With a healthy dash of context, it could be helpful -- actionable, even -- to know how a defense is being attacked.
Are enemy offenses peppering the middle of the field against a certain defense, leading to a glut of tight end opportunity? Are wide receivers having their way against a defense, commanding a massive target share? Are running backs seeing plenty of dump off opportunities against a particular defense?
These are questions I’ll address in this space during the regular season, examining which positions are seeing the most opportunity against a certain defense in an exercise that might serve as the tiebreaker in your weekly agonizing start-sit decisions.
With every passing week, our understanding of how offenses are going after defenses should improve. Context will be key, as a bunch of targets to Travis Kelce doesn’t mean Tyler Eifert is going to see the same kind of opportunity against the same defense. If only it were that easy.
Jordan Reed (SF) at Rams
It’s not ideal, process wise, to stream a tight end whose team comes in as an underdog with a low implied total. But we’re rolling with Reed this week in hopes that negative game script creates another pass-heavy offensive approach for the 49ers and Reed’s role as the team’s primary pass catching tight end pays off.
The Niners eased Reed into the lineup after he missed several weeks with a knee injury. By Week 10 against the Saints, it appeared Reed had once again passed Ross Dwelley as the main pass catching tight end for San Francisco. He ran 22 pass routes, enjoyed a 22 percent target share (six targets), and finished with five receptions for 62 yards against New Orleans. Now he goes against a Rams Defense that’s been brutal against opposing wideouts, forcing opponents to pepper tight ends and running backs with passes. No team has allowed a smaller target share to wide receivers this year. Tight ends, meanwhile, have seen 24.71 percent of the targets against LA this season, the highest rate in the league through Week 11.
Just last week we saw Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate combine for 10 targets against the Rams. In Week 10, the little used Seattle tight ends saw a combined eight targets against LA. Chicago tight ends drew 11 targets against LA in Week 7. And of course, George Kittle ran roughshod over the Rams in Week 6, catching seven balls for 109 yards and a touchdown on ten targets.
Reed is no Kittle. No one is. Still, Reed could certainly be a useful waiver wire option for fantasy players seeking viable weekly plays at a horrible position. Reed, with Kittle out in Week 2-3, took in 14 targets, catching nine balls for 73 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in target share and was second in air yards behind Kendrick Bourne during that two week span. Usage and matchup put Reed in play as a low-end TE1 option against the Rams.
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Anthony Firkser (TEN) at Colts
Like me, you may be mildly surprised that Firkser, not Jonnu Smith, is the leading tight end target getter in Tennessee since Week 5. Firkser has the third highest target share (16 percent) over that stretch, 2 percent higher than Smith. The difference, of course, is touchdowns. Smith, a massive red zone presence, has seven touchdowns on the season; Firkser has one.
The Athletic’s Joe Rexrode, who covers the Titans, said Firkser is on the team to catch passes, not to block. The numbers bear that out. When Adam Humphries is out -- as he has been for a month with a concussion -- Firkser becomes Ryan Tannehill’s preferred target on short passes. That’s paid off for Firkser, who has just ten fewer PPR points than Smith since his Week 5 emergence in Tennessee’s offense. Humphries’ return to the Titans’ starting lineup would complicate Firkser’s fantasy outlook against the Colts.
Firkser (and Smith) go against a Colts team allowing consistent opportunity to enemy tight ends. Only four teams allow a higher target share to tight ends than Indy, another team that has largely limited opposing wideouts. Tennessee tight ends combined for ten targets when these teams faced off in Week 10 -- six for Smith and four for Firkser. The production wasn’t there but it’s clear the Titans know how to attack a difficult Colts Defense. The Packers figured it out last week: Robert Tonyan caught all five of his targets for 44 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. Altogether, Green Bay tight ends saw 10 targets, or 28 percent of the team’s targets, against Indy.
Firkser is running a pretty good number of routes lately -- 33 over the past two games, to be exact. That’s 13 fewer than Smith. Perhaps more importantly, Firkser since Week 5 is seeing targets on 26.44 percent of his pass routes while Smith has been targeted on 20.45 percent of his routes. Smith, naturally, is the preferred fantasy option this week. You could do a whole lot worse than Firkser though.