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 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 3 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Minnesota Vikings (1:00 pm EST)
An early game on the Week 3 slate features what should be two of the top up-and-coming teams in the NFL. The Buccaneers won their first game with ease over an undermanned Chicago Bears squad. The Vikings were flying high after an explosive offensive takedown of the Saints in Week 1 but came crashing back to earth in the wake of Sam Bradford's injury forcing Case Keenum into the starting lineup. Storylines abound in this game, but there are two main elements that fantasy owners should care most about.
Rhodes covered Brown on 71.4 percent of the receiver's pass plays last week. Ben Roethlisberger threw to Brown eight times with Rhodes in coverage and only completed three passes for 28 yards. The star cornerback's shadow coverage was a big reason why Brown experienced a slower follow-up game after snaring all 11 of his targets for 180-plus yards in Week 1.
It appears that Minnesota decides to deploy Xavier Rhodes to track the opponent's top receiver on a game-by-game basis. One would certainly imagine that a date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their stud top receiver Mike Evans would qualify as such an occasion. Evans returned from the Bucs Week 1 bye to remind football observers that he's on his way to ascending the pantheon of NFL wideouts. He snagged seven catches on nine targets, including an outrageous touchdown reception where he had just 1.2 yards of separation from defensive back Marcus Cooper in the end zone.
On the surface, it would make complete sense for the Vikings to stick Xavier Rhodes on Mike Evans for most of his routes to stop the star wideout from taking over the game. However, should they choose that course of action it will open them up for exploitation by another member of the Buccaneers scoring attack.
While Xavier Rhodes kept Antonio Brown in check in Week 2, the team had serious issues dealing with another one of the Steelers' weapons. Martavis Bryant ripped through the Vikings defense for 91 yards and a touchdown on just four targets, officially announcing his return to one of the top spots on the NFL's Mount Rushmore of big-play threats.
Bryant's first catch of the day was a 27-yard touchdown reception where he streaked across the field into the end zone. Bryant had 2.59 yards of separation from Terrance Newman when he hit the stem of his crossing route. He accelerated to hit a 20.2 MPH top speed after the catch, causing Newman to dive and miss on his tackle attempt. Later in the game, Minnesota gave up a 51-yard deep reception to Bryant where he hit 19.8 MPH and burned an undisciplined Trae Waynes in coverage. Waynes also committed a defensive penalty on another play where Bryant got over top of him.
Having DeSean Jackson come to town at a moment where defending the deep ball is an issue provides some concern for the Vikings. The new Buccaneers wideout only pulled in three catches for 39 yards in his debut, but the volume was there for big plays. Jackson averaged 19.3 air yards per target, fourth-highest among receivers who saw five or more in Week 2:
The biggest missed opportunity came in the third-quarter on a deep post route. Jackson had a whopping 4.4 yards of separation from Bryce Callahan, the corner who first broke into coverage with him, and hit a 20.3 MPH max speed. Jameis Winston just put the ball on the opposite shoulder of what Jackson expected, and that pass ended up just out of his outstretched hands. He also drew a defensive holding penalty on a second-quarter deep shot.
If the Vikings do stick Xavier Rhodes on Mike Evans this week as they did with Antonio Brown, Jackson has a strong chance to pay off some of that air yards volume into fantasy production. He's absolutely worth a flex play in this spot in the optimistic hope that some of his deep opportunities bounce his way in coverage against Waynes and Newman.
Cincinnati Bengals at Green Bay Packers (4:25 pm EST)
A mid-afternoon game brings us a chance for the Cincinnati Bengals and their many fantasy-relevant players to get right ... or at least get better. The Packers in Lambeau are always a strong bet to build a big lead, thus we'd assume the Bengals should come out of their self-inflicted shell and put up some offensive production. If that's going to happen, they'll need their starting quarterback to improve.
*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. *
Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "tight window" as a throw where the receiver had less than a yard of separation.
Through two games, Andy Dalton has just 6.46 fantasy points to his name. Yes, over the course of two full NFL regular season contests. His first two weeks have been a real kick in the teeth to those who drafted him based on a predictable progression from his outlier low 2016 touchdown rate. It's hard to imagine a tougher sled to get rolling on for a quarterback than drawing the Ravens and Texans defenses to kick off the new season. Nevertheless, the Bengals offense was completely despondent and dysfunctional in their first two games, leading to the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Zampese.
Much of the worry surrounding Andy Dalton's outlook this season came from a rebuilt offensive line that saw two of its best players in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency. With Dalton struggling mightily to open the season, the temptation is to believe that the line's flaws have indeed been an Achilles' heel for this offense. However, that might be a false positive.
The Bengals rank 15th in pressure rate allowed through two weeks. While there's obvious room for improvement, being middle of the pack as a pass protection unit doesn't speak to a damning, offensive tanking level of play by the line. In my mind, the solution is much simpler to identify; Andy Dalton just needs to play better.
While his pass protection isn't as porous as it could be with offensive line play on a downward trend throughout the league, Dalton isn't playing well when defenses spend extra resources to put heat on him. His 43.2 passer rating against the blitz is the third-worst mark in the NFL this season. Dalton is also struggling to complete difficult throws. His 51.5 passer rating on tight window throws ranks 30th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks this season (79.8 league average). Two of his four interceptions came on such attempts.
The Bengals must hope that newly installed offensive coordinator Bill Lazor can help alleviate some of the issues plaguing Dalton. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport believes that Cincinnati will look to get the ball out of Dalton's hands faster and on more high-percentage short throws going forward. So far this year, Dalton has the 14th-fastest time to throw (2.59 seconds). While there's room to pick up the pace, Dalton's already in the top half of NFL quarterbacks in terms of getting the ball out. Lazor certainly could look to shorten the field for his quarterback with Dalton's average of 10 intended air yards on his pass attempts currently at the seventh-highest in the league.
We'll be monitoring the Bengals offense when they travel to Green Bay this week to take on the Packers. Perhaps Lazor can indeed construct a better offense on the fly to suit what his quarterback needs in the current conditions surrounding him. Fantasy gamers who sunk heavy investments into this offense will need to hope so.
Oakland Raiders at Washington Redskins (8:30 pm EST)
The Raiders look exactly like the strong AFC contender that many imagined they'd be with a 2-0 record. Oakland took care of business against with a road win in Tennessee before throttling the woebegone Jets in Week 2. The offense is riding high with eight touchdowns scored through the season's first two weeks. While Derek Carr, his trio of receivers and Marshawn Lynch are the stories, the true anchor of the Oakland offense will get its first big test this week in Washington.
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.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "tight window" as a throw where the receiver had less than a yard of separation. *
It's hard to overstate just how good the Raiders offensive line is. Oakland allowed a pressure rate of just 11.8 percent in 2016, the best mark in the NFL. The pass protection unit hasn't slowed down a bit this season. The Raiders' 8.5 pressure rate allowed ranks third-best in the NFL this season, trailing only the Dolphins (one game) and Chargers.
The offensive line's dominance isn't meant to take anything away from Derek Carr, who complements their efforts perfectly. Carr's 2.07-second average time to throw leads all quarterbacks through the first two weeks of 2017. The line's ability to keep pass rushers at bay allows Carr to operate a quick-strike passing offense to perfection. With pristine conditions, Carr is able to show off his immense arm talent and ability to drill passes into tight windows.
With all that glowing praise well-earned as it is, the Raiders will face their first true test this week as they travel to Washington. Through two weeks of the season, Washington ranks eighth in the NFL with a 32.8 percent pressure rate. The defense has been aggressive in the season's early going. Washington's blitz percentage of 48.5 percent is higher than any other team in the NFL this year. Dedicating extra resources to pressure Derek Carr could be just what an opposing team needs to break through the iron fortress provided by their offensive line.
If attempting to use this data to predict the future it seems wise to side with the Oakland pass protection unit and their multiple seasons of excellence. With Derek Carr kept upright and able to flawlessly execute this timing-based offense, the Raiders are in a blowup spot Sunday night. With that being the case, you not only want to get all your Raiders into lineups but also side with throwing out some Washington players in the hopes they give chase to their high-flying opponents.