In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned from the Week 2 action and give you five things I care about along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for.
Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
Lamar Jackson exorcises some demons
We tend to put some stupid labels on players — especially the young guys — that cement a stigma to their game far too early in their careers.
So the fact that I’m labeling anything as a “demon” for Lamar Jackson after he’s been in the league for less than four full seasons seems silly. Yet, the fact that he toppled the Chiefs on Sunday night in a game where the Ravens trailed does feel like a big deal.
The narrative that Lamar Jackson can’t pass to win or can’t lead a team from behind was always a bit faulty. Jackson has four game-winning drives on his resume from 2018 to 2020 and the data shows he actually thrives in expected passing situations:
Just wait until defenses force Lamar Jackson to pass in order to win! https://t.co/SWCoU134mK
— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) August 31, 2021
It’s doing it against the Chiefs and finally vanquishing Patrick Mahomes, the only guy ahead of him on the list above, that is actually major.
If we’re any bit lucky, we’re going to get treated to a multitude of Jackson v. Mahomes matchups for the next decade. Narratives will be created, legends will be made and storylines will flow. That would be football bliss. I’m even more sure of it than ever, in the wake of the classic we just watched Sunday night.
Mahomes has been the leading man through their series. The Chiefs had won all three of the previous matchups, including a convincing 2020 victory. Mahomes had averaged over 370 passing yards per game. He came close to both marks in Week 2 but ultimately fell short.
Instead, it was Lamar Jackson who reminded everyone that he’s without question one of the league’s best talents. Keep in mind, this might be the weakest version of the Ravens Jackson’s ever taken with him into a date with Kansas City. The offensive line holes, defensive injuries, and missing pieces on offense are real problems. Instead of wilting with his surroundings, Jackson did what great players do: He shook off some bad moments early and elevated his game to lift the others.
Jackson completed 69 percent of his passes for 239 yards and a score and totaled 107 yards and two scores on the ground. He’s just shy of Kyler Murray for the QB1 overall spot in Week 2. Jackson's passing became more efficient the longer the game went on and he smoked the Chiefs as a scrambler. It’s still difficult to understand why we’ve gotten to a point where we’re laser-focused on criticizing his every pass and just waving off his elite rushing production — as if those are just fake yards and fake points on the scoreboard.
I’ll admit to having my small doubts as to whether Jackson could rise above the worsening conditions of Baltimore’s roster. To do just that against this opponent speaks volumes.
Even better news for Jackson? His own elevation coincides with one long-standing weakness on the Ravens roster suddenly looking like a positive. The Ravens appear to be getting a Year 3 leap from Marquise Brown, who frankly has played good football ever since about Week 12 of last year, and solid play from Sammy Watkins. That’s light years ahead of what this receiver room usually is, and rookie Rashod Bateman is still waiting to arrive when he comes off IR.
Consider me among the most excited to see what Lamar Jackson does next after slaying an early career dragon in Week 2. The best might just be yet to come.
Any remaining doubters are running out of “Yeah, buts” at this point.
Michael Pittman’s breakout game
Almost any fantasy analyst would have told you not to start Michael Pittman in Week 2 — even those who were projecting a breakout season for him. Count me among that crowd.
That’s what makes Pittman's dynamic performance so encouraging and important ... even if it happened on your bench.
Pittman drew 12 targets and delivered 123 yards on eight catches. He made big plays, including a 42-yard bomb from the slot, and collected chunk plays on slant routes, hitches, and digs. Pittman looked like a bonafide No. 1 wide receiver. Remember, this was all against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
From an opportunity perspective, Pittman checks every box too. He leads the team with 85 routes run through two weeks and is averaging 11.1 air yards per target, reflective of his full-field skillset.
Pittman and the Colts have a much cleaner schedule going forward with the Titans next week, then the Dolphins, a banged-up Ravens secondary, the Texans, and a 49ers cornerback room already scraping veterans off the street.
We’ll have to monitor Carson Wentz’s ankle injury from late in the Rams game but so far, we’re on a good path with Pittman.
Courtland Sutton looks like the guy
Most of the offseason chatter around Courtland Sutton held that he was coming back slowly from his 2020 ACL tear. After he had a slow Week 1, it was worth asking whether he was ready to have even more thrown on his plate after Jerry Jeudy sustained a multi-week high-ankle sprain.
Week 2 erased any doubts.
Sutton led the team with 31 routes run and delivered a monster performance with nine catches for 159 yards. The hulking wideout averaged an absurd 21.5 air yards per target against the Jaguars.
Never thought you’d see that with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, did you?
Obviously, the Jacksonville matchup had something to do with Sutton’s big game. But let’s think about the bigger picture here: The fact we had Sutton out there playing a full-time role and producing like a No. 1 wide receiver. That was such a welcome sign, as the Broncos will need him to be that guy if they hope to field a high-end offense without Jeudy.
Sutton and the Broncos will get the Jets next week. He’ll be a clear-cut WR2 in that spot.
Time to respect the Raiders
The Raiders have now toppled two of the supposed high-end AFC contenders in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It’s time to take stock of how good this team can be.
The defense has been a pleasant surprise through two weeks. They’ve still given up a handful of big plays in the run and pass game but they look like they’ll cause enough chaos to swing some outcomes. Following a Monday night win where they got after Lamar Jackson, the Raiders hit Ben Roethlisberger 10 times and sacked him twice.
Unlike the stop unit, the offense was good last year — but the passing game appears to have kicked things up another notch.
Derek Carr leads the NFL with 817 passing yards through two weeks. No quarterback has dropped back to pass more than Carr (pre-Sunday Night Football). Carr is being aggressive this year too, averaging over nine yards per pass attempt.
It’s worth noting that the Steelers and Ravens were both quite banged up when the Raiders drew them on the schedule. Nevertheless, these were two strong wins to start the season. Given the fact that some young players like Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards have started to flash their skills as downfield threats, this could be a sustainable product.
Tony Pollard explodes
My analysis on Ezekiel Elliott coming into the 2021 season was that the specter of Tony Pollard and the hysteria surrounding his talent was more of a fantasy Twitter creation than reflection of reality. The Cowboys have never shown any inclination to cut Elliott’s work in favor of getting Pollard more involved.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and the winds are changing.
In Week 2, it really looked like Pollard was a guy who needed more touches. He cleared 100 yards on the ground at 8.4 yards per carry. He ran just seven routes but was targeted on 43 percent of those passing patterns and totaled 31 yards through the air. He was a dynamic force for this offense when it needed a spark.
In fairness, Elliott enjoyed a fine day. He collected 97 yards from scrimmage and scored on the ground. It wasn’t close from a playing time perspective. Elliott more than doubled Pollard’s snaps and ran 25 routes. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry and over 10 yards per catch.
What really caught my attention was former Cowboys quarterback/current CBS commentator Tony Romo suggesting we could see more of this because the Cowboys are thinking long-term and want to preserve Elliott. We know that few backs have logged more work than Zeke since he came into the league. It does make some sense.
It’s far too early to call the days of locking in Zeke for 20-plus touches per week over. We can’t say for sure that Pollard is going to carve out a role that leads to standalone value in fantasy. We’re just at the “asking questions phase,” but I didn’t think we’d be here at all this early.
One thing I can’t shake: I think getting Pollard more touches might be good for everyone involved, including Elliott’s long-term sustainability.
5 Things I don’t care about
Outdated Clyde Edwards-Helaire expectations
The Chiefs played an overall clean game but were just outdone by another transcendent talent on the other side of the ball. One welcome sign was that while the Ravens defense was clearly overcompensating to stop Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce (seemingly in that order), ancillary targets like Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, and Mecole Hardman stepped up for big plays.
All the while, one of their other supposed core pieces continued to play like just another contributor in fantasy football. And I promise I would have said that before Clyde Edwards-Helaire coughed up the ball to secure the Ravens’ shot at winning the game.
Time continues ticking and the lack of needle-moving weeks from Edwards-Helaire continues to be glaring. If you were an optimist heading into this season, you could at least point out that he dominated the backfield work in Week 1. That wasn’t the case against Baltimore as the playing time was split a bit more:
Kansas City final HB snap count #KCvsBAL
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 33
Darrel Williams 14
Jerick McKinnon 4
Out of 51 plays
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) September 20, 2021
Edwards-Helaire was heralded as a star pass-catcher in college. He was blanked in the receiving stat sheet on Sunday night. He offered up just 46 scoreless yards on 13 carries, an almost identical rushing line to what he had in Week 1. He’s now gone under 50 yards rushing in nine of 15 career regular-season games.
I was among the most excited for the idea of Edwards-Helaire when the Chiefs took him 32nd overall in 2020. You can bet I rocketed him up my rankings when Damien Williams opted out last year. I’m starting to feel like the idea of his fantasy football glory in this Chiefs offense is only ever going to be just that; an idea.
From a bottom-line standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense for the Chiefs to run the ball and take it out of Mahomes’ hands. The former first-round pick also isn’t doing much to convince them it’s a worthwhile endeavor, either.
Every year there are a handful of teams that come out and completely flip the script on our expectations. So far in 2021, the Carolina Panthers are that team.
Last year, the Panthers were a hollow yardage offense and a defense we started everyone against. They’ve been anything but that through two weeks.
The Panthers have been a revelation defensively. After pressuring Zach Wilson on 50 percent of his dropbacks in Week 1, they provided an encore against a much better offense. Carolina sacked Jameis Winston four times, hit him 10 times, and picked him off twice. The Saints were utterly stifled.
Jameis Winston was a $35 quarterback in Yahoo DFS, partly because of his five touchdowns in Week 1 but was also certainly because of a perceived favorable matchup. It’s so crucial to be more nimble than that to start a season.
On offense, Sam Darnold continues to look comfortable and in control of Joe Brady’s offense. Darnold has thrown just 13.7 percent of his passes into tight windows (Next Gen Stats) and is averaging 7.6 air yards per attempt through two weeks. The Panthers' offense is giving him answers at every turn whereas the Jets teams of old constantly asked him to solve problems on his own. Darnold’s play has kept the production of DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey afloat, and that’s about all we’re asking.
The defense is the bigger story here. We have to completely change our priors with this unit and if you haven’t adjusted by now, you’re too late. The Panthers will get the Texans without Tyrod Taylor on Thursday Night Football in Week 3 and get a chance to show the national media that their stop unit has turned a corner.
The Chargers-Cowboys game was supposed to be the DFS-friendly shootout of the week but we got just 37 total points. Most of that can be explained by the mistakes that haunted this game, mostly by the Chargers.
Los Angeles was penalized 12 times for 99 yards. Justin Herbert also threw two crushing interceptions. Don’t worry about it.
Los Angeles still looks like one of the best offensive ecosystems in the NFL. It’s especially great that we know exactly where the ball is going.
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are the funnel receivers in this offense, combining for 18 targets this week. Allen cleared 100 yards for the second week in a row but we knew he’d be a core piece. More surprisingly, Williams looks like he’s on his way to a career-best season. He has collected 22 targets through two weeks and posted 91 yards with a score in Week 2.
To the surprise of (hopefully) absolutely no one, Austin Ekeler’s Week 1 zero-target game was nothing but a fluke. The star back drew 10 targets against the Cowboys. That’s what we expect from Ekeler and it helped buoy a slow day on the ground (just nine rushes).
Such a concentrated offense with high-quality players is a fantasy gamer's dream. We still have all the faith in the world in Herbert, as well. Even in a less than stellar stat-line game, he still posted a 7.2 completion percentage over expectation, per Next Gen Stats.
Week 2 wasn’t the points-fest many expected in Los Angeles but we aren’t changing our Chargers’ expectations one bit going forward.
Tampa Bay receiver roulette
The Buccaneers pass-catching corps is just ridiculously stacked. That’s a big reason Tom Brady has nine touchdowns and 655 yards through two weeks.
Mike Evans is still in the prime of his career. You can argue that Chris Godwin hasn’t even peaked yet. Antonio Brown might not be at the height of his powers but he’s not far off. Oh, and at this point, the entire fantasy industry needs to admit that it missed on just how much of a key Gronk still is for this offense.
Of course, while this offense will be prolific because of all these talents while getting the ball from the best distributor in football, it’s almost impossible for everyone to eat in one week.
Last week, it was Mike Evans who got left out in the cold. In Week 2, it was Antonio Brown, with one catch for 17 yards while Evans drew nine targets and scored twice.
If anything, those two guys might be the ones to swap big weeks back and forth. Their skill sets and deployment as outside vertical receivers somewhat overlap. Gronkowski will be a bit efficiency-driven, as he’s scored four times and has caught all but one of his targets. His role was understated coming into the year; he's a clear-cut TE1. We can bet on efficiency on this offense. Godwin looks like the guy with the most steady role. He leads the team with 19 targets and 88 routes through two weeks.
No matter what, regardless of who gets left out in the cold in any prior week, you need to play all these guys. Being tethered to this passing game is just too valuable. It might not be the most pleasant wheel to ride when you know you’re risking a dud from Evans, Brown, or one of the others. But the reward is just too great. Stay on the ride.