NFL Advanced Matchup Plays: Week 4
Last week was weird. It was beyond weird. It was like a David Lynch fever dream. As nonsensical and poorly scripted as anything M. Night Shyamalan produced from 2004 to 2016. Reality has officially jumped the shark. The Rams/49ers game went nearly 40 points over their over/under. Mercedes Lewis had zero catches on 4 targets heading into the week, but left Sunday morning with three touchdowns. Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Brian Hoyer were three of our five highest-graded quarterbacks of Week 3. I feel like reality now makes as much sense as a Salvador Dali painting. Cam Newton has an equivalent passer rating to Brock Osweiler over each of their last 16 games. Oh, what time is it? I don’t know! Because my clock is melting. And there’s a giraffe, or possibly Mike Glennon, in my backyard, and it’s on fire.
It’s going to be hard for me to move on from last week’s slate of games. I’m afraid it has left a permanent stain on my soul, and I will never quite fully trust this world ever again. But move on we must! On to Cincinnati and Week 4. I’m going to try to be a little less chalky in this column moving forward. So, with that in mind, here are some of my favorite lesser-talked-about options of the week.
Drew Brees [DK: 5th-highest-priced, FD: 3rd-highest-priced] – With those playing on slates that include the Sunday AM game, I’m absolutely in love with the idea of paying up for Brees. We’ve seen weird things occur in London before, but Brees has experience there, passing for 339 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions against the Chargers in 2008. Getting slot wide receiver Willie Snead back this week can only aid in Brees’ potential. Though without him, Brees is still averaging an impressive 289 passing yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions per game, despite facing tough defenses against the pass in Carolina and Minnesota. Miami’s secondary, meanwhile, is an utter atrocity. The Dolphins rank worst in team pass coverage grade and are allowing a league-worst passer rating (116.4) to opposing quarterbacks, despite facing the Jets in one of their only two games. Two of Miami’s three starting cornerbacks graded out among our 20-worst last season. The only one who graded out well (Byron Maxwell), has been our 14th-worst-graded cornerback over the past two weeks, ranked 26th-worst in 2015, and played so poorly in camp he almost lost his job. Miami has two of our eight-worst-graded linebackers in coverage over the past two weeks, and both of their starting safeties grade out “poor” to “below average” as well. I plan on stacking Brees with both Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry. 59.9 percent of New Orleans’ fantasy points allowed to wide receivers thus far have been to the slot (which ranks most in the league), and with Marshon Lattimore back (who shadowed and held Cooks to just 37 yards in Week 2), Devante Parker should be in for a rough day. Kenny Stills is a fine cost-saving option as well.
Philip Rivers [DK: 9th-highest, FD: 17th-highest] – Last week was just the second time in 13 games Rivers has failed to throw for 300-yards or double-digit scores. I think it’s safe to assume we’ll be getting Rivers at low ownership this week, after his disastrous three-interception performance against the Chiefs on Sunday. Pat Thorman highlighted the Eagles as a “funnel defense” based on their 11th-best run defense grade but fourth-worst pass coverage grade. “Teams are passing on them 70 percent of the time in neutral situations (most), while the Chargers are passing on 64 percent of situation-neutral plays (seventh-most).” Melvin Gordon was limited in practice on Thursday, and is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry, but ranks 10th at the position in targets. After Eli Manning put up over 300-yards with three-touchdowns against the Eagles last week (he only had one such performance all of last season), Rivers feels like a safe bet to reach value (on FanDuel) at home, in what could be a shootout (only favored by two), and the eighth-highest implied point total of the week. All of Philadelphia’s starting linebackers and safeties have been graded as “poor” thus far, and cornerback Jalen Mills (our worst-graded cornerback in 2016) set a PFF record for most times thrown at in a single game last week. It’s hard for me to peg down a single stacking option, but Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin (assuming Mike Williams is still out) will get the most routes against Mills this week.
Chris Carson [DK: 20th-highest, FD: 15th-highest] – Carson disappointed in Week 3, totaling just 34 yards on 11 carries in a game Seattle mostly trailed. Week 4, however, projects similarly to Seattle’s victory over San Francisco, when Carson totaled 93 yards on 20 carries. Carson has out-snapped C.J. Prosise by 49 and Thomas Rawls by 75 over the past two weeks. With Prosise now out, the Seahawks are likely to lean heavy on Carson in a game they won’t need to throw the much (especially with Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin banged up), as 13.0-point favorites at home. Carson has played extremely well this year too, ranking behind only Kareem Hunt in elusive rating, which looks at missed tackles forced and yards after contact to measure how effective a running back has been irrespective to their blocking.
Christian McCaffrey [DK: 10th-highest, FD: 19th-highest] – Through three weeks, McCaffrey is averaging 8.3 carries per game, and 7.7 targets per game. That may not seem like a lot, but that receiving workload is huge for full point PPR leagues. McCaffrey has struggled as a runner thus far, but his usage reminds of Theo Riddick in 2016, who ranked seventh-best among running backs in expected fantasy points per game last season. He finished the season ranking eighth in fantasy points per game (16.2), third in targets per game (6.2), and 35th in carries per game (6.2). Though it’s looking like Kelvin Benjamin will play, the team will still be without Greg Olsen and a “competent Cam Newton. McCaffrey played the “safety-valve” role on this offense last week, leading his team in targets with 11, catching nine for 101 yards, while adding 16 yards rushing on the ground. The Patriots are allowing the third-most receiving fantasy points per game to opposing running backs this season, after allowing the fourth-most last year. I asked PFF’s NFL and CFB Analyst John Kosko what the Patriots would have to do if they viewed McCaffrey as Carolina’s biggest threat on offense. Kosko replied, “Put Patrick Chung on him, and pray.” Elaborating, he said, “Chung will most likely shadow or spy McCaffrey throughout the game.” I’m not sure I view this as much of a threat, however, as Chung was our third-worst-graded safety in coverage last season.
Joe Mixon [DK: 17th-highest, FD: 37th-highest] – Mixon might end up chalky, but even if that is the case, I’ll still have trouble fading him. His value is too obvious and glaring on FanDuel, as the 37th-highest-priced running back, while he sits at No. 15 in my rankings. By traditional statistics, Cleveland appears stout against the run, ranking 20th in fantasy points per game allowed and 25th in yards per carry allowed to opposing running backs. However, Cleveland is also allowing 2.32 yards before contact per attempt (second-worst), which suggests the opportunity has been there but Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Indianapolis failed to capitalize, for whatever reason. Newly anointed offensive coordinator Bill Lazor knows Mixon is the key to this running game, handing him 18 carries (11 more than next-closest) and three targets (one more than next-closest) against the Packers last week. I also love the idea of stacking Mixon with Cincinnati’s defense. The Browns are allowing pressure 38 percent of the time (ninth-worst), while Cincinnati is pressuring opposing quarterbacks 47 percent of the time (second-best).
Brandin Cooks [DK: 6th-highest, FD: 6th-highest] – Despite his big game last week, I’m hearing and seeing little buzz surrounding Cooks in Week 4. As we mentioned earlier, Cooks had a tough matchup in Week 2 against Marshon Lattimore. Per PFF’s NFL and CFB Analysts John Kosko and Brett Whitefield, Lattimore was the best and most NFL-ready cornerback prospect to come out since Patrick Peterson (2011). Lattimore shadowed and held Cooks to just 37 yards in Week 2, but Cooks has seen seven targets and totals 219 yards and two touchdowns in more neutral matchups against the Chiefs and Texans. I think Cooks could be a sneaky leverage play off of Rob Gronkowski, in a matchup that bodes well for him. As I wrote about this offseason, Cooks has been by far the league’s most “speed-sensitive” wide receiver over the past decade. This held true again last week, and even without factoring in Carolina’s especially slow cornerbacks, the Panthers allowed the sixth-most fantasy points per game to outside wide receivers last year (where Cooks runs 80 percent of his routes). Carolina also has been one of the league’s most zone-heavy defenses in recent years, and from 2015-2016, Cooks averaged 2.20 fantasy points per target against zone coverage, but only 1.69 points per game against man.
UPDATE: With Daryl Worley out, Cooks will now run the majority of his routes against Kevon Seymour. Seymour isn’t good, but he is fast (4.39). The matchup probably just got a little less ideal, but I’ll still be plenty invested in Cooks this week.
DeSean Jackson [DK: 36th-highest, FD: 27th-highest] – I’m in part highlighting Jackson because he is a fantastic tournament play this week, but also because I’m secretly hoping someone from my beloved New York Giants front office reads this and finally convinces head coach Ben McAdoo to bench Eli Apple for Ross Cockrell. The Giants have 2016’s No.6-graded outside cornerback in Janoris Jenkins to shadow and shut down Mike Evans, and 2016’s No.2-graded slot cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to shut down Adam Humphries. This always funnels targets to the No. 2 outside wide receiver, in this case, Jackson, who will run the majority of his routes against Apple – our No. 11-worst-graded cornerback this year. In his last four games, Apple has seen 32 targets, allowing 21 receptions, 293 yards, and five touchdowns. If this were a wide receiver, he’d rank behind only Stefon Diggs in fantasy points per game this year.
Adam Thielen [DK: 29th-highest, FD: 32nd-highest] – It feels gross chasing a Minnesota pass catcher after “(player-popup #case-keenum)Case Keenum”:/players/case-keenum-16877’s blowup performance last week, after Keenum averaged a 62.3 passer rating across his prior five games. Still, I love this matchup for Thielen. I think Darius Slay, who has been one of the best shadow cornerbacks over the past two years, shuts down Stefon Diggs and funnels targets towards Thielen. Rudolph might be in play as well, against a Detroit Lions defense that allowed the fourth-most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends last season, but his usage thus far has been concerning. Thielen, meanwhile, is our fifth-highest-graded wide receiver this season, after grading out 14th-best last year. He ranks an impressive 11th-best in expected fantasy points per game at his position. His matchup this week is very appealing as well against Quandre Diggs (67 percent of his routes) and Nevin Lawson (33 percent). Diggs graded out 18th-worst last year, had a dominant performance in Week 1, but ranks just average over the past two weeks (No. 54 of 108). Lawson is allowing a 101.1 passer rating into his coverage, and is tied with Apple as our 11th-worst-graded cornerback this year.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins [DK: 23rd-highest, FD: 27th-highest] – If paying down at tight end this week, there are plenty of options to like in names like Ryan Griffin, Charles Clay, and Vernon Davis (if Jordan Reed is out). My personal favorite is Seferian-Jenkins who saw a team-high six targets last week. Jacksonville is allowing the fewest fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers running routes outside, and the second-fewest to wide receivers running routes out of the slot. This should help funnel production towards the tight end, and it has thus far, as they’re allowing 17.6 fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends (Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith, Ben Watson, and C.J. Fiedorowicz).
Travis Kelce [DK: 3rd-highest, FD: 2nd-highest] – Rob Gronkowski and Zach Ertz rank just ahead of Kelce in my rankings, and are in great spots, but when factoring in projected ownership (and price on DraftKings), I prefer Kelce if playing on slates that incorporate Monday night. He’s likely to go under-owned after last week’s one-target and one-yard performance. His usage last week was maddening, though Smith just threw the ball 21 times. I expect Smith to go far more pass-heavy this week in Vegas’s second-highest game total, up against a Washington team that ranks 10th in plays per game. Through three weeks, the Redskins have allowed lines of 8-93-0 (on eight targets) to Zach Ertz, 4-43-1 (on six targets) to Jared Cook, and 3-95-0 (on three targets) to Gerald Everett, after allowing the fifth-most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends last season. Kelce is an excellent play this week, as is Kareem “Exodia” Hunt. I didn’t want to spend too much time outside of the main slate, but Hunt is shaping up to be one of my highest-owned running backs again this week, despite the large price increase.