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 three games on the Week 4 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns (1:00 pm EST Sunday)
With the installation of Bill Lazor as the offensive coordinator last week, it was apparent the Bengals would return to a philosophy centered around their best players. Notably, A.J. Green absorbed a whopping 50 percent target market share and busted out for his first 100-yard game of the season. However, another player got swept up with the rising tide in rookie running back Joe Mixon.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines a "defender closing" as a play where the oncoming defender came within a yard of the player with the ball in their hands. *
The opportunity arrow pointed way up for Joe Mixon in Week 3. After going out for 22 plays in Week 1 and 19 in Week 2, Mixon was on the field for a team-high 39 against the Packers. He registered 21 touches with 18 carries and three catches. Mixon showed the same dynamism as a receiver he offered up at Oklahoma, taking his three receptions for 39 yards. One of his catches (nine-yarder) came on the only play where he lined up in the slot.
Mixon averaged under four yards per carry in Week 3 and was, predictably, a high-variance runner. While he busted off several runs for five-plus yards and threatened the edge, defenders also found their way into the backfield.
No matter who is in the backfield, the Bengals backs will find little room to operate behind an offensive line that isn't run blocking well. On the season both Mixon and Hill are seeing early contact with defenders. Hill averages 0.19 yards before a defender closes within one yard of him, ranking 40th among running backs with five-plus carries (0.35 - NFL Average). It's even worse for Mixon, who averages -0.55 yards before a defender closes, ranking 70th.
The Bengals should continue to give Mixon the ball more going forward, as he's the only player in the backfield who can make something out of nothing when the blocking fails. Hill averages 3.28 yards after a defender closes within one yard of him, below the NFL average of 3.69. On the season, Mixon is right at the average mark with 3.61 but stepped up in his first game as the feature back with a 4.25 figure against Green Bay. That ranked seventh on the week among backs with 10-plus carries. It's not uncommon for running backs to perform better when they can find that rhythm, as would be the case when they can push 20 touches.
The Browns should provide a soft-landing spot for Mixon to truly get rolling. Each of the three starting running backs they've faced were extremely productive gaining yards after defenders closed in on them.
Appearing on the upswing toward a locked-in feature back role with an offensive coordinator change, Joe Mixon sits at the precipice of a major opportunity. Should he pass this test against Cleveland, he'll be on the fantasy RB2 radar for the foreseeable future.
New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4:05 pm EST Sunday)
The Giants come into Week 4 sporting an ugly 0-3 record. An all-around stout defense hasn't been enough to cover for an offense that's scored on just 20.6 percent of its drives this season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. New York did offer a glimmer of hope with a different approach to their aerial attack last week that resulted in a fourth quarter 24-point eruption.
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines "pressure rate" as the percentage of dropbacks in the pocket where defenders come within less than two yards of the quarterback. *
*Note: Next Gen Stats defines "quick pass" as a pass with a time to throw of less than 2.5 seconds. *
*Notes: Next Gen Stats defines "tight windows" as a target where the receiver has less than a yard of separation from nearest defender. *
A faster pace seemed to be a big point of emphasis for the Giants, as they ran 64 plays on Sunday compared to an average of 54 in their first two games. Manning also focused on the short passing game in Philadelphia. His 6.7 average intended air yards on passes was the fourth-lowest in Week 3.
A move to a quick strike offense would make sense for New York. Anyone watching the games can tell their pass protection is an issue, especially from the left side.
On plays from the pocket, pass rushers average just 2.64 yards of separation from Eli Manning at time of throw or sack (21st in the NFL). Having the receivers run shorter routes and instructing Manning to get the ball out quicker is one way to alleviate the issue of an offensive line that essentially went ignored in the offseason. More high-percentage throws are desperately needed for this offense. In addition to the struggles of the offensive line, Manning leads all quarterbacks this season with 35.9 percent of his passes going into tight windows.
Additionally, Eli Manning is a better statistical passer in games where he attempted more "quick passes" (less than 2.5-second time to throw) during the 2016 season and through the first two games of 2017. The Giants Week 3 loss to the Eagles was the first game in which the majority of Manning's attempts registered as a quick pass.
Continuing this type of offensive approach would also make sense against a Buccaneers defense that through two games looks like a strong pass rush unit. Tampa Bay 56 percent pressure rate ranks second best in the NFL, and their pass rushers' 2.52 average separation from quarterbacks ranks fifth. With a bevy of injuries to defensive starters, the Buccaneers found themselves shredded by Case Keenum for over 360 passing yards in Week 3. However, this unit should still be on the radar as one of the up and coming defenses in the NFL.
If the Giants are truly moving to a more quick-hitting, fast release passing offense it boosts the floor of several of their ancillary players. Of course, more high-percentage passes for Odell Beckham is always a recipe for success. This approach also elevates the stock of both pass-catching running back Shane Vereen (the only useful Giants back) and especially Sterling Shepard. Reprising his role as the top slot receiver, Shepard continues to run a variety of slants and in-breaking routes while averaging just 8.0 air yards per target.
As the short route-runner in this offense, Shepard's stock will rise with the team moving to more of a quick-passing attack. Shepard averaged just over five receptions per game in the first three weeks and will be a strong bet to hit that mark on a weekly basis going forward. He should be in position for another solid game this coming week, as the Buccaneers allow an 80 percent catch rate to receivers lined up in the slot. Kendall Wright (7-69 on 10 targets) and Adam Thielen (5-98 on eight targets) are two other primary slot receivers who found success against them.
Washington Redskins at Kansas City Chiefs (8:30 pm EST on Monday Night Football)
Washington's offense finally got out of the blocks last week, dialing 472 total yards on the Oakland Raiders. After two slower weeks, Kirk Cousins was the efficient point guard he was in the prior two seasons, chucking three touchdowns and 365 yards on 30 attempts. The team now heads to Kansas City to square off with a Chiefs offense that shocking ranks first in yards per play (7.1) through three weeks.
Right in the middle of the spotlight of Washington's early offensive disappointment is their top-two receivers in Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder. Neither player has crossed the 70-yard threshold this season and Pyror had just four targets in back-to-back games. As Rotoworld's Rich Hribar noted, the fact that Kirk Cousins offered up a near flawless output on Sunday night with Pryor and Crowder mere afterthoughts is damning to any hopes of predictable weekly production from them.
In all honesty, we shouldn't be too surprised; this is what Washington's offense has always been under Kirk Cousins. No wide receiver has ever been a funnel target and Cousins typically takes what the defense gives him, whether by his own play-style or the confines of Jay Gruden's offense. With weapons at wideout, tight end (whether it's Jordan Reed or an ageless Vernon Davis) or out of the backfield in Chris Thompson, this offense is overstocked with weapons. As such, it's a guessing game as to who the focal point of the attack will be on a weekly basis, which is a good problem to have for Washington.
Jamison Crowder targets by alignment
Left wide - 17 percent
Right wide - 17 percent
Slot - 67 percent
It's no surprise that Kansas City's overall stout defense sprouted these two sizable leaks. It's a phenomenon that started last year.
Marcus Peters is a star cornerback, allowing just eight catches for 93 yards on 18 targets this season and recording an interception. However, the Chiefs never move him as he's been on the left side of the field for 92.3 percent of his snaps this season, a nearly identical rate to his 2016 deployment.
Since Peters rarely moves from that left corner position, it leaves inferior players in the secondary ripe for the picking. Right corner Terrance Mitchell closed the 2016 season on something of a roll but teams are zeroing in on him this year. The Chiefs have allowed 32 targets to receivers lined up wide left, the second-most in the NFL. Mitchell was in coverage for a 54-yard deep completion to Brandin Cooks in Week 1 and a 44-yard bomb to Travis Benjamin last week. Slot corner Phillip Gaines is another liability. He struggled outside last year and has been no better in replacing usual slot corner Steven Nelson since moving to the interior.
If Washington designs a game plan set to exploit Kansas City's weakness, that could bring Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder closer to the top of the target pecking order. Even if it isn't planned for, the in-game coverage of Mitchell and Gaines could simply draw Cousins' attention toward the two receivers.