Austin Ekeler could lead all RBs in points per game down the stretch
Ease of Pass D Efficiency of Opponents: 3rd
Ease of Rush D Efficiency of Opponents: 6th
While it seems like a hot take to say Austin Ekeler could be the highest-scoring back in fantasy football the rest of the season, it’s entirely reasonable to expect.
As noted above, the Chargers’ schedule of opposing defenses is a total cakewalk. The Patriots and their 31st-ranked defense (DVOA) come to town in Week 13, then the Chargers draw matchups with the Falcons, Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs. That’s especially juicy for a pass-catching running back.
Two things were true from Austin Ekeler’s first game off an injury. One that, heading into the season, was always going to be the case, and one that was an unexpected variable.
Coming into the season, we should have all known that Austin Ekeler would be the foundation piece of the Chargers offense, despite noise about a random rookie back from small circles of fantasy Twitter. Despite a long injury absence, that was how he was treated in Week 12. Ekeler played on 72 percent of the Chargers’ snaps and touched the ball 25 times, including a team-high 11 catches. That’s elite fantasy back usage.
The unforeseen variable was that he’d be the foundation piece for a team with a top-tier quarterback. By any legitimate measure, that’s exactly what rookie Justin Herbert has been. Herbert was already manning an attack that ranked 12th in offensive DVOA. Ekeler is just the icing on the cake.
So, to recap: A proven stud getting elite fantasy-back-type of usage who plays on an offense with a top quarterback, and is about to hit the lightest part of his schedule.
Yep, a healthy Austin Ekeler is set up to smash the rest of the season.
Kirk Cousins is playing like a Top-10 QB
EPA per Play: 9th
NGS Completion Percentage over Expectation: 2nd
PFF Deep Passing Percentage: 3rd
Weird sentence to read? Not if you’ve tracked this offense the last month-plus.
You can sit here and argue about why it’s happening. You can say that Kirk Cousins is the same old streaky guy as always and he’s just being elevated by a pair of WRs in Adam Thielen and all-star rookie Justin Jefferson. Either way, the reality is, this is happening. And Cousins is not getting the respect he deserves for the way he’s playing.
It was actually encouraging to see Cousins succeed in the environment the Vikings put him in last week. All while missing Thielen, Cousins amassed his second-straight 300-yard, three-touchdown game on a season-high 45 passes. The team needed Cousins to move the offense to win the game and he did.
The Vikings have a pretty attractive fantasy schedule down the stretch. Cousins, Jefferson, and an activated Thielen will play Jacksonville in Week 13. After that, they play the suddenly struggling Bucs pass defense in a potentially high-scoring game, the Bears, the Saints in the shootout-friendly Superdome, and the Lions. Not bad.
Already sitting at the QB12 spot in the year, we could be looking at a QB1-level finish from Cousins in 2020.
Time to upgrade the San Francisco(ish) 49ers WRs
Brandon Aiyuk average depth of target: 9.6
YAC per reception: 4.9
Deebo Samuel average depth of target: 1.9
YAC per reception: 12.9
Deebo Samuel returned from injury with authority in Week 12, accumulating 133 yards on 11 catches. He looks locked into the type of usage many hoped he’d carry when he went in the mid-rounds of hyper-early summer drafts prior to his foot injury.
The only worry some may have is how he and breakout rookie Brandon Aiyuk would work together in a low-volume passing offense now that he’s back from the COVID-19 list. Questions may exist about their projected targets and whether they’d render each other redundant as a pair of YAC dominators.
You shouldn’t worry.
Aiyuk was known primarily as a slippery after-catch player in college. He’s certainly made some solid plays in the open field. However, he’s been deployed as much more of an intermediate and downfield player than some may have expected as a rookie. That’s reflected in his healthy 9.6 aDOT, the highest for any 49ers player with 20-plus looks. From a pure vertical perspective, he’s hauled in all three of his catchable downfield targets (per PFF) for a team-high 90 yards on throws of 20-plus yards. That accounts for almost a quarter of his total yardage total.
Meanwhile, Samuel has been the guy pigeonholed into the layup-target, YAC-based gadget role. His 1.9 aDOT is the lowest among any receiver with 30-plus targets by a country mile. The longer he plays, the more that will rise. Yet, the short game — running with the ball in his hands — is where Samuel functions best. His role won’t change much.
We don’t have a huge sample of these two guys both healthy and playing together. That is a variable to consider. But from a pure role and deployment perspective, there shouldn’t be too much overlap. That matters quite a bit on a depth chart that’s light on relevant pass-catchers.
#LetRussCook movement on hold
Passing rate on 1st/2nd down Weeks 1-4: 63% (1st)
Passing rate on 1st/2nd down Weeks 9-12: 46% (20th)
*Game is within three points*
We might not like it but this is the reality of the Seahawks’ offense. The fun, air-it-out attack of the early portion of the season is gone. Maybe Pete Carroll has another epiphany to the obvious way this team should be run but for now, we shouldn’t be projecting them as anything close to that.
With this more balanced attack, we can expect the team to feature a healthy rushing game, and you still want running backs attached to a team that ranks fourth in efficiency.
However, Chris Carson was out-snapped by Carlos Hyde last week; that throws a wrench in the projectability of this healthy rushing game. Part of me wants to write it off as Carson just getting his feet wet but at the same time, Hyde has run well in Seattle. He’s a good back and it doesn’t make sense for them to completely write a good back out of their plans.
Carson should still be started in fantasy every single week but Hyde is unlikely to just go away and might find himself on the weekly desperation play radar.
In the pass-catch corps, we only care about two guys. This more balanced approach doesn’t change DK Metcalf’s outlook much. In this sample, he had one dud game against Jalen Ramsey, but scored a touchdown against the Cardinals in Week 11 and demolished the Eagles on 13 targets last Monday.
For Tyler Lockett, this version of the Seahawks offense only makes the low-end range of his volatility as the second-fiddle all the more pronounced. He has target totals of 9, 9, and 3, found the end zone against Arizona, but went under 30 yards against the Eagles. That can happen in any given game now. Lockett can never be benched in fantasy because you know his ceiling is winning a week for you all on his own — but there’s always risk.
Top-5 gaps between rush and pass offensive DVOA
Houston Texans: 5th in passing, 32nd in rushing (27 spot gap)
New England Patriots: 27th in passing, 4th in rushing (23 spot gap)
Washington Football Team: 31st in passing, 8th in rushing (23 spot gap)
Los Angeles Chargers: 7th in passing, 28th in rushing (21 spot gap)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 7th in passing, 28th in rushing (17 spot gap)
Most of this looks like we’d expect. The Texans have one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL and a lifeless running game. Tough look for them when the 2019 starter they let go of in Carlos Hyde is running circles around their prized acquisition of David Johnson. Similarly, New England is unlikely to unearth a steady passing game at this point in the season.
As for the other three teams, you could tell yourself a story about how the gaps close. Washington is the easy pick. Alex Smith has easily looked like their best quarterback and is playing solid football. He ranks 14th among quarterbacks in EPA per play since Week 10 (min. 40 plays). The running game has been a strength all year with Antonio Gibson flying under the radar as a stud — until his Thanksgiving performance, that is. That said, Smith is making this passing game efficient, which keeps Terry McLaurin among the WR1 ranks.
For the Chargers, we covered above why their running game could get better. Going from guys like Joshua Kelly and Kalen Ballage to Austin Ekeler is a titanic upgrade.
The Steelers might be the most interesting of the bunch. We saw on Wednesday Afternoon Football (insert laugh) why James Conner isn’t really the problem in the running game. No one is going to find much success in this environment. Pittsburgh ranked 29th in adjusted line yards coming into Week 12. This is a pass-first team and unless Conner suddenly comes off the COVID list and transforms the unit, it’s unlikely that changes.