As noted in the Macro Thoughts I dropped in my Collective this week, this is a pretty straightforward game to break down, as we have a Broncos team that is likely to have a difficult time moving the ball in this spot, and we have a Vikings team that prefers to lean on the run whenever they are able to do so (30th in passing play rate).
We’ll start on the Broncos’ side, where the DVOA gap between the Minnesota defense (eighth) and the Denver offense (23rd) is pretty broad, and where the setup becomes even more bleak for Denver when we compare their strengths to the strengths of the Vikings. Denver is built around running the football (even with their 3-6 record, they rank 22nd in pass play rate), and they rank 11th in DVOA on the ground. The Vikings, however, rank fifth in DVOA against the run, and they have allowed only two running backs (Aaron Jones on 23 carries; Damien Williams on 12) to go over 100 yards against them, while holding running backs to 4.15 yards per carry and allowing the seventh fewest RB receiving yards in the league. We should expect Denver to work to control this game on the ground from the outset — but given the matchup and the fact that this game is being played on the road, the likeliest scenario has them having a difficult time keeping this up. Realistically, if the Broncos leaned on one running back, there would still be some viable paths to this guy hitting (especially if that “one running back” were Phillip Lindsay, who is an absolute alien at times with the ball in his hands — and who has averaged 5.9 or more yards per carry in three of his last six games), but with Lindsay averaging 14.3 touches per game across his last six contests, it’s tough to bet on him in a tough matchup as more than a “hope he hits for a big play, or hope game flow somehow tilts toward him seeing a larger workload” option. The same goes double for Royce Freeman, who is not nearly the runner Lindsay is, and who has gone for 3.5 or fewer yards per carry in five of his last six games. (Side note here: why do NFL coaches insist on running a timeshare when one of the two backs is far less effective? I get that Lindsay isn’t the biggest back and they want to keep him healthy, but this isn’t like the 49ers or the 2017/2018 Saints, where the second guy through the rotation is still effective with his touches. Freeman touches are generally wasted touches, and yet he continues to see 15+ looks most games.)
The Broncos were fortunate in their home win over the Browns in that they were able to keep Brandon Allen to only 20 pass attempts, but it’s likely that the only way Allen lands on such low volume this week is for the Vikings to dominate so thoroughly that the Broncos hardly have the ball (i.e., we’re not likely to see the Broncos sitting on a lead and hardly throwing in that way). And while the air is the best way to move the ball vs Minnesota (14th in DVOA vs the pass; the fourth most yards and the most touchdowns allowed to wide receivers — with six players topping 100 yards in this matchup and 10 notable stat lines allowed to pass catchers in all), this is the area where the Broncos are least equipped to succeed. Vegas has Denver pegged with an implied total of only 15.0, and the likeliest scenario has no strong stat lines emerging from this offense — though we will take a moment to hit on a viable alternate scenario that should go overlooked and is not outlandish to build around.
Because of how strong Minnesota is against the run (and how attackable they have been through the air), they are facing the fourth highest opponent pass play rate in the league. Now, part of this is “looks at the line of scrimmage” — as in, a team facing a pass play rate this high isn’t simply a function of an offensive coordinator calling a lot of passes, but is also a function of a quarterback seeing a poor look to run against and checking into a pass. This is not something we should “expect” Allen to be able to execute like a veteran — but with the Vikings facing 37.2 pass attempts per game, there is certainly a clear path to Allen pushing over 30 attempts.
In Allen’s first game under center, eight of his 20 passes went to Courtland Sutton (40%) — and while no player sticks at a 40% target share, Sutton could easily top 30% down the stretch, and 30+ passes from Allen has a chance to lead to nine or more targets for Sutton. (Sutton has not seen 10 targets a single time this season; but he has only fallen shy of seven targets once — so at worst, eight targets is a very comfortable projection.) In Allen’s first start, 15% of his limited attempts traveled 20+ yards (with two of those going to Sutton), so while the price on Sutton is truly absurd (sort of a theme on a lot of players this week) with a practice squad quarterback under center on the road vs a good defense, there are some non-ludicrous paths to him landing on another solid game. Furthermore, Noah Fant (four targets on 20 Allen pass attempts) has a good matchup against a Minnesota squad that has allowed the third most catches and the seventh most yards to the tight end position, while facing the second most tight end targets. Fant is the player on the Broncos likeliest to draw some ownership, as his 115-yard effort in his last game catches the eye (in spite of the fact that 75 of those yards came on a non-repeatable busted play that had several Browns players bouncing off him in an embarrassing clinic of what not to do when attempting to tackle); but he’s a talented player in a good matchup with five or more targets likely to flow his way.
The Broncos have been one of the toughest defenses in the league this year, ranking sixth in DVOA while allowing the fourth fewest yards and the seventh fewest points per game. Only one pass catcher has topped 100 yards against them (when Tyrell Williams went for 105 yards way back in Week 1), and only one running back has topped 100 yards in this spot (Fournette’s 225-yard smash).
The Broncos have allowed the fourth fewest yards and the fifth fewest touchdowns to wideouts, creating a tough spot for a player in Stefon Diggs who has topped eight targets only once this year, and who has lived off of big plays (and now enters a matchup against a Denver team allowing the fifth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards). Adam Thielen appears set to miss one more game before returning after the Vikings’ bye, so this is at least the “Diggs show” on paper — but this has led to only 6.5 targets per game so far in the four contests Thielen has either fully or mostly missed.
The player who has actually picked up the most slack from Thielen missing action has been Dalvin Cook, who was averaging 21.25 touches per game in his four games before Thielen got hurt, and who has averaged 28.0 touches per game in the four games without Thielen. Denver has — incredibly — allowed only 3.2 yards per carry to running backs outside of that game against Fournette, and they have been dominant on runs to the edge (where Cook does almost all of his major damage), while also holding up well against running backs through the air. As an elite running back on a large home favorite (vs a run defense that the field still somehow perceives to be attackable), Cook should draw some steady ownership — and given how talented he is, a solid game is likely in the cards; but this sets up as a difficult spot for him to post a price-considered smash.
The likeliest scenario in this spot has the Vikings finding ways to put up points on short fields and a few successful drives — but without yardage piling up — making this a spot where we’ll likely see some solid scores, but nothing you “have to have” at the prices; but given that Minnesota should be able to put up points, there is also always a tourney case to be made for cheaper guys who can “make their day” on a single play (whether on a touchdown, a busted play, or a combination of the two). If chasing such a scenario, Olabisi Johnson has target counts of 2 // 2 // 4 in his last three games without Thielen, while Irv Smith has stepped up for target counts of 3 // 6 // 6 in that stretch, and Kyle Rudolph has gone 3 // 5 // 5. Rudolph has topped 36 yards only once this year and is a touchdown-or-bust option (vs a Denver defense that is middle of the pack in yards allowed to tight ends, but is tied for the second fewest touchdowns allowed to the position). Smith has topped 34 yards only twice, but he does have some YAC upside to his game that Rudolph does not possess.
JM’s Interpretation ::
You could obviously make a case for Dalvin Cook as a central piece in just about any spot (and the large chunk of DFS players // content providers whose entire research consists of “looking at the Vegas lines and building accordingly” will surely land some decent ownership on Cook in this spot as a large home favorite RB), but there are no pieces in this game I expect to go out of my way to build around. If I do end up on some pieces here, it’ll likely be tourney shots on Sutton (I don’t like the price, but I do like the chances of him slipping in a strong score at really low ownership) or Fant, with Dalvin Cook obviously in the mix and some deep-tourney interest in Lindsay as a talented player who has big per-touch upside even in a difficult spot.