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  • The Broncos' point total has a chance to catch up to their yardage output. Plus notes on Julio Jones and the tight end position.
By Michael Beller
October 17, 2018

In-season analysis is necessarily based on a small sample of games, and we’ve therefor reached a point in the year where we can be sure—or at least as reasonably certain as possible—of what every team is. Every team has played at least five games, and most have played six. They’re still changing, getting better in some areas and worse in others, and that will continue all year. Understanding that reality, we still have a grounding in what they’re all good and bad at, and that gives us exploitable tendencies in the fantasy football world.

Our partners at 4for4.com offer a number of proprietary tools that will make you a better fantasy player, and one of the best is their schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric, abbreviated aFPA. It’s not hard to find fantasy points allowed, and it’s a stat cited often in the industry. If the sample of one NFL season is small, though, then the sample based on one team’s set of games is even smaller. Every team has just 13 unique opponents every year, or 41.9% of the other teams in the league. Invariably, some teams are going to end up with hard schedules, and others will get lucky with a soft slate. Some teams will face a particularly brutal set of pass defenses, while others will deal with a spate of strong run defenses. No schedule is the same, and that fact takes a lot of the utility out of straight fantasy points allowed numbers.

4for4’s aFPA circumvents that reality. By controlling for opponents, aFPA flattens schedule bias and allows us to compare defenses and matchups in an apples-to-apples fashion. Take that metric, add six weeks of data, and you get trends that are too strong to ignore. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting ones at every position.

You’ll find many of the expected teams at the bottom of the quarterback aFPA list. The Buccaneers are dead last, with the Saints ranking 31st. The Chiefs are 29th, behind the Falcons and 49ers. You’re going to want to start almost any quarterback against those teams. You may have noticed that I skipped over the team ranked 30th. That’s because it’s more than a mild surprise. According to aFPA, the Vikings have been the third-friendliest defense to quarterbacks this season.

Jared Goff carved up the Vikings in Week 4, throwing for 465 yards and five touchdowns. The next week, Carson Wentz threw for 311 yards and two scores. Outside of that, they’ve acutally been pretty good against the position. They shut down Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Rosen, and held a hobbled Aaron Rodgers to 16 points in Week 2. So why are they so low in the aFPA rankings? Well, other than Goff’s explosion, they surrendered 27.74 points to Josh Allen, largely on the strength of two rushing touchdowns. In other words, the downfall of Minnesota’s defense has been greatly overstated. The Rams’ offense is magic, and Allen rushing for two scores will go down as one of this season’s greatest flukes. The Vikings’ defense likely won’t be part of this group by season’s end.

The bottom-five defenses in running back aFPA are the Lions, Chiefs, Dolphins, Falcons and Cardinals. The Cardinals have been torched by an opposing back every week this season. It started with Adrian Peterson racking up 166 total yards and a touchdown in Week 1. Since then, they’ve allowed the following lines:

Todd Gurley: 19 carries, 42 yards, three touchdowns; three catches, 31 yards

Jordan Howard: 24 carries, 61 yards, one touchdown; two catches, 20 yards

Mike Davis: 21 carries, 101 yards, two touchdowns; four catches, 23 yards

49ers backs (Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Kyle Juszczyk): 27 carries, 129 yards; 13 catches, 110 yards

Latavius Murray: 24 carries, 155 yards, one touchdown

Start your backs against the Cardinals. Thing is, the Cardinals may finally be able to dish some of that back out this week, assuming Mike McCoy learns how to properly use David Johnson. The Broncos are ranked 27th in running back aFPA, getting carved up by backs the last three weeks. They’ve allowed consecutive 200-yard games to Isaiah Crowell and Todd Gurley, on the heels of Kareem Hunt totaling 121 rushing yards, 54 receiving yards and a touchdown on 22 touches. No team has allowed more rushing yards than the Broncos this season, and only the Cardinals have surrendered more touchdowns on the ground.

Moving out to wide receiver, we find a lot of the same teams that are struggling against quarterbacks. The bottom-five teams in wide receiver aFPA are the Raiders, Texans, Chargers, Buccaneers and Saints. One of the great things about aFPA is that 4for4 calculates it for both standard and PPR leagues, and that helps us pin down teams that are significantly better and worse than league average at preventing passing touchdowns. If a team is much better in standard receiver aFPA than PPR, then, logically, chances are they’re limiting passing scores. The reverse is also true. If a team ranks significantly worse in standard aFPA than in PPR, then it is likely among the league trailers in passing touchdowns allowed.

The Bears and Chiefs both rank nine spots higher in standard wide receiver aFPA than they do in PPR formats. Both have allowed six touchdowns to receivers this season, which has them in a nine-way tie for 17th in the league. On the flip side, the Packers are eight spots better, while the Raiders are seven spots higher in PPR formats. The Packers have allowed the second-most touchdowns to receivers at 10, while the Raiders have surrendered nine.

Finally, let’s get to tight end, where we need to talk about the Buccaneers. No matter if you look at straight fantasy points allowed or aFPA, the Buccaneers have been terrible against tight ends. They’ve allowed the most points to the position and rank 32nd in tight end aFPA, surrendering a big stat line in all but one of their games. In Week 2, Zach Ertz caught 11 passes for 94 yards. The next week, Vance McDonald carved them up for four catches, 112 yards and a score. In Week 4, it was Trey Burton totaling 86 yards and a touchdown. Last week. Austin Hooper caught nine passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Isolating for No. 1 tight ends, the Buccaneers have allowed the position 30 catches for 397 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Eric Ebron, fantasy’s No. 1 tight end through Week 6, has 30 catches for 326 tight ends and six touchdowns. Every starting tight end is in play against the Buccaneers.

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.

Is there a sleeping offensive giant in…Denver?

I know, it seems ludicrous. That’s why I felt I had to write the section header that way. I was initially thinking, “The sleeping offensive giant,” but that would have suggested I completely believe the Broncos are a dormant beast, ready to explode, and I do not totally buy that. Still, though, the numbers are interesting.

Nine teams in the NFL are averaging at least 6.0 yards per play, while 14 are at 5.8 or better. Nine of those 14 are the top-nine teams in points per game, and three of the other five are 19th or better, within one standard deviation of the league average. The two that aren’t? The Dolphins, at 22nd, and, yep, the Broncos, at 26th. The Broncos are ninth in yards per play with exactly six, but rank 26th in the league in points per game. That’s nearly impossible. Among last year’s top-nine teams in yards per play, six ranked in the top 10 in points per game, and none were worth than 18th in scoring. Every team to total six yards per play or more in the last five seasons scored at least 396 points. The Broncos are on pace for 320.

One of two things has to happen. The Broncos will either tumble down the yards-per-play standings, or they will start putting up more points. Believe it or not, I want to bet on the latter. This is not a hapless offense. Case Keenum may never recapture the magic of his 2017 season, but he isn’t incompetent, as he showed in his second-half performance against the Rams last week. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman may not conjure up images of the weapons on the Chargers, Chiefs or Rams, but they comprise an admirable set of skill players. The line ranks fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards—which is excellent—and 19th in pass protection—which is passable.

What’s more, the schedule is about to soften up considerably. The Broncos next five games are against the Cardinals, Chiefs, Texans, Chargers and Steelers, all of which rank 22nd or worse in one or both of quarterback or running back aFPA. Strange as it may seem, now is the time to buy the Broncos.

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The Julio Touchdown Watch is on in Atlanta

Julio Jones is having one of the strangest dominant seasons in NFL history. Through six games, he has 44 catches for 707 yards and zero touchdowns. He’s on pace for 117 catches and 1,885 yards, totals that would rank 15th (tied) and second, respectively, in NFL history. The receivers who posted the previous 117-catch seasons in NFL history averaged 10.3 touchdowns in those seasons, and all but two—Wes Welker in 2009 and Calvin Johnson in 2012—had at least six. In fact, Johnson’s 2012 season, during which he caught 122 balls for an NFL record 1,964 yards, is the best parallel to what Jones is doing this year.

The big difference between 2012 Johnson and 2018 Jones is their respective offenses. Matthew Stafford threw just 20 touchdowns in 2012, which tied him for 19th in the league. Matt Ryan already has 14 touchdowns this season—second to Patrick Mahomes—putting him on pace for 37.3. Six of those scores have come on plays that began inside the 10-yard line, with two more that started at the 11. Those touchdown passes have ended in the hands of four different pass-catchers—Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper and Tevin Coleman. Meanwhile, Jones has three targets inside the red zone, just one of which has been inside the 10. Why aren’t any of those going to Jones?

Here’s Ryan’s first touchdown pass on a play inside the 10, which went to Hooper. This one is pretty easy to explain. The Panthers weren’t letting Jones beat them, dedicating two defenders to shutting him down. He’s the middle receiver to the left side of the formation.

Ryan’s second touchdown pass from inside the 10 came on a play where no one was open originally, and he bought time outside the pocket, eventually connecting with Ridley. The next two came on plays where Coleman and Sanu were the first read and came open. Check out Jones on both of these plays, however. He’s the outside receiver to the left side of the formation.

Looked pretty open, right? Now, let’s look at an 11-yard score by Ridley. He’s to the left of the formation, but Jones is in the slot to the right. Again, ignore where the ball goes and watch Jones instead.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. Jones was wide open, yet again, and had Ryan looked in his direction, he almost certainly would’ve scored.

Jones is doing everything we expect him to do on a yearly basis, other than scoring touchdowns. He’s making big plays down the field, and eventually those will lead to scores, but every receiver needs red-zone targets to reliably find the end zone. They haven’t been there for Jones this season, but not because he isn’t getting open. A touchdown binge for Jones is on the horizon.

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The decline of tight ends is overstated

Chances are you’ve heard of the historical decline of the tight end position. It’s in shambles, the experts say. We’ve certainly given that idea voice in these pages, braying about how it has been years—years—since we’ve seen the position in such rough shape.

Here’s the thing, though. That may have been true for a couple-week stretch in September, but an honest assessment of the position now, and for the immediate future, shows that the ebb has passed.

Start with the obvious. Anyone with Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski or Zach Ertz is happy with their tight end. Sure, Gronkowski hasn’t lived up to expectations—or his average draft position—but he still has 26 catches for 405 yards and a touchdown. Kelce ranks second at the position, while Ertz is third. The former is second in catches and yards, while the latter leads the way. Those three are doing just fine.

OK, you say, but those three were supposed to do just fine. What about everyone else? Well, we just talked about Eric Ebron, he of the 30 catches, 326 yards and six touchdowns. His owners are likely pretty happy, right? The same can be said of those invested in George Kittle (27-429-1), Jimmy Graham (27-349-1), O.J. Howard (15-284-2) and Trey Burton (15-199-3). No one with any of those players is looking at their roster and thinking tight end is a problem.

Don’t worry, we’re still not done. Austin Hooper and David Njoku have both begun to emerge. Hooper has 30 catches for 273 yards and two scores on the season. Njoku, meanwhile, is at 27-245-1, and has increased his output in each Baker Mayfield start. That has us up to 10 reliable tight ends without even trying to force a player better cast as a streamer into a regular starting role.

Then there are a couple of the old standbys. Greg Olsen is back from a foot injury. He played 59 of 60 snaps last week, catching four of seven targets for 48 yards. Kyle Rudolph, meanwhile, ranks ninth at the position, hauling in 27 passes for 266 yards and a pair of touchdowns. They, too, can be counted on as starters in most leagues.

Vance McDonald, C.J. Uzomah and Ricky Seals-Jones may be more of the streaming quality, but all three have safe, reliable roles in their respective offenses. McDonald and Uzomah add to that by playing in explosive passing attacks, and while both take a backseat to their wide receiver teammates, they are both average five-plus targets per game since taking over as starters.

Don’t believe what you continue to hear about the tight end position. It is no longer a wasteland.

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