This August, I wrote a piece on wide receiver outlooks within the dark zone – the 10-yard line and in, rather than the 20, from where the most plentiful and predictable scoring comes. But that’s not limited to receivers; all positions (obviously) benefit mightily from a fantasy standpoint from (a) trips into the dark zone and (b) the ability to convert touchdowns from there. Staying on top of the better (and worse) scoring expectations for the given week is an invaluable piece of research.
To that end: every week, I’ll be touring the league’s top dark zone outlooks 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 1, of course, I’m dealing with limited, 2015-based data, so the science isn’t yet as tight as I’d like it to be. But based on what we think we know about 2016 dark zone roles and defenses, here’s a rundown of who catches my eye for Opening Day:
Passing Game winners
How impressive was it that Robinson spent his second NFL season as arguably the league’s best downfield playmaker and its best short-yardage producer? Robinson makes his hay in the end zone, using his height and ball skills to dominate smaller cornerbacks, and in 2015 few were more efficient at turning dark zone throws into touchdowns. His 18 dark zone targets led the league, and his 55.6% TD rate tied for third among all wideouts with nine looks or more. Granted, there’s room for regression. Robinson’s Jaguars shared the NFL lead with 51 dark zone attempts; following a sizeable investment in Chris Ivory, that should dip a bit. Also note that 10 of his 11 dark zone catches became touchdowns, a likely unrepeatable number. Still, his Week 1 looks golden. He’ll reap a lot of Bortles’ boost against a Packers defense that tends to allow numerous long drives. I don’t think there’s a receiver I trust more to find the end zone.
Jordy Nelson’s gaudy touchdown numbers often obscure a little-known fact: Cobb is a much more productive short-yardage target:
Even in his semi-lost 2015 season, Cobb was among the league’s busiest (16 targets) and more productive (35.7% for TDs) dark zone receivers. Considering the offense and the comparable volume to Nelson’s, with the latter likely to be on a strict snap count, Cobb is a fine GPP value. He carries a better chance than most of hitting this end zone this week against the Jaguars, a bottom-10 2015 defense in preventing dark zone scores.
Lost amidst Amari Cooper’s promising rookie year was the fact that he wasn’t part of the gameplan near the end zone. He failed to draw a target from inside the 10, while Crabtree drew 8 – 36.3% of the Raiders’ overall output. He’s not the most efficient producer from there (he scored on just two of those), but Crabtree is likely to open the year with a semi-stranglehold on the opportunity. In a likely shootout against what the Saints term “defense,” his path to the end zone seems fairly clear.
Maybe the book on Cook hasn’t yet been written and sealed. Let’s be fair – to date, the best quarterbacks to throw to Cook have been Kerry Collins, Sam Bradford, and Vince Young. Aaron Rodgers, a multi-MVP who needs no introduction, will now deliver the ball. And per early accounts and preseason play, the two are squarely on the same page, connecting heartily on all levels of the field. Cook was heavily underdrafted in yearly leagues, value that carries over to his dirt-cheap DFS salaries. He actually boasts one of the league’s strongest outlooks for scoring against an iffy Jaguars defense. For what it’s worth, when Rodgers was paired with dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley in 2011-12, he targeted his tight ends more often than anyone else near the goal line. And Cook is a far superior talent to incumbent starter Richard Rodgers (8 TDs in 2015).
Brate will come to you cheaply ($2,900 DraftKings, just $4,600 FanDuel) and boasts real touchdown potential against shaky Falcons safeties. Austin Seferian-Jenkins remains a mess of injuries, inconsistent play, and sideline tantrums. That likely sets up Brate to start and handle enough snaps to make a fantasy dent (he averaged 24 alongside Seferian-Jenkins from Weeks 2-7). And that’s good news, as Brate could be every bit the short-yardage dynamo Seferian-Jenkins purports to be. To quote ESPN’s Jenna Laine:[Brate]'s not going to get much yardage after contact, but he's still shown he can consistently catch passes in traffic and in the end zone, along the sideline (he's done a great job keeping his feet in bounds) and is terrific on back-shoulder fades. We could see Brate become what Nick O'Leary was for Winston at Florida State...
Running Game winners
Suffice it to say that whoever starts for the Steelers absolutely owns the running back volume, and that holds true near the goal line. Last year, the team’s starter (either Williams or Le’Veon Bell) averaged 2.1 rushes/game from inside the 10, and 1.2 from inside the five. For reference’s sake, those numbers easily beat out Adrian Peterson’s and Todd Gurley’s 2015 averages. With both Bell and Martavis Bryant sidelined, Williams is set up to again dominate the Pittsburgh offense in the red zone; he’s as sure a bet as any player to cross the goal line in Week 1.
Ware will be an immensely popular Week 1 play, and rightfully so. Aside from entering Week 1 as Kansas City’s featured back, he looks like a certified goal-line hammer. Last year, across 11 games, Ware was given 10 rushes from the dark zone and turned 6 into touchdowns, the NFL’s best rate among guys with a minimum of 10. Along with his every-down workload, Ware projects nicely to solid short-yardage opportunity against the Chargers. He’ll be a cash-game staple in the opener.
Criminally undervalued by the fantasy community as a whole, Freeman is a bit too cheap and likely to be underowned. This seems like a solid time to pounce. You already know (hopefully) that he’s an absolute volume king – few backs rivaled the dominant share he commanded of last year’s Atlanta offense – but he wasn’t just fantasy’s No. 1 PPR back on touches. He was used extensively in short yardage (3rd league-wide in dark zone rushes despite finishing just 12 games as a starter), and he rewarded his team with solid efficiency (a better touchdown rate than Adrian Peterson, Chris Ivory, or Doug Martin boasted).
Like most, I’m all over the Raiders-Saints matchup, but I’m looking closely for the right plays. While most of the public focus is on the passing games – and rightly so – there’s plenty of potential for Ingram to score multiple touchdowns. Over his 11 full games from 2015, he saw two or more dark zone rushes six times, and the Vegas expectation for this matchup (a week-high 51 points) suggests his Week 1 will fit that profile. He’s not a very efficient touchdown producer, but last year, only five teams allowed more dark zone TD runs than Oakland’s 11. Considering he’ll be carrying nearly all the backfield mail Sunday and will likely see numerous trips to the dark zone, I’m expecting Ingram to find the end zone.
Gore doesn’t excite anyone anymore – not even me, and I drafted him roughly 439,228 times this offseason. But as a capable veteran with no real competition whatsoever for touches, Gore is as poised as anyone to crank out short touchdowns. Gore received solid red zone work last year in a decimated Colts offense that was often trailing, but that could explode this year. Consider that, in 2014, Indianapolis ran the 2nd-most plays in football and scored the 4th-most touchdowns, and their RBs were afforded a healthy 37 rushes from the dark zone. A return to those marks would put Gore in position to threaten double-digit scores – and that could kickstart in Week 1 against the Lions, who allowed the third-most dark zone TD runs last year.
It doesn’t take much to siphon short-yardage work away from Matt Forte, one of the league’s worst goal-line runners, but Langford did it as a rookie. And he was solidly successful, converting 6 of his 12 dark zone rushes into touchdowns. With no apparent competition for his workload, Langford should again handle Chicago’s short-yardage rushes for the foreseeable future. As a six-point underdog inalow-projectedmatchup, he doesn’t boast a great rushing outlook, but his receiving and TD projections make him an intriguing contrarian play.
Obviously, any study of the red zone is going to lead you squarely to Eric Decker. You know he’s good, but you may not realize he’s actually one of the top touchdown producers of the last half-decade:
|Top 5 WR by Rec Touchdowns, 2011-15|
When you factor in that roughly 60% that time was spent catching balls from Tim Tebow, Kyle Orton, and Geno Smith, it’s even more impressive. Ryan Fitzpatrick may regress (I’d bet my life on it), but Decker has proven as QB-proof as anyone. Last year, no wide receiver drew a higher share of his team’s dark zone targets, and only Allen Robinson saw more such looks overall. His Week 1 matchup, however, is daunting. Cincinnati faced the fewest dark zone attempts in the league in 2015, and allowed the second-fewest touchdowns. Decker’s always a threat to find the end zone (sometimes twice!), so I’m not necessarily fading him. But he’s less attractive than several others in his Week 1 pricing tier.
He’s a touchdown machine, sure, but that may not start up until Week 2. Hill unfortunately opens the year at the Jets, a tough defense that allowed a league-low 3 dark zone TD runs in 2015. (Their 14% dark zone TD rate was also No. 1 in the NFL.) The Bengals are moderate road favorites, but neither the game flow nor the defensive matchup appear to put Hill in position for a particularly big week.
Not only is Murray contending with a gifted upstart and a dynamic running QB for carries, he also squares off with an elite dark zone defense in Week 1. Minnesota allowed just 5 short rushing touchdowns last year, tied for third-fewest in the league. The Vikings will also look to stem the pace in an effort to hide the pass game, even further dampening the teams’ volume floors and limiting scoring opportunities.
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