Target Decoder: From Zero to Fantasy Hero?

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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.

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.

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.

Week 12 Targets: Decoded

Dan Arnold (JAC) vs. ATL

Fantasy managers the world over were rattled after waiver wire wonder Dan Arnold -- who had become an unquestioned starter in 12-team formats -- dropped an ugly little goose egg against the 49ers in Week 11. Not only did Arnold fail to score a single fantasy point -- he didn’t register a single target in the Jaguars’ embarrassing home field loss to San Francisco.

So I did what any Dan Arnold apologist would do, driving from my suburban Maryland home to Jacksonville, Florida in the middle of the night to investigate exactly what happened to one of the game’s most productive tight ends over the past month and a half. I could not rest until I figured out how -- and why -- Arnold vanished in Week 11.

Actually, I opened my phone, messaged my internet buddy, Jaguars beat writer John Shipley, and asked what, exactly, happened to Arnold against the Niners.

Shipley directed me to an Urban Myer quote about Arnold’s stunning lack of Week 11 involvement after leading the Jags in targets since the second week of October.

Meyer after Sunday’s loss said the team was “aware” of Arnold’s zero targets, and that it was the coaches' “obligation … to get him the ball,” calling Arnold “one of our better players.” “We had run a couple option routes to him and they bracketed him, and the ball went somewhere else,” Meyer said, adding that the Niners defense also focused on Laviska Shenault. “That’s why I always like to hand the ball to your best players at times because when you hand the ball to Laviska, you can’t take that away, you’re going to hand the ball to him. They can take him away in the throw game and that’s what they did a little bit.”

Shipley pointed out that the San Francisco front seven blew up a screen pass to Arnold before the ball could leave Trevor Lawrence’s hand. It was that kind of day for the utterly overwhelmed Jacksonville offense.

Arnold -- and every other fantasy-relevant Jaguars player -- was trapped in the unfriendliest fantasy environment imaginable. Torturously long drives by the hyper-conservative 49ers offense and early mistakes by the mistake-prone Jacksonville offense suppressed the Jags’ offensive snaps in Week 11. They had run a grand total of four offensive plays midway through the second quarter. They ended up with a meager 44 offensive snaps, about 16 fewer than the season average. No team, in fact, recorded fewer offensive plays than the Jaguars in Week 11. It’s the sort of thing that destroys fantasy production (and it was at least partly predictable against a Niners defense that gives up the eighth fewest offensive snaps per game).

Probably you’re sick of hearing about tight end usage. Nevertheless, here goes: Arnold ran a pass route on 80 percent of Lawrence’s Week 11 drop backs, which was actually an uptick over his 76.8 percent route rate from Week 8-10. Of course, his 22.2 percent target per route rate from Week 8-10 dropped to a far more humble 17.8 percent with last week’s zero-target outing. Small samples can be a searing pain in our collective rear end.

Perhaps we (I) didn’t account for matchup when tabbing Arnold as a fantasy starter in Week 11. The 49ers have been brutally tough against enemy tight ends, allowing the second fewest tight end receptions (34) and the fewest tight end yards (294) this season. Only one tight end -- T.J. Hockenson in Week 1 -- posted solid fantasy numbers against the San Francisco defense. They subsequently shut down the Eagles tight ends, Robert Tonyan, and a slew of serviceable pass-catching tight ends.

49ers opponents have shied away from the tight end throughout 2021, as tight ends have seen a league-low 15.5 percent target share against the Niners defense. Tight ends have accounted for a miniscule 13.4 percent of the receiving yardage against the 49ers. Those who happily played Arnold in Week 11 found out the hard way that the Niners are the single toughest tight end matchup in the NFL.

Quickly, I promise, a word on process: Arnold by any and every measure made sense as a startable tight end in 12-team leagues against San Francisco. Over the previous three weeks, only Travis Kelce had more tight end targets than Arnold, and no tight end had more receptions. A mere four tight ends had run more routes over that three-week span. When a tight end is a team’s No. 1 pass catcher, you play him. It’s that simple.

We’re on to Week 12. The Jaguars are in a decidedly fantasy friendly -- or at least friendlier -- spot against a Falcons team that has gone from boringly mediocre to downright catastrophic over the past couple weeks. The Jags being 1.5-point home dogs to Atlanta is an insult without equal.

But I digress.

Arnold is in a far better spot against a Falcons defense allowing a 19.7 percent target share to tight ends (or 6.5 tight end targets per week). Recent tight end production against Atlanta has been hampered by blowout game scripts: Dallas tight end combined for three receptions on four targets in the Cowboys’ lopsided Week 10 win against the Falcons and Patriots tight ends totaled three grabs on five targets as New England hammered the Falcons in Week 11. There’s nothing to suggest the Falcons can shut down an opposing tight end heavily involved in his team's passing offense.

The environment for Arnold and the Jacksonville pass catchers should be way better than it was against the clock-killing Niners. Atlanta allows the tenth most offensive plays per game this season, a number that has crept upward as the team has nosedived in November. Arnold should be out there as an every-down player, among the team leaders in pass routes, this time without Jamaal Agnew, who suffered a season-ending hip injury last week. The intermediate, over-the-middle targets should be Arnold’s for the taking. Available on 33 percent of waiver wires, he’s well worth picking up and starting if you can overcome the mental anguish of his Week 11 zero.

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Evan Engram (NYG) at PHI

Do I get perverse pleasure in touting a tight end who has seen ten targets over his past few games despite being among the league leaders in tight end pass routes? Well, maybe. But officially: No.

Engram is a borderline option even though he’s run a route on 91 percent of the Giants’ drop backs over their past three games. Perhaps the merciful firing of Jason Garrett could be the ignition for Engram -- once a promising, hyper-athletic pass catcher -- in the New York offense. Or maybe not. The incompetent Joe Judge, after all, is his head coach.

Engram in Week 12 gets fantasy’s premiere tight end matchup. No one can take that away from him. The Eagles, something of a pass-funnel defense, have allowed a stunning 26.7 percent target share (9.9 targets per game) to tight ends through Week 11. Philly’s defense has given up a dozen more tight end catches and 114 more tight end yards than any other NFL defense. More accurately, the Eagles are a tight end funnel defense.

Judge has vaguely implied that “there are a number of things that could change” with the team’s skill position players in their glorious post-Garrett future. We can hold out hope that those changes include treating Engram as a seam-busting tight end rather than a dump off option (his once-beautiful nine yards per target in 2018 has fallen all the way to 5.7 this season). There would be no better time to unleash the underperforming Kraken than this week against a Philadelphia defense being gouged by enemy tight ends.

The Giants-Eagles game could have sneaky fantasy appeal: Both teams are in the top-10 in offensive snaps allowed this year.

David Johnson (HOU) vs. NYJ

Playing running backs based on matchup is an inarguably dicey proposition. But this space being dedicated to iffy fantasy options -- likely in deeper formats -- compels me to tell you about David Johnson’s less-than-horrid Week 12 spot.

Johnson, who last week led the Houston backfield in snaps and targets -- while Rex Burkhead inexplicably led in carries -- gets a Jets defense in Week 12 that’s allowed a 25.7 percent target share to running backs, the second highest behind the Bengals.

With the now-departed Phillip Lindsay phased out of the Texans offense last week against Tennessee, Johnson ran a route on 58.6 percent of Tyrod Taylor’s drop backs, catching three of four targets for 17 yards. It’s hardly an elite route running share, but it’s something. You could probably do worse than Johnson against a New York defense giving up a healthy 7.92 targets per game to running backs. No team has allowed more fantasy points to running backs this season than the sad-sack Jets.