I'll be honest. I am partially to blame for the underwhelming fantasy results on Thursday nights over the last two weeks. I don't mean the actual on-field production. If I knew how things would turn out, my DFS bankroll would look much different. Regardless, I've hyped up each matchup to capture any intrigue. And it all sounds good until you watch Curtis Samueldrop a touchdown.
So, I’m taking a new approach this week.
I'll just be cautiously optimistic about tonight's game since we've got a few big storylines to follow. DeAndre Hopkins returns for the Cardinals, and Chris Olave will be back in the lineup for New Orleans. There's even a coaching controversy on the rise. The drama continues despite any limited action. Either way, let's see what we can expect from Week 7's TNF from a fantasy standpoint.
NFC Battle with Season-Long Implications Kicks Off on Thursday Night
Nathan Jahnke hits the nail on the head here:
Imagine the chaos. Folks would certainly tune into the game for the chance to see Taysom Hill throw, rush, or catch a touchdown. However, with Andy Dalton (back) and Jameis Winston (back/ankle) dealing with injuries, we'll likely see more of Hill, given their offensive struggles.
The Saints are a tale of two quarterbacks. They were 31st in EPA per play with Winston, but Jameis had the third-most yards on deep throws. After Dalton took over, New Orleans moved to 20th. But they lost the explosive plays. It didn’t help that injuries extended to the pass-catching corps, but they developed a small level of consistency. Tonight will be a true test, however, regardless of who’s under center.
Arizona has dialed up the pressure over the last two weeks with a 30.8 percent pressure rate. Their pass rush has gotten home on 29.2% of those plays, with five sacks on Geno Smith in Week 6 alone. However, Dalton and Winston have been working on their quick game. Nearly half of their passes have come out in under 2.5 seconds (48.3% and 49.6%). With players like Olave back in the fold, their ability to create after the catch will be the key to winning for the Saints.
But the Cardinals, hopefully, have an answer to New Orleans' offense. Plus, Hopkins' timing couldn't be better. Marshon Lattimore's absence opens the Saints' perimeter coverage for him and Kyler Murray to exploit. I'm not expecting another Ja'Marr Chase performance. Still, it all rests on Murray's shoulders (and legs).
Given all the questions surrounding the team, I'd bet you'd never guess Murray was the QB6 in fantasy. He's been relatively quiet as of late. Missing Hopkins is certainly a factor. I'll even buy offensive line discontinuity as a reason. Both have contributed to Arizona's lack of big passing plays and why the offense has been stagnant this season.
It hasn't stopped Murray from trying, though. He's 11th in deep-ball rate amongst his peers. The only problem is he's having trouble connecting with his receivers. Last season, Kyler's 66.7% on-target attempt rate was first in the league, netting him the second-most yards of any passer. Now, he's 25th in on-target throws, with fewer yards than Mitchell Trubisky.
Hopkins may not be the cure-all in his debut. But the Cardinals need a layered offense with options at each level to move the ball consistently. I’ll have my eye on Arizona’s WR-QB duo, but I’m equally curious about the Saints’ offensive approach for tonight.
Points of Interest in TNF
Can the Saints’ Offense find another gear?
To be clear, I don't mean speed or explosives when I say gear. Surprisingly, the Saints are league average in explosive play rate (10-plus yard run, 20-plus yard pass). Most of them likely come from Hill. The gear I'm talking about is a piece of the offense to make it move.
Specifically, making it move to their opponent’s red zone.
New Orleans has the 11th-lowest red-zone play rate through six weeks. They're still scoring 23.5 points per game but relying on irreproducible plays along the way. Don't get me wrong. Those plays are more than welcome. But let's get some layups into the mix, too.
Part of the Saints’ red-zone issues goes all the way back to their playcalling on first or second down. They’re dead last in early-down passing rate. Even worse, New Orleans was inefficient in throwing the ball independent of who was under center.
Winston was 26th in EPA per play on early downs through the first three weeks. Dalton ranks 25th in his few starts. It’s put them in third-and-long situations on 56.4% of their third-down attempts. Their misfires at the beginning of each set of downs are why they’re 23rd in yards per drive.
I’ll be watching to see if a boost to their personnel gives them more juice on offense. Anything to keep the chains moving will keep them in contention to win the game.
Expectations for Hopkins’ Return
Fantasy managers drafted and stashed Hopkins on their rosters back in August. Immediately after, they circled today’s date on the calendar: The day they could finally move him into their starting lineup. But I’m skeptical.
MetricRank (min. 20 targets)Target Share32ndAir Yards Share30thYards per Route Run42ndTargets per Route Run54thRed-Zone Target Share13th
Hopkins was healthy and playing on 80.0% or more of the offensive snaps through Week 7 last season. And yet, his opportunity metrics aren’t very “Hopkins-ian.” He never surpassed double-digit targets in a game. His single-game yardage totals never cracked the century mark. The only saving grace was we knew whose way Murray would look in scoring position. Let’s hope a similar percentage of targets also come his way between the 20s this season.
Kliff Kingsbury intimated they want to use Hopkins differently after Brown's injury. Again, I have my doubts. Hopkins only ran 16.2% of his routes from the slot. He caught just three screen passes. Kingsbury's playcalling is already under scrutiny. Maybe, the fire under his seat is what he needs to spark some creativity.
I'll be watching not just for playing time but how Arizona deploys Hopkins in his return. If his role looks similar to last season, his return to the field might also be time to trade him away.
But Don’t Bench These Guys
I can understand any hesitation to start any fringe players tonight. The 44.5-point game total doesn't inspire much confidence, and I've got more questions about each offense than answers. But the teams on bye feature some of the best fantasy players. So, if you need a one-week filler, I've got a couple of guys to spot-start tonight.
I've got anecdotal and analytical data points for recommending Marquez Callaway. I'll start with the numbers.
Callaway has led the team in routes and targets since Week 4. Without their primary receivers, he's been their de facto WR1 with a 26.9% air-yards share. But Callaway's "last man standing" status isn't the only reason to start him on a short week. Arizona's defense has funneled targets in his direction over the last couple of weeks. Across their respective contests, Jalen Hurts and Geno Smith totaled one completed pass to the middle of the field. Their aDOTs dropped by an average of 2.6 yards.
Coincidentally, Callaway’s 12.5% slot rate is the lowest of the active receivers. And he’s received 47.1% of his targets in the short area of the field. So, quantitatively, his workload makes him a solid start in PPR leagues.
There’s also a narrative I wouldn’t mind leaning into for TNF.
Callaway's usage is due to necessity, but the team could continue to feature him for trade purposes. In an ideal scenario, the team already has its trio, and Callaway will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The additional time on the field doesn't guarantee him targets, but there's some motivation from the team for him to perform well for now.
I'm all for swinging for the fences and starting Robbie Anderson. While in Carolina, Anderson saw 47.6% of his targets in the intermediate and deep parts of the field. He'd do some damage against the Saints, who've allowed 88 YPG on passes of 15-plus air yards over the last three weeks. However, he'll likely be limited, and his style doesn't mesh with his new quarterback.
Murray has thrown short or behind the line of scrimmage on 63.9% of his attempts. It’s why Arizona has run the seventh-most plays on third down. But efficient play volume doesn’t matter to Rondale Moore.
Moore gets the first crack at the full-time slot role without Marquise Brown. Per PFF, the sophomore played on 94.1% of the team’s two-receiver sets. Plus, all but six of his targets have come from the interior this season.
The Bengals racked up 89 yards against the Saints’ slot coverage on Sunday. Moore isn’t the same size as Cincinnati’s trio, but Arizona’s receiver is sixth in YAC per reception when targeted inside. Regardless, Moore is an ideal PPR flex option for managers shuffling through a tough bye week.