Believe in Thomas, Woods, Jones? -- fantasy advice from PFF's NFL experts
We’re basically a quarter of the way through the 2016 NFL season, but there are still plenty of questions left unanswered. To gain some clarity following Week 4, we’re once again turning to the PFF analysts with some questions.
Below are some of the “real football” questions that were running through my head on Sunday, with answers given by PFF analysts. I summarized the fantasy implications of the answers.
Let’s get to it.
Question: What’s going on with Alshon Jeffery in Chicago? He’s not seeing nearly as many targets as we’ve grown accustomed to. Does his injury appear to be preventing him for getting open?
Answer: “It’s tough to speculate on injuries and signs point both ways. He’s definitely not getting targeted as much as he used to. He has just 25 targets through four games this year — compared to 53 through his first four games last year — so it’s possible that he’s being slowed by injury. But he’s also still grading well this year.
“I think quarterback play is the biggest part of it. Jeffery isn’t really the kind of receiver who wins with separation and route running, and does a lot of his work just winning at the catch point even in tight coverage. Cutler will never have a problem just chucking it to Jeffery no matter the coverage, whereas Brian Hoyer seems like he’s trying to be safer with the football and get rid of it quickly, even though Jeffery wins a lot of those 50/50 balls.” — Bryson Vesnaver (See full Bears-Lions grade recap)
Fantasy spin: Cutler is currently considered week-to-week, and it’s doubtful they’ll rush him back given how well Brian Hoyer played in Week 3 and then Sunday. So that means Jeffery (and Jeffery owners) might be stuck with the spreads-it-around-more Hoyer for some time. Jeffery has yet to find the end zone, but despite the reduced targets, Jeffery is still putting up strong yardage. He currently ranks 13th in receiver yards, and fourth in yards per reception (among wideouts who have 10-plus receptions).
At this point, it seems like we have to accept the sad truth that Jeffery just won’t see the type of volume this year that we were used to. That makes him more of a strong WR2 with obvious upside. Don’t get this wrong: Jeffery can still — and probably will at some point — simply take over a game.
Keep an eye on Kevin White’s status as the week progresses. If White misses time, Jeffery’s targets will undoubtedly rise, and so too will his fantasy stock.
Question: With Sammy Watkins out, Robert Woods will have a bigger role in Buffalo’s offense. How did he look in Week 4 against the Patriots? His stat line was solid. Does it looks like the Bills will try to use him in Watkins’ role?
Answer: “With Watkins out, the Bills need a wide receiver to step up. On Sunday, that player was Woods. With 89 receiving yards from 38 snaps in route, his yards-per-route-run average was 14th among all wideouts who recorded at least 13 snaps in route this week.
“Woods is not the dynamic playmaker Watkins is, but they got the ball to him on slants, and he has a chance to put up solid production in Watkins’ absence. One thing that would worry me though would be that it was just one game. Over the course of the 2015 season, his yards-per-route-run average of 1.25 ranked 66th out of the 85 wide receivers (among receivers who ran at least 231 routes).” — Gordon McGuinness (See full Bills-Patriots grade recap)
Fantasy spin: As McGuinness noted, this was just one game from Woods, and his overall body of work is not that impressive. With that said, it was a strong performance and does warrant further exploration.
There’s an obvious gap in Buffalo’s offense now that Watkins is out, but we shouldn’t expect Woods to put up close to the kind of numbers Watkins was capable of producing. For starters, Woods’ average depth of target is 10.2 yards this season (and it was 10.2 in Week 4). Watkins’ aDOT was 14.3 this year, and it was 18.3 last year. That speaks to what McGuinness noted, which is that Buffalo got Woods the ball on a lot of slants. That’s a higher percentage play but doesn’t offer as much reward as the deeper shots.
At this point, Woods is certainly worth an add in fantasy, but he’s not a must-start by any means.
Question: Washington’s Matt Jones has put together three solid games in a row, and he had his best game of the season in Week 4. How did he look this week? There was chatter before the season he might lose the starting job, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Is he really going to be Washington’s workhorse all season long?
Answer: “Jones indeed looked really good, although this had something to do with the opponent and the game situation too. Cleveland’s linebackers had a terrible game and were unable to come off blocks all day long. However, this does not take anything away from Jones, who made several good moves to gain extra yards on top of what the offensive line provided him.
“It is also telling that he had just as many carries in the fourth quarter as in the first three together. Washington basically asked him to put the game away when they had the lead, and he delivered. He seemed fresh in the fourth quarter against a tired Cleveland defense and was able to pull off long run after long run with relative ease. The fact that Washington was able to win this game by relying so heavily on Jones suggests that the workhorse role and the majority of the carries are his to lose from now on.” — Zoltan Buday (See full Redskins-Browns grade recap)
Fantasy spin: I think it’s time to admit that I was wrong about Matt Jones this season. I still don’t think he’s a league winner — not by any means — but he does warrant the “RB2” label.
Jones has seen his attempts increase in each of the first four games this season: 7, 13, 17 and finally a career-high 22 last week. Similarly, he saw over 65 percent of Washington’s snaps last week, which was the second-highest snap rate of his career (he saw 70.6 percent of Washington’s snaps in Week 7 last season).
As Buday noted, Washington’s usage of Jones last week would seem to indicate that “the majority of the carries are his to lose from now on.” Given that workhorses are hard to come by in fantasy, Jones is a must-start at this point.
Question: Michael Thomas has now scored a touchdown for the Saints in two straight games, which has the fantasy community excited. Has Thomas really emerged as a favorite target of Drew Brees — especially near the red zone? Or does this appear to be just a temporary thing while Willie Snead recovers?
Answer: “This is definitely one of those questions that sort of has a yes answer to both. Snead saw 17 targets his first two games before injury, while Thomas saw 11. Since Snead’s injury, Thomas has been targeted 18 times in those two games (including the last one where Snead played but was clearly not full strength). So I think this is one of those situations where the Snead injury is obviously the reason he is getting more playing time and more targets, and that will likely go down once Snead is back to full strength.
“But also because of Snead’s injury, Thomas is getting a chance to show what he can do. He has been impressive while developing chemistry with Brees, so that’s going to ensure he’ll still see targets even when Snead is back. The Saints throw the ball so much that everyone in that offense will get targets, so I like what Thomas has done and where he’s headed.” — Bryson Vesnaver (See full Saints-Chargers game recap)
Fantasy spin: That’s a largely positive answer from Vesnaver. Essentially, Thomas is seeing more targets because of Snead’s injury, but Thomas has made the most of those extra targets, which will likely lead to a steady role throughout the season, even when Snead returns to full health.
Thomas has emerged from a fantasy benchwarmer to a legitimate flex option now that bye weeks are upon us. His upside is somewhat capped because, as Vesnaver noted, Brees tends to spread the ball around. But Thomas appears to have earned a large enough piece of the pie in New Orleans to be a fantasy factor.
Question: Baltimore’s Steve Smith is off to (another) hot start. It seems like he’s been Baltimore’s best offensive player by a mile. Is that really the case? Do you think he can keep it up for all 16 games?
Answer: “From a skill perspective, he is easily the best player Baltimore has, and they don’t have any other wide receiver who can do what he can do. They have speed in Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman, but Smith can still take a pass a long way if he forces a missed tackle, as we saw in Week 4. Smith is also superior to Kamar Aiken in the middle of the field.
“Health does have to be a question since he is coming back from injury, but so long as he is healthy, I don’t see any other wide receiver in Baltimore taking over Smith in terms of targets. There will be games where he is quiet, but Flacco clearly trusts him more than any other wide receiver. Smith is the only Baltimore wide receiver who is averaging more than 2 yards per route run, and despite his age, Baltimore is using him about the same as Wallace. Wallace has only run 10 more routes than Smith (143 vs. 133), while every other Baltimore receiver has run fewer than 70 routes. —Michael Mountford (See full Ravens-Raiders grade recap)
Fantasy spin: This is great news for anyone who has invested in Smith. While Smith’s big Week 4 was predicted, the general assumption is that he’ll trail off as we enter the second half of the season. But that’s really only the assumption because that’s what happened in 2014. Given that he is “easily the best player Baltimore has” from a skill perspective, and given that he’s running twice as many routes as all but one Baltimore receiver, means that he should be set for as along as he’s healthy, as Mountford noted.
Smith is currently the No. 27 receiver in standard leagues and No. 20 wideout in PPR formats, so we’re certainly not talking about an elite fantasy wideout here. However, he needs to be considered a strong WR3 or flex option.