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.
1 - How many yards will the Vikings and Seahawks WRs combine for?
Wide receiver play in the NFL is at such a high level these days. The surprising influx of talent from the 2019 draft class continues to shine bright, a strong stable of veterans remains at the forefront of the league, and we’re already getting strong contributions from the 2020 rookies.
All three of those groups will intersect in Week 5’s Sunday night game as the Minnesota Vikings travel to take on the Seattle Seahawks.
Tyler Lockett and Adam Thielen are two established No. 1 receivers with a history of steady play. DK Metcalf is one of the premier playmakers from the 2019 crop and is currently tied with Stefon Diggs for the receiving yardage title. Rookie Justin Jefferson is off to a white-hot start to his career coming off back-to-back 100-yard games while leading all wideouts in yards per route run (3.95).
I argued prior to the season that we’d all agree the Seahawks will have a top-five wide receiver duo at the end of 2020. We’re ahead of schedule. That should universally be accepted after just four weeks of the season. Minnesota long held the top spot on those rankings when Thielen was paired with Stefon Diggs. Now Diggs is gone and thriving with Buffalo but his replacement, the aforementioned Jefferson, looks like he could be ready to get the Vikings back in that discussion.
We should see a field day of wide receiver play in this game. Not only are these four players awesome on their own, but they’re also playing on efficient offenses. Obviously, the Seahawks receivers are tethered to one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. Seattle is throwing the ball on 64 percent of their plays when the game is within three points. Everyone is eating. Minnesota doesn’t throw nearly as often but is punching the ball downfield. Kirk Cousins leads all quarterbacks with 14.2 yards per completion.
Even better, neither of the defenses can stop the pass. Seattle has been bludgeoned by wideouts all season. The secondary has allowed 94 catches for 1,345 yards and five touchdowns, the most in the league. That’s 500 yards more than the next highest team. The Vikings are bottom-five in passing yards per game (291.8) and adjusted yards per attempt (9.0) allowed.
Would anyone be surprised to see these four put up over 350 combined yards? You shouldn’t be.
The game in the question above will have something to say about that, as would a theoretical Week 5 Bills v. Titans game, even though the answer is probably no. You know the deal there. Nevertheless, the Colts and Browns will feature two teams that have built strong squads after looking lost at sea in Week 1. We’ll learn a ton in this matchup.
The Colts look like one of the few strong defenses in the NFL. Indianapolis leads the league in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA rankings and has allowed the fewest yards per play. As evidenced by the fact they’ve let up just 354 yards after the catch (2nd best), they’re absolutely flying to the ball. The addition of DeForest Buckner looks like a unit-altering move.
The Browns are coming off a 49-point outing against the hideous Dallas defense. The shift in competition could not be starker. And yet, since Week 1, Kevin Stefanski has this offense humming. The run game has been absolutely pristine. Cleveland leads the league in both Football Outsiders adjusted line yards (measures run blocking) and yardage assigned to the running back. That is wild. Kareem Hunt takes over the reins of that rushing attack now. The passing game hasn’t been perfect but Baker Mayfield has largely been safe and had a part in getting Odell Beckham Jr. to a big outing in Week 4.
We’ll get two units playing at their peak in this matchup. That’s all you want in a football game. It might not make for the best fantasy setup, however, you’ll get a really good data point here. What we see between these two teams on Sunday will alter how we project teams against the Colts, or whether we’re buying this Browns offense as a fully transformed unit.
3 - Can the Steelers offense get right back to it?
The Steelers drew the short end of the stick, as the Titans COVID outbreak forced them into an early season bye week. It was interesting to see Ben Roethlisberger come out this week and say he didn’t like to already have a wrench thrown into their season right as he was getting into a rhythm.
Let’s all hope the Steelers can pick up their tune right away. In the first three weeks of the season, we saw that, paired with their world-class defense, was a high-flying offense.
Pittsburgh has reverted right back to their pre-Mason Rudolph style of play-calling now that Ben Roethlisberger is back. Always near the top of the league in passing when No. 7 is healthy, Pittsburgh has the second-highest passing play percentage (64 percent) of any offense. Roethlisberger has his pass-catchers clicking on all levels. Diontae Johnson was outright cooking before a Week 3 concussion and still leads the team with 25 targets. JuJu Smith-Schuster has three touchdowns in as many games and is averaging 6.12 yards after the catch. All of Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Eric Ebron have popped in different sections of Weeks 1-3. They have front-line starters and strong ancillary players.
The Steelers still look the part of a league-winning offense and should demonstrate that ability on Sunday. Their Week 5 opponent in Philadelphia has been wrecked by tight ends and slot receivers this year. Pittsburgh has plenty of guys in Johnson, JuJu, and Ebron who could run through the middle of that defense. Let’s hope Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t actually have anything to worry about when it comes to getting thrown off rhythm.
4 - Does Washington’s outlook change at all with Kyle Allen?
Ron Rivera made the decision to bench Dwayne Haskins less than 12 starts into his NFL career. You can criticize the decision, no doubt about it, but Ron Rivera had his reasons and according to the coach, it’s not because he doesn’t believe Haskins can develop into a starter. Washington Football Team beat writer for The Athletic Rhiannon Walker joined their flagship podcast to discuss the move, and here were the Rivera reasons she laid out:
The coach sees an opportunity to win a putrid division, even if Washington isn’t a great team yet. Rivera once took home an NFC South title with the Panthers amid a 7-8-1 record.
Haskins was robbed of offseason time to get familiar with the system, an offense that Allen has played in for years.
Despite some strong moments, his young quarterbacks’ mistakes were not fair to the rest of the team.
He believes stacking some wins and competing for the division, while not of much consequence to the longterm rebuild, can help turn around the culture and re-spark pedigreed players on the roster who are sick of losing.
So this is clearly a hyper-focused, win-now, short-term-only move. That’s fine and Rivera could be right about what sparking some wins and positive momentum in the short term would send throughout the organization. But is Kyle Allen going to actually provide enough of an upgrade to do that?
There are not sure bets on that.
Last year, Allen ranked 30th in QBR (39.7) and 32nd in adjusted net yards per attempt (4.25). We’re using those metrics specifically because they ding a quarterback for sacks taken, which was a huge problem for Allen. No passer lost more yards on sacks than the Panthers backup in 2019. That, along with his league-low 38.8 percent catchable pass rate on passes of 15-plus air yards, served to bury a once-promising unit. There is no question that the longer Allen hung around as the starter in Carolina, the worse the results got.
Allen came out hot as the Panthers relief man, and there’s a chance he could give the Football Team a three to four game jolt. Asking for anything more is pushing your luck. If Rivera really intends to compete in the NFC East over a 16-week season, Alex Smith or a suddenly rejuvenated Haskins are his best bets.
From a skill position standpoint, even if Allen stays in and his individual play begins to erode, we have evidence that he’ll be fine for the two key young offensive players in Washington. Allen pummeled Panthers receiver DJ Moore with targets on slant and dig routes. Terry McLaurin is a superior separator and could enjoy the same tunnel vision from the quarterback. He could be more productive with Allen under center. Antonio Gibson is also starting to get more involved every week. If Allen continues to keep things short in the passing game, Gibson could get some of the same peppering Allen handed out to Christian McCaffrey last year. If anything, should Allen keep the offense more “on schedule” than Haskins, it will just mean more scoring-area chances for Gibson.
5 - Will the Falcons offense respond?
No one should be surprised by the Falcons’ defense being subpar once again. They’ve been an embarrassing outfit since they lost the Super Bowl during the 2016 season and have somehow only gotten worse each year. Now, they aren’t healthy and draw a matchup with an athletic and intriguing group of Panthers skill position players.
What’s been more surprising is that after a hot start the offense looks, at best, ordinary. Atlanta sits at 19th in rushing success rate and 18th in passing success rate. With Julio Jones largely out of the mix and Calvin Ridley banged up the last two games, Matt Ryan and the aerial assault hasn’t been the arena-league style attack that graced the field in Weeks 1 and 2. This needs to be the strength of the team. Dealing with injuries there and the offensive line isn’t tenable. Especially when Ryan, to this point, is playing good but not quite great football. He needs to be elite to weather the roster through the storm in its current state. That’s not happening.
The Panthers defense can certainly be had. The weaker point is the run defense but the lack of a consistently dangerous pass rusher and some mistakes in the secondary make them a vulnerable unit. A failure to capitalize on this spot would hold many ramifications. If Ryan and the passing game come up short, the Falcons likely lose this game. It would send fantasy managers into a tizzy deciding whether to alter expectations for these players for the rest of 2020. It would also send the Falcons to an 0-5 start and potentially topple the last domino to bring about the end of the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta.