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.
Is it time for the Texans to take flight?
It’s hard to remember a team drawing a more difficult start to the season than Houston here in 2020. The Chiefs, Ravens, and Steelers are probably the three best teams in the AFC. Each has taken their turn pinning an L onto Houston’s record to start the season.
Already operating in a hole, the Texans can’t really afford to drop to 0-4. Especially not now, when they’re playing a team riddled with problems on both sides of the ball. A loss to Minnesota would deal a huge blow to Houston’s playoff hopes.
While Kirk Cousins will always be the butt of jokes on Twitter — and let’s be clear: his play has deserved all the laughs — it’s the defense that’s been more problematic for Minnesota. A once proud unit has been ceding production at an alarming rate to start the year and allowing opponents to move the ball at will. The Vikings rank 21st in passing success rate and an abysmal 28th in rushing success rate allowed.
The secondary remains a huge concern, although Yannick Ngakoue starting to get up to speed has helped the pass defense overall. However, the run defense is still a total mess. The Packers and Titans, in particular, have run all over this team.
It feels like 100 years ago at this point but it’s only been a few weeks ago since we were all gushing over how spry David Johnson looked in the season opener. Since then, he’s failed to reach 35 yards rushing in two straight games, rushed for fewer than 2.5 yards per carry, and caught just four passes. So, not great. But to be fair, he did play two of the most stout fronts in the league over those two weeks.
Johnson could give the Texans an edge on the ground. And since the coaching staff believes your run game needs to be effective to work the play-action game (not true), getting Johnson rolling would be good for Deshaun Watson. We haven’t gotten the consistent big numbers one would expect from Watson or his band of receivers like Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks but this might be the perfect rebound spot against a young Vikings secondary that can be had over the top.
Can the Cardinals fire on all cylinders?
The Cardinals are, overall, off to a strong start to 2020. The team sits at 2-1 and looks like it has the juice to be in the thick of the NFC West race behind Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And yet, it certainly feels like the Cardinals offense, in particular, hasn’t truly hit its stride yet.
The highlights have been there, especially when Kyler Murray takes off running. The connection between the second-year passer and his new receiver DeAndre Hopkins has been white-hot. Hopkins leads the NFL in target share (35.6 percent) and doesn’t look like he’s lost a step from his Houston days.
But it hasn’t been popping off routinely overall. Arizona ranks 25th in the offensive success rate.
Kyler Murray has been average to disappointing as a passer, ranking 25th in catchable pass rate. He’s just ahead of such luminaries like Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield. He has the third-highest interception rate among starting quarterbacks. We’re just going to need better than that. Frankly, getting some ancillary guys beyond Hopkins involved in the passing game might actually help.
The running game has also been subpar. Kenyan Drake ranks 10th in the NFL in carries but hasn’t cleared 90 yards rushing yet. He could also use some more passing game work with just five targets on the year.
Luckily, this team gets the cure-all of NFL defenses this week in the Carolina Panthers’ “Just Graduated” stop unit. Carolina has the fewest sacks in the NFL (two), ranks 31st in pressure rate (14.4 percent) and has allowed the ninth-highest yards per carry (4.9). For the non-analytically inclined, that’s what we call ... bad.
Murray has been great for fantasy football thus far but we’re looking for him to string together a pristine passing performance against a defense with no heat up front. Drake should be able to enjoy his first smash game of the year.
Does T.J. Hockenson have his breakout game?
Through the weeks, the Saints defense is one of the NFL’s most disappointing units. While stacked with strong talent, the group has so far looked unable to come close to taking center stage as Drew Brees has looked more like a complementary player.
Perhaps their biggest problem has been the over-the-middle coverage. New Orleans has allowed league-highs in targets (38), catches (29), yards (290), and touchdowns (four) to the tight end position. Getting thumped by Raiders star Darren Waller in Week 2 is part of that but the Packers amalgamation of Robert Tonyan, Jace Sternberger, and Marcedes Lewis combined to post numbers similar to Waller the following game.
From a football standpoint, this makes sense. You’d rather go over the middle against some of New Orleans’ weaker players than throw into the teeth of their outside coverage led by shutdown corner Marshon Lattimore and ballhawk Janoris Jenkins. We like when the stats line up from a schematic angle.
Next up for this unit: T.J. Hockenson, fresh off an opportunity boost. Sure, if you watched the Lions in Week 3, you’re bent out of shape Jesse James got the touchdown love. Don’t miss the forest for the trees here. As Pro Football Focus’ Dwain McFarland notes, Hockenson set a career-high in Week 3 by running a route on 90 percent of Matthew Stafford’s dropbacks. That is a big development.
Hockenson has been a steady producer with 50-plus yards in every game but hasn’t enjoyed his true breakout game yet in 2020. Against this Saints defense bleeding production to his skill group, Week 4 could be the moment he solidifies himself as a clear top-end young player at the position.
Will the Eagles turn to Miles Sanders to save them?
The Eagles’ rough start to the 2020 season has been well-documented. Carson Wentz continues to take deserved heat from all sides about his play to start the year. The Eagles offense climbed out of the basement in Football Outsiders’ metrics coming out of Week 3 to rank a cool 28th as a scoring unit.
Again, much of the blame can be laid at Wentz’s feet. He’s in the middle of a slump, exacerbating issues brought on by an injured offensive line and a steadily depleting group of skill position threats. It’s stunning how banged-up the Eagles are on offense for the second year in a row. Still, Wentz errors layered on top are what’s making them not just a bad passing offense, but the NFL’s worst passing offense.
Make no mistake, that’s where we’re at with Philadelphia. The team ranks 32nd in passing success rate through three weeks. Now for the good news: The Eagles do boast the sixth-best rushing success rate on offense.
It stands to reason that as Philadelphia looks to resettle their presently erratic passer, they could turn from one of the most aggressively pass-heavy teams in the league to a more backfield-focused attack. Miles Sanders is certainly playing well enough to justify that treatment. The second-year back has been “stuffed” on just 2.6 percent of his carries thus far and has racked up 15 targets in just two games. He sits at five yards per carry. The Eagles are also blocking well for him and getting him into space. Sanders averages a full three yards rushing before first contact, per SportsRadar. Only two other backs with more than 20 carries have higher figures.
Head coach Doug Pederson said “fatigue” was the reason for Sanders’ limited second-half usage as the team went to overtime against the Bengals. It makes sense since Sanders missed a ton of practice time in an already truncated offseason with an injury and sat out Week 1. Let’s hope Sanders is ready to be saddled up with a big workload in Week 4, even in a tough spot against the 49ers still-stout front-seven. Given their current situation, he needs to be the engine of Philadelphia’s offense.
What happens to the Browns backfield if Dallas rolls over their defense?
We’ve seen just about the entire range of outcomes for the Browns backfield to this point in the season. The good, the solid, and the absolutely vomit-worthy.
In Week 1, as the Ravens cleaned the Browns’ clock, we got the vomit. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb split the snaps right down the middle, 36 to 35. Hunt ran 15 routes to 16 for Chubb. Not just unproductive but totally unpredictable from a workload standpoint. It was a disaster.
Then in Week 2, the Bengals got steamrolled by both backs. Each of them found the end zone twice and combined for 210 yards on the ground alone. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Last week, there wasn’t much to complain about amid a mildly competitive game against Washington. As the Browns rolled to an eventual win, Chubb ran 19 times for 108 yards and two scores. Hunt touched the ball 18 times and hauled in a touchdown reception.
What’s this game against the Cowboys going to look like? Cleveland’s defense got an efficiency boost in their metrics by playing Dwayne Haskins and Washington last week but Lamar Jackson’s Ravens absolutely punished them and Joe Burrow found some success, as well. It would be a stretch to say you have confidence in this stop unit. You’d have to be a wild optimist to say they match up well with a group as talent-rich as the Dallas Cowboys on offense.
We could get another sample of what the Browns backfield will look like when they fall behind. Hunt coming in banged up to this contest could help Chubb see enough passing snaps to save his floor in the event the Browns fall behind but it should still give you some pause. The Browns wisely want to run through their backfield that features two top-10 NFL running backs but that’s probably not in the cards against this Dallas offense.