PANTHERS // LIONS OVERVIEW
The 6-3 Panthers (5-0 at home, 1-3 on the road) will travel to Detroit this week off a tough blowout loss to the Steelers, to take on a 3-6 Lions team that has not been able to muster much success at home (2-2) or on the road (1-4). Each team plays at a below-average pace and prefers to lean on the run in neutral matchups, which has led to Detroit allowing the fewest opponent plays per game in the NFL, with Carolina allowing the eighth fewest. On a more positive note for this offensive environment: each defense ranks in the bottom eight in drive success rate allowed, creating an attackable spot for each offense. Carolina also ranks 31st in opponent red zone touchdown rate — allowing teams to put together sustained drives that are finished off with touchdowns. Only eight teams have allowed more points per game than Carolina, and only four teams have allowed more points per game than Detroit. The Panthers also rank ninth in points per game on offense (Detroit ranks 20th).
Teams primarily choose to attack Detroit on the ground, as only the Raiders and Cardinals have faced a lower pass play rate than the Lions this season. This should slow down the game a bit, and with Carolina ranked 26th in the NFL in pass plays of 20+ yards on offense (and with Detroit ranked 23rd on offense), we will be looking for points to come from a game full of sustained drives, rather than through quick strikes. This will make it tough for this game to soar past its lofty game total (51.0 — the third highest on the main slate early in the week), but each team has solid pieces on offense, and each defense ranks middle of the pack in yards allowed per game, so there should be opportunities for DFS goodness to emerge in a handful of spots.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
There is not a team in football that has faced fewer pass attempts this year than the Lions, and only two teams have allowed fewer receptions. This has nothing to do with matchup, as Detroit is allowing the sixth highest completion percentage in the league, while allowing an increase on the league-average aDOT of an incredible 21.3% — “good for” the deepest aDOT allowed in all of football. Detroit does tackle well after the catch, but they are ultimately allowing the second highest yards per pass attempt in the NFL.
Both elements (the great matchup, but also the low volume) should be considered when looking at the Panthers’ passing attack this week. Most people will only be focused on the matchup, but recognize that with both teams playing slow, with Detroit allowing the fewest opponent plays per game in the NFL, and with Carolina running the 10th fewest plays per game in the league, volume will be a concern for individual pass catchers — especially as most teams attack Detroit on the ground, and Carolina (20th in pass play rate) already skews toward the run themselves. Cam Newton has failed to reach even 30 pass attempts in five of nine games this year, including each of his last three.
Targets over these three games have looked like this:
From a DFS perspective, it’s perpetually difficult to find slate-winning upside in this group of pass catchers, in a low-volume passing attack that spreads around targets behind alpha Christian McCaffrey (five or more targets in all but one game this year). If you are willing to miss out on slate-winning upside, the guys likeliest to produce starting-caliber scores are Funchess and Moore at wide receiver, and Olsen at tight end. Funchess has topped 100 yards only once in his entire career, but he has a non-awful nine red zone targets and a couple red zone scores this year. Moore has three red zone touchdowns of his own on only five red zone targets, and he carries more per-play upside as a superior catch-and-run piece. Moore’s xYAC/R of 6.2 is much higher than Funchess’ mark of 2.7 — and Funchess’ actual YAC/R of 1.8 is dead last in the entire league among players with at least 35 targets. As for Olsen: Detroit is a middling matchup for tight ends, and Olsen is securely involved in the offense as a four-to-six target guy. If passing volume happens to unexpectedly spike in this spot, McCaffrey and then Olsen would likely be the first to see an increase in looks, with Funchess and then Moore coming afterward.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
Last week, we began our writeup of the Lions’ run defense with this:
“Life does not actually work like this, but…if we take away the 70-yard run Dalvin Cook had against the Lions [in Week 9], this run defense held Latavius Murray and Cook to a 19-50-1 line on the ground (2.63 YPC), after holding Chris Carson and Mike Davis to a 35-138-1 line (3.94 YPC) — showing marked improvement with Snacks Harrison added to the center of this unit. Of course: the 70-yard run that Cook had remains part of the equation against the Lions. As noted when Snacks was added: it takes more than one player to make a run defense good, and there are still issues on the second level for the Lions that can expose them to big plays on the ground.”
Detroit proceeded to hold Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard to 36 yards on 18 carries (2.0 YPC) last week — a third consecutive strong game, minus one long play. “Long plays” will remain part of the potential equation here, but be aware of what the Lions have done over their last three contests outside of that one long run.
The good news for McCaffrey is that the Panthers’ offensive line has been excellent — with Norv Turner designing a tremendous run scheme that opens consistent holes for ball carriers. The Panthers rank eighth in adjusted line yards on offense, while two of the teams that Detroit held in check recently (Chicago and Minnesota) rank bottom five in this department. (The Seahawks — whose 3.94 YPC in this matchup doesn’t leave a ton of room for complaint — rank 15th in adjusted line yards.) I’m comfortable considering this a neutral-at-worst spot for CMC, with a better-than-normal shot at a big play, given the struggles the Lions are still prone to on the second level. The Lions are a non-threatening matchup in the pass game for running backs. CMC has finished shy of five catches only twice all season, and he has finished shy of 45 receiving yards only three times. He doesn’t quite carry the same red zone role as guys like Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, and James Conner, as Cam (13 red zone carries) is going to get some action as well, but his role in this area has been on the rise recently, giving him respectable ceiling to go with his already excellent floor.
Carolina allows a deeper-than-league-average aDOT and is merely average at preventing completed passes, with their strength in tackling after the catch allowing them to rank middle-of-the-pack in yards allowed per pass attempt (only Baltimore and Pittsburgh allow lower YAC/R rates than the Panthers). Teams do prefer to pass on the Panthers rather than testing their front on the ground; only seven teams have faced a higher pass play rate than the Carolina, which has led to them facing a middling number of pass attempts this year, in spite of limiting opponent play volume. (Conversely, only four teams have faced fewer rush attempts this year than the Panthers.)
The Lions have tried to box themselves into a run-heavy approach lately, but with their defense playing so poorly, they have been regularly forced to pass — and with no Golden Tate over the middle, the effectiveness of these passes is waning. Over his first two games without Tate, Stafford has completed 50 of 78 passes (64.1%), for only 473 yards (6.1 YPA — a mark that would be better than only Buffalo and Arizona on the year), with two touchdowns and two interceptions. To Stafford’s credit, those games also came against a Bears pass defense that ranks fourth in DVOA and a Vikings pass defense that ranks 10th in DVOA in spite of their early-season struggles. Carolina ranks 24th in DVOA against the pass, creating potential for Stafford to prove that his recent dip in play was due more to matchup than to the absence of Tate.
With Tate out of the picture, Stafford has fed an incredible 26 targets to running backs the last two weeks, locking both Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick into secure workloads. It appears Matt Patricia has finally let go of the notion that LeGarrette Blount is still a useful NFL player, as Kerryon played 55 snaps last week, compared to nine for the aging vet, one week after Kerryon played 39 snaps to 11 for Blount. The matchup on the ground is middling, and Detroit may not be able to give Kerryon more than 14 to 16 carries if forced into pass-heavy mode again, but with 49 pass routes run and 11 targets over the last two weeks, he’s a key cog regardless, and he should be viewed as a talented 18 to 22 touch back.
Riddick has played 42 backfield snaps in the last two weeks, and 43 additional snaps at receiver or in an H-back role. He has zero carries, but he has target counts of eight and seven and should be viewed as a possession receiver with decent YAC upside — essentially a “floor” play with an outside shot at ceiling.
Passes to wide receivers and tight ends have been heavily concentrated on Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, with these two combining for 32 targets across the last two weeks, while T.J. Jones, Brandon Powell, and the three tight ends have combined for 17 total looks. When Marvin went down last week, Stafford essentially concentrated all of his “Marvin/Golladay” targets onto Golladay alone, rather than spreading those looks around. If Marvin misses this week, there is a good chance Golladay hits double-digit targets, and that Riddick/Kerryon see a small bump before T.J. // Powell // tight ends see additional usage. If Marvin plays, he should be considered the primary option, with 15 targets in less than two full games, with Golladay mixing in for around five to eight looks of his own. Marvin will have quiet “smash” upside if he’s healthy, while Golladay will likely rise to the top of the “popular plays” pile if Marvin misses. While it is true that crazy things can happen in the NFL (see Tyler Boyd in Week 10, with Cincinnati running an impossibly low 43 plays, and with Dalton throwing only 20 passes), Golladay’s workload and upside will really pop without Marvin on the field.
If moving away from the backs and receivers, the Lions have tried to force the issue lately with Michael Roberts (seven targets the last two weeks), though he caught only two of those targets, for 21 yards, and he left Sunday’s game early with a shoulder injury. Carolina has allowed the second most catches, the third most yards, and the most touchdowns to the tight end position, giving Roberts low-floor upside if he plays this week.
Cam has reached 300 passing yards only once this season, but he has exactly two passing touchdowns in seven consecutive games, and he has added four rushing touchdowns and 352 rushing yards on the year. He’s a strong floor/ceiling play in a matchup where volume is the only concern — and with Cam often doing his box score damage on low volume anyway, expectations aren’t any different than normal. The same can be said for the Panthers’ pass catchers (“expectations aren’t any different than normal”), which leaves all of them as merely “fringe” options for me. Moore will be interesting to consider for upside if value proves thin this week, while Olsen is one of the few semi-reliable tight ends. Ahead of these guys for me is McCaffrey, who will definitely be in consideration for me throughout the week. He’s essentially a lock for 60 or 70 rushing yards with around 5-50-0 through the air as a floor, and he has plenty of upside from there. The Lions will stuff the run more often than before, but there is still potential for a couple explosive plays.
Any time I can roster a talented, inexpensive 20-touch running back in a decent spot, I will consider doing so — which means that Kerryon will make my list on the Lions’ side of the ball. Detroit’s overall offensive environment is a concern, but with this game being played in Detroit, the Lions should be able to keep it close, and I always like taking running backs against poor red zone defenses — with Carolina providing the second biggest boost in the league in this area. Riddick moving to wide receiver half the time is allowing Kerryon to keep a bigger role in the pass game.
Riddick is also interesting on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, where he essentially functions as a cheap possession wide receiver. Adam Humphries went 8-82-2 in this matchup a couple weeks ago — so while that’s obviously not the likeliest scenario, this does create some upside to go with the low price and the decent PPR floor on Riddick. The only thing I don’t like about this play is that it takes up a valuable RB spot without the upside I would like to target at this position in an optimal setup.
If Marvin Jones misses, I’ll have a lot of interest in Golladay. If Marvin plays, each wide receiver will remain in consideration, but Marvin will stand out as the guy who is a bit likelier to reach his upside.
If I decide to pile a ton of uncertainty onto one roster spot again this week, Michael Roberts will also be in play as a cheap tight end option on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, where tight end savings can really open things up. If Roberts plays, he’ll have a better-than-zero floor, and he’ll have a shot to go something like 4-30-1, as a guy in a good matchup playing around 50% of the snaps and being fed a few targets per game.