To the surprise of absolutely no one, million-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees has balled all the way out this year. On second thought, maybe it is a surprise because despite leading the Saints to their first playoff berth in four years, Brees mostly kept the balling to a minimum in 2017. He finished the season with 4,334 passing yards, his fewest since 2005, back when he was on the Chargers. His touchdown total was even more alarming—the 23 he dished out last year were his fewest since 2003.
That statistical snapshot would probably make you think Brees has lost a step, but that’s not the case. You see, Brees was still doing Brees things (NFL record 72.0 completion percentage, league-leading 8.09 yards per attempt, 103.9 quarterback rating, etc., etc.), just not as often. The reason? He didn’t have to.
For the first time in ages, the Saints actually had some semblance of a running game, allowing the veteran QB to finally take a backseat after a decade-plus of propping up the offense with his miracle of a right arm. Buoyed by the dual talents of Mark Ingram (who hails from the running back factory known as Alabama) and out-of-nowhere rookie Alvin Kamara (who also spent a minute in Tuscaloosa before making a name for himself as a Tennessee Volunteer), New Orleans led the NFL with 23 rushing touchdowns, easily their most of the Drew Brees Era. It must have been a nice change of pace for the 39-year-old, who had logged 600-plus attempts in seven straight seasons prior to getting a much-needed breather in 2017.
But that was last season. This year the Saints are back to their old slug-fest ways, treating fantasy owners to weekly shootouts with Brees at the epicenter of the madness. This change of philosophy (or a return to normalcy, depending on your vantage point) has obviously been a welcome sight to fantasy owners, many of whom were able to snag the former Super Bowl MVP in the later rounds of drafts this summer. Brees has been an absolute mad man through three games, completing an absurd 80.6 percent of his passes for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. That touchdown total increases to 10 if you include his rushing exploits (look at him go full Madden on this spin move against the Falcons). If not for Patrick Mahomes and his preposterous brand of weekly fantasy annihilation, we could be talking about Brees as the MVP front-runner through three weeks.
The Saints’ elder statesman recently suggested he could play until age 45 and with the way he’s been chugging from the fountain of youth this year, it’s not hard to fathom a geriatric Brees slinging touchdowns to Alvin Kamara’s grandkids someday. So what’s the cause of Brees’ renewed fantasy silliness? It’s been a perfect storm of factors including the complete and utter demise of New Orleans’ defense. The Saints’ defense has mostly underachieved throughout the Brees Era, but thanks to a breakout season from pass-rusher Cameron Jordan and the emergence of shutdown rookie Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans was unusually stingy last year.
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Of course, that’s all gone up in flames as the Saints have found themselves playing in weekly barnburners more out of necessity than by stylistic choice. No team has let up more points per game than New Orleans this year (34.3) while only the similarly offensive-minded Chiefs have yielded more yards on a weekly basis. Game-script has forced Brees to air it out an exhausting 129 times this year, fifth-most in the league behind Kirk Cousins, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff (two of whom played on Thursday night). We all know volume is the straw that stirs the drink in fantasy football and fortunately for us, Brees has been stirring like crazy this year.
Brees has also benefited from the presence of lead receiver Michael Thomas and budding mega-star Alvin Kamara. The former second-round pick has had plenty of weapons throughout his Saints tenure—Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham were both exquisite talents during their New Orleans heydays—but Thomas may be the most dominant receiver he’s ever had. The former Ohio State Buckeye will have 1,000 yards receiving by the time I finish this sentence. There’s been no stopping him. Sure he’s had cupcake matchups against the Buccaneers and Falcons, two teams that have essentially punted their secondaries, but even by Saints standards, the 25-year-old’s early carnage has been overwhelming bordering on superhuman.
Thomas has been an absolute gem, reeling in an impossible 38-of-40 targets (no need to get out your calculator—that’s a 95-percent success rate) for 398 yards and three touchdowns in the early going. Thomas’ 38 grabs are the most by any receiver in history through the first three weeks and put him on pace for 203 catches, a total that would eviscerate the current NFL mark held by Colts great Marvin Harrison (143). Antonio Brown may be a bigger name, but right now, nobody is doing wide receiver better than Michael Thomas.
When Le’Veon Bell’s contract drama began over a year ago, the rock-star running back argued that he should be paid not as a ball-carrier, but as a wide receiver. Never has the line between those positions been more blurred than in the case of Kamara. Incredibly, only two players in football, not just running backs, have logged more catches than Kamara in 2018. The early-down grinder does exist in today’s NFL—LeGarrette Blount has always fit that criteria. But that position seems to be on the verge of extinction as the league’s new crop of hybrid running backs has mostly rendered one-dimensional bruisers like Blount as relics of a bygone, run-first era. Not to be hyperbolic, but Kamara is quite literally the future of NFL running backs. Even the impending return of Mark Ingram, who is due back from suspension in Week 5, should do little to slow down Kamara’s insane momentum.
If you’re looking for a narrative to hang your hat on for this week’s game against the Giants, consider Brees’ pursuit of history. Last week the former Purdue Boilermaker passed Brett Favre for the most completions in NFL history and now he’s plotting his next takedown. The enemy target is Peyton Manning, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards with 71,940 (that’s over 40 miles of passes). Brees is right on his tail and could take Manning’s throne as early as Sunday.
As someone who has done his fair share of record-chasing in the past (the fastest 800 time at Northwestern Regional High School still belongs to yours truly), I know the motivation that comes with etching your name in history. It would take a Herculean effort for Brees to catch Manning on Sunday—he trails him by 417 yards—but the illustrious signal-caller could surely dial up a 400-burger if the situation called for it. The 18-year vet took Atlanta to the woodshed a week ago (398 yards, five combined touchdowns) and now it’s time for old-man Brees to drop some knowledge on the G-Men. Though it would be more theatrical if Brees set the mark at home next week on Monday Night Football, there’s no doubt he’ll be gunning for Peyton Sunday in the Meadowlands.
Fantasy Spin: A 400-yard spot might be asking too much of Brees, but he’ll certainly put his best effort forth with Manning’s record hanging in the balance on Sunday. Season-long players don’t need any advice when it comes to Brees—the play is to start him until his arm falls off. But if you’re hesitant to pay top dollar for him on DFS sites, or if you’re scared Brees will melt into a puddle because he’s playing outdoors for the first time this year, I’m begging you to reconsider. Don’t overthink this, guys. Just sit back and let the magic happen.
I imagine the conclusion most people drew from Thursday night’s slugfest at the Los Angeles Coliseum was that the Rams are extremely good. Like nonsensically, obnoxiously good. And while that’s 100 percent correct, I had a much different takeaway. Watching Todd Gurley unleash his usual mayhem on the Vikings, I wondered to myself, “How in the world did Jeff Fisher screw this up?”
The Rams skipped the whole “trust the process” phase of rebuilding to become an immediate Super Bowl contender under wiz kid head coach Sean McVay. But before McVay molded the Rams into what they are now, they were a laughingstock under the league’s most GIF-able head coach. Of Fisher’s countless failures, the one that stands out like a sore thumb is Gurley’s inexplicable disappearing act in 2016.
How could Fisher squander such an asset? Gurley never caught a touchdown pass in his two years under Fisher. Last year with McVay using his elixir of brains and boyish charm to guide the Rams’ turnaround, Gurley nabbed six touchdown catches while finishing second among running backs with 788 receiving yards—which was more than he had in his previous two years combined. McVay’s brief head-coaching tenure in L.A. has been a tour de force, but let’s not get carried away. After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Todd Gurley is pretty good at catching passes. All it takes is for you to not be Jeff Fisher.
I see a troubling parallel in Arizona. Perhaps it’s too early to judge the new, post-Bruce Arians regime, but questionable coaching seems to be at the forefront of David Johnson’s struggles this year. Johnson first earned his workhorse label under Arians, seeing a whopping 373 touches during his breakout 2016 season. DJ visited the end zone 20 times that year while emerging as a legit league-winner in fantasy. The Cardinals didn’t have a particularly inspiring season—they finished 7-8-1 and missed the playoffs—but that didn’t stop Johnson from burning the league to ashes.
Sometimes good coaching is as simple as getting out of the way and letting your best player do his thing. Which brings us to the 2018 version of Johnson, who is currently 20th in PPR points per game among running backs. That’s not what fantasy owners signed up for when they made Johnson a top-five pick this summer.
There were reasons to be weary of DJ coming off last year’s wrist injury and playing for a team headed nowhere fast, but the beauty of Johnson, at least in past years, was how insanely resistant he was to negative game script. Even in games where Arizona was playing from behind, Johnson could still be productive as a receiver. With more and more teams moving toward backfield committees, the 26-year-old stood tall as one of the few remaining do-it-all backs, a matchup-proof, jack-of-all-trades fantasy owners could count on in any environment.
But that’s not the Johnson we’ve seen this year. Hamstrung by game flow and more or less ignored in the passing game, DJ hasn’t just been a fantasy disappointment—he’s been a liability. The last time Johnson was healthy in 2016, he led all running backs with 80 catches. This year he’s tied for 16th in that category. The Cardinals fed Johnson an excessive 23.3 touches per game in 2016, a far cry from the 14.7 he’s averaged this season.
As Johnson’s price sinks lower and lower on DFS sites—this week he can be had for a downright reasonable $6,600 on DraftKings—fantasy owners are beginning to wonder, has DJ lost it? The shelf life of an NFL running back is notoriously short compared to other positions and at some point in the not-so-distant future (30 is often regarded as the point of no return for halfbacks, unless you’re Frank Gore), Johnson will begin the decline phase of his career. But not now. Not at age 26 and with fresh legs coming off last year’s lost season. Not coming off a three-year contract extension that made Johnson one of the highest-paid running backs in the sport.
Johnson’s three-game totals are an eyesore—he’s averaged a meager 3.4 yards per carry with a long run of 11 yards. While efficiency is a nice tool to have in your back pocket, it’s largely overrated in the fantasy realm. Nobody gave Melvin Gordon or LeSean McCoy flak for averaging under four yards per carry last year. The reason we looked past it was because both players were getting ridiculous volume and scoring touchdowns on a near-weekly basis.
Game script will probably be a problem for the Cardinals all year, though hopefully the offense will see some improvement now that first-round quarterback Josh Rosen has taken over for Sam Bradford, who was an utter disaster in his three starts. But even if Arizona is in catch-up mode late in games, Johnson needs to be the focal point of everything the Cardinals do on offense. Johnson has seen just six targets over his past two games. That’s ludicrous. Equally astonishing is the fact that DJ has managed a mere 10 catches this season, one more than backup Chase Edmonds.
Often when a quarterback is struggling to hit his receivers downfield, an OC will dial up a screen or check-down to the running back, which serves a dual purpose: 1) it maintains drives and 2) it’s an easy completion for the quarterback, giving him confidence to build on. But offensive coordinator Mike McCoy—who was fired midseason from his last gig in Denver, a job he landed after being let go as the Chargers’ head coach—has made little effort to involve Johnson as a pass-catcher. Head coach Steve Wilks has promised more touches for Johnson on multiple occasions, but so far it hasn’t happened. If Wilks is serious about getting DJ the ball, as he should be, he needs to relay that message to his offensive coordinator and he needs to do it fast.
Fantasy Spin: The move to Rosen is a clear upgrade for the Cardinals’ offense, though growing pains are likely. Easing Rosen in by establishing the run with Johnson would be a wise strategy Sunday against Seattle, but with Wilks and McCoy calling the shots, counting on DJ for anything more than RB2 production is probably a fool’s errand. Tread lightly.