Fantasy Football 2015: Fact or Fiction — Matt Forte is Still an Elite Running Back

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Fantasy Fact or Fiction is back for the 2015 season. A lot happens every week during the NFL season, and it’s hard to catch everything, especially when much of it can be anomalous. We’re here to remove that shroud of uncertainty, and shine a light on some of the most substantive developments from the previous week, determining which are for real, and which can be fairly dismissed.

With that, the first fact of the season concerns a certain back who rose to fantasy prominence over the last few years, but just might be better off with a new coaching staff this season.

Fact: Matt Forte is Still an Elite Fantasy Running Back

The fantasy community backed off Forte a bit after the regime change in Chicago. Marc Trestman may not have been great for the Bears in real life, but his system helped make Forte a fantasy star. Purely from a statistical point of view, Forte had his two best seasons in the NFL during the Trestman era. He surpassed 1,800 total yards in both of Trestman’s years in Chicago, scored a total of 22 touchdowns, and set an NFL record for receptions by a running back in a single season with 102 last year. You couldn’t blame anyone for believing that Forte’s fantasy value would take a hit with John Fox and Adam Gase in town. If Week 1 was any indication, however, those who believed that were wrong.

Forte was one of the Week 1 fantasy stars, running for 141 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Forte never hid his displeasure over the lessened importance of the run game under Trestman, and perhaps the former Bears coach now regrets not using Forte more as a runner. In 2013 and 2014 combined, Forte had at least 24 carries in a game exactly three times. He’s already one-third of the way to that total in game one of the Fox/Gase tenure.

It wasn’t simply that Forte got 24 carries that has to have his owners excited about scoring him at a tiny discount. All you had to do was watch him run to see how well this offense fits his skill set. Forte had three runs for at least 20 yards, with a long of 23. The Bears ran 16 plays inside the red zone against the Packers on Sunday. Three of those were runs by Forte, Jay Cutler targeted him on five of his red-zone pass attempts. Additionally, one play was a read-option on which Cutler kept the ball. Four of the Bears’ red-zone plays came inside the Packers’ five-yard line. Each of those ended with the ball in Forte’s hands. The team committed to the run early and stuck with it throughout the game. They had four second-half possessions and were trailing during all of them. Still, Forte got a total of eight carries after halftime. That’s a far cry from what happened during the Trestman era. This version of the Bears actually knows where its bread is buttered.

It wasn’t like Forte was an afterthought in the passing game, either. He was second on the team with eight targets, catching five of them for 25 yards, and uncharacteristically dropped what would have been a walk-in touchdown. On that play, the Bears motioned Forte out of the backfield, getting a one-on-one look with a linebacker. He easily won that matchup and was Cutler’s first read, but he simply took his eyes off the ball too early, letting six points clang off his hands. From a fantasy perspective, however, the most important takeaway there is that this team is still looking to get Forte in mismatches on passing plays in the red zone.

Fantasy owners may have been justified when they worried about Forte’s ability to turn in another first-round worthy season in a new offense, but they should also recognize that he put those fears to bed this week. Forte was the focal point of Chicago’s offense. His backups, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jeremy Langford, combined for five carries. There’s no doubt as to who runs the show for the Bears.

Fiction: Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers are Unassailable at the Top of the Quarterback Ranks

Luck and Rodgers entered the season as the consensus top two quarterbacks, comfortably ahead of the next tier. We always have to guard against an overreaction after Week 1, but I’m not so sure they’ll finish as far ahead of the pack as they did a year ago. In fact, I think at least one of them could fall out of the top two this season.

Let’s start with Rodgers, who had another strong performance against the rival Bears. He completed 18 of his 23 passes and threw for three touchdowns, playing nearly flawless football in the win. His 18 completions went for just 189 yards, the fewest yards he’s had in a win since Dec. 9, 2012, when he had 173 in a 27–20 victory over the Lions. The Packers offense was efficient and took care of the ball, but it lacked a certain explosiveness that we’ve become accustomed to with Rodgers under certain. Quite frankly, Jordy Nelson was conspicuous in his absence.

I argued a few weeks ago that not enough was being made of Nelson’s season-ending injury, with respect to the bite it would take out of the Green Bay offense, as well as Rodgers’ overall production. That was on display on Sunday in Chicago. Rodgers’ long completion went for 34 yards, and he had just two completions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Green Bay’s very first drive ended when Rodgers and Davante Adams failed to hook up on a back-shoulder throw on a third-and-three. You see that play in every single offense across the league, but Rodgers and Nelson have turned it into an art form. Had that been Nelson out there, it’s a near guarantee that the drive would have continued. That could very well be a theme for the Packers this year.

Randall Cobb is a surgical route runner and deadly in the red zone, but Nelson was Rodgers’ best big play threat. Rodgers had nine touchdown passes of at least 40 yards last year. Seven of them went to Nelson, with one apiece going to Cobb and Eddie Lacy. The big plays that characterized this offense last season just may not come as frequently with Nelson on the shelf. Rodgers, of course, will be fine. He’s the best quarterback in the league for a reason. He may not, however, be able to reach last year’s heights, especially with respect to his 38/5 TD/INT spread.

At least Rodgers’ owners can rest comfortably in the knowledge that he had a very good, although not great, fantasy game on Sunday, as well as the fact that he didn’t lose any other key weapons. The same cannot be said for Luck owners, who watched their prized quarterback struggle for the balance of the Colts’ loss to the Bills, then received ever worse news after the game.

To be fair, Luck won’t be the last quarterback to struggle against the Bills this season. In fact, there’s a chance that Luck may not face a better defense for the rest of the year. That doesn’t totally excuse the fact that he played dreadfully in the first half. Luck was just 11 for 23 for 124 yards and an interception before halftime, and the Colts entered the locker room with a goose egg on the scoreboard. Things got better for him in the second half, but he still finished the game with just 243 yards, 5.0 yards per attempt, and two touchdowns against a pair of picks. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible fantasy performance, but it wasn’t exactly encouraging to see him struggle so mightily against a stout defense.

Luck got essentially nothing from his run game, and was routinely under pressure on Sunday. Again, a lot of that is credit to the Bills, not a knock on Luck or the Indianapolis offense. Still, this is an offensive line that had some questions entering Week 1, and did little to answer any of those questions. No matter the opponent, the Colts need Frank Gore to be more of a factor than he was on Sunday. The Colts get the Jets this week, and have their first meeting with the Texans three weeks later. They’re going to have to find a way to perform against good defenses for Luck to find the consistency that made him such a deadly fantasy quarterback last year.

It was bad enough for the Colts that they dropped their first game of the season. The news turned even further downward when T.Y. Hilton was forced to leave the game with a knee injury. While it appears he avoided any serious damage, early reports indicate that he’s likely to miss at least a game or two because of a knee bruise. Hilton is, of course, Luck’s go-to receiver, and he had seven catches on 14 targets for 88 yards in the loss to Buffalo. Donte Moncrief is a capable replacement, but the Colts’ offense loses some of its ceiling with Hilton on the shelf. If the injury proves more serious that currently thought, it would be fair to slide Luck down in the rest-of-season rankings at the quarterback position.

Photos: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images (Forte, Rodgers), Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images (Luck)

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