- Aaron Jones is ready to deliver as the best fantasy RB on the Packers. Here are other trends around the league with fantasy implications.
Four years ago, it seemed the Packers had a running back of the future. In 2014, Eddie Lacy ran for 1,134 yards and nine touchdowns, making him the 11th player in NFL history with at least 1,100 rushing yards and nine scores in each of his first two seasons. The other 10? Well, they were all pretty good for quite a while. In chronological order, they were Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson. That’s a heck of a club for any running back to join, and it was reasonable to expect Lacy’s career to fall anywhere within the range set by those nine players.
Instead, Lacy flamed out the next year, running for 758 yards and three touchdowns. He was in Green Bay one more season, played a nondescript year in Seattle, and is now out of the league. In the three seasons since Lacy’s consecutive 1,100-yard, nine-touchdown campaigns, the Packers have never had a back with more than 758 rushing yards, and their leading rushers in those three years combined totaled 1,771 yards. In other words, Aaron Rodgers and an elite passing game have received no help on the ground the last three seasons. That may finally be about to change.
Aaron Jones starred in Green Bay’s 22-0 win over Buffalo in Week 4. The second-year player out of UTEP ran for 65 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, and caught one pass for 17 yards. He looked dangerous with the ball in his hands, and completely dominated the Packers’ second touchdown drive of the game, racking up 50 yards and his score, a three-yard run, on five touches. Not including the touchdown, five of Jones’ other 11 touches went for at least six yards, with three of them going for at least 11. Rodgers talked up Jones during the week, and the back delivered, ensuring that his role will only grow as he gets fully up to speed after a two-game suspension to start the season.
Jones played one-quarter of the team’s snaps in his Week 3 season debut, with Jamaal Williams at 43% and Ty Montgomery at 29%. Last week, Jones led the team with a 38% snap rate, playing one more play than Williams. Montgomery, meanwhile, brought up the rear at 26%. Juxtapose Jones’ production against Williams—the latter has 162 yards and zero touchdowns on 47 carries this season—and it’s reasonable to expect the former to eventually take complete control of the Green Bay backfield. Remember, too, that Jones was clearly the best back on the team last year, running for 448 yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries. Williams got nearly double the carries (153) and totaled just 556 yards and four scores.
The Aaron Jones takeover is in full effect, and should reach a new level in Week 5 when the Packers take on the Lions. Jones is just 23 years old, potentially giving the Packers the running back of the future they thought they had four years ago. He has arrived not a moment too soon, for Green Bay’s offense and fantasy owners, alike.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 5 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.
The Mark Ingram effect
Alvin Kamara is the highest-scoring non-quarterback in fantasy football through four weeks, and only Patrick Mahomes and Matt Ryan have outscored him from the quarterback position. Kamara has completely dominated the backfield for the Saints this season, playing 82.1% of the snaps and getting 77.8% of the touches. That hegemony is about to come to an end.
Ingram is set to return from a four-game suspension on Monday night when the Saints host Washington. It’s unlikely he’ll immediately assume his role from last season, but it’s likely he’ll be back in something approximating it when the Saints come out of their Week 6 bye. That’s great news for the Saints, and isn’t necessarily terrible news for Kamara, but it’s a guarantee that his volume will decrease, and it’s entirely likely that his bottom-line production will come with it.
This is not a recommendation to sell Kamara, or a proclamation that his best days in the 2018 season are behind him. Kamara is a unique weapon, perfectly suited to the modern NFL. He’s one of the five best fantasy assets in the league, and that’s not going to change, even with Ingram back in the fold. Some things, however, are going to change.
Last season, when Ingram and Kamara formed the most productive backfield pairing in NFL history, it was the former who led the way, at least in snap rate. Ingram played 55% of the snaps to Kamara’s 45%, and while part of that owed to the concussion Kamara suffered late in the season, Ingram outsnapped him in 10 of 16 games, with one tie. Ingram is going to get his fair share of playing time that comes directly at Kamara’s expense.
What’s more, the touch share between the two should be relatively even, if not immediately this week, then likely from Week 7 through the end of the season. Last year, Ingram had 230 carries, 71 targets and 58 receptions, for a total of 301 opportunities and 288 touches. Kamara carried the ball 120 times while racking up 100 targets and 81 receptions, giving him 220 opportunities and 201 touches. Those 201 touches accounted for 37.4% of the total backfield touches in New Orleans, less than half of Kamara’s touch rate through four weeks this season.
All six of Kamara’s touchdowns this season have come from inside the 5-yard line, including five rushing scores from in close. He had two such touchdowns last year. Ingram, on the other hand, scored eight touchdowns on plays that started inside the 5-yard line last year, all of which came on the ground. If Kamara cedes those easy scores to Ingram, and, for now, we have to assume he will, he will lose some fantasy value.
Kamara succeeds not only through volume, but also by being one of the most explosive, efficient players in the league. He is still that player, and Ingram’s presence won’t alter that. Volume is nice, though, and Ingram is about to take a big bite out of what Kamara has enjoyed the first four weeks of the season.
The perfect backfield pair in New England
Week 4 always had the feeling of a reality-check week in the AFC East, with the 1-2, seemingly rudderless Patriots hosting the 3-0, high-flying Dolphins. You don’t have to be a 21st century NFL historian to know that the Patriots’ 38-7 victory was entirely predictable. The Patriots were always going to get right, and that it came at home against a team they’ve dominated for nearly two decades made all the sense in the world. Part of how they did it, though, is what was most interesting.
The Dolphins had no answer for New England’s new-look backfield, featuring Sony Michel and James White. A classic pairing of clashing styles, Michel provided the thunder, carrying the ball 25 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. White was a perfect complement of lightning, catching eight of his 10 targets for 68 yards and a score, and adding 44 yards on the ground on eight rushes. In total, Michel and White touched the ball 41 times, amassing 224 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. The Dolphins, meanwhile, finished the game with 172 total yards.
Just as impressive, and equally as encouraging for the future as the production, was the beautifully clean split of backfield duties. White played 49% of the snaps, including all obvious passing downs. Michel played 41% of the snaps, most of which came with fullback James Develin on the field, and did nearly all his work on first and second down. You could look at that and say that the Patriots will be too predictable depending on which back is on the field, but it’s unlikely this team and coaching staff will fall into that trap. Instead, the clean split makes for a predictable division of labor, and we love that in the fantasy football world.
Every week won’t be quite so lucrative. After all, the Patriots don’t get to play every game at home against the Dolphins. Still, the Michel-White pairing is a winning one for this team, and even though Julian Edelman’s return from a suspension in Week 5 could take some air out of their balloon, there will be plenty of production to go around in New England. Michel and White will be fantasy mainstays for the rest of the season.
Hey, what about the Rams?
In last week’s Target and Snap Report, I wrote about the Lions’ trio of wide receivers aiming to join the club with three receivers inside the fantasy top 30 in one season, along with the 2004 Colts and 2013 Broncos. As was totally fair, multiple readers hit me up on Twitter and said, “What about the Rams?” That was a great question. The Lions will have to strive to get all three of their receivers in the top 30. The Rams, on the other hand, won’t just do so with ease. They could become the second team ever with three in the top-15, joining those illustrious ’04 Colts, which had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley led by, of course, Peyton Manning.
Entering Week 5, Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are ranked fifth, 11th and 13th, respectively, in standard-scoring leagues. In PPR formats, Kupp is sixth, Cooks is ninth and Woods is 15th. As we discussed with the Lions, there are two great reasons to believe the Rams’ triumvirate can maintain this pace.
First, all three of them are on the field all the time. Kupp has played 261 of the team’s 267 snaps. Woods has played 260 snaps, while Cooks has played 259. The Rams are the truest three-receiver set team in the league, running it as their base offense. Six receivers in the NFL have a snap rate of 97% or higher. Kupp, Woods and Cooks are three of them, along with DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams and Adam Thielen. You can’t catch passes, rack up yards and score touchdowns if you aren’t on the field, and these three are out there almost literally the entire game every single week.
It’s true that it would be nearly impossible for any of the three to dominate target share with the egalitarian offense the Rams prefer and are uniquely equipped to run. That is playing out, with all three Rams receivers averaging between eight and 8.5 targets per game, while the league leaders—Thielen and Antonio Brown—are averaging more than 13 per game. The Rams make up for that lack of overwhelming volume by getting all three of their receivers plenty of chances every game.
Kupp, Cooks and Woods have all played four games this season, meaning they’ve suited up for a combined 12 contests. They’ve had at least eight targets nine times. Cooks has never had fewer than eight targets in a game this season. Kupp had six in the wins over the Cardinals and Chargers, and Woods had five last week against the Vikings. In addition to spreading the love in each game, another way to make up for a lock of overwhelming volume is to be extremely efficient, and this Rams’ offense could go down as the most efficient of all time.
Let’s start with a team-wide look. The Rams are averaging 7.4 yards per play. No team this century has averaged more than 6.7 yards per play for a full season. Those 2004 Colts hit that mark, as did the ’11 Saints. The 2015 season was the only year in NFL history with 180,000 yards of total offense across the league. That year, the Steelers and Cardinals tied for the league lead with 6.2 yards per play. The Rams are something we’ve never seen before.
Next, let’s consider what Jared Goff has done this season. The quarterback is completing 72.4% of his passes for 1,406 yards, 10.49 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. The YPA number will likely come down as the season progresses, but his average completion travels 7.2 yards in the air, which ranks fourth among quarterbacks who have started every game this season, and supports a much higher-than-average YPA, especially when taken in conjunction with his completion percentage. His 8.2% touchdown rate is high, but not exceptionally so, given his weapons, completion percentage, YPA, offensive scheme and the current era of football. He also ranks fourth in the NFL in red-zone pass attempts, and third in attempts inside the 10-yard line. Five of Goff’s touchdown passes have come from inside the 10, and that’s with Todd Gurley running for four touchdowns on plays that began inside the 10.
Any trio of receivers that was going to make an honest run at the ’04 Colts would need to be on an explosive, efficient team that favored three-WR sets in the extreme and spread the ball around relatively evenly. That’s exactly what we have in the Rams. Kupp, Cooks and Woods can be this generation’s Harrison, Wayne and Stokley.