EAGLES // SAINTS OVERVIEW
The biggest on-paper mismatch on this slate belongs to the final game of the weekend, where the 13-3 Saints will do battle with the 9-7 Eagles. Since early in the year, the Saints and Rams have been the clear and heavy favorites in the NFC, with the Bears and Seahawks recently looking like the best threats to dethrone one of these teams. With the Seahawks and Bears both losing in the first round, however, it will be Nick Foles Magic coming to New Orleans, in a spot where it would be foolish to automatically count the Eagles out. While Philly suffered an embarrassing 48-7 loss at the hands of the Saints in Week 11, this has been a different team since then, with a 6-1 record following that loss, including road wins over the Rams and Bears. If any team can pull the upset without exactly shocking the world, it’s the Eagles. Vegas has kept the visiting team in striking distance in this one, with the Saints installed as 8.0 point favorites in a game with an Over/Under of 50.5.
EAGLES PASS OFFENSE
Only three teams allowed more yards per pass attempt than the Saints this season, and only 10 teams faced more pass attempts, leading to this defense allowing the fourth most passing yards in the league. With the Saints also playing above-average defense against pass-catching running backs and lights-out defense against tight ends (third fewest catches allowed // fourth fewest yards allowed // second lowest catch rate allowed), they have filtered targets heavily toward wide receivers this year, with only one team allowing more catches to the position, and with no team allowing more yards.
Foles and the Eagles have adopted a ball-out-quick passing attack that has allowed Foles to complete 73.2% of his passes across the last four weeks, with an incredible 79% of his passes (121 out of 153) failing to travel more than 12 yards downfield. This week against the man-leaning coverage scheme of the Saints that added 5.9% to the league-average aDOT this year, we should see this offense push some of their five-yard passes seven or eight yards downfield, and some of their 10 to 12 yard passes should turn into 14 to 16 yard passes. This will create quiet opportunity for Foles to push for 300 yards. With recent touchdown totals of 4 // 2 // 2, he’s most than just a hope-to-get-lucky option.
Target totals with Foles under center the last four weeks have looked like this:
:: Zach Ertz — 7 // 16 // 4 // 7
:: Alshon Jeffery — 8 // 5 // 5 // 9
:: Nelson Agholor — 2 // 7 // 6 // 6
:: Golden Tate — 5 // 3 // 6 // 8
Given the nature of this passing attack, all of these targets are best viewed through a “possession receiver” lens (i.e., think of these target counts as belonging to a Julian Edelman or a Keenan Allen, as opposed to an Antonio Brown or a DeAndre Hopkins) — making all of these guys decent floor options with “hope for things to go right” shots at ceiling. Ertz has (by far) the most difficult matchup, making him a thin on-paper play behind Kelce and Ebron this week; his talent will have to win out over a difficult matchup (not impossible, of course — but there is risk with this play). Alshon is the best bet for one or two downfield looks, though Agholor and Tate have each mixed in for a couple such looks of their own across the last few weeks. Mike Wallace is also expected to return this week to take the top off the defense, though he should see somewhat limited play volume and is unlikely to draw more than two or three looks.
EAGLES RUN OFFENSE
The Eagles’ run offense enters one of the toughest matchups on the slate, against a Saints team that finished the regular season second in yards allowed per carry and third in DVOA against the run. Between rushing and receiving yards, only the Ravens allowed less production to running backs than the Saints allowed. Incredibly, 12 teams allowed more rushing yards to running backs than the Saints allowed rushing/receiving yards combined.
While it is always dangerous to try to assume you know what the Eagles will do with their backfield, it is fairly easy to set aside Josh Adams this week outside of simply closing your eyes and hoping for lightning to strike. Last week against a similarly stout Bears front, Adams played only one snap while Wendell Smallwood played 28 and Darren Sproles played 37.
Sproles has touch counts across the last three weeks of 12 // 9 // 15 and is the likeliest bet for heavy involvement in this spot. While the matchup is very tough, Sproles does present enough unique challenges to a defense that he cannot be counted out completely.
Smallwood has recent touch counts of 5 // 16 // 10. It seems likely that he pushes for double-digit touches here, but that still leaves him as simply a hope-for-the-best option in this difficult draw.
One of the most unique problems in assessing matchups against the Eagles this year has been: how will their opponent choose to attack? The Eagles have been below-average against the run this year…but because of the issues in the Eagles’ secondary and their impressive talent up front, teams have generally skewed pass-heavy against them, with no team in the league facing a higher pass play rate, and with no team facing fewer rush attempts. As we know by now, New Orleans is one of the run-heaviest teams in the league (only Seattle, Tennessee, and Baltimore ran the ball more frequently than the Saints), but they certainly have the pieces to win through the air if they choose to do so.
Regardless of how the Saints choose to tilt their attack, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will be focal points, with Kamara boasting recent touch counts of 15 // 19 // 17 // 21 // 11, and with Ingram seeing touch counts in that same stretch of 13 // 9 // 14 // 14 // 12. Kamara is far more heavily involved in the pass game, making him the safer play to lock-and-load against a Philly team that will present a winnable matchup for whatever volume Kamara sees on the ground, but that also presents a plus matchup through the air, with the second most catches and the sixth most yards allowed to the running back position. Ingram, of course, smashed this matchup for a 16-103-2 line on the ground last time around, though that came in a monster blowout, and there is clear and obvious risk that the Saints will skew a bit more pass-heavy than normal this week, and that Ingram’s opportunities for upside will be limited. He’s best viewed as a bet-on-touchdown play, though he does always carry multi-touchdown upside in this offense.
The Saints’ passing unit is an interesting study this week, as there are several items that come into play in deciding how to attack with this group:
1) You have to first believe that the Saints will lean pass-heavy in order to feel great about targeting this spot. Drew Brees has thrown the ball 31 or fewer times in eight of 11 games since Ingram returned. Brees has gone for 35, 36, and 39 attempts in his other three games, so it’s not as if a 50-attempt game is even in the cards; but 35 or 36 pass attempts would look a lot better than 27 or 28.
2) You have to recognize that the running backs have soaked up an incredible 31.6% of the targets on this team across Brees’ last four games, while this team also spreads passes (including valuable goal line looks) to guys who don’t pile up enough yardage to be true DFS factors outside of long-shot guessing and hoping, with Ben Watson, Dan Arnold, Josh Smith, and Keith Kirkwood involved every week, and with guys like Tre’Quan Smith, Austin Carr, and Tommylee Lewis all candidates to see one or two touches of their own. Additionally, Taysom Hill piles up three to six rushes most weeks, and has vultured two touchdowns of his own.
3) The last time these teams met, the Eagles tilted everything toward taking away Michael Thomas — which led to him seeing a season-low four targets while Tre’Quan popped off for a 10-157-1 line on 13 looks. The Eagles will clearly go out of their way to avoid that mistake this time around, but it’s a guessing game as to what this means for coverage on Thomas, who they certainly want to try to take away once more.
The best bet for point-per-dollar upside in this spot is quietly Ginn, who had target counts of 6 // 7 // 6 early in the year before going down, and who had eight targets in his first game back against Pittsburgh. Every single one of those games was a more pass-heavy spot (pass attempt totals of 45 // 35 // 49 // 39), so his floor is still in the “four to five target” range; but with the Saints likely to skew a bit more pass-heavy, and with the Eagles sure to make an effort to isolate Thomas again, Ginn’s downfield role will give him an opportunity to make a dent this week against a Philly defense that has allowed the third most catches and the third most yards to the wide receiver position, while giving up the third most pass plays of 20+ yards.
Thomas would also benefit from a spiked-volume game for the Saints, though with fewer than 50 receiving yards in four of his last six games, and with only two games since Ingram returned of more than 100 yards, he’s a bet-on-touchdown, hope-for-yardage play. His big red zone role (second in the NFL in red zone targets in the regular season), monster efficiency (85.0% catch rate), and high-scoring offense help to somewhat offset his Amendola-like aDOT of 7.7, but it is always worth reminding — at his price — that he rarely sees downfield targets in this offense, making volume or broken plays a must at his still-elevated price tag.
I like Foles this week; I like Sproles this week; I don’t mind Alshon (with Agholor and Tate and even Ertz not poor plays behind him). And I don’t even think it’s crazy to take a shot on Smallwood in a “hope he scores a touchdown” setup on a slate this size. But there is nothing on this side of the ball that really pops off the page, and I wouldn’t mind fading all these guys either. Foles is probably my favorite of the bunch, as it is massively likely that most of the offensive production will flow through him. Behind Foles, it’s hoping to pick the guys who score, as this team has had a tough time piling up enough consistent yardage in recent weeks for that bet to be comfortably made.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints have been tough for me to bet on all year at their price tags, but a four game slate softens things up a bit. Kamara is obviously not in the same floor/ceiling range as Zeke or a healthy Gurley, but his likely 15 to 20 touches keep him in the same volume range as a less-than-100% Melvin Gordon, and the way this matchup sets up for him (quality on the ground // quality through the air) keeps him in the tourney conversation. Thomas is still a bit tougher for me to get on board with, as his close-to-the-line-of-scrimmage role makes it tougher for him to hit for upside in the same range as the guys who were priced around him this year. Antonio Brown, Davante Adams, T.Y. Hilton, Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, and Mike Evans are just a few of the receivers who carried aDOTs this year of at least 3.5 yards more than Thomas’ mark of 7.7 — with all of these guys seeing similar or greater weekly target counts. Across an eight-target game, a difference of 3.5 yards per target adds up to 28 air yards Thomas routinely falls short of compared to his high-priced counterparts. That has been tough for me to overlook all year (and the results have regularly backed that up), so while the short slate still keeps Thomas very much in the conversation, I’ll continue to have concerns from a salary-allocation perspective. It will not be remotely surprising if Thomas runs into multiple touchdowns, and he could also run into a broken play; but keep in mind the floor concerns when considering this play. Behind these guys, Ingram is interesting for his touchdown upside, while Ginn is interesting for his sneaky floor/ceiling at his price. Brees is also in the conversation for the upside he carries at home. His likeliest scenario is a solid, but unspectacular game — but it shouldn’t shock anyone if Brees pops off in one more game down the stretch, and he’s a fine bet in tourneys because of this.