Week 4 fantasy football metrics notebook: Is it time to consider Calvin Ridley (and not Julio Jones) as the Falcons alpha WR?

Matt Harmon
·9-min read

1 - Is it time to consider Calvin Ridley the Falcons alpha receiver?

One of my possible blindspots as a prognosticator is I can sometimes trust elite talent over everything until the very end — unless that talent gives us on-film evidence that it’s time to let go. It’s not always a bad thing.

Sometimes it leads you to draft Stefon Diggs in the majority of your fantasy football leagues because you trust his elite ability will outweigh a murky quarterback change heading into 2020. On the other hand, it could cause you to keep projecting Odell Beckham Jr. as the superstar producer he was in New York long after those days have passed and his current team deploys him in a different fashion.

So just the fact that I’m willing to entertain a discussion of Calvin Ridley passing up Julio Jones in Atlanta should be telling.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18)
Calvin Ridley is in the midst of a torrid start to the season. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Following the 2017 season, I was willing to be aggressive with my pessimism about Dez Bryant because the film showed there was a noticeable decline in his individual play. He was left unsigned until mid-way through the 2018 NFL campaign. Sometimes, there is reason to bail on a superstar.

The difference here is that Julio’s most recent completed season didn’t feature any noticeable decline; he still looked like the same dominant No. 1 receiver. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and currently dealing with an injury, so it’s possible the tide has already turned. But we should all probably require more evidence than three weeks can provide — I definitely do — to say Jones is officially in decline.

[Week 4 Fantasy Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Kickers]

So the fact that this question is even up for debate isn’t really a reflection on Jones at all. We’re talking about this because of how good Calvin Ridley is. Everyone had high expectations for this player and somehow, he’s still exceeding them.

Truly, there are no holes in Calvin Ridley’s profile. He’s getting used like a real alpha receiver. Ridley ranks sixth among wide receivers with a 27.8 percent share of Atlanta’s passing targets. He is the only player in the NFL with 10-plus targets and most importantly, he’s converting them. Ridley is the lone player to gain 100-plus yards through the air in every game this year. The offense is going to him in crucial situations, as he’s tied for second among offensive players for targets inside the 10-yard line. He’s run just 3.3 routes per game from the slot. There aren’t many layup targets here to faux-fill the box score.

We could say that this is just a small sample size and a mere three-week fluke. But here’s where the rubber meets the road: Calvin Ridley has always had the talent as a separator to be this type of top-level receiver. He’s on the Stefon Diggs/Antonio Brown axis in terms of his deployment and potential to get open. Maybe he won’t be those players but that’s the wideout archetype we’re dealing with. There really shouldn’t be an ounce of surprise he’s become this type of No. 1 guy in his third year.

Could it be that normalcy returns to Atlanta by the end of the season and Julio Jones is the most productive receiver on the team from the moment he returns to the field through Week 17? Absolutely. That would also be zero percent surprising. Julio Jones is a legendary type of talent at the wide receiver position and as I noted above, we should keep the candle lit for those players as long as possible. They’re exceptions to the rules.

The root cause of this thought even being in our discourse is simply because Calvin Ridley’s performance has demanded it be present. Therein lies the real takeaway.

2 - Look for a DJ Moore rebound soon

Last week in this space, we used year-over-year sticky volume stats to predict Allen Robinson would get cooking after two slow weeks. You could argue we got lucky with the quarterback switch to Nick Foles in the second half but that’s not entirely accurate. Robinson was already up to six catches on seven targets early in the third quarter with Mitchell Trubisky under center. He was a hit, either way; Foles just put an exclamation mark on the play.

It’s just about following volume and trusting variance to swing back the way we want it. That’s how this game works.

Now, we’re going to do the same with Panthers wide receiver, DJ Moore.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore #12
Good times are coming for DJ Moore. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Admittedly, Moore isn’t off to such a slow start like Robinson was coming into Week 3. He has a 100-yard game (Week 2) on his ledger. Still, Moore finds himself sitting at WR29 in season-long fantasy points. He’s behind such luminaries like Russell Gage, Keelan Cole, and Justin Jefferson — Jefferson, who has literally had just one big game. You can bet people are irritated with notes like that.

The reality here is that Moore, just like Robinson, is receiving top-end usage in Carolina, and “the people” are just bent out of shape about the fact he hasn’t scored yet. Moore has a 25.5% share of the Panthers' targets — which ranks 11th out of all pass-catchers — and has a 49.2% share of the team’s air yards, ranking second.

Now, to be fair, he’s drawn just 7.7% of the red-zone looks, which is the lowest mark of any receiver seeing north of a 24% overall target share. That is also something we can expect to swing back to the positive side of the equation.

Moore looks like a great trade-for candidate right now. The upcoming schedule is juicy with the Cardinals, Falcons, Bears, Saints, and Falcons again on the ledger.

3 - Top-5 RBs in percentage of their team's yards from scrimmage:

1) Alvin Kamara 39.3%

2) James Robinson 30.4%

3) Dalvin Cook 29.9%

4) Austin Ekeler 29%

5) Derrick Henry 28.9%

We’re not shocked by Alvin Kamara leading this list at nearly 40%. The Saints offense is pretty much “Alvin Kamara break all the tackles or bust” right now. Kamara has 31 targets on the year, which is a top-five mark among all pass-catchers and leads running backs by eight. He is the favorite to finish the year as the top-scoring back in fantasy football.

Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry are also not surprising. Both backs play on run-heavy offenses. Minnesota’s passing game has been a nightmare and while Tennessee has been solid through the air, it’s based more on efficiency than volume. Henry’s appearance on the list also hammers home his increased usage as a receiver. He’s pacing for a career-high 42 targets (almost double his 2019 output) despite the Titans winning three-straight games.

Austin Ekeler is back to the player we remember from 2019, in case you worried yourself over his limited passing-game role in Week 1. The quarterback change likely has something to do with that. Still, we saw that in Week 3 when the Chargers fell behind, Ekeler remained a workhorse (23 touches) while rookie Joshua Kelley (10 touches) was the victim of the game script.

James Robinson is the only true surprise here. The Jaguars don’t have the most voluminous passing attack even if Gardner Minshew has been dropping touchdowns in the box score but this is truly a testament to the rookie runner. With the Jaguars’ next three opponents (Bengals, Texans, Lions) all ranking in the bottom half of the league in rushing success rate allowed, it doesn’t look like the time to bail on Robinson.

4 - Darrell Henderson Jr. ranks 8th in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expectation per attempt

My position all summer was to hold on loosely to any conviction regarding the Rams backfield. Sean McVay has plainly told us that he wanted this to be a hot-hand committee. We should choose to believe him.

Darrell Henderson Jr. is starting to move me off that position. In addition to the Next Gen Stats metric, he’s also Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded running back through three weeks. Pop on the Rams film and you can see for yourself he’s absolutely crushing it right now. Henderson didn’t look comfortable in the Rams’ zone rushing scheme as a rookie but it looks like he’s caught up in Year 2. Considering how impressive his college resume was coming into the league, this is a potentially huge development.

To hammer the point: The Los Angeles Rams are the league's most efficient offense, ranking No. 1 in both rushing and passing success rate through three weeks. Jared Goff leads the NFL in yards per completion. We want the starting back in that offense to be a strong player.

That said, we should still be waiting for the trapdoor to get pulled from under us. After all, Malcolm Brown played just one fewer snap than Henderson in Week 3 and ran more than twice the number of routes (18 to seven). Still, with the way Henderson is balling right now, we should be willing to ride the bus until the wheels fall off. That’s especially true considering he gets to run over a Giants team in Week 4 that looked dead in the water last game against the 49ers’ JV squad.

5 - Seattle has allowed the most production to WRs with a 29-catch, 400-yard gap to the second defense on that list

The stat listed above doesn’t really matter when projecting the Seahawks from an NFL perspective. I don’t care if their defense allows a ton of production. To me, they’re still the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl based on how Russell Wilson is operating at the controls of the league’s most efficient, most dangerous offense.

In that scenario, you don’t need a lock-down defense. Just take a gander at the Chiefs. You just need a few defensive guys to be able to wreck a game at the right moment. Seattle has that when Bobby Wagner and Jamaal Adams are healthy.

It does matter for fantasy, though. Having a defense that cedes production in bundles to opposing passing games as their own aerial attack pumps points on the board is just so ideal. Stacking in DFS becomes so easy.

That will be the case when Miami’s offense faces Seattle in Week 4. Guys like Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki, and DeVante Parker make it easy to “run back” a game stack for your lineup featuring Russell Wilson with one or both of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf.

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