I am writing this column, my first of the in-season variety, as the late afternoon games kickoff on the first Sunday of the 2021 NFL Football season. The early games are in the books. And just like clockwork every single season, some of the players and situations fantasy football analysts and fans have been speculating about all off-season, went in unexpected directions.
The “We are all just guessing” tweets started early when the San Francisco 49ers reported that much-hyped rookie running back, Trey Sermon, was a healthy scratch. No one ever really knows what a Kyle Shanahan backfield will look like, even from one week to the next. But not many expected a healthy scratch for Sermon.
Buffalo Bills’ second-year RB Zack Moss was also announced as a healthy scratch. Now, Moss has already been written off by many, but a healthy scratch was not expected as he worked with the team’s No. 1’s for a majority of preseason.
Surprising results continued during the early games. Neither of the Tennessee Titans to top two wide receivers, AJ Brown and Julio Jones, recorded a reception in the first half against the Arizona Cardinals. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who has averaged almost five targets per game in his career (including just under seven targets per game in 2019) was not targeted once the entire game.
Of course, also like clockwork, the chatter started on Twitter about fantasy football analysts not knowing anything. While the intent behind this sentiment is likely driven by ego and attention-seeking, it is somewhat true. We don’t know much for certain.
What this opening Sunday also reinforced is something as expected as a Raheem Mostert or Rashaad Penny injury (both of which happened), overreactions to these teams’ first real football action in months.
Steelers’ rookie running back Najee Harris had a slow start and a quiet day in a matchup for which the speculation was Pittsburgh would lean more on the run. Harris will be fine. He was ranked by most as a low-end RB1/high-end RB2 for a reason. He is still a rookie and rookies, even first-round workhorse RBs can take a minute to get going.
We do not know what is going to happen year to year, week to week, even snap to snap. Fantasy football analysis was never supposed to arrive at some magical sure thing. It is a combination of analysis of data, film, coach speak and beat writer reports – that can be used predict what may happen in the future. It is about increasing the odds of success and/or decreasing the odds of failure. It is about providing information to the audience or fan to put them in the best position to make their own decisions.
In a nutshell, that’s all fantasy football is, an endless series of strategic decisions, which is also why I love it.
Therein lies the beauty of analysis for me. The curiosity. The drive to find answers to questions. In this column series, I have discussed the concept of not knowing in the context of my own fears of the unknown. That is a self-inflicted state of mind, conjured by my own brain.
But the “not knowing” that drives curiosity is a beautiful concept if you allow for it, whether within the confines of fantasy football or any aspect of your life. That’s where the “fantasy analysts don’t know anything” is just irrelevant noise. It seems to come from a place of “if one doesn’t know everything, they don’t know anything.”
I’ll tell you, knowing everything, which would stifle curiosity and the motivation to learn, sounds extremely boring to me.
And now, to Week 1’s Mundie Awards:
THE MOST UNKNOWN AWARD
Elijah Mitchell (RB, San Francisco 49ers)
It wouldn’t be a column about “not knowing” if I did not double dip in talking about the San Francisco 49ers’ backfield.
Week 1 waiver wire darling in waiting, Elijah Mitchell came out of nowhere to lead the 49ers’ rushing attack against the Detroit Lions. Outside of dynasty and deep redraft leagues, many (who aren’t obsessed with fantasy football year-round) probably hadn’t heard of him.
Sermon being inactive initially opened the door for Mitchell to play a role in the 49ers’ opener, but it was the Mostert knee injury after only two carries that provided the opportunity for Mitchell to explode for 19 carries for 104 yards, including an impressive 38-yard touchdown run.
But, what does this mean? Mostert’s injury luck continues to be horrendous. He was a highly ranked RB for Week 1. When healthy, he has been an effective and explosive RB. While Sermon’s healthy scratch was surprising, the most likely outcome was still going to be Mostert leading the charge against Detroit.
We also learned that Shanahan likely has magic dust he sprinkles on whichever RB he has in there. Shanahan takes draft capital, seals it in a 50-gallon drum and buries it in a landfill. Sermon (third round pick) was scratched for an Undrafted Free Agent (UFDA; Mostert) and then replaced by Mitchell, a sixth-round rookie.
Looking forward, Mitchell will be a top waiver-wire add following Week 1. But it’s still the 49ers. We don’t know the severity of Mostert’s injury as of this writing, and until he’s back I assume Sermon will be forced into the lineup.
And it’s Shanahan. For all we know, UDFA JaMycal Hasty will lead the backfield in Week 2. Regardless, Mitchell should be a top priority add in all formats.
THE TOLD YA SO AWARD
Joe Mixon (RB, Cincinnati Bengals)
I am just having some fun with this award title. I am not a “told you so” guy or a victory lapper. Even if I were, I am also a proponent of not overreacting to Week 1 or small sample sizes, so I don’t think a victory lap is warranted yet.
I am also not a “truther” (whatever that means). I have been pro-Joe Mixon all offseason, especially once Giovani Bernard left for Tampa Bay. It was simple for me. Mixon could easily lead the NFL in opportunity share if he stayed healthy. His snaps and volume would be on the level of the seemingly dying breed of true workhorse running backs. That was my take and in part why I projected Mixon as the RB11 for the season.
And that’s what he did in Week 1, with 29 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown, along with four receptions on four targets for 23 yards. That’s 24 points in Points Per Reception (PPR) leagues. The only other RB to touch the ball on Sunday was Samaje Perine, who had six touches for 29 yards. I don’t have the numbers yet, but I assume Mixon’s snap share and opportunity share will be among the league leaders at RB after Week 1.
Mixon won’t put up those numbers every week, but he has about a solid of a floor as any RB in the NFL. He is also their pass-catching and goal-line back. So barring injury, Mixon also carries a relatively high ceiling. He is an every-week start.
THE CALM DOWN AWARD
D’Andre Swift (RB, Detroit Lions)
I hope Week 1 will allow some to calm down in fading Detroit Lions RB D’Andre Swift.
The common knocks have been injury, talk of teammate Jamaal Williams being the lead back and leading up to Week 1, a tough matchup against San Francisco’s defense. I imagine these surface-level reasons were enough to scare some off and relegate Swift to their bench. Not for me. I have a lot of Swift shares and I started him with confidence everywhere.
Injury is obviously a legitimate concern, but Swift was deemed healthy leading into the game. I have never been under the misconception that Swift would be an every-week, 20+ carry workhorse, or that Jamaal Williams would not have a role. But it’s not 2005 anymore. A running back getting 20+ carries today is more of an exception than the rule.
Swift’s ceiling coming more from his receiving output, although he is an explosive athlete and can torch any defense on the ground or through the air. There isn’t really a game script that takes him out of his intended role.
And that played out against the 49ers. Swift carried the ball 11 times for 39 yards. Not great. But he also caught eight passes on 11 targets for 65 yards and a receiving touchdown (good for 24.4 PPR points).
Playing from behind like the lions do can suck the life out of more rush-heavy running back’s point total. But’s is actually a boon for Swift. And playing for Detroit, that game script will likely result more often than not.
Writing new and different editions of “The Mundies” will be a lot of fun, but I’d love some help. If you have ideas, hit me up, and I’ll include a shout-out for any suggestions used.
And as always, find me on Twitter, talking fantasy football, joking around, posting GIFs and lending my support where it’s needed @MunderDifflinFF.