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 5 of the 2023 NFL season.
1) Third-year breakout, third-down beast
Former Buckeye quarterback C.J. Stroud’s go-to target is ironically a Michigan man. After being drafted as the WR58 in ADP this offseason, Nico Collins is currently the WR7 with the fifth-most receiving yards (428) league-wide heading into Week 5. We can trace this success largely to Stroud’s trust in Collins on third down. Through Week 4, Nico is averaging 10.5 fantasy points per game on third down alone, more than 25 percent ahead of the next-closest wideout. When Stroud needs a first down, Collins is the target. The Texans rank fifth in the NFL in passing attempts and their rookie quarterback is near the bottom of the league in target rate to running backs and tight ends. Their third-year receiver will be a consistent fantasy option the rest of the way thanks to the volume as his quarterback’s most trusted option.
2) Not Mixon up the play calls
We likely know why the Bengals' pass catchers have struggled this season (Joe Burrow’s calf), but why is Joe Mixon only an RB3 in points per game? One major factor: lack of creativity in the run game. With Burrow working through the injury, the Bengals have all but abandoned plays from under center. So far this season, 57 of Mixon’s 59 carries have come out of shot gun. That’s 97 percent, compared to just 54 percent in 2022. Last season, like most running backs, Mixon was far more effective when the offense was operating from under center, with his fantasy points seeing an increase of 29 percent over plays out of shotgun. With little to no downfield air attack this season, and less effective play action in the heavy shotgun game plan, Mixon’s struggles are bound to continue until Burrow and Co. get healthy and on track.
3) A Lion's share
Remember when Jamaal Williams had 33 goal-line carries and scored 14 goal-line touchdowns last season? So absurd that it could never happen again, right?! Not so fast. David Montgomery is on track to surpass those markers as Williams' replacement in Detroit. The former Bear is on pace for more than 20 such touchdowns. Not total touchdowns, goal-line touchdowns. His return to the lineup in Week 4 resulted in five goal-line carries against the Packers -- more than all but seven running backs have received the entire season. There’s not much reason to predict Montgomery's usage to dip below Williams’ 2022 thresholds, which resulted in a finish as the RB13.
4) Dallas' game-breaking D
How early would you select the Dallas defense if you were to draft today? Well, through four weeks, the Cowboys D/ST would rank as the TE1, RB5, WR9 and QB9 after averaging nearly 20 fantasy points per game. The current gap in fantasy points between Dallas and the second-best defense is larger than the season totals of eight different D/STs. When you score as many touchdowns as the opposing offense, it doesn’t come as that big of a surprise, but still -- this D/ST is game-breaking.
5) Don't panic on Dallas' star
The Cowboys' star receiver has been off to a much slower start than the aforementioned Dallas D/ST. The good news for Cowboys fans: Lower fantasy outputs primarily come from reduced usage in the team's frequent blowout wins. The Cowboys are one of two teams above a point margin of 70-plus, having outscored their opponents by 83 points through four weeks. CeeDee Lamb has dominated the Cowboys' receiving production with a third of the yards, but two-thirds of those yards have come in the first half. As Dallas draws theoretically tougher opponents over the next four games (at 49ers, at Chargers, vs. Rams, at Eagles), we should see Lamb’s second-half average of five fantasy points vastly improve. He should also benefit from some positive regression for Dak Prescott, who is averaging 60 fewer pass yards per game than the benchmark from his previous four seasons. Don’t panic on Lamb -- if you take his first-half stats and double them, he’d be his usual top-10 self. That should be closer to the expectation moving forward.
6) Catch him if you can
After leading the NFL in rushing yards last season on 340 carries, Josh Jacobs has finally transformed into an elite receiving threat in this new-look Raiders offense. The ground work has been decent as well, but it’s Jacobs who is pacing all NFL backs in targets per game -- above suspected leaders such as Christian McCaffrey, Bijan Robinson and Tony Pollard. In 2022, Jacobs led the NFL in rushing fantasy points with his receiving production only accounting for 28 percent of his fantasy total. This season, the passing game accounts for 61 percent of his fantasy points, amid a fall to 24th in rushing fantasy points. The rushing production will increase -- positive touchdown regression is coming there. If the receiving stays consistent, Jacobs could be a top-five fantasy weapon the rest of the way.
7) Cooped up
Using the ever-educational Next Gen Stats air yards metric through four weeks, Amari Cooper is set up to vastly improve in October. Only five players have 500-plus air yards on targets this season, and four of them average 426 receiving yards -- the fifth, Amari Cooper, has 259. The Browns receiver has an unusually high "unrealized air yards" (yards the ball travels from the line of scrimmage on targets that fall incomplete). This inefficient start to the season was heavily influenced by a Week 1 rain game and Week 4 backup QB game. In the two weeks in between, Cooper had 40.6 fantasy points. The veteran wideout leads the NFL in air yards per target and is the only elite weapon in this offense following the season-ending injury to Nick Chubb. Acquire him now if you can.
8) Very movable object
Want to hear about the NFL’s ultimate get-right spot in 2023? Look away Broncos fans, this won’t be pretty. Over the last two weeks, Denver has allowed more than 333 fantasy points, 88 more than the next-closest defense. Its rankings on the season by position: 32nd against QBs, 32nd against RBs, 26th against TEs and 23rd against WRs. Quarterbacks are averaging 9.3 points more against the Broncos than their average while running backs are scoring 14 more points per game than their norm. Next up in Denver? New York Jets' Zach Wilson and Breece Hall. After arguably the best-looking game of his career against the Chiefs, can Zach Wilson replicate Justin Fields’ big Week 4 performance? If not, and especially if the other fantasy pieces in New York struggle, you may need to permanently move all of them to your bench.