The Panthers may be 2–1, but there are some real problems in Carolina. Their wins came over the 49ers and Bills, neither of which are exactly keeping the first weekend of February open. Cam Newton has looked off all season, throwing for 566 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and four interceptions in three games. Greg Olsen is out until at least November with a broken bone in his foot, and Kelvin Benjamin could join him on the shelf after hurting his knee last week. The defense held the 49ers and Bills to three points apiece, but got torched at home by Drew Brees and the Saints. The randomness of schedules creates surprises that eventually get exposed every year, but the Panthers are one of the flimsiest 2–1 teams in recent memory.
Looking for a silver lining? How about the Week 3 performance of Christian McCaffrey. When the Panthers drafted him with the No. 8 overall pick, the team hoped that not only would his athleticism allow him to play both running back and receiver, changing the overall look of the offense dramatically, but it would also take the ball out of Newton’s hands by asking him to run less, turning those designed quarterback rushes into short passes. The league got a good look at what that can mean when put into practice.
McCaffrey racked up 11 targets in the Panthers loss to the Saints, catching nine of them for 101 yards. Those receiving numbers certainly jump off the page for a running back, but it goes even further than that. The fashion in which McCaffrey got his looks from Newton is worth greater inspection, and suggests that gaudy receiving numbers could become the norm for him.
Three of McCaffrey’s 11 targets came with him lined up as a receiver. He caught all of those for 45 yards, including a 37-yard gain on a beautiful out-and-up where he took advantage of a mismatch. What’s more, McCaffrey was Newton’s first read on all of those plays.
McCaffrey was also Newton’s first read on five of the eight targets he got coming out of the backfield. That made him the primary receiver on eight of his 11 opportunities in the passing game last week. His first target of the game came on Carolina’s first play from scrimmage. It also doubles as a great example of the Panthers scheming him open. First, let’s watch a GIF of the play.
The first thing to note is Curtis Samuel coming in motion from the left side of the formation to the right. That pulls the middle of the Saints defense to the right. Newton fakes a handoff to him to hold the defense there, play-actions to McCaffrey, and then settles in the pocket as McCaffrey feigns a block. After waiting for one crucial beat, McCaffrey continues out into patter, taking a screen pass from Newton and picking up an easy seven yards. That’s all designed to get the ball into McCaffrey’s hands easily and in space, because the Panthers know what a weapon he can be in those situations. His fanasy owners should love to see that sort of design.
With Olsen out and Benjamin banged up, a team that was already short on playmakers is now desperate. Center Ryan Kalil is dealing with a neck injury, and that, too, limits the overall ceiling of the offense. Still, McCaffrey is going to have plenty of opportunity, as both a receiver and a runner.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 4 Target and Snap Report. Remember, you can get all the target, snap, touch and red-zone data you need to get an edge on your league from our partners at 4for4.
Tom Brady (obviously) and Deshaun Watson (really?) put on a show in New England
Texans-Patriots was one of the most surprisingly fun games of the week, not only because the road team nearly pulled off a huge upset, but also because of the way they did it. The Texans rolled up 33 points on the Patriots, led by Watson in his second career start. The Clemson product threw for 301 yards, 9.12 YPA, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Of course, he was outdone by the future Hall of Famer on the other side of the field. Brady racked up 378 the latest quarterback to learn that.
No one was surprised to see Brady and the Patriots passing game shred Houston’s defense. According to NFL.com’s Next Gen stats, Brady was third in average intended air yards last week, at 12.8. He was second in average completed air yards at 11.4. Brady hooked up with Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan on multiple deep balls, with Cooks burning the Texans twice on the Patriots final drive, including for the game-winning touchdown.
Brady now leads the league on deep pass attempts with 22. He has completed 11 of them for 368 yards and four touchdowns against zero interceptions. With Cooks and Hogan at his disposal, Brady is going to push the ball downfield as much as, or more than, he ever has in his career.
What was eye-opening, though, was watching Watson come close to matching him, big play for big play. Watson was one of the two quarterbacks with a higher average intended air yardage than Brady, sitting at an even 13. That may not have been a shock had the Texans been playing from behind all game, but that wasn’t the case. The Texans and Watson went deep because they wanted to, not because they had to. They did so with major success, evidenced by Watson’s 9.12 YPA.
Watson is now sixth in the league in intended air yards per attempt, and 10th in completed air yards per attempt, for the season. Despite sitting for the first half of Houston’s opening game, he still ranks 11th in the league in raw deep passing attempts with 12, two of which have gone for scores. Bill O’Brien isn’t going to keep too tight a leash on Watson. That’s great news in the fantasy world, and not only for Watson and his owners.
DeAndre Hopkins is at it again
Through three weeks, a familiar name is atop the target leaderboard. Hopkins has 37 targets in three games, one more than Antonio Brown for the top spot in the league. Hopkins was eighth in targets last year, held out of the top five because of the ineptitude of Houston’s offense. He was third in 2015, the best season of his career.
There was never any doubt that Hopkins would get plenty of volume this season. Not only is it generally a good idea to get the ball to your best players as often as possible, the makeup of Houston’s offense demands it. No other weapon player on the team is capable of stretching the field like Hopkins. There was some concern about how valuable those targets would be. If the offense was as bad as it was a season ago, all the targets in the world wouldn’t necessarily help, a lesson Hopkins learned all too well in 2016.
Last year, Hopkins was 20th in the league with 22 deep targets. That translated to 15.9% of his target total. This year, four of his 37 targets, or 10.8%, have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. While that’s a decrease from last season, remember that we’re still dealing with small samples. If Watson is going to throw as deep as regularly as he has thus far, Hopkins will find himself on the other end of more deep balls than he did last year. Be patient, Hopkins owners. The big numbers are coming.
Poise under pressure
The best quarterbacks in the league are capable of beating the pass rush in multiple ways. No quarterback likes dealing with pressure in their face or around the edge, but they all have to at some point. This year, two of the best are dealing with it far more often than they’d like.
Russell Wilson has been pressured on 43.6% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate in the league. Aaron Rodgers is ninth at 37.7%, but last week, with starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga out (Bulaga left early after aggravating his ankle injury), Rodgers faced pressure on 54.9% of his dropbacks. The way both have played when facing pressure is why the are the quarterbacks they are.
Last week, Rodgers completed 11 of the 19 passes he managed to get off under pressure, totaling 85 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions, which comes out to a QB rating of 104.1. Wilson was also 11-for-19 in the face of pressure last week, racking up 141 yards and two scores of his own to go along with a 116.3 QB rating. On the season, Rodgers has a QB rating of 90 against pressure, while Wilson’s is 88.4, which has them ranked fifth and sixth, respectively.
The one possible problem for Chris Carson
Carson, the rookie out of Oklahoma State, looks great thus far. He has taken control of the Seattle backfield, running for 166 yards on 37 carries, catching four passes for 35 yards, and scoring one touchdown. Thomas Rawls played all of one snap in his second game of the season, and Eddie Lacy has no role in the offense. C.J. Prosise is still a big part of the passing game, but this backfield belongs to Carson.
There’s just one issue that could curb his fantasy value, and it has to do with all that pressure Wilson has faced this season. Unfortunately for Carson owners, their guy has had a little something to do with it.
Carson has had pass-blocking responsibilities on 15 plays this year, according to Pro Football Focus. That may not sound like much but only 10 backs have had more, and all of them are feature backs, such as Melvin Gordon, Carlos Hyde, Ty Montgomery and Dalvin Cook. Carson has allowed two hits and one hurry, which gives him a PFF pass-blocking efficiency rating of 85. That’s the fourth-worst rating among backs with at least 10 pass-blocking snaps this season, ahead of only Darren Sproles, Robert Turbin and Isaiah Crowell.
Carson has been great, and he brings a lot to the table, but Wilson is the franchise. If Carson doesn’t do a better job of protecting him, he could start losing more snaps to Prosise and Rawls.
Stefon Diggs is quarterback-proof
I’ll admit to being a bit scared away from Diggs last week with Case Keenum under center for the Vikings. I wasn’t calling him an outright sit, as I was Adam Thielen, but I did downgrade him, placing him outside my top 25 at the position. That was a big mistake.
Diggs ended up catching eight passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers are impressive enough, but this is the Target and Snap Report. You know we have to go beyond the numbers.
Part of what made Diggs’s Week 1 explosion against the Saints so exciting in the fantasy world was the manner by which he did it. He and Sam Bradford hooked up for multiple big plays, with Diggs burning the Saints secondary deep with ease. With Bradford out, there seemed to be good reason to worry about the continued existence of those big plays and deep pass attempts. Those worries were put to bed last week.
Keenum took three shots deep down the field to Diggs. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, understand that it translates to a pace of 48 deep targets for the season, which would have been the most such targets in the league by nine last year. Diggs caught both of the deep targets that were catchable for 64 yards and one of his two scores. In short, don’t worry if it’s Keenum at the helm for the Vikings. Just get Diggs in your lineup.
The good, and the bad, of Tyreek Hill
Pro Football Focus keeps track of a nifty stat called yards per route run. It measures exactly what it says it does by dividing receiving yards by route run. It might have a blind spot or two, but it’s a useful piece in the discussion on a receiver’s efficiency.
Unsurprisingly, players like Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are great in yards per route run. Brown ranks second in the league at 3.03 YPRR, and Jones is fourth at 2.98, with Diggs sandwiched between them at 3.02. The one player ahead of all four? That would be Hill, who has racked up 3.12 YPRR this season.
On the one hand, this is excellent. Hill makes the most of his opportunities, thanks to his big-play ability, and he doesn’t need a ton of catches to show up for his fantasy owners. On the other, he’s able to rub elbows with the likes of Brown, Diggs and Jones in this statistic because he runs far fewer routes than they do.
Hill has run just 84 routes this season. Brown is at 117. Diggs is at 97. The Chiefs figure out other ways to get Hill involved, but I still contend that if a wide receiver is going to find consistent success, he’s going to have to do the lion’s share of his damage as a receiver, not on end arounds, or reverses, or gimmick plays. Hill has made two big plays this season. Both resulted in touchdowns, and you can’t take those away from him, especially given how the Chiefs scheme with him in mind. Still, I want my go-to receivers running more than 28 routes per game. I’d be looking to sell Hill at what I suspect will be his high watermark of the season.
A new elite tight end is born
Tight end has been a position of trouble for the fantasy community at large this season. Greg Olsen, Tyler Eifert and Jordan Reed are all dealing with injuries. Jimmy Graham came to life in Week 3, but he was quiet to start the year. The touchdown-dependent set has remained just that, with their attendant low floors making all of them fungible. Even Travis Kelce sandwiched his one monster game with a couple of duds, punctuated by last week’s one-target, one-catch, one-yard effort.
Only two tight ends have made their owners happy this year. One, of course, is Rob Gronkowski. The other is Zach Ertz. The Eagles tight end came into his own over the second half of last season, and has kept it rolling this year. He’s first among tight ends in targets (28), first in receptions (21), first in yards (245), second in routes run (111), and second in yards per route run (2.21).
On top of that, the Eagles rarely ask him to pass block. Ertz has been on the field for 124 passing plays this season. He has had blocking responsibilities on 13 of those, or 10.5%. Only six tight ends in the league have a lower pass-blocking rate than Ertz. He’s not giving up too many of Carson Wentz’s dropbacks to protection responsibilities. At this point, it’s impossible to say that Ertz is anything worse than the No. 3 tight end in all fantasy formats.
Mining 4for4’s running back by committee data
Green Bay: It was an ugly statistical game for Ty Montgomery in Week 3, but he played 92.8% of the Packers snaps, got 12 of their 13 carries, and 12 more targets. He’s a workhorse.
Houston: D’Onta Foreman has played one-quarter of Houston’s snaps the last two weeks, while Lamar Miller’s snap rate has decreased every week this season. The backfield is, and will remain, in Miller’s hands, but Foreman could carve out a fantasy-relevant role.
Chicago: I detailed why I believe both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen can be regular fantasy starters here.
Detroit: Theo Riddick didn’t get any carries last week and he has just 10 on the season. Ameer Abdullah is in clear control of the rushing workload for the Lions, and he was just as effective as Riddick as a receiver in the loss to Atlanta, catching all three of his targets for 39 yards.
Philadelphia: After Darren Sproles went done with his horrific injury, Wendell Smallwood led the Eagles in snaps (43) and tied for the team lead in carries (12) with LeGarrette Blount. The latter had his best game of the season, running for 67 yards and a score, but Smallwood picked up 71 yards on the ground, and is the odds-on-favorite to handle Sproles’s passing-game duties.
Baltimore: Buck Allen played 34 of the team’s 58 snaps, but he was the last back on the team to handle a touch. Alex Collins led the team with nine carries and 82 rushing yards, while Allen had all five of their receptions by running backs, and six of the seven targets. Given the low overall value of Baltimore’s offense, figuring out this backfield on a weekly basis could be more of a headache than it’s worth.
Oakland: Marshawn Lynch is unquestionably the leader of the backfield, but it’s noteworthy that his snap rate for the season sits at 40.8%. DeAndre Washington has played 25.9% of the team’s snaps, while Jalen Richard has been on the field for 21.3% of Oakland’s plays. The Raiders are going to take it easy on Lynch all year, with an eye on keeping him healthy for what they believe can be a deep playoff run. That’s bad news for his fantasy owners.
Cincinnati: In the Bengals first game with Bill Lazor as the offensive coordinator, Joe Mixon was in clear command of the backfield. He played 34 of 61 snaps, and got 18 carries and three targets. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 27 snaps, 10 carries and three targets. Mixon’s takeover of the Cincinnati backfield seems to be upon us.
Jacksonville: For a guy many expected to be a workhorse, Leonard Fournette sure hasn’t played very much. No one is challenging him for primacy in the Jacksonville backfield, but his snap rate is just 56.9%, which ranks 21st among running backs this year. He has ceded more than one-third of the team’s carries to other backs, and has made only modest contributions as a receiver.