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We want to know -- we need to know -- how defenses are being attacked.
Though it won't translate perfectly from week to week, understanding which NFL defenses qualify as run funnels and which are pass funnels can and should change the way we create our daily fantasy lineups. Is a team's stalwart run defense forcing opponents to the air at a remarkable rate? How about secondaries so dominant (or teams so bad) that opposing offenses are turning to the run more often than usual?
In this space, I'll highlight which players may benefit from squaring off against a run funnel or pass funnel defense in a given week. This analysis will improve once we have in-season data with which to work, but using last year's defensive trends and evaluating offseason defensive roster moves should give us a reasonably solid early-season grasp of how opponents will approach certain defenses.
Analyzing pass and run funnel defenses can often generate DFS stacking ideas, both team stacks and game stacks. I'll highlight stacking plays -- for DFS tournament purposes -- where I see fit. I've found evaluating run and pass funnels is an excellent starting point for exploiting matchups and crafting correlated lineups.
Jaguars at Commanders
Terry McLaurin (WAS) vs. JAC
Whatever you think of Carson Wentz, and whatever you think of the Commanders acquiring Wentz and happily paying him like an elite NFL quarterback, he is undoubtedly an upgrade for Terry McLaurin and the rest of Washington's pass catchers. Especially, importantly, on downfield passes.
No Washington or Jacksonville player will be widely rostered in a game featuring the week's fifth lowest total (44) between two teams that were embarrassingly awful and dysfunctional in 2021. That makes McLaurin a justifiable target at his reasonable DFS price point. Playing against a Jaguars defense that finished 2021 as the NFL's sixth most extreme pass funnel (despite having a marshmallow soft run defense). The 2021 Jags allowed the second-highest EPA per drop back, trailing only the Jets. Offseason additions to the secondary could make Jacksonville slightly less miserable against opposing passing attacks, but not much.
McLaurin has proven he's a target magnet in his three NFL seasons. Last season, McLaurin had the league's seventh highest weighted opportunity rating, which balances a pass catcher's share of targets and air yards. His upside scenario in this game is an improved downfield passer in Wentz and a running mate in Jahan Dotson that might draw some attention away from Washington's alpha receiver. Dotson is also in play for all the reasons mentioned here.
Maybe, if you can stomach it, McLaurin's Week 1 matchup makes Wentz a passable tournament option.
Christian Kirk (JAC) at WAS
Trevor Lawrence throughout the offseason was effusive in his praise of Jacksonville's well-compensated No. 1 receiver Christian Kirk. He called Kirk “quarterback friendly” and added “the way he sees the field, different coverages unfold, the way he runs his routes, I just think he's quarterback friendly. And then obviously his speed is something that we really needed and it's going to help us a lot."
Kirk, according to Jaguars beat writers, has served as Lawrence's top intermediate and downfield target since training camp began. Like the aforementioned Mooney, Kirk's 2022 redraft ADP didn't account for the possibility of a glut of targets. It doesn't hurt that Kirk is reasonably efficient as a pass catcher, finishing inside the top-20 in yards per route run last year. Rotoworld's Pat Kerrane this week pointed out that Kirk's modest 2021 breakout coincided with his transition to the slot after years of playing on the outside in Arizona. He wasn't used as an underneath target though. If that usage continues into 2022, Kerrane said, it gives Kirk "a legitimate weekly ceiling."
Lawrence should have time to operate in the pocket against a Washington defense without star pass rusher Chase Young (ACL), and he'll be throwing against a Commanders coverage unit that allowed the seventh-highest dropback success rate a year ago. Washington, somewhat surprisingly, was the fourth most extreme pass funnel defense in 2021. Stacking Lawrence with Kirk and tossing a Commanders run-back option into your lineup isn't the worst way to get weird in large DFS fields this weekend.
If you think the Washington-Jacksonville game is going to go well over its Vegas total, Kirk needs to be in any related stack.
49ers at Bears
Elijah Mitchell (SF) at CHI
I try not to limit myself to writing exclusively about bad players. I also enjoy writing about bad games. Perhaps no team is more unappealing for fantasy purposes than this 49ers-Bears affair, with a 40.5-point Vegas total, the lowest of Week 1. Nevertheless, we persist.
This hideous fantasy environment will likely keep rostership suppressed for every player in this game not named Justin Fields or Trey Lance, both of whom have imminently low-priced QBs with tantalizing rushing appeal.
Mitchell, in a matchup against one of 2021's most dependable run funnel defenses, represents a pivot off the sure-to-be-popular Lance. Kyle Shanahan and the Niners, entering this one as 6.5-point favorites, are going to establish the run like it's 1981 if they indeed seize a lead against the down-bad Bears. Chicago in 2021 was the league's second most extreme run funnel defense, per Rotoworld's Pat Kerrane. The Bears allowed an average of 24 running back rushes per game last year, and didn't exactly bolster their front seven ahead of the 2022 season. A mere six defenses allowed a higher expected points added (EPA) per rush in 2021.
Mitchell should be fed if the Niners indeed play from ahead this week. In 2021 San Francisco wins, Mitchell averaged 21.52 rushing attempts (14.25 in losses). Mitchell, by every indication, will start the year as the team's lead back, though Jeff Wilson could also see some run if the Niners have a lead to milk in the second half. I think the ugly game environment actually offers something of a ceiling for Mitchell, who probably won't be popular on any DFS site.
Darnell Mooney (CHI) vs. SF
Mooney, meanwhile, has a real shot to dominate targets in a Bears offense without much target competition outside Cole Kmet, who surely won't threaten Mooney's role as Fields' primary downfield burner. Mooney in 2021 was 13th in air yards. He accounted for a stunning 35 percent of the Bears' air yards, tied for the tenth highest rate in the NFL.
In a game script that forces Chicago to drop back and throw more than they'd like, Mooney could easily see double digit targets. He has, after all, demonstrated an ability to hog targets: In the final three weeks of the 2021 season, Mooney commanded a 33 percent target share, the league's third highest over that span. That sort of opportunity is certainly not baked into his Week 1 DFS price point.
Ravens at Jets
Elijah Moore (NYJ) vs. BAL
In two games with Flacco in 2021, Moore averaged 8.5 targets and 92.5 receiving yards. Moore took in 28.4 percent of Flacco's attempts in the Jets' Week 11 loss to the Dolphins. And on opening day -- as you may have guessed judging by the theme of this column -- Flacco and Moore square off against a Ravens defense that was among the most extreme pass funnels of 2021. Baltimore faced 36.5 passes per game last year, the sixth-highest mark. Only the Bucs saw a higher pass rate over expected against them last season.
Moore was 15th in targets per route run as a rookie in a Jets offense that was largely run-first and quite bad. We can reasonably predict -- with the Jets listed as seven-point home dogs -- Flacco will be forced into plenty of passing volume. I like the emerging alpha wideout's chances of being the primary beneficiary of such sideways game flow.
I would pay close attention to Baltimore's running back situation ahead of Sunday's game. Whether it's J.K. Dobbins or Kenyan Drake or Mike Davis, look for the Ravens to run wild against a New York defense that saw last season's 13th lowest pass rate over expected from opponents. Or just play Lamar Jackson as a mini-stack alongside Moore. Baltimore had a 53 percent pass rate when playing with a lead during Jackson's 13 healthy games last season.