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Fantasy Football: James Starks, Rishard Matthews are top waiver wire targets
2:36 | Fantasy
Fantasy Football: James Starks, Rishard Matthews are top waiver wire targets
Wednesday November 9th, 2016

Mike Evans is a great football player—you know it, I know it, everyone knows it. In his 38 games during 2.5 years in the league, he’s caught 197 passes for 3,002 yards and 23 touchdowns, and since his rookie year in 2014, Evans is 16th among receivers in receptions, ninth in yards and fourth in touchdowns. The 24-year-old has reached star status and will be one of the best receivers in the league for years to come.

Still, it’s time for us to fully appreciate Evans’s greatness during this 2016 season. Every summer during draft-prep season, we talk about the holy trinity for fantasy production: talent, opportunity and environment. To be truly elite in the fantasy world, a player must have boundless talent, plenty of opportunity and an offensive environment in which he can thrive. Todd Gurley, for example, has the first two, but the offense in which he plays is terrible. Golden Tate is 15th in the league in targets, and the Detroit offense suits his skill set, but he does not possess overwhelming talent. Evans hit the trifecta this season.

Evans’s abundant talent is obvious to anyone who has watched the Buccaneers this season, and he has more opportunity for targets than anyone at the position. Evans has been targeted 103 times in eight games this season—T.Y. Hilton is second in the league this year with 90—which puts him on pace for the sixth 200-target season since the NFL started keeping track of targets in 1992. Rob Moore’s single-season record of 208, set in 1997, is well within reach. There’s as wide a target gap between Evans and Hilton as there is between Hilton and No. 14-ranked DeAndre Hopkins. Evans is the only receiver in the league who has had at least one-third of his team’s targets. He’s one of just three—Jarvis Landry and A.J. Green are the other two—to top a 30% target share. Evans is averaging 12.9 targets per game. There have been 52 instances of a player getting at least 13 targets in a game this season. Evans has four of them. No one else has more than two. He has had at least 17 targets twice, which is equal to the number of 17-target games posted by the rest of the league.

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Finally, let’s look at the environment Evans inhabits. The Buccaneers are not one of the pass-happiest teams in the league—their 59% pass-play rate is equal to the league average. The fact that Evans’s dominance is over that 59%, however, is what makes the environment so great for him. Antonio Brown gives up deep targets to Sammie Coates. Julio Jones cedes red-zone targets to Mohamed Sanu. Odell Beckham Jr. plays every snap with two other receivers on the field. None of this is true for Evans. Jameis Winston needs to throw a deep ball? He throws it to Evans. Winston needs a receiver on third-and-eight? He looks to Evans. Winston is dropping back in the red zone? Evans is almost certainly going to be on the opposite end of that pass attempt.

The two most valuable targets receivers can get are those thrown deep and those in the red zone. Evans is one of 10 receivers in the league with an average depth of target of at least 16 yards. The other nine receivers have an average of 28.6 targets this year, and none has more than 49 (Will Fuller). Again, Evans has 103. His red-zone usage—Evans has 10 targets inside the 20 and three inside the five-yard line—could be higher, but that’s largely a function of the offense. Evans’s 27% red-zone target share ranks 10th in the league.

Evans is as great a fantasy player as you’re likely to find this season. He’s on pace for 110 catches, 1,490 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Evans belongs at the center of the fantasy MVP discussion.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 9 Target and Snap Report.

Tyrod Taylor finds a way

When Sammy Watkins was placed on IR after the Bills loss to the Jets in Week 2, the obituaries for Taylor’s fantasy season started pouring in. I’ll admit, after backing Taylor all summer and predicting he’d finish the season as a top-five quarterback, I jumped off the bandwagon as well. There was no way, I and many others theorized, that Taylor would be able to find consistent fantasy success with an amalgam of receivers that included Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Greg Salas. Sure, the rushing floor would still be there, but no quarterback can live on that alone. Taylor’s status as a QB1 was gone.

Since that game, Taylor has averaged 19.3 standard-league points per game. That’s equal to Blake Bortles’s season-long average, which ranks 10th among quarterbacks, and is better than Matthew Stafford’s (19.2), Jameis Winston’s (18.8) and Derek Carr’s). Taylor has scored at least 20 points three times since losing Watkins, and has been a top-12 quarterback four times, including two inside the top five.

So how his Taylor doing it? Remarkably, with a perfect blend of rushing and passing value. Taylor has produced at least 9.5 points with his leagues four times in seven games since Watkins went to IR. He leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards (362) and touchdowns (four). For the season, he has scored 60.2 standard-league points with his rushing production, which translates to 6.69 points per game. That’s equal to a bit more than 1.5 passing touchdowns, and helps narrow the gap between him and quarterbacks that are more prolific through the air.

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Not that he has been a total dud as a passer. Taylor does two things very well when he drops back to pass: connects on deep balls and avoids interceptions. Taylor’s 9.9-yard aDOT is fifth longest among quarterbacks. He’s one of three quarterbacks with three pass plays of at least 60 yards, and the only one with three 60-plus-yard touchdown passes this season. Among the 27 quarterbacks with at least 239 pass attempts, Taylor is one of seven to throw three or fewer interceptions. He makes big plays with his arm and avoids negative ones. In other words, he maximizes everything he can get out of a modest pass-attempt total.

Is Devontae Booker getting exposed?

Two weeks ago, the entire fantasy community anointed Booker as one of the favorites to be this year’s second-half breakout running back. It didn’t exactly take inside information or an expert handle of X’s and O’s to make that case. It was clear as day.

Booker was already carving out a larger role for himself in the Denver offense, before word started to come out that C.J. Anderson’s knee injury might be more serious than initially believed. What it was reported that he would undergo surgery and be placed on IR, Booker’s value shot through the roof. Many owners in leagues where he was available emptied their FAAB budgets for him, or used their prized No. 1 waiver priority on him, and with good reason. Booker now had the inside track on a workhorse role in Denver. Couple that with his strong play in the few games leading up to Anderson’s injury, and everything pointed to a second-half surge. The script has veered off track, perhaps irretrievably.

Booker has played 82.6% of Denver’s snaps the last two weeks, missing no more than 11 snaps in either game. He has rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries as Denver’s starter, totaling just 2.62 yards per carry. It’s not as though he has dealt with grueling matchups, either. The Chargers and Raiders, Denver’s last two opponents, are both in the top 10 in most fantasy points allowed per game to running backs this season. Oakland, in particular, has struggled against the run, allowing 4.7 yards per carry. Booker got less than half of that, at 2.2 yards per rush.

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It’s far too early to come to a conclusion on Booker as a starting back, but not everyone is cut out for a large workload in an offense. Some backs are better cast in change-of-pace or third-down roles. Through two games as Denver’s starter, Booker is trending in that direction.

DeVante Parker proving that snap rate isn’t everything

Keeping a close eye on snap rates helps us unearth nuggets that might not be obvious by looking at a box score. As a recent example, it led many savvy owners to grabbing Ty Montgomery one week before he took on a large rushing role for the Packers. It’s one of many data points fantasy owners should know, but it’s up to the player to actually do something with his time on the field. That brings us to Parker.

When Parker went for eight catches and 106 yards against the Patriots in Week 2, it seemed big things were in store for his second year in the league. Since then, he has 17 receptions for 197 yards and a touchdown in six games, which comes out to 4.45 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. That’s an atrocious number, one that has made him droppable in nearly all fantasy formats.

The most troubling thing is that Parker is playing a ton of snaps for the Dolphins. His season-long snap rate is 84.3%, which ranks 27th among receivers. He was on the field for all but six of Miami’s plays last week, but had just four targets, catching two of them for eight yards. It was the fourth time this season he had fewer than five targets in a game. In fact, he hasn’t had more than seven targets since that Week 2 outburst against the Patriots. That’s a whole lot more important than snap rate. Parker’s playing time is great, but his volume might as well be literally non-existent. His fantasy value certainly is.

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Other times, snap rate does matter

Here are Rishard Matthews’s snap rates by week: 52%, 54%, 63%, 38%, 55%, 40%, 67%, 87%, 89%. Early in the season, the deep sleeper gave up too many snaps to Andre Johnson. Through the first five weeks of the season, Matthews played 53% of the Titans snaps compared to 43% for Johnson, and had 24 targets to Johnson’s 21. While he led the veteran in both stats, he still was losing too much opportunity for a player who, though bound for the Hall of Fame, is well beyond his effective date.

In Week 6, things flipped for Matthews. He got just three targets in that game, but caught all of for 70 yards and a touchdown. After a relatively quiet Week 7 game against the Colts, Matthews has racked up 10 catches on 14 targets for 101 yards and three touchdowns the last two games. Johnson, meanwhile, retired after the Titans Week 8 win over the Jaguars.

Going back to that Week 5 game, the last one in which Johnson had as many targets as Matthews, the latter has 21 receptions for 240 yards and five touchdowns. That’s a robust 10.8 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. The most important numbers, however, are the final two percentages in the first sentence of this section. Given the success of Matthews individually and the Tennessee offense as a whole the last two weeks, it’s hard to imagine his snap rate decreasing at all the rest of the season. So long as he’s playing about 85% of the team’s snaps, with Marcus Mariota progressing to new heights, Matthews is going to be heard from in all fantasy formats.

Maybe the Saints do have a No. 1 wide receiver

A few weeks ago in this space, we wondered whether or not the Saints had a No. 1 receiver, and, if they did, if it was the receiver everyone assumed it would be. Since then, they have answered both of those questions for us. Yes, the Saints do have one receiver clearly atop the depth chart. No, it’s not who anyone assumed it would be.

Michael Thomas is putting together a phenomenal rookie season. Through eight games he has 47 catches for 573 yards and five touchdowns. You can figure out the pace yourself, but just in case you don’t feel like doing the simple math, we’ve got you covered. If Thomas’s second half matches his first, he’ll end the year with 94 catches, 1,146 yards and 10 touchdowns. The last time a receiver hit thresholds of 90 catches, 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie was also the first and only time it has been done in NFL history. Two years ago, Odell Beckham had 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 scores. He might have company in eight weeks.

Thomas has played more snaps than Brandin Cooks the last two weeks, and now leads the Saints’ receivers in snap rate. He had already clearly passed Willie Snead on the depth chart, joining Cooks on the field for all of the Saints’ two-receiver sets. When the Saints go to one receiver in the red zone, it’s regularly Thomas, and not Cooks, who is on the field. Four of Thomas’s five touchdowns have come from inside the 10-yard line. He’s as bankable as they come in scoring range, and Drew Brees knows how to take advantage. Cooks and Thomas might realistically be a No. 1 and No. 1a, but the rookie out of Ohio State has a great chance to lead the Saints in all meaningful statistics this season.

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