Both of these teams are coming off their version of a “big win” — with the 5-9 Jaguars ending their ugly five-game losing streak (each loss coming by 17+ points) with a comeback win over the formerly-good Raiders, and with the 5-9 Falcons continuing their late-season resurgence with a comeback win over a 49ers team that still has the inside track on the Number One seed, needing only to win their last two games (including what might be the game of the season: 49ers at Seahawks in Week 17) to clinch the top spot in the tournament. The Falcons are the better team and are, unsurprisingly 7.5 point favorites at home against this Jaguars team that ranks 29th in DVOA on defense and has shown serious effort concerns down the stretch outside of last week’s surprising win. As we hypothesized two weeks ago might be the case: the return of Gardner Minshew has reenergized this team at least a bit, and we’ll start our exploration of this game on that side of the ball.
In last week’s NFL Edge and Player Grid, we noted that ‘barring a Minshew Meltdown,’ the Jaguars should be able to produce at least adequate production against the Raiders, and that even just adequate production would be extremely valuable with D.J. Chark on the sidelines and all other players underpriced. Minshew proceeded to completely face-plant for the first three quarters, and if not for an on-fire fourth quarter for Minshew-to-Conley, Keelan Cole’s acceptable price-considered production would have been all we got out of that spot. This week, Minshew will enter a slightly tougher matchup against a Falcons defense that shaves 10% off the league-average aDOT (the third best mark in the league) — though the Falcons do this while boosting catch rate by the fifth highest margin in the league. Given that only five teams have produced a lower average intended air yards this year than Minshew has produced, the “aDOT shaving” the Falcons do shouldn’t make a major difference for the ability of the Jags’ passing attack to hit their typical usage and range of production (i.e., the Falcons force teams to throw short, but the Jags like to throw short anyway).
Chark is currently on track to return after logging a limited practice on Wednesday, and we’ll approach this writeup assuming he makes it back in time; if he happens to miss, however, we shouldn’t see a whole lot change from Week 15, as things played out as expected last week: with Conley (eight targets) and Westbrook (four targets) finishing in their typical range of usage (Conley’s eight targets marked the sixth time in eight games he had finished with seven to nine looks; and while Dede’s four targets were low, they weren’t far off his typical floor of six targets, and Minshew played so poorly — and lost so much volume as a result — that someone had to suffer), while Cole stepped right in for six targets, picking up 3-76-0 that included a 55-yarder on the Jags’ first drive (decidedly not a harbinger of things to come). A Chark absence once again solidifies roles on the first two while opening opportunities for Cole; Dede would be the player likelier to see a boost over Conley this week, as the Raiders invite downfield passing while the Falcons do the opposite.
If Chark does, indeed, return to the field, he’ll step back into a role that has brought him five or fewer targets in four games, but that has also yielded six games of nine or more targets, six games of 75+ yards (including two of 140+ yards), and eight touchdowns. Chark has been treated as a true alpha in this offense, having his usage adjusted to fit the matchup — and while volume has been required for almost every big game against the Falcons, Chark is at least the best bet for volume on this team.
Dede is the next best bet for volume through the air if Chark plays, and while he has only two touchdowns on the year, he does have a modest nine red zone targets, and he has an outside shot at seeing enough volume to post a notable stat line against this defense. Conley is a thinner bet as the downfield threat against a Falcons team that’s more “hit with short catches and grab big gains after the catch” (9.7% YAC/r boost) than “hit with downfield throws.” With that said: a speedy player with a top-15 aDOT and a general range of seven to nine targets always has a space in the tourney conversation. It’s likely that none of these Jags receivers will stand out as strong, isolated plays against what else emerges on the slate, but they all carry some value, and they all become particularly interesting if betting on the Falcons’ passing attack.
The Jags’ offense, for all intents and purposes, wraps up with Leonard Fournette (which is also where the Jags’ offense starts). This team hasn’t quite been able to get the volume to Fournette lately that they really want to get him (18 and 20 touches the last two weeks), but the fact that 18 and 20 touches are low marks for Fournette says a lot about his role in this offense, where he has also picked up six games of 26+ touches, with six or more targets in all but two games this year. Atlanta is a perfectly middling matchup, with a number 13 DVOA ranking vs the run and middling production allowed across the board to the position. Fournette is priced somewhere between his role (elite) and his typical production (middling), making him a disappointment most weeks, but making him a really nice bargain on the weeks when his role pays off with a touchdown, a big yardage day on the ground, or an elevated pass game role.
The Falcons are a bit difficult to get comfortable breaking down this week, as Julio Jones saw 20 targets last week — which not only doesn’t happen, but it especially doesn’t happen to a player who entered that game with nine or fewer targets in eight of his previous 10 games. A player does tremendously well to see 25% of his team’s available targets. Julio saw over 50% last week. Perhaps the most telling (and easiest-to-overlook) stat from Julio’s Week 15 masterpiece was the 134 yards on 13 catches — a below-average mark, especially for Julio, and a clear indicator of what the Falcons saw that led to them feeding such heavy volume Julio’s way :: essentially: ‘Hey, we’re going to have a tough time moving the ball no matter where we go, so let’s just lean on our best player and see what happens.’ It’s likely that Julio drops closer to his standard range of looks this week — though the absence of Calvin Ridley and the effectiveness of last week’s “lean on Julio” plan could at least lead to a small rise from his typical “nine to 10 target” range. The matchup is middling against a Jags defense that ranks 21st in DVOA against the pass and has allowed the ninth fewest catches and fifth fewest touchdowns to wide receivers, with most of this “limited production” due to the Jags facing the seventh highest rush play rate; if the Falcons pass enough in this spot and prove smart enough to lean on Julio, he should be able to produce at a solid clip.
With Julio soaking up so much work last week, Austin Hooper saw six targets — nailing the floor of his typical “six to nine” range. If the Falcons break ranks with the rest of the Jags’ opponents and attack through the air, Hooper has a shot to get in on the Ridley-absence-boost himself in this spot. The Falcons do have the highest pass play rate in the league; so while the Jags will likely nudge them toward the run more often than is their norm, they are likely to still throw enough for some production to emerge. Behind these two, Russell Gage (six targets last week; four targets two weeks ago) is the only player among remaining wideouts who has seen more than two targets in a game over the last two weeks. Gage is a short-area piece who will need a busted play or a touchdown to matter.
The last time we saw the Falcons take on a team that tilts opponents toward the ground (two weeks ago vs Carolina), the Falcons threw “only” 34 times (Ryan’s third-lowest mark of the season), while Devonta Freeman grabbed 17 carries and 21 touches (both of which tied for his second-highest marks on the season). If Atlanta controls this game as expected, Freeman should have some opportunities to hit against this Jags unit that has allowed the third most rushing yards, the ninth most receiving yards, and the third most touchdowns to the running back position. Running backs are averaging an incredible 5.3 yards per carry in this matchup. Freeman played a surprising 79% of the Falcons’ snaps last week, so while he’s still running behind a bottom-tier offensive line, his role and matchup point in the right direction.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I expect this game to be something of a “fringe focal point” across my nine to 12 builds this week, as the Falcons seem likely to point Ridley’s missing production toward Freeman // Julio // Hooper (as this coaching staff works overtime to save their jobs), rather than using this opportunity to “evaluate the young guys.” If this proves to be the case once again, the Falcons will yield concentrated touches in a good matchup, with one of the highest Vegas-implied totals on the slate. With price considered, Hooper stands out the most (DK/FDraft only), as he should be able to bring in around six to nine targets in a good matchup, with upside for even a few more looks from there, while Freeman is next in line for the likelihood that the Falcons tilt their offense more heavily toward the run. Julio, of course, isn’t far behind either of these two — with his elevated price making his frequent misses hurt a whole lot more, but with enough upside for those misses to be worth the risk. Because I expect Julio to be one of the highest-owned plays on the slate (as the field is likely to automatically assume another monster-target game), and because teams have tilted so heavily toward the run in this matchup, I’ll likely be underweight the field on him — using him as my hedge bet off my Devonta/Hooper exposure; but I’ll likely have a moderate amount of Devonta/Hooper, with a small amount of Julio blended in.
On the Jags’ side: this offense has been something of a “mix into my tourney builds” staple for me over the last month and a half, as pricing has gotten fairly tight across the board this deep into the season, while this inconsistent-but-concentrated offense has remained underpriced for ceiling. Most weeks, two of these players (Fournette // Chark // Dede // Conley) post a nice price-considered score; and if there’s a week in which two players don’t, it’s likely because one guy (Fournette or Chark) pitched in with a monster score. In other words: this hasn’t been an offense to isolate and target; but it has been an offense to mix in — embracing a few “misses” in order to capture paths to slate-breakers. No one on this offense is likely to be a staple for me, but depending on how the week shapes up, I may mix in a bit of Chark and Fournette for the upside available — with these plays likeliest to be placed on rosters that also bet on Falcons.