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 games on the Week 14 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
Even Cam Newton's most ardent defenders would admit that it's been a year of up and downs for the former MVP. The 2017 season has brought the type of performances in which the Panthers quarterback legitimately looks like the most unstoppable force to ever grace an NFL field, such as the wins over Detroit and Miami. Yet, there were also times this year where Newton was at his worst and appeared a deterrent to his team's success, like the first Saints loss at home and the road win over the Jets.
Few quarterbacks have been as ineffective on plays when defenses send extra rushers over the last two years than Cam Newton. The Panthers quarterback owns a 72.7 passer rating against the blitz since the start of the 2016 season, which is the third-worst among quarterbacks over that span. The Vikings are one of the best blitz teams in the league. Minnesota's 56.4 passer rating allowed when sending five-plus pass rushers is the third-best this season (NFL average - 86.6).
Even when Minnesota doesn't send extra heat, their pass rush is one of the NFL's best. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have a strong case as the game's most dominant pass rushing tandem. The duo has combined for 38.5 sacks since the start of last season, tied for the league-lead with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Griffen and Hunter have registered 52 and 41 total pressures on the season, respectively.
In addition to his issues when facing blitzes, Cam Newton also hasn't shown well when he has to fit the ball into tight windows. His 30.4 percent completion rate on tight window throws is the fifth-lowest among quarterbacks with 30-plus such attempts this season. Minnesota's defenders are great at the catch point. Their catch rate allowed on tight window passes is the fourth-lowest this season.
There's no getting around it; this is a difficult matchup for Cam Newton, even though the game is in Carolina. When these two teams faced off in Charlotte last season, Newton took eight sacks and threw three interceptions. Avoiding another such performance will be key for the Panthers. Newton has finished with a passer rating below 55.0 in three games this season and not so coincidentally, those contests happen to be three of the team's four losses.
Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers (4:05 pm EST on Sunday)
No wide receiver is hotter than the top player on the Chargers depth chart. It's been a blistering stretch for Keenan Allen with 33 catches, 436 yards and four touchdowns over his last three games. His versatility has helped him take a step forward to become easily the most valuable non-Philip Rivers player on the Chargers offense. Allen's Next Gen Stats heatmap shows he lines up everywhere on the field.
Allen hasn't lined up in any one receiver position on more than 29 percent of his snaps. While his alignment is mostly split between the four spots, his target distribution is far more concentrated. With 52 of his targets coming when he lines up left wide, he's getting twice the amount of looks on that side of the field than any other position.
Three of Allen's touchdowns over the last three weeks have come from the slot. When Allen lines up inside, he'll face a far more intriguing matchup. Despite the fact that Washington has allowed six touchdowns to slot receivers on the season, they've given up just 594 yards to the position, the 12-fewest. The team's primary slot corner, Kendall Fuller, is one of just three cornerbacks this year to not allow a reception on a tight window target. He's seen eight such throws this year. Allen has hauled in eight of his 22 tight window targets this season and Philip Rivers has a 48.1 passer rating on those throws.
Seattle Seahawks at Jacksonville Jaguars (4:25 pm EST on Sunday)
Russell Wilson is in the MVP conversation not just because he's elevated a team that has a train wreck of a running game but because he's been outstanding as a pure passer while doing so. The Seahawks starter leads all quarterbacks with an 82.6 passer rating when throwing into tight windows. He has a league-high seven touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception. Wilson joins only Kirk Cousins, Tyrod Taylor, Carson Wentz, Brian Hoyer, Jared Goff and Aaron Rodgers to have not thrown an interception on a tight window pass attempt among quarterbacks to start six-plus games this season.
Wilson will face the shutdown Jaguars defense on Sunday. Jacksonville is on an incredible pace right now, ranking first in points and passing yards per game allowed in addition to sacks. The secondary is also the best stop unit at the catch point, absolutely blanketing receivers on tight window passes.
Jaguars production allowed on tight window throws (rank)
33.3% completion rate (7th)
0 TDs (1st)
8 INTs (1st)
9.5 passer rating (1st)
The Seahawks wide receivers should get suffocated in this spot. Jacksonville is allowing the ninth-fewest yards to wide receivers lined up wide right (474), fifth-fewest to left wide receivers (380) and the fewest to slot receivers (388). Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson should see plenty of the shutdown duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, and not even Doug Baldwin has a plus matchup. Ramsey sometimes shifts into the slot to chase top receivers, but the Jaguars primary interior corner Aaron Colvin is an underrated player.
If Wilson is to get over in this matchup, it may have to come from tight end Jimmy Graham. The Seahawks appear to have finally unlocked the potential of Graham in their offense. He currently leads the NFL with nine touchdowns and is on pace to finish with his highest target total since joining Seattle. Graham gets the majority of his looks away from the traditional tight end position, which is much more in line with his usage in New Orleans during his most prolific years.
Wilson is finally comfortable this year just trusting Graham at the catch point regardless of the coverage. Graham owns a 31.2 percent share of Wilson's tight window targets and has scored six touchdowns on those throws. Doug Baldwin is the only other Seattle pass-catcher to score on a tight window target.
Of course, the issues for Seattle will come before the ball even leaves their quarterback's hands. The Jaguars ferocious pass rush could have a field day with the Seahawks offensive line. Jacksonville's 36.9 pressure rate leads all defenses this year. All three of Yannick Ngakoue (50), Calais Campbell (47) and Malik Jackson (34) have more than 30 pressures this season. Yet, part of what's made Wilson's season so special is that his success under duress. He owns the eighth-best passer rating (82.1) on throws under pressure, passing for 582 yards and five touchdowns without throwing a pick.