Before I get started, let me mention that I've got a new weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, on which Field Yates and I will do player breakdowns similar to what you're used to reading in this column. I'll try hard not to duplicate players between the column and the podcast, so you get maximum exposure to my film-watching mania. On the UG this week, Field and I discuss the debuts of Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Trent Richardson, Kevin Ogletree and Stephen Hill. You can listen to the first podcast here.
Five in depth
1. Doug Martin looked great: I'll try not to go overboard in my praise of the Muscle Hamster, because the Carolina Panthers' defense isn't exactly a reincarnation of the 1985 Chicago Bears. Last year, by my metrics, they were the second-easiest team for fantasy backs to score points against. That said, Martin did some things in Week 1 that gave me shivers. He consistently made defenders miss even on runs where he was stuffed at the line; it was exceedingly rare that the first man brought him down. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' run blocking was in pretty good sync, as there seemed to be consistent rushing holes, and Martin usually got to them decisively and often made one hard move once he got through. So many of the RBs I focused on this week (Peterson, MJD, CJ) seemed reluctant (or unable) to really plant hard and go, so much so that I found myself getting a little bit bored watching their film. Martin had a suddenness to him that leapt off the screen.
And while the rookie had only four catches for 23 yards in Week 1, you can see there's a potential for him to be a big factor in the passing game. His first target, in particular, was a thing of beauty: Josh Freeman checked down to Martin and probably shouldn't have, because he was covered. But Martin reached up with both hands and fingertip-grabbed the pass while allowing himself to fall backward (if I may steal a turn of phrase from myself from Slotback Rhapsody) like a Southern belle with the vapors.
It wasn't all sweetness and light from Martin. In the second quarter, he got a carry from the Panthers' 1 and was stuffed by Thomas Davis; his fantasy day (28 touches, 118 yards) would've looked even better with a touchdown. It would certainly stink if Martin winds up having the same goal-line problems his predecessor LeGarrette Blount so vexingly possesses. And one must also offer the general caveat that RBs who run with Martin's level of violence sometimes don't have the world's longest shelf life. This kid hits it hard, even when a play isn't blocked well.
I ranked Martin "only" 15th among RBs this week, a bit below some of my ESPN ranking colleagues, mostly because I want to see the kid do it against better competition. I'm not sure whether the New York Giants qualify in Week 2 (they allowed 131 rushing yards in their opener), but I think they're better than Carolina. Week 3 versus the Dallas Cowboys will be a true test, but I now acknowledge I wasn't psyched enough about Martin this summer. He runs low and hard between the guards, unafraid and shifty, very much like a young back who wants to take the NFL by storm.
2. Cam Newton's (relatively) awful day: Folks who drafted Newton in the first or second round last month probably didn't think they were signing up for one passing TD, two picks and 5 rushing yards in Week 1, especially not against a Bucs defense that was horrendous in '11. First off, that's Exhibit A in a list of a million about why you shouldn't look at strength of schedule before the season starts. The NFL changes dramatically from year to year. Suddenly the Bucs can hold any team to 10 rushing yards, let alone the RB-heavy Panthers? Crazy.
As for Newton, this clearly isn't a typical result or game plan. Carolina possessed the ball for just over 22 minutes, and had only eight carries by its RBs all day. Newton took snaps out of the shotgun on many more plays than he was under center (like last season), and he threw a ton of short passes (like last year after the season's first month). In the first half, I counted three passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air, though he definitely opened it up in the second half. Heck, Brandon LaFell's TD pass was designed to be a short look, but the coverage was completely blown and LaFell was by himself deep. Make no mistake: Cam still has a bazooka. His deep connection with Louis Murphy in the fourth quarter down 16-7 was a thing of beauty, a drop-it-in-the-bucket shot that not all NFL QBs can make. But outside of that throw, Newton was 1-of-6 on attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air:
Cam Newton, Week 1 versus Buccaneers
Source: Stats LLC
This distribution isn't atypical for the Panthers. I've trod this stat out a few times, but here it is again: From Week 5 forward in 2011, Newton ranked 20th among starting NFL QBs in average yards at the catch. We obviously know that isn't a question of arm strength; it's a question of strategy.
Listen, Newton threw for 303 yards (by contrast, on a messy day in Tampa, winning QB Josh Freeman threw for 138 yards), but Tampa's game plan was surely devised around keeping Newton in the pocket, and it worked significantly better than most teams' similar plans last season. Cam's highest-value called run came from the Bucs' 3, a third-down QB draw out of the shotgun that was stuffed for no gain. The bad news, of course, is that he didn't get you those six juicy fantasy points. The good news is that he got the call in the first place. We certainly need Newton to run to maintain elite fantasy value. This week against a New Orleans Saints defense that allowed 320 pass yards and 42 rush yards to Robert Griffin III, expect last year's Newton to make an appearance.
3. How good was RG3? Speaking of the Washington Redskins' rookie, he represents the NFL's biggest story from Week 1, as the D.C. area is going ga-ga, dreaming of a Super Bowl run. Trouncing the Saints defense in the Superdome isn't supposed to be the domain of a first-year signal-caller, and Griffin was very good. He didn't turn the ball over and he completed 73 percent of his throws. That's excellent stuff. But despite a fun litany of formations and fakes, the Skins' offense was conservative. I'll give the same Week 1 chart I just did for Newton:
Robert Griffin III, Week 1 versus Saints
Source: Stats LLC
Remember, 88 of those yards in the 10-to-19 bucket came on a probably ill-advised throw when RG3 was getting hit hard, an overthrown ball that Pierre Garcon snagged because (A) he made a spectacular play, and (B) Roman Harper took a terrible angle. Remove that one play (which absolutely isn't fair, but bear with me) and Griffin is 18-of-25 for 232 yards, also known as Alex Smith territory.
All of which is not a knock on RG3! He played so well, he really did. I'm just saying this wasn't "mad bomber" stuff. Mike Shanahan would readily agree that this is Griffin's ideal game as a rookie. Washington ran as many play-action passes as it did standard dropbacks, and it let RG3 run several naked bootlegs and even more read-option plays, where he stuck the ball in his running back's belly, scanned the defense, then decided whether or not to actually hand the ball off. There were a few times when Griffin's passing form got lazy and he threw off his back foot, at least once when there was no pressure on him, and he paid for it (except on the long TD). There were also a couple of plays when he made defenders miss (and look silly) while scrambling, and then hit receivers for nice gains. (A second-quarter naked boot in which he broke the play open, waited, then hit Fred Davis all the way across the field for a big gain comes to mind.)
The deciding factor for RG's fantasy rookie year is going to be his running. He had several planned runs versus the Saints, occasionally breaking around the end and looking more like Jamaal Charles than any QB you care to mention. The kid is fast. He took a couple of those naked boots for nice chunks, too. But of course, when the Skins were in close, the Shanahans went with RB carries rather than letting RG3 plunge it himself, and that figures to be a major difference between the rookie seasons of Newton and Griffin. I'm very impressed. That's a heck of a ceiling RG3 just established there. But from what I saw, I'm not quite ready to put him ahead of Tony Romo, Peyton Manning or Michael Vick, as some of our other rankers did this week.
4. Alfred Morris leads the NFL in carries: That headline kind of says it all, right? Alfred who? The Florida Atlantic sixth-round rookie is Shanahan's new toy, and he wound up with 28 totes for 96 yards and two scores versus the Saints, while Roy Helu had five touches for 27 yards and Evan Royster had two touches for 10 yards. At this point, fantasy owners are so aware of Shanny's fickle RB decisions that it's almost become clichéd, but let's emphasize it by attacking it from two directions.
First, Morris himself looks like a fairly pedestrian talent. Of his 28 carries Sunday, 22 of them went for 3 yards or fewer, and as I mentioned Tuesday in my Free-Agent Finds piece, I counted exactly one carry on which Morris cut hard in the Shanahan mode and made someone miss while finding a seam. Otherwise, it was essentially power football: Run into whatever's in the way, whether it's a defender, open space or your own lineman. The day looks great because Morris barreled into the end zone from in close twice, and to be fair, that's something he seems very capable of continuing. But in truth after one game I'm going to say I don't particularly believe Morris is a "typical" Shanny one-cut back, because I rarely saw this dude cut.
Second, there's the, shall we say, mercurial nature of Shanahan's love affairs with RBs. Since Week 9 of the '07 season with the Denver Broncos, when Travis Henry was suspended, the list of men who've led Shanny's teams in carries is quite revealing. Here's an updated chart that I used in the Hard Count last year, illustrating this behavior:
Game-By-Game Carries Leader, Recent Shanahan Teams
In 22 of a possible 52 games, Shanahan had a different RB lead his team in carries than the week before. (I'm ignoring the first game on each of these four lists, since there was nothing to change from.) That's 42 percent of the time. I'll grant you that sometimes injury provided the impetus, but there's still something pathological here.
I ranked Morris higher than Helu or Royster this week, but I don't feel confident. Shanny might change his mind. By the end of the year, history dictates that he absolutely will change his mind, multiple times.
5. How good was C.J. Spiller, really? When LaRon Landry hit Fred Jackson early in the second quarter of Week 1, it looked bad. Really bad. My first thought was that Jackson had torn every ligament in his right knee. Fortunately for the Buffalo Bills, that wasn't the case; Jackson sprained a ligament and will miss at least a month, but he avoided a season-ending injury. What happened next in the Bills' backfield, however, has set up fantasy owners for quite a quandary.
C.J. Spiller had racked up one carry for 3 yards before Jackson's injury. After, he produced 15 touches for 192 yards, a TD and a fumble. When the injury occurred the Bills were down 14-0; Spiller's 56-yard scamper made it 14-7, but a few plays into the second half it was 34-7, so it's tough to know exactly how much resistance the New York Jets were offering Spiller thereafter. Cynics will say he produced 86 yards on two of his touches, but that still leaves 109 yards on the other 14, which still is a not-too-shabby 7.8 yards per touch.
His first two carries after the Jackson injury had ridiculously differing results (the former went for zero, the latter went for 56), but really developed about the same. Spiller carries a reputation of not being the most instinctive rusher as he's getting going, often getting stopped in the box by a single player, and that's what happened on the first run: Quinton Coples beat his man and basically got Spiller down with one arm. On the second run, a simple little shotgun draw should've been stopped by the right defensive end and Spiller basically ran right into him, but he spun and escaped, then turned on his sprinter's jets which caused two New York defenders to comically crash into one another trying to tackle him. When this guy gets in the open field, he's deadly.
Unfortunately, after that point the score got out of hand and I'm not sure how much we can really evaluate. The Jets did play some single-safety-high early in the third quarter, and it was heartening to see Spiller still find holes and jig through linebackers on a pair of 8-yard runs. But after that, New York was mostly trying to contain the Bills, forcing them to throw into deeper zones (which, on the day, helped cause three Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions).
Here's the thing: Spiller is an elite burner. That's the reason he's nearly a must-start in fantasy right now; I rated him 10th among RBs this week despite the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs held the Atlanta Falcons to 59 rush yards from RBs last week and will get Tamba Hali back from suspension Sunday. Spiller is simply as good a home-run hitter as the NFL has right now. But he's also capable of putting up one of those 11-carries-for-14-yards days, because he doesn't make much happen on his own, especially in the box. Spiller isn't Charles. He doesn't have that kind of vision. But he's really good, and I'm excited to see how he does. I just imagine Week 1 might be his high-water mark for yardage in a single game this season.
Five in brief
6. For one week, Ben Tate is largely a spectator: The fantasy world went through paroxysms late last week, as Arian Foster tweaked a knee in practice and required an MRI to make sure everything was OK. I admit I downgraded the Vegan Volcano (think that'll stick?) a couple of spots, and pushed Tate up into my top 25, under the logic that (A) the Houston Texans would take no chances with Foster and remove a bit of his workload, because (B) they would be killing the Miami Dolphins. Well, the Texans stomped the Dolphins, all right, but Foster got 27 touches for 75 yards and two juicy TDs, while Tate had eight touches for 28 yards. Oops. Not only that, but Foster played 49 snaps, compared to 21 for Tate, including a 7-0 snaps advantage in the red zone. If Tate can't get a sniff when there appear to be legit concerns about Foster's health, he is truly a handcuff only. No doubt Tate will occasionally get on a roll and score a few fantasy points, but it won't be every week, so you won't know when to start him. It's business as usual in Houston. After all, last year in the games in which Foster was at full strength, Tate averaged 7.5 touches per contest.
7. What is Peyton Hillis' role with the Kansas City Chiefs? Jamaal Charles had 16 carries Sunday compared to seven for Hillis, and the rushing advantage was 87 to 16, sending some Hillis owners I know into spirals of self-doubt. Of course, 46 of Charles' yards came on a single second-quarter scamper, but considering Dexter McCluster saw 10 targets while the two main backs combined for three, the box score does look bleak for Hillis. But don't panic just yet. In terms of time spent on the field, this is probably about a 60/40 split between Charles and Hillis, which is about what you'd expect. In the first half, touches were 8-to-6 in favor of Charles. Simply put, the second half versus the Falcons was a mess of massive proportions, exacerbated by a missed field goal and back-to-back-to-back Matt Cassel turnovers. This week in Buffalo will tell a larger tale. Hillis has never had tons of wiggle to his game, but he brings thunder and he's healthy. I rated him my No. 27 RB this week, still squarely in flex territory.
8. It really might be just this bad for Michael Turner: It wasn't good, folks. I counted two times that Turner made nice runs: First, on the game's first play, he gained 6 while utilizing a subtle cut-back into the middle, and second, when he took a third-quarter draw and rumbled through a huge hole for 11. Even on that second run, though, Turner looked painfully stuck in mud. In all, he produced 32 yards on 11 carries, four of which took place in the red zone. (Only one, alas, took place inside the Chiefs' 10, and Turner was able to plow for 3 yards setting up Matt Ryan's scramble for a score.) It was a theme. Seven of Turner's carries went for 2 yards or fewer. Give the Chiefs credit: They were stout. It's not like Jacquizz Rodgers (seven carries for 22 yards) or Jason Snelling (two carries for 5 yards) did squadoosh, so it's definitely possible that Turner could find more running room in future weeks, perhaps as soon as Monday's game versus the Broncos. It's not like the guy is completely ossified; if and when there are straight-ahead holes, he can gain yards. Plus this Falcons offense is obviously pretty high-octane, which means there's a not-insignificant chance Turner gets some 1-yard-plunge opportunities. But even as the Falcons had a lead, they played Rodgers an awful lot. I don't have an exact count, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't basically an even split between the two backs lining up behind Ryan. That's not a recipe for a return to Burner glory.
9. Percy Harvin is good: I had Harvin No. 17 on my WR list last week, but he's bumped up to No. 8 for Week 2. What changed? Well, I sure do like the matchup against an Indianapolis Colts defense that often looked helpless against the Chicago Bears' passing game. But even more than that, Harvin was a significant part of the Minnesota Vikings' run game. Aside from a first-quarter end-around and an alarmingly bullying 9-yard run on a traditional up-the-gut handoff, Harvin also got a third-quarter carry from the Jacksonville Jaguars' 3 (he was stuffed), a strong cut-back run from the Jags' 20 that gained seven, and an overtime shot from Jacksonville's 25. I mean, seriously, he had five carries to Toby Gerhart's six, and got closer to the end zone! Even setting aside the strong chemistry Harvin has with Christian Ponder (to the tune of eight targets and six catches for 84 yards), if this is the way the Vikings are ensuring that the ball is in his hands more, sign me up. Add in the omnipresent chance for a kickoff return for a TD, and Harvin is officially a No. 1 fantasy wideout. This is a "Flag Player" to enjoy.
10. Flacco Redux: I discussed Flacco at length in last week's Hard Count, and endorsed him as a Week 1 fantasy starter. But it wasn't so much that I was sold on a revamped Baltimore Ravens offense. It was that I believe the Cincinnati Bengals secondary, as presently constituted, is awful. Re-watching Monday night's game, I find it difficult to know where Flacco's goodness ends and the Cincy D's terribleness begins, especially because I don't think you're going to suddenly see Flacco turn into Eli Manning in terms of becoming a downfield bomber. He threw four attempts in Week 1 that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, which isn't a criticism of him at all but rather a bit of cold water for those who suddenly imagine this team is among the league's most wide-open on offense. To be fair, they were more wide-open. I'm just trying not to overreact about Flacco's greatness (and the greatness of this no-huddle attack that actually only went no-huddle about a third of the time) until I see him do it against a legit pass rush and secondary. This week's opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, possesses such a defense. That said, I still ranked Flacco No. 11 among fantasy QBs. And if he does it again this week, he's going to find himself pushing into the top 10 pretty quick.