Target Decoder: A Dalton Schultz Smash Spot

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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.

Pass Funnel Report

Texans pass catchers vs. TEN
You, the faithful reader of this column and target decoding enthusiast, may have noticed the Titans landing in the Pass Funnel Report more than a little often. They’re a mainstay because, well, opponents keep shifting dramatically to the pass against Tennessee. Your mind: It’s blown.

Titans opponents this year have the fourth highest pass rate over expectation, according to NBC Sports Edge’s Pat Kerrane. Offenses squaring off against Tennessee over the past four weeks have gained 76.4 percent of their yards through the air, the second highest rate in the NFL over that stretch. Last week, the lifeless Dolphins passed on 73 percent of their plays against the Titans; in Week 16, the 49ers had a 65 percent pass rate against Tennessee, 13 percent higher than their season-long pass rate. You get the idea.

The Texans are at home this week -- we’ll pretend that matters -- against the Titans, an 11-point favorite. Probably that’s a bit much for a Titans team that lost to a Tyrod Taylor-led Houston team this year and now plays the feisty Texans with a superior quarterback. Nevertheless, the Texans are heavy dogs and will likely be forced into a pass-heavy game script. Houston’s season-long 58 percent pass rate spikes to 67 percent when they’re trailing. And buddy, they trail a lot.

Obviously this affects Brandin Cooks more than any other Houston pass catcher. Cooks, with the NFL’s fourth highest WOPR (a weighted average of a player's target market share) -- trailing only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, and Justin Jefferson -- dominates opportunity in this fledgling Texans offense. His 40 percent air yards share is astonishing. It means he has weekly big-play upside. Cooks’ prospects against the pass-funnel Titans should activate your salivary glands.

Nico Collins has profiled as the (distant) No. 2 wideout in the Houston offense over the past month. He has the team’s second highest target share (17 percent) and has run a pass route on 72 percent of the team’s drop backs over that span. Chris Conley is third among Houston wide receivers with a 60 percent route rate. Collins in a GPP? Collins in a GPP.

Raiders pass catchers vs. LAC
I’m old enough to remember when the Chargers were the league’s most extreme run funnel defense, a veritable punching bag for any and all rushing attacks. Those days are gone. We must adjust.

LA, over the past four weeks, is the league’s fourth most extreme pass funnel defense. Like Michael Jordan, they saw our Twitter posts and took it personally. The Bolts have reversed course and forced teams to the air since around midseason. The Chiefs, one of the pass-heaviest teams with a 62 percent pass rate, dropped back on 72 percent of their plays in Week 15 against LA. Some of the teams the Chargers have recently faced -- the Broncos and Giants -- are so bad and so poorly coached that their pass rates didn’t change all that much in losses to LA. We’re throwing those out.

The Raiders are a slightly more competent team than the Giants and Broncos who should be able to conduct a pass-heavy approach against the pass-funnel Bolts defense in their do-or-die Week 18 matchup on Sunday Night Football (I only watch football on NBC).

Vegas has the NFL’s fifth highest pass rate (62 percent) on the season and its ninth highest pass rate over expectation over the past month. Only the Buccaneers have a higher pass rate than the Raiders when trailing this year. Related: Vegas enters this Week 18 deathmatch as 2.5-point home underdogs. Another week of leaning on the pass would portend good things for both Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow. Waller, expected back this week, had a 25 percent target share before his Thanksgiving injury -- one that propelled Renfrow to elite fantasy status as a target dominator in the Vegas offense. A pass-heavy approach against the pass-funnel LA defense could buttress Renfrow against the target regression that comes when Waller is in the Raiders lineup. Renfrow, after all, has averaged a meager 5.8 targets per game with Waller in the lineup since the start of the 2020 season. Without Waller over the past five weeks, he’s notched 8.4 targets per game.

Waller’s matchup is objectively fantastic: LA allows the sixth highest target share to tight ends, giving up the eighth most tight end receptions on the year. The Chargers have had occasional struggles against slot receivers too. Look back to Renfrow’s Week 4 line against LA: Six catches on eight targets for 45 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Boyd in Week 13 caught five of seven targets for 87 yards against these Chargers. Guys catching intermediate targets can have their way with the LA defense.

Week 18 Targets: Decoded

Dalton Schultz (DAL) at PHI
Schultz has everything going for him in Week 18: He’s facing an Eagles defense giving up the most tight end catches this season and are likely to rest many of their starters against Dallas, Michael Gallup is out with a season-ending knee injury, and the Cowboys have something to play for against their division rivals. Dallas can move from the No. 4 seed to the No. 2 seed with a Saturday victory and Sunday losses by the Bucs and Rams. One never knows.

The Cowboys this week opened Blake Jarwin’s 21-day practice window, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll suit up in Week 18. Probably they’re getting him ready for a postseason run as an ancillary part of their passing offense. Since Week 14, Schultz -- who should remain the only pass-catching tight end in the Cowboys offense this week -- is leading the Cowboys with a 23 percent target per route run rate, two percent higher than CeeDee Lamb and three percent higher than Amari Cooper. He’s second among Dallas pass catchers in expected fantasy points over those four weeks. His involvement in the team’s passing attack, in short, has been solid.

Against the Eagles in Week 5, Schultz went off for six receptions, 80 yards, and two scores on seven targets. Jarwin was targeted three times in the Dallas win. Tight ends are averaging a hearty 8.25 targets per game (and the third highest target share) against Philadelphia. Schultz, running a route on 75 percent of Dak Prescott’s drop backs since Week 14, has -- at worst -- a fine and dandy floor against Philly.

Zach Ertz (ARI) vs. SEA
Ertz has become the official safety blankie for Kyler Murray since DeAndre Hopkins was lost for the season. Murray has targeted Ertz on 26 percent of the tight end’s pass routes since Week 14, a full five percent more than Christian Kirk. Ertz unsurprisingly is leading Arizona pass catchers in expected fantasy points over that stretch (though, in typical Ertz fashion, he’s way under his expected fantasy points).

This week Ertz faces a Seattle defense that has been quietly generous to tight ends, allowing a 20.3 percent target share and the sixth most raw tight end targets on the season. Ertz is a mere seven weeks removed from going ballistic against these hawks of the sea. In Week 11, you may recall Ertz reeling in eight catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Another day at the office for the millennial Jason Witten.

Seahawks opponents have continually shifted to a pass-first attack over the past few months, as Seattle is the league’s sixth most extreme pass funnel defense since Week 1 and the fifth most extreme since Week 14. The Cards in Week 11 posted a pass rate of 59 percent against Seattle, slightly higher than their season-long 56 percent pass rate.

Ertz is the rarest of birds: A non-elite tight end who is all but guaranteed a solid target share. In a low-key excellent matchup, he has a shot to finish the year with a bigly stat line.