Target Decoder Week 1: Hey Arnold!

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It’s the coldest comfort -- freezing, really -- 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.

Our early-season data will naturally come from the 2020 season. 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.

Let’s decode some targets for Week 1.

Dan Arnold (CAR) vs. NYJ

Carolina’s tight end situation was a supermassive black hole for fantasy production in 2020. We can thank Ian Thomas, who had every chance to succeed in offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system and failed spectacularly. A mere eight tight ends ran more routes than Thomas last season and 42 tight ends drew more targets. Your mind, like mine, is struggling to grapple with this disconnect.

The Panthers consequently signed Arnold to a two-year, $6 million deal this offseason a year after he quietly converted a career-high 45 targets into 31 receptions, 438 yards, and four touchdowns in Arizona. His 9.2 PPR points per game from Week 12-16 ranked 13th among tight ends. By every measure, the massive Arnold -- 6’6” and 222 pounds -- did a lot with a little in 2020. Only seven tight ends last season posted more fantasy points over expectation than Arnold, according to Rotoviz.

And what would a Week 1 column be without harkening back to training camp hype? In early August, The Charlotte Observer's Alaina Getzenberg reported Sam Darnold and Arnold displayed a "strong connection" during practice, particularly in the red zone. Arnold, in his only preseason action, caught three of three targets from Darnold against Pittsburgh. He is undoubtedly the Panthers’ pass catching tight end after running 21 pass routes on 27 Darnold drop backs against the Steelers.

This week Arnold takes on a Jets defense that was bludgeoned by tight ends in 2020, as New York allowed the most yardage (1,105) and touchdowns (14) to enemy tight ends. Only Buffalo gave up more tight end receptions (91) than the Jets. Nearly 23 percent of the receiving yards piled up against the Jets last year came from tight ends, the sixth highest rate in the NFL.

Yes, the Jets have a new defensive minded regime with Robert Saleh taking over for the failure of all failures, Adam Gase. And yes, it could be tough to draw conclusions about the Jets defense in the season’s early going. The Jets, after all, have Marcus Maye, who Pro Football Focus graded as last season’s third best coverage safety. And C.J. Mosely makes his return to the Jets after sitting out 2020 due to COVID, though the former Ravens linebacker has never been all that spectacular in pass coverage.

DFS spin: In a matchup with as much shootout potential as any Week 1 game, Arnold profiles as an underrated beneficiary of back-and-forth game script against an un-intimidating New York coverage unit. He’s a cost-effective stacking option ($2,600 on DraftKings and $4,500 on FanDuel) with Darnold, perhaps allowing managers to jam CMC into a Jets-Panthers game stack (along with Corey Davis).

Nyheim Hines (IND) vs. SEA

Colts head coach Frank Reich and his staff reportedly sat down at the end of the 2020 season and asked themselves if pass-catching dynamo Nyheim Hines saw enough touches out of Indy’s backfield.

The answer: A resounding no.

There’s only one football on the field, at last check, so getting Hines touches at the expense of workhorse ball carrier Jonathan Taylor won’t be easy. There is, however, widespread recognition that Hines is an underutilized weapon in the Colts offense.

The Colts are 2.5-point home underdogs against Seattle this week in a game featuring Week 1’s fifth highest over/under (which opened at 52 points before dropping to 50). Any game in which the Seahawks let Russ cook -- a concept to which new Seattle offensive coordinator Shane Waldron is sympathetic -- has the potential to shoot out in a big way. The Colts-Seahawks opener could be fruitful for fantasy purposes.

Hines, Pro Football Focus’ top-graded receiving back in 2020, remains a borderline play even in PPR formats. In a back-and-forth affair -- maybe one in which Carson Wentz and the Colts get down early -- Hines could eclipse the palty 16.5 pass routes and 4.69 targets he averaged in 2020. Hines (naturally) has been more involved in Indy’s offense when they’re playing from behind. In the team’s five 2020 losses, Hines notched 5.9 targets per contest. In wins, that number dropped to 4.2.

Seattle’s defense proved vulnerable to pass-catching running backs throughout the 2020 season. Only the Jets, Bucs, and Panthers gave up more running back catches, and only nine teams allowed more receiving yardage to backs. Backfields saw an average of 7.5 targets per game against the Seahawks in 2020. An explosive back like Hines -- who reportedly had his best training camp in four seasons with the Colts -- could do quite a bit of damage with seven or eight looks. He’s worth your consideration in deeper redraft formats with multiple flex spots.

DFS spin: Best used on DraftKings with its PPR scoring, Hines ($5,000) shapes up as a cost-effective game stacking option in a potentially high-scoring game. Hines and teammate Michael Pittman ($4,100) are ideal options if you’re stacking Russell Wilson with one or both of Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf.

J.D. McKissic (WFT) vs. LAC

McKissic is still a thing in fantasy. He’s ready for another season of jokerfying Antonio Gibson drafters, one pass route, one target, one receptions at a time.

After leading the league in running back pass routes and targets last season, McKissic continued operating (mostly) as Washington’s primary passing down back in the preseason. Football Team coaches are passionate about talking up Gibson as this generation’s Christian McCaffrey, but McKissic remains, and will continue siphoning targets from Gibson in 2021.

The Football Team opens against the Chargers, who have to fly across the country and play at 3 a.m. west coast time in Washington. The Bolts last season allowed a league-high 23.76 percent target share to opposing running backs; only six teams allowed more running back receptions than the Chargers in 2020. LA opponents continually targeted backs: From Clyde Edwards-Helaire in Week 3 (six catches on eight targets) to Ronald Jones in Week 4 (six catches on nine targets) to Melvin Gordon (six catches on seven targets) in Week 8.

McKissic’s Week 1 usefulness hinges on game script, as it usually will with pass-catching backs. McKissic in Washington losses last year notched 8.33 targets per game, about 3.3 more targets than he averaged in wins. The Football Team enters Week 1 as a one-point home dog so there’s little indication this game will feature runaway game script one way or the other. McKissic should once again be solid for PPR purposes barring a dramatic shift in usage.

DFS spin: McKissic is only viable on DraftKings, which has full-PPR scoring. At $5,100 -- just $800 less than Gibson -- he’s a tough sell even for GPP purposes unless you’re building a Chargers-Washington game stack. McKissic in that scenario would make for a decent run-back option alongside a two or three-player LA stack.

Tyler Higbee (LAR) vs. CHI

If you drafted Higbee in the ninth or tenth round, you’re probably starting him in Week 1 against Chicago. I’m only writing this to emphasize that you should absolutely, without a millisecond’s hesitation, lock Higbee into your opening day lineups.

Opposing teams peppered tight ends with targets against the Bears in 2020, and it showed: Chicago gave up the sixth most tight end receptions (89) and the third most tight end touchdowns (12). Tight ends facing the Bears last year saw a 24.95 percent target share, by far the highest rate in the league. Tight ends saw an incredible 8.14 targets per game against Chicago’s otherwise OK defense, which was rarely attacked via wide receiver.

Gerald Everett is gone from the Rams’ tight end stable, as you may have heard by now, leaving Higbee as the unquestioned pass-catching tight end who gets a nice little QB upgrade with Matthew Stafford replacing Jared Goff. As if you needed another reason to get bullish on Higs (we’re calling him Higs this season) remember the Rams have the seventh highest implied total of the week (26 points).

Higbee’s splits with and without Everett in LA’s lineup are the stuff of legend: In five games with Everett sidelined over the past two years, Higbee has put up 23 fantasy points (on ten targets) per game. Higbee’s pass routes spiked in those games too. You should ratchet down expectations of elite fantasy production for Higbee in an offense where he’ll be the No. 3 target, but his Week 1 spot couldn’t be juicier. Juicy? Yes, juicy.

DFS spin: The Rams and Bears aren’t on the Week 1 main slate. Higbee could be a sneaky captain option in single-game DFS contests on Sunday night.