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 9 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
New Orleans Saints at Buffalo Bills (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
For years we've come to know the Saints as a high-flying dynamic passing game that had to consistently try to dig out of holes that their defense put them in. While their offense still contains a dynamic element, with their stop unit taking a step forward here in 2017, it's now a different element of their offense that's asserted itself as dynamic.
Kamara's calling card as a collegiate player was his ability as a pass-catcher. The Saints and Sean Payton have, to no one's surprise, unlocked those talents at the pro-level. Kamara lines up away from the backfield on 34.8 percent of his plays, the highest rate among running backs who have been on the field for at least 100 plays this season. That deployment has contributed to an unusually strong role in the passing game for a running back.
The Saints annually rank among the top teams in terms of passing to their running backs, but Kamara has been a different breed so far. Kamara owns a 9.5 percent share of Drew Brees' intended air yards. The only running backs with a higher percentage share are Tarik Cohen (11.6 percent) and Christian McCaffrey (10.4 percent). However, what makes Kamara so unique is how far down the field the Saints target him. The rookie back averages 4.0 intended air yards on his targets, which nearly doubles the 2.2 running back average this season.
Kamara has been everything he was cracked up to be, as the ideal pass-catching fit in the Saints offense. However, where he may take some of us by surprise is just how effective he's been as a runner.
Next Gen Stats "average yards gained after close" helps measure how much running backs are creating for themselves on the ground. On the year, Kamara averages 4.56 rushing yards after defenders close within a yard, ranking sixth-highest among 65 running backs with 30-plus carries. He's proven painfully difficult to bring down in the open field as a traditional runner. Even when defenders assign him extra attention, Kamara still passes the test. He's faced a loaded box (more defenders than blockers) on 30.8 percent of his carries this season and averages 7.0 yards per carry on those plays.
Kamara and the powerful Saints ground attack will travel to Buffalo in Week 10 to take on a Bills defense that is starting to show some cracks. The team gives up just over four yards per carry over the last month. Last week, both Matt Forte and Bilal Powell ran through them as the Jets front outmuscled the Bills front. Trading away Marcell Dareus certainly took some shine off their run defense in the short-term, especially as he looked like a difference-maker in his first game with Jacksonville.
Look for Kamara and Ingram to find plenty of favorable openings provided by their top-notch run blocking offensive line. Not many could have foreseen the Saints being a ground-based team that can travel well to the northeast in the month of November, but here we are.
Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Josh Norman has played in six games this season and has yet to allow a touchdown in coverage. While at times in his career he's been deployed as a shadow corner, Washington has not asked him to track top receivers around the field. For example, he covered top X-receivers Alshon Jeffery and Dez Bryant for a total of 16 combined plays in their matchups this season. So far, Norman has primarily stuck to left corner.
Even if he stays on just the left side of the field, this will still likely put Stefon Diggs in Norman's crosshairs for the majority of the game. Diggs lined up on the right side of the field for 45 percent of his plays so far this year and sees 60 percent of his targets from that alignment.
Diggs hasn't been at full strength since a Week 4 loss to the Lions where he amassed 98 yards on five catches. He caught just four passes for 27 yards against Cleveland in his first game back but had the bye during Week 9 to get back to full strength. Facing Norman won't provide a soft landing spot to get back to his early season form when he was clearly playing like the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Of course, while Norman is a stiff test, we should not forget that Diggs proved himself nearly uncoverable in the early portions of the season. Even in tight coverage, Diggs still produces.
Vikings quarterbacks when targeting Diggs in tight windows
71.4% completion rate
21.4 yards per catch
153.3 passer rating
Stefon Diggs is the only wide receiver with a passer rating over 110 on tight window targets and has seen 10-plus tight window targets this season. He's a truly elite receiver when 100 percent healthy. Norman will certainly prove a tough challenge, but these two should be in a competitive fight all afternoon.
While Diggs is tied up with Norman, whether he gets over on the Pro Bowl cornerback or not, a few other Vikings players stand to benefit. Washington has allowed five touchdowns to slot receivers this year, tied with multiple teams for the second-most behind Kansas City's six, and allow a league-high 624 yards to tight ends. Regardless of Diggs' outlook, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph are in good spots.
Miami Dolphins at Carolina Panthers (8:30 pm EST on Monday night)
It's been a strong year for rookies overall, especially at the running back position. However, the player who perhaps drew more hype than anyone else in the preseason proceedings has been a disappointment through the season's first act. As the curtain rose following the 2017 campaign's intermission and Week 9 began, it finally looked like Christian McCaffrey was ready to turn the corner.
It was clear the exit of Kelvin Benjamin would bring about change for the entire Panthers offense, especially in the passing game. The team brass also noted that the move was made in part to spark the running game. Jonathan Stewart's two early fumbles may have helped speed up the process, but it was noticeable that Christian McCaffrey had easily his best game as a traditional runner in the week following Benjamin's departure.
Coming into Week 9, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft had been a net negative as a runner. Despite his impressive film from Stanford and clip after clip from training camp and the preseason showing him put defenders on skates, it was painfully noticeable that McCaffrey couldn't break any tackles. The Next Gen Stats help quantity what a dire issue it was.
In Weeks 1 through 8 he averaged 2.53 yards after defenders closed within one yard of him, ranking 70th out of 72 running backs with 20-plus carries during that span. Against the Falcons last week, McCaffrey finally showed an ability to run inside on traditional looks. He averaged 3.38 yards after close. While still under the league average (3.6) it was easily his best score of the season.
One factor that could help sustain McCaffrey's production on the ground is improved play from the offensive line. While center Ryan Kalil didn't play on Sunday, Ron Rivera noted that difference-making guard Trai Turner had his best game of the season. Turner playing at a Pro Bowl-level will be a huge boon to this offense, as the Next Gen Stats show.
In Week 9, McCaffery gained an average of 1.02 rushing yards before defenders closed within a yard of him. That was a massive improvement, as he averaged -0.15 yards before close in the first eight weeks of the season, ranking 55th out of out of 72 RBs with 20-plus carries. As a team, the Panthers rank 29th this season in average rushing yards gained before defenders close.
The Panthers offense has appeared lost in the woods at times throughout large stretches of the 2017 season. It's a unit based on a powerful ground game, and the unit has been whimpering along over the last month, at least. If Christian McCaffrey is finally starting to round into form as a true runner in addition to his helpful work as a receiver, it could be the spark this team desperately needs. Carolina and their prized rookie will get a shot to prove this movement is legitimate against the Dolphins on Monday night.