Target Report: Cameron Meredith quickly becoming a key part of Bears' future

Reality in the NFL is fluid, and that’s why weekly results can be so volatile. One week, the Steelers have the best offense in the league, the next, they’re looking at starting Landry Jones or Zach Mettenberger for an indeterminate number of games. One week, there’s a ray of hope for Arian Foster, and the next, Jay Ajayi grabs a stranglehold of the Miami backfield. What was true last week may be false this week, and this week’s reality could take a sharp turn a week or two from now. The best fantasy owners know how to exploit that.

Take, for instance, the case of Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith. Two weeks ago, he was barely on the radar in even the deepest of fantasy leagues. He was a healthy scratch for Chicago’s first two games, making his season debut against the Cowboys in Week 3. He had eight targets across his first two games of the season, catching six of them for 52 yards. In his rookie year of 2015, he had 11 receptions, 16 targets and 120 yards. With Alshon Jeffery, Kevin White and Eddie Royal ensconced in the Bears offense, there was little reason to believe Meredith would break through at any point this season.

The door cracked open at the end of Chicago’s Week 4 win over Detroit. White suffered what turned out to be a fractured fibula, giving his fellow second-year player a chance to show the Bears what he could do with a real role. The local product, who went to high school about 17 miles west of Soldier Field and played his college ball at Illinois State, is capitalizing on that opportunity. Over the last two weeks, Meredith leads the NFL with 27 targets. He has caught 20 of those passes for 243 yards and a touchdown, surpassing the 100-yard mark in both games while averaging 15.15 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues.

It’s not as though he’s living purely on volume, however. Meredith has made big plays in both games he has started, and is quickly making himself a key part of the Bears’ future. We saw this play last week, but it’s worth watching again. Look how he absolutely burns Patrick Robinson with a double move, setting up an easy touchdown throw for Brian Hoyer.

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Last week against the Jaguars, Meredith was the Bears’ only consistent weapon from start to finish. Here he is taking a screen at the line of scrimmage, following his blocks and breaking a tackle for a huge play in the second half.

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Targets are the lifeblood for any receiver, but they have to do enough with them to continue receiving fresh infusions, and Meredith has been. After his performance over the last two weeks, there’s no reason to expect Meredith’s role in the Chicago offense to diminish.

And now onto the rest of the Week 6 Target and Snap Report.

Mike Evans is hooked up to an IV of targets

Let’s stay on this idea of targets being receivers’ lifeblood for one more topic. Receivers can only catch the passes that are thrown to them, save for the occasional oddity. Fantasy owners want their quarterbacks to be efficient, but they want their receivers to be overwhelmed with volume. Through six weeks, Evans is the clear volume champion at the position.

Evans has 60 targets on the season, tied for fifth most with Amari Cooper, Brandon Marshall and Greg Olsen. The only players with more are Antonio Brown (64), T.Y. Hilton (64), A.J. Green (62) and Odell Beckham Jr. (61). But keep in mind, Evans has already had his bye, while the others haven’t. If you want to find another player on the target leaderboard whose team has taken a rest this season, you need to go all the way down to 20th place, where you’ll find Jordy Nelson sitting on 47 targets.

Evans leads all players with 12 targets per game and a target per snap rate of 18.3%. Among players with at least 30 targets, he’s tied for fourth in both fantasy points per snap and points per opportunity (targets plus carries). In short, Evans is this year’s DeAndre Hopkins. For fantasy purposes, he has the ideal mix of talent and target volume. He may not come up shy of double-digit targets in any game this season and he has an average depth of target of 17.4 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Evans racks up opportunities, and makes plays both deep down the field and in the red zone. He’s a top-five fantasy receiver.

Making sense of the Chiefs backfield

Jamaal Charles made his true return to action last week, running for 33 yards and a touchdown on nine carries and catching two balls for 14 yards. All things considered, it was an encouraging performance for a guy playing his first game since suffering a torn ACL—the second of his career—almost a year to the day prior.

While Charles played well, taking a step in the right direction, Spencer Ware dominated the Raiders, totaling 131 yards and a score on 24 carries, while hauling in two passes for 32 yards in the Chiefs’ 26–10 win. Ware played 40 snaps, while Charles played just 15. Taken by itself, however, the box score distorts reality, so let’s dig into the play-by-play data of the game to get a better feel for the Chiefs backfield.

After allowing the Raiders to score a touchdown on their first possession, the Chiefs completely took over this key game between AFC West foes. They quickly tied the game and took a 13–10 lead into halftime. By the end of the third quarter, the Chiefs were up by 13 and the Raiders had scored all of three points since their first drive of the game. The contest was effectively over.

The Chiefs took over possession with a few seconds remaining in the third quarter. At that point, Charles already had the nine carries, 33 yards and touchdown that would represent his final stat line. He didn’t see the field in the fourth quarter, which isn’t a huge surprise considering how careful the Chiefs have been with him. Ware, meanwhile, had 10 carries for 71 yards and his touchdown. He ran the ball 14 times for 60 yards after the Chiefs had packed Charles in for the day, making the disparity between the two to seem much greater than it actually was. When the game was still in doubt, Ware had just one more carry than Charles. That might be a better reflection of the Chiefs’ backfield realities.

It stands to reason that the Chiefs will treat Ware and Charles the same way in games they have in hand, at least in the short term. Ware may also remain the starter, getting the carries when the Chiefs first have possession. This is, however, more of a 50/50 split than the box score suggests. Ware and Charles essentially traded possessions for the first three quarters of the game, and while Ware was more effective during that time, Charles did his fair share of damage as well. Both players have RB2 value, but Charles will likely only become more involved as the season progresses.

Marcus Mariota’s running: Two-week fluke or a new normal?

I highlighted Mariota’s rushing numbers over the last two weeks in my Week 6 fantasy takeaways. Mariota has 124 yards on the ground in Tennessee’s last two games, hitting the 60-yard mark both weeks. Those games marked just the second and third times in his career that he ran for at least 60 yards in a game, a lack of rushing production that would have shocked the 2014 football world that watched him run all over the country while winning the Heisman in his final year at Oregon. Mariota had seven carries in both of those games, which, again, were just the second and third times in his career he ran the ball that frequently.

This isn’t a question of whether or not Mariota can run—the question is whether or not he will continue to run, or if circumstances the last two weeks have dictated the change. Let’s look at the Titans’ first play from scrimmage in last week’s win over the Browns.

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DeMarco Murray’s presence completely freezes the middle of Cleveland’s defense, and Mariota makes the right decision by keeping it himself. Last year, the Titans simply didn’t have the talent at running back to deploy the read-option with much effectiveness. Thanks to Murray, they do this season, and that’s going to benefit both the quarterback and running back.

Mariota had two more designed runs which covered 14 yards, the second of which nearly got him into the end zone on the ground in consecutive weeks. His performance on the ground the last two weeks is most certainly a trend, and significantly raises his fantasy floor.

A red-zone threat emerges in New Orleans

Michael Thomas is making good in his rookie season. The Ohio State product has had at least 50 yards or a touchdown in all five of the Saints’ games this season. He’s sitting on 26 catches for 307 yards and three scores, good for 9.74 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. That has him ranked 20th among receivers who have played at least four games, and over the last three years, would have been good for 19th among receivers who played at least 12 games, on average.

In other words, Thomas is on pace for a low-end WR2 year. Drew Brees is typically able to produce two top-25 pass catchers, and that’s likely to happen again this season with Brandin Cooks inside the top 15 at the position thus far, despite his frustrating boom-or-bust nature. Thomas doesn’t have nearly Cooks’s ceiling, but he might be a bit more consistent thanks to his development into Brees’s favorite target in the red zone.

Thomas has scored one touchdown in all of the Saints’ last three games. None has been longer than nine yards, and two have come from inside the five-yard line. At 6' 3" and 212 pounds, Thomas is much bigger and more physical than Cooks and Willie Snead. Unlike Coby Fleener, who is just as big but lines up inside, Thomas is outside the numbers, which gives him a major size advantage over the defensive backs assigned to guard him. We’ve seen Brees make great use of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham in identical situations in the past. Thomas looks like his next great red-zone weapon.

The personality of the Saints’ offense prevents any one receiver from becoming a target hog. Thomas has 36 targets this season, and has had more than six targets in just two games, one of which was when Willie Snead was out with an injury. Still, the Saints throw as frequently as any team inside the red zone, and Thomas has become the team’s best receiver in the money area in short order. That’s going to keep him in the good graces of his fantasy owners all season.

Rob Gronkowski and a mixed bag

No, that’s not the name of some new reality show. It is the reality, however, of the Patriots’ offense, specifically with respect to the passing game.

Tom Brady has been excellent in his two games this season. He has completed 76% of his passes for 782 yards, 10.43 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has dismantled one bad defense (Cleveland) and one good one (Cincinnati) throwing for at least 376 yards and 10.15 YPA in both of his games. Brady always gets his. That’s just a fact.

Turn the spotlight on his pass-catchers, however, and the certainty of production evaporates for everyone not named Gronkowski. The big tight end has topped 100 yards in both games with Brady at the helm, totaling 12 catches for 271 yards and a touchdown. The next most reliable pass catcher has been James White, who caught four passes for 63 yards in Brady’s return, and eight four 47 yards and two scores last week. Beyond those two, nothing is guaranteed.

Martellus Bennett had six catches on eight targets for 67 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago. Last week, he caught five balls for 48 yards. Julian Edelman has nine catches for 65 yards in Brady’s two games this season. Chris Hogan zoomed past the 100-yard mark in Brady’s first game under center, and then caught all of one pass for 39 yards last week. Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell have made token appearances, both nothing that has placed them on the fantasy radar.

Brady and Gronkowski are as reliable as they come. White is an easy starter in full PPR leagues and should be in the typical flex discussion in standard leagues. After that, little is guaranteed. We know better days are ahead for Edelman, but his production will ebb and flow. Bennett is a desirable tight end because of the shallowness of the position and the New England’s potency, but you’ll have to take the bad with the good. Such is life in the mixed bag that is the Patriots offense.

Checking in on some backfield timeshares

Chicago: After dominating the carries for two weeks, Jordan Howard gave up nine totes to Ka’Deem Carey last week. That isn’t likely to be standard operating procedure for the Bears, but it is worth monitoring. Note, too, that they will be without left guard Josh Sitton when the play the Packers on Thursday.

Cincinnati: Giovani Bernard has played 59% of Cincinnati’s snaps this season. He was on the field for 71% of their plays the last two weeks, and two-thirds of them last week. In every time interval, he has outsnapped Jeremy Hill. Neither back has been all that productive this season, however, and it’s hard to endorse either as more than a low-end RB2 or flex play, depending on the matchup.

Denver: C.J. Anderson remains in command of the backfield, playing 78% of the snaps and getting 10 carries and five targets last week, but Devontae Booker remains a thorn in his side. Booker had five carries for 46 yards, picking up more yards than Anderson on half the carries.

Detroit: With Theo Riddick and Dwayne Washington out, Zach Zenner led the Lions on the ground. He had 58 yards on 14 carries, and should remain in front of Justin Forsett on the depth chart. Still, it’s hard to get excited about any back in this offense, outside of Riddick in full PPR formats.

Jacksonville: T.J. Yeldon played 13 more snaps than Chris Ivory last week, but the latter got more carries by a total of 11 to 6. It doesn’t much matter, though, with both backs running for fewer than 35 yards. Jacksonville’s run blocking has been a mess this season, and the timeshare only complicates the situation. Ivory is the better play by virtue of being the goal-line back.

Miami: Well hello, Jay Ajayi. We discussed this at length in the Week 6 fantasy takeaways. Ajayi ran all over the Steelers last week, notching 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 25 carries. Arian Foster, meanwhile, had three carries and two targets while playing just 11 snaps. This should be Ajayi’s backfield for the foreseeable future.

New York Giants: Nine carries for Rashad Jennings, six carries for Bobby Rainey, two carries for Paul Perkins, and 38 total yards on the ground. This team cannot run the ball, and none of its backs are that great of a threat through the air. Until we see some sort of progress as a unit, or until one back takes over the lion’s share of the work, none can be trusted in any fantasy format.

New York Jets: Matt Forte’s downward spiral continued on Monday night, when he ran for 19 yards on nine carries and caught one pass for three yards. Bilal Powell played 18 more snaps than him, but totaled just 22 yards from scrimmage. This is another situation that fantasy owners will want to avoid unless they have no other options.

Philadelphia: Ryan Mathews ran well against Washington last week, picking up 60 yards on nine carries. So long as the work is spread thin, though, it won’t much matter how well he runs the ball. He didn’t have a target in the game, and managed only a plurality of the team’s carries. Mathews still projects as a low-end RB2, while Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood are nowhere near startable in most formats.

Oakland: Latavius Murray should return soon from a toe injury, and the tea leaves suggest that Jalen Richard will be the odd man out. Despite being more productive than DeAndre Washington two weeks ago, he ran second for the Raiders last week. Washington, who has been ahead of Richard on the depth chart all year, ran for 49 yards on 10 carries. Richard had just four carries, picking up eight yards. Murray will take over the backfield when he returns, with Washington as his primary backup.

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