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 7 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Buffalo Bills (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
This is a game that doesn't initially jump off the slate as a fantasy bonanza. It's true; the Bucs road trip to Buffalo likely doesn't threaten for one of the top shootouts of the week. However, there's at least one fantasy superstar in this game that hasn't quite hit the ground running like he has in years past.
It seems a little unfair to call the 2017 season thus far a disappointment for LeSean McCoy. The Bills feature back ranks 13th in points per game at the position. However, given his status as a consensus top-four running back and clear first-round pick in summer drafts, it's reasonable to expect a bit more.
What's not up for debate is that McCoy isn't off to a great start as a pure rusher. Overall volume and especially passing game work are what buoys his fantasy production. Despite already seeing his bye week, McCoy ranks sixth among running backs with 27 catches and his 32 targets currently lead the Bills offense. It's been a slog on the ground for the Pro Bowl back. McCoy hasn't cleared 3.8 yards per carry since Week 1.
The decline in rushing production comes from a two-fold issue. Back in 2016, the Bills had one of the best run-blocking offensive lines. LeSean McCoy averaged 1.65 yards before a defender closed within one yard of him in last season, the best mark for any running back with 100-plus carries. The Bills haven't fallen off the cliff this season, as McCoy averages 0.44 this season ranking 16th among backs with 40 or more carries. That checks in above the 0.35 NFL average. However, it's still a drop-off that's exacerbated another issue.
The more dramatic lack of performance in the Bills' ground game comes from the running back as an individual. During his dynamic 2016 campaign, McCoy averaged 3.77 yards after defenders closed within a yard (NFL average - 3.72), ranking 16th among running backs with 100-plus carries. So far this season, McCoy averages just 2.77. He keeps some depressing company this season, ranking 58th among backs with 20 or more rush attempts with Robert Turbin and Eddie Lacy right behind him.
He just hasn't been the same explosive runner who is able to make multiple defenders miss yet this year. At age 29, it's not out of the question he's lost a step.
While it was a quiet start to the year for McCoy, he could start to get rolling here soon even if he's not the same back of years past. The teams remaining on the Bills' schedule allow the third-highest average yards before close (0.51) in the NFL. McCoy starts off this easier stretch with the Buccaneers on Sunday, who just allowed Adrian Peterson to rise from the ashes to the tune of 134 rushing yards. The Bucs allowed Peterson 0.9 yards before they closed within a yard and 4.25 after. He averaged -0.29 and 3.29 before Week 6.
New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The NFL is littered with unfortunate injuries this year to superstar players. Yet, perhaps none rocked the league harder than Aaron Rodgers' going down with a broken collarbone last week, putting the rest of his season in doubt. The Packers high-powered offense gets a makeover this week and for the foreseeable future with Brett Hundley under center.
One of the biggest differences for Green Bay's scoring unit was the quarterback's performance under pressure. Rodgers had the third-best passer rating when under pressure (109.2) this season. Hundley didn't fare quite as well, completing two of 10 passes under pressure, throwing two interceptions and registering a 0.0 passer rating.
There's no question that Hundley was in a difficult spot last week against the Vikings. He was on the road against a strong defense without a second of preparation for the moment he found himself in. We could easily see a much more refined quarterback with a week's worth of practice as the unquestioned starter.
The Saints rank 18th this season with a pressure rate of 42 percent. Week 7 should certainly be a softer landing for the inexperienced Hundley. In last week's Next Gen stats matchups column we looked at Cameron Jordan as a sleeping superstar who could be a true game-wrecker against the Lions. Even though that ultimately ended up coming to fruition, the Saints still clocked a 43.9 percent pressure rate on Matthew Stafford, good for just 14th among Week 6 defenses.
Jordan could once again prove a problem and force Hundley into bad spots, but he'll face much tougher sledding this week than last. He takes most of his snaps from left defensive end and the Packers allow a mere 12.9 pressure rate from the right side of the offensive line (NFL average - 15.1). Overall, despite a litany of injuries up front, Green Bay sports a top pass-blocking offensive line, ranking ninth with a 21.2 pressure rate allowed.
After allowing a 135.4 passer rating in his first two career games, Lattimore has been cooking and is a big part of the Saints' defensive turnaround. From Week 3 on Lattimore allowed a mere 53.8 percent of the targets sent his way to be caught and snared two interceptions. Of course, he's not yet at the level where we need to get the yips about starting fantasy receivers going against him, but it's always important to know which young defenders are making the leap in addition to how and where their teams deploy them.
Lattimore primarily lines up at right cornerback, which would pit him against Davante Adams this week. Adams takes 51 percent of his plays and sees the majority of his targets (47 percent) from the left wide receiver position.
It appeared Brett Hundley favored Adams when he came into the Vikings game in relief of Rodgers. Hundley targeted him a team-high 10 times. Adams should be fine in this spot and will prove a tough test on the improving Lattimore, but perhaps Hundley will show more favor to Nelson in Week 7 since he has a better matchup. Nelson takes 41 percent of his plays at right wideout and another 26 percent from the slot.
Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots (8:30 pm EST on Sunday)
A Super Bowl rematch brings what should push for the highest scoring game of the Week 7 slate. Since these two teams last met in February, the Patriots offense has kept on humming despite welcoming some fresh faces. On the other hand, Atlanta's scoring unit is in the middle of a sharp regression from their historic 2016 pace. The Falcons have to hope a woeful Patriots pass defense can help get their aerial attack get back on track.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines an "intermediate pass" as a throw that travels 10-19 extended air yards. *
The world over cried "regression alert" for Matt Ryan after his MVP 2016 campaign. That wasn't a revelatory statement. Ryan was always destined to regress to the mean after leading the NFL in touchdown rate, passer rating and yards per attempt by a good margin last season. However, most didn't expect him to sharply regress past the mean, which is exactly what's happening. Ryan currently sits under his career average with a 3.5 touchdown rate, a number that resembles his poor 2015 season.
Two problem areas for Ryan this year are aspects of quarterback play where he excelled in 2016. After leading the NFL in passer rating on throws outside the numbers (115.1) and under pressure (104.9) in last season, Ryan currently ranks 25th and 17th in those categories in 2017.
While both areas are issues for Ryan so far this season, there's good reason to believe he straightens it out, especially this week. Atlanta's pass protection hasn't been dreadful this year, they rank 15th with a 26.3 pressure rate allowed. Ryan just isn't hitting the throws. Luckily, he shouldn't face much heat in this contest. New England's issues on defense mostly stem from their complete inability to rush the passer. The Patriots rank 31st this season with a defensive pressure rate of 33.9 percent.
The lack of pressure up front creates problems for the rest of the pass defense and New England, therefore, bleeds production through the air. They particularly struggle on outside throws. The Patriots allow an NFL-high 156.3 passer rating on intermediate throws to the left side of the field, the most passing yards (345) in the deep right and the third-most yards to the deep left.
The New England running back room has long been a dark tomb of riddles fantasy owners have been unable to solve for years. For the most part, that hasn't been true this season. Mike Gillislee has been the clear lead back for the Patriots, but his painful lack of passing game versatility has been more of a hamper to this offense than a help, especially because he's not adding much as a pure runner.
A first-quarter fumble last week caused Bill Belichick to run out of patience with Gillislee. He got yanked for a quarter-plus and was on the field for just 11 total plays. In his stead, Dion Lewis went out for 43 percent of the plays and James White held his passing down role. It's painfully apparent that Lewis is the superior player in all aspects of the position.
Lewis is one of the most elusive backs in the NFL. His 4.34 average yards after defenders close within a yard ranks 13th among runners with 20-plus carries (NFL average - 3.72). For comparison, Gillislee's 3.32 average ranks 48th among 65 qualifying backs. One of these players is a difference-maker, the other is not.
It's tough to predict what will happen with the New England backfield, we all know that. The versatile Rex Burkhead's impending return will also shake up the situation. However, what we can say for sure: the team isn't getting what it wants from Gillislee and Lewis shines every time he gets work.
The Patriots are well-known for their ability to game plan against their weekly opponents. They did just that in the Super Bowl last season, exploiting Atlanta's annual weakness with 14 catches from satellite back James White. The Falcons gave up the most catches to running backs in both 2015 and 2016, and once again rank inside the top-eight in targets (9.4), receptions (6.4) and yards (53.2) allowed to the position. Of course, White deserves a spotlight for his chances to have a similar performance to his February explosion against this team, but Lewis also carries those receiving chops.
Unpredictability looms, but there's a bet to make on the talent Next Gen Stats helps us quantify here. Lewis is absolutely in a good position to hit big in a high-scoring game. He's worth the risk of using this week in the hopes he establishes momentum for the rest of the season.