Target Decoder: Cole Rolling vs. Ravens

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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.

Brandin Cooks, WR, (HOU)
Not to overstate it, but Cooks being just outside the 20 highest scoring fantasy wideouts through Week 10 is among the mightiest achievements in human history.

He’s had Davis Mills -- whose career path looks more like a third-string journeyman than an NFL starter -- throwing him passes for much of the season. He’s trapped in an offense with the worst skill position players in the league. And through Herculean effort and absolute target domination, Cooks is averaging 14.9 PPR points per game.

Cooks’ WOPR of 0.75 is higher than anyone’s WOPR not named Davante Adams -- the leaving, breathing target terminator. Cooks has accounted for a league-high 42 percent of his team’s air yards; a mere 12 receivers have more raw air yards than Cooks this year. Houston’s unforgivable lack of pass-catching options can be seen in David Johnson’s 10.67 percent target share -- second on the team behind Cooks’ 30 percent target share.

Cooks being force fed in the lifeless Texans offense hasn’t led to much in the way of fantasy production over the past six weeks. But the team’s most recent outing -- a depressingly inept loss to Miami in Week 9 -- was far better than it looked for Cooks though, and offers reason for fantasy optimism down the NFL season’s final seven-week stretch. Cooks saw 121 air yards -- 33 percent of the Texans’ total -- along with a 35 percent target share upon Tyrod Taylor’s return from the world’s most severe hamstring injury. While Cooks’ six catches for 54 yards against the Dolphins didn’t inspire poetry, his usage was outstanding.

Truckloads of (almost) guaranteed negative game script and a friendly upcoming schedule could make Cooks a borderline WR1 for the remainder of the regular season, assuming (praying to every deity) that Taylor’s hamstrings hold up. Houston’s next four opponents are among the ten most generous defenses to wide receivers: The Titans, Jets, Colts, and Seahawks. This week’s opponent -- Tennessee -- is allowing a league-high 65.5 percent target share to receivers, and only the Colts and Washington have seen wideouts score touchdowns against them at a greater clip.

Maybe the Cooks drafter in your league has soured on the target magnet, despairing that no amount of volume can save him from the futility of Houston’s offense. It’s certainly worth checking.

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Week 11 Targets: Decoded

Cole Kmet, TE, (CHI) vs. BAL
The millions of Target Decoder diehards know by now that we start borderline tight end plays against the Ravens. I’ve received reports of Target Decoder faithful going door to door in their neighborhoods, spreading the good word of tight ends playing Baltimore. I appreciate your commitment and will not post your bail.

Kmet, rostered in 22 percent of leagues, gets the honors in Week 11. Tight ends have seen a 27 percent target share against Baltimore through Week 10, the highest in the league. Only Carolina and Philadelphia are close in opposing tight end target share. The Ravens -- the NFL’s second-most extreme pass-funnel defense -- have allowed an average of 6.22 tight end receptions on 9.66 targets this season. If Mike Gesicki’s Week 10 goose egg against the Ravens is fresh in your frazzled mind, remember he saw a healthy seven looks in Miami’s Thursday night win. Dolphins tight ends totaled a dozen targets against the Ravens. The process, etc.

Kmet, meanwhile, has run a route on a solid 75 percent of the Bears’ drop backs over their past four games. He’s had a (quietly) good month of usage in a Chicago offense led by steadily-improving QB Justin Fields. Kmet over the past four games is second on the team in expected fantasy points and target share, trailing only Darnell Mooney in both categories. Kmet has led all Bears pass catchers in both receptions and yardage over that four-game stretch. He’s managed nearly 10 PPR points per game since Week 6 despite not catching a touchdown. Our guy is not much of a touchdown scorer, with two scores on 56 career catches -- good for a 3.57 percent touchdown rate. Outrageous, I know.

Accounting for 79.3 percent of targets among Bears tight ends this season, Kmet is perfectly positioned to cash in on the premiere 2021 tight end matchup.

DFS Spin: Kmet could be chalky in cash games. You’ll have to ask a cash game bro about that. I’m far more certain the Ravens-Bears game will not be a popular stacking option in Week 11 GPPs. Throwing Kmet into a lineup alongside Lamar Jackson and Marquise Brown seems reasonable. If you’re feeling particular galaxy brained, stack Justin Fields with Kmet, running it back with Brown.

Adam Trautman, TE, (NO) at PHI
We’re back to Trautman, who was wildly disappointing a few weeks back when he headlined this column and embarrassed me in front of all my internet friends. A standup guy, Adam called to apologize.

The aforementioned Eagles defense is allowing the league’s second-highest tight end target share (26.9 percent) through Week 10. Philadelphia’s defense has been gouged for 75 tight end receptions in ten games, 15 more catches than any other defense has allowed.

Noah Fant drafters might be incredulous at the idea of the Eagles as a slam dunk tight end matchup after their guy posted middling numbers against Philly in Week 10. What Fant drafters -- and the mainstream media -- won’t tell you is that Denver tight ends combined for 137 yards on nine catches against the Eagles. It just so happened that Albert Okwuegbunam accounted for most of that production. One week prior, Chargers tight ends -- trapped in a decidedly fantasy unfriendly route-running timeshare -- cobbled together 11 receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. While the Eagles defense largely shuts down perimeter pass catchers, they’re being roughed up in the middle of the field. That, of course, is where Trautman operates.

Available in 95 percent of leagues, Trautman has at least five targets in each of his past three games while running a pass route on two thirds of the Saints’ drop backs. It’s hardly the strongest route running involvement, but we’ll take it over Trautman’s 30-40 percent route running in the season’s first month and change. Juwan Johnson -- the Saints’ preferred pass-catching tight end in September -- has run a route on just 24 percent of the team’s drop backs over the past three games. Johnson’s three targets last week against Tennessee marked the first time he had seen more than one target since Week 4. That’s an overwrought way of describing Trautman’s shifting role in the New Orleans offense.

The Saints head into Week 11 with major offensive line injury issues. I won’t bore you with the details -- I’ve never bored anyone with details, just ask my wife -- but New Orleans could make serious issues protecting the QB this week. Trautman, unfortunately, is an excellent blocker. That could result in a hit to his pass routes and, of course, his targets in an otherwise mouth-watering matchup. Perhaps that’s overthinking it. But that’s what I do.

DFS Spin: Trautman is a salary relief candidate who should provide a floor, at worst. In a fairly ugly game -- featuring a total of 43.5 points -- Trautman isn’t easily stacked. Maybe you can talk yourself into putting Trautman in a lineup with a naked Jalen Hurts. Put some pants on, Jalen.