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Funneling Fantasy Points: Week 9

Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert

Joe Camporeale-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, along with run-back options on the opposing team.

Analyzing pass and run funnel defenses can often generate DFS stacking ideas, both team stacks and game stacks. 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. A tightly correlated DFS roster means you have to get less right, a welcoming prospect in a wildly difficult game.

Falcons (+3) vs. Chargers
Chargers implied total: 26.25
Falcons implied total: 23.25

I’m touting Chargers players a week after posting to Twitter that Brandon Staley‘s incredibly down-bad team is the NFL’s worst offense, per expected points added (EPA) per play. Curious? It sure is.

The Chargers, I think, can still get by on the league’s worst defense even without one (or two) of their top wideouts, even though they’ll all be sleepy in the first half of a 1:00 east coast game. Let us pray Justin Herbert has a sufficient amount of hustle juice before kickoff.

Pro Football Focus graded Atlanta’s defense as the league’s sixth-worst coverage unit, the single worst pass rush, and the 17th-rated run defense. It’s not that the Falcons run defense is middling -- they allow the seventh-highest EPA per rush -- but that teams have shifted so dramatically toward the pass against Atlanta in 2022. The Falcons are tied with Arizona as the most extreme pass funnel defense through Week 8.

The stacks all but build themselves. You have Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Josh Palmer, and Gerald Everett as LA’s main pieces in a game stack if Keenan Allen (hamstring) is once again sidelined. Mike Williams has already been declared out with an ankle injury. Palmer could be in line for double-digit targets if Allen is out. Way back in Week 6, as LA’s de facto No. 1 wideout, Palmer saw 12 targets and had the third most expected fantasy points among receivers on the week. Most of that target load was underneath and intermediate stuff -- the sort of easy PPR production we crave, especially in a game sporting Week 9’s highest total (49.5).

Ekeler has been nothing short of a blackhole for targets in the Chargers offense over the past month. He leads all running backs with a 22 percent target share since Week 4, and only Christian McCaffrey has more expected receiving points among running backs over the past four weeks. The Chargers offense can’t go off here without Ekeler putting up gaudy numbers.

Falcons run-back options are, as usual, gross. There’s Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley if you think Atlanta will continue hammering the run (no reason to think they won’t) and Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) remains sidelined after being designated for return from IR on Monday. Over the team’s past five games, Allgeier has seen 40 percent of Atlanta’s rushing attempts while Huntley has had 33 percent. Arthur Smith probably won’t be able to turn down a massively run-heavy attack against an LA defense allowing the fifth-highest EPA per rush (assuming Smith has ever heard of “EPA”).

A slowed-down game full of rushing and long, boring drives would, of course, drain this contest of the sort of GPP-winning upside we’re seeking. If we’re going to build our lineups as if we’re right -- that this game will shoot out -- then fading Allgeier and Huntley is the move. Allgeier, who has seen some pass game involvement over the past two weeks, would be the preferred option if you’re compelled to run it back with a Falcons RB.

Arthur Smith surely knows the Chargers are the sixth most extreme pass funnel defense in the NFL this season (he definitely does not know this). Last week in a stunning back-and-forth affair with Carolina, Falcons pass catchers were usable for fantasy purposes, proving once again that we exist in a computer simulation. Kyle Pitts led the team with eight targets; Damiere Byrd was second with six; Drake London had five; and Allgeier had three. Byrd only ran a route on 58 percent of the team’s dropbacks, however. It was London and Olamedes Zacchius (one target) who were the full-time receivers in that game.

The truly galaxy brain move here is to deploy Marcus Mariota with one pass catcher alongside Palmer (if Allen is out) and Ekeler. I don’t know if I can force my brain to do such a thing.

Game Stack Ideas
Herbert, Ekeler, Palmer, one of London/Pitts
Herbert, Ekeler, Everett, one of London/Pitts/Byrd
Mariota, Pitts, Ekeler, Palmer or Everett

Commanders (+3) vs. Vikings
Vikings implied total: 23.5
Commanders implied total: 20

The prodigal son returns home in this one, with Kirk Cousins coming back to Washington after expertly draining Dan Snyder of his money for years and years and being perfectly mediocre the entire time. Cousins is truly a role model of every unremarkable person on the planet.

Anyway, this game pits two pass funnel defenses against each other. Washington is the league’s eight most extreme pass funnel while Minnesota is the fourth most extreme. Recent examples of how much opponents of these teams have leaned on the pass include the Packers in Week 7 posting the highest pass rate over expected of the season in a loss to the Commanders, and the Cardinals operating at a 4 percent pass rate over expected last week against the Vikings, their highest PROE of the season and only the second time Arizona has exceeded their expected pass rate.

Taylor Heinicke has been an unquestionable boon for Terry McLaurin since Carson Wentz‘s hand injury. Over Heinicke’s two starts, Terry Who Is Scary has nearly 58 percent of the team’s air yards and 26 percent of the targets. We saw McLaurin pop in Week 8 against the Colts when the Commanders were forced into pass-heavy game script over most of the final two quarters. He ended up with six receptions for 113 yards and a near touchdown. McLaurin, if this game is a back-and-forth affair or if the Vikings build a healthy lead against Washington, has all the upside as Heinicke’s lone downfield weapon.

Watch J.D. McKissic‘s Friday practice participation closely. Do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- take your eyes off NBC Sports Edge. If McKissic is out with a neck injury, Antonio Gibson can be expected to absorb most (or all) of the route running and pass catching out of the Washington backfield. Fresh off a seven-catch outing against the Colts, Gibson has finally found his niche as a change-of-pace back -- not an early-down grinder. Imagine that. Heinicke has targeted Commanders running backs 21 times over his two starts. Gibson would become a key part of any Minnesota-Washington game stack if McKissic is out. Gibson would be an even sneakier tournament option if McKissic suits up and subsequently drags down Gibson’s DFS rostership. The Vikings are giving up a nice 6.9 running back targets per game.

Heinicke is only in play because he has some rushing upside as a quarterback ready and willing to flee the pocket, however recklessly. He’s logged at least four rushes in eight games since the start of the 2021 season. Against the Colts in Week 8, Heinicke ran six times for 30 yards and a goal line sneak for a touchdown.

All Vikings stacks start with Justin Jefferson, who has seen 46.5 percent of Minnesota’s air yards through Week 8, higher than anyone not named Cooper Kupp, Tyreek Hill, or D.J. Moore. That Washington’s defense has been pretty good against the pass -- especially over the past three weeks -- doesn’t matter much for the dominant Jefferson. He might be best used in a mini-stack (no QBs) alongside McLaurin or Gibson.

Dalvin Cook doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in this game stack. The Commanders allow the third-lowest EPA per rush this season and, as mentioned above, teams have consistently turned toward the pass when facing Washington. A Minnesota team averaging the seventh most pass attempts per game doesn’t strike me as the kind of offense that will force feed their running back against a beatable secondary. Call it analytics.

Game Stack Ideas
Jefferson and McLaurin or Gibson
Cousins, Jefferson, McLaurin, and Gibson
Heinicke, Gibson and McLaurin, Jefferson

Jets (+12.3) vs. Bills
Bills implied total: 29.5
Jets implied total: 17

Stacking a potential bloodbath of a game is tricky business. Sometimes -- as we often see in college football -- the contest is so tilted that the inferior team does not -- or cannot -- produce a viable run-back option. But we’re going to try it with the Bills and Jets.

The Jets are one of the few teams that are neither a run funnel nor a pass funnel. Buffalo’s pass-first, pass-always approach -- triggering the balanced offense proponents -- means we can expect an all-out aerial assault against New York’s secondary. I don’t care all that much that the Jets coverage unit has mostly been good, allowing the NFL’s second-lowest pass EPA over the past month. I trust Josh Allen and company to unleash their usual hell with a spate of dropbacks.

Not many DFS players, I would guess, are willing to pay the steep price for an Allen-Diggs stack, much less an Allen-Diggs-Davis stack, with Gabriel Davis being wildly overpriced on DraftKings. That doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement for the volatile touchdown-catching machine, but that head-scratching price point should keep his rostership way down in Week 9. Diggs, for his part, has eaten zone defenses alive in 2022. He has 16 catches for 205 yards and four touchdowns on 25 targets against zone through Week 8; only three wideouts have been productive against zone. The Jets blitz at the third-lowest rate in the league and sit back in zone as often as anyone.

Garrett Wilson has to be the best run-back option for the Jets. Maybe he’s the only one. Last week in negative game script against the Patriots, Wilson saw his routes and targets balloon to Flacco-era numbers as he had his best statistical game since Zach Wilson returned from injury and ruined everything. Wilson is running all the routes in the New York offense and being used both in the slot and on the outside at nearly equal rates. The team seems to recognize he is by far their best offensive weapon with Breece Hall (ACL) done for the year.

Tyler Conklin is another run-back option (don’t lose your mind and try two run-backs against the Bills). Conklin over the past two weeks has retaken his job as the Jets’ primary pass-catching tight end, and in Week 8 against New England, he turned 11 targets into six catches, 79 yards, and two touchdowns. Two or three quarters of point chasing for New York and Conklin could again hit the double-digit target mark. Buffalo has given up the tenth most tight end catches (38) this season.

Game Stack Ideas
Allen, Diggs, Davis, Wilson or Conklin
Allen, Diggs, Wilson
Diggs and Wilson or Conklin