Before I begin this week, I would like to take a minute to acknowledge
the passing of renowned fantasy analyst Mike Tagliere due to COVID-19
on Sept. 24. He was 39.
There are many things wrong with the fantasy industry, but "Tags"
was one of the things that was right about it. So few people in
the industry 1) actually watch enough of the games to speak intelligently
about each team and 2) do so with a discerning eye and can apply
it to fantasy. He was one of those people and it came through
in his work. In what can sometimes be a cruel industry, Mike embodied
what it should be: work and research like crazy but do so with
humility while treating people with the utmost kindness and respect.
His love for his family - specifically his wife Tabbie - was obvious
to anyone who knew him or followed him on social media.
I met Mike at the King's Classic in 2018 and talked with him
again in 2019 before the pandemic forced the 2020 event to be
held online. While I don't have a ton of stories about him, I
felt we were kindred spirits in the way; his weekly Primer at
FantasyPros was basically the same beast I created back in 2007:
Inside the Matchup. There are only so many people willing to grind
out 20,000 words per week about football. It does not take long
for someone with that kind of passion to stand out to another
person with that kind of passion.
In case anyone reading this introduction questions how big of
a loss this is for the industry, perhaps this will help. Over
the last few days, countless analysts on social media have credited
Mike as one of the driving forces as to why they got into the
industry. Another example of his reach: a GoFundMe page was established
for Tabbie and the family shortly after news of his passing was
made public. By the end of the weekend, roughly $200,000 was raised.
As this article hits the site less than a week later (Sept. 30),
that number is pushing $400,000. To say Mike was respected and
beloved by his peers is an understatement.
Rest in peace, Tags. You are missed.
Television networks and analytics companies seem to subscribe
to the notion that it is better for them to have access to the
information many fantasy managers could use to make better drafting
and lineup decisions (knowledge is power) than it is for the general
public to be more educated about the game we love. Much as what
can happen when the conversation turns to the subject of politics,
ignorance sparks debate. In this little hobby of ours, debate
then drives some people to pay big money to get the answers they
desire (or at least ones that confirm their bias) in an effort
to get an edge.
Among the many reasons I spend so much time talking about running
backs each year has to do with the relative mystery - or dare
I say the lack of intricate information available to the general
public - of their usage. Snap counts are really just the tip of
the iceberg. While playing time is a big deal, knowing snap count
numbers is no more helpful than a basketball box score that provides
nothing more than how many minutes each player played.
To that end, I thought it would be helpful to take a deeper look
into more specific usage numbers this week. More specifically,
I want to dig into specific run- and pass-game usage. While I
have repeatedly suggested I have doubts about the "educated
guesses" that Pro Football Focus has to make when grading
players and charting games, some of their information can be invaluable
when we have questions about certain players. Two weeks is still
a very small sample size to draw rock-solid conclusions, but usage
patterns are already starting to form in many cases.
Key to table below:
Tm Snaps - Total offensive snaps Tot Snaps - Player's overall snap total Snap % - Tot Snaps/Tm Snaps Opp % - The percentage of opportunities (carries
plus targets) a player is getting R Snaps - Snaps in which a run play occurred
when a player is on the field Car - Carries P Snaps - Snaps in which a pass play occurred
when a player is on the field Routes - Number of routes run Route % - How often a player is running a route
on a pass play when he is on the field T/RR % - How often a player is getting targeted
on passing plays when he is on the field YAC/A - Yards after contact per attempt
Comment: Bear in mind the Raiders have run at a league-high 235
plays (an unsustainable 78.3 per game), due in no small part to
two overtime games. As such, it is difficult to read much into
Barber and Jacobs' snap counts or snap percentages. Jacobs only
played in the opener in a negative game script, while Barber had
next to no chance to get going in Week 2 (gained 47 yards after
contact in a game in which he rushed for 32 yards). The easiest
application for this data is to treat it like Las Vegas is treating
its backfield (i.e. Barber is Jacobs' direct backup and being
asked to assume his role in the offense during his absence, while
Drake is the clear top option in the passing game). Drake's snap
share is in part a reflection of how often the Raiders have been
trailing in games during their 3-0 start, and his 2.1 yards per
carry on 21 rushing attempts through three games isn't going to
help him become the handcuff that so many thought he was going
to be when he signed with Las Vegas this spring.
Comment: A snap share of 64.7 percent is not elite by any stretch,
but Ekeler is more of a full-time back than he has been at any
point during his NFL career. His passing game usage predictably
dwarfs that of Rountree and Jackson, but it comes as a bit of
a surprise that he is playing more than three times as many plays
as either one of his teammates and has nearly doubled them in
run snaps (42-27) and rush attempts (35-20). The bigger mystery
with this backfield is his best handcuff for fantasy purposes.
Given their respective skill sets (Rountree in college, Jackson
as a pro), it is reasonable to believe Jackson is the better one
because he is the strong favorite to handle duties in the passing
game. To that end, Rountree has only run a route on 59.3 percent
of the pass plays in which he has been on the field (69.6 for
Jackson, 79.8 for Ekeler). Through three games, it appears OC
Joe Lombardi is content letting Ekeler handle about 10-12 carries
and figuring out who the hot hand is with the rest of the carries.
Comment: This is another situation in which an injury to the
starter limits what we can surmise about the backfield usage as
a whole. The Rams are not playing with great pace (their 177 offensive
snaps are the third lowest of the 16 teams covered this week).
Los Angeles also appears to have faith in Michel in the passing
game (he ran 22 routes of his 29 routes for the season in Week
3 and is running a route on 85.3 percent of the pass plays that
he is on the field for so far), which is a clear departure from
how the Patriots utilized him. Perhaps even more telling, Michel
saw 24 opportunities (23 touches) in his first start with the
Rams in the worst possible matchup for running backs (Tampa Bay).
Henderson hasn't seen that kind of workload in any of his 30 games
since becoming a pro. Expect Henderson to remain the starter indefinitely,
but Michel will almost certainly take enough work away from Henderson
moving forward that Week 1's encouraging usage will not be repeated
anytime soon as long as both players are healthy.
Comment: Despite all the handwringing of Gaskin being featured
as he was last year, the fact of the matter is that he has been
a bit of a Chase Edmonds clone in a lesser offense through three
contests. He is playing twice as many snaps as Brown or Ahmed
and has one more rushing attempt than the other two combined.
Gaskin should be primed to see more work as a rusher as the season
progresses if his early averages hold up; his 2.89 yards per carry
after contact is nearly a half-yard better than Brown or Ahmed
and his 5.1 yards per carry is more than a full yard better. His
usage in the passing game is where he is standing out versus his
teammates; his 64 routes run and 15 targets are more than twice
as many as Brown or Ahmed. Ultimately, the Dolphins do not appear
to be in a hurry to abandon their quasi-committee, but there is
reason to believe they could down the road.
Comment: Cook's absence in Week 3 skews a lot of these numbers
and averages, so I will refer to some of his more important usage
statistics as it stood through two weeks: 73.6 percent of the
snaps, 49.1 percent opportunity share and a T/RR % of 23.3 percent.
That last number ranked ninth among all backs with at least 70
snaps in their first two games. Mattison was predictably the only
show in town in Week 3, attracting all the targets by a Minnesota
running back and playing a Cook-like 68 percent of the snaps.
We can probably assume Cook will return to his usage numbers from
the first two weeks as soon as he is cleared, but the Vikings
need to consider the possibility of lightening his load whenever
possible. While his ankle injury was not one in which overuse
was to blame, he entered the season with a significant injury
history. Overuse was the primary reason why I was down on him
this summer and Minnesota still is not acting as though it believes
saving him for the stretch run is a good idea.
Comment: Harris has established himself as the clear early-down
option - his 48 run snaps and 45 rushing attempts are more than
twice the number of the rest of his teammates combined. However,
James White's hip injury (and subsequent uptick in Bolden's playing
time) in Week 3 casts some doubt as to the identity of the back
who will take the bulk of his pass-catching role moving forward.
While Bolden is primarily a special-teamer at this point of his
career, he has earned the trust of HC Bill Belichick and OC Josh
McDaniels over the years. Perhaps it should not be a surprise
then that he took over for White after his injury.
With a full week of practice to prepare him for the role he will
likely hold next year and beyond, I expect Taylor to take the
lead as Harris' complement (with Bolden getting mixed in primarily
for his ability to pick up the blitz). New England probably will
not use either player as a 1-for-1 replacement for White, but
this offense needs juice anywhere it can get it. Taylor has it.
Bolden does not. The problem with singling out Taylor is that
Stevenson is also quite adept as a receiver. Will White's injury
end his two-game punishment for fumbling in the opener? Only Belichick
and McDaniels know the answer to that question right now.
Comment: Kamara is a stud. His usage is awesome. With that said,
there is reason for his fantasy managers to be concerned. Kamara's
YPC per-game marks have been at 4.2 or lower in all three games
and some of that was even before the Saints lost LT Terron Armstead
and C Erik McCoy to injury. He has 10 catches after three games,
which pales in comparison to the 27 he had at the same time last
year or the 17 he had through three outings in 2019. New Orleans
is also playing at an incredibly slow pace, averaging 56 offensive
plays per game. This is the way the Saints are likely to play
at least until Michael Thomas (and to a lesser extent, Tre'Quan
Smith) return, but his return isn't going to suddenly stretch
the defense to the point it will potentially extend drives and/or
drastically increase the number of plays. Kamara isn't going to
fall out of the RB1 ranks, but expectations regarding his upside
need to be adjusted. The slow pace of play and reliance on the
defense is most likely the root cause of Jones not getting the
same amount of work Latavius Murray saw during his time as a Saint.
Comment: Booker was a healthy scratch in Week 3 and Barkley assumed
the workhorse role many expected. Even with the Giants easing
him into action over the first two games, Barkley has still been
on the field for 73.5 percent of the team's offensive snaps and
touched the ball on 35.4 percent of the 147 plays he has been
on the field. The primary concern - as it has been for years with
New York - is the offensive line. Barkley's 41-yard run in Week
2 accounts for 30.5 percent of his rushing yards this season.
His other 38 carries have netted him a total of 93 yards (2.4
YPC). Like Najee Harris, Barkley's heavy usage is not expected
to change much moving forward barring injury, so volume is going
to keep him firmly in the RB1 conversation. However, it is somewhat
concerning that Miles Sanders (4.9) and Leonard Fournette (4.7)
each pushed five yards per carry against a defense (Atlanta) that
limited Barkley to 3.2.
Comment: It took one game for New York to realize what many fantasy
managers already knew: Coleman should not be a starting running
back in the NFL anymore. Coleman played only 10 percent of snaps
in Week 2 before sitting out Week 3 due to an illness, and it
is fair to wonder if he will see five touches or top 15 percent
of the snaps in another game anytime soon. Interestingly, Johnson
has emerged as the top option in the passing game, while Carter
holds a slight edge in terms of work on the ground.
Johnson has been on the field for 78 pass plays (versus 44 for
Carter) and ran 18 more routes (54-36), but the oddity here is
that Carter has just as many targets (eight) and three more catches
(5-2). The most likely reason for this is that Johnson is seeing
the majority of long down-and-distance work, which is usually
not conducive to running backs piling up catches unless the team
is great at running screens. The other thing to keep in mind here
is that Jets' running backs have yet to score a touchdown and
are averaging 19 carries, 73 rushing yards, 2.3 catches and 21.6
receiving yards. There is just not much upside here, especially
when the opportunity is spread in two (and sometimes three) directions.
Comment: Most people already know about the three
total carries by Philly's running backs on Monday against
the Cowboys. (Including QB Jalen Hurts, Pro Football Focus charted
five called runs and seven scrambles in all.) The snap percentage
of the two backs seem to reflect the overall usage of Sanders
and Gainwell, as there appears to be a 2:1 ratio across the board
in run snaps (41-19), rush attempts (30-16), pass plays (80-43)
and routes (62-34). The one semi-interesting nugget here is that
Gainwell has the same number of targets (nine) and one less reception
despite seeing significantly less work in the passing game. Sanders
himself said during the preseason that Gainwell "probably
has the best hands in the (running back) room." It is
reasonable to assume Sanders will maintain his current level of
work as a runner (roughly two-thirds of the run plays) while Gainwell
continues to incrementally take over more of the work as a receiver.
If there is one positive to take from the Eagles' distribution
so far, it might be that Gainwell would likely be featured if
Sanders misses time.
Running backs of note: Najee Harris
Comment: Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson would be
proud. Harris has played 96.4 percent of the snaps. He has also
accounted for all 27 of the targets and run 96 percent of the
routes by Pittsburgh running backs. Especially in today's game,
that kind of usage will keep a running back in the RB1 discussion
regardless of how poor his offense is or how bad his offensive
Comment: The sheer number of injuries to this backfield makes
it difficult to conclude much for this kind of analysis. However,
it seemed clear from watching Week 3 that Sermon's "great"
week of practice was not enough for him to earn the trust of HC
Kyle Shanahan. Sermon carried the ball once on San Francisco's
first two drives and only had three rushing attempts at halftime.
At least for the moment, it appears as if Mitchell has captured
the imagination of Shanahan - if only because his speed opens
a part of the playbook that was only available when Raheem Mostert
was healthy over the last few seasons.
There is too much volatility in this backfield to be certain
of anything, but it appears as if Sermon will need Mitchell to
miss significant time if he is going to make much of an impact
in 2021. The elephant in the room (perhaps as early as late October
or as last as Thanksgiving) is Wilson. He needs to be on a roster
in any league with IR spots right now. Perhaps Shanahan will trust
Mitchell the same way he already trusts Wilson in another month
or so, but last year's finish was a clear sign that Wilson has
earned his place in Shanahan's circle of trust.
Comment: The first takeaway from Carson's per-game utilization
is that his routes run percentage has dropped each week. He is
also seeing virtually none of the long down-and-distance or two-minute
snaps. That seems to be where the Seahawks want to rest him in
favor of Penny or Homer. Carson figures to see the "money
touches" for the foreseeable future (inside the 5, especially)
and his opportunity share of 46.5 percent is excellent for a back
who is on the field as much as he is. Unfortunately, Seattle has
run a lackluster 161 offensive plays per PFF - the lowest mark
in the league. One of the explanations for that low number is
the relatively high number of big pass plays (12 20-yard pass
plays) the Seahawks have hit in the early going. Big pass plays
lead to shorter drives (in terms of the number of plays), which
helps to explain how a running back averaging 4.9 yards per carry
only has 41 attempts through three games. Either way, it's easy
to conclude that new OC Shane Waldron is not placing a heavy emphasis
on getting Carson (or any of his running backs, for that matter)
involved in the passing game.
Comment: The best thing about this backfield is that it could
be trending toward one back on early downs, as Jones cannot seem
to get out of his own way - at least in the eyes of HC Bruce Arians
and OC Byron Leftwich. Fournette is running a route on 91.7 percent
of the pass plays he is on the field for and leads the team with
66 routes run, which cannot be what anyone had in mind when the
Bucs added Bernard in the offseason. What appears obvious after
Week 3 is that Bernard will only be worth using in fantasy when
the Bucs face negative game script or get into a wild-west kind
of shootout, neither of which should happen often as soon as Tampa
Bay's secondary gets healthier. Bernard has yet to carry the ball,
making him nothing more than a glorified receiver on a team that
is loaded with pass-catching options. (Bernard could miss multiple
weeks with the knee injury he suffered on his TD catch last week.)
For better or worse, the Bucs are showing very little commitment
to the running game, giving the running back position an average
of 13 carries (to go along with 8.7 receptions) through three
games. It is one thing when that is going to one back. The Bucs
are spreading that work among three.
Comment: Fantasy's overall RB1 through three weeks has several
factors working in his favor right now. He's been targeted on
23.5 percent of his routes run, which is the highest percentage
for a running back of the 16 teams covered in this piece who has
played at least 75 snaps. He has one less target than Alvin Kamara
(13-12) does. One year after the coaching staff admitted they
overworked him in the first half of the season, Henry is averaging
30.7 touches - good for a 521-touch pace in a 17-game season.
Suffice it to say that number will start coming down soon.
The Titans are averaging 73.7 offensive snaps. Good running teams
can typically average 70 plays, but Tennessee's passing game has
not exactly held up its end of the bargain yet. While the Titans'
Week 2 overtime win in Seattle obviously contributed to the high
play average, Henry's six touches and Tennessee's 10 non-punt
snaps in that extra period aren't driving up their respective
averages THAT much. Evans will likely take McNichols' snaps at
some point in the near future when he returns from IR, but the
question becomes if Henry gives up much of the work in the passing
game since he is handling what he has seen so far exceptionally
Comment: The Football Team entered the season with a solid plan:
ride Gibson and a strong defense loaded with first-round draft
choices and let Ryan Fitzpatrick work his magic when necessary.
Well, Fitzpatrick lasted less than a half and the defense has
yet to show up. Perhaps that helps to explain why Gibson hasn't
assumed control of this backfield in the way many expected (hoped?).
It is clear McKissic is the back of choice in long down-and-distance
and two-minute snaps because Gibson is rarely on the field in
those situations, whether the reason is to give Gibson a rest
or because Washington simply likes McKissic to handle those opportunities.
Unlike most backfields, there is clarity with this one for now.
Consider Gibson a potential high-end RB1 just about any time Washington
is expected to play with a positive game script. (It hasn't happened
much to this point because the defense has struggled.) Any time
the Football Team is expected to face negative game script, set
expectations more at the low-end RB2 level. His big-play upside
- as he showed on his 73-yard TD catch last week - will save him
on occasion, but consistency will not be his forte until his lack
of usage in traditional passing situations changes.
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.