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Funneling Fantasy Points: Week 5

Terry McLaurin

Terry McLaurin

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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We want to know -- we need to know -- how defenses are being attacked.

Though it won’t translate perfectly from week to week, understanding which NFL defenses qualify as run funnels and which are pass funnels can and should change the way we create our daily fantasy lineups. Is a team’s stalwart run defense forcing opponents to the air at a remarkable rate? How about secondaries so dominant (or teams so bad) that opposing offenses are turning to the run more often than usual?

In this space, I’ll highlight which players may benefit from squaring off against a run funnel or pass funnel defense in a given week.

Analyzing pass and run funnel defenses can often generate DFS stacking ideas, both team stacks and game stacks. It’s game stacks that require us to be correct about less; when a game goes off, you’re probably right about every player from that contest. I’ll highlight stacking plays -- for DFS tournament purposes -- where I see fit. I’ve found evaluating run and pass funnels is an excellent starting point for exploiting matchups and crafting correlated lineups.

Likely Popular Week 5 Game Stacks

Cardinals at Eagles: Stacking Jalen Hurts with two or three of his pass catchers (and possibly Miles Sanders) against a toothless Cardinals defense will certainly be a priority in smaller field DFS contests this week. Arizona is the NFL’s fifth most extreme pass funnel defense through Week 4. Philadelphia’s defense has been so strong, I’m not sure there’s a viable run-back option alongside an Eagles stack. I suppose Marquise Brown -- with 40 percent of the team’s air yards and fourth in the league in intended air yards per game -- would be the obvious choice.

Bengals at Ravens: Joe Burrow and his two top targets, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, should be a common stacking play against a Baltimore defense that was massacred by these Bengals in both 2021 matchups and ranks as the league’s sixth most extreme pass funnel. The Ravens secondary is once again banged up and The Bengals are ramping up their pass rate (10 and 6 percent pass rate over expected in Week 3 and Week 4, respectively). Mark Andrews makes the most sense as a run-back if this game is a shootout. Devin Duvernay -- with Rashod Bateman (foot) likely sidelined -- would be a fancy-pants run back.

Raiders at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes and some combination of his pass catchers will be a common option in Week 5 against a Raiders defense giving up the ninth-highest EPA against the pass. It’ll be tough to jam a high-priced Davante Adams in a lineup with Mahomes and Travis Kelce. Maybe that will actually provide differentiation since doing so wrecks your salary distribution. There’s always Mack Hollins, still running a full complement of routes, as a Raiders run back in this game. KC, after all, is the most extreme pass funnel defense in the NFL. One last note here: JuJu Smith-Schuster is what the teens are calling a regression candidate after converting a lowly 44 percent of his air yards through four weeks.

Now for the slightly less chalky Week 5 correlation stacks.

Titans (-2) at Commanders

Terry McLaurin (WAS)
DraftKings: $6,200
FanDuel: $6,500

McLaurin is the Commanders’ lone downfield threat, and with Jahan Dotson (hamstring) likely sidelined this week, he could see a slight bump in deep shots from Carson Wentz. That makes him a sneaky -- and low-rostered -- DFS option this week against a slight pass funnel defense.

McLaurin has been deeply frustrating for fantasy purposes precisely because he’s being used primarily down the field. Those sorts of looks don’t offer the consistent results of, say, Curtis Samuel‘s 8-10 weekly check down targets. But McLaurin’s usage offers undeniable upside: Since Week 2, he’s third among receivers in air yards, and only four wideouts have more targets of over 20 yards.

After a miserable Week 1 in which McLaurin was targeted on a basement-dwelling 10 percent of his pass routes, his per-route target rate has bumped up to 18 percent over Washington’s past three games. In Week 5 he faces a Tennessee defense allowing the third most yards to receivers and the fifth-highest EPA per dropback. McLaurin should see plenty of coverage from CB Terrance Mitchell, who has allowed seven receptions on 11 targets this season for 127 yards (18.1 yards per reception).

McLaurin’s utilization and matchup are -- dare I say -- ideal for large-field DFS purposes. And if McLaurin truly goes off in Week 5, Carson Wentz is going to have a bloated stat line. That’s my way of telling you to use Wentz if you’re going in on McLaurin.

Robert Woods (TEN)
DraftKings: $5,200
FanDuel: $5,900

I cannot believe I’m touting Robert Woods, one of the NFL’s most boring receivers, in a space dedicated to galaxy-brain DFS correlations. But I am. So it goes.

Treylon Burks won’t play this week as he struggles with a toe injury that could keep him sidelined for a while. Woods, therefore, is the Titans’ unquestioned No. 1 receiving option against a middling Commanders secondary. Woods in Week 4 was targeted on a season-high 20 percent of his routes, partly because Burks did not play in the second half against the Colts. Woods caught all four of his targets for 30 yards and a touchdown. That came after the wily veteran parlayed nine targets into four receptions for 85 yards against Vegas.

If this Titans-Commanders game turns into a back-and-forth affair, Woods -- without Burks -- should challenge for double-digit targets in the wildly run-heavy Tennessee offense. Woods, who has a 68.7 percent slot rate this year, could be the latest slot receiver to find success against Washington after Christian Kirk (6/117/0), Amon-Ra St. Brown (9/116/2), and CeeDee Lamb (6/97/1) posted big lines against the Commanders (yes, I realize Lamb runs about 60 percent of his routes from the slot). Put more simply, the Commanders are bad against the pass. Only five teams -- including the Titans -- have allowed a higher EPA per dropback this season.

I suppose you could always throw Derrick Henry into a lineup with McLaurin too.

Jaguars (-7) vs. Texans

James Robinson (JAC) vs. HOU
DraftKings: $6,300
FanDuel: $8,000

I’m thinking Robinson’s Week 5 DFS rostership might be a bit depressed after a letdown in Week 4 against a tough-as-nails Eagles defense. Robinson had 29 yards on eight carries while Travis Etienne took eighth carries for 32 yards. Through Week 4, Robinson leads the Jacksonville backfield with 55 percent of the team’s rushes. He has 37.4 expected rushing fantasy points to Etienne’s 17.3 this season.

The heavily-favored Jaguars should have every chance to establish against a Houston team that ranks as the league’s fifth most extreme run funnel defense. Nearly 48 percent of the plays against the Texans this season have come on the ground thanks mostly to game script. Only two teams, the Jets and Bears, have seen a higher rush rate against them in 2022.

Jacksonville hasn’t hesitated to run the rock while leading this year. Robinson logged 17 carries in the team’s Week 2 domination of the Colts and 23 carries in their Week 3 win over the Chargers. We should see a lot of J-Rob in Week 5 against a Texans defensive line Pro Football Focus grades the second worst run-defending unit in the NFL.

The one drawback for Robinson is his lowly 28 percent route participation rate. Etienne has run a route on 41.5 percent of the Jaguars’ dropbacks and could, maybe, assert himself this week if the Jags are able to run roughshod over Houston. I would think Robinson’s steep price point on FanDuel (RB6 in salary) will ensure he’s low-rostered in all contests this week.

Brandin Cooks (HOU) at JAC
DraftKings: $6,100
FanDuel: $6,800

Cooks is the only viable run-back option if you’re set on using Robinson (or Etienne) in your large-field GPP rosters this week. Cooks leads the Texans with a 30 percent air yards share and a 26 percent target share. It’s not quite the opportunity dominance we saw for much of the 2021 season, but Cooks is the only Texans pass catcher who would see a glut of targets should Houston play from behind against the Jaguars, the NFL’s sixth most extreme pass funnel defense.

Cooks has five targets of over 20 yards this season in the hyper-conservative Texans offense, headed by one of the league’s worst quarterbacks, Davis Mills (Nico Collins leads the team with six downfield targets and could make sense as a highly-volatile run-back option). Cooks has made the most of those chances, catching three of five deep shots for 83 yards and a touchdown through four games.

If this Jaguars-Texans stack tickles your galaxy brain, be sure to make it a mini-stack (no quarterbacks).

Bills (-14) vs. Steelers

George Pickens (PIT) at BUF
DraftKings: $4,300
FanDuel: $5,500

With dangerous levels of that dawg in him, Pickens is going to have all the big play potential with an NFL-viable quarterback under center for the Steelers. Look no further than Pickens’ 33 percent target per route run rate in the second half of Pittsburgh’s Week 4 loss to the Jets (and his 42 percent Week 4 air yards share) to understand Pickens’ appeal moving forward.

You might say, but wait, the Buffalo defense is not a pass funnel. You would continue: Bills opponents have a negative pass rate over expected through four games. How are you touting a Steelers wideout, Denny? I would answer by saying this is my column and I can do what I want with it. Take it up with NBC Universal if you don’t like it. Actually, please don’t.

Also, the down-bad Steelers are two-touchdown underdogs and have (almost) no chance of operating a balanced offense against the Bills this week. Pickens, of course, led all Steelers pass catchers last week with five targets from Kenny Pickett in the second half of their loss to the Jets. It’s a tiny sample, I know, but I’ll say it anyway: Pickett’s adjusted yards per attempt was 14.2 when targeting Pickens in Week 4. The next closest Steelers pass catcher was Diontae Johnson with a 5.5 A/YA on three targets. Pickens, meanwhile, has the team’s second-highest weighted opportunity rating, measuring a player’s combined share of air yards and target share.

Pickett and Pickens, who since Week 2 has operated as a full-time player in the Pittsburgh offense, will go up against an injury-riddled Buffalo secondary. If it becomes clear Pickens will be a chalky Week 5 DFS option, consider Johnson or even Chase Claypool. Almost 32 percent of Claypool’s targets this season have come at least 20 yards downfield. He’s the kind of uncomfortably volatile play we seek in large-field DFS contests. All it takes is one.

Devin Singletary (BUF) vs. PIT
DraftKings: $6,100
FanDuel: $6,000

I’m going to hold my nose and suppress my gag reflex and tout Singletary as the other half of a Bills-Steelers mini-stack (no QBs) or as part of a Bills-Steelers mega-stack that might include Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and, of course, Singletary.

Singletary for better or worse is back to his late-season 2021 usage. In Week 4, he saw 11 of Buffalo’s 14 running back rushes and posted a strong route participation rate of 76.3 percent. It didn’t add up to much (13.7 expected fantasy points, 18th among RBs). But Singletary should have touchdown-driven upside in the potent Buffalo offense.

The Steelers, as you may have surmised with your big galaxy brain, are a run funnel defense. In fact, only six defenses are more extreme run funnels through the season’s first month. Nearly 45 percent of offensive plays against the Steelers this season have come on the ground, the league’s ninth-highest rate. If the Vegas spread is to be believed, the Bills should be in position to run the ball more than they usually do.

Lead rushers have averaged 20.6 carries per game against the Steelers this season. Most recently, the formerly pass-happy Jets posted a -10 percent pass rate over expected against Pittsburgh, per Rotoworld’s Pat Kerrane. Twenty rushing attempts are likely out of reach for Singletary, but 20 touches are firmly in play if he maintains his lead-back status.