Fantasy Football: Follow these 5 advanced-stat narratives in Week 1

Joe Burrow had a 50.8 passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards

Only relevant quarterbacks (seven-plus starts) who were worse: Dwayne Haskins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mitchell Trubisky, Drew Lock. That’s not good.

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The Burrow to A.J. Green connection on deep targets was just about the least inefficient play in all of football last year. The Bengals were clearly banking on Ja’Marr Chase being the answer to this glaring hole in their offense. While the offensive line woes deservedly got a lot of attention, them being such a small-ball offense coming out of 2020 was almost just as big a worry.

Of course, Chase has not exactly had the summer you’d want to see out of a rookie with the pressure of solving the passing game on his back.

It’s difficult for me to envision a scenario where this entire Bengals offense doesn’t start off slow. With Chase and likely Burrow still working up to game-speed and matchups against the Vikings, Bears, and Steelers to start 2020, maybe October or November will be the time to buy back-in on this team.

Jalen Hurts had a 65.1 adjusted completion percentage (PFF)

It was the worst among starting quarterbacks in 2020.

How much of that is a rookie still getting adjusted to the NFL while playing with a subpar pass-catching corps ... and how much of that is a pure passing issue with Hurts?

We’re going to find out this season.

Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts (1)
We're going to find out if Jalen Hurts has a passing problem. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While the Eagles certainly don’t sport a top-10 skill-position corps, or anything close, they should field noticeable improvement. It starts with first-round pick DeVonta Smith, one of the smoothest route-runners to enter the league in quite some time. Smith does what no one on the Eagles did last year: Create separation.

Week 1 will be a fascinating exploratory endeavor to learn more about Hurts’ progression but it’s also an opportunity to jump right into the action. Hurts and Smith can both be placed into lineups against a Falcons defense that was a mess last year and doesn’t look much better from a personnel standpoint in 2021. Perhaps defensive coordinator Dean Pees flummoxes the young quarterback but Hurts still has a rushing floor to salvage him in a disaster scenario.

J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards ranked 2nd and 3rd in Next Gen Stats “Rushing Yards Over Expectation” last year

As you know by now, Dobbins and Edwards are not going to be a part of this backfield in 2021. With that said, you can take these metric results in two different ways.

  • Direction 1: Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins are both extremely good running backs. The other guys in the top seven of this stat were Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, and Dalvin Cook. Outside of Jones ... we’re in complete agreement those other players are some of the best rushers in the game.

  • Direction 2: While certainly some of these Baltimore backs’ ability bleeds into these results, perhaps this says more about the team’s rushing ecosystem more than anything else. For what it’s worth, Edwards and Mark Ingram both ranked inside the top-12 in this metric during the 2019 season.

We’re going to put the ecosystem theory to the test in 2021. The Ravens running back corps will consist of a total unknown in Ty’Son Williams, a guy in Latavius Murray who hasn’t been a full-time back in years, and several veterans who haven’t looked good the last few seasons. Williams showed a lot of juice in the preseason and Murray has been effective in a complementary role of late.

Given the strength of the ecosystem overall, I’d be willing to place some chips on those two players — in that order.

The Steelers threw just 12.4 percent of their targets to running backs

No team threw to their backs at a lower rate.

We know the complexion of the Steelers offense is bound to change from what it was last year. They want to run the ball more this year and they’d like to not be a popgun-style passing attack. Another wrinkle is how much they involve the running backs in the passing game.

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Last year it made sense for them to not target their running backs. Targets are not just randomly doled out. And there isn’t a universe, no matter what your philosophy is, where you think throwing to James Conner or Benny Snell instead of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, or JuJu Smith-Schuster is a good idea.

Now that Najee Harris is in the mix, that might be a different equation.

Unlike the dregs on the roster last year, Harris is a good enough talent to command passing volume and we know he’ll be on the field for nearly all of the weekly snaps. He caught 70 balls and averaged over 10 yards per catch the last two years in college.

The receivers are good enough to still justify the vast majority of the targets in this offense. But if Harris is truly a difference-maker as a receiver, it could start to pluck away at some of their shares. In that scenario, they’d need an efficiency bump to offset the loss of volume — aka, some more downfield targets. They’re good enough to do that but it’ll be on the quarterback and the offensive design to hold up their end of the bargain.

The Saints ranked 28th in neutral situation pace of play

To put into context how much that’s out of the norm, they ranked third in 2011.

My feeling is that with Jameis Winston installed as the starting quarterback, the Saints will get back to the style of offense the team employed when Brees was pushing for the NFL lead in passing yardage on an annual basis, rather than the dink-and-dunk offense of the last two seasons.

We’ve already seen some of those concepts on display with the deep post routes to Marquez Callaway in the preseason. Those types of shots mixed in with an efficient rushing attack, play-action, and a much faster pace will make for a much more fantasy-friendly environment than a conservative, small-ball offense.

Such an ecosystem would be much better for the outlooks of Alvin Kamara, Callaway, and obviously Michael Thomas when he gets back. I’ve been worried about the lack of stellar personnel for several months now. However, if Payton boosts the pace and passing depth of this team back to its former glory days, it’ll help offset some of those concerns.

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