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  • Going beyond the box score will help you find hidden truths the surface level statistics can hide. The Week 1 Target and Snap Report dives deep on Todd Gurley, Ty Montgomery and a lot more.
By Michael Beller
September 12, 2017

The stats in the box score translate into fantasy scoring, but they only tell us what happened—not why or how. Every week, the Target and Snap Report will delve into the why and how. Using target and snap data from our friends at 4for4.com, as well as the publicly accessible Next Gen stats from NFL.com, we’ll try to explain what is going on underneath the surface level of the box score.

Fantasy owners should constantly be asking whether the success of their players is built on a solid foundation, or if it rests on ephemeral conditions that are bound to disappear sooner rather than later. The Target and Snap Report will strive to help you answer that question all season.

Concern for Todd Gurley

Gurley’s Week 1 is a perfect illustration of a misleading box score. He totaled 96 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 24 touches in the Rams blowout victory over the Colts. Every fantasy owner would be horrified by his 40 rushing yards on 19 carries, but some might find reason for optimism in there. After all, the Rams still gave him 19 carries. Plus, with Jared Goff still unproven and the Rams nursing a big lead all game, the Colts were likely stacking the box, right? Wrong.

Gurley faced a loaded box, defined as eight men or more, on just 10.5% of his runs. The only feature backs who faced a stacked front less frequently in Week 1 were Frank Gore, Devonta Freeman, Ameer Abdullah, Isaiah Crowell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell. Despite facing a base front on just shy of 90% of his totes, Gurley averaged 2.1 yards per carry, marking the fourth straight game he was south of 3.0 YPC, and ninth straight with fewer than 4.0 YPC.

If you’re looking for a silver line with Gurley, he did run pass routes on 25 snaps, something he did rarely last season. Jeff Fisher was loath to use Gurley as a receiver last season, preferring to deploy Benny Cunningham in those spots. Gurley can be a threat as a receiver, as he proved with five catches for 56 yards. Unfortunately, it looks like he’ll have to be to return value on his average draft position. His shocking inefficiency on the ground, a problem that dates back to his rookie year, is a real problem.

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Other notable eight-man box stats

Leonard Fournette faced the highest percentage of loaded fronts, with the Texans putting at least eight men in the box on 57.7% of his carries. Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Stewart shared an eight-man-box rate of 55.6%, Dalvin Cook’s was 40.9%, Jordan Howard’s sat at 38.5%, and Kareem Hunt’s was 35.3%. Given those rates, the performances by the rookies Cook and Hunt were even more impressive. We don’t want to overreact to one game, but both look like they’re going to be strong weapons all season.

Right alongside Gurley was Lamar Miller, who managed just 65 yards on 17 carries, a meager 3.8 yards per tote, even though he saw a stacked box on 11.8% of his carries. After last season’s major letdown, that was not the start Miller owners could afford. Jacksonville does have what appears to be one of the fastest, most swarming defenses in the league, though, so it’ll be interesting to see what Miller does against the Bengals on Thursday night.

Ty Montgomery is our newest workhorse back

Montgomery played 74 of the Packers 82 snaps in Week 1, a 90% snap rate that significantly outpaced every other running back in Week 1. Rookie Jamaal Williams, the only other Green Bay tailback to see the field, played six. Montgomery had 19 carries in the win over the Seahawks. Williams had two, and one of those came after Montgomery tweaked his ankle. Montgomery had four targets, and caught them all for 39 yards. Williams did not receive one look from Aaron Rodgers. And then there’s this gem from Zach Kruse of The Packers Wire.

To recap: Montgomery handled all the work out of the Green Bay backfield and he did his job protecting the franchise, Rodgers. It’s time to welcome him to the workhorse club.

This is why I was so high on Montgomery coming into the season. He made a smooth transition to the backfield while retaining his receiving skills, giving him a real shot at developing into a workhorse back tied to the league’s best quarterback. He appears locked into a role that will net him in the neighborhood of 20 carries plus targets per week in a potent offense. The top five at his position is well within his reach.

Other notable pass-route data

Carlos Hyde ran 23 pass routes in the 49ers loss to the Panthers, while Christian McCaffrey ran 22 on the other side. Neither back had a great statistical game, but those are encouraging route totals for both of them. If Hyde can stay that involved in the passing game—he caught all six of his targets for 32 yards–he’ll be just fine despite a lackluster offense. McCaffrey, meanwhile, got seven targets on his 22 routes.

Tarik Cohen ran 21 routes, and Jordan Howard ran 18. I was as impressed with Cohen as you were, but let’s hold off on those Howard obituaries for a while, okay?

Theo Riddick was in route on 17 snaps, two more than Ameer Abdullah. Riddick got the touchdown, but this is Abdullah’s backfield. Arizona was a bad matchup for him, and this week’s test with the Giants might not be any better, but there will be brighter days in his future. He projects as a buy-low candidate should he struggle against the Giants.

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Adam Thielen, our new slot receiving overlord

Sam Bradford picked a great time to have one of his best weeks in recent memory. Bradford carved up the Saints before a national audience on Monday Night Football, throwing for 346 yards, 10.81 yards per attempt and three touchdowns in a 29-19 Vikings win. Thielen was on the opposite end of nine of Bradford’s 27 completions, racking up 157 yards in the process. The fashion in which he did it was telling.

Seven of Thielen’s receptions and 146 of his yards came on plays when he was lined up in the slot. The Vikings created confusion and mismatches time and again, and Bradford and Thielen took advantage of them with alacrity. Check out the following three plays. Thielen is lined up in the slot to the right of the formation on all four of them.

Two posts, and a corner, which is the same as two in-breaking routes, and one out-breaking route. On all three, the Saint in coverage was overmatched. Thielen ripped off huge chunks of yardage in the Vikings win, and with Stefon Diggs demanding significant attention outside the numbers and Kyle Rudolph one of the most dangerous receiving tight ends in the league, Thielen is going to continue to be a magician at finding and creating holes in the defense. To be an effective slot receiver, you must be a precise route runner who can be a mismatch for various styles of player. Thielen fits that bill.

The separation artists

One of my favorite Next Gen stats is average separation, which measures the yards between a receiver and the nearest defender at the time of a target. This week, four pass-catchers had at least four yards of average separation. Two, Albert Wilson and Seth DeValve, got just five targets. Tyreek Hill, who led the league with 4.7 yards of average separation, had eight targets, and got most of his separation on one play, his 75-yard touchdown reception. The other? Antonio Brown.

Brown’s route-running is the stuff of legend at this point of his career, and it was on display in all its glory in Week 1. He found a way to create an average of 4.1 yards of separation on his 11 targets, all of which he caught, racking up 182 yards. Of all the reasons Brown is the best receiver in the NFL, that is the biggest.

He wasn’t the only player to stand out in this week’s average separation numbers. Rookie Corey Davis, who was supposed to play a limited role for the Titans after missing the entire preseason with a hamstring injury, led the Titans with 10 targets, catching six of them for 69 yards. He averaged 3.4 yards of separation on those 10 looks from Marcus Mariota. On one play where he didn’t get much separation, he did this.

He’s going to be good.

Corey Coleman totaled 3.2 yards of separation on average, while Stefon Diggs had 2.9. Both of them look like good fantasy buys after Week 1.

Going deep

We talk about red-zone and deep targets a lot in these pages because they’re the most valuable targets for receivers to get. Red-zone targets lead to touchdowns, while deep targets lead to explosive plays that often go for scores. This week, we’ll focus on deep targets, because there’s already some useful data to be mined there.

Alshon Jeffery had two deep targets, defined as passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and his average target included 19.8 air yards. Terrelle Pryor had three deep targets and an average of 16.3 air yards per target. Both of those players are going to have consistent opportunities to make plays down the field this season. Neither came through in a big way in Week 1, but Jeffery was going up against Josh Norman, and the opportunities were there all day for Pryor.

One of the most interesting names toward the top of the average air yard list is Cooper Kupp. His average target traveled at 12.6 yards in the air, and he got two deep targets from Jared Goff. Compare that to an average target length of 6.2 yards for Sammy Watkins. If Kupp is going to be the regular deep threat in the Rams offense, he’ll be owned in every fantasy league before long.

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Seattle’s line is still a problem

Russell Wilson was under pressure on just shy of 40% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He was sacked three times and completed four of his 10 attempts for 47 yards. Wilson has the skill set to work around pressure better than most quarterbacks. We’ve always known that simply from watching him, but now we have hard data to back it up.

Wilson averaged 3.2 seconds between snap and throw in Week 1, the longest among all 30 quarterbacks who had at least 15 pass attempts, according to Next Gen stats. The fact that Wilson was pressured on 13 of his 33 dropbacks and still led the league in time to throw speaks to his ability to sidestep defenders and make plays down the field. Unfortunately for him and his fantasy owners, it looks like he’ll have to do that all season.

The Seahawks line has been a problem since the team dealt center Max Unger to the Saints for Jimmy Graham two years ago. They haven’t been able to find the right mix in front of Wilson since then, and Sunday’s loss to the Packers was anything but encouraging in that regard. Wilson ended up throwing for just 158 yards 5.85 YPA in the loss.

If you’re a Wilson owner looking for a silver lining, he did push the ball down the field quite a bit. Wilson’s average pass attempt traveled 11.5 yards in the air, fourth highest in the league in Week 1. With the Seattle running game a shell of what it used to be, the offense will be in Wilson’s hands more than ever. As big an issue as the line is, this is good news.

One other notable quarterback in the average depth of target department was Kirk Cousins. His average pass traveled 9.9 yards in the air, though his average completed pass went for just 5.4 yards, and his YPA was an even 6.0. Don’t worry about that too much. The Washington offense as a whole had a tough day against what might be a very good Philadelphia defense. This is still a group in which fantasy owners should believe.

Finally, Amari Cooper had four drops. That’s not the way to Derek Carr’s heart.

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