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.
We’re going to glean from 2019 target data to start, but 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.
D’Andre Swift (DET): Did Swift’s late fourth quarter touchdown drop send Detroit fans into a collective coma from which they may never emerge? Yes. Were Swift’s Week 1 usage stats pretty good? Also yes.
Swift led Lions running backs in Week 1 snaps against the Bears, playing 25 of his 34 snaps on pass plays. He was targeted five times, catching three. While Adrian Peterson waltzing into Detroit and becoming the focal point of the team’s offense in Week 1 is maddening for those who drafted Swift and Kerryon Johnson, it’s Swift who will absorb passing game opportunity out of the Lions backfield. That much is clear. This week, Detroit is a 5.5 point road underdog to the Packers. After consulting my kid’s magic eight ball, I see negative, pass heavy game script in the Lions' immediate future.
That could work out for Swift. Twenty-four percent of the Vikings’ Week 1 targets against the Packers went to running backs, continuing a trend that began in 2019 when 24.4 percent of targets against Green Bay’s defense went to opposing backs -- the fourth highest rate in the NFL. Running backs averaged 7.81 targets per content against Green Bay in 2019. Pass catching specialists saw a glut of opportunity against the Pack last year: Tarik Cohen saw 20 targets in two games against the Packers; Chris Thompson got nine targets; Ameer Abdullah (in Dalvin Cook’s absence) saw seven targets; and Christian McCaffrey saw eight passes come his way against the Pack.
Swift was a mind-melting drop away from posting a solid fantasy line in his first game as a pro. If game script goes haywire for Detroit, he could see double digit targets in Week 2.
Nyheim Hines and Jonathan Taylor (IND): You’re probably sticking with Hines if you drafted him in PPR leagues hoping Philip Rivers would continue peppering his running backs with targets. Well done. You were right. And you have every reason to roll out Hines again in Week 2.
The Colts take on the Vikings, who saw 26.83 percent of Green Bay’s Week 1 targets go to running backs (Jamaal Williams had four targets and Aaron Jones had six). We could see both Taylor and Hines come away with a bunch of targets after the former caught six balls in Week 1 and the latter nabbed eight. Hines led all Indy backs in Week 1 with 39 snaps -- 29 of those coming on pass plays. Taylor had 26 snaps, 13 of which came on pass plays.
We have some recent history that applies nicely to this matchup: Rivers last season targeted running backs 16 times in a late-season game against Minnesota. That led to 13 running backs receptions for the Chargers. With the Colts sporting a fine and dandy implied total of 25.25 points, Rivers’ primary pass catchers -- including Hines and Taylor -- should make their way into your Week 2 lineup.
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C.J. Uzomah (CIN): I don’t think you’re starting Uzomah unless you’re in a 14-team tight end premium league with five flex spots. Maybe your league mates inexplicably love to fill their benches with tight ends in normal sized leagues, leaving you at the waiver wire scrap heap.
That might be not as terrible as one might think if Uzomah is available. Coming off a Week 1 performance in which he saw five targets (catching four for 45 yards) and led the Bengals in tight end snaps (72 percent), he gets a Browns Defense missing their starting safety. Cleveland might start Ronnie Harrison at safety against the Bengals on Thursday night; Harrison has been with the team for less than two weeks.
Thirty-six percent of Baltimore’s Week 1 targets against the Browns went to tight ends -- namely, Mark Andrews, who roasted Cleveland.
Browns opponents often attacked the Cleveland defense via tight end in 2019. More than 21 percent of targets against the Browns went to tight ends -- only nine teams had a higher rate. The Browns allowed an average of 6.5 targets per game to enemy tight ends, along with ten touchdowns. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor seems to be privy to the Browns’ weakness against tight ends: Cincy tight ends got 10 targets in a Week 17 game against Cleveland.
With a lock on tight end pass catching duties in Cincinnati, Uzomah looks like a surprisingly high-floor Week 2 play.
Ian Thomas (CAR): A moderate amount of summertime hype for Thomas turned into two receptions on two targets for 16 yards in Week 1 against the Raiders. Not the best. But maybe don’t give up on the speedy, giant pass catcher quite yet.
Thomas gets the Bucs in Week 2. Tampa’s defense last week held every Saints player in check except Jareed Cook, who turned seven targets into five grabs for 80 yards. Saints tight ends accounted for 27.6 percent of targets against the Bucs defense last week, the sixth highest rate in the league. That much target share to tight ends against Tampa wasn’t the norm in 2019 -- when tight ends saw 20 percent of the targets against the Bucs -- but it could be because the Bucs secondary carries over their late-season improvement. That might leave tight ends as something of a target funnel against the Bucs.
Thomas played 44 Week 1 snaps to Chris Manhertz’s 36 snaps. Most importantly, Thomas ran 27 routes while Manhertz ran 11. Manhertz stayed in to block on 69 percent of his snaps -- a nice stat for Thomas’ potential pass game involvement. Massive road dogs to Tampa this week, Carolina pass catchers are once again set up for a volume-based passing attack.
Darius Slayton (NYG): Still on the waiver wire in 25 percent of leagues, Slayton could once again post a difference-making line in Week 2 after eating up 23 percent of New York’s targets in Week 1 on his way to six catches, 102 yards, and two touchdowns.
The Giants are on the road against Chicago, which just saw Lions receivers draw 28 total targets against them. Slayton’s Week 1 output was helped along by insanely negative game script that forced high-T Joe Judge to abandon the run in favor of trying to gain yards and score points. Well, that might continue this week: the Bears are six point favorites -- the sixth biggest spread of the week.
If one believes Slayton is emerging as the Giants’ No. 1 receiver -- a perfectly plausible theory based on Monday night’s performance -- that could be excellent for this week’s matchup against a Chicago defense that allowed 8.5 targets per game to No. 1 wideouts last year. Golden Tate missing another game would be a plus for Slayton’s usage, as he led the G-people receivers in snaps against Pittsburgh.
Preston Williams (MIA): Everything was bad for the Dolphins in Week 1. Most importantly for our purposes in this space, DeVante Parker aggravated a lingering hamstring injury that could keep him out (or limited) in Week 2 against Buffalo.
Williams, returned from last year’s devastating knee injury and leading the team’s receivers in snaps, topped the Dolphins pass catchers in target share (23 percent) last week against New England. Yeah, two receptions for 41 yards is a hideous outcome, but we’re focused on opportunity, also known as the only thing that matters in fantasy football. Williams led all Dolphins with seven targets in a low volume game (Miami ran a measly 58 plays) and might head into Week 2 as the unquestioned No. 1 guy. The Bills, after seeing 62.2 percent of targets against them go to wideouts in 2019, had 66.7 percent of the Jets’ Week 1 targets go to receivers.
In Week 7 last season, the Dolphins attacked the Buffalo defense through their stud wideouts, as Parker was targeted 10 times and Williams saw eight chances. Williams managed 82 yards in that one. I think he’s a start in 12-team leagues this week, and he comes with some juicy upside if Parker misses the contest.