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  • Christian McCaffrey played 100% of the Panthers' snaps and carried between the tackles. Here are other trends around the league with fantasy implications.
By Michael Beller
September 26, 2018

All summer, the Panthers promised us a new role for Christian McCaffrey. Ron Rivera and Norv Turner swore up and down that McCaffrey would get 25 to 30 touches per game, and while that always seemed ridiculous, it was encouraging to hear the two most important coaches in the building, at least from McCaffrey’s standpoint, sound committed to featuring him in the offense. And then Week 1 happened.

Christian McCaffrey got just 10 carries in the Panthers’ Week 1 win over the Cowboys. He added six receptions on nine targets, but it was disappointing to see C.J. Anderson so significantly involved in the run game, getting seven carries. What’s more, McCaffrey sat for 10 of the team’s 67 snaps. None of those facts are troubling individually, but it didn’t exactly jibe with what Rivera and Turner said all offseason. In these very Target and Snap Report pages going into Week 2, we discussed McCaffrey’s volume deficiency, relative to the coaching staff’s protestations, and wondered aloud if it was going to be an issue all season.

If we learned one thing in Week 3, it’s to take Rivera and Turner at their word, at least as far as McCaffrey is concerned.

McCaffrey played 100% of Carolina’s snaps—all 67 of them—in the team’s 31-21 win over Cincinnati in Week 3. The numbers that show up in a traditional box score were even better. McCaffrey carried the ball 28 times for 184 yards, the high mark in the league this season. He got just two targets and Anderson did vulture a receiving score, but McCaffrey racked up 30 touches for the first time in his career. If the results carry any weight, it won’t be the last.

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What was most encouraging was where McCaffrey got most of his yards. The knock on him last year, largely unfounded, was that he could not run between the tackles. After last week, the Bengals would beg to differ.

Check out McCaffrey’s Week 3 carry chart, courtesy of NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats. Look at where he crossed the line of scrimmage on his rushes, paying particular attention to the green lines, which are runs of more than five yards. As you can see, most of those came in an A- or B-gap, not off the tackle or on tosses or stretch plays. McCaffrey can run between the tackles just fine.

Of course, it isn’t ideal for McCaffrey to get just two targets. He does some of his best work as a receiver, and the fantasy community wouldn’t want him to make a one-for-one trade giving up targets for carries. His volume isn’t a zero-sum game, though, and the Week 3 win over the Bengals featured a unique game script. Cam Newton attempted just 24 passes in the contest, with the Panthers leading the entire second half. Pay less attention to the target total and more to the fact that McCaffrey handled 65.2% of the team’s touches, not counting Newton’s 10 rush attempts. That touch share may not be sustainable, but it is certainly indicative of how the Panthers’ brain trust wants to treat McCaffrey this year. He’s going to give up short-yardage scores to Newton, as he did twice last week, but he’ll make up for it with the opportunity he gets as a receiver. Rivera and Turner are following through on all those preseason protestations, and that’s great news for fantasy owners who bought into McCaffrey.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 4 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.

Baker Mayfield opening up the entire Browns’ offense

It has been nearly a week since Mayfield made his NFL debut and simultaneously injected hope into the Browns’ franchise for the first time this decade. At this point, we’ve digested all the stats and highlights. We know how he brought life and energy to the offense. We know what he did for Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde, and even if we didn’t, it’s clear to see from the box score. Instead of going over that trodden ground, I want to look at another player who will benefit from Mayfield’s ascension who didn’t really get in on the Week 3 party, at least individually. Make no mistake, though, David Njoku is going to be one of this offense’s big winners with Mayfield at the helm.

Njoku had two catches for 36 yards in the Browns’ first win in 21 months. Both of those came with Mayfield on the other end and were big plays that resulted in first downs. The first went for 17 yards, getting the Browns into field goal range for their first score of the game, and the second was a 19-yard play early in the second half. Njoku’s long reception in the first two games of the season was eight yards. It took all of two snaps and one target with Mayfield directing traffic to eclipse that mark.

Njoku is a big, athletic tight end with an ideal skill set for the position in the modern NFL. At 6’4” and 246 pounds, he’s bigger than Evan Engram, and about the same size as Zach Ertz. Njoku is not a tight end who should be tethered to the line of scrimmage or the middle of the field. He’s a weapon as a receiver who can make big plays down the field, so long as he has a quarterback who will give him a chance. He has one in Mayfield.

Below is Njoku’s first catch of the game. He starts the play to the right of the formation, standing on the hash mark. The Jets are in what looks like a traditional Cover 2, and Njoku does exactly what he’s supposed to do, finding a soft spot in the zone between the linebacker and safety on his side of the formation. Now, he’s not exactly open, but he does create enough of a window for Mayfield to take a shot. The rookie does exactly that, and Njoku makes a beautiful adjustment to the ball, plucking it out of the air just before it hits the ground and moving the Browns comfortably into Jets territory.

Here’s Njoku’s second catch, which gives us another look at how both he and Mayfield understand how to attack a defense. With six defenders on the line of scrimmage the Jets are clearly showing blitz. There’s a linebacker not exactly over Njoku, who’s to the left of the formation on the hash mark, but he could easily drop into coverage. Other than him, though, there are just two defenders for three receivers to the left of the formation. At the snap, that linebacker crashes on the playfake to Carlos Hyde, and the defensive back opposite the slot receiver blitzes Mayfield. Njoku immediately makes himself available, turning his body to his quarterback. Both he and Mayfield read the play perfectly, with the quarterback getting the ball out of his hands instantly to a wide-open Njoku. The tight end adds 13 yards after the catch, moving the chains for another Cleveland first down.

Njoku has had plenty of volume through Cleveland’s first three games, but that hasn’t translated to bottom-line production just yet. With a new quarterback more capable and willing to take advantage of his top-end skills, though, that is about to change.

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A troubling trend of shallowness in Indianapolis

Andrew Luck has started and finished all three games for the Colts this season—well, one Hail Mary aside. In the most basic sense, that’s great news for the team after the franchise quarterback missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury. Go just an inch or two beyond that surface level, though, and the numbers start to tell a different story.

Luck has completed 68.5% of his passes for 662 yards, 5.34 yards per attempt, five touchdowns and three interceptions this season. The 5.34 YPA is shockingly low for any quarterback, let alone who hit 7.78 YPA in his last season. Dig deeper into his pass attempts, and it gets even worse. According to Next Gen Stats, Luck’s intended air yardage per pass, or the distance of his average pass attempt, is 5.5 yards. Only Marcus Mariota’s is lower, at 5.1 yards, and he has been dealing with an injured elbow since Week 1. In 2016, Luck’s intended air yardage per pass was 8.9 yards.

From a fantasy standpoint, this has just as detrimental an effect on T.Y. Hilton as it does on Luck. Hilton has 17 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns this season. On their face, those numbers—which come out to a 16-game pace of 90.7 receptions, 954.7 yards and 10.7 scores—are completely acceptable. The problem is that he’s not getting them in typical Hiltonian fashion. Hilton’s long catch on the season is 29 yards. That marks just the third three-game stretch Hilton has played in his career with Luck without a 30-yard reception, the last of which came in 2013. That, in turn, is leaving big plays on the field.

Here are two examples from the Colts’ 20-16 loss to the Eagles in Week 3. On the first one, Hilton is the lone receiver to the right of the formation. He’s clearly open deep down the field, and in previous seasons, this likely would have gone for six points. Instead, the Colts have to settle for a pass interference on an underthrown ball by Luck.

Hilton starts the second play in the slot, and comes open about 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in a hole in the Eagles’ zone. Pre-shoulder injury, this is a pass Luck likely would have zipped in for a completion. This year, he doesn’t seem to have the arm strength to get it there with the same velocity, giving the safety enough time to close on Hilton and break up the pass.

Now, to be fair, Luck and Hilton have hooked up on a few big plays. Hilton’s long play on the season of 29 yards came in the loss to the Eagles, and was on a perfectly thrown ball by Luck to the sideline, with nearly all the gain coming in the air. Still, it’s easy to look at those two plays above and know what the outcomes of those targets used to be, nine times out of 10. That’s cause for concern in Indianapolis.

The long-term viability of a three-headed monster in Detroit

The website Fantasy Football Today (FFToday.com) keeps detailed fantasy football scoring archives going back to 2001. According to their database, the 2013 Broncos were the only team with three top-30 receivers in the previous 17 seasons. Carried by Peyton Manning’s 5,477-yard, 55-touchdown, MVP campaign, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker finished first, ninth and 20th, respectively, in standard-scoring leagues, and first, ninth and 21st in PPR formats. No other trio has come close, but we’re getting our first honest run at a second member in that club this season.

Through three weeks, Kenny Golladay, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones all look like top-30 receivers. Golladay has been the most prolific of the bunch, ranking 11th in standard leagues and 12th in PPR. Tate is 20th in standard and 18th in PPR, while Jones is 31st in standard and 37th in PPR. They may not be quite as prolific as the Thomas-Decker-Welker triumvirate, but all three will make an honest run at the top 30, and it’s likely at least two of them will get in. The question for our purposes is whether this is sustainable for all three, or if one will have to significantly fall off the pace.

A handful of factors are working in their favor. First, the Lions are among the league-leaders in snap rate with three wide receivers. Jones has been the least productive of the three, but he has played the most snaps on the season, with a snap rate of 93.2%. Golladay is at 90.9%, and Tate is at 80.1%, his low rate, relative to the other two, driven by the fact that he was checked out for a minor injury during the team’s Week 3 win over the Patriots. No matter the exact numbers, all three are on the field a ton, and that is leading to plenty of opportunity for all of them.

Not only are Golladay, Tate and Jones all getting their fair share of chances, they’re all doing about as much as they realistically can with those chances. Tate leads the way with 36 targets, catching 20 for 257 yards and one touchdown. Golladay has 19 receptions on 28 targets, totaling 256 yards and two scores. Tate is the trailer with 12 grabs on 23 targets for 177 yards, but, like Golladay, he has hit paydirt two times. What’s more, Jones leads the group with five red-zone targets, four of which have come inside the 10-yard line, and a team target share in the red zone of 29.4%.

All three receivers have been consistent through Detroit’s first three games. Golladay has a touchdown or 100 yards in all three. Tate hasn’t had fewer than eight targets in a game, and has a touchdown or 100 yards in two of the three. Jones, meanwhile, has scored in two separate games, and would have had two touchdowns apiece in those contests had he not been overthrown by Matthew Stafford. Golladay and Tate have both scored at least 12.9 PPR points in all three games, and Jones has hit that mark twice. This isn’t a case of one player getting hot one week, and another taking the reins the next. All three have showed up every week this season, and that creates a foundation for long-term success.

The trio of Lions’ receivers don’t have to worry about a tight end eating into their work. The four tight ends on the roster—Luke Willson, Hakeem Valles, Michael Roberts and Levine Toilolo—have combined for eight targets, with Willson leading the way at four. Theo Riddick is a threat and is going to have a role in the passing game, but he’s getting more than seven per game thus far, and that isn’t slowing down any of the receivers.

Finally, there’s the quarterback. After all, it took the best statistical season of Peyton Manning’s career to get the three Denver receivers into the top 30 in 2013. Stafford doesn’t need to be Manning for his receivers to follow suit, and that’s a good thing because he’s not. That may have been just five years ago, but this is a different, pass-friendlier NFL. Stafford has attempted 135 passes through three games, completing 65.2% of them for 895 yards and 6.63 YPA. He has thrown 20 passes inside the 20, and 10 inside the 10, both of which have him in the top five in the league. If he merely continues at this pace, he’ll attempt another 585 passes this season. He could slow down by, say, 20%, and attempt another 468. Golladay, Tate and Jones haven’t lacked for opportunities this season, and that’s not likely to change.

So, can these three become the third trio of top-30 receivers in the last 18 years? And, just as importantly, should fantasy owners continue trusting all of them as regular starters? The numbers strongly suggest that yes is the answer to both of those questions.

Four GIFs that show why Calvin Ridley is here to stay

Ridley had a breakout performance in Week 3, catching seven passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns. What was just as impressive was the way in which Ridley did his damage. This wasn’t just a guy getting hot against a bad corner or secondary, or one monster play supported by a bunch of short gains (though one of his three scores did go for 75 yards). No, this was a receiver checking off every box in the game, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that it was his third career game.

How, exactly, did Ridley check every box? Let’s go to the videotape.

First, we’ll take a look at his understanding of how to read, and beat, zone coverage. It’s 3rd and 7 at the Atlanta 36 with 5:30 left in the first quarter. Ridley is tight to the right of the formation. He goes in motion (before the start of the GIF) and no one follows him, a sure sign that the Saints are in zone. He clears the linebacker, who passes off responsibility for him to the safety, but the latter is another five yards downfield after Ridley gets beyond the second level. Already beyond the sticks, he checks up and makes himself available for a simple pitch-and-catch with Matt Ryan. This is as easy a first down as Ryan has thrown for in his career.

Next, we’ll see his ability to beat man coverage. That it doubles as his first touchdown of the game is a bonus. Ridley is the outside receiver on the right side of the formation on this play. Watch as he executes a perfect stutter go route, leaving P.J. Williams in his dust. By the time Williams realizes Ridley isn’t actually breaking off this route, it is far too late to stop the touchdown in progress.

Third, let’s watch as Ridley keeps a play alive for his quarterback, resulting in a touchdown. We’ll have to pick this one up mid-play. At the start of the GIF, Ridley is at the bottom of the F of the word “FALCONS” in the end zone, having just run a curl that wasn’t open. Ryan, however, can’t throw to his first read, with Mohamed Sanu getting knocked down at the goal line. He then feels pressure and has to scramble to his left. Ridley sees this and, smartly, runs in the same direction as his quarterback, curling around and toward the sideline, keeping himself in the play. His coverage man loses sight of him, and he gets open in the corner of the end zone for another score.

Finally, we have to marvel at his ability to get open and do damage deep down the field. Ridley is the single receiver to the right of the formation.

Yeah, we don’t think Ridley’s disappearing from this offense anytime soon.

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