Bears

Fantasy Football: 6 formerly unknown players who can make a major impact down the stretch

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USA TODAY

Fantasy Football: 6 formerly unknown players who can make a major impact down the stretch

Ever have that awkward feeling at a party or gathering of some kind where you should remember certain people, but just can’t quite recall their names? Yeah, me too and apparently so do a lot of fantasy football owners.

Recently, there have been several players from rookies to second-year pros that have gotten our attention with their impressive play. Yet up until recently, no one had any idea these guys were on a team or even active, let alone even relevant.

I love, love, love college football and routinely follow the progression of its players into the NFL. However, I honestly don’t recall the careers of guys like Nick Mullens, David Moore or Gus Edwards. Nothing, nada — I mean zero — memory of these players.

So, I think it’s best if these anonymous fantasy, mystery men introduce themselves — right here, right now.

David Moore, WR, Seahawks

Who am I? Yeah, I guess most folks wouldn’t have heard of me from my college days since it was at a Division-II school. Well, my name is David Moore and I went to East Central University, located in Ada, Oklahoma — population of 17,280. It's roughly one-fourth the size of CenturyLink Field, where I play wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.

Most teams slept on my measurables, ignoring a 6-foot, 215-pound frame that ran a 4.43 with a vertical of 36.5 inches. As a 7th-round pick in 2017, expectations were low, however I currently lead my team in ADoT (average depth of target) at 14.7 yards. The Top 3 receivers in the NFL don’t even come close to that stat (Michael Thomas/Saints - 8.1yds; Adam Thielen/Vikings - 8.7yds; Julio Jones/Falcons 13.4yds). 

Since our Week 7 bye, I’ve averaged 12.2 fantasy points per game. As a matter of fact, in Week 12 vs. the Panthers, I hauled in a 35-yard TD pass to tie the game at 27. It was my first game catching over 100 yds, but my fifth TD this season! Sleep on me if ya like, but if I were you, I’d take my hand off the snooze button and pay attention.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers

In 2017, The Ohio State University had 7 players drafted into the NFL. Three guys were drafted in the first round. Me? Curtis Samuel? I was drafted in the 2nd round, 40th overall by the Carolina Panthers.

Few people remember my final season at Ohio State, when I led the Big 10 conference with 128 all purpose yards per game and scored 15 TDs. My versatility and 4.3 speed with a 37-inch vertical scare plenty of defenders. One coach remarked that, I’m at my “best when matched up in open space, and get faster and more dangerous as the play unfolds.”

I wasn’t as explosive last season, but so far this year, I’ve scored 6 touchdowns — 4 receiving and 2 rushing. Over the last 5 weeks, my Panthers have averaged 29 pts per game. During that stretch, I’ve scored 4 TDs and scored double digit fantasy points 3 times. Right now, I may be touchdown dependent fantasy-wise, but my ability to score receiving or running make me a viable flex option. Plus, I have the easiest remaining schedule throughout the fantasy playoff picture.

Josh Reynolds, WR, Rams

Lots of folks call me “J.R.,” but the name on the birth certificate states: Josh Reynolds. Little known fact: I have the single season receiving record for touchdowns at Texas A&M with 13 scores. Yep, one better than former 7th overall pick Mike Evans (Buccaneers) and I didn’t have a Heisman Award winner tossin' me the pigskin either. Also, my career reception average of 17.0 is better than his 16.5. Just sayin', sometimes people forget unless you remind them from time to time.

If I come across as having a chip on my shoulder, it’s probably because I was picked in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL draft and put on the practice squad. It’s cool though, ‘cause players play and that’s exactly what I’m doing this season. In my last 2 starts, I’ve averaged 17 fantasy points and scored 3 TDs. With my boy Cooper Kupp on IR for the rest of the year, I should get to start the remaining games. Plus, think about it, his 7 targets a game have to go somewhere in this offense that relies heavily on 3 receiver sets. 

If I’m keepin’ it real (and I am), I don’t drop the ball when it’s thrown my way. My drop rate is 0v%, whereas my teammates Brandin Cooks is 1.2 %, and Robert Woods a robust 3.3 %. The next 3 teams we face (Lions, Bears, Eagles), rank in the lower half of the league in passing yards allowed. More importantly, they’ve collectively given up 59 passing TDs this season. Time to shine!

Robert Foster, WR, Bills

Jones, Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley — these are the Alabama receivers people remember. But not me, Robert Foster. Heck, they even think of linebacker Reuben Foster at Alabama before they think of this Foster. In my injury-plagued four years at ‘Bama, I only caught 3 touchdowns. Yet, somehow I still got invited to the 2018 NFL combine (Roll Tide!), where I ran a 4.41 40 time.

The Buffalo Bills took me in as an undrafted rookie free agent, where I reunited with my college offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll (Roll Tide!). Well, with a little bit of luck mixed in with good health (finally) and opportunity, I’ve averaged 99.5 yards a game over the last 2 games. I also scored my first NFL TD on a 75-yard bomb from fellow rookie Josh Allen while battling the Jaguars. These past 2 contests, I’ve scored 11 and 16 fantasy points, respectively, and look forward to finishing the season strong. The Bills took a chance on me, so maybe it’s time for some fantasy owners to do the same (Roll Tide!).

Nick Mullens, QB, 49ers

No, I’m not surprised you hadn’t heard of me considering the well-known quarterbacks chosen in the 2017 NFL Draft. Jeez, I mean 3 guys (Mitch Trubisky/Bears, Patrick Mahomes/Chiefs, Deshaun Watson/Texans) were selected in the 1st round alone and every QB picked that year was from a power five conference. What? Oh…still don’t know who I am. Right, sorry about that. My name is Nicholas Clayton Mullens, but, I generally go by Nick Mullens — QB for the San Francisco 49ers.

Quiet as it’s kept, I own every statistical passing record at Southern Miss University. My 11,994 passing yards & 87 TDs dwarf Brett Favre's 7,695 yds & 52 TDs at our alma mater. Actually, I threw for twice as many yards and touchdowns as my teammate, CJ Beathard ( 5,562 yds & 40 TDs) and he was selected in the 3rd round in 2017. I signed as an undrafted free agent.

Call it irony, karma or fate but I finally got a chance to prove myself after CJ injured his wrist. Joe Montana, Steve Young nor any other 49er QB debuted the way I did on Thursday night, Nov. 1st, 2018. Passing for 262 yards, 3 touchdowns with a completion rate of 72.7% in front of a national audience was magical. I know I’ve struggled these past 2 road games, tossing 2 TD passes and 4 Ints, but don’t count me out. Three of our next four games are at home and that’s where the “magic” first happened.

Gus Edwards, RB, Ravens

Say again? How do I what...like the nickname? Gus “the Bus” Edwards? Yeah, its cool, I like it. What was that? How do I feel about being the second rookie running back in Ravens history, to have back-to-back 100 yard games? I just want to play football. Coach said what?

“He gives us that back that we probably didn’t have earlier in the year. Yes, he’s doing a good job, and he has that big-back-type build, which is a big plus.”

Wow, Coach said all that? Well, it’s a blessing and I’m thankful for the opportunities. I just want to play football. Was I aware that I’m averaging 5.4 yards per carry? Yes. Excuse me…? Please repeat. Oh, you said the next 4 opponents give up a combined 4.8 yards per rush attempt? Good to know. How do I feel about likely starting the rest of the season, even when Alex Collins is back healthy? Man, I just want to play football.

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

The Bears love their defensive depth. Now their playoff chances – and offseason plans – rely on it

As it turns out, the Bears’ inside linebacker situation is a great litmus test for how you feel about the team in general. Roquan Smith is done for the year, and it doesn’t feel like Danny Trevathan is ready to return yet. The Bears will likely have to win out with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis, and while that was certainly never the plan, it also may not be the disaster that many think. 

“It’s unfortunate with some of the injuries that we’ve had this year,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “But it’s a part of the game. It’s a physical game. I just like the fact that our coaches are preparing our depth guys to come in. It’s no slight on the other guys — the depth of guys that are coming in and playing, we like that.”

The Bears coaches, particularly on defense, have raved all year about the depth across all three levels. How Kwiatkoski and KPL – both UFA’s after the season – play is quietly one of the more important storylines in a final three weeks that’s already not lacking for narrative substance.

“I think they both can do the jobs,” inside linebackers coach Mark Deleone said. “There’s a perception about Kwit that I think, this year, he’s shown that he has coverage skills, and he’s done really well this year when we’ve put him in those situations. I feel comfortable with both of them – they play different positions, but they do a lot of the same jobs. I don’t feel like we’re changing the way those two guys play, based off who’s in the game.”

The good news is that so far, things look good. Though he’s only appeared in seven games, Nick Kwiatkoski’s overall grade (79.8), per Pro Football Focus, is already the fourth-highest on the defense. 

“I think he’s productive,” Deleone said. “Every single game he’s played serious minutes in, he’s made a lot of plays. And that’s something that, and I really believe this, that good linebackers make tackles. And he’s made a lot when he’s played.”

The only players with higher scores? Sherrick McManis (!), Khalil Mack, and … Kevin Pierre-Louis. After logging the second-most snaps (46) of his 68-game career, KPL was PFF’s highest-graded player on the Bears’ defense. 

“It’s not college anymore, where certain players supposedly have to do everything,” he said on Monday. “We have the right pieces, so I just have to make sure I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

Deleone said that if Kwiatkoski and KPL are in fact the starters in Green Bay this Sunday, Kwiatkoski will wear the green dot. Even still, facing Aaron Rodgers and a Packers’ run game that ranks fourth in DVOA is a lot to ask, and possibly (probably?) getting Akiem Hicks back will be critical to helping both ILBs. The team’s still working to gauge where Hicks is physically, and for the first time since suffering the injury, he’ll be going against blocks in practice.

“I’ve always thought that Akiem has been an integral part of this defense,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “When he’s on the field, he obviously has more impact than when he’s off the field. But his impact off the field has been great so far.” 

Getting Hicks back in time for the Packers game may be especially good news for Leonard Floyd, who, for whatever reason, has a fun tendency of putting together huge games against Green Bay. Floyd is well on his way to another divisive and all-around confusing season: sack loyalists see a bad player, the analytics see a productive player, and the Bears see a great one.

“I think there are a lot of DBs that would love to have some of his traits,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “I think there’s a lot of defensive linemen that would love to have some of those traits, and they just don’t. He’s got that package, and if we can get him to finish those rushes and drive those sack numbers up, I think that we’d all be talking about him differently.”

The ifs are doing a lot of heavy lifting in that quote, and eventually the Bears are going to have to decide if they want to pay top dollar for a player whose best contributions can only be described because they ‘don’t show up on tape.’ For what it’s worth, Monachino also said that he can’t think of too many players that he’s asked more from than Floyd, and that every week the edge rusher is in the conversation for “who does [their] job best on our defense.”

Especially with Kevin Tolliver filling in for Prince Amukamara, the Bears’ defense looks as unfamiliar as it has during the Khalil Mack era, and at the worst time. They’ve always been proud of their depth, and now their playoff odds – not to mention offseason budgetary plans – directly rely on it. With all that in mind, you can understand why Matt Nagy’s still looking for this season’s silver lining.

The Bears' run game hasn't been good. Yet in a weird way, it's also why they win

The Bears' run game hasn't been good. Yet in a weird way, it's also why they win

Is the Bears’ run game working? 

It’s a simple (fine, lazy) question that, however binary, continues to have a complicated answer. It quickly became pretty clear that the David Montgomery-Tarik Cohen combination would be a work in progress, and on the surface, neither have particularly impressive stats thus far. The team ranks 29th in rushing DVOA and only the Dolphins (3-10) and the Jets (5-8) have a lower average yards per carry than the Bears (3.5). 

But check this out: The Bears are 7-2 when they rush the ball 20+ times. They’re winless (0-4) when they run it any less.

“For our offense, I just appreciate the way that our guys have continued to just fight through this year and try to figure out where we're at,” Matt Nagy said on Monday. “I do feel a lot better with where we're at right now as an offense. That part, that's good, and that's a credit to our guys.” 

The obvious talking point when it comes to the Bears’ running woes has been Tarik Cohen’s decline in production. As a rusher, he’s on pace to set career worsts in yards per attempt (3.1), yards per game (12.1), and attempts per game (3.2). The analytics are brutal too: according to Pro Football Focus, his Yards After Contact per Attempt (YCO/A) is under 2.0 for the first time in his career; Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric says he’s 18% less effective, per play, than the average NFL running back. 

Before the Bears’ Week 12 game against the Giants, Nagy talked at the podium about wanting to get Cohen more touches. “Trust me,” he said. “Just like everybody, we want to do everything we can to get 29 going. He’s a playmaker and every time he’s on the field, even if he doesn’t touch the football, the defense has to know where he’s at.”

That Sunday Cohen would have 9 targets and six rushes. Since then? 10 targets and six rushes. 

“Teams are doing a good job game planning for him,” running backs coach Charles London said. “I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but every time he’s out on a route, there’s a lineman trying to hit him. He’s usually double-teamed. They’re usually trying to stay on top of him so he can’t go deep. Teams have done good jobs scheming him, but we’ve just got to continue finding ways to give him the ball.” 

Cohen was never meant to be the feature back, and his struggles to regain that explosive form is felt far more in the pass game than it is on the ground. He’s having a weird year as a pass-catcher: he’s on pace to set a career high in receptions per game (4.6), but his yards per game (25.4) is barely half of what it was last season, as is his yards per reception (5.5). As well as any stat can, this one says it all: Cohen had a 70-yard play in each of his first two seasons. This year his longest play, so far, has gone for 31. 

“It’s just about moving the chains,” London added. “It may be a three or four yard route, but maybe it’s third-and-three and we move it and get another set of downs. I think that’s the biggest thing – obviously we’d like some more explosive plays there, and we’ve got to do a better job as coaches of getting him those touches. But as long as we’re moving the chains, we’re good with it.” 

There’s also no denying that Cohen’s usage coincides with David Montgomery, who’s on pace to get more carries in his first season (roughly 265 by back-of-napkin-math) than the Bears gave Jordan Howard in 2018. Montgomery’s season started slowly, but the rookie had his breakout game (27 rushes, 135 yards and a touchdown) against the Chargers in Week 8, and most recently has strung together back-to-back games averaging over 4.0 yards per rush for the first time in his career. 

“I think it’s just him seeing the holes,” London said. “I think he’s done a good job, especially the last 2-3 weeks, of just seeing how the line is blocking and getting a feel for how the game’s going, getting a feel for how the run’s being blocked. I think he’s done a really good job of it the last few weeks.” 

Running the ball isn't what Nagy was hired to do – or wants to do – but it’s hard to say the ground game isn’t working when the Bears are a far better team when they commit to it. 

“I think that just right now, what the feel is with our offense is that it's not just the running back, it's not just the quarterback, it's not just the O-line,” Nagy added on Monday. “Everybody is just kind of syncing right now.”