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Fantasy performance occurs at the intersection of efficiency and opportunity. While most fantasy players and fans can recite empty efficiency stats such as yards per carry and yards per reception by memory, most don’t have a true grasp of a player’s opportunity.
Opportunity is the lifeblood of fantasy performance. Thanks to statistics such as average depth of target (aDOT), Air Yards, routes run, and quarterback dropbacks, we now have a more contextual view into the game.
The goal of this weekly column is to identify trends within the underlying utilization data that contribute to opportunity. By evaluating key metrics and data beneath the opportunity surface, we can formulate preemptive strategies for season-long formats and unearth value plays for DFS lineups.
Here are the most important utilization trends from across the league:
1.Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
Rashaad Penny was lost for the season to an ACL injury after only playing 2% of the snaps versus the Rams on Sunday night. With this unfortunate news for the young San Diego State runner, Chris Carson’s fantasy stock returns to bell-cow status. Before Penny’s recent push for playing time, Carson hogged 70% or more of the carries in three of four games. If that isn’t enough sunshine to light up your day, the Seahawks draw the lowly Carolina run defense in Week 15.
2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley made his way into positive trend territory two weeks back based on subtle improvements in his underlying utilization metrics that suggested the Rams might be loosening his restraints. He has since sustained a rushing share of 65% or greater in three of four games and now taken a big step forward in the passing game with a season-high 88% route per dropback rate in Week 14. The Rams have bested their opponents by 27 (Cardinals) and 16 (Seahawks) over the past two weeks and might be beginning to find their groove after an embarrassing 39 point loss to the Ravens three weeks ago. The Rams need to keep the pedal down to have a shot at the playoffs. As long as that shot remains intact, Gurley could see the usage fantasy owners have longed for all season.
3. Patrick Laird, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins’ running game is not one of efficiency, but Laird is the last man standing. In Week 14, he parlayed other’s misfortune into 82% of snaps, 54% of attempts, 11% of targets, and ran a route on 59% of passing attempts. While his mediocre 12 point PPR performance won’t get many excited, he does draw matchups where the Dolphins could be competitive over the next two games against the Giants and the Bengals.
4. Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
Derrius Guice’s MCL injury has finished his season, leaving Peterson and Chris Thompson to shoulder the Washington backfield duties over the remaining weeks. Peterson hogged 71% of the team rushing attempts, and Thompson sucked up 61% of the routes per dropback with Guice leaving after only playing 14% of snaps. Thompson saw a whopping 30% of targets to lead the team.
The Redskins have recently managed games by utilizing their running game more to protect rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The new approach by interim head coach Bill Callahan has paid off to some extent. The team’s average margin of victory is -9.3 on the season but is only -3 over the past four games. As long as Washington remains competitive versus the Eagles and Giants (which they should), both backs have an opportunity to post 10 to 15 PPR points.
1. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
The early season workhorse has seen his role diminish since the return of Kareem Hunt. After accounting for 80% or more of the Browns’ attempts six of the first seven games, Chubb has now seen 67% or less over the last three games, culminating in a season-low 56% in Week 14. Hunt’s initial role was limited to the passing game (greater than 60% routes per drop back last four games), which reduced Chubb’s value in the passing game. Now his role continues to expand into touches in the ground game (25%, 29%, and 33% of attempts).
Of runners with at least 200 carries, Chubb is second in the NFL in the percentage of carries of 15 yards or more at 6.7%, making him a viable big-play threat every time he touches the ball. His explosiveness paired with leading game scripts in four of the past five games keeps him in the RB2 with upside conversation, but his floor is gradually lowering, and we haven’t seen what his role may look like in an ugly loss. The Browns get the Cardinals in Week 15, so things are likely safe, but the test could come Week 16 against the Ravens.
2. Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
For the second consecutive game, Coleman was the odd man out only playing 16% of snaps, accounting for 13% of attempts, and running a route on only 13% of dropbacks. Raheem Mostert is currently the hot hand after coming up with big performances in two huge matchups versus the Ravens (23 PPR points) and the Saints (25 PPR points). With Kyle Shanahan at the helm this could flip at any time, but for now Coleman is operating in Mostert’s old role with Matt Breida functioning as the two (25% attempts).
3. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jones didn’t completely remain in the dog house like Week 13 where he only garnered 19% of attempts, but he didn’t regain a lead role either. He split snaps (35%) almost evenly with Peyton Barber (38%) and Dare Ogunbowale (29%). He and Barber split carries evenly (39% each), and the three backs also split routes per dropback almost evenly with Jones finishing at 27%. It looks like we are officially back to a three-way committee.
4. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
With Dalvin Cook nursing a chest injury heading into Week 14 there was optimism that Mattison could see an uptick in opportunity. Indeed, Cook was limited (46% of attempts and only 39% routes per dropback), but it didn’t add to much more work for Mattison, only seeing a modest 11% uptick in attempts versus his season average (25%).
Instead the Vikings coaching staff opted to offload 13% of the attempts to Mike Boone and 16% of the routes per dropback to Ameer Abdullah. Had that work gone to Mattison he would have seen over 50% of carries and been in a route for over half of the passing plays – enough to consider as a flex play. Mattison is still the handcuff to own, but expectations of an expanded role while Cook is limited don’t appear realistic.
5. All Running Backs, Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid continues to deploy a three-man backfield no matter who is available. Even with Darrel Williams and Damien Williams out, neither LeSean McCoy (31% snaps, 38% attempts, 18% routes per dropback, 5% target share) or Darwin Thompson (27% snaps, 14% attempts, 31% routes per dropback, 13% target share) were able to distance themselves from the pack. Instead, freshly signed Spencer Ware clogged things up, playing 39% of snaps to keep the whole backfield submerged in the abyss of fantasy irrelevance. Damien Williams returned to practice on Tuesday and will likely reassume one of the three unpredictable roles moving forward.
DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders
With Josh Jacobs inactive, Washington filled in admirably as a rusher with 58% of the attempts and received the fantasy nurturing work in the passing game (55% routes per dropback and 21% of targets) that many owners have craved for Jacobs (6% target share on the season). With a role in the passing game in tow, Washington produced a 22 point PPR outing (fourth-best Raider running back performance of the season) and could be in line for a similar performance with a great matchup against Jacksonville this week if Jacobs can’t return. Jacobs received an MRI on his shoulder Wednesday, and early signs point to him being healthy enough to play, but the Raiders would be wise not to risk re-injury that could linger into the offseason.
1. Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears
The second-year slot receiver has surged in snaps (88% and 89%) and routes per dropback (100% and 92%) over the past two games with Taylor Gabriel (concussion) missing action. Over the two games, Miller has seen 34% and 13% of targets. If Gabriel misses Week 15 versus the Packers, Miller will likely serve as the second or third option in a Bears passing attack that has found some life with Mitch Trubisky throwing for 582 yards and six touchdowns over the past two games against Detroit and Dallas.
2. John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
The speedy wide receiver returned to action for the first time since Week 4 when he suffered a sternoclavicular injury. Ross played 49% of snaps and ran a route on 39% of dropbacks but immediately makes the positive trends section of this column based on Auden Tate landing on injured reserve. Ross made noise earlier this season with Andy Dalton and has a clear line to No. 1 or No. 2 targets (along with Tyler Boyd) over the last few games, depending on matchups. He gets a fabulous matchup versus the Dolphins in Week 16 if he can survive the brutal Patriots showdown this weekend.
3. Breshad Perriman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perriman’s specialty is pushing the vertical boundary of the field, as indicated by his 16.5 aDOT, making him the most likely candidate to replace Mike Evans’ role in the offense. Additionally, Perriman recently started to find a groove with Jameis Winston in Week 13 when he saw 18% of targets on 77% routes per dropback. While Perriman’s on-field application is more limited than Evans, expect him to see ample opportunity over the final weeks beginning with a solid matchup versus Detroit given the nature of Bruce Arians’ offense.
1. Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams
Cooks’ routes per dropback have not rebounded since his return from a two-game absence with a concussion (74%, 83%, and 66%). Fellow wide receiver Josh Reynolds has continued to see the field (51%, 30%, and 47% routes per dropback), and Cooks’ targets are swirling the drain at 4% and 6%.
Cooks is a talented receiver that could end up back in favor similar to the way Robert Woods has over the past several games after being mostly a non-factor previously, but his routes per dropback must increase. The recent emergence of the tight end in the Rams offense represents a challenge. In six of the last nine games, Gerald Everett or Tyler Higbee has finished as the No. 1 or No. 2 target in this offense. Less playing time in an offense with more mouths isn’t an ideal spot to predict a rebound.
Isaiah Ford, Miami Dolphins
With DeVante Parker only able to participate in 25% of snaps before suffering a concussion, the door of opportunity opened up for Ford, who saw extended playing time (76% of snaps). He produced 15 PPR points running a route on 74% of dropbacks, garnering a team-high 24% target share. With Jakeem Grant down and Albert Wilson also questionable, Ford could be a viable commodity in Week 15 in a juicy matchup versus the Giants.
Greg Ward and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Philadelphia Eagles
The former Houston Cougars’ converted quarterback and the second round Stanford product are in line for an uptick in work after Alshon Jeffery’s injury on Monday night. Each posted a healthy route per dropback rate (87% and 94%), but Ward bested JJAW in targets 20% to 4%. Nelson Agholor is also questionable for Week 15 in a plus matchup with the Redskins.
1. Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta eased Hooper back into action in Week 14. He played 64% of the snaps, ran a route on 69% of dropbacks, and was the focal point of a Matt Ryan pass 18% of the time. With Calvin Ridley now lost for the season (abdominal strain), Hooper will likely see an uptick in targets along with Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. Russell Gage is locked in as the slot receiver (Mo Sanu’s former role), and Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus will work as a tandem to replace Ridley’s snaps and routes.
O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Howard saw an 11% bump in routes per dropback over his season average (60%), with Mike Evans lost to a hamstring injury in Week 14. While this could be a blip on the radar, it could also be meaningful. From a talent perspective Howard is now one of the top two options on the team along with Chris Godwin, and the coaching staff will be more incentivized than ever to find creative ways to involve him over the final weeks with Evans out.
Ian Thomas, Carolina Panthers
Thomas stepped in for the injured Greg Olsen (concussion) and finished second on the team with a 22% target share in Week 14. The Panthers coaching staff insisted there would be a committee approach at tight end, but Thomas operated in an Olsen-like capacity playing 86% of snaps and running a route on 84% of dropbacks. If Olsen remains out for Week 15, Thomas makes for a nice streaming option in a plus matchup versus Seattle.
David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
The former first-round pick from the University of Miami played only 37% of snaps in his first game back after suffering a wrist injury on September 16. While he also finished light in the box score with just one point in PPR formats, his 13% target share on a route per dropback rate of only 33% is encouraging. With the emergence of Kareem Hunt in the passing game Njoku likely will be a rush and roulette type play moving forward with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry locking down the No. 1 and No. 2 roles in most game plans.