The Math Behind the Matchups: Week 17 (Fantasy Football)
It’s Championship Week! Congratulations to those who have made it – no matter how ugly the route – and find yourself now in the battle for ultimate glory. In this article, we will dive deep into the NFL matchups for the coming week and, of course, the implications for fantasy football. It’s time to go the extra mile and take home that fantasy championship; let’s make sure you get those 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. 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.
Every manager has felt the pain of their RB getting tackled a yard short of the end zone, only for the team to toss it to the third-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 five (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.
At this point, it’s difficult to ignore Tevin Coleman: he’s averaging 12 rushes and two targets over the past four weeks, and hasn’t found the end zone a single time. Still, he has almost scored on five separate drives, and he could be a FLEX or even desperation RB2 with a chance to fall into the end zone (he is facing the Bucs although, as we will see, Tampa Bay’s run defense hasn’t been as stout as they were to start the season). A.J. Dillon seems to stay on this list each and every week, and he continues to be a solid option at the position as the Packers look to put the one-seed out of reach against the Vikings.
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 16 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:
There is plenty to analyze, but here are my main takeaways.
- Seemingly without rhyme or reason, Laquon Treadwell has emerged as a consistent option in the Jacksonville Jaguars passing attack, averaging nearly seven targets over the last three weeks. In Week 16, he saw nearly five fantasy points come off the board thanks to DPI. While the upside isn’t there – he hasn’t scored a touchdown all year – Laquon seems to be as steady as they come if you need a solid, safe option to put up a high-floor performance. He faces the Patriots in Week 16, who just got shredded by Isaiah Mckenzie last week.
- For years, the fantasy community has been hoping for an emergence of a solid fantasy receiving option from the Kansas City Chiefs outside of stalwarts Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Hopefuls might have pegged Byron Pringle as that man after last week’s boom performance, but I would urge caution. Pringle massively overachieved – he caught six of seven targets and notched two touchdowns – and Travis Kelce should return this week. The Chiefs appear to be back, but I would argue that Pringle still hasn’t arrived.
- Hunter Henry has been one of the most surprisingly positive free agent additions this season: he’s found the end zone nine times for the New England Patriots, marking a career high. He severely disappointed this week, hauling in just one of his six targets; fortunately, this was well below expectation, and I expect a bounce back against the measly Jaguars in Week 16. Donovan Peoples-Jones is in a similar category, after also recording just one catch on six targets.
- The sad tale of D.J. Moore‘s 2021 season continues: the star wideout saw 11 targets and tallied just 55 (fifty-five!) yards on five catches. The upside of the Panthers offense is severely limited right now, but Moore has seen ten or more targets in four straight weeks. He remains a volume-play as a WR3 with the hope that he sneaks into the end zone.
Let’s turn to a breakdown of passing offenses:
- The San Francisco 49ers have won five of their last six and Kyle Shanahan seems to have his (playcalling) swagger back. Fortunately for the Niners, they get a juicy matchup with the Houston Texans in Week 17. The Texans are below average in defending most phases of the pass, especially short passes and checkdowns, which is exactly where Jimmy Garoppolo has had prolific output. Of course, Jimmy G is facing an injured thumb, but the metrics say that Trey Lance is worth a fantasy start if he is handed the reins; Deebo Samuel is of course in your lineup, but Brandon Aiyuk is probably a good option as well.
- It’s not a surprise that the Detroit Lions have ceded lots of production to passing attacks, which is good news for the Seattle Seahawks, their Week 17 opponent. While the Seahawks season officially ended with a demoralizing loss to Matt Nagy’s Bears, something tells me that Russell Wilson will want to end the year – and perhaps his career in Seattle – on a high note. He’s a solid QB2, and D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are decent WR options.
- On the other side of the field, the Detroit Lions get to face the league’s worst checkdown defense (naturally, the Seattle Seahawks). Before D’Andre Swift went out, he and Jared Goff were racking up league-leading checkdown numbers in the flat. You can expect massive production from Swift if he returns, and could do worse than Jamaal Williams if Swift has to sit another week. If both miss, Craig Reynolds could return for his swan song!
- Hold your nose here: defensive injuries, especially in the secondary, have really added up for the Bucs, and they have been porous against the pass in recent weeks. I still expect them to beat the New York Jets, but Zach Wilson might be able to have some success tossing the ball around MetLife Stadium; what’s more, the number two overall pick rushed for 91 yards last week and a score. He’s a desperation play for certain, but 2-QB leagues looking for an extra signal-caller off the waiver wire could probably do worse.
- The Denver Broncos continue to lock down opposing passing attacks, which isn’t good for the reeling Los Angeles Chargers after an inexcusable loss to the Houston Texans. Justin Herbert has led the league in deep yardage, but we might want to temper expectations in this matchup; Keenan Allen is a locked-in starter, but it’s difficult to see another WR or TE on the Chargers that is worth a look.
- It’s been a disappointing few weeks for Cleveland Browns fans, but their defense has managed to hold up relatively well. The Pittsburgh Steelers passing offense, however, has steadily fallen down the league ranks. I have a hard time starting Big Ben Roethlisberger, Chase Claypool or the ‘Muth (Pat Freiermuth) this week; Diontae Johnson is probably in your lineup, although he only saved last week’s fantasy outing thanks to a garbage-time TD.
- The Indianapolis Colts may have the best RB in the game in Jonathan Taylor, but their passing attack has been found wanting in recent weeks. To make matters worse, Carson Wentz will miss this week, which means the Colts will likely lean on Taylor even more. They get the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 17, who have been surprisingly stout against the pass. It might be time to send Michael Pittman Jr. and, by extension, all other pass-catching options on the Colts to your bench.
Finally, let’s take a look at the fantasy points scored by the major positions; this can help to identity tight ends and D/ST units that could be wise to stream this week:
- The Detroit Lions are one of the best matchups for fantasy TEs, and Gerald Everett, apparently one of Russell Wilson‘s favorite targets this year, could have himself a solid day. Everett is coming off of his season high in yardage (68) against a tougher Chicago Bears defense.
- The New Orleans Saints defense continues to play well, and they face division-rival Carolina Panthers in Week 17. The Panthers are a mess offensively, and Matt Rhule is potentially on the hot seat; if available, Sean Payton’s unit could deliver great value at the position.
- While we likely won’t see much more of Matt Nagy in Chicago, it’s undeniable that the defense has played well at times. Their only weak spot has been the quarterback, but that shouldn’t be a problem when facing the depleted New York Giants, who are sputtering everywhere but the running back position.
Curious about any more matchups? Message me on Twitter.
Chart styling from Sam.