While it seems that there is still at least a small amount of confusion on this point in the greater DFS community, we are well aware, by now, of the fact that the Saints defense is genuinely good — with this team entering this week ranked fifth in overall defensive DVOA (ninth against the run, eighth against the pass), sixth in yards allowed per game, and 12th in points allowed per game (with “12th” a bit misleading, as they’re only 0.3 points per game behind the sixth place team). No team in football has allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs than the Saints, and only three teams have allowed fewer receiving yards to the position. The Saints have held six of their last seven opponents below their at-the-time scoring average. They have not yet allowed a notable stat line to a running back, and the players who have posted a notable stat line in this matchup through the air have all been elite:
The first place we should start is the place where the attention goes right away when we think about the Carolina offense: the backfield — where Christian McCaffrey runs into what has quietly been one of the most challenging running back matchups in the NFL, and where his price has not been adjusted for just how difficult this matchup is. CMC has recent touch counts — as the absolute engine of this offense — of 37 // 25 // 26 // 18 // 27 // 26 // 25, and his big role in the pass game and league-leading touchdown upside keep him in the mix in any spot. This will, however, be one of the tougher spots on the year for the Panthers’ star back.
Through the air, DJ Moore has recent target counts of 8 // 10 // 9 // 10 // 11 // 15, and he is now up to seven targets of 30+ yards (eight targets of 20+ yards) in four games since the Panthers returned from bye. With all these targets and all this downfield work, Moore has gone for 95+ in three straight games, and he has gone for 73+ in each of his last five games that did not come against the 49ers. Unfortunately — as highlighted each of the last two weeks — his red zone role remains almost nonexistent, with no targets inside the 10-yard-line and no red zone scores all year.
On the other hand, Curtis Samuel has four targets inside the 10 and four red zone scores this year, but he has not earned nearly the recent emphasis that Moore has earned, seeing target counts in his last six of 6 // 6 // 11 // 6 // 8 // 7 — incredibly topping 46 yards only twice in that stretch (while failing to crack 70 yards in any of those games). Samuel has the speed (and red zone usage) to hit, but his best bet of doing so would be for Marshon Lattimore to return and give Moore a tougher matchup than he otherwise will have.
Meanwhile, Greg Olsen (as explored numerous times in recent weeks) has generally seen his volume this year dictated by matchup. He runs into a slightly below-average matchup this week.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers had been somewhat cruising on defense before their last two games (where Davante Adams hit them for a strong game through the air in the absence of James Bradberry, and where Calvin Ridley smoked them the next week with Bradberry covering Julio), with only the Bucs and Jaguars really doing much against them to that point. The Panthers have also allowed only six wide receiver touchdowns this year (the fourth fewest in the league), and Chark and Ridley are the only players who have topped 80 yards and scored a touchdown in this spot. With that said: worrying about matchup with Michael Thomas has been something of a wasted mission this year, as his monster usage (11+ targets in all but two games) and otherworldly talent keep him in great shape no matter what. Only touchdowns have been missing from Thomas this season (five on the year) — and again, this isn’t the best spot for wide receiver touchdowns. But he should once again be viewed as a high-end running back, and his paths to floor and ceiling remain.
One of the more interesting spots on the slate is the Saints’ actual backfield, where Alvin Kamara has a 94 // 43 edge in snaps over Latavius Murray since returning from injury/bye — though this has come with only 17 carries against his 18 receptions. Pass game roles can be extremely valuable, of course, and Kamara has picked up six or more catches in all but two games (seven or more in all but three), but this has come with only two games north of 50 receiving yards (while the Panthers — for all their struggles stopping the run — have allowed the fewest RB receiving yards in the league, at only 24.9 per game). Furthermore — after seeing 34 carries inside the 10-yard-line last season — Kamara has only seven carries inside the 10 so far this year. Kamara’s likeliest range has him seeing 13 to 14 carries and six to seven receptions — and as such, it’s worth pointing out that Todd Gurley went for 97 yards on 14 carries in this matchup, Tevin Coleman went for 105 on 11, and Aaron Jones went for 93 on 13. The Panthers have also given up the most running back rushing touchdowns in the league (with Coleman and Jones each adding three of their own).
Behind Kamara and Thomas, this offense quickly devolves into dart throws, with Latavius barely worth talking about at his price (with 10 or fewer touches his likeliest volume), and with wideouts not named Thomas combining for a 3-27-0 line across the last two weeks. The closest thing to a usable piece outside of Kamara/Thomas is Jared Cook, though he has topped 41 yards only once this season and has a below-average matchup vs the tight-end-tough Panthers.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This game gives us two of the narrowest distributions of touches in any offense in football, with the Panthers producing only four catches for 48 yards across the last two weeks(!) behind CMC // Moore // Samuel // Olsen, and with the Saints — as explored above — filtering almost everything through Thomas and Kamara.
With the touches so narrow on the Panthers, this group of players is worth considering in spite of the fact that this matchup is rarely conducive to blowup outings — with a fair shot at one or two solid stat lines emerging here, and with an outside shot at a tourney winner.
McCaffrey always has ceiling, but he is in place more for floor than for ceiling this week in a tough spot against the Saints (with his price not adjusted for the spot), while Moore is getting a bit pricey on DK given his minimal red zone role to date, making him more tourney-viable than “staple piece” this week. (Moore is much more affordable on FanDuel — though touchdowns are also more important on FanDuel.) If Lattimore misses, this spot is improved for Moore, while if Lattimore plays, the spot will be improved for Samuel. Samuel is involved enough to be interesting either way, but he would push toward higher standing in Tier 3 if Lattimore returns. Even Olsen is interesting in tourneys — though all these guys stand out more in that way (“interesting in tourneys”) than as lock-and-load plays in this tough matchup on the road.
Michael Thomas obviously comes with floor, and he carries some price-considered ceiling in this spot, even at his elevated price tag. As has been the case for most of the season: he’s one of the more secure plays on the slate.
Kamara, meanwhile, is interesting for the upside, though he is anything but a lock-and-load option given his strange scoring-position usage this year (with ownership keeping his price ultra high). He would need his second best game of the season to come close to keeping you on a tourney-winning pace. And in fact — using DraftKings — Kamara has produced (against his Week 12 salary) at a pace below 150 points in all but one game this year. (In other words: in all but one week this year, rostering Kamara would have left you with a near-0% chance of a tourney win, given the score he produced at his price.)
All of which makes this a strange spot: with ultra-concentrated volume on each side, but with pricing against likeliest expectations keeping all of these guys more “varying degrees of tourney-viable” than rock-solid plays.