This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
I should probably retire from fantasy-football writing and live out the rest of my days in a cave after last week's recommendation to downgrade Darren Waller. Unfortunately for you, I'm back for redemption, and also to arrogantly point out that the track record for this column has otherwise been quite good.
Waller's huge performance served as a nice reminder of one of my favorite fantasy-football axioms: volume is king. It's why I write a usage-focused Hidden Stat Line column every Tuesday, and why analyzing matchups requires consideration of the entire context of a game (not just the quality of the opponent's defense).
Before we get into specific players, here are some of my favorite tools for analyzing matchups and determining player valuations each week:
- Jeff Erickson's weekly rankings
- RotoWire's weekly projections
- Betting odds
- RotoWire's pages for advanced stats and TE route data.
- Pace stats and DVOA from Football Outsiders
- Next Gen Stats from NFL.com
- Player Grades and Premium Stats from Pro Football Focus
- Personnel Grouping Frequencies from SharpFootballStats
- Opponent and teammate injuries
- Target share
- Snap counts
- Defense vs. Position stats
- Aaron Rodgers, GB vs. PHI
Rodgers finally gets a matchup worth attacking — the ninth-highest implied total (25.0) of Week 4 in a game with a modest four-point spread. The second part is just as important as the first, given Green Bay's newfound love for the ol' running-and-defense formula. Matt LaFleur apparently will need to be coaxed into a more pass-friendly approach as his team enters Thursday with the 10th-highest run rate (43.8 percent).
This matchup should encourage a more air-based gameplan, with Philadelphia sitting fourth in run-defense DVOA and 22nd in pass-defense DVOA. (The Eagles also showed a less-extreme split last season — 9th against the run, 15th against the pass.) For those who prefer more traditional stats, consider that the Eagles have allowed 7.6 YPA and 300.3 passing yards per game to QBs, compared to 3.2 YPC and 55.7 rushing yards to RBs. The early struggles with pass defense can't be blamed on matchups; the Eagles have faced Case Keenum, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford. Even this new version of Rodgers is better than any of those guys.
Important note: we're upgrading Rodgers relative to his current value, NOT where he was drafted. His chances of living up to ADP remain slim.
- Philip Rivers, LAC at MIA
All the focus right now is on the Chargers' backfield, but Rivers should also be headed for a big performance even if he doesn't come close to his season average of 38.7 pass attempts. The Dolphins truly have been something special, allowing the second-most fantasy points to QBs (32.9 per game) while facing the third-fewest passes (28.7). They can't even blame that stat on the rushing impact of Lamar Jackson, who only had to run three times before bowing out early in a Week 1 laugher. Rivers will be the next man to take advantage, and his own team's struggling defense makes it far from a guarantee he'll get the early hook. I'm not saying the Dolphins have a real chance to win, but they can at least avoid the degree of blowout we saw the past three weeks.
- Honorable Mentions: Russell Wilson, SEA at ARZ; Daniel Jones, NYG vs. WAS; Jacoby Brissett, IND vs. OAK; Matthew Stafford, DET vs. KC
- James Conner, PIT vs. CIN
You know the old saying: death, taxes, and Jerry recommending RBs in matchups with Cincinnati. Only the Dolphins have yielded more fantasy points to the position this season, and only the Falcons surrendered more in 2018. Frank Gore made me look smart last week with 5.4 YPC and a touchdown, leaving the Bengals at 5.2 YPC and 8.5 YPT allowed to RBs on the year. PFF's grading has them at 29th for run defense, 30th for pass coverage and 32nd for tackling, while Football Outsiders' DVOA is a bit more favorable... 28th against the run and 24th against the pass.
The concerns surrounding Conner are legitimate, but we can put them on hold for at least one week, perhaps looking to sell high next Tuesday if he does indeed take advantage of the ideal matchup. His playing time at least moved in the right direction during last week's 24-20 loss to the 49ers, with Conner playing 68 percent of snaps and handling 18 of his team's 21 RB opportunities (carries+targets).
- Wayne Gallman, NYG vs. WAS
The Redskins haven't given up a ton of fantasy points to running backs, but it's not because they've been any good at stopping them. They sit 25th in run-defense DVOA and 28th in PFF's run-defense grades, allowing 4.5 YPC to RBs despite facing just one team (Dallas) that's had a consistent ground attack. The fantasy production has been skewed by touchdowns, with Washington surrendering nine to wide receivers (including one rush) and just one to running backs. Perhaps there's something real to that trend, but the 9:1 ratio is far from sustainable in any context.
In terms of talent, Gallman is much closer to the free-agent scrap heap than he is to Saquon Barkley. Fortunately, we don't need greatness, just volume. The Giants may add backfield competition soon, but it will be Gallman's show for at least one game, after he held a 41-to-3 snap advantage over Elijhaa Penny last week. Primarily a special teamer throughout his pro career, the 234-pound Penny has logged 14 plays as a fullback and just two as a tailback this season, per PFF. The team's other backfield option is practice squadder Jon Hilliman, an undrafted rookie who produced 4.1 YPC in a three-way timeshare at Rutgers last year.
- Kerryon Johnson, DET vs. KC
AFC Championship Game aside, the Chiefs seem to have figured out that run defense usually doesn't matter when your offense is one of the best in league history. They landed dead last in DVOA against the run last season, and they're now sitting in that very same spot after Mark Ingram ravaged them for 16-103-3 last week. KC's current mark of 6.2 YPC allowed to RBs is unsustainably high, but the 2018 figure (4.9) represents a realistic long-term expectation.
Johnson should see plenty of touches irrespective of game script, after he handled a season-high 75 percent snap share last week in the first contest sans C.J. Anderson. Johnson's 17 routes were good for fifth-most on the team, ahead of Ty Johnson (six) and fullback Nick Bawden (four), per PFF. Kerryon's slow start to the season hasn't been a product of team philosophy, with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell staying true to his reputation by dialing up runs at the eighth-highest rate (44.4 percent) in the league. The Lions have arguably been even more run-heavy in terms of intent, sporting the fourth-highest rate (50 percent) on first and second downs before halftime.
- Honorable Mentions: Chris Carson, SEA at ARZ; Justin Jackson, LAC at MIA; Carlos Hyde, HOU vs. CAR; Chris Thompson, WAS at NYG
- Marquez Valdes-Scantling, GB vs. PHI
MVS gets a seat next to Rodgers in the 'economy class' section of the upgrade train, facing a defense that's already given up four 100-yard receiving games, all of which included a touchdown. Philadelphia has surrendered the fourth-most fantasy points to wide receivers (32.2 standard, 46.9 PPR), with Sidney Jones, Ronald Darby (out - hamstring), Avonte Maddox and Rasul Douglas all landing in the bottom half of the league among cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap (50-snap minimum), per PFF.
Coming off last week's 6-96-1 breakout, Valdes-Scantling is tied with Davante Adams for the team lead at 21 targets and actually has seen a larger share of the air yards (30 percent to 28). As the only regular contributors to Green Bay's passing attack, both players should thrive in this matchup. Nobody else on the team has more than eight targets, 55 yards or 56 routes, while Adams and MVS have run routes on 97 and 88 of Rodgers' 102 dropbacks, respectively (per PFF).
- Marquise Brown, BAL vs. CLE
Baltimore's passing game isn't the largest pie, but that doesn't really matter when Brown and Mark Andrews are the only players getting decent-sized slices. Despite playing 14 snaps in his pro debut, Hollywood enters Week 4 pretty high up the leaderboard for a slew of receiving stats — sixth in yards (282), t-18th in targets (27), 14th in target share (25 percent), third in air yards (466) and seventh in air-yard share (41 percent). The results have been mixed from game to game, with Week 1 featuring two long touchdowns, Week 2 including eight catches but no TD, and Week 3 marked by the Chiefs defense getting the best of him.
Brown should bounce back with steady volume and at least one big play this week, facing a Browns defense that's in danger of playing without both starting cornerbacks for a second straight game. Denzel Ward (hamstring) and Greedy Williams (hamstring) both missed practice Wednesday, along with strong safety Morgan Burnett (quad). Cleveland still has a fierce pass rush led by Myles Garrett, but the Ravens counter with an offense that has PFF's highest grade for pass blocking, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley yielding just one QB pressure on 126 dropbacks, per PFF.
- Tyler Boyd, CIN at PIT
PFF charts Boyd with 57 percent of his snaps and 59 percent of his routes coming from the slot, which means he'll take aim at the weakest part of the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers have used cornerback Mike Hilton and safety Terrell Edmunds to defend that area, with the two combining to allow 14 catches for 205 yards and two TDs on 16 slot targets, per PFF. Pittsburgh also has been generally bad at defending the pass, allowing 8.9 YPA to QBs and 10.8 YPT to WRs. The issues covering the middle of the field date back to last season when Keenan Allen, Julian Edelman, Jared Cook and Michael Thomas each had at least 90 yards against the Steelers in December.
Boyd is on pace for 128 catches and 1,333 receiving yards, perhaps flying under the radar because drop-machine John Ross has been hogging all the touchdowns. In addition to being the superior player, Boyd holds a 33-to-26 target advantage, with his 26 percent share ranking 12th in the league. The raw total of 33 targets is actually tied for second-most, as the Bengals' 73 percent pass rate is third-highest, including the second-highest (68 percent) on first and second downs before halftime. Coach Zac Taylor clearly intends for his offense to be pass-heavy, a philosophy that's exacerbated by his team's inability to play defense.
- Honorable Mentions: Terry McLaurin, WAS at NYG; Larry Fitzgerald + Christian Kirk, ARZ vs. SEA; DK Metcalf, SEA at ARZ; Sterling Shepard, NYG vs. WAS; Mike Williams, LAC at MIA; Robert Woods, LAR vs. TB; Preston Williams, MIA vs. LAC
- Will Dissly, SEA at ARZ
This is the obligatory part of the column where I advise playing a tight end against the Cardinals. No team has allowed more yards (348) or touchdowns (five) to the position, with T.J. Hockenson, Mark Andrews and Greg Olsen each enjoying a blow-up outing. Arizona has given up 64.8 fantasy points to TEs in standard scoring, while no other team has allowed more than 36.5. In fact, 12 teams have given up fewer points to wide receivers than the Cardinals have allowed to tight ends.
The timing happens to be perfect for Dissly, whose excellent work in Weeks 2 and 3 — 11 catches for 112 yards and three TDs — inspired the Seahawks to trade Nick Vannett for a fifth-round pick. Vannett hadn't been stealing many targets, but he did poach 59 snaps the past two weeks, running 41 routes on Russell Wilson's 95 dropbacks, per PFF. Dissly was limited to 45 routes in that same stretch, far behind Tyler Lockett (94), DK Metcalf (87) and even Jaron Brown (69). With converted offensive tackle George Fant and midweek signing Luke Willson now the only options behind him, Dissly should be running routes on well over half of Seattle's pass plays.
- Jason Myers, SEA at ARZ
Myers was drafted in many fantasy leagues, coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and 91.7 percent field-goal conversion rate in 2018 with the Jets. He's still searching for his first three-pointer of the year, with his only official attempt so far coming from 58 yards out at Heinz Field, one of the toughest kicking venues in the league (he had a shorter kick wiped out by a defensive penalty earlier in that game). The Seahawks have converted a league-high 88.9 percent of red-zone trips into touchdowns, up from 65.5 percent (7th) last year and 55.6 percent in 2017 (12th). They should have a decent red-zone offense as long as Russell Wilson stays healthy, but the current extent of dominance is far from sustainable. Myers will eventually get his chances, starting with a Sunday matchup that gives Seattle the fourth-highest implied total (26.5) of Week 4.
- Carson Wentz, PHI at GB
Wentz isn't a man I'd normally bet against, apart from last week, this week and probably also some other weeks. All kidding aside, I really do like him, but he's just got so much working against him in this spot, facing a tough defense on a short week without his deep threat in the lineup. In addition to DeSean Jackson (abdomen) missing another game, it isn't clear Alshon Jeffery and Dallas Goedert will be in top form after battling calf injuries the past couple weeks.
That's a problem in any matchup; even more so against a defense that's allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points (13.6) to quarterbacks. The Packers already have 12 sacks, four interceptions and four fumbles recovered, limiting QBs to a 56.6 completion percentage and 6.3 YPA. Those numbers are impressive, even for a defense that's been gifted early matchups with Mitchell Trubisky, Kirk Cousins and Joe Flacco. I don't doubt Wentz will do better than those clowns, but that doesn't mean he'll be good enough to warrant a lineup spot in single-QB leagues.
- Not-so-Honorable Mentions: Jameis Winston, TB at LAR; Josh Allen, BUF vs. NE; Mitchell Trubisky, CHI vs. MIN; Kirk Cousins, MIN at CHI
- David Montgomery, CHI vs. MIN
Montgomery has better days ahead now that Mike Davis isn't getting many touches; just don't expect the breakout to materialize against a Vikings team ranked eighth in run-defense DVOA and 13th in PFF's run-defense grade. Minnesota has retained the same core on that side of the ball for a few years now, allowing 3.6 YPC to running backs in 2017 and 4.1 in 2018. The matchup could lead to a busier day for Tarik Cohen, who had nine targets on 34 routes the past two weeks, compared to six targets on 26 routes for Montgomery, per PFF. The lost snaps on passing downs become a much bigger problem against tough defenses.
- Sony Michel, NE at BUF
To be fair, this downgrade isn't really about matchup, as the Bills sit 21st in run-defense DVOA after finishing 14th last season. Given how good they've been against the pass, it's easy enough to argue that a strong rushing game is the best method of attack. The problem? Michel has been the opposite of strong, with his 45 carries proving to be wasted snaps for an otherwise hyper-efficient offense. He's managed 2.4 YPC with a long gain of 12 yards, and his rate of one avoided tackle on 45 touches is easily the worst among RBs with 20+ carries, per PFF. In fact, every other RB with 40 or more touches has forced at least four missed tackles, including Frank Gore and a slumping James Conner.
The Patriots barely even bothered with Michel last week, limiting him to nine carries and 17 snaps (22 percent) in their first game without fullback James Develin (neck). Between Develin's absence and Michel's continued struggles, the Patriots put three or four WRs on the field for 91.5 percent of snaps against the Jets — an approach that clearly favors more playing time for James White and Rex Burkhead. Including playoffs, Michel has logged just 29.2 percent of his carries and 27.6 percent of his rushing yards from three-wide formations.
- Mecole Hardman, KC at DET
We've already seen how Patrick Mahomes is more important than any matchup, with the reigning MVP laying waste to the respectable Jacksonville and Baltimore defenses. The problem? His continued success doesn't provide any promise of consistent results from Hardman, who saw 11 targets (14 percent share) the past two weeks while earning nearly all his production on two plays. The rookie will always have a decent chance to hit paydirt from distance if he's getting regular snaps with Mahomes, but the other part of the deal this week is a dangerously low ceiling.
The Lions have allowed the 12th-most fantasy points to wide receivers, with the numbers heavily skewed by a Week 1 overtime contest in which the defense logged 88 snaps against an Arizona offense that predominantly used four-wide sets. In terms of efficiency, Detroit has allowed just 6.4 YPT and a 52.3 percent catch rate to wide receivers, led by excellent play from outside cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring) and slot man Justin Coleman. After playing 29 of his 43 snaps from the slot last week, Hardman figures to spend a lot of time lined up on Coleman, who has quickly justified a $36 million contract by allowing just 87 receiving yards on 26 targets, per PFF.
- Will Fuller, HOU vs. CAR
Fuller is coming off back-to-back games with seven targets and four or five catches, and his 18.3 aDOT is second-highest among all players with double-digit targets. Reading between the lines, a big game is coming in the not-so-distant future, but perhaps not this week against a Panthers defense that's been more vulnerable to short and intermediate passes. (PFF's charting shows that opponents have completed just three of 13 passes 20+ yards downfield against Carolina.)
Top cornerback James Bradberry likely will follow DeAndre Hopkins, which leaves Fuller to deal with one of the few players in the league — Donte Jackson — who can match the fleet-flooted wideout step for step. Jackson is putting his 4.32 speed to better use in 2019 after an up-and-down rookie campaign, allowing just 6.7 YPT on 20 throws into his coverage, per PFF. He enjoyed the best game of his young career last week in Arizona, with two picks and 21 yards allowed on 56 coverage snaps.
Editor's note: Cancel the downgrade! Cancel the downgrade! Jackson is is listed as questionable with a groin injury, potentially leaving Fuller to face 28-year-old Ross Cockrell (4.54 40 time).
- Not-so-Honorable Mentions: Allen Robinson, CHI vs. MIN; John Brown, BUF vs. NE; Will Fuller, HOU vs. CAR; Stefon Diggs, MIN at CHI; DeVante Parker, MIA vs. LAC; Dede Westbrook, JAX at DEN
- O.J. Howard, TB at LAR
Howard finally showed up for the 2019 season in Week 3, catching three of four targets for 66 yards while avoiding the drops, fumbles and penalties that plagued his first two games of the year. Of course, he was facing a Giants defense that's given up 10.5 yards per pass attempt, and he once again lost some passing-down snaps to Cameron Brate. This isn't just a matter of targets; it's about having the opportunity to procure opportunities. Howard has run a route on 70 of Jameis Winston's 114 dropbacks, far behind WRs Chris Godwin (109) and Mike Evans (107). Meanwhile, the Rams have held opposing QBs to 5.8 YPA, in part because tight ends have caught eight of 21 targets for 77 yards (3.7 YPT) and a lone TD. Greg Olsen managed just 4-36-0 on nine targets back in Week 1, followed by Jared Cook turning in 2-25-0 on seven targets in Week 2.
- Not-so-Honorable Mention: Austin Hooper, ATL vs. TEN