Week 1 still gives off conflicting vibes. We’re so sure of our fantastic post-draft rosters that we can’t wait for Thursday Night Football to kick off the season. However, I know I’m not the only one looking at my pre-lockdown roster, wondering where to start. It’s the reaping and sowing meme personified. But I’m here to help – or at least put the blame on someone else for a few days.
I’ll be spotlighting TNF throughout the year in this weekly column. Specifically, I’ll highlight some fringe players you might be debating over your Sunday/Monday options. Stats and trends help me see the game, but I’ll walk Narrative Street if the story is compelling enough.
But it’s the first week of the season. Let’s watch the game and see what to expect on Thursday night.
Possible preview of Super Bowl 57 in Week 1 as Rams host Bills
NFL schedulers did us a favor in Week 1. They matched our excitement to watch live, meaningful football with a contest between two of the best teams of 2021. Los Angeles won the right to hoist the Lombardi trophy in February. But let’s not forget the roller coaster Josh AllenLast game of last season:
Knowing how it ends doesn’t stop my heart rate from increasing. And, I know “13 Seconds” brings up painful memories for Bills Mafia. But, as we knock on the door of 2022, we can look back and see what Buffalo wants to do this year.
Josh Allen ran the third passing game with three or four receivers on the field. Pair their success rate above expectations (PROE) in the top 3 with their staffing additions, and their plan is clear.
Regardless of Brian Daboll’s departure, it’s spread and shredding season. And it depends on a guy.
Gabriel Davis made progress as a catcher in his sophomore year. Its success rate in relation to man/press coverage has taken a step forward. He also won more targets, racked up more yards and had a higher EPA per target than his teammate. Stefan Diggs in their last six games.
Davis’ success, however, actually puts Diggs back in the global WR1 discussion.
With a reliable perimeter option, Diggs can return indoors as its slot rate has dropped by a third in 2021. We’re cooking with gas if they sprinkle ancillary option contributions. The Los Angeles secondary can give Buffalo fits, but first we’ll have to see what the Rams’ offense looks like.
Matthew Stafford unlocked the Rams’ offense last season. He was in the top six in aerial yards per attempt and EPA per play on deep passes. Even when depth limited, Stafford could spam the easy button on sailing concepts for cooper blow. But his surrounding talent has dwindled this year with Robert Woods‘ departure and no schedule for Odell Beckhamis back.
This puts the load on Allen Robinson and what he can do with the best quarterback of his career.
Last season, Robinson hit career lows in goal share, yards and efficiency. I would also struggle to stay motivated in a downward spiraling team. However, despite the fantastic disappointment, Robinson still has juice in the tank.
Reception Perception highlights Robinson’s success on the short and intermediate courses. Additionally, he was still in the top 12 in terms of man kill rate and media coverage. Los Angeles needs a new option on the back dig to complement Kupp. If Robinson can get back to being himself, the Rams will be in contention again in 2022.
Don’t bench these guys
But Thursday night isn’t just about the fantastic stallions. Our late draft goals also have value. If you’re reconsidering a Sunday option, here are a few playing on TNF with flexible appeal.
I would understand any hesitation in starting McKenzie in Week 1. He has only played over 75% of the team’s offensive snaps twice since 2020. So any projection for Thursday is a generous extrapolation of his accomplishments. But let’s not reject them at the same time.
Diggs played in both of those games. Other auxiliary options (for example, Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown) were also available. Either way, McKenzie instantly got a target share of 25.3%. And not just lay-up targets. He took over from Diggs as the team’s deep threat from the slot. Again, that’s a two-game sample, but McKenzie accounted for 30.4 percent of the team’s air yards. With the Bills’ extreme use of three-receiver sets, McKenzie has a secure path to targets early in the season.
My only concern is in the red zone. McKenzie’s 5’8″ frame may not be a clear target for Allen. And yet his road attendance (90.5%) and looks wins in both games say otherwise. McKenzie’s versatility is a wild card the Bills need to play against this caliber opponent – and you should be playing against yours.
Knox goes under the radar focusing so much on wide receivers. At least we can hope that’s how the Rams plan for the game. He was the TE11 last year with less than 600 receiving yards, so I get the skepticism. But let’s contextualize his 2021 campaign.
Knox was the most effective tight end per EPA per game through the first six weeks. OK fine. You are not playing in leagues awarding EPA points. However, high value targets can influence you. Knox finished sixth in red zone looks and tied for second on the team. But then he broke his hand, missed two games and couldn’t get back on track. He retained team rank for the remainder of the season, but his effectiveness plummeted.
In Week 1, Knox and Diggs have the strongest rapport with Allen once inside the 20-yard line. Los Angeles was stingy against tight ends last season, allowing just four points from position. However, three of the top five performances against them came through violations with moving quarterbacks. Allen’s ability to use his legs and stop inside defenders can create a window for Knox to capitalize.
I’ll keep him on my go list for Thursday night.
Higbee’s ADP has been confusing me all off season. He placed in the top 10 on the courses despite missing two games and still finished 14th in goal sharing among all tight ends. I spoke a little ago about Robinson’s criticality for the attack. Higbee falls into the same category and already has an existing connection with Stafford.
We shouldn’t expect a massive change in Higbee’s workload. However, with Van Jefferson entering the season hurts, a small bump is not unreasonable. Plus, it’s the red zone targets we’re really looking for anyway.
As he runs routes, Higbee’s deployment last season capped his advantage. His 5.7 aDOT was 22nd among his peers. So unless he was like Kupp after the catch, he couldn’t work much further down the field. However, he was 10th in targets per run from inside the 20-yard line. His 20 red-zone targets were second on the Rams — and in the entire league. With few other options available, Higbee should have the opportunity to start the season in the top 12 at this position.
Let’s wait a week and see how things go
Conversely, it may be necessary to marinate on certain players and their situations. I understand. It’s only week 1. Anyway, I’d check your bench before I start any of these guys.
Be the running back for the Rams
See. I give you value here. Grouping Cam Akers and Darrel Henderson in one recommendation, it’s like a two-for-one special. But, with Akers ADP, your other options may be suboptimal. Nevertheless, it is a situation that I try to avoid.
Buffalo’s defensive front finished third in 2021 in adjusted yards. While the personnel has changed, the talent (and depth) has not. Bills are also taken out and signed By Miller. The same Von Miller who improved the Los Angeles defense last year. From Week 1 through Week 10, the Rams were 19th in EPA rush allowed. After Miller signed and acclimated, they moved up to second. Only three ball carriers crossed 50 meters. And I haven’t even mentioned the shared workload of this backfield yet.
One of them would be viable in this situation. Los Angeles needs more receiving options, and the Bills were sensitive to an explosive ground game or two. But after all the pre-season talk, I would like to see their situational roles before I start in confidence.
Buffalo told us with their wallet what they want this offense to look like going forward. Of course, we all want to see Allen torpedo the ball to Diggs. But you don’t elevate a guy like McKenzie to a full-time role, bring Jamison Crowdertry to sign JD McKissic then draft James Cook if you’re looking to build a high-flying offense. You want your quarterback to take the layups. But Allen hasn’t historically.
Allen’s stint at aDOT has been top 10 for the past three seasons. His deep attempt rate was in the top 12 for the same period. Despite the looming threat of more double-height shells and 8-drop coverage, Allen’s aggression knows no bounds. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have been through that for the past two seasons, and Mahomes’ depth has dropped as a result. We have yet to see Allen do the same.
Cook had a snap with Allen under center during preseason. It will take time for his responsibilities to solidify. We’ll see more of it as the year progresses, but I’ll keep it on hold for now.