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Target Decoder Week 10: Dan’s The Man

Dan Arnold

Dan Arnold

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Our early-season data will naturally come from the 2020 season. 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.

Reasons Not To Panic

Before we get into target decoding for borderline (or desperation) Week 10 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.

Terry McLaurin (WFT)

Probably you’re not waking up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. worrying about Terry McLaurin’s fantasy production. If you are, maybe find another hobby that doesn’t destroy your circadian rhythms. I’m no doctor though.

After the Football Team’s Week 9 bye, McLaurin stands at WR20 on the year. You drafted him as the tenth or 11th or 12th receiver off the draft board; his 2021 results haven’t been tragic, but certainly haven’t been what you expected when you pressed the draft button on McLaurin in August. He’s had two week-winning outings: Week 2 against the Giants and Week 7 against Green Bay. The rest, as the zoomers would say, has been meh. Maybe the zoomers don’t say that. I don’t know.

McLaurin is dominating targets unlike almost any pass catcher in the NFL this season. His 0.73 WOPR is the league’s fourth highest, trailing only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, and Brandin Cooks. McLaurin is commanding a target on nearly a quarter of his pass routes. As you may know if you’ve tortured yourself with Washington games this season, McLaurin is devouring air yards every week. He’s accounted for 44 percent of the Football Team’s air yards through eight games, tied with Adams for the NFL lead in air yards share. His 12.5 air yards per target is way up from 2020, when he averaged 9.8 air yards per target.

McLaurin, in short, has turned into a more volatile fantasy producer than he was in 2020, when his down weeks included shorter targets and receptions that evened out his statistical output. So far in 2021, McLaurin has been something close to an all-or-nothing fantasy receiver with less than 50 yards in three of his past four games. It’s not the profile as a fantasy WR1.

Taylor Heinicke has both given McLaurin plenty of downfield opportunity and been quite bad with those long throws. He’s completed a depressingly low 33.3 percent of his attempts of more than 20 yards, the 26th highest rate in the league -- behind ever-struggling QBs like Daniel Jones and Justin Fields. Heinicke’s downfield woes have translated to 17 targets of more than 20 yards for McLaurin -- the fourth highest total this season -- but just six downfield completions. For a little context that might grind your molars, consider Cooper Kupp has nine catches on 13 downfield targets and A.J. Green has seven downfield grabs on nine targets. Go get your night guard.

McLaurin has two paths to fantasy dominance (or more consistent production) in the season’s second half: The Football Team in all its wisdom can use their No. 1 wideout on more intermediate targets or the disparity between McLaurin’s air yards and actual yards can be narrowed with better deep ball accuracy from Heinicke or, maybe, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who could see playing time in November or December if Heinicke’s struggles persist. It’s good to have two paths to improvement. It’s better than one, per the analytics.

Week 10 Targets: Decoded

Dan Arnold (JAC) at IND

That Arnold is still available in 73 percent of leagues is nothing short of an attack on me and my family. My children are crying. My wife is beside herself. I’m shaking and dry heaving while writing this. Go get Arnold if he’s available in your league (and yes, I realize Not In My League Twitter will remind me that Arnold was actually drafted in the sixth round of their league).

Arnold, cast off to Jacksonville in October, has the eighth most tight end targets (26), the sixth most tight end catches (20), and has run the 12th most tight end pass routes since Week 5. That stretch of games includes the Jaguars’ bye week. The uber-athletic Arnold -- among the most efficient pass catchers of 2020, as I mentioned in August -- has been the team’s top target since Week 5. And yet he’s rostered in a measly 27 percent of leagues. Curious!

Arnold is excelling in an offense that made James O’Shaughnessy a top waiver claim in September following his six-catch, eight-target Week 1 outing. Even Jacob Hollister -- for whom I am a truther -- had a couple receptions on six targets in his only game as the team’s primary pass-catching tight end.

This week Arnold -- who Urban Meyer recently described as “everything you want” in a tight end -- gets a premiere matchup against a Colts defense giving up a 23.5 percent target share to tight ends, the NFL’s sixth highest rate through nine weeks. Only the Eagles have allowed more tight end receptions than the Colts this season, and a mere six teams have given up more tight end receiving yardage.

Last week in garbage time against Indy, Jets tight ends -- led by the immortal Ryan Griffin -- combined for eight catches on a dozen targets. The Titans’ lightly used tight ends combined for seven receptions on ten targets against the Colts in Week 8. The best news: Arnold doesn’t share the tight end pass catching role with anyone. I’d start Arnold this week over options like T.J. Hockensen, Dallas Goedert, Tyler Higbee, and Hunter Henry. Sorry if you’re triggered.

DFS Spin: Arnold will most certainly be the chalkiest cash game tight end of Week 10. In large field tournaments, his rostership should be lower, making him a sensible part of a skinny stack alongside Jonathan Taylor, who could run for 600 yards against Jacksonville. Arnold with Michael Pittman would constitute a slightly more unique skinny stack.

J.D. McKissic (WFT) vs. TB

We have not one, but two reasons to deploy McKissic with some modicum of confidence in Week 10 against the juggernaut Bucs.

All the known knowns of this matchup -- apologies for getting Rumsfeldian -- are very much in favor of McKissic: The Football Team is all but guaranteed to see two or three (or four) quarters of negative game script with the Bucs coming into Washington (Prince George’s County, Maryland) as 9.5-point favorites. McKissic, during his year and a half run as the team’s pass-catching back, has averaged 7.11 targets per game in losses, two more than he’s seen in Washington wins on average. That’s significant.

In Washington’s past three games -- all losses -- McKissic has racked up 24 targets, good for a 21 percent target share. Only Terry McLaurin (24 percent) has a larger share of the Football Team’s target pie, which is somehow worse than pecan pie.

Antonio Gibson drafters have looked on in abject horror as their guy has lost snaps, carries, and targets to McKissic and Jaret Patterson in recent weeks. Perhaps Gibson’s involvement is ramped up coming out of the Football Team’s Week 9 bye, but his Week 8 usage remains deeply concerning. McKissic led the backfield with 46 percent of Washington’s offensive snaps, Gibson played on 33 percent, and Patterson on 23 percent. Patterson, meanwhile, led with 11 carries to Gibson’s eight, and McKissic out-targeted Gibson eight to three. Against the human brick wall that is the Tampa front four, Gibson has little chance of making his fantasy drafters less miserable in Week 10.

The Bucs, one of the league’s most extreme pass funnel defenses, have given up consistent targets and receptions to enemy backs. Only six defenses have allowed more running backs catches than Tampa, which gives up 7.78 targets per game to running backs. The Bucs have allowed the eighth highest target share to running backs (21.1 percent) in 2021.

Some of that opportunity and production has been spread out across a whole backfield; in Week 8 against the Saints, we saw four New Orleans backs combined for seven grabs on nine targets. Three Chicago running backs caught seven of seven targets against Tampa in Week 7. There’s little chance of that unfolding against Washington: McKissic has accounted for 33 of 46 targets to Football Team running backs since Week 4. If Washington backs are going to get check downs against the Bucs, it’s McKissic who’s going to get them.

DFS Spin: My galaxy brain is tingling with the (likely) terrible idea of using Gibson as a run back alongside a Bucs stack in GPPs just in case Gibson’s bulky shin is a little better and the Football Team hangs with Tampa for a few quarters -- like they did in last year’s playoffs. But it’s McKissic who makes more sense as a relatively cheap run back with the presumption that Tampa forces the Football Team into a pass-heavy script.