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Fantasy Football: DeAndre Hopkins' lack of volume good for Arizona

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DeAndre Hopkins maintained a 26-percent share of the Cardinals targets and 32-percent share of the team’s air yards in 2020. Those have dipped to 19 percent and 27 percent, respectively, this season.

That’s a pretty steep drop. His 2020 opportunity looks like that of an elite No. 1 wide receiver. Hopkins’ usage this season is more akin to a high-end WR2.

My policy is to never panic in fantasy football. We just make adjustments to our expectations and keep it moving. When’s the last time you made a good decision in real life while panicking?

I don’t even really endorse worrying about verifiably good receivers who are seeing volume. People were legitimately asking if they should worry about DK Metcalf after two weeks.

He’s scored four times in three games since.

The problem for Hopkins is that while he is no question still a verifiably great receiver, he isn’t seeing the volume we expected. What does make me really ready to adjust expectations is that I think this is actually good for the Arizona Cardinals offense.

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Last season, the entire passing game was just short passes and “Kyler, go do something,” which usually just involved peppering Hopkins. The was Nuk, and some dust in 2020.

Now, the Cardinals truly go four deep at the wide receiver position. Say what you want about A.J. Green and what you thought about his play last year but he’s played great football for Arizona through four weeks. He’s nearly matching Hopkins in usage. Christian Kirk looks reborn as a 90-percent slot player. Rondale Moore is explosive and even if no one wants to talk about it, taking Larry Fitzgerald’s targets from last year and giving them to the rookie has made a stratosphere of difference.

Additionally, because Kyler Murray has reached the MVP-level tier where he’s the tide that raises all boats, he’s even providing legitimate contributions for Chase Edmonds and Maxx Williams in the passing game. Murray leads the NFL in completion percentage over expectation. He’s that good right now.

Arizona ranks fourth in passing offense DVOA and third in yards per play overall. Why would they change? Just to meet the stat expectations of one player? Not when they’re winning. It doesn’t work that way. If Hopkins isn’t going to see the same passing game opportunity as what he held in our preseason projections, he might be a low-end WR1 or even high-end 2 in fantasy football.

One layer of optimism would be that as he gets healthier and the defense continues to spread out to account for other threats, he becomes more involved downfield, therefore more efficient and less reliant on volume. His aDOT last season was under 10 yards. He can win in the vertical game more than that. Still, that’s a leap to make and not one you were banking on when you drafted him in August. 

Inglewood, CA - October 03: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins #10
What we've been seeing from DeAndre Hopkins might be what his story is for 2021. (Photo by Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

Hopkins is one of the five best receivers in pro football. No one is doubting the player and I’m not here to tell you his game is slipping in the slightest. However, year-to-year fluctuation in usage can happen when the pieces around a player have changed, as has clearly happened in Arizona.

The offense is just in no way constructed to feed him the type of volume he saw last year. That might be bad news for your fantasy team given where you drafted Hopkins, but it’s good news for the Arizona Cardinals.

James Conner has six goal-line opportunities

James Conner is one of a small handful of backs who are averaging at least one goal-line opportunity per game.

I’ve started to view Conner in the way I assessed A.J. Dillon (my RB30) coming into the season. Conner is going to average 10-plus touches per game and get scoring-area looks while playing for one of the best offenses in football. That gives him every week “What the heck FLEX” appeal.

What people aren’t giving enough credence to is that Conner has monster upside if Chase Edmonds (who didn’t practice Thursday) misses time. We’ve seen Conner be a three-down back before with the Steelers. He could end up with the full workload in this scenario. Then we’re talking about a workhorse back for Kyler Murray’s white-hot offense.

If Edmonds plays every game this season Conner is likely going to end up just being one of those weird backs that totals, like, 500-600 yards but still scores 10-plus touchdowns. The opportunity is there for him to be way more if chaos strikes. He might be one of the sneakiest but unsexy trade targets right now.

The Ravens rank 18th in neutral situation passing rate

Nothing about this seems that great at first blush but when given context, this is a huge deal.

The Ravens ranked 30th in 2020 and 32nd in 2019. Baltimore trending toward the middle of the league when it comes to their passing approach is an unexpected but welcome development.

Lamar Jackson has been electric this year. He’s throwing deep at the highest rate among starting quarterbacks and he’s still on pace for 1,000 rushing yards. What a baller.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
We could be seeing the best Lamar Jackson ever this year. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The Ravens are turning more of their offense over to Jackson than ever before. They aren’t even trying to be explosive in the ground game beyond Lamar. They’re just running out their old but likely reliable backs who won’t make mistakes. Baltimore knows Lamar’s got them.

We should continue to maintain optimism that Rashod Bateman can have a dynamic rookie season when he comes off IR. There are obvious lost time and chemistry questions to answer but at least one of those has disappeared. We were rightly concerned that Bateman might not be in the best offensive ecosystem to produce in fantasy long-term.

Through four weeks, it doesn’t look like Baltimore is the exact same overly run-heavy offense.

The Patriots rank third in neutral situation passing rate

You wouldn’t expect this, given the bully-ball mentality this team operated with last year. They aren’t quite efficient yet but the bones are there.

Mac Jones has been accurate as expected this year. He ranks 11th in catchable pass rate and tied for 8th in on-target percentage. We just need to get more juice in this aerial attack. He’s only averaging 6.3 yards per attempt.

Maybe Jones never takes that next step this year and the passing game remains dink-and-dunk. However, this shows that there is hidden upside in this passing game if a rookie just naturally improves throughout the course of the year. We already know Jakobi Meyers (is this the week he finally scores a touchdown?!) — who has a rock-solid floor and is a near-every week FLEX starter — would stand to benefit but perhaps more guys here have some unforeseen upside.

Washington is sixth in neutral situation pace of play

Taylor Heinicke has emerged as a solid driver for the Washington offense and this is your reminder that he currently holds the keys to a near-luxury vehicle.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner has always juiced up the pace of the units he’s overseen. It was the case during his brief stint as a play-caller in relief of his dad down in Carolina and it’s followed him to Washington.

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With this pace and efficiency (Washington ranks 10th in yards per play) we should continue to invest in this offense. One piece that could shoot up the rankings soon is Curtis Samuel. The veteran receiver returned to action last week but could get back to a full role in Week 5. If he goes off against a Saints team that let Kenny Golladay have his first big game, that let John Ross get behind them for a 52-yard score, and let Kadarius Toney do some things, Samuel will be a hot item in rest-of-season rankings. Remember, Logan Thomas is out of a while, freeing up targets. Be ahead of the curve on this one.

Austin Ekeler has a 67 percent success rate on early-down runs

Don’t look now, but Austin Ekeler might have taken the next step.

Ekeler has always been an elite receiving back but he’s also been a pristine grinder early this season. Ekeler’s early-down rushing success rate of 67 percent (which measures first downs and touchdowns) shows he’s not just some third-down threat. It’s demonstrated in his advanced rushing metrics too. Ekeler’s 3.5 yards after contact per attempt is a top-five mark among backs. He has a weekly rushing share of 44 to 51 percent. There’s no true split in this backfield.

He won’t ever have the rush-attempt upside of the Tier 1 backs, as Ekeler is only 20th in the NFL in carries. However, with this improvement as an efficient, early-down runner, the top of the second tier of fantasy backs should begin and end with Ekeler.

Trey Lance scrambled five times

That was out of seven total rush attempts, good for over 70 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scramble-to-designed-run ratio is flipped on its head in Week 5.

Kyle Shanahan openly admitted after the game that the Week 4 game plan was not designed for Trey Lance at all. They didn’t even know he would need to enter the game after the half until the very last minute.

With a week to prepare something for Trey Lance, you can bet it will look different.

The Arizona Cardinals are bottom-10 in yards per carry allowed and have struggled with their run fits because they are such an aggressive front-seven. There’s no doubt Shanahan has taken notice. He once took the world by storm with the offense he designed for Robert Griffin III in Washington as a rookie and I think we see Shanny return to those roots. He might have wanted to start Garoppolo a little while longer but injury may have forced the schedule to speed up. Shanahan has likely had a plan ready to go for when this moment arrived. Sunday’s debut could see Lance rip up the Cardinals on designed runs.

Not only does this make Lance an appealing streamer, but it also boosts the prospects of Trey Sermon. The rookie could be the Alfred Morris — a steady grinder who gets what’s there and runs with power — to Lance’s RGIII.

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