I can't believe it.
I got every single prediction right.
Just kidding. I thought Brandon Aiyuk was on the verge of a breakout season after a promising rookie campaign. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan evidently disagreed, as Aiyuk played just 47.3% of offensive snaps and ran behind Trent Sherfield as San Francisco's WR3. I thought Elijah Moore was going to dazzle with Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole sidelined. I thought Aaron Rodgers would have more fantasy points than Justin Fields. And I thought the 49ers would play the third-round running back they traded up to draft in April.
Week 1 is the time in which we get the greatest amount of new information at once. It's the first time teams have any invective to give away what they've been working on all offseason, leading to outcomes that run contrary to what we expected entering the season. On one hand, we have to adjust based on all of this new information. On the other, it's critical not to overreact to a one-game sample. That's the tightrope we're tiptoeing this week, and one false step can torpedo your team.
Strength in Numbers is here to help sort out what's real and what's not. Every week, we'll break down the most actionable takeaways from the past week in a concise, numbers-filled format. Without further ado, let's get right into it.
1. In Weeks 1-5 last season (i.e. before he suffered a season-ending injury), Joe Mixon ran a route on 47.1% of Joe Burrow's dropbacks. He peaked at a 58.5% route per dropback rate last year in Week 4, which coincided with a sudden increase in snap and target share. On Sunday, Mixon ran a route on 20 of Joe Burrow's 33 dropbacks (60.6%).
|Week||Snap Share||Route per Dropback Share|
|Week 1 2020||58.8%||37.8%|
|Week 2 2020||50.0%||40.3%|
|Week 3 2020||73.2%||53.7%|
|Week 4 2020||82.7%||58.5%|
|Week 5 2020||76.1%||46.3%|
|Week 1 2021||78.3%||60.6%|
Mixon had 33 opportunities (carries plus targets) in Week 1 vs. just six for Samaje Perine. No other Bengals running back recorded a snap. For the first time in his career, the 25-year-old is a legitimate three-down workhorse. Giovani Bernard was a thorn in Mixon's side for years – although the Bengals started to rely on their lead back more in the passing game last season, as illustrated in the table above – and his departure freed up a valuable pass-catching role. Buzz out of Bengals camp indicated the coaching staff viewed Mixon as a capable receiver, and his usage in Week 1 only reinforced that notion. He set a new two-year high in route per dropback rate, plus his snap share mimicked where he was in the weeks leading up to his season-ending injury in 2020.
Interestingly, the Bengals ranked last in the league in neutral-script pass rate in Week 1. Last season, they were among the league's most pass-heavy teams, although they were slightly more balanced with Mixon healthy. This may have been gameplan-based – either due to matchup or Burrow's return from a gruesome injury – but it's something to monitor in the coming weeks.
Regardless, Mixon looks like a script-independent workhorse at this stage. If we were redrafting today, he'd be an easy first-round pick based on his involvement in all facets in Week 1. Consider him a strong RB1 for Week 2.
2. Raheem Mostert is out eight weeks with chipped cartilage in his knee. Trey Sermon was a surprise healthy scratch in Week 1. Without Mostert and Sermon, Elijah Mitchell out-snapped JaMycal Hasty 37-18 and handled 19 carries vs. only one for Hasty. However, Mitchell and Hasty both ran 12 routes, and Dwain McFarland (of Pro Football Focus) noted that Hasty was the preferred back in passing situations. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Sermon will be active for Week 2, an unsurprising development given Mostert's ailment.
(Editor's Note: Mostert is now out for the season.)
Shanahan said after the game that there is "no firm hierarchy" among 49ers running backs, although he did specify that Sermon simply fell behind Mitchell and Hasty late in the offseason. That development came out of nowhere after Sermon looked like the RB2 behind Mostert all summer long. Regardless, Mitchell should be fantasy-viable until Jeff Wilson is back, so he's worth adding (and potentially starting depending on your other running backs). His pre-draft athletic testing profile also looks like this:
Hasty isn't as appealing because he's pigeonholed into a passing-down role on a run-heavy team, plus Sermon is likely next in line behind Mitchell considering the 49ers refused to give Hasty early-down work on Sunday. Speaking of Sermon, he's a hold right now, and we may get more information as to what exactly happened to make him fall down the depth chart so quickly.
3. Najee Harris played 55/55 snaps for the Steelers on Sunday, becoming the first running back since Christian McCaffrey in Week 15 of 2019 to play every offensive snap in a regular-season game. He ran a route on 85.7% of Ben Roethlisberger's dropbacks, the highest rate of any running back in the league. No other Steelers RB recorded a snap or touch.
Harris' Week 1 usage confirmed what we saw in the preseason when the first-round pick monopolized Steelers first-team running back snaps. The Alabama product had 19 opportunities on just 55 offensive snaps in Week 1 (last year, the Texans were last in the league in plays per at 58.8).
He only managed 49 total yards, but his volume – of snaps, carries, targets, basically any stat you want – predicts better days will come sooner rather than later. It's incredibly rare for a running back to play every single offensive snap (no one has done it since 2019!), so the fact that Harris did it in his first career game is notable.
Granted, the offensive line issues that caused so many to fade Harris aren't going away. PFF's Austin Gayle pointed out that Harris was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 75% of his carries, the highest percentage of any back with at least 10 attempts in Week 1.
Still, it's hard to ignore his Week 1 usage. The stat that gets me most excited is how involved he was in running routes; Harris led the position in routes per team dropback in Week 1. When he's playing that many snaps and running that many routes, he's eventually going to start posting higher target numbers. One of only a few three-down backs in the league, Harris is a top-12 back moving forward.
4. Across nine healthy games last year, Austin Ekeler had two carries inside the five-yard line. He matched that number in Week 1 alone with two goal-line attempts on Sunday, converting one of them into a short touchdown run. In total, the Chargers ran four plays inside the five-yard line. Ekeler was in on two of them and Larry Rountree was in for one. Ekeler also played on two snaps from the six-yard line and a third-and-short from Washington's eight-yard line.
This is what Ekeler needs to reach his ceiling. In healthy games with Justin Herbert last year, he got just 2-of-10 goal-line carries. On Sunday, he got 2-of-2. The Chargers made an effort to remove Ekeler in favor of a larger back when they got inside the five-yard line last year. Most of the time, that was either Joshua Kelley or Justin Jackson. In Week 1, Kelley was inactive and Jackson ran behind sixth-round rookie Rountree as the RB3 (Rountree had 25 snaps; Jackson had 11). All of this is to say that Ekeler might actually have touchdown upside this year, a necessary step for a top-three positional finish.
Ekeler failed to record a target and his route participation (26 routes on 52 Justin Herbert passes, per PFF) was lower than usual, but it's too early to sound the alarm since he's been one of the most dependable pass-catching backs in the league over the past few seasons. It's likely this goes down as an anomaly in an otherwise lucrative receiving season for the 26-year-old. The most important part is that the path to an Alvin Kamara-type season is open if he can maintain the goal-line role he had in Week 1.
5. Establish The Run's Adam Levitan pointed out that James Robinson got just 35.7% of the Jaguars' running back carries yesterday after handling 85.4% in 2020. He did out-snap Carlos Hyde (64% snap share for Robinson vs. 34% for Hyde) and run more routes (36 vs. 14) by a wide margin. Robinson also got both goal-line snaps (both pass plays).
The good news: While Hyde got more carries, Robinson still played more snaps and got the high-value touches (i.e. targets) in Week 1. On some level, this indicates the Jaguars might view Robinson as their pass-catching back with Hyde stuck in a low-value rushing role. There's also a chance Hyde – who turns 31 next Monday – doesn't make it through the entire season with such a large role either due to performance or injury.
The bad news: Everything we heard about Urban Meyer during the offseason was on full display in Week 1, as the Jaguars got trounced by a team widely expected to be the worst in the league. Plus, Robinson's current role overlaps with the skill set of current practice squad member Duke Johnson. I asked Jaguars beat writer John Shipley if and when we should expect Johnson to be promoted to the active roster, and he said it wouldn't surprise him if that happens as soon as this week. I followed up by asking whether Robinson would retain passing-down work once Johnson is brought up, to which he responded by saying that we can't assume Robinson's role is locked up until the coaching staff treats him like the established starter.
Based on how well Robinson played in 2020, it's fair to say that the second-year back brings much more to the table than Hyde at this stage in their respective careers. With that being said, it's also fair to question whether the Jaguars have rational coaching based on everything we've seen this summer and in Week 1. Plus, a third running back could soon enter the equation if Jacksonville does promote Johnson to the active roster.
6. Brandon Aiyuk played 47% of snaps in Week 1 and failed to record a target. For reference, Trent Sherfield played one more snap than Aiyuk and notched three targets. Aiyuk ran 15 routes vs. 14 for Sherfield. In essence, the two players split WR2 duties, while Deebo Samuel played almost every snap and got 12 targets.
Shanahan said after the game that Aiyuk is still recovering from the hamstring injury that landed him on the injury report a couple of weeks.
He practiced fully in advance of Week 1, but it's possible he hadn't fully recovered or the 49ers were being careful, especially given how dangerous hamstrings can be if they aren't all the way back to normal. However, Shanahan also stated that Sherfield had earned more snaps, plus beat reports hinted that Aiyuk may have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
Shanahan immediately talked about the hamstring with Aiyuk, whereas he outright admitted that Sermon fell behind Mitchell and Hasty. That lends some credence to the idea that Aiyuk is actually not healthy. Plus, the Arizona State product had a super impressive rookie season. We've seen Shanahan send promising players to the shadow realm before (Dante Pettis comes to mind), but Aiyuk was on a different level in terms of rookie production and offseason hype. He's a hold at the moment, but you can't trust him in Week 2 after what happened over the weekend. It's also possible Sherfield still steals some snaps even once Aiyuk is healthy. Deebo Samuel looks like the 49ers' WR1 regardless of whether Aiyuk's decreased role was caused by injury or poor performance.
This section will be used for stats I think are worth mentioning (and for which the takeaway is fairly intuitive) but aren't important enough to write up fully. Let's get to it:
- Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams split time evenly with each back getting 33 snaps. Gordon broke a 70-yard run, but Williams finished with 14 carries to Gordon's 11. The veteran edged the rookie 3-1 in targets, but both players ran 15 routes. It's good news for Williams that he's already garnering half of the work, as the process behind his Round 5 ADP was a late-season takeover. Gordon's long run – and the inflated stat line that came with it – presents a window to sell.
- Darrell Henderson played 49-of-52 snaps for the Rams. This will be a situation to watch in coming weeks because the strength of the offense creates a lucrative opportunity for the RB1, but Week 1 isn't an end-all-be-all since Sony Michel is likely still learning the playbook after being traded late in the offseason.
- Antonio Gibson dominated RB carries (87%) and targets (24%) for Washington. J.D. McKissic retained his passing-down role, coming in on eight third downs (the only three third downs Gibson played were runs). It's good to see Gibson get more involved as a receiver, but he's going to need early-down targets to get passable receiving usage.
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire played 47-of-65 snaps for the Chiefs and got 17-of-18 team RB opportunities, but Darrel Williams still played in passing situations (two-minute offense and down-and-distance), although Edwards-Helaire did run significantly more routes (30-9). He's still not a workhorse and may lack a top-three ceiling – especially given Kansas City's propensity for throwing near the goal line –but that's not the end of the world given the strength of this offense.
- Boston Scott played zero offensive snaps yesterday. He got in once on kick coverage. Otherwise, it was all Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell. Sanders had 47 snaps, 15 carries, and five targets on 20 routes. Gainwell had 25 snaps, nine carries (three of which came when the game was already out of hand), and three targets on 13 routes. Gainwell mostly played in passing situations and with the two-minute offense.
- Dyami Brown played 51-of-55 snaps in Curtis Samuel's absence. Samuel has been nursing a groin injury since early June and landed on IR last week, so the third-round rookie wideout will get his chance over the next (at least) two weeks. The Washington offense takes a hit with Ryan Fitzpatrick (hip) sidelined, but Taylor Heinicke has performed serviceably in the past. Brown boasts an elite 20.1 breakout age and posted two consecutive seasons with a 31% Dominator Rating at North Carolina. He was also one of the nation's best deep threats in college, averaging 20+ yards per catch in back-to-back seasons.
- D'Andre Swift ran a route on 65% of Jared Goff's dropbacks, a significant increase from where he was as a rookie (48%). The 11 targets number is slightly deceiving because the Lions threw the ball 57 times, but a 19.3% target share is sensational for a running back nonetheless. Given the state of Detroit's receiving corps, Swift should remain heavily involved in the passing offense, as should T.J. Hockenson (10 targets). Jamaal Williams also earned nine targets and will spot Swift in both facets.
- Tyler Higbee played every snap for the Rams in Week 1. He had six targets on 26 Stafford attempts for a robust 23.1% share. Gerald Everett's departure opened the door for Higbee to inherit an every-snap role for one of the best offenses in football. Higbee is a must-start moving forward.
- Mike Gesicki played 21-of-54 snaps for the Dolphins on Sunday. Per PFF's Nathan Jahnke, he rarely played in 2-TE sets. With Jaylen Waddle, DeVante Parker, and Will Fuller – who will be back for Week 2 – presumably commanding a large share of Tua Tagovailoa's targets, you can do better than Gesicki.
- Austin Hooper had three catches on Cleveland's first drive and didn't get another target the rest of the game. In fact, David Njoku out-targeted Hooper 5-3 and ran more routes 16-14. Hooper isn't on the fantasy radar in most leagues anyway, but it's a situation to monitor.
- Kyle Pitts accumulated just 31 yards in his professional debut, but he played 71% of snaps and tied for the team lead in targets with eight (22.9% share), albeit with an average depth of target of only 6.4. He also ran a route on 90% of Matt Ryan's dropbacks and was in the slot or out wide on 80% of his snaps, both encouraging marks for future receiving production. It's notoriously difficult for tight ends to adjust to the NFL, so don't fret about Pitts. If anything, his Week 1 peripherals are a reason for optimism.
- Jahnke also reported that Jaguars TE James O'Shaughnessy ran a route on 44-of-56 Jaguars passing plays. He had eight targets. At a position as thin as tight end, he's worth checking out if you're hurting.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Tuesday for the Week 2 edition of Strength in Numbers.