Welcome to “Frelund’s 15,” where each week analytics expert Cynthia Frelund provides you with her 15 must-read stats for the upcoming slate of NFL games. These might not be end-all, be-all stats for making a start or sit decision for your fantasy team, but they’re here to help you understand the matchups and make the most informed lineup decisions possible.
1) Last year, Tom Brady averaged 11.5 yards per attempt on passes traveling 10 or more air yards.
Brady completed 88 of 182 passes of 10-plus air yards in 2015, with 10 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 101.9 passer rating. Furthermore, the Browns are one of only four teams to have already allowed 10 or more passing touchdowns in 2016. Guess how many Brady threw for last year? He paced the NFL with 36. I am not going to go much further because my point should be really obvious by now … the downfield attack is back for the Pats!
Fantasy Impact: The Browns defense allows the 10th-most total yards per game (378), with 118 coming on the ground and 260 through the air. The main point here is that Julian Edelman and even Chris Hogan should see more opportunities this week. I am monitoring Danny Amendola’s snap count as it has dipped below 25 percent for the season. Right now he is in the unplayable territory for me. As for this game specifically, I like the revenge narrative, but I also think that there’s a good chance the Pats will be playing with a big lead. Playing with a big lead typically means more rushing attempts and fewer offensive snaps while grinding out the clock. Typically. Factor that (and the health of Gronk) in, especially if you are playing in formats like Perfect Challenge.
2) Carson Wentz completes an additional 14 percent of his passes (approx. 76 percent vs. 62 percent) when facing the blitz and all five of his touchdowns have come on plays where he was blitzed.
The Lions’ defense blitzes on 32.8 percent of their plays in 2016. Carson Wentz has been blitzed on 21.7 percent of his attempts and is averaging 10 yards per pass against the blitz. So while Wentz could see more pressure than he’s used to, there’s a good chance it won’t matter. Detroit’s defense owns the second-worst third-down percentage in the league, allowing opponents to convert 47.1 percent of the time. Even if Wentz needs a longer pass, there’s a good chance he makes it as he currently has a passer rating of 140.0 (second in NFL) on passes of 15-plus air yards.
Fantasy Impact: If you need a quarterback, put Wentz in. He’s my No. 9 quarterback for the week. You already know my feelings on tight ends against the Lions defense (ahem … play them, always play them) so that means Zach Ertz this week.
3) Jordan Howard is averaging 5.1 yards per carry (fifth among players with 35-plus carries).
This Chicago offense is off to a slow start, only scoring on 20 percent of their drives (32nd in NFL), averaging 15.5 points per game (tied-30th in the NFL) and failing to score more than 17 points in a single game. The bright spot so far has been Jordan Howard, who has 31 attempts and seven catches in the past two games (23 carries for 111 rushing yards last week against the Lions).
Fantasy Impact: The Colts defense is giving up 105.8 yards per game on the ground (14th-most) and also allow 227 yards per game through the air (ninth-most). Howard is currently my seventh-ranked running back for the week. Brian Hoyer is also one of my favorite sleeper picks this week.
4) T.Y. Hilton has 10-plus targets in every game this season.
Only two players have 10-plus targets in each game this season: Hilton and Jarvis Landry. So far Hilton has 336 receiving yards, which puts him on pace for a 1,344-yard season. The Bears’ defense is giving up an average of 210 passing yards per game, which is good for eighth fewest currently in the NFL (they are giving up the eighth most rushing yards per game, though).
Fantasy Impact: The Colts play-calling has been 60 percent pass and 40 percent rush so far this season. If you have Hilton, Andrew Luck, and Frank Gore on your team you are starting them. I think this will be more of a pass-heavy game script for the Colts, who could be in for another close one. As an aside, the Colts are coming back from playing in London last week, which seems brutal since typically teams get their bye following international travel. If you play in formats like Perfect Challenge, I would consider the Colts risky and adjust my expectations. Lastly, with Donte Moncrief sidelined, Phillip Dorsett is again a sleeper pick to consider despite only having one catch off three targets last week — that one catch was a 64-yard touchdown, though. He’s viable because his target share figures to increase in a game where more passes are likely to be called.
5) Miami’s defense is only allowing opposing teams to convert 31.67 percent of their third downs.
They’ve accomplished this despite giving up the fifth-most total yards on defense (401.8). I was honestly a little surprised that their third-down percentage was so low, but looking at the WR1 production over the past four games reveals a weakness in Miami’s defense:
Week 1: Doug Baldwin – nine catches, 92 yards, TD
Week 2: Julian Edelman – seven catches, 76 yards
Week 3: Terrelle Pryor – eight catches, 144 yards
Week 4: A.J. Green – 10 catches, 173 yards, TD
Fantasy Impact: I interpret this to mean that DeMarco Murray is in a great spot from a fantasy floor perspective and that Tajae Sharpe, who has no fewer than seven targets in each game this season, could be a risky but smart pick if you are looking for upside!
6) The Dolphins offense only converts 26.7 percent of their third-down attempts (32nd in the NFL).
In terms of total yards per game, the Dolphins average the seventh-fewest (329.8) with only 77.8 of those yards coming on rushing plays (29th in the league). Tennessee’s defense is allowing opposing offenses to convert 41.8 percent of their third downs so far this season. Earlier this week, Adam Gase talked about how his four-back committee wasn’t working how he wanted, and that he was going to change it going forward. I do not think this lousy third-down performance lasts, in fact, I think this week it was probably a focal point for the team and coaches.
Fantasy Impact: Sometimes Kenny Stills gets the touchdown nod, but Jarvis Landry and his 10-plus targets per game are a top-15 play this week. DeVante Parker is also a solid mid-range option. I am waiting to see which running back draws the start here (likely Jay Ajayi, but possibly Kenyan Drake) and attempting to shift him into my lineup at the last minute as the Titans’ defense gives up 110 rushing yards per game (tied-20th). Do I think this is the safest play ever? Nope. But in cases where I am looking for upside and smart risk, I like this one. I wouldn’t play both Landry and the starting running back in the same lineup, though, as I don’t think there will be enough points scored in this game to earn the fantasy return necessary to win. How does this relate to third downs? A better ground game sets up more manageable (and not obvious passing) third-down plays.
7) Steve Smith had seven receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns in Week 4 of 2014 against his former team, the Panthers, when Josh Norman was still there.
Norman is now in Washington, Smith’s next opponent. My favorite people in the building, the research/Next Gen Stats teams, gave me that stat and followed it up with even more goodness: Smith’s big plays didn’t come when Norman was defending him. His stat line in that game when facing Norman: three receptions on four targets for only 32 yards. So far this season, Smith has spent 60 percent of his snaps on the outside, with 36 percent of them on the right side of the field.
Fantasy Impact: Do I think Josh Norman will be covering Smith? Yeah, some at least. Do I think he’s going to have himself the day he had in 2014? It’s not impossible, but that’s not my prediction. His 37 targets are the most on his team, and I think he’s a top-20 wide receiver. The safer pick here from a floor perspective is Terrance West, as Washington gives up the third-most rushing yards per game (133).
8) The Ravens currently have the worst red-zone defense in the NFL with seven touchdowns allowed on eight drives (87.5%).
However, they also allow the fewest yards per game (256) in the league. Washington’s red-zone efficiency is currently 36.8 percent (30th), after finishing last year at 61.2 percent (eighth).
Fantasy Impact: To me, this game projects to have one of the lower final scoreboard totals of the week. The Ravens defense has allowed the third-fewest yards per game in the air and the fifth-fewest on the ground. In other words, manage your volume expectations for Kirk Cousins, who is outside of my top-15 QB projections, Matt Jones who is around my RB33 right now and all of the receivers. Jordan Reed is, as always, is in my top-three tight ends, though my final rankings depend on the health of Cam Newton and Rob Gronkowski.
9) The Jets defense allows 8.89 air yards per attempt (20th in the NFL).
The Jets last four opponents averaged 8.13 air yards per attempt (Bengals), 12.32 (Bills), 6.15 (Chiefs) and 9.09 (Seahawks). Imagine what that average could be if Kansas City had tried to air it out more? The Steelers receivers boast the following air yards per reception: Sammie Coates 17.5, Markus Wheaton 16, and Antonio Brown 9.9.
Fantasy Impact: I am not going to waste time telling you that A.B., Ben Roethlisberger, and Le’Veon Bell are top options because you should already know that. But if you are looking for potentially big-play making wide receivers consider Sammie Coates or Markus Wheaton. Also, if you are looking for a defense to replace one on the bye, you could roll the dice with Pittsburgh as the Jets’ offense has the most giveaways in the NFL right now (thanks in part to nine interceptions in the past two games for Ryan Fitzpatrick).
10) Odell Beckham Jr. has 22 receptions off 39 targets for 303 yards, but no touchdowns … yet.
No wide receiver has more targets without a touchdown than No. 13 for the Giants. His 9.75 target average per game this season is very close to last year’s 9.9. Looking back, his 25 scores on 291 targets (8.6 percent) in the 2014 and 2015 seasons is near the top of the league, suggesting maybe he is due for some positive regression in the form of finding the end zone this week.
Fantasy Impact: Add in that the Packers’ cornerback Sam Shields has already been ruled out and OBJ is my WR5 for the week.
11) Aaron Rodgers’ 58.5 completion percentage so far this year ranks 27th in the NFL.
That’s lower than his 2015 completion percentage of 60.7, which also happened to be his career-low. The Green Bay offense overall is tracking at 29th in both total yards and passing yards per game. One last one … Rodgers is currently completing only 33 percent of passes 10-plus air yards (lowest in the NFL).
Fantasy Impact: How did Rodgers end up as my No. 2 quarterback for the week? First, for me, this game script calls for both teams to put up a lot of points. Second, when you rewatch the games — especially the Minnesota game — you are really witnessing the power of the opposing defense limiting Rodgers. I think he gets back on track with the stats we are used to seeing from him. The Giants are much improved on defense, but it’s unlikely they produce results like the Vikings did. Also, Jordy Nelson’s four receiving touchdowns are tied for first in the NFL and they have only played three games (while others have played four), making him a top-five option at the wide receiver position.
12) Matt Ryan currently completes 72.1 percent of his pass attempts (best in the NFL)
If you somehow missed it, last week Matt Ryan had a historic outing with 503 passing yards against the Panthers … and four touchdowns. If you look at season-long completion percentage averages, you’ll see that the annual leader typically comes in just under 70 percent. His 368 passing yards per game is 51 yards higher than the next closest quarterback and about 55 more than the pace league-leaders typically achieve. Denver’s defense hasn’t allowed more than 20 points to an opponent in nine straight games, leads the league in sacks (17), and quarterback hits (41). The Broncos have also held opposing teams to fewer than 200 passing yards per game this season.
Fantasy Impact: I was wrong about this last week, but I am sticking to the process and saying that Matt Ryan doesn’t make it into my top-10 quarterbacks this week. For me, Carson Wentz and Derek Carr are both signal-callers with greater fantasy potential this week.
13) Derek Carr completes 68 percent of his passes
The Raiders are converting touchdowns in the red zone at a rate of 90.9 percent (tied-first). The offensive line needs some love as they have only allowed Carr to be sacked twice (best in the NFL). The other place this maps to is rushing yards ??? and the Raiders are averaging 5.3 yards per carry (second in the NFL)
Fantasy Impact: Carr is a top-eight quarterback this week, while both Amari Cooper (35 targets) and Michael Crabtree (37 targets) are top-eight options at wide receiver. If like me, you believe that the Chargers offense will keep them in this game, this could be another time where Carr’s fourth quarter is an exciting one as he’s thrown five of his nine touchdowns in the final frame of games (only Andrew Luck has thrown more). Watch for running back news before Sunday (Latavius Murray is already out), as I have DeAndre Washington marked as a great sleeper (just make sure he’s healthy and potentially starting).
14) Last year when Vontaze Burfict was on the field, opposing offenses passed on about four percent more plays than their season average, and earned about eight percent fewer average yards per game in the air
By comparing the games Burfict played and didn’t play last year, the impact Burfict had on total yards per game allowed by the Bengals is pretty dramatic. Offenses ran on fewer plays and earned fewer rushing yards per game while also passing more frequently and earning fewer yards per game in the air. These are compared to each team’s own averages for the season.
Fantasy Impact: I think this could be a tough game for the Cowboys. While I wouldn’t suggest something as nuts as sitting Ezekiel Elliott, I would manage expectations a bit especially considering Elliott’s minimal involvement in the passing game. With Dez Bryant likely out, Cole Beasley is a good sleeper pick with sneaky upside.
15) Quarter-pole turnover differentials
Defensive takeaways minus offensive giveaways equals turnover differential in the NFL. If you look at the past, teams with the highest turnover differential strongly correlate with playoff teams. The top five through Weeks 1-4 are:
1. Vikings: +10
T-2. Bills: +6
T-2. Eagles: +6
T-4. Raiders: +4
T-4. Rams: +4
29. Dolphins: -5
30. Giants: -8
31. Bucs: -9
32. Jets : -10
I averaged each team’s first four opponents’ turnover differential, scoring differential and yards differential, then I did the same thing for their next four weeks and came away with the following takeaways:
– Things are getting easier for Carolina. In the first four weeks, they faced teams with a combined net of 18 more takeaways than giveaways who were beating their opponents by an average of six points per game. Carolina’s next four opponents combined for nine more GIVEAWAYS and are losing to their opponents by an average of five points per game.
– Things are getting harder for Houston. Their first four opponents totaled a turnover differential of zero and were losing by an average of 2.9 points per game. Coming up, they will see teams that have average nine more takeaways than giveaways who have been winning by almost four points per game.
– Tennessee trending up? The Titans’ opponents over the first four weeks had a plus-eight turnover differential and were winning by an average of 1.8 points per game. Their next four opponents currently have nine more giveaways than takeaways and have been losing by an average of 6.5 PPG. Is it perhaps Tajae Sharpe time?
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— Cynthia Frelund is an analytics expert who appears regularly on NFL Fantasy LIVE and GameDay Morning. Follow her on Twitter @cfrelund