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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Split Personalities
Preseason Matchup Analysis

Seasons change, but the way players gain opportunities typically remains the same year after year. Injuries and promotions opens doors for some and closes them for others.

While fantasy football success and failure can rarely be attributed to one single factor, the fact of the matter is the absence of a superstar or significant contributor results in an inevitable redistribution of the opportunities for the remaining skill-position players. Many such occurrences took place last year, but I narrowed my focus to nine teams for the purposes of this article. Some of the choices were made to debunk myths, while others were selected simply to make or reinforce a point.

What you will see below are the primary skill-position players affected by the loss of their teammate(s) last season. For teams that went to the postseason, those games were included as well to increase the sample size. Unlike the home/road or monthly splits owners can find on any big-box sports website, I am "splitting" the games the remaining healthy teammates played versus the ones they played without their fallen comrade. And instead of providing raw totals for each player in each split, I broke each category down into per-game averages (or per carry/catch marks) to better illustrate how a player's role or opportunities changed.

Tar/G - Targets per game
Rec/G - Receptions per game
Ru/G - Rushing attempts per game
Avg - Yards per carry/catch/pass (rushing, receiving or passing; always associated with the mode closest to it on the chart)
TD/G - Touchdowns per game (rushing, receiving or passing; always associated with the mode closest to it on the chart)
Cmp/G - Completions per game
PA/G - Pass attempts per game
PYd/G - Passing yards per game
RYd/G - Rushing yards per game
ReYd/G - Receiving yards per game

Greg Olsen

The uptick in production from WR Devin Funchess wasn't the result of the Benjamin trade but the loss of TE Greg Olsen.

Carolina Panthers

Splits includes one playoff game

 Cam Newton (with and without Greg Olsen), 2017
Split Games Cmp/G PA/G Cmp% PYd/G TD/G INT/G Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Olsen 8 16.5 30.0 55.0% 204.4 1.3 0.8 9.8 41.8 4.3 0.3 158.8 19.9
w/o Olsen 9 20.3 32.4 62.7% 224.0 1.6 1.1 7.7 50.8 6.6 0.4 212.4 23.6

This one was a bit strange to see at first until I gave it a bit more thought. Even though Newton had one more game without Olsen than he did with him, his per-game marks were markedly better without him. The improved accuracy was the easiest to explain in part due to McCaffrey's increased usage in the passing game (sneak a peek below if you must): shorter targets to a consistently more wide-open target should result in a higher completion percentage.

The touchdown production is a bit harder to explain (two per game combined w/o Olsen versus 1.5 with him), at least until we look at the game-by-game breakdown of his fantasy production without the tight end. Newton had blow-up games against a New England defense in Week 3 still trying to find itself, a Detroit defense in Week 5 that could not find a way to stop Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess or Ed Dickson and a Miami defense in Week 10 that looked like it had given up on the season at that point. Remove those three "exceptions" and we have a quarterback who averaged 16.3 fantasy points per game in the other five contests without Olsen. As is usually the case in most statistical analysis, Newton's new average floor probably isn't 16.3 points per game nor is his ceiling at 23.6 but rather somewhere in between.

 Christian McCaffrey (with and without Olsen), 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Olsen 8 8.6 35.8 4.1 0.0 6.0 4.1 44.8 10.8 0.3 107.4 13.4
w/o Olsen 9 6.0 18.3 3.1 0.2 8.1 5.9 43.8 7.4 0.4 144.9 16.1

If I wasn't such a big believer in McCaffrey's abilities, the above splits might scare me off a bit in redraft formats. Without question, what stands out the most to me above is just how much more he was used in the passing game without Olsen. On the bright side for 2018, McCaffrey's efficiency as a runner was significantly better with the veteran tight end playing. I have been a frequent critic of the way McCaffrey was used last year as a runner, if only because "smart" teams don't use the No. 8 overall pick to take a running back only to use him like Danny Woodhead. With that said, I can understand why some people believe his touches need to be monitored. I'm not in the camp.

Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, I think most will agree 12.3 touches per game isn't enough for a player of his talents or the draft capital used to acquire him, nor is it enough for a player who once handled 382 touches two seasons earlier as the focal point for one of the few remaining schools in the country (Stanford) that believes in a power running game. (His bare minimum should be 15 touches per game, or 240 per season.) Think for a second about how ridiculous it is that a team that attempts 490 runs (regular season only) gives its least dynamic threat (Stewart) 81 more and its quarterback 22 more carries than its most dynamic threat. That's right McCaffrey saw 23.9 percent of the team's rushing attempts last season. If new OC Norv Turner does nothing else this season, he would be wise to rethink that formula.

 Jonathan Stewart (with and without Olsen), 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Olsen 7 13.3 47.3 3.6 0.6 0.9 0.6 3.6 6.3 0.1 69.6 9.9
w/o Olsen 9 12.9 44.4 3.4 0.2 1.0 0.4 3.0 6.8 0.0 52.7 5.9

I realize Stewart is no longer on the team, so this chart is to give current and future owners of C.J. Anderson some idea of what might be possible in terms of workload, because I understand Anderson is an upgrade over an aging Stewart. Only Turner knows whether or not he wants Anderson to top 200 carries like Stewart did last season. If common sense prevails, 160-170 rushing attempts should be his ceiling if McCaffrey is available for all 16 games.

 Devin Funchess (with and without Olsen), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Olsen 8 6.3 3.3 51.5 15.8 0.3 79.2 9.9
w/o Olsen 9 7.8 4.6 56.3 12.4 0.7 127.7 14.2

Before anyone overreacts too much to the numbers above, keep in mind the first set includes Weeks 1 and 2 - games in which Funchess totaled nine targets, six catches, 88 yards and no touchdowns - while Newton was still very much in preseason mode. With that said, these splits tell an interesting story. While the popular theory was that Funchess benefited the most from the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, this analysis seems to suggest Olsen's absence may have played a bigger role in Funchess' explosion. In the five games Olsen played at the end of the season (including the playoff game), Funchess totaled 13 catches on 29 targets for 215 yards and two touchdowns for a total of 46.6 PPR points - an average of 9.3 points.

It is anyone's guess as to whether or not 33-year-old Olsen has another 120-target, 80-catch season in him at his age, but these splits should be enough to place some doubt in owners' minds whether or not Funchess belongs in the WR3 conversation or not. If you think/believe Olsen and McCaffrey are the top two options in the passing game most weeks and also account for the possibility rookie D.J. Moore could challenge for top-dog status among the team's receivers sometime during the season, there is reason for concern.

Dallas Cowboys

 Dak Prescott, 2017
Split Games Cmp/G PA/G Cmp% PYd/G TD/G INT/G Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Elliott 10 20.1 32.3 62.2% 217.9 1.7 0.6 3.2 23.2 7.3 0.4 224.4 22.4
w/o Elliott 6 17.8 27.8 64.1% 191.0 0.8 1.2 4.2 20.8 5.0 0.3 80.4 13.4

For anyone who watched the games, most would never guess was slightly more accurate while Elliott was serving his suspension. Those same people would also say Prescott wasn't anywhere close to the same quarterback without Zeke on the field, although OT Tyron Smith's injuries also played a huge part in the offense's downfall. While six games is still too small of a sample size to draw any major conclusions, the evidence certainly suggests Prescott benefits more from Elliott's presence than the other way around.

 Ezekiel Elliott/Rod Smith and Alfred Morris, 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Elliott Active 10 24.2 98.3 4.1 0.7 3.8 2.6 26.9 10.3 0.2 203.2 20.3
Smith/Morris w/o Elliott 6 23.7 97.2 4.1 0.8 4.0 3.3 32.0 9.6 0.2 133.5 22.2

Elliott's backups were slightly more productive as a duo than he was by himself, as hard as that might be for some to believe. However, I'm not sure this is "proof" Elliott can be so easily replaced, as there are plenty of factors to consider such as the amount of attention and stacked boxes Elliott faces when he plays versus how much/many his backups face. There is also the string of matchups Smith and Morris faced toward the end of Elliott's suspension (Washington, New York Giants and Oakland) who were mostly shells of themselves on defense by the time December rolled around. Regardless of the above findings, Zeke will be even more of an offensive centerpiece in 2018 than he was in his first two years following the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. It should come as little surprise if Dallas opts to give Elliott close to 400 touches this fall.

Green Bay Packers

 Davante Adams (with and without Aaron Rodgers), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Rodgers 7 8.0 4.7 56.6 12.0 0.9 108.6 15.5
w/o Rodgers 7 8.9 5.9 69.9 11.9 0.6 113.9 16.3

There are other obvious factors (there always are) to consider here besides whether or not Rodgers was on the field, although I think it is by far the most valuable for our purposes here. Rodgers' affinity for Jordy Nelson has never been a secret, so Adams was always likely to have a bit of a glass ceiling when it came to his production (outside of scoring touchdowns) when Green Bay was completely healthy. Even after watching it unfold in front of my eyes last season, I'm not sure I would have predicted Adams' production was actually better without Rodgers. The most surprising stat of them all? The YPC production was essentially the same.

With Nelson gone, Randall Cobb seemingly no longer a red zone threat and Geronimo Allison likely battling three rookies for the third receiver spot, it's reasonable to assume (as it appears many early drafters are) that Adams could be primed to become the new Nelson. I'm not sure I would go that far, however. In Nelson's heyday, he was as much as a vertical receiver as he was a crafty route-runner. Adams is fine route-runner in his own right but more of an intermediate threat who can high-point the ball and possesses better run-after-catch skills. The point is I'm not ready to go to 90-1,500-12 territory with Adams yet, but I think fantasy WR1 status is pretty much a given as long as he and Rodgers stay healthy.

Houston Texans

Note: Excludes Weeks 1 and 2. Watson came in halftime of Week 1 and Week 2 was a short week, giving Houston even less time to reorganize its offense than it would normally have after a quarterback switch.

 Lamar Miller (with and without Deshaun Watson), 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Watson 5 16.8 60.0 3.6 0.4 3.2 2.6 27.4 10.5 0.4 80.7 16.1
w/o Watson 9 13.2 51.3 3.9 0.1 2.7 2.0 14.8 7.4 0.1 89.5 9.9

Miller would probably have to string together two incredible seasons in order for owners to believe in him again. If/when that happens, he'll be 29 and owners will be avoiding him like the plague at that point because he's too close to the end of his career. I maintain he is a better-than-average back who is capable of being at least a quality fantasy RB2 (which he actually has been in Houston with 16th and 19th place finishes at his position) if he has a halfway decent supporting cast around him. For five games last year, we saw what can happen if defenses have to respect his quarterback. Miller will probably never be a great runner in between the tackles or generate a lot of yards after contact, but he was also never that guy in Miami either.

Critics will point to Miller's low yards per carry as another reason he's not worth trusting in fantasy. I would point to some of the worst offensive play in the league during his time as a Texan as the main reason for that. He has a little more time to show HC Bill O'Brien he is capable of being the feature back and may have gotten a break in that regard when D'Onta Foreman suffered his Achilles' injury. If Foreman is ready by Week 1 and doesn't need to go on the PUP list, he could very well overtake Miller and make him a release candidate for the 2019 offseason. If Foreman doesn't come back healthy, it could be just the break Miller needs as he will have had a full offseason and roughly half of a regular season to enjoy the benefits of Watson & Co. emptying out the box for him.

 DeAndre Hopkins (with and without Deshaun Watson), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Watson 5 9.4 6.2 95.6 15.4 1.2 114.8 23.0
w/o Watson 8 12.3 6.4 96.5 15.1 0.8 162.2 20.3

Hopkins proved last year perhaps the only player in the league that can keep him in check is Brock Osweiler. He's obviously going to be more efficient with Watson as his quarterback, but any receiver who can average 12.3 targets and was on pace for 102 catches, 1,544 yards and 12 touchdowns WITHOUT his top quarterback under center is pretty darn good. Then again, you probably already knew that

 Will Fuller (with and without Deshaun Watson), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Watson 4 5.5 3.3 69.8 21.5 1.8 83.8 21.0
w/o Watson 6 4.7 2.5 24.0 9.6 0.0 29.4 4.9

Fuller was exactly the type of player I had in mind when I decided on this topic. While regression to the mean is almost guaranteed both in terms of touchdowns and YPC (not to mention we are dealing with a very small sample size to boot), I think we can draw at least three pretty strong conclusions moving forward: 1) Watson and Fuller have exceptional chemistry, 2) their strengths complement each other well and 3) Fuller only has one trick in his bag right now, albeit a very good one. Given his durability issues and the likelihood he isn't going to bulk up enough in the coming years to protect himself against more injuries, Fuller has the feel of a player who is best suited for best-ball leagues. In redraft and dynasty formats, I would be tempted to sell as high as possible after his first big game or two.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Splits includes three playoff games

 Leonard Fournette/Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Fournette 16 21.1 80.1 3.8 0.8 3.8 2.7 21.6 8.0 0.1 289.8 18.1
Ivory/Yeldon w/o Fournette 3 27.0 116.0 4.3 0.7 5.0 3.7 28.3 7.7 0.0 62.3 20.8

I offer this comparison in part to dispel the myth that Jacksonville's resurgence was not necessarily due to Fournette's arrival, but rather the commitment to the running game and, most importantly, the play of the defense. The usual caveats apply: three games is a very small sample size and matchups matter. Ivory and Yeldon had the good fortune of facing three reasonably gracious defenses during Fournette's absence. Cincinnati (second-most), Indianapolis (11th) and the Los Angeles Chargers (13th) all ranked in the top half of the league in most PPR points allowed to running backs. With that said, the half-yard difference per carry between Fournette and the Ivory/Yeldon combo is still worth noting. It's also worth mentioning Fournette only averaged more than four yards per carry twice after his Week 10 return, offering solid proof he was probably operating at about 80 percent health at that point of the season.

Los Angeles Rams

Splits includes one playoff game; Week 17 was excluded as the Rams rested most of their key players

 Cooper Kupp (with and without Robert Woods), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Woods 13 6.4 4.0 48.9 12.2 0.4 143.6 11.0
w/o Woods 3 8.0 6.0 100.7 16.8 1.0 54.2 18.1

 Sammy Watkins (with and without Woods), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Woods 13 4.2 2.3 36.5 15.8 0.4 107.5 8.3
w/o Woods 3 6.7 3.3 47.0 14.1 3.0 42.1 14.0

 Woods/Josh Reynolds, 2017
Player Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Woods Active 13.0 7.6 5.0 71.0 14.2 0.4 186.5 14.3
Reynolds w/o Woods 3.0 4.7 2.7 20.0 7.5 1.0 20.0 6.7

In case you're wondering, Todd Gurley's production in the passing game wasn't much different in Weeks 12-14 than it was over the rest of the season. The tight ends (Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett) were not significantly more or less involved either. While mentioning yet again we are dealing with a small sample size - the three games Woods missed outside of Week 17 - it is worth noting Kupp turned into a fantasy WR1 in Woods' absence. The rookie caught a bit of a break in two of his three matchups, as he avoided the Saints' formidable outside cornerback duo and Patrick Peterson in successive weeks due to playing the bulk of the snaps in the slot. Watkins didn't exactly tear things up in those same games, but he found the end zone each time. Reynolds essentially served as a light version of Watkins.

Considering Brandin Cooks will have the benefit of a full offseason - something Watkins did not have - and the fact he already has a bit of a rapport with Jared Goff, the former Saint and Patriot should come close to matching Watkins' eight TD catches while flying right by his 39 receptions and 593 receiving yards last year with the Rams. Watkins finished as the WR40 in PPR in 2017 with a lot working against him. Cooks was the WR15 with a 65-1,082-7 line in New England. I don't think Watkins' production is Cook's realistic floor, nor do I believe his 2017 numbers with New England represents a realistic ceiling for Cooks in Los Angeles. A top-25 finish is possible, but I'm not sure I'm willing to go much higher than that barring injury or Cooks finding a way to repeat Watkins-like incredibly high TD rate. HC Sean McVay seems to believe Woods is his primary receiver, while Kupp should and Gurley could easily exceed 60 catches again. Asking a fourth Ram to haul in 60 passes seems unreasonable.

New England Patriots

Splits includes three playoff games

 Rex Burkhead, 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Active 12 5.7 23.9 4.2 0.4 3.2 2.6 25.0 9.7 0.3 137.7 11.5

 James White, 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Burkhead and Lewis 12 3.5 14.2 4.0 0.2 4.5 3.3 27.9 8.6 0.3 119.5 10.0
w/o Burkhead 5 3.0 12.2 4.1 0.2 7.2 5.2 33.2 6.4 0.2 60.7 12.1

 Dion Lewis, 2017
Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ Burkhead and White 12 10.3 51.6 5.0 0.2 2.1 1.8 12.6 6.9 0.1 115.0 9.6
w/o Burkhead 5 7.8 38.0 4.9 0.4 3.2 3.0 22.0 7.3 0.0 57.0 11.4
w/o Burkhead/White 2 25.0 111.0 4.4 1.0 6.0 5.5 32.0 5.8 1.0 63.6 31.8

It is interesting Lewis and White only received modest bumps in production with Burkhead sidelined. The biggest takeaway might be Lewis, however, as he averaged more PPR points as the featured back (31.8) than all three backs did when the trio was healthy (31.1). Perhaps the most surprising split was how relatively unproductive Lewis was with Burkhead and White active - something present and future owners of Sony Michel may want to strongly consider. There has been plenty of offseason chatter in the fantasy community regarding Michel picking up the 212 regular-season touches Lewis leaves behind, but 61 of them (28.8 percent) came in Weeks 16 and 17 when Burkhead and White were inactive.

In no way does this suggest Michel is doomed to disappoint in 2018, as no team shape-shifts its backfield more than New England every season. However, it should put in some perspective just how much Lewis' bottom line fattened because he was the only show in town for two games. Can Michel earn the same 212 touches Lewis had last year? Sure. Is he capable of handling that workload? I believe so. Will he? If we use only Lewis' per-game averages in the 12 contests all three backs played, Michel would amass 165 carries, 825 rushing yards, 2.7 rushing touchdowns, 33 targets, 29 receptions, 201 receiving yards, 1.3 receiving TDs and 153.6 PPR fantasy points - a number that would have left him at RB27 last season. Given the draft capital and the talent Michel possesses, all of these numbers should be his floor. How much above and beyond that owners want to count on from him given the unpredictable nature of this backfield is a matter of risk tolerance and personal preference.

New York Giants

Splits do not include Weeks 6, 7, 11, 12 and 17 as a result of Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr. being sidelined.

 Odell Beckham Jr., 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Active 4 10.3 6.3 75.5 12.1 0.8 74.0 18.5

 Sterling Shepard (with and without Beckham), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ OBJ 4 5.3 3.8 54.8 14.6 0.3 43.6 10.9
w/o OBJ 7 9.0 6.3 73.1 11.6 0.1 100.9 14.4

Pretty much as expected. Brandon Marshall and Beckham went down the same week (Week 5), forcing Shepard into the top receiver role when he returned from his own injury in Week 9. Shepard saw roughly a 70 percent increase in targets without OBJ around. If extrapolated over the course of a full season, his fantasy scoring average of 14.4 points with Beckham sidelined would have netted him a WR13 finish - in between JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR12) and A.J. Green (WR14).

 Evan Engram (with and without Beckham), 2017
Split Games Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
w/ OBJ 4 7.3 3.8 39.0 10.4 0.3 36.6 9.2
w/o OBJ 7 7.7 4.9 56.7 11.7 0.4 93.1 13.3

Engram was the reason I wanted to include this particular comparison. While it is hard to debate his chemistry with Eli Manning blossomed as the season progressed, it's probably not coincidence five of his six touchdowns came in games OBJ around - including one in each of the four games immediately following Beckham's injury (two of which came while Shepard was sidelined as well). Note Engram's involvement with Shepard playing and Beckham out didn't change very much.

There is no question Engram is part of the new breed at tight end in the league and has staying power, but what owners must ask themselves before drafting him this year is: can Manning - a 37-year-old quarterback who has been in obvious decline over at least the last two seasons - make three pass-catchers relevant just because HC Pat Shurmur is the one calling the shots now instead of Ben McAdoo? Yes, the line is better. Yes, the Giants are unlikely to throw 139 times to the running back position again this season because Manning will have better protection. Will all that be enough?

Tampa Bay Bucs

 Doug Martin/Peyton Barber, 2017
Player Split Games Ru/G RYd/G Avg TD/G Tar/G Rec/G ReYds/G Avg TD/G FPts FPts/G
Martin Starter 8 14.9 47.0 3.2 0.3 1.9 0.9 7.5 8.6 0.0 62.6 7.8
Barber Starter 5 15.6 67.0 4.3 0.2 2.8 2.4 16.6 6.9 0.0 57.8 11.6

This "comparison" is more of a reminder as to why the Bucs made the change from Martin to Barber in Week 13. Barber appeared to be in 2012 and 2015 form in his first game back from suspension in Week 5 against the Patriots, but that was about as good as it got for the former first-round pick, whose act wore down the coaching staff as much as the offensive line play fell off a cliff. It should be noted Barber's best games came against a virtually nonexistent Packers' defense in Week 13 and a team that knew its spot in the postseason was secure in Week 17 in New Orleans. Be that as it may, Barber was able to top four yards per carry in four of the five games he was the primary back and average a respectable 4.3 YPC overall during that span.

With Tampa Bay embracing an attitude adjustment up front in the offseason, Barber should be expected to be more efficient. Whether or not he'll get a chance to take advantage of all the nastiness Tampa Bay added is another story. For an offense that hasn't seen a run longer than 45 yards in over two seasons, Ronald Jones makes too much sense as a back who can gouge defenses for big plays while defenses are busy trying to keep Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard in front of them.


Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.