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Fantasy Football Week 9 care/don't care: Titans might be best AFC team

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In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned from the Week 9 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

Titans might be the best team in the AFC

I began the day begging the NFL to give me some clarity at the top of the AFC standings. Good luck with that.

The presumed best team in the AFC took a huge L courtesy of the miserable Jaguars. The Ravens kept things a little too close for comfort with the Vikings. The Chiefs would have lost to the Packers if Aaron Rodgers was available.

It took until Sunday night to get an answer.

The Tennessee Titans just might be the best team in the AFC.

Even if you aren’t — for whatever mystical reason — ready to concede that point, you must respect this team. Tennessee doesn’t have a robust roster full of depth. Quite the contrary. And that roster has been hit over and over with injuries from just about every angle. It’s been especially difficult for their top players.

A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Taylor Lewan and now Derrick Henry have all dealt with injury absences. That’s their star power right there and Tennessee has consistently been tasked with adjusting to life without them.

On the defensive side, there have been shaky moments on the backend but their pass rush has shown up. Harold Landry is having a dynamic season and Jeffery Simmons reminded you Sunday night he’s one of the most underrated interior disruptors in the NFL. He simply blew apart the Rams offense all on his own several times.

Fantasy managers are still searching for some answers as to how this team will adjust in the post-Derrick Henry era. Adrian Peterson led the way with 10 carries and held the goal-line role down while Jeremy McNichols was mostly used on passing downs. But D’Onta Foreman mixed in more than expected.

I know how they’ll operate in this era. They’ll be one of the toughest teams on the block and figure it out behind an underrated head coach in Mike Vrabel. The Titans are officially right at the top of the AFC power rankings despite a rocky road to get there.

Kevin Byard said it after the game, the defining word of this team is “resilient.” I bet they’re in this thing until the end.

James Conner has massive upside

A few months back, I mentioned James Conner as a sneaky trade target despite the vitriol directed his way for “vulturing touchdowns” this season. Week 9 showed you exactly why he has monster upside.

Conner already had standalone appeal as a solid weekly touchdown bet. That has been a strong wager considering he plays for one of the best offenses in the NFL. His huge ceiling was just never priced into how people valued him in fantasy.

When Chase Edmonds went down right away in this game, Conner took over the entire backfield.

Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6)
James Conner erupted in Week 9. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)

Conner handled 21 carries while third-stringer Eno Benjamin garnered nine with the Cardinals nursing a huge lead. More importantly, Conner drew five targets and caught all five, including a touchdown. This was always the thesis of his upside. We’ve seen Conner operate as a three-down bell-cow back before. If Edmonds missed time, Conner was right in line for an 80-percent backfield workload because he has those abilities.

What really kills me here is that Conner has looked good all year. He’s not just some plodder out there, he looks reborn now that he’s healthy and away from the Steelers’ poor offensive line.

Throw his yards per carry out. You don’t get many yards when you live in scoring areas so often.

James Conner is basically what people want Tony Pollard or A.J. Dillon to be. Some utility with a massive ceiling. We’ll see what Chase Edmonds’ status is later this week but if the manager that rosters him doesn’t view Conner in this positive light, make some offers.

Browns filet the Bengals

It was ultra-clear that the Odell Beckham/Browns marriage needed to end and those invested in the receiver can only hope that his first showing post-divorce looks as good as Cleveland’s.

The Browns looking this excellent as an offense isn’t the least bit surprising considering they got the best version of Nick Chubb. The electric back was just dominant today with explosive runs and tempo-setting physically. In such a gorgeous positive game script nursing a 24-10 halftime lead, even a physically compromised Baker Mayfield can operate with precision. No shock there.

The big stunner was that this Bengals defense just allowed it to happen.

Cincinnati ranked 13th in defensive DVOA coming into Week 9. A far cry from the mess they’ve been in previous seasons. What they showed in Week 9, however, looked more like the struggling unit we expected in 2021.

The Bengals defense is a collection of solid talents whom they’ve paid good money to in free agency. It’s not a unit dripping with star power, beyond Jessie Bates and Trey Hendrickson (if he keeps this up). You could say they’ve been playing above their head all year. Let’s hope this isn’t the beginning of a turn in the tide.

The Bengals’ next four games will come against the Raiders, Steelers, Chargers and 49ers. They can probably get by with an average defense in a few of those weeks if their offense is at its best. We’ll certainly know if Cincinnati is a legit playoff contender after this month.

Rhamondre Stevenson has the juice

Damien Harris scored yet another touchdown but I couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering to his backup. Rhamondre Stevenson got back into the action this week and it’s just undeniable: He’s got the juice.

Stevenson continues to shine in the open field when they slip him out of the backfield on passing plays. He also got strong base usage, as well. Stevenson came away with a feisty 77.8 percent early down success rate and garnered two red-zone looks. As for that aforementioned juice, the rookie averaged 6.2 yards per carry and ripped off a 41-yard reception.

Of course, the goal here is to highlight Stevenson, who just looks so fun to watch. However, this is also a great moment to mention it’s the time of year when you need to start stashing Stevenson-type of backs. The end of your bench should be filled with lottery tickets and upside running backs, even if they have a cluttered path to hitting. Stevenson certainly has a murky road (including getting a bit banged up on Sunday) but if he gets to the destination, you want it to be on your team.

Panthers are losing credibility with Darnold

Sam Darnold hasn’t thrown a touchdown since Week 6. It’s gotten that bad.

Even having Christian McCaffrey back in this game didn’t make much of a difference. Darnold tossed three picks on Sunday and has become a mistaken-fueled disaster waiting to happen.

You can feel that the coaching staff knows it. The way they talk about the situation publicly, the way they call plays; they’re walking on eggshells with their quarterback. They know he can sink the entire operation on any given play. It’s a shame because the Panthers’ defense is ready to contend and there is talent on offense. Darnold is just a huge anchor on this ship.

From a fantasy angle, McCaffrey is still an every-week RB1. He hit 18 touches while operating on a pitch count today. Beyond that, we’re in the wilderness. DJ Moore ranks third among wide receivers in targets on the season with 88. It’s just going to be tough to hit any kind of ceiling with the offense in this state.

I struggle to see how the Panthers’ offense gets better with Darnold under center. Frankly, I can only see this getting worse.

5 things I don’t care about

Sweating the Rams

As 7.5-point home favorites, no one was expecting the Rams to get roughed up by the Titans. As mentioned above and as shown by Sunday night's result, the Titans clearly just weren’t getting enough respect.

Tennessee’s defense came out hunting Matthew Stafford early. He was under duress like we haven’t seen at any point this year. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry got after Stafford and underrated star Kevin Byard snagged a pick-six thanks to that pressure.

From a bare-bones perspective, this is the same Rams’ offense we’re used to. All the usual players were in the mix in the passing game and Darrell Henderson was the guy in the backfield early. Los Angeles just got knocked off script quickly as the Titans jumped on them defensively.

As bad of a loss as this was for the real-life Rams, fantasy gamers shouldn’t change their analysis on their main-line players going forward. This still remains one of the best offenses in football with a clear distribution of work. They won’t always be thrown off their script right away like they were in Week 9.

Los Angeles gets the 49ers and Packers next (bye sandwiched between) in what should be two close, competitive games then a date with the Jaguars to start December. We’re still looking at blue skies for the Rams’ season.

Packers without Aaron Rodgers

As bad as the Chiefs’ defense has been this year, drawing your first start against Steve Spagnuolo is not ideal. Spags sent the house at Jordan Love and the QB just had no answers. The offense was simply non-functional.

After the game, Matt LaFleur took the blame for calling too many deep routes against the blitz.

Still, if you watched the game, you know Troy Aikman was about to blow a gasket discussing Love’s inability to hit the hot route when it was there in the middle of the field. He just didn’t look ready in any sense for this admittedly difficult moment. Love might eventually develop into a strong starting quarterback but he’s just not there right now.

Davante Adams needed 14 targets to get to 6-42. There’s a whole lot of prayer yards in those air yards. No one else made much noise either. It would be impossible to start any Packers player with confidence even in a friendly matchup with the Seahawks next week if Love is back in there. If it’s going to work, it will indeed be on LaFleur to dramatically alter his offense on the fly to adjust for Love’s weaknesses.

Early season Mike Williams

Mike Williams now has just five targets in each of his last three games. He hauled in a massive 49-yard reception against the Eagles this week but finished the day with just two catches.

His usage has become problematic and has stricken his early-season production from the range of outcomes.

Charles Davis mentioned on the broadcast that the team knows Williams is not 100 percent healthy and hasn’t been since Week 5. That is a huge part of the problem but the bigger issue is that the Chargers have also had to alter Williams’ role. Williams had a routine 10.2 average depth of target that showed he was getting full-field usage in Weeks 1-4. His aDOT has lept to 14.1 since Week 5 — closer to that old boom-or-bust Williams role.

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Perhaps the Chargers feel they can’t ask Williams to carry a high-volume role on shorter routes with him being physically compromised. Maybe this is all in an effort to solve their issues as a vertical offense by using Williams downfield more to hide their lack of speed. It could be a little bit of both.

Either way, until Williams gets back to the volume and lower aDOT that we saw early in the season, it’s well past time to adjust expectations. Williams is closer to a volatile, low-end WR2 when he’s healthy with this type of deployment.

The old Cordarrelle Patterson

Obviously, I’m not in the building down there in Atlanta. I don’t know the dynamic between head coach and player in most situations.

But I’ll speculate on this one.

Cordarrelle Patterson had jumped from team to team after being a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. His first team could never quite get him onboarded into their system. Very few coaches since have been able to correctly get him integrated into a routine offense.

So presumably, when Arthur Smith brings Patterson into the fold and shows him the diverse role he has cooked up for the veteran, the good vibes were flowing.

Seriously, never underrate how much pure confidence can boost a player.

Patterson is still doing some gadget running back duties. However, most of his big plays in the Falcons’ upset win over the Saints came in the downfield game while snagging contested passes in tight windows. He just wins in so many ways.

Patterson looks like one of the most transformed players in the NFL if perhaps thanks just to the confidence instilled by Smith unleashing him. Either way, he’s going to go down as one of the best storylines in the NFL this year and perhaps the best waiver claim in fantasy.

Fury over Giants WR usage

There was a good bit of fury in the fantasy world as Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney barely saw any work despite being the lone two active players among the top-four Giants' skill-position talents. I fired off this tweet but I’m not sure how much of a joke it actually is:

It’s almost absurd how banged-up New York has been in the wide receiver room in 2021 in addition to multiple Saquon Barkley injury issues. Almost every single Giants wideout has missed time this year — even Dante Pettis couldn’t suit up this week.

So is it the worst thing in the world to not overwork these two guys while they're the only ones available? Especially when Golladay and Toney are certainly not yet 100 percent.

With Devontae Booker carrying the team successfully on his 24 carries, it feels needless to put too much weight on the receivers’ shoulders. I’m never a Jason Garrett apologist but let’s wait until all these players are healthy and they’re in a higher-scoring game before freaking out about their usage.

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