PANTHERS // FALCONS OVERVIEW
Last season, only one team faced fewer rush attempts per game than the Panthers. And while part of this was simply due to the fact that the Panthers play at a slow pace (and thus limit opponent plays), a much larger part was the Panthers’ tough run defense, as teams tilted away from the run and toward the pass. The Panthers finished right in the middle of the pack last year in pass plays faced.
This gives us one major piece of the puzzle for this game. Another major piece, sadly, has been provided by injuries to key Falcons defenders, with impact safety Keanu Neal and impact linebacker Deion Jones both placed on I.R. this week. On the other side, the Panthers have also been dealt a big injury blow, losing Greg Olsen to yet another foot injury and putting him out of action for at least the next several weeks.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
One underrated side effect of the loss of Greg Olsen will be the reemergence of Devin Funchess. Funchess averaged 4.4 targets and 2.4 catches per game in the five weeks last season in which Olsen was healthy. Across the other 11 weeks of the 2017 season, Funchess averaged 8.1 targets and 4.6 catches per game. He will not be a high-efficiency player with Cam Newton throwing to him, and the matchup on the outside is still difficult against Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant (last year, Cam threw three interceptions and only one touchdown in this matchup — with the touchdown coming on a short throw, and with all three interceptions coming downfield). But with D.J. Moore not yet ready for major playing time and literal castoffs Jarius Wright and Torrey Smith filling out the wide receiver depth chart, Funchess is the lead dog in this group, and it’s really not close.
Filling in for Greg Olsen will be promising rookie Ian Thomas — a stud athlete who will try to speed up the most difficult positional transition from college to the pros. Given Norv Turner’s lengthy history with tight end production, and given the way Olsen is used — often lining up in the slot — Thomas should have opportunities this week, in what has quickly become a better matchup for him against the Falcons’ weakened D. I’m penciling Thomas in for five targets in this one, making him an interesting value at only 6.7% of the salary cap on FanDuel, only 5.8% on DraftKings, and only 6.3% on FantasyDraft. It should be noted that the Falcons often use De’Vondre Campbell in coverage on tight ends, and he is still healthy. The Falcons were one of the tougher tight end matchups in 2017, and in Week 17 last year they held Olsen to one catch for 10 yards…on nine targets.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
While the Falcons were tough on wide receivers last season — holding opponents to roughly 95% of league-average fantasy production on all three sites — and were equally difficult on tight ends, they continued to struggle against pass-catching running backs, facing the most targets and allowing the most receptions to the position. In two games against the Falcons last season, Christian McCaffrey led the team in targets (14) and receptions (10). In Week 1, McCaffrey played on 83.8% of the Panthers snaps and ran a whopping 30 pass routes (out of 36 pass plays in all). His carries didn’t quite spike the way preseason action indicated they would, but with C.J. Anderson playing only 12 snaps in Week 1, we should brush that off and pay attention to the overall trend: McCaffrey — regardless of whether or not he is suited to run between the tackles — is a near-every-down player. This is an above-average rushing matchup and a far-above-average receiving matchup for him, with a locked-in workload behind him.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
We in the DFS world make a lot of jokes about Steve Sarkisian, but for all his (extraordinary) flaws in the red zone, he really does a great job between the 20s. Last season, the Falcons ranked eighth in total yards and eighth in passing yards, so there is room for fantasy points from this team. The tough part is just how difficult it is to bank on the Falcons turning their opportunities into touchdowns.
This affects Julio Jones most heavily, as he has blowup potential in this spot. In two games against the Panthers last year, the Falcons attacked mercilessly with Julio, targeting him 23 times for an incredible 435 air yards, and an average depth of target of 18.9 yards. (For context: J.J. Nelson led the NFL last year in average depth of target, at 18.1. DeSean Jackson was second in the league, all the way down at 15.8.) Julio’s efficiency was low in this matchup last season (11 catches on those 23 targets, for 198 yards and no touchdowns), but that sort of opportunity is mouthwatering. Matt Ryan’s arm did not look right last Thursday night; but there are no reports of an injury, and as long as he comes out firing this week, Julio will have a chance to explode.
In both matchups against these teams last season, Julio dominated all valuable opportunity, with Mohamed Sanu seeing 17.7% of the team’s targets (compared to 29.1% for Julio), but with 64% of the team’s air yards going to Julio (compared to only 10% for Sanu). While Sanu has outside potential for something like a 6-70-1 line, the likeliest scenario for him is an ancillary role that provides nothing in the way of week-winning upside.
Austin Hooper draws the toughest matchup and has yet to emerge as a consistent threat for this team.
Calvin Ridley played limited snaps in Week 1, as expected, and is not yet on the DFS radar.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
The Falcons’ run offense faces a tough matchup against a Panthers defense that saw the second-fewest rush attempts in the league last season and allowed the seventh-fewest rushing yards to running backs. The Panthers also allowed the second-fewest plays per game last year and ranked 32nd in pace of play, which further limits opportunity for this timeshare backfield. As noted last week: Devonta Freeman averaged 16.6 touches per game last season while Tevin Coleman averaged 12.2. Freeman is banged up at the moment (knee), but he is expected to play in this game. Neither of these guys performed well on the ground in this matchup last year, with Freeman averaging under 35 rushing yards per game and Coleman averaging 14 rushing yards per game; though for risk-takers, Freeman did post a 9-85-1 receiving line in Week 17 last year against Carolina — an outlier, to be sure; but at least in the cards.
Devin Funchess is interesting, as he provides exposure to a lot of opportunity (likely seven to 10 targets) for 10% or less of the salary cap on all three sites. The matchup will still make it difficult for him to hit for any sort of ceiling, but he needs to be noted and at least kept in mind as we move through the slate to see how salary unfolds elsewhere. Ian Thomas is an intriguing salary relief option, even in a tough matchup; and while Cam Newton is likeliest to fail in this spot, he is one of the few guys on my “always worth a shot in tourneys” list. His rushing upside and “Total Game Takeover” ability make him a guy who can win a week for you even in a tough spot. (Obviously, this all makes him a large-field tourney play only for me. But again: the upside is there.)
The crown plays in this game are Christian McCaffrey and Julio Jones. McCaffrey is appropriately priced on all three sites (he’s cheapest relative to the salary cap on FanDuel, but he’s also less valuable on there with 0.5-PPR scoring), and his floor makes him a cash-viable play, while his ceiling keeps him in play in tourneys. He doesn’t pop off the page as a “lock-button, certain-to-smash” guy this week, but with Olsen out and the matchup tilted in his favor, he should see plenty of volume. Julio, of course, should be heavily featured here. Sarkisian has a little bit of “Andy Reid” to him when it comes to “star player usage,” but given the way the Falcons chose to attack Carolina in both games last season, I’m fine taking on that little bit of risk. Julio should see nine to 11 targets and finish near the top of the league in air yards once again.
I’ll be leaving the rest of the Falcons alone myself. Devonta Freeman is the running back likelier to hit if you want to chase talent-driven upside — on limited touches, in a difficult matchup.
SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Devonta Freeman is going to miss this week’s game now, leaving Tevin Coleman all alone in the Falcons’ backfield. The immediate reaction is to play him, and I think his floor is around 10 points on FanDuel and 11 on DraftKings (i.e., for the price, he has a solid floor, and his ceiling is nice as well). But I do not consider him to be a must-play, for two main reasons.
1) Steve Sarkisian does not use these running backs in the same creative ways Kyle Shanahan did. Last season, Coleman and Freeman combined for 3.94 catches per game.
2) This is a tough matchup, and last year these two combined to average 49 rushing yards per game in this spot.
Again: I think Coleman is a good play. I am expecting around 14 to 18 points, with his floor a little lower and his ceiling at least a touchdown higher. But it is not likely that he will post the type of score (25+) that you “can’t win without.” As such, I’m fine missing out on him if you find a roster approach that gives you more overall upside by taking some savings off his price