- The Jay Ajayi and Kelvin Benjamin trades altered the complexion of four teams, and three of them debuted their changed offenses in Week 9, giving the fantasy community a first glimpse at what the future holds. We break it down in the Week 10 Target and Snap Report.
Last week, the NFL had its most active trade deadline in memory, and two of those trades—Jay Ajayi to the Eagles and Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills—stole the fantasy football headlines. Benjamin was inactive for the Bills on Thursday Night Football in Week 9, but the Eagles, Panthers and Dolphins all embraced the change and debuted their new-look offenses last Sunday. We’ll focus on what those teams did last week, and what that means for the rest of the season, in the Week 10 Target and Snap Report.
Jay Ajayi, the chairman
Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and head coach Doug Pederson were all too eager to say that, despite trading for Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount would remain the starter, giving Ajayi time to get up to speed in the offense. With the Eagles’ bye week looming in Week 10, Ajayi would have nearly three weeks to get comfortable before getting his first significant time on the field with the Eagles.
To be fair to Roseman and Pederson, that wasn’t exactly a lie. Blount got the first carry of the game for the Eagles, and was on the field for their first non-shotgun snap. Ajayi, meanwhile, didn’t see the field until the second quarter, with Blount and Corey Clement splitting the backfield duties for the game’s first 15 minutes. But Ajayi looked the part of a feature back in the second quarter. He handled all but two touches out of the backfield, and was the only back on the field when the team went into its two-minute offense. If there were any doubt about Ajayi’s status for the rest of the season, he eliminated it by capping off that two-minute drill with a 46-yard touchdown run. When the Eagles got deep into Broncos territory on their first possession of the third quarter, it was again Ajayi who owned the backfield.
All told, Ajayi played 17 snaps in his Eagles debut. That was one more than Blount, but 11 fewer than Clement. Clement also led the team with 12 carries and 13 touches, though many of those came in the fourth quarter, which the Eagles entered with a 44–9 lead. Blount got one more carry than Ajayi, but he turned his nine totes into just 37 yards. Ajayi got 77 yards on his eight carries, and finished off his 46-yard touchdown run in a way that likely isn’t available to Blount, diving in from a few yards out to avoid the tackle and stay inside the pylon. Clement will still be involved, and could play a lot on obvious passing downs, and Blount isn’t going away entirely. The Eagles backfield will still have a committee feel to it. Ajayi, however, is the chairman of the committee. He’s the one with the most power.
The Eagles Week 10 bye will give Ajayi all the time he needs to get familiar with the offense and his new teammates, including an offensive line that is worlds better than the one he ran behind in Miami. After the bye, the Eagles visit the Cowboys, host the Bears, and hit the road for a clash with the Seahawks. None of those will be easy for Ajayi. His schedule takes a turn for the better—significantly—in the fantasy playoffs, though. The Eagles play at the Rams in Week 14, giving Ajayi a matchup with a defense ranked 30th against running backs in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric (aFPA). They visit the Giants (21st in running back aFPA) in Week 15, and host the Raiders (29th) in Week 16. If you make it to the playoffs, Ajayi could end up being the toast of your holiday season.
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Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey leading the way in Carolina
The Panthers knocked off the Falcons by a score of 20–17 in their first game without Benjamin. The fourth-year receiver out of Florida State hasn’t lived up to the hype after his big rookie season. He did miss the 2015 season after tearing his ACL that summer, but the fact that the Panthers went to the Super Bowl that season with Cam Newton winning the MVP doesn’t exactly bolster his No. 1 receiver bona fides. Still, Benjamin was the top receiver in Carolina’s offense, leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, and second to McCaffrey in receptions and targets. You don’t take a player like that out of the offense, disappointing as he may be, and not change fundamentally. Those changes were on display in the win over the Falcons.
First, let’s look at Funchess. He and Benjamin have largely duplicative skill sets, which helped make the latter expendable. Unsurprisingly, Funchess moved to the other side of the field, taking over as the team’s new X receiver. He got seven targets in Week 9, catching five of them for 86 yards. It was Funchess’s eighth straight game with at least six targets, but it’s telling that the 86 yards were a new season high. With Benjamin gone, Funchess was the focal point of Carolina’s passing game.
Here’s Funchess picking up meaningful yards after the catch on a drag route that he ran from the spot previously inhabited by Benjamin.
About halfway through the third quarter, Newton hit Funchess on a deep square-in for 33 yards. That is Funchess’s longest reception of the season.
Benjamin may have fallen short of expectations with the Panthers, but he had 30 receptions on 49 targets for 468 yards and two touchdowns in seven games with the team this year, not including the one game he left early due to injury. Funchess, who did just as much with less opportunity, looked great in his first game in that role. His fantasy stock looked to be on the rise after the trade deadline, and he confirmed its improved status last week.
McCaffrey continued in his significant role in the passing game in the win over the Falcons, hauling in five of his six targets for 28 yards. That’s no surprise. What was a surprise, though, was that he had his most effective game as a runner. McCaffrey set new highs in rushing attempts with 15 and yards with 66, and scored the first touchdown on the ground of his career. Jonathan Stewart, meanwhile, lost two fumbles, and picked up just 21 yards on 11 carries.
It wasn’t just the volume that was telling for McCaffrey. It was also the way in which the Panthers deployed him. The Panthers ran four plays inside the Falcons 10-yard line, and gave Stewart zero carries on those plays. McCaffrey, however, scored his touchdown from four yards out on a beautiful bit of misdirection. That was his first carry of the season on a play that started inside the 5-yard line. He has already matched Stewart’s touchdown total on plays inside the 5-yard line, though Stewart has had five such carries. In other words, it won’t be McCaffrey’s last attempt of the season in close scoring range.
Of course, McCaffrey could have competition for those carries from Newton. The quarterback had his best rushing game of the season, picking up 86 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. It was his fourth straight game with at least nine rushing attempts, and sixth straight with seven or more. Seven of the nine carries were designed runs, and those plays resulted in 69 yards. The Panthers had a stated goal of running Newton less this year, but that seems to be off the table.
Finally, let’s consider another stated goal for the Panthers, one that came after the Benjamin trade. Ron Rivera said the team wanted to push the ball down the field more, and that was hard to do with Benjamin and Funchess on the field all the time. With Benjamin gone, they can give more playing time to speedster Curtis Samuel. The rookie out of Ohio State led all receivers in snap rate last week, so it’s safe to say this isn’t just lip service from Rivera. He got five targets, catching three of them for 23 yards. Newton struggled through the air, throwing for 137 yards, 5.71 yards per attempt, and zero touchdowns, and Samuel’s vanity numbers don’t jump off the page, but this was just the first game of what will be a major change in Carolina’s offense that the team isn’t going to give up on any time soon. Samuel is lurking as a deep sleeper for the remainder of the year.
Miami moves on from Ajayi
As Robert Klemko laid out after the Dolphins lost to the Raiders in Week 9, it wasn’t hard to see why the Dolphins were willing to trade Ajayi, even though he was the best running back on the roster. Kenyan Drake ran for 69 yards on nine carries, and he and Damien Williams combined to catch all 12 of their targets for 82 yards and a touchdown. The duo totaled 165 yards and the score on 28 touches. By comparison, topped 100 yards from scrimmage just twice this season, topped out at 130 yards, and had four games with 26 or more touches.
Drake and Williams open up the passing game in a way that Ajayi did not during his time in Miami. No one will ever confuse Ajayi with Le’Veon Bell in the passing game, but it goes beyond that. The Boise State product, for all his charms, is a total non-factor as a receiver. Even in his breakout 2016 campaign, he had just 27 receptions for 151 yards, and never forced defenses to account for him coming out of the backfield on pass plays. Given the volume of snaps a player with his skill set necessarily consumes, the Dolphins, for all intents and purposes, had a non-existent backfield with respect to its passing game.
That is no longer the case. Both Drake and Williams are weapons as receivers, as they proved in Week 9. Drake’s six catches went for 35 yards, while Williams racked up 47 yards and was responsible for the touchdown on an impressive run after the catch.
Don’t let Williams’s YAC beauty distract you from what happened before the catch. For all of Jay Cutler’s faults, he has always been great on rollouts, throwing on the move, and making big plays once he gets outside the pocket. Having a running back who’s a threat as a receiver makes a quarterback with that particular skill even more dangerous. Having two, meaning it’s a guarantee that one is on the field at all times, could really open things up for the Dolphins.
As such, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Cutler had his best game in a Dolphins uniform in the loss to the Raiders. Yes, he got DeVante Parker back, as well, and his presence cannot be overstated. Still, Drake and Williams had plenty to do with Cutler’s success. The veteran threw for 311 yards, 7.41 YPA, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was his first three-touchdown, zero-interception game since Week 12 of 2015, when he achieved the feat for the Bears in a win over the Rams. Cutler spread the ball around effectively, hooking up with five pass-catchers at least five times. Parker had five catches for 76 yards in his return, but it was Julius Thomas who led the way with six grabs for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Fantasy owners do need to be careful about reading too much into this one performance by the Dolphins. The Raiders have one of only five defenses ranked 21st or worse in aFPA against quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. The other four belong to the Colts, Texans, Patriots and Buccaneers. Still, it was quite encouraging to see them play this well. The Dolphins set new season highs with 395 total yards and 6.5 yards per play, besting their previous season highs of 357 yards and 5.5 yards per play. Going into the game, they had been north of 300 total yards twice, and 5.0 yards per play just once. It’s far too early, and aggressive, to call the Ajayi trade addition by subtraction, but the changes appear to be a good look for the Miami offense.