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  • The Chiefs quarterback is having the best year of his career in his 13th season, and it could land him in the record books.
By Michael Beller
October 10, 2017

With pass rushes getting better, running games getting marginalized, and offensive schemers hoping to minimize mistakes, more passing games rest on a foundation of short, high-percentage passes—leading to a league-wide rise in completion percentage. There have been 104 instances of a quarterback with at least 300 pass attempts and a completion percentage of 65% in NFL history. Thirty-one of those, nearly one-third, have come in the last three seasons, and 50, almost half, have occurred since the start of the 2010 season.

In that vein, it’s no surprise that a new record for completion percentage was set last season, when Sam Bradford completed 71.56% of his passes, narrowly edging the previous mark of 71.23% set by Drew Brees in 2011. Those are two of the six 70%-completion, 300-attempt seasons in NFL history, with the others belonging to Ken Anderson (1982, strike-shortened season), Joe Montana (1989), Steve Young (1994) and Brees again (2009). Through five games, Chiefs QB Alex Smith, who’s in the midst of his best season yet, looks like he will make a run at the record.

Smith has completed 121 of 158 pass attempts this season, good for 76.58%. It will be a challenge to maintain so high a rate over the next 11 games, but Smith won’t need to sustain in exactly to break Bradford’s record. If Smith’s attempt per game average remains at 31.6, that will give him 347 pass attempts the rest of the year, rounding down to the nearest whole number. He would need to complete 241 of those, or 69.45%, to go into the record books. That, too, is a high percentage, but feels almost like a layup with the way Smith has played individually, and the way the Chiefs offense has played collectively.

That, however, is not the only reason we’re here. As accurate and surprisingly effective as Bradford was last season, he wasn’t exactly in the MVP discussion or putting any fantasy teams on his back the way Smith is this year. Bradford got 7.02 yards per attempt last season, exemplifying the short-passing, take-no-risks mantra that has overtaken parts of the league. That is not the case for Smith, and that is what makes his season truly special.

Smith has 8.8 YPA on his 158 pass attempts thus far. How good is that? In Brees’s two seasons with a completion percentage of 70%, one of which put a Super Bowl trophy, and nearly an MVP Award, on his mantle, he had YPAs of 8.33 and 8.54. Only Montana, at 9.12, had a higher YPA than Smith’s 8.8 to go along with a 70% completion rate.

We can look at this using YPA as the control part of the experiment, as well. There have been 18 instances of a quarterback getting at least 8.8 YPA on 300 or more pass attempts in NFL history. Of those 18, only five—Montana, Matt Ryan in 2016, Kurt Warner in 2000 and 2001, and Aaron Rodgers in 2011—also had a completion percentage of at least 65%. Smith could cruise past both of those numbers.

Yes, it’s just five games, but don’t let the instinct to dismiss a small sample size ruin what you’re watching. Smith is having an incredible year, marrying efficiency and explosiveness in ways we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. That he has never come close to a season like this, and is doing it in his 13th year in the league, is one of the great sports stories of 2017.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 5 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.

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Airing it out in Minnesota

Take a look at the deep passing leaderboards curated by Pro Football Focus, and you’ll see a lot of predictable names. In terms of deep passes, defined as balls that travel at least 20 yards in the air, as share of total attempts, Deshaun Watson is first in the league at 19.3%. If you’ve been paying attention to Houston’s offense since he took over, that’s no surprise. Also in the top 10 are Jameis Winston (15.6%), Tom Brady (15.4%), Jared Goff (15.2%), Carson Wentz (14.7%), Russell Wilson (14.6%), Ben Roethlisberger (13.8%), Carson Palmer (13.7%) and Jay Cutler (13.7%). 

Of course, you can also count, and you’ll notice that there are only nine quarterbacks in the above paragraph. The missing quarterback? Case Keenum who ranks second in the league with a deep-pass rate of 15.7%. Keenum is 8-of-19 for 246 yards, 12.95 YPA, one touchdown and zero picks on his deep balls this season.

The actionable advice here concerns Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. After a strong start to the season, both have cooled over the last few weeks. While the offense’s ceiling is higher with a healthy Sam Bradford under center, Diggs and Thielen owners can take solace in knowing that Keenum can keep the trains running on time. His accuracy rate on deep balls rank 12th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks, while his YPA on such passes is on par with Wilson’s and Palmer’s. Now would be a good time to check in with Diggs’s and Thielen’s owners in your leagues, especially after Bradford was forced to leave the Vikings Monday night win over the Bears last week. Their perceived value could be down with Keenum back under center.

The bright spot in Cleveland—that isn’t LeBron

The Browns are terrible again. They’re 0-5 and headed back to the top of the draft. They just lost at home to the Jets. DeShone Kizer, their presumptive quarterback of the future, lost the starting job to Kevin Hogan this week. Isaiah Crowell has regressed. Terrelle Pryor, who actually won a few things playing football in Ohio, is gone. Corey Coleman is hurt again. The defense is playing…sort of decently? But the Browns have also allowed the seventh-most points per game in the league.

Browns fans can take a small bit of solace in the fact that Duke Johnson is realizing his destiny as one of the most dangerous pass-catching backs in the league. Johnson has at least 80 yards from scrimmage or a touchdown in four straight games, and has reached both of those thresholds twice in the last three weeks. He’s up to 23 catches on 31 targets for 270 yards and one score through the air, to go along with two more touchdowns on the ground.

What’s most impressive is Johnson’s efficiency as a receiver despite all that opportunity. As the latter increases, the former generally decreases. The more data points that go into a measured set, the lesser chance there is for an outlier. In this context, the more routes Johnson, or any back, runs, the lower his yards per route will be. Opportunity is more important in the fantasy game, so we’ll almost always take the decrease in efficiency as the price of doing business. Johnson’s owners are getting away with theft.

Johnson leads all backs with 2.23 yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s atop the leaderboard despite running 121 routes, sixth most among running backs. Every back with more routes run than him has 1.93 yards per route run, or fewer. The nine backs behind him, from LeSean McCoy at 115 routes to Mark Ingram at 75, range from 0.91 yards per route run to 1.96, and average 1.47. Among backs with at least 69 routes run, Alvin Kamara is the only other one north of 2.0 yards per route run at 2.13.

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, A.J. Green is having another phenomenal season

Through five games, Green’s tied for third with 32 receptions, second with 504 yards and tied for eighth with three touchdowns. He leads the league in yards per route run, at 2.91. He’s a bit off of Julio Jones’s 2016 pace of 3.12 yards per route run, but he can get there, especially with new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor opening up Cincinnati’s offense over the last three weeks.

In the three games with Lazor at the helm of the offense, Green has 22 catches on 33 targets for 363 yards and all three of his scores. He’s at a blistering 3.59 yards per route run across 101 routes in that time. The numbers won’t work out this cleanly in reality, but just to give you an idea of how equally efficient and explosive that is, if Green maintained this route pace over a full season, he’d run 538 routes. At 3.59 yards per route, he’d rack up 1,931 yards, which would fall 33 yards short of Calvin Johnson’s NFL record, set in 2012. If Green can stay healthy, he’s going to have the best year of what has been a magnificent career.

Let’s check in on Leonard Fournette

Before the start of the season, I thought that Fournette, and the entire Jaguars offense, would be dragged down by Blake Bortles’s inefficiency. But I was wrong—Fournette is off to an excellent start in his NFL career. Through five games, he has rushed for 466 yards and five touchdowns on 109 carries, and caught 13 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown. He, Kareem Hunt and Deshaun Watson look set to give us an Offensive Rookie of the Year race for the ages. Even if you paid the premium for Fournette on draft day, he likely has you at or near the top of your league’s standings.

If I can let myself off the hook for a second, my logic regarding him this summer was sound and has come to fruition. Bortles is not exactly holding up his end of the bargain, completing just 54.8% of his passes for 827 yards, 6.13 YPA, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. As such, Fournette is facing a lot of stacked boxes. Among backs with at least 60 attempts, only Mike Gillislee has seen eight or more defenders in the box at a higher rate than Fournette’s 47.71% clip. Let’s see how that’s working out for opposing defenses. Et tú, Steelers?

You can fill in the rest of the play on your own.

Fournette is still going to see plenty of stacked boxes the rest of the season. Game script and opponent personnel will factor into that tendency, but as long as Bortles is Bortles, defenses facing the Jaguars will key on Fournette and take their chances with the passing game. Fournette, however, has proved he can beat those eight-man fronts, so it might not be a huge surprise that he has seen a lower percentage of them in his last two games than he did in any of the first three. Either way, Bortles and the Jacksonville offense will not hold him back. Fournette is making me look like a fool.

DeSean Jackson is maddeningly close

Remember earlier in the column when we discussed deep passing rates for quarterbacks and learned that Jameis Winston ranks third in the league? Jackson has been on the opposite end of a lot of those pass attempts. Fourteen of them, to be exact, which ranks second in the league even though the Buccaneers have already had their bye.

Jackson has hauled in five of those 14 targets, all that have been catchable, for 131 yards and a touchdown. He has had at least two deep targets in every game, and as many as five. Here’s one of those nine deep targets that fell to the ground, from last week’s loss to the Patriots.

Here’s another, from their Week 2 win over the Bears.

Here’s a screenshot of a wide-open Jackson, from their Week 3 loss to the Vikings.

Jameis Winston failed to hit DeSean Jackson on this play.

That play ended in an interception on a woefully underthrown pass by Winston.

Jackson’s getting open and getting plenty of chances deep down the field. It’s only a matter of time before he and Winston start connecting on them.

A tight end who has broken out, and one who could surprise

The headline doesn’t apply to Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz. They all arrived long ago. Looking to the best tight ends in the league, however, can give us a hint of what’s to come for other players at the position.

Players who regularly win out of the slot take advantage of mismatches. As such, it’s no surprise that Gronkowski, Kelce and Ertz rank first, second and third, respectively, in yards per route run among players at the position. When tight ends are lined up in the slot, they’re usually facing a linebacker who is too slow to stick with them, or a safety who is outmuscled by them. Gronkowski, Kelce and Ertz are the best at exploiting those matchups.

Cameron Brate is on his way to a breakout season. He has caught 15 passes for 205 yards and three touchdowns, scoring 9.63 standard-league points per game, and 13.38 PPR points per game. Brate ranks ninth in yards per route run from the slot at 1.24. What’s more, only three tight ends have run a higher percentage of their routes from the slot. With Mike Evans and Jackson outside the numbers, Brate has become a real weapon for Winston in the middle of the field.

One of the tight ends who has run more of his routes from the slot is Zach Miller. The Bears tight end ranks second in slot rate, running 66.4% of his routes from the slot. Miller has turned 145 slot routes into 13 receptions for 145 yards, which comes out to 1.59 yards per route run, good for sixth among tight ends. Add in what he’s done from other spots on the line, and Miller has 16 grabs for 182 yards and a touchdown. He was on the other end of Mitchell Trubisky’s first career touchdown pass, and figures to be a favored target of the Bears new quarterback. Given Miller’s ability out of the slot, and the new life Trubisky brings to the offense, he has the potential to be a low-end TE1 the rest of the season.

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Committee of the whole

Mining the 4for4 Running Back By Committee Report for interesting backfield data.

Green Bay: Aaron Jones took over the Ty Montgomery role in Week 5, playing 90% of the team’s snaps and handling 20 touches, good for 91% of the work out of the backfield. When Montgomery returns, it’s safe to say Jones will have a role in the offense. How much of a role, however, will be hard to determine until we see it in action.

Minnesota: Latavius Murray started for the Vikings in Week 5, netting the first seven touches out of the backfield. After that, it was the Jerick McKinnon show. McKinnon ended up with 16 carries, six receptions, 146 total yards and a touchdown. Murray, on the other hand, totaled 43 yards on his 14 touches.

New York Giants: Orleans Darkwa started for the Giants, but left early with a calf injury. He finished with 69 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Wayne Gallman, meanwhile, totaled 82 yards on 16 touches. The two will likely share the backfield when both are healthy.

Seattle: Eddie Lacy carried the ball nine times for 19 yards last week. Thomas Rawls had 20 yards on eight carries. J.D. McKissic caught three passes for 36 yards with C.J. Prosise out for the second straight game. If anyone ends up running away with this job, the bet here is on Prosise.

San Francisco: Carlos Hyde spent most of the second half of the 49ers Week 5 game on the sidelines, in favor of Matt Breida. The rookie out of Georgia Southern ended up playing two more snaps and getting four more touches than Hyde. The Ohio State product still is, and should be, the unquestioned starter, but Breida should be owned in all leagues, and the situation bears watching.

Baltimore: Another week, another change. Buck Allen led the team with 21 carries this week, while Alex Collins had 12. Allen also caught four of his five targets, while Collins got no work in the passing game. This remains one of the fantasy game’s biggest headaches.

Cincinnati: Joe Mixon again led the Bengals in snaps and touches, running for 51 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Those aren’t terribly great numbers, but he seems to be in command of the backfield. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined for eight touches.

Indianapolis: Marlon Mack had the best game of his young career, running for 91 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. It’s important to temper your expectations here, given that Mack had just nine touches in the game, but he’s likely to carve out a bit more of a role going forward.

Oakland: Marshawn Lynch scored a touchdown last week, but got just 43 yards on 12 carries. Jalen Richard picked up 37 yards on nine carries, and played just two fewer snaps than Lynch. There’s room for him to turn into a useful fantasy player if he can just secure himself a few more touches per game.

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