Each week, NFL fantasy researcher Joel Smyth will identify important stats and trends to inform fantasy decisions ahead of your next matchup. These won't be your basic, elementary stats, but rather deep and unique insights to give you an edge over your friends (and enemies).
Here are eight notable nuggets ahead of Week 8 of the 2023 NFL season.
1) Good Etienne
Two players are currently tied for most touches in the NFL in 2023. One is Christian McCaffrey. The other is the fantasy RB3, Travis Etienne. And it’s not just touches for Etienne, it’s also touchdowns (seven). But can he keep up his current touchdown pace after scoring a mere five times last season? The answer is yes … kind of. In 2023, 30 percent of Etienne’s fantasy points have come from touchdowns, which is double his rate from 2022 despite fewer goal-line carries. His scores have often come on big plays, as he enters Week 8 with a league-leading four touchdown carries of more than 15 yards (compared to just one all last year). Those big plays are likely to grow more scarce, but it’s encouraging to note that the last three games have produced 100 percent of his goal-line work for the season. In other words, Jacksonville is getting him more involved where it counts most. While backup Tank Bigsby is hardly touching the field, let alone the ball, Etienne has become one of a small handful of backs to receive both substantial targets and goal-line work. I’d advise hanging on for the ride.
2) Breakfast club
After a historic start to his rookie season, Puka Nacua was the subject of much discussion. Is this production sustainable? Should we sell high? Holding has always been the right move. From 2020 to 2021, we witnessed Matthew Stafford support two top receivers in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Kupp and Nacua are the new and improved model. Known for their bonding breakfasts with Stafford, both wideouts have clearly built a rapport with their veteran QB and rank in the top seven in target share since Kupp returned from injury. (Spoiler alert: Kupp is not No. 1). Their combined target share of 71 percent is higher than all but one team’s entire wide receiver room. The downside of feeding both star wide receivers, of course, is that everyone else is hurting for targets. Former fantasy starters Tutu Atwell and Tyler Higbee, as well as running back Kyren Williams, had their combined targets cut in half from their original 52 percent share in Kupp's return. If you’ve got Kupp or Nacua, congratulations. Otherwise, you may want to move on from Rams receivers.
3) Steady Evan
Calvin Ridley was the hot name of the offseason. Halfway through the regular season, that’s looking like a miss. And although you might not see it at first glance, Evan Engram has been the big winner in his place. The TE6 on the season has solidified his fantasy value by being a master of consistency, earning seven or more targets in six straight games and finishing as a top-12 tight end in all but one week this season. Granted, it’s been less than thrilling, as Engram has yet to reach the end zone even amidst Jacksonville’s top-10 scoring offense. The five tight ends ahead of him on the year average three touchdowns apiece; when scores are excluded, Engram rockets above Ravens’ star Mark Andrews as the No. 3 tight end in the league. Zero scores and Engram is still besting his 2022 average. The payoff once he does join the Jaguars' touchdown party will be worth the wait. He’s a big buy-low candidate.
4) Catch-all king
Just how absurd is Kamara’s PPR production since his return from suspension? A whopping 40 percent of his points have come purely from receiving. No, not as a pass catcher, but from the points per reception on their own. Only one player in the Super Bowl era has ever scored 12-plus fantasy points per game with at least 40 percent of those points coming from the receptions boost: Cardinals fullback Larry Centers in 1995. Kamara currently sits at 21.7 points per game. He’s also sitting at 9.8 targets per game, outpacing the next-closest running back by more than four per game. His targets will stay high, but not that high. Throw in a healthy Jamaal Williams and the fact that Kamara is averaging the second-fewest fantasy points over expected among running backs, and I’d project Kamara's PPG average to dip closer to 15 from here on out. A solid, low-end RB1, but not quite the No. 2 RB in fantasy his current average would suggest.
5) Downfield development
“JSN is so back!” Well, back to his college days at least. After four games, everyone was wondering why Smith-Njigba couldn’t earn a target further than three centimeters downfield. Fortunately for both the Seahawks and fantasy mangers alike, the rookie has been used much differently since the early bye. Only nine of JSN’s first 20 targets were on throws of 5-plus air yards to begin the season. The result was a brutal 5.2 yards per reception, ranking 137th in the NFL and visibly hurting his confidence. In the two games since, not only have his snaps increased, but his yards per reception metric is up to 13.9, nearly matching his college average of 15-plus (albeit against much less talented defenders). Why? JSN's targets are now coming downfield 85 percent of the time, rather than the pre-bye mark of 45 percent. This has also unlocked his ability to gain substantial yards after the catch, where he’s leading Seattle receivers with more than 50 percent of his production coming on YAC.
P.S. If you’re interested in acquiring Smith-Njigba, his playoff schedule includes the Eagles (31st against WRs), Titans (26th) and Steelers (30th).
6) DeCoy Smith
Imagine. It’s 2022. The Eagles' wide receiver duo of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith pulls off the rare feat of both finishing as fantasy WR1s despite playing on the same team. It made complete sense given the balance in opportunity: From the beginning of the 2022 season through Week 2 of this year, Smith had just six percent fewer targets than Brown and averaged less than one fewer fantasy point per game. Then Week 3 came. The dreaded week for Smith's managers and the glorious week for Brown’s. After a reported sideline discussion with Jalen Hurts, Brown has benefited from a massive shift in both volume and production. In this five-game stretch, he has out-targeted Smith 59 to 35, and the results have been drastic. Brown shot up to the overall WR1 in this span, while Smith fell all the way to WR50. This wild disparity should even out a little bit in the future, but I don’t see Smith fully rebounding. Not only are the Eagles 30th in pass play percentage this season, but they’re 31st in that metric when in the red zone and dead last inside the 10-yard line. With Brown as the primary red zone threat and several other mouths to feed in a low-volume pass attack, the former Heisman-winning wideout has little to no shot of returning to top-10 production in 2023.
7) Goal-line tendencies
Speaking of the Eagles' goal-line tendencies, several other fantasy players are affected either positively or negatively from coaching habits near the end zone. Following Philadelphia through Week 7, the top teams in running play percentage when inside the 10-yard line are Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco and Indianapolis. On the opposite end, Washington, Minnesota, Denver, Carolina and Tampa Bay are passing the ball significantly more than the rest of the league inside the 10. This helps explain why the Vikings have yet to have a rushing touchdown this season, while wideout Jordan Addison surprisingly sits atop the NFL in end zone targets. Touchdown production is variable but not impossible to predict, and these tendencies are a great tool for doing so. Target RBs on those rush-heavy teams and pass catchers on the pass-heavy squads.
8) Managing Expectations
Some players underperform because of efficiency or even a bit of bad luck. However, when a player underperforms because of a drop in valuable opportunity, it offers less hope of an eventual rebound. These five star running backs are seeing a noteworthy decrease in expected fantasy points per game from 2022 to 2023 (per PFF), dictated by valuable volume -- whether it's fewer targets, red zone touches or snaps in general:
Derrick Henry, for example, is scoring more fantasy points than expected in 2023, but his benchmark for expected points is so much lower that he's been rather disappointing on the year. Compared to Tennessee running mate Tyjae Spears, Henry has only had one more snap this season and has been vastly out-targeted (and targets are worth more than carries for fantasy). It would be rash to believe Henry will produce the same numbers as he has in recent years with this kind of expected usage. The other four names are all experiencing similar situations, either joined by new additions in the backfield (Rhamondre Stevenson, Najee Harris) or seeing a significant decrease in volume (Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon).