This week's edition of Fast Connections highlights non-wideouts who have become the fulcrum of their respective teams' passing attacks.
Philip Rivers to Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
For many, Austin Ekeler's hot start to the 2019 season came with some concern. Not because Ekeler didn't perform at a high level, but because of the looming return of Melvin Gordon from a contract holdout. Those fears spiked when Gordon reported to the Chargers' before their Week 4 matchup with the Dolphins.
But Ekeler didn't disappear from the offense when Gordon returned. Rather, he became arguably quarterback Philip Rivers' most indispensable weapon after Keenan Allen. Over the last four weeks, Ekeler's 27 receptions lead the Chargers and come in at least 50 percent higher than the totals for Mike Williams and Hunter Henry (18 each) and Keenan Allen (17) over the same span.
Even while sharing the backfield with Gordon, Ekeler remains one of the most dangerous players in football. With the Chargers firing offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt earlier this week ostensibly to improve their stalled run game, Ekeler's could regain some of the carries he lost in October.
Next Gen Stats says ...
When the Chargers sent Ekeler on a route, Rivers prioritizes him. Ekeler leads the team in targets per route run at 32.4 percent among players with at least 15 targets. For context, Allen ranks No. 2 in that metric at 26.6. And though Ekeler's routes don't always take him down the field, he laps the field in yards-after-catch success rate at 66 percent.
Kyle Allen to Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Most teams losing their MVP quarterback after two games would see their seasons go down the drain. For a time, the Panthers didn't look like an exception. They lost their first two games with Cam Newton struggling and had to insert former undrafted free agent Kyle Allen under center. In a division with the Saints and a plucky Buccaneers team, Carolina appeared to have little hope of beating the odds.
Instead, Allen has done a more than commendable job in Newton's absence. Allen completed over 70 percent of his passes and compiled 493 yards and four touchdowns in his first two starts and didn't throw an interception until his fifth. Though far from MVP-caliber play, he has given the Panthers far more than they could have expected given his limited experience and pedigree.
Part of that success is tied to Christian McCaffrey. Though officially a running back, McCaffery plays all over the field. He currently leads the team in both rush attempts (141) and receptions (39), making him a legitimate dual threat. While Allen does spread the ball around to Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore and Greg Olsen, the offense runs through McCaffrey.
Next Gen Stats says ...
Without a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver, the Panthers offense has featured McCaffrey in the passing game. His quarterbacks have targeted him on 26.5 percent of his routes, highest among Carolina's players with at least 15 targets. Only Samuel sports a higher yards-after-catch success rate than McCaffrey on the team (44 percent versus 43.6 percent).
Derek Carr to Darren Waller, Oakland Raiders
Six months ago, the Raiders had a receiving corps that included a four-time All-Pro (Antonio Brown), an expensive free-agent acquisition fresh off his best season (Tyrell Williams), and a college legend making the leap to the NFL (Hunter Renfrow). With head coach Jon Gruden entering his second year of his second stint as the team's head coach, it seemed that group would lead the passing game.
Few expected what would come next. Brown left under strange circumstances and currently is out of the league, Williams missed nearly the entire month of October with a foot injury, and Renfrow has made minimal impact. In their place, the previously anonymous Darren Waller has become the linchpin of the Raiders passing game.
A former wide receiver still learning the nuances of tight end, Waller leads the Raiders in targets (58), receptions (46) and receiving yards (496). He has become the go-to target for quarterback Derek Carr, with the two connecting seven times for 126 yards and two scores against the Packers earlier this season. With Will Dissly out for the year, Waller has become arguably the lone positive fantasy surprise at the tight end position.
Next Gen Stats says ...
Whether because of scheme or necessity, the Raiders have funneled the ball through their tight ends this season. Carr has thrown to Waller on 30.2 percent of his routes this season, the most among Oakland receivers with at least 15 targets. Waller also produces after the catch, scoring a 48.9 yards-after-catch success rate.