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 3-5 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.
Please note of course that Week 17 fantasy football is, to speak scientifically, all higglety-pigglety. Only about a quarter of the league’s teams are playing to extend their seasons and/or improve their postseason outlooks, after all. The rest are merely treading water, so many are shutting down their crucial players via injured reserve or otherwise getting in another week of live action for untested youngsters. Whatever their courses of action, there is little certainty beyond about 8-10 teams, so cash play is due to suffer. Rostering safe, sanitized, volume-driven plays is less plausible this week, and the following touchdown-happy options could easily be your best bets to topple any contests.
Here’s a rundown of who catches my eye for Week 17:
Passing Game Notables
Over the past five weeks, Nelson leads all NFL wideouts in both targets (5) and touchdowns (3) from the dark zone; he’s bringing both supreme volume and efficiency to the table. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s posting those numbers while Aaron Rodgers and the Packers aren’t throwing much near the goal line. They’ve put up just 8 attempts from the dark zone over that span, tied for 17th in the league; that Nelson has been looked for on 63% of their throws is just deep-fried gold. He’s effectively Week 17’s most likely wideout to find the end zone, even with shutdown cornerback Darius Slay looming across the field. Slay is indeed a stud, but he’s nursing a hamstring injury that kept him out last week and could limit his short-area explosiveness. And let’s not forget that Nelson had his way with Xavier Rhodes last week – after the first series, of course – and that he’s actually found the end zone against shutdown secondaries all year. Nelson will be chalky, and he won’t move your GPP needle definitively with all of that ownership. But he looks like one of the higher-ceiling and safer tournament plays of the slate.
Rudolph has spent the year as Sam Bradford’s favorite target, and it’s been no different near the goal line. On the season, he leads all NFL tight ends in targets from the dark zone – his 11 account for a stout 37.9% of Vikings volume from there. His efficiency (four have become touchdowns) has been so-so, as are all things related to Bradford, but that’s truly volume you can believe in. The Vikings project to score a bit above their recent average Sunday, so Rudolph looks poised to see more-than-reasonable TD opportunity.
The Seahawks remain squarely in play for a playoff bye, so they won’t be pulling any punches against the sacrificial 49ers. Expect a full-on offensive display, as Vegas projects Seattle to 26.75 points, third-most of the day. And of late, Seattle touchdowns have come via the air, as Russell Wilson has thrown four dark zone TDs over the last two weeks. The distribution has been iffy, but his most-utilized weapons in close have been Baldwin and Kearse. Baldwin is the safer bet, the clear No. 1 wideout with a 18% dark zone target rate over 5 seasons with Russell Wilson (and a strong 45.8% success rate). But Kearse comes significantly cheaper; if he can reach the end zone, he’d reach GPP value on just 3-4 catches.
LaFell has been the Bengals’ top wideout option in the dark zone since A.J. Green’s injury. He’s drawn five such targets over these last six games, as no Bengal but him and Tyler Eifert has seen more than one. But it’s important to note that he’d actually been outdrawing Green, too, with a team-high five dark zone looks over their 10 games together. Now that both Green and Eifert have been shut down and Jeremy Hill could be as well, LaFell should be the primary (only?) game in town if/when the Bengals approach the goal line Sunday.
The Matt Barkley show lumbers on, and while it’s certainly not turning many heads, it’s producing serious dark zone opportunity. Over Barkley’s 5 starts, he’s attempted 20 passes from inside the 10 (third in the NFL), generating 6 touchdowns that also sit as second-most league-wide. Of course, the distribution is wild and difficult to pin down: five different wideouts have seen multiple looks from there. But mixing and matching the candidates into one’s GPP portfolio could really pay off. Jeffery represents the most sensible option, of course. He’s the team’s No. 1 wideout, and he’s drawn a dark zone look in both his post-suspension games. But for all of his ability, Jeffery has never been an efficient producer near the goal line. Over his 5 seasons he’s turned just 11 of his 40 dark zone throws into TDs, a definitively subpar mark that makes us wonder just how dynamic he is with reserve talent Barkley under center. The smarter GPP money probably lies with Meredith, who draws gobs of volume and won’t see much Xavier Rhodes (if any) Sunday. Meredith hasn’t scored on any of his four dark zone looks from Barkley, but the numbers favor progression if he sees another opportunity Sunday. He could very easily supplement a solid all-around day with a short score. Thompson deserves mention, as he’s drawn a team-high five dark zone targets over Barkley’s five starts, but he’s not woven deeply enough into the offense to warrant a DFS pick.
His target share has (obviously) slipped as Julio Jones has rounded back into health, so he doesn’t deserve much DFS consideration. But we can’t lose sight of Jones’ tendency to fade away near the goal line – over his 6 seasons, he’s drawn just 38 looks from the dark zone and produced a modest 10 touchdowns. As a result, the high-flying, high-scoring Falcons always boast a handful of intriguing non-Jones touchdown threats regardless of his stranglehold on the offense. When Jacob Tamme was healthy, Matt Ryan liked to look his way in the dark zone, but since then he’s targeted his slot men relentlessly. Dating back to Week 13, he’s sent 6 of his 16 dark zone passes to either Gabriel or Justin Hardy. Considering Sunday’s matchup – a home date with the Saints and a week-high projection of 31.25 points – Gabriel is a fair play in about 3-5% of a deep-GPP portfolio. He’s a fair bet to see multiple throws around the end zone.
For those pushing a huge volume of rosters into deep, deep GPPs, consider these two low-volume names that carry low ownership, but strong touchdown potential:
He’s been looked at three times in the dark zone over the past four games, just once fewer than DeAndre Hopkins despite a discount of around 30%. Fuller was an absolute touchdown machine at Notre Dame and profiles well as a scoring threat.
Simshasn’tcarved out a more notable role in the overall passing game than Jordan Cameron had, but he’s certainly more of a dark zone threat. He’s scored four times over the past five weeks, and he still only needs to find the end zone to reach GPP value.
Running Game Notables
As usual, they’ll divvy up the backfield work for arguably the league’s premier offense, one that prides itself on its versatile and dynamic use of backs. Kyle Shanahan has been nothing short of brilliant in squeezing mega-production from these two, and it’s easy to assume that will continue in Week 17. The Falcons are playing to maintain a playoff bye, and they’ll host a poor defense with Vegas projecting them to top 31 points (a rarity). We know they’ll play hard, and we know they’ll score, so we definitely want to own their engine(s). So, how do they distribute? It’s gotten clearer of late. Over the five weeks since Coleman’s return from injury, Freeman has won the dark zone carry battle 12-5. He’s also been remarkably efficient in the process, averaging 3.08 yards on them (sixth-best in the league) and turning half of them into touchdowns. Like last year, Freeman is a pay-dirt dominator, and when the Falcons are projected to score highly you can pencil him into the end zone. Coleman’s usage is less stable in the dark zone, and considering he’s no longer a near-punt play, he trails far behind in terms of value. You’ll want to weave both into your portfolio, but Coleman is merely a flier, while Freeman is again a kingpin this week.
The Steelers don’t like to hedge their backfield. Their weekly starter, be it LeVeon Bell or Williams, is a mortal lock to gobble up 80-90% of touches at a minimum. That’s a workload that includes short yardage, so touchdowns almost always come with the package. Most weeks, we have to pony up 20% of our salary allotments to roster Bell, but that’s been streamlined for us this Sunday. The Steelers are locked firmly into the No. 3 seed, so Bell and several other starters are unlikely to see the field beyond a possession or two, if that. Williams looks locked into a signature back-breaking workload, which will include goal line usage – and Williams has actually been more efficient at short-yardage scoring than Bell. He’s scored on 13 of his 33 dark zone runs (39.4%) as a Steeler, a good-not-great rate that certainly bests Bell’s 34.2%. And the opportunities will come against the Browns’ pitiful defense, a late Christmas gift in and of itself: only five teams have allowed more dark zone TD runs than Cleveland.
Many DFSers will run fleeing from Patriots this week, but I won’t. They’re sitting at 13-2, but could conceivably lose the No. 1 seed if Matt McGloin’s Raiders can stymie the Broncos. That seems unlikely, but Bill Belichick is far too shrewd (see: relentlessly aggressive) to rest on his laurels. I’m confident his starters will see a minimum of three quarters’ worth of action. Besides, Blount has been such an eruptive hammer on the goal line that he doesn’t need a full 20-carry workload to hit his GPP marker. On the year he leads the league in both dark zone rushes (39) and touchdowns (14); of late he’s capitalized on opportunity better and with far more value than the passing game has. Even with a hypothetical three-quarter floor, it’s easy to like his multi-TD chances.
Ryan Mathews has joined rookie Wendell Smallwood on IR, leaving the Eagles painfully thin in the backfield for the season finale. The diminutive Sproles isn’t much of a dark zone runner: over his 11 seasons, he’s scored on just 14 of 65 opportunities (21.5%). And Marshall is a fairly similar guy, a receiving option first and interior runner second. But they’re the only game left in town, and this is an offense that likes to run in the dark zone. On the year, they’ve doled out 43 carries from inside the 10 – that’s fifth in the league, and their 66.2% rushing split sits comfortably at second.
It’s surprising that Turbin has wrestled away most of Gore’s goal line (and some of his receiving) opportunity, but both still stand as solid Week 17 differentiation plays. Turbin himself comes priced near the running back minimum, despite having reached universal 5.5x and 3x value in his last 2 games. All told he’s found the end zone five times over the last six weeks, and while you can’t trust in any real volume expectation, you could do a lot worse in diversifying a hefty GPP portfolio. Without that fringe usage, Gore carries a similar floor but a stronger ceiling at a small cost premium. He’s a real threat to reach 100 scrimmage yards, and he’ll hit tournament value with a touchdown and the right combination of bonuses. And the TD prospects look relatively strong for a back at this salary; over the last four weeks, only four teams have allowed more dark zone scoring runs than Jacksonville.