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 games on the Week 13 slate that comes with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons (Sunday at 1:00 pm EST)
In a pivotal battle for NFC playoff positioning, the red-hot Minnesota Vikings and quarterback Case Keenum will march into Atlanta to take on the 7-4 Falcons. While Atlanta isn't the same scoring onslaught masterpiece it was last season, they still rank 11th in points scored and sixth in yards gained. The Falcons have won four of their last five. In order to keep up their momentum, they'll need to escape Sunday's effort with minimal damage inflicted by the NFL's best wide receiver duo this season.
The dynamic duo of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen come into Week 13 looking to conquer yet another defense in Atlanta. It's hard to argue that these two are anything but the best one-two punch at the wide receiver position today. Not only are both technically refined players, Diggs and Thielen have made big plays in high-leverage situations all season, even when blanketed by defenders. The Vikings duo both sit inside the top-five best catch rates when thrown to in tight coverage.
Top-five catch rates in tight coverage (less than one yard of separation)
Stefon Diggs - 70.6%
Mohamed Sanu - 56.3%
Julio Jones - 55.1%
Demaryius Thomas - 53.8%
Adam Thielen - 52%
(min. 15 targets)
What has to be frightening for Atlanta is that both Diggs and Thielen appear to have pristine matchups against their secondary as Week 13 approaches. The Falcons will need to count on some unusual faces to step up if they want to keep these two at bay.
Thielen's play has been one of the stories of the NFL this season. His efforts coupled with those of backup quarterback Case Keenum have shocked the world here in 2017. Perhaps the best note in Thielen's resume is his usage in clutch situations.
The Vikings quarterbacks have thrown to Thielen 43 times on third down this season, trailing only Keenan Allen for third down targets among wide receivers. While Thielen moves around from the inside and outside, especially of late, he's been most productive from the slot on the later downs with 79 percent of his third and fourth down yardage coming from the slot.
Thielen is particularly productive from the right slot position on third down, racking up 191 yards on 19 targets from that position, where he takes 30 percent of his snaps. The Falcons may be in trouble against Thielen on Sunday, as their slot cornerback Brian Poole left last week's game with a back injury and was a limited participant in Thursday's practice. Atlanta was already tied for the fourth-most targets (84) allowed to slot receivers this season.
While there is some frustration in the fantasy world over Stefon Diggs' lack of a massive game since his return from injury, this could be the week it happens. The Falcons shutdown corner Desmond Trufant was still in the concussion protocol as of Thursday afternoon following an early exit from the team's Week 12 win over Tampa Bay. Trufant lines up at left corner on the vast majority of his snaps, much like Richard Sherman in Seattle. C.J. Goodwin was the primary replacement for Trufant after he left the lineup last week but whoever takes his spot in Week 13 will see Stefon Diggs on the majority of the passing plays.
Stefon Diggs at right wide receiver
42 percent of plays
53 percent of targets
53 percent of receptions
63 percent of yards
18.1 yards per reception
Make no mistake, Diggs is still an elite talent at the wide receiver position capable of ripping off big plays no matter the situation. Diggs ranks third in the NFL with a 152.6 passer rating accrued when targeted in tight coverage this season. He and A.J. Green (105.8) are the only wide receivers this season with 15-plus targets in tight coverage whose quarterbacks also have a passer rating over 100 on those passes.
With Trufant possibly on the sideline and a solid chance this game could get high-scoring in Atlanta's dome, the stars appear to be aligning for Diggs to get back on track with his first blowup game in months. Since no one slows down Thielen anymore, after Sunday, we'll just have more evidence that the best wide receiver duo in the NFL resides on the Vikings roster.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Sunday at 1:00 pm EST)
For years fantasy owners have lived and died by the creed of avoiding the Patriots backfield. "Too unpredictable," they cried. Here in 2017, the Patriots backfield has narrowed to two players in a near stabilization. Rex Burkhead averages a steady four catches per game and has scored three times over his last four games. Dion Lewis has 14 touches in each of those contests, as well and averages over 5.0 yards per carry.
Despite being just the latest team to bottle up Kareem Hunt, giving up just 26 total yards to the Chiefs back in Week 12, the Bills run defense is a major weakness. The team gave up an NFL-high 725 total yards to running backs over the last four weeks with nine rushing touchdowns as the cherry on top.
The Patriots come to town with their running back corps completely cooking, mostly thanks to the full return of the Dion Lewis we saw in 2015. Lewis had perhaps his best game of the season last week, ripping through the Dolphins defense. He averaged 7.4 yards gained after defenders closed within one yard of him.
Last week wasn't a mere blip on the radar, Lewis has paced running backs in creating yards this season. Lewis gains an average of 4.75 yards after defenders close within one yard of him this season, the third-highest mark among running backs with at least 70 carries this year.
The Patriots are providing an excellent environment for their running backs to succeed, as well. Naturally, playing in an offense with Tom Brady and one of the NFL's truly elite passing offenses always helps a backfield. However, the Patriots offensive line deserves credit for paving the way for their running backs to run downhill. New England's backs gain an average of 0.51 yards before defenders close within one yard of them this season, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
As long as he's healthy, Dion Lewis has a chance to finish the 2017 season as one of the best backs in the NFL. Not only is he creating a bevy of yards for himself, but he gets to run in one of the NFL's best situations with a strong offensive line and an elite quarterback. We can't ask for much more when it comes to rushing success.
Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers (Sunday at 4:05 pm EST)
Fantasy circles are abuzz with the return of Josh Gordon to real life NFL action. It remains to be seen just how much Gordon will be involved in the offense after over two years away from the NFL stage. If anything, his presence may overshadow the potential emergence of a younger wide receiver talent in Cleveland.
For the second year in a row, Browns 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman missed multiple games with a hand injury. Coleman was starting to put it together in Week 1 with 53 yards and a red zone score against the Steelers but went down after a single catch in Week 2. He picked up momentum right where he left off in his return to the field two weeks ago, at least from an opportunity perspective.
Coleman has been the clear centerpiece of Cleveland's passing attack in Weeks 11 and 12, owning a 47.4 and 40.4 percent share of the team's intended air yards in those games. The Browns clearly want Coleman to not only be their No. 1 receiver, but a legitimate deep threat. The young wideout averaged 15.5 air yards on his targets over the last weeks.
The quarterback situation with DeShone Kizer, when he's not hurt, won't ever lend itself to efficient wide receiver production and Coleman has only racked up 144 yards on 19 combined targets the last two weeks. However, to be fair, he left some plays on the field, which is to be expected considering he's appeared in just 14 career games since being drafted last year.
It may behoove Cleveland to find ways to get the ball in Coleman's hands in higher-percentage situations than just deep down the field and in tight coverage. Over 24 percent of his targets this year have come in a tight window (less than one yard of separation) and his quarterbacks have a 49.5 passer rating on those throws.
With all the air yards volume headed his way, Coleman is bound to pop up for a big game at some point. He'll face another challenge in Week 13 after facing top pass defenses in Jacksonville and Cincinnati the last two weeks. The Chargers' 2016 free agency acquisition Casey Hayward is in the middle of yet another strong season.
Casey Hayward coverage stats
50 percent completion rate
Two TDs, four INTs
54.5 passer rating
While most of the NFL world knows of Hayward's exploits since donning the powder blue thanks to his shadow shutdown coverage on a handful of top wideouts, some may not know that Los Angeles has found an excellent running mate for him. A 2016 undrafted free agent out of Penn State, Trevor Williams has emerged as a terrific addition to the Chargers' secondary.
Trevor Williams coverage stats
48.1 percent completion rate
Three TDs, two INTs
74.6 passer rating
The pure talent of Corey Coleman and the volume headed his way make for the perfect combination in the search of a breakout player. He's the type of sleeper you want to bet on in fantasy football. Week 13 holds a challenging cornerback matchup whether he sees Hayward or Williams across the field. We'll know much more about where Coleman is in his development at the conclusion of his duel with this duo.