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.
Phillip Lindsay (DEN): The Broncos get a home tilt this week against the Titans, who had 23.7 percent of the targets against them last season go to running backs. That was good for the fifth-highest rate in the league. Tennessee allowed 8.25 targets per game to opposing running backs while the team’s secondary largely shut down receivers and limited tight ends. Lindsay remains in the Denver backfield mix — so much so that Broncos coaches have hedged on naming a starter.
Before being phased out of the Denver passing game in the second half of 2019, Lindsay averaged four targets per game after showing plenty of pass-catching prowess in his 2018 rookie campaign. I think we can expect a conservative offensive approach from the Broncos in a game with one of the week’s lowest Vegas totals (41). Melvin Gordon, no slouch in the passing game, could benefit from a solid share of targets to runners out of the backfield. But Lindsay certainly deserves consideration in fantasy leagues with multiple flex spots. A mere nine teams gave up more receiving yards to running backs in 2019, after all.
Duke Johnson (HOU): With no preseason, it’s not clear how much passing game involvement Duke will maintain this season with David Johnson slotted in as the starter. Judging from coaches’ comments and beat writer reports, we can expect Duke to be primarily used as a pass catcher once again. How much of the screen game he’ll take on — as opposed to David Johnson, an excellent pass catcher — remains to be seen.
Enter the Chiefs on Thursday night, who saw 24.78 percent of targets against them last season go to running backs. No team had a higher rate of running back targets allowed, and no team allowed more receiving yardage to backs than KC. Opposing backs notched a hearty 8.63 targets per game against KC. Duke Johnson, in last year’s playoff debacle against the Chiefs, saw eight targets, catching five passes.
While I don’t think fantasy managers should be confident in plugging Duke Johnson into their Week 1 lineups, the mix of potentially negative game script for Houston (a 9.5 point road underdog) and Kansas City’s generous 2019 opportunity to running backs offers some basis for playing him in a pinch.
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Bryan Edwards (LV): This analysis applies to both Edwards and Henry Ruggs III, though I suspect you might be starting Ruggs in any case if you drafted him in the eighth or ninth round.
The Raiders take on the Panthers, who saw 67.83 percent of the targets against them in 2019 go to wideouts. Only Baltimore’s defense had a higher rate of targets to receivers (hello, Jarvis Landry and OBJ). The Raiders come into Week 1 with the sixth-highest implied total (25.25 points) facing a Carolina defense that was shredded throughout 2019.
Here’s the thing: The Panthers likely won’t be much better on defense in 2020.
Edwards, slated to start after the season-ending injury to Tyrell Williams, could be in line for lots of opportunity in his first NFL game. The Panthers in 2019 allowed 13 double-digit target games to receivers and gave up the third-most receptions to the position. And Edwards should get good run to kick off the season, as Williams played nearly 80 percent of the Raiders' offensive snaps in 2019.
Working Raiders and Panthers into your lineup this week makes sense — it’s a chance to benefit from a matchup with sneaky shootout potential. Edwards could (should) be part of that.
Anthony Miller (CHI): Miller and the Chicago receivers face a Detroit defense that was attacked via wideouts through much of the 2019 season; 62.5 percent of targets against the Lions went to receivers, good for the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. Only four teams allowed more wideout receptions than the Lions, and only the Bucs were gouged for more receiver yards than Detroit. Eleven receivers saw double-digit targets against Detroit in 2019.
You may remember Miller ripping the Lions in Week 13 last season, drawing 13 targets and finishing with nine catches for 140 yards. We can expect another season of narrow wideout target distribution between Miller and Allen Robinson, meaning another season of teams attacking Detroit via receiver should lead to a bunch of looks for Miller in Week 1.
Jordan Akins (HOU): We’re back to the season-opening Chiefs-Texans matchup. Kansas City’s secondary mostly put a cap on opposing wide receivers in 2019, leaving offenses to funnel a ton of targets to running backs and tight ends. Only Dallas had a higher rate of tight end targets against them last season (it’s Tyler Higbee SZN), and KC allowed the fifth most tight end receiving yards (974).
We have some recent history on which to draw here: In Week 6 last season, Akins and fellow tight end Darren Fells combined for 10 targets against the Chiefs. Akins caught all three of his targets for 39 yards. In their playoff game, Texans’ tight ends drew seven targets. With a similarly pass-heavy approach on Thursday Night Football, Akins — or possibly Fells — could reap the benefits. I highlight Akins here because Texans beat reporters have pointed to Akins as a bright spot in training camp — someone who could become a consistent part of the team’s passing offense with the departure of Jordan Thomas.
The Texans, even before trading away DeAndre Hopkins, gave a solid target share to their tight ends, though those chances were usually split up between two or three guys. Houston tight ends saw 20.5 percent of the team’s targets in 2019; Akins led the way with 55 targets.
Jonnu Smith (TEN): It’s tough to play a tight end who has never seen more than eight targets in a game, but maybe you’re in a 16-team league, or maybe you play tight end premium, or maybe you completely faded tight end while your league mates made sure they had three, for whatever reason.
If you’re forced into deploying Jonnu Smith this week against Denver, things could be worse.
Tight ends saw 25.39 percent of the targets that Denver’s defense faced in 2019 — only two teams (the Cowboys and Chiefs) had a higher rate. The Broncos gave up a whopping 5.63 receptions per game to tight ends. It’s important to note, however, that those numbers were inflated by Darren Waller and Travis Kelce, who wrecked the Broncos in four combined games against Denver last year.
Last year, Tennessee tight ends saw eight targets against the Broncos in their Week 6 matchup. As a side note, we’re going to have to see Smith run more pass routes if he’s going to become an every-week fantasy starter. He ran a route on a lowly 35 percent of his snaps last season. The team sees him as a valuable blocker in a run-obsessed offense. Fantasy managers may hate it, but it’s true.
Though Smith remains a fringe Week 1 play in a game featuring one of the week’s lowest Vegas totals, it’s good to know offenses consistently targeted tight end against Denver for much of 2019.
C.D. Carter is co-host of Living The Stream, owner of DraftDayConsultants.com and author of fantasy football books, including How To Think Like A Fantasy Football Winner. He can be found on Twitter @cdcarter13. He never logs off.