- What the Lions' pace can tell us about their fantasy players. Plus more trends worth watching around the league.
The fantasy community tends to think of the Lions as a fast-paced, pass-friendly offense, largely because of Matthew Stafford’s reputation as a gunslinger. In Stafford’s seven full seasons as a starter, from 2011 through 2017, he attempted more than 600 passes four times, ranking in the top five in attempts in five of those seasons. While the fifth of those years came in 2017, those numbers mask a dirty secret about the Lions’ offense: Under Jim Bob Cooter, it isn’t fast-paced at all.
Cooter took over as the Lions’ offensive coordinator halfway through the 2015 season. In 2016, the Lions ranked 29th in the NFL with 60.6 plays per game. Last year, they ran 61.2 plays per game, more than just five teams. So far this season, they rank 20th, running 63 plays per game.
It hasn’t been a fast pace that has made Detroit’s offense pass-friendly or ensured a ton of volume for Stafford. It has been the total lack of a run game. Before Kerryon Johnson’s first career 100-yard game back in Week 3, the Lions famously had not had a 100-yard rusher since Thanksgiving Day 2013, when Reggie Bush achieved the feat. The Lions went four-plus years getting nothing on the ground, which came on the heels of the Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection, which went down as one of the most voluminous in league history. Those two facts helped create this aura of fantasy invincibility around Detroit’s passing game. It may not always be pretty, but the workload will always be enormous. That is likely about to change.
Johnson just had the best game of his young career, racking up 158 yards on 19 carries in the Lions’ Week 7 win over the Dolphins. The rookie out of Auburn has been excellent this season, totaling turning 69 carries into 444 yards and catching 15 passes for 89 yards. In the three games where he got double-digit carries, he rushed for 329 yards on 47 totes, good for an average of 7.0 yards per carry. It is not too early to say that the Lions have finally found a potent rushing attack after a nearly five-year absence.
That is great news for the Lions as they try to fight their way to the top of a competitive NFC North, and, of course, it’s excellent news for fantasy owners who believed in Johnson back in draft season. It is not a welcome development, however, for Stafford and the passing game. We’ve already established that Cooter likes to run a slow-paced offense, controlling the clock with the run game while taking shots where beneficial. We’ve seen that on display this season. In Detroit’s three wins, Stafford has attempted 36, 26 and 22 passes. In the three losses, he has chucked it 46, 53 and 30 times. The dip in volume is affecting Stafford’s fantasy bottom line. He ranks 18th among quarterbacks in points per game in standard-scoring leagues, and has been a top-12 quarterback in just one of his six games this season, though, to be fair, he has ranked 14th two times.
There’s reason to believe that this style better suits Stafford’s skill set, as well. In 84 games with all previous offensive coordinators, Stafford completed 60.1% of his passes for 7.01 yards per attempt and 143 touchdowns against 94 interceptions, a ratio of 1.52 scores for every pick. In 47 games with Cooter, Stafford has a 66.4% completion rate for 7.51 YPA and 85 touchdowns against 29 interceptions, good for a 2.93 TD/INT ratio.
Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay were all popular picks back in draft season, and all four remain trustworthy in fantasy leagues. It looks like it’s the rookie running back Johnson, though, who will be the team’s fantasy star.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 8 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.
JOSH GORDON’S GOOD SIGNS CONTINUE TO ACCUMULATE
Gordon has yet to break through with the Patriots, catching 13 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown in four games. That comes out to 7.1 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, and 10.35 points per game in PPR formats, which would rank 48th and 51st, respectively, over the full season. Back when the Patriots traded for Gordon, I wrote that it was the perfect time for fantasy owners to pull a John Dorsey and deal him away, as well, believing that his fantasy value would never be higher than in the heady atmosphere leading up to his first game with the Patriots. That may still be true, but even a Gordon fader like me cannot ignore the obvious positive trends in his New England game logs.
In Gordon’s first game with the Patriots, he played 18 of 81 snaps, or 22.2%. The next week, his snap rate ticked up to 26.1%, despite it also being Julian Edelman’s 2018 debut. In Week 6, with Edelman fully in the fold and Rob Gronkowski healthy, Gordon’s snap rate shot up to 80.8%, and he played 16 more snaps than Chris Hogan. Last week, Gordon played 61 of New England’s 64 snaps, good for 95.3%. He played just two fewer snaps than Edelman, and 19 more than Hogan. Even when Gronkowski returns, Gordon should be playing 80% or more of the snaps for the rest of the season.
Being on the field is great, but it doesn’t mean much if you aren’t getting looks from the quarterback. That, too, is no longer a concern for Gordon. He has had nine and seven targets in the team’s last two games, good for a 22.5% target share. To give you an idea of what that means in comparative terms, Mike Evans has a 22.9% target share in Tampa Bay’s offense, while Tyler Boyd is at 21.7% with the Bengals. In other words, he’s getting more than enough targets to put up WR2 numbers, especially considering the offense he’s in and the ability he brings to the table.
It can be a fight for targets in the Patriots’ offense if you aren’t Edelman, Gronkowski or James White, but Gordon appears to have won that battle already. With a hefty snap rate and an increasingly safe target share, it could just be a matter of time before everything clicks for Gordon in New England.
THE DEFENSE THAT CAN’T STOP ANYONE
Loyal readers of the Target and Snap Report will know that we love 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric, aFPA, in these parts. It gives us the ability to compare fantasy points allowed by defenses on an apples-to-apples basis by normalizing for opponents faced, and that gives us a better look at how every defense in the league has performed, from a fantasy perspective, this season.
One defense in the league ranks 28th or worse against quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, in both standard and PPR leagues, making it the most fantasy-friendly defense in the league. It also helps that the team’s offense is fifth in yards per play, eighth in yards per game and ninth in points per game, meaning it can keep the pressure on the opposing offense to score as much as possible. If you have a quarterback, running back or receiver playing against the Falcons at any point the rest of the season, you’re going to want to make sure he is in your lineup.
The Falcons rank 29th in quarterback aFPA; 28th and 32nd, respectively, against running backs in standard and PPR leagues; and 30th and 29th against receivers in those same formats. They’ve allowed at least 25.8 points to four quarterbacks—Cam Newton (28.6), Drew Brees (40.5), Andy Dalton (25.8) and Jameis Winston (32.9). Ben Roethlisberger lit them up for 22.6 points, while Eli Manning racked up 20.7 points in Week 7, his best fantasy score of the season, and 48.3% higher than his season average going into the matchup. The only quarterback they held their own against was Nick Foles, which isn’t exactly something to celebrate.
Moving over to the running back position, they’ve allowed one back in all seven of their games to put up at least 18.2 points in half-PPR leagues, with James Conner setting the high mark at 32.5 points. While there’s no shame in getting carved up by Conner, Alvin Kamara (26.5 points) or Saquon Barkley (19.9 points), their list of tormentors also includes Jay Ajayi (18.2 points), Giovani Bernard (23.6 points) and Peyton Barber (18.6 points). What’s more, they’ve shown no ability to slow down backs as receivers, allowing Christian McCaffrey, Kamara, Bernard, Conner, Barber and Barkley to combine for 50 catches, 403 yards and one touchdown. That gives those backs in their matchups with the Falcons more receptions than Antonio Brown has on the season, and more yards than James White.
Finally, let’s head on out to receiver. First, allow me to set a baseline. In half-PPR leagues, John Brown is the No. 20 receiver, averaging 13.5 points per game. Would you like a list of receivers who have hit or surpassed that threshold against the Falcons? Of course you would: Jarius Wright, Michael Thomas, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard. D.J. Moore, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn, John Ross, Juju Smith-Schuster and DeSean Jackson came up just short of that mark, but all still scored double-digit points against the Falcons.
The Falcons have a bye in Week 8. After that, they play Washington, Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans and Baltimore to round out the typical fantasy regular season, with playoff matchups against Green Bay, Arizona and Carolina. If you have anyone on any of those teams, get ready to have some fun at the Falcons’ expense.
IS PHILADELPHIA’S BACKFIELD A BLACK HOLE OF FANTASY VALUE?
When Jay Ajayi went on IR after suffering a season-ending knee injury, the fantasy community quickly divided into two camps: Corey Clement backers and Wendell Smallwood backers. There were reasons to believe in either back over the other, and everyone admitted it would be a split-backfield, but you had to pick a side. Partisans of both backs disagreed over a great many things, but both sides would have agreed that the Eagles’ backfield would remain a wellspring of fantasy value, no matter which back ended up leading the way.
And now, two games later? This previous Clement backer isn’t so sure he wants anything to do with this backfield.
The Eagles fell to the Panthers, 21-17, in Week 7, but for most of the afternoon it looked like they’d come away with a win. They led by 10 points at halftime, and opened up the fourth quarter with a 17-0 lead. The Panthers didn’t get on the board until more than four minutes had ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter, and would go on to score 21 unanswered points, with the game-winning touchdown coming with 1:22 left on the clock. That game script—a double-digit lead for more than 35 minutes of game action, and a lead of any sort for more than 40—should have been ideal for the running game. Not only did neither Clement nor Smallwood take advantage, Doug Pederson’s play-calling didn’t give them the opportunity to do so.
Smallwood led the team with nine carries, totaling 32 yards. Clement, meanwhile, ran for six yards on eight carries. Both backs got two targets, with Clement the leading receiver between them at 16 yards. That sort of touch share puts a lot of pressure on both backs to be hyper-efficient to produce starter-worthy fantasy numbers, especially considering they’re tied to an offense that’s ranked 22nd in points per game, behind teams such as the Broncos and 49ers. What’s more, the previously little-used Josh Adams played eight snaps and got four carries, and was annoyingly on the field when the Eagles had the ball inside Carolina’s 5-yard line.
Clement or Smallwood could very well produce RB2 value the rest of the way. The partisans on either side may ultimately be proved correct. At this point, however, it seems a losing battle for both sides.
THE SURPRISING YAC MONSTER
Running backs typically dominate the yards-after-catch leaderboard, which is intuitive. They catch a lot of their passes on screens, dump-offs and flat patterns, many of which when no one is within three or five yards of them. They do little of their damage through the air deep down the field, when a defender is likely to be nearby, and where they may not have a full head of steam as they make the catch. The last non-back to lead the league in YAC was Demaryius Thomas in 2013. Last year, eight of the top-10 players in yards after catch were running backs, and this year, Saquon Barkley sits atop the leaderboard with 407 after the reception.
Backs are once again dominating this year. In addition to Barkley, James White (fourth), Alvin Kamara (fifth), Todd Gurley (sixth), Melvin Gordon (seventh), James Conner (eighth) and Christian McCaffrey (10th) are in the top 10. Adam Thielen is ninth, which makes sense given that he leads the league in receptions (67) and receiving yards (822). Albert Wilson is second, and while that’s a mild surprise, receivers with his skill set typically do well in YAC. Golden Tate ranked fifth last year, and Wes Welker led the league in YAC three times.
Tight ends, however, generally don’t show up on the YAC leaderboard. Travis Kelce was second in YAC in 2016, just the eighth instance of a tight end being in the top 10 since 2006. In other words, of 120 players to be in the top 10 in YAC the previous 12 seasons, 6.7% were tight ends. Another is almost certain to be added to their midst this year.
George Kittle ranks third in the league in YAC, with 309 of his 527 yards coming after the catch. When Kelce finished second in 2016, he finished the year with 655 yards after catch. Kittle is on pace for 701 YAC. Kittle has proved himself a truly dangerous run-after-the-catch player this season.
I want to take a look at two plays that display Kittle’s YAC ability. Both combine scheme with Kittle’s skill set to produce a big play. Both, also, came with C.J.
The first play we’ll look at is from last week’s 39-10 loss to the Rams. There wasn’t a whole lot for the 49ers to be proud of in this one, but Kittle did have five catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. Let’s watch this play from late in the first half, on which Kittle picks up 20 yards after the catch.
Yes, he’s wide open at the moment of the catch, but that’s thanks to the scheme of the play. The line is overloaded to the right, the entire offensive front, other than Kittle who leaks out, moves to the right, and Beathard sells the play-action fake. That play is designed to get Kittle open and let him operate in space, and it worked perfectly. While Kittle runs for 20 yards after the catch, a Rams defender first makes contact with him at the 28-yard line, just nine yards beyond where he hauled in the pass. Kittle’s strength is responsible for the additional 11 yards of YAC.
The second play is another perfect combination of scheme and skill set. Kittle is on the end of the line on the right side of the formation in a three-point stance. I’ll have to cut this GIF short because playing it through to the end will make it too cumbersome to load, but, yes, he does hit paydirt on this play.
First and foremost, this is clearly a case of broken coverage by the Chargers. Still, the fact that the 49ers scheme a play to take a shot at Kittle up the seam from their own 17-yard line, with Kittle throwing a double move in there for good measure, shows you how Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the offensive coaching staff views him as a weapon. From there, Kittle’s athleticism takes over. He may be all alone when he makes the catch, but there’s a safety in the middle of the field who has an angle to keep him out of the end zone. Kittle cuts toward the left sideline to get around him, then uses his speed to pull away. This seems a good time to mention that Kittle is 6’4” and 250 pounds. In fact, this was so impressive, that we have to watch the end of the play.
If Kelce was once Baby Gronk, then it might be time for Kittle to start going by Baby Kelce. He is that good, and, as a second-year tight end, that is special.