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 - Is this a brand new Bills offense?
The Seattle Seahawks suddenly pass-first approach was perhaps the most surprising Week 1 play-calling result, but not far behind were the new-look Buffalo Bills. While Brian Daboll already did plenty of good work with Josh Allen and the Bills offense on a conceptual basis in 2019, his 2020 debut was even more encouraging.
Frankly, you need to do quite a bit of searching to find a negative note from the way the Bills called offensive football during the opening slate.
First and foremost, their play-action usage was ultra exciting. No team made more use of the play fakes than Buffalo in Week 1:
Interesting note from Week 1, the Bills led the NFL by a decent gap with 24.7% of their plays being play action. Last year they ranked 24th in play action play rate.
Josh Allen on play action:
- 18 attempts
- 12 completions
- 165 yards
- 114.4 passer rating
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) September 15, 2020
Given that the team ranked in the bottom-10 in play-action rate in 2019, this looks like a big shift. The results speak for themselves, as Allen was quite efficient on these plays.
And that’s not where their deception stopped, either. Buffalo used motion at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL, per NextGen Stats. We’ve seen teams like the Rams, Chiefs, and Ravens shoot their offensive efficiency to new heights by incorporating layers of pre-snap motion over the last three years. If Buffalo is joining that club, it’ll be huge.
Additionally, the Bills didn’t just throw the ball more — they threw it in an intelligent manner. The team’s 58 percent pass rate on early downs (1st and 2nd) with a lead greater than three points was the third-highest mark in Week 1. That clearly shows an aerial-first philosophy. Even better, they threw it in a fashion that reigned in Allen’s erratic play. In 2019, Allen sported a 9.4 intended-air-yards average on his pass attempts, fifth-highest among quarterbacks. Week 1 saw Allen drop to 5.8, a bottom-10 mark.
Of course, the Bills will make use of Allen’s rocket arm in the vertical passing game with downfield masters like John Brown and Stefon Diggs at points this season. But this shows they are more focused on creating opportunities in the intermediate ranges with Allen, another area of the field where Brown and Diggs are elite separators. Such an approach will only make the offense more efficient and most importantly, massage errors out of their quarterback’s game. Usually a wild stallion of a thrower, Allen was the third-most accurate quarterback last week:
Top-5 on-target rates in Week 1 (@SportradarUS):
1) Gardner Minshew 95%
2) Russell Wilson 88.6%
3) Josh Allen 84.8%
4) Patrick Mahomes 84.4%
5) Kirk Cousins 84%
28) Jimmy G 66.7%
29) Tyrod 66.7%
30) Mitch Trubisky 61.1%
31) Dwayne Haskins 56.4%
32) Baker 56.4%
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) September 17, 2020
The Bills don’t have any delusions about their quarterback’s flaws. They know just as well as you do he makes mistakes and has hideous missed throws that go viral on Twitter on a seemingly weekly basis. That’s fine. Buffalo has consistently shown they’re smart enough to work around those issues, making the good outweigh the bad.
The smart teams make life easy on their young quarterbacks. We’ve seen Buffalo do just that over the last two offseasons from a personnel perspective by bringing in a bevy of gifted wide receivers and talented running backs in the draft. Now, Week 1 showed us they are taking every step in the book to accomplish that goal from a play-calling perspective.
If we see similar utilization and strategy in Week 2, it will be time to reimagine our expectations for the Buffalo offense. And to be clear, we’re not talking about results. We’re talking process. Josh Allen and the Bills offense has another cake matchup against Miami after trashing the other AFC East bottom-feeder last week. Big numbers will be the expectation. Positive fantasy results are certainly in the cards for Diggs, Brown, Allen, and the backs. That’s not the main point.
It will be more important to observe Daboll continuing to use play fakes, motion, early down passing, and tempo when the Bills are on offense. Seeing that will give us hope that Allen, despite his hilarious misfires, can continue to make the most of the awesome group of skill-position players his team has surrounded him with even as the competition gets more difficult.
When and if that does come to pass in Week 2, we’ll start to move Diggs and Brown into the territory of every-week WR2 plays in fantasy. The duo already handled 42 percent of Allen’s targets in Week 1 and Diggs and Brown were on the field more than any other wide receivers with 82 and 81 snaps, respectively.
2020 has been a weird year and it might feel odd to be excited about the Bills offense. However, based on how they called plays in Week 1, you should be ready to embrace it.
2 - When will the Patriots open things up in the air for Cam Newton?
Fantasy fanatics and fans of creative offensive football were enthralled with what they saw out of the Patriots offense in Week 1. Cam Newton registered 15 rush attempts in the box score but only one of them went down as a scramble. Clearly, the Patriots were intent on creating opportunities in their ground game by using Newton as a designed rusher.
It’s hard to argue with the initial results. Newton’s overwhelming power as a runner and the bind he puts a defense in made for a successful running game. New England ranked second in rushing success rate in Week 1.
That proved the Patriots brass is right in line with building around their new quarterback. Now, it’s time to expand upon it.
More important than his strong rushing work, Cam Newton’s arm strength and drive on the ball looked at least back to his 2018 standards. It showed in his accurate metrics. Newton ranked 10th in on-target rate (78.9 percent) and fifth in catchable pass rate, per SportsRadar. Newton can clearly still operate a highly functional passing game. The bigger question is whether New England has the talent at the skill position spots to deploy such an approach.
3 - Can the Eagles right the ship?
Was any team more disappointing in Week 1 than the Eagles? To lose to the Washington Football Team is one thing, but the way they did it ... totally uninspiring.
Philadelphia was once again a popular Super Bowl pick in the NFC heading into 2020. In what seems like another annual tradition since the 2017 season, they also suffered a rash of injuries before kickoff. It showed in Week 1. The offensive line looked like a unit that will hold the offense back. Without Miles Sanders, the running game wasn’t even close to an asset with satellite back Boston Scott atop the depth chart. Jalen Reagor and DeSean Jackson saw their snaps managed, so an all-too-shallow passing game flowed through the tight ends and slot receiver Greg Ward. That trio combined for over 54 percent of the team targets. It’s not what you want.
The bigger issue was Carson Wentz, who didn’t look the least bit comfortable under the waves of pass rush brought on Washington’s front. Wentz didn’t complete any of his attempts under pressure, per SportsRadar, and routinely exacerbated the issue by holding onto the ball too long or running himself into heat.
The Eagles are going to have to deal with some level of injury problems all year, especially upfront on the line. In order to mitigate those issues, Wentz needs to play closer to his 2017 MVP form. Something tells me a date with a Rams front led by Aaron Donald isn’t the get-right spot he’ll need.
4 - Bounce-back spot for the 49ers?
Coming off a disappointing Week 1 loss, the 49ers walk into a perfect rebound scenario via a date with the Jets this weekend. The only question is whether they’re close enough to full form to make it happen.
San Francisco’s outside cornerback spot is decimated with injuries, most notably with Richard Sherman on IR. The passing game is also operating at way less than 100 percent with Deebo Samuel still on IR and George Kittle banged up. Thankfully, their opponent is in a similar boat. New York sports an abysmal cornerback corps and will be without their two best offensive players in Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder. It’s a tough scene when those are your two top players but the drop off to names like the 2020 version of Frank Gore, Chris Hogan or Breshad Perriman is quite steep.
San Francisco can almost certainly secure this road win — at least, they better. However, given all their health issues, it’s unlikely they can do it in a convincing enough fashion to silence those who believe they’ve lost ground to Seattle or perhaps even Los Angeles in the NFC West. Don’t be surprised if fewer than 40 points get put on the scoreboard in this one.
5 - What can Drew Brees show us?
While the disappointing debut of Tom Brady stole the headlines, Drew Brees’ performance on the other side of the field was perhaps even more worrisome. Brady was out of sync with his new teammates and not entirely in rhythm as a passer. That’s to be expected now that he’s in a new home. Brees, in the same system he’s thrived in for years, looked straight-up bad.
In 2019, Brees ranked No. 1 in on-target throw rate at 81 percent (per SportsRadar). He was the only passer to clear 80 percent. It’s obviously a tiny sample but in Week 1 he fell to 19th at 73.3 percent. All that while he ranking in the bottom-four with 4.7 intended air yards on his passes.
It’s hard to imagine Brees suddenly turning in a strong performance with his All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas either playing hurt or unavailable. Yet, this week presents a beatable matchup In Las Vegas’ secondary. If we don’t see an improved Brees in Week 2, we’ll need to start drastically re-imagining our expectations for the Saints as a whole. New Orleans has the defense to make a strong postseason run and a fully compromised quarterback could change them from a pass-friendly environment to a team that relies on its ground game and stop unit to chase a Super Bowl.
And we’ve seen that story before — in Peyton Manning’s final NFL season.