Free Post: Bills-Titans, plus how to structure your bench
BUF-TEN Stealing Signals, how to structure your bench, and more
This has been a weird NFL week, and it’s a weird week for Stealing Signals. I did the normal recap stuff in Part 2 yesterday, but still wanted to go through the Bills and Titans in their Tuesday Night Football matchup which featured the two greatest wide receivers of ours or any generation, Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown.
OK, that might be a slight overstatement, but only slight. Anyway, I figured I’d use this opportunity to tease Signals to the free subs, answer a few questions, cover some topics I’ve been meaning to get to, maybe hit up Bed Bath & Beyond, I dunno, I dunno if we’ll have enough time.
Data for Stealing Signals are typically courtesy of Pro Football Reference, RotoViz, the RotoGrinders Premium Usage App, airyards.com, or PFF. Always feel free to hit me up with questions about anything I covered. The comments on Substack seem to be the best way to get in touch, but I try to get to as many Twitter DMs and emails as I can. Week 1 included a guide on some important acronyms to know for Stealing Signals like HVT, TRAP, WOPR, RACR, and TPRR, which can be found here.
Titans 42, Bills 16
RB Snap Notes: Derrick Henry: 52% (-19 vs. previous season low), Jeremy McNichols: 39% (+21 vs. high), Darrynton Evans: 8% (injured), Devin Singletary: 62% (-27 vs. Week 4)
WR Snap Notes: A.J. Brown: 71% (return from injury), Nick Westbrook-Ikhine: 68% (+52 vs. season high), Gabriel Davis: 100% (+26 vs. high)
Key Stat: Stefon Diggs — 16 targets, 132 air yards
Down several receiving weapons, the Titans’ passing offense flowed through A.J. Brown, who made his return after a Week 1 injury. Brown saw nine targets on 26 routes run, a whopping 34.6% TPRR. I was a little concerned when he wasn’t in for the Titans’ first offensive snap, but that was a run play out of a heavy formation, and after he checked in for the second snap he immediately won on a double move for a touchdown. Brown caught seven of nine passes for 82 yards, ran routes on 84% of dropbacks, won on a variety of routes, and looked very good overall. The Bills were down top corner Tre’Davious White, but Brown did what you’d hope against inferior coverage, and he drew bracket coverage a couple of times down by the goal line so it’s not like the defense wasn’t paying him any attention. Tennessee threw just 28 passes as they slowed things down with a lead, but Ryan Tannehill already has games of 43 and 37 passes this year, which rank as his most and third-most attempts in any game as a Titan. They’re trending toward more passing this season, which was the big concern for Brown coming into the year, and Brown showed his health and ability Tuesday night. We’ve now only seen Brown twice this year, both in island games, and the first one might still be on people’s minds as they convince themselves Corey Davis being out this week was a significant part of Brown producing. In my mind, Derrick Henry and Jonnu Smith are the biggest threats to Brown’s volume in this offense, and both played here in Week 5. Brown still profiles as having a low weekly floor for a high-end fantasy WR because of how the offense can completely take the air out of the ball, but the key point there is he is a high-end fantasy WR — he’ll be a very productive high-variance player worth starting week in and week out. He’s a trade target if you can get him on the cheap.
Outside Brown, Jonnu Smith went 7-5-40-2 and continues his hot touchdown production. Derrick Henry struggled with rushing efficiency again, but his track record suggests it’s fair to ignore that and expect some big runs to hit eventually. I’m not real high on him, but he’s proven me wrong enough times that I’m not going to tell you his 3.7 seasonal YPC, the big drop in snaps, or the routes on 35% of dropbacks (down from the first three weeks) are causes for concern. Did you see that stiff arm? I refuse to speak ill of this man. And even with some concerning metrics, he still made up for it with an early 1-yard plunge and a late 9-yard touchdown with the game in hand. We know he has perhaps more TD equity than any back in the league, which is huge for an otherwise somewhat TRAP-y profile.
Darrynton Evans was more involved early in this game, but suffered a hamstring injury that knocked him out. That will probably delay any impact even further than it’s already been delayed, but he’ll be a great waiver option ahead of the second half of the season as someone who has done nothing but certainly appears to be in Tennessee’s plans as their lead backup to a high-volume starter in a run-heavy offense. He’d be a stash in the way Alexander Mattison was one, but Mattison was already rostered everywhere before Dalvin Cook suffered an injury and Evans is not. Jeremy McNichols is also interesting if Evans misses substantial time; like Evans, McNichols is a great athlete who is rostered in relatively few leagues but has the potential to gain a ton of value if Henry were to miss any time.
Stefon Diggs continues to dominate volume for Buffalo, and this week he especially racked up shorter-area looks with 16 targets at an aDOT of 10.2. We know Diggs can smash down the field — his 2019 efficiency at an aDOT of 15.1 was ridiculous, but he didn’t compile targets in the shorter areas and despite a 12.1 YPT wasn’t a fantasy star because he didn’t even see 100 targets. What we have in Buffalo is Diggs seeing the easy targets, still seeing the downfield looks like the YOLO ball he caught in Week 4, and averaging over 100 yards per game in an offense that has committed to a lot more passing. Yes, John Brown was out. But in this offense and role, Diggs is a top-10 fantasy WR for me the rest of the way.
Gabriel Davis ran routes on 100% of dropbacks, and played very well in place of Brown. His role won’t be as big when Buffalo is at full strength but he continues to be one of the better late-round rookie stories of 2020, and frankly should have posted a better line than 9-5-58 as he had a touchdown wiped away by an illegal shift, a penalty that doesn’t really impact the play and was just a bad beat for Davis.
T.J. Yeldon had some late production after the game was in hand, and the Bills were likely just giving Devin Singletary some time off after back-to-back 89% snap shares in Weeks 3 and 4 with Zack Moss out. Yeldon had just four touches through three quarters, two of which were third-and-1 short-yardage plunges that early this year have been Moss’s role. He racked up four more touches in the fourth quarter, including a 22-yard touchdown reception and 34-yard run, but has little value with Moss likely back soon.
Signal: A.J. Brown — 34.6% targets per route run; Stefon Diggs — continues dominating targets at all levels
Noise: T.J. Yeldon — 62 of 74 yards and his touchdown were in the fourth quarter of what was becoming a blowout
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Let’s get to a few questions and topics I’ve been wanting to hit on.
Structuring your bench
I got a great question from reader Andrew G in the comments of yesterday’s post that I hope he doesn’t mind me stealing, as I referenced earlier this year I might go into this more down the road. Andrew asked about some ideas for in-season roster management and specifically about cutting bait on players he thinks should be owned, using Emmanuel Sanders and Nyheim Hines as examples. This is something I’ve certainly struggled with in the past, and Andrew added some context that is just a perfect jumping off point:
They probably represent my worst WR and RB, respectively. I have not gotten much trade interest in either, yet I’m not sure if I should be willing to just cut them as I feel like I’d be giving value away for nothing. In reality, it may make more sense for my team to use those roster spots on speculative RB stashes like Gus/Snell/Darrel/etc. as I have a great record and strong starting lineup.
In Andrew’s case, the answer for me is a resounding yes, you should drop these players even expecting they will be added and should be owned. That little hang-up makes perfect sense, and as I noted is a problem I’ve struggled with before, too. But ultimately, whether you’re giving up value for nothing is not as important as whether you’re maximizing the potential of your roster as a whole.
That these guys are Andrew’s worst WR and RB is significant here. If there were scenarios where you might need to start one of them in the coming weeks, I might be more hesitant, though I would still probably cut them for reasons I’ll get into. But in this particular case, neither of these players are likely to crack Andrew’s starting lineup, and as he noted it might make more sense to use those spots on speculative stashes. I’d go a step further and say it absolutely does make more sense. That roster flexibility is a key consideration in these situations, and while you might not find what you’re looking for, you can frankly rotate those last two bench spots every week if your lineup is strong and you have depth until something sticks. And if it does stick, you’re in a great spot.
The big consideration for me with these types of strong rosters is upside. That’s going to be an important consideration in constructing any bench, but it’s particularly notable here. I think Hines in particular has solid value, but these are two players who I don’t think have a massive ceiling in their potential rest-of-season outcomes, and so they will almost certainly not crack a strong starting lineup at any point. There’s almost no way they can make your team better, so you’re essentially committing two bench spots to blocking your opponents from grabbing those guys instead of a marginally worse option off the waiver wire.
All of these types of decisions require probabilistic thinking. Nothing is clear. But Sanders and Hines are two players in particular I feel pretty confident saying have a low probability of mattering for your team. And it’s also likely the case they won’t be a huge boost to the opponent’s roster that they are added to, but broadly I would say to not even worry about that. You’re trying to build a roster that is good enough to make the playoffs regardless of whether you run into bad injury luck, some other player value change, or whatever. NFL seasons are chaotic. Depth is great. Maybe some other waiver add develops trade value even if you don’t hit bad injury luck. Or maybe you just use that extra roster spot to add a D/ST on a bye that has some great matchups coming up so you use one week of carrying two D/STs to stop streaming for a month. I did that lookahead thing with the Rams earlier and am enjoying their stretch in a couple of leagues against the Giants and Washington the past two weeks and San Francisco, Chicago, and the Dolphins coming up, but to accomplish that I just picked them up and started them against the Eagles and Bills in Weeks 2 and 3, which weren’t really terrible results. But this week, the Chargers are an interesting D/ST on a bye who then play the Jaguars, Broncos, Raiders, Dolphins, and Jets. The point is there are so many ways you can leverage the flexibility of an extra roster that will benefit your team more than carrying dead weight, and that should be the focus.
If you operate this way, eventually dropping a player like Sanders or Hines will come back to bite you. But to be honest, after the first or second time, you stop worrying about it. You make the decision that benefits your roster the most at that time, and you understand it’s a probabilistic decision that could have an outcome that makes it look dumb in hindsight. But I don’t even catch those outcomes anymore — I remember last year being told by a leaguemate in a long-running home league something like “thanks for dropping Player X” and not even realizing I’d rostered that player in that league. Oh well. I lost in the championship in that league last year, and it wasn’t to that guy. I don’t think he even made the playoffs. Obviously the sum of my decisions worked out to some degree. That’s the result that matters, not whether every individual decision was perfect in hindsight.
But not every situation is as cut and dry as Andrew’s, so I want to talk a little more about principals to building a bench that apply universally. First of all, upside is more valuable than consistency. Or at least it’s more overlooked, and that’s where I think most people should focus their energy. Obviously in casual leagues, having guys on your bench that are scoring points is great for trade bait. And you do need bench players you can plug in on bye weeks or if you have an injury. But the reality is that over many leagues and many years, making decisions to build a bench that has basically just enough pieces that are startable right now to fill out your lineup and then maybe have a decent backup or two is enough. And then beyond that, you have guys that could gain value in the future.
The proper mix of these types of players is dependent on league size (shallower makes me attack upside more, because there are usually always viable replacement options so I don’t need to waste bench spots for a rainy day if I can cross that bridge when it comes), the strength of your starting lineup (more questionable starters means more willingness to roster guys that will be startable next week), and the reality that not all players fit into a neat box of “upside” or “boring, consistent producer.” The truth is that the best bench option is one who is producing enough now to be a plug-and-play option if needed but could also be a monster later. Now you know why I have Laviska Shenault in so many leagues.
Then there’s the positional mix. I understand the realities of 2020 make it challenging to go without a backup at some positions, but I still think way too many rosters I’m seeing are rostering a bad backup QB or unnecessary backup TE. And then beyond that, the mix of RB and WR is important. I love to have WR depth, but there are leagues where I’m rostering upwards of nine RBs and others where I may only have three WRs if the league is shallow enough where I know I can always add a startable WR. The RB position is unquestionably the one where a player can gain the most value in any weekend. I was lucky enough to have stashed Justin Jackson in two leagues, including a Main Event league, the weekend before he returned. That happened to coincide with Austin Ekeler’s injury, which is absolutely not something I was rooting for but I call myself “lucky” because Jackson immediately became a popular waiver pickup who went for a lot more than the $1 I spent in the other leagues I was in where he was available.
I just highlighted Darrynton Evans and even Jeremy McNichols above who fit a similar mold right now as players who could be 40% budget type FAB bids next week. Part of what attracts me to Evans is they moved him ahead of McNichols this week and it’s seemed to be their plan. But if he misses time, McNichols is that clear No. 2. Both make sense in the context that there isn’t a lot of competition for a useful role in this backfield.
In any league, deep or shallow, the RB pool often looks barren. There’s a reason for that — there aren’t as many actively viable RB options to fill rosters. It’s a scarce position in terms of the amount of production across the league in a given week relative to how many are rostered in a typical fantasy league. But there’s also a lot of turnover, and it’s difficult to predict. In almost any league, and almost any format — especially as you get away from PPR and are in 0.5 PPR or non-PPR — it makes a lot of sense to be stashing as many guys as you can at that position. If you’re in a shallower league, your roster will be fine without a depth WR. I don’t know how deep Andrew’s league is, but Emmanuel Sanders makes sense here. That’s a guy that can be cut in most formats if you’re not going to start him anytime soon.
But that doesn’t mean only have backup RBs. I’ve made tough decisions to move away from guys I like already this year, like Christian Kirk in shallower leagues. I did that the week I was adding Tee Higgins everywhere, and while Kirk is now playing well, I would still rather have Higgins. I added a player who had a big opportunity in front of him, and the outcome where A.J. Green is washed has continued to look very true, and now Higgins is a guy I don’t want to give up. I still like Kirk, but I’m not going to regret that move if Kirk does wind up hitting the ceiling I’ve thought him capable of, but part of that ceiling was an expectation DeAndre Hopkins wouldn’t be this involved so Kirk’s situation has changed enough that I’m a little less thrilled. (But please still hit your ceiling Kirk, because I have you in a bunch of deeper leagues, thanks.)
I’m not feeling particularly articulate this morning, so instead of good points you’re getting a bunch of examples. But I hope the point is getting across. I made the decision to move on from a player I liked in Kirk in leagues of a certain depth, which I talked about in Signals, and in doing so I found another piece that has gained value. But if Higgins hadn’t gained value, I could have moved on from him, too. Rather than hold Kirk for another month and see whether things improve, I was going down a path where I could have used that roster spot for several different smart bets, a new one each week. And that’s another key point here — don’t be afraid of constant roster churn. Don’t be afraid of dumping a guy you spent a solid amount of your budget on only one week ago. I added Tre’Quan Smith in some key spots and then wound up dumping him before he scored twice in Detroit. I don’t regret any of that — I think he was a smart pickup at the time, I think his first few games without Michael Thomas were concerning mostly as it relates to Drew Brees not throwing downfield, and I was ready for another bet.
Don’t cut useful players just to cut them, that’s not at all what I’m saying here. But the concerns Andrew expressed are concerns I hear all the time, and they are concerns I myself have had. But what you find when you track some of the best high stakes players in the world is they are constantly churning the back of their roster. They aren’t living in the past or clinging to guys they’ve made the decision to move on from. And that’s something that I’ve been lucky enough to have rub off on me and I’ve been better off for it in the past few seasons.
It’s good to have takes and to like a player and to add them and chase something. But you get stuck and hurt your team when you cling to that too much — the endowment effect I wrote about a few weeks ago — without accepting their circumstances have changed.
Put differently: almost exclusively, if a player on the waiver wire is better for your roster than the player that is on your roster, you should make that move.
OK, I’ve written a ton of words on this subject, and I certainly haven’t hit on everything I wanted to, but I’ll stop here because I’m interested in the questions and feedback from you guys that sparks so much of what we’re doing here. Another reader, David, replied to Andrew’s question yesterday saying, “So much to unpack… it is worthy of a book,” and David’s right about that. So hit me up with any other questions or areas I didn’t get to today, and we’ll get into it more in the future, maybe when I’m feeling a little more articulate.
I also have some other topics I want to get to, and I plan to get to one of those tomorrow in what will probably be another free post. But not all posts here are outside the paywall, so if you haven’t subscribed yet, don’t miss out!