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-plus 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 every game 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 16 slate to examine areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
You can explore the charts and data provided by Next Gen Stats for yourself **right here**, as well.
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens (4:30 pm EST on Saturday)
Joe Flacco has finally stabilized his play. Make no mistake, he's still nowhere near the type of passer who is a week-to-week difference-maker, as he was during that run to the Super Bowl all those years ago, but he's at least performing like a league average starter after months of basement-level play. Flacco has noticeably improved at getting the ball down the field during his recent solid output. In Weeks 1-10, Flacco sported an abysmal 38.2 passer rating on throws traveling 10 or more yards in the air, second-lowest among qualifying quarterbacks during that span. He's been better of late, with an 83.8 rating from Weeks 11 to 15.
Flacco's stabilization, especially as an intermediate and downfield passer, has brought receiver Mike Wallace back to relevance. On the season, Wallace leads the team with a 28.6 percent share of Flacco's intended air yards, but he's seen a major bump up to over 41 percent over the last four weeks.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (8:30 pm EST on Saturday)
An up-tempo, quick-strike passing approach has been key to the special season of Case Keenum here in 2017. Keenum has a 108.6 passer rating on throws where he gets rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds, the third-highest among quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts on the year. He doesn't waste time in decision-making and has been hyper-accurate, posting the second-best passer rating when throwing into tight windows (75.2) in the league. Keenum's Week 16 opponent, the Green Bay Packers have struggled to defend quick-passing games this year, allowing a league-high 120.2 passer rating and 19 touchdowns on plays where the quarterback has a 2.5-second or less time to throw.
Jerick McKinnon went wild as a receiver last week. He racked up 114 yards on seven catches out of the backfield against the Bengals. It was the third-most receiving yards any player has recorded on targets out of the backfield over the last two years. McKinnon could be a key weapon against the Packers, who lead the league with 34 catches allowed to running backs over the last four weeks.
Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The Bengals have been outscored 67 to 14 over their last two games. It looks like they've all but turned the page on the 2017 season. Meanwhile, the Lions are fighting for their playoff lives and have every incentive to chase a victory in this contest over the folding Bengals. One X-factor for Cincinnati is defensive end Carl Lawson, who leads all rookies with 37 pressures on the year. He joins teammates Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap in the top-30 among all defenders in pressures recorded. The Lions are a middle of the road pass protection team in 2017, ranking 15th with 136 pressures allowed. However, they've improved as the season has gone on.
Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
With Damien Williams practicing again, there will be worries that Kenyan Drake will lose work should he suit up. While Drake's 26-touch per game average over the last three weeks could use some lightening, the Dolphins would be wise to continue to ride him as the clear engine of their offense. Drake has emerged as one of the best runners in the NFL over the last month. On the year he averages 4.69 yards gained after defenders close within one yard (NFL average - 3.7), ranking third behind only Alvin Kamara and Dion Lewis among backs with 80-plus carries.
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Dion Lewis has been one of the best pure runners in the NFL this season. The Patriots back's 4.76 average rushing yards gained after defenders close within a yard of him ranks second behind only Alvin Kamara among players with 80-plus carries. However, what's been missing from Lewis' repertoire this season is receiving work. Back in his breakout half-season in 2015, Lewis averaged 5.1 catches per game but that's dropped to just 1.5 this season. We know he's a capable receiver. Even in limited looks this year, quarterbacks have a 112.1 passer rating when targeting him. With Rex Burkhead on the shelf (123.8 passer rating when targeted), perhaps New England calls on Lewis to chip in with more pass-catching work along with James White.
Cleveland Browns at Chicago Bears (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
In regards to the Browns not having any "real players," it does appear the old brass nailed their top overall pick in 2017. Myles Garrett leads all rookies with at least 200 pass rush snaps with a 13 percent pressure rate. Despite missing five games due to injury, he has five sacks on the year and seven tackles for loss. He's not just a pass rusher either, as his 10.7 percent disruption rate (percentage of plays with a pressure or run stuff) ranks sixth in the NFL this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Damiere Byrd may seem like a flash in the pan but he's someone that deserves our attention. Despite a sub 185-pound frame, Byrd has secured three of his five tight window targets on the season, including one of his touchdowns last week. Newton has a 120.0 passer rating when throwing to Byrd in tight windows. Byrd, who ran a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash coming into the league, hasn't even had a play where he cleared 18 MPH with the ball in his hands yet this season. If the Panthers can get him into space against a beatable Buccaneers secondary, look out.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
One of the best wide receiver vs. cornerback matchups of the next several seasons figures to be Julio Jones vs. emerging rookie Marshon Lattimore. Jones is one of the best wideouts in the NFL, while Lattimore deservingly made the Pro Bowl in his first pro season. The two will match up twice a year for the foreseeable future. In their first meeting amid an Atlanta win on Thursday night, Lattimore covered Jones on 15 of 22 routes. The veteran receiver saw six of his 11 targets in the rookie's crawls and recorded just four catches for 79 yards, while Lattimore secured a gorgeous pick in tight coverage.
The Falcons haven't shown an ability, or even willingness, to funnel the ball to Jones this season, especially in high-leverage situations. We shouldn't be too surprised if Matt Ryan doesn't successfully push the ball to Jones when he's covered by Lattimore. Ryan hasn't shown much ability to perform leaps and bounds above expectations this season and quarterbacks have a mere 29.2 passer rating when throwing at the Saints star rookie corner since Week 3.
Denver Broncos at Washington Redskins (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Former second-round pick Cody Latimer popped up for 60 yards and a touchdown on Thursday night in Week 15. He's been a disappointment as a wide receiver thus far in his career, despite developing into a special teams asset. However, Broncos insider Cecil Lammey reported that Denver wants to offer Latimer an extension because they still believe in his untapped potential. The 6-foot-3 Latimer showed well in tight coverage against the Colts, securing two of his three targets for 42 yards and a touchdown. In fact, Broncos quarterbacks have a 154.4 passer rating when throwing to Cody Latimer in tight windows this season, which all receivers with 10 or more tight window targets. He is a player to watch as the season winds down.
Los Angeles Rams at Tennessee Titans (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Marcus Mariota has been one of the most disappointing players in the NFL this season, failing to take the next step in his development as a franchise quarterback, throwing 14 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns. The Titans offense seems to lack the creativity it flashed at times in 2016. Mariota attempted 15.2 percent of his passes outside the tackle box last season but that's been cut almost in half to 7.7 percent in 2017. He hasn't responded well to playing in the pocket more often, posting a 17.5 passer rating on tight window throws, which ranks dead last among quarterbacks.
In addition to tight window throws, Mariota has struggled when defenses get heat on him. His 52.1 passer rating when under pressure is the seventh-worst mark among qualifying passers. Mariota faces the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16 in what couldn't be a worse mismatch. The Rams defense spots a league-leading 35.7 pressure rate this year. Aaron Donald has been dominant all year but edge rusher Robert Quinn has joined in on the dominant act over the last three weeks, and both should pose issues for Mariota this week.
Los Angeles Chargers at New York Jets (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The connection between Bryce Petty and Robby Anderson lived on. Anderson led the team with a 30.4 percent of the team's intended air yards. Even better, Petty didn't use him exclusively as a deep threat, as Anderson averaged 6.5 air yards on his targets. That utilization makes him a solid enough play against a tough Chargers secondary that did get burned deep by Tyreek Hill last week.
Jacksonville Jaguars at San Francisco 49ers (4:05 pm EST on Sunday)
Doug Marrone announced that rookie running back Leonard Fournette will play against the 49ers after missing Week 15 with a quad injury. It's strange to say with the team red-hot right now, but the Jaguars fourth-overall pick this season has become something of an afterthought of late. Amid a disciplinary suspension and multiple injuries, it's been quite some time since we've seen Fournette at the height of his powers. In the early portions of the season, the rookie back consistently showed off his freakish ability, busting off long runs and immense speeds
For starters, it should be noted how outrageous it is that Fournette owns the two fastest speeds among any ball-carriers this season while weighing 228 pounds. The only other multiple entries, Tyreek Hill, weighs sub-190 pounds. Yet, as mentioned, we haven't seen that freakish Fournette in ages. Defensive attention plays a role in this, as he's faced eight-plus defenders in the box on 52.4 percent of carries, the highest rate among back this season (75-plus carries). While it might seem like a positive matchup, the 49ers might not be the team to get Fournette rolling against. Over the last four weeks, San Francisco allowed just 248 rushing yards to backs (3.06 per carry), third-fewest in that span.
Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys (4:25 pm EST on Sunday)
A Week 15 decimation at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams was the outlier for Russell Wilson in 2017. Despite the constant issues on the offensive line, Wilson thrived under pressure for most of the season. In Weeks 1 to 14, he carried a solid 80.0 passer rating under pressure, completing 44.4 percent of his throws with a 5:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Against the Rams last week, Wilson completed just 33.3 percent of his throws under pressure and averaged a paltry 4.0 yards per attempt. Luckily for Wilson, he has a chance to rebound in Week 16 against a Dallas pass rush unit that pales in comparison to the Rams. Demarcus Lawrence has been dominant with the fifth-highest pressure rate (15.2 percent) among players with 200-plus pass rush snaps, but no other Cowboys player has cleared an 11 percent rate on the year.
When Wilson rears back to throw, he should look to target rookie Chidobe Awuzie who has allowed a 106.2 passer rating in coverage this year, including two touchdowns to Michael Crabtree on the offensive right side of the field last week. Tyler Lockett takes the majority of his snaps (31 percent) from the right wide position and Doug Baldwin (15 percent) sees some time there, as well.
New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals (4:25 pm EST on Sunday)
Sterling Shepard returned to full-strength in Week 15 after being removed from the injury report mid-week. He promptly led the team in targets and receiving yards against the Eagles, while scoring a 67-yard scamper. Shepard is the security blanket for Eli Manning, averaging 6.5 air yards per target while Tavarres King and Roger Lewis finished north of 13 in Week 15. The emerging young receiver gets another cushy matchup in Week 16. The Arizona Cardinals funnel targets to the interior with All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson roaming the outside. Arizona has allowed the eighth-most yards (812) to slot receivers on the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans (4:30 pm EST on Sunday)
With Antonio Brown out for most of the contest, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant both led the team with six targets in Week 15. Their usage was quite different, however. Bryant led the team with 88.91 targeted air yards (14.8 per target), while Smith-Schuster finished behind Brown and Jesse James with 24.99 (4.2 per target). He accumulated most of his yardage after the catch. Despite being used in the vertical game more often, Bryant averaged 3.1 yards of separation to 2.7 for his rookie teammate in what was easily Bryant's best game since 2015. Smith-Schuster also got far more room to work off the line with 6.3 yards of cushion to just 4.5 for Bryant. The Texans may look to defend this duo differently than New England did last week, but judging by their usage in Week 15, Bryant will be the high-upside but volatile asset while Smith-Schuster has a more viable path to a floor.
Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles (8:30 pm EST on Sunday)
While the Eagles offense suffered a cataclysmic loss with Carson Wentz's torn ACL in Week 14, it was their defense that floundered in Week 15. Philadelphia's stop unit allowed Eli Manning and the moribund Giants offense throw for over 400 yards on them. However, this defense has been unbelievable for the majority of the 2017 season, especially the front line. The Eagles have a whopping four players on their defensive line, Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham, who rank inside the top-13 in disruption rate (percentage of plays with a pressure or run stuff) this season: