The absence of Rob Gronkowski for the New England Patriots, and more specifically, to Tom Brady, has been significant. Through their first five games, the Patriots are averaging just over 10 plays per game in the red zone. However, they have scored only two touchdowns on those 52 plays, which means they are converting less than 4 percent of their red zone snaps into touchdowns. For comparison, last year they converted almost 25 percent (49 of 200) of their red zone snaps into touchdowns.
The return of Gronkowski means the return of Brady's favorite red zone option, which should lead to increased red zone efficiency from the Patriots. Last season, Gronkowski's rate of 1.64 red zone targets per game was second only to Brandon Marshall's in the NFL. Additionally, Gronkowski's blocking proficiency benefits Stevan Ridley & Co. as well. Last season, Ridley averaged 4.5 yards per carry when Gronkowski was on the field, and just 4.1 yards per carry when Gronkowski wasn't.
Don't expect an immediate resurrection in Foxborough. The Patriots draw the New Orleans Saints this week, who feature a rejuvenated defense that allows less than 15 points per game. However, with a healthy Danny Amendola and Gronkowski, the Patriots offense should start to resemble that of the 2012 version, rather than the junior varsity version that they have fielded early this season.
Receiving yardage is the most variable form of yardage, which makes sense because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. Because of this, variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback can greatly change a player's value. So while your receiver may have scored 10 fantasy points this weekend, you need to know whether it's reasonable to expect that he can repeat that type of performance on a routine basis. If a receiver had one target that he turned into a 40-yard touchdown, you need to realize that he was one quarterback decision away from posting a goose egg. Conversely, if your wideout had 12 targets and finished with 108 yards receiving, his prospects for consistent fantasy production are significantly greater.
Below, you'll see all the players who are averaging eight or more targets in their past four games, and how many of those targets were on plays that began in the red zone during Week 5.
Note: Targets are not an official NFL statistic. Based on the methodology that stat services use, the number of targets listed may be different than target values listed elsewhere. ESPN Stats & Information's philosophy is to count a target when the analyst thinks the pass was actually intended for the player. Therefore, if a quarterback is obviously throwing a ball away, the analyst will not record a target for that pass. This gives a truer representation of what a target is -- a pass thrown to a particular player, with the intent for that player to catch the ball -- and therefore should be more helpful to the fantasy community.
Fantasy insights based on data through Week 5
• Danny Woodhead leads all running backs with 31 receptions through five games. With Ryan Mathews sidelined because of a concussion, Woodhead will see an increase in playing time. Those in PPR leagues should be starting Woodhead as their second running back most weeks already, but if you haven't been, you've been given a fantasy gift. Make sure you don't miss out on this opportunity.
• As bad as the New York Giants are, I'm going all-in on all three Giants wide receivers. From now until the end of the year, the Giants face only one team (Seattle in Week 15) that isn't among the 13 defenses that give up the most passing yardage. There have been some rough weeks in the first part of the season, but things should get better.
• Keenan Allen has been thrust into a starting role for the San Diego Chargers following the loss of Malcom Floyd. Though Woodhead and Antonio Gates will remain Philip Rivers' primary options in the passing game, look for Allen to overtake Eddie Royal as the season progresses. Allen should be owned in all formats, and under consideration for a starting spot.
• Owen Daniels' eight targets per game over the past four weeks are notable, especially because of an injury that will sideline him for the next month or so. Garrett Graham steps in for Daniels, and is worthy of a roster spot immediately. The only game in which Graham failed to receive at least five targets was Week 3 against the Ravens, a game where he was questionable to play because of a groin/hip injury. Given the Texans' offensive system, the starting TE is a very valuable commodity.
• The return of Amendola didn't appear to affect Julian Edelman's chances as much as some had expected, as Edelman was still targeted seven times against the Cincinnati Bengals. With Gronkowski likely to return Sunday, Edelman can expect to become the third option sooner than later. Kenbrell Thompkins is another story. After averaging almost 10 targets per game in the first four weeks, Thompkins saw only five targets Sunday. If you own Thompkins, it's recommended that you look to trade him before this week's game.
Big plays and up close
There were 10 NFL players who totaled three or more rushes that gained 10 or more yards each. They were: Russell Wilson (5), Michael Vick (4), Marshawn Lynch (4), Knowshon Moreno (4), Arian Foster (4), Trent Richardson (3), Maurice Jones-Drew (3), Jamaal Charles (3), Frank Gore (3) and Andre Ellington (3).
Meanwhile, there were 14 players (up from four last week) with at least two carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer. They were Willis McGahee (7), Jacquizz Rodgers (3), Jackie Battle (3), Anthony Dixon (3), Peyton Manning (2), Sam Bradford (2), Ray Rice (2), LeSean McCoy (2), Moreno (2), Fred Jackson (2), Gore (2), DeMarco Murray (2), Woodhead (2) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2). Of this group, only Battle and Woodhead failed to score on at least one of these attempts.
Manning's inclusion in the second group is a pure anomaly. For those who didn't watch the game, Manning closed the game out with three kneel downs inside the 10 before the Denver Broncos kicked the game-winning field goal. (He also scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter.)
McGahee's seven carries inside this area led to a total of minus-2 yards, but he did manage to score a touchdown on his fifth attempt. To say that the Cleveland Browns had no faith in Brandon Weeden would be a fair statement based on the play selection.
Anyone who thinks the zone-read option is dead should look at how well the Philadelphia Eagles are executing it right now. The Eagles offense is first in the league in rushing yards, with the Seattle Seahawks, who also utilize the zone-read option frequently, coming in second. That being said, the loss of Vick to a hamstring pull will affect the Eagles' rushing production significantly.
There are five players in the league who have at least four carries from their opponent's 5-yard line or closer this year who do not have multiple touchdowns on those chances. While each of these players has one touchdown, check out their total opportunities and yardage totals on those carries:
• Willis McGahee: 8 carries, minus-3 yards
• Jackie Battle: 7 carries, 7 yards
• Jacquizz Rodgers: 5 carries, 2 yards
• Maurice Jones-Drew: 4 carries, minus-4 yards
• Arian Foster: 4 carries, 1 yard
Those five players average 0.1 yards per carry in those situations. All other players with at least four carries are averaging 1.6 yards per carry in that area of the field.
Red zone play-calling chart
Below is a listing of the percentage of run/pass plays each team has executed so far this season in the red zone. Pass plays are defined as any play where the quarterback attempted a pass or was sacked and all other plays are deemed as a rush.
In closing, some shameless self-promotion.
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