With four games complete for dynasty teams, the sample size is growing enough to establish trends for player utilization and if it aligns with a player's hot or cold start to the season. Here is a look at some of the key players:
Sam Darnold, QB8
The key stat with Darnold is an otherworldly five rushing touchdowns on 20 attempts and 52 yards - hardly one of the higher-end volume or yardage runners in the NFL. For a point of reference, in the past 20 seasons, there have been five instances with a quarterback hitting even 10 rushing scores in a season - three are by Cam Newton. The other two? Daunte Culpepper and Kyler Murray. In short, Darnold is unlikely to hit even five more over the rest of the season, and his standing in the top-12 of the position is tenuous. Darnold is the lone quarterback in the top-12 with fewer than seven passing touchdowns (Jalen Hurts) or more than three rushing scores (Kyler Murray). Murray and Darnold are the only two options with more than two touchdowns on the ground as well. One more historical point to Darnold is he enters Year 4 in 2021, which has a 0% initial top-12 hit rate for quarterbacks (non-1.01) who were drafted in the top-16 of the NFL Draft and without a QB1 season previously. This dates back to the mid-1990s.
Najee Harris, RB4
Harris is on a stinky Steelers offense. However, one of the key data points for a top-12 PPR running back is receptions. Running backs who average at least five catches per game hit for the top-12 a robust 85% of the time in recent seasons, while even the 3.0-4.9 reception-per-game subset accrues a top-12 season only 28-29% of the time. If Harris maintains close to his current 6.5 catches per game, he is a near-lock for the top-12 with upside from there with any touchdown fortune on the ground even if still struggling for rushing yardage. Harris' 81% Route% on the season is the highest among running backs as is his 19% Target Share.
Saquon Barkley, RB2 over the past two weeks
The schedule turned easier for Barkley in Week 3 with Atlanta, but also the natural progression closer to form after a season-ending 2020 knee injury in the opening weeks is to be expected as well. Barkley has only slightly been bested by Austin Ekeler in PPR scoring at the position over the past two weeks. The utilization numbers support the sentiment for Barkley's elite RB1 standing to maintain. Barkley is the only running back in the NFL to see >70% Route Rate each of the past three weeks with Najee Harris the closest non-qualifier (see above for his PPR stability). Few running backs can match Barkley's centralized involvement via snaps, routes, targets, and rush market share he has for the Giants. Not finishing as a top-6 PPR option on a per-game basis from Week 3 onward would be a surprise based on his utilization.
Miles Sanders, RB36
Sanders is averaging fewer than 10 rushes per game on a pass-happy Eagles offense. Also, Kenneth Gainwell has more red-zone looks (rushes plus targets) than Sanders through the opening month. Of 33 running backs with at least a 40% Route Share this season (Sanders sits at 52%), only six have a lower Target Share than Sanders' 9% mark. Add together Sanders' red zone and receiving game secondary role to Kenneth Gainwell over the first month and it is no surprise Sanders is outside the top-30 in fantasy production. Beyond the running back position, the Eagles also have the return to health (and import) by Zach Ertz seeing a near-equal Rout% to Dallas Goedert and Ertz seeing a hearty 17% and 19% target share the past two weeks. Quez Watkins has emerged as a viable WR3. Plus, Sanders is seeing fewer than 50% of the rushing market share due to Jalen Hurts (31%) and Kenneth Gainwell (22%) with strong numbers.
The dynasty action plan here is to hold the talent if you have Sanders, unless a future 1st (ideally Superflex) is part of an exit offer. Sanders is a quality talent but buried in poor utilization numbers and situation at present. If looking to buy, center offers in the future second and another asset/player zone, leaving out a future 1st or core level producer centric to a 2021 push if a contender.
Patterson has been a fantasy revelation through the opening month with Atlanta's depth chart behind Mike Davis being ambiguous pre-Week 1. Patterson has surged as a do-it-all offensive weapon for the Falcons to the tune of 10 touches per game, a figure difficult to find at the wide receiver position (his designation on MyFantasyLeague.com). His five total touchdowns are likely unsustainable, but Patterson's returning skills plus athleticism for his 225+ pound frame make outlier outcomes on a per-touch basis possible. Even at 30 years old, Patterson is one of the best open-field threats in the NFL. Looking for utilization peers among the running backs and D'Andre Swift and Chase Edmonds pop up with <50% rushing market share but sturdy Target Share marks. Those are high-floor and ceiling comparables.
If comparing Patterson to the wide receiver position, Patterson is a true unicorn with his rushing involvement. Robert Woods' 4% rushing market share is the highest of the position disregarding Patterson's hulking 30% mark. Patterson is an offensive weapon on a team where Calvin Ridley has posted a tepid opening month compared to his lofty post-Julio Jones expectations, Kyle Pitts is still finding his way, and the WR2 landscape has been like searching for an oasis in the desert. While expecting Patterson to maintain a high-WR1 season is a lofty threshold, his unique usage, and skillset, plus Atlanta's need for playmakers, point to a top-24 season out of Patterson with upside from there rest-of-season.
There have been recent trades executed in the future 2nd to future 3rd range. If at all a contender, hold firm with Patterson even with a 2021-centric prism to his perfect storm usage. A later 2nd compared to his lineup utility, especially with bye weeks beginning next week, is sub-optimal. If selling, aim for a 1st, even if adding a 2nd or comparable player value in the deal.
Mike Williams, WR6
Williams is on a true outlier path in 2021. Round 1 wide receivers hit for a top-24 season in their career 57% of the time. The hit rate through their first three seasons, however, is 50%. Only 7% post an initial top-24 season in Year 4+, the zone Williams is currently residing. Working for Williams over the first three weeks of the season was his 26% target share - nearly matching Keenan Allen. Working for Williams is his connection to Justin Herbert has a strong quarterback, plus the lack of a WR3 presence on the offense. Also, Jared Cook has been in-and-out as a quality target share option in the opening month. Williams' dud Week 4 aligned with Jared Cook's best game of the season.
If Justin Herbert ends up a Tier 1 fantasy quarterback (Top-8), historically the WR2 in those offenses have a 15% chance to finish in the top-12 and a 37% chance to finish in the top-24. This assumes Keenan Allen is the WR1 and Williams the WR2. The WR1 for these Tier 1 quarterback-led offenses over the years produce a top-12 season 61% of the time and a top-24 season 89%. Williams' white-hot opening three games is unlikely to maintain unless he is the WR1 of the offense. Is that due to a Keenan Allen injury? Maybe an Austin Ekeler injury? Or Jared Cook? Those are the likely avenues to finishing the top-12. The top-24 is looking promising, however, as the WR3 presence is minimal and Williams already has a good lead at WR6 on the threshold line.
Intriguing recent Williams dynasty sells in the marketplace (all Superflex) include Williams for Deshaun Watson, Williams for Bryan Edwards and a 22 1st, and Mike Williams for Keenan Allen straight up.
Robert Tonyan Jr, TE30
The touchdown maven and fantasy breakout from 2020 was ice cold in the opening month with three games of fewer than 10 receiving yards. Also ominous is Tonyan ranking 26th of the 30 tight ends with at least a 50% Route Share in his ratio of routes to targets. The lower the number the better. The best tight ends like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller are in the 3.0-4.0 range, while Tonyan is the 26th highest (not good) at 6.2. Only C.J. Uzomah (one good game to date), Tyler Kroft, Gerald Everett, and Eric Ebron are worse in the metric - not good company. While a wide-open canvas behind the dominant Davante Adams in the Gren Bay passing game, Tonyan has not asserted himself among the ancillary options. Aaron Jones, Marquez Valdez-Scantling, and Tonyan are all in the tepid 10-12% Target Share zone. Tonyan was already a strong touchdown regression candidate from his breakout season in 2020 and the volume boost has not been there to compensate for the assumed touchdown drop through the opening month.
Decent exits are still possible in the trade marketplace, including recent deals (Superflex) like for Gabriel Davis and a 22 2nd. Aim for a 2nd and an add-on player from a team light at tight end.