FALCONS // EAGLES OVERVIEW
While the opening game of the season pairs a couple of explosive offenses, we should put our expectations for fireworks on hold. Vegas is expecting a relatively modest-scoring game, with each team installed with implied totals under 25.0 — a sentiment backed up by what each defense strives to do. As is the case in literally any game in the NFL, you can bet on talent and hope for things to break your way, but from a big-picture perspective (“What would we expect to happen if we played this slate a hundred times?”), there are a number of elements to point to this as a game from which we would want limited exposure.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
Last year under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the foundation of the Atlanta offense was their rushing attack, as they slowed down the pace of play (20th in the NFL) and kept the ball on the ground at an above-average rate (22nd in pass rate). This led to them ranking 24th in plays per game — leaving volume as a relative concern against an Eagles team that held opponents to the sixth-fewest plays per game in 2017. Philadelphia was also elite against the run last year, ranking sixth in the NFL in yards allowed per carry and third in the NFL in rushing touchdowns allowed — all while facing the fewest rush attempts in the league. While Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman could absolutely A) rack up some points with receptions, B) break off an explosive long play, or C) slip into the end zone for a touchdown, this is a below-average matchup from all angles for both guys. Freeman averaged 16.6 touches per game last year. Coleman averaged 12.2. Philly also ranked 10th in DVOA against running backs catching passes out of the backfield.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The Atlanta passing attack doesn’t have things much easier, against a pass defense that ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed per pass attempt, and that allowed the fifth-fewest receptions of 20+ yards. This Jim Schwartz defense is designed to force short-area throws, and to tackle well after the catch. Only two teams in the NFL allowed a lower average depth of target than the Eagles allowed last year, and they impressively paired this low aDOT with a below-average catch rate allowed. The one benefit of rostering passing attacks against the Eagles is that this defense — because of how stout they are up front — does tend to see above-average pass volume. Last year, the Eagles faced the second most pass attempts in the NFL. They still finished middle-of-the-pack in yards allowed and touchdowns allowed, but if the Falcons follow the blueprint that the Eagles generally force teams to follow (scaling back their rush attempts and turning more regularly to the air), volume could turn in favor of the Falcons’ receiving weapons. Targets on the Falcons should flow to Julio Jones first (seventh in the NFL in targets last year), while Mohamed Sanu (6.4 targets per game last year) and Austin Hooper (4.1 targets per game last year) should pick up the leftovers behind the running backs. Rookie Calvin Ridley enters the season with an uncertain role, and will likely see the field for only about half of the Falcons’ Week 1 snaps on offense.
EAGLES RUN OFFENSE
The Falcons’ speed-based defense remained a work in progress last year, allowing a league-average yards-per-carry mark, while continuing to struggle against running backs catching passes out of the backfield. All things considered, this is a non-notable matchup on paper — a matchup that would neither raise nor lower player expectations if we played out this slate a hundred times. More of an issue for us from a DFS perspective is the uncertain workload distribution we are always forced to deal with from this Eagles backfield, as this is a team — similar to the Patriots — that likes to attack opponents in unpredictable ways, creating a unique game plan (and unique playing time) for each individual opponent. Because of this, the Eagles’ backfield is rarely a recommended DFS investment, and while there has been some noise that Jay Ajayi could take on more of a workhorse role this season, I am reminded heavily of the numerous times over the years people have “finally solved the Patriots’ backfield distribution,” only to be left holding low scores at the all-important RB slot when the weekend ends. Ajayi and primary workload partner Corey Clement notably combined to average only 1.26 targets per game last year with the Eagles in the regular season. With Darren Sproles returning to take on some of the pass game work — against an Atlanta defense that ranked top five in the NFL last year in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed to RBs — it will be difficult to invest in this backfield with confidence.
EAGLES PASS OFFENSE
The Falcons tied with the Eagles last year in allowing the third-lowest average depth of target in the NFL, but they were less impressive than their counterparts beyond that mark — allowing the sixth-highest catch rate in the league and a league-average yards-after-catch mark. This makes them a steady team to target in PPR scoring, as they allow a high completion rate (even if their Expected Yards Allowed Per Target remain below the league average), and this plays nicely to the skill set of Nick Foles, who is more comfortable throwing short passes between the numbers than he is attacking downfield. With Alshon Jeffery set to miss the first game of the season, the remaining options behind focal points Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz will be an uninspiring mix of Mike Wallace, Shelton Gibson, and Mack Hollins; the Falcons allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to tight ends last year, and their defensive philosophy of allowing short-area catches plays nicely to Agholor’s skill set, as he has the ability to take a short catch and turn it into a big play. He shapes up as a potential target monster.
There is also talk that the Eagles will run more “12” personnel (two tight ends) during Alshon’s absence, and that stud rookie Dallas Goedert will benefit the most from the available targets. The matchup remains an obstacle, and tight end is a notoriously difficult position for rookies, but Doug Pederson will have schemes in place to simplify Goedert’s responsibilities and allow him to make plays. He’s a low-floor option on the one-game slate, with a big, talent-driven ceiling if he does in fact step into six or seven targets.
In the context of the full-weekend slate, the only player I am interested in from this game is Agholor, as his workload- and talent-driven upside are attractive with the combination of Foles under center and Alshon missing. If playing the Showdown slate (the one-game slate that includes only this game), I have no clear favorite between the quarterbacks, while the Falcons’ backfield provides more safety, and the Eagles’ backfield has slightly more upside (if forced to target an Eagles back, I would take a stab on Ajayi, as he appears likelier than Clement to see 18+ touches in this spot). You could also bet on talent with Julio and Ertz, or could bet on a surprising impact game from Sproles in this spot (it wouldn’t be shocking if the Eagles took advantage of the Falcons’ deficiencies by funneling five or six targets his way), but all of these plays would have a negative expected value on the 16-game slate if we played out this weekend a hundred times. Personally, I’m leaving this Showdown slate alone, and if I play any contests that include all 16 games from the weekend, Agholor is the only guy I will roster.
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