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 playoff formats and unearth value plays for DFS lineups.
Here are some of the most notable trends across the AFC playoff teams.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Henry was on many “avoid drafting at ADP” lists this preseason (including mine) due to his game-script dependent nature. However, despite still not having a relevant role in the passing game, he has managed to remain viable in losing game scripts.
- Week 2: Lost by 2, 17 PPR Points
- Week 3: Lost by 13, 12 Points
- Week 5: Lost by 7, 14 Points
- Week 6: Lost by 16, 4 Points
- Week 9: Lost by 10, 25 Points
- Week 15: Lost by 3, 9 Points (injured hamstring and missed Week 16)
While Henry’s blowup games still come in more friendly scripts where the Titans can lean on the run game, he limited his dud performances to one game (Week 6) after removing Week 15 due to injury. Henry will draw a tough matchup versus the Patriots in the first round (6th least rushing yards allowed), but four teams have gouged that same unit for 140 plus yards this season. Henry has the second most carries of 15 yards or more (18, 5.9%) behind only Nick Chubb (20, 6.7%) who lit the Pats up for 131 yards in Week 8.
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
Singletary wrestled the lead role away from Frank Gore in Week 8 and has held tight since by dominating snaps, rushing attempts, and routes per dropback each week since (minus week 17 when held out). Over weeks 14, 15, and 16, he saw his heaviest workloads of the season with 75%, 55%, and 65% of attempts. He also ran a route on 65%, 57%, and 81% of dropbacks during that span.
Singletary is a borderline bell-cow back from a utilization perspective minus one aspect. He sees little usage inside the five-yard line (two rushing attempts on the season) due to Josh Allen’s capabilities as a short-yardage runner.
Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
If you have been reading this column weekly, you know that the Chiefs’ backfield has been a fluid situation. Williams makes the positive trends section this week after leading the backfield in snaps (53% and 71%), rushing attempts (55% and 52%), and routes per dropback (47% and 76%) over the past two outings. There is a caveat though.
We don’t know what Andy Reid will do with LeSean McCoy during the playoffs. McCoy was active in Week 17 after being held out of Week 16 but didn’t play a snap. McCoy may have been active due to Spencer Ware heading to IR. Williams is risky but has posted 18 and 31 PPR points over the past two games and could be a major fantasy force should Reid commit to him.
All Running Backs, New England Patriots
Rex Burkhead has seen an increased role over the past four games. He has 32%, 19%, 14%, and 22% of the rushing attempts and has run a route on 20%, 29%, 35%, and 20% of dropbacks. While these numbers aren’t enough to make Burkhead a viable fantasy commodity, they are enough to sap the already volatile values of James White and Sony Michel.
Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have a bye week after clinching the top seed in the AFC, which provides Mark Ingram (calf) more time to recover. The early signs are positive with coach Jim Harbaugh stating his lead back is on schedule with his treatment. But calf injuries can be tricky, and if Ingram were to miss time in the playoffs, Edwards and Hill would both receive a large boost in value.
In Week 17, Edwards saw 67% of snaps, 49% of attempts, and ran a route on 44% of dropbacks. Those numbers would all represent at or near season-high marks for a Ravens running back. Volume is king, and if Edwards were to receive that sort of workload in any game this postseason, he would hold No. 1 overall running back upside. Hill slipped into Edwards’ previous workload with 23% of attempts and also picked up more passing duties (ran a route on 32% of dropbacks and was targeted 10%). Hill has flex value if Ingram misses time.
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans
The Titans enter the playoffs with one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. Over the first six games of the season, the team topped 20 points only one time. Since Ryan Tannehill took over in Week 7 against the Chargers, the Titans have topped 20 points every game and have scored 27 or more in seven of ten games. On a points-per-drop-back basis, Tannehill is second in the league (.70) behind otherworldly Lamar Jackson (.91). The next closest quarterback is Drew Brees (.59).
Two weeks after Tannehill took over as the starter, Brown surpassed Corey Davis for the lead receiver role, and the move has paid huge dividends. Over the past six games, Brown has become the focal point of the Titans’ passing attack (target shares of 28%, 18%, 26%, 36%, 7%, and 38%). The 7% low came against the Saints and Marshon Lattimore. Brown draws the Patriots and the dreaded Stephon Gilmore matchup in the first round. Over the past four weeks, Brown has seen his aDOT spike significantly (16.7, 14.2, 24.5, and 18.1), allowing the young receiver to show his spectrum of application is broad.
Cole Beasley, Buffalo Bills
For the season, John Brown leads the Bills in target share at 22% with Beasley right behind him at 19%. Neither player leaves the field often (97% and 85% routes per dropback respectively). One of these two players has led the team in targets every week of the season. Over the first ten games, Brown was the primary target but as of late Beasley has surged.
Since Week 12, Beasley has reached 29% of targets or more in three of five contests. While Beasley works primarily underneath (8.1 aDOT) and from the slot (75%), Brown continues to work deeper (14.6 aDOT) and leads the team with almost 1,700 Air Yards.
Kenny Stills, Houston Texans
Early in the season, when Will Fuller missed time, Stills didn’t see a significant increase in his role (15%, 13%, and 14% target shares). However, over the past three games Fuller has missed or left early, Stills has two outings of 23% or more (23%, 4%, and 25%). DeAndre Hopkins is a target hog, but Stills could see a slight bump in value should Fuller (groin) not be full strength for the beginning of the playoffs.
Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
While Edelman’s production has dipped over the past three weeks, his snaps have increased each week (62%, 71%, and 89%), and he ran a route on 97% of Tom Brady’s dropbacks in Week 17 versus the Dolphins. Edelman is battling through knee and shoulder injuries, and his production could remain suppressed, but his increase in playing time should continue into the playoffs if the Patriots are to have any shot at advancing.
N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu, New England Patriots
With Julian Edelman nursing knee and shoulder injuries, Harry (61%, 65%, and 57% routes per dropback) and Sanu (100%, 100%, and 77%) have both seen slight upticks in playing time over the past three games. Each player has also been carrying more of the load in the target department:
- Harry: 14%, 6%, 24%
- Sanu: 21%, 15%, 17%
Neither player has parlayed these opportunities into much during that span (27 and 18 PPR points respectively).
Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs
Hardman is sniping snaps (35% and 33%) and routes (33% and 45%) from Demarcus Robinson over the past two weeks. It hasn’t translated into meaningful targets or box scores yet, but Hardman might be taking another step in his development as coaches begin to trust him more.
Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
During Weeks 15 and 16, the Ravens ramped up Andrew’s routes per dropback to 67% and 71% after lingering in the 50% range the previous three contests. He garnered 29% of the team targets in both contests while posting 15 and 27 PPR points. The Ravens’ young stud tight end already has TE1 upside for the playoffs, but if his routes per dropback are similar to the last two outings, he could provide league winning upside.
Here are some of the most notable trends across the NFC playoff teams.
Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer, Seattle Seahawks
In the first game since the loss of Chris Carson, Homer served as the primary back with 67% of snaps, 33% of rushing attempts, 56% routes per dropback, and 13% of targets. Lynch, playing in his first game of the season, served as the backup with 31% of snaps, 40% of rushing attempts, and 19% routes per dropback. How this tandem evolves as Lynch works his way into playing shape is still in question, but the first data point suggests Lynch will have the edge in the rushing attack while Homer takes charge in the receiving department. The Seahawks are one of the few teams that can support two viable fantasy options at running back due to their commitment to the run (seventh-lowest dropback rate at 58%) paired with solid play volume (ninth-best 65.6 plays per game).
Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Mostert has survived the return of Matt Breida over the past two games by retaining his snaps at 54% each week. He has seen a slight reduction in attempts (52%, 48%, and 42%), but it has coincided with an uptick in routes per dropback (39%, 41%, and 54%). Mostert also owns both rushing attempts from inside the five over the past two games. Tevin Coleman and Breida split the backup rushing duties with 21% and 17% in Week 17, but Coleman dominated routes per dropback (42% vs. 4%).
Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders is dealing with a low-grade ankle sprain, and his status for the first round of playoff action is in doubt. Jordan Howard returned to active status last weekend after missing the previous six weeks with a stinger, but he didn’t take a snap. Howard could be part of the game plan this weekend if Sanders can’t go. The between-the-tackles banger still leads the team in rushing attempts inside the five for the season with ten.
Boston Scott likely has a role either way. Over the past four games, he has posted 25, 14, 8, and 36 PPR points. Even before Sanders’ injury, he had carved out a solid change-of-pace role (routes per dropback of 33%, 40%, 34%, and 60%) with targets topping 15% in three of the last four outings (12%, 16%, 15%, and 15%). Howard’s limitations as a receiver out of the backfield will keep Scott relevant. The diminutive runner also showed the ability to take on a heavier load with 61% of attempts in Week 17, including two from inside the five.
Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings
Like several other starters, Thielen didn’t play Week 17 with the team’s playoff seeding already locked up. He hasn’t posted a meaningful fantasy boxscore since Week 6, but his underlying utilization metrics from Week 15 and Week 16 were trending in the right direction. His snaps (51% and 93%) and routes per dropback (72% and 94%) both increased. Stefon Diggs ceded the No. 1 role back to Thielen in Week 16 despite still leading the team in target share (85% of snaps and 83% routes per dropback). The Vikings get the Saints and Marshon Lattimore in the first round of the playoffs, which could lead to more work for Thielen when operating from the slot if Lattimore stays outside on Diggs.
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
Metcalf has experienced a rise in snaps (98% and 99%) and routes per dropback (97% and 100%) since Josh Gordon’s suspension. The young wideout finished the regular season with 19% of targets (only 2% behind Tyler Lockett) and led all NFL receivers with 18 end zone targets. Metcalf could get off to a monster start versus the hapless Eagles (fourth-worst against wide receivers in PPR formats) in round one.
Allen Lazard, Green Bay Packers
Lazard appeared in this column for Week 17 and came through with 17 PPR points. Over the past few weeks, he has moved past Geronimo Allison for the No. 2 role at wide receiver. Routes per dropback:
- Lazard: 72%, 81%, 79%
- Allison: 61%, 47%, 63%
Over this period, Lazard has posted 6%, 23%, and 15% target shares (second on the team over the past two weeks). Davante Adams remains the clear target hog, but as competition stiffens in the playoffs (Marshon Lattimore and Richard Sherman), the Packers air game may have to pivot, and if that happens, Lazard is in line to be the biggest beneficiary.
Greg Ward, Philadelphia Eagles
Ward has asserted himself as the No. 1 wide receiver for the injury-depleted squad. Over the past two games, he has led the receivers in routes per dropback (75% and 81%) and posted 10% and 18% target shares. Working primarily from the slot (62%) on underneath and intermediate routes (7.5 aDOT), he receives ample mismatch opportunities versus linebackers and safeties. With Nelson Agholor again missing practice this Wednesday, it appears Ward will continue to receive favorable looks.
Tre’Quan Smith, New Orleans Saints
Smith has quietly surpassed Ted Ginn Jr. as the No. 2 receiver on the depth chart. Over the past three games, Smith has significantly distanced himself from Ginn in routes per dropback (77%, 60%, 66% vs. 37%, 44%, 41%). The Saints offense is all about Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara along with a sprinkle of Jared Cook, but Smith is next in line in this high octane attack. Over the past four games, he has posted 11, 9, 2, and 17 PPR points.
Jared Cook, New Orleans Saints
Cook has posted double-digit PPR points in seven of his last eight games. During that time frame, he has eight end zone targets to lead the team (Michael Thomas is second with five). For the season, he leads all tight ends with 11 end zone targets. Of all tight ends to account for at least 10% of their team’s targets, Cook (11%) ranks No. 1 in aDOT at 11.4 yards. Cook has overcome his limited target volume challenges via the quality of his targets.
Dallas Goedert and Joshua Perkins, Philadelphia Eagles
After injuring his ribs in Week 16, Zach Ertz sat out versus the Giants in Week 17. Over the past two games, Goedert has tied or led the team in targets (25% and 18%) while seeing an increase in routes per dropback (75% and 88% vs. 58% season average). If Ertz is out, Goedert could easily lead the team in targets. If Ertz returns to action, Goedert still provides solid tight end value in the first round due to the heavy usage of 12 personnel (two tight ends) since the loss of Alshon Jeffery.
Perkins served as the second tight end in the 12 sets in Week 17 and took on a role similar to Goedert’s old one. He ran a route on 74% of dropbacks and saw 15% of targets, including one in the end zone. Over the past two games, Perkins has worked further downfield with aDOTs of 13 and 12.3, providing him with some sneaky value should Ertz sit out.