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 12 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
New York Giants at Washington Redskins (8:30 pm EST on Thursday)
The Washington offense feels as if it has been in chaos for the majority of the season. Presumptive top-two passing game weapons Terrelle Pryor and Jordan Reed have been some combination of invisible on the field or off it entirely for most of the season. That disorder has now firmly engrossed the backfield as the team prepares to take on a moribund Giants defense on Thanksgiving.
With Rob Kelley placed on IR heading into Week 11, rookie Samaje Perine was all set to get the first crack at the bulk of the early-down rushing work. With Chris Thompson suffering a season-ending injury in this game, Perine now stands with little competition for touches in the Washington backfield.
Perine set season-highs in rushing plays (25) and passing plays (21) participated on in Week 11. His usage on passing downs will be key to unlocking fantasy upside for Perine. Unless Byron Marshall (74 catches at Oregon in 2014) emerges from the shadows to take it, he should have little competition for the receiving back role.
As a pure runner, Sunday offered an encouraging sign for the rookie back out of Oklahoma. Perine was a bruising runner during his days in college, as a 5-foot-11, 230-pound bowling ball of a back. However, coming into Week 11, we hadn't seen much of that from the rookie back. Perine averaged 3.22 yards gained after defenders closed within a yard of him through the first 10 weeks of 2017, ranking 41st among 46 backs with 60-plus carries. Given a season-high 23 carries against the Saints on Sunday, Perine looked like a different runner as he was able to get into a rhythm. He averaged 3.49 yards gained after close in Week 11, besting his season to date average and finishing inside the top-20 on the week.
Washington's offense has been ripe for a takeover by a workhorse back all season, as their run-blocking has been some of the best in the league this year. The team ranks seventh with an average of 0.43 rushing yards gained before defenders close within one yard of their running backs.
What's interesting is that they're the only team inside the top-10 run blocking units with overall running back yards per carry average below 4.0 on the season. That would seem to indicate that their issues lie in the inefficient performances of their ball-carriers, most notably Rob Kelley and Perine from earlier in the season.
If Samaje Perine is indeed set to turn a corner as an individual player, as his Week 11 performance suggested, now that he's entrenched as the workhorse back, he will find himself in an ideal spot to succeed. Not only will he benefit from a top-10 run blocking line, but he will also play alongside a passing attack led by Kirk Cousins that is white-hot right now.
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
It's far from one of the more intriguing national storyline games of the week, but the Titans road trip into Indianapolis might hold some serious edges for fantasy players. Often the best way to get an advantage over the field is to identify which game can be the sneaky high-scoring shootout of the week that other fantasy managers are set to overlook. Here in Week 12, this AFC South contest might just fit the bill.
In a lost season for the Colts, the play of Jacoby Brissett in relief of Andrew Luck has been one of the lone bright spots. Acquired in a preseason trade from the New England Patriots, the positive signs shown by the young passer have been nothing short of a revelation. Brissett has kept this offense afloat for several weeks and should find his fair share of opportunities to continue in that endeavor against the Titans in Week 12.
Brissett makes his arm talent well-known when he throws deep. The Colts starter currently owns the third-best passer rating (119.0) on passes that travel 20-plus yards in the air and averages an outrageous 46.1 yards per completion on those throws. He checks in above the league average throws to the deep left and right portions of the field.
The Titans are coming off a Thursday night laugher in a Week 11 loss to the Steelers. Tennessee's defense gave up an outlier performance to Ben Roethlisberger, allowing him to look like the All-Pro player he was a few years ago. Roethlisberger posted a 100.0 passer rating on deep passes against the Titans but came in sporting a mere 45.2 rating on such throws.
Tennessee also allowed Roethlisberger to drill the ball to his receivers in contested situations unlike he had at any other point this season. In Weeks 1-10, Roethlisberger had a 38.3 passer rating when throwing into tight windows, ranking 27th among quarterbacks with 100-plus pass attempts. Against the Titans last week, he posted a 105.8 rating and completed 44.4 percent of his tight window throws.
Jacoby Brissett ranked 11th among quarterbacks (100 pass attempts on the season) with a 5.74 adjusted yards per attempt on tight window throws this season. He's yet to throw an interception on a tight window throw.
T.Y. Hilton has hauled in 36.4 percent of his tight window targets on the season, right in line with the league average catch rate. He ranks 56 out of 100 wide receivers with five-plus tight window targets on passer rating when thrown to in such situations. The Titans helped Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger improve on their season numbers last week. Roethlisberger had chucked three interceptions when targeting Brown in tight coverage and had a passer rating of 25.8, fourth-lowest among wide receivers with at least 15 targets through Week 10.
Everything about this game smells just like the lone three blowup games that Hilton has offered this season. He's playing a soft secondary indoors. Both Jacoby Brissett and his top wide receiver are set up for success in this matchup.
Carolina Panthers at New York Jets (1:00 pm EST on Sunday)
When last we saw the Panthers offense, they finally looked to have evolved to full form in a demolition of the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. Coming off their bye week, they'll look to recapture that form during a road trip to face the New York Jets. While the headlines will revolve around Cam Newton and rookie Christian McCaffrey (three touchdowns in his last two games), the Panthers have another emerging player boosting their attack.
Devin Funchess is having one of the quieter breakout seasons in the NFL this year. He's already eclipsed his previous career-high in catches and yards while scoring five touchdowns. It's no coincidence that Funchess' highest yardage total games have come in his last two games following the Kelvin Benjamin trade.
Funchess has a 32.5 and 20.7 percent share of Cam Newton's intended air yards in the Panthers' last two games. On the season Funchess has lined up at left wide on 29 percent of his plays and 42 percent at right wide. However, since the Benjamin trade, it appears he's moved into the X-receiver position, seeing 85 percent of his targets from left wide.
The influence of Christian McCaffrey and the offensive evolution are big reason Cam Newton is attempting far fewer low-percentage passes this season. Newton's tight window throw percentage is down 5.9 percent from 2016 and he's averaging 2.8 fewer intended air yards on his pass attempts, both top-five differentials this year. Don't discount the influence of Devin Funchess here, however, as he's so far proven to be a better separator this season than he was earlier in his career and is certainly superior to Kelvin Benjamin in this area.
Funchess averages 2.97 yards of separation when Cam Newton releases the ball this season. His development into a nice possession receiver with some big-play ability has been another major boom for this offense.
The Jets have a pass defense that can be taken advantage of by wide receivers. New York allows the seventh-most yards to receivers who line up right wide and their four touchdowns ceded to left wideouts is tied with several other teams for the third-most. No matter which side of the field he lines up on in Week 12, Funchess should find success.
New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams (4:25 EST on Sunday)
In what should the game of the week, two of the NFC's best teams will cross paths when the Saints travel to take on the Rams. The Saints remain red-hot while the Rams fell to the Vikings in Week 11. However, New Orleans faces the possibility of missing one of the top pillars of their rebound 2017 season when they travel to Los Angeles.
Rookie Marshon Lattimore has been perhaps the best find for his new team among all rookies drafted this year. He's been that good. A shutdown corner who as a mere rookie already allows the rest of the defense to freely operate as he tracks the top receiver, Lattimore is the definition of a difference-maker.
Marshon Lattimore in coverage - 2017
Passer rating: 62.7
If Lattimore does miss this game it will open the door for Sammy Watkins to emerge as a fantasy play in Week 12. Watkins is already set to see a bump in opportunity with Robert Woods out for at least this week with a shoulder injury. Woods currently leads the Rams with a 27.1 percent share of Jared Goff's intended air yards. Watkins is second with 21.5 percent. With Woods out, Watkins could potentially push his target projection to around eight against the Saints, putting him in position to enjoy his first truly big game since Week 3.
If Watkins is going to succeed in this game, he'll need the cooperation of his quarterback. Of all the Rams receivers, Watkins requires the most high-degree of difficulty passes because he's the primary deep threat, seeing his targets much further downfield than any other player on the team.
Since he runs more downfield routes than the rest of the Rams group, Watkins also gets less separation than Woods, Kupp and company.
Rams wide receivers' separation at pass forward - 2017
Tavon Austin: 5.71 (Highest in the league among WRs with 30 snaps)
Robert Woods: 3.14 (36th/155 WRs with 30 snaps)
Cooper Kupp: 3.04 (47th/155 WRs with 30 snaps)
Sammy Watkins: 2.68 (128th/155 WRs with 30 snaps)
We've discussed all season just how infrequently Jared Goff throws into tight coverage. Just 11.4 percent of his throws have gone into a tight window this season, the fewest in the NFL. One reason for Sean McVay designing the offense this way is to maximize Goff's strengths. So far, he hasn't played as well when throwing into tight windows. His 42.4 passer rating on such attempts ranks 24th in the NFL this season.
With Watkins running the low-percentage routes deep down the field and earning less separation than Woods, his targets have fluctuated this year. However, with Woods out in this game and Lattimore opening more space on the defensive side, Watkins should see the spotlight shift more his way against the Saints in Week 12.