We’re in the end game now. We’re past Thanksgiving and heading into the final weeks before the fantasy playoffs. Health is the primary concern for our players, but some are coming off of a surprising Week 12. There needs to be some level of certainty as we position our squads for a championship run. To help, I dove into a few players to make sense of their recent performances and have some takeaways from the data.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Buccaneers
Week 12 Results: (Projected) 25.7, (Actual) 12.2
“Angry” Tom Brady, “Fired Up” Brady, or whatever descriptor folks have tried to use over the last few weeks have fallen flat. The future Hall of Famer has thrown at least one interception in four straight games and hasn’t consistently been in the Top 12 since Week 7. Of course, it’s easy to point at the injuries to Tampa’s offense. And, you’d be right to do that. As we get closer to the playoffs, I dove a bit more into how much Brady misses his stars and my optimism for his production.
Advice Moving Forward:
Tom Brady should remain in the QB1 conversation for the rest of the season. The team is getting healthy, and their passing efficiency is trending back to early-season levels.
Tampa Bay is second in pass rate over expectation (PROE) through Week 12. Even with Brady being 44 years old, we like the volume. However, their overall pass-heaviness flows down to their early-down decisions. They have a 7% PROE on first down alone. It worked to start the season, but injuries left Brady short-handed.
It’s not much of a surprise, but wide receivers saw a bump in targets with Rob Gronkowski sidelined. Brady adjusted as we saw more of O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, but Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown were the primary beneficiaries. However, Brown’s injury caused an even more significant shift in the offense. It’s how Leonard Fournette became a larger part of the RB1 conversation, and either tight-end was viable every week. But the opportunity came at the expense of Brady’s passing efficiency.
Newsflash: passing to Gronkowski or Brown is better than attempts to Brate and Scotty Miller. Chalk it up to whatever you want. Whether it’s Brady’s trust in either starter or their relative talent, he’s performed better with either in the lineup. He had a 12.0 aDOT on first down through Week 6. It’s down to 8.2 over the last month. His completion percentage over expected (CPOE) has already dropped to -2.9% on those throws during that span. In short, he’s missed half of his starting pass-catchers. Plus, he’s been subject to in-season variance with turnovers. But there’s hope for him to close out the season.
Gronkowski has already returned, and there’s optimism Brown will be back soon. Additionally, the Buccaneers have matchups against the Saints, Panthers, and Jets throughout the playoffs. With a matchup against Atlanta in Week 13, Brady is well on his way to being back in the QB1 discussion.
Running Back: Joe Mixon, Bengals
Week 12 Results: (Projected) 17.1, (Actual) 32.3
Cincinnati racked up another statement win in the AFC North, and Joe Mixon was the one who led the charge. He hit a career-high in rushing yards (165) and now has at least one touchdown in five straight games. He’s one of the few early-round running backs still standing, and folks are already discussing 2022 ADP with Mixon included in the Top 12. Mixon’s earned a spot in the top-12 discussion, but there’s one aspect of his game we need to see more of to lock him into the elite category.
Advice Moving Forward:
Fantasy managers should continue to value Mixon as an RB1. However, he’s lost work in negative game scripts, which drops his floor to that of an RB3. His playoff schedule may put him at risk of being a liability when your squad needs points the most.
Mixon has answered the question of “Can he be a workhorse back?” and the last month has shown us what he can do with the opportunity. He’s eighth in success rate, Cincinnati’s 9th in rushing EPA, and Mixon’s been a top-5 back in four consecutive weeks. It’s a positive result after a shaky start to the season.
I focused on neutral situations in an attempt to measure team intent. Samaje Perine has games with ten-plus touches and high-value touches that have resulted in touchdowns. However, it's been Mixon's backfield outside of two weeks (Weeks 5 and 7). He’s maintained a touch share of 80% or greater in 10 of his 11 games. With Cincinnati relying more on the rush (-6% PROE since Week 3), Mixon should be an RB1. However, before we crown him a bell cow, there’s a part of his game that’s still lacking.
His 29 targets lead the backfield, but his 8.6% target share matches his previous two seasons (9.7% and 7.0%). Plus, he’s split time as a receiver while the team has trailed in games earlier in the season. However, it hasn’t been an issue as he’s controlled the backfield once Cincinnati gets into the red zone.
The touchdowns have solidified him as an RB1 for the rest of this season. He’ll also likely be in the top-12 discussion for 2022. However, his ranks in low-yardage games have been 36, 31, 23, 33, and 24. Targets are what buoy an elite running back’s fantasy totals even in poor rushing contests. With a potent trio of wide receivers and functional tight-end, Mixon may not see the opportunity needed to keep him afloat in bad weeks. Plus, with matchups against Denver, Baltimore, and Kansas City in the fantasy playoffs, you may be hoping for a touchdown from him to save your playoff hopes.
Wide Receiver: Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins
Week 12 Results: (Projected) 13.8, (Actual) 28.7
Jaylen Waddle has averaged 19.8 PPG since his college quarterback came back from injury. His speed and ability to create on his own have been a large part of the Dolphins’ success during their three-game winning streak. After being the overall WR1 in Week 12, fantasy managers may view him as a locked-in starter as the playoffs approach. However, his usage may be more volatile than we’d like for a weekly option.
Advice Moving Forward:
Waddle should stay in the WR3/Flex conversation for the rest of the season. The results have been great, but we shouldn’t rely on him more than any other boom/bust option available every week.
I’ll admit, outside of “The Griddy,” Waddle’s “waddle” touchdown dance is the best end-zone celebration. But touchdown dances don’t get you points. Targets and air yards do. Waddle has been accruing both throughout the season and his boxscores over the last couple of weeks reflect his usage uptick.
Waddle had a 32.3% target share and accounted for 70.7% of Tua Tagovailoa’s air yards in Week 12. His target share has been trending up since Tagovailoa returned from injury, but we should hold off on moving Waddle into the WR2 conversation. One reason is how the offense has been operating.
Miami’s offensive line is dead last in pass block win rate. As a result, they’re bottom-10 in attempts over 20 yards. One reason could be they don’t have the personnel to consistently complete those passes, and another is their quarterbacks don’t have time. To overcome their deficiency, they’ve turned to the quick-passing game. Tagovailoa is third in time to throw behind Ben Roethlisberger and Brady. Props to the coaches for self-scouting, but it’s masking a critical flaw that defenses can (and likely will) exploit. But let’s also look at Waddle’s usage itself.
I’ve used air yard and target share to identify wide receiver trends in the past. And Waddle’s has been impressive. He’s maintained a 36.9% air yard share since Tagovailoa’s return. However, look at his raw numbers.
Waddle has cracked 100 air yards in a single game three times this season. His average for the season is 62.0 air yards per game. Christian Kirk and Sterling Shepard have the same average. It’s no surprise as all three play similar roles in their respective offense, but Waddle has the juice. He’s ninth in yards after the catch amongst all wide receivers averaging 29.1 per game. He added 72 YAC this past Sunday alone. It’s been helpful to fantasy managers but unsustainable moving forward.
Waddle was a top-tier collegiate prospect and has quickly shown us what he’s capable of in the NFL. But there are still major questions surrounding Miami’s offense, and their top two wide receivers (at least salary-wise) aren’t even on the field yet. The Dolphins do have favorable matchups during the fantasy playoffs, but fantasy managers should also have other options on their bench if the offense takes a step back.