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 8 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Oakland Raiders at Buffalo Bills (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
*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. *
Marshawn Lynch is out of the picture for Week 8 while he serves a one-game suspension. In his stead, the Raiders will run out their young duo of DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. Both players were rookies last season, with Washington coming in as a fifth-round pick and Richard signed as an undrafted free agent.
In all likelihood, the team will split the work between these two into a near 50/50 committee. Last week, following Lynch's exit after just 10 plays, Richard was on the field for 33 percent of the plays to 32 percent for Washington. Richard registered 13 touches to 12 for his counterpart. As the higher drafted player, Washington could get the nod to start by default. However, judging by some of the Next Gen Stats data, he might not be the superior back.
Through the season's first seven weeks, Jalen Richard averages 4.58 yards after defenders close within one yard of him (NFL average - 3.7). He ranks inside the top-10 in that statistic among running backs with 20-plus carries this season. On the other hand, Washington ranks 60th out of 70 qualifying backs. At least so far this season, Richard has been the better back at creating yards on his own. Which might well be a more necessary trait in this backfield than it was in years past.
The Raiders well-constructed offensive line has allowed the lowest pressure rate (17.8) on their quarterbacks this year, but the unit is lacking in the ground game. Oakland's running backs average -0.21 yards before defenders close within one yard of them (NFL average - 0.29), a metric that correlates well to run blocking effectiveness, ranking 29th in the NFL.
While Richard may well be the better and more versatile asset, he will have to run behind the same under-performing offensive line that Washington will. Going across the country to face a Bills team allowing just 3.4 yards per carry on the season, it could be tough sledding for the intriguing young backs on Oakland's roster as they're thrust into a brighter spotlight.
Houston Texans at Seattle Seahawks (4:05 pm EST on Sunday)
Coming off his bye week, we'll get another chance to see Deshaun Watson build on his already strong case for 2017 offensive rookie of the year. However, Watson will have to do so in a difficult road spot in Seattle.
Deshaun Watson has been the epitome of a playmaker this year. He's made plays on the move, down the field, and in high-leverage situations. Watson is among the league-leaders in the following categories.
Percentage of deep (20-plus air yards) passes: 16.9 percent (first)
Passes outside the tackle box: 21.5 percent (second)
Passer rating against the blitz: 111.3 (fourth)
Passer rating on tight window throws: 107.3 (first)
With Watson's overall proficiency in multiple layers of playing the position, it's hard to bet against him, despite the tough matchup. If there's one area where Seattle does have a noticeable advantage, it's defending quarterbacks outside the pocket. The Seahawks have allowed a mere 18.5 percent of the outside of the tackle box pass attempts against them to be completed, the lowest of any defense in the NFL.
Since Seattle has been so tremendous at shutting down bootleg and scrambled passes, Watson may have to succeed more inside of structure than make plays outside of it this week. Luckily, he's been far better than expected in that area this season. Watson has a 78.5 completion percentage and a stellar 112.9 passer rating on passes inside the tackle box this season.
If Watson is to succeed within structure, the Texans will need to make sure DeAndre Hopkins avoids the Seahawks star corner. So far this season, Richard Sherman has allowed a mere 33 yards in coverage to opposing top wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Pierre Garcon, Rishard Matthews, T.Y. Hilton and Sammy Watkins over 60 pass plays. Sherman almost exclusively lines up at left cornerback this season and Hopkins sees a whopping 75 percent of his targets from the left wide receiver position.
In theory, this would keep Hopkins off of Sherman's radar for most the game. We've seen the Seahawks deploy their top cover man to shadow on rare occasions in the past and perhaps they deem this one such instance. If they do, we can look back to Week 6 to find comfort for Watson's ability to thrive without Hopkins being a big factor. The Browns used their surprisingly effective veteran cornerback Jason McCourty to shadow Hopkins on 23 of his 30 pass plays in their Week 6 loss. He was more than up to the task, holding the receiver to just 19 yards on the day despite letting up a touchdown.
Even while Hopkins was tied up with McCourty, Watson was able to pick his spots elsewhere and racked up 225 passing yards and threw three touchdowns. At this point, Watson has shown us so much to be enthusiastic about, it's difficult to doubt him as he heads into Seattle.
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins (4:25 pm EST om Sunday)
*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. *
Week 7 marked a flip of the page of Washington's offense, as for the first time all season Josh Doctson worked as a primary player. The former first-round pick went out for 84 percent of the team's plays, out-doing Terrelle Pryor's 47 percent. The addition of Pryor in free agency after signing him on a mere one-year deal has not brought positive dividends to this passing-attack and it appears the tide has now turned to a player the team is more invested in.
Doctson already flashed some of the ability that made him such a tantalizing talent coming out of college. Known as a contested catch master at TCU, Doctson has shown well in tight coverage situations this year.
Among the 20 wide receivers who have seen at least 30 percent of their targets come on a tight window throw (less than one yard of separation), Doctson's passer rating when targeted of 143.8 trails only Stefon Diggs' 154.4. Kirk Cousins has a far better passer rating when throwing to Doctson in tight windows than either of Terrelle Pryor (56.3) or Jamison Crowder (42.6).
Head coach Jay Gruden indicated they will go with the hot hand at wide receiver and Kirk Cousinssaid after the Eagles loss "we spread it around, we always have, we always will" in relation to his outside receivers. Doctson is supplanting Pryor in a receiving role that earned more than five targets in just one game all year. It's not as if Doctson suddenly finds himself in position to inherit a massive share of the team's targets.
With that in mind, Week 8 may well hold a fine spot to use Doctson. The Cowboys should force their high-flying division-rivals in a back-and-forth shootout Sunday afternoon. Doctson has a solid individual matchup, as well. He's seen 57 percent of his targets from the right wide receiver position. Dallas has allowed five touchdowns to right wide receivers, trailing only the Cardinals for the league-lead.
Dallas defense vs. Kirk Cousins
If Dallas wishes to spoil Washington's offensive efforts at home, the name of the game will be putting pressure on Kirk Cousins. Next Gen Stats shows us that cousins' passer rating falls a full 39.7 points when he's under pressure, the fourth-highest differential in the NFL.
Washington could be in a bad spot this week regarding their defensive line matchup. Dallas' best defensive player through the 2017 season has been defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, whose 16.3 pressure rate is the second-highest among players with 150-plus pass rush snaps. Lawrence takes the vast majority of his snaps from the left defensive end position.
Typically, Washington does a good job slowing down pass rushers from that side of the field. The right side of their offensive line allows a pressure rate of 17.7, less than the 21.4 allowed from the left. However, Washington saw both right guard Brandon Scherff and right tackle Morgan Moses leave Monday night's loss with injuries and neither participated in Thursday's practice.