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Fantasy Playbook: Which NFL Trends Are Here to Stay?

Why the Rams offense is for real, and why the Raiders are in real trouble

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re one-quarter of the way through the NFL season, and if the first four weeks of action have taught us anything, it’s that the league remains just as impossible to predict as ever. A few teams and players we thought were going to be good are, at least so far, pretty bad, and vice versa; the Bills, who haven’t gone to the playoffs since the year American Pie debuted in theaters, currently occupy the top spot in the AFC East, and the Jets, who were supposed to be tanking (and may actually be trying to), have won two games and are better than the still-winless Giants.

Meanwhile, last year’s top-ranked scoring defense (the Patriots) is ranked 31st in points allowed, and last year’s 32nd-ranked scoring offense (the Rams) is ranked no. 1 in points. What a weird, wonderful world this is, and unless you’re some sort of psychic, all the surprising developments around the league in this young season have undoubtedly had an impact on your fantasy football league. But which ones can we trust are “real,” and which others are just early-season statistical anomalies? Let’s break down a few unexpected happenings so far.

The Patriots Have the Worst Defense in Football

Tom Brady has posted a 116.6 passer rating through four games. The only problem so far is that the Patriots defense, which has surrendered an opposing passer rating of 116.5, is turning just about every opposing quarterback they face into a player of Brady’s caliber, too. New England’s done a good job of helping every opposing quarterback and offense they’ve faced this year post huge numbers: No defense has given up more yards (1,827), yards per play (7.2), or passing touchdowns (11) than the Patriots, and only the Colts have given up more points (128). The 32.0 points per game the Pats have given up so far would’ve ranked last in 2016. For an even wider angle at New England’s struggles, consider:

The Patriots haven’t been great at rushing the passer (just eight sacks, tied for 26th in the league), and combined with busted coverages, bad angles, and poor tackling, it’s been easy to move the football and score on this unit. With Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia running the show, you can expect some of the mental mistakes and communication issues that have plagued this unit to get cleaned up, but New England may have a real talent deficiency on that side of the ball that it cannot completely overcome.

In the past few years, the team jettisoned pass rushers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins and let Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long walk, and the lack of explosiveness and power rushing the passer has hurt this year’s defense. In the secondary, where New England’s issues have been more pronounced, the loss of Logan Ryan to free agency has stung—especially with uneven play from both no. 1 corner Malcolm Butler and big-ticket free-agent signee Stephon Gilmore. In short, the Patriots’ problems on defense don’t feel fluky. I’d expect them to improve marginally as the year goes on. They may even approach average, but until they do, they’re going to keep making opposing quarterbacks and skill players look like superstars.

Cam Newton Is Only Good If He’s Playing the Patriots

The Panthers former-MVP signal-caller has looked mostly like a shell of his former self this season, and in the three games prior to Carolina’s win in New England on Sunday (when he completed 76 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, one pick, and a rushing score), he’d thrown just two touchdowns to four picks at 6.8 yards per attempt for a 69.7 passer rating. Some have blamed that on offseason shoulder surgery, but Newton’s struggles date back to the beginning of last season. Combine his first three games this year with his line from 2016 (52.9 percent completion rate, 19 touchdowns, 14 picks, 6.9 yards per attempt, and a 75.8 passer rating), and he’s posting Brock Osweiler numbers outside of New England over the last two seasons.

So has Newton turned the corner and returned to form, or is the Patriots’ defense just that bad? I’d lean toward the latter at the moment. But one reason for optimism is that we saw the Panthers utilize Newton as a runner in the read-option and power-run game more often on Sunday, when he finished with eight rushes for 44 yards and a score. He topped 44 yards just twice last year but did it seven times during his MVP season in 2015.

The Panthers have said they want to limit how many times they ask Newton to carry the football and get hit, but just how willing are they to eliminate the thing that makes him one of the hardest players in the NFL to defend? At his best, Newton can throw a deep ball on one play then truck defenders on a power-sweep on the next. This stresses the defense both vertically and horizontally, which creates openings not only for the team’s running backs, but also for receivers running routes downfield. I’m not convinced we’ll see more of that next week, but if Carolina lets him, Newton could return to something resembling his MVP form and retake his mantle as a fantasy monster.

The Rams Have the Best Offense in Football

There’s probably nothing more shocking than the Rams’ offensive outburst. Sure, you could've expected new head coach and play-caller Sean McVay to start to slowly turn things around for a unit that finished last season last in points, yards, and yards per play. But to complete that turnaround almost instantaneously (the Rams are leading the league in points per game, are fifth in yards, and second in yards per play through four weeks) has been pretty unbelievable. Except … I do believe it.

Jared Goff’s sudden emergence doesn’t feel like a small-sample-size anomaly. He looks like a completely different player—he’s throwing with confidence and poise instead of shrinking in the face of pressure. He’s spreading the ball around to his playmakers. He’s been accurate. He’s attacked downfield.

But he hasn’t done it alone. The signing of blindside protector Andrew Whitworth has been a major boon to the team’s offensive line, and the longtime vet has given up just one pressure in four games. Todd Gurley’s emergence as a dual-threat runner and pass catcher has been exactly the type of support Goff’s needed, too, and it doesn’t hurt to have Sammy Watkins out there to throw to downfield. But it’s been McVay’s play designs and play-calling that have really turned the worst offensive group in the league into one of the best. He’s utilized motion in the backfield to create confusion on defense, maximized Gurley’s talents as an open-field runner with plenty of opportunities in the passing game, and mixed deep shots with dump-offs to help Goff find a rhythm early in games. There’s bound to be a few hiccups this year—the Seahawks should be a good test this week—and I don’t think they’ll be the top scorers in the NFL all year, but I’m sold on the Rams’ quick turnaround. This is a good offense. Gurley is going to keep producing, and Watkins and rookie Cooper Kupp are going to reap the benefits of the team’s resurgence.

Bill Lazor Makes the Bengals Offense Good Again

The Bengals were the last team in the NFL to score a touchdown this season, and after failing to find the end zone during eight quarters over the first two weeks of the season (both losses), the team fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. In the two games since Lazor took over, the offense has looked like a completely different group.

Let’s take a look at the splits:

Weeks 1 and 2: Nine points; 357 passing yards, 54.5 percent completion rate, no touchdowns, four interceptions, 47.2 passer rating, eight sacks; 159 yards rushing, 3.46 yards per attempt, no touchdowns

Weeks 3 and 4: 55 points; 455 passing yards, 80.7 percent completion rate, six touchdowns, no interceptions, 138.2 passer rating, six sacks; 196 yards rushing, 3.27 yards per attempt, no touchdowns

To fix the Bengals’ sputtering offense, Lazor did … well, he did the logical thing. He designed plays (screens, slants, swing passes, etc.) that would get the ball out of quarterback Andy Dalton’s hands quicker and avoid getting him hit behind a porous offensive line. Then he started feeding all-world receiver A.J. Green the ball—a lot. In the Bengals’ first game under Lazor, a 27-24 loss to the Packers, Green saw 13 targets come his way, catching 10 of them for 111 yards and a touchdown. In Sunday’s 31-7 blowout over the Browns, Green caught five passes for 63 yards and a score. Lazor has also made rookie running back Joe Mixon the focal point of the run game, too, and while that part of the offense is still lagging, a featured role gives Mixon the chance to get into a rhythm. Add in tight end Tyler Kroft’s six-catch, 68-yard, two-touchdown performance on Sunday, and we should all be anticipating the return of Tyler Eifert from a back injury that’s kept him off the field the last two weeks.

Of course, playing the Browns is going to boost your offensive numbers, but what Cincy was able to do offensively in Green Bay was encouraging. The offensive line remains a big liability, but there’s just too much talent in that group for the Bengals to fall back to their early-season struggles: As long as Lazor and Dalton keep getting the ball out quickly to mitigate the issues on the offensive line, the Bengals have a chance to return to respectability on offense—and Green, Mixon, and the skill position players will have the chance to post major fantasy points.

The Raiders Offense Isn’t Working

The Raiders have scored just 10 points in each of their last two games—both losses—and things look like they’re about to get worse. Receiver Amari Cooper has rediscovered his love for dropping passes. Marshawn Lynch hasn’t really provided the physical, foundational run game that the team thought he could when they traded for him and coaxed him out of retirement in the offseason. And worse yet, quarterback Derek Carr has a fractured back that could keep him out of the lineup for two to six weeks.

So is the Raiders’ offense doomed? Things aren’t looking great for it, especially in the coming weeks when the team faces off against tough defenses of the Ravens, Chiefs, and Bills. Not only will the team be without Carr, but backup EJ Manuel is going to have to rely on big bounce-backs from two offensive stalwarts in Cooper and Lynch. After catching nine passes for 95 yards and a score combined in his first two outings, Cooper has caught just three passes for 15 yards in his last two games. He’s dropped a pass in every game this year and has seven drops on just 19 catchable targets this season. It’s an issue that’s plagued the former Alabama star going all the way back to college but it’s never been this prominent. Meanwhile, Lynch is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, has scored just one touchdown all year, and in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos gained just 12 yards on nine carries. So far, Beast Mode’s looked a lot like a 31-year-old running back that took a year off from football—and there’s plenty of reason to be concerned he’ll look even worse as the year goes on and wear and tear sets in.

Cooper remains an incredible route runner and should continue to see plenty of targets in the passing game, and it’s worth bearing in mind that Lynch didn’t really catch onto the Seahawks’ offensive scheme until about the halfway point of his second season there—meaning a second-half resurgence is certainly possible. But for fantasy purposes, neither player feels like a solid bet until Carr returns, and possibly even beyond that.