The Math Behind the Matchups: Week 15 (Fantasy Football)

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In this series, we dive deep into the NFL matchups for the coming week and, of course, the implications for fantasy football. It’s time to pull out all the stops – the fantasy playoffs are here, and it’s win or go home – so let’s make sure you get your start/sit decisions right!

One thing to note: we will often be considering performance above expectation, especially when looking at statistics of an entire offense or defense. This is crucial, because we don’t want to punish a good defense for giving up yards to great offenses like the Bucs. Similarly, we don’t want to put a bad defense on a pedestal just because they played well against the Jags. The idea, then, will be to look at how many yards the defense allowed minus the average yards the opposing offense usually gains (and vice versa for offenses above expectation).

I will point out some matchups that I think look ‘juicy’ (targets) or situations that you might want to stay away from (fades). These will by no means create an exhaustive list: there is a lot of information in the charts below, so feel free to study the matchups on your own and identify players that you might want to target or sit for the week.  All data, unless otherwise noted, is from nflfastR.

Hidden Stats

Every manager has felt the pain of their RB getting tackled on the 1-yard line, only for the team to toss it to the 3rd-string TE for the touchdown on the very next play. In this vein, we can count the number of times a player has ‘almost’ scored – which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet – with the idea that upwards regression in the future could be coming. The numbers here are different drives where the player was tackled inside the 5 (it doesn’t make sense to include multiple plays on the same drive, since the player can only score once) and didn’t eventually end up scoring on that drive.

You could make an argument that James Conner, the RB6 on the year, has been the best pick across all of fantasy football in 2021 (he’s got 16 touchdowns on the year!). Here’s the crazy thing: it could be even better. Conner leads rushers ‘almost scoring’ with 5 near-TDs in the last three weeks. You might be worried about Chase Edmonds returning, but I believe you can still start Conner with confidence as your RB1. Myles Gaskin and Alexander Mattison have some COVID-uncertainties, but AJ Dillon is a name that sticks out as well on this list. He had ten more carries than Aaron Jones on Sunday Night Football and could be a solid asset for your team during the playoff run.

We can consider pass-catchers next. To start, one of my biggest fantasy football pet peeves is that WRs don’t score fantasy points for drawing Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) penalties. It’s 2021, we have the technology…let’s start crediting wideouts for plays that generate real NFL yardage but don’t show up in the box score!

Anyways, using simple regression models (which takes air yards to predict YAC and TD probability) we can estimate how many fantasy points were taken off the board by a defensive penalty. Here are the Week 12 leaders:

A similar approach tells us which pass-catchers underperformed and over-performed this week. Again, a simple regression model uses air yards, targets, and defensive ability to predict how many fantasy points a player should score, and compare that to how many they actually score. An overachieving player might be one who catches a few TDs on only a couple of targets; an underachieving one sees a lot of targets (against a bad defense) and doesn’t do much with it. Here are the standouts:

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There is plenty to analyze, but here are my main takeaways.

  • DK Metcalf has been a serious disappointment of late. However, he’s still getting plenty of usage: he underachieved by seven points last week and had two points wiped out by a DPI. It might be tempting to bench DK – who hasn’t had a performance inside the top-30 WRs since Week 8 – but his upside is too high to not have in your lineup, especially with Russell Wilson finally looking healthy again.
  • Darnell Mooney is another name that has let you down in recent weeks: after back-to-back weekly WR4 performances followed by a WR14 week, he’s been the WR49 and WR83 in the past two weeks. This was especially disappointing given the Chicago Bears surprising points explosion against the Packers Sunday night. Don’t fret, though: Darnell was an underachiever relative to his usage and also had a couple of points come off the board thanks to DPI. We’ll discuss this further, but he has a solid matchup against the Vikings this week…
  • Their two touchdowns were quite memorable – especially the walk-off score for the Bucs – but you can’t chase the dragon with Damiere Byrd and Breshad Perriman. Both were massive overachievers (about 10 points over expectation) and only saw two targets. They should not be rostered going forward.
  • It might be tempting to take action on the fact that Kenny Golladay was the 2nd highest underachieving receiver this week; he saw 8 targets, a season-high! Unfortunately, I don’t see this as any sort of buy signal: Kenny G has actually been averaging over 5 targets per game and has still only been a WR2 twice on the season. What’s worse, he draws the resurgent Dallas defense this week. You can drop Kenny in redraft leagues if you haven’t already.

Passing Attacks

Let’s turn to a breakdown of passing offenses:

Note that the ‘deep’ charts are missing some teams because, with the Bye weeks recently, we simply don’t have a large enough sample size for a few of the teams.

Targets

  • I mentioned this above, but the Vikings are fourth worst against deep passes of late. That’s where Darnell Mooney makes his bread, so look for a rebound in Week 15; Mooney is a low-end WR2 with upside.
  • Tyler Lockett and Russell Wilson appear to have their ‘mind-meld’ back online. They have a tough divisional matchup with the Rams, although Los Angeles is actually below average against deep passes (and certainly mid-distance passes). Ride the variance with Lockett, and Russell can also be a desperation streamer (or a great QB2 in super-FLEX leagues). As mentioned above, DK Metcalf should also be in your lineup.
  • Hold your nose: Mike Davis has had a nice little run (no pun intended), posting back-to-back RB2 weeks and racking up lots of checkdown yardage. The 49ers defense is solid against everything except checkdowns, where they get completely gashed. It’s tough to recommend Davis as an RB2, but you can do worse in your FLEX.
  • This is an even longer shot than Mike Davis, but Donovan Peoples-Jones might be the last man standing in Cleveland with Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper facing COVID-uncertainties. Peoples-Jones hauled in 5 of 7 targets last week – both a season high – and gets the Raiders, who have been absolutely demolished deep recently. DPJ is an intriguing deep-league upside play.

Fades

  • The New England Patriots are a difficult pass defense to face, and Bill Belichick coming off a bye makes the climb steeper. You might want to temper your expectations for Michael Pittman Jr. and, of course, the other passing options for the Colts (which probably should stay on your bench). While the Patriots’ numbers are boosted from the wind-fest in Buffalo, Josh Allen did still throw the ball a decent amount over the course of the entire game.
  • On the other side of the field, the Patriots have to play a tough Colts passing defense, also coming off of a bye! It’s difficult to project the Patriots offensive weapons week-to-week, and even harder with a week off in between. I’m sitting all pass-catchers when possible, from Jakobi Meyers to Kendrick Bourne, from Hunter Henry to Nelson Agholor.
  • Similarly, the Cleveland Browns have been playing great defense, and the Oakland Raiders are in a bit of a slide. We’ve seen how breakout WR Hunter Renfrow is astoundingly negatively correlated with fellow pass-catcher Darren Waller, who projects to be back this week. You’re starting both, of course, but lower the ceiling of your expectations.
  • Cam Newton is back, but it’s the Carolina Panthers defense that has kept the team competitive. They journey to Buffalo to face a frustrated Bills team reeling off of two difficult losses; you’re starting Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and Dawson Knox, but I’m leaving the other Bills options out of my lineup.

Finally, let’s take a look at the fantasy points scored by the major positions; this can help to identity opposing D/ST units that could be wise to stream this week:

  • Hopefully, you picked up the Miami Dolphins last week, who have a juicy matchup against the New York Jets. If you didn’t, go check your waiver wire; they were on Bye and potentially got dropped.
  • It’s been a tough few weeks in Carolina. Joe Brady is gone, Matt Rhule could be next and Cam Newton is splitting time with PJ Walker. As mentioned above, they play the Bills this week, who may have been dropped after their tussle with the historically good Bucs offense last week; take a look on your waiver wire and make sure.
  • Speaking of the Bucs offense, this is important to highlight: the Saints play the Bucs this week, and New Orleans has been a solid fantasy D/ST in 2021. In fact, they were the D/ST3 on the week when Trevor Siemian had an improbable victory over Tom Brady. However, I’m here to tell you emphatically: do not start the Saints this week against the Bucs. It’s the worst possible matchup (the greatest offense this year) and too much to hope for lightning to strike twice.
  • It’s a long shot, but the Philadelphia Eagles play the sputtering Washington Football Team in Week 15. The Eagles have actually been a top 5 D/ST option in three of their past siz games, and Washington might be without Terry McLaurin. This is a deep play, but you could do worse than this divisional matchup.

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Curious about any more matchups? Message me on Twitter.

Chart styling from Sam.

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