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.
Melvin Gordon (DEN) vs. TB: Probably if you drafted Gordon in the fourth round of your 12-team league, you’re leaning toward playing him for however long Phillip Lindsay (toe) is out. This is for those who might be torn about starting Gordon with the Broncos as six-point home underdogs.
Gordon has six targets through two games, which isn’t fantastic, but he’s dominating Denver’s backfield snaps. Only 12 running backs have a higher share of offensive snaps than Gordon through two weeks. Without Lindsay in Week 2, Gordon commanded 35 percent of the Broncos’ total opportunity (rushes and targets combined) -- the 12th highest mark of the week. If Lindsay is out this week -- and all indications are that his injury is a multi-week issue -- Gordon should again see 20 touches (or more) against the Bucs.
We could see Gordon more involved in the team’s passing attack -- if you can call it that -- against a Tampa defense that’s allowed 33.3 percent of targets go to opposing backs. That includes 14 targets to Carolina running backs in Week 2. Only the Panthers have given up a higher rate of targets to runners through two weeks, and the Raiders are the only team to give up more running back reception yardage so far in this young season.
A game of negative game script will have Jeff Driskel dropping back far more than the Broncos would prefer. Gordon, who ceded only three touches to Royce Freeman last week, could reap the benefits of said script.
D’Andre Swift (DET) at ARI: Another Target Decoder column, another Swift entry. The rookie grabbed five of five targets in Week 2 against the Packers, finishing with 60 receiving yards. In Week 3, Swift gets another crack at a defense allowing a gob of targets to go to running backs.
Backs have seen 25.76 percent of the targets against Arizona’s defense through Week 2, as the Cards have allowed 16 targets to running backs this season. Yes, 14 of those came in Week 1 against the 49ers. However, Washington -- the Cardinals’ Week 2 opponent -- hasn’t used backs in their passing game so far this year. The Lions do, in fact, use running backs as pass catchers, especially when game flow turns ugly. Swift so far has benefited from Detroit being an utter disaster: he leads the team’s backfield with a 43.6 percent snap rate, and his modest 15 percent total opportunity rate is bound to steadily increase as the Lions are forced to abandon the run.
The Lions are 6.5 point underdogs in a game with a hefty 54.5-point over-under. I love Swift’s chances to get in on that scoring against the Cardinals this week.
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Logan Thomas (WAS) at CLE: It feels weird touting Thomas as a borderline play until I remember that the whole world isn't comprised of fantasy football nerds connected to Twitter by their brain stems. On Fantasy Twitter, Thomas is an unholy cross between Clinton-era Tony Gonzalez and Obama-era Gronk (sorry to get political).
In the Real World, he’s rostered in 5 percent of leagues.
Thomas through two weeks has played 76 percent of the Football Team’s offensive snaps and is tied with Terry McLaurin for the team target share lead with 27 percent. No other Washington pass catcher is even close. Combine that opportunity with a plus matchup against a Browns Defense that last week saw Bengals tight ends get 15 targets, and you have the formula for a potential high-ceiling Thomas outing. And it’s not as if Cincy’s tight ends regularly dominate target share. Their names, by the way, are C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample. The Browns have allowed 12 tight end targets per game to go along with the sixth most tight end yardage.
Only two teams have given up a larger target share to enemy tight ends than the Browns this season. With a slightly more accurate day from Dwayne Haskins, we could see Thomas’ targets converted into real life fantasy football production in Week 3.
D.J. Chark (JAC) vs. MIA: You drafted Chark with the idea that he’d get an absurd target share all year in Jacksonville. That hasn’t quite panned out through two weeks, as Chark is fourth among Jags wideouts in targets. A bit of good news: he’s caught all seven of his 2020 targets for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Another dispatch from the bright side: Chark has played far more offensive snaps (80.9 percent) than any other Jacksonville receiver and running more routes than his wideout comrades. Chark has notched 15.6 yards per target, the fourth highest mark in the league. The next closest Jaguar is Laviska Shenault with a yards per target of nine. Chark is getting the team’s high-value looks.
Chark has a pretty sweet Week 3 matchup against a Miami defense that’s allowed a league-high 75.93 percent of targets go to wideouts. Just last week we saw Buffalo receivers get 28 targets against Miami and its beat up secondary. Teams will continue to attack the Dolphins via their receivers. Chark’s playing time and the kind of opportunity he’s seeing -- downfield, that is -- should lead to a bust-out performance. It could come as soon as Thursday night.
Darius Slayton (NYG) vs. SF: The haters and losers will say Slayton, featured in this space last week, flamed out against the Bears. Yeah, Slayton caught three of six targets for 33 scoreless yards, but he still leads the G-people in target share (20 percent) through Week 2. And he’s played 85 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
Sterling Shepard is now out for several weeks and the Giants lost Saquon Barkley for the year. That should narrow the offense’s target tree to the benefit of Slayton and (I guess) Golden Tate. In Week, Slayton -- and Tate -- goes up against a San Francisco defense giving up a 72.46 percent target share to wide receivers. Only the Dolphins allow a bigger target share to wideouts.
Don’t shy away from Slayton after a slow Week 2. The whole Giants Offense was abominable against Chicago. Remember: someone named Braxton Berrios and the ghost of Chris Hogan each saw eight targets last week against the Niners’ injury-riddled defense. The week before, Arizona wideouts -- led by DeAndre Hopkins -- saw 26 targets against the 49ers. We could see New York’s extraordinarily pass heavy attack continue for the remainder of their lost season. 82% of the team’s yards have come via the pass. That should make Slayton a safe play with decent upside.