Fantasy Football: 3 Things We Learned in Week 3
Perhaps more than anything, fantasy football is a game of adjustments. Season-long fantasy doesn't end at the draft, and smart owners learn to take the trends and data that each week of games offers and apply it to their roster decisions moving forward.
This weekly piece will look at trends from the previous slate of games and determine which trends in snaps, usage, and matchups are actionable moving forward.
Flow Charts Are Becoming Clearer
With three weeks of data to chew on, some defenses are beginning to show their true colors. In terms of fantasy outlook, many of the most attackable defense-vs.-position outcomes were predictable based on last season's results and off-season personnel moves.
The Las Vegas Raiders and Carolina Panthers have given up the most fantasy points to the running back position, more than 10 percentage points more than the teams that trail them. The Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, and Atlanta Falcons are all allowing more than 32 fantasy points per game to wide receivers; again, predictable because of their lack of competent secondary play and their fast pace of play.
But perhaps the biggest defense-vs.-position surprise in the early going is the New Orleans Saints versus opposing tight ends. So far, the Saints have allowed 36 yards and a touchdown to O.J. Howard in Week 1, 105 yards and a touchdown to Darren Waller in Week 2, and 104 yards and two touchdowns to the three-headed monster of Green Bay Packers tights ends Marcedes Lewis, Jace Sternberger, and Robert Tonyan in Week 3.
It's quite the turnaround after New Orleans ranked in the top 10 in the league in fewest fantasy points to tight ends last year, allowing only 6.7 fantasy points per game. That has more than doubled this year to more than 17.7 per contest. For context, last year's flowchart team against tight ends was the Arizona Cardinals. For as bad as they were in 2019, they gave up just 13.1 points per game to the position.
Pro Football Focus also ranked the Saints' linebackers as the 13th-best unit in the NFL coming into the season, supported by the position's mix of talent and depth. That group has failed miserably in the early going, allowing 25 receptions on 32 targets to opposing tight ends.
It is still early in the season, so there is time for a rebound, but if you have a tough tight end decision to make, the Saints' next four games will be against T.J. Hockenson, Hunter Henry, Ian Thomas, and Jimmy Graham.
The Falcons Have a New Number-One Wide Receiver
There are several potential takeaways from the Falcons' loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
First, the Atlanta defense is who we thought they were: terrible. Second, Todd Gurley remains heavily involved when the Falcons run but is not at all a part of the high-powered passing attack (three receptions and three receiving yards so far). Third, Hayden Hurst's usage is all over the map. He has scored in two straight weeks, but his snap share has decreased every week and he has just 16 targets in three games.
But for my money, the biggest takeaway was that, despite his worst statistical game of the season, Calvin Ridley looks to be an elite NFL receiver this year. Compared to his first two games (239 receiving yards and four touchdowns), Sunday looked like a letdown (110 yards and no touchdowns), but digging into the numbers, a completely different story comes into view.
Ridley had his highest target total of the season in Week 3 with 13 while also playing a season-high snap share (93%). With his 13 targets, Ridley amassed racked up 249 air yards, lapping the field on Sunday.
Calvin Ridley amassed 281 air yards with Julio Jones inactive. Good enough for first on the week and 116 more air yards (!!!) than DK Metcalf who had the second most on the week.
— Al Smizzle (@AlZeidenfeld) September 28, 2020
To put that in perspective, only 22 wide receivers have more than 249 air yards on the season. Ridley now leads all pass catchers in total air yards by 177 yards, and he ranks third in the league in total targets and fifth in target share in 2020.
We also know that deep targets are more valuable than shorter targets despite deep looks being more volatile. Ridley's 15.45-yard average depth of target ranks in the top 12 among receivers who have played at least three games.
While the opportunity and production didn't exactly align on Sunday, it's clear that Ridley's dominant usage in the Falcons' passing game was not a one-week aberration. With Russell Gage now facing a tough road back from a concussion and Julio Jones battling age and lingering hamstring problems, Ridley is the clear alpha in this offense, and the lack of any defensive presence on the other side of the ball is going to continue to mean big weeks for Ridley.
Big Nick Sticks at Quarterback
The combination of Mitchell Trubisky being benched for Nick Foles and Tarik Cohen being lost for the season with an ACL injury should open up a whole new level of the Chicago Bears' passing attack moving forward. Gone is the reliable underneath option of Cohen -- and his 2020 negative average depth of target -- which should mean more passes downfield for the rest of the Bears pass-catchers.
Comparing the recent play of Foles and Trubisky, there is seemingly little difference between their respective tendencies to throw down the field. Both have career marks in yards per pass attempt of around seven yards, and through limited action this season, they both have a 9.4 average depth of target. Last season, Trubisky averaged 8.0 intended air yards per pass attempt, while Foles checked in at 8.5.
These similar tendencies were on display Sunday against the Falcons.
But what Matt Nagy and the Chicago pass catchers are counting on is the improved accuracy and decision-making Foles can bring to the table. In that regard, he runs laps around Trubisky. On the season (again, limited samples apply), Trubisky has put up 0.08 Passing NEP per drop back. In Foles' snaps on Sunday, he averaged 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back, more than three times better than who he replaced.
Similarly, Foles' expected points added on Sunday was 10.95, while Trubisky was benched after an EPA in the game of -1.74. Beyond just being a more accurate passer (look at passes beyond 15 yards in the charts above), Foles flat out gives the Bears a better chance at wins, which is a tide that should raise all boats in the Chicago receiving corps.