Week 13 Thursday Night Spotlight

Analyzes the game script for the Thursday night game. Examines factors to consider in setting Thursday night lineups, including injury considerations.

Thursday Night Football should be viewed as an island unto itself in the scope of the DFS NFL scene. With the Thursday Night game being nationally televised, representing the beginning of each week’s action, and being separated from the slate’s other games by multiple days, ownership of these players tends to be greater than it would be otherwise. As a result, the rostering decisions you make with respect to the Thursday Night game are far more binary than normal.

Each week, we’ll be previewing this game with the intention of finding cash game and GPP plays. However, because of the higher ownership that comes with Thursday Night players, there are generally fewer contrarian options to target from this game, relative to the other games contained in a weekly slate. It follows that since top options from the Thursday Night game are going to have a greater rate of ownership than similarly valued pieces from other games, we will often recommend such players as cash game plays, as a means of preventing an early deficit across the majority of your cash games.

Concerning GPPs, you will notice that we tend to highlight few players from the Thursday Night game as ideal tournament options. Our Steve Buzzard wrote a great article on the importance and impact of selecting tournament plays that have are likely to have lower ownership. Applying that logic in practice, the decision to fade the popular players from Thursday night games, that we know are likely to be more heavily owned than they should be, can enhance your standing relative to the field far more than if this game was being played in a different timeslot.

GAME SCRIPT

The fairly modest total of 44 points for this game should not be a surprise given the Cowboys’ offensive philosophy of ball control, coupled with the Vikings’ general difficulty moving the ball down the field. The projected slow pace of this game - both teams rank in the bottom six for pace of play in 2016 – should lend to the Cowboys’ strategy of feeding Ezekiel Elliot, who has seen at least 18 touches in every game this season. The Vikings, and Sam Bradford specifically, have publicly discussed opening up their offense and pushing the ball downfield more. However, it is difficult to see that coming to fruition, even against a beatable Cowboys secondary, given how ill-equipped the Vikings are presently at offensive line, quarterback, and receiver, to attack via intermediate and deep routes. Vegas is begging you to take the Cowboys in this matchup, as the line currently shows Dallas as just 3.5 point favorites, despite the coming into this game winners of 10 straight. Undoubtedly, that relatively small point spread is also a product of Minnesota’s stingy pass defense. Overall, my expectation for this game is that the Cowboys move the ball effectively enough to cover, while the Vikings continue to struggle to generate points. There will not be enough scoring in this one to hit the total of 44 points, as Dallas prevails by the comfortable margin of 24-13.

RUNNING GAME

The Vikings have not had a player eclipse 100 yards rushing so far in 2016. If you were to combine Matt Asiata, who is used primarily in a red zone role, and Jerick McKinnon, who sees most of the early down work and is also active in the passing game, you would get a player who is potentially worth talking about. However, as is, neither of the Vikings running backs are close to receiving consideration, especially against Dallas’s run defense that is only surrendering 81.8 yards per game on the ground.

While I feel that David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott have established themselves as a tier unto themselves at running back, Elliott is priced materially lower than the formerly mentioned running backs this week. If all priced were equally, given their matchups this week and assuming a desire to lock in a top running back, I would pass on Elliott. However, given the savings that can be accrued by rostering Elliott over Bell or Johnson,  further consideration is warranted. Elliott has recorded 20 or more touches in all but two games in 2016, and in those two he saw 18 and 19 touches. Running behind what is generally considered to be an elite offensive line, Elliott has a very high floor. What could potentially contribute nicely to Elliott’s output this week is the credibility that Minnesota’s secondary has established this season, giving up only 207 yards per game (fourth fewest in the league). The Vikings have not exactly been soft against the run, giving up barely over 100 yards per game, but we have seen that Elliott can excel in even the most difficult matchups. He showed us this in week six against the Packers’ at the time top rated run defense, running for 157 yards, and again versus the Ravens’ currently top rated run defense, totaling 127 yards in that effort. These factors have me concluding that Elliott is a viable cash game play, and one that I will look to as I attempt to build a roster that features a cornerstone running back as my base.

PASSING GAME

Dak Prescott has definitively exceeded all expectations as a rookie, helping lead the Cowboys to their current 10 game win streak. He has been ruthlessly efficient of late, averaging 8.92 yards per attempt over his last four games. To give you an idea of how exceptional that number is, the Packers are allowing a league worst 8.6 yards per pass attempt over the course of 2016. This week however, Prescott faces perhaps his toughest test to date. The Vikings come into this game second in the NFL – giving up just 6.1 yards per pass attempt. Equally daunting, the Vikings have yet to allow any quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in a game this season. Of course, Prescott has shown that he is far from one dimensional, having rushed for  five touchdowns this season, despite producing 180 yards on 41 carries. Anyone who watched Prescott in college knows that he can run the ball better than almost any quarterback, and it is clear that the Cowboys want to deploy that trait only in key scenarios, clearly prioritizing his short and long term health. Banking on rushing touchdowns from my quarterback in order to hit value is not a scenario that I want to put myself in, and I will be passing on Prescott this week.

My outlook for Cowboys’ top receiver, Dez Bryant is similar to that of his quarterback. The stinginess that this Minnesota defense has exhibited against opposing quarterbacks has translated to teams’ top receivers as well, as the Vikings are the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100 yard receiving performance this season. Even during the string of four games in which Prescott has feasted on opposing defenses, Bryant has seen only a modest target allotment, failing to see double digit targets in any of those games, and averaging seven targets during that stretch. In order for Bryant to deliver this week, he will need to burn a defense that has contained top receivers all year long, with only limited opportunities to do so. I will look elsewhere for a receiver to anchor my teams.

With respect to the Cowboys’ other two top pass catchers, I have divergent expectations  for Cole Beasley and Jason Witten against the Vikings. Beasley’s overall numbers for 2016 are respectable, hauling in 58 passes for 647 yards and five touchdowns thus far. However, he has not seen double digit targets since week one, has been held under 100 yards in every game, and has not eclipsed even 60 yards since week four. There is no discount built into Beasley’s midtier price this week, and he would certainly need to score to have any chance at hitting value. He is not someone I am considering. Jason Witten however, has one of the better matchups of any offensive player in this game. In four of 11 games in 2016, the opposing player that racked up the most receiving yards against the Vikings has been a tight end. On the whole, even inclusive of last week’s game in which no Lion tight end recorded a catch, tight ends are averaging 4.6 catches and 60 yards against the Vikings. For a tight end, Witten has seen ample targets, averaging seven over the past four games, realing in 5.5 catches per contest over that period. I do not expect an explosive performance from the reliable pass catcher, but he makes sense on sites in which he is moderately priced, as a solid cash game option.

The Vikings have been talking up a plan to incorporate more downfield passing this week, presumably in an effort to exploit what has been a weak Dallas secondary. It is difficult to believe that such an attempt will come to fruition however, as Minnesota lacks both a quarterback that is willing to test defenses down the field, and an offensive line that could potentially give quarterback Sam Bradford the time to do so. Bradford has only eclipsed 300 yards on one occasion this season, and has yet to throw more than two touchdown passes in any game. Expecting anything other than a middling performance, even in a favorable matchup, is wishful thinking.

Stefon Diggs missed last week’s Thanksgiving Day game agains the Lions, but has practiced all week and is fully expected to suit up on Thursday. Over his last four games, Diggs has averaged 12.25 targets, giving him a nice floor - despite his inability to reach the endzone in 2016, having done so only twice to date. Despite his quarterback’s ineffectiveness and lack of willingness to throw downfield, Diggs should still expect to be peppered with targets this Thursday, as the secondary is the undeniable weakness of the Dallas defense. Priced outside of the top 20 receivers, Diggs should deliver value this week. Though he lacks the upside of receivers playing in more dynamic systems, I like Diggs in cash games.

Though Adam Thielen was a popular play last week as a result of Stefon Diggs’s absence, he’s off the radar for me with Diggs returning. It is not as if Thielen is not a solid receiver, but in an offense that is so severely limited in its collective productivity, it is difficult for me to conceptualize more than one receiver breaking out in a given week – and given Diggs’s target share, he is decidedly the guy that I feel more comfortable investing in. Kyle Rudolph is coming off of his first double digit target game since week seven, hauling in nine passes for 64 yards against the Lions. Granted he surely benefited from Diggs’s absence, but Rudolph has largely been a rock this season, catching five passes or scoring a touchdown in eight of 11 games. My stance on Rudolph this week is that I will look at him as a cash option in places where he is modestly priced, but avoid him on sites where he is priced up relative to similarly solid options, like the previously mentioned Jason Witten.

SUMMARY

This game does not project to be very high scoring, but the fantasy points should be relatively concentrated to a few sources. Ezekiel Elliot should not hurt for touches this week, and given the quality of Minnesota’s secondary, we can expect him to be the focal point of the Cowboys’ offense. He is a strong cash game play. Both Tight Ends, Kyle Rudolph and Jason Witten should have solid performances, and depending on their pricing by site, both are worth a look in cash games. Stefon Diggs is one more player that I will be considering for cash games, as he has a fantastic matchup against Dallas’s porous pass defense, and should be heavily targeted.


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