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I don’t think I’ve heard so many nicknames ascribed to a week of byes in my time as a fantasy analyst. Different forms of “bye-pocalypse” and “bye-nado” have scrolled past my timeline throughout the week. So many top-10 offenses are off the board. Even when we all looked at the schedule months ago, we saw how lousy Week 7 would be, and it’s even worse because of injuries. The cherry on top is Thursday night’s game. After weeks of exciting matchups, we get the game with the lowest total for all of Week 7. I’ll tease out what I can from tonight’s game while reviewing all of the news coming out of Wednesday’s practices.
TNF Preview: Revenge!
Narrative belongs in fantasy football. It belongs in real football, too. We’re not just watching robots move the ball up and down the field. We remember their storylines and what brought them into the limelight, even if for one game. And, if there’s some possible revenge involved, it becomes all the more intriguing. It’s just unfortunate for tonight that the revenge narrative comes from an injury.
Baker Mayfield snaps his 51-game start streak to give us Case Keenum. The man that Denver dumped after being the starter for the 2018 season. But the revenge doesn’t stop there. We’ve got defensive coordinator revenge. Cleveland’s offensive assistant has prior ties to the Broncos. We’ve got a plotline here! But, at best, it’s the subplot to a larger story that starts with a slew of injuries.
It’s not a stretch to say Keenum with two working arms is at least a slight upgrade over Mayfield with just one arm. Keenum spent time with Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota when Stefanski was the quarterbacks coach. Plus, Keenum’s playstyle, strengths, and pitfalls aren’t significantly different than Mayfield’s. But, on top of adjusting to a new quarterback, Cleveland will be adding more new faces to the offensive rotation.
D’Ernest Johnson and Demetric Felton will be the backfield duo, with both starters nursing injuries. Neither have the same speed, vision, or power to produce in the best of situations, but they’ll be asked to do it with the offensive line in shambles. Cleveland’s center and both tackles have only had a single limited practice in preparation for tonight. We may rely on Cleveland to stick to their run-heavy ways (29th in pass rate over expectation), leading to volume for both backs. But it’s volume without a means to production. And it’s not how you beat the Broncos’ defense.
Denver’s defensive front has tightened up over the last month. They’re ninth in EPA per rush allowed and allowed just one 100-yard rushing game (Najee Harris, Week 5). Just four running backs have found the paint against them all season. Meanwhile, their secondary (16th in EPA per dropback allowed) has been beat outside (Darius Slayton, 6-65-0) and in the slot (Chase Claypool, 3-100-1). Odell Beckham’s status is up in the air, and Keenum’s penchant for buckling under pressure likely isn’t lost on the Broncos’ staff. Regardless, the Browns can find some success through the air to keep the game competitive. We’ll see if Denver can find similar success.
The guy hobbling off the podium will have to (quickly) hobble out Myles Garrett’s or Jadeveon Clowney’s way tonight. Sure. Assuming Bridgewater plays, I’m expecting Garrett to add another tombstone to his front yard over the weekend. Hopefully, Pat Shurmur has a better game plan prepared on the short week.
Cleveland’s defensive front is top-3 in about every metric you can find. Theoretically, a quick-passing scheme would short circuit such a pass rush. Or, having a solid offensive line would let their quarterback stand tall in the pocket and take shots downfield. Denver’s typically opted for the latter.
Bridgewater has the fourth-highest time to throw of any quarterback this season. He’s up there with Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Josh Allen. But they can move or have strong offensive lines. Bridgewater can’t hop off of a podium. But, if he can maneuver in the pocket, the receivers could benefit.
The Browns’ secondary will be missing one of their rotational corners tonight and have been beat in a few ways. Mike Williams (5-72-1) and Justin Jefferson (3-51-0) cashed in on shots downfield, which Bridgewater has continued to try every week to Courtland Sutton (16.7% deep-ball rate). Travis Kelce (7-76-2), Brandin Cooks (9-53-0), and Christian Kirk (7-64-1) all saw heavy usage from the slot benefitting Noah Fant and Tim Patrick. Even Austin Ekeler (5-53-1) boosted his production, boosting our outlook for either Denver running back. The passing game can work against this defense, but Bridgewater’s mobility, or lack thereof, will be the determining factor for tonight’s game.
Points of Interest in TNF
For Denver, I’ll be interested in the backfield split between Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. Fantasy managers have been clamoring for the rookie to his place as the lead dog. Or at least one of the two asserting themselves with the more significant workload. But, to date, both have hindrances to our fantasy rosters.
Over the last month, Gordon sits at a 50.5% touch share, while the rookie has garnered 46.7% of the running back touches. And the micro view aligns with the macro. Williams leads the veteran in targets (13 to 9) and targets per route run (0.21 to 0.11), while Gordon has the edge in high-value touches. From inside the 20-yard line, Gordon has had 46 attempts to Williams 38. They’ve even split red-zone touchdowns at one apiece.
There are enough questions under center in Denver’s offense that the running game has to be a factor. But Cleveland’s defensive front has been stingy against opposing rushers. Regardless, a big performance doesn’t necessarily have to come in the box score. Winning in pass protection and stringing together drives may be all that’s needed to win over the injured Browns. At the same time, my focus for Cleveland will be their wide receivers.
It won’t be much of a surprise, but we’ll likely see Donovan Peoples-Jones talked about on social media and given special attention during the broadcast. We’re already seeing it. And rightfully so. It’s not every day you get into a highlight reel on SportsCenter and then play a game just a few days later.
I’m not expecting another converted Hail Mary, but I am expecting a shift in his routes. Peoples-Jones spent nearly a third of his rookie season catching routes downfield with a 17.0 aDOT. Last week he was bulldozing his way into the endzone on a short out route. He’s still raw but has shown versatility at each level of the field. Hopefully, Cleveland has more options than just Peoples-Jones.
Rashard Higgins and Anthony Schwartz should see some run, but both have been inconsistent contributors to the offense. Higgins played the “OBJ” role after Beckham went down last season with a mixture of routes run from the slot (20.8%) and outside. Schwartz, like Peoples-Jones, has been primarily used on the outside due to his 4.32 speed. Schwartz would likely take over for Peoples-Jones on the outside if Beckham sits. In turn, it would free up the sophomore to be used all over the field. But I wouldn’t count out Higgins should the team rely on more three-receiver sets to negate some of Denver’s pass rush.
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Unfortunately, the injuries didn’t also take the week off. We’ve got another long list to monitor over the next few days but let’s start with some good news.
Ok, it wasn’t *all* good news as the Giants had multiple players still not practicing on Wednesday. But at least Darius Slayton got in a limited showing to start the week. Slayton logged light workouts last week before missing Week 6, but, hopefully, another week of rest will have him active in Week 7. Farther down the east coast, it looks like a few Washington players also need their rest.
And those are just the DNPs. You need to scroll down past the tweet to see the list of limited players for the Football Team. Most of the names on the list aren’t a surprise, and many came into Week 6 with some ailment. But Ricky Seals-Jones’ is an unwelcome addition to their list of injuries. The backup tight-end barely missed a snap on Sunday and was seen doing work off to the side. It’s possible his light work to start the week is out of precaution, but his involvement over the next two days will clarify. It sounds like the Colts are taking the same approach.
T.Y. Hilton did hurt his quad in his return from IR. However, the 31-year-old veteran spoke after the game, Frank Reich said there wasn’t any serious concern, and Hilton’s media availability suggests all is well. With Parris Campbell landing on IR again, the team is likely being extra cautious as their best deep threat returns to full strength. Kansas City looks to be doing something similar.
It was evident during the game that Tyreek Hill wasn’t 100%. He played just 57% of the snaps despite leading the team in targets. Hill certainly looked fine ate in the game, but the Chiefs are taking the long view. The consensus is that Hill’s absence was for rest and that he’s not at risk of missing Week 7. However, at least one of the Buccaneers is at risk of missing this weekend’s contest.
Rob Gronkowski hasn’t practiced since taking a brutal shot to the ribs in Week 4. It’s caused some to question Bruce Arians’ decision not to place the star tight-end on injured reserve, but the team has been undefeated without him. Also, it’s allowed O.J. Howard to get back into our good graces.
Meanwhile, Arians reported that Antonio Brown had sprained his ankle during their Thursday night matchup with the Eagles. He had the lowest snap share of the Buccaneer’s receivers and was seen on the sideline getting his foot and ankle worked on during the game. But, his Week 7 status isn’t in doubt as of Wednesday. The same can be said about Detroit’s primary tight end.
T.J. Hockenson sat out of practice to start the week, but there’s little concern regarding his Week 7 availability. He played his usual snaps in Week 6 and saw an increased target share without a reported setback. Plus, he was made available to the media on Wednesday, where he told reporters he’ll be ready to play this weekend. Hockenson has missed Wednesday practices for the last three weeks and has yet to miss a game. However, the Eagles’ tight end might miss his second consecutive game.
Dallas Goedert remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list after testing positive early last week, and he still needs to have two negative tests 24 hours apart to rejoin the team. The timing couldn’t be worse as Zach Ertz’s trade to Arizona was finalized just days ago. Philadelphia did re-sign Richard Rodgers as a precaution, but, hopefully, Goedert can get back on the field soon. Chicago is dealing with a similar situation.
Damien Williams sat out the entire 2020 season to avoid this very situation. Williams will have to go through the same protocol as Goedert before returning to practice without any updates. Chicago’s upcoming matchup against Tampa isn’t conducive to running back production, but a complement to Khalil Herbert would be ideal. We should get more information as the week progresses in hopes Williams gets back.
Meanwhile, Allen Robinson missed practice to start the week. Robinson missed multiple practices and turned in a limited outing before Week 6. He still had a 92% snap share and saw the most targets (7) since Week 1. Luckily, he didn’t suffer a setback and, hopefully, the DNP is just for maintenance. Tennessee is dealing with similar issues.
We already dealt with Kansas City, but I see a few repeat offenders on the Titans’ side. Julio Jones was the most notable of them all. Jones gaveth and then quickly tooketh away as he exited another contest early with a hamstring injury. The same injury that’s caused him to miss the previous two games. At the same time, AJ Brown swore off fast food after a bout with food poisoning. Brown will likely be back on the practice field ahead of Week 7, but Jones may need more time to recuperate.
The last bit of news isn’t injury-related but worth monitoring in the weeks ahead.
It’s not a marquee signing, but it aligns with Carolina’s sentiment after their latest loss. On Monday, Matt Rhule said they were going to run the football and protect their quarterback. Christian McCaffrey is still weeks away from returning, and Chuba Hubbard hasn’t impressed the coaching staff. Hubbard contributed to the multiple drops from the Panthers’ pass-catchers which ultimately led to their overtime loss. Ameer Abdullah hasn’t seen significant playing time since 2019 but could wind up with a role as Carolina fights to maintain some relevance in the NFC South.