COWBOYS // PANTHERS OVERVIEW
This game opened with what appeared at first glance to be a surprisingly low Vegas total (44.5), and as of this writing that total has been bet down to 43.5. Typically, this would be enough for us to assume that ownership will register really low, but there is such a thing a DFS Darlings — players that the DFS community as a whole has decided they love — and Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott each fall in that category, which means at least a chunk of ownership will cycle through this game.
Last season, Carolina allowed 20.4 points per game and Dallas allowed 20.8, and each team averaged under 23 points per game as well — so from those angles, the Vegas total makes sense; especially when we consider the question marks in the Dallas offense. Neither team is particularly aggressive in their Pace mindset, as Dallas ranked 19th in pace of play last year and Carolina ranked dead last. In spite of their slow pace of play, Carolina finished above-average in plays per game…but this was because they held opponents to the second-fewest plays per game in the league.
All of that adds up to “reasons to be concerned about scoring and volume as a whole” for these teams — but that does not mean that scoring and volume on certain, individual players will necessarily be a concern.
COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE
Although the Cowboys will enter this game a bit dinged up on the line, they are still clearly a top-five offensive line, and last year they finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards — which is good, because Carolina finished fifth in adjusted line yards last year on defense, and fifth in DVOA against the run. As a function of the Panthers’ low Opponent Plays Per Game and their stout nature up front, this team also faced the fifth-fewest running back rush attempts in the league last year.
All of this adds up to make volume a bit of a concern — even for Ezekiel Elliott, who is one of the only true three-down backs in the NFL, and who (as noted earlier in this article) averaged an incredible 26.8 touches per game last season. On average last year, the Panthers faced only 18.6 RB rush attempts per game, so even if Zeke sees all the work (which he likely will), he’ll need some things to break his way in order to top 21 or 22 carries, in a difficult matchup.
COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE
With the lack of established weapons on the Cowboys’ passing attack, I’m actually comfortable continuing the Zeke discussion down here, as he projects to be more involved in the passing game this year after seeing only 2.6 targets per game in his rookie year and rising up to 3.8 targets per game last year. It will be tough for him to crack the 5.0 targets per game mark, as that would likely require him to follow the Bell/DJ blueprint (that other teams have begun to follow as well) — lining him up in the slot around 10% to 15% of his snaps — but he should have a strong receiving floor. Carolina was middling against pass-catching running backs last year.
The Cowboys’ passing attack is difficult to get excited about in this game, in spite of the quality matchup, as they enter with so many question marks and with low volume expectations. Only two teams ran the ball more often than the Cowboys last year, and with play volume projecting to be an issue, Dak Prescott actually projects for under 30 pass attempts. If we mark down four or five of those as going to Zeke (and another couple as throw-aways), that leaves us with around 21 pass attempts to be distributed to the underwhelming group of Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, Terrance Williams, and Blake Jarwin. Betting on any of these guys on your roster is betting on either A) the Cowboys breaking away from their established game plan, or B) one of these guys breaking off a big play. It won’t surprise me if someone from this group posts a usable score — but while my money would be on Gallup as the likeliest candidate, it’s also a total guess, making this a -EV spot with how many clear-strong-plays are available in other spots on this slate.
The uncertainty should lead to low ownership. But from a strategy perspective, it only makes sense to target that low ownership if A) you feel like you can confidently predict which specific guy will have a strong game, and B) you feel like that guy has the potential to post a week-winning score.
I am a noted non-believer in Christian McCaffrey as an NFL feature back — but while he justified this stance of mine last year, I am very open to changing my stance, and will be watching him closely. In preseason, I still saw a guy who plays slow between the tackles — as if his mind is stuck in mud. He is non-decisive to the hole, which is a big part of what led to him averaging only 3.7 yards per carry last season. He finished 27th last year in Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating, and 45th in average yards after contact. He also runs behind a poor offensive line, which finished 25th last year in adjusted line yards.
That’s the bad news, and it needs to be mentioned because you are likely going to see CMC hyped up this week literally everywhere else you look. (The DFS community is absolutely in love with this guy.)
The good news is that this guy is very obviously sick in space; he is an above-average route-runner; and after playing almost every first-team snap in the preseason, it looks like he is going to be a usage monster this year.
Last year, CMC averaged over seven targets per game. To put that in perspective: he was in the same range as Alshon Jeffrey, Doug Baldwin, and Golden Tate. And while his short-area targets aren’t as valuable as, say, Baldwin’s deep targets, the floor he provides with this level of pass game work is awesome, and his big-play upside in space is undeniable. Only three teams in the NFL allowed more receptions to running backs last year than the Cowboys allowed, and only two teams allowed more yards. If CMC adds the expected 15 to 18 carries he currently projects for, he’ll be a lock-and-load option in cash games on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, and his potential red zone role makes him viable in cash on FanDuel as well. Note: he costs only 11.6% of the salary cap on FantasyDraft, compared to 12.5%/12.8% on FanDuel/DK.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
Only five teams allowed more passing touchdowns than Dallas last year, but they play with a similar philosophy to the Browns: forcing short-area targets, with the intentions of then preventing yards after the catch. The Browns are the only team that faced a shorter average depth of target than the Cowboys last season, and the Cowboys held opponents more than 5% below the league average in expected yards per target.
This does not mix well with the Panthers’ deep-shot philosophy (an approach that should be further strengthened by vertical-minded OC Norv Turner), as only seven teams in the league last year allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the Cowboys allowed.
Devin Funchess is primarily used more than 10 yards downfield, D.J. Moore enters this game with uncertain playing time, and the Panthers are otherwise a “spare parts” passing attack. Cam Newton can obviously add points with his legs, and a big play can happen from one of these receivers, but this is a sub-optimal spot.
The place where the Cowboys struggled last year was against the tight end, as only five teams allowed more receptions to the position. In keeping with their defensive philosophy of “keeping the ball in front of them,” however, Dallas ranked middle of the pack in yards allowed to tight ends. This is an above-average matchup for Greg Olsen, but not significantly so. He does look healthy, and will be involved in the game plan — a sentiment enhanced by Norv Turner’s career-long ability to elevate tight ends.
I will be leaving the Cowboys alone, outside of possibly a cheap tourney roster on Zeke. Longtime readers know that I am a single-entry player — which, for me, means that north of 80% of my bankroll each week is placed on a single lineup — and none of these Cowboys are in consideration for me on that largest chunk of my bankroll. But if Zeke ends up projecting for low ownership, he does still have the talent to smash on lower expected volume in a difficult matchup.
I usually build a Core Roster that I think can win single-entry and high-dollar tourneys, and then I enter this same roster in cash games (with the thinking being: in this way, I am using a roster in cash games that is intelligent and safe, but has genuine upside, instead of using a cash roster that is just “looking to cash” — a too-safe approach that can wreck ROI), but this is shaping up to be the rare week in which I may use a separate roster in cash games than in single-entry and high-dollar tourneys. CMC has a floor that may be just too high to pass up in cash games — but his ceiling is far from guaranteed, making him an intriguing tourney fade, from a strategy perspective.
To be clear: I expect a strong game from CMC. But a monster game is by no means guaranteed, and there are plenty of other (lower-owned) RBs with just as much upside as he has. Someone like Kareem Hunt or Leonard Fournette is looking like an interesting tourney pivot off CMC.
I’ll be leaving the rest of the Panthers alone — though Cam is always a safe bet for tourney upside, and Olsen should rack up respectable stats in this game.