(Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire)
Now that we have two weeks of the 2018 NFL season behind us, we are beginning to build a usable sample of red zone statistics. While we shouldn’t overreact to a two-week sample size, we have some important information for predicting red zone fantasy usage going forward. You can look at last week’s article to see how my predictions fared in week 2. Fantasy points are calculated using PPR standard scoring.
Thanks to Pro Football Reference for their great statistics and play index, and Graham Barfield for his excellent team-level data.
Please note: This is a red zone article. Projections and rankings are based on red zone usage only
2018 Red Zone Carries + Targets Leaders: RBs
|Player||C+T in RZ||% Team’s C+T in RZ|
It’s still early enough that we should focus on usage over results, as one touchdown can greatly swing a player’s red zone points scored numbers. Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara remain the elite red zone producers in the league, with a large grouping of players a clear tier below. Ezekiel Elliott‘s usage stands out as a huge positive, and if Dallas can become just an average offense he projects to score plenty of touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon has not capitalized on his red zone touches, but his usage shows that the coaching staff trusts him. Leonard Fournette owners are certainly not happy about the missed opportunities. Alfred Morris has done almost nothing with his red zone chances, and you have to wonder if he has missed an opportunity with Matt Breida impressing last week.
Week 3 RB Preview
The following running backs stand out for positive or negative reasons. I will skip over the obvious red zone options to target and avoid, and try to focus on some less obvious options. This is your weekly reminder that Gurley and Kamara are the top two red zone running back options until further notice.
Ito Smith, the Falcons rookie 4th round running back, saw 10 touches for 54 yards last week, with an impressive 6 carries + targets inside the red zone. Filling in for the injured Devonta Freeman, Smith was the clear number two back behind Tevin Coleman, so temper your expectations. But with Freeman reaggravating his MCL/PCL injury from last year, estimates range from another one to three games that he will miss. With 23% of the Falcons red zone usage this year, and a shootout possible against the Saints this week, Smith has a surprisingly decent shot at a touchdown. I wouldn’t trust him yet, but there are worse options for the end of your bench in a deep league.
James Conner has 6 red zone carries + targets through two weeks, with all 6 of those opportunities coming inside the 10-yard line. With 29% of the Steelers red zone carries + targets so far, Conner finds himself in a good position for a touchdown in another projected shootout. With the struggles the Steelers defense has had, I think they would be happy to ride Conner early and often if they can jump out to a lead. With a ridiculous 88% of the Steelers running back snaps last week, Conner is an every-down back that should see several red zone opportunities this week.
The Detroit Lions have run 17 plays in the red zone this year, and shockingly only run the ball one time. This crazy distribution has made Theo Riddick a very non-traditional red zone option, with his 6 carries + targets making up 37% of the Lions opportunities. While I don’t expect this to continue all year, a matchup on Sunday Night Football against the Patriots certainly seems like a game the Lions could be trailing in, leading to Riddick’s continued red zone usage. This could end at any moment, but for this week Riddick can be penciled in for several red zone opportunities.
Regardless of the reasons Pete Carroll uses for Chris Carson‘s lack of usage (last week Carson was gassed from playing special teams), Carson has not received a red zone carry or target so far this year. Maybe playing at home against a similarly offensively challenged Cowboys team will help, but it’s hard to trust Carson right now. If we could count on him for a red zone touchdown that would be a start, but with Seattle throwing 8 of 9 times in the red zone so far, he has been left out of the scoring action. The sample size is small enough where this could swing quickly, but this has been a disappointing start to the season for Carson.
Jamaal Williams had two weeks to impress with Aaron Jones out, and while he was a solid player, he did not run away with the job. The added running back competition coupled with Williams’s disappointing 3 red zone carries + targets makes him a mediocre play this week. With a typical pass-heavy approach in the red zone due to Aaron Rodgers, Williams doesn’t look like a great touchdown bet as the Packers travel to Washington.
There is a ton to love about Saquon Barkley‘s overall usage, and if he gets 14 catches every game he won’t even need red zone usage to be a top fantasy option. But Vegas certainly isn’t sold on the Giants offense, projecting them for under 18 points scored this week on the road in Houston. Saquon has only received 3 carries + targets in the red zone this year, good for 25% of the Giants red zone opportunities. If Eli Manning looks as shell-shocked as he did last week, and the Giants offensive line struggles to open up running lanes again, Barkley may struggle to see more than a red zone touch or two.
Week 3 WR Preview
Wide receivers are much harder to predict in the red zone, and they don’t necessarily need red zone production to be elite (see Julio Jones). Their whole red zone week could come down to the success of one target, making multiple targets very valuable. Similar to running backs, I’ll try to point out some less obvious positive and negative red zone projections for wide receivers.
If you’ve read my article in previous weeks this choice is obvious. But if this is your first time reading, Cooper Kupp is a severely underrated red zone option. He ranks second among wide receivers in red zone carries + targets with 7, after excelling last year in red zone usage. Part of this year’s usage is owed to the Rams insane number of red zone plays (39), as Kupp has only received 18% of the team’s red zone carries + targets. But the Rams show no signs of slowing down, and a matchup against the Chargers may give them their first game where the passing offense needs to be used to its full extent.
This may be another obvious one, but I think many would be surprised to know that JuJu Smith-Schuster leads all wide receivers in red zone carries + targets. With Antonio Brown angry with the team and nursing a minor injury, we could be seeing a temporary passing of the torch to JuJu in red zone looks. Even if that is premature, JuJu is an excellent option in an explosive offense. A matchup in week three against the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football sure seems to set up as another shootout, and Vegas agrees. Smith-Schuster is an elite wide receiver play this week, and likely for the rest of the year.
Emmanuel Sanders is having an excellent start to the 2018 fantasy season but has yet to see a red zone opportunity. The Broncos have not spent much time in the red zone, and traveling to Baltimore does not seem like a good time to change that trend. Look for Sanders to have his typical solid day, but this may not be the week to play him in daily fantasy. He may need a big play to score a touchdown.
Usually, I would defer to the years of previous data on this one, but things seem bad enough in Arizona to downgrade Larry Fitzgerald. He has only seen one red zone target, and the Cardinals are projected for a low 16 points at home against the Bears. Fitzgerald is typically a red zone asset, but as long as Sam Bradford is struggling this badly it’s hard to trust anyone. With the priority to get more touches for David Johnson, and Fitzgerald nursing an injury, this feels like a game where he takes a back seat.
Week 3 TE Preview
Travis Kelce leads tight ends in red zone targets with 4. After a dud week one, Kelce exploded last week. I think he is closer to Gronk this year than some might realize, and a matchup against the Chargers may lead to another shootout, and several more red zone looks.
Rob Gronkowski had a huge week one, followed by 2 catches for 15 yards in week two against Jacksonville’s excellent defense. While I’m not actually worried about Gronk, it is worth noting that he has yet to see a red zone target on the season. Keep an eye on this going forward.
Red Zone GIF of the Week
Melvin Gordon ranks second among running backs in red zone fantasy points this year, in large part to his passing game involvement. With four red zone targets and two red zone receiving touchdowns through two games, Gordon is being used like a wide receiver in scoring position.