With the 2017 season in full swing, there's no question that excitement is in the air. One of the developments that should have fans of the league and fantasy football alike thrilled is the evolution of the Next Gen Stats data tracking here at the NFL.
Through the first two years of their existence, the Next Gen Stats have quickly progressed, not only in their depth and insight but also in their utility. Now that we've spent the last two NFL seasons exploring and tracking the data provided by the microchips in the players' shoulder pads, we're ready to take the information and its practical value to the next level.
In this space, every week we'll use some of the Next Gen Stats metrics to delve into some of the top games of the week and explore individual player or team-level matchups. The hope is with some of the truly high-level analytic data we can uncover unique edges for fantasy football players when making lineup decisions for the upcoming week. Most of all, we'll be more informed consumers of the NFL contests, which we should always strive to be in our fantasy decision-making process. Let's dive into three games on the Week 6 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The primary storylines for this NFC North faceoff both revolve around each team's backfield. The Vikings are still working to replace the massive hole left behind in the wake of promising rookie Dalvin Cook's ACL tear, with Jerick McKinnon holding the early edge following a strong Monday night showing. On the other side, the Packers are trying to settle into their committee. After Aaron Jones' dynamic performance in Week 5, a returning Ty Montgomery may not have his spot to come back to.
Through the early part of the season, the Green Bay Packers rode converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery like a true feature back. Montgomery averaged 19.7 touches per game in Weeks 1-3 and his 160 plays taken from the backfield led all NFL running backs. While that's a hefty assignment, the former Stanford product earned the job after showing well in 2016 after switching positions in an emergency and put in all the needed effort to complete the transition.
The NFL is a fast-moving whirlwind ride of a league. Look away and you might miss something, things change quickly around here. The events of the last two weeks following Montgomery's exit from a Week 4 win against Chicago after just five plays. The backfield he returns to doesn't resemble the one he left behind.
With absolutely no viable players at the position behind Ty Montgomery at the time of the NFL Draft in May, Green Bay selected three running backs on the college selection process' third-day. The first of which, fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams of BYU, was the presumptive next man up as Montgomery's backup. Yet, when he suffered an injury not long after his counterpart's exit, it opened the door for Aaron Jones, the fifth-round back taken after Williams.
Jones looked solid in Week 4 as the relief back, taking his 13 carries for 49 yards and a touchdown. Despite a sub 4.0 yards per carry average, he showed some of the dynamism that helped him rack up 1,773 yards and 17 touchdowns on just 229 carries in his final year at UTEP. However, it was in Week 5 when Jones inherited the feature back role that he revealed himself to be a potential plus-starter.
Jones absolutely carved up the Cowboys, ripping through the first and second level of the defense. On the day, Jones averaged 4.8 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him, the third highest figure among running backs with 10-plus carries (NFL average - 3.74). His ability and space and proclivity for making tacklers miss is obvious. Jones averages 4.05 yards after close for the year, placing him 17th among qualifying running backs.
The rookie's ability in space clearly laps his teammate Ty Montgomery's performance in this metric. He averages 3.4 yards after defenders close within one yard of him. Montgomery rose to the challenge of switching positions and deserves an immense amount of credit for doing so. However, with the evidence provided from the Packers' last two games, it's fair to say Jones should usurp his role as the primary runner in the offense while Montgomery handles passing downs and change of pace opportunities. If he doesn't play Sunday, it will give Jones even more time to place a bigger gap between the two.
Should Aaron Jones indeed get the bulk of the work on Sunday, he'll face a far stiffer test on the other side of the field. The Cowboys clearly have issues in the front seven, especially when linebacker Sean Lee isn't in the mix. The Vikings, on the other hand, don't spring such leaks in their run defense. Minnesota allows just 3.1 yards to opposing running backs after their defenders close within a yard of them. That is the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL and demonstrates their discipline in run defense.
McKinnon finished the game with 16 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown on a long 58-yard run. He led the team in all categories. Additionally, he hauled in all six of his targets. His ability in the passing game is what cements him as a more valuable player than Murray. The obvious athletic advantage, McKinnon is one of the most athletic backs to come into the NFL in years, truly seals the deal.
The question remains whether McKinnon can sustain the offense as a traditional running back, not just assist as a complementary satellite and big-play threat. Fantasy owners and Vikings fans are largely skeptical, considering he was a bit of a disappointment in his attempts to be the feature back in 2016. Part of McKinnon's issues is that he, unlike the back he's replacing in Dalvin Cook, doesn't create as much for himself.
Despite his stellar stat line from Monday night, McKinnon struggled to make defenders miss and certainly offers little as a pure power runner. He averaged just 2.67 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him against the Bears (NFL average - 3.74). It was an issue for McKinnon last season, as well, as he carried a below average 3.3 figure. On the season as a whole, McKinnon's 2.26 yards gained after close ranks dead last among running backs with 20-plus carries. For comparison, Dalvin Cook averaged 3.66 yards gained after close.
While that sounds like a damning blow to McKinnon's stock, there are a few positives working in his favor. The first being that while Cook was clearly his superior in terms of creating yards, the back McKinnon currently finds himself competing with is not much better in this area of the game.
McKinnon certainly needs the offensive line and system to create space for him that he cannot manage himself, and the disaster of Minnesota's 2016 line was a big part of his undoing. However, as James Koh noted in his weekly "Koh Knows column, the Vikings offensive line is a much improved unit this season. Minnesota's backs average 0.93 yards before defenders close within a yard this year (NFL average - 0.3), the third-highest figure in the league. The newfound push granted by a re-made blocking unit will help offset some of the deficiencies in McKinnon's game.
Jerick McKinnon has his flaws, there's no arguing that. However, he's an asset as a pass-catcher and plays on an offense that not only dramatically improved its running block but is an overall strong unit with excellent weapons in the passing game. A talented player in that kind of situation is exactly what we're looking for here.
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Common perception is that this game will be one of the highest-scoring of the week. Anytime you have the Saints in a home contest, they'll threaten for the highest point total of the week and force the opponent to give chase, a request their defense usually acquiesces. However, in the art of projections, it's always important to look at the possibility that the most likely outcome can be wrong. In this case, the Lions offense may not be the unit to engage in a shootout affair.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines "pressure rate" as the percentage of dropbacks in the pocket where defenders come within less than two yards of the quarterback. *
Detroit's offense has a solid reputation as a strong scoring unit with some of the talented players they have at the disposal of quarterback Matthew Stafford. Yet, through five weeks, the unit hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders. The Lions rank 21st in Football Outsider's offensive DVOA, despite ranking 10th in points per game with 24.6.
The issues start with their passing game, where they simply don't have enough of a vertical presence.
Top receiver Golden Tate is on pace for another 90-catch season, which would be his fourth straight with the Lions, but isn't working down the field on anything resembling a regular basis. He averages just 6.8 intended air yards on his targets. The team is trying to make Marvin Jones a top receiver who gets downfield for the second straight year, and he leads Detroit with a 27.8 percent share of Stafford's intended air yards. However, everything to Jones is a low-percentage throw. The veteran receiver averages just 1.6 yards of separation on his target, even less than the 2.0 he checked in within 2016. He's not getting open and is therefore unable to adequately fill the role of the team's deep threat. Eric Ebron averages just 8.0 air yards per target and is not having the breakout season some would have hoped for.
One player who could help unlock the deep portion of the field for the Lions is rookie Kenny Golladay. The third-round pick burst onto the scene with 69 yards and two scores in his first game but missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury. Detroit badly needs him back. He's the only true vertical receiver this team has.
Despite missing the last two games, Golladay's 17.4 air yards per target average still leads the Lions. Seven of Golladay's 15 targets in the first three weeks checked in as a tight window throw (less than a yard of separation) for Matthew Stafford. The Lions quarterback posted a passer rating of 110.1 on those throws. Stafford maintains a mere 81.8 passer rating on tight window attempts over the course of the season.
If Golladay does make his return for this game, he'll be in a prime spot to make plays in the vertical pass game again. The Saints allow a 61.1 completion percentage on deep passes (20-plus extended air yards), the highest mark in the NFL this year.
Another area of concern for Detroit is their pass protection. The Lions rank 21st in the NFL with a 30.4 pressure rate allowed (27.3 NFL average), it's where the heat is coming from that's most concerning. The team shelled out $39.5 million in guarantees to sign both Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang in free agency and entrenched the two as their starting right tackle and right guard, respectively. With that in mind, it has to disturb them that Stafford sees more pressure coming from the right side of his offensive line than anywhere else.
The Lions 21.5 pressure rate allowed from the right side of center is the third-highest of any team so far this year. It's a major disappointment considering the investments the team made in the protection unit this offseason. It's a bad time for poor play from that side of the line given their Week 6 opponent.
New Orleans annually fields a moribund defensive unit and are right on track to do so again this year, currently ranking 29th in the NFL by allowing an average of 374.8 yards per game. Likely due to that overall futility, one of their lone star-level players never gets the credit he deserves for his year-in and year-out excellence. Cameron Jordan is once again a difference maker for the Saints, as both his 121 pass rush attempts and 13.2 pressure rate leads all New Orleans defenders. Pass rushing linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (48 pass rush plays) checks in with a 10.4 pressure rate but no other Saints defensive lineman has a rate higher than 5.0. Jordan's pressure rate ranks him 22nd-highest among all pass rushers in the NFL.
Cameron Jordan takes the vast majority of his snaps at left defensive end, putting him up against the free agent additions for Detroit who haven't played up to their billing yet. If Wagner and Lang don't pick up their play from what they've shown in the first five weeks of the regular season, it will put an already hamstrung Lions passing offense in an even deeper bind.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (4:25 pm EST on Sunday)
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines "a wide open throw" as a pass where the targeted receiver has three-plus yards of separation from the defender covering them. *
Here's the rub: these struggles aren't new for Ben Roethlisberger, even if the NFL media at large is just noticing following his meltdown against Jacksonville. The issues go back as far as the start of 2017, and if we're being honest, started to manifest themselves last season.
A once-deadly Pittsburgh deep passing game suddenly finds itself shackled and unable to flourish, and it's not for a lack of chances. So far this season, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown to "wide open" players (3.0-plus yards of separation on targets) in the vertical more than any other quarterback. Roethlisberger threw to a receiver with three-plus yards of separation on 34.5 percent of his deep attempts, the highest rate of any quarterback (NFL average - 14.5 percent). Despite that, he sports the third-lowest completion rate of 20 percent. The vertical game has evaporated in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger's 40.2 passer rating on deep passes outside the numbers is the second-lowest among quarterbacks this season, with only DeShone Kizer (10.3) trailing.
Another area where Roethlisberger performance is rapidly eroding is his ability to fit the ball into tight windows. At his peak, not many passers had the raw arm talent of the future Hall of Fame quarterback. We haven't seen that thus far. Roethlisberger's 24.2 passer rating on tight window throws (less than one yard of separation) ranks dead last among starting quarterbacks in 2017 (NFL average - 72.2).
However, this is an area where the Steelers starter began to show cracks in his armor last season. Roethlisberger threw into tight windows on just 14.8 percent of his passes in 2016 but maintained a paltry completion rate of 39.2, ranking 20th in the NFL. The decline began in the back-half of the previous year's campaign, even if it largely went unnoticed or ignored due to his resume.
With all that said, Roethlisberger will get the opportunity to change the narrative on his downward trajectory in Arrowhead this week. Due to a combination of Eric Berry's absence and the newfound explosiveness of the Chiefs offense, opponents are forcing the issue with deep passes against Kansas City. The Chiefs have allowed 8.2 deep attempts per game so far, the most in the NFL. If he can still throw deep effectively, Roethlisberger will get his chances in this spot.
In previous matchups Antonio Brown has had success against Chiefs top corner Marcus Peters. Like most top receivers, the Steelers do an excellent job getting Brown away from Peters' side of the field. Only 33.3 percent of his targets over their last three meetings, including playoffs, came with Peters covering him. When he did face Peters, Brown got the best of him, recording six catches for 115 yards on eight targets. Peters started the year off scalding hot but has allowed four touchdowns in just the last two games and a 103.1 passer rating in total on the season.
Antonio Brown is having another great season despite his quarterback's struggles but if he can find success against Peters and the Chiefs, it would go a long way to stabilizing Ben Roethlisberger's play. Fantasy owners cannot trust Roethlisberger right now, but there's at least reason to believe he could succeed in this spot given the emerging holes in Kansas City's defense. If he has anything at all left in the tank, we need to see it in this game.