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It’s the coldest comfort to roster a receiver or tight end or running back who sees a glut of targets and fails to convert them into fantasy production.
Everything aligned for the player: He ran a bunch of pass routes, he saw a good number of looks from his quarterback -- maybe even a high-value target or two. It didn’t end with fantasy points on the scoreboard so it was, you believe, a failure.
“Process” can sound like the official excuse of the loser -- a word you blurt out when things go sideways. “The process was right,” the loser says, “and the results didn’t follow.” Whatever you think of a process for spotting worthy borderline fantasy options, it remains vitally important. Figuring out how to identify streaming plays or desperation options in fantasy football is the first step to benefiting from unforeseen production from said players.
In this space we’ll examine the intriguing cross-section of defenses most vulnerable to certain positions and how pass catchers are being used in their respective offenses. Mostly we’ll focus on tight ends and running backs whose weekly prospects might look slightly less hideous with some much-needed context.
Our early-season data will naturally come from the 2020 season. With every passing week, our understanding of defensive shortcomings and pass catchers’ roles will improve, and with that, players highlighted in this space will be more viable in 12 and 14-team fantasy leagues.
Reasons Not To Panic
Before we get into target decoding for borderline (or desperation) Week 3 fantasy options, let’s calm ourselves about slow starts for some of the offseason’s most highly touted pass catchers. In evaluating their opportunity, I looked at targets per route run, air yards share, and WOPR -- not the genocidal computer from the 1983 movie War Games, but a weighted average of a player's target market share. WOPR is useful in determining who is earning targets and how valuable those targets can be.
Jefferson after two weeks is third among Vikings wide receivers in fantasy points. I hate it, you hate it, everyone hates it. Unless you're some sort of deranged K.J. Osborn truther.
He is, however, leading the Vikings in targets (19) while dominating Minnesota air yards (219). His WOPR of 0.71 is worlds higher than Adam Thielen (0.48) or K.J. Osborn (0.3). And Jefferson is being targeted on 21.4 percent of his pass routes, higher than Thielen’s 18.8 percent and Osborn’s 16.9 percent. Absolutely nothing has changed for the team’s alpha wideout except for the lack of splash plays through the season’s first couple games. Remember: Jefferson scored a touchdown that was ruled a non-touchdown because the refs hate your fantasy team.
Our game is a volatile one. Even targets can be volatile and dependent on game script. None of Jefferson’s early season peripheral numbers are worrisome. Don’t trade him in your redraft leagues. In fact, you should do anything and everything to acquire the guy who is one year removed from one of the league’s greatest rookie campaigns.
You thought you had something with Smith after his wondrous pro debut in which he scorched the Falcons for six catches, 71 yards, and a score on eight targets. Then came Week 2, and the rookie wideout caught a measly two of his seven targets for 16 yards against the 49ers. You were tilting.
I’m here to report that you do, in fact, have something in Smith. He’s clearly the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver, with a 0.75 WOPR, the seventh highest among NFL receivers through Week 2. Jalen Reagor is second among Eagles pass catchers with a 0.45 WOPR. Smith heads into Week 3 with a heady 27 percent target share and 224 air yards, 126 air yards more than Reagor.
There’s no reason to fret about Smith after a quiet Week 2 in which Philadelphia’s offense threw just 24 passes and were held to 55 offensive plays, the sixth lowest of the week. A Week 3 date with an ownable Dallas secondary should have Smith drafters salivating all over their various mobile devices.
Mooney truthers were on full tilt after Week 1, when their guy fell victim to Andy Dalton’s poor play, catching five of his seven targets for 26 yards. Week 2 was slightly less horrible, with Mooney grabbing six of eight targets for 66 yards against the Bengals.
Mooney’s peripherals should be heartening for those who drafted him hoping he would provide every-week fantasy usage in 2021. The second-year receiver has a team-high WOPR of 0.63, a touch higher than Allen Robinson’s 0.57 WOPR (recall that A-Rob dropped an easy touchdown from Justin Fields last week). Mooney leads the Bears with a 38 percent air yards share and has been targeted on 20 percent of his pass routes. Robinson has a target per route run rate of 19.4 percent.
Importantly -- critically, some might say -- Mooney is being used differently than he was as a rookie, when Mitch Trubisky missed him time and again on deep shots, slowly but surely turning me into the Joker. Mooney in 2021 has an 8.6 air yards per target, way down from his 2020 air yards per target of 11.2. He’s also seen a drop in yards per target. The speedy, elusive Mooney retains his big play potential while being used much more as an intermediate target in Chicago’s (rather terrible) passing attack. Last year’s prayer yards all-star is set to go off if Fields can deliver.
Week 3 Decoded Targets
Tyler Conklin (MIN) vs. SEA
When in doubt -- if you are, in fact ever in doubt -- play tight ends running a good number of routes in a fantasy-friendly environment. That’s exactly what we have in Week 3 with Conklin, who will see plenty of snaps and routes in a Seahawks-Vikings game sporting a 56-point total, tied for the highest of the week.
Only nine tight ends have run more routes than Conklin through two weeks. He’s played 75 percent of Minnesota’s snaps and run a route on a less-than-abominable 63.3 percent of Kirk Cousins’ drop backs. Would we like him to have more than six catches on eight targets? Well, yes. But beggars are not often in a position to choose, and if you’re thinking about deploying Conklin against Seattle, you are a beggar. I am anti-begging and take no pleasure in reporting this.
We don’t know if Seattle is a good (or bad) matchup for tight ends. The Seabags have played two teams -- the Colts and Titans -- that don’t really use their tight ends in the passing game. So you don’t be stunned to learn tight ends have commanded a lowly 17.6 percent target share against Seattle in the season’s first two weeks, per FanDuel's JJ Zachariason. Conklin is a superb process play in a game that should be bursting with passing yardage and, hopefully, touchdowns.
Dan Arnold (CAR) at HOU
After intentionally embarrassing me in Week 1 -- Dan, I know you read this column weekly -- Arnold had the gall to catch three passes for 55 yards in Carolina’s Week 2 domination of the Saints. Now he has what could be the premiere tight end matchup, going against Houston on Thursday night.
I can’t quit you, Dan (again, I know you’re reading).
Tight ends through two weeks have seen a 30 percent target share against the Texans, the third highest in the league. Houston is being ripped to the tune of 88.5 tight end receiving yards on 10.5 targets per game. Week 2 saw Cleveland tight ends combine for 11 receptions on a dozen targets against the Texans. I’m highlighting Houston in part because they haven’t faced world-beating tight ends like Darren Waller and Travis Kelce. James O'Shaughnessy, you may remember, managed six catches on eight targets against these Texans on opening day.
Houston linebackers, it turns out, are faring poorly in pass coverage. Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham is Pro Football Focus’ second worst coverage linebacker through two weeks. Houston linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill has the 18th worst PFF linebacker coverage grade. Hence, the tight end success against Dave Culley’s team.
Arnold has run a route on about half of Sam Darnold’s drop backs in the early going. Probably that rate would have been higher if Carolina hadn’t taken the air out of the ball in their blowout Week 2 victory. His Week 2 usage was lacking, but Arnold quite encouragingly was targeted on 25 percent of his pass routes against New Orleans. Fellow Panthers tight end Ian Thomas was targeted on 15 percent of his routes last week.
Am I projecting Arnold for 10.5 targets? I am not. Neither should you. But the matchup couldn’t be sweeter and the Panthers’ implied total of 25.75 points is something short of bad. Play Arnold on Thursday night and feel alive once again.