With the 2017 season beginning to unfold, 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 a few 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 2 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars (1:00 p.m. EST)
The AFC South isn't exactly a hub for strong offensive performances. Yet, this fantasy draft season one offense held the intrigue of many. Now, that Tennessee Titans unit that underwhelmed in a home spot against the Raiders in Week 1, heads into Jacksonville to take on a defense that looked like one of the NFL's best against the Houston Texans in their opener.
*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. *
Yes, you don't get fantasy points for offensive line play, but it's important to understand which teams field units that can overcome the defensive attacks who will send waves of pressure at quarterbacks. In Week 1, no team was better at demolishing a scoring unit than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars posted a whopping 10 sacks against the Texans last Sunday, teeing off on pocket statue Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson. They were easily the best pass-rushing team in Week 1 and it wasn't remotely close. Jacksonville's defense posted a pressure rate of 64.2 percent on Sunday, the next best team's pressure rate was just 48.7 percent.
A mix of youth and seasoned age combined to lead the charge for the Jaguars new-look stop unit. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue posted two of the top-three fastest "time to sack" figures in Week 1, with 2.27 and 2.51 seconds. Former first-round pick Dante Fowler posted a 26.1 individual pressure rate on his pass-rush attempts. Veteran newcomer Calais Campbell posted a 24.3 percent pressure rate and his 3.32 average yards of separation on pass-rush attempts was fourth-best among lineman with at least 15 pass rush plays.
While that may lead to terrifying thoughts for Marcus Mariota and those considering playing him in Week 2, there is a silver lining. The Titans boast a strong offensive line that could counteract a pass-rush onslaught from the Jaguars. Tennessee's 23.1 pressure rate allowed ranked eighth-best in the NFL in Week 1 and it was no outlier performance. In 2016, the Titans gave up just 71 pressures all year, the second-lowest in the league.
Mariota posted a solid 18.8 fantasy points in Week 1 despite not throwing a touchdown on the day. If his offensive line is able to protect him, he could have access to a better ceiling in his second game of the season. Should that come to pass, it will open things up for a receiver corps that has its own set of questions.
In Week 1, A.J. Bouye operated as the team's top right corner and Jalen Ramsey held down the left side of the field. Both players contributed to DeAndre Hopkins posting just 55 yards on seven catches despite inhaling 16 targets. Bouye covered Hopkins on 17 routes and surrendered just 28 yards and a 33.3 percent catch rate. Ramsey, who gave the Texans wideout trouble as a rookie in 2016, allowed just four of the seven targets that went his way to be completed for 27 yards and the lone touchdown.
The Titans ran 11 personnel (three-wide receiver set) on 76.2 percent of their Week 1 plays, a dramatic shift from last year when they hardly used the formation. Supposing their Week 1 usage holds, Rishard Matthews, who lined up outside right on 50 percent of his plays, will draw Jalen Ramsey on Sunday. Rookie Corey Davis took 54 percent of his snaps from outside right in his first NFL game and would project to square off with Bouye.
That would leave Eric Decker and 54 percent slot playing time as the receiver in the best position for success. The Jaguars slot defender Aaron Colvin is the weakest link among their top-three corners, comparatively. So, attacking the middle of the field would make more sense for Mariota, who has historically picked his spots well, rather than throwing into the teeth of the Jags secondary outside. If the pressure weighs heavily on the Tennessee quarterback in Week 2, Decker could be that much more in play. The veteran receiver was the preferred short-area target for Mariota in their first game together, as he averaged just 7.9 air yards per target. A good performance would go a long way for Decker in this contest, as Davis shined in his opening NFL action. He's coming for the job of either the quarterback chemistry favorite Matthews or pedigreed resume of Decker, and it won't take too long:
New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints (1:00 p.m. EST)
Everyone in the pool! That's the type of announcement that a contest like the Patriots and Saints in New Orleans brings when it comes to slotting players into our fantasy lineups. Of course, the public will be all over the Brandin Cooks revenge game narrative and the bounce-back of Drew Brees and company in the confines of the Superdome. However, there's another player who posted a slow Week 1 that is in an ideal spot to rebound from a disappointing opening game.
After a dynamic first drive, the Patriots offense failed to hold the momentum in Week 1 that many believed would propel them to one of the better scoring units in the franchise's storied recent history. A date with the New Orleans Saints pass defense in the Superdome could be just the antidote that New England needs.
One player who is in line for a rebound performance is wide receiver Chris Hogan. The 2016 free agent addition was expected to see a significant bump in opportunity after Julian Edelman's season-ending ACL injury. For the most part, that came true in Week 1. As was often the case last season, Hogan was on the field for more plays than any other Patriots receiver, going out for 91 percent of the team's plays in total. While he saw just five targets overall, Hogan averaged a whopping 20.3 air yards per target, appearing to reprise his role as a vertical threat in this offense.
Even more notable, Hogan lined up in the slot on 54 percent of his Week 1 plays and drew three of his five targets from the inside. With Danny Amendola still not practicing Wednesday after suffering a concussion, Hogan is the favorite to dominate interior reps in Week 2. Brandin Cooks lined up outside on 80 percent of his plays last week and new addition Phillip Dorsett is anything but a slot receiver. The Saints were pummeled by the Vikings slot receiver Adam Thielen on vertical crossing routes in Week 1:
New Orleans let up 169 yards on 12 targets to receivers lined up in the slot, more than any other defense in Week 1. Many of the deep crossing patterns that Thielen ran to slice through the middle of their secondary are right in the wheelhouse of what Hogan excelled on in 2016:
Hogan should be in a prime position to rebound after a slow Week 1 contest. Overall, the high ceiling his profile painted during the 2016 season is still in place.
Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos (4:25 pm EST)
A matchup between two teams who want to by and large play conservative, ball-control offense doesn't exactly spell the sort of shootouts we're looking to target in our fantasy games. However, we do have two potential matchups to examine that will tell us a good deal on how we should view these two teams going forward. Unlocking one may even reveal an ideal Week 2 streaming quarterback candidate on a slate that isn't ripe with under center options on the waiver-wire.
Ezekiel Elliot vs. Denver front seven
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "defender closing" as a play where the oncoming defender came within a yard of the player with the ball in their hands. *
Denver's defense did a number on Melvin Gordon as a rusher in Week 1, holding him to just 54 yards on 18 carries. The Broncos were content to deploy extra resources to do so, deploying eight-plus defenders in the box on 62.5 percent of Gordon's non-red zone carries. The trickle-down effect was real even on plays where the running back should see lighter fronts, as his six carries out of 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) went for just 11 yards.
The Broncos kept the Chargers running game in check despite their offensive line generally getting a good push. Melvin Gordon averaged 0.52 yards before a defender came within one yard of him, the 13th highest figure among running backs who had five or more carries in Week 1 (NFL average - 0.2). The issue was more at the feet of the running back, as Gordon struggled to make defenders miss. Gordon averaged 2.48 yards after a defender came within two yards of him, finishing almost a full yard below the NFL average of 3.41.
Denver's Week 2 opponent, Ezekiel Elliott enjoyed almost the exact opposite experience in Week 1. Elliott averaged under a yard (-0.19) run before a defender closed in on him, which is a bit surprising considering the offensive line's reputation, but the Giants have a strong run defense. However, Elliott was his usual excellent self at eluding oncoming tacklers. Elliott averaged an additional 4.52 yards after a defender came within a yard of him in Week 1 (NFL average - 3.42), the fourth-highest among back with five or more carries.
A road spot against a defense that came into the 2017 season with a strong reputation and showed well in Week 1 is a daunting task for any running back on paper. Ezekiel Elliott reminded us in Week 1 that he can excel outside the bounds of what typical running backs are beholden to.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "tight window" as a throw where the receiver had less than a yard of separation. *
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "air yard differential" as the difference between a quarterback's average completed air yards and average intended air yards. *
Perhaps one of the most surprising developments of Week 1 was the strong outing put forth by the Dallas defense. The unit suffocated their New York division rivals' offensive attack, giving up just three points. We can certainly assert that Odell Beckham's absence was the primary reason for the Giants complete offensive ineptitude.
However, that doesn't fully explain the work that took place up front in this contest:
The lack of comfort in the pocket and absence of Beckham allowed the Cowboys to suffocate outside passing lanes. Dallas allowed a 37.5 passer rating to receivers lined up out wide and 60.4 wide left, ranking third and 12th best in Week 1.
Even more surprising, for some, than the Cowboys demonstrated defensive prowess was the excellent game offered up by Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian in Week 1. The front-runner throughout the summer, Siemian showed observers why he won the starting quarterback competition not by default thanks to Paxton Lynch's struggles, but by his own merit.
Siemian went 17 for 28 with just over 200 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception against a strong secondary. Despite the game manager reputation, he's sure to get slapped with, Siemian was legitimately making great throws. Siemian threw 32.1 percent of his passes into tight windows Monday night, the sixth highest rate among Week 1 quarterbacks. It was a noticeable uptick from his 2016 work, where his 20.1 percent ranked 17th highest. Additionally, he was one of only three quarterbacks in Week 1 who threw 30-plus percent of their passes into tight windows and posted a passer rating above 90. Derek Carr and Dak Prescott were the other two players.
A league-best +1.2 air yard differential demonstrates the notable efficiency Trevor Siemian amassed in Denver's opener. The Week 1 proficiency wasn't just the result of some dink-and-dunk effort, either. Siemian's best work came on passes that traveled further than 10 yards in the air, completing six of eight for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Week 1 is well known for its offering of mirages. We're on the lookout in this matchup for two possible cases of such that need some Week 2 clarity. We'll come away from this week knowing whether the unheralded Dallas defense is a unit we need to put more effort into avoiding or whether Trevor Siemian is a now a player we need to take seriously as a fantasy streamer.