Target Decoder Week 8: Our Man, Adam Trautman

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It’s the coldest comfort to roster a receiver or tight end or running back who sees a glut of targets and fails to convert them into fantasy production.

Everything aligned for the player: He ran a bunch of pass routes, he saw a good number of looks from his quarterback -- maybe even a high-value target or two. It didn’t end with fantasy points on the scoreboard so it was, you believe, a failure.

“Process” can sound like the official excuse of the loser -- a word you blurt out when things go sideways. “The process was right,” the loser says, “and the results didn’t follow.” Whatever you think of a process for spotting worthy borderline fantasy options, it remains vitally important. Figuring out how to identify streaming plays or desperation options in fantasy football is the first step to benefiting from unforeseen production from said players.

In this space we’ll examine the intriguing cross-section of defenses most vulnerable to certain positions and how pass catchers are being used in their respective offenses. Mostly we’ll focus on tight ends and running backs whose weekly prospects might look slightly less hideous with some much-needed context.

With every passing week, our understanding of defensive shortcomings and pass catchers’ roles will improve, and with that, players highlighted in this space will be more viable in 12 and 14-team fantasy leagues.

Reasons Not To Panic

Before we get into target decoding for borderline (or desperation) Week 8 fantasy options, let’s calm ourselves about slow starts for some of the offseason’s most highly touted pass catchers. In evaluating their opportunity, I looked at targets per route run, air yards share, and WOPR -- not the genocidal computer from the 1983 movie War Games, but a weighted average of a player's target market share. WOPR is useful in determining who is earning targets and how valuable those targets can be.

Tyler Higbee (LAR)

Higbee, coming into the 2021 regular season, was the Mike Davis of tight ends. He was going to see the field -- and the related opportunity -- too much to fail. By sheer volume of pass routes and targets in a high-powered LA offense, Higbee would thrive. He had to. It made too much sense.

My sources deep within the NFL tell me this process has not, in fact, worked out for those who drafted Higbee in the middle rounds this summer. Higbee, even after the departure of Gerald Everett to the Seahawks, is a high-end TE2 as we enter Week 8. He’s run the seventh most tight end pass routes and has the ninth most tight end targets and sits well behind guys who weren’t even drafted in 12-team leagues. Bleak stuff.

Higbee isn’t unlike any other pass catcher in the LA offense not named Cooper Kupp. Maybe he should try having breakfast with Matthew Stafford. Or lunch. Maybe just a snack with Matt. Anything to get some more looks. (Side note: The sudden discourse around trading Kupp is among the most galaxy brained phenomena in the history of fantasy football. Who exactly would you acquire in exchange for Kupp? Would you want Tyreek Hill for Kupp? I wouldn’t. Ja’Marr Chase? Nah. Devante Adams? Yeah, I guess. What Kupp is doing in the Rams offense is unbelievable and sustainable, according to NBC Sports Edge’s Pat Kerrane. You drafted a league winner when you got Kupp in the fifth round. Just roll with it.)

Higbee’s rest-of-season prospects aren’t entirely bad. A look at his peripherals show a tight end who -- like almost every tight end in fantasy -- will be touchdown dependent, but has a path to more viable weekly output. He’s running a route on a solid 83 percent of the Rams’ drop backs through seven weeks, a mammoth increase over his 50.8 percent route rate in 2020. And Higbee is doing this in an offense averaging the seventh most yards per game (397.1) and the fifth most points per game (29.6). When we evaluate streaming tight end plays, we seek guys in favorable fantasy environments. Higbee checks that box every single week.

It’s the kind of targets Higbee is seeing that might be the issue. He’s averaging 7.5 yards per target this season, down from his 8.8 yards per target in 2020. His WOPR is virtually unchanged from last year to this year, though his air yards per target has plummeted from eight in 2020 to 4.6 today. Higbee isn’t seeing the deeper seam targets with Stafford that he saw with Jared Goff and it’s lowered his ceiling considerably.

Higbee has been unlucky with opportunities near the end zone. His five targets inside the 10 yard line, while trailing Kupp’s league-leading nine targets, is seventh most among all pass catchers in 2021. Kupp has turned those nine inside-the-10 targets into six touchdowns; Higbee has managed one score on his looks inside the 10. Zoom out a bit further and you’ll see Higbee is sixth among all NFL pass catchers with 11 targets inside the 20 yard line, and he’s caught eight of those for 63 yards and two touchdowns. Again, a little unlucky.

Running a ton of routes and quietly seeing high-value targets from Stafford should offer some modicum of hope for Higbee drafters who have begrudgingly, with clenched jaws, scoured the waiver wire for a tight end upgrade. You’re not going to find a better tight end option on the wire. Stay strong and play Higbee this week against a Houston defense being obliterated by enemy tight ends. No team has given up a higher target share to tight ends (26.1 percent) than the Texans, who have allowed the ninth most tight end receptions (39) this year.

Week 8 Targets Decoded

Adam Trautman (NO) vs. TB

You know I’m scraping bottom when I recommend a Saints player not named Alvin Kamara. Come with me as I shovel deeper and deeper into the most borderline tight end options in fantasy football. Dig deep enough and we'll find Adam Trautman.

Trautman, everyone’s favorite late-round tight end in June, has seen ramped-up usage in the horrifying New Orleans passing offense in recent weeks. He’s caught all five of his targets for 79 yards in the Saints’ past couple games, including three for 36 against the Seahawks on Monday night. He ran a season-high 29 pass routes against Seattle, a week after he ran 24 routes -- the second most of his 2021 season -- against the Football Team.

Trautman has run a route on 70.7 percent of Jameis Winston’s drop backs in the past two games -- a marked increase over his route rate in the season’s five weeks. Juwan Johnson, the team’s primary pass-catching tight end for most of September, has receded into the background of the Saints’ low-volume passing attack, running a route on a meager 20 percent of Winston’s drop backs over the past couple games. That’s the key here: Trautman has (apparently) taken over pass-catching duties among New Orleans tight ends.

NewOrleans.com’s Nick Underhill reported last week that Trautman and the team had evaluated his pass-catching role during the Saints’ Week 6 bye. “As a receiver, [Trautman] voiced similar confidence in himself and said he knows the team believes in his ability to deliver in that area of the game,” Underhill wrote. “The opportunities simply haven’t been there for various reasons, including how run-heavy the Saints have been thus far. … At some point, it feels like Trautman should turn a corner and make more plays.”

“I definitely feel I can contribute as a receiver,” Trautman told Underhill. “I don’t think they question that either at all, but, like I said, it all goes back to the game plan and how they plan to use us.”

The hope -- my hope -- is that Sean Payton won’t be able to run his slow-paced, grind-it-out offense against Tom Brady’s merciless scoring machine. The Saints enter Week 8 as 5.5-point home underdogs in a game featuring the week’s fourth highest total (50.5). At the very least, Trautman will be in a solid fantasy environment against the Bucs this Sunday.

The NFL’s ultimate pass-funnel defense, Tampa Bay has been gouged for a league-leading 48 tight end receptions this season. Tight ends against Tampa are seeing 8.87 targets per game, good for a 22.3 percent target share. Even the Bears tight ends got in on the act in Week 7, reeling in eight of 11 targets against the Bucs. In Week 6, Dolphins tight ends caught eight of their 12 combined targets against the Bucs in wildly negative script.

The return of Lavonte David, Tampa’s best coverage linebacker, could be an issue for Trautman, though this play is more about likely game script than the Bucs defensive personnel. Trautman’s emergence over the past two games is the basis for this play. Now pray to your preferred deity that the Saints don’t get out to a lead against the Bucs.

DFS Slant: Trautman shapes up as a low-cost run back option for those deploying a Brady-centric Tampa stack against the Saints. I can't imagine Trautman will have much rostership in tournaments or cash games. He's our little secret. Don't tell anyone.

Pharaoh Brown (HOU) vs. LAR

NBC Sports Edge Dear Leader Patrick Daugherty refers to this sort of thing as a “sicko” tight end play. I find this deeply offensive and have rallied my attorneys to silence Dear Leader. We’ll see if it works.

Hear me out, please. Brown, who Texans head coach David Culley once described as a “very large person,” was a fascinating if unproductive tight end option during Tyrod Taylor’s one-and-a-half game run as Houston’s starter. I’m highlighting Brown -- not Jordan Akins -- because Brown has consistently commanded targets on far fewer pass routes in 2021.

Akins, for the record, has run an average of 18.7 routes per game this season, way more than Brown’s 12.7 routes per game. That would usually mean I’m left touting Akins in Week 8 against the Rams, but alas, it’s Brown who has drawn a target on a decent 19.1 percent of his routes. Akins, meanwhile, has seen a target on a relatively paltry 14.2 percent of his routes. In Week 1 against the Jaguars -- with Taylor under center -- Brown led Houston tight ends with four catches on five targets. He drew a target on a strong 31.4 percent of his routes that day. Akins didn’t catch either of his looks from Tyrod on opening day.

Akins has two more targets than Brown on the season, as Davis Mills had a slight preference for Akins during his mostly-disastrous run as Houston’s starter. Taylor is expected back this week against a Rams defense that has, for the second straight season, proven generous to enemy tight ends.

Tight ends facing LA have seen a 22.5 percent target share, a better number when you consider the Rams are again a pass-funnel defense that has given up 71 percent of their yardage through the air. Five teams have allowed more tight end receptions than the Rams through Week 7, and eight teams have allowed more tight end yardage. Maxx Williams had his breakout game against LA, catching all five of his targets for 66 yards and a touchdown in Week 4. The week before that, Tampa tight ends caught 10 of their 13 targets against the Rams for 101 scoreless yards.

Houston will undoubtedly be forced into a pass-heavy script this Sunday against the heavily-favored Rams. Outside of double-digit targets for Brandin Cooks in a low-key revenge game, I’m not sure where else Taylor is going to look besides his tight ends. And if the season’s first couple games are any indication, Brown has the edge over Akins.

DFS Slant: Brown is a run-back option for DFS tournaments at a rock-bottom price point. Obviously he best fits in lineups with at least two -- and upwards of four -- Rams players.