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  • David Johnson is one of fantasy football's greatest disappointments through two weeks. Is this the start of a troubling pattern, or something that will soon break?
By Michael Beller
September 19, 2018

Le’Veon Bell owners are experiencing a special kind of pain this year. It isn’t often that purgatory enters the fantasy football world, but that’s where Bell owners waste away as they try to figure out a plan B for this season. Bell, of course, isn’t the only consensus top-five pick giving the fantasy community fits this year. For David Johnson owners, it’s just the standard fantasy hell that comes with having your first overall pick, who was supposed to have near-zero bust risk, flopping in the first two weeks of the season.

In the Week 3 edition of the Target and Snap Report, we’re going to check in on the new-look backfield in New England. We’ll head on down to Miami, where a player famous for his longevity refuses to give way entirely to the next generation. We’ll take a look at a workhorse back getting even more work this season—as a receiver. And we’ll focus on a couple of emerging receivers in the Midwest.

We have to start with Johnson, though, if only because his struggles this year are so bizarre, unpredictable and seemingly solvable. The Cardinals have been terrible in the early going this season, scoring six points through two games. Their ineptitude has held back the inimitable Johnson, who has just 85 yards on 22 carries, six receptions for 33 yards, and one touchdown thus far. Johnson averaging fewer than four yards per carry is a football aberration. Three receptions per game? That might work for, I don’t know, Alex Collins, but not someone who was in the vanguard of remaking the running back position into a true hybrid, catching 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns two seasons ago. Something clearly is not right in Arizona.

NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats really are a treasure trove for any football-obsessed nerd. One of my favorite features are the carry and route charts they feature for all skill players. The charts show you the direction of play and general scheme of every touch for the player in question. Here’s Johnson’s carry chart from Week 2.

Johnson got outside the hash marks once, and that was when a breakdown in blocking forced him to improvise. What’s more, he lined up as a receiver exactly zero times, and got two—two!—targets. Before last week, Johnson had fewer than three receptions in one career start, and that was way back in his first career start in December 2015. Getting Johnson two total targets, and zero as a wide receiver, is an abdication of coaching responsibility for which Steve Wilks and Mike McCoy should be ashamed.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Wilks and McCoy seem to have awoken from their slumber. Wilks told local media on Monday that the team needs to be more creative in getting Johnson the ball, and that he’ll line up more as a receiver in the slot going forward. That can only help Johnson individually and the Arizona offense collectively. It should also have Johnson’s fantasy owners breathing a sigh of relief. There are still structural concerns with this offense, particularly related to Sam Bradford’s play and the possible eventual turn to rookie Josh Rosen, but Johnson remains one of the three or five most purely talented backs in the league. Ultimately, that will shine through.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 3 Target and Snap Report. As always, we’ll use target, snap, touch and red-zone data from our friends at 4for4 Football, and the publicly accessible Next Gen Stats from NFL.com, to try to explain what is going on underneath the surface level of the box score.

Our first look at the fully assembled backfield in New England

Sony Michel played the first game of his career last week, while Rex Burkhead cleared concussion protocol and suited up, as well. With James White doing his thing, that meant all three were active for the first time this season. Here were the main takeaways.

White led the way with 34 of 61 snaps played. Burkhead played 15, and Michel played 13. Michel, however, led the team with 10 carries, picking up 34 yards., Burkhead ran it six times for 22 yards. White made modest contributions on the ground, but pulled down seven of his team-high eight targets for 73 yards. Michel got two targets, catching one for seven yards. Burkhead was not on the stat sheet as a receiver.

What can we learn from this? Well, first and foremost, White is going to be a thorn in the sides of Michel and Burkhead owners all season. Both players appear to have receiving upside, but White is so good at what he does, and he’s just as comfortable and entrenched in the New England system as is Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski. He’s not going anywhere, and that is going to limit the target share for both Michel and Burkhead.

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The picture is a little harder to read on the ground. Burkhead may have been cleared to play, but he was in concussion protocol late last week. It’s entirely possible that the team held him back a bit, which would have added to Michel’s bottom line. Still, if we take these results at face value, than Burkhead investors need to be worried. Michel got 10 carries on 13 snaps, an eye-popping 76.9% carry-per-snap rate, especially when you consider that the Patriots trailed by at least two scores for the final 47 minutes of the game. If White is going to be the primary pass-catching back, which he is, and Michel is going to be the primary rusher, then where does Burkhead fit in? The concern, at least for now, is that he may not.

Frank Gore will outlast us all

Frank Gore turned 35 years old this offseason. There are 24 instances in NFL history of a back at least 31 years old running for 1,000 or more yards, and Gore owns two of them. Just two 35-year-olds, John Henry Johnson in 1964 and John Riggins in ’84, are on the list. Gore may not join them, but if his previous longevity is any indication, he could become the 11th back in NFL history to not miss a game in his age-35 season. That would be remarkable news for Gore and all his fellow old millennials, but bad news for Kenyan Drake.

The last time Gore played fewer than 16 games, Barack Obama was in the middle of his first term as president. The Chicago Cubs and the city of Cleveland were six years away from breaking championship curses. Snapchat and Lyft didn’t exist. Gore is the running back equivalent of Teflon, standing up to everything that comes his way, and that necessarily will eat into Drake’s workload.

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To be fair, Drake is clearly in command of Miami’s backfield. He has handled 25 carries, eight targets and seven receptions, while Gore has 18, one and one, respectively. Drake played 74% of the snaps in Week 1 and 60% last week. Gore had snap rates of 29% and 40% in the first two games of the season. Drake is clearly the starter and the lead back, and only an injury can change that.

Yet, Gore’s workload is nothing to flippantly dismiss. Take last week, for example. Drake ran for 53 yards on 11 carries, caught four passes for 17 yards, and scored his first touchdown of the season. The 70-yard, one-touchdown performance got the job done, but imagine if he got all nine carries that Gore handled. Even if he just matched what Gore did on those plays, he would have added 25 yards to his total. If he maintained his yards-per-carry pace, he would have finished with another 43 yards, turning a good day into a great one. And for a player like Drake, every touch is an opportunity to make something special happen. With Gore holding down his role in Miami’s offense, Drake gets less opportunity.

What exactly does that mean for Drake? He has done well considering his constraints, totaling 136 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in two games. With so few touches relative to other starters, it’s hard to believe he can break into the RB1 class this season. While he should remain the RB2 he was drafted to be, the hopes of an increased ceiling with his status as the team’s lead back cemented seem to be going by the wayside.

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

Melvin Gordon has a new role

Five backs have at least 15 receptions through two games. Christian McCaffrey leads the way with 20, and Chris Thompson is right behind him with 19. Saquon Barkley was a lethal receiver out of the backfield in college, and that has carried over to his rookie year with 16 grabs in his first two career games. Alvin Kamara picked up right where he left off last season and added to the pace a bit, pulling down 15 passes from Drew Brees already this season.

The fifth back with 15 receptions? Given the header to this section, you already know it’s Melvin Gordon. Coming into this season, Gordon’s career high for single-game receptions was seven, a mark he reached twice in his first 43 games. He caught nine balls in Week 1 this year, then followed that up with six receptions in Week 2, two of which he took to the house. Gordon has 100 yards receiving or a receiving touchdown in both games this season. The only other players who can say that are recievers: Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Thielen, Juju Smith-Schuster, Kenny Golladay, Stefon Diggs and Golden Tate.

Rushing efficiency has never been Gordon’s strong suit. Even as he ran for a career-high 1,105 yards last year, he picked up just 3.89 yards per carry. This year, he has 92 yards on 24 totes, good for 3.83 yards per carry. Gordon has lived on volume and touchdown upside, but has become a better receiver with each passing year. In his rookie season, he caught 33 passes for 192 yards. The next year, he set new career-bests across the board, pulling down 41 passes for 419 yards and two scores. He did the same last season, hauling in 58 receptions for 476 yards and four touchdowns. He could shatter those marks this season, sitting at 15 catches, 140 yards and two trips to paydirt through two games. In other words, Gordon doesn’t need to be remarkably efficient on the ground to be a top-five fantasy back. He gets plenty of volume, has the touchdown upside to lead the league in the category, and is now a truly elite pass-catching back. He can weather Austin Ekeler’s increased role and remain one of the top-10 assets in the fantasy game, and it’s all thanks to his growth as a receiver.

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The Midwest’s emerging receivers

In Week 2, the top receiver performances were bookended by a couple of youngsters on teams in the league’s two North divisions. First, Tyler Boyd starred for the Bengals on Thursday night, catching six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Then, in the late afternoon window on Sunday, Kenny Golladay came through for the second straight week, nabbing six receptions for 89 yards and a score. Both players are worthy of further study.

Boyd was relatively quiet in Week 1, catching three of his five targets for 26 yards. There were, however, a couple of important developments in that contest. First, John Ross, the assumed No. 2 receiver in Cincinnati, got two targets. Second, Boyd worked all over the field, but spent the vast majority of his time in the slot, with Ross joining A.J. Green out wide. Given that Green is a dominant outside receiver, there is generally more opportunity in the middle of the field for the Bengals’ other pass-catchers. That’s part of the reason why Tyler Eifert has been such a huge part of the offense, when healthy.

With that in mind, check out Boyd’s route chart from Week 2, courtesy of Next Gen Stats. Look at all the work he did in the middle of the field, and how diverse he was with his routes from the slot. Boyd made huge plays for Andy Dalton on a drag, a post and a corner, winning for his quarterback on essentially every route in the tree. Let’s take a look at some of Boyd’s best plays from the Bengals’ win over the Ravens.

First, let’s check out his first big catch of the night, a 27-yard gain on a textbook post-corner. Boyd starts to the left of the formation in the slot, finds the soft part of the zone, and makes himself an easy target for Dalton.

Next, Boyd makes another play to the outside of the field, this time with the Ravens in man coverage with a high deep safety shaded to his side of the field. Boyd is essentially covered on this play, but Dalton throws it to a spot where only he can catch it, and the receiver makes a beautiful adjustment to the ball, resulting in a 23-yard gain that puts the Bengals in scoring range.

Finally, the touchdown. Boyd is stacked with Green, tight to the left of the formation. He shows the patience necessary to let Green release downfield, running a drag behind him. He comes open across the face of a defender, sheds one tackle, and gets into the end zone.

The numbers are great, of course, but the manner by which Boyd got them is even more important for his future success. Boyd could be a breakout player for the Bengals and fantasy owners alike this year.

The expectation for Golladay has always been that he’d eventually be the top receiver in Detroit. With Golden Tate and Marvin Jones both A) very good, and B) locked into meaningful roles, that was never going to happen for Golladay last year. Is it happening this year, though? It might not be as unlikely as it seems.

First, the route charts. Take a look at what Golladay did in Week 1, when he caught seven passes for 114 yards, and last week, when he went for 6-89-1. Look how different those two charts are. In Week 1, Golladay did almost all his damage starting on the right side of the formation, making plays both outside the numbers and from the slot. In Week 2, every pass he caught was to Matthew Stafford’s right, and while the majority of his catches came with him lined up outside the numbers, his touchdown originated from the slot. That’s the sort of diversity that not only makes him a perfect fit alongside Tate and Jones, but gives him the upside to be the team’s best receiver this year.

Second, the usage. Golladay has 21 targets this year. That’s fewer than Tate’s 28, but more than Jones’ 17. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the pass-happiest offenses in the league, and without a major threat at tight end, it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that all three Detroit receivers will top 110 targets. Golladay has played 136 of Detroit’s 147 snaps this year, which translates to 92.5%. Effectively, he’s on the field for every snap, except those right on the goal line. The Golladay breakout is upon us.

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Eagle (-2)
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