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 15:
Passing Game Notables
The good news is that he’s still a bit underpriced for his ceiling. The really good news is that my projections call for him to find the end zone with near-certainty this week. Sweetening that outlook even more is the fact that Nelson carries as strong a shot as anyone to score more than once. He leads the league in dark zone targets (14) and touchdowns (8), both by healthy margins, and the Packers’ receiving corps has largely squared itself out. Nelson remains the apple of Aaron Rodgers’ efficient eye, particularly near the goal line, where other Packers options are typically overlooked. There’s volume, there’s consistency, and there’s real dynamism at play. Nelson will come highly owned, but he’ll also come as the safest bet among wideouts to erupt touchdown-wise and reach tournament value.
He’s dinged up, sure, but that’s Jordan Reed. He’s perma-hurt, and he’s always a risk to see shortened or limited usage when he does lace up. Still, there’s no denying his utterly dominant dark zone game – so he’s always in play for a GPP dice roll if nothing else. There may not be a more prolific touchdown threat on this slate. Reed has only played in 2 of Washington’s last 3 games, totaling just 47 snaps, yet he’s still found the time to draw a team-high 3 targets from inside the 10. That makes us confident he’ll see scoring opportunity Sunday, and the efficiency that goes with that volume is simply juicy. Over his last 17 games (paired with Kirk Cousins), Reed has scored on 11 of his 18 looks from the dark zone. That’s good for second-most in the league over that span – though Reed’s numbers come in 12 fewer games than leader Allen Robinson.
This may be a good lesson on going counterintuitive by reading the tea leaves laid out by the industry. We often try to forecast what our fellow DFSers will/won’t target against us, but it’s also helpful to turn the microscope on the DFS sites’ pricing models. If they seemingly overprice or underprice a guy noticeably, it’s almost always done for a reason. And dark zone production is the reason Eifert is priced high this week. His salary doesn’t jibe with his recent volume, so clearly the DFS sites are bracing for his multi-touchdown potential. It makes sense, as that strong dark zone outlook is very real; Eifert has been a truly elite short-yardage producer since last season. Over that span he’s scored on all 10 of his dark zone catches. While the DFS community zigs overwhelmingly to Travis Kelce and Kyle Rudolph, consider zagging with Eifert as a dice roll on his multi-TD chances.
It’s obviously too soon to tell whether Mitchell profiles as a true short-yardage threat, but in the meantime, we can certainly bask in the early returns. Mitchell has been a revelation for a Patriots offense devoid of consistent outside playmakers, and he’s helped to fill their Rob Gronkowski-sized hole in the dark zone. He’s drawn four targets from there over the last three games and scored on three of them, with two coming against Darrelle Revis (for whatever that’s worth anymore) and another over a top-tier Ravens defense that’s been strong in short yardage. Mitchell isn’t some hulking Marques Colston type, and he doesn’t carry a ton of buzz as a touchdown threat. But given his early resume, in a Patriots offense that tends to churn out TDs, he’s still underpriced for his ceiling. Punctuating his solid games by catching short scores doesn’t seem one bit fluky.
C.J. Fiedorowicz left Week 14 with a concussion, and as of Wednesday remained out of practice. He looks like a decent bet to miss Sunday’s game, which would push the sporadically solid Griffin into the lineup and heavy snaps. And given Brock Osweiler’s semi-affinity for his midlevel tight ends, Griffin could find himself producing on a Fiedorowicz level. That’s especially true near the goal line. Thus far, 7 of Osweiler’s 22 dark zone throws (32%) have gone to his TEs, including 4 over the past 3 games, so Griffin could clean up somewhat on opportunity. He’s scored on both his looks from there thus far. He’s a mere deep-GPP option with so much TE value in this slate, but his miniscule ownership could pay off majorly if he finds the end zone.
The Bears offense is a ticking time bomb, boasting these two reserves as high-volume contributors in Matt Barkley’s showcase. But we can’t ignore the fact that Barkley is throwing a lot near the goal line – fifth-most in the league over his four starts – and that Brown and Thompson clearly have his eye. They’ve drawn 6 of Barkley’s 11 dark zone targets, and while 5 of those came in a single game, it hints at the quarterback’s priorities. It’s hard to recommend either of these guys in any format, of course. But those looking for serious differentiation could do worse than looking into Brown, facing a Packers defense that’s allowed its opponents’ last four dark zone passes to score.
Running Game Notables
Of late, he’s been the clear-cut king of short-yardage running. Murray has held off all comers as the Raiders’ featured back, and he’s maintained a stranglehold on the peripheral aspects of the backfield as well. Aside from dominating receiving work, he’s also the team’s only ground option near the goal line. Over the past 3 games, Murray has taken all 11 Oakland rushes (most in the league) from inside the 10, and 19 of the last 21 overall. That kind of absurd volume puts him squarely in play to project to a touchdown regardless of matchup. And considering this Sunday’s 49.5-point Vegas projection, the shrewd DFSer will do just that. Murray remains very underpriced for such a confident stab at touchdowns.
This is one potent offense, and they’re projected by Vegas to easily top 30 points. And while their scoring outlook is strong, it’s relatively predictable – they run the ball 56% of the time in the dark zone, and their 42 rushes sit third in the league. We know they’ll be in scoring position for much of their matchup with San Francisco, and we know they’ll be running once there. The tricky part, of course, is parsing the opportunity between Freeman and Coleman. Across their 10 shared games, Freeman holds an 18-9 lead in dark zone rushes and 5-3 in targets. But that’s a trend that could be shifting; Coleman took both the team’s short-yardage rushes last week, as well as a target. His explosiveness is highly valued by Kyle Shanahan, who clearly wants to create space for Coleman regardless of field position. And considering the wide disparity in their salaries, Coleman represents the shrewder GPP play in terms of both value and ownership.
Howard has been a late-round rookie revelation, sealing up a crowded backfield for himself by way of remarkable efficiency and surprising passing down chops. But he’s also been a gem on the goal line, where he’s turned opportunity into touchdowns at a stout rate. Over 10 starts he’s scored on 5 of 12 short-yardage opportunities, a solid mark that’s made more relevant by his volume outlook. Based on recent history, Howard projects to the slate’s fourth-most dark zone rushes this week. Cashing in on half of them would go a long way in helping Howard, who’s a bit overpriced in DFS, reach tournament value.
Over the last 3 weeks, only one team (Atlanta) has run the ball in the dark zone more often than Gore’s Colts (12). Never mind that Gore has been inefficient, failing to score on his six tries over that span. That shouldn’t derail your thought process, nor your risk assessment, very much. We’re not interested in making small-sample guesstimates; rather, we’re mining for opportunity with the knowledge that progression/regression toward the mean can do big things with it. That’s why Gore is a shrewd play for GPPers seeking out touchdowns. He’s certainly no guarantee to score this week, but the projection model likes his chances. The Colts clearly prefer to pound the ball near the goal line, and Gore projects to see the second-most dark zone runs on the entire slate. The matchup is semi-daunting, but Gore represents a chance to sniff out low-owned, low-appreciated opportunity and profit from it.
It appears Jerick McKinnon is not the offensive centerpiece the Vikings want. His wholly uninspiring rushing production has forced Mike Zimmer & Co. to turn to Asiata for some semblance of stability. While that alone shouldn’t set off alarm bells – Asiata is a thoroughly unproductive runner – it should make us take note of his very real weekly touchdown outlook. He’s scored in 4 of the last 5 games, a byproduct of his 13 dark zone rushes over that span (good for second-most in football). With a neutral game script projected for his matchup with the Colts’ pitiful defense, Asiata could cash in and deliver GPP value with little more than a short-yardage TD.