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Next Gen Stats: Mid-season report to win your league

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Soak it all in, we are now officially closer to the end of the NFL regular season than we are to the beginning. It goes by so fast that it's hard to take a moment to look back. However, that's just what we are going to do here.

Every week of the NFL season we've used the Next Gen Stats collected by the microchips installed in the players' shoulder pads to discern which matchups to target for fantasy leagues. Now that we are at the mid-point of the 2016 regular season, we not only have a full complement of data to comb through, we also have a better understanding of the metrics Next Gen Stats offer us.

With that clarity and data in our arsenal, we'll look at some players set to have big second halves of the 2016 season and also some matchups we can target during the fantasy playoffs with under the radar slot receivers. Having this information may be just what you need to start making the moves you need to make the run at winning your league.

Next Gen Stats league-winners

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints - There has been a changing of the guard in the Saints wide receiver corps. The team's 2016 second-round pick appears to have established himself as the top dog in a crowded pass-catching group. Since Week 4 Michael Thomas leads New Orleans in target share (20 percent), receiving yards (315) and wide receiver snap share (78 percent). He's knifed into the role many expected Coby Fleener to play, pacing the veteran in red zone touchdowns (three) since Week 4 and besting him in red zone touchdowns (two to zero) and snaps played (231 to 157).

Thomas has managed to bully his way to the top of the Saints pecking order for no other reason than he's just quite damn good at football. As his route chart shows, the Saints haven't put much on his plate, asking Thomas to primarily run slants, crossers and other in-breaking routes. Yet, he's executing that assignment with precision. Among wide receivers who saw 40 or more targets when lined up outside, Thomas ranked fifth with a 2.73 average yards of separation at target. Thomas also showed an ability to win in tight coverage, registering a 57.1 catch rate on targets where he has less than a yard of separation from the nearest defender.

Tyrell Williams, WR, San Diego Chargers - The Keenan Allen season-ending injury was indeed a devastating one, as the promising receiver was just entering his prime and all set for a breakout year. Nevertheless, the Chargers have been able to do more than merely get by with a replacement group of wide receivers led by stellar free agent addition Travis Benjamin. Yet, it's been the contributions of unheralded Tyrell Williams that has taken this group over the top.

Before a matchup with Denver in Week 8, it appeared that Williams was emerging as San Diego's No. 1 receiver. In Weeks 2 through 7 Williams led the team in targets, receiving yards, wide receiver catch-rate and red zone targets. Those are all the money ingredients you need to make a high-end fantasy asset.

Next Gen Stats reveals that it was nothing but Williams' play that helped him earn that prominent position in the san Diego offense. Among wide receivers who saw 30-plus targets when lined up out wide, Williams ranks 13th in average separation at target (2.73). Given his size, it should be no surprise that Williams is a playmaker when the ball is in flight. His 54.5 catch rate on targets when he has las than a yard of separation puts him inside the Top-10 among wideouts with more than 10 targets in those situations.

Josh Hermsmeyer of RotoViz has done fantastic work in showing how air yards can be a big assist in predicting wide receiver performance. Williams trails Travis Benjamin in market share of the Chargers intended air yards with a 24.2 percent to 27.8 percent share, but laps his teammate in terms of converting his air yards into production. Benjamin has a 3.21 differential in his intended to completed air yards, while Williams comes with a superior 2.19 differential. Both Williams (11.6) and Benjamin (11.9) come with similar air yards per target figures. With the Chargers playing the Buccaneers, Panthers, Raiders and Browns in Weeks 13 through 16, Williams will have plenty of opportunities to be a true season-saver in the second half of 2016.

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns - One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 season has been the emergence of Terrelle Pryor as dominant force at wide receiver. As a whole, the football community just has not stopped to appreciate how wild the Pryor story is. The former quarterback, as of just over a calendar year ago, is on pace for 1,064 receiving yards and averages 9.5 targets per game in his first year as a receiver.

Air-yards statistics reveal just how voluminous the opportunity Pryor owns is. Pryor trails only stud receivers Mike Evans and A.J. Green in market share of his team's intended air yards with 41.5 percent. While it is a limited sample size, Pryor's market share of air yards actually jumps to 49 percent when Josh McCown plays. That rate would pass Mike Evans (48.3 percent) for the league-lead. Pryor has a 4.03 differential in his intended vs. completed air yards on his targets. He should become more efficient as the season wears along, especially if McCown starts. Pryor's 47.8 percent catch rate on targets with less than one yard of separation is above the NFL average (45.3) among receivers who have 12 or more targets.

Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers - The winds of change blow pretty fast and furious around here, please be aware of turbulence. After a disaster-level sophomore season in the NFL, Adams looks like he's rather quietly emerged as the Packers most consistent traditional wide receiver. He's improved his game, as players are wont to do as they mature in the league, and largely corrected his two killer flaws from last year.

Adams struggled to run clean routes and get open in his second season, but this year he ranks ninth (2.37) in yards of separation at target out of 29 receivers who have garnered 40-plus targets lined up out wide. Last season, regardless of his route-running, Adams had troubles actually securing and catching the football, especially in tight coverage. The story of 2016 is quite different. Adams has nine targets on the year when he less than one-yard of separation, and he's hauled in 100 percent of those targets. He's the only player to catch every single one of his targets that come when he has less than a yard of separation.

The wealth of options in the Green Bay passing game might make Adams' volume a questionable proposition week-to-week, especially with Randall Cobb and running back/receiver hybrid role player Ty Montgomery looking like featured players prior to missing Week 8. However, one thing is clear: Adams is out-playing Jordy Nelson this season. The former Pro Bowl wideout ranks 37th out of 41 receivers in yards of separation at target (1.96) among receivers with 30-plus targets outside. Nelson also only has a 37.5 percent catch rate when he has less than a yard of separation. In Week 8 the Packers deployed Nelson in the slot on a season-high 63 percent of his snaps. Nelson hauled in his longest catch of the season, a 58-yarder, from the slot. We still need more evidence that Nelson can beat outside man coverage with regularity like he once did.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins - After back-to-back 200 yard games and the retirement of Arian Foster, you might not need much convincing that Ajayi is a league-winner. But let's just go over how impressive his 2016 campaign has become of late.

After spending much of the early season in the dog house, Ajayi came out running well after Foster went down with an injury. Even when mired in a dreadful four-way committee he clearly stood out. After eight weeks of the season Ajayi leads the NFL in shortest distance traveled per rush yard gained with a 3.3 per carry average. This metric encapsulates not only Ajayi's wild-horse running style when hitting the big play but also his relentless downhill aggression.

Now that teams know they need to view Ajayi as a dangerous threat, they will certainly look to dedicate more resources to slow him down. The problem is, that did not really work during his dominant two games. Ajayi averaged a whopping 9.6 yards per carry on 19 attempts when facing eight-plus defenders in the box.

Next Gen Stats players to buy

Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings - He's a baller, that's obvious. However, Diggs started to go quiet with an injury in the mid-point of the season. You can chalk that entirely up to injury. On the season, Diggs owns a 31 percent share of the Vikings intended air yards (19th in the NFL) but we know his ceiling is much higher than that when healthy. On Monday Night Football in Week 8, Diggs owned a whopping 55.6 percent share of the team's intended air yards, which was the third-highest total of the week. His usage is that of a No. 1 receiver and his play on the field backs that up:

Diggs averages 2.87 yards of separation at target when lined up out wide, which ranks sixth among receivers with 30-plus targets out wide. Even when he's covered, he's still a threat to make the play. Diggs' 61.5 catch rate when he has less than a yard of separation ranks seventh among receivers with 10-plus targets in those situations. I wanted to put Diggs in the league-winners section, but concerns about the Vikings offensive line and the trickle down effect to their overall offensive functionality leave lingering doubts about his weekly ceiling, even if he has one of the best floors at the wide receiver position.

Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts - Somehow, some way, Frank Gore is still getting it done. The veteran back is on pace for another 1,000-yard season and his yards per carry and catches per game are up from his 2015 averages. He's creating space behind an offensive line that still has question marks and is getting downfield with more authority. Gore ranks third in the NFL in shortest distance traveled per rush yard gained (3.4). Gore is currently a top-10 running back in fantasy, but lacks the sex appeal that makes most players hard to acquire in a trade. His owner might not truly know what he has on his hands.

John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals - The Cardinals receiver has a number of positive indicators in his Next Gen Stats portfolio. No player who has earned 30 or more targets when lined out wide creates more separation at target than John Brown. He leads the NFL in that category with 3.28 yards of separation at target. Brown has a 21.4 percent market share of the Cardinals intended air yards, despite the fact that he wasn't a factor early in the season after a preseason concussion and missed a game. Brown has a 4.74 differential in his intended air yards on targets and completed air yards on receptions. That ranks second in the NFL among players with 30-plus targets. The Cardinals aren't the same deep passing team they once were with the decline of their pass protection and play behind center. However, Brown's route chart reveals he does more than just run go-routes:

The construction of his team may not allow for Brown to be the lid-popping deep threat many envision him as. But his separation numbers indicate he can do far more than that to help his team in the second half of the season. Brown only needs some slight positive regression in his air-yards differential to exceed expectations in the second-half of the season.

Will Fuller, WR, Houston Texans - The only player to rank ahead of Brown in air-yards differential is Will Fuller with a whopping 7.42. Fuller was on a tear to start the season but a mid-season injury took the air out of that balloon. The week-winning potential is still there for Fuller, as his 18.1 average intended air yards on targets is second in the NFL (30-plus targets), trailing only Sammie Coates. We know there will be ups and downs with Fuller, he has a lowly 25 percent catch rate on targets where he gets less than a yard of separation, but the opportunity is still laid before him.

Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears - Air-yards statistics point to a big second half of the season for Alshon Jeffery. Despite a seemingly slow start, Jeffery owns a team-high 32.4 percent share of the Bears intended air yards, which is the 15th highest share in the NFL. Opportunity was truly the only issue for Jeffery in the early portion of the season, but he has target totals of 13, 11 and eight the last three weeks. There's also no question having Jay Cutler back under center is a positive for Jeffery. He averaged a 27.4 percent share of the team's intended air yards with Brian Hoyer playing, but that number jumps to 40.3 percent with Cutler. The combination of Kevin White and Cameron Meredith averaged a 20.25 share with Hoyer, but that number dips to 10.9 percent with Cutler.

Marvin Jones, WR, Detroit Lions - The individual play of Marvin Jones has not declined. Jones averages 2.33 yards of separation at target when lined up out wide, which is the 10th highest mark among players with 40 or more targets. Even when he does not earn separation, Jones is one of the best receivers at hauling in contested catches. His catch rate when he has less than a yard of separation leads the NFL (10 target threshold):

Jones owns a 34.6 percent share of the Lions intended air yards, the 10th highest mark in the NFL. The next highest share in Detroit belongs to Golden Tate, and his 24.1 percent ranks 42nd among pass-catchers. If there is going to be a downfield playmaker in this offense when everyone is healthy, it will be Jones.

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Kansas City Chiefs - Kansas City is not known for their downfield passing game, and while Maclin has disappointed this year, there's reason to expect something of a rebound from him down the stretch. Maclin's 33.9 percent share of the team's intended air yards is the 12th highest mark in the NFL. The next highest Chiefs in intended air yards share are Chris Conley (17.2 percent) at 70th in the NFL and Travis Kelce (15.6 percent) at 78th. Maclin's differential in his average intended air yards on targets (12.7) and air yards on receptions (9.7) leaves plenty of room for positive regression in the second half, especially since he was one of the most efficient receivers last year for the Chiefs.

Jamison Crowder, WR, Washington Redskins - DeSean Jackson looks like he's merely a bit player in this offense, while Pierre Garcon hasn't formed a tangible ceiling with the volume of targets he owns. Jamison Crowder is not only a big part of the future of this team, he's a massive part of the present. Crowder took 72 percent of his snaps from the slot in the first eight weeks of the season and has been one of the best slots in the NFL:

Expect his volume and playing time to trend upward, especially as he plays some of the best matchups for slot receivers down the stretch. Crowder's 8.8 average intended air yards per target makes him a safe floor play in collecting easy catches.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Houston Texans - Houston has two pass catchers (Hopkins and Fuller) in the top-18 of highest differential between their intended air yards on targets and completed air yards. Brock Osweiler has been simply miserable at consistently hitting his downfield targets. On the other hand, he has found a weapon in his young tight end. C.J. Fiedorowicz's 7.4 average intended air yards per target makes him the clear preferred short-area option for a hesitant quarterback. He's been hyper efficient at converting those targets, with one of the lowest differentials in the NFL (0.77). There's no reason to expect his volume to diminish, as he's playing well and fits what his quarterback needs.

Next Gen Stats deep dive sleepers

Brian Quick, WR, Los Angeles Rams - Don't stop believing. Brian Quick is suddenly starting to pop back up on the radar with the Rams. He registered a season-high in snaps, targets and yards in their London game in Week 7. Quick has been the big play threat for Los Angeles, not Tavon Austin. His 14.6 average intended air yards per target is one of the ten highest marks among receivers with 30 or more targets. His differential is also solid with just a 2.67 mark. Only Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Adam Thielen, A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery have lower differentials while checking in with an average intended air-yards figure of 13.5. Quick has also converted in tight spaces, with a 70 percent catch rate when he has less than a yard of separation.

The opporutnity will be sketchy week-to-week in this offense, but Keenum has been aggressive this season ranking second in Next Gen Stats' quarterback aggressiveness metric (percentage of passes thrown when targeting a receiver who has less than one yard of separation from their defender). Keenum has thrown 24.6 percent of his passes in such situations. Even if Quick won't be a week-to-week contributor in this offense, he does have appeal as an assist during the bye weeks and there might still be reason to hold on in dynasty leagues.

J.J. Nelson, WR, Arizona Cardinals - Clearly, Next Gen Stats like John Brown, but there is also plenty affinity for his teammate J.J. Nelson. The diminutive receiver averages 3.24 yards of separation on his targets from the outside, which would put him among the NFL leaders. Nelson was named a starter in the three-receiver set after a big game against the Panthers, replacing Michael Floyd. He should be able to produce more with the opportunity. Floyd's 16.7 percent catch rate when he had less than a yard of separation at target was one of the worst marks in the league.

Defenses to target in the slot

New York Jets - The decline of the Jets once vaunted defense has been notable and dramatic. The unit's issues start with the drop off of Darrelle Revis. Once an All Pro corner, Revis is essential "just a guy" on his best plays and a complete liability on his worst. However, New York has also struggled to slow down interior receivers. The Jets allow 71 yards per game to slot receivers and a league-high 9.5 touchdown rate.

Notable slot receivers on the schedule:

Julian Edelman (64 percent of yards in the slot): Weeks 12 and 16
Jarvis Landry (87 percent of yards in the slot): Weeks 9 and 15
T.Y. Hilton (51 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 13
Jeremy Kerley (95 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 14

Atlanta Falcons - With star corner Desmond Trufant shutting down the outside passing lanes, opposing offenses often have to pick on the Falcons in the middle of the field. Thus far this season, it's been an effective strategy. The Falcons give up a league-high 129.9 yards and 15.6 targets per game to opposing slot receivers.

Notable slot receivers on the schedule:
Adam Humphries (69 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 9
Jordan Matthews (73 percent of yards in the slot): Week 10
Larry Fitzgerald (52 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 12
Tavon Austin (52 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 14
Jeremy Kerley (95 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 15
Willie Snead (79 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 17

Pittsburgh Steelers - Middle of the field coverage has been something of an issue for Pittsburgh this season, as tight ends and pass-catching running backs have gotten over on them this year. That's also extended to issues defending slot receivers. The Steelers give up the third most yards per game (114.9) on an average of 15 targets per game to interior receivers.

Notable slot receivers on the schedule:
Kamar Aiken (88 percent of yards in the slot): Weeks 9 and 16
Cole Beasley (87 percent of yards in the slot): Week 10
T.Y. Hilton (51 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 12
Sterling Shepard (98 percent of yards in the slot): Week 13

Detroit Lions - We know the Lions pass defense has been an issue all season, but that's especially true when they face slot receivers. With weak personnel in the secondary outside of stellar outside defender Darius Slay, Detroit tends to force teams to target the inside of their defense. The Lions allow a league-high 9.34 yards per target to slot receivers and 105.1 yards per game. The 72.2 catch rate they give up is the third-highest mark in the league.

Notable slot receivers on the schedule:
Allen Hurns (63 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 11
Willie Snead (79 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 13
Sterling Shepard (98 percent of yards in the slot): Week 15
Cole Beasley (87 percent of yards in the slot): Week 16
Randall Cobb (72 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 17

Carolina Panthers - Are you old enough to remember when the Panthers had a shutdown corner? Are you even old enough to remember when they had any good corners? Carolina elected to revamp their secondary with inexperienced players and rookies this offseason by rescinding the franchise tagged they placed on Josh Norman and then doubled-down by cutting Bené Benwikere mid-season. The results have been less than stellar all around, but the Panthers are especially vulnerable to interior receivers. Through eight weeks Carolina allows the third-highest toughdown rate (9.1), the second-highest catch rate (74 percent) and 88.6 yards per game to slot receivers on just 77 targets (23rd).

Notable slot receivers on the schedule:
Tavon Austin (52 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 9
Willie Snead (79 percent of snaps in the slot): Week 11
Seth Roberts (89 percent of yards in the slot): Week 12
Doug Baldwin (81 percent of yards in the slot): Week 13
Jamison Crowder (73 percent of yards in the slot): Week 15
Mohamed Sanu (68 percent of yards in the slot): Week 16

Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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