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 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 5 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The Jaguars and Steelers are two teams with confusing profiles thus far in 2017. Pittsburgh's offense hasn't yet hit its stride, at least in the passing game. Jacksonville's elite pass defense is one of the best units in the entire NFL but their overall team looks sycophantic thanks to their quarterback. In Week 5 we'll see the suffocating Jaguars pass coverage square off with the only member of the Steelers aerial attack that's been consistent this season.
It's difficult to encapsulate just how incredible the duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye has been this season. The Jaguars are the NFL's No. 1 ranked pass defense and this duo of shutdown corners is a huge reason why. Throwing into the teeth of either defender has been nothing short of a losing proposition:
Jalen Ramsey's stats allowed in coverage
43.5 percent catch rate
2.5 yards per target
50.8 passer rating
A.J. Bouye's stats allowed in coverage
48 percent catch rate
7.5 yards per target
40.1 passer rating
With both of Jacksonville's perimeter corners being among the best individual players at the position, the Jaguars are one of the toughest pass defenses to play against. So far this year, the Jaguars have left their two corners to play sides, with Ramsey at left corner and Bouye on the right. It would seem counterintuitive to have one of the two shadow an opposing top receiver when wideouts run into a lockdown corner no matter from which side they run routes.
Antonio Brown takes 57 percent of his plays from left wide receiver so far this season, which would pit him against Bouye on the majority of his routes. Neither side presents an advantage. The Steelers could use Brown more out of the slot and have him run against interior corner Aaron Colvin, who is solid but not quite up to the standard of his outside teammates. Yet, they seem to like JuJu Smith-Schuster in that position, as his playing time is on the rise and he's taking over 60 percent of his snaps from the slot. The Jaguars also let the versatile Ramsey chase top receivers into the slot on the occasion last year.
It doesn't look like there will be any way to get around a painfully challenging task for Brown this weekend running routes against this powerhouse of a duo. Now, Brown is a top of the line elite-level player; he can beat any defender in the league. However, it would be foolish not to consider his floor a step or two lower in this coming matchup than you would normally.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Philadelphia Eagles (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
The Cardinals march on through 2017 despite mounting injuries at a 2-2 record. In Week 5, they'll travel east to take on the Eagles on a cross-country road trip they've had issues with in the past. The passing game of Arizona and their ability to overcome the dissolving protection unit on the offensive line will hold the key to this game.
We can lay to rest any notion that Carson Palmer might be washed up. Palmer currently sits just behind Tom Brady in passing yards. The veteran quarterback is making the difficult throws on a consistent basis now. Palmer ranks eighth with a 90 passer rating when throwing into tight coverage and leads all quarterbacks with four touchdowns on such attempts.
Palmer and the Cardinals face a theoretically favorable matchup this coming week when they travel east to take on the Eagles. Philadelphia is top-10 in passer rating allowed in the deep (20-plus air yards) left and middle portions of the field. We know the Cardinals like to attack teams in the vertical game.
The Eagles are particularly susceptible to wide receivers on the left outside position, as their 412 yards allowed to left wide receivers leads the NFL. That should put Jaron Brown in a good position for another big game with 48 percent of his targets this year coming from the outside left. Brown showed an excellent ability to win the ball in tight coverage in Week 4, catching seven of his 10 tight window targets against the 49ers.
Philadelphia also gave up big games to short area possession receivers in Sterling Shepard (7-133-TD) and Keenan Allen (5-138) the last two weeks. Obviously, this is a boost to Larry Fitzgerald, whose 9.2 air yards per target trails deep threats like Jaron and John Brown. On that note, John Brown is also in a solid position for a strong outing, too. He was inches away from a touchdown late against San Francisco and eclipsed J.J. Nelson in snaps played, averaging 17.2 air yards per target. With the Eagles' struggles against the deep ball, Brown could get loose in this spot.
The Cardinals simply cannot pass protect at an acceptable level right now. Their 40.5 pressure rate allowed is the third-highest so far this year and they notably struggle with interior heat. Arizona's 18.2 pressure rate allowed up the middle eclipses the league average of 6.6. On the season, Philadelphia's 49.1 defensive pressure rate checks in as the seventh-best mark in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (8:30 pm EST on Monday night)
The Sunday Night Football game of Week 5 holds a pair of quarterbacks at opposite ends of their careers but at a similar point in fantasy circles. Deshaun Watson and Alex Smith are building resumes that look evolved past the point of streaming candidates and up into the pantheon of every-week starters. Both players should continue building their momentum this week.
Despite J.J. Watt being sack-less through the first month of the season, the Texans are still a pass rush unit to fear. The trio of Watt (10.2), Jadeveon Clowney (13) and Whitney Mercilus (13.5) all check in with an individual pressure rate over the NFL average (9.4 - edge players, 7.0 - interior players). In theory, this would send up alarm bells for the status of any quarterback going against them.
The Chiefs rank 24th in pressure rate allowed with 31.9, which isn't good news for their road trip to Houston in Week 5. However, Alex Smith has been fantastic under pressure this year, as he leads all quarterbacks with a 152.4 passer rating when defenders are within two yards of him at time to throw or sack. He's thrown for 341 yards and four touchdowns while under pressure this season. He had 468 yards and four touchdowns all last season.
Smith is building a special season for us all to watch here in 2017. If he keeps up this pace, he will be in MVP talks at the end of the year. There's no question that facing Houston's pressure package on the road is one of the biggest tests he's drawn thus far. If Smith is a truly different quarterback this season, he'll pass this test.
The Texans rookie quarterback was on fire the last two weeks with 584 yards and six passing touchdowns, as the Texans nearly beat New England a week before waxing Tennessee. While both contests were impressive for Deshaun Watson, last week's win over the Titans was a notable step forward in his development.
On the season, Watson still leads all quarterbacks with a 3.11 time to throw. Through his first two starts, some of his best plays came on out of structure instances and on improvisational tactics. Week 4 saw him work more within the confines of the offense. Over 47 percent of Watson's pass attempts check in as a quick pass (2.5-second or less time to throw) and he posted a passer rating of 141.7.
The Chiefs are one of the best teams at defending quick throws, as they give up the second-lowest completion percentage with 59.3 (69.8 - league average) and snared two interceptions thus far. Kansas City has a collection of star players at every level of their defense but also come with major weaknesses in certain spots. As we noted in the Week 4 Next Gen Stats matchups preview, the Chiefs get picked on by left and slot receivers.
It will be up to Watson to show he's at a point where he can identify those matchups and exploit them. His top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins sees 71 percent of his targets from left wide receiver, so he should already be in a position to take advantage of the Chiefs' weakness on that side of the field. Slot receiver Bruce Ellington had a big game against New England in Week 3, another team that struggles against interior receivers. Should Watson wisely target that area of Kansas City's stop unit, Ellington could be in a bit of a sleeper spot. Watson can be aggressive when the moment calls for it but he might be best to just avoid Marcus Peters' defensive left side of the field. Although, Peters is coming off his worst game of the year in Week 4, allowing 71 yards and two touchdowns against Washington. Peters was notably burned on a 44-yard touchdown by Terrelle Pryor. Texans' deep threat Will Fuller took 44 percent of his plays at right wideout, which would theoretically pit him against Peters more than anyone else in Week 5.