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  • Fantasy players shouldn't rely solely on the stats in the box score
By Michael Beller
September 12, 2018

The stats in the box score translate into fantasy scoring, but they only tell us the “what.” They do not tell us the “why” or the “how,” and it’s those two that are important. The what cannot happen without the why and the how. The what, in fact, can be quite misleading if there isn’t a good explanation based in the why and the how. Knowing why and how events on the field happened can help you exploit value discrepancies and make winning moves in the trade market and on the waiver wire.

Every week, the Target and Snap Report will delve into the why and how. Using target, snap, touch and red-zone data from our friends at 4for4 Football, 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.

Brandin Cooks is not Sammy Watkins

There was a temptation in some corners of the fantasy football world to look at 2018 Cooks as akin to 2017 Watkins: A splashy, offseason acquisition at wide receiver for the Rams whose undeniably impressive skill set was sort of miscast in his new offense. That, however, ignored a few obvious differences, and all of those differences suggested that Cooks would not follow in his first year in Los Angeles the same, disappointing course charted by Watkins in his lone year out west.

First, the Rams acquired Cooks in early April, before beginning all of their offseason training programs. They didn’t trade for Watkins until the middle of August in the waning days of training camp. Cooks had an entire offseason to become enmeshed in the Rams’ system. Watkins had to learn on the fly all season.

Then there’s the manner by which they acquired the receivers. The Rams dealt this year’s first-round pick to the Patriots, along with a sixth-rounder, to get Cooks and a fourth-round selection. Wide receiver didn’t seem to be a position of need with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods under contract, but the Rams still gave up their first-round pick in the draft that was taking place less than a month after the trade to get Cooks. One year ago, the Rams shipped out cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick, also in this year’s draft, for Watkins. The urgency, not driven by need, and price paid to get Cooks should have screamed to everyone that these two situations were completely different.

Finally, there was the contract extension lavished upon Cooks before he played a down for the Rams, and while they were also trying to get a long-term deal done with Aaron Donald, who’s nothing less than a face of the franchise. Wrap all these data points into one package, and it was clear to see that the Rams viewed Cooks as a much more integral part of the team than they ever did Watkins. That was on display in Week 1.

Cooks got eight targets and played all but two of the Rams’ 63 snaps in their 33-13 win over the Raiders. By comparison, Watkins had eight or more targets in one game all of last season, and never matched the 97% snap rate Cooks had in Week 1. Cooks caught five of those targets for 87 yards, and drew a pass interference penalty that resulted in a 37-yard gain for the Rams, and may have gone for a touchdown had the penalty not occurred. To be fair, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods played the same number of snaps as Cooks and both got nine targets, but Cooks was, at the very least, on the same footing in the offense as them. Watkins never enjoyed that status in Los Angeles last year. Given Cooks’ unique ability within the Rams’ offense, he’s already looking like a draft-day steal.

Concern for a supposed workhorse in Carolina

Christian McCaffrey flew up draft boards this summer with promises from Ron Rivera and Norv Turner that he’d get 25-plus touches per game. That, of course, was ridiculous, what with 25 touches per game coming out to 400 touches over the course of the season. But the exact number didn’t matter. What did matter was that the Panthers clearly signaled they were committed to making McCaffrey a co-equal focal point of their offense with Cam Newton. After one game, it seems that those who bought in were sold a bill of goods.

It’s not that McCaffrey didn’t get plenty of opportunity in Carolina’s Week 1 16-8 win over Dallas. He did, netting 10 carries and nine targets, totaling 95 yards on 16 touches. It’s just that, well, Newton is still there and still doing his thing. He led the Panthers with 13 carries and 58 yards, and scored one of the team’s two touchdowns on the ground. Then there’s C.J. Anderson, who stole away seven carries and looked good doing so, totaling 35 yards. Meanwhile, fullback Alex Armah got a goal-line carry, converting it for a 1-yard touchdown. McCaffrey got two carries inside the 10, but none inside the 5-yard line.

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Again, there’s nothing wrong with McCaffrey getting 19 opportunities per game, and he’s going to turn all those touches into some explosive plays in the future. Yet, that’s not what fantasy owners were sold when they drove McCaffrey’s ADP up into the second round. So long as he’s ceding five-plus carries per game to Anderson and isn’t getting touches at the goal line, he’s going to have a hard time providing workhorse value. His receiving upside did get a boost with Greg Olsen’s foot injury, but if I could get full dollar-for-dollar value by trading McCaffrey right now, I’d likely do it.

The beauty of a narrow usage tree proven once again in Denver

In retrospect, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas didn’t get the credit they deserved for how well they played and how much they produced over the last two seasons. In that time, Trevor Siemian started 24 games for the Broncos, while Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler started four apiece. The Broncos may not have had the worst quarterback situation over the previous two seasons, but they were certainly in the bottom five. And there were Sanders and Thomas, making the best of a truly terrible situation. Sanders played 28 games those two years, catching 126 passes for 1,587 yards and seven touchdowns. Thomas didn’t miss a game, hauling in 173 balls for 2,032 yards and 10 scores. Doing that with the trio of Siemian, Lynch and Oswelier should qualify these two for some sort of lifetime achievement award.

Sanders and Thomas had to feel like they were reverting to the days of [Good] Peyton Manning when the Broncos signed Case Keenum this offseason. Keenum was a clear upgrade to the quarterbacks of the previous two seasons in Denver, but one element of those offenses expected to carry over is almost as important for Sanders’s and Thomas’s rosy outlooks this year. Few teams have as narrow a usage tree in the passing game as Denver, and Sanders and Thomas are already taking advantage.

Sanders got 11 targets in Denver’s 27-24 win over Seattle in Week 1, while Thomas got 10. All other Broncos combined for 15, and only five of those went to another receiver, Courtland Sutton. That followed a pattern set over the better part of this decade, and notably the last two seasons. Sanders and Thomas combined for a 41.9% target share last season, and that was with Sanders missing four games. In 2016, 50.5% of all targets in Denver went to either Sanders or Thomas.

Sanders and Thomas both made great use of all those targets last week. The former caught 10 of his for 135 yards and a touchdown, while the latter reeled in six passes for 63 yards and a score. With Keenum at the controls and no significant threats to Sanders or Thomas, the duo should both be regular fantasy starters all season.

A clear leader emerges in Tennessee

On its face, the Titans’ backfield was one of the hardest to diagnose this offseason. Derrick Henry shined when given a real opportunity last season, most notably in the team’s playoff win over the Chiefs, during which he ran for 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. With DeMarco Murray out of the picture, it seemed the team was finally ready to hand him the reins and make him a true workhorse.

All that changed when teams and players started coming to free agent deals before the signing period officially began. The Titans and Dion Lewis struck one of the earliest deals, bringing the former Patriot to Nashville on a four-year pact. Henry may have appeared ready for a larger workload, but clearly the Titans didn’t make Lewis a priority just to saddle him with a complementary role, especially after the season he had for the Patriots. Both players carried obvious potential during draft season, but it was a challenge to pin down which, if either, would be the clearly superior fantasy asset.

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After one week, it looks like Henry is still running second, at best, in his own backfield. Lewis was on the field for 49 of the team’s 69 snaps, compared with 20 for Henry. Lewis got 16 carries and eight targets, while Henry got just 10 and one, respectively. Lewis was also, quite simply, the better back, running for 75 yards and a touchdown, while turning his eight targets into five catches for 35 yards. Henry, meanwhile, picked up just 26 yards on his 10 rushes.

Depending on the severity of Marcus Mariota’s arm injury, both players could be in trouble. Mariota may not be a superstar, but he clearly elevates the offense to a level that it’s unlikely to reach with Blaine Gabbert under center. No matter what, though, it’s clear that Lewis is the Tennessee back you want on your roster.

Not the same old Jarvis Landry

Landry was one of the most underappreciated players in the league during his four years in Miami, though some of that owed to the way the team used him. The Dolphins rarely asked Landry to make big plays down the field, instead preferring for him to operate around the line of scrimmage and add yardage after the catch. In Landry’s first four years, he never had fewer than 463 yards after the catch, and twice he ranked in the top five in the league in YAC. At the same time, he never had an average depth of target greater than 6.5 yards. That low aDOT may have increased Landry’s catch rate, but it also curbed his upside. It also appears to be something he left behind in Miami.

It may have just been one game, but it looks like the Browns are asking Landry to be a much different receiver this season. He caught seven of his 15 targets in his Browns debut, totaling 106 yards. Just 26 of those yards, or 3.7 per reception, came after the catch. Nearly two-thirds of his yards came in the air, and Landry enjoyed an aDOT in Week 1 of 12.5 yards, on par with Stefon Diggs, A.J. Green and Mike Evans. It’s not that Landry was incapable of being this type of receiver in Miami, but that the Dolphins never asked him to be. Now that he’s being tasked with doing more damage down field, Landry could be in line for the best season of his career.

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