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.
In Week 2, of course, I’m dealing with limited so the science isn’t yet as tight as I’d like it to be. But some intriguing data comes out of Week 1:
- 21 of the league’s 64 passes (32.8%) from the dark zone became touchdowns. The sample size is small, but that’s down a hair from the 2014-15 rate (34.6%). It’s not markedly lower, though.
- Only two players saw 3 dark zone targets in Week 1 – both were running backs (DeMarco Murray, Travaris Cadet)
- As expected, and in the face of public perception, size didn’t tell much of the story as to who saw dark zone work and who didn’t. Brandin Cooks, Jamison Crowder, Danny Woodhead, and the venerable Odell Beckham Jr. all saw multiple targets from inside the 10, while Tyreek Hill, Victor Cruz, Willie Snead, and Eli Rogers all caught short-yardage touchdowns. David Johnson took four rushes from the dark zone, while Ryan Mathews led the universe with six.
Based on what we think we know about 2016 dark zone roles and defenses, here’s a rundown of who catches my eye for Week 2:
Passing Game Notables
Brandin Cooks, willie snead
Each starting Saints wideout drew 2 looks from the dark zone, and 3 of those 4 came on the same second-quarter drive. Cooks caught two short balls near the line of scrimmage, which set up Snead’s 1-yard flip touchdown just seconds later. Note that that was one of just two Saints trips into the Oakland dark zone; all told, Cooks and Snead combined to draw 4 of Drew Brees’ 6 dark zone throws. Coby Fleener, Michael Thomas, and Mark Ingram II were nowhere to be found. It’s early, but it looks as though despite their sizes, Cooks and Snead will not be mere deep threats or targets between the 20s. They’re full-time receivers woven into what Brees will be doing near the goal line. Both look like strong WR2 plays, buoyed greatly by their semi-unexpected TD potential.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham didn’t catch either dark zone pass thrown his way last Sunday. But it was encouraging to see them come back-to-back plays from the 3-yard line during the Giants’ crucial fourth-quarter, go-ahead drive. (Eli Manning found Victor Cruz for the touchdown one play later.) It’s clear Beckham remains Manning’s favorite option near the goal line. He isn’t huge, but he’s absurdly gifted at playing the ball in the air (as you well know) and remains one of the NFL’s premier short-yardage threats. Since his 2014 rookie year, only seven wideouts have drawn more dark zone targets, and only four have produced more TDs – and Beckham’s missed five games over that span. Let your imagination run wild this week as he takes on what the Saints consider to be an NFL defense.
He remains among the league’s premier dark zone threats, and with good cause. He sits sixth in the NFL in dark zone targets over the last 18 weeks, and his touchdown efficiency (9 scores on 14 looks) has been top-notch. And things don’t look set to change much, with John Brown limited and Michael Floyd perpetually invisible near the goal line. Fitzgerald drew Carson Palmer’s only two dark zone throws last week, so his week-to-week TD outlook is always golden. Play him confident toly against a Buccaneers secondary that had no answer for talent-starved Mohamed Sanu last week.
Let’s not panic at Robinson’s lack of Week 1 dark zone love. The Jaguars only ran one offensive play from there, a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. But Robinson maintained his dominant overall target share, and last season’s Undisputed Dark Zone King should find more luck against a good-not-great Chargers secondary.
Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb
Both were active in the dark zone Sunday – Nelson drew two short targets and scored on one, while Cobb was fed a tough end zone throw that he nearly came down with. That’s solid dark zone volume for anyone, especially on a day in which the Packers managed less than 5.0 yards per play. Going forward, I still prefer Cobb in terms of touchdown potential (for reasons I touched on last week), but both look like strong weekly bets for touchdown opportunity as this offense (presumably) rounds into shape.
Antonio Brown is world-class, of course. But if he has a wart, it’s his uneven production on balls thrown into the end zone. Dating back to 2014, a ho-hum 12 (63.2%) of his 19 dark zone catches have gone for touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Beckham has scored on all 9 of his receptions, while Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, and Allen Robinson all sit at 80% or better. Brown’s always a scoring threat on sheer volume and explosiveness, but he’s not much of an end zone dominator. It’s mildly ominous that, with Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Le'Veon Bell, and Heath Miller all out of the picture, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t look Brown’s way with any of his 3 dark zone throws Monday night. He did, however, look for new tight end starter James twice from the 9-yard line. James remains too cheap for a starter in such an explosive offense, and he brings real potential for 8+ touchdowns this year.
Don’t look now, but Barnidge could soon find himself yanked back into fantasy relevance. (Man, the pinball effects from Robert Griffin III’s mere NFL existence are staggering.) Josh McCown will step back into the starting lineup, and he’s the only QB with whom Barnidge has seen even an ounce of NFL success. The Browns have a lot of troughs to fill in the passing game and not much volume to do it with – Hue Jackson tends to run a different ship than most – so Barnidge is an extreme longshot to even sniff his 2015 numbers. But most of those troughs belong to young, downfield-oriented speedsters, and Barnidge looks to face little competition for short-yardage stuff. Last year, no tight ends (and only three wideouts) topped Barnidge’s 15 dark zone targets. He wasn’t efficient with them (just 5 touchdowns), so don’t expect the moon and stars. But I see a nice bargain who’ll fly largely under the radar this week.
Running Game Notables
True to form, new Eagles coach and Andy Reid disciple Doug Pedersen utilized his top runner as a sheer workhorse in Week 1 – and that remained true close to the goal line. Mathews registered a league-high 6 rushes from inside the 10-yard line – and three consecutive ones from inside the 3. Much of that volume came from game flow, as the Eagles laid easy waste to the Browns and coasted through the second half, but it’s definitely encouraging. Clearly, Pedersen wants the ball in his veteran runner’s hands when it matters most, so any week with a decent script expectation should find Mathews a strong play. A road date with the Bears looks iffy (Philadelphia currently sits at +3), but Mathews’ TD projection is still quite solid, especially for cash contests.
Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman
The Falcons weren’t blowing smoke: they’re indeed pushing a fairly even timeshare between the two. But while Coleman was far more explosive Sunday, Freeman retained his dark zone dominance from 2015. He took 3 carries and saw a target against Tampa Bay, while Coleman didn’t register a touch. It’s likely the team envisions a true thunder-and-lightning approach, which would leave Freeman in line for copious short-yardage work. He looks likely to disappoint in overall production, but could again threaten the league leaders in scoring opportunity.
Danny Woodhead, Melvin Gordon
They are who we thought they were: Gordon handles most of the neutral-script work, but things flip in the shotgun. But the Chargers branch off from most committees by running shotgun-heavy in the red zone, meaning Woodhead is often the likeliest to find the end zone. Gordon remains a touchdown threat in neutral times, though, but not a huge one. He scored on both his dark zone rushes Sunday, and the Chargers won’t be working the clock often this year.
Having seized the every-down role in Chicago, Langford looks primed for a pretty solid volume year. That’s especially true at the goal line, where Langford has been quietly effective as a pro. Since Matt Forte’s Week 8 injury from last year, Langford has taken 7 carries from inside the 5-yard line and scored on 4 of them – a stronger rate than goal line heartthrobs Jeremy Hill, Chris Ivory, or LeGarrette Blount can boast. Apparently unchallenged by Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard, there’s no reason to believe Langford won’t threaten the end zone
It’s fair to get a little excited over Cadet’s Week 1 usage. Long bounced among the Saints, Patriots, and 49ers rosters, Cadet was anointed the beneficiary of C.J. Spiller’s fall from grace and responded with a voluminous (if ineffective) Week 1. It’s notable that he drew three dark zone targets across three separate drives, even scoring on a 2-yard catch at a crucial fourth-quarter point. This does seem a bit fluky, but Darren Sproles did post two seasons of 7 receiving touchdowns in New Orleans, and Pierre Thomas caught 3 in 2013. Mark Ingram II was likely miscast in 2015 as the team’s premier pass-catching back; Sean Payton & Co. have always opted to throw at least one dynamic receiver into the mix, and Cadet did beat out two talented prospects for the gig. He’s got real 60-catch potential if he keeps the job, and that short-yardage usage suggests he’ll see opportunities to not only catch dump-offs, but find the end zone as well.