It's past time to start respecting budding star Brandon Aiyuk
Percentage of team targets: 31%
Percentage of team air yards: 36%
Percentage of red-zone targets: 25%
*Since Week 8
I totally bought the hype on the 2020 NFL Draft’s wide receiver class. I was right there on CeeDee Lamb as an A+ prospect. I was so impressed with Jerry Jeudy as a route runner. I knew Justin Jefferson was the type of guy who would look like a pro receiver the minute he hit the NFL field. I even had confidence some of the receivers who went in Round 2 and beyond would become quality starters.
But the one player who has caught me off guard with not just how good he’s been, but how quickly he’s developed into a stud is Brandon Aiyuk.
Let’s not hold back here: Aiyuk isn’t just producing and playing on film like a star — the 49ers are treating him like one. The usage metrics listed above show that in plain view. And he has been producing at a top-tier level, as well. In that same span listed above (five games worth), Aiyuk has caught 36 passes for 495 yards and scored three touchdowns. He’s been working as a true downfield receiver at a much higher rate than many expected all season. The rookie has hauled in all four of his catchable passes of 20-plus air yards in 2020 for a team-best 139 yards.
It’s a small sample of games to call Aiyuk a bonafide superstar already but this stretch does look more impressive when you put it in context. This is a rookie who missed a ton of practice time with a hamstring injury in an already weird offseason. Then, when the games started, he’s dealt with not just that injury, but stints on the COVID-19 list and playing with backup quarterbacks.
If the resume that Aiyuk is putting together doesn’t spell ascending wideout and every-week fantasy gold, I’m not sure what would.
We should all be fawning over players like Lamb and Jefferson when we’re talking about the rookie studs of today and the future league-wide stars of tomorrow.
But if you’re not including Aiyuk in that conversation, you’re not doing it right.
A pair of surprising “Top-5 QBs” in EPA per Play
Philip Rivers - 4th
Baker Mayfield - 5th
*Since Week 10
Perhaps it’s not a shock that Philip Rivers and Baker Mayfield are playing well considering their teams are surging toward AFC playoff spots. At the same time, because of who these quarterbacks are, it might catch folks off guard.
I’ve been as skeptical as anyone about the Philip Rivers experiment in Indianapolis. It’s hardly brave to admit I was wrong at this point of the season as the team sits at 9-4, nor does anyone care, but I’m nonetheless copping to my error.
Frank Reich is designing and coaching this offense to perfection. He’s really underrated when we’re talking about some of the best offensive coaches of the current day. Reich has both the passing and rushing attacks clicking at the exact same time while the curtain begins to fall on the regular season.
He’s worked within the confines of his own talent and his quarterback’s abilities. Even as I’ve worried about Rivers’ foot injury, Reich has made it so that it doesn’t matter. Rivers doesn’t move outside of the confined pocket space as it is, even when he’s using play action. There are no boots in this offense. The top two wide receivers have altered their game to suit Rivers, as T.Y. Hilton has been the target on “pocket-based” throws like out-breaking patterns and posts, while the athletic rookie Michael Pittman Jr. has made noise on crossers.
The Colts offense is absolutely one we need to continue trusting. The same can be said for the Cleveland offense.
I’ve been drawn to Kevin Stefanski’s design and play-calling all season. He mixes in concepts so well from a variety of different schools of thought. The run game is tough to stop and the passing game makes life easy on the quarterback.
That brings us to Mayfield. As the EPA metric shows us, he’s playing acceptable football. Much of it has to do with how Stefanski is keeping the training wheels on him. And yet, we can say that for a huge swath of quarterbacks and their offenses in the NFL right now. Mayfield is doing his part the last month-plus to just keep the train on the track, something he wasn’t doing early in the year.
It’s an easy analogy to make because Stefanski just coached this particular player, but no one should be surprised if Mayfield ends up having a Kirk Cousins-type of career. You might want more out of your No. 1 overall pick but signal-caller-beggars can’t be choosers here. Cleveland has certainly been busking on quarterback alley for some time now. Just like Cousins, Mayfield might inspire many hotly contested “but how good is he” debates and contract conundrums the rest of his career. But just like the former, don’t be surprised when the latter puts together some decent passing attacks when under the guidance of good coaching and surrounded by quality skill-position talent.
We probably need to talk about Mitchell Trubisky
On-target throw rate: 75.2% (Ranks 12th)
Air yards per completion: 4.5
Interception rate: 1.8
Time to throw: 2.53
*Over the last three weeks
For real though, we don’t need to talk about Mitchell Trubisky on his own. Any conversation about him “finally figuring things out” or “resurrecting his career” in Chicago is a waste of time.
It shouldn’t matter what he does in a two-week stretch against the Lions and Texans’ ghastly defenses. If the Bears ownership decides to run it back one more time with this quarterback, coaching staff, and front office, they’ll deserve what hell awaits them.
The future of the Bears should already be locked in. It’s a fate that involves a full-scale teardown and rebuild. The present state of the team and it’s ultra short-term outlook until Week 17, however, has been made more interesting by Trubisky’s return. Anyone who watched the Bears this year knew that Trubisky would be better suited as the point-man in this doomed offense over Nick Foles. It doesn’t matter if you know the system inside and out like Foles does when you offer net-negative ability as a mover. Trubisky’s athleticism lets them at least operate better in chaos. And ... here we are.
Let’s be clear, we’re not asking for much out of Trubisky. We’re asking him to get the ball to Allen Robinson almost exclusively. Check. We’re asking him to keep the offense moving so the running game doesn’t sputter. Check. We’re asking him to just stay out of the way in this process by throwing short passes, getting rid of the ball quickly, and limit interceptions. As the metrics above show: Check, check, and check.
If mercy exists for a tortured Chicago Bears fanbase, this will be Trubisky’s last ride as the team’s starter. At the end of the year, he can turn his horse to the horizon and gallop out of town towards a long career as a mercurial backup quarterback, ala Blake Bortles.
Then the team will be free to strip the house down to the bones. At least during his last ride, he’s making it count for fantasy football players.
Jalen Hurts: The good and the bad
On target throw rate: 56.7% (bottom-five in Week 14)
Air yards per completion: 2.8 (31st)
Scrambles: 4 on 30 dropbacks
Time to throw: 3.07
Translation: Jalen Hurts’ ability to make good things happen with his legs when he has to hold the ball as plays develop is a good thing. After a one week sample, his passing remains a mystery.
Whenever a quarterback’s time to throw is clearing the three-second mark, you know they’re scrambling or executing play-action bootlegs. Hurts fits into the former category, as the team didn’t really take advantage of boot play-fakes in Week 14.
That’s something that Doug Pederson and his big staff of offensive coaches can look to incorporate more as Hurts gets more games under his belt. Those types of concepts will naturally boost Hurts’ efficiency and accuracy as a passer. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge his throwing ability after just one start.
What we can say for sure is that the one big winner here is Miles Sanders. This was a player coming in as cold as one could possibly be with 18 touches in his previous two games and a severe lack of big plays. Then, Sanders ripped into the Saints’ second-ranked run defense (by DVOA) in Week 14 for multiple big plays at 8.2 yards per carry and scored twice.
If Sanders is going to run the rest of the season with a quarterback who is going to get a healthy mix of designed runs and be a scrambling threat, he’s back to set-it-and-forget-it territory in fantasy football.
Darrell Bevell making progress in Detroit
One way to look at which NFL play-callers do the best job with their "first 15" game scripts:
Who has the highest EPA on first possessions? Per @TruMediaSports:
1. Packers (LaFleur)
2. Rams (McVay)
3. Lions (Bevell)
4. Chiefs (Reid)
5. Colts (Reich)
— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 15, 2020
I saw this list and wanted to expand on it here because there was one big surprise.
Obviously, no one is shocked to see Sean McVay or Andy Reid here, and no one should question Matt LaFleur at this point after composing the league’s most efficient offense along with Aaron Rodgers in 2020. As we discussed above, if you’re thrown off by Frank Reich being in this top-five, that’s on you at this point.
The real shocker here is that Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator and temp head coach Darrell Bevell is among the most successful at scripting plays.
It’s not too weird though, if you think about it. After all, the Lions offense was absolutely cooking in the first half of 2019 when Matthew Stafford was on the field. Bevell had Stafford back to throwing heaters downfield after toiling away under the Jim Bob Cooter popgun-passing regime for too long.
Things fell apart when Stafford got hurt last year. In 2020, however, they’ve been just fine, ranking 13th in offensive DVOA. But that leads me to two takeaways.
If the portion of the plays where Bevell is scripting things out is working, that means something is going awry after. Again, I’m willing to take that in two directions.
First, ultra-conservative meddler and now-departed Matt Patricia doesn’t help move the needle as the game goes on. Whether it’s his insistence on running the ball or his own miserable defense putting the offense in negative scripts too quickly, he’s mucking things up. It’s no surprise the offense woke up in the first game without Patricia in town; players described it as a breath of fresh air.
Secondly, the personnel in Detroit is severely lacking. Guys like Marvin Jones and T.J. Hockenson are reliable but rookie D’Andre Swift has too often been absent. Most importantly, Kenny Golladay has barely played in 2020. He was a straight baller in 2019 when the offense was clicking. In fact, my biggest takeaway from this entire exercise is that the impending free agent deserves more league-wide credit as a difference-maker. He’ll probably get that and a fat contract come March.
While all this analysis might not mean much for next season ... it does lead me to be quite interested in where this veteran offensive coach ends up calling plays in 2021.