Week 1 targets and goal-line usage
Steve Smith among players to believe in
Welcome to the 2011-12 version of Trendspotting, a unique fantasy football advice column that aims to look at key performance indicators and factors that impact production rather than the end-result fantasy point totals. The goal of this column is not always to provide my opinion on why Player A is better than Player B, but rather to give you, the reader, more information so that you can make appropriate changes in player valuations. Throughout the season, Trendspotting will focus on the number of targets that top receiving options are getting, the number of carries that running backs are receiving inside their opponent's 10-yard line, and the number of times a running back breaks a run for more than 10 yards. Eventually, as the season progresses, the column will also provide updates about which players have the most favorable schedules going forward and, of course, which ones have the most challenging ones. Obviously, after one week of games, it's impossible to identify any "trends," so this week we'll focus just on the opportunities that your players had for success.
Most Targets, Week 1
Receiving yardage is the most variable form of yardage, which makes sense because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. Because of this, variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback can greatly change a player's value. So while your receiver may have scored just 10 fantasy points this weekend, you need to know if it's reasonable to expect that he can repeat that type of performance on a routine basis. If he had one target that he turned into a 40-yard touchdown, you need to realize that he was one quarterback decision away from posting a goose egg. Conversely, if your wideout had 12 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving, his prospects for consistent fantasy production are significantly greater.
On the right, you'll see all the players who received seven or more targets in Week 1, but here are some of the top storylines from the opening week of play.
• Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers should be counted on as a must-start immediately. While some might view Smith's 77-yard touchdown a product of severely blown coverage (it was), without that play Smith still would have finished the day with over 100 yards and a touchdown. Smith demonstrated he still has top-level speed, and QB Cam Newton has the arm to make Smith an absolute weapon once again.
• There's reason to be encouraged with Mike Thomas' performance, even if he finished with less than seven yards per catch, because Thomas was targeted 11 times by new starting quarterback Luke McCown. When you consider that the Jaguars were leading by a touchdown or more for more than 49 minutes of their game, it's pretty clear that Thomas won't be impacted by conservative play calling.
• The story of Monday night's early game was Tom Brady, but lost in the Welker-Hernandez-Gronkowski lovefest is the fact that Deion Branch was targeted nine times and finished with solid numbers. Since joining the New England Patriots in the early part of last year, Branch has posted seven or more fantasy points in seven of his 12 regular-season games.
• If you lost Marques Colston to injury, you almost have to put in a waiver claim on Devery Henderson or Robert Meachem, but don't expect miracles. Drew Brees distributes the balls evenly throughout this offense, as five players received seven or more targets. What that means going forward is that there isn't likely to be a clear No. 1 receiver, so you'll basically be playing a touchdown roulette game with their receivers. That being said, Darren Sproles should be owned in all point-per-reception leagues.
• Peyton Hillis quietly finished 2010 with 61 receptions, so don't view his eight targets that resulted in six receptions as a fluke. He's a bigger all-around threat than he gets credit for. Don't be surprised if he finishes the season with 80 or more receptions, as the Cleveland Browns give more responsibility to Colt McCoy.
• Jabar Gaffney isn't a sexy pick, but he led the Washington Redskins in targets against the New York Giants. Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong are both better bets for long-term fantasy goodness, but Rex Grossman has been a real passing threat as the Redskins' quarterback. Grossman is averaging 287.5 passing yards and 2.3 touchdowns per game in his short tenure as the starter. With those numbers, the third and fourth receiving options on the Redskins become viable fantasy threats.
• In the season that likely amounts to his last chance to make an NFL impact, Darrius Heyward-Bey led the Raiders with seven targets. Those targets accounted for almost a third of the throws from Jason Campbell, so this should be seen as an encouraging sign. The Raiders ran at will against the Broncos, so don't worry about Heyward-Bey's four catches. Focus on the ratio of passing plays where he was targeted instead.
Big plays and up close
There were six NFL players who totaled four or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each. They were Ben Tate (5), Michael Vick (5), LeSean McCoy (4), Darren McFadden (4), Cadillac Williams (4) and Chad Henne (4)!
Seeing Williams' name on that list is surprising enough, but Henne's presence can be viewed only as an indicator that the New England Patriots' new defense still has some serious holes. Eventually, Bill Belichick's crew will mesh, but until then, start all quarterbacks playing the Patriots.
Don't be dead set in your thought that Mark Ingram is going to be the goal-line back for the New Orleans Saints. Yes, Ingram did have two chances inside the 10. However, other than the one goal-line chance that Ingram didn't convert, the Saints ran three other times inside the 10. Of those carries, Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas each got one chance to find the end zone.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. For game-day insights, follow him on twitter @KenDaubeESPNFF.