Thanksgiving Walkthrough: Pollard Appreciation



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Welcome to the Thanksgiving Walkthrough, outlining critical fantasy football context for this glorious Thanksgiving slate of football.

At the end of this article, I've included an extensive list of the stats used, what they are, why they're useful, and where they came from. As a heads up, I use some terms interchangeably below:

  • Routes per dropback = route rate = route % = route participation

  • Targets per route run = target rate

 

 

Byes: None

Already Played: None

Bills at Lions, 12:30 Eastern, Thursday

Bills Implied Team Total: 32

The Bills implemented a pass-heavy game plan in each of their first nine outings this season. Before Week 11, their most balanced game plan was a 5% pass rate over expected in their win over the Chiefs. But against a run funnel Browns defense, the Bills switched things up significantly. Buffalo posted a -5% pass rate over expected and a -5% PROE on 1st-and-10.

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As I noted last week, the Browns are not an imposing pass defense, so I was surprised that the Bills went genuinely run heavy against them while playing in a dome. It's something to keep in mind for this matchup since the Lions are also extremely vulnerable on the ground.

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12_bills_mu.png

But as you can see, the Bills are much more effective when they drop back to pass than when they run the ball, ranking third in EPA per dropback and just 28th in EPA per rush. With the Lions being a genuinely terrible pass defense, it would be somewhat shocking for the Bills to truly lean on the run again this week. But given their solid success rate on the ground, it shouldn't be surprising if the Bills play things balanced against a defense that can't stop anything.

Although the Bills passing game wasn't as voluminous as expected against the Browns, Josh Allen played better than in his two previous outings. From Weeks 9-10, Allen ranked just 22nd in EPA per play and 17th in completion percentage over expected; he was struggling with both efficiency and accuracy. However, against the Browns, he recovered to a solid ninth in EPA per play and 10th in CPOE.

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But the Bills didn't just shift their playcalling mix in Week 11; they adjusted their personnel. Entering the week, the Bills has passed out of 11 personnel (3WRs) on 81% of their dropbacks. They dropped to just a 66% rate against the Browns. This had a profound effect on Isaiah McKenzie's playing time. After running a route on 80% of dropbacks against the Vikings, McKenzie dropped to just 50% against the Browns. McKenzie will be the most impacted if the Bills continue to use fewer three wide receiver sets against the Lions—making him a risky Thanksgiving slate play.

Gabe Davis and Stefon Diggs were in their usual roles, with route participation of 93% and 87%, respectively. And Dawson Knox continues to look locked into a more prominent role; he ran a route on 83% of dropbacks in Week 11. Knox's per-route opportunity has been very poor, but that's nothing new. Even last season, he was simply a bet on elite route participation in a Josh Allen offense. Knox is a TD-dependent play, but he's running enough routes to make him a solid bet.

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12_bills_yprr.png

But, by a wide margin, Stefon Diggs remains the strongest option in this passing game. He's seeing elite target volume and delivering efficiently with a 10.2 YPT. He could absolutely torch this vulnerable defense.

In the backfield, Devin Singletary dominated playing time, as usual, with a 72% snap share. But James Cook mixed in for 11 carries, despite playing only 25% of snaps. Cook's role is somewhat reminiscent of what we were seeing from Khalil Herbert in Chicago. Like Herbert, when Cook gets on the field, it's usually because he's getting the ball.

Cook was billed as a satellite back entering the NFL draft, but he's operated as an explosive rusher within the Bills' offense. He's only run a route on 12% of dropbacks, with Singletary at 61%, so the Bills aren't really looking to work him in as a receiver right now. However, Cook is still making an impact... it's just occurring on running plays. Singletary has a 71% snap share this season, which ranks RB7, but he's just RB23 in his share of team rushing attempts.

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And, even though Singletary's route participation has been elite... he's not doing much with it. His 0.83 YPRR is very poor. Singletary is playing on passing downs because the Bills trust him, but it's not hard to understand why they've been so eager to add a receiving playmaker out of the backfield. Cook isn't that yet, but he's still adding an explosive element. Against the Browns, Cook led the week in NFL Next Gen's rush yards over expected per attempt. He's profiling a bit like the Bills version of Isiah Pacheco, and we could see his role could grow in the coming weeks. It's not out of the question that he sees a meaningful rushing workload here in a great matchup.

As for Singletary, he profiles as a TD-dependent option. He's a strong bet to log a lead-back snap share, but as an afterthought in the receiving game, a lot of his playing time comes from empty-calorie snaps.

Lions Implied Team Total: 22.5

Entering Week 11, the Bills run defense was starting to look like a genuine weakness. But they are coming off a statement game against the Browns, where they held Nick Chubb to 19 yards on 14 carries. No defense was more successful against the run than the Bills last week.

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After their elite showing against the Browns, the Bills are up to fifth in EPA allowed per rush. The Bills' run defense makes things trickier for the Lions, who have leaned on the run whenever possible this season, including in their Week 11 victory over the Giants.

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12_lions_proe_trend.png

If the Lions can run efficiently, they're sure to pound the rock for as long as this game environment allows. But the Bills' offense could quickly push the Lions off of that script. And even if the Bills aren't firing on all cylinders, the Lions probably won't be able to run the ball efficiently, making it hard for them to stay competitive with their preferred method of attack. As a result, we'll likely see plenty of Jared Goff dropbacks this week.

Goff hasn't been bad this season, ranking 19th in EPA per play. However, his accuracy has been concerningly poor; he ranks just 28th in CPOE.

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12_lions_epa.png

Goff faces a Bills defense that looks less imposing than it did to begin the season but is still reasonably solid. His accuracy could get him into trouble here, particularly given that he's likely to see a spike in attempts. But even if Goff makes some errors, there should be some value in this passing game, with volume likely to be higher than usual.

Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to dominate targets. He posted a 32% target share and a 32% air yard share against the Giants, and he has a 2.49 YPRR that is both elite and sustained by elite per-route volume.

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12_lions_yprr.png

D.J. Chark was quiet in his Week 11 return... because he wasn't on the field much; he logged just 19% route participation. On a short week, he's likely to remain a part-time player. As a result, Khalif Raymond is most likely to operate as the Lions' No. 2 receiver. Although Raymond's per-route volume hasn't been impressive, he should be out there running routes.

In the backfield, Jamaal Williams is coming off a 3TD performance, and he now leads the NFL with 12 rushing TDs. But Williams continues to be an uncomfortable bet going forward. Even against the Giants, he had just a 48% snap share, and he's been at 50%+ just once all season.

The issue for Williams isn't just that D'Andre Swift continues to be in the mix; it's that Justin Jackson is also seeing meaningful playing time. Moreover, Jackson's playing time is actually increasing, with his snap share rising in three straight weeks. He logged a season-high 37% snap share against the Giants.

And Williams hasn't been particularly impressive this season... outside of his share of team attempts.

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Williams ranks RB15 in expected points per game, but that workload is driven nearly entirely by TD opportunity. Per 4for4, he has seen 82% of snaps inside the 10-yard line, which trails only Josh Jacobs (100%) and Dameon Pierce (83%). Williams will need to get in the end zone to pay off, but it's hard to bet against him doing that at this point.

 

Giants at Cowboys, 4:30 Eastern, Thursday

Giants Implied Team Total: 18

When the season began, the Giants seemed to be experimenting with a couple of different approaches. First, they went very run-heavy in their Week 1 win over the Titans, but then they switched to a pass-first approach against the Panthers and Cowboys.

But if the Giants were testing out different methods of attack, they eventually decided to go with a ground-based attack. They've been run-heavy in every game since Week 3.

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And the Giants now get a second crack at a Cowboys defense that has turned into a major run funnel. Opponents are averaging a -8% PROE against the Cowboys and are shifting 6% to the run; only the Texans are a bigger run funnel this season.

The Cowboys have proven fairly vulnerable on the ground, but their pass defense is the driving factor in keeping their opposition from passing against them. Kirk Cousins just finished dead last in EPA per play against the Cowboys... in a week when the Jets totaled just two yards on offense in an entire half. Brian Daboll will be trying to limit Daniel Jones' dropbacks as much as possible against this defense.

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In fairness to Jones, he's actually played pretty well this year, ranking ninth in EPA per play and 15th in CPOE. But Daboll treats Jones a little like Arthur Smith treats Marcus Mariota. Jones has been efficient as a counter punch, but it doesn't mean Daboll is willing to run his offense through him.

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It will also be more difficult for the Giants to beat the Cowboys through the air without Wan'Dale Robinson, who was in the midst of a breakout game against the Lions before tearing his ACL. I've pointed out Robinson's shallow average depth of target several times this season, but if there was ever a time to have a receiver who can get open quickly underneath, it would be this matchup.

Robinson will be replaced by Richie James in the slot. James has an unimpressive 18% target rate this season, but there should be some slot targets for him as the Giants attempt to get the ball out of Jones' hands quickly.

Darius Slayton is likely to operate as the Giants' clear-cut No. 1 receiver in this game, but that might not count for much. He led the Giants with an 88% route rate against the Lions and has an elite 2.21 YPRR this season. But Slayton is running hot with an 11.2 YPT; his per-route opportunity has been good but not great. And with a 12.8 aDOT, his role isn't the best fit for this matchup. Still, there's not much else here, and Slayton gives the Giants the best chance of hitting a big play downfield.

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Although, I will note that Lawrence Cager ran a route on 71% of dropbacks last week. That alone makes him a viable DFS play. His 13% target rate makes him a thin play... but hey, we gotta save salary somehow.

Fortunately, when the Giants run the ball, they will have the potential for explosive plays. Barkley ranks RB1 in breakaway yards per game while also leading all running backs in snap share and ranking second in route rate. Barkley has been a big play waiting to happen this season... and he's gotten plenty of opportunities. Despite coming off a disappointing game, Barkley is a very strong play this week.

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Cowboys Implied Team Total: 27.5

As I noted last week, Dak Prescott had struggled this season when facing non-cupcake defenses. That changed in a big way against the Vikings. Prescott went off against a below-average but non-atrocious pass defense, finishing first in EPA per play and second in CPOE on the week. Prescott is now up to seventh in EPA per play on the season.

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Interestingly, though, the Cowboys remained a run-heavy team against the Vikings, posting a -5% PROE and a -4% PROE on 1st-and-10. The Cowboys have yet to post a positive PROE in a single game this season. Additionally, since Dak Prescott's Week 7 return, they have a clear tilt to the run, with a -2% PROE.

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However, the Cowboys are at least prioritizing the pass on first down, with a 2% PROE on 1st-and-10. That approach should help them sustain Prescott's recent success. But even with Prescott flashing elite upside again, they're unlikely to fully lean into the passing game. Instead, we should see a balanced game plan against a Giants defense that is vulnerable to both the run and the pass.

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The Cowboys' insistence on incorporating a heavy dose of the run game makes a lot more sense now that Tony Pollard is leading the way in the backfield. Pollard has been a true superstar this season, ranking RB1 in RYOE / attempt and RB5 in YPRR. Whether as a rusher or a receiver, Pollard has been a big play machine. Unsurprisingly, he leads all running backs in fantasy points over expected.

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With Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup, Tony Pollard's snap share declined to 54%, but he was still well ahead of Zeke, who saw just 29% of snaps. Elliott's role could grow this week, but... but Pollard's could as well. The Cowboys pulled their starters on their final drive against the Vikings and used Malik Davis throughout the fourth quarter to salt away the game. Both backs should see more playing time this week if the Giants keep things competitive.

And it's hard to imagine the Cowboys going back to Zeke as the lead back, as Pollard continues to be a genuine difference-maker out of the backfield. Even with Elliott mixing in, Pollard profiles as a low-end RB1.

In the receiving game, CeeDee Lamb remains the clear No. 1 receiver. He's seen a first-read target on 23% of his routes, which is an elite rate. And with a 31% target share and a 39% air yard share, his 0.74 weighted opportunity rating (WOPR) trails only DeAndre Hopkins (0.80), Tyreek Hills (0.76), and Davante Adams (0.76). Although the Cowboys have solid receiving depth, Lamb remains a cut above.

Outside of Lamb, the Cowboys' passing game looks fairly spread out, but with meaningful target volume available, making Michael Gallup, Noah Brown, and Dalton Schultz interesting DFS options on the Thanksgiving slate. All three receivers have middling per-route volume this season, but all will be on the field a lot. Both wide receivers are seeing valuable downfield opportunities, with aDOTs of 11.5 and 11.9. They could make their days with a big catch or two. Of the two, Gallup looks more intriguing. He had a first-read target on 18% of his routes against the Vikings, which tied Dalton Schultz for the team lead. Now nearly 11 months removed from his ACL tear, it's possible the Cowboys are ramping up Gallup's role in the offense. Schultz is an underneath receiver with a 6.6 aDOT, but he has a solid 72% route rate this season and could rack up targets if things break his way this week.

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Patriots at Vikings, 8:20 Eastern, Thursday

Patriots Implied Team Total: 19.75

Mac Jones is having a rough season, ranking just 30th in EPA per play. And he was worse than usual against the Jets. But even last week, Jones' accuracy was impressive, which has been a silver lining for him this season; he ranks eighth in CPOE.

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Jones' accuracy indicates that he could see some positive regression in his efficiency, particularly in favorable passing matchups. And he gets an unimposing Vikings squad this week.

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The Patriots have been a solidly run-first team this season, so we're unlikely to see a ton of passing volume, but Jones could be surprisingly efficient against a below-average pass defense.

If Jones can take advantage of this matchup, Jakobi Meyers will likely be the biggest beneficiary. Meyers isn't a dominant No. 1 receiver, but with a 25% target share and a 33% air yard share, Meyers is definitely the top option in the Patriots' passing game. He profiles as a solid FLEX play.

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However, the other Patriots receivers look very difficult to trust. DeVante Parker returned the lineup against the Jets but ran a route on only 33% of dropbacks. His return ate into Tyquan Thornton's role, who saw just 30% route participation. Kendrick Bourne actually led the trio with 36% route participation, and Nelson Agholor led non-Meyers wide receivers with a 64% route rate against the Jets. But Agholor's lead in routes may not be bankable, and his route participation was still far below ideal.

All four wide receivers have weak per-route opportunity. With both routes and target volume in question, they look very risky, even as DFS dart throws. Of the group, Parker's 69% route rate this season probably gives him the best mix of route rate and target rate upside.

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Outside of Meyers, the most reliable option in this passing game is Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson has an 18% target share this season and a 25% target rate that is tied with Jonnu Smith for the team lead. But unlike Smith, Stevenson has a full-time role.

Against the Jets, Stevenson ran a route on 79% of dropbacks, which is an elite mark for a running back. Stevenson lost out on a meaningful share of rushing work to Damien Harris, but his receiving profile continues to solidify. With the Patriots' release of J.J. Taylor, they can be counted to lean on Stevenson as their receiving back this week. The fact that he's also seeing a majority of rushing work makes him a high-end RB2.

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Having covered the Jets game on Sunday, I can tell you that there was very little excitement in the game... but Harris looked legitimately explosive. Per NFL Next Gen's RYOE / attempt and success rate metrics, Harris has been a more efficient rusher than Stevenson this year, and he was far more efficient last week. As a two-down rusher, Harris is completely TD-dependent. But he's not a crazy short-slate option, as a bet that his rushing role increases after a strong game.

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Vikings Implied Team Total: 22.75

Kirk Cousins got absolutely demolished By the Cowboys' defense, finishing dead last-in EPA per play. Zach Wilson might get benched this week because of his Week 11 performance... and Cousins was even less efficient.

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Cousins also played inefficiently against the Bills in Week 10, finishing 21st in EPA per play and 21st in CPOE. And unfortunately, his slump could continue this week against a Patriots pass defense that ranks first in EPA allowed per dropback and first in dropback success rate.

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Cousins may also need to rebound without relying on Justin Jefferson, who is about as obvious of a Bill Belichick game plan target as there is in the NFL.

Even if Belichick focuses on shutting down Jefferson, he could still have a big day. Jefferson has been impressive against double teams this season, with an elite 2.31 YPRR. And he's been outstanding in general, so I do not doubt his ability to overcome this matchup.

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But Jefferson's success against double coverage has been driven by his ability to make big plays despite extra defensive attention. It is still affecting his targets. When facing double coverage, his target rate is 19%, well below his 24% average this season.

And the Cowboys were able to take away Jefferson last week. They aggressively focused on shutting him down, double-teaming him on a ridiculous 47% of his routes. Jefferson was targeted at only a 14% rate against double coverage, with a very poor 1.00 YPRR. Cousins will likely need to connect with other pass catchers to support a strong outing.

T.J. Hockenson looks to have emerged as the Vikings' clear-cut No. 2. Since joining the team, he has target rates of 25%, 20%, and 29%, with Adam Thielen at 18%, 13%, and 10%.

Hockenson also has a first-read target on 20% of his routes, which is a strong mark for a tight end. Thielen is at just 10% over the last three weeks. With Jefferson likely to draw extra attention—as indicated by his league-leading double coverage rate—Hockenson looks like a profitable way to bet on Cousins avoiding another meltdown.

While Cousins has been struggling recently, Dalvin Cook looks more explosive. He had an impressive outing against the Bills and was efficient on low volume against the Cowboys. He'll need better play from Cousins to ensure that the Vikings can move the chains, but he looks capable of succeeding against a middling Patriots run defense.

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Cook continues to profile as more of a high-end RB2 than the elite back he was drafted to be. But we could see the Vikings lean on the run game here, especially if the Patriots play conservatively on the other side of this game.

 

Sources

To write this article I relied on the following stats, metrics and grades.

  • Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/Play).

    • Efficiency metric based on how much a play improved a team's likelihood of scoring.

    • I use this metric primarily for QB efficiency, but also for defensive efficiency.

  • Completion Percentage Over Expected

  • Pass Rate over Expected

    • Measures passing decisions against what would be expected given the game situation.

  • Situation Neutral Pass Rate

    • Measures pass rate on downs and in situations when a team truly has the choice to pass or run.

  • Situation Neutral Seconds per Play

    • Seconds between plays in neutral game script.

    • Faster play generally means more plays, which provides more opportunity for fantasy scoring.

  • Adjusted Line Yards

  • Snaps and Snap Share

    • Probably the single most important stat for running back opportunity.

      • Teams check in and out of runs with only one back on the field. Being on the field is critical.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus, AddMoreFunds and RotoViz

    • Third down and Red Zone Snaps from Sam Hoppen's Player Stat Explorer at 4for4.com

  • Target Share and Air Yard share

    • The combination of these is called WOPR. Created by Josh Hermsmeyer, this metric scales from 0-1.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus and RotoViz

  • Routes run per dropback

    • Snap share for receivers... since I'm not concerned with who is playing run-blocking snaps.

      • Data from Pro Football Focus

  • Yards Per Route Run

    • A YPRR of 1.8+ is good and anything 2+ is very good.

    • This metric is particularly useful for young wide receivers whose role could grow as a result of strong play.

    • It can also help identify truly elite wide receivers.

    • It filters out in-game injuries and blowouts much better than target share does.

      • Data from PFF

  • Expected YPRR

    • Derived from Ben Gretch's Weighted Targets per Route Run calculation

      • Scaled to 0 - 3.5, in line with YPRR instead of 0 - 1 scale.

  • Target per Route Run

    • TPRR and Yards per Target combine to make up YPRR.

    • TPRR is especially useful for tight ends.

      • Some offenses and quarterbacks prioritize throwing to the tight end much more than others.

      • Some tight ends are far better at getting open than others.

    • TPRR is much more stable than YPT, so in small samples especially, I'd rather know who is drawing targets than what happened afterward.

  • Expected Fantasy Points.

    • Both RotoViz and PFF have similar Expected Points metrics that adjust opportunity based on the context of each play.

      • I am referencing PFF's metric unless otherwise stated.

  • A number of other PFF stats including Time to Throw, Play Action Rate, Pressure Rate, Screen Passes and Defensive Grades.