Each week, NFL fantasy researcher Joel Smyth will identify important stats and trends to inform fantasy decisions ahead of your next matchup. These won't be your basic, elementary stats, but rather deep and unique insights to give you an edge over your friends (and enemies).
Here are eight notable nuggets ahead of Week 13 of the 2023 NFL season.
1) Give up the Chase
We knew Chase would be worse without Joe Burrow, but just how bad can it get? In Week 12, Chase battled his way to just over 12 fantasy points -- despite facing a Steelers defense that gives up an average of 36.4 points per game to opposing WRs. He scratched out 81 receiving yards via four catches, including one contested deep reception (with mouthguard in hand) and two fortunate grabs on tipped passes. Per Next Gen Stats, four of Chase’s nine most improbable receptions have come with Jake Browning under center in Weeks 11 and 12, resulting in 88 percent of his fantasy points in those contests. In more than six quarters since Burrow's season-ending wrist injury, Chase has seen just nine targets, as Cincinnati's pass attempts have diminished and Chase's own target share has dropped (from 30 percent to less than 23). Reminder: this has all transpired without fellow WR Tee Higgins, who's been out with a hamstring injury. Chase simply will not be a WR1 again unless there is a massive (and unexpected) improvement to his situation.
2) "1 yard and a cloud of dust"
The only player worse off than Ja’Marr Chase is Joe Mixon. The common misconception was that Mixon would see more targets and more carries without Joe Burrow (in an attempt to take pressure off backup QB Jake Browning). The problem is that Cincy’s run game opens up through a successful passing game. Last week, the Steelers used a stacked box (featuring eight-plus defenders in the box) on 63 percent of Mixon’s run plays. While he impressively avoided being “stuffed” a single time (logging a run of zero or negative yardage), he also had a zero percent success rate, according to Next Gen Stats (which means every carry was going for a couple of inconsequential yards). The performance was the perfect embodiment of “3 yards and a cloud of dust” -- except in this case, Mixon was often picking up just 1 yard. The Bengals are last in rushing yards per game and actually have the fewest attempts by any team through Week 12 of a season going back to 2016. Pro Football Focus also doesn't give a single Bengals offensive lineman a run-blocking grade higher than 70 (that's a big reason for Mixon’s lack of space). Further, Mixon lacks the big-play upside that can make it possible for Chase to save otherwise dismal days. Mixon has lost all ceiling and has a heavily reduced floor moving forward.
3) Cooped up
We were so busy asking what would happen to Puka Nacua when Cooper Kupp returned that we didn’t stop to ask what would happen to Kupp when Kupp returned. Here’s your answer: He’s been the WR42 since Week 5. Part of the problem has been some deceptive target-share metrics. Kupp is 15th in the NFL in target share -- not bad at all, but nowhere near the No. 1 spot he held to start 2022. It's made worse by the fact that he’s not even No. 1 on his own team. Even more concerning: He’s dipped from seven touchdowns in nine games last year to just one this season. Why? Largely because he’s now the secondary option at the goal line. Nacua has seen five of the 11 end-zone targets since Kupp’s return, and Kyren Williams appears to be the second coming of Todd Gurley (see below). It doesn’t get much better outside the red zone. Not only does Nacua have a higher first-read target share (that is, a share of plays designed to go to him), but there are zero signs of creative calls built around Kupp. In his short 2022 season, he saw nine carries and 20 screen passes. This year’s stint has brought only three screen calls, without a single rushing attempt. To top it all off, the team has shifted from being extremely pass-heavy (fourth in pass play rate with Kupp in 2022) to heavily run-focused (22nd in pass play rate with Kupp this season), which means his target share is coming out of a smaller pie. All in all, you’re just not getting the WR1 we had hoped for, even when healthy.
4) 2017 L.A. Renaissance?
In Sean McVay’s first season as Rams head coach in 2017, Todd Gurley put the league on notice, averaging 23 touches and nearly 140 scrimmage yards per game with 19 touchdowns, resulting in 26 fantasy points per contest. Between the 2020 season (the Rams' first without Gurley) and 2022, no one with the Rams (minimum of 200 carries) came close to that volume over a full season, with the most being 13.5 touches per game by Sony Michel in 2021. But as mentioned above, the second coming might finally be here. This season, Kyren Williams has averaged 19 touches per game. He is matching Gurley’s elite 2017 marks of both 1.3 touchdowns per game and 1.05 fantasy points per opportunity (targets plus carries). Gurley’s 2017 was particularly historic because of what he did in the fantasy playoffs, when he averaged an absurd 41.0 fantasy points per game, with eight touchdowns and nearly 600 yards in those three weeks. Will Williams recreate that level of dominance? That I can’t say. But I do know he is in line for elite volume and has been the team’s go-to guy near the end zone.
5) It's Bijan's time now
Championship teams peak at the perfect time. And while you can’t motivate your fantasy roster in the locker room or game plan for your opponent in order to reach that peak, perhaps you can trade for Bijan Robinson. Through the Falcons' first nine games of the season, Robinson averaged 14.6 touches per game and running mate Tyler Allgeier averaged 14.1. In the Falcons' last two games, though, Bijan has finally found the significant workload separation we expected of the rookie back in September. In Weeks 10 and 12 (Atlanta had a Week 11 bye), Robinson logged 42 total touches, while Allgeier was down to 20. Currently, five RBs are averaging 20-plus touches on the full season -- Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Travis Etienne. All five are RB1s in fantasy PPG. If Robinson maintains that kind of usage, he could be a stud the rest of the way, especially when factoring in his remaining schedule, which is better than that of any of those five guys. In the fantasy playoffs, Robinson faces the Panthers (30th versus running backs), Colts (26th) and Bears (22nd). If your trade deadline hasn’t passed, go get him. If it has, I hope you’ve got him already.
6) Houston hero
Tank Dell’s 16.5 fantasy points per game rank as the most by a rookie WR with a rookie QB in the Super Bowl era. Although Nico Collins is being targeted just as much as Dell, the air yards are vastly different. Through four games to start the year, Collins led the team in air yards. Since Week 5, Dell has not only dominated the air yards in Houston, he’s third in the entire NFL in air yards per target. His usage and success on the deep ball have solidified him as a WR1 in fantasy; Dell has averaged more than 18 fantasy points per game in that span. For many wideouts, having the majority of targets come on deep attempts can result in inconsistent scoring and “boom-or-bust” labels, but when you have C.J. Stroud at QB, the worries fade away. Stroud is in the top three in the league in passing yards, completions and fantasy points on throws of 20-plus air yards. Just keep an eye on Dell's status, as he was listed as questionable with a calf injury by the Texans on Friday.
7) Herbert hurting for assistance
Justin Herbert needs help. Despite what people may think, no quarterback can do everything, no matter how good they are (that’s right, not even Patrick Mahomes). For the second straight year, Herbert’s receiver room has been decimated by injuries. Back when all the Chargers' receivers were all healthy, Herbert was the QB1 overall, averaging 24.1 points per game through the first three weeks. Mike Williams suffered a torn ACL in Week 3, and Herbert's scoring average dropped -- though it was at 19 per game from Week 4 to Week 8, still making him QB6. However, in Week 8, Joshua Palmer was injured, and in the month since he was placed on injured reserve, the lack of depth has started to show. From Week 9 to Week 12, Keenan Allen averaged 26.6 fantasy points per game, while the next-closest Chargers wideout sat at 5.7. Allen is the first read more frequently than any other receiver in the league, and when defenses force Herbert off of him, the results aren’t great. In two of the four games without Williams or Palmer, Herbert has posted fewer than 14 points. To boost his numbers in Weeks 10 and 11, he tied a career high for TD passes and logged one of the best rushing performances of his career, respectively. But unless you think Herbert’s suddenly the next Lamar Jackson, his QB1 status is becoming more matchup-dependent than it was earlier in the year. He becomes a fringe starter in matchups like this week’s against the New England Patriots (who could key in on Allen in ways only Bill Belichick can).
8) In the zone
Matchups aren’t always as bad as they seem. Mike Evans' matchup against the Colts last week was much better than the “on paper” pundits would have suggested, due to his alignment tendencies -- and Evans ended up turning in 25 fantasy points. This week, although the Bucs are facing a Panthers team that ranks fifth-best in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers, Evans specifically matches up well once again. The veteran receiver has thrived with quarterback Baker Mayfield, specifically against zone coverage. He’s the WR5 in points per game against zone, while Mayfield is the QB6 against those same defenses. And guess who runs the third-highest percentage of zone coverage in the NFL? (It’s Carolina.) Not to mention, like the Colts, the Panthers are much better against slot receivers than players lining up out wide. Carolina is playing its first game since Frank Reich was fired as head coach. The Panthers also rank 31st in scoring defense on the road this year. This feels like a game the Bucs could dominate from start to finish. If they do, it’ll likely be in part on the back of a red-hot Evans, making him a must-start player despite the “red” matchup.