Target and snap report: Saints’ new RB committee a blow for Mark Ingram owners
Sean Payton blindsided Mark Ingram owners last week; Ingram lost a fumble that led to a Seahawks touchdown early on, and as a result, Payton benched his starting running back for the bulk of the game. Ingram, who finished the game with three carries for five yards and that last fumble (a negative-point performance in most fantasy leagues), wasn’t expected to have a banner day against the Seattle defense, but owners likely didn’t think they would have been better off leaving his starting spot empty.
Now there’s a graver reality facing Ingram owners, who expected the Saints’ RB to be one of the few true workhorse backs in 2016. After Tim Hightower ran for 102 yards on 26 carries, giving the Saints their first 100-yard rusher of the season, Ingram is now in a committee with Hightower. On top of that, Travaris Cadet is the third-down back and John Kuhn looms as a threat to steal goal-line carries—a nightmare for Ingram owners.
In this week’s podcast, I asked my co-host Pat Fitzmaurice what he’d be doing if he owned Ingram. His answer? “Mashing the panic button.” What has to be most concerning isn’t simply that Ingram was benched for almost all of the Saints win over the Seahawks last week, but how swift and decisive Payton was in making the move. That speaks how Payton views the future of his backfield, and also the latent frustration he had with Ingram.
Last week’s snap rates and carry totals don’t really do us any good for projecting the future in New Orleans. Ingram may be down, but he isn’t completely out. He’s not going to get just three carries and six snaps with regularity, while Hightower turns into a weekly workhorse. Ingram is mired in a committee, however, and there’s a chance he’s not even the lead back in the group.
This week will be telling. The Saints visit the 49ers in one of the four late games on Sunday afternoon, and San Francisco has been a cushy matchup for running backs all season. They have the most points per game to running backs in standard-scoring leagues and the fourth-most in PPR formats. In all of their last five games, the starting running back facing them has scored at least 16.3 standard-league points. Christine Michael and Elliott burned them for at least 21.7 points, while Johnson and LeSean McCoy each racked up 30-plus points while tramping over the 49ers.
It’s unlikely that either Ingram or Hightower will reap the full reward of facing the San Francisco defense. Payton isn’t usually a hot-hand coach, and that would be the only way one would distance himself from the other this week, short of an injury. The matchup, as well as six more byes, makes both backs project as RB2s, but we should have a better handle on what the New Orleans backfield will look like the rest of this season after we see what happens on Sunday. Ingram owners are terrified, while Hightower owners are playing with house money. Based on what we’ve seen from Ingram all year, and the definitive turn to Hightower last week, there could be a changing of the guard on the horizon.
And now, the rest of the Week 8 Target and Snap Report.
Quantifying Tom Brady’s greatness
It’s impossible to overstate how good Brady has been since his suspension ended. Despite missing the first month of the season, he’s firmly in the MVP race, and if he keeps playing how he has through four games, he’ll win the award in a landslide.
The surface numbers speak for themselves. Brady has thrown for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns against zero interceptions. His 329.75 yards per game is second in the NFL, trailing only Drew Brees (338 yards per game). Counting stats mark the bottom line in fantasy leagues, and no one has been better than Brady on a per-game basis. He’s averaging 26.29 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, 2.5 points more than Brees, who ranks second.
Brady leads the league with 9.84 yards per attempt, and he has thrown for no fewer than 8.54 YPA in any game this season. He and Matt Ryan (9.45 YPA) are the only quarterbacks in the league with a season-long YPA better than Brady’s worst single-game YPA this season. He’s also first in completion percentage, connecting on 73.1% of his pass attempts this year. Brady’s best single-season completion percentage is 68.9%, set back in 2007. That was the year he threw for 4,806 yards and 50 touchdowns, numbers that were impossible at the time. He’s not going to reach those marks after missing four games, but he could be better on a per-game basis.
We’re not quite done here. Brady’s adjusted completion percentage, which counts drops as completions and eliminates balls that are thrown away, is a shocking 87.4%, according to Pro Football Focus. That means just 15 of Brady’s 119 pass attempts (not including balls he threw away) were broken up or off the mark. He’s completing two-thirds of his passes that travel at least 20 yards in the air, which is also atop the league. No quarterback is doing more through the air in any way than Brady.
Pro Football Focus keeps track of a stat that sums up Brady’s dominance, both over the league and his position, in one tidy number. Brady has averaged 0.7 fantasy points per dropback this year. Matt Ryan is second at 0.58 points per dropback. To find that wide a gap, you need to go all the way down to 13th-ranked Andy Dalton. In other words, on a per-dropback basis, there has been as great a spread between Brady and Ryan—who, mind you, leads the NFL in yards and touchdowns—as there has between Ryan and a quarterback right on the QB1/2 borderline. Brady is as good as he has ever been.
They may not be Brady, but they still deserve our praise
It’s clear that no quarterback in the league is measuring up to Brady this season, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the achievements of all other signal callers. Let’s stick with points per dropback, because it’s a good way to strip out all that noise and compare quarterbacks on as even a basis as possible. Some quarterbacks are similar, but all of their individual skill sets are unique to themselves. They play in systems tailored to their strengths, the proclivities of their coaching staffs or a little of both. Some of them need to do more for their teams to win, while others can rely on their defense and ball control.
We already know that Brady and Ryan are first and second in the stat. Rounding out the top five are Dak Prescott (0.56 points per dropback), Marcus Mariota (0.53) and Cam Newton (0.52). Ben Roethilsberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tyrod Taylor are tied for sixth, one one-hundredth of a point behind Newton.
First, let’s appreciate Brady and Ryan even further for a second. Ponits per dropback include rushing stats that come on scrambles. Prescott, Mariota, Newton, Rodgers and Taylor have all scored between 27.4 fantasy points (Mariota) and 49.8 points (Taylor) with their legs this season. Not all of those are on dropbacks, but all of them are padding their points-per-dropback number on the ground. Brady has 44 rushing yards this season, while Ryan has 69. Brady is in a tier by himself through the air this season, and then Ryan comprises all of tier two. Only after those two are placed on their respective pedestals can we talk about every other passer in the league.
Newton’s spot inside the top five is expected. Prescott’s and Mariota’s, however, are not. Both look like they’re on the leading edge of the next wave of great NFL quarterbacks. What’s incredible is how both have done it while short-handed this season. Prescott lost his best receiver, Dez Bryant, for all of three games and most of a fourth. Mariota, meanwhile, doesn’t have a best receiver. The two most effective pass-catchers at his disposal, Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker, have both missed time this season due to injury.
What both Prescott and Mariota have is a great running game at their back, and the threat of their own legs. The presence of Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas and DeMarco Murray in Tennessee undoubtedly helps both quarterbacks, but now more than ever, the threat of a running quarterback can open up aerial lanes. Prescott and Mariota are proving that point every single week. That helps make them reliable QB1s this season, and likely for years to come.
Opportunity knocks again for Davante Adams
Two weeks ago, Adams was plodding his way toward another nondescript season. Through Green Bay’s first five games, he had 15 receptions on 27 targets for 218 yards. His production was buoyed by three touchdowns, but he was still barely on the fantasy radar, showing up as a depth blip because of injuries and bye weeks.
Through those some five games, a few developments in the Green Bay offense led to necessary changes. First, the Packers were 3–2 and struggling to generate the sort of passing attack we’ve come to expect from an offense led by Aaron Rodgers. On top of that, injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks forced the Packers to re-think their backfield, inserting wide receivers Ty Montgomery and, to a lesser extent, Randall Cobb into the running back rotation. What resulted was the perfect storm for Adams.
First, the Packers recalibrated their offense around a short passing game that accentuates Adams’s strengths. Second, with Montgomery and Cobb getting more work out of the backfield Adams’s snap rate jumped and, as such, he started seeing more looks from Rodgers. Over the last two weeks, Adams has 25 receptions and 30 targets, both of which are tops in the league. In two games, his reception total on the season jumped by 166.67%, while he slightly more than doubled his number of targets. That’s a brand of volume that cannot be ignored.
Adams turned his 25 receptions in the Packers last two games into 206 yards and two touchdowns. The production, however, was not evenly distributed. In Green Bay’s Week 7 win over Chicago, Adams had 132 yards and both of his scores. In last week’s loss to Atlanta, he had 74 yards and failed to reach the end zone.
With Adams’ newfound life in the Green Bay offense, he has to be considered, at worst, a WR3 in all fantasy formats. In PPR leagues, he’s locked in as a starter. There is some cold water looming over his head, though. James Starks’s impending return could complicate matters for Adams. That could spell the end of Cobb as a running back, and would likely cut down on Montgomery’s time in the backfield, as well. With those two players back fully in the receiver rotation, Adams’s target share could decrease significantly. The Packers have already had their bye, and Adams’s name has been in lights the last two weeks. That could make this the perfect time to make him available on the trade market.
Washington’s emerging threat
If I have to back one receiver for the rest of the season who has stepped up his production over the last two weeks, I’m taking Jamison Crowder over Adams without hesitation. Adams’s lucrative role in the Green Bay offense occurred as a necessary stylistic change resulting from potentially short-term factors. Crowder’s has been a steady build from the beginning of the season, and one that isn’t likely to turn around any time soon.
Crowder leads all Washington receivers in receptions (40), yards (498) and touchdowns (four). He has easily outpaced both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, and done so with the same number of targets, 56, as Jackson, which is just one more than Garcon has seen this season. Based on those facts, you’d likely guess that Crowder has been among the most efficient receivers in the league this season. You would be correct.
Crowder has produced 0.28 points per opportunity—targets and carries—in standard leagues this season. Among receivers with at least 50 targets, that ranks 12th in the league. You can likely find many of the 11 receivers ahead of him on the rosteres of the best teams in your fantasy league: Julio Jones, Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Kelvin Benjamin, Michael Crabtree, Odell Beckham, Marvin Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Brandin Cooks and, interestingly enough, Adams. When you score that many points per opportunity with at least 50 targets through eight games, you need to be taken seriously.
What’s more, Crowder’s role in the Washington offense has increased in the team’s last two games. After a mid-season lull, he has posted consecutive 100-yard efforts, the second and third times he has cleared the century mark during his two-year career. Crowder has 16 receptions on 22 targets for 215 yards and a touchdown in Washington’s last two games. Just as importantly, he produced alongside Jordan Reed, who returned last week and hauled in nine of his 13 targets for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Playing well while Reed did the same was the last piece of the puzzle for Crowder. They generally operate in the same part of the field, and his best game before last week came when Reed was out because of a concussion. If he can do his thing for fantasy owners in a game where Reed, Washington’s best pass catcher, also succeeds, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can be a consistent weapon the rest of the season.
Is Darren Sproles the RB1 in Philadelphia?
Judging by what happened last week, the answer to that question appears to be in the affirmative. Sproles played 63 of 78 snaps for the Eagles last week, running the ball 15 times for 86 yards, and catching five of his seven targets for 17 yards. Ryan Mathews, meanwhile, played all of eight snaps, rushing the ball four times for 10 yards. He did punch in a short-yardage touchdown, but everything else is trending in Sproles’s favor.
This isn’t entirely a recent phenomenon. Sproles has played nearly twice as many snaps as Mathews this season, out-snapping him in any interval you want to choose. Sproles has played more snaps than Mathews in six of the Eagles seven games this season. They were on the field for the same number of plays in the seventh. Of course, fantasy owners don’t get points for snaps. The usage numbers tell a different story, but one that is starting to look better for Sproles.
Mathews has out-touched Sproles in four of the team’s seven games. Three of those immediately preceded the Eagles overtime loss to the Cowboys last week, which was the first game of the season that tipped significantly toward Sproles. In the three games leading up to last week, Mathews failed to distinguish himself. He ran for 158 yards on 34 carries, though 60 of those yards came on nine totes against the porous Washington run defense. He struggled to get anything going against Detroit or Minnesota on the ground. Sproles, on the other hand, ripped off chunk yardage against both of those teams, totaling 117 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches against the Lions and Vikings. That burst likely led to Sproles leading the way in the Philadelphia backfield last week. Given his performance, it’s hard to imagine him handing the reins back to Mathews.
Even if Sproles is in command of the Philadelphia backfield, his fantasy value remains murky. The Eagles, as a whole, haven’t been a great rushing offense, ranking 20th in the league in yards per carry and 17th in yards per game. Sproles has never been a 15-carry-per-game back, and that’s unlikely to change at age 33. The best hope for Sproles is that he consistently gets 10 to 12 carries and four to seven targets, making the most of about 13 or 14 touches per game. If he can do that, he’ll be part of the low-end RB2 and flex discussion every week. It’s important to notice the changes in the Eagles backfield, but Sproles is not a rock-solid starter by any stretch of the imagination.