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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer


The Ripple Effect of Recent Quarterback Injuries
All Out Blitz: Volume 152
9/19/19

One of the things fantasy owners can count on happening every year is a week (if not two or three) in which injuries change the NFL landscape. By extension, chaos ensues in the fantasy football world. Any veteran fantasy owner knows it's a matter of when and not if this will happen.

What made this past weekend different from others like it in recent memory is the position that was most affected. Usually when "injury weeks" strike, running backs and/or wide receivers seem to fall on the sword. No such luck this time. Even in a league that has gone to great lengths to protect the quarterback position, five Week 1 starters are either expected to miss multiple weeks or already out for the season. Unlike the aforementioned running backs and receivers in which owners can typically grab/stash the player's supposed handcuff and usually get some sort of production, the same cannot be said at quarterback. It is often said there are more jobs than qualified quarterbacks in the NFL, so losing a handful of the upper tier is not good for anyone.

However, there's a deeper and more problematic issue with this latest round of injuries. A lower level of quarterback play is going to have an adverse effect on the supporting cast he leaves behind. Whereas two backs may see a spike in production to the absence of a bell-cow back or a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver may come out of nowhere to replace an injured big-play wideout, the promotion of a backup signal-caller due to an injury to the starter rarely leads to more production for everyone. While one particular player may end up thriving, the same usually can't be said for the rest of his teammates.

The Jets, Steelers, Saints, Jaguars and Giants are already on their second- or third-string quarterbacks. The Panthers might be close to joining them. The Colts saw their field general retire late in the preseason. The Vikings apparently don't believe in throwing the football anymore. In a blink of an eye, the immediate fortunes of nearly 25 percent of the league are dramatically different than they were less than three weeks ago. Where would Robby Anderson have been drafted in fantasy if we knew his quarterback would miss a month? How far would have JuJu Smith-Schuster slipped if we knew Ben Roethlisberger would be done in Week 2? Michael Thomas with Drew Brees for a month or more? The list goes on. The problem with injuries to the quarterback position isn't so much that fantasy owners struggle to replace them specifically, but rather the ripple effect their absences have on the healthy players left behind. That's the subject we'll tackle today:

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger
Injury: elbow; out for the season

Much like the rest of his offense, Roethlisberger didn't look like himself in the opener, although it will probably become clear over the next few weeks - if it wasn't already - that the Patriots have a pretty good defense. However, only a select few have a good idea as to when Roethlisberger's elbow really started to bother him - some teammates knew it was bothering him at some point during or after the opener - so we really can't speculate too much on how better or worse the 2019 version of this offense is yet. Was Roethlisberger operating at 95 percent or 70 percent in Week 1? If it is closer to the latter, is new starter Mason Rudolph really that much of a downgrade?

To his credit, the second-year quarterback looks much more ready to lead a team than he did as a rookie. Much will be made in the days and weeks ahead that he played four seasons with James Washington at Oklahoma State, and that connection figures to become a bigger deal as time moves along. But in Week 2, Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald were his clear favorite targets - just as it was with Roethlisberger. It's important to look at Rudolph (and this offense, for that matter) through the prism of this year only and not try to compare it to the high-volume passing game that existed last season. Rudolph may not be a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2019, but the odds were relatively strong Roethlisberger wasn't going to be either. I'd expect Rudolph to be a mid-level QB2 the rest of the way.

And how does Roethlisberger's absence affect

JuJu Smith-Schuster? Rudolph connected on three of his five targets with Smith-Schuster in Week 2, not including a failed two-point conversion. While it is a terribly small sample to analyze, Rudolph targeted him five times in 17 throws - good for a 29.4 percent target share. Anything close to that kind of volume moving forward is going to keep Smith-Schuster squarely in the WR1 conversation, although it's clear his ceiling is likely capped with Rudolph at the controls.

The receivers behind JuJu? Despite their history together as a lethal deep-ball duo at Oklahoma State), Rudolph and James Washington will be a work in progress. Was their chemistry so strong that Rudolph will rely less on Smith-Schuster, who has already proven himself at the pro level? Doubtful. The depth chart may present more of a hurdle than one might expect as well. While it appears Donte Moncrief may not be an obstacle for much longer, let's not forget about rookie Diontae Johnson, who saw three targets to Washington's one from Rudolph despite playing seven fewer snaps (34-27) in Week 2. For whatever reason, the coaching staff has been slow to elevate Washington despite a strong finish to last season and a good showing this preseason - even suggesting at one point he was fighting for No. 3 duties with Johnson.

Although things could quickly change now that Rudolph and Washington will see much more of each other during practice, I don't think it's a given he instantly rises to fantasy WR3 status or does anything more than split snaps with Johnson. For the sake of reference, Washington has played 68 snaps to Johnson's 50 this season. To what degree Moncrief's likely demotion changes that is up for debate, but Washington's hasn't exactly done anything special through two weeks to earn more work. In other words, if Washington is on a roster in your league, Johnson probably should be too.

Vance McDonald? Contrary to popular belief, Rudolph did not just have eyes for McDonald last weekend, as only four of his 17 throws were directed at last year's breakout tight end. Yes, two of those ended up being touchdowns. It's worth noting none of his four targets were more than eight yards down the field and three of them were within five. While that is acceptable given how good McDonald is after the catch, it doesn't take advantage of his ability to stretch the seam. Again, it's worth noting again that is an extremely small sample size and could have been a function of OC Randy Fichtner wanting to give his young quarterback some easy throws. Either way, it's hard to believe the transition from Roethlisberger to Rudolph ends up being a good thing for McDonald. Considering he was already on the lower end of TE1 status entering the season, it's likely he'll go from being considered a potential every-week fantasy starter to more of a matchup-based one.

James Conner / Jaylen Samuels? This frankly could go any number of ways, but it's hard to imagine a scenario now in which Conner doesn't become the focal point of the offense for as long as he can stay healthy. Yes, Smith-Schuster is the best player on offense, but if Conner was being considered a potential workhorse by the coaching staff before the season - he's been used that way for over a year now - then one would have to think Pittsburgh will run more of a balanced offense without Roethlisberger. In no way should the absence of Roethlisberger be taken as a good thing for Conner's efficiency. However, doesn't it makes sense for a team that handed the ball off to its running backs 301 times and attempted 687 passes last year may try to balance things out even more than it was going to following the departure of Antonio Brown? Assuming Conner can get past this current knee issue and stays relatively healthy, he should be able to remain a top 10-12 fantasy back.

Regarding Samuels, now would be a great time for the Steelers to use him in all the creative ways they suggested they would this summer. This doesn't have to come at the expense of Conner's touches either. Look no further than last year's Chicago Bears. While Samuels isn't exactly built like Tarik Cohen, they both have the capacity to run routes like a receiver. Considering defenses aren't going to use a cornerback to cover him whenever he is in the game, it makes a lot of sense for Pittsburgh to give Rudolph a handful of easy throws to Samuels as he acclimates himself to being a regular NFL starter. Thus, Samuels is a strong candidate to be a flex option in the coming weeks.

Drew Brees
Injury: torn thumb ligament; expected to miss six weeks

Even at 40 years of age in an offense that has transitioned into more of a run-based unit over the last two years, Brees commands respect from defenses. To some degree, it is that respect which has been part of the secret sauce that has contributed to the incredible efficiency of the running game over that span. So whether it is Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill (or a bit of both) who is asked to run the team in Brees' absence, there's a near-zero chance it will be business as usual for any part of this offense. Fortunately for HC Sean Payton, he is about as good as it gets in drawing up plays and has the added benefit of two realistic options to use under center. As much as people have already closed the door on Bridgewater, he's played one full game with the Saints (Week 17 of last year without Alvin Kamara) and was thrown into the mix in the middle of last week's game. Has he looked like a player capable of moving an offense consistently? No. Has he been given a fair shot to do so? Probably not.

With that said, this team is also in win-now mode, so Bridgewater isn't going to get more than a game or two to prove himself before Hill goes from a bit of a gadget player to something much more. Most leagues don't have enough bench space to stash a "hopeful" like Hill, but we've also seen a fair amount of evidence to suggest Bridgewater may not be the answer. Hill may not be "the answer" either, but there's little question his playmaking ability would give defensive coordinators pause, especially as it relates to loading the box on Kamara and Latavius Murray. Even if Bridgewater keeps the job throughout Brees' absence, there is little chance he'll be a QB1 in fantasy. Hill, on the other hand, could be. As such, I'd rather make a play for Hill this week in fantasy, just to see if Payton's favorite toy becomes the latest "dual-threat" to thrive.

And how does Brees' absence affect

Michael Thomas? Once again, using an unfair and extremely limited sample size, Bridgewater targeted Thomas on 11 of his 30 pass attempts last week. Next closest was Jared Cook with five. For context, Thomas was targeted 13 times on Brees' 43 throws in Week 1. So while we can acknowledge a throw from Bridgewater is not as valuable as a throw from Brees, it's pretty clear the former understands where he needs to go with the ball. Beyond that, Thomas is the one receiver in this offense that makes his living on short and intermediate routes, which has always been Bridgewater's strongest suit. It's possible if not probable that Thomas' target share - which was at 28.8 percent last year - actually goes up, although some of that will likely be a product of fewer opportunities overall in an offense that might try to run the ball more often. Thomas can't be expected to live up to his spot as a fringe first-round pick while Brees is away, but it seems reasonable he'll provide a pretty strong floor.

Ted Ginn Jr. / Tre'Quan Smith? There's no getting around it. What little weekly value either of these players had in deeper leagues is pretty much gone for the next month or so. Ginn has been a solid play more often than not in the Superdome because Brees can still get it deep and Ginn's speed plays well on the fast track. Smith occasionally gets targeted on shorter routes, but both players are going to be hard-pressed to use for fantasy purposes with Bridgewater. Hill has the arm strength, but it remains to be seen if he'll be given the chance to show it more than a handful of times over the next month.

Jared Cook? We never got an extended opportunity to see what Cook can do with Brees, as one game against the Texans isn't near enough of a sample size to draw a solid conclusion. On the plus side, Bridgewater's first pass went Cook's way, and he looked Cook's way twice in his first five targeted throws (before he threw once to Thomas). Both of Cook's catches came courtesy of Bridgewater. What does it mean? Probably not much.

While Cook is a seam-stretching tight end, he is more likely to work the middle of the field than any other player in this offense not named Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara. Given the aforementioned limitations of Bridgewater's game, it stands to reason he may be more prone to lean on Cook than Brees did during their brief time together. It may lead to an extra target or two per game. Considering the drop-off at quarterback, it is unlikely fantasy owners are going to be able to tell much of a difference in the box score. If owners considered Cook a fringe TE1 before Brees' injury, it's probably safe to say he's a TE2 with a chance at a bit more volume now - albeit with less upside.

Alvin Kamara / Latavius Murray? It's usually a bit of a default position to assume a play-caller will tend to lean on the running game a bit more often when the starting quarterback is sidelined because we've seen it happen so often over the years. When a team makes a transition from a lower-end starter to a highly drafted backup, maybe that doesn't end up being the case. The difference with each of the first two cases here is the transition from Hall-of-Fame caliber signal-callers to players who probably aren't among the top 20 starters at their position in the league - and may never be. When the drop-off is that dramatic, the natural inclination for coaches is to play things a bit more conservatively.

And that brings back to the running backs in question. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Kamara sees less work now, considering he is the most dynamic running back on the team by a wide margin AND the most obvious mismatch in the passing game. Does that mean he benefits from Brees' injury? Unlikely. The amount of success Brees enjoyed throwing to Kamara on "choice" routes - rewatch last year's NFC Championship Game if you need a visual reminder of what they are - was almost comical at times. Maybe Bridgewater shows the same amount of patience waiting for Kamara to get open as Brees did. That seems unlikely though. What else seems unlikely is that Kamara handles no more than 13 carries until Brees returns. Even if we say the Saints fail to run the 61 plays they are averaging so far this season (let's assume 57), is there any way Payton can justify not getting the ball in the hands of Kamara a third of the time (19 touches)? Even if we assume that workload and add in Thomas' 13-target average, the Saints still has 25 more plays to run just to get to 57. Brees' absence probably takes Kamara out of the elite RB1 conversation, but maybe not by as much as one might think.

Increased volume would certainly help Murray, as it is going to be difficult for him to consistently do much to help his fantasy owners getting between 6-8 touches per game. However, his fantasy value was always going to be highly contingent on earning the "Mark Ingram role" and the Saints' ability to move the ball up and down the field like they have in years past. It seems pretty clear through two games he isn't viewed as a one-for-one replacement for Ingram. And how likely is it now that New Orleans will move the ball with ease against the Seahawks, Cowboys, Buccaneers, Jaguars and Bears over the next five games? It's a schedule that screams more Kamara, and it's up to Bridgewater to make sure the explosive element that Kamara brings to the passing game remains a key part of the offense.

Sam Darnold
Injury/ailment: mononucleosis

Because Darnold is aiming for a Week 5 return (Jets are on a bye in Week 4), it appears owners may be exposed to the Luke Falk Experience for only one more week. As such, it is entirely justifiable to stash Darnold, if only because the second half of the season is littered with defenses he should be able to exploit (Dolphins twice, Giants, Redskins, Raiders and Bengals).

Assuming the Week 5 timeline is a reasonable one - Darnold's doctors have reportedly told him it is - then now is also the time to be targeting Jamison Crowder and/or Chris Herndon. For whatever reason, Crowder's arrival in HC Adam Gase's slot-friendly offense didn't receive much fanfare in the offseason. Moreover, Darnold showed us last year with lesser talents such as Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse that he was going to pepper his slot receivers with targets. While 14-catch days like Week 1 won't become the norm, there's probably going to be a few more days in the near future where he pushes for 10.

Considering the dearth of tight ends (again), owners can't afford to be too picky when it comes to one with a blemish or two. Herndon won't be allowed to return to game action until Week 6 (four-game suspension plus the team's bye week), but it's telling backup Ryan Griffin has played all but 11 of the team's 135 snaps so far. Some might read that as a bad sign Herndon will share time upon his return, but it's more likely an indication of how much playing time he'll receive when he's eligible. As flowery as being called a "unicorn" sounds, it can be a compliment in football; say what you will about Gase, but that is exactly the term he used this offseason when referring to Herndon. Given the state of the position, Herndon needs to be owned and stashed in just about every league, even if it means carrying three tight ends on your roster for a bit.

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I'm going to wrap up by discussing two players who aren't going to generate a lot of attention from fantasy owners this week (and perhaps for a while after that). Will either player be a league winner? Probably not. But sometimes in this hobby of ours, we must be able to fix a flat tire on our journey from Point A to Point B. I believe the first player very much fits that description. The second one? Let's just say he is one injury away from being a likely high-end fantasy starter.

To introduce our first player, let's do a blind comparison:

Player A: 43-for-55, 495 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, 10 carries for 34 yards
Player B: 38-for-55, 336 yards, five touchdowns, one interception, 10 carries for 30 yards

Congratulations if you identified Player A as Russell Wilson, who is the QB7 in leagues that award six points for all touchdowns. He has posted those numbers against the Bengals and Steelers - two teams who weren't particularly stout against the pass in 2018 and have continued the trend through their first two games this year.

Big-time props if you identified Player B as Jacoby Brissett, who is the QB13 at the moment. There's no question his yardage totals haven't been overly inspiring, but let's consider the competition. The Chargers (Week 1 opponent) boast one of the more talented defenses in the league and picked off Matthew Stafford twice in Week 2. They were the seventh-stingiest defense versus fantasy quarterbacks in 2018 as well. The Titans (Week 2) are one week removed from intercepting Baker Mayfield three times in four possessions and ranked as the seventh-stingiest defense versus fantasy quarterbacks last season.

I get it. Brissett is a second-string quarterback even if he's only a starter now because the guy in front of him retired. It's OK if he doesn't possess enough upside for you. Or does he? We know from his previous stint as the starter in Indianapolis that he can run a bit (260 yards, four touchdowns in 2017). We also know Andrew Luck isn't coming back and Brian Hoyer wasn't signed to take his job, especially after the team extended his contract right before the start of the season. T.Y. Hilton is a quality WR1. The offensive line is among the league's best. Marlon Mack is more than holding his own as a runner. Parris Campbell and Deon Cain are up-and-coming talents, while Eric Ebron is very much a threat - even if he never comes close to repeating 2018. HC Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback that is proving to be very good when it comes to getting the most of the position.

Over the next three weeks (leading into the Week 6 bye), the Colts face the Falcons, the Raiders and the Chiefs - none of which figure to present the same kind of resistance in the passing game as their first two opponents. In the one league I was unfortunate enough to draft both Cam Newton and Roethlisberger, I fully expect to land Brissett using a limited amount of my FAAB and I'll be happy to roll with him for the foreseeable future if that happens. Whether it is the memory of 2017 or people's general impression of his overall talent, owners need to wrap their mind around the idea that even if Brissett is nothing more than an average talent, he should be a quality fantasy quarterback given all the pluses I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

One of the areas all of us can get a little better at in regards to our fantasy scouting is to keep track of team transactions - specifically at running back - and understand why a team is making the move. At the start of training camp, Detroit parted ways with Theo Riddick. The initial reaction from the fantasy community was that Kerryon Johnson would absorb his role and C.J. Anderson would serve as his early-down complement. As most fantasy owners of Johnson would tell you, the #freekerryon campaign hasn't quite taken off yet. Then, a strange thing happened Tuesday (Sept. 17). Anderson was released and Paul Perkins was claimed off waivers, leaving the Lions' depth chart at running back with Johnson, a rookie sixth-rounder and two backs who have achieved very little in their pro careers (J.D. McKissic and Perkins).

Based on the ease in which I've been able to acquire Ty Johnson's services this week, it seems clear Anderson's release fell under the radar and/or owners believe Kerryon Johnson's 3.2 yards per carry average through two games has earned him more work. A more likely explanation is that the coaching staff believes Ty Johnson has done enough to make both Riddick and Anderson expendable. For reasons that seem to defy logic, the Lions have been very resistant to overworking Kerryon Johnson as a runner. That isn't a big issue on many teams nowadays since so many of them are passing 55 to 60 percent of the time. Detroit has made it clear it wants to run the ball first and foremost, which makes the departure of Anderson and his 16 carries so significant.

Ty isn't a threat to overtake Kerryon, but if the Lions are going to be stubborn about capping the latter's carries, it means the former should have a clear path to close to 10 rushing attempts per game. That's a pretty big deal for a player with reported sub-4.3 speed and doesn't even take into account the fact he is the clear handcuff to a player who missed six games in 2018. McKissic will likely be counted upon to fill the same kind of passing-game role Riddick did - but with nowhere near the volume - while Perkins figures to be a healthy scratch for the foreseeable future. While Ty Johnson and his current situation do not have the feel of "the next Philip Lindsay," it doesn't mean there isn't value to stashing him and seeing where this goes.


Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.