Fantasy Football: 3 Things We Learned in Week 4
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.
Wide Receiver Retirement Party
It's inevitable that the end eventually comes for all football players. No matter how good of shape they may be in or how successful their past seasons have been, time wins all battles. For these wide receivers, that time is now. The receivers on this list have shown no hope of resurrecting their seasons due to a variety of factors, and a fantasy benching is necessary while a straight drop for some is justifiable.
T.Y. Hilton - For all the speculation that Hilton would be the next Keenan Allen for Philip Rivers, the connection is simply nonexistent through the first quarter of the season. Hilton has only 22 targets on the season, including only 13 targets the last three weeks. Those 22 targets are tied for 36th best among all wide receivers, and his 17.4% target share is only fractionally better than Quintez Cephus' and Keelan Cole's.
It may not be Rivers' fault either. With both Jacoby Brissett and Rivers under center, Hilton has simply been unreliable.
Hilton's WR ranks over his last nine games: 58, 64, 58, 61, 38, 50, 87, 56, 76
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) October 6, 2020
A.J. Green - Many fantasy analysts point to Green's air yards total (480) or his targets (33) -- both top-10 at the position -- as reasons to hold Green until an improvement comes. Joe Burrow, they say, is on fire as a rookie, and the Cincinnati Bengals pass the ball at the third-highest rate in the league so far.
These are all true, but the stats don't tell the story of what's happening on the field.
All the air yards in the world aren't worth much if the receiver can't come up with the ground yards to get to the ball. After several years of dealing with soft-tissue injuries, Green simply looks old and slow this year. The results have been a miserable mix of inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
Targets per Game
- 7.7 (2011)
- 8.3 (2020)
Yards per Game
- 70.5 (2011)
- 29.8 (2020)
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) October 5, 2020
Among the 58 wide receivers with at least 20 targets this year, Green ranks dead last in numberFire's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target. It's the Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd show now. Green is yesterday's news.
Brandin Cooks - Perhaps expectations were too high on Cooks coming into the year. There are 150 targets vacated by DeAndre Hopkins! Cooks can conquer the middle of the field while Will Fuller stretches the defense! Who else are they going to throw to?!
We will see what happens after Bill O'Brien got a Texas-sized boot out of town, but so far the Houston Texans' offense has been stuck in neutral as they continue to try and establish David Johnson running the ball with the help of an offensive line that only has one player (Laremy Tunsil) who ranks even in the top half of their position this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cooks has been on the field for 81% of the snaps for Houston this year, but all that's done is get him 21 targets at an average depth of target of 11.24 yards, which ranks outside the top 60 of all wide receivers.
Does Christian McCaffrey Matter?
The #RunningBacksDontMatter debate is a fun one to follow on Twitter and blogs. If you are unfamiliar, the Cliff's Notes version is that it has been shown that the scheme, offensive line, and play-calling matter much more to a team's running success than who lines up in the backfield.
That argument has never had more powerful ammunition than with the success of Mike Davis the past two weeks. Not only has Davis scored 45 points in PPR scoring over his last two games, but the Carolina Panthers are 2-0 with Davis as their starting back after going 0-2 with Christian McCaffrey.
How do we evaluate these truths when the team seems better when the consensus top overall pick in fantasy has been replaced by an undrafted backup with no drop-off in fantasy results?
First, let's compare the success rate of offensive plays in Weeks 1-2 to Weeks 3-4, via Sharp Football Stats:
As you can see, a 56% success rate on rushes and 44% success rate on passes when the offense runs through McCaffery in Weeks 1-2. Now here it is with Davis in Weeks 3-4:
We see here only a 38% success rate on rushes with Davis as the lead back plus only 40% on pass attempts to Davis. Both are significantly lower than with McCaffery in the lineup.
Then why are the Panthers winning games with McCaffrey sidelined? The answer lies in how the Panthers have opened up the offense.
Before McCaffery was sidelined late in Week 2, he accumulated just nine targets in those two games. Since that time, Davis has drawn an astounding 24 targets! In less than two games, McCaffrey rushed 41 times, compared to only 29 rush attempts for Davis over the past two weeks.
The Carolina Panthers have become less dependent on the run and more focused on the passing attack, which has benefited Teddy Bridgewater and the entire offense. The results have been dramatic -- after Week 2, the Panthers Adjusted NEP per drop back was 0.10. After Week 4, that number has exploded to 0.21, more than twice as many expected points than when the Panthers started 0-2.
Shifting away from a pound-it-on-the-ground attack with McCaffrey to a spread passing attack has allowed the Carolina offense to be more explosive and average 26 points against two possible playoff teams (the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals).
Is Mike Davis better than McCaffrey? No, the play success rate shows us that. Is the entire offense better without funneling plays through McCaffrey? Through the first two weeks, it is.
Running Back Waiver Battles
Your favorite fantasy league probably has stories similar to mine. After Week 1, when James Conner's health was up in the air, Conner's manager spent 100% of his Free Agent Budget (FAB) on Benny Snell Jr.. The right move? Certainly not, as Conner came back to play in Week 2, but his manager felt that he had to have Snell at all costs in order to compete the next week (it's a 14-team league).
By this past Sunday, I felt a sigh of relief as a Chris Carson manager when my 30% FAB bid for Carlos Hyde last Wednesday was beat out by another manager's 40% bid. Hyde, of course, did not play in Week 4, and Carson ended up with a strong fantasy performance.
These two acquisitions reminded me of a valuable lesson. Much has been written about the value of running backs and strategy of rostering backups as injuries, rotation shifts and benchings are bound to occur. By waiting for those things to happen, however, we put ourselves in risky positions by having to count on a high FAB bid to secure their backup's playing time, which then removes our ability to roster high-FAB players later in the year.
If you have bench spots available, particularly in larger leagues, look to add backup running backs or third-down backs before these tumultuous events take place. Just like we saw this week with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Austin Ekeler in Week 4 -- and like we saw in previous weeks with McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Le'Veon Bell -- these injuries and rotation adjustments will happen. Why not swim in the pre-FAB blue ocean waters instead of the waiver battle red ocean?
Imagine how much FAB will be flowing toward Joshua Kelley and Damien Harris this week. Both of these players could be had in a majority of Yahoo! leagues prior to Week 4 for free -- and Harris could have been stashed in an IR spot.
Hedging that risk and stashing lottery tickets ahead of time allows you to have a full FAB wallet in later weeks.