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Target Decoder Week 5: Ricky Don’t Lose Those Numbers

Ricky Seals-Jones

Ricky Seals-Jones

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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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. [[ad:athena]]

Reasons Not To Panic

Before we get into target decoding for borderline (or desperation) Week 5 fantasy options, let’s calm ourselves about slow starts for some of the offseason’s most highly touted pass catchers. In evaluating their opportunity, I looked at targets per route run, air yards share, and WOPR -- not the genocidal computer from the 1983 movie War Games, but a weighted average of a player’s target market share. WOPR is useful in determining who is earning targets and how valuable those targets can be.

CeeDee Lamb (DAL)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Lamb wasn’t supposed to be WR28 after the first month of the regular season. He was supposed to be a top-10 -- at worst -- fantasy wideout on the back of enough target volume to make a Lamb drafter blush.

Lamb -- and fellow Dallas receiver Amari Cooper -- have had their stats squashed by a Cowboys offense that’s far more run heavy than anticipated, thanks mostly to the team’s improved defense maintaining neutral and positive game flow. Twenty-two players have more targets than Lamb through Week 4. Michael Pittman has out-targeted Lamb. The indignity knows no bounds.

Lamb’s inclusion in this space may have tipped you off to an incoming positive spin on his rest-of-season outlook. Well, you were right. Lamb’s 0.64 WOPR is the 16th highest among wideouts this season, including Cooper (0.54 WOPR). He’s leading Dallas in target share (26 percent) and has a team-high 35 percent air yards share.

Lamb’s air yards domination hasn’t yet translated to the actual, real life kind of yards. Dak Prescott has thrown six passes of more than 20 yards to Lamb, who’s caught just one of those attempts for 44 yards (Cooper has caught three of four deep targets for 84 yards and two touchdowns). There’s nothing in Lamb’s (short) history that says he won’t start converting some of these high-value targets. Last year, he caught 12 of 21 downfield passes (57.1 percent) for 347 yards and two touchdowns -- and that was without Prescott for most of the season.

Lamb’s new role in the Dallas offense still -- despite the slow start -- offers tremendous upside if and when the Cowboys can’t take the air out of the ball with a comfortable second half lead. Lamb has run just 28.2 percent of his routes from the slot this season, way down from his 93.2 percent slot rate in 2020. His yards per route run and his average depth of target are so far higher than his rookie year numbers, per Pro Football Focus. It’s his new usage in the Dallas offense that might make Lamb a more volatile fantasy producer than he would’ve been as a pure slot guy.

You’re not benching Lamb. You’re not trading him either. His pedestrian early-season stat lines have been torturous -- I get it. But every peripheral number points to Lamb being far more productive in the coming weeks. He’s 6.1 fantasy points under expectation. Cooper, meanwhile, is 15.3 fantasy points over expectation. Don’t despair, Lamb drafters.

Keenan Allen (LAC)

No receiver is further under his expected fantasy points than Allen (-18.7) while teammate Mike Williams is 14.8 points over expectation. Everything, it seems, has gone wrong for Allen through one month of the season, and he now sits at WR17 -- remarkable in itself.
It’s not tough to convince oneself not to worry about Allen’s rest-of-season outlook. He’s seen double digit targets in three of the Chargers’ four games -- he trails only Devante Adams and Cooper Kupp in that category -- soaking up a team-high 28 percent target share.

Allen’s WOPR (0.64) also leads the Bolts, comfortably ahead of William’s 0.54 WOPR. Allen, much to my surprise, leads the team in air yards too, a year after Williams tallied the most air yards among LA pass catchers. Relatedly, Allen’s yards per catch and average depth of target have increased over his 2020 numbers.

With a quarterback who trails only Josh Allen in expected fantasy points over four weeks, Allen is bound to once again convert his massive opportunity into bankable fantasy production. We can safely write off his rough September -- and first week of October -- to that awful thing we hate so much (though we shouldn’t): Variance.

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Week 5 Decoded Targets

Ricky Seals-Jones (WFT) vs. NO

Before he was Logan Thomas’ backup, Seals-Jones was an up-and-coming, athletic tight end with loud-mouthed truthers across the fantasy industry. We have since gone into hiding, finding other tight ends to shatter our hopeful hearts. No more. Ricky’s back. It feels like 2018 all over again.

Logan Thomas hurt his hamstring last week against Atlanta and has little chance of suiting up in Week 5 against the Saints, leaving behind a bulky 17 percent target share in Washington’s offense. Seals-Jones -- RSJ, as we called him back in the day -- becomes the Football Team’s full-time pass-catching tight end in Thomas’ absence. How can we be so sure? Well, RSJ ran a pass route on 81.57 percent of Taylor Heinicke’s drop backs against the Falcons after Thomas limped off with the hammy issue. RSJ caught two of four targets for 19 yards, but that’s beside the (most important) point. Seals-Jones likely won’t share the pass-catching tight end duties with anyone for as long as Thomas is sidelined.

It’s tough to draw conclusions from any Saints game with Sean Payton running a convoluted grind-it-out offense and the team’s defense looking alternately dominant and disastrous. No one knows who or what the post-Brees Saints are. But I came here to chew bubblegum and draw conclusions, and I’m all out of bubblegum, so here’s my conclusion: New Orleans is a middle-of-the-road tight end matchup through the season’s first month.

The Saints’ opening day domination of the Packers was all around the weirdest game of 2021 so far. Green Bay tight ends saw five targets that day, catching three for 27 yards. Dan Arnold and Ian Thomas combined for six targets against New Orleans in Week 2 -- Arnold caught three for 55 yards. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry each had six targets against the Saints in Week 3, and Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph saw a total of 10 targets in Week 4. It’s all a decidedly mixed bag.

Tight ends have seen a 20.8 percent target share against the Saints in 2021, the 13th highest rate in the league. We could, just maybe, see that rate climb in the coming weeks -- and months -- if Saints linebackers continue to struggle in coverage. Zack Baun is Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded coverage linebacker this season, having allowed six catches for 106 yards on nine targets. Fellow New Orleans linebacker Kayden Elliss has been roughed up in coverage to the tune of six receptions on six targets for 75 yards. Demario Davis, meanwhile, is a top coverage linebacker, per PFF grades.

Washington coming into Week 5 as a home dog and only Terry McLaurin clearly above RSJ in the team’s pass-catching pecking order could mean inflated target volume for the Football Team’s new tight end.

Zach Ertz (PHI) at CAR

The Eagles’ extremely blonde veteran tight end has been surprisingly -- shockingly -- useful for fantasy managers streaming tight ends this year. Ertz, long assumed gone from Philadelphia, has the team’s third highest target share (14 percent) -- higher than fellow Philly tight end Dallas Goedert.

Ertz, in fact, has more expected fantasy points than Goedert through Week 4. He’s also averaging -- quite curiously -- more yards per target (7.8) than Goedert (6.6). Ertz has run a mere three fewer pass routes than Goedert, and the old man is drawing a target on 18.18 percent of his routes, a touch higher than Goedert’s 15.68 percent rate. You get the idea: Eating into Goedert’s opportunity has made Ertz quite usable in 12-team leagues.

Ertz’s early-season production is hardly fluky. Philadelphia is using enough two tight end sets to keep Ertz on the field, running routes and commanding targets from Jalen Hurts. They’ve deployed two tight ends on half of their pass plays so far -- by no means a massive rate, but good enough to keep Ertz (and Goedert) relevant.

Both Philadelphia tight ends are very much in play this week against a Panthers defense allowing a 28.8 percent target share to enemy tight ends. Only Baltimore has given up a bigger target share to tight ends. A most encouraging sign for those considering Ertz in Week 5: Three of the four teams Carolina has faced hardly use their tight ends. In Week 1, Jets tight ends combined for 11 targets, or 31 percent of Zach Wilson’s attempts. Jordan Akins caught four of five targets in Week 3 against the Panthers. And last week we saw Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin turn 11 targets into seven receptions for 76 yards and two touchdowns against Carolina.

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Eagles will attack Carolina’s defense via the tight end in Week 5. Panthers linebackers Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter have combined to give up 22 receptions on 30 targets (at a clip of 10.43 yards per catch) through four weeks. Ertz might even have a fantasy ceiling in this one.