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  • Of the many unexpected developments this NFL season, the Rams developing into a top offense, especially for fantasy football purposes, has been among the most surprising.
By Michael Beller
October 04, 2017

This is always about the time of year when we start to see headlines about how wild and wacky this NFL season is. Well, the only predictable part of every NFL season is its unpredictability. The only predictable part of any sport’s season is its unpredictability. That’s sort of the point.

Of this season’s many unpredictable developments, the most unpredictable has been the Rams developing into a possible offensive juggernaut. Last year, the Rams scored 224 points—40 fewer than the next-worst offense in the league, and just 14 points per game. In four games this season, they’re already more than halfway to that total with 142 points. At 35.5 points per game, the Rams are the highest-scoring team in the league.

Even the most ardent Sean McVay supporter could not have presaged how immediate or how dramatic the Rams offensive turnaround would be. Sure, the Rams made real investments in the offense during the offseason, trading for Sammy Watkins, signing Robert Woods and drafting Cooper Kupp to improve one of the league’s worst groups of wide receivers. They also brought in veteran linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, turning an average unit into a strong one. Still, the growth of the offense hinged on Jared Goff, and he has aced every test to this point of his second season.

For the purposes of this Goff evaluation, we’re going to look at three elements of his game: how well he has played with a clean pocket, when throwing the ball deep and on playaction. Every great quarterback needs to perform with pressure in his face, but they also must pick apart defenses when their line protects them. The great ones are also lethal when pushing the ball down the field for big plays. The playaction part of the equation speaks to how successful the run game has been, and how inventive McVay has been with play design, scheme and play-calling.

Through four games, Goff is one of only two quarterbacks to rank in the top five in QB rating with a clean pocket, on deep balls, and on play action, according to Pro Football Focus. The other is Alex Smith. Goff leads the NFL with a QB rating of 128 with a clean pocket. He’s 59-of-76 for 738 yards, 9.71 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and one interception without pressure in the pocket. For sake of comparison, Matt Ryan had a 128.9 QB rating when kept clean last season.

Goff has attempted 16 deep passes, defined as traveling at least 20 yards in the air. He has completed nine of those for 304 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions, translating to a QB rating of 121.9. That ranks fifth in the league behind Smith, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Kirk Cousins.

Finally, Goff has thrown 31 passes off playaction, completing 20 of them for 364 yards, 11.74 YPA, one touchdown and zero picks. Only Smith and Brady own better playaction QB ratings than Goff’s 111, and only Cousins has thrown for more YPA among quarterbacks who have started all of their team’s games this season.

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Goff’s play is at the center of the Rams resurgence this season, and his performance with a clean pocket, on deep passes, and on playaction is at the center is at the center of his personal breakout. With McVay at the helm, a confident Goff under center, a reborn Todd Gurley, improved weapons out wide, and a revamped offensive line, there’s reason to believe in this Rams offense all season.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 5 Target and Snap Report. Remember, you can get all the target, snap, touches and red-zone data you need to get an edge on your league from our partners at 4for4.

The other best clean quarterbacks

Right behind Goff in QB rating when clean are Cousins and Brees. Cousins is at a 123.2 quarterback rating when clean, while Brees’s QB rating in such situations is 121.1, according to Pro Football Focus. Cousins has thrown for 817 yards, 9.28 YPA, six touchdowns and zero interceptions with a clean pocket. His accuracy rate, completions plus drops divided by attempts, is just north of 80%. Brees, meanwhile, has 1,014 yards, 8.24 YPA, eight touchdowns, zero picks and an accuracy rate of 82.5% when the defense doesn’t get any pressure on him. Those are gaudy numbers from both quarterbacks.

Of course, we should expect those numbers from guys like Brees and Cousins. What’s more interesting, then, is the frequency with which they’re getting to throw from a clean pocket. Brees has been free of pressure on 78.8% of his dropbacks this season, the second-highest rate in the league. Cousins isn’t that free quite that often, but his clean-pocket rate of 68.4% is the seventh highest for all quarterbacks.

This jibes with PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency numbers. PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency measures sacks, hits and hurries against dropbacks, and weights sacks more heavily than the latter two types of pressure, to spit out a number that allows us to compare lines on an apples-to-apples basis. The Saints o-line ranks fourth in pass-blocking efficiency, while the Redskins check in at ninth. With that, coupled with the pass volume in both offenses, Brees and Cousins are strong bets to finish the season as top-five fantasy quarterbacks.

Ameer Abdullah’s time is here

I know, you’ve heard this before, but hear me out. There are few things a running back can directly control. They can’t control how well their blockers do for them. They can’t control play-calling. They can’t control where quarterbacks go with their reads. Sure, they can influence all those, but they can’t move them on their own. One of the few things backs can control is missed tackles and yards after contact. On those two elements of the game, Abdullah grades quite well.

Abdullah has forced 12 missed tackles on 66 carries this season, ninth most in the league. He has averaged 2.97 yards after contact per carry, the fourth-highest total among all running backs. Abdullah is one of only five backs in the top 10 in both statstics. The other four are Kareem Hunt, C.J. Anderson, Dalvin Cook and Jay Ajayi.

On top of that, Abdullah is not hurting for opportunity. He has had at least 14 carries in every game this season, and has 11 targets to go along with his 66 rushing attempts. His 77 touches plus targets comes out to 19.25 opportunities per game, which compares favorably with players the fantasy community recognizes as RB1s. What’s more, Theo Riddick had a season-low 25.7% snap rate last week, and Abdullah out-touched him 23 to five. With Abdullah running better than he ever has, and Riddick not quite the threat he was perceived to be entering the season, the former is set for the star turn we’ve been predicting for years.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Concern for Jay Ajayi

Days before the Dolphins 20-0 loss to the Saints last week, Miami offensive coordinator Clyde Christiansen had some troubling words for Ajayi owners. He told the assembled Dolphins beat writers that the team would look to get him rest on third downs, working in Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams in obvious passing situations. So far, Christiansen has been good to his word, and it seemingly began in Week 3.

Ajayi has received just 13 touches in Miami’s last two games. You have to go all the way back to Week 5 of last season to find his last game with fewer than 19 touches before the last two weeks. Ajayi played just 52% of the Dolphins snaps in Week 3, and 62% last week, according to 4for4’s snap data. Since taking over as the starter in Miami, Ajayi had just one game with a snap rate less than 62% before Week 3 of this season, and it was the final game last year when the Dolphins were already locked into the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.

Ajayi’s talent is undeniable but, like any back, volume is just as important to his fantasy stardom. Without it, he may not be the RB1 his owners need him to be.

A silver lining for the Black and Gold

The Steelers are 3–1 this season, though the offense hasn’t popped the way that should be expected for an offense that employs Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, as well as an offensive line that ranks seventh in pass-blocking efficiency. The Steelers rank 21st in yards per game, 16th in pass yards per game and 18th in points per game. There’s reason to believe a turnaround is on the horizon.

First and foremost, let’s start with the schedule. Three of the Steelers first four opponents this season—the Ravens, Vikings and Bears—rank in the top 14 against quarterbacks in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric. They’ve also been on the road for three of their four games, and Roethlisberger’s years-long struggles away from Heinz Field are now the stuff of legend.

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That Bell finally looked like Bell is the second factor working in Pittsburgh’s favor. The best running back in the league had his best game of the season last week, piling up 144 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries, and catching four passes for 42 yards. It took longer than anyone expected, but Bell is Bell again.

That fact should help open up a passing game that could certainly use a little breathing room, but already has some under-the-radar forces supporting a breakout on the horizon, notably from a fantasy perspective. According to NFL.com’s Next Gen stats, Roethlisberger ranks fourth in the league in average intended air yards at 10.7 yards per pass attempt. Only four quarterbacks have attempted more deep passes than Roethlisberger.

Meanwhile, Martavis Bryant leads all receivers in targeted air yards at 21.7 yards per target. Antonio Brown checks in at 13.5 air yards per target, and while that might not seem high, his sheer volume of targets obscures how often Roethlisberger is attacking deep down the field with Brown on the other end. Among receviers with at least 30 targets, Brown’s 13.5 air-yards-per-target mark ranks fourth. Bryant and Brown are tied for second with 10 deep targets, trailing only Stefon Diggs’s 12.

So let’s add this all up. The Steelers have played three good-to-great pass defenses, and three games on the road, where Roethlisberger historically struggles. They didn’t get a vintage Bell game until last week, and the passing game is taking more than its fair share of shots down the field. This is a group that is set to explode, and the just so happens to be returning to Pittsburgh this week, favored by 10 points against the Jaguars.

Fun with Blind Resumés!

Below are the 2017 resumés of two receivers. They are teammates, and they both joined their current team within the last 18 months. One of these players was a first-round pick, the other was an undrafted free agent. One was acquired for a first-round pick, and one was signed with little fanfare. See if you can guess who is who.

Receiver A: 13 catches, 24 targets, 294 yards, two touchdowns, zero red-zone targets

Receiver B: 15 catches, 26 targets, 214 yards, four touchdowns, eight red-zone targets

Receiver B certainly seems like the guy who cost two different teams first-round picks. After all, his current team is making him a focal point all over the field, as well as in the red zone. Receiver A has more yards, but his teammates seems to have a more lucrative role in the offense.

Alas, it is Receiver A who was the first-round pick, and Receiver B who was the undrafted free agent. Any guess as to their identities? The former is Brandin Cooks, and the latter is Chris Hogan. It has undoubtedly been a frustrating season for Cooks owners. The overall numbers are fine, but he has just one game with double-digit points in standard-scoring leagues, and he has been held south of 40 yards twice. Hogan, meanwhile, has delivered double-digit points in each of his last three games, totaling at least 60 yards and a touchdown in all of them.

There’s good reason to believe that Cooks worst quarter of the season is behind him. For one thing, Tom Brady’s QB rating when targeting Cooks is 126, the third-best for any quarterback-receiver duo in the league. For another, Cooks has 10 deep targets, and has pulled down five of them for 187 yards and both of his scores. No quarterback has gone deep more often than Brady this season, and only two have done so with more success, at least in terms of QB rating. In other words, Cooks remains a perfect fit for what Brady wants to do, it just hasn’t come through fully in the numbers just yet. The bet here, though, is that it will, and sooner rather than later.

An unexpected name among the usual suspects

There’s that word again. “Unexpected.” It really is the unofficial word of Week 5 of every NFL season.

This time, we’re talking about receivers who have helped their quarterbacks do quite well this season. Specifically, we’re looking at QB rating when throwing to a specific receiver. You’re always going to find the best receivers in the league at or near the top of this list, which makes sense. QB rating sort of convoluted, but it is derived from completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. It stands to reason that the best receivers, who rack up catches yards and touchdowns, will help their quarterbacks produce the best ratings. Still, there’s always a conspicuous name or two, and this season’s first candidates are beginning to emerge.

First, though, the usual suspects. Inside the top 10 you’ll find Stefon Diggs (first), Brandin Cooks (third), Michael Thomas (fifth), Jordy Nelson (sixth) and Doug Baldwin (10th). You’ve also got the aided-by-an-elite-quarterback duo of Chris Hogan (fourth) and Davante Adams (ninth). Tyreek Hill is second, with Alex Smith’s QB rating when throwing to Hill at 132.6. Hill’s a surprise, to be sure, but one that is unlikely to last. He’s here thanks largely to two big plays which drive up the QB rating, especially in a small sample of four weeks. Adam Thielen is eighth, but that’s not as big a surprise as it might seem. Thielen finished third in the same category last season, and the Vikings offense has clicked in two of their four games.

That leaves our current seventh-place receiver in QB rating. His team’s offense hasn’t been great, he was outside the top-50 receivers in average draft position, and he entered this season as the third receiver on his own team. Still, Sterling Shepard has overcome those odds to catch 21 of his 27 targets for 254 yards and one touchdown, resulting in a QB rating for Eli Manning of 118.2. Shepard also leads the NFL in receptions and yards out of the slot and despite a large sample of targets driving down his rate stats, he’s still fifth in the league in yards per route run from the slot at 1.68.

With Brandon Marshall a shell of his former self and the Giants offense finally finding some rhythm over the last two weeks, Shepard is set for an increased role in the offense.

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Sundry data I find interesting that I think you will, too.

Odell Beckham missed Week 1 and shook the rust off in Week 2. In Week 3, he had 13 targets. In Week 3, he had 15 targets. The rest of the season is going to be an all-you-can-eat buffet of targets for Beckham and, to a lesser extent, Shepard.

Andre Ellington didn’t have a role in Arizona’s offense until David Johnson’s injury. He has run the second-most pass routes of all running backs. I’m not sure what’s more interesting, that fact, or the fact that the guy he trails is Ezekiel Elliott.

The bottom-five receivers in yards per route run? Amari Cooper (0.86), Brandon Marshall (0.89), Jaron Brown (1.18), Davante Adams (1.3) and Chris Hogan (1.32). This is even more reason to believe in Sterling Shepard and Brandin Cooks.

Leonard Fournette’s 55% snap rate ranks 20th among running backs, but he has handled 64% of Jacksonville’s backfield touches. His 60% touch per snap rate first among starting running backs. For sake of comparison, Todd Gurley, who leads all backs with 106 touches, has a 50.5% touch per snap rate. The only other back with at least 65 touches and a touch rate north of 51%? Ameer Abdullah.

Committee of the whole

Mining the 4for4 RBBC Report for fantasy-relevant stats on backfield timeshares…

Arizona: We’ve got a clear picture of this one after last week. Chris Johnson is the runner. Andre Ellington is the receiver. Neither is a great fantasy option, though Ellington has some juice in PPR leagues.

Chicago: This is why we don’t overreact to a game or two, especially when the overreaction leads us to selling a guy who ran for 1,313 yards on a terrible offense a year ago. Not only is Jordan Howard in firm control of this backfield, he’s a safe RB1/2 play. You’re going to have to pick your spots with Tarik Cohen, though I still believe he puts up top-24 numbers over the course of the full season.

New Orelans: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are both playing well. Adrian Peterson looks like a 32-year-old with two significant knee injuries in his rear-view mirror. Please stop the madness, Sean Payton.

New York Giants: Wayne Gallman brought a little spark to the offense last week, totaling 50 yards and a touchdown on 13 touches. Meanwhille, let’s check in on Paul Perkins:

Philadelphia: LeGarrette Blount was great again last week, running for 136 yards on 16 carries. Still, Wendell Smallwood got six targets and 10 carries, and Corey Clement ran the ball 10 times, as well. Blount and Smallwood can be started in the right circumstances, while Clement remains a hold.

Baltimore: Like Arizona, we’re getting a clear picture of what’s going on in Baltimore. Alex Collins is the primary runner, and Javorius Allen is the primary receiver. Like Arizona, does anybody really care?

Cincinnati: Joe Mixon again led the Bengals in snaps, carries, targets and, obviously, touches, but he turned those 24 touches into 48 yards. Giovani Bernard had a 61-yard touchdown on one touch. The premium on Mixon is looking like one of this season’s big busts.

Houston: Lamar Miller had six targets in the Texans first three games. He had five last week, catching four of them for 56 yards and a touchdown. He has always been at his best when he’s getting involved in the passing game. D’Onta Foreman still played just shy of 30% of the snaps, netting 13 carries, but, remember, the Texans waxed the Titans to the tune of 57-14 last week.

New York Jets: It was a 2-to-1 breakdown in snaps and touches last week, with Bilal Powell on the long end of the platoon, and Elijah McGuire on the short end. Should that breakdown hold, Powell will be in the RB2 discussion, while McGuire will be a depth back in most fantasy formats. Matt Forte remains out with a toe injury.

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