To date, almost nothing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers season has been surprising.
Tom Brady is awesome and pushing to break records. The receivers have been lighting it up. Even the inevitable injury wave has hit this team, mainly in the secondary, after they were absurdly healthy in 2020.
I said almost nothing, though. The one twist: The rebirth of Leonard Fournette.
Coming into the season, the mainstream consensus in the fantasy industry was that this was a backfield to avoid. It was a straight three-way split without any true clarity. Despite the attachment to what we all knew would be a legendary passing game, neither an early-down split between Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones nor a low-volume scatback role for Gio Bernard was going to be worth much.
No one could have predicted that Fournette would blow both of those other guys out of the water and suddenly own the backfield for himself. Yet, here we are. It might not have happened had Jones not done everything in his power to fumble the job away and Bernard avoided the injury list but again, here we are. In this current reality, Fournette is a workhorse.
The best part is, Fournette isn’t just some volume-based compiler in fantasy football. The bruising back is responding to his promotion by playing extremely well.
The Bucs cut their backfield down to mostly Fournette and gave him an 82-percent snap share three weeks ago against the Patriots. Since then, Fournette ranks seventh in yards after contact among running backs, has forced 10 missed tackles, and ranks third among running backs in catches and yards. He’s been a three-down workhorse for a team that ranks sixth in rushing offense DVOA.
Tampa Bay is one of the most pass-heavy operations in the entire NFL but they still know what they have in Fournette. They were content to continue to give him the rock as they controlled the game against the Eagles last week and he just kept barreling through guys for extra yardage. He’s a tone-setter.
You need to toss out your priors on Fournette. Who cares where he was drafted by the Jaguars or how it ended there? This is a new version of the player. And this version looks like a guy taking the challenge handed to him by Bruce Arians and co. and completely running with it. He looks like a guy who will remain a crucial piece for a team we know will be high-flying on offense all the way through.
Leonard Fournette is a starting fantasy running back the rest of the season. You can’t name 20 backs I’d take over him right now. We all wanted a featured back attached to a quarterback like Tom Brady in this offense.
Open your eyes. We got one.
Terry McLaurin is tied for 2nd most with 14 targets of 20+ yards
Despite ranking “just” WR17 on the season and coming off back-to-back slow days, don’t give up the ghost with Terry McLaurin just yet.
McLaurin is still being treated as a clear-cut WR1 from an opportunity standpoint. The shine is starting to wear off of the Taylor Heinicke era but he can still get some big plays toward McLaurin ... especially as the rest of the skill-position corps falls apart.
Terry McLaurin has 28 (!!) contested targets on the season. That is the most among WRs by a lot - Mike Williams is 2nd with 16. Still sporting a Top-10 contested catch rate among guys with 10+ contested targets. Give me a break!
(Data from PFF)
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 21, 2021
We would like him to be a bit healthier as he’s been limited in practice with a hamstring injury but this might be a good week to chase the ceiling. Green Bay ranks 32nd in explosive pass rate allowed.
38.7 percent of Henry Ruggs’ targets have come 20+ yards down the field
The Raiders’ second-year receiver ranks second in yards on such targets and Derek Carr has a 142.4 passer rating when throwing to him on deep passes.
Far from the bust some were ready to label him, Ruggs looks like a high-end starter for this team. He’s not just winning on fluky deep plays either, he’s legitimately pulling in difficult contested catches. The community doesn’t seem to have caught up to this development just yet. Ruggs looks like a guy you’re wanting to start at WR3 every single week and is a Top-40 receiver at worst the rest of the way.
Jaylen Waddle has a 9.1 average depth of target with Tua*
That’s compared to a sub 4.0 aDOT with Jacoby Brissett. Shoutout to Dwain McFarland from PFF for noting this one:
Jaylen Waddle's ADOT by quarterback:
Tua Tagovailoa = 9.1
Jacoby Brissett = 3.8
— Context Matters (@dwainmcfarland) October 19, 2021
Obviously, we’d like him north of the 10-yard mark either way. They’ve put a guy with game-breaking speed into the old Jarvis Landry role — a spot that didn’t need a reprise. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that Waddle comes with a slightly higher ceiling with Tua* compared to what we saw with Jacoby Brissett.
If Waddle had his 13-target, two-touchdown breakout game on the main slate last week, it certainly feels like there would be more excitement around him heading into Week 7. Waddle has a chance to be a major target hog in a Miami offense that is severely lacking in receiving talent despite their offensive overhaul over the spring.
He could give you low-end WR2 numbers simply based on his volume but remember, this player really does have juice. At some point he’s going to turn these layup looks into a big play. Why not this weekend against a brutal Falcons defense?
*Note: We're all aware of the trade rumors surrounding Tua Tagovailoa and Deshaun Watson. Tua is still the Dolphins' starting QB as of this writing however, so we'll operate as such until further notice.
A.J. Brown ran a team-high 26 routes on Monday
Brown did that on 31 Ryan Tannehill dropbacks (83.9 percent). I don’t care about any snap count talk.
It’s been a string of awful breaks for A.J. Brown drafters from the jump. After a touchdown in Week 1, he had a fluky drop-filled outing against the Seahawks, then suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 — and when he finally got back in Week 5 ... they didn’t need him to beat down the Jaguars.
Brown finally had a big game against the Titans but that was preceded by a Sunday full of speculation about whether he would even play after a Chipotle-induced “illness” designation. Many folks pulled him out of their lineups and were feeling good about the decision prior to the second half of Monday Night Football.
Despite the frustration, what we saw out of Brown on Monday was good enough for me to put my expectations for Brown right back to their preseason levels.
Brown looked great and should only get better the farther away he gets from his hamstring injury and starts regaining the eight pounds he lost from food poisoning. He essentially put the passing game on his back in the second half against Buffalo. The Titans gave him 52 percent of snaps from the slot in Week 6. That allowed him to run plenty of his devastating, over-the-middle crossing routes.
Brown is a near must-start against the Chiefs defense in a high-scoring game this week. With Julio Jones likely out, it’ll be a crime if Brown doesn’t see 10-plus targets.
Joe Burrow has thrown more than 35 passes in just one game this year. He cleared that number in eight of 10 games in 2020.
How crazy is this shift: One of the games he went under 35 passes in 2020 was the Washington matchup — where he got injured.
The Bengals have seemingly wanted to become a run-heavy team in order to protect Joe Burrow as he works back to full health. The plan does make sense. It just happens to be killing the prospects for his wide receivers in fantasy football.
As a low aDOT player, Tyler Boyd needs consistently high volume. He’s seen five and three targets in two games since Tee Higgins has returned from injury. Higgins himself hasn’t cleared seven in any game. Only Ja’Marr Chase is relevant in this passing offense because he’s emerged as the NFL’s best deep threat.
We shouldn’t expect the Bengals to suddenly reverse course. The Ravens will be by far their toughest test to date. If the Ravens control the script and Burrow doesn’t air the ball out in this matchup, then we know exactly how this team will operate for the rest of the season.
The Seahawks are allowing 181.5 total YPG to RBs
Despite Pete Carroll still coaching to the defense he had about a decade ago, the Seahawks' stop unit is a disaster. They’ve been particularly bad against the run but have given it up to running backs through the air, as well. Seattle allows the second-most receiving yards allowed to the position.
Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines each recorded six catches in their Week 1 matchup. Derrick Henry had perhaps the best receiving day of his life in Week 2, with six catches for 55 yards. Alexander Mattison stung them for six catches on eight targets. And of course, Najee Harris got them through the air with six catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Almost every running back to go against this defense has gotten off via the receiving game.
Alvin Kamara is next up. He ranks as the RB12 in points per game thus far but has been a mild fantasy disappointment. Ironically, most of his work has come via the ground this season. This would be the perfect week for the Saints to unleash Kamara in the fashion we’re more used to seeing.
Calvin Ridley ranks 9th in air yards per game
If you squint at it, the Falcons offense might have turned a corner from their rough start to the season.
Matt Ryan has started to push the ball downfield a bit more in his last two games. Nine of his 12 passes of 20-plus yards came in Weeks 4 and 5. Atlanta also enjoyed the best game of Kyle Pitts’ young career right before the bye. Mike Davis is still grinding it out in the backfield while Cordarrelle Patterson has settled into a shockingly key role for this team.
Now it’s time for Calvin Ridley to get back on track as the top-10 receiver his usage metrics say he should be.
ATL's Week 7 opponent, Miami, is coming off a London game in Week 6 and is dealing with injuries in the secondary. This man coverage-heavy team has been a letdown defense overall this year. Ridley has been one of the best man-beating receivers since he came into the league. This is a great week for him to erupt.
San Francisco ranks 28th in explosive run rate allowed
The 49ers defense isn’t close to the dominant unit it was two years ago. This is a troubling data point for them as they head into a matchup with the Colts.
Jonathan Taylor is on absolute fire right now, especially in the explosive play department. He ranks fifth among running backs in yards per carry and has ripped off two long plays in as many games.
The Colts gave Jonathan Taylor just two first-half carries last week in a positive game script against the Texans. That just cannot happen again. I don’t care what the Colts think about the backs behind Taylor — if this guy isn’t seeing 20 to 25 touches per game they’ve left the plane of reasonable behavior.
Luckily, even if the Colts don’t wise up, the 49ers’ explosive play rating means Taylor can still be a hit even on low volume.