- The Chiefs' new offense has an effect on Kareem Hunt's output. Plus notes and trends on Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Baker Mayfield and the Vikings' receivers.
Football is inherently a small-sample size sport, thanks largely to its 16-game seasons. To get a strong, statistically significant sample on any player, we need multiple seasons’ worth of data. Operating within one season, as much of punditry (specifically fantasy) requires us to do, necessitates that we get comfortable with small sample sizes. In that vein, five games is not a small sample size, but nearly one-third of a full-season sample. It why, at this point of the season, we can say with only a little exaggeration that a player is who his numbers say he is. And that’s why we need to talk about Kareem Hunt’s targets.
Hunt was a true league-winner last year, taking the Kansas City backfield by the reins after Spencer Ware suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason. Hunt launched a workhorse season from the fourth round of most fantasy drafts, leading the league with 1,327 rushing yards, catching 53 passes for 455 receiving yards, and scoring 11 total touchdowns. In addition to winning a rushing crown, he ranked 12th among backs in receptions, eighth in receiving yards and fifth in touchdowns, making him one of six backs in the top 12 of all four categories. The other five were Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Melvin Gordon, Mark Ingram and LeSean McCoy. Add it all up, and Hunt was the No. 4 back in both standard and PPR leagues last year.
This season, Kansas City hasn’t skipped a beat after turning the offense over to Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs are averaging more points and yards per game this season than they did last year with Alex Smith, and nearly a half-yard more per play. Hunt has just as firm a stranglehold on the backfield, accounting for 83.1% of the team’s running back touches after sitting at 80.4% last season. Yet he isn’t as productive from a fantasy standpoint, ranking seventh in standard leagues and 11th in PPR formats. That standard-to-PPR gap should tell you that something has changed with respect to the passing game. In short, Hunt is barely a part of it.
Through five games, Hunt has nine targets. Look at his target numbers in each game last season. His five lowest combined, excluding his brief cameo in a meaningless Week 17, still add up to 11 looks. His worst stretch of five consecutive games came out to 17 targets, and that came in the first five games of the season. Hunt totaled 63 targets in his first 15 games last year, which translates to an average of 4.2 per game. He has had four targets in a game once this season, and has had more than one just twice.
It’s awfully hard to get a target if you don’t run a route, so it makes sense to start there when looking for Hunt’s lost receiving production. It’s not where we find our answer, though. Last year, Hunt ran 303 routes, ninth most among backs and good for 20.2 per game. This year, Hunt has been in a route on 99 snaps, or 19.8 per game, effectively no different. The offense around him, however, has changed, both in both style and spirit.
Alex Smith was very effective when he attacked downfield last season. On passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, Smith led the league in accuracy rate (completions plus drops divided by attempts) at 54.8%, plus yards (1,344) and touchdowns (12). He also picked his spots, throwing a deep ball on 12.3% of his attempts, which ranked 14th among quarterback with at least 200 attempts. Patrick Mahomes, on the other hand, has thrown a deep ball on 18.8% of his attempts, which leads the league. Smith’s average depth of target, which measures the average distance a pass attempt travels in the air, was 7.9 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Mahomes is at 10.3 yards on his average pass attempt, good for fifth in the league. Those simply aren’t the kind of pass attempts that go to running backs, and that major shift in the offense largely explains why Hunt’s receiving numbers have fallen precipitously this season.
The problem for Hunt owners, and it’s admittedly a first-world one, is that there’s no reason to think those targets are coming back. Mahomes is a different quarterback than Smith, and while the team had plenty of success with the attack it built around Smith last year, it’s having even more success around the Mahomes-led offense, which is more aggressive down the field. Hunt is still getting plenty of rushing volume, and no one in Kansas City is a threat to his extreme primacy in the backfield. Still, without those targets that led to easy yards and the occasional big play, he’s more of a mid-tier RB1 in standard leagues, and low-end RB1 in PPR formats, rather than the elite, high-end RB1 he was last year.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 6 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.
Fun with Blind Resumés
Here in the Target and Snap Report, we like to play a game called Fun with Blind Resumés, which we can explain for the uninitiated. We present you with the stat lines of two or more players, but do not give you their names. That way, we can compare the numbers on an apples-to-apples basis without any biases or preconceived notions getting in the way.
See if you can figure out the identities of these two quarterbacks.
Quarterback A: Five games, 65.1% completion rate, 1,621 yards, 8.44 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns, five interceptions, 34 carries, 201 yards, one rushing touchdown
Quarterback B: Five games, 62.9% completion rate, 1,195 yards, 7.91 YPA, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, 26 carries, 186 yards, two rushing touchdowns
Any guesses? Go ahead, mull it over. And, as you’re thinking about your answer, consider which line you think is superior, or if there’s really any significant difference at all.
Alright, done thinking? Good, because I’d like to continue the column. Quarterback A is Deshaun Watson, who’s having a much better season than much of the talk surrounding the Texans would suggest. The Texans are just 2-3 and the offense hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard in the same way, but he’s fifth in the NFL in yards, sixth in YPA and fourth in fantasy scoring, trailing only Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan and Jared Goff. His downfall has been significantly overstated.
How do I know that? Well, Quarterback B is Watson in his first five starts of last season. As you likely recall, Watson’s touchdown rate was through the roof last year, sitting at 9.3% in his first five starts and on the day he tore his ACL, which folded in a four-score game against the Seahawks in the sixth start of his career. Other than that, though, Watson has been better this year. His yardage-based efficiency is up, with a higher completion rate and a major increase of 6.3% in YPA. The touchdowns haven’t been there in the same abundance, but Watson is off to a better start this year in the categories that have a stronger correlation to future performance than he was a season ago.
What makes this even more impressive is that Watson hasn’t faced a series of doormat defenses. The Texans have played the Patriots, Titans, Giants, Colts and Cowboys this season. Those teams are all in the top 19 against quarterbacks in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric, with the Patriots ranked 12th and Giants ranked third. Watson had one of his best games of the season against the Giants, throwing for 385 yards, 9.63 YPA and two touchdowns against one pick.
No Watson fantasy owner was benching him or thinking about trading him for 80 or 90 cents on the dollar, but let this calm any fears you might have had through the first month of the season. Watson hasn’t played merely as good as he did last year. He has been even better. When the touchdowns start coming, which they will, he will once again put fantasy teams on his back.
The Baker Mayfield Experience is about to take off
We’ve seen two and a half games of Mayfield thus far, and he has surpassed realistic expectations. The Browns are 2-1 in his three games, making him the first Cleveland quarterback to be on the field for multiple wins in a season since Johnny Manziel went 2-4 as a starter in 2015, though what Manziel did in those wins wouldn’t really qualify as him “leading” the team to victory. Mayfield, on the other hand, has done just that. The No. 1 overall pick has lived up to the billing, throwing for 838 yards, 7.83 YPA, three touchdowns and three picks.
Mayfield more than held his own against the Ravens and Jets, teams that rank second and 10th, respectively, in quarterback aFPA. When he got his one shot against a weaker-than-average defense, he took full advantage, racking up 295 yards, 7.2 YPA and two scores while driving the Browns to 42 points against the Raiders, the franchise’s first 40-point game since 2009. We’re just 10 quarters into Mayfield’s career, and it’s safe to say the Browns feel like they’ve hit a home run. Things are about to get even better.
The Browns’ bye is in Week 11, giving them five games before they get their yearly break. Those five games are against the Chargers, Buccaneers, Steelers, Chiefs and Falcons. Those teams are all ranked 23rd or worse in quarterback aFPA, with the Buccaneers and Chiefs among the three worst teams in the league at defending quarterback fantasy scoring. Traditional stats more your thing? Well, those teams rate poorly there, too.
The Chargers rank 21st in passing defense, and are the best among the five. The Falcons are 25th, with the Buccaneers, Steelers and Chiefs the three friendliest pass defenses in the league. While the Chargers are best of the group in total yardage, they’re 28th in YPA allowed, surrendering 8.6 yards per pass attempt. The Buccaneers are even worse, allowing 9.4 yards per attempt, 31st in the league. Atlanta is about league-average in YPA allowed, while the Chiefs rank 20th, and Steelers rank 23rd.
How about touchdowns? Those are fun, right? No team in the league has surrendered more passing touchdowns than the Buccaneers or Steelers, which have both allowed 13. This seems a good time to point out that the Buccaneers have already had their bye. The Falcons are tied for 28th in the league with 12 passing scores allowed, one spot behind the Chargers, who have given up 11 passing touchdowns. The Chiefs have been the best of the quintet, allowing nine, but that’s still more than 18 NFL teams.
Mayfield is about to clean up against these five defenses. Forget about just streaming him in fantasy leagues. Over the next month, he can be your regular weekly starter.
Aaron Rodgers joined yet another elite club
Rodgers nearly willed the Packers all the way back against the Lions in Week 5 after the team faced a 24-0 halftime deficit. He got the Packers to within 11 points with nine minutes to go, and while they ultimately fell 31-23, Rodgers deserves a ton of credit for turning a laugher into a legitimate game in the fourth quarter. He did so by putting on a show in the second half, throwing for 301 yards and three touchdowns, packing a monster game into two quarters and five possessions.
The huge second half gave Rodgers a stat line that immediately jumped out at me when I started scanning box scores looking for entries for this week’s Target and Snap Report. Rodgers finished the game with 442 yards, 8.5 YPA and three scores against zero picks. It’s not uncommon in the modern NFL to see a quarterback ride huge volume to a 400-yard game. It is uncommon, though, for a passer to marry that volume with extreme efficiency, as Rodgers did on Sunday. Rodgers may have attempted 52 passes, but he didn’t simply volume his way to his big day. He was just as efficient as he was prolific, and that’s why the Packers nearly came back to win the game.
The two numbers, when paired together, that jumped out at me were 52 and 8.5. We do not often see a quarterback attempt 50-plus passes at 8.5 YPA or better. Put simply, it’s hard to remain that efficient when throwing so many passes. It’s why you almost never see the same quarterback lead the league in attempts and YPA. As the sample size increases, the production per data point almost always decreases. It’s simple math, and Rodgers confounded it in Week 5.
Rodgers’ 52-attempt, 8.5-YPA performance marked the 19th time in NFL history a quarterback had such a high YPA on at least 50 throws. The last one to do it was Derek Carr in 2016. The only quarterbacks to do it twice include a Hall of Famer, Dan Marino, and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, Drew Brees. If you add Rodgers’ three touchdowns and zero interceptions as additional thresholds, you get just three such games in NFL history. One of those was Carr’s 2016 effort, which won’t seem quite so hilarious when you learn the identity of the third quarterback to achieve the feat: Matt Cassel, who did it with the Chiefs in 2010. With the Packers running game still a work in progress, and more 50-attempt games possible for Rodgers, he could match Brees and Marino later this year, which would make for a much more appropriate quarterback trio.
The receiving clinic in Minnesota
We’re continuing our appreciation for all the great receiver’ing (not a word, but stick with me) happening across the league in the Target and Snap Report. In Week 4, we discussed the Lions. Last week, we swooned over the Rams. This week, we’re going to focus on a tandem instead of a trio, and it just happens to be the best 1-2 punch in the league.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are putting together a teammate season for the ages, akin to what Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram did last year. Imagine having 37 catches for 402 yards and three touchdowns through five games—which, for the record, translates to a 16-game pace of 118.4 catches, 1,286.4 yards and 9.6 touchdowns—and not being the most productive receiver on your own team. That’s the case for Diggs, who can look across his own locker room and see a receiver who has 47 grabs for 589 yards and three scores on the season.
I want to talk about the ways these two win using just two GIFs, one apiece for the two of them. Thielen and Diggs are so great because they can both win in route, but also before the ball is even snapped. We’re going to take a look at how they do that, with Thielen showing us a win in route, and Diggs showing us how to set up a defender before the play has even begun.
Thielen carved up the Rams in the most entertaining game of the year, catching eight balls for 135 yards and a touchdown. In re-watching each of his catches, this was the one that most caught my eye. Thielen is the single receiver to the right of the formation, and the play ends with him picking up 16 yards. Watch how he uses multiple moves to read the defense, first breaking out, then turning up field. When he sees how much cushion Marcus Peters is still giving him, he breaks off the route, coming back toward the line of scrimmage and the sideline to beat the coverage and pick up a chunk play.
There’s a lot of fancy footwork in here, but I wouldn’t say Thielen cooked Peters. Instead, he and Kirk Cousins read where the hole was in the coverage, and they attacked it in textbook fashion.
Now, let’s watch as new Vikings’ offensive coordinator John DeFilippo schemes Diggs open, and Diggs perfectly executes the play to set up an easy touchdown. This was back in Week 2 against the Packers, a game in which the Vikings rallied furiously in the second half to force a tie. Diggs goes in motion on this play, running to the left, back to the right, and then quickly back to the left, all the while staying between Cousins and the linemen. Tramon Williams trails him the whole time, so it’s easy to see that the Packers are in man coverage. As Diggs breaks back left for the last time, Cousins takes the snap. At this point, Diggs already has a step on Williams, but he still needs to make up enough north-south ground to get in the end zone. That’s where Kyle Rudolph, split to the left, comes into play. He’s effectively a blocker, running just enough of a route that he doesn’t get called for offensive pass interference. He picks both Williams and the defender covering him, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, giving Diggs a clear path to one of the easiest touchdowns he will score in his career.
Winning in route and winning before the snap. The best receivers do it with regularity, and Thielen and Diggs are putting that on display for the Vikings every week.