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Week 17 starts with the Cowboys visiting the Titans for a 41 total game in which Dallas is favored by 10 (on the road!). That means the poor Titans are implied for just 15.5 points (yikes), but rookie quarterback Malik Willis has really not played well, as the Titans put up just 14 against Houston last week, so perhaps this total is a fair one. This game has a weird complication for the Titans as the outcome will not change their playoff status. Whether or not they get into the playoffs will come down to their Week 18 matchup against Jacksonville. So, it’s entirely possible that we get word later this week that some Titans players will be resting.
UPDATE: Henry has been listed as doubtful so we can safely assume he’s out. Jonathan Ward was elevated from the practice squad so their RBs for the game will be Haskins, Chestnut, and Ward. I think what we’re likely to see is some kind of split between Haskins and Chestnut with Ward as the reserve, but I don’t know what that split will look like. Frankly, not much would surprise me here. Haskins is the safe choice as the primary RB since he’s been on the team and has had backup work for Henry this season, but if the Titans are just mailing in this game, maybe they view Haskins as Henry’s backup and would prefer to save him as well.
The Titans chance to win this game really comes down to Derrick Henry (and their defense). Henry is listed as questionable but he played the full game last week, so my best guess is that he plays here, and he should handle 20+ carries as the engine of the offense . . . I think. But, as noted above, while Henry will likely play this game, there’s a chance the Titans do something weird here. If Henry is active and if we don’t get any news to the contrary, he’s probably in his regular role but they might bail out on the game more quickly if they’re down than they otherwise would, or they COULD potentially surprise us by having him active but in more of a reserve role. We’re entering the part of the season in which we have to embrace more uncertainty. The Dallas defense is 2nd in overall DVOA, but we’ve been seeing some cracks lately due to injuries as they allowed 19+ points to Indy, the Giants, the Texans, the Jaguars, and the Eagles (with a backup QB). Not exactly a murderer’s row of offenses here, but the Titans with Willis at quarterback might just be the weakest of those matchups. Assuming that Henry is healthy, and assuming that the Titans play this game straight up, he’s one of the top skill position plays on the slate, but there’s more risk than normal with him based on the matchup, the spread, and on the potential for the Titans to rest key guys. Whew. If Henry does get rested (or misses the game), Hassan Haskins is likely the primary backup, and at $3,000, he would be a smash value play. Or, if things get really weird, we could see Julius Chestnut or Jonathan Ward in a real role. We really need to watch to see who’s on the active roster on game day.
Ownership updates automatically
In the passing game, you first need a quarterback who can pass the ball. Malik Willis has 61 NFL pass attempts and just 276 passing yards with no touchdowns and three picks. Eek. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be tough to get excited about any Titans pass catcher here but they’re also all wildly inexpensive, with Treylon Burks the priciest at just $5,400. We’ll see Burks, Robert Woods, and Nickeil Westbrook-Ikhine as the primary wideouts with Chris Conley as the likeliest fill-in rotational guy. But again, there’s some possibility of rest so look out for how many WRs are active on game day (the Titans may not have roster space to make someone like Woods inactive, but if there are more than five active WRs, that means we could see at least one veteran playing a smaller or even no role). The matchup here is #notgreat, the roles are a bit uncertain, but the prices sure are nice. I’ll rank these guys as Burks, then Woods, then Westbrook-Ikhine. At tight end, Chigoziem Okonkwo has been having a nice run while playing only around half the snaps, splitting with Austin Hooper. I will lean towards Okonkwo here as he’s shown a significant amount of per-target upside whereas Hooper has one good fantasy game on the season and it took two touchdowns to do it. Geoff Swaim will also be on the field, primarily as a blocker (14 targets on the season), but he can be included in MME pools. My TL;DR here is that the entire Titans passing attack is awful but the prices give at least a decent chance of someone finding their way into the optimal lineup. I wouldn’t play more than two Titans pass catchers here and would keep my total ownership of this group under 100% so that a good chunk of my rosters have none of these guys.
The Cardinals have a 63.1% overall pass rate and 39.25 pass attempts per average in the four games in which Colt McCoy started this season, compared to 62.24% and 39.8 season averages, respectively. Now compare those values to the 62.5% pass rate and 45 pass attempts in Trace McSorley’s start last week (four pass attempts in overtime). That tells me that #fakesharp Kingsbury has largely not changed his offense through three separate quarterbacks this season, running the same horizontally spread baseline regardless of who is under center. Expect the same up-tempo, one-dimensional base Kingsbury offense with a highly inefficient quarterback now at the helm. The most notable aspects of that realization involve the slot wide receiver and the running back, each of whom can be relied upon to see significant volume in this offense. Those two players are Greg Dortch and James Conner, who as you will see in a minute, are set up well against a weak defense (30th in total DVOA, 30th in DVOA against the pass, and 23rd in DVOA against the run).
James Conner has been the epitome of a workhorse back over the previous six contests, averaging 22.83 running back opportunities per game on an average of 92.2% of the offensive snaps during that span. He has also scored in every single one of those contests, with seven total touchdowns across those six games. Conner missed practice on Wednesday with an illness, which is clearly worth monitoring, but I think it’s safe to expect another massive workload for Conner in a beatable matchup, should he be well enough to play. The pure rushing matchup yields a well above average 4.59 net-adjusted line yards metric against an Atlanta defense that ranks 31st in adjusted line yards allowed on defense. Add in the floor of three to five targets with ceiling for much, much more, and we’re left with one of the safer cost-considered backs on the slate. Rookie Keaontay Ingram should continue to serve as a borderline emergency back outside of Conner not being ready for a full workload.
The Cardinals operate primarily from 11-personnel but increased their 12-personnel rates slightly last week. This is more likely to be due to disciplinary action rather than a changing offensive dynamic after it was revealed that Marquise Brown was held to his lowest snap rate of the season after being late to a team meeting. The team also showed us that they are about done with the Robbie Anderson and A.J. Green experiments, as last week they both saw their lowest snap rate of the season (in healthy games). That shifted Greg Dortch into the slot role while Hopkins and Hollywood handled the perimeter – something I would expect to continue into Week 17 with the Cardinals eliminated from playoff contention (as in, it doesn’t make much sense to continue to feed grizzled veterans offensive snaps heading into the offseason). Rookie tight end Trey McBride should operate as the primary pass-catching tight end, with Maxx Williams and Stephen Anderson reserved for modest, primary blocking, roles. The Falcons cede a deep 8.4 defensive aDOT and generate pressure at the lowest rate in the league this season, providing a path for volume to flow where it’s most natural for the Cardinals.
Chicago is one of only three teams to have a below-average pass rate over expectation value in every game played this season, which should continue through the end of the season, considering their offensive personnel. As we’ve discussed, the Bears appear steadfast in their resolution to treat this season as an extended preseason, tinkering with various aspects of both sides of the ball throughout the year. Those sentiments were reinforced further this week when head coach Matt Eberflus told the media that the team would continue with business as usual through the end of the season and had no intention of resting Justin Fields (even with his shoulder injury). Expect a motivated and hungry Chicago team here, with the biggest influence on their fantasy prospectus being the ability of Justin Fields to play as he’d like to. Last week against the Bills, Fields was contained to just 11 yards rushing on only seven carries, leading to the first game with under 20 fantasy points since Week 6. The biggest concern rests with whether that lowered rushing output was more caused by the Bills’ heavy zone and spy scheme or whether it was due to the lingering injuries from Fields. From tape and reports out of Chicago, I would say with a high degree of confidence that it was more caused by the Bills than Fields’ health. That’s good news for the upside from this game environment as a whole, as games involving the Bears have a much higher fantasy expectation in games where Fields is aggressive and able to escape the pocket with his legs.
Khalil Herbert returned to his standard snap rate in Week 16 in his first game off injured reserve, playing 41% of the offensive snaps and handling nine running back opportunities. It’s fair to expect more of the same against the Lions, denting lead-back David Montgomery’s upside slightly in the process. Montgomery had been a modicum of stability for the Bears in the absence of Herbert, putting up 14.3 fantasy points or more in each of the four contests played without Herbert – a threshold he eclipsed just twice throughout the rest of the season. The final piece to the Chicago rushing attack is very clearly quarterback Justin Fields, who had rushed for 60 yards or more in every game since Week 6 prior to last week’s 7-11-0 line on the ground against the Bills. All indications point to a return to increased involvement on the ground against a Lions defense highly susceptible to mobile quarterback due to the high rates of man coverage and elevated blitz rates.
The Bears appear likely to get both Chase Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown back from injury this week after the two returned to a limited session on Thursday. That said, we’ve seen the Bears utilize a head-scratching six-man rotation at wide receiver since Darnell Mooney was lost for the season back in Week 12. That leaves only tight end Cole Kmet as likely to operate in a near every-down role amongst pass-catchers, capping the upside of all parties involved in the process. The Lions have allowed opponents to work the deeper areas of the field with ease, ceding the deepest defensive aDOT in the league at 9.7 (the second worst Steelers are down at 9.1, a massive gap in the average depth of target against). That keeps the relative ceiling higher than in other spots with low expected snap rates, but any Chicago pass-catcher is a tough bet outside of Kmet. What that does do, however, is serve to open up the potential game environment quite a bit as Fields and the Bears are capable in the deep passing game against an opponent susceptible in that area.
There’s a lot going on here, plain and simple. On one hand, Doug Pederson spoke Tuesday about not wanting to rest his guys for a meaningless game and his team is extremely young, opening up the door to the Jaguars operating from a “business as usual” standpoint. On the other hand, Doug Pederson rested his starters in a meaningless game prior to the postseason when with the Eagles. Basically, we could see everything from full snap rates for the primary skill position players, to lightened loads for the big men up front and Travis Etienne (the players that take the most consistent abuse – shoutout to Mikey for bringing this possibility up), to primary players playing the first half and sitting the second, to skill position players sitting entirely. Yea, happy, happy, joy, joy (shoutout to the Ren and Stimpy fans in the room!). With all of that in mind, we have a pretty clear picture regarding how the Jaguars are likeliest to attack if at full strength as the team has exhibited fantasy friendly tendencies of late, playing at an elevated pace of play (seventh fastest first half pace of play) with a more concentrated offense than they started the year with amongst Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram, and Travis Etienne. Furthermore, six of their top eight games in pass rate over expectation (PROE) have come over the previous six weeks and the team has moved away from the backfield committee it started the season with, in favor of a pure workhorse and change of pace setup (Travis Etienne in the workhorse role with JaMycal Hasty in the change of pace role). Head coach and offensive mastermind Doug Pederson is one of the more forward-leaning offensive minds in the game, capable of both game planning and game management. If we take his words from this week at face value, expect an aggressive game plan from the jump as this team is much more effective when playing with a lead, where they can keep the offense away from one-dimensionality.
As mentioned above, this backfield is now Travis Etienne’s following the mid-season departure of James Robinson. His pass game involvement remains “non-elite but floor-boosting” in the sense that he has not seen more than three targets in a game since Week 7, but his red zone role and overall volume have increased dramatically since the departure of Robinson. To emphasize that point, Etienne ranks fourth amongst running backs in red zone carries this season at 39 (more than Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Josh Jacobs, and Joe Mixon, to name a few) yet has only four rushing scores. This week he plays a Texans team that has allowed the most rushing scores in the league at 18 (through 15 games played). The pure rushing matchup yields a slightly above average 4.43 net-adjusted line yards metric in what should be considered one of the premier rushing matchups in the NFL.
Houston’s defense is a bit of an enigma, no more so than with their pass defense. They have held opponents to a below average 63.54% completion rate but have faced the 10th deepest defensive aDOT. They have also managed to allow only five receiving touchdowns to wide receivers all season, which is two less than the second place Broncos. I can’t find any reason why that is nothing more than variance (and likely due in large part to the fact that teams have simply been able to run all over them this season), but it is startling, nonetheless. The low blitz rates and elevated zone coverages have allowed opponents to rip them deep all season, with spotty pressure rates up front allowing receivers the time to find the holes in the zone. All of that is important because it should serve to narrow the expected ranges of outcomes for the primary pass-catchers on the Jaguars offense, with Christian Kirk and Evan Engram sporting much higher yards per route run values against man coverage (2.33 for Kirk and 1.91 for Engram) this season than they have against zone (1.71 for Kirk and 1.39 for Engram), whereas Zay Jones leads the team in targets, receptions, and has seen the deepest aDOT of the three against zone (and has scored four touchdowns against zone versus one against man). Marvin Jones has become somewhat of an afterthought in this offense, going as far as ceding snaps to Tim Jones and Jamal Agnew since the team’s Week 11 bye.
The Broncos offense has not had many bright spots this season. One of the only times they looked competent, however, was the two and a half quarter stretch in Week 14 against these same Chiefs in their first matchup. The Broncos scored 28 points in the last 32 minutes of that game, which was their highest point total of the season. Last week, Denver was embarrassed on Christmas Day, losing 51-14 to the lowly Rams on national television, and promptly fired their head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, which is a move that many had been calling for since very early in the season. One of the bigger storylines of this NFL season has been the fall from grace of Russell Wilson after the Broncos gave up a boatload of assets and a $235 million guaranteed contract for his services this offseason. He has rewarded them with one of the worst seasons of any QB in the league. There has been a lot of debate on where the blame lies between Wilson and Hackett, and now Wilson has the last couple of weeks of the season to try to paint the narrative that he wasn’t the main problem.
The Broncos rank middle of the league in pass rate and have been relatively conservative most of the year, despite an offseason filled with promises of an explosive downfield attack that played with a fast tempo. Denver has had a lot of injuries among their skill players this season, with their backfield now consisting of older replacement level or lower running backs and most of their ancillary receivers being out at this point. Making matters worse, their dynamic receiving duo of Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy have battled injuries for much of the season, and last week against the Rams was the first time the two of them were both healthy for a full game since Week 8. There are a lot of unknowns for a team when they remove their head coach, especially when it is an offensive minded head coach like Hackett, who clearly had his imprint on a lot of what they are doing. There is some guesswork involved, but I would expect the Broncos to play with a bit more tempo and pass more than we have seen in the past, as they look to turn the page from Hackett. The majority of their targets will likely flow through Jeudy and Sutton against a Chiefs defense that has been beatable for wide receivers this season. That should be especially true due to the staggering talent gap between those two and the rest of the Broncos options, especially if rookie tight end Greg Dulcich is unable to play due to his hamstring injury. The Broncos really have nothing to lose at this point, so hoping to beat the Chiefs with a conservative approach seems counterproductive to what their main goal should be in these last two games of turning the page from the boring and disappointing Hackett era.
Miami ranks sixth in pass rate over expectation on the season, and is one of only EIGHT(!) teams in the NFL this year throwing the ball at a higher rate than their expected pass play rate (what a strange season!), but we’ve also seen some strange bounce-arounds in their play-calling tendencies, with this team somewhat hardheadedly choosing to throw the ball on 80% of their competitive plays against the poor run defense of the Texans in Week 12 (after which McDaniel said he’d made a mistake remaining aggressive so deep into that game — a game in which the Dolphins’ aggressive stance ultimately gave the Texans some final, gasping opportunities for life), following that up with a predictably pass-heavy game plan against the run-tough 49ers (33 Tua attempts in a game in which the Dolphins ran only 46 plays), and following that up with pass attempt totals of 28 // 30 // 25 against the soft run defense of the Chargers, the elite all-around defense of the Bills, and the soft run defense of the Packers. Peeling back the layers further, the Dolphins suffered from low play volume in all three of those games, with 51, 59, and 50 plays, good for pass attempt rates of 54.9%, 50.8%, and 50%. The Dolphins now enter a must-win game for their dimming playoff hopes, on the road against a Patriots defense that ranks 10th in run defense DVOA and third in pass defense DVOA, with Teddy Bridgewater almost certainly set to start under center after Tua Tagovailoa entered concussion protocol on Monday following another potentially-botched head injury sequence. Bridgewater led the Dolphins to a pair of losses earlier this year with three touchdown passes and three interceptions against lesser defenses in the Bengals (stepping in for a concussed Tua) and Vikings (replacing Skylar Thompson on the Dolphins’ fourth drive of the game). That second game was particularly interesting, with the Dolphins calling 17 pass plays to only six rush plays with Skylar under center, then continuing this pass-leaning approach when they switched to Bridgewater. Put it all together, and the Dolphins are likely to “plug and play” with Bridgewater, approaching this game the same way they would have approached it with Tua under center…but with the question of exactly how they would have chosen to attack with Tua under center not necessarily coming with an obvious answer. Anything from a pass-heavy game plan to a totally balanced game plan is in the mix here, with only a run-dominant game plan easy for us to remove from our lists.
The Dolphins have leaned primarily on Raheem Mostert on the ground over the last month, giving him the majority of the running back snaps and a wide-ranging level of touches (over his last four games, 7 // 11 // 17 // 8 carries), though last week, Jeff Wilson reemerged for four more snaps than Mostert and nine carries of his own. Given the low likelihood of a run-heavy game plan from the Dolphins and the elite nature of the Patriots’ run defense (as explored repeatedly in this space, the Pats are on track to finish top three in fewest RB rushing touchdowns allowed for the seventh time in eight years), the Dolphins’ run game should function more as a “balancer” for their passing attack than as a means to the Dolphins winning the game.
In order to win the game, the key pieces, of course, will be Tyreek Hill (recent target counts of 9 // 14 // 10 // 13 // 6) and Jaylen Waddle (recent target counts of 10 // 5 // 4 // 7 // 6). As explored in this space throughout the year, the Patriots play an aggressive brand of defense that leads to occasional big plays (sixth deepest average depth of target faced this season) but also leads to low drive success from opponents (fifth lowest opponent drive success rate // second fewest points allowed per drive), making it difficult for any one player to truly “take over the game” against them. Expect the Patriots to also mix and match coverages in an effort to make it look to Bridgewater like the wide receiver they are covering is actually open. Said differently: the Patriots — who capitalize on their adaptability and variable looks — will know that they can’t cover both Waddle and Hill every play; so rather than worrying too much about trying to take away both players on every single play, they will likely be comfortable giving up some big plays, knowing that they can also A) leverage the confidence generated by these big plays to lure Bridgewater into mistakes, and B) leverage the slow-developing nature of these big plays to get some drive-killing sacks. Because the Patriots don’t care as much about “yards allowed,” the Dolphins may be able to pick up some chunk plays, but long drives and easy scoring opportunities should ultimately be at a premium.
The Colts have been below league average in pass rate over expectation (PROE) in every game under interim head coach Jeff Saturday, which makes sense considering his philosophy as a former center in the NFL. The defense has played primarily from zone coverages and blitzes at low rates, instead electing to adapt an outside-in defensive approach designed to limit splash plays and swarm the point of reception over the middle of the field. And while that philosophy has sapped the upside from most of their games this season, a defense allowing red zone touchdowns at the third highest rate in the league has completely sunk their season. Furthermore, Nick Foles has already been named the starter at quarterback for the second consecutive week as the team has struggled through three starting quarterbacks this season (Matt Ryan, Sam Ehlinger, and Nick Foles). That move rewarded Chargers fans handsomely last week as the Colts mustered just three points against a defense that had largely struggled to keep points off the board this season.
Zack Moss has handled lead back duties in each of the previous two contests for the Colts, managing snap rates of 67% and 69%, and running opportunity totals of 25 and 13. Expect Deon Jackson and Jordan Wilkins to mop up the scraps left behind by Moss as the organization appears set on finding out what they have with the return from the Nyheim Hines trade. With the Colts intent on operating a conservative offense, and with Moss seeing clear lead back usage, the matchup will play a key role in identifying any fantasy potential here. The good news is that the matchup is far from daunting, yielding an above average 4.53 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Giants defense allowing a robust 5.32 yards per running back carry this season (second worst in the league ahead of only the Colts previous opponent, the Chargers).
The biggest problem for the Colts (and any potential for fantasy goodness) rests with the quarterback position, as Nick Foles threw three interceptions and took seven sacks against the Chargers last week. We know the Giants are going to blitz heavily with varying packages, which spells trouble for the statuesque passer this week. The Colts have mixed in about 10% 12-personnel offensive alignments, instead playing primarily from 11-personnel under Saturday, which should yield elevated snap rates for Michael Pittman, Parris Campbell, and Alec Pierce this week. None can be considered with any sense of floor, but all three will be on the field enough for the potential of volume to arise – not exactly a ringing endorsement. Arguably the most interesting piece from this pass offense is rookie tight end Jelani Woods, who saw another bump in snap rate and opportunities last week in the absence of Kyle Granson, the latter of whom missed his second consecutive practice on Thursday with an ankle injury sustained in Week 15.
The Saints have a combined 34 pass attempts over the previous two weeks in wins over Atlanta and Cleveland, games that land second and third in lowest pass rate over expectation (PROE) for New Orleans this season (behind only the Week 6 “Taysom game where Hill rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries against the Seahawks). The state of the Saints team has forced their hand somewhat, with Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry done for the season and Chris Olave out of action last week against the Browns. Furthermore, quarterback // tight end // fullback Taysom Hill has played between 40% and 49% of the offensive snaps in each of the previous six games, mixing his time between numerous roles in the backfield, tight end, and in the slot. This offense is far from a standard NFL offense on paper. With Chris Olave looking likely to return after one missed game, I tentatively expect running back Alvin Kamara, wide receivers Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, and tight end Adam Trautman (the best blocking tight end on the roster) to be the only players above 60% snap rates, with Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith, Juwan Johnson, and Taysom Hill the remaining situational pieces. Either way you slice it, this team is a veritable fantasy disaster.
Alvin Kamara should continue as the unquestioned lead back, albeit in a role lesser than other lead backs around the league. Veteran David Johnson was elevated from the practice squad for the third time last week, leaving the organization with a decision on whether to sign him to the active roster or utilize another presence as the change of pace back this week. The Saints also have Dwayne Washington, who missed the first two practices of the week with an illness; and Eno Benjamin, who has been cut by two teams this season, on the roster. Kamara has struggled mightily with efficiency this year, managing only 3.9 yards per carry and 5.0 yards per touch (54th and 24th, respectively). He has also scored only four total touchdowns, three of which came in one game. The matchup yields a slightly above average 4.49 net-adjusted line yards metric against an Eagles opponent ranked first in the league in both DVOA against the pass and yards allowed per pass but just 19th in DVOA against the run.
The Saints pass game is tricky to figure out on a weekly basis due to the heavy rotation of situational players, with all of Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith, Chris Olave, Rashid Shaheed, Juwan Johnson, and Taysom Hill likely to be mixed and matched throughout the game. Expect Olave and Shaheed to have the best chances at snap rates conducive to GPP consideration, but the matchup could not be worse against a top three secondary (arguably the top secondary in the league, depending on who you ask). The clear funnel through the air is to the slot due to the presence of Darius Slay and James Bradberry, and the absence of nickel corner Avonte Maddox, but the problem is the Saints don’t have a true slot wide receiver nor a defined slot role in their offense. Consider any New Orleans pass catcher a wide range of outcomes play with upside necessitated by playoff desperation-induced volume potential.
The Panthers season has been a whirlwind as they started out looking like potentially the worst team in the league, fired their head coach after five games, traded their best offensive player shortly after, and have since pulled things together to be firmly in contention for the NFC South division crown. The Panthers can win the division if they win their last two games but will be eliminated from contention if they lose this week in a matchup against a Bucs team that they thoroughly dominated earlier this year.
Sam Darnold has been under center for the Panthers since Week 12 and ranks second in the NFL in EPA (expected points added) per play among all quarterbacks during that time frame, behind only Patrick Mahomes. The caveat to that, of course, is the fact that Darnold has only dropped back to pass on 40% of his snaps during that time frame, which is the lowest rate in the league. The Panthers formula during this stretch (during which they have a 3-1 record) has been a heavy dose of the running game with a slow and methodical approach while scheming short area targets for Darnold to act in a game manager role and keep the game in front of him. Darnold had his best statistical start last week against the Lions porous secondary, but is in for a tougher test this week against a Bucs defense that has been very tough against the pass this season. The Panthers success has clearly coincided with pounding the ball through their running backs and we should expect much of the same this week as their surprising run at the playoffs is on the line. D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard act as a great complementary duo in the backfield, with Foreman acting as the hammering big bodied running back who pounds the defense and has the ability to break long runs while Hubbard excels in space. The Panthers will once again hope to control tempo and field position in this game through a heavy dose of their backfield and schemed easy looks for Darnold, although the speed of the Bucs defense could make things tricky for them in creating completions, as the lack of downfield threat that their offense currently presents will effectively shrink the field for them.
The Browns have scored three offensive touchdowns across Deshaun Watson’s four starts with the franchise. Furthermore, they’ve scored on just 25% of their red zone trips with Watson at the helm. They have maintained an emphasis on the run as only one of four games have come with an above average pass rate over expectation (PROE), and that one just barely got there. They have struggled through a lack of downfield ability resulting in a one-dimensional offense that struggles with efficiency. Other than that, the $230,000,000 was well spent (kidding y’all, apologies to any Browns fans in the building). Somewhat anecdotally, their defense is likely to get more credit than they deserve over those four Watson starts, after scoring three defensive and special teams touchdowns against the Texans, holding the Bengals to 23 points on the road, beating the Ravens 13-3, and holding the Saints to 17 points. The context of those games includes a reeling Texans opponent; a Ravens team with Tyler Huntley at quarterback that inexplicably went away from the run while averaging 7.1 yards per tote; 6.9 yards per carry allowed to one of the least efficient backs in the league (looking at you, Joe Mixon); and hosting the Saints in the third coldest game in Browns history in Cleveland. All of that to say, this team is clearly still trying to figure things out offensively and their defense is not performing to the level that perception likely indicates. Expect the Browns to start with a slow pace of play (24th-ranked first half pace of play), elevated rush rates, and a passing game primarily confined to the short areas of the field until otherwise forced, ultimately coming down to how effective the Commanders can be with the change back to Carson Wentz at quarterback.
Nick Chubb has been kept between 50% and 63% of the offensive snaps in 12 of 15 games played this season, with the three outliers coming in a 38-15 blowout loss to the Patriots in Week 6 (44%), a 39-17 blowout loss to the Dolphins in Week 10 (48%), and a 13-3 victory over the Tyler Huntley-led Ravens in Week 15 (70%). Furthermore, Chubb managed more than 4.7 yards per carry in eight of his first nine games this season and has not gone over 4.7 yards per carry in any game since Week 10. Expect the classic 1A/1B snap rate split between Chubb and Kareem Hunt to end the season, with the former likelier to see additional opportunities in neutral to positive game scripts, and the latter likelier to see additional opportunities in negative game scripts. The matchup yields a well below average 4.22 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Washington defense holding opposing backfields to just 4.03 yards per carry this season (10th fewest in the league).
Deshaun Watson has had games of 4.4, 5.8, 6.0, and 6.6 yards per attempt across his four starts this season, highlighting how much the Browns have struggled to attack downfield with Watson under center. The inability to work downfield has translated to Watson relying on the pass catchers that win within the first few yards of the line of scrimmage, which helps to explain the high reliance on both Amari Cooper and David Njoku thus far. Expect that trend to continue this week against one of the more pass-funnel defenses in the league. The Commanders started the season with top 10 man coverage rates but have flipped the script over the second half of the season, running zone coverages at a top 10 rate. The shift in defensive alignments should theoretically serve to filter pass game production to the shorter areas of the field, which already aligns with how the Browns are likeliest to attack through the air. Consider Amari Cooper and David Njoku solid bets to lead the team in targets in what could develop into double-digit target volume. Most notably, Njoku has played 94% of the offensive snaps or more in each of his last three games as a true all-around tight end. Rookie wide receiver David Bell operates primarily from the slot and would be the player likeliest to see his snap rate and role influenced by game environment, with tight end Harrison Bryant likeliest to see variable usage, and Donovan Peoples-Jones operating in an every-down role on the perimeter.
Many were concerned about where the 49ers season would go when Trey Lance went down in Week 2. After making amends with Jimmy Garoppolo and some ups and downs early in the season, the 49ers seemed to have things on track when he also was lost for the season. As they turned to 7th round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy to replace Jimmy G, a lot of people thought San Francisco’s season was toast. Shockingly, however, the 49ers offense has been all systems go and has played at its highest level of the season since Purdy took over. The 49ers have won their last four games by an average of 17.3 points and have scored over 30 points three times – the same amount of times they scored over 30 points in their first eleven games combined. We have all been aware of how dominant the 49ers defense can be, but their recent explosion of offensive balance and efficiency has them in prime position to make a deep playoff run and in some people’s minds they are the team to beat in the NFC.
The 49ers offense under Kyle Shanahan is a run-based scheme that looks to stretch defenses both horizontally and vertically, while getting the ball in the hands of players who are great at breaking tackles and making plays. This week they face one of the worst defenses in the league and a franchise that has made several moves this week effectively “waving the white flag” on the season. As I expected last week, the 49ers cut back on Christian McCaffrey’s usage to limit the physical toll he takes heading into the playoffs. Their overall play calling rates stayed relatively consistent, they just gave about a third of the running back carries to Tyrion Davis-Price. The 49ers are likely to get Deebo Samuel back this week, adding to their dominant skill position stable of CMC, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle. Kittle has looked like possibly the best tight end in the league whenever Samuel has been out over the last couple of years, but Samuel’s return likely leaves San Francisco more balanced, and their likely high level of offensive success early in this game against a lame duck opponent should allow them to manage reps and limit the hits that all of their key players take.
The Jets season has been a roller coaster ride of epic proportions as they’ve started three different starting quarterbacks and moved swiftly in and out of playoff contention in the AFC as the season went on. They are still alive for a playoff berth but need to win both of their remaining games and get some help in order for that to happen. They will get Mike White back under center this week and he has been by far their most efficient QB. He will be going up against a Seahawks defense that has struggled most of the season but provides a difficult road environment in Seattle.
The Jets identity is built primarily on their defense, which has been a borderline elite unit all season. However, during White’s starts, the Jets have shown a greater propensity to throw the ball and be aggressive while showing an increase in overall efficiency in all phases of their offense. The Seahawks defense has had moments of being exploited both on the ground and through the air. During Mike White’s three starts, he averaged over 300 passing yards per game and the Jets have a very talented trio of wide receivers in Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, and Corey Davis to go along with multiple running backs and tight ends who are capable receiving threats. I would expect the Jets to get back to opening things up the way they did in White’s earlier starts, while attacking a Seattle defense that has not held an opponent under 20 points in two months. The Jets have a ferocious defense that can truly tee off on opponents when they are able to build a lead, and the insertion of White in the starting lineup is precisely for the fact that he gives them the ability to do just that. I expect an aggressive approach from New York early in this game. White’s ability to distribute the ball to his playmakers like a point guard should work very well against the Seahawks.
Minnesota may be the biggest “poser” we have seen from a 12-3 team in many years, as they barely have a positive point differential for the season despite a relatively mundane schedule and they have looked very beatable in recent weeks as they lost handily to the Lions, narrowly squeaked by the Giants, Jets, and Vikings, and needed the greatest comeback in NFL history to defeat the Jeff Saturday-led Colts. Kirk Cousins has continued to be very up and down, with the downs mostly coming against high end opponents and/or in primetime games, and the Vikings defense has been abysmal for what you would expect from a team with their record this deep in a season. All of those things are reflected, however, in the fact that the Vikings are underdogs against a team with a losing record who they thoroughly dominated in all phases in Week 1. If you could go back in time and tell anyone who watched that game that the Vikings would be healthy with a 12-3 record at this point in time and getting 3.5 points from that same Packers team, they would likely put a small fortune on the Vikings.
In the first matchup between these teams, it was Justin Jefferson who stole the show. The Vikings moved him all over the formation and got him matched up with linebackers and safeties, while also creating enough confusion in Green Bay’s defense to where Jefferson was left uncovered multiple times. Star cornerback Jaire Alexander has openly discussed his desire to shadow Jefferson and called his Week 1 performance a “fluke” when talking to the media this week. The Packers defense will be left with a predicament, as they will have to decide if they allow the Vikings to get Jefferson in whatever matchups they choose or if they want to change up their scheme from what they’ve done all year (Alexander has rarely shadowed or gone in the slot) for this one matchup. While Alexander is a great player, there is no guarantee he will shut down Jefferson and if they do shadow him they will effectively be deciding to leave him in one-on-one coverage for most of the game – something that could also prove to be a problem against what most people consider to be the best receiver in the game who has totaled 47 targets in his last three games. Likewise, a change in their scheme would likely leave them open in many other areas as the Vikings have several weapons in their arsenal, with TJ Hockenson and KJ Osborn each having a monster game under their belts recently and Adam Thielen always being capable of making high leverage plays despite his aging skill set. The Vikings running game has struggled to consistently produce this season, but the Packers bottom ranked run defense should provide some potential for them to get things going in that area as well and their underrated offensive line should give Dalvin Cook, who has destroyed the Packers throughout much of his career, some room to run. The ability of the Vikings to have an effective running game and the dilemma that Jefferson puts on the Packers defense should put Kirk Cousins in position to have a very good game. His well documented struggles have come primarily in spots where he was asked to do too much in predictable situations against good defenses, and if the Vikings are able to get things going on the ground then Cousins should be able to operate from a clean pocket and dissect a Green Bay defense that was being lit up by the Dolphins play action passing prior to Tua Tagovailoa taking a hit that we now know concussed him.
The Super Bowl-drunk 5-10 Rams come into Week 17 on the verge of putting up the most futile title defense of all time (that crown is currently held by the 1999 Broncos who went 6-10). Playoff scenarios matter for a lot of teams this week but the Rams aren’t among them. They’ve been eliminated for weeks, which makes them one of the more predictable teams for DFS purposes. The Rams are going to keep playing “hard” meaning there shouldn’t be any significant risk to them sitting players who would otherwise be starters. The Rams just beat Nathaniel “can’t hack it” Hackett out of his job, and Sean McVay would like nothing more than to finish a lost season with some momentum going into next year.
Sean McVay was one of the first coaches to take advantage of playing at an elevated pace but that has not been the case this year. Roster limitations have slowed the Rams to a sluggish speed (27th overall) which is no fluke (30th in situational neutral pace). Their pace barely quickens if chasing points (23rd when trailing). The Rams play slow in all situations, in what looks like an effort from the coaching staff to hide what has been a dismal offense. For perspective, the Rams 51 points last week make up 18% of their 281 total points scored on the year! It’s hard to blame McVay for trying to lean on his defense with all his best offensive players injured. The Chargers have been solid against the pass (9th in DVOA) but brutalized on the ground (28th in DVOA), and their DVOA ranking doesn’t even tell the whole story of how weak the Chargers have been against the run. Without repeating a bunch of stats OWS readers are familiar with by this point in the season, the takeaway is the Chargers run defense is tissue paper soft. The Chargers are one of the clearest run funnels in the league and McVay should be more than happy to take advantage of their relative weakness, given his team’s injuries in the passing game. The Rams have essentially been trying to run out the clock on the season and this matchup will encourage them to stick with that plan of attack. The Rams O-line hasn’t been good (22nd in adjusted line yards) but they can still win this matchup. Expect the Rams to continue to play slow, run the ball, and hope their season ends painlessly.
Sunday night brings us one of the lowest total games I’ve ever seen as the Steelers visit the Ravens. This game has a Vegas total of just 35 points with Baltimore favored by 2.5. It is very rare to have neither team projected to even reach 20 points! Lamar Jackson is also likely to miss again as he hasn’t practiced yet this week (bad news, because he was expected to). Good thing there’s Showdown or nobody would watch this.
Update: Lamar Jackson has been officially ruled out
On the Steelers side, we know the deal with the run game by this point in the season. Najee Harris is the RB1 but he’s no longer in the massive bell cow role that he saw in his rookie year, playing around 70% of the snaps or so, and averaging just 3.3 targets per game (he was over five last year). Encouragingly, Najee saw the most targets he’s seen all year last week with nine, along with his second highest count of total running back opportunities with 25. All that said, however, he’s been terribly inefficient and more of a floor play than a ceiling one (only one game all year of over 20 DK points, but also only three of under 10). As the second-most expensive player on the slate, it’s hard for me to get excited about him in tournaments as a road underdog with a decent-but-not-great workload in a tough matchup. Behind Najee, Jaylen Warren will play a backup role of around 30% of the snaps. Warren has reached double-digit DK points four times this season, which at $3,200 will play. He’s a reasonable tourney option who is better than just a punt (and we know that “RB2 in Showdown” is historically a good leverage spot).
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In the passing game, Diontae Johnson continues one of the weirdest seasons I’ve ever seen, as he’s seen a total of 130 targets with 82 receptions and no touchdowns (Saquon Barkley is second with 72 targets and 55 receptions and no receiving TDs). Diontae is seeing consistently strong volume with only two games under seven targets and seven games of 10+ targets, but much like Najee, he hasn’t been able to convert the volume to box-score success. At $8,600, though, aiming for a strong floor play in an ugly game feels more attractive to me than Najee at $10.2k. George Pickens is someone we’ve generally viewed as having a big ceiling that we just haven’t seen yet, but the advanced metrics point to a highly inefficient receiver. While he’s a rookie and could still have a great ceiling, it’s fair at this point to wonder if he might need more seasoning before we get a chance to see it. At $8,400, he’s likely to come in at significantly lower ownership than Diontae, I would guess. If that’s the case, I’ll continue to be overweight and chase the ceiling dream, but if it looks like they’re going to be similarly owned, I would lean toward Diontae. The WR3 role is being split between Steven Sims and Miles Boykin, with Gunner Olszewski seeing a handful of snaps (diminishing last week, though – I’m not sure if that’s a trend, but I’d guess it is). Sims has a high of four targets in a game, while Boykin only has three on the year, and Gunner has seven. Fun times down here. Sims would be my favorite here as he at least has targets in every game going back to Week 8 (and his role has grown somewhat since Chase Claypool was traded), but these are all pretty gross plays. At tight end, Pat Freiermuth jumped up to an 80% snap rate last week for the first time since Week 2, with eight targets to go along with it. Part of that may have been matchup driven against Las Vegas, but Freiermuth is a guy I always love to target as he’s the second-most consistent pass catcher on the team outside of Diontae, and he’s priced over $1k cheaper. Zach Gentry and Connor Heyward will back up Freiermuth and can be included in MME pools as punt options.
Monday Night Football brings us a really exciting Showdown as the Bills visit the Bengals for a 49.5 total game in which Buffalo is favored by a point. Two great offenses, a nice high total, close spread . . . should be a fun game (we hope).
On the Bills side, the backfield is led by Devin Singletary in a 1A/1B split with James Cook. In the last few games Singletary has out-snapped Cook, but the gap between them has closed enormously from early in the season. We used to see Singletary in the 70%+ range while Cook was in the high teens or 20s; but lately, it’s been Singletary in the high 40s to 60%, while Cook is in the 36-43% range. Both have shown explosiveness, and while Cook has been more efficient, Singletary is the favorite for more touches; in the four games since the split really started changing, Cook has 34 carries and 12 targets while Singletary has 46 carries and 11 targets. On a slate with a lot of viable stud plays, though, salary is extremely important and that has me slightly favoring Cook for the $1,400 discount in price. Working against the running backs is what we always see in Buffalo: they’re in a timeshare, and their quarterback is a massive touchdown vulture with seven rushing scores on the season (Singletary has five and Cook has two). Fullback Reggie Gilliam can be included in MME player pools as well, with 10 targets (and a touchdown!). On a slate with so many studs, it’s entirely plausible that a punt play who scores 7-8 points with a single touchdown catch could be in the optimal lineup.
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In the passing game, the full-time pass catchers (or close to it) are Gabe Davis, Stef Diggs, and Dawson Knox, with Isaiah McKenzie, Khalil Shakir, now Cole Beasley, and Quintin Morris serving in rotational roles. One of the big decisions on this slate is going to be around the elite receivers with Diggs, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins priced so close to each other. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I prefer Chase first, then Diggs, then Higgins. I’ll dig more into the Bengals on their team section, but while Chase has double-digit points in every game this season, Diggs has two games of 6.7 and 4.6 DK points. Oh, and those are sandwiched around a game with 10.7 DK points, and he’s seen just 16 targets in those three games (well below his average of ~10 targets per game the rest of the season). We’ve seen Buffalo struggle more than we’re used to in the passing game since Josh Allen injured his elbow. These are narrow points of separation as Diggs is still a strong option and the Bills are still an elite offense, but those things are enough to have me slightly favor Chase. Gabe Davis has been very boom/bust this year (with a whole lot more bust), with just four games over 15 DK points and two games over 20. However, he’s on the field more than any other pass catcher in the offense, and he has more per-target upside than just about anyone. If you think the Bengals will push Buffalo (likely), then we are also likely to see some deep shots to Davis. At just $6,400, I think his ceiling is higher than anyone else below Joe Mixon in the pricing tier. Dawson Knox has shown an extreme touchdown dependency for any kind of meaning fantasy output this year (just one game over 10 DK points in which he didn’t score a touchdown), but at least he has three touchdowns and 20 targets in Buffalo’s last three games (that’s after averaging just 3.9 targets/game previously), so it looks like his involvement in the offense is picking up. Everyone else is a dart throw to some degree. McKenzie’s the best one, obviously, both because of his snap share and his performance this year. Shakir is on the field a fair bit but rarely targeted (just one game over two targets and it was when McKenzie and Knox were both out), while Beasley has played 14% and 9% of the snaps in two games since rejoining his former team. Morris has six targets on the season when you take out the game he filled in for Knox. All of Shakir, Beasley, and Morris are extremely thin punts.
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