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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.
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.
Mike Gesicki (MIA) vs. Rams
Gesicki drafters are still trying to exorcise the demons of Week 6, when both Miami tight ends not named Gesicki caught a touchdown in an excellent matchup against the Jets. Gesicki caught neither of his two targets against New York and his fantasy managers were left staring at a hideous zero in their lineups. Fantasy players’ disgust has left Gesicki available in 35 percent of leagues -- an unthinkable number three week ago.
Nevertheless! Gesicki is set up for another good matchup in Week 8 against the Rams.
An NFL coach paces on the sideline, torn between two choices he hates more than we can say. His molars grind. His brow furrows. A thousand scenarios churn in his overactive brain -- all of them bad. Tight ends facing LA have seen a 26.83 percent target share this season, the third highest rate in the league. A combination of Rams’ opponents facing negative, pass heavy game scripts and LA shutting down enemy receivers have left tight ends to absorb targets throughout 2020. The Rams have allowed more tight end receptions than all but four teams. On Monday night, Bears tight ends saw 11 targets against LA, combining for nine catches and 91 yards. Tight ends have been on the receiving end of 9.14 targets per game against the Rams.
A look at Gesicki’s peripheral numbers shows there’s not much to worry about long term. He ran 24 pass routes in the Dolphins’ blowout win over New York two weeks ago, while the other two Dolphins tight ends -- Durham Smythe and Adam Shaheen -- combined for 13 routes. It’s not like the other Miami tight ends took over the pass catching role: Shaheen and Smythe combined for four targets against the Jets.
Among tight ends who have played six games, Gesicki is 10th in pass routes run and 12th in targets. Tua Tagovailoa getting the start this week introduces a level of uncertainty for every Dolphins pass catcher, but the matchup could hardly be better for Gesicki. He could serve as a safety valve of sorts for the rookie signal caller.
Richard Rodgers (PHI) vs. Dallas
Rodgers is coming off a strong Week 7 outing in his first game as the Eagles TE1. He ran 31 routes against the Giants, the seventh most among all tight ends last week. He played 85 percent of Philly’s offensive snaps and had 20 percent of the team's targets. Hakeem Butler was the only other Eagles tight end to run a route in Week 7 -- he ran exactly one.
Rodgers ended up with six grabs for 85 yards (and a near touchdown) last Thursday against the G-people. He’s expected to be the team’s primary pass catching tight end once again this week with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert sidelined.
The kids are calling the Cowboys a low key great tight end matchup. Here’s why: 22.5 percent of targets against Dallas this season have gone to tight ends. That translates to 7.5 targets per game. Cowboys linebackers have been abysmal in coverage this season, especially Jaylon Smith, who has given up 22 receptions for 247 yards and a touchdown on 28 targets. Alexander Johnson hasn’t been much better, allowing 20 catches on 24 targets this season.
With the Eagles sporting a respectable implied total of 25.5 points this week, Rodgers makes for a superb process play. And he’s still on the waiver wire in 90 percent of leagues.
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Leonard Fournette (TB) at Giants
To the chagrin of Ronald Jones truthers around the world, Leonard Fournette broke Jones’ grip on the workhorse role in the Tampa backfield last week against the Raiders. Fournette dominated passing game work for the Bucs, catching six of seven targets for 47 yards to go along with 11 carries for 50 yards. He ran 25 pass routes against the Raiders, 10 more than Jones.
Jones, who has been intermittently terrible as a pass catcher this year, saw a measly two targets in Week 7.
This wasn’t the first time Fournette functioned as the pass catcher out of the Bucs’ backfield. In Week 2, before suffering an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for nearly a month, Fournette led Tampa backs in pass routes and drew five targets. Maintaining such a role this week against the Giants should make him a worthy start in PPR leagues. More than 21 percent of targets against the Giants this season have gone to running backs. New York has struggled in coverage against backs all season; only three teams have allowed more running back receiving yards and 10 teams have given up more running back catches.
Monday night’s game environment should be excellent for Fournette (and possibly Jones). Tampa has 1 28.25 point implied total, the fifth highest of the week. Tampa running backs should be in line to benefit from a whole lot of positive game script against the Giants.