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Next Gen Stats: Week 3 Fantasy Football Matchups

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Now in its fourth season, Next Gen Stats has quickly exploded. The statistics are featured in game broadcasts, they are leveraged in countless articles, tweets, and podcasts throughout the week, and the Next Gen Stats database is free to access.

In this weekly column, we'll dive deep into Next Gen Stats' metrics and explore player and team-based matchups. The goal is simple: Next Gen provides truly unique analytical data we can use to uncover edges when making fantasy lineup decisions. Most importantly, Next Gen Stats' deep data coffers make us more informed viewers of the game.

Let's dive into the Week 3 slate through the lens of Next Gen Stats:

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: How Will Atlanta Slow Down Michael Thomas?

The Saints are using receiver Michael Thomas in a more dynamic and particular way in 2018. This season, Thomas has run 26 percent of his total routes from the slot -- way up from 2017 (19 percent). The results have been catastrophic for enemy defenses. Through two weeks, Thomas has been one the most productive interior receivers in the NFL, ranking second among all wideouts in receiving yards gained per slot route (3.70) behind only Allen Robinson (3.90).

When Thomas moves into the interior this week, he'll face Falcons' slot man Brian Poole -- who has allowed a colossal 127.3 Passer Rating when he's the nearest defender to a receiver (81st-of-98 CBs). With increased slot usage, Thomas is primed for his third-straight huge game against an Atlanta secondary he's torched for 7/71/1, 10/156/1, 10/117/1, and 4/66 receiving in four career games.

Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Royce Freeman vs. Phillip Lindsay

One of the biggest fantasy football storylines of Weeks 1-2 is the Broncos running back committee. So far, Phillip Lindsay has the more valuable role. Lindsay leads the Broncos' RB duo in snaps (40% to 33%), routes run (23 to 19), and all-important touches (32 to 23). Lindsay's emergence has definitely been a surprise, but his production needs a closer examination with Next Gen Stats' data.

One key point to remember when comparing running backs within the same offense is how they are used. For example, the Broncos' rookie rushers have faced very different defensive fronts so far. Whereas Royce Freeman has endured an average of 7.8 defenders in the box on his carries (most in the NFL), Lindsay has seen an average of just 6.8 defenders on his attempts. The gulf in efficiency and explosive runs between the two backs can mainly be explained by defenders in the box. Among all rushers with at least ten carries this year, Lindsay ranks seventh in yards gained after a defender has closed within a yard (4.29) compared to the less-elusive Freeman (2.93; ninth-worst).

Lindsay's output has assuredly been helped by less-invasive defensive fronts -- and vice versa for Freeman -- but we shouldn't expect Denver to go away from Lindsay at all. He's forced a true timeshare. Still, both Denver backs face tough Week 3 sledding against a Ravens' defense that has held enemy offenses to just 4.08 yards per play, the best clip in the league.

Carolina Panthers at Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Christian McCaffrey vs. Bengals' Leaky Linebacker Corps

It's official. The time has come. Christian McCaffrey is a workhorse.

In Weeks 1-2, McCaffrey has played 90 percent of Panthers' snaps, he's handled 76 percent of Carolina's RB touches, and is first among all RBs in routes run (68) over Alvin Kamara (65) and Saquon Barkley (65). Fresh off shellacking Atlanta for 139 yards from scrimmage and catching 14 balls, McCaffrey gets to face a Bengals' side that allowed 10/54 receiving to Colts' backs on Opening Day and just coughed up 8 receptions and 91 yards to Alex Collins and Buck Allen last week. Per Next Gen Stats' tracking, the Bengals have already allowed 16 catches to receivers out of the backfield -- tied for fifth-most in the NFL.

New York Giants at Houston Texans (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Will Fuller's Deep Ball Prowess vs. Giants Secondary

It's such a tiny sample to work from, but through nine career games, Will Fuller seems to make all the difference for Deshaun Watson and Houston's aerial attack. In five career games with Fuller in the lineup, Watson has averaged a preposterous 35.4 FPG versus a much less insane 19.0 FPG without him.

Now, in those five games with Fuller in the lineup -- the lid-lifting receiver has seen 32 percent of Houston's air yards and owns an insane 19.1 average depth of target at the catch point, per Next Gen Stats. Only tiny speedster J.J. Nelson has a higher average depth of target (19.5 yards) than Fuller over the last two seasons.

Success for New York in Week 3 will hinge upon stopping Watson and Fuller deep. Outside of one shot-play to Tavon Austin on a semi-coverage bust in Week 2, the G-Men have only allowed 1-of-5 deep passes (20-plus yards) to be completed against them. Another was picked off. With a new coaching staff led by defensive coordinator, James Bettcher, the Giants have forced a tight window throw on 24.2 percent of throws this season (second-best). Watson and Fuller's deep ball connection against New York's suddenly stingy secondary is the key to this battle between 0-2 teams.

Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Can Blake Bortles Continue Succeeding Against Pressure?

One of the craziest (small sample) data points of 2018 is Blake Bortles' early success against pressure. Per Next Gen Stats, Bortles' Passer Rating against pressure in 2017 was 56.0 (sixth-worst; minimum 75 attempts). This year, Bortles' Passer Rating has spiked to 91.7 (eighth-best) through Weeks 1-2.

In a perfect ying-yang matchup, Bortles' surprising small sample progress against pressure will be put to the test at home in Week 3. Per Next Gen Stats, no team has forced pressure on the quarterback at a higher rate than the Titans so far (40 percent). With interior pressure from Jurrell Casey and exterior pressure from Brian Orakpo and Harold Landry, the Titans could have one the most underrated front seven's in the NFL. Landry made his debut in Week 2 and immediately made his impact felt, forcing pressure on four of his 20 pass rushes.

San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Can Patrick Mahomes Continue This Scorching Start?

We all know Patrick Mahomes has a rocket arm. That was never the question.

What was up for debate, however, was Mahomes' ability to deliver against pressure and play within structure. Through two games, Mahomes has passed the test with flying colors:


Unsurprisingly, Mahomes' 141.4 Passer Rating under pressure leads all quarterbacks through Weeks 1-2. What is a shock is Mahomes' league-leading 155.9 Passer Rating inside of the pocket, considering he's been pressured on 29.5 percent of his pocket passes (tenth-highest rate). So, not only has Mahomes been stellar under duress -- he's done most of his damage within the structure of the Chiefs offense. It's a recipe for disaster against a 'Niners secondary that has allowed back-to-back QB1 (top-12) weekly finishes to Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford.

Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Can the Raiders Get Going Against Miami's Improved Secondary?

The Jon Gruden era has gotten off to a slow start in Oakland, as the offense is 23rd in points per drive in Weeks 1-2. The Raiders have moved the ball reasonably well -- they're eighth in yards gained per drive -- but the team has stagnated in scoring position, owning the league's 17th-best success rate in the red-zone.

Granted, Miami is yet to face a difficult pass offense, but the 'Fins have limited opposing offenses to stifling a 54.6 Passer Rating (best in NFL) and a 57 percent completion rate (fifth-best) so far. Per Next Gen Stats, Miami is most-stout when playing with a single-high safety -- allowing rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick to line up in the slot. This year, Miami has played with a single-high safety on 54 percent of pass plays, resulting in the league's lowest Passer Rating allowed (31.7) on those snaps. Gruden and Derek Carr must find ways to exploit Miami's single-high look in Week 3.

Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Will Buffalo's Offense Get Going Against Minnesota?

It's been a rough start for Buffalo. Through two games against Baltimore and the LA Chargers, the Bills are inside of the bottom-three in six advanced offensive measures of success. Now, Buffalo must trek to Minnesota for a road date against one of the toughest opponents in the NFL. Dating back to the start of the 2017 season, the Vikes' have allowed 20 or fewer points to opposing offenses at home in nine-straight regular season games.

This year, the Vikes' front seven and secondary looks as fearsome as ever. Through two games, Minnesota is fifth in total pressures forced (27) and they own the NFL's lowest Passer Rating when forcing pressure (18.4). This is another disaster spot for Buffalo after two-straight tough draws. Josh Allen is being put in a near-impossible spot to succeed in his rookie season.

Indianapolis Colts at Philadelphia Eagles (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Andrew Luck vs. Air Yards

We're only two games into Andrew Luck's comeback tour, but it's clear the Colts are taking things slowly with their star quarterback. Right now, Luck is dead last among all passers in air yards per throw (5.2 yards). The NFL average is 8.0. His Next Gen Stats' passing chart through two games reveals Indianapolis' intention for short throws:


We'll see if Indy opens up their playbook for their Week 3 date in Philadelphia. This year, the Eagles have allowed a 141.4 Passer Rating (third-worst) on throws traveling 20-plus yards in the air. Per Next Gen Stats, the Eagles are allowing 9.5 air yards per attempt -- way up from their 7.3-yard clip last season.

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins (1 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: How Will Green Bay Slow Down Chris Thompson?

Over his last 11 fully healthy games, Chris Thompson has scored over 15 PPR points eight times. In this span, Thompson is putting up 16.5 PPR FPG (ninth-most). Only Gurley, Bell, Elliott, Gordon, Kamara, Hunt, Ingram, and Fournette have been better on a per game basis in PPR leagues than Thompson over the last two years.

Coming off 6- and 13-reception performances in Weeks 1-2, Thompson now gets to face a Packers front seven that has allowed 88 receptions to receivers out of the backfield over the last two years (13th-most, per Next Gen Stats). In that span, 22.4 percent of all passes against the Packers have gone to receivers out of the backfield, the tenth-highest rate. Since Alex Smith has fallen back to his conservative ways (5.7 air yards per attempt; third-lowest), Chris Thompson is an extreme high-floor RB2 start in PPR leagues in Week 3.

LA Chargers at LA Rams (4:05 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: How Do the Chargers Slow Down Todd Gurley?

Since the start of 2017, Todd Gurley is first among all RBs in fantasy points per game, rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and total TDs. In that span, the 'Bolts have allowed 4.76 yards per carry (most in the NFL).

Meanwhile, Joey Bosa (foot) is likely out until October and the Chargers' rush defense is fourth-worst in rushing success rate through two games (55 percent). Per Next Gen, the Chargers' defensive line has stuffed the run on just 18 percent carries this year (NFL average is 22 percent). Look out.

Chicago Bears at Arizona Cardinals (4:25 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: David Johnson vs. Mike McCoy

One of the most disappointing storylines of 2018 is David Johnson's usage.

Granted, it's only been two games, but new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's uninspired deployment of their best player has been far from ideal. Per Next Gen, David Johnson has averaged 19 routes run and 8.5 total air yards per game this season. In his historic 2016 season with former-HC Bruce Arians, Johnson averaged a monster 31.1 routes and 38.1 air yards per contest.

Worse yet, DJ isn't running typical receiver routes any longer. Per Next Gen's tracking, just nine percent of Johnson's pass snaps this season have come split out from the formation as a receiver. Again, in 2016, 26 percent of Johnson's routes came as a receiver. These heat charts, showing player alignment, tell the full story:

Johnson's fantasy floor is non-existent under a less innovative staff that has utterly failed to even sustain drives in Weeks 1-2. Hopefully, Mike McCoy will start using Johnson in the role he deserves: An offensive weapon.

Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: When Will The Cowboys' Receivers Seperate?

Through two contests, concerns over the Cowboys' lackluster receiving corps have not eased. In Weeks 1-2, Dallas' wideouts have averaged just 2.3 yards of separation at the target point -- the fifth-worst clip in the NFL. Last year, the average receiver had 2.7 yards of separation at the target point. As you may expect, the Cowboys' target share through two games is a disaster for fantasy football. Shield your eyes: Cole Beasley (21 percent target share), Deonte Thompson (19 percent), Ezekiel Elliott (19 percent), Allen Hurns (10 percent), Geoff Swaim (8 percent), Michael Gallup (6 percent), and Terrance Williams (6 percent).

New England Patriots at Detroit Lions (8:20 p.m. ET)


Key Matchup: Pats RB Rotation vs. Lions Front Seven

Over the last two years, the Lions have allowed a preposterous 6.2 receptions per game to RBs (second-most). In that span, Detroit has faced 7.0 targets to receivers out of the backfield per contest -- tied for eighth-most in the NFL. This week, the Lions are going to be forced to slow down the Pats' diverse three-headed monster of pass-catching backs in James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel. Look for Brady and Belichick to relentlessly attack Detroit's backfield coverage deficiency.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:15 p.m. ET on Monday Night Football)


Key Matchup: FitzMagic Against the World

Ryan Fitzpatrick is on absolute fire. In Week 1 against New Orleans, the esteemed chest-haired "Fitzmagic" threw for 417 yards, four TDs, and completed 75 percent of his passes. In Week 2 against Philadelphia, Fitzpatrick went nuts again: 402 yards, four TDs, and an unreal 82 percent completion rate.

In his two nuclear performances, Fitzpatrick has thrown a touchdown on an other-worldly 13.1 percent of his passes. The average passing touchdown rate over the last four years is 4.5 percent while Fitzmagic's career TD rate is 4.4 percent. What's more, per Next Gen Stats, Fitzpatrick's expected completion percentage in Weeks 1-2 is 65 percent -- but he's actually completed 79 percent of his passes. Next Gen Stats' completion probability explains how difficult (or not) a pass attempt was. Essentially, Fitzpatrick has been both lethally accurate and certainly lucky on his passes thus far.

Fitzpatrick's aerial explosion has given life to the former-best deep threat in the NFL. Through two games, DeSean Jackson has caught as many deep balls (5) this year as he did during the entire 2017 season from Jameis Winston. In fact, Fitzpatrick and Jackson have linked up for an insane 232 yards, three TDs, and a perfect Passer Rating (158.3) on their five deep ball attempts this season. In Weeks 1-2, enemy offenses have already attempted 14 deep balls (20-plus yards) against Pittsburgh, tied for second-most in the NFL.

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