• Goff, Sean McVay and the Rams offense somehow found a way to take the next step with an already-elite offense—enter Brandin Cooks.
By Michael Beller
November 07, 2018

The story of the 2017 Rams—the first-year wunderkid coach Sean McVay, the dramatic improvement from QB Jared Goff and the entire offense, the rebirth of Todd Gurley, the NFC West title—is well known at this point. Never before in NFL history had an offense made as dramatic a year-over-year improvement as did last season’s Rams. In 2016, the last year of the Jeff Fisher era, the Rams ranked last in the NFL in scoring, total offense and yards per play, and 31st in passing offense and rushing offense. Last year, with much of the same personnel but a key change in the head coaching department, as well as the additions of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, they were first in scoring, 10th in total offense, sixth in yards per play, 10th in passing offense, and eighth in rushing offense.

But an area where the team could improve was downfield passing. Pro Football Focus helpfully measures a handful of key statistics on passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air, and this is the one area where Goff and the offense struggled, relative to its overall performance. Among quarterbacks with at least 140 pass attempts, Goff ranked 14th in accuracy rate—completions plus drops divided by attempts—on deep passes. His passer rating on deep balls ranked 12th. Goff was 11th in yards on deep balls and tied for 16th in touchdowns. Goff and the Rams were a bit better than league-average on deep passes, but there was clearly room for improvement.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the one thing that stood out about Goff’s performance on deep balls last year was his efficiency. His 13.46 yards per attempt on deep passes ranked seventh in the league. Just 11.9% of Goff’s attempts traveled at least 20 yards in the air, which ranked 20th among quarterbacks with at least 140 attempts, but he made the most of them.

This season, Goff and the offense have found a way to make more out of those attempts. First, the Rams traded a first-round pick to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks, bringing one of the league’s best deep-ball receivers to Los Angeles. Then, McVay unleashed Goff—the quarterback now ranks third in the NFL in yards on deep balls (651), fourth in touchdowns (six), and first in accuracy rate (61.8%). His 19.14 YPA on deep passes ranks second in the league behind Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 21.26 YPA. Goff’s completed air yards average, a stat tracked by NFL.com, has shot up to 8.8 yards per completion, second in the league behind Patrick Mahomes, from 5.8 yards per completion.

Who has been Goff’s primary threat on the deep ball? You can probably figure out the answer to that. Cooks has 16 deep targets, first on the Rams and sixth in the NFL. He has caught 10 of them for 344 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that rank first, third and tied for 13th, respectively. 

After pulling off the greatest one-year turnaround in NFL history, the Rams collectively, and Goff individually, have found a way to get even better offensively this season by shoring up the one relative weakness they had last year. This is as close to offensive perfection as you will see in the league.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 10 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 league’s sneaky-bad defense against running backs

One reason we love our partners at 4for4 is the schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric they developed, helpfully shortened to aFPA. We use it all the time and have detailed its utility in the past, but just to give you a quick refresher, aFPA takes into account the schedule every team has played to create an apples-to-apples comparison, or at least as close as we can get to one, of how every defense has performed against every position. The need for this is simple. If one defense has allowed an average of 25 points per game to Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon and Kareem Hunt, and another has allowed an average of 20 points per game to Latavius Murray, Jordan Howard and Chris Carson, straight fantasy-points-allowed measurements would suggest the second defense is better. Add the important context of opponents, though, and the first one comes out on top.

That, of course, is a hypothetical example to give an understanding of why it’s important to normalize for opponent. Now, let’s take a look at one that’s happening before us in real time. Most of the defenses that have allowed the most fantasy points to running backs are similarly bad in the aFPA rankings. The Chiefs, Cardinals, Browns, Bengals and Dolphins have surrendered the most points per game to running backs this year. Those five defenses rank 30th, 29th, 28th, 27th and 31st, respectively, in running back aFPA. You’ll notice, however, that the team dead last in running back aFPA is not included. That’s because the No. 32 team in aFPA against backs, the Detroit Lions, have allowed the seventh most points per game to the position, and are one decent performance away from ranking ninth.

The Lions have surrendered 26.1 fantasy points to backfields per game this season, sandwiched between the Buccaneers (26.24 points per game) and Falcons (26.06 points per game). The Buccaneers have had to deal with Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey, and the Falcons have faced Kamara, McCaffrey, James Conner and Saquon Barkley, all of whom are among the top 10 scorers at the running back position. The Lions, meanwhile, have faced just one running back, James White, in the top 10 in points per game. They’ve been victimized by Isaiah Crowell (22.2 points), Matt Breida (23.4), Kenyan Drake (16.7) and Carson (19.4). Last week, the duo of Murray and Dalvin Cook gashed them for 120 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and five catches for 36 yards.

In other words, start all your fantasy-relevant backs against the Lions when you get the chance. Over the rest of the season, they face Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen twice (Weeks 10 and 12), McCaffrey (Week 11), Gurley (Week 13), David Johnson (Week 14), LeSean McCoy (Week 15) and Cook (Week 16).

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Checking in on Tevin Coleman, feature back

The Falcons have played three games since placing Devonta Freeman on IR, giving us a decent number of snaps to evaluate the backfield split between Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith. In those three games, Coleman has played 57% of the snaps (114 out of 200), compared with 43.5% (87) for Smith. Coleman has 34 carries, no fewer than 10 in any game, and 11 targets. Smith, meanwhile, has 28 carries and six targets.

I was the fantasy industry’s foremost Smith fader after Freeman went on IR, so I have to admit that I’m surprised the carry breakdown is as close as it is. Still, Coleman owners should feel confident that they have a true feature back on their rosters. First, Coleman has been much more effective than Smith, totaling 173 yards on the ground, good for 5.09 yards per carry. Smith has rushed for 98 yards on his 28 carries, which translates to 3.5 yards per tote. Coleman has hauled in eight of his 11 targets for 106 yards and three touchdowns, looking like the receiver he was in 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was busy designing one of the best offenses in NFL history. Smith has been barely noticeable as a receiver, catching five passes for 32 yards.

What’s more, Coleman’s workload has remained steady through all three games. He has played 57% of the snaps every week Freeman has been out, getting 12, 13 and 20 opportunities (carries plus targets). Smith’s snap rate, on the other hand, has declined every week, starting at 46% and falling to 41% last week. Smith isn’t going away, but he isn’t threatening Coleman’s status as an every-week fantasy starter with a rest-of-season RB2 floor, and weekly RB1 ceiling, either.

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Checking in on Nick Chubb, feature back

The Browns have played three games since trading Carlos Hyde, giving us a decent number of snaps to evaluate the team’s usage of Nick Chubb. On top of that, the rookie has already played under two different head coaches and offensive coordinators, which could expose him to a sudden shift in role and responsibility. The early returns are encouraging.

Chubb has played 54.6% of Cleveland’s snaps (113 out of 207) since the team traded Hyde. Game by game, his snap rates have been 66.7%, 48.4% and 49.3%. While it would be nice to see him back up in the two-thirds range, he has led the team’s backs in snap rate in all three games. If snap rate isn’t enough for you—and it shouldn’t be—allow me to point you to Chubb’s game logs.

In the Browns’ first game without Hyde, Chubb rushed 18 times for 80 yards and a touchdown. He got 18 more carries the next week, running for 65 yards. Last week, Chubb set a new career high with 22 carries, totaling 85 yards and a score. Even in a game that the Browns lost by 16 points, and where Johnson finally came back to life under interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens getting seven targets, Chubb got 23 touches. If snap rate and workload aren’t enough for you—and, while they could be, it’s perfectly fine if they aren’t—let’s take this one step further.

One of the surest ways a running back can create fantasy value on his own is by avoiding tackles and staying on his feet after contact. Pro Football Focus measures both stats on a per-carry basis, and while, like most rate stats, more carries likely means a lower ratio, you’re still going to find some of the best backs in the league toward the top of the leaderboard in both metrics. Among backs with at least 100 carries, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, Alex Collins, Christian McCaffrey and James Conner comprise the top five in tackles avoided per carry, with Hunt leading the way at 0.26. Move on over to yards after contact per attempt, and you get a top five of Chris Carson, Isaiah Crowell, Hunt, Gordon and Saquon Barkley. Carson, the leader, is averaging 3.5 yards after contact per carry on the season.

Chubb does not yet have 100 carries, but when he does hit that mark he has a good chance of entering the top five in both stats. Chubb is forcing 0.24 missed tackles per carry, while racking up 4.6 yards after contact per rush. The Browns remaining schedule includes matchups with the Falcons and Broncos, ranked 24th and 21st, respectively, in running back aFPA, and two matchups with the 27th-ranked Bengals, including Week 16, championship week in most fantasy leagues. Chubb may be a league-winner.

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Why Keke Coutee is still on the fantasy radar

When the Texans traded for Demaryius Thomas, the conventional wisdom said that Coutee no longer retained fantasy value. With Thomas slotting alongside DeAndre Hopkins, it would be the former Bronco who got most of the looks vacated by the injured Will Fuller. Coutee would still have a role in Houston’s offense, but not one that made him relevant in fantasy leagues.

Thomas has played all of one game with the Texans, and Coutee missed it because of a hamstring injury. Still, we can already say that the conventional wisdom was wrong. In fact, anyone willing to do a little digging could have figured that out before Thomas suited up for the Texans, but his first game with the team gave us further evidence of what the stats could already tell us.

Fuller grew as a receiver this year before tearing his ACL, but he’s still at his most dangerous when he’s stretching the field. According to 4for4, Fuller had an average depth of target of 14.6 yards this season, good for 15th in the league. Thomas’s aDOT, meanwhile, sits down at 10.5 yards, 52nd in the league. Fuller ended the season with 10 deep targets, catching four of them for 171 yards and a touchdown. Thomas has 13 deep targets on the season, pulling down four for 140 yards and one score. Those stats alone tell us that he cannot be a simple one-for-one replacement for what Fuller brought to the offense.

Deshaun Watson has attempted 36 deep passes on the season. He has thrown deep—at least 20 yards downfield—four or more times in five of Houston’s nine games on the year. He has attempted taken just one deep shot in a game twice on the season. The first such game was in Week 5, when the Texans squeaked out a 20-13 win over the Bills, the top-ranked defense in quarterback aFPA, and third-ranked unit in YPA allowed (6.77). The second came last week, the first game the team played since losing Fuller. Watson attempted just one deep ball in Week 9 despite facing a Denver defense allowing 7.66 YPA. You can bet that Fuller’s absence goes a long way toward explaining the missing deep shots last week.

Thomas got three targets in that game, catching all of them for 61 yards. Here are those three targets.

Yeah, Thomas isn’t replacing Fuller’s role on the deep ball in this offense. Hopkins, meanwhile, has a season-long aDOT of 12.8 yards. Last week against the Broncos, it was 6.3 yards. If anyone is going to secure a majority of the deep balls once reserved for Fuller, the bet here is that it will be Coutee, even though it isn’t his strongest suit.

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