Target Decoder Week 4: Lock In Knox

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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.

Reasons Not To Panic

Before we get into target decoding for borderline (or desperation) Week 4 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.

Tyreek Hill

Maybe you, like me, were overjoyed in Week 1 with your decision to draft Tyreek Hill over Davante Adams. Hill had just eviscerated the Browns for 11 catches, 197 yards, and a touchdown for a cool 39 PPR points.

The past couple weeks have been less fun for Hill drafters: He had eight grabs for 70 scoreless yards in Weeks 2 and 3. Adams, meanwhile, has reverted to his laughably dominant 2020 ways. Like I said, less fun.

Hill’s usage is perfectly fine though. His WOPR sits at 0.64 after Week 3, higher than last year’s 0.59 WOPR. Hill has accounted for 35 percent of KC’s air yards this season, his exact air yards share from 2020. His air yards per target (12.4) has dipped a bit from this 2020 number (13.2), hardly alarming for anyone seeking reasons to be alarmed. Then there’s this: Opposing secondaries are giving Hill an average of 5.6 yards of coverage cushion, the same as they did in 2020.

Hill’s slow Week 3 performance isn’t nearly as stunning when one considers the extent to which the Chargers’ defense has become a run funnel. Fifty-four percent of the yardage gained against the Bolts this year have come through the air, the league’s lowest rate. Unfortunately for Hill drafters, the Chiefs’ Week 4 opponent -- Philadelphia -- is also a run funnel defense. The Eagles are allowing a league-low 43.2 percent target share to enemy receivers. But the speed demon’s encouraging usage and big-play potential should keep you from fretting too much headed into Sunday.

DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins isn’t right. Probably it’s the rib injury he played through in Week 3 against the Jaguars, gutting his way to three receptions for 21 yards on six targets. He may have been the dreaded decoy for the Cardinals as they sleep walked past the Jags.

Maybe all Hopkins needs is time to recover from the painful midsection injury. That’s the hope, anyway. His WOPR through three weeks (0.40) is miles south of where it was in 2020 (0.66). In fact -- and this might make you nauseous if you drafted Hopkins in the first or second round -- A.J. Green leads Arizona with a 0.46 WOPR. Disgusting, I know.

We’re not exactly working without clues when figuring out the difference between 2020 Nuke and 2021 Nuke. He’s commanded 17 percent of Kyler Murray’s targets, down from his dominant 32 percent target share a year ago. Everything else -- including Hopkins’ air yards per target and yards per catch -- is in line with his 2020 numbers. Hopefully he won’t play the part of decoy in Week 4 against the Rams.

Calvin Ridley

Where are the 15 weekly targets we were promised, you yell at your laptop every Monday morning after gleefully drafting Ridley in the second round a month ago. You’re furious. Ridley in the second was supposed to be fun, with a weekly glut of targets on a bad team constantly forced into pass-heavy game script.

Ridley, after three weeks, is outside fantasy’s top-24 wideouts.

Here are some numbers that might help you stave off that creeping panic attack: Ridley’s WOPR of 0.73 is the seventh highest among all pass catchers this season -- it's higher than his 0.67 WOPR in 2020, the fourth highest in the NFL. Ridley’s 2021 target share (26 percent) is the same as it was last year, and his share of Atlanta’s air yards (50 percent) is higher than his 41 percent share in 2020.

Why, you ask, has Ridley’s production dropped so precipitously? Well, the kind of targets he’s seeing in Arthur Smith’s offense are drastically different from what we saw in 2020. Ridley has averaged a meager 8.8 air yards per target through Week 3 -- way (way) down from the 14.3 air yards per target he notched last season. The Falcons are simply not using Ridley -- who led the NFL in downfield targets and receptions last year -- as a deep threat. Matt Ryan has targeted Ridley on passes of at least 20 yards thrice this year; he’s caught none of them. Against the Giants in Week 3, Ridley posted a yards per target of 5.5, the seventh lowest mark in his 47 regular season games as a pro.

Barring a change in the way Smith and the Falcons use Ridley, he’s not going to be anything close to the league winner you thought you were getting in August. He won’t lose your league either. Sheer force of volume and a little touchdown luck should lock him in as a top-15 receiver. You could have done worse in the second, I suppose.

A bit of good news for beleaguered Ridley drafters: Only one team (Tennessee) has allowed a higher target share to wideouts (72.7 percent) than Washington, Atlanta’s Week 4 opponent.

Week 4 Decoded Targets

Dawson Knox (BUF) vs. HOU

Knox, at long last, is a thing in the Buffalo offense. Beat writers this offseason spilled oceans of digital ink writing about how and why Knox can succeed in the team’s offense, and Bills coaches were crystal clear that they wanted Knox to become an every-week part of their elite passing attack. Well, it’s happening: Knox is fantasy’s No. 8 tight end, catching ten of his 12 targets for 107 yards and two touchdowns through Week 3. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t drafted in 12-team formats.

Knox’s snaps share has exploded this season. He’s played almost 73 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps after seeing a 44 percent snaps share in 2020. Knox is ninth in pass routes among tight ends in 2021, having run a route on a healthy 65.2 percent of Josh Allen’s drop backs. He’s gone from a part-time player to something close to a full timer in a rip roaring Bills offense.

His Week 4 matchup against Houston can be conservatively described as good. Tight ends are seeing 25.2 percent of the targets against the Texans, the league’s fourth highest rate. Only Baltimore has given up more tight end receptions than the Texans this season. And it’s not as if Houston has faced off against the NFL’s dominant tight ends. Quite the opposite: They’ve played the Jaguars, Browns, and Panthers. Cleveland tight ends totaled a dozen targets -- catching all of them -- against the Texans a couple weeks ago. Houston, as I mentioned last week, has some of the NFL’s worst coverage safeties. That hasn’t changed over the past seven days.

Fantasy managers can start Knox with at least some comfort this week. We want borderline tight ends in offenses with high totals, and no team has a higher Week 4 implied total than Buffalo (31.25).

James Robinson (JAC) at CIN

It seems Urban Meyer has given up the dream of Carlos Hyde as a franchise player in the year 2021. Meyer and the Jaguars’ coaching staff have given in -- James Robinson is their best backfield option and it’s not close. It took a mere six months for these professionals to figure it out. You gotta respect it.

Last week against Arizona, Robinson ran a route on 44.3 percent of Trevor Lawrence’s drop backs and caught all six of his targets for 46 yards. Robinson’s target-per-route rate of 21.42 percent isn’t exactly a disaster, and looks better when you consider the kind of passing volume this Jags offense will likely see throughout 2021. That pass game involvement is why Robinson -- with just 160 rushing yards through three games -- is somehow the 15th highest scoring running back in PPR leagues.

His Week 4 pass catching prospects are as good as we could hope for. Running backs are averaging a league-high 30.3 percent target share against the Bengals, as receivers and tight ends have seen exceedingly low target shares against the striped helmets. That’s fueled by Najee Harris’ mind-bending 19 Week 3 targets against the Bengals. But a glance at Weeks 1 and 2 -- when Vikings backs saw 12 targets against Cincy and Bears backs had eight targets -- shows a clear trend in how targets are being distributed against the Bengals.

Jacksonville is a heavy underdog Thursday night, as per usual. I see lots of frantic, pass-heavy game script in their future, creating excellent conditions for Robinson to pile on the cheap PPR production against a defense seeing more dump offs than anyone else.