Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2020 season will unfold. We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
1 – Can Aaron Rodgers keep it up against the Saints defense?
Sunday Night Football will bring us two Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the opposite side of the vibes spectrum. What a world.
On one side, Aaron Rodgers looks to have recaptured the deity-level of play from his prime amid a pseudo-revenge tour following slights by sections of football media — and perhaps even his own team. At the other end, we have the Saints and Drew Brees who, as a collective, seem to be in the middle of grappling with how to adjust to what looks like a compromised version of their long-time legend.
If indeed the Saints are set to try and win with a lessened form of Brees — and the way they’re calling plays right now suggests that Sean Payton knows he is — Alvin Kamara, and especially the defense, will have to be the reason they win games. With that in mind, the defense we saw out of New Orleans in Week 2 can’t be the weekly reality.
This is a unit that has a ton of front-line talent. With Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, Marshon Lattimore, and more leading the way, it appeared ready to take the lead in New Orleans at season’s start. So far, not so much. The team ranks middle of the pack in terms of success rate allowed through the air and the ground and turned in a good Week 1, but the Raiders seemingly exposed multiple holes.
Not only did they run the ball effectively, but the middle-of-the-field coverage was also wildly problematic with Darren Waller collecting a whopping 16 targets. He picked up two first downs against Malcolm Jenkins in coverage, went 3-30 on three looks against slot corner P.J. Williams and grabbed his touchdown against Chauncy Gardner-Johnson (per PFF). If Derek Carr can find those holes, you bet En Fuego Rodgers will.
Rodgers may have to go to work on Sunday night without an elite No. 1 receiver in Davante Adams, or at best a banged-up version. That will be just another test of whether Rodgers is truly at the height of his powers. If he can effectively carve through this Saints defense with the likes of Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Robert Tonyan while getting the best out of Aaron Jones’ special receiving chops, we might be seeing another MVP push from Rodgers, a shifting in the balance of powers in the NFC and a season that wins fantasy titles via Packers players.
We expected more from the Saints defense and much less than this from Aaron Rodgers.
It appears the expectations have flipped.
Heading into the season there was a strong groundswell of media support for the Detroit Lions being a potentially frisky sleeper team. After another drab 0-2 start amid a stale offense and a predictably poor defense, that’s looking misguided.
And yet, let’s remember that help is coming on the offensive side of the ball, at least. That assistance will come in the form of No. 1 wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who missed the first two games with a hamstring malady. Golladay is trending toward making his 2020 debut when the Lions travel to Arizona on Sunday. He couldn’t arrive a moment too soon.
As the season wore on in 2019, Golladay showed he had developed into a true No. 1 wide receiver able to dictate the terms to defenses and be the center of his passing game’s universe. When Matthew Stafford and Golladay were on the field together, the Lions were one of the best vertical passing teams in the league. So far, Detroit ranks 13th in success rate on deep passes, per Sharp Football Stats.
With Golladay back in the fold, not only will it help Stafford, other players like Marvin Jones and T.J. Hockenson can move back down the pecking order into more comfortable roles. The vertical passing game can help stretch out the field to boost a middling running game. Even if Golladay doesn’t go wild in the box score in his return to the field, his presence should be felt.
3 – Is this the start of something special with Jonathan Taylor?
It may have gotten lost in a tidal wave of injuries but rookie running back Jonathan Taylor officially announced his presence to the NFL. The Colts trusted him with an absurd 20 touches in the first half of the game. He looked every bit like the foundation back of an NFL offense.
My colleague Andy Behrens compared the Taylor/Marlon Mack split to the 2007 Vikings backfield of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Peterson quickly made it known that he would be a game-changer, putting a useful player like Chester Taylor into the second-fiddle position. Jonathan Taylor didn’t have to wait long with Mack on IR with an injury. Still, something about this situation feels like it could be special.
Taylor is now the clear lead back behind an offensive line that’s built for his style of ball. He’s also been given runway to function in the passing game, with an 11.3 percent share of the team targets and 13.5 routes per game.
Now in Week 3, Taylor and the Colts will match up with a sinking Jets defense. New York allowed a huge rushing touchdown to Raheem Mostert last week on the very first play. Overall, they’ve let up the most missed tackles in the league, with 40. The next highest team is at 26. He could go wild once again.
You could make the argument he’s a top-eight fantasy back the rest of the way given the usage he’s seeing. A few more big games, starting with this week’s contest, and it’ll be hard to deny.
4 – Does Justin Herbert shine when a defense prepares for him?
The world over should be lining up to pat Justin Herbert on the back for his NFL debut. Not only did Herbert put up decent numbers and help take the defending Super Bowl champs to the brink, but he also did so with mere seconds’ notice that he’d be starting in place of Tyrod Taylor.
Given the true horror-story nature of Taylor’s injury, it’s already been announced that Herbert will get another start in Week 3. No matter how he performs, it’s now quite impossible to imagine he gives the job back to Taylor if the veteran misses more games.
It is worth wondering if the strong, albeit mistake-sprinkled output we saw out of Herbert last week will be a weekly expectation. Let’s consider that the Chiefs defense had installed a game plan that didn’t consider Herbert at all, and was designed for a different quarterback entirely in Taylor. As caught off guard as Herbert was by his own first start, so were the Chiefs.
It’s something to talk about but if we really want to be honest with ourselves, it’s impossible to know just how much that matters. What is of consequence: Herbert displayed strong mobility, got the ball to front-line playmakers like Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry, and kept the offense moving.
Herbert came away with a 58 percent successful play rate from his first start, which now ranks 12th among quarterbacks to have started at least one game this year. Again, he kept the offense moving.
Another more consequential note: He’s getting to play the Panthers in Week 3. Carolina has zero sacks, zero quarterback knockdowns, and just three pressures on the year. Herbert should be comfortable on Sunday.
5 – Can the Raiders stay on script?
Coming out of Week 2’s Monday Night Football game, it was hard to tell whether the Raiders were way better than we expected, or if the aforementioned Saints are just way worse than we thought. Either way, it was an impressive win for Las Vegas in their first outing in a new stadium.
One thing is for sure coming out of Monday night: We know exactly what the Raiders want to be. This squad doesn’t exactly conform to the modern up-tempo teams we typically associate with the last few years in the football universe. Las Vegas uses 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends) on 26 percent of their plays, one of the highest rates in the league, and is second only to Baltimore in percentage plays (15 percent) out of plays with two backs and two tight ends on the field. This is a team that comes at you heavy with big, physical players.
While throwing out of those sets does create mismatches, it’s primarily a function of their run-game commitment. Josh Jacobs continues to give them reasons why they should keep on this script. Jacobs leads the NFL with 14 broken tackles and has become more involved in their passing game, carrying a 14.5 percent share of the team’s passing targets.
Derek Carr has continued to do his part as the team’s starting quarterback. Coming into Week 3, he boasts a 79.4 percent on-target throw percentage, placing him as the league’s fifth-most accurate passer. With tight end Darren Waller leading all pass-catchers this year with a 38.7 percent share of his team’s targets, a few wide receivers stepping up behind this difference-maker is all Las Vegas has required.
As good as we believe the Saints to (maybe) be, traveling to New England is a huge test. Not only is the defense known for coming up with creative game plans to take away your best threat, but the offense is also white-hot under Cam Newton. The Patriots rank fifth in successful play rate on offense. And as good as we may feel about the Raiders offense, their defense is unlikely to put Newton and co. on their heels.
If the Patriots are able to control this contest, Las Vegas will be forced to play left-handed. They’ll need to prove they can do that to earn “legitimate playoff contender” status.