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Target report: Bears RB Jordan Howard could snatch up starting position

With Jeremy Langford out with an ankle injury, Jordan Howard's about to see his snap numbers go way up. Also, three teams executing the three-receiver base offense to the benefit of fantasy owners, another update on Atlanta's backfield and more.

Zero-RB strategies predominated in drafts and auctions this season, after years of its earliest adopters insisting it was the best strategy for the modern NFL. Avoiding the running back injuries that have already plagued the league is just one element of what makes the framework successful. Another equally important factor is the philosophical and schematic shifts on the offensive side of the ball, best illustrated by the Giants, Jets and Dolphins, who all run their base offense from a three-receiver set.

The Giants feature the league’s purest three-receiver base offense. Odell Beckham Jr. has missed just one snap this season. Jason Witten is the only other non-quarterback in the league to miss one or zero snaps over the first three weeks. Rookie Sterling Shepard has a snap rate of 96%, while Victor Cruz has played 94.1% of the Giants snaps this season. It’s no wonder Eli Manning has 925 yards in three games. He has three receivers on the field with him nearly every snap he takes.

The song is nearly the same for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have combined to miss 14 snaps this year, the lion’s share of which came when Marshall was getting his knee checked out in Week 2. Quincy Enunwa has a 77.1% snap rate this season, but has been north of 82% in two of the Jets three games. He also dealt with an injury in Week 2, the only game in which he fell short of that 82% mark. When Enunwa was out, however, Jalin Marshall stepped into his role.

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Miami is the most surprising team on the list. Jarvis Landry has missed three of the Dolphins 185 snaps this year, while Kenny Stills checks in with a 96.2% snap rate. DeVante Parker has played 89% of Miami’s snaps the last two weeks after missing Week 1 with a hamstring injury. Even without Parker, the Dolphins didn’t get out of their three-receiver base. Rookie Leonte Carroo had an 85% snap rate that week, and while he has barely seen the field since, his presence in Week 1 is a sure indicator of what Miami wants to do offensively.

The principals in the passing attacks for each of these teams are going to benefit from their base offenses all year. At the same time, pedestrian running options for the Giants and Dolphins will likely struggle with an absence of volume, and reinforce pass-heavy tendencies. In other words, don’t fret over Odell Beckham’s touchdown drought. Don’t worry about slow starts for Marshall and Decker. Don’t assume Tannehill’s inconsistency is going to torpedo Miami’s passing game. The base offenses for the Giants, Jets and Dolphins almost guarantee fantasy success for the key members through the air.

With that, let’s see what else we can dig up in the Week 3 edition of the Target and Snap Report.

Jordan Howard’s moment has arrived

When Howard looked more explosive than Jeremy Langford in the Bears 29–14 loss to the Eagles in Week 2, it was clear that he was going to see an uptick in his workload the following week. That workload is set to take off with Langford out for 4–6 weeks because of an ankle injury. Langford and Howard engaged in a typical timeshare early in the Bears Week 3 loss to the Cowboys, but once the former left with an ankle injury, it was the Howard show. He played every snap and didn’t give up a touch to any other back, though part of that owed to Ka’Deem Carey being inactive.

With Langford out 4–6 weeks due to his injury, Howard could very well cement his role as the starter in Chicago. Even if Howard doesn’t get the full David Johnson treatment while Langford’s on the shelf, it’s clear he’s going to be in a workhorse role. Chicago’s offense may be off to a poor start, but volume is a running back’s best friend, and the rookie out of Indiana has seen plenty of it.

On top of that, Howard has looked good with limited touches this season. He ran for 45 yards on nine carries and caught four passes for 47 yards last week. Despite a terrible game script for a running back and a split backfield early in the game, Howard still managed to be the focal point of a play, by virtue of a carry or target, on 30.6% of his snaps. He has the opportunity to become not only a locked-in fantasy starter for the rest of this year, but also the Bears future at the position. He should be in his owners lineups when the Bears host the Lions on Sunday.

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The remarkable Atlanta backfield, and its impact on Julio Jones

I’m not sure I remember another week in which two members of the same backfield were the top-two fantasy scorers at running back. That’s exactly what happened last week, when Tevin Coleman rode three touchdowns to 26.9 points, while Devonta Freeman racked up 207 yards from scrimmage en route to a 26.7-point day. We could debate just how culpable the Saints defense was in the proceedings, but it’s clear that the Falcons have engineered the ideal backfield timeshare for the modern NFL. The owners of one of the league’s best receivers have noticed.

Matt Ryan has attempted 103 passes this season, with 20 of those going in the direction of Freeman or Coleman. The backs have accounted for 19.4% of Atlanta’s targets and 26% of the team’s receptions. That ranks them sixth and fifth, respectively, among running back duos in target and reception share. Jones, unsurprisingly, has seen his target share crater. Last season, he accounted for 36.6% of Atlanta’s targets. This year, he’s down at 19.6%.

The Falcons may not have a huge reason to tweak their offense based on the success they’ve had this season, but you can bet that the league is going to force them into adjustments. Additionally, there’s zero chance that Jones remains at or near a target share of 20% for the rest of the season. Last year, that rate would have had him rubbing elbows with Robert Woods and Kenny Britt. This isn’t a bad week to check in and see if the Jones owner in your league jumps to conclusions.

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Trevor Siemian’s untapped fantasy value

Everyone will point to the two long touchdown passes against the Bengals, 41 yards to Emmanuel Sanders and 55 yards to Demaryius Thomas, as the greatest indicator that there’s hope for the Denver passing game. That certainly caught my eye, and it has me feeling better about Siemian, Sanders and Thomas, even if both of those passes were a bit underthrown. If you really want to back the first-year starter and his receivers, though, forget about those deep balls for a second, and go to the opposite end of the spectrum.

Siemian has attempted 15 red-zone passes, which has him tied for 16th in the league. Of those 15, however, 10 have been from inside the 10-yard line, while six have come from inside the five-yard line. Only five quarterbacks have more attempts inside the five-yard line, where completions almost always go for touchdowns, than Siemian. Despite that, he has thrown for just one score inside the five, and two scores inside the 10. If he continues throwing that frequently near the goal line, he’s going to hook up with receivers for touchdowns more often.

While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks in the red zone…

…none has attempted more passes in the most lucrative area of the field than Philip Rivers. He leads the NFL with 27 red-zone attempts, followed by Kirk Cousins with 24 and, surprisingly, Alex Smith with 22. It will be interesting to see how, and if, Jamaal Charles’s return affects the Chiefs red-zone tendencies. Charles is one of the league’s best receivers out of the backfield inside the 10-yard line.

Ryan Fitzpatrick has also attempted 22 passes in the red zone. He’s followed by Carson Palmer at 21, Andrew Luck and Eli Manning at 20, and Carson Wentz at 19.

Among quarterbacks not on the overall red-zone attempt leaderboard, Matthew Stafford (11), Aaron Rodgers (10) and Siemian have thrown the most passes inside the 10-yard line. That’s par for the course for the Packers, but it’s encouraging for those invested in the Detroit passing game to see Stafford rate so highly in this regard. Nearly half (seven) of Derek Carr’s red-zone attempts (15) have come from inside the five-yard line. Just one of those seven attempts resulted in six points. You can bet on that to turn around with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree at his disposal.

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Why I’m not worried about Carson Palmer (yet)

Palmer had one of his worst games as a Cardinal last week, throwing four interceptions in a loss to the Bills. He was sacked five times and knocked down another four, and if that continues he’s going to be in trouble. Not only is he a 36-year old with a checkered injury history, including two torn ACLs, but Arizona’s passing attack is built on the deep ball. If the line doesn’t protect Palmer, those deep routes don’t have time to develop.

The good news, however, is that Palmer is still pushing the ball down the field with regularity and alacrity this season. Palmer leads the league with an average depth of target of 11.8 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s more than one yard farther than second-place Brock Osweiler, who checks in at 10.7 yards (more on that shortly).

Palmer’s spotty performance thus far is slightly concerning. He has had little help from Michael Floyd and John Brown, and David Johnson is going to eat up a ton of volume out of the backfield. Still, the two most valuable types of throws from a fantasy perspective are deep balls and attempts in the red zone. Palmer ranks first in the former and fifth in the latter.

Osweiler is the surprising deep ball champion through three weeks

The aDOT leaderboard is packed with expected names, starting with Palmer and moving on to Cam Newton (10.4 yards), Tyrod Taylor (10.3 yards) and Ben Roethlisberger (10.1 yards). Nestled between Palmer and Newton is Osweiler at the aforementioned healthy 10.7 yards. It seems he likes playing with DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller.

Osweiler’s adjusted catch rate, which is simply catches plus drops divided by attempts, is just 68.3%. That ranks 25th out of the 29 quarterbacks who have started all three games this year (plus Sam Bradford). Will Fuller dropped what would have been an 81-yard touchdown against the Bears Week 1, and bobbled a pass against the Chiefs Week 2, turning a 57-yard touchdown into a 53-yard gain to set up first and goal from the four-yard line. That doesn’t excuse some of Osweiler’s inefficiencies, but he can throw the deep ball with accuracy. Just as importantly, the Texans are unleashing him to do so with frequency.

One more surprising name toward the top of the aDOT leaderboard is Ryan Tannehill, who sits in seventh at 9.7 yards. In last is Philip Rivers, who’s average pass has traveled 7.0 yards this season.

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Will Fuller’s first NFL no-show comes with good news

Fuller must think this whole professional football thing is so easy. Even when he gets largely shut out, he gives his fantasy owners a silver lining.

The Patriots held Fuller to three catches for 31 yards in their Week 3 win over the Texans. He still got seven targets, however, and played every single snap. Fuller had a 72% snap rate in Week 1 and 90% in Week 2 before climbing up to Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown territory last week. That is excellent news.

Fuller isn’t done with the silver linings. His aDOT on the season is 20.9 yards, making him one of just four receivers north of 20 yards. None of the other three has more than 16 targets, while Fuller has 25. He has more than twice as many targets as the lone receiver ahead of him on the list, Sammie Coates. Fuller’s 25 targets rate 18th in the league, and just two other players in the top 30 have an aDOT that surpasses 17 yards.

To recap, Fuller’s owners can bet on, more or less, a 100% snap share for the rest of the season. He’s going to have plenty of opportunities to make plays, and many of those are going to be deep down the field, owing to his skill set, that of his quarterback, and the personality of the Houston offense. Don’t be down on him after last week. Fuller is looking like the rookie wide receiver prize of the 2016 season.

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That’s great for his owners, but what about something for the rest of us?

OK, I can dig. The one thing Fuller isn’t doing is getting looks in the red zone. He has just three targets inside the 20, and none of those have come inside the 10-yard line. The leader in red-zone targets is, somewhat surprisingly, Emmanuel Sanders with nine. This gets back to what we discussed earlier with Trevor Siemian. The Broncos weren’t effective with their downfield passing the first two games of the season, but they’ve been putting the ball in Siemian’s hands in scoring range. That bodes well for Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

Tied for second with eight are Jordy Nelson and Jamison Crowder. That’s going to last for Nelson, but the same may not be true for Crowder. Kirk Cousins has really struggled in the red zone this season, despite the second most attempts in the money area of the field. Part of that could be because Crowder, who checks in at 5' 8", has received 38.1% of the red-zone targets. As more of those start going to Jordan Reed, who has just one inside the 10 and zero inside the 5, and Josh Doctson, Crowder’s opportunities are going to decrease.

Larry Fitzgerald leads all receivers with six targets inside the five-yard line. Again, this is more reason to not worry about Carson Palmer. If he’s throwing it this often inside the red zone (Michael Floyd has seven red-zone targets), success can’t be too far behind. There’s a logjam for second among receivers in targets inside the five-yard line, with eight tied at three. The most interesting among the group are Jordan Matthews and Odell Beckham. Carson Wentz has been the most accurate quarterback in the league this year in terms of adjusted catch rate. That he’s already looking to Matthews with regularity so close to the goal line is a boon for his fantasy value. As for OBJ, this is just another reason why you never worry about him.

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Checking in on the new backfield pairings

Carolina: Cameron Artis-Payne played 31 snaps, netting 12 carries and one target and totaling 58 yards from scrimmage. Fozzy Whittaker played 37 snaps, carried the ball five times for 22 yards, and caught five of his six targets for 34 yards. This one seems pretty cut and dried. With Jonathan Stewart out, Artis-Payne will be the primary runner, while Whittaker will be the receiving and third-down back.

Detroit: The Lions first game without Ameer Abdullah went off the rails early. They faced a 14-3 deficit against the Packers at the end of the first quarter, and trailed by three touchdowns at halftime. We still got a look at what the backfield will be without Abdullah, and it sets up nicely for Dwayne Washington. He had 10 carries for 38 yards while playing 25 snaps. Theo Riddick was on the field for 45 snaps and was the only show in town in terms of receiving, catching seven of his nine targets for 39 yards. He also got 10 carries, but gained just nine yards on the ground. As time progresses, Washington is a good bet to be the team’s top runner, with Riddick largely staying in the same role he had with Abdullah healthy.

Jacksonville: Chris Ivory made his Jaguars debut last week, running 12 times for 14 yards. T.J. Yeldon played one more snap than Ivory, but had six fewer carries and was just as ineffective. Jacksonville’s line is a real problem for both backs, Ivory is unquestionably atop the depth chart.

Minnesota: This one went exactly to script. Jerick McKinnon played 65% of the snaps, handling 16 carries and two targets. Matt Asiata played the remaining 35%, getting six carries and one target. McKinnon ran for 45 yards, while Asiata plodded for 15. Neither impressed, but McKinnon is clearly the leader of the backfield.

Philadelphia: Ryan Mathews left in the first quarter of the Eagles 34-3 win over the Steelers with an ankle injury, giving way to Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood. They both played 24 snaps, though it was Smallwood who was a true running back. He got 16 carries, picking up 79 yards and his first career touchdown. Sproles got just two carries, but he hauled in all six of his targets for 128 yards and a score. The Eagles have a bye this week, so it’s entirely possible Mathews won’t miss any time. Both Sproles and Smallwood are worth owning, but we’ll have to revisit this backfield next week.

DeMarco Murray’s unexpected lead

Murray ranks second among all running backs in standard-scoring leagues, trailing only David Johnson. He’s first in full and half PPR leagues, and leads all backs with 17 receptions through three games. That, however, is not the subject of the heading of this section.

Murray has six targets inside the red zone, which accounts for 37.5% of the Titans total share. That has him tied with Theo Riddick for the lead among running backs in red-zone targets. Tennessee’s offense has sputtered this season, but that has been no fault of Murray’s. With his 449-touch regular season now two years in the past, Murray once again looks like the dynamic all-around back he was with the Cowboys. Even if Derrick Henry starts earning more of the backfield share, Murray is on solid ground as an RB1.

The one knock against him is his lack of runs inside the 20. Murray has taken just four handoffs in the red zone, with just one of those coming from inside the five-yard line. Melvin Gordon leads the way in both of those categories, and with Danny Woodhead out for the season, the second-year player out of Wisconsin is a good bet to remain atop the leaderboard.

Emptying the notebook

• Terrelle Pryor played 78 of Cleveland’s 82 snaps last week, outpacing the team’s starting quarterback, Cody Kessler. This isn’t a gimmick, fantasy owners. Get Pryor if you still can.

• Phillip Dorsett flopped in his first start for the Colts this season, but he played 87.3% of the Colts snaps, the same rate as T.Y. Hilton. In other words, he was on the field in all two-receiver sets. We’re going to hear from him before Donte Moncrief returns from his shoulder injury.

• While Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams are the fantasy-relevant receivers in San Diego, Dontrelle Inman outsnapped both of them last week. Inman didn’t do much with his 88.3% snap share and he still isn’t on the fantasy radar, but this bears watching as a potential curb on Williams’s ceiling.

• Cole Beasley played fewer than half of Dallas’s snaps last week, and while he was dealing with a minor injury during the game, he has yet to play two-thirds of the team’s snaps in a game. And yet, he’s averaging 0.34 points per snap in PPR formats, which has him tied with Mike Evans and Jarvis Landry.

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• Tyler Lockett suffered a knee injury in Week 2 that hobbled him in Week 3 and contributed to his 32.9% snap rate. It’s worth noting, however, that he has yet to outsnap Jermaine Kearse. Volume isn’t going to be Lockett’s friend this year. He’s going to have to be extremely efficient with his targets.

• Marvin Jones has outsnapped Golden Tate every game this season. Last week, Jones sat on just three plays, and was on the field for all of the team’s one-receiver sets. As if the production wasn’t a strong enough indication, the usage guarantees that there’s no doubting Jones’s status as Detroit’s No. 1 receiver.

• In the Buccaneers first game after waiving Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Cameron Brate played 70 of the team’s 90 snaps. He got 10 targets, good for third behind Mike Evans (13) and Adam Humphries (12), and caught five of them for 46 yards and two touchdowns. Jameis Winston threw two passes inside the five-yard line in the Buccaneers loss to the Rams, and both of those went to Brate. Hunter Henry, meanwhile, played every snap for the Chargers, catching all five of his targets for 76 yards. Antonio Gates reportedly wasn’t anywhere near playing because of a hamstring injury. If someone is going to pull a 2015 Gary Barnidge this season, it’s going to be Brate or Henry.