Tyler Higbee Could Be A League Winner

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  • Baltimore Ravens
    Baltimore Ravens
  • Los Angeles Rams
    Los Angeles Rams

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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

Ravens pass catchers vs. Rams
Teams don’t run against the Rams for a decidedly good reason: LA crushes any and all opposing run games. Since Week 8, the Rams have allowed the second-lowest expected points added (EPA) per rush and the third lowest rushing success rate. They’ve been a good run defense for the entire season; they’ve been elite since midseason.

The Ravens, with Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray manning the backfield, have no shot against these Rams. As 6.5-point home underdogs, Baltimore -- whether Lamar Jackson or Tyler Huntley is under center -- is going to have to establish the pass in Week 17.

That’s precisely what recent Rams opponents have done. Nearly 76 percent of the yards gained against LA over the past four weeks have come via the pass -- the league’s third highest rate over that stretch. The Rams since Week 1 are the NFL’s sixth-most extreme pass funnel defense.

These aren’t your great grandmother’s Ravens. They’re not even your grandma’s Ravens. When facing a deficit this season, Baltimore is passing the ball at a 61 percent rate, five percent higher than their overall pass rate (for context: the Ravens in 2020 had a 50 percent pass rate while trailing). This relatively pass-heavy approach has produced monster stat lines for Mark Andrews -- especially over his past three games -- and has generated outstanding target volume for Marquise Brown, who’s done nothing with said volume. The target-hogging Brown is fourth among all wideouts in expected fantasy points since Week 12, and no one has a lower fantasy points over expectation in those five weeks. A date with the pass-funnel Rams should keep the targets coming Brown’s way. The hope is that he turns that opportunity into, you know, fantasy points.

Andrews could very well do that thing where he singlehandedly wins your matchup. Tight ends are seeing a 20.9 percent target share against LA, or 7.4 targets per game. Another game of point chasing for the Ravens should set him up for double-digit targets.

Rashod Bateman, who caught four of five targets for 26 yards and a touchdown last week, could be a borderline option boosted by a matchup with an extreme pass funnel defense. Bateman, after all, had his best game of the year in Week 14 during a mad scramble for second-half points against the Browns.

Texans pass catchers vs. 49ers
After two-thirds of the season as neither a pass nor run funnel defense, the 49ers have become an undeniable pass funnel. Only the Rams, Ravens, and Titans have been a more extreme pass funnel over the past month, thanks mostly to the 49ers building big leads and forcing teams to the air.

San Francisco is a 12.5-point favorite this week against the Texans. Houston's offense has been lively of late, headed by the best quarterback of the 2021 draft class, Davis Mills. Target dominator Brandin Cooks and secondary pass catchers like Nico Collins could be beneficiaries of a pass-centric game script if the Niners indeed get out to a lead in this one. Houston's pass rate goes from 58 percent overall to 66 percent while trailing this season. The risk here comes in the form of an evenly-matched affair in which Houston -- with the league's fifth lowest pass rate over expectation -- can operate their preferred run-based offense.

The 49ers are middling against the pass, ranking 11th in EPA allowed per drop back. With the right script, Houston pass catchers should be in what my interns call a "smash spot."

Titans pass catchers vs. Dolphins
I felt compelled by the power of the pass funnel to mention that Miami has quietly been terrible against the pass -- a trend that could benefit A.J. Brown and Tennesee’s pass catchers in Week 17.

The Dolphins are allowing the second highest schedule-adjusted EPA per drop back this season, according to NBC Sports Edge’s Pat Kerrane, whose Friday Walkthrough column should be constitutionally required as weekly reading for fantasy managers. Dolphins opponents have the league’s fourth highest pass rate over expectation, meaning teams are shifting toward the pass against the Fins almost every week.

Miami’s unadjusted EPA against the pass is quite good, which makes sense when one considers they’ve played the Jets, Panthers, Giants, Jets, and Saints over the past five weeks. Outside of their Thursday night blowout of the Ravens last month, the Dolphins have been ripped by every halfway-decent quarterback they’ve faced. Miami is the ninth most extreme pass funnel defense in 2021 despite facing a bunch of wretched offenses that couldn’t be pass heavy even if they wanted to.

The Ryan Tannehill revenge narrative is alive and kicking this week.

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Week 17 Targets: Decoded

Tyler Higbee (LAR) at BAL
Before your eyes glaze over at the sight of Higbee’s name and you leave this page for the sweet soma of Twitter, please, for the love of all that’s holy, hear me out.

Higbee’s Week 17 spot literally could not be better. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense. It’s impossible for his championship week matchup to be better than this one. Tight ends are seeing a 25.5 percent target share against Baltimore, second only to the Colts. Enemy tight ends have commanded 133 targets against the Ravens through Week 16, or 8.87 targets per game. Adjust for strength of schedule and only five teams are more generous to tight ends, per FanDuel’s JJ Zachariason.

Some are calling Higbee the King of Empty Routes. This is mean and unnecessary, even if it’s true. Higbee, who missed one game this season, is seventh among all tight ends in pass routes. Only five tight ends have run a pass route on a higher percentage of their QB’s drop backs. Since Week 9, no tight end has a higher route rate than Higbee. Yet Higbee is TE19 on the year. Curious!

He’s clearly not a high priority in LA’s offense, but that could change against Baltimore. We’ve seen it happen: Noah Fant, who has a strong route rate while being unusable for fantasy purposes, caught six of ten targets in Week 4 against the Ravens. Austin Hooper came alive for five catches on seven targets -- including a touchdown -- against Baltimore in Week 14. Tyler Conklin, with a low 20 percent target per route run rate, caught five of seven targets against the Ravens in Week 9. Tight ends without much involvement become suddenly involved against Baltimore.

Maybe you already know the Ravens are among the league’s most extreme pass funnel defenses. Ravens opponents have posted the third lowest pass rate over expectation this year -- a sensible strategy against a defense allowing the seventh lowest rush EPA since Week 10. Only the Niners and Saints have given up a lower rushing success rate than Baltimore. A bunch of Matthew Stafford attempts against the injury-ravaged Baltimore secondary -- massacred last week by Joe Burrow -- should be good for Higbee in Week 17.

Cole Kmet (CHI) vs. NYG
Available in nearly 70 percent of leagues headed into championship week, Kmet makes for a solid if uninspiring process-oriented option. I’m once again begging you not to let your eyes glaze over.

Chicago’s tight end usage has been weirdly good through Week 16. Bears QBs are targeting tight ends at a 25.4 percent rate, the seventh highest in the league. Kmet, while being vulture at the goal line by Grandpa Jimmy Graham, has seen a not-hateful 18 percent target share over the past six weeks. A grand total of six tight ends have a higher target per route run rate than Kmet over those six weeks. He’s running an OK number of routes too; Kmet is 14th in tight end routes rate since Week 9. Try not to fall off your couch while reading these usage stats.

Kmet (and Graham, I suppose) take on a Giants defense this week allowing the ninth most tight end receptions (83) and a 23 percent target share to tight ends. Only the Ravens have given up more raw tight end targets than the G-people. My hesitation with Kmet -- or any Bears pass catcher -- is that Matt Nagy has trended extremely run-heavy when things are going well for his team. Chicago passes on 45 percent of its plays when leading this season. As six-point favorites against Joe Judge’s wretched squad, the Bears could sit on the football with a big lead in the second half. It sure feels like a David Montgomery game.

What I’m saying is you could do way worse than rolling out Kmet against New York.