With the 2017 season upon us, 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 its existence, Next Gen Stats has quickly progressed, not only in its depth and insight but also in its 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 NFL contests, which we should always strive to be in our fantasy decision-making process. Let's dive into three games on the Week 1 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers (Sunday 4:25 pm EST)
The Seahawks travel to Green Bay for their season-opener and bring with them not only their annually devastating defense but an offense that looks primed for an explosion. Any game with the Packers on the ledger brings the potential for a shootout, the type of back-and-forth scoring contest we want to chase in fantasy football. Yet, the Seattle defense looks as vicious as ever, especially after their trade for former Pro Bowl interior pass rusher Sheldon Richardson in the preseason. Two key matchups could hold the key to determining whether this game turns into high-scoring affair or whether the Seahawks defense will slow down the Packers to a degree where the point total veers to the low side.
After an injury-riddled 2016 campaign where he still posted a career-high in passing yards, there's plenty to like about Wilson's outlook for 2017. Not only is he due for some serious natural progression from a career-low 3.8 passing touchdown rate, as he cleared 6.3 in three of the prior four seasons, Wilson also has arguably the best set of weapons assembled around him to date.
The beefed-up Seattle passing attack is in a prime spot to get rolling right from the jump in Week 1. Few teams were as susceptible to the vertical game as the Packers last season. Green Bay surrendered 1,001 yards and an NFL-high 13 touchdowns on passes that traveled 20-plus extended air yards alone. The NFL average in 2016 was 751 yards and six scores.
Even though the effects of playing through multiple injuries took its toll on Wilson's overall efficiency numbers, he was still incredibly proficient as a vertical passer last year:
Wilson's 154.4 passer rating when throwing into the deep middle of the field led all quarterbacks in 2016. He totaled 303 yards and two scores on just 11 attempts into that area of the field. This looks to be an area where Wilson can attack the Packers on Sunday. The Seahawks top two passing weapons operate in the middle of the field, as Doug Baldwin saw 69 percent of his 2016 targets from the slot and tight end Jimmy Graham looks poised for a monster season. However, if Wilson is truly going to rip the Packers up deep down the field, we should also turn our attention to two Week 1 sleeper picks. With the departure of Jermaine Kearse from the wide receiver corps, Seattle has a whopping 22.15 percent of their 2016 intended air yards up for grabs.
Paul Richardson ran as the top No. 2 receiver throughout the offseason and is the favorite to see the biggest bump. A second-round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft, Richardson is a lean receiver who struggled with injuries early in his career but absolutely has speed to burn. One of his many signature plays in last year's playoff run was a 52-yard touchdown where he reached 20.52 MPH against the Atlanta Falcons. Richardson took 56 percent of his plays and saw all five of his targets at left wide receiver this preseason. Damarious Randall currently sits atop the Packers depth chart at right cornerback. He allowed 802 yards and eight touchdowns in coverage last season despite playing just 10 games.
While Richardson likely sees more playing time and volume in Week 1, don't rule out Tyler Lockett as a dart throw for the opener. Lockett spent much of the offseason rehabbing a gruesome 2016 leg injury, so while he's a candidate to start off slow, Pete Carroll did indicate he's "ready to go" this week. We know Lockett has game-breaking speed and can shake loose from defenders on a variety of routes, as he led all Seahawks receivers with an average of 3.4 yards of separation on his targets last season.
Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "pressure" as a defender getting within two yards of a quarterback on a pass play.
With Earl Thomas back in the fold and the pass-rush unit as stacked as ever, the Seahawks defense is poised to be the type of unit that can give any offense fits. The Packers scoring unit, with its combination of protection and quarterback, is one of the best in the game to keep the waves of pressure at bay.
Green Bay's offensive line often goes overlooked in the discussion of the best fronts in the NFL today while teams like Dallas and Oakland are often mentioned, but they are one of the best in pass protection. The Packers allowed the third-lowest "pressure rate" on pass plays where Aaron Rodgers was in the pocket last year with just 17.1 percent. Only the Raiders and Titans provided cleaner pockets for their quarterbacks, while the NFL average pressure rate sits at 26.7 percent. With veteran guard Jahri Evans the only new face on their offensive front, the Packers should have this as a strength once again this year. As blistering as the Seahawks pass rush can be, it'll be tough to break through the Green Bay line's fortress.
Even if the Seahawks crack through Rodgers' protection, his trump card as an improviser should give him an extra edge. Rodgers threw 17.4 percent of his passes from outside the pocket last season. Only Tyrod Taylor and Dak Prescott posted higher rates than Rodgers. However, no one is better on the move and off-script than the former MVP when it comes to making big plays. He led all quarterbacks with 13 touchdowns thrown from outside the pocket.
With at least two phases of the game working in Rodgers favor, he should still be able to get over on this nasty Seattle defense, especially with his defense likely to put him behind the eight-ball. With the Seahawks offense primed to explode in the vertical passing game, this contest looks ripe to sprout into a sneaky shootout.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday 8:30 pm EST)
Odell Beckham finished with a career-low 59.8 catch rate in 2016 and had five games throughout the year with a 50 percent rate or lower. Two of those contests came against the Cowboys and he posted just eight catches for 167 yards and one touchdown on a healthy 17 targets over those meetings. With Beckham, at best, coming into this game hobbled, any sort of slow start due to schematic work by Dallas would be a big worry.
Not surprisingly, Beckham is one of the best wideouts in the game when facing press coverage. The All-Pro averaged an NFL-high 2.6 yards of separation on targets when he was pressed at the line of scrimmage, compared to an NFL average rate of 1.9 yards. He saw 50 such targets last year.
Despite that stellar performance in all other games, the Cowboys managed to limit Beckham when they got in his face last year. Beckham saw a pre-snap cushion of 5.4 yards in the 14 games where he didn't face Dallas last season, and posted a 60 percent catch rate and averaged 2.8 yards of separation. The Cowboys gave him a minuscule 3.6 yards of cushion and therefore both his catch rate (47 percent) and average yards of separation (2.5) fell in those two games.
It's worth wondering if the Cowboys and legendary defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli figured out the code to making life a little bit more difficult for Odell Beckham like no one else has. We don't bet against elite talent in individual matchups but if the Cowboys are intent to sell out to stop Beckham off the line of scrimmage it could open things up for secondary Giants players like Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard.
Dez Bryant vs. Janoris Jenkins
*Notes: Next Gen Stats defines "tight windows" as a target where the receiver has less than a yard of separation from nearest defender. *
The addition of Janoris Jenkins was a major part of what took the Giants defense to new heights last season. Jenkins was a top-five cornerback last season, giving up a 54.8 passer rating in coverage. Not only was his individual performance stellar, but he made players like Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and the entire defense better. The Giants allowed a passer rating of 57.6 on targets to receivers lined up out wide in 2016, the lowest among any defensive unit in the NFL.
However, and this is part of the reason why fading him entirely due to his cornerback matchups would be unwise, Bryant still showed the trump card trait of excelling in tight coverage in his games played last year. Overall, Bryant's 41.7 percent catch rate on targets where he had less than a yard of separation from the nearest defender was just above the league average. Yet, it was his work in high leverage situations that stood out. Four of his eight touchdowns came on tight window targets last season.
It's quite possible that Janoris Jenkins sticks in Bryant's hip pocket during this game and makes life difficult for him. On the other hand, it's just as possible that Bryant's ability to thrive in close quarters and scoring situations make it all a moot point. With a tough slate of cornerback matchups this year, the quandary that presents itself here is truly indicative of Bryant's entire 2017 outlook. Siding with the wideout's still elite ability certainly feels justified.
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings (Monday 7:10 pm EST)
The Saints road trip to Minnesota could hold another high-scoring affair, with a sneaky strong Vikings offense set to carve through the annually vulnerable New Orleans defense. Drew Brees and company, even on the road, never hesitate to push the point-total in an effort when they're chasing another squad. An individual cornerback vs. wide receiver matchup featuring a pair of young stars could be the inflection point for this game becoming a surprising air-it-out contest.
Rhodes primarily stuck to right corner last season, which if that assignment holds into Week 1, will likely pit him against top Saints wideout Michael Thomas. He saw 60 percent of his targets when lined up at left wide receiver during his 92-catch rookie season. Expect Thomas and Rhodes to square off most of the game.
Of course, that may lead to some worry regarding Thomas' outlook for Week 1, considering just how dominant Rhodes was from a coverage perspective last year. Yet, just like with Dez Bryant, Thomas may well have the type of trump cards in his arsenal to defeat a tough cornerback matchup, especially his ability against press coverage. In 2016 Thomas recorded 484 yards and six touchdowns on the 50 targets he saw where the defender gave him a cushion of three yards or fewer at the line of scrimmage. His quarterback's passer rating of 128.6 on those passes trailed only Julio Jones and Adam Thielen among wideouts who drew 20 or more targets when pressed and beat the NFL average (85.4) by over 40 points.
The 6-foot-3 Thomas not only showed himself to be a dominant player at the catch point as a rookie but a complete natural as a route-runner, as well. Thomas ranked seventh among all wide receivers who saw 100-plus targets when lined up out wide with an average of 2.38 yards of separation on his targets. What's even more frightening is that this rising star is set to inherit even more opportunity this season. Brandin Cooks led all New Orleans pass-catchers with a 29.7 percent share of the team's intended air yards in 2016. With his departure to New England, Thomas should have a strong chance to increase his 18.9 percent figure from last year.
We should always make sure to note when a wide receiver heads into a tough cornerback matchup with a star like Xavier Rhodes. However, with the possibility that he sees an air yards bump at the dawn of the 2017 season integrated with the unbelievable ability he showed to win on his routes as a rookie, we can give Michael Thomas a more than strong chance to get his in this spot.
Bonus note: Traditional fantasy players won't be invested in counting this player's production, but keep an eye out for Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter in Monday night's game. Hunter and his 18.5 sacks over the last two years is a player on an ascendant career path and could become a true game-wrecker this season. Last year, Hunter's 15.6 pressure rate led all defensive ends who had at least 200 pass rush attempts. You might not know his name yet, but he's a force.