Each week, I tour 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.
The pickings are slimmer than usual, but here’s a rundown of who catches my eye for each game of Wild Card Weekend:
Raiders at Texans, Saturday 4:35 PM ET
The Murray Show has been in full force, with 15 dark zone rushes over the final 6 weeks – second-most in the league. But when it comes to his Wild Card touchdown outlook, it’s not especially pretty. It’s fair to wonder just how much opportunity he’ll see if Connor Cook struggles mightily. The Texans will likely look to force a game of turtle-ball as they, too, face glaring quarterback problems. Murray should pace the team in dark zone opportunity, but with real concerns over pace and offensive efficiency, TDs can’t be merely projected. In the passing game, Crabtree tends to tower over Amari Cooper in dark zone opportunity, but his scoring outlook also takes a hit with Cook under center. I like Crabtree overall, but if I’m cashing TDs to take down a tournament, I’m also looking into Clive Walford. He comes near the DFS minimum salary, and 6 of his 52 targets came from the dark zone, helping him to a solid 9.1% overall TD rate.
When the Texans hit the dark zone, it’s safe to expect Miller to shoulder the load. Miller sat out the final two weeks to heal his ankle, but tied for fourth leaguewide from Weeks 12-15 with 8 dark zone rushes and scored twice. And it’s fair to project him to strong opportunity as a 3.5-point home favorite, as Houston quarterbacks have been simply atrocious from there. Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage combined to complete a pathetic 6 of 20 passes over the final 6 weeks, so there’s little reason to go chasing their pass game. Fiedorowicz (six targets) brings tempting volume, though, which boosts his solid overall appeal. While DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller combined to go 0-for-8 from the dark zone over those last 6 weeks, Fiedorowicz caught 3 balls and a touchdown. Alfred Blue got quite a bit of dark zone run in Miller’s stead, but he struggled as a part-time back and ceded plenty of work to reserves; he’s not likely to make any real dent Saturday.
Lions at Seahawks, Saturday 8:15 PM ET
The Lions skew very heavily toward the pass in the dark zone, making Boldin a sneaky play. Over the last six weeks of the season, only two players saw more dark zone targets than Boldin’s six, and his market share (42.9%) was stronger than those of Jordy Nelson, Michael Thomas, and Mike Evans. Boldin is a touchdown-dependent lottery ticket, but one that could definitely pay off. On such a RB-thirsty slate, Zenner deserves plenty of consideration as we chase touchdowns. Over the final two weeks, Zenner excelled in two stout matchups, finding pay dirt on all three of his dark zone runs. It’s not overly surprising; Zenner was an absolute TD machine at South Dakota State (61 touchdowns over 52 games) and has always profiled as the Lions’ short-yardage hammer. It’s encouraging that he ceded only one such carry to Dwayne Washington, and he’ll likely carry the same load on whatever rushing volume the Lions are afforded Saturday.
In the dark zone, the Seahawks have split fairly evenly between the run and the pass, but it’s helpful to us that they’ve declared their participants rather clearly. Rawls’ overall role has fluctuated, but over the final six weeks, he was the only Seattle running back to take more than one short-yardage carry. All told, his seven opportunities were ho-hum leaguewide, but that kind of workload tends to magnify as an eight-point home favorite. Still, Wilson remains the team’s engine near the goal line, and he’s the man to target here. His short-yardage running opportunity came alive down the stretch, with three dark zone runs over the final two games – including one on the goal line – to complement his strong passing efficiency. He tends to concentrate his attention on Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, who have drawn 8 of his last 12 dark zone targets. Baldwin carries the long-term pedigree of a stout short-yardage performer, but Kearse comes dirt-cheap and makes for an intriguing differentiation play.
Dolphins at Steelers, Sunday 1:05 PM ET
The Dolphins consistently skew toward the run near the goal line, a trend that’s held up even aside from Jay Ajayi. Over the past 6 weeks, they’ve run on 56% of their dark zone snaps, a slightly higher number than the league average (55%). That said, they sit as 10-point underdogs this week, a massive spread for a playoff game; Vegas overwhelmingly expects them to struggle to score. Besides, they lack clear candidates to project to touchdowns. Both Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills caught short touchdowns last week, but neither profiles as much of a dark zone target. Parker is the team’s co-leader in those looks on the year despite missing a game; he’s a dynamic player who always carries the potential to beat burnable cornerbacks like the Steelers’ on jump balls. There’s always Dion Sims, the default starting tight end and team leader in dark zone looks over the past six weeks. Impressively, Sims has turned all three such targets into touchdowns. You can’t rely on him for snap-to-snap production, but he’s a fine TD dice roll at an uncertain position.
I won’t put much stock into Antonio Brown this week. The Steelers skew toward Bell’s legs near the goal line, and Ben Roethlisberger, never a very efficient dark zone producer, has been horrendous for much of the home stretch. Those facts, as well as Vegas’ hefty Steelers projection (28 points), steer me heavily toward Bell. There’s simply no safer bet to find the end zone this week, and multiple scores would surprise no one. Over the past 6 weeks, he’s taken 10 carries-plus-targets in the red zone and scored on 7 of them, a dazzling rate that should even be amplified by the expected game flow. Bell is a tough GPP sell at his salary, but a multi-touchdown, 35-point performance is within the (less realistic) zone of his range. When Roethlisberger does throw, it’s likely at least one goes toward James, the team’s season-long leader in dark zone targets. On the year, James actually drew more such looks (8) than all but only two tight ends (Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate). Assuming the Steelers are frequently finding themselves in scoring position, James could prove GPP worth.
Giants at Packers, Sunday 4:40 PM ET
The Giants haven’t been very frequent visitors to the dark zone of late, but their rate should amplify in what has potential for a shootout. Vegas expects them to notch a modest 20 points, but postseason over/unders are often notoriously low, and anything is possible against the Packers’ boom-or-bust defense. We do know that they’ve allowed the league’s second-worst touchdown rate (51.6%) on dark zone throws, and that both Beckham and Shepard score with mega efficiency. Near the goal line, we can expect Eli Manning to feed the duo more than anyone; they’ve monopolized six of his nine throws over the past six weeks. That volume isn’t particularly sexy, but the target share is. And since virtually no one in football can match Beckham’s career-long dark zone prowess, he stands as an elite bet to find the end zone. We know he carries an upside around 8-10 catches, but his touchdown potential is deep-fried gold. Still, it’s Shepard who could ultimately boast the strongest value. The Packers have been gutted by slot receivers of late, and Shepard is used (relatively) frequently on quick-hitting slants near the end zone.
I’ve run out of great things to say about Nelson’s dark zone play. Let’s just note that he led the league very comfortably in both targets (15) and touchdowns (9) from there, trends that remained studly throughout the entire season and managed to short-circuited some fine NFL secondaries. Overall, Nelson totaled eight touchdowns across six games against the Giants, Seahawks, Vikings, Texans, and Jaguars, and much of that was due to his awesome dark zone volume. Fire him up with confidence this week; the matchup dings his overall ceiling a bit, but it also hits his salary and ownership, and his costs don’t contain his top-of-the-heap TD outlook. Davante Adams is also in play, but he’s pricey for this matchup and not nearly as opponent-proof as Nelson. I’m much more interested in paying near the minimum for Allison, who’s slotted for extra work this week even if Randall Cobb plays on a limited basis. Allison has scored twice from the dark zone on the year and comes insanely cheaply on DraftKings, while still carrying Cobb-less upside at his modest FanDuel salary.