The Deep Route Fantasy Notebook features recaps and thoughts about the recent action in the NFL and its implications in fantasy football, along with weekly awards, draft spotlights, and other random tidbits. Unless stated otherwise, all stats are accumulated using Pro Football Reference, ESPN, or 4for4.com.
THINGS I KNOW
I know to never doubt the Patriots. I didn’t doubt them when down 25 points in last year’s Super Bowl, and I sure wasn’t doubting them down 10 to the Jaguars. They always find a way to win, plain and simple. While I certainly respect their greatness (except for when they, you know, cheated), I strongly disdain their presence both as a depressed yet loyal Dolphins fan and as an NFL fan. The Patriots’ dominance has robbed the Dolphins and their fans of any success and joy for almost two decades now. Coincidentally, Tom Brady was drafted just four months after I was born, so basically my entire life has been spent learning to never, ever doubt Brady and the Patriots. They’re the obvious pick to win the Super Bowl, but I’ll get more into that next week with an official scoring prediction and other cool prop bets. Spoiler alert: Drop big money on Al Michaels mentioning Deflate-gate and Jimmy Garoppolo.
I know this looks like a terrible Super Bowl. This might be the worst case scenario for football fans everywhere (except in Philadelphia and New England). It has become pretty boring (again, unless you’re a Patriots fan) to watch New England reach the Super Bowl over and over again. As for both teams, their fans are generally known as some of the NFL’s worst and most obnoxious groups. Bostonians versus Philadelphians, that should be a peaceful matchup. Besides, why couldn’t we have a franchise that was a true underdog reach the Super Bowl? Almost all of America fell in love with the miraculous Vikings or the outspoken Jaguars, so it feels like a huge letdown seeing the Patriots and Eagles reach the Super Bowl, both whom were first place in their conferences. The Vikings playing in their own stadium or the Jaguars completing a nearly impossible turnaround would have made the game much more compelling. Nevertheless, we’ll be hearing about the Patriots’ impeccable dynasty again. As for the Eagles, kudos to them for succeeding with their backup quarterback, but that is all we’ll be hearing about for the next two weeks (and Chris Long’s departure from the Patriots last year to the Eagles this year). Of course, can it be a great Super Bowl? Yes. Will it be a great Super Bowl? Only for Patriots’ fans. Did I piss off a lot of fans with this section, including my editor Matt Martellucci? Definitely.
Editor’s Note: Yes, I am indeed pissed off.
I know the Mike Vrabel hire is an underrated move. In non-Super Bowl related moves, the Titans hired the former Patriot as their new coach. Many people might point out Vrabel’s “lack of experience” as a huge downside to his hire; he was a positional coach for seven years and was the Texans’ defensive coordinator for just last season. What makes Vrabel intriguing is his unique, determined personality coupled with natural leadership skills, which likely explains Vrabel’s rapid ascent as a coach. As the Titans’ head coach, Vrabel will be expected to improve a defense that went from horrendous to below average this past year. In Vrabel’s only year as Houston’s defensive coordinator, the Texans defense ranked dead last in points allowed. However, that miserable statistic could be a result of countless injuries to the defense’s best players. The biggest knock on Vrabel is his defensive mindset, especially when fans were clamoring for an offensive coach to help the growth of Marcus Mariota. Luckily, that can be solved with a good offensive coordinator. I think Vrabel’s character and football IQ will be enough to bolster a surprisingly promising Titans team, but who he chooses as his coordinators can make or break Vrabel’s young coaching career.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know if the Jaguars would have fared better with a good quarterback. Congrats to Blake Bortles for starting on a team in the AFC conference championship, but a different quarterback could have won that gae. His stat-line was good, not great, with a touchdown, no interception and 293 yards thrown. Again, it could have been better. There were a couple of plays that if Bortles had thrown the ball just a little bit farther, it could have resulted in big gains. The most notable instance was Bortles’ pass to Dede Westbrook on the Jaguars’ final play. It was outstanding defense by Stephon Gilmore to swat the pass away, but if Bortles put a little more air under the ball it could have sailed out of Gilmore’s reach right into Westbrook’s hands. Another instance was earlier in that drive when Bortles under-threw Leonard Fournette on a left wheel route. Again, Bortles could have hit Fournette for a big gain (maybe even a touchdown) if he tossed it just a tad more in front of Fournette. I wrote about Bortles’ uncertain future a couple weeks ago, and while his job may be safe to start next season the jury is still out on whether Bortles’ can be the longterm solution.
I don’t know if that was actually Nick Foles. Nick Foles of 2017-2018, that is. Instead, it might have been the Nick Foles of 2013, the same guy who tossed 27 touchdowns including a 7-touchdown game. Foles’ most efficient game since that day finally came in Sunday’s conference championship when he tossed three touchdowns, no picks, and 352 yards on a 78.8 percent completion rate against the Vikings’ top-three defense. Now, there are two possible outcomes from Foles’ commanding performance. The first is obviously a renewed confidence in the quarterback and an actual (though very minimal) chance at dethroning the Patriots in two weekends. The second is a desperate team overpaying Foles to be their starter. I think Foles’ story and how he contemplated retirement is great, but he has not been consistent enough to be deemed a longterm starter. I still have my doubts on if Foles can continue his excellence into the Super Bowl, but the victory was still a much needed win for the Eagles and their tormented fanbase.
I don’t know where the Vikings were. They just did not show up to that game. The Vikings gave up 38 points, the most they’ve allowed all season, and scored just seven points, the least they’ve scored all season. The game was competitive until Case Keenum (who looked more like the Case Keenum of 2015) threw a pick-six midway through the first quarter, and the Eagles never looked back. Foles and Alshon Jeffery were rolling all night as they connected for two scores. Even Torrey Smith made the Vikings fantastic secondary look like a high school football team. With the Vikings losing offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, there is a small cloud hanging over Minneapolis. The team is littered with talented players and their stellar defense will remain largely intact, but the offense faces some personnel questions. Obviously, Keenum is the heavy favorite to be re-signed as the team’s starter, but how will the team approach Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, two capable starters who will also be free agents? Can the team adjust to a new offensive coordinator? Can they recover from a massive disappointment just days after the greatest game ever? My money is on the Vikings’ continued dominance, or at least enough to warrant playoff discussion for the next few years.
Fantasy Football 2018
PLAYER TO WATCH FOR: Sterling Shepard
One of my favorite receivers in the league, Shepard has never had the full chance to show his true skill. His first season saw him buried behind a deep receiving group. This year, he suffered an injury that ended his season. Shepard is not only a reliable catcher, but he is an outstanding route runner. It also helps that defenses will likely be so focused on Odell Beckham, allowing for ample opportunities for Shepard to shine. The Pat Shurmur hire would help, too; he transformed Minnesota’s receivers into one of the best groups in the league.
PLAYER TO IGNORE: Robby Anderson
The past two weeks have not been kind to Anderson. First, the offensive coordinator who helped Anderson breakout was fired. Then, Anderson was arrested and could face a suspension or even a contract termination. Not to mention that we still don’t know who the Jets’ quarterback will be next year. It’s safe to say that Anderson’s 2018 outlook is not looking so good right now.
Every week I’ll talk a little about a college football player who I think will, or will not, make a great NFL player. This week, I’ll be highlighting Derwin James.
Coming off an ACL injury that shortened his season, James failed to return to the hard-hitting, explosive athlete that he once was. Fortunately, James finished the year on a high note and reminded people why he is a top safety prospect. His leadership skills, football IQ and character are all top notch. Still, the ACL injury and its aftermath might have hurt James’ stock, but he has the tools and skill-set to be a great safety. Early Projection: Mid-to-late first round pick
The ‘Hands’ Award: Danny Amendola
You should know my rule for this award by now, but in case you don’t: I care more about what the player did with his hands than the rest of his body, a.k.a I look at the actual catch not the play. However, due to a complete lack of remarkable grabs I had to slightly break my rule this week. Amendola used his strong hands to stop the ball in mid-air (you can see Amendola bend back to adjust to the red-hot throw) and tapped a foot in before falling to the ground. What makes this catch so much better was that as he pulled in the ball, he stayed concentrated on getting his second foot down, which he did while falling. Very acrobatic.
Uniform of the Week: Jacksonville Jaguars
At this point, I am getting sick of writing about the Jags’ uniforms (even if they are beautiful), so I thought I’d rank the other threads we saw this past weekend. My second favorite has to be the Vikings’ sleek and contemporary uniforms. A little more yellow would be nice, but the purple matte helmet is a great touch. Next would be the Patriots, whose uniforms I am not a fan of. The gray stripes on the shoulders are horrendous but I do enjoy the red face-mask and red number outline. My least favorite (maybe in the whole league) is the Eagles’ childish uniforms. The font is horrendous and I dislike the black block outline; the jersey looks too much like a comic book cover. Also, wearing white pants with a colored jersey is a major turnoff.
Best Picture: This commercial
Everything about this four-minute promo is amazing. It not only portrays the Jags-Pats matchup in a beautifully epic way, but it got me super hyped. Who would have thought that John Malkovich would have a better performance than Case Keenum on Sunday?
Tackle of the Week: A subway pillar
One could argue the guy was a defenseless receiver, but who trusts these refs anymore? I laugh each time I watch this bone-crushing hit. Take notes, Marcus Williams. (Too soon?)
The Upside Down Award: Bill Belichick
After the Patriots sealed a comeback victory on Sunday, the infamously emotionless coach was spotted strangely enjoying himself. We must be living in an alternate universe, right? All I know is that if I handed Belichick this fictional award, he’d quickly pass it to someone else.
The Jenga Award: Some quarterbacks, trigger-happy GMs, and unfortunate injuries.
I’ll try to make this quick because there were many moving pieces to make Sunday’s scenario possible. Let’s start in 2010 when the Rams drafted Sam Bradford first overall, only to trade him and a pick in 2015 to the Eagles for Nick Foles and a couple picks. Meanwhile, Case Keenum was reacquired by the Rams after bouncing between them and the Texans for a couple years. In 2016, Bradford was traded from the Eagles to the Vikings after Teddy Bridgewater went down for the season. Bradford had a surprisingly productive season in Minnesota, so the Vikings re-signed him along with Keenum, who was not re-signed by the Rams. As for Foles, he returned to Philadelphia and took over after Carson Wentz, the guy who became the starter after Bradford was traded, tore his ACL. In Minnesota, Bradford hurt his knee again, so Keenum got the start and the rest is history. Many things could have happened to prevent this season’s NFC conference championship matchup, yet it is crazy how intertwined these franchises and the careers of their respective quarterbacks have become.
ONE LAST THING
I am not happy with the Pro Bowl rosters. Matthew Slater, a seven-time Pro Bowler, played seven games this year and still got elected to the game. I bet Slater has earned some of his trips to whatever city the NFL moved the game to in the last seven years, but this year’s vote seems like it was more of a “The Patriots are the best team so I’ll vote this guy” move. While it is only special teams, this incident is just another of the long, growing list of reasons for why the Pro Bowl should be scrapped. I used to be in favor of the Pro Bowl; I enjoyed seeing great players team up and compete while using wacky plays. Nowadays, I can’t even watch as the above-average replacements play half-speed with a new Disney commercial airing every eight minutes. (I know the winning team gets paid more than the losing team, but the argument of payment becomes invalid if a player gets hurt. An injury in a meaningless game costs way more than a $60,000 paycheck.) The game has simply become a popularity contest; there is no way that T.Y. Hilton should have been voted in when Marvin Jones had much better stats than Hilton. Of course, that is just one example. I came up with a short list of possible alternatives to replace one of the most underwhelming events in all of football.
A Rising Stars game. Similar to what the NBA does, I say pit the best rookies against the best second-year players. It can provide a big platform for the promising young players while giving them a chance to improve against other rising young studs. In addition, each players’ desire to capitalize on that enhanced exposure could increase the competition level, something sorely needed in the actual Pro Bowl.
NFL vs College. This is the most far-fetched of the games, but it certainly has major viewership appeal. Take the best rookies and play them against the best incoming collegiate players (only players that declared for the Draft would be eligible). While I would expect the older and more strategically advanced NFL players to dominate, it could give scouts a better look at prospects while exposing the newcomers to their first dose of NFL action. Also, as a diehard Draftnik, it would be awesome to watch.
A celebrity flag football game. This is also taking a page from the NBA, but it really stems from the old DIRECTV Celebrity Beach Bowl. I used to love watching the game where celebrities and some former NFL players faced off in a game of flag football. The best part was that the game was played in sand. It made for a more fun, entertaining game. Doing something like this would give fans an entertaining game and could attract new fans who only tuned in to see their favorite celebrities. Not only would it be great for charity, but it could eventually be the closest way I get to playing in the NFL. If I had to choose an alternative, this seems like the most logical, realistic choice.