The NFL rarely stays the same from week to week. That can be both a gift and a curse. Fantasy owners hate it when no-names steal the spotlight from established stars (AKA the guys in their starting lineups) but it all makes for good Sunday drama, and who doesn’t need a little of that?
If we’re looking at the NFL through that lens, Sunday was a resounding success. The Patriots continued their Sunday ritual of losing a star player (best wishes, Gronk) but the rest of the NFL went completely off script. The 49ers pushed Arizona to the brink. Todd Gurley crawled into a dark hole and stayed there (that’s the last time I’ll volunteer to cover a Rams game). The Legion of Boom disintegrated before our eyes (the LOB is really just Richard Sherman at this point). And most surprising of all, Russell Wilson outdueled Ben Roethlisberger in a shootout.
It’s not that Wilson can’t bring the thunder. He’s led the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. If Malcolm Butler hadn’t intervened, we could be looking at one of the best starts to a career in NFL history. Wilson is a certified rock-star with a cannon arm and game-changing speed.
But Seattle’s offense isn’t set up for Wilson to go berserk. Most games, Wilson throws a few deep balls, makes a couple plays with his feet and hands the ball off to Marshawn Lynch or Thomas Rawls (whoever’s the healthiest). Lather, rinse, repeat.
Sunday’s explosion represented Wilson’s first 300-yard effort since Week 16 of last season. That’s partially by design but also a product of Seattle’s underwhelming receiving corps. Wilson has never had an Antonio Brown or even a Martavis Bryant to throw to. He’s been given spare parts, scrap-heap guys who get from Point A to Point B.
Of course, that was before Doug Baldwin announced his presence with a game fantasy owners (especially the ones he made rich on FanDuel) won’t soon forget. Which begs the question, has Baldwin secretly been elite all along? You could ask the same of Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton, who somehow topped Baldwin Sunday by delivering nine catches for 201 yards in a losing effort. The short answer to both questions is no, but let’s look at some video first.
We begin in the second quarter with Baldwin’s first touchdown of the game. Wilson steps up in the pocket and uncoils a dart to Baldwin on a well-executed seam route. Jimmy Graham breaks to the left while Tyler Lockett peels off to the right. Both attract defenders, leaving Baldwin wide open for a 16-yard score.
It’s a well-designed play but the Steelers should have been ready for it. Wilson loves taking shots at the end zone, particularly when the Seahawks are inside the 30. Pittsburgh has allowed the third-most passing yards per game and it’s easy to see why with plays like this.
You wouldn’t know it because Rawls and the defense have been grabbing most of the headlines, but Baldwin has really come on strong over the last month. Including Sunday’s 145-yard showing, Baldwin has secured 19 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in his last three games.
To put that in perspective, Julio Jones has totaled 353 yards during that same span while Odell Beckham has 351. Those are two of the best receivers in football and Baldwin is right there with them. The difference is Beckham and Jones are owned in 100 percent of Yahoo leagues while Baldwin’s ownership is hovering around 35 percent. It’s safe to say that number will rise.
Let’s fast-forward to the fourth quarter. Here Wilson finds Baldwin along the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown. It’s a nice find by Wilson and another pitiful job by the Pittsburgh secondary. Will Allen arrives late and can only watch as Baldwin gallops into the end zone for the second time. Baldwin applies good fundamentals by bringing the ball to his chest and bracing himself for the hit. It’s not a highlight reel play but it’s certainly effective and a good example of Wilson exploiting a weak matchup.
Now this next touchdown takes some serious skill. With the blitz coming, Wilson finds Baldwin in stride and leads him down the sideline. Baldwin breaks a tackle and then it’s off to the races. That’s how you put an exclamation point on a win.
As I alluded to earlier, Baldwin is going to be a popular waiver pickup this week. Ordinarily, I’d condemn that as point-chasing in its purest form, but Baldwin has actually built a decent body of work, particularly over the last few weeks. He’s on pace for 995 yards and nine touchdowns, which are both respectable totals. But more importantly, he’ll have a chance to step in as the featured receiver while Jimmy Graham is sidelined with a torn patellar tendon. Here’s the footage of Graham’s gruesome injury.
I suppose there’s an argument for why Baldwin might not succeed in Graham’s absence. Graham wasn’t on the team last year and Baldwin still managed just 825 yards and three touchdowns. Those are waiver wire numbers. Graham is usually covered by safeties and linebackers because of his size while Baldwin draws cornerbacks in coverage, so it’s not like their roles are interchangeable.
With that said, the needle is certainly pointing up on Baldwin and it wouldn’t be surprising if he finished out the year as a weekly flex option. It’s a little dangerous to tweak your fantasy lineups this close to the playoffs but if your team is in dire straits, I think you can do a lot worse than Baldwin.
Baldwin’s fantasy resume, though still a bit flimsy, is much stronger than Markus Wheaton’s. The 201 yards he tallied Sunday were more than he had in his previous eight games combined.
It’s easy to see why Wheaton might fall through the cracks. Antonio Brown is a top-three wide receiver while Martavis Bryant is already one of the league’s premier deep threats. Most weeks, that doesn’t leave much work for Wheaton.
Last week I watched DeAndre Hopkins against Darrelle Revis and concluded that Hopkins is one of the few truly matchup-proof players in football. I’d put Antonio Brown in that same category but Sunday, he had a hard time getting open against Richard Sherman. Sherman probably should have been flagged for pass interference on this play but when you’re at home, those calls usually go your way.
Here, Sherman anticipates the throw from Roethlisberger and jumps the route for an easy interception. Sherman smothered Brown like this all game.
By putting their best corner on Brown, the Seahawks dared the Steelers to beat them with someone else. Fortunately for the black and gold, Wheaton was up to the task. Watch Wheaton haul in this 41-yarder with Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor in his grill.
Wheaton entered the day with a career-high of 97 yards. He had that beat by halftime on Sunday. Watch him embarrass Jeremy Lane on this 69-yard-touchdown in the fourth quarter.
I have no idea what Wheaton’s ownership on FanDuel was this week but I’m guessing it was close to zero. So I guess the question is, should we have seen this coming?
With Sherman essentially taking Brown out of the game, it makes sense that Wheaton would see a bigger workload than usual. But that’s been the case before and it’s never led to much fantasy success. Martavis Bryant was suspended for Pittsburgh’s first four games and missed another game with a knee injury. Wheaton averaged 45.6 yards in that span. The Steelers’ whole offense went down the tubes with Michael Vick at quarterback in Weeks 4 and 5, but Wheaton still showed us very little even when Roethlisberger was healthy.
Wheaton’s game Sunday sure looks like an outlier but maybe there’s more to it than that. A fringe guy like Nate Washington or Kenny Britt could put up 75 yards and a touchdown and no one would flinch, but 200 yards? That’s a much different threshold. Maybe Wheaton has stumbled upon some untapped potential. Starting him on the strength of one great game would be a debacle, but adding Wheaton as a bench stash in fantasy makes a lot of sense.
This wasn’t the Sunday we expected or even the one we asked for, but it’s the one we got. Let’s do it again next week.