Target and snap report: Stefon Diggs takes his place as fantasy football WR1
Decreased ratings plagued the NFL for the first nine weeks of the season, a result of multiple internal and external factors. Two of those outside forces, the World Series and the election, ended during the first two weeks of November. The NFL seemed prepared for this, with some of its best matchups of the season slated for Week 10. And sure enough, we had our most exciting Sunday of the season, highlighted by the Cowboys rising to another level and placing themselves on the shortlist of Super Bowl contenders.
The Cowboys went into Pittsburgh, took the best punch and counterpunch from one of the best offenses in the league, and emerged with a 35–30 victory that just might go down as the best win of the season to date. There are plenty of angles from which to attack this game from a real-life perspective, but we’re more concerned with the fantasy point of view. It could be a long time before we see another fantasy bonanza quite like this one.
Let’s start with the Cowboys. Dak Prescott is having a rookie season for the ages, but there was understandable concern about how he’d perform in the unfriendly environment of Heinz Field. The fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State fumbled on the Cowboys’ first possession, but it was his only misstep of the afternoon. Prescott ended up turning in one of his best games of the season, throwing for 319 yards, 9.97 yards per attempt and two touchdowns against zero interceptions. Including the fumble, he put up 19.76 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, but even then, he wasn’t even among the top-four fantasy scorers in this game.
Moving right along to Dez Bryant. Some worries lingered in misguided corners of the fantasy community after Bryant’s virtual no-show against the Browns last week—game script worked against Bryant in that contest, and once he didn’t make anything happen early, he was effectively taken out of the game with the Cowboys nursing a comfortable lead. He made up for it last week, catching six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. Bryant’s 17.6-point day was his best of the 2016 season.
Of course, it was Ezekiel Elliott who stole the show yet again for the Cowboys. The consensus favorite to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year shined in Week 10. With the Cowboys trailing 12–3 in the first quarter, he broke a screen pass from Prescott for an 83-yard touchdown. He finished off the game with a 32-yard touchdown scamper that shocked the Steelers. In between, he ran for 82 more yards and another touchdown, and caught another pass for 12 yards, finishing with 209 yards from scrimmage and three scores. Elliott’s 38.9 standard-league points were the most by any player, regardless of position, in a game this season.
The Steelers may have lost, but their great triumvirate showed up for fantasy owners. Ben Roethlisberger had his second-best fantasy game of the season, throwing for 408 yards and three touchdowns, which translates to 28.32 points in standard-scoring leagues. Le’Veon Bell ran for 57 yards, caught nine balls for 77 yards, and hit paydirt twice—enough for 25.4 points. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, delivered as always, catching 14 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. Even with a rush for a loss of 10 yards, he produced 20.4 points for his fantasy owners.
All told, the six principal fantasy players in Cowboys-Steelers combined for 150.38 standard-league points. Sure, there are two quarterbacks in there, but that’s a monster score for any superflex format, too. For seemingly the first time all season, the NFL slate, top to bottom, did not disappoint. Fantasy owners in Cowboys-Steelers were this week’s biggest winners.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 10 Target and Snap Report.
Stefon Diggs is a WR1
Last week, I wrote about Diggs in my start/sit and DFS columns. In both, I mentioned that Week 10 was the fourth week that Diggs had been absent from Minnesota’s injury report. In those games, he had 37 catches for 441 yards and two touchdowns, good for 14.03 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Conversely, Diggs had played three games this season where he was on the injury report. In those games, he had 11 catches for 105 yards, which comes out to 3.5 points per game. Diggs was not on the injury report last week. It should have been clear to all what was coming.
Diggs torched the Washington defense for 13 catches and 164 yards—his second straight game with 13 grabs and second game this season with at least 164 yards. He joined A.J. Green, Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton as the only receivers with two 160-yard games this season, and is the only player in the league with multiple 13-catch games. Remember, too, that he’s doing this in Minnesota’s slow-paced offense with a league-average quarterback in Sam Bradford.
Add last week to Diggs’s previous healthy-game numbers, and he has 50 receptions for 605 yards and two scores. His worst healthy game in both standard and PPR leagues was in Week 9 when he caught 13 passes for 80 yards. In his five non-injured games, Diggs has put up 14.5 points per game in standard leagues and 24.5 points per game in full PPR formats. If he hit those averages for the full season, he’d be first in both standard and PPR leagues. As it stands, Mike Evans leads all receivers in standard leagues with 14.3 points per game, while Antonio Brown’s 21.7 points per game is first among receivers in PPR leagues. When healthy, Diggs has proved he belongs in their class.
Diggs has 42 total targets in the last three weeks, and he’s seen at least 13 targets in all three of those games, numbers that would have him on track to be neck and neck with Evans for the league lead. As long as Diggs is healthy, he’s a top-10 receiver.
The Allen Robinson resurgence has arrived
Diggs isn’t the only receiver who has come back to life over the last three weeks. Robinson, who—absent a Doug Baldwin-like surge over the next few weeks—will come up way short of expectations this season, has finally started to produce like the WR1 everyone assumed he would be.
Robinson hasn’t quite matched Diggs in targets over the last three games, but his 40 are the second most in the league in that same timeframe. He has caught 22 of them for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The efficiency numbers still aren’t great for Robinson, but he has averaged 12.43 standard-league points across the last three weeks. Owners who have stuck with him all season are finally seeing some return on their high-priced investment.
The target numbers should jump out just as strongly as the bottom-line catches, yards and touchdowns. Robinson averaged just shy of 10 targets per game last year, and had double-digit targets in seven games. If we lower that threshold to nine targets, Robinson crossed it 12 times in 16 weeks in 2015. Before his target binge began in Week 8, he was averaging 8.67 targets per game and had three weeks with 10 or more targets. It wasn’t just regression by Blake Bortles that was hurting Robinson during the first two months of the year. He wasn’t getting nearly as many opportunities to make plays.
Robinson was never going to match last year’s efficiency on a per-target basis. Thanks to an incredible touchdown rate, Robinson scored 1.46 points per target last year. To give you an idea of how high a mark that is, Antonio Brown, who led all receivers in fantasy points last year, got 1.25 points per target. When Josh Gordon had 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games in 2013, he got 1.43 points per target. Robinson is at 0.89 points per target this season, but up to 0.93 over the last three weeks.
Time to trust Cameron Meredith again?
The Meredith downturn of a few weeks ago was one of the easiest developments to see coming this season. When Brian Hoyer was under center for the Bears, he favored the split end, no matter if it was Meredith or Kevin White. In the four games Hoyer started and finished this season, the Bears split end, a combination of Meredith and White, led the NFL with 50 targets. In three of those games, two belonging to Meredith and one to White, the split end had at least 12 targets, and he never had fewer than nine. It was high time to be a split end in Chicago.
Jay Cutler is not a split-end kind of quarterback. Cutler has always forced the ball to his flanker, regardless of whether it was Brandon Marshall or Javon Walker in Denver, Marshall again in Chicago, or Alshon Jeffery. While that has frequently been to his detriment, it has always been to the delight of said flanker’s fantasy owners. Indeed, in two games since Cutler returned from a thumb injury, Jeffery had 18 targets while Meredith had just four. It might be time for Cutler to get acquainted with his new No. 1 receiver.
The sinking ship that is the Chicago Bears took another broadside earlier this week when the league suspended Jeffery for four games for violating the performance-enhancing drugs policy. With Jeffery out until Week 15, Meredith steps into the spotlight. Even if the team leaves him at split end, he’s easily the most talented, active receiver on the roster. The bet here, however, is that he flips to flanker, with Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy handling the split end role. Eddie Royal, as always, will do his work out of the slot.
Meredith flashed a lot of potential earlier this season when he was getting enough opportunities to make an impact. In those two games where he was the apple of Hoyer’s eye, he caught 20 of his 27 targets for 243 yards and a touchdown. Hoyer was injured the next game, giving way to Matt Barkley, and Cutler returned the following week. In other words, Meredith has had a meaningful role in just two games this season, and he delivered in both of them.
Volume is going to be Meredith’s best friend. The Bears rank 31st in the league with 15.7 points per game and have scored more than 20 points in a game just once. The good news for his backers, though, is the volume should be there for him. Consider him a WR3 for the rest of the season.
The most interesting fantasy backfield is in Seattle
We’ll all remember 2016 as both the peak and nadir of Christine Michael’s fantasy life. After three straight years on seemingly every sleeper watch list, the fantasy community writ large gave up on Michael heading into the ’16 season. And then came the rumors that he was going to share backfield duties, at least to start the season, with Thomas Rawls. That was followed by the impressive preseason performances, and before we knew it, there was yet another Michael boomlet.
Michael turned in a few strong games, to be sure, and that’s what makes his downfall all the harder for his truthers to take. The running back hasn’t averaged more than four yards per carry in a game since September. He has rushed for fewer than 60 yards in four straight games, and has had all of 10 carries over Seattle’s last two. He is, in other words, done. The C-Mike Experience is finally behind us.
Who leads Seattle’s backfield now, however, remains a mystery. There’s no doubt that C.J. Prosise will have a large role. The rookie out of Notre Dame looked great in the Seahawks upset win over the Patriots last week. He ran 17 times for 66 yards and caught seven passes for 87 yards, his second game over the last three weeks with at least 80 receiving yards. That sort of dynamism from a back is something the Seahawks haven’t had in a long time. Marshawn Lynch was Seattle’s leading receiver out of the backfield in each of the first four seasons of the Russell Wilson era. He never finished better than 21st in receptions, though he was 11th in receiving yards among backs in 2014 with 367. Still, over those four years Lynch averaged 27.25 catches and 239.75 yards per season. In an average year from 2012 through 2015, those season-long numbers would have placed him 33rd and 29th, respectively, in receptions and receiving yards.
Prosise is going to play a ton, likely handling all third downs and other obvious passing situations. At the same time, there may not be another game this year when he gets 17 carries. That’s because Rawls is expected to return after missing seven games because of hairline fracture to his left fibula. Pete Carroll pronounced Rawls ready to play, and the incumbent starter is expected to practice all week.
The most likely breakdown for the Seattle backfield has Rawls handling early-down and short-yardage work, with Prosise getting on the field in the situations listed in the above paragraph. He’ll also likely get some token work running the ball as a change-of-pace back. From a fantasy perspective, the best-case scenario is akin to what Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard were able to do with the Bengals in 2014 on a per-game basis. The two backs ended that year 14th and 15th, respectively, in points per game, with Hill in the Rawls role and Bernard handling the downs expected for Prosise. Both of them project as RB2s for Week 11.
The most vexing backfield is in Baltimore
It wasn’t too long ago that Terrance West was the toast of the fantasy community. He got a chance to lead the Ravens backfield in Week 4 and excelled, running for 113 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in a loss to the Raiders. He got just 11 carries against Washington the next week, but picked up 95 yards, seemingly giving the Ravens a running back they could trust. When they fed him 23 times against the Giants in Week 6, a game in which he ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns, the fantasy community had to take the results, and the usage, at face value. West looked entrenched as the Ravens workhorse.
Fast forward four weeks, a stretch that includes Baltimore’s bye, and nothing is guaranteed anymore. Sure, West has had 44 carries over the Ravens last three games, compared with 21 for all other running backs in Baltimore. The issue, however, has been West’s lack of effectiveness. He has just 96 yards on those 44 carries, and hasn’t been north of four yards per carry since that game against Washington back in early October. Everything was set up for him to explode again last week. The Ravens played host to the lowly Browns, and the script played out ell enough for West to get 21 carries. He ran for just 65 yards on those totes and, once again, made no impact as a receiver. West’s grip on the workhorse role has entirely loosened.
At the same time, rookie Kenneth Dixon’s role has increased over the last two games. He played 20 snaps in the team’s Week 9 win over the Steelers and 26, just eight fewer than West, in last week’s win over the Browns. While West needed 22 touches to get to 77 yards from scrimmage, Dixon totaled 80 yards on 11 touches—six carries and five receptions. Once healthy, it was clear that Dixon would be the Ravens’ primary receiver out of the backfield. Given his performance, as well as West’s, the last two weeks, and it’s likely he’ll get more work as a runner, as well.
Pegging a value for both West and Dixon is a great challenge for fantasy owners heading into Week 11. On its face, this appears to be a less valuable version of the Rawls-Prosise pairing in Seattle. West isn’t the player Rawls is, and the early returns suggest Prosise is a better option than Dixon. Add to that the fact that Seattle’s offensive environment is far more fertile than Baltimore’s, and it’s easy to label the Ravens backfield as a poor man’s version of the Seahawks. If we expect a similar breakdown, which seems justified, and a lower ceiling for fantasy scoring, we should project West as a low-end RB2 or flex play, and Dixon as a low-end flex option in most standard formats. That’s exactly where we will slot them in a matchup with the Cowboys.