Each week, I’ll be touring the league’s top dark zone outlooks – plays from inside the opposing team’s 10-yard line – with DFS on my mind. I’m always looking for touchdowns (specifically multi-touchdown performances) to take down tournaments, so while the dark zone doesn’t outright decide my GPP lineups, it certainly informs them.
I use a simple but logical formula to project each player’s red zone outlook. I first develop a projection for the team’s overall dark zone snaps, both passing and rushing, by comparing their totals to those faced by their opponents over the last three weeks, then weighting it 60% in the offense’s favor. I then apply each player’s dark zone share to that projection, then apply that projected touch total to the player’s dark zone success rate. Ultimately, the process spits out an often conservative expectation for dark zone scores. And since these are the most common and predictable touchdowns, I come away with a strong expectation for each option’s ability to score touchdowns and tilt contests.
Here’s a rundown of who catches my eye for Week 5:
Passing Game Notables
There’s uncertainty over Trevor Siemian’s shoulder and the Broncos’ Sunday starter. But there’s none regarding the team’s top dark zone option. Over the last three weeks, Sanders has drawn 6 of the team’s 9 throws from inside the 10, while Demaryius Thomas hasn’t been looked for. It’s important to note that one of those came from Paxton Lynch, who could well be under center; Sanders’ role looks intact regardless of the quarterback. According to my projection model, no wideout projects to score easier than Sanders, who faces a shaky Falcons secondary that’s allowed a league-high six dark zone scores over that same span.
Reed finally came uncorked last week; after just one dark zone look through the first three weeks, Reed drew two against the Browns and scored on both. He can safely be considered to be back in the driver’s seat for Washington touchdowns. That’s good news, especially in front of his matchup with the Ravens, who have allowed all three dark zone passes over the last three weeks to produce TDs. Reed looks like the highest-ceiling option, by far, of the top-salaried tight ends.
In two games with Brian Hoyer, Miller has proven a strong dark zone threat. He’s drawn four of Hoyer’s six short-yardage targets, converting three into touchdowns (and nearly the fourth). And over the two games, Royal has turned both his dark zone looks into TDs. That doesn’t seem fluky; Royal boasts a supreme dark zone resume dating back to his San Diego days, resulting in a 10.2% TD rate.
Together, these two make up an intriguing GPP power stack. With Kevin White out and Alshon Jeffery a marginal part of the offense (right now), Miller and Royal could again gobble up around half the passing game. If they can amplify their strong Week 4 numbers in a dream matchup with the fresh-out-of-London Colts, they can tilt tournaments together.
Enunwa was already impressing, inside the dark zone and out, before Eric Decker went on the shelf with a potentially long-term injury. Thus far, he’s seen 4 of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 14 targets from inside the 10 – highest on the team. His low salary doesn’t account for that solid touchdown outlook. His Week 5 opponent, the Steelers, are frequently targeted by the passing game in the dark zone, so the Jets again project to a few such opportunities. Of course, Marshall remains the top overall target and should also see healthy work near the end zone. But you’ll pay a premium for his TD potential, while Enunwa carries a stronger 2016 resume and gobs more value.
Stefon Diggs chewed up the Vikings’ early-season headlines, but Rudolph has more or less surpassed him as Sam Bradford’s top option. And while Diggs has no real value in the dark zone (no targets through four games), Rudolph has excelled from there. Over three games with Bradford, Rudolph has drawn all four of his dark zone looks, resulting in two touchdowns. He’s still underpriced across the industry as a weekly top-6 option, and the TD potential only makes me want him more.
His vanishing act of Weeks 3 and 4 has baffled DFSers; at this point it’s hard to decipher whether Benjamin is still a true target hog. But in any event, he’s likely to remain the Panthers’ top option in the dark zone. The Panthers have thrown just four passes from there thus far, but three have gone Benjamin’s way. Oh, and he scored on all three – and to me, it’s encouraging he’s done it in a number of ways. Benjamin was once a mere jump-ball weapon, but he’s shown refinement in his catch-and-run technique, and has shown a true nose for the goal line (as opposed to merely the back of the end zone). Regardless of his quarterback this Monday, Benjamin is a fine bet to physically dominate the Buccaneers’ overwhelmed cornerback group for a few splash plays. They’ve already allowed a whopping seven dark zone touchdown catches thus far.
I don’t mean to downplay Nelson’s start to 2016: he’s caught four touchdowns already, including both his dark zone targets. And I expect him to have a fine all-around day against a Giants defense fresh off a short week of recovery. But as I’ve said all season, there should be some degree of short-yardage regression coming to Green Bay. Historically, Cobb has been a markedly superior dark zone producer to Nelson – in fact, his 43.6% TD rate has been downright elite. Don’t get me wrong: I trust Nelson far more than Cobb this week, and there’s nothing to suggest this is the week Cobb bucks the recent trend. But since I expect the Packers to create several short TD opportunities Sunday, I might look Cobb’s way in deep GPPs in hopes of a multi-score game he’s fully capable of.
Brate has established himself as a trusted target of Jameis Winston, and he’s become a weekly touchdown threat. In two games since Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ release, Brate has drawn three of Winston’s six dark zone looks and scored twice. He also remains too cheap, even providing a discount over the likes of Dennis Pitta and Kyle Rudolph. There’s powerful GPP appeal here.
Somewhat quietly, Williams has amassed the league’s second-most dark zone targets over the last three weeks. None have scored as of yet, but it’s encouraging to see that Williams is clearly Philip Rivers’ top target near the end zone – if only while Antonio Gates is out or ineffective. Besides, that inefficiency is just begging for some progression toward the mean. Rivers has thrown 13 dark zone passes thus far, with just 3 becoming touchdowns. That’s a mini-dam that could mini-burst at any moment; rolling the dice on Williams helping it along against some beatable Raiders cornerbacks is a shrewd GPP play.
Derek Carr certainly likes looking Roberts’ way near the goal line. Dating back to last season, 6 of Carr’s 30 dark zone throws have gone to Roberts (more than Amari Cooper and Clive Walford combined). That includes three this year, two of which have scored touchdowns. Roberts’ role isn’t dynamic, but it’s especially notable this week in a matchup with the Chargers’ banged-up secondary. Rising star cornerback Jason Verrett is out, so Roberts may be able to avoid both him and Casey Hayward for chunks of the game. He’s a moderate threat to post a 3-catch, 1-TD line and return value on his tiny salary.
Running Game Notables
Gordon is having his struggles as a runner, but he’s certainly dominating the Chargers’ calls in short yardage. In two games as the team’s unquestioned lead back, Gordon has taken the ball on half the team’s snaps from inside the 10-yard line. That’s made for six rushes and three short touchdowns. Now, the Chargers may be falling apart late in games, but they’re playing with good pacing and creating plenty of TD opportunity. The Raiders are struggling mightily to stop the run, so a few trips inside the Oakland 10 and a few more open holes than usual would produce a big day for Gordon. He projects to a better short-yardage TD outlook than anyone this week.
We finally know what “exotic smashmouth” means: running Murray until his wheels go flying off. Murray has glued rookie Derrick Henry to the bench, taking 71% of the duo’s carries through four games. But we can’t underestimate the fact that he’s also taken all seven of the team’s dark zone rushes, just a month removed from our widespread assumption that Henry would vulture most of them. Murray has scored three short touchdowns over the past two weeks, and I like his chances to strike again as he takes on a mediocre Dolphins defense.
Blount has looked more explosive than ever this year, and he’s also been money near the goal line. Thus far, he’s taken 5 of the Patriots’ 6 rushes from inside the 10, scoring on three of them. I’m loving the idea of power-stacking him with Tom Brady and nailing down the majority of Patriots scoring. It’s hard to imagine them falling below 24 points, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being involved with their touchdowns.
Behind this line, and saddled with this “who is this?” offense, I don’t know when the right time will be to expect a true 2016 breakout from Gurley. But I do know he projects as a solid short-yardage prospect for Week 5. He’s seeing 1.8 rushes dark zone rushes a game, and I do expect some positive progression on his touchdown rate. As a rookie, Gurley scored on 7 of his 16 dark zone carries, a robust 44% rate. This year, he’s found pay dirt just twice on seven tries. That should correct soon, and Buffalo has struggled with the interior run. Gurley isn’t yet out of the woods as a first-round semi-flop, but as the Rams’ sheer offensive engine, I’m confident we’re close to a multi-TD game.
Freeman has ceded a chunk of his short-yardage work to Tevin Coleman this year, but the results have been a bit inflated. Freeman has failed to run for a short touchdown, while Coleman notched three against the Saints. But the two have seen equal dark zone usage thus far, and Freeman could run away with most of it this weekend. The Falcons play in Denver, and Coleman may see limited usage or even sit the game out, as his health could be at risk playing in that altitude. Already the more efficient and productive all-around back thus far, Freeman could dominate whatever dark zone opportunity the high-flying, high-paced Falcons see.
Surprisingly, McKinnon has wrestled dark zone duties away from Asiata, at least up to this point. Through two games post-Adrian Peterson, McKinnon has taken the ball on three of the Vikings’ four dark zone rushes. The absurdly gifted young back is apparently being handed the keys to the backfield, with Asiata a mere change-of-pace option, not the goal line specialist we’d been expecting. That really boosts McKinnon’s upside; if we can project him to his expected 75/25 (or better) split of the running back touches, we can start expecting RB2 (or better) production week by week. A note, though: Asiata was an exceptionally productive creator of short touchdowns when Peterson missed most of 2014. Any week now, the pendulum could conceivably swing back his way and bring with it noticeable deep-GPP value.