the greatest kicker of all time, and second place is a 10-way tie.
•Latavius Murray vastly outperformed Jerick McKinnon (18 for 113 and a TD) to (14 for 47), but McKinnon had three catches for 10 yards. It's a timeshare, albeit a two-man one that should be pretty good.
• The Dolphins were down 17-0 to the Falcons and won 20-17, then 28-14 to the Jets and won 31-28.
•Jay Cutler was playing pretty well when he got hurt, but Matt Moore came in and put up nearly identical stats. Even if Cutler's injury isn't serious, it's 50/50 he ever gets the job back, i.e., he might be making a "trip to Belize" with Carson Palmer.
•Jay Ajayi works awfully hard with so little to show for it. It's encouraging he caught three passes for 26 yards though.
• With DeVante Parker out, Jarvis Landry and Kenny Still combined for 20 targets, 13 catches, 178 yards and three TDs. It's unclear whether Parker will be back in time for the Thursday game against the Ravens.
•Josh McCown is competent. He's been better than Manning, Dalton, Flacco and Ryan so far this year, though his game-sealing pick was ill-timed.
• The Jets spread the ball around a lot this game. Matt Forte led the team with 41 receiving yards, Bilal Powell was next with 40, and Austin Seferian Jenkins caught another TD, though had only 21 yards receiving.
• The Cardinals were getting blown out anyway, but Drew Stanton was Matt Cassel-esque in his relief appearance of the likely done for good Carson Palmer, who should eventually get elected to the "Hall of the Above Average." Palmer's injury has to hurt the Cardinals receivers, not that anyone but Larry Fitzgerald had done much to this point.
•Todd Gurley is a rock – another 106 efficient yards and a TD, with four catches for 48 yards. He's a top-five overall player.
•Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp have been the most consistent Rams receivers, but don't sleep on Sammy Watkins who got five targets and 42 receiving yards. The Rams are off this week, but they have the Giants and Texans, two exploitable secondaries, in Weeks 9 and 10.
•Chris Ivory was a popular pickup with Leonard Fournette out, but it was left-for-dead T.J. Yeldon with 137 YFS, two catches and a TD. Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee both had solid games, and Blake Bortles managed 12.7 YPA and 330 passing yards while playing in hitter's counts.
• I wrote in my Beating the Book column that in my heart of hearts I preferred the Saints minus 5.5, but I was taking the Packers out of principle. Big mistake. The Brett Hundley fantasy hype was also overblown – just 3.5 YPA, 87 passing yards. Hundley did have a rushing score, but the passing floor is low.
• It was obvious the Packers receivers would fall off with Rodgers' injury, but this was worse than I had imagined. Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams are no longer top-50 players. And it doesn't take much to be a top-50 player in this environment.
•Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara is arguably the best one-two punch in the NFL right now. Kamara is the ideal PPR specialist in that he's not only highly efficient as a receiver, but he's getting significant carries.
•Cody Kessler has got to be the Browns quarterback going forward, not because he did anything special, but because he's the only non-disaster. Incidentally, I dropped Kessler, Kenny Stills (two TD) and O.J. Howard (two TD) in a 14-team, QB-flex, 2-TE league this week.
• The Browns can't run block, and it's unlikely to get better with star LT Joe Thomas now out for the year. Maybe David Njoku is worth a look, but he had only five targets and two catches Sunday. Ten of the team's 22 completions went to running backs.
• It's troubling that Marcus Mariota could manage only 6.0 YPA and zero TDs against the Browns. Or that Derrick Henry had 13 carries for 13 yards, and DeMarco Murray only 3.3 YPC on 18 carries. Eric Decker was a non-factor, and Delanie Walker (10 targets seven catches) got hurt in the fourth quarter. Corey Davis is still hurt, so maybe rookies Taywan Taylor and tight end Jonnu Smith will have bigger roles.
•Ryan Succop appeared to miss his first sub-50 yard field goal in 55 tries, but the two-minute-warning stoppage re-heated him to kick the game winner and keep the streak intact.
• I took the Panthers minus three and a half in Chicago because I didn't see how the Bears offense would score points. Of course, their defense scored both TDs and also shut down the Panthers.
•Cam Newton reverted to his early season form – 6.2 YPA, two picks, a fumble and five sacks. That two of the turnovers were returned for TDs especially hurt. Newton is running like he did in the past, though.
•Christian McCaffrey is a target and catch machine, even if he doesn't do much with them.
• Mitch Trubisky attempted only seven passes, but he had 15.3 YPA thanks to Tarik Cohen's 70-yard catch. As bad as the Panthers offense was, the Bears' was considerably worse, amassing only 175 total yards, and that's not subtracting for Trubisky's four sacks. Only one Bears wide receiver landed a pass, Tanner Gentry for eight yards.
•Jameis Winston had a monster game with 387 yards and three TDs against a tough pass defense. He did lose a fumble and throw a pick, though.
• It was nice to see O.J. Howard get involved, though it would have been nicer on my roster. It's important for your sleepers to get off to good starts because it's tough to hold onto them if their breakout happens in Week 7. (And this is in a 14-team, two-TE league)
•Doug Martin managed only 49 yards on 20 carries, but no one else saw more than two.
•Deonte Thompson, recently released from the Bears, caught all four targets for 107 yards, while tight end Nick O'Leary had two catches for 58. I'd still prefer Jordan Matthews, who had only three targets, two catches and 10 yards, if I were forced at gunpoint to use a Buffalo pass catcher.
•Kirk Cousins made a lot of nice throws, but he holds the ball way too long at times and takes unnecessary sacks. He's also not involving his outside receivers enough, though it was nice to see him target Jordan Reed 10 times.
•Chris Thompson is the team's only running back worth using. Thompson had 16 carries last game and co-led the team with seven (for 38 yards) Monday night. He'll never get a huge workload, but he's getting enough, and he also caught five more passes and scored.
• Reed had 10 targets, most of them short, but was able to break tackles at the goal line and score twice. If he can stay reasonably healthy, he's a difference-maker at tight end.
• Once again, no Redskins receiver made a major impact. Right now, I'd say Josh Doctson (five targets) is their No. 1, while Terrelle Pryor (four targets) didn't even make an appearance on the stat sheet until the fourth quarter. Jamison Crowder (six targets) caught only two passes, and Vernon Davis, a backup TE, led the team in receiving.
•Carson Wentz is an MVP candidate for the first half of the year. It's not just the four TDs and 10.7 YPA, but the timely scrambles for 63 yards. And his one interception was roughly a 60-yard punt from his own goal line, totally harmless.
•Zach Ertz never has a monster game, but he's so consistent every week. It's him, Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce, then everyone else, though Evan Engram and Hunter Henry could join the top-three soon.
• The Eagles look like a juggernaut right now, but their defense is unusually dependent on the front seven. Whenever Cousins had time, there was an open receiver who often had room to run.