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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.
Pass Funnel Review
49ers pass catchers vs. Titans
No team is a more extreme pass funnel over the past month than the Titans. Eighty percent of the yardage gained against them since Week 12 has come via the pass. It’s not an isolated occurrence either: Tennessee opponents have posted the fourth-highest pass rate over expectation on the season, per NBC Sports Edge’s Pat Kerrane (whose Friday Walkthrough column should be required reading for any self-respecting fantasy manager).
The caveat here is that the Titans, while facing an onslaught of passing, have been pretty good against the pass. Only nine teams allow a lower expected points added (EPA) per drop back. Narrow that down to the past six weeks and Tennessee is 14th in EPA allowed per drop back. Either way, they’re not necessarily bad in the secondary.
Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle should be the primary beneficiaries of a Week 16 matchup against the NFL’s second-most extreme pass funnel defensive unit. Since head coach Kyle Shanahan’s galaxy brain went into overdrive in Week 10 and made Deebo Samuel a running back, Kittle has seen 29 percent of the team’s targets and Aiyuk has commanded a 23 percent target share. Kittle is the TE2 in expected fantasy points over that stretch; Aiyuk is the WR28 in expected points.
A mere two weeks ago, we saw the Niners make halftime adjustments and go pass-heavy against the pass-funnel Bengals to great effect. Shanahan’s offense passed on 67 percent of its plays against Cincinnati, a whopping 15 percent higher than their season-long pass rate. And it worked out for fantasy purposes. Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 296 yards and two scores while Kittle went ballistic (151 yards and a touchdown). Aiyuk caught six of his ten targets for 62 yards and a score.
Obviously, you’re starting Kittle Thursday night with unbridled glee. If you’re struggling with Aiyuk as a WR3 or flex option, upgrade him in a matchup that should see the 49ers take to the air against a mega-pass funnel. Wide receivers have seen a 64.1 percent target share against Tennessee in 2021, the league’s second-highest rate. I suppose that puts Jauan Jennings -- who has at least five targets in his past two outings -- in play as a desperation flex play.
Bears pass catchers vs. Seahawks
Yes, I’m a professional fantasy football analyst who’s willingly writing about Bears pass catchers in Week 16. It is my constitutional right, after all.
Here’s the thing: Seattle is the second most extreme pass funnel defense over the past four weeks, and unlike the aforementioned Titans, they’ve been quite bad against the pass. They’re ninth-worst in EPA per drop back over that span; only the Raiders and Jets gave up a higher drop back success rate than the Seabags from Week 12 to Week 15.
On the season, 70.16 percent of yardage gained against the Seahawks has been courtesy of the pass (eighth-highest rate). Meanwhile, no team allows more offensive snaps per game than the Seahawks, opening up a wider avenue to success for any and all quarterbacks and pass catchers facing Seattle.
This is (almost) all about Darnell Mooney’s -- and Justin Fields’ -- Week 16 fantasy prospects. Mooney over the Bears’ past five games has commanded a team-high 24 percent target share. He’s dominating air yards with a 34 percent share over that span -- no other Chicago pass catcher is within 300 air yards of Mooney since Week 10. A mere 14 wide receivers have a higher WOPR (a weighted average of a player's target market share) than Mooney since Week 10. The zoomers might call him “the only game in town” for the Bears passing offense. A surprisingly productive day from Fields against the pass-funnel Seahawks should be fine and dandy for Mooney. It might not be bad for Cole Kmet, who’s second in expected receiving fantasy points among Bears pass catchers and who has a shockingly high 20 percent target share since Week 9. The Hawks, for the record, have allowed the eighth-most tight end targets this year.
I think this Seattle-Chicago game -- barring some high-level Matt Nagy hijinks -- has some shootout appeal. It’s a bold statement about a game with a hideous 43 point total, I know. Some are calling it irresponsible. I don’t care. Chicago’s defense since Week 12 has been one of the league’s most generous, allowing the second-highest EPA per play. Even the Seahawks can take advantage of such a unit. Maybe. I hope.
Week 16 Targets: Decoded
C.J. Uzomah (CIN) vs. BAL
The last time I touted Uzomah in this space, he made me look like the tight end streaming Rainman. On a mere three targets against Baltimore in Week 7, Uzomah went for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Not fluky at all. How dare you say that’s fluky.
As long as we head into Week 16 with slightly lower expectations for Uzomah against a Baltimore defense allowing a massive 26.1 percent target share to tight ends, we might walk away happy (yes, fantasy managers are allowed to be happy, but no more than twice per season). Uzomah and the rest of the Cincy pass catchers could see a target bump as they face off against the league’s most extreme pass funnel defense. Baltimore opponents this season have the third highest pass rate over expectation, per Kerrane. In their Week 7 game against the Ravens, the Bengals were four percent over their expected pass rate -- a hopeful stat for an offense with the NFL’s tenth lowest pass rate (56 percent) on the season.
Uzomah’s route running -- he’s run a route on 68.7 percent of Joe Burrow’s drop backs over the past four weeks -- leaves something to be desired. That shouldn’t matter too much since Uzomah gets (almost) all of the team’s tight end targets. Last week, three Packers tight ends combined for seven catches for 79 yards on nine targets. That won’t be the case against the Bengals, as No. 2 TE Drew Sample is averaging 6.57 routes per game. If Sample catches a touchdown against Baltimore, I will forsake society and live forevermore in the wilderness. The process.
Albert Okwuegbunam (DEN) at LV
I’m passionate about touting guys catching passes from Drew Lock, who is, by almost any measure, the worst quarterback in the NFL. But the process is the process, and Okwuegbunam is an objectively good option against the Raiders in Week 16.
Okwuegbunam leads all Broncos pass catchers in fantasy points over expectation since Week 10. Probably he’s the best Denver pass catcher and Noah Fant’s presence is holding him back from being an elite fantasy option. That’s neither here nor there. Okwuegbunam has 11 receptions for 121 yards over his past three games despite seeing just 13 targets over that span. He’s been more productive than Fant on fewer opportunities. As I said, he’s elite.
This week he gets a low-key fantastic matchup. The Raiders since Week 10 are allowing the league’s highest drop back success rate and the highest EPA against the pass. Passing attacks have done whatever they want when facing Vegas since the start of November. They’re allowing the sixth most tight end receptions on the season along with the league’s fourth-highest tight end target share (24.5 percent).
Look no further than these teams’ Week 6 matchup to see why a fantasy analyst might be bullish on Albert O and the inferior Fant: Denver tight ends combined for 12 catches on 16 targets against Vegas. Fant caught nine of those targets for 97 yards and a score. But whatever.
Okwuegbunam is running far fewer routes than Fant, as one might expect. Okwuegbunam, however, has commanded targets on a team-high 25 percent of his pass routes this season, three percent higher than Fant’s targets per route run (TPRR). That gap has widened since Week 10: Okwuegbunam has a 29 percent TRPP while Fant’s TPRR sits at 21 percent. Against a Vegas defense vulnerable to the tight end, Okwuegbunam should have every chance to excel.