Fantasy Football: How Does Alshon Jeffery's Absence Affect the Eagles' Passing Game?
This week, news broke that the Philadelphia Eagles' leading receiver, Alshon Jeffery, will likely miss at least the first two weeks of the 2018 season. On the plus side, it doesn’t look like Jeffery will be forced on to the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which would require him to be out at least six weeks, but he is still not 100% after undergoing rotator cuff surgery back in February.
Jeffery’s absence begs the question, "What will the Eagles' receiving corps be like without him in the lineup?" But there are several things to consider in evaluating this situation.
Let’s start with the depth chart to see who might fill Jeffery's shoes, in one way or another, over the first couple of weeks.
The Depth Chart
Of the Eagles' 623 pass attempts a year ago, Jeffery had a dominant 20.0% share. His 131 targets were the most on the team, and the next-highest player not named Zach Ertz was Nelson Agholor with 108. With Jeffery having garnered 7.5 targets per game a year ago and expected to draw 7.2 targets per game this season, based on our projections, we can make some assumptions.
Agholor's role is pretty set. He is the slot guy, seeing 67 of his 108 targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Ertz, last year, had 30 targets in the range of 10 yards to 20 yards. At this point in their careers, we know what Mike Wallace and Markus Wheaton are -- they are burner receivers who play the long ball. Both have career average depth of target (aDOT) marks around 14 yards.
The other element of the injury fallout is the targets to running backs. It seems that head coach Doug Pederson has a plethora of receiving backs in his arsenal, whether it is Super Bowl darling Corey Clement, veteran Darren Sproles, or young buck Wendell Smallwood. Last season, Philadelphia's running backs accounted for 75 of the 555 targets (13.5%) and, as a whole, don't look to factor too much into the team's passing game.
In Week 1, they figure to face a strong defense, which looks to improve on last year's performance behind defenders like Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and Desmond Trufant. However, in Week 2, the Eagles face a bottom-five defense in the Bucs. In both games, the Eagles' offense should thrive.
If we take Jeffery’s targets and redistribute them throughout the team, the player that figures to gain the most from his absence is Ertz. In numberFire’s projections for these two weeks, he looks to average 5.58 receptions for 64.84 yards. Next in line for Jeffery’s targets is Wallace and Mack Hollins, who both see a bump in about two to three targets per game, based on early-season projections.
While Ertz may feast in Jeffery’s absence, I wouldn’t count out Agholor to see a bump in targets, as well. While Jeffery’s appalling catch rate on targets of 10 or more yards was just over 46%, Agholor’s catch rate in the same areas of the field was over 68%. Agholor proved last season to be a trusted receiver for the Eagles and figures to be heavily targeted in these two first weeks of the season. The matchups favor a player of his style inside over those working on the outside. And against Atlanta, Ertz might have a hard time finding separation against Jones and company.
The Wentz Effect
This all assumes that Carson Wentz will start both weeks during Jeffrey’s absence. Wentz, who tore his ACL in Week 13, has yet to be named the Week 1 starter, and last we heard he had not yet been cleared for contact. If he has the green light and starts in Week 1, that bodes well for everyone involved, especially safety blankets like Ertz and Agholor. After all, the quarterback will be seeing his first action since the injury and will likely look for his trusted receivers on short easy routes.
However, if Wentz is a no-go for either of these weeks, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles will have to step in once again. Unfortunately for Eagles' fans and those with fantasy stakes in Eagles players, Foles has looked like anything but the MVP in two preseason games. He has completed over 60% of his passes, but he's thrown two picks (in one game) while taking three sacks for and losing two fumbles. Those turnovers would surely be an issue.
However, if Foles can play anywhere near the level of last year’s playoffs, then look for him to spread the love a little more. In Wentz’s absence last year, Foles targeted Ertz on 21.4% of passes, Torrey Smith (replaced by Mike Wallace in 2018) on 19.4% of passes, and Agholor on 18.4% of passes. Foles figures to spread around the target distribution, and Ertz, Agholor, and Wallace could figure to be the main beneficiaries with more fantasy-point scoring opportunities.