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Jesse Pantuosco

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To Run or Not to Run

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Ready for my hottest take ever? Here goes … Josh Allen is a good fantasy quarterback. There, I said it.

 

That’s a lot to take in, so I’ll give you a minute. And before you high-five me, Mel Kiper, let me clarify something. I said Josh Allen is a good fantasy quarterback. Whether he’s an effective real-life signal-caller remains to be seen because let’s be honest—the Bills aren’t using him like one.

 

You thought the league’s tallest running back was Derrick Henry (production on the Twins remake seems to be coming along nicely)? No sir—unless Henry plays the rest of the year in Timberlands (this was definitely one of George’s better life-hacks), that title now belongs to Josh Allen. A mini-controversy arose in the fantasy world recently when players on Yahoo discovered that Jaylen Samuels, who projects as the Steelers’ starting running back this week, was also eligible at tight end, a position he dabbled in at NC State. So why aren’t those same critics up in arms about Allen only being eligible at quarterback when the Bills are employing him as their feature back?

 

I’m only half-kidding. While Allen has used his arm at times, he’s been far more successful with his legs, jogging to—get this—234 rushing yards over his last two games including an absurd 135 yards on nine carries in last week’s loss to Miami. Only three players in football have rushed for more yards than Allen since Week 12, and all three are running backs (Derrick Henry, Phillip Lindsay and Lamar Miller). We knew Josh could scoot—his forty time (4.75) at this year’s Combine was third-fastest among quarterbacks. But this—this is ridiculous.

 

The only quarterback with more rushing touchdowns than Allen (four) this year is Dallas front-man Dak Prescott (five). Fun fact: Prescott has played over 300 more snaps than Allen, who missed four weeks with a bum shoulder earlier this year. Dalvin Cook, Tevin Coleman, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Kenyan Drake highlight some of the household-name running backs who are averaging fewer rushing yards per game than Allen (48.6).

 

I appreciate method actors, but even Daniel Day-Lewis would think Allen is taking his Michael Vick impression too far. But I know one guy who’s not complaining—ME. I was dead in the water last week, resigned to my fate of missing the playoffs. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas both dogged me on Thursday night and I had little confidence that Allen, a desperation QB2 play in my 12-team, super-flex league, would change my fate. But Allen laced up his running shoes and scrambled up a storm in South Beach, dusting the Dolphins for runs of 17, 25, 26 and 28 yards. In the end, Allen led my team to victory on the strength of 30.7 fantasy points (third-highest among quarterbacks last week), securing my place in the postseason (I’m sure all of you care very deeply about my various fantasy teams). Look at guys like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, throwing the ball like chumps. Who needs that noise when you have wheels like Allen?

 

Allen’s penchant for scrambling makes sense on a certain level. The tuck-and-run is a staple of young quarterbacks who aren’t comfortable with their arm. We know Allen has a cannon, but the former Wyoming Cowboy has never been Mr. Accuracy. Allen was as scattershot as they come in college, completing a mere 56.2 percent of his passes during his three-year stay in Laramie.

 

That shortcoming has followed him to Buffalo as the 22-year-old has produced a ghastly 52.9 completion percentage over his first eight NFL appearances. Not that his receivers have helped much. Buffalo’s current receiving corps, which got thinner (that’s not a weight joke, you jackals) with Kelvin Benjamin’s release earlier this week, features Zay Jones (sure), Robert Foster (if you say so) and Isaiah McKenzie (who???). Oh, and everyone’s favorite tight end, Charles Clay (swigs from flask). Yeah, it’s not the Ritz. Hence Allen’s recent run-a-palooza. Another reason to run—Buffalo is an icicle this time of year. You gotta’ warm those legs up somehow, right?

 

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Don’t let the passing truthers fool you—running is all the rage right now. Don’t believe me? Check out what’s happening in Baltimore. While Allen’s been cutting it up in Orchard Park, fellow rookie Lamar Jackson has put on a similarly explosive display in the Charm City, dazzling with highlight-reel scrambles and jaw-dropping elusiveness. I don’t claim to know anything about Jackson’s upbringing in Boynton Beach, Florida, but one would assume that the Heisman Trophy winner retired as the all-time champ in playground capture-the-flag. Boston Red Sox All-Star Jason Varitek once said that being on the receiving end of a Tim Wakefield knuckleball was like “trying to catch a fly with a chopstick.” That must be how defenders feel trying to reel in Jackson, the game’s preeminent escape artist and a rising star in the world of fantasy football.

 

Give Allen credit for at least maintaining the illusion of an NFL quarterback with occasional deep strikes to Robert Foster (who has averaged a ludicrous 32 yards per catch this season) and, back when he was still a Bill, Cam Newton nemesis Kelvin Benjamin. As for Jackson, well calling him a “quarterback” might be a stretch. Jackson’s passing contributions have been minimal at best. Since taking over as the Ravens’ starter (though maybe not for long with Joe Flacco nearing full health), the former Louisville Cardinal has totaled just 453 passing yards on 39-of-65 passing with a touchdown and three interceptions over three contests. Take away the interceptions and that’s a pretty typical Sunday for Patrick Mahomes.

 

Jackson was a spectacular college quarterback but many (Bill Polian was particularly outspoken on the subject) wondered if his game would translate to the pros. And so far, it has. Rather than trying to mold Jackson into something he’s not, the coaching staff in Baltimore has catered the offense to his strengths, incorporating RPOs, designed runs and allowing L-Jax plenty of room to freelance. The 21-year-old has offset his lowly passing stats with booming rushing totals, amassing 265 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries during his three-game stint as Flacco’s fill-in.

 

Jackson has, for better or worse, transformed the Ravens’ entire offense. Since his reign began in Week 11, runs have accounted for an unheard-of 67.4 percent of the Ravens’ plays while 60.4 percent of their offensive output has come on the ground. Some will chide Baltimore’s approach as college-esque while comparing Jackson unfavorably to Tim Tebow, another flawed passer who made plays with his legs, but until someone stops them, why would the Ravens change a thing?

 

Those familiar with my work know that I often harp about the NFL being a passing league, citing the sport’s increased emphasis on protecting quarterbacks as evidence of football moving away from ground-and-pound in favor of a new era of aerial pyrotechnics. Indeed, analytics seem to favor a more pass-centric approach, which is why many teams prefer running backs like Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara, who are equally adept at catching passes out of the backfield as they are grinding between the tackles. But the NFL isn’t a cookie cutter league. It’s possible for conflicting ideologies to coexist and even thrive in a sport full of unique, wide-ranging talents.

 

Jackson is the polar opposite of Flacco and the Ravens have used that dichotomy to their advantage, often playing both at the same time. There’s certainly some gamesmanship at play here. Preferring to keep opponents on their toes, coach John Harbaugh has been shamelessly noncommittal about his quarterback situation, refusing to tip his hand in any way. It’s a tad exhausting but who am I to judge? Even with Harbaugh laying it on thick with his macho head games, the Ravens are winners of three straight and currently hold the sixth and final playoff seed in the AFC.

 

Allen and Jackson have emerged as enticing streamers at the quarterback position, though their lack of passing precision, at least at this juncture, caps their weekly upside. Fantasy football has long favored mobile quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who in addition to their passing exploits, can also do damage with their legs. Mitchell Trubisky has also moved up the fantasy ranks by averaging a robust 36.3 yards per game as a ball-carrier to go with a trio of rushing touchdowns.

 

It’s not a deal-breaker when a quarterback can’t run. Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers have never done much scrambling while Drew Brees and Tom Brady will enter Canton as two of the least mobile quarterbacks of their generation. Brady famously ran one of the slowest forty times ever at the Combine, clocking a molasses-like 5.28. To put that in perspective, New England’s current starter at left tackle, 6’8,” 380-pound Trent Brown, ran a 5.29 at his Combine three years ago. No one will fault Brady for taking nearly two decades to reach 1,000 yards rushing (something Todd Gurley did in about a month earlier this year). But when you have a quarterback who can ether teams with his arm while also running like the wind, well that my friends, is called hitting the fantasy jackpot.

 

But here’s the thing—Tom Brady, at age 41 is still standing. So is soon-to-be 40-year-old Drew Brees. Even Peyton Manning, who was as sloth-like as he was dominant, made it to 40 before he left the gridiron behind for a life of shilling pizza and palling around with Brad Paisley. All signal-callers (yes even you, Tom) have a shelf life and for mobile quarterbacks, the expiration date arrives much sooner. Brady gets a ton of grief for curling into a ball when he’s about to get sacked, but it’s also the reason he’s still going strong while nearly all of his contemporaries (save for Brees) have fallen off. Robert Griffin III hasn’t been the same since his rookie-year knee injury. Carson Wentz has rightfully been criticized, even by his own coach, for some of his reckless acts outside the pocket. Marcus Mariota has pulled off more than his fair share of miraculous runs since arriving as a first-rounder in 2015, but he’s also been a weekly fixture on the Titans’ injury report.

 

Heroic runs are great for highlight tapes and a sure way to win over fans, but when you set yourself up for unnecessary hits on a regular basis, it actually does your team a disservice. It came off like sour grapes when Marvin Lewis said Jackson wouldn’t last running like this, but he’s not wrong in his assessment. Allen just returned from a four-game absence while Jackson missed a handful of snaps after getting popped in the head last week. Even Michael Vick, who knows a thing or two about using his feet, has advised Jackson to tone it down with some of his more daring maneuvers. “With quarterbacks, we're not used to getting hit all the time," said Vick in an interview last week. “I’m not saying that should deter Lamar or scare him; I'm just saying proceed with caution." Jackson and Allen are rolling now, but how long will the party last?

 

What’s the fantasy rub?

 

Joe Flacco drew the questionable tag for Week 14, though most likely, it will be Jackson under center for a fourth-straight game Sunday at Kansas City. The Chiefs’ secondary has been exposed repeatedly this year, though it’s doubtful Jackson will be able to take advantage as the Ravens seem set in their run-first approach, steam-rolling teams with a heavy dose of L-Jax and Gus Edwards. Jackson has mostly played with the lead since spelling Flacco three weeks ago, though that’s unlikely to be the case this week playing on the road against one of the league’s most explosive offenses. That means Jackson will likely be tested as a passer for the first time. Asking Jackson to throw more could lead to increased turnovers, though his propensity for scrambling gives him a higher floor than most. Especially playing from behind, Jackson should be able to rattle off some big runs Sunday at Arrowhead.

 

As for Allen, he gets a glorious home matchup against the Jets, who are falling apart at the seams and just lost their top linebacker, Darron Lee, to a four-game suspension. Even equipped with one of the league’s thinnest receiving groups, Allen still managed a respectable 231 passing yards last week and could better that mark against a team the Bills stomped by 31 points on the road in Week 10. Allen remains highly erratic and a weekly threat to bust, though now that he’s established himself as a proficient scrambler with a relatively high rushing volume (though not as high as Jackson’s), the Wyoming alum can be safely employed as a starter in most superflex and two-quarterback leagues.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
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